Everyone on tv and social media seems to be squabbling over facts, fake news, and truthiness, but few of us seem to have read the documents we’re arguing about. These are all dry reads, and none has what you might call a Hollywood ending (at least not yet), but they’re essential to clearing away smoke screens of bias and propaganda as we go forward into the new decade. I’ve read ‘em all (aren’t I special?) and recommend them. The titles are web links. These are primary sources so we can all cut the spin and decide for ourselves.
UN Climate Action Report. Bleak, yes, but also includes a plan for a way forward, if we all get onboard.
The Afghanistan Papers. Kudos to The Washington Post for this blockbuster report which clearly shows that the only thing learned from Vietnam was eliminating the draft. As has been noted, Osama Bin Laden is no doubt laughing in his watery grave.
The Torture Report. This document (much of which is redacted and still classified) about what dear Vice President Cheney dubbed “enhanced interrogation” dates from 2014, but with the new (no, not Star Wars, the other one) Adam Driver movie out….
Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Russian Interference in 2016 Presidential Campaign: I may be the only person in America who has actually read this bipartisan report, but anyone who cares to know which country really interfered and how they’re already planting bots and hacks for 2020 should do so.
The Mueller Report: Companion piece to the previous recommendation, again heavily redacted, but boy, that Mueller’s team ducked charging the President after all this, well, talk about swampy! And if a two-volume narrative all done up in legalese (and those redactions) feels like a heavy lift, The Washington Post has published a free illustrated e-reader version here.
The Zelinsky Call: This one’s short, but have you read it?
The Breitbart Emails on Southern Poverty Law Center website. Trump advisor Stephen Miller’s white nationalist emails, advising right wing media on how to play the racist card. That this guy is driving a lot of White House policy is frankly terrifying.
Inspector General’s Report on Emoluments at the Trump Hotel in DC. Fascinating to me for how the Trump Administration has booted all responsibility for this gross Constitutional breach, each government agency tossing the hot potato to the next.
U.S. Constitution: Because.
Here’s to a better informed, balanced, and loving 2020. Election Day is exactly 10 months and 2 days away!
Addendum – January 20, 2020. Trial Memorandum: The document detailing the U.S. House of Representatives’ case for impeachment of the President.
I pull off to pee at the Walt Whitman Wayside on the Jersey Turnpike.
Through the woods from Camden where the poet lived his last,
where he mused and predicted, dictated and preened,
gazed with dimming eyes out his doorway past the fragrant lilac vines,
lost in memories of war and men torn and ruined in battle,
wistful thoughts of furtive loves, and the epiphany he knew and had somehow wrought into a book.
He saw what we did to each other. He dreamed what we could be.
He said he would wait for us here.
Along this divided highway, pressed gravel and tar made macadam smooth
at these exit ramps fingering to Philly and Trenton and Asbury Park,
home to superhero athletes, devious politicians, poets with guitars, and all of us who drive.
Stop with me here before the row of drink machines, five bulky rectangles, side-by-side.
Their clear plastic windows and cans stacked tight: Coca-Cola, Mountain Dew, Diet Pepsi, Sprite, Dr. Pepper, Snapple, Red Bull, and 7-Up. All shiny, all sugared, all bubbly.
All promising some subtle rush, a little rapture, that impalpable sustenance available to all with a dollar.
Turn to the double doors, swinging open and shut, and the glass ante room they frame.
Funneled through them in then out and on down the turnpike every kind of person.
Pause with me here by the drink machines, loiter and look, and try to see what he saw.
That little old lady was a teacher, her son is her driver now, a broker who loves his mom.
That man at the door wears a turban. Is he a Hindu, a Sikh, a suburban father from Rahway? He looks at his watch. He nods to us. His father, the immigrant, always so long in the Men’s Room.
Ah, the Men’s Room, how this would have stirred the old bawd! The phalanx of identical porcelain urinals, no dividers between them, all down the wall. The men side by side at their business, none looking left or right, so serious, so private, so mindful to follow that rule.
