This year, I sought refuge from the madness that was 2017 in familiar places. Whether it was books, art, food, drink, music, or good company, I was soothed from the hyperactive panic that swirled around, shots fired in electronic bursts that sent tremors through the society at large. As exhausting as it all was, I found ways of shutting it off, if only for a little while. I pursued knowledge, while the idiot winds blew strong and steady, much like Hurricane Harvey, devouring our civilization with false ideas and twisted facts. If those last few words sound familiar, it’s because they’ve been said before and will be repeated again, as long as humanity walks this earth.
These days we are overwhelmed with information, and weeding through the multitude of printed matter, or sources of sound is challenging. Fortunately, I’ve had a pretty good track record this year, and I thought I would provide a year in review. I don’t know if it would be a helpful guide, because everyone’s tastes are different, and that is as it should be. I should also note, that I can drift into dark territory from time to time, seeking answers that often turn into more questions. I’ll try to keep it nice and neat so I don’t lose anybody in the weeds.
I started the year like most of the rest of the people in this country, wondering what the hell happened and where do we go from here? That led me to check out Hillbilly Ellegy by J.D. Vance. It was a good primer on the experience of a kid from Appalachia and his struggles to make something of his life, despite facing poverty, family drama, and the ubiquity of drug addiction in his environment. It also describes some of the anger, and desperation that led some in that region to turn to our generation’s greatest snake oil salesman. Marc Maron’s podcast hipped me to Sam Quinones book, Dreamland, which is a fascinating exploration of the connection between the homegrown opioid scourge that has been perpetuated by the pharmaceutical companies and a small village in Mexico, whose residents tapped into this built in market of addicts. It was terrifying and illuminating, like when you’re in a dark room and your flashlight hits an obscured corner and eyes flash back at you.
Next I read, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg, which chronicles the disturbing roots of our current condition as a nation, and how the pursuit of a classless society in which equality is guaranteed to all, has rarely ever been the intention of the powers that be.
Veering away from the problems most associated with white Americans, I delved into the work of Ta-Nahesi Coates. I have followed his writing in The Atlantic Monthly, including his wrap up of the Obama years titled, My President was Black, and his take on the election of Donald Trump, The First White President; finding them both compelling, I read The Beautiful Struggle: A Memoir, in which Coates explores his relationship with his father and growing up in 90’s era Baltimore, and then Between the World and Me, which delves deep into the subject of race. Coates is a treasure, and his writing style is succinct and his opinions well researched.
I continued with the heavy subject matter by diving into Joan Didion’s books, The Year of Magical Thinking, and Blue Nights, which deal with the process of grieving, first, her husband’s death, and then her daughter’s. They are both heart-achingly beautiful and agonizing, but perhaps the best books I’ve ever read dealing with the subject of grief.
I was so enamored with her writing that I picked up Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which is a book of essays on the 60’s era, seen through the lens of woman who wandered Haight-Asbury with the hippies, and hung out in the rollicking Hollywood movie scene, when it was pregnant with young talent.
I checked out Jim Harrison’s, A Really Big Lunch, at CALS, which was full of humor and wit, and a welcome escape into poetry and gastronomy, that inspired me to buy a few bottles of fine wine and contemplate how to live a fuller life before we all get wasted in a nuclear holocaust, environmental catastrophe, or AI decides we're too stupid to share a planet with.
I came back down from the highs of food, drink and poetry with The Wasting of Borneo: Dispatches from a Vanishing World by Alex Shoumatoff, which describes the complicated world of politics, development and the destruction of the natural world as told by a man whose spent a good portion of his life exploring the subject matter. As with most books on grim topics, it does offer a lifeline at the end, and it's damn fine writing.
Throughout the year, I kept up with Harper’s, and The Atlantic, for good insight into politics and current events, and The Arkansas Times, which is my go to source for local news and entertainment. I perused other publications, but not religiously. Cooking magazines and books tended to be my favorite, as I love to cook a good meal and enjoy it with family and friends. I've learned to whip up a nice curry, and a passable version of bibimbap. I finally found a good recipe for naan that brought curry night up to a standard of respectability. I was heavy into what is known as Asian cuisine, although it seems impossibly broad to describe it that way, but it is what it is. I recently found out that Lucky Peach, a great quarterly on the subject is folding, but fortunately, you can find back issues and cookbooks floating around out there in the wild world web.
I read Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World, a coming of age graphic novel that was adapted into a movie, but naturally, the book was better. I also picked up Wilson, the plot of which revolves around a sad, miserable, middle aged man who bitches and complains about the vapid nature of modern life. It sounds pretty familiar, and like some guy you probably know. It seems like it would be boring, but, trust me, it’s funny.
