This is a list of the 15 books I enjoyed the most in 2017, and my reviews:
Charles Dickens’s “A Tale Of Two Cities”
Although the first book sets up connections between characters and eventual plot developments, and sets the scenes in London and Paris before the French revolution, Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities” starts off a little slow, veering inadvertently into socio-political commentary. Even so, the commentary is not entirely detached from the story, since characters and their actions reflect the circumstances of the period – “the best of times”, “the worst of times” – such as Marquis St. Evrémonde, in this first book, when he shows no remorse when his carriage runs over a little child, when he dismisses the grieving father with a gold coin, and when he is eventually stabbed in his bed. Details of his sordid past and crimes are later revealed, with grave, unintended consequences.
Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods”
The plot of Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” is a straightforward one, as the writer himself wrote. “[The book] is the story of a man called Shadow [Moon], and the job he is offered when he gets out of prison. It is the story of a small Midwestern town, and the disappearances that occur there every winter”. And for me, three aspects stood out: first, the characters – Shadow in particular, together with the gods and the mythological creatures – and their quirks; second, the allusions to contemporary culture, communicated through the central conflict between the old and the new gods; and third, the unpredictability of the narrative, with the elements of foreshadowing.
Cixin Liu’s “The Three-Body Problem”
At its essence the plot of Cixin Liu’s “The Three-Body Problem” is simple: A group of intellectuals on Earth – who established the Earth-Trisolaris Organisation – has lost faith in human society, and has hence made contact with aliens of the Trisolaran civilisation to colonise Earth. The author himself explained in the postscript that “extraterrestrial intelligence will be the greatest source of uncertainty for humanity’s future [because] the appearance of extraterrestrial intelligence will force humanity to confront an Other”, and while the concept is not new the novel emphasises technical specificity and the many conflicts within humanity, instead of a convenient assumption of unity against technically superior overlords from Trisolaris.
Cixin Liu’s “The Dark Forest”
A consistent feature throughout Cixin Liu’s “The Dark Forest” is its excellent pacing, except at the very end, when the resolution felt a tad rushed. So even though there is a riveting climax in space, this action is balanced either by meaningful character development or by actions or plot progression, keeping the momentum going. And in fact through these features – especially compared to the first book of the trilogy – the socio-political themes are explored more extensively, promoting the reader to not only solve these dilemmas, but also to consider how they might be applicable in our contemporary context.
Cixin Liu’s “Death’s End”
Cixin Liu’s “Death’s End” – the final book of an outstanding trilogy – is not perfect, and can be especially daunting for those, like me, who are not familiar with the theoretical underpinnings of physics and astrophysics, but it was still a brilliant conclusion to the series. Like the first book, there was a balance between the advancement of human science and the ethical or moral implications which emerged, and like the second the plot was generally well-paced. In fact this third book plunges the reader right into the action between Earth and Trisolaris, where the preceding “The Dark Forest” left off, and even the seemingly-random snippets foreshadow future developments.
Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”
What I also enjoyed was that Dracula and his characteristics were described progressively by the other characters, so the reader gets to know the vampire bit by bit, instead of a lengthy biographical exposition packed within the novel. Details such as Dracula’s aversion to mirrors and his non-reflection in mirrors, “two little red points like pin-pricks” or “small punctured wounds” on the neck of Westenra, the effects of garlic and garlic flowers, weakness in sunlight, and repulsion towards religious items such as crucifixes and sacramental bread. A reader acquainted with popular culture would not be unfamiliar with these traits, yet the attention to detail – in particular, the 50 boxes of earth right from the get-go, and throughout the novel – makes for an even more engaging read.
Abhijit V. Banerjee And Esther Duflo’s “Poor Economics”
The thesis is a straightforward one: That “quiet revolutions” – through which “the kind of lazy, formulaic thinking that reduces every problem to the same set of general principles” is resisted, in favour of incremental progress and the accumulation of small changes – matter when policies are designed to reduce poverty. Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s “Poor Economics”, however, weaves evidence from randomised controlled trials or quasi-experiments with anecdotes or observations on the ground, prompting the reader to first challenge conventional assumptions about the poor and to evaluate their circumstances and their institutions, while thinking about the grand narratives oftentimes mooted to lift individuals above the poverty line.
Ben Ehrenreich’s “The Way To The Spring: Life And Death In Palestine”
The book is both descriptive (Ehrenreich, for instance, takes pains to outline environments and their details, complemented by maps) and immersive, because the narrative is anchored not just by interviews, but also by the writer’s participation and personal observations on the grounds, while living in these locations. The three locations of Nabi Saleh, Hebron, and Ramallah are most-frequented, and Nabi Saleh – in particular – appears to be the main focus. The reference to “the spring” in the title is tied to the natural spring of Ein al-Qaws, taken over by an illegal Israeli settlement, and where the Palestinian people protest every Friday. There is, of course, the broader metaphor of “spring”, of the Palestinians moving hopefully towards a better future.
