Book Reviews

Reason's 2015 Gift Guide

The best books and other media of the year


As the year draws to a close, our staff looks back at the books, movies, and other media released in 2015 and suggests a slew of gift ideas. Whatever you decide to buy for your family and friends this holiday season, please buy it here—a portion of your Amazon purchases will go to help support Reason.

Ronald Bailey, science correspondent

With The Evolution of Everything, the British science journalist Matt Ridley offers a sweeping and highly readable distillation of insights about humanity's history and future prospects. Ridley makes the case that the Darwinian process of random mutation followed by non-random survival is a "special theory of evolution" that is embedded in a more "general theory of evolution that applies to much more than biology." Decentralized evolution by trial and error, he argues, is the chief way improvements have emerged in all sorts of human endeavor, including "morality, the economy, culture, language, technology, cities, firms, education, history, law, government, God, money, and society."

Incremental, bottom-up, trial-and-error innovation yields moral progress, superior technologies, and greater wealth. Top-down mandates from centralized authorities are more likely to produce ethical disasters, technological stagnation, and persistent poverty. "Bad news is man-made, top-down, purposed stuff, imposed on history," Matt Ridley writes. "Good news is accidental, unplanned, emergent stuff that gradually evolves."

Brian Doherty, senior editor

Critic, poet, and British TV personality Clive James has been publicly dying of leukemia since 2010. But he is still hanging on, and another collection of his literary essays, Latest Readings, was issued this year from Yale University Press.

James is brilliant ("a national consciousness is formed by secondary writing rather than by serious writing"; "Usually it take a whole bunch of us to understand anything, so anyone who thinks he can do the whole thing by himself is almost certainly a crackpot"), he is funny ("American cultural imperialism…the branch of American global dominance that actually works"; David Halberstam "checks his facts until they weep with boredom"), and he is humane, not posing as if his erudition means he's remembered everything he's read and is laying it on you as an intellectual weight you ought to man up and bear.

James writes of Hitler that he "had the con man's knack of making himself seem profoundly steeped in any subject just by the fluency with which he could learn a list of facts and reel them off." James's fluency in humane letters shows its profundity through a richness not of facts but of aperçus, strewn for sheer enjoyment's sake and with such fecundity that the reader won't stress unduly about leaving some excess laying around uncollected.

James's critical skill is not so much the power to convince you to read what he loves, but to feel that if a mind that sharp, with a command of language so equally precise and expansive, has reacted to the work and injected that experience directly into your intellectual pleasure centers, maybe you can guiltlessly skip the work altogether. This, too, is a gift.

Anthony Fisher, writer/producer

Josh Wilker's Benchwarmer—subtitled "A Sports-Obsessed Memoir of Fatherhood"—follows up his previous memoir, Cardboard Gods, which depicted his childhood and young adulthood through the prism of the lesser-known faces of his baseball card collection. In this iteration, Wilker takes you through the joy, terror and humiliations of his first year of new fatherhood in the form of a sports almanac. Entries on undistinguished former professional athletes ("I miss Bubby Brister. Shittiness infinity, shitiness pure") to sports-centric phrases like "Playing Out the String," beautifully and hilariously draw parallels between real-life sports history and the (presumably) real-life misadventures of a man struggling to overcome a lifelong inferiority complex, acquire the life skills to become a "grown-up" adult, and maintain a relationship with his wife which has become strained by financial concerns and his need to express himself as a writer while holding down an unsatisfying day job.

It's not a sports book; it's a funny and sad and very emotional book. Sharing the author's obsessive recollection of decades of sports history is not required.

Also recommended: Sara Benincasa's DC Trip. Chaperoned by their awkward, hippie-crunchy twentysomething teacher and her handsome but secretly dorky male counterpart, a group of New Jersey high schoolers head to the nation's capital for an "educational" weekend. Primarily focused on three students and their mean-girl rivals, the novel's comic events unfold plausibly and naturally enough that attempted underage oral sex in a Georgetown bar's bathroom or an accidental visit to a drag queen show or consuming pot brownies in the White House's Rose Garden don't read like strained sitcom plots, but as formative moments of genuine friendship.

At times ribald, mischievous, and gross, DC Trip is never cynical, and it even occasionally gently tweaks its own lefty identity politics. The book deserves to be counted among Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, King Dork, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower as young adult novels that have raised the YA bar by not insulting their target audiences, while still feeling universally relevant enough to make a man in his late thirties laugh out loud while reading it on the New York City subway.

