Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Best Books I read in 2020


The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer (1960) This is one of the best history books I've ever read. It relies almost entirely on primary documents (speeches, letters, etc.). I appreciated how there was no cautiousness in Shirer's style; Shirer writes clean prose with moral ferocity. There's no vacillating university relativism here. It's not a dry read by any means. It reads like a thrilling war movie that ends happily ever after. 

Machines like Me by Ian McEwan (2019). This is a relationship novel more than anything, and there are a lot of funny and insightful things about the romance. But I was in it for the robot. I greatly enjoyed all the ethical questions the book explores, though I thought Adam, the robot, sometimes was powered off too much so the kitchen sink drama could play out. McEwan's smart prose makes up for any deficiencies in the plot. The counterfactual history (with a thriving Alan Turing) was a lot of fun. 

Heimat by Nora Krug (2019). This is a delightful book that's admirably researched. Krug reflects on her Germanness, and how she grapples with the complicated history of her wartime family.  

Walking the Great North Line by Robert Twigger (2020). This book goes to show that you don't need to walk around the world to write a good travel book. It's about Twigger's straight-line walk up England connecting weirdly aligned historic landmarks. The writing is fresh; there's something special on every page. Lots of honesty, history, humor, and hi-jinx: everything I love about the travel memoir genre. 

"To develop that earlier thought about not starting at the beginning, there should be a word for the instinct to start things in a half-arsed fashion (Farsing? Harsing?), as if starting properly will jinx the enterprise, set it up on too high and unachievable a pedestal. The instinct to start in a half-arsed way for fear you'll never start at all."

Bushcraft by Mors Kochanski (1997). This past spring I got an email from a producer of the TV show, Alone, inviting me to apply to be a contestant. I'd never heard of the show, but I've since become a fan and have begun a multi-year project to apply, get on, and win. I have lots to learn! I've read about five bushcraft books this year, and this one is the best. Mors is meticulous and scientific. The illustrations are very helpful. 

This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff (1989) This is a memoir of a teenage boy written with the detail and dialogue of a novel. I compare it to another old favorite, Angela's Ashes, except that This Boy's Life takes place in 1950's America. No one has ever captured how a young teen acts without thinking as well as Wolff has. It's as if the boy fails to have any ability for self examination and awareness, which is probably how most of us existed in our youths. We just can't remember it. But someone Wolff, as an adult writer, not only remembers this, but, somewhere down the line, discovered his amazing powers for intrapersonal intelligence. The De Niro/ DeCaprio 1993 movie of the same name looks too bleak; the book has a bit of humor on every page if you can find it.  

Self Portrait in Black and White by Thomas Chatterton Williams (2019)

Eloquent and bold. As with sexuality, it might do us some good to someday blur and ultimately forget about binary racial boundaries, as helpful as they can be. I wonder if boundary dissolution will be one of the great social movements of the 21st Century.

"[S]ince the outcome of the 2016 election, I’ve been dismayed to see an opportunistic demagogue provoke racial resentment across the country and within families as well, but I’ve also been troubled to watch well-meaning white friends in my Twitter timeline and Facebook news feed flagellate themselves, sincerely or performatively apologizing for their “whiteness,” as if they were somehow born into original sin. The writer and linguist John McWhorter (who happens to be black) has called this development “the flawed new religion” of Anti-racism, or “The current idea that the enlightened white person is to, I assume regularly (ritually?), ‘acknowledge’ that they possess White Privilege,” he writes in a 2015 essay of the same name. “Classes, seminars, teach-ins are devoted to making whites understand the need for this. Nominally, this acknowledgment of White Privilege is couched as a prelude to activism, but in practice, the acknowledgment itself is treated as the main meal . . . The call for people to soberly ‘acknowledge’ their White Privilege as a self-standing, totemic act is based on the same justification as acknowledging one’s fundamental sinfulness is as a Christian. One is born marked by original sin; to be white is to be born with the stain of unearned privilege.” In other words, it is to walk that special path."

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Best films I watched in 2020

I'm doing a better job cataloging the media I consume, so I have a better idea of all the films I watch from year to year. Here are my favorites watched in 2020, with an eye toward  lesser-known gems. 

The Cakemaker (2017, Germany & Israel) This is an almost flawless movie (save for one mistake toward the end). It's unbelievable to me that the actor in the lead, Tim Kalkhof, won no awards for his beautifully understated performance. 

