A List of Books I Read in 2017 (in [Basically] No Particular Order)

THIS WORKS THE SAME as it did last year. The list includes all the books I read in 2017 (unless I forgot one or two), and each entry has a brief synopsis to give you an inkling for how I feel about it. If the title and author of the book are bold and in italics, that means I recommend the book. If not, either I didn’t like the book or I don’t feel it is accessible enough to recommend to everyone. The synopsis should clarify this. Here we go.

nonfiction

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  • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft — (Stephen King)
    • This is an oft-touted work that is simultaneously a sort of autobiography and a how-to on the craft of writing. I admit, I read it far later than I should have. It’s very good, and I recommend it to writers or aspiring writers, but I haven’t bolded or italicized this one because it isn’t the best work on writing I read this year. And, frankly, like all how-to works, this one is a mixed bag of advice, IMO.

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  • The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing — (Margot Livesey)
    • Ok, this one is the best book on writing that I read this year. Livesey confines herself to very strict goals in her essays, a very limited scope or theme in each one, and this really serves to make her advice more easily digestible (if not easily followed… writing is difficult). If writing is your thing, check this one out for sure.

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  • The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe — (Peter Godwin)
    • The Fear is a tale that centers around author Peter Godwin, a journalist, returning to his home country of Zimbabwe after Robert Mugabe lost his first election in 30 years in 2008. A harrowing story of corruption, violence, and confusion, this book is even more relevant now that Mugabe has been ousted.

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  • Eclipse: Journey to the Dark Side of the Moon — (Frank Close)
    • In light of the eclipse that saw totality track across the United States in 2017, Frank Close (an eclipse chaser) wrote this book to describe the allure of the phenomenon and to encourage others to chase totality as well. It’s a good book, partly a memoir of his adventures chasing eclipses and partly a science-y breakdown of an eclipse’s mechanics. However, it felt a little too in-between for me, as if the book (and author) was not sure what it wanted to be.

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  • The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code — (Margalit Fox)
    • Margalit Fox hits gold with this one. She details the unraveling of the ancient Linear B script, which was a triumph of the twentieth century. Not only that, but she honors both Michael Ventris (the eventual code-cracker) and Alice Kober (the somewhat unsung hero whose meticulous, almost obsessive work made the solution possible). Treat yourself to a well-written historical tale while simultaneously learning the intricacies of the Linear B problem and its elegant solution.

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  • How to Mellify a Corpse: and Other Human Stories of Ancient Science and Superstition — (Vicki León)
    • León tries to weave together a raucous romp through history with her unique humor, but frankly I’m not so sure it works. The idea was very good, and seemed right up my alley with topics like ancient mechanical engineering, Pythagoras and his mathematical discoveries and odd quirks of habit, and much more. However, the book simply isn’t as interesting (or as much of a page-turner) as the title would suggest.

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  • Sin Bravely: My Great Escape from Evangelical Hell — (Maggie Rowe)
    • Maggie Rowe used to have a problem worrying, obsessively (like, clinically obsessively) about going to hell. This is her raw, personal story of spending time in a Christian mental health facility and, eventually, overcoming that fear. It is a brave work that anyone who identifies, or has ever identified, as an Evangelical should read.

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  • Both Flesh and Not: Essays — (David Foster Wallace)
    • I agree with some reviewers that this posthumous collection of previously unpublished Wallace essays suffers from the usual posthumous malady: these pieces were never intended by the author to go together, and they sometimes feel odd at the seams. However, I mean… it’s David Foster Wallace.

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  • Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception — (Charles Seife)
    • This is an interesting analysis of the way in which modern media uses numbers unscrupulously to promote whatever idea they want viewers to believe. It’s a look at the way the human mind treats numbers and a primer against being taken in by faulty or misrepresented mathematics. This is very important in the modern age, and Seife does a serviceable job explaining these things, but the book does suffer somewhat from its position between popular nonfiction and academic work. If this stuff interests you, you’re probably going to gravitate toward more dense works.

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  • Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century — (Masha Gessen)
    • Perfect Rigor tells the story of Grigori Perelman, who in 2006 solved the Poincare Conjecture (a topological problem so complex that I don’t even understand its question, much less its solution). The PC remained unsolved for more than a century and was thought by some to be literally unsolvable. After Perelman solved the problem, he refused the one million dollar prize and became somewhat of a recluse. Perfect Rigor details, with clarity and with the appropriate amount of compassion, his early life in Russia’s mathematical schools as well as his eventual solving of the PC. None of this synopsis gives justice to how interesting the book is. I couldn’t put it down.

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  • The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction — (Neil Gaiman)
    • Alright, this is blasphemous, but I didn’t really enjoy this collection from Gaiman. Maybe I’m souring on his style, or maybe the stories and essays felt too mashed together and incompatible… I don’t know.

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  • Chasing the Sun: the Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Life — (Richard Cohen)
    • I’ve never read Cohen before, but I plan on reading more of his work after this. Chasing the Sun is perhaps my BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR, though I have trouble declaring such superlatives. The book is the culmination of eight years of research and covers the sun’s influence in science, physics, art, food, culture, clothing, music, etc. etc. etc. I cannot recommend this book enough.

