Top 5 books for 2015

Unlike 2013 but just like in 2014, I did not manage to read 100 books this year. I will end up at around 70, which isn’t bad but I could have read a lot more.

I also don’t really have any good excuses. I had a kindle this year, and Seoul has a couple of good English language book stores. Both What the Book and Aladdin always have books that I want to read.

As always, these are books that I read this year not necessarily that were published this year.


5. The Water Knife

Think Margaret Atwood meets Michael Crichton. A scarily realistic future where the American southwest is ravaged by lack of water. Vegas mafia and California syndicates and others battle for the ultimate commodity: water.


4. Shaman

A slow book where the first half is really only setting and characters. Several hundred pages later, the plot kicks in. But for anyone interested in prehistoric times, this is as good as it gets. Such a rad book; it’s one of my favorites of all time but it’s not higher on this list because for many it will be too slow.




Barry here presents an exploration of topics like the power of language, identity, suggestibility or privacy. There is so much to like here: great characters, fascinating world-building (the Poets!), thrilling action sequences, plot twists galore, settings ranging from the PDX airport to the Ozzy outback. Overall, it’s a book that’s too smart to be a good thriller and yet so thrilling that the thought-provoking elements fade to the background. It’s really an exception to all the rules and maybe my favorite book by Barry.


at home

2. At Home

It should be called Bill Bryson goes on 1000 different rambling tangents. Not every chapter will speak to everyone but this is one of the most interesting books I have read in a long time. It’s filled with awesomely interesting facts, such as:

To avoid smacking into the unyielding, or being waylaid by brigands, people often secured the services of linkboys—so called because they carried torches known as links made from stout lengths of rope soaked in resin or some other combustible material—to see them home. Unfortunately, the linkboys themselves couldn’t always be trusted and sometimes led their customers into back alleys where they or their confederates relieved the hapless customers of money and silken items.
Within the animal kingdom only humans and guinea pigs are unable to synthesize vitamin C in their own bodies. Why us and guinea pigs? No point asking. Nobody knows.
Thomas Coryate, an author and traveler from the time of Shakespeare who was famous for walking huge distances—including once to India. In 1611, he produced his magnum opus, Coryate’s Crudities, in which he gave much praise to the dinner fork, which he had first encountered in Italy. The same book was also notable for introducing English readers to the Swiss folk hero William Tell and to a new device called the umbrella.
Bats are also critical to the survival in the wild of avocados, balsa, bananas, breadfruit, cashews, cloves, dates, figs, guavas, mangoes, peaches, and saguaro cactus, among others. The world has far more bats than most people realize. In fact, about a quarter of all mammal species—some eleven hundred in all—are bats.
People who drank milk in America sometimes grew delirious and swiftly died—Abraham Lincoln’s mother was one such victim—but infected milk tasted and smelled no different from ordinary milk, and no one knew what the infectious agent was. Not until well into the nineteenth century did anyone finally deduce that it came from cows grazing on a plant called white snakeroot, which was harmless to the cows but made their milk toxic to drink.

That is only a very small sampling of a most interesting book. Highly recommended.



1. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

This book for me ranks just under Kafka and Windup Bird in the Murakami canon. I think this is the most emotionally charged of all his works, as the theme of loss of friends and growing old and lonely is more universal than the suicide of close friends.  (Though that crops up too, of course). Others have been less impressed, but for me the experience of reading this was superb, as I read this on a weekend visa run to Japan and finished it in an overnight Manga Cafe.


7 thoughts on “Top 5 books for 2015

  1. Some of those look really fun. (I read Max Barry’s Jennifer Government way back and didn’t know he was still out there, still writing. He strikes me as a more intelligent Jim Munroe: focused on the issues of today, but talking about them in a more thoughtful and interesting way.) Shaman has been on my list for a while, as has Bacigalupi generally. (I was reading an earlier book of his and it got interrupted by our leaving Korea; I want to get back to it, but can’t find the hardback.) And the Murakami is interesting: I feel like he peaked a Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and have been leery to read anything newer.

    Oh, but the Vitamin C thing?

    “Within the animal kingdom only humans and guinea pigs are unable to synthesize vitamin C in their own bodies. Why us and guinea pigs? No point asking. Nobody knows.”

    Well, he’s missing at least part of the picture:

    Most simians (and also tarsiers) can’t. Certain birds can’t. And, hey, bats—half of all mammal species!—can’t, according to Wikipedia anyway.

