Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Books Read in 2016, Part 1

I read.  It’s what I do. 

I’m the sort of person who generally has a book with him, and on those rare occasions where I don’t I can usually be found reading whatever magazines, websites, cereal boxes, warning labels, or licensing agreements are near to hand.  And ever since I started this blog, I have been keeping track of the things I have read during the year and posting them here.

It’s my blog.  I can do that.

This year was a year of both big projects and reduced output.  In between the usual oddball assortment of things I managed to read four or five series of books to completion, depending on how you count – including the entire Game of Thrones series, which made for a rather skewed summer but gave me a great deal of perspective on the current American political situation.  But my overall reading was a bit down from where it has been since 2009.  Part of that is the fact that I read a fair number of big, dense books, and those sort of slow you down.  Part of it is that I started a new job and had less time available than I had in prior years.  And part of it is that it has just been a rather long year, for a number of reasons, and that sort of thing puts a damper on how much I can focus on anything.

But I still read.

Enjoy -


Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things (Jenny Lawson)

If you’ve never read Lawson’s blog (“The Bloggess”), you are missing out.  She’s one of the funniest writers out there, and – by her own admission – probably one of the most psychologically screwed up.  She has phobias, anxiety disorders, and a host of other things that make regular life more of a chore for her than for most people, but she owns them and not the other way around.  And she writes about them – honestly, painfully, and often laugh-out-loud funny.  This book gets closer to the bone than her first one did, as the subtitle indicates, and there are a couple of chapters that are fairly sober.  But most of it is a celebration of – to borrow an old Douglas Adams line – “a mind not merely twisted but actually sprained.”  She’s funny, she’s warm, she’s a great writer, and she should be on your list of authors to read.

Soft Apocalypse (Will McIntosh)

In every post-apocalyptic story there is, of course, the apocalypse.  Sometimes it’s nuclear war, sometimes it’s biological war or simply plague, sometimes it’s something else, but most of the time it’s something fairly discrete and identifiable.  This is not that.  McIntosh’s basic point is that – like what happens to the proverbial frog slowly boiling to death, a metaphor that actually does appear in the book – the apocalypse can happen gradually, without any one single dramatic collapse or break with the more stable and prosperous Before, so that it’s hard to tell when you’ve left the Before, when you’re in the middle of the Now, or when you’ve hit the After.  And that is what makes this the most frightening post-apocalyptic novel I’ve read in a long time.  It’s set in a near-future US where the economy, the environment, and the society as a whole are slowly collapsing, and it’s told as a series of vignettes, with each chapter separated from the previous one by anywhere from three days to three years.  It centers on Jasper, a formerly middle-class suburban guy thrust into poverty and nomadism in a US increasingly defined by violence, terrorism, and societal breakdown.  Jasper has a group of friends that he travels with and who swirl around his life, and he is forever seeking love in an age of chaos.  Perhaps the money quote of the book comes when Jasper finds himself speed-dating amid the ruins and one of the women he meets is an economist who tells him to stop believing that it will get better, that it has to get better, because it doesn’t and it won’t – that this is it for the foreseeable future until it gets worse.  As it does.  It’s a simple yet profoundly disturbing look at an all too believable future.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States (Sarah Vowell)

I’ve always liked Sarah Vowell’s way with words, going as far back as her appearances on This American Life, and I’ve enjoyed the books she’s written.  They’re clever and a bit arch, and mostly she writes about historical things that interest me.  This one focuses on pretty much exactly what the title says it will – the experiences of the Marquis de Lafayette in the newly emerging United States.  Lafayette was a teenaged nobleman, bored with his lot and itching for a war, who offered his services to the rebels in the American Revolution and ended up as one of Washington’s most trusted aides.  Vowell’s story pingpongs back and forth between Lafayette’s life, a general history of the Revolution, and her own attempts to track down both of those (there’s an extended sequence in southeastern Pennsylvania, where I grew up, that was fun to read and follow along with for me), which means that this book never quite settles down into anything in particular.  It is also full of the kind of mistakes that most people won’t notice but which a professional historian who covers this period as a specialty (i.e. me) finds grating.  It was a fun book, but not one of her best.

