Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Looking Back on 2019 (Part 2)

Books Read in 2019:

1. Harpooning Donald Trump by Tom LeClair
A short book of essays by a literary scholar arguing for the importance of literature during times of political turmoil. LeClair goes into what he calls "systems novels" here, that is, enormous novels that seek to contain everything. These can be useful guides to crazy times. He especially highlights Robert Coover's The Public Burning, a satirical novel that features a caricatured Richard Nixon as the protagonist and narrator. The book's best chapter analyzes Trump from the perspective of Moby-Dick---what LeClair calls "the only book you'll ever need"---and concludes:
And we will need literate readers---like Ishmael---to counter Trump's unscrupulous monomania. Not just literate readers but literary, which is literate on Human Growth Hormone. Literary readers do not think any more carefully than literate people, but literature trains one to care about and care for language as a sensitive instrument, not just a blunt tool for propaganda and power. I'll quote Wittgenstein again: 'The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.' The world of literature is large with possibilities of imagination and thought and feeling. The world of pre-literate Donald Trump is small, impoverished by ignorance and fear and anger. Literary responses to Trump may not bring down a president or even affect his policies, but literary artists still must continue to provide models of rigorous thought and rich expression---just as medieval monks preserved manuscripts in an earlier dark time---for great and great-minded literature is in and of itself a harpoon, a weapon against the fake 'great' and small-minded demagoguery. (p. 95)

2. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
It's eerie how prescient this novel feels. Roth revises history so that Charles Lindbergh, an avowed antisemite who was aligned with Hitler and the Nazi party in real life, runs for president of the United States in the late 1930s on an "America First" platform and wins in an upset. The subsequent gloomy times that unfold feel like the last three years. It all hits close to home, truly prescient because Roth wrote this novel 15 years ago. *SPOILER ALERT*: The story goes to a very dark place as hate crimes multiply and pogroms ensue. Lindbergh as president behaves in a bizarre way that reveals he's been compromised by Hitler the whole time. The book concludes on a positive note, believe it or not. Just makes you hope someone---in this book it's the First Lady---steps in for an intervention with the current compromised racist lunatic occupying the White House to facilitate an end to our real life nightmare.

3. The Role of Thunder in Finnegans Wake by Eric McLuhan
Wrote about this book here. McLuhan provides fresh insights and unpacks details about Joyce's masterpiece to a more thorough degree than almost any book I've encountered. With a chapter for each of Finnegans Wake's ten different hundred-letter thunderwords, McLuhan examines their context and meaning then lists the echoes and allusions contained in every discrete syllable of each thunderword.

4. If On a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
I love books that experiment with style. The style pyrotechnics of Calvino here are ridiculously bold. The name of each of the chapters combine to tell a story of a book. Then each chapter tells entirely different stories that spin from the name of the chapter. The stories all revolve around the medium of the book or the page or the story itself. It's all very metafictional and weird and makes you reconsider the medium of the novel. Constantly surprising and entertaining, if sometimes hard to navigate at first. Was inspired to read this because it appeared in the aforementioned McLuhan book in a list of novels embodying the tradition of Menippean satire.

5. The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker
An absorbing page-turner of a novel that entirely takes place inside the head of an office worker ascending an escalator at the end of his lunch break one day. Baker dissects the most minute details of modern everyday life using mesmerizing, lucid prose. It's a strange little book, but it will open your eyes and make you think. The depth of its mindfulness was reminiscent of Bloom in Ulysses. Highly recommended.

6. Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
Lerner is a poet who writes easily digestible prose. I zipped through this book because it was enjoyable to read. A thinly veiled autobiographical novel about an anxious, irresponsible, depressed, substance-abusing poetry student studying abroad and chasing women in Spain. It's funny and also philosophical on aesthetics in a way that reminds me of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I'm trying to catch up on Lerner's work. My friend Charlie recommended Lerner the poet years ago, now I keep seeing his 2019 novel The Topeka School on everyone's lists of best books of the year (including Obama's).

7. Joe Gould's Secret by Joseph Mitchell
Picked this up at a tiny bookstore located in a room above a bar in Mexico City (place called Under the Volcano Books). Mitchell's writing is superb, painting a rich portrait and detailing a compelling detective story. This felt like a modernist classic. The true story of a deranged Greenwich Village homeless drunk who was also a washed up Ivy League scholar supposedly assembling the longest book ever written, An Oral History of the Contemporary World. Joe Gould aka Professor Seagull gathers his work in stacks of hundreds of ruffled, dirty, stained marble notebooks that he can barely keep track of. Mitchell's absorbing chronicle of Gould and his mysterious book expands on two long articles Mitchell wrote for the New Yorker (in 1942 and 1964). Enjoyed the book immensely but after reading more about Gould in this 2015 New Yorker piece I look at the book a little differently now.

