My highest recommendations, in a nutshell:
- The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
- The Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin
- Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
- Radicalized by Cory Doctorow
- My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
- The Giver by Lois Lowry
- Children’s books
2019 was a year of settling in to my new job at the MIT Media Lab — until a wrench was thrown into the works, in the form of the revelation that the Lab had accepted donations from sex trafficker eugenicist Jeffrey Epstein. This resonated for months, and upended my working life more than I could have imagined. Meanwhile, my wife Kate’s amazing play Love, about an accusation of workplace sexual exploitation, had its world premiere announced; and my daughters edged towards a terrifying, TikTok-fueled preteenage focus on image and beauty.
Maybe all of this was why I was so attuned to gender oppression, because this year, I saw it everywhere. Several of my favorite books, by Ursula Le Guin, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, Elizabeth Strout, and N. K. Jemisin, centered on themes of gender and gender violence. A wonderful memoir by Michael Crichton was sullied by his casual misogyny, which I might have looked past when I was younger, but felt glaring to me now. And several books that I read to my daughters, like The Phantom Tollbooth and Losing Joe’s Place, had to be edited on the fly to make up for their singular focus on male characters, and to give female characters more to do than just look pretty.
This is a dimension to the world which I’ve known about, but haven’t been forced to know from the inside as much as 2019, and the books I read this year, made me know it.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
There’s so much that’s remarkable about this unforgettable novel, but the most amazing thing to me is that it feels so current, given that Le Guin published it in 1969.
The fields of science fiction and fantasy have been undergoing a deep change in the last decade or so, shaking off old boundaries and assumptions about what kind of people, and ideas, belong in genre fiction. (One emblematic book is N. K. Jemisin’s 2015 novel The Fifth Season, reviewed below.) In many ways this change has been made possible by the (still incomplete) mainstreaming of gay and trans lives over this recent period, and the power of movements like Black Lives Matter.
Which makes it all the more surprising that so many of the themes you’ll find in the most exciting genre fiction today were present in Ursula Le Guin’s work two generations ago.
It’s hard to describe The Left Hand of Darkness. Its plot is minimal, and yet it manages to sketch out several complex cultures. It contains an epic adventure, and yet that adventure is astonishingly still and quiet. It contains a relationship of profound intimacy, but there’s no romance at all. It’s sci-fi, but advanced technology barely figures in the story.
The closest comparable novel I know is John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, with its attention to precise political and logistical tactics, and the human tragedy that politics wreaks. But Left Hand also pauses regularly to deliver doses of ethnographic research or folklore, in a very different tone that reminds me of Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table or Alfonso Cuarón’s film Y Tu Mamá También.
Which is to say, Left Hand would feel unique and rich, even if it weren’t for the element of Le Guin’s world that is talked about most: the way its people move fluidly between male and female genders, and the way their sexuality adapts to make sex, and pregnancy, possible between any two adults. It’s an effective exercise in queer imagination, so that by the time the reader encounters the line “The King was pregnant”, it isn’t a surprise.
And I’ve barely scratched the surface of everything a reader can chew on. For instance, there’s a whole bonus layer of meta-fiction Le Guin leaves unsettlingly unresolved. I’ll just leave it at this: all of Le Guin’s high-flying ideas and conceits serve character and story, and all illuminate the human condition.
The Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series has few comparable peers. There are five novels, one novella, and eight short stories. The first story was published in 1964, the last in 2018 — as far as I know, that is the longest span of writing about a single fictional world by a single author.
Book One: A Wizard of Earthsea
The first novel, A Wizard of Earthsea, was intended as a young adult fantasy novel, early in the existence of such a thing. This year, I tried reading it to my daughter, then 9 years old. She found it too slow and still, and we put it down. But I came back to it, and Le Guin’s writing cast a spell on me that pulled me through five books.
For starters, I think that it’s wrong to categorize Earthsea as “young adult”. The tone and pace are too mature — young people may well read it and enjoy it, but it’s no more a young adult book than, say, Dune is. And some of the later books involve themes of violence and violation of consent that are profoundly disturbing.
The series’ quiet and still prose, which were so difficult for my daughter, match the way magic works in the cosmology of Earthsea, where intimate knowledge of the natural world is the currency of a wizard’s power, and that knowledge usually requires long study. This is quite the contrast to Harry Potter, where magical powers and effects are promiscuously piled on top of each other. If Harry Potter is an NBA game with scores in the hundreds, Earthsea is more like a Manchester City-Juventus match that ends 0–1, with everyone completely exhausted.
At times, it seems like Le Guin wanted the books themselves to feel like mythological artifacts. At the same time, they feel loose and alive to me, not stuffy or overwritten. Maybe this was because, according to Le Guin, much of the first book was improvised; she didn’t plot them out before she began writing, and introduced terms like “archmage” or “dragon master” on impulse, before she had any idea what they might mean, and then discovered their meaning along with her characters.
Book Two: The Tombs of Atuan
I didn’t fall in love with the series until this, the second book, which brilliantly deepens the Earthsea world and expands its scope.
The physical setting instantly became one of my favorite fantasy locales: it felt haunting and powerful and full of bottomless, ancient, quiet horror.
Atuan also introduces a focus on women’s places in the magical world of Earthsea, and the ways that gender intersects with magical and political power.
