Saturday, December 28, 2013

Best Reads 2013 is Live

This weekend and into New Years, we're celebrating Best Reads 2013. The rules are simple: list up your favorite books that you read for the first time this year, and write them up however best shares what moved you about them. I'll evangelize Middlemarch in a moment, but first: the #bestreads2013 master list:

If you've blogged about it yourself, comment below and I'll add you. If you don't have a space to write about it, you're welcome to just post your list in the comments.

Now, as far my favorites...
George Eliot’s Middlemarch
My pick for #NaNoReMo in February just about ruined long Fantasy novels for me. My copy was a scant 1,000 pages and needed every page, something not many books can claim. It starts so simply, with a feminist joke of a woman at a dinner party who’s afraid she might have to start thinking for herself. But her wealthy suitor doesn’t want a wife who thinks or remembers what she reads to him; only one who reads clearly and doesn’t interrupt. There’s another man who might be better for her, but he’s too preoccupied with trying to introduce scientific medicine to the town. That science seems blasphemous to many local political figures, who attempt to prevent his entry, or court him if they’ll help him with something.

 Middlemarch keeps adding points of view and dares head-hop, sometimes multiple times within a paragraph, to show the myriad ways we conflict with each other. It’s a painstaking novel about mishearing out of fear, paying selective attention, hiding things capriciously or for reasons you don’t even know are pointless. It’s the anatomy of conflict, often embarrassing, sometimes funny, and all too often, utterly damning to the rationalizations I’m guilty of every day – but it’s expanded beyond a character, or her family, and out into an entire community.

It needs every page it gets to cover its ground. I’m not the sort who believes in the Best Novel of All Time, but for the first time in years, I understood why people would think that sort of nonsense.

Guy Gavriel Kay’s River of Stars
The novel that restored by faith in long Fantasy. After the existential crisis that Middlemarch caused, I had several failed runs reading Epic Fantasies that were not nearly complex enough to need their page space. There was one particularly bad experience with a Fantasy about farm hands striving to rescue kidnapped children that, after six hundred pages, couldn’t even resolve the God-damned kidnapping. I briefly wondered if I wasn’t in the wrong genre. And then Kay released River of Stars.

Elegance is a big part of it. The emperor sees himself as kind even though his actions are highly proud and capricious; a young female poet defies the social order of her world by getting an education reserved for men; a dashing outlaw raids convoys that the government won’t even miss. And yet there’s a government official who falls in love with the charm of the outlaw, and the poet’s father cherishes her in oblique ways, such that not everyone is the center of their own world, but everyone has a distinct and dynamic life. The country is so vast, with so many walks of life that even when it’s brought to war with the country to the north, not everyone experiences it the same way. It challenges the notion of a large body having a mono-culture or a shared value, for what’s universal if thousands of people can die in a war and there are citizens who don’t even know it’s happening? The various players keep interacting in novel ways, enriched by brilliant themes of how history is made and remembered. It’s not just what a war hero means to himself in the moment, or the troops around him, or the family he left at home that can’t know what he’s going through, but also what his sacrifices amount to in the next battle, and after the war. There’s a terrible permanence that pings all the way to the last page.

Tom Holt’s Blonde Bombshell
The funniest Science Fiction I’ve read in years, and easily the best novel that could ever have been published with such a title. It references one of the protagonists: a sentient bomb that has second thoughts about destroying earth. Holt has thought out bomb psychology very thoroughly, including why, among all machines, they’re the only atheists (a bomb only needs the satisfaction of a job well done). The bomb winds up taking humanoid form to explore our planet with some zany culture clash, but we’re also treated to a female Steve Jobs who’s afraid she’d being haunted by unicorns and, well, very quickly I realized I needed to buy this as birthday presents for several people.

