Note to our readers: it takes a tremendous amount of time to curate, write, edit, and format this and all of the year-end lists we provide. POW is one of the last fully independent music blogs still standing and is 100 percent user funded. Please consider donating a few bucks to the Patreon. Your support is very much appreciated and needed.
Hello and welcome to Passion of the Weiss’s Best Books of 2018 post. The following list contains blurbed essays about the best, or at least most thought-provoking, books that the writers of this site read this year. Not all of the books came out in 2018. Some of them did. Many of them did not. The list is intended to highlight the books from all eras that, for whatever reason, stuck in the minds of the Passion of the Weiss writing squad in one way or another during this jaunt around the sun. — Will Hagle
Beastie Boys Book by Michael Diamond and Adam Horowitz
Let’s get this out of the way: if you’re a fan of the Beastie Boys, Beastie Boys Book is a must-read. Fun, witty and creative, it’s not just a memoir; it’s the latest and greatest addition to an expanded Beastie universe that stretches across vinyl-only remixes, a label and Grand Royale Magazine.
With that endorsement out of the way, it’s also extremely hagiographic and serves to shore up the band’s mythmaking to a slightly annoying degree. This isn’t new: the Boys have been continuously apologizing for Licensed to Ill since 1989, but in Beastie Boys Book, every bad idea the band ever had is pinned on one Frederick Jay Rubin. Calling the album Don’t Be a Faggot? Rick. Fight for Your Right to Party? Rick. Kicking Kate Schellenbach out of the band? Rick by proxy. The Beasties are painted as the beautiful, naïve Danceteria punks-turned-club-kids out of some masturbatory LCD Soundsystem fever dream, corrupted by an evil, scheming suburbanite lumpen-metalhead. Even Russell Simmons doesn’t get kicked around nearly as much.
This seems unlikely. For one thing, the band wasn’t the WOKEstie Boys and they went along with the circus all too eagerly until they saw which way the winds were shifting. For another, Rubin not only produced incredible rap records for LL Cool J and Run DMC that DIDN’T feature Licensed to Ill’s over the top frat boy shtick, he also went on to help make some pretty awesome rock records after the fact. In fact, reading Beastie Boys Book, my only conclusion is that without him (and Run DMC, who do get full credit), the Beasties’ attempts at rap would rank somewhere around Blondie’s on the novelty scale, and while they’d surely have made great alternative-leaning music in the ‘90s either way, they’d have lacked the rap-credibility that grounded their careers throughout.
So yeah, Beastie Boys Book is awesome. It’s also incredibly generous to the group and much less so to associates like Rubin, the Dust Brothers and, to a much lesser extent, Mario C and Money Mark. That makes it a great read, but one whose Beastie brand-building purpose you’ll want to keep in mind.
Also, Slayer rules. — Son Raw
Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A. by Eve Babitz
I’m not going to recount the details of Eve Babitz’s family history, or list her romantic entanglements, or explain why, after decades as a fixture in a certain rung of L.A.’s quasi-aristocracy, she vanished into thin air. You can google her name and click blindly; you’ll find all of it. There’s also the fact that all those things — the famous godfathers and weekend flings and nth-degree burns — seem too perfectly chosen, like if there was a Greek myth about Sunset and Vine, and if that Greek myth about Sunset and Vine drifted slowly out of print.
This is the year everybody I know read Eve Babitz, which I’m sure Eve Babitz would find kind of funny. You get the sense that this L.A. is no longer exactly her L.A. But there are traces: the military power of cheekbones, the way Sunset on off-hours glides right into the ocean, the idea that, “No, dummy, we know those awnings are artificial, we just like them.” The truly remarkable thing is that all of this is reflected in Babitz’s prose, which is funny and sparse, and which lets all this breezy air into its negative space. She tricks you into thinking a nearly impossible thing is very easy. It’s like watching a bird fly, or listening to Blueface rap.
The other way Babitz’s style mirrors L.A. is in its pace. Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A., her second and strongest book of nonfiction, distills the (again: characteristic) sprawl of Eve’s Hollywood. It’s about slightly alien places and deeply alien people. The way she writes about the strange earnestness of a grape farmer in Bakersfield is kind, even sweet, but invites skepticism of both his intentions and her relative jadedness; the way she writes about a bad trip to Palm Springs makes you want to crawl out of your skin. And the best chapter is the last, where she’s holed up in a room at the Chateau Marmont with two women, a pile of cocaine, and something called the Coyote’s Brain. There’s a charm to the very specific kind of tact Babitz uses: she’ll diagnose the fundamental flaw in the souls of her lovers, but she won’t name them, because they have wives in New York.
