As promised, a post highligting our best reading experiences of the past year 🙂 Though originally we wanted to limit the best to top five, it turned out to be more difficult than expected – so the title should be treated more metaphorically than literally 😉
Piotrek: I wanted to title the post “year in genre”, but I moved a bit from genre this year… our post summing up year 2019 grew too big, so we decided to split it and tell about our reading and watching in a separate one.
I will start, as in our previous post, with some stats, and Goodreads was kind enough to prepare a Piotr’s Year in Books presentation. 79 books read (it’s 81, actually, already, but the stats are not updating fast enough 😛 ) – not as many as in previous years, but, well, life happens. Still not a bad result, and what’s interesting is not the amount, but the composition. And there were some interesting changes in what books I was reading in 2019. Not a radical change, but a slight move in non-genre direction. I’ve read more non-genre lit and non-fiction than I tended to, this decade. Mostly Polish stuff, but it included this year’s Nobel Prize laureate, Olga Tokarczuk. Highly recommended, and there’s even a movie. Her Nobel Lecture is powerful, and beautiful, audio and text available here. Just one quote, but she touches many topics in a very interesting way…
I think we have a redefinition ahead of us of what we understand nowadays by the concept of realism, and a search for a new one that would allow us to go beyond the limits of our ego and penetrate the glass screen through which we see the world. Because these days the need for reality is served by the media, social networking sites, and indirect relationships on the internet. Perhaps what inevitably lies ahead of us is a sort of neo-surrealism, some rearranged points of view that won’t be afraid to stand up to a paradox, and will go against the grain when it comes to the simple order of cause-and-effect. Indeed, our reality has already become surreal. I am also sure that many stories require rewriting in our new intellectual contexts, taking their inspiration from new scientific theories. But I find it equally important to make constant reference to myth and to the entire human imaginarium. Returning to the compact structures of mythology could bring a sense of stability within the lack of specificity in which we are living nowadays. I believe that myths are the building material for our psyche, and we cannot possibly ignore them (at most we might be unaware of their influence).
I’m going to read more Tokarczuk in the future, that’s for sure! But well, that’s Tokarczuk, what about my reading in 2019? It’s been marked by the finishing of my great Discworld re-read. And then I’ve re-read The Trilogy (Tolkien). Both were, in different ways, as good as I remembered them. I’ve also re-read American Gods, while visiting America for work, and it was also a great experience. I will continue to re-read more, there are too many new books published all the time, I will not read them all anyway, and every encounter with my favourites brings so much joy and new observations!
Ola: As a Goodreads non-user, I base my stats on an old good Excel file – which doesn’t show all the nice pics, but is just as reliable (meaning – ultimately only as reliable as my own entries ;)). So, in the end, I know my list is not complete, as I tend to omit the less memorable comics, and usually forget to include audiobooks (there aren’t many of them, only 3 or 4 a year, and I did my best to count them here ;)). All in all, I have managed to read (and record that I have indeed read) 92 books this year, and started but haven’t finished, 2 more. With all the comics I haven’t included, I’ve probably reached the magic number 100.
Of the books I have read this year, 10 were non-fiction, 5 – literary fiction, 4 – re-reads, and 18 – comic books, two of which were beautiful hardcover Hellboy omnibuses (no, I don’t own them, the library does, but oh, I do wish I did!). No books by Polish authors, though – and only four translated to Polish. The price of living abroad, I guess – I got out of sync with Polish literature. Nevertheless, my copy of Tokarczuk’s Księgi Jakubowe will be with me soon 😉
Piotrek: I will limit myself to books read in 2019 for the first time. My top 5 – favourite novels, not ranked, as they are too different for direct comparisons, and a few words about my non-fiction readings.
Best of 2019 in Fiction
5 err… 6
Margaret Atwood, Penelopiad
This one I already reviewed, so not much to add, but it was such a pleasure to read… a wise, concise, powerful book by one of the genre writers recognized even by the literary crowd 😉
Gene Wolfe, The Knight / The Wizard
See the review for my official statement on this Wolfe’s duology, it was probably the most pleasant from my fantasy readings of the year.
