Top ten reads of the year
Old Books by Dead Guys posted 120 reviews in 2018, a slight increase from the previous year. When it came time to search through those posts for the best reads of the year, however, there weren’t even enough 5-star books to fill out a top ten list, so I had to dip into the 4.5-star reads. A surprising number of nonfiction books were in the running, and, also unusual for this blog, most of the titles that made it into the resulting list were published in the past half century. This year I branched out into some new authors, sampled several previously unread Nobel laureates, and developed a new fascination for the history of science. The result is a rather odd list for Old Books by Dead Guys, but still a pretty good year for reading. Click on the titles below to read the full reviews.
Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist (1810)
Michael Kohlhaas, a horse dealer, is cheated out of two prize horses by a nobleman. When litigious means fail to bring him restitution, Kohlhaas takes the law into his own hands. This German classic set in the 16th century begins as a legal drama and then quickly escalates into an intense revenge thriller. Though published over two centuries ago, Michael Kohlhaas is a surprisingly modern, gripping read.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (1915)
With this remarkable novella, about a salesman who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a giant bug, Kafka has crafted a fascinating existential black comedy that manages to be both funny and disturbing. Bafflingly open to multiple interpretations, this brief and deceptively simple absurdist narrative possesses a surprising philosophical depth.
The Long Valley by John Steinbeck (1938)
This volume collects 13 short stories and novellas from the Nobel laureate’s early career, almost all of which feature grittily realistic tales set in his native California. Though not every story is a masterpiece, with excellent selections like “The Red Pony,” “The Raid,” “Johnny Bear,” and “The Vigilante,” overall this collection adds up to one great work of American literary naturalism.
Children of Dune by Frank Herbert (1976)
The saga of the Atreides dynasty continues with the third book in Frank Herbert’s monumental Dune series. The twin children of the now-departed messiah, Paul Muad’Dib, are beginning to show signs of superhuman mental powers similar to those of their father. Assassins and conspirators, some from within their own family, seek to prevent the twins from assuming their father’s imperial throne. Another thrilling episode in the greatest sci-fi epic of all time.
Faces and Masks by Eduardo Galeano (1984)
This is the second book in the Uruguayan author’s Memory of Fire trilogy, in which he chronicles the history of Latin America through a unique literary approach combining fiction, nonfiction, and poetry into a rapid-fire series of fascinating historical scenes. Faces and Masks covers the 18th and 19th centuries, a turbulent period replete with slavery, rebellion, and revolution. Galeano’s take on history provides an eye-opening education and makes for a memorable and moving literary experience.
Humboldt’s Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Latin American Journey That Changed the Way We See the World by Gerard Helferich (2004)
The first of two books on this year’s list focusing on the Prussian explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), who launched an epic scientific expedition through South America, Mexico, and Cuba. Helferich’s book gives a blow-by-blow account of this daring and productive journey, with all its thrilling exploits, physical hardships, and marvelous discoveries.
Clarence Gagnon: Dreaming the Landscape by Hélène Sicotte and Michèle Grandbois (2006)
This coffee-table art book is a beautifully conceived and beautifully produced retrospective of the work of Clarence Gagnon (1881-1942), Montreal painter and printmaker extraordinaire. Heavily illustrated and written with an eye for exquisite detail, the book not only provides a gorgeous portfolio of this master artist’s stunning landscapes but also gives the reader a definitive education into his life and career.
The H. Beam Piper Megapack by H. Beam Piper (2013)
This inexpensive ebook compendium of 33 novels, novellas, and short stories amounts to almost a complete collection of the writings of Piper, a great American science fiction author active from the late 1940s through the 1960s. Piper’s stories of time travel, galactic empires, interplanetary warfare, and the future history of mankind combine masterful sci-fi world-building, fun pulp fiction adventure, and intelligent political and social commentary.
