(Part One here, Part Two here)
KA Applegate – Visser
When I was younger, I was a huge fan of the Animorphs series. There are 54 in the normal series, and 11 specials, for a total of 65…and I had 64 of them. I can’t remember why, exactly, but I had missed out on buying a copy of Visser while it was still in print, and it really irked me that I was so close to a full set. I had been searching ever since in second-hand bookstores to no avail, but found a copy online not long ago.
I don’t think I really need to get into what the series is about or what this specific book is about too much, except that it was one of the special ones that was told from the point of view of one of the aliens, instead of the humans (the Animorphs). And while it definitely wasn’t one of my favourites (I had read a borrowed copy back in the day, I just never owned one) it’s still the strong young-adult sci-fi the whole series was, and I picked up on a lot of subtle references I missed as a kid. Applegate is a great writer, and you can really tell the difference between the books that she wrote herself and the ones she had ghostwritten. All in all, it probably skews a bit young for us these days, but a great series nonetheless – and I’m glad to have finally finished my collection.
Stephen Hawking – A Brief History of Time
This is another one I mostly wanted to have read so I could cross it off the list - I’ve already got a decent grounding in physics from high school, the internet etc - but it actually turned out to be quite informative. A lot of this stuff is very hard to really understand properly; so even if you know things on an intellectual level you don’t always get it intuitively, or grasp the full implications of it (frex, I know that light has some properties of a particle and some properties of a wave, on an intellectual level…but I don’t really get it).
Long story short, I now really grok some things I only half-understood before; Hawking is primarily a scientist and not a writer, so the book is dry by conventional standards, but he is a good enough writer that it is very accessible by hardcore-science standards. Things like the expansion of space-time, and light cones, make sense to me thanks to this book, and while I still haven’t quite grokked quantum physics in its entirety I do have a much greater understanding now than I did before.
If you’re interested in physics, from the subatomic scale to the galactic scale, it’s definitely going to be your best introduction to it; but if you’ve had more formal training in it than me (ie anything post-high school) and you understood what you were being taught, then it’s probably not going to expand your knowledge base at all.
F Scott Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby
This book is a classic. And I haven’t read all the other top-ranking candidates, but I’m inclined to agree with those who suggest it is the great American novel. I really don’t feel like I can add anything much to discussion of it - nothing I can think of would be doing it justice. All I can say is this: go out and read it. It’ll be cheap, there’s a Popular Penguin version in circulation (as well as the dirt-cheap Wordsworth edition I have, and probably a million other reprints) and you’ll be doing yourself a real favour.
Oh, and season 2 of Californication makes a lot more sense now, after reading it. So there’s that.
Salman Rushdie - Imaginary Homelands
Maybe a year or so ago, when doing research for an essay, I came across the title; I’m pretty sure an online partial-text of the titular essay gave me a useful quote, though for the life of me I can’t find it now. In any case, when I saw the physical book for five bucks on the bargain table a few weeks ago, I figured - why not?
It turned out to be quite good, for the most part. It’s a collection of Rushdie’s essays from the 80s and 90s, and most of them are very good. For example, he discusses the notion of post-colonial literature in a very frank and interesting way (the essay I was writing was on this topic) and his account of the Satanic Verses saga highlights the insane privilege religion is afforded in our society in a way that few other people could. His discussions of the politics of India and the surrounding nations, too, were extremely enlightening and interesting, despite the fact that I previously had little knowledge or interest in the situation.
My only real problem with the collection is that it isn’t so much a collection, with common themes tying the essays together, as it is a stack of paper. The stuff I’ve mentioned so far all have at least tenuous links to each other, so I could handle that - but they seem to have pretty much every book review he did in those two decades as well. Clearly, I’m interested in A Brief History of Time, and I’m interested in what Salman Rushdie has to say about the things he’s knowledgeable about - but I’m not really interested in what Salman Rushdie has to say about A Brief History of Time. And I’m even less interested in what he has to say about books I’m not interested in.