“Unapologetic” is a very bad descriptor, except when it describes the way Eve Babitz writes about herself and about her home. She does not hedge when she describes her physical beauty — she can’t, because it’s so elemental to so many of her stories. She’ll write sentences like “The Bloody Marys at Musso & Frank’s Restaurant are unparalleled in Western thought and can cure anything,” and you go “Yes, of course they are,” which is a kind of authority very few writers have because very few writers even bother to cultivate that kind of authority. She was Epicurean, but would scoff loudly at any dinner party guest who used the word “Epicurean.” How pretentious. — Paul Thompson
Haruki Murakami — [collected]
I have not yet decided what this indicates about my psyche (a digitally-reduced attention span? A, gulp, fixation with plot?), but the written page doesn’t send me soaring off into different worlds anymore like it did when I was ten. Over time, for me, the act of reading became more and more about signaling (what are you reading — or, what have you not read?) and more and more representative of how far I had fallen behind, in some race.
I spent a lot of this year reading the books lost in my shelves, the ones that I dutifully packed to between my home and my college dorm every semester, and the ones that I dragged all the way to New York: Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex (weirdo immigrants, the best kind of immigrants minus the incest), Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (post-breakup exposure therapy, oddly), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (I don’t think he likes sentences). I never felt like I was catching up.
So then: I do not think I like Haruki Murakami’s writing but I find myself needing it, often. I think I felt that Murakami’s repeated denial of resolution, the dramatic tension that he so meticulously builds and refuses to even afford the dignity of fizzling out, felt like the correct antidote to this weird reading purgatory I found myself in, where catharsis had been muddled. I’ve mowed through four of his books in the last calendar year (1Q84, Norwegian Wood, Men Without Women, A Wild Sheep Chase) despite feeling fundamentally as if they all fell into my least favorite category of art: musings for musings’ sake. His novels lock themselves into incessant weaves, reveling in the details without meaning.
I spent ten days in Japan last November and couldn’t shake the feeling that the country itself was lonely — and like Japan itself, Murakami’s writing is calm in its solitude and deliberate in its brushes with the external. His writing was maybe my most important reminder that sometimes dreams are just dreams and nightmares are just nightmares, that there’s some kind of neat, twisted beauty in being lost without being found. I think about that almost every day. — Sun-Ui Yum
The Desert and the Sea: 977 Days Captive on the Somali Pirate Coast by Michael Scott Moore
I don’t want to get too personal in this blurbed essay about other people’s books, but I read Michael Scott Moore’s The Desert And The Sea while shitting into a hospital-issued bucket, sitting in the Kaiser waiting room for two hours to see the gastroenterologist, and taking a CBD-bombed bath to contemplate becoming 27 and eating too much fast food and either having IBS — or if the internet is right then probably colon cancer. It doesn’t get more 2018 for me than that. Only now, reflecting on my favorite books of the year and associating The Desert and the Sea with those three specific reading locations do I realize: perhaps it was my complete immersion in Moore’s gripping story that made my stomach most upset.
The book, released in July, finds Moore revisiting his traumatic two-and-a-half-years’ experience as a captive of pirates in Somalia. What distinguishes Moore’s book from typical woe-is-me survival memoirs (like the mini one that I just wrote in the paragraph above) is that Moore believably states that he had no sense of adventurism in traveling to Somalia. He went there to conduct research for a book he was working on about a legal case against Somali pirates in Berlin, where he, an American with a British upbringing, lives. He writes about Somali pirates in a straightforward manner, combining his own personal attitudes while imprisoned with the point of view and perspective of the pirates, the U.S. government attempting to rescue him, and his mother, who continues to negotiate his ransom from afar.
It’s a crazy story, and it provides a more detailed, honest, and immersive glimpse into Somali pirate life better than any other book or movie that’s come before it. It’s unsettling, but it also makes having an upset stomach feel like the smallest of issues. I’m shitting much smoother these days by the way, and reading Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers while I do it. — Will Hagle
Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
William Gibson is best known as the father of the cyberpunk genre, as the coiner of the word “cyberspace,” and as one of the first authors to imagine an interconnected world constructed entirely of data that black-clad hackers jack into via their computers. He achieved all of that in one fell swoop, nearly two decades before The Matrix existed, with his incredible 1984 novel Neuromancer, cementing himself as one of his generation’s most eerily accurate futurists and a writer whose extremely visual style is every bit as exciting as his prescience.
