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Books of 2016

Books of 2016

There are less than two and a half hours left of 2016 and I can’t wait to say good riddance to the thing. But it’s the end of the year as we know it and I haven’t had my celebratory drink yet, so let’s do this thing.

This year, I read 91 books, which is one more than last year. So despite having been a parent this entire year rather than just the last month, I still managed to beat last year. I imagine it’ll be another 20 years or so until I hit 2014 numbers ever again.

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Someone is #sorrynotsorry.
Also, for the purposes of convenience and experiment, I wrote this entire thing on an iPad. Thus the truly hideous excel chart colors. The management apologizes.

Anyway, here’s this year’s breakdown.

books-of-2016-by-year

 

As with last year, nearly half of my books were published this year. And another quarter were last year. It seems like the 20th century made a bit of a comeback since last year though. I blame that on the course on Science Fiction I taught over the summer. Hard to teach a retrospective without delving into the 20th century.

Ratings wise, I’m doing better than previous years with the majority of books receiving four stars. I’m getting better at picking them, although the duds were pretty memorably terrible.

books-of-2016-by-rating

Numerically speaking, I branched out slightly more than last year since my 5 star books weren’t all by authors I’d already read. Go me!

And then there’s the genres…I read a lot of things that fall under the category of science fiction and fantasy.

books-of-2016-by-genre

No, but seriously. There are so many fascinating books coming out in the field of SF&F, so many interesting authors doing new and exciting things, it’s hard to find time for something else. And I freely confess to a bias towards what fantasy writers in particular can do with their words and their worlds. It seems like the SF&F community is leading the vanguard in thinking about the future. It’s a good place to be. The vanguard, I mean. Not so sure about the future.

And for the diversity question,

books-of-2016-by-diversity

Since I’m too lazy to fight with Excel any longer, the percentages are 68% women and 20% POC, so nearly the same as last year. I’m pleased I didn’t get worse. I’m not thrilled I didn’t get better. Quality-wise, the books by POC definitely stand out.

Alright, onto the exciting bit. My top ten books list in more or less the order that I read them

:

  • The Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell. I loved this book. It’s space exploration and new worlds and religion and meditation on God and tragedy and life. It’s what I want science fiction to be. It treats faith and science with the same delicacy. It’s gorgeous.
  • The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley. It’s rare that I actually want to hug a book but, although this one started off slow, it built itself into a wonderful version of steampunk fantasy that teetered just on the edge of the normal world. It had the elegance of one of its own watches in its construction and the emotional core needed to drive the intricacies.
  • A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab. I always appreciate when a sequel is even better than the first and this book definitely exceeded expectations. Schwab fascinates with her world-building, her magical rules, and her brilliantly awesome women who can’t help but steal the show.
  • Planetfall by Emma Newman. Even if this were only a book about the mysteries of a planet’s founding and the slow unraveling of a pack of lies, it would deserve a place on this list. But Newman combines it with one of the most sensitive and deft portrayals of mental illness in fiction and that itself deserves praise. Combined, it’s brilliant. And since there are more books set in the world, I won’t even ding her for the ending.
  • Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire. Let me preface this by saying that Seanan doesn’t usually write the kind of books I like. But this book won me over. It struck the exact right chord. For everyone who looked in the wardrobe to find Narnia, who waited for their Hogwarts letter, who searched surreptitiously for the grail…you will know this book. It’s also the literary equivalent of a slasher film, which honestly only improves the experience.
  • Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer. Okay, not everyone needs a mash-up of the 18th century novel and complex heterotopian science fiction. But I do, you guys. I really do. If this book is your thing, it will be your thing utterly and completely.
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. Butler has been on my to-read list for a long time, but I finally read her in the summer of 2016 and her narrative of the US’s descent into autocracy, abuse of power, the ravages of climate change rings frighteningly true. Somehow, Butler makes this narrative into a story of hope, not of despair.
  • The Jewel Hinged Jaw by Samuel Delany. This book is a work of literary criticism and I’m sad I had never come across it earlier because Delany writes and analyzes with clarity in both mind and prose. I want to think his thoughts and write his words. Even the most complex ideas come across – he does not make them relatable, but his mastery of his own knowledge is so evident that the reader practically absorbs it from him.
  • Infomocracy by Malka Older. I would recommend reading this book before the 2016 election but, since time travel hasn’t been invented yet, you’ll have to settle for wishing for a world like the one Older imagines. Another instance of science fiction imagining a real and possible future that is neither u- nor dystopian, but a concrete version of our world that is both a vision of what could be better and an understanding that perfect is impossible. Older captures a future that shines as real, if not always realistic in our depressing world. The best part of it is how hard it is to disseminate fake news.
  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. It’s like Firefly with diversity and without sexism. No, but seriously, it’s a vision of space opera without battles, of narrative development without ongoing conflict. It’s an almost meandering stream of stories tied together by people and I love that it works so well as a novel precisely because it feels more like a television show at times and that shouldn’t work, but of course it does and beautifully.

