The books I survived 2017 with

Prophet by Brandon Graham and others

Bringing the inventiveness back into old stories of invention; cautionary tales of the future; finding children’s wisdom in treacherous places

  • The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sidney Padua
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  • Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien
  • Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
  • The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker
  • So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport
  • Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson,‎ Joseph Grenny,‎ Ron McMillan,‎ and Al Switzler

2017 was, for me, a dip into an ambient fatalistic distress.

I’ve always seen plenty to criticize in our public institutions and political norms, but like so many of us, I was surprised to find myself distressed to see those norms be dismantled and undermined so viciously. Here I was, finding myself appreciating our nation’s imperfect compromises with the evils of history — at least those compromises featured some gesture of recognition for justice denied!

I never thought I’d defend something so tacky as “decorum”, but I even found myself pining for the simple conventions of public shame — being ashamed for being caught lying, say, or for committing just the same security tradeoffs that you had called for your opponent to be imprisoned over.

And how to even approach being a parent, and expecting my kids to uphold standards of personal integrity that our highest leaders make a mockery of?

Sorry to talk politics. This is supposed to be about books. But the fact is that politics poisoned so much for me last year that I wasn’t sure taking refuge in books made sense. What have I been preparing for by learning and exploring the lives of others, if it isn’t this? And yet, what to do about it?

I didn’t figure out the answers to these questions. But here’s what I read in the meantime. As usual, I only included writing longer than a magazine article, and I (mostly) only included books I finished.

Sections:

  • Fiction
  • Nonfiction
  • Education
  • Children’s chapter books
  • Children’s picture books
  • Comics

Fiction

A phenomenal book, and an unexpected one. I knew it was dystopian, but I had no idea that it would feel so spare and cold. I’m used to dystopian landscapes that are bleak, in contrast to the characters’ inner warmth. But Atwood places the bleakness in the actual inner world of Offred, the paternalistically renamed protagonist. It’s a searing portrait of the destruction that cultural authoritarianism wreaks on the soul, nearly erasing its ability to even dream.

The stiffness of the story calls to mind Kaz Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, though of course it was written before them. The stilted tone match Offred’s psychology; she’s from an intellectually active background, but her intensely regulated social role has worn away her expressiveness and left her only able to absorb.

I was excited, and horrified, to slowly realize that the cold and stifling city of the book is my hometown of Cambridge, Mass. Atwood never says this outright, but she names enough landmarks — “The Square”, “The Yard”, “Memorial Hall”, “the river”, “Mass Ave.”, and even my father’s old defunct gym, Nautilus — to make it clear.

One of Atwood’s masterful character portraits is the “Commander”, who is simultaneously an architect of the miserable new social and political order, and a deviant who likes to cut loose from its constraints. In a self-probing mind like Offred’s, this contradiction could never stand; but the Commander learns nothing about the horrors of his co-creation from his own practical dissent from it. This is just one of many subtly brilliant illustrations of how the human mind bends its perception of reality to get what it wants. Fascistic systems of power thrive on a lifeblood of this hypocrisy — as we’re seeing today.

I can’t believe it took me this long to read Atwood, who is clearly a major sci-fi figure (though she prefers “speculative fiction”, and I can see why.)

Highest recommendation.

Unforgettable. Atwood is often credited with expanding the sci-fi genre into nontechnical speculative fiction, but Parable of the Sower demonstrates that Butler deserves at least as much credit.

The setup is a sort of zombie apocalypse without the zombies. It takes place in the very near future, just a few decades of social change and climate change ahead of the present. The plot is straightforward enough to be summarized in a sentence or two, and it only covers a brief linear distance in time and space — and yet it covers immense ground on the landscape of humanity and inhumanity.

What it’s about, at the core, is truth: the truths that must be sought out if chaotic times are to be survivable; the truths whose impolitic awkwardness make polite people shun them; the truths that people will dive headfirst into their own graves to avoid; the truths about oppression that parents of color must teach their children so they will have a fighting chance.

And, it’s about the stories that we construct to to make sense of our world, and to assemble a community. It’s about the way leaders and storytellers marshal truth and fiction to form tribes, and get them to cohere, as they have been doing as long as humans have had language.

Butler articulates a uniquely black perspective on apocalyptic sci-fi, and she makes me realize how painfully missing black voices have been in it. So many speculative fiction tropes seem, in retrospect, to be ideas that people of color in America have been uniquely facing for centuries: the oppressive effects of shifting and uncertain government rules; enslavement; economic exploitation; barriers to access to lifesaving technology; and simultaneous alienation from, and intimacy with, the powerful.

Through the lens of apocalyptic sci-fi, Butler twists both familiar tropes of black identity in America — nationalistic self-reliance, defiant pride, evangelical Christianity, conspicuous consumption, the expectation from others that you must be either a victim or a predator — into a battle of identity with life-and-death stakes.

I’ll never look at sci-fi the same way.

Highest recommendation.

Takes the reader through a future in which many simultaneously developing technologies radically transform the nature of human life.

Moving episodically in jumps of a decade or more, and always following generations of the same family (the older members of which never really die), Stross shows a dozen irresistible uses of digitally replicating your mind, from the ability to create a digital version of you with enhanced mental speed and knowledge with whom you can consult, to the ability to have your digital version and someone else’s partner up for an instantly simulated decade to test their romantic compatibility, to the ability to be effectively immortal, since you can preload your digital mind onto a clone body if your current body walks off a cliff.

What makes this book work well is that Stross is as agnostic about the benefits and harms of all this as he is imaginative. Each technology has a downside, sometimes a massive one. If you constantly rely on digital consultants to guide you, what happens if someone else steals your headset and syncs with those consultants instead of you? If death is just temporary and perceived pain can be dialed down at will, what’s to stop children from sneaking off and torturing each other to death?

Unfortunately, these episodes never feel fully developed and explored before Stross moves on. Its lurching shifts in focus can feel abrupt and arbitrary. Few of the major acts of the book stand out as presenting especially compelling character studies or plots.

Neither does Accelerando come together as a novel as a whole. But in terms of speculative ideas about the future of technology’s impact on society, it’s one of the most disorienting and thought-provoking novels I’ve ever read.

