Reading 2014: Final Roundup

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My New Year’s resolution for 2014 was to read at least one book per week. I counted as a “book” any bound volume of a complete work, or digital version of the same. So books included things like novels, omnibuses of several novels, novellas published as slim volumes, graphic novels, anthologies, ebooks, or audiobooks. Things that didn’t count were single comic book issues, or individual short stories or articles. My in-progress roundups are here: 1, 2, 3, 4.

For much of the year I was on pace to double my resolved amount, but then I moved from Iowa City to Austin, and my reading rate never really recovered. Looking through my journal I see averaged over 9 books per months before my move, and only a little over 4 per month after. Moving, unpacking, buying furniture, dating, breaking up, traveling; these all replaced the predictability of my Iowa routine after I reached Texas. Here are the stats:

  • 73 total books read
  • 50 prose books
  • 22 graphic novels
  • 1 audiobook
  • 60 male authors (writers & artists)
  • 22 female authors (writers & artists)
  • Best month: March (14 books – 6 GNs, 8 prose)
  • Worst month: October (1 book – prose)

Looking back over my list, there are 12 books (not counting rereads) that stand out as my favorites. Here they are, ranked in order of how much they’ve stayed with me over the last 12 months. That isn’t quite the same thing as how much I liked them, but it’s close.

  1. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
  2. Blame by Michelle Huneven
  3. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  4. The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis
  5. Veronica by Mary Gaitskill
  6. The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne
  7. Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
  8. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  9. The Genocides by Thomas Disch
  10. Camp Concentration by Thomas Disch
  11. Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck
  12. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Some things I notice about this is that, while my list for the year doesn’t have gender parity, my list of favorites does: five men (one twice), six women. Also notable is that the top five most-thought-about books are all works of realist fiction, almost certainly the first year of my life when that has been true. I don’t think this is indicative of a shift in my taste so much as an expansion of it. While at Iowa, reading and critiquing the work of my peers, I developed an appreciation for realism that I didn’t have before. My enjoyment of speculative fiction hasn’t lessened, but the appeal of realism is something new and exciting. I think that’s why the top five novels have been so much in my thoughts; I have thorough understanding of how SF works, but I’m still learning the nuances of mimetic realism.

For next year I hope to improve on my 2014 performance. I’d like to hit 100 books read in 2015, and to have at least 50% of them authored by women. I’d also like to read more classic or public domain fiction. At the time of this writing, I’m on my 6th book of the year, and have maintained gender parity thus far.

My Friends Write Things

Fiction

  • I Can See Right Through You” – Stop whatever you’re doing now, because Kelly Link has a new story out in McSweeeny’s. This one’s about celebrity, old relationships, and ghost stories. But you didn’t need to know that. All you needed to know is that there’s a new story to read by Kelly Link. That’s all anyone ever needs to know.

Nonfiction

  • The Abyss” – More from Rebekah Frumkin, this time writing for Granta about her experience working as seasonal labor in a haunted house. Also, have you been keeping up with her column in McSweeney’s? You should be! The latest installment, “I Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” is about her stint in a psychiatric ward in 2013.
  • Double Dare: Point Horror” – A new column from Meghan McCarron and Alice Sola Kim, in which they assign each other reading to review. In this first column they revisit a couple volumes of a classic tweenage horror series.
  • Checklist” – Genevieve Valentine with a caustic and heartbreaking and infuriating piece about the pressures brought to bear on rape victims.
  • Going Aboard” – Ben Shattuck took a trip on a recreation of a ship much like the one in Moby-Dick, and wrote about how time has altered the experience.
  • Tasers, Drones, and Cold Chicken: Inside the Multibillion-Dollar Business of Keeping Me Out of America” – Jose Orduna visits a border security expo and writes about it with powerful, deserved rage.

Poetry

The Last Books of 2014

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I didn’t get a lot of reading done since my last roundup. Life has gotten in the way, I’m afraid. I have a few books in progress, but soon I’m going to be in Central America and won’t be returning until early next year, so I’m going to go ahead and call my year’s reading here. I’ll do a roundup of all my reading for 2014 later, but for now, the last thirteen capsule reviews.

