2017 Reading in Review

Last year was not the most active year in reading for me: I had less time due to getting a full-time job, and I also read quite a bit less non-fiction and scholarly literature, since I was bogged down in volume one of Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History (more on that later).

The most notable part of my 2017 in reading was that more than 80% of the books I read were by female authors. This was a deliberate choice, mostly inspired by my near-overdose of Philip K. Dick in 2016. I read all five volumes of his complete stories that fall, and was struck by his growing misogyny. My brief review of Volume 5 sums up my feelings quite well:

Most of these stories are excellent. Around 1970, however, it seems PKD’s latent but palpable misogyny exploded forth in several stories, most notably “The Pre-Persons”, which is offensive not because it is a barely- disguised polemic against abortion, but because it treats women as stultifying figures who suck all the joy out if life. The same is true of “Chains of Air, Web of Aether”, where one of the only round female characters in his entire output is described as “thanatous” (literally death-inducing) and becomes more and more parasitic, culminating in a de facto married state.

Then, in January 2017, I made the mistake of reading Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (with the additional mistake of reading the later, uncut version). Despite his attempts at representing a progressive vision of society and sexuality, Heinlein’s novel and its naïve protagonist are hopelessly stuck in the misogynistic era in which they were conceived. The one-two punch of Dick and Heinlein’s misogyny turned me increasingly to female authors.

Continuing my theme from the end of 2016, I read mostly science fiction for the first half of the year. I had heard of Connie Willis’ series of novels and short stories on time-travelling historians, so I started with her collection Fire Watch. The title story (and to some extent the rest of the series) is essentially a celebration of the field of social history, emphasizing the experiences of those who lived through pivotal historical events. The standout from the collection for me, however, was “All My Darling Daughters“, which is one of the most disturbing stories I’ve ever read. The uniquely female perspective as reflected in that story strengthened my desire to read (nearly) exclusively female authors over the course of the year.

Next, I read The Handmaid’s Tale, which, as my first Margaret Atwood novel, I like to joke was an attempt to appease my Atwood-expert father. I also read Kelly Link’s collection Stranger Things Happen, inspired by (fellow Wesleyan graduate) composer Katherine Young’s MA thesis, which explored the intersection of the musically familiar and bizarre in much the same way as Link’s stories, which combine realism, fantasy, and horror in a genre known as slipstream. The realism of early 20th century stories by Katherine Mansfield and a young Gertrude Stein came next, often highlighting moments of quiet despair in women’s lives of the period.

The highlight of 2017 for me was reading the first decade’s worth of Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle. The early novels, despite their pulpy titles and premises, bring a marvellously elegant style to science fiction. Le Guin reaches a career high in The Left Hand of Darkness, which is even better than I remembered from when I read it as a teenager, and especially in The Dispossessed, which I would nominate as a candidate for one of the greatest English-language novels of the late 20th century. The Dispossessed is the fulfillment of the failed promise of Stranger in a Strange Land; its protagonist, Shevek, is far more alien on the capitalist and misogynist world of Urras than Heinlein’s Martian Valentine Smith is on Earth.

I rounded out the year with several more contemporary novels, my favourite of which was Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which strikes a balance between family drama and historical epic in China from the 1940s to the present, with music and storytelling binding together disparate lives through several generations and across the Pacific.

Simultaneously with all this, I read Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600, which is more a heavily-annotated reading list than a book one could read as a continuous whole. Moore’s tone is effusive and his passion for the material he discusses is highly infectious, but his technique is far from scholarly and he is maybe a bit too fixated on sex and violence at the expense of other aspects of these texts. Because of its structure, it took me over a year to get through its  more than 700 pages, but I learned a great deal about early fiction from a wide variety of cultures, and have dozens of books to add to my reading list for the future.

 

 

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