The rhythmic flushing, almost a beat, the stench of blended vapors from their voiding, and the jet plane roar of the drying machines. Eyes askance, hands at zippers, feet testing the slippery floor.
And the Women’s Room, never enough stalls, the long line out the door and their mincing needy dance, the fretful glances and nods of commiseration. I mean, this is the most democratic place, don’t you think?
Are you a casino owner climbing out of your limo in leather gloves?
Are you a cheerleader off the bus flipping your hair and stretching?
A trucker en route to Miami?
Do you use a wheelchair?
Do you identify as he or her or them?
Do you make this trip every day, or is this your first rubber-necking sojourn along the edge of America, straight off the plane at Newark?
Is your language a jibberish to others?
Are you rushing to work, to the game, or are you rushing because that is what you do?
No, wait, hold up, stand back and groove with me.
Admire the wall of fast food joints staffed with counter persons and the workers at the back.
Where do they live? Where do they park their cars?
Must they pay to use the Turnpike, subtracting that fee from their working wage?
How strange it must be to have no regulars.
Everyone a stranger, none to be seen again, all sliding their cards in the slot, capping their cups of joe, all day every day.
I see you chubby fry cook and the splatter burns on your arms.
I see you sallow-faced manager, flat-footed, spinning in place, dreading another breakdown of the ice machine.
You children in your winter coats, like bubbles with faces, your tiny hands lost in your mothers’ mittened grips.
All the coming and going, the thousands streaming, no one bumping, no one cursing, cats that herd themselves.
And the same in the parking lot, cars backing, waiting, accelerating out past the gas pumps, past the 18-wheelers lined up on the side, past the dog walkers and the scraggly pines and the skittering of trash, one empty can rolling with a tuneful clatter across the greasy asphalt as rain begins to fall.
Yo, Wayside named for our Bard with a Capital-B, you too are the poem he scrawled, and each of us a line.
The hum of our valved hearts, the stink of what dumps from our innards, our greasy lips, the common urgent fatigue.
We rub our glasses clean on our shirts, briefly flashing our bellies.
We are Southerners headed home where people drawl, we are IT specialists who surf on weekends, we are combat veterans and judges and students with depression diagnoses. We pour water from bottles for our dogs.
The arterial flow of the nation is what the Teamsters said, this turnpike linked to every other and our zooming lives from here to there down this road more a web than a runway.
The Walt Whitman Wayside as America singing whether we know it or not.
He wrote: You may read the President’s message and read nothing about it there. I do not know what it is except that it is grand, and that it is happiness, that thing the Founders urged on us, pursuit pursuit pursuit and an asphalt grid to do it on. Never the getting there, not for us, the going is the thing.
He asked, What is it then between us? Could this wayside offer a clue? Well, what if you took me up on this? What if we paused, stepped out of the way, and peered around for one minute?
Would we see what the poet promised, would we understand what he meant, would we take that moment to marvel, and would that be enough?
For what it’s worth, here are the ten books I most enjoyed, learned from, dug to the max in the past year. Only one is new, but they’re all in print if you’re interested. I’m listing them alphabetically by author’s last name, not ranking them 1-10.
Lynda Barry – How to Draw Comics. How does a guide to making comics double as a tool for spiritual growth? Check out this line: “We might call what we are doing when we use images in this way a form of dreaming.” By the way, Barry doesn’t care if you think you can draw. She prefers students who gave up drawing as children. That’s where the magic lies!
Bill Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything. I read whatever Bryson writes, but this is his best one, I think. Each chapter a compact, reader-friendly history of scientific discovery (with head-shaking anecdotes about the wacky discoverers themselves), ranging from the macro marvels of astronomy to the micro level guesses of atomic physics.
Ted Hughes – Poetry in the Making. Like Barry’s book, a primer on imagining differently, in the great English poet Hughes’ case, in order to build poems. The book was intended as a tool for middle school teachers, but its appreciation of the rigor, attentiveness, humor, and compassion that goes into writing a poem offers lessons for us all.
