Susan’s Picks from 2014

I feel terrible for only squeezing in 27 books this year, a new low for me, but considering I wrote or edited three books in between, I don’t feel so bad. I am an unforgivable nerd, wallowing in science, history, psychology, and biography to the point I read almost no fiction at all anymore. I feel bad when people ask me to recommend something and I have no clue what to offer because the last really good book I read was on the histology of Ebola, or they’re looking for romance recommendations and my idea of a great romance is the novelization of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Here are the best and worst I read this year, not counting a reread of Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls, which I love so much I gave out ten copies at Christmas:

Jacket.aspxThe Riddle of the Labyrinth: the Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, by Margalit Fox. Fox covers the work by Michael Ventris, who eventually untangled the mystery of the early Greek/Mycenean Linear B glyphs, but spends much of the book discussing Alice Kober’s work, so much of it uncredited yet without which Ventris would not have succeeded. When Kober – who spent the majority of her life working on the syllabary – dies just a year before the pieces fall into place, you want to cry for her. If you love a good detective novel – this is a true story that shook the history world. (I warned you about the nerdism).

Detroit: An American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff. An incredible book about the decay of Detroit, a city so far gone America has forgotten it exists, while the people still try to survive in a place without – well, anything. No jobs, no police, no grocery stores, and most recently, no water. Made me incredibly angry to see America left to rot like this.


WJacket.aspxho Discovered America? by Gavin Menzies. Ever read a book that makes you feel like you woke up on an alien world, that everything you were ever told about history was wrong? This book takes Thor Heyerdahl to a whole new level, pointing out overwhelming scientific evidence that Asian, African, and European peoples were routinely coming to America long before Columbus was born. Utterly fascinating. Even if Menzies is only 10% right, it still changes everything we know about history. Easy to read, and you won’t be able to put it down.


Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in Northern Korea, by Barbara Demick. This book is so touching and so sad, you cannot help but be moved by people who have so little control over their lives that even their food and clothing is doled out by the government, and if they say you will starve, then you starve, because they will not give you more. People risking death to swim to China, or pay for an underground railroad to South Korea, where they have extreme culture shock that defies the propaganda they have been fed for generations. Hate the leader, but love the people. I love Gavin Menzies, but I think this gets my vote for Best Book of the Year.

deafI Can Hear You Whisper: An Intimate Journey Through the Science of Sound and Language, by Lydia Denworth. Denworth’s youngest son is born profoundly deaf; this is her story not only of trying to decide how to educate him (as a lip-reader, a signer, or hearing w/ a cochlear implant). Interspersed with her journey is the science behind hearing and language, and the history of deafness, and it is utterly fascinating how much hearing and learning are interconnected, and why many deaf people never read beyond a fourth-grade level.


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John LeCarré. I needed to read a couple of spy novels as research for a book I was writing. Every list I looked at said this was the best. I have no doubt they are right. A spy novel that will keep you guessing until the very end, it makes James Bond look like a pampered fool. Very British, but very, very good.


boyWorst book I read this year? There were a couple of stinkers, but I think the worst I read was The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood, by Roger Rosenblatt. I don’t care how many awards he’s gotten. I almost never abandon a book half-way through, but I just couldn’t finish this. It has a boy, and he’s in New York, but the rest is just a single run-on sentence of chapterless rambling. You know how your brain wanders foggy from topic to topic when you’re lying in bed half asleep? That’s this book. I read some clunkers, but I made it to the end of them. This one I couldn’t get past 50 pages. No, thank you.


What did you like/dislike this year?

Susan Reads: Nothing to Envy

Rarely have I come across a book so haunting.

If you Google Earth for North Korea at night, you will see South Korea as brightly lit as a coast of the US. Above it is a greatC0044096-Korea_at_night,_satellite_image-SPL big blackness. This is North Korea. It is not black because they block out satellites, or by treaty.

It’s because there is no electricity.

In an entire country.

Author Barbara Dimick’s book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea won the 2010 Samuel Booker prize, with good reason. Dimick has seen the “official” places of North Korea, but moreso spent years tracking down people who managed to escape the deadly iron fist of North Korea and interviewing them extensively. She follows several families, some of them die-hard party loyalists, through their unwavering patriotism, their questioning, their suffering, to their desperate do or die escape.

indexDimick traces some of the history, from World War II, when things started to go flaky, through the Korean conflict, when things got really wacky, to the insane tyranny of Kim Jong Il, and now Kim Jong Un. North Korea, until the 1960’s, actually had a better standard of living than South Korea, but began to fall apart in the 70’s. But, unlike Russian Communism, instead of saving itself, North Korea became even more hard-nosed, more dictatorial, more insane. By the 90’s, there were no jobs, no wages, no food, no manufacturing. People began starving to death in great masses, with children so stunted by malnutrition they barely topped 4’7” as adults. Trees died, because people stripped the bark to eat.  As many as three million people died, and there were many reports of cannibalism.

Imagine a place where radios and televisions are set by the government to one single official channel. Where the government doles out the very food you are allowed to eat, and the quantity, and the clothes you wear. Where everything is in black and white except the propaganda posters, which are in red, the only color people can look to with cheer. Where every home must display a photo of the dictator, and clean it daily with a special cloth, where the picture can be inspected at any time and you can be sent to the Gulag for disrespect. North Koreans are so isolated, so indoctrinated, so starved, so cowed, that they are not only  utterly brainwashed against the outside world, but cannot imagine what the outside world is like. After three generations of this, they’ve never known anything else.

Perhaps the saddest, most poignant moment is when the once-loyal mother makes a desperate swim across the river into China,article-north-korea-hunger crawls to the first house she sees, starved, frozen, exhausted, desperate, pushes open the garden gate, and discovers a bowl of meat and rice and  vegetables set outside waiting for her, and she is utterly amazed, not having seen meat or even rice in months. Then the family’s dog comes around the corner of the house, and the woman realizes that in China, even dogs eat better than North Koreans.

Read this. Really, read this book. It’s short. It will painlessly explain so much of the insanity, the politics, the danger that is North Korea, and will help you separate the Korean government from the Korean people, who have as much control over their situation as an ant has over an elephant. You will not forget it.