  1. The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders – Political allegory and social satire, but perpetrated with far less subtlety than Saunders’ short stories. Which isn’t to say it’s bad, but it only works because Saunders’ sense of humor lands far more often than it misses. Reads like he felt he hadn’t said enough when he wrote “The Braindead Megaphone,” and so did a fictional version as well.
  2. Dataclysm by Christian Rudder – Rudder is a cofounder of OKCupid and was the author of the OKTrends blog. This book is a recapitulation and expansion of the kinds of analysis he did there. I think many of the articles are of general interest, but the OKCupid analysis in particular fascinated me as a user of the site. For example, he publishes lists of words that are most likely to be used in profiles by only a single ethnicity. Four of the ones on the list for white people are in my profile.
  3. What If? by Randall Munroe – Mostly articles from the What If? blog. My favorite part was the intermittent samples of the weirdest or most upsetting questions people had submitted. My copy, though, had typesetting issues; in several places there were empty rectangles where there should have been mathematical symbols.
  4. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer – Jeff’s Southern Reach trilogy has been much talked about this year, and well liked by many of my friends. I waited until all three books were available to start it. This book I found mildly entertaining and pleasantly paced, but little more.
  5. Authority by Jeff VanderMeer – I did not enjoy this book. I found it one-note and overlong. I will not be finishing the trilogy.
  6. Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman – Very fun. A collection of fabulations with an occasional physicsy bent.
  7. The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis – What a gorgeous jewel of a book this is. A tender account of the life of an orphan chess prodigy and addict, who grows to adulthood and must learn to navigate both her talent and her dependencies. A much more optimistic book than The Man Who Fell To Earth, which I think it matches in accomplishment.
  8. More Than This by Patrick Ness – A story of young refugees in a confusing world, an Earth that they only discover after their own deaths. Something I like about all of Ness’s fiction is that there is a palpable sense of menace. He doesn’t have a George R. R. Martin-esque bodycount, but he doesn’t need it. The threats in a Ness novel always feel real.
  9. I Die at Midnight by Kyle Baker – I’d been meaning to read this since I was a teenager. A delightful, stylish noir romp.
  10. The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino – This is Kevin Brockmeier’s favorite book by his favorite author, and Carmen Machado loves it too, so I was glad to finally read it. It’s a lovely book, clever, funny, frequently surprising. I don’t think it hit me as hard as it does Kevin and Carmen, though. While I liked it, I occasionally found it overly twee.
  11. Man v. Nature by Diane Cook –An impressive debut collection. I read it in an airport and on airplanes, and barely noticed the travel, except during the stories with explicit sexual content. Her sex writing is legitimately sexy, which made it feel weird to be reading in close contact with strangers in narrow aircraft seats.
  12. Veronica by Mary Gaitskill – I was already a fan of her short stories, and now I know she’s excellent in the long form as well. Veronica is full of tangled, tricky insight. I’ve quoted it previously on the blog, and expect I’ll be writing about it more in the future.
  13. Megalex by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Fred Beltran – Not worth it. There’s nothing in here that wasn’t done first and better in the earlier Jodoverse graphic novels, and the ending is too rushed to have any power. For Jodorowsky completists only.

New Sketch by Tom Siddell

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Thanks to Amal El-Mohtar, the newest thing on my wall is this sketch by Tom Siddell, author of Gunnerkrigg Court. Amal asked what I wanted him to draw, and I requested a picture of his character Jones with a trilobite (canonically, she’s seen them). If you haven’t read Gunnerkrigg Court, I recommend fixing that. It’s one of the best comics I’ve ever read, and as you can see from this sketch, his art is gorgeous. He’s still finding his feet in the early chapters, but read through “The Fangs of Summertime” and you should be hooked.

Novel Research: Important Excerpts from WHAT TERRORISTS WANT

I’m still working my way through Dr. Louise Richardson’s book What Terrorists Want, going quite slowly and thinking about how these principles manifest in the lives of the terrorists in my book. Here are some excerpts I want to collect in one place. The underlining for emphasis is my own.

The extraordinary brutality of the Sicarii/Zealots can be attributed in part to their religious conviction but also to the fact that there were several different groups of Zealots and Sicarii operating simultaneously in pursuit of the same ends. These groups competed with one another to demonstrate the superiority of their commitment and to claim leadership of the movement.

This is the first known instance of a pattern that was to become quite common a century later: members of diaspora communities, feeling out of place in their new homes, develop a powerful affinity for their homeland and finance movements for radical change back home. Simplicity of interpretation tends to increase with distance from the conflict. The Fenian campaign was unsuccessful not least due to a reluctance to cause civilian casualties, and without deaths they couldn’t garner attention.

