Monday, January 3, 2022

Books Read in 2021 - Part I

Last year was the year where I didn’t read very much at all, at least not compared to most years. I spent the spring working 150% of a job (because hey – kids in college, plus as an adjunct you never say no to any offer, since the only thing universities ever remember is the last thing you told them and if you say no once they will never offer you a job again) and I was full time over the summer as well. Nice problems to have in this economy, granted, but first world problems are still problems. The fall was all about family matters and finding the focus to read in there was not easy.

On top of it all we started out the year with a treasonous insurrection as the disgraced, two-time-popular-vote-loser and his slavering minions attempted to overturn the will of the American people and install him as the kind of tyrant the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution to prevent. This simply made obvious what the GOP has been arguing for the last three decades – that they and they alone have the right to rule this country and they will destroy any law, person, legislative body, or Constitutional principle that gets in their way of their quest for absolute power. Also, the plague has endured for another year thanks to the efforts of American conservatives to sabotage any effort to stop it, in the name of their infantile definition of freedom (“Don’t WANNA! Can’t MAKE ME!!”) – a definition that a genuine conservative would find abhorrent. And on top of that any doubts that climate change is already here were put to rest by the extreme events of this year, at least for anyone with more than seven working brain cells.

So it was a tough year to read, even for escapism.

And yet, I tried.

This is what I managed to read in 2021.



Humans (Brandon Stanton)

I’ve always loved books like this, where the author goes out and finds ordinary people and gets them to tell their stories, because people are interesting and they all have stories. Brandon Stanton started Humans of New York by simply walking around his city and asking people to talk to him and let him take their photograph, and the stories he found were inspiring, heartbreaking, cheering, scary, and more. This book is one of his later ones, after he began traveling the world and asking people in other places to talk with him. There are people from Iran, Egypt, and Pakistan. Britain, Ghana, Poland, Spain, Indonesia, and Canada. And yes, from New York City too. If you can get through this book without tearing up you have a heart of stone, and if you can get through it without a sense of common humanity and dignity, of empathy with the stories of everyday people – all beautifully photographed so you can see who is talking to you – then there is no hope for you.

The Time-Travelling Caveman (Terry Pratchett)

This is the fourth and likely final collection of the short, cheerful stories that Pratchett wrote for younger readers early in his career when he still worked for the local newspaper. They’re clever and often at a bit of an angle to reality as we know it, and you can see the talent in them. Pratchett himself slightly revised them for publication and they’re profusely illustrated and full of typographical tricks and oddities, and if you’re looking for a light read you will find it here.

Shakespeare’s Pub: A Barstool History of London as Seen Through the Windows of Its Oldest Pub – The George Inn (Pete Brown)

The first thing you have to understand about this book is that the title is pure clickbait – Shakespeare himself appears in the book for maybe half a dozen pages, mostly for Brown to point out that while he lived and worked in the area, undoubtedly knew about The George, and quite possibly stopped in on occasion, there is no actual evidence that he ever set foot in the place. There’s more evidence for Chaucer and Dickens having done that. But the subtitle is accurate. The George has been in Southwark – the neighborhood at the south end of London Bridge – in one form or another since the 1300s and you can get a pretty good view of London’s history by following the twists and turns of events at The George. Brown is an engaging writer, sneakily funny in a very British sort of way, and he does a good job of walking you through the history of Southwark, of pubs in general, of the golden age of stage coaches and how they disappeared almost overnight due to railroads, of Puritans and kings and brothels, bears, and staged plays (which is the most direct connection between The George and Shakespeare, as they performed his plays in the courtyard into the 20th century), and the differences between alehouses, pubs, and inns, and at the center of it all is The George – a place you can still go to for a pint even today, though you may have to wade through the tourists to get there.

