BRB 22: Definitely up there with 97 and 08

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A man sits, hands hovering over a keyboard, puffy encircled eyes turned to a square of sky he witnesses through the window and between the rooftops. Over there, his kid watches The Simpsons. He’s really into The Simpsons right now. Over in the other direction, the kitchen is strewn with the debris of a Christmas season that has definitely been well spent, but is now definitely well spent. He recalls these twelve months that are crawling out of view. It’s been a big year, he thinks to himself, definitely up there with ninety-seven and oh-eight. If he was a character in a middle aged man’s novel, or just a different kind of middle aged man, he’d be ranking them all like an obsessive, and those years—this year—would all come pretty high up the list. Not quite at the top, but close. 

He thinks about how his life has expanded, changed over these months. There is a new home on a new street that is not very far away from the old street. It has brought joy and a kind of peace, but also responsibilities, a duty of care, and a menagerie. This morning he has already checked on the fish in the pond, fed the cat, and fixed the fountain where the hummingbirds come to bathe every morning. Hummingbirds, for fuck’s sake. 

Just last week—because he likes to fix broken things—they added a dog, a stray who arrived on the doorstep in the rain like an omen. She’s not fixed, but she is fed, and she is sitting next to him. He looks back up at the sky.

Now it’s time to write.

Piles of books stretching as far as the eye can see.
(image from Coffee Channel)

When this newsletter started, it was an attempt to keep track of books that had been read. A piece of memorializing, or an act of accounting, if you’re looking for that. Perhaps even, for the dramatic people in the back, a reckoning. Last year there were thirty distinct books. This year? Forty-nine close reads, probably with some room to add another before the fireworks pop. 

Some were new, some were old. A mix of work and pleasure. Plenty were good, a couple were great, and a few were bad. Only a portion of them got reviewed. So as we see out 2019 and think about what it brought us, here’s every book completed, in the order they were finished.

Barbarian Days – William Finnegan
Less – Andrew Sean Greer
All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
Arbitrary Stupid Goal – Tamara Shopsin
Lies My Teacher Told Me – James Loewen
We’re Doomed, Now What? – Roy Scranton
Too Much And Not The Mood – Durga Chew Bose
Life And Other Near Death Experiences – Camille Pagan
Infinite Detail – Tim Maughan
Silent Spring – Rachel Carson
Rabbit – Patricia Williams
On Tyranny – Tim Snyder
10:04 – Ben Lerner
Taking The Work Out of Networking – Karen Wickre
Triggering Town – Richard Hugo
Human Acts – Han Kang
Hunger – Roxane Gay
Ruined By Design – Mike Monteiro
Ghost Work – Mary Gray and Siddarth Sudi
The Smart Enough City – Ben Green
Electronic Colonialism – Tom McPhail
Drawdown – Paul Hawken
Six Degrees – Mark Lynas
Empty Planet – Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson
Cixi – Jung Chang
Undaunted – Jackie Speier
A Song of Ice and Fire – GRR Martin
Good Prose – Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd
White Nights, Black Paradise – Sikivu Hutchinson
The View From Flyover Country – Sarah Kendzior
We Are Not Such Things – Justine van der Leun
Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets – JK Rowling
The Future Of War – Lawrence Freedman
Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri
How Everything Became War And The Military Became Everything – Rosa Brooks
Exit West – Mohsin Hamid
Heartland – Sarah Smarsh
Visions After Midnight – Clive James
Random Family – Adrienne Nicole Leblanc
This Will Only Hurt A Little – Busy Phillips
The Reality Game – Samuel Woolley
The Power And The Glory – Graham Greene
Lab Girl – Hope Jahren
Dept of Speculation – Jenny Offill
The End Of Eddy – Eduoard Louis
Unspeakable Things – Jess Lourey
The Story Behind – Emily Prokop
Burnout – Emily and Amelia Nagoski
Heat and Dust – Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

That’s about half men, half women. Mostly non-fiction of various kinds. Writers from America, mostly, an unsurprising portion of British, a smattering of others. Lots of immigrants, not many people of color. A couple in translation. There are plans for more expansive reading next year.

Now, to wrap up, some further reading.

A few stories I loved editing this year:

Alissa Greenberg on the quest for a new way of understanding wildfires
Anthony Swofford on the morality of high-tech war
Max Kim on corruption in South Korea’s nuclear industry
Eric Reidy on the people documenting Syrian war crimes

A few stories that stuck with me:

From Columbine to Parkland: Why we got the story wrong about mass shootings (Dave Cullen, the Guardian)
The Trauma Floor (Casey Newton, The Verge)
The Believer (Davey Rothbart, California Sunday)
All That Was Familiar (Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Granta)
Hideous Men (E Jean Carroll, New York)
How Oxford Shaped Brexit—And Britain’s Next Prime Minister (Simon Kuper, Financial Times)

That’s it for now.


Every week or so I write about a book I’ve read. To get these reviews as soon as they come out, sign up at

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Books I read in 2020 – Start here

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