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf (2015)
Yes, another book on Alexander von Humboldt (see Helferich’s book, above), and this one is even better! Find out why this Prussian scientist and explorer was once the most famous man on Earth and marvel at his monumental impact on the subsequent history of the world. In the process you’ll find out even more than you thought you knew about Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, and other illustrious historical personages. Wulf’s superb book is a must-read volume on all things Humboldt!
The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel (2017)
Journalist Finkel investigates the life of Christopher Thomas Knight, who lived his entire adult life as a hermit in the woods of central Maine, speaking only one word (“Hi”) to another human being in 27 years. A fascinating exploration into mankind’s need for solitude and the lengths to which one unusual man went in order to live an extreme life “off the grid.”
Also, check out these “omnibus” posts from the past year, which cover topics of frequent interest here at Old Books by Dead Guys:
Rock and Roll (Auto)biographies (6/8/18)
Historical Novels of the Ancient World (8/10/18)
Old Books by (Mostly) Dead Nobel Laureates 2018 (10/4/18)
Celebrating Polish Literature (11/11/18)
See also my best-of lists for 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. Old books by dead guys never go out of style!
Poorly written sketches of interesting people
Ancient and Modern Celebrated Freethinkers is the American reprint of a work previously published in England in 1857 under the title Half-Hours with the Freethinkers. It is a collection of what appear to have been columns in a periodical, though the title of the journal is never named. The book provides profiles of 23 important freethinkers throughout history, a group that broadly includes atheists, pantheists, deists, and other heretics who publicly disagreed with Christian dogma. The essays are written by Charles Bradlaugh (writing under the pseudonym of Iconoclast), A. Collins, and J. Watts.
Bradlaugh was a prominent spokesman for freethought in his own right, but his writing here, and that of his colleagues, leaves much to be desired. The essays are a mixture of biographical sketches, philosophical summary, adulatory tribute, and textual excerpts. Unfortunately the authors rely far too heavily on the latter. Many of the chapters contain very little biographical content and instead rather lazily reproduce extensive and not judiciously edited excerpts of the subjects’ writings. Baruch Spinoza, for example, led an interesting life, but his chapter is mostly one big chunk taken from his Ethics, which I’d already read. One of the reasons I pick up a book like this is because I don’t want to read Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry; I just want to get an idea of his philosophical thought. Bradlaugh, however, chooses to reprint page after page of Shelley’s poetry when two summary paragraphs on the poet’s freethought views would have been more useful and effective. As far as biographical content goes, the best you can hope for is maybe two or three interesting facts about each person’s life, and for some of the lesser known personages you get almost no idea of who they were. Rather than really trying to educate readers, the authors write in a “but of course you already know this” tone that is strange and off-putting.
Because of the heavy reliance on excerpts, two of the more interesting entries are about ancient authors whose written works no longer exist: Epicurus and Zeno of Citium (the founder of Stoicism). With the exception of these two ancient thinkers and Spinoza, almost all the remaining figures are 17th or 18th century deists, meaning those who believed in an impartial creator god as opposed to the anthropomorphic Judeo-Christian deity who judges man and answers his prayers. The authors themselves are atheists, but they view the heretical thinking of these deists with admiration as necessary precursors toward modern atheism. A few of the subjects were bona fide members of the clergy who departed from church doctrine, and their excerpts tend to be long and tedious catalogs of biblical inaccuracies. Robert Taylor’s chapter consists almost entirely of Bible quotes while Joseph Barker focuses on the error-prone process of translating holy scripture. To 21st century freethinkers, this stuff is old hat and makes for a boring read, unless you are a fundamentalist Christian thinking of leaving the Church, in which case you could probably find a better book to guide you than this 19th century anthology.
I was hoping for a collection of biographical sketches, but what I got was far less interesting. The book did very briefly introduce me to some thinkers of which I was unfamiliar, and for that I am thankful. There are a few choice chapters, like the ones on David Hume or Frances Wright D’Arusmont, the only woman represented here. In general, however, the text was mostly dull and annoying. For those interested in the history of freethought, I would recommend the 1889 work compiled by Joseph Mazzini Wheeler, A Biographical Dictionary of Freethinkers of All Ages and Nations, a far more interesting work than this collection by Bradlaugh and company.
