New York Times’s “Ten best books of 2016”. . . and what do you recommend?

Below is the list of the best books of this year selected by the New York Times; one of them was recommended by Nigel Warburton in his Five Books post about the best popular philosophy books.) If you’ve read any of these, weigh in below. I provide the Times‘s brief synopsis and a link to their reviews. I’ve also put asterisks before the two books I want to read. So many books and so little time. . .

As always at the end of the year, I ask readers what books they’ve enjoyed the most (they need not have been published this year). Do weigh in below; this thread is often a good source of information for both me and the readers.

My reading was delayed by my trip to Singapore and Hong Kong, but I’ve just finished The Master and Margarita, a splendid novel about Soviet Russia (and the crucifixion of Jesus) written by Mikhail Bulgakov between 1928 and 1940, but not published until 27 years after the author’s death (1940). It’s a novel that can be read on several levels: a satire of the Soviet system and of Russian literati, a collision between Soviet atheism and religion (worked out through recurring flashbacks to Pontius Pilate and his treatment of Jesus), and a cracking good story, one of the earliest serious novels using magical realism—long preceding Marquez and Rushdie. In this case the magic is enacted by a visit of Satan (named Woland) and his retinue to Moscow, where they proceed to drive the whole city into a frenzy using black magic. One of Woland’s retinue is a huge black cat named Behemoth, who has a penchant for pistols, vodka, and food, and gilds his whiskers.  While Satan is portrayed as evil, he also has his beneficent side, doing favors for the Master and Margarita, an author who’s writing a book on Pontius Pilate and the married woman who falls in love with him. It’s a modern classic. (Thanks to reader Nicole Reggia for sending the book.)


English: A sculpture of the cat Behemoth from the novel The Master and Margarita, on a wall in Kiev, where Bulgakov was born. Source here.

I’m now about 100 pages from the end of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer (about 1100 pages long), which I read after recommendations by readers on a thread like this one. It’s a page-turner, and though I’m told by others that it’s now outdated, it’s still a fascinating read—especially because Shirer was a war correspondent who lived in Nazi Germany until 1940, and also combed through the Nazi government’s papers for his narrative. One of the striking aspects of the novel is how often the whole Nazi enterprise could have been easily derailed before and during the war by politicians and disaffected German Army officers. But of course the laws of physics deemed otherwise. Also impressive was Hitler’s command of military strategy and human psychology, which finally went to ground when he decided to invade Russia and then failed to recall his troops when they were overwhelmed by the Soviet Army. The two-front war doomed the Reich to its wretched end.

What will I read next? I have no idea, and am open to suggestions. I prefer nonfiction, but certainly don’t abjure all fiction.

The NYT selections, five fiction and five nonfiction (sadly, no science):

*A finalist for the National Book Award, Mahajan’s novel — smart, devastating and unpredictable — opens with a Kashmiri terrorist attack in a Delhi market, then follows the lives of those affected. This includes Deepa and Vikas Khurana, whose young sons were killed, and the boys’ injured friend Mansoor, who grows up to flirt with a form of political radicalism himself. As the narrative suggests, nothing recovers from a bomb: not our humanity, not our politics, not even our faith.

Read our review of “The Association of Small Bombs”


Propelled by a vision that is savage, brutal and relentless, McGuire relates the tale of an opium-addicted 19th-century Irish surgeon who encounters a vicious psychopath on board an Arctic-bound whaling ship. With grim, jagged lyricism, McGuire describes violence with unsparing color and even relish while suggesting a path forward for historical fiction. Picture a meeting between Joseph Conrad and Cormac McCarthy in some run-down port as they offer each other a long, sour nod of recognition.

Read our review of “The North Water”


In Han’s unsettling novel, a seemingly ordinary housewife — described by her husband as “completely unremarkable in every way” — becomes a vegetarian after a terrifying dream. Han’s treatments of submission and subversion find form in the parable, as the housewife’s self-abnegation turns increasingly severe and surreal. This spare and elegant translation renders the original Korean in pointed and vivid English, preserving Han’s penetrating exploration of whether true innocence is possible in a vicious and bloody world.

Read our review of “The Vegetarian”


Inspired by the notebooks and reminiscences of his grandfather, a painter who served in the Belgian Army in World War I, Hertmans writes with an eloquence reminiscent of W.G. Sebald as he explores the places where narrative authority, invention and speculation flow together. Weaving his grandfather’s stories into accounts of his own visits to sites that shaped the old man’s development as a husband and father as well as an artist, Hertmans has produced a masterly book about memory, art, love and war.

Read our review of “War and Turpentine”


** [JAC: This was the book recommended by philosopher Nigel Warburton as the best philosophy book of the year.] The author of the Montaigne biography “How to Live” has written another impressively lucid book, one that offers a joint portrait of the giants of existentialism and phenomenology: Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, Jaspers, Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger and a half-dozen other European writers and philosophers. Around the early 1930s, the story divides between the characters who eventually come out more or less right, like Beauvoir, and the ones who come out wrong, like Heidegger. Some of Bakewell’s most exciting pages present engaged accounts of complex philosophies, even ones that finally repel her. And the biographical nuggets are irresistible; we learn, for example, that for months after trying mescaline, Sartre thought he was being followed by “lobster-like beings.”

Read our review of “At the Existentialist Café”


In 1980 Charles and David Koch decided they would spend vast amounts of their fortune to elect conservatives to all levels of government, and the world of American politics has never been the same. Mayer spent five years looking into the Koch brothers’ activities, and the result is this thoroughly investigated, well-documented book. It cannot have been easy to uncover the workings of so secretive an operation, but Mayer has come as close to doing it as anyone is likely to anytime soon.

Read our review of “Dark Money”


In May 2008, Desmond moved into a Milwaukee trailer park and then to a rooming house on the poverty-stricken North Side. A graduate student in sociology at the time, he diligently took notes on the lives of people on the brink of eviction: those who pay 70 to 80 percent of their incomes in rent, often for homes that are, objectively speaking, unfit for human habitation. Desmond’s empathetic and scrupulously researched book reintroduces the concept of “exploitation” into the poverty debate, showing how eviction, like incarceration, can brand a person for life.

Read our review of “Evicted”


When Faludi learned that her estranged and elderly father had undergone gender reassignment surgery, in 2004, it marked the resumption of a difficult relationship. Her father was violent and full of contradictions: a Hungarian Holocaust survivor and Leni Riefenstahl fanatic, he stabbed a man her mother was seeing and used the incident to avoid paying alimony. In this rich, arresting and ultimately generous memoir, Faludi — long known for her feminist journalism — tries to reconcile Steven, the overbearing patriarch her father once was, with Stefánie, the old woman she became.

Read our review of “In the Darkroom”


Matar’s father, Jaballa Matar — a prominent critic of Muammar el-Qaddafi’s dictatorship — was abducted in exile, in 1990, and turned over to the Libyan regime. Whether Jaballa was among those killed in a prison massacre six years later is impossible to know; he simply disappeared. Hisham Matar returned to Libya in the spring of 2012, in the brief honeymoon after Qaddafi had been overthrown and before the current civil war, and his extraordinary memoir of that time is so much more besides: a reflection on the consolations of art, an analysis of authoritarianism, and an impassioned work of mourning.

Read our review of “The Return”


Your turn now: tell us what you’re reading and what you’ve liked (or disliked).


  1. Kit
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Doing a PhD, all I really have read are pdfs of articles…however, I did give myself a treat and read this book and it is honestly the BEST one I have read in a long time, absolutely brilliant in all respects.

    Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life: How Evolutionary Theory Undermines Everything You Thought You Knew

    n.b. disheartened by the lack of science books listed =(

    • Posted December 6, 2016 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      Yes, I read Stewart-Williams’ book and found it very good. I cite it in my recent talks on why evolution is so discomfiting to the faithful, and why learning it promotes atheism.

  2. Posted December 6, 2016 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    Currently reading: Black Flags, the Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick: Excellent

    Just read the first 30% of:
    The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe
    , by David I. Kertzer, Pulizter Prize winner. Bogged down in the detail and set it aside for a while. Will likely return to it. Struck by the parallels between Mussolini and Trump.

    Recently finished: The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution the new Second Edition, by Richard Dawkins and Yan Wong. Maybe my favorite Dawkins book. Now available on Kindle!

    Recently read Bill Bryson’s most recent: The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain. Entertaining as always by Bryson; but not his best (which is At Home in my opinion.)

    I tried to read Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by Kim Barker, but was baffled how someone could write about such experiences in such a thoroughly uninteresting way. Still puzzled. My wife read it through after bogging down again and again and said it did improve later in the book. I may try again (but I doubt it — so many books, so little time).

    There is another book by the same title, by Ashley Gilbertson (war zone phtographer) and Dexter Filkins

    A couple of books I can recommend about the Middle Eeast and Afghan wars:

    House to House by SSGT David Bellavia (absolutely gripping)
    The Forever War by Dexter Filkins
    Fiasco Thomas Ricks

    • Posted December 6, 2016 at 9:12 am | Permalink

      Sorry for the accidental double past on the Ancestor’s Tale.

      Also, I meant to say that I really liked the Ashley Gilbertson WTF book.

    • Posted December 6, 2016 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      I read Black Flags and concur that it’s excellent. If you want to read the Ancestor’s Tale, and you should, be sure to get the updated edition.

      • Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:18 am | Permalink

        Agreed on the 2nd edition of Ancestor’s Tale: Lots of big changes in the last ten years!

        I also appreciated that the 2nd edition was published to Kindle — the HB is big and heavy!

        • Posted December 6, 2016 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

          Didn’t realize it’s been updated –will get the paperback when it comes out. (I can’t get used to kindle. I prefer book in 3D.)

  3. sgo
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    I read “The North Water” by Ian McGuire from the NY Times list. It’s good – quite dark. But I also found that the characters lacked certain depth. For most their path in the story seemed set already, except perhaps for the main character.

    The best book I read/listened to (I listen to a lot of audio books on my commute) was Joby Warrick’s Black Flags – The Rise of ISIS. Very well written, very insightful.

    I also greatly enjoyed Frans de Waal’s Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? I think Matthew Cobb gave it a good review too (in the Guardian, perhaps?).

    I also thought Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies was very good, but it took me a long time to read.

    I also read a lot of children’s books. This year’s highlights: Jon Klassen’s We Found a Hat (his Hat trilogy is absolutely brilliant), Pax by Sarah Pennypacker (with drawings by Klassen!), and Peter Brown’s The Wild Robot.

    • eric
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 9:46 am | Permalink

      In children’s books, take a look at Older than the Stars by Karen Fox. I thought it was outstanding. Its basically a “house that jack built” structure telling the story of the big bang through the evolution of humans.

      • dabertini
        Posted December 6, 2016 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

        Perfect!! Thanks!! I’ll buy it for my son for xmas.

  4. Stephen Knoll
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    I haven’t read the Rise & Fall in quite a few years, but I’m due for a re-read

    The systematic co-opting of virtually all institutions, governmental & non alike, is especially chilling & relevant

    • Posted December 6, 2016 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      Third Reich or Roman Empire? For the “Rise” part, I can recommend Adolph Hitler, Ascent 1889-1939 by Volker Ullrich, just out this year. Very good on how Hitler and the Nazis took and consolidated absolute power.

    • Mike Cracraft
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      I could recommend Richard J. Evans’ trilogy on the Third Reich. It’s a long read but the depth of detail of life under the Nazis is extraordinary.

  5. Mike
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    My tastes tend to the Historical both Fiction and Non-fiction , four great books, “SPQR” by Mary Beard, History of Ancient Rome, “The Tyrannicide Brief”the story of John Cooke, who prosecuted Charles 1st,by Geoffrey Robertson, and “Wolf Hall” and its sequel “Bring up the Bodies”, a semi fictional account of the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, by Hilary Mantel both Books won the Man Booker Prize in consecutive years, there is a third book in the Trilogy I have yet to read “The Mirror and the Light”

    • bric
      Posted December 7, 2016 at 2:26 am | Permalink

      I know Professor Beard mainly from TV, her appearances on ‘In Our Time’ (taunting Melvin Bragg for his addiction to ‘hard facts’) and TLS pieces; SPQR is very good indeed, and a necessary adjunct to the certainties that fictionalised history such as the Tom Holland books mentioned elsewhere require.

  6. Merilee
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 9:21 am | Permalink


  7. Stephen
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    The best non-fiction book I read this year was published late in 2015 –

    The Allure of Immortality: An American Cult, a Florida Swamp, and a Renegade Prophet

    It’s a cultural study of a 19th century utopian community named the Koreshan Unity led by the Prophet Cyrus Teed (a.k.a. “Koresh”) who taught the revelation that the surface of the earth is concave, not convex, and that the entire universe is contained within the inside-out earth. (What about the sun and planets and stars you ask? Well he could explain that too.) In many ways the 19th century cultural/religious landscape was considerably wackier and wilder than the 20th! A great book.

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      This reminds me of “Zig-Zag-and-Swirl,” by Henry D. Lyell, an account of the life and times of Alfred J. Lawson, another utopian nut-case, who set up a religious community and “university” in Iowa, and developed theories that were supposed to rival Einstein’s. Lawson’s principles were “zig-zag and swirl,” “suction and pressure,” “penetrability.” I love to read about these eccentric people and their projects, and the go-to compendium is surely Martin Gardiner’s “Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science,” which, however, is sadly in need of updating.

  8. Posted December 6, 2016 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    An eclectic mix for me this year, I find.

    ‘The Middle East’, Bernard Lewis, Phoenix Giant, 1995. 2,000 years of ME history by widely-regarded expert.

    ‘The Discoverers’, Daniel J. Boorstin, Phoenix Press, 1983. Long-view topic-based history of influence of thought and technology.

    ‘Rubicon’, Tom Holland, Abacus, 2003. Page-turner on rise of the Caesars from ca. 100BCE to 1BCE.

    ‘A History of Civilizations’, Fernand Braudel, Allen Lane, 1994. Slightly out-of-date long-view history from one of its midwives.

    ‘Mansfield Park’, Jane Austen. Her most psychologically intricate piece on the place of women as mores change from agrarian to urban. The missing link between Richardson’s ‘Pamela’ and ‘Jane Eyre’.

    ‘Foundations of the Islamic State…’, Johnston et al, Rand Corporation e-book, 2016, Multi-disciplinary analysis of structures of IS, based on captured documents: one hopes that it’s partially out of date 8 months after its publication.

  9. Posted December 6, 2016 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    As a non-believing physician I found The Surgeon’s Obol, by A. Stuart, refreshing. The heroine in the story finds she no longer needs god to survive her arduous intern year. It’s seriously hilarious.

  10. Robert Bray
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    One book has truly obsessed me this past year: ‘The Dying Grass: a Novel of the Nez Perce War,’ by William T. Vollmann.’ This book is the fifth in his monumental (NOT a cliche in this case) ‘Seven Dreams of North America’ series treating the cultural encounters between invading European and inhabiting indigenes in the ‘New World.’

