Friday, February 16, 2018

2017: A Year of Reading

Much of my life can be measured in books. One summer, when I was twelve, I read one hundred and ten books over three months - it was a lonely summer, in some ways, but I didn’t notice. I’ve slowed down since then as my books have gotten longer and my life has filled with other joys. Still, I track my reading in part because I can divine truth about my inner life by my reading habits. It’s kind of like a tarot reading for reading.

I read 84 books in 2017. This is a record high as long as I’ve been tracking my yearly reading (obviously not including my prodigious childhood years). This has been a busy year, so I was surprised that I got so much reading done - I beat out 2015 by 1 book, and that year I spent working in a bookstore and living alone in the mountains. But then I got a good look at the format breakdown:



*Note that numbers don’t add up to 84 because I read some books in multiple formats simultaneously, switching between eBook and hardcover or audio and paperback.

Almost ¾ of the books I read were audiobooks! That’s a much larger percentage than I would have guessed, but it makes sense. Three factors drove those numbers way up this year. First, I started off the year with a series of hilarious memoirs by female comedians that were narrated by the authors - Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, Amy Poehler, Carrie Fisher - and that got me into the audiobook habit.

The second two are linked. This year, I made the exciting and terrifying decision to move cities to go to graduate school (I start in September 2018!). The choice to go was a hard one, and both before and for months following the decision I was wracked with anxiety. It was hard to exist alone with my thoughts. Having a book to focus on as I drove, painted, worked out, walked, played Call of Duty became crucial if I wanted to enjoy what I was doing, or at least keep from succumbing to constant anxiety and tears.

You can see below that there are upticks in March, when I was waiting for acceptance letters, and in June, after I made my decision to go. I spent a lot of time during both those periods exploring D.C. on my own, walking through the city and discovering new places on random weekdays off.

Audiobooks have done almost as much for me as therapy.

I try to be conscious about my book choice. I aim for 50% books by female authors and 30% by authors of color. I did better this year about both but have yet to hit that 30%. I also try to read authors that are new to me and to shake it up if I find myself reading the same authors over and over. About half the authors I read this year were authors I'd never read before, and I only had a few 'repeat' authors over the course of the year.

#POC or F
%POC or F
#New to me

Author numbers are hard to track because of anthologies that collect a bunch of authors, so typically if an anthology has any authors that meet any criteria, it gets counted as one entry in that category. So an anthology with 3 authors I’ve read before and 8 I haven’t is 1 ‘author’ in the ‘new’ category.

So how do I keep up this habit? Used book stores, partly, but mainly: libraries!


Library (school)
Own (ebook)
Own (physical)

**Again, numbers don’t add up because of multiple copies.

February is library lovers month and I will take every opportunity to plug my own public library, Montgomery County Public Library, and public libraries in general! Guys, I am learning how to build a robot at my public library - playing around with circuits, programming, and 3D printing for free! My library also has an agreement with the surrounding counties from Maryland, Northern Virginia, and D.C. that residents in one county can have a library card in all the counties, so I have access to some excellent online catalogs. Anything I can’t get there I’ll get through UMD’s interlibrary loan service, delivered straight to my work mailbox. One of my favorite things to do when I’m exploring D.C. on a weekday is to check out a new library. Heck, I’m sitting in my library right now to write this. Everyone should go to the library!

And lastly, one of my favorite things is comparing my ratings to Goodreads to see exactly how much of a curmudgeon I am. I’m notoriously critical of what I read, so it’s unexpected to see that my average rating is lower - but a .6-point difference is huge even for me! In 2015 and 2016 it was only about .3. That’s driven by a lot more 1- and 2-star reviews, possibly because my general emotional valence was higher this year than other years - if I didn’t like a book, I really didn’t like it - and possibly because I still feel compelled to slog through every new Star Wars book even though they’re universally atrocious.

Average difference:


This was a hard year but a wonderful one, and I think that comes through in my reading. I discovered a new ‘use’ of reading in my audiobook habits, I read more than ever, and I’m a savvier library user now, too.

