“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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
‘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.)
‘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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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!
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.