Monos (2019, Columbia, various) I like my movies raw, gritty, and unforgiving. Monos is just my type.

Sicario (2015, USA) I had low expectations for this one, as I'm burnt out on drug and cop movies. But Sicario was electrifying. I had no sense of where the story was taking me, which is always a good thing. 

Meek's Cutoff (2010, USA) I've never watched a bad Kelly Reichardt film. This is hardly a Western, apart from the costumes.

Winter Sleep (2014, Turkey) Broody, atmospheric, and melancholic. 

Revanche (2008, Austria)
A grimy city thriller unexpectedly ends up in the Austrian countryside.

The Biggest Little Farm (2018, USA) I could have done without the cheesy premise of giving their dog a new home. But this multi-year documentary is visually stunning, epic, honest, and inspiring. It'll certainly make you want to have a farm, big or little. 

Big Night (1997, USA) 

1917 (2019, US/UK) I saw this in February, right before lockdown. I was somewhere in Maryland on a speaking tour. I stopped by a pizzeria beforehand. The pizzeria was closing so they offered me an additional slice of pizza, both of which were enormous. With a full belly after a long day of talking, my viewing of the masterfully-made 1917 was made all the more memorable. 

Uncut Gems (2019, USA) When I watch a movie and instantly have to rewatch it, I know it'll be a movie I'll always love. Sandler ought to have earned an Oscar nomination for his tragic-comic performance. This is one movie where a distinctive and innovative style (music, editing, cinematography) serves the movie, rather than just serving as window dressing.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Wigtown Book Festival Podcast

I forgot to post a podcast I was on a few months ago. The Wigtown Book Festival (Scotland) was inspired to start a podcast because of the pandemic lockdown. 

I've performed at the festival for each of my three books. My visits to Wigtown gave me the opportunity to meet my Scottish relatives, explore the country, and eventually move there. On this show, I gave a quick rundown of my books and reflected on being an author without a book to work on.

The podcast is available on the usual podcast apps. Here's the web version of the podcast

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Bushcraft - shelter building

I'm enrolled in a year-long bushcraft course, in which we're learning all manner of things, including axecraft, clothes making, primitive navigation, and shelter building. I decided to merge the old and the new, so I took liberties on my shelter with a bit of paracord and a tarp. I have the rafters up and the tarp secured, but I have a lot more work to do. I envision a more enclosed shelter when I'm done with it. I will have foliage entirely covering the roof in Picture #2. In Picture #3, you can see the makings of my bed, which will be made soft with spruce boughs.


Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Carrifran Wildwood

One of the most irritating rants I go on is about how ecologically impoverished the UK is. In America, it's not hard to find a mixed forest on the edge of many towns. In Scotland, finding a healthy-seeming forest requires Internet research and a long pilgrimage. 

The other weekend I pilgrimaged to the Carrifran Woodland in southwest Scotland, where conservationists are experimenting with one valley in the Moffat hills. They've planted 500,000 native species of tree and shrub within 1,600 acres, with the idea of showing what an ecologically-restored Scotland might look like. They are twenty years into the project, so the trees are not tall, but when you walk over the land, you get a sense of the project's potential, even during a time of year when the forest has sunk into its winter slumber.

Take a close look at this next picture.

There's a lot to unpack in the above picture. Look at the far hill in front of us. There, you'll see a forest on the left half of the hill and grassy vegetation on the right side of the hill. This picture tells us so much about Scottish ecology and the lack thereof. The forest on the hill is probably made up entirely of "Sitka Spruce," a non-native species which is being grown for timber. These forests are not really forests--they're typically monocultures that have almost nothing residing within them. The forest does show, however, that forests CAN grow in Scotland, even up and over hills. Now look at the bare side of the hill on the right. This moorland terrain used to seem beautiful to me, until I learned that it isn't naturally desolate. It is actually a human-created wasteland. The only reason that hill is bare is because there is an overabundance of deer and sheep which nibble any and all saplings to death. Walk on that bare hill and then walk through the Sitka Spruce forest and you'll be disturbed to realize that it is ecologically impoverished, with few birds, bugs, plants, and animals.

Now look at the shadowy forest in the foreground. This is Carrifran Wildwood, where most all of the trees have been hand-planted with a variety of tree species, and where sheep and deer are discouraged from entering. This piece of land, when it comes of age, might show us what Scotland could look like if it's managed until it doesn't need to be managed.

Town of Moffat, 7 miles from woods