Instead of bioengineered assassins and omnipotent AIs, Gibson’s 2003 novel Pattern Recognition tackles the equally terrifying topics of monolithic advertising corporations and the near-gravitational force that accumulated wealth generates in the 21st century. The protagonist, Cayce Pollard, is a freelance marketing consultant who earns a generous — if not exactly fulfilling — living with her preternatural talent for knowing what products will sell, what logos will subliminally stimulate, and which street fashions will find themselves transported off of today’s half-pipes and onto tomorrow’s runways.
In her spare time, Pollard has become more than a little obsessed with viral clips of film footage, which mysteriously appear on an internet forum. She is not alone in her fascination, and when the owner of the most powerful advertising firm in the world decides to harness whatever ephemeral quality the footage possesses that causes it to so reliably generate obsession, Pollard’s life — and seemingly the entire fabric of the immediately post-9/11 world –have little choice but to bend to his will.
Even today, when Pattern Recognition’s present is now our past, the book and the two books that follow in its Blue Ant Trilogy manage to toe the cutting edge of ideas in the same way that Gibson’s science fiction always has. This proves that no matter what topic Gibson tackles — be it marketing, murder, or jet-lag — his ability to distill a subject to its most emotionally potent truth is staggering. — Ben Grenrock
Cherry by Nico Walker
You might’ve heard Nico Walker’s story before. In 2013, BuzzFeed wrote about the ex-army medic who, upon returning to the states a broken person, took up heroin and bank robbery as a means of supporting his habit. Upon reading this, Tyrant Books owner Matthew Johnson reached out to Walker, who’s stuck in prison until 2020 for the aforementioned crimes. Johnson encouraged Walker to tell his story, and the spare, gut-punching Cherry is the result.
Typed on a prison-issue typewriter, Walker’s debut novel tells the autobiographical story of an unnamed narrator trying hard to do right without the resources or the timing to make good. After high school, our narrator joins the U.S. Army. In war, he tries to be a good medic, but all he has to clean up gunshot wounds and severed appendages is band aids and cotton swabs.
Once he returns stateside, he tries to be a good boyfriend and provider, but he’s damaged, and the recession’s eaten all the jobs. He tries to get help through the VA but can’t find his way through the bureaucracy. When he turns to heroin, he gets hurled into a phantasmagoria of desperation and violence.
Like all of the best fuck-up novels, what draws us into Cherry is the authenticity of its universe. Walker’s prose is clear, spare, and transparent. His almost religious devotion to economy makes the truth and heartbreak of our narrator’s voice devoid of the frothy emotional appeal you might find in a lesser novel about addiction.
With Cherry, Walker has written a book that belongs next to Jesus’ Son and Under the Volcano in the cannon of transcendent, drug-addled literature. — Justin Carroll-Allan
Everything is Horrible and Wonderful: A Tragicomic Memoir of Genius, Heroin, Love and Loss by Stephanie Wittels
The only time I ever cried while reading a book, aside from when I probably read Infinite Jest as a newborn baby, was about midway through Stephanie Wittels Wach’s Everything is Horrible and Wonderful: A Tragicomic Memoir of Genius, Heroin, Love and Loss. The book chronicles the journey of the author’s brother, Harris Wittels, as he attains success in the entertainment industry while struggling with the opioid addiction that ultimately claimed his life.
Despite all my skepticism about the book — it was profiting off Harris’s death, it would be unfair to him, it was being sold alongside the improv training manual at the UCB cafe — it hit me hard. Wittels Wach writes about her brother’s life with clarity, honesty, and wit, bringing the reader along on her challenging journey of grief and mourning.
