Book Club (2022)

It so happens, though – a wholly unforeseen accident – that the feel and appearance of a book when combined with a literate person in a straight chair can create a spiritual condition of priceless depth and meaning. This form of meditation, an accident, as I say, may be the greatest treasure at the core of our civilization.

– Kurt Vonnegut

2022 was an intense year in many respects, but an excellent year for reading! A few people have recently asked me for book recommendations, so here are my favourite books that I read in 2022, presented here in (more or less) the order that I read them. These are the books that sucked me in, resonated deeply, changed the way I thought, or simply gave me a big literary hug in a crazy year. This post has nothing to do with coasts but a great deal to do with my curiosity, so I thought it was still worth sharing here. I hope that you find something you like here, too!

Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone – This is How You Lose the Time War

My brother gave me this book for Christmas last year and it felt like such a unique concept to me: two authors each writing alternating chapters from the perspectives of two different characters, their stories intertwining through different timelines. If you’re into science fiction and want something different, give it a shot!

Desmond Cole – The Skin We’re In 

In Canada, we have a national self-image as being a welcoming, multicultural paradise of sorts. Growing up as a privileged, middle-class white male, I seldom challenged this narrative. This is not the lived reality for many, though, as the Black Lives Matter movement and the legacy of Canada’s residential schools make clear. Desmond Cole’s book was a welcome wake-up call, candidly sharing his stories of growing up with racism in a suburb of Toronto much like the one I lived in. The Skin We’re In is a sobering call to listen up, speak up, and walk the talk if we truly want to live out those values we profess to have.

Richard Powers – Bewilderment

In 2020, one of the saving graces of that awful year was reading Richard Powers’ The Overstory. A powerful collection of short stories about trees and the people whose lives crossed paths with them, which then merged into a single storyline, The Overstory blew my mind. As such, I had understandably high hopes for his new book, Bewilderment. A beautiful tale of father and son, of marveling at the world around us, Powers lived up to my expectations and wrote one of my favourite novels of the past year.

Ali Smith – Autumn

I am a bit late to the party on Autumn, which came out in the immediate wake of the Brexit referendum. I lived in the UK in 2015 and 2016, and something about her writing really captures the feeling that was in the air then. Scottish author Ali Smith writes so beautifully and with such lucidity that I was sad to finish. However, one of the great joys of reading is the discovery that the book you just finished has a sequel or three waiting for you. Now that January is upon us, I look forward to feasting upon Winter, the next book in her series. I am determined to resist temptation and pace myself, reading the rest of her series (including Spring and Summer) in the meterologically appropriate season.

Thomas Halliday – Otherlands

The day after my PhD defense, my parents and I left for Scotland to celebrate the life of my incredible grandma, something we could not do until then because of Covid. Ironically, I came down with Covid myself (probably from my PhD defense) and got stuck in Scotland for two weeks. Fortunately, my despondent visions of being stuck in a windowless airport hotel were pushed aside by my saintly cousins in Edinburgh, who took me in and put a roof over my plague-ridden head while I recovered. In my quarantine I devoured many books, so when I emerged, the first thing I did was to make a beeline for the nearest bookstore to replenish my stocks. Otherlands was my first new acquisition. A surprisingly poetic wildlife tour through different geologic eras, Thomas Halliday’s book explores prehistoric ecosystems and the fascinating creatures that once crawled, swam, and flew across our planet. Several of my friends have since read it, and we were all sucked in by the compelling portraits Halliday paints of other lands and other eras. Check it out!

Carl Bergstrom & Jevin West – Calling Bullshit

“The world is awash in bullshit, and we’re drowning in it.”

Thus begins a delightful guide to debunking and defending ourselves from the bullshitters of the world. Every now and then a book comes along that perfectly vocalises what has been running through your head, and for me, this is that book.

In the current geopolitical climate, we are inundated by misinformation. This is a particularly thorny issue in my field, where climate denial and willful misinformation have made understanding climate change a murky problem for the average person. Calling Bullshit deals with this plus topics like Big Data (“big data is not necessarily better, just bigger”) or how to be critical of machine learning and statistical models.

In my job, we use a lot of computer models that describe the physics of water and sediment. With these models it is easy to make beautiful, intuitively clear and easy-to-comprehend model visualizations that are completely wrong. Sifting out the bullshit to see through misleading models is an important task for us as engineers responsible for keeping the public safe and protecting the environment.

Bergstrom and West end with a chapter on the act of calling bullshit, which they argue is a a moral imperative and an inherently public activity “crucial to the healthy functioning of a social group, be it a circle of friends, a community of academics, or the citizenry of a nation”. However, they also note that “there is a thin line between being a tough minded skeptic and a domineering jerk”, which I think is essential to balance. I know more than a few people in academia who could use a reminder of that…

One of the best pieces of advice I received before I went to grad school was to come back with a good Bullshit Detector, and this book is the closest I have seen to a guide for that. As they note, “developing a rigorous bullshit detector is a lifelong project”, and this is a great place to start.

Andrea Wulf – The Invention of Nature

“The Invention of Nature”? That’s a bold claim, or so I thought until I read this book.

I first heard about Andrea Wulf’s delightful book via a series of podcasts put on by the Santa Fe Institute, a research centre in New Mexico doing insanely cool multidisciplinary research on complex systems analysis.

She tells the tale of Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian scientist from the 1800s and a man lightyears ahead of his time. For instance, Humboldt was one of the earliest people to point out the impact that humans could have on the climate, specifically deforestation, irrigation, and “the great masses of steam and gas” produced in industrial centres.

