Someday I’ll write a longer appreciation of her work in which I try to explain how meaningful her writing has been for me. For now, I’ll simply reprise the last essay I wrote about Le Guin, a post about her marvelous book The Lathe of Heaven.
I guess I couldn’t get any later with my yearly reading roundup. And, since joining Goodreads last month, the thought of chronicling my reading habits for the last year feels a bit redundant. However, these posts have been fun to write for the last three years, and it helps me to consider in full the books I’ve read over the last year, if only to re-evaluate the stuff I’m reading.
I had a paltry reading harvest this year–13 books in all–though partly this number hides the many short stories, longform journalism pieces, and political blog posts I waded through this year. Having said that, I hope 2018 holds a little less covfefe coverage for me and a few more actual books by thoughtful people.
So, without further prologue, here is my crop of 2017 reads:
Chabon, Michael. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. This is one of the most inspiring high-wire acts I’ve read in all of fantasy fiction. Actually, I’m not sure exactly how the book is marketed—it’s an alternate history detective story—but here Chabon manages to weave a truly absorbing and moral tale set in a counter-historical Jewish homeland (which happens to be Sitka, Alaska). Also, Chabon’s writing is much like Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing for me: while it’s often not exactly to my taste, every page or two I find myself asking “how did he do that?” as Chabon drops off another metaphorical description of the Alaska sky or a tough chess move.
Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? There’s a rough-cut, coarse grained quality to PKD’s writing that gives this book the feel of a brilliantly inventive first draft. For all I know, perhaps it was: PKD was forced by poverty to churn out pulp books at a fantastic rate, under the influence of a good deal of amphetamine. The book is different in almost every way from Blade Runner, the film that was based on it and which provided my first exposure to PKD’s work. The book has a bit more of a Ray Bradbury-ish quality—sci-fi objects like ray guns and electric sheep are not portrayed as believable objects so much as mythical symbols, the kind of objects one would find in a dream. Blade Runner has a good deal more world-building in it. However, the book is the dream that the movie was made from.
Dick, Philip K. The Man in the High Castle This granddaddy of “what if Hitler had won?” novels is my favorite Philip K Dick book. The novel follows the loosely connected stories of several Americans living in a California that has become a protectorate of Imperial Japan. The story has the kind of trippy plot twists that Dick was famous for, but this story seemed tethered enough to a believable reality that it was much easier for me to inhabit this world than, say, Ubik or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The book is a creature of its time and some of the characterization of non-white peoples—especially the Japanese imperialists—hasn’t aged well; however, I would argue that those depictions are more ham-fisted than aggressively racist. While I’m not normally a fan of alternate histories, this one really got to me.
Dozois, Gardner, editor. The Year’s Best Science Fiction #33. It’s been years since I’ve read a “year’s best” anthology; however, I read this one cover to cover in hopes of learning more about the field I’m writing in. As with any book by a medley of writers, some of these stories spoke to me more than others. There were some good stories from writers I knew about—Kelly Link, James S.A. Corey, and Pablo Bacigalupi all had solid entries—but I was more blown away by several new (to me) writers: Ian McDonald, Gwyneth Jones, Carter Scholtz, Chaz Brenchley, Nick Harkaway, and Kelly Robson. The best of these stories do what I hope (and often fail) to do in my own work, bringing believable characters and well-turned dialogue to stories with the whiz-bang plots and settings of sci-fi. I have such a broad reading appetite, and I’m such a slow reader, that I probably won’t read another best-of anthology in the coming year. However, I have learned a lot about the short sci fi market here, and I do hope to come back to Gardner’s anthology again.
Dungeons and Dragons. Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual (three books). I’ve been a Dungeons & Dragons player since Christmas Day 1980. However, this is the first time that I’ve read the three core reference books for D&D from cover to cover. At the time, I had some hope of writing a set of longer and more involved posts about D&D (in addition to this one and this one), and so I told myself that I was doing research. It helped, too, that the books are generally quite well-written and that they provide an old player like me some insight into the evolving sociology of D&D.