So there you have it. My top ten books of 2016. They’re not all five stars, but they are the books that moved me, that stuck with me, that changed the way I read and think. They are the books I will return to in my mind if not to actually reread them. They are the ones that feel the most like they have become a part of me. So, to their authors, thank you for that.

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Concerning Hobbits

The trouble with being on vacation is that I get bored easily. So I end up spending more time here than usual even as less is happening than usual. All I need to do is think of things to say.

This post, as the title might suggests, contains spoilers. If you have yet to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and don’t want to know what happens in the movie, be forewarned: I’m going to talk about it. Ditto if you’ve never read the book and will be annoyed if I mention things that happen beyond this first movie. Basically, if it’s related to Tolkien’s works and it’s available for reading or viewing, it is fair game in this post.

I went to see The Hobbit today. Again. I had seen it for the first time in imax 3D and, this time, I saw it in regular 3D but with the high frame rate.* The imax wasn’t worth it and was actually detrimental to one’s appreciation of the sweeping vistas of New Zealand. The HFR, on the other hand, was nice and added a touch of clarity especially to the scenes at the beginning. It made the Hobbiton scenes feel a bit more realistic. It added depth to the already 3D.

I liked the movie the first time I saw it. I really liked it the second time. In between those two viewings, the following things happened.

1) My expectations had changed. It has been over a decade since the last time I had read the Hobbit, but I still remember some things from it. And the movie didn’t always match up with those memories and it was jarring. The second time around, I knew where the movie was going to deviate and was thus entirely unsurprised by it. I now knew that they had decided to take the story of the Hobbit and retell it in the style of Lord of the Rings and I knew how they proposed to do it, so I could appreciate what they were actually doing rather than what they chose not to do.

2) I reread the Hobbit. Well, 2/3s of it. As it happens, I’m still rereading it. And I began to appreciate just how different Tolkien’s style was in this book than in Lord of the Rings. He exists far more prominently here as the narrator and he is telling a story to children. Which is not to say that it’s a childish story, but it is a children’s book. And Jackson et. al. could have embraced that and told an entirely different kind of story with it and I wish, a little, that that movie would exist as well, alongside THE HOBBIT: THE PREQUEL TRILOGY TO THE LORD OF THE RINGS! Which this most certainly is. The changes they made are not arbitrary or random. You might not agree with their broader aim of recreating the Hobbit as an epic, but within the context of this broader aim, their retelling makes much more sense.

