Year In Review List Week: 10 Great Books From 2021

…Continuing year in review list week before this newfangled 2022 gets too darned far along for everyone, here’s my favourite books I read in 2021, restricted to just those books published in 2021 (and maybe just one or two that came out at the very end of 2020 but maybe came out in paperback this year).

Once again my reading tends to be heavier on the nonfiction than the fiction, although I’m hoping to be more egalitarian in 2022.

In alphabetical order:

Fiction

Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro

No One Is Talking About This, by Patricia Lockwood

Nonfiction

A Swim In A Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give A Master Class on Writing, Reading, And Life, by George Saunders

Boy On Fire: The Young Nick Cave, by Mark Mordue

His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life, by Jonathan Alter

I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year, by Carol Leonning and Philip Rucker

Mike Nichols: A Life, by Mark Harris

Pulp Empire: The Secret History of Comic Book Imperialism, by Paul S. Hirsch

Times Like These: On Grief, Hope and Remarkable Love, by Michelle Langstone

Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury, by Evan Osnos

Also in series: My Top Ten Pop Culture Moments of 2021 / My Favourite Movies of 2021

Remembering Anne Rice, who brought death to life

If you could live forever, would you want to? And what would it be like?

That question is at the heart of the legacy of Anne Rice, who died at 80 last month. I grew up reading many of her Vampire Chronicles, and — a bit belatedly due to Christmas and weather chaos — I wanted to think about why her work meant so much to young Nik.

Nobody was more influential in vampire fiction since Bram Stoker dragged Dracula out of the coffin back in the 1890s. Rice’s vision of blood-suckers can be seen in the DNA of everything from The Vampire Diaries to True Blood to Buffy to Twilight — some good, some not.

When we think of vampires today, you’re likely thinking of them less as Bela Lugosi and more as passionate, creepy and eternally conflicted lovers, a template Anne Rice built up more than anyone.

Anne Rice’s Interview With A Vampire and The Vampire Lestat were passed-around, beloved talismans of my wayward youth. The glittering paperbacks with their gothic lettering were read, and re-read.

It was The Vampire Lestat that particularly grabbed me, with Lestat narrating the centuries of his life in first person. He was bratty, impetuous, cruel and, sometimes, kind. He may have been hundreds of years old, but Lestat kind of felt like a teenager.

Evocative and passionate, gothy as any Cure song, filled with blood and lust and long lonely meditations on what it’s all about, they were perfect reading for confused teenagers trying to figure out the world. She quietly was a progressive voice for gay equality in the ’80s, and later depicted trans characters and gender fluidity in a way that seemed groundbreaking and yet completely unforced. In her world, love is love.

Rice created a sprawling narrative filled with rich characters, many of whom went on to star in their own books after debuting in the original trilogy, and she was deft at bringing her historic settings to life. Her strength was not so much in plot or her almost Victorian prose, but in character. She made you feel the weight of immortality and what that might actually be like. Her vampires – dour Louis, insecure Armand, bold Marius or terrifying Akasha – were far more complex than the spooky boogeymen of Stoker’s Dracula. Dead, they still carried with them all the baggage of their living lives. Her vampires talked, and talked, and talked, sometimes to the point of self-parody, but in their lengthy soliloquies were all about digging into what makes us human – or inhuman.

The Vampire Chronicles did become a case of diminishing returns as it sprawled on to more than a dozen books, and Rice’s later work never quite surpassed the original books, but I’d argue everything up until Memnoch the Devil is pretty golden. As the series goes along, Lestat becomes a bit too powerful and loses some of the charming rogue vibe he has in the earlier books, and the constant adoration other characters always seem to have for him gets a bit much.

Yet there’s still a lot to like in later volumes if you’re not turned off by Rice’s endless expansion of her shared universe to include witches, Atlantis, demons and more. But in the end, the stories always circle back to Lestat, her greatest character and always, always the centre of attention.

In Lestat, Rice created a monster who constantly tries not to be one, often failing. Rice wrote other books, of course – erotic fiction, meditations on the life of Christ and more – but ultimately, it’s the vampires that make her immortal.

My top pop-culture moments of 2021

And so, the curtain drops on 2021, a sequel that somehow managed to perform even worse than the blockbuster year 2020 did. Still, despite the grimness on personal fronts and the continuing stupidity of life in general, there were a few halfway decent moments. So, in the spirit of looking on the bright side, here’s my top pop-culture moments of 2021, with links back to some of the original posts about them.

Filling a Crowded House, in a brief pandemic oasisMy experience seeing Crowded House playing a packed Auckland arena back in March happened in New Zealand’s several blissful months of Covid-free life, before the Delta outbreak in August. It also was a life-affirming blast of a show, with Neil Finn and company delivering a celebratory concert of hits and new songs that just made you feel glad to still be here, alive and appreciative of all the things we took for granted pre-2020. There’s been a lot of times I’ve lost faith in humans the past two years, but at that one concert, a big crowd of us all singing and smiling felt kinda sorta all right. Here’s hoping going to big concerts again becomes normal soon.

The open-throated passion of John Cassavetes – A ‘discovery’ for me this year was the work of the late filmmaker John Cassavetes, who I’ve long been meaning to delve into. His work dating back from the late 1950s sparked much of independent film, and Cassavetes was determined to present life in its messy, often unexplainable complexity. In movies like Faces, A Woman Under The Influence and Husbands, people behave madly, inconsistently, and irrationally – like they often do in real life. His movies are a challenge, to be sure – the loose-limbed Husbands at times feels like a drunken TikTok video starring Peter Falk might – but even while they push and prod you, you find yourself thinking of them constantly the next day.

