The tags for the above stock photo include: “adult, beard, book, brown hair, business finance and industry, cafe, candid, contemplation, curled up, customer, drinking, goatee, hat, incidental people, leisure activity, lifestyles, looking down, men, mid adult men, mustache, only men, people, reading, Santa Fe, serious, sitting, small business, studying, table, USA.” Talk about looking in a mirror!!!
I like to make year-end lists of the books I read in the previous year! Now that it’s the end of March, it’s probably time to do so for 2015. (Here are earlier lists, representing books read in 2012, 2013, and 2014.)
The usual caveats: I track my reading on Goodreads, and I am happy to friend you there, but I don’t rate or review books there (or do much of anything). You can also find my own books on Goodreads, and if you have read them, feel free to add them to your own library!
I do, in these annual roundups, discuss the format I read the book in; how I came across the book; and briefly (edit: or not), what I thought of it. I think you can distill out a recommendation from that, if you need to see an up-or-down vote from me.
In 2014, I set a goal for myself to read at least a book a week (52 books over the year), and I hit that goal, ending up reading 57!
I would have liked to keep up the pace in 2015, but I didn’t set a specific goal for myself, and looking back at the list now, I will be honest: I didn’t end up reading many books.
Instead, I read a ton of articles, essays, and some short stories — in other words, things from a browser, rather than a bookshelf. I added links to my Instapaper left and right, and read in little bursts that way, leaping like a flea throughout the year. This is reflected in the lists of article recommendations I’ve shared with you previously.
I think the reasons for that have to do with:
- Social media (the more time one spends scrolling through a timeline, the more links one will see posted);
- The charged political climate, presidential and otherwise, which both causes more thinkpieces to be written, and also stokes a desire to want to read more about what’s going on (the latter is definitely true for me);
- The fact that my leisure reading time is limited almost exclusively to late at night. Because I keep the light off to keep from disturbing my wife, this means I’m usually reading on my iPad, and when it comes time to loading it up with things to read, articles are free while ebooks usually cost money.
I regret not spending the time to really dig into many good books in the past year. And while I don’t think reading articles and essays is bad or a waste of time (I wouldn’t post lists of recommended articles if I did think so), I do think that reading longer, sustained narratives is a good muscle to keep exercised as a storyteller.
Now that I have a functional workshop, on my list of doodads to build is a light-isolation chamber that I can use to read hardcopy books in bed. We’ll see how it goes. I’ll report back if I end up staying married.
Marvel 1602, by Neil Gaiman, Andy Kubert & Richard Isanove
Format: Hardcover purchased from comic shop
This comic is from 2003; I’ve had it for about that long, but only sat down to read it recently. It’s an alternate-universe story placing the icons of the Marvel Universe (Spider-Man, Captain America, etc.) in Elizabethan England, and the original series by Neil Gaiman went on to be followed up by several more installments by other writers. I probably don’t know enough about obscure Marvel trivia to have caught all the details, and as the story itself went (if one ignores the central gimmick) it’s fine, I guess.
I do remember thinking that the 2003-era gradient-filled digital coloring by Richard Isanove was a little out of control, and didn’t much fit the period theme. (I am not very forgiving of clunky comic art.) But the chapter-heading woodcut-style illustrations by Scott McKowen are a real highlight — check out his portfolio.
Saga Volume 4, by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples
Format: Trade paperback purchased from bookstore
I raved about this series in previous installments of this list, as I’ve continued to rave as I’ve read the successive trade paperback volumes! The comic continues to amaze. Fiona Staples proves she can draw anything and make it look incredible.
The Boy Aviators on Secret Service; Or, Working With Wireless, by Captain Wilbur Lawton
Last year I talked at length about my specific guilty literary pleasure: early-20th-century youth-adventure books about teenaged aviators. Some people read trashy romance novels about vampires; I read about rich kids from New England who invent impractical flying machines to hunt down bank robbers in mountain hideaways.
