Some of the books (fiction and nonfiction) I read over the last year:
Visit any news site or find a newspaper and the headlines suggest the world is ending. Moreover, Ground Zero for the apocalypse is Syria. Perhaps we should all try to better understand Syria, in case particular political candidates are discussing strategies already tried years ago when the world was young and violence was old.
Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America by Ari Berman (2015)
I’m usually resistant to the notion of singular causes. Ari Berman does not position the Voting Rights Act of 1965 fully as modern America’s Big Bang moment, but he does something approximate. Okay, I’m having trouble putting this the way it needs to be put. The thing is if we are going to have discussions about our political system, we have to talk about voting districts. And, if we are going to have discussions about gun rights, police shootings, and housing rights, then we need to recognize who votes and who does not vote and where everyone votes. And, in a strange turn, we need to understand how the same laws that aim to empower racial minorities also empower conservative ideologies. And, lastly, ask what that means because we are living the consequences.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965)
Probably not going to say anything about this book that someone else hasn’t already said. I read it for the first time over the summer. I tried to incorporate it into this piece for The Classical I wrote about Johnny Cueto. I will be teaching it this winter for the first time. Teaching a new book is always more memorable than reading it.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)
The internet loves this book. I loved this book too. I think the reasons for loving this book are its clarity on issues that so often are not clear. The book is neither happy nor inspiring. The book is rather sad. The book reads at time like a survival guide for an America more dark and treacherous than any zombie nightmare or post-apocalyptic dream. If you’re a teacher, like I am, this is the book to replace To Kill a Mockingbird or to reinvigorate Frederick Douglass’ presence in the classroom.
Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole (2014)
This inhale-exhale of a novel was originally published in 2007, in Nigeria. The narrator returns to Nigeria after time spent in the US. The narrator comes across as a stranger or a man without a country. The effect is that Cole’s readers can better see themselves, their place, the world, no matter where they might originally be from or returning. In some ways, the novel reads like an introvert’s guide to the galaxy. The last pages are beautiful and concrete.
Application for Release from the Dream by Tony Hoagland (2015)
I read maybe three poetry collections in the past year. I don’t know if Hoagland’s is necessarily the best or not, but I do know it’s the one that most made me want to write.
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein (2014)
For so many reasons this large book made everything else, read and unread, feel small, like the Book of Ecclesiastes wielding a pragmatic hammer.
10:04 by Ben Lerner (2014)
I wrote about this book just before Christmas. Over the holidays, I caught myself referencing it frequently in conversation. Eyes glazed over. Read it soon, so if we talk, your eyes won’t glaze over when I can’t help but reference its relevance to how memories of the past and future carve their shapes.
Once in a Great City by David Maraniss (2015)
How can a city’s Golden Age also be the moment of its decline? Maraniss ponders this question as he tells the story of Detroit’s industrial might and cultural significance, revealing the city as the home of Martin Luther King’s “Dream”, Malcolm X’s nightmare, LBJ’s dream, and white flight. It is strange to read this book filled with all these people from the early 1960s and to then witness Ta-Neishi Coates’ letter to his son in 2015. It is strange to feel so far and yet so close to a moment in time that is no different and yet not the same at all.
The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy (1994)
Something may very well be wrong with me, but this might be my favorite book. If not that, it contains some of my favorite paragraphs.
Upright Beasts by Lincoln Michel (2015)
After reading half a dozen short story collections from the past year, Michel’s is the one my imagination clings to the hardest. The stories are quirky, fitting vast ideas into the smallest of places. I wrote more about the book back in October. Here’s the link.
On Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag (2003)
Sontag’s book is another one that’s on the list because of my experiences teaching excerpts from it in the classroom. I also remember a professor at JMU telling me, if you want to write so people can understand you, read more Susan Sontag.
Red Dirt: A Tennis Novel by Joe Samuel Starnes (2015)
If you like tennis, you will like Starnes’ novel. If you hate tennis but ever took tennis lessons, you will like Starnes’ novel. If you ever grew up Georgia, a rural town, on the outskirts of anything, you will, surprise, probably like Starnes’ novel. (An interview I did with him can be found here.)
A Hanging at Cinder Bottom by Glenn Taylor (2015)
Picture the rustic wood frame setting in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971). Picture the snow, especially. Then try and recall the cool energy of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001). Now imagine Steven Soderbergh filming McCabe & Mrs. Miller in the woods of West Virginia and you pretty much have Taylor’s poker-heist of a backwoods novel.
The Water Museum by Luis Alberto Urrea (2015)
I wrote briefly on this short story collection at summer’s end. I enjoyed it a great deal. Urrea’s writing is hilarious in how it subverts, and yet frightening because there is something to subvert. The more I read from him, the more I like. Teaching The Devil’s Highway (2006) was the highlight of my school year so far.
Tropic of Orange by Karen Tei Yamashita (1997)
This novel about a border that moves because it is attached to a small orange manages to dissect all the infinite grids of untamed globalization because they are all, truly, one grid. Moreover, the absurdity to be found in this book from 1997 is more 2015 than anything written in 2015. That’s the kind of year it was, and, maybe, always has been. Godspeed and good luck. Or, as Yamashita advises, Embrace. That’s it.
Bryan Harvey tweets @LawnChairBoys.