Trying to categorise popular science books

Some time last year, a colleague asked about good examples of popular science books, in order to read and thereby to get inspiration on how to write books at that level, or at least for first-year students at a university. I’ve read (and briefly reviewed) ‘quite a few’ across multiple disciplines and proposed to him a few of them that I enjoyed reading. One aspect that bubbled up at the time, is that not all popsci books are of the same quality and, zooming in on this post’s topic: not all popsci books are of the same level, or, likely, do not have the same target audience.

I’d say they range from targeting advanced interested laypersons to entertaining laypersons. The former entails that you’d be better off having covered the topic at school and an undergrad course or two will help as well for making it an enjoyable read, and be fully awake, not tired, when reading it. For the latter category at the other end of the spectrum: having completed little more than primary school will do fine and no prior subject domain knowledge is required, at all, and it’s good material for the beach; brain candy.

Either way you’ll learn something from any popsci book, even if it’s too little for the time spent reading the book or too much to remember it all. But some of them are much more dense than others. Compare cramming the essence of a few scientific papers in a book’s page to drawing out one scientific paper into a whole chapter. Then there’s humor—or the lack thereof—and lighthearted anecdotes (or not) to spice up the content to a greater or lesser extent. The author writing about fungi recounting eating magic mushrooms, say, or an economist being just as much of a sucker for summer sales in the shops as just about anyone. And, of course, there’s readability (more about that shortly in another post).

Putting all that in the mix, my groupings are as follows, with a selection of positive exemplars that I also enjoyed reading.

There are more popsci books of which I thought they were interesting to read, but I didn’t want to turn it into a laundry list. Also, it seemed that books on politics and society and philosophy and such seem to be deserving their own discussion on categorisation, but that’s for another time. I also intentionally excluded computer science, information systems, and IT books, because I may be differently biassed to those books compared to the out-of-my-own-current-specialisation books listed above. For instance, Dataclysm by Cristian Rudder on Data Science mainly with OKCupid data (reviewed earlier) was of the ‘entertainment’ level to me, but probably isn’t so for the general audience.

Perhaps it is also of use to contrast them to ‘bad’ examples—well, not bad, but I think they did not succeed well in their aim. Two of them are Critical mass by Phillip Ball (physics, social networks), because it was too wordy and drawn out and dull, and This is your brain on music by Daniel Levitin (neuroscience, music), which was really interesting, but very, very, dense. Looking up their scores on goodreads, those readers converge to that view for your brain on music as well (still a good 3.87 our of 5, from nearly 60000 ratings and well over 1500 reviews), as well as for the critical mass one (3.88 from some 1300 ratings and about 100 reviews). Compare that to a 4.39 for the award-wining Entangled life, 4.35 of Why we sleep, and 4.18 for Mama’s last hug. To be fair, not all books listed above have a rating above 4.

Be this as it may, I still recommend all of those listed in the four categories, and hopefully the sort of rough categorisation I added will assist in choosing a book among the very many vying for your attention and time.

Pushing the envelope categorising popsci books

Regarding book categories more generally, romance novels have subgenres, as does science fiction, so why not the non-fiction popsci books? Currently, they’re mostly either just listed (e.g., here or the new releases) or grouped by discipline, but not according to, say, their level of difficulty, humor, whether it mixes science with politics, self-help, or philosophy, or some other quality dimension of the book along which they possibly could be assessed.

As example that the latter might work for assigning attributes to the books: Why we sleep is 100% science but a reader can distill some ideas to practice with as self-help for sleeping better, whereas When: the scientific secrets of perfect timing is, contrary to what the title suggests, largely just self-help. Delusions of gender and Inside rebellion can, or, rather, should have some policy implications, and Why we sleep possibly as well (even if only to make school not start so early in the morning), whereas the sort of content of Elephants on acid already did (ethics review boards for scientific experiments, notably). And if you were not convinced of the presence of animal cognition, then Mama’s last hug may induce some philosophical reflecting, and then have a knock-on effect on policies. Then there are some books that I can’t see having either a direct or indirect effect on policy, such as Gastrophysics and Entangled life.

Let’s play a little more with that idea. What about vignettes composed of something like the followings shown in the table below?

Then a small section of the back cover of Entangled life would look like this, with the note that the humor is probably inbetween the ‘yes’ and ‘some’ (I laughed harder with the book on drunkenness).

Mama’s last hug would then have something like:

And Why we sleep as follows (though I can’t recall for sure now whether it was ‘some’ or ‘no laughing matter’ and a friend has borrowed the book):

A real-life example of a categorisation box on a product; coffee suitable for moka pots, according to House of Coffees.

Of course, these are just mock-ups to demonstrate the idea visually and to try out whether it is even doable to classify the books. They are. There very well may be better icons than these scruffy ‘take a cc or public domain one and fiddle with it in MS Paint’ or a mixed mode approach, like on the packs of coffee (see image on the right).

