My best and worst reading of 2015

2015 booksHere are the 52 books I read or listened to in 2015. (I’ve excluded the books I read with my kids, since I review those less consistently.)

I have separated them into fiction and non-fiction and provided a loose ranking: 5 is the best rating, so I recommend any book with a 5 next to it. I’ve written a full review for each book, which you can read by following the link!

Reactions and recommendations are welcome!



  1. The Odyssey, by Homer (Robert Fagles translation) – 5
  2. Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – 5
  3. The Memory of Love, by Aminatta Forna – 5
  4. Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen – 5
  5. Some Kind of Fairy Tale, by Graham Joyce – 5
  6. A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole – 5
  7. Dos crímenes, por Jorge Ibargüengoitia – 5
  8. We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo – 5
  9. Cosmétique de l’ennemi, par Amélie Nothomb – 5
  10. Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline – 5
  11. The Tempest, by Shakespeare (Ian McKellen audio performance) – 4
  12. The Martian, by Andy Weir – 4
  13. The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling) – 4
  14. L’envers du décor, par Safiatou Ba – 4
  15. Chaka, by Thomas Mofolo – 4
  16. The Children Act, by Ian McEwan – 4
  17. The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, by Owen Wister – 4
  18. Los pasos de López, por Jorge Ibargüengoitia – 4
  19. Twice Buried, by Steven Havill – 4
  20. The Gods of Guilt, by Michael Connelly – 4
  21. Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes – 4
  22. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami – 4
  23. Death at the Voyager Hotel, by Kwei Quartey – 4
  24. Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, by David Rakoff – 4
  25. Harry Potter à l’école des sorciers, par JK Rowling – 4
  26. Harry Potter et la chambre des secrets, par JK Rowling – 4
  27. Good Behavior, by Donald Westlake – 4
  28. The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling) – 3
  29. Sweetness #9, by Stephan Eirik Clark – 3
  30. La isla de los amores infinitos, por Daína Chaviano – 3
  31. The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins – 3
  32. Armada, by Ernest Cline – 2
  33. La iguana, por Alberto Vásquez-Figueroa – 2
  34. Romance, by David Mamet – 2
  1. I Will Lead You Along: The Life of Henry B. Eyring, by Henry J. Eyring and Robert Eaton – 5
  2. Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, by Karen Armstrong – 5
  3. On Immunity: An Innoculation, by Eula Biss – 5
  4. Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics, by Richard Thaler – 5
  5. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick – 5
  6. This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett – 5
  7. Food: A Love Story, by Jim Gaffigan – 5
  8. Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir, by Ngūgī wa Thiong’o – 5
  9. Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson – 5
  10. Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, by Guy Delisle – 5
  11. A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, by Kristof and WuDunn – 5
  12. A Quaker Book of Wisdom: Life Lessons in Simplicity, Service, and Common Sense, by Robert Lawrence Smith – 4
  13. Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl – 4
  14. Yes Please, by Amy Poehler – 4
  15. The Art of Social Media: Power Tips for Power Users, by Guy Kawasaki & Peg Fitzpatrick – 4
  16. The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date, by Samuel Arbesman – 4
  17. Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, by Daniel Smith – 4
  18. I Don’t Know What You Know Me From: Confessions of a Co-Star, by Judy Greer – 3

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the making of behavioral economics and a behavioral economist


There have been many books written recently on behavioral economics: Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality, Mullainathan and Shafir’s Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives, Akerlof and Shiller’s Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception, Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, etc.

Each of these books demonstrates how people behave irrationally, in contrast to traditional economic thinking, and then discusses either public policies or personal policies that we can use — as Thaler puts it in this book — “to help people achieve their own goals,” whether that’s to save more, procrastinate less, or get out of poverty. I’ve read or listened to several of them.

This book is different and wonderfully refreshing. Thaler has been at the center of much of the development of behavioral economics, and this is a memoir of the field as he has observed and experienced it. It’s full of sharp wit and insightful, entertaining anecdotes, reporting on Thaler’s academic adventures as well as his application of behavioral economics in business consulting, for everyone from ski resorts to car manufacturers.