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  • Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief — (Lawrence Wright)
    • It’s been in the news a lot lately, but guys: Scientology is weird and bad and you should stay away from it. This is an excellent analysis of the “religion’s” history and philosophy. Check it out.

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  • A Palette of Particles — (Jeremy Bernstein)
    • This short book is an interesting primer on particle physics and its history, but I think it suffers from a few fatal flaws. First, it’s too short to cover anything in the sort of depth that something as complex as particle physics requires. Also, its diction is too academic for the book’s goal. If the diction is right for you, you probably already know what’s in the book and don’t need to read it. The book also seems unsure of what it wants to be: historical analysis, physics textbook/primer, memoir, etc.

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  • Confessions of a Young Novelist — (Umberto Eco)
    • Eco is very hit-or-miss for me, and in this short work he misses the mark. The idea behind the book is to combine a few “confessions,” essays, and speeches made by Eco over the years regarding his thoughts on the craft of writing. However, I find much of Eco’s thoughts too, dare I say, pretentious. Of course, he’s a genius. But there is too much self-congratulation in the work, too much self-praise. Perhaps in his native Italian it comes off as more explanatory, but in the translation he seems more concerned with showing his genius.

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  • Mop Men: Inside the World of Crime Scene Cleaners — (Alan Emmins)
    • This one is very straightforward. Emmins spends time with the professionals who clean crime scenes (and, yes, it does get gory and gross at times) and details his experiences. There’s a complicated man at the center of the business, and I’m not sure how I feel about Emmins’ portrayal of him, but nevertheless the book retains interest well and shows the reader a rarely-glimpsed corner of society.

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  • Lewis Carroll in Numberland: His Fantastical Mathematical Logical Life: An Agony in Eight Fits — (Robin J. Wilson)
    • Don’t let the title scare you off. This is another contender for BOOK OF THE YEAR for me. Incredibly accessible and incredibly fun, this work details the life of Carroll in a compassionate manner. Don’t believe the rumors of Carroll’s odd behavior around kids, this well-researched book says. Instead, let Wilson show you Carroll as he was: a brilliant, loving man who made great strides in both mathematics and literature and who is every bit as interesting as his zany characters.

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  • Einstein’s Dice and Schrödinger’s Cat: How Two Great Minds Battled Quantum Randomness to Create a Unified Theory of Physics — (Paul Halpern)
    • On the back of the recent confirmation of the Higgs Boson, Halpern details the story of Einstein and Schrödinger and their quest to arrive at a Grand Unified Theory of physics that eschewed the random dice in Einstein’s famous quip. The book does not shy away from these controversial characters and is a delight to read for anyone interested in physics who, like me, is worse than a layman.

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  • Poetry Notebook: Reflections on the Intensity of Language — (Clive James)
    • An unbelievably well-thought-out catalog of the poetic arsenal, James’ book has given me much to think about regarding my own use of language in my writing. A must-read for writers of all shades.

 

poetry

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  • The Best American Poetry 2007 — (ed. Heather McHugh)
    • I have to say, with a sigh, that almost all poetry collections are going to go unrecommended from me. There are gems in all of them, but alas, there are far too many that seem like linguistic masturbation. With poetry, usually, the key is to find a poet you love rather than a hodgepodge of poems.

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  • Best of the Best American Poetry — (ed. Robert Pinsky)
    • See above comments.

 

fiction

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  • Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage — (Haruki Murakami)
    • This was, I think, my first Murakami book, and I was not impressed. Though perhaps the translation can be blamed, the language seemed dead and detached. The titular Tazaki seemed by turns foolish, pitiable, and evil, and the plot itself seemed disjointed and odd in an unintended way.

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  • The Strange Library — (Haruki Murakami)

This is what I imagined Murakami to be after hearing his praises for years. Here, he seems like a master of language subtly crafting a story that is bizarre and, well, strange in ways that seem utterly intended. He maps a dream world that often doesn’t make sense, but it’s not about the making-sense. It’s about the feel of the thing, and Murakami is writing a concerto for the way dreams/nightmares feel. Highly recommend.

 

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  • The Pleasure of My Company — (Steve Martin)
    • Yes, that Steve Martin. Honestly, he has no right to be this good at writing. He’s already had a great comedy career and is super into art or whatever. Leave some for the rest of us, Steve. (If you’re interested, his novella is about a man with clear OCD issues overcoming all of his harmful obsessions to fully realize himself, and it’s damn good).

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  • Normal — (Warren Ellis)
    • This one is tough. Warren Ellis is a legendary figure on the comics front, but this is my first foray into his novels. Normal is… anything but. It’s weird and philosophical, insular and kind of oddly stilted and compressed in its scope. The story of a man who previously worked for the government being placed in a sort of camp or secluded retreat (involuntarily), Normal goes to weird places and waxes philosophical about the future of humanity. It’s very good, but I’d reserve a recommendation only for those who are familiar with Ellis’ previous work. It feels very much of a piece with Transmetropolitan.

