Book Responses (June 2020 - September 2022)
SEPTEMBER 2022 BOOKS
“I’ve Seen the Future and I’m Not Going: The Art Scene and Downtown New York in the 1980’s” by Peter McGough (published in 2019)
The 1970’s and ‘80’s downtown art scene was the era I romanticized from the Kansas prairie and prompted an early commitment to live and make art in the city. I arrived in 2008 to a city overwhelmed with bustling commercialism and an entire generation lost to AIDS; ghosts haunted the spaces I worked and traversed — the Ontological-Hysteric, Exit Art, LaMaMa, Dixon Place (the old DP, in Ellie’s apartment). I felt them, I knew them, they were what energized and empowered me, a lineage, an ancestry of familiars, of choice. The desire to live in another time, in a past cultivated as a future, is the singular mission of Peter McGough and his art-partner, sometimes lover, sometimes foe, but always confidante, David McDermott.
McDermott & McGough live within their project, creating the conditions of the 1870’s — 1930’s, forgoing electricity, computers, and any modern trappings for a full immersion in the past in the present. As challenging as it is to commit fiercely to a vision, and the scorn, revulsion, and debt that accompany it — financial, spiritual, physical — there are also the relationships tethered irrevocably in mutual respect and love. McGough’s relationship with Julian Schnabel and ex-partner Jacqueline Beaurang is incredibly touching — to read of an insanely successful artist supporting other artists, providing loans, spaces to paint, connections to dealers, audiences, and doctors. Although my tenure in the art world is over, the spiritual connection to the family I made will never break, will always carry me through, even in absence.
The book is geared toward the art-world insider and the frenetic, gossipy quality left me sticky with warmth and glee. This is a beautifully produced book, a work of art in of itself, which I would expect no less from McGough. Recommended to me by Ira Sachs, who has consistently recommended me the most vulnerable and cherishable texts.
“I is Another (Septology III-V)” by Jon Fosse, translated by DamIon Searls (published in 2019)
Everything has its double and the same conversation will forever be had with the same person who may or may not be in the room with you right now. The sentence that began in “The Other Name (Septology I-II)” carries on as Alse, the painter, still meditates upon the two lines that cross each other on a canvas — which might be the last thing he ever paints — and the other Asle, his doppleganger, a painter convalescing in a hospital from alcoholism, and his dead wife, Ales, who brought him to faith and his neighbor, Åsleik, and Åsleik’s sister, Guro, and a woman also named Guro who ends up looking very much like Alesik’s sister Guro. This book makes the rare leap from the page to your limbic system with unrelenting grace and concern. Identity and time unmoored further as the edges become fuzzier and the mundane — prayers, regrets — is rapturous in its presence, living each breath with the past right now.
“Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty” by Patrick Radden Keefe (published in 2021)
Radden Keefe’s 2018 “Say Nothing”, a sprawling and riveting narrative on the Troubles in Northern Ireland, is one of the best nonfiction narratives I’ve ever read, and although I was certainly not immediately drawn to a “secret history of the Sacklers”, this book confirmed my status as a superfan. Radden Keefe can turn any subject into the most compelling and obsessive narrative, juggling multiple threads, characters, and timelines with ease and clarity.
Starting with the grandfather of the infamous Purdue Pharmacy Sackler’s, Radden Keefe details what built one the richest families in the world, and in their unfettered need for more money, what led to their “fall.” Unlike many other books and articles on the opioid epidemic, this book is less concerned with those millions affected by the Sacker’s drug empire but rather with revealing the inner workings of the family itself, who used their power to shroud themselves in mystery, despite their towering philanthropic mark on museums, medical institutions, and universities.
For a thick, heavy text, the driving narrative and the authorial fastidiousness of Radden Keefe make for a nearly breezy read, one that I carnivorously devoured. I request a book from Radden Keefe on the History of Everything that will take a lifetime to finish: teeth and hair falling out, in my reading chair, I would not put it down.
“An Untouched House” by Willem Frederik Hermans, translated by David Colmer (published in 1952)
I’d never read let alone heard of Willem Frederik Hermans until the monthly Harper’s column (it has no formal name, but the penultimate essay before the Findings — you Harper’s subscribers know what I’m talking about) turned me on. This particular column has introduced me to a slew of serious writers who have become beloved in my ongoing adventures in reading, from Jon Fosse to Diane Johnson to Sylvia Townsend Warner.
This haunting, tense, existentialist novella takes place in the final days of World War II as a Dutch soldier deserts his troop, and the war itself, and takes up in a home recently vacated (or is it vacated?). Although I abhor the short story as a form, I find much value in the novella: a single entry to be digested whole in one sitting, to be considered in of itself, not in companion with other shards, pieces, ideas, collections. (My feelings about short stories are complicated and ripe with vehemence — look at past reviews for more in-depth psychoanalysis!) This is riveting, disturbing, and wry writing and, as ever, I can’t wait to devour more Willem Federick Hermans in the near future — despite that very few have been translated to English. (Who wants to initiate a Hermans translation project with me!?)
“The Round House” by Louise Erdrich (published in 2012)
A riveting work of fiction that hits with the potency of a classic, a corollary to “To Kill a Mockingbird”, taking on intergenerational struggles with justice and injustice on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. This is my first Erdrich novel — late to the party, I know — and as ever, it’s a gift to know how little I’ve read, how much more there is to know and experience in the pantheon of a writer’s work.
I resist plot summaries, but! After his mother is violently attacked and raped, the protagonist and his friends investigate the event, leading them on multiple journeys, conflating the “coming of age” with the detective drama. Erdrich’s rendering of male adolescence is profound, she crafts a space of desire, personal and societal restraint, doubts, fear, and male camaraderie, all which elevate the sweet poignancy of the narrative which takes place over the course of a summer — the sweetest of time signatures for a 13-year-old boy. That Erdrich achieves this with specificity, intentionality, and respect highlights the empathetic value of writing from the vantage point of an experience you haven’t lived. This is the great gift and magic of fiction that should be celebrated and not, as is la mode de l’époque, denigrated via the “stick to your lane” cultural critics (please don’t! how boring!).
Alongside the aforementioned “Mockingbird”, the novel also harkens back to memories of first reading Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine” and Sharon Creech’s “Walk Two Moons”, where we are fused to the protagonist, in their headspace, in the mystery and discovery of growing, thus making the interior emotional landscape tethered to our own archive of felt experiences. This is a truly remarkable work of fiction, one that I hope makes its way into the high school English curriculum as a “modern classic” — whatever that means!
AUGUST 2022 BOOKS
“Running Out in Search of Water on the High Plains” by Lucas Bessire (published in 2021)
Reaching for a narrative that resembles the undefined sandy chambers of depleting aquifers, Bessire has mined and crafted a rich and personal work that cuts deep. Returning to the high plains of southwest Kansas after “running out” himself, the author critically situates his generational impact upon the land and the Ogallala aquifer. Reuniting and deepening a fractured relationship with his father, excavating the tragic history of his grandmother, Fern, who also searched for narratives of water, navigating the complicated and cruel doublespeak of the Southwest Groundwater Management District and, what will hit every Kansan hard, the pain of the commitment that good, honest, hard working people have to narratives (religious, cultural, racial, ecological) that hurt themselves and others.
Bessire creates a layered space, placing the reader in the context of historical trauma, genocide (upon people and land), depletion, and the myriad of “running outs” that occur in a lifetime. He does this without the mission of social justice but with nuance and carrying multiple truths at once. Bessire’s background in anthropology allows for a global perspective, oscillating between the tract of his family’s farming land in Kansas to deforestation in Paraguay to aquifers in Saudi Arabia. He journeys throughout southwest Kansas to speak with farmers, corporate agri-businessmen, old relatives and family friends, to Garden City, Abilene, and Liberal — towns that make up my own historical narrative of loving and “running out” on Kansas.
I’m rarely emotionally affected by art — unless I’m drunk and saccharine — but I was often struck such that I had difficulty reading further. This is a book about responsibility, not letting yourself off the hook, and having the patience of a horizon in southwest Kansas, that is, the capacity to stay with a situation, with a person, with a place long enough to know there is never just one way of seeing.
“Defying Hitler” by Sebastian Haffner (published in 2000, written in 1933)
This is what I call a beach read! This unfinished memoir, written five years before the outbreak of World War II, concerns itself with the questions “How did the Nazis gain power?” and “Why did no one stop them?” This text, rediscovered by Haffner’s son, recounts the journalist’s memories of Germany “recovering” from WWI, the dicey and turbulent period between 1918 and 1933, and the change that occurred overnight on March 31, 1933 when it became “illegal” for Jews to work publicly: history taking shape, as it often does, in the matter of minutes, hours. Allegiances change creepingly and then quickly, through bureaucratic means. The scene of his father having to fill out paperwork to pledge allegiance to the Nazi party, of Haffner at an indoctrination camp, the prerequisite to completing his law exams, and the loss of friends to ideological thinking. In the midst of this horror, there is bittersweet romance: the aching unrequited love of a young woman who escapes the Paris, the love affair with a young Jewish woman, and the erotic bliss of sleeping and showering with a cavalcade of men at the indoctrination camp. His details of the indoctrination camp are particularly striking, as well as his take on comradeship — the most brutish, cruel facet that the Nazis (and all ideological factions) utilized to encamp individuals in solidarity with one another, how they created Nazi Germany.
The value of memoir is in excavating the personal for the universal, and although many reach for the comparison of our recent historical moment to Germany in the 1930’s, there is little precedent for this. To compare is to be ignorant of the context. However, the lesson of Germany in the first half of the Twentieth Century demands frequent reminding, further excavation, and always, always, more reading.
“Magic: A History, from Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present” by Chris Gosden (published in 2020)
This hefty door-stopper of a book carries an impossible task of condensing the history of magic into a practical text for the discerning reader. Gosden takes a cautionary approach, recognizing the skeptic all the while embracing the practicality of magic throughout history. This approach serves as a through-line: that magic has never been a luxury but rather how people and communities have coped with the reality and energies in a world governed by relations with animals, ecologies, environments, the stars, universe, and the unknown.
Gosden ubiquitizes a visualization of a triple helix — magic, religion, and science — which have been in conversation and evolution for the past 60,000 years. So much of the archeological data prior to 10,000 years is scant and dubious, we can only surmise as to why folks buried certain things or composed circles of rocks, and Gosden does not make any over-reaching claims but rather shares the knowledge and the generally agreed-upon hypotheses.
The book’s mission is to provoke an understanding of the claims to magic throughout societies and lineages (Aboriginal, Native American, Siberian, ancient Chinese, Egyptian, etc.) — fortunately ignoring the capitalistic pursuits of magic (magicians, illusionists, etc.) — so that we can reclaim, remake, and reorganize our relationship to the mystery, toward a stewardship and care for the earth, an earth we are not separate from but inseparably integrated with. That’s a magic I’m eager to manifest.
JULY 2022 BOOKS
“The Other Name (Septology I-II)” by Jon Fosse translated by Damon Searls (published in 2019)
This interior existential literary Norwegian work, where identity, memory, and the present tense are slippery, is my sweetest spot. A single unfinished sentence running for 336 pages (there are two additional novels in the Septology (III-V, VI-VII) where the sentence continues to run) revolves, essentially, around a painter looking at two lines that cross each other on a canvas. From this act of scrutiny, reverie, and doubt comes a tumult of examination and reexamination of the self where the conscious act of reading becomes a living event, as you ride the sentence with no end, at times pleasingly dull but mostly, a numbing thrill. A companion, in style, to Lucy Ellman’s astounding “Ducks, Newburyport” as well as to the Joyceian instinct that the best reading is heavy lifting.
“American Baby: A Mother, A Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption” by Gabrielle Glaser (Published in 2021)
An exceptionally researched work of narrative investigative journalism that tells the story of a mother and son, forcefully separated in the 1950’s by the state and non-profit sector intent on shaming young mothers, repurposing the “sanctity of life” for the benefit of the institution, and severing bonds with searing ramifications for the mental and physical health of all involved. As Glaser notes, her lens is tightly focused on Margaret Erle and David/Stephen Erle, so the inequities of what the adoption process has done to black, brown, and Native Americans is not explored, only in passing, with recognition that this is an entirely other book that needs to be written. However, what Glaser does achieve is impactful. At a moment when basic rights for women are rolling back, this book provides a singular viewpoint and how distrust and, yes, hatred of women destroys the individual and society at large.
A complimentary documentary, “Three Perfect Strangers,” also details the biased psychological and sociological research done, speared by the villainous Louise Wise Services, for nearly 40 years, creating irreparable damage upon women, children, and the American body/psyche. I highly recommend it!
JUNE 2022 BOOKS
“The Sound of the Mountain” by Yasunari Kawabata, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker (published in 1954)
The deterioration of the body and the mind, as the seasons cycle and return, a reminder of what is lost and what remains. Throughout this quiet novel rumbles turmoil, a threat to the livelihood of a “middle-class” family living outside Tokyo. The novel’s perspective is one where memory of war is still fresh in Japanese culture and the collective mood is waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Shingo’s reveries for the woman he truly loved — a short lived marriage in his youth to his current wife’s sister — is the emotional driving force of the novel. As his desire roams throughout his waking and dream life, his will is tied up in a fascination with his son’s wife, Kikuko, and the woman his son is having an affair with, alongside his daughter’s drug-addled husband who has disappeared and attempted suiced alongside a geisha.The seasons change, trees and flowers bloom, animals are noticed, the seasons keep changing. Stories in newspapers tell of abortions, suicides, patricides, 2,000 year-old lotuses blooming, the extremities and horrors of human nature that could, and very well do, threaten Shingo’s family.
What I appreciated most is the achingly slow pace, the lack of resolve in the narrative, and the pleasure of spending time with a character like Shingo: a man who doesn’t know exactly what to do in a world after war, and likely never will quite know what to do. Having originally been published in a serialized format, the predictable and easy progression allowed my attention to rest on the sentence-to-sentence progression, marveling in the serenity that comes from remaining with the word and not ahead of it.
“The Last Days of Roger Federer: And Other Endings” by Geoff Dyer (published in 2022)
Dyer’s new overstuffed, meandering, and often pointless new book hovers over the drainage pipe of endings, especially in the league of arts and sports: how, why and when someone makes their exit and the impact it makes upon the culture. However, I couldn’t help but think throughout, why didn’t Dyer make an exit from this book?
Dyer has long been one of my favorite contemporary writers, blending journalism, creative non-fiction, fiction, travelogue, biography, and memoir into rich, insightful, and sometimes profound explorations of jazz (“But Beautiful”), Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” (“Zona”), zones in-between the in-between (“White Sands: Experiences of the Outside World”), and the romance of isolation and travel (“Jeff in Venice, death in Varanasi,’ “Paris Trance”). I’m a near completeist who wants to throw this new book in the trash.
There’s only so much that can be said about Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, John Coltrane, and Freidrich Nietzche, and Dyer adds absolutely nothing to the conversation, other than a rehash of veneration to those already memorialized (with his own catty addendums, often in a pile of unnecessary parentheticals).
Again, this is why reading is such a joy: because it’s not always going to “spark joy” — it’s going to be disappointing, hard, and aggravating. Someone who you’ve grown up with will release a disaster and you may never read them again, or rediscover them in a different light years down the road only to prove that, yes, again, you, the reader, had it all wrong.
As for me, I won’t be putting this book in the trash yet. The book will join my expanded collection of Geoff Dyer in storage and perhaps, some years down the road, I will return to what I consider his “masterpieces” only to discover that I’ve outgrown, that I have changed irrevocably, that our time together has been had, that there is no there to return to. Now that’s a journey!
“The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths” by John Gray (published in 2013)
This follow up to “Straw Dogs”, a book that profoundly shaped my thinking on progress, religion, and the environment, Gray holds back nothing. Utilizing literary and philosophical source texts, Gray demonstrates that science and humanism — secularism as a whole — are but bastardized versions of Chrisitianity, that the “western” project has yielded nothing of significance since the religious myth surrounding Christ. Even the “patron saint of humanism” Socrates is no better off than the poor myth of Christianity, wherein the source texts are word of mouth parables, as Plato is to the machinations of political actors that manifested the bible.
In the first third of the book (“An Old Chaos”), Gray details the human capacity to experience and inflict horror upon our fellow species, with harrowing details from war, genocide, and the endless concentration camps humans create for humans. Gray has you staring down the barrel of the gun when he transitions to the second third (“After the Last Thought”) where he explores Freud, Jung, Borges, and Wallace Stevens, among others, in a line of reasoning that directly follows the impulse of “Straw Dogs” — that we are a failed species who has not yet been capable of creating myths that would keep us from murdering each other and our singular earth. In the final third (“Another Sunlight”), Gray contemplates our relationship to the city, the archive of the museum, and the contemplative space of being with nature in silence, how it is beyond our capacity to understand nature, for we are only capable of its destruction.
Gray is often characterized as a dark nihilistic force, but this is only because the truths he shares are wrecking balls to the myth of human supremacy. Our “march toward progress”, in all the formations they take, from the gas chamber to military assault rifle to weed killer, reckon with the authorial stamp of our poor myths incapable of charting new paths from our inherited political monster: Christianity.
“Saving the Dammed: Why We Need Beaver-Modified Ecosystems” by Ellen Wohl (published in 2018 by Oxford University Press)
I’ve been slowly absorbing this book over the past two months because it is robust and rich in vital information. Wohl details over the course of a single year — month by month — the beaver ponds of North St. Vrain Creek in Rocky Mountain National Park, blending the rigor of poetry, science, and history into an incredibly thorough researched case for beaver-modified ecosystems. The packaging of this book is quite divine as well. For a University Press publication, they put their time and attention to the beautiful insert of color photos, maps, and expertly designed graphs detailing positive impacts of beaver on just a small tract of land in the Colorado Rockies. There’s so much to report on here but the section that whalloped me the most was the relationship between willows, beavers, and elk.
Although beavers are now my professional priority, this book serves as a wonderful guide and resource for anyone curious to go beyond Ben Goldfarb’s now much-read reportage “Eager: The Surprising and Secret Lives of Beavers and Why They Matter.” And although my book reviews only seem to decrease the number of followers I have, thankfully for those of you out there who aren’t the literary type, next week I’ll be sharing posts from our biennial BeaverCON 2022 outside Baltimore, Maryland. There’s so much research and activity happening around beavers and part of what we’ll be doing next week is launching a national climate action plan and a national working group surrounding the impact that beavers in every ecosystem niche have.
MAY 2022 BOOKS
“The Arrest” by Jonathan Lethem (published in 2020)
This novel is pulpy, entertaining, often funny, and, in an era that feels dystopic itself, Lethem simultaneously uses the genre’s best features while shaking it free of its most egregious ones — the creep toward speculative, fantasy, and science fiction, which renders fiction entirely useless (oooeee!). The constant claim throughout the book — that it isn’t post-apocalyptic, it isn’t dystopian, and it isn’t utopian — creates a space for Lethem to invest in a cast of characters who make up a Maine town after the world has gone into Arrest. This state of Arrest where the electrical grid has failed, guns and vehicles have stopped working, and all communication hubs have short circuited (might be my personal utopia, however).
Even “minor” Lethem novels, as this feels, contain profundities worth absorbing. The prose is enveloping and as is often the case with Lethem, rapturous in balancing humor and earnestness, a most sweet sweet spot.
An incredibly entertaining read that has prompted me to return to Lethem’s oeuvre more often.
“The Premonition: A Pandemic Story” by Michael Lewis (published in 2021)
April 2020, in quarantine on prairieland in Kansas, I gobbled up Daniel Quammen’s brilliant and comprehensive book “Spillover”, taking a photo of nearly every page, sharing them and urging everyone to read the book. Nobody was interested in knowing what foreshadowed the pandemic, and that we had ample time, resources, and knowledge to prepare. Michael Lewis’ real-time new book is an abbreviated and up-to-date companion, focused less on the environmental forewarnings (and yes, COVID-19 is a rehearsal for what we’ve we wrought ourselves in our treatment of this sacred earth) and more on the expert civil servants steeped in the research, equipped with knowledge, and capacity to hit the red button when there was still time to save so many lives.
This is my first Michael Lewis read, known for his popular works like the “The Big Short,” and I was taken by his compelling and savvy narrative skills. The sections on the lead-up to the pandemic — most of the book — and the damning nearly constant missteps by the CDC feels light years in the past, despite the fact that we are still very much in the midst of the same pandemic.
Lewis has assembled a cast of larger-than-life characters — many of whom are “L6’s” — “the person buried under six layers of organization whose muzzled voice suddenly, urgently needed to be heard” — that make for a riveting and frustrating read. The expanding lack of trust of the “expert” in this country is another domino piece in the ever-expanding threat to democracy.
The book concludes mid-stream, Lewis has no other choice, which unfortunately renders the book as already nearly obsolete. But the features on the individual players, especially Dr. Charity Dean and Dr. Carter Mecher, make this well worthy read. Just try to gobble it up sooner than later.
“Curandero: A Life in Mexican Folk Healing” by Eliseo “Cheo” Torres & Timothy L. Sawyer, Jr. (published in 2005)
lisa nevada impressed this book upon me in the midst of the worst bouts of insomnia, which I’m still working through, that I’ve had in over a decade. Mental illness is the tricky but ever-constant elephant in the room, dormant for years, it can manifest itself suddenly, without consent, even when times are good. It’s been a nightmarish two months in step with starting a dream job, being in the most ideal setting between two lakes, in a home manifested with intentionality and peace, yet still, the silent elephant awoke and will not let go.
Though this book hasn’t “solved” my crisis, it has grounded me in knowing that there are multiple channels to healing. Cheo Torres guides you, as a friend, through the healing practices he grew up around in the borderland of Texas and Mexico. He details the powerful performative effects of healing through rituals, ointments, touch, plant medicine, and the power of belief — if the belief is strong enough, the healing can work: this is the magic of placebo. He details the lives of curandero/a’s whose practices were drawn from care for the community and the vibratory power to bring healing to others, often for nothing in return. Modern medicine continues to discover that Indigenous practices, utilizing “homeopathic” pathways, are at the forefront of curing cancer, diabetes, and immune disorders, among others, from the use of snake venom to the plants around us.
In a particularly potent chapter, Cheo takes us to his childhood when his mother imparted her ancestral plant medicine wisdom. It was empowering and heartbreaking, to know that these pathways of curiosity are rare nowadays but that texts like this serve as portals to return to the origin of our shared knowledges.
In a practice garnered from a friend of Cheo, the other day I dug a hole in the woods and I verbally emptied my worries to the earth. Did it “work”? I’m not sure that’s the point. I didn’t sleep any better but I also no longer carried those thoughts with me, they were literally buried in the earth.
“Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam” by Vivek Ramaswamy (published in 2021)
The quantitative and qualitative data has been in for some time now, diversity & anti-racist, and mandated workplace “social justice” policies are only exacerbating and deepening divisions based on the superficialities of race, sex, and gender. This brilliant, thoughtful, and productive text is one that I recommend to every single person working in the non-profit or corporate sector. This is an important and consequential book on this complicated moment, which is arguably a major threat to democracy, a future where our government is seated in the corporate power of Silicon Valley, where corporations steer the political and social framework of our most personal relationships with the dollar sign as their only marker.
What makes this such an impactful book is not only the author’s diagnosis of the problem but his frank, rigorous and thoughtful solutions. Ramaswamy respects the intelligence of his reader and dives deep into corporate law, political theory and history, and his own journey as a CEO of a pharmaceutical company. Ultimately, what he demonstrates with lucidity is those who get hurt the most from “woke capitalism” are the individuals and communities that corporations “show up for” through “justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion” training, during Pride Month, and when “Black Lives Matter.”
In the final section, Ramaswamy offers a beautiful, productive and valuable thought lesson on what service to others means, how serving community and a cause selflessly is something we have lost — or never had — as a country, but this is what we should work toward instead of the superficialities that “wokeness” has doubled down on in nearly every corner of public life. This is a book I am eager to pass on to others and revisit often.
APRIL 2022 BOOKS
“Vladimir” by Julia May Jonas (Published in 2022)
Last week I witnessed “A Strange Loop” for the second time and was overwhelmed, again, at the brave truth telling of Michael R. Jackson, especially because his truths may be unpopular. This is how I felt reading “Vladimir.” Jonas’ capacity for splitting a rib with humor and truth has long been a hallmark of her theatre work. Her plays “Evelyn” and “Emily Climbs”, both of which I saw multiple times and would drop everything to see again, were working on a level that massaged the organs and left minor, loving, and significant bruises. And, importantly, these plays made me laugh to tears.
It is a rare feat that Jonas has carried these qualities to the novel, balancing satire, social commentary, and fully rendered characters, imperfect humans who cannot help but follow their craving to inevitable dastardly ends. The experience of reading this novel was like a knife cutting thru the meat of a live animal, exposing layer after layer of new feelings, all the while blood coursing, bubbling over with each heartbeat. (Indeed, food and food preparation drape this novel, including a breezy and inspiring recipe for bun bo xao.) The salaciousness of campus politics in the age of “wokeness” are handled in shockingly frank terms, but I was shocked to be so shocked, to read a writer so unafraid, so unabashedly secure. Although the satirical looms large, the novel recognizes abuses of power and the complexity and responsibility each of us has in living alongside each other.
A particular thought that struck the solar plexus is the trend of this particular era, and the younger generation especially, to want all current and past “literature to be some utopian screed of fairness,” that representation matters more than storytelling. Brave, fierce, funny Julia May Jonas does not cow to this request but acknowledges its source and that, like all desires, it deserves to be heard and considered.
Having shared this book alongside my reunion with “A Strange Loop” gave me hope: that my contemporaries, if I can call them that, are working the shit out in complex, necessary, and very entertaining ways.
“We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China’s Surveillance State” by Kai Strittmatter (Published in 2018)
Strittmatter’s highly informative book, especially surrounding the advanced AI technology that allows China (and yes, the United States) to keep tabs on the populace, stumbles from the outset, cemented in the supposed excellence and supremacy of the West. The egregious nationalistic tools China employs on its population are employed in every other country as well, just not as “successfully”. The persecution and re-education of Uyghurs is not dissimilar to what has happened in this country, and many others, throughout history.
The U.S. is in the same pool but our creep towards authoritarianism is fueled in opposite directions. Look at the movement on the left to reform/recreate certain histories entirely based on feelings, not facts (eg 1619 Project) or the right’s mischaracterization and misalignment of critical race theory. Both sides are working toward a groupthink that is completely divorced from reality, and it’s working because leaders and politicians don’t have to intervene: we are creating the authoritarian state ourselves. And, like China, it’s not that incoming generations don’t know history, they don’t even care to know.
My crush on Eileen Gu at the Beijing 2022 Olympics was not just about her superhuman strength, capacities, and beauty, but also as being tainted as a “traitor” and “defector.” That she chose to compete for China, realigning to the matriarchal connective tissue of her mother and grandmother, only intensified my admiration.
A colleague of mine designed a theatre production in Beijing in 2017, before opening, the censors had to attend and give their notes. The designer’s perspective on this was: at least in China you know where you stand. In the U.S. arts & culture parade, you can be maligned by critics based on the temperature of the culture at the moment and your work will fail to reach an audience. In China, as long as you follow the Party line, your art will reach an audience and you can succeed. So, well, there’s that.
“Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art” by James Nestor (published in 2020)
In the annals of popular health & science, this is one of those books that will prompt, “Now I gotta fuckin’ think about this!?”
My ongoing criticism of “progress” takes a turn toward the anatomical, the effect progress has had on the human species: increased brains and industrial production of processed foods have deformed our skull, we are eating, chewing and breathing incorrectly — too little, too much, too shallow — and drowning ourselves in the process. The majority of our mild aliments, which over time become chronic and then devastating, can be addressed through breathwork.
Nestor has written an expedient and well-documented book that follows a familiar format, allowing the reader to grow their knowledge-base while providing practical implementation. The breadth of Nestor’s examples is impressive but taut.
This book has made an impact on my own relationship to breath, in practicing the ideal breathwork of 5.5 breaths a minute (5.5. seconds in, 5.5. seconds out), a pattern that is reflected throughout history and cultures through prayer, song, yoga, etc. As much hoodoo-voodoo there is in the field of homeopathic health, this is as elemental as it gets and a vital text on returning to ancient wisdom that is already scores ahead of modern science and medicine.
“Great Demon Kings: A Memoir of Poetry, Sex, Art, Death, and Enlightenment” by John Giorno (published in 2020)
I did not know Giorno or his work as a poet, organizer, and general artworld cruiser, but was drawn inexplicably to this memoir. Giorni, determined in his youth to be a poet! a star! an inspiration!, fell into the arms of Andy Warhol and Steve Paxton and Bob Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and William Burroughs and even an anonymous and incredibly steamy bathroom encounter with Keith Haring before Keith Haring was Keith Haring. This book upholds the maxim: you don’t want to hear from the superstar, you want to hear from the person who slept with the superstar.
Spending a weekend in New York City — my adult home — with this book was a gift. Walking through the East Village and LES, attending a show at LaMaMa, feeling the ghosts of my former selves, and all the legendary spirits who made NYC the city I yearned for from the prairie, and continue to yearn for. Giorno captures this palpable energy: to be in the place where things are happening and to capture as much of it as you can, preferably through sex and art. Giorno’s recognition of the fleeting nature of beauty and desire is particularly potent, the phrase “shooting gobs of hot white cum” occurs frequently — as it should!
Such a thoroughly enjoyable read and always a cherished and treasured experience to absorb the wisdom (and gossip) of an art world elder.
MARCH 2022 BOOKS
“Intimacies” by Katie Kitamura (published in 2021)
This trim first-person narrative tells the precise, slow-moving glacier-like story of a court interpreter at The Hague, and her layered exchanges with the unspoken: between friends, colleagues, a lover, strangers, and war criminals. Kitamura’s prose initially arrives as clinical, cold, deliberate until you are rapt and drawn tightly into the minutia she expertly and efficiently manifests.
As if held by the chin in sturdy purposeful hands, enshrouded by the mystique of solitary confinement within the questions and desires we only posit to ourselves, as if I were in The Hague myself, interpreting for an accused war criminal. Which is the ultimate transcendence in reading — Kitamura took me precisely where she intended to. And I melted, briefly, body and soul with the author. Intimacy, indeed.
“A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance” by Hanif Abdurraqib (Published in 2021)
Abdurraqib harnesses the duality of prose and poetry in every sentence that evokes a lifeforce and vitality hearkening Henry Miller’s “The Colossus of Maroussi” and James Baldwin’s “Another Country,” the driving locomotive of language and compassion transforms the page into flesh. And like Baldwin and Miller, Abdurraqib’s prose is a truth serum, a reckoning of honesty from the author that provokes you, the reader, to be more honest with yourself and others.
This collection of essays is on praise in the key of secularity all the while recognizing that virtuosic movement and sound are on par with the glorious and sublime, bridging pain and joy, misunderstanding and derision, noise and silence. In writing on Josphine Baker and Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston, it is the first time I’ve ever had the thought, “I wish these women were alive to read this.”
The communal and intimate are wroughtfully woven and I kept thinking about this while reading the book in public, blessed to be reading in public again, at bars and parks and bars. Reading in public, reacting to the written word in public, is a service to the public, setting a precedent that books should be read at all times, in all places, that it is not a solitary experience, it is an imbibing of all humanity with and for others. Reading this book in public, laughing riotously, clapping my hands, and then barrelling into tears and guttural expressions of “goddamn!” It was a joy to share these intimacies publicly.
One of the closing essays, “On the Performance of Softness,” brought back distilled memories of physical assault, the performance of masculinity that always arose out of nowhere but was a rare and vital currency as a child. In this and every essay, Abdurraqib mines his own experiences through the lens of culture and intimacy, with transparency and inclusivity, leaving no one out in the cold.