Moreover: would you have created the same categorisation for the three examples? What (other) properties of popular science books could useful? Also, and perhaps before going down that route: would something like that possibly be useful according to you or someone you know who reads popular science books? You may leave your comments below, on my facebook page, or write an email, or we can meet in person some day.

p.s.: this is not a serious post on the ontology of popular science books — it is summer vacation time here and I used to write book reviews in the first week of the year and this is sort of related.


Review of ‘The web was done by amateurs’ by Marco Aiello

Via one of those friend-of-a-friend likes on social media that popped up in my stream, I stumbled upon the recently published book “The web was done by amateurs” (there’s also a related talk) by Marco Aiello, which piqued my interest both concerning the title and the author. I’ve met Aiello once in Trento, when a colleague and he had a departing party, with Aiello leaving for Groningen. He probably doesn’t remember me, nor do I remember much of him—other than his lamentations about Italian academia and going for greener pastures. Turns out he’s done very well for himself academically, and the foray into writing for the general public has been, in my opinion, a fairly successful attempt with this book.

The short book—it easily can be read in a weekend—starts in the first part with historical notes on who did what for the Internet (the infrastructure) and the multiple predecessor proposals and applications of hyperlinking across documents that Tim Berners-Lee (TBL) apparently was blissfully unaware of. It’s surely a more interesting and useful read than the first Google hit, the few factoids from W3C, or Wikipedia one can find online with a simple search—or: it pays off to read books still in this day and age :). The second part is for most readers, perhaps, also still history: the ‘birth’ of the Web and the browser wars in the mid 1990s.

Part III is, in my opinion, the most fun to read: it discusses various extensions to the original design of TBL’s Web that fixes, or at least aims to fix, a shortcoming of the Web’s basics, i.e., they’re presented as “patches” to patch up a too basic—or: rank-amateur—design of the original Web. They are, among others, persistence with cookies to mimic statefulness for Web-based transactions (for, e.g., buying things on the web), trying to get some executable instructions with Java (ActiveX, Flash), and web services (from CORBA, service-oriented computing, to REST and the cloud and such). Interestingly, they all originate in the 1990s in the time of the browser wars.

There are more names in the distant and recent history of the Web that I knew of, so even I picked up a few things here or there. IIRC, they’re all men, though. Surely there would be at least one woman worthy of mention? I probably ought to know, but didn’t, so I searched the Web and easily stumbled upon the Internet Hall of Fame. That list includes Susan Estrada among the pioneers, who founded CERFnet that “grew the network from 25 sites to hundreds of sites.”, and, after that, Anriette Esterhuysen and Nancy Hafkin for the network in Africa, Qiheng Hu for doing this for China, and Ida Holz for the same in Latin America (in ‘global connections’). Web innovators specifically include Anne-Marie Eklund Löwinder for DNS security extensions (DNSSEC, noted on p143 but not by its inventor’s name) and Elizabeth Feinler for the “first query-based network host name and address (WHOIS) server” and “she and her group developed the top-level domain-naming scheme of .com, .edu, .gov, .mil, .org, and .net, which are still in use today”.

One patch to the Web that I really missed in the overview of the early patches, is the “Web 2.0”. I know that, technologically, it is a trivial extension to TBL’s original proposal: the move from static web pages in 1:n communication from content provider to many passive readers, to m:n communication with comment sections (fancy forms), or: instead of the surfer being just a recipient of information by reading one webpage after another and thinking her own thing of it, to be able to respond and interact, i.e., the chatrooms, the article and blog comment features, and, in the 2000s, the likes of MySpace and Facebook. It got so many more people involved in it all.

Continuing with the book’s content, cloud computing and the fog (section 7.9) are from this millennium, as is, what Aiello dubbed, the “Mother of All Patches.”: the Semantic Web. Regarding the latter, early on in the book (pp. vii-viii) there is already an off-hand comment that does not bode well: “Chap. 8 on the Semantic Web is slightly more technical than the rest and can be safely skipped.” (emphasis added). The way Chapter 8 is written, perhaps. Before discussing his main claim there, a few minor quibbles: it’s the Web Ontology Language OWL, not “Ontology Web Language” (p105), and there’s OWL 2 as successor of the OWL of 2004. “RDF is a nifty combination of being a simple modeling language while also functioning as an expressive ontological language” (p104), no: RDF is for representing data, not really for modeling, and most certainly would not be considered an ontology language (one can serialize an ontology in RDF/XML, but that’s different). Class satisfiability example: no, that’s not what it does, or: the simplification does not faithfully capture it; an example with a MammalFish that cannot have any instances (as subclass of both Mammal and Fish that are disjoint), would have been (regardless the real world).

