2020 in books

Where the pandemic/quarantine made it difficult for many people to concentrate, and I certainly understand, I found that I had a bunch of spare time for books. In fact, I sort of needed to pour my attention into something. As the year went on, looking back now, I probably trailed off from my daily news obsession and spent more hours with books. Some of these novels, in particular, kept me laughing while the world was falling apart (Portis, moments in DeLillo, Mooallem), and in general the rhythms of reading helped me make sense of the complete fragmentation of time. It was calming.

My favorite book of the year was Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, easily. I decided to check out his stuff after reading this feature by A.O. Scott, the first installment of what is slowly becoming an incisive series on unheralded American writers (the second and third installments of which center on Edward P. Jones, also on my 2020 list, and Joy Williams, respectively). Scott wrote: “[Stegner] can’t be enlisted as a partisan in the culture wars, but he isn’t a pacifist either. He’s more like a one-man battlefield, whose dreams of peace — the ‘repose’ and ‘safety’ promised in those titles — express the longings of a tectonically divided civilization.”

Runners-up in my personal favorites include: About a Mountain (which I read in one day, completely mesmerized by the surrealist and controversial blend of journalism and essay), Gringos (the one repeater on my list this year), Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, River of Shadows, Eat the Document, The Meadow, Invisible Man and If Beale Street Could Talk. Just great stuff.

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

About a Mountain by John D’Agata

The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth

2019 Best American Magazine Writing ed. by Sid Holt

Draft No. 4 by John McPhee

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Zed by Joanna Kavena

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib

True Grit by Charles Portis

Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta

Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario

Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee

The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal

Gringos by Charles Portis

This is Chance! by Jon Mooallem

Ornamental by Juan Cardenas

On Anarchism by Noam Chomsky

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

The Names by Don DeLillo

The Art and Craft of Feature Writing by William Blundell

Stoner by John Williams

Make Noise by Eric Nuzum

Out on the Wire by Jessica Abel

Boom Town by Sam Anderson

Little, Big by John Crowley

Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavic

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders

In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William Gass

River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen

Here We Are by Benjamin Taylor

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

The Years by Annie Ernaux

Native Son by Richard Wright

Norwood by Charles Portis

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas

Black Boy by Richard Wright

The Glass Eye by Jeannie Vanasco

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

Zero K by Don DeLillo

Litany for the Long Moment by Mary-Kim Arnold

The Silence by Don DeLillo

Barnstorming Ohio by David Giffels

Blackfishing the IUD by Caren Beilin

Gringos by Charles Portis (again!)

Uncle Tom’s Children by Richard Wright

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones

The Meadow by James Galvin

V. by Thomas Pynchon

The Man Who Walked Backward by Ben Montgomery

Remembering Laughter by Wallace Stegner

Write it down

“If you’re looking for a New Year’s Resolution, keeping a daily notebook is a pretty solid one.” So sez Austin Kleon.

And I agree. My notebooks have been sporadic, but I do have 2013-2014 pretty well covered, and then I picked it back up 2017-present. Kleon’s three-notebook model is good, if you’re searching for a rhythm. I’ve got one that I use daily, a mix of creative writing, doodles, financial planning, reading reflections, all the early drafts of the shit that ends up on my blog. And then I’ve got a legal pad for more immediate scribbles, almost all of which get tossed in the recycling bin by the end of the day. I guess my goal at this point would be to add a small notebook for the daily stuff — mostly nonsense, stray ideas, all the dialogue snippets I would otherwise forget. Think of the notebook like a net for all the thoughts that rush out of your head.

Before you was listening

We love the Barr Brothers in our house, but the band that came before was called The Slip. For those seeking a certain heady late-90s aesthetic, maybe with a dash of Saturday morning psilocybin in your head, this trio is hard to beat. Their early stuff is all but impossible to find in record stores anymore, but the internet is kind enough to supply stuff like the 12/31/00 Honey Melon, a 22-min. free improv trip complete with scat-bebop drum solo and at least one visitation from alien life forms onstage.

When they pick up the chorus again toward the end, listen to how Brad overlays the lyrics in a totally different time signature (this happens in other Slip songs, notably their groovy/ontological cover of “Before You Was Born” by Nathan Moore).

Which, speaking of, we may as well queue that one up.

