Friday, January 31, 2014

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Life is nothings; I heed him not.  But to fail here, is not mere life or death.  It is that we become as him; that we henceforward become foul things of the night like him--without heart or conscience, preying on the bodies and the souls of those we love best.  To us for ever are the gates of heaven shut; for who shall open them to us again?  We go on for all time abhorred by all; a blot on the face of God's sunshine; an arrow in the side of Him who died for man.  But we are face to face with duty; and in such case must we shrink?  For me, I say, no; but then I am old, and life, with his sunshine, his fair places, his song of birds, his music, and his love, lie far behind.  You others are young.  Some have seen sorrow; but there are fair days yet in store.  What say you?

It is easy enough to give Bram Stoker credit for establishing the way we think about vampires.  Really, Dracula is the vampire, the unquestionable model for every cheap costume and bad CW show today.  But the early film adaptations, like F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu, have as much to do with that conception as Stoker's novel, and the Dracula of Dracula is at times unrecognizable.  For every detail that Stoker popularized--a vampire's ability, for example, to turn into a bat, his lack of a reflection, or aversion to crucifixes and garlic--there's an aspect that has been forgotten, like Dracula's bestial hairiness, or his ability to climb down a wall like a lizard.  Stoker's Dracula walks around freely during the day--but he doesn't do any sparkling of note.

The first part of Dracula is a lot of fun.  Jonathan Harker, tasked with traveling to the Count's remote Transylvanian castle to oversee the sale of some English property, becomes the Count's prisoner.  He is almost eaten by Dracula's sexually aggressive wives; he discovers the Count sleeping in a coffin filled with dirt; he escapes but with a fair amount of psychological trauma.  The second part, in which Harker and a group of others, including his wife Mina and Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, try to prevent Dracula from setting down roots in England, is regrettably more tedious.  The Count is mostly absent, save for one memorable scene in which he forces Mina to drink his own blood out of his chest wound (establishing a psychic connection between them, naturally).  The plot is mostly concerned with locating and destroying the boxes of Translyvanian earth the Count has brought with him, and where he must sleep.

There's a wearying earnestness to these chapters--which really pound in the goodness and sacrifice of the cadre of heroes--that belies the essential weirdness of the Dracula figure.  Dracula works best when the weirdness punctuates the stodgy heroism, like the half-mad foreign-y ramblings of Dr. Helsing, or scenes with totally mad Renfield, who helps to fulfill Dracula's nefarious schemes from inside a mental asylum, and eats a lot of bugs.

One thing I didn't expect from Dracula was its extreme conservativeness.  As a story of an Eastern European ruler trying to set up shop in England, it's a parable of the threat of foreign invasion.  (It's never clear to me why Dracula, who has difficulty passing over running water, would even want to travel to England instead of merely feasting on the blood of continental Europe.)  Vampirism becomes a stand-in both for the terrors of homosexuality and female sexuality.  Here's how the darling, chaste Lucy Westenra is described when she becomes the Undead:

My own heart grew cold as ice, and I could hear the gasp of Arthur, as we recognized the features of Lucy Westenra.  Lucy Westenra, but yet how changed.  The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness.  Van Helsing stepped out, and, obedient to his gesture, we all advanced too; the four of us ranged in a line before the door of the tomb.  Van Helsing raised his lantern and drew the slide; by the concentrated light that fell on Lucy's face we could see that the lips were crimson with fresh blood, and that the stream had trickled over her chin and stained the purity of her lawn death-robe.

In that short passage, Stoker uses the word "purity" twice to describe Lucy's former state, and emphasizes with the white robe which is daubed with blood--I don't think I'm reading too much into it to see in this description a loss of virginity, especially with her "voluptuous wantonness."  To make matters worse, Lucy's taken to preying on young children.

Much of the novel's tedious second half is concerned with protecting Mina, who is Dracula's next chosen victim (he works on one person at a time, apparently, not converting them until all of their blood is drained), and whose "purity" is threatened in turn.  Mina, of course, has no place in the heroes' schemes besides that of a talisman to be protected, and the final scene in which Dracula is defeated is described in her diary as she watches from hundreds of feet away.

Besides relegating its principal female character to the sidelines, this is a peculiar and anti-climactic way to end the novel.  We've been wanting to see Dracula again for a hundred pages or so, and the final "battle"--such as it is--is described at a safe remove which lacks intimacy and immediacy.  It's typical of Dracula, which I liked quite a bit, but wanted to like a lot more.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous by Trav S. D.

I love Vaudeville.

Not that I love every goofy, borscht belt joke or watch the 3 Stooges on a loop (I swear!), but there’s something so strange and appealing about the scene, Hollywood before Hollywood was a thing, a massive cultural phenomenon that, aside from the filmed work of some of it’s bigger stars, has been largely forgotten by the public.

Trav S. D., who apparently runs a modern Vaudeville revue of some sort, gives the whole movement a popular history that anyone could enjoy. Thoroughly sourced and pithily written, Trav spends time with not only the most well-known stars of the Vaudeville stage, such as the Stooges, the Marx Brothers, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and Buster Keaton, but he also turns his eye to lesser performers--sword swallowers, contortionists, freaks, weirdos and lunatics--and, in doing so, brings out what a strange, wonderful world Vaudeville really was.

I particularly enjoyed the first couple chapters, where Trav traces Vaudeville’s history back to the travelling minstrels and theater troupes  in the Middle Ages, and even further, to the wild bacchanals of ancient Rome. While it seems like a little bit of a stretch to view Caligula as an early P. T. Barnum, if the shoe fits... From these inauspacious beginnings, Vaudeville developed from “Men Only” burlesque beginnings to the biggest show on earth, and then, in the span of only about a decade, was completely wiped out by motion pictures.

Although it’s doubtful that most of us would trade, say, Scorcese’s output to watch a man set himself on fire onstage, there is something sad about the disappearance of Vaudeville. Nowdays, unless you live in a large city, you probably don’t have much access to live theater and you certainly can’t see the large variety of things present in the average Vaudeville program. Trav also makes a fairly convincing, if somewhat rose-colored, case for Vaudeville’s inclusiveness of minorities and women and posits the movement on the whole as a net positive. I’m inclined to agree. In many ways, the rise and fall of Vaudeville seems like a uniquely American event, one brief moment when the melting pot came together to watch the world’s fattest lady do... whatever she did.

Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday

I’ve struggled with how to integrate comics into my fifty books almost since day one. I love reading comics and have for years, at least since I was in college. I mostly read superhero stuff, and, although I do pick up the occasional graphic novel or creator owned book, I find the range of stories within the superhero genre to be pretty amazing.

X-Men, however, I’ve never really been able to crack, because, as you know if you read monthlies, superheroes have loads of continuity and X-Men, with its constantly rotating cast, has lots and lots and lots of continuity. At any given time, there are probably 10-15 X-books on the market, all interlocking in some way. For a completist like me, that’s a big roadblock.

