My 2017 in Books

This year my reading fell into three broad categories: novels and short fiction, mostly in a popular vein; non-fiction; and graphic novels or collections of comics. As usual, this list doesn’t include single issues of comics, magazines, or other non-book reading (although I did read “Cat Person” like everyone else online; it was fine, but woefully short on lycanthropes). I didn’t read much in the way of new books, except for the books on Tupperware and the history of chicken as a dietary staple, both of which I borrowed from the library.

Austen

The best fiction I read this year was Pride and Prejudice: Jane Austen has been a blind spot for me for a long time, although I felt as though I knew her work by its film adaptations and by the impact her arch, slyly satiric tone has had in popular culture. The experience of reading her lived up to my expectations and confirmed a tendency to take a similar tack I have noticed in my own writing (not that I am executing anywhere near Austen’s level). I have more to read from her, but two novels in one month seemed like plenty.

Moondust

The best non-fiction I read this year was Moondust, an intriguing book by Andrew Smith detailing his attempts to track down and interview all of the remaining lunar astronauts. The questions these men had to ask themselves–“What do you do after you’ve walked on the moon?”–and the varied answers they came up with (including religion, art, teaching, business, and professional futurism) are vivid portraits of mid-life crisis and (for some of them) reinvention. Further, Smith’s quest has a personal dimension as he weaves his own memories of a space age childhood into his narration, essentially asking the same question for himself and America at large: what now? The notion that the moon race was (at least partly) a work of political theater, a brief flurry of activity that had few lasting effects (satellites and computers aside, there are no lunar colonies, no manned missions to Mars, etc.), is now commonplace, but as someone who grew up in the (relatively conservative) Space Shuttle era, it is still bracing to read these accounts of intense national purpose and the incredible drive it took to accomplish the moon launches. What sticks with me after this book, though, are the personalities (quite varied, even within the hyper-specific psychological and career profiling NASA used to choose its crews), the questions they asked themselves in the wake of their momentous voyages, and the different answers they came up with for themselves.

DCBombshells

In comics, Bombshells was a pleasant discovery: writer Marguerite Bennett and artist Marguerite Sauvage create a compelling alternate World War II, one in which the female heroes and villains of DC Comics (Wonder Woman, Batwoman, Harley Quinn, et al) are the only superhumans (so no Superman, Batman, etc.–male characters like Steve Trevor are involved, but as supporting cast). Visually drawing on pinup art, propaganda posters, and commercial art of the 1940s, Bombshells presents a colorful, almost-familiar world while getting to the essence of these characters and remixing DC lore in inventive ways. It also taps into a spirit of optimism and compassion that suits the characters and the setting. The fact that the series was created as a spinoff from a popular series of pinup-style statues of DC characters isn’t surprising–that’s the biz–but the fact that it is so well executed, as if it had been conceived as a story all along, is. (I’ve only read the first two trade collections; I decided to wait for the whole series to be collected so I can read it in one go, so no spoilers please!)

Here’s the complete list, with some additional commentary:

January
The Dark Half, Stephen King
Tekkon Kinkreet: Black & White All in One, Taiyo Matsumoto
Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History, Glen Berger (“Before something can be brilliant, it first has to be competent.”)

February
Roadshow!: The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s, Matthew Kennedy (This book led me to watch Star!, the biopic in which Julie Andrews played music hall performer Gertrude Lawrence, when it aired on TCM. Star! was one of the worst movies I watched this year.)
The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures, Dave Stevens
Mind MGMT Volume One: The Manager, Matt Kindt
Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 1, Jiro Kuwata
The Rocketeer: Hollywood Horror, Roger Langridge and J Bone

March
Bombshells Volume 1: Enlisted, Marguerite Bennett and Marguerite Sauvage et al
Bombshells Volume 2: Allies, Marguerite Bennett and Marguerite Sauvage et al
Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 2, Jiro Kuwata
The Complete Golden Age Airboy & Valkyrie, Fred Kida et al
Gotham City Sirens, Book One, Paul Dini, Guillem March et al
Hit or Myth, Robert Asprin

April
Gotham City Sirens, Book Two, Tony Bedard, Peter Calloway et al
Myth-ing Persons, Robert Asprin
Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records, Amanda Petrusich
Rejected: Tales of the Failed, Dumped, and Canceled, ed. Jon Friedman

May
Nemo Trilogy (Heart of Ice, The Roses of Berlin, River of Ghosts), Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill et al
Wylder’s Hand, J. Sheridan LeFanu
My Life as an Explorer, Sven Anders Hedin

June
Radio Free Albemuth, Philip K. Dick
Murder in Mesopotamia, Agatha Christie
Atomic Bomb Cinema, Jerome F. Shapiro
The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy 1931-1951, Chester Gould

Maybury.cover

July
The Brides of Bellenmore, Anne Maybury
Falcon’s Shadow, Anne Maybury
Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, Glen Weldon
Life of the Party: The Remarkable Story of How Brownie Wise Built, and Lost, a Tupperware Party Empire, Bob Kealing
Tastes Like Chicken: A History of America’s Favorite Bird, Emelyn Rude