Seveneves (Neal Stephenson)

Neal Stephenson always gives good value to readers, both in terms of plot and writing and also just sheer words per dollar spent.  This is a very long, very good book that probably could have been yet longer to tie the story up a bit better.  It’s actually three separate stories, linked by the inevitable physics of what happens when the moon explodes (something that happens literally in the first sentence).  The first part starts with people both on Earth and in the International Space Station (ISS, or “Izzy”) being at first fascinating by the thing that had just happened and then horrified by what they eventually figure out must happen next as a matter of scientific law, which is the destruction of the Earth as a habitable planet.  The second part follows the remnant of humanity in space shortly after what comes to be called the Hard Rain starts, a grim and distressing story of heroism and petty rebellion best summed up as “there is no situation that cannot be made worse by politics.”  The third and final part is one long (300pp) chapter entitled “Five Thousand Years Later,” which tells the story of the re-establishment of human life on Earth in light of the preceding summary.  Stephenson spends a lot of time getting the hard science down and explaining it to the reader, so if orbital mechanics or genetics don’t interest you this may be a difficult book for you to read.  But it’s well done and dense with fascinating characters, as are most of his books, and definitely worth the time.  It isn’t every post-apocalyptic space opera that has a Biblical reference to masturbation thrown in for those who can catch it, either.

After the Fall Before the Fall During the Fall (Nancy Kress)

I didn’t really intend to read another post-apocalyptic book so soon after the last few, but it was there on my computer desktop in the HumbleBundle folder, and so it went.  It’s a short but complicated book, one with three storylines that converge only slowly.  The first centers on Pete, who lives in the near future in the Shell with a small number of Survivors, the Six, and the Grabbed.  The world outside the Shell is a desolate empty place, and only the alien technology of the Tesslies allows them to go back in time to Before to Grab things they might use – such as babies.  In the second, roughly contemporary with now, centers on Julia, who has been tracking down the mystery of all the Grabbing and who is pregnant with a child of her own.  The third, also contemporary with now, is mostly about the bacteria in the soil mutating.  It all makes sense eventually.  Kress keeps most of the balls up in the air for most of the plot, though the resolution is a bit predictable and the theory behind it somewhat forced. 

The Compleat Discworld Atlas of General and Descriptive Geography which Together with New Maps and Gazetteer Forms a Compleat Guide to Our World and All It Encompasses (Terry Pratchett, et al)

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld was a triumph of the imagination, an entire world filled with nations, customs, history, and more concentrated humanity than most authors will ever put down on paper.  This is another exploration of it, in the style of a 19th-century descriptive atlas.  The Disc is broken down by region and then each region broken down by nations, and then each nation is given a short description of its major points of interest, economic strengths, cultural and religious activities, and so on.  There is also an immense and detailed folding map tucked into the back of the book.  This is apparently one of the last things Pratchett worked on before he died, and it is a colorful tribute to the world he created.

Damned (Chuck Palahniuk)

“Are you there, Satan?  It’s me, Madison.”  Madison Spencer is 13, overweight, spoiled, sarcastic, and dead.  She’s also damned to Hell, which is apparently the fate of almost all of humanity.  It’s not so bad, though.  Sure, there are demons who will eat you, lakes of steaming fetid bodily fluids, fields of razor blades, and an eternity working in either telemarketing or internet porn to look forward to, but Hell is a state of mind and Madison has reached the point where she is just going to take over.  Hell, she says, is just the end result of too much deferred maintenance.  Along the way we find out much about Madison’s life and death, as well as her parents (spoiled rich celebrities) and classmates (similar, really).  It’s a strange and unsettling book, as it is clearly intended to be, but a funny and thought-provoking one, and it does set up the sequel (Doomed) quite well.  Having read that one in 2015, I suppose there is nothing left to do but wait for more volumes in Madison’s story.