“Our Country Friends” by Gary Shteyngart (published in 2021)
In the vein of Anton Chekhov and an intellectually elevated Woody Allen, Shteyngart has written an insufferably and majestically verbose pandemic novel that is also frustratingly entertaining and salacious. The satisfyingly overstuffed sentences thrum with importance all the while being undercut by Shteyngart’s perpetual irony. I waxed and waned between love and annoyance, titillation and apathy, throughout. I came away asking: what is this book? What is the author’s relationship to the reader? Who does he think I am? Is he making sweeping assumptions about the reader? this country? is it even funny?
A line that struck out to me early in the novel — which centers around a cadre of old friends and cultural elites, most emigres, spending the first six months of the pandemic as a novelist’s bungalow artist colony on the Hudson River — is this: “Most of the weirdness and wildness of the world has been snuffed out, even before the virus. Maybe some of it could come back now.” This resonated deeply with me. As did a particular pocket of the book that excavates the space of middle age where we assess how much of the child remains and whether want to cultivate or finally annihilate them.
I could go deeper, as there are many thoughts about the issues of class, race, and privilege during a pandemic that only certain folks were able to “escape” but ultimately don’t feel that Shteyngart’s novel earns the conversation.
“The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” by Jonathan Haidt (published in 2012)
Ain’t no righteous motherfucker like a righteous catholic motherfucker. It’s how I was raised, and thus, my judgy righteous motherfucker runs deep. And, as Haidt details in this book on the evolution of moral psychology, we’re all righteous motherfuckers as we come by it honestly.
I’ve been on a quest to dissolve, as best I can, the ideology that made me such a pathetic human during the Trump presidency. My petulant righteous behavior with my far left/NYC artist in-group — not saying Trump’s name (only “45” or only “T****”), declaring he was “not my president,” sowing false claims about Russia and a rigged election — developed the playbook the far right is now playing by, resulting in peak hypocrisy from the left. (Look at my motherfucking righteous mind go!) Gratefully, I was called out by my nephew at the start of the pandemic, when I decried a meme shared in a family group text as “racist”; he pointed out: everyone steps lightly because they don’t want my ire of righteousness. Me!? I had become this person!?
Morality binds and blinds and Haidt demonstrates this glue is necessary to create communities thru accountability, whatever the invented morality may be. However, the danger arises when there’s no possibility of seeing the “other side’s” point of view. Haidt offers the critically important moral foundations of politics as a base: Care/Harm, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity, and Liberty. He makes the case that these foundations favor the conservative agenda, as Republicans, since the 1960s, have utilized this entire suite, over Democrats who typically only utilize Care/Harm and Fairness.
By detailing his own biases as a liberal atheist, surrounding moral monism on his research trip to India, Haidt bridges polarization to show there is much to be learned from morally conservative societies when viewed from the vantage point of ethnography and not disdain.
“Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod” by Gary Paulsen (published in 1994)
I was driving and often sinking on a sandy road in southwest Utah when I heard that Gary Paulsen had died. Like many Millenials, his book “Hatchet” made a significant impact on my development; it compelled within me a sense of adventure and ruggedness, neither of which have yet materialized to match the boy in the novel, surviving a summer in the Canadian wilderness with only a hatchet. On the day of his death, the Utah NPR station I was scratchily tuned into ran interviews from over the years with Paulsen. My heart was buoyed by the voice of this kind, complicated, and driven Minnesotan man.
This memoir on his preparation for the Iditarod race — the infamous Trail Sled Dog Race which runs some 1,080 miles from Anchorage to Nome, through the interior of Alaska, over mountain ranges, and across seawater — is a breathless and obsessive read. Paulsen details the bringing together of his crew of 15 dogs, his mistrials and tribulations, and the stubborn restless spirit that drives him to the race. With sparse, clean, wise, and often very funny prose, Paulsen brings the reader into the fury of obsession and addiction to an idea.
Over the two days I spent with it, my dreamscape, which is already far too activated, was mired in dog handling, inspecting paws and toes at checkpoints, watching for signals in my dogs for upcoming obstacles, and managing warmth and survival. I awoke exhausted, bleary-eyed, and knew I had to finish this book as soon as I could.
This is the power and magic of Paulsen’s writing, and what marks him as a premiere writer, he respects the reader’s intelligence and experiences and takes you to the border of the body’s limits. And his observations on humans, nature, obsession, and dogs are visceral and earned. As a stubborn obsessive and depressive who, once ahold of an idea will not rest until it is realized, this book shook and comforted my core. This is the beauty of a book, to be alone and not ever alone.
“The Hearing Trumpet” by Leonora Carrington (published in 1974)
“I’m not the guy, but!” a phrase inherited by a dear Jud Knudsen to preface any unpopular opinion, so, I’m not the guy, but! surrealism is a visual genre, not a literary one.
The experience of the surrealist novel aligns with my disdain of the short story: as soon as I’ve gotten invested, the rug is pulled out and I’m left to start all over again. Added to this, surrealist literature often creates a realm where a character is but a vessel without agency, whom things only happen to. This is the case with Carrington’s mysterious millenarian dystopic fantasy, a twee idiotic tale on the return of the goddess via the holy grail, a novel brimming with charming energy ultimately signifying nothing.
At its most enthralling and curious moments, the novel is kin to Athanasius Kircher and The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles (if you haven’t visited, figure it out now), a cabinet of curiosity of cultural, artistic, ethnographic, and anthropological narratives, real and imagined. Carrington is pulling from a rich intuitive database but the result is surface matter, slight and perturbing as a leak.
In spite of my stubborn annoyance, there came rays of light and humor throughout to pierce my moody disposition, including a great pearl of wisdom: “People under seventy and over seven are very unreliable if they are not cats.”
In the final dozen pages, I admit, I skimmed huffing and puffing until I could close the book, exasperated, at wit’s end, and happy to never have to return.
And the delight of all of this! What a trip! And what gratitude for Leonora Carrington’s confidence as an artist — to make me all worked up, red in the face, shaking my head, rolling my eyes, yes, pissed off! What a fun, joyful gift as I had a blast deploring this stupid book.
“The Case Against Reality: How Evolution Hid the Truth From Our Eyes” by Donald D. Hoffman (published in 2019)
Although more accessible than many physics and biology texts, this book still had me furiously doggy paddling. The best advice when one doesn’t understand something is never to sit and ruminate, reread, and hunker down, always best to plow through. I love being ignorant as I only have my intelligence to fall back on and in returning to my ignorance, there is only one way forward: not knowing, doggy paddling.
Donald Hoffman makes a very strong case that there is zero chance (0%, nil, nada) that we see reality as it is. By demonstrating his fitness beats truth theorem (FBT), Hoffman cogently details how we experience reality as icons that assist in securing individual fitness payoffs, that extend to our potential offspring. His extrapolation on the concept of spacetime as a doomed notion — since it cannot be found or verified in foundational physics — is particularly mindblowing. I appreciate that he resists the simulacrum pull of the world as a simulation — which, Hoffman writes, is more of a “hand wave” than science.
What I take away from this book that I likely only understood maybe 50% of is the more we learn from evolutionary biology, the stronger the case against the individual becomes, that we can know ourselves, that our identity can be parsed out, and that it even matters. All of this is unobtainable through the “unintelligent design”, as Hoffman refers to it, of our poor visual capacities — we are seeing next to nothing and our conscious experience is dually dwarfed by our distractions and the biological favor of fitness over truth. Our world, the world we see, is a series of icons we create with our incredibly limited capacities, which were developed, just barely, for the sake of our survival — we open our eyes to create the world, and when we blink, it is all gone. But what of consciousness? Well, there are only 2,200 characters in an Instagram post, and if you’ve made it this far… 🤷🏻♂️
FEBRUARY 2022 BOOKS
“The Stranger” by Albert Camus, translated by Matthew Ward (published in 1942)
I was a teenager when I voraciously devoured the Camus canon, seemingly in a single heart-burning gulp, and am slowly revisiting. This text, in particular, feels most essential; in taut, unfettered prose, Camus accomplishes a literary and philosophical feat that would otherwise warrant a tome. This is a radical character study in compassion and empathy as Camus takes us directly into the heart of the matter: that our actions, regardless of intent, can be our public undoing in the most startling way, without our say. The game of bargaining with oneself in the face of this absurdity, the acknowledgment of the void — of our utter purposelessness in the universe — can be a most fecund place where purpose and freedom can begin.
The beach scenes, in Part One, radiated with a sense of aching nostalgia, akin to what I imagine revisiting “Death In Venice” would provoke, from the perspective of an untraveled boy on the prairie desperate for escape. To revisit a book is to time travel and reunite, if briefly, with a hazy reflection in the mirror.
“In the Eye of the Wild” by Nastassja Martin (published in 2021)
On theme, I was caught in a squall on the side of a mountain when I finished this book. Anthropologist Nastassja Martin has crafted a visceral and harrowing book on animism that stares directly into the torturous experience of being attacked by a bear in the volcanic terrains of Kamchatka — a jutting landmass in the far east of Russia where the buran wind dictates the winter — and what comes after. Martin sets the impossible task of ethnographic objectivity, resulting in a prose that is piercing and unsettling, especially in the first half as Martin details excruciating multiple maxillofacial surgeries.
In the second half of the book, Martin returns to Kamchatka, to the people she both studies and has grown to love. Here, in particular, Martin struggles with what she absorbs from the Indigenous Even population that are both subjects and beloved kin. The confrontation with the bear, who tore into Martin’s skull, is rendered as inevitable, as an event that was marked, toward which she was drawn, had been tracking her whole life.
This taut book activates questions over the dictum of the anthropologist: to live in between worlds, between watching and engaging, between the ceaseless time of dreams and the anxiety of modernity, between the jaws of a bear.
“The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain” by Annie Murphy Paul (published in 2021)
Science writer Annie Murphy Paul makes the case that we’ve been culturally duped and limited by thinking that we must use only our brains to think. Leaning into the notion of interoception — an awareness of the body — Paul reflects upon scientific, sociological, historical, architectural, kinesthetic, and psychological data on thinking with the body. I really appreciate how Paul develops cogent and engaging narratives to extrapolate upon ideas throughout.
As someone who deplores open office layouts, the chapter on thinking with built spaces uses the 14th-century monastery as the ideal working environment — with the cloak and the studio as a space for individual, creative immersion, and the communal space of the chapel and dining hall to share concepts and develop with others.
I also appreciated some core strategies on how to move your thinking from your head to the body, the space around you, the folks you’re nearby, and surrounding props. Paul also makes a big case for gesturing as a form of offloading, making it easier to extrapolate new ideas, as your body is engaged in the active motion of thought. So, yes, I will continue to use my hands wildly when talking! As should you, so says this book.
