2021 book review

I’ve been doing end-of-the year book reviews for almost 5 years now. At this point I have to ask myself: why am I still doing this?

To encourage myself to read more? To show off? To convince myself that this blog is about more than just tech stuff? There may be some truth to all those, but I think my main goal is just to recommend some good books to others. I don’t use GoodReads (although I link to it, as it seems nice), so this is my forum where I highlight books I’ve enjoyed, in the hope that others might find something interesting to read in the new year.

So without further ado, on with the book reviews!

Quick links

Fiction

Non-fiction

Fiction

Like last year, I’ve been reading a lot of fantasy novels. My methodology is crude: I just googled “best fantasy novels” and started from there. In the past, I was never much of a wizards-and-pegasuses kind of reader (I always preferred sci-fi and dystopias), so I’m trying to make up for lost time.

The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

I struggled to like the first book. My main beef was that 1) it’s a bit too predictable and groan-inducing with how the main character is a preternaturally gifted Mary Sue who just inevitably excels at everything, and 2) after a great “street urchin” backstory, the action really grinds to a halt when the character arrives at university and mostly mopes after his would-be girlfriend.

The second book, however, redeems the first one in my eyes. It makes up for some of the dull campiness of the first book with a never-ending series of inventive subplots. Just as soon as you’re bored with one setting or cast of characters, it dramatically switches to another. It almost feels like a collection of vignettes.

I’m eagerly awaiting the third book, which (like The Winds of Winter by George R. R. Martin), seems perpetually delayed.

Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey

This is another book that I struggled to like. The premise is so good (dragons! extra-planetary colonization! a perennial existential threat!), and I have friends who rave about the Dragonriders of Pern series. But to be honest, I just found it to be a bit of a slog. I felt like the author was taking too much time to set up names, places, history, concepts – almost like she started writing an encyclopedic Silmarillion rather than an accessible Hobbit. By the time I had gotten the lingo down and could keep the characters’ names straight, the story was over.

I’ve picked up the next couple books in the series, and I’m going to give them a shot, but I don’t have high hopes.

Kindred by Octavia Butler

What I love about this book is that the author takes a completely ridiculous premise and treats it with utmost seriousness, and by the end you’re so invested in the story that it doesn’t matter that the paranormal elements are never explained. Gives you a good sense of what it would feel like to live in a society where daily barbarism is completely normalized.

Is it sci-fi? Is it fantasy? Hard to categorize, but I would lean towards sci-fi, if we define sci-fi as “putting human beings in otherworldly situations to see how they tick.” In any case, a great read.

2034 by Elliot Ackerman and James Stavridis

A chilling and all-too-plausible near-future sci-fi. I appreciate the attention to detail that comes from having a subject matter expert (in military matters) as a co-author. Hopefully it will turn out to be a cautionary tale rather than a prescient prediction.

The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

A book that starts out with a bang and gradually limps towards an ending. I had to put it down ~80% of the way through because it got into preachy, starry-eyed utopia territory. Maybe I’m just a cynic, but the more pessimistic predictions in the book seem way more believable to me.

Premier Sang by Amélie Nothomb

Amélie Nothomb is one of my favorite Francophone authors, and not just because my French is terrible, and her writing is simple enough that I can understand it without constantly switching to a dictionary. I picked up this book at random while on vacation in France and gobbled it up on the plane ride back.

The story starts out with an incredible hook – a firing squad! – and from there gives a richly detailed (and ultimately personal) character study. The scenes from the protagonist’s childhood, where he’s alternately coddled and neglected (but craves the latter!), are especially poignant.

Sorry for recommending a non-English book, but hopefully it will be translated soon!

Non-fiction

Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows by Melanie Joy

I’ve spent probably the past 15 years of my life struggling with a basic question: what to eat? I’ve gone through carnism, pescetarianism, vegetarianism, veganism, and right back around several times. These days I’m probably best-described as flexitarian (i.e. I avoid meat, but I won’t turn down a turkey dinner at Thanksgiving).

If you’re not already interested in vegetarianism or veganism, this book will not convince you of anything. For myself, I found it pretty depressing, because the situation feels kind of hopeless to me. The sheer scale of animal suffering in factory farms makes it a good candidate for one of, if not the, most consequential ethical questions of our day, and yet the average person couldn’t care less, and is irritated to even consider it. Exploring this question will make you the most unpopular person at a dinner party, and probably cause a lot of stress and annoyance for your friends and relatives if they feel obliged to accommodate your dietary choices.

So why do I read this stuff? Well I guess, like a good car crash, I just can’t look away. If I’m going to be an ethical monster, I would at least like to be cognizant of it when I put a forkful of egg or cheese (or rarely, meat) into my mouth. And I’d like to have a ready-made answer if someone asks why I always order the tofu. And I’d like to steel my resolve as I continually search for good beans-and-rice and tempeh recipes that can compete with my fond memories of a juicy Reuben sandwich. (This stir-fry recipe is quite good.) My inner monologue on food is complicated, I don’t have it all figured out, but I’m trying to wrestle with the tough questions.

Dialogues on Ethical Vegetarianism by Michael Huemer

Another pro-vegan book that will depress you if you’re already converted, and probably convince you of nothing if you’re not. For myself, I found it interesting because it fairly neatly demolishes all of the plausible excuses for eating meat or animal products. (Yes, that one, and that one, and that other one you just thought of.) This is a good book for the open-minded person who really wants to engage with the best arguments for veganism, not just the straw-man.

