Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Books Read in 2018

I didn’t make it to 52 books this year, not even close.  I’m not sure what to say other than my commute got shorter and I was busier than ever.  Nevertheless, here’s what I read in 2018.

Radio Waves:  Poems Celebrating the Wireless—ed. Seán Street

This is an amusing and interesting collection (all poets necessarily writing after the invention of the radio, quite an oddity in poetry anthologies).  Sometimes it feels a little narrow—so many poems about The Shipping Forecast!—but the addition of some Brecht and song lyrics doesn’t go amiss.  Not many younger poets, though.

Autumn – Ali Smith

After a slow and rather baffling start, I found Autumn had a great flow.  It has a lot to say about the current state of Britain in a rather understated, slightly mystified, humorous way.  The more I learned about the main characters, Elisabeth and Daniel, the more I liked them, and I ached for the unrequited romance at the heart of the tale.  I wasn’t sure how well Christine Keeler and Pauline Boty fitted in, but Elisabeth’s mother’s character was deftly and accurately filled in.  It both comforted me about Brexit and made me sigh. 

Peace of Mind – Thich Nhat Hanh

Hanh’s openness, humor, and genuinely welcoming writerly voice is convincing.  I tried to practice some of the Buddhist principles he outlines, with variable success, but I do feel calmer just reading his steady, easy-to-read prose. 

Pope Francis:  Untying the Knots – Paul Vallely

I was a bit disappointed by this book at first, as Vallely’s writing is not of the calibre of the sensitive, incisive, and historically-minded John Thavis.  It’s also evident that this book was rushed into production and as such has some quite appalling typos.  It’s off to a clunky start, but the Afterword is an excellent distillation of the entire argument of the book, charting a young Jesuit, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, whose mission and state of being were completely transformed after his actions during Argentina’s Dirty War so that when he became Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he had embraced humility as an intellectual stance and the commitment to the poor (and Liberation Theology) that would ultimately make him Pope Francis.

How to Fight – Thic Nhat Hanh

I was expecting a book at least as thick as Fear or Peace of Mind; this was a tiny book. It fit in well with the previous books without being unduly repetitive.

Call Me By Your Name – André Aciman

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this was a very well-written book that beautifully telescoped one summer and how it feels to be a teenager and in love.  Not least in love with an older man in the early 1980s in a permissive household; nevertheless, Elio and Oliver’s romance is doomed from the start due to the fact they are Jewish and traditional.  The book is extremely sensual, about as sensual as a mainstream, non-erotica book can be, and it’s a wonderful exercise in living inside someone’s head, someone who is insecure, full of doubt, full of lust, and, although talented, very, very young, indeed.  I was concerned how the movie would dramatize the many interior monologues, and while it succeeded quite well in this, I was disappointed at where it left off—to me, the most poignant part of the book was later in Elio and Oliver’s lives when they met up again, still feeling much the same way for each other that they had in Italy. 

On Heaven and Earth:  Pope Francis on Faith, Family, and the Church in the 21st Century – Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka

I found this book very interesting indeed, a project convened long before Bergoglio became Pope.  I learned a lot about (reasonably conservative) Judaism as well as Bergoglio’s interesting take on Catholicism (both of them falling down, in my opinion, in terms of sexist attitudes), but otherwise very open to dialogue. 

The How of Happiness:  A Practical Guide to Getting the Life You Want – Sonja Lyubomirsky

I’m very glad that I read this book; I have been interested in the “how” of happiness since at least when I read Stumbling on Happiness some ten years ago.  It’s a well-written, humorous, honestly helpful take on happiness from a scientific perspective.  Stumbling on Happiness was fascinating and provided scientific insights, but it was also, ultimately, somewhat less positive than The How of Happiness and offered fewer practical suggestions for actually increasing your day-to-day happiness.  I scoffed at reading “self-help” books in my youth, and while I guess this might be considered an upscale version of a self-help book, I think what attracts me to its message is how deeply rooted in empirical science it is. 

