The story of my mom going to march at Selma in 1965.

My mother, Ann Byrne, took part in the second march from Selma, Alabama, in 1965. The first march took place on March 7, 1965 and was supposed to go to Montgomery. It gained the nickname “Bloody Sunday” after its 600 marchers were attacked at the Edmund Pettus Bridge leaving Selma; state troopers and county posse attacked the unarmed marchers with billy clubs and tear gas.

On March 8, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference asked for a court order prohibiting the police from interfering with another march. Instead, Federal District Court Judge Frank Johnson issued a restraining order, prohibiting the march from taking place until he could hold additional hearings later in the week. The SCLC leadership decided to do another march on March 9 but to do one which wouldn’t violate the court order.

On March 9, “Turnaround Tuesday,” Dr. King led about 2,500 people to the Edmund Pettus Bridge and held a short prayer session. State troopers, police, and marchers confronted each other, but when the troopers stepped aside to let them pass, King led the marchers back to the church they started from. That night, a white group beat and murdered civil rights activist James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston, who had come to Selma to march in the second march, which had been joined by many other clergy and sympathizers from across the country.

Following that march President Lyndon Johnson, whose administration had been working on a voting rights law, held a televised joint session of Congress on March 15 to ask for the bill’s introduction and passage.

The third march started on March 21. With Gov. Wallace refusing to protect the marchers, President Johnson committed to do so, sending 2,000 soldiers of the U.S. Army, 1,900 members of the Alabama National Guard under Federal command, and many FBI agents and Federal Marshals. The marchers averaged 10 miles a day along U.S. Route 80, known in Alabama as “Jefferson Davis Highway.” About 25,000 marchers arrived in Montgomery on March 24 and at the Alabama State Capitol on March 25.


Con: What made you want to go to Selma?

Ann: That is easy. My children’s dentist called me up one night. He was a man who had a lot of friends including Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and had us for dinner parties.

He called me up and said “What are we going to do, what are we going to do?” I said, “Dr. Shapiro what are you talking about? What do I know?” He said, “You did not see? You did not hear?” And he described the events of the day before. At the bridge, the beatings on the bridge, the dogs, the tear gas and whatever. I said, “I do not know, what are you going to do?” He said, “I do not know, I do not know…” And then I do not remember how that conversation ended but it ended. Then I went to work and I called and talked to Connie [Fay] and Hannah [McLaren] and a third woman, whose name escapes me. And they were making plans to go down and help out with the kitchen because there would always be a kitchen and they would always need help. And that moved me and I came home and I said to Nick, “I want to go to Selma, I want to go see this.” And he said well and then he called his editor and worked it out with his editor since I would presumably not be gone for very long, couple of weeks. And he called Mike Royko and then the next day I went. And I knew enough to be afraid.

Con: You and Mike drove down?

Ann: Mike? No, Mike and I took the train down. In a wonderful old fashioned Pullman Carnot one of the ones with the beds because we spent the night in the bar where Mike almost took some guy out who was too drunk and was pestering a woman. I found the whole experience pretty … “Wow, I am out in the big world!” Because for years I had been staying home, taking care of the kids.

Con: Where did the train go to?

Ann: The train went to Atlanta… Atlanta?

Con: No.

Ann: I flew home out of Atlanta. Where did the train go to? Maybe Birmingham. Very likely. But from Birmingham I had to get to Selma and Mike said we are not to be seen together. The further south we go, the less we are to be seen together.

Con: Why is that?

Ann: Because he was journalist.

Con: That was dangerous?

Ann: That was not a good thing. Because I was not a journalist, I was just a nosey, nosey Northerner. So anyway at some point we had to split and we split. I do not remember how I got to Selma itself, but all I know is, may be on a bus. In the little tiny dinky bus station, I had the phone number of St. Joseph’s. I must call them. So I called St. Joseph’s. I was really unaware of what I was doing and what complications I was needlessly bringing to other people’s lives. That was what I was unaware of. I called and I said, “Hi my name is Ann von Hoffman and I am here at the bus station could I have a lift?”

