Jaffalogue’s Best Reads of 2015: Part 1

What a great year for reading! I posted more than 300 reviews this year and have some recommendations to give in many different genres. I will try to limit the “Best of” Awards to things published in 2015 or re-published in 2015 after getting first noticed in 2014. [This is common for short stories and novellas.]

POETRY: [tie]

If Your Matter Could Reform
–Robert Okaji’s If Your Matter Could Reform is exquisite. [5 beautiful stars] Note that his poetry blog is listed below in best creative writing blogs of the year, too.
Cut-up Apologetic
–Jamie Sharpe’s Cut-up Apologetic is funny, sharp, and poignant. [5 pointed stars] Canada should be proud.

Cat Lady
Honorable mention to the best long narrative poem I read this year: Mary M Schmidt’s Cat Lady. [4 fantastical stars]
 
 
 
 

GRAPHIC PUBLICATION:

Saga, Volume 5–Fiona Staples [illustrator] and Brian K. Vaughan [writer] for Saga, Volume 5. [5 imaginative stars] Read the whole series; it’s half guilty pleasure and half brilliant political commentary.

Trees, Vol. 1 (Trees #1)Honorable mention to Warren Ellis [writer] and Jason Howard [illustrator] for Trees, Vol. 1. [4 socially-aware stars] This is a series to watch out for.
 
 
 
 
 

NONFICTION:

Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on EarthEvolving Ourselves by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans. [4 delving stars] Speculative science probing the forefront of the genetics game.
 
 
 
 
 
 

ANTHOLOGIES [single author]: [tie]

Nothing Is Strange–Mike Russell’s Nothing Is Strange. [4 absurd stars] Absurdism at its best, and unrelentingly so.

Ghost Summer–Tananarive Due’s Ghost Summer [4 eerie-&-bleak stars] Southern decadence, apocalypse and horror stirred together.
 
 
 
 
 

ANTHOLOGIES [themed, multiple authors]:

Mermaids and Other Mysteries of the DeepMermaids and Other Mysteries of the Deep editted by Paula Guran for Prime books. [4 dysmorphic stars] Gender dysphoria and body dysmorphia are explored across cultures and traditions.
 
 
 
 
 

ANTHOLOGIES [unthemed, multiple authors]: [tie]

Writers of the Future Volume 31Writers of the Future Volume 31. [4 emergent stars] A diverse cast of previously unpublished fantasy and sci-fi competition winners.

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, 2015 EditionThe Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2015The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas 2015
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 –The 3 tome set of Prime Books “Best of 2015” series [4 synthesizing stars]:
     The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: 2015 editted by Paula Guran.
     The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2015 editted by Rich Horton.
     The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas: 2015 editted by Paula Guran.

BLOG [poetry, single author]

–Robert Okaji’s O at the Edges. He also authored one of the poetry collection picks above.

BLOG [creative writing, single author]

–Dakota Lopez’s Tales from Atelinor. A series of fantasy shorts spanning millenia on one non-Earth world.

BLOG [creative writing e-magazine]

The Eunoia Review. Mostly poetry, some short fiction. Posts twice daily.

Do you agree? Disagree? Did I overlook a big one? Feel free to let me know.

In Jaffalogue’s Best Reads of 2015: Part 2, I conclude my “Best Of” picks with fiction short stories, novellas and novels broken down by genre including fantasy, urban fantasy, sci-fi, horror, thriller and more. Happy reading.

Canon Fodder-Friday: Nonfiction

For my final foray into considering the educational canon, I’d like to include nonfiction. Many speeches, letters and treatises have had a profound effect on the modern world as it relates to politics, economics, sciences, philosophy, the penal code, and human rights among other things. The following is my top ten non-fiction canon for works written in the last 250 years:

1) 1764 — On Crime and Punishment by Cesare Beccaria

This treatise was spread by Voltaire long after Beccaria lived out his life largely under house-arrest just for having written it. It suggested the first arguments against capital punishment, torture, and cruel and unusual punishment. It called for punishments to fit the crimes.

2) 1776 — The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith [Hello free market.]
3) 1776 — “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine and The Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson
4) 1845 — Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass
5) 1848 — The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
6) 1859 — On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
7) 1863 — “The Gettysburg Address” and The Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln
8) 1869 — The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill
9) 1958 — Night by Elie Wiesel
10) 1963 — “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr.

