Eight books I read in 2016 and I recommend (plus two that I don't)

As the time of the year dictates, I am compiling a list of interesting books I read in the past 12 months. How do I define interesting? I consider books interesting if they somehow gave me either a new perspective or some nice moments of relaxation. I separated the recommendations based on categories, so that it is easier to follow, and wrote a short explanation of why I found each book worth sharing.

History/Culture

A Long walk to freedom: The autobiography of Nelson Mandela

As I am soon traveling to South Africa, I thought it would be good to know a little bit more about it recent history and all the dealings regarding the apartheid. And what would have been better than reading the autobiography of one of the most involved people in the struggle against apartheid? This was Mandela’s ‘long walk to freedom’ and boy, that was indeed a long walk. This is not a book to finish in one sit, although it is definitely a book that you cannot easily let down. The language is very manageable and the flow of the story and ideas is really fluid.

This is a complete story of Mandela’s life, up until he became the president of South Africa. It is an inspiring story that demonstrates the difficulties of a freedom fighter. Not only the physical but also the mental ones, as we see how Mandela has questioned over and over his decision to be a freedom fighter. Even if the result of his questioning remained the same over the decades, it is important to demonstrate and realise that such questioning does not stop.

I definitely advise it for anyone who is interested in the recent history of South Africa and of the life of a remarkable leader.


The Japanese Mind: Understanding contemporary Japanese culture

I started reading this book right before going for a month in Japan for a trip, and I must say it was very useful. It’s a collection of essays written by Japanese university students about various aspects of Japanese culture and mentality. They explain concepts such as ‘Aimai’ (Ambiguity in different forms of communication), ‘Giri’ (Sense of obligation among Japanese), ‘Kenkyo’ (the Japanese virtue of modesty), or ‘Zoto’ (the Japanese custom of gift giving). It even touches on some more ‘intimate’ topics such as the way Japanese funerals are conducted (Soshiki) and some of the symbols surrounding them.

It’s very difficult to know if all the details provided are accurate (We were there for just a month), but based on some discussions I had with Japanese people, they seem to confirm what the book is saying. Knowing some of these aspects of Japanese culture helped us experience Japan with a completely different mindset and even observe some small details regarding clothing or food.

Some repetition exists in the book, but that is because each chapter is a self-standing essay and they can be read in any order. Still though, I think that one or two topics could be skipped or merged with others by the editors of the book.


Tintin: Herge’s masterpiece

We received this book as a gift from some Belgian friends, as we recently moved out of the country where Tintin was born. And since Tintin is kinda a legend there, it was a very appropriate gift to remember this country and all its pleasant moments.

The book is a very nice and the binding is quite luxurious with beautiful shiny pages. It starts with the story of Herge’s childhood and up until he started drawing for a living. There are a lot of illustrations showing the original drawings of Herge and how he came to create Tintin. The biggest part of the book is devoted in explaining the character of Tintin and the forces that shaped him. Afterwards the author is doing the same for the main characters involved in Tintin’s stories: Mileu, Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, Bianca Castafiore and of course the Thomson twins. Finally, the last part of the book is devoted to the personal life of Herge and his passion for modern art.

Although at some points the book was idolising both the creator and the creation (it’s a biography after all), it gave a very nice feeling of nostalgia and made me want to read again some of the Tintin issues.


Science/Technology

Quantum mechanics: The theoretical minimum

This book has been an extraordinary journey in the world of Quantum Mechanics. It is definitely not an easy job, especially if your physics definitions are a bit rusty. It took me quite some months to finish it, but I can say that it totally worth the effort to understand every single concept explained in this book. It is a self-contained introduction to Quantum Mechanics and you need very little to go through it, besides what is already in the book. The only things you need is courage, persistence and an open mind for grasping a totally new way of thinking about the world.

The authors are starting with the very basic definitions of experiments, states and algebra that is needed to understand the rest. There is abundant humor spread in the book, but not too much to make the book a comic one. It is just a way that the authors are trying to set our minds in the creative state that is needed to understand the quantum world.

This is really a great introduction to fundamental Quantum Mechanics, which might allow you to go deeper in the field and sub-fields. However, it is just the current state of how QM is described and not a historical review of how we ended up here. If you’re looking for a historical overview, then its best if you try something else.


Bitcoin for the befuddled

I guess the level of satisfaction you will get from this book, depends heavily from the level of experience you have with the bitcoin payment system and the blockchain technology. I don’t think this book is targeted to people that are totally new to bitcoin, even though it might be advertised this way.

The reason why I am saying this is because some parts are not covered in enough detail, especially at the beginning of the book. In some cases (not so many though) some terms are left hanging without explanation, something that might hinder the complete novice from grasping the whole picture correctly. However, the level of detail and explanation is improving as you progress with the book and things might become more clear if you are willing to jump back to earlier chapters to review the unclear parts.

