Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Books Read in 2016, Part 2

More books!  You can’t go wrong with more books, I say.


The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (Catherynne M. Valente)

September is back in Fairyland, and as you would expect in this sequel to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, all is not well.  Her friends A Through L (the wyverary) and Saturday (the marid) are nowhere to be seen, though their shadows are.  And this is a book about shadows, about things being separate and coming together, and what that means for a young heart.  September will travel through Fairyland, which is being leeched of its magic because the shadows are all being pulled into Fairyland Below.  She will travel to Fairyland Below and then even further down to wake the sleeping prince.  And she will discover that when things need to be done, it will be her who needs to do them.  Valente’s series is both charming and arch, a world full of both heart and mind, bleakness and warmth, and written in an odd combination of stilted 1900-style prose and a wickedly modern verve that somehow works to make this one of the better YA series out there.  In this new golden age of YA fiction, that is no small achievement.

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two (Catherynne M. Valente)

For all the arguments you will find over what exactly constitutes YA fiction, I’ve always felt the definition was rather simple: YA fiction centers on the coming of age of the protagonist.  And in this third installment of Valente’s Fairyland series, September does just this.  It opens with her once again back in our world – Nebraska, sometime during World War II – and once again wishing she were back in Fairyland.  When she meets someone from across the divide while going out to fix a fence she gets her wish, but as with all such wishes it is dangerous to get what you want.  Fairyland is darker and more menacing than in previous volumes, and the stakes are higher.  She will find her old friends A-through-L and Saturday, and eventually she will go to the moon, meet a yeti, and discover that life, love, and wishes are far more complicated than she thought.  Valente’s engaging writing style remains intact, but as September and Saturday come ever closer to their romance and A-through-L goes through his own crisis and the yeti turns out to be far more than he appeared, it is clear that both September and the series are growing up.  I wish this series had come out when my girls were young enough to read it to them.

The Boy Who Lost Fairyland (Catherynne M. Valente)

In this installment of Valente’s Fairyland series the focus shifts away from September – whose whereabouts are discussed on occasion but who appears only fleetingly – to Hawthorne, a troll who becomes a Changeling.  Brought to Chicago in trade for a human boy, he becomes Thomas Rood and grows to a young adolescence with his parents and a nagging sense that something just beyond his fingertips is not right with the world.  Eventually his friend Tamburlaine will provide him a way back into Fairyland, where they and their companions – Scratch, a living gramophone, and Blunderbuss, a wombat made of yarn and attitude - will meet King Charlie Crunchcrab and get into a contest of wills with some sinister fairies. Valente’s sense of humor and gift for a phrase is well in evidence throughout the book – my favorite line came when a cobbler asking what Hawthorne and Tamburlaine wanted of him inquires as to whether they are interested in “Impertinent mules that think they know what’s best for you?  I’ve got them in ruby or silver” – and she spends much more time than before directly addressing the reader.  But the story is charming and the tone gets more bittersweet as it goes on, as Valente drops more serious themes behind the adventure and wordplay.  The story ends, as it inevitably must, back in Omaha with September’s family, and it hints of things to come in the fifth and final installment.

StrengthsFinder 2.0 (Tom Rath)

I read this for my new job.  It’s one of those self-help pop psychology books that is popular among management people these days and which, as a psych major who has more than a passing knowledge of the dangers of constructing surveys and drawing valid conclusions from them, I tend to regard as harmless entertainment but not really anything I’d want to build my life around.  If you take it as a springboard for discussion it can be useful, though relying on it as a diviner of your innermost secrets likely won’t end well.  There’s a test that you’re supposed to take online – which, given that this book was loaned to me and the 1-time user code was already used, I did not take, though a moment’s internet searching brought up several analogous versions free online (which I read through but did not take either) – and the bulk of the book is given to explaining the 34 different Strengths that you’re supposed explore and Find out which five belong to you.  Later in the year my office bought us all copies and we did all take the test, and in fact it did prove to be an interesting discussion afterward.  So there’s that.

