Friday, January 11, 2019

Books Read in 2018, Part 1

Every year since I started this blog I have kept track of what I’ve read, mostly, I suspect, for my own amusement.  It’s interesting to see what books have come and gone over the years.

This year was a bit of a down year for reading, for a lot of reasons, I suspect.  For one thing I spend entirely too much time staring at screens and should cut down on that immediately.  Maybe someday I will.  For another, it’s been a busy year, with events and travels and various and sundry all competing for time that might otherwise have been spent reading.  I don’t regret those obstacles to reading, though.  Life can be good.  For another, it can be hard to focus on reading when the republic is being torn to shreds by a criminal petit-Fascist regime and its cast of enablers, minions, and braying supporters.  That much I do regret.

But one soldiers on, for that is the only possible response.

Here is the list for 2018, a year of many aspects.


My Uncle Oswald (Roald Dahl)

Oswald Cornelius is a rogue, a lecher, and a con artist, all of which he is proud to admit, but like many of that description he is charming, funny, and fascinating.  In what purports to be an excerpt from his memoirs, Oswald recounts a multi-part attempt to become rich that spans two continents and a good proportion of the famous and the great of 1919.  In the first part, he goes to Sudan to get a good supply of blister beetle powder, the most potent aphrodisiac in the world.  And having obtained this supply, he and his partners A.W. Worley (a rumpled academic chemist) and Yasmine Howcomely (by name as well as Oswald’s description the most beautiful and sex-soaked woman on the planet) proceed to use it for the second part of his scam – a complex plan that has them using Oswald’s privileged position in English society to make them all rich.  In many ways Yasmine is the most interesting character in the book, and that is saying something in a book as enjoyable as this one. 

The Illustrated Eric (Terry Pratchett)

While I read Eric as a novel a few years back, I hadn’t read it with the Josh Kirby illustrations.  Plus, there is never a bad time to reread Terry Pratchett.  Eric is a 14-year-old boy with all of the dweebiness, arrogance, and general cluelessness that this implies.  Rincewind is a wizard, though a rather shoddy one whose main response to life is to run in the other direction as fast as possible – a response that has kept him alive in a hostile universe for longer than he might have expected.  When Eric conjures up Rincewind in a magic circle, thinking that Rincewind is a demon, things get weird quickly.  Astfgl is the new King of Hell and wants to reorganize the place on a more bureaucratically sound footing, much to the dismay of the more traditional demons.  These two plots twine around each other as Rincewind and Eric careen throughout time and space, eventually landing in Hell for what in a more conventional novel would be the big confrontation scene.  It’s a fun romp through the Discworld and one that features a pleasing amount of my favorite character, Death.

Glasshouse (Charles Stross)

If you’ve ever wondered what “science-fiction noir” would look like, well, look no further than this taut psychological thriller that is a fedora away from something that would have felt at home in the 1940s.  Robin lives in a 27th-century universe where the Acceleration has already happened.  It’s a post-scarcity society where travel across vast interstellar distances (and across rooms) is instantaneous and where nobody really dies because they get disassembled into their component atoms and rebuilt however they like.  It’s also a society reeling in the aftermath of the collapse of the Republic of Is into small, hostile subpolities because of the Censorship Wars.  An engineered virus called Curious Yellow infected the gates that allowed travel and deleted memories from those who passed through – nobody knows what really happened anymore, and Stross never really explains it.  Robin starts the novel having just woken up from a memory reduction surgery – apparently a common thing in a universe where people are effectively immortal – and has no idea about his own past beyond a vague letter he may or may not have written to himself.  He meets Kay and they have a brief fling, all the while dodging assassins who clearly do remember his past and aren’t happy about it.  Robin eventually decides to hide out in a self-contained experiment designed to replicate ancient (read: “late 20th-century”) human society, where he is reborn as Reeve, a young woman.  The society, of course, has been infiltrated, and Robin’s past will come back to him in ever more urgent snippets until it all comes together with a bang.  Stross writes very immersive stories and this one pulls you along nicely.  It’s also one of his few stand-alone novels.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English (John McWhorter)