Ford Maddox Ford, Parade’s End
This wasn’t reviewed, as it’s rather out of blog’s scope, but I had great time reading it on the beach in Apulia (I don’t swim 😉 ). One volume version of the 4-part series by For Madox Ford, witch Benedict Cumberbatch on the cover – I’m not a big fan of TV covers, but of Cumberbatch – quite a big one ;).
No empire had it’s fall described by so many great writers, and while the English ruling classes still hold way too much wealth and power, their representatives produced so many great volumes on how the good times ended… this is quite self-aware, and very good literature, but the fact it’s so close connected to a wonderful brief vacation probably helped it to get to this list…
Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
Ok, enough about her here, already 😉
Joann Sfar, Klezmer: Tales of the Wild East
Rabbi’s Cat is one of my favourite graphic novels ever. A picture story about history, theology, and, most of all, humanity. There, a talking cat that belongs to a Sephardic family, here we have a band of Ashkenazi musicians. Sfar seems to know the European Jewish traditions just as well as Mediterranean, and this series is perhaps even better (although tells about a world that is not as new to me, the first one was my first time reading about Sephardic Jews).
Jiro Taniguchi, The Walking Man
Another graphic novel, or, actually, a manga consisting of a series of graphic short stories. Black and white stories about a man walking, through the streets of a Japanese city, and his encounters with every-day things. He’s sensitive, smart, and full of wonder and so is the entire book. More mood than a story, like many of my favourite mangas, but instead of a green-haired little girl we have a middle-aged man.
American liberal writer and public intellectual whom I respect more and more. I’ve seen a documentary on his role in the early culture wars of American XX-century (available on Netflix), but I’ve also read two of his books this year, Washington, D.C. and Creation. My favourite remains Lincoln, and Julian, a novel about my favourite Roman Emperor made the biggest impression on me, so no place on the Top 6, but a honorable mention – and I definitely read more of his novels. Apart from forays into Ancient history, he created a cycle about US history that is educational and epic, but not sentimental. Recommended!
I really liked A Song for Arbonne, but not as much as other top books of 2019. Still, I love Kay’s style and will go through his bibliography, slowly enough to really enjoy the journey.
Ola’s High Five (well, seven, really, but that’s because all the ex aequo places)
Neal Asher, The Line of Polity (2003)
The review is coming, I promise. My favourite of the Polity series so far, highly engaging, thought-provoking and action-packed, with Cormac still more human than super-human, stunning worldbuilding, and a lot of intriguing secondary characters. Go, Dracomen! 😀 10/10.
What is there to say that I haven’t said before about this absolutely amazing novel? It’s glorious, captivating, beautifully written and – a rare treat for those so inclined in our postmodern world – courageously adheres to the ideal of vérité in literature, never leaning toward stylistical naturalism; not only in the realism of the world and the characters populating it, but most importantly in the author’s sentiment toward his readers. 10/10.
Terry Pratchett, The Light Fantastic (1986)
Oldie, but goodie. One of the few re-reads, all of which were Discworld novels. Also one of my favorite Pratchett’s books, and one I have a lot of sentiment for – my first Pratchett copy with an autograph 😉 Definitely an early Discworld book, and it shows – the structure and plot are rather whimsical and episodic, and the main characters only begin to resemble their later incarnations. And yet, The Light Fantastic remains one of the most bitingly satirical entries in the Discworld series, and I love it for that :D. 10/10
Yay, there is a review of this one! 😀 Surprisingly enough, the second book in McDonald’s brilliant Raven’s Mark trilogy was – and remains – my favorite. The characters’ development, the worldbuilding, the plot and the villain are the best in this installment, and though I enjoyed the conclusion, Gallharrow’s harrowing (yes, I know :P) experiences in Ravencry were for me much more powerful and moving. 9/10.
A really very good retelling of Lancelot’s legend. I wasn’t convinced at first, and I remain unconvinced about certain parts of the story, but the book ultimately won me over with its heartfelt, painfully honest and sometimes equally beautiful writing. 9/10.