In Defense of a Liberal Education (Fareed Zakaria)

Kim heard this author speak at a conference she was at in Chicago and decided I would enjoy reading his book, and for the most part I did.  Zakaria is passionate about the worth of a liberal education – the education worthy of a free citizen, in other words, and precisely the education that is most under fire from the ignorant corporatism that rules American life these days and seeks to reduce citizens to subjects.  When you have actual governors declaring they won’t fund universities because too many of their students major in things that are not clearly corporate training programs, your nation is doomed.  Zakaria is a relentless optimist, however, and his firm – if historically rather unwarranted – faith in the power of reasoned argument to sway closed minds is evident on every page.  He gives some personal history of his own experience with liberal education, some arguments (often from business leaders) in favor of a liberal education over more “practical” training, and ends with a defense of the youth of today, who are often criticized for the same flaws that their forebears have been criticized for going back to the days of the Ancient Greeks.  Zakaria is definitely preaching to the choir here – I came in already convinced of the value of a liberal education and in truth could probably have written half of this book of the top of my head – but it was no less of a good book because of that.

Bill Moyers’ Journal: The Conversation Continues (Bill Moyers)

Bill Moyers is one of the premiere journalists of our era, someone who understands what it means to look for a story and who can interview just about anyone.  This is basically a collection of interviews, each ranging from five to fifteen pages, of some of the most prominent and interesting people of the last thirty or forty years of American history.  On the one hand it’s fascinating, as Moyers elicits complex and enlightening thoughts from his subjects on nearly every topic of importance in American culture today.  On the other hand, the dismal state of American culture and politics today renders those thoughts more than a little depressing in the aggregate and this is therefore not an easy book to get through despite the grace of the interviews and the intellectual depth of the commentary. 

The Last Witness (KJ Parker)

So KJ Parker has come out as the alter ego of Tom Holt now, ending one of the more intriguing mysteries in SF/F writing.  This hasn’t changed the quality of the writing, even if there is an actual photo of Holt at the end where the author bio is.  Parker’s books are still some of the most intriguing, well-written, and compelling stories being told in the genre today.  This slim novella is no exception.  Set in the same world as most of his books, the unnamed first-person narrator tells us about a very particular skill he has – the ability to enter into your mind and remove memories completely.  It’s a dangerous skill for both the narrator and his targets, one that ties him to any number of unsavory people and actions and leaves him unsure just what memories are his anymore, since all of the ones he removes stay with him.  When he runs into someone with the same skill, he knows he’s got problems.  None of the characters in any of Parker’s works end well – the pleasure is watching the story unfold and marveling at the intricacy of how it all falls apart.

The Devil You Know (KJ Parker)

Another slim novella much like the last one – the cover art was done by the same person, and like The Last Witness it has section breaks rather than chapters – this story gives an intriguing take on the old set-up of someone selling their soul to the devil.  On the one hand you have a demon, a high-ranking figure in the bureaucracy that is Hell and a fairly charming and sympathetic figure in this story, and on the other you have Saloninius, the greatest human philosopher of Parker’s alternate universe, now an old man.  He agrees to sell his soul in exchange for 20 years of health in order to work on a project, the details of which he is reluctant to divulge to his demon patron.  Like most Parker works it is intricately plotted and compellingly written, and the question at its core is who is ensnaring whom?  The fact that the first-person perspective shifts occasionally between the two protagonists without notice and without all that much of a change in tone only reinforces this – how different are these two characters, after all?  And what does that say about us?

Avenue of the Mysteries (John Irving)