August
Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, Craig Nelson
Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth, Andrew Smith

Vault

In September I didn’t read any complete books at all, but as I mentioned then, I read some Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure modules cover to cover (more thoroughly than I read all but a few even when I was actively playing the game, I must confess). After a lucky find at my local comic store, I had a complete copy of one of the most famous series of published modules, the “GDQ” series (so called because it links three adventures against Giants, against the “dark elf” Drow, and against Lolth, the “Queen of the Demon-Web Pits”); I had wanted to read through these to see how well they really flowed as a single epic campaign, but I had forgotten just how much work the Dungeon Master had to do to flesh out these printed modules in order for them to work as adventures. Like most old-school modules, the bulk of the text simply describes the characters and items found in various rooms; it’s up to the Dungeon Master and players to provide the narrative sweep. Furthermore, the motivations of many characters are either only hinted at or are contingent upon the players’ actions. As I once read, an adventure (whether published or written by the DM for his own game) is not a story, but the promise of a story: only when it is inhabited by players and their characters is it brought to life. Reading the GDQ series was an interesting exercise, and it brought back memories of playing some of these adventures as a kid, but it wasn’t quite what I remembered. (These and other classic adventure modules inspired novelizations, as I found, but I haven’t read them; maybe I will some day.)

October
Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Drabble

November
The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws, Margaret Drabble (Like Moondust, this was another book combining historical research with memoir; Drabble’s meditations on the appeal of the mosaic, on the reuniting of fragmented pieces, of the creation of images within images, are relevant to my own writing and composition, and I was astonished to recognize myself in some passages. The book was not exactly a dynamo of forward momentum, however, and like the act of assembling a puzzle itself, reading this book was a ruminative exercise, replete with long pauses for reassessment of the larger whole.)
Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars 1, Jessica Abel

Pulps.Goodstone

December
The Pulps, ed. Tony Goodstone (a collection of reprints from the Golden Age, the “real stuff”)
Chilling Tales of Horror: Dark Graphic Short Stories, Pedro Rodríguez
Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism and All That Jazz, Kevin Jackson

In 2008 I read Brian Eno’s A Year with Swollen Appendices, a sort of diary of the year 1995, on a day-by-day basis: since A Year starts with Eno’s decision to start a diary on January 1, I began reading it at the beginning of the year and read each entry on the corresponding date, over the course of that year. Eno didn’t write an entry for every single day, but it was close enough, and with the various appendices I had something to read from him almost every day: the book became a constant companion, almost a devotional, and absorbing it slowly, over the course of that year, made more of an impression than reading it quickly might have done (and frankly even the most interesting diaries are frequently mundane and repetitive enough that I wouldn’t read them straight through anyway).

Constellation.1922

After keeping an eye out for a similar book that covered a single year in the same way, I came across Constellation of Genius, a day-by-day record of events in 1922 (ranging from the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land to the opening of King Tut’s tomb and the founding of the Irish Free State) and saw an opportunity to read it in the same way. So that has been an ongoing project over the past year. During that year, I’ve been looking at the cover and seeing the blurb “Brilliantly erudite and very funny” attributed to reviewer Robert Macfarlane, and I confess myself mystified. The first part I cannot deny: author Kevin Jackson has brought together a wealth of material from diverse sources, and is an excellent guide in unfamiliar territory, briefly explaining what has been forgotten or needs to be translated, choosing illustrative anecdotes to stand in for the whole and providing multiple entryways for further exploration of his subjects. But “very funny”? Jackson is a dry wit, and many of the stories he shares are humorous, but I can’t recall busting a gut while reading this; perhaps it is the haunting similarity of the political perils he describes–acts of terrorism and war, the rise of fascism and Stalinism–to those of the present. The foreboding of the interwar period tends to overshadow the lives of the artists and writers, making their heroic feats seem small in the scale of the world’s events. On the other hand, the diary format shows how life goes on, and how the larger patterns of history are frequently invisible until viewed in the hindsight of years. There are about fifty pages of “aftermath” following the December 31 entry, describing the later lives and fates of the book’s major players; if I don’t get it finished tomorrow, I expect to soon enough, and it seemed silly not to include this in my 2017 reading on a technicality.

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Medleyana: Year Four

I’ve been thinking about Dungeons & Dragons lately: specifically, the period in the mid-1980s when I was most obsessed with the game. (This is a periodic thing for me: I don’t play anymore, but once or twice a year I get the itch to relive past glories.) I’ve been reading some of the adventure modules and other materials from that era, and one thing I remember is how much time I spent as a kid just reading those same books, poring over the pictures and the endless statistics and rules (well, the rules I mostly skimmed) and regretting that I didn’t get enough serious playing in. I felt like I was missing out. I’ve since heard from many D&D fans who in fact never played the game at all, either because they didn’t have friends who were interested, or they weren’t allowed to play by strict parents, or they just didn’t have enough free time.

