Favorite Reads of 2018

Since it’s getting down to the wire – I’m not down with “Best of” lists that show up in October – I figured now was the time to give a shout out to my favorite books from 2018. Two important notes: (1) these are favorites, not necessarily bests or whatever; I just loved them, and (2) the key phrase is “that I read in 2018,” so it includes books from before 2018. With that said, here we go (in no particular order) . . .

Nemesis Games (2015)

Nemesis

I’ve basically been keeping one book ahead of where the TV version of The Expanse is, but with the next season on Amazon taking parts from both the fourth (Cibola Burn) and fifth (this one) books, I figured I had to get a little more down the road with this series. I read Cibola Burn this year, too, and while I got the criticisms some people had with it, I didn’t think it was this bad. In comparison to Nemesis Games, however, it was a wet patch on the road. To say “things change” in Nemesis Games is to severely undersell it. That the writing hive mind that is James S.A. Corey managed to explode the cast, sending them off in different directions before pulling them back together, is no small feat, either.

Saga, Vol. 9 (2018)

Saga9

Oh, boy, that last twist. The good news is that after nine volumes Saga continues to be inventive, thrilling, thoughtful, and capable of numerous gut punches. The bad news is that writer Bryan K. Vaughn and artist Fiona Staples are taking “at least” a year off from the series before getting back to work on it. Part of me thinks that’s a good idea, but part of me worries if this shunts Saga into the realm of great, unfinished stories. Given the way this one ended, I sure hope not.

If you’re not reading Saga yet, here’s why I think you should.

The Field of Blood: Violence In Congress and the Road to Civil War (2018)

FieldofBlood

Many people know that, in the run up to the Civil War, Senator Charles Sumner was beaten by one of his Southern colleagues with a cane, providing the perfect metaphor for the turmoil that would soon rip the nation apart. What most folks don’t know is that, while Sumner’s beating stood out for its brutality, it was merely different in degree, rather than in kind, from numerous other incidents of Congressional violence. One Congressman even died in a duel (not on the House floor, to be fair). Not just a colorful “you were there” history, The Field of Blood looks back at another time when the political norms broke down and things sound frighteningly familiar to modern ears.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer (2009)

JohannesCabal

Pure fun. Well, pure darkly humorous fun, at the very least. Johannes Cabal sold his soul to the devil. To get it back, he’s have to deal in bulk, gathering 100 souls for the devil to replace his own, all while running a demonic travelling circus right out of the darker portions of Ray Bradbury’s psyche. This was probably the most fun I had with a book this year, partly because of what I’d just read before (see below), but also because there’s a sharp, dark wit that runs all the way through it.

Shattered Earth trilogy (2015-2017)

Broken

N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy – The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky – made history early this year when it won the Hugo Award for best novel three years in a row, an unprecedented achievement. Is it that good? Absolutely. The Fifth Season, in particular, is a structural high-wire act that shouldn’t work, but completely does and leaves the reader knowing precisely why it was done. The other two books don’t quite reach that level, but the overall arc of the story and the characters that drive it is brilliant. Pretty heavy (I needed Johannes Cabal . . . to brighten me up a bit), but completely worth it.

I’ve written before about these books here and here.

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist (2018)

CadaverKing

I wrote a review of this one here, so I won’t say much more. If you want to get really pissed off about what “justice” looks like in this country (and you should), this is the book for you.

Neuromancer  (1984)

Neuromancer

Yeah, I know, very late to the party on this one. My college roommate read it and, for some reason, I let it get away from me. Does it hold up? Pretty much, although it’s clearly a product of its time. As a foundational text for cyberpunk it’s something every sci-fi fan and writer should check out. That it continues to tell a gripping story while introducing a lot of ideas we now take for granted is icing on the cake.

Children of Time (2015)

ChildrenofTime

I gushed about this one right after I read it, so check out the details here. Suffice to say, any book that can make you care about the macro evolutionary development of sentient spiders is an achievement.