3) I rewatched all the Lord of the Rings movies. After watching the extended edition of all three, The Hobbit no longer seemed, well, long. Quite short, actually. Less running around than Fellowship and fewer shifts in points-of-view than Return. Having just seen those movies, the Hobbit fit in better. Also, I was reminded that my love for the Lord of the Rings movies was also a product of (endless) rewatchings. When Fellowship was first released, I remember picking apart the casting choices with my friends. When Two Towers came out, I was annoyed that they shifted the entire Minas Morgul sequence to the third movie in favor of fighting the Battle at Helms Deep in excruciating detail. And when I first saw Return of the King, I was shocked that they killed Saruman in the beginning and cut the entire scouring of the Shire. And I thought that letting Viggo Mortensen sing was a mistake. I don’t care about any of that anymore (well, except for Viggo’s singing). The movies were and are slightly ridiculous. Elijah Wood spends too much time with his eyes rolled back, John Rhys Davies can overplay the comic relief, Sean Astin’s “Mister Frodo!”s still occasionally make me giggle. They are not perfect movies and I don’t care. I love them immoderately, I think that their grandeur, their spectacle, their occasional excesses–whether in the realm of (over)acting, of scenery or of length–all work, in the end, to create the best epic that could have been filmed. The Hobbit, in terms of both grandeur and excess, fits right in.

4) I’ve been reading The One Wiki to Rule Them All. Tolkien’s world is ridiculously complicated and it makes the movies look like models of restraint.

So I went into the Hobbit knowing that it was not the book I remembered (or failed to remember) and knowing that they had taken shocking liberties with the text, but bearing in mind that they had done so in Lord of the Rings and I had forgiven that and have come to love those three movies as much as I love the books. More so, in some ways, because if you told me I could only read one story for the rest of my life–and I say this in full recognition of the honor due to Tolkien–I would not pick the Lord of the Rings. If you told me I could only watch one story for the rest of my life, I would pick this set of movies without question.**

So I was more willing to love the Hobbit this second time around and I did. Which is not to say that all of my objections have floated away. They are merely contextualized.

Martin Freeman/Bilbo: Unsurprisingly, he was amazing and in an entirely different way than the hobbits in Lord of the Rings. Bilbo is a more complex character than Frodo. Bilbo wants the adventure, but also doesn’t. He can handle the roughness of the road, but he also has something of a dapper gentleman about him and, in Freeman’s portrayal, those two work organically together. One of the changes that the film makes is that it transforms Bilbo into a more traditional hero. In the book, Bilbo gains the dwarves’ respect by being clever and quick and doing burglarish things. In the movie, though his cleverness comes through, Bilbo gains their respect by becoming a warrior. Courage, not cleverness, is what redeems him especially in Thorin’s eyes. And, on the one hand, I understand why they make that change, why it is important for Bilbo to seem heroic in a way particularly suited to the epic style of the films. Yet I am slightly bothered by the implications that heroism, even epic heroism, is determined by the courage it takes to run straight into death, without care for your own safety, to save another (especially because Bilbo runs courageously out to save Thorin after Thorin runs stupidly out to attack Azog while the rest of his company was in danger. Yes, the difference between them is that Bilbo is motivated for good reasons and Thorin is motivated for revenge, but still). It seems a disservice to Bilbo not to let him gain recognition by doing what he is good at. Bilbo never needs to become a warrior in the book. And while Freeman does a superb job of maintaining Bilbo’s essential Hobbit-of-the-Shire (or Victorian gentleman) nature, I wish the film itself was more willing to embrace the complex mix embodied by Bilbo. For example, both the book and movie have a scene where Bilbo forgets his pocket handkerchief when first setting out on the journey. In the movie, Bofur (I think) rips a piece of cloth off the bottom of his jacket and tosses it back to Bilbo. In the book, that’s when Gandalf rides up with all things Bilbo forgot when he rushed out in a hurry, including his pocket handkerchief. And while we are told that they will soon need to do without those niceties, Bilbo isn’t shamed for wanting them. I liked what it says about both Bilbo and Gandalf: the former thinks of the little things (which are not unimportant because they are little) and the latter thinks of others. On the other hand, it is Bilbo, not Gandalf, who keeps the goblins occupied until the break of day. So he does get to be usefully clever, but it doesn’t impress the dwarves. Thorin has this “hmmph” look when Gandalf points out what Bilbo did. Which brings us to…

