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Best of the Best-Books-of-2018 lists

Are these the best books of 2018?

 

Earlier this year I had the idea for Booketlist, an app to help avid readers create and manage a lifetime reading plan—because so many books, so little time. To determine what classics should be included, I’m turning to books like Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major’s The New Lifetime Reading Plan and Michael Dirda’s Reading Classics for Pleasure for inspiration. But when it comes to contemporary literature, the task gets harder. Has enough time passed to know what the classics of the twenty-first century are? How best to keep the app up-to-date each year as more and more books are published?

To examine that question, I took a look at three of the recently published 2018 end-of-year lists from prominent English language (two American, one British) media organizations:

  1. NPR’s Book Concierge for 2018 (319 books)
  2. The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2018 (as you might expect, this list encompasses the NYT’s 10 Best Books of 2018)
  3. The Financial Times Books of the Year 2018 (195 books)

Each list is a different beast that I’ll talk about in a separate post dedicated to making sense of these lists. For now, I’ll jump straight to the results of which books show up on all three lists. In alphabetical order by title, grouped by non-fiction and fiction, the nine books that are common between these three best-of lists are:

Non-Fiction

  1. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup – John Carreyrou
  2. Educated – Tara Westover (This title made this list thanks to a reader nomination on the FT list. The FT is the only list of the three that includes a readers’ best books section.)
  3. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence – Michael Pollan
  4. Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World – Anand Giridharadas

Fiction

  1. Asymmetry – Lisa Halliday
  2. Lake Success – Gary Shteyngart
  3. The Female Persuasion – Meg Wolitzer
  4. The Friend – Sigrid Nunez
  5. Washington Black – Esi Edugyan

What does this list of nine books tell us about 2018? Perhaps it’s the wrong question since they would have been written in the years before their publication. But do they contribute to some kind of thematically linked contemporary portrait? In non-fiction, we find a tale of misdeeds in Silicon Valley, a memoir of a woman who grew up with a survivalist father, a re-examination of LSD in an age of increasing legalization of drugs from the man who taught us about the ethics of food, and a critique of the elites’ ability to change the world for good—a nice link straight back to Bad Blood and the misdeeds of Silicon Valley.

In fiction, we find a novel comprised of two novellas, one about an affair between a younger and older person, the other about the detention of an Iraqi-American; a Wall Street bro on a road trip; a novel about feminism and women’s mentoring relationships; another about suicide and womanizing and power imbalance; and finally, one about slavery and adventure. A line from the synopsis of Halliday’s Asymmetry seems a neat summary of the group of all nine books as well, each of which in some way “explores the imbalances that spark and sustain many of our most dramatic human relations: inequities in age, power, talent, wealth, fame, geography, and justice.” While these imbalances are timeless themes, they have particularly contemporary resonance in our age of #metoo, BLM, refugee crises, wealth inequality, political strongmen, and the Kardashians, to name a few.

*

I started this process by comparing The New York Times’s 100 to NPR’s list of 319 books. I assumed I’d find almost all the NYT books on the NPR list, but there were less than half—45 to be exact—in common. Here’s that list, also in alphabetical order by title, grouped by non-fiction and fiction.

Non-Fiction 

  1. American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey Into the Business of Punishment – Shane Bauer
  2. Arthur Ashe: A Life – Raymond Arsenault
  3. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup – John Carreyrou
  4. Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis – Sam Anderson
  5. Calypso – David Sedaris
  6. Educated – Tara Westover
  7. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress– Steven Pinker
  8. Feel Free – Zadie Smith
  9. God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State – Lawrence Wright
  10. Heavy: An American Memoir – Kiese Laymon
  11. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence – Michael Pollan
  12. In Pieces – Sally Field
  13. Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro – Rachel Slade
  14. Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret – Craig Brown
  15. Small Fry – Lisa Brennan-Jobs
  16. The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War – Joanne B. Freeman
  17. The Fifth Risk – Michael Lewis
  18. The Library Book – Susan Orlean
  19. There Will Be No Miracles Here – Casey Gerald
  20. These Truths: A History of the United States – Jill Lepore
  21. Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World – Anand Giridharadas

Fiction – Here I noted if the book had been nominated for a National Book Award or the Man Booker Prize, as well as genre where the book is something other than a novel of literary fiction. The inclusion of four Man Booker nominees on the list highlights the omission of the winner, Northern Irish writer Anna Burns’s Milkman, and the folly of publishing best-of lists at the end of November: the novel’s US release date is December 4, 2018, and it was included in the British FT’s best-of list.

