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Books in Review 2015

1 Jan 2016

Man's Search
Great Zoo

2015 was a year where I discovered I was reading more and enjoying it less, so I started making changes, such as using the library for throw-away fiction. Now my purchases are largely restricted to non-fiction I might have future use for, such as Jon Meacham's 2012 biography of Thomas Jefferson, and advanced topics in Tai Chi Chuan.

The 97 books I read this year split 60/40 between fiction and non-fiction. My favorite novel read this year is a translation of a Japanese work, while my favorite non-fiction work is by an Austrian Jew who explains the mental attitude that allowed him, and others, to survive the Holocaust.

Favorite Non-Fiction Work

Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl

Runner ups

Infinitesimal; Contest Land, Contested Memory; Superforecasting.

Favorite Novel

Taiko, Eiji Yoshikawa

Runner ups

Satori; A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court; The Great Zoo of China


By far the best book I read this year was Viktor Frankl's classic Man's Search for Meaning. The only surprise is that I did not run across it sooner. Frankl's work is an excellent example of a simple idea, conveyed simply, to maximum effect: He explains the mental attitude that made it possible for him to survive the Holocaust. Frankl's point is that survivors were not the physically strongest but the mentally strongest, those who used love to motivate them to keep going - in his case, his memories of his wife.

By contrast I read several works by astrophysicists who had very complex messages, delivered with complexity, that made very little impact, such as Stephen Weinberg's To Explain the World and Lee Smolin's The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time. Weinberg's history of physics, math and astronomy is exhaustive and provides details of Arab influences that few others mention - but was not quite what I was looking for; I had hoped for a history of the development of the scientific method. Otherwise I recommend it, especially for the technical appendix. Smolin is one of my favorite rogue physicists, but he let a philosopher get involved in this book and it just did not work for me; modern philosophy is filled with technicalities to no good end.

A better work is Nick Bostrom's Superintelligence, which uses a textbook-style approach to methodically explore the problems of artificial and/or enhanced intelligence in all its possible manifestations, including physical enhancement of the human brain. My primary takeaway was that artificial intelligence is a notion best laid to rest, and is unlikely to be achieved in any real sense in this century, if ever, movies and television notwithstanding. I expect Superintelligence to stand as a primary reference in the field for some time to come.

Another high-impact book was Infinitesimal by Amir Alexander, a story of mathematics and manipulation by the Catholic Church in the 17th century. Among other things Alexander demonstrates that one reason Italy lost its prominence in science and mathematics was due to Jesuit interference with Galileo and his intellectual descendants. The mere thought that a religious order can feel threatened by the concept of infinitesimal smallness is mind-boggling, all the more so because of the lives they destroyed. I was also impressed by Clinton Cash by Peter Schweizer, even though the book was clearly intended as a political attack. Schweizer made some errors, later corrected, but the core truth of the book shone through, which is what caught my attention: another Clinton White House will be filled with wheeling and dealing, and will be ripe for opportunities of cronyism and corruption.

One of the most thought-provoking books of the year was This Idea Must Die, edited by John Brockman. Brockman, who runs an edgy science website, has access to scientists of all stripes, which this book demonstrates. The authors provide short essays of one to five pages identifying an "idea that must die" - an idea that is no longer intellectually or scientifically useful, if it ever was. The scope of the ground covered is mind boggling, for instance: string theory; the theory of everything; IQ; the universe; the multiverse; brain plasticity; entropy; infinity; cause and effect; race; spacetime; falsifiability; common sense; free will; one genome per individual; evidence-based medicine; randomized control trials; artificial intelligence; the uncertainty principle; left-brain right-brain; Moore's law; the scientic method; and dozens more, many by famous scientists like Richard Dawkins, Stephen Weinberg, and Lee Smolin. This smorgasboard covers a lot of ground, and well, making it a must-have for the library of any fan of natural science or social science.

Two other books had a lot of influence on my analytic approaches: Mindware Tools for Smart Thinking, by Richard Nisbett; and Superforecasting by Phillip Tetlock and Dan Gardner. Both look at the use of statistical tools, few of them difficult, for analytic thinking in business, politics, and our everyday lives. Tetlock and Gardner focus on Bayesian analysis, which I put to immediate use building a predictive model for the 2016 presidential election. Of particular interest is Nisbett's criticism of the use of multiple regression analysis in epidemiological studies - exactly the approach being used for "proving" the efficacy of acupuncture, yoga, tai chi, meditation and related activities. I'm about to analyze a 20-page study of the utility of mindfulness meditation, so it will be interesting to keep his thoughts in mind as I look it over.