    ‘The Dying Grass’ is one of the most enveloping narratives I’ve ever read. Vollmann’s depth of engagement with his material is almost unbelievably thorough, and the manner in which he deploys his research in the narrative is of the highest quality. The novel is quite long, demands a great deal of the reader (I lived with and in it for weeks, setting it aside from time to time to catch my mundane breath), has many recursive, lyrical passages reminiscent of the poetry of Walt Whitman, evokes the life and world the ‘American Indian’ with an immediacy and brilliance I’ve not seen and felt anywhere else in fiction. . . . and, finally, ‘The Dying Grass’ is an ineffably sad chronicle of the last days of that now vanished world.

    • darrelle
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      I have never heard of Vollmann but your comment here makes it nearly impossible not to go out and buy The Dying Grass and start reading it. It sounds like one of those books that when you’ve finished reading it you can’t do much of anything requiring brain power for a good while because you are too intellectually and emotionally stunned to engage with anything else.

    • Merilee
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

      My bf raves about The Dying Grass. I haven’t gotten to it yet. I need to get back to Vollmann’s Europe Central, which I put down, unfinished, a few years go, but not because I didn’t love it. Great writer.

      • Robert Bray
        Posted December 7, 2016 at 8:54 am | Permalink

        Thanks to you both, Marilee and Darrelle, for responding. I genuinely hope to live long enough, and with mind enough, to read through the opus of William T. Vollmann. Probably won’t make it, but hope is motivation. For I believe that he is among the few writers I know of, working today, who keep the tradition of great North American literature alive (Margaret Atwood is another). In that tradition, Melville comes immediately to mind (and I mentioned Whitman in my initial post): a grand vision, vast understanding, symphonic lyricism––yet also the wit of a humorist who sees the eccentricities of the individual and can delineate same with the deftness of a Mark Twain (but generally more kindly).

        Vollmann well knows that he is not a commercial writer and will never command a wide audience. But he has been able to sustain a literary career on his own terms. That’s really remarkable, given the doleful standard of taste nowadays. And encouraging to those of us who value artistic quality.

  11. sue sommers
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    I too started the Rise and Fall and I am about 100 pages in. I also bought What We Knew by Eric A. Johnson and The Good old Days as accompaniment. I realize this is an older book and there are probably books with newer info. I couldn’t decide by reading amazon reviews which I should read for update, any suggestions?
    Also 1/3 way through Among the Dead Cities by A.C. Grayling, concerning morality of bombing civilians.

    • Posted December 6, 2016 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      Grayling has a sober approach to morals in war time. I didn’t realize more people died in the fire-bombing of Japan than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Didn’t even know about it.

      In case anyone hasn’t seen it, here’s a discussion of the book between Grayling and the desperately, horribly missed Hitch.


      • sue sommers
        Posted December 7, 2016 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

        Thanks. I watched the video.

  12. TJR
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Read the last of Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy (Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator).

    All excellent, and the depiction of politics is definitely helped by being written by someone who was been in the area.

    The best classical-set novels since Alan Massie’s (Augustus, Tiberius, Caesar) in the early 90s.

  13. barn owl
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    The best fiction I’ve read this year is The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin. It’s a compelling read, very innovative science fiction, and utterly terrifying. I’m looking forward to reading the remaining novels in the trilogy (but also somewhat apprehensive). I also very much enjoyed the audiobook version of Iris Murdoch’s The Good Apprentice (though one of the characters was so useless and annoying – even the narrator read her voice in a peevish tone).

    • Merilee
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

      I like Iris Murdoch’s non-fiction writings, but hve given up reading her fiction. I find most of her characters useless and annoying:-(

    • bric
      Posted December 7, 2016 at 2:38 am | Permalink

      You are right to feel a little apprehensive about the rest of ‘The Three Body Problem’, but stick with it. In the second novel, The Dark Forest things turn very dark indeed (the title refers to a particularly dystopian theory of the nature of the Universe) and the last volume, The End of Death is extraordinary. Nothing sums it up like the cosmic irony of the casual, almost throw-away, scene when the final coup de grace is delivered.

  14. eric
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    I’m looking forward to reading 2016’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. Though it may take me a while to get it read and report back.

    • Posted December 6, 2016 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      This sounds interesting, given my employer and a few other things. Keep us posted, eric.

  15. Posted December 6, 2016 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    The Master and Margarita is superb. I think I have four different translations.

    I first read it back to back with The Satanic Verses. It was definitely an influence on Rushdie’s novel, structurally as well as thematically.

    It also inspired The Rolling Stones’ ‘Sympathy for the Devil’

    • Jonathan Wallace
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      Yes! A wonderful book.

    • Posted December 6, 2016 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      Is there a clearly best translation for Margarita?

      • s
        Posted December 6, 2016 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

        Probably not, but I can heartily recommend the Michael Glenny one…

  16. Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    Two great recommendations:

    The Invention of Nature, a fantastic book on the life of Alexander von Humboldt, by Andrea Wulf.

    And Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Harari. As good as his first book Sapiens. Will be released on February 21, 2017, in the US, but you can buy it from Amazon UK.

    • Jonathan Wallace
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      With regards to Alexander von Humboldt I would also strongly recommend Daniel Kehlmann’s novel ‘Measuring the World’ which re-imagines the lives of Humboldt and the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss.

      • bric
        Posted December 7, 2016 at 2:40 am | Permalink

        Completely agree

    • Merilee
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      The Invention of Nature is cued up to be my next science read, after I finish de Waal’s Are We Smart Enough to Know…

  17. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Cuckoo – Cheating by Nature. by Nick Davies

    This is a wonderful book about the evolutionary arms race between cuckoos and their hosts. Davies is an accomplished evolutionary biologist at Cambridge University and the book is largely based on his own studies but he is also a skillful and evocative writer and the result is a fascinating and captivating account of the biology of these extraordinary birds.

    • Merilee
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      Read Cuckoo a few months ago. Very interesting but maybe a bit TMI for my taste/patience.

  18. Richard Bond
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    I have just finished re-reading To Explain the World by Steven Weinberg, which is essentially a history of how the methodology of modern science evolved. It presents Newton as the culmination of this progress. It is yet another example of how plenty of scientists (including PCCe) write excellent English, while few professional writers and other arts-oriented scholars have anything useful to say about science.

    • Posted December 6, 2016 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      I also found it an excellent book. I liked his rejection of Descartes crass mechanistic view of life — simply saying that as he has cats, he must reject it out of hand. (That struck me because spiritual folk are always griping about modern science being mechanistic, without realizing that it is not a mere extension of Descartes with his abstract immaterial soul and God removed.)

  19. Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    I just started Paleofantasy by Marlene Zuk, while still reading several Peter Freuchen’s books on Greenland one hundred years ago, both fact and fiction.
    Recently read Joseph Boyden’s Orenda and Jonathan Franzen’s Purity and reread J. Coyne’s WEIT (the original; the Finnish translation is littered by incorrectly translated biological terms).
    I read lots of books in Finnish. The most recent finding is Luodon kirous – Ahti Paulaharjun topografis-asutuksellis-kansatieteellisiä tutkimuksia Hailuodossa (ed. by Jyri and Marjut Paulaharju) ; documentation of rural life in Hailuoto parish (off the coast of Western Finland) in the 1940s. The next reading/browsing will be Suomen käävät by Tuomo Niemelä (The polypores of Finland).

  20. Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Some of the books I am either reading or will be:

    Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
    The Joy of Freedom by David R. Henderson
    Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

    Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

    Second-hand books usually published in the 1960s in French (I love that old musty book smell!)

    A biography on Jean Gabin (French actor)
    Various old tomes on everything to know about French wine. And cheese.
    Books loaded with photos about French regions like The Perigord.

