Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Top 10 Books (published pre-2020) of 2020

10. From Democracy to Freedom (crimethinc)

Certainly the most frustrating book of the year for me. But then I've never met a crimethinc product that wasn't annoying to me, so I expected that going in. It turned out frustrating because, even though I rolled my eyes at the prose often and found myself in fundamental disagreement with many of the arguments, I haven't been able to dislodge it from my brain. It works, I think; not necessarily in convincing me whole cloth, but in leaving that nagging doubt that there's more to be worked through.

Basically, the argument is against democracy; not representative democracy, but democracy. Including participatory. In its stead, they propose anarchy as the horizon of political thought and the practice to aspire to. What do they mean by anarchy? Sometimes I suspect they mean "good stuff, you know what I mean? Not the bad stuff." Other times they are more concrete, but those felt too far and few between. Affinity and autonomy, certainly. And there are useful critiques of participatory democracy in the book, ways in which it has failed historically, ways in which it can come apart theoretically, from what feels to me like a genuine left wing perspective, as opposed to crypto-right.

But then they keep doing shit like breaking Democracy down into it's etymology (demos, common people; kratos, power/rule) and harping on that kratos, that power. And at those moments it feels, to me, reductive; a world where there is no power together, only power over. Where all power is subjugation, and all freedom, all anarchy, is (as a corollary) free of power. Is freedom powerlessness?

They don't, of course, get into the etymology of freedom, at least as I recall. It's not from the Latin, so it's much less sexy; from etymonline: "Old English freodom 'power of self-determination, state of free will; emancipation from slavery, deliverance;'..." They would say, I think, that the critique of kratos is a critique of rule, not of power. But I waver, because in my reading that didn't seem clear at all.

And yet.

I remain frustrated.

Because these disagreements, as I read the argument, that I have stand just at the far edge of comradely, threatening to teeter over into foundational, constitutive. And yet this book won't leave my brain. Not every day, not every week. But the critiques continue to stand. And not just that; they feel productive.

9. Heaven is All Goodbyes (Tongo Eisen Martin)

It's been months and months since I read this or talked about it, so the memory is a little faded. But it was the first poetry book I fell for in like, a decade, and I think that's worth a slot on its own.

I preferred this one over his early one because, while both show the same felicity with language and Eisen Martin's ability to veer headlong into the descriptive absurd, the multiplicity of settings in this collection lend themselves to his style, I think. The free roam of labor and marxian interjections on fabric just go together, you know?

8. Dragon Pearl (Yoon Ha Lee)

Dragon Pearl is one of those unfortunate books where every time I remember something that happened, I love it. It's unfortunate because it takes remembering; for whatever reason, this book doesn't stick out in my memory unbidden. Unlike, say, the Machineries of Empire trilogy, which still takes up so much space in my head.

The comparison to Lee's major trilogy isn't just because I love it, of course. This book also follows a woman haunted (possessed, even) by the ghost of a soldier of a different gender; it also deals with hierarchy as represented by military rank and the pressures that puts on consent (though not nearly as graphically; this is a young adult book in the Rick Riordan Presents series about a girl who can shapeshift searching for her AWOL brother in space and getting caught up with a powerful artifact that can terraform worlds, not military science fiction about calendrical warfare and the place of mass death in revolution, after all); it also interrogates revenge and secrets and camaraderie. It's not exactly Machineries of Empire, but For Kids, but it's not not.

Which is why I can't help but have it in my top 10, and why I can't help but be sad that it didn't grab me the way that trilogy, which I once called my favorite of the 2010s (over Leckie's Imperial Radch, Okorafor's Binti, and even Jemisin's Broken Earth), did. But that's not the remit of this book. It's a much more playful, MacGuffin-oriented thing than all that, and I did enjoy it for what it was.

Plus, books that are fairly easy to forget make for better re-readable material, I'd imagine.

7. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (Stephen King)

I have no idea how this book made this list. But I kept staring at it, and I kept cutting other things instead of it. And I got down to the last few and it made it on. And then I started arranging the list; I knew From Democracy to Freedom held that 10-slot, so surely this one was number 9. And then it just kept creeping up. It took James fucking Baldwin to stop this weird little thing in its tracks, and even now I'm like…

From what I've read, I think King has three modes. The first is unhinged, raw King; The Dark Tower. The second is King going off, but reigned in a little; Cell. The third is fully reigned in King, succinct storyteller; Joyland. I've read a weird selection of his work.

