(My) Best Book of the 21st Century

Having written about the best films and albums of our nascent century, it seems apt to turn my attention to literature, which is ostensibly the third leg beneath my personal stool of modern culture, which would tip precariously without each of its two fellows.

My 21st Century Film List contained 25 entries. My 21st Century Albums List contained 64 entries. And my 21st Century Books List? At the moment, it contains one entry that stands head and shoulders above all others in terms of my enjoyment and engagement . . . and that entry is A Book With No Title.

Allow me to explain my choice, please. Almost two years ago this month, I posted a blog item about how much I was enjoying Thoughts On The Dead. It was a funny website, for sure, written by a very good writer, cleverly exploring cultural themes I enjoyed exploring, with laughs to be had, for those willing to laugh about arcana of the most arcane variety. Good stuff! Ha ha ha!

But some time between then and now, a standalone story line emerged on ToTD about a Neighborhood in America called Little Aleppo. That story line was anchored upon a truly robust substrate of universe building . . . where the place in which the story was framed emerged almost as a character in its own right, as rich as the human/physical characters with which it was populated. Think Gormenghast. Think Middle Earth. Think Upstate Wasted/Ether. Place matters, right? Right!

This week, that very sublime and well-crafted Little Aleppo story wound to its narrative close after 70 chapters, and I am saddened and pleased in equal measure by this turn of events. Saddened, because I loved getting new stories every couple of days, usually reading them during my morning train rides between Chicago and Naperville. Pleased (on behalf of the author), because I know, as a writer, how satisfying it is to reach a point of closure on a long-term writing project like this one, be it for commercial purposes, or just because it feels good to write, by God, purpose be damned.

I have truly enjoyed reading The Book With No Title episodically, in real time, classic 19th Century Dickens-style. And you can read it that way, too, if you want, as all 70 chapters are independently referenced and linked for now on a single reference page. Once you start, or when you finish, or somewhere in between those points, I hope you will acknowledge the author’s awesome undertaking by hitting the “Donate” button on his site.

Because writing this good deserves to be paid for and purchased. It has both intellectual and emotional value, and we, all of us, should acknowledge and honor that fact by paying for it, when and where we can. I can certainly tell you, straight up, that Little Aleppo provided me with far more enjoyment than the vast majority of traditional/digital books I’ve purchased in recent years, so making a donation to support the work was good value for money from where I sit.

Lest you think I’m shilling for any nefarious personal/nepotistic benefit here, I want to note for the record that I have absolutely no clue who the author of Thoughts on the Dead is, in the  real world, despite the fact that I interact with him regularly in the social media world, and relish his blog postings, daily.  As a “longtime online” guy, I accept the fact that I often have digital friends and collaborative colleagues with whom I rarely/never cross paths in a real/physical world. See here for an intense personal example of that.

Marcia affectionately refers to these online relationships as my “imaginary internet friends,” and I have to admit that I probably have more of those than I do real world friends at this point in my life. So, yeah, that’s real, but not real. And that’s imaginary, but not imaginary. See also: it’s complicated. But at bottom line, genius is genius, whether we know who creates it or not in our real day-to-day lives. I’m happy to interact with such creative folks in the ways that they choose to make themselves available to me. They fuel my own creative energy as they entertain me, and I am very grateful for that.

And that’s a big part of why I confidently assert that the The Book With No Title is the best work of narrative fiction I’ve read in a long, long time. I think all of my readers here, friends real and imaginary, need to get on it too, and read it, and share it, and pay for it, soon. Or now. If you take my advice, then once The Book With No Title becomes the popular print hit it deserves to be in the years ahead, you can get mad props with your peeps by telling them all that you read it way back when, before it was cool.

And who doesn’t appreciate being in the know before the know was known, right?

2016 Year In Review

We’re two days shy of the year’s shortest day, and deep in the heart of the coldest snap of the current winter, so it seems a good time to look back over the past twelve months here at the blog and in the greater personal, professional and cultural world around me.

