Race, Climate, Modern Jazz and Magical Orgasms: My Books of 2018
“I don’t read as much as I used to,” is a common refrain I hear from my friends, and I’m no exception. When I think back to my teenage and twentysomething years, I feel like I always had my nose in a book, dispatching towering stacks of them with ruthless efficiency.
Maybe I’m looking back with rose-colored glasses—because the stacks are certainly still there in my apartment—but I don’t feel like I read as much as I used to. So this year, to be proactive, I resolved to read more.
I had a few advantages in my corner. My brother is the co-founder of the wonderful Print bookstore here in Portland, so I have easy access to (and recommendations for) books new and old. My girlfriend is a voracious reader, and we’ve reached the point in our relationship where we can silently read together in the same room without wondering if we still love each other. And I had a couple of long camping trips over the summer, where a lack of wifi and internet access made reading the default pastime.
In addition to reading more, I also wanted to make a conscious effort to read more books by women and people of color, because I realized that my reading history tends towards the white, straight and male. A lot of white guys still found their way into my reading list, but my reading experience was so much better and more rewarding for including diverse artists and viewpoints.
I may have missed a couple*, but in 2018 I think I read: 11 novels, 4 graphic novels (I’m including some collections of trade paperbacks as a single book), 3 nonfiction books, and 1 short story collection. That’s 19 books, or 1.5 books per month; I’m going to say that’s not half bad. And I only hated one of them.
To jog my memory, process what I got out of these books, and maybe pass along some recommendations, here—in no particular order—are the 19 books I read in 2018:
The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017 edited by Charles Yu
I own a lot of short story collections, but it’s rare that I’ll read one through front-to-back; I usually skip around looking for titles that interest me, authors I recognize or page counts that I can fit into my lunch break or morning coffee. When it came to this collection of sci-fi and fantasy published in 2017, however, I decided to tackle it like a novel, in order. This edition of Best American is solid all the way through, with a great deal of diversity in authors and subject matter – lots of stories dealing with sexuality, gender, immigration, racism, social justice and those other topics that can be examined particularly well through the lens of sci-fi. Favorite stories included Dale Bailey’s “Teenagers from Outer Space,” N.K. Jemisin’s “The City Born Great,” and “Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station” by Caroline M. Yoachim.
We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Easily the most powerful book I read this year, and the one that changed my thinking the most. Coates’ examination of white supremacy and race in the U.S., through the lens of his development as a writer during the Obama years, is incredibly timely, engaging and devastating. I read “The Case for Reparations” and “The First White President” in The Atlantic when they were first published and didn’t really “get” them, but I guess I was more receptive and ready for the ideas when I devoured this book at the start of the year. Smart, thoughtful, humane and honest.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Alderman’s simple idea—what if women developed a power that made them suddenly and unquestionably more physically powerful than men—opens the door to a hundred questions about gender dynamics and who holds the power in our societies. Physical, political, cultural and economic power are all explored, along with family dynamics and interpersonal relationships. The storytelling elevates this premise beyond a mere thought exercise with engaging characters and a genre-hopping plot that pulls from war novels, crime novels, political thrillers, science fiction and more.
Not Without Peril: 150 Years of Misadventure on the Presidential Range of New Hampshire by Nicholas Howe
My second non-fiction read for the year was about a subject close to my own heart, as I scarcely let a week or two go by without heading to New Hampshire’s White Mountains to hike. This is one that I was regularly seeing recommended by other hikers, and it didn’t disappoint. Howe’s writing is easily accessible and combines deft narrative skill with reporting from a wide swath of source materials—firsthand accounts, diaries, newspaper clippings, and more. I got a particular thrill from the maps marking the fateful journeys of lost hikers, since so many follow routes I’ve trod myself. A great read and a great reminder about how powerful, and dangerous, the White Mountains can be.
Kindred by Octavia Butler
Butler’s time travel novel about an African-American woman who inexplicably finds herself thrust into the past, forced to experience life under the yoke of slavery, is a fascinating and brutal read. Despite being strong, decent, smart and caring, the protagonist Dana crashes again and again against the tall wall of white supremacy, ground down and forced to make compromise after compromise to survive. It asks the question, “If we could go back, knowing what we know now, surely we’d act differently, or behave differently, or be able to change things, or think of some way to fix it — wouldn’t we?” There are no easy answers.