My three previous Friday posts listed Top 10s that included poetry, plays, and novels written in European languages. As of yet, I have not included a single graphic work in any of these lists, so I’d like to propose an eleventh item for this list as I think graphic works can be just as important and literary as non-graphic works.

11) 1991 — Maus by Art Spiegelman

What would you include in such a list, or what would you exclude? Let me know.

April is International Poetry Month. My Friday posts with all be poetry-related:
April 3rd– Poetry Forms I: Haikus and Limericks
April 10th– Poetry Forms II: Sonnets, Villanelles and Sestinas
April 17th– Poetry: Rhyming and Sounds
April 24th– Poetry: Avoiding Abstractions and Cliches

Review: Evolving Ourselves

Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on EarthEvolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on Earth by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book explains the frontline research of contemporary genetics and then explores the potential in speculative science. Bridging the gap between science and science fiction, the culpability of the human race in modern evolution is outlined.

For four billion years, nature selected what lived and died. Life forms adapted by mutating randomly so that at least a few specimens sometimes hit the jackpot and survived . . . [Darwin] is not right anymore. Over the past century, as our species grew by billions, concentrated in cities, smartened, and domesticated itself and its surroundings, we became the fundamental driver of what lives and dies. . . Half the landmass on Earth is now covered by what humans want, not by what would naturally grow without the intervention of our species. Oceans, rivers, and lakes are depleted. In just a few centuries, we have terraformed, fertilized, fenced, seeded, and irrigated enormous sections of what was once forest, savannah, desert, and tundra to accommodate our plants, our animals, our wishes. This is unnatural selection.

There is much humans do not yet know as we dabble, such as the intricate interplay between the human genome, epigenome [turning on and off of gene expression], microbial biome [especially of the gut], and the barely researched virome [the viruses living off the host and the host’s bacterial flora]. Changes in any of these genomes affects not just the individual, but generations to come. We also do not yet understand the side effects of human domestication, such as explosions in rates of obesity, diabetes, allergies, and autism.

Entering the realm of speculative science and the future of humanity, this book also explores the future of human enhancement on athletics, and space travel and colonization. More questions are asked than answers given, but that is precisely what drives science into new realms.

I received this book through Goodreads’ First Reads Giveaway.
 
 
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: Eternal Ephemera: Adaptation and the Origin of Species from the Nineteenth Century Through Punctuated Equilibria and Beyond

Eternal Ephemera: Adaptation and the Origin of Species from the Nineteenth Century Through Punctuated Equilibria and BeyondEternal Ephemera: Adaptation and the Origin of Species from the Nineteenth Century Through Punctuated Equilibria and Beyond by Niles Eldredge
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Anti-science sentiments rise to the top periodically whether it be from anti-vaxxers, climate-change deniers, or adherents of intelligent design. I am a strongly pro-science person and a fan of science fiction which at its basis should understand science and then speculate from that strong understanding. At times, it’s nice to dig into a nonfiction book for a fresh perspective. Personally, I’ve been a fan of the writings of Stephen Jay Gould, which brings me to this book–the most recent by Niles Eldredge who co-wrote with Gould a controversial essay early in their careers promoting the idea of punctuated equilibria. Essentially, evolution is happening, but not at the constant deeply gradual pace that has often been conjectured. Rather, it usually happens in concentrated bursts by micro-populations that have become isolated from the core range and population of a given species. This book is largely making the same argument forty years later, while needlessly defending itself from accusations of being anti-Darwinian.

This book succeeds its mission to trace the competing hypotheses of evolution from the early Nineteenth Century with the writings of Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Italian Giambattista Brocchi through Charles Darwin up to the Twenty-First Century. It does not allows any past evolution-theorist to be summed up in a pithy one-sentence overview, which for historical accuracy purposes is a good thing. The various essays, letters and notebooks are analyzed by line through the development of hypotheses–two hundreds years of academia outlined. As a work of synthesis and scholarly archive, the book is thorough. What it isn’t is populist. It is not trying to be interesting to those outside the sciences as the writings of Gould are. Most of the case studies that led to various insights have been stripped away. The tiniest of differences between ideas are quibbled repeatedly.

What I enjoyed most in this book was seeing how early some ideas were being discussed. Easily a hundred years before plate tectonics and land-bridges were being conjectured came a quote within the context of an argument on species differentiation: “in those high northern latitudes, where the continents were undoubtedly at one time conjoined” [Jameson 1826]. Gems like this and watching the separate fields of geology, biology and paleontology converge in their world-view managed to keep me trudging through this book. I received a free copy from NetGalley for reviewing purposes.
 