As a not totally new, neither super experienced user, I learned a lot from this book. It covers the cryptographic methods used in bitcoin in very good detail, which is something I really appreciated. On top of that, it goes through some ‘unorthodox’ ways of using bitcoin, its wallets, and payment schemes that I had never thought of.

So, if you are a total novice, expect a hard read ahead of you, but if you have some experience with the cryptocurrency, then I definitely advise you to give it a go.


The double helix: A personal account on the discovery of the structure of DNA

I found this book at the annual book sale of the library of KU Leuven (they literally sell books by the kilogram!) and it immediately grabbed my attention. It is a story, as told by James D. Watson, on how they made one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century: the structure of the DNA, the building block of all life on earth. It was very fascinating to read as a scientist myself, because it allows to see all the details of a race towards the holy grail of that period. Different scientists from around the world trying at the same time to answer the same question. And because it allows to see that who gets the answer is not always the one that puts the most work, but the one that things differently and out-of-the-box.

It is a very interesting book, very light and easy to read. Even though a big part of the book is consumed on non important matters and persons that are not necessarily related with the story, you get a picture of how did the world of biology, chemistry and science in general looked like back in the 1970s. I suppose it might be more fun to read if you know some of the people mentioned in the book, but it can be a fun read even for anyone.


Fiction

Snow crash

When I heard about this book, it was part of a ‘The best 10 sci-fi books’, or something like that. I am usually sceptical about such lists, but I wanted a good read so I thought of giving it a try.

It TOTALLY worth it.

What I liked about this book was the level of innovation in the story-line. Yes, you can come up with very weird things happening in your books: aliens with tentacles, underground civilisations, planets with 3 moons and five suns, but this story was uniquely innovative because of the level of realism that it contained. It was innovative without being far fetched, and the main level of innovation was not on the weapons used (the Protagonist was using katanas!), scenery (the story was unfolding on Earth), or weird creatures (there were only humans involved). It was on the complexity of an idea, of how can humans be controlled. This idea was based on heavy research that the author did and sounded to me like a very very clever and solid idea. Imagine that just today I head of something very similar happening in real life as in the book (spoiler alert)

In any case, I really enjoyed reading this book and I would mention it indeed as one of the best 10 sci-fi books I have ever read.


Aphorisms on love and hate

This little book is part of penguin little black classics, a series of 80 small publications of the most classic writers of all times. They cover authors such as Plato, Dante, Chekhov, Kipling, Dostoyevsky and others just to give you an idea.

This specific one is a compilation of extracts of Nietzsche’s works. It is not a complete work, and sometimes this compilation of extracts might give you the idea that there is some coherence in the ideas that are mentioned, but if you pay attention to the title, you will realise it is indeed Aphorisms. Just ramblings of the author on some things that were passing through his mind at the time and thought he has a good idea about.

What I liked about this book is not so much the ideas explained, but more this light feeling of ‘rambling’ and taking about various ideas. It gave me inspiration to go on with these and other ramblings in my head and with others. Such ramblings can sometimes lead to very deep revelations that can change your mindset forever.


…and the two non-recommendations

Memoirs of a geisha

The second book I read while visiting Japan, this is an account on the life of a Geisha. Whether is it a true account or not, I don’t know. I guess it is something that you have to figure out yourself.

The language, the plot and the details the author places are very vivid and detailed. It was not a book I would easily put down to take a break. And throughout the book I got the impression that this story is a true one. Therefore I started building impressions about the life of a Geisha and of life in Japan before and during the World War II. Being in Japan while reading this book also helped on building this image.

  • spoiler alert *

However, something happens in the book that left me wondering: is this indeed a real story or a made up on by an author living far away from Japan, having seen a Geisha only once when he was a child? There was something unrealistic in the story. So unrealistic that made me realise that actually everything that I read might have been the product of fiction and could not therefore build solid conclusions on the life of a Geisha.

It was a bitter feeling, but a useful feeling to have when reading books. Books are impressions of stories, not stories themselves.

In any case, good read, but don’t take it too seriously :)


A smart’s girl guide to privacy

I am passionate about privacy. And probably that was the reason why I got interest in this book. Even if I am not a woman, I still believe that women are more exposed than men when active on the internet (and not only) and should take greater care for their own good. So I was curious to know what more can women do to protect themselves, and maybe get some ideas for myself as well.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get much out of this book. Maybe it has to do with my experience and my obsession with security and privacy, but I found it a very dry book with very low information density. Biggest part of the book was spend on showing how bad-ass the author is. It felt like she was angry at the whole world, just because some people are stupid or evil on the internet. In my opinion this book could have easily been a 15 page manual with checklists and some examples.


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