Top Ten Books 2017

Twenty Seventeen was a strange year. After the political turmoil of 2016, we started facing the repercussions of those choices, which were largely – but not exclusively – terrible. From my perspective as a citizen of the UK (albeit one who lives in Canada), the political highlight came just after 5pm EST on Thursday 8th June when, after a dispiriting build up the exit poll from the General Election revealed a hung parliament with Labour gains in extraordinary places. Nevertheless, this was not a victory (depending on how you define victory, that is); it was, however, a salient reminder that we must not give up hope, and that fighting towards a better future is always a good idea.

Personally, however, 2017 was an amazing year – again, the culmination of many threads set in motion over the previous few years. With Whitney’s encouragement I had begun learning to drive and I passed my G1 Exit Test in April; I applied for and obtained Permanent Residence of Canada; I have a job, albeit not in my chosen profession; we have a car and are moving into our own flat in early January. My friends Josho Brouwers and Joshua Hall launched Ancient World Magazine, and through it I have found myself engaging more with academic Twitter in a way that I find really enjoyable and fun. Most of these things have not come without bumps along the road, but we’ve struggled through. It has, I would argue, been a good year; even if that seems a bit of a stretch, it has certainly been better than it could have been.

As far as media consumption goes, that’s been a good year, too. Whitney and I watched most of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (finishing on 29th December, having started in late 2016). I think it is my favourite Star Trek, certainly thus far, and it will come up again. I watched many television shows that I loved – Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Wynonna Earp, Dear White People, The Good Place season 1, BoJack Horseman season 4 – and literally none of the five films I watched in the cinema were bad (Moonlight, Get Out, Logan, Wonder Woman, and Star Wars: Episode VIII The Last Jedi). I read sixty-three books and they were mostly great; I also managed a rough gender balance, with books written by women slightly dominating men (30:27, excluding comic books created by multiple people of different genders); although my reading along the wider gender spectrum was sadly limited. Certainly, I aimed to get books that took many different perspectives (although, in general, all broadly from the left, a bias I have no real interest in adjusting) and I believe that I was successful.

At the end of last year, while reflecting on the best books that I had read, I ended up writing a blog post discussing what I had learned and what I hoped to go on to do. I don’t know how far I have achieved my aims insofar as making feminism something that I do rather than an identity that I co-opt has worked out, but it does feel a little like I might be making progress. In any case, throughout this year I have been compiling a new list of best-books, one that has been more difficult than last year as I read better books. For example, Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man (Gardners Books, 2016) does not make it on to this list, even though it ties into my theme of recognising that progressive men often claim, rather than enact, feminism, to whit (p43):

“Many men I know would describe themselves as feminists – though in my macho cynicism I sometimes think that feminism, like any political thought, offers men another chance to be right about everything, especially tempting if it involves putting down other men.”

Furthermore, this list is more than ten books long, because certain books have been combined because they complement one another. I have also divided it up into fiction and non-fiction because I read a lot of good books on both sides of that divide this year; within those sections, the list is chronological based on when I read the book, not any kind of ranked system.

So without further ado:

Fiction Five

Infomocracy by Malka Older (Tor.com, 2016)

Goodreads Review

When I read Infomocracy at the end of January I thought that it was good, but it isn’t my enjoyment of reading it that leads me to recommend it to literally anyone who will listen. Malka Older has packed this book full with ideas about how democracy could develop, what is needed to make democracy work, how to create an informed electorate, as well as ideas about how we consume narrative content and its impact on us, and her own specialty: disaster response. It can be difficult to read about democracy at the moment, but Infomocracy engages with our political system’s difficulties and, while Older doesn’t exactly offer solutions, the novel helped me to rethink what those problems actually were. Infomocracy is science fiction at its best for so many reasons: not only does it ask questions about the world in which we live, it also expands the way we think about the possibilities for the future. The sequel, Null States, is near the top of my “to-read” pile for 2018.

I also read Older’s short story “Narrative Disorder” and the accompanying essay “The Narrative Spectrum“, which are available online. I find the concept of ‘narrative disorder’ fascinating, especially from my perspective as an archaeologist/ancient historian. How does our attraction to narrative shape the way in which we think about the excavated past? It’s something that I want to spend more time thinking about in the coming year.

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler (Beacon Press, 2003 [1979])

Goodreads Review

Kindred is a beautifully written, devastating novel about how the past relates to the present, about the on-going trauma of slavery in particular. I struggled, back in May, to express how Kindred made me feel. There are questions about the inability of white people to fully grasp slavery, even Dana’s husband Kevin who witnesses it when they travel to the past together. There are questions about Dana’s relative status to the slaves whom she encounters, and how far she has been ‘whitened’ over the intervening centuries. There are questions about the lasting damage of slavery on contemporary African-Americans. I think that Kindred also set me up to be more receptive to the ideas in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power, particularly the absolute necessity of reparations. But really it all comes back around to the fact that this novel is amazingly written, and deserves to be read widely.

