Disaster was a recurring theme throughout the year, and it was no different in the books I was reading. On a large global scale and a (relative to the fate of the planet) smaller political level, the breaking of what we took and still somehow take for granted was everywhere.
William Vollman was kind enough to release a two-part, some 1500-page series called Carbon Ideologies, broken into two pieces, No Immediate Danger and No Good Alternatives. They are written as an essay to the future about why and how we left them a murderous atmosphere, a broken civilization, and a world filled with poison. Our comforts, and indeed our entire way of life, was built explicitly to rob them of any chance at a decent life.
Vollman moves around the world, from Fukushima to UAE to West Virginia and inside his own mind, doing deep scientific research, on-the-ground reporting, and his own madman imagination to really uncover the madness with which we live, and the short-sightedness with which we live it.
They are brutal, punishing, and deeply disquieting, agonizing reads (even though at parts genuinely funny). He comes from the point of view that it is too late to really change anything, and reading him, it’s hard to argue.
His book is about how we’re ending our world, a subject about which Peter Brannen knows a thing or two. His The Ends of the World is absolutely one of my favorite reads this year, about the great extincitons of the past. It’s a lively and fun exploration into the way that shifts in the climate or catastrophic events wiped out life time and time again. Brannen has in-depth knowledge and a light, easy way of explaining enormous concepts.
It is also a troubling read, of course, because it reminds us that life is resilient overall, but lives themselves really aren’t. The earth has seen endless numbers of species die off and disappear. There’s little reason to think that we can’t, or won’t, especially because a lot of the great dyings happened in great cycles of carbon release from underground into the sky. Those usually happened over hundreds of thousands of years. We’re doing it in a couple of hundred.
One of the giddy, almost queasy pleasures of his book is how he looks at the impossible mysteries of deep time. Millions and billions of years of churning mountains and moving seas and beasts that rose to towering heights and then crumpled into dust, leaving barely bones and teeth. We truly can’t comprehend such scales, which is one of the primary reasons we’re destroying ourselves with such short-sighted narrowness.
One of the main themes we’ve harped on this year has been how our current political moment is being shaped by and exacerbating these catastrophes, so any hope at averting them means understanding them. And there were a few excellent books that gave keen insight into how we got to this moment.
Extremism, by J.M. Berger, is a quick but deep look at how political extremism functions and develops. It’s not academic writing, as it is for a popular audience, but it uses actual research and data to make a case about how extreme political groups form and operate across the world (including in the US). A very valuable read and even better resource.
Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom was a learned and at times terrifying glance at how nations and people’s let their rights be trampled on in the name of strength or unity or other nonsense themes. Authoritarianism can rise easily, anywhere, and does so in a similar way wherever it goes.
I think a primary strength is that he didn’t treat America as an exception, or at least as a surprising place for democracy to erode. He showed how it followed the same patterns as other nations. It was and is susceptible to the same forces. There is an American context, but that is the only real differentiator.
Context is important, of course. I did a review of How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, earlier this year. The lessons of the book, especially that America only “worked” as a democracy, in a pinched and essentially undemocratic way, when civil rights were suppressed was sobering. It made me realize that we are probably indeed to big and broad and essentially unable to reconcile with our history to truly function. And given the hugeness of our footprint and the dumbshow of our politics, that is a world-historic disaster.
These anti-democratic disasters don’t have to go unmet though, and two of my favorite books of the year showed just that. Eve Ewing wrote probably my favorite non-fiction book of the year, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, about school closings on Chicago’s South Side, and the community reaction against endemic injustice. It was intimate and expansive, moving from the small details of a life upturned to the broad scope of Chicago’s racism- and really, how there was no difference between the two. I could go on and on, but I have a full review here (which, not coincidentally, is probably my favorite thing that I wrote this year. Wikipedia Brown is a helluva muse).
Another book which showed how Americans fight back against the ravages of capitalism was Erik Loomis’s A History of America in Ten Strikes, which is about…well, it’s a pretty damn descriptive title. Loomis shows how ten worker movements (including slave uprisings, which of course count) shaped American history. In doing this, he places workers and worker struggles at the center of American history, but also shows the power of the forces aligned against them. Aligned against all of us. It is sobering and inspirational, and deeply learned. I hope to have a full review soon.
