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My 2018 in Reading

You might guess I read less books this year than I did in 2017, 2016, or 2015. A lot less, actually, because I lost my reading habits in the heat of a campaign for State Senate. Losing an election is, psychically, quite difficult, and few sensations in life compare to it. That being said, I am thankful for the time I’ve regained to read books, write, spend time with family, and focus more on my inner life.

In 2019, I will probably read many more books. I will write more too. This year, a small press published my debut novel — buy it here — which was a thrill and realization of a long sought after goal. Before I imagined myself a state senator or an award-winning journalist, I really just wanted to be a novelist. I still do. As I grow older, I reflect more on my competing selves, and the desires and impulses that pull me in various directions. Do I want to be known as a writer? A political journalist? A politician? Of the three, Writer is the label least likely to be discarded.

Words were always the fist love.

Books fuel my writing. If anyone asks me about how one becomes a better writer or journalist, my first piece of advice is the simplest — read. Read everything. Don’t stop reading. Don’t stop being curious. Assume you know far less than you actually think you do. For fiction, for nonfiction, for anything you attempt, it’s crucial you read. Read old books, read contemporary, read women, read globally, read people of color, read LGBTQ, and yes, read even the old white men. Every quality book has something to tell you. Don’t silo yourself off.

I’m currently working on another novel. Most of Demolition Night was written in 2015. Knowing the way journeys to publication can meander or be suddenly cut off, expect to read this book in a few years — or never. You accept that reality when you take on a new project. Nothing is guaranteed but you must, as Rocky once said, try to go the distance.

In addition to working on a novel and banging out journalism and columns for various publications, I want to revisit Medium more in 2019 and pop in here for the occasional essay. Right now, I am thinking about writing about one of my old loves, American one-wall handball. (In Brooklyn, we just call it handball.) Look for that sometime soon.

As always, it’s bewildering to think too much about the passage of time, and how years can whipsaw by. This is the fourth year I’ve done “My Year in Reading” and each year has brought on a fascinating personal or professional development, or been a product of a disorienting, and at times terrifying, American landscape. The first year I did this, Barack Obama had one more year of a presidency, Antonin Scalia was alive, and Donald Trump had not yet competed in a primary. The second year, Trump was president-elect. The third, I was, to even my own amazement, running for office. The fourth, I am here, settling my feet on firm ground, a few months removed from the carousel.

This opener was written in Michigan, where life is quieter and I visit family each Christmas. As a city Jew, I can get my belated taste of rural Christianity. It’s not so bad. Perhaps because I’ve mellowed with age, I’m not giving books letter grades this year. You just get the capsule review. Do with it what you wish.

I’ll see you next year.

Saint Mazie by Jamie Attenberg. The story of a forward-thinking, Jazz Age woman who spends her life selling theater tickets on the Lower East Side, Saint Mazie is a novel inspired by 1940 New Yorker profile by the legendary Joseph Mitchell. Told through Mazie’s diary entries, the novel spans early 20th century New York City, seizing on the spirit of a chaotic, chameleonic era that brought dizzying change in a startling short amount of time. Mazie is bawdy and fun, but Attenberg brings real pathos to a character who is also a prisoner of her times. With interjections from a hipster shop owner and a high school history teacher who discover and preserve this fictional diary, Saint Mazie reads as an oral history of a person you want to spend time with. This was the first book I read in 2018, much of it consumed on subway trains on the way to make fundraising calls. It made the G much more bearable.

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan. For some, and I won’t spoil it, Manhattan Beach has an ending that will grate. And if you liked Egan for A Visit from the Goon Squad, as I did, Manhattan Beach represents something of a radical pivot: from postmodern fireworks to hard New York realism. Exhaustively researched and tightly-crafted, Manhattan Beach is, like Saint Mazie, a story of a hard-charging, likeable New York woman in the early to mid 20th century who fights back against frustrating patriarchy. Manhattan Beach has a worthy heroin in Anna Kerrigan, a working class Brooklyn girl who dives with the men at the Navy Yard during World War II. Her father disappeared when she was young, becoming entangled with a dashing underworld figure named Dexter Styles — Dexter has a house right on the water in Manhattan Beach — and a central mystery of the novel is what exactly became of Eddie Kerrigan. Egan, with her acute, painterly descriptions of battleships and tenements and nightclubs, summons a lost New York as well as any recent writer. One fun fact: during my campaign, I knocked on the door of a Bay Ridge writer named Nathan Ward who wrote a well-regarded book on the New York waterfront. Egan relied on Ward’s research as she undertook Manhattan Beach.

