What I’m Reading: Singer-Songwriter Matthew Ryan

It’s probably not fair that Harlan Howard’s name gets mentioned most often now in reference to his famous observation that a great country song is just three chords and the truth, but I’ve always taken what he was saying with the same tone the great sportswriter Red Smith had in mind when he said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and just open a vein.” I’ve also always felt that Howard’s general idea extends far beyond just country songs, and that there’s a slick, formulaic cynicism listeners – the kind Moreland or Howard play(ed) to – know when they hear it.

It’s a short trip from underestimating how much effort goes into doing a thing well to simply devaluing that same thing. So it’s not surprising, years on from Howard’s pithy summation, to get a John Moreland, singing that “I heard truth is what songs are for/Nobody gives a damn about songs anymore.” Fortunately that doesn’t stop Moreland or many others who write songs from giving a damn about them.

You’ll find Matthew Ryan high on that list of writers and performers who give a damn about songs, and who approach writing them with real concern for both sound and sense.

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– Photo via matthewryanonline.com/photos

Reviews of his early albums (May Day and East Autumn Grin in particular) made Springsteen comparisons. Tom Waits’s name cropped up at some point as well, if I remember right, but he never got stuck in, “Steve Forbert is the next Bob Dylan territory.” He stayed restless; wrote a song about Lucinda Williams and recorded another with her; named another one after a Wilfred Owen poem; brought in electronic elements as needed and played pure rock when that felt right; tinkered with song structure; and generally carved out a space of his own among the crowded singer-songwriter field.

The “business” side of the music business has never been kind to artists, perhaps especially the ones of Ryan’s stripe, who don’t put themselves through the mad contortions of chasing trends. In 2014, Mischa Pearlman’s interview with Ryan for Consequences of Sound was called, “Matthew Ryan and Seventeen Years of Kicking on the Door.” In that interview, he talks about a time when he had the urge to pack it in, to step away from making music. The door may never give way, but if you want to bet he’ll stop kicking, I’d be happy to take that wager, and your money.

The rasp in his voice is still there on Hustle Up Starlings. The introspective quality is, too, but there’s a generous helping of defiance as well, the kind that runs through his previous album, Boxers, and which, in truth, it turns out I’d missed at times, and which he hadn’t added as large a dose of since May Day, to my ears.

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– Photo via https://matthewryan.bandcamp.com/album/hustle-up-starlings

And so, there are fewer laments and more declarations,  maybe, at the risk of oversimplifying (and the added risk of detecting something tonally that he never intended). This year marks twenty years since May Day, ten since Matthew Ryan vs. The Silver State, but here Ryan is, in full stride, with a new album as vital as anything his younger self cooked up.

As a writer, Ryan mentions Raymond Carver’s poems, and they’re a perfect touchstone, but it’s easy to see him as a kindred spirit of B.H. Fairchild, too, witting or unwitting on Ryan’s part, and others, Robert Olmstead or Jim Harrison maybe. Hints of the late, great, criminally neglected Thomas Williams, maybe, who so loved the people and ways, the joys and hardships of of New Hampshire. Ditto John Casey (Spartina and Compass Rose in particular), and Theodore Weesner’s The Car Thief. Maybe a dash of Richard Ford.  He’s an American songwriter, resilient and largehearted, and even though he carries around such a large target, somehow he keeps going, keeps searching. As to what he’s reading and why, I’ll let him tell you more:

1) What are you reading? 

I have a collection of Raymond Carver poems called All of Us on the desk next to the pencils and clean sheets of paper on the desk in my writing room. It’s always there or within reach. Brian Eno has an amazing collection of flash cards called Oblique Strategies, it’s intended as a tool while recording music (or any creative effort I would imagine) to help undo a block or dead end. Both Carver and Eno have a knack for cutting to the chase. There’s a kind of lightning in the fact regardless of desire. 

2) Why are you reading it? 

Carver’s poems hit me like others might receive a psalm. They always center and calm me. They feel like the world that I feel and observe. I’m so grateful he picked up a pen or typewriter… However he did it, I’m grateful. Always.

Sometimes if the trail goes cold or I’m feeling stuck in my own efforts, I’ll open the book and read the first verse that catches my eye. Other times I just want to read something beautiful. It’s never really to borrow influence for what I’m working on, but a clarification of ethos. Poetry is interesting to me, it depends on the music of the reader’s own mind and experience. There’s a real intimacy there. I think we need more space in our minds. I love that about Raymond Carver, he offers a space that allows us to really feel our humanity. All of it. 

