Thursday, January 4, 2018

Book recs from what I've read over the last few years

I plan to make these an annual post. What I have here are some recommendations from among the books I've read between 2014-2017.

I've read more from the Classics Club Challenge than I’ve yet written about (like Daniel Deronda by George Eliot and The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty, both recommended). Some of the others from the past few years that I recommend: Villette, Of Human Bondage, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, The Country of the Pointed Firs, The Periodic Table, Ivanhoe, Persuasion, The Living Is Easy, The Age of Innocence, and Old Goriot.

Here's an ongoing list of short stories I recommend; I've added many over the last few years, and I mention where I read each one, so hopefully you'll find some good short story collections to check out.

One of the standout history books is 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War by Charles Emmerson, a fascinating look at major cities around the world in 1913, including London, Buenos Aires, NYC, and Vienna. Full of rich depictions of politics, economics, and other elements of culture. Also, it's eerie reading about various predictions or other analyses people made at the time in light of future developments.

Another history rec: Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman. Bly, the pioneering investigative reporter, and Bisland, the more refined magazine writer, were living in NYC in the late 1800s when they set out on this journey, their background and personalities quite different, though both worked hard for their positions in journalism and literary circles. The book is interesting not only as a biography of these two interesting figures, but in how it brings to life different elements of that time period, including U.S. journalism, methods of transportation around the globe, and issues related to sex and socioeconomic class. And it's suspenseful!

In the realm of plant-human relationships, The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan is worth reading. It discusses apples, potatoes, cannabis, and tulips - their history entwined with human history, how we’ve shaped them (e.g. through grafting and genetic modification) and how they've affected us. Also enjoyed it for the image of Johnny Appleseed as an “American Dionysus,” because even though he was later used to promote healthy eating, all those apple trees he planted mostly served other important purposes.

A few psych books that gave me some important insights to consider, including those that were valuable because of what I gained from arguing with the authors' interpretations of psych/religion/history: some of Alice Miller's writings (focusing on the psychological problems and misdirected and misunderstood emotions that can arise from child maltreatment), The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz, and Mindset by Carol Dweck.

An excellent book on drug addiction: Unbroken Brain by Maia Szalavitz. In part, a memoir (the author struggled with addiction in the 1980s), it also reviews research on drug addiction, including its developmental trajectory, and considers possible effective interventions. The author discusses misunderstandings about addiction and the harmful ways we deal with it in the US (sometimes she brings other countries into the discussion, but she focuses on the US, as she's most familiar with the criminal justice system and treatment options here).

On to mystery novels... I’ve read most of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series (starting with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie). The quality of the novels varies, but I like the world of these characters, and the main character, a prickly girl who's a chemistry whiz, living in a household sunk in debt in post-WWII England; her village, Bishop's Lacey, is the sort of small, quiet place where dead bodies turn up a lot (but fortunately Flavia is there to render unwanted assistance to the police). Other mystery novels I enjoyed: the P.D. James books featuring Cordelia Gray - An Unsuitable Job For a Woman and The Skull Beneath the Skin. Also, two of the Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane books by Dorothy Sayers: Strong Poison and Have His Carcase (I haven't yet read Gaudy Night).

For a dark novel of betrayal and political intrigue (on such a petty and heart-breaking level), there's The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. Another good novel, The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, is lovely, wry, refreshing, and in spite of everything the main character keeps her dignity, even in the sad end. I also recommend Americanah by Chimamandah Ngozie Adichie for its account of a young Nigerian woman and man who are lovers and then part ways, one going to the US, the other to the UK (the outsider perspective on US race relations and identity politics was especially interesting to me).

Back to nonfiction - John Hersey's Hiroshima is a book that's necessary to read, as it shows the lives of several of the bombing's survivors and tells their stories with vivid detail, nuance, and depth.

I appreciated reading most of the essays in Marilynne Robinson’s collection, The Death of Adam, and plan to return to it. Letter to My Daughter by Maya Angelou was a nice find, as she has a clear voice and speaks conversationally to the reader. I also enjoyed discovering Jane Jacobs and starting on her work, including The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Dark Age Ahead, which has some insightful observations about effective government, city planning, and scientific thinking.

I also recommend The Fourth Industrial Revolution by Klaus Schwab as a solid introductory overview to the technological developments currently changing the world and their potential positive and negative effects (which we're already seeing in play).