Vanishing New York by Jeremiah Moss. I don’t intentionally just read books about New York, but looking back at this list, it seems something was going on with me in the winter of 2018. After two novels about a vanished New York, Jeremiah Moss’ artful jeremiad was next on my list. A lot of people have a lot of thoughts on Moss, a poet-turned-psychiatrist who started a popular blog documenting all the various businesses and landmarks lost to relentless gentrification. While Moss can grow tiring at times — every New Yorker seems to believe the New York they knew when they were young was the best New York — and cities naturally undergo cycles, he is ultimately on the right side of history, and his words should be taken seriously. For many decades, New York City was deeply flawed but far more egalitarian than it is today. A college education could be had for free, a majority of neighborhoods were affordable for the working class, and artists and small business owners could rent spaces with little difficulty. That all changed after the 1970’s fiscal crisis (more on that below) as the city reoriented itself, putting the needs of the city’s powerful business and real estate lobbies first. Moss tracks the unnatural and crushing rent burdens visited on renters and small commerical tenants alike, and laments how the city has been remade for yuppies, finance bros, Starbucks, bank chains, and Pret a Manger. Has NYC’s soul been crushed for good? Moss would argue yes. I’m not so apocalpytic. I can’t share every last yowl over the loss of a certain aesthetic — if we could still have a one-bedroom for under $1,000 a month, I could put up with the Rite Aids and Chipotles — and we’ve quietly been adding bookstores, at least in Brooklyn. But Moss’ overall lament hits the mark: we may just been on an unsustainable course.

The Human Stain by Philip Roth. I will always remember The Human Stain as the last Roth novel I read when he was alive. Since he died during my campaign, I never had the chance to properly process his death. My campaign treasurer texted me when I woke up one May morning and I checked online to see, indeed, he was gone. Roth had formally retired from writing — one of the only writers to ever do this — so we weren’t losing the chance for more work. He said he was done and he was done, and there was something to really admire in such a finality. This time, we were losing the man, a titan of the 20th century who captured, in a Ted Williams-like career that saw remarkable accomplishments at uniquely young and old ages (Williams may have been the greatest “young” and “old” hitter ever, batting .406 at 22 and .388 at 1957. Roth won a National Book Award at 27 and wrote some of his most ambitious works in his 60’s, including Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral, and The Human Stain), the maddening mania of the American experiment in all its terror and glory. No one could write so big in such a small place: postwar Newark. The Human Stain is one of Roth’s better works, coming out of that lush 1990’s period which cemented him as one of America’s greats, for all-time and always. With the backdrop of the Lewinsky scandal, the novel is at once a product of its time — Roth’s indignation over America’s puritanical bent and obsession with Bill Clinton’s sexual proclivities boils over early — and, in retrospect, a prescient look at evolving campus culture. Coleman Silk is a white college professor chased from his job for using the word “spook” to describe missing students who, he did not know, were black. We later learn Coleman was a black man who decided to pass as a darker skinned Jew. He dies without telling his wife and children of his past. Roth deftly deconstructs issues of race and identity, and to what lengths a marginalized individual will go to defy sickening oppression to achieve a modicum of the American dream.

The Kevin Show: An Olympic Athlete’s Battle With Mental Illness by Mary Pilon. The first nonfiction book I read in 2018 was, appropriately enough, about a family member. The subject of Mary Pilon’s second book is Kevin Hall, who is married to my first cousin, Amanda, a talented emergency room physician. Funnily enough, this isn’t the only book of 2018 to either be about the life of one of my first cousins or be written by a first cousin (more on that below), so this will be a year-in-review that hits close to home. Pilon tells Kevin’s story in full, and for the unitiated, it can be hard to fathom: Kevin is an elite sailor who dreamed of medaling in the Olympics, lost both testicles to testicular cancer, struggled with terrifying mental illness, and still managed to be an Olympic sailor. He is at once one of the most accomplished athletes on Earth — Joe Posnanski wrote poignantly about the staggering competitiveness of elite athletics, and how supremely talented you have to be to even be considered for something like the Olympics — and one of the more tortured, a man who, since his late teens, has been diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder and something called the Truman Show delusion, a disorder drawing its name from the 1998 Jim Carrey film. When Kevin is suffering, he believes the world is a staged reality, a “director” is speaking with him, all people are actors, and he must perform for ubiquitous movie cameras. This led him to nearly drive a car into Boston Harbor and to run onto an airport tarmac. He has been hospitalized many times. Pilon rotates perspectives, from Kevin to his wife, Amanda, to Kevin’s parents and sisters as they grapple with his soaring highs and incomprehensible lows. Ron Powers in the Times criticized Pilon for her tendency to “anesthetize” the reader to the consequences of chronic mental illness, and I don’t disagree. There are times I also wondered how engrossed I would be with Pilon’s account without a personal connection to Kevin.