Mother of god, this has been some heavy shit, huh? There were also a lot of fun reads this year! Some of it was even fiction. I enjoyed a lot of novels this year, including The Power and The Maze and Windemere, but not enough to make this list. We have to be ruthless or else this blog will get too long, and we can’t have that!
I don’t really have enough words to say about Zadie Smith’s Feel Free, but who does? It’s is one of our time’s best thinkers and brightest writers putting her mind to an incredible variety of topics. I couldn’t begin to do it justice.
If you like rivers, and you know I do, then you’ll really like The Source by Martin Doyle. Doyle explores how rivers shaped America, which they did, but also how we have tried to tame them. It’s one of those “single subject wide range” books, but unlike a lot of them, Doyle doesn’t need to stretch. Rivers are enormously important, and he captures the economic and logistical importance of them, but also their cultural heft. He reminds us that we are a riverine nation, even if we often forget.
The Way of the Coyote, by Gavin van Horn, I just finished last week and absolutely want to write a full review of, since I loved it. Certainly a top-5 book of the year for me. Van Horn shows how the world of man is clearly not apart from the world of nature, and how we can delight in that, but also the respect we need to show it. When we see a coyote on the streets, it isn’t an intrusion into our world. It’s a reminder that we are a stunningly recent intrusion into theirs. Van Horn’s writing is witty and subtle and graceful, and there are times when you’re struck by how good it is. At times I was almost angry because I wouldn’t be able to write like this, but am damn glad he did.
Priestdaddy, which came out last year, was a book I absolutely hoovered in one sitting. It’s wildly funny (I laughed out loud dozens of times) and insightful on family, on religion, on secrets, and on your own understanding of why you are who you are. Patricia Lockwood wrote one of my favorite essays of the year, and her book brought me as much joy as anything. The sheer bravura of the prose carried me through any squickiness I have at reading weird family stuff (normally not my brand of whiskey).
Daniel Ortberg’s The Merry Spinster was just a joy to read, strange fairy tales set in strange times, with weird language trickling down every page. They were fantastic in the truest sense, funny and sometimes scary and sometimes just dreamy. Fables, but without any clear messages except at the corner of your brain. Really enjoyed reading every page.
I don’t read a lot of frightening books, but did read a new collection of short stories by Robert Aickman, Compulsory Games, put out by NYRB Classics. While a few of the stories fell a little flat, the heights were dizzying and deeply unsettling. Many of his stories had a weird dream logic, a sense of time and space shifting. You could never quite feel the ground beneath your feet. His best stories are disorienting and strangely modern, with the feeling of something unnameable and dreadful crashing into our world.
Unnameable and dreadful sort of sums up the music of Nick Cave, which is why I really liked the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds art book, put together by Reinhard Kleist. With pages from a grpahic novel about Cave, skecthes of the Birthday Party and the Bad Seeds, lyrics put to illustration, and more, it gets deep into his dark preacher at the carnival persona, the man with the gun wandering in and out of the pages of a book, the dark myths of lust of violence in which he unfolds himself. It’s beautiful, and makes me want to seek out more.
Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk (translated last year by Jennifer Croft), was an odd and confusing read, and I was never quite sure if I understood it, but loved it. It floated at the endge of my understanding, like Gomborwicz often does. And while that seems a pat comparison, it is also a limiting one, as Tokarczuk has a more expansive point of view, taking in the strangeness of our globalized culture, of our freedom to move, and the disconnect but also beauty that comes with travel.
But maybe my favorite fiction of the year was Come West and See, by Maxim Luskutoff. A collection of connected short stories, Loskutoff takes the resentment and inchoate anger of the west, as exemplified by Bundy rebellion and the takeover at Malhuer, and extrapolates a country falling apart.
Many of the stories are Carver-esque lifeslices, but with this undercurrent of violence and dissolution, people falling apart. The spreading rebellions are mentioned maybe in passing, in the background, or sometimes as a driving force behind personal anger…or at least an outlet for it.
Toward the end, it becomes an all-out war, and the stories move toward the fantastic, the apocalyptic, the dystopic, a nation at war with itself, and the aftermath. But they are still about people in this wild and terrible and impossible land. How we navigate the hugeness and the crushing smallness. How we navigate this American experiment, and how it can all come crashing down.
Enjoy 2019, everyone.