“Stay right there,” said the voice at the other end. “We will get there as fast we can.”

So I sort of looked around. You know nobody seem to be looking at me very much so you know and also during that period I was wearing my hair long by the way so I must have looked a little wacky. Anyway, do I have a suitcase, I do not know, probably that would have been a dead giveaway you know, the suitcase. Somebody came and got me and drove me off. I was utterly, unexpected. I soon began to lose my sense of guilt for imposing on them because it was clear that there were a lot of unexpected guests coming in and they were all headed towards St. Joseph’s, which served as a reloading station. For three years afterwards I sent money to that little church since they were so good to us.

I was put in the public housing somebody, some woman volunteered you know. There were two young priests in there with me. One of the things I remember is they were snickering to each other and when we had all gotten more comfortable with each other, they were snickering and I said “What are you snickering about?” and they said, “Oh, well father so and so, you know, he is very young…”

They were very young themselves.

They said, “He is very young and he is lodged with some woman down there and he said, he could hardly get any sleep because the doorbell was ringing all night.

Con: Because of company or because she was a prostitute?

Ann: She was a prostitute.

Ann: My memories don’t have a lot to do with the hot, bad summer because I was inside that housing project almost all the time. At night you could go to the edge and this was very romantic, the edge of the housing project, and the youth – particularly the SNCC[i] youth were down there leading singing. I was a happy camper. I wrote down and this I will kill myself someday for this, I have lost, long lost the lyrics I wrote down. Then they were making them up as they went along and I was scribbling like mad. At least I knew it was worth saving, even I did not get to save it. We would sing, the evening would go on. There would be certain amount of little bits of taunting.

Con: When you said there would be some taunting, would people come down and taunt you or …

Ann: No, we were taunting.

Con: Oh, you were taunting the cops.

Ann: It was not me anyway. It was the kids.

There was a little boy and your father put this in the newspaper article he wrote after he interviewed me. A little boy, he looked at me and said, “Hi, what is your name? Can I touch your hair?” And I said, “Sure, can I touch yours?” So he touched my long, long, long, long red hair. And I touched his fuzzy, fuzzy short sharp black hair. And I remember that with some embarrassment because I thought maybe I should not. But I was still embarrassed you know. Was that a wrong thing to do?

Anyway, so and then the other thing is some…, at some point during the day, a group of, a group went marching around. And the marching itself chanting, got the adrenaline movement you know.

Con: Marching around the project or…?

Ann: Inside. And they got closer and closer to, to deciding to break through and then somebody calmed us down. Somebody caught up with us and smoothed us down. So, and then we marched to the church.

Then there was the march to Selma. By this time, I had met a couple of really interesting people. One was a man from Birmingham, a young white man from Birmingham. I was impressed. He had brought a book of poems with him. Tells you several things. And he and I were marching with an African-American woman, from the projects. Everybody was holding hands and we were marching abreast. Because I know there were three of us. But, my God that was a weird thing to do.

Con: What was weird?

Ann: It just felt weird while you were doing it. It felt weird partially because we were at the back of the line and did not quite know where we were going. We were being led by the official, top people, you know, the big senior types like Martin and John Lewis. Those people, every so often one of us would say, [whispering voice], “There are the biggies.”  No doubt they were leading us but also and no doubt arrangements have been made with the cops to keep the path the clear so we can march to the Selma City Hall. But we don’t know this, and I didn’t know it and they did not need to tell us.

Con: Right, you were just, you were there to …

Ann: Just as cannon fodder. So we marched very nervously, speaking for my own self. And speaking for them: Because their palms were twice as sweaty as mine. And after a while we were ordered off. And we turned our way back. And then that seemed to have been very nearly the end of that, particular protest. The march to Montgomery was being planned and I knew that I did not have the freedom to do that because I had to go back home because I only had this time off.