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Dystopia Versus Utopia

I think I was first exposed to dystopia in fifth grade. Not that my fifth grade teacher was some kind of demon or sadist, mind you. But it was around that time that I read for the first time, in quick succession, 1984, Brave New World, and Anthem (not to mention discovered its musical adaptation). There’s something seductive and compelling about dystopias, warnings about how things can go so very wrong. I’ve dived back into them a lot over the years, on the screen and on the page.

I’ve had less experience with utopias. I’ve never read the Thomas More work that gave birth to the name, if not the concept. I did read Plato’s Republic in college, but it’s hard to look at that as really being utopic to modern eyes. The other utopian novel I really remember reading is Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Written in 1888, it’s about a guy who sleeps for more than a century and awakes to find it a socialist paradise. Given what had actually happened by the time 2000 rolled around, it was a hilariously out of date prediction.

But I started thinking more about utopias as works of fiction recently after I read Island.

Island

It’s Aldous Huxley’s last novel and a kind of rejoinder to Brave New World. It covers a lot of the same big ideas as the earlier dystopian novel, but in an (allegedly) positive way. There’s a chart in the Wikipedia entry for the book that does a good job of boiling down the comparison:

IslandChart

Whatever the charms of Pala, the fictional southeast Asian island nation that provides the backdrop for Island, it’s not a very engaging work of fiction. Nominally it’s about a Brit, Will, who washes ashore there (intentionally, it seems) and experiences all the island’s many facets while recovering from his injuries. Said facets are a blend Buddhism, western liberalism, and (to at least one person’s eyes) Scientology and make sense in a lot of ways. Still, Will just basically drifts from place to place and while some individual scenes are well executed (there’s a very expected death later on that’s really touching), there isn’t much of a story.

I think this might be a problem inherent to utopian stories. Dystopias are about struggle, usually individuals standing up to some kind of overwhelming force. It’s easy to empathize with those characters, to buy into their struggle. Likewise, it’s easy to see where the antagonists in such stories are coming from. Written well, they think they’re doing the right thing, too. It’s the basis of good conflict, which is what drama is all about. In utopias, by contrast, everyone is pretty much happy. There’s not much conflict and, thus, not much drama. The narrative can be interesting, maybe even occasionally compelling, but it’s hardly something that sucks you in as a reader.

Another issue with utopias is that they can often seem kind of dystopic, depending on your point of view. I mentioned Plato’s Republic earlier, in which he sketches out his version of an ideal society – one that is anti-democratic, requires a rigid class system, and squishes individuals for the benefit of the state – that sounds more like a dystopia to me. Huxley’s Pala sounds like a pretty nice place – tropical weather, mind expanding drugs, all the sex you can have, creative alternatives to criminal justice – but it’s not perfect. For one thing there are mynah birds constantly harping out slogans (“Attention! Here and now, boys!”) that would be aggravating to no end. For another, all this apparently comes from the top down, mandated via a government overhaul that happened a generation or two back. There’s no indication what happens when somebody dissents from this version of the perfect life, how that’s handled. The only naysayers are the soon-to-be ruler and his European mother who are so out of touch that it’s clear Huxley doesn’t want you to take them seriously.

But the thing that struck me the most as dystopic in Island comes near the end, when the main character is talking with a local child about Oedipus Rex. They have the play in Pala, but it has a happy ending, wherein two children from Pala enter the play and convince everyone not to kill or maim themselves because none of this is their fault. To the problem of Oedipus being married to his mother, they simply advice stop being married to her. It all reeks of one of those stories modified by a totalitarian regime to show Dear Leader giving wisdom to historical figures and changing history. It’s also bizarrely simple minded in terms of a “solution” to the problem.

In the end, what makes it most difficult for me to get into utopias is that they are, at bottom, dreams that we know will never come true. Dystopias, by contrast, always seem prescient and just over the horizon (the good ones, at least). It’s not for nothing the More’s term means “no place.” Huxley basically concedes this in Island, as the book ends with the island’s new ruler (the one with the European mother) joining forces with the neighboring nation’s strongman to begin a quest to “modernize” Pala. Even in fiction, such places can’t last long.

