Thursday, December 15, 2011

Top 10 Science Books of 2011

The story of information begins in a time profoundly unlike our own, when every thought and utterance vanishes as soon as it is born. From the invention of scripts and alphabets to the long-misunderstood talking drums of Africa, Gleick tells the story of information technologies that changed the very nature of human consciousness. He provides portraits of the key figures contributing to the inexorable development of our modern understanding of information: Charles Babbage, the idiosyncratic inventor of the first great mechanical computer; Ada Byron, the brilliant and doomed daughter of the poet, who became the first true programmer; pivotal figures like Samuel Morse and Alan Turing; and Claude Shannon, the creator of information theory itself.

And then the information age arrives. Citizens of this world become experts willy-nilly: aficionados of bits and bytes. And we sometimes feel we are drowning, swept by a deluge of signs and signals, news and images, blogs and tweets. The Information is the story of how we got here and where we are heading.

In Willpower, the pioneering researcher Roy F. Baumeister collaborates with renowned New York Times science writer John Tierney to revolutionize our understanding of the most coveted human virtue: self-control.
In what became one of the most cited papers in social science literature, Baumeister discovered that willpower actually operates like a muscle: it can be strengthened with practice and fatigued by overuse. Willpower is fueled by glucose, and it can be bolstered simply by replenishing the brain's store of fuel. That's why eating and sleeping- and especially failing to do either of those-have such dramatic effects on self-control (and why dieters have such a hard time resisting temptation).

Drawing on decades of research in psychology that resulted in a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, Daniel Kahneman takes readers on an exploration of what influences thought example by example, sometimes with unlikely word pairs like "vomit and banana." System 1 and System 2, the fast and slow types of thinking, become characters that illustrate the psychology behind things we think we understand but really don't, such as intuition. Kahneman's transparent and careful treatment of his subject has the potential to change how we think, not just about thinking, but about how we live our lives. Thinking, Fast and Slow gives deep--and sometimes frightening--insight about what goes on inside our heads: the psychological basis for reactions, judgments, recognition, choices, conclusions, and much more.  --JoVon Sotak

From Marie Curie to x-rays to the Manhattan Project, Radioactivity traces the history of atomic physics and its transformation from a fringe science into a field that seized the popular and political imagination with discovery after spectacular discovery. Marjorie C. Malley shows that the discovery of radioactivity had profound consequences besides The Bomb: it allowed women more opportunities to become scientists; it helped doctors treat cancer and diagnose battlefield wounds more effectively; it prompted scientists to reconsider some of the most fundamental rules of physics. And inevitably, it became yet another arena for political gamesmanship during the early 20th century. Like the Very Short Introductions series, Radioactivity is an efficient and straightforward guide to the history of a science whose endpoints are well-known, but whose growth and development have remained underappreciated for a long time. --Darryl Campbell

The Psychopath Test is a fascinating journey through the minds of madness. Jon Ronson's exploration of a potential hoax being played on the world's top neurologists takes him, unexpectedly, into the heart of the madness industry. An influential psychologist who is convinced that many important CEOs and politicians are, in fact, psychopaths teaches Ronson how to spot these high-flying individuals by looking out for little telltale verbal and nonverbal clues. And so Ronson, armed with his new psychopath-spotting abilities, enters the corridors of power. He spends time with a death-squad leader institutionalized for mortgage fraud in Coxsackie, New York; a legendary CEO whose psychopathy has been speculated about in the press; and a patient in an asylum for the criminally insane who insists he's sane and certainly not a psychopath.

Ronson not only solves the mystery of the hoax but also discovers, disturbingly, that sometimes the personalities at the helm of the madness industry are, with their drives and obsessions, as mad in their own way as those they study. And that relatively ordinary people are, more and more, defined by their maddest edges.