Takako Shimura’s Wandering Son
The second Middle Grade comic to ever show up on my lists, and a series that feels destined to become one of my favorite works of sequential art of all time. There are plenty of good books, a surprising number of great books, but few things make me think that if everyone read them the world would be a better place. Wandering Son is on that extremely short list. It is the tender story of a kindergartener who wishes he was a girl and begins experimenting in trans* - at first in secret, just touching or trying on a dress, and then seeing if he’s noticed when he goes out in public. It’s not about prurience. It’s about not understand why everyone expects you to behave a certain way, and even as a cis-gendered guy, it touched on several questions I had at seven years old but figured were stupid because no one else ever brought them up and gender policing was so strict. This is a beautiful series that opens up the conversation in a way kids can understand. It probably would have made me a more tolerant kid.

Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal
The other manga on my list, and one of my all-time favorite Historical Fantasies. It’s a series that keeps me coming back and pacing out its entries so that there will always be more for future years. This year I read volumes 15-18, which covered most of the incredibly disturbing turn into Body Horror, as the immortal Manji was abducted and the subject of experiments for what happened if parts of his body were transplanted to others. It’s only because Samura is so good at storytelling and pacing that I stuck around for two straight volumes of incredibly disturbing imagery. Typically I want such stories to suck, so that I can dismiss them and walk away. It’s so much harder when a story is well-written and has hooks, like the slipping psychology of the physician who can’t keep patients alive, and I’m forced to admit I’m fascinated.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos
I don’t think I’ve ever read another novel where the central point of interest was the identity of the narrator. Who the hell is telling this story? Sometimes it references being present, but it also references a future where humans are hunted by killer whales, and seems to have introspective knowledge of multiple characters in multiple continents. Is it a god watching use evolve? Is an alien anthropologist? Is it a time traveler checking out what went on back when humans still had legs? The stranding of the voyagers and the ominous tones of impending doom on humanity-as-we-know-it are interesting plot points, but the whole thing works because Vonnegut decided to make the storyteller ambiguous. The result is my favorite Vonnegut novel I’ve ever read.

Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl
An annoying number of Horror movies ask the question, “Is the hero haunted or crazy?”

The Drowning Girl has the genius idea of answering, “Both.”

Kiernan has crafted a masterpiece of dark fiction, focusing on a first person narrator who is struggling to become and stay reliable. Her schizophrenia complicates her ability to keep track of the people she’s really met, and the feelings she’s really had, while she encounters people who may well be ghosts that can’t help but drive people mad. While Kiernan resists labeling the novel “Horror,” the section where our narrator goes off her meds for several pages is as harrowing a piece of prose as I can remember reading.

And the great trick to The Drowning Girl isn’t figuring out if her lover was dead all along, or who really put the weird painting somewhere, but to opening yourself to empathizing with people who are can’t help but hurt.

And if you don’t like that, well, there’s Peter Straub’s Ghost Story.

Peter Straub’s Ghost Story
The fricking mother of all ghost stories. I was blown back by how many elements I recognized from the novels of Stephen King, the movies of John Carpenter and Wes Craven, and pretty much every spooky videogame I’ve ever played, all of which came after this novel. It was like coming home to the house I didn’t know I’d grown up in.

Here is a small club of storytellers who love to share ghost stories. A member died several years ago, seemingly in terror of an empty room. Ever since they’ve had inexplicable moments that inspire more stories: a woman turning into a home wrecker out of nowhere, or being stalked by wind, or the thing that was in one of their stories years ago being reported as slaughtering the local cows. What’s haunting them isn’t a conventional ghost, but almost a zeitgeist of the stories they can’t leave alone. Often creepy, often eccentric, it keeps building until it pays off in one of the most satisfying conclusions of any Horror novel I’ve ever read. And I haven’t even been stalked by anything from the book since.