Curiously enough, Vladimir Lenin, who was to prove such an inspiration for the social revolutionary terrorist movements of the late twentieth century, was critical of the Russian anarchists, whom he considered misguided zealots. […] He believed that he had a more efficacious way of overthrowing the system. Rather than throwing bombs at ministers, Lenin advocated the creation of a revolutionary elite dedicated to one simple goal, the seizure of power. Far from being isolated from those around them, Lenin’s cadre of revolutionaries exploited popular grievances as a means of consolidating their support. It did not matter to Lenin that the complaints might be from nationalists, aspiring landowners, or others unsympathetic to his cause. What did matter to the ultimate pragmatist was that animosity toward authorities made them potentially sympathetic to subversives, whose political powerlessness left them free to make empty promises. Lenin’s key contribution to terrorist strategy, therefore, was the importance of exploiting every fragment of local alienation for its own ends. It is very clear from reading bin Laden’s public statements that he has taken this lesson to heart. He criticizes the United States for everything from support for Israel to the deployment of troops in Saudi Arabia to its refusal to sign on to the international criminal court to profiteering by the Halliburton Company.

The emergence of terrorism requires a lethal cocktail with three ingredients: a disaffected individual, an enabling group, and a legitimizing ideology.

From the vast literature on psychology, three points stand out. Terrorists see the world in Manichean, black-and-white terms; they identify with others; and they desire revenge. They have a highly oversimplified view of the world in which good is pitted against evil and in which their adversaries are to blame for all their woes. They tend to act not out of desire for personal gratification but on behalf of a group with which they identify (though the two motives can coexist).

The leaders of terrorist movements tend to be older and more highly educated than their followers, no matter what part of the world they come from. […] Marc Sageman studied the biographies of 172 members of al-Qaeda and found that two thirds were middle or upper class and that 60 percent had gone to college, several had doctorates. Their average age was twenty-six.

The idea that democracy is the best antidote to terrorism has enjoyed widespread acceptance recently. This is too simplistic. Terrorism has occurred in democracies the world over. Terrorism is employed by minorities. (If they were not in the minority, they would not need to resort to terrorism.) To be a permanent minority within a democracy can be a frustrating position, and unless democracies can demonstrate that they provide not only a nonviolent means of expressing dissent but also a nonviolent means of redressing grievances of minorities, they are unlikely to be an acceptable substitute. […] Terrorist movements have often emerged in democracies when those trying to change the system realize they do not have the required numbers to prevail in a democracy. What’s more, many of the hallmarks of democracies, such as freedom of movement and freedom of association as well as protections of privacy and personal rights, have made them convenient operating grounds for terrorism.

These rates also raise another risk factor for terrorism, the existence of large numbers of unemployed young men.

Examining economic causes of terrorism leads one back to the same conclusion: it’s complicated. Terrorism has occurred in both rich and poor countries but most often in developing countries and in societies characterized by rapid modernization. Rapid socioeconomic changes are conducive to instability and tend to erode traditional forms of social control. These situations are then open to exploitation by militants offering to make sense of these changes, to blame others for the dislocations and humiliations involved, and to offer a means of redress. Only a tiny percentage of the population needs to be persuaded. Whether this small group remains small and isolated or grows will depend on a range of factors, from the response of the authorities to the extent of the social dislocation being experienced, as well as the success of the militant leadership in integrating their message with historical, cultural, or religious traditions.

Pixel – A Remembrance

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Pixel. April 1, 2005 – December 5, 2014

Pixel came into our lives as a continuity puppy, acquired so the household wouldn’t suffer a dogless period after then-eighteen-year-old Muffy inevitably passed. When she arrived, Pixel was a double handful of fluff and enthusiasm, a puppy with no settings between zero and top speed. She would see something she wanted and cartoonishly run in place, her legs a scratchy blur against the hardwood floor.

It’s always mistake to anthropomorphize animals, but perhaps least so for dogs, with whom we’ve been co-evolving for thirty thousand years. Pixel was a dog it was hard to avoid anthropomorphizing. She seemed, in fact, to insist on it. She was inquisitive and intelligent, but not in the usual sense of dog intelligence–commands understood, objects recognized. Pixel’s intelligence manifested in a palpable sense that she was trying to bridge the gap; to understand us, and be understood by us. As soon as she was big and strong enough, she started using three dimensional space like a cat. She would jump up onto tiny surfaces, climb to the back of furniture. She seemed to understand, from her place on the ground, that conversations were happening over her head, and so would get as close as she could to human eye level before vocalizing her needs. At under a year old she learned she could get attention most easily by standing up on her hind legs and clapping her forelimbs at us, a behavior that persisted the rest of her life. It wasn’t anything trained, as many visitors over the years likely thought. We didn’t teach her to beg. Rather, as I always understood it, she was standing on her “feet” and using her “hands,” just as we did. “Pay attention to me,” she seemed to say, “for I am just like you.” When I think of Pixel, my first image is always of her seeing me come in the house and rushing to stand up on the back of a couch, praying her paws together, demanding affection in our common language.