The Drop by Dennis Lehane
I’m a big fan of Lehane’s Kenzie-Gennaro novels, so I picked up a used copy of this slim novel on the cheap and breezed through it in a couple days. Apparently The Drop started as a short story (“Animal Rescue”), then became a screenplay, then got (re?)adapted as a sort of novel/novelization. It comes through in the writing. The story zips along at a 90-minute-film-pace, setting pieces up on the board and then shuffling them around moments later. It didn’t grab me like the Kenzie-Gennaro books—some of the characters get pretty thin treatment, especially the eventual villain, who comes off more like a moustache-twirler than a real person — but it was a quick read and it’s always fun to visit Boston through Lehane’s eyes.
The Circle by Dave Eggers
There were a couple of books that I started and never finished this year, and a couple that left me with kind of a meh feeling, but my dislike of The Circle was so strong that I powered through to the end with a hate-read momentum I’ve rarely felt before. Characters who behave more like idea-delivery-apparatus than human beings, a predictable “twist,” lengthy philosophical debates with giant blind spots; I’ve so thoroughly scrubbed the details of The Circle from my memory that it’s hard to remember what exactly I loathed about it so much. Part of it is definitely that I wrote a draft of a novel examining a very similar set of ideas, about the culture of oversharing and the opportunities and limits of technology when it comes to questions of objective good. There were plot points, arguments and even types of characters that appeared in both my novel and this one. But I don’t think my novel was very good, and neither was The Circle — and this one got published and turned into a (critically-panned) movie.
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
The quickest read of the year, at a swift 96 pages. This novella is a joy, mixing a bit of Harry Potter with the opening salvos of a space opera, grounded with a character (the titular Binti) who is easy to fall for. I also caught notes of China Mieville with the weird alien antagonists, and a strong vein of afrofuturism with the focus on Binti’s home, her people and the powerful artifact she set out with. It’s a huge amount of stuff to fit into fewer than 100 pages, but the world is fully realized—familiar and alien at the same time. I can’t wait to pick up the sequels.
New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson
I was a bit of a late comer to Kim Stanley Robinson, starting with his solar-system-spanning novel 2312, then coming back for Aurora and his latest, New York 2140. Of all the fiction I read this year, this book was probably my favorite. It’s a sweeping novel in scope, following a half-dozen distinct characters and bringing a flooded, post-global-warming-calamity Manhattan to life. I fell in love with all of the characters, from the river rats diving for treasure in the flooded canals to the slightly-airheaded blimp-flying television star to the gruff police inspector to the world-weary building super. Robinson weaves threads as small as a romantic relationship and as large as the entire future of midtown together with a stunningly confident touch.
The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
If you were disappointed by Fallout 76, pick up The Parable of the Sower for your 2018 dose of post-apocalyptia. Though it was released 25 years ago, Octavia Butler’s book feels incredibly timely—almost preternaturally so. Butler predicted the racism, fear of others, class warfare and resource scarcity of a failing climate and late-stage capitalism with near-pinpoint accuracy, and there are echoes of our current political climate that feel more like they’re 5 years off than 25. The book is relentlessly dark, and there are parts of the book that are tough to get through. But with a supernaturally empathetic main character—a “sharer,” in the parlance of the book—Butler crafted a novel that feels like essential reading today.
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
When it comes to sci-fi subgenres, I’ve only dipped my toe in “military science fiction” to read John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. I’m not sure how I feel about it. I’m a fan of pitched space battles and laser gunfights as much as the next reader, but war strategy and army hierarchy and the technical details of future weapons technology don’t speak to me as much as a dash of magic and a technobabble hand-wave. Ninefox Gambit got rave reviews, and the “pulling off a heist” plot — a forward-thinking grunt has to break into an un-break-intoable fortress with the help of a mad general—was definitely interesting, but I didn’t feel myself clamoring for more once the book was over. There are some really interesting ideas and superb writing, as Lee creates not only intergalactic societies and militaries for his story, but also entirely new rules of math and physics. It’s a surprisingly funny book in places, too. If you’re a buff for battlefield history, this might be right up your alley.
The Broken Earth Trilogy (The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, The Stone Sky) by N. K. Jemisin
Once in a while I become so invested in a series that I can’t help but read it through, one after the other, gaining speed until the reading consumes all of my free time. In my late 20s it was George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire”; a couple years ago it was Patrick Rothfuss’s “The Kingkiller Chronicle”; this year it was N.K. Jemisin’s “Broken Earth Trilogy.” My first exposure to Jemisin was her story in The Best American Sci-Fi and Fantasy 2017; later in the year, I heard her on The Ezra Klein Show, when The Stone Sky won a Hugo Award, making her the first author to win back-to-back awards three years in a row, for every book in a trilogy. The awards were well-deserved, as Jemisin immediately plunges you into a unique world with very little hand-holding. The characters pull you forward by sheer power of the writing, the characterization, the world-building, the really interesting narrative choices (like telling much of the story in second-person) and a fate-of-the-planet plot. Combines big questions about race, oppression, who holds power and what they can or should do with it, with a driving adventure story and some epic battle scenes.