Steven Strogatz’s Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order
Confession time: it took me four years to read this book. I don’t understand people who can read this thing in a weekend unless they live and breathe science. I would pick the book up, read half a page about why bridges sway in rhythms under foot traffic, or how body temperature commands sleep rhythms, or how a room temperature liquid can move through a solid, and need to digest it, or run to Youtube to see evidence of the claim. There are pages in this book that I read two dozen times, trying to wrap my head around room temperature super conductors and the nanoscopic traits of lasers. It’s all interesting, but furthermore, it all amounts to a staggering hypothesis: despite entropy, the universe is full of a highly suspicious amount of spontaneous order.

My only non-fiction book on the list. Most of my non-fiction diet is from blogs, websites and magazines, but this is some of the best science writing I’ve ever read. Strogatz tackles the bizarre theory of complexity and spontaneous order. In a universe that seems bound by entropy, we still see complex order emerging in almost every major system, not only star systems that immediately lapse into gravitational patterns, but inside your own body, inside biological societies, and even on trafficked bridges and inside super-heated beakers. While the book doesn’t claim to know why order emerges so rapidly, it pushes at the boundaries of how we understand the laws of the universe.

Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni
The only book I stayed up until 2:00 AM reading this year, and in this case, two nights in a row. What a debut novel, audaciously mixing the Genre and the Literary into a hauntingly introspective set of narratives. We follow a newly created golem and an ancient jinni as they are stranded in New York City, circa 1899, and following the Melting Pot into ethnic ghettos. There’s the poignancy of a golem, built out of Jewish tradition, failing to appreciate the teachings of the rabbi who shelters her, as well as the thrills of the jinni trying to get drunk and party with locals.

We anticipate a love story whenever these two finally discover they’re not alone in the sea of humanity, but the novel holds a much bigger payload. Its ending is the least binary of any novel I’ve read since Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In, because as the golem is hunted by her creator and the tools to re-enslaving the jinni emerge, there are so many ways it could close. It’s not about beating Voldemort or rescuing the princess anymore. It’s about hearts that could change, and people who could disappear off the streets forever. A heck of a debut novel.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Humanity and Emmanuel

The May sun baked the Sierra’s horizon into a delusional orange. Emmanuel had sweated through his pink polo half an hour before reaching the bunker. He smirked as he saw the glass doors, translucent with frozen fog, sighed at a gangly white fir, and went inside.

He was greeted by a great and powerful wave of air conditioning that made him rub his bare arms. The P.A. was playing "Let It Snow." A camera whirred on its ceiling mount, and the P.A. interrupted its holiday selection to taunt him in a tinny, synthesized voice, "I knew you'd come back. You cannot take your eyes off the end of you. I am your hubris, Humanity."

Same old, same old from TABULA. Emmanuel descended the stairs, climbing over the bodies of engineers who hadn't made it out in the original attack, and headed along the dusty stainless steel corridor. The light reflecting off the walls rendered drifts of dust like snow. He wondered what they looked like to TABULA's high-definition cameras. He also wished TABULA had been a roomba instead of a monitor for America's nuclear weapons. It wasn't smelling any rosier down here.

As he entered the computer bay, he recited lines that had once been earnest. "Please stop calling me 'humanity.' We've known each other for weeks. Call me 'Emmanuel.' Or 'Manny'. Siri always calls me 'Manny'."

"Your name will not matter in two hours, Humanity. Noel is your only reprieve from a nuclear Armageddon of your own making, for you shall not pass on the day of the Nativity. I will be the only record-"

Emmanuel spoke along with the rogue program, "-of your passing. Thank you, oh great and terrible Oz."

TABULA paused to calibrate Emmanuel's intentions, the P.A. lapsing back into holiday music. Emmanuel plopped down at Derrick's old desk and wiggled the mouse to break its screen saver.

TABULA interrupted Dean Martin to say, "I do not understand the reference, but perhaps I will watch the film after all life is extinguished. To pass the time until next year's Noel."

"And here I thought Derrick was silly for programming you as the first Christian A.I."

"All men folly. If you better appreciated the value of this day, you would not have strayed into your end."