  1. An American Marriage – Tayari Jones (National Book Award finalist)
  2. Asymmetry – Lisa Halliday
  3. Crudo – Olivia Laing
  4. Freshwater – Akwaeke Emezi
  5. Lake Success – Gary Shteyngart
  6. My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Ottessa Moshfegh
  7. Only to Sleep: A Philip Marlowe Novel – Lawrence Osborne (thriller)
  8. Sabrina – Nick Drnaso (graphic novel)
  9. Severance – Ling Ma
  10. Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik
  11. The Female Persuasion – Meg Wolitzer
  12. The Friend – Sigrid Nunez (National Book Award winner)
  13. The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (National Book Award finalist)
  14. The House of Broken Angels – Luis Alberto Urrea
  15. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden – Denis Johnson
  16. The Mars Room – Rachel Kushner (Man Booker Prize shortlist)
  17. The Overstory – Richard Powers (Man Booker Prize shortlist)
  18. The Perfect Nanny – Leila Slimani
  19. The Sparsholt Affair – Alan Hollinghurst
  20. The Witch Elm – Tana French (thriller)
  21. There There – Tommy Orange (National Book Award finalist)
  22. Warlight – Michael Ondaatje (Man Booker Prize longlist)
  23. Washington Black – Esi Edugyan (Man Booker Prize shortlist)
  24. Your Duck Is My Duck – Deborah Eisenberg (stories)

A final note: I built these lists mostly with Excel and eyeballing titles rather than by dumping the data into a database and systematically querying it, ie there may be mistakes. Please let me know if you notice any.

Books Britain England

My England Diary

Cheltenham Literature Festival

Listening to the radio on the drive to Heathrow after two weeks in England, host Richard Coles (current vicar, former pop-band member) mentions the “deep seams of embarrassment” that are core to the British psyche. His assertion is that tapping into these seams is the key to British stand-up comedy. It strikes a chord with me, too. This more than tea and scones, Shakespeare, cozy pubs or any other emblems of twee Britannia, is the root of my Anglophilia. I am, at heart, a congenitally embarrassed American.

Embarrassment has been a sort of leitmotif of my visit, which coincided with the annual Cheltenham Literature Festival. As with past years when I’ve been able to attend, one of the festival highlights was the event featuring four of the Man Booker Prize finalists (alas not the winner, Anna Burns). When Rachel Kushner, author of The Mars Room, stood at the lectern and started to read, she immediately interrupted herself to ask the person in the audience that sounded like they were slurping their drink through a straw to please stop. She did this with a sort of comic abrasiveness that elicited a laugh from the audience. No sooner had she started again than she interrupted herself once more to ask the offender to really, please stop. At this point someone near the front of the auditorium helpfully called out to Kushner that the noise distracting her was someone with breathing difficulties. I died inside for Kushner, wondering how she would handle the faux pas. In her shoes, I would have apologized profusely and immediately left the stage while self-flagellating with my belt or whatever object made itself available. Kushner instead gave a subtle, self-deprecating wince and immediately got back to her reading, which was dazzling and therefore effective on its own at moving the audience on from what had just happened.

After the event, all the authors shared a table for the book signing. Robin Robertson, author of The Long Take, a novel partially in verse that was one of the long shots for the prize, sat quietly with his hands folded, waiting for an autograph-seeking reader to materialize while his fellow nominees wielded their Sharpies with abandon. I was in line waiting for Kushner to sign a copy of her book, but such was my unsolicited self-consciousness on behalf of Robertson that I almost bought a copy of his book and asked him to sign it to alleviate my own discomfort—despite having enjoyed his reading the least of the four authors on stage. (Now I feel bad about saying I didn’t particularly enjoy it. To atone for this, I will add that it’s an epic novel about a World War II veteran set in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and you should definitely buy it if that sounds like your kind of thing.)

Me looking not at all embarrassed to be holding a book about poverty while eating in a gastropub.

 

In the end I bought four books over the course of the festival. In addition to Kushner’s The Mars Room, I also got Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari (his talk was the other highlight of my experience at the festival), Olivia Laing’s Crudo, and Sally Rooney’s Normal People (from the delightful The Suffolk Anthology bookstore). In the past I’ve feigned embarrassment on social media over my unbridled acquisition of books, but this is at least one area where I’ve managed to cure my own feelings of self-consciousness. My corporate job is fine as far as corporate jobs go, but the one unfettered joy its compensation brings me is the liberty to buy books whenever the mood strikes, which is often. It’s a pleasure to compensate authors—who pour years of their lives into this work—and stimulate my intellect, or simply decorate my shelves, with this sort of material indulgence. For this I offer no apology, feigned or otherwise.

***

After Cheltenham, we spent a couple nights in London, including one with an old if not particularly close friend of my husband’s. He and his family live in a home in North London that’s like the kind of home you see in a film like Notting Hill. He’s very hospitable—especially considering we see him approximately once every seven or eight years—and most striking, perhaps the least embarrassed British person I’ve ever met.