The main claim of Aiello regarding the Semantic Web, however, is that it’s been that time to throw in the towel, because there hasn’t been widespread uptake of Semantic Web technologies on the Web even though it was proposed already around the turn of the millenium. I lean towards that as well and have reduced the time spent on it from my ontology engineering course over the years, but don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater just yet, for two reasons. First, scientific results tend to take a long time to trickle down. Second, I am not convinced that the ‘semantic’ part of the Web is the same level of end-user stuff as playing with HTML is. I still have an HTML book from 1997. It has instructions to “design your first page in 10 minutes!”. I cannot recall if it was indeed <10 minutes, but it sure was fast back in 1998-1999 when I made my first pages, as a non-IT interested layperson. I’m not sure if the whole semantics thing can be done even on the proverbial rainy Sunday afternoon, but the dumbed down version with sort of works. This brings me to p110 of Aiello’s book, which states that Google can make do with just statistics for optimal search results because of its sheer volume (so bye-bye Semantic Web). But it is not just stats-based: even Google is trying with and its “knowledge graph”; admitted, it’s extremely lightweight, but it’s more than stats-only. Perhaps the and knowledge graph sort of thing are to the Semantic Web what TBL’s proposal for the Web was to, say, the fancier HyperCard.

I don’t know if people within the Semantic Web research community would think of its tooling as technologies for the general public. I suspect not. I consider the development and use of ontologies in ontology-driven information systems as part of the ‘back office’ technologies, notwithstanding my occasional attempts to explain to friends and family what sort of things I’m working on.

What I did find curious, is that one of Aiello’s arguments for the Semantic Web’s failure was that “Using ontologies and defining what the meaning of a page is can be much more easily exploited by malicious users” (p110). It can be exploited, for sure, but statistics can go bad, very bad, too, especially on associations of search terms, the creepy amount of data collection on the Web, and bias built into the Machine Learning algorithms. Search engine optimization is just the polite terms for messing with ‘honest’ stats and algorithms. With the Semantic Web, it would a conscious decision to mess around and that’s easily traceable, but with all the stats-based approaches, it sneakishly can creep in whilst trying to keep up the veneer of impartiality, which is harder to detect. If it were a choice between two technology evils, I prefer the honest bastard cf. being stabbed in the back. (That the users of the current Web are opting for the latter does not make it the lesser of two evils.)

As to two possible new patches (not in the book and one can debate whether they are), time will tell whether a few recent calls for “decentralizing” the Web will take hold, or more fine-grained privacy that also entails more fine-grained recording of events (e.g., TBL’s solid project). The app-fication discussion (Section 10.1) was an interesting one—I hardly use mobile apps and so am not really into it—and the lock-in it entails is indeed a cause for concern for the Web and all it offers. Another section in Chapter 10 is IoT, which sounds promising and potentially scary (what would the data-hungry ML algorithms of the Web infer from my fridge contents, and from that, about me??)—for the past 10 years or so. Lastly, the final chapter has the tempting-to-read title “Should a new Web be designed?”, but the answer is not a clear yes or no. Evolve, it will.

Would I have read the book if I weren’t on sabbatical now? Probably still, on an otherwise ‘lost time’ intercontinental trip to a conference. So, overall, besides the occasional gap and one could quibble a bit here and there, the book is a nice read on the whole for any lay-person interested in learning something about the ubiquitous Web, any expert who’s using only a little corner of it, and certainly for the younger generation to get a feel for how the current Web came about and how technologies get shaped in praxis.

Book reviews for 2016

I can’t resist adding another instalment of brief reviews of some of the books I’ve read over the past books2016year, following the previous five editions and the gender analysis of them (with POC/non-POC added on request at the end). This time, there are three (well, four) non-fiction books and four fiction novels discussed in the remainder of the post. The links to the books used to be mostly to online (an SA-owned bookstore), but they have been usurped by the awfully-sounding TakeALot, so the links to the books are diversified a bit more now.


Writing what we like—a new generation speaks, edited by Yolisa Qunta (2016). This is a collection of short essays about how society is perceived by young adults in South Africa. I think this stock-taking of events and opinions thereof is a must-read for anyone wanting to know what goes on and willing to look a bit beyond the #FeesMustFall sound bites on Twitter and Facebook. For instance, “A story of privilege” by Shaka Sisulu describing his experiences coming to study at UCT, and Sophokuhle Mathe in “White supremacy vs transformation” on UCT’s new admissions policy, the need for transformation, and going to hold the university to account; Yolisa Qunta’s “Spider’s web” on the ghost of apartheid with the every-day racist incidents and the anger that comes with it; “Cape Town’s pretend partnership” by Ilham Rawoot on his observations of exclusion of most Capetonians regarding preparations of the World Design Capital in 2014. There are a few ‘lighter’ essays as well, like the fun side of taking the taxi (minibus) in “life lessons learnt from taking the taxi” by Qunta (indeed, travelling by taxi can be fun).