I read Nelson Algren’s A Walk on the Wild Side, which is a classic work of fiction, so classic that Lou Reed ripped off the title for a song that is more famous than the book. It follows a young tramp through a series of raunchy adventures, the majority of which take place in New Orleans in the early 20th century. To some, it might be difficult, as it is from a bygone era, and the slang and references can be challenging, but believe me, there is gravy to be sopped up in those pages.
Sticking with fiction, I also read Thus Bad Begins, by Javier Marias. It is a potboiler filled with mystery and suspense, unfolding at a slow but steady pace, to be savored like a fine wine. It is filled with insightful history regarding the Franco era in Spain, which still reverberates to this day.
Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, follows Bob Jones, a black man living in Los Angeles in the 1940’s who can’t catch a break as he is battered and beaten down by the everyday racism he faces. I’d heard about Himes and he was an interesting character in his own right. It is amazing that his books were published at all considering how he pulled no punches. It might not suit all readers, especially those who can't take a punch.
I then read from James Baldwin’s Collected Essays, which, although it was written about another era, will always seem current. His lucid telling of life in Jim Crow’s America, his exile in Europe, and his remembrances of the great personages of the Civil Rights’ era, is transcendent, and it is almost as if you can hear his voice in the back of your head as the words unfold on the page.
Domonique Goblet’s Pretending is Lying, is a lush graphic novel I stumbled onto, that is both beautifully drawn, and wonderfully written. She recounts her life with an alcoholic father, her distant mother, and her distracted lover in a full spectrum of penciled pages.
As the days grew long, and perhaps the longest year of our lives was coming to a close, I decided to pick up a couple of autobiographical works from a couple of my punk rock mentors. The first was The Portable Henry Rollins, which, if you know Henry, you know to expect that it will be loud, vicious, and a bit grating and obnoxious, but if you were a fan of Black Flag, you’ll get over it. I wasn’t impressed with the writing at all, but, it helped to explain where all the rage came from.
I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, by Richard Hell, was also full of juvenile immaturity and macho bluster, but along the way, you can catch a glimpse of some interesting characters from what had to have been the best time to have lived in New York City, the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. I honestly don’t know why he is considered a serious writer, hopefully his poetry is better.
Larry Brown’s Big Bad Love, was one of my favorites of the year. I don’t know why it had taken me this long to read this one, I guess it just didn’t come around. This collection of short stories goes down like a smooth whiskey, leaving you with a warm tummy and a bit of a sour aftertaste, that invites you to have one more.
Scream, by Tama Janowitz was a book that I happened upon at the library and decided to give a go. It turned out to be a surprisingly entertaining story of a girl whose family is as dysfunctional as it gets. Janowitz also was an associate of Warhol, Lou Reed and various other interesting personalities, which made for some cool detours along the way.
I read John Fante, based on the recommendation of Bukowski, whose opinion I will always consider solid, at least when it comes to betting horses, and books. Fante’s Ask the Dust, is the tale of a down and out writer in 1930’s Los Angeles that delves into love and madness.
I also packed in a couple of random Bukowski tomes this year including Love is a Dog from Hell, but if you know his work and like it, I’d be wasting space recommending it, because you’re probably already halfway through, or have it on your list. I’ve never read one I didn’t like.
Evicted, by Matthew Desmond, lived up to all of the hype. It is an exhaustive account of families bouncing around from one fraught low rent dump to the next, and it’s great tragedy lies in the fact that many of the people who need to read this book, won’t, or either it likely won’t sway their opinion. It should undoubtedly be required reading, especially for anyone wanting to hold public office.
Eveningland was a great little book of stories set in Alabama. Written by Michael Knight, it was sheer coincidence that I finished it before the most recent election. It wasn’t political in the least, and that was fine with me. Knight is punchy and efficient, good for any fan of short fiction.
The last book I’ve read this year, and maybe the last one I’ll finish before we ring in the new year was Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House. It reminded me how much I miss his voice and his insight on the world of human affairs. His combination of black humor, brevity and razor sharp instinct for cutting straight to the bone is a rare gift. I can imagine him floating through the ether out there, a residual cloud of cigarette smoke hovering about his protoplasmic essence, pondering the absurdity of it all while having laughing fits at the great cosmic gag.
This year hung around like a two day hangover. We vowed to stop drinking as we retched into the porcelain bowl, but I hope you had a good stack of reading material there to peer at through bleary eyes, I know I did. So in light of that, raise your glasses high and prepare to stumble through another weird one. Cheers!