Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Books Read in 2019, Part 1

I am one of those people who always has a book with him, no matter where he is.  It is a trait that has served me well, though it is also one that has gotten me some odd looks from people who do not share this trait, which is most people these days.  The world would be a better place if people read more, but so it goes.

Here is the list for 2019.  Enjoy!


All Clear (Connie Willis)

This is not really a stand-alone novel so much as it is the second half of Blackout, which I finished at the end of 2018, so if you plan to read this you should start with Blackout because otherwise you will be completely lost.  It’s WWII in England – mostly London, it has to be said – and Polly, Mike, and Merope (Eileen) are still trapped a century before they were born, trying to get back to mid-21st-century Oxford.  Colin and Dunworthy, back in Oxford, are working to retrieve them, though this gets scant mention until the latter third of the book.  This could have been a much better book, as Willis clearly did a tremendous amount of research into daily life during the Blitz and other parts of home front England during the war, and because she peopled this novel with well-drawn and interesting characters – Sir Godfrey, an aging but commanding actor, being my personal favorite among the “contemps,” the people actually from the period who weren’t going to escape back to Oxford.  But as with Blackout, Willis foregoes the characters to focus on the mechanics of time travel and the desperately muddle-headed actions of the historians as they spin and fret and generally act like time travel was something they hadn’t been thoroughly trained to do.  This is especially true of Polly, whose histrionics grate after a while, which Merope’s bland optimism is meant to smooth over and which Mike’s can-do wheel-spinning is meant to contrast with, with only partial success.  Only in the last hundred pages of this two-volume novel does the action start to mean anything or the characters start to get out of their own way.  This is the second half of a very long story whose main plot twist I figured out nearly 800 pages before the characters did and whose subsidiary plot twists seemed painfully obvious to all but those charged with implementing them (hint: Willis is a big fan of Agatha Christie).  The story has all of the flaws of To Say Nothing of the Dog with little of its redeeming humor and it spends too much time on the mechanics of time travel rather than the story happening where the time travelers have landed, in sharp contrast with The Doomsday Book (the best book in this series).  It’s well written and if you can get over wanting to smack the time travelers with a wet noodle it’s engaging, and as noted the last hundred pages go a long way toward redeeming it, but there’s a lot of slogging to do for that payoff.  Somewhere in the 1100 pages of this and Blackout combined is a really good 400pp book searching for a way to get out.

Gnomon (Nick Harkaway)

This is not an easy book to read, but it is a rewarding and vastly entertaining one in many ways.  It is a perfect example of Harkaway’s style – discursive, digressive, allusive, looping from one seemingly unrelated tangent to another until it all comes together in the end, and demanding in its vocabulary and ideas.  There is no other writer active today who has as much fun with the English language as Harkaway does and it shows, but you have to work for it.  If you’re looking for a straightforward story, look elsewhere.  But if you’re willing to follow Harkaway on his flights of fancy, secure in the knowledge that the diversions will all come back to center eventually, you will be richly rewarded.  Inspector Mielikki Neith works for the Witness – the all-encompassing surveillance system that runs the direct democracy of England in this near-future setting.  Known as incorruptible and above reproach, she is naturally put in charge of the case of Diana Hunter, a woman who died under interrogation (something that Simply Does Not Happen Anymore).  Because the Witness can read thoughts as well as actions the interrogation actually recorded Hunter’s mind, and Neith must enter that mind to find out what happened.  It turns out that Hunter spent years laying the groundwork to defeat the Witness, and she will lead Neith on a thorough exploration of what it means to have an identity and to maintain that identity in a world where privacy no longer exists.  Hidden within Hunter’s mind are other minds – set off typographically from the main story – and outside of her mind are other, more mysterious beings.  This is a deeply philosophical book, for all its action sequences, one that raises challenging questions about who we are and what kind of world we choose to live in, and it’s told with Harkaway’s signature verve and humor.  I enjoy his writing – The Gone-Away World is among my all-time favorite books – but it is a complex and challenging story that is not for readers unwilling to take the time to figure it out.

Edie Investigates (Nick Harkaway)

It occurred to me while reading Gnomon that the only bit of Nick Harkaway’s fiction that I hadn’t gotten to yet was this short story, a prequel of sorts to Angelmaker.  Edie Banister is a retired British spy, once a WWII heroine and now an old woman in her eighties.  But when a former colleague turned banker ends up murdered in a small town, she finds herself drawn to the scene and mixed up with the hapless investigator sent to cover it up.  Like most short stories – at least the well-done ones – it says as much by what is left unsaid as what is actually written down, and it ends on an open note that no doubt would make sense if I proceeded to reread Angelmaker, and I had planned to do that next except that I loaned my copy out and have yet to get it back.  So perhaps another time.