Richard Armitage/Thorin Oakenshield: YUMMM! Okay, now that that’s out of the way, on to the actual character. Thorin’s characterization has changed from the book to the movie. The movie is much more vocal about the dwarves’ distrust of Bilbo’s abilities and Thorin is the one who constantly repeats it and tells him to go home. He comes across both as more of a leader than in the book and as a more of a jerk. He is assigned the stereotypical role of the sergeant who thinks the new recruit can’t cut it. And, again, it fits in well with the stylistic narrative that the movie is going for, it is evocative in the viewer’s mind of war and it sets the stage for some of Gimli’s dwarvish attitudes in the next trilogy. But it sacrifices a certain sensibleness that Thorin had over the course of the book. The following quote, I think, sums up how Jackson and Armitage are playing Thorin: “I’ve seen some people say that the filmmakers put all this focus on Thorin because they needed an Aragorn figure. Except, as those of you who’ve read the book know (and if you haven’t, SPOILERS, seriously, what are you doing here!), Thorin isn’t Aragorn, he’s Boromir” (Tor.com). Yes, exactly. With this in mind (and I had forgotten what happened to Thorin at the end of the book), these choices to make Thorin aspiring to greatness, but flawed actually work in the story’s favor. Because then Thorin charging down the burning tree to attack Azog isn’t meant to be seen as heroic, but as emblematic of his issues. He cannot put himself aside, not his revenge, not his heritage and not his goals. Not for anything. So I like that the movie is building up this Thorin; it seems like a chance to give some extended characterization to the archetype that Sean Bean played in Fellowship. But Thorin, for all that Richard Armitage does a wonderful job with it, is not quite the same character he is in the books and the choice to make his background even more angst-filled and his prejudices even more blatant was, while not bad, not good either. It has its merits, but it would have been nice to see the doomed leader of the company not fit quite so exactly into the stereotypical spot reserved for the pigheaded.

Azog the Defiler: I’m still not fully convinced that there were so few villains and plot motivators in this movie and we had to invent another. Azog was supposed to have died during the battle for Moria. He kills Thror and, eventually, Dain son of Nain kills him. Of course, if you keep to that story, then Thorin doesn’t get to be super-angsty about how no one ever came to their aid ever. But, other than that, why bring back Azog? If you need some extra motivation, bring in his son Bolg and have Bolg chase them with the wargs. (Bolg and the orcs do show up at the Battle of the Five Armies at the end. Really, it’s not difficult to make this work here). And then you even get to keep the rabbit sleigh chase scene, which was delightful. I was more annoyed about Azog the first time; I still think he’s not exactly necessary, but I’ve come to terms with his inclusion. I reserve the right to revoke that coming-to of terms if they don’t let Dain kill him in the end.

Sylvester McCoy/Radagast: Dear filmmakers, was the bird poop really necessary!? It was all I could look at! Otherwise, I thought that actually making Radagast part of the story and letting us see him was a very smart move. It integrates the whole “Necromancer of Dol Guldur” thing, which the book has no interest in doing, and sets up the next movie and, hopefully, the battle against the Necromancer. Also, the bunny sleigh!

Most of this movie, like Fellowship, was just the set-up and Jackson did a fantastic job mimicking the broader arc and pacing of Fellowship in this movie. I suppose when you invent the genre, you can do a good job recreating it. All in all, I eagerly await the next two.

But, before I stop, I have to lose my temper ever so slightly at one reviewer. Ruth David Konigsberg writes about how frustrated she is at the absence of women in The Hobbit. There are several things wrong with this piece. The first is that she attributes her alienation from Tolkien’s oeuvre and the surrounding fandom to its absence of women. Really? Because there are uncountable numbers of fanfics written about Tolkien’s world by women that include women. They clearly found something for themselves in it. There’s no absence of female fans. And, I have to wonder, is this the author’s reaction to all historical stories that focus on men?