The Appreciative Advising Revolution (Jennifer L. Bloom, Bryant L. Hutson, and Ye He)

The things you do for professional development.  As part of my realization that the adjunct professor life was not, perhaps, sustainable in a Wisconsin moving inexorably toward the elimination of education completely, I applied for and was hired to a position as an academic advisor, which may or may not have been much of a jump to safety but at least it is a start.  Advising is not as big a leap for this faculty member as it seems – I’ve taught First Year Seminar (i.e. "How to College") a couple of times, and advising is part of any faculty member’s responsibilities.  But it is a rather different occupation with a steep learning curve – a job that you cannot just walk into having been a faculty member and expect to be any good at right away – and this would be my first time doing it as a stand-alone job, and so my new boss gave me this book to read as background.  On the one hand, it is poorly written, filled with immense quantities of jargon, and takes itself far more seriously than anything ought to do.  On the other hand, once you strip away the breathless rhetoric most of it is actually useful advice that I will probably end up employing in my new career.  So there you go.

Opportunities for Student Development in Two-Year Colleges (Don G. Creamer and Charles R. Dassance, eds.)

I probably should have read this one before the previous one, as it does a nice job of filling in the backstory of why “the appreciative advising revolution” was such a change from what came before it.  This is an exceedingly dry collection of monographs on the challenges and opportunities facing student service administrators in the mid-1980s.  The technology is old (“With improved technology it has become even easier to register [for courses] by telephone and through the mail”) and the historical context even older, but it provides much useful background on the issue as well as a bracing sense of continuity reminding us that even then higher education was under assault by the prophets of false economy and careerism.

Family Britain: 1951-1957 (David Kynaston)

This is the second volume of Kynaston’s deeply immersive history of post-WWII Britain – his “New Jerusalem” series – and it is just as absorbing as the first one.  He covers everything from politics and economics to radio, television, vacations, and daily life for people in this nation only slowly recovering from the maelstrom of the biggest war in human history.  There are struggles over housing and unions, the introduction of television, the gradual removal of rationing.  There is a new queen and the first inklings of a new culture that will flower in the 1960s.  This series is an astonishing achievement, written with grace and occasional dry humor, and it will likely be the standard work for British history between 1946 and 1979 for a generation to come.  I look forward to the next volume.

The Road to Little Dribbling (Bill Bryson)

Bill Bryson is one of my favorite travel writers, because he is cranky and sarcastic and just sentimental and cheerful enough to keep it all in balance.  Born in Iowa, he has lived in Britain for decades now and this is his second book about traveling in his adopted homeland.  He’s older now and many of the places he visited in the first such travel book (I’m a Stranger Here Myself) have changed almost as much as he has, generally for the worse, in Bryson’s opinion.  But he writes engagingly about the small infuriating things about Britain and even more engagingly about the many things that the British do well and perhaps better than anyone on the planet.  He travels from Bognor Regis along the southern coast all the way up to Cape Wrath in northern Scotland, stopping along the way at places that I’ve actually been to myself so I can nod along to his descriptions (he liked Avebury too, it turned out).  If you’re looking for an entertaining travel companion, Bill Bryson is a good place to start.

Very British Problems: Making Life Awkward For Ourselves, One Rainy Day At a Time (Rob Temple)

As I delve ever deeper into what appears to be a campaign to turn myself into a Briton, with my tea and my Premier League games and my pile of books exploring this or that aspect of British history and culture, sometimes it is nice to be reminded of just how American I actually am.  This is actually a collection of tweets curated by Rob Temple (many of them his, I suspect), highlighting the awkward moments in British life.  Most of them center on what appears to be the continuing inability of most Britons to express any emotion more vivid than mild annoyance or make any real protest against the indignities of everyday life.  As an American, most of these struck me as nonsense.  But then American culture is loud, aggressive, and ruthlessly centered on extracting everything you can out of any given situation – all foreign qualities to Temple’s Britain.  So it was a funny book for someone who understands a bit of British culture – Temple does not translate any of this into American, so unless you’re coming in with a bit of familiarity you will likely spend much of the book vaguely confused – but my guess is that even if they could translate it out of the British much of this would be lost on most Americans.  It’s a wide cultural gap to try to bridge in 140 characters or less.

Yes We Have No: Adventures in the Other England (Nik Cohn)

If you’ve ever fallen under the impression that modern England is still mostly tea, vicars, and fair play, this book will correct that.  This is a book that really should have been subtitled, “Down and Out in Late 20th-Century Britain” because mostly it is a travelogue of people Cohn and his companion – a sharp-kneed, sharp-witted “Derry Taig” named Mary – run into on their journeys through the rougher parts of English life in the late 1990s.  Cohn is drawn to the outcasts, the oddballs, the hopeless yet still soldiering on, and he is a sharp observer of scene and context.  He meets modern nomads, Odinists, unemployed men and clubbing women.  He describes town fallen on hard times and hustlers aiming for good times.  He doesn’t do much beyond describe these things and let them have their own say, but that is enough to make an interesting story of a journey through an England that tourists don’t often see.