It helps that Stross is a kindred spirit when it comes to being easily bored with well-trod sci-fi terrain:

While I’m an autodidact — there are holes in my background — I’ve read most of the classics of the field, at least prior to the 1990s. But about a decade ago I stopped reading SF short stories, and this past decade I’ve found very few SF novels that I didn’t feel the urge to bail on within pages (or a chapter or two at most). Including works that I knew were going to be huge runaway successes, both popular and commercially successful — but that I simply couldn’t stomach.

It’s not you, science fiction, it’s me.

Charles Stross

I think we’re just getting old and impatient, Chuck!

Highly recommended.

An extraordinary novel. It mixes elements of Dungeons & Dragons, metafiction, and formal experimentation in a way that always feels natural and driven by human stories.

A guy can dream, can’t he?

It’s not formally as experimental as the other of Egan’s novels that I’ve read, the incredible A Visit From the Goon Squad. I wish, somehow, I could see what Egan would do with The Keep if she took a more formal and wide-ranging approach.

It’s interesting to look at Dash Shaw’s BodyWorld, with its included D&D-style map, as an example of what I wished for in The Keep: what about Dungeons & Dragons style maps, character stat sheets, etc.?

That said, there is some formal experimentation, which I don’t want to give away but which involves switching mid-paragraph and sometimes even mid-sentence between perspectives and frames of the story. It’s exhilarating, although the wider story never quite matches the magic of the bracketed story. In a way it’s not supposed to match that magic, and that contrast itself is part of the point. But I wished the two operated in more complex relation to each other than they do.

Highly recommended.

An enjoyable, unremarkable fantasy page-turner. It’s practically a catalogue of the mainstream trends in contemporary fantasy that have emerged over the last generation: a spectrum of sexuality, love among sworn enemies, a focus on culture and ethnicity, and a preference for relatable, measured abilities over superhero-level powers.

Bardugo sets up several great characters and throws them into seemingly insurmountable challenges. However, the plotting can’t match the promise of the elaborate setup. What makes the start of the book so fun — the particular tactics of the ensemble heists — feels absent from the hasty second half of the book.

Recommended.

My expectations were sky-high for this book, which has been recommended to me many times. But my negative reaction to reading Mieville’s aimless and overwrought Un Lun Dun was not a fluke, though I did like this book a lot more.

Mieville’s world-building takes any eclectic sensibility you’ve ever known and overclocks it to a ridiculous degree. The eclecticism pervades everything, from digressions into the history of a particular neighborhood or species ethnicity to the very language that he uses descriptive paragraphs and scene setting.

That manic, recursive focus can be delightful. But it falls short of cohering into a world with its own internal sense.

That might be an unfair criticism, since, part of the purpose of the book is certainly to evade coherence. Mieville specifically repeats a refrain about the basic incoherence of the city the book takes place in: that it is unknowably diverse, its manifold tunnels and wires and pipes beyond the comprehension of city government, its nooks and crannies recursing to an infinite degree.

Still, as with Harry Potter, an overabundance the rules and dimensions of power means that the author can too easily conjure solutions and reversals. Some of the most important plot points and moments of action are reduced to pawns in the author’s heavy hand, dismissed with arbitrary magical solutions.

Worst of all, I never found a reason to care about the characters — with one big exception. One central character, the least human of several protagonists, has an extended reverie while running an errand. She remembers her childhood and her rejection of her mother’s oppressive values, which culminated in her rejecting her people and living as an outcast with an essentially human lifestyle. It’s a phenomenal sequence.

A slake moth, by JaniceDuke

There is so much fun stuff in this book: water sculptures which hold their shapes for reasons nobody quite understands; a group of unforgettably terrifying predators; a deliciously horrific encounter with the supernatural; and powerfully imagined bits of ethnographic and architectural history. There just isn’t really a story built on top of all this, at least not one where the high stakes for the central characters feel significant.

And even though Mieville’s imagination makes for a wild ride, his illustrations of the inner life and motivations of his diverse cast fall flat. Sure, some invented religion is wacky, but I wish I could see from the inside what that flavor of devotion tastes like. Sure, some gangster is scary, but what makes him tick? Or is he just a cardboard cutout, an empty trope given a surface costume of Mievillian, Gaimanian interestingness?

Not recommended.

A collection of sci-fi stories and essays that touch on social justice and activism. This works well in some cases, not as well and others. Sometimes it feels like the politics came first, and no story forms around it. My favorite stories were David F. Walker’s “The Token Superhero”, about a superhero called Black Fist, and adrienne maree brown’s “the river”, in which mysterious forces fight gentrification.

One of the dangers with polemical fiction is that while a movement of like-minded literary folks can be mutually reinforcing and empowering and stimulating, it can also be mutually limiting. With “the river”, for example, while brown does bring up complexities of gentrification that make it more than a simple issue of good vs. evil, the fantasy premise itself is obliterating of these distinctions and complexities, not inviting of them.

“The Token Superhero”, on the other hand, uses the superhero fantasy premise as a crystallizing lens that throws complexities of identity, power and duty into sharp relief.

Overall, my takeaway was that storytelling cannot be subordinate to polemics for political fiction to be effective, and that this means the persuasive elements and plot elements must each be able to stand on their own.

Not recommended.

These stories, which span several decades of Chiang’s career, were certainly thought-provoking. “Story of Your Life”, which was made into the film Arrival, is particularly excellent, and I’ve never read a story quite like “Tower of Babylon”. But many of them were not interesting beyond their premise; some stories dragged, and I found myself skipping pages towards the end.

Discussing “Story of Your Life” with a friend, he made the argument that Chiang is deliberately leaving it ambiguous whether or not Louise, the main character ( played by Amy Adams in the film), can actually see the future. It’s possible that she is merely imagining that ability retroactively, perhaps as a trauma-induced coping mechanism: she’s seizing on a way to rewrite the story of her life, making her pain into something she has always accepted. I love that read!

Not recommended as a whole, though I highly recommend the “Story of Your Life” short story.

This was recommended by several avid readers and writers, but it felt stagnant and somewhat pointless. The characters were pleasant, but the book’s mix of realism and magic realism was alternately tedious and arbitrary. It’s hard for me to imagine this novel occupying someone’s head for years on end until they are forced to put it onto paper. In full disclosure, I put it down one third of the way through.

