And so the year’s reading comes to an end.
Illumination in the Flatwoods (Joe Hutto)
We stopped for the night at a ranch/motel in western Utah in June, a lovely place outside of a small collection of houses that insisted it was a town. We were one of two rooms rented, and the proprietor – a transplanted midwesterner named Bill – was glad for the company. When he found out that Lauren raised turkeys, he recommended that we watch the PBS documentary, My Life as a Turkey, which told the story of a man who raised a flock of wild turkeys from egg to independence and in the process very nearly joined the flock himself. Eventually Kim and Lauren did watch it and enjoy it, and this is the companion book. Hutto is a wildlife biologist who likes to get up close and personal with his subjects, and when he is handed two clutches of wild turkey eggs he decides to let them imprint on him and raise them as his own on his undeveloped land in Florida. Hutto is an eager explorer of all things turkey and a pretty good writer, so the book flows on by quite nicely. He builds them a pen and takes them for walks. He learns to call and respond as turkeys do. Some of the birds die, either from predators or from disease or just from being fragile birds – the odds of a wild turkey seeing its first birthday are incredibly slim – but most survive. Hutto is openly adoring of his charges and draws both solace and inspiration from them. As someone who has raised domestic turkeys and found them friendly and enjoyable, I thought the whole project was just lovely. Turkeys are amiable and curious birds, and the wild ones are incredibly smart – something that has been bred out of the domestic ones. Eventually they grow up and move out on their own, as they ought, and Hutto is quick to draw lessons from them. I’m not sure I’d want to spend six months living as a turkey, spending most of my days with them to the point of only grabbing real meals when they are asleep, but I can sympathize anyway.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (JK Rowling)
It’s been a long time since I was as disappointed in a book as I was with this one. Like approximately half the world, I enjoyed the Harry Potter books and movies, and the idea that Rowling would revisit that world in print again was a pleasant one. As a historian, I love the idea of finding out where the characters go after the main story is over, and the epilogue in the 7th Potter book is one of my favorite parts of the entire series. But this book does not work. It is set several decades after the original books, and Harry is a 40-year-old man with two kids at Hogwarts. It turns out that his son, Albus Severus Potter, is a bit of a misfit whose only real friend is Scopius Malfoy, son of Draco. From there it spirals out to include Voldemort, time travel, and more than a few unlikely events. There were several problems with this book, the first being that it really isn’t a book – it’s a script for a four-act play. Rowling has always been a better storyteller than writer, and a lot of what made the books work was that the world was a character just as much as Ron, Hermione, or Harry were. When you strip all that away and try to tell a story entirely through dialogue, you had better be a damned good writer. This isn’t her strength. Although she didn’t write most of it, apparently – the credits in the back (this play was produced in the summer of 2016) list someone else as the “playwright,” with Rowling being credited for the story – so really it should have been better just for this alone. Writing aside, the story itself is often hamfisted, prone to easy “aha!” moments that should have been more difficult for the characters to achieve, and surprisingly uninteresting for long stretches. If you crunched this down into prose it would have been maybe 100 pages, and if Rowling had expanded it from that point to the length of the other books she might have been able to make it work, but this did not happen and so it did not.
The World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones (George RR Martin, Elio M. Garcia, Jr., and Linda Antonsson)
This is essentially George RR Martin’s Silmarillion – the prehistory of the main series of books, wherein the vast depths of time and the long forces of history that produced the world of the main books (Martin’s Westeros, Tolkien’s Middle Earth) are set out and explained, although Tolkien’s work is presented as mythology and Martin’s is presented as history. Told in the voice of a scholar of the Citadel setting out the history of the known world from antiquity to the present and from the kingdoms and rulers of Westeros to the far off lands across the seas, it has all of the hallmarks of medieval European scholarship and in fact reads very much like some of the histories produced during that period. Martin and his co-authors have done incredible research on replicating not only the substance (take out the obviously fantastic elements and this is a pretty good description of medieval history) but also the tone – the constant referencing of lost texts, the bias toward the present ruling families, the intermixing of legend and record, and so on. It is a world where warfare is nearly constant, where life is cheap and brutality common, where immense amounts of stone exist to be shaped into similarly immense cities, walls, and structures. The book itself is also one of the most gorgeously illustrated volumes I have ever read, with hundreds of color paintings depicting scenes from the text. Few pages are barren of illustration, and some are nothing but. Of course it’s printed on thick oversized paper and the covers are generously padded and textured, so carting it about to read is a bit of a chore, but it pulls you right along. The book is written as if it is the very beginning of King Robert’s reign, which means that (with the exception of a one-paragraph Afterward) there are no spoilers for those who have not already read the main series. This book helped to make sense of a lot of the references, allusions, and relationships that I kind of glossed over in the main series, and I wish I had read it first.