Hunger by Roxane Gay. Though I’ve followed Gay’s career for years and enjoyed her Twitter feed, I had never read one of her works until Hunger. A memoir of her struggles with obesity, Hunger is unflinching and raw, and we experience Gay’ indignity and rage in full. Raped at a young age, she turned to food to cope and feel safe. Out of place at an elite boarding school and Yale, she dropped out to roam the country. She details all the ways people who are not obese micro-aggress against those who are, and opens a window into a life wracked with never-ending anxieties. Can this chair hold my weight? Will these clothes fit? Will people mock me when I walk into the room? If Hunger has defects, it’s in the way Gay sometimes seems to lose interest in telling her story, with blunt, sometimes dismissive language replacing detailed scene-setting. She is at her best when excoriating America’s culture of fat-shaming and the “weight-loss industrial complex” that fails so many.

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron. Styron, famous enough in his day to go toe-to-toe with Roth for the title of Great American Novelist (Roth was better), humbles himself here with a slim memoir of his descent into crippling depression. In 1985, he is in Paris to receive a prestigious literary award and suddenly he cannot imagine getting out of bed again. His moods are dark and unshakeable. He is at the abyss. He is ready to kill himself. Writing about mental illness is difficult, and for those who have suffered, rendering the experience in language is not easy. Styron was talented enough to do the trick. When the Vanity Fair article that would grow into the memoir first appeared, it was a ground-breaking moment: clinical depression had been studied but rarely written about so openly. Styron showed the way.

Will Big League Baseball Survive?: Globalization, the End of Television, Youth Sports, and the Future of Major League Baseball by Lincoln Mitchell. Mitchell, a Columbia University professor and Georgia expert (the country, not the state), is also a friend of mine, who maybe loves baseball even more than I do. Mitchell’s provocative book is not one of the lazy baseball takes that periodically circulates around the internet postulating now, finally, baseball is dead, and we can all become a nation of soccer and lacrosse players. Mitchell is a rabid fan and a serious academic, and he takes a concise, fascinating dive into the history of baseball as an organized league and posits what may come next. What many baseball fans don’t quite realize, as Mitchell explains, is that Major League Baseball as a multibillion dollar anti-trust-proof megalith was far from an inevitability. After the American League’s creation in 1901, marking the beginning of the “modern” era, what became MLB would have many rivals, from the Federal League to the Pacific Coast League to the Mexican League. There was a time when talented West Coast players would rather star in the PCL than head east to play on more mediocre MLB teams for comparable pay. From the 1960s until the 1990s, Japanese players didn’t bother making the leap to the majors — and then Hideo Nomo arrived. Lefty Grove could make more money barnstorming in the offseason than starring for the Athletics. Baseball was always business, but was far less successful than it is today. For all the hoary reflections on baseball’s golden years, Mitchell is quick to remind you how catastrophically low attendance could be in the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s. In 1958, not a single team drew two million fans for the year. In 2018, 19 did. Baseball then was not the global game it is now; it’s easy to forget how few foreign-born players there once were, and how baseball’s problem with its declining percentage of African-American players is far less of a problem when you consider African-Americans make up a reasonable percentage of American-born MLB players today. Their numbers only seem to shrink when Dominicans, Venuzuelans, Colombians, Japanese, South Koreans, Taiwanese, and Mexicans are thrown in. Baseball does seem to lack some of the cultural supremacy of those years (Mike Trout plays baseball as well as Mickey Mantle but is far less famous) and faces far fiercer competition from the NBA and NFL, as well as from niche sports that captivate a lot of young people, like skateboarding. Baseball (like other major American sports) will face a reckoning soon as most people trash their TVs and the incredibly valuable local cable contracts that fuel MLB’s bottom line become less than incredibly valuable. Mitchell offers several intriguing hypotheticals for baseball’s future. It could expand across the globe, creating a true World Series (a team from Tokyo competing in the same league as a team from Toronto) or shrink in scale altogether, becoming a niche sport. Mitchell convincingly argues baseball, in the face of declining youth participation, should more actively recruit girls for little league and encourage them to play baseball later into life. The underlying point: the status quo is not guaranteed. History tells us change is inevitabe.

