As I mentioned the last couple of times I reviewed my annual reading (2017 and 2016), the unfortunate election of a certain dementogogue to the US presidency has made my typical reading patterns go all to hell. Obviously, I didn’t even bother with these lists in 2018 or 2019, and I probably shouldn’t bother this year, either – my shortest list since the 80s.
Like the previous four years, my attention has been riveted to news, at the expense of books. Were I to list all the articles I’ve read in periodicals and publishing platforms to which I subscribe, and the many others that I read less occasionally, it would be a much different list.
Now that it appears that the long Tr*mp nightmare may be nearing an end (the acute disease if not the chronic condition), I hold – with somewhat bated breath – hopes for a return to a somewhat less news-dependent reading regimen. My report of this unfortunately short list of books, therefore, is to set an aspirational tone for the coming year. May we all once again feel free to read diversely of subjects that don’t (necessarily) involve you-know-who.
Flourish, by Jacqueline Turner
Historically, my reading selections have primarily come from the Fiction section, secondarily from Poetry (in recent years), with a bit of Non-fiction thrown in here and there. 2017 may have been the first year that Non-fiction overtook those, a trend that increased through 2019. It was a welcome development.
By the time 2020 arrived, however, I felt that I should make more of an effort to restore some balance, and my first book of the year was Turner’s collection, which both defies and defines genre categories. Essays, memoir, poetry, philosophy, travel – Flourish is 116 pages of short pieces that construct a multi-disciplinary survey of contemporary culture: its successes and failures, it joys and its horrors.
Flourish is one of those books that I like to savour in small bites. Though many of the pieces are short – a mere paragraph in many cases – they often got me thinking, and I can’t think of a greater compliment to an author than that she made me think and thus helped to expand my world.
A Day and a Night at the Baths by Michael Rumaker
Written in 1979, Rumaker’s depiction of his first visit (at the age of 45) to a bathhouse – in this case the Everard Baths in New York – predates the onset of the previous pandemic of our lifetimes. Mostly reportorial in its depiction of what he experienced, Rumaker adds a good deal of poetic language to his depictions as well (he was a contemporary of, and wrote about, the Black Mountain poets, especially Robert Duncan). He approaches his project with enthusiasm, but isn’t afraid to examine what he sees as the dark parts, too.
Bathhouse culture declined in subsequent years, mainly because of the onset of AIDS (and in the case of the Everard, and others, because Mayor Closet Case closed it down), but also because the growing acceptance of gay culture provided for a wider range of social and sexual opportunity. Though the baths were never again what they were in their heyday – that’s both good and bad, depending on the aspects on which you focus, as Rumaker demonstrated – they continued to thrive in many cities (or did, until the new pandemic). I wonder, had Rumaker had another day and a night at a contemporary baths – what would he think? It might have made an interesting sequel. Alas, Rumaker died in 2019, at age 82.
Hider/Seeker, by Jen Currin
I know Jen and I like her a lot, and sometimes that makes it hard for me to talk about a book dispassionately. In this case I don’t have any difficulty saying that I really liked this collection of short stories. It has a sort of East Van-yet-universal sensibility that evokes a certain point in time I recognise but can’t quite put my finger on, which gives it a sort of timelessness. Some of its themes – meditation, recovery, queerness, the challenges of human relationships – resonated for me more than others, but what was consistent was my appreciation for her sentences and the way they combined into something comfortable and satisfying. It’s a cliche (and frequently bullshit) that writers pay deliberate care and attention to each word chosen, but Currin embodies this ideal better than many. Hider/Seeker contains conflict and angst, and yet as a whole it’s like a warm, down-lined nest.
Losing My Virginity by Richard Branson
What inspired me to read Richard Branson, you might ask? I’ve been getting a little more interested in my finances as I age and, in an effort to avoid returning to a conventional office job, I seek ways to keep the wolf from the door through more entrepreneurial means. While the memoirs of average market fundamentalists don’t much appeal, Branson is at least interested in such things as social and economic responsibility in conjunction with entrepreneurialism and thus is a bit more inspiring.
He’s also got a compelling adventure of a story, if boomerish in essence, and as an agent in a lot of the cultural changes that began in the 60s and 70s it’s historically interesting as well.
The 100% Solution: A Plan for Solving Climate Change by Solomon Goldstein-Rose
I’ve been interested in ecological and climate issues for much of my life, but I feel increasingly discouraged by the polarised public conversation about the subjects. It often seems that I have a choice between climate change denial, or nothing short of a revolution, which I fear would be much more destructive than productive.
