You Must Get This Book: Steve Pringle On The Fall

Back when I wrote and posted my original Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands series, one of the longest pieces in that sequence of articles was about the always-remarkable British post-punk group, The Fall. The length of that piece was necessary because The Fall group themselves had an exceptionally rich and complex personnel history, their body of work was immense and wildly varied, my own relationships with and reactions to the group’s work are deep and broad, and because I also have a long involvement (since about 2004) with one of the key virtual communities of Fall fans, namely the Fall Online Forum. Which is populated by a truly incredible assortment of smart and interesting folks whose passion for the Fall and for its late chief, Mark E. Smith, can border upon, or often blow completely beyond, the levels of musical, lyrical, historical, and cultural obsession that most creative artists can ever dream of inspiring.

Around early 2017, a relatively new member of the “FOF” (as Fall Online Forum regulars typically cite it) going by the handle of “Steve69” began to be highly active on the message boards there. We clicked and connected fairly early on during his time there, in the ways that online friendships blossom around shared interests, or shared worldviews, or shared approaches to virtual communities, or shared experiences. I later learned his real-world surname was “Pringle,” which prompted long discussions online (because of course it did) about what that name evokes in the UK (i.e. a type of “jumper” — which we know as a “sweater” here in the States — once favored by Mark E. Smith himself) and in the USA (i.e. a pre-formed potato chip sold in tubes).

Both Steve and I have had periods of absence from the FOF, which can be truly wonderful for its over-the-top passions and enthusiasms continually expressed there on the most incredibly wide array of topics, but which can also occasionally become exhausting precisely because of those passions and enthusiasms. At some point in early 2018, Steve and I were both on FOF Sabbaticals, but were still keeping in touch via email. He posited an interesting idea for a deeply ambitious writing project called “The Fall in Fives,” within which he would evaluate every song the Fall had ever released (there were over 500 of them) in randomly generated groups of five titles.

It was a crazy undertaking, on some plane, but as someone who has routinely launched crazy undertakings on my own website (including this little Fall-inspired adventure), I was supportive and encouraging of his idea, and offered some small tips and pointers on how to roll it out on WordPress, and to promote it via social media. As is the case with most online projects like that, things started slowly, but the quality and depth of Steve’s posts quickly caught the attention of the Greater Fall Community, including numerous former group members, who weighed in or offered perspective on his project. Many other FOF members (both Steve and I returned to the Forum as his project was taking off) also chimed in to provide pointers, express enthusiasms, and offer occasional outrage, with fellow obsessive Fall-site creators bzfgt (The Annotated Fall) and dannyno (The Flickering Lexicon) playing particularly important roles in the Forum’s meta-analysis of Steve’s own analyses.

As Steve got deeper and deeper into the thing, and as it became clear that, Dear God, he was actually going to finish it, The Fall in Fives emerged as a truly interesting, engaging, and borderline encyclopedic online resource for all things Fall. But given the purposeful “mix-master” approach to hearing and evaluating songs from all over the group’s catalog in no discernible order, and also not content to rest on his laurels, Steve then expanded and adapted content from The Fall in Fives to document and consider the Fall’s recorded output on a more intuitive album-by-album basis, dubbing that second project “You Must Get Them All” (more on that title below). And as if that weren’t enough, he then also launched a fun and well-produced series of podcasts to supplement the whole, huge thing.

As wonderful as that online body of work became, anybody who has created large and complex web projects knows that keeping such projects from quickly succumbing to the entropy of the Internet is a constant struggle, and many of the very best online resources at any point in time soon become unusable as image and video files are removed, links break, comment bots and human trolls swarm, browser and content management technologies change, etc. So, having been barking mad enough to create The Fall in Fives and You Must Get Them All in the first place, Steve boldly set off to re-format the whole thing for print. He pitched it to Route (a “terraced publishing house in the north of England with a principle commitment to authentic stories and good books”), who bit on the project, and have brought it to market this month in the form of a truly magnificent book:

Click on the cover image to order your own copy of YMGTA.

The title of the book (and the website that preceded it) comes from a quote by legendary English DJ John Peel, who was deeply committed to the Fall and their music, hosting the group for live “Peel Sessions” 24 times between 1978 and 2004. That quote appears on the back cover of Steve’s book:

People write to me and say, “I heard The Fall, which record should I get?” And I never have any hesitation in telling them: you must get them all, because it’s impossible to pick one . . . and in fact, I’ll go further. I say: anybody who can tell you the five best Fall LPs, or the five best Fall tracks, has missed the point, really. It’s the whole body of the work that is to be applauded.