Anthony Ryan, Blood Song (2011)
I might get down one day to write a review for this one 😉 A lengthy epic fantasy packing nearly 600 pages, at times plodding and clunky, with very slow beginning, it nevertheless proved a worthy read. The fight scenes are among the best in the genre, and the main protagonist, throughout his long and difficult journey, both physical and psychological, remains compellingly, heartbreakingly human. 9/10.
R.J. Barker, The Bone Ships (2019)
I’m pretty certain I will write a review for this one 😀 I wasn’t sure about this one at first, as I tried Barker’s The Wounded Kingdom trilogy before and wasn’t impressed – I abandoned it after two books, and never even got around to write a review. It was okay-ish, but that’s lately not enough for me ;). However, so many people recommended The Bone Ships to me, and it was said to take place on a ship, at sea, that I couldn’t say no :). And it was the right decision, as I loved this book (despite what I see as a very thinly veiled contemporary environmental commentary rather incongruously placed in a world which simply doesn’t seem in the same place, developmentally speaking, as our own ;)). 9/10
And finally, an honorable mention for the remaining two books in Robertson Davies’ trilogy – both The Manticore (1972) and World of Wonders (1975) are great reads, even if they don’t reach the levels of mastery of Fifth Business.
Best of 2019 in Non-Fiction
This is a genre that doesn’t feature often on our blog, for many reasons – but that doesn’t mean we don’t read it 😉 Below is my selection of the best non-fiction I’ve read this year, and yet I already know that the first two books will stay with me much, much longer.
Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence (1973), and Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in the Twentieth Century America (1992)
Richard Slotkin’s trilogy on violence in American culture and history remains a seminal work in the field of humanities: impeccably researched, scientifically daring, ambitious and mind-blowing in its conclusions – and, despite their age, as pertinent today as they were at the time of writing. I’ve read only the first and the last of the three books, Regeneration Through Violence (1973) and Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in the Twentieth Century America (1992), as they pertain to the historic eras which interest me the most, but I do plan to round up my reading experience with the middle book, Fatal Environment.
Max Adams, The King in the North (2013)
Poetic and whimsical, exquisitely written, at times it’s difficult to remember that it’s actually a non-fiction book. It’s slow and meandering, so I struggled somewhat with finding the right mood for it in my increasingly hectic then life – but it’s worth it. Adams’ book, written with amazing attention to the details of topography and material culture, made me want to visit the Sound of Iona, and the North of the British Isles in general. That the King of the book was the inspiration for Tolkien’s Aragorn was an additional bonus ;). 9/10.
Bob Woodward, Fear. Trump in the White House (2018)
Highly controversial, but solidly written, the famous book of the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter responsible for bringing to light the Watergate scandal ultimately doesn’t dissapoint. It reads like a cross between a satirical political fantasy and an investigative documentary, and it kept me firmly rooted to its pages. Theoretically nothing new, as most of the events described trickled to the mainstream media at some point, but the sheer concentration of it all… A sobering read. 8,5/10.
Owen West, The Snake Eaters. An Unlikely Band of Brothers and the Battle for the Soul of Iraq (2012)
The writing was judged and found wanting. Pompous and clunky, rather limited in vocabulary and not very graceful at the best of times. The story however – that is simply unbelievable, absolutely riveting and heartbreaking at the same time. Like father, like son, both Wests are not the best of writers – but again, like father, like son: both Wests have some unique war stories to tell, all the more precious for being told from their own experiences. The story of Iraq War in Anbar told from the perspective of American advisors could have been easily fouled. But West does a good job of looking at the conflict from many sides, and thankfully tries his best to achieve as much objectivity in his story as humanly possible for one so intimately engaged in it all. Could there be less American military fervour in it? Sure. But it’s not a history book: it’s a hands-on, first-person report from the front of a terrible war, and it does a solid job of presenting its reality to the reader. 8/10.