“Burnt Sugar” by Avni Doshi (published in 2019)
A razor-sharp narrative, not a word wasted, of the enemy combatant that is your mother, your child. Doshi’s writing is a satisfying heartburn, it is an empty stomach full of ibuprofen, the mechanized internal release of swelling, the aching knot of a developing ulcer hidden in a pit you cannot see. This first-person narrative is so brutal and honest, examining how to care for a loved one when love is not extant, when it might have never been there.
Examining her history as a child of a mother, the mother of a child, and an artist working obsessively and deliberately despite the critical interjections of those closest, the character of Antara is a human kaleidoscope of pain, abandonment, and desire. Alongside the flashbacks and thrumming narrative propulsion, the mise en scène of Pune, India is a forceful presence — with the revolts and violence of the 1980’s and 90’s running alongside life in the ashram, where Antara lived with her mother, who was the concubine of a charismatic 8-foot tall yogi named Baba. These scenes in particular are harrowing, beautiful, and precise.
Nearly every sentence is a wallop of revelation, with lines like “I disown so I can never be disowned” and “There is something resourceful in consuming what clings to you”. This book is not for the faint of heart though. The body of this novel is taut with translucent skin, where one sees the veins, muscles writhing and twitching, the hint of the shape of organs at work, ridden with bile it lures and repulses. I loved it.
“My Private Property” by Mary Ruefle (published in 2016)
After years of persistently and lovingly recommending Ruefle, a dear friend finally thrust a copy of her work into my hand, and I am so grateful.
Ruefle writes with gentle hilarity, poignant beauty, and wry wisdom; these are the Buster Keaton of proems. Turning the gallows humor of loneliness and sadness in on itself, these proems escape preciousness through artful frankness. In particular, a proem that every living human should read (available online via Grant Magzine), is “Pause,” on the grief, misery, misconceptions, and wisdom derived from moving through and beyond menopause. I was laughing with tears, which is the balance many of these proems hold.
Interspersed throughout, Ruefle color-codes, catalogs, and narrates the varietals of sadness (“Yellow sadness is…the sadness of naps and eggs,” “Pink sadness is the sadness of white anchovies,” etc.), serving as a thru-line to pithily crafted verses on death, isolation, aging, and circumstance.
“The Post-Birthday World” by Lionel Shriver (published in 2007)
Nobody writes elitist assholes and well-educated idiots like Lionel Shriver.
At 517 pages, like most of Shriver’s oeuvre, it’s far too much for anyone who isn’t a fan. Wickedly delicious, overstuffed, and borderline tedious; with no interest in pleasing the reader, her plots can be psychologically complex, mining the hard-to-reach and uncomfortable, as much as her characters can be selfish, cruel, small-minded, bigoted, and tiresome. Shriver’s disdain for political correctness, and perhaps her audience, draws me inexorably toward her work, where the reader’s compassion and patience are persistently, even aggressively, challenged.
In this “sliding doors” narrative, an illustrator’s life extends outward from an adulterous move, and in thoroughly playing out the two “what if” tracks, Shriver takes heteronormativity to its maximalist, toxic absurdity.
The writing is so rewarding on the sentence-to-sentence level and, as in her other works, Shriver pulls off the trick of parody and earnestness, often in the same breath.
Like a big bag of literary licorice, I’m already salivating for another Shriver. I recently picked up her 2010 novel “So Much for That”, which is tentatively cued for reading in October.
JANUARY 2022 BOOKS
“Song of Solomon” by Toni Morrison — A soaring (literally) novel brimming with compassion and the fantastical. Morrison weaves, with ghosts nestled into crotches of the narrative, the affect of generational knowledge — the seed of “knowing” planted in DNA through story and song and myth — that lead us, often unconsciously, to the source of our ancestral queries. This is an example of what great fiction can accomplish: to absolutely transport and alter the time signature that surrounds a reader’s waking and dreaming present. I was particularly taken with the recognition that we are fiercely protected in mysterious ways by those who love us most. Grateful to finally have read this superb tonic for the mind and soul.
“The Content of our Character: A New Vision of Race in America” by Shelby Steele — A sober and rational voice on race in the U.S. that, seemingly, and unfortunately, has gained potency since its publication in 1990. I’d read so much criticism “about” Steele’s work that I wanted to fully absorb on my own. As is often the case, we put our non-conforming thinkers into “camps”, as someone like Steele, often maligned as conservative, has a more “progress”ive approach to race, affirmative action, self-esteem, and integration than any current reigning anti-racist writer. What makes this book of essays so vital, other than Steele’s vigorous and commanding prose, is that it approaches race thru the kaleidiscopal lens of being, first and foremost, a human living amongst others. I highly recommend this humanist work of social commentary.
“The Tunnel” by A.B. Yehoshua - A charming novel about a retired engineer’s grappling with impending dementia. Encouraged by his wife to take on a project, the protagonist returns to his former career as an unpaid assistant to build a tunnel through a hill ina crater in the Israeli desert; the project is a subterfuge for saving a Palestinian family who have “lost” their identity. A pure pleasure read and features a rare, most lovingly rendered heternormative marital relationship (!).
“All About Me!” by Mel Brooks — An absolute hoot! Brooks gives a single paragraph to each of his children, my kinda memoir. The breeziest 500-page book I’ve read in a while.
“The Radiant Lives of Animals” by Linda Hogan — Intimate, tender, and often cloying prose-essays on the lives of animals. A corollary to Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass,” whereas this slim volume doesn’t contain the graceful fusion of modern science and Indigenous wisdom, but rather clunkily anthropomorphizes in halting prose, which is heartbreaking as Hogan’s poetry can be breathtaking.
“Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs” by Camilla Townsend — A lean but dense and expertly executed history of the Aztecs. With scant source materials, Townsend blends restrained textbook authority with imaginative renderings that bring compassion and agency to every event and historical player.
“Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem” by bell hooks — A text that rorschach’s upon many of Shelby Steele’s ideas, in particular, how to separate race from blackness and the myth of race only ever leads to racism. With a focus on structural and institutional racism, via white supremecist, patriarchal capitalism, hooks problematizes the results of desegregation where integration, starting in the 1960’s, often forced black people into a colonized capitalism. As ever, hooks’ empathy and leaning toward love and connection shine through, however, also as ever, the writing falters in its academic syntax, which flattens the overall mission.
“Invasive Species” by Marwa Helal — I am a generous reader but this book snuffed out all kindness. This is a mean-spirited and petty book of poems and prose where no one, other than the author, is rendered as human. Through Helal’s writing, I finally understand the egregious entitlement of “perceived victimhood.” The author is writ “victim-at-large” as she navigates the bureaucracy of green cards, visas, and naturalization, however, the real victims are the TSA and immigration officers whom her spiteful gaze and racist projections land upon. This is a literature that capitulates the currency of reactionary politics over educative reasoning, pettiness over generosity, snap judgments over curiosity, and unthinking “social justice” ideology over nuance and compassion. Furthermore, the reach for a 1:1 metaphor of invasive species to migrants doesn’t carry weight as it is blundered in the author’s misunderstanding of ecology. It brings me no joy to write this.
DECEMBER 2021 BOOKS
“Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape From the Crowd” by Thomas Chatterton Williams — This is a brilliant memoir on challenging the power and notion of your ideas so that they do not define you. TCW charts the journey through his teenage and college years, seeking refuge in a group identity by day, and being lovingly shepherded toward books and learning by his father at night. TCW has been such a constant guide in my own journey of relinquishing a grip on “identity”, that is, shaping and signaling my affiliations to fit a group — liberal, artist, queer, mentally ill, atheist, etc. — all of which I have, at times, placed in front of me, rarely arriving as myself. Identity is merely the shadow on the cave, not the life or force of an individual. TCW’s “Self Portrait in Black & White”, released nearly a decade after this book, moves the conversation further and I cannot recommend it enough!
“Brown” by Kevin Young — A coincidental corollary to TCW. Bittersweet, raucous, sometimes ham-fisted, heart-aching poems of growing up in Topeka, KS in the realm of hip-hop and sports. The revelry and freedom of jumping into swimming pools at night, naked and stoned with friends when “we were black, before we were African American.” The second half opens up as a consequential travelogue through the middle and south of this country, visits to graves, seeking addresses and events for the echoes of unwritten histories of black america.
“The Image: A Guide to Psuedo-Events in America” by Daniel J. Boorstin — This book, published in 1961, could be published next year as is and still be prescient and on time. Boorstin charts the pseudo-event in all its shape-shifting forms in our exponentially-addled society, living in the reflection of reflections from the press release and the news to film adaptations of books to marketing and celebity. Another ideal pairing for TCW’s “Losing…” Boorstin demonstrates, at an expert and break-neck pace, how we unwittingly imitate ourselves thru social science’s negation of ideals for fixed fact and the faction of “types” by class and race. This text feels so very essential for in living and moving through a world that attempts to capture and replicate ad infinitum a quick fix for our unstable and unthinking selves.
“Pig Earth” by John Berger — A stunning, heart-wrenching work of literature that provokes sensations of the soul. In an opening essay — one of Berger’s best — and a series of vignettes, poems, and short stories, the life of peasants in the French alps are detailed with an eye on the environs, tasks, rituals, and the exterior lives of working animals. The life force in this book is utterly profound, especially in the final third, which details the fictional life of a peasant woman, Lucie Cabrol, through the eyes of a would-be lover.
“The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece” by Kevin Birmingham — Birmingham rapturously details Dostoevsky’s early career, his exile to prison camps in Siberia, his many failed literary journals, and the excessive gambling and debt that led him to write “Crime & Punishment.” The book is also a parallel narrative of the famed Parisian murderer, Pierre François Lacenaire, who inspired the literati of the era with his nihilist views of humanity. This book could be niche but finds its universal footing in the allegory of ideas: how ideas are spread, across borders and minds, how they infect, become dangerous, and lead to action. This was such an involving read that I was genuinely depressed when I had to finish.
“Gather Together In My Name” by Maya Angelou — As ever, I could not put down and was struck with gratitude throughout — what a gift, how lucky we all are to live in a world where Maya Angelou told her story. This memoir is of her late teens and early 20’s, how she makes and remakes herself, time and time again. Angelou is one of the most democratic writers, all are welcome, in her dispersal of a life lived as tall tales, radically honest, transparent, and always with humor. I have her next memoir cued up for fall 2023.
“There but for the” by Ali Smith — Evasive and clever as ever, the multiple narratives in this novel deal with the mystery of our tetheredness and the circuitous circumstances (a recurring theme for Smith) that place us in proximity to each other. I’ve now read every Ali Smith book and feel that often her writing is more trick than craft, especially here.