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  • Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? — (Dave Eggers)
    • 2017 was, it seems, a year of firsts for me. This, my first Eggers book, is a story told entirely in dialogue that features a man who decides to kidnap an old classmate of his who became an astronaut. From there, it only gets weirder, but Eggers manages to make the plot seem somehow reasonable and human.

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  • The Familiar, Vol. 4: Hades — (Mark Z. Danielewski)
    • Danielewski continues his 20-some-part epic about a young girl, her cat, and her city. This volume returned to a slower pace, but it was still incredibly readable and enjoyable. If you haven’t started the series yet, get on it. It represents, for me, a return to form for MZD.

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  • Numero zero — (Umberto Eco)
    • I said earlier that Eco is hit-or-miss for me, but this one is somewhere in between. Extremely short by Eco standards, Numero zero has some truly interesting and mind-bending ideas and historical puzzles, but it ultimately falls flat in its plot and remains forgettable. I’m having trouble remembering a lot of it, which does not bode well for a recommendation.

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  • The Name of the Rose — (Umberto Eco)
    • This book, with which Eco originally burst onto the authorial scene, is simply a masterpiece. A mystery set in an ancient monastery, the level of detail and complexity is staggering. It’s a thinking person’s thriller, a page-turning dissertation on medieval life. It’s a lot of things, and one of them is “good.”

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  • Cold Hand in Mine: Strange Stories — (Robert Aickman)
    • Lent to me by a friend, this collection was my introduction to Aickman. He is a master of the craft and weaves unsettling tales better than pretty much anyone I’ve read. From a strange hotel from which guests cannot leave to creature-horror set in a European castle’s lake, this collection shows Aickman at what I can only assume is his best.

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  • The Marvels — (Brian Selznick)
    • Selznick is the award-winning author/illustrator of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and he returns to the same kind of half-written, half-drawn storytelling M.O. in this book. For my money, though, The Marvels is more intense, more emotionally gripping, and an all-around better book. Selznick deserves all the praise and awards he’s earned.

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  • A Confederacy of Dunces — (John Kennedy Toole)
    • A classic, this book was one I had never read until this year. More’s the pity. It is hilarious, snide, cutting, interesting; its characters seem real and fleshed-out; its plot moves along steadily, retaining interest. Though it does flag a bit at the end, the novel is a work of art that I think everyone should read at least once. Practically every sentence drips with sarcasm, and I believe I actually laughed aloud while reading it.

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  • The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer — (Neal Stephenson)
    • This was originally suggested to me by Hugh Howey, who cites it as one of his favorites of Stephenson’s. I tried to start it a few years ago and got bored, but now I don’t understand how that was possible. The book features Stephenson (who is probably my favorite extant sci-fi writer) at his world-building best. The tech and geopolitical realities are superbly wrought. Though, as usual, Stephenson seems not to care about wrapping up his stories and resorts to Deus Ex Machina type devices to end things, the novel is still excellent and provides an interesting commentary on ideas like the education system, politics, the speed of technological advancement, and more.

 

graphic novels

 

  • SAGA, vol. 4 and 5 — (Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples)
    • I mentioned this last year when I started SAGA. It’s a wildly cool story about interspecies war and love, childhood, parenthood, kindness among strangers, meaning in the universe, etc. Expertly written, its equally stunning visuals are drawn by Staples at the absolute height of her power. Do not miss out on these works.

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  • Swamp Thing, Vol. 1-6 — (Alan Moore’s run; with John Totleben and Steve Bissette)
    • I’ve been a fan of Moore since his Watchmen brought me into graphic novels and comics (I know, I know, so original, Mike). I own Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and some of his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen work, but this is my first time reading his highly acclaimed run on Swamp Thing. Needless to say, it’s a work of staggering genius. Moore may be a weird dude, but as a writer he is nearly unrivaled.

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  • Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth — (Chris Ware)
    • Okay, so I recommend this one, but only as long as you go into it knowing that it’s unbelievably depressing. That said, it’s a monument to the struggles of the average modern man and is at times poignant and emotionally cathartic. We pull for Jimmy; we weep for Jimmy. We are Jimmy. It’s just… Jimmy’s very sad.

 

bonus book I didn’t know how to categorize

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  • The Paleblood Hunt — (Redgrave)
    • Just as last year featured the genre-bending work “Darths and Droids,” so this year features a “book” that many might say doesn’t belong on a list of this nature. The Paleblood Hunt is kind of a blend of scholarly work and fan fiction. It’s author, a man whose online alias is Redgrave, is one of the leading lore historians in the Bloodborne community (yes, yes, the video game). The Paleblood Hunt is his synopsis of Bloodborne’s often obscure and difficult to parse story, and for my money it is the best working theory of the game out there. The length of a novella, TPH should be required reading for anyone playing the game who wishes to join the greater lore community.
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Why Writing Nonfiction Feels Wrong, But Isn’t

 

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My uvula is forked, but not my tongue. That little dangly bit at the back of your throat? Yeah, mine has a bifurcation in it (likely the result of my palate closing late-on in my mother’s pregnancy). The kindest way to describe what this looks like is to say that it resembles a sort of upside-down heart. The way I end up having to describe it, inevitably, is that it basically looks like a tiny ballsack in my throat.