Rather than a lot of detail-deprived platitudes that make for good virtue signalling but do little to move us to where we need to be, Goldstein-Rose presents a collection of plans for specific climate goals, some achievable now, some more aspirational. Goldstein-Rose uses the minimum 2050 goal figures as his basis, and charts a mathematical path to getting there. There’s lots of technical description of technologies and methods, but it’s all easily readable and comprehendable.
Is it all viable? Too soon to say. But following Goldstein-Rose’s advice would certain move us more forcefully in the right direction. He provides us with hope, and that seems like much a more productive motivator than doom-and-gloom.
Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin by Devon W. Carbado and Donald Weise (eds.)
I’ll admit, parts of this were a bit of a slog for me and I read it in three stages, with breaks between. But it was interesting to read Rustin’s own words since he was a key player in many of the civil rights events of his day, from the 1940s through the 1980s (Rustin died in 1987), and was an intimate of many civil rights principals like Martin Luther King. If he isn’t better known among the key figures of the civil rights movement, that’s largely because his unabashed homosexuality (as well as his past membership in a communist organisation) was seen as a handicap to many in the movement, and he was at times suppressed from public view despite being instrumental in such things as the adoption of non-violent tactics and the March on Washington.
Among Rustin’s positions were that the movement for civil rights needed to also be a movement for economic rights for all people, that in order to create a society that was fair and equal for black Americans, society had to be fair for all. In what seems like a model for contemporary progressives, he probably focused more on achieving those policy goals than on promoting an ideological identity.
Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy by David Frum
I’m always trying to diversify my reading, so this year I got really radical and added a couple of white conservatives to the pool.
Many people who place themselves on the left segment of the political spectrum (I’ll occasionally include myself in this, if you can get me to accept the idea of a spectrum at all) are disdainful of David Frum. This isn’t surprising, given that he’s been a Republican and was a speechwriter for George W. Bush who, prior to 2016, was second on every leftist’s hate list only to Henry Kissinger. The person whose name is built into this book’s title, however, has thrown a bit of a wrench into many of our sacred cows (how that’s for a metaphor?). The music stopped and we all dashed for our chairs, and there’s Frum sitting with us in the Resistance section. How confusing!
Frum probably wrote this book mostly with his fellow mainstream conservatives in mind as the target readers, but it’s a worthwhile exercise for non-conservatives to read it too, for besides offering some optimism for a potential avoidance of democratic failure, it demonstrates a bit that the definition of “conservative” need not necessarily be the nuance-deprived stereotype that progressives have been – somewhat understandably – drumming into each other’s heads for so long. It helped give me hope for a post-Trump future, but also that there might be a less ideologically polarised future generally.
Apropos of Nothing by Woody Allen
Despite the fact that there are several memoirs on this list, I’m not really a frequent reader of memoirs, especially those of pop-culture figures. However, I’ve enjoyed much of Allen’s work over the years, appreciate his sense of humour, and I had read his previous books, so it seemed reasonable to give this one a go, not least because it may be his final contribution (though even at 85 I doubt he’d be packing it in willingly). If I’m honest, though, I have to admit that a part of the motivation was contrarian reaction to the most zealous of the woke willing to hang him based on headlines and hearsay.
Apropos of Nothing is not a literary masterpiece. It contains a lot of Allen’s trademark deadpan humour, but there’s an awful lot of what comes across to a nobody like me as celebrity name dropping. On the other hand, he’s had a long and productive career that brought him into contact with a lot of famous people, so maybe that’s to be expected. And some of it is actually quite interesting, too.
In reality though, this is two books. One is an auteur’s farewell at the end of his career, and many of his fans will appreciate this. The other book is the real thing: Allen’s likely one-and-only opportunity to tell his side of the story. You know the story to which I refer, so I won’t recap. Many have made their minds up about Allen and they won’t be changed come hell or high water, but if you’re interested Stan Persky wrote a lengthy review of Apropos of Nothing that expresses the gist of my thoughts better that I could. You can read it on Dooney’s Cafe.
Locomotive by Walter Hourback
Speaking of Dooney’s: site contributor Wally Hourback wrote a book, published posthumously this year by David Mason Books, a copy of which the editor was kind enough to send to me.
I read Locomotive very early in the quarantine upon my timely return from Latin America, and as I read it I knew that it wasn’t a book I might ordinarily have selected. At a superficial level, it’s one side of the story of a failed marriage between a man and a younger woman, and heterosexual marital breakdown hasn’t traditionally been organically compelling to me, since a) I experienced a nasty version of it as a child, and b) I’m not much of an enthusiast for the institution anyway. Serial monogamy totally baffles me, and perhaps the only piece of paternal advice I ever took to heart was “Any man dumb enough to get married a second time doesn’t deserve to have been divorced in the first place.” (This should not be construed as misogyny; it would be at least as true if you changed “man” to “woman”.)
