2018 Book Report

Every year I get through a stack of books, and never remember them as clearly as I’d like. Working theory: the act of documenting my reading will somehow tether it in my memory. This was my good intention for 2017: review everything I read. I did it and it worked, so I’m repeating the process again for 2018.

Image credit: Michael Wayne

1. Ann Leckie – Ancillary Sword

The sequel to Ancillary Judgement, winner of the sci-fi award trifecta and scourge of Sad Puppies. We rejoin Breq just after the events of the previous book, now in command of a ship again, albeit as Fleet Captain instead of Ship’s Mind this time. Breq is charged to defend a remote station and its accompanying plantation planet and has to negotiate the politics and power structures of the station, the planet and the other ships in the area. In the process she channels the guilt from her past actions as a controller of Ancillaries into righting some wrongs in the present.

Writing this review is an odd experience, as I’m doing it a while after finishing the book. I remember my feelings on finishing it: that Leckie had produced a more contained, polished continuation of Breq’s universe. I remember thinking that while the sequel was making similar points to the orignal, it made them more subtly and felt much more of a mature book as a result. But six months later I’m wondering if I was being a lazy reader. The plot of Judgement and what it had to say is still clear in my mind. Not so with Sword. Maybe some ideas are worth being loud about. Sword is a great read, but it ultimately feels more disposable.

2. Sarah Krasnostein – The Trama Cleaner

The author shadows Sandra Pankhurt over a period of years as she leads her small team of contract cleaners in Melbourne, scrubbing up the sites of messy deaths and trying to persuade hoarders to let go of years of junk and filth. As we follow Sandra in her day-to-day, we also find out about her past and how she became the woman she is today.

The structure of the book alternates between chapters in the present, each focussing on a separate job for Sandra and her crew, and chapters in the past, following Sandra’s incredible life story. In the hands of a different author, either component could feel voyeuristic and exploitative. The chapters in the present, especially, have obvious parallels in shows like Hoarders in Australia or Life of Grime in the UK: examples where these unfortunate people have their mental illness and private shame exploited for our entertainment (and it definitely does have a fascination to it, even if it does feel wrong). Sandra’s compassion and empathy for her clients shine through, however, and have clearly rubbed off on the author. Instead of exploiting, Krasnostein is humane and seeks to understand. Having said that, while it feels suitably offset, the odd fascination of how Sandra’s clients live is still retained and I wonder how they would feel if they read this book. I won’t go too much into the story of Sandra’s past here, as I think it’s best experienced fresh. Suffice it to say that she’s had an interesting, inspiring and often heartbreaking life, and her story is an important one.

3. Jeff Noon – A Man of Shadows

John Nyquist is a hard-boiled detective hunting a seemingly invisible serial killer through the streets of a city divided in two; one half in perpetual light, and one in darkness.

Noir + weird? I ought to have loved this book. In reality, I got about halfway through before I decided not to bother with the rest. Noir is often packed with cliché and, when used correctly, noir tropes help to conjure images and feelings as a kind of deliciously familiar shorthand for the reader. The writing in A Man of Shadows, on the other hand feels clichéd like a high-school creative writing assignment. Nyquist fails to become even a noir caricature; instead he’s a cardboard cutout and I don’t care about him or his Shadows.

4. Jon Krakauer – Into The Wild

A piece of long-form journalism which follows the life of Chris McCandless, a young man from a wealthy family who escapes the confines of a life he considers stifling and takes to the road. Krakauer follows his subject around the back roads and trails of North America, to his eventual death in the wilderness of Alaska.

Krakauer was clearly fascinated by the person he uncovered and I don’t think he would have gotten such access and insights from McCandless’s family and friends had he not shown a genuine affinity for the person he was writing about. The story is moving and inspiring and we get a sense of a person with an admirable force of will, someone with a vision for a different kind of life and the fortitude to make it happen. But we’re also confronted with the pain which such a selfish path caused to those who loved him. The strength of this book, for me, was in how it portrays the effect which McCandless’s strength of personality had on those whom he came into contact with and the gaps his death left in their lives.

5. Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky – Sex Criminals Vol. 3 (Graphic Novel)

Sex Criminals continues to be ridiculous, surprising and well observed. It feels like Fraction might be running out of steam with Susie and Jon, but he’s branching out to explore other characters and introducing some new ones. It still feels compelling.

6. Stanislaw Lem – The Three Electro-Knights

A small collection of short stories. They’re surreal and silly but feel true, in the way of children’s bedtime stories.

7. Adam Roberts – The Real-Town Murders

Alma is a private investigator in a future Reading, England (now renamed to R! Town for marketing reasons) where reality is augmented for everyone with the overlay of their personal ‘feeds’, a fusion of Facebook, Wikipedia and Dropbox where information and communication are constantly available as an extensions of one’s mind. Most people spend a decent portion of their day immersed in The Shine, a virtual reality which is now the main economic driver of society. Alma is employed to investigate a seemingly impossible crime and is drawn into a conspiracy which goes all the way to the top of a government which sees itself as having very little responsibility to the real world.

Roberts does a great job of building a world which is both imaginative and plausible. His inventions are novel and thought-provoking, but while many of the plot elements are exciting, I didn’t really feel like the story held together well. The noir-ish intrigue which the book starts with is not resolved particularly satisfyingly and not enough is made of the power games which Alma is exposed to. It’s worth a read just for its originality, but I hope Roberts’ next is an improvement.

8. James Lovelock – Gaia

From the blurb on the back:

… first published in 1979, … James Lovelock’s theory saw the evolution of life and the evolution of the Earth as a single, tightly coupled process from which the self-regulation of the environment emerges.

It’s well written, although it does feel like at times it veers between dry and obfuscated or patronisingly simplistic (for a modern reader, at least). While much of what Lovelock says is clearly reflected in modern scientific consensus, there’s plenty times where his views are surprisingly outdated. I suppose that goes to show how things which seem obvious to us now escaped even the most far-reaching thinkers just 40 years ago. Overall, the book is unfortunately a frustrating read; while Lovelock is constantly referring to Gaia as a concept, he never seems to actually explain what he thinks Gaia is. He foreshadows Gaia as a personification of life on Earth as an intertwined, single system. The book (for me at least) does not manage to deliver on that idea of Gaia as a true organism unto itself. Instead it remains just a group of related, but ultimately separate processes.

9. Stanislaw Lem – The Futurological Congress

Cosmonaut Ijon Tichy is being forced to attend a conference of futurologists in a luxury hotel in near-future Costa Rica. Tichy seems unfazed by the oddness of his world and he doesn’t feel the need to spend much time on exposition. We get detail as his narration progresses, however, enough to start to see the not-quite-dystopia and the cracks in its foundations. Until Tichy gets shot in the head, frozen, and thawed out in a future which is very different from where we started. Humanity now lives in a time of peace and plenty, brought about by a dependence on psychoactive drugs which can produce any emotional state and imbue any knowledge required by the user to function in society.

The two worlds painted by Lem are both bleak and comical. Much like Sam Lowry, the hero of Terry Gilliam’s movie Brazil (one of my favourites), Ijon Tichy seems resigned to the social system he inhabits and appears not to notice the oddness of the surreal, often very funny situations which Lem puts him in. Just prior to his being shot, Tichy experiences heavy hallucinations, the dreamlike feeling of which are incredibly well described. After his reawakening, Tichy has to figure out how to inhabit a ‘pharmocratic’ society which is labyrinthine in its structure, where most of the population is not fully in on the truths of their existence. The book is apparently an allegory for Soviet-era mass brainwashing, but I was struck by how well it also applies to the false realities we create for ourselves in social media. I’ve found myself thinking about this a lot since finishing it, in terms of what it says about society, the human mind and how clearly influential it has been on other work.

10. Craig Brown – One on One

It’s a very neat concept: a collection of vignettes, each linking on to the next. Rasputin is murdered by Felix Youssoupoff in 1916. Youssoupoff sings to Noel Coward in 1946. And on, 101 times, bringing us back full circle.