Overall I loved most of the changes that these 5th edition books bring to the game. There is a long-running tension in the D&D community between those who like their games full of rules and statistics and those who favor the role-playing and interactive story-telling aspect of the game. (Of course, there are also many gamers, perhaps most, who play somewhere between these two extremes. As you can probably imagine, as a sci-fi and fantasy writer I play D&D for the story-telling). To my great joy, 5th Edition D&D is clearly an attempt to make role-playing and story-telling the center of the gaming experience. The focus on characters’ backgrounds and motivations and personal flaws, the reward of “inspiration points” to players who engage in particularly good role-playing, the inclusion of a more nuanced and morally complex alignment system—all of these innovations have turned 5th edition D&D into a game about inhabiting a character and playing a role. Yes, there are a few ways that the game has had its rules overly stripped down and simplified, but overall I’m much happier to see D&D moving towards a model of interactive storytelling.
I’m also pleased to see that the creators of this edition have worked hard to remedy the racist and sexist depictions of the first editions of D&D. So far as I remember, not a single illustration from 1st edition D&D depicted a non-white adventurer, and the descriptions of “savage” humanoids like hobgoblins and orcs were full of signifiers that associated these evil creatures with Asian hordes and African tribesmen (some of this racism was inherited directly from D&D’s source material. It’s no coincidence that the only African-American actors in The Lord of the Rings movies played orcs). Similarly, depictions of females in 1st edition D&D were almost always of the “chainmail bikini” variety—for example, on the cover of the original Dungeon Master’s Guide here:
5th edition has thankfully put real armor on the women, and the illustrators have broadened the color palette for illustrations, including (at last) for dwarves, elves, halflings, and all the other good-aligned creatures that might take up arms against a sea of goblins:
Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. I’m generally skeptical of self-help books (especially those that are given to me at work), but I really loved the authors’ light tone here, as well as the well-researched underpinnings for what they were suggesting (hint: it’s in the title). I’m going to try these precepts in my own life and at work.
Kawasaki, Guy, and Shawn Welch. APE: How to Publish a Book. One of the best books on writing that I’ve ever encountered. Very different from the Brenda Ueland/John Gardner types of writing books, this one really focuses on the business end of publishing and promoting a book. I’ve built my publishing plan for Stranger Bird around these guys’ suggestions.
Hamilton, Alexander, John Jay, and Hames Madison: The Federalist Papers. Reading these fabulous essays was a bit of a slog, owing to the authors’ 18th century style. They were also at times hilarious: I wish I had counted the number of times Hamilton accuses the opponents of the constitution of wantonness, calumny, affectation, or speciousness (in the end he half-apologizes for his “intemperances of expression”). More importantly, though, I was struck by the genius of how the Constitution was framed, how an entire government could be brought about with so few moving parts in it. Of the three authors, Madison was my favorite: a gentle author, brilliant and deeply read, but also horribly compromised by his own slaveowning. Here (and elsewhere) we learn about Madison’s wish that slavery be abolished as inimical to a republican form of government; yet, like Jefferson and almost all the other founders, he did not free his own slaves in his lifetime or in his will. His Federalist 54, where he tries to explain the Three-Fifths Compromise, is one of the most fascinating and troubling things I’ve read from any of the founders. I have another take on these remarkable essays here.
Miéville, China. The City and the City. I liked this book pretty well, though it suffered somewhat in comparison to Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which I had read the month prior. Miéville turns in an interesting murder mystery in one of the most compelling imagined settings I’ve encountered recently, a double city in the Balkans somewhere where the inhabitants of each half are required by law not to see the inhabitants of the other half. Equal parts Kafka and Philip K Dick, this book offers a thought-provoking meditation on life in the Balkanized spaces of the world, the Jerusalems and Berlins and El Paso-Juárez double places.
