Covers from the books I enjoyed reading in 2017. Complete titles and authors are listed below. Images are from amazon.com.
2017 was a relatively good year for reading. I tried reading about 50 books, though I couldn't finish them all. Here are the titles I enjoyed the most (eight fiction and eight non-fiction). Only a few of them came out in 2017, the rest is a mix of recently successful books and old classics.
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin, 2015. (Science Fantasy).
I loved this book! I think of N. K. Jemisin as the Tony Morrison of fantasy. Her prose has that kind of absorbing beauty and lyricism, married with the same power of the underlying themes: oppression and resistance. In support of these themes, Jemisin has invented a fantastic, imaginary world inhabited by mysterious characters who have immense powers and strong emotions. The way she weaves together all the story lines is masterful and I cannot wait to read the next two volumes in the series.
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, 2013. (Literary Fiction).
This summer I read a New York Times article with the evocative title, Who is afraid of Claire Messud? and I felt a strong kinship with Messud, an author whose name I had heard in the past, but whose work was unfamiliar to me. I'm so grateful for that evocative title! Reading "The Woman Upstairs" was like making a new friend, Messud is a master of emotional nuances and the complex inner lives of women who are often invisible to most. And Nora's journey through love and betrayal is as human as it gets.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, 1969. (Science Fiction).
One of my goals for 2017 was to read science fiction books from women authors. Guardian's article Dystopian dreams: how feminist science fiction predicted future led me to "The Left Hand of Darkness" by Ursula Le Guin, the mother of feminist SF. The book is about the mission of Genly Ai (a man from Terra) in the planet Gethen, whose people don't have an assigned gender. Everyone is both a man and a woman, capable of giving birth, depending on who they partner with. There are many themes explored on this book: gender relations, nationalism, loyalty and betrayal, or inter-planetary politics. Personally, I was affected by the epic journey through ice in which the two main characters, Genly Ai and Estraven (a Gethen politician) embark together. It reminded me of the journey of Frodo and Sam for destroying the ring. But there are no orcs and giant spiders, only anxiety and fear. It's extremely satisfactory to see them victorious at the end, by doing the hard work of building bonds of mutual trust.
The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu, 2016. (Short Stories).
This mix of fantasy and science fiction short stories is a delight for the mind and the heart. The short story "The Paper Menagerie" that gives its title to the book made me cry, because as an immigrant who is raising children in a different culture and in a language that is not my own, I could deeply empathize with the mother in the story. To me, the most compelling stories were the ones which dealt with people caught between different worlds and cultures, stories of human struggles and hopes (e.g., The Literomancer). I am thankful to Alex Guo '20, who kept telling me how wonderful this book is. She was right.
The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, 2014. (Science Fiction).
It's fortunate for everyone that this book, written in Chinese, was translated by Ken Liu (see previous paragraph), himself a Chinese-American who writes science fiction. Ken Liu came in May 2017 to talk to Wellesley students about the book, and the conversation made clear his influence in the structure of the English translation. The book is generally fun, especially the virtual reality video-game that traces the history and philosophy of science in Earth from Aristotle to Einstein. There are many other things going on in this story: the Chinese cultural revolution and its unhealed scars, nanotechnology, astrophysics, quantum entaglement, and very creative aliens. One theme that resonates with our times is the effort to discredit science and scientists. In this book, as it is often the case in some science fiction novels, characters are secondary to the ideas, and it's hard to care for their fate. A book for the mind (most of the times), not the heart.
The Dispossesed by Ursula Le Guin, 1974. (Science Fiction).
The subtitle of the book, "An ambiguous utopia", reveals its intent to explore with alternative systems, in this case, a society experimenting with anarchism and collectivism. Having been born and raised in Albania, a country that tried collectivism and failed, I think Le Guin does a wonderful job of describing some of the inherent flaws of such systems: excessive reliance in own's society resources and capabilities, the consequences of non-possession, the toll of human jealousy on progress. The protagonist, Shevek, is both a brilliant scientist and a complex human being, capable of heart-warming humility and loyalty. Worthy of admiration.
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, 2013. (Science Fiction).
After finishing this book, it occurred to me that it is the first "space opera" that I have read from a woman author. It's indeed something different. I greatly enjoyed the emphasis on the exploration of societies with different social orders and hierarchies, the lack of recognizable gender traits, as well as an evil empire enabled by artificial intelligence. At the center of the book is a memorable, non-human character, Breq, with a very rich inner life, full of complex human feelings, such as loyalty and revenge. It reminded me of Ship, the AI in the novel Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. Breq's adventure has just begun, and I'll have to read its sequels to learn of Breq's fate.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman, 2011. (Fantasy).
When I visited America for the first time, I was shocked by how vaste this country is. I think Gaiman probably had a similar experience when moving to live here. He translated that vastness into a novel of Americana spirit that rivals the country's size with its exhilarating imagination. Many myths and gods stories from all over the world merge together in this book, as they battle with our new cultural gods. If I ever get to talk to Gaiman, I'm going to ask him why didn't he do enough research to mention some real Albanian names in the story. I'm glad we got a mention (actually two), in both cases as "the fucking Albanians".
The Undoing Project: A Friendship that changed our minds by Michael
Lewis, 2016. (Non-fiction, biography).
Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky forever changed how we think about human decision making, introducing the notion of the (many) cognitive biases we carry within. The book kept my attention through the clear explanation of their research ideas and findings, and I found it fascinating for its portrayal of the emotional obstacles they couldn't overcome to maintain their friendship.
Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to
Trump and the Alt-Right by Angela Nagle, 2017 (Non-fiction).
Many like to criticize this book, because Nagle is unflinching in her critique, and doesn't spare both sides of the cultural spectrum. But I liked this book a lot, because it made me see many things differently and that is always a gift. It's not perfect, but Nagle's voice is worth listening!
Half-light: Collected Poems. 1965-2016 by Frank Bidart, 2017 (Poetry).
Frank Bidart is a Wellesley English Professor who I have never met. But after reading his book of collected poems, I think I have. Of course, metaphorically. He is one of those brave souls you feel magically attracted to, the ones who are not afraid to open their hearts and minds to show and share their conflicted, fractured, imperfect selves. His poems lift you up, because you don't feel alone anymore in your human struggles.
Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can
Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, 2017 (Non-fiction).
This book is important, because it shows the possibilities of what we can do with data that haven't been (and still are not) available to researchers such as psychologists, sociologists, and economists. Thus, a plea: Google, please provide more researchers with the kind of access to search query data you gave to Stephens-Davidowitz! Shining a light on the collective human fears and hopes, will lead to more conversations about change: societal, cultural, and technological.
The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow, 2008
This is a fascinating history of the ideas and scientists that shaped our understanding of randomness and probability. I find it always enlightening to read books that show where ideas come from and what motivates the people who advance them.
A Global Warming Primer by Jeffrey Bennett, 2016
I admit that I have been one of the many people who didn't go into the details of understanding the science behind the debate on global warming. I was wrong to not make the time for it. This book was what I needed, and now I feel prepared to ask better questions to my colleagues who study global warming in different ways.
The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu, 2016
The currency of our time is attention. Find a way to harvest it at a large scale and you become the biggest advertising platform in the world. Namely, Facebook and Google. But they are only the latest actors in a long line of attention merchants. Tim Wu took me into a thought-provoking journey of this history in the past two hundred years, and kept my attention.
Sapiens: A brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, 2014
This is far from a typical history book. Much of it is speculative, like an engrossing speculative fiction novel. The scientist in me is worried about some of the claims and leaps, but such an overarching depiction of our history is appealing to the human craving for a good story.