What I’m Reading: Singer-Songwriter Rebecca Martin

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– Photo via http://www.rebeccamartin.com

Artists – musicians, painters, writers, you name it – have to live in the world, just like everyone else. Of course they do, but beyond, say, experience as grist for the mill, there are those who take an active role in improving the world around them. Take Rebecca Martin, musician/vocalist extraordinaire (that’s not me being glib – she’s exceptionally good at what she does). In addition to recording and releasing seven, going on eight albums, she’s also served as the first Executive Director of the Kingston Land Trust, “a formidable force for conservation, green spaces, and community building in the city.” Beyond that role, a New York Times piece from 2013 refers to “a period of community involvement so stressful that she lost her voice, using songwriting as a path to recovery.” And judging by her responses to the questions I posed recently, a lot of her energy still goes toward sustaining and improving life in  Kingston.

I mention all this because, when I asked what she was reading, it didn’t occur to me that she’d be so deeply involved in civic affairs that it would color her responses. My guess was that, as a songwriter I admire, she’d tick off a stack of beloved poets and writers, and I’d nod and say, “Yes, of course! I can see that in your songs.” Now, it turns out I’d overlooked a piece from a few years ago in which she discussed books which matter to her. On the list? Great stuff, not surprisingly. May Sarton’s journals, Journal of a Solitude in particular, though my personal first choice was After the Stroke, which I picked up, fittingly I suppose, after my mother’s stroke. She also names Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus (and nods to Henry Miller’s attractiveness as a potential lover) and wishes for time to reread Steinbeck, whose humanity we need now in America more than we have in a very long time, I can’t help thinking.

I actually asked her these questions because I’ve been listening to her music, I’m a little bewildered to realize, for about twenty years. She was briefly almost famous, during the n0w-almost-unimaginable ‘90s, as half of the duo Once Blue. That made her part of the first Lilith Fair, but in many ways that feels to me like a footnote to what she’s done since – half a dozen albums, ranging from original compositions to jazz standards, most recently the spare and reflective Twain (2013).

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Twain cover image, via http://www.rebeccamartin.com

She recorded Twain with her husband, the bassist Larry Grenadier, in the bedroom of a Brooklyn apartment, and it’s tempting to imagine you hear that intimacy in the purity of the arrangements and forthright vocals. I don’t mean this to devolve into music criticism, though. It’s pure endorsement on that level. Better still, there’s more to come on that front. Rebecca Martin’s new collaborative recording with Guillermo Klein (that features Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard)  The Upstate Project will be released on Friday, April 14th on Sunnyside Records. And now, those questions. Her responses weren’t what I expected, but they carried the gratifying surprise of the meaningful work she’s doing in addition to her music:

1) What are you reading?

In tandem with making music for the past decade,  I have been a community organizer in the City of Kingston – a Hudson River city about 90 miles North of NYC.  As a founder of KingstonCitizens.org, most of my reading has been municipal charters, process and the laws that are in place to protect the citizens in our community (and as of late, the region).   In addition, these days as a consultant working for great organizations such as Riverkeeper and the Kingston Land Trust,  new reading includes tributary and river water body studies as well as rail trail management plans.  From prose to technical papers! Good for the mind.  

2) Why are you reading it?

 As early as I can remember, I was always making music and organizing an array of businesses in each closet of my childhood home. It is rewarding to have created my work life developing both of these skills in the way that I have.  Given what I view as a critical time period in the world, it has been important to me to take responsibility as a citizen with a focus on local government.  To do that, there is much reading and research that is necessary to be effective as an organizer, and to write about as well as to share good, factual information with my community.   

More on Rebecca’s work in Kingston:

VIEW:   A Jazz Singer Fights Niagara Bottling

VIEW:   KingstonCitizens.org 

What I’m Reading: Artist Sue Coe

This week in the New Yorker (or on the website anyway – it may be in print as well), Evan Ross writes about “Making Art in a Time of Rage.” You’d be forgiven for immediately hesitating to accept the insights of such a staid publication on matters of rage.  “What is the point of making beautiful things,” Ross asks, “or of cherishing the beauty of the past, when ugliness runs rampant?” It’s a valid question, but it also proceeds from a limited view of art’s means and purposes. This is unfair to Ross, though, for the question is a mere jumping off point. Later he observes that, “not only are intensity, beauty, and devotion insufficient to halt violence, they can become its soundtrack,” and later, “Ultimately, artists of integrity will have no choice in how they respond to the Great Besmirchment. Those who thrive on politically charged material will continue in that vein.”

