Ten Favorite Books of 2021

Halfway through 2021, I retired from teaching at VCU and set out on whatever this next chapter may bring. The books listed here (only three of which were actually published in 2021), have informed and inspired me along the way. Offered here in alphabetical order in hopes you’ll share your faves, too:

Martha Gellhorn – The Face of War (Grove Press):  I knew Gellhorn only as Hemingway’s second wife, but discovered her brave and brilliant war reportage while trying to process our pullout from Afghanistan. The essays in this book (D-Day invasion, Nazi concentration camp liberation, Vietnam, etc.) focus on the grunts and civilians, not the generals, and in every hard-won line Gellhorn’s love of mankind and hatred of what we do to each other gleams. Of late, there seems to be a much-belated effort to recognize female war correspondents. Gellhorn’s book, for me, was a revelation.

Ted Goia – Delta Blues (Norton):  I have a wide bookshelf of musicophilia ranging from early jazz to post-punk, and have written young adult biographies of Dizzy Gillespie and Elvis Presley. This book bowled me over. Goia is a masterful musicologist, who devotes a chapter to each of the leading pioneers of country blues, while weaving in pretty much everything known about the evolution of blues music from slavery days to the present (and making the case for blues as the lodestone of American popular music in general). He’s a dazzling writer. The chapter on Howling Wolf, whose childhood was a horror, is alone worth the price of the book.

Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper).  Gob-smacked. You may think you know this story, but believe me, there’s a surprise on nearly every page of this beautifully written book that pulls together research from nearly every scientific field to tell the tale of how weakling bipeds on the plains of Africa raced to very quickly overrun the planet. It’s not pretty, but wow.

Ibram X. Kendi – Stamped from the Beginning (Bold Type): I launched into this 600+ page history of white supremacist oppression in America in 2020, during the Floyd-Taylor protest marches, and finished it early this year, having learned so much about how – since the 1600s – racism has served the masters, been encoded in law, and continues to color our lives today. I’ve read several books on this topic of late; so far this one’s my favorite.

Ted Kooser — The Poetry Home Repair Manual (U of Nebraska): Kooser, a former U.S. poet laureate, subtitled this book Practical Advice for Beginning Poets, and it’s all that.  So many instructional writing texts float on theory or fluff, but this one focuses on communicating one’s observations clearly and interestingly. I’m taking his well-grounded advice to heart, reworking some of my clunkier poems and enjoying the effort.

George Saunders — A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (Random House): My old friend, the author Paul Witcover, gave me two of the books on this list (dude knows me well). This one is a retirement present subtitled: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. The master teacher here is witty, insightful author George Saunders, and the method is reading short works by Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Gogol, glossed by Saunders to goose you along in better understanding the mechanics and the magic of fiction writing (like Kooser’s book, all in the service of clear communication).

Suzanne Simard – Finding the Mother Tree (Knopf).  One of my fave books from last year, The Hidden Life of Trees, propounds a “wood-wide web” of nurturing communication among trees and other forest plants, which led me to this remarkable book by the scientist who discovered that network. She explains her forest experiments, devotedly studying nerve-like synaptic root systems, and promotes the notion of “mother trees” that have a sort of memory shared with saplings to protect them from disease and trauma. Clear-cutting, she argues, kills the mother trees, so new growth is weaker, less resilient, and prone to failure.

Jack Trammell and Guy Terrell – Civil War Richmond (History). You may know Trammell as the Democrat defeated by the aptly named Dave Bratt in a Virginia 7th District Congressional race. You may not know that he’s a noted sociologist and historian who has written 20 books. This new one, co-authored with Virginia poet Guy Terrell, digs deep into the maelstrom that was our sleepy capitol city during the Civil War, attending to untold stories of free and enslaved Black people, the wounded and sick, and those with disability or gender differences, while challenging what we think we know about where we live and how we got here. (Lots of gripping photos, too.)