When big franchises take a few chances – I’m a fanboy, but I’ve admittedly burned out a bit on the assembly line of superhero movies and childhood classics being regurgitated over and over (did anyone really want another Ghostbusters?). So I was pleasantly surprised by two venerable franchises that didn’t play it entirely safe – James Bond in the long-delayed No Time To Die, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Without spoiling either, they took risks – ones that might not have satisfied every fan. James Bond faces challenges he never had before in No Time To Die and the ending was a disturbing but effective shocker. And the idea of a multiverse-straddling take on Spider-Man could easily have gotten overstuffed and absurd (I’ve ranted about the overuse of multiverses before), but instead, we got a story that embraces the idea of the shared cinematic history of franchises and characters who just keep coming back in a heartfelt, dignified way. There’s a reason it’s smashing box office records.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman – I had been meaning to read this series of books by Grossman for a while now, which could be broadly described as “Narnia/Harry Potter, but for grownups.” They tell a somewhat familiar story of a young magician, Quentin Coldwater, and his ups and downs learning magic and having brilliant, frightening adventures in fantastic lands. The Magicians books were perfect escapist reading during the dregs of Auckland’s lengthy lockdown, brisk and darkly enjoyable, with the imaginative flair of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia and the solid characters of Harry Potter, but aimed at a slightly older audience who might like a bit of drinking and sex to spice things up. I read better books objectively this year, but these ones were among the most fun.

Superman, still the best superhero – It’s been a good time to be a fan of the man of steel. One of the best decisions the corporate overlords made a few years back is to let Superman finally marry Lois Lane, and to let them have a kid together. It’s allowed Superman to mature as a character into everybody’s ideal dad, and unlike some big changes to the status quo for comics characters, for now, this one seems to stick. On TV, I praised the superbly entertaining Superman and Lois, which combines spot-on casting with great Super-action and a show that’s not afraid to get emotional. In the comics, writer Brian Bendis finished up a suprisingly cool run that felt modern and daring yet true to the character, while the anthology series Superman: Red And Blue was an ideal summation of the character’s appeal with a variety of mostly excellent short stories starring Kal-El. Superman’s son, Jonathan Kent, who’s now a young adult, got his own title and it’s turned out to be one of the best new superhero comics of the year – a young, progressive and caring superhero (who’s also bisexual, which has gotten the usual suspects outraged). All in all, from the perspective of a rather troubled real world, Superman and his son seem more relevant than ever.

Lighting a Sparks – I admit I’m losing my touch with current pop culture as I settle into extreme middle age, but part of that is because there’s so darned much OLD pop culture to still enjoy. I was aware of Sparks and liked some of their work, but Edgar Wright‘s excellent documentary The Sparks Brothers triggered one of my famed full-fledged obsessive binges, as it spurred me to dig into the art-pop band’s hefty 50-year discography. It’s a delight to find a band you like and then find out that they’ve got literal mountains of material for you to enjoy.

Meeting Neil Gaiman, in strange days – I’ve always loved the Auckland Writers Festival, and like many things I loved it’s had rocky days during the Covid era. Fortunately, this year’s festival went off just fine in May, and a big highlight was getting a chance to meet one of the world’s biggest writers, Neil Gaiman, who’s been a bit of a New Zealand resident himself with his wife Amanda Palmer during the pandemic. I waited an hour or so to briefly meet Neil and have him sign a few of my favourite books after listening to some excellent talks he gave, but that was nothing compared to some who waited up to six hours. Neil was apparently as much a gentleman with the last person in line as he was with the first. They say never meet your idols, but getting a chance to tell them how much their work means to you is sometimes worth the wait.

Godzilla smashes up King Kong – Look, I know, it’s a big dumb old monster movie. But Godzilla Vs. Kong was, in my deep critical analysis, very, very good at being a big dumb old monster movie. Maybe it’s because I grew up with a well-played VHS tape of the 1962 King Kong Vs Godzilla that I unironically love. Maybe it’s because I saw it on a booming IMAX screen, just at the start of NZ’s pandemic-free idyll mentioned above, and because I could watch King Kong and Godzilla wrestle on aircraft carriers nearly life-size. I’m not saying it will win any Oscars. I’m not saying that it always makes sense or that most of the human characters are memorable. But you know, most of the classic Toho Godzilla movies are pretty wacky, too. With magnificent modern special effects and plenty of monster action, this heavyweight bout was worth the wait. Sometimes, you just want to see Godzilla punch through a building. Indeed, after a year like this one, who doesn’t want to do that themselves sometimes?

All the world’s a page: The best books about Shakespeare’s world

Shakespeare tends to draw you in. If you get hooked, it’s hard to back away. I’ve been hooked for years, starting with an excellent class in high school all the way up to my experiences volunteering for several seasons  at the late, great Pop-Up Globe here in Auckland. And lord knows, seeing plays in person has been difficult the last year or two. 

Fortunately, that doesn’t stop Shakespeare fans. Enough books have been written about Shakespeare to fill up a Pop-Up Globe, and despite the fact that what we actually know about his life could probably fit in a few greeting cards, that doesn’t stop mountains of speculation, linguistics, analysis, fiction, parody, explanation, conjecture and discourse. Here are a handful of my favourite go-to books on Shakespeare’s world for when you’re seeking a fix of the Stratford sage.

