The best books I read this year

I read a lot. This year for the first time I actually kept track of all the books I read. As of today the total is 71. I just started Robert Jackson Bennett’s novel The Company Man (very good, btw) and will certainly finish it by tomorrow. Next up is Store of the Worlds: The Stories of Robert Sheckley and I may get through another before Jan. 1.  (I read fast and I always have. In 8th grade I read Decline and Fall of the Third Reich twice.)

So out of all those books these are the best one’s I read this year in history, fantasy, SF and what is usually called Fiction. Very few of them were published this year if it matters.

I am always on the look out for something to read and I don’t care what the topic is, so if you’ve read anything really good lately please let me know.  I am particularly looking for a good biography of Lord Palmerston and a history of the Hanseatic League in English. Now you know why Mrs. CollateralDamage finds me so difficult to shop for.

History (First Person)

  • The Indian War of 1864 by Eugene F. Ware — This manuscript was discovered after the death of Ware who served as an officer in the war against the Native Americans during the Civil War. It is a superbly well-written account of life on the frontier and life in the frontier army. While he is certainly a racist, he also shows surprising moments of compassion.
  • My Diary North And South by William Howard Russell — It astounds me that this book is out of print. Russell was England’s best and most acclaimed journalist in the middle 19th century. This book is the story of the year or so he spent covering the start of the US Civil War. Russell was soon hated by both the armies and civilians of the North and the South because he was in fact an impartial reporter. The story of his effort to get out of the U.S. and back to England is, by itself, more than enough reason to read this. He was a remarkable writer, too.

History (Narrative)

  • Constantinople by Philip Mansel — A history of the city under Ottoman rule from 1453 to 1922. Until the Young Turks overthrew the Ottomans and began forcing out non-Turkish peoples Constantinople was the most cosmopolitan city on earth. Its many, many different ethnic and religious groups forged a unique collective identity and a truly fascinating city. This was done through bloodshed and eventual acceptance that anyone from the city — no matter what their background — was better than anyone not from the city.
  • A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman –Fascinating look at our Civil War from the outside and where I found out about William Howard Russell.
  • The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia by Peter Hopkirk — Lots of appearances by William Howard Russell and more terrifying and true adventures than I would have believed possible. There are just far, far too many similarities to the U.S. recent invasions of the same areas.

Science Fiction

  • 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami — I really can’t describe this book so I’m just putting in someone else’s summary of the opening:  “A young woman named Aomame follows a taxi driver’s enigmatic suggestion and begins to notice puzzling discrepancies in the world around her. She has entered, she realizes, a parallel existence, which she calls 1Q84 —“Q is for ‘question mark.’ A world that bears a question.” Meanwhile, an aspiring writer named Tengo takes on a suspect ghostwriting project. He becomes so wrapped up with the work and its unusual author that, soon, his previously placid life begins to come unraveled.” That last phrase is quite an understatement.
  • The Dervish House by  Ian McDonald — Had I not read 1Q84 this would have been the best SF I read this year. It is set in Istanbul and I picked it up just after reading Constantinople so I can say with confidence that he gets the city and its history perfectly. I won’t go into the plot except to say it’s very good and very plausible. My favorite element though was one of the main characters, an old man, who with three of his old friends are the last members of a Greek orthodox church still in the city and most of their scenes take place at the cafe where they gather for coffee and talk. I would have given anything to have joined them.
  • Ares Express by Ian McDonald — This is such a wild, fantastical, fun story of life on a strange railroad-based society on another planet that I had to keep checking to see it was the same guy who wrote Dervish House. It is not as good as Dervish House but it is very good.

FANTASY

  • The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss — This is fantasy fiction for grown-ups — the characters, plot and setting are all deep and believable. This is the best new fantasy writer I have read in at least a decade.
  • The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle — Written in 1968 and considered one of the all time classics of the genre, I didn’t get around to reading it until this year. It deserves its reputation. And Mr. Beagle, as my brother Aristo and his wife Stacy can attest with much more knowledge, is a really great guy.
  • The Knight by Gene Wolfe — If Gene Wolfe wrote a grocery list I would pay to read it. In this an American is transported to a fantasy world. Any resemblence to anything else you’ve read with that device ends there. Wolfe is almost totally unknown outside the world of genre fiction and that is a shame. I also reccommend his great collection of short works: The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories … and Other Stories.
  • Red Country by Joe Abercrombie — I am a huge fan of Abercrombie’s work. He and Glenn Cook are the best writers I’ve read telling epic fantasy stories from the view of the grunts on the bottom of the chain of command. Like the battle of Helms Deep narrated by one of the front line orcs. Red Country is my favorite of Abercrombie’s to date because it tells stories that are only epic to the people involved in them, not because the FATE OF THE WORLD is involved. (I hate FATE OF THE WORLD as a plot device. ) The stakes — and the rewards — are small but far from unimportant.

