Mansoul, meet the Bardo: My year 2017 in books and reading.


Before teachers ever got their paws on me (cue the ancient 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, or else I might be an Ayatollah by now.

This DIY educational upbringing, along with roughly $3.25 (including tip), will buy at least one of us an excellent espresso at Quills.

However, it remains that insofar as my life of the mind remains intact and functional after 35+ years of drinking far too much alcohol, those daily stirrings occurring therein have much more to do with letters, 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 of my life, there has not 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 my forever inadequate reading time, I’ll readily concede that I try to avoid wasting it on 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. This said, I may have gone a bit overboard on the intensity scale in 2017. Maybe it’s because life itself has been so emotional lately.

As a side note, I failed in fulfilling my sole resolution for 2017, as 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? Following are the books I read this past year, listed in chronological order, beginning in January.

Novel Explosives, by Jim Gauer

The novel’s publisher provides an apt summary.

Ambitious, groundbreaking, and fiendishly funny, Novel Explosives travels down the mean streets of venture finance, money laundering, and the Juárez drug wars on a torrent of linguistic virtuosity infused with a rarefied business I.Q. and mastery of everything from philosophy to pharmaceuticals, poetry to thermobaric weaponry. While an amnesiac, two gunmen, and a venture capitalist entangle and entwine in a do-or-die search for identity, at the palpitating heart of this novel, at its roiling fundamental core, lies an agonizing reappraisal of the way America behaves in the world, a project as worthy and urgent as it gets.

For the most part, Gauer’s very “male” novel deals with money and power. Oddly, what’s missing is sex, apart from a single interlude roughly halfway through. It might have tempered the violence, but even so there were many laughs along the way.

Among the names dropped by the book’s reviewers in an effort to establish affinities are writers David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, and Richard Powers, as well as filmmaker Quentin Tarantino — and again, it’s hard to argue with these linkages.

Gauer’s fictional territory isn’t a place where I usually go … and I’m happy I did, if only this once.

Capital in the 21st-Century
, by Thomas Piketty

As my friend Brandon said upon recommending Thomas Piketty’s much-debated book, “It’s always nice when science confirms the obvious.”

Having finally gotten down to the business of reading Capital in the Twenty-first Century, I can concur with this conclusion. Most of us have long since grasped that since the inception of human planetary times, a relatively small proportion of the planet’s population has acquired and hoarded a disproportionate amount of its wealth.

I dimly recall the testimony of one or the other Greek philosopher to the effect that if we evenly distributed wealth among the world’s population, it would be a futile gesture, as quickly the proportion would return to its previous imbalance.

Piketty sets out to prove the persistence of inequality, using statistics from as far back as the French Revolution — when the top 1% controlled about 98% of the wealth in France. Insofar as inequality has lessened in the world since then, it’s because tumultuous (read: expensive) wars, both I and II, and confiscatory tax rates had the dual effect of redistributing wealth.

In short, the counter-revolution began in the 1980s thanks to Maggie and Ronnie, and now we’re back to a widening gap between the haves and have-nots — something obvious, though it’s nice to have academic support when shopping for pitchforks.

The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State, by Lisa McGirr

A compelling and often ignored subplot to America’s entry into World War I is the hastening of Prohibition’s arrival.

It’s a case made by Lisa McGirr in her book The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State, in which sobriety, once mandated by reason of Protestant fundamentalism and anti-immigrant sentiment, suddenly merges with teetotalism as a patriotic imperative in wartime, and BOOM … the foundations of greater government intrusion in our lives became established for the first time, and once given a platform, was expanded in all directions during the decades to come.

This is a must-read for the bibulous. We must always be reminded of the existence of batshit crazy legislators of faux morality, and be prepared to fight them when need be.

My Crazy Century: A Memoir, by Ivan Klíma

As a boy, Ivan Klíma was sent to the Terezín concentration camp with his parents; amazingly, all three survived the Holocaust. Subsequently, the writer witnessed the entire 40-year trajectory of communism in Czechoslovakia, from beginning to end — and he’s not dead yet.

Undoubtedly a dissident, and punished accordingly after the abortive Prague Spring by being relegated to menial labor, Klíma also took liberties with the etiquette of resistance. A singular figure, indeed.

Klíma’s memoir is called My Crazy Century. It’s an appropriate title. “Sometimes it was funny crazy,” he remarked in a recent interview. “But mostly it was crazy crazy.” The two great crazies of the last century – and of Klíma’s personal experience – were fascism and communism. He describes the “Communist movement” as “a criminal conspiracy against democracy”. As for the Nazis, Klíma had no idea growing up that he was Jewish and therefore was shocked to discover that “I was so different from other people it might give them a pretext to kill me”. He was in fact christened by his Jewish parents – “under the foolish illusion that they would be protecting … me from a lot of harassment”. The harassment came anyway.

