As in my last year-end book recap, this post will cover books that have enriched me in some profound-yet-vaguely-defined way. Two key differences, though: 1.) I’m reviewing two years’ worth of reading at once, and 2.) I’m including both fiction and nonfiction. In truth, I haven’t read nearly as much fiction as I have in previous years, which is mostly due to my dissertation research. Apart from prose style, I still generally feel that ranking fiction and nonfiction against each other is a bit like comparing apples and teakettles. But there’s no version of an account of the books I’ve read in the last two years which doesn’t reckon with the huge swath of nonfiction that has imprinted its contours on my spirit. So I’m not ranking anything strictly, but the following is more or less in descending order.
I must also admit that there wasn’t much fiction in my life within these last two years that gave me such a high as the first three books on my last list. Much was enjoyable, but little really felt like a revelation. By contrast, there were quite a few nonfiction works whose clarity, force, or style really swelled my sails.
As a bonus, I’m going to recommend complementary pairings for several of these books. In the case of some of them, I think that the dialectic forged between certain authors in my reader brain has been more potent than any text alone. All of these (with exceptions noted) are books that I read in 2016 and 2017, and I’m grateful to have done so.
Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity by Cornel West (1982). A relatively simple contention: we can’t find a workable solution to any political problem in the U.S. without taking to heart the historical experience of African-American Christians. Having grappled with a long chain of promises made and thwarted, black American churches have had to develop spiritual and cultural resources that are necessarily political, and especially well-suited to an era defined by unequal power relations among people, states, and the tectonic flows of global capital. So says West, whose politics are, of course, radical. He’s also a rare visionary stylist who can graft together the patois of continental poststructural philosophy, Marxism, race theory, and American pragmatism and not only make it intelligible, but often lyrical.
Pairs well with: The City on the Hill from Below: The Crisis of Black Prophetic Politics (2011) by Stephen Marshall or The Prophetic Imagination (1978) by Walter Brueggemann. Marshall comes at the African-American political tradition from a historiographical standpoint and affirms the power of black prophetic critique going back to David Walker’s Appeal while also being critical of its patriarchal bias. Brueggemann’s book is justly a classic appeal to Christian theologians and pastors to take much more seriously the Jewish and Christian prophetic traditions as challenges to established hierarchies, especially within the church—and not just for social justice, but for the renewal of commitment to the Gospel.
It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (1935). The first time I read this was in the late summer of 2016, in the parlous moment when half the country wrung its hands over the bizarre rise of Donald Trump while still serenely self-assured that Hillary Clinton would, in the end, triumph over the vulgar authoritarian. The second time I read this was in the fall of 2017, not long after President Trump failed to slam-dunk a generic condemnation of violent Nazis in Charlottesville. Looking back at American history, it seems to me that Lewis’s satire is relevant in pretty much any period, let alone the present. That’s because Lewis observed the simple fact that democratic tradition itself is no inoculation against tyranny. All you need is a large enough number of people who desire tyranny (with its deceptive promises of restorative greatness) and are willing to install it in government. Though I don’t think Donald Trump is a fascist per se, he is an authoritarian, a bully, and a hateful human being, and my fear is that his electoral success presages a future in which authoritarianism becomes an appealing option for voters across the political spectrum. Which means that It Can’t Happen Here will continue to be perennially relevant. Sad!
Pairs well with: The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J. Evans (2003) or The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton (2004). Frankly, these two books pair nicely with each other, too. Once you read the historical particulars of European fascism, it’s amazing how dead-on Lewis was in nailing the structure of their ideology and political life cycles; it’s even more amazing how well Lewis translated fascism into the all-American tropes which are now standard operating procedure at FOX News and its kissing cousins.
Soulless by Gail Carriger (2009). It’s a steampunk adventure! It’s a Harlequin romance! It’s an effortlessly witty British comedy of manners! For all that, it’s essentially Underworld (the Kate Beckinsdale series, not the DeLillo novel) served as afternoon tea. I’ve read the next two books in the series, and I have enjoyed them, but the first book is free of the burden of developing a saga—it’s just a colorful, sexy, immensely entertaining romp. It’s also one of the relatively few novels I’ve read which made me laugh out loud quite a few times, and the central romance is laser-calibrated to fan the flames of shipper hearts everywhere.
