Category Archives: Books

Miasma: a Neologism Worth Spreading

In his newest book, Fall, or Dodge in Hell, Neal Stephenson describes the internet (specifically the social media end of it) as “the Miasma”.

I’m pretty sure we should all start using this term. That is all.

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Summer Reading

I read a lot of books this summer, I guess. (It’s a long one. I’d recommend skimming until you see a title that looks interesting.)

Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen
A time travel story about a guy who stays so long in the past that he forgets he was a time traveler. Too bad there are future bureaucratic time auditors who don’t look too kindly on that kind of thing. I remember enjoying this and I liked that it was set in a part of the world I grew up in. A quick read.

Batman: The Rules of Engagement
Batman: Bride or Burglar
Batman: The Wedding
Batman: Preludes to the Wedding
Batman: The Tyrant Wing

Almost all by Tom King. I liked these pretty well. The Bruce Wayne/Selina Kyle romance was solid. I especially liked when they and Clark Kent/Lois Lane went on a double date. Pretty fun. The wedding didn’t go the way I would have liked, but I can see why they’re gun-shy about pinning down such a perennial bachelor. Now I’m thinking of it, I remember very little of Tyrant Wing…

Shadow & Claw by Gene Wolfe
Sword & Citadel by Gene Wolfe
These books make up the Books of the New Sun. Boy, they are something else! I’m not even going to try to do them justice. It’s almost a shame that this is science fiction, because it should be much more read than it is, as a great work of literature. Really excellent and worthwhile. And it has one of the best swords of all time. The protagonist Severian is an executioner. I can’t remember another novel with such a character as him. A true original.

Defender: Kingpins of New York by Brian Michael Bendis
I remember almost nothing about this. I think I read it while I was falling asleep.

Wildmen, Wobblies & Whistle Punks: Stewart Holbrook’s Lowbrow Northwest edited by Brian Booth
A collection of newspaper and magazine articles from a legendary Oregonian journalist. The writing is extremely readable and the stories are pretty wild, from the late 19th century nudist cult to the governor’s secretary who stood down a whole town full of scoundrels and hooligans. If you like local history, I’d recommend it.

Finder by Suzanne Palmer
(I had to remind myself what this was about, so… not super memorable I guess?) This is definitely a great summer read. Fast-paced, exciting, with a protagonist who’s likable (with a very silly name, Fergus Ferguson) but not too much of a goody two shoes. The story is set in a space colony made up of a bunch of interconnected space stations and then this crime boss makes a play to take the whole thing over. Meanwhile, this “finder” shows up to retrieve a stolen spaceship at pretty much the worst time. This could’ve easily been an old west yarn about a stranger who comes to town. I didn’t realize there were planned sequels, but I’d read another one of these when it comes out.

The Man Without Qualities, v1: A Sort of Introduction and Pseudo Reality Prevails by Robert Musil
What an extremely weird and funny book! Long and apparently the second volume is even longer. It’s Austria in the decade before WWII. In so many ways, it captures so many things that are wrong with white American culture today. Good intentions seem so easily hijacked by the very worst.

New Super-Man and the Justice League China by Gene Luen Yang
A fun twist on the Justice League. My kid enjoyed it too.

You Are Deadpool by Al Ewing
A Deadpool comic as a choose your own adventure story. Pretty fun gimmick!

The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi
The sequel to The Collapsing Empire. Enjoyable. The characters are quite charming, even the rascally ones. The villains aren’t as clever as they think they are. I found the character who becomes the “Emperox” in the first book pretty fascinating, but she’s sort of sidelined in this book inside her official position, which I understood, but sort of drained the personality away into officialdom. There’s an interesting bit with a strand of humanity that’s isolated for hundreds (thousands?) of years in deep space.

The Miracle Club: How Thoughts Become Reality by Mitch Horowitz
Makes a pretty compelling case that the mind (or brain, if you like) are more powerful than people generally suppose and that dedicated and applied (thinking) focus on a goal can be extremely effective. It helps to have a goal, I suppose.

Kindred by Octavia Butler
Butler rightly deserves her place in the SF pantheon of writers. A time travel story, which I always like, but also sort of a horror story, because it’s a modern black woman traveling back to slavery-era South. I read it for my book club.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
Drawing room murder mystery with a Quantum Leap-style gimmick. The protagonist has a week to solve a murder and relives each day as a different character in the story. Intricately and ambitiously plotted. I didn’t see the twist coming, anyhow.