John McWhorter has a few things he’d like to get off his chest about the history of the English language, all of which are along the general theme of “the standard history isn’t accurate.”  He feels that the Celtic languages of Britain played a much bigger role in the history of English than they are usually credited with, particularly when it comes to the “meaningless ‘do’” that we put in questions (for example, “Do you know?” – what does the “do” mean there?).  He has serious objections to the Sapir-Whorf thesis – the hoary old linguistic idea that languages shape thought – since it doesn’t really explain why languages change their grammars as radically as English has done.  Speaking of grammars, he spends a great deal of time pointing out how simple English is, at least when compared with every other Germanic language and, indeed, pretty much every other language in the Indo-European family.  And he thinks the Semitic languages also had more of a role in the history of English than they are usually given, though here he admits he’s mostly speculating.  If you enjoy linguistics and the history of English – a side interest of mine since at least my undergraduate days – you’ll like this slim book.  McWhorter is an engaging writer with a lot to say and he says it well.  He does not cut you any slack, though, and while this isn’t a scholarly monograph neither is it something you’d hand to a random stranger as beach reading.  He delves fairly deeply into some reasonably technical linguistic areas, and while he does explain them fairly clearly they are not simple.

Walking to Canterbury: A Modern Journey Through Chaucer’s Medieval England (Jerry Ellis)

Jerry Ellis likes to walk.  A man of mixed Cherokee and English heritage (as he is at pains to tell you at least once per chapter), he celebrated his Native American side by walking the Trail of Tears, and here he celebrates his English side – and tries to unify it with the Cherokee side – by walking the pilgrimage trail from London to Canterbury, just as medieval English pilgrims did (and, he insists, in the same amount of time).  Ellis is a good writer though he assumes you are as spiritually inclined as he is, which can be grating at times.  He enjoys meeting people and has a talent for getting them to talk with him.  He’s achingly earnest.  And he intersperses his travels and reflections with snippets of both Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and excursions through medieval English history.  It’s a pleasant walk, one that made me think I should go back to England and spend more time there, and if that wasn’t the point of the book then perhaps it ought to have been.

Hiroshima (John Hersey)

If you aren’t familiar with this, you probably should be – especially as the childishly ignorant current occupant of the Oval Office tosses around nuclear threats like a schoolyard bully.  That that the thermonuclear weapons of today are orders of magnitude more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 just makes that fact even more frightening.  Hersey starts by introducing his civilians in Hiroshima – a fairly unrepresentative set of people, disproportionately Christian and including several foreigners, but nevertheless all civilians and human beings – and then recounting their experiences on the ground as Hiroshima is destroyed from the air.  It’s a harrowing story, told without much context (originally published in 1946, there had been little time for follow-through, nor is Hersey much interested in the war prior to the bombing), and perhaps more psychologically effective for that.  Lauren’s English class was going to read this, and her teacher asked me to give a presentation to the class on Truman’s decision-making process (i.e. “Who would do such a thing and why?”) so I figured I should read it again myself.  It turns out that Truman had well-thought out reasons for making the decisions he made, and whether those decisions and reasons were justified is a question that historians still argue about.

Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son (Michael Chabon)

Michael Chabon is best known for his fiction, but this is a collection of short essays all revolving around the general theme of manhood as filtered through Michael Chabon.  He’s a good writer with a lot to say, and for the most part he says it well, though I will admit that the book improved markedly once he got past the section on his kids – there was a lot of whinging and hand-wringing in that section.  But once he moves on to other subjects – love, sex, marriage, time, aging, and so on – he becomes a much more welcoming companion.  He talks about his upbringing (much of which happened in places and times familiar to me, so that was nice to read about), his experiences with women, his serious nerdhood (there’s an entire essay on Doctor Who, for example), and his thoughts about all of it.  It’s not the most profound book and it takes a while to get going, but it gets there in the end.

Discworld and Philosophy: Reality Is Not What It Seems (Nicolas Michaud, ed.)

There is a cottage industry within the academic discipline of philosophy, one that takes bits of popular culture and uses them to explore philosophical issues in a way that – if it goes well – illuminates some of the abstruse things philosophers think about so that us common rabble can understand them.  Whether this works is an open question, though the “Popular Culture and Philosophy” series is now up to 101 volumes just in this incarnation alone.  A while back I read a very similar book to this one that wasn’t officially part of this series, too.  This book consists of about two dozen essays of varying quality and readability, all attempting to shoehorn Discworld into philosophy or vice verse.  On the one hand this isn’t hard – Pratchett imbued his creation with a strong moral code and a magpie collection of larger issues.  When one of the main characters is Death, you’ve got stuff to work with from a philosophical perspective.  On the other hand, academic philosophers do not become academic philosophers for their graceful prose or their sense of humor – two things that more or less defined Pratchett’s stories – and that mismatch becomes more and more obvious as you read along.  There were a few essays that were thought-provoking in this collection, but most read as seminar papers into which literary references were sprinkled like dust. The first book I read of this kind had longer and more difficult essays, but better and more thought-provoking ideas.