Newton, Cam. Deep Work. I loved this book on first reading, though as Newton’s ideas have sat with me some of them haven’t aged well. I definitely agree with his overall thesis, though: that people who are able to focus for long periods of time on truly “deep work” (i.e. work that would be hard for others to do) can find themselves in great demand. This kind of focus is an increasingly rare skill. It is definitely having an effect on my work and home life.
Rulfo, Juan. Pedro Páramo. This slim story took me forever to finish, pokey as I am at reading in Spanish. I found the style much more accessible than Fuentes’ style in Artemio Cruz, and Rulfo’s story is both hilarious and frightening, like a gothic Poe tale retold by a Mexican John Kennedy Toole. The story was difficult, too, though—lots of unannounced time shifts, POV shifts, moments where it was unclear whether the speaker was living or dead. I may well teach this book sometime for my sci-fi and fantasy class. Anyone who liked the movie Coco should read this darker take on the subject.
I’m happy to announce that the great science fiction magazine Analog has picked up my story “Potosí” for publication. “Potosí” will be the fifth story I’ve had appear in Analog, and by far the longest story (nearly 10,000 words) I’ve ever placed in a professional market.
As I wrote elsewhere, “Potosí” is set in a near future where corporations and countries squabble over the solar system’s vast mineral rights. It’s also a meditation on white supremacy and terrorism, an attempt to explain today’s world in new and striking clothes–much the same way that Star Trek explains the Cold War and Forbidden Planet explores World War II survivors’ guilt.
It’s been a good (and busy) week for my writerly life. One of my recent stories (another Analog pick-up called “Proteus”) is getting some very nice attention, and my quest to publish my first young adult fantasy novel, Stranger Bird, continues apace. I’m hoping for a publication date of November 3–keep watching the transom for that.
There’s also much more that I want to share here on The Subway Test, and I’m sure I’ll have some longer musings and ponderations here soon, but for now I’m pretty busy just keeping on top of my sci fi and fantasy writing.
When a musical like Hamilton comes along, a rational response to the buzz is for folks to, you know, want to see Hamilton. Others might be overwhelmed enough by the positive press to look to Hamilton‘s source material, the gargantuan Ron Chernow biography of the man on the ten dollar bill.
Others, the cheapskates and musical theater philistines, might turn instead to The Federalist Papers.
Yes, I started reading The Federalist Papers because I heard Hamilton rapping on NPR for a minute and I realized that I hadn’t really read anything Hamilton had written.
I suppose if I’m really honest with myself, I do have to admit that fear for the future of America, at least as much as Lin-Manuel Miranda, is really what sent me to The Federalist Papers. As I watch the current president’s bumbling yet earnest assault on the Constitution–his flouting of the emoluments clause, his apparent ignorance of the establishment clause, his barrelling through each conversation as though the separation of powers didn’t exist–I realize that I don’t know enough about the document that the president is trying to subvert. I have read the Constitution, and I’ve sure been going back to my pocket copy a lot lately, but like a powerless fanboy, I want to know more, to know it better. And The Federalist Papers, I’ve been told, are the inspired commentary on the US Constitution, the brilliant liner notes to that Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band of legislation.
I’m about a third of the way through so far, and it’s very slow going. All three of the authors–Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay–learned to write in an age when a man showed his genius by teasing each sentence into a froth. Each sentence has a multi-layered, architectural quality, like the 18th century wigs that Hogarth lampoons in Five Orders of Perriwigs.
Of the three, John Jay is the most straightforward of the writers, the one least inclined to pile on the relative clauses. Imagine my dismay, then, to learn that John Jay wrote by far the fewest of the papers–only five of the 85–before illness forced him to give up the project. Hamilton, who wrote by far the most of the papers, is also the hardest to read. Every sentence of Hamilton’s is like listening to a Yngwie Malmsteen guitar solo: his paragraphs are spattered with commas, packed with dependent clauses that double back on themselves and seem to eat their own tails. And they are also filled with some of the most brilliant and vigorous writing I’ve ever seen.
