My Favourite Books of 2013

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I read in 2013 that I loved the most. But first – some statistics!

I’ve finished reading 69 books so far this year and I suspect I’ll squash another two or three novels in before New Year’s Eve. This total doesn’t include the two novels I gave up on (one because it was awful, the other because I just wasn’t in the right mood for it) or the novel I’m halfway through right now (Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence, which deserves a blog post all of its own). So, what kind of books did I read this year?

Books read in 2013

Authors' nationality for books read in 2013

My reading this year was more culturally diverse than this pie chart would suggest – for example, I read quite a few books by writers who’d migrated from Asian countries to Australia or the UK, and I found those books really interesting. (I also read a couple of books by white writers about Aboriginal Australians and Pacific Islanders, which were less successful.)

Authors' gender for books read in 2013

This was the year of women writers, it seems.

Now for my favourites.

My favourite children’s and picture books
'Wonder' by R. J. Palacio
I really enjoyed Wonder by R. J. Palacio, even though it made me cry. Honourable mentions go to Girl’s Best Friend by Leslie Margolis, the first in a fun middle-grade series featuring Maggie Brooklyn, girl detective and dog walker, and Call Me Drog by Sue Cowing, an odd but endearing story about a boy who gets a malevolent talking puppet stuck on his hand. Picture books that entertained me this year included This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, Mr Chicken Goes To Paris by Leigh Hobbs and The Oopsatoreum by Shaun Tan.

My favourite Young Adult novels

I loved Girl Defective by Simmone Howell and Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan. I was also impressed with Mary Hooper’s historical novel, Newes from the Dead (subtitled, Being a True Story of Anne Green, Hanged for Infanticide at Oxford Assizes in 1650, Restored to the World and Died Again 1665, which pretty much tells you what it’s about), although I’m not sure it was truly Young Adult, despite being published as such – some of the content seemed horrifyingly Adult to me.

My favourite novels for adults

'Lives of Girls and Women' by Alice MunroI read some great grown-up novels this year. This may have been because I abandoned my usual method of choosing novels from the library (that is, selecting them at random from the shelves based on their blurbs) and started reserving books via my library’s handy online inter-library loan system, basing my choices on reviews, award short-lists and personal recommendations. I was happy to discover the novels of Madeleine St John and I especially liked The Women in Black and A Pure, Clear Light. I also enjoyed The Body of Jonah Boyd by David Leavitt (a very clever piece of writing which included some apt and cynical reflections on the business of creative writing), The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam and Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. However, my favourite novel of the year would have to be Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro, who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

My favourite non-fiction for adults

Among the memoirs I enjoyed this year were Births, Deaths, Marriages: True Tales by Georgia Blain and Growing Up Asian In Australia, edited by Alice Pung. I also liked Helen Trinca’s biography of Madeleine St John. The most interesting science-related books I read were Knowledge is Power: How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision inspired Francis Bacon to create Modern Science by John Henry and I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier: Essays on Science, Scientists and Humanity by Max Perutz.

Hope you all had a good reading year and that 2014 brings you lots of great books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012

Science Reads: ‘I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier: Essays on Science, Scientists and Humanity’ by Max Perutz

Our new Prime Minister has just announced his Cabinet, and for the first time since 1931, the Australian government does not have a Minister for Science. (After all, who needs scientists when we have the Pope to decide how the universe works? Just ask Galileo how well that went.) But here at Memoranda, we love science, so we’ve unilaterally declared this week ‘Science Reads Week’. It’s already Tuesday, so it’ll be a fairly short week, but each day for the rest of the week, I’ll be posting about some interesting science reads.

Today, I’d like to recommend I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier: Essays on Science, Scientists and Humanity by Max Perutz, who won the Nobel Prize for figuring out the structure of haemoglobin (which is the molecule in our red blood cells that transports oxygen around our bodies) and myoglobin (which does a similar thing inside muscles). Max Perutz also helped found the European Organisation for Molecular Biology, was an excellent science communicator, and seems to have been a genuinely nice person. John Meurig Thomas, for example, wrote:

“Perutz was a gentle, kindly and tolerant lover of people (particularly the young), passionately committed to social justice and intellectual honesty; and the warmth of his personality radiated a sense of human goodness and decency which induced others to behave sanely, especially because he exuded an inner excitement that stems from a love of knowledge for its own sake.”

In this collection of science-themed essays and book reviews, Perutz writes eloquently about the development of chemical weapons during WWI, atomic weapons during WWII, and biological weapons during the Cold War. He also discusses a number of important twentieth-century scientists, most of whom he knew personally, including Peter Medawar (whose work on immunology led to successful organ transplants), Albert Szent-Györgyi (who isolated Vitamin C), Linus Pauling (who, among other achievements, worked out how molecules were held together by chemical bonds, and identified that amino acids had alpha-helix structures, which helped Watson and Crick figure out that DNA had a double-helix structure), Dorothy Hodgkin (who figured out the structure of cholesterol, insulin and penicillin, and won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964) and Lise Meitner (who identified the splitting of the uranium atom and named it ‘fission’, although it was her male colleague who was awarded the Nobel Prize for their work). There are also powerful arguments for human rights, for freedom of expression, and for women to have the right to control their own fertility with contraceptive drugs and safe abortions, as well as a thoughtful exploration of whether an accident at a UK nuclear energy station led to long-term environmental damage and health problems in the local population.

However, my favourite piece was about Perutz’s experiences during WWII. He was born and raised in Vienna, but moved to England to study chemistry at Cambridge in the 1930s. When the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938, he was unable to return home due to his Jewish ancestry. His parents managed to escape Austria and join him, but after war was declared, Perutz and his father were both interned by the British as ‘enemy aliens’. Even though Perutz was passionately anti-Nazi and had just been awarded a PhD from Cambridge (which you’d think would be pretty useful for the war effort), the British government decided to send him to a prison camp in the wastelands of Canada. After further adventures and with the help of his British scientist friends, he made it back to England, where he spent the war working for a very eccentric civilian named Geoffrey Pyke. Among Pyke’s pet projects was the development of bullet-proof ice, reinforced with wood pulp, called pykrete, although the plan to use it to make sea-borne aircraft carriers sank (literally). Pyke also came up with the bright idea of “the construction of a giant tube from Burma into China – much easier than building a road . . . Through this tube, Allied men, tanks and guns were to be propelled by compressed air.” Not even Churchill supported this ridiculous scheme, and Perutz eventually “returned to Cambridge, sad at first that my eagerness to help in the war against Hitler had not found a more effective outlet, but later relieved to have worked on a project that at least never killed anyone – not even the Chief of the Imperial General Staff [who had been injured when a bullet rebounded off a block of pykrete during one of Pyke’s ill-conceived demonstrations].”

Of the thirty-seven essays in the book, I think only two require readers to have some specific scientific knowledge (one is about haemoglobin’s structure, the other about how X-Ray crystallography developed into a useful tool for analysing biological molecules). For the most part, this is an accessible, engaging and fascinating book about science and its effects, good and bad, on humankind in the twentieth century.

Tomorrow in Science Reads: Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins