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2019 Books

January 5, 2019

 

I’m trying to finish up some of the books that I’ve started, or those I’ve recently ordered that are stacked around my office. Here’s what the beginning of 2019 looks like:

 

My 2018 Book List

December 31, 2018

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View the full list here.

This is my 18th year doing this book list. In 2018, I “benefitted” from a long commute and a lot of air travel. I also tried to shut off the screens before bed and read instead. I ended up reading the most books I ever have in a year—52.

This year, I tried to categorize so it wasn’t just a random list. There were a few groups that made sense. I read six books related to Twin Peaks. I also spent a fair amount of 2018 thinking about our current politics and wondering how the hell we got here, so there’s a handful of books that were in search of an answer—books about Nixon-era politics, a couple about Trump, one about the southern border, and a fascinating book—Colin Woodard’s American Nations—about the histories and tendencies of different regions of the country.

But in the end, the groupings didn’t make much sense. “Serial Killers and Other Criminals and Crimefighters.” “Poetry, Plays, Essays, etc.” “Books With Trees on the Cover.” So I settled on my regular, fairly random list in the order I read them.

Here’s how my list breaks down by the numbers:

52 books total
39 new authors (new to me)
29 nonfiction
12 novels
10 women authors
10 about serial killers (loosely)
6 biographies
4 books of essays
3 about mindfulness
2 about Trump
1 stageplay
1 collection of poetry
1 with armored bears

View the full list here.


Here’s the short version:


Favorite Fiction from 2018

Stoner by John Williams

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

The Overstory by Richard Powers


Favorite Nonfiction from 2018

American Nations by Colin Woodard

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Educated by Tara Westover

Spy of the First Person by Sam Shepard

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

In Praise of Shadows by Jun´ichiro Tanizaki

Thanks to Greg, who got me started doing this 18 years ago. Thanks to my mom, who still reads my reviews and spots my mistakes. Thanks to everyone who has shared recos over the years. This list is made up partly of those lists.

What did you read in 2018? What did you love?

Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine by Kevin Wilson

December 31, 2018

 

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“Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine” is the name of a song by one of the characters in this collection of short stories. The song was used in a beer commercial, making the band famous for a brief moment. In the story, they have since blown the money, and after their gear is stolen from their van, they break up and the lead singer moves back in with his single mom. The story is told from the mother’s point of view, and we see her try to be a supportive mother, yet also empathize with her complete denial of how sad a situation it is, her 36-year-old former rock star son living at home, working a landscaping job.

Almost all of these stories have some uncomfortable relationship dynamic, sometimes coupled with a surreal element. The story about an altar boy who keeps passing out is fairly straightforward (and hilarious). The one about a boy and his girlfriend who have to emergency babysit for her nieces and nephews, who are “as close to feral as you can get,” becomes a kind of sociological study. A couple whose baby disappears for several years with no explanation lays bare how little else they had holding them together.

Then there are a couple stories like “Wildfire Johnny,” in which a man discovers a magic razor that lets him travel back in time by slitting his throat.

Like any collection of short stories, some of these are better than others, but none of them could be described as boring or predictable. The absurd premise in a few of them (e.g. “Wildfire Johnny”) is saved by Wilson’s ability to bring it back to something relatable, usually human relationships. They’re like little literary stunts—let me see how far I can throw this thing out there and still land it.

Stylistically, they remind me a little of Miranda July or Arthur Bradford. Very modern, shifting effortlessly from killer humor to endearing human moments, combining outlandish concepts with relatable insights. A really enjoyable collection of stories.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

December 31, 2018

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This is a wonderfully lyrical, gritty, bleak story of a poor family in Mississippi on the verge of complete collapse. Ward builds a world that is viscous both physically and metaphorically—a story of muddy ground, animal innards and vomit, a setting of nested prisons and inescapable circumstances. The narrators rotate by chapter primarily between Jojo, a thirteen-year-old boy, and his neglectful drug addict of a mother, Leonie.

Jojo and his three-year-old sister, Kayla, live with their black grandparents in a small rural home. Their white father is in prison upstate, and in the middle section of the novel, Leonie drags the children with her to meet him upon his release—stopping both up and back at her drug dealer’s house. “She ain’t got the mothering instinct,” Jojo’s grandmother says of Leonie—a massive understatement.

The dynamics between the characters in the story are rich. But the novel is also rooted deeply in the history of the area—the racism and poverty, cycles of addiction and unstable family structures weigh down on everyone. Mistakes compound upon mistakes. Generationally, the grandparents had it worse. We hear that in their stories. But Leonie can’t seem to get out of her own way, blames the world around her: “Sometimes the world don’t give you what you need, no matter how hard you look. Sometimes it withholds.” Meanwhile, her children make due, like her parents made due.

