Things I Read and Recommend from 2016

Every December writers on the information superhighway (what’s up Clive) write posts with links to the best stuff they read during the year. Those posts are great because they sometimes turn you on to stuff you missed, but also because they remind about how much you enjoyed something you read.

I decided to keep track of good things I read in 2016 and post it in December and that was fine until I asked myself why not post it around the midpoint of the year and then post an update in December. That way stuff from the first half of the year wouldn’t get lost.

This list is not exhaustive of all the great stuff that’s out there. Much of it, most of it, resonates with me personally, which means if you have a similar world view to me then you’ve probably read most of this and will like some of the stuff you missed.

Originally I was going to limit myself to one link per writer but there are some writers, like Laurie Penny, who are so versatile that I discarded my arbitrary limit. Others like Helena Fitzgerald and Matt Zoller Seitz write directly to my soul. Looking through this list now I see that writers like Mo Ryan, Emily Nussbaum and everyone at Vox (especially Caroline, Dylan and Todd) are underrepresented or not represented at all.  I also notice that I have nothing from Annie Lowrey or Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine, which I regret. I’m going to stop now because the list of people I’ve overlooked could go on forever. I endeavor to do better.

I still have a lot of stuff from the first half of the year that I’d plan to read so things will be added. I welcome any suggestions.

The final thing I want to add is that there are countless more great things out there to consume but two things I especially enjoy are Helena Fitzgerald‘s TinyLetter (straight to my soul) and Jonah Keri‘s podcast. I will try to get my TinyLetter off the ground later this year. (Watch this space.)


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Ursula Le Guin

When I was in college I noticed this English 100 level course called “Science Fiction and Fantasy.” This was way back in the days that you figured out your schedule by flipping through a course newspaper that listed every course that would be offered the next semester, the times, the professors, a brief description of the course, and the prerequisites, if any.

By that point I had read The Lord of Rings multiple times over the preceding eight or so years, and I was happy that my geekdom was going to pay off at college. I didn’t know what other books would be assigned but I knew The Lord of the Rings would be on syllabus and I would have a leg up.

On the first day of call the professor stated that for the first time in his teaching of the class he was not going to assign The Lord of the Rings. He wanted to try something different. Fair play to him for telling us on the first day if we wanted to drop the class but as disappointed as I was the idea of having to find another class was worse. I decided to stick it out. (Note, at the end of the semester my professor said that he would never again leave The Lord of the Rings out.)

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Recovering the Satellites

Shortly after I started my first real job after college, I became friends with a co-worker who was also a big music fan. His favorite band was Metallica, but Cliff Burton Metallica. This friend wore a black armband to high school after Burton died. I can’t imagine ever caring that much about a band.

Anyway, this friend also liked Counting Crows which in September 1993 released their first album, August and Everything After. Given my pop leanings I loved “Mr. Jones” and he preferred “Round Here.” I bought the album (which is something people used to do) and listened to it over and over, not only because it had my friend’s imprimatur but because I wanted to see if I could somehow figure out why “Round Here” was better than “Mr. Jones.” (I never did.)

A few years later I had moved from New York to Atlanta (don’t ask) and was no longer in regular contact with my friend. Counting Crows finally released their follow-up, Recovering the Satellites. A co-worker of mine had the album and he let me borrow it. I listened to it. I hated it.

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I Want To Change My Clothes, My Name, My Face

My first name is Oakley. It’s a family name, the name of a great-grandfather, and an uncle. It’s now the name of a nephew. I’ve never met an Oakley that I’m not related to.

When I was young, starting before grade school, I was embarrassed of my name. I was also embarrassed of my working class family, and of my lack of sophistication. My name was just the topper.

I was also, to be as charitable as I can be to Not Oakley, not cute. You know how some children are cute and then when they reach adulthood they look a little strange? I was the opposite of that, or so I hoped. I pined for girls in my classes, girls who had “boyfriends” that were never me. Maybe if I had a different name, or if I had different clothes, or an older sibling to coach me up about what was cool. And maybe I’d grow into my face one day.

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Hang the DJ

“Hang the DJ” from Black Mirror‘s fourth season is one of the standouts not only because of the story but because it is one of the rare episodes that ends happily. Except it doesn’t end happily. Instead, “Hang the DJ” ends with a suggestion that a disaster has taken place, one we are blithely ignoring. The world portrayed in “Hang the DJ” is more disturbing than in other episodes, mainly because it seems possible.