The Mythology of Richard III – John Ashdown-Hill

This book was . . . something else.  Ashdown-Hill is extraordinarily bitter about the way the world has treated Richard III, and while his quarrel with the University of Leicester, the Anglican Church of Leicester, and Leicester Council seems to be justified, in part, he does himself no favors by harping on it in an excessive fashion.  Indeed, his writing would be much more effective if he could state his point succinctly and move on.  And he has many fascinating points!  He systematically dismantles all the myths and stories about Richard III, from significant to frivolous (is it such a bad thing that Richard III may or may not have ridden a horse called White Surrey?  It can hardly make much difference).  I do agree with Ashdown-Hill that Richard III most likely would have been appalled to have been buried in a cathedral that isn’t Catholic, and I enjoyed that his take on Richard and Anne left in the possibility of love (Josephine Wilkinson saw their marriage as entirely pragmatic). 

How to Stay Sane – Philippa Perry

An excellent and encouraging little book. 

Appetite for America:  Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West—One Meal at a Time – Stephen Fried

This was a fantastic history book which told a huge historical saga in a very accessible and engaging way. After finishing it and observing the story from Fred Harvey’s emigration to the US in the 1850s to the disintegration of the franchise by the 1970s, I was convinced the Harvey story should be told all the way through, rather than just in the Hollywood treatment given to it in the famous 1940s film.  Fried is an excellent historian, making his subjects both human and real as well as linking them to movements in greater society.  I am certain I will re-read this book. 

Star Wars: Phasma - Delilah S. Dawson

I found this to be surprisingly entertaining and quite well-written, generally.  I can’t say, of all the characters in Star Wars, that I was really yearning to know more about Phasma, but I’ve always been intrigued to know more about the day-to-day life of Stormtroopers.  While these were First Order Stormtroopers rather than the classic variety, it was still interesting.  I liked the structure of the book, and how there was no redemption for Phasma—but there was some for Cardinal. 

Doctor Who: The Christmas Invasion – Jenny T Colgan

I thought this was going to be an enjoyable bit of fluff, but it meant more to me than that:  it revived one of my favorite eras of Doctor Who, elevating a pleasant but flawed Christmas Special into something with more depth (as all good Targets should).

Adolf Hitler and My Part in His Downfall – Spike Milligan

Milligan was—perhaps not surprisingly, but disappointingly—not as a PC as the recent Radio 4 drama made him out to be, if this book is anything to go by.  While the book took awhile to get going for me, I did find many laugh-out-loud funny moments.  The absurdity of war made a deep impression upon Milligan, and this sense of absurdity informs all of his work, including this madcap history of his first years in the war.  It ends as he arrives in North Africa.

The Life Project – Helen Pearson

Helen Pearson is an excellent writer—she makes complex concepts easy to understand.  There is never a sense of her intruding as an author or puffing herself up to eclipse the material.  It must have taken a lot of stamina to cover such a large subject as the British birth cohorts (which have a history from 1946 to this day), but Pearson evidently fell under their spell, like so many other people, scientists, laymen, and the babies themselves (the 1946 cohort is still beating all others for sheer loyalty, but they are in the 70s now).  Having worked in a research group that used some of the cohort studies and things of their ilk, I found the book fascinating—what had perhaps appeared to me opaque in my previous admin work now made a lot of sense.

Strandloper – Alan Garner

I can’t say I’ve read a book like Strandloper before.  I have to say, I found it very strange.  The class war is at the heart of this story, which sees mystic bricklayer William Buckland wrongly transported to Australia for no crime at all (other than wanting to read and write).  He then becomes an Aborigine for thirty years before returning to England, though what he finds there is bittersweet.  The colloquial language was often impenetrable, and the sections set in Aboriginal Australia I found almost incomprehensible.  But maybe that’s a sign of my parochial, Americentric mind.  I did feel quite moved by the ending and felt the story earned a degree of elegance by its conclusion. 