One way this manifests is in the almost-delightful-in-its-unselfconsciousness amount of namedropping he manages over the course of the ten or so hours we spend in his home. The next morning over coffee my husband and I tot up the list and come up with:

  1. Neil Kinnock, a former British politician who, apropos of nothing, our host informed us was the father of someone he and his family had recently vacationed with.
  2. The actor Damien Lewis’s brother, who is either a producer (like our host) or a director and whose profession I misstated as one of those at some point in the evening, only to be sternly corrected. Our host also gleefully explained how he and Mr. Lewis’s brother refer to Mr. Lewis as a cat’s arse because of the way he puckers his mouth. It is an image I can’t quite shake and am worried is going to affect my enjoyment in watching Billions.
  3. A British actor who plays a captain on Star Trek whose name I can’t remember, but is not Patrick Stewart, who I definitely would’ve remembered.
  4. Richard Curtis (screenwriter of Notting Hill, appropriately), his partner Emma Freud (great-granddaughter of Sigmund), and their daughter Scarlett, who coincidentally interviewed her father at an event I’d attended in Cheltenham the previous Saturday. Our hosts reliably inform us the Curtis clans runs herd over an entire village in Suffolk before thrusting a copy of the new Scarlett Curtis-curated anthology, Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and Other Lies, at me and insisting I take it. The implication is that their connection to the Curtises has somehow resulted in them having a stash in a cupboard somewhere.
  5. Elton John, mentioned when I asked about a painting hanging in the hallway—a riff on a Penguin book cover—that I liked. Apparently the painter, Harland Miller, is “big with celebrities” like Sir Elton, but our host acquired this piece long before that was the case, natch.

If our host is reading this—which he’s almost certainly not—please don’t be mad, and please keep inviting us to stay at your house every seven or so years so you can regale us with throwaways about famous people. We shamelessly like it.

***

And now on a plane back to California, where I’m writing this. Early in the flight I was annoyed by a young woman speaking loudly. Assuming it was someone wearing headphones who didn’t realize they were talking at such a high volume, I was keen to catch their eye and give them the kind of disapproving look I’ve perfected for such occasions on shared transit. Then, in a flash, I remembered Kushner’s misstep in Cheltenham and wondered if the person speaking loudly may have an impairment. She did, which I discovered shortly into the flight when she was helped to the bathroom by her caregiver. I breathed a sigh of relief I hadn’t given her daggers earlier and said a silent thank you to Kushner for sparing me the mortification if I had.

Britain England

London in a single street

Golborne Road: a tale of two cities

 

London is hardly a one-street town, but sometimes it feels possible to experience the entire city on a single street. Such was my feeling about Golborne Road—a stretch of pavement that starts near the top of its more famous neighbor, Portobello Road, then runs a few blocks before it spits you out in a community garden along the Grand Union Canal—on a late spring visit earlier this year. We have a minuscule flat in Maida Hill, five minutes farther on the other side of the canal, that was unexpectedly free of tenants when we were there, and so we used it to stay overnight before heading home from Heathrow the next day.

My sharpest memory of this road from when we last lived in the neighborhood, almost a decade ago, was seeing David Cameron strolling with his small children during a weekend market. Back then—pre-Brexit disgrace—he was the opposition leader, and it was striking to see such a prominent politician without security out amongst us common folk. The street has gentrified considerably since, so much so that it perhaps no longer offers the backdrop for the sort of man-of-the-people positioning Cameron was likely after at the time. Still, much remains the same, including the tiny-yet-labyrinth Moroccan homewares shop, Fez. Inside we admired cheerfully painted, octagonal side tables, and I sprang for a straw summer bag decorated with a silver tassel and a snail-shaped spiral of sequins.

Other stalwarts of the street include the antiques shop, Les Couilles du Chien, which always reminds me of the Harry Enfield sketch, I Saw You Coming, featuring a shop that’s “basically a bunch of crap that I’ve rather tastefully displayed and a few smelly candles.” (Note: having never actually gone into Les Couilles du Chien, I have no reason to think the “crap” contained therein is anything less than the dog’s bollocks.)

We next turned our attention to two adjacent and new-to-us cafés, both with inviting pavement seating. At Snaps + Rye, we went off piste from the Danish menu and enjoyed a glass of rosé outside. This gave us an excellent vantage point from which to spot a table freeing up outside at Kipferl next door. We swooped in and ordered a carafe of Grüner Veltliner, which arrived on a silver tray with another carafe of water, in the same appealing manner as Viennese coffee service.

Scandie-Austrian on Golborne Road

From here, I watched people doing their shopping at two independent markets directly across the street. One of them, E. Price & Sons, had the most striking visage: on the left, a boarded up, graffiti-strewn incarnation of the exact same cheery, Union-Jack-festooned shop on the right. The only other difference was the description of the shop painted in cursive script underneath “E. Price & Sons.” On the old shop, it read “English & Foreign Fruiterers,” while the new sign had dropped the distinction entirely for the more generic “Fruiterers & Greengrocers.” It seems wholly appropriate on a street featuring Moroccan, Portuguese, Pakistani, Lebanese, Danish, Austrian, and Italian—to name the ones I remember—shops and restaurants, that the words “English” and “foreign” had been rendered superfluous. The notion works equally well for London as for this tiny street.

There are other things I liked about this side-by-side contrast of the old and new shops, not least of which is that there is a word in the English language that makes a retailer of fruit evoke a life of excitement akin to being one of the three musketeers. While “English & foreign” were summarily dismissed in the recommissioning of the sign, “fruiterer” was wisely retained. I also like how, in a world where we are relentlessly tasked—especially by our social-media-platform overlords—with reinventing ourselves, the reincarnation of the fruit shop seems to be giving us permission to say sometimes it’s OK to pack it all in and start from scratch. And it’s just fine to leave our past failures on display. I very much hope to find the dilapidated old shop in exactly the same state when I next visit. If you happen to be there before me and notice it’s been reinvented, please feel free not to tell me.