Not recommended.

Nonfiction

It’s hard to believe such an extensively researched and exhaustive history could be so readable and entertaining. This is a polemical work, arguing aggressively for a particular interpretation of history, but I don’t agree with the many critics who feel Pinker overstates his case; on the contrary, I think he gives full voice to his perspective and intention, while exploring the material freely and leaving tons of room for contrary interpretations.

That said, Pinker has limitations, and his certainty itself is one. At times, like Yuval Harari, he doesn’t seem to notice that he’s piling speculation on top of speculation as if he’s stating fact.

You won’t really get a sense of the book from a simple summary of its core thesis, let alone from dipping into the debates around it. (And please don’t spend a moment reading Nicholas Nassem Taleb’s Javert-like, ad hominem attacks on Pinker.) This is a book that consists mostly of Pinker’s incisive observations and interpretations of a good hundred subtopics, and I came away with a new appreciation for much that never would’ve occurred to me otherwise: the rationality behind widespread motherly infanticide; the absence of a common language of inhumanity through most of human history; the pervasive fear that has characterized the lives of most humans who have ever lived.

A permanently prospective altering book, and a surprisingly entertaining read.

Highest recommendation.

An extraordinary work of intellectual history, as brilliantly light and expressive as it is thoroughly researched. Padua knows her main characters are monumentally brilliant, but even more monumentally flawed; and somehow she loves them with her eyes wide open, managing to be both hilariously irreverent and profoundly, sincerely reverent.

Here’s the thing. With this sort of history I always wonder, if the most interesting biographers studied these lives and their records for years, which stories would they retell at a dinner party, a few drinks in? And what research would they skip summarizing because it doesn’t really tell listeners anything about the figure in question?

There’s usually a huge gap between the answer to those questions and what you’ll find in the hundreds of pages of a best-selling biography. (Cough — Walter Isaacson — cough.)

But Padua has our back! She’s really only interested in stories that meet that test: breaches of decorum; times a famous intellectual’s friends had to intercede to stop him from destroying his own career; speculation about sexual dalliances; a sense of what those who adored them adored about them, and what those who couldn’t stand them couldn’t stand about them.

History is alive in Padua’s hands, and I wish every young student of history could encounter past lives with Padua’s sense of delight in the foibles and agonies, the jealousies and rivalries that animated these lives; it’s a joy to encounter all of the real humans who existed in place of the neutered historical figures who march across our classrooms.

Highest recommendation.

Says something both very true, uncommon, and hard to hear —which is the opposite from most self-help books. Very readable and to-the-point. Of course it doesn’t need to be this long, but there are fewer wasted pages than is the norm. And the central idea — that going it alone in your career requires first building up your own domain expertise and focused competence — is worth dwelling on.

Highest recommendation.

I’ve been slowly reading this life-changing book for a good three years, finding that I can only read a couple pages at a time.

It’s not that it’s poorly written or dense. The book just brings up so many relevant thoughts and pains from my life that I immediately get lost in reflection.

This isn’t the sort of book I usually respond to so personally. I’m generally very skeptical of self help books; their authors seldom do the hard work to distinguish between techniques that are truly valuable, and ones that only work within their artificially concocted example scenarios.

But I found the opposite to be true with this book. Though it’s not exactly a page-turner, I found the techniques and approaches incredibly and immediately useful.

Example: on a Tuesday, I read about the “State your path” technique, which essentially means telling someone about your experience rather than correcting them. On Thursday I was riding my bike in Brooklyn when I got cut off by a cement mixer truck. Furious, I accelerated and pulled up next to him at the next light, intending to shout at him that his driving was going to kill someone.

But in the 30 seconds it took me to get there, I remembered “State your path”, and decided to try clearly telling him my facts instead of demanding that he feel ashamed. So when he rolled down his window, I asked him if he knew he had come six inches from hitting me.

He asked, where?

I said one block back, you pulled into the right lane and I was there, and you ran me off the road.

He apologized.

I didn’t know what to say because I hadn’t prepared for him to be anything but confrontational. I can’t remember the last time a truck driver said “sorry” within my earshot. This stuff works!

That said, getting all the way through this book is a challenge. I suggest starting with the last chapter, which summarizes the book concisely, then continuing from chapter 1, and stopping whenever you feel like it.

Highest recommendation.

A gentle and eminently sane introduction to westernized Buddhism.

I resisted it initially, associating it with a certain type of advice writing that piles up bland anecdotes and never examines its own assumptions. And it never did become the intellectual and introspective work on mediation and meaning that I wish existed. But I did find that it steadily reminded me of the best version of myself, and reading it, I felt the weight I force myself to bear slowly lifting.

Boorstein has a humane grounding, and she’s eager to let the reader know she understands how intense their feelings of attachment are. She’s not advocating utter disassociation, because she doesn’t want that herself. She just wants us to practice the power of freeing ourselves, over and over, so that our pain and regret don’t stick with us forever. It’s short, though I wish it were even shorter — some of the chapters are a bit pointless.

Highly recommended.

A brief and straightforward introduction to the Wright Brothers that reads like an extended encyclopedia article. Great for its length, although from what I know of all the other inventors who wrangled with money issues and legal issues, I know there’s got to be great stuff down in the weeds that the book chooses not to get into.

As I said when discussing The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, with this sort of history I always wonder, if the most interesting scholars and intellectuals I know studied these lives and their records for years, what stories would they retell at a dinner party, a few drinks in? This is not the book to answer that question.

Recommended.

Education

There’s a bit of a land grab underway in the domain of children’s books designed to introduce kids to coding. Everyone knows there’s a market here, driven by parents desperate for their kids not to be left behind, and libraries and school systems that feel obligated to find some way to edutain their students to technology literacy.

Secret Coders is one of the more prominent early entrants, taking a Harry Potter-influenced approach in comics form. The result is a mixed bag. The characters and scenario feel thin and forced, and the explanations of the computer concepts encountered in this first book — binary numbers and step-by-step algorithms — feel tacked on and arbitrary. With that said, it’s a pleasant and quick read, and it does accomplish its fundamental goal of easing readers into computer concepts that they will encounter in the classroom one day.

My 6-year-old and 8-year-old both spotted it on the shelf and started reading, and when I read the explanation of binary to them, they each learned binary in about 10 minutes, and still understand it weeks later. That’s legitimately impressive.