 

And now, it is also Steve Pringle’s detailed and delightful analysis of that whole body of work which is also to be applauded. Running to 656 pages, You Must Get Them All organizes, explains, and evaluates the Fall’s entire tangled history, with each and every release, and each and every song, and each and every group member being documented, discussed, and appreciated.

The book’s main text is formatted chronologically around the Fall’s 33 studio albums. (Which seems a simple, non-controversial sentence for me to write, but numerous Music Nerd Wars have been fought on the FOF and elsewhere over whether that “33” number is real, accurate, or meaningful, with key arguments hinging on whether the Fall’s brilliant 1981 release, Slates, is an album, or a mini-album, or an EP, or something else). Within each chapter, Steve discusses the personnel and personal forces at work within the Fall, cultural and political happenings surrounding the group for context, the recording processes, locations, and key collaborators for each album, Steve’s own critical reviews and musical analyses of each and every song, summaries of contemporary reviews and reactions, and an overall critical evaluation of each record as an entity within the spectrum of Fall sounds.

The main text is then followed by a series of really valuable reference appendices, discussing The Fall’s Peel Sessions, Fall Compilation Albums, Fall Live Albums, and a “Who’s Who” wrap-up of the countless players, producers, engineers, label chiefs, disc jockeys, promoters and more who played important roles in the Fall’s long history. There’s also a fantastic introduction from Paul Hanley, drummer-keyboardist from what many would consider to be The Fall’s finest era; many former Fall figures have written books over the years, and having read most all of them, I would say with no hesitation that the finest and most insightful writer among that crew is Paul.

And I would also now label Steve Pringle as another most fine and insightful writer. As a person who reads a lot of books about music and music-making, I can tell you that there are generally two types of tomes within that genre. First, there are vast and sprawling books that detail every single nuance or factoid about artists and their bodies of work. Such books are generally very useful as reference, but consuming them can often be about as exciting as reading a phone book or a TV Guide, with little-to-no actual good writing framing the details. Then at the other end of the spectrum, you often get super-artful, beautifully-written books filled with rich, florid text and arching long-form narratives, but often at the expense of detail, or even accuracy, when an author feels the need to bend the story to fit the desired plot points and denouements.

It is exceptionally rare to find books of music journalism where authors demonstrate equal skills as diligent researchers, accurate archivists, exceptional educators, and evocative story-tellers, but Steve Pringle has most definitely achieved that exquisite balance with You Must Get Them All. The Fall’s story is a marvelous one, told by Steve with taste and style, funny and fun in parts, tragic and awful in others. There’s no force-fitting or glossing-over of elements to support a pre-planned creative progression, and even the Epilogue (describing the group’s final days and Mark E. Smith’s untimely death) avoids the types of false sentimentality and over-generalization and myth-making that many similar books succumb to in trying to package nearly a half-century’s worth of happenings into one neat and tidy, well-wrapped bundle.

And on the flip-side, the depth of detail presented herein is just as powerful, and just as effective, and just as well-organized as one could ever expect from such a complicated career retrospective analysis. The structure of the books is solid and sound, and I love the ways that Steve uses foot-noting and asides to add bits that are fun, or helpful, but not necessarily essential to the main narrative, should a reader wish to not go yet another layer deep into the group’s creative architecture and approaches. Because of this balance, You Must Get Them All also becomes that rare volume that can conceivably be of equal value to the most ferocious Fall Fans, to those readers who may be dipping their toes for the first time in the Fall’s sea of riches, or even for those curious souls who may just want to read a fascinating story about an eclectic and important collection of artists and personalities.

It’s a winner, at bottom line, and I highly commend it to your attention accordingly. And I also commend Steve Pringle for his persistence of vision in bringing this work to completion. It was a fun privilege to sort of see the whole thing coming together over the past several years, and there were so many points along the path where most people would have said “enough” and congratulated themselves on their achievements to date. But not Steve, who took a passing idea and turned it into a massive reality, to the benefit of so many fans, listeners, and readers. Bravo!

A Life of Belief in 100 Books

While fleshing out a full-length book manuscript based on the periodic Credidero series I ran here some years ago (sorry, I can’t link you to it, since I removed those articles from my digital domains), I found myself reflecting upon and consulting a variety of fiction and non-fiction tomes as both references and inspirations. The act of digging through old and recent titles alike led to me to further consider the books which have had the most profound impacts on what I believe, how I believe, and how I communicate my beliefs. Which, me being me, meant that I had to make a list. And then, of course, that meant that I had to share the list, which I do below.