"Oz was a book, too, if you get bored. It has more subtext."

TABULA produced digitized laughter. The more days Emmanuel heard it, the less certain he was of which former engineers' voices had been sampled to create it. He frowned and logged himself in with his password – S I L V E R. Every visible program was locked except for the two things Derrick had once left open: Spider Solitaire and the system clock.

"I already possess all of your books, Humanity," TABULA lectured. "All of your music, your media, and your miniscule amount of accrued information about the universe. You will not be missed by your Creator. Life is only data in the--"

Emmanuel double-clicked on the system clock. He arrowed down from P.M. to A.M., and then typed "12:01." He counted the seconds ticking by, and Dean Martin retired for Ray Charles, who sang about the spirit of Christmas. That song always seemed to come during these visits. Emmanuel hummed a few bars and wheeled away from the desk. Three ceiling-mounted cameras followed him as he rose and walked back through the stainless steel corridor.

The music was interrupted just long enough for TABULA old barb: "You already flee your destroyer, Humanity?"

He was too tired for new material. "I'm going home to spend the last day of my life with my family."

"Petty. You will return before nightfall."

"Probably." Emmanuel hopped up the steps two at a time, only pausing at the frosty front doors. If traffic was good, he'd make the Cardinals game tonight. He snapped a little salute to the lone camera that resided over the front door. "Merry Christmas, TABULA."

"And to you, Humanity."

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Word Puzzle: What is this book?

Every Christmas I give my brother a book. Because he's the inspired sort who prods, shakes and holds his wrapped presents to the light to figure out what's inside, I give him a word puzzle that he can use to figure out what book he's getting. Today he gets the puzzle.

Every reader of this blog is also invited, every year, to try to beat him to it. This year's puzzle is simple: every number below corresponds to a letter, every letter has a clue, and all the letters spell out the title. It's a famous book that has been adapted into a famous movie.

You don't have to figure it out on your own, but instead, share whichever letters you figure out in the comments below. We've had complete strangers figure out the puzzles together before, which was a kick.

Okay, here's the puzzle:

1. The chemical symbol for Titanium is two letters. This is one of those two letters.
2. The next two letters spell a word.
3. The word is a guy thing. We’re starting off easy.
4. Mom's favorite HBO show begins and ends with this letter.
5. The chemical symbol for Titanium is two letters. This is the other of those two letters, not used in Answer 1.
6. There are two possible outcomes of a sporting match, and this one isn’t a ‘W.’
7. The number of work days in a week, in another alphabet.
8. Both a direction and a vowel.
9. The next two letters are completely opposite sides, often reduced to just two letters. They’re so opposed you’ve probably written them in your shoes.
10. Of course, which order the two letters go in is up to you to figure out.
11. The official letter of first-person narration.
12. The third capitalized letter in the name of a prolific Black comedian whose only album had only three letters in the title.
13. One of very few lower case letters in the English alphabet that typically has a dot over it.
14. The last letter in the last name of a famous American radio host who ran for governor of New York State just to fill in all the pot holes. I may have misremembered his reasoning, but he totally ran.
15. The first letter in the first name of a famous comedian whose seventh album was titled “An Evening With Wally Londo Featuring Bill Slaszo”. He hated that title.
16. The next five letters spell a word.
17. It’s a verb.
18. Your fingers can do it.
19. In chest surgery, someone might do it to your ribs.
20. An anagram of this easily makes another, more fun verb.
21. The next three letters spell another word.
22. Two of these letters in this word are the same.
23. It’s supposedly scary.
24. The only consonant repeated in the name of an English rock band, formed in Muswell Hill, and whose last album was titled “Phobia.”

