2018 in Review: Reading Stats, Music, and Miscellanea

2018 is drawing to a close, and in a lot of ways it feels like the longest year I have ever lived. It was a good year though, lots of change and new things coming on the horizon. Can I just mention how satisfying it has been to watch Trump’s presidency begin to crumble all around him these past few weeks? Every day is like a beautiful gift.

Kevin Kelsey at Petit Jean State ParkThings I did this year: slept through a third of it, turned 34, read a bunch of books, kicked Facebook and Instagram to the curb, closed the computer repair business I have been running for the last eleven years, raised three and a half chickens in my backyard, ate their eggs (tasty), helped save The Expanse, paid off my house (yeeees), wrote a few terrible short stories that I’m going to fix in 2019, voted, subscribed to a newspaper, volunteered at the Blair library, went on a podcast, camped/hiked at Petit Jean State Park, published a few dozen reviews and essays, went on a lot of bike rides, started writing a thing with my brother, had a few panic attacks, distanced myself from the panic inducing news cycle, and finally finished a bunch of house projects.

The Gigantic Beard that was EvilI read fewer books in 2018 than any other recent year. I bailed on a lot of books halfway through as well, something I usually don’t do. When I hit a point where the only thing keeping me engaged is the resolution of the plot—a thirst that could easily be quenched with a quick Google search or wiki article—there’s not much point continuing until the end. Where I’m at right now, if something doesn’t grab me with its prose, entrance me with its characters, or wow me with its world building in addition to telling a great story, I’m just not interested. If there is no subtext to be found in a story, a ragtag spaceship crew is only a ragtag spaceship crew, and sure, that’s fun, but that’s been done a million times.

As a result, I’ve read about half as many books this year compared to 2017, but they have mostly been a higher caliber experience, and I’ve found many new favorites—Several of which I still haven’t written about, mostly because I’m trying to get my take on them just right.

Mr. GwynNew favorites I discovered in 2018:
Mr. Gwyn, by Alessandro Baricco
The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin
The Wilds, by Julia Elliott
Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion
The Gone World, by Tom Sweterlitsch (review)
Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway (review)
Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid (review)
The Gigantic Beard that was Evil, by Stephen Collins
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
The Consuming Fire, by John Scalzi

2018 Reading Stats
Because I’ve been obsessively tracking my reading habits via a Google Docs spreadsheet over the last four years, I have some fun stats to share. Click any of the charts to see the full document with lots of charts and graphs.

This year:

  • I read 18,537 pages spread across 65 books published from 1932 to 2018, written by 58 writers from 8 different countries.
  • I averaged 50.79 pages per day, and 5.48 days per book.
  • The author I read the most was John Scalzi. Mostly because I was sick for a week in October and I did nothing but read Scalzi books, one right after another. I highly recommend it.

Detailed Reading Stats

Of the books I read in 2018:

  • 6.2% were audiobooks
  • 46.2% were trade paperbacks
  • 21.5% were non-fiction
  • 11.1% were short story collections
  • 29.3% won awards
  • 32.3% were part of a series
  • 26.2% were written by women
  • 4.7% were translated from a foreign language
  • 39.2% were science fiction
  • 4.6% were written by people of color (this is abysmal, it’s something I’m improving in 2019)

Detailed Reading Stats

2018 Music

I found so much incredible music in 2018. Janelle Monáe’s terrific Dirty Computer, The Presets’ nineties electronica throwback HI VIZ, and Metric’s Art of Doubt were all on high circulation in my headphones this year.

One of my favorite musical discoveries of 2018 is Cigarettes After Sex. They’re incredible. Calm like Mazzy Star, but with highly sexualized lyrics. Their vocalist’s voice is just transcendently soothing and beautiful.

Here are the 100 songs I listened to the most in 2018. There are some incredible tracks in here, but then again, I’m extremely biased.

Things I’m excited for in 2019

Be excellent to each other. See everyone in 2019!