I mean, come on, check out this blurb for the prior volume in the Boy Aviators series:
The Boy Aviators in Nicaragua; Or, Leagued With Insurgents
The launching of this Twentieth Century series marks the inauguration of a new era in boys’ books — the “wonder of modern science” epoch. Frank and Harry Chester, the BOY AVIATORS, are the heroes of this exciting, red-blooded tale of adventure by air and land in the turbulent Central American republic.
The two brothers with their $10,000 prize airplane, the GOLDEN EAGLE, rescue a chum from death in the clutches of the Nicaraguans, discover a lost treasure valley of the ancient Toltec race, and in so doing almost lose their own lives in the Abyss of the White Serpents, and have many other exciting experiences, including being blown far out to sea in their air-skimmer in a tropical storm. It would be unfair to divulge the part that wireless plays in rescuing them from their predicament.
In a brand new field of fiction for boys the Chester brothers and their aeroplane are destined to fill a top-notch place. These books are technically correct, wholesomely thrilling and geared up to third speed.
This is the first of the Boy Aviators series I’ve read. (I’ve read plenty of Motor Boys, both the Flying Girls, the occasional Girl Aviators and Rover Boys, and I’ve finished all the Aeroplane Boys. Up next: Our Young Aeroplane Scouts.) With the exception of the Flying Girl pair of books — which were written by L. Frank Baum under a pseudonym and are actually quite good — these series are uniformly terrible.
But, hark, an achievement: this one is the worst of the bunch!
The plot is as follows: After their prior victory in Nicaragua (detailed in the volume above), the Chester brothers are contacted by the government to help find a missing military scientist. The Secret Service (which is apparently the agency on the job) has deduced that “a far Eastern power” has kidnapped the scientist to steal his secret formula for explosives, and the enemy agents may be hiding in “the untracked wilderness of the Everglades”.
The agent recruiting the boys describes the predicament thusly:
“It is useless for the secret service men to attempt to explore what is still an untapped labyrinth of swamp and jungle and above all it would occupy time. What we have to do is act quickly. I racked my brain for days until I happened to come across a paragraph in a newspaper calling attention to your wonderful flights in the Golden Eagle… It struck me at once that here indeed was a way of locating these men that might prove feasible.”
The problem is that the Golden Eagle, the Chesters’ wondrous airship, was destroyed in that previous adventure. However, the boys secure funding to build a new, improved craft, for the construction of which the military is more than happy to wait for nearly a month: “I suppose we shall have to exercise patience,” says the same man.
This is the first of a series of completely nonsensical contrivances in this book — and so far it’s only page 11.
The boys go on to build the airplane, and then have it shipped in pieces by train to Florida. They encounter some suspicious characters on the train, and in a restaurant near the train station, and once they charter a boat into the Everglades they get waylaid on an island overrun by moonshiners…And then they encounter Indians, and hide out in an old shack… All in all they don’t actually fly the airplane until over halfway through the book.
It’s also, regrettably, the most terrible-racist-caricature-filled book of this type that I’ve read so far. There are not one but multiple “wacky Negro” characters, whose dialect is rendered in a sort of pidgin, and who serve as cowardly comic foils to the ever-assured, infallible white kids. Few other chapters go by without the presence of “sallow-faced” villains, or savage Seminoles, or mincing “Orientals”.
I didn’t notice until I thought back on the book as a whole, but all the “othered” characters are represented specifically as superstitious. A plot point revolves around a villain’s minion betraying his master, and pledging his life to our heroes, in exchange for a “sacred” jade Buddha figure. Meanwhile, the boys calmly shoot panthers, brave windstorms, and are the only ones unfazed by a “voodoo totem” left to frighten their troupe.
I’ve now given this book more ink than it deserves. It’s got some evocative descriptions of the Everglades, but otherwise this was a real disappointment. There are only a few scenes of flying, and even the titular “wireless” set is used just once and then dumped overboard to lighten the aircraft’s load. I don’t read these books for the plot, of course… But this one is hard to recommend on any level, mainly because of how repellent the racist stuff is.
