End of year catching up: Books

If I was bad at keeping up with drink blogging this year, I was way worse with books. These have been piling up on my coffee table for a long time, some since 2014. In the interest of clearing that space, some recommendations…

Cuisine and Empire by Rachel Laudan — Laudan’s essay “A Plea for Culinary Modernism” received much deserved attention this year. That article, which came out in 2001, is a good introduction to this much longer work. It’s culinary history without the fuzzy-headed romance of so much contemporary food writing, and a useful corrective to the hostility to modern agricultural and processing techniques. Highly recommended. (And see also Maureen Ogle’s In Meat We Trust, which I reviewed here.)

Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko — I have no excuse for not having read this sooner, but this year finally brought overdue attention to unaccountable police violence. If you want to know how we got here, and how the War on Drugs in particular has led to the militarization of American police, Radley’s book is a must read.

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker — Recommended for writers, especially if you feel in need of permission to break the rules handed down by purists. I also finally got around to Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, his massive book on the global decline in violence. It’s 700 pages on what would be a very dry topic in the hands of a lesser author, but I couldn’t put it down; I can’t give a better endorsement to his writing advice than that.

The Power of Glamour by Virginia Postrel — One of the most beautiful books I own, and one of the most enjoyable to read too; an enlightening history and exploration of glamour and how it creates desire, dissatisfaction, or the will to shape a better self. I especially liked the punctuating essays on various glamour icons such as the aviator, the superhero, or the striding woman.

How to Live by Sarah Bakewell — I’ll confess up front that I’ve never read Montaigne directly. But this intellectual history makes me want to read him, at least in parts. Its unique conceit of telling Montaigne’s life story via twenty answers to the question of how to live is apt and works surprisingly well.

Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik — An unexpectedly fun book on materials science, covering everything from silica aerogels to chocolate.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber — When I went shopping for this book, I forgot the title but remembered that it had something to do with a guy stranded in space sending messages back home to Earth… and that’s how I ended up reading The Martian. A fine sci-fi book, but this is something more. There is space travel and aliens, but the heart of the story is the protagonist’s fraying relationship with his wife on Earth, with whom he can communicate only by e-mail. The pacing builds slowly, but the gradually unfolding mysteries of the book make it very hard to put down. Faber’s literary style is impressive too, constantly creating expectations and then defying them. The novel is difficult to classify, but it was my favorite fiction read of 2015.

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters — Your standard detective story, except for one thing: The giant meteor poised to wipe out all of humanity in just a few months’ time. Winters’ tale is a trilogy, with each book set a little closer to the date of annihilation, with the world falling apart more in each one. It’s a great premise to explore, and the books deliver.

Honorable mentions: I enjoyed E. O. Wilson’s ambitiously titled The Meaning of Human Existence. I’ve always found macroeconomics more mysterious than micro; Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist Strikes Back was a fun primer. I’m glad I read Beauty is a Wound, but I didn’t love it. In comics, I’m missing Grant Morrison’s presence at DC, but Snyder and Capullo’s arc with Jim Gordon as Batman has been the surprise I don’t want to see come to an end.