10 Books Before '20

At the start of September, a friend on Facebook issued a challenge to read 10 books before the end of the year. I decided to share the brief reviews I wrote here.

The rules allowed for books you were in the middle of when the challenge was issued, so the first one I counted is Prodigal Prophet, by Rev. Tim Keller. I've read a few books by him before. They've all been worthwhile and this one was no exception.

Keller takes a close look at the account of the prophet Jonah. He says that the book can be divided in half, with a parallel structure that emphasizes the major themes. In each half, the word of the Lord comes to Jonah, but he responds in different ways (the title comes from his behaviour in the first half fitting the younger son in the parable of the prodigal son, while in the second half he acts like the elder brother). This is followed by interaction with pagans, and then God humbles Jonah with a lesson on grace.

The book of Jonah is divided into two symmetrical halves—the records of Jonah's flight from God and then of his mission to Ninevah. Each part has three sections—God's word to Jonah, then his encounter with the Gentile pagans, and finally Jonah talking to God. Twice, then, Jonah finds himself in a close encounter with people who are racially and religiously different. In both cases his behaviour is dismissive and unhelpful, while the pagans uniformly act more admirably than he does. This is one of the main messages of the book, namely, that God cares how we believers relate to and treat people who are deeply different from us.

Prodigal Prophet contains some timely thoughts on nationalism and some timeless thoughts on grace and justice. One thing that Keller brings out in the book is that Jonah wasn't just being irrationally prejudiced: Ninevah was a violent society that posed a genuine threat to his homeland. So it was more of a lesson in loving your enemies (and remembering the grace you need too) than in thinking that the things that divide us are just superficial. And, drawing on C.S. Lewis' Four Loves, Keller explains that patriotism is a valid love but dangerous when it becomes inordinate. There's also a good contrast drawn between Jonah going outside the city to sulk and hope for judgement and Hebrews 13:12-13.

My second read was Eager: the surprising, secret life of beavers, and why they matter by Ben Goldfarb. It was well-written—even quite funny in places—while also being informative. Not at all dry.

There is a growing environmental perspective that doesn’t treat industry and agricultural as opponents but as potential partners. We can find ways to coexist with healthy ecosystems—often to mutual benefit. This book is very much in that camp when it comes to beaver. The excerpt below concerns the benefits that beaver ponds can offer in arid rangeland in terms of storing runoff and recharging groundwater. In wetter climates, their dams can attenuate floods (maybe NB should research whether larger beaver populations in the headwaters and tributaries of the Saint John River could help us out in this area).

Water is a Nevada rancher's most important asset, and any force capable of capturing and retaining it is a godsend. Now, Holman told me, "I'm probably one of the biggest advocates of the beaver." He's far from the species' only admirer in Elko County, where a series of promising grazing experiments suggest that beavers could become staunch agricultural allies. For that to happen, though, livestock producers—as tradition-bound a community as there is in the West—will have to reconsider their relationship with their aquatic nemesis.

Beavers make rivers more dynamic, driving a cycle from free-flowing streams, to wetlands, to meadows, to new channels. People like our land uses to remain steady and predictable, so this dynamism is probably the hardest part about living with beavers. But the book includes some optimistic examples of individuals and small businesses trying out compromise solutions (basically ways to keep flow moving where it’s important to do so—such as avoiding flooding roads—without needing to remove the beaver). Overall it was a good read.

My third read was Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. It’s relatively short—I read it on a couple of flights (in a week in which I had seven)—but it’s heavy. It is framed like “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, with a sailor recounting a tragic tale. The main character takes a contract captaining a river steamer in colonial Africa (it never says directly, but my understanding is it’s in the Belgian Congo). At an upriver ivory trading station he meets an agent of the Company who shouldn’t have ventured so far from the influence and constraints of civilization. While thematically bleak, Conrad’s writing is very evocative.

Number four was The Midnight Line by Lee Child, one of the books in the Jack Reacher series. It isn’t fine literature, just a solid genre novel.

The TV character Ron Swanson once said, “I’m a simple man. I like pretty, dark-haired women, and breakfast food”*. Jack Reacher would agree. He also likes travelling around America to the out-of-the-way cities and towns that don’t get featured in glossy brochures*; he’s a restless wanderer who doesn’t maintain a fixed address and has a knack for finding trouble. Because he’s a big bear of a man (the character should have been played by Ólafur Darri rather than Tom Cruise in the movies, in my opinion) and a retired major in the military police, he can handle most of the trouble he finds.