I’ll also say that, for a philosophy book, this is eminently readable. I really enjoy the short, brisk pace and the “Socratic dialogue” style rather than a long-winded essay format.

How Not to Die by Michael Grieger

As you might have noticed, I kind of went on a tear this year reading vegan literature. I really wanted to confront my meat-eating (and egg-eating, and dairy-eating) head on, so I tried to read all the “greatest hits” of vegan literature.

This book has a lot of sensible advice (eat more whole grains, eat more nuts and berries), although I get the impression that the author is pretty dogmatic in promoting a pure-vegan lifestyle. Based on reviews I’ve read of the book, he tends to ignore any research that advocates for moderate consumption of eggs, cheese, and fish, even though those are (as far as I can tell) pretty good ingredients in a healthy diet.

On the other hand, I do appreciate his no-nonsense, uncompromising position on certain health questions. (Salt? Nope, just avoid it. Oil? Nope, just fry everything with water or vinegar! Exercise? 30 minutes every day!) I prefer the “give it to me straight, doc” approach, rather than a resigned shrug and “Well, if you’re going to drink beer and eat potato chips, at least do it in moderation.” Although I think his advice is much too extreme for the average person to actually adhere to.

Hate, Inc. by Matt Taibbi

One of the best political non-fiction books I’ve read. For a few years, I’ve had the gnawing feeling that something in the media (including social media) felt “off,” but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. This book does a good job of explaining why our media feels so hyper-partisan, and therefore less trustworthy.

Against the Grain by James C. Scott

Elaborates on one of the minor points you may recall from Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari about how the agricultural revolution was probably kind of a bum deal for humanity. Also has some interesting commentary on the origins of viruses from livestock, and how they probably played havoc on early civilizations. (This book was written pre-Covid, by the way!)

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford

A fun and intriguing read. Makes you realize how silly and petty (and temporary!) most of our human squabbles over race and ethnicity are. Also gives a great explanation of why “I descended from Charlemagne” is not such a remarkable statement.

The End of the End of History by Alex Hochuli, George Hoare, and Philip Cunliffe

A good, heterodox leftist perspective on the whole “what the heck is up with liberal democracy?” genre. A good pairing with The New Class War by Michael Lind.

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Itsastickup on June 10, 2022 at 12:56 AM

    I have three vegan sisters and have had to give the vegan thing a lot of thought. What’s been helpful to me is to observe nature. On a good farm, animals have something close to an animal paradise and then, with a good slaughter house, instant lights out with zero distress; at least from what I’ve seen in youtubes of homesteaders.
    They end up having a better though shorter life than in nature (though arguably the incredible infant mortality stats in the Wild makes that debatable). No terrors, plentiful food, and no being eaten alive or slowly dying of hunger, injuries and parasites (the latter of which is why old game animals are shot).
    Meanwhile, with 2 million years of hypercarnivore behind us (proven by radio-isotope analysis , https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/04/210405113606.htm) being a meat-eater is never going to end for humans, and as seen by the massive vegan drop-out rate often due to health reasons. I’m encouraging my sisters to support good farming practices instead of being vegans, and to also illustrate to them why they can’t equate every animal and its feelings to humans, which is their main justification.
    Observe the wild boar: it will routinely kill and eat it’s own baby runts as a matter of a (perfectly sensible) survival tactic. Mother pigs do this too; it’s not the farms inducing such behaviour. Meanwhile, in nature pigs/boars spend 98% of their time sleeping or searching for food, and that’s it. Nothing else other than some very basic social interactions. Our herbivore buddies eat small critters from time to time; deer eating birds, cows eating mice etc.
    Maybe excepting some social carnivores and one or two very large social herbivores, most animals are only superficially like humans, and even with the social animals it stretches belief to say their complexity of relationships or existential angst, regrets of the past and fears for the future are equivalent to a human’s. I think our compassion and healing should be reserved to our fellow humans (and perhaps the provably self-aware animals, dolphins etc). From what I’ve observed of most prey animals, they are tantamount to eating machines; but this is not acknowledged by anyone, rather a disneyfication of reality.
    On a good farm we can treat these animals more kindly than they are treated by Mother Nature, and then take them for our own food at their peak life. So long as we are appropriately compassionate, rather than a compassion that equates them to us, they arguably would get a better life than in Nature.

    Reply

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I’d recommend reading the Michael Huemer book I mentioned. He covers a lot of the points you raise.

      I think a lot of arguments against veganism focus on an idyllic farm setting, which doesn’t have much relation to reality. To be fair, some vegans will argue against even this idealized image of carnivory, but I find those arguments relatively weak – and also unnecessary, since that’s not where meat in the grocery store comes from.

      Reply

      • Posted by Itsastickup on June 10, 2022 at 12:35 PM

        Indeed, thereby justifying the idea that Vegans would have had a sustainable and obtainable change in farming where they instead to have agitated for a transfer of consumer money to good farms rather than a complete denial of animal products which can’t win them their cause. Money talks, in other words. Rather their complete denial retards improvement of animal welfare.
        I think it bears repeating that animals lives on good farms, even if not ‘idyllic’, is arguably better than that in the Wild (I haven’t read that book, but I have lived on a farm). But sure, there’s got to be a spectrum of bad to good farming, and that muddies the waters, but it doesn’t stop money talking for ever-better husbandry practices. Instead they get a resentful rejection by people who often simply don’t believe what vegans believe about animals and who accept human nature and human’s place in nature which is not at all herbivorous, on top of their own very high drop-out rate.

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