Listen: Juan Diego Guerrero has come unstuck in time.  On the one hand this is a focused story of a two-week trip he takes from his home in New York City to the Philippines over the New Year’s holiday in 2010/2011 where he spends time with his former student (Clark) as well as two rather forward women named Miriam and Dorothy.  On the other hand, Juan Diego (always referred to as such) is a novelist whose particular focus is, he says repeatedly, on where things come from.  And where Juan Diego comes from is the poverty-stricken side of Oaxaca, Mexico.  He and his sister Lupe – a genuine mind-reader whose speech can only be understood by Juan Diego – were dump kids, raised in the landfill by El Jefe (Rivera, who may have been Juan Diego’s father), and, occasionally, by Esperanza, their mother who works as both a prostitute and a cleaning lady at the Jesuit orphanage.  When Brother Pepe discovers that Juan Diego has taught himself to read he takes them both in, and from there their story spirals out into a long meditation on Catholicism – particularly the conflict between the Virgin Mary and Mexico’s indigenous virgin figure, Our Lady of Guadalupe.  It’s probably not an accident that as the story ping-pongs back and forth between the present of Juan Diego in southeast Asia and the past in the orphanage and the circus in Oaxaca (and, eventually, because this is a John Irving novel, to Iowa City) it becomes more and more a contrast between Miriam (Mary) and Lupe (Guadalupe).  This is one of the more self-referential of Irving’s novels – Juan Diego’s bibliography is pretty much the same as Irving’s, right down to a sly allusion to The Water-Method Man, one of his earlier books – and one of the more meditative in some ways.  Irving is always at his best when he can contrast a hectic pace of events with an introspective interior monologue and this more or less sums up the book.  It’s a thoughtful story, one that builds rather than surprises, and very much one that is in keeping with his larger body of work.

Q2Q Comics, Vol. 1 (Steven Younkins)

There are a couple of online comics that I follow – Bug Martini, Mary Death, Scandinavia and the World, XKCD, and so on – and Q2Q is one of my favorites.  It follows the exploits and travails of a small group of dedicated theater techs as they struggle against all of the various indignities and realities that backstage work entails.  As a backstage tech of long standing, I thought it was all very funny and familiar, so when Younkins started a Kickstarter for his first hard-copy collection of these strips, I chipped in for it.  And eventually a signed hard-bound copy appeared in the mail.  All of the Kickstarter backers are listed in the last few pages, and it isn’t every day that I get a book with my own name in it.

Ready Player One (Ernest Cline)

By the 2040s the world is pretty much falling apart.  There are energy shortages, the economy has tanked, public order has mostly broken down, and most of the population escapes by spending most of its time in a massive online simulation world called the Oasis.  The dichotomy between a collapsing world and a population hiding in virtual space only rarely comes up in the novel, unfortunately – Cline places an impassioned speech on the subject into the mouth of Ogden Morris, one of the more interesting minor characters – and I wish he had done more with it.  But mostly he’s interested in the Oasis and what goes on within it.  At the beginning of the novel James Halliday, one of the original creators of the Oasis, dies.  He wills his extremely vast fortune to whomever can first solve the riddles and clues hidden in the Oasis to collect three keys, each of which unlocks a gate, ultimately leading to the Easter Egg at the center of the game.  The clues and gates are all keyed to Halliday’s life and interests, which can be summed up as 80s nerd culture – classic computer games, music, SF/F books and movies, and so on.  I was a teenager through most of the 80s and pretty much the target demographic for all of the cultural references in the book, though since I never really got into computer games or paid attention to popular music or movies, most of it went over my head.  It was fun to let the names wash over me, though.  Wade is a Gunter – an Egg Hunter – whose Oasis avatar is named Parzival, and the novel largely follows his adventures trying to solve the online game before either his friends (Aech [pronounced “H”], Art3mis [pronounced “Artemis”], Daito, and Shoto) or his enemies (the faceless and evil drones of the IOI corporation, known as “Sixers” because their avatars are identified only with corporate ID numbers, all of which begin with the numeral 6) do.  Along the way Parzival becomes a hero, Wade becomes a fugitive, and his friends follow along and occasionally lead the way.  Most of the action happens in virtual space, which means nobody really knows who anyone else is or where, and some of the romance in the novel gets rather complicated because of this.  It’s an energetic story, careening from one game point and plot point to another, and despite a few holes (how do the Oasis servers stay running in a world of limited energy supplies?) it comes to a suitably intense finish as any good YA novel does, with the coming of age of the protagonist.

