The books that absorbed me in 2016

Child psychology made fun, an existential warning, a conservative novel, and a comic that could have been dreamt up by Borges

Quick list of the books I recommend most highly:

This year

Books this year were, for me, both a distraction from 2016’s madness and a reminder of the breadth of human imagination.

Here’s what I read that was longer than an article in 2016, plus a note or two about books I decided not to finish.

Most of these I read in print, many on Kindle (both bought via Amazon and found as free .mobi files online), and a few with Audible. Shout out to the Brooklyn Public Library, whose due dates force me to finish what I’ve borrowed!

Sections:


Novels

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

Haunting. So compact it’s like a pressure cooker. Sets up two central plot events, and then gently and faithfully applies the genuine perspective of each character onto them. In the contrast between different characters’ reactions — and even in the contrast between reactions within a single character — a universe of values, mindsets, and manipulations are illustrated. It affirms the value of novels. And despite all this Nobel Prizeyness, it’s actually a page-turner.

Perhaps the most I’ve ever loved a basically conservative piece of fiction.

I pulled this off my bookshelf before running out the door to catch a flight; what a justification for having shelves full of good books you haven’t read yet! (Take that, Marie Kondo)

Highest recommendation.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

detail of illustration by Annette Marnat for the New Yorker, used without permission

It took me quite a while to get into this. It was hard to get a hold on it in my mind, which is something I have found several times with non-genre novels by women. (Even before the author’s identity was revealed, I absolutely could not imagine a man had written it. But maybe it was a collaboration?)

In Coetzee’s Disgrace, for instance, I felt I knew why each little piece was there, or at least trusted that it fit, even if there was ambiguity about how. In this sense, Disgrace is structured somewhat like a genre novel. But I didn’t quite know what some parts of Ferrante’s story were doing there. My impatient mind wanted a gimmick to latch onto, or a philosophical argument. Instead there was just life, subtly observed.

But the book slowly cast its spell on me, and at some point I understood that I’d have to grow as a reader if I was to appreciate her craft and depth.

It may be that I’m only beginning to become a patient enough and complex enough person to appreciate this sort of book.

Highly recommended.

After the Revolution by Amy Herzog (theatre play)

Like Herzog’s play “4000 Miles”, with which it shares something of a common setting (and several characters with the same names), this is a small and quiet play that achieves something big.

Both plays focus on generational change within leftist American families, with particular attention to the ways millennial activists repurpose and break from the ways of the previous generations, and the way aging activists from the 60s and earlier “fellow traveler” generations adjust, clumsily, to the awareness that history has played out in ways quite contrary to their narratives.

(Both plays are also very readable in print, which I find isn’t true of many plays.)

One of the most remarkable things about “After the Revolution” is its economy. Each of its few, brief scenes evokes a lifetime, sometimes multiple lifetimes, of political orientation, debate, hard work, heartbreak, and shame.

Herzog gives full throated voice to everyone involved, and is careful to make conflict grow out of forcing to the surface each character’s deep-rooted values. That is not to say she isn’t opinionated; but she clearly relishes a fierce debate, even an asymmetrical one, over studied evenhandedness.

Few writers understand enough about history, politics, family dynamics, and social change to write a play like this.

Highly recommended.

Sins of the Fathers (Matt Scudder series), A Stab in the Dark (Matt Scudder series), Burglar on the Prowl (Bernie Rhodenbarr series) by Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block’s mystery novels are not satisfying for their plots, which are par for the course. It’s their tone that draws me: a perfect mix of hard-nosed New Yorker street wisdom, humanist empathy, witty banter, and intellectual depth. All of these delivered, but A Stab in the Dark was my favorite. Its portrait of alcoholism is deeply disquieting, and yet even more disturbing is its subtle suggestion that in a world so stripped of fairness and justice, sobriety is vulgar.

Recommended.


Nonfiction

Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom

Still from Colossus: The Forbin Project. Better do what the machines say!

Exhaustive and encyclopedic, for worse and for better. Bostrom has thought through an astonishing number of aspects of the potential AI explosion. So while this book is a bit of a slog, it is absolutely full of stimulating ideas. Bostrom convinced me that his controversial central thesis is justified: that the most important event in human history will be the rise of superhuman AI. It really seems to be coming, and if we don’t figure out its constraints now, human civilization might be doomed.