Book Three: The Farthest Shore
In The Farthest Shore, a sort of virus of listlessness is taking over the world; everywhere, people are abandoning their work, forgetting their studies, and dreaming of living forever; magic is also losing its power. This is clearly meant as a metaphor for modern complacency, but the metaphor never quite landed for me, particularly the part about immortality.
On the contrary, I think it’s a much greater problem that so few people think beyond the length of their own lives. The apocalyptic fervor of evangelical religion, for example, focuses its adherents on a blaze of glory in the near future, rather than encouraging them to consider the future generations of people who need our work to create an inhabitable earth and a just society.
Book Four: Tehanu
It was worth reading the third book, if only because it sets up this utter masterpiece, which Le Guin wrote 18 years later, from a very different perspective.
Decades after she began the series with a very male-centered world, Le Guin centers Tehanu from the perspective of several women, and shows all of the ways they compromise with, give love to, and are terrorized by, men.
I’ve seldom seen women’s relationships with men explored so frankly, least of all in a fantasy novel. Tehanu is the most unforgettable fantasy book I’ve ever read, and a powerful observation of how gender and power operate.
Book Five: Tales from Earthsea
Tales from Earthsea collects five short stories Le Guin wrote around the turn of the millennium. A few elements seem almost like a remix of other Earthsea stories, notably Tehanu. The result does not feel as crucial and inventive as Tehanu and Atuan did, but I enjoyed the gentle exploration of corners of Earthsea, especially a story about a mysterious drifter with a gift for healing livestock, and the ways his sensitivities set him apart from others.
Earthsea series: Highest recommendation.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
It’s hard to describe this small, quiet novel. Little happens; a New York CIty woman lies in a hospital bed, visited by her rural-living mother. They talk. But they don’t talk much; they aren’t close, really, and there is immense distance between them and their worlds. They remember things together, and argue a bit about their memories.
Somehow this novel seemed astonishingly true, even though I couldn’t say what its claims about the world are; and it was mesmerizing, even though it has no plot.
Radicalized by Cory Doctorow
These four short novellas are some of the most focused and purposeful of Doctorow’s stories, of which I’ve read at least twenty. The first, the brilliantly named “Unauthorized Bread”, takes the real tech policy called “trusted computing” and shows where it could lead: a world where people are forced to rebel against their own kitchen appliances, and face homelessness and prison if they dare to program their devices themselves.
The second story is one of my favorite pieces of Doctorow’s writing, an unauthorized Superman story better than any published by DC Comics, which shows how quickly Superman would risk being seen as an enemy by the public if he were to truly stand up for victims of violence in America.
The third story is a terrifying dive into how society might break down in response to medical expenses and insurer cold-heartedness, which I found moving and human. But it also suggests to me that Doctorow has only a shallow understanding of the political economics of why both medicine and social services in America are so obscenely expensive.
And the fourth is a post-apocalyptic survival story that brilliantly undermines the preposterous certainty with which Ayn Rand-reading survivalists and gun nuts talk about self-sufficiency and self-defense. Together, these stories were eye-opening and unforgettable.
All Systems Red and Artificial Condition (first two books of the “Murderbot Diaries”) by Martha Wells
I’ve heard raves about this series, and it’s a lot of fun. The central character, an artificial person slangily called a “murderbot”, is compelling in a way that hard to put my finger on. It might be because I see my own geeky mind in their frustrating attempts to translate their analytical thinking into relatable human conversation. Or maybe it’s because, somehow, these novels feel very queer; there’s a lot about suffering through moments of intimacy that are mismatched to your desires, and a lot about the burden of putting others at ease in your presence.
This is as page-turning as “soft” sci-fi can be. Martha Wells’s pacing and world-building are light and fluid, and there’s nothing like the wall of made-up words and names that greets you at the start of a typical fantasy book or a Neal Stephenson tome.
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin
The Fifth Season is one of the most influential and acclaimed books of the last decade. Not only did it win the Hugo Award for best sci-fi or fantasy novel, but incredibly, both of its two sequels also won the Hugo in their years, a first.
It’s a book which defies many outdated norms of genre fiction; for instance, it prominently features characters whose gender and sexual identities defy easy categorization.
Race, and racism, are also present, though they are’t a focus of the book. Instead, Jemisin, who is black, focuses on other sorts of discrimination and slavery, in a way that has unmissable parallels for racial oppression. Castes are rigidly enforced; the talented are expected to perform brilliantly, even as they are denied any power; characters work to pass as members of the majority, and are forced to hide their cultural traditions even from their own children.
I really enjoyed reading this book, and puzzling out its structure and characters. The history of the world Jemisin builds is brilliant and compelling. As I felt with Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, though, I didn’t feel that the book’s story itself quite matched the power of its setup. At the end, characters and situations feel as though they were interrupted mid-arc.
I’ve been told that the second book picks up immediately after the first ends; I’ll keep reading, and hopefully be able to consider the trilogy as a whole.
The Women in the Window by A. J. Finn
This recent bit of book-club bait hooked me quickly and held me to the end. Like a lot of mystery books, the resolution was a bit of a let-down, but it was tons of fun to spend time along the way with the protagonist’s sardonic voice, and to see her use it as a defense against the world.
I was disappointed by a few things, though. There was one late point where the plot demanded a particular decision, one that I felt went against character.