The second variety is my least favorite (Cell might be one of my least favorite books of all time). It's King on his bullshit, but with none of the things that make him a special writer except for his inconsummate ability to tell a story. There are none of the interesting cracks, just the boilerplate. The third variety ranks next. I enjoy when King is hinged, a little cautious, clearly edited. He still shines through, but that shine doesn't overwhelm. The stories he tells in this mode stand on their own, but they also reveal something about his work. The first is my favorite, because love it when someone is on their bullshit. It's full 'Sutter Cane' King. Like he might bend the world to meet the fury with which he tells stories.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is the third variety, closer to the second than the first. I don't know why it's on this list; I read so much good shit this year. I read Cujo this year! Cujo is certainly a better book than this, closer to that third King that I prefer. I read Okorafor and The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions! Why on earth is this story about a girl who gets lost in the woods and imagines getting advice from Red Sox semi-star Tom Gordon here?

I ask because I don't have a great answer. There's something about this fucking book that I haven't quite been able to put my finger on since I read it; the way flirts with fantastical materialism in its big threat, maybe, or how novel it is to take this really tight perspective and roll with it, almost never deviating from the simple horror of being one girl, alone, lost and trying and failing. Maybe it's as simple as a single scene, where an imaginary Tom Gordon talks about closing and god.

I don't know that it's a particularly special book. I don't know that it's something anyone needs to read. I do know that I really liked it, though.

6. The Fire Next Time (James Baldwin)

There was a period this year where I was obsessively playing Destiny 2 while listening to old roundtables on YouTube. Baldwin and Giovanni, Hughes and Hansberry, hooks and Cornell, Malcolm X vs James Farmer, Fannie Lou Hamer and Angela Davis, for example. It started with wanting to know more about James Baldwin, specifically, but of course it kaleidoscoped out into many other things, as often happens.

Near the end of this period, I found a full recording of Baldwin's The Fire Next Time on YouTube. It's read well, I think, and I'm surprised I hadn't found this book prior. I remember reading Giovanni's Room in, I believe, a course on the American Novel after WWII and thinking it was something special, but for whatever reason this is only the second thing of his I've read. More to look forward to, I guess.

Having now seen a number of his public speaking appearances, it seems to me - ah, but is it possible to even type those four words without hearing them in Baldwin's exact cadence? - that The Fire Next Time must be the most powerful distillation of the arguments he repeatedly returns to. That integration is not a goal but an established fact, for instance; or that white racism systematically dehumanizes white people, without mincing words on how it oppresses Black people. I wouldn't trust me with his arguments, though; the book takes less time to listen to than most tentpole movies these days, and PDFs aren't hard to find.

What impressed me most was a twenty-ish page stretch that starts right around the middle of the book, a long, reportage-style rumination on the Nation of Islam and centers Baldwin's meeting with the Honorable Elijah Muhammed. Baldwin sparkles, here, the meeting shiny with detail and wit, the quiet asides as clear as a shout. Even absent the substantial contents, it's the kind of reporting that I have only seen in negative. You can see, in those pages, what every profile writer has been trying to do since, and all the myriad ways they have failed to live up to Baldwin's storytelling.

4 & 5. Carceral Capitalism (Jackie Wang) & Are Prisons Obsolete? (Angela Davis)

I had been meaning to read Carceral Capitalism since it came out (Wang is a friend of a friend). I'm annoyed that I didn't get to it sooner, but glad that I read it back to back with Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis. The two come together like a one-two punch of theory. Wang does some theoretical heavy lifting, Davis historicizes. Wang captures the living advancements of an increasingly technocrat prison industrial complex while Davis delivers the ability to understand those developments

I came to them in 2020 for fairly obvious reasons. The uprising that developed over the summer in response to the police murder of George Floyd brought abolition back into the consciousness, and I wanted to press past the rapid deterioration of that conversation (abolish police to defund police, liberal recuperation of harm reduction, Obama's NBA strikebreaking bullshit, etc etc) and get, as the radicals say, back to the roots. Maybe it's ahistorical, but in my mind the abolition movement originates in the call to abolish prisons. That, coupled with a new friend's work doing jail support, ended up in an opportunity to work with the Prisoners Literature Project, which is one bright spot in a workplace that's been a bit of a bummer, and might be being threatened by the Biden administration's move to end physical mail to prisoners in favor of a wretched tech solution that only serves to increase surveillance and develop opportunities for profit.

