Consider this...

"Man is the only Patriot. He sets himself apart in his own country, under his own flag, and sneers at the other nations, and keeps multitudinous uniformed assassins on hand at heavy expense to grab slices of other people's countries, and keep them from grabbing slices of his. And in the intervals between campaigns he washes the blood of his hands and works for 'the universal brotherhood of man'- with his mouth." - Mark Twain

Many science books this year. One of them, Spencer Well’s book about how genetics helps us understand our ancestors’ journey out of Africa and subsequent spread around the world, planted the seed of a desire to visit Africa.

And that led to a wonderful visit to Tanzania, including an incredibly fascinating 11-day photo safari, which led in turn to increased interest in Africa (fed by friend Jean, who frequently visits the DRC on humanitarian missions) and African literature.

Several excellent novels were also included in the year’s reading. So here are John’s favorite reads for 2012.

Books on science

Sean Carroll, From eternity to here

After Brian Greene, Sean Carroll has now added his explanation of contemporary cosmology — the physics of the origins of the universe and where it is going and how and why. This should be essential history for everybody, just as much so as that of the Roman Empire or (heresy!) the American or French Revolutions. A must-read for cosmology, science and history lovers.

Spencer Wells, The journey of man, a genetic odyssey

The books of Carroll and Wells are both history books, but on different scales, both different from the scales of those boring history books we had to read in high school (almost as boring as was geography, a subject which is fascinating when it is done right — which pretty much means visiting the place in question). Carroll speaks in terms of millions of years; Wells, in tens of thousands. This is about (simplified) genetics and how it shows us the route the ancestors of all of us took out of Africa around 50K years ago. Another fascinating book for science or history fans.

Richard Dawkins, The selfish gene

It took me a while to get around to reading this book, but it was worth the wait. Dawkins is always a fascinating writer, with a real gift for explaining things clearly, and his notion here of the selfish gene, i.e., the basic replicator replicating for itself independently of its vehicle (e.g., us), is what is often referred to as mind-blowing. The latest edition has an additional chapter on the extended phenotype. If you want to know what that is (and if you are interested in evolution, you do), read the book.

Books on Africa or by African writers

Martin Meredith, Born in Africa; the quest for the origins of human life; The fate of Africa, a history of the continent since independence

Richard Leakey’s book, The origin of humankind may be a tad more authoritative, plus it discusses some things Meredith does not. But Meredith’s Born in Africa is an excellent survey of current knowledge of our African ancestors of over 50,000 years ago. Also, it is more up to date in a field in which new finds come to light every year. It is clear and simple to read and quite absorbing. Especially designated for all those who wanted to be archaeologists when they were young.

The fate of Africa is an excellent history of African countries since they gained independence from the colonial rulers around 1960. It is very readable and as easy to follow as any book with such a vast subject can be. The result, of course, is not very positive: Things are going badly, in spite of some hopeful signs. If you are interested in modern African history, this is the book to read.

Elspeth Huxley, The flame trees of Thika; The mottled lizard; Red strangers

The first two books are memoires of Huxley’s childhood on a farm in Kenya in the early days of the last century. They are absorbing books, excellently written and full of good stories of Africa, of lots of interesting people and animals, and of childhood trials and joys. The third book is a novel about the Kikuyu people of Kenya and of how they see, suffer from and adapt to the arrival of the “red strangers”, sunburned English colonists. It is seeing history from the natives’ side, rather like Howard Zinn does in his history, and it teaches us much about our own culture. Three great books from an excellent writer.

Angus, Maisie and Travers McNeice, The lion children

Angus, Maise and Travers are the lion children and their story, told in turn by all three of them, is fascinating and moving. Taken by their mother to live in Botswana, they grow up in the brush and become one with it. Their adventures and their study of lions — the other heros of the story — are quite fascinating reading. One of the top reads of the year.

David van Reybrouck, Congo une histoire

This is not any ordinary history book. Van Reybrouck has managed to locate aged people who remember the history he is writing about, including a former pop-music star. This adds a personal touch, giving you an idea of what it was like then from day to day, without moral judgements. More history should be written like this. It is not just about the Congo. An English edition should be published one of these days.

