2018 Roundup

By Richard Littauer

Reviewed Jan 11, 2019 on The Litt Review.

I ended 2018 much like I ended 2017; with a giant pile of books on my shelves that I needed to review. I read a lot of books. Unfortunately, my reviewing process is onerous. For each book, once I close the cover on the last page, I feel the need to do several things: first, immediately write my impressions. Then, go through page by page and find any comments or highlights, and transcribe them to a file on my computer. Then, look up any words that I didn’t know while reading, which I found in this process. Then, come back a week later and write a review based on my impressions of the book. Finally, let this review sit for a day or two, then review it, and then post it online. It’s fairly time-intensive work, which is meant to make me get the most out of every book I read.

Whether this is needed for books like Oh, The Places You’ll Go! is anyone’s guess.

As you might imagine, I sometimes put this work off. So, when I moved into my new apartment in Montpelier, I already had a pile of books I knew I needed to review. Some books were missing - for instance, I gave away The End of All Things by Scalzi after reading it. So I don’t have that one here to review. And then I added some books. Soon, I had two full Ikea bookshelves filled. The list of books below, organized by last author’s name, was largely sourced from these shelves. Some books - audiobooks, for instance - which I’d read recently did not make it into this post.

Come December 31st, I decided to give myself an amnesty. If I could just write a paragraph about what I thought of the book, I didn’t have to go through and follow the whole process for all of them. Below, you’ll find those paragraphs - sometimes a bit more, sometimes a bit less.

For any of these, I’d be more than happy to back to them and write a longer review - let me know. I’m much happier doing this work for someone else than for myself.

Finally, reading Christopher Paolini’s books - Eragon, Eldest, Brisingr, and Inheritance - was a humbling experience, and deserves a special note here. I spent gleeful hours sitting with a pen, tearing the book to shreds with notes about where it could have been written better. At the end of the series, though, I realized a few things. First and foremost, I hadn’t written anything similar myself - so who am I to judge? Also, I’d read the whole thing, so there’s some value in the series. And, finally, not a single negative comment would be helpful, here. So, I haven’t reviewed those books, and I’ve gone through and tried to be more positive with some of the books (not including ones I find to be morally offensive) below. Paolini has done more than I could, and I salute his efforts.

Finally, I’m happy to take book recommonedations for 2019. What should I be reading?

Books I read in 2018

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams

This is one of several books in the Hitchhiker’s Guide series.

These books are quite funny. Quick reads and easily forgotten, which means all the more laughs on the reread. I’ve never managed to buy the full set at charity shops, and various editions float in and out of my life. I’d like just the one book, sometime, with the words “Don’t Panic” on the cover. Until then, I’ll keep reading these over and over again. Especially on May 25th, or International Towel Day, which is one of the few holidays I try and celebrate every year, by hitchhiking somewhere, anywhere.

Unfortunately, due to the nature of the series, I can never remember what happens in what particular book. This one is no exception. I remember liking it, though, and I always have a faint desire to go to a diner when I see this book on my shelf.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

A girl on Tinder (when I was on Tinder) stopped talking to me once when I mentioned that I agree with Walt Whitman, who once wrote:

I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.

I don’t regret this, at all.

How To Find Your Mission In Life by Richard Bolles

This book was atrocious. I wrote at the back an order to burn after reading, because the secrets within it shouldn’t be divulged to anyone, much less the reader. The book could be renamed “How to become spiritually misguided and to completely misunderstand predestination, divinity, and agency through poorly worded Christian messages,” and at least then there’d be something coherent about the book. As it is, in response to my penned question at the beginning:

Well. This is going to be interesting - I suspect. I’ll ignore most of it, and get nothing out of it. I disagree with the basic premise; that religion plays a role in finding meaning. Can I get over myself? Does that make sense for this type of book?


Darth Vader and Son by Jeffrey Brown

This book is adorable.

Chipmunk Song by Joanne Ryder and Lynbe Cherry

One of my earliest children’s books. I like it, still.

The Mountain Poems by Meng Hao-jan

These poems are beautiful and arresting. I remember reading these to my father, trying to share the stillness that they engender. As with all poetry, reviewing the poems at once seems an artless, impossible task. But these never fail to ground me, and remind me to get outside.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

This book was alright. I’ve read much more widely in evolutionary anthropology to be satisfied with his high-level gloss in the opening chapters, which perhaps made me wonder what he was missing in the final chapters. I took copious notes, and enjoyed the book, as a whole, but I didn’t think it was monumentally epiphanic.

