The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer (2013)
For those familiar with the modernist texts of Jon Dos Passos, Packer's text is, in many ways, a nonfiction pastiche of Dos Passos' (mostly fictive) U.S.A. trilogy. Packer's book also received the National Book Award for Nonfiction, so it's not really like it needs me to advertise. Needless to say, I found myself engrossed with its handling of American lives, from a single mother in Ohio to a businessman of the Carolina Piedmont. He takes individual lives and weaves them into the national fabric in what seems like the most natural of movements, and that's what Packer's text does--moves us from one American epoch that is slightly known into one that none of us can recognize, except for the fact that it is made of individuals like you and like me.
I read a great deal of this book on my back patio, looking over a back yard that is, literally, a postage stamp, and from there, I reflected a great deal on my deceased grandfather's tobacco farm. I reflected on his love for the land, but, then, I also reflected on the bigotry of his that seemed to increase with his age and his dementia. This book helped me to understand that beyond biology breaking him, so, too, was the world of political force--and all its religion--grinding him, and other men like him, into dust. There were times when the clarity of this text stunned me so that I could not read. I would close the book's cover, hold its smooth edges, and stare out over what little part of the world bears my name. I looked out onto nothing, thought shit, and then did what little I could do--I kept reading and stopping and reading some more.
Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World by Catalina De Erauso
Written in the 17th Century, one does not expect the contemporary force and pace of Quentin Tarantino, but at a mere eighty pages Erauso's memoir blisters like a sword hilt. By owing parts of its nature to the baroque Don Quixote and finding a picaresque voice in the Western wild, this romping tale reads as a literary precursor to Mark Twain's most rebellious characters, while somehow foreshadowing the vengeful blood lust of Beatrix Kidd. Seriously, this book is everything and nothing, and no one knows what to do with it other than to read it. I found visions of women wearing Bruce Lee tracksuits, but God knows what you'll find. Blood. Daring. Bravado. A woman spitting on the church doors. Just. Read. It.
The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert (2014)
Earlier in the year, this book's second chapter "The Mastodon's Molars" appeared in The New Yorker, ending in the lines:
"In fact, the American mastodon vanished around thirteen thousand years ago. Its demise was part of a wave of disappearances that has come to be known as the megafauna extinction. This wave coincided with the spread of modern humans and, increasingly, is understood to have been a result of it. In this sense, the crisis Cuvier discerned just beyond the edge of recorded history was us." (46)
It's not necessarily Kolbert's conclusions at the end of each chapter that are overwhelming, although they are, but how she manages to arrive at them, moving through obscure fossils and seemingly insignificant studies of fungi and mold to, in the deftest of brushstrokes, reveal the hidden bones of the world in which we currently live and, most likely, will die, not just as individuals but as a species. Her writing is both well-crafted and of great importance. After all, she is making rather complex ideas understandable for those readers who are neither paleontologist nor scientists. She had me near tears over the Great Auk's extinction. Need I say more?
|One auk pondering whether to ask another auk about extinction; neither one said anything.|
The New Mind of the South by Tracy Thompson (2013)
I'm still parceling out exactly what to make of this text. I found it informative and exploratory; it should receive some credit for helping to lay the foundation for one of my new favorite online magazines: The Bitter Southerner. The South is in need of being redefined, but in that need, like in so many other characteristics, the place seems to never change. I'll be thinking on it some more.
Bryan Harvey can be followed on Twitter @LawnChairBoys.