As I do every year, this page looks back at my reading for the year. I only review non fiction here (although there a couple of fiction recommendations at the end). This year a lot of my reading has been inspired by my travels both this year and last year – Estonia, Russia, Finland, Turkey, Greece and Myanmar all inspired my historical interest.
Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, by S Frederick Starr, Four stars
I bought this book after becoming fascinated by the mathematical and scientific discoveries made by Arab thinkers. It persuasively argues that those great thinkers mostly weren’t Arab at all – they wrote in Arab, but actually came from Central Asia – the corners of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan,Uzbekistan, Turkemistan and Iran that are sometimes described as the Silk Road, and these days mostly known as war zone or desert. In just one example Ahmad Musa (early in the 800s) wrote a Book of Ingenious Devices in which he described some one hundred mechanical toys and automatons, including a mechanical flute, driven by steam, which has been hailed as the first programmable machine, a millennium before Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace.
The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burmaby Myint-U Thant, Four stars
I bought this book for a trip to Myanmar/Burma. Myint-U Thant is U Thant’s grandson, and a historian. He wrote this in 2008, so his last chapter, where he calls for an end to sanctions, feels a bit outdated. That aside, it was a fascinating introduction to the great sweep of Burmese history, most of which I knew very little about; Burma, by deliberating isolating itself (but without oil, nuclear weapons, or much of a proxy cold war status) hasn’t got all that much press until relatively recently. The history is great, as you get closer to the present day it feels less authoritative.
The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter, by Michael D Watkins, four and a half stars
This is a great set of things to think about when you start a new leadership role; particularly a more senior one, with a team strategy to think about. It goes through all the dimensions you should think about, including preparing your thinking, making sure you’ve understand the changes in your home life (there are always some), realising that a new role in the same organisation can be a bigger change than you expect and giving you a set of checklists about each aspect. I just wish I had read this while on my gardening leave between jobs, rather than after I was two months in!
168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, by Laura Vanderkam, Four and a half stars
I bought this as a follow-up to I know how she does it, which was Vanderkam’s book about how successful women, particularly mothers, manager their time. This one is more general, but still aimed at professional people (largely). Largely Vanderkam’s advice comes down to paying attention to what you do with your time. For the vast majority of people (far more than would probably acknowledge it) you have a lot of time spent (both at work and at home) which you won’t look back on as time well spent (my own time rereading science fiction space opera definitely falls into this category). If you think about all the time you have (over at least a week, and work out what you want to do with it, you are much more likely to be happy with the outcome. I’ve long thought about my work time this way – rather than trying to do everything I possibly can, rather I try to do the most important things that I can fit into the amount of time I am happy to spend working.
Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration, by Stephan Faris, three and a half stars
This book is a Kindle Single – 29 pages making an argument, Looking at this one again, I should try more of these short books – I found this one from Tungsten Hippo, which finds and recommends short books. While I enjoyed it, and agreed with a lot of the arguments (even more so, sitting in Myanmar by the pool and seeing people just down the road carrying water to their homes using a shoulder pole), I can’t remember all that much of the book, hence only three and a half stars.
Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre, Four and a half stars
I would have given this five stars, except my fourteen year old son keeps quoting it at me, and so I’m a bit sick of it! Ben Goldacre is a doctor, writer, broadcaster and academic who specialises in unpicking dodgy scientific claims from drug companies, newspapers, government reports, PR people and quacks. This book is a collection of his columns (published in 2008, so a bit out of date) where he picks apart all sorts of bad science journalism and PR. The depressing part about the book, reading it in Australia, is that Goldacre has a lot more science journalism to pick apart than we do in our local papers. He specialises in wonder drug stories, but finds all sorts of dodgy claims to write about.
I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time, by Laura Vanderkam, Five stars
I reviewed this book here – a great analysis of how successful women really spend their time. The major insight for me, was how that their average work time was only 44 hours a week, not the 60 plus hours that is the stereotype – all of these women earned more than $100,000 a year.
Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics, by Richard Thaler, Four stars
Richard Thaler is one of the original behavioural economists. This is a fairly personal journal through his part of the behavioural economics revolution. If you are interested in the field, you will have seen many of his examples before. Nevertheless an entertaining read which reminds you that humans are not entirely rational decision makers. I’ve reviewed one of his other books before – also an entertaining read.
I Think You’ll Find it’s a Bit More Complicated Than That, by Ben Goldacre, Three and a half stars
Another highly readable collection of columns from Ben Goldacre exposing quacks, dodgy research and various other bits and pieces. However, there is a limit to how much of Goldacre’s writing you can read in a row, and I reached that limit after a book and a half. Recommended, but as light relief, rather than by reading it all at once.
