2020: Year in Review

Remember 2016? There was a lot of “Worst Year Ever” chatter as it wound to its close, four years ago this month. We lost David Bowie, Prince, Gene Wilder, Maurice White, Muhammad Ali, Bernie Worrell, Greg Lake, Keith Emerson, George Michael, Carrie Fisher and so many other “big” names that year. We also elected President Bonespurs Tinyhands, made Brexit a sick and sad reality, watched global climate change unfold in tragic ways in real time, experienced a devastating number and impact of mass shootings, and suffered the extreme right-wing media giddily expanding its reach and impact in the aftermath of international fellow-traveler efforts to sabotage our already-sickened democracy through the infectious cesspools of social media.

It all seemed utterly dreadful at the time, and it certainly felt wonderful to wish it all good riddance come January 1, 2017. But then 2020 arrived, said “Hold My Beer,” and made 2016 look like a veritable paradise of goodness and justice and equity in comparison to the horrors that the past 12 months have heaped upon us, domestically and around the globe. If you want or need concise hot takes on why 2020 was such an ass-end of a year, I’m sure you can find plenty of them in the newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs, televisions shows or social media feeds of your choice. I generally try to avoid such wallows, and I doubt that I can add anything worthwhile to that bewildering stream of chatter, so I’m not even going to bother to try. Suffice to say that 2020 was a truly shitty year on a truly macro basis for an immense number of people, and that my normal website year-end report (which follows) is offered as a diversion for the record, not as a summary of recent horrors.

ON THE BLOG:

In 2019, I posted 70 articles on this website, noting 12 months ago that “as satisfying as that is, given my own goals for the upcoming year, I doubt that I will hit the same high post mark in 2020.” Well, surprise, surprise, 2020 didn’t quite go the way I planned it, and I ended up writing 147 posts, the most I’ve done since the Poem-A-Day Project in 2004. Retiring from full-time work certainly gave me more time to write, as did the cancellation of planned travel, and the need to fill socially isolated time in some satisfying and/or productive fashions. Interestingly, other folks being similarly isolated seemed to have an impact on readership here, per the following trend analysis of 2014-2020 website hits and visitors (actual numbers edited out, as it’s tacky to share them; the trend line is what matters):

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. Since consolidating everything here in 2015, our Anno Virum has clearly been the most successful year in terms of readership numbers. It is nice to think that perhaps I helped some folks distract themselves, even if just briefly, from the day-to-day awfulness that 2020 has inflicted upon us. I suppose at some point I should consider trying to monetize that. Though I know from experience that turning fun/hobby undertakings into work/income ones that way usually never plays out as happily as one might expect it to.

As I report each year, here are the dozen most-read articles among the 147 new posts here in 2020:

And then here are the dozen posts written in prior years that received the most reads in 2020. 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 an early version of this blog. (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). And once again, here’s hoping that people realize that the perennially-popular “Iowa Pick-Up Lines” post is a joke . . .

ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB:

See this earlier post: Best of My Web 2020.

TRAVEL:

See this earlier post: The Roads Not Taken.

RECORDINGS:

See these two earlier posts: Best Albums of 2020 and Most Played Songs of 2020.

LIVE PERFORMANCES AND ART EXHIBITIONS:

Yeah, right. That didn’t happen, for obvious reasons.

BOOKS:

See this earlier post: Best Books of 2020.

FILMS:

See this earlier post: Best Films of 2020.

AND  THEN . . . .

. . . onward to our brave post-Trumpian world, hopefully one that is anchored in science, justice and truth, all of which we will enjoy from our new homestead in Arizona. At least until travel is safe(r) again, anyway. I assume that I will be back here at my desk in December 2021 with a similar report (as has become my habit), marveling at that which was, and eagerly anticipating that which is yet to come. See you then?

Ho Ho Humbug Us, Every One!

Best Books of 2020

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 was pleasantly surprised to see what an effective gambit that was when I did my Best Books of 2019 report, and had a wealth of great reads to choose from. It was also pleasant to see that my own writing output increased when I gave up on social media, as I dedicated time and energy toward my own website that had once been wasted by tossing tiny bon mots into the winds of the Twitterverse, where they spun and flashed briefly, then were forgotten, as they deserved to be. It was a really good lesson in how much of a time-suck social media could be.

