Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Books Reviewed, 2013-2019

At the beginning of this month, I not so subtly hinted at a significant decade in review post. This is that post.

Beginning with Book a Week in 2012, which was the impetus for starting this blog in the first place, I have reviewed almost 143 books on this blog. I read a book each week in 2012, but only started this blog on March 24, meaning not every book appeared on this blog. (For the truly archival experience, here's my RateYourMusic book list.) How do I know I have "almost 143 books on this blog", then?

From 2013-2019, I reviewed 91 books. Reviewing one book per month (with bonus books where appropriate), rather than one per week, allowed me to replace the old diary entry format with proper, longer-form reviews that still remained more or less close readings.

Here's a OneDrive spreadsheet (public, read-only) containing:
  • All my books reviewed on the blog from 2013-2019, in chronological order of review date;
  • Whether the book is fiction or non-fiction;
  • Whether the book was recommended to me; and
  • Whether the book was an e-book or in print.*

A quick overview of the results:
  • 38 non-fiction books, versus 53 fiction books
  • 29 recommendations, versus 62 I found on my own
  • 17 e-books, versus 74 print books
The typical book I reviewed from 2013-2019 was fiction (58.2%), found on my own (68.1%) and, most emphatically, a print book (81.3%).

To translate these to NFL standings: (all percentages approximated to the closest W/L record)
  1. Print Books               13 - 3
  2. Found on Own          11 - 5
  3. Fiction                        9 - 7
  4. Non-Fiction                7 - 9
  5. Recommendations     5 - 11
  6. E-Books                     3 - 13
Although recommendations look low here, I read 29 of them. If you recommend me a book, I'll probably get to it at some point! (Neil Gaiman's American Gods, recommended to me in 2004 and finally read earlier this month, is admittedly a low point there. On the plus side, the first book on that entire list, Mitch Albom's Time Keeper, I read in January after receiving it as a Christmas present. I hope you're looking down on this list proudly, Grandma Gordon.)

The longest fiction book I reviewed can only possibly be Patrick Rothfuss's epic fantasy The Name of the Wind. (No, really, it's so long Rothfuss had to write a blog entry explaining to fans why some publishers split it up.) The longest non-fiction is probably Morris Dickstein's Dancing in the Dark, a book so hulking I was incapable of reading it on public transit. For my sake, I'm glad these were both such great books. I own, but have not yet read, Rothfuss's follow-up, The Wise Man's Fear.

The shortest fiction book I reviewed is probably either Neil Gaiman's Coraline or Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. (Gaiman blogged about Coraline's shortness. Don't you love when Dickens is a contender for the shortest book?) Averaged out, are they A Christmas Coral? (Christmas in the tropics sounds nice.) Or Caroline? (A story about a girl who doesn't get her name confused by strangers.) The shortest non-fiction book I reviewed is Adam Kahane's Collaborating with the Enemy.

None of the above includes the many other great books I read, did not review, but mentioned elsewhere on this blog. These include such notable titles as Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, and Scott Smith's A Simple Plan. (Links to my mentions of them, not to the books themselves.)

Honourable mention in all these categories goes to Mervyn Peake's The Gormenghast Trilogy. I read it, and opined on it, all 953 pages.

Happy New Year 2020! The 2010s are almost behind us but we'll never forget them.

There isn't enough time,
There never was

Ease of Reading: Subterranean
Educational Content: Priceless

*Many of the e-books I read were classics that obviously predated the existence of e-books. The books listed here are the exact copies I read, not the original mode of publication. This stat is more to track my own reading habits than to suggest that I gravitate toward e-readers. I don't even own an e-reader, preferring to read e-books the old-fashioned way: as PDFs.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

MatthewGordonBooks.com - it exists!

MatthewGordonBooks.com is live in an alpha version!


Publications to follow. Everything you could possibly want, from a selected list of my publications, to a community link page, to original photos I've personally taken in Toronto.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Bonus Book! American Gods

American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Fantasy (2001 - 588 pp.)

After last month, last month again, and last week got academic in a hurry, it's a return to light(er) reading. This time, as with The Handmaid's Tale in October 2017, I'm commenting on a book that has recently been the subject of a popular TV series. This time, however, I've actually watched the Amazon Prime American Gods series, so I'll refer to it frequently.