13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers
Some books are so weird that they’re tough to read at long stretches. I found that I could read about 20 pages of this before having to set it down for something more prosaic. The illustrations are delightful. I’ll probably read other Moers stuff at some point.

Mister Miracle by Tom King
Sometimes you’re a superhero and sometimes you’re a New God and sometimes you’re a new parent trying to make it work. This book is a weird and funny mash-up of the stress and bewilderment of being a new parent with strange, intergalactic super heroic warfare.

Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland
I read it for work. There’s some good insights about people here.

The Hole by José Revueltas
A short book about two guys in prison. I definitely never want to be in prison, is my takeaway. It’s sort of like a fever dream. I remember very little of it apart from a creeping sense of dread.

Still Life by Louise Penny
A mystery set in a small Quebecois Canadian town. A slightly eccentric but well-liked woman is murdered. In spite of its leisurely pace, excellently plotted, and, weirdly, a real page-turner. I’ll definitely read more by her.

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion
I can’t remember if I’ve read any other Didion, but she’s a writer who I’ve been reading about forever. This is great. An autopsy of a failed marriage and a troubled life. Her prose is so clean and cutting.

The Girl Who Married a Skull and Other African Stories by Mary Cagle
A comic of short stories. The title comic was extremely funny. The most memorable of the bunch. My kids liked this a lot. (They’re the ones who got me to read it.)

Fear Agent: Re-Ignition by Rick Remender
Space! A “hero” gets paid to clean up messes. Ends up making bigger messes! It’s pretty fun.

Rejoice, a Knife to the Heart by Steven Erikson
A first contact story. The aliens kidnap a science fiction writer to help them figure out how to communicate to humanity. She spends most of the book having debates with the alien AI imprisoning her. A lot of fascinating ideas here. Chiefly, what would people do if the ability to commit acts of violence were completely taken away?

A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson
Horror short stories. The first and last stories feed into each other in an interesting and creepy way. He’s definitely got a feel for uncanny dread.

Grayson: Nemesis by Tom King
Dick Grayson (AKA Batman’s Robin) is a spy! Hard to follow at times, so I stopped trying, and just enjoyed the ride.

Cemetery Beach by Warren Ellis
Hijinks on an alien planet. Lot of explosions!

Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan
(Weirdly, couldn’t remember what this was about, had to look it up. Think I read it too fast.) In this near future SF, the internet gets taken down. Describes the possible fallout from that. A lot of interesting speculation here on our relationship to technology and our deep reliance on it.

Mouthful of Birds: Stories by Samanta Schweblin
These are great stories, really great. The titles story is subtly alarming. I especially liked the story about the man who can’t get on the train.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
Really excellent. Past fish-out-of-water/murder mystery/dynastic succession/meditation on cultural values. I loved the subtlety of the interactions between the protagonist and her closest companions. A masterpiece of science fictional world building. It stands perfectly well on its own, but if Martine writes more of these, I’ll definitely read em.

Animosity by Marguerite Bennett
All the animals in the world gain human-level sentience and verbal skills instantly. It’s a fabulous idea that doesn’t quite get a fair shake in this first collection of the comics. There was a kind of stutter/stop feel to the story, with some beats seemingly missing, which made for occasionally confusing character choices. I hope Bennett gets a chance and space to explore this idea more fully.

Six Memos for the New Millennium by Italo Calvino
Essentially a how to guide for living in the 21st century. Remarkably prescient for a book that was written in the 1980s. A series of lectures that Calvino, sadly, was never able to deliver. Each memo focuses on one of five values: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity. The sixth on consistency was never completed. Made me want to reread some Calvino.

Crowded by Christopher Sebela
An extremely entertaining comic about a near future world where everything is crowdfunded, including assassinations. Takes current trends in freelance work and pushes them out to some pretty extreme places.

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
If it weren’t for the second half that threw a monkey wrench into the first, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed this very much. Glad I stuck it out though! A book full of mostly unpleasant, but pretty amusing, people. All I can say is that I’m glad my college experience wasn’t anywhere near this.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
An excellent book. A meditation on grief and loss and hawking and TH White, one of my favorite childhood authors. Extremely well-written. Read for my book club.