Fortunately, Joss Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men is self-contained for the most part, and reads just wonderfully. I’m a big Joss fan as well--I think I’ve seen everything he’s done except Firefly--and I was excited to read some of his comics. I wasn’t disappointed. Astonishing X-Men reads exactly like a season of a Whedon TV show, with all the witty banter, surprising plot twists, and rich character development that entails.

The plot of Whedon’s arc, which spans 25 issues and around 600 pages, is too sprawling to really go into here, but, at its center, a small group of heroes, including Kitty Pryde, Cyclops, Emma Frost, and some others, must come together in spite of their differences to defeat a foe too powerful for any of them to handle alone. In short, it’s about people, as nearly all the best comic books are.

I think, like most niche things, comics are either something you enjoy or you don’t, and I don’t know if anyone else here reads them. But, if you do, read this. If you don’t like comics, but you do like Whedon, read this. And if you don’t like either, well... maybe Lukacs is more your speed?

Monday, January 27, 2014

Perfect by Rachel Joyce

It’s a lot easier to find good old books than good new ones. Old books have the benefit of hindsight--go back 50 years and the dross has mostly disappeared. Pick up a new release and you can’t be sure if you’re picking up the new David Foster Wallace or the new Dan Brown. So when I get a book like Perfect, which is moving, emotionally and structurally complex but easy to read, and is just that GOOD, it’s such a treat that I can’t wait to share it.

Perfect is only Joyce’s second novel, but it’s made me think I should seek out her first. Hinging on an insignificant event--two seconds added to the year in the 70s by the UK government--it is told with in split perspective, with chapters in the past, featuring Byron, an unusually sensitive child for whom the two seconds are a terrifying prospect, and chapters in the present, featuring a man named Jim who seems to be suffering from some extreme OCD disorder and is struggling to maintain both his job and his fragile grip on reality. However, there’s really no way to discuss Jim’s section without delving pretty deeply into spoiler territory, so I’ll focus on Byron here.

Byron is one of those protagonists who is simultaneously relatable and a little offputting. A grade schooler who’s frightened of everything, Byron’s security is built on two things: his relationship with his best friend, James, and his saintly mother, Diana. Something happens early in the novel that upends Byron’s world and he spends the rest of the novel trying to make sense of it. There’s no way to complete this review without the spoilers below, which occur within the first 30 or so pages of the book, so stop reading now if you want to go in blind like I did.


On the way to school, in the fog, driving through a bad part of town, Diana hits a little girl on a bicycle and doesn’t notice due to the weather. Byron sees it happen but is afraid to say anything, to his mother or anyone else. This event sets into motion a slow motion trainwreck as Byron and James try to stop something that might be unstoppable.

Because this book has been out maybe a week, I don’t want to spoil any more of it. I will say, though, that Perfect is an unusually rewarding book. I read a lot of novels, and while I can appreciate the low-key epiphany of an ending, there’s something gratifying about a novel that manages such a strong emotional payoff while still leaving open some ambiguity. Some late novel twists and turns could have easily come off gimmicky, but Joyce’s attention to detail and sustained atmosphere of a slightly off-kilter fable keep the whole thing on the rails to the very end. She manages to communicate real tragedy without ever succumbing to miserablism, and, in the end, Perfect even manages to be uplifting in its own unique way.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Brent's Top Books - 2013 Edition

Better late than never, I suppose.

2013 was easily the worst year I’ve had on 50 Books since it started. I managed to make 50, barely, and most of them were good--but I’ve been MIA on my own blog, failing to review almost 2/3rds of the books I read this year. This is my chance to speak a little about the good stuff I read that I didn’t mention on here. So it goes, in no particular order.

Best Book by a Monk
Thoughts on Isolation - Thomas Merton
I picked this up on a whim, not expecting much, and got a wonderfully spare work of devotional literature, orthodox in theology but ecumenical in practice. Merton’s interest in Eastern religions produces a book that manages to exhibit the minimalism and quietness it teaches.

Best Book with a Best Man
The Member of the Wedding - Carson McCullers
I can’t believe I hadn’t read Carson McCullers before now. I read this and Ballad of the Sad Cafe this year, and both were amazing. Easier to read than Faulkner, less grotesque than O’Conner, she’s the most approachable author in the Southern Gothic tradition, and one of the best.

Best Book That the Author Doesn’t Seem to Have Read
Speaker for the Dead - Orson Scott Card
Please don’t pay too much attention to the snotty categorization on this one--Speaker for the Dead is unbelievable good. Picking up Ender’s story one thousand years after Ender’s Game could’ve been a disaster or a rehash. Instead, it’s a beautiful, moving treatise on acceptance and what that really means, put into a sci-fi context it couldn’t work without. One of the relatively few books that has permanently impacted my life--I find myself saying, “Once you understand someone, you can’t hate them” about once a week.

Best Book for People Who Are Always Switching Books In the Middle
If on a winter's night a traveler - Italo Calvino
Although traveler is solidly within the pomo metafictional traditional, Calvino’s extremely rare second-person perspective novel follows you as you begin to read a book and it abruptly changes into another book. Such a concept could have been silly and weightless--instead, it’s only silly, with brief flashes of pathos and weight that make it something more than a gimmick.

Best Book I Actually Reviewed But Didn’t Post About
Deliverance - James Dickey
One of the books I read this year that unearthed ugly things inside myself, Deliverance was actually so intimately impactful that I wrote a review I didn’t have the guts to post. Sexual violence, the meaning of masculinity, and a ripping/terrifying adventure story all in a slim 250 pages. Highly recommended.

Best Book I Got for Free
The Panopticon - Jenny Fagan
I received this book from TLC Book Tours and the premise--a messed up teen is taken to an asylum where she has adventures--did not do the book justice. A searing and very raw coming of age story, it has more empathy for the down and out than anything else I read this year.

Best Non-Fiction Book That Wasn’t a Novel
The Rest Is Noise - Alex Ross
If you’re interested in modern classical music but find the prospect of actually listening to it daunting, this is your book. Well-researched, tightly written, and endlessly interesting, Ross’ book opened up worlds of complex, abstract music and revealed the beauty and craft hidden there. It’s also a history of Western civilization in the 20th century from the perspective of a music lover. Highly recommended.

Best Non-Fiction Novel
The Executioner's Song - Norman Mailer
I understand that this book isn’t typical Mailer, but it’s a stunner. A doorstop of a novel, it doesn’t look like the laser-focused series of character studies it is. Mailer’s ability to tell such a long, fraught story without taking sides is a show of virtuosity no one else really matched this year.

Best Book That Made Me an Internet Star
The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
Reading Plath, along with Austen, changed my feelings about female authors. I wrote about at some length on the most popular blog post I’ve ever written, but I don’t want to give the novel itself the short shrift. The Catcher in the Rye is a great point of comparison, but The Bell Jar may hold even more weight given what we now know of Plath’s life. Highly recommended.