Neil Gaiman's American Gods begins with a fascinating premise: what if various pagan deities were all around us in modern-day America? The book's opening quotation from Richard Dorson's Theory of American Folklore (1971) explains that Irish-Americans remember the faeries, Norwegian-Americans remember the nisser, and Greek-Americans remember the vrykolakas, but these myths are confined to the Old World. What if there were gods in America? What if homegrown American gods, like television and the Internet sought to supplant them? As a general rule, the reader is led to see the old gods as good and the new gods as bad, but as frequently happens in Blue and Orange Morality* situations, it quickly becomes apparent that each god should simply be appraised on its own merits.

American Gods, despite the plethora of characters, closely follows the internal struggle of Shadow Moon, the protagonist. The opening fifteen pages dig into Shadow's mind as he finishes a three-year prison sentence for his role in an armed robbery. From there, Shadow finds himself isolated from his wife Laura (dead), best friend Robbie (also dead, and in a way that is relevant to Laura's death), and from any possible opportunity for employment. Enter Mr. Wednesday,** a mercurial businessman who employs Shadow as his personal assistant. Together, Mr. Wednesday and Shadow travel across America, focused in the Midwest, where Shadow takes up temporary residence in the town of Lakeside. Lakeside's dark secret is one of the many subplots I don't recall seeing anywhere in the TV series; in the book, it primarily gives readers a place to locate Shadow without having to learn a new setting every chapter.

After seeing the series first,^ I expected to see the gods featured prominently. However, compared to the series, in which there are entire scenes of inter-god interaction with no human (or Shadow) present, there are only a few all-god scenes in American GodsUnlike in the series, where Bilquis has frequent scenes at her shrine and interacting with Mr. Wednesday, in the book she barely factors in at all. She only appears in two scenes, on eleven total pages (27-31, 373-379), and outside of those pages, no character acknowledges that she exists. In the show, she is a compelling character. In the book, she could have been removed entirely. Mr. World is the show's antagonist; in the book, he could technically be considered that, but he does not appear enough to have a compelling backstory.^^

The largest difference between the book and the series is in the portrayal of Technical Boy. Bruce Langley does not look at all like the fat, pimply Technical Boy portrayed in the book. By making Technical Boy better looking, more socially adept, and updated to reflect social media (as a character based on 2001 technology would be hopelessly dated; imagine a character meant to personify technological advance using Windows XP?), Technical Boy is a far better character in the series. In the book, he is annoying, which was likely Gaiman's intention. In the series, he is so well-done he comes off as a good guy.

The book's greater number of gods, but lesser importance attached to each of them, leads to numerous vignettes that allow Gaiman to transport the reader into whichever world he pleases. Odin, Tyr and Thor discover America in 813AD. (66-69) Gods interact with America in more playful ways, such as when Ibis and Jacquel explain contrast their personalized service at their funeral parlour with more standardized shopping experiences like McDonald's or Walmart. (193)

American Gods features a battle between the Old Gods and the New Gods, but it is never a battle in the way high fantasy novels portray battles. The most impressive homicides of the battle involve an instruction in godhood (507) and an invocation of a god's name (528), both of which are extremely impressive (and are scrubbed for names to avoid spoilers), but neither occurs within an epic pitched battle. The battle between the gods is calculated. This makes the gods seem more cerebral, which plays into Gaiman's narrative that gods do many things humans don't understand.

The interview with Neil Gaiman at the end of my edition of the book notes that American Gods first came out of an idea Gaiman had in 1997, that Chapter One was written in December 1997, and Chapter Two was written in 1998. The book was published in 2001. As I always wonder with any book published near the beginning of its decade: to what extent is American Gods really a book of the '90s? To those who see enumerated decades as arbitrary and useless, this may not matter. However, when thinking of American Gods as a product of the decade that brought everything from the pop-cultural backlash against televangelists to more extreme events like the stave church burning in Norway, perhaps maybe Gaiman was looking out at the world thinking: will the gods ever come back?

Ease of Reading: 10
Educational Content: 2

NOTE: I posted this review while watching the Peach Bowl (Oklahoma/LSU playoff game) and sipping an Amager Bryghus RyeKing (yes, that's an enormous American flag on the bottle). Football and Beer weren't characters in American Gods, but they wouldn't have felt out of place.

*Although certain gods are represented as more sympathetic than others, the gods' conflicts aren't ones that lend themselves to a straight good/evil calculation for the human reader. Is an ancient Norse god the good guy when compared to Television? I have no idea, and neither do you.