There are an awful, awful lot of Shakespeare biographies out there, which confounds when you think about how little true biographical information we’ve got. I quite enjoyed Stephen Greenblatt’s Will In The World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare for a general primer, and the always amusing Bill Bryson’s pithy, brief Shakespeare is a good overall introduction to the vast world of Bard studies. For a general guide to the plays I actually really like DK’s Essential Shakespeare Handbook, which I picked up at the famed Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland years ago – it’s compact enough to haul along to a play for summaries if you want to be that nerd in the theatre. As a photographic tour through Shakespearean history, Shakespeare’s Restless World by A History of the world in 100 Objects author Neil MacGregor is excellent. 

For my money, the most consistently entertaining explicator of Shakespearian life these days is James Shapiro, who’s written several great books on the Elizabethan theatre. He’s written what I consider the definitive debunking of the whole “Shakespeare didn’t actually exist” business, Contested Will, and two very thorough examinations of specific years in Shakespeare’s life, 1599 and The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. Those two tomes do a fascinating job of looking at the world around Shakespeare and how the politics and society of the time led to plays like King Lear. Shapiro then delivered a truly great combination of Shakespeare and the modern world, Shakespeare In A Divided America, which is a history of how this most British of writers found a home in America over two centuries, with Presidents and poets and rioters swept up in his wake. From the assassination of Abraham Lincoln to a very Trumpy take on Julius Caesar in 2017, it’s an excellent look at how the past isn’t even past when it comes to Shakespeare’s relevance. 

Another recent book was written by an old work colleague of mine, Paul Chapman. Secret Will: How People, Events and a Dancing Horse Inspired Shakespeare   is a bit in the vein of Shapiro’s work by investigating the world the Bard lived in and how it affected his writing. It’s a great bit of detective work which explores the violent, unsettled world Shakespeare lived in and how it informed him. I’m a mere amateur Bard buff compared to Paul, who packs his book with fascinating anecdotal side trips down all sorts of historical roads spinning out from the plays, from hidden disses on well known Elizabethan actors to the peculiar fad of the “dancing horse” to the man who inspired the real Shylock. These kinds of forensic investigations can be dry, but Paul gives Secret Will a relaxed, entertaining tone throughout. I learned a lot from it and it’s well worth seeking out. 

Becoming Shakespeare by Jack Lynch is billed as a “post-mortem” biography and it starts with Shakespeare’s death at just 52, and looks at how he nearly fell into obscurity when theatres themselves were banned during the English Civil War. Lynch also takes close looks at how the performance of Shakespeare’s plays have changed over the years, how their language has been bowdlerised and mutated by would-be improvers over the centuries, and the curious phenomenon of “rediscovered” Shakespeare plays that actually turned out to be forgeries. It’s a good primer to explain why this long dead dude still obsesses people.

The late Harold Bloom was almost a living caricature of the windy, self-important academic, but his many writings on Shakespeare gave him the right to brag, culminating in his massive doorstop of a book, Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human. My edition of it even thicker than Shakespeare’s own complete works, but it’s a towering work that analyses every play he wrote with the sweeping overall thesis that the Bard’s writing is a milestone in human development and self-image, “creating” much of what we think of today as being human. Dipping in and out of it is like a master class in criticism. Bloom also did several shorter books focusing on characters like Falstaff and Hamlet that are well worth seeking out. I don’t always agree with Bloom and he could definitely be a bit pretentious, but he also almost always leaves me thinking – the sign of an excellent teacher. 

Speaking of obsessions, you can’t go wrong with The Millionaire and the Bard by Andrea Mays for a hit of literary sleuthing that delves deep into the legacy of the First Folio – the only real way that any of us even know who Shakespeare is, and how the surviving Folios from his time have become insanely high-priced fetish objects for collectors. It looks at Henry Folger, an American businessman who became utterly obsessed with obtaining copies of the Folio, and where they are today. Having had a rare chance to actually see one in Auckland a few years back,  I admit I can see the appeal of coveting some of these ancient texts and Mays’ book is thrilling reading even for non-Bardophiles. 

Whether you’re obsessed with the words, the history or the cultural impact, there’s literally libraries of Shakespeare to take the centre stage while we wait for a more normal world. Or as Prospero puts it in The Tempest, Me, poor man, my library/Was dukedom large enough.”

The Complete Succinct Reviews of Stephen King, Part VI

I’ve got a shelf in the spare bedroom that’s overloaded with musty vintage Stephen King paperbacks, stacked up high. I like to think of the man as our modern Charles Dickens, a spinner of ripping yarns who’s managed to be insanely popular and yet also, kind of great at what he does.

In his nearly 50-year-career, he’s written an astonishing 80 or so books – novels, story collections, rare limited editions and pulpy crime novels that use horror to get at the truths of the human heart. Some are better than others, but his batting average is pretty darned good. Everyone loves The Stand, but how about a good ol’ creepy underrated tale like From A Buick 8

Many years ago now, I set off on the insane task to do a complete brief review of every Stephen King book (leaving out the oddities like limited editions and children’s books). I began this all the way the hell back in 2009 on my old blog, and as King keeps on scribbling, I keep on updating it. It’s been two years since my last round-up and there’s still more King to examine! Long may the King reign. Here’s the sixth and latest Complete Succinct Reviews of Stephen King, from 2015’s The Bazaar of Bad Dreams to 2021’s Later

Bazaar of Bad Dreams: A Stephen King short story collection is like grabbing a big ol’ pile of vintage EC Comics and diving into an assortment of creepy, haunting little gems. In some ways, the short story is King’s best showcase, because if an idea hasn’t quite worked, there’s another dozen within to grab you. So it’s a mixed bag by nature – the (mildly dated) e-reader-themed piece “Ur” is a grabber, but the poems here, um, aren’t really King’s forte. But I automatically knock up a big thick story collection a half-grade for its sheer bountiful pleasures, and this one’s got many to offer. Grade: A- 