Pairs well with: whatever’s in the current news cycle. Because when you’re in the depths of despair, it helps to read a book about a sardonic woman who tames vampires with her umbrella, werewolves with her force of personality, and her appetite not at all—because there’s nothing not to love about a heroine who loves a good meal while she peruses the latest scientific literature.
Fullmetal Alchemist by Arakawa Hiromu (2001-2010). Though I read the first few volumes in 2015, I finished the series in 2016, thanks to our local library’s shockingly well-stocked comics collection. To date, I have seen precisely one episode of FMA: Brotherhood (after having finished the manga), and I rather enjoyed the experience of reading this without feeling compelled to compare it to its anime adaptations. At heart, it’s a variation on Frankenstein, but it’s one that surveys the wreckage of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which rapidly adopted poor Victor’s ideology and embedded them in the global cultural and institutional framework. Arakawa is wise enough both to seek empathy with her villains but also to recognize political evil for what it is.
Pairs well with: Harrow County by Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook (2015-present). I read the first six volumes of this series. I guess it’s considered horror, but it’s much more of a folk tale. This is another story of gods, men, and ghosts and the trouble that brews when powerful people categorically confuse the distinctions between them. Bunn has a storyteller’s sense of evoking resonance with cadence and simplicity, and Crook’s art is almost unbelievably atmospheric.
Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke (1790). The 2002 critical edition I read was edited and very helpfully annotated by J.C.D. Clark. In previous posts here on Catecinem, I wrote a bit about why I can no longer identify as conservative. Actually reading Burke, at long last, was instrumental in that. My suspicion is that Russell Kirk might have understood what he was doing when he elevated Burke into a conservative icon and helped a generation of American conservatives enshrine Reflections as a canonical text for their movement. But those who have imbibed Burke second- or third-hand don’t really grok how historically and culturally contingent Reflections is. Nor would they recognize that conservatism post-Goldwater is basically a kind of fundamentalism—a radicalism that is temperamentally incompatible with Burke’s in this tract. Burke damn well knew, far as I can tell, the difference between taking the historical longview and mythologizing his nation’s past as a model Golden Age for political reform. His very pragmatic point is that sometimes we need to treat the status quo with respect in order to keep fundamentalism at bay. For all his outmoded (even in his day) blindnesses and biases, Burke’s Reflections does not read to me as “conservative” in the narrow ideological sense. It reads, if I were to inadvisedly abstract it into a manifesto (which it is not), as a well-considered warning against revolutionary radicalism. The very idea that shutting down the government, gutting decades-established programs, or blowing up the deficit because free markets will magically solve every program—this is all revolutionary radicalism. And any appeal to the founding fathers, the pre-New Deal status quo, or the genius of Abraham Lincoln as support for such measures is an ahistorical, asinine delusion. If nothing else, what I learned from reading Burke is that people who treat their revolutionary politics as history’s redeeming grace are to be feared.
Pairs well with: Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920 by Jackson Lears (2009) or Marxian Socialism in the United States by Daniel Bell (1967). Lears makes a strong argument that the re-alignment of national identity along corporate capitalist lines in the late nineteenth/early-twentieth centuries was guided by a revamped masculinist ideology that continues to shape America’s sense of self and its role in the world. Though it echoes with Lefty Bush-era exigencies, I think it’s still relevant. Bell’s classic essay argues that socialism failed to take root in the U.S. in large part because it fell victim to quasi-religious sectarianism. Besides being a sterling historical argument (not without persuasive detractors, but still a lodestone), Bell’s prose is lively and laced with sardonic humor. It was, strange as it may seem based on the title, a genuine pleasure to read.