Also, objectively speaking, my life was far less anxious and agitated after I wiped the social media spew from my world’s windshield, depending for news on a small number of trusted, curated websites in lieu of the hateful and untrustworthy worlds that Jack and Zuck and their evil greed-head ilk have built to destroy us in the name of share-holder equity. What a truly shitty paradigm that experience is, on so many levels. I look forward to us moving beyond it, 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 is by not reading great books by great writers, so I feel like I again did my own small part to stay smart in 2020 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 by genre, alphabetized by author surname within each of the three categories, with links to foster further exploration. (In some cases, the books were published before 2020 in their native languages, but the U.S. editions came out this year, so I do include them, with notes to that effect).

Perhaps some of these wonderful 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!

2020 Novels:

The Heap, Sean Adams
Providence, Max Barry
Parakeet, Marie-Helene Bertino
Piranesi, Susanna Clarke
The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, M. John Harrison
The Vanished Birds, Simon Jimenez
The Last Human, Zack Jordan
Qualityland, Marc-Uwe Kling (English Edition)
Pew, Catherine Lacey
Eden, Tim Lebbon
The Glass Hotel, Emily St. John Mandel
Deacon King Kong, James McBride
Hurricane Season, Fernanda Melchor (English Edition)
A Children’s Bible, Lydia Millet
Death in Her Hands, Ottessa Moshfegh
Earthlings, Sayaka Murata (English Edition)
Weather, Jenny Offill
The Evidence, Christopher Priest
Hearts of Oak, Eddie Robson
Little Eyes, Samanta Schweblin (English Edition)

2020 Short Stories/Collections:

I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, Laura van den Berg
Solutions and Other Problems, Allie Brosh
Velocities, Kathe Koja
To Hold Up The Sky, Cixin Liu (English Edition)

2020 Nonfiction:

Clean: The New Science of Skin, James Hamblin
The King of Confidence: A Tale of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, True Believers, False Prophets, and the Murder of an American Monarch, Miles Harvey
All My Yesterdays: The Autobiography of Steve Howe, Steve Howe
Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt, Steven Johnson
The Herndon Climb: A History of the United States Naval Academy’s Greatest Tradition, RADM James R. McNeal and Scott Tomasheski
Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life, Lulu Miller
The Ox: The Authorized Biography of John Entwistle, Paul Rees
Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men’s Epic Duel to Rule the World, Alexander Rose
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures, Merlin Sheldrake
The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World, Patrik Svensson (English Edition)
Ted Templeman: A Platinum Producer’s Life in Music, Ted Templeman and Greg Renoff

If I had to pick a “Nonfiction Book of the Year” for 2020, this one would be it.

And if asked to name a “Fiction Book of the Year” for 2020, I’d go with this one. Happy reading!!

With Which I Am Well Pleased V (Miles Out)

A week from today, Marcia and I should be waking up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, one day away from the start of our shared lives’ next chapter in Northern Arizona. We’re leaving Iowa on Thursday, and spending a couple of nights at opposite corners of Kansas (Atchison and Dodge City) on our way to the Southwest, so there’s some work, time and miles to get us to where we’re going, but we’re pleased to be so close, having looked forward to the move for so long.

We’ll be living in an AirBnb in Sedona until at least mid-December, while we hunt for the ideal house, so I will be packing up the home computer where I do the vast majority of my online and real-world work, and putting it into storage for a few months. I will have a laptop with me, so will be able to continue posting and participating in online activities, though it’s always less appealing to me to do so that way than it is to have my nice, big, high-resolution screen, full-sized keyboard, and ample stereo system in front of me while I clatter away. All good and worth it on a macro basis, though. I’ll trade that short-term working inconvenience for the longer-term expected pleasures of warmer weather in a culture more attuned to my own, any and every day.

We’ll also be packing up the television upon which we watch all of our movies, and the iTunes account I use to manage my music will disappear for awhile as well. So it seems a good point to pause today and add an entry to my “With Which I Am Well Pleased” series, offering an assortment of 15 items in various categories for your consideration, since they’ve been rocking my own socially-distant world in recent weeks. If these aren’t enough recommendations to move you fully, or if you’re so thoroughly moved that you need more, more, more, then there are also four earlier installments in this COVID-era collection, here, here, here and here. Knock yourselves out! And note that the next time you see a post with this series title, it’ll be coming to you from a land without endless corn and soybean fields, too many hogs and Covidiots, and a never-ending gnawing cold autumn wind. Pleased!!