The Half-Made World (Felix Gilman)

The war between the Gun and the Line has been going on for four hundred years, out in the West where the world is but half-made.  John Creedmoor is an Agent of the Gun – a man who carries around and is commanded by a demon named Marmion who inhabits his gun and gives him both tasks and strength.  The Gun tends toward the wild, the showboat, the flamboyant, and Creedmoor lives up to that well.  Sub-Invigilator (Third) Lowry is a Linesman, who serves the demons who inhabit the Engines of the Line.  The Engine is railroads, machinery, oil, smoke, mining, rules and inexorable conquest, and Lowry serves it gladly.  The Red Valley Republic tried to find its own course between the Line and the Gun and failed, and its best General lies broken and dying in the opening chapter, his mind destroyed by a noise-bomb of the Line.  There may or may not be a weapon hidden deep in the ruins of his mind, and when he survives the first chapter that weapon becomes the object of a quest from both sides.  Liv Alverhuysen is a mind doctor – one hesitates to impose the word “psychologist” onto this world – safe, comfortable, and bored in far-off Koenigswald.  She will accept an invitation to examine the General at House Dolorous, on the edge of the West, and she, Creedmoor, and Lowry will collide there.  Eventually this collision forces them further west, where the world is still unformed and fluid, and where the indigenous Folk – black-maned, bone-white, and mysterious to both Line and Gun – still hold sway.  This is a deeply realized world that is more than a little off-kilter from our own, though the echoes of the settlement of the American west keep it grounded (it’s probably not coincidental that the calendar dates in Gilman’s novel are all in the 1800s).  Creedmoor is an engaging rogue, sympathetic though neither trustworthy nor virtuous.  Lowry is slightly more sympathetic, though rather less interesting.  This is not an easy or all that accessible book, but it was a rewarding one and well written.

The Rise of Ransom City (Felix Gilman)

This isn’t really a sequel to The Half-Made World, but it does continue the story somewhat.  Told in the first person as the memoir of an unreliable narrator as pieced together by a later editor and presented with footnotes and both introduction and conclusion, this is the story of Harry Ransom – autodidact, inventor of the Ransom Process (a form of free energy that feeds off of some of the more arcane aspects of the Folk who first inhabited the West), toy of fate, and eager self-promoter.  We met Ransom briefly in The Half-Made World – he was a snake-oil salesman caught in the crossfire of a town that John Creedmore didn’t quite intend to destroy – and both Creedmore and Alverhuysen make appearances here.  But the story isn’t about Creedmore and Alverhuysen’s quest.  Ransom is a utopian dreamer.  He wants to found a city – Ransom City – that will be the perfect place, a utopia out on the edge of the West.  He proceeds with the blithe confidence of the con man, the rueful weariness of the self-aware pawn of larger forces, and the eager inventiveness of the engineer.  His Ransom Process does actually work, which means that both Line and Gun want it.  It’s not clear from the fictional editor’s apparatus what has happened to the war between Line and Gun at the time he is editing Ransom’s memoir – it may be over, or simply not as important as it was – but Ransom himself gets fully caught up in it.  People die.  Ghosts appear.  Ransom meets his hero and is disillusioned.  He falls in love.  He works for people he said he’d never work for, and he brings unintentional ruin everywhere he goes.  And when it is over, who can say whether he succeeded or not?  Certainly not his editor.  Gilman’s story is set in a deeply constructed world full of wonder and violence, with no clear outcomes or moral lessons.  He draws you in and keeps you there.  I will have to find more of his work.

Conde Nast Traveler Book of Unforgettable Journeys: Great Writers on Great Places, Vol. 2 (Klara Glowczewska, ed.)

I read the first volume of this last year and several months later I decided that it was time for the second.  Like the first, it is a lovely collection of travel writing from some pretty high-powered writers – EL Doctorow, Pico Iyer, Jay McInerney, Calvin Trillan, and so on – who seem to have been given a fair amount of freedom to write about their travels however they chose.  For someone who enjoys staying home as much as I do, I sure read a lot of these things.  But they’re fun, and every now and then I feel as if I ought to go to see these places.  I enjoyed the ones focused on cities much more than the ones focused on natural splendor, which is pretty much how I would react in real life as well.  Sometimes the articles suffer from age – some of these date back to the 1980s, which was over thirty years ago! – but mostly they are written in a sort of timeless place where travelers can see and be welcomed, and you need that once in a while.

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