    Happy reading, everyone! 🙂

    • Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:37 am | Permalink

      More nonfiction:

      Reductionism in Art & Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures by Eric Kandel

      Plant: Exploring the Botanical World (Phaidon Editions)

      The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf

      • Merilee
        Posted December 6, 2016 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

        Kandel is such a cool guy!! I’ve heard him lecture live, read a couple of his books, and seen him on brain panels on TV in his cute little bow ties. I think he is in his mid-late 80s and still sharp as a whip!

  21. Ken Pidcock
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Rana Foroohar’s Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business.

  22. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    gilds his whiskers

    Ah, that’s what they’re trying to do!

  23. DrBrydon
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    I was going to recommend Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food, which is the best book I’ve read all year, but I see that it was actually published in 2013. Instead, I’ll recommend, <a href="Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler. Ohler looks broadly at the official and unofficial use of drugs in Nazi Germany, and, in more detail, at Hitler’s use of drugs. Ohler makes a compelling case that Hitler’s physical decline was due to drug addiction, and that the blitzkrieg ran on methamphetamines.

    • DrBrydon
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      Well, I almost got those tags right.

  24. Roy Black
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Hands down best history of the rise of modern science:

    David Wootton, The Invention of Science

    He demolishes the postmodern view that there was no scientific revolution. The book is unnecessarily long but stil highly readable.

    • Posted December 6, 2016 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      I was coming here to recommend the same book. I read it this year and loved it.

      Many interesting things, finding out that the word “discovery” didn’t exist before the discovery of the new world. They had to use phrases like “found out for the first time”. Not just the word, but the concept of discovery went against common wisdom before that time. Learning was about recovering ancient knowledge that was lost, not about newly discovered knowledge.

      I also enjoyed the criticisms he offered of the social constructionists and relativists that are more common among historians and philosophers of science. It is nice to get a history of science from someone who doesn’t feel science needs to be taken down a peg or two. Also, he points out concepts we often take for granted that didn’t really exist before the scientific revolution.

      It did have some unevenness in the middle where it could have said things more briefly, but still overall a very good read.

  25. rickflick
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Recently read, “Thomas Jefferson – the art of power”, by Jon Meacham. Good account with some good research discoveries. He deals with both Jefferson’s greatness and contradictions.

    “Sapiens – A brief history of humankind”, by Harari. Among much of interest, he points out that hunter-gatherers were probably much healthier and happier than later agriculturalists. At least until the discovery of Kellogg’s Sugar Pops.

    Now reading, “The Better Angels of our Nature – why violence has declined”, by Steven Pinker. This book has been much discussed. It traces the history of violence and the various forces which gradually reduced it. (Eg torture in the middle ages was a much more widespread and gruesome business than I had imagined. There was a class of professionals whose job it was to come up with better devices for torture which wouldn’t kill too quickly so that the pain could be continued for maximum effect). It makes one grateful for the ennui modern life.

    • Carl
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      The Better Angels of Our Nature is really a book I wish everyone would read. A lot of today’s pessimism and hand wringing seems so childish when you take a long, historic view like this book does.

      Trigger warning: Some medieval forms of entertainment discussed here may be deeply disturbing to some readers.

  26. Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    I read a lot of WWI stuff this year. The best was Vera Brittain’s “Testament of youth”. It’s a lot different from the movie and really gets into what it was like for a woman in that time. It is, of course, a real tear jerker, but also a real page turner.

    In addition, I read Pat Barker’s trilogy (got the idea from something posted here) and loved it too: “Regeneration”, “The eye in the door” and “The ghost road.”

    Read a slew of science books, but the outstanding one was Sean Carroll’s “The big picture”. I don’t think I need to comment on that one, but I think it was a great book. Second was Hazen’s and Trefil’s “Science matters”, which I would like to send to all my anti-scientist friends and relatives, but I’m pretty sure they would not read it.

    Hors concours, I finally read Darwin, Costa’s “The annotated orogin”< along with Reznick's "The origin then and now." I was almost literally blown away by Darwin's vast knowledge, phenomenal memory, experimental patience and analytic thoroughness. I had no idea it would be like that. I wonder why I took so long.

    Looking forward to more suggestions here.

    • Posted December 6, 2016 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      I’ve read all those books save “Science matters” (yes, I’ve read Testament of Youth, too), and they’re all good. Carroll’s book was very good but marred, in my mind, by his compatiblism about free will (though he is a determinist).

      Barker’s trilogy is one of the great modern novels, and another, which I tout here constantly, is the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott, including the fifth book, “Staying On” (a Booker Winner).

    • Posted December 6, 2016 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

      In addition to your reading of On the Origin …, I can highly recommend Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle.

      Wonderful travel book.

      And from the same period: Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

      Also: Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum

  27. Mark Russell
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    I recently read “What Belongs to You” by Garth Greenwell. A beautifully written debut novel. Long-listed for the national Book Award.

  28. Diana MacPherson
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    I’m on the last book of the Hyperion series. I was interested in how the Catholic Church survives in the future and what that looks like as well as the treatment of AI beings.

    I also read The Girl with All the Gifts which was made into a movie in the UK. As I’ve said before, the English are experts in dealing with an apocalypse and this is no exception. I thought the end was stupid though.

    • Wunold
      Posted December 7, 2016 at 12:20 am | Permalink

      I saw the movie The Girl with All the Gifts last summer. It is very recommendable, with noteworthy good kid actors, pace, and atmosphere. I can’t compare it to the book though, since I didn’t read it.

  29. Steve Pollard
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    I am slowly ploughing through the classics that I neglected to read as a lad, and have read quite a bit of Conrad and Zola this year. The Secret Agent by the former and Nana and Germinal by the latter are my favourites so far.

    Best science book I’ve read this year is Nick Lane’s The Vital Question.

    • Carl
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      I recently picked up Joseph Conrad: The Complete Novels for $2.00.

      • Posted December 6, 2016 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

        If you have a Kindle, there are tons of classic in English for free for Kindle. Just search the Kindle Free Books section on Amazon for “Classics”.

        • Steve Pollard
          Posted December 6, 2016 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

          That’s exactly what I’ve been doing! Over the past 5 years or so I have acquired the complete works of Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Eliot, Conrad, Hardy, Balzac, Zola and Conan Doyle on my Kindle for a total of about £15. (No, I haven’t read them all…yet!) Some of the translations are a bit ancient but it sure saves a lot of shelf space.

    • dabertini
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      I recommend Earth and L’Assomoir by Zola as well. I am trying to read the entire Rougon-Macquart series. I can’t wait to get to Germinal.

      • Steve Pollard
        Posted December 6, 2016 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

        Just finished Earth. It is pretty powerful stuff but I think Germinal is even better.

    • Merilee
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

      I just finished The Vital Question a couple of days ago. Far from an easy read, but well worth the effort.

    • Merilee
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

      I just finished The Vital Question a couple of days ago. Far from an easy read, but well worth the effort.

      Btw, you don’t need a Kindle device to read Kindle books from amazon. I read mainly on my iPad mini and occasionally on my phone ( plus real books, of course).

      • Wunold
        Posted December 7, 2016 at 12:26 am | Permalink

        You can also use the open-source software Calibre to convert Amazon’s MOBI format to other common e-book formats.

        • bric
          Posted December 7, 2016 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

          Calibre won’t do that ootb, you need a plugin which may be unapproved in your territory (but Google around if you want it).

          • Wunold
            Posted December 8, 2016 at 9:26 am | Permalink

            To my knowledge, that applies only to DRM-protected MOBIs. Unprotected MOBIs are listed as supported formats on the Calibre website.