I do wish Bostrom were less sure that his taxonomy of the relevant issues is exhaustive, and less convinced of his power to predict many steps into a cloudy and chaotic future. But the greatest visionaries are seldom humble and seldom right about everything.

As Sam Harris has observed, anyone sounding the alarm about a scenario out of cheesy 60’s sci-fi sounds like a loser. But that doesn’t make the danger any less real!

Highest recommendation, for its perspective-altering power despite its painful density.

Influence by Robert Cialdini

Fun and disturbing tour through how marketers and manipulators exploit our cognitive shortcuts. Makes use of psychology studies and undercover stints by the author on the staff of car dealerships and restaurants, but also explores the methods of successful cults and brainwashers.

Cialdini plays a little fast and loose with the rigor he demands of his source material; it seems likely that his summaries of research often overstate the case. But the reason and reflection he applies in his interpretations make them convincing.

The overall portrait he paints is chilling, and thankfully the defensive practices he recommends are eminently practical. I’ve spent much of my life building up a similar internal program, though I’ve never had words for it before. And even though I pride myself on understanding many of these points already, there was a lot here that was new for me.

Highly recommended; better than anything else I’ve read on cognitive biases except Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

I had no idea that this famous book is really not a book but an unordered set of miscellaneous notes on how to live. Marcus didn’t intend it to be read from start to finish, by himself or anyone else. I decided, halfway through painstakingly reading it straight through, that I’d better adjust my approach and just open to a random page whenever I feel like hearing his voice.

And what a voice it is. It’s awe-inspiring that such an ancient voice can reach across the millennia and feel so familiar. You could schedule “Guided meditation with Marcus at 8am” at the local yoga studio and read many of these notes verbatim, and people would assume they’re by a living writer.

The perspective is refreshing (absurdly, given its age!) in its absence of celebration of divineness within people. In Roman mythology, the divine was basically external, a concept which feels exotic from a Judeo-Christian perspective. Instead, his focus is on natural balance: accepting your limitations as crude animal and enjoying your few chances to be generous, be faithful, and express love.

It’s not an easy text to read much of, because of its references to obscure people and its absence of any coherent narrative. But I found its philosophical perspective subtly revelatory.

Highly recommended.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Eloquent and unforgettable, with limitations; I found myself thinking about it all year, seeing the world through its lens and mulling over what it was about it that I was resisting.

I’ve always felt dazzled by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ability to look at the world through fresh eyes, unencumbered by filters and associations that make every observation count for one side of a debate or another. His posts about the Civil War, Obama’s presidency, reparations, and just about any book he reads, are thought provoking like few other writers can be.

Conversely, I sometimes sense a closed-mindedness in his polemical and debate writing. In particular, he strongly disagrees with claims, such as those by Jonathan Chait and John McWhorter, that slavery and Jim Crow have left a residual pathology in poor black Americans (and, I would add, white Americans too, in the way that oppression traps and stunts the oppressor); though when he’s not in debate mode, Coates writes eloquently about those very pathologies himself.

I think this is a matter of perspective, not a fundamental disagreement; right wing racist victim-blaming looms so large that anything that sounds like something they would say sets off alarm bells. When Chait talks about the legacy of slavery, Coates seems to hear an implied refusal for whites to take responsibility for oppression ever since. It is the responsibility, and not the historical roots, that I think is the real question. But standing up to the “personal responsibility” euphamism does not need to prevent us from recognizing that racial oppression operates today more from residual effects than fresh ones.

Coates has argued elsewhere that “There’s nothing wrong with black people that the complete destruction of white supremacy would not fix. Nothing.” He’s right, but I think he has phrased this to make it too easy, seeing how the complete destruction of white supremacy would mean undoing the legacies of the past. This lens does give needed focus to continuing inequities in sentencing, environmental health, and de facto segregation that was recently de jure; but it leaves out so much else, like broad public health work, violence deescalation, job training, and shifting norms around violence and drugs that matter immensely.

Another easy answer that feels alien to me is the failure to acknowledge that some prominent victims of police violence were significantly violent themselves. Look at the surveillance tape from the casually violent robbery, in front of a child, which led police to seek to arrest Michael Brown. I don’t mean to align with conservatives who would say Brown bears most of the responsibility for his death; I can point to many dead people, including many of the founding fathers, who I feel contributed to it, and I think Coates would agree with me. But does Coates not distinguish at all between a crime of poverty and survival, and a casually violent robbery that victimizes an oppressed and largely voiceless immigrant? Is he not willing at all to assign some responsibility for that violence to Brown? Can he agree that it enables this violence that those close to Brown call him gentle?

