Books of 2015

Or why I still have a blog.

Once again, it’s time to examine my year in reading. This year, I have read 90 books, which is a full 57 books fewer than last year.

Wonder how that happened…

IMG_1186

Baby looking surprised as if she has no idea what effect she has on my reading

Anyway, let’s see how this year stacks up. It looks a lot like last year, interestingly enough.

Publication Years 2015

Books by Publication Year, heavily biased towards 2015

Nearly half the books I read in 2015 were published in 2015. One will be published next year – I read the Advanced Reader’s Copy (ARC) and have no regrets. About 90% were published this decade. Basically, this was a year for reading new books as they came out and little else.

Ratings of 2015

Books by Ratings

The ratings look about the same as last year – mostly 4s and 3s. Interestingly enough, I read the same number of 5s this year as I did last year. Which suggests that I’m getting better at picking the books I’ll love. And all of those books were written by authors I’ve already read. I’m not sure if that’s a good sign or not. Still, a pretty good track record.

Genres of 2015

And, once again, Fantasy wins out by a landslide. This comes as no surprise. And, honestly, most of the historical books are also either fantasy or speculative fiction. I’m beginning to wonder whether the genre differences are specious. I’m not sure what they actually tell my readers about my reading habits.

Although it will always be more interesting to look at the actual books than the stats, the stats are important too.

Books and Authors Inclusivity

Books by Inclusivity

This particular set of stats, for example, is quite important. Also, wow, not reading any non-fiction has really skewed the gender ratios. And I did much better than last year in terms of reading authors of color. 1 out of 5 is not good – 50/50 would be better, but, it’s definitely an improvement over last year. Progress requires effort and, honestly, I found that while I was more aware of race and gender as they applied to books this year, I’m not sure how much actual effort I put in. I was, at least, determined to track down new releases by authors of color that I was pretty sure I would like. So I’m both pleased to be a little better and determined to continue embettering myself.

Okay, now that we’re done with all that, let’s move on to the fun bits. Favorite books of the year, as sorted vaguely by category.

Fantasy:

  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. This was so good. This was so far beyond good, I don’t even know what to do with it. Jemisin has always been a master of world-building, but the care with which she crafts (and destroys) this one is unparalleled. More importantly, the world and the characters in it make strident points about the workings of power and oppression by being compelling characters in richly detailed settings. She tells a good story and, in doing so, shows what epic fantasy is capable of.
  • Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone. Gladstone is my most read author this year, with all four published books of the Craft sequence on the list. He’s an equally interesting example of what epic fantasy becomes in the hands of a talented writer. Gladstone’s books ask, rather simply, why epic fantasy is always set in medieval realms with sword fights and great armies clashing. What happens if it’s set in a more contemporary setting? Well, the battles move to the courtrooms, the desks of accountants and lawyers, the slums about to be gentrified. Start with either Three Parts Dead or Last First Snow.
  • Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. A bit less serious than my other recommendations, but no less enjoyable (and will not rip your heart to shreds, unlike my first recommendation). Cho clearly enjoys the Regency romance and the conceit of setting magic in 19th century England, which makes her book a loving pastiche rather than a vicious skewering. The latter may be enjoyable, but they are rarely good stories. Cho’s book blends romance and fantasy in a way that makes both better and, really, what more can you ask from a genre mashup?

Science Fiction

  • Radiance by Catherynne Valente. …This might not actually be sci-fi. It is set in the science fiction novels of the first half of the 20th century–before we know what we know now about the solar system and intrastellar travel. But it’s also set in an alternate version of the 20s, what Valente calls Decopunk, with silent movies and the silver screen on Luna and it all sounds incredibly madcap. Valente also tells much of the story through transcripts, movie pitches, and screen plays, which makes the book feel like it should be a movie even when it is so obviously unfilmable. The use of other forms of written media to tell a visual story is brilliant and I still can’t quite believe she pulls it off with such a degree of panache.

Speculative Fiction

  • The Just City by Jo Walton. Quite literally speculative fiction, Walton’s premise is that, for reasons best known to herself, the goddess Athena collects an array of humans from throughout history to set up Plato’s Republic on an island far in the past. It’s a gedankenexperiment masquerading as a story, but it works because it’s also a story about the people of the city, the governed and governing and what it means to have agency. Walton’s brilliance lies in her understanding that all good thought experiments about people only work when feelings are involved as well. I’m not sure if this is the work of speculative fiction that I enjoyed the most this year, but it’s certainly the one I found the most interesting.

Fiction

  • A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. Given that I read so few books that are not genre and given that I think Atkinson is brilliant, this book was kinda a shoe-in. It’s a companion to Life After Life and, while it mostly lacks the conceit of its predecessor, Atkinson tells the story with the same disregard for chronology that made Life After Life so successful. She makes a mystery out of ordinary life, piecing together the clues that make one man the man that he is, and uses that one man’s life to tell the story of Britain during and after WWII. It’s a genre that, though often reworked, never gets old when done well.