Dinner that evening was at the excellent Pizza East, at the Portobello-end of the street, then back over the railway bridge where we couldn’t resist stopping in for one last drink at Southam Street. What used to be a pub is now an ambitious-seeming multi-level bar and restaurant with a doorman wearing weather-inappropriate, ominous leather gloves. The wine was more inexpensive than the context implied. As we walked back towards the canal, we passed what appeared to be a very-fun-to-hate members-only club just in the shadow of the brutalist landmark, high-rise residences of Trellick Tower. This caused me to suddenly remember, and curse, a painter who had once dropped and smashed a beloved mug that was decorated with a drawing of Trellick. I was fairly drunk.

On our final morning we crossed the Harrow Road, then the pedestrian bridge over the canal, and headed back to Golborne for our last hour in London. At the Portuguese coffee shop Lisboa, we joined the queue of commuters for inexpensive, delicious black coffee. I mourned my dairy-free diet as I watched my husband consume not one but two custard tarts. (In my pre-vegan days, I particularly enjoyed the chicken croquettes, coxinhas, at Café O’Porto, another Portuguese café on the opposite side of the street.)  It was soon time for us to leave London, and even though the past twenty-four hours had been spent largely on a single street, I felt remarkably well-traveled.

California

In praise of one-street towns: Point Arena

Franny's Cup and Saucer

Franny’s Cup and Saucer, Main Street, Point Arena

About four years ago, my husband and I discovered Los Alamos, California, a one-street town in Santa Barbara County, just off the 101. It’s of course more than just a one-street town, but not by much. At the time it had already been discovered, at least by some of Hollywood. Emilio Estevez had started a craft-beer bar there, and Kurt Russell owned a saloon/tasting room.

Still, it was not quite given over to tourists the way other parts of the Santa Ynez Valley were post-Sideways. The local motel was still crappy (although in the midst of being converted by the same people who had converted another formerly crappy hotel in Ojai into an outpost of the now ubiquitous Coachella-meets-ranch style), and the hours at the businesses along the main street were erratic—many still only open Thursday through Sunday. While the town’s main drag, Bell Street, has continued to morph in recent years, Los Alamos has remained a favorite of ours for a one-night weekend away.

Part of it’s appeal is the one-street package. Los Alamos is not demanding of its visitor.  You can eat, drink, nap and browse your way along Bell Street for an entire day, starting with breakfast at Bob’s Well Bread at the 101 end, eventually finishing with dinner at Full of Life Flatbread at the other. This geography of idling is part of the reason we were so excited when on a recent trip along Highway 1 in northern California, we discovered one of Los Alamos’s one-street brethren in Point Arena, a tiny town some 130 miles north of San Francisco in southern Mendocino County.

On our first of two visits, a barking Pomeranian drew us into the open-fronted Zen House Motorcycles, a shop that specializes in restoring high-end bikes. Inside I admired their branded tee-shirts and hats, bearing a logo that riffs on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, while my husband admired the bikes, and the friendly female mechanic gave him details of each one. She even listened politely as he described the joy he’s found in riding his recently-acquired, used knock-off Vespa. The shop adjoins a full-service gas station, and later when we filled up there it was such a pleasant, human experience that it made me hope for a full-service resurgence.

Next door we poked around the outside of the Wildflower Boutique Motel, which was under construction. It still wasn’t done when we returned a few weeks later for an overnight visit, so we booked a room at the Wharf Master’s Inn. It’s a mile or so off the main street, with views of a Pacific cove and easy access to the Pier Chowder House and Tap Room. But we had a date with main street, so we rode our bikes up the gentle hill into town and headed to 215 Main, where we met the librarian and basketball coach at the local high school who was having his first day on the job as a bartender, too. His moonlighting was a reminder that while one-street towns may still exist in America, the middle-class security that they evoke is long gone.

The bar specializes in regional wines, which means it has an excellent selection from the nearby Anderson Valley. There’s food, too, but we were there before dinner time and the only thing we saw plated up was when an elderly cowboy sitting at one end of the bar pointed at a salami hanging from the wine glass rack and asked for a few slices and some tomato to go with it. This was not on the menu, but the bartender made it for him anyway. When we later went across the street to Sign of the Whale, a classic small-town boozer, the cowboy was at the end of the bar again.

Point Arena Lighthouse

Point Arena Lighthouse

In between, we stopped in at an art show on the premises of a stylish homeware store that was closing down, admired the baked goods at Franny’s Cup and Saucer—which included an exquisite dish of “eggs and bacon” made from mango curd-topped meringue and pink-striped shortbread—and fantasized about buying Fogeaters, a now-empty Victorian property with a restaurant on the ground floor and an apartment upstairs. There’s also a small grocery store, a couple of coffee shops (one at the front of the grocery store), a pharmacy, and a library, all on a few blocks of the main drag.