But Locomotive was a better read than that somewhat digressive introduction makes it sound. The side in question is the soon-to-be ex-husband’s point of view and, as you might expect, he spends a lot of time relating his fourth wife’s many flaws. Despite this, it’s clear that he loves her – or at least the idea of her – and doesn’t want to be divorced from her.
The publisher describes Locomotive as a “narrative” which, in my mind at least, implies that it’s a memoir, though possibly one with an unknowable (since Hourback can’t be interviewed) degree of literary license. Throughout my reading, I found – quite reasonably, I think – that I questioned the extent to which I could assume that the narrator is a reliable one.
What mutes this doubt a bit, though, is that the narrator is quite candid about his own flaws as a husband. He describes in detail his extramarital affairs, providing all the grounds that his wife would need to obtain a divorce, if she knew. But she doesn’t know, as far as we know. Or, as far as he tells us she knows. If the narrator is indeed unreliable, it remains unclear whether he is so because he chooses to be, or because he’s insufficiently aware of the truth himself.
This may not sound (as I’ve described it) like a compelling plot, but it was a strangely satisfying read anyway, mainly because it is very well-written. Despite the fact that she was such a central character, I experienced the wife as a bit two-dimensional and I’m not sure I could tell you exactly what she looked like. But I have a remarkably clear picture in my mind of their home, of Walter, and the scenes in which he places himself in North Bay and in Toronto. I almost feel like I’ve met him in person.
Deep Too by Stan Dragland
I picked up a few digital books at a good price from BookThug in the spring, as the pandemic was getting underway, and this was one of them. Here’s a descriptive excerpt that also helps explain the title:
“There was this guy at one of the other urinals in there,” he says. “‘Sure is cold,’ the guy said, & I said ‘What’s cold?’ & he said, ‘No, no, you’re supposed to say & deep too.
This short, somewhat amusing book is all about penises, or at least, perhaps, about how mainstream culture thinks of them. It’s comprised mainly of anecdotes, stories, limericks, and poorly-written emails that promote enlargement. I want to say that it’s not too deep, though maybe that would be a bit unfair. I think maybe I’m just the wrong demographic for it.
Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by Anne Applebaum
Applebaum, a journalist and historian, is quite interesting: a classic conservative not of the traitorous latter-day Republican variety. In Twilight of Democracy she describes how her communities have divided into those defending liberal democracy against the tide of illiberalism – in the United States and in her other home, Poland, as well as Hungary – and those who have become complicit with authoritarianism, using the attendance (and subsequent absences) at her large annual New Year’s parties as a starting point.
Applebaum talks about how we got to where we are, from a historical perspective, but doesn’t offer a specific prescription for how we’re going to save ourselves, if we can. She just asks us to be informed, and engaged.
How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi
Like many white liberals, I want to be an agent in making the world a fair and just place for people born without the automatic privilege that white skin is said to provide, and in pursuit of that goal I try to listen to a diverse range of voices. It was with that in mind that I bought Kendi’s book, based mainly on its current popularity among others with seemingly similar goals. Unfortunately, this book didn’t do it for me.
The main idea behind How to Be an Anti-Racist is that a person (or a system or an institution) is either racist or anti-racist – there is no in between, no colour-blind disinterest. I can get behind this as an academic exercise, as a way to try to steer the apathetic or the just-plain-busy-with-stuff people to think more actively about racism and to take more action to eliminate it. But it doesn’t come across that way. Rather, it seems like a essential prescription, an invariable rule, and anyone that looks for any nuance to this rule, therefore, must be racist.
This can be somewhat true – despite having wilfully unlearned a lot of racism already, I can still identify racism in my own thinking, and I welcome literature that constructively helps me to uncover it. This book isn’t providing that opportunity, though. The more I read, the less hopeful I felt. I fear that How to Be an Anti-Racist may push those who buy it away from such self-examination more than toward it.
Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir by Rebecca Solnit
Why so much memoir this year? Not like me at all.
Solnit’s Recollections are, in one respect, the kind of memoir I like best: not too long; meandering and philosophical; more intellectual travelogue than ego. The main theme running through these essays, which follow Solnit from adolescence through her development as a feminist and writer in San Francisco in the 1980s, is the main theme through much of her work: violence against women, in its various forms, and its impact on women’s livelihoods.
I enjoyed her depictions of her first apartment and her life in it, which inspired enviousness and nostalgia, but I especially liked that it took me a while to read because I was constantly stopping to take notes, or just to think.