The Crown Tower
The Rose and the Thorn
by Michael J Sullivan
Sometimes you want some popcorn books. These fantasy books are definitely like popcorn. Nothing wrong with that though. Things really start popping once the two protagonists decide to start working with instead of against each other.

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Science fiction story told via found documents. Plus space zombies and a crazed AI. It’s solid and the textual shenanigans on the page are tops. I’m certainly going to read the sequels.

Bad Magic by Stephan Zielinski
A group of good guy magicians battle supernatural evil in San Francisco and San Diego. Each one comes from a different magical tradition. The prose has a sort of gritty noir feel to it and its funny like Kadrey’s Sandman Slim books. I think it’s the only book Zielinski wrote, but it’s solid. I have no recollection as to where I heard about this, but I’m glad I read it.

Slow Horses by Mick Herron
Spies! In London! A book written ten years ago that’s feeling pretty timely now, given all the white supremacist and nativist nonsense floating around these days.

The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang
Increasingly, I feel a lot of respect for people who can tell an entire story in about 150 pages. Still, I think this one could have used about a hundred more to flesh things out. There’s some fascinating stuff going on with gender here.

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey
Feral hippos in a Louisiana swamp! It’s a fun, quick read. (I finished it in one day of commuting.)

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One of my favorite chapter titles

It reads:

A CHAPTER THAT MAY BE SKIPPED BY ANYONE NOT PARTICULARLY IMPRESSED BY THINKING AS AN OCCUPATION

From The Man without Qualities by Robert Musil.

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A Big List of Books I’ve Read in the Last Little While

Confessions of an Imaginary Friend: A Memoir by Jacques Papier
One of the most charming, delightful, and lyrically imaginative children’s books I’ve read in ages. I’d put this in the top 10 of books to hand just about any kid. Was shaking my head in wonderment at the writing on just about every page.

Batwoman: The Many Arms of Death by Marguerite Bennett
The most interesting thing to me about this was its use of a Lost-style narrative structure, a kind of dance between past events adding nuance to the present. It’s an effective technique in comics, for sure. It’s a good story, because it doesn’t really require much prior knowledge of the Batwoman character.

The Masterwork of a Painting Elephant by Michelle Cuevas
I loved this book (though slightly less than Confessions of an Imaginary Friend–really an embarrassment of riches). The villain character is pretty delightful. I’ll read pretty much anything Cuevas writes at this point.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Read this for my book club. There’s an amazing amount of historical detail. Lincoln is already endlessly lionized, but I ended up having more admiration for him after reading this book. Read this book and you’ll enrich your knowledge of United States history beyond what most people have. Worth it.

Those Above: The Empty Throne (Book 1) by Daniel Polansky
Most fantasy stories use a kind of bland, European medieval setting that does feel a little stale at times. Polansky’s novel is refreshing because it uses the Roman Republic as its inspiration, which allows for more interesting characters (a political matriarch, lots of senators, legionnaire-equivalent professional soldiers, etc). The story has an interesting take on Elves. Here, they’re birdlike, live forever, and extremely interested in subjuguting and enslaving the human race, which they see as basically little more than insects. A lot of bleak stuff here, though, so if that’s not your bag, you’d be better off reading Polansky’s A City Dreaming, which was one of my favorite books from last year.

Kill the Farm Boy: The Tales of Pell by Kevin Hearne and Delilah S. Dawson
Really takes the piss out of the standard fantasy Chosen One narrative trope. Sometimes a little too on the nose, but, in general, pretty funny stuff. Humor is hard! The talking goat is a delight.

Batman: I Am Bane by Tom King
I liked this, but I have very little memory of what happened in it. For some reason, I have a lot of trouble remembering what happens in comics.

Fate of the Four by Chip Zdarsky
Johnny Storm (The Human Torch) and Ben Grimm (The Thing) team up! It’s fun and witty and generally enjoyable. My kid liked it too.

Batwoman: Wonderland by Marguerite Bennett
A sequel to The Many Arms of Death, which is pretty much required reading for this one. If you liked that one, you’ll probably like this.

Invincible: The End of all Things, Part 2 by Robert Kirkman
When I first started reading Invincible about 20 years ago, it was a breath of fresh air and was one of the things that got me into reading comics again. I read this because it’s the very last volume of this comic’s run. I’d only recommend it if you’ve been on board for the entire ride. In general, if you’re interested, I’d recommend reading early issues of this comic, which were fantastic. This volume was really creaking under the weight of its narrative dead-ends.