End of Watch: The climax of King’s “Detective Hodges” trilogy, with one of his more enduring groups of characters – ageing ex-cop private detective Bill Hodges, autistic savant Holly Gibney and psycho killer Brady Hartsfield. The down-to-earth duo of Bill and Holly have made for some of King’s best and most humane writing in recent years, and while this final book of Bill’s adventures gets a little over-the-top – turning Hartsfield into some kind of evil supervillain rather than the slightly more believable lone madman of Mr. Mercedes – it’s still an enjoyably twisted tale and a fine capper to the series. Grade: B+  

Gwendy’s Button Box: A short novella co-written with Richard Chizmar, this tale of an unloved young girl is a kind of spin on “The Monkey’s Paw,” where a mysterious stranger gives a random person an incredibly powerful strange box. Aimed a bit more at the “Harry Potter” crowd than King’s typical work, it’s a quick read that feels more like a sampler aimed at fans who haven’t tried the hardcore King yet. In a collection it might feel a little less puffed-up, but as a slim novella it’s a little forgettable. There’s apparently a sequel by Chizmar I haven’t read and a third book by King and Chizmar on the way, so I might need to revisit this one soon and see how it holds up. Grade: Probationary B, incomplete. 

Sleeping Beauties: This one has a good hook but fails to meet its potential. All of the women in the world suddenly disappear, leaving a world of men behind in chaos. Where have they gone, and why?  The tone in this one – a collaboration between King and his son Owen – feels curiously inert. While there’s some good ideas about men and women here, they’re delivered in a ham-handed fashion, and the story heavily relies on some fantasy storytelling which doesn’t quite work. I hate to blame it on the younger King, but this just doesn’t feel quite like a Stephen King book. Sleeping Beauties is overlong, but worse, unlike some of King’s other brick-sized books, it’s often boring. Grade: C-

The Outsider: A grim, satisfying murder mystery. A young boy is murdered and all the evidence points to an amiable little league coach even though he is convinced of his innocence. Is there an “outsider” somewhere who’s able to mimic him and commit the most horrible of crimes unpunished? While it gets a little bogged down in one of King’s trademark kind of enigmatic magical climaxes, for the most part this is a terrific read about a man who’s sure of his innocence despite all the evidence, and the devils that lurk inside us all. Grade: A

Elevation: This brisk novella about a man who keeps losing weight might sound like a remake of the far more gruesome Thinner, but it’s more of a fable about a person trying to make peace with his life in an imperfect world. It’s a quick read with some good heart, but a little clumsy in its moralising, so it falls somewhere squarely in the middle of just adequate King-land. Grade: B-

The Institute: It’s inevitable you start to repeat yourself a bit after 50+ books. The Institute has heavy Firestarter vibes with a dash of The Shining, all about young children with mysterious powers taken away to a secret institution. It’s a paranoid, chilling book and you’re left rooting for the young victims of the “Institute.” But while it’s a compulsively readable tale, it doesn’t quite linger in the mind as strongly as King’s similar works. Grade: B 

If It Bleeds: Some of my absolute favourite King books have been his collections of hefty themed novellas like Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight. This one is a more oddball grouping of odds ’n’ ends – the “Detective Hodges” trilogy coda “If It Bleeds,” a good ol’ fashioned scary morality play in “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone,” a rather goofy monster tale in “Rat,” and the best of the lot, the highly experimental “The Life of Chuck,” a man’s life told backwards. It all averages out to a decent bunch of yarns. Grade: B+ 

Later: I do love the “Hard Case Crime” imprint King has lent some of his pulpier work to in more recent years. It’s a chance for King to be short, sharp and mean, and Later is one of his better pulp efforts, the story of a kid who can “see dead people.” Being King, this is a lot gnarlier than The Sixth Sense. A tale of twisted obsession that calls back to It and King’s recurring theme of young people with special abilities being manipulated and abused, it’s not deep, but it’s solidly entertaining, and ends on a resonant, bittersweet note. Grade:  B+

And let’s not forget, the rest of the Complete Succinct Reviews of Stephen King series:

Part 1: Carrie to The Stand

Part 2: The Dead Zone to The Bachman Books

Part 3: The Talisman to Insomnia

Part 4: Rose Madder to Under The Dome

Part 5: 11/22/63 to Finders Keepers

The enigma of Chester A. Arthur, forgotten President

I’ve always been curious about the underdogs in life, and few presidents were bigger underdogs than Chester A. Arthur, perhaps the most forgotten of American Presidents. 

Arthur served less than a full term after the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881, and died just over a year after leaving office. The most distinctive thing about the 21st President to most casual history buffs is his truly prodigious set of mutton chops, a fulsome flowering of facial hair that bloomed from his sideburns to give him an almost leonine appearance. Presidential facial hair was big in the 1800s, but Arthur, like the dandy he was in life, was perhaps the most stylish of them all. 

Yet Arthur’s legacy is mired in a time when corruption was so endemic in US politics that a President actually died because of it. Garfield was assassinated by a crazed, disgruntled office seeker in an act that disastrously capped off an era of failed attempts to reform the patronage system where jobs and bribes were handed out like candy to political operators. 