Do other people track their reading this extensively? I’d love to see anyone else’s numbers - especially how other people differ from that Goodreads mean!

Friday, February 2, 2018

Review: The Sword of the Lictor

The Sword of the Lictor The Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm going to review the entire Book of the New Sun series here, rather than split the reviews up between the volumes.

Other people have said that The Book of the New Sun is like nothing they’ve ever read. That’s nearly true, for me, but Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota (for which she cites Gene Wolfe as an inspiration) is remarkably similar in quite a few ways. Both four-volume series feature suspiciously unreliable narrators who know much more about their world than they’re telling us (and can’t seem to report the facts quite accurately anyhow). Both are masterworks about a wondrous future where humanity is striving for the stars. And both deal with the potential of having religion revealed and a vessel of a god working godly powers upon the Earth. Or Urth. I found myself trying to talk about BotNS and slipping into theories about Mycroft’s past in Terra Ignota. I’m struggling to articulate the philosophical similarities, but there are discussions to be had about the nature of god and identity and goodness in both, and I would love to have read/re-read these as a paired set for a course or book club. For now, I will review BotNS on its own terms (as much as I can).

Severian lies. That’s the first thing I ever heard about this book. I’d heard it was great, I even knew Palmer had named it as one of her influences, but the first specific fact about the content of the book was that Severian lies. Apparently, there is some debate about this fact. I am inclined to think that those who believe Severian does not lie are extremely literal-minded sociopaths. Somewhat like Severian himself! Severian tells us perhaps in the first few pages that his memory is perfect. He can recall any memory and relive it like it is happening just now in front of him, and says in fact that is what he is doing, as he is writing this chronicle to his reader (or Reader, as Mycroft would say). We’ll see about that.

He is a student of the Guild of the Seekers for Penitence and Truth when the book begins. A torturer, in other words. Shadow of the Torturer, the first book, is structured like the beginnings of a bildungsroman. Severian grows up, becomes a journeyman, meets a lady. He leaves the guild to take on a new role, meets another lady and then another lady, and gets into a swordfight but with plants instead of swords. He thinks a great deal about his ladies and whether he loves them. In many ways, the first book sets you up to expect a fairly traditional fantasy story with some occasional weird window dressing, then ends just when your epic fantasy novel would start to pick up.

If the first book cuts off its story arc midway, the second, Claw of the Conciliator has no real arc at all. Severian wanders into and out of various situations with no real direction or sense of how his own story is building - even as he narrates it to us. He is still generally making his way to his new post, with many detours and no sense of urgency. He gets there by the third book, Sword of the Lictor, which also has him wandering - but with much more self-direction, and it feels like the book is telling one singular story of a journey rather than some stuff a guy did on a road trip. He is still uncertain about some fundamental facts of the world (and the reader is even more so). The second and third books are both chock full of atmosphere and worldbuilding and fascinating vignettes and characters, but the second feels directionless in the whole, and even after reading book three I was not sure I’d like the overall series unless the fourth book brought the whole thing together for me, and it would have to do a whole lot of work to make that happen.

Citadel of the Autarch, book four, did an impressive amount of work without making it look like work at all. Severian, and more importantly, the reader, finally has enough information about the world to make some informed decisions and/or guesses. I would say that the shape of the series becomes clear in retrospect, but it would be more accurate to say that some of the many shapes the series could possibly be are visible but still distant beyond a hazy fog. Part of what many people love about the Book of the New Sun is that it’s a puzzle. People like who like to solve puzzles seem to obsess over the book, but this one is one that isn’t meant to be solved. It’s supposed to be turned over, prodded, combed through, dis- and re-assembled. Lots of the pieces fit into many slots. There are pieces leftover that still fit in the puzzle somehow, just not in it, y’know.

The best parts of the books are just how strange this world is. Set maybe a million years in the future, told in the style of an epic fantasy, following a totally-truthful liar who knows nothing about the world beyond his towers and who witnesses some of the strangest bits of his Urth’s locales and peoples.

