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Top 10 favorite books I read this year (and last year)

For the past 6 years I’ve made a list of my top 10 non-work-related books I read that year. I swear I did this last year too and somehow can’t find where I put it, so I’m now making a master list I can track over time.

By now most of the stuff I read is academic so I haven’t been able to read for pleasure as much as I would like. I combined reading for the last two years so this is really a 2019–20 list.

10. How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems by Randall Munroe

This book is the inverse of one of Munroe’s previous books, What If. There, he provided serious answers to preposterous questions; here, he provides preposterous answers to serious questions. As usual, the book is quietly hilarious; the trick of combining outrageously understated prose with ludicrous situations works well. Yet what I enjoy most, and the key to the entire project, is Munroe’s enthusiasm for his material. He loves developing a model, demonstrating that it at least sort of works, and then applying it to whatever craziness the current focus is.

9. Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East by Stephen G. Fritz

It’s become a cliché to say that the role of the USSR during World War Two is undervalued in the West, but sometimes clichés exist because they are true. More Soviet troops (probably) died at Rzhev than US forces in the entire war, and odds are you’ve never even heard of that battle! Common misconceptions of the war are partly due to the start of the Cold War shortly after World War Two. This not only dampened interest in highlighted Soviet contributions to the allied victory, but also meant that many Soviet documents were not available to western historians.

In this information vacuum, former German Army (Wehrmacht) officers began to construct their own version of history; one where Hitler was a solitary madman who preyed upon those who lacked the spine to stand up to him while the Wehrmacht, outside of fanatical Nazi units like the SS, conducted a relatively “clean” war. Fritz demolishes these narratives, showing how often it was the military acting on their own initiative to commit atrocities, without any orders from Hitler.

The book’s coverage of aristocratic military leadership that tries to dodge culpability for war crimes by blaming a few bad apples may seem like it has some parallels to actions by United States statesmen like Kissinger or Rumsfeld. Yet the indictment goes deeper than that. Fritz also illustrates how inspired the Nazi’s were by the treatment of Native Americans in the United States, initially planning a series of reservations to house Jews; a policy that transitioned steadily into one of extermination.

8. The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

What can I say, I like stories set in desolate polar landscapes. And few landscapes are more desolate than 17th-century Vardø, an island off the northern coast of Norway. I love the sense of place in the book, the struggle to adapt when a sudden storm wipes out almost all of the men in the town. The book is very predictable but it’s historical fiction so the real-life events are rather unsurprising. The book eschews suspense for quiet dread as the small community of women enjoy newfound independence but have to confront a society that wants them to return to their former domestic ways.

7. Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight by Timothy Pachirat

This is blurring the lines a bit, as I read part of this for a class, but it’s not related to my research interests and I read the entire book because it seemed interesting not because I was planning on incorporating it into any project.

Tim Pachirat works undercover at a meatpacking plant to understand how workers there cope with the daily slaughter. As interesting as the account is, the ethics are perhaps even more intriguing. Pachirat has a PhD but poses as a poor immigrant. His language skills and other advantages mean he is able to retain a job he doesn’t need while friends he makes on the line are fired, a catastrophe for their family. Later in the book Pachirat receives a promotion to doing quality assurance at the plant. His real job is a campaign of deception: the meat coming out of the plant has feces in it, and the role of the QA team is to ensure that federal regulators don’t find out that the meat is unsafe. A USDA representative approaches him, asking that he serve as a whistleblower, imploring him to think about the safety of children who eat the tainted meat. Remarkably, Pachirat admits that he’s actually an academic and can’t reveal the confidentiality of the plant. This decision to write a scholarly book instead of a newspaper exposé undoubtedly put lives at risk from tainted food. I worry about balancing work that is valued by academics against work that actually has an impact, and this book does not assuage those concerns.

6. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

Terrific account of mass incarceration in America and injustice within the American legal system. For me, the most interesting part was the legal history of how to determine if a policy was racist. Justices have consistently demanded that proof of racist intent, rather than just proof of harm, is required for a law to be invalidated. This is a ridiculous standard for two reasons: First, plenty of laws can have benign intent but be totally unjust in practice. Second, intent is incredibly hard to prove, and historically has placed such a high burden of proof that even the most flagrant laws have been upheld (for example City of Memphis v. Greene). As a quantitative political scientist I try to get close to truth by analysis of patterns and demonstrating that these patterns are non-random; that seems much easier than getting policy architects on the record talking about how malicious their laws are. Yet even now Courts frequently reject qualitative arguments out of hand; in the 2017 case Gill v. Whitford John Roberts dismissed evidence of partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin as “sociological gobbledygook”. The same dismissive attitude was apparent in the appalling Shelby County v. Holder decision gutting the Voting Rights Act, with all too predictable results.

5. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat

Wow yes I have a cookbook in my top five books I’ve read in the past two years(!) But this book deserves it. Samin Nosrat has produced a cookbook that is a guide on how to cook, not just a collection of instructions. In fact, the first recipe doesn’t even appear until nearly halfway through the book! Instead, there are brilliant exercises on how to combine flavors. These omit specific directions in favor of explanations on how to understand what you are doing and why. I hope this is a model for cookbooks going forward, and while I’m still a mediocre-at-best cook this book has probably helped more than all other cookbooks I’ve read combined.

4. Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

Allie Brosh is clearly one of the funniest people on the planet and if you have not read Hyperbole and a Half you really, really should. Brosh’s first book was essentially her blog in book form. Here, the collection of stories was meant to be a book from the start. Brosh is hilarious as ever of course, but she is also one of the best authors at veering from comedy to tragedy and making the transition simultaneously work effectively while still being jarring. This book gets very, very heavy in between the jokes. The humor doesn’t distract from the serious topics but elevates them; it’s a book not about overcoming challenges but about living despite them. Brosh has struggled through multiple tragedies in the past few years, and the book is not her getting over that grief but still smiling in spite of it.

3. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

As I mentioned before I like books set in desolate landscapes, and this book’s setting is incredible. Fourteenth-century northern Russia is really the most interesting character in the book, and the omnipresent cold is apparent everywhere: From the tiny ice-filled windows to preserve heat to the terror of an unusually cold winter. I also love how the main character doesn’t really know what she’s doing. Soft magic systems work best for me when a character is flailing around; Vasya realizes she’s the only hope to save her family, and has to desperately scrounge for magic as she goes. I liked the later books much less; once Vasya becomes competent she’s off to Moscow to battle a sorcerer or whatever, and too much of the series became generic fantasy that has been done much better elsewhere. But this initial book captures mystery and wonder and terror of nature brilliantly.

2. The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole by Roland Huntford

I loved this book from the 1970s on Antarctic exploration for three reasons. First, I love stories of the Antarctic and polar exploration. Second, the race for the pole between Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott is a naturally thrilling tale. Third, Huntford writes with such vitriolic disdain for Scott that it is incredibly entertaining and also somewhat baffling. Scott died before Huntford was born so I don’t know where this beef is coming from but I have never read a work of non-fiction where the author so obviously loathed one of the central characters. Huntford will break away from sober-minded discussions of Antarctic logistics to describe the affair Scott’s wife is having (which btw apparently didn’t actually happen) and endorse her behavior because of how unfulfilling Scott must be as a husband. It’s wild, like you’re reading a serious historical account mixed with a diss track. Regardless the book is enjoyable, fascinating, and did convince me that Scott was a massive idiot.

1. Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

I read The Way of Kings this year too and it didn’t make the list. That book felt like 800+ pages of setup followed by a frenetic series of reveals. Remarkably, in the sequel all of that setup actually pays off. Established characters living their separate stories finally meet and collide in wonderfully entertaining ways. You start getting hints to mysteries set up a thousand pages earlier. The book also benefits from a focus on Shallan rather than Kaladin. Kaladin is an interesting character but also a gloomy one with a tragic past. Shallan’s tragic past is mysterious, and her coping mechanisms make her far more fun to follow.

Fantasy series frequently have a mixture of journeys and destinations. Some series are more exciting during the journeys, like Lord of the Rings. Others, like Game of Thrones are excited when lots of characters are in one place but less interesting when characters are moving about. I now think Stormlight Archive is clearly the latter; having almost everyone we care about housed in the Alethi warcamps on the Shattered Plains made for terrific interactions. I’m excited to start Oathbringer and dreading the extremely obvious love triangle that has been set up. I just hope it’s a brief one.

Past Top Lists

2018

10. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

9. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

8. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

7. Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee

6. What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe

5. Worm by Wildbow (John C. McCrae)

4. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

3. My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki

2. The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

  1. Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

2017

10. The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King by Rich Cohen

9. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi

8. The Magicians Land by Lev Grossman

7. American Gods by Neil Gaiman

6. A Random Walk Down Wall Street by Burton G. Malkiel

5. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

4. Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim

3. Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government by Christopher H. Achen and Larry Bartels

2. A History of the World in 12 Maps by Jerry Brotton

  1. The Magicians by Lev Grossman

2016

10. Uprooted by Naomi Novik

9. 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works by Dan Harris

8. A Hologram for the King by David Eggers

7. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

6. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

5. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

4. Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez

3. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

2. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

  1. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

2015

10. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee

9. On the Road by Jack Kerouac

8. The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss by Edmund de Waal

7. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

6. Hild by Nicola Griffith

5. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki

4. Kingkiller books 1+2 by Patrick Rothfuss

3. In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides

2. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

  1. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

2014

5. Bring Up the Bodies by Hillary Mantel

4. The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

3. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — But Some Don’t by Nate Silver

2. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

  1. How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities by John Cassidy

2013

5. Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version by Phillip Pullman

4. The Trial by Franz Kafka

3. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

2. The Metamorphoses by Ovid

  1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

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