Sue Coe is one such artist of integrity. The world and its injustices are a constant forge for her work, and unfortunately we’ve beached ourselves in an era that’s providing her with more stimulus than usual. I say “unfortunately” and feel sure she’d agree; there’s never yet been a shortage of inequality or injustice for an artist who’s moved by these things to respond to, and I feel sure she’d readily forego the need to produce whatever art comes in response to this more extreme version of events.     

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Sue Coe
Going Down ”The Social” (Unemployment Office) 1993. Graphite, charcoal, ink and gouache on Strathmore Bristol board. Signed, lower right. Dated, lower right, and titled, lower center. Dated “Liverpool 93,” lower right. Red “M[urder]” stamp, lower left. 29.0″ x 23 1/8″ (73.7 x 58.8 cm). – Image via Galerie St. Etienne [http://www.gseart.com/gse-pages/Current_Exhibition.php]

The image above is part of Galerie. St. Etienne’s exhibition, “You Say You Want a Revolution: American Artists and the Communist Party.” Several of Coe’s pieces are there, including some recent prints made in response to the November Presidential election. You’ll find images of those below, and you can own copies of the prints at a reasonable price (an ongoing commitment of Coe’s – see the work for sale on her site if you doubt me). I asked her what she’s reading in these unusual times, and she told me I’d be sorry, because the list was so extensive. But no, in that, at least, she was wrong: 

After the Trump/Bannon coup, I resolved to read more physical books, not read books and articles online, as feel so mentally assaulted by the horror of America’s political situation.

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It Can Happen Here, 2016 Lithograph. Image courtesy of Sue Coe

It made concentrated reading online, fragmented and so full of anxiety, as one is interrupted constantly, by the latest Trump abominations and the reactions to them. My reaction to Trump is in making artwork. It’s labor intensive work, retweeting is not work, it takes time away from work. 

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So, I have limited my time on all digital devices down to reading two newspapers a day. It’s strange, as it requires carrying actual books around in a backpack, when go to demonstrations, and falling asleep with a book under the pillow. I should have done this long before Trump. My friends who are writers are returning to typewriters and longhand.

My reading at present, consists of four stacks of books.

First stack are my beloved friends, who have read and reread since childhood. These books provide comfort and are a source of happiness. I reach for them when am depressed and overwhelmed and need reach for the mute switch in my brain, rather than tossing and turning. There is always an Orwell in that group, either his essays, or Animal Farm. He is my favorite writer, if had to choose one, just as Soutine is my favorite painter.   Then there is Bertolt Brecht, my guide, the poems from 1913-1956, which are brilliant. He had two voices within him that struggle  for dominance, his obligation and responsibility as a political activist, not to be solely about ‘Truth’ but the truth of propaganda to change the world. As with all creative political people, those choices were taken out of his hands, in his statement to HUAC for example.   

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Bertolt Brecht, 1954. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-W0409-300 / Kolbe, Jörg / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The warring contradictions in his poems of ideology and the human condition are painful to witness and make him a great poet. Orwell had the same struggle, but he generally chose truth, despite the consequences, and when he did not, he made transparent, the messy process of living within contradictions he could never resolve. His essay about shooting the elephant, is one of the greatest pieces of writing ever penned, his murder of a beautiful animal, changed the trajectory of his life. As he says, people become the mask they are forced to wear.   Then the complete works of Sherlock Holmes, as there is nothing quite like traveling back to foggy gas lit Victorian London and looking at those Sydney Paget illustrations. Conan Doyle just wanted to kill off Holmes as he was so bored with him,  but was forced to resurrect him by public demand.   He was so bored with Holmes and Watson that he forgot his own narratives, to the glee of his millions of devotees who alight upon his mistakes like locusts. I just read last night a short story by Graham Greene, called “The Destructors,” written in the 1950’s.  It perfectly aligns with and illuminates the Trump/Bannon mentality. An old man gives a gang of boys some sweets as a kindness, which places him on their radar for destruction.