    (The evolution bit below is interesting, too—uric acid taking on some of the function of ascorbic acid in humans—but from what I’ve read, it’s more a case of there being no genetic selection punishment serious enough to punish mutations involving the loss of vitamin C synthesis; when and where it happened, fresh fruit would have been plentiful enough that the loss didn’t hurt our (far-back) ancestors, much less play a role in determining their survival and propagation. *shrug*)

    Good stuff here:

    • Ha, I think Bryson is probably often quite incorrect but I don’t really care. He can tell me all the half-truths and outright lies that he wants to.

      I don’t know who Jim Munroe is. But I like pretty much all of Barry’s work. Jennifer Government and Syrup look increasingly prescient as time goes on. This was an ambitious step up for him though.

      I kind of thought the same about Murakami but this book was pretty good, to me. Not entirely a different note than his other work, but slightly off-kilter.

      • Munroe is the Adbusters guy. His first novel is basically a TEFL-Expat book, based on his experiences teaching English in Korea, except recast as if he’s teaching English on an alien planet. Which sounds like a really interesting premise, but the execution is pretty lacking… not just because it really does come off as, “Ha, Koreans are aliens!” if you know what he’s doing, but also because it’s all so thinly veiled. (The aliens all drink a substance called “ujos” for example.) In other words, I think it’s poorly done transrealist writing (if you know the term as Rudy Rucker uses it). I ranted a bit about that here… wow, eight years ago:

        Munroe and Barry both seem to want to critique consumer capitalism. Muroe does it better in the magazine, though, I think because Barry also wants to write an entertaining and intelligent book. I’ve only read Jennifer Government (back in 2006, I think?):

        … and liked it a lot better. Though I see, looking back, that it was reading JG that I realized satire had lost whatever political power it might once have had. Huh! Funny to think I ever believed it had any real-world political power anytime in my lifetime. (In Swift’s, sure, and probably in the 19th century, maybe even earlier in the 20th, but I think the rise of corporations as legal entities-unto-themselves, and our general dumbing-down and YAification has probably terminated whatever power was left in satire as an active force for critique and intellectual combat.)

        I’ll have to check out Lexicon. By the way, did you ever play the web game that Max Barry built? It was called NationStates. Good fun, and a cool spinoff from the book. Back when I lived in Jeonju, a bunch of us in a shared office were all playing it, and many of them hadn’t even read Barry’s book. I have no idea whether anyone’s still playing, but it’s still up now:

        As for Bryson, it just annoys me when people can’t be bothered to check their facts and claims. I mean, the loss of Vitamin C biosynthesis isn’t a huge black hole mystery, and misrepresenting that probably only helps people who’d prefer people believe that evolution is “just a theory” and so on. I wouldn’t mind if it were fiction, but in a nonfiction book, well… there shouldn’t be fiction passed off as nonfiction. (Hell, I write mostly fiction and yet I research like a dog to get things right, and care when I get them wrong!) Anyway… Bryson doesn’t have to care, I suppose: he sells enough without fact-checking. But I am happy to know I’m not alone: Googling “Bill Bryson fact check” brings up a lot of rants. 🙂

  2. I’ve heard of Adbusters but have no idea of what it is. Nor did I know about that game. Looks sweet!

    As to satire, that is interesting. I never really thought about it before but I’d have guessed that it has been in the intellectual critique zone for a while know. Did “Modest Proposal” enact real change on a legal or social scale?

    • Oh, I think you’d get a kick out of Adbusters: basically it’s a Canadian anti-consumerist/environmentalist magazine. (It was involved in the launch of Buy Nothing Day, for example.) Munroe was a big contributor when I occasionally picked it up, back in the old country.

      As for satire, I think Swift shaped the discussion of the treatment of the Irish within the British Empire. Writers had a kind of power to shape popular discourse then, that I think (to a degree) filmmakers and TV showrunners have now. (The way a film like Dead Man Walking or its Korean equivalent, 우리들의 행복한 시간, shaped the discussion of the Death Penalty, for example.) Swift, John Gay (in terms of The Beggar’s Opera), Pope… yeah, I think they did affect their world. Direct legal change, no, but an influence on how people talked and thought, and a subtle influence on public opinion, which informed everything from the mobs rampaging in the streets, to what the politicians could get away with? Oh yes. There’s a reason the government was so censorious of Augustan plays… for example, all the mockery of Walpole’s corruption in The Beggar’s Opera ensured that the sequel would be banned.