You Are Not a Gadget, by Jaron Lanier

An overview from The New Yorker:

In the nineteen-eighties, Lanier belonged to what he calls a “merry band” of Internet pioneers who believed that the digital revolution would mean a groundswell of creativity. But, he argues in this manifesto, around the turn of this century the dream was hijacked by “digital Maoists,” who value the crowd above the individual. Their influence, he writes, has led to an online culture of mashups, “pervasive anonymity” (which encourages bullying and moblike behavior), open access (so that individual ownership is devalued or lost), and social-networking sites that reduce “the deep meaning of personhood.” He fears that these characteristics are perilously close to “lock-in”: becoming permanent features of the Web. Lanier’s detractors have accused him of Ludditism, but his argument will make intuitive sense to anyone concerned with questions of propriety, responsibility, and authenticity.

These words of Lanier’s constitute the whole of my notes.

Funding a civilization through advertising is like trying to get nutrition by connecting a tube from one’s anus to one’s mouth. The body starts consuming itself. That is what we are doing online.

Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, by Andrew Coe

Andrew Coe’s 2009 book Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States entertainingly traces the lineage of Chinese cuisine’s adaptation to local conditions on the North American continent. It has been a Long March, indeed.

From origins in xenophobic fear and derision, we’ve come to the stomach-warming point of finding a Chinese restaurant, buffet or food truck in just about every American town with a population of 1,000 or more – sometimes two of them, as well as a gradual flanking movement toward greater authenticity, as with the “authentic” Chinese menus offered by Louisville restaurants like Jasmine and Oriental House.

What’s the beer that tastes best with sea cucumber or pockmarked granny’s bean curd? I’m still working on it, so stay tuned.

Mr. Trumpet: The Trials, Tribulations, and Triumph of Bunny Berigan, by Michael P. Zirpolo

Roland Bernard “Bunny” Berigan’s high water mark as a big band leader came during the late 1930s, when the swing era still was in its ascendancy. By the standards of the day, he had it all: professional respect, personal popularity, a wife, children, house and car.

But by 1942 Berigan was dead, his liver ravaged by cirrhosis, the victim of stunningly heavy drinking. Three-quarters of a century later, very few Americans remember Bunny Berigan, but for a while before most of us were born, he could do no wrong. Even Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong thought as much.

Having read not one but two biographies of Berigan, I’m reminded yet again of the strange and tiny niches of my obsessions.

Jerusalem, by Alan Moore

It’s impossible to briefly summarize this sprawling, crazed edifice. Someone at Goodreads takes a stab at it.

In Jerusalem, we travel to the metadimensional world that overlays our own – or at least, that overlays the Spring Boroughs area of Northampton which is Moore’s primary concern. Here, the dead mix with the angels (rebranded in Moore’s cosmology as ‘angles’), peering down into the individual slices of time which, frozen as though in amber, or blending together, make up our own experience of the world.

Three months after my mother died, I dove into this1,200-page novel, substantial portions of which address the afterlife — more accurately, the inner lives of ghosts. The living and the dead co-mingle in Northampton, the author Alan Moore’s hometown, which hasn’t been well served by neoliberalism; obviously, the way to make sense of all this is for Moore to stipulate that Northampton is the pivot of all human history and cosmology.

There were times reading this novel when I screamed in agony, demanding Moore be savagely edited as a curative for repetition and over-writing. Two pages later, I’d be crying, profoundly moved by passages of great skill and beauty.

I’ll not be able to look back on the year 2017 without thinking about this book, as well as a song by Deep Purple called Birds of Prey, but that’s a different essay.

Hank: The Short Life and Long Country Road of Hank Williams, by Mark Ribowsky

It’s a testament to something in American pop culture — exactly what isn’t clear — that an ill-fated performer who died seven years before I was born nonetheless has remained a constant presence throughout my life, whole decades later, although I’m not a fan of his music.

Perhaps proximity to the original heartland of country music is a factor, or the career of Hank Williams, Jr.; at any rate, for Hank’s relatively limited output of songs, his enduring influence is incredible, indeed.

He’s never really gone away. Is it really better to burn out than fade away?

Shadow Gods: Escaping the Cave of Religious Deception, by Daniel Jones

Encouragingly, Daniel Jones is a graduate of Floyd Central High School. The book’s description:

Many Christians are convinced their worldview is not a man-made religion, but is directly & uniquely from God. Those arguments persist, but produce far more heat than light. A core reason for this failure is a lack of focus. We waste time quarreling over peripheral issues rather than properly confronting the core, relevant question: Should we believe the supernatural claims of the Bible? This book attempts to address that question, simply and directly, while helping Christians understand the existential forces keeping them chained in the religious cave.

Understanding that Jones’ arguments won’t convince the diehard theists, his efforts nonetheless are thoughtful, well-executed and appropriately phrased for delivery to those who may be harboring doubts and are in need of an introductory text. It’s a refreshing take, and recommended by this lifelong, unrepentant atheist.

Demons (formerly The Possessed), by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Yes, it’s another of those 600-page novels about competing ideas and world views in Tsarist Russia that leaves you craving vodka and pickled fish.

A revolutionary sect intent on overthrowing both Romanovs and their Orthodox prelates infiltrates a provincial Russian town. At first, it isn’t clear if the gang can shoot straight.

