Here are some of the pages I’ve been turning in 2017.
Words of Radiance, by Brandon Sanderson. I finished the first book of this series on New Year’s Eve and immediately started on the second. Tomes of 1000-plus pages take no time at all when the story is engaging with dynamic characters, a well-paced plot, and high stakes. I’m looking forward to the next installment. Epic high fantasy. Yasssss.
Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. I galloped through this memoir. The author jarred me with his anecdotes of his own coal country and rust belt roots. Ostensibly his story should at least partially explain current working-class disillusion with current politics and economics. However, he casually accepted extremely abusive relationships. He showed no empathy for the hopelessness felt by people who lacked his resourcefulness, intelligence, and drive to remove themselves from familiar dysfunctional surroundings. Maybe that’s the telling attitude that explains the state of middle America today.
The Fourth Turning, by William Strauss and Neil Howe. My beloved aunt Jackie recommended this book to me after Donald Trump won the presidency. I finished it just hours before #45 issued his disastrous executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim countries. The authors dissect the historical, cyclical patterns of political engagement, economic crises, and social dysfunction. The predicted “hero” generation should save us, but (cue sinister music) the American Civil War cycle skipped that generation to propel us into a disastrous Reconstruction. If the authors’ prophecy proves true, political matters will get worse before they get better. Kids, hold on to your pants. It’s going to be a rough ride.
Dr. Seuss Goes to War, edited by WWII historian Richard H. Minear. I saw a cartoon online, searched for it, and discovered the existence of this book. I had to own it. Before The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss drew political cartoons. From January 1941 – January 1943, his cartoons covered the political climate of the time. These prescient, recognizably Seussian drawings speak of racism, isolationism, immigration, demagoguery, refugees, and a fearful populace. Like his books that still hold the fascination of 21st-century children, so many of these cartoons are timeless: “America First,” isolationism, and racism went hand-in-hand in 1941, just like they do in 2017. That didn’t work out so well in 1941, and it won’t work out well in 2017. And Dr. Seuss, who explained so many things so very well, explains why.
The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, by Sam Kean. I like Kean’s enthusiastic, punchy writing style. He clearly knows his topic and uses footnotes well. (I do wish they appeared at the bottom of the page instead of stuck in the back, though.) Tales of brain injury abound, starting with Henri II of France’s mishap with a broken lance through his eye socket and ending with an iron rod shot through Phineas Gage’s frontal lobe. Neurologists trace seizures, language, consciousness, learning, memory, and bizarre behavior to specific parts of the brain as well as to all parts of the brain. The history of neurological discovery makes a riveting journey. It ranks among the best books our club has chosen, in my opinion.
The Blood Mirror, by Brent Weeks. I really liked the first book of this Lightbringer series, but now in Book 4, I suspect the book’s editor has taken a vacation. The writing itself has become sloppy. The uneven timeline bugged me. At one point, a weekend passes for one character across about six chapters, while months pass in the interspersed chapters focused on another. I have had issues with two of the main characters since Book 2. One guy can’t decide what name to call himself (and neither can the author). Another swings schizophrenically between the terror of ridicule and abandonment and the confidence of charismatic leadership. If the author were in my critique group, I’d strongly encourage another revision. I keep reading because the story itself is still good. I do love me some epic high fantasy.
Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. This is the first volume of her Maddaddam trilogy, which I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. My all-time favorite English professor, Fred Busch, introduced me to Margaret Atwood when he assigned her book Surfacing. Possibly her best-known book is The Handmaid’s Tale, that dystopian look at North America in the thrall of a dysfunctional religious right. (For some reason it has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity since November 8, 2016.) Oryx and Crake starts off with eugenics and touches only lightly on dystopia before immersing the reader into post-apocalyptic survival. Science goes horribly wrong, and, terrifyingly, the wrongness was planned.
The Three Body Problem, by Liu Cixin. This extremely popular Chinese science fiction author has won numerous awards. This book won the Hugo in 2015 for Best Novel. Ye Weining, the primary antagonist traumatized by the Cultural Revolution makes one decision after another to set up the inevitable conflict between humans and extraterrestrial intelligence. The author does a great job with the physics of near-lightspeed travel. (I understood about a tenth of it.) I’ve never before in science fiction encountered aliens such as these either in form or in sympathetic substance. The translator, Chinese-American writer Ken Liu, included extremely helpful footnotes; otherwise, references to China’s Cultural Revolution would have evaded me.
Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks. My friend Gladys knows my love of colonial American history. She was shocked that I had never read this book. While waiting at a restaurant for our dinners to arrive, she placed an order on Amazon. Not only did it arrive, so did every other book by the same author. (Thank you, Gladys!) The author has taken historical facts and enlivened them into a lyric of time, place, and emotion. From Martha’s Vineyard to the original library at Harvard College, she weaves a vivid tapestry of 17th-century life for English settlers and their attitudes toward their Wampanoag neighbors.
Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks. (Thank you again, Gladys.) Bubonic plague, a good-hearted woman, orphaned children, incredible loss and abuse, sincerely held religious beliefs, dead rats, an earnest young cleric, angry villagers, accusations of sex with the devil, herbal lore, and quarantine of a 17th century English village. What more could anyone ask for?