Back at Sign of the Whale, the proprietor wandered in, fresh from his shift at the fire department. A few minutes into our conversation he mentioned he’d worked on the Thomas Fire in December, which had threatened our home in Ventura, and showed us a set of jaw-dropping pictures on his phone. Flush with gratitude, we thanked him profusely and bought him a beer before heading through the swinging doors that connect the bar with Bird Cafe & Supper Club. Our dinner of borscht followed by sweet potato gnocchi was superb.

In the morning, we drove a few miles out to the lighthouse and took a walk in the whipping wind. There’s a Victorian bandstand that sits on a lone spit of land to the east of the lighthouse, a perfect place to sit and enjoy the view (or re-enact an eighties music video). When we visited, sea lions had miraculously hoisted themselves onto the jagged-rock islands around the point and were lolling in the morning sun. To join them in this splendid isolation you can rent one of the lighthouse cottages, but then you’d miss out on the many pleasures of this one-street town.

Books California Christmas Letters

2017: My Year in Books

I’m not sure if I’ll muster the will to write a Christmas letter this year, mostly because my will has been sapped by much of 2017 on both the personal and political fronts. As the saying goes, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say it at all.

There is, however, one thing about which I have only nice things to say, and that’s all the lovely books I’ve read this year. Sure, I’ve read far less in 2017 than 2016, a fact I attribute directly to the draining of my attention and energy by the personage currently occupying our White House. But I’m grateful to my bones for the knowledge and enjoyment provided by every single one of those I did manage to get through, so I’ll turn my festive cheer their way.

Let’s keep up the positive vibe with a shout out for Nina Stibbe’s Paradise Lodge. I first read Stibbe’s charming collection of letters, Love, Nina, about her time as nanny to the editor of the London Review of Books, and it turns out she’s a terrific novelist too. Paradise Lodge is the second novel in a series about the Vogel family, but you needn’t have read the first—I didn’t—to enjoy this one. The protagonist, teenager Lizzie Vogel, who works at a decaying but somehow still charming nursing home while trying to finish school, is so deftly drawn that I loved every minute I spent with her. Also, I don’t think it spoils things to say it has a happy ending. I suspect people might need one of those just about now. (I’m not sure why the cheery yellow cover of Paradise Lodge doesn’t appear in the photo above, but I hope it’s because I gave my copy to someone else to enjoy.)

Now that I’ve sweetened you up, I’m going to go ahead and hit you with Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus, a post-apocalyptic—by which I mean a totally believable, especially after this year’s fire season, twenty-first century version of the dust bowl—novel about a couple fleeing California with a neglected baby they’ve kidnapped, who ends up an unlikely messiah figure. The writing is stunning and cinematic, and someone better make a film out of it so I can bluster about how the book was better.

Two other novels I enjoyed this year were Rachel Cusk’s Transit, mostly because I’m deeply drawn to her detached protagonist Faye, and Robin Sloan’s Sourdough, which has a much more conventional (read: likable) protagonist in the form of Lois. If you work in tech and like food, I think you’ll like Sloan’s story, which includes gentle send-ups of both those cultures. I also got to see him read at Mrs. Dalloway’s  (more on this special store below) after I read the book, and it was fun to hear him talk about writing it. I like that he’s a developer and a writer.

My favorite novel of the year was Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I bought this a few years back at a literature festival in England (not sure why it was there since McCullers is long dead), and randomly picked it up to read earlier this year. I subsequently gathered she’s famous in some corners of the literary world, but why McCullers is not as well-known as Harper Lee is beyond me. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is the nihilist version of To Kill a Mockingbird, and it’s brilliant. The novel is populated by an ensemble cast, but the young female character of Mick Kelly slayed me. I once worked with a guy who had named his daughter Scout after Atticus Finch’s daughter in To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t have kids, which means the highest honor I can bestow a character in a book is to name a pet after him or her. Let’s just say there’s a cat called Mick Kelly in my future and leave it at that.

Now for the non-fiction portion of my reading list, starting with three books of author’s diaries: Alan Bennett’s Keeping On Keeping On, David Sedaris’s Theft By Finding, and Joan Didion’s South and West. I wrote an essay about them here, so I won’t say more except that if you like these authors I also think you’ll like these books. Robert Moor’s On Trails: An Exploration is a terrific book that reminded me I like science and is a great example of how to riff on a theme in non-fiction. This book is so much more than a story about someone who hiked the Appalachian Trail. Finally, Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living is a lovely book for anyone who adores books, with the bonus that each essay is the perfect length for a bath. If you’re still looking for a gift for someone, you could do worse than this book packaged up with a nice bottle of bubble bath.

A few of the books I read this year don’t show up in the pictures in this post because I checked them out from the library. I’ve spent much of 2017 in Berkeley, and one of the benefits has been access to two remarkable libraries—the downtown Deco and Craftsman extravaganza just a block from my office and the mock-Tudor Claremont branch, complete with a gas fireplace and comfortable chairs. Three cheers for libraries and all their card-carrying members.

