2021 in books

This was a strange year in books for me, I guess. I was off to the races for the first six months of the year, and then the habit petered out amidst certain obligations and work/school stuff. Note the ecocriticism-dense final third: grad school, natch.

And yet, reading, as ever, brought me great solace this year. I like having a book-in-progress near me. I like setting it on the kitchen counter or a side table in the living room and feeling its presence, even when we’re watching Silicon Valley or something. Then, indeed, I like to read it, to sit in the basement or on the back patio and drift. This year, I read some fantastic novels (The Secret History, Mao II, Masters of Atlantis (finishing Charles Portis’s five-book run and loving every second of it), Democracy, Cuyahoga, Angle of Repose) and plenty of great nonfiction (Killers of the Flower Moon, Finite and Infinite Games, The Yellow House, The Inner Game of Golf). My favorite, I think, was Democracy. Joan Didion is simply a master. Her ability to capture the great sweep of history in a more focused narrative is amazing to read on the page. The Year of Magical Thinking, while coming from a totally different angle, achieves a similar trajectory.

Also, now that I’m thinking about it: I really let this place go in the past few months! No doubt, it was a busy fall. I’m running headlong into a few more deadlines between now and March, but my plan is certainly to liven up the ol’ blog in 2022. There are all sorts of cretinous cultural trends to spend time on: Just look outside your window! Everyone’s going fucking nuts! To a degree, I might add, that feels sometimes pointless to address. Maybe that’s the problem (or the inverse of a problem): I’ve turned inward in 2021, repelled at times by this century. I’ve tried to cultivate a home. Writing, meanwhile, is a fucking grind. But I chose this, I suppose!

Books are a great antidote to the madness, however. Books work every time.

I’ve got a few books as-yet-unfinished, positioned strategically around the house. Some more Karl Ove (I’m hooked, I’ll admit), some Michael Pollan (hey, join me!) and Out of Office from Anne Helen Petersen and Charlie Warzel, thinking that somehow our society is missing the real opportunity at hand: to rethink our labor norms and place leisure at the center of our lives once again.

Books work every time.

Here’s the list.

The Practice by Seth Goden

Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse

Rust by Eliese Goldbach

You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier

Intonations by Zadie Smith

Hiroshima by John Hersey

Cuyahoga by Pete Beatty

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

This Isn’t Happening by Steven Hyden

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Yellow House by Sarah Broom

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

To Show and to Tell by Phillip Lopate

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

Fulfillment by Alex MacGillis

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Mao II by Don DeLillo

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

Losing Earth by Nathaniel Rich

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis

Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler

American Rule by Jared Yates Sexton

Salvador by Joan Didion

Democracy by Joan Didion

Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book by Harvey Penick

The Inner Game of Golf by Timothy Gallwey

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

Legs by William Kennedy

Lights Out by Ted Koppel

Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game by William Kennedy

The Great Acceleration by J.R. McNeill and Peter Engelke

Being Ecological by Timothy Morton

Break Up the Anthropocene by Steve Mentz

Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

Beyond Civilization by Daniel Quinn

As We Have Always Done by Leanne Simpson

Wind from an Enemy Sky by D’Arcy McNickle

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

Thinking Animals by Kari Weil

Flush by Virginia Woolf

Against Football by Steve Almond

Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard

My Struggle: Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Balls and strikes

“It’s an imperfect game and has always felt perfect to me,” Joe Torre said when asked about the likely ascent of robot umpires in the MLB. I’m no great fan of Torre’s, but he’s right. The gradual creep of artificial intelligence into the more wiggly areas of our lives is a dangerous thing. We’re already knee-deep in an age of mass surveillance, and now we’re seeing the intrusion of robots more visibly in the “fun” parts of being a human. Baseball is a game! It’s a deeply human exercise, and there’s no room for the boring algorithmic definitions of robots in it. Imperfection is what we humans do best. Along with our own struggles to remedy the ongoing climate crisis, I think this is going to be the major narrative of the century: a conceptual fight against AI’s apparent accuracy and efficiency. In its own way, this is a new form of extinction event. It starts with umpires—a likely target. Then it comes for all of us.

I fully realize that we find ourselves even now wriggling in the web of AI’s influence; it’s partly to blame for you stumbling onto this nonsense I’m writing in the first place. But it’s going to become more overt. It’s a homogenizing force, one that would see us all defined easily by 0s and 1s. Trackable metrics in place of human interests. The same jokes. The same clothes. The same thoughts. The vast field of “right” and “wrong” will be diminished to a binary that some teeming set of code will define for us. There’s a lot of money backing this shit, too, and a lot of toadies in positions of power ready to implement new technology. “It’s going to be more accurate, it’ll reduce controversy in the game, and be good for the game,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said. Or should I say: ROBOT MANfred. See? Good for the game! I would ask: Whose game are we playing now?

