to date: best books of 2014

I was trying to hold off til the end of this calendar year, but I’ve been asked several times recently for book recommendations, and have sent this list privately to a few friends. So why not share? Below you will find the best books I’ve read this year, so far. Hopefully there will be more in these last few months!

Some reviews haven’t even posted yet, but here you are, getting a sneak peek at my ratings.

Those that received a rating of 10:

Those that received a rating of 9:

* = audiobooks.

There have been lots of 8s, too, including for example the latest from Stephen King and James Lee Burke; this lovely novel; a little literary history (oh and here’s another); some plants*; and two that are still to come: We Make Beer, and Older, Faster, Stronger.

What have you read so far this year that’s blown you away?

the best of scientific nonfiction

In yesterday’s post, Pops shared with me a list of good fiction-about-science, as presented by author Kirk Smith. As part of that same conversation, Pops asked for my favorite scientific fiction – with “good” science being part of the criteria. Well, unsurprisingly, I didn’t have a lot to offer in that regard. I haven’t tended towards scientific fiction much (nor traditional sci fi); my fiction tends to be mysteries, historical fiction, literary fiction, or increasingly, fantasy; there is always a variety, but I’ve been short on science. I did come up with a few. But I did far better in recommending some really great nonfiction that is scientific in nature: both “good” science, and well written, enjoyable, accessible, good reading. He asked for those two lists, so I’m happy to share them here.

Some great fiction about science:

By Lisa Genova: Love Anthony and Left Neglected, but especially Still Alice. Genova has degrees in biopsychology and neuroscience (the latter a PhD from Harvard, ahem), so one expects that her novels about women and families, in which someone in the family (usually the woman) suffers a neurological disorder or disease, are scientifically accurate. I love that they are scientifically detailed and yet extraordinarily enjoyable novels, too.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver: you can read my review, and also note that Kirk Smith and I both recommend this one; in a nutshell, Kingsolver teaches science in the most charmingly accessible of packages, the one and only Dr. Ovid Byron. You must read this; or better, you must hear the audio, because the accents are amazing. (Read by the author, a woman of many talents.)

Madeline L’Engle’s series: A Wrinkle In Time, A Wind in the Door, etc. I hesitate here, because the science begins in reality and then moves outside it (see: farandolae), so I’m not sure it qualifies. But kids’ books – about science – with a female protagonist. Good stuff.

Some great nonfiction about science:

My review hasn’t published yet, but it will any day now, and I’ll come back and edit this post: A Garden of Marvels by Ruth Kassinger is an outstanding, fun, and informative look at the history of botany, really from the birth of botany as a science (relatively recent, since we didn’t think plants were all that important as a subject of study for many centuries). It’s extremely accessible and well written, even funny. One of my recent favorites!

On a Farther Shore, William Souder’s recent biography of Rachel Carson, is for me a classic example of science made reader-friendly and socially important. It doesn’t hurt that I find Carson a fascinating & important figure, and admittedly, this is more biography than science; but I think it qualifies for this list, especially considering Pops’s comments yesterday about the representation of women in literature & science (and literature about science).

Einstein, the biography by Walter Isaacson, was mentioned in Kirk Smith’s talk apparently as being “challenging,” and I wouldn’t disagree entirely, but no knowledge of physics is prerequisite – and I didn’t get all the physics Isaacson described, either, but that was no requirement for enjoying Einstein’s story.

Unfortunately, I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot before I really began blogging. (I made a few posts on it early on: here, here, and here, but none qualify as a review.) So I can only say, looking back, that as with On a Farther Shore, science is made not only comprehensible, but oh so important and relevant for our past, present and future; not to mention the glaring & compelling social commentary. This is a great book (and one I gave away for World Book Night a few years ago).

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (my review in parts one and two) is fascinating, varied, lyrical, fun, and whimsical. Both poetry and science. And the oddest chunks of science, too. Do check out some here and here.

River in Ruin by Ray A. March is a loving, informed but readable discussion of exactly what the title says.