Counting this one, I published 27 blog posts here in 2016. That’s a big drop off from the 77 posts I published in 2015, but that was a somewhat conscious decision as I decided to focus on my Short Story of the Month project, which I completed successfully earlier this month. The 12 new stories I wrote over the past year were knit together with half a dozen older ones into a single manuscript, and it’s off for copy editing as I type. You writing types: if you’ve got any good leads you’d suggest for placing the manuscript commercially in 2017, I would appreciate an introduction!

Marcia and I opened 2016 in our still new home town of Chicago, watching the inaugural edition of the city’s “Chi-Town Rising” star drop on the river, which was frankly underwhelming. You’ve got too much going for you, Chicago, to try to ape New York City! Let them have their thing, because you’ve got plenty of your own! Seriously! They’re apparently doing it again this year, but we will welcome 2017 in a more exotic locale instead: Reykjavik, Iceland. We loved our summer trip there some years ago, and are excited to see it under the polar twilight with (hopefully) some Northern Lights in play to guide us into a new year together.

Between those two points, we had a crazy travel year. Marcia goes back and forth between Chicago and Des Moines ever other week for work, and I traveled to 26 states this year for my own work with the TREE Fund. (Speaking of, it’s not too late to contribute to our year-end appeal . . . hint hint). Since a picture is worth 1,000 words, here’s the visual representation of my travels in 2016:

cwne26ewgaazm9i-jpg-largeThe arrow pointing southward was to Grand Cayman, which Marcia and I visited together as part of a work trip for me. One of the northerly arrows points to Iceland, as mentioned above, and the other one points to Tuscany, where Marcia and I had a wonderful vacation with many new friends from Australia and New Zealand. I also did about 600 of those miles  on a bicycle through my native Carolinas. Big thanks to R. Jeanette Martin for the photos at that prior link, which are totally worth seeing, even if I’m in them.

sopines

See? While it was my intention to try to do a little bit less traveling this year for work, I just laid out my 2017 schedule with my staff, and at this point it looks like I will be going to Mississippi, Arizona, Puerto Rico, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ontario, Maryland (twice), Virginia, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Florida, Colorado, Washington (state), Oregon, Missouri, Texas, Iowa, Connecticut, California, Ohio and Oklahoma during the next twelve months. Plus wherever Marcia and I decide to go for our international summer trip. Personally, I’m lobbying for Malta. So, uh, my 2017 map will probably look like a spaghetti chart too. Hmmm.

Even with all of that travel, I suspect that 2017 will look like more of a typical blogging year for me, so if you have been and intend to remain a faithful follower this site, then (1st) thank you, and (2nd) there might be more things for you to read beyond short stories next year. I’m considering a couple of web-based writing projects that are a little bit more interactive, so will update on that when I decide which one (if any) I want to pursue.

Some other bits and bobs to wrap things up . . .

Music, Theater and Dance: I’ve already done my 25th Annual Best Albums Report, here, and my Annual List Of Most Played Songs, here. On the live front, we saw many plays, concerts and dance performances, and honestly, I’m just really happy to have spent the year experiencing them in the moment and not documenting and making lists of them, and I’m disinclined to go back and do so now to try to recreate them after the fact. Maybe next year, I’ll start keeping a list. Or maybe not. We’ll see. I kinda think my live performance criticizing years may be behind me, y’know?

Books: As posted here multiple times before, my book reading tends to cluster predictably into four primary areas: 10% Fiction, 40% Natural Science and History, 40% Music Biography, and 10% Tales of Human Suffering. Over the past year, my fave reads didn’t stray too far from the norm, although I read more older books than newer books in 2016, so my list of favorite new releases is a bit brief:

  • The Fisherman by John Langan
  • Death’s End by Cixin Liu
  • The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
  • The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman
  • Not Dead Yet: The Memoir by Phil Collins
  • My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor by Keith Morris
  • But What If We’re Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman

Movies: We have a theater within walking distance of our apartment, so we saw more flicks in first release than we typically have in the past. The best films I saw in 2016 (thus far, recognizing that much of the Oscar Bait is just coming out now) would include:

