Holiday reading recommendations, Chinese New Year edition

I’ve been thinking over things I have read and things I want to read, as I’m about to head off for a long break over the Chinese New Year. Here’s some of the better books I have read since my last list in December 2014:

  • The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber. Indeed a very strange novel. It would have to be categorized under “science fiction,” since it’s about a missionary going to an alien planet, but it avoids almost all the standard tricks, tropes and strategies of genre sci-fi. I found it consistently interesting since the story keeps not doing what you expect. This is not exactly the same thing as liking the book. Worth reading although ultimately a mixed bag.
  • How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, by Russ Roberts. Highly praised by Tyler Cowen, this is indeed an excellent book, written in a very clear style and with a charming personal voice. It does not quite make up for not taking that course on Adam Smith back in college (I did Max Weber instead, hard call) but I learned a lot from it.
  • The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan. I have long had a morbid fascination with books about prisons (including prisoners-of-war), so when this won the Booker last year I knew I had to read it. The core of the book are the scenes in the Japanese internment camp, which are just unbelievably wrenching. I could not stop reading, but I cannot say I enjoyed it; if you are not in the mood for staring death and meaninglessness in the face you will find it hard going. The writing is generally fantastic, but the book as a whole does not quite achieve greatness in my view; the attempt to write some scenes from the Japanese officers’ point of view was admirable, but these did not work as well for me.
  • The Pioneer Detectives, by Konstantin Kakaes. One of the best up-close-and-personal accounts I have read of how the work of science actually happens. I particularly liked it because the focus is not some epoch-making discovery, but on the slow grind of gathering data and falsifying hypotheses (an underrated part of the scientific process). It’s a shortish ebook rather than a full-length nonfiction chronicle.
  • Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer (aka the Southern Reach Trilogy). Stunning and truly unique works of imagination. I read these in quick succession these over a period when I was having a lot of insomnia, which I think only accentuated the hallucinatory feel that pervades the books (and possibly meant that I was getting close to the author’s state of mind while he was writing them, according to this fascinating account). The close and personal attention to the landscape, which is unnamed but clearly the coast of the Florida panhandle, also resonated with me, since I have spent time there.
  • The Martian, by Andy Weir and The Just City, by Jo Walton. More normal and more fun sci-fi than the two more unsettling works listed above. I am probably one of the last people to catch on to the phenomenon of The Martian, so I have little to add to what you could read elsewhere; great problem-solving fun. I loved Jo Walton’s Among Others for its charming voice; her latest is a bit overly similar (female first-person narrator + kids at boarding school) and probably not quite as good for that reason, but still enjoyable, and with lots of Socratic dialogue as a bonus.

It tempts fate a bit too much to promise publicly that I’m going to read any particular book over vacation, but one thing in my pile is James Millward’s Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang, which was highly recommended by a friend.

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