Douglas Wolk — All of the Marvels (Penguin). As a kid in the 1960s, I haunted our local drug store for the early issues of Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, Daredevil and pretty much anything Marvel every month. My kids have grown up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe that interprets those comics in interesting ways. So when my fellow geek friend Paul sent me this book, oh what a rabbit hole I fell into!  Wolk says he’s read all 27,000+ Marvel comics; in this book he pulls together the key themes of what he calls the “epic of epics”.  Fortunately, there’s an MCU app that stores most of these comics online. Currently spending way too much time on my iPad, re-reading the old comics to follow Wolk’s inspired guidance.

David Young – Du Fu: A Life in Poetry (Knopf). There is no greater poet than the ancient Chinese wanderer Du Fu (used to be Tu Fu). I have three translations of his work and always carry one with me on my own travels. This new version (2019) serves as a sort of memoir, the poems freshly translated, then arranged chronologically in sections introduced by notes on what the poet was up to at the time of their composition.

Well, that’s what I’ve been reading this very odd year! Share a comment, if you will, about your own perusals. Happy Holiday Shopping to you – let’s all buy this year’s holiday gift books from local indy bookstores – after all, Jeff Bezos is rich enough, ain’t he?

Here in Richmond, my favorite bookstore is Book People, owner David a kind and devoted bibliophile.

In Charlottesville, New Dominion Bookshop on the downtown mall is my go to.

btw, Washington Post’s list of Ten Best Books of 2021.

“By the Book” Self-Own

My friend and author Rosemary Rawlins asked me to share an anecdote or two for her book club, which I’ll be joining in December for a discussion of my novel The Coal Tower. Sent her this self-interview, which I agree is “contrived”. To say the least, but anyway:

What books are on your nightstand?

Oh gosh, this is embarrassing.  My nightstand groans with four stacks of books, arranged in order of priority, more or less.  I tend to read several books at the same time, dipping in and out as I go, seeking little linkages that pop up from time to time, which, by the way, drives my wife crazy – she’s a straight through to the end and on to the next style reader.  On the priority stack today we have:  Ibram Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, a history of racist ideas in America (actually begins pre-colonially in 1400s); I’m up to the 1980s and the Reagan Era now, so almost done; Jose Saramago’s Blindness, next up in my morbid pursuit of pandemic tales that launched back in April with a re-read of Camus’ The Plague; Lawrence Weschler’s Waves Passing in the Night, about the sound engineer Walter Murch’s oddball celestial theories, and three books of poetry, Carolyn Forche’s new In the Lateness of the World, Galway Kinnell’s The Past, and Jamie K. Reaser’s Conversations with Mary.  All of these feeding a notion in some poems I’m scribbling that seem to be about human perception in all its glory and feebleness; and Fever, 1793, a young adult tale by Laurie Halse Anderson, that I hope will help me learn how to tell a Jamestown story for teens that I’ve been fumbling with.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

I’m there now, in our living room stretched out on the sofa, afternoon light slanting in at the windows so there’s no need for a lamp, dog napping on the floor beside me, not a phone beep to be heard.

What’s your favorite book of all time?

This answer seems to change every decade or so, as it probably does for most people.  In my youth, as an earnest Southern Baptist it was The New Testament and then that ecological bible Thoreau’s Walden.  In college Whitman’s Leaves of Grass knocked me sideways.  I fell hard for Cormac McCarthy and Don Delillo in later years, but to answer you today, I’ve been writing a story that imagines Whitman and Thoreau swimming together at Walden Pond, and it’s those two guys and their masterpieces that have me swooning all over again.

Your novel is set in Charlottesville, Virginia, so might be considered in the line of Southern fiction.  Are there Southern writers you especially admire?

