2016 in Books: Books 16 to 23

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It has been a busy couple of months, with end of financial year stuff appearing at work, along with renovations at home, a weeklong trip to Tasmania, and general disarray; this has really taken a toll on my reading time!

I have however, reached a milestone in my #2016inbooks: I have passed 20 books completed, which is the total number of books I read last year. And while I concede that some of these books are quite short (with a couple being Kindle Singles), I plan on redoubling my efforts to get a bunch of hefty reads under my belt.

Now, time for a quick recap on the reads that I have managed to cross off my list:

Book 16: The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures by Christine Kenneally.

This book was a Kindle sale item that came along just as a series on heritage and DNA was showing on SBS so I was the perfect target. It is a fascinating read that goes through the various aspects of our history as told through DNA, whether it be explaining how the very idea of genealogy developed over time, through to the dark era of eugenics, and then onto the modern era of genetic testing and genotype mapping.

I was hooked from the get go, with the book inspiring me to delve into Ancestry.com and build up my own family tree. Definitely worth a read if you are interested not only in your own family history, but the history of humans throughout the ages.


Book 17: Aurora by my favourite author Kim Stanley Robinson.

This book was a read from last year that I kind of read again by accident, or as much as one can read a book by accident I suppose. I had previously bought the book on my Kindle when it was released, but my awesome wife picked me up a physical copy as a surprise last month, which precipitated this year’s read.

Last year Aurora, it really took me by surprise. At the time I considered it quite pessimistic for a book by KSR, who I usually see as presenting very realistic approaches to modern day utopian thinking. So I think when I first read this book I was taken aback by what I perceived as a disparity between what I was expecting, and what I received.

Being able to tackle the book again however, I was able to separate my expectations, and really focus on the story; and I loved it.

Set on the tail end of a generation ship’s journey to a distant star Aurora is a hard science fiction tale that deals with the repercussions of isolating a group of humanity, and earth’s environment, in a closed system, and sending them out to fend for themselves for hundreds of years. I won’t go into it in any more detail, as the story takes some interesting twists and turns, but I highly recommend investing some time with this book, particularly if you like your sci-fi full of chunky ideas to sink your teeth into.


Book 18: Drunk Tank Pink

An impulse buy from the $5 book shop, this book reminded me of Freakonomics, but if it were written from a psychological/marketing perspective. A lot of interesting insights into human behaviour and how our minds work. The title itself refers to a particular shade of ink that appears to sap people of their strength (hence the use in drunk tanks), but delves into everything from how we interact with the environment, how other influence our actions, and how the tiny little things in life can often have grand and far reaching consequences.

The scientific rigour is a bit lacking in this book, but that seems to come with the territory when dealing with this form of popular science book. So while it may bring to bear many interesting concepts and questions, you will have to delve into the literature a bit yourself if you want to be more thoroughly convinced.

Book 19: Heartland of Manga: Tokyo and San Francisco

I have written about this read separately, and you can find that piece here.

Book 20: Young Hitler, a Kindle Single by Paul Ham

World War 2 always has such a strange, perverse attraction to me. I am fascinated by it, and love watching movies or TV shows set during this dark part of our recent history, but it seems strange to voice this opinion without sounding, well, terrible.

Recently my own son summed up this ambiguity when he said to me “Dad, I know it sounds strange, but World War 2 is my favourite war.” It does sound strange, but I totally get it.

There is something fascinating about that era; about the world at war, fighting on a scale never before seen, with advances in technology that boggled the mind, and at the centre of it all a struggle of ideas and ideals.

And of course at the centre of much of this are the great individuals that helped shape the stream of history: the Churchill’s, Roosevelt’s and Stalin’s. But perhaps the longest shadow cast on this era is that cast by Adolf Hitler.

I am often put off reading books about the World Wars because of the sheer scale involved, and thus the commitment required to try and wrap one’s head around this significant part of our recent history. So when I noticed a book by Paul Ham on the Kindle Singles list, I was excited. Kindle Singles are small self-contained reads, and Paul Ham is best known for his works on twentieth century wars, so I figured this might be a good place to start.

And it was.

Young Hitler has a very well define scope; it wants to talk about Hitler’s youth, and how this shaped him into the man he would become. One thing that has stuck with me is how the author goes to great effort to show that Hitler was a human, not in an attempt to humanise him, but rather as a means of illustrating that the existence someone like Hitler wasn’t some evil being devoid of humanity; he was an evil human being.