FILMS

BOOKS

MUSIC

OTHER

New Thule roof box on new Mazda car.

Monkey Bread from Scenic Route Bakery.

With Which I Am Well Pleased IV (Zoso)

The news is just exhausting these days, isn’t it? I work to stay engaged as a literate, informed citizen, but it’s still a soul-sucking endeavor just reading my small catalog of lucid, trusted sources. I can’t imagine how bad it would be if I was still letting my brain be bludgeoned into pulp by the unrelenting dumb cuts, hot takes, and pointed, perverted propaganda of the social media cesspool. I also continue to do my part as a good member of the herd — masking up, keeping social distance, avoiding restaurants, getting my flu shot, etc. — but I live in one of the very worst states in the Nation in terms of government and community response to the pandemic, so all of my efforts at self- and group-protection could be nullified by one coughing idiot in my apartment building elevator. Did I mention exhausting?

But even in dark times, there are sparkling stars in the sky to guide us, lights at the ends of tunnels to inspire us, and shining works of art, small and sublime, to illuminate the spaces we inhabit. We’re down to less than four weeks remaining in our Iowa time, and we’re already deep into packing boxes and disassembling our apartment. That feels good. Very good. I ordered some sweet new masks, figuring if I’ve gotta wear ’em, then I’m gonna make a statement. Even if that statement is “I’m weird.” We’ve planned a final little Midwestern road-trip over to hike around the Effigy Mounds and Galena, just to get us out of Des Moines for a few days before we head out and turn hardcore Southwestern. And maybe, hopefully, Sweet Jesus let it be so, our current Federal kakistocracy will be on its way out soon if motivated voters get the job done in such overwhelming numbers that the cheaters can’t game the broken system again. You got a voting plan?

On a less macro basis, I continue to find and surround myself with books and films and music and sundries that give me joy and inspiration, and today seems a good time to share a few of those in what’s apparently emerging as an ongoing series. There are three earlier “With Which I Am Well Pleased” installments, here, here, and here. And for this edition, here are 15 of the things that have been rocking my world most effectively, most recently. If you’ve got something else to suggest, hit me in the comments. Always game for good recommendations, as long as they’re not exhausting and soul-sucking!

TELEVISION SHOWS

FILMS

MUSIC

BOOKS

About That Obelisk . . .

During our recent trip out west, I had the great pleasure of devouring a new book on a fascinating topic imminently and instantly familiar to anybody even vaguely associated with my alma mater: the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

The Herndon Climb: A History of the United States Naval Academy’s Greatest Tradition by Rear Adm. James McNeal, SC, USN (Ret.) and Scott Tomasheski (Naval Institute Press, 2020) provides the first in-depth exploration into how a nondescript looking 21-foot-tall obelisk at the heart of the Academy campus (“The Yard,” as we know it) has come to carry such an immense significance to countless midshipmen that it takes only the utterance of a single, simple word to instantly evoke an intensely complex set of emotions related to their shared Navy experiences.

That word is Herndon. It’s the name of a monument honoring a 19th Century captain who went down with his ship, which is special and memorable, of course, though the Yard has many other monuments of greater visual grandeur, and honoring equally admirable heroes. What separates Herndon from all of the other iconic statues, buildings, relics and markers about the Academy is the fact that 1,000ish plebes (freshmen) swarm and climb it each and every May, formally marking the end of their physically, psychologically and emotionally grueling first year in Annapolis. That task is greatly complicated by the fact that the monument is thoroughly, disgustingly greased with various unsavory unguents before the climb, top to bottom, and by the fact that the plebes have to remove a “dixie cup” sailors cap from its apex (which is typically glued and/or taped in place), and replace it with an officer’s combination cap, while being hosed down by upper-class midshipmen, ostensibly to cool the scrum, but, you know, not really.