*same here, to be honest

Erebus, by Michael Palin (of “Monty Python” game) was my fifth entry for this challenge. It is basically the biography of a ship. The ship Erebus is probably best known for its role in the Franklin expedition, but what I didn’t know before reading the book is that it had completed a mostly-successful (aside from not reaching the magnetic South Pole) three year Antarctic expedition a few years earlier under James Clark Ross. The latter part of the book is more exciting due to the greater drama associated with the Franklin expedition, but the earlier part was more extensively documented (since the ships returned with their logs intact). I really respect how much of the primary sources Palin must have read in writing this book—he was able to make the personalities of the crew of the Ross expedition leap off the page by quoting from their diaries and letters at key points. For example, one of the naturalists on board frequently wrote about his love and admiration for birds, which Palin juxtaposes with a running tally of how many he shot. Another thing that stands out is the infectious boldness (veering on over-confidence, to be fair) of the Victorian era: taking wooden sailing ships (propellers were added for the Franklin expedition) through hundreds of kilometres of sea ice, mapping the earth’s magnetic field, and outfitting a multi-year expedition in a matter of months. For example, this is from the description of the provisions for the Franklin Expedition:

Three tons of tobacco and 200 gallons of wine were also loaded and, to ensure the all-important grog rations could be maintained, the two ships carried between them 4500 gallons of 130-140 proof West Indian rum ...
Both vessels had extensive libraries. Most ships were issued with the basic ‘Seaman’s Library’, but on this expedition it was augmented to some 1200 volumes per ship, with technical works on steam propulsion, accounts of previous Arctic expeditions, geographical and nautical magazines, the latest bestsellers

Number 6 in the challenge was Dune, by Frank Herbert. I've read this before but decided to re-read it in preparation for the movie scheduled to come out next year (directed by Denis Villeneuve, no less!). In the far-future universe of Dune, humanity responded to a robot uprising by getting rid of all computers. This left a need for advanced calculations (managing governmental and business databases, navigating through space, geneaology/genetics, etc.) to be done by specially-trained people, aided by a drug known as Spice that gives almost supernatural perception of branching or nested possibilities. Spice is only available on the planet Arrakis, colloquially known as Dune. At the start of the book, the emperor assigns a new noble house to take over its management—but such a prize won't change hands so easily.

The book can be labelled in many ways: a coming-of-age adventure story, a Cold War allegory, an archetypical Hero's Journey. The aspect that will probably always stand out foremost in my mind, though, is ecology. The world-building is detailed enough that the planet almost feels like another character. Arrakis is a desert planet and the scarcity of water is central to the plot. Some characters use water as a status symbol; some dream of terraforming; the local culture and indigeneous fauna have numerous adaptations for coping with the arid conditions. And the famous giant sandworms are integral to the ecology, not just shoe-horned into the plot for dramatic effect. The first appendix is even on the ecology of Arrakis, to give a sense of the amount of thought Herbert put into it.

One thing I noticed this time (with thinking about how it will be adapted to the screen) is that the pace of the plot becomes quite abrupt towards the climax and resolution.

My seventh book for the challenge was another re-read: The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Written in the form of letters from a senior devil to a junior one offering advice on temptation, the thing that stands out the most are some apt turns of phrase and wise observations:

Christians describe [God] as one 'without Whom Nothing is strong'. And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man's best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why


the Future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most completely temporal part of time—for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays.


Much of the modern resistance to chastity comes from men's belief that they 'own' their bodies—those vast and perilous estates, pulsating with the energy that made the worlds, in which they find themselves without their consent and from which they are ejected at the pleasure of Another.


"All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a facade. Or only like foam on the seashore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure."

A description of heaven attributed to another (but unnamed writer):

the regions where there is only life and therefore all that is not music is silence.


The earliest converts were converted by a single historical fact (the Resurrection) and a single theological doctrine (the Redemption) operating on a sense of sin they already had—and sin, not against some new fancy-dress law produced as a novelty by a 'great man', but against the old, platitudinous, universal moral law which they had been taught by their nurses and mothers.


Cowardice, alone of all the vices, is purely painful—horrible to anticipate, horrible to feel, horrible to remember; Hatred has its pleasures. It is therefore often the compensation by which a frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of Fear. The more he fears, the more he will hate.