Also pre-blog, I read My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, and it made a major impact on me. I had only recently recovered from a brain injury (from a bike wreck and yes I was wearing my helmet), and reading this book by a neuroanatomist about her stroke & recovery helped me understand my own brain better. She’s a scientist, so she has the “good” science, but she’s also a human being with a personal story to tell, and she tells it well.

When we talk about science writing, though, **the grand prize** has to go to Hali Felt for Soundings. How did I rate that book only a 9? In my memory, it should be a 10. Again with the added benefit of handling women in science and the special challenges they face, Felt tells the story of Marie Tharp’s life and scientific breakthroughs with sensitivity, insight, and yes, science.

Bonus: just the other day this review posted at Shelf Awareness (by my friend Katie at Cakes, Tea and Dreams). I haven’t read the book, but I think it sounds delightful: Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything, by Amanda Gefter.


That’s all I have today, Pops, but it ought to get you started! I’m pretty sure you’d put McKibben on this list; any others to share? Anybody?

the best of scientific fiction, from Pops

Not to be confused with traditional science fiction (although I have something for you on that topic, as well) – today’s is a quasi-guest post from Pops, who is excited to share about a recent author talk event he attended. The presenter was Kirk Smith, speaking on Lab Lit: Putting Real Science Into Fiction. Pops’s report:

I attended the Lab Lit program tonight. And I signed you up to review a book. Well, sorta. We should talk.

So, to review: Kirk Smith is an old-guy Seattle author with a passion for fiction about “realistic scientists doing realistic science” – ideally where the science is the central story, not ancillary. He has high standards for credibility and likes writers who can really “get inside the head” of scientist-protagonists. Eventually he became frustrated that satisfying examples were so rare, and resolved to write his own version.

This is sort of a special interest of my father’s. He’s been interested in several scientific issues over the last few years, and often disappointed in their presentation by the finest minds in the field – scientific minds being, unfortunately, often unable to communicate what they know clearly to the rest of us. The big exception being Bill McKibben (who I reviewed recently: Oil and Honey). This is a paraphrase of my father – hope I got that about right, Pops.

It was interesting; simply an avid, insightful reader sharing a niche passion; nothing topical like climate change & how to communicate science, though I would have enjoyed that too.

He spent 45 minutes talking knowledgeably about all the books on the attached handout [see below], and 15 minutes reading from & talking about his book (an ode to Einstein, with a female character). He lauded Isaacson’s Einstein, the only overlap I detect with your reviews (you get credit for enjoying a “challenging read!”). He recommends Einstein in Love.

Not true, Pops! I reviewed not only Einstein but also Flight Behavior, which I loved.

[His passion for this niche reminds me of my own for running fiction; of course he reads other forms! I get it.]

You are onto something here. As you said in your first paragraph, Smith “likes writers who can really ‘get inside the head’ of scientist-protagonists,” and I think that’s exactly what you like about running books: sharing an experience with the protagonist, recognizing the unique and awesome thing that is being a runner – or a scientist. Or (to digress), I suspect that Susan Vreeland gets accurately inside the head of an artist, in her Clara and Mr. Tiffany or The Forest Lover, both of which I loved. However, not being much of an artist, I can’t entirely attest.

You’ll see he covered non-fiction and biographies as well as other forms; he also has his own web site where he blogs & reviews, and recommends the LabLit site (by one of the authors) that inspired the terminology. He has corresponded with several of the authors on the list.

I came home with a free UK-only-available copy of The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt. One of us is committed to reviewing it by Feb 15, before its spring USA release. Call me.

Of course by the time I called, he had already started reading this book, which is fine because I have plenty of deadlines in the next two weeks without this one (!), which would require cross-country shipping to get to me, too! But I’m next in line for it when he’s done (so I have a more relaxed schedule to read it on), and his review will be cross-posted here when complete. Hooray! Guest reviews!

And for those who are curious about Smith’s reading list – I know I was! I’m sharing here the handout he shared at this book event, with Pops’s annotations on it (how lucky we are), and hoping that the wise and magnanimous Kirk Smith will not consider this a copyright violation too egregious. :-/ Seriously, thank you Kirk for the info; and readers, do check out his website here.