Second, the story takes place in Harlem, nearly entirely among white people, without ever grappling at all with Harlem’s identity or history. It’s as if black people simply don’t exist. There is one black character, who is almost comically protective of the white people he deals with. The police characters, meanwhile, are endlessly patient and empathetic; they’re clearly the creation of someone who hasn’t interacted much with the NYPD, and who certainly has never reflected on how the police treat different types of people.
Pirate cinema by Cory Doctorow
Cory Doctorow’s recent novels, since his young adult novel Little Brother, largely center on activists who blend political work with technical work.
Pirate Cinema feels like a retread of this material, with a light touch. There’s less of the terrifying police state repression that he explored in Little Brother and Homeland, and more of a focus on the process of political organizing and the impact of the government policies his protagonists are seeking to change.
The main character stumbles into activism because he remixes copyrighted films into short, absurd videos, and posts them online. Like an ACLU lawyer, Doctorow has designed this transgression to be sympathetic, while also plausibly offensive enough to the big studios and their lobbyists that they’ll throw the book at him.
I appreciate and largely agree with the case he’s making, but I wish Doctorow would challenge himself to explore aspects of piracy that aren’t as neat. In real life, well-intentioned hackers like his heroes have established workarounds that hurt small-budget movies as well as blockbusters.
One chapter calls back Doctorow’s own activism with the Electronic Frontier Foundation around the public’s “freedom to tinker”. The protagonists circumvent the lockout protections of powerful mosquito-zapping devices, which hurt humans if they aim wrong or misfire, and reprogram them to look for and zap all camera lenses, in order to take down London’s surveillance system.
Here again, Doctorow seems to let himself off easy: the possibility that this bit of illegal tampering with a weapon might hurt or kill people doesn’t even occur to the characters, and has zero consequences.
My last complaint is that his characters are such Mary Sues, as the young people say. Every film the protagonist creates is an indelible work of genius; his humble speeches are viral hits, soon attended live by massive crowds. When his dumpster-diving friend turns his attention to coffee, he becomes a world-class brewmaster. His enigmatic girlfriend is breathtakingly beautiful activist with the wisdom of Yoda. His girlfriend’s dad is a renowned lawyer and, on the side, a world-class mead brewer. An acquaintance is a world-class hardware hacker who can produce any device you can imagine, for free. You get the picture.
I know that this is fiction. But the ease with which Doctorow’s characters reach out and grasp power feels alien to me. I don’t mind a flight of fancy about a version of the world where a movement of activist teenagers become heroes, but something about Doctorow’s certainty that people will flock to you if your work is good offends my knowledge of how the world really works. Distribution is power, and while some do go viral without paying for distribution, it’s freaking hard! (And increasingly these days, even when someone’s work goes viral, the audience doesn’t even bother to follow them afterwards.)
All that said, I love the spirit of the book, which at its best is freewheeling, breathless, and inspired. I think it would be great for teenagers to read it and absorb its DIY message of building your own art, housing, economy, and politics, and not assuming anyone else is going to do it for you. But I wish Doctorow were more rigorous about considering the full effect of the policies his characters push for and the actions they take, and about considering the hard road to the world’s attention that the readers he inspires actually face.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
I made my second attempt to read this much-recommended book, gave it 100 pages, and bailed once again.
First of all, let’s all agree that Mantel’s writing is intentionally disorienting. That, in itself, isn’t bad; I liked David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, for example, which wields disorientation like a scalpel, throwing the reader into a new era each chapter and then cutting them off just at the moment they get oriented.
David Mitchell likes to spam the reader’s brain with names and unexplained references; Mantel’s method, instead, is to withhold names and references, starving the reader of context to understand which people are present in a scene, and why they’re there.
One character might, say, jump up suddenly, with a wave of snippets of memory, feel terror, then apologize. What happened? Mantel makes me play detective on the page; rereading the passage several times, I piece together clues and come to understand that some shadows played a trick of the light, which triggered the first character to defend himself because of his history as a domestic abuse victim and street brawler.
There’s quite a bit of craft at work in constructing these vague puzzles; I’ve heard others say that Mantel’s prose puts them under the book’s spell in a uniquely immersive way.
But for me, it feels like showing up at a party and being given homework.
Little Fires Everywhere
If you ever find yourself being a teenager who ruefully refers to your suburb as “our perfect little town”, congratulations! You’re a character in a novel whose author sees you only as a tool to make points she’s already certain of.
Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller
One protagonist resentfully stares down some tourists from a wealthy and complacent country, thinking at them “We are the future… and you are the past.” Another character, a poor immigrant father, explains why he is rejecting government help with his daughter’s illness by quoting verbatim, from memory, the government legalese he’s run into. A book that tells, not shows; with characters who each speak in the author’s voice.
Jefferson’s Sons: a Founding Father’s Secret Children by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
An astonishingly ambitious project: a young adult novel written from the point of view of Thomas Jefferson’s black sons and daughters. There is so much that’s impressive about Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s achievement here, not least of all that she manages to make the story captivating without downplaying the sickening fact that this freedom-proclaiming founding father enslaved his own children.
An author could understandably decide to make a book about life as a slave just a litany of horrors. That goes even for people like Sally Hemmings and her children, who were exempted from the torture, backbreaking labor and family separation suffered by other enslaved people under Jefferson’s control.