The final 100-book list isn’t limited to the “big topic” themes covered in more detail in the Credidero manuscript, because I had, have, and will have strongly-held beliefs about a lot of “small” topics, too, both in the real world and in the created worlds of countless great story-tellers. Many years ago, Marcia affectionately called me a “crank.” I asked why she said that, and she explained “Because you have strong feelings about too many things.” She was, and remains, correct, and as I was working on the list posted below, I smirked regularly in realization that these are the books that most often pointed me forward in zealous pursuit of some new crank-like obsession or interest. That said, note that I am only including one book or one series (when relevant) per author, since there are a small number of writers who I’ve read in extreme depth, and it seemed reductive to dedicate line after line to such obsessions. I’ve opted to feature only the very most moving and influential works by each author included here, figuring that if one book suggestion moves you, you can find the other works as readily as I once did.

The dates cited in each entry in this list represent the current or most recent publication dates for the available works, per WorldCat.org, and not the books’ original dates of publication. I read a lot of these in the ’60s or ’70s, but most of the books that most moved my early years have since been subsequently released, so I’m going with the contemporary versions, to make it easier if anyone wants to find any of them. With that preamble complete, here’s the list of the 100 books that I’d cite as the most influential in my intellectual, spiritual, psychological, and emotional development over the past half-century-plus.

What would your list look like? Do please share, if you’re inspired to develop one!

The Holy Bible: King James Version. San Diego, CA: Thunder Bay Press, 2000.

Reef Points (1982-1983 Edition). Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1982.

Abbott, Edwin Abbott. Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. Vancouver, Royal Classics. 2021.

Adams, Douglas. The Complete Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. London: Pan Books, 2020.

Azerrad, Michael. Our Band Could Be Your Life. Boston: Little Brown & Company, 2012.

Bae, Suah. Recitation. Dallas, Texas: Deep Vellum Publishing, 2017.

Baker, Nicholson. The Mezzanine. London: Granta Books, 2020.

Ballard, J. G. The Atrocity Exhibition. London: Flamingo, 1993.

Bazterrica, Agustina María. Tender Is the Flesh. New York: Scribner, 2020.

Brackett, Leigh. The Sword of Rhiannon. Bellevue, WA: Paizo/Palnet Stories, 2009.

Brown, Peter Currell. Smallcreep’s Day. London: Pinter & Martin Ltd, 2008.

Brosh, Allie. Solutions and Other Problems. New York: Gallery Books, 2020.

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019.

Burn, Doris. Andrew Henry’s Meadow. New York: Coward-McCann, 1965.

Burroughs, Edgar Rice. The Complete Barsoom Series. [United States]: SFBC, 2006.

Carroll, Lewis, John Tenniel, and Leonard S. Marcus. The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2005.

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2020.

Catling, Brian. The Vorrh Trilogy. London: Coronet, 2016-2018.

Clarke, Arthur C. Childhood’s End. London: Pan Books, 2017.

Crowley, John. Engine Summer. London: Gollancz, 2013.

D’Aulaire, Ingri Parin, and Edgar Dorin D’Aulaire. D’Aulaire’s Norse Gods and Giants. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1986.

Davies, Robertson. The Cornish Trilogy: The Rebel Angels; What’s Bred in the Bone; The Lyre of Orpheus. London: Penguin Books, 2011.

Delany, Samuel R. Nova. New York: Vintage Books, 2002.

Dewar, Elaine. Smarts: The Boundary-Busting Story of Intelligence. Toronto: Debonaire Productions, 2015.

Dick, Philip K. The Valis Trilogy. New York: Book of the Month Club, 1990.

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Eco, Umberto, and William Weaver. Foucault’s Pendulum. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2007.

Faber, Michel. The Book of Strange New Things. New York: Hogarth, 2015.

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Modern Library, 1957.

Gardner, John. Grendel. London: Gollancz, 2015.

Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. New York: Penguin, 2016.

Gorey, Edward. Amphigorey. New York: Perigee Books, 1981.

Gould, Stephen Jay. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. New York: Norton, 2007.

Grass, Günter. The Flounder. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1978.

Groening, Matt. The Huge Book of Hell. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

Harris, Rick. A Book With No Title. Fillmore South, FL: Thoughts on the Dead, 2017.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. New York: Harper Collins, 2018.

Heller, Joseph. Catch 22. London: Vintage Books, 2019.