  • The Witch (My current pick for Best Movie of 2016)
  • The Lobster (A very close second place)
  • Everybody Wants Some!!
  • The Jungle Book
  • Florence Foster Jenkins
  • Sausage Party
  • Hell Or High Water
  • Arrival
  • Manchester By The Sea
  • La La Land
  • Office Christmas Party

Politics: Ennnnnhhhhh . . . . the less said here the better, I think. I’ll leave it to others to write about those matters more regularly and effectively than I do. That said, I did write and publish a poem here in the days after the election called “Tiny Blue Isle,” which explains what it feels like to me to live in Chicago right now. A local colleague liked the concept and approached me about using it for a progressive politics feed on Twitter and (maybe later) as a website, and I agreed to let my friend do so. Follow here for more news on that in the months ahead.

Art: We are blessed with ready and easy proximity to some exceptionally fine museums hereabouts, and three solo exhibitions stand out for me among the dozens we saw in 2016:

  • Mastry by Kerry James Marshall, at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
  • Future Present by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, at the Art Institute of Chicago.
  • Procession by Norman Lewis, at the Chicago Cultural Center

Websites: Two websites dominated my daily reading in 2016, and I have written about both of them here before:

  • Electoral Vote Dot Com: I’ve been following this website through every Presidential election since 2004, and I think it remains the best real-time aggregator of relevant information, and the best site for thoughtful, objective analysis that I’ve found for comprehending our incomprehensible electoral nightmare process. I wrote about it back in 2012, and my thoughts about it (and its competition) remain unchanged.
  • Thoughts On The Dead: I wrote about this website back in 2015, and my thoughts on this one have changed a bit. At the time, I cited it as one of the few websites that actually made me “laugh out loud” (not LOL) as it did a bit of creative world building around the history of the Grateful Dead. While that element of it remains (e.g. the coverage of the Dead And Company tour with John Mayer was sublime and hilarious), somewhere along the way, the site also evolved to include some truly brilliant fiction (the Roy Head adventures, the Route 77 travelogue, and the Little Aleppo series, among others) and some of the most incredible rock music writing I’ve ever read, anywhere (the recent series on Van Halen and Queen, most especially). The volume of exceedingly high quality work being posted here on a nearly daily basis boggles my mind. Thoughts On The Dead is unquestionably my Website of the Year for 2016, and if I knew who he was in real life, I’d celebrate and hail him by name as my flat-out favorite writer of the past twelve months as well. And I’m done here with this note, so get on over there and just dig in . . . wonders await you, I promise!

Iowa Caucus Day 2016: Resource Guide

Marcia and I moved to Iowa a little over four years ago, at the peak of 2012’s caucus season. Within a month of our arrival, Marcia was interviewed and quoted in an internationally-syndicated Reuters article, after we attended a candidate rally on a whim. So we learned first hand that it’s easy to have your say in public when you live in a small state with a vast media enterprise descending upon you.

Marcia’s quote in the Reuters interview was thoughtful and balanced, but that’s not the norm, frankly, especially in hotly contested races like those unfolding now. A lot of the quotes coming out of Iowa lack balance as voters and campaign flacks attempt to sway others to their cause, and many other quotes coming out of Iowa lack thought because politics is primarily a gut sport in many areas of the State, like football, or deer hunting. Reaction and reflex matter more than deliberation and discourse, especially under the media’s unrelenting kleig lights — which many thoughtful voters are repelled by, even as they draw the most reactive voters into their beams.

By the time I left Iowa, I reached the conclusion that the caucuses are bad for America. That being said, were I still in the State, I would be participating tonight, because I consider voting to be a civic responsibility of all citizens, regardless of how I feel about the process. Marcia (who still works out of Iowa and has maintained residency there) and Katelin (who lives and works there full time) are planning to caucus tonight, so I hope they enjoy the evening and I look forward to hearing about it from them. The media army in Des Moines is largely based in the same building where Katelin works, so she’s getting to really see it all up close and personal. That’s an experience, if nothing else.

I wrote a lot about Iowa while I was there, with many of my pieces being tongue-in-cheek explorations into some of the State’s unique cultural habits and history. One of those articles — Iowa Geography: An Introduction — has recently gotten a bit of renewed online traction after Molly Ball of The Atlantic re-tweeted it a couple of time for her followers.