Mark Hyman – 10-Day Detox Diet: The Blood Sugar Solution. Ironic that I write this while slamming one of my wife Chris’ yummy Christmas cookies, but I do so having lost fifteen pounds by following the guidelines in this sensible guide to healthy eating. The book’s also a convincing screed against the sugar industry that we now know has sucked most of us into a deadly addiction. The other books on this list expanded my horizons. This one shrank my waistband.
Gerda Lerner – A Death of One’s Own. Hard to blurb this book, which has touched and shaken me more than anything else read this year. Gifted by a friend who is facing her own deadly cancer, this is a deeply felt day-by-day testament to the tumor-driven dying of the author’s husband. I think it’s a capital-G Great book, singing love, marriage, worry, wonder, and yes, the certainty awaiting us all.
J.R. Moehringer – Sutton. The author of a poignant memoir The Tender Bar and that ace biography of Andre Agassi, Open (both well worth reading) brings a noir sensibility and hard-boiled style to this fictionalized biography of the world’s most famous bank robber Willie Sutton. Mr. Scorsese, please, make a film of it!
Toni Morrison – The Bluest Eye. A tremor in the Force this year with her death, sending me to this debut novel I’d missed. Amazing that right at the start it was all there – her pitch-perfect plainsong, her spiraling dives into complex psychology, her ability to frame explosive critiques of our screwed up world in the troubles of a single family. In 2020, I’m planning to take them all in order, one by one.
Michele Obama – Becoming. I bought this for Chris for her birthday last year, in audio book form as read by the author, and we’ve shared it among friends ever since. We all know that voice: succinct, loving, sharp-eyed, decent, and self-aware. I’m not a huge fan of listening to books, but this one you have to hear.
Walker Percy – The Last Gentleman & The Second Coming. One of the unsung pleasures of living in your 7th decade is that of re-reading. These two novels published decades apart concern the same spacey protagonist, an everyman adrift in the pretty illusion that we call life. As a youngster, the first spoke to me more. (Hard for youngsters to care much about the worries of the old, I guess.) But now, reading them together, Percy’s wily tracing of the way one’s rubbery soul resists its own lessons across a lifetime turned the two novels into one instructive (and even funny) meditation.
Esme Weijun Wang – The Collected Schizophrenias. Most of us have seen the damage an unbalanced mind can do; Wang shares her own story, that of a brilliant student reduced to hiding in a closet beset by monsters, living always in the shadow of lurking psychosis. She shares what she has learned about mental illness, too, and it’s clear we don’t know much. We have labels, we have categories, we have brain-modulating medications, but also people everywhere hiding in closets beset by monsters.
Colson Whitehead – The Intuitionist. Whitehead’s big book this year was Nickel Boys, but I found his first at Goodwill and thought I might start there. An audacious mash-up of Ellison and Delillo, this young man straight out of Harvard weaves a sustained metaphor about racism and social striving into a detective story involving elevator inspectors. After this, in 2020 (just like with Morrison), I’m planning to read straight through Whitehead’s oeuvre. I mean, wow.
Oops! That’s twelve (thirteen if you count the two Percy’s separately). So, sue me. Please also note that I have not mentioned the wonderful books by my friends that came out this year, having written about them in previous posts. What have you enjoyed reading in 2019? Please share in a comment if you will. And happy holiday reading to all!
2019 is the year I came out of the closet as a writer of fiction. Published a novel The Coal Tower (https://amzn.to/2DvSTcZ), which I’d labored over at dawn for nearly ten years, and then a collection of a dozen short stories Last Rites (https://amzn.to/2DBvdE4), most of which I’d written in just the past year. Then came the hard part, promoting the books. I tried some of the approaches learned at the James River Writers Conference, sending copies out to reviewers, relentlessly begging for readers on social media and then begging them again to post reviews on the books’ Amazon pages. Braced myself to ask local book stores to stock them (most were kind enough to agree, and two – Book People (https://www.bookpeoplerichmond.com/) here in Richmond and New Dominion (https://ndbookshop.com/) in Charlottesville – even held beautifully organized and well-advertised book launches, events I’ll never forget). As my friend author Katy Munger had warned me, I also began to obsessively check the KDP website where Amazon’s publishing arm lists current sales. I entered a couple first novel contests, and was gratified when The Coal Tower got short-listed for the Faulkner Society’s award. My friend Rosemary Rawlins, also an indy author, included my novel for discussion at her book club in Nags Head, and I’m looking forward to sitting in for that. My cousin Ronnie even wrote and performed a blues tune summary of the novel’s plot!