Elephants on Acid by Alex Boese (2007). This is a fun book about the weird and outright should-not-have-been-done research—and why we have ethics committees now. There are of course the ‘usual suspects’ (gorillas in our midst, Milgram’s experiment), the weird ones (testing LSD on elephants; didn’t turn out alright), funny ones (will your dog get help if you are in trouble [no]; how much pubic hair you lose during intercourse [not enough for the CSI people]; social facilitation with cockroach games; trying to weigh the mass of a soul), but also those of the do-not-repeat variety. The latter include trying to figure out whether a person under the guillotine will realise it has been ‘separated’ from his body, Little Albert, and the “depatterning” of ‘beneficial brainwashing’ (it wasn’t beneficial at all). The book is written in an entertaining way, either alike a ‘what on earth was their hypothesis to devise such an experiment?’, or, knowing the hypothesis, with some morbid fascination to see whether it was falsified. Most of the research referenced is, for obvious reasons, older. But well, that doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be any outrageous experiments being conducted nowadays when we look back in, say, 20 years time.

What if? by Randall Munroe (2014, Dutch translation, dwarsligger). Great; read it. Weird and outright absurd questions asked by xkcd readers are answered sort of seriously from a STEM perspective.

Say again? The other side of South African English by Jean Branford and Malcolm Venter (2016). This short review ended up a lot longer, so it got its own blog post two weeks ago.


Red ink by Angela Makholwa (2007). This is a juicy crime novel, as the Black Widow Society by the same author is (that I reviewed last year), and definitely a recommendable read. The protagonist, Lucy Khambule, is a PR consultant setting up her company in Johannesburg, but used to be a gutsy journalist who had sent a convicted serial killer a letter asking for an interview. Five years hence, he invites her for that interview and asks her to write a book about him. As writing a book was her dream, she takes up the offer. Things get messy, partly as a result of that: more murders, intrigues, and some love and friendship (the latter with other people, not the serial killer) that put the people close to Lucy in harm’s way. As with the Black Widow Society, it ends well for some but not for others.

Things fall apart by Chinua Achebe (1958 [2008 edition]). This is a well-known book in Africa at least, and there are many analyses are available online, so I’m not going to repeat all that. The story documents both the mores in a rural village and how things—more precisely: the society—fall apart due to several reasons, both on how the society was organised and the influence of the colonialists and their religion. The storytelling has a slow start, but picks up in pace after a short while, and it is worthwhile to bite through that slow start. You can’t feel but a powerless onlooker to how the events unfold and sorry how things turn out.

Kassandra by Christa Wolf (1983, Dutch translation [1990] from the German original; also available in English). Greeks, Trojans, Achilles, Trojan Horse, and all that. Kassandra the seer and daughter of king Priamos and queen Hadebe, is an independent woman, who rambles on analysing her life’s main moments before her execution. It has an awkward prose that one needs to get used to, but there are some interesting nuggets. On only approaching things in duals, or alternative options, like endlessly win or loose wars or the third option of to live. It was a present from the last century that I ought to have read earlier; but better late than never.

De midlife club by Karin Belt (2014, in Dutch, dwarsligger). The story describes four women in their early 40s living in a province in the Netherlands (the author is from a city nearby where I grew up), for whom life didn’t quite turn out as they fantasised about in their early twenties, due to one life choice after another. Superficially, things seem ok, but something is simmering underneath, which comes to the surface when they go to a holiday house in France for a short retreat. (I’m not going to include spoilers). It was nice to read a Dutch novel with recognisable scenes and that contemplates choices. The suspense and twists were fun such that I really had to finish reading it as soon as possible.

As I still have some 150 pages to go to finish the 700-page tome of Indaba, my children by Credo Mutwa, a review will have to wait until next year. But I can already highly recommend it.

A new selection of book reviews (from 2015)

By now a regular fixture for the new year (5th time in the 10th year of this blog), I’ll briefly comment on some of the fiction novels I have read the past year, then two non-fiction ones. They are in the picture on the right (minus The accidental apprentice). Unlike last year’s list, they’re all worthy of a read.



The devil to pay by Hugh FitzGerald Ryan (2011). Although I’m not much of a history novel fan, the book is a fascinating read. It is a romanticised story based on the many historical accounts of Alice the Kyteler and her maidservant Petronilla de Midia, the latter who was the first person to be tortured and burned at the stake for heresy in Ireland (on 3 Nov 1324, in Kilkenny, to be precise). Unlike the usual histories where men play the centre stage, the protagonist, Alice the Kyteler, is a successful and rich businesswomen who had had four husbands (serially), and one thread through the story is a description of daily life in those middle ages for all people involved—rich, poor, merchant, craftsmen, monk, the English vs. Irish, and so on. It’s written in a way of a snapshot of life of the ordinary people that come and go, insignificant in the grander scheme of things. At some point, however, Alice and Petronilla are accused of sorcery by some made-up charges from people who want a bigger slice of the pie and are also motivated by envy, which brings to the foreground the second thread in the story: the power play between the Church that actively tried to increase its influence in those days, the secular politics with non-church and/or atheist people in power, and the laws and functioning legal system at the time. This clash is what turned the every-day-life setting into one that ended up having been recorded in writing and remembered and analysed by historians. All did not end well for the main people involved, but there’s a small sweet revenge twist at the end.