This sentence, from Federalist #29, is typical Hamilton:
There is something so far-fetched and so extravagant in the idea of danger to liberty from the militia, that one is at a loss whether to treat it with gravity or with raillery; whether to consider it as a mere trial of skill, like the paradoxes of rhetoricians; as a disingenuous artifice to instil prejudices at any price; or as the serious offspring of political fanaticism.
Wow–I had to crawl through this sentence few times before I could tell what Hamilton was actually arguing: that militias are no danger to public liberty. However, one look at the rigging of this sentence is enough to warn me not to treat his ideas with raillery. A sentence like this demands to be treated with gravity.
I was also fascinated to see, in this sentence and elsewhere, how current Hamilton’s ideas are. Dust off the perriwig of his prose, and you can see that we are still debating “the idea of danger to liberty from the militia” in this era of Cliven Bundy.
But what has impressed me the most so far about these letters is the high-wire act their authors pulled off. The three men, all writing under a single pseudonym–“Publius”–managed to pump out 85 of these essays over just ten months. That’s one letter every three or four days, each one a Niagara of commentary intended, I imagine, to bury the Constitution’s opponents under a flood of historical references, musings on American geography, and speculations on human behavior.
The newspapers these essays appeared in, The New York Packet and the Independent Journal, were two of that enormous flock of early American newspapers. I remember reading somewhere that most such papers had a circulation of about 1000. Publius was, in other words, much like an early blogger: a pseudonymous team of writers with a tiny audience, writing their asses off to produce brilliant content several times a week.
Dilettante that I am, I have nothing comparable to offer the country here at The Subway Test. I post a couple of times per month, sometimes about politics but usually not. Usually my topic is, in Homer Simpson’s words, “what some nerd thinks about Star Trek.” Yet I can reach back those 230 years to the brilliance of Publius and see that I am pushing my little cart up the great track they laid. If you want to resist the depredations of the current presidency, you have to educate yourself. Read The Federalist Papers. It is one of those books that will comfort you with the underlying genius of the republic. More importantly, it will help you understand what the hell you are defending when you stand up to the current president.
As followers of The Subway Test have read before, I’m publishing a fantasy novel called Stranger Bird this year. Working with my estimable friend Erica Thomas at Works Progress Agency, we’ve landed on a launch date of mid-October. And so begins my final editing slog, getting the manuscript ready for layout. I’m surprised at how many little things (and even a couple of big things) I’m changing in response to the feedback of my beta readers and my awesome copy-editor, Ann Eames. Thanks, beta buddies!
If you’re reading this, I’m grateful that you’re reading. And if you like fantasy, I hope you’ll take a look at Stranger Bird when it’s ready.
While on a road trip yesterday, my wife and I listened to B.J. Novak’s hilarious and touching story “J. C. Audetat, Translator of Don Quixote.” J.C. is a skilled and thoughtful poet in an age that doesn’t value poetry (that is to say, our age). He finds fame instead by translating, first Don Quixote, and then other great works, each to greater acclaim, even as his translations grow ever more absurd. I won’t say much more about the story for fear of giving away the joke—it really is a marvelous story.
Part of why I was so touched by the story was how much I recognized myself in the character of J.C. Not that I’ve ever been famous—rather, J.C.’s inner struggle with writing poetry for small literary magazines that practically no one reads called up an old personal struggle of mine.
Not long after I started college I knew I wanted to be some kind of writer, and at that time I wrote short fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction pretty much in equal measure. Towards the end of my time at college, though, during a tough and lonely time in my life I listened to a cassette tape recording of a Robert Bly reading called “Poetry East and West,” and I decided, precipitously, that I would devote myself to poetry for the rest of my life.
