Books

Books We Need to Read in Trump’s

In light of the inauguration of an American president with a now-indisputable fascist bent, I’ve put together a reading list for a Trump presidency. These books are either lesser-known or often pigeonholed in other niches -there are a few of these kinds of lists going around, so I’m trying to offer some suggestions that might be a bit more novel.
Abolition Democracy: Angela Davis’s very long-form interview. A manifesto for most political realities, especially relevant now.

Bad Feminist: Roxane Gay’s essay collection, dealing with race and gender and the intersection of the two.

Notorious RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a stone cold bad ass.

Long Way Gone: The memoir of a former child soldier from Sierra Leone, a story that speaks to the physical and psychological realities faced by children living in constant war.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Why families migrate, how they seek to survive in extreme poverty and in adverse surroundings.

Notes From No Man’s Land: Essays on how America has handled race, on NAFTA, and one absolutely brutal essay I’ve taught many times about lynching and telephone poles.

Fun Home: One of the best graphic memoirs I’ve read, addressing gender, sexuality, suicide and mental health, and how all of that shit mixes together in the USA

Play It As It Lays: Joan Didion’s crushing novel on the experience of a woman who is tired of living in a certain kind of male reality.

The Bell Jar: A good poet’s excellent novel. Gender, femininity, mental health, and a seemingly intractable fortresses of sexism.

The Demon-Haunted World: The King of Nerds explains why we all need to science way harder.

MAUS: Because this shit has happened before.

Slaughterhouse-Five: Because war sucks, and children wind up with the heaviest shit piled on them.

The Pillowman: A Fascist police state that pretends to care about children and tries to censor artistic expression. Imagine that.

Animal Farm: A pig that superficially resembles a human fucks everyone over in order to obtain an unprecedented and obscene amount of power, then continues to fuck over everyone, especially those who have worked very hard in his service, so as to make himself more comfortable and to further cement his power.

Blackout, Sarah Hepola, and Addiction Memoir

Sarah Hepola’s memoir Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget is probably the best memoir I read in 2016. It’s not only exceptionally well-written, it’s brutally self-honest and open in a way that is sometimes unflattering but never sinks to the kind of misery-porn wallowing that makes addiction memoirs such a mixed bag. The self-reflexion and self-condemnation are firmly rooted in reality and don’t seek any end other than the narrative itself.

It’s a long-reaching memoir, a directed autobiography. Hepola’s relationship with alcohol is both the narrative focus and the frame of this story, but this doesn’t feel like much of an external imposition on account of the major role that drinking (and selectively, temporarily not drinking) plays throughout her entire life. The voice is conversational and confessional, refraining from any linguistic backflipping, but this restraint serves to emphasize the thoughtful and deliberate simplicity of Hepola’s communication, her skill displayed well at low wattage. It’s easy and enjoyable to read, in spite of the sometimes difficult subject matter.

A well-framed and well-executed memoir is almost always worth reading. There’s certainly no shortage of books detailing some aspect of somebody’s lived experience, but they are far too often either well-written fluff that teeters toward self importance or a fascinating story that’s told adequately at best. It’s nice to not have to settle. This book is up there with Wolff and the like.

Notes from Underground

Notes from Underground represents my transition from the novellas and stories of the heavy-hitter Russians to their longer and more involved work. The first section of Notes is a rebellion against the ideas of utopia and rationalism that were surging in popularity at the time, at least among the Russian intelligentsia. The Underground Man sees rationalism as a force that denies agency, and the strivings toward a utopia as another fall into determinism. An understanding of this part of the text informs one’s reading of the second, more narrative section. But this understanding is going to require at least a perfunctory knowledge of the dominant ideological currents in that time and place, so a few minutes of research is a good and worthwhile thing.

The character of the Underground Man is often read as some kind of existential hero, but this reading seems problematic to me. Dostoevsky is very much aware of the pitiful nature of his narrator and the purposelessness of his railings. While the Underground Man offers plenty of valid criticisms, he does not offer any kind of meaningful alternative, and there is no nobility in his self-imposed suffering, no matter how much he wishes there to be, or wishes to present things as such. He is sometimes brilliant, but also hopelessly dramatic and megalomaniac to the point of solipsism. Any argument for the Underground Man as an existential hero crumbles as soon as we come to the end of the book and follow his interactions with Liza.

But criticism of the character is not a condemnation of the book -some of my favorite heroes are antiheroes. The Underground Man is the perfect narrative device in that he allows Dostoevsky to critiques certain ideological foolishness with vitriolic ardor without getting his hands dirty, then expose and destroy the same agent of vitriol and everything that agent represents, all without damaging the original case made by the Underground Man. Add to this Dostoevsky’s underlauded black humor and the narrative urgency that he seems to be able to conjure out of nothing and you’ve got a damn good read, if you’re willing to put the time and and do a little Googling.

 

Recommendation: Read it, and look shit up! 

Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America

Lorrie Moore is good at writing short stories. This surprises no one, I assume. I had read one or two of her stories in anthologies, but never took the time to sit down with an entire book. Some short story writers seem to come across better in small doses, but many of the best (Carver, Denis Johnson, and Thom Jones spring to my mind) seem to offer the most to the reader when their collections are read all at once. There’s some kind of cumulative effect, a thing that no doubt relates to thematic or narrative connections present within a collection, but which owes even more to the experience of spending more time within that writer’s own aesthetic universe, familiarizing oneself with a certain pacing or sense of humor or dramatic sentimentality, or whatever specific intangible it may be. Moore is definitely included here. I found myself enjoying this book more and more as I kept reading, and I don’t think it was because the stories themselves were getting better -I was getting better at reading them.

These stories are not often particularly engaging if read strictly on the level of plot, although there are certain exceptions to this. They are engaging mostly out of their wildly different and always enjoyable senses of voice. There are all kinds of people in Birds of America and they all have different ways of getting their identities out there. Even characters who might seem superficially similar when viewed from a strictly plot-looking synopsis cut markedly different lines in prose.

While the characters who inhabit this book each inform their stories with variance in a free indirect narrative sort of thing, there is something distinctly universal to the author in the descriptive prose, a way with metaphor and simile that is very hard to define, and is probably the single most important factor in the quality of Moore’s prose. She has a way of writing something novel that communicates an idea as effectively and as universally as a cliche would. I still can’t figure out the exact mechanics, or any kind of worthwhile definition, but, damn. It’s impressive both when you notice it and when you don’t.

Recommendation: Read it! Don’t sell yourself short by reading her work in isolation.

A Wizard of Earthsea, and why books for young people don’t have to be shit

After a few lukewarm readings of her short stories, I hadn’t really bothered with Le Guin for a few years, but I’m trying to rectify that. The Lathe of Heaven was a great read, and this most recent outing was also well worth the time. A Wizard of Earthsea might easily be classified as YA were it published today, and while it lacks some of the complexities found in her more adult-oriented work, it is by no means simple.

Characters are wonderfully filled out and develop well -Le Guin shows up with some very strong prose that communicates both emotional and external realities, but the pacing of events and the progressions of characters’ personal story arcs are clearly the focus. The sentences get out of their own way, but still turn some good phrases, just never in any kind of distracting way.

While I certainly enjoyed the read (and it was a welcome respite from some heavier tomes) I’m sure it would have made a much greater impression had I read it at a younger age. When I compare this book to other YA fantasy, to other examples of world building and magical narratives, it does exceptionally well. It’s better written than most, it’s internally consistent, and it’s got a narrative arc that keeps dragging you in. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon than reading a book like this.

Recommendation: Read it! If you have kids, read it to them.

A Book of Uncommon Prayer

Reading Log favorite Matthew Vollmer edited this particular anthology, an artifact that began as a personal writing project and expanded to include the work of many writers. Everything in here is a variant of a prayer, specifically, an uncommon one, a prayer for people watching airline safety demonstrations, for people seeing their new home in the harsh light of objectivity, for people who bought Brazilian waxes on Groupon. Some of these prayers are very funny, some of them reveal an upsetting reality, some of them are simply thoughtful or meditative.

As will be the case with any anthology, some of these pieces didn’t do much for me, but the vast majority ranged between decent and excellent. Verbalizations are often an indicator of how deeply I am engaging with a book, and there were both audible laughings and muttered “fucks”. There were at least a dozen or so prayers in here that really stuck -not a bad ratio at all.

The rather novel conceit of this collection seems to have forced writers to either adapt existing work or to stretch themselves into a slightly different form, and with generally excellent results. I would recommend reading this collection over a week or two at minimum, rather than blasting through. The format holds up best when you aren’t subjecting it to a binge.
Recommendation: Buy it, read it. Very solid and diverse collection that does something different without trying too desperately to be different.

http://www.outpost19.com/UncommonPrayer/

Mother Night -yes, more Vonnegut…

Mother Night is one of Vonnegut’s minor novels, but still a strong entry. With my goal of reading all of his novels, (as well as Palm Sunday and Man Without a Country) I feel like I’m getting an interesting perspective of the man as a producer of writing. There’s something always recognizably consistent in the tone and in the themes, but each book is unmistakably it’s own thing. While not as strong as Cat’s Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five, Mother Night still hits all of the Vonnegut high points: a painfully aware protagonist looking back on things, a subversive view of normative values, and an always slightly askew perspective on human interactions.

The protagonist in this book is an American propaganda officer for Nazi Germany, a man who did his job so well that even though he was a double agent relaying messages for the US, his rhetoric may have been more damaging than his counterintelligence was redeeming. This central conflict allows Vonnegut to explore the gradations of morality in such an ambiguous situation, complicated dramatically by the fact that Howard is narrating this story, and is almost certainly very, very unreliable. Who is Howard writing this for, and to what end?

It’s a damn good book that forces some great questions, but it doesn’t go deeper than that. Like a lot of his work, this is a book that would have knocked me on my ass if I’d read it twelve or thirteen years ago. That’s not to call the thing juvenile, since these are serious and adult concerns, but it does lack the layers and nuance of Faulkner or Kundera. But, man, it’s hard to find anything as much fun and as easy to read as Vonnegut, and the fact that he manages to balance that with the moral ideas and quandaries in a book like Mother Night is pretty impressive.