Nick Gillespie, editor, and

Thomas Mallon's novel Finale covers the final two years of the Reagan presidency, especially the events surrounding the Reykjavik summit with Gorbachev, which accelerated the end of the Soviet Union but was widely seen as a failure at the time, and the Iran-Contra scandal that dogged the 40th president on his way out of office. Mixing a cast of real-life figures (including a wonderfully caustic rendition of Christopher Hitchens and a figuratively oozing Merv Griffin) and fictional characters (such as an aging peace activist and a closeted national-security apparatchik), Mallon creates incredible tension even though we know how everything ends. (For Reason's interview with Mallon, go here.)

Reagan's infamous unknowability and its effects on history are at the center of the book. The major players—Nancy Reagan, George Schultz, Jim Baker, even Mikhail Gorbachev—try to anticipate and please him without ever really penetrating his mind. And by doing so, they inadvertently help to bring the Cold War to a close. The only time we get inside Reagan's head is in the novel's moving epilogue, when we encounter a fully senescent man whose memory and comprehension have faded but whose relentless sense of purpose remains intact.

Finale is in many ways the biography that Reagan's official chronicler, Edmund Morris, set out to write but couldn't pull off. As a novel of politics, personality, and the ironies of history, Finale is a must-read for students of the recent past and the contemporary moment.

Todd Krainin, video producer

Director Joshua Oppenheimer's quiet masterpiece, The Look of Silence, follows Adi Rukun, who bravely interviews the men who murdered his brother during the Indonesian genocide of 1965. Amazingly, the killers gleefully boast about the details of their horrific acts, as they are considered national heroes who are beyond the reach of the law. Under the relentless pressure of Rukun's questioning, the seeds of conscience begin to grow. It's devastating to watch the killers evade, deflect, and lie to themselves in order to justify their roles in the atrocities that took the lives of as many as three million people.

If you don't care about a war crime that took place in a faraway land, you will after seeing this film. There is nothing like it in the history of documentary filmmaking, save this film's companion piece, Oppenheimer's 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary, The Act of Killing.

Katherine Mangu-Ward, managing editor

Pop fiction jammed full of plot-powering technical explanations is trendy these days, thanks to the bestselling book and blockbuster movie The Martian. But Neal Stephenson was serving up steaming helpings of astro-technobabble long before it was cool. Stephenson—of Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon fame—starts his latest, Seveneves, with the moon exploding "for no apparent reason," and it gets weirder from there. Along the way, there's a delightful Neil deGrasse Tyson knock-off who guides humanity through the beginning of its own destruction with cutesy made-for-cable soundbites. The book was conceived when Stephenson was working for Jeff Bezos' secretive space company, Blue Origin, so the inspiration for the eccentric spacefaring billionaire character isn't hard to guess at either.

The semi-recognizable characters lend a ripped-from-the-headlines urgency to the first section of the book, but readers are soon dragged much deeper into the realm of far-future speculative fiction and will find themselves just as engaged in the fates of nearly unrecognizable submarine-dwelling post-humans more than 5,000 years hence.

Scott Shackford, associate editor

The first Discworld book, The Color of Magic, appeared in 1983. The last, The Shepherd's Crown, was published this past August, five months after the death of the series' creator and author, Terry Pratchett.

The intervening 32 years plunged readers into a series of humorous and occasionally biting fantasy novels whose cast included wizards, witches, dragons, trolls, dwarves, priests, police officers, enchanted luggage, assassins, and, most famously, a personification of Death. Pratchett used this familiar genre setting not just for sword-and-sorcery epics but to tell tales about progress and freedom.

Like this witches in his books, Pratchett developed his own intimate relationship with Death, thanks to his very public struggle with the early onset of Alzheimer's disease. The Shepherd's Crown feels like Pratchett knew that this would be his last novel. His final story sees the last stage of young witch Tiffany Aching' s journey into adulthood as well as the loss of one of the series' most beloved characters.

Pratchett's villains typically want things to stay the way they've always been; his heroes try to extend the possibility for progress to others. For his final trick, Pratchett has young Aching present even Discworld's most vicious creatures—the selfish, predatory, yet glamorous elves—with the opportunity to become something more.

Stephanie Slade, deputy managing editor

We all need a little magic in our lives. Fortunately, 2015 brought an addition to the Harry Potter canon—one that doesn't just tell the series' opening tale but shows it. The imagery of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: The Illustrated Edition is the creation of the award-winning artist Jim Kay, who told Entertainment Weekly he "didn't sleep for months" after getting the assignment. At once rich and meticulous, his breathtaking pictures look like they were siphoned at wand-point out of the mind of J.K. Rowling, a la Dumbledore emptying his weightiest thoughts into a pensieve.