I was not at that time a good poet. I became one over time, but I wrote quite a few bad poems before I wrote a single good one, and I wrote many more bad ones after that first good one. It was some years before I any knack at all for writing good ones.
What attracted me to poetry in the first place was its almost total disdain for market forces. Nobody will pay you to write a poem, and so you are free to write whatever you like, to dig down to the bedrock of existence, beneath those composting strata of life’s trivialities that we spend so much time buying and selling.
That way of writing and living still appeals to me. But it was only after years of writing poems that it dawned on me why nobody will pay you to write a poem: because nobody reads poetry much. To be a poet today is to walk away from readers and towards an absolute experience, like a monk or yogi or hermit. I could shut myself up in my cabin, in the manner of Robert Francis or Bashō or Emily Dickinson, and pour myself into work that few people would see, living a full life in conversation with an indifferent world, like a man calling down into an empty canyon or a sparrow singing for a mate in a supermarket parking lot. That would be a painful way to live, but it would be a life defined by the coolness of an uncompromised vision.
I don’t think I’m cool enough to be an artist of that type. It’s hard to imagine throwing my voice down a canyon for years like that. I want people to read my work, to ask me questions about it, to tell me how they reacted to it. This desire is not the same as the desire for fame—the idea of being famous gives me the willies. Rather, what I want is a conversation, a person who reads something I’ve written and says that was meaningful to me or I’ve been nagged by this question about your main character and I have to ask you. And to have that conversation, I need a reader.
I chose to write science fiction and fantasy because I thought they were genres I could write in, and at the time I was exploring the idea I thought fantasy and science fiction could use a more serious literary treatment than they have usually gotten in recent decades. (The fact that the world is full of literary science fiction and fantasy writers shows how dated my understanding of those genres was, as well as how many writers have been working the same hustle I hoped to, only years before it had ever occurred to me).
Someday I may hole up in the cabin and write poetry for the rest of my life. But not right now. Right now, I’m grateful to have a handful of readers. Every once in a while someone will email me about how much they got out of a story of mine, or with a question about something that didn’t make sense to them, and it’s that feedback from a few readers that keeps me writing.
Some years ago I wrote a young adult fantasy novel called Stranger Bird. That book was my attempt to recreate for my young daughters some of the feeling I had reading fantasy literature as a boy.
I hope and believe I have accomplished that much. But whatever other hopes I nursed for Stranger Bird–publication, a wider readership, a little money–have been a fool’s errand: after the coming of Harry Potter and the Harry Potter Industrial Complex (HPIC), YA fantasy thoroughly changed (mostly, though not in every way, for the better). I wrote Stranger Bird to harken back to an older style of fantasy, more mythical, perhaps a little darker: the Earthsea books of Ursula K LeGuin, Richard Adams’ Watership Down and Shardik, the Prydain series of Lloyd Alexander.
For whatever reason, I haven’t been able to find a publisher for a book like that today. Maybe Stranger Bird just isn’t very good. However, I have several indications that the book hasn’t been rejected on the basis of its lack of literary quality. A couple of times the manuscript got to the desk of the head editor of the house, and one small house did in fact offer to publish it if I would change the style of the book (the changes were a bit much for me, so I declined). I’ve gotten some good external validation of my other work, stories that I consider no better than Stranger Bird: 15 of my stories have been picked up for publication; my work has been anthologized five times; I’ve picked up nice reviews in Locus and SFRevu and elsewhere.
It’s even fair to say that I started writing fantasy and science fiction short stories to try and gin up a name for myself that would attract the attention of an agent for Stranger Bird–the big publishing houses won’t look at anything not represented by an agent (I was late learning that it’s generally harder to find an agent than a publisher). And yet, after trying with seven publishing houses and 23 agents, I’ve not been able to sell Stranger Bird on my own terms.
I realize now that I’ve been too snooty, and too squeamish, about self-publishing.