It’s a very neat concept, and it’s pulled off wonderfully. Each of the stories definitely happened, although it’s clear that liberal poetic license has been taken. The result is entertaining and surprising and has a quality which is hard to put into words. A picture is built of the whirling complexities of each human life, how each life impacts on others through encounters of chance or very deliberate planning. This book gives the reader a feeling of seeing history simultaneously both as a holistic whole and as myriad tiny parts, bouncing off of each other.

11. Italo Calvino – The Distance of the Moon

A collection of short stories. I have a lot of affection for the title story. It’s Literary Nonsense, in the Lear-like sense, but it’s so evocative and beautiful. It feels real in the way that Greek myth feels real.

If you want to hear the story, try this reading which was released as an episode of excellent science podcast Radiolab, for some reason.

12. Foer, Thuras and Morton – Atlas Obscura

The book of the website, an exploration of some of the world’s curious and unusual destinations, places you won’t read about in Lonely Planet.

13. Arkady & Boris Strugatsky – Roadside Picnic

Redrick Schuhart expends his youth and early adulthood in Harmont; the town where he was born and the site of The Visit. Years before, extraterrestrial Visitors spent some time on Earth in an area now called The Zone: a place where physics does not behave and where disfigurement or grisly death is just a step in the wrong direction. But it’s not like there are many other opportunities for the people who live in Harmont. Many ignore the dangers and become Stalkers, trespassing into The Zone to recover the litter left behind by the Visitors. Humanity might not understand what this alien trash is, but the military-academic-industrial complex is hard at work trying to harness it. (If the story sounds familiar it’s because it was the basis for Tarkovsky’s Stalker, a classic in its own right.)

So many sci-fi authors feel the need to beat their readers about the head with all of the minute detail of their worlds, as if a full education is required for the reader to be properly immersed. My favourite writing in the genre avoids this over-exposition and focusses instead on the experiences of individuals navigating worlds which, to them, are normal. There’s no reason for characters to explain or even know all the forces which shape their lives, but it’s still possible for the narrative to give the reader enough insight to understand what drives these characters forward, and to empathise with their situations. Roadside Picnic does this brilliantly. Red is not well-educated but he understands his limited options and he uses his formidable force-of-will to try to navigate both the alien forces of The Zone and the very human societal structures that exist around it. In spite of his flaws, we want him to succeed but it becomes increasingly obvious that Red is more likely to end up crushed by the weight of his lack of options. And this is the other level to enjoy the book on: the Strugatskys were writing from Soviet Russia about life in post-Visit America. Roadside Picnic is a criticism of capitalist society and its effect on the individual. Red would presumably not have to keep going back into The Zone if the state properly provided for his family, or if the corporations and laboratories buying objects from The Zone were not so blind to the lives lost to retrieve them.

14. Oliver Sacks – Musicophilia

Sacks turns his normal structure – case studies from his own vast experience as a neurologist, interspersed with context from other researchers and his own semi-philosophical musings – to the relationship between music and the human brain.

There’s plenty of interest here, and Sacks’ description of his patients and their experiences are compelling. It’s not his best, though.

15. Paul Auster – 4 3 2 1

1950s and 60s America provides the backdrop for the story of Archie Ferguson. We see Archie and the lives of those around him as he grows from child to young adult. But there’s a twist! Auster dusts off the old Sliding Doors trope: an event in Archie’s childhood splits the story and interleaved chapters follow Archie as he branches in four different directions.

Here’s the problem: Archie isn’t a particularly engaging young man and although his family has some compelling relationship dynamics, there’s little to actually care about. The most interesting character in the novel is that of mid-century America itself and Auster’s vivid writing was enough to get me about two-thirds of the way through the 1050 pages. Ultimately, this book was fatiguing and I don’t regret putting it down.

16. Richard Ayoade – Ayoade On Ayoade

Who better to interview actor, writer, director and amateur dentist and tease out the secrets of his inner being than Richard Ayoade himself? “Over ten brilliantly insightful and often erotic interviews, Ayoade examines Ayoade fully and without mercy.”