Second stack consists of books that require serious commitment. They cannot be skimmed, they cannot be speed read.  In that stack are the works of Adam Hochschild.  He is a historian and journalist, I must have a pencil and paper on hand, to take notes.  His level of research, is stunning, yet the books are elegant and readable, very human and compassionate, not didactic.  His book on WW1 To End All Wars, is a marvel, he manages to include the rise of the Suffragettes and the Labour Party, as an organic whole,  then King Leopold’s Ghost and Bury the Chains, reveal the staggering amount of research he did, and still he doesn’t bog down the reader, but keeps us hooked with the device of key characters. I just finished his Stalin book, to help me understand the present rise of thuggish strong men to power. Its one of his earlier works, so is more accessible for a faster read. It consists of interviews with Gulag survivors and the author’s travels to the locations of the work camps, which are not on any maps.  I will start his book on the Spanish Civil War next, Spain in Our Hearts.  In that stack is Scott Anderson’s Lawrence In Arabia. It’s waiting to be read, and will require the same commitment to understand the colonized western mind mapping of the middle east.  As an artist I can look at any art,  see how its done and learn from the technique, absorb it, but the skill of Hochschild as writer is so formidable it cannot be replicated, only admired. 

Third Stack consists of books, which originate from reading reviews in LRB, anything my friends deem of interest, we discuss and then mull over which one of us, is actually going to buy the book. I just ordered the history of Ravensbruck Womens’ concentration camp, by Sarah Helm. My interest doesn’t include Rushdie, which is one of my friend’s favorite authors, and she just can’t understand why I cannot appreciate his work.  Have tried, but no.  We all just read [The Pigeon Tunnel] the le Carré autobiography, which is a splendid read, its surprisingly up to date, no sentiment, no nostalgia,  a real insight into the psychology of government spy games.  His is a self depreciating and witty voice,  a very lean writer.  Unread so far, is a book I wouldn’t pick up, but as it came from a friend, I know I will like, Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie.

Fourth Stack is research.  As I make books myself, am obligated to read everything I can get my hands on about a subject and devour it. This is work reading. I read everything, memorize most of it, don’t discuss it, and then put it away, under a mental shroud, and  create my own version. It’s not what I read and remember, it’s what is left that I don’t know which am curious about, which will drive the next book. Writing is torture. When a new book of mine comes out, I look at it for a day, and then hide it, as it’s the memory of so much labor. It’s not something I want to remember,  see again, let alone talk about, which makes publicizing the darn book difficult. Books exist as their own persons. They will either find people who cherish them or not. Can’t remember how many books I have done. They are all art books, non fiction with text and images. The latest book, which came out last month, surprised me. It’s called The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto. 

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  • Cover of The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto, courtesy of Sue Coe

I wanted to do a version of Orwell’s Animal Farm, but in my version, the farmed animals achieve victory, and it turned out to be an adorable little creature, a pocket book. 

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  • Plate from The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto, Courtesy of Sue Coe

Its all images, woodcuts, with no words. 

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  • Plate from The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto, Courtesy of Sue Coe

It doesn’t seem like anything I could ever have invented, as the second half is full of joy. It’s in my pocket and by my bed, in book stack number one, I keep looking at it, the novelty of new book has not worn off.   

Sam Sweet, All Night Menu Vol. 3 Excerpt

If you’re like me, you’ve been patiently awaiting Sam Sweet’s next volume in his All Night Menu series since, 2014 or 15 (the dates get fuzzy after awhile). The point is, it’s a continuation of an idiosyncratic but essential project: to map the Los Angeles area via one man’s connection to certain places, people, dates and events. He’s done so through a series of booklet-sized releases on brown paper with black ink and illustrations. They’re simple visually, but there’s something defiantly concrete about the presentation, a forthrightness that heads off any charge that the writer is making too much of minutiae, of events lacking in scale. Sweet writes that, “The city is vast and amorphous. This booklet is small and precise. It is not a walking tour, a visitor’s guidebook, or a street atlas. It is a periodic index of lost heroes and miniature histories. Its only objective is to make the invisible equal to the visible.”