The Keillor Reader (Garrison Keillor)

I discovered Garrison Keillor in high school when my girlfriend at the time introduced me to A Prairie Home Companion, and I have never really stopped listening to him. There is something about the way he tells stories – slowly, discursively, in a flat midwestern cadence that I can’t help but hear when I read his books – that appeals to me. He tells stories of people just making their way through the everyday indignities and joys of their lives and if there aren’t any earth-shattering events in any of those stories there are enough small epiphanies and heartbreaks to add up. There is a melancholy here, and a quiet determination, and mostly there is the story because that’s all there ever is. This is a collection of previously published pieces, some of which I’ve read before and some of which I’d heard before and at least one of which I saw him perform live, but you go along for the ride and enjoy it. I found this book second hand somewhere – an autographed copy that the original owner had apparently read halfway through, found one bit where Keillor’s humor clearly did not come through and circled it in querulous black ink, and then must have decided it was no longer worth keeping, and now it is mine and on a cold winter’s night out here not all that far from the prairie, Keillor is a welcome companion.

The Constant Rabbit (Jasper Fforde)

Jasper Fforde’s mind must be a fascinating place, though it has been a while since the last time he gave us a glimpse inside. This particular story is a stand-alone novel of yet another alternate version of Britain in the near future – something he seems to specialize in, though every version he offers is different and entertaining in its own way. This one would be a thinly veiled satire of British race relations if Fforde had decided to veil it at all. The basic set up is that sometime in the 1960s the Event anthropomorphized a population of British rabbits (as well as some foxes, weasels, bees, and – in Africa – a few elephants), giving them intelligence, human-sized and humanoid bodies, and a taste for literature. After an initial feel-good sort of welcoming period the usual xenophobia set in and in the early 21st century British rabbits are subject to regulation, restrictions, and increasing persecution at the hands of the state now that the UKARP government is in power. Substitute the word “Muslim” (or, for Americans, “black”) for “rabbit” and the basic outline of the set-up is clear. Peter Knox is a divorced father who lives in the village of Much Hemlock and works for the government as a Spotter – one of the few humans who can identify individual rabbits – for the agency that regulates them, and while he is troubled by this he continues to make the moral compromises he needs to make to keep his job. Into his small town comes his old college crush, a rabbit named Constance now married with children of her own, and her family’s moving in next door creates exactly the kind of racism and backlash that often happens against minorities in the US and UK. Combine that with the Rehoming – a massive government project designed to sequester all of the rabbits into one Mega Warren (a nod to the American practice of putting Native Americans into reservations) and pretty soon it will all boil over, and Peter Knox will have to take a stand one way or the other. Fforde gives you enough foreshadowing to let you know that big things are coming but not enough to give them away entirely, and while this is a more melancholy tale than most of his work the subject perhaps deserves such a treatment.

The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution (James Oakes)

This is a constitutional and legal argument, one that posits a dual framework for interpreting the Constitution with regard to slavery. On the one hand there was the proslavery Constitution – the document that recognized and protected slavery, included the 3/5 Compromise that so distorted federal politics in favor of slaveholders, and obligated Northerners to return fugitives back to slavery. On the other hand there was the antislavery Constitution – the document that presumed liberty, that referred to slaves as “persons” and never as “property,” that included protections for all persons up including due process in legal matters, and which left the obligation to return fugitive slaves unenforceable. In this short but dense book, Oakes follows Abraham Lincoln (whom he clearly admires) through a winding, often obscure, path toward making the antislavery Constitution the law of the land. He has some interesting points – the idea that the federal consensus that the national government could not interfere with slavery within a state is nowhere stated in the Constitution, for example, and his efforts to situate the Northern response to slavery during the Civil War into this larger context are enlightening if occasionally tortuous – but on occasion he does seem to be looking for reasons to excuse Lincoln’s conduct rather than accept it as just what happens when a 19th-century American white man confronts the thorny issue of race-based chattel slavery in a halting but ultimately progressive sort of way. The idea of an antislavery Constitution can be applied more broadly to civil rights and liberties in general, now that slavery has been banned by the 13th Amendment, and it would be a worthwhile project for an enterprising scholar to follow up on this book that way.