I might also mention the Meacham work on Jefferson, The Art of Power, because he is the first biographer of note to have an opportunity to discuss the Sally Hemmings relationship in depth. We already know that judging Jefferson's actions of two centuries ago by modern standards is not productive, but Meacham provides details that shed new light on the matter. For instance, Hemmings was the half-sister of Jefferson's wife Martha! Her mother, Elizabeth Hemmings, had been the consort of Martha's father, and the Jeffersons inherited her father's property when he died. Sally apparently was fair skinned and may have resembled Martha, which would help explain Jefferson's attraction to her. Sally did not originally go to Paris with him, but her brother did; later she came over as escort to Jefferson's younger daughter. She discovered that under French law, she was automatically a free woman, so she used that to her advantage. Soon pregnant, she refused to return to America with Jefferson unless he met her demands, which he acceded to, making her the closest thing to his wife that a woman of color could be in those days; it is the reason he freed their children. But Jefferson did not free his others slaves at death, as Washington did, because he did not own them - his debtors did!

In closing let me mention Contest Land, Contested Memory, by Jo Roberts - a study of how differently Israelis and Palestinians remember the Israeli invasion of Palestine in 1948-1949. My Zionist friends absolutely hate the fact that I read this book and actually believe some of it … but how much should we believe? Gardner's agenda, if she has one, is that of a former peacekeeper who learned how differently the events were seen and interpreted by different participants. You might summarize the differences by saying they believe what they want to believe. If you know little about the subject, the book is a good starting point. If you know a lot about the subject, or think you do, you may not like what you read - which is the best way to learn and grow.


Of the 97 books I completed this year, 60% were fiction but few of the novels were noteworthy. Two of the best, Golden Son by Pierce Brown and The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin, were second volumes of science fiction trilogies - the former about caste-based warfare throughout the solar system, the latter about an extraterrestrial invasion from the Alpha Centauri system that seems to lose steam as the invasion approaches. I also enjoyed 2010, Arthur Clarke's first sequel to 2001; together the books explain the happenings of the original movie, which is otherwise inexplicable.

But my favorite sci-fi book of the year was Matthew Reilly's The Great Zoo of China, the only creative successor to Michael Crichton's original Jurassic Park. Instead of rehashing the Jurassic Park scenarios as we saw this summer in Jurassic World, Reilly takes the concept to China, where real flying dragons are bred (not engineered) for an open-air park, and the Chinese military is on hand to make sure no unfavorable publicity leaks out into the rest of the world. This novel has enough tongue-in-cheek self-awareness that two characters actually compare their situation to that in Jurassic Park - and realize their own dilemma is worse.

I read several good books in the crime/mystery/thriller genres, but I was surprised to discover that Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler employed thuggish two-dimensional detectives that could not compare to the greatest pulp detective of their day, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe. Mike Lawson's current Joe DeMarco series, about a fixer for the Democratic Speaker of the House, works better for me than does Lee Child's Jack Reacher series, which I can no longer read; Reacher clearly belongs in a mental institution but would more likely, in the real world, have gone to prison by book two. I also enjoyed Jeff Lindsay's capstone to the Dexter series, Dexter is Dead. Dexter ends up no more conclusively dead than does Tony Soprano, and certainly less so than Sherlock Holmes, so we could conceivably see Lindsay revive him in the future, independently or in tandem with the TV show.

In this genre I most liked Don Winslow's Satori, written as an authorized sequel to Trevanian's 1979 work, Shibumi. Shibumi was an exquisite work and Winslow is more of a journeyman writer, so I was surprised to discover that Satori works every bit as well as Shibumi does. I also read, for the first time, Edward Abbey's 1975 groundbreaking classic of ecoterrorism, The Monkey Wrench Gang. Before I moved to Nevada I had no appreciation for the themes, but now the context and the book's wide influence is obvious. The book's flaw, for this reader at least, was the choice of lunatics and psychopaths as the anti-heroes standing up for the cause of an unmolested environment. Having been involved in progressive causes off and on for decades, I have seen how a work of this type moves people in the wrong direction for effecting constructive change.

I have two more books to mention: my novel of the year and my amusement of the year. The amusement, read for the first time, was Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. The Yankee is transported backward in time many centuries and ends up in King Arthur's legendary court, which is dreadfully boring to the visitor - so he changes things by introducing profit, advertising and a stock market. Ludicrous satire can be the funniest, and Twain is in top form in this book.

My novel of the year is Taiko by Eiji Yoshikawa, whose previous series about the life and times of swordsman Miyamoto Musashi is classic. Taiko, another story of feudal Japan, portrays the rise and fall of Ieyasu, Oda Nobunaga and Hideyoshi as they fought for shogun power in the late 16th century. No mere story of samurai battles, Taiko portrays the rich fullness of these men's lives - their mothers and wives, their children and cousins, their lieges and soldiers. Any student of literature of this era will want to include this work in his library.

You may also like this related article: Man's Search for Meaning (213)
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