03 May, 2010

Tomes 2010: A Lengthy Update

It's been long enough since I've updated this list that you've probably forgotten all about my little project, which is to keep a list of the books I've read in 2010.  Got a bit sidetracked by the Muse cracking the whip, but I have, indeed, still been reading.  So allow me to sum up.

First, ye olde science tomes:

The Mountains of Saint Francis 

This is the best book on geology I've ever read.  Ever.  Oh, others have been wonderful, informative, and well-written, but there's something about this one that just filled me to the brim.  Maybe it's the shock - I thought of Walter Alvarez in connection with dinosaurs and killer meteorites, not the mountains of Italy.  Maybe it's the fact he brings a totality of place and time to the subject, allowing you to experience more than just the rocks of Italy.  Maybe it's the fact he introduced me to some fascinating fathers of geology, people I'd never known: Nicolaus Steno, who began his career in the 1600s by dissecting bodies and ended it by discovering Earth's anatomy; Ambrogio Soldani, an abbot who pioneered micropaleontology all the way back in the 1700s.  Maybe it's the rocks, who become characters in their own right, and with whom one can become very close friends indeed.

I don't know.  There's just something about this book - it's bloody poetic is what it is, gorgeously written, easy to understand while not being dumbed-down, full of passion and wonder and delight.  Walter Alvarez adores geology, and his love glows from every page.  I wish everyone would read this book.  Anyone who's ever been even mildly interested in how mountains came to be, what rocks tell us, and how we know what they're saying, would benefit.  Anyone who wants to fall in love with science, whether it be for the first or five hundreth time, will find this book is a perfect matchmaker.  And anyone who's ever loved Italy will love it even more after this.

The only thing it's missing is color plates.  Otherwise, it's perfect in all its particulars, and I'm grateful indeed to Walter for writing it.  More, please!

The Seven Hills of Rome: A Geological Tour of the Eternal City

If you haven't got enough of Italian geology, here's an excellent source.  And it's got walking tours!  This book is perfect for both armchair and actual tourists who want to know how Rome was really built, and would like to discover some earth history among the ruins.  This book is a must-have if you're a geology buff bound for Rome - there's a little something for everyone in your tour group, so you can keep the non-geology buffs distracted with wonderful old buildings and such like while you get on with enjoying the rocks.  Art, architecture, history and science, all rolled into one easy-to-read volume!

Now.  Who's going with me?

Devil in the Mountain

Simply astounding.  That's what this book is.  The Andes are fascinating mountains and Simon Lamb absolutely does them justice.  You'll find out how puzzling features like the Altiplano came to be, for instance.  And it provides a fascinating look into field research: the difficulties of getting it done in politically unstable areas of the world, the extremes in weather, the hazards of altitude sickness, camping in the freezing cold, dealing with horribly limited resources....  Simon puts you there.  This book is a must for anyone who wants to live the geologist's life, or wants to know more about it, as well as learn how the Andes came to be.


A fun, intriguing, and very brief book that makes one realize how fortunate we are to live in an age of clocks.  We don't often think of clocks in connection to map coordinates, do we?  And we don't think how bloody difficult it is to calculate a thing like longitude, which is nothing like latitude when you get right down to it.  Dava describes the problems confronting sailors before the discovery of an efficient means to determine longitude in vivid detail.  She weaves tales of suffering sailors, confounded captains, broke backers, and myriad others who would have been much better off knowing where exactly they were.  And then she puts us in the middle of the wars between astronomers and clockmakers as they fought for a very rich prize, paints the travails of Britain's stratified society, and brings to life some of the most remarkable time pieces ever made.

The Science of Crystals

Can I tell you what a relief it is to read about the actual science behind crystals, rather than all the New Age ooo-they're-majick!!1!!1! crap?  Alas, no image of the book (hence this nifty NASA photo), and it's thoroughly out of print, but I was able to pick it up in a used bookstore, and got a crash-course in the history of crystallography, how crystals are formed, and the nifty uses for them.  One doesn't often think of the pharmaceutical industry when contemplating crystals, but they're of some use there.

Without crystals, our modern world wouldn't work.  So it's a good thing to get to know them a bit better.  Besides, they're just interesting.

The Selfish Gene

Yes, I've finally got round to becoming a true Dawkins fan.  And I can see why The Selfish Gene has excited so many people for so long.  We're not really used to thinking of the gene as the basis for natural selection - we know genes have a hand (they should - they made 'em), but we tend to emphasize the organism or the species, when it makes more sense to think of genes as the fundamental unit.  And viewing natural selection through that lens resolves some rather thorny problems with altruism and social insects. 

Some folks report they found it a depressing read.  I find it reassuring.  So what if genes are basically selfish little buggers?  In their quest for immortality, they learned to get on with others, and so, perhaps, shall we.

River Out of Eden

This is an interesting metaphor: genes as rivers, flowing, diverging, contained within their banks.  This is a handy little volume, brief but concise, which seems like an excellent introduction for folks who don't know much about evolution.  It's short enough to avoid intimidating those who equate large science books with dense, technical pain; it starts with a Biblical metaphor useful for suckering in those who haven't yet shaken off their God delusion (there's even a chapter titled "God's Utility Function!"), and it explains everything wonderfully clearly.  For those of us who are already familiar with the subject, it's a good refresher, gives us some additional tools for thinking about evolution, and has a wonderful chapter at the back speculating on the commonalities we should expect to see between us and life on other worlds.  Like all of Dawkins's books, well worth the time spent.