I began my fascination with Arthur years ago with a rather bizarrely entertaining weird novel from 1983 called The Chester A. Arthur Conspiracy by William Weigand. The wacky plot of this book is that John Wilkes Booth was not killed after Lincoln’s assassination, but instead taken in by Confederate sympathisers including one Nell Herndon – wife of the New York Customs House official Chester Arthur. Nell and Booth fall in love, and in a series of escalating contrivances, Arthur dies (weak heart) and fugitive Booth, who of course was an actor before all that assassinating business, takes his place. He assumes the career of Arthur right up until his unlikely ascension to the presidency, and beyond. The tragedy of Booth (besides all the obvious stuff) is that he gives up his own identity and true love along the way. 

I know it sounds bizarre, and the preposterous Chester A. Arthur Conspiracy is not really a great book – Weigand makes Booth rather too sympathetic – but it’s a rather bold yarn in its implausible ideas, and there’s something to the idea of Booth, the haunted assassin who actually ends up becoming the president himself. Arthur is enough of a cipher to the public imagination that the idea of an actor actually playing him kind of works. 

There’s not a lot of books on Arthur, compared to Lincoln or JFK, but Scott S. Greenberger’s recent The Unexpected President is a good, breezy look at Arthur’s sudden rise. Chester Arthur was born in Vermont (still the only President from there) to religious fundamentalists, but when he grew up he left for a career as a lawyer in New York City, developing a taste for the finer things in life and falling in with the Republican Party of the time. He became a key player in “boss” Senator Roscoe Conkling’s fiefdom of corruption and control in party politics, and whatever idealism he possessed in his youth seemed to be consumed by the desire for power, instead of principle. 

Nobody would have picked Chet Arthur to rise from running the New York Customs House to the second-highest office in the land, but in a series of behind-the-scenes wrangling at the 1880 Republican convention, he was picked to be “dark horse” James Garfield’s running mate, in an attempt to balance things between reformers and “stalwarts” like Conkling. It was a cozy job for a cozy kind of fellow, the ultimate patronage reward. 

But just a few months into his term, Garfield was shot, and after an agonising few months, he died. The reaction from many was summed up with this popular quote from the time: “‘Chet’ Arthur president of the United States! Good God!’

Arthur was described as shattered by the reality of the presidency falling upon him. “He is sitting alone in his room sobbing like a child,” one of Arthur’s staff reported his reaction upon hearing the news. He’d never been elected to any political office before the vice-presidency, and was one of the least experienced chief executives in history. Arthur actually did quite a lot of weeping about his fate, according to Greenberger’s book, which maybe isn’t the reaction Truman or LBJ had in the same situation, but at the same time, it kind of humanises poor old Chet. 

Arthur burned much of his papers and letters before his death, probably in an attempt to avoid his reputation becoming more scandalous, but the net effect of that is that Arthur now feels like a spectator in his own story, a Zelig or Chauncey Gardner at the heart of democracy. Others who loomed large in Arthur’s life like Roscoe Conkling or James Garfield feel more vivid. It doesn’t help that Arthur died of Bright’s Disease at just 57, not even two years after he was failed nomination for a second term. 

The curious thing about Arthur is, he actually turned into a bit of a reformer when he became President. He balked at Conkling’s attempts to run his presidency and ticked off a lot of his old friends. He wasn’t a revolutionary, but he also wasn’t the pliable puppet many of his old pals expected him to be. Arthur remains opaque, but in Greenberger’s book he comes across as a man trying to make up for his past sins in his brief time as president. 

One pivotal point in The Unexpected President is the correspondence an invalid woman and fan named Julia Sands sent Arthur. The Victorian age equivalent of an internet commenter, Sands sent Arthur at least two dozen letters over the years, most of them praising and berating him at the same time, always encouraging him to do better and rise above his controversial past.

Greenberger and others have picked these letters as a reason for Arthur’s change in heart as President, which might be an exaggeration, but it’s hard to know. A lot of theories about her are mere speculation. None of Arthur’s letters to her – if he sent any – survive, and the two only apparently met once in a rather stiff and awkward encounter where it seems Arthur just came to see who the heck this crazy lady who kept mailing him was. But the image of a random woman acting as the conscience of a president is appealing. 

Despite not being anywhere as weird as the fictional one in Conspiracy, the Arthur at the heart of The Unexpected President is a bit of a void as well. He’s often described as an amiable, glad-handing friend, but his inner life remains mysterious. He mourns the early deaths of his wife and an infant son, but we can never know what he really felt. 

“I may be President of the United States, but my private life is nobody’s damned business,” he once said. 

And yet there’s something interesting about Arthur to me – almost alone among Vice-Presidents turned Presidents, he apparently never really aspired to the office – he wasn’t a lifelong office-holder like Truman, LBJ or Gerald Ford – as his very human fears and worries over the responsibility are something you can still identify with. 

“Making a man President can change him!” Sands wrote in one of her letters: 

“Your name now is on the annals of history. You cannot slink back into obscurity, if you would. A hundred years hence, shool [sic] boys will recite your name in the list of Presidents & tell of your administration. And what shall posterity say? It is for you to choose whether your record shall be written in black or in gold. For the sake of your country, for your own sake & for the sakes of all who have ever loved you, let it be pure & bright.”

Hanging out with Neil Gaiman, and the glories of book festivals

Auckland may be tiny on the global scale, but we punch above our weight on festivals and events. With the pandemic thankfully under control here for now, this past weekend we held what’s probably the world’s largest literary event, the Auckland Writers Festival. 

It’s always a highlight of the year for constant readers like yours truly, and I was gutted that last year’s was a COVID cancellation.