Playing Changes by Nate Chinen
As a huge fan of 21st-Century Jazz, I was predisposed to like Playing Changes, which explores much of the history of modern jazz since the 70s, when experimentation, free jazz and fusion charted new courses away from the traditionalist revival. Nate Chinen carries with him the bona fides of more than a dozen years as a critic at the New York Times, and he writes in an accessible style, mixing fascinating explorations of music theory and principles with anecdotes and contemporaneous criticism in easily-digestible chunks. I feel certain that it’s a compelling read for non-musicians as well as musicians (though I fall into the latter category). And the book has its own soundtrack; each chapter ends with recommended listening based on the subject matter, and the book concludes with a mammoth list of the 129 Essential Jazz Albums of the 21st Century (which I collected in a 1,052-song Spotify playlist—a runtime of 4 days, 13 hours and 12 minutes).
Saga (Vol 1–8) by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
In terms of both art and writing, Saga is one of the most beautiful and moving stories I’ve ever read—don’t let the nudity and characters swearing like sailors from page one turn you off. Vaughan and Staples truly have boundless imaginations that they’ve turned towards the living, breathing galaxy where the story of Alana, Marko and Haxel takes place. Organic spaceships, magic warfare, talking otters, giant dragon phalluses, octogenarian cyclops romance writers—Saga has it all. Vaughan also has an R.R. Martin-esque skill for making you care about characters and then doing terrible, terrible things to them. The first 8 volumes of the story end at a major turning point, where the creators are taking a well-deserved break, so you have plenty of time to catch up.
Sex Criminals (Vol 1–5) by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky
In Sex Criminals, Fraction and Zdarsky have created a profane, wacky comic that hides genuine feelings behind its many dicks, porno puns and magical orgasms. This is not a book for kids, but don’t get the impression that it’s porn, either—not that there’s anything wrong with that. This is an experimental, exploring, sex-positive story about people, relationships and sexuality, with smart and compassionate things to say about gender identity, sexual orientation, relationships, popular culture and the way we view sex as a society. It’s also funny as hell.
Y: The Last Man (Complete Series) by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra
Back in college, when Y: The Last Man was first coming out, I bought all 60 issues on new comic book day when they were released; this year, I re-bought them in five beautiful paperback collections, and read them again. Vaughan takes a simple premise that could have made a bad 70s Charlton Heston movie — what if all the men on the planet died, except for one? — and takes it in every direction you don’t expect. Despite the stakes of the entire human race hanging in the balance, this is really a coming of age story about protagonist Yorick Brown learning what it means to be an adult and what it means to fall in love. Vaughan gets in some real gut-punches, and tells a globe-trotting adventure story while he’s at it. Unlike many comic series, this 60-issue arc has a beginning, middle and ending, and is worth reading (or re-reading) as one complete piece.
Planetary (Complete Series) by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday
I’m a nut for Warren Ellis. I’m due for a re-read of what I consider his masterpiece, the gonzo cyberpunk epic Transmetropolitan, but this year I was reminded of his other late 90s epic: Planetary, which is collected in a massive 864-glossy-pages Omnibus. This deconstruction of superhero comics and pop culture is part sci-fi thriller and part uniquely-Ellis reimagining of stories like Godzilla, Superman, The Fantastic Four and Sherlock Holmes. With Cassaday’s strong, spectacular art spanning the entire series, Ellis slowly weaves story threads together from a monster-of-the-week format towards a monumental story of revenge, apocalypse and human potential.
* Books I forgot about and left off the list, which says more about the quality of my brain than the quality of the books:
The Adventure Zone: Here There Be Gerblins by Clint McElroy, Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy, Griffin McElroy and Carey Pietsch
I was a little late in coming to the podcast The Adventure Zone, simply because the sheer number of episodes (60+ in mid-2017) seemed insurmountable. Once I started with the very accessible “Episode 1.5: Here There Be Gerblins — Chapter One (Super Cut),” however, I was 200% in. In this graphic novel adaptation of the first TAZ arc the McElroys and artist Carey Pietsch manage to capture the wacky, improvised feel of the podcast and fit it into an expertly-structured, compelling story. For listeners of the podcast there are plenty of little references and jokes that nod to later episodes in the weird D&D-adjacent universe that the McElroys created. The ending of the podcast made me cry, and I can’t wait for the following volumes of this graphic novel to do the same.