Highly Recommended.

Unremarkable from page to page, but does a decent job of introducing the reader to basic coding concepts. Its use of the well known “write down the steps to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich” lesson might not be original, but it is effective.

Less effective are the snippets of code that give the impression that coding is just writing in English but replacing spaces with underscores; this_is_superficial_and_misleading.meh . In the best sequences, Deutsch focuses on the frustration and disorientation of being a beginning coder. It’s no Harry Potter, but it’s a quick read that will feel familiar to girls who might not be sure coding is for them, and my 8-year-old liked it.

Recommended.

This is the sort of kid-friendly reference book that I devoured when I was 8 years old. It’s not brilliantly written or organized, but it’s full of attractive illustrations and straightforward explanations of key concepts and terms. Not something that really make sense to read end to end or cover to cover, but a great way to ambiently familiarize kids with basic computer concepts.

I would have liked a bit more effort to highlight the history of non-white computer science contributors, and some of the information is a bit arcane or off-topic. Other attractive and compelling topics, like artificial intelligence, digital logic, robotics and cryptocurrencies, would have been good inclusions.

Recommended.

Children’s chapter books

What an incredible, unforgettable book. O’Brien’s prose is masterful on every page.

Here is the heroine, a mouse, hitching a daring ride on the back of her friend, a crow:

With a small leap she was on Jeremy’s back, lying as flat as she could and holding tight to the glossy feathers between his wings, as a horseback rider grips the horse’s mane before a jump. Martin and Teresa waved goodbye, but she did not see them, for she had her face pressed against the feathers and her eyes closed.

Once again she felt the surge of power as the crow’s broad wings beat down against the air; this time it lasted longer for they were going higher than before. Then the beating became gentler as they leveled off, and then, to her alarm, it stopped altogether. What was wrong? The crow must have felt her grow tense, for suddenly from ahead she heard his voice:

“An updraft,” he said. “We’re soaring. There’s usually one over this stretch of woods in the evening.”

The prose is like this throughout: it’s as crisp and clear as a mountain stream whose pebbles you can see perfectly through three feet of water.

It’s hard to stop quoting the book! The prose is this clear and evocative throughout, with little observations that make every scurry and dash vivid and breathtaking.

This is also an extraordinary book about values — duty, bravery, kindness, caretaking and competence. For example, late in the book, the rats decide that a group of them needs to risk likely death for the sake of the group. One thing that’s unusual for a children’s book is how much deliberation and listening have gone into this decision at this point. The need is also announced with a palpably heavy heart; there is no selling the victims on its glory. At this point, you know the characters so well that you are certain which ones will insist on going.

I could do with a few more prominent female characters among the rats’ leaders, but the models of masculinity and femininity are excellent. I want to act as a male human the way that Mrs. Frisby’s friend Justin does as a male rat!

Highest recommendation.

It’s fun to consider how unlikely it would be that Roald Dahl’s books would be so universally praised if they came out today. They often feature truly risky behavior — not just the cartoonish monster-dodging of Miss Peregrine or the imaginary curses of Harry Potter. And Dahl’s philosophy of childhood and childraising is decidedly free-spirited, even conservative. In his books, no sin is so great as a parent’s relentlessly indulging their child’s whims, or rushing in to prevent the child from dealing with anything unexpected. Dahl believes implicitly that life for a child begins with independence, and requires real risk if she is to have the agency necessary to truly grow.

This theme is illustrated most fantastically in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but it reaches its most visceral intensity in Danny the Champion of the World.

Danny is perhaps the greatest of Dahl’s books, because by keeping both feet planted in reality and realism, he makes the occasional fantastical element stand out sharply. The book celebrates the power of imagination and self-made adventure as ways to transcend poverty, and defies conventional assumptions about the connection between poverty and education.

Highest recommendation.

Dawn Treader might be my favorite Narnia book. It’s hard to beat the infinite promise of the open sea, with a ship heading towards islands both charted and uncharted.

This book also introduces Eustis, who is C. S. Lewis’s cautionary tale of the kind of child he thinks will be produced by progressive education, cosmopolitan culture and socialist politics. (Lewis was a determined Christian, and a mild conservative.)

I wish I could say that the portrait is unfair; Instead I can only say that I wish Lewis had turned his attention equally to the destructive effects of patriarchal authority and unquestioned obedience to duty, two destructive forces he never shows the slightest sign of noticing.

What we get, instead, is Eustis’s opposite: the absurdly gallant mouse Reepicheep, forever diving headfirst into danger and throwing down his gauntlet to defend his honor. It’s a testament to the delicious texture and tone of Lewis’s writing that these characters stay vivid and don’t grate as caricatures. It’s almost a letdown when Eustis finally matures, and realizes that honor, courage and duty are more than just outmoded reactionary ideas!

The Silver Chair is a too often forgotten gem of the Narnia series; it has less of a sense of wonder, as its quest is across land tunnels rather than oceans, but its characters and dangers are just as compelling. And the book has a fantastic climactic conceit, where, in a life-or-death crisis, a character alternates between two different mind states, always vowing that what he says in the other state is a lie.

Plus, The Silver Chair opens with a glimpse of Eustis’s progressive school, which appears to be a hilariously exaggerated parody of England’s influential Summerhill School.

Highly recommended.

These chapter book novellas, six in all, are entertaining, accessible and enjoyable for a reader in the ballpark of second or third grade. They follow a husband and wife pair of mice on their unlikely adventures, which involve impersonating fairies, trading letters with humans, cooking banquets, mustering a mouse militia, joining the circus, and all manner of rescues and escapes.

There’s one problem: the husband mouse takes the lead by default, especially when there’s danger. And while the female mouse is full of great ideas, it’s taken for granted that the man is the ultimate arbiter of their value. Reading these aloud, I for myself editing on the fly to attribute some of his bravado to her, and to include her with a sword in her hand.

The stories are also repetitive and limited in other, more general ways. These books can’t hold a candle to the wonder of the Narnia books, or the naturalistic texture of The Rats of NIMH. But the writing is erudite and punchy, and my six year-old eagerly asked for them night after night, even reading a tiny bit of them herself — which is proof they are plenty compelling.

Recommended.