Because it’s a memoir, areas of behavioral economics that Thaler has touched less get less attention, such as the development of behavioral economics in international development work. That’s fine; you can read the World Bank’s Mind, Society, and Behavior or Mullainathan & Shafir’s Scarcity if that’s exclusively what you’re after.

I thoroughly enjoyed the unabridged audiobook and recommend it.

Here are a few lines that I noted, first on content:
  • On discussions with psychologist Danny Kahneman: “One aspect of these mutual training sessions involved understanding how members of the other profession think, and what it takes to convince them of some finding.”
  • “For those who are at least living comfortably, negative transaction utility can prevent our consuming special experiences that will provide a lifetime of happy memories, and the amount by which the item was overpriced will long be forgotten.”
  • “Interdisciplinary meetings, especially those with high-level agendas (reduce poverty, solve climate change) tend to be disappointing, even when the attendees are luminaries, because academics don’t like to talk about research in the abstract — they want to see actual scientific results.”
  • “As my Chicago colleague Linda Ginzel always tells her students: ‘If you don’t write it down, it doesn’t exist.'” (In other words, collect data in tangible form.)

And then a few pithy observations:

  • “To this day, Orley [Ashenfelter] insists on calling what I do ‘wackonomics,’ a term he finds hysterically funny.”
  • “At some point people reach an age at which they can no longer be considered ‘promising.’ I think it is about the time they turn forty.”
  • “‘Dumb stuff people do’ is not a satisfactory title for an academic paper.”

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Should you read Dani Rodrik’s Economics Rules? Yes.

amazon economics rulesEconomics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science

Dani Rodrik reminds us that economic models are good, and what they’re good for

Tyler Cowen writes that “Economics Rules is the single best source for explaining the strengths and weaknesses of economics to an outside audience.” I just listened to the audiobook, narrated by James Conlan, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Over the course of six short chapters (272 pages, or 5.5 hours on audio), Rodrik lays out what economic models do, how to use them correctly, where economists go wrong, and finally answers a series of critiques of economics. One central message of the book is that the source of economics’ richness is its multiplicity of models, and that economists veer wrong when they seek to apply a single universal model to all situations (i.e., they “mistake a model for the model”). A second message is that economics has a lot to say about efficiency, but we shouldn’t pretend that’s the only worth value: “Any economist who makes a broader argument about the fairness, justice, or moral worth of markets that is based on economics proper is simply engaged in malpractice.”

I found Rodrik’s discussion of economic models to be engaging, deep, and accessible. He draws on pioneers in the field, like Smith, Marshall, and Keynes. He uses a wonderful one-paragraph short story by Jorge Luis Borges (“Del rigor en la ciencia”) to illustrate that the simplifications in models are a crucial element of their value. He uses an essay by philosopher Isaiah Berlin to distinguish between hedgehogs, who see the world as making sense through a single idea (such as free markets), and hedgehogs, who draw on a wide range of models, always seeking the right model to understand a specific situation. “Economics needs fewer hedgehogs and more foxes engaged in public debates.” He mounts a spirited defense of the field, together with a few critiques of his own. He ends with ten commandments for economists (“Economics is a collection of models; cherish their diversity” and “Do no confuse agreement among economists for certainty about how the world works”) and ten for noneconomists (“When an economist makes a recomendation, ask what makes him/her sure the underlying model applies to the case at hand” and my favorite, “If you think economists are especially rude to noneconomists, attend one of their seminars”). Rodrik also has a healthy discussion of the benefits (and the limitations) of the rise of randomized controlled trials in applied microeconomics.

Here are a few quotes:

  • “When models are selected judiciously, they are a source of illumination. When used dogmatically, they lead to hubris and errors in policy.”
  • “Economists use math not because they’re smart but because they’re not smart enough.”
  • “If you think economists are especially rude to noneconomists, attend one of their seminars.”
  • Quoting Keynes: “If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people, on a level with dentists, that would be splendid!”
  • “Models are never true, but there is truth in models.”
  • “Economic science is merely disciplined intuition — intuition rendered transparent by logic and hardened by plausible evidence.”

I recommend the book for economists, economics students, and interested non-economists.

What have others said about the book?

