Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Best of 2017

Top ten reads of the year
Though blog posts have been pretty sparse in recent weeks, I did manage to post 112 reviews this year. The time has come once again to highlight the best books that have been reviewed at the Old Books by Dead Guys blog over the past twelve months. Technically, this is a Top Eleven list, but who’s counting? This year I made a concerted effort to reread some old favorites, which account for about half of the titles listed below. Selections like those by Charles Darwin, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Frank Herbert may not be surprises, but they are solid five-star books worthy of being sought out or reacquainted with. Of course, since this is Old Books by Dead Guys, many of these works were published decades ago, but some of them were new to me and may be new to you. Click on the titles below to read the full reviews.


On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)
Great books don’t get much greater than this. Not only is this one of the most important books ever written, it’s also a fascinating read for anyone interested in science and nature. You will marvel at Darwin’s encyclopedic knowledge, but you don’t need a master’s degree in biology to figure out what he’s saying. It’s a joy to follow along as he lays his scientific case before you in exquisite detail.

Monsieur Lecoq by Émile Gaboriau (1869)
This brilliant pre-Sherlock Holmes detective novel combines the suspenseful thrills of a murder mystery with the epic grandeur of monumental historical sagas like The Count of Monte Cristo or Les Misérables. It’s a long haul to get through but never boring, and this pioneering masterpiece of its genre is well worth the effort.

A Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers of All Ages and Nations by Joseph Mazzini Wheeler (1889)
Though admittedly not everyone’s cup of tea, those irreligiously inclined might enjoy this who’s who of freethought. This encyclopedic reference catalogs an inspiring pantheon of secular saints, including hundreds of philosophers, writers, artists, and intellectuals who lived and worked as atheists, agnostics, heretics, and champions of reason over superstition. 

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1892)
Despite the countless reiterations of Sherlock Holmes over the past century, the first collection of short stories is still the best. The Adventures features the first 12 Holmes stories originally published in The Strand magazine, including such classic cases as “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Red-Headed League,” “The Speckled Band,” and “The Blue Carbuncle.” Chances are when you think of Sherlock Holmes, this volume embodies everything that comes to mind. Read the original, and accept no imitators!

The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell (1912)
In this philosophy book aimed at the general public, Nobel Prize winner Bertrand Russell investigates the branch of philosophy known as epistemology—the search for a theory of knowledge that explains the process of human thought, including how we perceive the world around us and form beliefs as to what is true or false. In this enlightening overview, Russell explains complex concepts in plain, accessible English without dumbing-down the subject.

Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper (1962)
In a distant future, colonists from Earth discover an intelligent life form on a distant planet. A political dispute arises over whether these creatures, dubbed “fuzzies,” are merely a clever sort of primate or are smart enough to be considered an indigenous population. Piper not only considers the biological and psychological aspects of the question but also its ethical and legal implications. This is a fun adventure story with admirable philosophical depth.

Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)
Dune is often regarded as the greatest science fiction novel of all time, and deservedly so. The world of Dune is perhaps the most fully realized fictional universe ever created, intricately crafted in rich political, religious, cultural, ecological, historical, and linguistic detail. This vivid world sets the stage for an equally epic story combining the freedom-fighting interplanetary battles of Star Wars with the chess-game power struggle of Game of Thrones. Once you treat yourself to the wonder of Dune, you will find yourself wanting more.

Into the Wild by John Krakauer (1996)
They can’t all be old books by dead guys. In this investigative biography, journalist and mountaineer John Krakauer chronicles the life and death of Chris McCandless, who, immediately after graduating from college, gave all his money to charity, broke all ties with his family, and embraced a life on the open road, often living a primitive solitary lifestyle in remote natural areas. This fascinating, thought-provoking, and heart-wrenching read thoughtfully examines our need for nature, the allure of wanderlust, and the quest for personal freedom.

A Death in the House and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume 7 (2016)
Good Night, Mr. James and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume 8 (2016)
The Shipshape Miracle and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume 10 (2017)
I’m halfway through the 14-volume Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series, and while not every volume merits a five-star rating, most of them do. Each book contains nine or ten short stories and novellas by Simak, a Grand Master of Science Fiction. While Simak also wrote the occasional western (one per book), the main attraction here is his sci-fi, in which he presents marvelous visions of interstellar exploration, artificial intelligence, alien visitation, dystopian futures, and more. Simak’s writing, imbued with a palpable compassion for humanity, transcends the genre and ascends to the level of great literature.


See also my best-of lists for 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016. Great old books by dead guys have no expiration date!

Friday, December 8, 2017

Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

The bridge between two epics
Dune Messiah, published in 1969, is the sequel to Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune, which is perhaps the most highly regarded and certainly one of the bestselling science fiction novels of all time. In any case it was a tough act to follow. Portions of Dune Messiah were originally serialized in Galaxy magazine before being published in book form. Given that mode of delivery, plus the four years’ wait and the shorter running time, Dune Messiah may have been a reluctant sequel. Here Herbert doesn’t repeat the epic grandeur of the original Dune; in fact he seems to rebel against it. At some point, however, he clearly began to envision a trilogy with Dune, Dune Messiah, and Children of Dune, and this book is the perfect second volume to bridge the gap between the more grandiose novels that precede and follow it. Dune Messiah may not be as good as its predecessor, but it is a brilliant continuation of the Dune mythos.

The story takes place about a dozen years after the events of the first book. Paul Atreides, also known as Muad’Dib, is now Emperor of the known universe, ruling over hundreds of planets occupied by the human diaspora that has flown forth from Earth tens of thousands of years in our future. Hailed as a messiah, Muad’Dib’s followers have launched an interstellar jihad, killing billions as they subjugate new worlds in his name. Paul does not enjoy his roles as messiah and tyrant, but his powers of prescience show him that this brutal path is the least of all evils for the future of humanity. Though worshipped as a god, he has acquired many enemies who would love to see an end to his reign. A group of conspirators joins forces to take Paul down, including representatives of the Spacing Guild, which monopolizes interstellar travel; the religious/political sisterhood the Bene Gesserit; and the Tleilaxu, masters of genetic manipulation. These would-be assassins manage to recruit members of Paul’s inner circle to join them in their plot against him.

Though the novel makes reference to Muad’Dib’s absolute power and far-reaching influence, the story has the feel of an intimate chess game, albeit one with seven or eight major players all vying for dominance. Though the scope may be narrow, the stakes are high. Almost the entire narrative takes place within the capital city of Arrakeen, but Herbert makes it clear that what happens on this narrow stage affects the course of human history throughout the entire universe. At one point, Herbert gives us a rare glimpse into humanity’s past by comparing Muad’Dib to Genghis Khan and Hitler (both of them lightweights compared to the greatest dictator the universe has ever seen). This novel lacks the big action sequences and battle scenes of the first Dune book, however, in favor of a more quiet warfare that often takes the form of verbal sparring and intricate mind games. The moves and countermoves of all this power-jockeying are admittedly tough to follow at times. Every line of dialogue is so rich in subtle allusions and hidden meanings that the reader can easily get lost in each labyrinthine conversation, but the rich psychological and philosophical depth of Herbert’s vision makes the tough going worthwhile.

In the six Dune books that Herbert wrote before his death in 1986, he created the most fully realized fictional universe in the history of literature—more convincingly complete and eminently engrossing than the worlds of Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter. Any trip to Arrakis (the planet also known as Dune), is truly an amazing journey, and Dune Messiah is no exception.
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