Vineland by Thomas Pynchon. This was the last book I began before petitioning for my campaign began in earnest and my time for reading books seriously disappeared. By the time I finished Vineland, I had lost my election in September. One of my favorite novels is Pynchon’s debut, V, and I’ve also read The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow, as well as some of Slow Learner. So I came at Vineland as a Pynchon veteran, and walked away amused, if let down. Vineland (1990) was Pynchon’s first novel since Gravity’s Rainbow 17 years earlier. Were I in book-reviewing shape in 1990 (I was still a baby), I would have wondered what Pynchon had exactly done over those 17 years, and if copious amounts of weed were involved. We follow a hippie refugee through the wilderness of California, ninjas in Japan, TV addicts, and campus revolutionaries in a shaggy, high-octane saga that can be equally brilliant and infuriating. At its core, Vineland is Pynchon’s thinly-veiled lament for how the idealism and radicalism of the 1960’s gave way to Reagan’s dominance, the rise of the surveillance state and the War on Drugs, and how the culture dramatically changed over this period. The best Pynchon is elsewhere, but there are moments when you remember you are reading one of the very best practitioners of English-language prose in any era.

The Next Next Level: A Story of Rap, Friendship, and Almost Giving Up by Leon Neyfakh. Leon Neyfakh, who worked at my alma mater the New York Observer a few years before I did, writes about his enduring friendship with a little-known rapper from Wisconsin named Juiceboxxx. Juice, as he is known — his first and last name are never revealed — is the never-say-die artist who struggles for wider recognition while trying to stay true to his art. Juiceboxxx is a sympathetic figure, an indefatigable presence on tours across the United States, willing to play to sparse basements, packed clubs, and everything in between. Neyfakh, a Harvard-graduate, chose a conventional, stable career path over a life on the road, and often wonders what would have happened if he followed his artistic impules like Juice. Few understand Juice’s complexity; beneath a goofy persona, he yearns for greatness. The Next Next Level has the makings of a much better book, but never quite gets there — Neyfakh’s writing doesn’t always achieve liftoff and the saga of Juice feels lighter at times than it should.

Confessions of a Fox by Jordy Rosenberg. I’m a little biased with this one. Jordy, who wrote a very critically-acclaimed debut novel that was long-listed for the Center for Fiction’s first novel prize, also happens to be my first cousin. (I alluded to this earlier.) Jordy was an accomplished academic already, and it’s very cool to see his success taken to a new stratosphere. (His book launch was a reading with other celebrated authors, including Ta-Nehisi Coates.) I do think his novel matches the acclaim. I was struck by its humor, pathos, and ambition — the metafictive tale of a trans academic discovering a 18th century text about a dashing rogue named Jack Sheppard who also happens to be transgender. Heavily footnoted, Foster Wallace-style, the novel unfolds on several planes of existence, and turns on the flight of the frustrated, love-lorn academic who, at last, seems to achieve some kind of transcendence. Jordy put his academic speciality to work to conjure 1700’s London, with its boppy cant and fetid scents, and writes the kind of novel you want to revisit again for all you probably missed. It was a happy accident we published both of our books the same year and I tip my cap to Jordy — he outdid me, and I’m very proud.

Cherry by Nico Walker. Nico Walker is not your ordinary young and acclaimed debut novelist. He is in prison, and will be until 2020. A veteran of the Iraq War who turned to drugs and later bank-robbing to cope with his PTSD, he has been behind bars for almost a decade. Walker, though, is a much more sympathetic figure than the other prisoner, Curtis Dawkins, who published a debut work of fiction to much acclaim. Unlike Dawkins, who literally murdered someone and is serving a life sentence, Walker merely brandished weapons in banks, never physically hurting anyone. Cherry is a semi-autographical work that traces his evolution from comfortable kid in suburban Cleveland to college dropout, Iraq War grunt, heroin addict and bank robber. Cherry is crackling and unadorned; it is Walker, in all his hopefulness and nihilism and dark humor, telling you how and why he fucked up. A memoir of addiction as well as one of the better war novels of the last quarter century, Cherry harkens back to a more raw and, perhaps, emotionally honest era, summoning the hellishness of Celine or Last Exit to Brooklyn in prose that leaves all pretension at the door. Cherry at its best reminded me of Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, as well as his equally haunting follow-up, Requiem for a Dream. Selby and Walker wrestled with their demons, and then pinned them on the page. We need more stories from the underworlds effete literary gatekeepers too often ignore.

Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics by Kim Phillips-Fein. This is the definitive account of the 1970’s fiscal crisis in New York, and yet another book you need to read, along with The Power Broker, to understand how we got where we are. Phillips-Fein, an NYU professor, published Fear City in 2017, giving her the benefit of perspective. We are far enough removed from the near bankruptcy of New York to properly comprehend the fall, the rise, and what was lost along the way. Phillps-Fein’s thesis is as clear as her prose, which does not suffer from a typical academic’s resistance to a straightaway sentence. She argues convincingly that the fiscal crisis arose from a combination of factors, some beyond the city’s control. There was the horrible bookeeping, which began under Robert Wagner, festered under John Lindsay, and came to a head when Abe Beame, the city comptroller for Lindsay’s two terms, became mayor in 1974. It was the perfect storm: tax revenue had declined as the white middle class fled for the suburbs and the city’s manufacturing base collapsed. The explosion of the highway system, suburbanization, and disinvestment in aging infrastructure had hollowed the city out. A national recession struck, magnifying the city’s woes. As Phillips-Fein points out, New York wasn’t alone. Cities across America were flirting with bankruptcy. The crisis truly arrived when the bankers stopped lending the city money. The city’s bond ratings collapsed. Financiers no longer saw it as their duty to prop up a declining metropolis, especially as investment opportunities arose overseas and banking become a more complex, risky, and profit-oriented enterprise. Without the last minute intervention of the powerful UFT leader, Albert Shanker, who changed his mind and bought up another tranche of the city’s debt, New York would have gone bankrupt. The fiscal crisis was also a function of ideology. Phillips-Fein wonderfully renders the conflict between Beame, a well-meaning machine Democrat who believed in the New Deal consensus and Republican Gerald Ford, who posed as a moderate but voted against the Great Society programs in Congress and surrounded himself in the White House with young neoconservatives like Alan Greenspan, Donald Rumsfield, and William Simon. Ford’s neocons saw New York as an example of liberalism run amok, and believed the city should be punished for its large welfare state. In one of the book’s more poignant moments, Beame and Gov. Hugh Carey meet with Ford and his team to discuss a bailout; Carey is sober and methodical, while Beame nearly breaks down, asking the president how he could let a city as great as New York collapse. Ford is unmoved. Only when the White House understood a New York bankruptcy could kneecap the national economy did they offer loans, with severe conditions: cut city services to the bone. Phillips-Fein shows the human costs of austerity. Thousands of teachers laid off, garbage burning in the streets, firehouses closed as arson spread, pre-K’s and afterschool programs and hospitals shuttered, CUNY slashed and tuition, for the first time ever, imposed. A product of City College, Beame desperately resisted charging students to attend college. In the end, he was forced to fold. Ed Koch defeated Beame in 1977 and no longer offered a defense of New York’s welfare state. He was unapologetically pro-business, deriding “poverty pimps” and telling the city’s poor to pick itself up by its bootstraps. Koch’s ascension marked a reorientation of the city’s priorities which, unfortunately, persist to this day — “can we make a city hospitable to business?” is the question any mayor, left or right, will ask before just about any other. Amazonpalooza is a legacy of the fiscal crisis. New York is far less generous to its working class than it once was. This is a tragedy.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. Moshfegh writes about misanthropes you want to spend time with. One of the best young novelists, Moshfegh made a splash in 2015 with Eileen, and this year she released My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which I would argue is even better. The unnamed narrator is an affluent, attractive blonde woman living on the Upper East Side at the dawn of the 2000’s. Both her parents are dead, she has quit her soulless art gallery gig, and she is ready to sleep the year away. Literally. With the help of an insane psychiatrist named Dr. Tuttle, the woman is given a concoction of drugs — some real, some Moshfegh-invented — to put her in a near-permanent state of sleep. Her only human interactions are with a grating, image-obsessed friend named Reva, phone calls to a dense finance frat boy and ex-lover, and the “Egyptians” at the local bodega. The woman is in flight from her trauma and a world that is increasingly meaningless to her. She finds comfort in certain television and movies, worshipping Whoopi Goldberg. The novel turns on Moshfegh’s pointillist sentences and mordant humor, and its ending finds redemption for the narrator, who learns again to appreciate waking life shortly before the worst terrorist attack on American soil.

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