It sounds absurd, doesn’t it? Sure it does. Most great traditions are. But let me tell you: it’s an amazing thing to see, a whole lot harder than it sounds, and it serves as an unparalleled portal of transformation for those who experience it, “Plebes No More” once that combo cover rests upon Herndon’s peak. The emotional heft associated with seeing a class collectively celebrating the end of a truly brutal year of insanely rigorous intellectual and physical training is infectious and intoxicating, a messy explosion of joy, relief and gratitude unlike anything most folks are likely to see or experience elsewhere. It was thrilling to go through at the end of my own plebe year, of course, but also thrilling every year after that to watch subsequent classes tackle and achieve the long-awaited goal that linked them inexorably with those who had passed through the greasy crucible before them. It’s also popular with those who were never plebes themselves, a truly unique spectator event that brings out locals and travelers year after year to share in that magic, muddy moment of transformation and release.

Admiral Jim McNeal and Scott Tomasheski have done a superb job in researching, organizing and writing Herndon’s tale, tapping historic documents and contemporary written accounts, and conducting extensive interviews about all facets of the climb experience and its evolution over the past century. As plebes, we were all required to know an immense collection of “rates” (arcane factoids about everything Navy), and to spout them on command when prompted, usually just as we had put big pieces of food into our mouths at our squad’s dinner tables, or while we were hurrying to avoid being late for class, or formation, or for any of the other obligatory commitments that filled our days. So, ostensibly, I should have a lot of information at my disposal about the Herndon Monument and Climb, but McNeal and Tomasheski’s book made it screamingly, fascinatingly clear how little I (and likely most other midshipmen and Navy alumni) really did know about such a significant part of our psychological lives and experiences. For example:

  • Just who was Commander William Lewis Herndon, and why does he have a monument at the Naval Academy?
  • How in the world did climbing that particular monument become the rite of passage required to end plebe year? And when did it happen?
  • Tradition says that the midshipman who removes the dixie cup and replaces it with the combo cover will become the class’ first Admiral. Has that really happened, and if so, how often?
  • Every class has completed the climb, but the times to do so vary widely. Which class did it fastest, and how? And which class took the most time, and why?
  • What, exactly, is that thing greased with?

The Herndon Climb also makes for compelling reading in its organization and construction, with a skillfully-crafted, multi-part account of what Climb Day feels like for its participants, interspersed with a variety of explorations into specific climbs and climbers, or specific themes associated with the climb over time. To their credit, the authors don’t shy away from some of the more problematic issues associated with the tradition, e.g. Commander Herndon was a great explorer and sailor with some deeply problematic beliefs, women have often been treated exceptionally poorly during the climb, and it’s certainly a dangerous undertaking for little-to-no discernible operational benefit to the Academy and its charges. On the flip side, McNeal and Tomasheski have uncovered some truly glorious and inspirational stories about the ways that certain classes and certain plebes embodied the very best and purest aspects of Navy culture on Herndon Day, honoring the institution, its fallen members, their colleagues and community alike.

A personal note related to the book: Admiral McNeal was a classmate of mine at the Naval Academy, and then at Naval Supply Corps School after we graduated. We’re both Marine Corps brats, but took different paths into Annapolis, different paths in our post-Supply School careers, and different approaches to Herndon Day itself: Jim was at the base of the pyramid, a key player in the successful ascent, while I (accurately) recognized that I was neither big nor strong enough to be at the bottom of the pile, nor tall, slender, light nor nimble enough to be a top-tier scaler, so I just did my part in the masses around the monument. Those differences notwithstanding, Jim and I both feel highly bound to the Academy and to our classmates by our shared experiences, and both of us went on to work on behalf of the class in leadership and reunion roles after we left Annapolis in 1986.

The Herndon Climb also documents the story of one plebe who achieved the cap swap in honor of his father, a fallen aviator from the class of 1985 who was a company-mate of mine, as well as a perceptive interview with the ’86 classmate who completed our most arduous day together. Having seen and cheered Midshipman Kevin “K.J.” Delamer getting the job done for our class in May of 1983, a week before my 18th birthday, it was very interesting to read his thoughts and reflections about the experience all these years on, especially his frank admission of not being exactly the most squared away plebe in our class, a trait I certainly shared, and then some. (Spoiler Alert: K.J. did not become the first Admiral in our class).

