Saturday, January 4, 2014

What I read in 2013

Apparently I read an average of about 2 books per week in 2013. Yikes.


Why, you'd think I were making annual trips to the continent or something...

A number of these books turned out to be heavily steeped in opinion; books like They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children by Romeo Dallaire, We Wish To Inform You Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch, The Graves Are Not Yet Full by Bill Berkeley, Imperial Reckoning by Caroline Elkins (more about it here) and A Continent for the Taking by Howard W. French ultimately convinced me I've read enough opinions about Africa (especially the Rwandan genocide) and would prefer to read more African history.

So far as history is concerned, I really enjoyed Zulu by Saul David, which did a compelling job of explaining the Zulu War of 1879. Africa: a Biography of the Continent by John Reader was a different kind of historical book, as it begins its study of Africa's history around the time the continent was shaped. I found this latter book a little jumbled, but when it would take up particular threads of African history (especially by the time of the first European contact) it taught me a lot.

I should also mention Sword and Scalpel by Lory Lutz, a biography of my uncle's father, Dr. Robert Foster. Since my first trip to Angola, I've not only been learning more about Africa, but about this side of my family; the book explained a lot about the family's history, answering questions I hadn't even raised.


I finished up three of Peter Rollins' books in 2013: The Orthodox Heretic, Insurrection and the Idolatry of God; I was also fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Rollins and shake his hand. I don't always agree with Rollins' ideas, but I truly enjoy the way he upsets assumptions people make about their beliefs, seizing on angles which challenge the sort of stock answers people give when questioned about their faith.

Having seen Carl Medearis in 2012, I finally bought his book Speaking of Jesus last year; it really expounds upon the ideas Medearis talks about in his lectures, interviews and websites - and how to better communicate with non-Christians about faith.

I also read up on two classics: Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton; Chesterton is always lively in his essays, but the real discovery for me was Bonhoeffer and his ideas about the importance of community, something which has kept coming up in my own church activities.

I finished up the year with Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller (pretty good, similar to Peter Rollins) and, along a very different path, Commander of the Faithful by John W. Kiser, a biography of Ibn El-Kader, an Algerian Muslim who fought the French in the 1830s and won international recognition later in life for saving thousands from an attempted Christian massacre in Damascus. I first learned of El-Kader on this blog and the biography fascinated me, knowing as little as I did about Algeria's history. As the author notes, post-9/11, El-Kader is someone people in the western world could stand to learn more about. One wishes the openness between faiths which El-Kader sought in his life were achieved by our supposedly-enlightened age.

BOOKS ABOUT FILM I finally read Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut, the legendary series of interviews which I had read about in every book I own about Alfred Hitchcock. It was particularly interesting to hear Hitchcock describe his early days in his own words, but frustrating that he wanted to skip over so much of his own career - I wish Truffaut had held him a little closer to the fire, even on the films Hitchcock didn't particularly care for, as even Hitchcock's failures are still worthy of discussion.

I was utterly enthralled with Bogart by A.M. Sperber, which I read just as I was wrapping my exploration into Humphrey Bogart's entire filmography. Not only was Bogart's life extremely interesting, from his meager days as a supplicant at Warner to being the biggest man in Hollywood (albeit not particularly tall), but the history of Hollywood in those days had a few wrinkles I only thought I understood. The book's explanation of the HUAC hearings as an attempt by Republicans to link the Democrats to the communists so they could win back the White House had somehow never come up in any of the other histories I'd read about the "Red Scare."

The Parade's Gone By by Kevin Brownlow was a fine history of Hollywood's silent era, but a quite incomplete one (more about it here). Similarly, Groucho and Me by Groucho Marx skips around a lot with Groucho's life, seemingly focusing only on those memories Groucho linked to decent jokes he wanted to tell. Still, it was a very funny book. There was also Apocalypse on the Set by Ben Taylor, a tidy little book about how certain films became disasters. Each film assessed (such as Apocalypse Now and Heaven's Gate) could have held down a book about their breakdowns (and I believe they have).


After happening across the Bee-Man of Orn by Frank R. Stockton I went through a brief period of reading all the Stockton I could find - it's not all of the same quality, but the gentle humour in his fairy tale-like stories were a lot of fun, especially read on the bus first thing in the morning.

At last, I found the Adventures of Gerard by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the first of Doyle's Gerard collections (having read the other about 13 years ago). As I hoped, it was adventurous and whimsical with Gerard ever the clueless protagonist who's not nearly as clever as he thinks (yet, extremely lucky).

I delved into both Captain Blood and Captain Blood Returns by Rafael Sabatini, having loved the film version for years. I enjoyed the first book the most as the other was really a collection of short stories set between the events of the novel. Great light reading which has encouraged me to read more of Sabatini's books.

Were it not for the film I adaptation, I would have never touched Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but the film helped me realize it wasn't as ponderous as its reputation suggested. Sure enough, it was an extremely lively read, certainly deeper than the film. Speaking of which The Mouse That Roared by Leonard Wibberley turned out to be a lot more clever than the film and I had thought the film was pretty good! Some other books I came to having first enjoyed the film adaptations were the Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain and A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler.