Herbert, Frank. Dune. London: Gollancz, 2021.

Herzog, Hal. Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals. New York, USA: HarperCollins, 2022.

Hofstadter, Douglas R. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York: Harper & Row, 1995.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. London: Faber and Faber, 1975.

Juster, Norton and Jules Pfeiffer. The Phantom Tollbooth. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.

Kafka, Franz. Metamorphosis and Other Stories. London: Penguin Classics, 2020.

Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. New York: Penguin, 1996.

Klosterman, Chuck. Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas. London: Faber & Faber, 2013.

Koja, Kathe. Skin. New York, NY: Dell, 1994.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Clitheroe, England: Joosr Ltd, 2016.

Konigsburg, E. L. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2019.

Kruse, Kevin Michael, and Julian E. Zelizer. Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2020.

L’Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle in Time. Penguin Books Ltd, 2018.

Lee, Karen An-hwei. The Maze of Transparencies. Jackson Heights, NY: Ellipsis Press LLC, 2019.

Lewis, C. S. The Space Trilogy. New York: New Canadian Library, 2014.

Lewis, Michael. The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds. Waterville, Maine: Thorndike Press, 2017.

Loeb, Avi. Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth. John Murray Press, 2021.

Liu, Cixin. Rememberance of Earth’s Past Trilogy. New York: Tor Books, 2014-2016.

McDonnell, Patrick, Karen O’Connell, Georgia Riley De Havenon, and George Herriman. Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman. New York: H.N. Abrams, 2004.

McNeal, James R., and Scott Tomasheski. The Herndon Climb: A History of the United States Naval Academy’s Greatest Tradition. Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2020.

Montell, Amanda. Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism. New York: Harper Wave, 2021.

Morgan, Fred T., and Virginia Ingram. Ghost Tales of the Uwharries. Winston-Salem, N.C.: Bandit Books, 2007.

Morrow, James. The Godhead Trilogy. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

Moskowitz, Samuel. Science Fiction by Gaslight: A History and Anthology of Science Fiction in the Popular Magazines, 1891-1911. Westport, CT: Hyperion, 1974.

Nash, Ogden. Bed Riddance. Camp Hill, Pa: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1970.

Neal, Charles. Tape Delay: Confessions from the Eighties Underground. London: SAF Pub, 2001.

Nichols, Peter. A Voyage for Madmen. London: Profile Books, 2011.

Niven, Larry, and Jerry Pournelle. The Mote in God’s Eye. [United States]: SFBC, 2005.

O’Gieblyn, Meghan. God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning. New York: Doubleday, 2021.

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. New York: Penguin Books, 2021.

Oyler, Lauren. Fake Accounts. New York: Catapult, 2021.

Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae. Ann Arbor: Cumberland Yale University Press, 2014.

Peake, Mervyn. The Gormenghast Trilogy. London: Vintage, 1999.

Peary, Danny. Cult Movies: The Classics, the Sleepers, the Weird, and the Wonderful. New York: Gramercy Books, 1998.

Poe, Edgar Allan. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. London: Flame Tree Collectible Classics, 2021.

Powers, Richard. The Overstory. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2021.

Priest, Christopher. The Islanders. London: Titan Books, 2017.

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. New York: Harper Perennial, 2014.

Rawls, Wilson. Where the Red Fern Grows. New York: Delacorte Press, 2018.

Ressner, Philip, and Jerome Snyder. Jerome. New York: Parents’ Magazine Press, 1967.

Robbins, Tom. Another Roadside Attraction. Harpenden, England: No Exit Press, 2007.

Rockwell, Theodore. The Rickover Effect: How One Man Made a Difference. Annapolis (Md.): Naval Institute Press, 1992.

Shahn, Ben. The Shape of Content. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Sinclair, Andrew. Gog. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1967.

Smith, J. Eric. Eponymous. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2001.

Swarthout, Glendon Fred. Bless the Beasts & Children. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2014.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. Ulysses. Placerville: Blackwood Press, 1979.

Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Other American Stories. New York: Modern Library, 1998.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. London: Harper Collins, 2014.

Turco, Lewis. The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2020.

Untermeyer, Louis. The Golden Treasury of Poetry. Racine, WI: Western Pub. Co, 1972.

VanderMeer, Jeff. Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy. London: 4th Estate, 2018.

Vollmann, William T. Fathers and Crows. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.

Vonnegut, Kurt. The Sirens of Titan. London: Gollancz, 2014.

