book corner: july 2019

willb/ August 1, 2019/ book corner/ 0 comments

On the shelf for this month was a slew of books, almost all of which I enjoyed immensely. I find it really hard to get started reading novels, and usually I’m not hooked into a story until about a 1/3 of the way through. These four books managed to break that inertia quicker than I expected.

July’s reading list

  • The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Planet Factory (exoplanets and the search for a second earth), Elizabeth Tasker
  • Three Body Problem, 刘慈欣 (Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu)
  • Building the Commune (radical democracy in Venezuela), George Ciccariello-Maher

The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin broke my slow start mold. It took only a few chapters of convincing before I was fully engrossed, and I’d feel comfortable in saying that the novel reshaped my understanding of anarchism, property and ownership, and helped me find a sense of hope and purpose during a rather lonely span of my summer. I listened to the unabridged Don Leslie audiobook, which I’d highly recommend.

The story details the journey of Shevek, an Anarresti temporal physicist who is working on a unified theory of time. Hailing from the anarchist moon of Anaris, he is the first person from his world to travel to Urras, a world embroiled in archist conflict (a cold war conflict between capitalist A-io and the socialist Thue). He believes that free from his society he will be able to pursue his unified theorem and give it to all the people of the known systems, but as he beings to comprehend his host’s motives, he begins to question what he knows about Anaris and what he was taught of Urras.

Planet Factory, by Elizabeth Tasker, is a popular science book that intends to explain the search for exoplanets and our understanding of their origin. I began reading this novel intending to compare it to John A. Johnson’s How Do You Find an Exoplanet, but the book diverges from Johnson’s undergraduate introduction in some big ways. Sacrificing much of Johnson’s mathematical treatment and meaty explanations of each discovery method (except, of course, direct imaging, which neither book do justice) this book takes a much more internet-science-article tact when presenting its material.

What I think is great about Tasker’s approach is it’s that example driven and evocative. She covers a lot of ground, starting with theories of planet formation before moving to the first discoveries of hot jupiters and super earths with radial velocity, and then to transits and microlensing, with a brief mention towards DI. I appreciated the handling of the planet formation and protoplanetary disk chapters, and I might recommend them to my advisor for the next round of incoming researchers, at least to supplement reading such as Chabrier et al. 2014 and Armitage 2018 in reviewing these formation theories. I also appreciated the healthy doses of skepticism when presenting potentially “habitable” worlds and I really liked her change of vocabulary from “habitable zone” to “temperate zone.” Overall I think Planet Factory is a good recommendation for a non-astronomer interested in exoplanet research.

Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu, is one of the most popular books in China for a reason: its good. Part noir and part sci-fi epic, it blends VR, physics, and intrigue into an story that grows exponentially. It was a slow starter for me, and it took me until about Chapter 5 or 6 to really tuck in, but as the mystery begins to unravel the scope of the novel was honestly jaw dropping. The novel takes the cynical and melodramatic conflict of John Horgan’s The End of Science and humanizes it. There are some wild twists to this story, and it comes highly recommended.

George Ciccariello-Maher’s Building the Commune is one of Verso Books’ Jacobin Series, “short interrogations of politics, economics, and culture from a socialist perspective.” Ciccariello-Maher explores the history of the Venezuelan commune, its effects on Hugo Chavez, reactionary counter-revolutionaries, and its current place in Venezuelan life. This was a really great contextualization of Venezuelan history from the ground-up, as well as presenting some really engaging ideas about the role of collective organizing and production in local communities. I’d highly recommend this book to people looking for more context on current events in Venezuela and to those who are skeptical of socialism and its role in the governance of Venezuela.


Here we come to our book-end; I hope these recommendations have piqued your interest, and I hope you’ll let me know what you read during July. I have a few books on my mind for August, which I’ll leave in a list below. Until next month, happy reading!


August reading list

  • The Dark Forest (Three Body Trilogy #2), 刘慈欣 (Cixin Liu, translated by Joel Martinsen)
  • Cuba on the Verge, edited by Leila Guerriero
  • Nova, by Samuel Delaney
  • The Divide, by Jason Hickel
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About willb

I'm Will, an undergraduate astronomer studying transition disks, direct imaging, and planet accretion and formation at the Follette Lab at Amherst College. I use they/them/theirs pronouns.

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