YA

  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik. Everything I wanted in a young adult novel. It’s like returning to all my favorite authors from when I was a teenager without the lurking presence of the suck fairy. (When you go back to a beloved childhood classic to discover that it is racist, sexist, filled with wooden characters, badly written, or all of the above, it has been visited by the suck fairy. Clearly it could not have been that bad when you were younger. Something must have happened.) I’m not sure if I can pinpoint why this book is so good–the story is innovative although not new, the plot pales before Novik’s telling of it and it’s not as though female character driven YA is new or anything. She does what she does so well, it’s impossible not to enjoy it.
  • Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Wait, two WWII novels about pilots on this list? Code Name Verity is no less brilliant for being shelved in the YA section. Wein’s story about the women’s auxiliary branch of the airforce during WWII is fascinating, packed full of information I’d never even guess. All of which is secondary compared to the two brilliant women at the heart of the narrative.

Nonfiction

  • Lithuanian Yeshivas of the Nineteenth Cetury by Shaul Stampfer. A niche market, I know, but if you happen to be interested in what it was like to attend Volozhin during the 1800s, look no further.

And there you have it, the books of 2015. Maybe next year I’ll aim really low. Like 50 books.

For more details, in depth reviews and a look at my ratings, feel free to check out my books of 2015 on Goodreads and I will see you all next year!

My Year in Books on Goodreads

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Deborah Romm, The Talmud and a Seriously Successful Kickstarter

So I received a request to tell a more detailed version of my “How the Vilna Edition of the Babylonian Talmud was a 19th Century Kickstarter” story from Facebook. Never let it be said that I neglect my friends.

Two notes, before I begin.

  1. This is a narrative. I did my best to keep it historically accurate, but it’s a narrative about events that happened 150 years ago. I don’t have transcripts and I don’t have a time machine. The dialogue has…some contemporary flavor added, but it is mostly reconstructed from memoirs.
  2. M y main sources are Ze’ev Gries’s article in the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, “Romm Family” and Shafan HaSofer’s memoirs of the Romm press, “A History of the Romm Printing Press” (alias of Shmuel Shraga Feigenzohn), which is available online to anyone with an NYPL library card and a hankering to read pixellated Hebrew published posthumously in 1960.

Let me set the stage. We’re in Vilnius, Lithuania and it’s the 1860s. For the past 30 years, the Russian government has refused to grant printing licenses to all but two printing houses in the entirety of Lithuania. One of them is a little firm called the Romm printing house.

Then things take an interesting turn. The law gets LESS anti-semitic and Czar Alexander II removes the ban on Jewish printing houses. Around the same time, David Romm, head of the firm, dies.

His widow, Deborah, looks at her husband’s surviving brothers and says the 19th century equivalent of “I am NOT trusting these goons with MY business. My dad (R’ Harkavy, who subsequently dies in 1864) and I are running this joint.” So Deborah gets the plurality of the money and the name of the firm is changed to The Widow and Brothers Romm.

Her brothers-in-law are not pleased with this development and, by 1867, the in-fighting is getting pretty hairy. Deborah decides that they need a director who can get the firm back on its feet and she pulls in Shmuel Shraga Feigenzohn.

Feigenzohn, based on the number of exclamation points he uses in his memoirs, runs around excitedly screaming about how to fix everything. He convinces the brothers Romm to grow up and then sets out to modernize the press.

“You are the actual biggest printing firm in the entire city, how are you operating with five hand-operated presses? Haven’t you heard of the copy machine? This is the 19th century, we have steam, damn it!” (Feigenzohn probably didn’t say damn it, but only because Yiddish has far more eloquent curses).

Fast forward a few years—with Deborah’s blessing, Feigenzohn goes to Berlin, buys the new-fangled stereotype machines (”The goyim have had these for decades now, what is wrong with you!?”). With the old presses, every time they wanted to reprint a siddur (prayer book) or chumash (5 books of Moses), they had to redo all the layout and the type. With the new machines, they could make plaster molds of every page and use that to make full-page metal casts. Basically, when a book ran out, they could just pull out the stereotypes and reprint the books from those without dealing with the fiddly type-setting business ever again. Once a book was typeset once, it was good to go.

Now, obviously, you don’t stereotype everything. Of course, that didn’t stop the type-setters from going on strike as soon as they heard about the new machines. Feigenzohn tried to reassure them that someone needed to do the typesetting to MAKE the stereotype copy and there would always be new books… In the end, the staff found a salary raise to be far more reassuring.

Stereotyping, I speculate, gave them an idea. They were going to use this new technology to make the biggest, bestest, most complete edition of the Babylonian Talmud EVER. And Feigenzohn had the bright idea to just put the Russian censors on the payroll (yes, seriously) so that the censors would look at the books before printing. That meant that once a book went to press, it was safe to sell.