“That’s history. It happened whether it offends you or not. Quite a bit of it offends me, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Kindred, pp. 140-41

As an archaeologist/ancient historian, it can be difficult to establish how one’s subject should relate to the present. History is political, and what we choose to study and emphasise and fund is political. It forms a vital part of many people’s identities, but also the impact of past oppression, the erasure of struggles, and popular but dubious interpretations are also factors that we must comprehend in our understanding and communication of history. Reading Kindred, I tried to think about the impact that the past has had on my life, but because I come from an identity and background whose past oppression has very little impact on how I live my life today, all it has really given me is ease. For Dana (and all black Americans, as emphasised by Coates), the past is integral to her daily existence.

vN by Madeline Ashby (Angry Robot, 2012)

Goodreads Review

“Humans always think up crazy self-justifying bullshit.”

vN, 17%

I’m floating iD, the sequel to vN and middle book in the Machine Dynasty trilogy, as the first book that I’m going to read this year so it is good to go back over what I thought about it. I spent a lot of this year thinking about automation, the rise of robots and AI (distinct entities of course, outside of science fiction), and the need for a universal basic income. I’m not sure that I have particularly insightful conclusions. But vN was one of the more thought-provoking books on the subject that I’ve read. In my notes I wrote “Everything about vNs is designed to make humans comfortable with them,” an observation that almost holds true for robots in the real world, with one exception – they are usually designed to make men comfortable, as ongoing news stories about sex robots and (I’m led to believe) the plot of Blade Runner 2049 make clear.

vN is a book that is well aware of the legacy of stories-about-robots into which it is being inserted; for this reason it’s worth also bringing up the second-best novel I read about robots this year:

Autonomous by Annalee Newitz (Tor Books, 2017)

Goodreads Review

“It’s what I want. It’s my programming. I can’t possibly know, and it’s a completely uninteresting question to me.”

Autonomous, p.238

“The power of Christ compels you!”

“I’m an atheist,” Amy said.

“It was worth a try.”

 – vN, 54%

An issue that permeates science fiction about robots/AI is the question of free will in programmed machines. I’ve read this done well and I’ve read it done badly, and vN and Autonomous are complimentary in their successes on this point. On the one hand, Autonomous allows the shifting perspective of an artificially intelligent robot between autonomy and otherwise; on the other, the vN are fitted with a failsafe that prevents them from harming humans, and often compels them to love them. Furthermore, the vN were created by a religious sect, which raises another interesting issue: how far can created beings, programmed to love their masters, ever have free will? The mirroring of this relationship in systems of oppression is also an underlying theme of both works.

It’s interesting for me to compare, in hindsight, the effects on me of Infomocracy and Autonomous. While reading the novel I wrote masses of notes on Autonomous including lengthy quotations and meditations on what the book was doing. I did virtually none of this while reading Infomocracy. And yet, months later, it is Infomocracy that sticks in my mind more while remembering bits and pieces of Autonomous often comes as something of a surprise. Looking back over my notes now, there is a lot in Autonomous about the function of work as a social structure that I think will be more meaningful to me this year, now that I am actually working. I may come back to this…

An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King (Harper Voyager, 2017)

Goodreads Review

While many dystopias feel distant even as they feel relevant, there was something about An Excess Male that screamed its immediacy. Perhaps it is just that I know so little about China that this depiction could have been entirely accurate, but for the technology; certainly there is the sense that its dystopian elements came not from some hypothesised revolution or political landslide, but from elements that are already in place in 2017. That immediacy then leaks into the other dystopias, helps them feel more real, more immediate, than they might otherwise have done. It took very few changes to turn current-China into future-China (insofar as I can tell); how many would it take to turn the UK, the USA, or Canada into something similar?