8. Understanding the I-Ching by Richard Wilhelm and Helmut Wilhelm
A collection of lectures by two of the most respected western translators of the I-Ching. Studied this closely for my paper on Finnegans WakeI-Ching that I delivered in Mexico City (see Part 1). Random side note: In the Seinfeld episode where George gets a book "flagged" at a bookstore for bringing it into the bathroom with him, this book appears prominently on the shelf in the background of a few scenes (see screenshot here, it's located right below a copy of The Hobbit). I wondered if it could've been intentional.

9. The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa
I've said it before: Fernando Pessoa quickly catapulted to the upper echelon of my favorite authors ever (my top 4 looks like this: Joyce, Pynchon, Gass, Pessoa). First I was blown away by his poetry collection, now with this masterpiece. Few books I've ever read have provided me as much reading pleasure as this one. Pessoa wrote through alternate personas, characters he'd occupy, and here in The Book of Disquiet he becomes a lowly assistant bookkeeper in Lisbon named Bernardo Soares who's also an aspiring poet and a dreamer. The book provides Soares's diary entries (they were found as loosely scattered sheets in a trunk discovered after Fernando Pessoa's death, in the New Directions edition they've been gathered chronologically and translated beautifully) revealing the assistant bookkeeper/poet to be a wordsmith with piercingly brilliant philosophical takes on everything, though his tedium is on par with Larry David. I'll repeat: few books I've ever read have provided me as much reading pleasure as this one. Here are some random snippets:

Everything we know is merely our impression, and everything we are is merely someone else's impressions of us, a personal melodrama in which we are conscious of our being our own spectators, our own gods, by kind permission of the local council.
(p. 401) 
Everything is complex or perhaps it's just me who is. But in the end it doesn't matter because nothing really matters. All this, all these considerations that have strayed from the main highway, vegetate in the gardens of the excluded gods like climbing plants growing too far from the walls they should be climbing. And in this night that sees the end but not the conclusion of my disjointed thoughts, I smile at the essential irony that causes them to rise in a human soul orphaned since before the stars were made from Destiny's grand motives.
(p. 225) 
Each of us is intoxicated by different things. There's intoxication enough for me in just existing. Drunk on feeling, I drift but never stray. If it's time to go back to work, I go to the office just like everyone else. If not, I go down to the river to stare at the waters, again just like everyone else. I'm just the same. But behind this sameness, I secretly scatter my personal firmament with stars and therein create my own infinity.
(p. 271) 
None of us, from the cat up, actually leads the life imposed on us or the fate given to us; we all derive from equally obscure origins, we are all shadows of gestures made by someone else, effects made flesh, consequences with feelings.
(p. 361) 
Some days are like whole philosophies in themselves that suggest to us new interpretations of life, marginal notes full of the acutest criticism in the book of our universal destiny.
(p. 389)

I am more and more convinced that an inner decorativism is the superior, enlightened way of giving our lives a destiny. If I could live my life swathed in spiritual lace, I would have no gaping chasms of despair to complain about.
(p. 104)

10. Duino Elegies by Rilke
11. The Coming Forth by Day of Osiris Jones by Conraid Aiken
12. The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard
My 2019 foray into poetry and poetics. Can also throw Delmore Schwartz in here as I've been reading his poetry collection too. Bachelard's Poetics of Space was a revelation, a study of the poetic image of home using for his raw material the lines from dozens and dozens of poems. Bachelard brings an academic rigor but also a rare passion and love for his subject that was infectious. After reading this I immediately wanted to read more books like this. It seems The Poetics of Space is known as a book about architecture but it felt more like a book about poetry and the poetic image. I'd like to take Bachelard's type of precise poetic analysis to a reading of hip hop verses some day.

13. The Devil's Snake Curve by Josh Ostergaard
A baseball book unlike any I've read. A sort of meandering essay collection blending personal reflections, baseball history, contemporary politics, and random facts on the current game. Ostergaard writes beautifully.

14. Baseball Prospectus 2019
15. The Baseball Codes by Jason Turbow

16. K: A History of Baseball Through Ten Pitches by Tyler Kepner
This was one of my favorite books of the year. Devoured this during my Mexico City trip. A history of the development of each pitch that goes into the stories of the pitchers who perfected them. I loved the obscure figures that factor into the origins of pitches. I feel like I've been waiting for this baseball book for years. The story of pitching through histories and analysis of each pitch type. The Neyer/James pitcher's guide was its prelude. Kepner's book is uniquely focused and belongs in the pantheon of great baseball books.