My Monster Secret (Actually, I Am…) by Masuda Eiji (2013-2017). I’ll admit, I have a soft spot for harem comedies. I’m not ignorant of the many problems inherent in a mostly exploitative genre. I think the best harem comedies function as romantic comedies, as opposed to unreconstructed adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasies. Of course, harem comedies really just inherited the problems of the romantic comedy and amplified them, but… I also have a soft spot for romantic comedies. C’est la vie. As someone who has spent large swaths of my life feeling intolerably lonely, I’m inclined to forgive anyone for responding instinctually to a story in which stifling, bumbling awkwardness is the primary obstacle to two people recognizing in each other the love of one’s life. Actually, I Am… gets that, I think, on a primal level. The characters are all given some dimension, the gags and timing are hilarious, and the art is simply stunning. I’ve only read the first seven volumes so far; this series is sweet and endearing and it’s smart enough to laugh at how absurd its unnecessary complications are.
Pairs well with: A sunny, cold afternoon when your highest ambition is to drink hot cocoa and snuggle under a homemade quilt.
Anime: A History by Jonathan Clements (2013). Physically, it appears to be a coffee table book, but it’s a nuanced, accessible, and (as far as I can tell) scrupulously well-researched history of the anime industry. Clements broadens his contextual focus from key artists and titles to account for how economic trends, technological advances, and institutional gambits work as an ecosystem to produce Japanese animation and its aesthetics. In sum, it’s fascinating, concise, authoritative, and written in a lively prose style. My favorite anecdote from the book, by the by, concerns the role that prints of Princess Iron Fan and Fantasia confiscated during WWII played in the development of Japan’s wartime (and thus postwar) animation.
Pairs well with: The History of Science Fiction by Adam Roberts (2006). Roberts argues that we can best understand science fiction as a mode of artistic creation by tracing its contours as a dialectic between Enlightenment rationalism and the premodern religious worldview. I find his case to be very persuasive, although I admit I may be more bowled over by his audacity and encyclopedic knowledge of the literature than I am convinced by a thorough examination of his interpretation of the evidence. It’s a great critical performance, at any rate. One of the major shifts he charts in sf, especially moving into the twentieth century, is that sf became primarily visual in its mode of expression. Clements is often at pains to emphasize that all anime is not giant robots, magical girls, and high school tournament epics. But the explosion of anime in the international video market in the 1980s was very much tied to sf aesthetics. Further, I suspect that scholars could do a lot more to work though the marketing and fan reception of anime in Western countries in conjunction with Roberts’s thesis. Roberts’s thesis, in turn, could benefit from deeper engagement with historians of the impact on sf tropes in the public imagination worldwide.
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962). Easily one of the great alternate history stories, but, like most everything else PKD wrote, its premise doesn’t quite capture how trippy the novel is. A 1960s North America governed by the Japanese empire in the west and the Third Reich in the east might seem like a nightmarish fantasy far removed from the postwar America people knew. In Dick’s view, life under the Japanese isn’t functionally that different from the real world, with its racial hierarchies, authoritarian police, almighty corporate culture, and uneasy Cold War detente with a more aggressive totalitarian superpower. There’s more to it than that, because PKD. Man in the High Castle may be the best novel of his that I’ve read so far, if not his most characteristic.
Pairs well with: Astro City by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, and Alex Ross (1995-present). Though I’ve been reading this series for a long time, there was a long dry spell where I didn’t keep up. In the last few years, I finally devoured volumes six through ten, including the excellent Dark Age arc. As you probably know, Astro City takes place in the titular metropolis where the superpowered heroes, villains, and regular folk are all given roughly equal due, and the series really shines in its vignettes. At first, Astro City came across to me like a more character-driven riff on our favorite superhero icons as well as a love letter to the Golden Age. It is that, but it’s more. The creators have apparently worked out an incredible continuity for their series (no major reboots or crossovers yet!), and it only now occurred to me that they’re not just telling the metastory of superhero comics of the twentieth century. They’re telling the story of America in the guise of an alternate history, and the major movements and tropes of the various comic trends form the periodization. It’s spectacular and stunning and, as the vignettes collage together, it’s breathtaking.