            Calibre can search various stores including Amazon for DRM-free e-books. Other ways to do this can be found here.

  30. Carl
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Twenty-eight years after publishing Volume I, of The Complete Works of Spinoza Edwin Curley has at last completed Volume II, finishing the job. Curley is a highly respected Spinoza scholar. The translation and editorial material are his own. Both volumes are available in a combined digital edition The Complete Works of Spinoza

  31. Charles Minus
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Ceiling Cat’s welcome review of the Shirer book reminded me that I have been meaning to reread this book. In his review, the good doctor refers to the book as a novel. This is definitely not a novel and I’m sure that was just an oversight. Thanks for bringing up this book at a time when its message is so important and relevant.

  32. anthonyherbert2014
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Two very good non fiction books.

    Seven Brief Lessons On Physics by Carlo Rovelli.

    Other People’s Countries by Patrick McGuinness.

  33. revelator60
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Two recommendations for Professor Ceiling Cat:

    01. A short companion volume for Shirer’s opus might be The Last Days of Hitler (, by the great historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who was commissioned by British intelligence shortly after the war to determine if Hitler was truly dead (the Soviets were insinuating he’d escaped to the west). Like Shirer’s book, this one is now dated by later discoveries, but it remains better written and more enjoyable (and more splendidly opinionated) than any others on the subject.

    02. I’ve often mentioned it before, but Philip Blom’s “A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment” ( is a wonderful book and should be on the bookshelf of any atheist. Its focus is on two of the first modern atheists, the great man of letters Denis Diderot and Baron D’Holbach, who wrote “The System of Nature,” the “God Delusion” of the 18th century, along with many other works extolling naturalism and determinism and debunking religion. Blom’s book is a pleasure to read and shows how humane and modern Diderot (who had ideas anticipating evolution) and D’Holbach were.

    D’Holbach also shows up in Jonathan Miller’s superb documentary “Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief.” All three episodes can be viewed online:

    • Carl
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

      I found Miller’s rough history far too rough. Jumping to Hume and passing over Spinoza is an inexcusable lapse in any history of atheism. I would also have liked to see the rediscovery of the only existing copy of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura – after being lost for 1000 years – been remarked on both for its fortuitousness and its profound effect. Though Miller was doing an admirable job up to then, I had to quit watching. This omission is like skipping Darwin in a history of biology. Tell me he takes up Spinoza later in the videos and I’ll watch the rest.

      • Posted December 6, 2016 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

        He did what?????? Leaving out Spinoza is inexcusable, and from a smart guy like Miller, inexplicable.

  34. jwthomas
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Currently re-reading “The Handmaid’s Tale,” by Margaret
    Atwood. Yes, it’s fiction but, like all serious science fiction, reflects back on the present. A society in which religious triumphalists have enslaved women, taken away all their rights except for ritual child bearing, and created a world of warring religious fanatics defending garrison states.

    About “The Rise and Fall…” This is a very old book, written by a journalist not an historian, and based on his eyewitness account, not the latest historical research. It’s always been popular, but a recent and better account of the Hitler years and their genesis is Ian Kershaw’s two volume biography,
    “Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris,” and “Hitler: 1936-1945 Nemesis.”

    • eric
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

      I know some folks may consider this sci-fi feminist blasphemy, but I didn’t like Atwood. So heavy-handed. I prefer mid-to-early Sherri Tepper – Gate to Women’s Country, Grass, Raising the Stones. Though she gets really heavy-handed in her later books too (actually Gate isn’t subtle, but even so I think its better fantasy than Atwood’s)

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted December 6, 2016 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

        Have to disagree with you, and agree with jwthomas–The Handmaid’s Tale is possibly *the* great christofascist dystopia, and (am I supposed to use the “snark” tag here?), Mike Pence’s playbook–almost enough to make one hope nothing too bad happens to Trump.

        Sheri S. Tepper’s “Gibbon’s Decline and Fall” is a *fantastic* novel, one which will greatly appeal to the atheists here (what, atheists here? Who knew??) as well as the feminists.

  35. YF
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    I would recommend Sapiens by Harari.

  36. Posted December 6, 2016 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Reading Armand Leroi’s book on Aristotle’s biology, The Lagoon. I find it excellent.

    Also Hamed Abdel-Samad’s first book Islamic Fascism (English translation) — interesting fellow who writes in German and Arabic. I saw him speak here in Berlin (with the standard police guard). Son of an imam, who has studied the Quran deeply. Has several other books in German (not yet translated into English), including his latest, Koran: Botschaft der Liebe, Botschaft des Hasses (Koran: Messenger of Love, Messenger of Hate). Atheist humanist.

    He is well known in Egypt (hence the 24/7 police guard) and has a you tube channel in Arabic.

    Here are three short clips of a talk in Arabic, which MEMRI selected and posted with subtitles. In 3 mins it sums up his position very clearly.

    Part 1
    Part 2
    Part 3

  37. Posted December 6, 2016 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Recently read first time:

    Geza Vermes – Jesus in His Jewish Context
    Bill Bryson – The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way
    Neil Gaiman – The View From the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction
    Philip Pullman – the last two books of the Dark Materials trilogy – The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass

    Recently reread:

    Arthur Conan Doyle – all the Sherlock Holmes short stories
    Neil Gaiman – The Graveyard Book
    Robert Graves and Joshua Podro – Jesus in Rome

    Reading Now:

    Neal Stephenson – Seveneves

    Books on order:

    Bill Bryson – Shakespeare: The World as Stage
    Michael & Kathleen Gear – People of the Morning Star (about Cahokia)


    Read anything by Geza Vermes. He was one of the best translators of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Without him, we still might not have had them available to read in translation.

    Robert Graves and Joshua Podro also wrote The Nazarene Gospel Restored which emphasizes the Jewish history and culture Jesus lived in. There are many Christians who still don’t think of Jesus as a Jew.

    • Carl
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

      Have you ever read The Myth Maker, Paul and the Invention of Christianity by Hyam Maccoby (1986)? I found the thesis of the book fascinating, and convincingly argued, but haven’t heard much comment since reading it some time ago.

      Maccoby argues that Jesus (and James and Peter) were life-long Pharisaic Jews. Paul was not, he was from a Gentile background. Paul alone created a new religion with Jesus as a Divine savior using elements of Gnosticism and Hellenistic mystery cults. Paul was involved in a devious political struggle with the Jerusalem church, which eventually disowned him …

  38. Carl
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    How about the five best philosophical novels of all time, as chosen by one of today’s best philosophical novelists?

  39. mfdempsey1946
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Here goes — my reading highlights for 2016:

    And Yes…Essays (Christopher Hitchens) — an eclectic collection of thoughts and analyses, invigorating for Hitchens’ energetic style and vast range of interests political, social, and literary (which surely need no touting here).

    The Films of Lon Chaney (Michael Blake) — excerpts from original reviews of every single film, including the lost ones, acted in and sometimes directed by the brilliant Man of a Thousand Faces between 1912 and his death in 1930.

    It’s All True: Orson Welles’s Pan-American Odyssey (Catherine L. Benamou)– an at times unduly jargon-heavy yet extraordinarily researched and analyzed account of the myriad factors that combined to quash Welles ill-fated, never completed post-Magnificent Amberson project.

    Hombre (Elmore Leonard) — a short, incisive Western novel that came well before the author’s better known crime volumes; the basis for the even better 1967 film starring Paul Newman and directed by the much under-rated Martin Ritt.