On top of this family dynamic, there are layers of supernatural at play. Ghosts haunt the family—a brother murdered by a white boy, another boy the grandfather knew from prison years ago. Certain family members can see these ghosts, converse with them. The ghosts are trapped in this world too, angry, hopeless, helpless, dependent on some invisible set of rules that nobody quite understands but that governs all.

I love the way this story switches from the real, tangible detail—the smell of the drink or crackle of the hair against the leather seat—to the spiritual. Ward spins metaphors like cobwebs all over this novel, often accentuating an otherwise ordinary moment with simple, beautiful visuals, such as when she describes Leonie’s voice as “a fishing line thrown so weakly the wind catches it.”

This was a birthday gift from my friend, Brian. It turned out to be one of my favorite novels of the year. I plan to read Ward’s Salvage the Bones soon.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

December 29, 2018

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This was the year I finally got around to reading a Zadie Smith novel. Although I’ve known her as one of the top living writers of serious literary fiction and have had her White Teeth on my shelf for over a decade, I’ve haven’t read anything of hers beyond an essay or two.

Swing Time is the story of an unnamed female narrator who grows up in a London suburb. She and her best friend, Tracey, are passionate about dance, about performance, obsessed with Michael Jackson and Fred Astaire. They are two peas in a pod as kids, but drift apart as they come of age. The narrator becomes the personal assistant to Aimee, a white, A-list pop star fixated on building a girl’s school in west Africa (think Madonna). Tracey’s path takes her in another direction.

This novel is about how people get to where they end up in life—about the economic status, race, education, family relationships, personal drive and talent. It’s about the various power dynamics that exist—both global and interpersonal—and all of the currents and pressures that define who and what people ultimately become.  Big themes, but examined through personal stories, messy plotlines and realistic relationships.

I didn’t love this book, but I definitely admire the craft of the writing and the well-rendered relationships. A good portion of the story is dedicated to the narrator’s job as personal assistant, which moves the plot along and gives it a pop culture-level relevance, but ultimately feels less insightful and a little empty—both for the narrator and the reader. Although a white pop star trying to save Africa seems like a familiar character in our world, Smith avoids making Aimee into a stock parody. Still, the relationship between the narrator and her friend Tracey has more to offer.

I’ll probably dig into White Teeth next.

The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli

December 28, 2018

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This book is about time. Rovelli can take complex scientific concepts and wrap them in simple, understandable prose. The Order of Time is part science, part history, part philosophy, part poetry. Rovelli infuses the science of time with the wonder it deserves—wonder that often gets stripped out when the concepts are translated to formulas and taught in physics class.

He sets some basic premises about the nature of time, most of which are already mind-benders. Such as: Time is not universal. It passes at different speeds depending on where you are in space. This is described by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, but it’s something we mostly take for granted. With our synchronized clocks, we create the illusion that we are a “platoon advancing at the pace of a single commander.” But in reality, we experience different “times” based on our position in space and the speed at which we’re moving. It’s a concept that comes up mostly in science fiction, where extremes (like traveling at the speed of light) can nearly pause the passage of time, but it’s not fiction.

Another mind-bender is his walkthrough of the question: What makes the past different from the future? It turns out, not much.

By most fundamental laws of physics, there is no difference between the past and future.

The only fundamental physical equation that seems to be linked to a directional sense of time is the transfer of heat (the second principle of thermodynamics). Heat can only go one direction, toward greater entropy. Therefore, at a molecular level, the direction of time is indicated by a move toward disorder (most people would probably agree the same is true of life in general).

However, our description of the level of entropy is a somewhat flawed, using a statistically arbitrary “ordered” starting point (e.g. a new pack of cards, in order). But any two states of a deck of cards—perfectly “ordered” or what we’d consider a completely random sequence—has the same mathematical chance of existing. Molecules arranged in the form of a specific tree are equally as likely as molecules arranged in the form of a different specific tree, or in the form of a specific non-tree. Therefore, entropy—the one equation that seemed to define the flow of time—does not hold as a descriptor of time.

There is no difference between the past and future. In the “elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between cause and effect.” If this concept doesn’t shake your idea about how things work, I’m not sure anything will.

This book is full of challenging concepts about time. I could hang with the first two sections, but by the third section, I was feeling a little lost. It reminded me of Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace, which tackles some of the same issues by describing the ten-dimensional model of our universe. Rovelli’s is a more poetic take and more focused on time alone. It avoids scientific jargon, and if any of the concepts are difficult to grasp, it’s not because of the language. It’s because they’re counter to some of our most fundamental concepts about how our world works.