I Wrote This Book Because I Love You (Tim Kreider)

There is a strong current of darkly funny melancholy that flows through the various essays in this book – a memoir of sorts, or at least a collection of personal essays about Kreider’s own life.  This is in some sense a follow-up to We Learn Nothing, and the tone is about the same.  Kreider mostly focuses on love and the difficulties he has with it, on sex and how it differs from his first topic, and on the perils of being an aging writer.  He writes warmly about a collection of ex-girlfriends, many of whom ended up as friends but at least one of whom very much did not.  He seems to collect people who inhabit lives on the fringes of society – one close friend and former girlfriend is and was at the time a whore (to use her own preferred term) while the opening essay recounts a trip to Mexico on a circus train with a woman who was pretending to be his wife.  His chapter on teaching a writing course at Scott College – on being a single middle-aged man surrounded by beautiful and vulnerable young women and the odd sort of freedom that comes from the highly restrictive rules of conduct that such a position necessarily entails – is perhaps the most reflective of the lot, though the long meditation on his aging cat comes close.  Kreider is an excellent writer whose essays are thoughtful, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, and well worth reading.

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Restoration Britain (Ian Mortimer)

Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveler’s series is what social history ought to look like.  Well written and accessible, aimed at a popular rather than scholarly audience but well sourced and supported for the professional historian (though probably a bit broad for the handful of specialists likely to read it), each installment brings to life an era of British history in a way that is designed to spark rather than deaden interest.  The central idea of this volume is that you – a modern Briton, though the rest of us are welcome to tag along – have somehow gone back in time to the late 17th century, to the period that followed the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and you will need guidance on how to live there.  He starts with a general overview of regional differences – the first chapter focuses on London, while the second is simply “Beyond London” – and then moves on to more practical advice: what to eat, what to wear, where to stay if you travel, what entertainment is on offer, and so on.  Like its sister volumes on medieval and Elizabethan England, it’s an immersive introduction to a foreign time and one that gives the reader a clear sense of how people living there went about their lives – a sense that is often missing in more traditional histories.  The quiet epilogue is one of the more powerful sections of the book.

In Sicily, 1896-1898-1900 (Volume 1) (Douglas Sladen)

As part of my ongoing dabbling in genealogy I recently discovered that my grandmother’s parents were from two small villages about a dozen miles or so west of Messina in Sicily.  They left in 1907, shortly before most of Messina was destroyed by an earthquake, so that’s timing for you.  I started to wonder what Sicily was like at the time and found this book online, available for free downloading.  The two volumes together are just over 1000 pages, and I admit I bogged down about a third of the way into Volume 1, but Douglas Sladen is a fairly entertaining writer and I will likely go back to them at some point.  Sladen was an Englishman who spent most of his life traveling and then writing about it, and he had all of the views that one would expect of an Englishman who could afford to do that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries at the height of the Empire.  He does seem to regard the people and places he finds with no small amount of affection, though.  He starts his Sicilian tour in Messina, which he says immediately that he will not describe because it is a horrid place and then spends ten pages describing.  He and his party (including two Americans, who alternately amuse and astonish him with their utterly un-English manners) then take a train about 25 miles south to the small city of Taormina.  Sladen says explicitly – several times – that Taormina is a great place to visit if you don’t want to do anything because there is nothing at all to do there, and then he spends about 140 pages describing in detail the nothing there is to do.  This turns out to be fairly interesting actually – the chapter on the local opera house is worth the download all by itself.  He likes the flowers and the ruins, he’s enamoured of the women, he finds the men grandiose and the boys thieves.  He illustrates his book with a profusion of photographs, which I found surprising in a book of this vintage (he also uses “kodak” as a verb).  And then he and his party head to Syracuse, which is clearly his favorite spot in all of Sicily to which the rest of the island cannot compare.  I left him there, but someday I will return.

