A Peculiar Peril (The Misadventures of Jonathan Lambshead, v1) by Jeff VanderMeer

When this book came out, it took me by surprise. Although I think I keep fairly close tabs on when VanderMeer’s books are coming out, I’d never heard of this one, until after it had already arrived.

This book is delightfully strange. It’s fascinating to me the way VanderMeer’s writing veers between clipped, terse (but not uninteresting) prose and surrealistic excess. This book sits firmly between the two extremes. The writing here isn’t always surreal, but the things that happen in it certainly are!

An alternate reality Aleister Crowley makes for a pretty excellent villain, all in all. This book has all the hallmarks of your typical YA teenage hero having adventures, but contorts them into curious (or peculiar) shapes.

I’m definitely looking forward to volume 2.

The Scythe trilogy by Neal Shusterman

Scythe, Thunderhead, and The Toll. I read these books because my kid really liked them and he wanted to talk about them with me. Great reason!

It’s very much a YA book with many of the standard tropes these books have. There’s a bit more subtlety and moral nuance than I usually find in books like this.

Mostly I’m glad I read them because it meant I got to have some interesting conversations with my kid.

Trick by Domenico Starnone

For me, no other book has captured the tedium and infuriation of spending hours with a very small child like this book has. To be sure, it’s not a pleasant book, but it does capture something fascinating about the human experience.

There’s a funny (not haha, entirely) moment when the power dynamic shifts between the old man and the child. It’s almost worth reading this book just for that moment.

Or, say rather, there’s a curious juxtaposition of the powerlessness of old age and childhood. And a sort of compassion underlying it all.

Blessedly short, I don’t think I could’ve done another hundred pages of this one.

I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita

Sometimes I feel like the hardest time for me to understand and make sense of are the decades before and after I was born. Sure, I’ve seen tv and movies from the late 60s through the 80s, but it’s like light scattered through broken glass.

I Hotel was not only a fantastic snapshot of the vibe of the Bay Area from that time, but it gave me a sense of the time I felt I’d always been missing.

Like all good post-modern novels, this one is a collage of different styles and narrators, that paints a fuller picture than if it had been locked to a single viewpoint. There are some historical figures in here too. Some, like S.I. Hawakaya, seemed to strange to be real. But he was and my dad totally remembered him. A strange, violent little man, Hawakaya.

Worth a read, especially if you want to dig deep into some local history.

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nahesi Coates

(Slowly making my way through and reflecting on books I read over the past year or so.)

I read The Water Dancer as part of a book club at work. It’s been a while since I read it. I remember the strong clarity of the writing in this book.

When I reflect on this book, I think of water, the flowing of water, being submerged in water, the sound of water, the terrifying strength of water. (Not just because of the book’s title.) Water’s running all through this book.

Like in Octavia Butler’s Kindred and its exploration of time travel, Coates’ book seems to explore what superpowers would mean in the Antebellum South. Like Dana in Kindred, Hiram Walker is trapped by his kin, his obligations, and the systems of slavery and oppression he was born into.

Definitely worth a read.

Books I liked in 2020

I’ve meant to post this list for a long time. Better late than never, I guess!

+ The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett (and its sequel, Queens’ Play): Historical fiction set in 16th century Scotland and France. A fun romp. I read the first at the start of 2020 and the second midway through 2020. I felt like two different people. For me, what really stood out in these books, was how important it was when two characters met together in person. Or how significant it was when two characters failed to meet.

+ Travel Light by Naomi Mitchison: A fairy tale about a girl who turns into a bear (?). There are dragons in it too. Delightful. A younger me would’ve loved this book and the older me did too. :)

+ Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime by Sean Carroll: I dug this book about quantum physics. I wouldn’t say I totally understood all of it, but this book got me closer to understanding this stuff than anything else I’ve read. An excellent example of good science writing. Also some fun stories about 20th century physicists.

+ Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky: It’s funny. I read one his fantasy novels a while back and didn’t much care for it. (Maybe I was burned out on epic fantasy series at the time that go on for volumes and volumes.) This science fiction book is really really fun. It’s all about what can go really really wrong (and really really right) over thousands and thousands of years. If you like science fiction, you can’t go wrong with this one.

+ Agency by William Gibson: This book opens with a character starting a new job. When I read it, I was in-between jobs and was hoping, while I read it, that I too would soon have that new job feeling. I lucked out. By the time I landed my new job, this book was still fresh in my mind. A strong follow up to The Peripheral, I think you could still read this and enjoy it without reading that one first. It’s near future science fiction, but also with time travel. I can’t get enough of Gibson.

+ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs: A short book about the values of reading. Sometimes it’s nice to meet a kindred spirit, even if it’s through their books. This isn’t a book meant to exhort you to read more. Its intended audience is people who already read books. It’s a meditation on the joys of reading. If you want to be reminded about the joys of reading or you’re curious about why I spend so much time reading books, this one pretty much sums it up. (This year, I also read his books: How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds and Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a more Tranquil Mind. Also excellent.)

+ The Monkey’s Wedding and other stories by Joan Aiken: Sincerely charming and romantic short stories, but also so weird. I enjoyed these a lot. Sometimes a short story is just the thing.

+ The Lord of the Rings trilogy by JRR Tolkien: I’ve reread these books more times than I can count, but I hadn’t read them since my early 20s. I decided to go back to them and I’m glad I did. Not only did they hold up well to my memory of them, but I found new depth and subtlety in them that I’d missed before. A comfort during these troubling times.

+ Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir (I got her name wrong last year): The sequel to Gideon the Ninth. This is one of the most ambitious and creative books I’ve read in a long time. Definitely don’t skip Gideon or you’ll be completely at sea with this one. 