By 1879, the employees of the Widow and Brothers Romm had gone hunting through 1,000 years of Talmudic commentary and were ready to start printing the greatest Talmud ever. The thing would be comprehensive. It would have everything and it would be proofread up the wazoo. Other books would be jealous!

They showed it to the rabbis. The rabbis looked at it and said “This is amazing and beautiful and no one in their right mind would pay this much money just to get an edition of the Talmud with Rabbeinu Hananel.”

And Deborah Romm had to admit, they had a point. They were printing a 20 volume oversized Talmud and that could bankrupt the firm if it didn’t make back cost. She talked to Feigenzohn who was not going to let a little thing like scaredy-pants rabbis get in his way.

“I’ll make a deal with you,” says Feigenzohn. “If I can get 4,000 people to subscribe to our Shas—that’s 4,000 people who sign up to buy this thing—we can go to press.” The thinking was that even if fewer than half of them come through, they’re already in the black.

And thus the Kickstarter for the Vilna Edition of the Babylonian Talmud was born. They made mock-up pages and advertised the Shas in the newspapers right around Rosh Hashana time. They promised 40 new commentaries! They had 14 dedicated proofreaders working on this thing!

Over 10,000 people signed up to buy it.

And in 1880, the Widow and Brothers Romm published the first volume. In 1886, they released the last one. In that time, they moved up from their base goal of 40 additional commentaries to meet a stretch goal of over 100 additional commentaries from the 8th century to the 19th. They did this despite a warehouse fire interrupting production in the middle.

And now, I guarantee it, go pick up any copy of the Talmud, any one at all, and you will find, in Hebrew, on the title page:

“Printed and Published by The Widow and Brothers Romm”

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Books of 2014

Well, it has been a while since I’ve used this thing, but my end-of-the-year Book Review 1 has to go somewhere.

Because it’s not a year until I’ve quantified my reading. This list is current as of December 21st, 2014. Any books I read over the next 10 days may or may not be included as I see fit. Also, because Goodreads does not let you add reread dates (which annoys me to no end, but there you go), this is actually a list of books that I read for the first time in this particular medium in 2014. So there may be a reread or two that made their way on here because I listened to them for the first time. This explains some fairly noticeable lacunae (such as why none of the books I taught this summer are on the list – if I was reading them for the first time as I was teaching them, we would be in trouble).

With that out of the way, let’s look at the data. I read a LOT of recently published books.

Year Pie Chart

Over 1/2 of the books I read were published in the past 3 years and 1/5 were published this year. Which means I’m kinda keeping up, but it also means that if I missed it, I missed it. Over 80% of the books that I read were written in the 21st century. So there is a noticeable bias there.

Next up, the inscrutable rating system. As a reminder, unrated means I read it for school and those don’t really fit on a scale that tells you how much I liked them.

Rating Pie Chart

Overall, a smaller percentage of books got 5 and 4 stars as compared to last year, while more books got 3. We do not tolerate grade inflation except that we totally do. And I either “like” or “really like” the vast majority of things. If I don’t at least like it, the odds are good I won’t get through it and then it probably doesn’t end up on goodreads in the first place. The nameless pile of half-finished and all-forgotten tomes is not a part of this round-up.

I also read a lot of fantasy.

Genre Bar Chart

Like, a disproportionate amount. And while genres are not mutually exclusive–which is to say that a book can be both fantasy and historical–this means that nearly half the books that I read this year qualify as fantasy. I’d complain, except fantasy is really good and I refuse to buy into the literary versus non-literary divide. Some of the best books doing the most interesting things qualify as genre. And, even if you disagree, de gustibus non est disputandum. So there’s that.

And now we move to the more important things.

Gender Pie Chart All

The first chart refers to how many books I read by male versus female authors. The fourth chart refers to how many male authors versus female authors I read. So the first chart would count two books by the same woman as 2 books, while the second would count that as 1 author. What this means, basically, is that I was more likely to read several books by a woman than by a man.

Either way, I was really good about gender this year! And, for those of you who missed the brief twitter rant, here’s the deal. It’s still easier for men to get published, to get good marketing, to get recognition, to get reviews and not to have their works dismissed. Whether we’re still in the realm of Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing 2 or not, there’s still a lot of work to do to achieve parity. So if you don’t go out of your way to read books by women, you will inevitably end up with a disproportionately male reading list. A lot of really excellent work fades because of how bad the industry is at promoting women’s work. So, in the interest of fairness, I’m trying to take up some of the slack, at least in my own reading and have been doing so for the past several years 3.
And, in this case, I was successful.

I was…decidedly less successful when it came to race. 97% of the books that I read this year were by white authors. I don’t need to show you what that pie chart looks like, right? You can imagine it.
And everything I just said about gender holds doubly true for authors of color. If you think being a woman and getting published in SF&F is difficult, just wait until you throw race into the mix.

