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Here are some of the books I've read (I have since long stopped updating this page and have removed all the links)
I've stopped writing detailed reviews here, there are professionals out there who do a much better job at this. I've just listed some of the more memorable books in more or less chronological order
Why the West Rules the World - For Now (Ian Morris)
The Elephant's Journey (Jose Saramago)
Fragment (Warren Fahy)
The City and City (China Mieville)
Fred Hoyle's Universe (Jane Gregory)
Zima Blue (Alistair Reynolds)
My Name is Red (Orhan Pamuk)
1421 (Ganin Menzie)
Pirate Latitudes, Prey, Next (Michael Crichton)
The Brooklyn Follies (Paul Auster)
Invisible, Travels in the Sciptorium (Paul Auster)
Payback (Margaret Atwood)
Amberville (Tim Davys)
The Great wall (Jon Man)
Voices (Ursula Le Guin)
Seeing Further (Bill Bryson)
Salt, Cod (Mark Kurlansky)
The Road to Reality (Roger Penrose)
Empire of the Stars (Arthur I. Miller)
The Eyre Affair (Jasper Fforde)
The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass (Philip Pullman)
The Swarm (Franz Schätzing)
Kafka on the Shore, The Wind-up Bord Chronicle, The Elephant Vanishes (Haruki Murakami)
The City and City (China Miéville)
Revelation Space (Alistair Reynolds)
Kraken (China Miéville)
False Economy (Alan Beattie)
The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Iain Mcgilchrist)
Freakonomics (S.D. Leavitt and S.J. Dubner)
DNA (James Watson)
Blotta Tanken (Peter Gärdenfors)
Akvedukten vid Zaghoun, Shumalmits väg, På Spaning efter folkviljan (Per Molander)
Tecken att Tänka med (Pehr Sällström)
The Making of the Atom Bomb (Richard Rhodes)
Anathem by Neal Stephenson. This book by
Stephenson takes place on a world called Arbre very similar to ours. The leading character Erasmus
is a Fraa, a sort of monk in a cloister where studies in natural science, mathematics and rational
and critical thought are encouraged and religion and superstition are not. The world is
separated into a an external "Saecular" (quasi religious) world and the "maths".
Erasmus is a "tenner", which means that every tenth year, he and his fellow Fraas in their math are
allowed in the external world, with a choice to
remain on the outside or continue to be a student of the maths. Suddenly one day, the local observatory is closed
and all astronomical observations are kept secret. Erasmus' mentor Fraa Orolo with deep insights into astronomy is
recruited ("vocated") by the Saecular world, and a fantastic story unfolds that forever changes the lives
of people on the planet Arbre.
Stephenson has invented parallell terms for the multitude of ideas that is being played with in the book, and it may be toughh reading the first 50 pages but a dictionary helps and soon most of the terms become familiar. My personal favourite Arbrian word is "bulshytt", the almost one-to-one equivalent to our existing corporate and management bullshit that keeps infesting languages in our industrialized world. I also liked his use of French in the book: Arbre = Tree, Laterre = Earth, etc, no doubt there to convey the idea that not all Earthlings are from New York. You will find references to General Relativity, Gödel, Plato and Everett's multi-world interpretation of Quantum mechanics, to mention a few. I for one thoroughly enjoyed the playfullness with which Stephenson toys with ideas in philosophy and science and gives them slightly new twists. If you liked Pynchon's Against the Day , you will find the same great lucidity, humour and above all, a passion for ideas and creativity in Anathem. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and only wish I had lasted longer. My only reservation is that the "maths" seem to take very limited use of computers ("syndevs"), which is not very realistic when (for example) performing complex orbit calculations or studying perturbation theory. As a former Ph.D. student I would relish the thought of a university ("math") where curiosity for its own sake would be reason enough to fulfill academic studies, as opposed to today's very crass view of knowledge as a commodity.