I did not read The Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings trilogy as a child, and I have always felt a bit alienated from the fandom surrounding them. Now I think I know why: Tolkien seems to have wiped women off the face of Middle-earth. I suppose it’s understandable that a story in which the primary activity seems to be chopping off each other’s body parts for no particular reason might be a little heavy on male characters — although it’s not as though Tolkien had to hew to historical accuracy when he created his fantastical world. The problem is one of biological accuracy. Tolkien’s characters defy the basics of reproduction: dwarf fathers beget dwarf sons, hobbit uncles pass rings down to hobbit nephews. If there are any mothers or daughters, aunts or nieces, they make no appearances. Trolls and orcs especially seem to rely on asexual reproduction, breeding whole male populations, which of course come in handy when amassing an army to attack the dwarves and elves.

Several points. Criticizing Tolkien for “hewing to historical accuracy” is absurd, given that he saw himself as creating a mythology for Europe. This was both his career and his passion. He based his stories on the Norse Eddas, on the songs and stories that came out of Northern Europe and his goal was to recreate them in his own mythology. (Yes, there is a broader problem with not questioning sexist assumptions when writing fantasy ostensibly set in Medieval Europe and simply writing because that’s what everyone else does. When writing a sexist world or a world that has no place for women, it behooves the author to ask why. In Tolkien’s case, it’s because the stories, the mythologies, the histories he was inventing were meant to evoke those of 1,000 years ago that were lost.)

More to the point, Konigsberg’s objections are already answered by Gimli in The Two Towers.

Gimli: It’s true you don’t see many dwarf women. And in fact, they are so alike in voice and appearance, that they are often mistaken for dwarf men.
Aragorn: [whispering] It’s the beards.

And it’s true. Over the course of the beginning narration, you see dwarf men in the mines and dwarf women in the marketplaces of Dale, selling jewels. And yes, the women have sparse and neatly combed beards. When they are exiled from Erebor, you see male and female dwarves wandering across the marshlands to their new home. In Hobbiton, you see male and female hobbits working the land and going about their daily business. In Rivendell, you see male and female elves playing music during dinner. Yes, if you systematically erase any woman who is not a member of Thorin’s band from existence, then there are no women in this movie. There are no women in the company and yes, any time that they are the only ones on screen, the movie is rather heavy on the men. But every single civilization we meet shows both men and women participating in life. It’s as though Konigsberg thinks women only exist when they’re a part of the journey–as if the only way you could be a woman and count is to do exactly what the men do.

She also seems quite sure that all the orcs and goblins we meet are male. She assumes that the default position for a character is masculine and that women only exist when they are positioned as feminized. What would a female warg rider look like? Would she have a pink helmet?

And I probably shouldn’t take my anger out entirely on Konigsberg, but it seems to me that her comments stem from a larger problem with “inclusivity.” Being inclusive becomes about finding ways to erase differences rather than embrace them. Because when you ask for female heroes and then assume that the only acceptable kind of female hero is one who takes up her father’s sword and learns to fight and becomes a ruler by leading an army, you are pretty much effacing every other kind of power there is. It’s a bit like deciding that the only acceptable happy ending is one where the protagonist and their love interest fall in love and bind themselves together for all eternity.

The question shouldn’t be “why aren’t there any dwarf women in the company?” but “why don’t we see the struggle of the dwarf women to make a home for themselves in the Blue Mountains?”

They need to pad three movies out with something, don’t they?

~~~

*For those of you who missed this little brouhaha, The Hobbit was shot at 48 frames per second instead of the industry standard 24. Theaters were running both versions.

**This may mean that there are more wonderful books out there than wonderful movies. I am okay with that.

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