12/4/19

The last Phish show I saw was one year ago today.

It’s sort of a strange show, and the past year troubled its emotional grip even more. As we drove home in a blizzard that night, who could have guessed what we were moving toward (away from)?

I haven’t listened back too much, but at times this is a richly textured night of music. The core of the second set runs through a weird/moody sequence: Runaway Jim > Ghosts of the Forest > A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing > Prince Caspian > Fuego > YEM, and certain jam segments feel almost “watery,” like we’re coursing through submerged wreckage in some exotic gulf.

The memory is hazier than I’d like to be, frankly. Despite the goofball bustout encore, I feel like I left good friends on an odd note. That’s how it is sometimes, though, innit?

All that being said, the first-set Halley’s jam is some of the most chilled-out groovy funk I’ve heard from the band in recent years (outside of Tube, of course).

Golf

I broke 100 yesterday at St. Denis in Chardon, Ohio, and it feels good. That was one goal I’d set this season, with the other as-yet-unachieved goal of no 8s on a single scorecard. That one will have to wait until next year.

Who knows? Maybe the weather will stay mild and we’ll get out again in December. I shot my best game in 42-degree weather (and that was with two 8s on the day), so maybe this cold is helping stiffen my swing or something. Whatever happens, I know I’m staring down a long winter of reading about golf and watching Youtube videos and planning, to one degree or another, some sort of springtime trip. A new putter is in the cards for sure. Maybe a gap wedge to round out my 56 and 60. Maybe an M2 driver to complement the new irons and move on from my intermediate Pinemeadow driver that causes me either terrible suffering or, sometimes, boundless joy as I drill a perfect shot down the middle of the fairway. I still haven’t figured out how to get off the tee box in any consistent way, but that’s a surprise to no one.

Anyway. Here are the courses I played in 2020, and a few highlights:

Grantwood

Sleepy Hollow

Briarwood

Royal Crest

Brookledge (x2) — The new “home course” since we moved to Cuyahoga Falls. I’d planned to get out here more this year, but it seems 2020 golf was more about breadth than any real depth. That’s a big goal for 2021: play fewer courses and get to know each one in detail.

Fairlawn Country Club

Madison Country Club (x2)

Pepper Pike Club

Bob-O-Link

Lost Nation — A classic muni out by the Willoughby airport. We play this one each August in an outing hosted by my friend’s wife’s cousin, so it’s become a nice annual stalwart. Nothing fancy, but home to many fun memories, etc.

Ironwood

Raccoon Hill

Elyria Country Club

Bunker Hill — This is a long-standing favorite from my early days of golfing, and it’s lately become the home of the Cunningham Classic, a new Labor Day tradition-ish on B’s side of the family. Super fun, very hilly, laid-back staff. It’s hard to ask for more.

Ridge Top — A total unknown until the morning-of. Very cool, wooded design that’s not overly simple and not overly challenging. This is southern Medina, so it’s a little out of the way but that also became a theme this year for a number of reasons.

Sugarbush (x2) — Just a beautiful course with enough vistas to make it seem like you’re a day’s trip outside of good old Cleveland. The last foothills of Appalachia, trickling into the Chagrin River valley, thereabouts. The variety here is top-notch and not totally unforgiving. It’s as well-rounded a course as I’ve played in Northeast Ohio.

St. Denis (x3) — I think this course comes in at No. 1 on the season for me. Not only did I hit my 99, but I shot a 102 on my second game here: a much-needed sign of progress. On my last two games here, I dialed in my drives in a way that I’d been hoping to see all year.

Manakiki

Pleasant Valley

Sweetbriar

Talib

From the archives of Talib Kweli’s Tumblr, a list of vital verses that put Shakespeare in the shithouse.

This is important stuff. I’ve often thought that RA the Rugged Man’s ‘Uncommon Valor’ Vietnam verse is the slickest thing I’ve heard in hip-hop, just a torrential flow of dark imagery and American blood (and it made Talib’s list!). But AZ’s opening verse in ‘Life’s a Bitch’ and Mos Def on ‘Thieves in the Night’ have also looped steadily in the background of my own adventures in writing and life.