UtopiaDystopia

There Goes My Credibility

I am, as The Decemberists say, “a writer, writer of fictions,” but does that make me a lying sack of shit? I don’t think so, but I hope I never have to find out in court, at least in Alabama.

FryLying

William McKinney choked his girlfriend and then stabbed to death her mother’s boyfriend. At his trial he claimed he was acting in self defense (to the stabbing, at least). He was also a writer (unpublished, apparently). Thus, when he was testifying in his own defense, he was asked:

Defense counsel objected to the relevance of all this, but was overruled. The prosecutor continued:

Q. Did you consider yourself a writer? Writer of fiction?

A. Inside that book bag, I’m pretty sure my book was in it maybe.

Q. Okay. Now, so you were writing your own book, right?

A. Well, I had written a book, yes.

Q. Okay. When did you write your book?

A. Back during my incarceration.

Q. And you had it — they were composition notebooks, right?

A. (Witness nods head affirmatively.)

Q. That you had written chapters in; chapter one, chapter two, chapter three? All that, right?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. In fact, that is bigger than the bag that’s State’s Exhibit 47. It was a very large book that you were writing, wasn’t it?

A. Yes, sir, I assume.

Q. Lots of handwritten pages?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. And it was a work of fiction, I assume?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. So you at least considered yourself a writer?

Defense counsel objected to the relevance of all this, but was overruled. The prosecutor continued:

Q. Did you consider yourself a writer? Writer of fiction?

A. No, sir.

Q. You’re not a writer of fiction?

A. I wouldn’t call myself a writer, no, sir.

***

Q. But this book of yours is a work of fiction. But everything you’re testifying here — now, you’re telling us the truth today, aren’t you?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. You know you’re under oath and you’re looking at these folks and you’re going to tell them what happened that day, right?

A. Yes, sir.

In other words, “since you can make something up in one context, why should we believe you in any other situation?” That logic is dubious, at best. But it was good enough, at least for the court of appeals:

McKinney is not entitled to relief on this issue. As the State notes, ‘[t]he obvious inference the prosecutor was trying to draw was that, if McKinney writes novels or other fiction, then his account of the murder of Mr. Jackson [was] also fiction …. Whether McKinney was telling the truth was very relevant and a proper subject for cross-examination.’ (State’s brief, pp. 24-25.) See generally Wiggins v. State, 193 So. 3d 765, 805 (Ala. Crim. App. 2014) (“‘Counsel is given wide latitude and has the right and duty to cross-examine vigorously a defendant who takes the stand in his own defense. “A [prosecutor] may ask a defendant … questions tending to discredit [his] testimony, no matter how disparaging the question may be.”‘ State v. Rush, 340 N.C. 174, 186, 456 S.E.2d 819, 826 (1995).”).

I tend to agree with Eugene Volokh that:

To be sure, it’s perfectly plausible that McKinney was lying, just as it’s plausible that anyone else is lying; but I don’t think that would-be novelists are any more likely to lie on the stand than anyone else, or even any better at lying (unless perhaps they are novelists of proven and substantial gifts).

But I’d go further – even a writer of “proven and substantial gifts” knows the difference between truth and fiction. George RR Martin can spin him some tales, but I don’t think that means he’s lying if he testifies that the light at the intersection was really green. I do tend to agree with Volokh, however, that this was a “wet noodle of an argument” that wasn’t really prejudicial to McKinney. Still, it was irrelevant and the prosecutor was certainly trying to be prejudicial. Intent should count for something.

All in all, I think I’m insulted. I mean, I thought I’d sunk about a low as I could go, in terms of societal approval, by being a public defender. I had no idea that my scarlet letter, warning the wary of my wickedness, would be a W!