I know about the forked-uvula thing because I was told about it by my family doctor literally every time I visited him when I was growing up. We’d have almost the exact same conversation every visit, verbatim.

Doc: “Say ahh.”
Me: “Ahh.”
Doc: “Hey, did you know you have a bifurcated uvula?”
Me: “Yes.”
Doc: “How did you know?”
Me: “You tell me every time I come in here.”
Doc: “Well, it’s a pretty rare thing. Pretty neat, Michael.”
(an awkward pause)
Doc: “Hey, it’s better than having a forked tongue!”

And every time, this cheered me up. Even when I was sick. Maybe my mood lightened because of the humor of my doctor’s confusion (though certainly not his corny joke); maybe I felt better because of the sheer familiarity of the routine. Most likely what lifted my mood was something different, something bigger than all of that.

Most likely what lifted my mood was the doctor’s sincere interest, his wonderment, at a part of me (even such a small thing as a uvula that no one ever sees, that has no effect on anything, really, whatsoever). As if something about me was worthy of note.


I grew up a good Christian boy, regularly attending church as many as three times a week, listening as patiently as I could to sermons and Sunday School lessons. From the age of nine until the age of twenty-five, when I left the faith, I was relatively diligent in my beliefs. What I’m saying is that I heard a lot of sermons and talks and testimonies and messages. Understandably, plenty of these talks get lost in time, and it’s interesting to note the ones that I remember.

One such moment from my religious past that has stuck with me is a talk that was given to my youth group by our youth pastor, Brad. The talk concerned humility. Trying to drive home the fact that remaining humble is a constant process that requires serious dedication, Brad gave us this little quip that I think has some profound implications: “If I were to give out a trophy to the most humble person in the room, I’d have to snatch it back the minute someone came up here to take it.”

Obviously Brad’s point was that humility is one of those slippery qualities that put you in a Catch-22 situation. If you think you have it, you probably don’t. And this was meant as a way for us young folks to start to think about our actions and our attitudes, to strive even more toward behaving in healthier, kinder ways toward other people. It was meant as a sort of admonishment and encouragement to us, a command to esteem others above ourselves. And this, of course, is a good and noble purpose.

However, I have grown up to be a writer. I have discovered that I feel most comfortable and alive when I am crafting some kind of written work. It is, to borrow jargon from my religious past, my calling. And one of the most important lessons to learn about writing is that the most powerful pieces resonate on a personal level. As all of my teachers hammered into me in college: write what you know.

But I don’t like writing too much of what I know. I don’t like writing creative nonfiction about my own past. For one, it feels less revelatory than my fiction (which, paradoxically, often winds up showing me something true about myself that I wasn’t even aware I was writing toward). Yet I think the worse issue with nonfiction, at least for me, is that it feels terribly unhumble. Writing fiction feels like I’m creating something new, making a thing that wasn’t there before. Perhaps I’ve been trained by an upbringing that urged me to join in the work of the Creator, that told me art and creation were things that proved I was made in the image of God, and perhaps for this reason fiction seems much holier, much safer. With fiction, I create whole realities out of thin air.

Writing nonfiction feels like screaming at the world LOOK AT ME, THESE ARE THINGS THAT HAPPENED TO ME, READ THEM AND BOW BEFORE MY WORDS. It feels uncouth, somehow almost dirty, in a way that writing fiction simply doesn’t. It feels like esteeming myself before others.

It feels like sin.


But it is not.

Writing nonfiction can be poignant or aphoristic; it can be a way to categorize your own life, even only for yourself (like a journal); it can be useful in finding others who have had similar experiences, useful in helping them through those experiences when needed, useful in bonding. Even if it weren’t important in all of those ways, writing nonfiction would still be important simply for the reason that it often does feel less safe, less holy than writing fiction. What better way to stretch yourself in your art than by doing that which is difficult for you to do? What better way to learn?

Above all that, writing nonfiction is important and good and righteous for this reason: it affirms that everyone has some feature that is interesting and worthy of note.

See, you may not have some harrowing drug-recovery story that you think will sell a lot of books. You may not have met tons of famous people or traveled to exotic locations. Hell, I went out of the country one time over a decade ago and I still try to milk those stories as much as I can. But even so, you have something within you that can serve as a story, that can and must be told. As the great Flannery O’Connor once said: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

You have important things to say. You are interesting and worthy of note.

As for me, my name is Michael Candelario.

My uvula is forked, but not my tongue.