The interviews are very funny, especially if you make your internal narrator adopt Ayoade’s voice. But the interviews are only the first 40% of the book; the rest is spent on various Appendices, most of which feel like phoned-in DVD extras. I’ve folded over the last page of the interviews so I know where to stop next time I pick this up.

17. Jorge Luis Borges – Labyrinths

An anthology bringing together much of Borges’ short fiction with his late essays and parables.

Oh dear, four pretty beige reading experiences in a row. I’m starting to wonder if this is me? Then again, maybe in the case of Borges, at least, it might be the translation? Some of these stories (especially The Library Of Babel, probably the highlight of the collection) make incredible reading. Others present as unreadable psuedo-philosophical wank (I tried hard with Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, I really did). I don’t know, maybe it is me?

18. Cullen Bunn, Danny Luckert, Marie Enger – Regression Vol. 1 (Graphic Novel)

Adrian has been hallucinating. Insects crawl out places they just shouldn’t be: taps, bottles, the corners of his eyes. The obvious thing to do is to trust his friend Molly when she persuades him to get regression therapy from her stage-hypnotist friend. If that doesn’t sound like a great idea, it’s because it wasn’t. The violent murderer who up-til-now was limited to haunting his nightmares now starts to gain occasional control of his waking body, and the previously hallucinatory insects are appearing to other people. What’s happening? Who is Adrian’s other personality; past life, or another form of intruder?

Nothing particularly deep or new here, just a well done horror comic which knows when to hew to B-movie horror tropes and knows when to diverge. It’s the divergent parts that are truly disturbing. I’m excited to see where this goes in Vol. 2.

19. Martin Buber – The Way Of Man

Buber was a Rabbi who lived until the mid sixties and in this book he presents the essential teachings of Hasidism – Jewish mysticism – through a set of parables and subsequent explorations. I don’t count myself as a spiritual person – souls or Gods aren’t compatible with the physicalist, determinist universe I see around me. Then again, minds like ours have long used religious thought as a tool in making sense of themselves and the universe. Going on the basis that spiritual thought must contain (albeit often very well obscured) an element of psychological truth and philosophical insight, I’ve decided to extend my normal reading.

Buber is one of those thinkers where the philosophical and psychological lies close to the surface and can be separated from the religious. I get the feeling that Buber’s work contains plenty more which remains tantalisingly un-decodable (on-brand for religious mysticism, I suppose) but I’m not repelled by this as I am by other religious writing; I will be re-reading.

20. Cullen Bunn, Jack T. Cole – The Unsound (Graphic Novel)

Ashli signs up for a nursing position at a run-down psychiatric hospital. Things quickly start going very wrong.

As with the Regression, Bunn clearly enjoys playing with horror tropes, and a psychiatric hospital with supernatural goings-on is a great place to do that. It’s entertaining, even if not particularly memorable.

21. Ed McDonald – Blackwing

The last time that the Deep Kings launched an assault on the Republic, they deployed Nall’s Engine and so created The Misery: a polluted wasteland marking the frontier, inhabited by creatures twisted by the Engine’s magic. That all happened hundreds of years ago and the Deep Kings refuse to risk themselves again in force. Galharrow and his squad are some of the few willing to cross that frontier and, as such, they are some of the first to see that their defenses may be failing. Galharrow’s master is one of the two remaining powerful wizards the Republic has left, but it’s questionable whether he will come to their aid.

Blackwing is post-apocalyptic fiction fused with magical low fantasy, and it doesn’t disappoint in either of those areas. Blackwing starts off fulfilling my expectations of being similar to The Dark Tower series, but diverges from The Hero’s Quest as McDonald draws out the intrigue contained in the Republic’s frontier society, its institutions and hierarchies. It’s an immensely satisfying read, fits well into 2018 in a way which much fantasy fails to do. Heartily recommended.

22. Nick Drnaso – Sabrina

Sabrina is cat-sitting for her parents in Chicago when she vanishes. A month later, across the country, Sabrina’s partner Teddy is taken in by high-school friend Calvin as Teddy deals with Sabrina’s disappearance.

