“Like the ghosts we know from stories, they are tied to their former existences, trapped by an idea of themselves, and can’t leave until they are ready; perhaps you recognize their dilemma from your own life, when you have been stuck between one obsolete version of yourself and the new version waiting just ahead. Maybe all you need is the right push.”
— Colson Whitehead in a review of George Saunders’ novel “Lincoln in the Bardo”
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider …
–Dr. Martin Luther King, Letter From Birmingham Jail (1963)
Some of these works were new last year. Some were just new to me. Considering I spent almost half the year plodding through Gravity’s Rainbow, my reading list wasn’t too bad. Hoping to ramp that up this year. Most of my new music is coming from listening to my favorite radio stations via the Internet: WNCW out of North Carolina. WWOZ in New Orleans and WDVX in Knoxville, TN.
- Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman. Started this as 2016 gasped its last. Fascinating. And very applicable, both in Trump’s America and for people interested in understanding how we assess and understand the problems we encounter daily. Very relevant to some of the fake news discussions that are swirling these days …
- A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe. Fascinating first-person account of London being ravaged by the plague in 1665. I’ve read a good bit about Samuel Pepys, who was a contemporary of Defoe and survived the plague, too. Defoe was only about 5 when this happened and his account is presumed to be based on his uncle’s experiences and considerable research. Then as now, the poor bore the brunt of it while the rich fled and cloistered themselves.
- Hun Sen’s Cambodia, Sebastian Strangio. A Cambodian grad student here at Ohio University recommended this to me. Fascinating account of how Hun Sen rose in the wake of the Cambodian genocide and consolidated power through shrewd and ruthless tactics.
- The Bricks that Built the Houses, Kate Tempest. Solid novel by the English poet and spoken word artist. I loved it initially, but after it settled into my brain I was less enthusiastic. I’d still recommend it, but not with the same fervor as I had initially. It is a fun romp, vaguely reminiscent of some of the stuff by Scottish writer Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting, etc.). And while Tempest is a wonderful poet, there’s something that just doesn’t sit right with her spoken word/rap stuff. Not sure if it’s my general disinterest in rap or the feeling that it’s just not working for her. Regardless, I doubt this is the last book I’ll read by her.
- Study Guide: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, Robert Crayola. I did this backward, I think. Probably best to read this breezy overview to the novel before or during, but I read it after the fact. In that sense, it was a great way to review a very complicated, serpentine novel and see it from 30,000 feet after spending months down in the weeds with it.
- The Dead: James Joyce’s Famous Story Annotated, James Joyce. My favorite short story. I try to re-read it each year around Christmas, and it never disappoints. This time, i tried an annotated version, which was helpful in understanding the granular Dublin/Irish details Joyce layered into most of his work. I’m now determined to re-read the rest of “The Dubliners” in 2017. Also, I stumbled across Christian Kriticos’ great discussion of The Dead on The Millions, focusing particularly on the role of the Epiphany in the work.
- A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon’s Novel, Steven C. Weisenburger. This critical analysis was invaluable as I waded through GR. I tended to read the overview before I read the relevant GR passage and then read the textual explication after the fact.
- Gravity’s Rainbow (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin), Thomas Pynchon. I spent a lot of time on this. More than I probably should have. But it was worth it.
- Really the Blues (New York Review Books Classics), Mezz Mezzrow, Bernard Wolfe, Ben Ratliff. Fantastic book detailing Mezzrow’s love of jazz and his minor role in a land of giants. I highly recommend this to anyone interested in jazz. Great book.
- Golden Years (Iranian-American Beat), Ali Eskandarian. This was billed as an Iranian-American On the Road.. I didn’t get all the way through it. Self-indulgent. No real art. Not well written. It might be that I’m just the wrong age to be reading this type of “coming-of-age” novel. I do know “On the Road” doesn’t have the appeal it once did …
- Knockemstiff, Donald Ray Pollock. Before Hillbilly Elegy, there was Knockemstiff. Bleak view of the white underclass in rural Ohio. A few friends, both Ohions, recommended this to me one night when we were drenched in tequila and they were trying to talk me into writing a novel. You have to read Knockemstiff, they said repeatedly. I was dubious but gave it a shot. Loved it. One of those novels that still is percolating around in my head as I watch the events of 2016 fade into the rearview mirror. I haven’t read Hillbilly Elegy yet. Adding it to the 2017 list.