A List of Books I Read in 2016 (in [Basically] No Particular Order)

 

THE WAY THIS WORKS is simple. I’ve listed all the books I read in 2016. Each has at least a brief review to give you a flavor of how I felt about it. If the book’s title and author are bold and in italics, that means I recommend checking it out. If not, I either didn’t like the book or wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. For cases that are on the line between recommendation and non-recommendation, the review should say how I feel about the book.

nonfiction

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  • Capital in the Twenty-First Century – (Thomas Piketty)
    • One of (if not THE) most anticipated books on economics in the past decade (or more), Piketty’s book breaks down and analyzes the current state of the global economy in relation to the trends of the previous two centuries. Written in a layman’s style, the work is still difficult to parse at times (though not overly technical). Piketty is challenging, accessible, and necessary. In my opinion, this is probably the most important book I read this year, and it should be required reading for anyone wanting to discuss or think about capitalism and economics in the modern age (and perhaps especially in the age to come).

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  • Congo: The Epic History of a People – (David Van Reybrouck)
    • Exactly what the title suggests, Van Reybrouck’s book takes you through the history of Congo (from its arbitrary creation as a Belgian colony, through independence and authoritarianism, up to its current struggles). Written passionately from the standpoint of a Belgian whose father lived in Congo for five years just after independence, the book is an incredibly poignant picture of both the devastation that richer countries can wreak on poorer nations and of the fabled indomitable human spirit.

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  • The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring – (Paul Danahar)
    • Written by the former BBC Middle East Bureau Chief, this work is absolutely essential to understand the complex factors that led to the shakeup of the Arab world. Danahar is incisive and honest, and has a relatively evenhanded and consistent approach to the politics of the area. If you’re interested in learning more about the Middle East and its constantly shifting factions and complex underpinnings, this book is indispensable.

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  • Hitch-22 – (Christopher Hitchens)
    • Admittedly, I liked this book. But I only gave it 3 stars on Goodreads and I am not recommending it here because it misses what I think should be the point of a good autobiography. While it does give a glimpse into the mind of Hitchens, and while it is at times poignant and instructive and wildly interesting, I think it veers too much into the territory of overindulgence. That is, too often Hitchens seems caught up in his own mystique. Perhaps, though, this is an incorrect interpretation on my part. By no means is it a bad read.

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  • Mortality – (Christopher Hitchens)
    • Now this is a far better work by Hitchens. Diagnosed with cancer and knowing of his impending death, Hitchens’ partially unfinished book is incredibly insightful and (I’m using that word again here) poignant. You sense that he is being more honest and open than with his earlier Hitch-22. His reflections on life are applicable, interesting, emotional, and lovely. If you have any interest in Hitchens, this is a must-read. You almost certainly will not finish the book with dry eyes.

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  • Free Will – (Sam Harris)
    • Harris’ booklet on the age-old debate between free will and determinism is not bad, but it fails to really reach any effective purpose. Though the writing is up to Harris’ standards, the arguments he puts forth are sometimes cloudy and inconsistent. My friend Cody has written a more in-depth review of the book here. Overall, this is a decent primer for people interested in the subject, but there are much better and more thorough books out there.

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  • On Inequality – (Harry G. Frankurt)
    • I gave this book five stars on Goodreads for some reason. Looking back now, I can’t for the life of me decide why (other than that it was well-written, short enough to be accessible to the layman like myself, and provided me with a viewpoint very contrary to my own position [which I find important and yet all-too-often I neglect in my choice of books]). Frankfurt seems, honestly, to miss the point of the entire discussion and to settle instead on the semantic debate over whether or not “actual, pure equality among every person” is attainable—which is, of course, something that no one is even advocating.

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  • A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors – (Annie Liontas, ed.)
    • As are most collections, this is a hodgepodge of hit-or-miss essays by writers on the people (or sometimes things) who have come alongside them and improved their writing in some way. A significant amount of these are, in my opinion, abortive and unhelpful. But an equal amount are genuinely uplifting, challenging, or freeing in some way. Still, this work is probably only of interest to writers (or maybe artists in general).

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  • The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century – (Steven Pinker)
    • Admittedly, Pinker’s book is the first style-guide-type writing book I’ve ever read. Still, I find it hard to believe that another will surpass its importance and influence on my writing life. Pinker doesn’t just give you arbitrary rules about writing. Instead he lays out why those rules exist, why they are sometimes okay to break, and how to judge those situations for yourself. An absolutely essential read for any writer.

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  • Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking – (David Bayles and Ted Orland)
    • This short booklet helped me through a rough and unproductive time. My basic takeaway is the mantra of the book: to paraphrase, your work is that work which no one else can do; you must do your work. Read it whenever you feel down about your art, or whenever you need that extra motivation.

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  • A Brief History of Time – (Stephen Hawking)
    • I debated over whether or not to recommend this one. It’s already so well-known and lauded, and it is (by nature of its accessibility) such an oversimplification of the subject matter. However, I could not bring myself to deny a recommendation to the seminal work of one of our planet’s smartest humans. Plus, it is actually very interesting.

the controversial books**

**I have separated these books by Gerald Posner because of the plagiarism and inaccurate sourcing controversies that have surrounded Posner in recent years. I read these two books before knowing that, and so this alters and colors my opinion of his work. I’ll give a brief review of each book, but the presence of such controversies means that I cannot in good conscience give a recommendation (which is a shame, because he was going to be one of the major recommendations in this list).