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My New York

No matter where you live you start to create your own version of that place. The smaller the place, the more in common your version has with that of other residents. I grew up in a city of approximately nine square miles and I knew most of it, with the only differences between my version and those of my friends due to class (I didn’t know the country club) or fortune (I didn’t really know the hospital).

I haven’t lived in my hometown in twenty-five years. My version of my hometown has gotten small. There’s the sandwich place that I first visited more than three decades ago. There my grade school which is no longer a grade school, and my junior high which is the middle school and my high school which is the junior high school. There’s the house where I spent most of my childhood that my parents sold years ago, and the house before that which doesn’t look the way I remember. My first girlfriend lived over there and I never have a reason to drive over there any more, but there’s the church where we met, where I never felt the presence of God. I can’t remember that last time I went in.

New York, my home for most of my adult life, is large enough that its likely that no two people have the same version. My New York is always changing — gaining and losing — acquiring different meanings and memories. Tour my New York and you know me.

My New York grew rapidly after I first arrived, starting with only the blocks between where I lived and worked. Then there were random bars that I forgot about almost immediately. (They were not memorable, and there were blackouts.) Then there was my first Indian restaurant and the ferry to Weehawken and the giant DKNY ad on the side of the building on Houston and so on.

These days I enjoy learning about other New Yorks, how they match up to mine. The pleasure is identifying the overlaps — there is validation when you both agree on a place — but even better is the tip about a new place. Could that become part of your New York? My New York is not complete, nor will it ever be. I’ve become a bit obsessed about finding good coffee shops wherever I go. (Happy Bones on Broome is one of my new favorites.) There are always new restaurants. (Olmstead is the most recent.) And new friends always share their New York and sometimes that becomes part of yours. (Cafe Paulette.)

I am also interested in what I’ve lost. Last year I tried to find the first apartment building I lived in and I thought maybe I found it but then though maybe I was on the wrong block or that the building is gone. There’s a ghost of me somewhere in the east 70s who walks around and I’m not sure I can find him.

The ghosts mean a lot to me. The ghost that used to take this train every day, the ghost who fell in love over there, that heartbroken ghost over there. These ghosts are part of my New York, and we have the decency to pretend not to notice each other when we pass but we know we’re there. And yeah, it’s we because I’m a ghost, too, adding this piece to my New York and leaving a piece of myself and in that moment I’m in the present and also passing myself in the future, eyes turned away and heart turned towards.

Snow Day

I grew up in Vermont, mostly in the 1970s, long enough ago that the winters were longer and green Christmases were rare and the snowbanks were always over my head. Snow days then weren’t days when school was cancelled because that wasn’t very common. There we enough city snow plows and people with pickups with plows on the front looking to make a few extra bucks that snow rarely shut things down. Plus I knew that I had to go to school for 180 days each year, so a cancelled day in the winter only meant one less day of summer vacation.

Snow days were those weekends or days during school breaks when a storm dumped so much snow that you could barely make it from the front steps to the sidewalk to the street. Until I was old enough that shoveling became compulsory, a big storm meant my sisters and I put on our snow pants and snowmobile boots and our winter jackets, mittens, hats, scarves, and spent the day in the snow. My father would shovel off the front walk, then the sidewalk, extending left and right to our property line, and if he needed to drive somewhere he cleared the driveway. All that snow had to go somewhere, and somewhere was either on our tiny front lawn or on the strip between the sidewalk and the street. That’s where we dug out caves and tunnels, aware that it could be dangerous — we all knew stories of children who had to be pulled by their exposed legs out of snowbanks — but we did it every year until we were too big, physically or emotionally.

Snow was on the ground for months and we lived with it and everything went on a usual because when you live in a place that has regular adversity you just deal with it and go on. In that way Vermonters are like residents of New York City.

I went to college in Vermont so I don’t remember any days of classes being cancelled due to snow. My main snow memory is of the first really big storm my first year. We all went outside and made snowmen, and snowballs that we threw at residents of the next dorm, and carried on like the kids we thought we no longer were. Then we heard a rumor that the students from East Campus and Redstone Campus were heading to us on Main Campus to have a snowball fight and we started furiously making snowballs and talking about how we were going to be ready.

We heard them before we saw them, heard them well before they appeared at the top of the hill, before they started down the hill  yelling and throwing snowballs and quickly overwhelming us. In our excitement, our hubris, we had forgotten or maybe not known that East Campus had at least twice as many students and Redstone at least three or four times as many and it was never going to be a fight. And it didn’t matter at all. It was great.