My goals are modest. I’ll state them here: I want 100 readers for Stranger Bird. I’m willing to work to find them. And I’m willing to work to make them feel special. Any more than 100 readers will be gravy–I will consider the whole business enterprise a success if I can get 100 people to read the book.
I don’t know yet what I will call my imprint. And I know I have a lot to learn about the business end of publishing–that’s a side of things I have little talent for and almost no experience with.
But I’m committed. A couple of weeks ago I turned in my bio for my next story publication (a John Demetrius story called “Proteus,” appearing in Analog soon), and at the bottom of the bio I added a line I’ve never used before: his YA fantasy novel Stranger Bird will be appearing this year. It felt good, and it felt scary, to add that line. Keep watching this space; I’ve crossed a tiny, imaginary Rubicon.
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.
Because it was one of my 2015 New Year’s resolutions to read more books, I paid some mind to my reading habits this year. This resolution was a real softball pitch to myself, since in all of 2014 I read only eight books. At that paltry rate, even if I am lucky enough to live another 40 years, I will only read 320 more books in life.
(In my defense, 2014 was the year I finished up graduate school and got remarried, so the first half of 2014 didn’t leave me a lot of reading time. Still, eight books. It’s hard to call yourself a writer if you only read eight books a year).
This year I did somewhat better: 15 books (not counting re-reads of books that I was teaching this year). How did I fare with these? What follows is a brief review of each title in my motley 2015 bookshelf:
Apollinaire, Guillame: The Heresiarch + Co. This was a gift from Gloria on her return from France. I found these stories charming—hilarious, sweet-natured, wry, odd, just a bit surreal. Sometimes the plotting seemed a little artless, but there were other touches of language that seemed masterful, like the poet with “the gift of ubiquity” and the cigar with the plea for help written inside. Apollinaire is a favorite poet of mine, so I was predisposed to love his fiction.
Austen, Jane. Emma. The second Austen novel I’ve read, I found this book a perfectly delightful comedy of manners and a sly (perhaps over-subtle) critique of the British class system and the limits placed upon English women. Emma’s character is almost thoroughly unsympathetic for the first half of the book or so, but she acquits herself admirably. Austen’s humor is gentle, understated, and yet at the same time absolutely electric. The characters were generally types—something like the types of Shakespearean comedy—rather than fully fleshed out bundles of complication. But that’s Austen’s style.
Bailey, Thomas R., Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins. Redesigning America’s Community Colleges. This was a wonky read, but a very good one. While I was already convinced of our need to develop guided pathways for community college students, this book provides both evidence supporting the argument as well as some suggestions for further research and colleges to watch. I have a feeling I’ll be consulting this book a good deal in the coming years.
Dyson, Freeman: Disturbing the Universe. One of the best books of essays I’ve read. Freeman is very much like Loren Eisley as a writer—somewhat less sublime but also funnier. Some of these essays have lasted better than others, but I am quite taken with Dyson’s powerful and utterly unique moral vision.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Lathe of Heaven. I reviewed this earlier in the year. It’s a gripping read, one of those stories which breaks a cardinal rule of writing (in this case, no “it was all a dream” stories) but which Le Guin gets away with because, hey, she’s Ursula Le Guin. I don’t know that this novel held together at the end quite as well as some others of hers—like Left Hand of Darkness—but I was taken with the humor and horror of this story, as well as with Le Guin’s of-the-era argument for the quieter, wiser ways of Taoism as a corrective to the evangelical Judeo-Christian Western Rationalism that brought us the Vietnam War and global warming and the DSM.
Link, Kelly. Stranger Things Happen. I loved these stories overall. The best of them were truly chilling and surreal, like Twin Peaks on the page. Link is masterful at, well, linking disparate, subterranean connections in her work, and the best stories—like the first three in the book—do things that I couldn’t imagine doing as a writer. At times the writing is a little precious or too eager to crack a joke, but Link is the real deal.