- Cane (New Edition), Jean Toomer, Rudolph P. Byrd, Henry Louis Gates Jr. I found this via a history of Washington, D.C., that I was reading. A Modernist, impressionistic look at African-American life in the District. Fascinating to see how the Harlem Renaissance played out in D.C.
- Washington: A History of Our National City, Tom Lewis. We left D.C. almost three years ago now and still miss it at times. This book was a great survey of how D.C. became the nation’s capital.
- The Epic, Kamasi Washington. Bought this late in the year. Still working through it. Epic is an understatement.
- Ghosts of the Great Highway, Sun Kil Moon . Recommended with vigor by my friend Marsha. Love it. How can I not be smitten by an album that starts with an argument about which Judas Priest guitarist was better?
- Atom Heart Mother, Pink Floyd. I had copies of “If” and “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast,” but I wanted the entire thing. Now I have it.
- Hot Rats, Frank Zappa. I was surprised I didn’t already have this. After hearing Willie the Pimp on WNCW’s Frank on Friday, I downloaded the entire album. You can’t have too much Zappa.
- Hard Luck Stories, Ike Reilly. I like Ike. A lot. Saw him in the ‘Burgh a few times recently and decided to just complete my Ike collection.
- Poison the Hit Parade, Ike Reilly. See above
- The B-sides, Ike Reilly.See above.
- Free Your Mind … And Your Ass Will Follow, Funkadelic. Working to complete my collection of all things George Clinton.
- Up For the Down Stroke, Parliament. More brilliance from George Clinton.
- Purple Rain, Prince. I tried to care that Prince died. I really did. Even down loaded Purple Rain to try to get my head around him. Fail. I’m not saying he sucks. Just that I don’t really “get” him.
- Blak and Blu, Gary Clark Jr. The version of Bright Lights, Big City on this album is astoundingly good. The rest of it is great, too. Fantastic guitarist who doesn’t limit himself to the blues.
- Plays Well with Others, Buick 6. The backing band for Lucinda Williams, whom I saw in Nelsonville in 2016. They were awesome live and while I like this album, I don’t find myself returning to it with any regularity. Too instrumental?
- New City Blues, Aubrey Sellers Like this, but don’t love it. There are several solid songs on here. But like Buick 6, I don’t find myself returning to it with any frequency.
- The Ghosts of Highway 20, Lucinda Williams. Downloaded this before Lucinda’s show in Nelsonville. I hadn’t been paying a lot of attention to her in recent years, mostly because 2006’s “West” just didn’t do it for me. “Ghosts of HIghway 20” is Lucinda’s return to bad-ass form. At least from my perspective. After a shaky start, she blew the doors off the Opera House in Nelsonville, too.
- –Lola, Carrie Rodriguez. One of my favorites from 2016. We saw Carrie in Nelsonville, too. Great show. Great album. She’s amazing.
- Dopesmoker, Sleep. I get to play this only when Lara isn’t around. Drone/stoner metal that is, let’s say, an acquired taste. I like it.
- Digitonium, Turkuaz. Recommended by a jam-band friend here in Athens. I like it a lot, but I don’t return to it often. Might need to revisit this in 2017.
- Alisa Weilerstein, Solo. I’m a closet cello fanatic. Weilerstein delivers the goods.
- Space is Still the Place, The Bright Light Social Hour. Tried to like this. Listened a few times and never returned. Maybe give it another chance?
- Birds Say, Darlingside. Saw them early in 2016 during the Athens Mountain Stage show. Lush, soaring vocals that remind me vaguely of CSN&Y in their prime.
- Things That Can’t be Undone, Corb Lund. Another “discovery” at that Mountain Stage show. This is Lund’s 2015 release and was the focus of his Athens show. Afterward, I also downloaded Modern Pain, Corb Lund’s first album, which was worth it for his version of The Hockey Song alone.