Vita Brevis – Ruth Downie

I’ve evidently skipped a book or two, but ancient Roman soldier-doctor Ruso and his wife Tilla of the Brigantes have moved to Rome after following Ruso’s patron Accius.  They now have an adopted daughter, Mara, and are living in a tenement slum as Ruso has not found the work he was expecting to get as Accius’ attendant.  Embroiled in Accius’ wooing exploits puts him in the center of an illegal dissection ring and gets him nearly poisoned.  I love Ruso, Tilla, and this whole series, because of the wonderful characters, the effortless historical settings, and the plots are pretty good, too.  By the book’s end, Ruso and Tilla have decided to move to Gaul with his family or possibly back to Britannia. 

The Etymologicon:  A Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections of the English Language – Mark Forsyth

I can imagine how Mark Forsyth would be very annoying to run into in person, if his conversation is anything like this book (I mean, simply because being a know-it-all is annoying).  However, the book was very interesting and an easy, enjoyable read (though I did wonder why he referred to Boudicca as Boadicea given he was talking all about the lack of words in English that come from Celtic, which is mysteriously small).  I’m a reasonably well-informed person on the English language, with a vocabulary much more florid and erudite that your average man-on-the-street, but I still learned a great deal from the book.  I suspect it also makes a pretty good blog.

The Convert – Elizabeth Robins

This was a very serendipitous read.  It reminded me a lot of Robins’ contemporary, May Sinclair, and while Sinclair was never really an out-and-out suffragette, she was a keen believer in gender equality.  The book feels very of its time, but I enjoyed its main character, Vida, who reminded me a bit of Irene Forsyte, and the way she had been seduced as a young woman by a man now entering the highest corridors of power.  It is also an invaluable book for its from-life scenes of hectoring and speeches made by suffragettes at Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square; these are easily the most exciting scenes, and it is based on these scenes that I’d like to adapt this book for radio.

Dr James Barry:  A Woman Ahead of Her Time – Michael du Preez and Jeremy Dronfield

I think I had been vaguely conscious of Dr James Barry for a long time, but in my young brain I think I got her a little mixed up with women who masqueraded as men in the American Civil War (because Barry died during that time period).  Instead, her life as a man began in the 1800s when she began studying medicine in Edinburgh.  I think the reason Dr Barry is also not as well-known as she should be is because there has been a lot of gaps and misinformation about her life which this book now (2016) corrects.  Her life is a mass of contradictions.  Clearly, Margaret Bulkley from Cork, a niece of once-famous painter James Barry, was ambitious and eager to leave the poverty that her father and brother had dragged the family into.  To do so, however, she had to live an uncomfortable and dangerous lie for her entire life.  She never had a chance to show her feminine side, to have fulfilling romantic relationships (so far as we know, though there is strong evidence she was in love with Lord Charles Somerset and the feelings may have been reciprocated) or children, and she cut off complete contact with her mother so that no one could discover her secret.  A visionary doctor and a greater reformer with compassion for the poor, Barry also had an explosive temper that rubbed officialdom all the wrong ways.  Yet, during her life, she got to live in far-flung places that almost no woman of her era would have had the opportunity to visit. I was a bit annoyed at the beginning of the book by the speculation the authors indulged in, although as the book proceeded and we were on firmer documentary ground, I was appreciative of the work that went into the book.  Usually I get very sad by the end of biographies when the person’s life ends, but the saddest moment of Barry’s life was when she was invalided out of the service in Canada shortly after she was due to receive her pension.  Without her work, her life was more or less over. 

The Help – Kathryn Stockett

I was, at first, disappointed to realize this was a novel, not a memoir.  Nevertheless, I found it unputdownable and quite different from the (ever-so-slightly sanitized) movie.  The voices of the protagonists were captured beautifully, with great verve, recreating in impressive verisimilitude Mississippi of the early 1960s. 

Storytelling Industries:  Narrative Production in the 21st Century—Anthony Smith

I managed to read books by both of my theory colleagues at my university and took a lot away from both of them.  I admired the conciseness of this book as well as its breadth of examples, from comics, film, television, and games.

Understanding Comics:  The Invisible Art—Scott McCloud

This study was a revelation, and you wonder what took it so long to get written.  It may not be flawless (as later criticism has revealed), but it’s a great, provocative read. 

