Top 5 (2018 edition)


It is time, once more, for the grand tradition of sharing my five favorite moments of the previous year with you. Better late than never, eh? (It’s been a weird January so far.) The Top 5 began its life in an Austin, TX, backyard, on a cold New Year’s Day 2002 that had just begun about 30 minutes prior. There were cigars and fireworks involved. Drinking, too. Daniel CouchLindsy Lawrence, and I “thought” it up back in 2002, and the three of us keep it going through letters & email exchanges, instead of in-person, since we’re all pretty far apart from each other geographically but emotionally close at hand. (See the 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 editions.) So, what follows was originally written and sent as a letter, with all the floridness and casual chatter that this implies. It has been, however, edited, tweaked, and smudged here (including one wholesale substitution of one moment for another), to elide things that should belong only to our trio.

Enjoy, and (belatedly) Happy New Year.

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Another year in reading (2018 edition)

Once more with feeling… my annual reading diary. As always, the usual caveats apply: 1) This includes only books I completed, not stuff I started and abandoned; 2) It leaves out all of the manuscript reading I do for the day job; 3) It also excludes the articles, reviews, and essays I read online, in magazines and litcult journals, and in (gulp!) newspapers; and 4) For the most part, the letter grades were noted as soon as I finished the book but the commentary was written this month, so there’s occasionally some reflective distance/dissonance in my notes.

All the same, here t’is. Dates on which the books were finished are in red. Grades are in blue. If it’s a reread for me, the title will be green. You’ll figure it out. (If you’re curious, see previous entries for 2014 and 2017.)


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I’ve become skeptical of the unwritten rule that just because a boy and girl appear in the same feature, a romance must ensue. Rather, I want to portray a slightly different relationship, one where the two mutually inspire each other to live—if I’m able to, then perhaps I’ll be closer to portraying a true expression of love.

—Hayao Miyazaki

We often think of love as being eternal, at least in its ideal form, but I wonder… Is it possible to have transitory soulmates? A connection defined by temporality? If we feel affection, we’ve been cultivated to believe that it has to culminate in something physical or has to fit some projected idea of romance. But there’s beauty in the connection itself: where you feel lonely and then you suddenly engage with a person who resonates; they’ve been asking the same questions you’ve been asking.

—Kogonada, in response to Miyazaki’s statement

Both quoted in Noah Pisner’s interview with Kogonada (The Believer #119, 8 June 2018)

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Scenes from the occupation (6/30/18, Atlanta, GA)

Why even bother showing up? After all, as one speaker reminded us, it’s been a rough week for America. The Muslim Travel Ban was upheld. A moderate Supreme Court Justice decided to retire just when we needed him most. Over 1000 children, some as young as two years old, still remain separated from their parents because of a policy—not a law—that’s made even more cruel because it’s increasingly clear that the administration using it had no concrete plan for reuniting the torn-apart families. We all know damn well that our homemade signs and gravelly-voiced chants and Instragram-spread photos will not  change one iota of law directly or cause one single administrator in Washington to behave more humanely.

But, yesterday, we showed up anyway. I did, along with 10,000 men, women, and children here in downtown Atlanta, and hundreds of thousands of us around the country.

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Top Five (2017 edition)

Once again, it’s time for that grand tradition begun by Daniel Couch, Lindsy Lawrence, and me back in 2002, in an Austin, TX, backyard. (See the 2014, 2015, and 2016 editions.) Share yours.

Happy New Year!