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  • God’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican – (Gerald Posner)
    • This book about the moneyed interests within the Roman Catholic Church was so well-written, evenly-paced, and researched that it sparked within me a desire to read more nonfiction. If not for the controversy surrounding Posner, this would be my number two recommendation after Piketty’s book.

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  • Secrets of the Kingdom: The Inside Story of the Secret Saudi—U.S. Connection – (Gerald Posner)
    • A fascinating and deeply disturbing discussion on our nation’s questionable relationship with the Saudi royal family, with a dissection of the Kingdom’s entanglement with Wahhabism, Posner’s book is seemingly crucial to understanding modern global politics.

books of poetry

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  • 100 Best-Loved Poems – (Philip Smith, ed.)
    • A compilation of, well, best-loved poems from history, this book is a good way to get oneself into the swing of reading poetry.

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  • High Windows – (Philip Larkin)
    • Larkin was a poetic giant, and this work is one of his best. A master of turns of phrase, he is required reading for anyone who enjoys poetry.

fiction

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  • The Familiar, vol. 1-3 – (Mark Z. Danielewski)
  1. One Rainy Day in May
  2. Into the Forest
  3. Honeysuckle and Pain

    • Danielewski is one of the most experimental writers of our time, having written the wonderful House of Leaves and the (in my opinion) unreadable Only Revolutions. This series—a twenty-some volume work reportedly about Los Angeles—features a more straightforward narrative split between the viewpoints of different characters. Regardless of whether or not his constant experimentation suits you, Danielewski’s mastery of the written word is undeniable. The man can write better than almost anyone I’ve read. The Familiar is a testament to this fact, its prose weighty and complex and beautiful. Highly, highly, highly recommend to anyone who enjoys weird speculative fiction.

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  • The First Law, books 1-3 – (Joe Abercrombie)
  1. The Blade Itself
  2. Before They Are Hanged
  3. Last Argument of Kings
    • Abercrombie is a new name to me, but his story is captivating. Though a bit slow to start, the character development and worldbuilding is very good. This series is not for the faint of heart, as the violence and despair of its world seeps out of every page. That said, the books have that page-turning quality that every writer seeks to employ. I look forward to reading more works by Abercrombie in the future.

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  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – (Philip K. Dick)
    • Moviegoers should recognize this as the basis for the film Blade Runner, and not much else needs to be said. Though his writing is often blasé, Dick is unquestionably a pioneer of modern science fiction, and the ideas expressed in his stories are examples of incredible worldbuilding and philosophical thinking.

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  • Survival of the Fittest: Metamorphosis – (Johnny Pearce)
    • Full disclosure: I know Pearce and read the book at his request. That said, this apocalyptic zombie story manages to ground the reader in real, visceral fears. Instead of the sometimes detached and lofty philosophical ideations of, say, a Philip K. Dick, Pearce deals with philosophy and religion within the context of zombie horror as experienced by normal, everyday people. There is something enjoyable about a horror novel that emphasizes the mundane—somehow this can have the strange effect of heightening the tension.

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  • Louder Than Words: 22 Authors Donate New Stories to Benefit Share Our Strength’s Fight Against Hunger, Homelessness, and Illiteracy – (William Shore, ed.)
    • This collection of short stories—which is as old as I am, coincidentally—contains both some real gems and some very mediocre works. I picked the collection up for a few bucks at a local used bookstore, and I don’t regret spending that money. But, frankly, the fact that original purchasers of the book bought it largely for charity, well, makes sense.

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  • The Wheel of Time series, books 5-6 – (Robert Jordan)
      • The Fires of Heaven
      • Lord of Chaos
    • I have a complicated relationship with the WoT series. Jordan’s pacing is too slow, his worldbuilding is often repetitive, and his characters are largely too similar to each other. However, the world itself is so fascinating, the “magic” element so well-designed, that I continue to push through the slow parts. (For reference, though, I’ve been stuck on book 7 since this summer, so…). I recommend it for fantasy aficionados willing to expend lots of grace and patience.

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  • Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – (Susanna Clarke)
    • This book defies categorization. Obviously it is fantasy, but it contains elements of both a narrative and a stuffy history textbook (at least, as stuffy as it can be while discussing the fascinating subject of English Magic). In parts wry humor and tragedy, the book is unbelievably well-written and well-designed. It took me two tries to get into it, but honestly I’m not sure why I didn’t immediately fasten my nose to the page. Highly recommended.

graphic novels

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  • Locke and Key, vol. 1-5 – (Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez)
  1. Welcome to Lovecraft
  2. Head Games
  3. Crown of Shadows
  4. Keys to the Kingdom
  5. Clockworks
    • Illustrated by Rodriguez and written by Hill (Stephen King’s son), this story is wonderfully paced and beautifully whimsical even in its stark horror. All I will say re: plot is that it revolves around a family mansion and strange keys. I’ve yet to finish the series, as there is a sixth book I need to read, but each volume feels nearly perfectly resolved.

