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Authors do a lot of reading for their profession, and often are the best ambassadors for books of all stripes. In this world of fragmented media, book recommendations via word of mouth from authors are worth their weight in gold.
Here are their answers:
The last book I read that converted me to an advocate for the author and all his works was Raising Stony Mayhall by Daryl Gregory. Despite being a “zombie” novel, this book is by turns touching, hilarious, thoughtful, exciting, philosophical, silly. All of it borders on genius. Set in an alternate reality where the occurrences in Night Of The Living Dead were real and that film was actually a documentary, we trace the growth of a foundling baby who, it turns out, is a zombie, but unlike any undead came before. His story takes us through his childhood and adolescence with a sensitive yet deft hand, toward adulthood and rebellion and finally a kind of martyrdom. Truly an amazing and wonderful book. It takes all the conventions of the zombie genre and turns them on their head, breaks them down and shuffles them about, allowing us to see the subject matter and tropes of the genre in a whole new way.
Like he did with demonic possession before in Pandemonium, Daryl Gregory has crafted in Raising Stony Mayhall a novel that transcends genre and approaches universal themes and questions about the human condition with a mastery of storyform that leaves this author breathless and a little – okay, a lot – jealous.
The books I most recently recommended to a friend – “twin” books in the words of author, therefore I always recommend them together – are William H. McNeill’s 1976 nonfiction book Plagues and Peoples and his 1982 book The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000.
As McNeill explains in the Preface to Plagues and Peoples, humans are subject to attack by two types of parasites, micro and macro. Micro-parasites, otherwise known as microbes, bacteria, viruses, germs and other sources of infectious illness, not only make us sick as individuals, but have changed the course of human history, as in the Bubonic Plague in China and Europe, and the introduction of smallpox by Europeans into the New World. After exploring these and other examples of microbes changing our political and military history, McNeill turns in The Pursuit of Power to an examination of macro-parasites. These not only include a hungry lion bringing down an isolated hunter, but, much more importantly, human beings attacking other humans, which in turn range from criminal behavior to nations plundering people and nations in war. The book focuses on the latter, and provides a riveting account of how armies evolved from private funding to government organization, becoming ever more effective and deadly in the process.
And this gets to the nub of the reason I recently recommended McNeill’s two books to a friend – and here we move into my reasoning not necessarily McNeill’s: All but the most extreme libertarians – anarchists, actually – accept that governments have an obligation to protect their citizens from violent enemies, domestic and foreign. In other words, just about everyone agrees that protecting citizens from macro-parasites is a necessary function of government. So why, then, I wonder, do so many people dispute that governments also have an obligation to protect their citizens from micro-parasites, otherwise known as health care? Think about it. Our Constitution says the government ought to “provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States”. Is not a citizen felled by a microbe as much a threat to the general welfare as a citizen felled by a bullet from a criminal or enemy’s gun?
I like books that elicit many different emotions in me. Oh, there are the usual emotions that storytelling gives- wistful pangs at a good love story, heart thudding due to good action, and complete inability to realize that a whole bunch of time has passed. As a writer, I also get a mixture of jealousy and awe when an author perfectly executes something I find difficult in my own storytelling.
I recently finished Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and it did all of those for me. I love circus/carnival stories, so I picked this up as soon as I could. I purposefully didn’t read a lot about it, just knew it was about a circus that comes mysteriously and then leaves as mysteriously. The beginning was a bit slow, in that we learn about the people behind the circus decades before it comes into being, but as soon as you start to care about the characters, it’s a powerful tale. We have two misanthropic magicians who create a contest between one’s daughter and the other one’s (male) student, the intent to raise them to be masters of magic and pit them against each other in a public venue which becomes the circus. We follow the two young magicians, meet their the supporting characters (literally- these people are but unknowing pawns in the contest, despite whatever affection the magicians may feel for them), and finally the amazing circus itself.
This book shines in two major ways: first would be the odd nonlinear storytelling: we’ll get a chapter from the young magicians’ childhood, then the next chapter will take place 20 years in the future with a completely new character, then we’ll be back to the magicians. Of course the reason behind this becomes clear in the climax of the book as the plot threads are neatly tied up. It felt jarring at first, but I blame that on the fact that I was listening to the audiobook and not paying enough attention to the dates announced at the beginning of each chapter. It’s clear if you pay attention.
(Speaking of the audiobook, it’s narrated by the brilliant Jim Dale, who narrated the Harry Potter books (for the American audience). His voice is perfect for this.)
The second way the book entranced me was the description- it was a sensory feast, taking time to describe exotic meals, the chocolate and candied treats offered by the circus, the fashion worn by the upper class circus planners (and the heroine, Celia, and her magical skill at manipulating fabric), and the tattoos worn by the circus contortionist. You can see, smell, taste, feel, and hear everything in this book, and it’s almost painful to stop reading it.
I’d recommend this to anyone who loves description porn, circuses, unexplained magic, powerful women, a good love story, and boys with no destinies.
Your Brain at Work, by David Rock, is a look at the neuroscience of creativity and motivation and how we work. I found it utterly fascinating because of many of the non-intuitive findings that have come out of it (or maybe intuitive to some). I’ve changed a lot of how I structure my daily work as a result of it, and have found some productivity boosts as a result.