+ A Peculiar Peril by Jeff VanderMeer: I’ll read everything VanderMeer writes at this point. What a weird and funny book. (A part 1 of 2)

+ Temporary by Hilary Leichter: A surreal story about a temporary worker who gets jobs like pirate and ghost and mother.

+ Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley: Bro! This is a fun and readable translation of this old old story.

Browser tabs, part 2

Looking at these old browser tabs is a bit like wandering through fragments of past thoughts. Or rather fragments of momentary attention (or distraction?). (I’m adding the straight URLs because I sort of think it’s good for people to start looking at URLs again.)

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Behm – I don’t remember where I first read about Marc Behm, but his book The Eye of the Beholder sounds fascinating.

https://www.myabandonware.com/game/in-search-of-the-most-amazing-thing-2c – Looking at the screenshots of this game, In Search of the Most Amazing Thing, makes me think that I played it when I was a kid. What’s even more amazing is that you can just play these right in your browser.

https://strangetimes.substack.com/ – a newsletter gathering together the weirdest news from 100 years ago. I love this idea!

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_of_the_EagleBurn, Witch, Burn! is such a better title for this movie. Also, Wikipedia writers are generally terrible writers of plot summaries. They could make any movie sound dull as ditch water.

https://www.sublimehorror.com/books/the-haunted-academic-reading-list/ – A list of classic horror stories involving academics.

https://www.comicsbeat.com/the-best-comics-of-2019/ – The best comics of 2019!?! I am late to this party! Hahah. I’ve read a few comics on this list. I think they have pretty good taste.

http://www.zymoglyphic.org/galleries.html – I only just learned about this local museum early in 2020. I still want to visit it at some point.

https://www.tor.com/2020/02/05/jo-waltons-reading-list-january-2020/ – Jo Walton has great taste in books. Also, she reads a lot! Check out some of these great suggestions.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/76485.Hell – I never really got into Goodreads. I think my local library didn’t have this book so I read Kathryn Davis’ The Silk Road instead. I remember very little of it.

https://gretchenmcculloch.com/writing/ – I’ve been meaning to read Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet about language on the internet for a long time. Maybe this year I’ll get to it.

Whoah, that’s a lot of browser tabs

Here’s some of what I found in my phone’s web browser from 2020:

http://tabletopwhale.com/index.html – a blog of original science illustrations. Most recently a medical ventilator.

https://www.vulture.com/amp/article/best-fiction-pocasts-all-time.html – a pretty good list of fiction podcasts. I’ve listened to a few of them.

https://zak-site.com/Great-American-Novel/story_monsters.html – He’s thought a lot about the Fantastic Four! This inspired me to read a lot of the Fantastic Four over the last year (or two?). I think he’s got a pretty good take on it.

https://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2013/11/the-completist-jeffrey-fords-the-well-built-city/ – A review of trilogy of books by Jeffrey Ford called the Well Built City. I liked Ford’s The Empire of Ice Cream and I expect these books are probably worth reading too. Check out this review and see for yourself. Might take a little bit of work to track them down.

https://uminnpressblog.com/2019/12/05/3683/ – A short interview with Jonathan Eburne, author of Outside Theory: Intellectual Histories of Unorthodox Ideas. Sounds like a fascinating book!

https://href.cool/2010s/ – A list of cool internet things from the 2010s. A lot of fun, weird stuff in here.

http://eye-books.com/books/the-drovers-wives – Apparently, The Drover’s Wives is 101 re-interpretations of a classic Australian short story. Fascinating idea!

Oh boy, I’ve got lots more…. Maybe I’ll continue this. Maybe not.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy by JRR Tolkien

When I was quite young and still a very new reader, I asked my dad for something to read and he handed me The Hobbit. I read that book and then immediately wanted to reread it, I loved it so much. But instead I went to my dad and said, Do you have any other books like this? He handed me all three books of The Lord of the Rings. I think it took me almost the entire summer to read them all, but I was hooked. I probably didn’t understand half the words I read, but I loved them so much. I had no idea that books could evoke such strong emotions. I was hooked. For years, when I was younger, I read these books almost every year. Around my early 20s, I stopped reading them, I’m not sure why. I probably felt like I’d read them enough. (I did read The Hobbit to my kids, though. They weren’t swept away by quite like I was.)

Earlier this year, when I lost my job and the world started catching on fire, literally and figuratively, I found my mind returning to The Lord of the Rings and I began to want to read them again.

So I did.

I think it was the right choice. There’s a sort of time travel magic in rereading books from long ago, I find. A way of walking a path with my past self. Only with these books, I found myself walking a path with a decade or more of my past selves. Reading these books was such a cozy and also fortifying experience for me. I found nuance and subtlety that I’d never noticed before. The kindness of Sam and Frodo felt much richer. The Shire felt infinitely more pleasant. I found that all of the things that bored me as a child (the long walks through the countryside, the long conversations about what to do with the ring, the digressions) were the things I never wanted to end. I would’ve happily read a book about hobbits gamboling their way through the countryside for hundreds and hundreds of pages.

Thank you, Professor Tolkien. Your books have proved a mighty treasure in my life.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

I decided to read this book because a book club at my work had just read it. I checked it out from the library only to later realize I had somehow ended up with my own copy. Funny!

I enjoyed this book about books and bookstores and readers. There’s a bit of drama in it, but for the most part it’s about decent people trying to make the best of things. To my mind, This kind of book makes for a good airplane or long car ride read. Short enough to read in one long sitting and engaging enough to hold attention. But not so engaging that it’s easy to set down if someone wants to chat. A fine balance.