This technocratic development is not isolated; Carceral Capitalism is very clear on this. It weaves high-level theoretical work with personal anecdotes about the ways that Jackie Wang's ability to communicate with her incarcerated sibling have reflected that theory in practice. In my reading, it takes that central concern - the ways that prisons are increasingly surveilled and developed as instruments of profit-generation - and expands it out to the general structure of carcerality in the United States, from municipal fines and fees to the problem of our concept of innocence as such.

Are Prisons Obsolete deals more in abstractions than personal stories; but then, it's a pamphlet, and it's written by Angela Fucking Davis, so. A family dinner friend described it as a good back pocket book; the kind of thing that's easy to recommend to someone interested in the topic, both because it's short and readable and because it's thoroughly on point throughout. I think that's a good, succinct way to put it, and that I don't have much to add that simply picking up the book (or finding a PDF online or whatever) wouldn't get you to faster and more elegantly.

Yeah. Read these books.

3. Book of Salt (Monique Truong)

The only reread on this list, although I’m fairly certain I hadn’t read it cover to cover since sometime around 2008 or 2009 in one of Karen Tei Yamashita's classes. Likely the one she ended with a lecture on food in Asian American (and other diasporic) literature, and how it comes to represent dialectically (not, I'm sure, her words exactly): as self and other, home and exotic, body and culture, past and future. Or, to maybe stray closer to Karen's original argument, food in Asian American literature represents both exoticization and assimilation, because it is both in the most literal way. As someone who recently came into cooking I have been thinking about that lecture a lot, and it inspired me to pick up The Book of Salt again. I'm so glad I did.

I've said it before in these little reviews and I'll say it again, but: god, Monique Truong's prose is gorgeous. Baldwinesque, maybe, full of sensuality and langor. This book, about (and from the point of view of) Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas' Vietnamese cook, sells itself on its historical referents (Ho Chi Minh shows up! etc.) but the reality of reading it is that the historicity pales in comparison to the daily activities of cooking, fucking, drinking.

One might argue, reductively, that the point of the novel is precisely that: the great figures in history can do nothing - are nothing - without their cooks, their lovers, those they share camaraderie with. It's a good argument, I think, as someone whose work is all about reproductive labor.

But it lacks specificity. It's the why of a recipe, but not the how or with what. Which is what a recipe is.

I came back to this book with the memory that it said words about food in pleasing ways. I left it with the confidence to say that the words about food are great.

2. Salt Fat Acid Heat (Samin Nosrat)

I technically haven’t read Salt Fat Acid Heat cover to cover – I haven’t even cooked with a single one of her recipes, I don’t think – but I did read everything that lead up to the recipes. I don't know that I can give anything else, in media or in life, as much credit as I think this book deserves in terms of developing my ability to cook (with the probable exception of Family Dinner). But then, I don't really believe in singular influences.

In some ways this stands in for some other texts that I didn’t “finish;” specifically, the King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary Cookbook by Brinna B. Sands and On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. The three of these together sort of encapsulate my journey through cooking in 2020, but Salt Fat Acid Heat is the one I think I can both claim comfortably to have read through and the one that I actively reference in my head when thinking technique.

The most common thought, of course, is in reference to properly salted pasta water, which should taste like your memory of the ocean. Not briny, waves crashing, but not actually (anywhere near) the actual salinity of the Pacific. The reason this book is so effective is because of how Nosrat doesn't just give you that useful metric, but how cleanly she explains it.

The short, non-scientist version of it goes something like this: salted water actually helps retain nutrition, color, and flavor in vegetables, for instance, because it limits the amount of diffusion. Properly salted water actually reintroduces diffusion in the opposite direction, so that whatever is boiling is absorbing salt from the water as it does. This makes it better because salt doesn't just taste salty; it helps us taste things in the first place. Nosrat is obviously not the first person to explain this - as far as my research has gone, I think McGee is still the Bible here, although much of his writing has been updated on - but she's among the clearest and most practical (Alton Brown's in there too, and I'm pretty sure all of these people are Republicans or, at best, liberals, which I've been meaning to write an Always Bee Cooking about for over a year now and haven't… eventually, I swear it).