Reviews by other people


Clive Crook, Bloomberg: “It’s full of good insights, and has some sage advice for producers and consumers of economic knowledge. … But I think is mischaracterizes one important aspect of the problem.”


Kirkus: “A hopeful contribution to the reconstitution of a profession whose reputation has been seriously damaged, both fairly and unfairly.”

Martin Sandbu, Financial Times: “Rodrik convinces with his patient insistence on just how rich and versatile a library of models economists possess. … Rodrik’s book cannot fully dispel the scepticism.”

David Leonhardt, New York Times: Dani Rodrik “sets out to explain the discipline to outsiders (and does a nice job). Yet in surveying the larger “rights and wrongs” of economics, to quote his subtitle, Rodrik has diagnosed the central mistake that contemporary libertarians have made: They have conflated ideas that often make sense with those that always make sense.”

Highly Positive:

Publishers Weekly: “Excellent little primer”

N. Emrah Aydinonat: “Economics Rules is an excellent book; a must read for economists, philosophers of economics, and policy makers, and of course for economics students. And if you consider yourself as a critical economist, a heterodox economist, or a social scientist who is critical of the way in which economists work, behave, etc., the book has a lot to offer to you too (probably a lot to disagree about, but also a new perspective on economic models).”

It’s also Tyler Cowen’s list of the best non-fiction books of 2015 on Marginal Revolution.

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Should I read Akerloff & Shiller’s Phishing for Phools?

Here are eight on-line reviews. Three broadly negative:

  • Arnold Kling’s review: “Akerlof and Shiller are Nobel Laureates, which they earned with previous research. That is what makes this book so disappointing. People may enjoy reading Phishing for Phools, but it is lacking in real intellectual nutrition. It is the literary equivalent of a Cinnabon.”
  • The Economist: “Readers are merely left with the impression that there are lots of nasty people about—and perhaps that they may themselves have been phished.”
  • Alex Tabarrok in The New Rambler: “a disappointing foray into behavioral economics from two recent Nobel Prize winners. … Akerlof and Shiller have both made enormous contributions to economics but one will find in this book little of the analytical rigor or attention to evidence that earned them their laurels.”

Three more mixed reviews:

  • Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution: “My main complaint about the book is that its chooses easy targets and doesn’t puncture enough sacred cows.  … I wonder to what extent what the authors call “The Resistance and its Heroes” is in fact another example of…phishing for phools.”
  • Cass Sunstein in the New York Review of Books: “Their extraordinary book tells us something true, and profoundly important, about the operations of the invisible hand. But the largest views can lose focus.
  • Siddharth Singh at com: “They leave one question unanswered: how can the preferences of a regulator, or even a set of regulators, be superior to those of the ones being regulated?

With one broadly positive review in the Financial Times and one super positive one in the Times of Higher Education:

  • Robin Harding in the Financial Times: “The style of Phishing for Phools will be familiar to fans of Shiller’s work: light on jargon and pacy enough not to outstay its welcome. The authors tell some engaging tales, although usually at the remove of a fellow academic’s research. There is not much grime or anguish, dialogue or doubt.
    The brilliant, catchy title will sell Phishing for Phools. Indeed, it is almost as if Bob and George want to tempt the monkey on the shoulder of the book-buying public. They give their readers a breezy ride through some modern behavioural economics — and if they leave them hungry for a little more nutrition, well, what clever marketer does not?”
  • Victoria Bateman in the Times of Higher Education: “George Akerlof and Robert Shiller’s brilliant new book”

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Getting Started in Audiobooks

A friend mentioned she was interested in getting started in audiobooks, maybe while running. I constantly consume audiobooks while running: This morning, I listened to a bit of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and of Viktor Frankl’s Man Search for Meaning. I also listen to audiobooks while walking, waiting, washing dishes, sweeping, driving, brushing my teeth, and so on.

Where to get the audiobooks

The biggest collection I’ve seen is on Audible. The standard minimum Audible package is a little pricey for my taste, where about $15 a month gets you one audiobook of your choice a month, plus discounts on additional audiobooks.

But you can try out Audible with one free book (i.e., a free month). When I decided to leave after that month, Audible offered me three months at half price: about $7.50 per month. After those three months, I left for a while. Last month, I called them to see about signing up and they offered me the half price deal again, so I’m back for three months.

