Month: January 2016

Angela Davis’ “Abolition Democracy”

Angela Davis has a pretty fantastic author’s byline. She’s run for vice-president of the United States twice on the Communist Party USA ticket, she’s been on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” list, and was called a “terrorist” by none other than Richard Millhouse Nixon. She’s got some seriously good publishing credits as well. “Abolition Democracy” is a long-form interview, divided into multiple sections, and dealing mainly with issues of race and how they relate to the role of the prison in society.

Davis’ central thesis revolves around the idea that capitalistic institutions actively circumvent democracy, leaving citizens fundamentally unfree. These institutions are intractable in their relation to racial prejudice, and they do harm to everyone involved with them. Davis also spends some time dismantling the myth of multiculturalism as a means of progressive action, criticizing mainstream liberalism for accepting racial tokenism in lieu of actual, radical change to institutions that impair freedom. The book also spends a good deal of time talking about torture, Guantanamo Bay, and Abu Ghraib

This kind of book-length academic text isn’t too common on my reading lists any more, but I not only felt the reading to be incredibly rewarding, but an enjoyable read. While I disagree with Davis on a few points, I found her arguments to be compelling and her justifications sound. My project of reading fifty books by female authors this year keeps leading me to great books I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise.

Recommendation: Read it, especially if you have any interest in liberalism, race, the prison system, or socio-political movements.


The Short Stories of Breece D’J Pancake

Breece D’J Pancake killed himself at 27. Whenever someone who evidences some kind of brilliance kills themselves (or merely meets an untimely end,) it seems difficult to separate the art-as-object from their own personal narrative. It’s a damn difficult thing to read these stories without the context of Breece’s decision to take his own life seeping into your mind -I had a similar experience while reading “Infinite Jest,” with its narrative density of suicide and jokes about the act. There’s also a certain tendency to romanticize people like Breece, to define them as fires so bright that they burn themselves out -this particular culture of romanticizing of mental illness in the context of artistic brilliance is especially fucked up, and has no doubt lead a few people down those bad, twisting alleyways.

But I’m going to do my best to separate my thoughts about the book from all of that, regardless. These stories are amazing. They’re is definitely a bit of youthfulness on display, but never in such a way as to detract from the writing itself. The prose is obsessively wrought on a word-by-word level, clearly the product of dozens of passes with the red pen. And Pancake doesn’t seem to have any trouble inhabiting very different kinds of people, very disparate narrators, even when those people are from the same place, the same socioeconomic standing, and often even the same age and gender.

Pancake is often compared to Hemingway, and the comparison is valid. But there’s also a good bit of Falkner in here -that sense of place, of an identity intractable from the landscape that surrounds. And while these fictions are unmistakably masculine, there’s no shortage of nuanced and compelling female characters present as well, just as broken and dysfunctional as the men. It’s a damn shame the world lost Pancake so soon. I can only imagine what he would have been able to create with another forty years’ time.

Recommendation: Read it. Go buy it on Powell’s and read it as soon as it arrives. This one needs to move to the top of your queue.

The Guardian’s “The Counted,” Police Brutality, and Big News Close to Home

British newspaper The Guardian has been running a series of reports into police violence in America, and as part of that project, they produced one of the best pieces of traditional investigative journalism that I’d seen in a long time -a five-part multimedia report called “The County” that deals with my hometown, Kern County, specifically.

Kern County has the highest rate of citizens killed by police in the entire United States, as well as a horrific track record of internal corruption, sexual assault/abuse, sexism, and all sorts of other unsavory qualities. “The County” does an exceptional job digging into the particulars of this, as well as contextualizing it all within both the regional realities and the larger narrative of police abuse in the US.

Recommendation: Read it! Links are provided -go, go, go!


Herta Müller’s “The Passport” -Kicking Off “50 in 16”

Herta Müller’s novel “The Passport” is my first entry in my big reading project the year (reading fifty novel-length works by women in 2016). I had read her short story “Nadirs” last year and had mixed feelings about it, and while some of my issues with her writing style remain, I can say definitively that “The Passport” is not only a better book, but one I also enjoyed reading much more than “Nadirs”. The narrative here is simple -a German in Romania seeks permission to resettle into Germany proper- but it isn’t the plot that drives the book forward here.