I was 17 years old, slinging dishes at Rocky River Brewing Co., and Sammy would put Nas on the stereo while we closed. Anything off Illmatic reminds me of keeping late hours in the kitchen, drifting in between work and school, feeling my way through a whole galaxy of new music (Chris, the prep guy, throwing Sepultura CDs my way and Matt laying some ’97 Phish on my head and Bill introducing me to the Rhymesayers world).

For my money, these days, a personal favorite is Aesop’s second verse on Daylight. I’ve listened to it enough that it’s taken on an identity unique to me, a mirror-pattern sketched across my memories.

Of course, Talib himself is no joke MC—and don’t forget it. “My middle name in the middle of equality.” It’s astonishing. And check this 2002 Kanye-produced cut with Black Thought and Pharaohe Monch.

Talk to teachers

“Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.”

I’ve been spending a lot of time with James Baldwin this fall—and not for nothing. His words are timeless, sadly, in the broken American construct that rattles and clangs and kills even today. And yet, as frantic as the passing years seem to be, I always find a source of comfort in good writing. Baldwin distills the essence of American energy.

This is a 1963 essay delivered for teachers (you and me and everyone) to draw attention to the long, slow crisis in this country. It’s written for our moment, too. And to anyone who thinks history will leave you alone if you simply tune out the hatred and violence in America, well, the truth will have its way with all of us.

“The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.”

It’s easy to let mass media/social media swarm your mind, but I think this work happens on a granular, individual level. In the classroom, in the local paper, in a book club. When we change ourselves, we change the world.

Silly mountain

I was looking for a poem last night, a short piece written in 1573 by the Buddhist monk Han-Shan Te’-Ch’ing. It took me until this morning, with The Beatles’ “Help!” playing at my desk, to find it. (Overnight, I dreamt that I’d dreamt the poem, a hazy fragment from a mushroom trip or a Tom Robbins novel read long ago. But no! It was real!)

This silly mountain doesn’t go around aping people,

Playing the clown, society’s fool.

It sits here alone, contented in solitude, perfect in peace.

I should be so silly.

The reason I was looking for it last night has come and gone, so I share it with you now. Maybe it will change everything. Maybe it’s the answer to the question you’ve been asking.

The NYT and the case against… something… not quite sure… Trump?

Far be it from me to hoist a New York Times editorial aloft on this otherwise sacred ground, but I do think we can find some helpful language in the board’s relatively searing indictment against our shit-eating president. We can find a sense of the national media’s guardrails, at the very least.

Maybe you’ve voted already. Maybe you don’t give a fuck. But, either way, whatever is going on here in America (and whatever the NYT editorial board is crowing about) is something very deep and hateful and almost mythological in its detail. Something very old, thematically speaking.

Yes, it is a national crisis. And, yes, perhaps, it can be struck down by the electorate. (With voters like these, though…) But I just can’t help feeling/knowing that this is a cultural sickness more than anything. It is metastasizing rapidly, and I’m not convinced that policy criticism or common-sense entreaty will help us here. Not only are America’s perennial truths blooming once again, but the strident hatred and the profit-or-violence construct underlying this country are thrown into the spotlight by a global pandemic and the stem-deep brainwashing of social media. You can start to see the shape of the 21st century, and it is astonishing so far. This warp-speed blending of zoonotic disease and technological advance is cranked up further by the precarious teetering you can feel in the national economy, in the housing sector, in the theocratic puppet show in D.C. this week… People like Trump love this shit. It provides them something to cheer, some primordial source of entertainment. See Asteroid Annihilate.

(And that’s not even addressing the freefall of climate disaster, the great story to be told this century. The death rattle gift we’ll bequeath to future generations.)

So, sure, vote! It’s hard to escape the pious clamoring for that old chestnut this fall. Vote! But what’s the deeper question here? How does one steer into the calamity? Steer into it, yes, immersing yourself in the century’s problems but resisting the surface-gleam enticements of hatred and fear. That stuff is too easy to exploit, and I worry that a long, draining election season is just keeping our minds wired on the most obvious fungal node of this catastrophe: the big dumb asshole from TV who now sits in the White House. A helpful course of action is much less entertaining and, often, much more personal. Because what’s left for us to do is move forward and participate and speak and read and write, move forward into our local community and shine a light on darkness, shine a light on meaninglessness. It’s everywhere already, and it’s spreading.