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  • Ken Ilgunas

The best books I read in 2015

501 Minutes to Christ by Poe Ballentine

A collection of personal essays that chart the life of a real-life American itinerant. Ballantine doesn’t take us to grand places on his journey. These are the places in between: the ones we always see but never go to: crummy factory jobs, motel rooms, bus rides across the Midwest. One closes the book taken with the weird authenticity of it—there’s honesty here, and Ballantine refuses to resort to the “lessons learned” and schmaltz typical to the memoir genre. Sometimes there’s no meaning or purpose behind his tales, but this only enhances the book’s rare rawness. The chief impression the book leaves us with is that this guy’s been around.

“I can’t count the number of times I have officially assembled the equipment to take my life: a knife, a handgun, a plastic bag, a bottle of codeine and a fifth of vodka. My motivations are never quite clear: perception of failure, futility, a sense of irremediable isolation, MTV–nothing everyone else hasn’t suffered through. Yet I tend to magnify my gloomy outlook into a drive-in picture of the end of the world. I can’t seem to remember that despair is a temporary state, a dark storm along the highway; that if I can just stick it out, keep the wipers going and my foot on the gas, I will make it through to the other side.”

Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787 by Winston Graham

Graham manages to match the elegance of 19th Century British prose despite writing from the mid-20th. Consequently, his themes are a bit darker, a bit more sophisticated. Why he’s unknown is a mystery to me, as it’s clear his writing is as good as or better than the greats.

“And Ross again knew himself to be happy—in a new and less ephemeral way than before. He was filled with a queer sense of enlightenment. It seemed to him that all his life had moved to this pinpoint of time down the scattered threads of twenty years… Someone—a Latin poet—had defined eternity as no more than this: to hold and possess the whole fullness of life in one moment, here and now, past and present and to come. He thought: if we could only stop here. Not when we get home, not leaving Trenwith, but here, here reaching the top of the hill out of Sawle, dusk wiping out the edges of the land and Demelza walking and humming at my side.”

High Fidelity & About a Boy by Nick Hornby

I write a few sentences about every book I read. For both of these I wrote, “Lovable characters” and “Believable growth.” I’m reluctant to read authors who pump out a lot of books, especially current authors. But Hornsby’s quality doesn’t go down with quantity. And he’s just a master of dialogue. He builds his characters from it. It’s often funny and it’s never cheesy. Plus, his focus (and illuminating touch) on thirty-something relationship quandaries gives the book, for me, special relevance.

“See, I’ve always been afraid of marriage because of, you know, ball and chain, I want my freedom, all that. But when I was thinking about that stupid girl I suddenly saw it was the opposite: that if you got married to someone you know you love, and you sort yourself out, it frees you up for other things. I know you don’t know how you feel about me, but I do know how I feel about you. I know I want to stay with you and I keep pretending otherwise, to myself and you, and we just limp on and on. It’s like we sign a new contract every few weeks or so, and I don’t want that anymore. And I know that if we got married I’d take it seriously, and I wouldn’t want to mess about.”

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

Smart, superb, patient storytelling that respects the reader’s intelligence. It more than stands the test of time. I tried to read Asimov’s other works, but nothing’s grabbed me like this one.

“It is the obvious which is so difficult to see most of the time. People say ‘It’s as plain as the nose on your face.’ But how much of the nose on your face can you see, unless someone holds a mirror up to you?”

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

As a memoir writer, I pay special attention to style. Eating Animals is a combination of wonkish research, personal history, philosophical reflection, and random longish testimony-essays from farmers and vegans and such who appear as characters. Amazingly it all flows together. I intend on mimicking his style in future works.

“Even among writers who deserve great praise for bringing factory farming into public view, there is often an insipid disavowal of the real horror we inflict. In his provocative and often brilliant review of [Michael Pollan’s] The Omnivore’s Dilemma, B. R. Myers explains this accepted intellectual fashion: ‘The technique goes like this: One debates the other side in a rational manner until pushed into a corner. Then one simply drops the argument and slips away, pretending that one has not fallen short of reason but instead transcended it. The irreconcilability of one’s belief with reason is then held up as a great mystery, the humble readiness to live with which puts one above lesser minds and their cheap certainties.’ There is one other rule to this game: never, absolutely never, emphasize that virtually all of the time one’s choice is between cruelty and ecological destruction, and ceasing to eat animals. It isn’t hard to figure out why the beef industry won’t let even an enthusiastic carnivore near its slaughter facilities. Even in abattoirs where most cattle die quickly, it’s hard to imagine that any day passes in which several animals (tens, hundreds?) don’t meet an end of the most horrifying kind. A meat industry that follows the ethics most of us hold (providing a good life and an easy death for animals, little waste) is not a fantasy, but it cannot deliver the immense amount of cheap meat per capita we currently enjoy.”

The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion by Matt Taibbi

Taibbi viscously takes down the 9/11 Truth Movement and pokes a lot of fun at Christians while going undercover as a devout Christian at an Evangelical retreat. Despite pulling no punches, he manages to come across as likable. This may be because he has moments of empathy for his subjects (as misguided as they are), and, at bottom, he’s on an intellectual quest to understand what’s making Americans so crazy and conspiratorial. His findings don’t disappoint.