KeepCalm

On the Heartbreak of Mediocrity

I think I’ve mentioned before that I have an anti-hype reflex. If I hear too effusive praise about a book or movie or album my natural skeptic comes out. Nothing can be that good. But we all have our blind spots and mine when it comes to hype is my alma mater’s football program. I tend to get a little irrational.

Every year before WVU sets foot on the field it seems like this year is going to be the big one. Sure, some teams get more hype than others, but they all get some of it. It helps that we usually have a schedule that’s weak up front, so we run up a few wins before we play anybody good. This year that was particularly true, with the hype machine going into overdrive with senior QB Will Grier starting the season as a legit Heisman candidate.

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And yet, it’s all still hype. Here we are at the end of the regular season with a good, but hardly great, 8-3 record and a realization that we beat all of one team with a winning record. The familiarity of all this made me dig into the numbers a bit and has led me to a sobering, but fairly obvious, conclusion – WVU is only a mediocre football program.

In 2011 WVU jumped to the Big XII from the remnants of the Big East conference, which subsequently rebirthed itself as the American Athletic Conference (“AAC”). So we’ve had seven seasons to see how WVU stacks up in one of the “power 5” conferences, where aspirations of national championships live. In those seasons (all with the same head coach, mind) we’ve gone 51-37 overall, 33-30 in conference. Not horrible, but not great either, particularly when you consider that seven of those non-conference wins were against FCS programs. Digging further, in that time we’ve only won one bowl game (out of five), and our record against teams ranked in the AP top 25 at the end of the season is just 4-19. Against the two big prestige programs in our conference, Texas and Oklahoma, we’re 4-10. All four of those wins came against Texas, by the way, who have been down for several seasons. In those seasons we’ve finished in third place in the conference twice (including this year), with other finishes between fifth and eighth place. Our average conference finish is 5.28.

This is the very definition of mediocre. We generally finish in the middle of a power 5 conference and rarely beat “big” programs. Oh sure, we get a few big wins here and there (hello Texas this season), but those are outliers. Or, as we call them in sports, upsets. They’re games where we play better than we really are, punch above our weight. It’s what mediocrities sometimes do.

That we’ve become a mediocrity is even clearer if you look at what WVU football was doing before the Big XII. In our last seven years in the Big East we were 70-20 (64-20 without the FBS teams), with a 37-12 conference record. We won the conference three times and never finished lower than third, for an average finish of 1.71. Along the way we produced a 10-7 record against top 25 teams and won five of seven bowl games – including beating Oklahoma in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl. That’s right, the Big East Mountaineers did something the Big XII ones have never done.

Now, the Big East by that point wasn’t the biggest of conferences (schools like Miami, Virginia Tech, and Syracuse had already left or were on the way out) and the AAC, which rose from its ashes, isn’t one of the Power 5 conferences for football, but maybe that’s the point? Some fans thought we were a big fish in a small pond in the Big East (and would be in the AAC), but it looks like a conference like that is about the right-sized pond for us. Would I love to see WVU win the Big XII and make it into the “playoff?” Sure, but how likely is that to ever happen? We had our best shot in years to make that kind of noise in 2018 and we couldn’t pull it off. Is it really better to struggle to finish mid-pack in a Power 5 conference than compete for a title regularly in a smaller conference? Given the geographical weirdness of us being in the Big XII, I’m not so sure.

All of which makes me think of the film Amadeus.

In spite of the movie’s title being his name, the center of Amadeus really isn’t Mozart. Rather, it’s his lesser contemporary (and rival, of some sort), Salieri, who has to toil in the genius’ shadow. At the end of the film, as Salieri is being wheeled to breakfast, he says to the priest who’s been interviewing him:

Goodbye, Father. I’ll speak for you. I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint.

Then, to the assembled loons:

Mediocrities everywhere, now and to come: I absolve you all! Amen! Amen! Amen!

I guess what I’m saying is that after all these years, we maybe need to reconcile ourselves to our fate as mediocrities. Maybe WVU should change its mascot to the Fightin’ Salieris!