There is a colossal amount of white privilege that spares me from being tested and pushed like Brown and Eric Garner were. And there is a fundamental eagerness among police to find excuses to become egregiously violent against black people. But there can also be an enabling of criminal violence that has its roots in a reaction to racism but which is itself is part of a cycle of continuing racism. Or something else. I don’t know! Coates is satisfied to tell himself that Garner was “choked to death for selling cigarettes” and stop the complexity there. The greatest thinker I know on the subject has gotten off the stage early, carefully erased the unattractive facts, and chosen not to engage the thorniest questions except to suggest that to focus on them is an act of complicity with white supremacy.

That boundary excludes too many people who both feel anger at the violent, dehumanizing aggression with which the police killed Garner, and who hold themselves and those they know well to a standard that would never allow the irresponsibility and resisting arrest that led the police to tackle him. Does their reality matter to Coates?

I say all this at the same time that I appreciate the book’s wrenching beauty and poetry. The comparisons to Baldwin are deserved. It’s left an indelible impression on me, and I am excited to keep reading Coates as he explores well-trod grounds with eyes that see detail in the shade that the rest of us have missed. I have a lot to learn, and Coates is one of my most vital teachers.

Recommended.

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

A fun and entertaining read that covers some of the same ground as Thinking, Fast and Slow. Given how memorable and perspective altering I found TF&S, I was surprised to find the experience of reading Gilbert’s book to be a grind.

First, Gilbert appears to be pervasively sexing up the data. As in the similarly frustrating NurtureShock, he treats social science experiments as being wholly conclusive, no matter whether the effect was tiny and appeared only once in a small study, or huge and replicated in multiple large-scale studies. I can’t think of a single point in the book when he writes anything like “The effect was small and only found in a single study, but it suggests that X might be more true than we thought”, or anything like “The evidence of this effect is especially strong: the difference is enormous and has held up through repeated replication.”

Too much of this would be painfully dry, but something in that direction is necessary given the non-replicability of so many studies. Since Stumbling came out a full decade ago, before the scientific campaign to revisit and attempt to replicate past experiments en masse had built up much steam, it’s a safe bet that many of Gilbert’s assertions are wrong. He couldn’t have known that at the time, at least not with certainty. But he could have known that the more counter-intuitive the finding from a small number of career-advancing experiments, the more Bayesian reasoning suggests that we take them with a grain of salt. That’s why responsible science writers keep contingency close by shedding light on their sources and degree of confidence.

The other way the book grated on me is in Gilbert’s writing style. His habit is to scatter humorous examples and asides, such as:

A well-timed shock may teach a fruit fly to avoid the tennis-shoe smell, but it won’t teach it to avoid the smell of snowshoes, ballet slippers, Manolo Blahniks, or a scientist armed with a miniature stun gun.

Sometimes these were funny and helped me digest the material. But more often they broke the flow of ideas, and I wished he would stop being cute and get to the point.

Not recommended.

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Is this yours, Saffie? Doesn’t it have a home to go to?

Kondo’s voice grates on me like those of Tim Ferriss or Gary Taubes, but the book did bring me into her bizarre, stunted, dishonest mind and leave me a bit changed.

There is indeed a way to emotionally unlock my ability to throw things away: talking to the things, thanking them for their role in my life, and saying goodbye. And there is a crucial step, which is completely removing the objects you wish to organize from their resting place, and only putting them back if they give you value; the culling really isn’t real if you sort through them on the shelf.

As a book, it was basically unreadable; the paragraph above constitutes most of the actual content of the book. But that’s a pretty good nugget of content.

Not recommended.

The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss

Largely a load of barely concealed bullshit, but with some valuable ideas here and there.

As always with his books, he is on such a rocketship to success that he doesn’t even stop to notice when his promises abjectly fall flat. E.g., he outsources the writing of a section to remote assistants to show how well remote assistants work. They completely fail to fulfill the very clear parameters he sets out, which is exactly what happens with cheap outsourced intellectual labor. He declares success and moves on.