Walton, Evangeline. The Mabinogion Tetralogy. New York: The Overlook Press, 2002.

Waters, John. Shock Value. New York, N.Y.: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1995.

Watters, Ethan. Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the Western Mind. London: Robinson, 2011.

White, T.H. The Once and Future King. New York: Penguin Books, 2016.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass (1855-1892). New York, N.Y.: Library of America, 1984.

Wigginton, Eliot. The Foxfire Book. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1973.

Zamyatin, Evgenii. We. Garden City, NY: Dover Publications, 2021.

This might just be the most personally influential and beloved book in my lifetime of reading. If you have a child in your life, please give them this! Or just buy it for yourself. It’s magical.

With Which I Am Well Pleased XV (Chaos Puddles)

Yet another installment in my recurring series, within which I share 15 things that have rocked my world over the past month or so. As always, I welcome your suggestions on things that I might have missed, but need to see, hear, watch, read, eat, play with, or experience!

FILMS

TELEVISION

MUSIC

BOOKS

Words in the Distance

1. My civic duty as a juror continues. Two weeks down, hopefully one more week to go. I can’t say much more than that here, now, but will advise and report further once the whole thing’s run its course.

2. I’ve written at length over the years here about my love for King Crimson. Related to that: the general consensus is that the recently-concluded Crimson tour is the end of the road for the group as a live entity. Also, general consensus is that their song “Starless” is one of their best and most emblematic songs ever. Marcia and I have seen the current (final?) version of Crimson three times, and “Starless” is one of only a few songs that they played at every show. The official King Crimson website posted an update this week titled “The Last Starless,” a pro-shot video from the last show of the last tour in Japan. It’s outstanding, it seems to affirm that this is the end of the road, and I most heartily recommend it to you:

3. I’m saddened, horrified, annoyed, and appalled by the news associated with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this week, and I wish Vladimir Putin as much karmic ill will as I can muster. But as a trained political scientist, I’ve also been irritated by some of the major media coverage I’ve read about the historical basis for this current invasion, and about the cultural and political relationships between the Russians and the Ukrainians. (Never mind the narrative that finds a majority of members of the modern Republican Party having a higher opinion of Putin than they have of our own President, ugh!) Whenever matters of Russian import emerge online or in conversation, I routinely cite one of the very best books that I’ve ever read on that topic, so today seems to be a good day to share that recommendation again, for Nicholas Riasonovsky’s A History of Russia. The version I have was written before the fall of the Soviet Union, so it’s not a valuable resource in terms of understanding the latest era(s), but it’s utterly brilliant in terms of explaining and documenting the deep, long, potent, and (to American eyes and minds) weird history of the people who “emerged from the Pripet Marshes,” and who first made their mark on a continental scene as a nation known as Kievan Rus. That history certainly does not justify Putin over-turning nearly eight decades’ worth of continental stability, but I think it does explain why he thinks that his current actions make sense through the lens of deep history.

4. Speaking of history, after waiting for a few last images and photo clearances, I uploaded to the publisher’s site the final manuscript and supporting files for the book I’ve been working on for the past year, along with my collaborator, Jim McNeal.  Very satisfying to see it fly away through the ether. We’ll have to review and edit the type-set layout when it’s ready, and I’ll have to prepare an index once the final pagination is complete, but after that, it’s just a matter of meeting production and publishing schedules before it’s ready to land in your hands, should you be interested in it. I will advise further here when I have news. Because of course I will.

5. During my drive home from jury duty yesterday (63 miles from my home per item #2 here, bleh!), my iPod randomizer queued up the songs “50,000 Miles Beneath My Brain” by Ten Years After, followed by “Hocus Pocus (Reprise)” (Live) by Focus. It occurred to me that I first heard both of those songs when I checked out their source albums (Cricklewood Green and At the Rainbow, respectively) from the lending library at Nassau Community College on Long Island’s Mitchel Field, sometime in the late 1970s. And that got me to thinking what a deeply important resource that was to me between 1976 and 1980, when I was still in middle/high school, but because of my base residency, had access to the college’s stacks and shelves. I first borrowed and read The Gormenghast Trilogy there, along with a variety of other seminal tomes in my intellectual development. I would generally go to the magazine room at least once a week to read the latest Billboard or Rolling Stone editions, getting tuned into what was happening in real time in the music world, beyond what I could readily access via local record stores and trips into New York City at the height of the CBGB era. So many things that still mean so much to me today first crossed my horizons via my many visits to that great lending library. And, therefore, to wrap up this post, I share a “Five Songs You Need to Hear” sequence, celebrating representative cuts from a quintet of albums that all appear of my Top 200 Albums of All Time list, and which I first heard courtesy of the librarians at Nassau Community College.