- Down With It, Blue Mitchell. Fantastic jazz album that I “discovered” last year. My knowledge of jazz is spotty as hell and I’d never heard of Blue Mitchell. Still listen to this one frequently.
- Stay Gold, First Aid Kit. My buddy John Baker turned me on to First Aid Kit. Downloaded this 2014 album for some new music to explore. I don’t like it as much as The Lion’s Roar, but it’s a great effort that I still play frequently.
- Me Oh My, The Honeycutters. This is my runner-up for Album of the Year in 2016 — even though it was released ion 2015. Wonderful effort. If Amanda Anne Platt sang the phone book, I’d stop to listen. Great mashup of bluegrass and Americana.
- Beyond the Bloodhounds, Adia Victoria. This is my Album of the Year for 2016. One of my students, who goes by the nom de guerre Mad Penny, was filming the Lobsterfest Music Festival here in Athens last spring, and Victoria was one of the featured artists. She has this strange side-eye way of delivering her lyrics live that really hooked me. I look forward to seeing where she takes her “gothic blues” next.
Anyway, that’s some of the stuff I obsessed over last year. How about you? Already on the lookout for new influences in 2017. We’ll be going to Mountain Stage again later this month, and we have tickets for Hayes Carll’s show in Nelsonville in February. And once I finish Thinking Fast and Slow I have a lengthy list of books on my list, probably starting with Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. I read a chapter of this in the New York Times last year. I went in dubious (the premise sounded a bit over the top) but I came out determined to read the rest. And I loved Whitehead’s Zone One, an original and fascinating zombie novel.
(with apologies to Thomas Pynchon, Monty Python and the Kenosha Kid)
May there be no masturbators in your stacks
No Trumps in your tulips
No communists in your kitchen, eating your wife’s jam
May the pig hero Plechazunga
Drive off the Norse invaders in your life.
May Slothrop’s holy hardon
Keep you safe from alt-right V2s
May the only tricky Dick you encounter
Come flashing peace signs
May Byron the Bulb burn brightly
Scattering the grand old cockroaches
who have been copulating under your very nose
Brigadier Pudding died for our sins.
Board the Anubis. It’s time.
It wasn’t pretty, but after six months of following Slothrop through the debris of post World War II Europe, I’ve finally arrived at the end of Gravity’s Rainbow. Our attempted reading group crashed and burned as members, including me, were pulled away by their respective realities. There was a solid 8 weeks or so where I was hunkered down on my teaching gig and didn’t even open GR. But when I found a block of several days where I could focus, I kept going, alternating between passages from Pynchon’s text and “A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon’s Novel” by Steven C. Weisenburger. The companion book was invaluable in helping me get my head around how expansive and sweeping the novel is. Before each section of GR, I read Weisenburger’s intro to that section. Then after reading the relevant GR passage, I went back to read the detailed notes and textual explications.
After I finished, I read another critical work, the more succinct but still useful “Gravity’s Rainbow Handbook: A Key to the Thomas Pynchon Novel” by Robert Crayola. It was a great way to review the entire thing when all was said and done, making the work whole in my mind after spending much time sussing out fragments of it.
And the payoff? It definitely was worthwhile. My biggest surprise was how accessible the book is. Despite some brutal sections, it’s generally very readable and approachable, even hilarious. At times it’s a picaresque farce that’s incredibly funny. It’s also appallingly offensive, gross and rude. And there are passages where the writing is nothing short of dazzling in its incendiary flourishes. Part of me felt as disembodied as Tyrone Slothrop at the novel’s close. But the key themes have been cycling nonstop through my mind for the past several weeks, particularly the trials and tribulations of the Herero/Schwarzkommando. I was ignorant of Germany’s colonial genocide against the Herero, but thanks to GR I’m now quick to click when stories like this pop up in my news feed, detailing current-day efforts to atone for this shameful tuneup for larger-scale atrocities.
As the novel drifts off into cosmic diaspora, there’s a passage where Jessica Swanlake emerges from The White Visitation, scene of all manner of strange psycho/Pavlovian experimentation during the war. It’s now “a loony bin again,” and among the post-war entropy around her she also sees signs of the eternal.