Best Book Chris Couldn’t Believe I Hadn’t Read
The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov
An audacious reimagining of religious history and Christianity, M&M is actually most notable for its insane cast of characters: Satan, Jesus, a talking cat, and a witch who actually flies on a broomstick all make appearances. It’s a really wonderful feat of imagination, told in a uniquely Russian way.

Bad Books

Worst Book Full of Incest and Stuff
The Cement Garden - Ian McEwan
Apparently McEwan wasn’t always so highbrow. This book, one of his earliest novels, starts off with an uncomfortably explicit scene of borderline underage incest and only gets weirder and creepier from there. Kinda wish I hadn’t finished.

Worst. Classic. Ever.
The Castle of Otranto - Horace Walpole
Somehow, this flimsy, dull, short book has become a classic. The critical asides were considerably more interesting than the novel itself, although it was the only book I read this year that opened with someone being crushed by a giant helmet. Not worth it unless you really, really love giant helmets.

Worst Book That Should Have Been Titled, “Wouldn’t It Be Cool If There Was, Like, a Perfect Drug?”
The Doors of Perception - Aldous Huxley
Have you ever wanted to read 100 pages about how hallucinogens are the coolest things ever, and also you see a bunch of sweet colors and touch God? Then maybe read Brave New World instead.

And that’s a wrap! Here’s to a new year of books and reviews. Excelsior!

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

Moreover to light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of man when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature.  It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against this fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death.  Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, Let there be light.

I have found diminishing returns with Hardy's novels, I think.  I really loved Far from the Madding Crowd, but The Mayor of Casterbridge exposed a lot of the artificiality and overwroughtness of Hardy's writing that I hadn't noticed in Crowd.  Jude the Obscure was very good, and as heart-rendingly bleak as its reputation, but suffered from the same flaws.  I didn't really enjoy The Return of the Native much at all, because Hardy's bloviating and melodrama seem discordant with such a cramped and narrow story.

Of course, cramped and narrow is half the point.  Eustacia Vye, the beautiful and tempestuous heroine, wants badly to leave Egdon Heath, the blandest and most barren stretch of the Wessex countryside and live life on a larger scale.  She thinks that she has found her ticket out in the figure of Clym Yeobright, the native of the title who has returned from studying in Paris.  They fall in love--there is a nice scene where Eustacia takes place in a Christmas masque, trying to spy on this intriguing newcomer without herself being scene, though Yeobright sees through her costume with the benefit of some sort of kismet--but after they marry, she becomes disillusioned.  Yeobright, for his part, only wants to found a provincial school in his homeland, not sweep his bride away to the Continent:

But do I desire unreasonably much in wanting what is called life--music, poetry, passion, war, and all the beating and pulsing that are going on in the great arteries of the world?  That was the shape of my youthful dream; but I did not get it.  Yet I thought I saw the way to it in my Clym.

Complicating this story is Eustacia's former lover Damien Wildeve, who has recently married Yeobright's cousin Thomasin.  (I didn't know this was the female version of Thomas, but I like it.)  Typically, Wildeve's former passion for Eustacia is rekindled when she becomes attached to Yeobright, which causes all sorts of problems and misunderstandings.

The plot is confined mostly to this love-square, with Yeobright's disapproving mother added, and Diggory Venn the "reddleman," who has long been in love with Thomasin.  A reddleman travels around selling the pigment that is used for marking sheep, and consequently is often covered in red himself, and has a strange mystical presence because of it.  Venn himself is sort of otherworldly.  His love for Thomasin drives him, not to undermine her marriage to Wildeve, but to endeavor tirelessly to reconcile their relationship that she might be happy and not dishonored.  His inherent goodness is a contrast to the underhandedness of Wildeve, the self-absorption of Eustacia, and even to the well-intentioned foolishness of Yeobright.  He's the best part of the book, and an powerful reproach to the idea that "good" characters are boring and "evil" characters the most interesting or complex.  The Return of the Native could have used more of him.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight by M.E. Thomas

While I don't think sociopaths have any sort of moral urge to do good things, I think they can and do act morally in the context of pursuing their own advantage  A good analogy would be a corporation.  There are a lot of corporations that do things that you like, maybe even good things, like produce vaccines or electric cars, although the primary motivation is to make a profit.  But just because you are trying to make a profit doesn't mean you can't do it by doing things you like, or that you are good at, or that comport with the way you see the world, or want the world to see you.

Ruining people.  I love the way the phrase rolls around on my tongue and inside my mouth.  Ruining people is delicious.  We're all hungry, empaths and sociopaths.  We want to consume.

M.E. Thomas spends this entire book talking about how great she is.  She also talks about how great sociopaths are.  According to her, sociopaths, uninhibited by emotions, are free to act rationally.  This cold calculation allows for maximizing desirable results.

It also means that sociopaths feel no moral reservations about manipulating the people around them.  So, the books describes in detail how the author manipulates the people around her.  She talks about ruining people, too.  She engages in such ruining for revenge or for sport.  Whatever suits her. 

She also claims that many successful people are sociopaths too.  I found this portion of the book to be a bit terrifying at first.  She describes sociopaths as having a unique aptitude for navigating institutional politics and working their way up.  Specifically, she claims, successful lawyers are likely to be sociopaths because the manipulation necessary to climb to the top is a skill sociopaths excel in.

This furthers Thomas's goal in describing how sociopaths are great for society and how we need them.  Yawn.  I would only recommend this book to someone interested about antisocial personality disorder and too lazy to read a real book about it.  Even then, though, I'd recommend the book with reservations because it goes on and on; it feels like the author is too self-congratulatory.

Hilariously, the book's author appears to have outed herself by appearing on Dr. Phil.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Revenger's Tragedy by Thomas Middleton which I take three weeks to get around to reviewing my final book from 2013.

The Revenger's Tragedy is a Shakespeare-era play by Thomas Middleton, and like pretty much all drama from that period--with a few exceptions (Volpone?)--it's a reminder of just how great Shakespeare was.  As a revenge tragedy, I might take it over Titus Andronicus, but it's a far cry from that other Shakespearean revenge play--I'm forgetting the name now...

Anyway, the plot is incredibly convoluted: Vindici is determined to revenge himself on Duke for poisoning his beloved before the play begins.  The Duke's son Lussurioso takes the disguised Vindici on as a pandar who will seduce Vindici's sister (remember, he's in disguise), providing him the perfect opportunity for vengeance.  A side plot involves the Duke's bastard, who is having an affair with his wife, and his stepsons, one of whom is accused of a brutal rape.  They have names like "Spurio" and "Ambitioso" and "Supervacuo" that help you keep them apart.  If you guessed that they all die in the end, you are correct.

The Revenger's Tragedy isn't very profound, but it is gleefully over the top.  I really enjoyed this scene, where Vindici dresses up the skull of his beloved in fine jewels and a fancy dress.  The skull's jaw is laced with poison so that Vindici can present it to Lussurioso as his sister:

Brother, y'ave spoke that right.
Is this the form that living shone so bright?