Archangel by William Gibson
I wanted to like this one a lot more than I did. I’ve read several comics by novelists and I think the skills don’t necessarily transfer. There are some interesting time travel ideas in here.

Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White
Fantastic! Even though I’m not particularly religious anymore, religious symbolism in fiction still hits pretty hard. Set in 1950s Australia, the novel’s about four characters who are tapped into a kind of spirituality that’s alien and alienating to the people around them. A masterpiece.

Paper Girls (Volume 5) by Brian K. Vaughan
1980s paper girls time travel all over the place. A lot of fun. You definitely want to start at the beginning with these.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
A friend talked to me about this book (and its series) and I was pretty intrigued. I found this book baffling and slightly off-putting. It reminded me very much of 1950-1980s science fiction, which focused far more on expressing ideas and whizzbang science fiction gadgets and aliens than creating well-rounded “believable” characters and character interactions. If you like science fiction as a vehicle for ideas, you’ll probably get a lot out of this one. Otherwise, you may want to look elsewhere. I’m not sure I’m going to read the rest of the trilogy, but what do you know? It could happen. Extremely bleak, but in a different way than is typical in American doom’n’gloom SF.

Be More Chill by Ned Vizzini
A teenager gets an AI implanted in his brain so that he can take to girls, basically. Funny, weird take on contemporary teenage culture. Finished it and realized that the author committed suicide several years earlier. Definitely puts a sad and mournful spin on this book, which is mostly about trying and failing to connect to other people.

Come Closer by Sara Gran
A woman gets possessed by a demon. Dark and effective thriller story. Kind of perfect in doing what it sets out to do.

Hellboy: Darkness Calls and The Wild Hunt by Mike Mignola
I finally got to the Hellboy comics I hadn’t read before. The art’s different (I guess Mike’s drawing hand got tired) but there’s a marvelous build of narrative tension to the final issues of the comic run in the next and final volumes. Really good stuff. Hellboy is a comic that stands the test of time like no other, I feel.

The Wild Storm (Volume 3) by Warren Ellis
You really gotta start at the beginning with this comics series. (I struggled a little just trying to remember what happened in the first couple volumes.) Got a bit of the old ultra-violence, so if that’s not your cuppa tea, you may want to sit this one out. It’s superheroes as pawns or players within global and interstellar factions, which is probably more like what would happen in a real world setting.

Dark Days: The Road to Metal by Scott Snyder
The lead-up to the Metal DC comics crossover event. This is comics at its most bonkers and wild. I can get behind it.

Dark Nights: Metal by Scott Snyder
So bonkers and gonzo. Superhero comic doing what superhero comics do best. I mean, the Justice League has a Voltron moment with a giant robot. And Batman rides a Joker dragon at one point. If you’re there for it, it’s gonna give you a ride!

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh
Lord of the Flies with girls, basically. There’s an interesting technique where some of the chapters are done in first-person plural, the plural being the three sisters who live on this island that’s completely isolated from the rest of the world. Things get complicated when three men (well, two men and a boy) wash up on the island. It’s a science fiction novel in tone, even though it could almost be set in any era from the 20th century onward. The book really shines in its exploration of the relationships between the three sisters.

Mother Panic: Gotham A.D. by Jody Houser
Alternate reality/time travel shenanigans rewrite the status quo for this Batman-equivalent. I feel like this comic is still trying to find its footing.

Nonconformity: Writing on Writing by Nelson Algren
Written during the early days of the establishment of the permanent US war machine, but it could’ve been written today in its diagnosis of US society and its ills.

The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat
I don’t think I’d ever read a book by an Iranian writer. A searing portrayal of depression and despair and isolation. One of the strangest books I’ve ever read. So if strange, dark books are your jam, check it out.

Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows (Volume 1-4)
Spider-Man and his family have adventures. My kid and I both enjoyed this. It’s pretty light and charming.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
The story of two girls and their friendship growing up in Italy in the 1950s. The first of a series of four novels. Deeply fascinating and insightful. I’ve rarely read a coming-of-age story that focuses so closely and thoughtfully on the relationship between two girls.

Hellboy: The Storm and the Fury and The Bride of Hell by Mike Mignola
Nails it. This is the good stuff right here.

Binti by Nnedi Okorofor
A novella about an outsider breaking into an established educational system. All about culture shock and alienation and then everyone gets killed by aliens–who are truly weird. A lead-in to longer novels, that I’ll definitely read at some point, on the strength of this one.