So this is next year’s resolution (made easier by the fact that both N.K. Jemisin and Aliette de Bodard are publishing new books next year). Read more books by authors of color – catch up with Junot Diaz, read more Nnedi Okorafor (who writes really good middle grade fantasy, but just published a book for adults), give Nalo Hopkinson a try, finally read Octavia Butler and Samual R. Delany (I know, I know!) and, of course, take on the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms omnibus. I, umm, will also take recommendations for non SF&F.

So much for the quantitative analysis. Now for the good bit. What were the greatest books I read this year? Divided by genre and I reserve the right to have several favorite books within a genre. Because.

  • Fantasy
    • The Eternal Sky Trilogy by Elizabeth Bear. First book is Range of Ghosts. Really good at everything you want epic fantasy to be good at.
    • The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. Narrated by Euan Morton. I’ve read this before, but this was my first listen and it was just as wonderful as I remembered. If you enjoy complex fantasy worlds and have an interest in the Abrahamic religions during the golden age of Spain, you will appreciate this book.
    • The Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher, penname of children’s book author Ursula Vernon. It’s kind of a retelling of Bluebeard, but also very much its own fairy tale and it manages to be lyrical and lovely while still absolutely laden with common sense and scary as anything.
  • Science Fiction
    • Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie. After winning the triple crown (The Arthur C. Clarke, Nebula and Hugo awards) for her previous book, there was some speculation as to whether the sequel could possibly live up. It does.
    • Dust by Elizabeth Bear. I stand by my description on goodreads that Dust is the space-opera/arthurian-romance mashup I never knew I needed. I think I love this one despite its strangeness and I admit it’s probably not for everyone, but it seriously worked for me.
  • Speculative Fiction (yes, it’s a different category than either SF or F. It’s something that fits in neither.)
    • Railsea by China Miéville. I’m going to quote my own review again – “[I]f Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey had a very odd looking baby, it would be something like this book.” It’s wonderful, though. Miéville is at his best when he’s not writing solely for adults.
  • Historical Fiction
    • The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine. A late entry and not even the highest rated book in the genre, but I really liked what it tried to do and, even though it doesn’t quite succeed, I appreciate it nonetheless.
  • Romance
    • The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet by Kate Rorick and Bernie Su. Narrated by Ashley Clements. Yes, there’s a book adaptation of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries series. Yes, of course I read it. And it was delightful.
  • Young Adult
    • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Sniffle.
    • Both Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Sarah Rees Brennan’s Lynburn Legacy trilogies finished this year and while I started them last year, the end is the most important for trilogies that are really one story stretched across 3 books 4. First books are Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Unspokenrespectively.
  • Fiction
    • The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I really should have read more Ishiguro by now, but I’m working on it!
  • Non-Fiction – which is all critical literature this year. So my favorite work of theory…

And…that’s all folks. A gross of books, 39 of which I read for school/work.


  1. Now with 300% more pie charts! 
  2. The quotes on the cover say it all – “She didn’t write it. She wrote it but she shouldn’t have. She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. She wrote it, but she only wrote one of it. She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist and it isn’t really art. She wrote it, but she had help. She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly. She wrote it BUT…” 
  3. I should not need to say this, but just in case. This project has not made the quality of my reading go down. (Which just keeps making the point that the best is not always what is most heavily promoted). Quite the opposite – the stories I read are more interesting, they push the bounds of stagnant genres, they create characters who feel more fully realized. They are, in short, more innovative and exciting because of what their authors bring to the table. 
  4. IMG
    The management would like to apologize for putting jokes in the footnotes. 

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Podcasts and Cast Ons

In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably let you know that I should be doing something else right now.

Writing the prospectus for my dissertation comes to mind.

It’s amazing how I can have such a clear idea of what I’m doing and why and then I sit down to type out all my thoughts and it all comes out in this jumble of academicese and passive voice. The past two days have been all about turning lines like this: “This project opens up the possibility of the exploration of” into “I will explore” and even then I find myself relying too much on ex words. I’m making a list and every time I get through a paragraph without using explore, explain, examine or extrapolate, I explode with joy and the desire to exsanguinate someone is extinguished.

So this post is me actively taking a break from dissertation work to talk about something else. Like crafts.

I learned how to knit over winter break. It was very exciting. First, I made a misshapen square (the technical term for which is a trapezoid, I suppose). Then I made a longer one, which moved into misshapen rectangle territory (which is still a trapezoid, so perhaps I should just stick with that term). Then I made a coffee cup cozy,. I used to think that coffee cup cozies were the most useless things in the universe, bar none. Of course, when you need to knit something fairly simple that does not need to fit a human being and should be completed within a reasonable amount of time even when you are a rank beginner, the purpose of the coffee cup cozy becomes clear.

I made two.