Modernity Britain, 1957-1962 (David Kynaston)
And so another big reading project for the year comes to an end with the third volume of Kynaston’s deeply immersive social history of post-WWII Britain. Seriously, this is a model for social historians to follow – thorough, readable, and never losing sight of the ordinary people and how they live their lives but without ignoring the movers and shakers either. This volume covers the years when Britain finally began to emerge from the austerity of the immediate post-war period and enjoy some of the prosperity that had defined the 1950s in the United States. Consumer goods become more available, popular culture shows signs of the boom that will emerge in the 1960s (Kynaston delights in describing younger days of future stars – Michael “soon to be Mick” Jagger makes repeated appearances as a schoolboy, for example, as does the novice Parliamentarian Margaret Thatcher), and politics chugs along with the Tories mostly in control. The book is extraordinarily detailed regarding daily life – work, vacations, social mores (especially regarding gender and class, though not much about religion or its lack, which is one of the things that defines this as a British work rather than an American one) – but of necessity also devotes considerable space to more top-down subjects such as the rehousing efforts that Britain had to undertake because of the destruction of WWII. If there is anything as drearily depressing as mid-20th-century urban planning, I haven’t found it. But the remainder of the book is a fascinating and absorbing study of British life in the post-war period and my only regret is that the next volume in the series has yet to be published.
Absolute Beginners (Colin MacInnes)
While reading Modernity Britain I got into a discussion with a friend of mine about what, exactly, was a Teddy Boy (answer: a dandified sort of thug in 1950s Britain, whose nearest American equivalent might have been the Zoot-Suiters of the 1940s). As part of this discussion, she said I should read this novel since there was a character named Ed the Ted, and it turned out to be a good recommendation. The novel is told as a first-person story by an unnamed narrator living in the Notting Hill section of London in the summer of 1958, and the focal point of the novel is the Notting Hill race riot that took place that September. Most of the novel is set-up, though, as we get to scoot around with the narrator in his alienated down-and-out-in-post-war-London sort of way. It’s probably not an accident that the narrator reminded me so much of Holden Caufield from Catcher in the Rye. Both books were written at about the time their respective nations (the US and Britain) began to emerge from post-war economic troubles into the prosperity that followed – the US in 1951 and Britain in 1959. Both feature young male narrators alienated from the larger adult culture and situated somewhere between the Silent Generation and the Baby Boom. The narrator here, for example, is a jazz aficionado who ekes out a living selling pornographic photos and whose prose is peppered with words like “cats” and “dig.” He has a girl, whom he both loves and pushes away. He likes his non-white neighbors, whom he invariably calls Spades. He’s uncomfortable with his parents (the word “square” never appears in that context, but it might as well have) and lives in an apartment building above a gay man (“the Fabulous Hoplite”), a Spade named Cool, and a lesbian, all of whom are as much the heroes of this book as the narrator is. Other than the riot not a lot happens – it’s a tone poem as much as a novel – and the ending is rather confused. But it was a fascinating slice of a time and place.
Images of America: [The Next Town From Our Little Town]
Back when I ran the museum one of the projects that I always wanted to get done was a book like this. The publisher makes it pretty easy for you – they provide you with a full template, and all you have to do is slot in the pictures and write the accompanying captions – but I never did find anyone who could do it and I never had the time to do it myself. I’m glad to see they finally found someone – not only a Historical Society employee but the former editor of the town newspaper as well, so he did a nice job of it. It’s a short book, as these are, but it is full of old photographs and does a good job of capturing a lot of the old sights, stories, and events of the town’s history. It was an easy way for me to get copies of a lot of those old photographs that I enjoyed when I saw them in our archives, and it was fun to read the stories again.
Rogues (George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois, eds)
I bought this collection because it featured stories by Joe Abercrombie and Patrick Rothfuss. It also, it turned out, had stories by Scott Lynch, Cherie Priest, Neil Gaiman, Connie Willis, and Martin himself, as well as a number of others of equal talent. The stories are centered around the idea of the rogue – the ne’er-do-well, often sympathetically so, who is always just outside the bounds of propriety and law. Most of the stories are broadly SF/F, though some are set in the current world and other genres. Each has its own take on the main theme, though I was right to value Abercrombie and Rothfuss over the others as those are the two I enjoyed most. This was a matter of degree, though. This is a superb collection, really – every story is well written and engaging, which is rare in short story collections, I find.
