This has been sitting around for so long. It has not been a good year for reading books and everything on here was actually read months ago. Due to the long time between reading and writing, I’m afraid I can’t give as good of a review as I usually would as my memory of the books is not as clear.
Zoo City (2010) by Lauren Beukes
Zoo City is a fantasy, crime thriller set in South Africa. Some people (known as zoos), who have done something bad, get a magical animal companion and a special ability. The animal companion marks zoos as criminals, which does result in a certain degree of discrimination, but they are also sometimes valued for their magical skills. The protagonist of Zoo City, Zinzi, has a sloth companion and has the ability to locate missing items.
My impression of South African writing in general is that it’s pretty dry; mostly dealing with realistic social issues, poverty, crime and so on. South African fantasies and fantasy authors seem to be pretty rare or at least not very well-known to me. Zoo City makes a nice change of pace. It has all the good aspects of magic and fantasy but in a familiar South African setting. It’s a refreshing combination.
I found the whole book very enjoyable for the reasons described above. In addition, I like the idea of animal companions, although it’s a pity one has to do something bad to get them. I’ll also note that the ending of the book is a bit darker than one would normally expect but it does also fit the themes. It was a great first read for the year.
How to Make the World Add Up (2020) by Tim Harford
This one is on a topic that would likely turn off most people: numbers and statistics. But, I would strongly encourage giving it a go because it is actually well-written and engaging. There’s also the important point that it is extremely relevant, especially since we’re constantly hearing statistics thrown around these days about disease risk, vaccine benefits and so on, and many people do not know how to interpret those numbers. After reading the book, you will have ten (really 11) rules to help guide you when thinking about numbers.
If you have ever done a scientific or statistical course, you would probably have come across these rules in one form or another before. That said, it’s always valuable to revise old knowledge which otherwise gets forgotten. If you’ve never done a course like that, then this book is a great introduction. You probably won’t remember all the rules by heart (I certainly don’t) but you should absorb the principles and these will allow you to stop things that don’t add up, similar to how I noticed Business Insider’s interpretation of the inflation graph just didn’t make sense.
His Dark Materials: Northern Lights (1995) by Philip Pullman
I had seen Northern Lights in my school library as a kid and had heard of The Golden Compass film but I had neither read nor watched either of them. Seeing the criticism of The Golden Compass, I will probably not bother watching it at all and might just try the BBC’s His Dark Materials series which is apparently more faithful to the books. I decided to try reading the series because the idea of daemons (animal manifestations of a person’s soul), which are common in the book’s world, intrigued me. This also seems to have influenced Zoo City.
The first book introduces Lyra, the main character, many supporting characters, the aforementioned daemons and the world, an alternative version of Earth. The book is surprisingly packed as Lyra uncovers various secrets, obtains a rare item, is kidnapped, meets a talking bear and tricks a king. It ends with Lyra travelling to a new dimension. Not all of it was good for her but it was all very entertaining to read. In fact, I started and came close to finishing it all over a single weekend. That’s a really good sign considering that this year I have just not been doing any regular reading.
His Dark Materials: The Subtle Knife (1997) by Philip Pullman
This is obviously the next book in the His Dark Materials trilogy but, interestingly, starts off with a new character, a boy named Will, and in a different world to the first. After a series of dramatic events, Will eventually finds himself travelling between worlds and meets up with Lyra from the first book.
While a friend told me that he didn’t care for this book, I still liked it and thought it maintained the same high standards as Northern Lights. There were a couple of really interesting concepts that were introduced, not least of all the titular Subtle Knife. While the first book did not end on a positive note, it seems cheerful in comparison to the ending of this book wherein several characters are killed off in succession.
Life at Rock Surfaces (2021) edited by Burkhard Büdel and Thomas Friedl
This is quite different to the other books I’ve been reading, both because it’s aimed at academics and because it’s not mine. I was lent a copy of the book by Pedro, my friend and colleague, who was an author of one of the chapters. Each chapter focusses on a different aspect of life, mostly microbial, at rock surfaces. Some of the chapters make for interesting reading on organisms living in quite an extreme habitat and some, like a taxonomy guide, are not chapters that lend themselves to normal reading.
As it’s aimed at an academic audience, it’s not really accessible unless you have a fair bit of familiarity with the field. Each chapter is written by a different set of authors and so the quality and style of writing varies wildly from chapter-to-chapter. The best chapters are fairly easy to read and follow but others are a slog. Part of this is due to the content of the chapters but, often, it is poor academic writing that is opaque or unnecessarily stilted. For example, there was one chapter written by a single author that repeatedly used phrases such as “The author hypothesises …” instead of “I think …” The former isn’t a more scientific way of writing; it’s stilted, it’s awkward and is the sort of thing that leads to multiple articles about why scientific writing needs to change.