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  • SAGA, vol. 1-3 – (Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples)
    • The writing of Vaughan and the artwork of Staples are perfectly wedded in this amazing sci-fi romp. Told from the perspective of a child about her parents, the story is surprisingly adult, sometimes raunchy, often hilarious, hugely insightful, and always interesting. I do not want to finish the series—I need to finish it. This highlights the main problem with graphic novels and comics—this series is not yet finished, and so I have to pace myself while not going insane with the wait.

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  • Through the Woods – (Emily Carroll)
    • This is a unique compilation of five stories written and illustrated by the author. In the desire to make you interested, I’ll say that Carroll’s story have some of the horror of H.P. Lovecraft, and some of the pacing of those old Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books by Alvin Schwartz. However, this is a bit of disservice. Carroll’s style is very much her own, and her stories revel in the horror of the unknown.

webcomics

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  • Darths and Droids – (The Comic Irregulars)
    • Inspired by Shamus Young’s DM of the Rings (which recast the Lord of the Rings series as if the characters were players in a game of Dungeons and Dragons, and which I still—to my shame—have yet to read), Darths and Droids does the same thing with the Star Wars series. The current series covers the original trilogy and the prequels, as the writers wish to wait awhile before working on the new sequel-trilogy. Anyway, if you read one webcomic in your life, this probably should be it.

Audience Feedback Time!

Welcome to the first-ever Audience Feedback post on this here blog! Okay, that’s basically just a way of saying that for the past week I haven’t had a clue what to write for this week’s post, so I have used my vast network of Twitter followers and Facebook friends (read: my “audience”) to suggest some topics. After receiving a whopping two (read it: 2!) suggestions, I have decided to just go ahead and answer both of them. Actually, the first can probably be broken down into two separate questions, so I guess there’re three questions to answer. Prepare yourselves for some deep thoughts.

Question 1: Why do you write?

The easy, somewhat pretentious way of answering this question would be to say that I write because I have to. And that’s true in a lot of ways. I think there really is an internal drive in most writers to jot down their stories. Even when I’m not writing a story, I’m jotting down ideas for stories; or I’m jotting down poems; or I’m jotting down titles of stuff, character names, etc. etc. I like to write. I can’t not do it. But that’s not the only answer, and it probably isn’t the most satisfying one for anyone out there who actually cares about my reasons.

A better reason might be that I have always been an avid reader. Stories allow me to transport myself from this singular life I’m living into an endless amount of other lives and worlds. I get to experience things like space travel, growing up gay, living in Asia. The list is almost infinite, and each story makes it possible for me to get a completely different perspective on life. And so one of my goals is to give back to that community, to “join the conversation” about life and – yes, I’m about to say it – the human condition. I cringe when I write that, but it’s a true thing. I want to put my own thoughts out there in order to allow people to experience things they would otherwise not experience. Hence the fantasy and science fiction stories I currently have in the works. Writing also allows me to deal with life issues in a way that is liberating and helpful. I can organize my thoughts on a certain subject (for instance, environmentalism in the novel I also have in the works) and really explore how that subject might have differing effects on characters. So there is an intellectual aspect to why I write as well.

There is also a significant theological aspect to writing, for me. As a Christian, I believe that creativity stems from God, and that it is part of the “image of God” that humanity possesses. So writing is not only a celebration of the human imagination, but it is also a celebration of the divine. By creating stories I am mirroring the Creator, whose great story is history itself. That might sound like drivel to some of my audience, but it is a part of why I write and it is something I take rather seriously.

2. Why do you blog?

This one’s much easier. My blog allows me to be constantly writing stuff that is going to be read by people (not that many people, but the idea is there). Which means that I have a real incentive to write reasonably well, and thus I get a lot of valuable exercise of my “writing muscles.” That’s a lame metaphor, so let’s move on.

Practically, the main reason for having a blog is to generate an audience. That’s right – you all are the reason I blog! The idea is that the blog will provide a place for people to see samples of my writing and to receive updates on books of mine whenever I get them published. The blog is also a place for prospective employers to see my writing and judge whether or not they would like to hire me for any type of writing-related job. So there it is: the blog is basically a marketing exercise.

Question 3: Tell us about your recent move to the coast.

Yes, I live near the beach now. It’s been a decent enough move. There are still mounds of boxes scattered around our new duplex. And I am no longer used to the humidity and heat here. A few years living in the mountains will do that to you. And here’s another thing: they have so many ANTS here. I mowed the lawn the other day and my left ankle is now decked out with some vicious fire-ant bites. The ants must have gotten into my shoes while I mowed. Also, I’m kind of languishing in unemployment right now. I had two jobs lined up and they both have sort of flaked out on me. But I’m looking into some other opportunities, so I’m not yet freaking out.