Eventually it does, and the denouement is completely unnecessary. The LA Times reviewer in 1994 may have been overly optimistic about Russia shedding its ideological skin.

“Demons” is the Dostoevsky novel for our age; in fact, it is a key novel as such for an age that has come to recognize the evils of ideology–any ideology. At the time it appeared in Russia, it could be read as the other sort of “key novel,” a roman a clef , based as it was on the ideologically rationalized murder of a party member who had strayed from the fold. Millions and millions of ideologically rationalized murders later, it is infinitely more timely. Dostoevsky could not be published at all in the Soviet Union during the Stalinist years, and even in the relatively liberal post-Stalinist period this novel remained taboo and thus virtually unavailable in popular editions. Now that Russia has renounced its ideology it is being read with a vengeance: “Demons” tells Russia’s story in microcosm, and in advance.

What makes the novel prophetic, however, is not so much how closely Dostoevsky’s ideas approximate their 20th-Century counterparts as how deadly he makes any idea that assumes absolute priority. Each of the ideas has a voice very much its own, the voice of the character who professes and to some extent personifies it.

Demons was my September travel book. I simply don’t do escapism well.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

Admittedly, given the litany of mortality in close quarters during the past two years, there was a certain wariness in my mind about reading a second novel in six months pertaining to death, ghosts and the afterlife.

So, what did I do?

Lincoln in the Bardo was shorter and a faster read than Jerusalem, though no less weighty in the sense of the ruminations engendered. In fact, contrary to expectations, I was deeply moved by Saunders’ narrative daring.

No other figure occupies a central position in American mythology anywhere close to Lincoln’s, and Saunders adroitly leverages it to telling effect, primarily by means of the observations of the transitioning dead (a concept also embraced by Moore).

Surreal to be sure; so was Jerusalem. The novels are poles apart, one quintessentially English, the other peak Americana. Right now I’m drinking a book about the history of beer. Neither Mansoul nor Bardo, at least for a little while.

Pretty please.

War and Turpentine, by Urbain Martien

Belgian author Urbain Martien’s great-grandfather was a professional (and sadly impoverished) artist who eked out an existence on commissions from Catholic churches in and around Ghent.

His son, Martien’s grandfather, also wanted to be a painter, but he was compelled to work in an iron foundry as a pre-teen to support the family following his father’s premature death. Somehow he survived multiple gunshot wounds and made it through four bloody years of the Great War, returning later in life to painting as an amateur, and dying at 90 in 1981.

Before he died, Martien’s grandfather gave him a hitherto concealed written chronicle of his life, which the author waited almost 30 years to read. Once he finally did, it lit a spark and produced this amazing synthesis of fact and fiction.

Of special note are the descriptions of family life in pre-WWI Flanders, and having read them, I’ll never again look at those stolid, picture-perfect “old” towns and villages in quite the same way. The royal houses of Europe presided over incredible inequality and poverty, and the most shameful part about it is that millions had to die for it to end.

And it hasn’t even ended.

A Good Comrade: Janos Kadar, Communism and Hungary, by Roger Gough

In 1956, an otherwise undistinguished 44-year-old Communist party functionary named Janos Kadar arrived at a turning point in his life.

An illegitimate child with a hardscrabble upbringing, clever and street smart but with little formal education, the youthful Kadar embraced the then-illegal and oppressed party, viewing it almost as a surrogate father.

Now his comrade Imre Nagy was steering Hungary into a revolutionary confrontation with the Soviet Union, the country’s overlord, and Kadar had a choice, either to man the ramparts against the tanks of the invader, or to reaffirm the “internationalist” character of Communist orthodoxy by allowing himself to be installed by Nikita Khrushchev as the USSR’s chosen restorer of legitimacy and order.

Kadar wavered, then opted decisively for the latter. The revolution duly was crushed, certain accounts were quickly settled and several hundred of his countrymen were executed, including Nagy himself.

Hungary remained a bound Soviet satellite, and Kadar became undisputed top dog in the country for an astounding 32 years, finally losing power to Communist party “reformers” in 1988 and dying just a year later, right before the Berlin Wall fell, on the very same day Nagy was formally “rehabilitated” with great pomp and ceremony.

Under Kadar’s stewardship, Hungary was noted for “goulash communism” — pushing the limits, attempting comparatively ambitious economic reform campaigns, and enjoying a weird status as the presumably happiest barrack in the bloc’s prison.

But the reforms mostly were illusory, and depended primarily on escalating loans from the West. Interestingly, amid the steady disintegration of party control in 1988 and 1989, and as Kadar suffered from emphysema and senility, he openly and bizarrely grappled with his inner demons, as though Nagy and the other revolutionary martyrs were alive again and standing before him, demanding an explanation.

After Roger Gough’s book was published, it was revealed that near the end of Kadar’s life, he summoned a priest.

This almost Shakespearean tale of choices, fate, power, betrayal and guilt ended my year in books and reading, 2017.

For 2018, I really need to learn how to appreciate lightheartedness. Doubtful, but still.