The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in Post-Christian America by Rod Dreher (2017). Yes, this is that book by the American Conservative blogger who thinks Obergefell is the court case that tipped America over the precipice into moral chaos. Unless and until you read it, though, you’ll miss that it’s an essentially utopian jeremiad. The wrack and ruin at the heart of American communities is a symptom of the self-imposed degradation of Church culture, which hollowed Christian identity out from the center of American culture, or so Dreher contends. His critique of the Enlightenment’s legacy and its effect on Christian praxis is not so far flung from the diatribes of the Frankfurt School, save for the fact that he thinks rebuilding the church from the inside out is the most important task for saving the human spirit (as opposed to socialist revolution). This is not a book advocating total separation of Christians from secular culture; it is also not a book attempting to impose draconian rules on who gets to be in a Christian church and who doesn’t. (Surprise: in his own way, Dreher tries to make room for LGBTQ Christians in the BenOp!) It’s a book about the fact that the Church has sold Christian orthodoxy down the river for the comforting illusion of cultural relevance and the power that comes with being capitalism’s handmaiden. Thus the Church has hollowed out its internal resources for resisting the relentless advance of a social hierarchy that values only efficiency, exploitation, and the genuflection of the atomized individual before the almighty dollar. I don’t accept every claim Dreher makes, nor do I subscribe to his brand of small-o orthodoxy (my church ordains LGBTQ+ clergy, soooo…), but I think his diagnosis and his prescription are worth pondering. A challenge he struggles with is how to integrate his Benedict Option into liberal churches. He makes the claim that liberal churches can and should do so, but he never really articulates how that would work. I think that those of us who belong to churches with more progressive tendencies should take up that challenge in good faith, even if it’s only a starting point for constructive dialogue.
Pairs well with: News from Nowhere by William Morris (1890). While it’s a failure as a novel (as many nineteenth-century utopian novels tend to be), and thus a bit of a chore, I found Morris’s retrograde, pastoral utopia to be a welcome challenge to Edward Bellamy’s industrialized corporate vision of command and control. While Dreher tends to reject the label of “utopia” for his own project, I think he and Morris are actually kindred spirits in significant ways. Not least is the fact that Morris insists much more persuasively than Bellamy on the importance and sustainability of community—one that is organized around duty and pleasure, not ease and competition for status. One significant feature that serves as a complement to Dreher’s call for pastoral monasticism is Morris’s focus on crafts and beauty. Dreher knows we need those things, but his book wasn’t the place to address it satisfactorily; Morris shows in a more dramatic fashion how the building of community and the production of culture in a localist framework might actually work.
My Hero Academia by Hirokoshi Kohei (2014-present). About as winsome and exciting as high school manga get, this series is also a wonderful homage to superhero stories and why they matter. The art is jaw-dropping, and the character designs are distinctive and quirky. (Pun intended.) I’ve read the first ten volumes, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. If you like superhero comics and you’re not reading this, get thee to a biblioteca!
Pairs well with: Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson, Sana Amanat, Adrian Alphona, Takeshi Miyazawa, et al. (2014-present). Wilson is crackerjack at dialogue and characterization. Takeshi Miyazawa, artist of the last couple volumes I read, draws dynamic panels with evocative facial expressions. But Adrian Alphona’s art in the first couple arcs is truly amazing. Besides being dynamic and expressive, Alphona also squirreled away tons and tons of details that made studying each panel a real delight. The quirkiness of his art paired well with Wilson’s writing, and I don’t think the series ever quite matched that high afterward. Ms. Marvel’s rogue’s gallery doesn’t have as many villains of archnemesis quality in it (yet), but Kamala Khan and her friends are a wonderful cast of characters, and Wilson works hard (sometimes not quite effortlessly) to write a comic written for teens that offers hope untainted by saccharine falsity. As a Christian, I found it refreshing that the main heroine is a person of faith—a Muslim—and that the creators don’t seem to think it’s their sacred duty to lead her to reject her faith or angst about the seeming rigidity of her family’s or community’s religious practices. Her faith is, in fact, instrumental in leading her to want to use her powers to help people. I feel like artists of faith in any media could learn from this example.*
Log Horizon by Touno Mamare (2011-present). I’ve only read the first two volumes of this light novel series, but it’s a captivating pastiche of fantasy adventure, political social novel, and science fiction mystery. In a post-Sword Art Online fanscape, the premise of MMORPG players trapped in their favorite fantasy realm might smell like a clone. It’s not. This is a utopian story through and through, and it is far more about the difficulty of creating and sustaining community. In almost Asimovian fashion, a great deal of the series so far consists of Touno establishing rules for this world, then having his main protagonist work out ways around those rules. Weirdly, the author (real name: Umezu Daisuke) was charged with income tax evasion. Upon discovering that, my only real reaction was a gripping terror that he’d never finish Log Horizon or that the publisher would stop translating it.