Sojourns by Martin Heidegger

I confess that I was mostly bored while reading this book. But there were some nice passages. This would have been better if I was more familiar with his philosophy.

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

This book had me in stitches from both laughing too much, and getting paper-cuts turning the pages too fast. Heinlein was the progenitor of our best military science fiction, and the story of humanity fighting per aspera ad astra was brilliantly told. I came to this book, finally, after reading Scalzi, and found a kindred spirit here. And, thankfully, the book has very little in common with the horrendously bad movie.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein

I listened to this book on audiobook, for the first time. I finally grok what grokking means, and I find that it isn’t that special a word - and that this book isn’t all that special of a book. It’s odd, dated, sexist, and bizarrely religious half of the time. The martians are interesting, but we never see them up front; the entire book focuses on Mike’s reëntry into Earth, after being born on Mars. I suppose this book was revolutionary when it came out, but it didn’t read well today. I wouldn’t suggest anyone read it. Just look up the Wikipedia entry for ‘grok’, and you’re good.

Histories by Herodotus

I finally read this book, with the help of an audiobook. It is mostly incredibly boring, I’m sad to say. “And then Darius sent for his satrap, and told him to bring the women over to the left of the road, and then Darius cut off his satrap’s beard” and stuff like that. But, occasionally, there are some wonderful stories. Thermopolyae is here, for instance, and Salamis. There are dragons in the books, and a look at what the Marsh Egyptians were like. Here, soldiers go out to fight the wind. It’s worth reading, at least once.

Uncomfortably Happily by Yeon-Sik Hong

I read this book as part of the Drawn and Quarterly Graphic Novel Book Club. It’s a touching story, following a couple who move to a rural part of South Korea. I remember the protagonist being angry, occasionally, but that I still identified with him, often. It was, I think, a good book. I’ll need to read it again to say more. It’s been at least half a year since I read it.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

It took me, ironically, over a dozen years to read this book. I wish I had just gotten through it earlier - but, perhaps, it took me that long to realize that the message was also the way to get through the medium. Bird by bird, page by page. My book has an inscription under the front cover, from my High School English teacher, Dr. Levine, wishing me a happy birthday. I’m still grateful for his advice.

I like Anne Lamott. She’s rather funny, at times, although I find her humor a bit dry. But the lessons - on how to write - are invaluable. Bird by bird. These have only been driven home, recently, as I have also become an avid birder.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin

This book defies a review. I am certainly not able to review it adequately. It is terrifically overwhelming, and, for me, a life-changing read. I heard this book described as one of the few popular stories that outlines what an actual anarchist state would look like. It isn’t a utopia, but it also isn’t dystopia, either.

I am not going to attempt a full review of this book. It would need a second, third, and fourth reread, which I sincerely hope to give it (and all of her writing). However, there are a few things that I want to note. First, that I love Shevek, and I want, too, to be able to focus on difficult things and to learn more at the edge of knowledge. This book makes me want to learn more about math.

Second, that at least two statements were epiphanaic for me. The first was that you cannot balance a human soul against anything, including global politics or war or minor disputes. Who knows enough to judge and weigh a life’s worth? Not me, and not anyone else. I need to remember that more. And, finally, nothing is new under the sun - but that doesn’t mean that I’ve done everything under the sun. For each person, there’s boundless possibility, because each experience is unique and new. This is a permanent, perfect refutation to the “I won’t write a novel, because it’s been done and I won’t do it better” logic that has haunted me for years. Who cares? I haven’t done it.

A wonderful book. If you’re not propertarian, I can lend you the book. If you are, I’ll buy it for you.

Epictetus: The Art of Living by Sharon Lebell

I got tired of this edition of Epictetus’s work fairly swiftly. It read far too much like a devotional, and I didn’t like the chapter headings or the way it was gathered together and made palatable for the 21st century reader. I would much prefer reading the original. My distrust of casual dipping into philosophical writings without understanding the theory and applying it coherently made this book, to me, imperfect.

The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee

This was an alright play. It was a bit difficult to read, mostly because it seemed to verge on pastiche, and because I found Thoreau to be a bit insufferable. I’d like to reread Walden, and to learn more about when it became impermissible to stop paying taxes like this. I wonder how long Thoreau would’ve spent in jail if he hadn’t been bailed out.

There were a few very nice lines: for instance,

Waldo: Henry, you’re not a very good businessman. Henry: I’m not a businessman at all. If you don’t pay me a regular salary, then I won’t feel obliged to keep regular hours. I love a broad margin to my life…

I’d like to see the performance, before judging this one more.