The second ended up larger than anticipated and is actually a small tea cozy that lives on the small tea pot (it holds two medium or one very large mug’s worth of tea) that lives, in turn, in my office. It looks very…handmade, which I suppose fits in well with the larger ethos of our lab.

After that accomplishment, I decided I wanted to do something bigger. Something I could wear. Not something as ambitious as a hat yet, because those tended to have designs and cables and things more complicated than I could handle. So I made a cowl.

Teal CowlIn retrospect, I shouldn’t have tried knitting in the round until I had made a few more things not in the round, because it was significantly more difficult to keep an even tension (which I can’t do anyway). But the thing has achieved thinginess–it has become the object I was intending to make–and I now have a cowl to keep my face warm when the temperature drops to the low 50s at night.

You all hate me right now, don’t you?

And now, because I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I only produce misshapen round objects that keep things warm, here was my other fiber project. This one was crocheted and I’ve been crocheting on and off since I was 15 and fairly consistently for the past few years. So I’m mostly past the ‘it’s a very nice blob, what is it supposed to be?’ stage.

IMG_0072I would have posted this one earlier because I am quite proud of it except I wanted it to be a surprise for its recipient. Well, for its recipient’s mother. Its recipient is 6 months old and does not read my blog. Actually, the “my blog” in that statement is probably irrelevant. In any case, that was a thing that I made.

For reference, this was the picture I sent to a certain spouse of mine three quarters of the way through the process with the caption “Bunny Antoinette”

IMG_0214Apparently, the history department has just taught the French revolution that week. Every so often, my timing achieves impeccable.

This sudden increase in crafting has had a few other effects. Knitting is just one of those things that can’t be done with a book in hand and, honestly, part of why I try to spend some time doing this stuff is because it’s time that can’t be spent working, but is still time spent making things. I feel productive because I am, after all, producing a thing. But I also get bored easily and I need something to do while I knit or crochet.

The obvious answer is television. Except…not. It’s not that there aren’t really good shows on and it’s not that I’m not consistently impressed with the quality of acting and storytelling on tv these days. It’s just that I sit down to watch tv and think of something else I want to do. I find myself reorganizing my closet by color (which is not as absurd as it sounds; it helps me get dressed faster in the morning) or roasting squash for later in the week. I have television issues. I’ve been in the middle of the same season of Game of Thrones for nearly a year even though I really enjoy the show (thank you, Peter Dinklage!) , but I just can’t convince myself to watch the rest.

However, this is not a post about the weirdness of my psyche. The obvious solution to my problem is audiobooks and podcasts. I’ve been getting particularly into the latter recently because there is something nice about listening to entertaining people talk about things in the comfort of your own home. I don’t really want complex narratives or impressive world building. I just want people to amuse me for an hour or so at a time. It’s not so much to ask and podcasts readily deliver.

Also, unlike real people, you can pause them when the thing on the stove it about to boil over because you’re trying to knit and cook at the same time.

The moral of this story is “don’t knit and cook at the same time”.

So, dear readers, any of you podcast people? Any recommendations for me? Feel free to comment or pick some other part of this post to respond to.

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Best of Books, the 2013 Edition

So graduate school has had a measurable effect on my reading. The year I started at UCSB, I read 119. The year after I read 99. This year, I’ve read 82. At this rate, I won’t be reading anything at all by the time I get my Ph.D. Which, as I understand it, is traditional.

This year was a bit odd, though, because I couldn’t figure out a good way to count books that I read for my exam and, worst for me, Goodreads only keeps track of books that one has read, not books that one has reread. So I chose to reread fewer books this year because Goodreads doesn’t add that to book count. So the number of pages that I’ve actually slogged through this year is significantly higher once you take into account that I reread Middlemarch, Bleak House and Vanity Fair, each of which are charmingly huge doorstoppers although the first two in particular are some of my favorites.

So, without further ado, this year’s reading graph:

Books of 2013

 

For those curious, last year’s graph can be found here: Textual Retrospective, 2012.

Notes – I realize that there is a section for fantasy, science fiction AND speculative fiction. These are all different things, I promise. Fantasy and SF are exactly what they say, speculative fiction refers to fiction where something in the premise of the text is outside of the realm of realism, but is not well-enough defined to fit into either genre is particular.

As with last year, I will also be listing my standout favorites from each genre with more than three books. And then any other really great books. You should, by the way, assume that any fictional book that makes it onto this list will have fully-realized and complex characters as well as an excellent depiction of the setting.

