Sharrow tango: My 2016 in books and reading.


Before teachers ever got their paws on me (cue the Pink Floyd disc, please), I was teaching myself to read by looking at encyclopedias and other books we had on the shelves at home. I’m just grateful my parents weren’t religious.

This upbringing, along with roughly $3.25 (including tip), will buy at least one of us an excellent espresso at Quills, but it remains that insofar as my life of the mind remains intact and functional after 35 years of drinking far too much, processes occurring therein have much more to do with letters and words and reading than mathematics or spread sheets.

So it goes. It’s who I am, and I’m fine with it.

Unsurprisingly, no matter the ups, downs and in-betweens in my life, there hasn’t ever been enough time for reading. I doubt there ever will be, and I’ve come to grudgingly accept this, but as it pertains to inadequate reading time, I’ll readily concede that I resent wasting the limited time I have to read on escapist fluff.

That’s because I didn’t learn everything I need to know from one holy book or residency in kindergarten, nor from high school and college. To me, reading for pleasure is reading to learn something.

Disclaimers aside, 2016 was a better reading year for me, following a 2015 spent boning up on numerous dry civic topics in a fledgling political campaign year. Before listing my year’s books in roughly chronological order, The Economist has a list of best books in 2016, and so does the New York Times, but one thing I’ll be doing differently in 2017 is based on the gist of this piece in The Guardian.

The non-western books that every student should read

Leading authors pick international classics that should be on student’s bookshelves, but are often neglected by universities

It looks like I have some catching up to do. The only requirement is time. Can I have some more?

The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I and Revolution, by Dominic Lieven … reviewed at NAC on January 9

Lieven’s book adds welcome detail to an enduring debate: Why the belligerents (and specifically, Tsarist Russia) had so much to gain from peace, and yet went off to fight in the seemingly suicidal Great War. The answers are considerably more nuanced than one might think, and from the vantage point of 2016 American presidential election, it’s worth reminding ourselves that nations we barely understand often make big decisions predicated on much narrower local concerns. Maybe we should try to understand these.

Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano, by John Tytell … reviewed at NAC on February 20

It is fascinating to contemplate a time when an artist could proclaim that poetry would change the world, and be taken seriously. Pound did, and at times, the intensity of his commitment reminds me of a youthful Publican, sure that he could do the same with better beer. Fortunately for the young beer slinger, he didn’t get old and subsequently serve as a tacky apologist for a fascist regime, although as with Mussolini’s allure to Pound, there’s always the Mighty Trumpolini for the addled artists of a new era.

But you can count me out. I’m a leftist, remember?

The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, by Ethan Michaeli

In 1905, an African-American man named Robert Abbott founded a Chicago newspaper as a mere handbill, using his landlord’s kitchen table as a desk. The Chicago Defender became one of the most prominent voices of Black America, and a leading element in the struggle against institutionalized racism. This book by a former employee tells the story of a time when American newspapers “stood for something more than a marketing plan.”

I’m betting Bill Hanson hasn’t read it, and won’t.

Mr. Kafka: And Other Tales from the Time of the Cult, by Bohumil Hrabal

Hrabal, a habitue of the Golden Tiger pub in Prague who is regarded as one of the finest Czech writers of the 20th century, was born a subject of Emperor Franz Joseph, and died during Vaclav Havel’s presidency of the Czech Republic. These short stories, which are loosely linked thematically, illustrate the abundant surreal absurdities prevalent in 1950s-era Stalinist Czechoslovakia, hence the “cult of personality” in the book’s title. What struck me about them is Hrabal’s ability to shift moods, from violence to slapstick, often in successive paragraphs.

The Sleep of the Righteous, by Wolfgang Hilbig

Hilbig was that rarest of creatures, a writer who began his career not cloistered in a university, but working dirty jobs in grim East German factories. These semi-autobiographical short stories comprise a novella of sorts, divided into two sections. It has been described as chronicling “a divided nation battling its demons.” In the first part, there are memories of a fatherless (Stalingrad) childhood and adolescence in the East German police state. In the second, the narrator – now a grown man who has spent most of his adult life living in the West – tries to make sense of it all.

The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio

The Decameron, written by 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio, is a collection of 100 stories told over a period of days by seven young women and three young men, who have fled as a group from plague-ridden Florence for an extended holiday in the hills nearby. What an addled modern brain might imagine happening doesn’t, and there are no sexual relations between these friends. Rather, it’s the stories themselves that often are ribald. If you believe that Renaissance writers have nothing to say about sex, and in particular, no insights about diverse female perspectives, it’s time for a reappraisal. 650 years on, the naturalness and candor of these vignettes are astonishing.

Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, by Charles Leerhsen … reviewed at NAC on April 15

What if we had the Georgia Peach all wrong, all along? Leerhsen seeks to rehabilitate baseball’s most infamous violent, racist bogey man by means of the unthinkable: patiently exhuming and examining actual records and accounts of Cobb’s time, and comparing them to the contrived life story most of us (including me) have come to accept, as written by a yellow journalist named Al Stump. The results largely exonerate Cobb, but Stump emerges quite tainted. Along the way, we see baseball evolve from carny attraction to venerable institution.

Lost Chords: White Musicians and their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945, by Richard M. Sudhalter … reviewed at Potable Curmudgeon on August 15

Insofar as there was anyone left alive in 1999 to care all that much upon the publication of Lost Chords, the book provoked controversy, in that Sudhalter was seen as challenging the maxim that jazz must be viewed almost exclusively as an African-American domain. However, I don’t believe this criticism of Sudhalter is justified in the main, because he never questions the African-American bona fides. Rather, he offers testimony on behalf of white jazzmen of the pre-WWII period, some of whom were neglected even before seven or more decades elapsed. I’d consider buying the companion 2-CD release, except it now costs $40 used. YouTube will have to do.

Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, by Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow

Sadik-Khan makes two fundamental points that Team Gahan probably won’t ever grasp, not in a thousand million years: First, that transportation is multi-modal by definition, and second, that restoring streets as a means of transit by all users need not be expensive. Not that the disconnect here in New Albany can’t easily be explained. It’s stupidity and avarice, respectively. As for the book, “If you’re a fan of protected bike lanes and road diets, here’s a manual of successful procedures taken from real life” … in other words, Real Life, not Rosen Barger.

Sátántangó, by László Krasznahorkai

For this one, I must defer to another reviewer. I dearly love these modernist Communist-era novels.

“Krasznahorkai published the novel four years before the fall of Communism, and, indeed, the book targets the ravages of totalitarianism in Hungary and beyond. Krasznahorkai’s depiction of loutish peasants and a work collective in ruins must have been a slap in the face of Communist censorship. A large part of the action takes place on or around an unnamed estate that is largely abandoned. Its inhabitants include peasants, a mechanic, a headmaster, a doctor, a couple of teenage whores, their drunken mother, vicious younger brother, and demented little sister. They live in its rotting houses and congregate in its tumbledown, spider-infested pub. The autumn rain falls incessantly, and characters smoke nonstop under drizzle and downpour, as if connected to a fire that will not be put out. Residents are at once comically loutish, and incompetent. Krasznahorkai plays with a tradition in which yokels tend to be boobs, and, fittingly, his narrator is an acerbic, misanthrope, the doctor.”

The Sicilian Vespers: A History of the Mediterranean World in the Later Thirteenth Century, by Steven Runciman

In 1282, Sicilians rose up against their unpopular French king, leading to two decades of war and intrigue, then 500 years of Spanish influence in Sicily. The overall context of the Sicilian Vespers, both uprising and twenty-year war, can be surveyed here. Runciman’s classic academic recitation of great men, marriages, invasions and battles can be tedious at times, but it builds into a comprehensive conclusion. After reading the book, we went for the first time to the island of Sicily, staying at the foot of Mt. Etna in the city of Catania). To be brief, I am smitten — and Runciman is forgiven for being so damned old school.

A Fez of the Heart: Travels around Turkey in Search of a Hat, by Jeremy Seal

Long before the dark red, tasseled, cone of a weird Middle Eastern cap known as the fez became a symbol of Shriners International’s trick motorcyclists at the Harvest Homecoming Parade, and the subject of an offbeat and immortal Steely Dan song, it was the semi-official headgear of the Ottoman Empire’s male subjects, by direction of a reforming 19th-century sultan who was eager to symbolize modernity by visibly dispensing with traditional turbans.

Later, when Mustapha Kemal (Ataturk) created modern Turkey from the ruins of the empire, the whole process repeated itself when he decreed the unacceptability of the fez in favor of the homburg. As the author ostensibly searches Turkey in 1992 for remnants of fez culture, he tells the story of the contemporary country’s seemingly inexorable movement from Ataturk’s secularism to the revival of Islam — which unfortunately is very timely for the beginning of 2017.

In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond, by Robert Kaplan

In late 1991 I was residing in Kosice, Slovakia, and teaching conversational English to medical staff in the hospital there. Over beers, I mentioned to a student that I was thinking about taking a few days and visiting Romania for the first time.

He advised taking two bottles of Johnnie Walker – one for the necessary bribe to enter the country, and the second for the same use when leaving it. It was two years after the violent revolution that brought about the end of Communism in Romania, and I was dissuaded from going there … until 1997, though that’s another story.

Kaplan is a longtime Balkan devotee just like me, and unlike me, he’s a detail-oriented veteran journalist capable of recounting Romania’s fascinating hybrid history through myriad references and his own visits over a thirty year period.

So, how to begin 2017? With Novel Explosives, crazed fiction by Jim Gauer. After that, it’s a crap shoot. Maybe I’ll review them, and maybe not.

When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading.
— Henny Youngman