Muller relies on the weight of her prose. It’s brusque and direct, almost to the point of banal simplicity in its short, declarative sentences -mostly in the present tense. I’m stuck by how easy it would be to satirize this mode of construction. The superficial obviousness of her prose might sometimes wear thin, but it’s undeniably powerful. Maybe we’ve all just read too much bad fiction that apes Hemingway.

This was definitely a book that took a while for me to warm up to. And it’s probably not one I’d have picked up were it not for my goal of fifty women in 2016. I’m really glad though, because it was a damn good book and one that stuck in my mind rather a lot over the last week or so.


Reading on Your Phone, #Longreads, and Attention Spans

I rely on my phone more than I want to. I’m aware of my tendencies in this regard -I didn’t even get a smartphone until the beginning of 2015. And as much as I resent the damn thing’s ability to intrude into my life and tempt me toward wasting time, there are some redeeming qualities.

1: Kindle app.

I use my old Generation 2 Kindle on backpacking trips -there’s nothing like reading “Lolita” at the base of Cathedral Dome in Yosemite. This means I’ve got a pretty decent collection of ebooks, and I can access everything I’ve stored in Amazon’s cloud with the Kindle Reader app. It’s nice if I get stuck somewhere without a book -I don’t like reading on my phone as much as on the e-ink Kindle screen, (or ideally, a paper book) but it’s still damn useful.


Longreads has a great social media presence, and I’m pleasantly surprised by how often very good creative nonfiction comes my way via Facebook. The work they present is always well written and usually very interesting.

(Since many of you read this via WordPress, here is their blog:

3: You know what, just… don’t download games.

Don’t download games, or anything that you’ll go to out of a reflex habit in response to a passing sense of boredom. Former Reddit addict here -there’s a reason I’ve never gone to Reddit on my phone. If you’re trying to eat well, you don’t by shitty food that’s easy to get into. If you’re trying to develop your intellect, don’t leave yourself with the attention-span equivalent of Twinkies and Lays Potato Chips.

Why I’m keeping a Writing Log

cartoon me

I’ve started to keep a journal of my writing. More specifically, I’ve dedicated a paragraph-long section of my daily journal to writing about my writing, detailing the progress I’m making in a novel-length project I hope to finish the rough draft of in the coming months. I’m leaving myself notes, talking about the progress I’m making and what I need to do.

It’s damn useful, and I highly recommend the practice for anyone who is serious about finishing a sustained project, especially one that requires some sense of cohesion or deliberate building to a point, whether that point be narrative in nature or something else entirely. It’s forcing me to contextualize a day’s writing within everything I have written up to that point, as well as what I’m anticipating writing next.

This idea was shamelessly stolen from John Steinbeck, whose journal “Working Days” was kept throughout the duration of his work on “The Grapes of Wrath” and stuck me as an instrumental tool in the creation of that novel.

Carver’s “Ultramarine” and Narrative in Poetry

This was my favorite collection of poetry read in 2015. Carver’s poetry reads very easily for me, especially compared to a lot of other contemporary stuff. His poems have such an unshakable narrative anchor -a crutch that my not-particularly-poetic brain gloms onto with greed and eagerness. I still take my sweet time with the things, reading over some lines half a dozen times and lingering on specific words and passages (I guess I’m trying to communicate that I still read them likes poems, regardless of their narrative qualities).

Because these things are poems. When I had my 8th graders read “Wine” (from “A New Path to the Watefall”) it wasn’t even a matter of discussion; as difficult as it was for some of them to articulate the specific things that separate such a narrative poem from a short story, they were all convinced that it was indeed a poem.

I’ve said that Carver’s poetry is the most potently distilled narrative I’ve ever encountered, and I stand by that. “Ultramarine” has some of the best examples of this, and the thematic linking (it’s hard to find a poem without even a literal incarnation of flowing water) is an interesting aspect as well. This is poetry for people who don’t like poetry, and for people who do.

Recommendation: Read it! The most cohesive and consistently good collection of Carver poems I’ve read yet.