Christopher Hitchens, Arguably
I love Hitchens! His a great, although often harsh, debater – many examples can be found on YouTube – but also, among other things, a prominent essayist. This monumental collections of his writings on topics varying from religion, politics, war and all sorts of art – I savoured it for most of the year, one at a time, and my joy was often a bit impure – gleeful when he delivered a spectacularly nasty blow against our common enemies 😉
After my first reading, I bookmarked his text on Potter, Waugh, Burqa bans and Auden, but there were many more treasures (including an essay on Gore Vidal, Hitchens was less enthusiastic than I was a couple paragraphs above).
Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Anything by Harari would probably get there. He is to me what Toffler had been to my grandfather. I mostly share his views on history, and possible futures of humankind.
Marcin Napiórkowski, Turpopatriotyzm
One of several Polish entries. Shortly – this popular young semiotician (really! well, relatively popular, but he has regular column in a great weekly magazine) has a gift of describing our contemporary world in way both theoretically sophisticated, and highly attractive to readers. If he’s ever translated, I’ll let you know!
Here, he deals with attractiveness of classical nationalism re-marketed for XXI century by the current regime and even more radical right-wingers. A sad, but brilliant book.
Marcin Kącki, Białystok. Biała siła, czarna pamięć
There is a city like that in your country, I bet. Not that many jobs, accent people from the capital see as rather funny, and a complicated history. Politically… incorrect, quite often. Culturally a bit of a wasteland, although not all would agree, I’m sure. One of the birthplace of the atrocious music genre of disco polo, place ripe in anti-Semitism but not without decent people. A fascinating non-fiction (and actually not as one-sided as I portray it).
And finally, a few words about comics. I know, I know, it’s fiction – but then, it’s a VERY different type of fiction 😀 And there’s a lot to choose from 😉 I managed to read a really good variety of comics this year, and I chose to forget the few bad ones I accidentally stumbled upon… So, without further ado,
Ola’s High Five in Comics
Mike Mignola, Duncan Fegredo, Hellboy Omnibus V. The Darkness Calls, Wild Hunt (2018)
I never liked the movies, but I have become a devoted fan of Hellboy once I started reading the original comics. This one is the best: absolutely stunning, exquisitely crafted, and showcasing both Mignola’s unparalleled storytelling skills and his singular, wonderful art. Hellboy’s story comes together with a praiseworthy finesse and ingenuity, all the various threads linked subtly but firmly, with nothing left to chance or Deus ex Machina. I might get round to writing a full review one day, and I’ll wax lyrical about Hellboy then, but even now you can rest assured – I will one day own that omnibus edition! 😀 10/10.
Kurt Busiek, Stuart Imonen, Superman: Secret Identity (2013)
An alternate story of Superman as it should be written. Emotional, true to the core of the Superman’s mythos and yet unequivocally unique. Busiek crafted a poignant, wonderful story, simultaneously rooted deeply in – and creating anew – the unending Superman’s tale. And Imonen’s art adds a perfect finishing touch to it – poetic and lyrical in a surprisingly moving way. I won’t spoil the story – I can just tell you to read it :D. 10/10.
Mike Mignola, John Byrne, Hellboy Omnibus I. Seeds of Destruction (1993)
The beginning of the journey is nearly as good as its end. I loved the origin story of the hellish foundling, all its craziness and sadness and humor and poignancy portrayed in the stark, strangely intimate art of Mignola. It doesn’t seem like that at first, being as unrealistic as possible, but it grows on you quickly: the skillful arrangement of panels, the play of shadow and light, the design – all in total sync with the story. 9,5/10.
A play on the marriage of Lovecraft and Conan Doyle turned into a novella turned into a comic book – this strange concoction captured my attention and later my heart, reminding me of the wonderful world of Sherlock Holmes ;). 9/10
Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, Batman: The Killing Joke (1988)
In the year of Joker I couldn’t not pick this one up. A solid story with a delightfully ambiguous ending, as befits Moore, accompanied by intriguing graphics – very much in vein of the 80’s, with big splotches of strong, dirty colors in the dark panels. Thought-provoking and enjoyable, and incredibly influential not only within Batman’s lore, but the whole superhero comic book industry, yet not nearly subtle or developed enough to become my favorite (sorry, Lashaan!). 8,5/10.
Phew, that’s grown into one very long post :). Next post, next week, about the best movies and TV series of 2019 😉