At the end of 2015, I posted a roundup of what I had read that year, with a mini-review of each book. The post went over quite well, so I thought I would reprise this heavy year’s reading as well. Here’s the piebald mix:
Adler-Olson, Jussi The Keeper of Lost Causes. I’m not normally a fan of mystery stories, but I was entertained enough by this example of Nordic crime fiction to keep reading and to finish it. The conceit of torturing someone through increasing the atmospheric pressure in a cell made out of a pressure vessel was both interesting and creepy, and the vibe of the book spurred my to try writing a sci fi murder mystery of my own. (The draft of that story has been disappointing, but I will see if it’s salvageable)
Bradbury, Ray. The Martian Chronicles. This story cycle had a few truly excellent works in it (I’m thinking especially of the first three Mars expeditions). Other tales seemed emotionally lame—either overwrought or full of implausible motivations. Much as War of the Worlds seemed like a meditation on British Imperialism, this book seems like a metaphor for the conquest of the American West, as well as an early work on nuclear apocalypse. I’m glad I read this book—and I feel it gives me some external validation to keep going with my own story series on John Demetrius—but overall I felt a bit flat about the experience.
Calvino, Italo. The Baron in the Trees. One of the sweetest, most heart-warming books I’ve ever read. Baron Cosimo di Rondo climbs a tree during a temper tantrum when he is twelve years old and he never comes down. For the next fifty-odd years, through the height of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the disappointments of Napoleon, Cosimo reads, philosophizes, carries on love affairs, and corresponds with the great minds of his day, all from his home in the branches. Calvino, for much of his youth a communist, apparently wrote this book as a response to the Soviet repression of the Hungarians in 1956 (an event which caused him to leave the communist party and never join another). It’s a story of how one can keep to one’s philosophical commitments in the face of the many let-downs that the world has in store for us.
Catmull, Ed. Creativity, Inc. What an inspiring book: this account of what it takes to run a creative company (in this case, two companies–Pixar and Disney Animation) filled me with ideas for my work at my own college and for my creative work as well. Catmull is big-hearted, generous, modest, and also committed to excellence in his work. I’m so glad my wife put me on to this book; I never would have sought it out myself.
Cline, Ernest: Ready Player One. This gift from my sister was a very enjoyable little read. The writing was in some ways terrible—Cline trades in clichés and underwriting—but the story is quite well-plotted and gave me many geeky moments with its references to D&D, old 80s movies and music, and early video/computer games like Zork. Good fluffy fun.
Fuentes, Carlos. La Muerte de Artemio Cruz. After four attempts over the course of six years, I have finally finished this short, sad work. I’m a very slow reader in Spanish under the best of circumstances, and this work, written with Faulknerian paragraph-sentences, unclear points of view, and unannounced time shifts, really put my creaky Spanish to the test. Yet in spite of its brevity, it’s a monumental novel, the history of Mexico in miniature, a chronicle of thwarted ambitions and broken promises and, underneath all that, an indomitable dignity. The Wikipedia page for the novel claims that the book was heavily influenced by Citizen Kane, and I can dig that, but just as much I see the influence of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. It’s a poignant and unflinching look back at the life of a tough, bad hombre.
Grossman, Lev. The Magicians. I had seen a lot of good buzz around this series, but I found this book pretty hard to like. The characters were so, so privileged and self-involved, so jaded and irresponsible with their powers, that it seemed like nobody had anything on the line in this book. The characters seemed far more Jay McInerney than J.K. Rowling—I just never felt invested in any of them.
Holdstock, Robert: Mythago Wood. While interesting and sometimes fascinating, this book was ultimately a big disappointment to me. I loved the idea of a primeval forest with its own mythopoetic, psychological characters drifting out of it like ghosts. Shades of Solaris, there. However, the dialogue was pretty wooden, and I was shocked at how many plot points were totally contrived or were abandoned so carelessly (I know that the book is one of a series, but still—there’s no excuse for the lame non-explanation of Keeton’s leaving, nor the off-handed dismissal of the three following warriors who had barely figured in the story up to that point). I don’t remember who put Holdstock in the same league as LeGuin, Crowley, and Marion Zimmer Bradley, but this book does not lend much support to that claim.
