ten books i can in good conscience recommend to almost every single one of you (+ some i can't)

[out of all the ones I read in 2015, the full list of which you can find here.]

10. A MADMAN DREAMS OF TURING MACHINES (Janna Levin) if you like the idea of logic more than you like logic itself.
A brilliant little book that's highly speculative in its detailing of the lives and loves and genius and internal suffering of Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing: but Levin doesn't seek to depict these men with total accuracy (this is a work of fiction, after all) so much as she wants to make us feel the beauty and revolutionary nature of their ideas, contrasted with the ultimately tragic lives they led -- wracked as both were with loneliness, illness and the myriad punishments of nonconformity. Their ideas intersect as their lives parallel each other (resulting in a few genius storytelling moments) and (bonus!) the book's held together by the ever-present Wittgenstein. (I maintain that he's haunting me.)

#9 through #1 + extras, under the cut.

9. SHARP OBJECTS (Gillian Flynn) if you have a strong stomach.
Everyone and everything in this book is cruel and terrible, which, of course, is nothing new if you've read Gillian Flynn's other work. It was my first Flynn, though, and also the only Flynn I absolutely couldn't put down -- the only one in which I actually took a liking to the narrator (a misplaced liking, as I found, but a liking nonetheless), and the only one to really build a whole town full of, well, scum and villainy. It's also the ickiest of the three, and you'll feel like drinking lots of water and scrubbing yourself clean afterwards, but what's new?

8. THE FORGE OF GOD (Greg Bear) after you read this Wikipedia article.
This is the only pre-apocalyptic novel I've ever read, and it's an enjoyable one -- though if you asked me to summarize the plot, I'd only be able to explain about a third of it. (Towards the middle of the book, Bear gets into some hairy science that sounds right, but certainly isn't accessible to the average reader.) It offers a solution to the Fermi Paradox -- but it's one that, if I detailed it to you, would spoil the entire book! Suffice to say that The Forge of God begins with the disappearance of Europa, which humans are powerless to explain, and you'll only feel smaller as the book goes on.

7. BUDDENBROOKS (Thomas Mann) if you are a star war, or if you just enjoy multigenerational family dramas, which (NEWSFLASH) you likely do if you are a star war.
My love for this book has been discussed at length previously. Be sure to read the newer translation; the older one will make you want to hit yourself. (The power translators wield over our enjoyment of a story is tyrannical.) "The Decline Of A Family" is the book's subtitle -- spoiling the ending before you even start, but what's interesting is how the prosperous, happy Buddenbrooks decline in a rapidly industrializing world. Mann's got jokes (many at the expense of our wonderful "silly goose" of a decoy protagonist) and romance (à la Pride & Prejudice) and microcosmic German history and even brief, confusing forays into meditation on the nature of The Self, but all you'll take away is that Nothing Lasts Forever.

6. FLIGHT BEHAVIOR (Barbara Kingsolver) if you like butterflies?
Things that warmed over the course of this book: 1) the globe, 2) my heart. I enjoyed this more than I enjoyed The Poisonwood Bible; sure, BK kind of hits you over the head with The Moral Of The Story in both books, but that's not such a bad thing in a book this sunny and sincere. It's about butterflies, for goodness' sake. (Butterflies, but also one woman who just wants to take flight and have an adventure, and how a chain of serendipitous events brings the world's attention and worldly scientists -- the main one of whom is called Ovid Byron, if you can believe it -- to the residents of a backwater town in Tennessee, who in turn are able to enlighten our heroine: she doesn't always have to run. Excellent scenes take place at church as often as they do in the woods with the butterflies. BK isn't trying to put anyone down; she wants everyone to get along, which is rare in literature as concerned with climate change as Flight Behavior is.)

5. MEDIÆVAL FEUDALISM (Carl Stephenson) if you think you know more than you actually do about the titular subject.
This is a pocket-sized textbook, which apparently was the norm when it was published. You can finish it in a few hours (it's written in such clear language), and you can learn so much -- most importantly, Stephenson's description of the near-untranslatable sois preux. (Preux is what it means to be a knight... and also what it means to be a Gryffindor, guys.)

4. ALL CREATURES GREAT & SMALL (James Herriot) if you need a hug.
This is the fuzziest book I have ever read -- quite literally, as it's about a vet (James) and several of the first cases he takes on. But it's also about James, the person, and the owners of those cases, who range from sweet (always giving James more food than they can afford to) to scary (not caring if their oh-so-precious cow kills him). James's forgetful & hypocritical (but genial!) boss, Siegfried, is a gift. Siegfried's prodigal-son of a brother (Tristan) is also a gift. It's bloody stuff, considering how many animals get cut open, but even if you normally can't stand to even think about such gore (like me), you will find this book reassuring. I recommend reading it as a palate cleanser after a Gillian Flynn novel.

3. THE REDBREAST (Jo Nesbø) if you don't plan on visiting Oslo in the near future.
You should read Jo Nesbø's Harry Hole series, and you should begin with this book, in which Harry tackles a mystery that takes him all the way back to (Norway's role in) WWII. (Flashbacks to the period are frequent.) Nesbø does a marvelous job of getting you to care about characters you've only known for a couple of pages -- Harry Hole, the detective, is a trainwreck yet an absolute star; his colleagues are more put-together, often less competent, but just as compelling -- and the characters aren't even the point of these books! The Redbreast is incredibly well-plotted and always surprising; sure, everything becomes a bit of a baffling mess in the end, but the ride is totally worth it.

2. SOLARIS (Stanislaw Lem) if you're sick of TV aliens, as you should be.
Half the time we encounter fictional aliens, they speak English; if they don't speak English, they're often rather humanoid (one/two heads, a face, a body, four limbs); if none of that's true, they're at least managing to communicate with us in a way we understand. They are not, in short, all that alien. The Fermi paradox article on Wikipedia (linked to earlier!) lists "the aliens are simply too alien" as one of the existing solutions to the paradox (the paradox being: where is everybody?). Solaris explores what happens when the alien is indeed too alien -- what happens when we've been trying to make contact with said alien for centuries (perseverance; it's what we do) and getting nowhere -- what happens when it's the alien who gets somewhere, and that somewhere is into our heads. Paranoia ensues, and lines blur everywhere: between religion and science, between extraterrestrials and gods.
Disclaimer: I do not promise scintillating prose. It's science fiction; that's not Lem's main concern. I do, however, promise existential questions.

1. THE GOLDFINCH (Donna Tartt) if you're growing up.
The Goldfinch was the first truly unputdownable book I read this year. That said, it would have been a much better book if someone had just cut out about 100 pages of Theodore Decker's drug-induced navel-gazing towards the end. I'm not sure I would have loved it as much, though. As it is, this book is big and sprawling and ambitious and decadent and totally serious -- words I've used to describe Interstellar, ha! It's a big ol' escapist bildungsroman for the set that hasn't quite forgotten another precocious little black-haired orphan in glasses and his bigger ol' escapist bildungsroman. (Tartt is well aware of this resemblance, and perhaps it was completely intentional; Theo's best friend calls him "Potter.") It manages to address everything under the sun: the power of art, of beautiful things, of beautiful people; the big things in life & the small things in life & a boy who (thanks to circumstances beyond his control) experiences them all out of order. The world is simple enough, serving only as a background for a) the absurd kind-of plot and b) the wacky cast of characters, each with their own perfectly idiosyncratic way of speaking. (Boris, especially. You'll love Boris!) You'll spend 800 pages in Theo's slowly-maturing, ever-more-lost brain, you'll meet everyone in his life, and you may not like all of those pages or all of those people (I certainly didn't), but you won't be able to put the book down. Fast forward a few months, and Theo will still be in your head, ruining your life, haunting you.


HONORABLE MENTIONS, meaning not that I don't love them as much -- indeed, I love many of these more than the aforementioned ten -- but that, depending on your interests, you may not love them as much. Of course, that goes for all books, but you're free to yell at me if you hate any of those ten. I welcome the opportunity to fight you. No such guarantees here: the first half of Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (Peter Høeg) / The Broom of the System (David Foster Wallace) / Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (Philip K. Dick) / The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco) / Dune + Dune Messiah (Frank Herbert) / Stranger in a Strange Land (Robert A. Heinlein)

NONFICTION: The Language Instinct (Steven Pinker), The Art of Language Invention (David Peterson). My interests, I assure you, are slightly less narrow than they appear. (Slightly.)

AVOID: Sputnik Sweetheart (Haruki Murakami) -- FAKE DEEP. Dark Places (Gillian Flynn) -- the book that made me need All Creatures Great & Small. Cockroaches (Jo Nesbø) -- will turn you off Harry Hole novels for six months, as it did me. Possibly The Hours (Michael Cunningham) if you a) hate or b) truly, madly, deeply love Mrs. Dalloway.

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