1) New York, New York. I had not been to New York City since a quick winter sojourn in February 2005. It was time to go back, and I had an excuse: five nights of America’s best band at Madison Square Garden. I won’t spend too much time on the concerts—if there’s a band for which the phrase “Mileage may vary” applies, it’s Phish—except to say that, if you love them as I do, it was a pinnacle that it’s built up to for 30 years: thirteen shows at the most iconic concert venue in America, each built around the theme of a donut (hence calling the run “The Baker’s Dozen”), in which the band did not repeat a single song, and which the improvisation and song selection were inspired, surprising, and in some cases pointing to new directions for its sound. But the larger, more personal takeaway was facing the idea that it’s OK to innovate and change direction and forge new paths even in middle age, and even to do so when everyone’s looking at you. And I needed to understand that message at that particular moment. In January, I moved to Atlanta, my first time living in a truly big city since I was 18. This has been invigorating but deeply stressful, as I’ve had to make new friends and social bonds, two things that I’m historically not great at and which get harder to do as we get older. And here I was, thrust for a week in New York, processing all that, doing a lot of firsts: AirBnB for the first time (a success—a tiny, clean apartment in Harlem a block from a subway line); checking out a plethora of museums new to me, instead of revisiting old haunts (though I did take in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which is one of my Happy Places in this world); organizing raucous meetups at Chinese restaurants and Jewish delis with friends also in town for Phish; figuring out subway routes and itineraries on my own; negotiating my way through unfamiliar neighborhoods and learning to be OK with relying on my smartphone; making new friends on the fly at Madison Square Garden, as most nights I wasn’t seated with my friends. I walked or took the train everywhere. This was August, so I was constantly pouring sweat—I don’t know how many handkerchiefs I went through. The point is: I spent a vacation semi-intentionally making myself uncomfortable, keeping myself exposed and open to new experiences. So, the vacation ended up not being an escape from my regular life in Atlanta but instead an encapsulation of what I’d spent the last seven months doing. It was good, and helped immensely by being surrounded by swirling avant-pop and 20,000 people who understood it and were there for the same thing, who I didn’t have to explain it to.

2) Storm King Art Center. As much fun as New York City was, the major revelation, to me, didn’t take place in the city at all. A close friend lives in Albany, NY, and I met her halfway by taking a train from Grand Central Terminal to Beacon, NY. We traipsed through Beacon, quaint and lovely, talked about changes she was going through—new jobs, new anxieties—at a terrific Mediterranean restaurant. Then, we went to the reason I took the train up there: Storm King Art Center. I can’t believe that I’d never even heard of before she mentioned it in a phone call. Basically, it’s a park nestled in the Catskill Mountains devoted to modern and contemporary sculpture. “Park” makes it sound small, when it’s actually 500 acres, large enough that you can rent bikes to traverse and there are multiple houses on the property. But most of the art isn’t in the houses but instead outdoors, hence all the trails. Hundreds and hundreds of pieces. It’s a who’s-who of modern sculpture and site-specific art: Claes Oldenburg, Andy Goldsworthy, David Smith, Louise Bourgeois, Kenneth Snelson, Nam June Paik, Louise Nevelson, Sol LeWitt, Roy Lichtenstein, Maya Lin, Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, Isamu Noguchi. And you just stumble on to new pieces as you’re walking. It is a triumphant art space, all this modernism and experimentation totally at ease in the rolling hills, looming mountains, foliage dripping all around you. I had trouble not crying, I’ll be honest. It was wonderful, and I wish we could’ve stayed longer than a couple of hours. I would gladly go back to spend a whole day there, maybe two or three.

3) My first book reading & signing. I can’t rightly put “published my first book” as an item here because the truth is that it comes on in stages. Daniel and I were working on the book so continuously, and in different ways (writing, editing, proofreading, looking over marketing stuff, filling out forms), that it doesn’t seem like a singular event. Sure, that moment when I opened the package from Bloomsbury with my author’s copies was lovely but somehow anticlimactic. No, the fact that Bob Mould’s Workbook is actually a thing out in the real world didn’t hit home until I did a reading at Avid Bookshop in Athens, GA, on September 22nd. About 30 people showed up, so it was standing-room only in that small space, a wonderful roll-out for a little book of epistolary music criticism/conceptual memoir. I read from an earlier chapter, improvised a preamble about how Dan and I wrote the book as a series of letter exchanges and interviews, and then took questions. The questions were good, which isn’t always a given at readings. People were genuinely curious about our writing process, and the younger members of the audience had smart questions about punk, post-punk, and the legacy of underground rock culture. In the spirit of punk, I made a giveaway zine for the event—really, edited versions of the two blog posts I’ve written about Bob Mould, with new drawings that I made, all printed out, folded, and stapled on Xerox copy paper. I’d forgotten how much I like making zines, how much I like creating homemade things, no matter how slight they are, and how much I liked seeing them in people’s hands. Friends took me out for a celebratory beer afterward.

