Ten Favorite Books of 2020

In 2020, everyone’s concerns have converged, it seems (if our opinions haven’t).  My favorite books helped explain what was happening, provided guidance and insight, even comfort.  Offered here in alphabetical order in hopes you’ll share your faves, too:

James BaldwinCollected Essays (Library of America):  Name someone else who has spoken truth to power with such precision.  Read chronologically, these essays form a fascinating autobiography, because everything Baldwin wrote about American history, culture and politics erupted from lacerating self-reflection. Not wanting to mar the pages, I’ve filled a notebook with pithy quotations from this volume, which – among other things – articulates as no other text has why Black Lives Matter matters.

Chip Jones – The Organ Thieves:  In this thriller-paced tale of VCU’s failed effort to perform the first heart transplant, Richmond, VA, newpaperman Jones splits the sternum of racial politics and dirty tricks here in the capital of the Confederacy, going all the way back to 19th Century medical school grave robbers and all the way up to the racist decisions that may have killed a Black man to give a White man his heart.

John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, & Nate Powell – March.  This 3-volume graphic novel-style biography of John Lewis begins with his farm childhood in Alabama and ends with the signing of the Voting Rights Act, the last page a chilling coda concerning the assassinations of 1968. So many people died this year, many we all felt we knew:  Ginsburg and Bryant and Boseman and Prine and Trebek and Connery and Van Halen and (Little Richard) Penniman and (Toots) Hibbert and the list goes on all the way along the line to our own family and yours, too, probably. Lewis’ nationally televised funeral felt like a memorial for all, fitting testament to a man whose life changed ours.

Robert MacFarland – Underland:  I read everything MacFarland writes, joined his Twitter book club this year, and found his new book simply magnificent. It’s about caves and tunnels and secret nooks and the spooky (he would say “eldritch”) beauty of the earth’s entrails.  Somehow, across 500 pages of prose, whole paragraphs read like rich poetry, some lines easily parsed as blank verse.  It’s a dazzling work of subterranean exploration and reflection that I’m re-reading now.

W.S. Merwin – Garden Time:  My dear friend, the poet and disability services worker Sarah Knorr, gave me Merwin’s final book of poems the last time I saw her before her death from cancer (we had tea at Sub Rosa Bakery that late-February afternoon, where I gifted her the MacFarland book).  This may be Merwin’s crowning achievement, each poem diffracting the others, all reflecting an expansive wonder at our temporal existence and our longing for what may last.

Gordon Parks – A Choice of Weapons:  Surprised to find that famous filmmaker and photographer Parks had written a memoir.  Bowled over that he wrote only about his coming of age, stopping before anything like fame came his way.  Gritty, angry, closely observed vignettes about one Black youngster’s travails in an early 20th Century America that had no use for him, each chapter a tightrope walk over a chasm that has claimed so many.  Parks doesn’t pretend that his smarts or ingenuity got him across; he knows it was sheer luck.  And the fury in his writing is all about the injustice of that.

Shusaku Endo — Silence:  Martin Scorsese’s bleak film rendition freaked me out so much that I quit watching early on, then went to the novel, which – in a hard-earned epiphany — reveals the simple key to Christianity’s appeal, something a childhood raised in a Southern Baptist church, and decades of reflection on religion and philosophy, had somehow missed.

Sam Wasson – The Big Goodbye:  Covid/BLM/Election/Zoom, the other common thread this year was streaming movies, they say. We’ve done our share, and some of that has been re-watching the 1970s classics I grew up on.  This book, a blow-by-blow account of the making of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, taught me a lot about the work all those folks on the credits do, told a heart-rending story of Polanski’s tortured past, and opened up a Pandora’s box of classics I hadn’t watched before (check out Polanski’s Frantic, Ghost Writer, and Knife in the Water, whew!)

Paul Witcover – Lincolnstein:  This book won’t be published until 2021, but my best friend Paul let me read it in draft, and wow!  In the first chapter of this roller coaster picaresque, the brain of Jim from Huck Finn is transplanted into the body of Abraham Lincoln, the patched together monster then bolting for the Civil War South, and the hunt that follows turns up hilarious takes on characters from Southern history, literature and folklore, while nailing the lies therein.  I so hope Quentin Tarentino or the Cohen Bros. lay hands on this book!