Black widow society by Angela Makholwa (2013). Fast-paced, with lots of twists and turns, this highly recommendable South African crime fiction describes the gradual falling apart of a secret society of women who had their abusive husbands murdered. The adjective ‘exciting’ is probably not appropriate for such a morbid topic, but it’s written in a way that easily sucks you into the schemes and quagmires of the four main characters (The Triumvirate and their hired assassin), and wanting to know how they get out of the dicey situations. Spoiler alert: some do, some don’t. See also the short extract, and there’s an ebook version for those who’d prefer that over buying a hardcopy in South Africa (if you’re nearby, you can borrow my hardcopy, of course).

De cirkel (The circle) by Dave Eggers (2013, though I read the Dutch translation of 2015). The book is portrayed as a ‘near future’ science fiction taking the business model and kind of activities and mantras of the likes of Facebook and Google “one step further”. A young and ambitious, but naïve, 20-something (Mae) happily jumps on the bandwagon of the company, called ‘the circle’, that tracks and processes more and more of all the subscribers’ respective digital footprints and adds more and more invasive technologies and apps. Gullible and external validation-seeking Mae gets wrapped up in it deeper and deeper. One mysterious colleague (Kalden) isn’t happy with the direction things are going, nor are Mae’s relatives. Pros and cons of such “transparency” are woven into the storyline, being mainly the ‘nothing to hide’ statement encapsulated in the company’s slogans “secrets are lies” and “privacy is theft” vs. one’s privacy, and some side-line topics on sheeple-followers and democracy. The ‘near future’ portrayed in the book is mostly already here, although the algorithms don’t work as well (yet) as they do in the book. One of the creepy real-life incarnations is the propaganda games, although I don’t know how well those algorithms work with respect to its intentions. Facebook’s so-called “targeted ads” is a similar attempt in that direction; so far, they’re not that much on topic and contradictory (e.g., I get FB ads for both ‘emigrating from South Africa with the family, for the kids’ and for ‘elite singles’), but it has been well-documented that it happens (e.g., here and here, and, more generally on data mining, here). The book probably would have made a bigger impact if it were to have been written 5-10 years ago in the time when most people would not have been so accustomed to it as they are now, like the frog and the boiling water fable, and if the characters would have had more depth and the arguments more comprehensive. Notwithstanding, it is a good read for a summer holiday or killing time on the plane, and the end of the story is not what you’ll expect.

The accidental apprentice by Vikas Swarup (2012). It’s a nice read, but my memory of the details is a bit sketchy by now and I lent out the book; I recall liking it more for reading a novel about India by an Indian author rather than the actual storyline, even though I had bought it for the latter reason only. The story is about a young female sales clerk in India who has to pass several ‘life tests’ somehow orchestrated by a very rich businessman; if she passes, she can become CEO of his company. The life tests are about one’s character in challenging situations and inventiveness to resolve it. Without revealing too much of how it ends, I think it would make a pleasant Bollywood or Hollywood movie.

Moxyland by Lauren Beukes (2008). Science fiction set in Cape Town. It has a familiar SF setting of a dystopian future of more technology and somehow ruled/enslaved by it, haves and have-nots divide, and a sinister authoritarian regime to suppress the masses. A few individuals try to act against it but get sucked into the system even more. It is not that great as a story, yet it is nice to read a SF novel that’s situated in the city I live in.

Muh by David Safir (2012). One of the cows in a herd on a farm in Germany finds out they’re all destined for the slaughterhouse, and the cow escapes with a few other cows and a bull to travel to the cows’ paradise on earth: India. The main part of the book is about that journey, interspersed with very obvious referrals to various religious ideas and prejudices. I bought it because I very much enjoyed the author’s other book, Mieses karma (reviewed here). Muh was readable enough—which is more than the few half-read books lying around in a state of abandon—but not nearly as good and fun as Mieses karma. On a different note, this book is probably only available in German.



Big Short by Michael Lewis (2010). The book chronicles the crazy things that happened in the financial sector that led to the inevitable crash in 2008. It reads like a suspense thriller, but it is apparently a true account of what happened inside the system, making it jaw-dropping. There are irresponsible people in the system, and there are other irresponsible people in the system. Some of them—the “misfits, renegades and visionaries”—saw it coming, and betted that it would crash, making more money the bigger the misfortunes of others. Others didn’t see it coming, due to their feckless behaviour, laziness, greed, short-sightedness, ignorance and all that so that they bought into bond/shares/mortgage packages that could only go downhill and thus lost a lot of money. For those who are not economists and conversant in financial jargon, it is not always an easy read the more complex the crazy schemes get—that was also a problem for some of the people in the system, btw—but even if you read over some of the explanations of part of a scheme, the message will be clear: it’s so rotten. A movie based on the book just came out.