The lesson isn’t that you can get good work done with remote assistants; it’s that if you work like crazy and never stop shamelessly selling yourself, eventually you’ll find someone who doesn’t notice you’re selling them hot air. It reminds me of his investment history, which suggests — though he won’t tell you this — that it’s wise to become someone whom rich insiders want to hang out with, and then piggyback on their existing deals. In most cases, it’s wise to separate what Ferriss does from what he says you should do.

What’s most valuable in his actual book is his suggested wording of pitches, introductions and difficult conversations. He’s an immensely talented salesman, and his writing talent matches his charisma and confidence.

Most of the raves I’ve heard for his writing strike me as attempts by the reviewers to get on board with Ferriss’s mojo, and that seems to be working for many people. More power to them! I’m on board with his mojo too, even if his books are unreadable.

Not recommended.


Education

Free at Last: The Sudbury Valley School by Daniel Greenberg

A straightforward dive into life at this famous and unconventional Massachusetts private school, where there are no mandatory classes or activities whatever. It’s hard to know how big a grain of salt to take the founder’s version with; other sources suggest the school has left many students feeling uneducated. But it’s a reminder of how capable children are, how arbitrary the constraints of traditional schooling are, and the profound learning that can emerge when educators see their role through a lens of empowerment rather than control.

Recommended.

Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers, edited by Eric Gutstein and Bob Peterson

I am generally skeptical of the widespread assumption that math teaching is improved by “relevance”, by attempting to ground the material in students’ experience. The teachers who I hear students praise most are ones who know and love the revelatory power of learning, and who can instill that passion in their students — who expand the scope of what students see as relevant, rather than assuming their minds and worlds are static and accessible only to obviously useful information.

That said, I enjoyed reading in one of the essays here about Peterson’s use of a sort of mathematical Socratic method, where he engaged students in conversation about injustice and then assigned relevant statistical research projects; the focus was not on building specific domain competence in all students, but rather on engaging them in the use of math to inspect and evaluate ideas.

Not recommended.

The Usborne Book of Science Experiments by Jane Bingham

Usborne has always packed a ton of content into their slim and inexpensive science books, and this is no exception. My only complaint is one I always have with such books: where are we supposed to get most of this stuff? I’m talking colored transparency sheets, wooden garden rods, sheet metal, and alum. The result is maddening, and I doubt almost any readers go on to do more than the most accessible of these activities. Then there’s the reliability issue. I’ve done the needle-floating-in-water experiment, and the hand-warmth-causing-air-convection experiment, two staples of such books. Neither works reliably.

The overall effect is one of the publishing tail wagging the scientific experiment dog. I wish books like this would skip the “collect these random objects to demonstrate some physical property and then never think about it again” type of experiment; do we really need to do these ourselves? Instead, I’d love to see the sort of open-ended experiment that Richard Feynman has wrote fondly of, such as finding an anthill and interrupting ants’ pheromone trails in order to figure out how they work.

Not recommended.

Animation Studio by Candlewick Press

The worst kind of how-to book: one that walks you through the obvious parts, but never addresses the hard part. The actual animation part is entirely out of this book’s scope.

Not recommended.

Lauren Ipsum by Carlos Bueno

Not the way to do kids’ literature about science and technology. This is the Mad Men approach to insight: “Look, that whole Hare Krishna thing!” “Look, the Civil Rights Movement!” “Look, that VW ad!” Except here it’s, “Look, boolean logic!” “Look, cacheing!”

Contrast this with a book like A.K. Dewdney’s The Magic Machine, which achieves so much more by actually engaging the topics and finding the whimsy and delight in them, not tacking on a facsimile of delight with a staple gun.

Not recommended.

Most Likely to Succeed by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith

The authors fall prey to a fundamental error of prescriptive writing: thinking that their vision appears idyllic because their ideas make it so, rather than the fact that it’s they who get to paint its picture.

If you believe their portrait of present-day American education, we’re turning out students who can regurgitate lots of content about literature, history or science, but whose rote learning blocks their deeper understanding of these concepts. One example they give is students translating passages from a foreign language, but never appreciating the poetry of the words.

If only! There is far less content depth and breadth in education today than they think. But after a clumsy and condescending takedown of the status quo, they do articulate a vision that I think has merit.

They propose to put collaboration at the center of every single course; to let students choose and articulate learning goals and form personalized curricula, with teachers serving as coaches and guides; to use Socratic debate to investigate thorny subjects; and to review student performance with qualitative, in person dialogue with boards of local professionals rather than quantitative tests. They want students to feel empowered to learn a trade that appeals to them, or to run for office, or to take on an activist cause. They see this path not as skirting study and knowledge, but as activating a level of rigorous engagement that most students seldom, if ever, experience in today’s schools.