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Nearly his complete works
The publisher Wildside Press has produced an extensive line of inexpensive ebook collections of genre fiction resurrected from the pages of vintage pulp fiction magazines. Their Megapack series includes dozens of science fiction titles, including both multi-author anthologies and collections devoted to individual authors. Among those featured in the latter category is H. Beam Piper, an exceptional sci-fi author who was active from the late 1940s until his death in 1960. The H. Beam Piper Megapack is essentially a complete works collection of Piper’s writings up to 1963 (several of his works were published posthumously). His works published after that date were likely omitted due to copyright restrictions. Rather than list what’s in the Megapack, it’s quicker just to state what is missing: Piper’s novels The Other Human Race (a.k.a. Fuzzy Sapiens) and Fuzzies and Other People, from his Fuzzies series; his novellas Gunpowder God and Down Styphon!, which were eventually combined into a novel, Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen; and his novel First Cycle, which was completed posthumously by another author and published in the early 1980s.
What this Megapack does include is a lot of fantastic science fiction. Piper is a master at creating well-thought-out worlds rich in intricate detail. His two main personal interests were collecting firearms and libertarian politics, so naturally many of his stories deal with political or military matters. Piper often crafts Byzantine interplanetary bureaucracies just to prove a point about democracy vs. autocracy or capitalism vs. socialism, for example, but in the process he never fails to fully flesh out the social, cultural, religious, and economic dimensions of his fictional worlds as well.
Piper published two major science fiction series. The first is the Paratime series, which was briefly introduced in his 1948 story “He Walked Around the Horses,” but really gets into full swing with the novella Police Operation, published later that year. In this fictional universe, the Paratime Police patrol the multitude of alternate timelines that result from myriad deviations in historical events. Time Crime, Genesis, and Last Enemy are other fine entries in this series. Piper’s other series is his Terro-Human Future History, which chronicles the future of mankind from the present Atomic Age to over 300 centuries in the future. Piper mapped out a complex chronology of mankind’s interstellar diaspora, which he revealed in an essay, “The Future History,” published in the fanzine Zenith (not available in this Megapack, but you can find it for free online). The Future History stories are only loosely connected, so they can be enjoyed individually or as part of the grand whole. Among his best works are Omnilingual and Little Fuzzy, the latter being the first of a trilogy of Fuzzies novels that are a subset of the Future History timeline.
The H. Beam Piper Megapack also includes two non-science fiction works by Piper: Murder in the Gunroom, a mystery novel; and Rebel Raider, a nonfiction biographical narrative of Confederate commander John Singleton Mosby; the latter of which is actually quite entertaining. By giving this collection a five-star rating, I don’t mean to imply that every selection is a masterpiece. In fact, Murder in the Gunroom, A Slave Is a Slave, Day of the Moron, and The Keeper are not very good, and some other selections are merely passable. Overall, however, if you are going to purchase a retrospective collection of a science fiction writer’s work, this is a great one to buy. Following the career trajectory of Piper’s visionary adventures is a wild and enjoyable ride.
Stories in this collection
(Many of the works in this collection have been reviewed individually. Click on titles below.)
Time and Time Again
He Walked Around the Horses
Flight from Tomorrow
Day of the Moron
The Edge of the Knife
Lone Star Planet
Graveyard of Dreams
Ministry of Disturbance
Crossroads of Destiny
Oomphel in the Sky
A Slave is a Slave
The Cosmic Computer
Murder in the Gunroom
The bug in all of us
The basic idea of Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella The Metamorphosis is notoriously easy to summarize: A salesman wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect. Capitalizing on this bizarre plot element, most cover designers for the book tend to make it look like a horror story, but The Metamorphosis is actually more of a black comedy. Despite its brevity and deceptively simple premise, Kafka’s narrative bears a philosophical depth and psychological complexity that has inspired much debate among literary critics over the past century.