The other thing I remember is what everybody who has been in there part of the Selma already knows but to me it was news. The houses of the poor are one story and had wooden plank porch, not a very big porch. Sometimes you have, sort of wooden canopy but mostly not. People sitting on, rocking. That is what I remember. Then I came home and Nicholas interviewed me and wrote a newspaper story which the Sun-Times published.

Con: That is a good story.

Ann: It is an honest one.



[i] Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

Mom’s Last Gift: Donating Her Body to Science

Instead of being buried or cremated my mother donated her body to science, which in this case meant Brown University Alpert School of Medicine. Last night we went to a ceremony there in which the first year students — who have been working on the bodies all year — thank the family and friends of the donors for this gift.

It was a very moving ceremony and not just for the families and friends. At one point they read off the donors’ names one by one and with each one a student placed a flower in a vase that went from empty to overflowing. (See picture)

Afterwards there was a reception where med students came and talked to the families. This was really the most moving and unexpected part of the evening. It became clear that these aren’t just cadavers for the students. They are very much people who the students learn about as they examine the bodies. One woman told us her donor was a construction worker and she could see how the strength he got doing that was still evident even in his 90 year old body.

While the students don’t know much about the person they work on beyond a first name and maybe a few other details they knew a lot about them. They used the words “humbled” and “in awe” frequently when describing the bodies. One student even said he sometimes would just hold the person’s hand which made me hope he worked on my mother.

Mom would be so happy to see how much people were still learning from her. We told the students about mom and especially her famous last words, “Holy Shit!” and gave them the pins with those words which we had made up for her memorial service. They loved them  and I watched them showing the pins to other students who were also clearly delighted. Talking to the students it became clear Brown’s med school clearly has an emphasis on public service which I found touching and knew mom would love (perhaps it’s why she donated her body there). This ceremony was a great public service to me and my family.


Mr. Mencken explains Mr. Trump

Mencken“When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost… All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” — H.L. Mencken, Baltimore Sun, July 26 1920

2/6/15: The last time I spoke to my mother


Ann C. Byrne, 1927-2015

The last time I spoke to my mother she was cranky, which I took to be a good sign. One thing I learned in our 52 years together was an irritated mom was a happy, healthy mom. The cause of her irritation? The hospital had served her a no-salt breakfast. “I don’t have heart disease, I have cancer,” she said with a delighted exasperation. She had me tell her friends to smuggle some salt in to the hospital. Many volunteered but before they could act a nurse took care of it, no doubt flouting some hospital protocol.

However, that afternoon, just as mom was about to be moved from the ICU to a regular hospital room, her condition suddenly got worse. Her blood oxygen levels plummeted. I was mom’s healthcare proxy and around 5:30 I got a call from her doctor, telling me the end was near and wanting to confirm her “do not resuscitate” order. I called Anna Highsmith and was crying so hard I was barely able to ask her to put out the word to people. She did just that and in the hour or so it took my wife, son and I to drive down from Boston the Tribe of Ann had begun to gather.

The ICU has a “family only” policy for visitors and we adhered to it strictly despite many of the people there not being legally related to her. In the course of the next 18 or so hours the room contained two sons, three daughters-in-law, a grandson, a nephew, a son and a couple of daughters she never quite got around to adopting. There were many friends who had known her for forty plus years and remember it only takes seven years to qualify for a common law marriage so certainly these people were at the very least common-law cousins. There were also parents of the many children who she had been a de facto grandmother to. (Not that mom would ever put up with the word grandmother. She declared herself to be Meme and to all those kids, many now adults, that’s what she was.) There was her personal, in-house blues musician and, of course, far too many potters to count. And there was one Bruce. A Bruce is a unique family member, a combination aid, confidante, organizer and person who goes to with you to scary doctor’s appointments and helps you understand about them afterwards.

When I got to the hospital mom’s eyes were half-open but she wasn’t seeing anything. Her breathing was shallow. At first when I held her hand and talked to her she would respond by slightly curling her fingers around mine but after a while that stopped too. People can hear long after they stop being responsive in other ways, Deb Bruce and someone in a set of medical scrubs both told us. So we all did what usually did around mom: We talked. We talked to her one at a time, we told stories to each other. Except for all the crying and mom not interrupting us with her own stories it was almost another evening around the dining room table on Ivy Street or in Chicago. Sometimes there would be a lull and Martin or my son Greg would play guitar and sing for mom backed by an all-key chorus of whoever remembered the lyrics.