The very same;
And now methinks I [could] e'en chide myself
For doting on her beauty, tho' her death
Shall be reveng'd after no common action.
Does the silkworm expend her yellow labours
For thee? For thee does she undo herself?
Are lordships sold to maintain ladyships
For the poor benefit of a bewitching minute?
Why does yon fellow falsify highways
And put his life between the judge's lips
To refine such a thing, keeps horse and men
To beat their valours for her?
Surely we're all mad people, and they
Whom we think are, are not; we mistake those:
'Tis we are mad in sense, they but in clothes. 

Hey, man!  That's no way to talk to your girlfriend!  The whole play, in fact, is steeped in pretty stark misogyny.  Vindici makes a lot of really bold pronouncements about the treachery of women that I'm pretty sure we're supposed to take at face value even though this is a story about a bunch of men who murder each other.

Once the play reached its final act (spoiler: a lot of people get stabbed) it became pretty tedious.  However, if you're interested, there's a recent film version starring Eddie Izzard and Christopher Eccleston that's probably a more fun two hours than the ones you'd spend reading the play.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Life is short, he thought.  Art, or something not life, is long, stretching out endless, like concrete worm.  Flat, white, unsmoothed by any passage over or across it.  Here I stand.  But no longer.

It's the Sixties.  What was once the United States of America is now split into several states: In the west, the Pacific States of America, essentially a puppet state of the Japanese.  In the east, the United States and the Confederate States both, allied to Germany.  In the middle, the Rocky Mountains, serving as a sort of buffer between the two victorious powers, which are increasingly suspicious of each other.

As a vision of what America would be like had it lost World War II, The Man in the High Castle is fascinating.  The Germans, unsurprisingly, have moved on to conquering and destroying much of Africa.  Jews have gone into hiding all across the different Americas.  In the Pacific States, Yanks are second-class citizens.  I was especially impressed with the way Dick invents a Japanese-inflected dialect of English, which the American characters use only when speaking to their Japanese social superiors.  Just an example, from an American antiques dealer trying to make a sale to a Japanese businessman:

"Had you wished American traditional ethnic art objects as a gift?" Childan asked.  "Or to decorate perhaps a new apartment for your stay here?"

The story is full of political intrigue: The German Fuhrer has died, and a struggle to replace him as begun among the old Nazi guard, some of whom are in favor of aggressive action--dropping nucelar bombs--as a preemptive strike on their putative Japanese allies.  Much of Dick's story centers around a spy from a rebel German faction and his Japanese contacts in the Pacific States.

But all that is, somehow, really beside the point.  The Man in the High Castle revels in its thought experiment, but it has bigger and stranger topics to dwell on.  A seditious book called Heavy Lies the Grasshopper has become suddenly popular; it imagines a possible word where Japan and Germany did not win the war.  And this is where I think Dick shows how really unique he was among science fiction writers of the 20th century.  I can conceive of another writer coming up with this conceit, but their book-within-a-book would have told the story of our America.  Instead, Dick invents a third history--one in which Britain comes out of a post-war struggle with the United States as the world's sole superpower.

This is really unsettling.  The multiplicity of historical narratives forces us to question our own history in the way that a what-if story really doesn't, and, in a plot development I don't want to give away, Dick suggests that our history is as specious as the one of The Man in the High Castle.  Like VALIS, The Man in the High Castle explores the idea that our notion of reality is hopelessly limited and flawed.

A big portion of the plot centers, strangely, around ugly jewelry.  The jewelry, ineptly made, possesses wu, a Taoist concept that embodies effortless, unconscious doing and being.  I was taken by the idea that something with wu operates outside of history and historicity:

To have no historicity, and also no artistic, esthetic worth, and yet to partake of some ethereal value--that is a marvel.  Just precisely because this is a miserable, small, worthless-looking blob; that, Robert, contributes to it possessing wu.  For it is a fact that wu is customarily found in least imposing places, as in the Christian aphorism, 'stones rejected by the builder.'  One experiences awareness of wu in such trash as an old stick, or a rusty beer can by the side of the road.

I usually feel that I have a handle on even complex books; I feel like I have not understood even a little of what Dick was doing in this novel, and I am not even sure I have described it well.  I am not quite sure that I enjoyed it.  But like all of Dick's books, it has made me ponder quite a bit.

Monday, January 20, 2014

A Wild Justice: The Death and Resurrection of Capital Punishment in America by Evan Mandery

Certiorari was granted limited to the following question: Does the imposition and carrying out of the death penalty in these cases constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment?  The Court holds that the imposition and carrying out of the death penalty in these cases constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.  --Chief Justice Burger, reading the per curiam opinion of the court in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972).

We consider at the outset the basic contention that the punishment of death for the crime of murder is under all circumstances cruel and unusual in violation of the Constitution.  We reject that contention. --Justice Stewart, announcing the opinion in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976).

Since the foundation of the United States (and before), the government in this country has executed those accused of heinous crimes.  Because of this long-standing history, in the 1960s, everyone presumed the constitutionality of the death penalty..

This changed.  And then, it changed again.

Mandery takes the reader through the cultural shifts that lead to the end of the death penalty; he also takes the reader through the cultural shifts that brought it back.

This image was include in the NYT
review of the book, it was too
awesome for me not to include.
Pre-abolition: although the death penalty was presumed constitutional, it was also on its way out.  States were executing fewer and fewer people; other states were abolishing the death penalty altogether.  Why, then, should anyone interfere with the death penalty?  Mandery answers that Justice Goldberg was looking to make his mark on the liberal Warren court.  He included some language in an opinion indicating that in some circumstances the death penalty would be unconstitutional, (correctly) expecting civil rights lawyers to take the hint.

They did.  The Legal Defense Fund (associated with the NAACP) took up the cause (because the NAACP was concerned about the disproportionate number of African Americans being executed).  The litigation strategy was to show that society's standards for cruelty had evolved to the point that the death penalty was no longer moral.

Abolition: Mandery presents a compelling view of what was happening in the Justices' chambers.  He presents the Furman opinion as a compromise between the hard-abolitionists (who believed in complete abolition) and the soft-abolitionists (who believed, merely in abolishing the states' practices at the time).  This compromise would ultimately be defining because of what happened after Furman.

Public reaction to the decision was immediate and unequivocal: large segments of the population felt that the decision went too far with the Court's liberal agenda.  States immediately started re-drafting their statutes to conform to Furman and bring back the death penalty.  LDF began litigating against these new statutes.

To no avail: the Supreme Court brought the death penalty back.  Why?  The Court's members had changed.  More fundamentally, though, the Court was not ready for the backlash against Furman.  And, unlike the right to privacy decisions, the opinion was weak because it was only supported by a slim majority.  However, even the decisions upholding the death penalty were compromises.  So, instead of upholding all states' death statutes, the Court struck some down. 