I heartily applaud. We certainly need more rigor and ambition in service of creative analysis and innovation. But what does their prescription mean on the ground? Already, professors all over complain that students come to college these days with the attitude that they already know everything they need to know; that they are perfect snowflakes who should never be made to experience a moment’s intellectual discomfort; and that they can discard assignments that seek to ground them in the fundamental knowledge of a field in favor of whatever project speaks to them. There seems to be a broad erosion of rigor; their student-led approach needs much more thought as to how it can demand rigor, if it is not to further this erosion.

I wish the authors had engaged real people in investigative and experimental work, rather than straw men. These questions are too important for snide overconfidence.

Not recommended.


Children’s books

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

One of the great delights of being a parent is the chance to rediscover children’s literature, and Dahl is the greatest delight of all.

What I’d forgotten about this book is the starkness of the moral contrast between the children. The Charlie in the book isn’t just a handsome movie actor with makeup smudged on his face to make him look poor: he is absolutely destitute, literally starving to death on a few bites of boiled cabbage soup per day. Dahl goes into detail about the little adjustments a person makes when they’re starving, like leaving for school early so he can walk at an efficient, slow pace. The cruelty and pain in Dahl’s books always astonishes and exhilarates me, in its honesty and its trust in the children reading. They can handle it.

I also appreciate the simple clarity of Dahl’s approach to Wonka. He is a man who could be publicly vilified as an exploitative, vindictive, pathologically dishonest, megalomaniacal murderer, and Dahl winks at us that he knows this. But in his own heroic story, his greatness dwarfs the clucking of parasitic lawyers and insurance salesmen, as well as safety-obsessed parents. This would be Ayn Rand for kids, if Dahl didn’t make Wonka so unknowably bizarre, and if it weren’t 1000 times better than anything she ever wrote. Its schadenfreude is somehow not cruel, sneering or paranoid.

Highest recommendation.

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl

What a disappointment. Uninspired, with cringeworthy ethnic humor and misogyny.

Not recommended.

The BFG and The Witches by Roald Dahl

As excellent as I remembered, each with their own mythologies and inspired horrors.

Highly recommended.

Ivy and Bean series, books 1–10, by Annie Barrows and Sophie Blackall

I can’t say enough about these phenomenal books, which I’m reading to my younger daughter for the third time through. I’ve never seen child psychology captured so faithfully and lovingly as in Barrows’s writing. The books are full of brilliant touches, and celebrate children’s imaginations as fervently as they plumb the depths of children’s shame and defensive avoidance.

Highest recommendation.

Interstellar Pig, The Boy Who Reversed Himself, The Boxes, and Others See Us by William Sleator

William Sleator’s young adult sci-fi is an incredible body of work. My 7 year old was completely drawn into Interstellar Pig, and enjoyed the others. (We even got Chaosmos, a wonderful boardgame inspired by Interstellar Pig.)

I think The Boy Who Reversed Himself should be taught in school; it’s a masterful novel of adventure into geometric dimensions, in the tradition of Flatland.

The Boy Who Reversed Himself and Interstellar Pig: highly recommended; The Boxes, Others See Us: recommended.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

Deliciously dark and bleak. Like most of the series, it is a bit shaky on the core messages and values. On the one hand, Harry’s insistence that justice for all come before his own status is wonderful. On the other hand, the plurality of heroes that Rowling built up in books 5 and 6 fades so that Harry, in an act of solo heroism (okay, with some help from Neville), can wield a bigger stick than Voldemort.

There is some effort to make Voldemort’s failure a product of his bigotry and narcissism, as with his underestimating house elves. But Harry mostly beats him through violence, e.g. by defeating Malfoy.

And a huge opportunity was missed for Malfoy, and Slytherin in general, to actively redeem themselves; their struggle between citizenship and partisanship is a fascinating theme that I was surprised Rowling didn’t develop further in the end.

Still, so much is wonderful along the way, and the sense of hopeless peril is impressively convincing, as is the destruction that persecution wreaks on one’s relationships.

Highly recommended.

Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

A profound and unforgettable piece of children’s literature, which dives deeply into racism, belonging, shame, mourning, suicide, and grace. And it does all this without feeling too heavy handed. I read it for the third time, to my daughter.