  1. Best Classic reread – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Given that fully half of this section is Faulkner, this came as no surprise.
  2. Best Speculative Fiction – Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. Brilliant premise (even though all the reviews saying “OMG, this is so clever!” left me feeling a bit like it was overhyped) and the way that she melded a sweeping historical novel with a realist British novel and then put a speculative turn to both of them was an impressive feat. This isn’t really a mystery, at least in Atkinson’s traditional sense, but it uses the same tools that her mysteries do in that it relies on character’s reactions to events to make things memorable and expects the reader to use what they know about the characters to piece together what is happening. And Atkinson’s characters are always so great that you want to delve deeper and figure out what makes them tick.
  3. Best Science Fiction – The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord. She reminds me of Lois McMaster Bujold in that her science fiction focuses on what happens to people in radically new situations usually brought about by science. This book focuses on questions of culture shock and displacement, using an intricately conceived future world as the background for playing out what it means to be a person.  (Runner up is Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie for, actually, the exact same reasons.)
  4. Best Fantasy – Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson, which narrowly beat Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane. So many good books on this list, but Wilson’s stood out to me perhaps because I’ve seen other authors attempt this kind of world (Ian McDonald in Dervish House, Saladin Ahmed in Throne of the Crescent Moon), and while those were good, Wilson’s is the first that seems transcendent. This book manages to be everything: cleverly post-modern, heavily mythical, balancing denouments that rely on a computer whiz with others that pay homage to Arabic traditions. And she handles the religious aspects of working within an Islamic society incredibly deftly, which allows her religious characters to achieve a level of complexity that people who care about religion rarely get to reach in fantasy. The thing that struck me the most about this book, especially given that it’s a first novel, is that Wilson never seemed to me to falter.
  5. Best Nonfiction – Scripting, Reading, Motions by Manuel Portela wins for most useful content and presentation, How to Do Things With Books in Victorian England wins for best written and most fascinating tidbits. I can’t really recommend anything on this list, although if you like reading stuff from University presses and care about New Media, Psychology of Reading or the Bookishness of Books, feel free to ask for my thoughts.
  6. Best Young Adult Fantasy – The Girl of Fire and Thorn by Rae Carson. It probably beat out the other two contenders because I got to finish the whole trilogy this year and that’s informing my choice. Still, it was awesome! It revolves around a female character whose growth is incredibly realistic and who isn’t forced into traditional strong-like-men roles. Also, Carson takes religions in fantasy seriously, not as excuses for gods to intervene or to invent swears, but as real practices that inform people’s lives and actually have schisms, laws and rituals constructed around them.
  7. Best Not-Appearing-in-Other-Lists – Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie’s book is brilliant on several levels, but what worked best for me was how it, like Atkinson’s balanced the macro and micro levels of events. On the one hand, this was a book about what it means to be African in the US rather than African American. It was about identity and what it means to suddenly be different and become part of someone else’s history. At the same time, it’s the story of two people reflecting backwards and forwards on the choices that defined her life and the compromises she made or did not want to make. But they’re not really two stories, in the same way that no one is separate from their cultural identity, precisely because Adichie understands how the two aspects of the same story are meant to be woven together.

So that’s it for this year. For more information, such as the full list and my occasionally useful ratings and reviews, feel free to meander over to my Goodreads Page.

And, of course, if you have any comments on these books OR any recommendations for me, please let me know in the comments.

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Musings on Media

Wintertime has arrived. I’ve already experienced three snowfalls, as befits someone who was actually excited to leave the West Coast and return, if only for a bit, to the nosebitingly cold East Coast. I miss my palm trees, yes, but my chin has finally thawed from this morning’s excursion and there’s nothing like sitting inside with a mug of tea and fuzzy slippers while the snow falls down outside…although the nature of qualia are that they are not like anything other than themselves. There’s nothing quite like accidentally spilling boiling tea over your left thumb either (she says from rueful experience).

Winter has many features in my life; one of the odd ones is that its the only time of year I really bother to see movies. Disney movies tend to come out during the winter, as do Peter Jackson’s walking tours of New Zealand and I will go and see those no matter what. I’m three for four in terms of this year’s crop of movies; the fourth is not really out yet, but I’m sure I’ll be seeing it soon. The four movies of this season are, in order of release:

Thor 2: The Dark World

Frozen

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Saving Mr. Banks

I am more than willing to admit that I lack “sophisticated” tastes in film. If the acting is good and the story holds together, my requirements have been met. What I care about is whether the story can draw me in and win me over. (This is actually not much of a surprise; my current research is on how forms of New Media affect us emotionally and create connections between work and reader/viewer/user/player. Of course I care about movies that emotionally affect me.) Beautiful visuals are a plus. So, with that in mind, I present Liz’s well thought-out and most definitely not off the top of her head thoughts on the three films she has already seen. Conveniently, one of them exactly met her expectations, one fell short and one completely surpassed them. As a note, I will consign all spoilers to the footnotes. And I’m assuming that you’ve read the Hobbit and Anderson’s “The Snow Queen” at some point and that content that appears in there does not count as spoilable.