I cried because I loved Harris and miss him even though I never knew him. Before he died, he was one of the most likable and promising writers and performers in the LA comedy scene. He was also open and honest about his familial struggles over his opioid addiction. This book gave me a better idea of who he was as a person, from someone who knew him better than most. It’s an incredibly relatable and cathartic examination of the grieving process that remains as lighthearted as its subject would want it to be. — Will Hagle
Night Moves, Little Wonder, and the Transformative Power of Short-Form Literature
A week ago for this site, Colin Gannon wrote an incredibly interesting piece on the proliferation of excellent short albums into our music-consuming consciousness in 2018; a pretty large handful of rap artists maximizing the power of their writing by fitting it into as little a space as possible. It is of very little coincidence that Colin’s essay made me think of my two favorite books of 2018, which could combine their pages and still not beat The Yiddish Policemen’s Union in length.
For someone who considers themselves a slow reader — an overactive, wandering mind easily distracted by one of the hundreds of places reading can lead me, whether it’s buried memories from a long and exhausting life or a personal ranking of a certain band’s records — I consider it a personal joy to be able to make it through an entire book in four days, or the case of Little Wonder, one afternoon with no impending deadlines or date nights or supermarket shifts.
Night Moves (authored by admittedly one of my favorite music journalists and — full disclosure alert — someone who has once edited my work, Jessica Hopper) and Little Wonder (the debut effort by Kat Gardiner, inspired by Richard Brautigan and the small spaces of time new motherhood affords) are different but parallel examinations of the self. Both are collections of artful stories from the aughts rooted in truth; the former culled and recreated from journal entries, the latter loosely based on a year running a cafe/all-ages music space. Both use the notion of location as character; the former illuminating a string of Chicago neighborhoods in varying stages of gentrification, the latter describing feeling in somewhat lopsided turns accepted and shut out by the small town community of Anacortes, Washington. Both possess a palpable emotional intelligence and curiosity about the people they share their respective communities with.
Both are riotously funny at points, rife with people holding the secret of pissing in air vents on the roof or swiveling their hips in an attempt to conjure an imaginary dick stirring a pot of soup.
While Gardiner lays imagery on the table like telling a story with photographs (with the occasional peek into the shitstorm of emotional despair only a monumental brush with failure can inspire), Hopper’s writing is impressionistic and anecdotal (with the sort of eye for detail which makes every scene jump off the page and appear as a set piece built right in front of you). Homespun, handcrafted, Northwestern weirdo-pop (and punk, and folk, and something resembling rap presented by a self-described cowboy) and immersive, sometimes obtuse Midwestern avant-jazz. Enormously talented thinkers snorting Similac-cut coke to stave off the feeling of impending failure and yelling “fuck all of you!” down an alleyway when the impact of failure levels your existence. Night Moves is as much about friendship, the chosen family, as anything else; Chicago and bike rides and “mice living in the fucking cutlery drawer” and Hopper herself. Little Wonder is about the very particular isolation of a family of two gambling everything they own to start a business in a new town; working in a town that doesn’t quite embrace them, living in a house that seemingly peels off its own paint at the thought of the couple who lives in it with still-packed boxes.
If you’re familiar with the process of creative writing, you’ve probably heard the phrase “show, don’t tell” before. It takes a tremendous amount of imagination, confidence, and most of all, trust in your reader to pull off short-form literature in a way that feels complete. Neither Night Moves nor Little Wonder close out feeling like a half-built bridge; these are fully realized, fully detailed experiences which don’t need 350 pages to get to their emotional center.
There’s an art to only using what you need and leaving the rest behind. Entire cultures have been built on this practice. — Douglas Martin
Yours in Truth by Jeff Himmelman
In April I graduated with a degree in Journalism. In June I started my new job as a flight attendant. The last piece of anything I’ve written was finished the week before graduation, and writing has been fleeting from my life.
A few weeks ago, I went to the used book store I’ve frequented since I moved and sat in front of the section of books about journalism for a little too long, thinking that all I needed was to read about journalists to push me over the edge and want to write again. After picking up and putting down Hunter S. Thompson’s Hey Rube (baby steps and all that), I ended up buying Jeff Himmelman’s Yours in Truth, a biography about the legendary editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee.
If you’ve seen The Post or All the President’s Men, Ben Bradlee is portrayed extremely well by Tom Hanks and better yet by Jason Robards, but who he is can’t be replicated so easily on the silver screen. Himmelman’s exploration of Bradlee was based on years of interviews with those around his public and private life, as well as an intense look into his never-before-seen written correspondence over the course of his five-decade career. What we learn from Himmelman is that Bradlee was a one-of-a-kind soul in the industry, a man who cared deeply about his work, but was far from perfect and never tried to be anything besides himself.