Educated—Tara Westover

I was extremely impressed and gripped by this harrowing memoir.  It’s just as well that Westover notes at the beginning that her text is not meant to comment negatively or positively on Mormonism.  Her background is childhood off the grid with deluded, demented Mormon extremists; yet, the poor woman still loves her parents, even though she is angry with them, and of course devastated that they have cut her off after she ended the cycle of violence with one of her brothers.   Fortunately, she had the example of one of her other brothers, who helped her see that there was a way out of what she had grown up her entire life believing.  First it was college at Brigham Young University; eventually, it was England and her PhD.  It’s wonderfully written and never pretentious. 

Medieval Women:  A Social History of Women in England 450-1500—Henrietta Leyser

This was a little slow-going sometimes, but mostly it was very interesting, full of all kinds of facts about medieval English women that I didn’t know.  It was well-organized and well-written, with a generally lively voice that was never flippant.

The Incredulity of Father Brown—G.K. Chesterton

This had such a slow start, I was beginning to wonder if it had been a good gamble after all.  I found I much more enjoyed the stories with a real Gothic flavor, particularly “The Curse of the Golden Cross” and “The Doom of the Darnaways,” even if Father Brown exploded all the dark romance and hauntings as mere corporeal murders (you have to wonder at Chesterton’s skill for blood-and-daggers, even if he is debunking all the fun stuff).  The rest of it is “ooh look how modern we are in 1926” and mostly set in America.  While I won’t deny it’s shrewdly written satire of Americans, by my own caveat, I didn’t really come to Father Brown for satire on Americans, I came for locked room mysteries set in Middle England.  So, as I say, a rather uneven bunch of stories, but quite ingenious. 

The Sisters Brothers—Patrick DeWitt

I had been intrigued by this book ever since it was published (mainly because of the striking cover).  Now, having finished it, I have to confess I don’t quite know why it was nominated for the Booker Prize.  I enjoyed it, I found it entertaining (if depressing) as I read it, but it felt completely mundane, despite the somewhat fantastic turn of events.  Eli and Charlie Sisters are assassins in the West of the 1850s, who are maimed and reduced to penury all for teaming up with one of their targets to try to pan gold by using an alchemical substance.  I’m sure it probably has some great allegorical meaning, but it wasn’t obvious to me.

Broken Homes—Ben Aaronovitch

I don’t think the Peter Grant mysteries will ever top the debut novel, Rivers of London.  I was looking forward to one of the novels set, this time, sauf’ of the river in Elephant and Castle, but I didn’t feel like it gave you a real sense of what that actually means.  It was mainly set in a condemned estate, much like there is/was at the heart of Elephant and Castle, but much of it made little sense to me, and I found the first half to be rather doddering.  Nevertheless, in the second half it really got going, with some exciting twists and turns and the set pieces that have characterized every volume in the series. 

The Halloween Mask and Other Strange Tales—David Stuart Davies

It beggars belief that he arranged the weakest stories as his first four stories—especially as they ALL HAVE THE SAME TWIST.  I was really about to give up reading, but I’m glad I stuck with it, as there were actually several well-written stories, such as “Sherlock Holmes and the Ghost of Christmas Past,” “I Know What You Did,” “The Stigmata Skull,” and “The Oldest Ghost-Story Writer in the Land.”  The worst stories sounded just like fan fic. 

The Changing Spaces of Television Acting—Richard Hewett

While in many ways this book was utterly different from Storytelling Industries, it was an interesting, detailed analysis of British TV case studies across time, from the live, technically primitive productions of the 1950s to the 2000s, when rehearsal time has become almost a thing of the past.  Most impressive are Richard’s in depth analyses of performance styles and changes in acceptable standards of these styles.

The Exorcist—William Peter Blatty

This book seemed very dated, and yet the last third was rather exciting.  It was difficult to find much depth in the characters. 

The Mammoth Book of Modern Ghost Stories—Ed. Peter Haining

This was an excellent collection with considerable range.  I found very little cross over of stories that I had read before, though perhaps inevitably it began with stories that are very Edwardian in flavor, even if they are considered classics. 