Okay, enough about all the bad stuff. After all, the move was a good one. The duplex is bigger than our previous one, and there is a ton of cabinet space in the kitchen (this is something that Megan insisted upon). We also now have a dishwasher, a fenced-in backyard, weekly trash pickup, and we live in a kid-friendly neighborhood. It’s great. Not to mention the fact that we’re five minutes away from my parents and Megan’s dad. And only about forty-five minutes from Megan’s mom’s place. So the family gets to visit Asher more often (let’s be honest, he’s the main reason they visit, the little stinker) and Megan and I can get some much needed assistance with childcare. On top of that, even the unemployment thing has some benefits. I’ve been able to write on a more consistent basis, make a lot of headway into the Dwarf Story, and even watch a few Olympic soccer matches (Thursday is the Women’s Gold Medal Final between the USA and Japan!). So far moving to the coast has been a good experience.

So there you have it, folks. I have answered your questions. Thanks for helping me come up with something to put on here (thanks especially to Jeff Holder and Mary Fonvielle, who supplied the questions). See you next week!

Nonfiction Project Snippet

So, I’ve been sort of halfheartedly starting a nonfiction project about the evolution of my religious beliefs – how I became a Christian, how my theology changed, struggles I’ve had along the way, etc. This will probably not be finished or published in a long time, since I’m working on a deadline for my first novella right now (as well as trying to start an online arts magazine). However, I thought I’d post the first section of it here for you all to check out. Bear in mind that this section is not a happy one, and in fact is very tragic and saddening. So read at your own risk!
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When my wife was getting her master’s degree in Speech Language Pathology, part of her work was to observe clients in a clinic. People would come into the clinic from all ages and races; people who stuttered and lisped, children who were late developing critical speech skills, or children with debilitating physical or social disorders who needed extra help in communicating. But the most harrowing and terrifying and anger-inducing story that I ever heard was about the parents of one of my wife’s clients, one of whom was a nurse at a local care center.

These people had a baby, and for a while everything seemed great. The boy was developing wonderfully, and he was understandably the light of his parent’s eyes. Then, out of nowhere, the baby started having what are called Infant Seizures. He was four months old. Imagine the horror of this for a moment. I think the phrase “a parent’s worst nightmare” is thrown around way too much in our society. It’s used for things like your daughter showing up with a boy whose moral code is slightly less than that of Jesus. But imagine for a moment that you wake up one night to find your baby having a seizure. Imagine realizing, after all these months of everything seemingly going according to plan, that your child is having seizures. That something is going terribly and utterly wrong in his brain. That there is literally nothing in your power that can be done to correct this. And that perhaps this has been going on unnoticed for quite some time. This is your child, your life. A being for whom you are completely responsible. And yet there is nothing you can do. Now imagine that you have the sufficient medical knowledge to know all the possibilities of what could be causing the problem – and all the possibilities of skills and developments and important personality characteristics that could be lost, that could be getting destroyed from these seizures. How would you feel? What would you do?

The parents took the child to doctors and tried all sorts of cures and therapies until they were left with only one. The seizures had been isolated in one half of their son’s brain, and so the only option left to these people was something almost so unspeakable that it is physically difficult to type it out here: the doctors suggested the highly dangerous treatment of removing that half of their son’s brain where the seizure were occurring. Would this cause damage? Yes. But it would likely cure the seizures and prevent the other half of their son’s brain from being damaged.  When I say this must have been a difficult decision, the words seem paltry and ridiculous, since for most of us a “difficult decision” is which college to attend, or which movie to watch on the weekend. This is a decision about removing another human being’s brain, and is thus tied up with all kinds of other decisions like “what do we do if this puts him in a vegetative state?” or “how do we manage to live with ourselves if the procedure kills him?” But the parents decided in favor of the medical advice and the probabilities – like I think any parent would after exhausting literally everything else.  And the boy survived the surgery and came out just fine, minus half a brain.

The real tragedy here is not the difficulty of the decision, or even the removal of half of the kid’s brain. The real tragedy is that afterwards, the seizures came back. Only now the parents had no options left, their son had been hemispherectomized with their consent, and he was still experiencing seizures. Try to imagine your life like this. I do not want to do any disservice to the parents – who I am sure do not want our pity. They are, I am sure, wonderful people. They sure as hell proved that they are sacrificial and tough-decision-makers. And, for me at least, they sure as hell proved that they are good parents. They had to sleep with their child every night and hold him when he had his nightly seizures so that he wouldn’t hurt himself or swallow his tongue, or any other number of terrible things that he could do to himself while seizing. Imagine this. Not getting to sleep in the same bed as your spouse. Imagine trying to speak soothing words to your child as he goes through a seizure, all the while feeling so angry and depressed and guilty inside. Yes, guilty. Imagine the guilt. I’m not vilifying the parents in any way. Nor am I suggesting that their decision was the wrong one. What I am saying is that the situation itself provides no way to not feel guilty: I would have felt guilty having my son’s brain removed, and I would have felt guilty not having my son’s brain removed and letting the seizures go on unchecked. But now, through no fault of their own, the parents have to live with ordering a hemispherectomy on their child to no avail. It is literally the worst of both sides. And so yes, I think there would be guilt there, regardless of whether or not it was deserved.

My wife told me this story shortly before my own son was born. I think it was the first time I ever seriously doubted the existence of God.