17. The MVP Machine by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchick
Excellent overview of the new technologies and techniques of player development & improvement which have now become widespread in baseball. Great read, though Trevor Bauer makes for an unsavory protagonist.

18. No Place I'd Rather Be: Roger Angell and a Life in Baseball Writing by Joe Bonomo
Great book on the career of Roger Angell, the best baseball writer of them all. Part biography, part collation of the best of Angell's work, it also becomes a mini baseball history encompassing Angell's career from his boyhood as a NY Giants fan watching Mel Ott at the Polo Grounds and Ruth & Gehrig in the Bronx thru the decades of his astute and lyrical New Yorker essays reporting on the game. It also has the subtext of being a history of the New Yorker magazine. Really enjoyed reading this distillation of Angell's finest prose.

19. Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman
Bold ideas backed by surprising insights yielded from data and research. Seems there is hope for humanity if we can manage to implement any of the principles and policies contained here. Everybody needs to read this.

20. Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth by Rachel Maddow
Written in her recognizable folksy, upbeat, sometimes overly verbose style, this rigorous study of the oil industry is an engaging, entertaining, and extremely informative read. I could've done without quite so much circumstantial info around fracking but the overall picture provided here made an impact on me. The oil industry is extremely dangerous not just to the environment but to democracy here and around the world. And this book is not about Donald Trump. He appears briefly. Although what this book essentially does is provide some of the main reasons for why the Russians waged their all-out attack on the 2016 US election. It has a lot to do with oil and gas.

21. Crime in Progress by Peter Frisch and Glenn Simpson
22. The Threat: Protecting America in the Age of Terror and Trump by Andrew McCabe
23. The Mueller Report

In 2019, the situation in American politics and around the world compelled me to learn as much as I could about what's going on. As someone whose main hobby is reading, and especially reading large complex books, I felt it was my duty as a citizen to read up on the topics dominating the news. That's why I read The Mueller Report as soon as it appeared. It was a revelation---I'd have to say it's the most disappointing book I read this year, for a number of reasons (not least because Mueller's team apparently never dug into Trump's financial records). It actually presents a pretty horrifying picture of an all-out assault by Russian military intelligence services on our election (including hacking state voter systems and relentless propaganda campaigns) all in support of Trump, followed by a thorough review of the more than 100 shady interactions between the Trump campaign and the Russians while they were carrying out that attack, concluding with a thoroughly documented breakdown of Trump himself committing a dozen crimes of obstruction to block the investigation and disclosure of all the scary shit from the first half of the book. ALL of that and somehow that didn't end this mess. (In a country obsessed with punishing people for breaking the law, with more people in prison than anyplace else in the world.) Partly because Mueller's team was exceedingly fair to Trump and his people, partly because Mueller adhered to the ridiculous legal memo stating that a president can't be charged with a crime while in office. I still cannot believe that report wasn't the end.

24. Sandworm by Andy Greenberg
An absorbing account of the recent rise in cyberwarfare, especially the malevolent attacks by Russia against Ukraine and the western world, including hacking industrial control systems and creating mass blackouts. This is the current and future situation we all have to deal with. The book goes into great detail on the 2017 cyberattack carried out by Russia against Ukraine that resulted in billions of dollars worth of damage all around the world. Cyberwar now has the demonstrated capability to shut down power grids (not to mention banks, trains, airports, hospitals) leaving millions at risk. The truly insane thing about it all is that the nations who are adversaries of Russia like the United States are reluctant to condemn these types of peacetime attacks on civilians because they wish to reserve the right to carry out such attacks themselves. In fact, some of the most destructive and unpredictable cyberwar tools originated in American intelligence agencies and were stolen and weaponized against the rest of the world. It's scary stuff to read but it's also absolutely vital for us to be aware of this stuff. (My favorite part of the book was probably the details about Russian intelligence services, their ruthlessness, their goals, and their disinformation tools. Seems the whole point of all of this, including the cyberwarfare, is not to cause physical destruction but psychological unease. They want people to feel scared, uncertain about truth, and not trust their institutions to be able to defend them. They want people to become hopeless and give up.)


  1. Thank you so much for this information! If you are interested in cyberwarfare you might enjoy Joseph Menn's 2019 "Cult of the Dead Cow" about how the early use of dial-up bulletin boards by teens led to the development of hacking culture and an appreciation of the how we are affected by cyber security or the lack thereof.

    More importantly, I have really loved reading and learning from your interesting and well-written FW blog. As an FW newbie, I don't have anything relevant to add but do want you to know that your blog is greatly appreciated.


    1. I appreciate this great comment, thank you.