Last great reads of 2010I've just finished off a stack of books (one of those people who read their stacks simultaneously rather than consecutively) in time to collect a new stack for summer and hey, a new year! Hope they'll be as good as these. I loved them all.
Straight life by Art Pepper
The People’s Act of Love by James Meek
An unidentified male I found myself in a cluster with at the Book Design Awards said he was loving reading this novel about a Czech battalion stranded in wintertime in some far outpost of northern Russia during the Russian civil war. I can’t remember if he mentioned the cannibalism, perhaps he thought it would be out of place as we munched our canapés, or maybe it just didn’t catch my imagination (hard to believe). At any rate, the idea of the lost battalion, desperate to get home, their mad Captain -- a sort of cold-weather Kurtz -- that by itself sounded like a good story. As it turned out to be! A Russian novel sort of good story, in fact, without ever being obsequious to that great genre. Let's say, a kindred spirit.
Ancient Gonzo Wisdom: Interviews with Hunter S Thompson
My favourite was the interview by PJ O’Rourke from 1996, because PJ O’Rourke is smart and funny, and because HST comes across best when interviewed by people who are smart and funny.
“What was the first book, the first whole book, you read?”
“Good lord, man – anybody who would remember that is probably in some kind of trouble or lying.”
“No, they say that drug addicts always remember the very first time they had the drug, or alcoholics remember the first drink.”
“Jesus, I think you’re right.”
I remembered the same book from my childhood. You might too. Read the book and find out what it was.
Ask Dr. Mueller by Cookie Mueller
I knew about Cookie Mueller, who had that crazy feeling, from Nan Goldin’s photographs and her cameo appearances in various stories from the New York art and drug scene of the seventies, but I didn’t realize we had her book in the library until I came across it by chance. It collects various pieces of writing by Cookie which she wouldn’t be surprised to learn have dated – she was not someone who was trying to write for posterity.
The sad thing is that there are no later and thus less-dated pieces, because of her early death from AIDS. She certainly went down with banners flying, as befits someone who, as John Waters pointed out in his introduction, didn’t comb her hair for 25 years and still looked beautiful.
Swish: my quest to become the gayest person ever by Joel Derfner
This book, besides being really fun to read, taught me an important lesson. I had always thought that cheerleaders were destined to be cheerleaders from birth, that it was not a learnable art. But apparently you can practice yourself into becoming a cheerleader, flips and everything, if you really want to. The other thing this book was notable for was a passage about pain and vulnerability which yes, was his viewpoint from a gay perspective, but which, like all deep insights, will say something to just about everyone. At least it did to me.
Riding toward everywhere by William T Vollman
I was seventeen, the age for dares, and on the return leg of a hitchhiking trip that was somewhat of a dare already (California to Canada and back in a four-day break from University) with a friend, when we met a Gary Snyder-type in Eugene, Oregon who filled us in on how to hop a freight. Did we do it? Of course!
And that was how I came to ride the rails from Eugene to Portland, over the mountains, at night, in an empty boxcar with a wooden floor. I remember this detail because my friend had a new and expensive ski jacket on, a present from a guilt-burdened absentee father, and she kept worrying, as we huddled and hugged on the floor while the wind chill took the temperature down to zero and then below, that a splinter would get into the jacket and ruin it. My teeth were so gritted I couldn’t even say “Your jacket? Our lives! I think we might be going to die of the cold!"
It was thrilling and the view of the dawn over the Portland train yard was thrilling, but it turned out not to be a lark at all. It was life-and-death.
William T Vollman has written a book about trainhopping as the ultimate underground lifestyle. This is the dedication:
Fleeting Rome by Carlo Levi
Memories of Rome in the years of La Dolce Vita, when Vespas roared through the city by day and sheep were herded through at night, by the author of Christ stopped at Eboli. The osteria where Levi ate lunch had seasonal wild asparagus, much better than the market variety. Where did they get it? From an employee of the Ministry of Finance who every day, after clocking in, would head off on his bicycle to hunt asparagus, which he would trade for dinner or wine. One year there was no more. The man had reached compulsory retirement age at the Ministry, and had promptly stopped his true job as well.