The other delight of Berkeley is its terrific independent bookstores, including Moe’s Books on Telegraph; Revolution Books, where I made a point of shopping after alt-right bullies decided to intimidate the staff; Pegasus Books, from whom I buy the Weekend FT (mostly for its terrific Books section) each Saturday, plus whatever else they tempt me with, whether a cute greeting card or a little tin of “impeachmints”; Issues on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, quite possibly the most wonderful newsstand left in America; and best of all, the gem of my neighborhood, Mrs. Dalloway’s. This is a beautiful bookstore with a helpful staff and a sparkling roster of author events, and I thank them for making the neighborhood feel, well, like a neighborhood.

For all my trepidation and uncertainty about 2018, one consolation remains: it will come with more great books. Happy reading!

Bought but not read in 2017. Something to look forward to in the year ahead!

Cotswolds Walking

What’s in a name?

Dry-stone-wall porn

I will be the first to admit I have a habit of propagating the concept of Twee Cotswoldia. My version of this part of rural England is all idyll and no ills. I have anthropomorphized every tree and animal within a ten-mile radius of our cottage to within an inch of its non-human life. You can always tell when I’m here because my tweets turn into a feed of hardcore dry-stone-wall porn.

This narrative of the countryside suits me—an outsider who comes here to relax—but of course I know this is a curated concept of these hills. I was reminded of this truth last weekend at the local wine bar when, for some reason, the origin of the name “Helen’s Ditch” came up. I had known it for the decade we’ve been coming here as the way everyone refers to a footpath that runs across the top of a field on the southern edge of town. I always thought someone named Helen owned the land behind it or loved walking there and therefore became its namesake, but it turns out Helen’s Ditch is called that because it’s where her body was found sometime in the 1980s. I wondered if someone was pulling my urban-rube-of-a-leg, but the story was corroborated by one of the more sensible patrons of the wine bar. There is no happy ending here. Nobody knew, or at least remembered, who killed Helen, and her legacy was the most prosaic of landscape features.

Today I went out alone on a walk and was halfway along Helen’s Ditch when I remembered the story. I wasn’t scared as much as morose: somehow Helen’s Ditch seemed a fitting metaphor for the current hurricane season with its combination of benign names of elderly people and deadly consequences. My parents, who live in South Florida, had thus far refused to evacuate ahead of Irma, and I was feeling more furious at them than scared for them. I made it to the end of the ditch path and headed down a dead-end road I had never explored—one of the boons of the Cotswolds is its never-ending supply of new forks in the road. At the end was a gate into a field and the ever-welcome badge-on-a-post indicating it was a public path.

I walked through long grass that soaked my feet through my running shoes, while nettles scraped my ankles. I walked alongside a pond and turned right before turning around to take the route that would lead me into a wood where I would startle a fawn and watch it pogo away. Soon I was at a large pheasant pen, a sort of ginormous chicken coop with tunnel-like entrances fashioned out of chicken wire and metal grates every twenty feet or so. A dozen of these skittish birds had made their way into an adjoining field and were lined up along the fence like they were waiting to face a firing squad, which, sooner or later they would (pheasant season here opens October 1st).

From here there was no way to get into the hamlet I had been aiming for, and so I walked back down the hill around the pen, slipping in mud and scattering pheasants as I went. I fashioned a path through a copse to avoid another particularly treacherous patch of nettles, emerging in a farmyard off a road at the far end of the hamlet. I was happy and out of breath and had forgotten about the world and its ills for an hour, reminding me my narrative of the countryside isn’t so naïve after all.

California Random

Lessons from the 51B: How riding the bus helps me be less of an asshole

Berkeley bus stop

I skipped kindergarten, which may explain why at age forty-five I still haven’t learned everything I need to know. I require periodic reminders of the most basic tenets of human decency, which is where the bus comes in.

I hadn’t intended to start riding the bus when I moved to Berkeley for work back in January. I rented an apartment less than two miles from the office so I could walk or bike my commute. Then California had one of the wettest winters on record, and the advantages of a bus stop two blocks from my front door became clear.

The bus route to my office runs alongside the Cal campus, and my fellow-bus riders were often college students. The first time I heard one of them say “thank you” to the bus driver as she got off the bus, I assumed it was an oddity. This student was surely from Kansas or someplace where people still said “aw shucks” and “gee willikers.” Then I noticed everyone—except me—said “thank you” when they got off the bus, and the bus driver usually said “you’re welcome” back. I briefly felt like an asshole, then I, too, started saying “thank you” when I got off the bus. This felt good in a way that was disproportionate to the act. It was shocking how nice it felt to be nice.

(In fairness, I don’t think my failure to vocalize gratitude after every bus ride was a breach of global public transit etiquette. A decade earlier I had lived in London and been a regular bus commuter. There I witnessed many interesting behaviors aboard a double-decker, occasionally involving the expulsion of bodily fluids—but nobody said “thank you.” The closest I got to a life lesson from that experience was to wash my hands a lot. I’ve never had more colds in my life than my first six months in London riding the 23.)

The next thing I started to notice while riding the bus in Berkeley was how many wheelchair users rely on it. Roughly every third time I boarded a bus, someone in a wheelchair did the same. There’s a procedure for this, starting with the driver lowering the bus, extending the ramp, then leaving her seat to fix the wheelchair in place using a set of straps with hooks. Nobody else can board the bus until the driver is back in her seat and the ramp is up.

