MacGregor, Neil. A History of the World in 100 Objects.

NY: Viking, 2010.

My academic field is social history, which means I’m far more interested in the evolution of everyday life than I am in treaties and royal weddings and big battles, and I have a particular interest in what’s called “material history” — the study of things, mostly man-created. There’s something about actually holding a manufactured object — a bayonet, a patent-medicine bottle, a faience bead — and thinking about the person who made it and those who have held it over the centuries — or millennia — before you.

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Tchaikovsky, Adrian. Children of Time.

NY: Macmijllan, 2015.

Generally, a science fiction author will write a high-concept novel brimming over with speculative science and technical what-ifs, or he will write dramatic, cinematic, headlong space opera, but not usually both at once. Tchaikovsky manages it very nicely and very successfully, which is why this one won the Clarke Award. It’s not only an epic story, it’s two epics in parallel. The result is a story that is exciting, intellectually engrossing, and a galloping adventure, all at once.

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Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth.

Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1988.

More than fifty years ago, a professor in Greek and Roman History my sophomore year in college introduced me to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and I became fascinated by the concept of sociohistorical archetypes. I spent more of my student budget than I should have on Campbell’s four-volume Masks of God, which was still being published then. I try to avoid having academic “heroes,” but Campbell comes close.

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Cherryh, C. J. Emergence.

NY: DAW, 2018.

Cherryh’s “Foreigner” epic, which first appeared a quarter-century ago, is now somewhere north of 7,000 pages and this 19th volume (and the end of an internal story arc) picks up within days of where the previous book left off. I can’t begin to summarize the various plotlines, there are now so many, but the theme continues to be political and diplomatic rather than action — although there’s some of that, too.

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Brown, Chester. Paying for It.

Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2011.

Chester, who lives and works in Toronto, has been a working cartoonist for quite a long time and his books tend to serious subjects and transparent honesty. The subtitle here is “A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John,” and that’s exactly what it is. When he broke up with his third long-term girlfriend (though they kept living together), he decided enough was enough: No more traditional relationships. It wasn’t worth it.

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Griffiths, Elly. A Room Full of Bones.

NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2012.

This is the fourth in the series featuring Ruth Galloway, forensic archaeologist — a bone specialist — working in Norfolk and living in near-isolation out on the edge of the Saltmarsh. She’s become a regular consultant for the cops, in the person of DCI Harry Nelson — by whom she also managed to get pregnant, but he’s married so she’s now also a single mother, something that doesn’t really come naturally to her.

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Blish, James. A Case of Conscience.

NY: Walker, 1958.

James Blish was one of the more intellectual science fiction authors of the mid-20th century and this is probably his most important work, for which he won a Hugo in 1959. “Religion in science fiction” leads most fans to think of A Canticle for Leibowitz, published at about the same time, but there the Catholic Church was simply the background for a post-holocaust plot line. Blish — who was a thoroughgoing agnostic at the least — is more interested in actual questions of theology. And that makes for a fascinating and involving story. Moreover, it’s only the first of his four books on similar themes.

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Backderf, John. Trashed.

NY: Abrams Comics Arts, 2015

Known by the pseudonym “Derf,” Backderf had a syndicated weekly newspaper comic strip for twenty-five years, and won several awards for it, but he really only came to general notice in 2012 with My Friend Dahmer, a graphic memoir about having grown up a schoolmate of the serial killer. This is his second book, rewritten and expanded out of a fifty-page comic published in 2002, and based on his own couple of years as a garbage man at the end of the 1970s, just out of high school.

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Cherrryh, C. J. Convergence.

NY: DAW, 2017.

Cherryh is, beyond dispute, one of the best purveyors of space opera EVER and this is the eighteenth volume of her magnum opus. It’s the story of a human colony ship that lost its way and was forced to land on a previously unknown world that already hosted a relatively advanced humanoid race. That was several centuries ago and the newcomers and the atevi have since learned not only to share the planet (though on different continents, and after some quantity of blood was spilled), they are now cooperating for their mutual benefit.

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Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.

NY: Liveright, 2015.

Until recently, Beard wasn’t that well-known outside the world of academic classicists, her occasional appearances on BBC notwithstanding. Then this engaging and engrossing volume of her thoughts on the Roman republic and the early empire came out after (literally) fifty years in the making, and everyone’s reading it. She may have done more for popular interest in ancient Rome than any writer since Gibbon.

First, she makes it clear that this is not a complete history of the 1,500 years of Rome’s existence in various forms. She’s interested mostly in the city’s establishment and the slow, nearly mythical formation of the Republic from its period of what were essentially warlords and gangsters. And she ends with Caracalla’s extension of citizenship to all free people within the empire in 212 CE, because after that it was an entirely different game with different rules, and not really “Roman” any more.

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