Thor 2  – this movie was exactly what it said on the tin. Assuming the tin said “Superhero movie with snarkiness provided by Tom Hiddleston”. I enjoy the kind of superhero movies that Marvel has been producing recently precisely because they are unabashedly superhero movies. They’re a bit over the top and occasionally absurd, but that’s the nature of the genre. Superheroes are supposed to be larger than life and the Thor movies capture that exceedingly well. There have been some interesting conversations online about why we’ve reached an era of superhero movies right now (which assumes that a) they’re not a cinematic constant and b) Disney backing Marvel isn’t a good enough reason). The one I enjoy the most is the argument that superheroes are the incarnations of myths and gods in our age, the archetypal stories that get rewrapped in the clothing of their times. They as resonant as ever and we enjoy watching the epic battle of good versus evil play out every time we see it. The mark of our age is that we have a tendency to destroy Manhattan, L.A. or London in the process. Usually Manhattan.

Speaking of the epic battle between good and evil, let’s move to the film that disappointed me. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug was a perfectly fine movie, but I’m used to being blown away by the Lord of the Rings movies (can we agree to call all 6 films Lord of the Rings Movies because “The Middle Earth Hexology” sounds like the wizard’s guide to spell-casting?) and I just wasn’t this time. It might have been that Peter Jackson has finally discovered the point past which I will no longer tolerate deviations from the original text and sped on past that point with impunity. On that note, he might have surpassed the number of times I will tolerate elves turning up to save the day. This movie is about dwarves. They’re not perfect dwarves, but it is their story and they should have been the heroes more often. This was the first of the LOTR movies that requires the qualification “very loosely based on JRR Tolkien”. The first Hobbit was expanded beyond the original source material to incorporate Peter Jackson’s interpretations of the appendices, but the story itself remained more or less unchanged. There were extra orcs, yes. And the fact that I’m defending the authenticity of the first movie should tell you just how far off this one was. So, yes, the fact that this movie didn’t feel like a visual dramatization of Tolkien’s world was jarring.

It wasn’t a bad movie. But it was a movie whose value exists almost entirely in the excellence of the cast. I love Martin Freeman as Bilbo; his ability to be awkwardly expressive is one of the most adorable and wonderful features of both films. And Richard Armitage still does a great Thorin Oakenshield. Honestly, all the dwarves were excellent. They each have personality and the movie would feel poorer without each one. I was less impressed with the elves (except Lee Pace’s Thranduil, which was entirely over-the-top and perfectly right in being so), but I’m not sure whether that’s because Legolas has exactly two facial expressions or because all he is allowed to do is stand still and kill things.* And Smaug was a sight to behold.

My favorite scene was probably the escape from Thranduil’s halls in the barrels. That was amazing and was one of the few scenes (along with the unexpected dinner party in the first movie) that really captured the tone and feeling of the book. And many of Jackson’s alterations really work.** But it was, as my sister pointed out, mostly filler and so much of it was just unnecessary. Jackson hasn’t successfully convinced me that this needed to be three movies yet.

But onto happier things. Frozen was amazing. After first seeing it, I had decided it was good, albeit a bit flawed, but the more time I spend thinking about it, the less I see the flaws as flaws or even see them at all. Josh and I were discussing how we felt about Frozen and one of the issues that came up was how every movie currently made felt the need to be a little bit meta, a little fourth-wall-breaking. We can no longer be earnest in cinema (cue Oscar Wilde joke). We have to have moments when we are explicitly reminded that what we are watching is a performance and is in dialogue with previous performances of a similar kind. Frozen does something of this sort in that it reminds you that you’re in a fairy tale by pointing out or even slyly mocking fairy tale tropes. This bothered me far less the second time around (did I mention that I saw it again?) because disconcerting breaks lose their force via repetition. When you know a character is about to do or say something that does not quite fit with the very well developed fairy tale world, it’s no longer jarring. (I realize this makes me Queen of Pedantville, but one of the songs mentions fractals and, based on the clothing and weaponry in the movie, the idea of fractals had yet to be discovered. It bothered Josh as well, which I suppose makes him the King) So, on the second viewing, the film’s earnestness rang truer for me and I loved it more.

I was also a bit disappointed at first that it was less like 1990s style musical (and, thus, in the style of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast) and more like a 2010s style musical. I held out for about 12 hours before buying the soundtrack and have since listened to it…oh, about 15 times. The songs were even better than I’d realized. Unlike Enchanted, this film does not waste Idina Menzel’s talent.

The flip-side of Frozen’s slightly meta approach is that it’s actually possible to spoil this movie. I cannot remember the last time a Disney movie had a substantive and unpredictable plot.*** But this movie is great and it lets Disney address some of the critiques that have been leveled at it over the years. They get a lot of things right, especially with their portrayal of female characters.****

It’s not Lion King, as my mother pointed out. Few things are. But if Disney meets this standard for its next few releases, I will be absolutely thrilled.