So in a spirit of helpfulness to those of you who may be either wondering a bit about, or wandering about a bit, of Iowa today, here are a few other articles that may help you get what’s going on, and why:

Iowa History 101

Why Iowa First?

Danny Allamakee’s Iowanfero (Cliff Notes Version)

Best Iowa Films

Universal Iowa Recipe

Des Moinsk, Iowaberia

Iowa Ranking Roundup

Popular Iowa Cocktails

Popular Iowa Wines

Great Iowa Novels

Great Iowa Music

The Iowa Decathlon

2015 Year in Review

There’s but 10 days left in 2015, and my calendar looks fairly packed for many of them with family visits, cultural events, work and other commitments, so the shortest day of the year seems an apt time to review the year gone by, as I experienced and documented it online.

Counting this one, I have published 77 blog posts in 2015. In October, I marked the one-year anniversary of my decision to shut down Indie Moines and re-establish this domain as my primary home for new and archival writing after eight years of hosting my material elsewhere. I also added the 1,000th post to the site in October, with 20 years worth of material dating back to October 1995 now resident here. Traffic has been healthy and growing throughout the year, so I’m grateful to those who have followed along with my various adventures in writing.

I actually opened 2015 deep in the middle of one such adventure, managing the satirical Des Mean website (now dormant, former motto: “Is This Hell? No, It’s Iowa.”) under a pseudonym. It was a fun opportunity for the sorts of character-based, site-specific writing that I used to do at Upstate Wasted and Upstate Ether, among other places, all those years ago. I moved most of the Des Mean pieces to this site last summer. Of the pieces written in 2015 (Des Mean launched in 2014), I am particularly pleased with Rashomoines, Why Iowa First?, the “Iowa Art Crisis” series (Part OnePart TwoPart Three), Danny Allamakee’s Iowanferno and Universal Iowa Recipe. Fun to write, hopefully fun to read.

Despite busy work and personal schedules, I did find time to travel in 2015. In late January/early February, Marcia and I spent two week in Fort Lauderdale, giving me the chance to get my nerd on during a road trip up to Kennedy Space Center. Then in May, we went to Spain and Portugal on a wonderful small group tour, where we framed a fun new travel game. I’ve also visited Texas, Florida (where I rode four days in the STIHL Tour des Trees), Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Iowa for work purposes, and made two volunteer trips to Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where I was elected Chairman of the Board of the American Institute for Economic Research, and then to Troy, New York, where I was keynote speaker at the Chapel + Cultural Center’s Committee of 100 Dinner. I also spent a few days with my mother, visiting the homeland in Low Country South Carolina. There were cemeteries.

Our biggest step, from a travel and lifestyle standpoint, was a permanent one, leaving Des Moines this past summer to live in downtown Chicago. The move has been a wonderful one, filled with all sorts of fascinating diversions. There are, of course, still some mysteries. After arriving and settling in Chicago, I began a new job as President and Chief Executive Officer of the TREE Fund in August. There are some things I miss (Katelin first and foremost, since she still lives there), and some things I don’t miss about Des Moines and its environs. After four years in state, though, I left with one deeply held conviction that trumps all others: the Iowa Caucus is bad for America.

I read a lot this year, and documented some of my 2015 favorite books. I also added a couple of new installments to my Five By Five Books Series, writing about Evangeline Walton’s The Mabinogion Tetralogy and Peter Currell Brown’s Smallcreep’s Day. I launched a new creative writing series called 90 Minute Stories, and plan write one piece per month this way in 2016. On a music front, I updated by Top 200 Albums of All Time listing and named David Gilmour’s Rattle That Lock Album of the Year for 2015, after running one of my music tournaments to reach that decision. A tune from the soundtrack of the wonderful movie, Frank, won the Family’s “Most Played Song” Title of 2015.

Other miscellaneous ups and downs include finally re-experiencing the pinnacle of American baseball fandom when my Beloved Royals won the World Series in October, watching a former writing employer go belly up in a most public fashion, and losing both a dear, sweet member of our family, and a long-time creative friend and foil.