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)



An addendum from Pops:

First, I noticed his top three fictions are all by female authors with female protagonists; then he eventually acknowledged the fact himself, in passing; then his reading (of his own novel) revealed the female protagonist in his own novel; and in response to a question explained (superficially I thought) why she is his stand-in for a fictional Einstein; and with a follow up question, finally spoke briefly but incisively about the challenge for girls & women in math & science fields to gain grudging credibility & respect.

So, one wonders: are the women appearing in his list (authors & characters both) a factor of his own selection, or if one did an “objective” survey of the landscape, would we see the same? An outbreak of women expressing a new voice? (In literature, or science, or both?)

Such fodder for future expression!

Such fodder indeed! I have no idea how to answer your questions, of course – possibly Smith could speak to these? (It would have been a great line of questioning to pursue on the spot with the audience! It sounds like he wasn’t anxious to head in this direction – of social commentary – on his own. But I understand how it took a day or two to get these thoughts, and thus this line of questioning, straightened out in your own head.) The pessimist (or realist?) in me doubts that there is a general and widespread trend toward a women’s majority in science & literature! Although for the most part we are increasingly represented, hm? That’s just a guess from me, though.

2013: A Year in Review

It’s always nice to look back, especially when we can do it fondly; and I’m getting better at spending my reading time enjoyably, and putting down books I don’t enjoy. I’ve reviewed a few years now (2012; 2011), so we can do some comparisons.

Of the 116 books I read in 2013…

  • 45% were nonfiction (51% last year)
  • 48% were by female authors (32% last year)
  • of the 64 novels I read, 37% were mysteries or thrillers, 10% were historical fiction and only 6% were classics. The rest were a smattering of adventure, drama, fantasy, horror, short stories, and humor. (Last year 31% were mysteries, 27% were historical fiction and 23% were classics.)
  • 23% were audiobooks. (25% last year)
  • 35% of the books I read came from the library, a whopping 43% were review copies, and 14% came from my personal collection; the remaining few were books I was loaned, books I purchased, or (those treasured few) books I was given as gifts. (Last year, 40% of the books I read came from the library, 32% were review copies, and 28% came from my personal collection.)
  • I read 116 books this year, compared to 126 last year.

For the very *best* books I’ve read this year, see New Year’s Eve’s post.

So, how have my reading habits changed? I’m a little surprised at some of my observations here, which helps me justify how very nerdy it is to run these numbers! I am pleased to see that I’m reading a little more equitably between authors’ genders. I seem to have slightly reversed my fiction/nonfiction trend – last year NF had a bare majority, this year it swung the other way a bit, but I’m still nearly half and half. I’m certainly pleased to be reading that much nonfiction, and I wouldn’t want to slip too far below the halfway point, but I also recall a definite moment in the fall of 2013 when I felt that I needed a break from nonfiction.

Within the fiction I read, there is a noticeable trend toward mystery/thriller holding a large plurality, and a drop in classics. I regret that drop in classics somewhat. I wonder if the also noticeable increase in books I read for review has something to do with this. On the other hand, I don’t feel that I need to be too concerned. I bet next year will change again.

Audiobooks held steady at about 1/4 of my reading life, which seems about right. However, a new thing happening in my life in 2014 is – oh my gosh can you believe it – they finally opened up the new light rail line that runs between my home and work!! This is very exciting, and may mean that I find more time for reading print and spend less time listening to audio. So far, however, this is not the case: I’m in the middle of a delightful Stephen King audiobook and don’t want to put it down once I board the train. So, we shall see.

I read slightly fewer books than last year – a decrease of 8%, as long as I have this calculator out – and am perfectly content ascribing that to reading several longer books this year.

What does the future hold? Who knows? I’m feeling contented, and disinclined to make plans or promises. Rather, I want to keep enjoying my reading. I think that’s the most important thing, and if that suddenly means romance novels, or histories of the first World War, or reading much more or much less (none of these seems likely…), then so be it.

