Friday, December 21, 2018

The Best of 2018

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!

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