I am certainly familiar with the daily ritual of examining gaming materials that would never see a round of melee combat, but my situation was a bit different: in those days, the writers at Dragon and Polyhedron (and, I dunno, White Dwarf I guess) put an awful lot of emphasis on the importance of developing your campaign. “Campaign” was the word for the ongoing game over the long haul, and in particular the interconnected skein of events, personalities, and long-term goals that transformed a series of disconnected sessions and small-stakes adventures into a sweeping epic like The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Amber. A properly developed campaign was, it was hoped, the stuff of legends, the kind of immersive collaborative storytelling that years later would make players wistful as they recalled together, “Do you remember that night in Shanar, the one with the Halfling assassin?” “Ah, yes, I remember it well.” Sighs of contented reminiscence all around. It’s no wonder that the word campaign itself was borrowed from military jargon by way of wargaming: were not a group of players bonded together over time and shared experience in a manner akin to veteran soldiers?

Equally important, at least in the pages of Dragon, was your campaign world. It was fine to play in the World of Greyhawk, the default setting of most of the early published adventure modules (replaced later on by The Forgotten Realms and a number of other prefab settings), but it was assumed that you would only be satisfied with that for so long, and that at best such supplements were to serve as a springboard for your own Great Work, the Magnum Opus of any Dungeon Master: your own individual campaign world, one that you created, and sown with seeds for adventure derived from the unique geography, history, and culture(s) that you came up with. It all sounded very compelling, and just as importantly designing your own world from scratch gave you something to do during that time when you weren’t playing but you were leafing through the rulebooks anyway.

In middle school, I had a lot to learn about worldbuilding, Dungeon Mastering, and storytelling, but that’s not the point of this. No, the main thing I remember about my campaign, set in the world of Ix-Nay, was how it got harder and harder to get all four (and later three) players, including myself, together, until finally we were playing maybe once a year. No wonder Ix-Nay never had the breath of life in it! In roleplaying games, a setting isn’t really a world until it has been set in motion and players have been given a chance to explore it. So I felt that I was missing a key experience in any serious gamer’s career (and as you can tell, I took this calling very seriously indeed).

But here’s the thing: even though my campaign with my custom-made world and handpicked players withered on the vine, in retrospect I played D&D quite a lot. There would be random pick-up games with kids who would come and go, most of these sessions one-shots with characters who were never seen again. There was even a Dungeons & Dragons club at my middle school, held in the art teacher’s room. Sometimes I was the DM and sometimes the player. Sometimes you would be playing with people you didn’t even particularly like. The game experiences I had ranged from total party kills at the hands of rigorous (to a fault) DMs who had strong ideas about the integrity of the game, to freeform fantasies that included guest stars like Bon Jovi. I have a lot of memories of playing D&D (or the mutated offshoots of it we came up with ourselves). Yet at the time, snob that I was, I didn’t think those games “counted” because they weren’t part of my campaign. They were, at best, pre-season or exhibition games (to use the parlance of sports with which I was hardly conversant at the time).

It wasn’t until much later that I renewed my acquaintance with the Devil’s game from the player’s side and experienced some truly excellent Dungeon Mastering. I learned that developing a campaign is a two-way street, built upon the contributions of both Dungeon Master and players, and most of it all it requires regular care and feeding with weekly or biweekly sessions (ultimately I just didn’t have time for that kind of commitment, but I kept it up for a few years). Perhaps that helped put my youthful gaming in perspective: I could stop beating myself up about my “failed” campaign and embrace the fun and growth I had experienced in the “unofficial” side quests. They really hadn’t been so different.

All of which brings me to the changes I’ve gone through in the last year and how that has been reflected in this blog. This weekend marked four years since I began Medleyana, and as I always do at this time of year it’s time to set down a few thoughts about what I’ve done with it and where it’s going. I’ll be the first to admit that writing hasn’t always been the first thing on my mind this year: my work as a musician and teacher has kept me busy, and even “free time” doesn’t always equate to writing time if I really just need to recharge my batteries. (I won’t deny that the dreadful state of our politics has gotten me down as well.) I’ve also noticed that the majority of my blog posts have become reviews: it’s much easier to get the words flowing in response to a movie or a book or comic, and it makes it easier to stop when you reach the end of that topic, as opposed to the open-ended ruminations that Medleyana started out as.

At the same time, however, when I look back at the past year, I’ve actually done a fair amount of writing. Although there were some gaps in posting, I’ve averaged about two entries a month, and I can be proud of what I’ve written (revisiting my first year, it strikes me that many posts were filler, born of self-imposed deadlines). Among other things, I also completed the draft of a novel earlier this summer, an undertaking of at least the last four years or so (another one of those “small” projects that grew bigger as I went); it’s still in need of complete rewriting before it will be fit for any kind of public consumption, but being able to write THE END on it, even in the state it’s in, has been a real relief, and is perhaps one reason I can look at what I’ve published this year and be okay with it.

Ultimately, just as I learned when playing D&D, there is little difference between what I see as my “real” work and what I produce in the mean time: it’s all part of the process, and it takes just as much focus to write a good blog post as it does to complete a novel, the only difference being the length and the relative challenge of sustaining that focus over the long haul: the difference between a one-off adventure and a campaign, if you will.