Newport, Cal: So Good They Can’t Ignore You. The best career advice book I’ve read. This quick read annoyed me in a few places—Newport mostly interviews the beneficiaries of privilege, like himself, and he has a lot to say about what being a faculty member at Georgetown will be like before he’s even started the job—but the career advice Newport gives here is sound and a valuable corrective to the conventional wisdom of “following your passion.” I bought this book for my oldest daughter and will pass it along to the younger girls when the time is ripe.
Peake, Mervyn: Titus Groan. The first of the Ghormenghast Novels. This was a remarkably slow read, oddly and loosely plotted (in some ways almost without plot), full of demanding and self-indulgent writing. But I’ve also never read anything like it: Peake has a gift for arresting imagery and wordplay. His work is like a novel-length set of Edward Gorey drawings.
Peake, Mervyn: Gormenghast. The second Gormenghast Novel. I think that in most ways I preferred Titus Groan, even though Gormenghast has more action. Peake’s work is by turns inspiring and maddening: he will turn a phrase or describe a scene in such an arresting way that I can’t imagine how he managed it; then, he’ll try to squeeze out of a plot difficulty with a hamfisted and frustrating plot twist, coincidence, or ad hoc explanation. While there’s plenty that frustrated me about this book and its predecessor, I probably have enough momentum here to finish the Gormenghast novels next year.
Penn, Rob: It’s All About the Bike. This was an enchanting little history of the bicycle. I’m not certain how accurate it is on every point, but I loved the stories of the bike’s early days, interspersed with Penn’s quest for his own “lifetime bike.” It makes me want to assemble a bike myself.
Romano, Tom. Write What Matters. This book was dedicated to my dad and contained some sweet moments from his life (as well as from the life of another beloved and departed writing teacher of mine, Ken Brewer). While I didn’t always follow Tom’s organization, I loved Tom’s voice and his fierce love as a writing teacher. His words about rough drafts have helped me during this tough slog through the sloppiest rough draft I’ve ever attempted: Pacifica.
Schwarz, Barry. The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. I picked up this easy, engaging read in my research into structured pathways at my community college. The book is funny, humanistic, and it digests a lot of psychological and economic research into a reader-friendly form. I may want to pass this book along to my daughter to help her with her career-picking struggles.
Sterner, Robert and James Elser: Ecological Stoichiometry. This book took me several attempts, but when I really sat down to deal with it, I got through it in about 8 months of two-pages-a-day reading. It really is a remarkable scientific work, and I came away convinced that phosphorous is the most ecologically important chemical on Earth (because of its role making up RNA). I’d love to do science like this! I realize, though, that it’s not the kind of science that most people do in their spare time. I’ve definitely decided to keep reading in the biological sciences, though, and perhaps a cool home project will present itself.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. I’d been meaning to read this since taking a long ago grad school class on the symbolists and decadents. Overall, this seemed like a Poe-esque gothic tale peppered with Lord Henry’s bon mots and aphorisms. Plot-wise, it dragged a bit—it seemed highly influenced by Huysman’s Against Nature—and there were few truly sympathetic characters besides Basil. At the end, it struck me as a much more conventional morality play than I had been led to believe it would be—maybe that’s why I came away a bit disappointed. The art for art’s sake motto of the aestheticists ultimately seemed to give way to a somewhat conventional Victorian morality, less daring in its conclusions than Hardy or George Eliot or Flaubert or Dostoevsky.
Wilson, David Sloan: Darwin’s Cathedral. This book really affected me powerfully–I wrote about it in my previous blog post. The idea that religious behavior is adaptive and selected for through multi-level group selection is revolutionary (though maybe it shouldn’t be). I can see how this book is influencing my approach to writing Pacifica: Jude wants to build the next religion that will expand our moral circle to include all humanity and be compatible with science.
I hope that 2015 was a good reading year for you, perhaps so good that it would be impossible to fit your thoughts into a single blog post. I’ll see you in the new year!