I’m old school on this, I’m afraid.  Faulkner’s top of the heap, then comes Walker Percy, Robert Penn Warren, Flannery O’Conner, Eudora Welty, the aforementioned Cormac McCarthy, Ellen Gilchrist, Barbara Kingsolver, Daniel Woodrell…. Writing The Coal Tower, I took a shot at reading the famous short stories by longtime UVA professor Peter Taylor, who wrote with such precision about matters of social class in dear old C’ville.  But his casual racism shocked me, and then it seemed to turn up in so many of the old lions I’d read:  Percy and Steinbeck and Hemingway, for instance.  But before I start to rant, ask me sometime about my years working restaurants in New Orleans, and encounters with Percy and dear Ms. Welty there.

Who is your favorite fictional hero?  And the best villain?

Jack Kerouac’s muse Neal Cassidy was, of course, a real person and by all accounts as supernatural as the various fictional versions that turn up in Kerouac’s road novels, but yes, him.  The God of the Old Testament, when you think about it, is the model for so many fictional villains, and frankly, hard to beat.

What kinds of stories are you drawn to?  And what stories do you steer clear of?

I love it when the writing gets caught up in itself, matches the pace of the events it tells, and squirts out a gripping truth or two so you have to put the book down for a minute.  All the writers mentioned above have done that to me at one time or another, creating these epiphanies on the page.  I have good friends who are mystery writers and SF writers, and I admire their work greatly. They too can squirt.  But those genres, otherwise, I don’t tend to go for.

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?

Maybe no surprise, but I have a whole book cabinet devoted to nature writing, and I try to collect early editions of the books that knocked my socks off when I can afford them.  On that shelf a few oddities:  Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, Dr. Richard Rubens’ Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, and a pretty thorough collection of vintage Marvel superhero comics.

Who is your favorite overlooked or unappreciated writer?

My dear friends who dazzle with their genius, yet struggle like so many artists to find the wide audience they deserve:  Terry Bisson, Liz Hand, Joseph Lanza, Katy Munger, Rosemary Rawlins, and Paul Witcover.  Among these, Rosemary’s new book, I mean wow.

What kind of reader were you as a child?

The only books in our house growing up were an old set of World Book Encyclopedias and their accompanying orange-bound Childcraft series.  But then came Dr. Seuss, Tom Swift, Jr., my first library card and the giant paper and ink proto-Google that was the Charlottesville public library. 

Favorite childhood literary character or hero?

Always the Cat in the Hat.  Have tried to live up to his example ever since – have a royally good time messing things up, if you must, but don’t forget to come back and straighten things out when you’re done.

What’s the last book you recommended to a member of your family?

I’m that sneaky dad who slips books onto his sons’ nightstands in hopes they might put down their game paddles for a minute.  Most recently, Ta Nehisi Coates’ bound letter to his son Between the World and Me.

What’s the best book you ever received as a gift?

I don’t know if they still do this, but back in the day, at a certain age, every kid at Fork Union Baptist Church was given their own paperback King James Version Bible.  I still have mine.

What book did you feel like you were supposed to like but didn’t?  Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

I’m trying to figure out what to do with Nabokov’s Lolita right now.  90 pages in, things getting pretty creepy, but boy does old Vladimir know how to lead you on, sneakily implicating you in what may be either a comedy or a horror story or both, and maybe that’s what’s so frustrating and intriguing about the whole thing?

What book would you recommend to the President?

To the impeached President, considering his notorious attention span, I highly recommend the aforementioned Cat in the Hat.  Especially those later pages where he and his minions Thing One (Ivanka?) and Thing Two (Jared?) clean up after themselves.  To the President-Elect, a fan of Irish poetry, Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, in which our hero bravely overcomes a monster ravaging the countryside, restoring peace and unity to the kingdom.

You have published fiction and poetry.  Do you prefer one or the other?

I started writing both around 9th grade and can’t seem to shake either.

What three writers, living or dead, would you wish to invite to a literary dinner party?

I’m useless at dinner parties.  I always end up wandering around outside, wishing I smoked and had that as an excuse, hoping no one misses me and comes looking.  But if three writers could join me on the stoop, just imagine Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac, and I’d have to say Bruce Springsteen.  All of us, of course, our younger versions. I mean, if you’re going to wish!