Top 10 Science Books of 2011

If the conscious mind—the part you consider to be you—is just the tip of the iceberg, what is the rest doing?
In this sparkling and provocative new book, the renowned neuroscientist David Eagleman navigates the depths of the subconscious brain to illuminate surprising mysteries: Why can your foot move halfway to the brake pedal before you become consciously aware of danger ahead? Why do you hear your name being mentioned in a conversation that you didn’t think you were listening to? What do Ulysses and the credit crunch have in common? Why did Thomas Edison electrocute an elephant in 1916? Why are people whose names begin with J more likely to marry other people whose names begin with J? Why is it so difficult to keep a secret? And how is it possible to get angry at yourself—who, exactly, is mad at whom?
Taking in brain damage, plane spotting, dating, drugs, beauty, infidelity, synesthesia, criminal law, artificial intelligence, and visual illusions, Incognito is a thrilling subsurface exploration of the mind and all its contradictions.

Faced with the ceaseless stream of news about war, crime, and terrorism, one could easily think we live in the most violent age ever seen. Yet as New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker shows in this startling and engaging new work, just the opposite is true: violence has been diminishing for millennia and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species's existence. For most of history, war, slavery, infanticide, child abuse, assassinations, pogroms, gruesome punishments, deadly quarrels, and genocide were ordinary features of life. But today, Pinker shows (with the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps) all these forms of violence have dwindled and are widely condemned. How has this happened?

Following in the footsteps of Leonardo da Vinci and Jules Verne, Kaku, author of a handful of books about science, looks into the not-so-distant future and envisions what the world will look like. It should be an exciting place, with driverless cars, Internet glasses, universal translators, robot surgeons, the resurrection of extinct life forms, designer children, space tourism, a manned mission to Mars, none of which turn out to be as science-fictiony as they sound. In fact, the most exciting thing about the book is the fact that most of the developments Kaku discusses can be directly extrapolated from existing technologies. Robot surgeons and driverless cars, for example, already exist in rudimentary forms. Kaku, a physics professor and one of the originators of the string field theory (an offshoot of the more general string theory), draws on current research to show how, in a very real sense, our future has already been written. The book’s lively, user-friendly style should appeal equally to fans of science fiction and popular science. --David Pitt

Take any of physics' major theories of the fundamental nature of the universe, extrapolate its math to the logical extreme, and you get some version of a (so far unobservable) parallel universe. And who better to navigate these hypothetical versions of the "multiverse" than Brian Greene? Normally an unflinching apologist for string theory, the bestselling author of The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos here treats all viable alternate realities to a laudably fair shake. For a book exploring the most far-reaching implications of bleeding-edge mathematics, The Hidden Reality is surprisingly light on math, written as it is "for a broad audience … its only prerequisite the will to persevere." Such perseverance pays off with a motley cast of potential universes featuring doppelgängers, strings, branes, quantum probabilities, holographs, and simulated worlds. The result is that rare accomplishment in science writing for a popular audience: a volume that explains the science and its consequences while stimulating the imagination of even the uninitiated.

The next twenty years will be completely unlike the last twenty years. The decisions you make today are critical.The world is in economic crisis, and there are no easy fixes to our predicament. Unsustainable trends in the economy, energy, and the environment have finally caught up with us and are converging on a very narrow window of time—the "Twenty-Teens." With solid facts and grounded reasoning presented in a calm, nonpartisan manner, The Crash Course explains our predicament and illuminates the path ahead so you can face the coming disruptions without fearing the future or retreating into denial.

Our money system places impossible demands upon a finite world. Exponentially rising levels of debt, based on assumptions of future economic growth to fund repayment, have shuddered to a halt and are reversing, with severe and lasting consequences.

Oil is essential for economic growth. The reality of dwindling oil supplies is now internationally recognized, yet virtually no developed nations have a Plan B. The economic risks to individuals, companies, and countries are varied and enormous. Best case: living standards will drop steadily worldwide. Worst case: systemic financial crises will toss the world into jarring chaos.

This book is written for those who are motivated to learn about the root causes of our predicaments in order to protect themselves and their families, mitigate risks as much as possible, and control what effects they can. With challenge comes opportunity. The Crash Course offers a positive vision for how our lives can become more balanced, resilient, and sustainable.

