As I write this at the end of the year, "Best Books" lists are coming out. I always enjoy matching my favorites against those of the reviewers for the New York Times and similar worthies. Which books are a person's favorites tells you a great deal about what type of books that person likes. The "best books" lists are, if you will, psychology tests as much as sober judgments.
I also have a sneaking suspicion that the reviewers have their own guilty pleasures, hidden from public view like the stacks of Harlequin romance novels I found under my mother's bed when she moved into the nursing home. Mine, too, exist and will remain hidden under my metaphorical bed. So don't bother asking.
That being said, a few of my own favorites from 2018:
Bad Blood, by John Carreyrou
Bad Blood is an almost novelistic rendition of the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. Holmes, who comes across as a sociopath in over her head, was a Stanford undergrad dropout whose grand vision for diagnostic testing failed to match the reality of the modern clinical pathology laboratory, or for that matter scientific reality in general. Her fraudulent activities, overlooked by the company's shamefully ignorant, neglectful Board of Directors and a fawning press, were eventually revealed by the author, a Wall Street Journal reporter. I appreciated the local color, which included restaurants I have eaten at in Palo Alto, but even more I appreciate this as a Silicon Valley story par excellence. Absolutely fascinating.
Educated, by Tara Westover
Westover is the child of rural Western survivalist fundamentalists, and her story of how a hard-won education liberated her from a life of intellectual and financial poverty is inspiring. There is a school of thought among economists that the best way to reduce global poverty is to increase the education of women, and this book is powerful support for the idea.
She Has Her Mother's Laugh, by Carl Zimmer
Zimmer, one of our better science writers, takes us through a lively history of genetics from its earliest days through to CRISPR/Cas-9 gene editing. A big thick popular science book filled with wonderful vignettes, some inspiring and some heartbreaking. I learned many of these stories in school or subsequently, but there was much that still informed and surprised me.
Babylon Berlin, by Volker Kutscher
This is not a new book, but rather a translation of a 2007 German police procedural novel, subsequently turned into a marvelous recent series you can stream (with English subtitles) on Netflix. Set in the final years of Weimar Germany, it is both a compelling mystery and an excellent description of the rise of fascism and the insidious dangers of a hyper-polarized political system.
These Truths, by Jill Lepore
Lepore is both a Harvard history professor and a fine essayist for the New Yorker, and her book is a magisterial look at the history of the American republic, and the progressive evolution of human freedom.
Chernobyl, by Serhii Plokhy
I was attending a breast cancer conference at the Banff Springs Hotel in Canada when the Chernobyl story broke in 1986, and I'll always remember the televised news of the nuclear catastrophe and the Soviet's feeble attempts at damage limitation. Plokhy tells the story with verve, intelligence, and no little compassion. It is as much the story of the failure of a political system as it is of a reactor failure, for as Plokhy demonstrates the two were inextricably linked.
The Imposter, by Javier Cercas
Cercas is a wonderful Spanish writer who I have admired for a long time. His specialty is the writing of novelistic histories of the 20th century, with a focus on Spain's troubled past. This book focuses on a fraud who fooled most of Spain into believing he was a Holocaust survivor. But it is also an exploration of the nature of truth, of our capacity for self-deception and the ease with which a compelling narcissist can fool an entire country. It is a great follow-up to his Soldiers of Salamis, also well worth the read.
Transcription, by Kate Atkinson
This book is a spy story that stretches from World War II into the Cold War. Set entirely in England and delivered with Atkinson's usual wonderful grasp of dialogue and character, it has a final twist that left me speechless.
Podcast of the Year
I spend a fair amount of time listening to podcasts, mostly while bicycling to and from work. While there are many fine podcasts that I might recommend, my vote is for a medical one. Going Viral: The Mother of All Pandemics is an investigation of the Spanish Flu epidemic at the end of World War I. A great mix of science and history, centered around modern research regarding the how's and whys of the flu virus. Well worth the listen.