What book do you think everybody should read before they die?

Do you mean right before they die?  Maybe this book bequeathed to me by the poet Sarah Knorr, who died of cancer last summer, the poet M. S. Merwin’s final collection Garden Time.  Every poem like a last sigh of gratitude and wonder and not a comma or period anywhere.

What do you plan to read next?

Well, when I get through this first pile, on the top of the nightstand’s second stack – Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad.

Mailing Books to Prison

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.

Fave Books of 2018

Here’s my Top Ten list of favorite books read in 2018 (all are in paperback and only one was actually first published this year).  I’d love to see your list!

The Cartel by Don Winslow.  If you read his Mexican drug war novel The Power of the Dog, then you probably waited in line for this sequel, a brutal masterpiece that continues Winslow’s take- no-prisoners unmasking of the real culprits (allow me to name check the late first President Bush) in the ongoing narcotics apocalypse of North America.  This trilogy concludes with The Border, due out in February, and I’ve pre-ordered that, too.

The New Valley by Josh Weil – A debut novel (really three novellas) set in rural Southwest Virginia, its chiseled sentences and hard scrabble situations spark like a hoe striking stone.  Sent a copy to my friend in prison and he has not stopped asking me for more like it.  Sadly, haven’t found one.

Chattahoochee by Patrick Phillips.  I attended this serious young poet’s affecting reading at St. Phillips Church here in Richmond, then spent a week poring over his rich cycle of poems about growing up alert, hurt, and in wonder at the world about you.

This Young Monster by Charlie Fox.  Fierce, loving essays about monsters that had me rethinking prejudice, disability, my face in the mirror, and all the Others that scare and fascinate us.  Sent me back to Shelley’s Frankenstein, to Diane Arbus’ photographs, to David Lynch’s whole oeuvre with woke eyes.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather.  Catching up on the classics, read this feet on the ground/head in the sky epic during a beach week.  Don’t think I’ll ever appreciate an Outer Banks sunrise more.

Walking on Alligators by Susan Shaughnessy.  Inspirational quotes by writers for writers, one to a page, glossed by short essay prompts.  Reading a page each morning became an essential element of my preparatory routine for writing.  Lacking a sequel, I’m starting over at page one now.

The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder.  The great beat poet is a leader of the Deep Ecology movement, and these essays may change how you walk in the world.  My favorite quote:  “An ethical life is one that is mindful, mannerly, and has style.  Of all moral failings and flaws of character, the worst is stinginess of thought, which includes meanness in all its forms.”

Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac.  Snyder the young zen acolyte, woodsman and poet is the star of this novel, which to my mind rivals On the Road.  Somehow had never read it before.  Here’s my take on the book from an earlier blog post:  On Reading a Worn Copy of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums at 62.

Collected Essays by James Baldwin.  A favorite birthday gift last year, this book burned up my bedside table.  No one has ever written with this intensity and rue about inequality in America.  Start with The Fire Next Time, a time capsule from the 1960s that speaks directly to now.

A Short History of the World by E. H. Gombrich – Yes, this is a children’s history book, and it has you feeling like a child again, sitting on your wise old uncle’s knee as he recounts a life well-lived.  Pipe ash flits onto your p.j.’s, but you don’t care, because the tale he tells has never been expressed so well.  Dare you to find another children’s book that risks a quote this profound:  We are like that.  Each one of us no more than a tiny glimmering thing, a sparkling droplet on the waves of time which flow past beneath us into an unknown, misty future.  We leap up, look around us and, before we know it, we vanish again.  We can hardly be seen in the great river of time.  New drops keep rising to the surface.  And what we call our fate is no more than our struggle in that great multitude of droplets in the rise and fall of one wave.  But we must make use of that moment.  It is worth the effort.

That’s it!  Tag you’re it!  In 2019, stay calm and read on!