4) Film Love Atlanta. This year, I’ve tapped into Film Love Atlanta. Film Love is an initiative by Andy Ditzler, a guy who loves the more experimental end of cinema—the odd shorts, the avant-garde documentaries, the crazy anti-narrative works, the stuff that hasn’t been released in the States and thus only otherwise gets seen in museum exhibits or in festivals. It’s truly a curated film program, with program notes written (wonderfully) by Andy. Sometimes, he brings in the filmmakers whose work is being screened. Because Film Love doesn’t have its own theater, Andy coordinates screenings at galleries and art spaces around town, a few times even in the back storeroom of a boutique salt supplier, so going to a Film Love screening means, by necessity, that I’ll be exploring a new part of the city. I need that. There’s always discussion afterward, led by Andy, who looks like a shy deferring guy but who also does a terrific job of moving the conversation along Socratically. There’s never much more than 25-30 people but we’re all dedicated, it’s refreshing and mind-expanding, and I look forward to these monthly events so much that I feel like an evangelist for Ditzler’s mad idea. (This interview with Andy gives a good sense of what Film Love is up to.)

5) A John Waters Christmas. I saw “A John Waters Christmas at the Variety Playhouse with my pal Nina and her pal Marie. Basically, it was 90 minutes of standup done by the legendary, infamous filmmaker and provocateur, talking hilariously and profanely about what he wanted for Christmas, about American politics and culture, about gay culture, and his hopes for the future. This was the filthiest hour and a half I had ever spent in anyone’s presence that didn’t involve sex with them, but it was also the funniest event I went to all year. The guffaws were cathartic, a tremendous and thoroughly foul release that was needed after this year of Trump farting at us constantly, in real time. Waters farted back, and he’s better at it.

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A year in reading (2017)

Happy New Year!

From September 2000 to mid-2015, I kept a reading log. I stopped it partly because it felt a little anal-retentive but mostly because it seemed dishonest. I mean, sure, I kept track of all the books I completed. But I left out books I abandoned, all the reading I do online, in magazines, or for my job as a book editor.

Turns out, though, that I missed the log. Scrolling through it, I can see patterns in my reading behavior, and can flash on memories of what I was thinking or doing or feeling at that time. So, around February 2017, I returned to the logging. So, here it is, a sort of reading diary for the year, with new notes, letter grades, and occasional links. Dates on which the books were finished are in red. Grades are in blue. You’ll figure it out.

Enjoy, and see you in 2018.

(If you’re curious, I’ve done this before.)
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Beer & Book #18

Been a while, folks. How ya makin’ it?

Last night’s beer: St. Bernardus Christmas Ale
Last night’s books: March, vols. 1-3, written by John Lewis (D-GA) and Andrew Aydin, art by Nate Powell
Last night’s music: Eddie Higgins Trio, Christmas Songs, vols. 1-2

Been sitting on Lewis’s March opus for a year, and I’m not sure why. Congressman Lewis is a hero of mine, one of the Big Six organizers of the 1963 March on Washington, a key architect of the modern Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968, roughly), and a man who continues to fight the good fight today. He is my congressman, serving Georgia’s fifth district (basically, Atlanta), in which I proudly live. And March is his story, in comics form—three volumes telling how he grew from a Alabama farm boy into a brilliant (and very young) activist and strategist, working with a who’s-who of the Movement, getting jailed, beaten, spat on, and yelled at in the process. Somehow, though, I guess it would be comics of the “eat your spinach” variety, despite all the praise and awards heaped on it. In fact, the accolades worked against it; I have a knee-jerk aversion to comics that everyone seems to love.