Read The Top 10 Science Books of 2011 on the Kindle or the new Kindle Fire.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Top 10 Children's Books of 2011

Get a Kindle today to read the Top 10 Children's Books of 2011 for just $79! 

1.  Tumford the Terrible, by Nancy Tillman
Tumford isn’t really a terrible cat. He just has a way of finding mischief—tracking dirt into the house, knocking over breakable things, and disrupting fancy parties. But even though he feels bad, he has a hard time saying, “I’m sorry.” Will the fact that his owners love him, no matter what, help Tummy say the magic words?

Three cheers for The Loud Book! The delightful duo that created The Quiet Book have once again brought their bestselling talent to bear, as Liwska’s adorable animals perfectly express Underwood’s boisterous text. From "last slurp loud" and "walking-to-school song loud" to "belly flop loud", this playful picture book is bound to elicit the sounds of “read it again!” loud.

Tullet's brilliant creation proves that books need not lose out to electronic wizardry; his colorful dots perform every bit as engagingly as any on the screen of an iPad. "Ready?" the voiceover-style narration asks on the first page; it shows a yellow dot on a plain white background. "Press here and turn the page," it instructs. When the page is turned, there's a second yellow dot beside the first one. "Great!" it says. "Now press the yellow dot again." A third yellow dot appears beside the first two. "Perfect," the narrator continues. "Rub the dot on the left... gently." On the next page, voila!—that dot is now red. "Well done!" the book congratulates. The fun continues as the dots proliferate, travel around the page, grow and shrink in response to commands to clap, shake, or tilt the book, etc. The joy is in the tacit agreement between artist and reader that what's happening is magic. Shh! Don't tell. All ages.

A lush, haunting story that brings together a grandmother and her grandchild. When Suhaila ask her mother, "What was Grandma Annie like?" the answer comes, "She was like the moon . . . full, soft, and curious." And that night a ladder to the moon appears with Grandma Annie waiting to take Suhaila to the sky. Together they listen to moon songs, but then they hear other voices: swimmers struggling against high waves, and sisters in two swaying towers. All are invited to come and rest and drink "sweet moondew from silver teacups." These experiences, especially observing so many on earth praying to "make the fighting stop," have an effect on Suhaila, who now knows "more than she had known before." Once home, Suhaila realizes she has changed, having helped others learn and heal. Soetoro-Ng, sister of Barack Obama, has written this story of compassion as a tribute to their mother. Not every listener will understand the particulars or references, but the evocative words will wash over them, and they will respond to the expressed feelings of empathy and love. It's hard to imagine a more perfect illustrator for this text than Morales, whose rounded shapes, sunset colors, and softness and strength mirror the words. Morales captures the luminosity of both the sky and the people on earth striving and straining to make the world a better place. The endnotes by author and artist add insight into a book meant to be discussed.

One bright spring day a little white rabbit sets out from home on an adventure. What does he find? Look! Everything is new. Anything is possible…

Top 10 Children's Books of 2011

Eight-year-old Billy gives a flamboyant show-and-tell presentation, reciting for the class and his hapless teacher Mrs. Krupp, all the professions he has in mind for his future. From master snail trainer to dinosaur-dusting museum curator, the possibilities he imagines are seemingly endless. Billy’s great-grandfather is his inspiration, having had many different jobs and who, at age 103, still doesn’t know what he wants to be. Billy’s carefree enthusiasm is contagious, and the bubbling rhythm of When I Grow Up makes it a lively read-aloud.

When Betty Bunny eats chocolate cake for the first time, she declares, "I am going to marry chocolate cake." She loves it so much that she takes a piece to school with her in her pocket and refuses to eat anything else. Mommy tells Betty that she has to eat healthy food first, and have patience because cake is for dessert, not pockets. But Betty doesn't want to have patience; she wants to have chocolate cake!

In this hilarious and spot-on tribute to the chocolate lover (and picky eater) in all of us, a new kindred spirit to Olivia, Eloise, and Ladybug Girl makes her stand.