Post-abolition: lawyers are left with the task of sorting through the decisions and trying to make them work.  They are a mess.  Importantly, Mandery describes how a number of the Justices involved in the decisions bring the death penalty back later regretted their decisions.  Notable is Justice Blackmun who eventually wrote:
From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death. For more than 20 years I have endeavored--indeed, I have struggled--along with a majority of this Court, to develop procedural and substantive rules that would lend more than the mere appearance of fairness to the death penalty endeavor.  Rather than continue to coddle the Court's delusion that the desired level of fairness has been achieved and the need for regulation eviscerated, I feel morally and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed.
A few notes of particular interest:

I guess this is what the machinery of
death looks like.
(1)  Mandery's presentation makes it seem as though, left alone, the death penalty would have abolished itself over time.  Instead, the Supreme Court's interference invigorated a pro-death movement (a very similar criticism is often directed toward Roe v. Wade).  If true, this poses an interesting problem for an attorney who is against the death penalty: should he argue against the death penalty to save his client or do nothing for his client and wait for society to fix itself?  Of course, for a lawyer this question is easy because the ethics rule require zealous representation of the client...not social movements.  Nonetheless, from a moral standpoint, one wonders.

(2)  Mandery also presents an ethical issue confronted by LDF's main anti-death litigator, Tony Amsterdam.  Amsterdam was vehement that they argue against the death penalty in all cases; this position required him to abandon grading the different states and identifying some as being worse than others.  As a result, during the oral arguments about bringing the death penalty back, he did not provide any assistance to the Justices in determining which statutes were worse than others.  I can't help wondering if death penalty jurisprudence would be less messy if Amsterdam had taken a position on the comparative worth of states' statutes.

A good book for anyone interested in the death penalty or the Supreme Court.  It's a must-read for anyone interested in both.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

"In Tarahumara Land, there was no crime, war, or theft. There was no corruption, obesity, drug addiction, greed, wife-beating, child abuse, heart disease, high blood pressure, or carbon emissions. They didn't get diabetes, or depressed, or even old: fifty-year-olds could outrun teenagers, and eighty-year-old great-grandads could hike marathon distances up mountainsides. Their cancer rates were barely detectable. The Tarahumara geniuses had even branched into economics, creating a one-of-a-kind financial system based on booze and random acts of kindness: instead of money, they traded favors and big tubs of corn beer."

"He'd figured out the body, so now it was on to the brain. Specifically: How do you make anyone actually want to do any of this [running]? How do you flip the internal switch that changes us all back into the Natural Born Runners we once were? Not just in history, but in our own lifetimes. Remember? Back when you were a kid and you had to be yelled at to slow down? Every game you played, you played at top speed, springing like crazy as you kicked cans freed all, and attacked jungle outposts in your neighbors' backyards. Half the fun of doing anything was doing it at record pace, making it probably the last time in your life you'd ever be hassled for going too fast. That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they'd never forgotten what it felt like to love running."

If you are trying to flip your own internal switch to WANT to run, this is absolutely the book for you.  It covers a lot of ground (knee-slapper, I know). It is part cultural study of the Tarahumara, part history of the sport of running, part medical inquiry into why contemporary runners are so damaged and broken and injured, part history of ultra-racing (specifically Leadville), part history of the running shoe - but at its core, it is a narrative, and a very compelling one at that.

The Tarahumara, if you missed the best episode of Road Rules: Latin America where the producers pitted the six young Americans against them in one of their rarajipari races, are an indigenous tribe of Mexico known for wanting to be left alone, running long distances, and being super peaceful and awesome. [Sidenote: The episode aired in 2002 and amongst all the TV I've watched in my lifetime, I have never forgotten that episode - it was SO fascinating. The rarajipari race is done as a team with a wooden ball in the canyons of Mexico. Contestants kick the ball from the start to the finish. If the ball rolls down a ditch, you go down in the ditch and kick it up. If the ball gets stuck in a bush, you go in the bush and kick it out. If the ball goes in the river, your ass is going in the river. Of course, the Americans (who I now want to refer to as teenagers because OMG 20 year olds are so young) were not runners or athletes or in any way prepared for this, so it was a very short race (I think they did one section of the total race that the Tarahumara were actually doing), but I remember dirt, dust, sweat, red faces, dehydration, and misery.]

The book is incredibly biased towards POSE running (or running with a toe strike rather than a heel strike), minimal running shoes (rather than the gelled and arched and corrective shoes that have been popular), and against popular medical thought (orthotics for plantar fasciitis and the acceptance that running is a high-injury sport that some people are just not made for). I personally don't feel like I know enough about any of those sorts of things to have an opinion as to whether his bias is well supported (he has lots of experts weigh in and references research, but lacks the footnotes and endnotes for people to check up on his conclusions).

What I do know is that the book is an absolute page turner, and I think everyone who has ever been a runner or wants to be a runner would enjoy it. My history with running has always been an unrequited love - I want to love running, but running would never love me back. Sometimes it would tease me, sometimes I would mistake the signals it was sending me, but we could never get on the same page. Once or twice I have had a runner's high, but I just didn't really get it most of the time.

My dad has run 3 marathons before his knee surgery, my brother has done more 10ks than he can count, a short triathalon, and a Tough Mudder and is prepping to do the Spartan Challenge. My rockclimbing partner and one of my best friends was a crazy runner before his knee surgery. I totally want to BE a runner, but I just never liked running. My old coworker and I started running after school a few years ago, starting with walking a lap, running a lap, until we ran 5.25 miles which was my running highlight (she went on to do a muddy uphill 10k). Sometimes I would like it, but most of the time we'd have to gossip our way through it and cheer ourselves on. I mostly dropped it after that, but I would download podcasts on UltraRunning and run a handful of 3-milers because, again, I want to BE a runner so badly! Lately, I recently ran 5-miler because my boyfriend thinks we're doing a Tough Mudder. After reading this book, I was JONESING to run. Badly. Like, I was excited to go for a run. So I skipped Crossfit and tried to see if I could do 5.5 miles, and I could, and I did, and I felt not terrible afterwards (well, immediately afterward, I am still feeling sore).

I wanted to read something non-fiction, and it was between this and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and I am stoked that I picked up this one. I hope that I can keep the energy towards running that this book has given me and start doing at least a short run and a long run every week (and maybe even a Tough Mudder, who knows!)

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

If I know a song of Africa,--I thought,--of the Giraffe, and the African new moon lying on her back, of the ploughs in the fields, and the sweaty faces of the coffee-pickers, does Africa know a song of me?  Would the air over the plain quiver with a colour that I had had on, or the children invent a game in which my name was or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or would the eagles of Ngong look out for me?

Early in 2013 I read a couple of books about Africa--subconsciously, I think, because it was freezing outside and my mind wanted to wander somewhere warm: Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King and Chinua Achebe's No Longer at EaseIn December, with the temperature dropping once again, I was compelled to finally pick up the copy of Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa that's been sitting on my shelf for ages.