The end of the book teases the next volume in the series: The Boy Aviators in Africa; or, On an Aerial Ivory Trail. I think it’ll be best to give that one a miss.
Michelangelo, by Gilles Néret
Format: Paperback purchased from museum
I got this book probably 20 years ago on a visit to a museum, and it hung out with my art reference books. I looked at the pictures a lot, but I never sat down and actually read it cover to cover until now, and I’m glad I did.
Michelangelo was an immense talent, as we all know, but this book explains how his ambitions were even grander, and how in the end, he took so long doing the work that he was never able to get around to the biggest and most elaborate sculptures he had planned out in his sketchbooks.
A bit of a cautionary tale, perhaps? You can read that a few different ways. Don’t get hung up on perfection, you’ll get more done??
OR, better yet — spend all your time being perfect, and be remembered for centuries for the masterpieces you did finish! I’ll tell that to my to-do list, next time I can unearth it.
The Hinge Factor: How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed History, by Erik Durschmied
Format: Hardcover from library sale
I was intrigued by this book’s subtitle — who doesn’t like to read about stupidity? And the premise is appropriately interesting: how single events affected the direction of history from that point forward.
The book is a slog, though. I guess I had pictured something like a Malcolm Gladwell book: theory peppered with examples and case studies. It’s nothing like that. Instead, it’s a dense military history. The author focuses on a handful of battles, including instances from Troy, the Crusades, the Civil War, Crimea, and the wars of the 20th century.
Each battle is recounted in painstaking detail. Military terminology often goes by without definition. In a few cases, quotes or messages in foreign languages are written out in their entirety, but not translated into English.
Each chapter begins with a Microsoft-Word-clip-art-level diagram of the battlefield at the start of the account; there are no other graphics or illustrations.
The accounts themselves have some interesting details, but they’re buried beneath a labored writing style. I pushed through and finished because I didn’t want to lose the battle with this book, but it was a real chore. I wanted to quote some passages for you, but I can’t find the book, I think I probably already gave it away. SORRY.
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, by Judi Barrett
Format: Hardcover from 826LA
Having seen the movie of the same name, I flipped through this book to see how it compared. If you haven’t seen it, the illustrations are wonderful. They have a sort of woodcut texture, while still being cartoony.
Avengers Assemble: Science Bros, by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Christos Gage, et al.
Format: Trade paperback from library
Kelly Sue DeConnick is a name I’ve started hearing a lot, but I hadn’t read anything of hers, so I decided to see what titles my library had on hand. This one came up in the hold queue first! It’s a Tony Stark/Bruce Banner story. I liked it all right, I think, although I don’t remember it well now. (Honestly, I’m starting to realize that it takes a lot to get me to invest in a superhero story.)
Embassytown, by China Miéville
Format: Kindle ebook
China Miéville is another name I’ve heard a lot, but this is the first of his books I’ve read. It’s another of the “language” books I talked about last year — my attempt to seek out speculative fiction specifically that explores how differences in languages can impact differences in thought. It’s a subject I find fascinating! And this book definitely fits that description.
The Embassytown of the title is a human settlement on an alien planet. The planet’s intelligent natives, the Ariekei, don’t have a concept of language per se; they are able to communicate in a way that expresses their thoughts directly. This means that they cannot say something they don’t believe — they cannot lie, and have no conception of lying.
Humans, of course, can lie… But this means that humans can’t easily speak the Ariekei language. Difficulties arise in a number of ways, as they often do in books, and the main character develops a unique perspective on how to bridge the gap between cultures. (I don’t want to give too much away about the plot, because there are some surprises in how it unfolds.)