The biography is powered by Bradlee’s many boxes of letters that Himmelman spent years combing through. Himmelman pulls no punches, and Bradlee never asks him to; maybe after 90 years of life, he was ready for someone to fully dissect him. With as much great as Bradlee was involved in — the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, making a push for the Washington Post to go from #2 paper in the city to the New York Times’ main competition for national paper of record — it was the low points in Ben’s story that define who he is.
From his relationship with President Kennedy that seemed to be a conflict-of-interest to Janet Cooke’s fake story that won a Pulitzer (which was eventually returned), Bradlee was his most human in trying times. Himmelman consistently jumps from warranted hagiography to earnest criticism of Bradlee as a newspaperman and human. Yours in Truth shows that a highly lauded individual isn’t always the white knight we perceive them as, but maybe that’s the way it should be.
Part of me believed that finishing this biography would reinvigorate the journalism side of my life and jump-start some writing or something — not quite. What did happen was a realization that this industry is filled with people like Ben Bradlee who live to push the envelope in journalism, and people like Jeff Himmelman who will never let a story die. — Ethan Davenport
The Rap Yearbook by Shea Serrano
My oldest child turned 13 this year. It was a big year. Watching his experience transitioning from 7th grade to 8th felt like listening to a playlist that went from Tribe’s “Can I Kick It?” and “Bonita Applebum” to the Geto Boys’ “Mind of a Lunatic” and “Gangster of Love.”
Shit got real in a hurry. Not that my son changed from Q-Tip to Bushwick Bill overnight, but a large amount of the kids around him did. At least they tried to. Mostly, they stumbled through sentences that served as practice for discovering how cuss words work. Many sounded like Amy Poehler in Deuce Bigelow shouting out fuck, shit, bitch and pussy incorrectly in random order.
My son is a fairly open book, so he’d come home detailing the conversations he’d hear at school, not quite understanding why kids were saying things like, “That boy’s a fuck and I bitched his shit on the basketball court.”
“What’s that mean, dad?” he’d ask.
“It means your dipshit friends don’t know how to fuckin’ cuss.”
His classmates were imitating words they’d heard from older brothers or Drake, Post Malone and Travis $cott. Before he became seduced by words he didn’t understand and the sounds of shitty rap, I decided it was time to educate him on cuss words and the sounds of real rap music.
Throughout his life, I’d created rap music playlists, starting with the innocence of MC Hammer, Rob Base and Young MC. He quickly graduated to the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, Run DMC, LL Cool J and Slick Rick. Then came PG versions of songs from ‘Pac, Biggie, Cube, Snoop and N.W.A. (thank goodness for “Express Yourself” and “Something 2 Dance 2” … well maybe not the latter). That’s pretty much where it ended until 8th grade. This year, I opened him up to select songs from Kendrick, Thugger, Future and Meek, and a large variety of other artists past and present. I say “select” because I never see myself listening to “Ain’t No Fun,” “Gangster of Love,” “Fuckin’ You Tonight” or “Don’t Fight the Feeling” with any of my kids. Great songs or not, it ain’t happening.
In addition to talking to him about properly using cuss words and the reasons for their existence in hip-hop, I also had him read Shea Serrano’s The Rap Yearbook: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed. I had recently read the book myself and felt it was another key introduction into the world of hip-hop for my 13-year-old.
It was my favorite of the books I read this year because of Shea’s approach. He wrote in his customary comedic, lighthearted style, but also took the content seriously, and it was obviously a well-researched book. Shea’s love for rap music is evident throughout, and while no rap fan will 100 percent agree with the selections from all of the years, you at least understand and appreciate why he chose them.
One of the book’s best features is the rebuttal from various music writers. Each year, a writer offers a counter argument to Shea’s selection. It works for the most part. The one eye roll was Amos Bashard unconvincingly trying to argue “So Whatcha Want” was more important than “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang.” I like Amos, but some things can’t be done.
As for my son, he used the book to discover new music. And Shea’s writing (along with the comic-book style illustrations from Arturo Torres) took an art form that can sometimes be intimidating and aggressive, and made it more personal, fun and humorous. He enjoyed the breaks between years featuring odd graphs and statistics, like Rap Rivalries, Puffy Video Cameos, and the Biggie and Tupac Timeline.