    The Battle of Midway (Craig L. Symonds) — an incisive almost moment-by-moment account of the endlessly fascinating titanic 1942 sea battle that essentially sealed Japan’s fate during World War II, even if it took three more years for this to become evident.

    Minding Movies (David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson) — learned, delightful analyses of many film topics, unfailingly energetic, insightful and witty.

    Tough As Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks (Douglass K. Daniel) — a solid investigation of one formerly well-known, now relatively unsung Hollywood filmmaker, full of details about how the system changed during the evolution of his personal life and his long career.

    The Magic World of Orson Welles (James Naremore) — the finest critical study of Welles’s work in existence, by a scholar who leaves academic slude behind in favor of lucid prose that does full justice to all the scholarly, political, and aesthetic issues involved in the protean career of his towering subject.

    The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Richard Flanagan) — the discovery of the year for me. This Booker Prize winner (and no book can ever have been more deserving of this award) intercuts:

    (1) the staggering suffering of the Australian protagonist and his companions while being forced to build the Japanese Army’s Burma Road during World War II,

    (2) the protagonist’s life afterwards, which plunges him into profound anomie, and

    (3) an astonishing leap forward into Japan and the minds of the torturers, a move which deeply shakes up one’s previous perspective on the events and characters of the novel up to that point.

    After just one reading, I know that I have not yet come close to taking in everything this novel has to offer.

    Revisits: War and Peace (the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation), Heart of Darkness. Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, and John Hersey’s Hiroshima.

    • Merilee
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

      Narrow Road was fantastic!! They really got the Booker winners right the past two years ( try Brief History of Seven Killings). Hope this year’s will be as good!

      Speaking of Bookers, one of this year’s finalists I would suggest avoiding like the proverbial plague: A Little Life.

      • bric
        Posted December 7, 2016 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

        Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life was in last year’s Booker and I thought it should have won . . . clearly we disagree 🙂 It reminded me of William Gaddis, which is the highest praise I give anyone

        • Merilee
          Posted December 7, 2016 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

          A chacun son goût- lol. I must admit to having liked the first 300 pages of A Little Life, with the very good depiction of the young men’s friendships, but then the next 500!! pages were so reLENTlessly repetitive and grim. I was very happy to finish it. (I committed to finish it as part of an online reading group which reads all the Booker shortlisters). It could have stood some really good editing, imo. I have had The Recognitions for quite a while now. Must get to it soon-ish.

    • Carl
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

      Small typo correction in case someone has trouble finding these Hitchen’s essays:
      And Yes … -> And Yet

  40. Robert Seidel
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    I read The Master and Margarita a few years ago, and I too found it splendid – one of the few serious treatments of Christianity which don’t come across as ridiculous.

    Of the things I read this year, I was most impressed by:

    The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue – A medieval novella from Iceland, a story about love, an unfortunate lack of diplomatic skill, betrayal, and hate, pretty much in that order.

    The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin – Science Fiction, in the tradition of 1984, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451: A philosophical take on socialist vs. capitalist authoritarianism and the slow petrification of what was once a revolutionary movement.

    What Do You Care What Other People Think?, by Richard Feynman – One part is a moving commemoration of his early deceased first wife and their relationship. The second is an account of his role in solving the Challenger disaster, one of the best cautionary tales on institutional hubris.

    Suffer and Survive, The Extreme Life of J.S. Haldane, by Martin Goodman – This is the father of J.B.S. Haldane, a surprisingly unsung scientific genius in his own right, a physiologist (and ardent self-experimenter) who among other things invented the miner’s canary, the diving table, and the gas mask. It’s a bit soft on the science, but highly entertaining nonetheless.

    • Merilee
      Posted December 6, 2016 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

      Loved that Feynman, and also Surely You’re Joking.

    • Jonathan Wallace
      Posted December 7, 2016 at 5:22 am | Permalink

      Haldane invented the canary? Wow! 🙂

  41. Merilee
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Books of note read in 2016

    Non Fiction:

    Nick Lane – The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life

    Svante Pääbo – Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes

    Frans de Waal – The Bonobo and the Atheist

    Frans de Waal – Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

    Simon Schama – Rembrandt’s Eyes

    Irin Carmon – Notorious RBG

    Bill Bryson – In a Sunburnt Country

    Scott Anderson – Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart

    Sue Armstrong – P53: The Gene that Cracked the Cancer Code


    Peter Carey – Illywhacker

    Marlon James – A Brief History of 7 Killings (Booker winner last year – fantastic book!)

    Rohinton Mistry – A Fine Balance

    Richard Powers – Orfeo

    Marlene van Niekerk – Agaat (South African)

    Chigozie Obioma – The Fisherman (Booker short-lister – Nigerian)

    Have been meaning to order The Vegetarian.

  42. Breton
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    Many great recommendations in this comment thread. I would like to add one more:

    Galileo’s Middle Finger – Alice Dreger

    Well written and very interesting (although it does lose a bit of steam near the end).

  43. Merilee
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 5:06 pm | Permalink


  44. Newish Gnu
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    Neither are particularly recent:

    A science-fi dystopian novel(a fungus run amok kills most people, etc) “The Girl With All the Gifts”. Fascinating in a disturbing way.

    “Nothing to Envy” about daily life in North Korea circa 1990-2005. Another dystopia. Not fictive, unfortunately.

  45. Posted December 6, 2016 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    A Russian friend has been recommending Master and the Margarita to me for many years. After your glowing comments, I’m inclined to start reading the version I downloaded on to my Mac last year. If you like Nabokov and haven’t read Pale Fire you should check it out. Marvelously Nabovokian!

  46. Posted December 6, 2016 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    I never find much on the NYT list because I can’t read fiction. My wife, on the other hand, can’t read non-fiction. We are sort of like Jack Spratt and his wife. We pick the library clean.

  47. Adrian
    Posted December 6, 2016 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    If you want to read a scarily prescient book that explains a lot about this election and the evolution of the Democratic Party, check out “Listen, Liberal” by Thomas Frank.

    Another recommendation from this year is “Weapons of Math Destruction” by Cathy O’Neil. It’s about how, intentionally or not, big data becomes very subjective and biased in the hands of Very Smart People in power.

  48. Wunold
    Posted December 7, 2016 at 1:14 am | Permalink

    Two German recommendations:

    Homöopathie neu gedacht by former homoepath Dr. Natalie Grams

    Die Unheilpraktiker by former Heilpraktiker student Anousch Mueller

    Both Authors were passionate advocates of the relevant pseudo-medicine until their own research converted them to severe critics.

  49. Diane G.
    Posted December 7, 2016 at 1:34 am | Permalink

    A book mentioned once above, Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. A very idiosyncratic memoir of a botanist that’s a surprisingly compelling read, interspersed with brief essays on the unimaginable weirdness of plants.

  50. bric
    Posted December 7, 2016 at 3:32 am | Permalink

    Just coming to the end of reading/re-reading all Dickens’ novels with Edwin Drood; Barnaby Rudge is the only one I had to leave unfinished.
    Otherwise . . .
    Several Ian Rankin novels

    Ed Yong – I Contain Multitudes

    Anthony Horrowitz – Magpie Muders, very entertaining Agatha Christie tribute followed by –
    Gilbert Adair – The Act of Roger Murgatroid
    and A Mysterious Affair of Style two very witty Christie parodies

    A scattering of early Muriel Spark (Ian Rankin began a PhD thesis on The Driver’s seat but turned to Crime instead)

    Adam Rutherford – A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived

    Andrea Wulf – The Invention of Nature
    E B White – Essays

    Don DeLillo – Zero K

    Mark Haddon – The Pier Falls (short stories)

    Anthony Trollope – The Way We Live Now

    Julian Barnes – The Noise of Time (fictionalised biography of Shostakovitch)

    p.s. ‘read’ often means ‘listened to whilst walking the dog’ – he gets a lot of very long walks 🙂

    • Merilee
      Posted December 7, 2016 at 8:38 am | Permalink

      Did you read Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, Bric? I generally love Spark, but I felt that in this book she tried way too hard and the result was really annoying. I know a big (positive) fuss has been made about the book.