When Rose wakes up one morning feeling royal, she dons her necklaces, bracelets, and crown. Soon the Queen of France emerges to survey her domain, disapproving of Rose’s mother’s thorny gardening choices and asking Rose’s father where the Royal Physician may be found. The odd thing is, when Rose returns to look for the Queen of France, she’s nowhere to be seen. And when the imperious queen comes back, she’s curious to know what Rose’s parents would think if she traded places with their little girl? With charming illustrations by Kady MacDonald Denton and a humorous tale by Tim Wadham, here is a sweet homage to the easy affection between parents and an imaginative child.

In I’m Not. two friends with very different personalities and talents celebrate the activities they each do well, and the one that matters most--being a true blue friend. Without becoming cliché, I'm Not. demonstrates that whether we are shy or outgoing, good at art or good at spelling, everyone brings something special to a friendship.

Ant and Grasshopper picks up Aesop’s well-worn fable, The Ant and the Grasshopper, and gives it an added twist. Day in and day out, Ant meticulously counts the beans, raisins, and other goodies he's been saving for the winter, while outside Grasshopper plays his fiddle, sings his songs, and extols Ant to come enjoy the summer sunshine. As in Aesop's, when the cruel winter comes Grasshopper begs Ant to save him for he has not prepared food or shelter. This is where the stories diverge. In Luli Gray’s version, after shutting the door on Grasshopper, Ant has a dream that awakens an appreciation for Grasshopper's musical bounty and he rushes to Grasshopper's rescue. While the original moral message about working hard and planning ahead still comes across, Ant and Grasshopper also reminds readers that valuing others' talents and showing compassion brings the greatest reward of all--friendship.

Those were the Top 10 Children's Books of 2011, please check out my other lists for more great reads.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Top 10 Fiction Books of 2011

Check out the new Kindle Fire to read The Top 10 Fiction Books of 2011 in style.  The full color 7 inch screen is great for books, TV shows, movies and much more.

The sometimes crushing power of myth, story, and memory is explored in the brilliant debut of Obreht, the youngest of the New Yorker's 20-under-40. Natalia Stefanovi, a doctor living (and, in between suspensions, practicing) in an unnamed country that's a ringer for Obreht's native Croatia, crosses the border in search of answers about the death of her beloved grandfather, who raised her on tales from the village he grew up in, and where, following German bombardment in 1941, a tiger escaped from the zoo in a nearby city and befriended a mysterious deaf-mute woman. The evolving story of the tiger's wife, as the deaf-mute becomes known, forms one of three strands that sustain the novel, the other two being Natalia's efforts to care for orphans and a wayward family who, to lift a curse, are searching for the bones of a long-dead relative; and several of her grandfather's stories about Gavran Gailé, the deathless man, whose appearances coincide with catastrophe and who may hold the key to all the stories that ensnare Natalia. Obreht is an expert at depicting history through aftermath, people through the love they inspire, and place through the stories that endure; the reflected world she creates is both immediately recognizable and a legend in its own right. Obreht is talented far beyond her years, and her unsentimental faith in language, dream, and memory is a pleasure.

A long-lost Shakespeare play surfaces in Phillips's wily fifth novel, a sublime faux memoir framed as the introduction to the play's first printing—a Modern Library edition, of course. Arthur Phillips and his twin sister, Dana, maintained an uncommon relationship with their gregarious father, a forger whose passion for the bard and for creating magic in the everyday (he takes his kids to make crop circles one night) leave lasting impressions on them both: Dana becomes a stage actress and amateur Shakespeare expert; Arthur a writer who "never much liked Shakespeare." Their father spends most of their lives in prison, but when he's about to be released as a frail old man, he enlists Arthur in securing the publication of The Tragedy of Arthur from an original quarto he claims to have purloined from a British estate decades earlier, though, as the authentication process wears on—successfully—Arthur becomes convinced the play is his father's greatest scam. Along the way, Arthur riffs on his career and ex-pat past, and, most excruciatingly, unpacks his relationship with Dana and his own romantic flailings. Then there's the play itself, which reads not unlike something written by the man from Stratford-upon-Avon. It's a tricky project, funny and brazen, smart and playful.