With some oversight from his dad, and some entertaining insight from Shea Serrano, 2018 was a big year for my son and rap music. He started the year telling his friends Future was his favorite rapper even though he never heard a Future song (but he loves the “Back to the Future” movie trilogy, so I can see his reasoning). He ended it having a deeper understanding and appreciation for cuss words and the history of rap music (and actually listened to and enjoyed Future’s music). Now I’m just stressed for the day he discovers 2 Live Crew. — Jesse Taylor
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
The plot of Seveneves is simple: it’s a novel about what would happen if the moon exploded — like, tomorrow –without warning or explanation. This could easily pass for the storyline of a mediocre disaster movie, but the book Neal Stephenson builds out of that straightforward idea is nothing short of astounding for its depth and careful exploration of what it means to be human. Nearly all of its first two sections take place on the International Space Station, as its inhabitants and waves of Earth’s best and brightest set about trying to ensure the human race’s survival. This makes the horror, extinction, and destruction unfolding back on planet Earth a distant backdrop, allowing Stephenson to focus on crafting a story that is as much an exploration of human nature in the face of adversity as it is a realistic and accessible primer on genetic manipulation and orbital mechanics.
The idea that Seveneves can be an addictively entertaining page-turner while doing an impressive job of actually teaching you how objects move in outer space would be hard to believe were it not authored by Stephenson. He brings the same meticulously researched expertise to Seveneves’s interstellar survival epic as he displayed in rendering the world of the late 17th century across the 3000 pages of his The Baroque Cycle trilogy. And when Seveneves’ third section takes a 5000-year jump into future, Stephenson shows off the speculative fiction chops that made past novels like The Diamond Age and Anathem so immersive, vibrant, and engrossingly alien. It’s a tour de force in both education and entertainment that build characters and worlds with equal care, and that elicits the full range of human emotions even as it so accurately portrays them. — Ben Grenrock
Kudos by Rachel Cusk (& more)
Thanks to my toddler and a brutal flu season, my 2018 had a preposterous number of sleepless nights. Consequently, my own ability to think cogently about my life became Faulknerian in very bad ways. And I didn’t even get any corn whiskey or dark epiphanies about American identity out of the deal.
I needed the following books, all from 2018, to keep me clear, keep me honest and keep me alive.
THE VERY GOOD:
It’s a blessing to stump for friends. I’ve known Ryan McIlvain since we were interns together at a literary magazine in 2006. His second novel, The Radicals, contains the very best strains of Graham Greene and Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s the story of graduate students turned activists turned maybe-terrorists, and novel’s conflicted first person forces readers to question ideas of justice and culpability.
Merve Emre’s The Personality Brokers, a nonfiction account of the creation of the Myers-Briggs Test, the sorting hat of white collar employment, doesn’t just astutely probe the test’s ubiquity, but also tells the wild story of the mother-daughter pair who created the test. After reading, I found myself resigned to living with “which Mad Men character are you?” results as a personal lodestar. Sadly, I remain a Pete Campbell.
Ling Ma’s Severence, Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State and Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation each takes eternal themes — work and motherhood and isolation, respectively — and holds them to the light of the now. Ma chooses a dystopian office plot. Kiesling’s protagonist and her child set off for a road trip into the California wilderness. Moshfegh’s heroine consumes a herculean amount of pills and hibernates. Unrepeatable performances all.
My literary hero died this year. In 10th grade our English teacher had us read Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son and my soul was sent through a particle accelerator. Johnson made me want to write. His posthumous collection of stories, The Largess of the Sea Maiden is a gift. I hope you read it. Better yet, give it to someone young. Then give them Train Dreams, The Name of the World, and his poetry too.
I threw an honest-to-god temper tantrum when Jamel Brinkley’s debut story collection A Lucky Man was only a finalist for the National Book Award. It should have won. Its stories, all set in the South Bronx and Brooklyn, all with black male protagonists, offer unflinching precision and fealty to male experiences that feel, well, experienced. I’m absolutely serious when I say that this collection might just help young men learn how to live.
Kiese Laymon writes essays that think, feel and breathe, about topics like: Tupac, being a black professor at a liberal arts college, Ole Miss football, obesity, manhood, his mother, the South, forgiveness, gambling, abuse, the gifts and burdens of being alive. 2018 saw his major label debut memoir, Heavy, arrive to both readers new to his work, and to those lucky enough to provide the following preparatory shorthand: beauty truth, truth beauty, that’s the work inside.