Those sad notes notwithstanding, it was a very good year for me and the family, and I appreciate the opportunity to journal it here, for both posterity’s and my own sake. Thanks to all who read here for being a part of it, each in your own ways.

 

Favorite Books of 2015

Back in 2008, I posited forming “Eric’s Book of the Every-So-Often Club” to provide my stamp of approval for worthy books that might be of interest to readers who follow me online. I suspected then (and still do now) that my Club membership might be small, since my reading habits tend to be restricted to an odd set of favorite categories, as follows:

10% Fiction: Usually I will read new books by the the dozen or so authors I know I already really like. Breaking in new authors is so risky and hard. Why bother, neh?

40% Natural History: Ideally books about bugs, trilobites, fish, or birds, or parasites that live(d) on bugs, trilobites, fish and birds, or things that eat/ate bugs, trilobites, fish or birds, or interesting theories about the ways that bugs, trilobites, fish and birds interact with or influence people. I’m a bugs, trilobites, fish and birds kinda guy, y’know?

40% Music Biography: I have read at least half a dozen full-length books about Genesis, to cite but one example of my vast contemporary rock biography collection. And if someone comes out with a credible new book about Genesis next year, I will read that one too. Because someone has to, right? And it might as well be me.

10% Tales of Human Suffering: People falling off of Mount Everest, going insane in the Arctic because of the toxins in their tinned food, or trying to walk across the Sahara Desert alone will always be welcome in my book collection.

 

Having eschewed the Club approach as a result of my arcane tastes, I have instead (every so often) posted lists of my favorite recent reads. With 2015 winding to a close, and given the ease with which such lists can be pulled from my Kindle, I thought it might be time to share my favorite new books of the past twelve months or so. Most of the titles cited below were published in 2015, though a few were late 2014 arrivals, and I didn’t get around to reading them until this year. I also read or re-read several older books not featured here; you can find out more about the cream of that crop in my Five by Five Books series.

I’ve blocked my favorite 2015 reads into the categories noted above. It was a light year for natural science, though all of the other categories were reasonably well represented. (And, yes, I did read another book about Genesis this year). I’ve particularly enjoyed having train time to read every day as part of my commute.  It’s a more comfortable and thoughtful environment than standing on the elliptical at the gym, where I used to do most of my reading in prior years. Links are provided if you’d like to tackle any these tomes yourself. I enjoyed them all, and think you might, too!

FICTION:

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber (late 2014 issue)

The Vorrh by Brian Catling (first U.S. release)

You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman

Get In Trouble: Stories by Kelly Link

NATURAL HISTORY:

Smarts: The Boundary-Busting Story of Intelligence by Elaine Dewar

MUSIC BIOGRAPHY:

The Living Years: The First Genesis Memoir by Mike Rutherford

Sound Man: A Life Recording Hits . . . by Glyn Johns (late 2014 issue)

Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard On You? by George Clinton (late 2014 issue)

Black Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe by Mick Wall

Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs!: My Adventures in The Alice Cooper Group by Dennis Dunaway

Van Halen Rising by Greg Renoff

Ringo: With A Little Help by Michael Seth Starr

Shining Star: Braving the Elements of Earth, Wind & Fire by Philip Bailey

Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl: A Memoir by Carrie Brownstein

Anger Is An Energy: My Life Uncensored by John Lydon

TALES OF HUMAN SUFFERING:

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East  by Gerard Russell (late 2014 issue)

The President Is a Sick Man: Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Vilifies the Courageous Newspaperman Who Dared Expose the Truth by Matthew Algeo

 

 