      • bric
        Posted December 7, 2016 at 11:48 am | Permalink

        Yes, I think you have to see this rather rebarbative text in the context of Spark’s conversion to Catholicism, it’s a struggle with our old friend free-will, and the doctrine of predestination. Lise knows her fate, and the strictly neutral authorial voice describes her acceptance as what seems to me a secularised religious rite: which in the context would be sacrilegious but there lies the conflict. I don’t at all understand the religious mind but maybe this is what it is like.
        Rankin makes much of Spark’s admiration for Robbe-Grillet, and much of the dialog around the book is steeped in semiology but I don’t see that in any other of Spark’s books
        see for example

        • Merilee
          Posted December 7, 2016 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for the link, Bric, though doubt it will make me less annoyed at that book. Life’s too short for semiotics, imho…I haven’t read Robbe-Grillet since college, something about a millepattes??

    • bric
      Posted December 7, 2016 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      a p.s.

      Ted Chiang has recently got some publicity as the author of the story (Story of your life) that the film Arrival is based on. I seem to be alone in thinking a film of the actual story would have been far more interesting than the Hollywood ‘opening out’ that we have, but the film is worth seeing.
      There is a compilation of his stories, ‘Stories of your Life and Others’ which I have just started and cannot recommend highly enough. One story that should appeal to the readers of this website is Seventy-Two Letters, a kind of Kabbalistic steampunk in which he re-imagines biology in a parallel universe
      This is a rather long paper on the story, but does suggest what makes Chiang’s work special:

  51. Tim Harris
    Posted December 7, 2016 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    ‘The Master & Margarita’ is a very great novel, wickedly funny at the expense of ‘East West Street Stalinism – Bulgakov’s great revenge on those responsible for all he and others had to suffer.

    I must recommend again Philippe Sands’East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity’, which rightly won Britain’s top literary award for a non-fictional work, the Baillie Gifford Prize. It is a deeply personal book – Sands’ family were from in or around Lwow, or Lviv, or Lemberg (the name changing according as the nation in charge changed), as were the families of Jewish lawyers responsible for the introduction of the concepts of ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’ at the Nuremberg trials, Hersch Lauterpacht & Raphael Lemkin, and those members of the families of all three men who stayed in what is now part of the Ukraine were murdered by the Nazis. The book is beautiful written, and harrowing,

    Sean Carroll’s ‘The Big Picture’ is excellent, as is Franz der Waal’s
    ‘Are We Smart Enough to Know how Smart Animals Are’.

    I am now reading – along with about three hundred other books (for some reason I always read Whatever knows how many books at once)- ‘The Face of the Buddha’, by William Empsom: Empson is the greatest literary critic in English of the last century, and a great foe of the ‘New Criticism’ as proposed by Wimsatt and Brooks which had the effect of removing works of literature from the rough and tumble of the real life in which they were born into an emasculated aesthetic and academic sphere where American undergraduates could be safely taught in such a way that the relation of the arts to life and politics was happily occluded. Empsom started this book while living and teaching in Japan. The manuscript was lost, and was discovered in the British Museum among the papers of a man called Richard Marsh who had been one of the editors of the magazine ‘Poetry London’. And it has been published this year by the Oxford University Press. The book is about Buddhist sculpture, to which Empson, an atheist and fervent anti=christian, was drawn. Empson is a wonderfully intelligent and perceptive writer, as well as a writer who is never afraid go going out on a limb and being un-respectable.

    Other books: Mario Vargas Llosa’s ‘The Discreet Hero’, recently translated into English, is a very good novel. (Vargas Llosa was a very deserving winner of the Nobel Prize, author of ‘The War of the End of the World’, about an apocalyptic uprising in Brazil (the rising actually happened), and ‘The Feast of the Goat’, which is not for the squeamish but should be required reading for those who like to toy with the idea that perhaps torture can be justified – something that is important in our Drumpfian days. And ‘The Radetzky March’ by Joseph Roth in a new translation by Michael Hofmann. Roth (1894-1939) was an Austrian-Jewish journalist and novelist, and his novel is both a celebration of, and a lament for, the kind the kind of cosmopolitan society that was destroyed by European nationalisms in the mid-20th-century, is under threat yet again these days, and is disliked by certain commentates on this website. I also recommend another extraordinary novel of his, ‘Job’.

    I am also reading Mark Thompson’s excellent and brilliantly written ‘Birth Certificate: The Story of Danilo Kis’. Kis was a Yugoslavian novelist and essayist, whose work I hugely admire – ‘A Tomb for Boris Davidovich’, for example, is a collection of dark stories, influenced by Borges and Joyce, about life under a Communist tyranny. Kis’s father was Jewish, and was murdered by the Nazis, Kis himself escaped being killed since his mother was racially acceptable…

    Finally, there is the Austrian writer Arno Geiger’s ‘The Old King in his Exile’, which is a very accurate and honest, and therefore harrowing as well as movingly funny, account of his father’s slow destruction by dementia.

    • Rick
      Posted December 7, 2016 at 8:29 am | Permalink

      I enjoyed your summary of Empson, and I’ll have to put the book that you discuss on the ever-growing list of books-to-read-someday. I read Empson’s “Milton’s God” recently, and it is a lively, amusing, and very interesting discussion of “Paradise Lost” with particular attention to Milton’s efforts to justify the ways of God to man. Basically, Empson argues that Milton, being so faithful to the religion, can’t help proving how cruel God the Father is, “the wickedest thing yet invented by the black heart of man” (as Empson says in conclusion). The discussion of Eve is a particularly inspired bit of criticism, very against the grain. Empson is, as you say, a “perceptive writer”. He does write really engagingly and also knows how to use a joke well.

      • Tim Harris
        Posted December 9, 2016 at 6:26 am | Permalink

        ‘Milton’s God’ is very good & thought-provoking, but Empson’s two best books remain for me ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’ & ‘Some Versions of Pastoral’. I am sorry if I sounded harsh about the ‘New Criticism’, but in the end I think it deserves it. Close reading is all very well (and certainly was not an invention of Brooks & Wimsatt), but the ends to which they put it – that poems, etc, were not part of the real world but existed in some curious aesthetic and formal space where because of the various checks and balances that made them up, they managed to have an aesthetic and harmonious perfection and say precisely nothing – but they were, nevertheless, ‘beautiful’. So much for Kafka’s “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”

        The trouble with the ‘New Criticism’ is that it fits all too well in with the prejudice that the arts are all a sort of parlour game or ‘entertainment’, a view that I have come across rather often on this website, as well as in the apercus of such as Stephen Pinker and Alex Rosenberg and other of those scientists and philosophers of whom Pinker himself has said that they are often philistines. I am, I suppose, an unregenerate European, and so, when I received by post yesterday a copy of ‘Psalm 44’, by the great Yugoslav writer Danilo Kis, whose father was killed in Auschwitz, I was pleased to find the following being said in the preface, which was written by Aleksandar Hemon, who has taught ‘creative writing’ (I use the quotation marks advisedly) at American universities:

        ‘What is absent from much of contemporary fiction, which in the USA is conceived of as middle-to-highbrow entertainment, is the ethical import of literature. As it is, the word fiction largely stands for (deliberately) made-up narratives aiming to entertain the culturally enlightened reader. Literature… is nothing if not continuous ethical and aesthetical engagement with human experience and history; entertainment might not be applicable. While the word fiction applies equally to “The DaVinci Code” and “Remembrance of Things Past”, only one of those is literature; the other one is trash.’