Richard Evans’s “The Pursuit Of Power: Europe 1815-1914”
lengthy book detailing key historical developments in Europe between 1815 and 1914 can be tiresome, especially if it reads too much like an encyclopaedia, yet Richard J. Evans’s “The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914” is a masterful summary of the events and people of the period. In a loosely chronological fashion, moreover, attention was paid not only to the grand (geo)political developments which shaped countries and communities, but also to the individuals who experienced the effects of these developments. And it is through these stories – supplemented, for instance, by first-hand quotes, excerpts from speeches or documents, and even works of literature – that the reader gets a sense of what it might have been like.
Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast And Slow”
Central to Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” are the two “agents” of mental life, System 1 and System 2, and they are summarised as such: “Most of what you (your System 2) think and do originates in your System 1, but System 2 takes over when things get difficult, and it normally has the last word”. And the book details the consequences of this division of labour, for instance, on how human beings form judgements, perceive different situations, and make decisions. In explaining these biases of intuition or the errors of judgement and choice, across the five parts, Kahneman presents the two-systems, the study of judgement heuristics, the difficulties of statistical thinking, his concept of prospect theory, and a distinction between two selves (experiencing and remembering). Threading these five parts are his use of numerical examples, puzzles or experiments, references to his own research and personal experiences, and mentions of other researchers and their work.
Paul Kalanithi’s “When Breath Becomes Air”
It is hard not to be moved by neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi’s “When Breath Becomes Air” – a memoir detailing his life and his battle against stage IV lung cancer – even harder, I think, not to be prompted to then reflect on our own lives. Especially given that the period between his diagnosis and his death, when he was just 37 years old, only took 22 months, the celerity of both time and sudden developments is emphasised. The quote (which his wife, Lucy Kalanithi, mentions in her epilogue), “You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving”, then brought to mind the speech by American actor Matthew McConaughey about his personal hero, when he won his Oscar award in 2014, and it is in this vein the aspirational essence of the book, in the face of a terminal illness. And death.
Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy: A Story Of Justice And Redemption”
Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy” is a powerful read: It infuriates, it gives hope, it takes it away, it frustrates, and it ultimately inspires. And central to the book – ostensibly a broad critique of mass incarceration and extreme punishment in the county; after all, the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world – is the story of his defence of Walter McMillian, a black man sentenced to death for a murder he insisted he did not commit. As details of his incrimination unfold there is also the expectation of his exoneration (especially if the reader – like I did – is prompted early on to read about McMillian’s case upon the first mention), yet not only is it one of the cases which has a happier ending, it also puts into perspective the agony of his family and his community, who had to go through seven years without the knowledge of certainty.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “The Black Swan: The Impact Of The Highly Improbable”
Central to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable” is a simple thesis: That we should build robustness to large surprise events – these fat tails with large impact – so as to “avoid being the turkey” who is surprised by the butcher at Thanksgiving. Look past Taleb’s acerbic wit and abrasiveness, especially towards academic fields or individuals he disagrees with, and even a novice reader like myself starts to think about uncertainty and randomness in different ways (and in particular too, like me, if you have had some academic training in public policy, statistics, and economics). It is not just that rare events are more frequent not possible to predict (“low predictability”), but also that their complexity and consequences matter too (“high impact”).
Richard H. Thaler And Cass R. Sunstein’s “Nudge”
A powerful read, Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein’s “Nudge” offers a neat convergence between behavioural economics and public policy, and in this regard it is a helpful complement to Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast And Slow” and its focus on behavioural science research. Whereas a criticism of Kahneman’s book was the “so what?” question – the extent to which knowledge of cognitive biases can inform policymaking – the writers here devote large parts of the book to policy questions, big and small, and even to the role of government. Two major claims are made: First, that active engineering of choice architecture is “pervasive and unavoidable”, given that nudges are everywhere; second, that “libertarian paternalism” allows choice architects to “preserve freedom of choice while also nudging people in directions that will improve their lives”.
J. D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy”
As a memoir, J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” is a reflection of his personal experiences growing up in the industrial Midwest, specifically in Kentucky and Ohio – where low-paying, blue-collared jobs have disappeared, where the economy has hollowed out, and where President Donald Trump consolidated his support and won the presidency in 2016 – and his perspectives on the consequences of the American class divide. These hillbillies of Appalachia are marked by distinctive cultural traits, yet they have struggled with poverty, and through his reflection Vance pens a damning critique of these working class whites: “What goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it”.