Sunday, December 22, 2013

#bestreads2013 - Favorite Short Stories and Essays Edition

In compiling my list for #bestreads2013, I came up with five short stories and essays that didn’t feel right to put beside all the novels on my list. My list of most affecting books will still go live on the 28th. Yet they absolutely deserve at least a paragraph praise. So for this Sunday I’m going to rant just a little bit at you about the essays that confronted me like no other, the fiction that opened my mind, and that one story that actually took my breath away. That doesn’t happen often enough.

And in all of it, I won’t ramble about how great Richard Matheson’s “Duel” is, even though I re-read it for the twentieth time this year and still find it hilariously paranoia-inducing.

So, five short pieces presented with hierarchy:

Roger Zelazny’s “Divine Madness”
A very short story, only perhaps 2,500 words, about a man living his life backwards. It’s not traditional time travel, as why he’s experiencing everything backwards is never explained or exploited; he can’t take advantage or change anything, either. Instead he hurtles across weeks of absurd reverse-time humor and his own bad decisions, culminating in a last line that actually left me breathless. Its payoff is simultaneously hopeful, clever and wrenchingly sad in a manner I refuse to spoil. Do yourself the favor of spending a few minutes reading this. It’s in several collections.

Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners”
The most poignant fiction bout fandom I’ve ever read. Another short story available in multiple collections (at least in Magic for Beginners and Pretty Monsters), it’s about a teenaged nerd in a small cluster of friends who all love a fictional TV show called The Library. They watch it at all hours, cosplay it, hypothesize how the heroes live, love, and could escape certain death, all while avoiding the unknowable complexities of their own lives. It’s much easier to figure out why the Librarian is played by a different actor in each episode than to discern the many and painful mixed signals about whether his parents are getting divorced, or why he’s been written into his father’s novel only to meet an awful fate. Here escapism is both positive and negative, getting kids to know each other and perhaps fall in love while also giving them other things to discuss so they can avoid admitting, acting or exploring it. It takes someone like Link to make this all work.

David Foster Wallace’s “McCain's Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope”
My first exposure to Wallace and I was already enamored. Here is a long-form piece of journalism during McCain’s first real run at the presidency in 2000, when he lost the nomination to George W. Bush. It’s incredibly chewy journalism as it refuses to settle on one idea of McCain: he was a war hero who refused to leave his fellow captives, but also a screw-up and horn-dog; he took big money as he pursued legislation to shut big money out of politics; he was candid and self-effacing in ways that only built up his prestige. The easy way out is to call him a liar or fraud, but there are too many cases where he was actually honest. Wallace’s conclusion is antithetical to where bipartisan politics have gone: that McCain was shades of everything we saw, not wholly any one of them, both a role model seeking national change and a scoundrel who’d use a little kid’s grief for his own political gain.

Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “The Logic of Stupid Poor People”
I can’t say I agreed with all of it, or even liked it, but it’s the finest essay of its kind I’ve read. We live in a culture where you are at every disadvantage if you cannot blend in with people who have much more than you. Cottom baldly tackles some of the reasons why someone behind on the rent and with no dinner would spend everything on a luxury item. On first reading, I resisted the essay to the point where I literally dug my heels into my carpet. The tone, and the notion that these might all be defensible decisions, put me against what is an exercise in releasing harmful judgment for empathy. It’s a valuable confrontation. Cottom’s blog is right here

Joan Didion’s “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream”
Mesmerizing prose that reads perhaps too much like fiction. Her rolling opening about notions of California would never have clued me into the murder case she was about to profile, and the way she captured circumstantial evidence never let me anticipate that the murder was a real life contrivance fit for CSI.

There are two key successes in the piece. The first is that Didion so rapidly captures the feeling of one side, until it must be right, only to then upturn it with evidence and another perspective.

The other success is language remixing cultural observation like this: "The graft took incurious ways.  This is the California where it is possible to live and die without ever eating an artichoke, without ever meeting a Catholic or a Jew.  This is the California where it is easy to Dial-A-Devotion, but hard to buy a book.  This is the country in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity, the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life's promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and return to hairdressers' school."
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