The Terror bym Dan Simmons. I for one am a sucker for good adventure story, I thoroughly enjoyed mBjörn Larsson's Long John Silver and a few month's ago I came across Dan Simmons book on a best seller shelf in my favourite book shop in Stockholm. I normally trust the taste of the employees of this shop, and besides who wouldn't fall for a title like the "The Terror". And after having finsished the book today, I put it down with remorse blaming my self for reading it too fast. Set in the Canadian archipelago in 1840:ies, the background story is the British explorer John Franklin's endeavour to find the North West passage. Franklin had hitherto not been an overly sucessful captain and was know as the man who ate his own shoes. Little is actually known what actually happened to the expedition (The ship Terror was found 2020) and here is where Simmons weaves a great story using historical facts and fascinating (but fake as far as I have understood) Inuit mythology. Simmons manages to tell a tight story of the incredible hardships of the crew of the vessel "The Terror", including (and historically accurate) the badly sealed canned food tin cans - that the admirality had purchased - that most likely slowly lead poisoned the whole crew. Add to that the terrible climate, a lurking terror of all teeth and claws on the ice, and a mysterious Inuit mute woman and you are nailed to the book until your eyes go sore. A highly recommened nailbiter, I ruined the nail of my left thumb in the process of reading it... (in all honesty that probably says more about me than the book).
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Yet another book by Dawkins, but I give no apologies here; this is recommended reading for anyone interested in a critical view of faith and religion. At high school we were a bunch of 4-5 youngsters who sometimes (strangely enough, without the influence of alcohol) talked about things like the origin of life etc, and sometimes we also touched in religion. I remember especially our notion of a "hook" upon which both basic concepts of science and religions hinges, and I was deligted to find the same metaphores in this book, but with a different twist. Dawkins' "Skyhook" is something supernational (like "God") whereas a "crane" is something with actually explains something. Even though I am an ardent atheist - with a very short agnostic period in the early teens - this book book is still a gem when it comes to dissecting the very concept of religion and why it exists. I firmly believe that Dawkins is on the right track when he says that it is most likely a by-product of a mechanism in the brain that has survived over the millenia. It might be related to the Placebo effect, and maybe also to the concept of altruism among small social populations; it is obvious there is a lot of room for research here. As expected by Dawkins, it is also a book of humour littered with quotes from the literature and films (From Victor Hugo to "Life of Brian") and it is obvious this is a book of passion. No direct assault is directed towards specific religious beliefs or texts, but given todays extreme views in both the United States and in the muslem world, both fundamentalsist Christians and Islamists are direct targets here.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. The Raven King wrote: "Two magicians shall appear in England. The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me; the first shall be governed by thieves and murderers; the second shall conspire at his own destruction".
At the turn of 17:th century England is ruled by the mad king George the III:rd, Europe is being ravaged by Napoleon, the age of reason and science is blooming and what little magic is left is in the hand of "theoretical magicians", who are themselves unable to perform real magic. Out of nowhere (=Yorkshire) a dry little man performs what is believed the first real magic since the days of the . This causes a sensation and the dry little man - Mr Norrell - is persuaded to move to London to gain wealth and earn a reputation. Soon he is forced to perform a piece of black magic to save the life of the wife of his benefactor, and shortly after that a 2:nd magician comes onto the scene - Jonathan Strange - soon to become Mr. Norrells apprentice.
It's impossible to describe the story of this 1000 page long Novel; the best I can do is to compare it to Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Mervyn Peake. The geographic setting is England, Spain and Venice, from London to rainy dark northern England, sunny Spain, foggy Waterloo and mysterious roads (or portals) leading into Faery, the land of magic. It's simply a unique and wonderful novel that should be digested in front of an open fire a rainy weekend. I enjoyed it immensely and as much as I also enjoyed Harry Potter this novel has much more depth and learning. Some reviewers have compared it to Eco "Focault's Pendelum", and I agree. Recommended to everyone who - like me - believes the world could do better with more magic in it! Winner of the Hugo award 2005. Strangely enough I finished reading the book as the film The Prestige opened at my local cinema. This film, based on the book by Christopher Priest, is also about 2 magicians and is highly recommended for the plot and its fun combination of "real" magic and illusions.