My biggest new habit is productive boredom and play time. Giving your mind rest stops and time to be bored in this always-on life gives it time to wander around mindlessly and come back with some pretty new connections. Being reminded to seek quiet and reflection was really important.
But there’s much more! I recommend it to anyone working in a creative field, and have quoted pretty heavily from it in the last year to friends.
The last fiction book I enjoyed a great deal was Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City. I was at sea for two weeks as crew on a boat at the start of summer, so I loaded my iPad up with several books. That’s the one that still sticks out as a highlight from the many titles I got to read in the cockpit.
I also had a lot of time at sea to sit on deck and quietly reflect, as per Your Brain at Work so I came back quite creatively charged and productive!
I picked up this excellent social history at the gift shop in the African Burial Ground NPS in New York City when I was in New York for an outrigger canoe race. The African Burial Ground National Monument is a relatively new addition to the National Parks Service, with a monument over a portion of the actual burial ground in downtown Manhattan and an adjacent visitors’ center with an excellent history and description both of the early history of New York City and the part played in that early period by Africans and African-Americans, as well as of the (re)discovery of the burial ground itself in recent years.
The authors describe In Hope of Liberty as “the story of black northerners, in bondage before the Revolution, as they made the transition from slavery to freedom at the turn of the nineteenth century and as they organized to sustain themselves, built communities, and protested the racial injustice they faced.”
It’s both well written and well integrated; the scholars unfold the stories they want to tell and the points they want to make in a way that is clear and often sobering and always enlightening. Good history is both a pleasure to read and a way of understanding who we are and how we got there, and this book has illuminated elements of American history that I did not know enough about. Highly recommended.
I’m currently reading The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, and I would recommend it with reservations to the right fried. I’m enjoying what amounts to a wide-scale thought experiment posed to a range of academic experts: What would happen if humans simply vanished? How would farmland change, buildings, bridges, nuclear power plants? Sometimes the prose is a little clunky as it’s clear the author doesn’t quite understand what he is parroting back to the reader, or when he is more impassioned about one subject over another.
But the pure speculation of it all and the amalgamation of different takes from different experts who, for cone, can simply play with this idea without political or professional consequences, frees up the resulting information from an agenda via the practitioner – oh so common under ordinary circumstances when a journalist approaches an academic. I appreciate that and it makes for a thought provoking read, not just what he says, but how he went about saying it.
Currently I’m formulating some ideas about a character who writes Victorian science fiction, so the last book I read is one I’ve read before and totally love: The Huge Hunter, or The Steam Man of the Prairies by Edward Sylvester Ellis. It is one of the first examples of the boy inventor genre, a genre that John Clute (well after the fact) called the “Edisonade,” although the main character of The Huge Hunter is actually not a boy — he’s a little person. This book was the model for the Frank Reade series, and the first Frank Reade novel (1876) is a direct ripoff of Ellis’s book; a long series followed that featured the son, Frank Reade, Jr.. As you can probably guess, a guy named Edward Stratemeyer, the architect of children’s formula fiction in the US, ripped off the idea in 1910 with a character named Tom Swift. Mr. Swift starred in numerous novels through the early ’30s, and then had a son who did the same in the early Atomic Age. I would recommend The Huge Hunter not just because it’s free at Project Gutenberg, but because it’s a mind-bending read if you’re a steampunk fan or love pulp-fiction history (and can tolerate some pretty awkward language). If you don’t, or can’t, then I’d go back to the book I read before that — After Dark, My Sweet by one of my favorite writers of all time, crime-noir great Jim Thompson, or the one before that, Matthew Brzezinski’s drop-dead amazing Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age.
Right now I’m recommending David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years to pretty much everyone I come in contact with.* It’s a monumental work of anthropology/history/economics/philosophy/political theory. I will not try to summarize it here (I only finished it a couple of days ago) except to say that it uses the concept of debt to organize a series of arguments about the development of the state, markets, capitalism, the slave trade, law, banking, religion and morality, from ancient “human economies” to our current state of economic gotterdammerung.
Graeber’s style is so light, conversational and unpretentious that you hardly notice until you get to the end what an insanely ambitious undertaking it is — a genuinely original and all-encompassing theory of human history, the kind of thing that you don’t think people write any more. Also full of interesting details, like the 7th c Irish law code that specifies damages for being stung by your neighbour’s bees (you must deduct the cost of the dead bee) or the Tiv horror of flesh-debts or what Moctezuma might have been thinking when he let Cortes cheat at totoloque. Readers/writers of fantasy should get a lot out of it – it does a lot to dismantle our notions about how other societies “must” work (i.e. more or less exactly like what we’re familiar with) and to help imagine different ways of organizing human societies and cultures. (Nobody should try to write about pre-modern economic life or village trade without reading this). SF readers/writers trying to imagine what the near future’s going to be like will be interested in his analysis of how we got where we are and what might remain if and when “the giant debt machine [of] the last five centuries” finally and irreparably breaks down.
* You may also have heard of Graeber as one of the many organizers and leading voices of the Occupy Wall Street movement.