You can find an excerpt from the new volume here. It’s a perfect illustration of Sweet’s point, and I dare say a pretty irresistible peek at the project. It portrays the dignity of the personal, struggling against the irresistible forces of policy and social change, as here in the excerpt from “501 N. Mednik:”

The Maravilla gangs multiplied in the 1980s and Mednik became a combat zone.  Stray rounds left scars on the rebote, but like a church, Michi’s remained unscathed. Never robbed, never tagged. Maras in L.A. County Jail would use their one payphone privilege to call the store, knowing Michi would always be there to accept the charges and relay a message to anyone in the varrio. Sometimes she’d be asked to hold a paper bag behind the counter. Her son implored her otherwise. “People think you’re involved,” he said. She shooed him off. The men outside had once peered wide-eyed into her candy counter. They were her customers. “Besides,” she said, “I never look inside.” 

The $1 sandwiches she started making for club members were so popular that every day someone would come in for a “Michi sandwich,” though they were never on a menu. In the face of rising costs and supermarket competition, she refused to raise prices. “The people can’t afford that,” she told her son, who later discovered she was supporting the store with her life savings. In a boom year, a Korean developer offered them a million for the lot. Thomas was incredulous when he found out they turned it down. Tommy shrugged. “I’m waiting for two million.” As Michi got older and smaller, the shelves seemed to grow taller around her. The wooden grabber from the ‘30s leaned against towers of cereal that nearly touched the ceiling. She developed painful sores from standing all day. Each day, an aging gangster from Lomita Mara would walk over from the projects to put healing lotion on her aching feet.

 

The good news? All three volumes are still available. The bad news? Volume 1 is all but gone – these are only editions of 500, after all, and they’re hand numbered and come with a note from the author. You can see how the process unfolds here. You can also find a little more from Sam Sweet in the New Yorker.

  • John McIntyre

What I’m Reading: Writer John Andrew Fredrick

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  • Photo by Steve Keros

John Andrew Fredrick rests sometime. I mean, he probably does. I’m almost sure he has to now and again. The trouble is, it’s hard to prove he does, based on his output as a writer and musician (you may have heard of The Black Watch – if not, remedy this oversight).

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For the past several years in particular, he’s released either a book and an album, or two albums, or two books. 2017 sees a novel, Your Caius Aquilla, a comic epistolary novel set in ancient Rome, and Fucking Innocent, on Wes Anderson’s early films.

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You can preorder Your Caius Aquilla here, and Fucking Innocent here. Maybe I’ve not made myself clear: you should preorder them. It’s not an offer you can’t refuse or anything – I don’t have that kind of power – but it’s good sense to get them now, in all their first edition glory.

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Now, on the topic of his resting, we come to the fact that, no, not every minute of his time is devoted to making things. He spends a lot of it reading. So, when you ask him what he’s reading and why, you get good value for dollar. [Ed. note: no dollars changed hands between the writer and Mr. Fredrick. He gave generously of his own time]. For that matter, talk to him about pretty much anything. Take it away, John Andrew Fredrick:

1) I am reading everything–and thus I know, in trying to read everything key that’s ever been written, that I have, at last, lost my mind.  To wit:  Rachel Cusk’s Outline (she is the new Proust)

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Henry Green’s underappreciated Caught 

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Woolf’s Orlando (the only one I’ve not read), Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress (on account of David Foster Wallace posthumously told-me-so), three biographies of Keats (Gittings, Motion, Roe)–as I just spent a glorious month in Hampstead.

2).  See comment above.  Plus/also/too/as well:  Keats was one of my emphases in “rad” school–gotta keep that up, don’t you know.  Just like I must keep my streak going of reading Chaucer’s Troilus every other year (another specialty on the way to the superfluous PhD).   Oh!  Ulysses–my fifth and final try.  With the Stuart Gilbert crib.