It’s a lovely book; the aliens are truly alien, and the challenges of sustaining human life on their planet are significant. It was one of the first books I recall reading in a while where as I got closer to the end of the book, I got legitimately worried because I honestly couldn’t see a way out of the heroes’ increasingly-dire predicament. Miéville is not one to pull punches, at least in this book, and I found the whole thing both wrenching and fascinating.
Captain Marvel: In Pursuit of Flight, by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Dexter Soy, et al.
Captain Marvel: Higher, Further, Faster, More, by Kelly Sue DeConnick, David Lopez, et al.
Format: Trade paperbacks from library
Two more DeConnick books! I’ve heard a lot about her run on Captain Marvel in particular.
In Pursuit of Flight sees Captain Marvel travel through time to help some WWII-era commandos fight off a threat. The art changes midway through this book, from one style to a wildly different one, and it’s pretty jarring. And here’s the thing: I am an airplane snob. There are a lot of airplane drawings in this book. And they are almost good.
I enjoyed Higher, Further, Faster, More, uh, more. Captain Marvel travels to another galaxy and helps some aliens who are being forcibly resettled to another planet. It was zippy and fun and had the Guardians of the Galaxy in it, who are fine in and of themselves, but whose presence I think helped set the tone for the whole book. I liked it!
Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations about Science Fiction Movies, by Daniel M. Kimmel
Format: Ebook from Hugo Awards packet
As a member of Worldcon a few years back, I received a Hugo Awards packet, containing nominated titles (in electronic form) for voting consideration. I ended up not voting that year, but I did read through this particular book, which was nominated in the “Best Related Work” category.
It’s a collection of essays about science fiction films. The author writes for various publications, and this book is a compilation of columns written at different times for different venues. So — as the author even acknowledges in the introduction — it’s a bit disjointed; better for bathroom reading, perhaps, than start to finish.
Mainlined all at once, though, the book reads like an extended conversation with someone who is way more into science fiction than you will ever be. (I’ll speak for myself, at least.) Kimmel begins by defending science fiction fandom from a culture that is both mainstreaming and, in his view, dismissing it. It reminds me somewhat of a conversation I overheard at Worldcon a few years back, in which two older fans lamented Hollywood’s attempts to “make sci-fi safe for normals”.
You can also sense a snideness in the title of the book itself — like, sure, who hasn’t thought that, but to put it in lights on the cover of the book strikes me as a bit pompous. The author wants you to know exactly how he saw through the saccharine charms of E.T. — “When the houselights came up in the screening room, I was appalled. This was a movie that lacked any depth or subtlety whatsoever” — and ends that chapter with the stern admonition “Call me a curmudgeon if you must, but that’s why I continue to feel that in any serious study of science fiction films, E.T. should just go home.” You can almost feel the Well, actually seeping up through the pages.
All that said — Kimmel knows a lot about movies, and he moves through the canon of sci-fi films in chronological order, spending as much time on forgotten classics of the mid-century as he does on Alien and so on. I appreciated the spotlight on stuff I wouldn’t have known about save for his thoughtful descriptions.
The Five Fists Of Science, by Matt Fraction & Steven Sanders
Format: Trade paperback from library
As a fan of Sex Criminals, I sought out this earlier work by Matt Fraction. In it, Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla team up to stop the supervillainy of Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan. It’s a less-accomplished League of Extraordinary Gentlemen that’s silly enough to be hard to take seriously, and not quite funny enough to enjoy as farce. I was also not a fan of the art. I’d give this one a pass!
The Sea Fairies, by L. Frank Baum
Format: Project Gutenberg ebook
The first of two Baum books on the list this year — after enjoying his Flying Girl books so much, I thought I’d read more of his other (non-Oz) work. The Sea Fairies features characters who would later show up in The Scarecrow of Oz: the young girl Trot and her old pal Cap’n Bill. (The Boy Aviators also has a side character named Bill, but the salty seaman in that story is named Ben, for the record.) In this book, the two humans take a magical voyage to the land of mermaids, where they are ultimately imprisoned by a bad sea dude and held in a bad sea castle until they manage to escape.