This quote I think says it all:

“On the other hand, it is lazy to brand Hitler a monster, a psychotic killer, the incarnation of evil and then walk away as if our job is done, as it suggests that he was a rare and inexplicable phenomenon, a freak of history whom we’re unlikely to meet again, rather than a man with banal, commonplace ideas who reflected the darkest prejudices of European society.”

We have to strive to understand things like Hitler, because if we paint history with too wide a brush we risk letting the important little truths slip between the brushstrokes.


Book 21: The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman

A very eye-opening book about the heretofore unappreciated intelligence of birds. I love a good science read, and I love learning about the natural world; combine these with a gifted writer, and this has become one of my favourite books of the year. Sometimes I read a book, and enjoy it, but it fails to have that little extra that sticks with you; that changes your view on something, or enlightens you about something else.

This book was not one of those books. The Genius of Birds is one of those reads that helped create a new facet of my mind. I am now an ardent proponent of bird intelligence. I look at birds differently, I look at my dog differently; I even look at myself differently. So many of the anecdotes will stay with me, whether it be the Drongo mimicking a bird’s alarm call to frighten it away and steal its food, or the fact that pigeons can be trained to differentiate between impressionist paintings, and cubist paintings. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in birds, in the various theories of intelligence, or who just likes a fascinating read about the world around them.


Book 22: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R. R. Martin

Withdrawals from Game of Thrones led me to this read. A collection of short stories set 100 years before the TV show all following a knight and his squire. Not quite on the same scope as GoT, nor even the same tone, but an engaging read nonetheless. It was interesting to see stories set in Westeros, but from a more quotidian point of view.

Failed to slake my hunger however, so back to the forums and YouTube compilations of Jon Snow’s awesomeness for me.


Book 23: The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do

The note on this book is from my 30th, almost two years ago… So I was happy to finally be able to check this book off my list.

It was a thoroughly great read. Anh is a very funny dude, and a great writer. The book really bring across just how down to earth and humble he is, but also shows how introspective he can be. Reading about his life, and particularly about how his childhood, and his parents, influenced the man he became, really spoke to me.

“There are only two times”, his dad used to say “theres now, and theres too late”. This seemed like a great motivational tool and indeed Anh presents it that way at first. But it also ended up being born from a pivotal (and tragic) moment in his fathers life. This book really highlighted for me the strange way that life takes us on a journey, without us ever really knowing it at the time. Much like how Kierkegaard said “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”.

Given the state of things in Australia (the election of Pauline Hanson for starters), it is great to read this story of a refugee family coming to Australia, and making their life here. Anh’s story starts with his family escaping from Vietnam in a boat, something that should still resonate with Australians these days, but instead we find a growing apathy toward the plight of refugees from politicians from both major parties.


Anh goes into racism a few times in the book, but mostly has positive things to say about his families treatment from the Australian public. I worry that the same story won’t be replicated by those refugees finding their way to our shores presently.

Now to get back into the swing of things, and start knocking over some more tasty reads.

#2016inBooks #accidentalrereadsarethebestrereads #needtoreadmore #GeniusofBirds #TheHappiestRefugee


Some thoughts on Kim Stanley Robinson’s work

Kim Stanley Robinson is the author who I would say has had the most influence on my life.

I got into his books when I was young enough that a lot of what I read I didn’t really understand. The psychological representations in Red Mars left me confused, the eco-economics and gift economy went over my head, the idea of social revolution, of building a new society free of the ‘straightjacket of history’ was fascinating, but much of the more complex themes in the book generally left my young mind perplexed (not to mention the sometimes very explicit sex scenes).

But I thoroughly enjoyed the book, enjoyed reading a science fiction story that felt more like a history book transported back in time from the future, and less like a fantastic tale of make believe. It felt real, and it was simply transformative. It helped me form a lot of the ideals and principles that still hold fast in my mind today. It gave me a way to see the world as an adult, when I was still just a kid.

Indeed it was only last year that I took it upon myself to read the Mars Trilogy again, and was shocked at how much of what I thought of the world seemed to have been ignited by that story over 19 years ago. Though while the Mars trilogy is by far my favourite of KSR’s tales, his other offerings have also left undeniable imprints on who I am.