By the end of World War II, Silvana is a ghost of the wife Janusz once had. She and their 7-year-old son Aurek travel from Poland to England to reunite their family--a family that has been separated for 6 years. That's where 22 Britannia Road, Amanda Hodgkinson's stunning debut novel, begins. As the past unfolds from multiple points of view, it becomes clear that despite their determination to make a fresh start, the hidden secrets of the past threaten to destroy Silvana and Janusz's dreams of becoming a family once again. The irreversible events that passed during their years of separation still linger, including the horrors of war, Janusz's betrayal by a love affair with another woman, and the devastating secret that Silvana will do anything to conceal. Hodgkinson's poetic voice is impossible to forget, and the shocking and hopeful ending of her remarkable historical novel will leave readers reeling--and satisfied.

There is a simple, yet remarkable, scene in Kyung-sook Shin’s novel, Please Look After Mom, where the book’s title character visits her adult son in Seoul.  He lives in a duty office in the building where he works, because he can't afford an apartment. At night, they sleep on the floor and she offers to lie next to the wall to shield him from a draft.  “I can fall asleep better if I’m next to the wall,” she says.  And with this gesture, we catch a glimpse of the depth of love she has for her first-born and the duty-bound sacrifices she’s made on behalf her family. Please Look After Mom is the story of a mother, and her family’s search for her after she goes missing in a crowded train station, told through four richly imagined voices:  her daughter’s, her oldest son’s, her husband’s, and finally her own.  Each chapter adds a layer to the story’s depth and complexity, until we are left with an indelible portrait of a woman whose entire identity, despite her secret desires, is tied up in her children and the heartbreaking loss that is felt when family bonds loosen over time. Kyung-sook Shin’s elegantly spare prose is a joy to read, but it is the quiet interstitial space between her words, where our own remembrances and regrets are allowed to seep in, that convicts each one of us to our core.

In Espach's charming coming-of-age debut, 14-year-old Emily Vidal's life begins to veer off course at her father's 50th birthday party when he announces that he and her mother are divorcing. The birthday night ends with dad kissing the neighbor, Mrs. Resnick, in the woods, where Emily and Mrs. Resnick's son, Mark, discover them. The disorienting discoveries continue: Mark's ailing father commits suicide, and Mrs. Resnick is pregnant with Emily's dad's baby. With dad off to Prague and her mother undone by the affair and hitting the bottle, Emily loses faith in all the adults around her, even as she is becoming one of them. Emily starts an affair with an English teacher 10 years her senior, mostly to see how far she can go, which turns out to be pretty far. She and the teacher, Jonathan, who leaves teaching to become a lawyer, return to each other again and again as Emily graduates from college and moves to Prague to be with her father. Espach perfects the snarky, postironic deadpan of the 1990s and teenagers everywhere, and her ear for modern speech and eye for fresh detail transform a familiar story into an education in what it means to be a grown-up.

Top 10 Fiction Books of 2011

Out of the belly of a whale, Michael Crummey pulls the marvelous story of Paradise Deep, a remote settlement on the northern Newfoundland coast, a place "too severe and formidable, too provocative, too extravagant and singular and harrowing to be real," teeming with fierce rivalries, affections, and loyalties spanning five intertwined generations. His tale opens in a hungry winter, when a beached humpback arrives as an unexpected gift and the townspeople convene to claim their piece. From a slit in its gut spills a man--white, mute, and eerily alive--who assumes a central role in the lineage of the Divine family. Alternately feared as a devil and revered as a healer, Judah fathers a fish-scented son with the raven-haired Mary Tryphena. Their family comprises the heart of the town's rich mythology, with all its ghosts, mermaid trysts, strange accidents, miraculous babies, and impossible loves, rendered in language so gorgeously raw, it will transport you to a land whose sky is "alive with the northern lights, the roiling seines of green and red like some eerily silent music to accompany the suffering below."