William Sleator is a phenomenal young adult sci-fi writer whom my daughter and I adore. (See my 2016 list.)

These books are second-tier Sleator, and their setups don’t have the depth of craft of his best work. They are, in turn, dramatizations of the theory of quantum alternate universes, a hodgepodge of sci-fi elements (time manipulation, Pandora’s Box, and alien creatures), and mind reading. Still, they’re all solid and entertaining. I liked Others See Us best — it paints a pessimistic picture of the manipulative and sadistic thoughts that crop up in the minds of those around us, even those in our families.

Recommended.

Children’s picture books

Excellent. His art exudes love for his subjects. He is as expert in his technique as he is expressive in his subtle use of exaggeration and movement.

Highly recommended.

A difficult challenge for children’s books about historical injustice is how to portray characters in history as both victims and agents. They must not appear incongruously unaffected by the oppression of their times — this was the grave mistake of the infamous A Birthday Cake for President Washington. But neither should they be presented as devoid of power and agency, or love, or joy.

Steamboat School shines on both counts. Hopkinson makes brilliant use of a little known figure from history, the Reverand John Meachum, who was born a slave, won freedom for himself and his family, and fought to be able to teach black children.

He and other teachers forbidden to teach black students in their states found an exception: the Mississippi River was considered federal land, and so the states could not stop them from teaching on a steamboat on the river. It’s a heartbreaking, infuriating and ultimately inspiring story that centers on a workaround to an unjust law.

This setup allows genuine celebration of ingenuity and resourcefulness, while dealing with suppressive power of white supremacy head-on.

Of course, history laughs at us just when we think we understand it. As the author recognizes on the afterword, the heroic black minister and teacher at the center of this book actually owned slaves himself. But to get to the point where we can begin to understand that, we have to understand stories like Steamboat School.

The book does make one other choice I find troubling. It’s undeniably heroic, and truly great, that Meachum worked his way out of slavery and poverty and took such control of the future of his family and community. And when the author repeatedly emphasizes that Meachum was a firm believer in hard work, I want to read that in the light of the pragmatic purpose of that belief — without submitting fully to hard work, Meachum would never have done so much good. But there is something wrong about phrasing his affinity for hard work as “belief”, as if he had the slightest choice. His sublimation to the only path that didn’t mean the violent destruction of his family could be seen as yet another form of his oppression, rather than an expression of his tastes and chosen lifestyle. There is a hint of “Arbeit macht frei” in cheering the redemptive quality of his work ethic.

Still, it’s an extraordinary story, written, in an inspried story structure, from the point of view of a new boy enrolling in Meachum’s underground school.

Highly recommended.

A simple masterpiece. Almost minimalist in its free words and tightly controlled illustrations, but driven by a quiet and deep imagination.

Highly recommended.

It’s very hard to make an entertaining story out of the scientific method. Here, the flowery text and gaudy design tell what’s ultimately a simple story of careful scientific thinking.

Recommended.

This book tells the true story of a Masai tribe which ceremonially presented 14 cows to a US ambassador after 9/11.

The almost photorealistic art is beautiful, and the story is touching. I think it is a good book for kids to read to subvert assumptions they might have about Africans being poor and helpless; here, Masai people in traditional garb are generous with their wealth and globally minded.

And yet, I wonder how much this historical episode really matches the feel-good version of the story. My experience comparing picture books to reality up close makes me skeptical. For one thing, the 14 cows didn’t actually change hands or go anywhere. How democratic was this decision? Is the traditional garb we see Masai people wearing throughout this book actually typical today, or is it somewhat idealized? Are the Masai who wear jeans and t-shirts being hidden from us to satisfy our orientalist fantasies?

Recommended.

A straightforward, single-session illustrated biography of the iconic Supreme Court justice. Nothing about it particularly stands out, but it does a good job getting young readers upset about inequality and fired up about the Notorious R.B.G. tackling it.

Recommended.

Carlin’s illustration style is unusually abstract and expressionistic for a children’s book, reminiscent of Maira Kalman. The story doesn’t quite work; in order for the final climax to land, the mechanics of the setup should have been made clearer. Still, a unique and memorable book.

Recommended.

A day in the life of a boy whose father goes to work as a coal miner. The art is loose and expressive, but the writing only occasionally stands out, such as when the boy plays on a swingset and describes the precise ways it has broken down

Recommended.

Beautiful, simple and heartwarming. Though I find these plotless celebrations of life distractingly vague.

Recommended

Sweet and brief fictionalized telling of a settler family’s journey west, bearing plants. Cute but forgettable.

Recommended

A simple and well done concept: make words from rearranging subsets of the letters of a given word, and make a poem from those words.

For example, “Moonlight” becomes “hot night thin light moth in motion”. Not so much a book to read comprehensively, as a concept to be used to spark imagination.

Recommended.

A quirky and beautifully illustrated book, but shaky. The story is mostly a familiar one of an outsider triumphing against the odds, but the stakes and the denouement don’t do enough to support and reward the central story.

Not recommended.

A somewhat abstract and beautifully illustrated picture book about a flight of imagination that ends up where it began. Didn’t really click for me — the concept felt muddled.

Not recommended.

Sendak’s illustrated edition of a long lost Grimm folktale. Sendak’s art, while masterful, feels flat and does not bring the story’s most vital moments into focus. And the exhaustively verbose text gets in the way of what should be the book’s most dramatic beats.

Not recommended

There’s a reason you haven’t heard of this one. It’s not bad, and the Quentin Blake art is phenomenal as always, but there are oodles of books like this one.

Not recommended

Comics

Alan Moore saw possibilities in the Swamp Thing character that had never occurred to its creators

I wanted to like this more than I did. Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing is legendary, and together with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, generated the world that became DC’s Vertigo comics imprint, and defined a new literary subgenre.

One issue in volume 3, issue #37 (“Growth Patterns”), has been called the single issue most crucial to the formation of DC’s Vertigo imprint — it introduced demon hunter John Constantine, in an obvious visual reference to Sting from The Police — and it’s excellent, in the manner of the famously concise Spider-Man origin story in Amazing Fantasy #18.

