Saturday, December 19, 2009

Witty's Year End Book Review 2009

Just as a reminder, this isn't a list of new books that came out from 2008 or 2007, these are simply the best books I've read this year.

Best Fiction Book

Being a little busy in the job-hunting and college-class-taking this year, I didn't get many chances to sit down and enjoy a novel or five.



Best Non-Fiction Book

Presidential Character: predicting performance in the White House, James David Barber.
My college studies at Florida were geared for a Journalism degree, which didn't work out as I'd hoped. But class requirements included a good number of Political Science classes, and in one of them (either a class with Professor David Conradt on comparative political systems, or another class on Famous People which had me comparing FDR, Churchill and Rosa Luxemberg... yeah, go figure) this research by James Barber came up. Barber had worked out a system of psychological profiling for Presidents, based on work histories and biographies of those that came before. He became famous for predicting Richard Nixon's decline/fall during Nixon's first term, and his subsequent reviews of following Presidents (Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush the Elder).
Barber is responsible for establishing the two measurements for Presidents - Positive/Negative and Active/Passive - creating four types: Active/Positive (constant policy actions, positive and flexible view of Presidential power and decision-making), Active/Negative (Lots of policy actions, but with a narrow, inflexible and sometimes corrupt view of power), Passive/Positive (little initiative, relying more on Congress or on society as a whole to go their way, but eager to provide leadership as a statesman or captain at the helm), Passive/Negative (very little true initiative, only leading out of obligation). Interesting side note: the first four Presidents on the list - Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison - fit each type. Quick, figure out which was which. :)
Given my political leanings (and my ever-growing animosity towards certain current-ex-vice-Presidents who ruled behind the curtain) I've been digging around for Barber's work for ages. I finally spotted Amazon selling a 4th edition (textbook for a college course again) and ordered one. Thanks to Barber's book, I've gotten a better understanding of how we should rate Presidents... Bush the Lesser? In my estimates he's a Passive/Negative - more a pawn of other political forces than his own, more intent on the perks of the Presidency than actually leading (enjoying a birthday celebration while Rome burned uh New Orleans flooded, for example). The book also helped nail Dick Cheney (who as you look closer at the Bush the Lesser admin was a true co-President than anyone before him) as an Active/Negative (a true heir to Nixon, which is terrifying).
Hmm, I should leave that for my other blog. But still, this is a great Poli Sci book and a lot of libraries ought to carry it.

I still suggest the No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty, as this is vital reading for the NaNoWriMo event.


