Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Best Things I Read (and a Few Things I Watched) in 2016

Today is Thursday, December 22, 2016. We have made it past the shortest day of the year, and the days are getting longer again!

Things are getting busy as the year winds down. We have an offer in on a house in Ypsilanti, it has been accepted by the seller, and we are in the inspection phase of the home-buying process. Nothing deal-breaking has surfaced yet. If all goes well we should close the deal in January. This means we will have two mortgage payments until we can figure out how to sell our existing house. That will make our financial situation challenging for a while, but I feel good about our prospects in 2017. I am hoping that soon I will actually live full-time with my family again. It has been just over 18 months since I started commuting from Saginaw every week and it has been difficult. I have much to be grateful for, but I also will be grateful to see 2016 pass into history.

This evening I will leave for home, and I won’t be back to work until Tuesday, January 3rd. We may be making one or more trips back down to Washtenaw County next week, though — we will be packing, and I might bring more boxes of books down to our storage unit.

The day we drove down to Ypsilanti to look at the house, I managed a quick date with my wife. We had dinner at the Wooden Spoon in Brighton, and went to see movie Arrival, and so I got the chance to see it a second time. Re-watching it, after viewing the ending, helped me notice a few more details in the way the early scenes set up the ending. There weren’t any earth-shattering revelations here, but I’m still going to provide a spoiler warning: you probably shouldn’t read this part if you want to be surprised by everything in the film.

Further Comments on Arrival (Warning: Contains Possible Spoilers!)

I was able to pay closer attention to the aliens themselves, and this time I couldn’t help but notice how much they resembled giant human hands, and forearms. Their bodies even showed “knuckles.” While they are known as “heptapods” in the movie, and they move their seven legs somewhat like tentacles, these legs also sometimes bend very much like fingers. This is especially noticeable during a brief scene where Louise is teaching the aliens the meaning of the word “walk.” The heptapods look like giant seven-fingered hands “walking” on their fingers.

The resemblance to hands and fingers was too striking to be accidental. The people who designed the aliens clearly wanted to convey this similarity. The question, then, is “what did they intend to convey with this?”

They intended, I believe, to suggest that heptapods may not be as alien as they seem. We learn in the movie that the heptapods are on Earth to offer humanity a weapon, or a tool, the heptapod language. They are doing this, they say, because in 3,000 years, humans will help the heptapods. So they are “paying it forwards” — or is it backwards? — ensuring that humanity will have the tool to be able to help them. And that tool, the heptapod language, “unlocks” our perception of time.

But what if the heptapods have not traveled so much in space, but in time? Could they be a distant descendant of contemporary humans?

My wife Grace thought the portrayal of the heptapods as hands was intended to suggest a deus ex machina, that is, powerful or even godlike beings literally reaching into our world, from “above”" the stage, from a godlike perspective freed from linear time. Are the heptapods our future selves, reaching through time to enable their own existence? We see that the heptapods have long, arm-like bodies. What we see of the “heads” at the end of those arms is limited; they appear to just terminate in a featurless rounded end. Our view of them, inside the heptapod’s compartment, is the view that we might have of the arm of a scientist, from inside a glove box.

Wikipedia describes a glove box like so:

A glovebox (or glove box) is a sealed container that is designed to allow one to manipulate objects where a separate atmosphere is desired. Built into the sides of the glovebox are gloves arranged in such a way that the user can place their hands into the gloves and perform tasks inside the box without breaking containment.

Grace noted that when Louise takes her solo trip into the interior of the alien object, we learn that apparently she can breathe the atmosphere in there without harm. It somehow looks denser than air, though, as though she were breathing liquid, and the camera shows us that she is walking on a substance that seems to resemble snow. This suggests that, again, perhaps the “aliens” aren’t as alien as we imagine; the heptapods don’t seem to breathe methane, or something else that is toxic to Louise. Perhaps the sealed window and atmospheric cycling mentioned in the movie are there to protect the heptapods from contaminants in our atmosphere. Perhaps the heptapods are the “gloves,” and their sealed compartment in the alien artifact the “glove box,” the intermediate space where they can interact with us, filled with a safe atmosphere under a positive pressure, acting as an intermediate “buffer zone” between their world and ours.

The only argument against this interpretation that I can think of involves Abbott. When Louise makes her solo return to the ship after the explosion, the single surviving heptapod, “Costello,” tells her that “Abbott is death process.” If Abbott is only a sort of “limb” of a being outside our place and time, why did the explosion kill him? Or, if these “limbs” are separate organisms, that can live and die independently, what sort of larger “body” are they part of?

I don’t think these questions are likely to have definitive answers. I think this was a somewhat subtle, and very beautiful, choice to make the film suggest these possibilities, in a mysterious way, without explaining them.

The Best Things I Read in 2016

I could write more about the home inspection process, about lead paint tests and septic tank inspections and attic insulation and ground fault circuit interruptors, but frankly I’d be boring even myself. Suffice it to say that my head has been filled with spreadsheets and forms and information sheets about easements, water softeners, shingles, sump pumps, and all the dull but very necessary stuff that goes into careful consideration of a home.

At the end of last year, I tallied up all the 54 books I read in 2016, and then on January first, published a blog post listing the dozen best. This year I’m going to plan to be busy packing in the days leading up to the new year, so I’ll list everything I read now, and also just list my favorites, and call it a year.