Most of it is very dull! The mermaids are devoid of personality and the book has no conflict to speak of until the final act, when they are imprisoned in the castle by the evil magician Zog. Even then, they aren’t in much peril, because the mermaid queen can instantly use magic to thwart almost any hazard. ALL IN ALL this book was pretty boring!
A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Format: Hardcover from library
Another notch in my attempt to become an Ursula K. Le Guin completist. This is a fairly recent (2005) collection of her short stories, including a few that take place in her Hainish universe (also seen in The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, etc.).
As with all story collections, I liked some more than others, but there are some real gems in here. I love how her science fiction is more concerned with people than science; even in stories about heady theoretical physics, the actual physics is pretty immaterial. The Dispossessed, after all, featured a character inventing a whole new branch of physics without ever quite describing what it even was! And that’s just fine: her mastery of character and the depth of her world-building is plenty to enjoy and all that’s needed.
Sex Criminals, Vol. 2: Two Worlds, One Cop, by Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky
Format: Trade paperback purchased from comic shop
This series continues to be great! Though I admit to becoming slightly distracted by the fact that Chip draws the therapist character as himself. How can we focus on the story when we’re constantly aroused, Chip???
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo
Format: Kindle ebook
This book was really everywhere last year! (And a sequel came out this January.) I read a review and bought the Kindle version; it’s a quick read.
You can find articles and reviews everywhere online if you want to know more about Ms. Kondo’s decluttering philosophy, which she calls “KonMari”. For me, working through the book was a challenge: not because the language was difficult, but because its directions and recommendations ask a lot of a person. (Especially someone like me, who likes stuff.)
The simplified core idea of KonMari is that (a) you should own the things that spark joy in you; and (b) an object can fulfill its purpose in your life by allowing you to get rid of it. Even if it’s something you think is “still good”, or that you would feel “wasteful” throwing out — she recommends a practice of holding it in your hand, thanking it for being part of your life, and allowing yourself to draw your connection with it to a close.
She goes into a lot more philosophy than I can summarize here, of course. It’s a very interesting read. Her manner of personifying objects has a reverent quality about it, which makes her methods take on the air of a pilgrimage or spiritual renewal.
I will say, even if I never will get around to quite decluttering everything around me, I did take away one good tip, which is to sort through EVERYTHING of something at once: if you’re going to sort through clothes, for example, pull them ALL out. That way you can see, and feel in your hand, exactly how much stuff you really have.
The Master Key: An Electrical Fairy Tale, by L. Frank Baum
Format: Project Gutenberg ebook
The second of the two Baum books on this list! I actually enjoyed (a lot of) this one.
The story focuses on a young mischief-making boy, Rob, who’s interested in electricity, a fairly new thing at the time. By accidentally crossing some wires, he releases the spirit of the Demon of Electricity, a sort of genie who gives him various electrical devices to use on adventures — a wristwatch that allows him to travel through the air; a weapon for defense, and a force field for offense; special scopes to see other places in the world; and so on.
A lot of them anticipate inventions we now know well, such as cell phones, video feeds and stun guns. The story’s themes are mindful of how technological progress might be used for either society’s benefit or its harm. I found Rob’s various adventures around the world with the inventions more or less thrilling. He’s pretty insufferable as a character, and can be mean-spirited, but I found some charm in watching him blunder around and be dumb.
There’s more unfortunate racism in this book (Rob at one point finds himself on an island of cannibals, and he later fights against “savages” in Central Asia). It’s not as pervasive or disparaging as in The Boy Aviators, and I’m willing to cut Baum some slack because I know his other work, but it can still be jarring.
Cats in the Sun, by Hans W. Silvester
Format: Paperback received as gift
We got this book as a gift, I think, and have often flipped through to see the lovely pictures it contains of pretty kitties, taken on the Greek Cycladic islands. I have been to Santorini myself, and I have seen cats crawling through the streets and sitting on ledges and rooftops. They are everywhere!