HONOURABLE MENTION: 1984 by George Orwell (Blackstone Audiobooks, 2007 [1949])

Behind so much that I read in 2017 is George Orwell’s foundational text, Nineteen Eighty-Four. This year I listened to the audiobook, more than a decade after I last read the book, and was once again surprised by how much remained poignant to our current situation (as I did with Animal Farm in 2016, showing that I am incapable of learning certain lessons without repetition). Much like the Klingon Empire in Star Trek, I struggle to understand how Air Strip One/IngSoc rose to prominence and how they would maintain their grip. I had the idea to write a semi-sequel (2084?) in which future archaeologists/historians try to piece together the rise and fall of IngSoc (perhaps as this form of totalitarianism was on the rise again). But, as ever, I am of the opinion that it is not enough to read a single book in isolation. KindredThe Underground Railroad, and We Were Eight Years in Power remind me that atrocities can eventually come to an end, but they last longer than you’d think, destroy lives in the process, and their after-affects permeate the future. An Excess Male and Headscarves and Hymens reminds me that such societies do exist, and continue to do so, even when they look shaky and broken. And I use Twitter, so I understand how technology is effectively utilised by extremists, particularly totalitarian forces on the right. But understanding these things is relatively easy when you read widely and think about it far more than is healthy. Resisting it is the actual tricky part.

Rounding out my fiction Top 10

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday Books, 2016)

Goodreads Review

The Death House by Sarah Pinborough (Gollancz, 2015)

Goodreads Review

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2015)

Goodreads Review

Lord of the Flies by William Golding (Faber & Faber, 1958 [1954])

Goodreads Review

Non-Fiction Five

Headscarves and Hymens. Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy (HarperCollins Publishers, 2015)

Goodreads Review

Earlier this year, a couple of my friends had a discussion about whether The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was still relevant to the modern world without being updated. One claimed that it seemed implausible in the current circumstances while the other felt that it was even more possible now than it had been in the 1980s. I regret not jumping in to point out that (a) the story has been updated in the form of the Hulu miniseries and (b) The Handmaid’s Tale is not only plausible in the modern world, but literally actually happening right now. This latter point was based on a New York Times article by Mona Eltahawy, in which she pointed out that much of what is on display in Margaret Atwood’s ustopia is practiced in Saudi Arabia, and has been for some time. I believe that it is a common criticism of The Handmaid’s Tale that it appropriates the suffering of women of colour and applies it to white women. Nevertheless, it’s a widely-read book that, coupled with Eltahawy’s non-fiction, reminds us that international co-operation is the key to dismantling patriarchy. As Eltahawy says: fighting for women’s rights anywhere is fighting for women’s rights everywhere.

I can’t entirely remember what aspects of Eltahawy’s beliefs I know from this book and what I know from reading further articles and following her on Twitter. Certainly, she emphasises that the religious authoritarians and evangelicals of the USA and the Middle East have more in common with regards to the oppression of women than that which divides them. It’s strange to me that people in the US seem to believe that they should appeal to the morality of white evangelicals who support the US president; it is a belief in the fundamental goodness of religion which I do not share. Eltahawy, of course, remains a practicing Muslim who just happens to also be a polyamorous bisexual radical feminist. The clarity that emerges from her book is how patriarchy poisons everything, especially religion. [1]

The Return of History by Jennifer Welsh (House of Anansi Press, 2016)

Goodreads Review

I’ve not read Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History”, but based on Jennifer Welsh’s characterization of it I can see its impact on other works of history and archaeology. Welsh’s book is a stark reflection on the state of the world, the decisions that have led us to this point, and how a belief in the triumph of liberal democracy has stifled that actual triumph. Welsh’s account has had an impact on how I think about the collapse of Bronze Age civilizations in the eastern Mediterranean (but especially Greece) as well as reconciling me with the pessimistic undertones of the newest entries in the Star Wars saga of films, which probably seems like more of an achievement than it actually is if you’re a person who distinguishes how you think about films from how you think about history. I am not – the opening paragraph of my Goodreads review of The Return of History references Star Trek.

Other options to fill this slot included Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (I assumed at the end of last year that it would speak to me more) and No Is Not Enough by Naomi Klein, which does include certain aspects that resonate with me. The advantage levelled by The Return of History is simply that it is the book that springs to mind most regularly when I think about understanding the resonance of history on the present, the importance of understanding it and its impact on the world today. Nevertheless, both of these books add to my impression of The Return of History, because their accounts of activism – or the lack thereof – in the early 2000s and more recent times contribute to the theme of the necessity of taking action.

Where Am I Now? True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame by Mara Wilson (Audible Audio, 2016)

Goodreads Review

I cried on two public buses this year and listening to Mara Wilson’s audiobook was one of those times. [2] I have no idea what it would be like to read this book. Wilson’s voice carried it for me, and at some point when I figure out buying audiobooks it will be top of my list of “audiobooks I’ve already listened to but want to do so again and again”. It doesn’t quite fit into any theme of any kind that this list might have, except that it is fantastic, and will help you to think about what other humans are going through.