The Science in the Capital series drew my attention to game theory, the idea of a paleo lifestyle, thoughts on how we could impact our world in opposition to climate change, and a better understanding of how other cultures ways of thinking could be incorporated into our own. It was also nice to have a protagonist who was an attentive father (which at the time I was attempting to become).

The Years of Rice and Salt was an eye opener in that it showed a world free of the cultural lens that I had viewed it through for most of my life. Reading an alternative history without a western civilisation, but still with tendrils of parallel events, experiences and social progress flowing within, helped me to understand history a bit better, and to seek out an understanding of how the world came to be as it is, and how those living at certain times may have faced the challenges of the world.

Overarching themes in Robinson’s works also embedded themselves in my mind.

My first exposure to Arab culture as a young man came through the Mars Trilogy, and then in a post 9-11 world it was fascinating to read about an Islamic world in The Years of Rice and Salt, and to be presented with compelling characters, thoughtful ideas, and a new way to view Islam; all much more interesting than the caricature of Muslims that became so prevalent in those years (and even now).

Forty Signs of Rain introduced us to a protagonist who liked to examine the world through the prism of the savannah, and the human races evolutionary origins; using game theory and sociobiological tools to understand how modern humans are a result of prehistoric human’s journey through time. Then Shaman completed the notion by giving us a first-hand account of how life may have been for those humans who were genetically so like us, but whose lives seems to disparate from what we consider a human existence today. So different, yet still so similar.

His novels are also interesting to me in that they offer me a chance to see the world through different eyes than a lot of other science fiction experiences (especially moves and TV) commonly available. Being a white male from a western society, it is easy to find characters I can seemingly identify with, but that connection always seemed so superficial. In Kim Stanley Robinsons works I was able to identify with characters from wildly different backgrounds than my own.

The Mars Trilogy gave me characters of different nationalities, as many books do, but it also eventually showed me people who have not only been born Martian, but perhaps more interesting; those that have become Martian. The Years of Rice and Salt has a cast of characters who not only seem to be reincarnated throughout history, but who are exclusively non-European. It has African, Arab, Asian and Native American protagonists in abundance. Shaman is populated by Stone Age characters, who seemingly have no corollary with today’s cultures, but nevertheless are distinctly human (except for the Neanderthal that is). And lastly 2312 introduced the post-human possibilities where people skewed both gender and family roles until it was almost unrecognisable from today’s terms.

But throughout it all they were very grounded characters; very human, and as such undeniably flawed. Just as they should be.

At any rate, I write this seemingly random fanboy post because Robinson’s new book Aurora was released a few nights ago. I had pre-purchased it on Amazon and spent the first few seconds after midnight repeatedly tapping the refresh button on my kindle until I had it firmly ensconced in the ones and zeroes of its digital storage.

I have read about 40% of it so far, and I have to say that though I am enjoying it, it does seem somewhat less optimistic than a lot of his other works, though I guess you have to push your characters down a few troughs before you can be suitably invested in them climbing back up the hill.

Strangely, the story only seems to feature one point of view character, though Robinson’s tendency to include interesting narrators for sections of his novels continues here. In the Mars Trilogy we had mythological Martian figures narrate sections, The Years of Rice and Salt had intermissions between characters set in the Buddhist afterlife (with appropriately weird narrations), Shaman even managed to have ones ‘third wind’ personified as a narrator. So I guess the fact that he utilises the ships computer (which has been tasked with constructing a narrative of the journey) to narrate a few chapters seems to make a bit more sense.

Kim Stanley Robinsons books are science fiction the way I like it; real.

I have a deep respect for science that perhaps wouldn’t have survived my transition from idealistic uni student, to pen pushing local government bureaucrat, were it not for the passion that these books ignited in me. I believe deeply that our planet, and other planets, and the environment, and so forth are an important part of who we are, and not just a resource to be used up.

Perhaps these books also have a deleterious effect on my opinions also. Maybe I am a bit too open to anarchism than I should be these days, because Arkady Bogdanov was such a charismatic figure. Perhaps I would be too willing to drop everything, grab my family, and jump on one of Elon Musk’s rockets to Mars, than caution would warrant. But really I would prefer to find an author who is able to inspire a passion and yearning for utopic ideas, than one who fails to create any such long lasting effect on my mind.