Getting the news out was exciting, but also a lot of work, and now that I’ve seen what other indy authors do, how promoting a book can be a full-time job in itself, I’m a little flummoxed. For one thing, it feels somehow unseemly to tug at the sleeves of my friends and followers on social media. For another, I’d prefer to spend my few free minutes working up a poem or a new story instead of shamelessly hawking my already published books. Writer friends shake their heads and agree. It’s tough, dude. Then comes the pep talk about being the best champion for your own hard-won achievement, about the books deserving wide readership, about building something called a “street team” (friends who will talk up your books and share them far and wide). Right here let me say thank you to all of you who have acquired and read my books, who have reached out with supportive words, who have shared the books with others, and said kind things about them online. You’ve made this all more fun and more meaningful than I’d have imagined at the start of the year.
As a reader, one benefit to reading indy authors, especially if you have met them at a book launch or know them from work or church or as an old friend, is that you can ask them out for coffee, you can talk about the story that touched you, they’ll even sign your book! (I’ve cold-emailed poets and received immediate replies of thanks.) You become a sort of partner in the effort, giving back inspiration and interest, and it helps.
All that said, I’m a happy street team warrior for a few friends who are also on the indy author path. Asking you to consider their new books for your holiday gifting. All of them are available on Amazon, as mine are, or you can ask your local bookstore to order them:
Katy Munger, well-known mystery novelist . Her new one in the Casey Jones detective series is Fire and Rain (https://amzn.to/2P5f1jP). Here’s a typically witty interview you may enjoy: https://tonygentry.com/2019/01/04/katy-munger-by-the-book/.
Rosemary Rawlins, author of the memoir Learning by Accident, has just published a deeply moving historical novel about one family’s travails during the Cambodian civil war, All My Silent Years (https://amzn.to/2qTaIA4). Here’s my recent interview with her, discussing the books’ gestation: https://tonygentry.com/2019/11/09/rosemary-rawlins-discusses-her-debut-novel-all-my-silent-years/.
Finally, I interviewed my VCU colleague Jim Cotter, about his tale of international intrigue The Bridge Over the Bering Strait (https://amzn.to/2Ldoog1) here: https://tonygentry.com/2017/06/18/an-interview-with-james-cotter-60-something-debut-novelist/.
So, these are my indy author recommendations for now. Hope you’ll seek them out, read and enjoy, share and join their street teams. If you’d like to continue this conversation, or if you’re an indy author, or want to be (heaven forbid), add a comment here and let’s chat. Happy holiday shopping! And happy reading (and writing) in 2020!
In October, excited to learn that The Coal Tower was short-listed for Faulkner Society prize!
As you might imagine, feeling gratitude for all the support, sharing, and hugs that have made this year so much fun. Thank you to everyone who helped get these words out in the world, to those of you who read and talked up my work, and especially to my family, who have tiptoed around the house for years, while this typing got done. For 2020, all I can say is: Write On!
I have a friend who, through some combination of depression, online curiosity, and bad choices, has found himself in a low security federal prison on a 7-10 year bid. He’s past the halfway point now, on the downslope to reentry, and just as I have since he got there, twice a month I send him a short stack of paperback books. Which is pretty much the only thing anyone is allowed to mail a federal prisoner. I keep a list of these books, so I won’t send the same one twice, a total of over 400 so far. He says the library at his prison is pretty good, but appreciates the packages, because the books I send haven’t been dog-eared or dropped on the disgusting toilet floor yet, and sometimes he can barter them for instant coffee or a favor, or just hand them over to the library when he’s done.