Rachel Cusk’s Kudos completes the trilogy begun by Outline and Transit. The conceit remains the same. A writer, who does and does not have strong material similarities to the author herself, goes to conferences, reencounters figures (characters? people?) from the last two books, listens to men talk at her on planes, is lied to, walks through a European city, swims, listens some more. Plot doesn’t really matter.
Our narrator keeps many of her own thoughts to herself. The prose has a glassy cool like Samuel Beckett’s but the exigency of a collapsing post-Brexit continent and the silences of middle age roil underneath. I read Kudos, like the two books before it, in two sittings. Does it put a server farm’s worth of blog posts in the shade? Could my life get the same treatment? Could yours? “Yet why not say what happened?,” wrote Robert Lowell, my other literary hero and the John the Baptist of confessional poetry. How come I just thought that? Is my son finally sleeping peacefully? Do the items on my desk matter? To me? Maybe to you?
To read Cusk’s masterpiece while trying to do your own work is to feel what it must have been like to try to write poetry in 1922 after T.S. Eliot dropped “The Waste Land.” There’s just no going back. Kudos is a wreath, a high water mark, and a blueprint for what’s next for fiction, memoir and the disruptions in between. — Evan McGarvey
& Sons by David Gilbert / Lit Life by Kurt Wenzel
Philip Roth died just short of the halfway point of our long national winter under the id-in-chief, prompting widespread proclamations regarding the passing of the Great American Literary Phallist. That month, I happened to spend time with two novels which each performed a eulogy for the New York literary set’s hypermasculine titans.
Kurt Wenzel’s Lit Life (2001) and David Gilbert’s & Sons (2014) are long, sentimental character pieces about Novelists Behaving Badly, a combined 900 pages of white men fighting, fucking, drinking, and cheating on their wives in the name of fiction. The literary lions preen their best-selling manes across Manhattan, launching adjective-laden invective at critics,
agents, and academics, then retreat to the shores of Suffolk County to nurse their wounds and hangovers.
Both debuts, & Sons follows an aging Rothian recluse veering into gratuitous absurdism in a self-consciously Rothian way, whereas Lit Life is a more straightforward meditation on publishing’s battle between art and commerce. The self-assured entitlement of the characters is rivaled only by that of the authors themselves, whose dick-swinging vocabularies, superfluous psychosexual subplots, and brazenly expositional dialogue are enough to make your spinster aunt clutch her pearls.
Publishing remains deeply entrenched along retrograde sexual lines, and old-money privilege is still the most reliable way to establish an industry foothold (Gilbert’s father was the chairman of Morgan Stanley, for chrissake; Wenzel, from what I gather via LinkedIn, is currently selling real estate in the Hamptons). Yet even if City on Fire was only three years ago, these demonstratively ambitious — and intrinsically, impossibly masculine — debuts read like paeans to a bygone era, and as enjoyable as they are, that’s probably a good thing. — Pete Tosiellio
Books That Inspire Active Participation In History [collected]
Like rappers putting out 30-plus song albums, the goal of the news media business, much like the music business, is to make you consume. Your job is to be constantly titillated, outraged, or simply subsumed by content. It used to feel productive and empowering to read the news — to learn about what was going on that was under the radar, or discover facts to which the powers that be really didn’t want you to pay attention. Now, reading the news feels like pressing play on that 30-plus song album: passive, almost fatalistic consumption, like you’re a passenger looking out at history happening, not immersed in and able to change it.
You can stop listening to bad music, but you shouldn’t look away from current events. We must bear witness, know and understand what’s being done in our name locally, nationally, and internationally. We have to be able to take that knowledge and use it to actually change the world for the better and not be passive vessels in history. In order to inspire myself to be a more active participant in history, I tried to read as much about those who did throw themselves into community organizing, and books about how we are never neutral participants in history, whether we like it or not.
The first book I read was Milton Mayer’s They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945. Published in the mid 50’s, Mayer was a journalist in the 20s and 30s before he got a job as a researcher in Germany after World War II. Mayer, who was against the war, and was born to Jewish parents but eventually became a Quaker, was surprised at the geniality of the people he met and worked with in Germany, who just a few years before had been Nazis. They Thought They Were Free is an anthropological study of the middle class German mindset leading up to, during, and right after the Nazis came to power, as well as an autobiographical essay about Mayer coming to terms with the nature of fascism. Through interviews with Mayer’s friends, he traces how these seemingly normal people entrenched themselves in fascism, whether through their xenophobia and anti-semitism or because of the perks the fascist state provided them.