Downfall of the Gods (KJ Parker)

This slim novella is actually one of the more optimistic of Parker’s stories, which may be damning with faint praise but there you go.  Tom Holt seems to use the KJ Parker name for his grimmer stories while reserving his own name for the more humorous (if often bittersweet) novels he writes, but they’re all astonishingly well written.  Lord Archias has gone to the temple to pray to his Goddess for forgiveness for the crime of murdering Lysippus, a long-time friend whom he found in bed with his wife.  But Lysippus was the Goddess’ favorite musician, and even though Lord Archias’ prayer was properly done, she decides not to forgive him after all.  This, it turns out, is the beginning of a surprisingly complex story told from the Goddess’ perspective, a story of the pettiness of the gods, the problems with being immortal, and the difficulties mortals go through when confronted by the gods.  There is a trial by ordeal, some trickery, and a fair amount of wry, gently weary philosophy as the Goddess explains how the gods work or don’t work and as Lord Archias transforms over the course of his struggles.  In the end it is the Downfall of the Gods, as the title suggests, though not perhaps as you would have seen coming and not in a way that inspires much regret.

The Last Days of New Paris (China Mieville)

Nobody does Other like China Mieville.  For most authors, their Other characters are just recognizable humans dressed in funny alien suits, but with Mieville his Other characters are well and truly Other, to the point where you can have some trouble just wrapping your head around what they are at all.  In this short novel it is 1950 in New Paris, which diverged from our Paris in 1941 thanks to the S-bomb, a fact that doesn’t become clear for a while.  What is clear is that New Paris is a strange and haunted place, where Nazis occupy a city overrun by Surrealist “manifs” (short, I suspect, for “manifestations,” though this is not explicitly stated) without actually controlling it.  In alternating chapters you get the 1950 story of Thibaut, a French Surrealist fighter who eventually teams up with Sam, who is a spy (though for whom is not revealed until well into her story), as well as the 1941 story of the S-bomb.  Those stories merge horrifyingly toward the end as Thibaut and his Exquisite Corpse manif struggle against, well, a lot of things.  Appended to the story are both a glossary (it helps to have a thorough knowledge of Surrealist art, which I do not) and an odd chapter purporting to be Mieville’s description of an interview with an old man who must have been Thibaut.  Mieville frames this as a true story told in a fictional style, which only adds to the complex, dreamlike quality of the whole.  This is a challenging and prickly book but a compelling one.  Mieville demands concentration and thought from his readers, but such readers will be rewarded.

The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber

If you ever wanted to see how long a book of less than a hundred pages can be, this would be Exhibit A.  I read this book, chapter by painful chapter, for a professional development discussion group down at Home Campus early in the spring semester and I cannot tell you how much of a chore it was.  It shouldn’t have been, since the basic idea of it is neither complicated nor radical.  The University, the authors say – presumably referring to academia in general rather than any one particular institution – has been corporatized and everything in it, from teaching to research to personal contact and conversation, has been reduced to a commodity.  This has led to a general crisis both in higher education in general and among academics in particular since commodities exist to be produced, commercialized, and exploited at top speed and this model is grotesquely ill-suited to education.  Anyone even remotely connected to higher education understands this, and everyone not actively promoting that agenda knows very well that it is a damaging and destructive way to operate an educational institution.  Education is not a commodity, and the values of the free market don’t translate into anything useful when applied to it – a shortcoming free market universalists refuse to accept about their pet ideology, which they believe should be applied to all things at all times regardless of results, who fervently believe that the inevitable failures of this approach are the result of insufficient purity, and who therefore demand that the model be applied with even more fanaticism next time, with predictable results.  Much of what is wrong with the world today can be traced directly back to this free-market universalism, in fact, and the University’s situation is no different.  This should therefore have been a slam dunk of a book to read, particularly given its obvious intended audience.  But the authors of this slim, jargon-packed book choose to discuss the issue from such a towering position of clueless privilege that it renders their arguments irritating and their conclusions largely irrelevant to anyone likely to read it who is not similarly privileged.  It becomes clear very early on that these are tenured professors in a field that does not require expensive equipment to conduct research, and speaking as an adjunct in a university system that has been aggressively targeted for destruction over the last decade by right-wing vandals seeking to destroy the well-informed citizenry that the Founding Fathers understood was necessary to the survival of a free republic, few if any of their recommendations are serious options for me.  The book is, therefore, a tremendous missed opportunity and a colossal waste of time.

Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North (Robert Ferguson)

This isn’t a history of the Scandinavian nations, though it does have a lot of historical information in it.  It’s not quite a memoir either, though Ferguson frames it as his own personal excursion through Scandinavian culture and much of it is taken up with intricately related stories from his own personal experiences.  What the original three-act play about Henrik Ibsen is doing in the middle of it is anyone’s guess.  But it all more or less fits together as episodes around a theme if you don’t question it too much.  Ferguson – an entertaining writer throughout – is a British expat married to a Norwegian woman and living in Oslo.  He has made the study of Scandinavian culture his life’s work and repeatedly says that his original purpose was to explore the issue of Scandinavian melancholy, but as his research and conversations expanded that idea seemed less and less tenable until it simply became a collection of his own impressions of Scandinavian culture in general.  As with many of these books it focuses mostly on the Danes and the Norwegians, devoting much less attention to the Swedes and mostly ignoring the Finns, Icelanders, and Greenlanders.  The Swedes in books like this tend to be treated with the envious irritation you might see directed at a successful but self-satisfied and condescending older brother, which always surprises me having been there a few times and found it to be friendly and welcoming.  Ferguson spends a lot of time on Ibsen and larger issues of Norwegian culture, on WWII, on the Kalmar Union that kept the three nations fractiously united for four centuries, and how all of this and more filters down to his life in Oslo.  It’s an interesting ride, if a very personal and rather idiosyncratic one.

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives (David Eagleman) )

I first read this four years ago and it has stuck with me ever since.  It’s a slim book, just over a hundred pages, so each chapter is only two or three pages long.  They’re not connected except thematically and, in their vaguely melancholy second-person viewpoint, stylistically.  Each chapter presents a different possible afterlife.  There’s one where everything that was ever created continues to exist, including thousands of lonely and unhappy gods.  There’s another where God is the size of a bacterium and one where He (or She, it varies by chapter) is impossibly vast, both with the same general message that communication across differences in scale is hardly possible.  There are afterlives with caring but slightly confused Gods, and afterlives with distant Gods, and afterlives with Gods who make odd choices with even odder consequences for those of us subject to them.  The one that has always stayed in my head longest is the afterlife where everyone goes to a well-lit neutral sort of space, compared in the book to an airport terminal, where you can stay comfortably and eat and drink your fill until the last person who remembers you dies, and then you move on – ironically, just as they arrive.  Nobody knows where you go after that.  And woe betide those who become historical figures, doomed to stay there for as long as their story is told no matter how far it drifts from what actually happened.  The overall effect of all these afterlives is a quiet simplicity of infinite options, none of which are what you would have chosen but all of them mostly benign in their way.

The Three-Body Problem (Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu)

At the height of China’s Cultural Revolution, astrophysicist Ye Wenjie finds herself politically exiled to Red Coast Base 1, a remote and deeply secret installation in the mountains.  Nearly half a century later, nanotech researcher Wang Miao and police detective Shi Qiang find themselves drawn into the consequences of that.  Scientists all over the world are dying at inexplicable rates, the laws of science seem to be falling apart, and the mystery behind all that goes back to Red Coast Base 1.  Alongside this is an immersive virtual reality game called Three Body, where players such as Wang (this is a Chinese book, and accordingly family names come first and given names second) find themselves on an alien planet where Stable Eras and Chaotic Eras alternate without pattern and a three-sunned solar system wreaks havoc on Trisolaran civilizations.  As the plots converge, a number of things become apparent.  First, Shi is probably the most grounded character in the lot for all his surface flaws.  Second, Ye has set in motion a long-term catastrophe.  And third, this is ultimately a First Contact story, as the Trisolarans are distressingly real and the powers of Earth – cooperating in the face of a larger threat – face long odds of survival.  Liu’s world is suffused with a very Chinese tone, one that the translator captures well and which differs from the Eurocentric SF/F that I usually read.  His heroes are the scientists who drive human progress, and his enemies are the rigid political straitjackets that limit them.  He can get deeply caught up in some of the physics and there are some loose ends that one presumes will get tied up in later volumes of this trilogy, but the writing is evocative and the story hums right along.  The mirrored First Contact narratives of Ye Wenjie and the Trisolarans are an interesting statement, and Liu clearly agrees with Stephen Hawking’s view that any contact with alien life will not end well for humanity.  Great technological advances do not necessarily mean great moral advances, and those who assume otherwise suffer for their naivete. 