But Bradley chooses instead to vary the texture of her chapters, alternating between episodes of violence and moments of quiet or interpersonal relationship. The portrait of life as a slave that emerges feels particular to each character, even as there is a common thread of alienation and uncertainty: the children experience moments of warmth and even joy, but degradations and denial of their humanity are never far away. Within this context, Bradley can tell stories of family connection — even fleeting connections between Jefferson and his black sons — without those moments feeling false, or feeling like they deny his sons’ broad and deep oppression.
As for my child, who is 10 years old and white, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get her into this book. She loved Bradley’s bestseller The War that Saved My Life and its sequel, but this one sat on her shelf, unread, for months. Finally I started reading it to her, and she was immediately horrified, fascinated, and full of questions. Some of her questions made me realize how little I’ve really talked to her about race and U.S. history. I had assumed she’d absorbed things I’d told her about once or twice — and things I now realize I had never told her at all. So this book served as a primer on the history of slavery, its human implications, and the compartmentalization that has been required in white people’s minds to justify their power, and in black people’s minds to allow their survival.
The immense value of that more than makes up for any quibbles I had with Bradley’s choices along the way. Sally Hemmings’s lessons to her children about race strike me as unrealistically modern, but that choice helps children reading the book to receive those lessons too. I wished there were similar deconstructions of sexism, which shows up in abject form— period-appropriate, I’m sure, but hard to put in context for a young reader.
It’s phenomenal work, and a powerful, unforgettable read.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Somehow I never read The Giver as a kid, even with in all the times that I saw it featured in those Scholastic “book club” catalogues. Maybe it’s the cover most printings used, which makes it seem a bit, well, homework-y; I had no idea that it was a science fiction novel of dystopia, only that it was much loved.
So when I saw this at a stoop sale, I talked my 10 year old into letting me read the first chapter to her. We were instantly hooked, and then drawn into Lowry’s unforgettable world. She uses her artfully designed premise to set up a deep and powerful meditation on the power of fiction, the duty to pass on what we know about life and humanity to our children, and the sorrow that comes with seeing them discover the depth of human cruelty and pain. It’s also fast-moving, psychedelic, and entertaining — a much easier sell to my 10 year-old than I expected. I only wish the central characters weren’t mostly men.
More than any other book I’ve read, The Giver distills the values of independent thought and progressive empathy that I most want my children to carry from me.
Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride by Pam Muñoz Ryan and Brian Selznick
Wonderful, quick-reading historical anecdote about an encounter between Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt, which is wonderful even if it didn’t happen quite as it’s told here. It’s a simple story, but dazzlingly executed, and keeps its focus on the human level rather than becoming lost in hagiography.
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
In the Harry Potter vein, The Mysterious Benedict Society features an orphan, about 10 years old, who learns he is special, learn to use his abilities from a new mentor, makes friends, and with them, must battle his mentor’s nemesis. In the process, the protagonist’s goodness of heart win him victories and a new de facto family, even as they face almost comical peril. Maybe it would be more apt to call it a nerdier Series of Unfortunate Events.
Benedict presents many well known mental puzzles and tricks in the course of its story, which was a treat that piqued my daughters’ curiosity and cleverness. But throughout, it reiterates an ethical and democratic view of intellectual power: namely, that patience, curiosity, disobedience and generosity will always win out over cleverness, obedience and narcissism.
Trenton Lee Stewart’s plotting is not as tight as J. K. Rowling and Lemony Snicket’s, and the book sags in the second half. But its high points are wonderful, and the central characters are fantastic. Plus, we got to dwell for a while in the book’s humanistic and dutiful worldview, which I think we could all use a bit more of.
Losing Joe’s Place by Gordon Korman
One of my favorite chapter books as a middle-schooler, by one of my favorite writers at the time, Losing Joe’s Place follows three Canadian teenagers from a small town who manage to convince their parents to let them spend the summer living and working in the big city.
Toronto is a setpiece that Gordon Korman uses to bring in character after outrageous character for fun and games, and reading this to my 10 year-old, we found it as fun and breathless as I remembered. Beyond the memorably eccentric players, there’s a chronicle of entrepreneurism that’s rare in children’s books, and wonderful.
However, some of the 1980s misogyny rankled. It helps that the misogyny is there to be rejected; it’s mostly spoken by friend who is seen by the main character as a boorish jerk. Still, I found myself skipping over many lines that I didn’t want resonating in my daughter’s mind. And beyond the explicit sexism, which the author at least thinks he’s denouncing, there’s the fact that only one of the six central characters in the book is a woman, and she is primarily there as a romantic interest.
I still enjoyed reading the book, because it does such a great job at the may things it does well. It’s just a tragedy that the patriarchy’s tentacles reach into the imaginations of even brilliant authors to poison their work.
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer
I’ve read this 1961 absurdist chapter book several times. But reading it to my daughter made me notice how few female characters there are. I made a few characters female on the fly as I read aloud, which I recommend doing in general.
We loved it. And… and… I shouldn’t have to alter a children’s book out of concern that it might diminish my child.
Look, I’m not saying my primary requirement for good fiction is representation. Plenty of girls see themselves in Milo, The Phantom Tollbooth’s aimless protagonist, just as plenty of people of color see themselves in Little Women. (And by the way, every illustration in The Phantom Tollbooth seems to depict white people, unless they’re a giant talking bug or an anthropomorphized sound or something.) Every book does not need to explicitly portay everyone; a book can be about a male boarding school, or about Elena Ferrante’s Naples neighborhood, or whatever.
