Sunday, December 20, 2015

Best Books (I Read) In 2015

On the Move and Gratitude Oliver Sacks
A while ago on reddit, there was a massage therapist who said that 1) everyone's body sags and has other imperfections, and 2) when people relax, they become luminous, lit from within. Oliver Sacks is the patron saint of this dual nature of humanity. He wrote about it, he saw it in his patients, and he lived it. In his writing, he became luminous. In the process, he inspired thousands of future scientists with stories of human beings afflicted in some horrible ways, but also able to connect as humans. Gratitude, which consists of four late essays written after his terminal cancer diagnosis, is really a coda to On the Move, Sacks' record of a remarkable life.
Taken together, these two are the book of the year.

Natural Born Heroes Christopher McDougall and Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure Artemis Cooper
As Oliver Sacks is my favorite science writer, Paddy Leigh Fermor is my favorite travel writer. He is most well known for his pre-World War II walk across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, and his actions during the Battle of Crete, during which he kidnapped one of the two German generals in charge of the forces occupying the island. Natural Born Heroes tells this story and the story of the other remarkable people in the Cretan Resistance and the British "Firm", coupled with advice on how to run and climb like a Greek shepherd and fight like the Heavenly Twins. Artemis Cooper's Fermor biography fills in a lot of detail before and after Fermor's travelogues, and makes an excellent companion to his works.

Syllabus and What It Is Lynda Barry
Two classes, ostensibly about how to draw, but also about how to think, how drawing helps you think, and the value of sketching daily. These will do interesting things to the inside of your head.

Galileo's Middle Finger Alice Domurat Dreger
Scandals and controversies involving scientists and activists for whom discretion is not the better part of valor. Alice's own work on human sexuality and anatomy has been at the center of two or three controversies since the book came out earlier this year. I liked this book so much that I invited Alice to be a guest on the podcast.

Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane S Frederick Starr
I knew next to nothing about Central Asia during this period (600-1200 CE), other than that the Silk Road ran though it, and that Marco Polo traveled there on his way to China. The area between Persia and China of a thousand years ago remained a blank space until I read Lost Enlightenment and learned about the scientists, conquerors, poets and citizens of this region.

Werner Herzog's Guide for the Perplexed Werner Herzog and Paul Cronin
I have a rule that I have to read any book recommended to me by three or more people. This was the most recommended book of the last year. A series of interviews between Herzog and Cronin covers all of Herzog's movies and much of his biography.
Key lessons learned: The truth is not very good at dispelling a rumor: only a juicier rumor works. Always carry a set of bolt cutters with you. When scouting the top of Cerro Torre, where the winds can blow up to 100 mph, always carry chocolate, always tie in to your fellow climbers, and if you get blown off, remember to enjoy the spectacular view as you glide to your death a mile below. It is possible to haul a steamboat up a mountain if you are sure you have a large enough tree trunk for a linchpin. People are endlessly fascinating. It may take twenty years for you to realize that John Waters is gay.

The Raven Boys, The Dream Thieves, Blue Lily, Lily Blue and The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
If, like me, you remember reading Susan Cooper and Madeleine L'Engle's books as a key childhood experience, you will want to pick up some of Maggie Stievater's books. If, on the other hand, you get your media recommendations from Tumblr and fanfiction sites, you'll also want to pick up these books. Books where place is a character. Books where even the villains are three dimensional characters, or perhaps just enjoy exotic cheeses and magical artifact collecting. Books where the heroes are cross with each other, or insecure, or just difficult to get along with. Books with dead Welsh kings, forests that speak Latin, and bloodthirsty horses from the sea.
Stiefvater is also an accomplished artist, musician and race car driver, which is a distressing amount of talent to find concentrated in one person.

Golden Son Pierce Brown
Pair Stiefvater's YA fantasy books above with Pierce Brown's Golden Son, follow up to Red Rising, about a highly stratified society spanning the Solar system, and Harrow, the man from the lowest caste, the Reds, hidden among the society's elite, the Golds. Good old-fashioned, over the top space opera paired with bildungsroman. I can't wait for the third volume to come out in a few weeks.

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