A Game of Thrones (George RR Martin)

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”  That pretty much sums up what has become a cultural phenomenon between the time I bought the book (it looked interesting on the bookstore shelf) and the time I actually got around to reading it, spurred on by Kim’s desire to binge-watch the HBO series with me and her promise that said series would display boobs in abundance.  I am a simple man.  For those of you who have been living under a rock and are unfamiliar with the series (in book or television form), it is the story of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, a medieval-style land of knights, castles, war, and both natural and supernatural violence.  Martin has done his historical homework, and (supernatural elements aside) the societies he portrays have clear historical analogues and faithfully represent them.  The Dothraki are loosely based on the Mongols – who, in actual history, came very close to conquering Europe – and Westeros is clearly based on medieval Europe.  Martin does a nice job of portraying the stark outlines of medieval society and politics.  One of the things that you notice in the books (as opposed to the series, which I have yet to see) is how young everyone is.  Medieval Europe was a place where 30 was considered old and most people were dead by 45, and in an age where we consider 65 still relatively young you easily forget that most of his main characters – Robb Stark, Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Joffrey Lannister, and so on – are less than 15 years old.  The various kingdoms are at war – with each other, with the mysterious Others north of the Wall, with the climate (summers in this world can last years or even decades, as can winters), and, by the end, soon the Dothraki as well.  It’s an incredibly complex tapestry, full of blood, intrigue, betrayal, sex, and not a little romance in both the common and literary senses.  It’s easy to see why this became such a cultural touchstone.

A Clash of Kings (George RR Martin)

The grand saga of Westeros gets more complicated, more bloody, and more far flung.  In this installment the Seven Kingdoms have fallen into chaos and four – or is it five? – kings vie to control them, even as winter begins to fall and the supernatural forces beyond the Wall begin to move down from the north.  Armies move and clash, lords become fugitives or vice verse, and all the while the tone gets darker and colder.  Martin divides his narrative by points of view, with each chapter entitled with the name of the perspective’s owner.  We follow Bran Stark in Winterfell, Catelyn Stark as she careens about the south, Tyrion Lannister trying to hold King’s Landing, Cercei Lannister as she does likewise with or without Tyrion, Sansa Stark trying to survive her dual role as hostage and future queen to Cercei’s son Joffrey, Theon Greyjoy as he flails about trying to reclaim his birthright as a prince of the Iron Islands, Daenerys Targaryen with the Dothraki, Davos the Onion Knight as he just tries to get through the day, Jon Snow on the Wall, Arya Stark on her journeys, and so on.  It’s a complex, brutal saga that pulls you in and keeps you focused despite the fact that there are maybe two or three sympathetic characters in the entire story.  It’s also a saga almost entirely devoid of humor, though this book begins with a comet hanging in the sky that everyone is sure is an omen for their pet cause, which after a while can pass for satire.  Nothing is really resolved at the end – one gets the impression that this is kind of the point – and the story continues.

The Jesus Cow (Michael Perry)

I didn’t mean to interrupt the Game of Thrones series, but a friend of mine lent me this book and clearly expected it back sometime before the heat death of the universe, so what other choice did I have?  I’ve read a few books by Michael Perry before, but this was his first work of fiction that I’ve read.  If you’ve never had the pleasure of reading Perry’s work, you should fix that.  He’s Wisconsin’s version of Garrison Keillor – rather more blue collar and self-consciously rural than cosmopolitan Keillor, and more inclined toward heartwarming than slyly subversive (Lake Wobegon, for all its surface cornball feeling, is a fairly dark place), but with a similar vibe.  And he’s a really nice guy face to face, as I can attest from personal experience.  Population 485 is his best book, really, but this was fun.  The story follows Harley Jackson, a thinly veiled stand-in for Perry (most of the towns and people here are rather thinly veiled and not all that hard to figure out if you have any familiarity at all with Perry’s work or northwestern Wisconsin in general), who on Christmas Eve discovers that one of his calves has a near-perfect image of Jesus Christ on his fur.  “This,” he thinks, “is a problem.”  The novel follows Harley as he navigates this problem and interacts with the rest of the small town of Swivel over the next few months.  He finds a girlfriend.  The town outsider has a secret.  His friend Billy dispenses wisdom.  The volunteer fire department is short of cash.  The town’s bankrupt bully of a land developer makes an ass of himself.  And once the secret of the calf is out, it just gets weirder.  Things come to a head and then Perry wraps it all up with an epilogue that tells you what happened next.  It’s a comforting novel full of small moments – of friends, faith, and finances – and it was a nice break.

