Monday, January 8, 2018

Books Worth Going Back for (2017 review, part 1)

2017 was very good to me and to this blog. Blog readership has climbed significantly this last year. The most-read post was my list of 10 Great Princess Leia Moments from the Comics, but I was personally most fond of The Quality of Mercy, the first time I seriously attempt to discuss my spiritual beliefs on the blog.

But you're not here to watch a victory lap; let's get to the recap!

Best in Fiction

I delved into many novels this last year, particularly in the science fiction genre. I read Citizen of the Galaxy and The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein and enjoyed both books. Heinlein is not an author I've consistently enjoyed but he's certainly one I want to enjoy. Citizen of the Galaxy is easily the novel of his I've most enjoyed, thanks to his comprehensible world-building and strong lead protagonist. The Puppet Masters was simply good fun.

Although a Halo video game fan I hadn't reach much of the Halo fiction but finally sat down with Halo: The Fall of Reach by Eric Nylund, the novel which was released to fill in the backstory behind the original game. It's a very strong novel, especially from my perspective as a fan of the games, but I think it stands well on its own as it tells from the beginning where the Spartans came from and how their war with the Covenant began.

I began watching Game of Thrones in the last 2 years and of late found myself introduced in the literature, beginning with A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin. I'm sure I'll read the rest of the existing material by the end of 2018. I'm most impressed by how carefully Martin builds his fantasy world and the various considerations given to making it feel lived-in. At this point the books are much like their television adaptations but I know that will change - and even then, I have noticed how the book's events are much better at developing mysteries.

From my friend Olav I took up recommendations for The Goblin Emperor by Sarah Monette and Old Man's War by John Scalzi, the first a fantasy political book in the vein of Martin, the latter a sci-fi adventure in the spirit of Starship Troopers. Both were very enjoyable reads with well-developed central characters.

I read Lay Down Your Arms! by Bertha von Suttner, an anti-war novel written before that field of fiction was famous. The book tells the story of a woman whose loved ones are repeatedly, throughout her life, destroyed by war. The book's diary format certainly shows its age, but the anti-war message remains timeless.

I picked up Leave It to Psmith by P. G. Wodehouse from a book sale and I clearly need to read more Wodehouse; I had previously read some Jeeves/Wooster stories, but now I see how fine Wodehouse's other works were. Leave It to Psmith is a fine farce, especially for people who know their mystery novel tropes and enjoy seeing Wodehouse dismantle it. In a much more ridiculous fashion, The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser was an extremely funny send-up of pirate film tropes. I've had a look at Fraser's other works, hoping I would find more cut from this cloth, but this seems to be an exception in his career.

Best in Non-Fiction

The book event of the year for me was Five Came Back by Mark Harris, the story of the five top Hollywood directors who became involved in World War II. It was a facet of the war and of the directors' careers which I hadn't paid attention to before and the tale became unexpectedly moving in many places. I was also very impressed at the thoroughness of the research. This was a Christmas gift to me in 2016 and got me excited for the Netflix adaptation (more on that tomorrow).

Also in film, I read Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello and The Dark Side of Genius by Donald Spoto. Both helped me better realize Hitchcock's great filming instincts and his particular shortcomings. I had known of The Dark Side of Genius for decades but avoided it, fearing it might be salacious. It's not, and as both books made me want to rewatch my Hitchcock films, I think it didn't hurt his standing in my eyes. Finally, Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker's Journey by Harlan Lebo must surely be the most authoritative look at the film Citizen Kane ever written. It's particularly good reading for those people who are aware of the controversies surrounding which screenwriter was responsible for which elements of the final film.

I read Unquiet Ghosts by Adam Hochschild because Hochschild's books have all been engaging so far; the subject of investing Russia post-Stalin isn't one I had interest in, but Hochschild dug up some interesting people, finding folks who had been imprisoned by Stalin, yet wept when he died. It points to how easily people allow themselves to be led by authoritarians.

More directed to my faith, I read Devotions on Emergent Conditions by John Donne, a series of reflections Donne made while suffering a lingering death. It's a neatly philosophical book and many of Donne's ruminations were affecting to me. I used the book as a devotional during my last trip to Angola. A friend loaned me Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Quershi, the story of a Muslim man who converted to Christianity and how it was a very gradual process for him. It's unfortunate that Quershi died last year as he was gifted at sharing his story of faith.

Always being interested in Africa, I read The Colour Bar by Susan Williams, which tells about the marriage of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams and the many ridiculous political steps taken to try and break them up. There's a movie of their story as well, but this real life account has much more drama and plenty of ruthless villains. Finally, In the Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski is a collection of memoirs from Kapuscinski's various journeys to Africa across several decades and he expressed his feelings about the continent in a way which I felt akin to, given my own recently-discovered love of Africa.

Tomorrow: Film!

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