Highly recommended.

A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L’Engle

Proginoskes from A Wind in the Door, by Laurel Dodge

These books cast a spell, in the same sort of way that the Narnia books do; in both cases part of the magic is the author’s own spiritual devotion, and their desire to kindle a flame of timeless morality in the young reader.

Part of that human purpose, for L’Engle, is to championing the intellectual spirit and reject ignorance; and Meg and Charles Wallace’s struggles in this vein, and refusal to compromise either intellectually or morally, are unforgettable. I love that my daughter will always know the examples of Meg, who is unsure but persistent and constant, and Charles Wallace, whose brilliance makes him an outcast.

But the books are also quite clunky and obscure. The scenarios are too plain a metaphor for philosophical struggles, not enough compelling plots in their own right.

Recommended.

Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine by Laurie Wallmark and April Chu

A children’s picture book that tells a glossed and impressionistic biography of Ada Lovelace, commonly called the first computer programmer. Well done, and finely illustrated, with a few clever touches that find an actual children’s picture book in some potentially uncooperative source material.

Recommended.

Float by Daniel Miyares

Picture books with no words at all need to be done exceptionally well to work, and this one works beautifully.

Recommended.

Un Lun Dun by China Mieville

My experience with this book was of a pattern with a certain type of sprawling, eclectic writing, such as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao, and The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay: it seems to me as though the cavalcade of adjectives and zany characters and observations are thin, disjointed and incongruous and don’t add up to anything. I kept waiting for the story to have a center, or at least something to say.

Not recommended.

A Tale of Time City by Lynne Reid Banks

Was one of my favorite sci-fi novels when I was 10, but seems weakly executed and sloppy to me now. Time City is a city placed outside of the flow of history, with a citizenry charged with keeping history on course. It’s a brilliant concept, but the story is set up with the wrong inciting incident and bogged down by focusing on all the wrong things.

Not recommended.

All in a Day by Cynthia Rylant and Nikki McClure

I love Nikki McClure’s woodcut art, and I love her book “Mama, Is It Summer Yet?”

It’s surprising, then, that I found this book so much more bland. “All in a Day” is missing the sort of throughline that gave the woodcuts in “Summer” so much purpose and focus, in their seasonal progression.

Not recommended.


Comics

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew

Liew analyzes the historical relevance of Chan Hock Chye’s pulp comics work

An absolute masterpiece. I don’t know of a comparable achievement in prose or film that uses such a wide range of styles and constructed artistic context; it is a document straight out of Borges.

In addition to the virtuosic use of variations in style and form to represent different eras and stages in the life of an artist, the book avoids all false sentimentality about the fate of brilliant artists. A good book might do all this and then bend the odds to give its hero an easy ride, but this book is greater than that, and it’s a decision that seals the core truth of this story as a parallel to the history of modern Singapore. A massive contribution to literature.

Highest recommendation.

Out on the Wire by Jessica Abel

Abel is an indie comics veteran, in the Fantagraphics orbit, and she is an absolute master of the form. This book is a documentary and oral history of podcasting and radio storytelling, but it’s really a deep study of what makes effective human communication. Abel uses the comics medium to transcendent effect, jumping around among conversations and scenarios as the point demands. It’s fascinating work, and I find myself thinking back to her points frequently. Anyone interested in writing, teaching, marketing or leadership should read it.

Highest recommendation.

Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Musick

Does a wonderful job of digesting Richard Feynman’s life in all its facets: his work, his voice, his life philosophies, his irreverence, his lecherousness.

The biggest task of any introduction to Feynman should be to illustrate to the reader the way that Feynman’s supreme belief in curiosity and truth subverts the unimaginative regimes that hold power in science, government, and academia; Feynman’s hero is the irreverent student in the back of the room who refuses to say he understands a murky point if he really doesn’t. This book succeeds thoroughly in communicating those core values, despite a bit of clunkiness in the storytelling.

On top of that, it’s a strong argument for comics as a nonfiction medium. Someone who doubts she’ll ever read a 300-page prose biography on Feynman can give this book 2 hours and come away with a clear vision of who he was and why his voice matters.