The Metamorphosis is not so much about the metamorphosis itself but rather about the characters’ reactions to it. The biggest surprise is the relative nonchalance with which everyone deals with this hideous transformation. Gregor Samsa, the salesman in question, spends very little time fretting over his six legs and chitinous exoskeleton and immediately begins worrying about matters pertaining to his work and home life. His mother, father, and sister experience a brief initial fear when they discover the big bug, but they never fail to recognize the insect as their loved one and very quickly begin to think of him as an inconvenience rather than a horror. As Gregor gradually becomes accustomed to his new bug body, the family struggles to deal with the fact that their primary breadwinner has been incapacitated. The whole narrative takes place within the family’s apartment, which makes it feel like an absurdist stage play along the lines of something from Eugene Ionesco or Samuel Beckett.
Many literary scholars smarter than myself have analyzed The Metamorphosis backwards and forwards in order to elucidate its hidden meanings. From the humble perspective of this general reader, it seemed that Kafka was satirizing the effect on family dynamics when one member becomes an inconvenience, an embarrassment, or a source of shame to the others, whether through mental illness, physical invalidity, or the nonconformist breaking of a social convention that causes the offender to take on pariah status. Gregor’s insecthood is a symbolic representation of one man’s intense feelings of inadequacy and alienation in trying to fit in with the rest of humanity in the modern world. In this existentialist tour de force, Kafka masterfully walks a tightrope between tragedy and comedy, resulting in a work of gallows humor that is multi-layered, immensely thought-provoking.
Like much that Kafka produced, this groundbreaking protomodern classic had a pronounced effect on literature and pop culture to come. Though now over a century old, it still feels surprisingly fresh and doesn’t fail to shock with its sheer bizarreness. The big bug in the room is more than just a gimmick; The Metamorphosis proved an unexpectedly profound and unforgettable read.
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A skillful slice of depressing realism
Edith Wharton’s 1911 novel Ethan Frome takes place in the fictional small town of Starkfield, Massachusetts, a boondock hamlet whose provincial remove from urban centers like Boston and New York is heightened by the paralyzing effect of a frigid winter. The book’s title character, a farmer struggling to get by, is a lifelong member of this community. Ethan once dreamed of leaving his hometown and even studied engineering at the technical college in Worcester, but his studies were brought to an end when his father passed away, leaving him to support his ailing mother. Shortly thereafter, Ethan acquired a wife named Zenobia, or Zeena. At the time the novel takes place the two have been married for seven years, and whatever love may have existed between them has long since passed. Ethan has fallen in love with his wife’s cousin, Mattie Silver, who has come to stay with the couple in order to assist Zeena, who is subject to frequent bouts of illness. Though Ethan’s farm and marriage make him feel trapped in a world beyond his control, thoughts of infidelity, more emotional than physical, offer him a ray of hope for a happy life.
Ethan Frome is a beautiful piece of realist writing, but the world it so vividly depicts is a relentlessly depressing one in which marriage is a trap, no one ever gets what they want in life, and the pursuit of happiness is hopeless and futile. This feeling is highlighted in no small part by the book’s introduction. Wharton begins the story after the fact, with the bulk of the narrative taking place in flashback. A narrator who meets Ethan in the present day describes him as a broken man. The reader, therefore, already knows how the story is going to end, and that foreshadowing negatively taints any moments of hope or optimism towards Ethan’s chances at happiness. It is unclear why Wharton felt the need to tack an introduction and an epilogue onto the story, other than perhaps that sort of literary embellishment was just expected of Gilded Age writers. The novel would have been better off without its bookends. Despite the story’s foregone conclusion, Wharton tries to add a little twist to the ending, but it is not entirely unforeseen and feels more contrived than authentic.