They Came for Freedom:  The Forgotten, Epic Adventure of the Pilgrims—Jay Milbrandt

I was quite skeptical as I began this book, as the author comes from a law background and is not a professional historian.  I also found his bibliography slightly troubling, as he relied somewhat more extensively on online sources than I would have thought advisable for a serious (if popular) history book.  Nevertheless, he did provide useful footnotes to where he made self-admitted leaps into subjectivity and conducted some primary research as well.  Indeed, the idea behind the book—an attempt to show that the founders of what became the United States of America were escaping from religious intolerance and indeed what an absolute risk they took at every step in their process from living marginalized in England and Holland to the total unknown on a distant shore—carries through beautifully.  In fact, having read it (it’s somewhat short), I would recommend this book to anyone.  It provides an honest tally of why the Pilgrims came to the east coast of North America to settle and what they had to go through in order to make their community a success.

The Pickwick Papers—Charles Dickens

I began this book late in 2017 and then was unable to pick it up again until late in 2018.  Nevertheless, I did finish it at last.  While, at over 700 pages, it is not a book to be attempted lightly, it is an extremely rewarding read.  You cannot help but be bowled over at Dickens’ youthful exuberance, providing comedic, picaresque incidents for his wonderful characters.  Certainly, you could argue the sprawling, serialized story lacks the cohesion and maturity of his later works, but, for crying out loud, he was still in his early 20s when it was written.  Therefore, I think it’s hats off to Dickens for one of his funniest ever works.  Also, you can see many seeds for later works sown in Pickwick.   

Little Women—Louisa May Alcott

I mistakenly only read the first novel in the series that comprises “Little Women,” which continues on into Good Wives and Little Men.  I found it very charming, with beautifully drawn characters and a strong sense of the seasonality of American life mid-19th century.  The morality is a little bit more difficult to absorb, bald as it is, though in its original function as a novel for young women to read, I’m sure it more than succeeded in influencing generations of selfless, compassionate, loving, yet morally upright and uncompromising girls.  I was surprised by how funny I found it. 

Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters—Paul Hawkins

I enjoyed this popular history book and cultural survey of the multitude of wintertime figures who have, to some extent, coalesced into the modern Santa Claus whom, Hawkins argues, is a bit of a palimpsest—though for how much longer he will occupy this role is a matter for speculation.  I thought I knew a lot about Santa Claus and Christmas lore, but I hadn’t appreciated how little factual evidence we have for St Nicholas himself, nor the many fascinating reminders of a savage past that are extent in figures like not only the Krampus, but the Christmas Cat and many others.  I learned a lot about the origins of Sinterklaas and figures like Christkindl.  In short, I was rather impressed by this book.  Half-baked histories of Christmas are a-dime a-dozen, but Bad Santas is ahead of the crowd.   

Wade in the Water—Tracy K. Smith

Having never before read anything by Tracy K. Smith (the Poet Laureate of the United States), I was impressed with her range—not only in subject matter, which is always politically and socially conscious, but in form.  This is an excellent collection of modern poetry. 
I read more graphic novels this year than I remembered.

Doctor Who:  Weapons of Past Destruction—by Cavan Scott—art by Blair Shedd, Rachael Stott, Anang Setyawan (Titan, the Ninth Doctor, Vol. 1)

While I can easily slip back into the world of the Ninth Doctor on TV, jumping back into the world of Captain Jack (pre-immortality) and Rose Tyler (pre-Bad Wolf) is a bit harder than I expected.  The Ninth Doctor is written consistently, though his turn-on-the-edge-of-a-knife split between goofy humor and angst seems somehow more labored in print than on screen.  There was something about the story that reminded me very much of the epic yet home-in-time-for-tea scope of The Tides of Time.  The art is very good, the likenesses of Rose in particular very faithful, though the tendency to use silhouettes becomes noticeable after awhile. 

