I am still running an bit behind on my usual end of the year posts, though this time I am going to blame Good Reads because the email reminding me about my year in reading review failed to show up in my inbox.
It got lost somewhere along the way, but the report itself was generated and available to view off of my profile page on the site once I realized it had gone missing and went to go find it. You can look at it yourself if you so desire, of just look at the summary below if you prefer.
At this point, like so many other annual posts, I have started to build a history that you can go back and look at for comparison.
But, generally speaking, I read about the same number of books and the same number of pages as I have done in previous years, which kind of surprised me because there were stretches of 2021 where I really wasn’t in the mood.
But I did have a burst of reading at the end of the year that probably made up for the slow points along the way.
The other thing about 2021 was that it involved a lot of returns to books I had already read. The year started off with the final book of The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, which always feels deceptively short after the first two books, and not just because it is padded out with more than 100 pages of appendices. The main thread of the story, the fate of the one ring, wraps up fairly quickly and then, in a turn that few authors would bother with (or maybe few publishers would allow), we spend about half of the book with everybody wrapping things up, going home, and getting back to their daily lives.
So now I have to set about picking out my five favorites of the year, which has become the custom around here, and the choices are not easy. I could very easily list ten or a dozen that I enjoyed, but picking just five makes me consider my choices and juggle often conflicting criteria.
This is all complicated a bit by the fact that, as with the academy awards, more recent titles figure more prominently in my memory than things I read last February or March. Though, to counter that, anything that I do recall from ten or eleven months back must have been pretty good to still be in my head. Then again, as I mentioned above, I went through a spate of comfort re-reading of titles for which I had fond memories, so they also loom larger in my brain.
In the end, I picked five, as the title suggested. But I vacillated on which five a few times before finally landing on this five… though, given another day I might have swapped out four of them for something else. It has been that sort of year.
Crete 1941: The Battle and the Resistance
Not the first time Anthony Beevor has come up here on the blog. As I have said in the past he writes with such a deft combination of depth and accessibility, looking at both individual stories and the overall picture that it is quite easy to become engrossed in the tales he recounts. As usual, he starts in with how Crete become a focus of the war, the personalities who guided the battle, the pasts that shaped them, and the lead in as to how they came into conflict. The campaign in the Mediterranean was a British fiasco and a strange cast of characters, from the classical gifted amateurs to the bumbling professionals, wander in and out of the drama. And then there are the residents of the island itself who resisted the Germans during and after the battle and who paid a price for their stubborn determination. Crete doesn’t rank up with Stalingrad, Berlin, Normandy, or Arnhem, other battles Beevor has covered, in scope or scale. But his work is of such quality that tale itself outweighs the significance of the struggle.
Unlike Anthony Beevor, Julian T. Jackson was unknown to me until I picked up him biography of Charles De Gaulle. The book is long, detailed, and occasionally a bit frustrating to read, though that is more the fault of the subject than the author. Charles De Gaulle was a difficult man and, as such, the tale of his life must include him being difficult… difficult, proud, haughty, and more than a bit antagonistic at times towards people you might see as his only allies. Noted mostly in retrospect for being a proponent or armored warfare before the war broke out, he fled to England when France capitulated to the Germans in 1940, refusing to give up the fight. Starting with almost nothing in London, where the British government didn’t quite know what to do with him, complicated relations with the Vichy government of France as he did, he became the living epitome of the French nation and its redemption after its humiliation, carried on by ego and determination as much as anything. He shaped post-war France and his influence is felt even today. The book charts his career, his many ups and downs, his difficult relationships with others, and his strongly held beliefs that guided him when things were darkest for France.
Bored of the Rings
I am clearly past the serious titles now. Written by Henry Beard and Douglas Kenney of the Harvard Lampoon in 1969, it is a parody of The Lord of the Rings that derives its humor from more angles than you might think. The names of most every thing, the attitudes, the flow of the tale, even the forward are all send ups of the original that are both humorous and yet betray an affection for the original work that is hard to describe. There is even a parody of the map of Middle-earth in the same style as the original. And, in an odd parallel to the work it parodies, it has remained in print since it was first published. You can buy a new copy from Amazon today, though I still have two copies of sitting on my bookshelf.
It is also hard to describe the influence this silly book has had on my sense of humor and personality. It along with Mad Magazine and Catch-22 no doubt combined to give me the rather cynical eye which I posses along with the ability to laugh at the absurdities of life. The book is also something of a test. People who get upset about this book because they feel it tarnishes the original on which it was based are clearly too self-serious to be around.