I’ve gone along to the festival for years now, and it’s astonishing the talent we get way down here – not just some of New Zealand’s best writers, but some of the world’s. I’ve seen Haruki Murakami, George Saunders, Kazuo Ishiguro, Marlon James, Gloria Steinem, Peter Garrett and Jeff Tweedy, among others, been introduced to new writers like Paul Beatty or Andrew Sean Greer, and enjoyed the brilliance of homegrown authors like Elizabeth Knox, Eleanor Catton, Steve Braunias and Michelle Langstone. I’m not an obsessive stalking fanboy of my favourite writers, but it’s always rewarding to actually see them speak, and maybe even get a signature or two. 

Myself, my bald spot, Neil Gaiman.

This year’s festival felt cathartic after the chaos out there in the world, and a particular highlight was getting to spend a few hours listening to Neil Gaiman, who’s been an honorary New Zealander for much of the last year and living right here in Auckland with Amanda Palmer of late. I wasn’t going to miss a chance to say hi to Neil, whose words have meant so much to me over the years.

I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman for decades now, since those first Sandman comics blew my tender mind way back in my final year of high school. Through his prose and essays and comics, Gaiman’s been there as one of the voices in my head and a prime influence on my own hesitant scribbles and comics. I waited for 45 minutes or so to briefly meet Neil and exchange a few words about his living here and how a Californian like me ended up here. 

The Neil queue, extending well outside the convention centre.

Astonishingly, Gaiman went on to sign books for more than five hours for hundreds of fans like me. And by all accounts, was disarmingly gracious and kind to all of them. That’s pretty amazing, and I sure wouldn’t have the patience for it. “I like to think of my readers as friends,” Neil said. Hey, that might sound a wee bit corny, but I’ll take it.

We read alone; you can listen to music, watch movies or Netflix with your mates, but when you read, it’s your brain decoding the worlds, your mind putting the pictures in your head.

Maybe that’s why it’s so refreshing going to writers festivals and making a community of all these solo readers, and why getting to tell a writer face to face that you’ve loved having their words dance about in your cerebrum feels so good. For a minute, the beautiful solitary experience of reading expands into something shared.

‘Invisible Men’ brings Black comics history into the light

February is Black History Month, and a great new book sheds a much-needed light on the hidden history of Black golden age comics creators, mostly ignored or suppressed in their time.

There’s a lot more diversity in the comics field today than there once was. It really took until the 1980s and 1990s for things to open up some – for instance, despite comics as we know them debuting in the 1930s, it wasn’t until the 1970s that Black superheroes really came into their own. The first Black superhero was of course, The Black Panther, but the first to get his own book was Luke Cage, Hero For Hire in 1972.

There was a mini-boom in Black heroes in the ‘70s (pretty much every one of which got the word “Black” in their superhero name). I was always fascinated by the 1970s adventures of Luke Cage, the short-lived Black Goliath, The Falcon, DC’s Green Lantern John Stewart, Tony Isabella’s street-level hero Black Lightning, and of course, the Black Panther. 

Reflecting the industry at the time, the ‘70s Black hero adventures were pretty much always written by white men, although the late Black artist Billy Graham played a pivotal part in Luke Cage and Black Panther adventures. And sure, these comics overplay the “angry Black man” trope a bit, but they’re also very much a product of their protest-filled era. 

Before that, there were few brief sightings of Black leading characters in comics – the interesting short-lived western curio Lobo for instance – but much of Black comics history remains frustratingly obscured. The new book Invisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books by Ken Quattro attempts to correct that, with an excellent compilation of essays about and excerpts from Black-created comics from the 1930s on up to the late 1960s. 

Here you’ll find the life stories of a dozen Black men who blazed trails in comics, often discriminated against, sadly too often forgotten (women of any colour were exceedingly rare in Golden Age comics). You’ll meet Elmer Cecil Stoner, Owen Charles Middleton, Elton Clay Fax, Matt Baker and many more. 

Matt Baker is probably the best known Black comics artist of the Golden Age, a creator of spectacularly sexy 1950s “good girl” art with characters like Phantom Lady. Yet despite his amazing talent, Baker and his Black identity were obscure until long after his early death at just 38. 

Other Black artists edged their way into comics working on mainstream characters like Blue Beetle or Spy Smasher, while others attempted to tell stories about Black history or were pigeonholed into the “jungle comics” genre. Some of these artists only dabbled in comics and went on to far greater success in illustration, painting or other art endeavours, such as Alvin Carl Hollingsworth

Invisible Men includes an essay on and excerpts from the Black-created All-Negro Comics #1 – a title which admittedly is pretty problematic in 2021 – but in 1947, this short-lived title attempted to be a landmark showcase for Black cartoonists with characters like “Ace Harlem” and “Lion Man.”

Quattro’s done an excellent job of excavating the obscurest of historical details to fill in the lives of creators who in another era, might’ve been the next Christopher Priest or Denys Cowan. 

The history of Black comics artists in the Golden Age isn’t always uplifting – for every Matt Baker there were dozens of frustrated artists locked out of the medium – but Invisible Men is essential reading. The creators here paved the path for things like black-controlled Milestone Comics, for the Black Panther to star in one of the biggest movies of all time … and for a world where far more people are able to be visible instead of invisible. 

All the Presidents’ books: The best reads about America’s leaders

So I’m a massive Presidential history nerd, a hobby which has felt more than a little shameful the last four years under President Asterisk*, he-who-shall-not-be-named. Fortunately, it feels OK to admit this in public again now.

I love a good presidential history book, and I’m fascinated by the lives and times of most of the men (so far, all men and happily, now one female vice-president) who’ve held the office, even if I loathed their politics at times. February is when the US celebrates Presidents Day – hopefully a little less bleakly this year – and it’s the month during which the birthdays of George Washington (1732) and Abraham Lincoln (1809) fell. It’s a great month to look back at the presidency over nearly 250 years and remember that despite the current troubles, there’s still a lot to learn from history. 

Of the dozens of Presidential books I’ve read over the years, here’s some highlights: 

Most interesting president to read about: Theodore Roosevelt was a cowboy, a policeman, a rancher, a war hero, naturalist, historian and still, at 42, the youngest President in American history. You pretty much have to work to make his life story boring, and there’s many fascinating books about ol’ Teddy’s life and presidency. The king of these is the late Edmund Morris’ three-book trilogy, with the first volume, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, probably the best book about a President’s early life I’ve ever read. Teddy built himself up from an asthmatic child into a swaggering pile of masculine, determined ego, and while he was frequently overbearing, he also was surprisingly progressive in many areas. You can’t go wrong with Morris’ trilogy, or for a great side story, Candice Millard’s The River Of Doubt is a terrific manly travel tale about TR’s near-fatal trip deep into the Amazon after his presidency. And Teddy himself also wrote some great books about his adventures.  Runners-up: Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama, Thomas Jefferson

Greatest writing about a President: Robert A. Caro’s epic multi-volume look at the life and times of President Lyndon Johnson is held up as the gold standard of biographies, having won the Pulitzer Prize twice. I won’t be contrarian. It’s an absolutely stunning, authoritative piece of work that shows the countless hours of research and shoe-leather reporting Caro has put into his masterpiece over the decades, from evocative portrayals of the dirt-poor Texas hill country where LBJ came from to untangling the ins and outs of the US Senate works without boring the pants off readers. It now sprawls for thousands of pages, but every word of The Years of Lyndon Johnson is essential. The fifth and final volume is in progress now and like many other readers I am hoping Caro, now 85, sees it all through to the end. It’s a blueprint for how to tell the full story of a life and the times they lived in. Runners-up: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt; Grant by Ron Chernow; Team of Rivals by Doris Goodwin; Truman by David McCullough; the excellent Nixonland series by Ron Perlstein which I’ve written about before. 

President you wouldn’t think would be interesting: Grover Cleveland is mostly remembered as being the only President to serve two non-consecutive terms, so he’s technically the 22nd and 24th President. But he also had one of the greatest cover-ups in Presidential history, a top-secret cancer surgery held in the middle of the night on a boat at sea. Matthew Algeo’s fast-paced The President is A Sick Man is a great concise history of the somewhat forgotten Cleveland and one of the bigger medical scandals in US history. It reads like a thriller. And Presidents have certainly never stopped being cagey about their health, from Woodrow Wilson’s crippling stroke to Tr**p’s still mysterious COVID hospitalisation. 

Best books not quite about the Presidents: Doug Wead is a conservative activist and Tr*mp booster, which I’m not wild about, but I do rather like the two books he’s written about the children and parents of Presidents, All The Presidents’ Children and The Raising of a President. They dig into what makes a leader and what a leader’s legacy is and are chock-full of interesting trivia about the Presidential families. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of awful tragedy in the families of many Presidents, perhaps it comes with the job. Runner-Up: Alice by Stacy Cordery, a biography of Teddy Roosevelt’s outspoken daughter, who lived a remarkable life in the middle of the Washington scene that spanned from the presidency of Cleveland to Jimmy Carter. 

Goofiest book about Presidents: How To Fight Presidents: Defending Yourself Against the Badasses Who Ran This Country by Daniel O’Brien. If you want offbeat, here’s a book that looks at presidents through the filter of how good they might be at kicking your ass. It’s very silly but amusing stuff, and the only book I own that features the phrase “Ulysses S. Grant is the drunken, angry John McClane of Presidents.” The joke gets a bit old, but it’s still a pretty funny breezy, fisticuff-filled march through history. I’d still put my money on Teddy Roosevelt to smack them all down, though. 

Best overall look at the Presidents: When it comes to overall presidential trivia, nothing compares to William DeGregorio’s massive Complete Book of U.S. Presidents. How tall was Calvin Coolidge? What nasty health ailments did Chester A. Arthur have? Who, for the love of God, was Millard Fillmore’s Postmaster General? It’s a great done-in-one resource for history nerds. Unfortunately, since DeGregorio died a while back, later editions have been notably lacking in detail and accuracy regarding the more recent presidents, which is a shame, but from Washington to Clinton or so, it’s a great guide.  

Most morbid book about Presidents: Dead Presidents by Brady Carlson. What happens to Presidents after they die is sometimes more interesting than their administrations. Take Zachary Taylor, first president to die in office, who was famously exhumed in the 1990s to prove he wasn’t poisoned. Dead Presidents is a great tour of presidential demises, resting places and of their legacies, looking at things like Thomas Jefferson’s children with his slaves or the long strange journey of Abraham Lincoln’s corpse. Runner-up: Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell.

Best presidential memoirs: People talk about how great the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant are, but I’m afraid I haven’t made it around to them quite yet. Most of the memoirs are famously stiff and reveal little about the men themselves. They tend to start strong and fizzle out, such as Bill Clinton’s My Life, which is nicely evocative about his Arkansas boyhood and difficult family life, but turns into a blur of names and places when he becomes President. Even Barack Obama’s recent A Promised Land, although eloquent and featuring great moments of detailed insight, succumbs somewhat to this problem, although I’d still probably rank it as the best memoir that I’ve read so far in a flawed genre. (But his wife’s is even better.) To me the best presidential books are the ones not written by the subjects themselves, but by talented historians. 