At 1.20 my brother Alex leaned over and whispered something in mom’s ear. A few minutes passed and then suddenly mom opened her eyes, sat up, looked around at all of us and said, “Holy shit!” There was a stunned moment and then Marie and Jennifer rushed to hold mom’s hands and comfort her. A pair of medical types hurried in and gave her some more sedative and mom relaxed back into the bed. Then laughter started to pop up around the room as we all realized these were the perfect last words for mom and a last gift for all of us.

A story to go out on, as she would say.

The Oregon Standoff: How and How Not to End a Siege

The FBI has issued an ultimatum to Owl Qaeda, the people occupying an Oregon bird sanctuary, saying it is time to go. This means the Feds are now besieging the sanctuary. Sieges are not the government’s strongpoint, to put it mildly. They have screwed up at Waco, Ruby Ridge, Rainbow Farm and the MOVE headquarters in Philadelphia.

Although little used in the past century, sieges have been used in warfare for several millennia. As a result the tactics of ending a siege have been studied at length and can be understoon by anyone with even a slight understanding of the uses of force.

Sieges end as a result of three things:

  1. Outwaiting your opponent: For the besiegers that means sitting there until the food and water of the besieged have run out and they surrender. For the besieged it means waiting until a large outside force arrives and chases the besiegers away.
  2. Negotiation: Convincing the other side that there is no way they can defeat you and that it is in their best interest to surrender and/or leave.
  3. Force of arms: Attacking into or out of a besieged place invariably ends in loss of life, usually in significant numbers.

These tactics can be combined in a number of ways: Waiting until the besieged are too physically weak and then attacking; attacking and then negotiating with then enemy who is now in a weakened condition.*

Law enforcement authorities seem unable to recognize a siege when they are conducting one and that explains a lot of the terrible outcomes. Oregon is at risk of becoming another example of this.

In an effort to de-escalate the situation they have allowed the bad guys to recieve both reinforcements and supplies right up until the time the ultimatum was issued. While it is unlikely that the large number of sex toys sent to Owl Qaeda will help them, it is all but certain other supplies were recieved as well.

The supplies and re-inforcements likely emboldened the “militia” members, giving them the sense that they have considerable support beyond the confines of the bird sanctuary. To be fair, isolating them might have just made the more desperate and determined to go out in a blaze of glory. I hope it is easier to judge the mental state of people in the bird sanctuary if you are on the scene than it is from 3,000 miles away. Then again the fact that they appear to be entirely delusional may make any such judgement moot. (This is why it is difficult to say what impact the arrest of the percieved leaders will have on what happens next.)

I hope but am not hopeful the situation is resolved without more bloodshed.

*See Henry V, Scene Three, Act 3 for a dramatization of one of the great bluffs in history when Henry demanded the surrender of the town even as he doubted he could continue the attack. 

#And I don’t just mean the 55-gallon barrel of “personal lubricant” send by one of the inventors of Cards Against Humanity.


The Best Books About Donald Trump’s Ascendance Were Written 50 Years Ago

If you want to understand how it is that Donald Trump has managed to rise to political prominence then you need to read three books, two written more than 50 years ago and one in 2005.

jim crowThe first is C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow. In Jim Crow Woodward tells the story of the emergence of the increasingly severe laws enforcing segregation in the South following the end of Reconstruction. (In the North we were more De Facto than De Jure about segregation.) They grew harsher as the economic status of the Whites and Blacks narrowed; the Whites seeking to hold on to privilege even as their economic status worsened. In the US today wages have been at best stagnant for the last 40 years. In the wake of Financial Crisis and the Great Non-Recovery Americans again find their economic status diminishing at the same time that groups of people – Gays, Lesbians, Transgendered, Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, etc. etc. – are demanding and sometimes even receiving equal treatment under the law. White Americans feel their privileged position slipping away and they are lashing out, this time without the legal mechanisms of Jim Crow. This is one of the reasons behind the rise to the Tea Party and other extreme Rightist movements.