What about you? Any reading resolutions? Or, how was your 2013 in books?

best of 2013: year’s end

My year-in-review post is coming, but first, as the year ends, let’s take a look at the very BEST books I read in 2013. Not necessarily published in 2013, you understand, although several were that, as well. Others were quite old. And while we’re at it, do check out Shelf Awareness’s best-of list, which has three books in common with mine. The Shelf and I, we continue simpatico.

Those that received a rating of 10:

Those that received a rating of 9:

There were lots of 8s, too – it’s been a great year. For example, late in the year I’ve discovered a love for Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, which hasn’t gotten a 9 on an individual book lately – but I wonder why, because I’m certainly enjoying the series that much! My, I’ve read so many books that it’s difficult to think back this far; but this list helps me remember the very best of my reading year.

What did YOU read this year that’s blown you away?

a compilation of lists

Whew! You all might know that I’m a sucker for book lists. It can get a little exhausting with everyone publishing their own “100 greatest books” etc. (you know I did!), and this is a highly subjective matter. But I’m still attracted.

But then I saw this list (through Shelf Awareness, naturally). It’s a chart compiled from all the books on 11 lists of 100 books. [One list says "American novels", where the others seem to be international. Eight of the 11 say either "novels" or "literature," and a glancing survey does seem to confirm that this is a fiction list. These rules are not entirely made clear.] There aren’t 1100 books, because there’s overlap: that’s the point of this chart. And what fun: statistical analysis! Three books make 10 of the 11 lists: Catch-22, Lolita, and The Great Gatsby. Four books make 9 lists; 4 make 8; and so on from there. I found it fascinating to see the semi-democratic selections between these lists. Of course, each of those 11 lists is just another subjective view; but it’s nice to the the intersections. The lists, if you’re curious, come from sources like bookriot.com; TIME magazine; Entertainment Weekly; Modern Library; Goodreads; and Reddit.

Naturally what I want to do now is show which ones I’ve read, plan to read, or don’t plan to read (hello, Faulkner and Ulysses). Let’s say bold are those I’ve read, italics are those I want to read, and underlined for those I’ve picked up and put back down or don’t intend to.

Please excuse my laziness in listing only titles and not authors. You will fairly easily figure it out yourself or find the author via The Google. A few of these titles, for the record, didn’t ring a bell to me at all. Some authors are available at the original link; others are not. I’m guessing this was a copy/paste in from the 11 lists themselves…

Made 10 lists:
Catch-22
*Lolita
*The Great Gatsby

Made 9 lists:
Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison, not H.G. Wells. I have read the one by Wells, actually.)
Slaughterhouse-5
The Catcher in the Rye
The Sound and the Fury

Made 8 lists:
*1984
Beloved
The Grapes of Wrath
To Kill a Mockingbird

Made 7 lists:
The Sun Also Rises

Made 6 lists:
An American Tragedy
Atlas Shrugged
Brave New World
Gone With the Wind
Midnight’s Children
My Antonia
*On the Road
* The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The Tropic of Cancer
Their Eyes Were Watching God
To the Lighthouse
Ulysses

Made 5 lists:
A Clockwork Orange
A Passage to India
All the King’s Men
Animal Farm
Brideshead Revisited
Crime & Punishment
Fahrenheit 451
Go Tell It On the Mountain
Heart of Darkness
Infinite Jest
Light in August
Lord of the Flies
Moby-Dick
Mrs. Dalloway
Native Son
One Hundred Years of Solitude
*Pride and Prejudice
The Age of Innocence
The Call of the Wild
* The Lord of the Rings
* The Old Man and the Sea
The Stand
The World According to Garp
Things Fall Apart
* Wuthering Heights

Made 4 lists:
*A Confederacy of Dunces
A House for Mr. Biswas
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Anna Karenina
Blood Meridian
Charlotte’s Web
Death Comes for the Archbishop
Don Quixote
Ender’s Game
Howards End
I, Claudius
Naked Lunch
Neuromancer
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Rabbit, Run
Ragtime
Sons and Lovers
Sophie’s Choice
The Adventures of Augie March
The Brothers Karamazov
The Color Purple
The Fountainhead
The Golden Bowl
The Handmaid’s Tale
*The Hobbit
The Maltese Falcon
The Moviegoer
The Sheltering Sky
Under the Volcano
War and Peace

And on.