Peter Wohllebon – The Hidden Life of Trees:  If anything has kept me sane this year, it’s been daily walks in the woods with our dog.  This book, read early in the pandemic, opened my eyes to the community life of a forest, changed how I see and understand the trees that shade these walks, left me strolling more reverently, with a new sense of wonder, along the way.

Okay, your turn – What have you been reading this year?

Punk on Film Top Ten + 1

Compiling a list of books on punk naturally led me here. You can stream a lot of these in our confinement. Play loud.

Documentaries:

Punk (Epix) – 4-part docu-series produced by Iggy Pop. Best if you want to see the originators playing live, and light on hoary pronouncements of significance (thank you Mr. Williamson), letting the explosion (or fart, if you will) of that 2-3 years yawp for itself.

Punk:  Attitude (Youtube) (90 minutes) – Don Letts’ history starts with Brando in The Wild One, links to ‘50s rock’n’roll, gives props to hippies, it’s about why punk.  Interviews and concert snippets by the originators but follows through to hard core and noise bands (Fugazi, Sonic Youth), even for some reason includes Nirvana.  If you only have 90-minutes, watch this one.

Punk Revolution NYC (Amazon Prime) (3-hours).  How it began, fascinating about Warhol’s guiding hand, the influence of transgressive downtown theatre, the nascent clubs, the rebellion against disco, SOHO and Loisaida as cauldrons of creativity when poor creatives could still afford to live there.  Sob.

The Decline of Western Civilization (Penelope Spheeris) (Youtube) – Okay, it’s not the first wave, it’s the hard core generation that Reagan/Thatcher spawned, but damn, the concerts cum riots!  Headache inducing, intentionally, of course.

The Blank Generation (Poe/Kral) (Youtube) (50 minutes) – Grainy black and white footage, audio as if they’re playing down the hall, but it was all shot in 1976 at CBGB, a time capsule, primary documentation.

Hip-Hop Evolution (Shad) (Netflix) (4 seasons).  Watching this series now, and wow!  Hip hop started exactly at the same time as punk, in bombed out 1970s New York, and way outlasted it.  Same impulses, same anger, same release, but black.  (Notes that punk fans were the first white people to fall in love with rap.) 

Movies:

Sid and Nancy (Alex Cox) (not currently streaming).  I so love this sad movie; may have been Gary Oldman’s first (as Sid).  One of my favorite unforgettable movie scenes (right up there with “Forget it Jake”) is Nancy running down the street in an angry fit, catching a glimpse of herself in a store window, and then stopping to tear off her clothes, screaming, “Fuckin’ Stevie Nicks!” when she realizes those clothes resemble something Nicks would wear. 

Summer of Sam (Spike Lee) (pay to stream on all platforms).  If you want to know what it must have felt like to be a nobody in New York when punk and hip hop launched, this is the movie.  The blackout, the talking devil dog, CBGB, the graffiti bombed subway trains, the grit and the hopeless energy.  Figuring out what to wear!

CBGB (Randall Miller) (Vudu).  The late great Alan Rickman’s last movie, as bushy-haired loser Hilly Kristal, the guy who owned CBGB and created a punk Mecca in the process. Actors play the musicians, some even look like the punks, but it’s Rickman’s movie. The scene where he meets the Ramones for the first time is priceless.

Mystery Train (Jim Jarmusch) (pay on Prime).  Are you a Jarmusch junky, like me?  This movie, set in Memphis, is not about punk rock, but I’ve never seen anything that better nails how our lives fail the rock’n’roll impulse, that cry of spontaneity and freedom, and how that failure hurts and in some cases ruins us.

Control (Anton Corbijn) (pay to stream on all platforms).  A biographical film that follows Joy Division’s Ian Curtis to his suicide, and it’s just as bleak and heart-rending as that sounds. If you’ve lost friends and never really understood it, this won’t explain anything, but the movie knows how you feel.

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!