paranoidThe second is Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics. It is a collection of essays and the title essay has understandably received a lot of attention in the last eight years. However I think it is the second essay in the collection, The Pseudo Conservative Revolt – 1954, which truly captures what Charlie Pierce calls “the prion disease afflicting the Republican party.” Here is a relevant quote:

The ideology of pseudo-conservatism can be characterized but not defined, because the pseudo-conservative tends to be more than ordinarily incoherent about politics. The lady who, when General Eisenhower’s victory over Senator Taft had finally become official in 1952, stalked out of the Hilton Hotel declaiming “This means eight more years of socialism,” was probably a fairly good representative of pseudo-conservative mentality. … The general who spoke to the [Freedom Congress] demanding “an Air Force capable of wiping out the Russian Air Force and industry in one sweep,” but also “a material reduction in military expenditures”; the people who a few years ago believed simultaneously that we had no business fighting communism in Korea and that the war should immediately be extended to an all-Asia crusade against communism.

A perfect example of this today is the reaction to Operation Jade Helm, a military training exercise that had been held many times prior to this year in various Southern and Western states. This year however a number of citizens came to believe that this was either a precursor to the Federal government taking over or the actual take over. In Texas “a survey of registered Republicans by Public Policy Polling in May 2015, found that 32% thought that “the Government is trying to take over Texas”, and that half of all Tea Party supporters are concerned with an imminent Texas invasion.” The governor of Texas, a human paper weight named Greg Abbott, met with representatives of these people and ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor the operation, declaring, “During the training operation, it is important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed.” This trend of course has reached its apogee and perfect mouthpiece in Trump. However, had Trump not run this insanity would have had no trouble with any other of this year’s crop of GOP contenders for the Presidential nomination.

Perhaps the most astounding thing about Trump’s followers is their devotion to him no matter what he says or does. They so thoroughly identify with him that it does not matter if he says something that is an easily proven lie. (Go here or here for collections of those lies.)

It does not matter that he has offered no policy or course for how he intends to “make America great again.” It does not matter that he has at various times rejected some or all of the Conservative ideas his followers appear to hold. Conservative evangelicals, who used to require candidates be able to answer a lengthy catechism, now do not care that Trump is entirely uninterested in religion. He has made himself immune to the charge of flip-flopping, which used to be able to derail entire campaigns. Indeed his followers appear to assume anything he says comes with a wink-and-a-nudge. They all “know what he really means” so anything he says is in automatic agreement with whatever that particular person believes. His ability to get people to support things that are against their own self-interest is without parallel in American history.

How is this possible? Consider this:

“The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides…is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. … The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.”

bullshitThat is from Harry G. Frankfurter’s remarkable book On Bullshit, a philisophical examination of why facts are of less and less importance in public discourse. (Don’t let the phrase “philisophical examination” scare you, it is both readable and short.)

Trump’s campaign only makes sense once you apply Frankfurt’s theory of bullshit: It was never supposed to have any connection to reality. It exists soley to aggrandize Trump himself and nothing else.

There is quite a bit of the sociopath about Trump. Publicly he shows little empathy and absolutely no remorse for anything. People appear to be of interest to him only to the extent that they can get him something. He shows no loyalty — if you once were useful but now dare to offer even the mildest criticism you are cast off and attacked with the same vengeance used for his bitterest enemies. Should he be elected president he will easily eclipse Woodrow Wilson and Nixon, the current benchmarks for presedential vindictiveness. He will also make Nero and the most recent President Bush look like amateurs when it comes to destroying their own nations.

It’s somehow fitting that the best description of Trump I have found was written 91 years ago by H.L. Mencken in his blistering essay In Memoriam: W.J.B.

“A vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He is ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest. … A poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He is a peasant come home to the dung-pile.”


The Best Books I Read This Year: Fiction.

The one thing all these books have in common is they surprised me. They all told me stories I had never encountered before. Also the Fate of The World is (almost) never at stake. FoTW is hack. It is worse than cliché. If your book requires FoTW to make it interesting or gripping then you are doing something wrong.  PS: If you want plot summaries you’ve come to the wrong place.

europe in autumnNot sure how I came across Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson but I am so glad I did. It is a spy/dystopia novel set in a very near future when Europe has dissolved into many city states and even some neighborhood states. This novel has a strangeness akin to the great Slavic and Semitic writers of the fantastic (Kafka, I.B. Singer, Gogol, Bulgakov) combined with Le Carre or Allen Furst and yet it is firmly grounded in a world I understand. This is a book that I have taken to proselytizing for. It is far, far too good to get lost in the tide of speculative fiction books. A sequel, Europe at Midnight, came out earlier in November but only in the UK so far. I ordered a copy from a UK bookseller and gladly paid the shipping charges. It is every bit as good and strange as its predecessor. (Hutchinson is also great fun to follow on Twitter @HutchinsonDave: “The city of Detroit was renamed in his honour, but no one was told about it.”)

city of stairsLike Europe in Autumn, Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs has a great unexplained strangeness in it. The book successfully combines noir and fantasy, something which many writers have tried to do but very, very few have succeeded. Stairs is nothing I had read before, original and surprising. Unfortunately the just-published sequel, City of Blades, isn’t nearly as good. Stairs indicates and implies things, letting the reader fill in the blanks. Blades doesn’t. Everything is explained which kills the wonderful strangeness. However, Blades seems to be the exception in Bennett’s writing. This year I also read his horror novel American Elsewhere is every bit as good as Stairs and totally different from it. I don’t read much horror but Bennet has got am looking forward to reading his first novel Mr. Shivers.

tigermanMy friend David Durand tipped me to Nick Harkaway earlier this year and I quickly read all three of his published novels because he is an excellent writer. His first two, The Gone-Away World & Angelmaker, are very good. Angelmaker is a truly funny crime book. However neither prepared me for his latest novel, Tigerman, which is superb. It is set on a fictitious island nation in the Arabian Sea, a former British colony, and the time is roughly now. The setting is so vivid it reminds me of Jan Morris’ great novel, Hav, which also made real a fictitious nation. The story itself is reminiscent of Graham Greene’s novels of life in post-imperial circumstances while still being totally original. I think to say more would spoil it. I urge you to read it.

First 15 livesI never thought I would have any interest in a time travel book again. Then I read The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (a pen name of Catherine Webb). This is nothing I have read before. The plot, the ideas and the characters are all smart and unexpected. The only thing that is in any way even slightly similar is Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt which is sui generis among his novels. Even there the similarity is more a distant echo than anything else.  I will read anything Ms. North/Webb writes, up to and including a grocery list.

Guy Gavriel Kay is a renowned and well-known fantasy writer. Prior to this year I had tried to read some of his best known books and couldn’t get into them. Fortunately I didn’t remember that when I picked up Under Heaven and then River of Stars. These two books are fantasy retellings of events from Chinese history. They take place in an ancient-China-like land where magic exists. These books have a depth and richness I didn’t find in his other works. It may be because Kay is able to draw on the all the sources and stories about this period or it may be some other reason, I don’t know or care. I do know that these are wonder filled and wonderful books.

Station ElevenLike The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven does something new with a heavily used standard science fiction idea. In this case it is life in the post-apocalyptic world. She removes the exoticism which is usually the basis for these stories. This makes the world and people in it seem very normal which only heightens the impact of what they are going through. This is a book I would give to someone who says they never S****** F******. It is very literary, in the best sense of the word. (A finalist for this year’s National Book Award in fact.) It is literary enough that I expect it will somehow not get trapped by the idiotic genre designation that seems to prevent otherwise sensible people from reading certain books.