Another issue here, #40 (“The Curse”), generated significant controversy in 1985 because of its central character’s focus on her menstrual period — it’s hard to believe today, but the complaint was not that the male creative team was being exploitative or appropriating female experience, but that menstruation was being discussed as a story topic at all! If that makes this volume sound dated, believe me, it is; it concludes with a story about a slave plantation that won’t let go of its bloodsoaked past, and there is some truly cringe-inducing dialogue from black characters.

A backwards head is such a straightforward way to tell us you’re evil

With all that said, the central story arc is about the Swamp Thing slowly and painfully discovering the full extent of his powers, and the distance that Moore takes him in understanding them over the course of this volume is breathtaking. This isn’t Alan Moore at his most imaginative and freewheeling, but he finds plenty to do here. Honestly, it’s worth the price of admission just for the horror sequence where an artist is drawing an impossibly tortured figure, and hears a knock on her door — that is, her closet door. She is uncontrollably compelled to open it, even though she knows just what terror is waiting behind it.

Cross an Earth elemental, and you might get turned into a tree

In Volume 4, Moore widens and deepens the Swamp Thing mythology, bringing in several sets of new characters to fill in the character’s past and future. He also dips deeper into horror, concluding with a seance whose stakes keep rising and rising. The “Ghost Dance” episode concludes his “American Gothic” arc with its best story.

Volume 6 goes off the rails into cosmic adventures that are boring and text-heavy, though there’s one extraordinary sequence where Swamp Thing returns to Earth by manifesting himself inside the bodies of his enemies.

Vol 3: Recommended. Vol 4: Highly recommended. Vol 6: Not recommended.

True Swamp was a self-published comic in the early 90’s indie comics scene which attracted a cult following.

Lewis lived in Seattle at the time, surrounded by both emerging and established comics pros like Julie Doucet, Ed Brubaker and Gary Groth, and True Swamp was known as your favorite indie comics writer/artist’s favorite indie comic. (As I recall, some other contenders, at least in the mecca that is The Million Year Picnic comics shop in Harvard Square, were Carol Swain’s Way Out Strips, Peter Bagge’s Hate, Doucet’s Dirty Plotte, Jeff Levine’s No Hope, Daniel Clowes’s Eightball, and Jef Czekaj’s R2D2 is an Indie Rocker.)

True Swamp is an aimless comic in which Lenny the frog and a cast of animal characters pursue quotidian desires and reflect on philosophical questions. Obviously, such an existentialist anthropomorphic animal comic could end up being as predictable as any caped genre comic can. Instead, True Swamp seems to follow a thread no one but its creator can see, weaving at its own pace in and out of plot, in and out of physicality, insecurity, jealousy, joy, and adventure. I can’t say the result always works, but it never for a moment feels predictable or inert. And in its own way, the result brings to life the pain of feeling intense desire in an essentially purposeless and uncaring world.

Sometimes the storytelling feels agonizingly haphazard and directionless; but later I’ll reread the same pages and find them magically alive with belief in their world. In an author’s note, Lewis writes about the deep swampland fantasies he would enact with cheap plastic animal toys as a child, and his years of fantastical journeys into his own imagination as a teenage invalid. I can see all of that in these pages.

Highly recommended.

A lightly sci-fi noir which reminds me of the tone of the films Looper and Primer; like them, it’s a bit short on plot, but high on style.

Smith has complete control of tone and line in all his work, and is able to illustrate with total precision; which makes his looseness and formal inconsistency here all the more incredible.

The book is oversized, and the huge figures seem at times crammed into the page to the point that their features flatten and jam up against each other. The drinking, smoking, fighting and sex are all visceral and kinetic.

Highly recommended.

I love the trend of allowing indie comics creators to try their hand at mainstream characters, and Brandon Graham’s Prophet is probably the most critically successful example.

It’s not quite as wildly inventive as the world he created in his own comic Multiple Warheads, but it’s impressive how quickly and broadly he can build a world of this much complexity and history, while keeping the story humming. I never have the slightest clue where it’s going, but I trust him to take me someplace interesting, even if I still have no clue who the heck Prophet is or what his motivations are.

Highly recommended.

Some of my favorite Neil Gaiman writing, with his greatest character, Death. I prefer the first Gaiman-Bachalo Death mini-series (“The High Cost of Living”) to the second (“The Time of Your Life”), but this collection includes an additional handful of Death stories from Sandman and other places that I really like. The early Sandman story “Facade”, in particular, is one of the greatest revisionist takes on a superhero ever written.

Highly recommended.

A relaunch of one of my favorite comics from the 90s. It doesn’t have the same heartbreaking innocence and sense of possibility, but it’s still compelling and paranoid and well done.

Recommended.

A brief history of the little-known 20th century medium of wordless novels, with scores of gorgeous reprintings of their pages. I did find that sometimes the breathless and ecstatic prose descriptions of the art didn’t quite match their reality. Some of these works are truly masterpieces of storytelling, but others seem to me to say less than Berona is reading from them.

Recommended.

I adore the 1998–90 Conway-Buscema run in Spectacular Spider-Man. Forbidden to do more than cameo the better-selling Amazing Spider-Man’s tentpole characters and stories, they had to turn to peripheral characters to flesh out Spider-Man’s world. (One story is all about Peter Parker’s former high school classmates, and doesn’t show Spider-Man at all!)

Thus Conway turned to the character Joe “Robbie” Robertson, the Daily Bugle’s widely revered veteran Editor in Chief. What could be such an impeccable person’s dramatic flaw? Their answer: an inner conflict over what to do when journalistic ethics collide with credible threats of violence. Their vehicle: Tombstone, a new and unforgettable villain. Tombstone is an albino man from Harlem who has never known any way but violence to conduct relationships; he has adopted an almost supernatural appearance, shaving his teeth to points and staying skeletally thin. He also knows Robbie from high school, and has been using threats to keep Robbie and his notepad silent about his murders ever since.

What ensures between Robbie and Tombstone is one of my favorite Spider-Man episodes.

There are a few wasted issues in this bunch — you can almost hear Marvel corporate calling Conway and ordering him to write in the lame Marvel bench characters called “The Young Gods”.

But most of this collection is very good. It opens with a phenomenal treatment of illegal immigration, authoritarianism and political asylum, personified by the jingoistic Tarantula (the Central American Spider-Man) teaming up with a conflicted Captain America to round up political dissidents.