Roller Girl—Victoria Jamieson

I really enjoyed this book and the story of Astrid Vasquez, a non-gender-conforming pre-teen who decides to take up roller derby despite being a terrible skater.  At the same time, her friendship with more typically girly-girl Nicole is failing due to the pressures of growing up.  Astrid has to learn to manage her anger, not lie to her mother, be a true friend, and accept that it takes all sorts to make a world.  That doesn’t mean she has to give up her favorite color (black) or take ballet lessons (like Nicole). It’s also very amusing that Astrid’s new friend Zoey loves musicals and Hugh Jackman.  I got very personally involved in Astrid because of her gender-nonconformity, but I felt a bit cheated because, to all intents and purposes, this is a fictional story instead of a memoir (which somehow made it feel less real to me?). 

Scalped Vol. 6 The Gnawing – by Jason Aaron, art by R.M. Guéra, Guilia Brusco

In 2018, I finally began my Scalped re-read/conclusion, after having acquired all 10 volumes in 2017.  I was as astonished as ever at the first four volumes, which were stunning in their assured approach to character and narrative.  The Gnawing is extremely violent.  I realize that may seem an oxymoronic thing to say when Scalped throughout is more violent than your worst action films.  However, I felt this volume of TP took it beyond serving the needs of the story and was just reveling in it . . . because Jason Aaron wanted to?  I appreciate the insights it gave us into Red Cloud, who I did think was fast becoming the most interesting character in Scalped (more so than Bad Horse, who as a drug addict was not very interesting).  I was impressed with the way Bad Horse managed to extricate himself from an impossible situation, showing that cleaned up he has what it takes to be a double agent (which I was starting to wonder). 

Scalped Vol. 7 Rez Blues – by Jason Aaron, art by R.M. Guéra, Danijel Zezelj, Davide Furnò, Guilia Brusco, Trish Mulvihill

Rez Blues picked up a little for me, where The Gnawing had been such a downer.  First of all, we finally got to the Shunka-is-gay storyline that I had accidentally spoilered myself on, which gave us one of the greatest cliffhangers of the whole series (and Scalped dazzles with its cliffhangers) at the end of part 1 of “A Fine Action of an Honorable and Catholic Spaniard.”  This was an interesting and clever storyline, playing with narrative, again, in a way that showed Aaron was still at the top of his game.  “Family Tradition” dropped another bombshell, bringing in Wade, Dash’s father, who had been absent from most of Scalped.  It was a bit like Miss Saigon told from a slightly different point of view.  I was harping on about wanting some legitimate female characters in Scalped, and while we didn’t really get any in Rez Blues, Carol, at last, is developing beyond a nymphomaniac drug addict.  I am hoping that Granny Poor Bear’s influence on her will help her to become an even more individualized character rather than just a poster girl for abortions.  Wade returns, further complicating everyone’s lives.  At the end of The Gnawing, Catcher had a bullet for someone, but who?

Founding Fathers Funnies – by Peter Bagge

In honor of 4th of July, I picked up this short and amusing collection by Peter Bagge, which tells (almost 100% historically accurate) tales of George Washington, John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and a host of other figures (including several who are less well-known).  I was impressed with the level of historical accuracy as well as the goofy style. 

Scalped Vol. 8 You Gotta Sin to Be Saved—by Jason Aaron, art by R.M. Guéra, Jason LaTour, and Davide Furnò

I use the term “jumped the shark” advisedly, but I’m a little concerned that Scalped jumped the shark in volume 8.  Nothing about the tone or necessarily the characters changed; I just started to feel like the situations were contrived, something I’ve not felt even a hint of before.  I guess you can shrug everything Catcher has done off as “well, he’s crazy,” but that doesn’t really satisfy here.  I feel a bit like vol. 8 is treading water instead of bringing us any new story. 

Scalped Vol. 9 Knuckle Up—by Jason Aaron, art by R.M. Guéra, Igor Kordey, Tim Truman, Jill Thompson, Jordi Bernet, Denys Cowan, Dean Haspiel, Brendan McCarthy, Steve Dillon

Scalped Vol. 10 Trail’s End—by Jason Aaron, art by R.M. Guéra

I didn’t record my thoughts at the time on the final two volumes of Scalped, but I do remember feelings satisfied with the series’ conclusion.  

Of the 45 books I read this year, 36% were fiction, 42% were nonfiction, a paltry 4% were poetry, and 18% were graphic novels. 

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