But The Phantom Tollbooth isn’t about men. It isn’t about white people. It’s about what it would look like if people literally “jumped” to conclusions, and whether the fact that the average family has 2.58 children means that you might encounter .58 of a child someday. The fact that pretty much every human in this fantasy world of wordplay is a white man is actually really weird.
Still, my daughter and I had a great time reading this. Its best scenes, such as the symphony of colors and the city which has become invisible because its inhabitants never stop and look around, are unforgettable.
Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini and Dan Williams
A beautiful picture book that takes the form of a prayer from a Syrian refugee parent for their child, while fleeing across the sea. There were pages that were haunting, and it’s an ambitious attempt to humanize refugees in the eyes of children. However, the anonymous and generalized writing and imagery didn’t give me much to latch onto in terms of story or character; without those, it’s hard to know how this book might connect to child readers. Could a book this anonymous be one of a child’s favorite books?
One-Third Nerd by Gennifer Choldenko and Églantine Ceulemans
A sweet chapter book about a family whose three children all have different strengths and struggles with their minds. There’s no spectacular plot, but the messages of neurodiversity, resourcefulness and support between family members are delivered well and with compassion. I also appreciated the way the family’s money worries were handled, as deserving of concern but not of shame.
A Ray of Light by Walter Wick
A clear explanation of some of light’s phenomena. Occupies an unusual place on the spectrum of picture book to textbook; it’s wordy, but makes extensive use of photographs and illustrations.
Exit, Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles by Mark Russell, Mike Feehan, others
I can’t believe this exists: a graphic novel set in the 1950s in which Snagglepuss, the Hanna-Barbera cartoon friend of Yogi Bear, is a hard-drinking, gay, Southern playwright who battles McCarthyism — when he isn’t carousing with Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman.
Snagglepuss’s trademark one-liners (“Heavens to Murgatroyd!”) have been upgraded to razor-tongued takedowns of American provincialism and hypocrisy, and the result is bizarre and delightful.
It’s also a reminder of how satisfying irreverent liberal humor in the tradition of H. L. Mencken can be. We could use some more of that these days.
Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol
A coming-of-age graphic novel memoir that uses a light touch in conveying adolescent social pain. Vera Brosgol worked as a character designer for several years at the animation company Laika, and her panels crisply convey emotion, position, and scene beats.
It’s the sort of mastery of the comics form that makes the whole book feel like more than the sum of its parts. My daughters have read it several times, and I appreciate the opportunity it has given them to go through an account of pre-adolescent angst, and come out the other side intact.
The End of the F**king World by Charles Forsman
There is something incomparable in the format of self-published, stapled, 8-page mini-comics. They feel like disjointed artifacts that barely seem to exist in the real world, and owe nothing to it.
The End of the F**king World was originally published in that form, and that’s the spirit to read it in. It’s difficult, inscrutable, and 100% its own thing.
Hawkeye: LA Woman by Matt Fraction, Annie Wu and Javier Pulido
Light and fun. Kate Bishop is a badass character, and she fits into Los Angeles in a way that is Coen-esque and Pynchon-esque. The plots are a bit thin, but the point is the breezy attitude and style.
Gotham Central, Book 1: In the Line of Duty by Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark
What a brilliant concept: crime fighting in Gotham City, from the perspective not of superheroes, but of everyday police detectives. They do cross paths with superheroes, of course; sometimes they learn of supervillains’ actions first, other times they’re rushing to catch up and contain the fallout from a fight.
The fun comes in how they define themselves against Batman’s role; instead of seeing the bat signal as a point of pride, for them it represents a failure to take care of a problem themselves. The execution is uneven, but in the most intriguing moments, when the cops’ relationship with Batman bristles, the book shines.
There’s a subtle metafictional element to these stories. The police operate in the shadow of heroes with seemingly godly abilities, which throws their already dull daily work into even greater contrast than it is in typical police fiction. When a story ends with the cops in the background, trudging home after being ignored and outclassed, the story’s lack of a climax seems to be the very point. In other words, these are compelling stories because they are about work and life in the absence of compelling stories.
Supergirl: Being Super by Mariko Tamaki and Joëlle Jones
I love the work of both Mariko Tamaki and Joëlle Jones. While this isn’t the most original story, it has real heart, and the art is full of life. It’s an origin story of sorts, but not in terms of superpowers; rather, it’s a story of the origin of Supergirl’s identity and sense of purpose as a hero.
Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? By Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert
A surreal Batman story in which Batman looks down at his own funeral, as various characters explain how he died. The stories provide radical revisionist histories of Batman’s identity and purpose, with first Catwoman and then Alfred retelling Batman’s story with them at the center.
At first it’s good, clever fun. But then those revisionist histories give way to a different type of story, one which takes place in a sort of dream landscape and which has no plot or consequences, just philosophical musing. Gaiman and Alan Moore have written dozens of these over the years, and I always find them static and hard to get through.
Godzilla: The Half Century War by James Stokoe
James Stokoe has a unique comics style that’s hard to describe. It’s equal parts manga and indie, with loose, messy, expressionistic lines. His early work was mostly his own over-the-top stories, so it’s been exciting to see him turn his attention to old properties like Godzilla and Aliens.
