Jerusalem (Delisle)

I’m really getting like Delisle’s travelogues. This one is substantially longer than the others I’ve read, and is also particularly pretty. It documents the one year he spent in Jerusalem with his family while his wife worked for an NGO. There are a few small adventures, but as usual, what’s really enjoyable is you get a sense of Delisle’s personal experience of the place – not just its sights and people, but how at times he felt frustrated, bored, confused, and so forth. He does such a good job of capturing the feel of his experience by sharing small moments. Wonderful stuff.

Jerusalem (Delisle)

From Bacteria to Bach and Back

I dunno. I mean, there are lots of neat parts in this book, on topics ranging from the evolution of consciousness to the implications of strong AI, but… I guess it just doesn’t coalesce for me. The book is extremely discursive, and I ended up feeling like I was either too stupid to get how it all fit together (still a live possibility) or that this book didn’t so much explain consciousness as talk about a bunch of somewhat relevant related topics.

I also found the discussion of memetics unconvincing. Dennett brings up the fact that many cultural historians feel “memetics” is just a reframing of what they’ve been doing for years. Dennett takes up this argument on the memetics side, but the discussion felt largely semantic to me.

From Bacteria to Bach and Back (Dennett)

Life’s Greatest Secret

This book is hard to describe. It’s partially a history of how we came to understand DNA as the unit of heredity, but also a discussion concerning how information theory has been applied to DNA, sometimes with success and sometimes without. It’s also a discussion of future uses of tools for manipulating the molecules of life. It’s also a discussion, especially toward the end, of philosophy of biology.

In addition to all this, it’s extremely detailed, both in its description of science and history. It’s not exactly light reading, and that’s a good thing. In particular, it offers an in-depth section on the famed race for the double helix. For better or worse, with the added detail, a lot of the drama is gone. In fact, according to Cobb, some of the more interesting moments from James Watson’s famous book didn’t actually happen.

Anyway, it’s not always an easy book, especially when it gets into the minutiae of specific experiments, but it’s pretty darn excellent. Recommended, especially if you’re into biology or the philosophy of biology.

Life’s Greatest Secret (Cobb)

The Righteous Mind

This book was recommended to me by a friend, and I’ll recommend it to you. There’s a lot here, so I won’t try to unpack it all. But, the basic core here is that it’s a book about moral psychology, or what you might call an empirical look at human morality. The author argues that different cultures and groups (he puts especial focus on liberals vs. conservatives vs. libertarians) often disagree because their moral frameworks emphasize different aspects of shared moral values. This is interesting on its own, but Haidt adds an argument about how and why humans tend to view their personal moral value system as the only true one, which results in uncooperative “righteous” behavior.

This is an interesting approach, especially in that it turns what most people would call “outrage” into “righteousness” which reframes it in a way that’s interesting to consider.

I’m not sure I’m down for all of it. In particular, there’s an argument about group selection that (like a lot of arguments about multi-level selection theory) seems to me to be semantic to a large degree, and perhaps to overplay the idea that group selection is some sort of scientific heresy. At least in my experience talking to biologists, the general view has been “there’s a version of group selection that, if defined the right way, we all accept.” But, maybe that’s my limited view as someone who wasn’t a biologist in the 70s, and who hasn’t ever picked a fight with Richard Dawkins.

But, Haidt does a great job of offering a pathway to understanding each other in an increasingly polarized political climate. That, and all the interesting facts and arguments, make this a very enjoyable read.

The Righteous Mind (Haidt)

A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge

I really enjoyed this comic book. Before I get into it, let me just say by the way that, as a cartoonist, I appreciate Neufeld’s dedication to drawing gorgeous and detailed backgrounds. There’s no cheating in this book, from an artistic perspective.

This is all the more impressive given that the book is really a piece of reporting. It’s not attempting to be literary or exactly beautiful. Rather, it’s a pretty high fidelity retelling of the stories related by seven people of different backgrounds who survived Hurricane Katrina.

That said, it’s not without great moments. For instance, there’s a part where the characters trapped in New Orleans find that the only people maintaining order and keeping thirsty people alive are the “thugs” who are willing to rob local stores to supply water. The almost science fictional seeming militarization of the city is also very striking. One scene describes a man in a boat coming to a hospital to ask for help for his baby. He is turned away by guards with guns, although people on the upper floors of the hospital throw food and water to him before he goes on his way.

I usually have a gripe about memoirs that present bare facts rather than trying to make sense of it all, but A.D. is really more of a report than a memoir, and on those terms it succeeds fabulously.

A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge (Neufeld)

Till We Have Faces

Confession 1: I didn’t enjoy the Narnia books. In fairness, I only read two before I felt I’d had enough. But, there it is. The characters seemed ludicrously non-reactive to the extreme circumstances they faced, and the plot (as I recall) seemed to be a grabbag of whimsy that more or less went nowhere as you waited for Aslan to show up.

In fairness, I was not raised as a Christian, and I was only later told about the apparently blatant use of Christian imagery. So, perhaps part of my confusion about the books’ popularity came from entirely missing the point. Then again, perhaps this is why the old religions (it seems to me) are so much more adept at creating compelling epics. What meaning is there in Gilgamesh’s questing or Odysseus’ journey if there is a single omniscient abstraction orchestrating the whole thing?

Till We Have Faces still carries plenty of Christian imagery. In fact, the main character is torn between her local pagan religion, with its funny smells and magical irrationalities, and the skeptical atheistic tradition embodied by a Greek advisor to her family. Of course, she ends up more drawn to something vaguely related to Lewis’ vision of Christianity.

Fine. Now, set that all aside, and realize that this is a wonderful book. The main character, an old woman telling her own history, is absolutely fantastically crafted. There is a richness of understanding in this book, which Lewis contemplated his whole life only to write in his old age. Everywhere is profundity – in the politics of the world, in the various characters, in the way passing time twists understanding of previous events. I, who am not generally a fan of CS Lewis, adored this book. Considering its relative shortness, the emotional depth is remarkable.

Till We Have Faces (Lewis)


These DeLisle books are just delightful. They’re light and fun, but you really get a feel for his experiences going to work in other countries. This one was less funny than the North Korea one, but as a comic I think it was better. He does such a good job of capturing the feeling of loneliness and isolation he experienced. In part this is accomplished by developing a set of silent images for different people and places in the city. These images recur over the course of a book that is sometimes funny and sometimes sad, but either way serves very well to convey his experience as a guy who doesn’t speak Chinese going to work in a city with few English speakers. Highly recommended.

Shenzhen (DeLisle)


This was a solid pop science book on how diseases spread, and what we’re doing (or not doing!) to stop them. The book is structured according to human behaviors vis-a-vis diseases, and also uses cholera as a particular case of a disease with which to weave together the general complexity of epidemiology. I found the overall book a bit disjointed, though many individual parts were quite enjoyable. That said, overall I would’ve liked a bit more depth, especially in the sections concerned with policy.

Pandemic (Shah)