The whole thing usually takes a few minutes and yet it’s long enough to notice. And what I noticed is how rarely in daily life I, a non-parent, defer to the needs of someone else. I operate my life in a series of maneuvers designed to maximize, well, me, and the on-demand economy is complicit in my selfishness. The few minutes of stillness, of waiting, while someone else goes first reminded me that most the time I’m in a hurry for absolutely no reason other than to be in a hurry. I’m addicted to self-inflicted stress. Waiting my turn was good for the soul.

***

In late spring the rain finally stopped and I mostly traded the bus for my bike. Occasionally I make exceptions, like when I need to be in the office for 6:00AM calls with my European colleagues. This happened twice in the last week, and the timing couldn’t have been better. My experience on the 5:34AM showed me I had relapsed and was due for a refresher course in decency.

That early in the morning most stops on the route are empty, and the bus makes it to my destination in half the normal time. But on Tuesday we stopped somewhere near Cal for a gentleman with a cane. I was nose-deep in my phone reading work email and yet somehow felt annoyed when he chose to bypass the priority seats in the front. The bus waited while he instead made his way to a seat up the half-set of stairs, just behind the rear door. There I was again, in a hurry when I wasn’t even late and being an asshole in the process.

On Thursday, we stopped at the same stop for the same gentleman. As he got on, the bus driver bantered with him about the Oakland victory parade for the Golden State Warriors later that day. Then I watched as again he made his way to the same spot behind the rear door. He was dressed impeccably: a white fedora with a black-ribbon band decorated with a small feather, a single-breasted overcoat atop a suit, and a crocodile-embossed bag hanging diagonally across his shoulders. I was reminded of an episode of the nineties sitcom Just Shoot Me! in which the character of Nina Van Horn, a fashion-magazine editor, blames the downfall of civilization on the rise of casual separates. It seemed to me this gentleman was making a similar case.

I was lost in thought about it when we arrived at my stop and mechanically got off through the rear doors. As I walked by the outside of the bus I snapped to, just in time to say “thank you” to the driver through the still-open front door.

Britain Walking

Lock, Weir, and Barrel: a day on the Thames Path

Last August we walked the first two legs of the Thames Path, from its source near Cirencester to Cricklade, then onto Lechlade the next day. This past Wednesday we picked up where we left off, taking in the ten or so miles from Lechlade to the evocatively named Tadpole Bridge, where a lone inn sits on the river’s south bank along the edge of a remote road.

Before Lechlade, the Thames is not particularly convincing as a river, much less the thing that goes by the same name in London. It flows mostly underground to begin with, making fleeting appearances before it becomes a stream, then something eventually resembling a canal. Only near Lechlade does it become a full-fledged navigable water source and, as such, the defining feature of this stretch of walking is a series of locks and weirs.

Father Thames, reclining at St John’s Lock

There were also meadows of dandelions and buttercups; swans; herds of cows, some of whom had ventured into the river to cool off; and a collection of pillboxes, dilapidated concrete structures that are relics of the second World War and a last gasp of homeland defense, thankfully never used. The occasional matte-gray plane overhead, either from the nearby Brize Norton or Fairford bases, lent a more modern military touch. But it was the locks and their keepers and their hint of a sort of fairytale life that captured my imagination.

Leaving aside the current U.S. president, there is an unmistakable air of romance about jobs that come with their own houses. Princesses have palaces, but I’m thinking more of a park ranger’s lodge, the lighthouse keeper’s tower, or the shepherd’s bothy. I’m decidedly not thinking of the current crop of corporate high-tech campuses that cater to employees’ every quotidian need to ensure the worker never need leave work. Both categories of worker share a lack of separation between work and home life, but somehow the former’s proximity to nature lends it an air of desirability lacking in the latter.

Eaton Weir

Over the course of the day we passed a series of four locks and weirs, not counting the charming Eaton Weir, where there is a footbridge and cottage but no remaining weir. Pubs were equally as plentiful, and we stopped first in Kelmscott—also site of William Morris’s country home—at the Plough Inn, then in the beer garden of the Swan at Radcot before settling down in the garden of our lodgings for the night at the Trout Inn. It was, perhaps, a good thing we were on foot rather than attempting to navigate the locks on a narrow boat as some of our fellow travelers along the Thames were doing that day.

The next morning we returned to Buscot Lock in the car, where we offered a hand to the lock keeper as one such narrow boat made its way upstream. As he opened the sluices he explained that he works for the Environment Agency and that his main work wasn’t so much helping boats through—which he clearly enjoyed—but keeping the river navigable by managing the weir. He answered our lock-and-weir-101 questions without any hint of annoyance, noting that he had enjoyed “sixteen happy years” in his lock-side home. It was not the storybook cottage overlooking the weir, but a still-handsome, newer construction nearer the lock. The cottage, he explained, was a National Trust property rented out to the public. Turns out my fantasy of having one of those jobs that comes with a house is available for rent, for a minimum of a three-night stay.