When I’m not using Audible, I use Overdrive, which links to my public library account; I use it with both my Fairfax County library account and my District of Columbia library account. Overdrive is free, like a library, but also like a library, the selection is more limited, and sometimes I have to put a hold on a popular book and then wait a few days or weeks. (I have such a long list of books to consume that I usually don’t mind waiting for one.)

When searching on Overdrive, note that you can filter a search by books that are “Available now” in case you just want something right this second.

A friend recently pointed me to the speed feature in both Audible and Overdrive, where you can listen to books slightly sped up. I now listen to most books at 1.25 or 1.5x the normal speed, and it sounds normal. (My friend does 2x speed, which I save for the slowest narrators.)

What to listen to

Hard books: I often use running as a chance to get through difficult economics or history books that I wouldn’t be able to get through in print. I also get big books on Audible since one book per month is free and so the big books are more book-per-dollar. For example, last year I listened to Martin Meredith’s enormous The Fate of Africa (which is pessimistic but useful) and Acemoglu & Robinson’s Why Nations Fail.

Books with great narration: I just finished listening to Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s fabulous novel Americanah, which is narrated by British actor (of Ghanaian descent) Adjoa Andoh. Andoh gets the accents much closer than I would in my head if I were reading the book. Likewise, when I listened to Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, which has rotating narrators (some white, some black, all Southern), the range of accents and voices used in the audiobook production made the book much better.

This is also true for comedy books: Jim Gaffigan’s Food: A Love Story, Tina Fey’s Bossypants, and Amy Poehler’s Yes Please were all great in part because the authors read them and they did so fabulously.

Some other authors read their own books very well. Neil Gaiman reads his own books wonderfully (The Graveyard Book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane). There are actually awards for audiobooks, called the Audies, although I’ve never used those to guide my listening.

The books I’d want to read but don’t get to: I often listen to prize winners (Beloved, by Toni Morrison) or classics (Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy) or just fun books that I won’t have time to get to in print (Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline).

My recent audiobooks

Here are the audiobooks I’ve listened to this year, in a loose order of preference (best at the top):

Americanah, by Adichie Audible Brilliant novel by Nigerian Adichie. Great narration.
A Confederacy of Dunces, by Toole Overdrive Brilliant satirical novel, brilliant narration
Yes Please, by Poehler Overdrive Extremely fun memoir, read excellently by comic actor Poehler.
Food: A Love Story, by Gaffigan Overdrive Hilarious collection of essays, ready by comic Gaffigan
We Need New Names, by Bulawayo Overdrive First novel by Zimbabwean writer. Very good. Good narration.
A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, by Kristof & WuDunn Overdrive Very good book on charitable giving, good narration by actor Olivia Wilde
A Tale for the Time Being, by Ozeki Overdrive Lovely novel on misconnection and loss, lovely narration by the author
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Demick Overdrive Excellent book. Good narration.
The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, by Wister Overdrive One of the first Westerns. Just lovely. Fine narration. (But oddly missing one chapter!)
Half-Life of Facts, by Arbesman Overdrive Interesting book on our changing knowledge in science, fine narration
Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, by Rakoff Overdrive Novel in verse. Not trivial to follow. Lovely narration by author.
Harry Potter à l’école des sorciers, par Rowling Youtube Good French practice, good narration.
La isla de los amores infinitos, por Chaviano Overdrive Good Spanish practice by a Cuban writer I like. Fine narration.
I don’t know what you know me from, by Greer Overdrive So-so memoir, read by the author
Romance, by Mamet Overdrive Play performed by L.A. Theater Company. Didn’t like the play, despite actors I like.

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book review: A Rainbow in the Night: The Tumultuous Birth of South Africa, by Dominique LaPierre

lively history of South Africa in stories…apparently with errors

Dominique LaPierre writes a completely engaging story of South Africa, translated from the French by Kathryn Spink. For those, like me, who mostly know South Africa through the words of Nelson Mandela (as in the wonderful, highly recommended Long Walk to Freedom), this history fills in much more of the history of this fascinating nation. For example, the initial Dutch presence in southern Africa stemmed from the Dutch East India Company’s desire to provide vegetables for passing ships, with no desire for conquest or empire there.