NOVEMBER 2021 BOOKS
“Flights” by Olga Tokarczuk — A book on nomadism, interior traverses of the taxonomic body, spaces worn by our passing, and what is lost/gained through sojourns. Tokarczuk is such an astounding writer, able to balance beauty and play in her exquisite sentences. People often look at my life of migration as based upon whims of chance and desire, but it is heavily intentional and considered, and thus, this book feels like a holy gift.
“Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America” by John McWhorter — A vital text in dissecting and understanding the religious nature of what McWhorter terms as “third wave anti-racism”. Those unfamiliar with McWhorter might have to warm up to his sense of humor and cheekiness because his sense of play is ever-present. Unfortunately, sometimes the overall case McWhorter makes — that anti-racism is a secular religion — falls prey to the “theory of everything” strategy. This is, however, a very important book I would urge anyone who leaves their home (or echo chamber) to read.
“The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine” by Ben Ehrenreich — A harrowing and simultaneously jubilant work of journalism that absorbs the double-edged subjective reality of fact-based reporting. Ehrenreich’s dramatis personae include Palestinians resisting with weekly demonstrations in Nabi Saleh over many years, communities of Israeli settlers in Hebron, and displaced Bedouin communities in Umm Al-Kheir, among others. It’s absolutely heartbreaking and the sense of helplessness is ever-present, but in the midst of this, Ehrenreich’s act of dynamic and courageous reporting serves as ballast and hope.
“Springer Mountain: Meditations on Killing and Eating” by Wyatt Wallace — A slim book with profound tidbits best devoured whole in one sitting. Wallace is concerned with questions that can only be answered through killing and eating. We kill and eat, and we fuck and murder, to know who we are. We devour to understand our nature. And, also, because it’s delicious.
“Oranges” by John McPhee — It’s always a pleasure to spend any amount of time, on any subject, with McPhee. Akin to his “The Pine Barrens,” this slim reportage on the history of oranges, orange-growers in Florda, and the economy of oranges is readable and airy.
OCTOBER 2021 BOOKS
“Mumbo Jumbo” by Ishmael Reed — An explosive, challenging literary experiment worth the effort; an encyclopedic stew of mad-cap satire and myth, sober and electric truths, ironic and honest conspiracy theory, and a red-hot lesson on Black History — from 10,0000 years ago to tomorrow. The cosmic and literal are conflated, traversing portals in Egypt, Haiti, New Orleans, Harlem, etc., etc. Utilizing a pandemic narrative as a vehicle, shapeshifting page to page, Reed’s iconoclasm takes shape in high and low-brow relief, skewering all of humanity in the meanwhile.
“Underland” by Robert MacFarlane — A transportive book that traverses the dark, the underside, the pockets, caves, caverns, and catacombs beneath our feet, which are the source and keeper of all life and myth. MacFarlane has a ravishing capacity to mine language, landscape, narrative, and psyche simultaneously. Like a seasoned documentarian, MacFarlane let’s his subjects reveal themselves, from the catacombs beneath Paris to the Knud Rasmussen glacier to the tumultuous North Sea, and beyond (beneath). This book will, if only for a time, change the way you see the natural world.
“Secret Rendezvous” by Kobo Abe- A fiendishly phallic-obsessed and mind-warping novel on the psycho-sexual annals of the medical system where human logic and the binary machinery of “health” and “wellness” are a cover for the extremities of experimentation. Abe has a singular and astounding ability to disorient the reader so immediately and intensely that he has license to do anything, go anywhere .This novel has so many ideas going on, so many madcap shuffling and voyeurism and copious feverish masturbating, and reveries of penises in stasis, penises flush with rage, penises bopping limply against thighs, penises growing, penises deflating, et al. It’s a trip that ultimately doesn’t satisfy but that’s kinda the point.
“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson — A brooding and sinister tale of how thinking makes so and the secrets that detach one from society. I must mention this book features a dynamic and fully rendered feline character named Jonas as well as this line that hit me in the gut with a gasp: “never think anything more than once.”
SEPTEMBER 2021 BOOKS
“Lives other than my own” by Emmanuel Carrère — The roaming monster of desire who lives inside and shackles the mind to the constantly turning wheel of hunger — where and when can I escape? — is under investigation in this profound memoir through the grief and tragedy of others. This book hit me square in the gut, where my monster, whose greasy paws hold rein over my power and drive, lives & thrives. Carrère’s prose on the capacity for empathy is so open, honest, light, and effective, despite the monster’s hold on his own psyche, that I read open-mouthed and welcomingly discomforted. This book will haunt me.
“The True and Only Heaven: Progress & Its Critics” by Christopher Lasch — Published in 1994, this is an exhaustive and sweeping mine of the “progressive left’s” origins in a secularized and capitalistic Christianity from the 17th through the 20th century. Major topics include the origins of nostalgia and community, the syndicalist movement, the pitfalls of philanthropy, hope vs. optimism, the enduring impression of Protestantism on liberalism, Martin Luther King Jr.’s realist optimism, and the authoritarian proclivities of the working-class family, and these are just a few of the high points. An ongoing attempt to break the stranglehold of ideology in my own thinking.
“The Western Wind” by Samantha Harvey — A sensuous and often very funny novel on confession and retribution. The story holds its tension between the secular and religious, the natural and tempestuous, and the magic trick of conscious time in a small medieval English town, centered on a village priest and his internal torments after the mysterious death of a local.
“Flow your tears, the policeman said” by Philip K. Dick — I finished this book so that I never have to read Dick again. I despise speculative/fantasy/science fiction as a regressive genre that lacks imaginative power and keeps readers poetically and intellectually bereft of aesthetic beauty, and although I keep trying to change this opinion (even Ursula K. Le Guin, my friends, I know, I’m sorry, I’m an asshole), reading Dick feels like a nail in the coffin.
AUGUST 2021 BOOKS
“The Copenhagen Trilogy” by Tove Ditlevsen — A stunning, consequential memoir that left me startled, speechless, and feverishly icy. There is nothing for me to say or do, other than to place this book in your hands.
“White Tears” by Hari Kunzru — This is a taut and potent satire-cum-psychological mystery, a tour de force in the key of Murakami with a conscience and minus the misogyny. Cultural appreciation is not absolved completely from appropriation, history is seeded into the tapestry of sharing, there is no absolute way to escape the past. Race is, indeed, a myth but the more people believe a myth, the more real it becomes. I devoured this novel in a single sitting, stood up, in my undies, and rapturously clapped at the conclusion. The cat didn’t stand so it wasn’t a complete standing ovation. (Addendum: this book pairs incredibly well with the viewing of 1992 and 2021’s “Candyman.”)
“Deaf Republic” by Ilya Kaminsky — A wallop of imaginative beauty — poetry through the lens of theater and puppetry. A story of war and power, and love and language; a tonic for the brain and soul. It feels particularly prescient as we “end” a war, but this text will prove timeless and important (prophecy here, huh!?).
“Signs Preceding the End of the World” by Yuri Herrera — A slim, gritty, and tense tale told thru the lens of borderlands. A shadowy and foreboding world of the endless exploitation of Mexican migrants that uphold the luxuries of capitalism — from our endless wars to fast food. The protagonist, Makina, is a force written so tersely whose presence and dimensions are uncanny.
“We Are Dancing for You: Native Feminisms & The Revitalization of Women’s Coming-of-Age Ceremonies” by Cutcha Risling Baldy — Although at times clunky in its academic renderings, Risling’s documentation and careful attention to the Hupa Valley Tribe of Northern California, of which she is a member, and the enduring coming of age/menstruation ceremonies are vital. Particularly sharp when comparing the colonial anthropological and ethnographic studies against oral Native histories that uncover the false “taboo” of menstruation.
JULY 2021 BOOKS
“Let the Record Show” by Sarah Schulman — An exhaustive undertaking that still only scratches the surface. Schulman’s two-decade ACT UP Oral History Project with Jim Hubbard is abridged in this vital document. Spending every day in July with this book was akin to “coming to church”, absorbing a history of realistic activism, particularly surrounding ACT UP’s Treatment and Data work, work with prison populations, and women’s rights in the AIDS crises. I so appreciate Schulman’s framing of ACT UP at its best — strategically approaching and addressing power and inequity; an important education on an intersectional activism that gets results.
“The Tradition” by Jericho Brown — Brown writes poems that should be vocalized, be ridden, like bikes or horses or a tide, cresting, feeling them move inside the body, adjusting the organs of the self and social fabric. This is poetry that asks to be sung.
“Entangled Life” by Merlin Sheldrake — Sheldrake’s origins — son of biologist Rupert Sheldrake, growing up around Terence McKenna — makes him exquisitely poised to move mushroom studies to an inclusive and inviting platform. Reading and thinking about mushrooms, lichen, fungus, and bacteria is therapeutic in that it absolutely dissolves the mythic trope of binaries in favor of nests within nests ad infinitum. We don’t know what we don’t know and trying to make sense of what we don’t know within the confines of our weak metaphors only distances us further from what we don’t know.
“The Death of Vivek Oji” by Akwaeke Emezi — Although I found this novel incredibly regressive and woefully predictable and manipulative, at its best moment it swung me in this revere: all bodies are ubiquitous, are shaped to hold and take in — when a vacancy, there is spilling, and in grief, a sharing in opening. We are not souls, we are bodies, and morality means nothing to the body.
“The Seamstress and the Wind” by Cesar Aira — Narratively propelled by the winds of Patagonia, Aira invents, in real-time, a flight of fancy, the essence of “making it up on the spot,” responding to impulse from sentence to sentence.
JUNE 2021 BOOKS
“What Belongs to You” by Garth Greenwell — In a slim but generous novel with Sofia, Bulgaria as setting and character, our narrator passes through the dreary and charged twilight world of Eastern Europe, haunted and taunted by a romance with Mitko, a drifter/grifter. A book of reckoning with the boundaries and personal history of touch — how the intimacy and maladjustments of paternal & maternal touch transform to seeking the heat and embrace of fucking others, the mystery of how these intimacies are related — how the touch of familiars becomes a quest for release, relief, and home in the foreign territory of a stranger’s bodies. I came away with this enduring truth: lust is purer, more endearing, and stronger than love.
“Crying in H Mart” by Michelle Zauner — Other people’s grief makes me incredibly uncomfortable. Thus, Zauner’s emotionally disarming and very readable memoir about her mother’s passing — a deep pool of grief traversed through Korean gastronomy and identity — had me internally shifting all over the place. But Zauner mostly strays from sentimentality with a frankness that is refreshing. The writing on Korean food is especially ripe; I bought a big bottle of sesame oil immediately after finishing.