**Why is he not Mr. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday? Gaiman is telling you something, that's why.

^My cousin Patrick recommended me American Gods in 2004. I have had a copy in my apartment since 2014. I was going to read it sooner, but since I reviewed Coraline in 2018, I would have run afoul of my "no reviewing the same author twice in the same calendar year" rule. So here we are: through a cosmic dereliction of reading American Gods, it becomes what will almost certainly be my final review of 2019, and of the 2010s, for that matter.

^^Like Mr. Wednesday, Mr. World has some identity bait-and-switch happening. However, the book doesn't spend enough ink on Mr. World to make the reveal as exciting.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

December's Book: The Holy Roman Empire

The Holy Roman Empire: A Short History by Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger
History (2006/2018* - 146 pp.)

Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger's The Holy Roman Empire: A Short History is exactly what it says on the tin: 146 pages, divided into ten chapters, covering the Holy Roman Empire from the inaugural Reichstag of 1495 until the Empire's dissolution in 1806. The first chapter, "What Was the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation?" is mirrored by the last chapter, "Once Again: What Was the Holy Roman Empire?" Answering that question is the book's mandate.

This mandate was notably unmet by 19th-century historians, who wished to differentiate their Grosdeutsch (Austrian-dominated) and Kleindeutsch (Prussian-dominated) German unification plans, or by 20th-century historians, who used the Empire's historical territories as a justification for the Anschluss in 1938. Stollberg-Rilinger takes a postmodernist, relativist approach to the Empire: realistically, this is the only viable approach when assessing such a "strange and alien" (8) polity. Stollberg-Rilinger's analogy of a head (the Emperor) and limbs (the noblemen) is apt. The head directs the body but cannot control every cell.

The Holy Roman Empire: A Short History is a book for specialists in early modern European history. Without my history degree and subsequent education, I would have been completely lost. This is neither a strength nor a weakness of the book, just something to keep in mind considering it is the perfect size to fit into a gift bag this Christmas. It is also perfect for a "book a week" early modern European survey seminar or for a German history survey seminar. So many of the book's events are so fascinating or so bizarre they would make good sparring material for eager undergraduate and master's students.

I have a Holy Roman Empire T-shirt. I bought it in 2012, having no idea I would read this book someday. The picture is from just now. Whether the average reader of this book has such a T-shirt, I have no idea. It can't hurt, though.
At the book's outset, the newly crowned Maximilian I (since 1493) inherited an empire that was still fundamentally medieval in character. The vassalage relationships between the Emperor and his subjects varied wildly, from princes to dukes to bishops. Maximilian I initiated a series of institutional reforms that transformed the Empire from its medieval origins into a body that was neither a medieval feud nor a modern nation-state. In 1495, Maximilian I instituted the Imperial Chamber Court "that would allow for the resolution of political conflicts without the use of violence". (50) In the sixteenth century, imperial diets became standardized, including a Mass to the Holy Spirit. Despite various parties' best efforts, the Empire was beset by disputes over minutiae, such as the seating arrangement at mealtimes; with so many different ranks and titles among the Empire's nobility, who had precedence over whom? (54) The question of who held the highest rank or authority was never resolved, and was a factor in the Empire's eventual decline.

The increasing tendency for electors to be monarchs of non-Imperial jurisdictions gave them strength far exceeding their Imperial holdings. When the Elector of Brandenburg became the King in Prussia in 1701, he presented himself to the Habsburgs and to foreign powers as their equal. (As Stollberg-Rilinger aptly notes, Emperor Leopold I was compensated generously for acknowledging this change in title.) The Habsburgs themselves held their highest non-Imperial title in Hungary. The Elector of Saxony became king of Poland in 1697, transforming him from an Imperial subject to a foreign dignitary. Increasingly, medieval-style vassalage seemed outright silly; why would the King in Prussia or the King of Poland prostrate himself before the mere archduke of Austria? 