It's been a bad year for living, in a lot of ways, but for me it was a  year of really digging into cooking and baking, and for that I have Samin Nosrat to thank, at least partially. And hey, can I recommend cooking? It's nice.

1. Do You Dream of Terra-Two? (Temi Oh)

You could argue that what I said about Book of Salt above is a lie: technically, I also reread Do You Dream of Terra-Two? in 2020. But I also read it for the first time in 2020. Yeah. I read it twice in one year. I’m currently reading it again as I write this. Prior to Book of Salt, I have no idea when the last time I reread something was. I doubt I’ve read the same book three times since back in the days when I reread the first three Harry Potter books a dozen times each in a single summer, waiting for the fourth one to come out.

There's a moment in Do You Dream of Terra-Two? where one of the six teenagers - chosen from some 500 candidates over the course of years of schooling - lounges in the crew quarters of the spaceship that they are in that is on a 23 year long journey to a near-identical planet called Terra Two, lacking only intelligent life in comparison to Earth, pulls out a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone written in Latin. She's a polyglot, and it reminds her of home, and it is the moment where the Earth disappears from their view and her homesickness begins. It is a strange moment to read in 2020, when people have finally caught up to the fact that Rowling is a miserable reactionary transphobe. In one of two episodes of Spectology I did with Adrian on the book late last year, he mentioned that the book functions as a sort of surreptitious critique of not just Potter, but the British genre of school stories. If you want my fuller thoughts on the book, I'd point you to those pre- and post-reads.

One thing I can do here that doesn't work in the conversational podcast format, though, is cite some stuff. Unfortunately I've given away every copy I've read previously (and then some), so I don't have a book that's marked up. A random passage I read yesterday, though, contained two bits that I thought really define something particular about my complicated and weirdly complete love for this book. First, a sentence:

"The metal was cold like space was cold."

I love the prose in this book. I mean that in a very different way than I usually mean that statement. Usually, when I say that, it is because I love the tangle, the weave, the deft undercutting of language as supposedly-spoken. I long for words that tumble over each other and trip while they sing and snarl, sharp as canines when they gnaw ideas. At a glance, this is none of these. It is childish observation, repetition meant to Convey Information. It is young adult, all concerned with Reader Comprehension, none with the dense thicket of interiority.

At a glance, it's an example of why I should hate this book. It has none of the (alleged; I've never read them) poetry of Hemingway or Carver, none of the subtle rage of McCarthy. What it does have, though, is weight. Heft. It clunks because it is terrifying and huge and meaningless, except for the things it means to these characters.

Second, a page:

"'I just wanted to be alone for a bit,' Astrid said. 'I'm just grateful I made it.' Juno put her head in her sister's lap. And as she did so, she felt an inward release of pressure. The feeling of being home.
Juno and Astrid had been born three and a half weeks early. Their mother had told them the story only once, described the trauma she had suffered, the blood loss. The isolating terror of that night. And when the sun rose, their mother, delirious with exhaustion, had gazed at them--these keening blue creatures that the doctors had ripped from her--and said to their father, 'We can't undo it now.' Words that had frightened Juno for years. Her mother had been saying that she would never not be a mother. That when she laid eyes on the twins, the permanence of her new status hit her with a sudden and brutal force. She would be their mother until she died and even after.
'Did we make a mistake?' Juno asked. Astrid was making quick, sharp, gasping sounds, her shoulders shuddering. 'Are you crying?' Juno strained to discern her sister's face in the darkness. Her cheeks glistened. She nodded.
'Do you think we made a mistake?' Juno ventured again.
Astrid shook her head.
'Are you homesick?'
Astrid shook her head again."

With that same workmanlike prose, in the same scene, Temi Oh takes the concept of home - one of the novel's, and genre's, prevailing themes - and twists it four different ways. Home as comforting presence, home as place, home as loss, home as irretrievable and unmourned. It is astonishing.

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