Pairs well with: Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber (1970). From the author’s introduction: “This is Book One of the Saga of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, the two greatest swordsmen ever to be in this or any other universe of fact or fiction, more skillful masters of the blade even than Cyrano de Bergerac, Scar Gordon, Conan, John Carter, D’Artagnan, Brandoch Daha, and Anra Devadoris. Two comrades to the death and black comedians for all eternity, lusty, brawling, wine-bibbing, imaginative, romantic, earthy, thievish, sardonic, humorous, forever seeking adventure across the wide world, fated forever to encounter the most deadly of enemies, the most fell of foes, the most delectable of girls, and the most dire of sorcerers and supernatural beasts and other personages.” How could you not want to read this? It’s one of the ur-texts that the RPGs (and later digital versions) drew on to make stories like Log Horizon possible.
When Harlem Was in Vogue by David Levering Lewis (1981). Had I the time, I’d re-read this for Black History Month. Most reputable editors will include representatives of the Harlem Renaissance in American Literature anthologies; hence your familiarity with (even in passing) such writers as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Perhaps you are more familiar with legendary jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington or Fats Waller. Besides being an exciting, nimble account of the dozens of luminaries for whom Harlem became something of a Mecca, Lewis manages a tricky feat: he shows how foundational the ferment of the Renaissance was to the formation of American culture from the mid-twenties onward while never losing sight of the specific people, place, and time of his story. I remain scandalized by how little I knew of the Harlem Renaissance, even with my years of English education, and humbled by how much I have yet to learn. This is simply an outstanding intellectual and cultural history, perhaps more urgently needed now than at the time of its original publication.
Pairs well with: Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 by David M. Kennedy (1999) and Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil by W. E. B. Du Bois (1920). Of Kennedy’s magisterial volume, there’s little to be said: it’s simply a great overview of a period of American history that has attained mythic status. And it’s an incredibly helpful survey of the context of the Harlem Renaissance and its artists. I think he does justice to it without letting myth overtake good history. Du Bois, by contrast, was a mythopoet of the first order, but only part of the time. A scrupulous sociologist and debunker by training, a polemicist and muckraker by profession, and prophet by disposition, Darkwater is one of Du Bois’s counter-myths of pan-African history. Brilliantly composed, Du Bois places black Americans at the forefront of history in a series of essays, poems, and stories that comprise a ferocious and poignant mosaic. For those looking for more on Du Bois’s life and times, Lewis has written an authoritative two-volume biography.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985). The occasion for reading this was my wife’s Engaging Books Challenge, but it’s a book I should’ve read long ago. Far from being an anti-religious screed, it’s a testimony to the ways that oppression and violence are woven into our culture and institutionalized beyond reckoning. If anything, Atwood takes pains to emphasize how cynically the guise of religion is abused by the men and women in power in her futuristic dystopia. Nothing about the world of The Handmaid’s Tale is plausible in the strictest sense of being an extrapolation of how current trends could fall together. That is to say, I don’t think the world of Handmaid’s Tale could exist in the form in which it’s presented. The tensions between the conflicting desires, ideological mystifications, and historical memories could not be sustained in this particular thought variant. Then again, it often strikes me that our current, real-world conflicts of desire, ideological mystifications, and historical memories are mindbendingly unsustainable and implausible. It violates plausibility that the hot mess of American civilization has not flown apart in centrifugal rage—not really—since the 1860s. That’s why I think The Handmaid’s Tale ultimately feels real, even if it doesn’t feel strictly plausible. It doesn’t seem possible that the endless flow of women stepping forth to testify about the horrific systemic abuse they’ve suffered could have gone on so long unchecked. It doesn’t seem possible that people could, even now, ignore and deny the sheer flood of plausible allegations of sexual assault and misconduct, or—in grotesquely comic fashion—tacitly acknowledge the truth of these testimonies and simply keep on keeping on without doing a damn thing about them. When the world as it exists feels unreal, that’s when we most need science-fictional narratives to make sense of it all. Offred’s story isn’t realistic because the world could become Gilead; it’s true because the horrors of Gilead already surround us in all their numbing complexity.