Sex & Bowls & Rock & Roll: How I Swapped My Rock Dreams for Village Greens (Alex Marsh)

Much of this vaguely memoirish book is based on JonnyB’s Private Secret Diary, a blog I used to read about a decade or so ago that was actually fairly influential in teaching me how to write blog posts as opposed to the academic writing that I had mostly been doing up to that point. Marsh was living in London with his LTLP (Long Term Life Partner) when, for reasons he goes into in the book, they decide to move to a small village in Norfolk. She keeps her career, which apparently pays well enough for them to do that, while he becomes a househusband. This is a bit of a shock for him, and he fills his time in various ways. He ruminates on his long-lost and not overly successful career as a musician, from his schooldays band through several iterations of young-adult-days bands to an ongoing attempt to get some kind of band together in the village. He takes up bowls, which is similar to bocce. He starts to keep chickens. He and the long-suffering LTLP renovate the little house they move into. And all the while he introduces you to the neighbors – Len the Fish, Short Tony and his wife (Mrs. Short Tony), the Chipper Barman, John Twonil, and so on. Marsh plays the role of the clueless but harmless egocentric, a legend in his own mind and forever the center of his own universe, forever making plans that don’t quite live up to his expectations. Others humor him, and he seems vaguely but uncomfortably aware of this. How much of this is true and how much is just a persona is probably not important. It’s a pleasant walk through the oddities of life in a small English village, as narrated by the guy you enjoy drinking with down at the pub but probably don’t want to rely on for more than the occasional decent effort down at the bowling green. It’s a bit different from the blog (which is still out there somewhere, archived in the way that all things online are), but still fun.

The Gameshouse (Claire North)

Behind the events of the world there are the players and behind the players there is the Gameshouse, a place where lives are lost and won, where battles are fought across the scale of the world, where the workings of civilization are altered by players interested only in the game, only in victory. This is an interwoven trilogy of novellas, bound together in a single volume and spanning centuries. In the first we meet Thene, the abused Jewish wife of a Venetian lout. She is a woman of keen intellect, cold anger, and deep passion and she must make sure her candidate becomes a tribune of early-17th-century Venice, regardless of cost or qualification. In a hypnotic first-person-plural voice North guides us through Thene’s story, only to deposit us in Thailand in the 1930s to follow Remy Burke, who drunkenly made a foolish bet and now must play a lethal game of hide and seek in a place where a six-foot Frenchman cannot blend in. Remy must win or lose his memories and the cat and mouse game that follows is told in a more conventional though still captivating voice. Ultimately these all come together when Silver, the hidden narrator of the first two stories (though this is never explicitly declared) challenges the Gamesmistress for supremacy and tells his own first-person story. His challenge sparks a decade-long conflict that will topple governments, start and end wars, shatter economies, and leave a trail of blood and betrayal across the globe. And in the end there is the coin, turning, turning, always turning, because luck may sometimes be merciful but the game never is.

The Body: A Guide for Occupants (Bill Bryson)

Bill Bryson has written a great many books, all of them worth reading, and they tend to fall into one of three categories. I discovered him with his travel memoirs, where he will go somewhere interesting (generally in the US, the UK, or Europe) and take you along for the ride. Then I found his books on the English language, a side interest of mine since I was in college. This is one of his third category - popular science books that take a great deal of information and condense it down into an enjoyable form for nonspecialists. In this book Bryson focuses on some of the science of the human body. There's a chapter on the brain. There's another on sleep. There's one on bones and another on diseases and the immune system, and so on. And if there is running theme throughout all of it, it is how little we actually know about any of this. Bryson will pick a subject, go into the history of how we know what we know about it while highlighting the often-forgotten heroes of the past who sacrificed themselves to get this knowledge, move on to how things work or don't work, and then, invariably, point out that we have no idea why it works this way or even whether it really does. And suddenly you understand why medicine is an art more than a science.