To the best of my recollection, and referring to my blog posts to refresh my memory, I completed the following books in 2016:

  1. Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D. T. Max
  2. Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone by J. K. Rowling (bedtime story reading, and a re-read for me)
  3. The Magicians by Lev Grossman (a re-read for me)
  4. The Magician King by Lev Grossman (a re-read for me)
  5. The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman (a re-read for me)
  6. The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu (translated by Joel Martinsen)
  7. Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens (unabridged audiobook)
  8. Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
  9. My Struggle, Book 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard (translated by Don Bartlett)
  10. The Last Dark by Stephen R. Donaldson
  11. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (a re-read for me)
  12. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams (bedtime story reading, and a re-read for me)
  13. Light by M. John Harrison
  14. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
  15. Eifelheim by Michael Flynn
  16. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling (bedtime story reading, and a re-read for me)
  17. The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross
  18. The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  19. The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  20. The Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  21. The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  22. Authority by Jeff VanderMeer
  23. Attempting Normal by Marc Maron
  24. Solaris (the new translation by Bill Johnston, unabridged audiobook)
  25. Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
  26. The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker
  27. The Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe (unabridge audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  28. Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer
  29. The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge by Harry Harrison
  30. The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World by Harry Harrison
  31. The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You by Harry Harrison
  32. On Blue’s Waters by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  33. On Green’s Jungles by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a partial re-read for me)
  34. Solar Labyrinth by Robert Borski
  35. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling (bedtime reading, and a re-read for me)
  36. Nightside the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  37. Lake of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  38. Caldé of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (unabridged audiobook, and a re-read for me)
  39. Return to the Whorl by Gene Wolfe
  40. Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds (a re-read for me)
  41. A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett
  42. Exodus from the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (a re-read for me)
  43. Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis (unabridged audiobook)
  44. Perelandra by C. S. Lewis (unabridged audiobook)
  45. That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis (unabridged audiobook)
  46. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (not quite finished today, but I’m confident I’ll finish it by the end of the year; unabridged audiobook)
  47. Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett (not quite finished today, but I’m confident I’ll finish it by the end of the year; bedtime story reading)
  48. Last Call by Tim Powers (not quite finished today, but I’m confident I’ll finish it by the end of the year)

Now that I count them up, that’s not a bad number. I feared that I had done very badly compared to last year, but in fact my total count is only down by 6. I will try not to feel too badly about that, especially given that a number of them, such as Return to the Whorl, were challenging, and some, such as The Last Dark and The Dark Forest, were unusually long. I also started receiving the New Yorker magazine again in the fall of 2016, and so some of my reading time has been spent reading magazines instead of books.

I failed to note that I finished listening to the unabridged audiobook version of Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens. Maybe I’ll listen to the 107 essays again in 2017; most of them struck me as worth re-reading. Hitchens also mentions a number of books that inspire me to try reading them myself, such as Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Thinking about Hitchens again now reminds me that I should get more essays from Hitchens in audiobook form.

I am not sure I finished reading the last few stories in The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales by Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, so I’m leaving that off the list. I’ll pick up the book over Christmas break and see where we left off, and perhaps finishing reading the stories, as bedtime stories.

Of the books listed above, my top picks are:

  1. The Magicians by Lev Grossman
  2. The Magician King by Lev Grossman
  3. The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman
  4. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
  5. My Struggle, Book 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard (translated by Don Bartlett)
  6. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  7. Eifelheim by Michael Flynn
  8. The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe
  9. The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe
  10. The Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe
  11. The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe
  12. Solaris by Stanislaw Lem (translated by Bill Johnston, unfortunately still only available as an audiobook)
  13. Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis
  14. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

That’s a baker’s dozen, not a dozen, but I just couldn’t leave out any more.

While I’m at it, I want to mention a few non-books that I thought were worthy of special note in 2016.

I really enjoyed playing the computer game Human Resource Machine. Since I play so few of them, I don’t feel that I can call it the best computer game, but it must be up there somewhere, specifically in the category of educational games.

I didn’t watch very many TV shows, but my favorite was the BBC adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I also re-read the novel at some point in the last few years, although I don’t seem to have a note in my blog about exactly when I did, so it was probably before 2014.

I want to mention the first season of The Magicians because I think it represents some of the best adapation work, and also some of the worst. I wrote about this more extensively on my blog, especially in early May.

I am still talking about the movie Arrival, so I think it would only be fair to call Arrival my favorite film of 2016. I have not yet seen Rogue One. I will probably see it this weekend. I have no doubt that I will enjoy it, but I don’t think it is likely to haunt my thoughts the way Arrival did.

I want to give a few special dishonorable mentions. The television adapation of Childhood’s End gets “worst adapation.” M. John Harrison is the only author whose book I completely regret reading. If I can get through any more of Viriconium maybe I’ll re-evaluate him, but for now I think of him as, essentially, a fraud, somehow convincing some readers and reviewers that he is a good writer when in fact he is merely an imaginative sadist.

That reminds me — I think this means it’s time to re-read Jeff Noon’s Vurt in 2017, and re-evaluate him as well, since Light reminds me a bit of Vurt.

I should mention the “Most Interesting Book I Totally Failed to Finish Reading and at This Point Don’t Really Care to Try Reading Again” — S by Doug Dorst and J. J. Abrams.

And finally, my favorite album to listen to this year was Hamilton, the musical, original cast recording, although strictly speaking it was released in 2015. I should pick up a copy of The Hamilton Mixtape to listen to while I’m packing next week.

Have a great Christmas! And may 2017 be a damned sight better than 2016!

Ann Arbor, Michigan December 22, 2016

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