Pudi-Padi

1. In Des Moines, I generally got up at about 6am, made coffee, did my morning reading on the computer, cleaned up, dressed, and got to work a little before 8am. In Chicago, I get up at 6am, walk or bus to the train station, read my paper and have my coffee in transit, and get to work a little before 8am. Beyond distance traveled, the morning is not radically different, time wise. Evenings in Chicago, I’ve been getting home around 6:15pm at the end of the reverse commute (with about 35 minutes of book reading time on the train), which is about an hour later than I did in Iowa. But by that time, I’ve generally walked some 10,000 steps per my FitBit as part of my commute, which eliminates the need to spend 45 minutes or so on an elliptical at the gym at night. So my time at the office, and my free time at home with Marcia are working out about the same — though with orders of magnitude more things to do within a mile of where we live, Chicago is currently ahead on the scorecard in terms of weekly life routines. I will be traveling a lot more in the new job (trips already on the calendar to Pittsburgh, Waco, Orlando, Knoxville, Grand Cayman, Des Moines, among other locales), but one of my priorities in seeking a new job was to return to have a national (or international) reach, so this is a good thing, which I expect to enjoy.

2. With almost two weeks under my belt as President and CEO of the TREE Fund, I’m enjoying the work, the staff, the board, the opportunities, and getting to know the international community of urban and community forestry professionals that we support. Our major operating fundraiser is the STIHL Tour Des Trees, a 500+ mile cycling event that typically pulls in around a quarter-million dollars a year. Due to some pre-existing competing personal commitments, I will only be able to ride four days of the seven day Florida-based event this year, from Orlando, to Ruskin, to Sarasota, to Punta Gorda, to Ft Myers Beach, but that will still put about 350 miles of road beneath my wheels, so I am excited about that as well. We are already developing the 2016 Tour route, and I’m delighted that it will be in my native Carolina region, so more on that when we make the formal route announcement later this year. At which point, I’ll be hitting you all up for fundraising support, so be prepared.

3. A couple of artsy-fartsy-ish snaps of where we’re living these days. The views still haven’t gotten old for me:

20150822_184324

Our temporary apartment in Aqua tower, back lit by the setting sun.

20150822_223705

Night view from outside 340 on the Park, where will we be moving in two weeks.

4. Great book alert: I’m about three-quarters of the way through Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine and am loving it. I suspect it could result in a Five By Five Books article soon. Unless she blows the ending. (Please don’t! Please!) Standby.

5. Marcia and I have been to two wonderful free concerts put on by the Jazz Institute of Chicago in recent weeks (review of one here), and are very much looking forward to the Chicago Jazz Festival over Labor Day weekend, and to attending their Annual Fundraising Gala in October.

6. On a slightly less posh note, we’re also going to Riot Fest this month. Only for one day, but it will include Iggy Pop, System Of A Down (!), The Damned, Bootsy Collins, GWAR, Rancid and a few dozen others, so plenty of opportunities to get our funk, mosh, and skank on, as appropriate.

7. After nearly four years without reading a daily newspaper regularly, I’m happy to have The Chicago Tribune with me each morning on the train. While I don’t necessarily embrace their political/editorial views, I do like the feel of newsprint and am acquiring a better sense of the people, places, politics and things that make my new home community tick. I’ve particularly been enjoying columnist Rex Huppke, especially this piece about McDonalds’ effort to undermine traditional breakfast values. That’s some sharp writing, there. Nice!

8. I remain a board member for the Association of Midwest Museums, so I’ve also been doing my part to take in our region’s amazing museum culture. As a vintage plane nerd, I was flabbergasted to learn that the Museum of Science and Industry has one of only two surviving Stuka dive-bombers in the world, along with a complete German unterseeboot. Marcia and I also enjoyed a jazz night out at the Shedd Aquarium, and we’ve taken advantage of the wonderful Art Institute of Chicago membership that my staff at Salisbury House gave me as a parting gift. So much art! The brain can’t process it all! So we just keep going back and going back, happily.

9. Tuesday Morning Quarterbacks, my long-time fantasy football league (of which I am reigning champion, thank you very much) held its live draft last night, and I think I’ve got a very good team together. The league has had mostly-stable membership for a long time, but occasionally we have to recruit a new player. This year, The Pretzel Hammers joined the league, filling a gap created by a stalwart player moving out of the country. Their manager? Marcia! She finished second by a hair in her own league last year, so she knows how to get it done, competitively. This should make for some lively Smith Family football watching time in the upcoming months, especially during the two weeks when we go head-to-head. Huttah!