17 Contradictions and the end of capitalism by David Harvey (2014). There are good book reviews of this book online (e.g., here and here), which see it as a good schematic introduction to Marxist political economy. I have little to add to that. In Harvey’s on words, his two aims of the two books were “to define what anti-capitalism might entail… [and] to give rational reasons for becoming anti-capitalist in the light of the contemporary state of things.”. Overall, the dissecting and clearly describing the contradictions can be fertile ground indeed for helping to end capitalism, as contradictions are the weak spots of a system and cannot remain indefinitely. Its chapter 8 ‘Technology, work, and human disposability’ could be interesting reading material for a social issues and profession practice course on technology and society, to subsequent have some discussion session or essay writing on it. Locally, in the light of the student protests we recently had (discussed earlier): if you don’t have enough time to read the whole book, then check out at least chapters 13 ‘Social reproduction’ and 14 ‘Freedom and domination’, and, more generally with respect to society, chapter 17 ‘The revolt of human nature: universal alienation’, the conclusions & epilogue, and a few of the foundational contradictions, notably the one on private property & common wealth and capital & labour.


Previous editions: books on (South) Africa from 2011, some more and also general books in 2012, book suggestions from 2013, and the mixed bag from 2014.

Even more short reviews of books I’ve read in 2014

I’m not sure whether I’ll make it a permanent fixture for years to come, but, for now, here’s another set of book suggestions, following those on books on (South) Africa from 2011, some more and also general read in 2012, and even more fiction & non-fiction book suggestions from 2013. If nothing else, it’s actually a nice way to myself to recall the books’ contents and decide which ones are worthwhile mentioning here, for better or worse. To summarise the books I’ve read in 2014 in a little animated gif:

(saved last year from

(saved last year from

Let me start with fiction books this time, which includes two books/authors suggested by blog readers. (note: most book and author hyperlinks are to online bookstores and wikipedia or similar, unless I could find their home page)


Stoner by John Williams (1965). This was a recommendation by a old friend (more precisely on the ‘old’: she’s about as young as I am, but we go way back to kindergarten), and the book was great. If you haven’t heard about it yet: it tells the life of a professor coming from a humble background and dying in relative anonymity, in a way of the ups and downs of the life of an average ‘Joe Soap’, without any heroic achievements (assuming that you don’t count becoming a professor one). That may sound dull, perhaps, but it isn’t, not least in the way it is narrated, which gives a certain beauty to the mundane. I’ll admit I have read it in its Dutch translation, even in dwarsligger format (which appeared to be a useful invention), as I couldn’t find the book in the shops here, but better in translated form than not having read it at all. There’s more information over at wikipedia, the NYT’s review, the Guardian’s review, and many other places.

Not a fairy tale by Shaida Kazie Ali (2010). The book is fairly short, but many things happen nevertheless in this fast-paced story of two sisters who grow up in Cape Town in a Muslim-Indian family. The sisters have very different characters—one demure, the other willful and more adventurous—and both life stories are told in short chapters that cover the main events in their lives, including several same events from each one’s vantage point. As the title says, it’s not a fairy tale, and certainly the events are not all happy ones. Notwithstanding its occasional grim undertones, to me, it is told in a way to give a fascinating ‘peek into the kitchen’ of how people live in this society across the decennia. Sure, it is a work of fiction, but there are enough recognizable aspects that give the impression that it could have been pieced together from actual events from different lives. The story is interspersed with recipes—burfi, dhania chutney, coke float, falooda milkshake, masala tea, and more—which gives the book a reminiscence of como agua para chocolate. I haven’t tried them all, but if nothing else, now at least I know what a packet labelled ‘falooda’ is when I’m in the supermarket.

No time like the present, by Nadine Gordimer (2012). Not necessarily this particular book, but ‘well, anything by Gordimer’ was recommended. There were so few of Gordimer’s books in the shops here, that I had to go abroad to encounter a selection, including this recent one. I should have read some online reviews of it first, rather than spoiling myself with such an impulse buy, though. This book is so bad that I didn’t even finish it, nor do I want to finish reading it. While the storyline did sound interesting enough—about a ‘mixed race couple’ from the struggle times transitioning into the present-day South Africa, and how they come to terms with trying to live normal lives—the English was so bad it’s unbelievable this has made it through any editorial checks by the publisher. It’s replete with grammatically incoherent and incomplete sentences that makes it just unreadable. (There are other reviews online that are less negative)

The time machine, by HG Wells (1895). It is the first work of fiction that considers time travel, the possible time anomalies when time travelling, and to ponder what a future society may be like from the viewpoint of the traveller. It’s one of those sweet little books that are short but has a lot of story in it. Anyone who likes this genre ought to read this book.

One thousand and one nights, by Hanan Al-Shaykh (2011). Yes, what you may expect from the title. The beginning and end are about how Scheherazade (Shahrazad) ended up telling stories to King Shahrayar all night, and the largest part of the book is devoted to story within a story within another story etc., weaving a complex web of tales from across the Arab empire so that the king would spare her for another day, wishing to know how the story ends. The stories are lovely and captivating, and also I kept on reading, indeed wanting to know how the stories end.

Karma Suture, by Rosamund Kendall (2008). Because I liked the Angina Monologues by the same author (earlier review), I’ve even read that book for a second time already, and Karma Suture is also about medics in South Africa’s hospitals, I thought this one would be likable, too. The protagonist is a young medical doctor in a Cape Town hospital who lost the will to do that work and needs to find her vibe. The story was a bit depressing, but maybe that’s what 20-something South African women go through.