The eighth book I read for this challenge is one that I saw when I was browsing in Westminster Books and couldn't pass up: The Secret Life of Equations: the 50 greatest equations and how they work by Rich Cochrane. For each of the equations the author selected, he wrote a short profile (just 2 – 4 pages for most of them) explaining its scientific or historical significance and a bit about how it works mathematically. A number of the entries were nice refreshers for me—and I'd be so bold as to say that if you're not familiar with at least 10 of these equations already, your education's incomplete in the way C.P. Snow spoke about in "The Two Cultures"—but there were some new ones like the "hairy ball theorem" and ones I've heard of like Google's "PageRank" but now understand better.

The order in which the equations were presented was well-considered, as it was common for later entries to refer back to concepts from earlier ones. I wish more example calculations were included (some entries had them, and I found it rounded them out effectively), but that's a minor quibble. I'm hoping my own writing will also benefit, in terms of describing mathematical concepts in a straightforward way, from having read this book. Here's an example about tiling:

The fact that geometry is different on the sphere from the flat plane has been used in various decorative settings. A mundane example is the soccer ball, which is often covered entirely by a mixture of pentagons and hexagons. If you look closely you'll see all the pentagons and hexagons are regular, meaning their sides and angles are all the same—and of course they fit together nicely to cover the surface of the ball without any gaps. If you try to cover a flat piece of paper with regular hexagons and pentagons in this way, you'll soon find it can't be done. That's because on the flat piece of paper, the angles at a point must add up to 360 exactly, but the spherical excess on the soccer ball gives us more elbow room, enabling us to fit those corners together.
This fact is also exploited on a larger scale in the decorations found in some buildings, especially in the Islamic world where abstract geometric patterns were prefered to representational images. The problem of "tiling" a dome with polygons was already in an advanced state by the 10th century, when it was codified by Abul Wafa al-Buzjani. Since then, extremely elaborate patterns have been constructed on domes and similar surfaces that would be impossible on a flat surface—all made possible by the spherical excess.

Living the Sabbath by Norman Wirzba was my ninth entry for the challenge. After some discussion on the meaning of the Sabbath—delight in Creation, remembrance of deliverance, and rest (justly shared with the whole household, not hoarded by the powerful)—he gets into some practical advice. Most of the ideas seemed pretty good one by one, but all together they made the book feel like a tract for agrarianism (the foreward is even by Wendell Berry). I don't agree that getting back to the land—rolling back urbanization, international trade, digital communication, etc.—is a necessary or sufficient condition (to be fair, I'm not sure the author would go that far either) for embracing "rhythms of rest and delight" so that theme of the book was a bit of a miss for me. But it was thought-provoking, and as I said, it did have a lot of good individual points. One other thing I want to quibble about is that the book painted a very gloomy picture of the state of the environment. I feel that this kind of perspective relates to some of the cognitive instincts that Hans Rosling says can mislead us; while there are certainly environmental issues that need addressing, it's not the whole picture and areas of progress (e.g. ozone layer recovery, basically a halt in net deforestation rates, some species coming off the endangered list, declining death tolls from natural disasters) shouldn't be overlooked.

At the time of writing this post, I still need to read the tenth book, but with a week off from work I don't expect that will be a problem. I'm planning to read Harvesting the Biosphere by Vaclav Smil. Watch for a review sometime in the new year.

I'll round this post out, however, by going back to a book I read in August, just before the challenge was issued. Screw the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Pleasant, Middle-Class Gated Community in Delhi by Claire Berlinski is about the experiences of a middle-aged white lady in India. Unlike many books in that genre, it's not about finding a spiritual awakening after a mid-life crisis; rather, the author is a journalist who went there with her eyes open for business opportunities. It's a short book (basically an expanded magazine article) but makes a compelling case. She points out that in a country as large as India, even economic growth of a few percent is a big deal in absolute terms. The culture sounds very entrepreneurial—it's noted that unlike Russia and China (two other BRIC countries), India never seriously tried to purge/eliminate its class of businessmen. As a democracy, India may be a better fit for trade and cooperation with the West than China. It also has more English speakers than the UK and in a few decades could have more university graduates than the US (apparently in the 1990s, 80% of IIT grads moved to the US, but now 80% stay in India so these trends are already in motion). Healthcare and education are some of the big areas of innovation there that caught the author's interest.

Merry Christmas to all my readers!