Boy, was I wrong. Powell’s jagged, high-contrast, intensely inked art—down to frayed panels and expressively loud lettering and page design—matches perfectly with the violence Lewis faced, and faced down. Lewis’s way is nonviolence, both as political statement and moral philosophy, and we see how this develops internally (for him) and externally (within the organizations in which he works) during the 1960s. Despite being a reverend of-sorts, Lewis’s narrative isn’t preachy but instead driven by persistence, fury, and an ever-tested sense of hope. It’s largely a memoir, of course, but it’s also the biography of a southern movement, and so Lewis, Aydin, and Powell are brave enough to slow things down at times to show how grassroots organizing worked on a granular level—the meetings, the indecision, the political maneuvering, the disagreements, the meetings, the actions, the revisions of the actions upon contact with racist governments and policemen, the tactics, the meetings, the disagreements.

Did I mention the meetings and disagreements? Lewis doesn’t shy away for portraying Movement activists as flawed people, and some of the actions as being misguided and/or needing correction. Though Lewis ultimately disagrees with both the tactics and vision of groups less inclined toward nonviolence than he was (and is), he lets Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X have their says without lampooning or diminishing them. Lewis was chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick,” y’all), which was one of the groups that eventually fostered the phrase “black power” and which splintered into the Black Panther Party, so he’s a guy used to fierce internal conflicts. SNCC was considered the more radical wing and youth-led—Lewis was chair of it, essentially, in his early twenties—part of the Movement, the firebrands in the streets compared to the cooler (and older) heads of NAACP, and Lewis tells his story within it with verve, passion, and occasional pitch-black humor.

Throughout, Lewis, Aydin, and Powell weave Lewis’s reflections of the 1960s within a frame story of Lewis attending President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Because Lewis is insistent on giving credit and naming names, I actually learned a lot about specific organizers (Diane Nash, Ella Baker, Bob Moses, James Forman, and Bayard Rustin, in particular) and specific actions (sit-ins, Freedom Rides, Freedom Votes) that I didn’t know, which is impressive, given that I acquire books in civil rights history as part of my job. It’s a story of fury and insistence, told gracefully and with dynamic visuality. Powell shines—which shouldn’t have surprised me, as he’s drawn a comic about civil rights in Texas prior to March. It’s a portrait of political righteousness inked in blood, smelling of shoe leather, tasting of tears.

Oh, the beer: God bless the Trappists. St. Bernandus makes my favorite beers. I swear by the Abt. 12 but smile like a fool when the Christmas Ale is released in winter to this bleak land devoid of the source. Malty and semi-sweet on the tongue, with hints of cinnamon in the aroma, it’s delicious beyond compare on a cold December night.

And the tunes: I’ve written before about my antipathy toward Christmas music. There are exceptions, of course, but I stand by that post from (gulp!) 2005. But I keep trying to open my ears, damnit, which means that I turn Pandora to the “Linus and Lucy” station every December as I’m writing Christmas cards, downing too much spiked eggnog, and gorging on homemade sugar cookies. As I wrote, my eyes perked up at the piano-trio tunes that Pandora sent my way, initially confusing them for Vince Guaraldi arrangements that I had somehow missed. But no. The song, inevitably, would be by the Eddie Higgins Trio. After this happened six or seven times, I decided to dig a little into Higgins. A Chicago player, Higgins has the light touch of Guaraldi when doing snow-flurry runs of fast notes but his chords are more grounded and resonant. Jay Leonhart (bass) and Joe Ascione (drums) swing harder than Guaraldi’s boys, giving the hymns and American Songbook confections a sense of grit and swagger that’s lacking in most Christmas jazz. Beautiful stuff.

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