Looking back at the year so far, it seems to have passed with as much writing and editing as reading, which I suppose is a good thing. Completed a biographical novel about Chris Baker, a 19th Century Richmonder (once infamous and now all but forgotten), who in old age admitted to robbing hundreds of graves hereabouts to supply anatomy labs at the Medical College of Virginia. I’m calling it The Night Doctor of Richmond. Also spent happy weeks puzzling out succeeding drafts of my friend Randy Fertel’s new manuscript on the art of improvisation, which includes considerations of everything from the street layout of New Orleans and the ramblings of our former President to the be-here-now essence of a James Brown performance. And I think my pal disability-advocate Ed Turner is rounding the bend on his memoir, which I’ve been editing as he goes. Ed’s life path, as he recounts it there, is touching, funny, and just plain inspiring. Hope to see all three of these books in print by this time next year.
All that aside, this Thanksgiving I’m offering gratitude for my favorite reads of the past year. As usual, these are not necessarily new books. They’re listed in alphabetical order by the author’s last name, with my notes of appreciation. Hope you’ll comment with your own 2022 faves – Happy reading, y’all!
Paul Beatty – The Sellout. An easy pick, this scabrously funny take on the upside-down and inside-out world of everyday American racism won the Man Booker prize in 2016. Like Toni Morrison’s novels or Donald Glover’s FX tv show Atlanta, it’s aimed directly at a Black audience, but with a wry embrace, too, of us clueless White folk. Which means I found myself laughing out loud, then sort of cringing, page after page.
Bill Glose – Half a Man. At the Poetry Society of Virginia conference last spring, met this Gulf War veteran and prolific poet of battle and its psychological aftermath, and brought home his 2013 collection Half A Man. I’ve read a dozen or more books about our Middle Eastern misadventures, but this one may be the best of the lot. Glose’s sharply-chiseled poems, built on concise sensory impressions, frame a tortured mind determined to make sense of it all.
Percival Everett – The Book of Training and Dr. No. Having written more than 30 books, Everett may finally be rising above cult status, with the popularity of his new one Dr. No. As with Beatty’s novel, probably better not to try summarizing the tale, except to say that it hilariously spoofs spy novels, physics, academia, and the neurodiverse, while spouting dad jokes about the various dictionary meanings of the word “nothing”. Also like the Beatty novel, clever and sly, and as they say unputdownable. Which leads me to the other Everett book I’ve read, a whole ‘nother thing. The Book of Training is a brief hard cover-only text purported to have been written in Roanoke, VA in 1843 by a slave-holding landowner who offers step-by-step guidance on how to manage human property. I could talk all day about this crushingly shrewd satire, but let’s leave it there, okay?
Paul Farmer – Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. I first learned about Farmer in journalist Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize winning Mountains Beyond Mountains, subtitled “The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World,” which recounted this remarkable doctor’s establishment of a free health clinic in Haiti and of the worthy charity Partners in Health, and followed him on his global mission to serve the least resourced people on earth. Sadly, Farmer died in 2022, probably of an exhausted heart, at age 62. Which led me back to a book of medical ethics he published in 2005, a collection of essays that lays out in lived detail the link between social inequality and disease. Frankly, Farmer changed my life for the better, and though few of us can aspire to his heroism in seeing what needs to be done and then doing it, his example can help us all aim higher.
Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) – The Miracle of Mindfulness. That 2022 saw the loss of two great souls, Farmer and the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thay, truly marks a tremor in the Force. I have several of his paperbacks, all aimed at the general reader, and all intended to teach acceptance, gratitude, awareness of the moment, and what it means to be kind. The Miracle of Mindfulness is my favorite of these; it taught me to breathe mindfully, whether in my room or on a stroll. Thay knew that few could go all the way to Buddhist enlightenment, but he thought that we could all at least learn to appreciate the passing of breath in and out of our lungs. And he hoped that many of us would not stop there, but begin to follow our breath along a spiritual pilgrimage that might just save the world.
David Hinton – The Wilds of Poetry: Adventures in Mind and Landscape. Across a long career, this Vermont poet has published some of the most rigorously true to form translations of ancient Chinese poetry, and this book explains how a poetry of pure image without metaphor expresses that sense of Oneness with all things that is the goal of Eastern philosophy and religion. He goes further, showing how this model leapt to the other side of the globe centuries later to spark what we in the West call modern poetry. If you care about poetry or language or visual art or philosophy, this book is for you.
Herman Melville – Moby Dick. Maybe like me, you were assigned this lengthy tome in an American literature course in college, skimmed it before fall exams, and called it a day. I pulled it off the shelf again this summer and thought, what the hey. And, oh my. I’m older now, have read and lived more, and again, oh my. There is nothing like this novel-travelogue-how to-guidebook, which grows madder and madder as Captain Ahab does, yet opens up to dreamlike passages that are simply unforgettable in their beauty, all somehow framed amidst the physical rigors and stomach-turning ugliness of whaling. People always ask what Melville was up to here, what Moby Dick really means. Whatever you may think, you’re probably right.
David Mills – Boneyarn. Mills gave a rousing reading from this collection at the Poetry Society of Virginia conference last spring (to get a flavor of his bravura style, check out this Youtube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PW41815WoX8). Each of the Boneyarn poems is a dramatic monologue told by one of the people buried in the old African Burial Ground in New York City. Mills sought out the truth of their lives during years of archival research, and crafted telling poetry from what he learned. These poems can be brutal in recounting torture following a slave rebellion, and tender in expressing a mother’s love, but they all swing with a musical acuteness that reminds me of Langston Hughes (a propos, in that Mills once lived in Hughes’ apartment in Harlem).
R. J. Smith – The One: The Life and Music of James Brown. This isn’t the only biography of the Godfather of Soul (novelist James McBride wrote a good one, too – Kill ‘Em and Leave), but music journalist R.J. Smith’s book gets to the essence of Brown’s genius, which is his insistence in a world that left him orphaned, jailed and forgotten as a young boy, that I Am Somebody. That’s the core of Brown’s funk invention, the enactment of a ritualized and ecstatic eternal now, of sheer irrepressible presence. Maybe it ain’t zen, but you can dance to it.
Paul Witcover – Lincolnstein. I listed this novel last year, before publication, because my dear friend Paul had allowed me a peek at the manuscript. The book is out now, was well-reviewed in the Washington Post last summer, and it’s all I said before – a wily mashup of American history and literature that puts the brain of Huckleberry Finn’s Jim into the body of Abraham Lincoln and sends the monster off on a piqaresque journey across the Civil War South. Like Percival Everett, Paul’s been putting out one good book after another for decades – hope this one gets him the attention he deserves.