Sorry, but you can’t make these guys interesting: I’ve read a few books about some of the lesser-known presidents and it can be hard going. Some near-forgotten ones are surprisingly captivating to me – I’ve always had a thing for the hapless Franklin Pierce, for James Buchanan, usually considered the worst President until quite recently, or the overwhelmed Warren Harding. However, I don’t want to name-and-shame authors as it’s not always their fault if a subject isn’t Teddy Roosevelt, but let’s just say it’s pretty darned hard to make Calvin Coolidge interesting, and despite James K. Polk presiding at a pretty fascinating time in American history as the nation expanded, as a person, he seems as dull as dishwater to read about. And don’t even get me started about Benjamin Harrison.

These are just a few of the veritable mountain range of presidential literature out there to dig into around Presidents Day. Happy reading!

The best fairly recent books I read in 2020

Well, one thing you can say about 2020 is that there was a lot of time to catch up on one’s reading. The ones below are among the best I read, and are all “recent-ish” books, released in the last 2-3 years or so – and very much worth your time. Here’s eight I loved in 2020:

The Absolute Book, by Elizabeth Knox – This sprawling fantasy epic by New Zealand’s own Knox is a dense, glittering exploration into the very meaning of stories themselves. A writer’s sister dies and it launches her on a journey between the world we know and one of demons and magic. With lots of Tolkien and Gaiman in its its DNA but distinctively in Knox’s own voice and grounded in a tense realism, it’s full of fascinating ideas – almost overstuffed – but holds together to be one of the best imaginative reads I had in a year where reality literally felt as strange as fiction. 

Antkind, by Charlie Kaufman. This first novel by the screenwriter behind Being John Malkovich is a marvel, like one of his twisting films unspooled into print. Loosely the tale of an unbelievably creative “lost film” and one man’s quest for it, it’s sprawling, chaotic and surreal, and often hilariously funny, like Thomas Pynchon meets David Foster Wallace. It may be a tad overlong and I’m still not entirely sure I understand all of it, but it it took me on a wild ride more than any other novel I read this year. 

Becoming, by Michelle Obama. I read President Obama’s memoir A Promised Land and it’s very good, but it suffers the syndrome that affects most political biographies – turning into an endless cascade of names and meetings. There’s some dazzlingly good prose in it, and it’s well worth reading, but I have to admit, Michelle Obama’s memoir moved me even more with its candour and ease. She tells her story with heartfelt emotion but also a sense of wonder, as a young Black girl in Chicago grows up to become First Lady of the United States. Twelve years on after Obama’s inauguration day, it’s still pretty cool to type those words. Sometimes, history works out OK. 

Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley. I’m fascinated by the oldest of stories, the Beowulfs and the Gilgameshes. I’ve got two other translations of Beowulf, the 1000-year-old-epic, and the idea of a “modern”, more feminist translation at first sounds like a very very bad idea. But Headley’s edgy reimagining is faithful to the misty ancient past of the poem, while giving it a death-metal spin of passion that makes the story feel more alive. Her version starts out: “Bro! Tell me we still know how to talk about kings!” Modern slang and ancient protocols wrestle in the text, giving it a heaving urgency. Now, that may sound silly, but once you get into her rhythms, Headley’s Beowulf rocks and boasts like a hair-metal epic, while never losing sight of what it is. It’s pretty hardcore, bro. 

Demagogue: The Life And Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy, by Larry Tye. We all know what “McCarthyism” means, but I only knew about the Wisconsin Senator and his grim legacy in broad strokes. This biography does an excellent job of filling in the story and bringing the Senator to life with all his flaws, hubris and arrogance, and putting his frightening anti-communist crusade in a broader context in American history. There’s so many echoes in the current US political scene that it’s almost disorienting to see the same things happening again. As Faulkner put it, “the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” Imagine what might have happened if someone like McCarthy became President. Oh, wait… 

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, by Merlin Sheldrake. Who doesn’t love a mushroom? The kingdom of fungi is a vast, strange place, stretching its tendrils into almost every part of our lives and yet mostly unknown. Sheldrake’s excellent guide takes a tour through the world of fungi, filled with fascinating facts and discoveries explained in clear, evocative prose. The future might very well be in fungi, and this is one of those cool books that leaves you looking at the natural world around you with different eyes. 

Killing Commendatore, by Haruki Murakami. I know not everyone is a fan of Murakami’s very mannered, particular storytelling, but I quite enjoyed his latest, a long, meditative read about a painter whose lonely exile on top of a mountain is interrupted by mystery and obsession. I read this during the heart of NZ’s first and longest lockdown this year, and somehow its isolation spoke to me clearly in that suspended moment in time. Killing Commendatore is a meandering journey with few firm conclusions – kind of like 2020 itself often felt – but sometimes the journey itself is the point. 

Shakespeare in a Divided America, by James Shapiro. Shapiro has written a host of really fascinating Shakespeare scholarship books, but this one seems particularly relevant in 2020, looking at the complex relationship the Bard’s plays have had with American history. Did you know that 22 people died in a riot in New York in 1849 that was sparked by a performance of “MacBeth”? Shapiro draws history and literature together to create a fascinating read, culminating in the controversy of a Trump look-a-like being assassinated on stage in New York in 2017 – no fatal riots then, but it shows that the play’s still the thing, 150+ years on. 

Also worth noting: “Oscar: A Life”, Matthew Sturgis; “The Overstory,” Richard Powers; “The Nickel Boys,” Colson Whitehead; “All Who Live On Islands,” Rose Lu; “It’s Garry Shandling’s Book,” Judd Apatow; “2000ft Above Worry Level,” Eamonn Marra.