I don’t think anyone volume of the series could satisfy a reader, and I’m not sure even one reading of the whole series has satisfied me. There’s a “coda” in the form of another novel, Book of the New Earth, and I think it would take several (re-)readings of all five books to even approach satisfaction. It has definitely engaged me, though, and it was worth it to read all four, despite my doubts.

View all my reviews

Review: Provenance

Provenance Provenance by Ann Leckie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Provenance takes place in the same universe as Ann Leckie’s Radchaai trilogy, the first of which (Ancillary Justice) won a Hugo, and which I loved. The events of Provenance take place shortly after the events of the trilogy, but don’t involve any of the same characters (or even locales) so each can stand on its own (though comparisons between the two are inevitable).

The story follows Ingray Aughskold, a young woman who is trying to prove to her mother that she - rather than her brother Danach - deserves to inherit her mother’s name. Ingray’s scheme immediately goes awry, she finds herself responsible for a person who shouldn’t exist (named Garal Ket), and her ride home accidentally draws attention from the ambassador of the alien Geck. Once home, she finds herself in the center of a tangle of local, inter-planetary, and inter-species politics that (she believes) she is ill-equipped to handle.

Much is made of Ingray’s hand-wringing and self-doubt, but this is one of those novels where it is clear to the reader (and several other characters) that the very flaws that the protagonist agonizes over are those qualities which make her the perfect fit for the job. It’s too clear, in fact. Ingray reminded me of Mia from The Princess Diaries; her misfit status and trusting nature are what endear her to everyone and make her a natural leader.

This is a perfectly fine novel, and if not for the inevitable comparison to the Radch Trilogy, I don’t know if I’d take issue with Ingray or any of the other unsubtleties. But once of the things that made the Radch Trilogy excellent, to me, was the subtlety and nuance of the characters. The characters acted and spoke in a way that belied a thoughtful underlying psyche, and the story was anchored to the internal struggles and changes of the characters, yet Leckie avoided slicing the characters open and revealing the detailed minutiae of every why and what and how of every change. It was confusing; it took me a while to really get what Leckie was doing in Ancillary Mercy. But it was rewarding. Provenance, though, has characters helpfully vocalize the qualities and traits and reasoning behind each action and decision. I enjoy a good character-driven novel, and Leckie is an excellent writer and the story and characters were delightful, so the heavy-handedness doesn’t make it a bad story, just lands it solidly in the ‘very good’ and not ‘excellent’ tier.

A more generous reading might be that the difference is intentional, and reflects the different cultures at the forefront of each story. The Radchaai have many taboos and strict social hierarchies while the Hwae are very much about public performative gestures. I could be convinced this was Leckie’s intent but it would take some strong evidence.

Leckie does a good job of growing her universe, making it wider and still recognizable. The Radchaai ambassador to the Geck is one of my favorite characters (think Mindy St. James from The Good Place but less horrible) and is the most significant reminder of the Radch Trilogy. The Hwae are a solid addition to the universe, a planet that values “vestiges” of significant cultural events. The story stumbles for me when I’m expected to believe that next to no one on the planet has ever questioned the authenticity of any of the vestiges; it felt like a moment where natural worldbuilding was sacrificed to the necessity of the plot. (And perhaps it’s just my own reading, but it felt a touch on-the-nose to talk about these monuments to culture that are are powerful symbols that are essentially valueless beyond what people see in them, in light of recent efforts to remove Confederate monuments in the U.S.)

Despite it being a few steps away from ‘excellent,’ I appreciated the themes the novel tackles. Ingray’s trust, which is read as naivete by some characters, is her strength, and I enjoy stories where trust is valuable and rewarded. In such a world, choices matter, and people are trusted when they make choices that are right for them. Here we see some of the subtlety I loved in the Radchaai trilogy; characters make personal and interpersonal choices that are treated with gravity and respect by other characters. The protagonists recognize the importance of not necessarily unquestioning, but unconditional support once these personal decisions are made. It’s radical in a soft, comforting way.

View all my reviews