The Dark Forest (Cixin Liu, translated by Joel Martinsen)

This is a novel of two halves, widely separated in time, where the larger shape of Liu’s narrative starts to become clear.  In the first half, humanity is still reeling from the implications of Trisolaran contact and the existential threat that this represents.  In response, the UN initiates the Wallfacer project.  The Trisolarans have seeded Earth with “sophons,” multidimensional particles with artificial intelligence capability and subatomic size that work to bring all scientific research to a halt and serve as the perfect intelligence agents, allowing the Trisolarans to see all that happens on Earth in essentially real time.  The only thing they cannot do is read human minds, and the Wallfacer project basically selects four humans to come up with plans in the recesses of their own minds that could defeat the Trisolarans.  Luo Ji is perhaps the least accomplished of the four and mostly he sees no purpose in it, but as the others get defeated by the Wallbreakers – human agents of the Trisolarans – he ends up the only one left.  The second half of the story takes place two centuries later.  Luo has woken up from hibernation to find a radically different human society on Earth, one with a vast fleet of space warships.   He’s also found his old friend Shi Qiang.  Together they will witness from Earth the first contact with the Trisolarans in the solar system, as a Trisolaran probe attacks the combined fleets of Earth.  In the aftermath, Luo returns to his Wallfacer days to devise a desperate defense, one that finally makes sense of the cryptically placid opening sequence of this book and reveals the grim meaning of the title as well.  It’s a well-done and ambitious book, especially for a middle volume of a trilogy, and clearly comes from a different sensibility than most Western works.  I’m not sure I’d have called it the best SF book of 2015 the way several reviewers did, but I can see why they would.

Death’s End (Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu)

In a universe where pretty much everything sentient wants you dead – nothing personal, you understand, just how it works, which is if anything even more frightening and disheartening than if they all hated you – your only hope for survival is not to be noticed.  This is the lesson of the Dark Forest.  And humanity and the Trisolarans have failed.  The final installment of the Three Body Trilogy is an episodic novel – in many ways more of a picaresque than a single story – on a truly grand scale.  It starts with an odd preface in Constantinople as the city is about to fall to the Ottomans, before going back in time slightly to the period before Luo Ji’s dark forest defense.  Yun Tianming is dying, but very much in love with Cheng Xin.  Eventually this turns into the Staircase Project – an attempt to insert a human presence into Trisolaran society as a deep spy and possible saboteur, but the time scales are so off that the project’s main purpose largely gets forgotten.  There is another episode involving two human interstellar warships, far from home, who initiate a dark forest attack on Trisolaris – one that will ultimately seal the doom of the Solar System as well.  There is an interlude where Cheng Xin is the Swordholder – Luo Ji’s successor – and another where she faces an attempt to save humanity that might be worse than the thing it is trying to prevent.  And at the end, billions of years into the future, there is only time and matter and a universe that is at once deeply hostile and generally uncaring.  This is, in essence, a cautionary tale of First Contact.  Liu’s basic point is that humanity should be very careful about what it wishes for when it comes to contacting alien civilizations, because if we get what we wish for we will regret it.  It is a grim story full of hard science and struggling people who never really get what they want, shaded in tones noticeably different from most Western novels.  The universe winds down; that’s how it’s made. 

The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students (Anthony Abraham Jack)

The next time I hear some privileged whiner complaining about “coddled college students these days” I will go nuclear.  All I hear when people say that is a frank admission of their hostile ignorance and an abysmal lack of empathy.  Anthony Jack is a sociologist interested in what the lives of modern college students are actually like, and he focuses this book on the unseen barriers that even the most seemingly fortunate students – the ones plucked from poverty and instability and given a chance at one of the nation’s top schools – face.  Most of these are cultural – the fact that without mentors or family experience in college (which is, after all, a rather artificial environment and difficult to explain if you haven’t been through it) these students are often at a loss to understand the unwritten rules, for example.  What are “office hours,” really?  Do I really have the right to ask questions or demand time from authority figures?  Some of the barriers are economic as well – what happens to students who can’t afford to go home or eat out when the cafeteria closes over spring break?  Through in-depth interviews with students at the pseudonymous “Renowned University,” Jack works to elucidate those issues and brings the real world of those students vividly to life for the reader.  Sometimes the barriers are the result of malice or incompetence but mostly they’re either structural or the result of good intentions and unintended consequences.  What separates Jack’s study from similar previous studies is his distinction between “the Privileged Poor” – people like Jack himself, who grew up in poor, often violent neighborhoods and lived with unstable families and homelessness but who earned scholarships to elite prep schools before moving on to college – and “the Doubly Disadvantaged,” who lacked those scholarships and opportunities until they went to college itself.  The Privileged Poor, he said, get over their culture shock in high school and face a much smoother transition to college that way than the Doubly Disadvantaged, since they understand the unwritten rules when they arrive, yet both are still poor, with economic barriers uniting the two groups, and both are hungry over spring break.  As an academic advisor and someone who teaches First Year Seminar, even though the students I see are generally not “the Privileged Poor,” this will be a useful book for me going forward.

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