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Wish me luck!!! Hahaha.  It’s do or die for old Jimmy Joyce.  And life’s too short to spend it living rather than reading.   Cheers, John Andrew

John Berger dead at 90; Dore Ashton at 88

Some weeks ago, when John Berger died, I meant to offer a little tribute to him. He was a major figure as art writers go (Ways of Seeing, and so on), and a talented poet and novelist. Soon enough the window to do so seemed to have passed, or I was too busy and preoccupied to do so, and I let the idea go without marking his departure. Now the art critic Dore Ashton has passed, and I don’t mean to let that go by unmarked. She had a remarkable career, one filled with perceptive and connected work – connected in the sense that she was deeply familiar with key figures like Philip Guston, and in that numerous of her works were natural progressions that built on what she’d previously done. Now is every bit a proper time to read her remarkable book on Abstract Expressionism, The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning, for observations like this one: “The circles of artists in New York in the late twenties and early thirties were often generated, or at least stimulated, by the energetic foreign born.” Food for thought, that. Ms. Ashton was eighty-eight at the time of her death. Berger was ninety. What legacies they left us, what brilliant, extensive bodies of work. What better benediction than this poem of Berger’s?

When I open my wallet

to show my papers

pay money or check the time of a train

I look at your face.

The flower’s pollen

is older than the mountains

Aravis is young

as mountains go.

The flower’s ovules

will be seeding still

when Aravis then aged

is no more than a hill.

The flower in the heart’s

wallet, the force

of what lives us

outliving the mountain.

And our faces, my heart, brief as photos.

Marion Coutts – NBCC Award finalist

In the realm of good news this week, the artist Marion Coutts, author of The Iceberg and recent “What I’m Reading” participant, is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction for 2016. I’d recommend picking up The Iceberg as a nod to this honor, and if you order it online, checking in on what she’s been reading in the meantime.

  • John McIntyre

Beginning 2017

Outside of a runaway To Read pile (piles, okay, there’s more than one pile), 2017 is off to a pretty equable start – no prolonged bouts of snow, and some pleasant reading surprises already. First on that list: Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson. It’s a sort of cousin to Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance, in that it’s compulsively readable and delivers a sense of great well-being a lot of the time. If anything. Miss Buncle is even more reliable on that score. It’s brisk and charming, driven by a small controversy that disturbs an English village in the mid-1930s. I’d give an example of what Stevenson does so well, but someone else has the book just now, and she’s not likely to give it up. Just know that Miss Buncle carries the promise of a quick, pleasant read, and without giving the sense things have been dumbed down at any point. As with Someone at a Distance, it’s a novel that hits a vanishingly small mark, and also like the Whipple novel, there’s a Persephone edition (though I read the American release, from Sourcebooks).

I can’t and don’t exclusively read breezy, 1930s English confections, however. Here’s what’s on deck in the early months:

Christoper Kimball – Fannie’s Last Supper

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There’s a documentary by the same name available on Netflix, and if you happen to order the book online, I’d wholeheartedly recommend watching it in the meantime. The story, effectively, goes like this: Chris Kimball and his team (then at America’s Test Kitchen) set out to recreate a menu from Frannie Farmer’s 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cookbook. This involves acquiring and mastering an antique wood cookstove, dealing with the vagaries of acquiring a calf’s head, and other adventures. I’d say it’s more exciting than it sounds, but that all sounded plenty exciting to me. You get recipes and citations from the original cookbook in the book as well, and that seems to me a worthy supplement. Buy/read/watch. I’m set to read now.

A. Scott Berg, ed. – World War I and America: Told by the Americans Who Lived It

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Library of America surprises me several times a year by slipping something onto their list that feels like a bit of a departure from what they’re known for, but which works as a perfect supplement to so much of what they’ve published. In this case, it’s a collection of everything from news stories to primary sources – letters, diaries, songs, Senate speeches (like George Norris from 1917, “Let Europe Solve Her Problems”) and much else. The result is an account with a different texture from the standard history of the period, and editor A. Scott Berg deserves significant credit for that. A wonderful addition to our record of the age.

Maurice Manning – One Man’s Dark

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A new book of poems by Maurice Manning is a thing of joy. You can disagree, but why forego joy? The Gone and the Going Away came out nearly four years ago, and it was one of the highlights of 2013 for me as a reader. He was also gracious enough to sit for an interview with The Poetry Foundation. Even if it’s another four years before his next book, you won’t want to wait to get started on this one.

Solomon Ibn Gabirol – Vulture in a Cage

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A random bookstore selection, this one, published by Archipelago Books. Solomon Ibn Gabirol was an 11th century Jewish poet. You wouldn’t know it from the beautiful translation. He might well be any ambitious young writer here:

Literary men, give me some time

to shake of immaturity,

And you will see a poem to amaze your minds –

Its verses set with pearls,

With gold, and beads of crystal,

splendid both in wording and in substance,

Verses that will make this generation

Think of me as cattle think of lions.