 
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Review: Peter Orlovsky, A Life in Words: Intimate Chronicles of a Beat Writer by Peter Orlovsky edited by Bill Morgan

Peter Orlovsky, a Life in Words: Intimate Chronicles of a Beat WriterPeter Orlovsky, a Life in Words: Intimate Chronicles of a Beat Writer by Peter Orlovsky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This collection of poems, letters and journals entries with a few random photos thrown in was not what I expected it to be. That leaves me disappointed, but the fault is mine. Bill Morgan is an archivist and this is nothing if not an archive. It’s just not much more than that.

Peter Orlovsky, as Allen Ginsberg’s companion and lover for over 40 years, was in the thick of the Beat Movement and chronicling his experiences in his journal for much of it. Through his eyes and voice, the travels and musings of many key figures in the movement are witnessed extensively: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, and Neal Cassady. As Ann Charters notes in the Foreward, “For literary historians, Peter’s account of his daily life with Ginsberg, Corso, Kerouac, and Burroughs is probably the most detailed we will ever have.” Also seen are a lot of drugs, sex and jazz/rock-n-roll/punk. These are the key figures and key subjects that the movement is known for. In a more conservative time, the beats pushed the envelope and were open and experimental with their drugs and their sexuality both in words and action:

[excerpt from a Nov. 03, 1958 letter from Peter Orlovsky to Gregory Corso] ” . . . Jack [Kerouac] has been banging us [Orlovsky and Ginsberg] for being queers–especially when he’s drunk–so I, when Jack comes on like this, go after Jack with outpouring of love and raping him with words. . . . A few days ago . . . [Bach] was playing and such beautiful music that we all danced to it and it was so beautiful I started to blow Allen and Jack [was] sitting there–Allen was so scared and shy in front of Jack that he wanted to go into the other room, but I wanted to blow Allen while he danced to beautiful music, so angel magical it sounded–I’m tired of being afraid of Jack and shying my words up . . . “

Undoubtedly, for those interested in the lives of the Beats, this scrap book of letters and journals will satisfy. It also gives almost equal time to Peter’s letters and journals to and about his family which proved to be illuminating. The book starts with Peter at 21, months before meeting Allen. He’s been discharged from the army as psychologically unfit citing “schizophrenia, paranoid.” His parents have split while each spending time in psychiatric hospitals. Eventually, Peter and all four siblings of his will spend time in psychiatric hospitals. Terms such as frontal lobotomy and electroshock therapy get thrown around. Needless to say, Peter is not exactly stable before he starts to experiment with, use and abuse drugs.

I was disappointed, however, because I wanted to see the letters and poetry contextualized. I did not want this book to be a companion. We see the letters that Peter wrote, but none of the replies, nothing written to him. I don’t want to have to look up the letters to Peter to fill in the conversations. This was especially true of the poetry. I wanted to see the poetics at work. The Beats changed the game with poetry; they broke and re-wrote the rules. Peter was there when Allen wrote and read Howl for the first time. Peter also later lectured on poetry. But, no copies of a single lecture are included. What he had to say on the subject of poetics is conspicuously missing. Charters wrote that Peter inspired Beat writers with his “emotionally naked, loopy, and occasionally luminescent poetry,” while Morgan wrote that Peter “failed to realize that each of those writers had been influenced by knowing Peter and witnessing his free-spirited way of approaching life.” Not one example of another writer citing Orlovsky’s poetry or stylings is included. Morgan also tells the reader that Orlovsky’s handwriting was atrocious and spelling horrendous, leading to much re-editing [and guessing] on his part to create readable text. I think a single image of an Orlovsky original would make that point. But none are included. Finally, in a note on a journal entry deemed a prose-poem, Morgan says that the entry was later turned into verse and then back into a prose-poem. I would have appreciated the inclusion of those later iterations, but they too are not included.

This book does exactly what it sets out to do: be a scrapbook for Orlovsky’s journals and letters. It does not do what I had hoped, but I may not be the target audience. My Master’s is in Creative Writing Poetry, so I am interested in the poetics, the philosophy, the lectures and the process. In particular, my undergraduate thesis was on the “transformations of American poetics” coming out of WWII. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was my main case study. I was not interested in drug-fueled three-ways . . . but that is what this book has to offer. I received an uncorrected first proof of this book and a nice letter from Paradigm Publishers through Goodreads. Hopefully, that did not taint my view.
 
 
 
[Check out my other reviews here.]