"The Ancestor's Tale" by Richard Dawkins. There is a notion among readers of Science Fiction books called "sense of wonder", meaning that you as a reader find yourself awed by an idea or a scenario in a book. I got the same feeling reading The Ancestor Tale, which is not SF but belong to one the best and passionate popular science books I have read. I'm a physicist by training and (sadly with age) often succumb to "the bottom" line approach to reading, often impatiently leafing through pages waiting for the punch line. No so while reading this book: I found myself enchanted by Dawkins' marvellous ability to explain the most complicated problems and technicalites ranging from a chapter of cladograms to Manfred Eigen's hypercycle theory of macrocellular evolution as a theory - one of many - of the origins of life. Written in the style of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales", Dawkins traces back the evolutionary tree starting (arbitrarily) from humans and ending up with Eukaryots in a series of 39 "rendezvous points". One reason for going backwards is to stress the point that evolution has no goals towards "higher" organimsm (aka humans), with obvious address to creationists. A second reason for the backward tracing of our ancestors - which he has coined "concestor", closest ancestor - is to stress that we do not evolve from Chimpanzees but from a "concestor" that gave rise to both chimps and humans. There is a wonderful chapter of the "tyranny of the discontinuous mind", in which he describs contenders of Darwinism that often insist upon an event in history when two "chimps" must have given birth to Homo Sapiens. This is a typical "lawyer's" argument which might be used in a court of law to fool a jury of uneducated laymen. Evolution simply doesn't work that way, which time and again followers of the idea of "intelligent design" fail to understand. With new tools at hand like molecular clocks taxonomists and biolgists can trace back the origins of the evolutionary tree to unprecedented detail, which would be impossible using just fossil records and morphology.
Another fascinating fact that is common to both whales and microbes is "Kleiber's law": metabolism and mass are related (logarithmically) in a scaling law with a power of 3/4. Until recently this was regarded as a mystery, until a paper by Enquist et al. showed that it was a consequence of fractcal scaling of vessels of all animals. The argument has been generalized to a scaling law where the assumption is that lifeforms (plants and animals) makes use of self similar fractal networks of vessels (vascular or blood) with a given invariant length scale.
I for one appreciated his personal style, ranging from views of scientsists with opposing views, to outspoken opinions of present political leaders and worrying trends in developing technology devoted to the efficient killing of people.
The book is recommended to anyone who is interested in evolution and orgins of life. It may not be his best work in style, but there is massive amounts of information and thoroughly enjoyed every page.
"The Pillars of the Earth" by Ken Follet. Unlike his previous books of action and intrigue, this is an historical novel which neatly sums up Follet's fascination for the era of the great cathedral builders. It focuses on the fictious little monastery of Knightsbridge somewhere in medieval England - close to Marlborough, just south of Swindon - in the 12:th century. An ambitious monk takes over the mismanaged priory and together with a stone mason and his son transforms the little village into a thriving new town, while the surrounding county is being ravished by a vicious Earl under a succession of weak kings during the period of English history called the Anarchy. By no means this novel is lacking in suspense; the opening chapter begins with a hanging and a curse and after more than 1000 pages ends with a new king and a long expected second hanging. We have then witnessed all the hardships of the priory in trying to survive a ruthless bishop, a blood-thirsty knight/Earl who knows nothing except the life as a soldier, and the fate of the clever daughter of the former Earl who is depraved of her comfortable life and has to support her brother's ambition to take revenge on their father's death, and the second generation stone mason who after having seen the new elegant cathedral in St. Denis in France, comes back to England to erect a magnificent gothic cathedral using the latest state of the art technology. This is a page-turner which deprived me of many nights of good sleep and made tedious train journeys a pure joy, and is simply historial ficton at its best.
"Gulag: A History" by Anne Applebaum. When I was a teenager I often leafed through the collection books in my parent's library. At one time I found a little thin book called "A day in the life of Ivan Denisovitj" by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I read it in a few days and I remember being moved by the atmosphere of hopelessness and despair in the russian work camp. After having read Anne Applebaum's Pulitzer prize winning book "Gulag" I get the same feeling of being deeply moved, now mixed with great anger. Unlike the books by former prisoners and victims of Stalin's and NKVD's terror, this book is the first attempt of an outside historian/journalist to write the history of Gulag. Gulag is an acronym for "Glavoji upravlenije lagerej" or "The Main Directorate for Corrective Labour Camps" and was under the control by the secret police ( the Cheka, subsequently NKVD) during the terror of Stalin. The main difference between the Nazi concentration camps and Gulag was that Stalin's purpose was not to exterminate a certain group of people but to force them to comply to the system. Since the Bolsjevik rule was notoriously inefficient in providing for its people, Gulag quickly became a system for slave labour and was an integral (however inefficient) part of the communist economy. Unlike Nazi regime however, book-keeping and statistics was notoriuosly ill-kept and it was in the interest of everybody to exagerate and lie about production, the number of prisoners, their health and the death toll. Therefore nobody really knows how many people died and suffered in the camps. Up to now the best estimate is that around 28 million people passed through the system, and at least 2-3 million people died in the camps. This is to be added to the massive numbers that were killed in the second world war and as a result of starvation and terror imposed on the Russian people by the Bolsjeviks.
