2020 in Books

As has become traditional on this blog, I like to revisit my reading for the year before the next one begins.  No matter what else goes wrong, we have books.  As I noted yesterday, I’ll be devising my own reading challenge for the coming year and if nothing else, it’ll be diverse.  For 2020, according to Goodreads, I finished 78 books.  Since I was in the final stages of getting Nightmares with the Bible to the publisher, several books early on were about demons, and many of them were quite good.  The nonfiction that really stick out in my mind, however, includes D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic, Richard King’s Ahab’s Rolling Sea, Gary D. Rhodes’ The Birth of the American Horror Film, Jeffrey J. Kripal’s Secret Body, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God, and Ernestine Hayes’ The Tao of Raven.  If anything ties these books together it is likely their honesty when it comes to the spiritual quest.  It can legitimately take many directions.

Fiction has, at least for much of the year, been driven by a few factors: books I have on hand during a pandemic, The Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge, and books on my reading wishlist.  That list is constantly growing and the books that stand out particularly are again diverse.  Especially memorable were Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Scott Shibuya Brown’s The Traders, Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic.  Apart from their diversity these books have little in common.  I suppose that’s a testament to the importance of reading widely.  On that list there are only two “white” men but a lot of great books.

Another couple of categories might apply: big books and short story collections.  Big books intimidate me, but I read five of over 500 pages: Ellison’s Invisible Man again, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, George Eliot’s Middlemarch (my longest book for the year), and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho.  These books are all in the “classics” category, I see.  Short story collections are more edible, and I read nine of them, including four “by” Rod Serling.  The first was an edited collection of his works, and the other three were his own Twilight Zone adaptations.  I read a few plague books because of the pandemic, but they weren’t really among my favorites.  Perhaps they were a little too close to reality.  Nevertheless 2020 was a good year of reading, overall.  I’m looking ahead to what gems 2021 might hold.


More than Kids’ Stuff

Children and Young Adult literature (which has its own Library of Congress acronym!) has come a long way since I was a kid.  Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed the books I read as a young person, but there are many more choices that use a lot more imagination these days.  I’ve been reading Robert Repino’s books since Mort(e) appeared in 2015.  Spark and the League of Ursus is his latest and it continues his trademark use of animals (and stand-ins) to get at very human situations.  Spark is a carefully crafted story based on the idea that teddy bears do more than provide cuddles at night.  They are, in fact, a force for good, protecting human children from monsters.

As usual when I discuss books, I won’t give too much away.  I’m one of those guys who doesn’t even like to read back-cover blurbs because I’m afraid they’ll spoil the story.  Instead, I’m going to applaud the use of imagination in a world that seems stuck on a limited number of plot points.  Books like this, which stretch the imagination of the young without talking down to them—why does it cost us so much effort to admit that kids are smart?—are a great addition to CYA literature.  I was exploring this concept with another friend who writes when I read Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.  A story’s intended audience is often signaled by the age bracket of the protagonists.  I’d suppose ‘tweens might be about the age here, based on that metric.  (Green was more like New Adult, a category that lasts until about age 30.)

Reading material written for younger readers makes me feel younger myself.  I read Ransom Riggs first three Miss Peregrine novels (also published by Quirk, the house that publishes Spark).  You see, I’m really encouraged by this growth in younger readers’ material.  If we can get kids into books with such engaging stories I suspect there’ll be less chance that they become unimaginative, straight-laced adults who want to keep things just like they were when they were kids.  Imagination has that kind of liberating ability.  Besides, who doesn’t want their teddy bear to come to their rescue once in a while?  It’s not just children that can take a lesson from imaginative story-telling.  Repino’s War with No Name series was intended for adult readers but it is good preparation for getting a sense of the possibilities for readers who might, in all hope, never have to face wars at all.


Remarkably Green

Fame is something most of us never experience.  In a world of billions we imagine what it would be like to have others pay attention to us.  Care what we think.  Admire us.  I can’t help but suppose that a large part of our political crisis is based on this concept.  It’s one of the reasons Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is such a timely novel.  I’ve read a couple of Hank’s brother John’s novels, mostly in the Young Adult category, and I’ve been curious about this one for some time.  April May, the protagonist, isn’t seeking fame.  In an almost parable-like way it happens to her and she becomes addicted to it.  Safety and human relationships fall aside as she follows what seems to be the next logical step in order to secure more fans, more followers.  (There may be some spoilers below.)

There’s more than that, however, going on in the story.  Tales of “first contact” with alien intelligence often pose the question of humanity’s readiness for such an encounter.  The Defenders, a group that looks an awful lot like the right wing, are afraid.  They’re afraid of what humans might face once a superior power arrives.  Their response is to attack April, who, for some reason has been chosen as the first contactee.  Her fame isn’t accidental.  I’ve watched enough of Hank Green’s excellent YouTube videos to suspect he’s not exactly looking for a Christian parallel here, but April is a kind of messiah.  The book, in many ways, could be read as a recasting of Christianity’s foundation myth.  This isn’t a book with which most Sunday School teachers would be happy—there are adult situations and adult language.  They don’t cancel out the message of the book, however; I’ve known evangelists to use these techniques as well.  They help capture attention.

With all the books I read I have to admit that many are forgettable.  I sometimes read an old post on this blog, or a review on Goodreads, and find myself having forgotten a novel completely.  Something Hank shares with his novelist brother is the ability to make an impression.  It’s too soon to tell for sure right now, but this has all the marks of a story that’s going to be my mental companion from now on.  There’s wisdom and humor in it.  There’s a touch of Qohelet as well.  Whether intentional or not, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing follows the line of a classical story arc.  And the reason that stories have become classics is that they make us think.  I’ll be thinking about this for quite some time.  Fortunately, I don’t have to deal with fame—that would only be a distraction.