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul (Doubleday Canada, 2017)

Goodreads Review

I’ve struggled to convey what Scaachi Koul’s book made me feel this year as I came to a temporary reprieve on my long struggle to be able to permanently reside and work in the same country as my Canadian spouse. Koul is not herself an immigrant, but the child of immigrants, and that means that her life and family are divided between continents. For all the struggles of the administration and bureaucracy involved in becoming a Canadian resident, it’s that divide that remains the most difficult part of the whole process. Everything I have built at home, my friends, my academic pursuits, they were based in the UK. And while we have begun to build things up in Canada, while my spouse’s friends and family are great and I love them, while I have a life here now, it still feels like I’m missing something. It doesn’t help that my home is in a state of political turmoil, albeit a self-inflicted turmoil. Could I have done, could I be doing, more if I were there?

Koul doesn’t discuss this kind of thing, obviously, because she isn’t British and the difficulties of being a Canadian woman of Indian descent are very different to those of being a white British man becoming a Canadian permanent resident. I’m not afraid of flying, I’ve never been drugged, my parents have no opposition to my relationship. Mostly, One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter came at a time when I needed to connect with someone, no matter how different their experience, about this feeling of disconnect, of cultural confusion. It’s also funny, insightful, and not nearly as downbeat as the title suggests. Plus, Koul’s father is a delight.

Between the World and Me (Spielgel & Grau, 2015) and We Were Eight Years in Power – An American Tragedy (One World, 2017) by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Goodreads Review of We Were Eight Years in Power

I’ve read four books by Ta-Nehisi Coates, three of them this year. The other two are his first two volumes of Black Panther comics. After reading the first of these in 2016, I found Coates’s politics intriguing but inarticulately expressed by this comic book about an African prince. Reading Between the World and Me was a powerful insight into what the man actually thought and experienced, albeit one of those ones that I could never quite express how it had made me feel. I’ve left it here, alongside We Were Eight Years in Power, because it gives a sense of the man himself that provides more background to the essays in the latter collection. I would be remiss to recommend one book over the other; both emphasise the on-going theme of this year’s reflections, the significance of the past in not only understanding, but acting in the present.

We Were Eight Years in Power comes with a reflection on the consequences of failing to understand or appreciate the impact of the past on present actions and feeling. Coates warns of the possibilities inherent in not tackling the root causes of Trumpism – in particular white supremacy – and the devastating legacy possible if America does not face up to its history of slavery and the resonation of that history in the present. His Epilogue, which reflects on the cultural significance of the ‘white working class’ in the USA reminded me strongly of one of the more significant books that I read last year: Michael Kimmel’s Angry White Men (Nation Books, 2013), particularly his notion of the ‘aggrieved entitlement’ of those white men. Coates’s book offers a corrective to Kimmel’s optimism in that book, reminding us that we cannot just hope that white resentment of the progression of people of colour will just go away.

Reading We Were Eight Years in Power, the myriad of other black culture that I have been enjoying this year swirled around in my head. Most notably, the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Far Beyond the Stars” (5:13) and in particular this analysis of the episode. In “Far Beyond the Stars”, the black Captain Benjamin Sisko is sent a vision by the Bajoran prophets/wormhole aliens in which he is a science fiction writer in the 1950s, Benny Russel, who invents Sisko, the space station Deep Space Nine, and their adventures. “Far Beyond the Stars” is not only one of the best episodes of Deep Space Nine – of all Star Trek, in my experience of TOS, TNG, DS9, and DIS – but one of the best crafted science fiction stories I’ve seen on television. For Sisko, seeing Benny Russell reminds him of how far black people have advanced in four centuries; for Russell, Sisko is the inspiration to keep on fighting for civil rights; for the viewer in the 1990s, or 2010s, it is a reminder of how far we have come – and how far we have still to go. But within Benny Russell’s pasts we also see the segregated African American communities of the 1950s which developed their own culture and importance. Michael Dorn’s character, Willie Hawkins, is a baseball player who has made it, but still cannot live in white neighbourhoods, and does not want to – he is more of a hero with his own people. Coates, in writing about black history and its impact on the present, helped me to see more layers in this narrative, just as I am sure that “Far Beyond the Stars” prepared me for thinking about the significance of black progress, Kindred the relationship between the past and the present, and Dear White People the importance of understanding that I am not the target audience for all of the media that I consume.


[1] Yes, I am subtweeting Christopher Hitchens here, even if I enjoyed the book in question.

[2] In my Goodreads review I reference nearly crying on a public bus, so you can decide for yourself whether or not my masculinity prevented me from admitting that particular act of public emotion (before the second, much more obvious event made hiding it seem pointless) or if I am misremembering now.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s