Paolo Bacigalupi is the author of The Windup Girl. If you haven’t read it then go right now and do so. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.  <Jeopardy theme song as a week or so passes> See. I told you so. Anyway, this year he published The Water Knife and it, deservedly, got a lot of attention. It’s set in an America that has fractured as the water has dried up. It’s a fine book and manages to make the legal end of a dispute over water rights fascinating.

Greg Bear, War Dogs: A stranger came to visit and brought many wondrous gifts. And then the stranger left – rapidly because the bad guys (maybe?) have shown up and are approaching earth (we think).

Jeff Vandermeer, Southern Reaches trilogy: Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance. These could be classified as horror but really they are novels of weird dread. It’s very hard to overstate how good they are.

Kathleen Ann Goonan, In War Times: I’m just going to steal this: “Goonan weaves experimental jazz, particle physics, and biochemistry into a compelling adventure through alternate universes.” All that and World War II, too.

Jo Walton, Farthing (Small Change, #1) Walton, author of the great Among Others (read it before you read this. They aren’t related to each other, it’s just that Among Others is a masterpiece), takes on the What-If-The-Nazis-Had-Conquered-England story and wins. She does this by doing what great writers do: Focusing on the people, not the plot.

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Sword: Begin with Ancillary Justice, the first novel in this series which won a whole bunch of awards, then read Sword (which won a fair number as well) and then do what I’m about to do and read the third volume Ancillary Mercy. Leckie has taken a key idea from the late Iain M. Bank’s Culture series, the existence of giant minds/consciousness which run starships, and made it smaller. She makes them human and subject to the same baffling emotions the rest of us go through.

Ben H. Winters, The Last Policeman trilogy: The world is about to be destroyed by a comet and everyone already knows it. So why is this cop investigating a murder?

James S.A. Corey: Cibola Burn: This series is the best Space Opera being written today: Big, fun, action, action, action, and with enough emotional depth that you don’t have to think of it as a guilty pleasure.

Charles Stross, Rule 34: There’s something in the air or water or something in Scotland – Great SF writers seem to be everywhere: Iain Banks, Ken MacLeod and Charlie Stross to name just a few. Rule 34 is a police procedural set in a near future. The protagonist is head of the Innovative Crimes Investigation Unit, otherwise known as the Rule 34 Squad, which monitors the internet for potential criminal activity, analyzing trends in the extreme fringes of explicit content. You can also pretty much read anything by Stross and at its worst it will be interesting and smart.

Ken MacLeod, The Execution Channel: Another near future story, this one is about espionage. It’s filled with all the things you want from a good spy novel: Betrayal, emotional and political confusion and great atmosphere. The Execution Channel – where various groups broadcast the executions of captives – plays a small role in the plot but is a constant darkness throughout the book. This was written in 2007 and nails a significant part of the world in 2015. I also recommend his novel The Sky Road which is a wonderful, over-the-top, trippy, comic railroad story.

Carol Emshwiller, The Secret City: Emshwiller is a far-too-little known writer. I think this is because she mostly writes short stories which don’t get the same attention as novels and because her books have all been published by small companies. She has won about every award that can be won and should have been designated a national treasure long ago. Secret City is one of her novels. It is about “a mysterious enclave protecting a lost culture, a hidden city in the wilderness where stranded aliens struggle to preserve their fragile society. Hoping for a better life, many have fled the Secret City in favor of trying to survive in the harsh human world; others remain concealed, living out a fading memory in hope of deliverance.”

Graphic Novels:

Unbeatable SGFrank M. Young, The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song The real lives and times of the people who along with Jimmy Rodgers invented what today we call country music. Top Notch.

Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Volume 1: This is the best, smartest, funniest comic book I have read since Cerebus. SG is part of the Marvel universe and makes fun of it and every other comic book trope, idea and stereotype. She is a mutant (as in the X-Men and why is a mixed gender group called the X-Men anyway? One of SG’s great questions) with the powers of yes a squirrel. Her confrontation with Galactus, Destroyer of Worlds, had me laughing out loud even after several re-reads.