Other Worlds, Other Gods, edited by Mayo Mohs

Other Worlds, Other GodsI’m a sucker for speculative fiction anthologies, especially these themed editions from the sixties and seventies. There’s something aesthetically vibrant about old sci-fi paperbacks, with their weirder-than-thou cover art depicting God knows what strangeness in an attempt to grab the wandering eyes of potential readers.

I found this tattered copy hiding somewhere in the middle of a big stack of mass market SF in the local warehouse of an online bookseller. This was a few years ago, back when they used to let you wander around their warehouse; they’ve since closed it up and only sell online, which if you ask me, is a real loss. I spent a lot of hours and dollars in that place back then, based only on a weird cover that I had to check out. A title and an ISBN in a list on a website just doesn’t compare to those stacks of musty books.

Other Worlds, Other Gods was published in the early seventies, and contains stories ranging from the fifties to the sixties, all religiously themed. A few of these were originally commissioned and published by the late Harlan Ellison® in the first of his Dangerous Visions anthologies.

There are only two or three terrific stories, a few decent ones, and a few that weren’t particularly good but at least were interesting conceptually, with prose that left a little to be desired. All of the stories however, are worth reading and finishing, and the book itself, long since out of print, is worth tracking down for the terrific seventies SF artwork. I greatly enjoyed the collection and ended up finishing it in a few sittings.

The Cunning of The beast, by Nelson Bond: 4/5
Fun concept, great execution. I would’ve liked a little more info on these non-corporeal beings that authored man though.

A Cross of Centuries, by Henry Kuttner: 3/5
Good/Evil internal struggle. A little formulaic, relied too heavily on a reveal toward the end that was entirely predictable. Posed some nice philosophical questions though: Does the end justify the means? What power to facilitate change toward peace does a peaceful person really have?

Soul Mate, by Lee Sutton: 4/5
I liked this concept a lot, and disliked the protagonist with a passion. I am fairly sure that his fevered misogyny was written as a negative character trait, and not so much as the author’s voice. You never know with some of this old sci-fi. Different times, etc…

The Word to Space, by Winston P. Sanders: 3/5
The idea of contacting an alien race and having their sole pursuit be proselytization is such a hilariously juicy concept. The exposition was terribly clunky, and the resolution seemed a bit idealistic (breaking up a theocracy simply by illustrating its flaws and logical problems). In a perfect world, etc, but that’s not how people behave in reality. Having this suggestion come from Catholicism of all sources, was a little more irony than I could accept.

Prometheus, by Philip Jose Farmer: 3/5
This is the longest story in the collection. A planet where birds seem to be the dominant species, nearly capable of audible speech. A monk is sent to observe their development and begins to interfere. I think that this would work a little better as a full novel, or even a series of novels. The birds progressed much too quickly to be believable. The ethical and theological concerns this monk has over the group that is eventually following his lead, is the core of the story, and was handled decently.

The Nine Billion Names of God, by Arthur C. Clarke: 2/5
A cautionary tale of sorts. The lesson? Don’t look down on those who seem less intelligent than yourself. Cliche story, but Clarke’s writing style is worth a couple stars on it’s own. I’ve seen this story get high marks from a lot of SF aficionados, and my dislike may be a case of having read it much too late in my life.

The Vitanuls, by John Brunner: 5/5
Such an amazing short story. Stop what you’re doing now and track it down.

Judas, by John Brunner: 5/5
Okay, I have to read more John Brunner. This story was incredible and exactly the type of thing I was looking for from this book. Easily my favorite of them all.

The Quest for Saint Aquin, by Anthony Boucher: 4/5
A catholic priest and a robot donkey (“robass” really? Couldn’t think of a better name for it?) ride in search of a miracle in a future where Christians are a persecuted minority. It’s not as bad as it sounds. Actually, it was quite good.

Balaam, by Anthony Boucher: 2/5
The only thing that really saves this story for me was the multisided POVs. Again, Boucher found a way to work in a “Mule” character, this time on Mars.