“The message of all of this was that Americans were now supposed to make their own sense of the world. There was no dependable authority left to turn to, no life raft in the increasingly perilous informational sea. This coincided with an age when Americans now needed to understand more of the world than ever before. A factory worker in suburban Ohio now needed to understand the cultures of places like Bangalore and Beijing if he wanted to know why he’d lost his job. Which, incidentally, he probably had. Now broke, or under severe financial pressure, with no community leaders, no community, no news he can trust, Joe American has to turn on the Internet and tell himself a story that makes sense to him. What story is he going to tell?”

After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene by Jedidiah Purdy

Purdy’s book lays out the reasons why we need a new “environmental imagination” for the Anthropocene—an era dominated by climate change and factory farms and an expanding human population, all of which loom over us all. New values and aesthetics and politics will be necessary for the future that cannot thrive with the environmentalisms of the past. Brilliant and provocative.

“Bennett suggests that adopting a new animism—not exactly as metaphysics, but as a moral attitude and mode of experience—might alert people to the dangers afoot in a disrupted world (climate change as a Pandora’s box of actants). It might also dignify the widespread sense that things matter: mountains move us; the atmosphere is healthy or unwell. We know that, if these perceptions are to move us in the Anthropocene, when everything has changed, we must admit that what moves or frightens us is partly what we have created: the timeless mountain and the unchanging atmosphere are myths that we have lost and temples that we have broken.”

A Bone to Pick: the good and bad news about food, with wisdom and advice on diets, food safety, GMOs, farming and more by Mark Bittman

A good refresher on everything from factory farms, to organics, to GMOs, to why we’re all getting fat. Bittman isn’t afraid to suggest something radical or politically impossible (which are joys to read) because his ideas are always well-grounded in solid research and good sense.

“If you want to plant a lawn, that’s fine, though it’s a waste of water and energy, both petrochemical and human. Nor are lawns simply benign: many common lawn chemicals are banned in other countries, because most if not all are toxic in a variety of ways. My guess is that 100 years from now, lawns will be about as common as Hummers… And small-scale suburban and urban gardening has incredible potential. Using widely available data, Roger Doiron of Kitchen Gardeners International estimates that converting 10 percent of our nation’s lawns to vegetable gardens ‘could meet about a third of our fresh vegetable needs at current consumption rates.’”

The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan Daum

The Unspeakable contains a level of nuance, and Daum, a command of the language, that’s superior to most any memoir writing out there. She has an almost superhuman power of introspection, all of which allows her to get closer to capturing the very essence of a thought or feeling. Something to aspire to.

“What I miss is the feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase for the gleaming architecture that will make up the skyline of the rest of my life. But what I forget is the loneliness of all that. If everything is ahead then nothing is behind. You have no ballast. You have no tailwinds either. You hardly ever know what to do, because you’ve hardly done anything. I guess this is why wisdom is supposed to be the consolation prize of aging. It’s supposed to give us better things to do than stand around and watch in disbelief as the past casts long shadows over the future. The problem, I now know, is that no one ever really feels wise, least of all those who actually have it in themselves to be so. The Older Self of our imagination never quite folds itself into the older self we actually become. Instead, it hovers in the perpetual distance like a highway mirage. It’s the destination that never gets any closer even as our life histories pile up behind us in the rearview mirror. It is the reason that I got to forty-something without ever feeling thirty-something. It is why I hope that if I make it to eighty-something I have the good sense not to pull out those old CDs. My heart, by then, surely would not be able to keep from imploding. My heart, back then, stayed in one piece only because, as bursting with anticipation as it was, it had not yet been strained by nostalgia. It had not yet figured out that life is mostly an exercise in being something other than what we used to be while remaining fundamentally—and sometimes maddeningly—who we are.”

Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange and Menacing World of Antarctica by Nicholas Johnson

It’s a shame Johnson committed suicide. It’s clear from reading Big Dead Place that he could have had a long and fruitful career as a travel writer. Like the best travel writers, Johnson gets obsessed with his subject, and Big Dead Place is crammed with careful and extensive research about everything-Antarctica. He writes with a British dry wit (I thought he was British for much of my reading), ridiculing mindless bureaucracy better than anyone.

“I have never heard one person say that the most difficult thing about Antarctica is working outside, or being cold. I have never heard one person imply that Antarctica’s tough physical environment would be the main reason not to return. I have never heard of one returnee who finally quit because it’s the world’s highest, driest, coldest, or whatever. People leave because of the bullshit.”

A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir by Donald Worster

A Passion for Nature lacks the storytelling flair of a Doris Kearns Goodwin biography, but it’s a solid and comprehensive portrait of John Muir, which was precisely what I was looking for.

“[Muir] was certainly not able to draw up a clear blueprint for his life, in contrast to what he was achieving on the work floor, or to manage the conflicting advice he was getting from so many strong-minded women and men, or even to see what his end product ought to be. Inventing machines or organizing them into a coherent system of production was much easier than inventing a life or finding coherence in what one thought or believed.”


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