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (Douglas Adams)
Kim and I have been watching the new BBC America series that claims to be “based upon” this novel and while it is an entertaining show as shows go it clearly has nothing to do with the source material beyond the name of the title character. And since Douglas Adams was one of the funniest writers of the last century (odd to think of him that way) and thus a perfect way to forget the nightmare that has been 2016, I thought I’d go back and reread it. It’s like stumbling into an old friend on a bus, and you wander why you don’t get together more often. The book has a surprisingly intricate plot, one where you don’t actually meet the title character until a third of the way into the book. Most of the story revolves around Richard (a software engineer, and this is where it is most apparent that this book was written a quarter century ago), his girlfriend Susan, his boss (and Susan’s brother) Gordon, Cambridge University don “Reg” Chronotus, and my favorite character, the Electric Monk. Explaining the plot serves no point, but the book moves along nicely and there are more than a few laugh-out-loud lines sprinkled throughout. I remember being quite proud the first time I read it that I caught the little tip-off from King George III the first time around.
The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (Douglas Adams)
Dirk Gently plays more of a starring role in his second book, which begins with one of my favorite opening lines ever: “It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression, ‘As pretty as an airport.’” Kate is trying to get to Oslo, but an Act of God lands her in the hospital instead, and destroys a good portion of the airport as well. But which god? And why? Soon Dirk Gently, holistic detective, is on the case. This is a more straightforward story than the first book, if you can call a plot that involves the Norse gods living in England and a number of very bad-tempered eagles wreaking havoc on passersby straightforward, and unless you look very carefully you probably won’t notice the sheer artistry behind Adams’ apparently effortless prose. The story wraps up a bit too quickly, but the ride is a lot of fun while it lasts.
This is an ARC of a book written by a colleague of mine who asked me to read and review it regarding some specific editorial questions. It’s a well-written story, and I hope it gets published.
Silver, Sinners and Saints: A History of Old Silver Reef, Utah (Paul Dean Proctor and Morris A. Shirts)
When I was an undergraduate I had a work-study job with an archeology professor who was doing a research project about a ghost town in southwestern Utah – a silver-mining town that appeared virtually overnight in the mid-1870s and disappeared just as quickly when the silver ran out around 1890. And this past summer I got to go see the place. The old Wells Fargo building is now the local museum, and I bought this history of the town while I was there, because museums live and die on their gift shop sales and I like books. It’s not a book that anyone without a connection to the town would seek out – there’s immense amounts of information about silver mining techniques, land claims, mine design, and the like, and the writing is often as dry and dusty as the landscape – but for me it was interesting to be able to connect the research I did back in college and the place I visited this summer to the stories that, occasionally, emerged here. One thing that is interesting about the book, though, was the deep divide between the Mormons (the “Saints” of the title), who mostly lived one town over from Silver Reef, and the non-Mormons (“Gentiles”) who populated the town. The authors – clearly Mormons – make no pretense of objectivity, which could be entertaining at times.
We Are What We Pretend to Be: Kurt Vonegut – the First and Last Works (Kurt Vonnegut)
As Kurt Vonnegut’s heirs continue to mine his papers for marketable manuscripts, some genuinely interesting things do occasionally appear. This is exactly what it says it is: two short unpublished novellas, one complete and one not, bookending Vonnegut’s career as a writer. “Basic Training” was written in 1950 while “If God Were Alive Today” was something he was working on when he died in 2007. They’re both interesting stories, but the juxtoposition of the two accomplishes what was presumably the literary purpose of the pairing, which was to highlight how Vonnegut evolved over his career. The first story is fairly traditional in its sentence structure and describes a young man’s adventures with his rural foster family and their mentally disturbed farmhand. There is love and peril and it gets wrapped up pretty neatly by the end. The second is mature Vonnegut – angrier, choppier, more pessimistic about human nature and American culture, and far more interesting. It would have been a fascinating novel had he been able to complete it.
Visiting Tom: A Man, a Highway, and the Road to Roughneck Grace (Michael Perry)
Michael Perry has made a passable living writing about his corner of rural northwestern Wisconsin. He is a good observer and an engaging writer with a wide sentimental streak and a tendency to overthink things that is mostly balanced by a sharp sense of humor. In this book he mostly writes about his neighbor Tom – a man in his early 80s who has seen a lot, done a lot, and mastered the art of persisting with grace, something Perry would like to be able to do himself. It’s broad and sentimental and warm and funny, and if the Life Lessons seem a bit blunt (Perry talks a lot about his family, especially his two young daughters) they are no less well meant. It is a pleasant and good-hearted book to read, and in late 2016 that is enough to recommend it right there.