        Another book I should like to recommend is ‘Yeats & Violence’ by Michael Wood, a full-length book on what is, to me at least, W.B. Yeats’s greatest poem, ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, which was written in and about the time of the beginning of civil war in Ireland and of the signing of the treaty of Brest-Litvosk, as well as of a number of other alarming events in Europe. It is, with Andrew Marvell’s ‘An Horatian Ode on Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’, one of the greatest political poems ever written in English, principally because of its unsparing honesty (Yeats was not always honest, and sometimes mistook rhetorical power for truth). It is a far greater poem than ‘The Second Coming’, which everyone, including Paul Krugman, can quote at the drop of a hat. It has much to say to us today, in our disordered times. The New Criticism could not begin to deal with it, any more than it could deal with the pain of Thomas Hardy’s harrowing poem ‘Penance.’

        • Robert Bray
          Posted December 9, 2016 at 9:08 am | Permalink

          ‘that poems, etc, were not part of the real world but existed in some curious aesthetic and formal space where because of the various checks and balances that made them up, they managed to have an aesthetic and harmonious perfection and say precisely nothing – but they were, nevertheless, ‘beautiful’.

          Mr. Harris,
          The following is not to launch an argument with you, who are plainly a most intelligent and well-read person. I clipped the passage above from your post only to make a couple of points about your take-down of New Criticism.

          First, this school of thought, more widely construed, did not generally hold that art (and particularly literature) was ‘not part of the real world.’ [Literature, after all, being made of language, cannot NOT be such a part.] Rather, the critical method was to attempt to isolate the art under scrutiny as much as possible from the mundane noise around it, the better to understand it as an aesthetic object. You are perhaps right to complain that this was futile, even counter-productive, but at the time I practiced as a New Critic the approach did indeed seem to provide a means of accounting for art’s powerful affects, and to do so without any special pleading for sociopolitical relevance. [This was especially important for lyric poetry; novels and other narratives, less so, although I would claim that experimental modernists like Faulkner and Woolf were sometimes more effective in their social criticism that straightforward writers such as Sinclair Lewis, who, though he didn’t do agitprop, put the dinner right on the table for his readers.].

          Second, and closely related, since literature can’t help but ‘say something’ (as above), it will always have meaning. And the critics’ task, whatever their tribal allegiances, is to find out and comment on that meaning; then to judge its importance both as art and for living. I think you would like these two importances to be one thing, but the interiority of artistic affects won’t always (usually? ever?) find expression in social life.

          Finally, you conclude that Marvell’s ‘Horatian Ode’ is a ‘far greater poem’ that Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming.’ Could well be. But I have not seen a convincing theory of literary aesthetics that might adjudge this matter to the satisfaction of all––or even of any two contending readers. The New Criticism, at least, and at its best, tried to get at the bases of such an aesthetic. To move criticism beyond, that is, strong, articulate assertions of highly intelligent and well-read individuals.

          Thanks for your attention!

          • Tim Harris
            Posted December 9, 2016 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

            Thank you; I would certainly say that Marvell’s ‘Ode’ is a far greater poem than ‘The Second Coming’, and can give reasons for doing so, but what I in fact said, or thought I said, was that Yeats’ ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ was a far greater poem than his ‘The Second Coming’ – and, again, I have reasons for saying so, reasons that were gestured at in what I wrote.

            • Tim Harris
              Posted December 10, 2016 at 7:53 am | Permalink

              Also, as I should have thought my liking for writers like Bulgakov, Kis and Kafka would have suggested, I was by no means suggesting that some obvious bit of social criticism was better literature than a work written by a writer whose style and subject matter is the measure of his or her integrity. Faulkner is clearly a far superior writer to Sinclair Lewis. What I was objecting to was the making of works of literature into ‘aesthetic objects’ that exist in some odd space divided from the person and society who gave birth to them. I certainly understand the desire to do away with appeals to historical and social factors irrelevant to the understanding of a work, but one mark of a good critic is the ability to use historical and biographical material judiciously and in an illuminating way.

        • Rick
          Posted December 9, 2016 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

          Interesting comments.

          I agree that “Some Versions of Pastoral” is pretty excellent. I admit that I’ve only read parts of “7 Types”. What I read impressed me: so perceptive. Sometimes, the examples don’t even seem ambiguous to me, and then I read his explanation and think, “Well, look at that. He’s right.”

          Anyhow, I didn’t think that your New Criticism criticisms are too harsh. They are somewhat common criticisms of it, I think. Even students seem a little disappointed by its limits, almost as if the poems have been dried out. If I remember correctly, the novelist Philip Roth banned New Critical terms from discussion of books in classes that he taught. (I don’t agree with that, but it still amuses me.)

          To defend New Criticism briefly: I do think that close reading and formal analysis often reveal why a poem is any good and what it is that really moved us. Deep political engagement is obviously moving, but, as is obvious, it must be presented artfully well in order to be moving.

          I remember reading essays by Cleanth Brooks and Leah Marcus on Herrick’s “Corinna’s Going A-Maying”. Marcus digs up all kinds of interesting and relevant historical context to show that Herrick has more depth than readers give him credit for, but, in the end, I think that ol’ fuddy-duddy Brooks shows the formal splendour of the poem and why it’s so excellent more convincingly than Marcus’s (still well-done) historicizing.

          Thanks for the suggested Yeats criticism. (My favourite Yeats poem: “Sailing to Byzantium”.)

          • Rick
            Posted December 9, 2016 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

            My post above replies to Tim’s comment. I generally agree with your defence of New Criticism, Robert.

            • Tim Harris
              Posted December 9, 2016 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

              Yes, I thought that what Brooks said about Herrick was good; but close-reading is really not the invention of the New Critics!

              • Rick
                Posted December 9, 2016 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

                True. Of course, we both praised Empson, as close a reader as any, and he mocked New Criticism at times.

  52. Lauren
    Posted December 7, 2016 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    For a lot of laughs, as well as provoking some interesting thoughts and memories, I highly recommend The Sellout by Beatty.

    Short book and a quick read. Won this year’s Booking award.

  53. Posted December 7, 2016 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    So many books, so little time. I can see many titles here that I need to read or re-read. This week, I ordered a bunch of used books (as I do frequently). Now, I have this new list to select from which to order also. They can join the large stack of books by the side of my bed that yet awaits reading (or the many bookcases throughout the house). So often, one of those books interests me enough that it causes me to meander off in a direction I hadn’t even thought about before. Always something new and interesting. My “Heaven” would be a Borges sized library, all the books of which made sense and were interesting, and all the time in the universe for me to read them.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted December 9, 2016 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      “Pop, do we have heaven?” he’d asked on the day he discovered the (dead) cat. “You want to know a Jew’s idea of heaven?” his father had replied, looking up from his Maimonides. “It’s an endless succession of long winter nights on which we get paid a fair wage to sit in a warm room and read all the books ever written…Not just the famous ones, no, every book, the stuff nobody gets around to reading, forgotten plays, novels by people you never heard of. However, I profoundly doubt such a place exists.” James Morrow, Only Begotten Daughter, Chapter 1

  54. David Jorling
    Posted December 7, 2016 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

    Just finished the Sultan and the Queen. Interesting to me in that it reveals a part of history that I otherwise would never have known. Tells the story of Queen Elizabeth I and England’s relationship with the Ottomans and other Islamic countries.

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