This book’s conceit is to tell a Godzilla story from the point of view of a soldier — one of those anonymous grunts whose tanks pester Godzilla until he incinerates them. This is a wonderful premise! From the ground level, looking up, it takes mind-numbing bravery, or stubbornness, to see this towering deity deliver hell on earth, and keep trying to stop it. But I wish there were more specifics on what they learn from dealing with Godzilla, and how they adapt their tactics in response.
Aliens: Dead Orbit by James Stokoe
A minimalist throwback to the first Alien movie. I always love Stokoe’s style, but it’s not in sync with the story he’s trying to tell. Horror comics typically have little dialog and need to rely on focused visual cues and careful plotting to create drama; Stokoe’s layouts and character designs are too muddled to create that sort of palpable sense of physical space and specific danger.
Avengers: Endless Wartime by Warren Ellis, Mike McKone and Jason Keith
In theory, this should read like a big deal: the entire Avengers team is violently rebelling against S.H.I.E.L.D., their own organization, and implicating it in the secret development of WMDs that are literally demonic.
But surprisingly, the implications of this mutiny are glossed over, and the scenario feels routine. The most interesting theme is one that borrows from Alan Moore and Garth Ennis: the idea that the military-industrial complex must seek its own supervillain-level firepower, in order to neutralize the national security threat that superheroes pose.
T-Minus: the Race to the Moon by Jim Ottaviani, Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon
It’s not easy to tell a historical story with tons of details and dozens of characters. You need to focus on small episodes one at a time, and build the bigger picture up from them.
Comics can be a wonderful medium for this sort of storytelling, because it allows you to weave together moments separated by space and time as you like, without having to set the stage each time. But if you’re not careful, this jumping around can leave the reader confused about who is talking, when a scene is taking place, or what the point is.
T-Minus takes on the compelling challenge of telling the story of reaching the moon not as an American story, but as a global story. But the confusing execution doesn’t match its ambition.
The Nether by Jennifer Haley
Many movies and a few plays have used the trick of having characters enter virtual reality, then depicting it without actually using any digital technology. Star Trek writers, for example, famously abused the presence of the holodeck for an endless stream of gimmicky episodes set in 20th century scenarios.
The Nether is a recent play that used this trick on the stage, to disturbing effect. The play conjures a virtual world where users can engage in acts of pedophilia and violence against children. It’s presented as providing an outlet for the users’ dangerous urges: a virtual world where everyone is in pain, but nobody gets hurt. Or do they?
The questions at the heart of this play are so powerful, and electric (in a third rail sort of way), that it’s OK that the scenes themselves tend to be so still and quiet. The plot is only lightly and sketchily drawn, but that lets Jennifer Haley focus on using the unique power of dramatic staging to evoke compassion where the audience knows it doesn’t belong. A few scenes are breathtaking in their risk, and in their mixing of beauty and horror.
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kristoffer Diaz
A comic play that takes place mostly in the professional wrestling ring, Chad Deity looks at race and xenophobia in the U.S. through questions about what fans are looking to find in the ring. What do wrestling fans love so much about a rooting against a foreign villain? And why do they enjoy it so much when a villain wins?
I had tons of fun reading this. The world it conjures, a blend of hyperrealist memoir and expressionistic exaggeration, is delightful and clever. But it feels like only the intro to a bigger story. I was disappointed that it seemed to run out of ideas and wrap up in a hurry — what if it kept building its world and its plot? Could this be an amazing TV show?
Blood and Gifts by J. T. Rogers
It’s a daunting task to take a major episode of world history and craft a coherent play out of it, but that has become J. T. Rogers’ specialty, between this play and his Tony winning play Oslo (which my wife Kate worked on).
Blood and Gifts was written earlier in Rogers’ career, and it’s not as virtuosic as Olso; there are scenes where the author’s hand is too visible as he pulls the characters’ strings. Particularly difficult for me was the tendency of nonwhite characters to act a bit like puppets: they shout slogans in unison, they speak in poetic soundbites, they comically profess piety. In his later play Oslo, Rogers’s characters do this too, but there, Rogers is more aware of how deliberately they’re wearing this as a mask.
Still, while it’s not as mature a work as Oslo, Blood and Gifts paints a memorable picture of how imperial power leads even decent people to leave a wake of destruction, violence and chaos. It’s a good companion to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.
Travels by Michael Crichton
It’s hard to describe this memoir by the ridiculously successful soft sci-fi writer behind Jurassic Park, Westworld, ER, and many other hits. The most important thing to know is that it’s much more interesting than his fiction.
For the most part, Travels is a straightforward account of Crichton’s life experiences attending medical school, living in Hollywood, and traveling to exotic places. The travel is adventurous: he climbs Kilimanjaro, goes deep into rural Pakistan, and stays with neolithic warring tribes in New Guinea. But Crichton isn’t half as savvy as that makes him sound; he is constantly confronting his clumsiness and limitations, and often can’t remember why he wanted to go so far away in the first place. In the case of medical school, he finds himself unable even to remember why he wanted to become a doctor!
“Humane” is the word I kept thinking of using to describe his perspective as I read. Crichton is a bit of a caveman, but he usually puts human experience before theory and assumption, whether it’s listening in good faith to a psychiatric patient whom other doctors won’t treat with respect, or trying to understand where his desire to see large, dangerous animals up close comes from. (Largely narcissism, he concludes.)
