Books of 2021: San Miguel

In a departure from his normally humorous style, T.C. Boyle builds upon the little-known history of a forgotten American domain to spin a novel both lyrical and haunting. So perfectly are the characters and their setting woven together that I almost feel like I was reading Steinbeck.

I finished the novel late at night, and, sitting up on the edge of my bed, opened my windows so I could invite in the mist and listen to the sea lions sing a duet with the foghorn.

Books of 2021: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

I have no idea how I made it to my mid-fifties before I picked up Frederick Douglass’s autobiography. I am left ascribing it to the same oversight in my formal education that denied me Harriet Beecher Stowe and W.E.B DuBois and to a vocational focus that limited my post-graduate reading to the most utilitarian of tomes. Released from the professional-development beartrap, Mr. Douglass beckoned from atop a very tall pile of books, and I took him up.

Douglass’s life would have been painful enough to read had it been but the exceptional tale of a single individual. Knowing throughout – and reminded by Douglass – that his experience of slavery (though not his life post-escape) was archetypal threatens to overwhelm the empathetic reader. Many were the points in the narrative where I had to stop, even step away, to process.

It is indicative of the age that even as I fall into Douglass’s shoes during his story, I hear a voice shouting, “you privileged white-passing old fool! You can never understand what he went through! You can never understand what we went through! How dare you presume to try?

I ignore the voice. There should be no limits to empathy, even if we share nothing in common beyond mere sentience. I will never be Frederick Douglass. But I would be a failure as a human being if I did not do all I could to crawl inside his mind, and come out changed.

Books of 2021: Hillbilly Elegy

JD Vance’s book about his broken Appalachian family may be remembered as the last good and honest thing Vance ever did for his country. It is difficult today to separate the author of this book from the politician, but separate it we must.

Without claiming for the memoir any academic merit, nor confirming Vance’s implication that his family’s story was exemplary of white poverty, his book helped me see and understand the dire cycle into which poverty pulls its victims. I suspect I am not alone, and for that, the book deserves to be recognized and a renewed effort to address poverty in America at its uncomfortable roots begun.

Books of 2021: Little Ship, Big War

Back in print just in time for a Navy overdue for a doctrinal rethink, Little Ship, Big War is naval officer and historian Edward P. Stafford’s memoir of his time as executive officer of the USS Abercrombie, a destroyer escort in the Pacific in the last half of World War II. Stafford’s engrossing and tension-filled account serves as a modern reminder of the central importance of small combatants in naval warfare.

NB: in writing what was supposed to be a caption to the above, I wrote an essay, which I will publish and link separately.

Books of 2021: Herzog

Herzog is Saul Bellows’s timeless contribution to that unique body of mid-twentieth century fiction that deconstructs the neuroses of homo postbellum Americanis.

Like many, I assume, I could not like Herzog (the protagonist): his puerile narcissism drove him to disregard or belittle moral strictures and ethical codes purely because they threatened to limit or delegitimize his hedonistic desires. But I empathized with the mental and spiritual dead-end with which he was struggling, and I appreciated his effort to fight his way through by writing cathartic letters.

(Indeed, I found his approach so provocative that I began my own series of letters to individuals, companies, government officials, and foreign dignitaries that I have no intention of sending. They will be found among my papers after my death.)

Despite the countless times I wanted to pick Herzog up by the scruff of his neck, slap him around, and set him straight about his life, the book was brilliant. If it does not wind up with an entirely happy ending, Bellow does make it satisfying and, in so doing, offers a little light to those of us struggling with the demons of andropause and our own limitations.

Thanks in no small part to Mark Wahlberg, I have read my first Spenser story, and now have a new guilty vice.

Books of 2021: The Myth of Chinese Capitalism

It wasn’t that Tiff told me anything I didn’t already know. It is, rather, the way he lays all the facts out in a cogent argument that made me stop and think. Creating new terms and adding modifiers to frame China’s current economic system and business climate as “capitalism” was once a hopeful expression that China was somehow transitioning to something recognizably capitalist. Today it is clear that any concessions to capital were temporary and expedient, and that the Party has never strayed from its desire to build a centrally-controlled economy that can satisfy the material needs of the people while building national power and prestige.

Books of 2021: The City We Became

I sat down to do a quick blurb about this book, and it turned into an essay.

The tl:dr:

“It has opened my mind and expanded my literary tastes, all while forcing me to grapple with intriguing ideas and wrestle with old prejudices. This is not the kind of reading I could handle every day: the aged mind can only process so may challenges in a compressed time frame. But it is for scaling conceptual heights that I liberated my mind from the workplace, so I will be coming back for my next fix soon.”

The sequel, The World We Make, is on my must-reads list.

You know that you’re a fanatical book collector when, while going through your library, you stop and do a count and you discover that you own no less than 50 medical books, and you’re not even a medical professional.

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