“The Language Hoax” by John McWhorter — Linguist McWhorter utilizes his ever-charming wit and rationality to argue against the notion that language creates a worldview. McWhorter’s mission is so moderate and reasonable that it’s a testament to the time that he has become a pariah in some circles. Worth quoting: “Language’s lessons for us is […] progressive: that our differences are variations on being the same.”
“World Travel: An Irreverent Guide” by Anthony Bourdain & Laurie Woolever — Bourdain’s long-time editor and assistant culls from his world travels to present a cleanly designed and inviting foray into the dual appreciation of high/low that made Tony so beloved.
“Moby Dick” by Herman Melville — Big reveal: I didn’t finish, rather, after nearly 200 pages, used the book for kindling. I laughed so hard until I nearly cried and then was bored to tears. Best read through the lens of an imagined Mel Brooks adaptation with Richard Pryor as Ishmael, Gene Wilder as Ahab, John Candy as Starbuck, Marty Feldman as Stubb, et al, entitled: “Dickheads.”
MAY 2021 BOOKS
‘When My Brother Was an Aztec’ by Natalie Diaz - These poems cut constellatory razor blade marks onto family history and suture them with smoke stitches and lusty visions of imperfect bodies. Drawing from experiences growing up on the rez, her brother’s psychosis and meth addiction, and raw hungry desire for citrus crops, Diaz’s poems are gritty and beautiful revelations.
‘We Need to talk about Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver — Harrowing, unnerving, hilarious, insufferable, and verbose, Lionel Shriver is a jaw-droppingly good writer, however due to THE timeliness and present tenseness of her work, her books will not age well. I don’t know anyone else who could write about the hatred and pain of motherhood with such candid and brutal honesty. Although often overwritten, the capacity to not hold back makes Shriver such a vital literary voice.
‘How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States’ by Daniel Immerwahr — In the tradition of Howard Zinn, a dense but thoroughly readable accumulative history of the United States’ greater empire and the ferocious, genocidal patterns that shifted from colonialism in the late 19th century to globalism in the mid 20th century. Mind-boggling and Immerwahr’s clipping pace makes it even more so.
‘I Was Amelia Earhart’ by Jane Mendelsohn –The threading and beadwork of the narrative glides between first and second person, past, future, and present in an elegiac speculative vision of Amelia’s life and post-life. A companion to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s works, especially “Wind, Sand, and Stars”. (thank you to Ira Sachs for the recommendation.) (
‘The Solace of Open Spaces’ by Gretel Ehrlich- What happens when a place you never expected becomes a home, and how do you slide into a new self without ever intending to — as in, where was the line? how did this begin? when did the old me sluff off and new skin populate my wholeness? With Wyoming ranching and farming life as her backdrop, Ehrlich mines the landscape and a broken heart for precious lessons of nature, climate, and romance. (thank you to Katy Einerson for the recommendation.)
APRIL 2021 BOOKS
‘The Erratics’ by Vicki Laveau-Harvie — This is an exquisite example of the value of memoir, a genre I neglected and disparaged for decades. Laveau-Harvie’s voice is singular, an artillery of literary high/low brow linguistics saved for a late-in-life endeavor. The tone is acidic & frosty, warm & zany, sumptuous & pointed, and deeply felt. The wrath of family, of relatedness, and how to secure oneself against drowning in the bile of biological kinship.
‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison — Revelatory to return to after 22 years. Coming out of our collective hibernation, this is a potent and important text to revisit in how to be with others — its lessons on the social, racial, and political body are so vast, general, and specific, it can take a lifetime to unpack. Who are you? Do you know yourself? How do you carry your mind in tandem with your body in world intent on division? These stoked questions vibrate lucidly as thresholds to strategies in living cooperatively despite, ultimately, being alone in your head.
‘Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland’ by Patrick Radden Keefe — One of the most riveting narrative non-fiction works I’ve ever read, devouring 400+ pages in three sittings. Radden expertly zooms in and out of the personal and consequential, the universal and moral complexity of unceded territories, of landscape and psyche. This book is an involving and incredibly skilled introduction to the recent history of the struggle in Northern Ireland.
‘The Book of Medicines’ by Linda Hogan — Rich poems hot with hunger and compassion leaving one breathless in a literary tonic of hurt, joy, poison, and wisdom; animal medicine as choral profundity and revelation.
‘Tomorrow Sex will be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent’ by Katherine Angel — A circuitous case for complexity amid the ‘consent and confidence culture.’ Desire is slippery and vulnerability is of the most important. Ultimately, backs itself into a corner. If only, as Jessie Ware sings, it could be as simple as, “I know what I want, you can do what you want.”
MARCH 2021 BOOKS
“Afropessimism” by Frank B. Wilderson III — A stunning and consequential work straddling critical theory/memoir/manifesto. Wilderson unpacks Afropressimism through the lens of his disparate experiences; clear eyed as it is furiously impassioned, in which White and non-White folks are rendered Humans and Black non-Human, conduits for jouissance — gratuitous pleasure for Humans (non-Blacks) to desecrate, degrade and destroy in service of life itself. An especially essential companion to Thomas Chatterton Williams’ “Self-Portrait in Black and White”, as the spectrum couldn’t be wider (or narrower?).
“Music for Exile” by Nehassaiu deGannes — This rigorous roving debut book of poetry is both anchor and sail — excavating and settling in with deep pain, history and double-edged beauty, all the while hoisting toward effervescent light and abandon, often within the same poem. These poems soliciting presence of mind and spirit; to carry through woods, near rivers, without rushing, for quiet internal baptisms.
“The Joke” by Milan Kundera — The myth of progress leads toward fascism — doesn’t matter which “side” you’re on — and fiction has repeatedly been the signpost. Akin to the revival Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” had a few years ago, Kundera’s first novel is a savvy, deeply felt, impressively rendered, heartbreaking, clever political satire that speaks to the current “felt” moment of “cancel culture.”
“The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto” by Pico Iyer- A wistful dreamscape romance featuring a slew of annoying ex-patriots and two-dimensional Japanese women; full of Iyer’s infuriating but involving, gorgeous prose and observations that brighten and warm the literati’s wanderlust heart. The street-level visions of Kyoto are especially apt and heart-blossoming.
“Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin” by Megan Rosenbloom — A breezy, light but engrossing, if not a bit pandering and sophomoric, dive into the history of anthropodermic books (binding books in human skin). The most fascinating sections deal with consent and the body as canvas.
“Guardians of the Trees” by Kinari Webb -The founder of the non-profit I work with (Health In Harmony) has written a memoir about her journey toward planetary health to solve the climate crisis.
FEBRUARY 2021 BOOKS
“The Yellow House” by Sarah M. Broom — A rapturous memoir of architecture, a poetics of space, of self as home, family as framing, of the travels that locate us in halls and behind doors that have long disappeared. Captures an intimate history of New Orleans, and as any history that does so, the story of this country, through the sprawling memories of a family and shared space (New Orleans, New York, Texas, Burundi). Broom’s prose is so achingly exquisite that I gnashed my teeth throughout.
“What Happens at Night” by Peter Cameron — A minor masterpiece of literary tension and release. Brooding and beguiling, this suspenseful dark comedy written in the key of Winter is evocatively executed toward a lean end. Often hilarious and quietly shocking, this book kept me such good company that I was sad to let it end. Also, the cover! (damn!)
“Deacon King Kong” by James McBride — McBride is an entertainer par excellence and spins a big yarn set in a fictional neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1969, at the turnover of a generation, sketching the growing pains, rifts and resolves between the Black and Italian community. Finishing the book felt like having spent an entire youthful day at the cinema ingesting nothing but licorice and cola — the added saccharine strings in the storytelling don’t help the teeth either.
“The WEIRDEST People in the World” by Joseph Henrich — A very fun theory-of-everything book with lots of graphs (I can’t). Causal analysis to the point of ridiculous. However, anytime a cultural anthropologist makes a case against the institution of marriage and monogamy, rightfully placing responsibility on the Western Christian Church for 2,000 years of countless atrocities against the soul and body of all living things: well, as the kids say, I’m here for it.
JANUARY 2021 BOOKS
“The Woman Who Fell from the Sky” by Joy Harjo — lisa nevada gifted me this very special book of poems which gently requests that you draw and return breath with each line. I understand the concept of a “bible” after reading a poem a day from this brilliant, beautiful book.
“Drug Use for Grown-Ups” by Dr. Carl Hart- A vital read on the myths & misconceptions of popular drug use perpetuated by science and the media, and cruelly enforced by governments around the world. Hart details his personal experiences as a researcher, teacher, father, and casual user of heroin. Flipped my mind radically toward truth, shedding a startling light on my biases.
“Walk Two Moons” by Sharon Creech — On the first day of the new year I reread this book from childhood, a book that I read over and over again between the ages of 9 and 11. Twenty-five years later, what a blessing to return to this open-hearted story of wisdom, grace and humor.
“Red Pill” by Hari Kunzru — An author facing a mid-life and identity crises has a psychotic breakdown brought upon the relentless gaslighting of history and colonialism. A thoroughly entertaining read.
“The Miracle of the Rose” by Jean Genet — An achingly rendered, tender queer prison narrative of longing; a circuitous ecclesiastical dream being made up on the spot with operatic lavishness, terror and glee.
“Sharks Death Surfers” by Melissa McCarthy — In W.G. Sebald fashion, McCarthy draws upon a disparate archive of text, memory, and vision, gliding the ADD-riddled wave of associative narrative and thought, from obituaries to book covers to the diary of Captain James Cook to physics.
“On Immunity: An Inoculation” by Eula Biss — Biss ultimately weaves a masterful, solid personal/universal claim for vaccinations. I underlined the fuck out of this book.
“Girl Woman Other” by Bernardine Evaristo — I couldn’t finish this novel. The unfortunate end of identity politics is played out here: two-dimensional characters whose attributes are their slogans, politics, and brands, without irony or postmodern gestures. A dehumanizing experience; these characters, these women and others — their potential — deserved so much more.
DECEMBER 2020 BOOKS
“Funeral Diva” by Pamela Sneed — A secular saint, Sneed’s poetry is frank, compassionate, and rejuvenating. In the year of a pandemic, Sneed’s macro/micro view on grief, community, (be)longing, loss, and history is bittersweet and welcome medicine. I recommend everyone grab a copy.
“Eartheater” by Delores Reyes — Reyes’ prose is sparse and elegant in this mysterious, suspenseful and delicate story of a young woman who receives visions of murdered and missing people through ingestion of dirt. I didn’t want my time with this book to ever end.
“The Dead are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X” by Les Payne & Tamara Payne — A solid, involving biography, especially stellar in documenting Malcolm’s childhood and the context surrounding his indoctrination into the Nation of Islam.
“Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment & Capitalist Form” by Sianne Ngai — There isn’t enough space to even start with this one, so: Oh boy, am I a sucker for super intense literary theory that I barely understand and this was an absolute gas; an amusement park for the brain full of trick mirrors, tilt-a-whirls, and roller coasters.
“Luster” by Raven Leilani — A breathless portrait of social, racial and sexual mores played out between a young Black aspiring painter and a middle-class suburban couple. Tantalizing, shimmering, hilarious, provocative, frank, and naïve — a novel that actively works for adjectives and succeeds.
“The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Less Lives “by Diane Johnson — A witty, dispassionate, and haltingly rendered fragementary biography of Mary Ellen Meredith, daughter and wife to respectively famed individuals. Mostly engrossing, until it isn’t, and certainly innovative, until it doesn’t matter.
“The Hour of the Star” by Clarice Lispector– A fitting companion to Johnson. A slim but taxing experience on the value of a single life, albeit pathethic, worthy of space and recognition; an equalling frustrating and alluring experience.
“American Utopia” by David Byrne & Maira Kalman — They are milking this for all it’s worth! I’m OK with that!
NOVEMBER 2020 BOOKS
“Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own” by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr — Potent & charged literary medicine. Baldwin’s words and life serve as a lens to explicate the enduring lie of the United State, the lie of race, of difference. Glaude’s confident and bold prose serves as the framework to consider and reconsider and ceaselessly re-reconsider Baldwin and the legacy of racism: “…to do your first works over” and over again.
“Sula” by Toni Morrison — A sensuous, jarring, rich, slim novel that contains deep human truths, distilled to their utmost potency: undiluted literary schnapps that wallops as a force of nature (raging hurricanes, vicious tornados) and industry (steam-powered trains, monumental dams). I found myself turned upside down, ass in the air, at the inertia and vibrancy of Morrison’s storytelling. In particular, the rendering of love and violence as forever intertwined lovers is masterful, heart wrenching, and captivates all the senses. A bittersweet tonic to absorb Morrison’s painful joy and mournful wisdom.
“The Book of Unconformities: Speculations on Lost Time” by Hugh Raffles — Geological personal memoir in the style of John McPhee and Rebecca Solnit. Compelling, sometimes profound, but often misses the mark by being overstuffed and leaning a little heavily on the coincidental. Always a pleasure though to consider deep time through rocks, stones, histories forgotten, and loved ones long passed.
“Three Month Fever: The Andrew Cunanan Story” by Gary Indiana — An absolutely engrossing piece of masterful trash — speculative to the point of stupid, literary bait, a lure for the obsession with the obsessed, a fantasia for the murderous. All too much, as intended.
“The Dream and the Underworld” by James Hillman — I am a sucker for any psychology on the collective unconscious in the vein of Freud and Jung. Hillman carves a path of his own in a nearly unreadable dive into rabbit holes of dream images and themes relating to the mythology of death and the underworld.
OCTOBER 2020 BOOKS
“Crooked Hallelujah” by Kelli Jo Ford — A rich tapestry of storytelling, weaving four generations of Native women — grandmother, mothers, daughters, aunties, cousins — crisscrossing the Texas/Oklahoma border. Ford’s prose gently requests that you slow down to absorb these complex women who try, generation after generation, to escape the tragedy of heteronormativity and Christian colonization that has slaughtered the body, mind, and spirit of Indigenous people in the North Americas.
“The World of Yesterday” by Stefan Zweig –A rushing, potent memoir/history of 1881–1941 Europe: the turn of the 19th century, the hope of progress, the revolution of the body politic, and the dark turn toward fascism, world war, famines, pandemics, and the loss of innocence. It is also Zweig’s suicide letter. Overwritten but purposefully so. This is a narrative we need to steel ourselves to in this moment of felt tumult: we are not unique, we are not in unprecedented times — context is everything, a vigilant and often rereading of history is necessary.
“The Tragedy of Heterosexuality” by Jane Ward — The perfect companion piece to Ford’s novel. Equally entertaining and intellectually satisfying query into the sadness of heteronormativity and straight folks underlying hatred of each other. Ward offers a path of what radical love of and for women could mean for straight men.
“The Madness of Crowd: Gender, Race, and Identity” by Douglas Murray- Murray’s self-identification as a gay, neo-conservative, atheist, cultural Christian drew me in. Murray is an iconoclast who, although I often disagree with his route, arrives at some powerful and potent considerations in a culture addled by distraction and social media. Spending a few days in this book was incredibly valuable — to expertly understand his points, to disagree, but to sit with the trouble, absorb the dissonance, and not overheat.
“Lolly Willowes” by Sylvia Townsend Warner -An absolutely delightful witching tale. I appreciated the embrace of witchcraft as mundane, commonplace.
“The Memory Police” by Yoko Ogawa– A lovely, full-hearted dystopic fable in the vein of The Giver and Fahrenheit 451.
SEPTEMBER 2020 BOOKS
“Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson — A sobering and clear-eyed portrait of caste, looking particularly at Nazi Germany and the caste systems in India and the United States. The praise it is receiving is duly warranted. Read this book and pass it on.
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou — I had gotten through nearly 35 years of life without reading this rapturous book. I began reading the evening my father had a stroke in mid-September. Angelou (a secular saint) spirited me through one of the hardest weeks I’ve had this year (that’s saying something) and I am so damned grateful; the saving grace of her wisdom and double-edged joy will remain soulfully seared and tethered.
“Big Brother” by Lionel Shriver — What an absolute riot and surprise! Shriver accomplishes feats in fiction that few would have the bravery to attempt; a brutal, shocking and knee-slapping satire that lands, in finality, with a wallop to the domestic body politic.
“Amnesiascope” by Steve Erickson — A discomfortingly hopeful, lurid libido-stuffed Lynchian dystopian-noir lust letter to a fetishized Los Angeles in flames, seething with absurd toxic masculinity; explores the “inability to transcend memory” and morality as malaprop. Revulsion has its own values.
“The White Card” by Claudia Rankine — A critical lens on the art market, philanthropy, & race. Not so much a functional drama as it is a sharply social discourse; social justice as melodrama — and Rankine increasingly rankles me.
“The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking)” by Katie Mack — Mack has a gift of expressly communicating big ideas but befalls the trap of pop science by pandering to and distrusting the reader’s intelligence.
“Summer” by Ali Smith — The ravishing Seasonal Quartet ends with an effortful thud. Some beautiful passages but simultaneously over-stuffed & malnourished.
“The Discomfort of Evening” by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld — I labored through 115 pages and gave up. I did not finish. It’s okay to not finish a book. It’s okay to not like a prize-winning book. Don’t finish every book. Leave more books unfinished. Really, no one is expecting any one to read anything. It’s okay.
AUGUST 2020 BOOKS
“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong — Yes, yes, yes, yes. It is as gorgeous and sumptuous and heartbreaking as you’ve been told. I kept repeating in my head, and even wrote on a napkin, “This is not precious. This is not precious.” It is almost precious, but let me repeat: it is not at all precious. I spent nearly the whole month slowly soaking my way through it.
“Life on Mars” by Tracy K. Smith — Vuong cracked me open and emptied me out, Smith finished the job by absorbing my organs and sucking the marrow.
“Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism” by Anne Applebaum — By making the political personal, Applebaum expertly dishes on her colleagues and reveals with a startlingly lucid eye, the lure of authoritarianism. It is as much the left as the right that is careening toward this lure. This changed my point of view of the current moment irrevocably and pushed me to announce, over beers with my father, “How did I become a moderate!?”
“Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation” by Silvia Federici — A vital scholarly reckoning with the transition from feudalism to capitalism and the ultimate exploitation and destruction of women within this system. Such a captivating and necessary read BUT! This scholarly erudition needs a rewrite/revision to include trans women, because a history of women and capitalism and the body is otherwise incomplete.
“Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town” by Barbara Demick — I loved spending time in these pages, and I learned about Tibet, Buddhism, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and so much more. Demick weaves an effortless historical narrative and disappears, as the best journalists do, to tell deeply personal stories.
“Tokyo Ueno Station” by Yu Miri — Isn’t this cover incredible? Oh boy, I wanted to love this book so much but was BORED. TO. TEARS.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” by Ian Reid — Trash. One of the worst experiences I’ve had reading anything ever.
JULY 2020 BOOKS
“The Lightness” by Emily Temple — Literary sour patch kids (organic though). Bingeable, clever, and surprisingly profound. I finished in a single sitting.
“Hurricane Season” by Fernanda Melchor — The Witch has been murdered. This event sets the stage for a brutal, horrific, complex, unflinching dive into the most explicit and profound depravities of human existence, namely, femicide. Not for the faint of heart, but it is a bold literary feat with charged and ravishing prose; I highly recommend.
“Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race” by Thomas Chatterton Williams — An intimate, probing, intellectual treatise on “race”. A valuable read for those who are ready for a challenging next step in anti-racism.
“The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism” by Katherine Stewart — A stomach-turning, no-nonsense exposé on the origins and machinations of Christian Nationalism. Terrifying, infuriating. Worth a read.
“Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture” by Ytasha L. Womack — My love for Sun Ra led me to this concise and brief dive into Afrofuturism. Excited to dive further, soon.
“The Plague” by Albert Camus — An essential text for living in proximity to other humans. A surpisingly stalwart and soothing companion for a global pandemic.
“The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power Privilege, and Environmental Protection” by Dorceta E. Taylor — Rather dry and textbook-y, though a valuable scholarly effort especially in reckoning with race and gender, providing insight into womxn, Indigenous, Black, Latinx, and Asian contributions to the movement.
JUNE 2020 BOOKS
“The Shapeless Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping” by Samantha Harvey — I read in a single breath, seemingly held taught for the duration of this masterful weaving of a meditation.
“A Brief History of Fascist Lies” by Federico Finchelstein — Oofda! What doozy! Name things what they are. I am anti-facisct; you should be too! Ps: Trump is a fascist!
“Theft is Property! Dispossession and Critical Theory” by Robert Nichols — The recursive logic of dispossession at the intersection of Indigenous, Afro-pessimism, Feminist and Marxist theory.
“Another Country” by James Baldwin — Hadn’t read this since high school. Brutal, sensuous, violent, gorgeous, and necessary reading.
“Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family” by Robert Kolker — A gripping, thoroughly readable non-fiction narrative on one family, the medical science community and the history of schizoprenia in the U.S. Addictive.
“The Fallen” by Carlos Manuel Álvarez — Spellbinding and sumptuous read about a contemporary family in Cuba. Looking forward to more from this author.
“A Silent Fury: The El Bordo Mine Fire” by Yuri Herrera — A sobering document; history requires retelling and recovery.