So there you have it – three movies, three different reactions. And while I think that verbalizing my reactions goes some way towards explaining why I feel the way I feel about these movies, I wish I knew whether my original emotional responses were actually based in the reasons I list above. Was I just unconsciously aware of these critical interpretations and my emotions were ahead of my abilities to cogitate about them? Or am I inventing connections between how I felt then and what I’m thinking now? How I feel about them now is certainly influenced by this post, but were my earlier emotions equally based in these ideas I had yet to articulate?

Bah, humbug.

(Oh, yes. That reminds me. Neil Gaiman dressed up as Charles Dickens and performing a live reading of “A Christmas Carol” out of Dickens’ own prompt copy of the book was amazing! I may even be able to call it research.)

~~~

* I was fine with the elves turning up to scare away the giant spiders and I was even okay when they hunted down the orcs during the barrel riding scene. Their third appearance in Laketown was just absurd. And the Kili/Tauriel thing was cute (and a nice presage for Gimli’s massive crush on Galadriel), but is there a reason that Bofur couldn’t have saved Kili? I mean, really? Aren’t the dwarves allowed to do anything themselves? Because the constant reintroduction of elves saving the day makes it look like the dwarves are completely incompetent. Which is unfortunate, because they really are the better characters (and, in my opinion, better actors).

**The thing with the arrow and giant bow, for example, is a far neater way of handling Smaug’s future death than having the thrush report an overheard conversation to Bard, who can inexplicably understand it.

***Prince Hans? Seriously? Well played, Disney. Also, whoever was in charge of the marketing fell down seriously on selling this movie, but the way that they use Hans to make it look like a double romance on the posters was genius.

****Elsa ends the movie in full control of her powers without losing either her magic or her sense of self. She basically learns that bottling up her emotions and pretending nothing hurts is unhealthy and that she’s supposed to show her feelings and embrace them. And no one ever has any problem with her being Queen even after accidentally freezing the kingdom. And she even gets to keep her new dress and hairstyle. Rather than Brave’s ending, which shows a kind of compromise between Elinor and Merida, Elsa does not need to change anything about who she is. For all that she suffers during the movie, the only characters who try to punish her for being powerful are the villains. And then there’s Anna. While Elsa was probably my favorite character (or possibly tied with Sven the reindeer), Anna was also amazing. She saves herself! She actually gets to perform the act of true love that saves her and it’s sisterly affection rather than a true love’s kiss. God, I’ve been waiting for years for Disney to do something like this!

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A Short Collection of Updates

In no particular order:

My parents rock! Last week, they participated in the Alyn “Wheels of Love” bike ride to raise money for Jerusalem’s Alyn Children’s Hospital. (My dad, I should note, broke his wrist two weeks before the ride and did it anyway!) If you want to see the archive of their adventures, my mom’s blog can be found at Climb Every Mountain and my dad’s at A Wristed Development.

And this marks the second week in a row that I’m cheating by linking content from another blog (not even my own this time!) to take up space.

I’m developing a system for working on my dissertation project that seems to consist primarily of meeting with people so that I can attempt, once again, to explain my ideas. With each explanation and subsequent questions, I somehow manage to come away both with a slightly better yet different idea of what I want to do AND with significantly more work and reading on my plate. If you would like to volunteer your time to my education–either because you are actually interested in my work OR because I’m entertaining when I’m speaking so quickly that I lose track of my sentences–you know how to contact me.

Recent forays into critical literature can be summarized by the statement “everything new is old again”. The history of books and media is rife with people discussing linked texts, tagged note-taking, the weird way that global news both does and does not transmit emotions, how many wars were called the Great War and so on. Oh, and the discovery of weather forecasting, although that was a rather odd chapter. I kinda want to build a note closet,* paint it green and then paint the Evernote logo on top of that. Performative scholarship at its finest.

Speaking of note closets, I caved and bought more bookcases last week. The current two are no longer sufficient for the quantity of books I have bought, borrowed and occasionally outright adopted. I also have a bad Inter-Library Loan habit and a tendency to assume that the number of books I could read in a week is equal to the number of books I will read.**

On the bright side, the books themselves have been really interesting and, now that I’ve started taking baby steps in the direction of thinking about myself as a future author of a book-length monstrosity, I’ve been paying attention to writing styles and organizational structures as well as content. What kind of a writer do I want to sound like?

And, finally, my excuse for the disorganization and haphazardness of this blog post. I think I’ve caught a cold. Bah! It’s not even COLD in Santa Barbara. I feel like I should be spared the indignity of sniffles when the temperature is 70 degrees and sunny.

Tune in next week for something with, I hope, more structural integrity.

*http://bookhistory.harvard.edu/takenote/node/83, the second image on the left sidebar.

**Between three social networks, the absence of takeout dinners, the absence of a dishwasher and the fact that one of my professors(!!!) pointed me to a site that hosts old gameboy games for you to play online (and several hours of my life disappeared into the abyss that is Pokémon…I will send you the link, but only if you ask for it), I have read less this week than I meant to.

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