 

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

December 25, 2018

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“One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain’t nothin’ can beat teamwork.”

-Edward Abbey

 

I’ve had this on my list to read for years. Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, about his time as a park ranger at Arches National Monument in the late 1950s, is one of my favorite books. I finally picked up The Monkey Wrench Gang after reading The Overstory— the characters in this book were inspiration for the tree-sitting eco-activists in Richard Powers’s novel.

The Monkey Wrench Gang is a novel about four environmentalist pranksters who spend their days sabotaging various development projects. Doc Sarvis, a quirky, wealthy surgeon; Bonnie Abbzug, his feminist girlfriend; “Seldom Seen” Smith, a river guide; and George Hayduke, a Viet Nam Vet who proclaims, “My job is to save the fucking wilderness. I don’t know anything else worth saving.” (George Hayduke was later donned as the pen name of a prolific author of prank books.) Their mission is to toss a “monkey wrench” into the works of anyone wanting to strip mine a mountain, log a forest or build a dam that floods a canyon.

Stylistically, The Monkey Wrench Gang is part screed, part western, part beat prose and part keystone cops. The gang burns down billboards, sabotages logging equipment and dreams of blowing up the Glenn Canyon Dam. Which all sounds fairly sinister, but it feels more like a mad-cap comedy with the gang’s over-the-top antics and sometimes incompetence. So much of the novel is dedicated to the group outwitting and evading authorities, pressing their luck more and more with each stunt, that one reviewer compared it to Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote cartoons.

Abbey railed against Glen Canyon Dam in Desert Solitaire, even as the canyons he loved were being turned into Lake Powell. In a rare film of him in front of the dam, he says it’s justified to “resort to whatever means necessary to defend our lands from destruction, invasion.”

The Monkey Wrench Gang was seminal in the environmental moment in that it partly inspired Earth First!, the first radical environmental conservancy group, drawing supporters from various hippy and anarchist groups to the cause. Over the years, Earth First! participated in a wide range of civil disobedience, from tree sits to their “crack” stunt at the Glen Canyon Dam. They were a predecessor to Greenpeace, the Earth Liberation Front and PETA. In a day when our President has zero qualms about destroying the environment, casually denies climate science and would extract every ounce of resource from the planet if he knew how, an activist environmentalist movement is perhaps more important than ever.

It’s also interesting to consider The Monkey Wrench Gang in the context of a post-9/11 world, where the term “eco-terrorism” doesn’t have quite as much charm (if it ever did). The Monkey Wrench Gang has the advantage of fiction, a cartoonish world where nobody gets hurt. But the activism it inspired has caused millions of dollars in damage over the years, and some of the activities advocated by environmental extremists—from tree spiking to arson—can be deadly.

Anti-environmentalist conservative groups love the term “eco-terrorism,” because it conveniently allows them to put Edward Abbey, Ted Kaczynski (the recluse mail bomber who was ultimately set off by the destruction of the wilderness near his remote Montana cabin) and Al Gore in the same sentence. In 2003, a conservative lobbying group proposed to expand the definition of “terrorist organization” to include any group organized to deter people from “participating in an activity involving animals or an activity involving natural resources.” A year later, the deputy assistant of the FBI said eco-terrorists and animal rights extremists were “our highest domestic terrorism investigative priority.” This all seems like a complete over-reaction, but it does illustrate the danger of advocating for violence or endorsing a “by any means necessary” approach to any cause. There’s also an interesting point where the political spectrum is warped by extremist views, and the people on both sides start to look alike. From the outside, it becomes hard to distinguish gun-loving environmentalist George Hayduke from a gun-loving doomsday prepper, a person who wants to bomb a dam from a person who wants to bomb a church, etc.

Activism should be judged by its effectiveness as a change agent. A media-grabbing prank, stunt or protest might be the right thing for a cause. Many important movements, from civil rights to women’s suffrage to Viet Nam protests, started with messy and sometimes violent activism. But the ultimate goal must be systematic change, which usually requires a legislative solution. Any activism that fails to gain the support of the electorate—either because it fails to gain attention, fails to persuade, or actively dissuades—is a failure. As much as I like Abbey, I disagree with his assertion that any means is justifiable. The wrong type of activism can easily turn public support against a cause.

As seminal as The Monkey Wrench Gang was for injecting activism into the environmental movement, what that activism has and can become when taken to extremes is a little more problematic. Which is maybe a long-winded way of saying there’s a lot to think about in this book, particularly from the vantage point of 40 years after it was written, when all the “-isms,” —environmentalism, activism and terrorism—have evolved in their meaning, role and importance.