Mostly set in the Lower East Side of 1980s New York City, Ten Thousand Saints is that rare book that paints scenes so vividly you can imagine the movie in your head. I wanted to live inside its pages, where I could imagine not just the scenes themselves, but the cameras, the lights, the actors reading their lines off to the sides of the set. Main character Jude Keffy-Horn--named after a Beatles song by his adoptive hippy parents--spends his high school days in small town Vermont getting high with his best friend Teddy, waiting to turn 16, when he can legally drop out. When Teddy dies of an overdose on the last day of 1987, Jude is sent to live with his pot-dealer father in New York City. Jude soon falls in with a group of straight edge Hari Krishnas, where his commitment to abstinence in all forms--drugs, sex, meat--becomes an addiction itself. Jude struggles to create an identity amongst the extreme movements taking root downtown, while his parents struggle to understand their son’s rejection of their free love culture. Author Eleanor Henderson's meticulous research into the straight edge movement in the late 1980s has opened a door to a piece of history handled with love, care, and incredibly unforgettable characters.

Nigerian immigrant Julius, a young graduate student studying psychiatry in New York City, has recently broken up with his girlfriend and spends most of his time dreamily walking around Manhattan. The majority of Open City centers on Julius’ inner thoughts as he rambles throughout the city, painting scenes of both what occurs around him and past events that he can’t help but dwell on. For reasons not altogether clear, Julius’ walks turn into worldwide travel, and he flies first to Europe, where he has an unplanned one-night stand and makes some interesting friends, then to Nigeria, and finally back to New York City. Along the way, he meets many people and often has long discussions with them about philosophy and politics. Brought up in a military school, he seems to welcome these conversations. Upon returning to New York, he meets a young Nigerian woman who profoundly changes the way he sees himself. Readers who enjoy stream-of-consciousness narratives and fiction infused with politics will find this unique and pensive book a charming read.

In State of Wonder, pharmaceutical researcher Dr. Marina Singh sets off into the Amazon jungle to find the remains and effects of a colleague who recently died under somewhat mysterious circumstances. But first she must locate Dr. Anneck Swenson, a renowned gynecologist who has spent years looking at the reproductive habits of a local tribe where women can conceive well into their middle ages and beyond. Eccentric and notoriously tough, Swenson is paid to find the key to this longstanding childbearing ability by the same company for which Dr. Singh works. Yet that isn’t their only connection: both have an overlapping professional past that Dr. Singh has long tried to forget. In finding her former mentor, Dr. Singh must face her own disappointments and regrets, along with the jungle’s unforgiving humidity and insects, making State of Wonder a multi-layered atmospheric novel that is hard to put down. Indeed, Patchett solidifies her well-deserved place as one of today’s master storytellers. Emotional, vivid, and a work of literature that will surely resonate with readers in the weeks and months to come, State of Wonder truly is a thing of beauty and mystery, much like the Amazon jungle itself.

In his first book for adults, popular young-adult novelist David Levithan creates a beautifully crafted exploration of the insecurities, tenderness, anger, and contented comfort that make romantic relationships so compelling (or devastating). Through sparingly written, alphabetical entries that defy chronology in defining a love affair, The Lover’s Dictionary packs an emotional wallop. For "breathtaking (adj.)," the unnamed narrator explains, "Those moments when we kiss and surrender for an hour before we say a single word." For "exacerbate (v.)," he notes, "I believe your exact words were: 'You’re getting too emotional.'" Ranging from over a page to as short as "celibacy (n.), n/a," the definitions-as-storyline alternate between heart-wrenching and humorous--certainly an achievement for a book structured more like Webster’s than a traditional novel. Proving that enduring characters and conflict trump word count, Levithan’s poignant vignettes and emotional candor will remind readers that sometimes in both fiction and life, less is truly more--and the personal details of love can be remarkably universal.

These were The Top 10 Fiction Books of 2011, please check out my other books lists for more great reads.