Abdulrazak Gurnah, Desertion

A wonderful novel by an author from Zanzibar. It concerns two love stories, one taking place around the end of the 19th century, and the other at the time of Zanzibar’s independence, around 1960. The stories are finally linked, making each more meaningful. Beautifully written and very moving.

Other books

Zadie Smith, White teeth

I wonder what took me so long to hear about Zadie Smith. She is one helluva writer, as Siv agrees, and this story of three families (one Muslim family, one laid-back one including a liberated Jehovah’s witness, and one “free-thinking” one) in London is constantly gripping and amusing. It gets into over-authoritative parents, the generation gap, the nature and desirability of religious belief, a wee bit of Jamaican history, the ethics of genetic engineering, the problems of young people in middle-class London today and much more. And it’s funny as the dickens. So if you have not yet read it and feel like enjoying a book, read this one.

Tahmima Anam, A golden age; The good Muslim

These two books are the beginning of a planned trilogy about the Bangladesh war of independence and its aftermath. Centered around a single family and their adventures, it is an excellent portrayal of the times. The second book is a good deal less positive than the first, so I am eagerly awaiting the publication of book number three. In any case, they ar both riveting and moving reads.

Louis de Bernieres, Birds without wings

Inspired by another trip, this one to Turkey. The story of an Anatolian village from around the turn of the century (1900) until after WWI is paralleled by the story of Mustafa Kemal, Ataturk, who was quite a guy, in spite of the Turks’ exaggerated veneration for him. The village story, starting back when Muslims and Christians lived amicably together, even sometimes taking part in each other’s religious practices, continues through the awful war (humanly and frighteningly described) and on to the terrible mutual eviction of Greek Christians from Turkey and Turkish Muslims from Greece. Along the way, one gets a fascinating array of characters from all walks of life and a number of individual acts of conscience and bravery to subdue somewhat the negative impression coming from the effects of WWI and overdone nationalism. A really enjoyable and extremely moving book. De Bernieres is an excellent writer.

Cormack McCarthy, All the pretty horses; The border

John was late getting to McCarthy, but started catching up with these two cruel, hard-to-take and yet eventually extraordinarily moving books about young men coming of age. You will feel quite shaken up when you reach the end of them.I am hesitating about reading the third novel in the trilogy, having heard that it is much more negative.

Charles Dickens, Bleak house; The mystery of Edwin Drood (completed by David Madden)

Dickens is still the master and Bleak house may be, at least in my opinion, his best book. What more can you say?  But Edwin Drood is equally a masterpiece; Dickens’s writing seems to reach new peaks of discernment and, yes, humor. Dickens died before he could finish the book. The continuation by David Madden gives quite an acceptable and logical end, based on Dickens’s own notes. But Madden, for all his talent, is not Dickens. You know when you start the second part because the vocabulary changes subtly. Still, if you want to know how it was done (It is, of course, a whodunnit.), this version probably cannot be beat.

James Joyce, A portrait of the artist as a young man

Joyce’s artistry and talent are clearly in evidence in his first novel, which I re-read this year. The middle chapter in which Father Arnall gives a long and detailed description of hell had me laughing out loud. Ok, it gets a bit obscure in later chapters, but the idea comes through. If you do not have time to read Ulysses, read the Portrait. Hell, read the Portrait anyway, preferably first.

Anthony Horowitz, The house of silk

A fun book! Many of the Sherlock Holmes books written by people since Arthur Conan Doyle’s death are not terrific. This one is. You  would think it was the master himself. An extremely enjoyable read, especially for Holmes fanatics like me.

Philippe Bouin, Les enquetes de Soeur Blandine (five different titles: Implacable vendanges; La gaga des traboules; La Saône asssasinée; Les sorciers de la Dombes; L’inconnue de l’écluse)

For French-reading friends. The five Soeur Blandine books are hilarious, concerning a beautiful, young nun (yes, nun) who was previously a police officer in the Criminal Brigade (what the French call “la crim”) and still keeps getting embroiled in criminal cases. There is a lot of argot in them, but it is mostly understandable. There are a number of other recurrent characters, including an atheist, royalist journalist and his female Corsican police-officer girlfriend. Depictions of country types are very funny and the suspense is not lacking. And they all take place around Lyon, where we live. Atmosphere guaranteed.  Great fun!