Science in the Soul (2017) by Richard Dawkins
This is a collection of Dawkin’s essays and speeches from across the years. There is a lot of good content with a wide range of subjects, including science, religion, politics, humour and even a few eulogies. I had read probably about four of them before but that didn’t matter because it was still worthwhile reading them again. Out of the whole collection, there only a handful which I did not enjoy, which is a pleasant return to normality after Outgrowing God.
Despite the breadth of topics, there is an impressive depth of insight which one only gets from spending decades immersed in science. Dawkins’ clarity when writing and the knowledge beneath his writing is a welcome change from so much of the shallow and misguided thinking which is commonly seen today. Indeed, several chapters touch on issues which are still debated, even though they probably should’ve been settled many years ago. Dawkins is probably the best modern science writer and I can highly recommend this book.
His Dark Materials: The Amber Spyglass (2000) by Philip Pullman
The Amber Spyglass is the final book of the His Dark Materials trilogy and it is a great conclusion. I won’t say I am entirely happy with the way that everything ended, but I can see why it ended that way. I won’t say much of what happens to avoid spoilers, but I will say that it is a brilliant story, set in vivid worlds and overflowing with imagination.
I really enjoyed seeing some scientific musings in this book. During the story, the characters travel between different worlds and, in one of them, evolution followed a very different path. It’s not in any way a scientific book but it did a really cool job of pondering a different path of evolution and showing the interplay between different organisms as well as their environment. That was really cool.
The entire trilogy was well-written but I have to be clear how addictive and easy-to-read it is. There are good books that I’ve enjoyed reading but, when I finished a chapter, I was ready to stop. All of the His Dark Materials books are those wonderful sort where, after I finished a chapter, I just wanted to keep going. I thoroughly enjoyed it, highly recommend it and think I might need to look into the BBC series to see how it compares.
The Sheltering Desert (1956, translated 1957) by Henno Martin
This is a memoir which recounts the story of two German geologists stationed in South West Africa, now Namibia, which I bought during my trip to the Namib Desert. When WWII broke out, they wanted no part in it, nor did they wish to be interned by the police, so they resolved to hide out in the Namib Desert until it was all over. The pair of scientists and their dog travelled into the desert and remained there for two years until malnutrition forced them to abandon their plan.
Along with the descriptions of life in the desert are several philosophical musings on human society, evolution and the nature of man. A lot of it feels quite dated but I really enjoyed the discussions on the similarities and differences between humans and non-human animals. Even back then, many people living in cities and towns had little actual contact with wild, or even tame, animals; meaning no familiarity. Martin observed that, after time in the desert, with only the wild animals as their neighbours, they began to see the complexity in their behaviour and recognise the animals as being as unique as other people.
As the pair are scientists, the story is more than just a tale of survival. Scientific curiosity is evident in many observations and trips which include one to investigate why the rocks of a distant mountain were so white. If you’re at all interested in outdoor activities or the Namib, I think it will make for a great read.
Why Vegan? (2020) by Peter Singer
Why Vegan? is a collection of essays by the controversial, utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer. I had already read his classic book Animal Liberation but only after already becoming a vegetarian. These essays also revolve around the topic of animals and diet and span several decades, the earliest from 1973 and the most-recent from 2020. It’s a quick read, with some essays being incredibly short, but a very important topic.
Singer’s ethical approach is about avoiding causing unnecessary suffering, so several essays discuss cruelty in farming. In his introduction he does note that several practices documented in older works, such as Animal Liberation, have now been outlawed but not all problems have been fixed. In an essay from 2006 on chicken farming, he describes how many chickens are still kept in cramped conditions, standing in their own filth, where some starve to death and many others are boiled, alive and conscious, due to failures of the stunning system and manual oversight. These are things we ought to know if we are to be informed consumers.
If someone has never thought much about the practice of eating animals, because it is usually an unquestioned aspect of human society, then this collection will serve as a good introduction to the topic. This collection doesn’t go deep into details (I would recommend something like A Plea for the Animals to expand on the topic.) but it raises many of the questions and concerns which everyone should keep in mind. Regardless of the answers we eventually settle on, this is a pressing topic which we must think hard about and not allow the suffering of our fellow creatures to be hidden behind the veils of tradition and ignorance.