Highly recommended.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Book One, by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird

Call me a Battletoad one more #(*&@! time, I dare you

Still fresh and delightful after more than 30 years. Many readers would be shocked to see how gritty and violent the original comics are; the setting is full 1980s urban decay, and death and cynicism are everywhere. The influence of Frank Miller’s Batman and Daredevil comics is clear. It’s easy to believe an empire emerged from this, and it’s surprising it’s not more widely read.

Highly recommended.

X’ed Out Trilogy by Charles Burns

I reread the first two volumes (X’ed and The Hive) and read Sugar Skull, the conclusion. As always, I’m dazzled by how far Burns can go into bizarre imagery and hallucination while still staying on this side of nonsense. I found the conclusion a little disappointing, but what an unforgettable ride!

Any of these volumes can be read alone and enjoyed.

Highly recommended.

Alias by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos

The source material for the Netflix show Jessica Jones. Better than I remembered; dark, impressionistic, and intelligent. I get tired of some of Bendis’s tropes, like repetition of panels, but they work well for this story, because they reflect the monotonous stasis that pervades Jessica’s life.

And Bendis does something really brilliant with the premise here, something the show failed to explore. Bendis observes that superhero comics occupy a strange and self-contradictory place on the spectrum of literary realism; from a formalistic standpoint, Alias is about playing with that spectrum and poking at it with a stick, something only Alan Moore has done so well.

Highly recommended.

Ghosts, Drama, Smile, and Sisters by Raina Telgemeier; The Babysitters’ Club graphic novels: “The Truth about Stacey” and “Claudia and Mean Janine” by Ann M. Martin and Raina Telgemeier

These books do not seem artistically ambitious at first glance. But as with Elena Ferrante’s novels, there is sublime art in her scenes and observations, one that emerges as much from what she leaves out as from the ground she covers on the page.

Every light and simple pen stroke has the craft of a master behind it, and her plotting and composition give the comics room to breathe without hampering them with heavy handed devices.

The surprisingly good Babysitters’ Club adaptations are a perfect example of her expertise. The source series which I loved as a kid, was a mixed bag, but where the prose books’ scenes feel stiff and clunky, the comic is filled with nuance and life. The illustrations do a perfect job of providing depth to the characters by sophisticated use of line and layout. And the dialogue and story adaptations succeed well in placing the story in a contemporary technological and cultural environment, small touches that fine-tune the reader’s attention..

Highly recommended; Ghosts is my favorite, but everything she does is excellent.

Zita the Spacegirl trilogy by Ben Hatke

A ton of fun, with a heroine who feels inadequate and fearful but who pushes through and never gives up. The stakes never seem high because the world in the books is arbitrary and has no real rules. But Hatke’s wry tone and inventive imagination make the light, episodic stories a delight.

Highly recommended.

Black Jack vol. 1 by Osamu Tezuka

One of the most popular creations by one of the grandmasters of Manga, this series follows an enigmatic genius surgeon who affects a public image as a mercenary, but who is secretly good at heart. It is episodic in the manner of great Manga like Lone Wolf and Cub, where there are essentially no recurring characters besides the protagonist. Some of the visual comics language is foreign to me, and the caricatures can seem juvenile, but there is a freshness and brilliance to the stories that is universal. And for a comic published in the 70’s, some of the topics deal impressively with feminism and transsexuality. But the real attraction is a comics master’s holistic composition of line and page.

Highly recommended.

Underwater Welder and Sweet Tooth by Jeff Lemire

Jeff Lemire is one of several superhero comics writers who came to Marvel and DC by way of their work in independent, artsy comics. But where other writers with that path have been writers first and artists second (Brian Bendis, Ed Brubaker), Lemire is a deeply talented artist with a unique style that is loose and slightly expressionistic. It’s not without weaknesses, such the tendency of his faces, especially women’s, to all appear gaunt and haggard in the same way. But it adds an immense amount to his stories, which are well constructed but feel incompletely populated.

Ultimately, I find his scenarios and characters thin, but it’s hard to forget the way his visual worlds thrum with haunted energy.

Recommended.

Multiple Warheads by Brandon Graham

Sort of The Phantom Tollbooth on LSD, but also marijuana, mescaline, cocaine and Spanish Fly. As with all storytelling this over the top, the risk is that the sprawling and unruly world feels incoherent and meaningless rather than unsettling and provocative. Graham definitely fails at this, and never finds a plot that can cut through the noise. Still, the masterful art and copious imagination on each page make this a delightful read. It’s just a shame Graham never gets traction on building enough story to lend the dozens of species, technologies, and subcultures any stakes that would draw me further into his world.