Recommended.

A fun project, well done. Phelan retells the Snow White story, set in a realistic and gritty depression-era New York City.

Most of the storytelling is wordless, and he takes it with a impressionistic light touch, using watercolors, washes and scenes told at a distance. This makes for an immersive feel, but also sacrifices some of the fine storytelling power of gesture and line and expression that more crisply inked comics can have; at times, it can be hard to tell who’s who.

The greatest moments come in finding delightful ways that he fits the mythical and magical elements of the traditional story into a realistic world. But that also means that when he can’t convincingly pull off one of these components of the adaptation, it’s glaring. Still, this is a refreshing and delightful riff on the story, and reading it with my daughter felt like an excellent educational experience in adaptation and storytelling under constraints.

Recommended.

McCloud himself warns about how long it took him to find what this comic was all about. It starts as a fantastic, eccentric indie superhero comic, with an imaginative cast of villains, but little tying it together. But as the series goes on, McLoud gives himself permission to dwell longer and longer on characters and situations far outside of the fantastical, and the last half dozen issues are absolute masterpieces. My favorite might be the issue that follows Zot’s human (but far from powerless) friend Brandy, as she copes with a dozen major daily obstacles but always manages to muster a smile. The few moments where her resolve falters are unforgettable.

Recommended.

A sort of cousin to Brandon Graham’s Multiple Warheads. Stokoe’s style is delightfully playful and inventive, his scenes bursting with life, with detail, with juices and sinew and style. The writing feels flat and pointless, but from another perspective, it’s really only meant to bring a cool and chaotic vibe to life, and it does that well.

Recommended.

Jomny Sun is one of the master comedians of the tweet form. He translates his cutesy-highbrow-deep-sincere sensibility very well here, and while not every episode works, the good parts are delightful. He’s so focused on the search for meaning that this silly book ends up being better as a self help book than most self help books I’ve read.

Interesting to read alongside Jon Lewis’s True Swamp.

Recommended.

It’s hard to review this take on the post-apocalyptic survival horror genre. It’s so short it reads more like a short novella than a typical graphic novel. It’s spectacularly dark and brutal, yet not completely bleak; there is humor and companionship and mourning, and even spurts of absurdist mania. There’s also a deftly intertwined variety of comics tone, from hyperrealism to symbolic cartooning to sketched caricature. I do wish a few of his storytelling brushstrokes were developed further; Simmons’ world is one I want to get to know better, no matter how wrenching. But maybe the opaque, unsatisfying vignettes are a reflection of his irredeemable world’s meaninglessness.

Recommended.

Thanos beats up Thor en route to murdering all life in the universe. But not so fast! Thor figures out a way to beat Thanos: his dad makes him extra strong armor! Then he beats up Thanos. There, I saved you two hours.

Not recommended.

Spoiler alert: he’s totally not dead!

Hard to get through. The scenarios have no material consequences, and the team’s powers have no real bounds, so the stakes seem meaningless. The best part is a confrontation with Legion (the son of Professor X, who has recently been given a TV series on FX), but even that is rendered irrelevant by Magik’s ability to conjure anything she imagines from the dimension of Limbo.

Not recommended.

Clunky and uninspired, except for a promising but poorly plotted story by veteran Ann Nocenti that features Venom expressing the legion of voices in his head by sprouting dozens of little heads and multiple arms. Aromance with the public interest lawyer is cringe-worthy in its handling of consent, but does point to interesting dynamics you could explore with Venom: could someone love Venom without loving Eddie Brock? Or vice versa? And if you’re making love to Eddie, how sure are you that Eddie’s the one smiling back right now?

Not recommended.

Disappointing how little actual horror there is in these stories. It’s not surprising that there’s little drama when Superman fights these enemies, with his disproportionate power. But Batman should be a wonderful character to pit against Aliens and, in one story, Predators, because his physical gifts are of such limited value against so physically superior an enemy. And yet whenever Batman faces an Alien in close quarters, he simply has his way with them without consequences.

One standard I always hold up for caped comics stories is Pixar’s The Incredibles, which I think is some of the best superhero storytelling ever. Other favorites are David Micheline’s Spider-Man and Frank Miller and Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil, all of which deal as much with the characters’ weaknesses and limitations as strengths.

Bruce Wayne’s ability to throw money and instant innovation at a problem has to be handled carefully or else it is a story-destroying deus ex machina. But here, when Batman isn’t strong enough to tussle with Aliens, he just shows up in a power-boosting exoskeleton suit, with no apparent limitations on his range of motion or speed.

There have been many interesting political themes explored in Batman’s comics, with criticism of him as a fascist vigilante from the left, and defense of him as essentially the same thing from the right, for instance by Frank Miller. But though Alien’s core themes center on the humanity-crushing leviathan of corpocratic power, those themes are never given the resonance with Batman here that they deserve.

The second story in this collection does at least briefly set up government and corporate collusion with Aliens as a bioweapons tool, but it swiftly goes off the rails in a way that really makes absolutely no sense. It turns out that DNA samples have been taken from all the villains in Arkham Asylum and used to cross breed aliens and humans. So there is a Joker Alien, a Two-face Alien, and a Killer Croc Alien. It sounds way cooler than it is.

Not recommended.

Absurdly over-the-top cartoonish violence, with essentially no story. It certainly kept me reading, but never amounted to anything.

Not recommended.

I have to stop attempting to read Grant Morrison. This is yet another supposed classic that has no surprises and nothing to say.

Not recommended.

This book was confounding. I would imagine I’d love a book that mixes the vibe of Love and Rockets with Cooke’s Bruce Timm-inspired visual style and science fiction. And it does look gorgeous and has a strong sensual feel to the art. But just about nothing in the story coheres. Characters do things, but so little is established about their characters that there is no context for their actions to be meaningful.

Not recommended.

None of the characters or situations feel as though they inhabit actual selves and actual relationships. I appreciate the approach, which presents seemingly isolated vignettes and then ties them together. But the performance is absolutely empty. No note, however big or small, feels true. The portraits of power, violence, loyalty, betrayal, good and evil, have absolutely nothing to say about those phenomena in human life. They come from no knowledge of humanity’s daily workings.