By all accounts, he’s a model prisoner. Stays out of trouble, helps out other guys with letters home. Served as commissioner of the prison baseball league. Even organized a Spanish-English course that he and a Hispanic prisoner taught together. But the prison administrators don’t understand his benevolence, fear that he may gain some influence, and they punish him for his efforts. Ordered him to give up the language course, busting him to janitorial duty. They even called him on the carpet over the books I send. Several times the packages disappeared, or they came back to me. Under the current arrangement, I can only send two or three at a time and they must be wrapped in white butcher paper. He says when a package arrives, a guard tears open the wrapper, thumbs through the books and then tosses them out on the floor as if they’re garbage, so my friend has to pick them up. I’ve asked him if he wants me to stop, but he says no. He says they offer him the one escape he has, the respite provided — even in a noisy, smelly, zero privacy environment — by a story on a page.
Where do I get these books? Well, I buy some new, send some from my own over-stocked collection (having decided that I’ll only hang on to my few first editions and any rare books not likely to be in the VCU library), but most of them I get from a nearby Goodwill warehouse at 25-cents each. Visiting this warehouse has become a guilty pleasure, since I can’t seem to leave the place without a dozen or more books, until this winnowing I’ve been attempting has begun to run in reverse. The attic of our house is at risk of sagging from the boxes of books stored there. My wife says if my friend were doing a 25-to-life bid, I’d still never run out of books to send him.
I can’t help it, though. One of my favorite things, across my whole life, really, is discovering a new book. I still remember coming across Richard Price’s dazzling first novel The Wanderers atop a garbage can on 6th Street in the East Village. Had never heard of the guy. But wow.
Sometimes at Goodwill it’s pretty clear that a whole collection has been dumped at once. One day I came home with a half dozen zen classics, another time it was travel books ranging from Muir to McPhee, another time a whole bookshelf on Native Americans. I find review copies of novels that will compete for the Pulitzer before they hit the shelves. A lot of them are in good shape. Walking out with $3 worth of books (that’s a dozen!), I feel like a rich man.
Of course, I’m not the only one who has discovered this treasure trove. One day I found a man filling up three shopping carts with books (slim pickings for me that day). He said he boxes them up and sends them to a school in Africa. There’s this one guy who cut a deal with Goodwill to buy whole pallets of books sight unseen, and a crew that descends like locusts, combing through the bins with ruthless speed for whatever they can sell online. So, sometimes, I find nothing of interest. But when I do, woo-hoo! I haul them up to the attic, read them as fast as I can, send 2-3 at a time off to my buddy, drop the children’s books at an inner city elementary school, and recirculate the rest to the local library, where likely as not they end up eventually back at Goodwill.
It’s an inexpensive vice, is how I figure it. And like my friend says, when he’s finally released from his no-Internet/sports tv-only imprisonment, he’ll be better read than most professors. Will that in any way assist his transition back to the real world? Who knows? If it helps him and his cellies stay sane for now, that’s enough, right? But I’ve got to do something about that attic.
(By the way, I keep a blog for my friend, too. He hasn’t posted in a while, since breaking his writing hand playing basketball, but here’s the link: http://federal-bidding.blogspot.com/.)
PS – I try to send books that I love, classics and those that deserve to be. If you’d like to see the list, put your email in a comment and I’ll send it to you.
My best friend John Wahl and I were on a Southern culture road trip, driving my girlfriend’s boaty 1970s-era Oldsmobile along the perfectly straight and empty highway up from New Orleans to the Mississippi towns of Jackson and Oxford, stopping at the homes of Eudora Welty and the late great William Faulkner, arriving at the peak of our trip on the front porch of Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo, and returning on Dylan’s Highway 61 through Robert Johnson’s Clarksdale, and the storied Greenville of Doe’s Eat Place, arriving back home in New Orleans wearing pants stained by the grease from Doe’s storied tamales and unstoppable grins advertising the fun we’d had. All this tale to be told another time.