The book is divided into three parts, the origin of Gulag, life and labour in the camps, and the rise and fall of the labour camp system. The middle part is filled with the testimonies by survivors and is truly heartbreaking. To me the most shocking aspect is the total lack of compassion and empathy shown by people in the system, not just by the people in high places responsible but also by the soldiers and guards in the camps. Applebaum has written a compassionate book based on extensive research and interviews and should be read by anyone with an interest in Russian history. The final chapter is a plea: Unless the atrocities by the communist rule are ventilated publicly - like nazism has been in the past decades in Germany - the collective memory will continue to haunt russians for generations to come.
"Girl with a Pearl Ear Ring" by Tracy Chevalier. As the story starts in 1664, the young girl Griet lives with her poor but relatively happy protestant family in Delft together with her sister and brother. When her father becomes blind from an accident at the Kiln factory, she is forced to seek employment at the house of the catholic family of Johannes Vermeer as a maid. She leaves her family with a heavy heart, and is soon exposed to the ungrateful chores of heavy house work. She is quite an unusual girl, however, and takes a genuine interest in her master's paintings in the studio. Vermeer is a perceptive person and after some time introduces Griet to the art of preparing colours. Soon a very special relation develops between the two, and she is partly relieved from the daily routines in the household to prepare Vermeers colours in the Attic. This is much to the dismay of the other members of the houshold, and she soon has to contend with the fiercly loyal maid and a volatile mistress. Because Vermeer paints painstakingly slowly they can't live off the income from his work and has to survive from income from his stepmother and a local Patron. The Patron is tolerated by the family, but when he takes a rather to keen an interest in Griet, Vermeer sees this as a challenge and reluctantly makes a painting of Griet to please his benefactor. In the end his jealous wife discovers the painting and thinks it's obscene and tries to destroy it, and Griet is forced to leave the employment. By that time she has become friendly with a local butcher's son and marries him as a way out of her predicament (and for love too, eventually). This is a lovely story with a fantastic sense of detail and atmosphere. What struck me was Chevalier tells the story in the first person and the use of simple language both reflects Griet's personality while creating an almost unreal prescence. "...moving, mysterious, at times unbearably poignant.", said the Times and I can only agree. The film film also made a very good job of capturing the atmosphere in the book.
"Player Piano" by Kurt Vonnegut. First published in 1952, this was Vonnegut's first novel and is still one of his most interesting and disturbing books. The title refers to the one of first examples of automation, the self-playing piano. It is set in a future North America where society has become a elitist nightmare where everyone is provided for, but no one except people belonging to a small class of elite technocrats, has any real purpose. I read this book many years ago when I - ironically - was doing my Ph.D. on the topic of automatic image interpretation. The book was an eye-opener for me, and today with jobs disappearing and information technology replacing people at an alarming rate, one might ask if the gloomy utopia in the book is coming true at last. Many of his books reflect the fact that technology always has good and bad sides and that we have to learn to live with the consequences. Jospeh Schumpeter stated that to build new economies one has to destroy the old ones, and this is nothing new. What is new is that the process of replacing people with software and machines is accelerating and jobless growth is nowdays a fact we have to live with. The question is what people without double doctorates and or superhuman faculties will do in the future when the labour market continues to sift out the less capable, the not-so-smart, the not-so-young and the not-willing-to-work-around-the clock.
"The Space Merchants" by Frederic Pohl & Cyril M. Kornbluth. Published a year after Vonnegut's "Player Piano", this novel emerged in McCarthy America where communist phantoms were being chased by more or less ruthless (and sometimes even comic) means. The plot is simple: In the future, the world is run not by governments and states, but by gargantuan advertsing agencies. The word of the day is Sell, Sell, Sell. The "hero" Mitch Courtenay - a producer - finds himself in a campaign to sell the hellish planet Venus to future colonizers by any means possible. By a series of misfortunes he finds himself on the wrong side of the producer-consumer chain, and has to start consuming the products that his agency promotes. This was a radical satire when it was published, and a reaction to the rampant consumerism in the US in the fifties. It is a hilarious book, a Swiftian satire and like all good books, had a lot to tell us about society in the fifties, and - more chillingly - about today's world. I've often re-read it not just for the laughs.
"Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond. This is probably the most interesting book I have read in many years and a rewnewal of "Macro History" in the vein of Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee and Edward Gibbons, but with ecology at the topical center. It is no less than an attempt to understand why human societies and civilisation developed more rapidly in some parts of the world than others. Diamond argues convincingly that geography, climate and biological factors were paramount in giving Europe and China a head start in the development of technology and culture. The fact that the continent of Eurasia is elongated in the east-west direction and the existence of the right animals and the right crops were the main reasons why Europe became a dominant player on the world scene. In the last chapter he argues that history as a research topic rightfully belongs not to the humanaties but rather to the sciences. The scope of the book is truly breathtaking and anyone who believes that history is just "one fact after another" should pick up this book and be awed. Other recommended books include "Collapse" and "Upheaval".
"An Anthropologist on Mars", by Oliver Sacks. A fascinating and compassionate description of people/patients with different neurolological disorders. I had wanted to read his books for years, but was a bit sceptical about the ethics of disclosing information on "neurological freaks". After having read only a few chapters, I've entirely changed my mind and I can recommend it simply as bedtime reading, or on a more profound level, a book on the roots of "self" and "personality".
"The Club Dumas", by Arturo Perez-Reverte. A literary thriller about a mercenary/trader specializing in recovering old and rare books, who finds his life in peril after uncovering 3 copies of books that - with proper decoding - together hold secrets of unearthly powers. If you liked the "The name of Rose", you'll love this book which was recently turned into a film by Roman Polanski, "The Ninth Gate".
"Fermat's Last Theorem", by Simon Singh. A book about the remarkable intellectual achievement of many mathematicians, leading up to Andrew Wiles' final proof of Fermat's theorm, via the Shimura-Taniyama conjecture. The theorem itself is simply stated:
"There are no solutions of the equation xn + yn = zn for integers n > 2". This took more that 4 centuries of hard work to prove. The ultimate question is of course how Fermat himself (if indeed at all) managed to prove it. The book also contains several interesting anecdotes, and - to me at least - unknown facts, such as Fermat's influence on Newton leading the latter to the calculus of infinitesimals. Well worth reading even for people with a fear of numbers.
"The Mathematical Brain", by Brian Butterworth. It is well known that the brain has specially dedicated areas for higher sensory, motory, and cognitive faculties. For example, the primary visual areas are situated in the Occipital lobes. But what about the ability to perform number and mathematical operations? Is there a 'number module' in the brain? It turns out there is strong evidence for the existence of such a centre, and is it located somewhere in the left parietal lobe. It also turns out it is spatially close to the centre that controls finger movements. Thus it is not coincidence that we use our fingers when we count. This is fascinating book, full of facts and anecdotes, and also describes how ingenious experiments can be set up to reveal the secrets behind the number crunching parts of the brain.
"The Scar". China Miéville's novel is set in the same world as the appraised "Perdido Street Station", which has won several well-deserved awards. For those of you not yet familiar with the dark fantasy world of the gothic Megapolis of New Croubzon, you're about to enter a great adventure. Being a film addict myself, I immediately found references to the movie screen: Imagine a hybrid of "Waterworld" and "The army of the Twelve Monkeys"; then you get an idea what the world you find yourself in (the stories otherwise have nothing in common). I fell for the combination of low and high tech gadgets, the world populated with archaic species and humans, and most of all, the fleshy and eloquent language. You get to smell the sordid smells of a wounded Avanc, the frantic hunger of a buzzing mosquito woman, the strange life forms populating the floating pirate city "the Armada", admire the many-talents of the New Croubzon spy Silas Fennec, and feel for the many sorrows of the main character Bellis Coldwine. Is it fantasy or science-fiction? Who really cares..
"The Dream of Scipio"y Iain Pears. A novel about the fate of three men in Provence in southern France, spanning 1500 years of European history: the period just after the murder of the Roman emperor Majoran during the realm of the Visigoth king Euric, Avignon during the Black Death (recent research has cast some doubt whether it really was the bubonic plague or some other disease), and the period just before and during the German occupation of France in WWII. I especially liked the way he interweaved the fate of the characters by having them work out moral dilemmas in their own different ways. The book gave me the feeling of what life was really like in historical times, and how similar the problems of modern life are to those of historic times. The title alludes to a scripture by Cicero "The Dream of Scipio" about the importance of maintaining a high moral when keeping a public office. If you like this book then don't miss "An Instance of the Fingerpost" a thouroughly researched book about a (fictious) murder mystery in Oxford just after the deatch of Oliver Cromwell, starring real historical characters like mathematician John Wallis and antiquary Anothony Wood.
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