Monday, January 7, 2008

My 2007 Favorites

1. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson 3-18-2007

Having previously read Neal Stephenson's books Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, I was really looking forward to this one. It came highly recommended by several readers of The Oil Drum, where I am write essays on energy issues. First of all, it's almost an understatement to call this book a tour de force. It was like Tom Clancy on steroids. I didn't know that it wasn't a science fiction book until I was well into the book. It was historical fiction, and it bounced back and forth between WWII and today. It is not for the casual reader. The book has 1,130 pages and took me over a month to finish. But if you are a reader, and you like complex plots and characters - with Stephenson's unique writing style thrown in for good measure - then you will probably enjoy this one.

2. A Beautiful Mind : A Biography of John Forbes Nash, Jr. by Sylvia Nassar 6-16-2007

This is a great book on so many levels. A history of some of the great mathematicians and unsolved problems in mathematics, a story of genius, mental illness, and triumph. Nash's wife Alicia has a tenacity that just boggles the mind. I often felt sorry for the trials she went through with the schizophrenia of her husband, and later son. She is a strong, strong woman. I also found myself thinking of Nash as someone who was an incredible jerk with one of the biggest egos I have ever seen, to wondering whether the mental illness was connected to these personality quirks. Everyone should read this book.

3. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann 1-25-07

This book came highly recommended, and I was not disappointed. What a paradigm-shifter. Mann details the intricate and complex societies that existed in America prior to Colombus' arrival in 1492. There were long-lasting wars with complex dynamics, and cities to rival those of Europe at that time. Mann was also good about contrasting different viewpoints on many topics, such that the reader can weigh the evidence and make up their own mind about which explanation is more likely. This book is a great companion to Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse. It supports Diamond's ideas in some areas, and disagrees in others. But it was nothing if not thought-provoking.

4. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb 10-30-2007

This was a great book, and a real paradigm-shifter. Taleb is a very good writer, and caused me to think about things I hadn't thought about before. When a book does that, I really appreciate it. But my gosh he is full of himself. That was the only thing that put me off a bit. I work with someone like that, and I can't stand to be in the same room with him. Frequently denigrating other people to lift himself above them. Not necessary. Taleb has no need to do that, and it was very distracting.

5. Spin by Robert Charles Wilson 5-5-2007

This was a very nice piece of science fiction. It took two premises that I have spent considerable time thinking about and explored them. The first premise involves fast-forwarding the terraforming of Mars. (This concept is also explored in great depth in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy). The second premise explores the future of the earth when the sun is dying and swells to encompass the earth's orbit. Premise 2a is that this causes "end of the world" panic, which is another premise that fascinates me. The book had interesting and complex characters, and the story was engaging. My only criticism is that it did jump back and forth in time, which didn't work for me in this book. I found it distracting. Every time they jumped forward in time, I wanted to skip past so I could find out how they had come to that point.

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