For this one, it’s night time in Memphis, after a bucket of ribs, in our hotel room. We’ve each taken one of the double beds, and we’re lying there staring up at the ceiling laughing our asses off. We can’t stop. To this day I remember that episode as the most irrepressible bout of hysterical laughter ever. One of those where you’re almost done, but then your friend cracks up again and you’re back at it, and then he’s almost done but you snort, etc. One of those where snot comes out your nose and your joints ache afterwards. What was so funny? John had told what he introduced as the perfect joke, one that even in his telling left him helplessly doubled over. For a very long time, for years, all either of us would ever have to say was, “That joke,” and we’d at least chortle, and sometimes tell the whole thing over again for a good, head-clearing guffaw.
John’s gone now, yet another tale for another time, but I carry his joke with me, and I’ve shared it with my wife and sons, to a mixed reception. My older son Nick didn’t get it at first. The punning phrase on which the joke pivots confused him, but then when he got it, he really got it. His brother Stephen, ever the rationalist, concurred that the joke was funny, chuckled a bit, but demurred on my insistence that it is somehow the best. My wife Chris, who, it must be said, finds South Park unwatchably disgusting, shook her head and judged, “That’s not even funny.”
I have just described for you our family dynamic in a nutshell. We get along.
At some point I ran across a humorist’s essay, which used this funniest joke ever of mine as an example of how jokes work. The essayist agreed that the joke John had told all those years ago in a shabby hotel down the street from Graceland was in fact perfect. Of course, I shared the essay with my family, each of whom responded exactly as they had when I first shared the joke at dinner. Yet my conviction grew that John had nailed it. The Ur-joke. I knew, of course, that he had not invented it. Part of the fun on our road trip into the funk of Deep Southern-ness was uncovering the magic in old stuff.
Fast forward to last night. From that rib-stuffed, rib-tickling evening in Memphis we have to jump, this is hard to say, forty years. I’m at our local gym on an exercise bike watching a movie on my iPad, well, actually an episode of the old Monty Python tv show, when – I almost slip off the bike – this Python troupe, that has in some ways defined for us what we think of as funny, tell the joke! They not only tell it, they build one of their extended, multi-narrative skits around this joke that in their version makes anyone who reads it die laughing. If you know Python, then you may recall it, and now you’re nodding your head, going, “Oh yeah, that one.” I don’t recall ever having seen this episode, however, wonder if John had, if the comedian who wrote the essay had stolen the idea from Python without attribution, or if perhaps this was and always will be the funniest joke ever, so that these disparate humorists independently arrived at the same conclusion.
Does it matter? The thing, as my family so clearly demonstrates, is that, like pornography, you know funny when you see it. And if it makes you (ahem) respond, with laughter in the case of a joke, then it works. If, like my wife, you combine an eye roll with a slow headshake, it doesn’t. Though in the case of this particular joke, barnacled as it now is for me with a long ago sweet memory of that Southern road trip with my best friend when neither of us had a care in the world, with the shaggy dog dinner table conversations it has sparked, with sober analysis by comedians, and now, I find, with the imprimatur of comedy’s ultimate arbiters Monty Python, the joke has far surpassed John’s original claim. It is no longer just the funniest joke ever, it has become a monument to laughter, and thus, in a way, irrefutable. Though one might add, somewhat dulled by a nostalgic patina that — rather than a belly laugh — leaves me wistfully grinning. The most wistful joke ever, what a concept!
The joke? I’m sure you’ve heard it, and that you’ve made your own determinations as to its comedic value. It’s the one about the dog with no nose. Like the punch line, my wife says it’s awful. What do you think?
ps – Please recite the following in a John Cleese as news anchor voice: Just read this essay out loud to my wife, who would like you to know that she does in fact have a sense of humor, that the joke is sort of funny, but she just took exception to my claiming it is unusually special.