The book may in theory be intended for the youngsters in your house. But as this grown-up fan of the wizarding world knows, Potter enthusiasts come in all shapes and ages. "Old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young," the Hogwarts headmaster once said. Like Hermione's time turner, this new take on The Sorcerer's Stone transports readers back to an earlier season, when it almost seemed possible that they too might one day attend Britain's leading school of witchcraft and wizardry.

Robby Soave, staff editor

Will Pixar ever get sick of making whimsical yet sophisticated odes to the human experience? Inside Out answers that question with a resounding no. This film is animation at its most lifelike—a captivating meditation on growing up that's even more emotionally engrossing than the studio's typical work.

Said emotional engrossment is quite literal: The main characters are Joy, Anger, Disgust, Fear, and Sadness, and they live inside the mind of a regular teenage girl, Riley. It's simply stunning how well-constructed the world of Riley's brain is. Memories are glowing orbs that end up in long-term storage but can be summoned to Riley's inner projector screen when needed, and dreams are scripted dramas written by the mind's night shift workers. When a traumatic event knocks Riley's emotions out of balance, Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (The Office's Phyllis Smith, doing amazing voice work) must join forces to right the ship; in the process, Inside Out explores the notion that grief is an essential component of human happiness.

Subtly libertarian in that no single emotion rules Riley's head—where spontaneous and creative forces abound—Inside Out is the perfect holiday gift for people who really believe it's the thought that counts.

Peter Suderman, senior editor,

No video game has gripped me more this year than Fallout 4, the latest entry in Bethesda Softworks' sprawling, post-apocalyptic series of role-playing games. Previous Fallout games were set in D.C. and Las Vegas; the latest installment is set in a mocked-up videogame recreation of Boston long after nuclear war destroyed most of the continent.

The game's sheer vastness is overwhelming, with the virtual equivalent of over 30 square miles of "territory" to explore. Indeed, the lead designer has said that after 400 hours of play, he was still discovering new elements—and sometimes wondering who on his team had put them in place. It may be that no single individual can ever experience the game comprehensively. But it's endlessly fun to try.

Jesse Walker, books editor

Conservatives often claim that the total state was born in the ashes of 1789. That's truer than they may imagine: While the Jacobins were certainly pioneers of political policing, the same was true of the Old Order regimes that responded to the threat of revolution by building up police states of their own. Adam Zamovski's magnificent Phantom Terror: Political Paranoia and the Creation of the Modern State, 1789–1848 tells this tale, showing how governments across Europe reacted to revolutionary activity—and, much more often, to entirely imaginary revolutionary conspiracies—by erecting systems of surveillance, censorship, and control.

In Zamovski's vividly written account, figures like Prince Metternich come across as reactionary fantasists jumping at shadows: They see the hand of the Illuminati or some other subversive secret society behind anything that might erode their power, yet are caught unprepared when real revolts finally break out. In the meantime, their networks of informants keep finding creative ways to feed their rulers' fantasies by telling officials what they want to hear.

Matt Welch, editor

Almost every music biopic falls apart precisely at the seam that should be holding it together: the creation of the music that made the biography worth doing in the first place. Though memory becomes less reliable with advancing age, I know of only one exception to that rule, and it hit theaters this year: Love & Mercy.

This movie tells the story of the Beach Boys' chief songwriter, the brain-scrambled genius Brian Wilson, told in two zig-zagging sections: his woozy late-'80s reemergence from the clutches of totalizing therapist Eugene Landy, and his thrillingly dynamic though emotionally fraught mid-'60s period, which saw both the apex of his career (Pet Sounds and "Good Vibrations") and the beginning of its undoing (Smile).

Though the '80s stuff makes for perfectly good drama, it's the legendary Pet Sounds sessions that brings the goosebumps (or, if you happen to catch the movie on an airplane, sobs). Played here by a cherubic Paul Dano, Wilson is confident and off-kilter, bounding around the crammed recording studio to translate his brain to the West Coast's best musicians, then taking smoke breaks with drummer Hal Blaine to fret—with reason—about how his brothers and cousin are going to react to the new material when they get back from touring. It's as compelling a depiction of the recording process I have ever seen.

Since it's the Beach Boys, you will also want lush, complex vocal harmonies, and you will get them. Surprisingly, you also get at least a somewhat fair treatment of Wilson's antagonists—Landy to some extent, and especially cousin Mike Love. Sure, the therapist was clearly a monster, but he was also a monster who probably saved Brian Wilson's life. And though Love was busting Wilson's expressive chops right at the moment when he was reaching new heights, he was also trying to serve as a bulwark against the druggy deterioration and artistic indiscipline that would soon mar the band's career.

All of which is subservient to the music. However you experience Love & Mercy, make sure it involves headphones.