Recently I actually sat down and read the text in this book; the author talks about these quasi-feral cats, and their habits, and their hierarchies, and how they live, owned by the population of the whole island and also by no one. It’s really touching and strangely inspiring — it endows their experience with a certain nobility. I had to apologize to my kitties afterward that they live small, mundane lives inside a house.
Before the Golden Age Book 2, by Isaac Asimov
Format: Paperback from my mom’s house
This is Part 2 of the trilogy I began last year! Part autobiography and part story collection, in this series Asimov describes stories that stuck with him as a younger person, then digs them out of whatever moldy magazine they first appeared and revisits them.
The stories proceed through the 20th century chronologically, so in this volume some of the tropes of sci-fi are starting to solidify, and some of the complete pulp wackiness is starting to flake off. I don’t know that I enjoyed the stories themselves a great deal, but I appreciated reading them as artifacts of their time, and the meta-experience of Asimov’s descriptions and recollections is very interesting. (At one point he even says “Yeah, that one’s not as good as I remember.”)
There’s a third and final volume on my shelf, I hope to get to it this year!
All This and Snoopy, Too, by Charles M. Schulz
Format: Paperback from personal collection
These little Fawcett paperbacks are the best. We had dozens of ’em when I was a kid, the paper all browned and crunchy, the color cracked to white on the spine. I have some of the beautiful Fantagraphics Peanuts books too, but these little ones are more fun to pick up and leaf through. Doing so is a required recharge for me, every so often.
I had the idle thought yesterday that it might be nice to do a Complete Reread of Peanuts, all the strips from 1950 to 2000, and blog about it as I went. I’ve read a lot of the early stuff a bunch, but I never had any collections of strips past the mid-’80s, and so I only ever saw what I came across in the newspaper, and even then just the one time. (I didn’t read hardly any of the ’90s run.) I can’t claim that it will all hold up, especially near the end, but examining whether it did, or what other observations might arise, would of course be the point of the re-read.
I’LL ADD IT TO THE TO-DO LIST *rolls up a giant scroll to see if there’s any room at the bottom*
The Enthusiast, by Joshua Fruhlinger
Format: I designed this book from scratch
Josh, whom you might know as the Comics Curmudgeon, and I have occasionally crossed paths over the last 10 years or so. His blog is great, and when he contacted Make That Thing (for whom I sometimes design books) about producing his first novel, I was excited to be a part of it.
The Enthusiast is a novel about Kate, who works for an agency that attempts to get people excited about things. Sort of like grassroots marketing, but ideally without anyone knowing that they’re being marketed to. Two of Kate’s projects involve helping someone who wants to make a movie out of a mid-century soap opera comic strip, and helping a train manufacturer win a bid to make new train cars for the DC metro system.
So she gets involved, deeply involved, with the people who love those things. She immerses herself, simultaneously, in the weird disparate worlds of light rail enthusiasts and soap opera comic strip fans. She meets strange characters along the way, of course, who help her see the world a little differently, and she comes to know herself a little better too.
I will be honest with you: this book is great. It’s really smart, and funny in all the right places, and it lives in the world we live in, in a way that’s both relatable and surprising. It’s insightful and it’s dramatic. The link above goes to the Amazon paperback/Kindle versions, but Josh has a roundup here of links to all the different formats available (including the limited hardcover editions that I helped to make).
Normally I wouldn’t count a book I worked on for the “read this year” list, but I genuinely liked The Enthusiast, and I hope you read it too.
That adds up to 21 books in 2015. It’s the lowest count since I started keeping track in 2012… But I wrote way more words about the books I read this year than I did back in 2012. Some of my absolute favorite books ever are on that 2012 list, and I’ve said more about them in this post than I did there! A TRUE OUTRAGE.
I will see you in 12 months, when I guess I will write 10,000 words about the one book I’ve finished so far in 2016!!