The world of the story has far less certainty around the circumstances of Sabrina’s disappearance than we do, but there’s still enough ambiguity that it feels we’re being tempted by Drnaso into doing what he is simultaneously criticising us for doing: to forget about the person Sabrina and instead to shift our focus onto trying to tease apart the puzzle of her death. Why is it so much easier to forget about the person and instead to focus on the puzzle? Teddy himself might be giving us the answer in his obsession with radio conspiracy theories; it’s comforting to reach out for something dramatic when the real answers are often more mundane or just sad. Sabrina is incredibly well written and structured; it’s unnerving and is presented dispassionately, but its true-to-life-ness is ultimately what allows us to connect with characters who emote very subtly.

23. Nietzche – On The Genealogy Of Morals

Not exactly bedtime reading.

24. Bashō – The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Zen Buddhist poet Basho chronicles his series of journeys through seventeenth-century Japan through a mixture of prose and haiku.

It’s beautiful how Basho’s meticulously crafted writing can so easily transfer his sensory experiences and the subtleties of his inner landscape to a reader so distant in miles and years. Wonderful.

25. Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos Papadimitriou, Alecos Papadatos, Annie Di Donna – Logicomix (Graphic Novel)

The early life of logician Bertrand Russell, as he searches for an absolute truth with which to form a basis for mathematics. We see Russell crossing path with Frege, Hilbert, Gödel (see later!) and Wittgenstein through some pivotal moments in early twentieth-century intellectual history.

This was a re-read of one of my all-time favourite books. The story is fantastically well told, and brings work which could seem dry and uninteresting to life by focussing on the human frailties of those who contributed to it. Clearly a labour of love for all involved.

26. Daniel Keyes – Flowers For Algernon

Charlie Gordon is an intellectually challenged man who is offered the opportunity to leave his life of drudgery and humiliation behind as the subject of an experiment into the enhancement of human intelligence. It works, and in a few short weeks he is transformed into a genius. It’s only then that he is able to see the drudgery and humiliation for what it was; before the operation, he was blissfully unaware. The anger and indignity he feels is compounded by his perceived continued treatment as a laboratory specimen by the men running the experiment, and Charlie’s journey turns tragic when he realises that his intelligence will only be short-lived.

The story is told from Charlie’s point-of-view through a series of diary entries and Charlie’s rise and eventual fall in cognitive capability is illustrated through his use of language. It’s heart wrenching to follow Charlie as his new-found intelligence allows him to process the memories of his life, and we feel the bitter injustice as he realises that his lack of similar emotional development may cut him off from enjoying a ‘normal’ life in the short time he has. “Moving, beautiful, remorseless in its simple logic.”

27. Douglas Hofstadter – Gödel, Escher, Bach

This is a hard one to summarise. The work of logician Kurt Gödel, composer J. S. Bach and graphic artist M. C. Escher is examined, reduced and finally bound together, as a metaphor for Hofstadter’s ideas on how the rich conscious experience of the human mind could emerge from a substrate which follows simple, mechanistic rules. The work is structured as Dialogues (in the Socratic style) alternating with deep-dives into various subjects apparently pertaining to minds and machines. Hofstadter starts from the first principles of formal systems and builds on those foundations, culminating in a full explanation of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, a triumph and disaster of early twentieth-century mathematics (see Logicomix above), but that’s just the first half: Hofstader continues by linking the strange-loops of formal systems theory to those in the real world, and to those he sees in the human mind.

It took me two years to finish; I found myself re-reading entire chapters multiple times before I completely understood the material; I had to put it down regularly and return after a fortnight’s break in order to really assimilate it, and even then I’m sure that plenty eluded me. While I felt like Hofstadter took pains to make sure that he didn’t lose his readers as the subject matter got dense, I felt that the final part of his argument, although tormentingly close, missed the mark for me. That did very little, however, to diminish the satisfaction of reading this book. Hofstadter brings together ideas from wildly different areas and deftly weaves them together with humour and wonderfully original insight. As soon as I finished the final page I felt that I needed to start back at the beginning.

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