George Szirtes – Mapping the Delta

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He’s out there in the great, wide world, writing and traveling, traveling and writing and translating (Sándor Márai! László Krasznahorkai! Magda Szabó!), and I like to think that in some small way, that keeps the world in balance. He’s got a new book of poems out, called Mapping the Delta, and these lines from “The Books” seem a perfect place to leave off:

The books are restless.

They are in a wintry mood,

Their voices urgent.

What the books whisper

Is what we would not mention

In conversation.

– John McIntyre

5 Literary Loves from 2016

Helen Garner – Everywhere I Look

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There’s no going wrong with anything Helen Garner’s written, from the fiction (The Children’s Bach, Cosmo Cosmolino and The Spare Room are favorites of mine, but that’s not to sell Monkey Grip and other things short) to the journalism and nonfiction. Everywhere I Look compiles Garner’s writing for a variety of publications, and the selections are impeccable. If “Dreams of Her Real Self” doesn’t at least put a lump in your throat, you’re probably dead inside, and “The Insults of Age” is a frank and funny depiction of not the clinical hardships of getting older but the cultural ones. Everything here is smart and mordant and undeniably alive. Put it at the top of your 2017 list if you didn’t get to it this year.

Dorothy Whipple – Someone at a Distance

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So few books hit the sweet spot Dorothy Whipple found in Someone at a Distance. It first appeared in 1953, and Persephone Books in the UK reissued it as a classic in 2008. It was originally considered popular fiction, but the characterization is complex, and the tone is never less than perfectly appropriate as Whipple takes us through a range of emotional registers. The plot is deceptively dramatic after what feels like a low key start. Probably the most purely pleasurable bit of reading I did all year, like an even more absorbing version of Elizabeth Jenkins’s novel The Tortoise and the Hare.

Berlin Metropolis 1918-1933

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Neue Galerie in New York is one of the greatest places on earth (as is Galerie St. Etienne). This volume accompanied an exhibition there that closed in January, but it seems to me an exceptional example of a book that goes beyond just the work on offer to take the measure of the art and culture that marked a time and place. It covers everything from fine art to architecture to fashion to film, and the essays are absolutely worthy of the visuals they accompany. My initial interest was the visual art (“Art and Anti-Art in Berlin Around 1920″ doesn’t disappoint), but Dorothy Price’s, “The New Woman in 1920s Berlin,” and Sharon Jordan’s “The Rhythm of Our Time is Jazz: Popular Entertainment during the Weimar Republic” are remarkable as well. Jürgen Müller reinterprets Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It’s just a glorious book.

James Beard – Love and Kisses and a Halo of Truffles: Letters to Helen Evans Brown

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James Beard’s actual personality feels a bit lost now, culturally. He’s more a name – namesake of the James Beard Foundation, Awards, etc – than a distinct individual. These letters were all written to Helen Evans Brown between 1952 and 1964. Brown was a formidable figure on West Coast cuisine in the 1950s and 60s. They feel a little bit in the MFK Fisher vein, with Beard doing a lot to establish a broader, more adventurous food culture in the US, but he’s funnier than Fisher, and ultimately the mix of humor, self-deprecation and genuine confidence on display make him irresistible. Take this for example, on a piece he’d contributed to for Life magazine in 1955:

The Life steak article is awful. They took a bit from everyone, put it all together and called it steak. The picture of Mr. Quincey Jones broiling steaks over hot flames is enough to make you woops.

I’m not part of the “2016 was the worst year ever” brigade, if only for the fact that prior to November, a lot of memorable, good things happened. For that matter, a handful have since. Still, in grim, uncertain moments, a book like this one is a welcome relief.

Matthew Desmond – Evicted

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Desmond manages the remarkable balancing act of applying both empathy and realism in looking at the lives of several Milwaukee residents whose housing situations range from fluid to frighteningly tenuous. He doesn’t tack on a neat and tidy ending, and this isn’t the kind of work that provides easily digestible lessons or policy proposals, though it might prompt a few of the latter, with any luck. If the James Beard book was a trip into a beautiful segment of the past, Evicted, I’m afraid, is a gimlet eyed look ahead to the coming years for a lot of Americans.

  • John McIntyre