God’s spy by Juan Gómez-Jurado (2007) (espía de dios; spanish original). A ‘holiday book’ that’s fun, if that can be an appropriate adjective for a story about a serial killer murdering cardinals before the conclave after Pope John Paul’s death. It has recognizable Italian scenes, the human interaction component is worked out reasonably well, it has good twists and turns and suspense-building required for a crime novel, and an plot you won’t expect. (also on goodreads—it was a bestseller in Spain)


This year’s non-fiction selection is as short as the other years, but I have less to say about them cf. last year.

David and Goliath—Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants, by Malcolm Gladwell (2013). What to say: yay! another book by Gladwell, and, like the others I read by Gladwell (Outliers, The tipping point), also this one is good. Gladwell takes a closer look at how seemingly underdogs are victorious against formidable opponents. Also in this case, there’s more to it than meets the eye (or some stupid USA Hollywood movie storyline of ‘winning against the odds’), such as playing by different rules/strategy than the seemingly formidable opponent does. The book is divided into three parts, on the advantages of disadvantages, the theory of desirable difficulty, and the limits of power, and, as with the other books, explores various narratives and facts. One of those remarkable observations is that, for universities in the USA at least, a good student is better off at a good university than at a top university. This for pure psychological reasons—it feels better to be the top of an average/good class than the average mutt in a top class—and that the top of a class gets more attention for nice side activities, so that the good student at a good (vs top) university gets more useful learning opportunities than s/he would have gotten at a top university. Taking another example from education: a ‘big’ class at school (well, just some 30) is better than a small (15) one, for it give more “allies in the adventures of learning”.

The dictator’s learning curve by William J. Dobson (2013), or: some suggestions for today’s anti-government activists. It’s mediocre, one of those books where the cover makes it sound more interesting than it is. The claimed thesis is that dictators have become more sophisticated in oppression by giving it a democratic veneer. This may be true at least in part, and in the sense there is a continuum from autocracy (tyranny, as Dobson labels it in the subtitle) to democracy. To highlight that notion has some value. However, it’s written from a very USA-centric viewpoint, so essentially it’s just highbrow propaganda for dubious USA foreign policy with its covert interventions not to be nice to countries such as Russia, China, and Venezuela—and to ‘justifiably’ undercut whatever plans they have through supporting opposition activists. Interwoven in the dictator’s learning curve storyline is his personal account of experiencing that there is more information sharing—and how—about strategy and tactics among activists across countries on how to foment dissent for another colour/flower-revolution. I was expecting some depth about autocracy-democracy spiced up with pop-politics and events, but it did not live up to that expectation. A more academic, and less ideologically tainted, treatise on the continuum autocracy-democracy would have been a more useful way of spending my time. You may find the longer PS Mag review useful before/instead of buying the book.

Umkhonto weSizewe (pocket history) by Janet Cherry (2011). There are more voluminous books about the armed organisation of the struggle against Apartheid, but this booklet was a useful introduction to it. It describes the various ‘stages’ of MK, from deciding to take up arms to the end to lay them down, and the successes and challenges that were faced and sacrifices made as an organisation and by its members.

I’m still not finished reading Orientalism by Edward Said—some day, I will, and will write about it. If you want to know about it now already, then go to your favourite search engine and have a look at the many reviews and (academic and non-academic) analyses. Reading A dream deferred (another suggestion) is still in the planning.

More book suggestions (2013)

Given that I’ve written post the past two years about books I’ve read during the previous year and that I think are worthwhile to read (here and here), I’m adding a new list for 2013, divided into fiction and non-fiction, and again a selection only. They are not always the newest releases but worthwhile the read anyway.


The book of the dead by Kgebetli Moele (2009), which has won the South African Literary Award. The cover does not say anything about the story, and maybe I should not either. Moele’s book is a gripping read, and with a twist in the second part of the book (so: spoiler alert!). The first part is about Khutso, a boy growing up in a town in South Africa; it is “the book of the living”. Then he gets infected with HIV, and “the book of the dead” starts. Writing shifts from third-person to first person, and from the vantage point of the virus that wants to replicate and spread to sustain its existence, as if it has a mind of its own (read an excerpt from the second part). All does not end well.

Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance by Robert Pirsig is a ‘modern classic’ that this year celebrates its 40th anniversary. It is semi-autobiographical and the story exposes some philosophical ideas and the tensions between the sciences and the arts, partially explained through drawing parallels with motorcycles and motorcycle maintenance. A minor storyline is about a road trip of father and son, and there is an unspoken undercurrent about inhumane psychiatric treatments (electroshocks in particular) of people deemed mentally ill. It is an interesting read for the complexity of the narrative and the multiple layers of the overall story, i.e. literary it is impressive, but I guess it is called ‘a classic’ more for the right timing of the release of the book and the zeitgeist of that era and therefore may resonate less with younger people these days. There are many websites discussing the contents, and it has its own wikipedia entry.

