With respect to Socrates, my unexamined life is not worth living. The front room is the face we show everyone but we hide our true self in the back room.
When I was younger I relied on people personally recommending books to me. This year, out of the near 60 books I read, only ten books fit that characterization: Wild Tales, The Sense of an Ending, Quiet, River of Doubt, The Human Stain, Predators, Night Over Day Over Night, Galapagos, My War, The Rachel Papers.
Most of the books came from articles and adverts in magazines like The Believer, PEN Literature Series, The New Yorker and Interview. Books like White Girls, Marcovaldo or The Seasons in the City, Odds Against Tomorrow, Thank You For Your Service, Confessions of an Economic Hitman, Love, Nina, Americanah, Open City, The Book of Disquiet, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, Le Freak, The Last Holiday, River Town.
One of the magazine-recommended books Here and Now: Auster/ Coetzee had the authors talking about this writer Kleist and so I purchased and read his book The Marquise of O and other Stories.
Books in my library for years finally found their way to my bedside table. Is Journalism Worth Dying For?, Goodnight, Steve McQueen, Pronto, Cagney, Meet You in Hell, The Virgin Suicides, Makes Me Wanna Holler, Dinner With Mugabe.
For the first time, I paid attention to the authors I read and looked for more of their books. I read five books by Sarah Schulman, four books by Julian Barnes, three books by Martin Amis and Elmore Leonard, and two books by Teju Cole and Philip Roth.
I particularly enjoyed discovering Barnes and Amis this year and along with Will Self (whose book Umbrella remains my white whale in 2014 but will be read as the sequel in a trilogy, Shark was just released last month) will happily devour anything these men have to say. Barnes, for his economy of words begging to be read aloud, touches on honest truths within us and Amis, creates characters so unlikable yet irresistible until the inevitable rug-pull and we are left with a nasty end.
I am late to the Roth and Mailer party this year having read Everyman, The Human Stain and Armies of The Night, respectively, and looking to add more next year. I am taken with Roth’s depth of character, and how expertly he raises issues and makes you think. Mailer just muscles his way through in a love/hate fashion leaving everything on the floor, truly fearless.
Once again I will sing Sarah Schulman’s praises. She is virtually unknown. As an advocate for gay rights on a local and international platform in her essays: The Gentrification of The Mind: A Witness to a Lost Imagination and Israel/Palestine and the Queer International you get the sense of her devotion. Her earlier works, After Delores, Rat Bohemia and People in Trouble are quick and entertaining reads that just happen to feature gay characters as one features straight characters, loving, living, struggling and having adventures. As I said in a previous post, her book Stage Struck reveals integrity too often painting women as “angry”. In this book she recounts the ridiculous theft of her book, People in Trouble by another writer who used her story and actual scenes for the basis of his musical. The plagiarist was Jonathan Larsen and the musical was Rent. What burns her most is not how an upper middle class heterosexual hijacked her book and ideas and sold the story as a modern retelling of La Boheme without ever attributing credit to her but how in drawing crass mischaracterizations of the positive gay characters she created, the mainstream public used these generalizations as faulty archetypes for future gay characters.
I read some wonderful biographies and history books which left a mark on me, affecting me more than I bargained for at times. Rebecca West should have been a celebration of the writer’s extraordinary achievements but so much of her life was painful and tragic new readings on her works can only deliver added poignancy. My fascination with homosexual culture in the age of clandestine meetings, and relentless pursuits of pleasure led me to Samuel Steward, the bon vivant of tattoos and spintriae in his rousing biography Secret Historian The Life and Times of Samuel Steward: Professor, Tattoo Artist and Sexual Renegade. The tremendous clash between Andrew Carnegie “the bobbin boy” and Henry Clay Frick during the Industrial Revolution resulting in the deadly Homestead Strike in 1892 in the terrifically tense Meet You in Hell serves also as an excellent case study of justifiable capitalism. Later in the year I acquainted myself with the full dictatorial thrust of Robert Mugabe, the ruler of Zimbabwe who after destroying his nation refuses to leave. With Carnegie and now Mugabe’s book Dinner With Mugabe these two mercurial forces strike similar schizophrenic poses speaking for the plight of the have-nots while greedily filling their pockets, oblivious of the hypocrisy.
Race was a huge subject for me this year and I threw myself into the discussion exploring general and specific, singular and populous, America and Africa issues taking on books like The Human Stain, Hilton Als’ powerful collection of essays in White Girls, Jazz and disco icons Gil Scott Heron and Nile Rodgers autobiographies The Last Holiday and Le Freak, Teju Cole’s two philosophical journeys through Nigeria in Open City and Every Day Is For the Thief, as well as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah which also explored Nigeria both Cole and Adichie referencing the same music shop in Lagos called Jazzhole, ending the season with four gripping true stories: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, Makes Me Wanna Holler, The Lost Tribe of Coney Island and Dinner With Mugabe. So many past transgressions chronicled only added to the bonfire of racial disparity in our current context and made me question more.
The book that had the greatest impact on me this year was Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. I found writers I admired praising the translation of this Portuguese book I had to see for myself. The gift of language and examining life the way Socrates meant, this book of exquisite beauty was the touchstone for action in starting this very blog.
And still despite the volume of pages I have turned this year, I no longer look at things as achievements unless there is follow through.
I remain restless. My eyes fixed upon the present.