I spent years hoping to find a copy of Mr. Mergenthwirker's Lobblies by Nelson S. Bond before finally obtaining it in 2013. I'd heard some adaptations of Bond's stories on the 1950s radio program Sleep No More and wanted to find more; it's a fantastic collection of short stories, taking some fun slants with old ideas. I should really write a blog entry about it!

Arsene Lupin by Maurice Leblanc proved to be the Raffles sequel I'd always wished for; like Raffles, it's a great collection of stories about a gentleman thief who outsmarts all his foes (even Sherlock Holmes in an unofficial crossover!). It's a fine collection of stories, always encouraging the reader to try and guess the twists ahead.

On a much more somber note, there's The Death of Grass by John Christopher, a desperately depressing tale in a post-Apocalypse vein where the worldwide loss of grass brings about the end of civilization. Given today's culture's current fascination with post-Apocalypse fare, this book's just waiting to be rediscovered.


Having enjoyed the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay so much, I keep giving Michael Chabon other chances, but having read the Yiddish Policeman's Union I think I've given him all the rope I'm willing to; I'm simply not enjoying his books - I think Kavalier and Clay was anomalous so far as my interest in his work goes.

Similarly, I keep having trouble with G.K. Chesterton's fiction. Outside of his Father Brown tales and the Man Who Was Thursday, I keep finding books with neat ideas which I can't quite appreciate, perhaps because I live in a different time and place than Chesterton did. The Napoleon of Notting Hill is the most recent disappointment.

I gave Lilith by George MacDonald a chance to see how he influenced C.S. Lewis, but the dreamlike quality of the book was too overwhelming for me in the end.


Somehow my interest in comic books waned in 2013. Although I began a boycott of Marvel & DC in 2012, the real problem of 2013 was winning an ipad; once I saw how easy (and cheaper) it was to read comics on the ipad, I thought I'd switch from physical copies to the digital. Uh, that was the plan... in the last half of 2013, I visited my local comic shop just two times, but I made almost no purchases on the ipad. Somehow, there just doesn't seem to be any urgency to buy comics when you don't have to worry about the shop's stock running out. Instead, most of the comics I read in 2013 were library books, Amazon purchases or Kickstarter rewards.

In terms of books about comics, I really enjoyed Message in a Bottle, a terrific collection of Bernie Krigstein stories with footnotes. Jim Steranko's History of the Comics was a breezy tour through early comic book heroes (more about it here). The Secret History of Marvel Comics was a great look at the publisher's earlier history, even though it wasn't quite what I'd hoped for - too many chapters repeat information already established.

Kickstarter helped bring me to a few neat projects, including Steve Ditko's the Ditko Package (more about it here), Lars Brown's Penultimate Quest (more about it here) and Batton Lash's the Werewolf of New York (more about it here). I'm pleased to have helped bring these books into existence - hopefully there will be more to support in 2014.

My great achievement in terms of graphic novels was finishing up Dave Sim's Cerebus (about which, here). I also tried out Guy Delisle for the first time with Pyonyang and Jerusalem, revisited Joe Sacco with the Great War (more about it here), read David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp, Jacques Tardi's It Was the War of the Trenches, Sergio Toppi's Sharaz-de (more about it here) and finally read Persepolis, having already seen the film. Taking a reverse slant, I picked up the graphic novel adaptation of Alien by Archie Goodwin & Walter Simonson, not because I'm a great fan of the film, but because I'd heard the adaptation was exceptional - which, it is.

In standard formats, I'm still enjoying Sergio Aragones Funnies (reviews of two issues found here and here), the first issue of Dean Haspiel's quite fun the Fox (my review here) and Francesco Francavilla's decent period piece the Black Beetle, more of interest due to Francavilla's art than the pretty standard "noir" plot. I began following Brian K. Vaughan & Marcos Martin's Private Eye in both English & Portuguese, which has been both a nice teaching tool for me and a nice opportunity to revisit Martin's fantastic art (more about the series here and here. There also a pair of books I've been reading on the ipad which I mean to cover here on the blog eventually - James Turner's Rebel Angels and Chris Wisnia's Monstrosis.


Tending our comic art at the University, I've been becoming more and more interested in the history of comic strips, having spent a few years collecting the hardcovers of Milt Caniff's Terry and the Pirates, finally wrapping it up in 2013. From there, I gave Flash Gordon a chance (more about it here), picked up Sam's Strip (more about it here), bought up quite a few of Checker's collection of Winsor McCay's strips (which are unfortunately not reproduced in high quality) and I tried out the first hardcover edition of Captain Easy (more about it here); I'd like to try out more Captain Easy, but boy, those hardcovers are expensive.

Finally, while I've been interested in some webcomics on-and-off, in 2013 I finally located one I really enjoy: Housepets!, a comedy series about talking cats and dogs. No, seriously, I quite enjoy it. Hopefully in 2014 I'll find some time to blog about the series.

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