If that was the whole book, it’d be fine, and I’d recommend it. But the book takes a wild turn halfway in, as California pulls Crichton into a vortex of New Age experiences. He thinks of himself as a skeptic, but he goes into these experiences with an open mind, and again and again, he is convinced that he has witnessed something beyond the knowledge of western science. I rolled my eyes plenty at this. (At one point, he literally has a conversation with a houseplant, with no drugs involved.) But Crichton voices many of the same concerns I came up with, which makes it hard for me to dismiss his vivid reports as mere wishful thinking.
The book culminates with a speech he wrote about skepticism, mysticism and scientific truth. It’s one of the most profound and accessible discussions of human epistemology I’ve encountered.
What gives me pause in recommending the book is that there’s a strain of casual sexism in Crichton that I find obnoxious. Sometimes it takes the form of his playing up a woman’s sexuality or appearance for laughs; sometimes it’s more of an implicit scorn for his female partner. It doesn’t dominate the book, but it does stink up what is otherwise a fantastic read.
Lifelong Kindergarten by Mitchel Resnick
This book by my inspiring boss, Mitch Resnick, distills much of his thinking and work from the past several decades. Resnick’s (it’s hard not to write “Mitch’s”) central theme is a plea for education on all levels to embrace creativity and learner agency, something I wholeheartedly agree with. And the book is not just readable, but a pleasure to read — quite an achievement, given how dense education theory texts can be.
Reading this kept bringing me back to my own learning and teaching. As a student from kindergarten through college, I excelled in my classwork, and loved the flow of specific requirements and feedback which told me I’d conquered each subject; outside of class, I read and wrote voraciously, including lots of computer programming.
But after graduating college, I think I suffered from a lack of preparedness for how little the real world holds your hand and tells you which expectations to meet. In some places, I was dazzled by the engineering and math expertise of colleagues who had gone through more elite engineering programs than mine; that might suggest I would have benefitted from a more rigorous traditional education experience. But in other places, I’ve longed even harder for the ability to match the sophisticated creativity of colleagues who never fit into school the way I did, and did all of their most important learning outside of school.
What was missing in my education? Did I have too many requirements, or too few? Would more self-directed projects have incubated in me more of an entrepreneurial and creative mindset? Or did I need more traditional “challenge” than my mostly public school education was ready to provide?
I have as much confusion about what to conclude from my experiences teaching. As a teacher, I loved working with kids but felt hopelessly at sea with “classroom management” — some groups of kids seemed to reach critical mass and spin out of control no matter what I tried. Scratch, the online programming tool for kids that Resnick and his students created and for which I now work, has figured extensively in my teaching. But it’s been much harder for me to get programming to click with large groups of students than I assume it’s supposed to be; it involves an enormous amount of one on one teaching from me, and lots of having to corral kids’ attention away from just playing games.
This is all to say that as a teacher, what I’ve needed most from the world of academics who study education is practical advice. For example, it took me years to learn to track down parents before class begins, to learn about students’ needs and anticipate interventions before problems begin. I’ve also learned, in observing other teachers, that charisma just matters, and matters immensely — something nobody ever seems to talk about.
To bring this back to Resnick’s book, I cheered his thesis throughout, but I felt resistance at times to his examples, because some seemed hard to apply widely. One extended example is a wonderful story about a group of Boston area girls, who propose technology projects inspired by their lives and needs, and then dive deeply into creating them. But these girls are mentored essentially one-to-one by grad students and professors associated with elite universities — an approach that will have to find a very different model if it is to scale.
Elsewhere in the book, Resnick emphasizes the importance of reframe success away from perfection — to steer students away from comparing their work to the world’s many shiny and professionally produced programs and games, and to get them to appreciate the merits and delights of their own programs, rough edges and all. The point isn’t the creative product, it’s the process and mindset of creative construction; Resnick’s ideal classroom is one abounding with tools and materials for creative work, where a student naturally develops a strong identity as a creative learner through organic expertise, inquiry, and moving fluidly through moments as a learner and teacher of peers. It’s a vision worth fighting for.
Resnick does suggest in several places that elements of both student agency and teacher-enforced structure are needed, although his heart — and mine — are clearly with the former. It’s worth noting that one of Resnick’s interviewees in the book, my colleague Jaleesa Trapp, says she got into programming because an afterschool teacher forced her to do it and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
So I want to both cheer this rousing call to action, and ask more about how Scratch, and schools, can best design structures to activate that agency.
How Children Succeed by Paul Tough
Paul Tough is the most prominent reporter on the education reform beat. He’s loosely aligned with the charter school movement, and is best known for promoting the idea, in this book and others, that aspects of “character”, such as “grit”, are vital elements of scholastic success — as important as previous content knowledge in helping students succeed.
I found this book alternately thought provoking and frustrating. Tough does not apply rigorous methods, either in research or in rhetoric. But he does crystallize some ideas that are worth repeating, ones which don’t neatly support any of the traditional “sides” in education reform debates.
Paul Tough’s thesis here is that while traditional measures of “intelligence” suggest that it can’t be changed much, success in education — and in life — actually depend on many things that can be changed.