84K (Claire North)

In a worn down and worn out future Britain ruled by the Corporation – a gradual development that happened when companies that owned companies that owned companies eventually merged and contracted out all of the functions of the British government – criminal justice is a matter of fines. Each offense has a cost to society, adjusted by the value of both victim and perpetrator and mitigated or aggravated by any number of other factors, and those who can afford the fines pay them and go while those who can’t get sent to the patty lines making meat patties as a form of slave labor. The man called Theo Miller – not his real name, though what that might be is never said – is a claims adjustor, carefully weighing up the costs of crimes so that penalties might be paid. But some crimes are personal, and some things reach into the upper echelons of both Corporation and government, and sometimes those things intertwine, and that fact will turn the world upside down for both the man called Theo Miller and for the Corporation. There will be rebellions, both large and small, and whether they succeed is up to how you define that term. This is a bleak and fragmented novel, where paragraphs occasionally start and stop at random points as if a thought not fully formed had been abandoned, where the story is told from several different timelines of current and flashback, and where the logic of privatization and the commodification of human beings gets taken to its logical endpoint. As with all of North’s books the plot can get hard to follow and she has a hard time ending the story, but it is the characters and the tone that make it compelling.

The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design (Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt)

I have long been fascinated by the underlying mechanics of things – the little design choices or logistical decisions that make things work even if nobody really notices them – and this book was therefore a pleasant discovery. It’s based on a podcast of the same name and each chapter is divided into a welter of small subsections, each about 2-3pp long, focusing on this or that aspect of urban design. They talk about everything from the codes spray painted on streets and buildings to traffic flow design to signage to the design of municipal flags to architectural features and more – all of which are out there in the open for all to see and serving an important function in the urban world, but few of which are seen or discussed by the people who live there. If you’re interested in looking carefully at your surroundings and seeing them as if for the first time, this is a book to read. Plus it occasionally references Philadelphia, which is nice to see.

The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, A Temptation, and the Longest Night of the War (Malcolm Gladwell)

Is it possible to enjoy a book without thinking much of it? Gladwell is here to answer that with a resounding yes. This is a fascinating peek at some of the arguments over how to use bombers – relatively new weapons – during WWII, and Gladwell is nothing if not an excellent storyteller. But in the end you get the rather disheartening feeling that he’s making much of not much at all, and in the process he’s papering over a lot of things that really needed to be brought to the foreground. It’s a discursive book, as befits something that started as a podcast before being turned into a hardcover. Gladwell looks at Carl Norden, the inventor of the Norden bombsight – a crank whose greatest achievement was figuring out how to get a bomb to hit a target from several miles up, though whether it actually worked is a matter of conjecture. He looks at the invention of the B-29, the most expensive project of the war for the US and a plane that could reach Japan from thousands of miles away. And he looks at the conflict between the Bomber Mafia of the title – a group of theorists within the US Army Air Corps who advocated for daylight precision bombing of strategic targets (Gladwell focuses particularly on Haywood Hansell) – on the one hand, and advocates of what was blandly called “area bombing” (basically destroying entire zones of cities and whatever happened to be in them at the time) on the other. The Royal Air Force focused on area bombing, as did Curtis LeMay – Hansell’s main opponent in the US and the architect of the final bombing campaign against Japan. It all culminates in the firebombing of Tokyo in early 1945, an attack that destroyed much of the city and killed more people than died at Hiroshima, though nobody seems bothered by that these days since they were killed with good old-fashioned explosives rather than atomic bombs. Gladwell has a sneaking fondness for LeMay that is frankly disturbing and he is willing to be fairly loose with both history and morality to make his points, all of which leaves a sort of empty feeling in someone who has actually studied these issues. We listened to this book on a long car trip (I’m never sure whether to include audiobooks in these lists, but they’re my list so I can do what I want, I suppose) and it was enjoyable for the stories as long as you didn’t think too hard about them.

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