Dinesen was really Karen Blixen, a wealthy Danish woman who owned and lived on a coffee plantation in Kenya, near a tribe named the Kikuyu.  (Who knows why she needed the pseudonym--she calls herself "Karen" throughout.)  Out of Africa is her story of her life on the plantation, which, though cut short by financial difficulties which forced her to move back to Denmark, she clearly considered her spiritual home.  In the book, she describes how her position as a large white landowner makes her something of the center of Kikuyu life.  Clearly she cares deeply about the surrounding tribes, to whom she provides amateur medical care and adjudication of tribal disputes.  And yet, at times she can be startlingly dismissive and obtuse in a way that offends modern sensibilities:

I was much interested in cookery myself, and on my first trip back to Europe, I took lessons from a French Chef at a celebrated restaurant, because I thought it would be an amusing thing to be able to make good food in Africa.

Or here, where comparing them to dogs isn't the worst thing about this paragraph:

The Deerhounds, from having lived for innumerable generations with man, have acquired a human sense of humour, and can laugh.  Their idea of a joke is that of the Natives, who are amused by things going wrong.  Perhaps you cannot get above this class of humour, until you also get an art, and an established Church.

So those are the grains of salt with which one must take Out of Africa.  But despite them, it is a tremendously beautifully written book, maybe one of the most beautifully written I have ever read.  Blixen, not a native English speaker, manages to capture (what I imagine is) the majestic grandeur of the African landscape as only one who truly loves it must be able to.  I particularly like this passage, in which Blixen's Kikuyu servant Kamante wakes her up to witness a grass fire on the nearby hill:

"Msabu," he said again, "I think that you had better get up.  I think that God is coming."  When I heard this, I did get up, and asked him why he thought so.  He gravely led me into the dining-room which looked West, towards the hills.  From the door-windows I now saw a strange phenomenon.  There was a big grass-fire going on, out in the hills, and the grass was burning all the way from the hill-top to the plain; when seen from the house it was a nearly vertical line.  It did indeed look as if some gigantic figure was moving and coming towards us.  I stood for some time and looked at it, with Kamante watching by my side, then I began to explain the thing to him.  I meant to quiet him, for I thought that he had been terribly frightened.  But the explanation did not seem to make much impression on him one way or the other; he clearly took his mission to have been fulfilled when he had called me.  "Well yes," he said, "it may be so.  But I thought you had better get up in case it was God coming."

I also want to share with you, apropos of nothing else, a couple turns of phrase that really stayed with me, if just for future preservation.  Once, Blixen describes the task of charcoal-burning, describing the charcoal as "[s]mooth as silk, matter defecated, freed of weight and made imperishable, the dark experienced little mummy of the wood."

That's one for the metaphor pantheon: The dark experienced little mummy of the wood.  And then there's this statement, in a sketch entitled "Of Pride," which affected me greatly: "Pride is faith in the idea that God had, when he made us."  Of course, that really terrific sentence is preceded by a brief discourse on the difference between the pride of the "barbarian" and the "civilized being"--not a direct reference, I think, to the Kikuyu, but certainly resounding with the same conflicted attitude.

 The final chapters of the book, in which she is forced to leave Africa and cut ties with the tribe and her house staff are surprisingly bittersweet, and made moreso by the plane-crash death of her lover, British aviator Denys Finch-Hatton, who is buried in the Kenyan hills that Blixen regrets she will not be buried in herself:

Between the river in the mellow English landscape and the African mountain ridge, ran the path of his life; it is an optical illusion that it seemed to wind and swerve,--the surroundings swerved.  The bow-string was released on the bridge at Eton, the arrow described its orbit, and hit the obelisk in the Ngong Hills.

Blixen asks in the passage I quoted at the top: Does Africa know a song of me?  In fact, there is still a suburb of Nairobi named "Karen" today, a fact of which she was quite proud.  Though I found her attitude toward the Kikuyu to be a bit suspect at times, Out of Africa is ultimately a very moving paean to a place and a people.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

You could smell the suffering in the air, in the silence. Even people who were normally calm and controlled were overwhelmed by anxiety and fear...And, on that night, only people - the living and the breathing, the crying and the loving - were precious. Rare was the person who cared about their possessions; everyone wrapped their arms tightly round their wife or child and nothing else mattered; the rest could go up in flames.

War...yes, everyone knows what war is like. But occupation is more terrible in a way, because people get used to one another. We tell ourselves, 'They're just like us after all,' but they're not at all the same. We're two different species, irreconcilable, enemies forever.

What's more, she said to herself, there's a world of difference between the young man I'm looking at now and the warrior of tomorrow. It's a truism that people are complicated, multifaceted, contradictory, surprising, but it takes the advent of war or other momentous events to be bale to see it. It is the most fascinating and the most dreadful of can never pride yourself on truly knowing the sea unless you've seen it both calm and in a storm. Only the person who has observed men and women at times like this, she thought, can be said to know them. And to know themselves.

Suite Francaise (which I have asked my French majors to pronounce for me several times and yet I am still too shy to say it aloud myself) is one of the best novels I have read in a while (it definitely would have been on my top ten of 2013) and the story of its existence makes it more remarkably so.

Nemirovsky was born in Russia to a Jewish family, but was living in France (as a Roman Catholic) when WWII broke out. She had to stop publishing because she was still recognized as a Jew by the law. She left Paris, but continued to write in a notebook. At age 39 she was arrested and sent to Auschwitz where she died. Her husband soon followed her to Auschwitz and also died. Her children went into hiding with their governess, and one of her daughters picked her mom's notebook to keep as a momento. She never read it, not even as an adult, because she thought it was her mom's journal and would be too painful. Fifty years later, before donating it to an archive, she decided to transcribe and type whatever it contained, finding the first two books in what was supposed to be a five-book massive novel. What was found was a meticulous draft, but unfinished and still rough, and the books were published together as Suite Francaise.

It is a book that has been on my radar for years because it was so critically acclaimed, but I would pick it up and put it down because the back cover - while capturing the book very well - makes it sound really lame. "Beginning in Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation in 1940, Suite Francaise tells the remarkable story of men and women thrown together in circumstances beyond their control..."

It is a beautifully written book, it is a remarkable story, and it captures so much of the human experience. Her cast of characters is immense and the first book, Storm in June, is short anecdotes about a handful of families who are fleeing Paris. The anecdotes occur chronologically and characters from one family will sometimes interact with another, but it feels completely natural rather than heavy-handed and contrived. Her cast features a huge variety of socioeconomic situations which is fascinating and she has some biting remarks about how the very wealthy and privileged suffer on a scale so much less than the working class who suffer even less than the servants and farmers - the text is filled with humorous scenes where the rich bemoan ridiculous problems that aren't problems (oh no! I have to look at poor dirty bloody people who are WALKING after being bombed while I am being life is so hard. #1%problems) From people who eat caviar as they are driven with their precious art collection out of the city to the people who walk, leaving everything behind. The second book, Dolce, is a bit more tightly knit and focuse, but references characters from Storm in June and makes it obvious that in the grand scheme, Nemirovsky would have had them appear again in later books. Dolce captures an aspect of war I hadn't spent very much time thinking about: the lack of men and the utter boredom, sadness, pointlessness of existence that the women left behind felt. A whole generation of women came into young adulthood without any appropriate men for them to flirt with and eventually marry. On the flip side, their houses are filled with young German soldiers...who could blame a few for fraternizing with the enemy? The only drawback of this novel is that it is unfinished. It ends where a chapter should end, not where a book should end, and it is so frustrating to know that that is all we will ever have of this story. Randy asked me if I would read the other three books if they existed (the first two are 431 pages total), and early on I wasn't sure. Now that I know and love and loathe the characters, I absolutely would.