Rocket

By the time we reach Billy Corgan’s solo on Rocket (3:01), you’re already attuned to the little half-step hammer-on/pull-off moves he’s been dropping in the background of the song (foreshadowed adeptly in the preceding song, Hummer). It’s one of the great moments on Siamese Dream, which is not exactly an album short on great moments. And if I may, since we’re already talking about it, I’d argue that the heavyweight singles from this record, stuff like Cherub Rock and Today, mostly, and the subsequent drama surrounding Corgan’s reputation (years and years of it, really) have pushed this album onto the backburner of our collective subconscious. That’s not a good thing. I’m not saying you need to put Siamese Dream on the bluetooth every morning over a pot of tea like we do in my household, but why not? These are trying times in America, and a little rock ‘n’ roll still goes a long way. If you’re hurting, if you’re feeling blue about the state of affairs in this addled, microchipped century of ours, the guitar solo on Rocket might be just the ticket. That’s all I’m trying to say.

Swing easy

“The swing you swing right now exists—and it won’t for long—so pay attention while it’s happening.”

That’s W. Timothy Gallwey in The Inner Game of Golf, something that I felt I needed to read after my poor showing on the course(s) last month and something that I realize now I knew all along. Isn’t that the point? This too shall pass and all that?

Of course, the same could be said about anything. I kind of get off on that old chestnut about golf being a metaphor for life. Pick your poison: It could be anything you like, but golf certainly gets the job done. There are finite and infinite games, and you can play either with your short spell on Earth. Have fun. Be kind. Pay attention to your swing.

(And apologies if this is turning into a golf blog this summer. I’m trying to strip some things off my existence, chisel away at the barnacles of 30-plus years, just get down to the straight essentials—and maybe this is one way of doing that.)

Shanked!

I played six rounds of golf over the past four days (well, five and a half, thanks to some nasty rain in north-central Ohio). The courses were incredible, the rest of the foursome even better, and it felt great to lay down what I think will be some fine traditions for the years to come on this particular trip.

Anyway, I played four of the worst rounds of my life this weekend (well, four and a half of the worst rounds of my life). Aside from a saving grace on Saturday morning, including a much-needed birdie on No. 11 at Deer Ridge, my scorecards were brutal. Just a total ass-kicker and a very humbling series of rounds after what I thought was a nice little hot streak coming out of May. And once the dread of my game settled in, it became extremely difficult to shake. There were moments where I felt in the zone (a nice putt here, a solid par there, a necessary skin on the card), but otherwise it was a jarring experience. Topping the ball left and right! Blading it across the g—— f—— green! Just a total lack of control.

The alcohol, the hangovers, the stretch of fatigue on the back end, the challenge of these new courses: it all compounded, I guess. This was less than stellar physical shape, and that can’t be overlooked. It’s too important to come to the course with the right head on your shoulders. My main takeaway is simply that I need to practice more, to dial in the mechanics and let my mind relax once I’m on the course.

I’m writing this for the record, to remind myself of certain things. There’s a very cheesy but accurate sentiment in golf as a metaphor for life. Ups and downs. Birds and triples. Quadruples, even. There’s a bit of karmic balance that keeps a check on ego, experience and expectations. Ups and downs and then some. You can’t play a great round without having a bad one in your rearview, right? And you can’t walk away from a bad round(s) without the feeling of improvement on the road ahead. This is obvious, but it’s worth mentioning again.

It’s time to hit the range, of course. Back to basics. The game is meant to be played.

Loss of memory

“Who rivals her, among living writers of American prose, for potency and intensity and influence? If the question isn’t rhetorical, the only conceivable reply is Don DeLillo.”

That’s Leo Robson on Joan Didion in his review of her 1980s output, now given the hardback Library of America treatment. The reason I bring this up is that I’m reading Didion now (first Salvador, now Democracy), and I landed on the same point of comparison earlier this week. I’m a major DeLillo fanboi, as even a cursory reading of this blog will bear out, so the comparison is less of a side-by-side thing and more of a terrific realization that, yes, for all the literary hubbub that her name tends to dredge up in MFA classes and various off-campus events, Didion really is a master. I knew this after reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem, but I worry now that I allowed that book to be the quick end-around to “reading Joan Didion” in full. Obviously, it’s a dynamite essay collection. Yes, of course, anyone interesting in nonfiction should read it. But her work runs deeper.

Salvador was exactly the kind of thing that more broadside longform reporting needs to be: a deeply personal, embedded odyssey through terra incognita. I guess the criticism is that Didion only hung around the capital for like two weeks, hobnobbing at the embassy, but the truth of the matter is more specifically picked up in the emotion she leaves on the page. This is a book about terror. And, two weeks or not, it’s a story that can only be told with the sharp observational eye of a writer. The reporters who fly in for scene work on the front lines may or may not grasp that. Democracy, and but I’m only halfway through it, is an eerie/humorous/savvy novel about the delusions of political ambition and the fragility of memory in America. It’s just the sort of thing I go for, and its prose is what called DeLillo to mind. If you dig stuff like The Names, then Democracy is right up your alley, of course. From what I’ve picked up over the years, I guess I don’t get the sense that Democracy is mentioned with the same zeal as some of the other ca.-1980s/1990s global geopolitical paranoia novels. It should be. Or maybe I’m just overly excited as I read this one.

For whatever it’s worth, I’m pleased the be the first patron to check out the Library of America edition from the Akron Public Library. It’s pristine. And the collection is good, too.