March, by Geraldine Brooks. (Thanks, Gladys.) As kids we all loved Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women books, right? One of the under-developed characters is the father. At the end of the first book, he returns from the Civil War after suffering an illness. March is his story. We see Marmee in a new light, and not everything flatters her. Alcott could never have written this gritty story with its raw emotions.
Little Lord Fauntleroy, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Recently I saw a local musical production of The Secret Garden. Along with A Little Princess, Burnett’s two famous books played a prominent role in the bookshelves of my childhood. I did not find them hidden among the family treasures hoarded by my mom or my sister. I located and ordered the editions I remembered: the ones with the illustrations by Tasha Tudor. (Which, I’ll have my mother know, were copyrighted in 1962 and 1963 respectively and therefore could not have been hers when she was a child they’re mine and Susan’s so there.) Along the way, I discovered that Burnett also wrote this little book. It took me almost two whole hours to read it on Easter morning. I should have been out looking for zombies. No kid is that damn good. And who would want them to be?
Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (revised edition), by James W. Loewen. High school textbook authors continually propagate factually false, Eurocentric, and romanticized views of American history. Loewen collects these popular myths in one place and systematically shatters them. He examined a dozen high school American history texts for accuracy and for their relative perspectives. I’ve read this book slowly because each chapter has independently managed to get my blood boiling. Patent lies and sinister fact-twisting may assuage Euro-American sensibilities, but these white-washed stories of American history taught in schools foment racism and xenophobia. The results pollute social media posts and right-wing “news”. No other book has so adamantly compelled me to join a protest.
People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks. Yes, another one by the same author. This wasn’t as fast a read as her others, nor was the story as compelling. It did send me to look up the Sarajevo Haggada, though. The book ended too soon. Circumstances threatened the Haggadah again in the last decade without a ministry of culture. Fortunately, the recently reopened National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina displays the book again. I hope the museum makes digital images of the pages available. I love illuminated manuscripts.
Gardening With Silk and Gold: A History of Gardens in Embroidery, by Thomasina Beck. Beck is the author of several books about florals and embroidery. I joined my local chapter of the Embroiderers Guild of America a year or so ago. I’m learning cool things and seeing amazing handwork done by very talented people. The chapter president is clearing out her collection and gave this book to me. (Thank you, Sandy!) Gorgeous images of gardens and flowers fill this book. The author explains the history of the techniques. It’s a lovely addition to my library and suitable for display on the coffee table.
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. I started watching the series on STARZ and got confused, so I re-read the book. Once again I must remind myself that books are not movies, and movies “based on” books are not cinematic reproductions of books. This time I read the 10th Anniversary Edition, which is a revised edition that includes some things Gaiman left out of the original. It was still an amazing exposition on why we worship both the old gods and the new. Also, his prose is pure poetry. Also, read his other stuff. Also, he’s an amazing writer, did I mention that?
The Anglo-Saxon World, by Nicholas J. Higham and Martin J. Ryan. The Anglo-Saxons invaded England after Rome vacated the premises. Arthur fought them. They buried a lot of gold in Staffordshire. Alfred was the Greatest of them. William conquered them and now they’re all gone. These half-truths are about as much as most people know about the Anglo-Saxons. I love the maps and high-quality images in this book. Yes, I read textbooks for fun. Shut up.
N.K. Jemison‘s Broken Earth trilogy: The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky. OhmyfuckingGOD rush out and get these books NOW. Do not hesitate. Do not dally. Get thee to a bookstore and find them immediately. Read them. Caress them. Savor them. There’s a reason the first two books in this trilogy won the 2016 and 2017 Hugo Awards for Best Novel. The only reason the third book hasn’t is that it was just published. This trilogy is world-building and world-breaking at a level most of us can’t even imagine. This trilogy has character development that goes deeper and more multi-faceted than any of the rest of us can even hope to glimpse in real life. The books are written in the second person – a feat very few authors ever in the history of writing have effectively pulled off – and as the reader understands who the narrator is speaking to, who the narrator even is, and why the second person is necessary, the reader also understands the love and pride of parents and the devastating independence of children. This trilogy is sublime. READ IT.
Behave, by Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky. It’s easy to adore Dr. Sapolsky. He studies stress and publishes serious science books with titles like Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers and Monkeyluv. His book A Primate’s Memoir is one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read – I push it on people regularly. Part travelogue, part primate behavior, and all solid science, it explores behavior and conflict in contexts that stretch from personal to continental. It’s the only science book that has ever moved me to tears. Behave is almost as good. As the New York Times Book Review put it, this is the book you’ll wish you had in college to understand the brain. Sapolsky’s writing is always understandable to a layperson. His voice is pleasant, cheerful – at times pretty darn funny – and immensely knowledgeable. He explores the chemistry and structure of the brain, how it changes as it ages, how and why it triggers the reactions it does, and how it controls itself. It also explores the concept of free will. The philosophers among us will like that. Watch his recent TED Talk and watch his graduation address to Stanford students in 2009. He’s engaging, personable, and brilliant, and it all shows in his research and writing.
Grace Without God, by Katherine Ozment. I met the author at the Arkansas Literary Festival and the book was selected for our book club. The author participated by Skype – how cool is that? This book is important because, aside from being written by a former Arkansan without religious faith, it was written for other people without faith. It’s hard to be different. How do we explain to children why we are different and how can we effectively participate in our communities when our communities are organized around religious institutions?