Since I can't have any more of this book, I plan to seek out more from Nemirovsky. Outside of the subject matter, which is interesting by itself, I like her sauciness:

She paused and nodded curtly to the teacher who had just come in: she was a woman who did not attend Mass...As this person's conduct was irreproachable, the Viscountess hated her all the more: "because," she explained to the Viscount, "if she drank or had lovers, you could understand her lack of religion, but just imagine, Amaury, the confusion that can be caused in people's minds when they see virtue practiced by people who are not religious."

Monday, January 6, 2014

Randy's Top...ummm...20%

My top list:

I decided that doing a top 10 would only emphasize the half-assed effort I've put in.  So, instead of a top 10, I'll do a top 20% which is closer in spirit (top 50% of books read in 2013 feels too unselective for my aesthetic sensibilities).  So, top four books read this year:

4)  The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

For whatever reason, this was not a novel-heavy year for me.  A problem I hope to remedy in 2014 (but, we'll see).  Among the 2013 novels, this one sticks out as the best.  A fun, quick read.  I'd recommend it to anyone, but especially to any teenager suffering the indignity of high school.

3) A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law by Antonin Scalia

I don't necessarily see eye to eye with Justice Scalia.  However, I appreciate that he put his judicial philosophy out there, subjected it to challenge, and then responded to the challenges.  This allows lowly lawyers like me a chance to engage in the debate by following the leading scholars and lawyers offering their best points.  I wouldn't necessarily recommend this book to a non-lawyer (notable exceptions being people interested in law, the constitution, or textual interpretation).

2)  Don't Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America by David Kennedy

More than any other book I read this year, this one was thought-provoking.  I think Kennedy had the most to offer me and my interests in criminal justice.  Which is not to say this book is inaccessible; quite the contrary, I think the book is a great read for everyone. 

1) The Terror Courts: Rough Justice at Guantanamo Bay by Jess Bravin

Alas, Babylon! If only I had the time to have given this book the review it deserved.  But, I did not, and so here we are.  This book tops my list because, in addition to its depth, it was a fun read.  I flew through it in a couple of days because it just read easily.  I got the best of both worlds: fun read and constitutional law.

And, that wraps 2013 for me.  In 2014, I'm planning on hitting some books about the Supreme Court pretty hard and hopefully more novels.  I've got The Moon is a Harsh Mistress lined up for later this month.  Also, I'm hoping for more reviews and fewer composite reviews.  I had a bunch of good ideas for reviews that I didn't get to go into because of time.  Here's lookin' at you, 2014.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

2013 Wrap Up (Maybe I'll be better in 2014?)

As much as we'd like to forget the
 movie, some things can't be undone...
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Try to live so that you can always tell the truth.

A good book about breaking from the past.  Jonathan Safran Foer goes to Ukraine in search of "Augustine," a person who he believes saves his grandfather during World War II.  The main character, Alex is enlisted to help Foer find Augustine.  What follows in the novel is an interplay of the past with the present as the characters all attempt to come to terms with history.  And the future.  This book deserves a much more thorough review, but I've been sitting on it for 6 months, so what can you do?  (Fun fact: this happens to be one of my special lady friend's favorite books and I just so happened to have purchased a signed first edition for her for Christmas; also, welcome to 50 Books, Brittany!).

Lee Boyd Malvo
The Making of Lee Boyd Malvo: The D.C. Sniper by Carmeta Albarus & Jonathan Mack

This book was excellent.  Background: Lee Boyd Malvo was one of the D.C. snipers.  He was a kid, basically (17 at the time), operating under the instructions of an older male, John Allen Muhammad.  The book follows Malvo's development from childhood into the D.C. sniper, and then through his rehabilitation.  Fun Fact: Malvo was sentenced to six consecutive life sentences.  What makes the book excellent is that it shows how Malvo was desperate for a father figure; how every time he developed a relationship with an adult figure, his mother would tear the relationship apart; how Muhammad swooped in and became everything Malvo lacked from other adult figures in his life.  The book's aim is not to excuse Malvo's actions, but to explain them.  And, without trying to claim Malvo lacked choice, the book explains why he made his choices.  An important read for anyone interested in mitigation narratives.

Fatal Vision by Joe McGuinness

Jeffrey MacDonald
This book was terrible.  Background:  In 1970, officers were called to Jeffrey MacDonald's house; MacDonald's wife and two daughters had been murdered.  MacDonald claimed that a group of raving/roaming hippies had attacked him and the rest of his family.  This was the beginning of 40 years of litigation, intrigue, and media interest.  After charges were initially dropped and then reinitiated (after a couple of years).  Nine years after the murders, trial began.  It was during the trial that Joe McGuinness (also famous for putting up shop next to Sarah Palin) moved in with the defense team.  He became very close to MacDonald both during the trial and after MacDonald's conviction.  McGuinness became convinced of MacDonald's guilt, and wrote so much in Fatal Vision.  I'll skip discussing the merits of the case.  The book is terrible because McGuinness writes like someone trying to sell millions of books, not uncover any kind of useful truth.  This was predictable merely by looking at the cover (which Brittany disparagingly pointed out had "raised font" for the title).  However, I was drawn to the book because about a year ago I read Errol Morris's account of the MacDonald trial.  Morris believes MacDonald should not be imprisoned given the existence of alternative suspects, one of whom has confessed (and unconfessed) at various points in time.  The book and the case are interesting because of the attention it has received.  In addition to McGuinness's and Morris's books, the case was the subject of a book by Janet Malcom (re: the relationship between journalists and their subjects), a made-for-TV-movie that apparently I can't get my hands on (though I've tried), and an extensive article in the Washington Post (in response to Morris's book).  Oh, and how could I forget: McGuinness wrote a response to Morris's book.  Expect a review of Malcom's book in 2014 and possibly McGuinness's response.  No promises, though.