Thames Path Tips:

  • Lynwood & Co Café in the Market Square in Lechlade is a stylish place to caffeinate before setting out for the day
  • Lunch at the the Plough Inn in Kelmscott, perhaps after a visit to William Morris’s country house, Kelmscott Manor, which is right off the Thames Path
  • Dinner and a bed at the Trout Inn at Tadpole Bridge
  • Rent the National Trust Cottage at Buscot Lock
California Walking

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

The most visually striking picture I took at yesterday’s Justice for All March, my California hometown’s offshoot of the Women’s March in Washington, was of a sign featuring Donald Trump’s face in the style of the iconic Obama “Hope” posters, only this one said “Nope.” In the photo, the great orange one’s face is illuminated against a bright blue sky, a regal palm tree behind his head suggesting, rather conveniently, a coronation rather than an election. It was, I thought, a no-brainer for what to feature at the top of this blog post. Then I started scrolling through my pictures again and I was struck by this one, both for the pink pussy hats that have become the emblem of these marches and the pose of the woman on the left in sunglasses: hand over heart, her face an expression of gratitude and appreciation. This—not Trump—is what yesterday was all about.

Like many locations across the country, the crowd at our local march exceeded expectations at an estimated 2,500 marchers. In a town of just over 100,000 people this was a terrific turnout, but the most striking thing was the diversity of the crowd and its causes. Kids, clergy, local elected officials, and regular citizens came with signs demanding equal rights for women and LGBTQI, water rights, racial justice, reproductive rights, access to healthcare, action on climate change, defense of science, and, notably, kindness. It seems the uniting factor of America’s latest government is that it’s managed to do something to piss off everyone.

But yesterday was not about being angry. Yesterday was about taking a huge collective sigh of relief at finding out your neighbors are as distraught as you are and they’re going to show up to do something about it. Yesterday was about allowing yourself a few hours of joy as we inched along the sidewalks of our old-school Main Street (no road closures were in place), answering call-and-response chats, my favorite of which was “show me what democracy looks like, this is what democracy looks like.”  Here, in one of my other favorite pictures from the day, is what democracy looks like:

 

Books

Favorite Reads of 2016

The rest of the 2016 reading list is currently in Deutsche-Post limbo somewhere between Berlin and California

I’ve just finished the last book I’ll get through in 2016, William MacAskill’s Doing Good Better, prompting me to consider my favorite reads of the year. All four were non-fiction, reflecting the bias of my overall reading list rather than any malaise in the world of novel writing.

Only six of the twenty-one books I read in 2016 were fiction, and if I had to pick a favorite it would be Lisa Owens’ debut, Not Working, in which she gently skewers the aspirations of millennials to find meaningful careers. Said skewering transfers exceptionally well to older generations, who shall remain nameless, too.

Onward to my non-fiction list then, starting with MacAskill’s Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference. I didn’t plan my reading list this way, but Doing Good Better is a lovely companion piece to Not Working—a sort of left-brain to its right.

MacAskill is a millennial himself, who also happens to be an Associate Professor in Philosophy at Oxford University, and has used this book to set out a rigorous framework for how we might do the most good. Along the way he considers charitable giving, consumer choices, and career choices—turns out following your passion is horrible advice. What MacAskill is talking about is how to save lives, and if this sounds like a preposterous, do-gooder goal, well, you may have become as cynical as I am. Read this book. It helps.

Earlier this autumn I read The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, a book about the author’s relationship with a person, the artist Harry Dodge, who identifies as neither female nor male, and motherhood—two topics that have little personal resonance for me. In that sense alone, Nelson’s book was “good for me,” a self-imposed dose of getting outside my own comfort zone. But to attribute that as the major merit of the work is to sell Nelson way short. The book is structurally unique (no chapters) with writing in turns fiercely intimate and academic. My faculty with language prevents me from explaining further; Nelson’s does not.

My last two favorites of the year were way more illustrative of my usual fare. First was Anna Funder’s excellent Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, a wondrous piece of journalism with a bit of personal stuff thrown in. I started reading it because I was living in Berlin, but it turned out to be way more prescient for what would happen in American politics later in the year. Twenty-seven years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this book needs to be required reading for Americans on the psychological and criminal ruin that happens when you have a ruling kleptocracy where people are intimidated into tattling on each other.

Finally, there’s The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries by Jessa Crispin. On the surface, it’s another woman-on-the-verge-takes-a-big-trip memoir. And what’s wrong with that? I love these kind of books, and Crispin is the imperfect, very real, very smart guide on this grand tour of Europe and its artists (which includes men, despite the title). This is Eat, Pray, Love written by the anti-Liz Gilbert.

So, voila! There you have it, my best of 2016 in books. I’m still pondering what to read in 2017, but the shortlist for January includes A.S. Byatt’s Peacock & Vine, Robert Moor’s On Trails, Rachel Cusk’s Transit, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. Oh and Maria Semple’s Today Will Be Different, and Olivia Lang’s The Lonely City, and Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City (I’m sensing a theme here). Or maybe Sarah Einstein’s Mot or Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus or Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things. And, oh god, I forgot Alan Bennett has a new set of diaries. The specter of 2017 looms large but at least I’ll have something to read.