“50,000 Miles Beneath My Brain” by Ten Years After

“Hocus Pocus (Reprise),” by Focus

“Bitches Crystal,” by Emerson, Lake and Palmer

“I Just Want to See His Face,” by The Rolling Stones

“African Night Flight,” by David Bowie

With Which I Am Well Pleased XVI (Men of Tain)

Yet another installment in my recurring series, within which I share 15 things that have rocked my world over the past month or so. I’m thinking about what I want to do (or do not want to do) here on the website in 2022, and as I do so, this seems a good way to keep things active and interesting. As always, I welcome your suggestions on things that I might have missed, but need to see, hear, watch, read, eat, play with, or experience!

FILMS

TELEVISION

MUSIC

BOOKS

2021: Year in Review

With Christmas behind us and a road-trip to California on the horizon this week, it seems like a good day to sit and settle up the scores for 2021 here at my website, as I normally do at this time each year, plus or minus a few days. Unless I get ambitious, or someone I care about deeply passes away soon, this will likely be the final post of the year, for better and/or for worse.

ON THE BLOG:

In 2020, I surprised myself by publishing 147 posts, the most I’d done since the Poem-A-Day Project in 2004. Retiring from full-time work certainly gave me more time to write, as did COVID-driven cancellations of planned travel, and the need to fill socially isolated time in some satisfying and/or productive fashions. Traffic was robust in 2020, too, with other similarly isolated folks seeking to fill their own suddenly-surplus time online, a trend which I explored more fully (and made future forecasts regarding) in my Coronablogus post last month. For 2021, this post is Number 120, marking about a 20% decrease over last year’s rate of production, in terms of actual new entries on the site. But even with that smaller number of entries, the overall site readership trend was positive, as shown below. (Actual numbers are  edited out, as it’s tacky to share them, and the trend line is what matters; the light-blue pipes are total unique page visits, the dark-blue pipes are total unique visitors, so both grew in 2021):

I’ve owned this domain since the mid-1990s, but prior to 2015, I split my writing between a variety of sites with a variety of hosts, so there’s no easily meaningful visual comparison to make from those times. But at bottom line, the last two years have been quite good ones here, from both audience-engagement and writer-productivity standpoints, things that I most certainly would not have predicted in 2019. Of the 120 original posts this year, 57 were part of the second Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists series, which seems to be popular. I was originally thinking I’d carry it on into 2022, but after a few weeks off, I think it has run its course, and I’m going to put it to bed, for now.

As I report each year, here are the baker’s dozen most-read articles among the 120 new posts here over the past twelve months. It’s probably indicative of the fact that both my readers and I are (mostly) folks of a certain age that obituary-type posts fill such a sizable portion of the most-read roster. Our long-time heroes are leaving us, even as we contemplate our own collective mortality, especially during this, our Anno Virum. On the flip-side, I would note that two of the most life-affirming events for Marcia and I this year (our daughter’s wedding and our adventure in Grand Canyon) also made the Top 13, so it’s good that nice news appeals sometimes as well. Then there’s the odd dichotomy of having had a bit of life-affirmation by returning to our first in-person musical performance since COVID hit us, then seeing one of the artists who sang for us passing away mere weeks later. Both of those reports make the Top 13 below, as do four of the “Favorite Songs” entries. So there’s a bit of everything, tone-wise, which I suppose is just fine and dandy:

And then here are the baker’s dozen posts written in prior years that received the most reads in 2021. It always fascinates me which of the 1,000+ articles on my website interest people (or search engines) the most, all these years on since the first 1995 post on the earliest version of this website. (Note that I exclude things like the “About Me” page or the generic front page from the list, even though they generate a lot of my traffic). Once again, here’s hoping that people realize that the perennially-popular “Iowa Pick-Up Lines” post is a joke, and also, once again, it continues to befuddle me, as always, why my 1999 interview with relatively-obscure guitarist Dave Boquist appears on this “most-read” chart almost every year, receiving far more hits, continually, than my many other interviews with many other far more famous artists. Go figger . . .

ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB:

See this earlier post: Best of My Web 2021

TRAVEL:

We will see 2021 off, God willing and the creek don’t rise, from a condo in San Clemente, California, where we’re headed this week for a winter getaway. After years of somewhat absurd levels of travel, 2021 was quite benign for us: we only spent time in six states, as opposed to the 20+ I’ve experienced for much of the past decade. As I looked at my annual travel map, below, (I’ve pre-filled in our trip to San Clemente, with a planned stop at Joshua Tree National Park), it occurred to me (initially) that this was the first year in my entire life where I never spent any time east of the Mississippi River. But then, as I looked closer, I realized that, yeesh, I never even made it east of the Continental Divide in 2021. That’s a pretty profound paradigm shift, given my deep roots in the Carolinas, and our long stints in New York and the Midwest. If I can do so safely, I do intend to visit my mother in South Carolina in early 2022, and Marcia and I are cautiously hopeful that we may be able to consider international travel again later in the year, if we can do so with undue fear for our personal health and safety. I guess if we had to have a limited travel year, we couldn’t have picked a better place to do it from than our new home in Sedona, Arizona, as there’s plenty of stuff to do and see hereabouts, without having to fly or drive far to achieve the full experience.

RECORDINGS:

See these three earlier posts:

BOOKS:

See this earlier post: Best Books of 2021

FILM AND TELEVISION:

See these two earlier posts:

AND  THEN . . . .

. . . onward into 2022, with a very deep sense of unease about the ways in which our Nation seems to be careening toward institutional racism and fascism and theocracy. It’s truly frightening to see how the will of a determined minority, intent on using every lever of power available to them (legal or otherwise), seemingly takes priority over the desires and wishes and votes of the remaining majority of the population, among which I count myself. Which is so sad, on so many planes, particularly for someone who once proudly served the Nation as a Federal employee and an active duty service member. Here’s hoping that a year from now, I’ll feel better about these things. But I doubt that’s going to be the case, alas, even if I don’t regularly write about such things here, because I don’t feel like I have a lot to add to the narrative, and it’s intellectually depressing to continually wallow in it.

On a brighter note, I’ve mentioned in passing a few times here over the past year that I’ve been hard at work on a book with long-time friend and Naval Academy classmate Rear Admiral Jim McNeal, co-author of The Herndon Climb: A History of the United States Naval Academy’s Greatest Tradition, which I reviewed here. Jim and I have a contract with McFarland, a publishing house based in North Carolina, to deliver a complete manuscript by the end of January 2022, with publication hopefully targeted before year’s end. If you’ve ever mucked around with the publishing industry, then you know that “instant gratification” is not in cards on projects like this one.

We finished the main-line text (about 75,000+ words) last week, and I then had the pleasure of taking the digital version of it to a local print shop, producing the first physical version of the text for compilation and copy-editing purposes. Our skilled editor is hard at work on the manuscript, per the photo below. And here’s hoping that when I do next year’s version of this annual report, I’ll be able to point you toward a purchase site to acquire our book, should you be interested, and that we’ll be (a) past the worst of the pandemic, and (b) not living in a political place that would make the most dystopian fantasist shudder with revulsion.

I don’t know whether I’ll continue in 2022 to churn out the piffle and tripe at recent levels, or whether your collective engagement with the site will continue to grow and expand. (One of the nice things about doing this as a labor of love, and not a labor of commerce, is that the thought of less traffic in the year ahead does not cause me any agita). But regardless of how all of those things turn out, I will forever be grateful to those of you who care enough to continue supporting my creative endeavors, right here and right now, and I wish all of you and all of yours the very best over the days and months and years to come!

So, did you mean “Let’s eat, Grandma” or “Let’s eat Grandma” here?

Best Books of 2021

In January of 2019, I closed out all of my social media accounts and made an active commitment to read more books of substance, and less ephemeral drivel, than had been the case in then-recent years. I have been pleasantly surprised to see what an effective gambit that has been when I have done my Best Books reports over the past couple of years, and found myself with a wealth of great reads to choose from. In 2021, that trend expanded even further, and I suspect that I have read more books in the past 12 months than in any other year of my life since I moved beyond picture books into word-based tomes, and excluding the years when I was in school devouring (or skimming and pretending to devour) textbooks. I guess being mostly retired has also helped on that front.

Objectively speaking, my life has been far less anxious and agitated after I departed from the hateful and untrustworthy online worlds that Jack and Zuck and their evil greed-head ilk have built to destroy us all in the name of share-holder equity. What a truly shitty paradigm the social media experience is, on so many levels. I look forward to us collectively moving beyond it at some point, though I am not enough of a futurist to see how and when that might happen. I just know that it is a long overdue transition, and that tomorrow’s historians will likely look at how we spent our time and framed our arguments in the first quarter of the 21st Century and will wonder “What the hell were they thinking?!? And how could they have collectively been so very, very stupid?!?”