So-Called-Traditional Fiction:

  • Hav by Jan Morris — A travelogue to a fictitious, nearly isolated European nation somewhere between Italy and Greece. Nothing and everything happens in this book. It reminded me of Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars — not in a derivative way — for perfectly documenting a culture and a world that don’t exist. You will want to buy train or boat tickets to go here (there is no airport yet).
  • Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad/A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul — I read them in that order and they bookend colonialism and its impacts. Conrad’s story is a tragedy that is heroic in scope and examines the costs to the colonizers of being the overlords. There are elements that remind me of Melville’s non-Moby writing — the atmosphere/sense of place and also because it has a plot that would have been hackneyed in the hands of a lesser writer. Naipul presents a tragedy on a minute scale. It is the story of the aftermath of colonialism. It is set in Africa and the main character is from a family that moved their during colonialism from another colonized nation. The society has broken down and then found a great new leader and everyone is struggling to figure out what it means to be from this nation. That is a gross simplification but it will have to do.

Interview with a cranky guy talking about Disney, Epcot and American history

TDC Apparently it was a slow news week on the Disney front because Mrs. CollateralDamage had to resort to interviewing me for her podcast, Those Darn Cats. Mostly I talk about how Disney screwed up the telling of American history in the American Adventure Pavilion at Epcot. Don’t tell anyone but I also say a few nice things about the House of Mouse, too.

Click here to listen or you can find it on iTunes under … wait for it … Those Darn Cats.

Biden reaches past historical accuracy for a greater truthiness

Over at Reason, someone unearthed this gem from Joe Biden’s sit down with Katie Couric: “When the stock market crashed, Franklin Roosevelt got on the television and didn’t just talk about the princes of greed. He said, ‘look, here’s what happened.'”

As has been pointed out at the blog:

  • Roosevelt wasn’t president when the market crashed.
  • Television was just an experiment. If FDR had gotten on TV and said this he would have been talking to an audience in the mid- to high-single digits.

On the plus side for the Obama campaign: This is an original idiocy and does not seem to have been plagiarized from anyone else.

The mystery of the disappearing Fugger newsletters

Part of my latest post in The Ministry of Culture:

I have been re-reading George T. Matthews’ selection of archives of the Fugger Newsletters and wondering why they seem to have been so thoroughly overlooked. They are, in style and content, the forerunners of what we find on the Web today: An idiosyncratic description of events around the world that are frequently illuminating whether or not they are factual.

Some of the letters are nearly complete novels in themselves. This one paragraph describing Lisbon following the death of the Portuguese king in battle in 1578 tells an entire epic just from the aftermath of the event.

Otherwise business here continues as though nothing untoward has taken place. The ships that arrived from India are being unloaded, the merchants ply their trade and go to sea; it is the nobility and soldiers alone who have perished. No merchant has suffered thereby since they all stayed behind. The four regents whom the king appointed to rule the kingdom in his absence were ratified in their office by the Cardinal. The Government and Officials deal with the people in so friendly a manner that everyone is astounded thereat. In spite of these terrible tidings no riots have occurred and if a stranger, who had never been here before came to the city, he would swear by all that is holy that no ill-fortune has befallen this kingdom for a hundred years.

There are many references to the Newsletters online – but the texts themselves aren’t available. None of the descriptions on the web give a feel for the vast richness of the archive. The Wikipedia entry on the Fuggers doesn’t even mention the newsletters and they are by far the family’s most significant legacy (note to self – update Wikipedia).

One thing that has really captured my imagination reading them this time is that although the dispatches are presented in chronological order it is highly unlikely that they were received that way. Because of the difficulty of sending these letters (or anything else) The Count and his successors received different parts of stories at different times. So he might hear of a king’s decision to go to war, then of his coronation, then of his successor’s defeat and then of the original king’s death. I think this would be a wonderful way to tell a story.