Those Below: The Empty Throne (Book 2) by Daniel Polansky
I’m grateful that this one stopped before moving into trilogy territory, not because I disliked it, but because I appreciate people who are able to tell the story they want to tell in less than three books. Refreshingly non-monarchy-centric. A meditation on the nature of power.

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders
An ambitious, original science fiction novel about a tidelocked planet. The aliens are so great here, these sort of telepathic communal crab-like creatures that share memories as a way of communicating via these gross mouth tentacle things. So good. Effective use of alternating POV characters. I never knew where this book was going to go. Like the best science fiction of the 70s, presents credible alternative systems of human organization that are each terrible in their own way.

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter
Like Jane Yolken and Patricia McKillip, who she probably inspired, Carter reimagines famous fairy and folktales. Like Grimm’s original stories, doesn’t shy away from the blood, sex, and death that usually runs as an ignored undercurrent through these stories. Deeply feminist, but in the best way.

There There by Tommy Orange
I see a real Game of Thrones influence in the narrative technique of nested and interlocking and interconnected POV narrators. Although I sort of think Tommy Orange does it more effectively and in far less time. The characters converge in a bloody shoutout at a Native American powwow in Oakland. This is the good stuff, right here.

Jack Jetstark’s Intergalactic Freakshow by Jennifer Lee Rossman
Charming and took a couple twists I wasn’t expecting. I really wanted the freaks to be more freakish. Pretty good for a first novel!

The Silk Road by Kathryn Davis
A novel about reincarnation as far as I can tell. Like reading a book length poem. For me, evoked a feeling of bewilderment that I very much enjoyed. Sort of happy it wasn’t longer, though.

Batman: The War of Jokes and Riddles by Tom King
The Riddler and the Joker go to war for inscrutable reasons. Scott Snyder turned the Riddler into a credible Batman villain and Tom King really runs with that here. Joker frowns a lot in this comic, which is hilarious every time.

Famous Men Who Never Lived by K Chess
Refugees arrive from an alternate earth and experience all the trauma and isolation that you might expect from that. Excellent.

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A whole mess of books I read

Dungeons and Dragons Art and Arcana: A Visual History by Michael Witwer: A lot of great art in here. Also, some lovely anecdotes about what’s basically my favorite game.

The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem: The West Coast never looks stranger than in the eyes of someone from the East Coast. He’s less of a detective and more of a magnet for strays, people and animals. It captures a certain something about the strangeness of the times we’re living through.

Confessions of an Imaginary Friend: A Memoir by Jacques Papier by Michelle Cuevas: Recommended by a friend. A delightfully charming children’s book. There are lyrical flights of fancy here that should be the envy of writers everywhere.

Smoot: A Rebellious Shadow by Michelle Cuevas: A picture book. Simply charming, as everything by Cuevas is. What if someone told the story of Peter Pan’s stray shadow, basically.

The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles by Michelle Cuevas: A picture book about the guy who delivers the letters found in bottles at sea. What it’s like to feel unappreciated, but then to suddenly realize you are.

Battle Angel Alita (Deluxe Edition) v. 4 & 5 by Yukito Kishiro: These books get increasingly strange. It’s weird that I didn’t really notice (or don’t remember noticing) how super weird they get. It becomes almost like a horror story at points. I suppose I (and probably a lot of other people) was distracted by the pretty amazing art on the first go round. It’s definitely a product of its time and place.

Godbound: A Game of Divine Heroes by Kevin Crawford: I read this because a friend of mine wanted to a run a game of it. A game for those times when you really want to jump to the most epic stuff. This book is quite readable and the game has been a lot of fun to play, which is really what you want out of a roleplaying game book. The world setting is extremely varied and provides a lot of fun character possibilities, from necromantic witch queens to steam-powered robot pilots to pyramid-dwelling gene splicers and a whole lot more.

All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault by James Alan Gardner: Probably the most entertaining novel I’ve read in the superhero genre. A fun, light, popcorny sort of novel. Kind of perfect for what it is, like a chocolate doughnut or a candy bar.

Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra: Read it for background info on the forgotten thinkers behind the worst of humanity in the 20th century. Refreshingly, not USA/Europe-centric. Makes a compelling case that the failures behind the promise of the Enlightenment in improving life have created a void of meaning that is easily filled with hatred and violence. I’m super dumbing this down based on my dim recollection. It’s very well-researched.