It’s the complete opposite of a show like Better Call Saul or The Sopranos, which show the way that violence can grow out of the seizing of power by the powerless, and then grow to maintain and perpetuate that power. Instead, 100 Bullets feels like the creation of a teenager who has only watched a handful of crime films, and copies from memory scenes that he didn’t understand in the first place, without attending to the details of character and situation that made them so compelling.

Not recommended.

Veteran comics writer Peter David once wrote a play-by-play of his experience watching the film Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. That’s the one which opens with Superman addressing the United Nations and announcing that he’s going to destroy the world’s nuclear arsenals. David recalled sitting up in excitement, ready for Superman’s power to run headfirst into a brick wall: surely not a single country in the world was going to stand for being unilaterally disarmed by an alien! Which meant Superman, as powerful as a god and with the best intentions, might inadvertently unleash a nuclear war his powers would be useless to stop. It was one of the most brilliant pieces of superhero writing David had ever seen.

Only, it wasn’t. As you know if you’ve seen the snoozefest that Superman IV turned out to be, the writers instead had the UN General Assembly give Superman a standing ovation, and the only hitch was yet another short-lived, super-powered villain. The film had no stakes, because the writers couldn’t see past the strengths of Superman’s powers to realize what the handful of great writers of the character know — that humans might be suspicious of Superman’s intentions and power, given the fact that he’s a god-like alien with no democratic mandate or checks on his power; not to mention how woefully inadequate even the powers of a god are for solving most problems. The good stories start where those powers end, and Superman’s liabilities begin.

Too bad that’s not where Ta-Nehisi Coates starts with Black Panther. I was surprised to find this first volume of his run on Black Panther unreadably boring. Coates is exploring something that seems like it should be fruitful: the contradiction between T’Challa’s commitment to his citizens’ freedom, and the authoritarian royal power he wields and represents. And Coates does hit some memorable notes, such as when the Panther kicks some bad guys’ asses and tells a group of women and children not to worry, because their king would provide for them; a cowering woman replies that those guys you just beat up were already providing for us!

But this setup is illustrated thinly and inconsistently. The tensions Coates might be trying to build are left slack. I kept turning the page expecting the screws to tighten and T’Challa to be forced to make painful choices among his deeply divided loyalties — but that page never came.

T’Challa is a hard character to write stories about, compared to his Marvel colleagues. Take Reed Richards: he is an inventor of ridiculous genius, but he is vulnerable because he doubts his own leadership and feels guilty that Ben Grimm suffered so much worse a transformation than he did. In his most complex moments, he can be paralyzed by caution, or so moved to protect others that he doesn’t realize he is suppressing their power and agency.

John Byrne’s famous 80’s writer/artist run did brilliant things on this note with Sue Richards, whose expanding feminist consciousness transforms her from a shrinking violet who turns invisible while her husband and brother fight, into the group’s most powerful member.

Spider-Man is vulnerable because his civic responsibility is mixed in with the soul-crushing pain of the inaction that led to his uncle being killed; refusing to step back or take a break, he oversteps his endurance and the limited protection his powers grant him. It pains him that he’s endangering his friends and family and on a course to bring them immense grief, but he can’t stay away from web slinging.

But why is T’Challa vulnerable? I’ve never known. Of course he cares about his citizens and his family, and his job isn’t easy. There is room in Black Panther stories for some palace intrigue and righteous rebellion. When he fails to protect his people, he feels failure. But he has no long-running kernel of doubt about his role or his duty. That makes him a hard character to write good stories about. Adding to this is the tendency for pop cultural portrayals of Africa that feature Animism, witchcraft and myth to follow some unspoken rule that they must be vague, overblown and plodding.

Not recommended.

The plotting is always this inert. Everyone’s just standing around saying stuff.

One pattern I have seen writers go through is that when they are young, like in high school, they write stories or draw comics that are incredibly grandiose: they involve the smartest person in the world, the richest person in the world, God and demons, the most powerful superhero ever, etc.

But as the writers mature, they realize that these extreme characters are not more interesting deep down then anyone else; in fact, their power and access can make for stunted inner lives. Moreover, they learn that it is much harder to write good stories about geniuses, gods and world leaders then it is about people who may be special, but who are busy juggling dozens of practical pressures in the course of being special. It’s no coincidence that the best storytelling about superheroes portrays them as workaday, muddling though like the rest of us. Anyone who thinks the depths of human fear are plumbed by Clive Barker needs to read a few memoirs of the Cultural Revolution.

I’m not quite sure why this is. Maybe because it’s harder to construct so many unfamiliar elements convincingly? Anyway, a maddening thing for people who love literature, whether graphic or not, is how often people rave about a new book, but when I read it I find it is really just the size of the subject matter, not the size of the storytelling, that has impressed my friends.

Nowhere Men is a perfect example of this. It involves “the most valuable company of all time” being founded by four guys who are variations on perhaps Steve Jobs, Elbert Einstein, Brian Greene, and a sort of Ayn Rand type who becomes the villain. We are told they are scientific and intellectual geniuses, but no aspect of what makes them impressive, from organizational confidence to strategy to science itself, is ever shown on the page.

Nowhere Men tries to tread some of the same territory that has been covered much better by other X-Men revisionist comics like the original Harbinger and John Byrne’s Next Men, both of which I highly recommend. In those, there is little attempt to be impressive from a scientific perspective, and instead the focus is entirely on character, group dynamics and political machinations. Those comics also deal incredibly well with imagining how real people might react to the drastic and disturbing changes in their bodies that come with superpowers; that is an area where Nowhere Men essentially drops the ball, at first showing a little bit of shame in its characters but then making them as psyched to be turned into Rock Man or Laser Girl or whatever as the characters in any eighth-grader’s sketchbook.

Meanwhile, only a writer who has deeply developed the breadth of their knowledge and their depth of understanding of leadership and genius can convincingly create fictional characters who operate at that level. I think Watchmen succeeds decently, though even that portrait of genius still feels shallow at times. The 90s valiant comic Solar: Man of the Atom, and the modern classic Marvelman/Miracleman dealt brilliantly with these themes from the perspective of a superhero with almost godlike powers.

I can’t name much fiction that has done a good job of capturing the rigors of competent leadership. If you know of any, please let me know.

Not recommended.

Independent programmer, chatterbox. http://techno-social.com

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