Our Choice

This has been my bathroom reading for the past month or so.  I figured that's the best place to contemplate the ways in which we're flushing our planet down the shitter.  What's wonderful about this book (aside from the utterly gorgeous photos) is that there are so many simple, sensible, low-cost and/or profitable ways to solve the climate crisis.  What's infuriating is that so many people are too stupid or greedy to implement them.  Happily, the bathroom makes a great chamber for screaming in rage - wonderful resonance in there.

This book should be required reading for absolutely everyone in the world - while we still have one.

We're not done yet, my darlings.  Let's move on to the fiction!


Don't read this book.  Buy it, but don't - I repeat, don't - read it until the last half of it, All Clear, comes out in October.  I'd forgotten that this, like Lord of the Rings, is a book that doesn't end so much as stop because it's not the whole book.  Fuck you, publishers!  Argh.

But it's a damned good read so far.  If any of you are familiar with Connie Willis's time travel stories, you know she handles them right.  This isn't a happy one - it's frightening, dazing and confusing, and people get hurt.  We're talking about historians trapped in London during the Blitz, after all.  And it stops on a rather desperate note, which is why I'm saying, don't even touch it until you have both books in hand.

To Say Nothing of the Dog

After an experience like Blackout, of course, there's nothing one can do but turn to this time-traveling tour-de-force.  It's one of the funniest books I've ever read, and one of the most impressive.  It's written in the first person, yet Connie Willis manages to tell you something the narrator doesn't know without resorting to cheap tricks.  You know someone's a hell of a great writer when they can do that.

You'll never look at Victorian England, time travel, love or seances in the same way ever again after this book.  You'll also probably find yourself wanting to read Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, which this book pays homage to, and that's something everyone should do before they die.  And, of course, you'll have to read P.G Wodehouse as well.


This is a science fiction book about fads.  Indeed, fads.  And it's about chaos, and scientific discovery, and love, and really idiotic management trends, and sheep, and a great many other things besides. 

And I have to say, Connie puts forth a pretty damned good explanation for how fads happen.

I don't know any writer outside of Terry Pratchett who can pull together so many disparate bits into madcap comedy and make it work so well.  Which is why I read Bellwether once more.  Once you start, you can't stop. 

Inside Job

For anyone who's ever wanted to see it stuck to psychics, this is your book.  For anyone who's ever loved H. L. Mencken, this is your book.  For anyone who loves skepticism, this is your book.

And, of course, this being Connie Willis, there's plenty of twists, turns, and a bit o' romance. 

I don't want to say too much about it - might give things away - but let's just say she gets channelers, editors of skeptical mags, and former Hollywood actresses-turned-mythbusters just right.  And while things take a turn for the supernatural here and there, I think you'll still end up satisfied.

And no, I wasn't done with Connie Willis just yet.  I also dipped into my favorite short story collections.  I had to re-read "Spice Pogram" in Impossible Things, didn't I?  Screwball romantic comedies featuring aliens, linguists, strippers, wanna-be child stars, and possible Spielbergs can't go wrong.  This collection also contains "Ado," which shows what can go horribly wrong when extreme political correctness and Shakespeare collide; "Even the Queen," which is what happens when people ask Connie Willis to write about women's issues; and "At the Rialto," which is one of the best romances ever written about quantum physics.  I moved on to Miracle and Other Christmas Stories, the title story of which is a hilarious take on Christmas spirit (and spirits).  It also seemed necessary to go back to beginnings, so I picked up Fire Watch, which is the short story collection that made me realize that women could write extremely good science fiction.  Not to mention very funny science fiction - "Blued Moon" plays with the idea that there's something in the old superstition that coinky-dinks happen more during blue moons.  The title story is an excellent introduction to her time-traveling world.  And my absolute favorite story by her ever is "Sidon in the Mirror," which haunts me to this day, and makes the soles of my feet feel occasionally tender.

At last, I had to put Connie Willis aside and move on to other things.  Few authors are a worthy follow-up to her, but here's one:

The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox

I have a quarrel with publishers, who decided to keep the first and third books in this trilogy in print, but not the second.  Buggers.  Luckily, there's this handy edition, which is still available used, and worth every penny of the $50 I spent on it (although the thing's available for $25 now that I own it, of course).  If you've ever wondered what Sherlock Holmes would be like if he were an elderly Chinese Taoist, this is the book that will answer that question.

In turns hysterically funny, lyrically beautiful, and in many places remarkably historically accurate, replete with Chinese folk and fairytales, Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, lots of sex, lots of intrigue, lots of paeans to Holmes and Watson, and gorgeously written through and through, this is without doubt one of the best fantasy series ever written.  I laughed, I cried, it became a part of me - and I desperately wish Barry Hughart was like Terry Pratchett, churning out book after book until I could fill an entire bookcase.  One thing I know: I'll never read anything quite like this ever again.  I only wish I could.

So there we are.  All up-to-date.  More will be coming soon, doubtless - I just began The Making of the Fittest by Sean Carroll, and so far it's phenomenal.  I've just picked up two local books, Natural Grace by William Dietrich (and who can fail to love a book that begins "You animal, you"?), and The Street-Smart Naturalist by David B. Williams.  There's my wish-list to contend with, and my to-be-read shelves aren't yet empty, so I expect the Tomes 2010 list will be bulging even more very soon.

Let's just hope they made the floors of my apartment strong enough to hold them all...

1 comment:

Cujo359 said...

Connie Willis is terrific. I've read all the books you showed here, plus The Doomsday Book. She has a good sense for how people work with science and technology, and has a well-developed sense of irony. I don't think anyone could read Bellwether and still take fads and fashions seriously.