Liu, Cixin: The Three Body Problem. I have mixed feelings about this one. The story is a truly original first contact tale, and I was blown away by the episodes that involved computing (both the episodes in the Three Body game and the creation of the sophon). However, I also found the characterizations wooden and the characters’ motivations at times truly unbelievable. How much of that stems from the translation, or from the different aesthetic of Chinese fiction, and how much of my trouble stems from the weak writing that afflicts so much science fiction?
Palmer, Parker. Let Your Life Speak. I’m surprised that it has taken me so long to read Parker Palmer, probably the most famous living Quaker in the United States. This book seemed to take the form of half a dozen loosely-related Pendle Hill Pamphlets, most of them inspiring or heartening, and none of them useless. This is a great book about vocation, looking at our work through the lens of how we can best serve others and live out of our deepest identities. This may on the face of it sound totally contrary to the advice of another book I loved, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, but I would call these books complementary: Cam Newton’s focus was on building skills and getting paid for them, while Palmer’s seems to be on discernment about what our gifts are and how to use those gifts to serve others. Palmer is a true Hufflepuff—I needed his advice as I struggle with my own Hufflepuffery.
Sorokin, Vladimir. Day of the Oprichnik. Near-future sci fi from one of contemporary Russia’s most celebrated authors. In the Russia of the 2020s, a Francisco Franco-esque figure has taken power, re-instituting the Tsardom and the ostentatious rites of the Orthodox Church. The oprichnina—Sorokin takes the name from the secret police of Ivan the Terrible—go about knocking heads, terrorizing people, and taking some weird-ass drugs. The book is one part Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale one part Gogol’s Dead Souls, with a dash of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange thrown in. Violent, intense, and a solid read.
Stapledon, Olaf. Star Maker. One of the oddest works of sci fi I’ve ever encountered. This read more like an extended essay or history than like a true story. Yet this history of the universe as told through the eyes of hive mind energy beings was quite imaginative and often interesting. I can see how Stapledon influenced Stanislaw Lem, Arthur C. Clarke, and Freeman Dyson, among many others.
Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. One of the great reading experiences of my life. Slower than War and Peace—Anna Karenina took me about three months to finish—but I was amazed by the large-heartedness of the book. There were practically no unsympathetic characters at the end (except for the pharisaical religious woman who insinuates herself into Karenin’s life, I can’t think of a truly unsympathetic character). Even Karenin becomes, halfway through the book, a figure of deep love and pity. I was happy to see the book end—it’s a real emotional drain to read it—but I was amazed by Tolstoy’s powers of characterization here, as well as his plotting (the book reads like a collection of about 40 linked short stories).
Wells, H.G. The War of the Worlds. So different from the film treatments. But such a story! I can see why Wells was so influential. I love how the narrator characterized himself as a writer “on philosophical themes.” The whole book seems like an allegory for the failings of British Imperialism—one of the best sci fi stories I’ve ever read.
Witwer, Michael: Empire of Imagination. This was a fluffy, entertaining history of the creation of Dungeons & Dragons by Gary Gygax. I didn’t realize exactly how much of a rockstar Gygax had been in the 80s (nor how much of the rockstar lifestyle he copied). I did know something of the rags-to-riches-to-rags arc of his story, but there were some wonderful details here, as well as a bit of redemption in Gygax’s later years (even if the telling of it seemed a bit contrived). A fun memory trip.
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. I wrote a longer review of this book a couple of weeks ago. While I was familiar with every period Zinn wrote about in People’s History, I don’t think I had ever seen all these periods stitched together into a single overarching vision. Basically, Zinn’s contention is that the true history of the United States is not defined by the actions of presidents and congresses who have worked at practically every turn to enrich a tiny economic elite–by preserving slavery, by massacring the natives, by invading Mexico and Cuba and The Philippines, by overthrowing democratically elected governments in Guatemala and Chile and Iran. Rather, American history is made up of the often overlooked struggles of the oppressed, the working class, the unrepresented. It is a history of people fighting, over centuries sometimes, to be included in the opening phrase of the Constitution: “We the People.” It’s an inspiring–if sometimes flawed–vision. I believe that what it offers, in a crowded field of history texts, is a truly alternative analysis of the history of the nation.