Evensong, by Lester del Rey: 4/5
A desperate God on the run from Man’s vengeance. The idea of man slowly becoming more and more powerful, until God fears Man is really intriguing. Nice prose.

Shall The Dust Praise Thee?, by Damon Knight: 3/5
God’s vengeance may have been a little bit more than he bargained for. It seems that man could only take so much torment. This could’ve been executed a lot better, but I liked the concept.

Christus Apollo, by Ray Bradbury: 3/5
Poetic speculations into a slightly differing Christ mythology on other worlds.

The Dispatcher, by John Scalzi

The Dispatcher, by John Scalzi

I find that speculative fiction is usually best when married with another genre. Personally, I’m partial to a good mystery. Set that mysterious tale in a science fiction/fantasy setting, and I’m probably going to be on board. In my eyes it’s a longstanding recipe for success: Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict novels, The Gone World, Altered Carbon, Leviathan Wakes, Zero World, Gnomon. The list is great mystery/spec fic novels is unknowably long.

The basic idea: Would you murder someone if it also meant saving their life? The Dispatcher is a tightly constructed urban fantasy mystery, set in a world mostly like ours but with one key difference: When someone is murdered, they disappear and materialize at home, alive and well in their bed. This happens nine hundred ninety-nine times out of a thousand. This small change sets the stage for a truly unique murder mystery, with a main character and setting I desperately hope Scalzi returns to. If there were more stories set in this world, I would read them all. Come to think of it, there’s room on my shelf for a nice paperback collection of Dispatcher novellas. Got a nice little spot for it, all ready to go. Write, Scalzi, write.

John ScalziI’m not usually into urban fantasy, but this one is quite different. Most people hear urban fantasy and think werewolves and vampires and magical objects which, while technically true, isn’t all urban fantasy is capable of. The way I see it, urban fantasy has two rules: 1. The story is told in a somewhat contemporary setting, e.g., not middle earth and 2. The impossible happens. Everything else is just how the writer wants to use those building blocks to tell their story. Something Scalzi has done a terrific job of here. The fact that he usually writes science fiction serves to make his branching out into fantasy all the more interesting and rewarding.

The Dispatcher is a prime example of how quality fantasy world building can have far reaching ethical, societal, and industry specific ramifications. It also explores that impact pretty thoroughly for a novella. Like proverbial butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane, one little modification to the world we’re accustomed to changes so many aspects of human society and social norms. It impacts everything from the kinds of intimidation organized crime families utilize, to the methods detectives use to investigate them. Insurance policies, experimental surgical procedures, and even frat boy posturing are all changed.

“I know what side of the street I like better. But you don’t always get to choose the side of the street you walk on.”

I listened to the Audible audiobook version of this last year. Zachary Quinto provided the narration, and turned in a graceful performance—bringing each character to life with subtlety. It was nice to listen to a Scalzi book not narrated by Wil Wheaton for once. Not that I have anything against Wil Wheaton, I’ve just grown a little tired of his narrative style.

This year I read the hardcover edition published by Subterranean press. In addition to the text, Vincent Chong has provided several illustrations of key scenes. He draws in an almost airbrushed hyper-realistic style that’s difficult to describe, but it truly brings the story to life. Having experienced this story in both formats, it’s hard to recommend one over the other, so I’ll wholeheartedly recommend them both. Whatever form you enjoy your books in, the Dispatcher isn’t something to be missed.

Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid: The World Made Flat

Exit West, by Mohsin HamidMohsin Hamid has created something wonderful with this endearing, and perfectly formed short novel. What an evocative and striking way to discuss refugees, ideological war, tribalism, and love. This book broke through my exterior barriers and nurtured something tender inside of me. It seems for the most part, people are really the same, and we all want the same things regardless of where we come from: security, companionship, and the means to better ourselves. The things we’ve lived through, our experiences, coalesce and form us into who we are, shaping the basis of what we might become.