The girl with the dragon tattoo by Stieg Larssen (2008). I know, the movie is there for those who do not want to read the tome. I have not seen it, but the book is great; I recently got the second installment and can’t wait to start reading it. It is beautiful in the way it portrays Swedish society and the interactions between people. The tired male journalist, the troubled female hacker, and a whole cast of characters for the ‘whodunnit’.

Other books I read and would recommend: The songs of distant earth by Arthur C Clarke and De dolende prins [the lost prince] by Bridget Wood.


Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (2008). I bought this book because I liked the tipping point (mentioned last year). It is just as easily readable, and this time Gladwell takes a closer look at the data behind “outliers”, those very successful people, and comes to the conclusion there are rather mundane reasons for it. From top sports people who typically happen to have their date of birth close to the yearly cut-off point, which makes a big difference among small children, giving them a physical advantage, and then it’s just more time spent training in the advanced training programmes. To being at the right time in the right place, and a lot (‘10000 hours’) of practice and that “no one, not even a genius, ever makes it alone” (regardless of what the self-made-man stories from the USA are trying to convince you of).

The Abu Ghraib Effect by Stephen F. Eisenman (2007). I had a half-baked draft blog post about this book, trying to have it coincide with the 10 year ‘anniversary’ of the invasion by the USA into Iraq, but ran short of time to complete it. This is a condensed version of that draft. Eisenman critically examines the horrific photos taken of the torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in 2003 by US Military officers, by analyzing their composition, content, and message and comparing it to a selection of (what is deemed) art over the past 2500 years originating in, mainly, Europe. He finds that the ‘central theme’ depicted in those photos can be traced back from all the way to Hellenic times to this day, with just a brief shimmer of hope in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and a few individuals deviating from the central theme. The ‘central theme’ is the Pathosformel being an entente between torturer and victim, of passionate suffering, and representing “the body as something willingly alienated by the victim (even to the point of death) for the sake of the pleasure and aggrandizement of the oppressor” (p16). Or, in plain terms: the artworks depicting subjects (gleefully and at time with sexual undertone) undergoing and accepting their suffering and even the need for torture, the necessity of suffering for the betterment of the ruling classes, for the victors of war, imperial culture, for (the) god(s), including fascist and racist depictions, and the perpetrators somehow being in their ‘right’. In contrast to the very Christian accept-your-suffering, there are artworks that deviate from this by showing the unhappy suffering, conveying that it is not the natural order of things, and are, as such, political statements against torture. Examples Eisenman uses to illustrate the difference between the two are Picasso’s Guernica, Goya’s Third of May 1808, the custody of a criminal does not call for torture, and the captivity is as barbarous as the crime (links to the pictures). Compare this to Laokoon and his sons (depicting him being tortured to death by being ripped apart by snakes, according to the story), Michelangelo’s The dying slave (if it weren’t for the title, one would think he’s about to start his own foreplay), Sodoma’s St. Sebastien (who seems to be delightedly looking upwards to heaven whilst having spears rammed in his body), and the many more artworks analysed in the book on the pathos formula. While Eisenman repeats that the Abu Ghraib photos are surely not art, his thesis is that the widespread internalization of the pathos formula made it acceptable to the victimizers in Iraq to perpetrate the acts of torture and take the pictures (upon instigation and sanctioning by higher command in the US Military), and that there was not really an outcry over it. Sure, the pictures have gone around the globe, people expressed their disgust, but, so far as Eisenman could document (the book was written in 2007), the only ones convicted for the crimes are a few military officers to a few year in prison. The rest goes on with apparent impunity, with people in ‘the West’ going about their business, and probably most of you reading this perhaps had even forgotten about it, as if they were mere stills of a Hollywood movie. Eisenman draws parallels with the TV series 24 and the James Bond Movie Goldfinger, the latter based on his reading of Umberto Eco’s analysis of Fleming, where love is transformed in hatred and tenderness in ferocity (Eisenman quoting Eco, p94). From a theoretical standpoint, the “afterword” is equally, if not more, important, to read. Overall, the thin book is full of information to ponder about.

Others books include Nice girls don’t get the corner office by Lois Frankel, but if you’d have to choose, then I’d rather recommend the Delusions of gender I mentioned last year, and the non-fiction books in the 2012 list would be a better choice, in my opinion, than Critical mass by Philip Ball as well (the mundane physics information at the start was too long and therefore I made it only partially through the book and put it back on the shelf before I would have gotten to the actual thesis of the book.)

And yes, like last year, I’ve read some ‘pulp’, and re-read the hunger games trilogy (in one weekend!), but I’ll leave that for what it is (or maybe another time). If you have any suggestions for ‘must read’, feel free to leave a note. There are some access limitations here, though, because it is not always the most recent books that are in the bookshops. I live near a library now, and will visit it soon, hoping I can finally follow up on a reader’s previous suggestion to read the books by Nadine Gordimer.