In 2021 I picked up the audiobook version, which has been updated and annotated because some of the humor in the book depends on consumer brand names that were popular when the book was written, many of which have fallen by the wayside. But even the annotations cannot take themselves seriously and the both educate and add to the humor.
Bill the Galactic Hero
Another oldie, though this one was more difficult to find. My well worn copy of this Harry Harrison classic is no longer legible after all of these years and it has been out of print for ages. In addition, a series of very poor follow on titles in the series “co-authored” by other writers (which is to say written by somebody else) are still hanging around, all with Bill the Galactic Hero in the title. Accept no substitutes, no Planet of the Robot Slaves, which is at times listed as Book 1 (and was the only one Harrison was involved with), or other entries in the series. Only the original will do.
After quite a bit of digging I was eventually able to find an ebook version of it, and it was worth the effort. Bill the Galactic Hero is a parody of the then popular jingoistic nationalism that was being portrayed in titles like Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, the pretension of SciFi coming out of its golden age, as well as the general attitude of the US government as it blundered its way into the 1960s.
The tale follows Bill (later reduced to Bil, because only officers get two Ls in their name) who is shanghaied from his life on the farm and inducted into the military of the empire, another body to be expended in the empires war against the Chiggers, a four armed reptilian species that is in a life and death struggle with humanity. He is fed through the system, manages to show some minor competence in a battle, is decorated, gets lost on the capital planet, is declared AWOL, gets caught, punished, and put through the wringer, discovering the truth about the war along the way.
The Frontlines Series
In a bit of a cop out, my last entry is seven books (and a short story), all of which I read towards the end of the year. In an age of binge watching I did a bit of binge reading. The series by Marko Kloos follows Andrew Grayson, who grows up in the welfare complexes of the North American Confederation, the political entity that rules the US, Canada, and at least part of Mexico in the future. With no hope of work, he applies to the military, which is extremely selective about the candidates it accepts. Those who are allowed in must pass a rigorous training cycle, from which they can be washed out for any reason. But the benefits include real food, rather than the soy based rations of the welfare complexes, an enlistment bonus payable if they complete their term of service, and a sense of purpose in their lives. Grayson makes the cut… he’s the main character, so duh… and ends up in the armed forces of the NAC, which primarily fights against the Sino-Russian alliance or their own citizens when they rise up in protest.
And then aliens show up. Incomprehensible, huge, and technologically advanced beyond humanity, they start taking human off world colonies one by one as Earth tries to come to grips with this mortal peril. There is no communications, these aliens just land on the colonies, gas the settler concentrations, then setup terraformers that quickly change the atmosphere into a carbon monoxide mix that is unbreathable by humans. And, of course, they are heading towards Earth eventually.
The series follow Grayson and his time in service, fighting human as well as alien enemies. I mentioned in the first book in a post back in 2014 about titles that were kicking off series. As I said back then, it isn’t hard scifi and it doesn’t get too bogged down in the how or why of technology. It is, like a lot of good scifi, an exploration of society, trends, and how humans behave under extreme circumstances. And the series is compelling and an easy read.
Here is where I try and do an end run around picking just five titles, and I am going to pick out two… though which two? I had a hard time with even that. But here is what I have.
The first is The World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 by G. J. Meyer.
I have read a lot of books about WWI. It was such a seminal event at the opening of the 20th century that at times it seems like every historian feels the need to take a crack at some aspect of it. But it is difficult to walk the line between too abstract from the horrors of the war and being too mired in the details of battle in crafting a general history of the war. But, of the attempts I have read, this one threads the needle between the two extremes… managing to get into enough detail, keeping abreast of all fronts, and discussing the politics behind and around the war… better than anything I can recall.
And my other pick, which is also from the military history pile, is Rising Sun, Falling Skies: The Disastrous Java Sea Campaign of World War II by Jeffrey R. Cox.
This is the opposite of The World Undone, mired in detail about what has become something of an obscure campaign at the start of the war in the Pacific. Lots of facts and tactics and equipment along with an exploration of the personalities and the politics that motivated them.
How good was this book? Well, on my bookshelf I also have a copy of The Fleet the Gods Forgot: The U.S. Asiatic Fleet in World War II by W.G. Winslow, which is a solid telling of the campaign already, though focused more on the US aspect of it specifically. I felt like both books together gave depth to the tale the way that two speakers spaced just right give you stereo sound. They overlap significantly, diverge occasionally, but provide something akin to a stereoscopic view of events.
There is one person who might read this for whom that second honorable mention was for.
And that was it for 2021. Now we’re in 2022 and I am off and looking for the next title to read.