“We are all migrants through time.”

Windows and doors feature heavily in Exit West. The dangers of the ongoing war between the militants and the government in our protagonists’ unnamed middle eastern country, enter through windows. As the war grows more serious, every glass pane holds within it the potential to become lacerating shrapnel. The ongoing fighting perverts everything into something it was never intended to be. Windows into shrapnel. Streets into battlegrounds. Characters are killed accidentally through the glass windshields of their cars by misguided munitions. Windows are boarded up, taped up, or obscured for security, limiting the light available indoors.

Doors are where the magical aspect of the story comes into play. Most of the time doors operate as normal, allowing passage from one room to another, from outside to inside, or inside to out. But sometimes, at seemingly random and unpredictable moments, certain doors have started leading elsewhere, to adjacent doors in other lands. Offering a means of escape from local dangers, and passage to the relative safety and wealth of the West. Doors like these are opening up all over the world, and just as the relative size of the world was flattened and reduced dramatically with the invention of the internet, these doors literally fold and flatten the space between the Eastern and Western, Southern and Northern corners of the world. The myriad ways in which this change impacts the societies in the novel was the most interesting aspect of the story for me.

As the effective distance between continents diminishes, the realities of the world that were once far away from the wealthy and fortunate, were once nebulous and ethereal to them, are made vividly real and close. Travel, particularly meeting and interacting with those unlike ourselves, is said to be one of the best ways to overcome existing prejudices and preconceived notions about those from human tribes different from our own. With these doors that have started connecting us, everyone, everywhere has now come into contact with several individuals unlike themselves. Millions begin fleeing from the poorer nations to the richer ones, and this starts to cause a rapid change and instability among the natives of the richer lands.

“Location, location, location, the realtors say. Geography is destiny, respond the historians.”

This change is met with a variety of responses: fear, compassion, intrigue, curiosity, hope, etc. What Exit West does so well is give a glimpse into the daily realities of refugees fleeing from war torn countries, the sorts of terrors they can be running from, the sort of hope they often subside on. It broke my heart, and I think will go a long way toward making me a better, more compassionate person.

In addition to the wonderful social commentary, Exit West is also a love story of the highest caliber, a magically real fairy tale, unafraid to shy away from the realities of love, loss, and the changes quickened or postponed by devastating circumstances. The relationship between Saeed and Nadia grows and expands as the narrative progresses. They are one thing to each other in the beginning and another thing entirely by the end. They meet as students of higher education in their country of origin, and I found it interesting to compare and contrast their story with that of a western couple meeting for the first time at a college in America. In a lot of ways, the extreme situations they find themselves in, possibly hold them together for longer than would be ideal had they been born into different circumstances.

As someone who has never had a similar experience, I found the ways in which Nadia was able to insulate and protect herself in a culture she felt somewhat apart from, particularly interesting. The ways in which a system sometimes inadvertently makes available tools with which we can protect ourselves from that system is a fascinating area to examine. I think it speaks toward the ingenuity of humans to utilize everything that is available to us to better our prospects and secure the future we desire.

“He knew how little it took to make a man into meat: the wrong blow, the wrong gunshot, the wrong flick of a blade, turn of a car, presence of a microorganism in a handshake, a cough. He was aware that alone a person is almost nothing.”

All of my friends who have previously read Exit West specifically mentioned to me that the ending crushed them, brought them to tears or reduced them into a weeping, bumbling mess. It didn’t have that effect on me at all. Instead, I found it unbelievably beautiful, and I sat in contemplative awe, marveling at how perfect the ending was, that the author had pulled it off so elegantly. How in retrospect it was the only possible real ending, and the one I hoped the book would arrive at. It was an evocative, emotionally satisfying scene to finish the story.

To me, Exit West is overall, a hopeful novel, but it touches on deadly serious themes and the brutalities of human existence. I found it moving and beautifully expressed. It is a book that I plan on revisiting many times throughout my life.