Pixel 5You wouldn’t mistake Pixel’s communicated desires for anything less than a command. She was an insistent dog. This was a problem when she was a puppy, and what she insisted on doing was play. Muffy, never in her life a fan of other dogs and half a decade past playtime, hated Pixel. Hated her with an absolute, impatient purity. If, as it had seemed must be about to happen any moment, Muffy had died shortly after Pixel arrived, that wouldn’t have been a huge problem. We didn’t let Pixel bother Muffy. But as time went on and Muffy abided (she lived another two years), this became an uncomfortably constant vigilance. Pixel wanted to play with the other dog, and could not be deterred. The solution was obvious: Pixel needed a puppy. Hence, when Pixel was a year old, Carrie.

They were a vaudevillian pair from the start, Pixel and Carrie. A theatrical fusion of opposites. Pixel–scrawny, scrappy, smart as hell and damn near hyperactive–was Brains. Carrie–affectionate, timid to the point of skittishness with anyone but my mother, took a two-month vacation and came back a champion show dog–was Beauty. They were the canine equivalent of a cigar-chomping wiseass and a sequined ditz, always in character, spotlight shining. Pixel’s early treatment would have terrorized Carrie if she’d only been smart enough to understand it. Pixel, for a few years, got a real thrill out of manipulating her environment. She liked to turn lamps with floor switches on and off, and could easily operate the latch on her cage, or Carrie’s cage, if she wanted to let her out to play. Once Carrie grew to be the larger dog, Pixel figured out that she could use Carrie to open doors. She would get Carrie running, then herd her toward the door to my mother’s bedroom and let her slam into it head first. Carrie’s respectable momentum would pop the latch open, and as Carrie stumbled back in confusion, Pixel would happily saunter through to see what was up inside.

To be clear: Pixel was a brat. I found her brattiness adorable, comically diluted by the impotence of being confined to an eight pound body. But she was a brat all the same. A creature of unabashed selfishness and envy, Pixel cared far more about minimizing the affection Carrie got than maximizing her own. Or perhaps just about making sure, no matter what, that she got more. If you were lavishing attention on Pixel and, across the room, someone gave Carrie a pat on the head, Pixel would abandon your loving hands instantly to dash over and displace Carrie, make sure she got her pat. Make sure she got two. Often she’d aim little rabbit kicks at Carrie with her back leg even as she rolled her head against your palm–a behavior which infuriated my mother. My father’s frequent nickname for Pixel was “Ms. Jealous,” and for several years it was true that if you wanted Pixel to come your best strategy was to call for her sister.

Pixel6Pixel’s knee-jerk competitiveness wasn’t antagonism, though. The two dogs got along well, and liked each other. Carrie in particular clearly missed Pixel when they were separated. Carrie was broadly accepting of Pixel’s dominance, following her around, waiting to eat until Pixel was finished. And Pixel became less tyrannical once Carrie grew and could no longer be physically intimidated. The line’s location was never clear to us, but it was there, and when Pixel occasionally crossed it, Carrie let her know by simply putting a paw on her back and pushing her to the ground. We were all watching the day that Carrie finally realized she was bigger than Pixel. Pixel was at the low sill of the window near the breakfast table, keeping a zealous eye on the squirrels near the bird feeder, and Carrie was standing in the kitchen staring at her. Just still, staring, for minutes. You could almost hear the gap-toothed gears start to turn in her mind. Finally she took off, ran at Pixel and body slammed her off the windowsill and into the wall three feet to the side. Carrie trotted away, tail wagging, and Pixel sat there and stared up at us, dazed, the wounded older sibling. “You’re just going to let her do that to me?”

Of course we were, silly dog. We never protected Pixel from anything in her life, except her own body. Her take-on-the-world vitality was a medical miracle. She was born with a liver shunt, a congenital defect where a blood vessel that was supposed to go through her liver instead diverted around it, which can lead to hepatic failure. That’s usually how it’s diagnosed in puppies, their improperly filtered blood makes them sick, lethargic, stuporous. Pixel, an incisive whirlwind from day one, had her condition diagnosed through bloodwork at six months old. Our vet looked at her test results and said, “I think she has a liver shunt. You should take her to see the God of Dog Livers at Texas A&M.”

