dendrobiblio’s Top 10 Reads of 2016

10. Stephen King’s the Dark Tower I : IV (1982 : 1997)

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A somewhat difficult one to include, Stephen King’s writing, while always entertaining, is similarly always bothersome. The King-isms build and bug me. The Dark Tower series has been no different so far, with the Drawing of the Three and the Waste Lands, in particular, being hampered by bloated writing and awkward pacing. Wizard and Glass, the fourth of an eight-part series (including #4.5), and the last I read this year, was an absolutely engrossing and addictive fantasy yarn. The horror and post-apocalyptic settings were mostly removed in favor of straight fantasy in an extended flashback story — which was worrisome — but Roland’s tale was so focused and wonderfully-told that it alone puts this series on the list. I hope 2017 lets me finish the the final four books.

09. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006)

09_bechdel_fhAlison Bechdel’s two memoirs, both graphic novels, show a degree of self-criticism and self-awareness few authors can pull off. Both Fun Home, and, later, Are You My Mother?, are mediums for Alison to analyze her fractured relationships with her family. Each and every word obsessively tries to understand why her parents were they way they were, and why she herself came up the way she is. There’s no blame, however, just a desperation to understand her family and herself.

08. Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940)

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A depressing and powerful companion to the work of Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin of the same era, Richard Wright’s Native Son was a bitter, angry, and frustrating novel. The impoverished urban environment, it posits, pushes minorities like Bigger Thomas into crime — as do misguided attempts from parental whites to ‘fix’ their lives. Bigger Thomas’ story is an extreme: The discrimination he faces pushes him to murder his white lover in a freak accident. It also pushes him to increasing extremes, mutilating her body and murdering others to fix his accident. It received a lot of flak from writers like Baldwin, who didn’t like the simplified environmental villain and lack of free will, but they’re still hotly debated today (and neuroscience is even giving more credence towards these ideas).

07. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s the Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future (2014)

07_oreskes_tcowcFollowing up Merchants of Doubt, the team of Oreskes and Conway published this short, fictionalized scientific research article. The Collapse of Western Civilization purports to be a peer-reviewed article from a future science historian analyzing how the West ultimately failed to respond to climate change quickly enough, and why that was. Oreskes herself is a science historian, and is best-known for originating the 97% figure of scientists believing humans are the leading cause of climate change, which she concluded via a meta-analysis of peer-reviewed research. This short novella is a wake-up call — again, and again; and it will probably be a wake-up call every year for the next many years given the political landscape of 2016 and ’17 — to re-assess our devotion to free-market fundamentalism, and the need to stop politicizing science and act.

06. Virginia Woolf’s a Room of One’s Own (1929)

06_woolf_aroooIn the late ’20s, modernist author Virginia Woolf gave a series of lectures on the place of women throughout history, particularly in the arts. Her topics covered the disadvantages women face in being heard. A Room of One’s Own is the essay condensation of these lectures, written in the style she spoke. It’s one of the most influential works of modern feminism — as are Woolf’s terrific novels. One of the more famous hypotheticals of her speeches was the question What if Shakespeare had a sister just as creative and brilliant? The answer is obvious: She would have been denied an education, denied the chance to choose a career, denied the chance to write, much less publish that writing — denied any sort of outlet for her creativity due to the social expectations of women.

05. Jason Aaron’s Scalped (2007 : 2012)

05_aaron_scalpedR.M. Guéra’s art throughout Scalped‘s 60 issues may be rough and ugly, but it fits Jason Aaron’s gruff look at crime and poverty in a South Dakota reservation. The series starts with Dashiell Bad Horse returning to his home, the Prairie Rose Rez, as an undercover agent for the FBI. He’s a hero, briefly, but then he, like most of the narrative’s characters, fall to the traps of poverty, crime, and drug addiction like those around him. Scalped is an epic, depressing look at everyone’s lives on the fictional Rez.

04. Warren Ellis’ Planetary (1998 : 2009)

04_ellis_planetaryEllis spun an epic yarn across 27 issues and 12 years about the world’s ‘Archaeologists of the Impossible.’ Planetary was a superhero series without the style of superhero comics, about the eponymous team uncovering the secret history of the world. Planetary is drenched in complex conspiracies, history, literature, philosophy, metafictional tricks, and a sardonic sense of humor. Reading Planetary reminded me a lot of watching the best moments of Lost for the first time.

03. David Cronenberg’s Consumed (2014)

03_cronenberg_consumedI expected Consumed to be a throwaway novel of gore and technology and obsession, akin to Cronenberg’s film career. (I’ve never been a big fan; always responding to even his ‘best’ movies with a lukewarm interest.) The reviews in 2014 were middling-to-negative, and the novel was quickly forgotten. Consumed, though, was a masterpiece — a Crash for the 21st century, and with far more to say than Ballard ever did. I devoured every word on every page with glee. A famous French philosopher appears to have been murdered and cannibalized, and her husband — also a philosopher of some renown — has vanished. Consumed is about two self-obsessed and technology-obsessed journalists who go after this story in two different directions, eventually meeting in a surprising intersection of world-wide conspiracies involving artistic / philosophical enslavement and North Korean politics. It’s a beautifully-written novel that reminded me of the best of Steve Erickson.

02. Sheldon J. Pacotti’s Gamma (2016)

01_pacotti_gammaA surprise addition that I expect to champion for years to come, Pacotti’s self-published sci-fi tale is one of the freshest looks at a near-future I’ve ever read, as well as the inspiration for my ‘Game Write‘ series. Gamma revels in clever themes, including ethics in science and the growing distrust of experts and immigrants we’re currently seeing in the political landscape. Gamma‘s is a very grey future, where abuse of human subjects and illegal genetics testing actually lead to important breakthroughs. All the bad guys are portrayed with complete sympathy, that it’s difficult to call anyone a villain. See my review here.

01. Russell Hoban’s the Mouse and His Child (1967)

02_hoban_tmahcI’m convinced the Mouse and His Child is the equal to Hoban’s masterpiece, Riddley Walker. This beautiful tale, about a father and son team of wind-up mice, is equal parts entertaining children’s tale, and existential literary fiction. The father and son of the title have no agency whatsoever, and can only move when those around them wind them up. Even then, they’re limited to dancing in circles, forever looking at one another. It’s little wonder, then, that these two go on an epic adventure to gain agency and become self-winding, getting lost in the midst of a shrew war, performance theater, a beaver’s dam (and slimy pond floor) for an immeasurable sense of time. The Mouse and His Child is far more than just a kid’s story, but a classic in every sense.

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