Masters of something

I was in Destin, Fla., last week with my wife’s family, mostly playing golf and hanging at the pool and occasionally slipping off to read Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis. I ended up reading most of the book on the plane rides there and back, and, as suspected, it made for an ideal “vacay read.” I’ve been a Portishead since a friend turned me on to The Dog of the South a few years back, and so here I am: With Masters, I’ve now read all five of his novels (incl. Gringos twice).

Of course, Portis is gone now. His final novel came out in 1991, so it’s not like he was churning these things out super late in life. But over a few decades he managed to drop five all-timers, “going at least two for five in his attempts to write the great American novel,” Kaleb Horton wrote in a great remembrance last year. He was steady. and he had a knack for dialogue that I’ve been trying to find in my own work. This past spring, I wrote a short play that’s probably going to stay tucked in some lower-rung desk drawer, but which features some two-hander dialogue lifted in rhythm and disjointed weirdness from the master himself. At any rate, reading Portis’s stuff has been a great joy. Rereading promises the same.

Masters of Atlantis is a great lens on delusion. It’s a very American book, rooted mostly in the desperate times of the 1930s: times when cult-like intrigue and conspiratorial grifts sold nicely. If that sounds familiar, it is. Like the Gnomonistic viewpoints in the novel, history runs through cycles. (Or “turnings,” as in the Strauss-Howe generational theory, something that could stand in for Gnomonism, in a way.) Access to esoteric and exclusive knowledge is something we innately crave. We prefer at once to be both inside the mainstream, operating with the crowd, and to have some intimate intelligence that keeps us at a remove, coolly monitoring the known machinations of the world. In conspiracy and New Age MLM business, we find a distinct universe. We find a home.

But it’s the tug between the two impulses that marks our 21st-century anxiety. In Portis, and particularly in Masters, the loons are working well outside the boundaries, despite earnest attempts at press coverage. Back in 2021 America, the mass delusion is coming from inside the house. It’s a weird movement that runs to metamodernism, and I think it becomes hard to pinpoint without the structural world-building of fiction. We don’t like to scrutinize our delusions in America, because the attractive pull of the grand narrative (the #resistance, the viral video, the gamification of global finance, the militarization of police) is a certain gravity that affects everyone. There’s no inside to be outside of; there’s no escape hatch. It’s the internet of things.

I’m reading Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts right now, and I think it comes close to framing this problem in our current social media vernacular. The ironic detachment/attachment to various flavors of inside baseball conspiracy (pick your interests!) is something we’ll want to grasp in 21st-c. novels. Where Portis touched down on the fringes of a certain American tradition, there are new opportunities for writers incisive enough to tackle the ways we’ve reshaped ourselves in the internet (in, say, 300 pages) without coming out and hammering away on some mindless “take.” Oyler is getting there, I’d wager, and there will no doubt be more to read about the delusional touchstones of modern communication. We’re fooling ourselves, six ways to Sunday, and Portis would have understood as much.

70

“The only theory that I have is that it has something to do with seeing your life as a journey that doesn’t go downhill but evolves in different ways. And I think I would have had more joy in my life if I had been able to think about it that way. I think it’s very hard to be both totally present and to be able to think about that. I think, sometimes, I was too preoccupied.”

I’m a big fan of Max Linsky’s work (including Brownscast), and his new project is very interesting. “70 Over 70” will feature interviews with people over 70, naturally, and he starts off with his dad—who provides the above quote in the prologue. It’s an enticing angle on journalism in an era overstuffed with lukewarm alternatives, and Linsky is a great interviewer.

He’s still accepting nominations for the series.

Take it back to the garden

One of the most reliable narratives in the independent music scene is how reliable Dinosaur Jr. has been in their second-act run that began in 2005. In every review of the heady, ass-kickin’ new record, “Sweep It Into Space,” music writers from Pitchfork to Brooklyn Vegan can’t help but mention this arc. And why not? It’s a tremendous story: The band that tore itself apart over misdirected hostilities and a near-total inability to communicate with one another managed to stitch themselves together anew—and release record after record of look-ma-no-hands slacker rock and fuzzy pothead anthems even as the new millennium dragged the rest of society into autotuned pop memes and little more than *the idea of* music for a massive, algorithmically defined audience. The new album is, again, really fucking good.

Take the lead single, the Lou Barlow-penned Garden. It’s a nod to folksy rock traditions from across the pond, with enough lyrical depth to qualify as an autobiography of the band’s recurring attempts to maintain themselves. I might say this, too: It’s fairly different than the typical Dino Jr. tenor (see also: the upbeat mellotron [!!!] on Take It Back), although it never strays too far from the band’s downy guitar-centric style. If anything else, it’s just nice to see the aforementioned friendly trajectory play out on yet another record. In the video, Barlow is playing a J. Mascis signature Jazzmaster, for Christ’s sake! If that doesn’t scream Social Proximity in an era not exactly long on that sort of thing, I don’t know what to yell you.

Do less

The tendency, more often than not, is for people to complicate things quickly and dramatically—although often without intending to complicate things. You see this all the time in writing and communication.

Simplify always.