The way that Zeena is written as such a villainous hag, even though she’s the one getting cheated on, is also rather unpleasant. The character of Mattie errs in the opposite direction, as she comes across as too innocent and idealized much of the time, although perhaps the reader is simply viewing her through Ethan’s adoring eyes. It seems unusual that a female writer would choose to draw such one-dimensional female characters, especially an author who clearly demonstrates in Ethan that she has the ability to generate genuine, fully-fleshed, psychologically complex characters. Perhaps Ethan is intended as a male stand-in for all the powerless women before him who had the misfortune to be trapped in loveless marriages with overbearing spouses.
Though I wasn’t completely satisfied with Ethan Frome, most of my reservations are with the plot. As a fan of naturalist literature, I really enjoyed Wharton’s impeccably realistic prose, enough to know that I will likely seek out more of her work in the future. Though this novel is set in Massachusetts, and Wharton moved in New England literary circles, her writing bares less resemblance to the sober verbosity of Nathaniel Hawthorne than it does to the French naturalism of Emile Zola, the regional realism of Willa Cather, or even the early modern realism of John Steinbeck. Ethan Frome is certainly worth a read to those who enjoy naturalist literature, but don’t expect to be thrilled with the ending.
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Two centuries of slavery and revolution
Faces and Masks, originally published in 1984, is the second book in Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s trilogy Memory of Fire, which chronicles the history of the Americas. This trilogy is a stylistically unique work of literature, neither fiction nor nonfiction but a combination of the two. Each book is comprised of hundreds of brief historical scenes a page or two in length. Within a strict chronological framework, Galeano literally jumps all over the map, though he mostly focuses on Latin America. Even though the narrative never stays in one place for long, certain characters make repeated appearances throughout the book, allowing readers to chart the trajectories of their lives. Galeano’s hopscotch technique is quite effective in drawing connections between diverse peoples and places while providing an eye-opening and moving perspective on world history.
Faces and Masks begins in 1700 where the first book, Genesis, left off, and covers the 18th and 19th centuries. While Genesis was mostly about the Spanish conquest of the New World, Faces and Masks focuses heavily on the enslavement of African Americans and Native Americans and highlights the various uprisings of American peoples against their conquerors. I liked Genesis, but I found Faces and Masks much more compelling simply because a lot of fascinating events took place during these two centuries, such as Alexander von Humboldt’s expedition to Latin America, the Mexican Revolution of 1810, and Simón Bolívar’s revolution in South America. Galeano briefly covers prominent world events like the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the American Civil War, but he gives much more in-depth coverage to wars and revolutions in Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Paraguay, Cuba, and many other conflicts great and small. As Galeano shows, too often the violence and upheaval resulted in a nation’s nominal freedom from European political rule only to be handed over to wealthy, Euro-friendly rulers who continued to exploit Native and poor populations for the economic gain of the conquerors they just overthrew.
Memory of Fire is very much a “people’s history” of the world, told from a Southern Hemisphere perspective. In his beautifully written historical vignettes, which combine poetic prose with insightful social commentary, Galeano is equally adept at illustrating the greed and excesses of oligarchs or the tragedies and miseries of slaves, farmers, and freedom fighters. Sadly, the downtrodden underdogs are nearly always the Native inhabitants or working-class laborers of Latin America. Galeano’s narrative, however, is by no means one-sided or preachy, and not all of his heroes are Latino. Historical figures of all races and classes make appearances in Faces and Masks, and the author judges them fairly on the basis of their actions. The ensemble cast features not only politicians, military leaders, and revolutionaries, but a surprising number of artists and writers as well.
Even North Americans who consider themselves reasonably well-versed in the history of Latin America will find much to learn from this Uruguayan man of letters. The Memory of Fire books are not so much a replacement of traditional history books as they are an appetizer for them. Each mini-chapter inspires the reader to want to learn more about the interesting personages and surprising incidents depicted, and Galeano’s extensive bibliography would be a fine place to start. After Faces and Masks, I am looking forward to reading book three, Century of the Wind, but it will be hard for the 20th century to top this.
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