One way we get stupider, in real time, is by not reading great books by great writers, so I feel like I again did my own small part to stay smart in 2021 by continuing to devour a wide range of new books by authors both familiar and fresh. I share my lists of the best new books I read this year below, parsed into three categories (1) Novels or story collections published in the United States in 2021, (2) Novels or story collections published in or before 2021 abroad, which saw their first American releases in English translations in 2021, and (3) Non-fiction works published in the United States in 2021. Within each category, the books are listed in the order I read them.

I have marked a baker’s dozen titles/authors in bold on the lists below; these are the books that I would most highly commend to you as the very, very best of 2021. Perhaps some of these works will move you too. Or perhaps some other literary thing will have rocked your world rigorously enough that you’d like to share a recommendation in the comments. Happy to hear from you, in either case!

BEST ENGLISH-LANGUAGE NOVELS OF 2021

  1. Summerwater, Sarah Moss
  2. Good Neighbors, Sarah Langan
  3. Fake Accounts, Lauren Oyler
  4. No One Is Talking About This, Patricia Lockwood
  5. Infinite Country, Patricia Engel
  6. Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro
  7. Hummingbird Salamander, Jeff Vandermeer
  8. Composite Creatures, Caroline Hardaker
  9. Second Place, Rachel Cusk
  10. Subdivision, Robert Lennon
  11. The Atmospherians, Alex McElroy
  12. Hollow, B. Catling
  13. Malibu Rising, Taylor Jenkins Reid
  14. Hot Stew, Fiona Mozley
  15. Virtue, Hermione Hoby
  16. The Startup Wife, Tahmima Anam
  17. Something New Under the Sun, Alexandra Kleeman
  18. A Touch of Jen, Beth Morgan
  19. Appleseed, Matt Bell
  20. The Book of Form and Emptiness, Ruth Ozeki
  21. Bewilderment, Richard Powers
  22. Revelator, Daryl Gregory
  23. This Thing Between Us, Gus Moreno
  24. Build Your House Around My Body, Violet Kupersmith

BEST NEW ENGLISH EDITIONS ISSUED IN THE UNITED STATES IN 2021

  1. The Woman in the Purple Skirt, Natsuko Imamura
  2. People From My Neighborhood, Hiromi Kawakami
  3. The Cabinet, Un-Su Kim
  4. Tender is the Flesh, Agustina Bazterrica
  5. The Hole, Hiroko Oyamada
  6. Mona, Pola Oloixarac
  7. The Twilight Zone, Nona Fernández
  8. There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job, Kikuko Tsumura

BEST NON-FICTION WORKS OF 2021

  1. Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World, Andrea Pitzer
  2. Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, Avi Loeb
  3. The Witch of Eye, Kathryn Nuernberger
  4. Under A White Sky: The Nature of the Future, Elizabeth Kolbert
  5. A Little Devil in America, Hanif Abdurraqib
  6. Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age, Annalee Newitz
  7. Madhouse at the End of the Earth, Julian Sancton
  8. Shape: The Hidden Geometry of Information, Biology, Strategy, Democracy, and Everything Else, Jordan Ellenberg
  9. All or Nothing: The Story of Steve Marriott, Simon Spence
  10. Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, Amanda Montell
  11. This Is Your Mind on Plants, Michael Pollan
  12. Rainbow in the Dark: The Autobiography, Ronnie James Dio
  13. Finding The Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, Suzanne Simard
  14. God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning, Meaghan O’Gieblyn
  15. Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres, Kelefa Sanneh
  16. You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone, Jennifer Otter Bickerdike

I have two new-ish 2021 books on my Kindle right now (Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel, and a biography of Led Zeppelin) which might need to be added to the lists above in the weeks ahead. We shall see. At bottom line, 2021 was a great year for reading!

If I had to pick a Book of the Year for 2021, this one would probably be it.

With Which I Am Well Pleased XV (Feet of Pure White Snow)

Yet another installment in my recurring series, within which I share 15 things that have rocked my world over the past month or so. I’m working on various “Best of 2021” lists this month (see here for the first of that set), as one does, so this is likely the last short-term report of recent pleasures, before I shift fully into annual highlights. As always, I welcome your suggestions on things that I might have missed, but need to see, hear, watch, read, eat, play with, or experience!

FILMS:

TELEVISION:

MUSIC:

BOOKS: