King Leopold's Ghost
Summary: The dark history of the Belgian Congo.
Review: A bit dry at times, but much less than most books in the genre. Overall a really good, important, and disturbing book.
Summary: A series of essays on the experience of modern aviation.
Langewiesche is at his absolute best when writing about flight (besides being an experienced pilot himself, his father literally wrote the book
on aviation). Just about every essay in this book is riveting. Highly recommended.
Here I Am
Summary: The story of war photographer Tim Hetherington's life covering conflicts in Liberia, Afghanistan, and Libya.
Review: As a very raw examination of the life of a war photographer, this book has a lot to offer, but in terms of telling Hetherington's specific story (he was killed in a mortar attack in Libya in 2011), I don't think Huffman really succeeded. The parts where Huffman tries to stir in deeper meaning and themes often feel awkwardly pasted on to the more vivid retellings of specific events.
The Map of My Dead Pilots
Summary: Notes from the perilous and strange world of Alaskan bush aviation.
Review: This book doesn't have much binding it all together, and the attempt to do so at the end fell flat for me, but it's still a great read. It's basically like spending an evening at a dive bar with a bunch of bush pilots in Alaska, hearing all of their wildest stories. If that sounds interesting to you (and it should), this book is worth a read.
Summary: A hopscotching account of the author's trans-Saharan journey from Algiers down to Bamako.
Review: Langewiesche writes some great, lyrical prose about the soul of the desert and its inhabitants. In terms of real narrative arc, though, there's not much there. Not particularly recommended.
Summary: A detailed analysis of six hypothetical constitutional crises about the American presidency (e.g. Could the president pardon himself? Could a two-term president stay in power through an unusual loophole?).
Review: This book is definitely not for everyone, but if you're interested in American political history or armchair legal scholarship, it's delightful. Even though the scenarios seem outlandish, one of the key takeaways is that bizarre constitutional question marks pop up in the real world all the time, and, much as doctors learn a lot about the body from extreme cases, such issues shed a lot of light on the mechanics and vulnerabilities of the entire constitutional system.
Summary: About zoonoses, infectious diseases that jump from animals to humans.
Review: A crackling book, with a great balance of deep science and narrative pace. Recommended.
My Kind of Place
Summary: A collection of Orlean's articles on travel and interesting places.
Review: Not as high-yield as The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, but still enough to like. The pieces on the taxidermy convention and the grocery store in Queens were my favorites.
The Benefit and The Burden
Summary: About the current US federal tax system, its failings, and possible reforms.
Review: If you don't have any exposure to tax policy, this might be a good place to start, but otherwise it's quite uninteresting and rudimentary.
Summary: A tour of the physical underpinnings of the internet: data centers, undersea cables, network hubs, and the like.
Review: If you're particularly fascinated by the history of the internet or are the kind of person who loves to pore over cross sections of how machines work, you may enjoy this. Otherwise, skip it.
The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup
Summary: A collection of Orlean's magazine profiles, with subjects like an Ashanti king living in the Bronx, designer Bill Blass, a birthday party clown, and a high school basketball superstar.
Review: Lots of great pieces in here, a much higher success rate than most collections. Recommended.
Summary: An absurd comic novel about a wedding weekend gone wrong in Miami.
Review: I enjoyed this book, but it's rarely laugh-out-loud funny without a lot besides humor to recommend it. It's basically a screenplay in disguise (and very derivative of The Hangover), with entirely one-dimensional characters.
Summary: About the hacker subculture and its prominent members in the years leading up the PC era.
Review: This book is divided into three basic sections. The first, about MIT hackers in the 1950's and 1960's, is outstanding. The second, about homebrew hardware culture in the Bay Area in the 1960's and 1970's, is decent but bloated. The third, about game hackers and Sierra On-Line, is mostly worthless. I'd recommend reading the MIT section and then readily giving up on the book after that.
Summary: On the current causes and possible solutions to the dysfunction of American healthcare.
Review: As with other takes on something as complex as healthcare, this is kind of a mixed bag. Goldhill does better than most at identifying some of the core fallacies that drive a lot of problems in the US system, but he also suffers from plenty of blind spots and unproven assumptions. He writes with a great deal of preemptive apology, hemming and hawing in certain spots, and also doesn't ever really take the crucial question of values head-on. Worth reading if you're interested in the topic, but read with a skeptic's eye.
What In God's Name
Summary: A comic novel about heaven as a corporation, with angels as middle managers and God as the layabout CEO.
Review: A very light and silly book that doesn't pretend to be anything more. Some of the jokes fall flat but overall it was a fun read.
The Mansion of Happiness
Summary: A history of American notions about different stages of life from birth to death.
Review: Given the topic and the author's pedigree, I expected a lot from this book, but it was a big let-down. Some individual paragraphs and pages were interesting, but any grander insights and threads that were supposed to connect it together were totally lost on me.
The Half-Life of Facts
Summary: About the mechanisms by which human knowledge grows, evolves, and replaces itself.
Review: Fascinating topic with a decent treatment by the author. Long-held truths constantly turn out not be true at all, and Arbesman dives into how we discover and reconcile that, as a society and individually. Some of the more methodological sections seem to be very speculative, but overall it's a concise and thought-provoking book.
Summary: Strayed's memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in the wake of personal turmoil and self-destruction.
Review: I wish I'd enjoyed this book less than I did, because Strayed is not exactly a sympathetic figure. Lots of her problems are entirely self-created, and although she's mostly honest about that, she sometimes has a way of writing herself the victim when it doesn't suit. Still, I can't deny that it made for a good read. The writing was good enough that even when I didn't particularly care what happened to her, I was still compelled to read on.
Summary: A year in the life of a high school football team in a poor Florida town with a long track record of producing NFL players.
Review: Fair comparison or not, this book will inevitably get judged against Friday Night Lights, and although it's not bad, it's definitely no Friday Night Lights. It feels like it's lacking some connective tissue and that Mealer doesn't get as deep into the lives of locals as the story requires.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette?
Summary: A screwball novel about an eccentric mother, her gifted daughter, and Seattle high society.
Review: Great fun. Semple provides a great send-up of helicopter parenting, blue state urban elites, and the dot-com culture. Recommended.
The Signal and the Noise
Summary: All about the science of forecasting and probabilistic reasoning.
Review: Silver lives up to his now-stratospheric reputation. This makes a lot of other books in the same neighborhood (e.g. The Drunkard's Walk) look terrible by comparison. Silver does a great job of balancing readable prose, intriguing examples, and genuine analytical rigor, pulling off the rare feat of accessibility without facileness. Highly recommended.
Summary: A series of interviews with Londoners of all shapes and sizes.
Review: Like any book consisting of several dozen short, unconnected interviews, this one's a little hit-or-miss. I liked it for the most part, but it probably won't appeal to anyone who doesn't have any connection to the city.
The Matchbox That Ate A Forty-Ton Truck
Summary: An attempt to explain some of the deepest insights of particle physics and cosmology through everyday phenomena.
Review: As an explainer, this book mostly failed for me. All it really did was reinforce how profoundly strange and mindbending a lot of the scientific insights of the 20th century are. I'm starting to accept that I'll never REALLY understand the double-slit experiment.
The Patient From Hell
Summary: A Stanford professor describes navigating his fight with cancer and the complexity of modern oncology with the characteristic rigor of an academic.
Review: Some bits of this book are interesting, but realistically it's only worth reading if you or someone close to you is actually going through the same thing.
Summary: Arnold's autobiography.
Review: Arnold's never going to win any awards for his prose, but it's hard to deny that he has an absolutely fascinating life story. The story of his childhood, his bodybuilding career, and especially his early career in Hollywood, makes for a great read in spite of the clunky writing. Once he gets to the point of superstardom in the 1990's, though, it all gets a lot less interesting and a lot less personal in a hurry.