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15 Jan 2012
The best books I read in 2011

2011 was an amazing year in books for me. I hit a new record with my annual book list (I read 171 books last year!), and a much higher percentage of them than usual were awesome. In fact, I read so many great books last year that I split them up into categories for you here.

Books I loved reading in 2011 that related to decision-making and problem-solving:

  • Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond- Well, we’re fucked. Brilliant, brilliant book. Worth reading, but intensely depressing in a clear, logical sort of way. Diamond claims to be cautiously optimistic, and I’d like to believe him, but I’ve read too much Derrick Jensen to be totally convinced.
  • The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations by Dietrich Dorner- Analyzes tons of studies on how people try - and fail! - to handle complex situations. The main lessons I drew from this were - (a) You have to think about not only the problems you do have, but also the problems you DON’T have, because otherwise your solutions may well create new problems in the future; (b) feedback has a time lag, and unless you stick to tiny adjustments with delays to record feedback in between, you can easily end up ricocheting between extremes; (c) it’s hard to figure out the right amount of information to gather; (d) both overfocusing and ignoring complex details are extremely dangerous; and (e) learning the issues with dealing with complex problems doesn’t actually help you get better at handling them - only actual experience does that.
  • Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande - Absolutely fantastic look at mistakes, the need for training and learning, social and ethical issues that interfere with training, cognitive errors, the difficulty in balancing our need for best health outcomes with our need for training students, and lots of surgical war stories along the way. I also highly recommend reading his essay Personal Best, where he discusses his decision to seek coaching to improve his surgical skills.
  • Honeybee Democracy by Professor Thomas D. Seeley- This was the most incredible book I’ve read in a long time. He describes the studies he performed in trying to determine how honeybee swarms decide on where their next home should be, and get everyone there together. Lots of insight into bees, but also into decision-making process design. Even if you’re not obsessed with bees as I am, this is a book well worth reading - it’s an eloquent depiction of how science is done, plus Seeley is very into the idea that we should learn more on how to manage group decision-making from the example set out by the bees.
  • Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein - Totally fascinating book about how to be a better choice architect, largely by adjusting incentives and defaults and making it just a bit easier for people to do what they in theory want to do anyway. Libertarian paternalism.

Books I loved reading in 2011 that related to race and class:

  • A Dry White Season by Andre Brink- A white schoolteacher in South Africa learns a bit about race, politics, discrimination, abuse of power, and privilege. Intense and difficult to read, especially in our current political climate.
  • Coyotes: A Journey Through the Secret World of America’s Illegal Aliens by Ted Conover- Gringo journalist decides to cross the border with Mexicans who migrate North for work each summer. Spends time on the journeys, spends time at the harvesting work, spends time driving [with, and also..] them across the country, spends time in their homes.
  • Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones- A story told by a black girl living on a tropical island in the middle of a civil war, where the one white man left volunteers as a teacher, except the only book he has to teach from is Great Expectations. I worried it would be all full of white supremacy bullshit, but ultimately I actually thought it was generally aware, sensitive, and interesting. Heart-breaking in moments. Really an excellent little book, overall.
  • Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano- Fascinating, useful book about class issues with people born to working class families who push themselves into the middle class. This book sparked a lot of ideas in me and moments of recognition when thinking about my family dynamics and history and issues I’ve had with others. Highly recommended.
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot - The story of the person and family behind the HeLa cell line! I’d also suggest reading this interview with Skloot where she explains her thoughts on structure in writing and how she chose to structure this book in particular.
  • Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh - Sociologist does fieldwork by hanging out with a gang in the projects. The Freakonomics people love this guy. I can see why.

Books I loved reading in 2011 that related to art and design:

  • The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards - I went through all the exercises when I started my latest drawing kick, and I found them extremely helpful.
  • Artist’s Complete Problem Solver by Trudy Friend- This is basically one of the best drawing and painting books I’ve found yet. It’s particularly good in terms of very specific techniques and concepts to keep in mind when trying to figure out what to focus on in observing and drawing. Also, micro brushstroke exercises.
  • The Forgery of Venus by Michael Gruber- Drugs, hallucinations, art history, forgery, wonderful descriptions of technical processes of both forgery and painting generally. Absolutely lovely. Rather dark and fucked up in places, but in a beautiful way.
  • Making Comics by Scott McCloud- Someday I’ll illustrate a webcomic. Someday.
  • My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk- A murder mystery and an exploration on artistic pride, cultural influences, morality, religion, and the meaning of style. Very nice.
  • The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams- Reminded me of playing Set and of watching the parents figure out the layout for the old Fiske Terrace newsletter when I was a kid. Dead simple, basic stuff, but good important concepts to keep in mind.
  • Poemcrazy: freeing your life with words by Susan Wooldridge - If you love words, read this.