Considering that Humboldt was a European guy in the early 1800s, he also espoused a very socially progressive view of environmental science, being “the first to relate colonialism to the devastation of the environment”, particularly water engineers like my predecessors who built dams and irrigation systems. “Humboldt never grew tired of condemning what he called ‘the greatest evil'”, slavery. For him, “colonialism and slavery were basically one and the same, interwoven with man’s relationship to nature and the exploitation of natural resources”. Sadly, we are still dealing with these issues over 200 years later.

Humboldt lived and breathed multidisciplinarity, long before it was fashionable to think of science in those terms (or perhaps merely before science became as fragmented as it is today):

“Humboldt was assembling the data he needed to make sense of nature as a unified whole. If nature was a web of life, he couldn’t look at it just as a botanist, a geologist, or a zoologist. He required information about everything and from everywhere, because ‘observations from the most disparate regions of the planet must be compared to one another’. Humboldt amassed so many results and asked so many questions that some people thought him to be stupid, because he asked the ‘seemingly obvious’. His coat pockets, one of his guides noted, were like those of a little boy – full of plants, rocks, and scraps of paper. Nothing was too small or insignificant to investigate because everything had its place in the great tapestry of nature”.

As a serial dabbler, I identified with many of his views and approaches to science. All in all, The Invention of Nature was the best non-fiction book that I read this year. Highly recommended whether you are a scientist or just a nature nut!

Kate Beaton – Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands

As a history nerd whose mother came from Cape Breton, Kate Beaton has long triggered my funnybone and tugged at my heartstrings. The cartoonist behind the brilliant Hark! A Vagrant!, she also sketched out scenes of her family life in Mabou, Nova Scotia, that reminded me of my own childhood visits to Glace Bay, just on the other side of the island. However, her work that most resonated with me is her latest graphic novel, Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands.

In the summer of 2008, right before the economy tanked, I spent four months living and working on a remote construction site on the Oil Sands in the wild north of Alberta. I will always be grateful for my experience, since it kickstarted my career as a civil engineer and helped me pay for my entire second year of university, but it was also one of the most challenging periods of my life. In Ducks, Kate Beaton shares her story of working in Fort McMurray and in camps, similar to where I stayed. She unquestionably had a much harder time up there as a young woman than I did, but the scenes she sketched reflect many of my experiences and especially those of my female colleagues in engineering and construction. She also really puts her finger on what it feels like to move far away from your family and home to work. The Oil Sands were and still are an enormous part of Canada’s culture and economy, but reading about it in the news doesn’t capture what it feels like to actually be there. Kate Beaton does.

David Bellos – Is That A Fish In Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything

As a Canadian who never imagined he would leave Ontario, I never really tried hard enough to pick up another language. Sure, I got decent grades in French, but I shortsightedly never thought I’d use it for more than holidaying in Quebec, so I didn’t retain much. Fast-forward a few decades – in Delft, all of my friends and colleagues are at least bilingual, and most of them are fluent in three or more languages! Compared with them, I often feel hopelessly monolingual. This year I have dabbled in Dutch and paddled around in the shallow end of Portuguese, but my relative lack of success on either of these fronts leaves me feeling perpetually lost in translation (one of the all-time best movie soundtracks, for the record). Scratching an itch I didn’t know I had, David Bellos’s book is a delightful tour through the world of translation. In relating the challenges of effing the ineffable (how does one properly translate the je ne sais quoi of something like gezellig or saudade?) Bellos illuminates the hidden places in the cracks between languages. Well worth a look for lovers of words.

Eduardo Galeano – The Book of Embraces

The world … is a heap of people, a sea of tiny flames. Each person shines with his or her own light. No two flames are alike. There are big flames and little flames, flames of every color. Some people’s flames are so still they don’t even flicker in the wind, while others have wild flames that fill the air with sparks. Some foolish flames neither burn nor shed light, but others blaze with life so fiercely that you can’t look at them without blinking and if you approach, you shine in fire.

Eduardo Galeano

If you hand me a book and say, “this is one my all-time favourite”*, I will read it, unquestioningly. If you love reading and a particular book has for some reason made it to the top of your pile, I think that is worth spending time with, if only to better understand you. The Book of Embraces is my girlfriend’s favourite book, so naturally I gave it a try! Originally “Libro de los Abrazos” in Spanish, Galeano’s book of poems and short stories sits at the nexus of Pablo Neruda, Isabel Allende, and Italo Calvino, but that doesn’t do it justice. It is really unlike anything else that I have ever read.

*For the record, my all-time favourite books fluctuate between Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Stuart McLean’s Home from the Vinyl Café, and of course Harry Potter, each for very different reasons.

Bonus: Hugh Amano & Sarah Becan – Let’s Make Ramen 

My favourite restaurant in Delft is Ramen Nikkou, where before the pandemic I learned that real ramen is so much more than the Mr. Noodle I grew up with. Determined to atone for the instant noodle sins of my past, I acquired this delightful cookbook about the fine art of Japanese soup. While I tried (and failed) to hide from Omicron this past winter, I spent a lot of time obsessively working on my ramen game. Let’s Make Ramen! is written in the form of a comic book and the colourful illustrations make it fun to cook along with. If you like Japanese food and are looking for inspiration to make the coming winter cozier, check out Let’s Make Ramen!

This was a bit of a nonfiction-heavy year, something I’d like to rectify for 2023! If anyone reading this has good fiction recommendations, I’d love to hear from you. Happy reading!

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