The barrage-balloon cables lay rusting across the sodden meadows, going to flakes, to ions and earth—tendons that sang in the violent nights, among the sirens wailing in thirds smooth as distant wind, among the drumbeats of bombs, now lying slack, old, in hard twists of metal ash. Forget -me-nots boil everywhere underfoot, and ants crowd, bustling with a sense of kingdom. Commas, brimstones, painted ladies coast on the thermoclines among the cliffs.
That passage made me think immediately of Robert Bly’s “Johnson’s Cabinet Watched By Ants,” particularly the final stanza:
Ants are gathered around an old tree.
In a choir they sing,
in harsh and gravelly voices,
Old Etruscan songs on tyranny.
Toads nearby clap their small hands,
and join the fiery songs,
their five long toes trembling
in the soaked earth.
We enjoyed last week’s pho and music so much we went back to Fur Peace Ranch for seconds today. John and Jorma were awesome (nice versions of All Along the Watchtower, I Shall Be Released, Sugaree and other great tunes, but This Land Is Your Land really resonated with me as 2016 lurches to a close). Occasionally, a big old cat or two would strut around on the porch behind them while they were playing. The pho was delicious, and I tried the bahn mi sandwich this time around. Also fantastic. We had to a chance to talk to both John and Jorma for a bit. Great guys. Great place. Hope to catch more than a few shows down there in 2017 …
I’ve read several great pieces on the opioid epidemic recently. It’s good to see this getting the coverage it deserves, but I can’t help but wonder how it would differ if the victims were minorities instead of poor whites. Somehow I suspect we’d be (wrongly) blaming it on their lack of work ethic, etc.
Regardless, this story in the Wall Street Journal was eye-opening, essentially asking what happens to the children of these addicts as they become too addled to parent or, worse, they die of overdoses. It’s created a nightmare for the foster care system.
This quote had me choking back tears:
When he speaks about his father’s drug use, he sometimes mixes it up with imagery from horror films he watched on television while his father got high. “Ben will say, ‘When he got really sick and passed out, a man stuck his hand through our door with a knife.’ And to him that’s a real memory,” Ms. Horton says.
And this piece from the Charleston Gazette-Mail is just mind boggling. Big pharma pumped 780m doses into West Virginia as this crisis was in full flail. What the fuck? That’s more than one pain killer per day for EVERY resident of West Virginia (assuming WV has a population of about 1.8m).
But wait. There’s more. And it doesn’t get any better. The Washington Post took a look at a family that has been devastated by opioid abuse. It’s hard to imagine how these children won’t struggle with this experience for the rest of their lives …
“But that’s just what you folks need,” Bloody Chiclitz interjects. “Get some business people in there to run it right, instead of having the government run everything. Your left hand doesn’t know what your right hand’s doing! You know that?”
— Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
Remove the wool that binds Saturn’s feet. It’s time to party.
Saturnalia has fascinated me since 9th grade Latin class at St. Anselm’s, when Magister Switalla would tell us about the Roman holiday that Christians coopted for their Christmas holiday. For some reason, one of the details that stuck with me was the idea of gift giving, specifically the idea of giving a pencil to the magister (teacher) in honor of the holiday (humble gifts were considered to be an inverse reflection of the importance of the friendship between giver and receiver). Magister also demanded that for that day we students would teach and he would be the student in the type of role reversal common during the Roman holiday where masters would serve their slaves.
An excellent Wikipedia entry on Saturnalia notes that parrots sometimes were among the Saturnalia presents. So watch out for your Saturnalia Cockatoo. It will be arriving in the mail. It’ll be the squawking box with air holes …
“It is now the month of December, when the greatest part of the city is in a bustle. Loose reins are given to public dissipation; everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations, as if there were some real difference between the days devoted to Saturn and those for transacting business. … Were you here, I would willingly confer with you as to the plan of our conduct; whether we should eve in our usual way, or, to avoid singularity, both take a better supper and throw off the toga.”
— Seneca (as quoted in Wikipedia entry)
So from today through Dec. 23, io Saturnalia, y’all. Do whatever it takes to bring light to these darkest days bracketing the winter solstice.