Books I loved reading in 2011 that related to Judaism:

  • Boychiks in the Hood: Travels in the Hasidic Underground by Robert Eisenberg- Deeply familiar and foreign at the same time. My people, and not my people. Which was perhaps the point. In point of reference, I was raised Conservative and have always identified as a Jewish agnostic.
  • All Other Nights by Dara Horn- Jews in the Civil War! Lying liars who lie! I adore Dara Horn.
  • The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-Six by Jonathan Keats- This was really charming! It tells the stories of some of the lamed vavniks (in Jewish lore, these are the 36 just men and women who hold up the world, without realizing it or being acknowledged by others). Here are some of the lamed vavniks of a past era (there must be 36 of them alive in the world at any given time), and they are whores and thieves and golems and all sorts of unlikely personages. It was a good premise, nicely executed, and I particularly loved the rare pleasure of reading Jewish fairy tales that aren’t all about getting the king to promise not to kill all the Jews (only ha ha just kidding).
  • The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit by Lucette Lagnado- Memoir of a Jewish Egyptian woman whose family fled Cairo when she was just a child. Absolutely wonderful, with a personal discussion of cultural stresses and family relationships that did feel real to me. Possibly only interesting if you’re a diaspora Jew whose family had to flee countries in grave danger, though. Hard to tell, since for me, this was my family’s life.
  • City of Oranges by Adam LeBor- Fascinating history of Jews and Arabs in the old city of Yaffa. I’ve been there, and it was interesting to read this with my memories of walking through the area.
  • Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge edited by Paul Zakrzewski - I didn’t expect much of this, but in fact there were a lot of really spectacularly good stories in it! Overlook the kitsch of the title and concept, and you’ll find the good stuff. My oh my.

Other fiction I loved reading in 2011:

  • Santa Olivia and Saints Astray by Jacqueline Carey- Super cute YA with good queer character development and political exploration.
  • Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue- I really enjoyed this novel! It has a lot of human flaws and weakness, and shows not only the way fucked up systems fuck people up, but also the incredibly awfulness that people are capable of. The protagonist is not a good person. You can’t quite figure out if you like her, even though you see the factors that went into messing her up and it’s hard to blame her for the first few. But later on, she’s making choices that you want to hate her for, again and again. But still in a sympathetic way. Really, just about all the characters are powerless in so many ways, and they take out the pain of their powerlessness on each other. The writing style just faded into the background and let me sink into the story, which I love.
  • Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh - Just about the best fiction I’ve read in ages. Indian, complex, epic, poignant, fascinating. Lots of characters, but all are fleshed out and developed and weave in and out of each other’s lives. The focus on language and dialect is brilliant - it’s confusing at times, like the first time you read A Clockwork Orange, but you get the sense that so many of the characters are lost and confused that you’re supposed to be right there with them, and their languages are so defined by their backgrounds/lives/castes that it all comes together in a jumble as their society crackles around them. It’s killing me that the second book of this trilogy isn’t out in paperback yet, and the third isn’t out yet at all. I already want to reread the first.
  • A big bunch of Alastair Reynolds books, which are all thoroughly stuffed with interesting ideas and characters but are ultimately a bit tough to tell apart. He manages to write the same book over and over again without getting boring, which is a neat parlor trick in itself.

Other non-fiction I loved reading in 2011:

  • The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman- An exploration of how cultural differences between Hmong and Americans interfere with access to health care, among other things.
  • Lust for Justice: The Radical Life & Law of J. Tony Serra by Paulette Frankl- Inspiring biography of a radical hippie brilliant criminal defense lawyer, I really want to read a collection of his summations!
  • The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson- A history text written in an almost novel-ish prose style, about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the serial killer operating in Chicago at the time.
  • China Witness: Voices From a Silent Generation by Xinran - I’ve been on a Chinese history reading kick. It’s just so huge, and there’s so much out there that I don’t have a clue about. Likened to Studs Terkel’s interview collections, this book is actually a fascinating set of conversations that offer insight into history and culture that I can’t seem to reach anywhere else.