Best Graphic Novel Series, This Year

Instead of a novel, this year I've taken a liking to a crossover event series.
DC Comics' Blackest Night primarily written by Geoff Johns and penciled by Ivan Reis, is still in production, Issue 5 so far out of 8 issues. And a lot of background is needed here...
Long long time ago, there were major comic book publishers: National/DC and Marvel were just a few. They used to publish their superhero titles with little interaction between their established characters... but then one day Superman teamed with Batman... and then Justice Societies got together... and then the World War ended and superhero comics were attacked for unhealthy morals and everything went to Western and WWII titles... and then superheroes came back, but with new origins... and then the new Flash literally ran into the old Flash and proved there were alternate universes... and then DC heroes formed a Justice League while Marvel started Avengers within the now-expanding comics universe in each publisher's realm... and by the 1980s it all got convoluted because writers and editors with each book weren't keeping up with everyone's else work, and conflicting mythologies and plotlines were cluttering up stories where the fans expected clarity and continuity.
So DC Comics decided in the mid-1980s to rewrite their universe with a Crisis: update it, kill off cumbersome galleries of side characters, streamline the history to make it compatible with the real world, everything. They killed off major characters - Supergirl, Flash - and rewrote existing ones with brand-new origins - Superman, Wonder Woman, Hawkman, slew of others. It got so popular that Marvel countered with Secret Wars as a crossover, and then DC published a few crossovers to keep their universe interactive (and to make money). And thus were the crossover comic events born.
But where Crisis tried to clear up everything, it actually made things worse. Origin rewrites for some characters - Hawkman in particular - were delayed and conflicted with other stories. DC's solution? More crossovers! But in the process, existing characters were re-written again - in particular Green Lantern being turned into a villain called Parallax - and more killed off. In attempts to attract readers, the publishers started more and more crossovers - to encourage purchasers buy multiple titles - and in order to justify the crossovers being MAJOR UNAVOIDABLE EVENTS OF ULTIMATE DESTINY - those crossovers kept killing more and more characters.
But all this character killing created problems. For one, the publishers - both DC and Marvel were guilty of it - were bumping off what proved to be marketable, likeable characters. When replacement characters proved unlikeable, flimsy excuses and retcons were used to bring dead characters back. The biggest publisher stunt ever was the Death of Superman... all because it was too quickly followed by a plotline of multiple Supermen leading up to Supes' all-too-expected ressurection. The other problem with all the superhero deaths was that by relying on it too often as a plot device - oooh, we're killing a character! oooooh, we're bringing a dead character back! - it became too cheap a gimmick. Readers got jaded by all the death to where rather being a shocking, humbling moment in a comic universe's storytelling, it was mocked, parodied, and expected. Everyone now expects a superhero's girlfriend to end up in a fridge... which is both sad and sick. Oh, by the way, they killed Captain America a few years ago... and where the mainstream media made a big deal out of it, fans knew he was coming back sooner rather than later... Oh, and Batman's dead too. Yawn.
Which leads up to Blackest Night. Written by Geoff Johns, currently the guy responsible for the destruction of DC Comics, Night is playing off the threads of ideas than ALAN MOORE HIMSELF toyed with back when he worked for DC in the 1980s. Moore had during his brief stint there tossed out idea after idea that deconstructed, rewrote, and expanded the superhero mythos in ways you couldn't even imagine... and almost all of it never happened. Twilight of the Superheroes remains one of the best-known "lost" works in popular culture, with only bits and pieces - the Armageddon 2001 crossover, the Kingdom Come Elseworld miniseries - emerging as bastardized versions. Night is playing off a storyline Moore created for a Green Lantern anthology, wherein legendary Abin Sur is confronted with prophecies regarding his eventual death and the fall of the Green Lantern Corps itself. It was Moore's attempt to explain why Abin Sur was flying a spaceship when Lanterns are perfectly capable of flying solo: the prophecy weakened Abin's faith in the ring, and paradoxically led to his death (allowing the ring to pass to Hal Jordan of Earth). Johns read the story, and decided that the other elements of that prophecy - namely, the fall of the Corps (which would mean the fall of the universe) had to be played out. Hence the coming of Blackest Night.
Johns has basically, over the past 5-7 years, been revamping the entire DC Universe yet again, trying to undo the wreckage caused by Crisis on Infinite Earths by bringing out more Crises after another - Identity Crisis, Infinite Crisis, Final Crisis. Each one actually killing off more characters than before, infuriating readers with bizarre character derailments, bringing back dead heroes with more bizarre explanations, each one actually causing MORE damage to an increasingly unworkable multiverse.
But it turns out Johns might have planned this all along. Make things worse in order to make things better... and so far the idea is bearing interesting fruit... Because it might fix the problem with comic book deaths once and for all.
Night is basically Johns' answer to all the comic book deaths we've suffered over the last 40 years, in fact. Every character killed during the past series of Crises are RISING from the grave, but as zombies... No, wait, while you think "Hey it's been done" this time these zombies are different. Powered by Black Lantern rings (a whole rainbow of Lanterns have exploded on the scene), the undead superheroes are attacking their still-living colleagues by provoking emotional responses... using the moment of peak emotion to kill their prey and in true zombie fashion turn the fallen into more Black Lantern zombies. All in an attempt to resurrect a Death demon called Nekron... who seeks to destroy the emotional light of the universe (basically ALL LIFE) to return all to the black void. Deal is, Nekron just revealed he is not only powering the newly dead, but that he had a hand in allowing previous heroes - Superman! for example - to return from the dead with Nekron's taint... meaning they all Came Back Wrong... From what I'm gleaning off the plotline, Johns is seemingly wiping the slate clean, bringing back ALL dead heroes (and villains) for the purpose of this miniseries, and then using the mechanics of the Black Lantern's strengths and weaknesses to hammer out a method in the future (once all is set right) of killing certain characters and giving them an out of getting resurrected later.
What's enjoyable about this miniseries is that finally someone is looking at the bigger picture of how haphazard the universe-fixing attempts were, and how stupid and eventually fan-crushing the whole Comic Book Death meme has played out the last 15-20 years. Just as long as Johns gets it to make sense in the last issue...

Unavoidable Book That Spells Doom for Humanity

There's actually been a lot this year: all of them far right screeds. All of them wrongly made best-sellers (more out of marketing and fan-driven quantity than actual quality). I'm not linking to any of them. Suffice to say, just avoid the Personal Narrative political bio/philosophy titles for the past 3-5 years. You'll thank me.

Best Book by Someone I Know and Corresponded with via Email on an Occasional Basis

Kinda hard to list one this year: being out of the library profession, I haven't kept up with Petrucha's latest. I do know Nantus is getting a second book reviewed in the galley stage, meaning a print release soon. 'Course, I've been busy meself...