      The thing is, it was possible to shame Walpole: organized public shaming was one of those things that was pioneered in big cities, and was the prime mode of punishment for crimes, whether institutional (pillorying and mob attacks) or subversive (satirical plays and poems). I think it’s much harder to shame corporations and people with power and money, and that has everything to do with Louis Bernays and those who followed.

      • Ah yeah I have seen Adbusters around. Always wondered at the high price tag of it, though maybe that’s just me not understanding how the world works.

        Interesting point about another aspect of corporationization of the world. There is no human face to feel shame. Although come to think of it, hasn’t Anonymous sort of taken over that role? Not the satirical aspect, perhaps, but the public shaming?

      • Hey,

        I had a whole long reply written, which didn’t go through but which, somehow, was still in the cache on the machine at work where I wrote it. Yay! Here it is:


        Well, most magazines are cheaper because they sell a lot more ads than Adbusters, I guess? I haven’t seen an issue in over a decade, though.

        As for Anonymous: well, kind of, but I think it’s a different game now. For one thing, the number of crimes or sins that effectively can destroy a person’s life has contracted severely: you pretty much have to do things on the scale of Bill Cosby or Jian Gomeshi now to become persona non grata, and even that seems not completely irrevocable.

        Some of that contraction is probably a good thing, of course. It’s always been a case of plenty of monstrous things being condoned, while things that are nobody else’s business being kept secret for fear of public ruination. (And also, because public shaming run off accusation alone has always been a dangerous machine that can run out of control: the mobs and scandals of the 17th and 18th century closely mirror the kinds of irate pile-ons we see on Twitter today.)

        But I think the biggest thing is that, essentially, public shaming was transformed (by the birth of the advertising and propaganda industries) into a sort of “game,” in the way warfare long ago was. You have a PR problem, you hire someone who knows the game and can spin things in your favor. It’s become a wargame of sorts.

        That’s something that became much clearer when I came to Korea and noticed it hasn’t made that leap here yet: when companies get caught out for all kinds of horrible things — like, say, using rotten food washed in raw sewage in mandu:

        or selling Vitamin C drinks with benzene (a carcinogen) in them, or selling humidifier cleaner so toxic it killed a bunch of people a few years ago, a Korean company doing horrible things in some third world country, the time the defense minister halfway used the Korean equivalent of the N word in a press conference (while explaining that Africa is “full of ignorant blacks running around”), or even just being an unpopular politician, Korean society seems mostly to lack (not completely, but mostly) the whole PR game thing. The usual responses seem to include:

        – ritual suicide, accompanied by a letter begging forgiveness,
        – silence, or a cover-up, or
        – a dictatorship-era styled crackdown on “disrespect” or “dissent”

        They haven’t figured out that spin is a game that can be played… I think in part probably because the media is so cozily complicit with power, and in part because the big companies are run by people who just don’t grok the whole spin thing quite so well. (The degree of bizarre involution one sees in corporate culture here makes this unsurprising, of course: getting a job at a big company, for a Korean, can be like joining a religion, complete with an economic theology.)

        All of which just throws light on just how wargamified spin and PR have become back in the English-speaking world, and how much like a spectator sport it’s become in the narratives we tell about business and government alike.

        A great comparison is the involvement of the British company Vedanta and the S. Korean company POSCO over in Orissa. Contemporaneous, similar situations, similar accusations, yet Vedanta and the problems related were widely reported in Britain; meanwhile, we only turned up two or three little indie magazine articles about POSCO when we made the comparison in my Business Across Cultures class years ago. (And one of them went down the memory hole within the week my class studied it.)

        I am guessing that’s what scandal and shame was like in English media and cultures a few generations ago: if you can cover it up, cover it up;if you can’t, brazenly ignore it, or fall on your sword. Having a (somewhat better) adversarial press forced our institutions to find another solution to the problem of scandal… for a while, anyway. Hm.

        I’m rambling. I’ll stop, except to say I really recommend the documentary THE CENTURY OF THE SELF… it deals with a lot of the advertising/spin stuff I mention above, and more as well. (Assuming you haven’t seen it, though you could easily have.)

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