The Labyrinth Index by Charles Stross: Book 9 already?! The USA comes off super creepy in this one. What if everyone woke up one day and forgot the president existed? One of these spy stories where nothing goes to plan and no one’s happy, but it kind of works out in the end.

I Love Dick by Chris Kraus: Most pomo novels I find pretty insufferable, but this one is quite good. And so very funny. Is it an epistolary novel if the letters hardly ever get sent? Also, the biggest fuck you by letter I’ve ever seen. Simply brutal. My kids found the title endlessly funny. Which, I guess in a way, it is.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn: I read this because I liked her other books. It’s well-written, but so freaking dark. Yeah, I get it, women can be terrible too. Almost no one comes off looking good in this one. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, exactly, but it does what it does very well.

Judgment on Deltchev by Eric Ambler: You know who shouldn’t get involved with intrigue in a Cold War-era Eastern Bloc country? A playwright, that’s who! The protagonist is nerve-wrackingly out of his depth and outmatched at nearly every turn.

The Blue Hawk by Peter Dickinson: A kind of YA novel that doesn’t get written anymore. Slow and moody and literary and wrestling with big questions of religion, ritual, and tradition. It’s very good. I can’t remember where I read about it, but I’m glad I did.

X-Men Grand Design – Second Genesis by Ed Piskor: If you’re into the X-Men’s convoluted history, these books can’t be beat. I bought this one. Totally worth it.

Ant-Man: Second-Chance Man by Nick Spencer: Almost entirely worth it just for the guy in the Grizzly suit. This Scott Lang is almost too much of a wastrel to be charming. It’s a real fine line. Can anyone be this dumb? Yes, it turns out, yes, someone can be.

Beyond the Laughing Sky by Michelle Cuevas: A book about being different and figuring out who you are. Sentimental without being mawkish. Cuevas can write sentences like almost no one else. (I still like Imaginary Friend the best, though.)

Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials by Reza Negarestani: A book I’d been trying to track down for about a decade then, boom, one day it turned up at my library. Lovecraftean-style horror as told through academic gibberdegook. It was definitely an experience reading it, but I don’t know of anyone who’d have the kind of patience it takes to work your way through it. Strikes me as the kind of book that people love the idea of rather than the thing itself. The kind of post-modern novel that people think of when they talk about hating post-modern novels, obscure and pedantic and inscrutable. Not horror, exactly, but there are horrific ideas in it.

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Books I Got the Most Out of in 2018

  • Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd: I read this because of David Bowie. It was on his list of favorite books and his son started a sort of online freeform book club based on his dad’s favorite books. This book is super weird! A story that eats its own tail (tale?), set in different eras of London. Turns out I love books about London and books about detectives and books about secret histories and architectures. There’s nothing pleasant about this book, except the mesmerizing prose.
  • Gnomon by Nick Harkaway: You can’t go wrong with Harkaway, you really can’t. The man can write! I’ve read every book he’s written and I’ll read every book he writes. A story about (what else?) a detective–actually, an inspector. It’s not exactly a mystery, but it is a fantastic story about memory and identity. It has one of the creepiest characters in a book I’ve ever read.
  • Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls: A married woman falls in love with a sea monster. It’s funny and sad and more people should read it and know about it, probably.
  • Puckoon by Spike Milligan: Another David Bowie pick. This is one of the funniest books I’ve read (while it’s also deeply offensive in almost every way, but what can you do?). An Irish novel from the 1960s. The border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is going to go through the middle of a town and the British government is going to put their border crossing station in the middle of a cemetery. There’s almost nothing but crazy hijinks.
  • Six Four by Video Yokoyama: Somehow the PR guy in this Japanese police force solves a mystery. I don’t usually go in for the police procedural stuff, but for some reason, I found this one deeply compelling. It’s just really good.
  • Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell: George Orwell writes movingly about his time in poverty in the early 20th century.
  • The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch: I’m a sucker for time travel stories, even ones like this that are hiding inside of a “thriller” story.
  • The Last Samurai by Helen Dewitt: Dewitt writes an extremely moving story about fathers and sons. Well, one son and several fathers. There aren’t any samurai in it, unless you count the cinematic ones.
  • Space Opera by Catherynne Valente: No other book has reminded me so much of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide books. A real pleasure.
  • Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West: The best book I read in 2018 (and many other years). A travelogue of 1930s Yugoslavia. I can’t think of another book that charmed me so effortlessly or that made me feel the burden and weight of history so keenly. Rebecca West is someone I would’ve loved to have known. But I’ll settle for her writing instead.
  • The Earthsea series by Ursula Le Guin: Some of these were a re-read and some of them were new to me. Sometimes you need a little magic in your life. These books are a good place to get them. (See also: Beren and Lúthien by JRR Tolkien)
  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman: Europe in the 14th century was probably the worst time and place to be alive as a human being. A little comfort reading. Knights were freaking terrifying (“worms in iron cages”). And disease was pretty terrible too.