The Terror Courts: Rough Justice at Guantanamo by Jess Bravin

This book was excellent.  Bravin goes into how the military commissions were set up by the Bush administration and who (more importantly who was not) involved.  Bravin presents a compelling narrative, in which Cheney and Rumsfeld set up the commissions in a rushed power-grab for executive supremacy.  The book also discusses how the line prosecutors coped with the numerous problems in the Guantanamo cases.  I can't recommend this book enough; it reads like a narrative but presents the complexity of problems posed by incarceration and prosecution at Guantanamo. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Billy's Top Ten of 2013

10. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

9. Joyland by Stephen King
  • In somewhat of a departure from most of his other work, Joyland is a standard crime thriller.  There are no supernatural elements, but it's still a great read (any book I take down in virtually one sitting, finishing at 3 in the morning, has to make my top ten of the year, right?).  I read a few from this genre every year, some of which I like, some of which suck, but what made this one stand out is that the reveal was surprising but not unbelievable (a hard trick to pull off), and the characters were even more memorable and interesting than the drama.
8. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  • This crime thriller, on the other hand, blew me away.  It was riveting throughout and I never saw the second half of the book coming.  I hesitate to say more in case you read it (which you should).
7. Bossypants by Tina Fey
  • As you would probably imagine, Fey is as funny in print as she is on TV.  She's smart and clever, sometimes silly, sometimes biting, but always hilarious.  I also very much appreciated her take on feminism.
6. The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill
  • Mill makes so many great arguments and is so persuasive.  He was very much ahead of his time (some of the stuff in The Subjection of Women is still relevant now), and I can't remember any times when a passage made me cringe and think, "well, this was the 1860s..."  Not exactly a light read, but I definitely recommend it.
5. Dr. Sleep/The Shining by Stephen King
  • In anticipation of Dr. Sleep, the belated sequel to King's classic, I went back and read The Shining again.  It was even better than the first time I read it, if not quite as suspenseful, because I could better put into context the issues that Jack was facing; when I first read the book in high school, it seemed to be about Danny, but now I realize it's just as much about Jack.  Dr. Sleep picks up years later with Danny as an adult, as he fights to get a handle on his drinking problem and mentors a young girl whose shining is even stronger than his own.  Dr. Sleep wasn't quite as deep as The Shining, I thought, but it was still a great read.
4. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • So chilling.  To me, a good dystopian satire shows use a caricature of society, but in the end makes you realize that it isn't as far fetched as you'd like to believe.  The Handmaid's Tale accomplishes this perfectly and really makes you think about the ways in which our patriarchal society treats women and their autonomy.
3. The Lost Bank by Kirsten Grind

  • I love financial histories, and this was a great one.  Grind tells the story of Washington Mutual and the 2008 collapse from the lenders' side.  It's really important that we understand what happened in the lead up to the recession so we can avoid making the same reckless and irresponsible mistakes. Even better, Grind's writing style makes this complex story easy to follow. Definitely recommend.

2. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

  • There are a lot of issues with this classic (i.e. it's basically only for middle and upper class white women and doesn't exactly have a modern view of homosexuality), but it is still essential for understanding the modern feminist movement, both in terms of how far we've come and how far we've yet to go.  (Lean In didn't make the list because although it made a lot of good points, it was even more solely for rich women and ignores the experiences of women of color.  Sure, everything doesn't have to be everything, and Sandberg may not have felt comfortable talking about the experiences of WOC being a white woman herself, but still, it's not the '60s anymore, and that glaring omission lessens the importance of the book, especially when there is (or at least should be) a renewed emphasis on intersectionality in the feminist movement).

1. The Name of the Wind/The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
  • These were just fun.  The first two books in the Kingkiller Chronicles series, they tell the story of Kvothe, a young troubadour who goes to university to learn how to become a wizard after his family is murdered by a cabal of evil beings.  The one sentence synopsis makes it sound a lot like Harry Potter, but these books aren't as magical but have much less of the angst of Harry Potter.  

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card

"You're quite right that the truth about him will cause nothing but pain, but not because he was a miserable man," said the Speaker.  "If I told nothing but what everyone already knows--that he hated his children and beat his wife and raged drunkenly from bar to bar until the constables sent him home--then I would not cause pain, would I?  I'd cause a great deal of satisfaction, because then everyone would be reassured that their view of him was correct all along.  He was scum, and so it was all right that they treated him like scum."

"And you think he wasn't?"

"No human being, when you understand his desires, is worthless.  No one's life is nothing.  Even the most evil of men and women, if you understand their hearts, had some generous act that redeems them, at least a little, from their sins."

I said in my top ten for last year that I thought one of the remarkable things about Speaker for the Dead is how miserably its author, Orson Scott Card, seems to have lived up to the moral vision it expresses.  If you want to read a more thorough and coherent along those same lines, I highly recommend Rany Jazayerli's article in Grantland about what Card's Ender's Game meant to him as a young Muslim in America.  Speaker, even more than Ender's Game, is a paean of "inclusion and tolerance," and a serious investigation into what those terms might mean in a universe where humans discover that they are not alone.

As a sequel to Ender's Game, Speaker takes a wild left turn.  It's set thousands of years in the future, but Ender is still around, thanks to the (sort of ) life-lengthening benefits of interstellar travel.  Yet he travels incognito as Andrew, as Ender has become a legend of evil for his role in destroying the Buggers eons ago--the "Xenocide".  Ender, still haunted by his actions, works as a "Speaker for the Dead," researching and declaiming on the lives of those who have passed away so that the living might understand their life as they had wanted to live it.

Ender gets several calls from the planet Lusitania requesting his services.  He is invited to speak for Pipo, a biologist studying a native race of sentient beings called "piggies"--the only other sentient race discoverd since the Buggers--as well as for Marcao, a brutish lout whom almost everyone is happy to see dead.  Pipo and Marcao's lives were intertwined in the way one might expect from the inhabitants of a very small colony, but I won't try to explain the very messy network of relationships that Ender wanders into here.  More important is the fact that Pipo, as well as his son Libo who has attempted to follow in his father's footsteps, have been brutally murdered by the piggies for reasons that no one seems to be able to explain.  Once the murders become known throughout the colonized universe, the piggies face the possibility of being wiped out, like the Buggers before them.  Ultimately, Ender must speak not only for Pipo and for Marcao, but for the piggies themselves.

By creating an alien race that is so foreign and so difficult to understand, Card challenges his reader's own sense of inclusiveness.  How different, he asks, does another sentient being have to be before we are no longer willing to grant its life sanctity?  I think that only a science fiction novel could do this so well; we are so used to the language of "human rights" and "tolerance for all people" that only by imagining a non-human race can we see how empty those terms often are for us.  And though at first blush a novel about "inclusion and tolerance" seems like a shallow creation, we are incredibly bad at actually putting the ideas Card offers here into practice.  I think you can see this in the recent Phil Robertson kerfuffle, not only in his startling lack of sympathy toward homosexuals but in the eagerness of his detractors to cast him as beyond the boundaries of civilized society.  We are so bad, in fact, that Card has clearly failed at it himself through his public comments on homosexuality.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many writers and thinkers believed that sympathy with others was the underpinning of moral life.  Adam Smith wrote that sympathy with others begins with imagination, the ability to mentally share in the feelings and experiences of others.  If we believe fiction can make us better people, even a little, this is why.  While Speaker of the Dead wasn't crafted with the same kind of writerly skill as the other books on my top ten list from last year, it is a feat of great imaginative sympathy, and that may be worth even more.