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young (Kurt Vonnegut)

Kurt Vonnegut passed away in 2007 but his legacy lives on in the incessant desire of his literary estate to milk every last dime from every possible manuscript he ever wrote.  On the one hand, I have been a die-hard Vonnegut fan since the mid-1980s and am therefore grateful for the opportunity to read what he had to say.  On the other hand, I’m not sorry I got this one second hand.  This is a slim collection of graduation speeches that he gave over the years – most of them in the 1970s or 1990s – and they have a couple of recurring themes.  First, that graduation is essentially a puberty ceremony, announcing to the world that those going through it are now unequivocally adults.  We need those, he says, since otherwise modern western society has done away with them.  And second, that one should take the time to appreciate good things when they appear, even if they are minor things.  Thus the title, a phrase Vonnegut took from his uncle’s remarks whenever a particularly pleasant situation occurred.  It’s the standard Vonnegut – quotable, short, pessimistically hopeful, and straddling the fine line between anger and bemusement – and that’s enough for me.

To Everything a Season: Shibe Park and Urban Philadelphia, 1909-1976 (Bruce Kuklick)

One of the old family photos I have is of my grandfather and his sandlot baseball team, somewhere around 1930, on a field in Philadelphia.  I’ve been trying to find out more about such teams, but not much is out there.  This is as close as I’ve gotten so far – a book about Shibe Park, where the Philadelphia A’s and Phillies played for much of the 20th century.  The park was built in 1909 for the A’s and saw them win several World Series.  The Phillies came as tenants in the 1930s, stayed when the A’s left in 1954, and finally abandoned the place after the 1970 season, all without winning much of anything.  This is about more than the baseball teams, however – it’s about neighborhoods and public transit, about race relations and economics, about churches, politicians, and businessmen.  It’s about how one structure can define a way of life in many ways.  For those who like eccentric characters, there’s Connie Mack – the owner and manager of the A’s for nearly half a century.  And for those who want context, it’s there.  Kuklick is an entertaining writer – as enjoyable on the page as he was in the classroom when I took his Twentieth-Century US History course as an undergraduate at Penn.  It didn’t help me with my grandfather’s picture, but it was definitely further evidence that of all the professional sports played in North America it is baseball that produces the best books.

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England (Ian Mortimer)

Ian Mortimer writes social history the way it ought to be written, and in this sequel to his similarly-titled book about medieval England he systematically goes through most of things you’d want to know if you ever found yourself stranded in the land of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Drake, and Elizabeth I.  There are chapters on what you’d eat and how you’d eat it, what your hygiene and daily routine would be, what the landscape would look like, where you’d work, how you’d dress, what religious views you would (or at least should) have, how the law works, and so on.  All of these are presented in Mortimer’s immersive and lively writing style.  It’s a grand tour of a fascinating place and time.

Fair Dealing and Clean Playing: The Hilldale Club and the Development of Black Professional Baseball, 1910-1932 (Neil Lanctot)

As part of my Philadelphia baseball history project I found this book.  While it doesn’t have much to say about the sandlot teams my grandfather played for, it had some interesting context.  Hilldale was a black team – “race baseball” in the terminology of the day – that played in Darby, a close-in suburb of Philadelphia.  They were instrumental in the development and course of professional black baseball in the early 20th century, and this book does a pretty good job of balancing the history of the club with the broader history of what eventually came to be called the Negro Leagues.  It’s a story of outsized personalities, economic disparities, teams that came and went, barnstorming, and players who jumped from team to team with abandon.  Roughly half of the teams were nicknamed the Giants, for some reason, so occasionally it does get hard to follow, and Lanctot clearly revels in his subject.  For my purposes, the only useful thing I got out of the book was that black teams like Hilldale often played semi-pro or amateur white teams (and regularly played white major league teams as well, or at least teams made up of white major leaguers), but it was an interesting book nonetheless.

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