In my early working career in the early 90s in New York, I don’t remember any snow days. Maybe there weren’t any because the train always runs and I never lived anywhere that I had to depend on a car or bus. Then I moved to Atlanta for a while and there was at least one snow day in which a dusting shut down traffic on the Connector and brought the city to a stop. I worked with a number of Yankees and we all laughed the next day at the silly southerners and their fear of snow.

These days I’m back in New York and snow days are even rarer, partly because of global warming and partly because technology like laptops and remote access has made it possible to work even when you can’t leave the house (assuming you have WiFi). Plus, I still depend on the subways and, like I said, they rarely stop. And as much as I love the idea of a surprise off day, I don’t want a storm or a blackout or a flood or anything else that brings this place to a standstill. So there aren’t really any more snow days.

Still, the dream lives, the ideal. When I hear the forecast, and then the warnings, I start to get that feeling, that old hope. I start to dream of the perfect snow day, of a warm café where even if you could see out of the steamed windows it wouldn’t matter because the swirling snow has reduced the visibility to zero. There are warm drinks and there’s a good book and ever once in a while you look up and she looks up from her book and you smile at each other and it’s a perfect moment. Maybe one day.

Until then, my snow day is simple. It takes place when I get up and I look out the living room windows. The sun hasn’t risen. The world is white and I can’t see anyone or anything except a lone garbage truck temporarily losing the battle to keep the street clear of snow. I can’t see any footprints and the only sound besides the snowplow is the wind and I’m not thinking about how I’m going to get to work or what I’m going to wear. It’s only a minute, maybe not even a minute. That’s my snow day. For now.

New Year

It is the day that the sun has travelled all the way around the sun, although not to the same spot as the galaxy is also rotating. This makes perfect sense as no two New Years are the same. Some come with hope and some with despair and some feel like ones that preceded it, but of course we have changed and nothing is ever the same.

I try to remember the last new year that I truly welcomed, and I think it was the last one, at least until the day really started. Before anything happens, before you have disappointed anyone, a happy new year feels possible. I’m going to be this and do that and this will be the year that it all works out. And sooner rather than later these thoughts are revealed to be folly.

Arbitrary astronomical events don’t make things happen. Time is useful for marking progress (or lack thereof) but there is no magic. A circuit of the sun won’t change reality. I am not quite exactly the best and the worst of who I’ve been, but the difference is only of degrees, of rotation, of all this coordinated movement that makes progress feel impossible.

And still, there is a small but growing hope inside me. Maybe it’s too many New Years, too many hopes, too much romanticism in my soul, but there is hope. It is there and I can feel it and I can nourish it and I can believe in it. Maybe the galaxy has rotated far enough for this hope to turn into something. Maybe this is the year.

Don Williams

I don’t remember a time before being aware of my father’s record collection. That’s not only because the collection predates me, but because I don’t remember a time when there wasn’t a record player in the living room or dining room, when my father or my mother weren’t playing something.

My father is a country music fan, and I grew up listening to George Jones and Waylon Jennings and Tammy Wynette. I sorted through my father’s albums more times than I can remember. There was a lot of Johnny Cash and Bobby Bare. There were a few, pre-Bocephus, Hank Jr’s. There was Sammi Smith and Tanya Tucker.

I remember in kindergarten one day that the teacher asked us to write the names of albums on pieces of paper, and how I had no idea who Peter Frampton or ELO were. I pretended to know what Grease was. I’d heard of the Beatles but I’m not sure if I knew which songs were theirs. Many of my classmates had older siblings, and many of them probably had parents who listened to popular music. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Maybe that was the beginning of the feeling out of step. It’s a feeling that has never quite left me.

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Master of None S2

You’ve had this happen, right? You meet someone and you connect. And when I say connect I mean you see them for the first time and they are already familiar even though there is no possible way that you could have seen them. I don’t know if it’s a chemical level or a psychological level or a karmic level, but you are certain they are meant to be part of your life, and the conversations that follow only support that idea. Somehow it feels like it was meant to be.

Of course there can be complications. Maybe you’re married. Maybe that someone is also married. Maybe you live in different countries or cities or (in New York) different neighborhoods. But you can’t shake it. And to make everything worse — painfully, awesomely worse, that someone feels the same about you.

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I Should Have Been Home Yesterday

I’ll start with the theory that Steven Soderbergh; writer, cinematographer, and editor of the film, and screenwriter Jules Asner, wife of Soderbergh, made choices about what to include and not include in Logan Lucky, that nothing pointless is included. So the opening scene between Jimmy Logan and his daughter Sadie which includes a discussion about Jimmy’s favorite song, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, is important. In fact, I think it’s a thesis statement.

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