Last week, I eagerly read Keith Law's take on Stranger In A Strange Land, the most interesting Heinlein novel I've come across. The whole piece is good, well worth clicking the link, but the addendum is what stuck with me:
"...I forgot to mention the one absolute nails-on-chalkboard line in the book, where one character (Jill?) says that nine times out of ten, a rape is at least partly the woman’s fault. I know it was written a half-century ago, but it’s absolutely cringeworthy, and knocked the book down a full grade for me."
I get and even agree with Law's reaction, but the thing that I keep coming back to is that fact that the reader can hear the author's voice behind the character. I'm not saying that Heinlein agreed with the statement in question, but when you read it, you hear him saying it, not the character. It's not just Heinlein, either; if an author has a "bad" character make a statement like the one above, you can hear the author condemning that line of thought. If a good character says it, you hear the author condoning it.
That's a long way of saying that Law's statement reminded me of the best book I read in 2016, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It was a terrific yarn, but what made the book stand out was the fact that the characters were so well drawn that you (almost)* never heard the author's voice behind them. Strange and Norrell are both, for all their magical prowess, incredibly human. They say and do things because they're the things that Strange and Norrell do, not because Clarke puts them on a soapbox to voice her opinions. In the end, they're neither altogether good nor bad, and reading their story reminds you of just how rarely characters are drawn so well.
I wound up reading twenty four books on the train last year, a few less than I'd aimed for, but there were a couple of weighty tomes on the list that slowed me down a little. I won't try to rank them, but a couple of 'em merit an end-of-year mention.
The most interesting book I read was Dr. Greg Graffin's Population Wars. I'm not sure how I'd classify it. It's a memoir, a statement of natural philosophy, a biology primer, and a sociology...something. It's not the most focused book I've ever read, but for all of the information, it's never a dry read.
The other contender for my favorite read of 2016 was William Gibson's The Peripheral. It's incredibly fast and smart and it begs to be read in one sitting. It comes across as near future speculative fiction, but at it's core, it's a cautionary tale about the devastating consequences to a culture which comes into contact with a more economically-advance culture.
2017 is off to a fine start, at least with respect to what I'm reading. I'm a little embarrassed to say I've never read G.K. Chesterton before, but he's highly regarded by many of my favorite writers. I'm reading The Man Who Was Thursday now and I laughed out loud several times on the train tonight. And man, could I use a laugh or two right now.
* There's a bit of poetic justice near the end that, while satisfying, felt a little too clear cut in its black-and-whiteness and took me out of the story.