Pairs well with: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003). I confess: I’m cheating a bit. I first read this in 2015 and didn’t include it on that list. In retrospect, the prophetic value of this novel has only been amplified. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, I don’t think it’s the holistic assemblage of specifics that are likely to come to pass. Instead, I think Atwood’s parable accurately captures the essence of a certain amoral emptiness at the heart of how we deal with the problems of power. Oryx and Crake is a North America plagued with industrialized excess, pornography, corporatized inequality, and engineers and technocrats who, thanks to gene-editing technologies, have the power to be like gods. The emergence of a Crake, in whose nihilistic narcissism someone like Snowman finds direction and purpose, well… Does it sound paranoid to say that this is not merely inevitable, but that it’s the current state of the world? How many Crakes do you know? How many Oryxes and Jimmies? How badly have we underestimated the implications of remaking our reality at the genetic level? How badly have we failed to grasp how unready we are—as a society, as a species—to be our own gods? The men in Handmaid’s Tale have a taste of that power, but Gilead is, strictly speaking, only a corner of North America. The Crakers inherit the Earth.☕
- Quick nerdrant: At its most frustrating, Ms. Marvel is a perfect example of why I’ve generally always loathed mainstream superhero comics. Picking up any mainstream superhero title is sort of like randomly starting to watch a long-running soap opera, but worse. I mean, there’s probably forty years of history you don’t know about, with all sorts of characters and setting details that are totally obscure unless you’ve been reading the whole time. So the buy-in is pretty steep to start with, and the publisher just tilts it further. Story arcs are interrupted for major, universe-changing events which are given zero context; characters from other titles are randomly shoehorned in, because oh my lord we absolutely must have Wolverine fanservice in every freaking single Marvel property ever. Without being a total poop about it, I get why Marvel (and the other major publishers) pull these stunts. They help drive sales. Sure. Except readers like me have not time nor money nor interest in reading thirteen other titles just to get the big picture. If it weren’t for the fact that most of the references from Ms. Marvel are echoed in Marvel’s film and TV franchises, I’d have been totally lost. It’s a serious drawback in a title that is otherwise delightful. The idea that Kamala’s story cannot be decoupled from the rest of the Marvel Comics Universe has some appeal; in theory, it gives dimension and weight to living in a particular place and time, with the decisions and actions of mighty powers far away having major impacts on others who don’t have that kind of power. Handled right, that could be poignant and meaningful. The way it’s actually handled feels cheap and random. Rather than feeling connected to the “Marvel Universe,” Ms. Marvel often simply feels chained to the exigencies of Marvel’s marketing division, which is less interested in telling meaningful stories than larding comic book stores with a neverending succession of crossover EVENTS that always ultimately cancel each other out. One thing you can say for soap operas is that at least their stars grow old and die. I sometimes feel like being a Marvel or DC superhero with the self-knowledge of my role in the comics universe would be the greatest existential nightmare: I exist, I have no agency, my creator-gods themselves manipulate me at the discretion of senseless forces beyond even their control, my actions have no meaningful consequences whatsoever, and my torment will never end.