I have added *asterisks* for the 11 that overlapped with MY list of 100: that was interesting to note. In such subjective measurements, I think that’s not a bad statistic. And some of the ones on this list that I’ve been looking forward to reading may well end up on my own list.

What are your reactions?

the books I’ve listened to that simply must be audio

It has taken me weeks to post this – sorry! But I did have some interest, in the comments on a past post, in those books I’ve listened to that I feel really must be experienced as audiobooks. Here’s a briefly annotated list.

  • Bossypants by Tina Fey, and read by the author: surely this will be obvious? Tina Fey is hilarious and you should let her tell you her story. Qualification: there are images in the book that you miss on the audio version.
  • The Likeness by Tana French: I’ve enjoyed some of hers in print and in audio, but this is my favorite and I feel strongly about the audio. For one thing, they’re set in Dublin and the Irish accents are amazing. For another, the plot of this novel involves faking someone else’s identity, and to hear how her voice changes when she’s in character is really something. Well done, narrator Heather O’Neill.
  • The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver: also read by the author, and what an amazing feat, for her to be such an artist both of literature and of voice acting! Characters include Russians, Mexicans (of different social castes), a New York Jew, back-woods Appalachians, and a young man raised in between cultures; the importance of all those accents couldn’t be overstated, and Kingsolver executes them beautifully. It’s a magical audiobook and I wouldn’t let anybody I liked read this in print.
  • Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson: a memoir, read by the author, and she sings her chapter titles, operatically. That should be all I have to say.
  • The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King: also read by the author, as it happens, and I enjoyed knowing that I was hearing King’s own impression of things. He does a great job. (If you’re noting how many on this list are author-read: I’m as surprised as you are.)
  • Ines of My Soul by Isabel Allende: this is a historical novel of the founding of Chile, and thus another one with accents done gorgeously by narrator Blair Brown.
  • all of the P.G. Wodehouse novels read by Jonathan Cecil: I love Cecil’s voices for the very very silly Bertie Wooster and all the rest; I now am opposed to the print versions, and wary of the non-Cecil-narrated audio version. What can I say, I’ve found the Wooster I like.
  • The Dorothy Parker Audio Collection: a collection of stories and articles read by a handful of different women, who more than narrate; they act out Parker’s caustic wit.
  • all the Lee Child books read by Dick Hill: I really like Hill’s expression of Jack Reacher. (He also narrates a few of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books, which I also recommend. In other words, I like Dick Hill.)
  • bonus: I have it on good authority – although I have not listened yet (it’s in line!) – that the audio version of the new novel Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald is not to be missed, for the southern accents.

Further, I would recommend the following books in their audio format, although I would stop short of saying they must by heard rather than read.

  • Rules of Civility by Amor Towles: New York of the 1930’s and 40’s perfectly evoked via Rebecca Lowman’s lovely narration.
  • Crossing the Borders of Time by Leslie Maitland: the author reads this work of nonfiction herself, and because it’s the story of her own family, I think that’s important (and it is well done). Her voice is warm, she clearly cares for her subject, and she executes the French and German accents (and words) well.
  • The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson: Robin Miles narrates this work of history in a beautiful, warm voice that I found helpful to the subject.
  • The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger: read by Richard M. Davidson, it has all the taut, tense action it needs without ever feeling over-dramatized. Bonus: at the end, it includes a recording of the author speaking about the making of the book, which was awesome.
  • Loving Frank by Nancy Horan: Joyce Bean’s narration immersed me in a time and place and helped me learn to care very much about the characters.
  • Touch by Alexi Zentner: a magical, otherworldly, immersive feel to this novel is helped along by Norman Dietz’s wondering performance.
  • Left Neglected by Lisa Genova: I felt intimately close to the female lead character in this story thanks to Sarah Paulson’s reading.

I’m sure there are more out there, and I can’t wait to discover them! Do share – are there any books you’ve listened to that you would say have to be heard?

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