Constantinople: The Last Great Siege, 1453, by Roger Crowley, Three and a half stars
It sounds very limiting, a book about a specific battle, even a siege. But Crowley manages to weave in a whole lot about Constantinople (now Istanbul) and its history as the capital of the Roman Empire for much longer than western europe even thought the Roman Empire existed. Istanbul is a great crossroads of cultures and thinking, and even though it had well passed its time as a great capital of Christian Europe, the moment it changed hands and fell to the Ottomans was a momentous one. For me, the battle details were a bit much; but that is what the book is about!
The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, by Walter Isaacson, four and a half stars
A very readable account of the history of computing – software and hardware. Isaacson’s thesis is that collaborative geniuses were what made the difference – he has a whole lot of examples of innovations that went nowhere because their inventors worked alone, so there was nobody to build the next step on top.
Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, by Brigid Schulte, three and a half stars
This book is the flip side of I know how she does it – Brigid Schulte’s initial time use diary sounds like a complete nightmare with no time to breathe, let alone think. But she comes to the same conclusion in the end. If you actively decide what to do with your time, rather than assuming you have no choice, you will probably enjoy it more. I really enjoyed seeing Schulte speak at the All About Women event at the Sydney Opera House, which is why I bought the book.
Bad Feminist: Essays, by Roxane Gay, Four and a half stars
A great collection of feminist essays, by an American black feminist who was very impressive at theAll About Women event in 2015. I read it in a gulp which means I can’t remember much of it, but it was a really enjoyable read – more radical than my usual reading (which probably isn’t saying all that much).
Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941, by WIlliam L Shirer, Four and a half stars
Shirer was a US foreign correspondent in Berlin, a radio reporter for CBS (in the days when radio was mass media), and this is his (mostly professional, a bit personal) diary. The fascinating thing about reading this is reading about the rise of Hitler through the eyes of someone who didn’t know what was going to happen next. I feel as if I have known the (bare bones at least) story of Hitler and WWII my whole life, so reading about the Munich agreement, the emergence of concentration camps, the invasion of Poland and many other world-changing events from someone who was trying to work out what might happen next is unexpectedly riveting. The diaries were published at the time, on Shirer’s return to the US in 1941, polished for publication, and were a best seller then (and part of the push for the US to enter the war)
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956, by Anne Applebaum, Four and a half stars
After a trip to Moscow, and especially Tallinn (capital of Estonia) I found myself really interested in how WWII and the subsequent communist takeover of Eastern Europe actually worked. This book is all about that communist takeover, and details the minutae of how fairly unpopular communists, many of whom had managed to avoid hard fighting during WWII, managed to co-opt and dominate the groups of people who started rebuilding their societies in Eastern Europe after the defeat of Germany in 1944/45. It doesn’t actually cover the Baltic states (they were a bit of a special case) but has a lot of primary research on the bigger eastern european countries (for example Poland and Hungary) Reading books like this makes it hard to believe in the general goodness of human nature (which I mostly do) – there were a lot of people who were happily ruthlessly grabbing for power, and not much caring about the damage and destruction to their own societies they left in their wake.
The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall
The Collapse – the Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall, by Mary Elise Sarotte, Four stars
This story is probably not worth a whole book. The story is actually about the whole year of 1989, and what happened in eastern Europe before that fateful night of November 9th 1989. Reading it makes you realise that it wasn’t inevitable that the iron curtain would peacefully come down. And in fact it didn’t, everywhere. Romania’s power transition was quite violent. But the Soviet Union let it happen without intervention, which, in 1988, would have seemed miraculous. But that said, I enjoyed it – I always find history about places I have been fascinating.
A Short History of Finland, by Fred Singleton, Two stars
I’ve always wanted to visit Finland (after doing a project on it in Year 6!) so when I did, I bought this book as a refresher on their history. There aren’t many in English, but this one felt like a bit of a chore to read, despite its good Amazon reviews – it covered the ground, but not in a particularly exciting or readable way.
And finally, because I would rather not finish on such a poor note, a couple of fiction books of note. My fiction reads this year have been dominated by young adult books, as I try and keep up with my two boys and their voracious reading. But occasionally I strike out on my own and introduce something to them. After finally subscribing to John Scalzi’s blog (Whatever), because I seemed to be clicking on a post of his every week or so, I also read through most of his fiction. He has a reputation amongst some hard-core Heinlein fans as a “social justice warrior” (ie he writes believable female characters who have their own agency).
I really enjoyed it, and read it fast, but there was probably slightly too much war, for me.
One great part of Scalzi’s blog is his “The Big Idea” feature, which invites authors to showcase their latest book. I’ve found some great authors I had never heard of that way. My favourite was Razorhurst, by Justine Larbalastier, an Australian author (who mostly writes young adult fiction, which this is). It is set in 1930s Sydney, in Surry Hills, in the middle of the razor gang wars (guns were hard to get, so knives were the weapon of choice). It is more fantasy than science fiction, with ghosts making an appearance. I do love a novel with a sense of place, and that is hard to get in space opera so this was great.
So if you are looking for new speculative fiction – try the archives of the Big Idea – you might find some books you really enjoy.