The Long Earth (Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter)
What if there were not one Earth but millions – an infinity, perhaps – each separated by minor differences of random chance or evolution, differences that had, over time, led to astonishing variations? What if traveling between those Earths was easy, requiring only simple technology available to anyone, or even none at all? And what if not everyone could do it? From these questions comes this collaboration between Pratchett and Baxter, the first of a series. Joshua Valiente is a natural Stepper, someone who can travel across alternate Earths as easily as walking. Lobsang is a disembodied cyber-intelligence and possibly a former Tibetan handyman, now in charge of a worlds-cruising dirigible named the Mark Twain. Together they set off to explore the Long Earth – to travel across millions of alternative Earths to see what’s there. Along the way they will encounter pioneers and settlers, variant flora and fauna, hominids and humanoids, and mysteries of all sorts, while back on Datum Earth (the original), an Earth-First sort of movement begins to make things miserable, as such movements do. There’s an oddly libertarian ethos behind this book and a sad lack of Pratchett’s humor, but on the other hand it’s fun, well written, and spends a fair amount of time in Madison WI namechecking places I recognize, so there’s that.
The Long War (Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter)
It’s about a decade after The Long Earth now, and Joshua is a family man. Lobsang is still whatever he was, and several of the minor characters from the first book – Sally and Lt. Janssen, notably – are back in much expanded roles as the implications of the Long Earth continue to sink in to human society. Like most middle volumes of series, this book is primarily set-up for whatever comes next, even as it explores new tensions in the created world. The trolls are vanishing. New sentient species are being discovered and making their demands. The Chinese are headed Eastward along the Long Earths with the preternaturally intelligent and rather severe Roberta in tow. And rebellion stalks the colonies in the farther regions of the Long Earth. Of course it’s hard to sustain or put down such a rebellion, so in the end the Long War is more talk than action – which suits the authors and the story just fine – but it is interesting to think where this well go next.
The Long Mars (Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter)
A few years on and now there are two more or less independent quests going on. Captain Maggie Kauffman is leading an American expedition deep into the recesses of the Long Earth, aiming for Earth 250,000,000 – a journey that has more than a few echoes of the original Star Trek show in its “boldly go” mission and “teach tolerance” ethos. Meanwhile Sally Linsay, her father Willis, and former astronaut Frank Wood are exploring the Long Mars – a series of parallel planets similar in theory to the Long Earth but meeting only tangentially with that Long Earth rather than running alongside of it. Willis seeks a particular object that he’ll know when he sees, and he’s perfectly happy to sacrifice everyone else to get it. And running underneath this is the story of the Next – the New Humans whose clear superiority to the old ones is seen as a threat to the old humans by both old and New alike. Lobsang, Joshua Valiente, and Nelson Azikiwe mostly handle this one, though Sally and Captain Kauffman do get involved. This book is basically three separate stories, only one of which has anything to do with the title, but it moves along pretty well and is entertaining enough to cover its rather fragmentary nature.
The Long Utopia (Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter)
The story moves a few more years into the future, as new problems emerge. There is a settlement at New Springfield, way out in the Long Earth, that is about to find itself in trouble because of an alien race that has somehow managed to intersect perpendicularly with the Long Earth – a race that is working to make the planet their own, in an odd sort of way. There are the Next, who have mostly but not entirely vanished into their own realms but who keep informed and have their eye particularly on Stan Berg, one of their own but working among the regular humans. And Joshua Valiente will find out a great deal of his own personal history. Sally Linsay and Lobsang play their bits, and the story moves along to a dramatic conclusion. This is a workmanlike series, entertaining and worth reading, but not one that sticks much in your head when you’re done with each book.
The Long Cosmos (Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter)
In this last installment of the Long Earth series the story moves yet further into the future, as the characters age and become history to younger generations who have grown up in a world where the fact of the Long Earth is commonplace and unremarkable. Most of humanity now exists on alternate versions of Datum Earth, in fact – by necessity. The story opens with an invitation – JOIN US – from somewhere out in interstellar space, an invitation received by all sentient beings including trolls, humans, and Next. It segues into Joshua Valiente going on walkabout and ending up being cared for by a band of trolls, the rocky relationship of humans and Next as they construct some way to respond to the invitation, and the quest of Nelson Azikiwe to find his grandson. Eventually most of the principals head out to answer the invitation, and find wonders therein. Like the other books in this series it is speculative, inconclusive, enjoyable, and not all that memorable – a pleasant way to spend time and no more, but in a year like 2016 that’s probably enough.
Total books read: 53
Total pages read: 19,815
Pages per day: 54.3