Recommended.

Amazing Spider-Man: Coming Home by J. Michael Straczynski and John Romita Jr.

Solid Spider-Man story, with one of my favorite comics artists.

Recommended.

Princess Knight and Good-Bye by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Tatsumi is an idiosyncratic comics writer and artist whose work in the 60’s and 70’s evolved from genre serials to what we would now call indie comics. His journey as a comics innovator paralleled writer/artists like Will Eisner in the US.

The short stories in the collection published as Good Bye are intensely personal, sexual, and political. I don’t know much more than stereotypes about Japan, but with that said, these stories seem to me to be very Japanese in their obsessive fixation with shame, disgrace and anomie.

There is incredible art to their intermingling of realism and expressionism, which is a hallmark of Japanese comics. But I was disappointed with how many characters were one-note.

In one story, remarkable for anywhere on earth in 1970, an introverted boy in his bedroom regularly dresses as a girl and puts on makeup. Tatsumi makes her look truly beautiful. I only wish there were more nuanced characters like the athletic schoolmate who feels an unexpected desire to protect her, and who discovers her secret.

Princess Knight is much lighter fare, of a spirit with Carl Barks’s work for Disney around the same time. It hasn’t aged as well as Barks’s work and doesn’t feel as fresh after 60 years, but it’s still full of little brilliant Tatsumi touches, and his superb line that can turn physical humor into something sublime.

Not recommended.

Amulet by Kazu Kabuishi

Everyone think’s I’m crazy for not liking this. I just couldn’t get into it; it felt derivative and arbitrary. It reminded me to prize the depth of imagination and creative world-building in the work of Studio Ghibli and Zita the Spacegirl.

Not recommended.

Batman: Hush by Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee

I’ve had very little luck for the past decade finding superhero comics that I enjoy the way I once enjoyed the work of Barry Windsor-Smith, Todd McFarlane, Dave Micheline, Frank Miller, Ann Nocenti, Jim Shooter, Joe Quesada, Chris Claremont, Tom deFalco, John Byrne, Erik Larsen, and Mark Waid.

Batman: Hush is often recommended as a quality Batman tale from recent years. Man, does it disappoint. There’s a bit of good writing in there about childhood trauma, but I find its march through a dozen major characters in the Batman world does nothing to illuminate any of them. The plot hinges on the shakiest series of conceits imaginable, and they aren’t even exploited well once they’ve been established. Good comics writing asks, in the manner of Pixar’s writing, “what would be all of the fascinating, surprising unexpected consequences of this power or that alliance or that secret?” Jeph Loeb here does the exact opposite.

Meanwhile, Jim Lee’s art is the embodiment of the warning that technical achievement isn’t everything. There is no soul in his figures; their sensuality isn’t real, their power isn’t palpable, their peril isn’t alarming, their suffering isn’t inhumane. I do not ever wish I could reach out and touch them, or fear what it would feel like to be there with them, because their flesh and their world are not alive.

Not recommended.

Ms. Marvel, Book One: No Normal, by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

Calls back to the sense of freshness and possibility that early Marvel comics evoked. The relationship the heroine has to her family, to Islam, and to her overlapping identities is given wonderful complexity.

That said, the writing seems unfocused. Every important point of interest — her powers, their origin, her problems — is treated as somewhat interchangeable and general. The tone varies awkwardly between bubbly and sober; not that you can’t do both together well, as the original Spider-Man did, but here they feel false. And the slight expressionism of the art, where a chubby bystander’s head might be drawn several times larger than normal, is a poor choice for a book where the main character shapeshifts in the same slightly expressionistic ways (but this time it’s supposed to be real and notable).

Not recommended.

Batman/Grendel by Matt Wagner

Matt Wagner’s mouths are best hidden behind masks or in shadows

Grendel makes such a natural villain for Batman that it’s delightful to see them match wits. Wagner also brings in two civilians, both women, as central characters, a gives them as much page time as Batman and Grendel; the layouts he uses to tell all four of their stories at once are lovely. But the story goes nowhere, and man, can he not draw mouths!

I’m again struck by the literary weakness that is normal in comics. This is ostensibly an erudite and sophisticated piece of work. But while there is some development of character and tone in the setup, the bulk of the book doesn’t take it any further, and even undermines what little has been built up.

Not recommended.