The emperor, kings, princes, dukes, margraves and bishops frequently engaged in behaviour that would be considered outrageous by modern political standards. Protestant princes frequently secularized local churches in order to consolidate power and raise funds, similarly to Henry VIII in England. (78) During the Thirty Years' War, Imperial forces under Count Tilly burnt Magdeburg to the ground; when the Emperor decided to attack his traditional ally Saxony next, Saxony promptly switched sides to ally with the Swedish. (95) Angry noblemen responded to the Habsburgs' later attempts at centralization by again allying with foreign powers, such as Bavaria allying with France during the War of the Spanish Succession. (111) When the Electors conferred the Imperial title upon Charles Albert of Bavaria in 1742, the only non-Habsburg to be elected Emperor during the book's timeline, the Austrians responded by occupying Munich. (124) This is roughly the equivalent of the Government of Ontario protesting Justin Trudeau's re-election by ordering the Ontario Provincial Police to patrol the streets of Montreal.

Whether these examples are features or bugs of the Empire's unique decentralization is entirely subjective. Later commentators criticized the Empire's lack of nation-state status, which Stollberg-Rilinger discusses extensively in her notations that eighteenth-century pundits called the Empire "medieval" and "Gothic" in contrast to modern countries. (121) Joseph II appears to have agreed based on his doctrine of "enlightened absolutism" that placed his status as archduke of Austria and king of Hungary ahead of his traditional feudal obligations within Germany. The most flagrant example of this reversal of priorities occurred when Joseph II offered the Austrian Netherlands (now Belgium) to the prince of Bavaria in return for Bavaria; although this was a roughly fair trade economically, the inhabitants of these territories were understandably mortified.** The proposal fell through when Joseph II, no doubt impatient, invaded Bavaria shortly thereafter. (130) Francis II dissolved the Empire nine years later amidst numerous German nobles seceding from the Empire to join "Napoleon's attempted conquest of Europe. "Having withstood Luther, Gustavus Adolphus and Louis XIV, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation ultimately fell victim to its inability to reform itself." (146)

What was the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, then? Stollberg-Rilinger's conclusion is an 11-point laundry list of various facets of the Empire. It was "a political association based on tradition and consensus", built upon the personal relationships between the Emperor and the noblemen. (140) It was a hierarchical place where politics mixed with religion and social customs, and where disenfranchised groups formed corporations or "estates"*** to advance their interests. It was subject to an uneasy balance of power between the Emperor and the noblemen. It adapted at some times (the Religious Peace of Augsburg of 1555, the Peace of Westphalia of 1648) better than others (the events leading up to the Thirty Years' War, the dissolution of 1806). All of these aspects held the Empire together, and they all tore it apart.

Ease of Reading: 2
Educational Content: 9

*Although the book was originally published in German in 2006, it was not translated into English until 2018.

**Land swaps of this type typically occurred in colonial settings, such as the infamous New York City for Suriname trade between England and the Netherlands in 1667. They also typically formed parts of peace treaties, as the NYC-Suriname trade did. For major European territories to be swapped during peacetime, with the added sting of awarding Bavaria's electoral vote to Joseph II, was unheard of.

***"Estates" in Imperial terms were "groups of people who enjoyed the same rights, shared the same obligations, and pursued their common interests in an organized manner, for example, through membership in the chambers of the Imperial diet, the territorial assemblies, and urban or knightly diets."(143)

Monday, December 9, 2019

Tassel Bookmarks

Over the years, I've repurposed almost anything flat for use as a bookmark. Old business cards work until they fall out on the train, leading whoever finds the card to think you work at a place where you no longer work.  I've even seen a tissue used as a bookmark.

Clothing tags - specifically, the sturdy cardboard tags with the brand name featured prominently - can be used as bookmarks too. They're the right size, they hold up better than paper, a lot of corporate logos have flair, and they play into society's obsession with using clothing brands as statements of identity. 

Nonetheless, clothing tags are frequently smaller than commercially sold bookmarks, and they have holes where they were originally connected to the clothing items.

Adding a tassel solves these problems.

Here is the finished product:

Fashionable reading!

Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Last Month of the 2010s

Over the course of this month, blustery December 2019, I'll be blogging largely about the decade in review.

An opening note, for those interested in blog post data: This is my 38th blog entry so far in 2019. In every other year since the start of this blog in 2012, I finished the year with a number of blog entries either in the 50s (50-59) or the 20s (20-29). Here are the results:

2012: 55
2013: 53
2014: 29
2015: 54
2016: 57
2017: 23
2018: 29

Unless I blog 12 more times this month, which would be my highest blogging month ever, I will finish 2019 with a total either in the 30s (30-39) or the 40s (40-49). Although a goal of 52 is admirable, as that represents one entry per week, a move away from the boom-bust nature of my blogging quantity is probably for the best.