The history is not comprehensive: As the author says in his note, “I did not set out to compile an exhaustive history of South Africa. Rather, I wanted to recount, as accurately as possible, a powerful human epic” (ix). He does exactly that. He recounts the history through people’s stories: Christiaan Barnard, who performed the world’s first heart transplant (and, shortly thereafter, the first inter-racial heart transplant, in defiance of apartheid); Helen Lieberman, a white speech therapist who worked in poor townships; Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who led the work for reconciliation; Nelson Mandela; Wouter Basson, a doctor who spent his career developing unconventional weapons against blacks (such as poisoned underclothing intended to assassinate Archbishop Tutu (p186-7), various pre-Mandela presidents; and the architects of apartheid.

I was particularly struck by the influence of Nazism in informing the apartheid regime. Disappointingly, I went on to read the following in Martin Rubin’s 2009 review of the book in the LA Times: “Apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd was undoubtedly influenced by Nazi ideology, but the highly colored account here of his visiting Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s as a student is a flight of fancy. In fact, by this time Verwoerd was well established as a leading South African intellectual and a full professor at Stellenbosch University: He had been a graduate student in Hamburg and Leipzig, but in the mid-1920s.” He sums up: “The overall result is a profoundly unsatisfactory historical record.” As I listened, I was struck by LaPierre’s occasional rhetorical flourishes, saying – for example – that black South Africans had “a cultural richness and a religious fervor unseen anywhere else on the continent.”

The history has many holes, sometimes the personal focus leads to confusing jumps in time, and as Rubin’s comment above highlights, some of the tales are fanciful. But LaPierre effectively introduces us to many of the major players in the history of the
Rainbow Nation.

Note on content: A little bit of strong language (when quoting the police) – 2 f-words. A few references to sex. Lots of profoundly
offensive racism.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook, read by Stefan Rudnicki. Solid performance.

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book review: Madam & Eve – Twenty: Celebrating 20 Years of South Africa’s Favourite Cartoon Strip!

delightful review of South Africa’s changing landscape over two decades

On a recent trip to Cape Town, a friend introduced me to Madam and Eve as the Doonesbury of South Africa. This compilation of cartoons from 1992 through 2012 centers around Madam, a middle-aged white woman, her black maid Eve, Madam’s mother Edith, and their neighbor, the little girl Thandi. The cartoons provide a wonderful series of snapshots of South Africa’s changing social and political landscape, replete with Apartheid-apology greeting cards (“Roses are red, violets are blue, I’m sorry about the last 60 years, how about you?”), a South Africa monopoly board (“Collect R200,000 bribe as you pass go”; “Go to jail! … or fire public prosecutor”), and South African bestsellers (“Rich Dad, Poor Dad, Tender Dad”). (Tenders are the calls for bids to fill government contracts.)

For someone who, like me, knows relatively little of South Africa’s day-to-day political goings-on, some of the jokes went over my head, about Julius Malema, eating off the stomach of sushi models, and Brett Murray’s explicit painting of Jacob Zuma (“The Spear”). But for each that went over my head, several more hit home, either because the events were internationally known – Zuma taking a shower to protect himself from HIV or seeking his nth wife on a dating site – or because they display unfortunate international “truths” – Madam and Gwen watch TV impassively as horrible current events unfold, but then are aghast at the news that someone threw flour on Kim Kardashian.

Here are a couple of my favorites:

1. Thandi says to Edith: “Check out my new school project.”

“Big deal…a ship in a bottle.”

“Wrong! It’s a minibus taxi in a bottle!”

“How did you get it in there?”

“I held up a little police roadblock and it made a quick u-turn into the bottle.”


2. Teacher says to Thandi: “Okay, class! You have thirty minutes to complete your vocabulary quiz. Ready? Begin!”

Neptune: When you hire your cousin as the official ANC song writer.

Nationalise: Things politicians tell the nation that aren’t true.

Bookkeeping: Government policy of keeping books from school children.

This collection is lots of fun, and I highly recommend it.

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