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

This graphic novel gets better with each read, and, unfortunately, more relevant. I watch the movie every November 5th, to remember it; but, reading it again a month ago, I realized again that the book is far superior. One has the time to savor the literary references. For instance, right there on the second page, “Make Britain Great Again.” Well worth the read, every time.

The Chessmen by Peter May

I love Peter May. He’s not a great writer. But he’s a great crime writer. All of these books are excellent. They made me want to move to the Outer Hebrides, and at the same time made me very glad I don’t live there at all. It seems rather bleak and dour.

After Dark by Haruki Murakami

I barely remember this book, but I remember it being otherworldly and weird, just like the rest of Murakami’s work. A quick read. Recently I have been reminded of it with the publishing of My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, as the protagonist’s sister has been asleep for months at a time, as well.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

This is a marvelous book that never fails to get me running again, if I’ve taken a break, and writing again, if I’ve spent too much time running. Now that marathon season is approaching, it’s probably time to read it again.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

I carried this book around with me for months, trying to get through and and to read it. I’d have been better off waking up early and reading it in one go, getting thoroughly into the work. That’s what he suggests for almost all efforts. That aside, Deep Work was excellent, and is a metaphor and a framework for thinking I come back to, again and again. I do worry sometimes that this makes me disgruntled with shallow work, which also ought to be edifying in it’s own way.

1984 by George Orwell

A good book, but a very dense read. I’m not sure I liked the world very much, at all. But that’s the point, isn’t it. And, as everyone notes, Aldous Huxley’s version of dystopia was scarier.

Medieval Cities by Henri Pirenne

One of the major short-fallings of modern fantasy literature is that the authors who write fantasy tend to read fantasy, and not history. This book widened my eyes to that, completely reshaping how I viewed the Dark Ages in general, and in particular the development of market towns and burghs in medieval Europe. One of the great things about this book, in particular, was the dry depth of scholarship, and that it was written by a Frenchman, which meant that there were a plethora of latinate words that one just doesn’t find in English all that often. I still need to comb through this book again for all of my notes.

Fast Talk - Finnish by Lonely Planet

A silly book that is hard to use, because it lacks grammar help for Finnish. But it is “guaranteed to get you talking”, so I bought it anyway. I’d rather have bought a grammar.

Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield

Raw, unbridled, and magnificent. This book was instrumental in getting me to go back and try reading Herodotus again, a venture at which I was successful for the first time. Pressfield’s diligence and attention to detail, and his skilled story-telling, rekindled my love for ancient Greece, long in desuetude since I decided to abandon Greek at university. This book was also deeper, for me, as I’ve become a fan of The War of Art, his bestseller on how to write and how to overcome resistance. I couldn’t put this down, even to sleep.

Ishamael by Daniel Quinn

I was rereading this because Juliana mentioned that it was a great book for removing the delusions of Christians. I haven’t read it in years, since I think Brian Kerr suggested it in Edinburgh. The beginning was fairly droll for me. Man is not the center of the universe.

Something new, though - the whole idea of man being flawed is cultural. That’s something I don’t think about enough.

Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

This book, more than any other that I know of, makes people cry. I hadn’t read it since I, too, found myself sniffling in middle school. My English teacher, a few years later, said that we have pets to learn about death (which probably says more about him than our pets), and this book requires a strong statement - we read books about death to realize why we don’t want pets.

The dogs die. Everyone knows it. It’s a sad, sad story. But, weirdly, there’s more to this book than that, which I hadn’t remembered. For instance, the boy who falls on an axe during a fight, which is only instance I can think of where a human dying is foreshadowing for an animal dying. Normally, it’s the other way around. Another part of this book, which I’d forgotten, was that it is chock-a-block full of Christian moralizing around death, which I found oddly off-putting (no surprise there). Finally, the book speaks of a time that I had forgotten existed; the post-settling, pre-industrialization period in the Ozarks, when wolves and mountain lions still howled at the margins of the map. The book succeeded in making me nostalgic for an era I hadn’t known existed. In that, and my childhood tears, it was successful, and worth the reread.

Artists proofs by Hugh Richards

These were lovely poems, together with some prints and a photo. This chapbook is only a few pages long, but the prints are beautiful. Further, I’m touched by David Arnolds’ dad’s generosity in giving it to me. I wish there was more work.

Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson

Good fun. I need to read it again to review it again - frankly, I forget what separated this book from the others. But I remember liking it, if only because Sanderson is adept at making worlds you live in so long that you become attached to the characters, much like Jordan did. I’m still not convinced these are the best writing in the world, but they don’t need to be. Sometimes a book is just a good read.

The Human Division by John Scalzi

This collection of short stories related to the Old Man’s War universe was delicious reading. I forget the important parts, but I remember I devoured it.

Burn the Business Plan by Carl Schramm

An alright book; skim, don’t read it. It has some good examples, but it was meant for corporate suits, not for entrepreneurs who are already in the thick of it. I read this more like it was a podcast than a book, and gained the same amount of world-view setting, if not direct actionable advice, from it.

Blankets by Craig Thompson

I love this book, because I can see in it a lot of what I went through as a teenager. This is the book to best mirror my first, halting romances, and my leaving the church in the end. It’s a bit odd, as I’m not from the Midwest - but I grew up in a Bible-belt family, just the same. I’ve heard that Blankets is often banned from libraries and schools for its approach to sexuality. I think this is a shame. I reread this one often.

Walking by Henry David Thoreau

My sister bought this book for me at Bryn Mawr Bookshop in Cambridge, and I couldn’t have been more grateful. This is a lovely, small collection of essays and thoughts on walking. It reminded me of Chatwin, at times, and some of the other great walkers and their accounts which I’ve read over the years. I visited Walden Pond later, and wished that the roads were gone so I could walk more through the Massachusetts Thoreau knew. I think of this book often, and thumb through it occasionally, finding that the day is lighter when I do.

Lyonesse by Jack Vance

Vance is a writer nonpareil. What a marvelous book. This book - and, really, the series, which includes The Green Pearl and Madouc - was fantastic in the best meaning of the word. Vance’s humor is difficult to describe. You’ll be riding along in the cart, looking at the sky and doing nothing at all, and all of the sudden you’re watching a wizard debate the finer points of geophysical existentialism in a cosmos far from here. I read the book with a constant smile.The magicians are wonderful; the Ska are mysterious and magnetic; the court intrigue never quite grows tiresome. I can’t praise this series enough. I learned dozens of new words (I must have written them down somewhere), and felt like I did when I read The Once and Future King - as if I was on some other branch of fantasy that doesn’t include Lord of the Rings, but grew before it, and flowered by itself. A real treat.

The Biggest Bear by Lynd Ward

This was one of my good friend’s favorite children’s books, and she couldn’t believe that I had read it when I mentioned that this was the last book I had read. “It must be a sign!” In response, I felt sheepish. I didn’t like the book. The paintings are quite good, and the style is fantastic. Looking up Lynd Ward online, I find that also he wrote America’s first wordless novel, God’s Man, entirely from woodcuts - you can see his level of care in the drawings, here.

But the story is odd. Our boy, Johnny Orchard, is embarrassed that his family hadn’t killed a bear. So he goes out to shoot one, and comes home with a cub, instead, which he raises. But the bear wreaks havoc, so he goes out into the woods to shoot it (after trying to take it far away), and the bear is saved at the last moment by a traveling circus. We see Johnny giving the bear maple sugar through the iron bars of a small cage in the last page. The boy looks happy, the bear looks happy.

And I wonder: is this what we want out of nature? An inability to coëxist with it, and a result where it is locked up, diminished, and kept at arm’s length? I think not. The book may be asking that - but the manner in which it does is odd. The author may have been making the end absurd, so that it slides past at first, but then arrests you when you ask questions. But I’m not sure, and I’m left wondering.

Finding God in the Lord of the Rings by Kurt Bruner and Jim Ware

This book was poorly written, incoherent, morally ambiguous, evangelically naïve, and altogether distressing. I stopped reading after page 24, and skipped ahead to the final chapter, after which I wrote the following:

A truly horrific book. Hard to believe that anyone could write with so little self-reflection or intellectual honesty. Unabashedly absurd. An atrocity.

On the up side, this was the only book I immediately sat down and read when unearthing the last of my childhood books from a decade of storage. So, it has that going for it.

The Martian by Andy Weir

I’ve listened to this book half a dozen times. Just now, trying to write this review, I took it down and read the last third again. One of my favorite space books, I’ve heard it described as “competence-porn”. I think that’s a good description.

Innocents Aboard by Gene Wolfe

At least one of these stories scared the hell out of me, How the Bishop Sailed to Inniskeen, and The Tree is My Hat (which I, oddly, think about often, if only for the title). Gene Wolfe is a pleasure to read. He’s smart, and clever, and his stories are beautiful. I wish I could write like this.

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