Those personal connections add a layer of richness to the narrative for me, but even without them, this is a wonderfully readable book for both those who have experienced Herndon and those who have not . . . yet. I suspect that anyone who reads this book without having seen the event in person will make a point of doing so in the years ahead, perhaps more than once. It certainly made me want to return for another Herndon Day, and I consider that effective, if unstated, call to action to be a core sign of a great book, one that has stuck with me since I finished it, giving me plenty to think about and remember.

I heartily recommend The Herndon Climb to all Naval Academy alumni, parents and friends, as well as those who are curious about and interested in the ways that rituals and traditions evolve to embody the cultures that birth them. It is a fascinating case study, teasing universal truths and tales with ethnographic skill from an ostensibly arcane and highly localized event. Kudos to the authors for a job most well and effectively done, and to the Naval Institute Press for bringing their work to market. (You can click the cover image below to acquire your own copy. You won’t be disappointed!)

Little Grotesques: B. Catling’s “Only The Lowly” and “Earwig” (2019)

Earlier this year, I posted one of my occasional Five By Five Books articles about The Vorrh Trilogy (2015 to 2018), by B. Catling. In my review of that immense series, I described the collective feel of the books thusly: “Big, audacious, immersive, surreal, grotesque, written in gloriously florid language, and screamingly unique in just about every way imaginable.” Right up my alley, in other words.

Catling has followed that sweeping epic of the strange with two unrelated novellas: Only The Lowly (released in March 2019 by Storr, a small, independent publishing house) and Earwig (published in September 2019 by Coronet, a “major” marque, which handled The Vorrh series as well). I was able to get these newest Catling books in their American editions (Lowly on Kindle, Earwig in paperback) over the past couple of months, devouring both of them quickly and eagerly upon receipt. I’d describe the pair exactly as I did The Vorrh Trilogy above, just substituting the word “Little” for “Big” at the beginning of the quote. I’d also focus specific attention on the key word “grotesque,” which is defined thusly:

Noun Usage: A style of decorative art characterized by fanciful or fantastic human and animal forms often interwoven with foliage or similar figures that may distort the natural into absurdity, ugliness, or caricature.

Adjective Usage: Fanciful, bizarre, absurdly incongruous, departing markedly from the natural, the expected, or the typical.

Per those descriptors, Earwig and Only The Lowly are grotesque, and grotesques, indeed, works of art within which the borders between the human, the supernatural, and the bestial are blurred, where physical and moral caricatures caper and prance, where ugliness of word, deed, visage and intention abound, and where deliberate narrative incongruities and unexpected plot eruptions make it impossible to establish any sense of comfort or contextual certainty throughout the books’ queasy runs. They’re wonderfully wobbly little bites of curdled literary cream, sauced with sticky drizzles of sweet and savory and possibly hallucinogenic unguents and spices, then fermented in dark broths of bubbling unease and discomfort. Both books are more than capable of causing strong revulsion upon first sample, but once a reader has acquired a tolerance for their uncanny and unnatural tastes, they become deeply desirable and most memorable, indeed.

While the emotional, intellectual and psychological experiences of reading Earwig and Only The Lowly may be similar, the books do present their pleasures (?) in very different ways. Earwig is set in Belgium and France in the years after World War I and the Spanish Flu Epidemic, and its plot is linear, for the most part, laid out from the view of an omniscient third-person narrator. It tells the story of a hateful caretaker and his strange ward, and if the very concept of “mouth horror” evokes a shudder of revulsion in you, then Aalbert and Mia’s tale should have you wriggling most uncomfortably in its unrelenting and graphic obsessions with oral disasters. Only The Lowly, on the other hand, knits together ten short, interconnected, first-person narratives by Bertie (most chapters) and Cara, a lumpen married couple living in a biologically and culturally bizarre beach city, perhaps of our world, perhaps after our world, perhaps neither or both. Like Earwig, it’s rife with squishy discomfort and disgust-inducing depictions of strange social, sexual and sensory happenings, delivered in a post-English patois somewhat akin to that deployed in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, were it to be processed through an Edward Lear absurdity filter.

Neither of these little books are comfort reading, needless to say. But they’re far richer for that, pushing emotional buttons you didn’t know you had, forcing consideration of the inconceivable, and using the tools and techniques unique to great writers to lift readers into flights of deliciously noisome fancy. Great, grotesque miniatures from a writer who has emerged in recent years as a personal favorite, at bottom line. I recommend you read them both, if you dare . . .