Mayer’s thesis is that ordinary, white, Christian, non-communist, -socialist, or -anarchist Germans bought in totally to fascism, mainly because it elevated their social and economic status and provided a sense of national unity against all the others in the country. Those Germans who had some kind of moral compass simply choose to wilfully ignore the brutality of the regime.
The concentration camps and killing fields, after all, were geographically isolated in the hinterlands of the country, much like our migrant concentration camps in the deserts of the South West. Mayer’s final essay in the book is about how if we in the rest of the world don’t actively snuff out the fires of xenophobia and racism, than we too will descend into fascism, and that those that chose to do nothing in the face of it that will be most at fault. Rest in peace Jakelin Caal Maquin.
Dumping in Dixie Race, Class and Environmental Quality by Robert D. Bullard and Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement by Robert Gottlieb, both describe how ordinary people are brought together to fight for a better future, inch by inch. Both are about the environmental justice movement: not the de facto conservative environmental conservationist movement that wants to protect nature for nature’s sake, but the environmental justice movement which was born out of black, brown, and Native American communities fight for clean water, clean air, and a clean environment in communities where people live. With their concerns ignored by the major environmental agencies, black, brown and native communities across the country organized to fight for a better environment, and for an actual seat at the political table to control their lives and futures. These communities envisioned a radically anti-racist, anti-exploitative (of both the environment and human beings), and fundamentally humane vision of the future that still needs to be heard and reckoned with. Sam Ribakoff
Gnomon by Nick Harkaway
The first thing author Nick Harkaway does in Gnomon is to ask the reader to imagine the typical panopticonical dystopia: surveillance everywhere, no privacy, supreme control. But, rather than how this plays out in most sci-fi, in the world of Gnomon this system actually appears to work. There is no evil government asserting control over the populace. Instead, in exchange for their privacy, citizens in Harkaway’s future Britain really have gained security, democracy, and contentment via a decentralized democracy. Or at least that’s what nearly everyone, including Inspector Mielikki Neith, believes. Neith has bought into the System completely, and uses the near-omniscient AI that is its life-blood as she goes about her police work, using her human ability to read nuance as counterbalance and compliment to the calculus of the machine’s futuristic judicial system.
But Diana Hunter, a sexagenarian author living in London, hasn’t bought in at all. When Hunter’s brain is probed by the System, searching for latent revolutionary tendencies to preempt and to pacify, it finds a great deal more than its algorithms had bargained for. It finds, quite unexpectedly, entire other consciousnesses — those of a Greek banker, an Ethiopian artist, an alchemist from ancient Carthage, and of something too great and terrible to define — embedded inside Hunter’s mind. Sussing out who these shades are, their fractal connections to Hunter, and Hunter’s own motives become Neith’s task, even as the inspector’s own mind becomes both soapbox and battleground for the too-many voices discovered inside of Hunter’s head.
Thematically rich, surprisingly funny, and pleasantly brain-tickling Gnomon is a strange, political and beautiful work of science fiction. — Ben Grenrock
Broken April by Ismael Kadare
The last book that I will burden you with is Ismael Kadare’s Broken April, which came out in 1978, in Albania, when the country was still ruled by the totalitarian communist dictator Enver Hoxha. The book, translated by an uncredited team at the book’s English-language publisher, uses narrative fiction to explain and dissect the long-standing tradition of blood feuds in Northern Albania. Blood feuds — essentially, the tradition in which families retain the legal right to kill each other’s members in revenge, as long as all the laws (as dictated by the ruling legal text, The Kanun) are followed — were prominent in the early 1900s, squashed by Hoxha’s regime, and have re-emerged recently in the modern era.
Although the tradition is difficult for foreign readers to understand, Kadare does an amazing job at contextualizing the practice, writing about it from a similarly intrigued yet detached perspective as the reader. Because the book was published in a time and place in which literature was heavily censored, it’s apolitical, yet extremely interesting. Put on Action Bronson’s White Bronco and crack it open to explore the relatively obscure yet endlessly fascinating customs and culture of Albania.
Thanks for reading this list.
Now go read Frank Herbert’s Dune. — Will Hagle