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But though there were no formal parties, it is true that there were now two broadly opposing worldviews floating in the political ether waiting to be tapped as needed. As the crisis over the Lex Agraria revealed, it was no longer a specific issue that mattered so much as the urgent necessity to triumph over rivals. Reflecting on the recurrent civil wars of the Late Republic, Sallust said, “It is this spirit which has commonly ruined great nations, when one party desires to triumph over another by any and every means and to avenge itself on the vanquished with excessive cruelty.” Accepting defeat was no longer an option.

Excerpt From

The Storm Before the Storm

Mike Duncan

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January 18, 2019 · 5:45 pm

Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt

If you’d told me that Helen DeWitt would follow up her exquisite The Last Samurai with a novel about a guy who solves America’s workplace sexual harassment issue by starting a company to provide anonymous sexual encounters as a workplace perk, I’m not sure I would’ve believed you. For a novel primarily about sex, it’s not very erotic or salacious, but it is funny. Doesn’t hold a candle to her other novel or her collection of short stories, to my mind, but for what it sets out to do–satirical take on American gender relationships in the workplace–it does it pretty well. The best thing this book does is present sex as really not that big a deal, because it’s just something that everyone does, so why not be pragmatic about it? Why treat it as something separate and unusual? It’s a refreshing take on it.

Unlike The Last Samurai, I wouldn’t recommend this to everyone, but it’s a quick, smart, funny read.

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A Couple Books

In the Vanishers’ Palace by Aliette De Bodard is a novella-length science fiction story in what might be some future Earth where a race of aliens have come and gone–the Vanishers–leaving disease and desolation in their wake. It’s an intimate story of a human (?) woman living on a Vanisher spaceship–maybe? everything is very vague–with two abandoned Vanisher children. She trades her healing service for the servitude of a young woman to teach her children. It’s described as a retelling of Beauty and the Beast and that’s certainly accurate. This story shines in its portrayal of the weird alien technology as a kind of bizarre magic based, I think, in some kind of super-tech genetic engineering. A quick, charming read.

The weirder the better a la science fiction, as far as I’m concerned. The stories in this collection, Alien Virus Love Disaster by Abbey Mei Otis, are weird. I think I probably checked this book out from the library based on its title. Read it for: the title story, “Moonkids”, “Teacher”, “Sweetheart”, and “Ultimate Housekeeping Megathrill 4”, but all of the stories are worthwhile. The language in these stories is often casually bizarre, as though they’re being written by people used to writing and speaking and English from a couple parallel universe away.

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I Read Some More Books

The Explorer by James Smythe: This book dances on a kind of knife’s edge for the first third of it or so. The book captures the protagonist’s tedium and dread at being the sole remaining survivor of a doomed space expedition almost too well. Thankfully the book swerves into true weirdness after that first third and becomes a fascinating meditation on the inability to see ourselves as others see us. I’ve been pretty down on first-person narratives lately, because of how limiting and constrained they are, but this book uses first person point of view particularly effectively. I dug it.

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu: Two of the stories in this collection made me cry and I’d say that almost all of them are worth reading. I especially liked: “The Paper Menagerie”, “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species”, “State Change”, “All the Flavors”, “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King”. I expect many of these stories can be found online. Go digging!

Doom Patrol: Nada by Gerard Way: It’s impossible to read this without seeing Grant Morrison’s influence. Which is fitting, I suppose, given Morrison’s long run on Doom Patrol. I found the issue with Niles “The Chief” Caulder–their former leader–especially satisfying. The story’s pretty gonzo and surreal but manages to keep a slight hold on the reins so that things don’t devolve into pure nonsense. Also, the art is quite lovely.

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