The God of Dog Livers is Dr. Mike Willard, the veterinary hepatologist who invented a surgical procedure for correcting liver shunts that was then 50% effective and is now more like 95%. Pixel was the healthiest dog with a liver shunt he’d ever seen. (She “made a ruckus” in the waiting area and had to go to “the quiet room.”) He didn’t recommend surgery for Pixel. “This is not a sick dog,” he said, “let’s try to keep her this way.” He had a medicinal protocol he wanted to try, one designed to support the liver in its present state of function. This involved multiple daily doses of several drugs. We followed his protocol religiously, and Pixel returned to A&M many times for checkups and to track her progress. Because dogs are usually so ill already when they get diagnosed, there is little data on how the condition progresses. Pixel, an unusual case and unusual creature, quickly became beloved at the veterinary clinic. Staff came in on their days off if they noticed Pixel on the schedule. For the next eight years of medicine and tests, Pixel’s liver function held steady and she remained as sprightly as ever.

PixelThat changed this past summer. Her regular blood test results showed a slip in liver function, very sharp, very sudden. Far too sudden to be the liver shunt, opined Dr. Willard. That would have been a gradual decline. Further bloodwork and imaging wasn’t able to determine a cause, though, so the decision was made for Pixel to finally get shunt surgery. But the God of Dog Livers was adamant: have the surgery, yes, but there is something else causing the decreased liver function. And, of course, he was right. While Pixel was being operated on, the surgeon found a diseased lobe of the liver, invisible on the scans, and excised it. It was metastatic bile duct cancer, a very fast and aggressive kind.

The severity of her illness was reflected in Pixel’s behavior. She slowed down, started napping all day, turned into a cuddler. The jealousy abated entirely; all she wanted was comforting. For a time she was on chemo drugs, but those made her so weak and unfocused that it soon seemed an unconscionable reduction in her quality of life. We decided instead to allow the cancer to run its course, manage her pain as long as it was manageable, and step in should she ever seem to be suffering intractably. Over the next few weeks she lost weight while her tumors grew with shocking speed. One large, non-organ mass in her abdomen was easily palpable, then visible through her skin. It pressed on the nerves controlling her back legs so it became difficult for her to jump, a heartbreaking diminishment in a dog that had always seemed able to get wherever she wanted (whether we wanted her to or not). We began lifting her up and down from from furniture. We gave her anything she seemed to want. Her abated insistence was balanced by our surging solicitousness.

My mother, as she had nine years earlier when we had a dog that seemed near the end of her life, decided to purchase a continuity puppy, and so in October Pixel and Carrie were joined by Mischief. Pixel’s first interaction with Mischief was to eat her dinner and snap at her when she tried to complain, an assertiveness that, given her weakness, we all found delightful. But unlike Muffy, Pixel came to enjoy the newcomer. She and Mischief would curl up together, and even play to the extent Pixel was able. My parents believe that Mischief, the last thing she ever seriously engaged with, extended Pixel’s life. Pixel7But sadly her engagement didn’t last for very long. By December Pixel was skeletal, on multiple pain medications, unable to keep down food even on anti-emetics. She lacked the strength in her back legs to easily climb a step, or balance sitting up to wave her paws at us. No longer able to clap for our attention, it was like she lost her voice. The obvious next step in her disease progression would be full loss of mobility, then a slow death. We spent a whole day discussing it and decided she had finally reached the point at which euthanasia was the humane choice.

I met my parents on a bleary morning in San Marcos, and from there we drove the two hours to Texas A&M, as we had decided to donate Pixel’s body to the veterinary team who kept her alive for so long. Pixel was on a pink towel in my mother’s lap, and later mine. She had occasional moments of alertness, sitting up and looking around, but never for more than a minute or two. The the Small Animal Clinic staff were expecting us, and directed us to a reserved sitting room in the back as soon as we walked in the door. Dr. Willard, now semi-retired from his dog deity position, came in for the occasion. It was my first time meeting him, and he had thoughtful things to say on the ethics of euthanasia, such as the need to draw a distinction between acts that prolong life and acts that prolong death. When it was time, we signed the papers donating her body for research, and he administered the injections himself.

“It’s so unfair,” my mother said as we left College Station. “She was running three steps ahead of death her whole life. We thought she could do it forever.” But then, the death she was running from never did catch her. It is unfair that a dog should die so young, but fortunate that one with a liver shunt should live so long, and with such verve. Pixel was a delightful animal: curious, histrionic, surprising, and more fully a member of the family than any other dog we’ve had. I’ll miss her.

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