Some of these changeable aspects are environmental: Tough gets into the science of how stress and trauma, which poor children face at high rates, can degrade a body and prevent the mind from focusing on anything but immediate survival. He details the lifelong effects children experience if they are nurtured empathically at a young age, and describes efforts underway to coach parents in doing this. Other changeable aspects have to do with cultivating kids’ life skills and academic habits.
This type of social critique doesn’t align neatly on a left-right axis. On the one hand, environmental critiques are often used by liberals to argue for social spending and affirmative action; at the same time, we tend to get cagey when people start saying that the people around a child are part of the problem.
As Tough puts it: “Reform skeptics… often blame out-of-school factors for the underperformance of low-income children, but when they list those factors — and I’ve read a lot of these lists — they tend to choose ones that don’t have much to do with family functioning.”
Charter school networks in the “whatever it takes” mold, and the Harlem Children’s Zone, the subject of a previous book by Tough, would never use conservative phrases like “cultural deficiency”. But many of their policies do aim to change poor people rather than change the system around them. For instance, as Tough previously reported, one major HCZ focus area is getting poor parents to stop hitting their kids.
A different way of framing Tough’s outlook, though, is in terms of wealth. Kids in poverty start out with a deficit of wealth in not just monetary terms, but in terms of safety, medical health, and intergenerational knowledge. Tough marshals coherent evidence to support the theory that it is these deficits of resources that provide the means by which poverty is perpetuated; he even reports that when you control for these forms of wealth, poor children perform as well academically as middle-class children. The public policy mandate, it seems to me, should be to provide forms of wealth to correct the fact that poor children must work so much harder than other children to excel in school.
Rejecting the conservative claim that spending money to fight poverty doesn’t work, Tough writes, “No one has found a reliable way to help deeply disadvantaged children, in fact. Instead, what we have created is a disjointed, ad hoc system of government agencies and programs that follow them haphazardly through their childhood and adolescence.”
This is a deeply underappreciated point in left-right policy debates, and it is where Tough’s voice shines.
In some other places, his summary of evidence is so neat that I can only suspect that it is leaving out contrary evidence that would muddy his points. (For instance, I wonder if the great teachers he mentions are great because of dozens of things they do that are hard to measure, and not because of a single Gladwellian trick.) But on the topic of general public policy, I find his analysis a welcome breath of fresh air.
Other-Wordly: Words Both Strange and Lovely from Around the World by Yee-Lum Mak and Kelsey Garrity-Riley
A lovely book to casually browse, with delightful words from a dozen languages grouped according to theme.
There are too many formulaic Latin-derived terms like “nyctophilia” (passion for the night) which no one ever actually uses; I preferred words like “scintilla” or “quisling” or the Scottish “tartle”, which are actually in use. I would have also appreciated pronunciation notes, because it’s fun to say the words aloud!
12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson
I had no intention of reading this book. I’ve listened to Jordan Peterson appear on podcasts and on TV, and I think he’s a pompous, incurious, alt-right windbag. Then I read a review of this book by Scott Alexander (AKA Slate Star Codex), who was surprised to find that he liked it immensely. I try to stay open to ideas I disagree with, and it seemed possible I’d actually like this book, which is meant for a broad audience.
Peterson’s way of seeing the world does sometimes spark my interest. Here’s an example: he implores parents to use discipline to ensure their children are polite, because if they don’t, their children will suffer a far more painful fate: having parents who dislike them.
It’s a bit of a backwards and reductive point, and that’s Peterson in a nutshell. If I give myself license to take what I want from him, though, I do come away with some ideas to chew on. Unfortunately, those ideas are few, and there’s a lot of nonsense in between.
Having known many psychologists in my time (including half a dozen members of my family), I don’t get the sense that he’s a particularly perceptive one. In his decades of clinical practice, Peterson has developed a homegrown thicket of assumptions that he claims are grounded in his own treatments and observations.
Look, many of us have practices that we keep up in the belief that they keep us healthy, even if we haven’t done rigorous experiments to back it up. We all have our weird little private cosmologies.
But Peterson goes beyond that. He’s sure that his private cosmology is actually universal; in fact, that it rises to the level of being clinically prescribable. And he reports that it has helped nearly everyone who has ever come to his clinic for help. Nearly everyone he’s treated has had their psychology improved by first fixing their body posture. Nearly everyone he’s treated has had their psychology improved by eating protein in the morning, rather than carbohydrates.
Think about the rigorous practice that it would take to not just suspect that these changes help across the board, but to be certain of it. You’d have to check in with patients outside of the clinic, and use third parties, to make sure they’re actually complying with the recommendations, and not just telling you what they think you want to hear. You’d have to compare their outcomes to comparable patients who received psychotherapy but did not change their posture and eat protein.
In my experience, the doctor who boasts loudest of the high success rate of his experimental cure is the doctor least likely to call you after to actually find out if it worked. I get the feeling that if I were one of Peterson’s clients, I’d find what I’ve found in so many doctors’ offices: that there is really only one person in the room the caregiver is paying attention to… and it isn’t me.
Tell Me More by Kelly Corrigan
I love Corrigan’s voice, but it didn’t seem like her micro-memoir stories about her daily sufferings went anywhere, and I found myself flipping forward to see how long I had left. She has my sympathies, and she can write a compelling sentence, but I found it impossible to get through this book.
Atomic Habits by James Clear
A typically thin, repetitive self-help book. 50 pages in, I’d encountered exactly one idea that seemed intriguing or surprising.