Hamilton: The Revolution.  Being the Complete Libretto of the Broadway Musical, with a True Account of Its Creation, and Concise Remarks on Hip-Hop, The Power of Stories, and the New America.  (Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter)

Another book lent to me during the Game of Thrones marathon, but a quick one.  Unless you’ve been living under a cultural rock since late 2015 you’ve heard about Hamilton – an unlikely retelling of the life of Alexander Hamilton as a hip-hop Broadway musical.  This book – as its gloriously 18th-century-style title spells out rather clearly – is not only the words to the songs (accompanied by a raft of photographs) and a history of the production, but it is also a long meditation on the nature of theater, the demands of history, and how all of that fits into an emerging United States that is in some ways unrecognizable to the Founders but in other ways much of a piece.  As a historian, I appreciated Miranda’s efforts to tell Hamilton’s story as accurately as possible and to highlight those areas where he took liberties for the sake of the drama.  As a lifelong theater technician, I found it fascinating to see the process by which one of the most innovative and astonishing productions in decades came to life, from concept to mixtape to rehearsals to opening.  If there is any takeaway it is the depth of the craftsmanship that went into it – there is nothing in this production, from throwaway lines to minutely choreographed gestures, that is random or not thought out well in advance.  This is the story of professionals at the height of their craft, and even if you have seen the musical (which we hope to do in 2017), this book would be a worthwhile way to spend time.  I use several of the songs in Hamilton in my courses when I teach, as I find them both fun (the songs are incredibly catchy) and educational and the students love them.  This book gives me even more appreciation for the artistry of the show, and the fact that the chapter headings, title, and the physical paper of the book are all deliberately throwbacks to the 18th century – my field of specialty – is just a plus.

A Storm of Swords (George RR Martin)

When the girls were little we used to go to the Science Museum a few towns over.  In one exhibit there was a globe about a yard wide that you could spin, and the green and white colored liquids inside would swirl about, changing and reforming, congealing and flying apart, making new patterns yet somehow always remaining more or less the same.  Such is the Game of Thrones series.  Battles are fought.  Characters die, often in brutal and surprisingly casual ways.  Other characters are manipulated – the lot of women in Westeros is particularly grim – and yet others are submerged by events beyond their control.  They fight on, plot on, and trudge on.  And through it all they work diligently to prove the old axiom that there is no situation so dire that it cannot be made worse by politics.  Also, beware of weddings.  A great many things happen in this book, but by the end it is hard to say what if anything has changed.  Kingdoms have risen and fallen, kings have died, castles have been burned, battles fought and won or lost or sometimes neither quite, marriages and lovers have come together and been sundered, the dead have walked and walkers have died and winter finally seems to be coming.  Martin writes vivid characters, even the worst of which having some empathetic qualities and even the best of which having things that make you want to beat them bloody.  And he writes gloriously complex situations and plots that ring true for anyone who has studied history, a rare feat among authors in this genre.  But the globe spins on, changing and reforming and yet remaining more or less the same.  Maybe that’s the point.

A Feast for Crows (George RR Martin)

The saga of Westeros rolls on, as it does.  It’s actually hard to keep track of it all, as the events pile up one on top of another.  There are surprises and twists, good characters die and bad ones get rewarded and then die, and once in a while there is a hint of humor.  Martin has created a richly textured world and has clearly done an immense amount of studying of medieval history – Westeros and its surrounding lands feel remarkably real, and that is no small achievement.  While the characters are complex and compelling, it is the world they move through that stays with you.

A Dance With Dragons (George RR Martin)

And so the summer 2016 Game of Thrones project comes to an end, with Westeros roiling in betrayal and war while the lands to the east, well, also roil with betrayal and war.  Because that’s pretty much the summation of Martin’s creation.  It’s an incredibly well-written series, with complex and three-dimensional characters and a deeply thought out world for them to move around in, and it holds your interest through the 5000+ pages he’s published just in these main novels.  But it is a long time to sustain a mood, and I’m glad that I’ve come to the end of them.  Summarizing the plot is kind of pointless, because a) there’s just so much of it, and b) as noted earlier, while the details swirl in kaleidoscopic patterns the overall picture never really changes.  We may be closer to the Return of the Queen, which as near as I can tell is the one overriding arc to this story, but it’s hard to tell from this distance.  Now I can watch the show with a clear conscience, however, and I suppose that’s something.

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