I’m going to read a biography of each president to feel better, or much much worse

15 Nov

washington_a_life_book_coverSometime after seeing Hamilton last summer—cough, humblebrag, cough—I came up with an ambitious reading idea, so ambitious that I shelved it for some future month/year, in which I might theoretically have a surplus of time and a deficit of new reality shows to watch. (Other such ideas postponed indefinitely: reading all of the books from a “Best 100 Books of All Time” list; reading every No. 1 New York Times bestseller for a year; actually finishing Infinite Jest.)

Hamilton is fantastic, and I’ll spare you the unnecessary piling on of compliments here. But outside of its amazingness, the show also prompted me (and many others) to pick up the biography on which it’s based, a tome by Ron Chernow that inspired Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda when he read it on vacation. Now, in the interest of full transparency: I haven’t actually started that biography yet, but it does occupy a prime spot in my apartment’s hierarchy of book piles—it could very well get read this decade. More important though, Chernow got me thinking: What if I tried to read one biography of each president, in order, starting with George Washington?  Continue reading

A reader’s guide to president-elect Donald Trump

11 Nov

I didn’t read anything this week. I couldn’t. I pulled together a stack of hefty thrillers to get me through the next month or so, the kinds of books into which a frustrated American might escape in moments of desperation. But this week I stumbled through in a kind of daze—surface-calm while emotionally experiencing something akin to the final scene in Se7en. Kevin Spacey is Donald Trump, Brad Pitt is America, and Morgan Freeman is the rest of the world. We’re all just waiting to see what’s in that fucking box.

giphy

But books aren’t far from my mind. Over the past few days, I’ve found myself thinking back to things I’ve read that resonate just as strongly, or more strongly, now as before. Books that seem prescient in light of Tuesday’s results, even if (and I sincerely hope this is true) the specter of a Trump presidency proves scarier than the actuality.

I know, aggregating yourself is a bit douchey. But I hope you’ll cut me some slack in these trying, exhausting times. Continue reading

Hillbilly Elegy is a humblebrag of a memoir

2 Nov

51idsm4kvzl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Memories of an Appalachian adolescence meshed with analysis of the disaffected white working class, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy has been making the rounds as a primer on the sentiments that have given rise to Donald Trump. It certainly has all the right ingredients: Vance is a white man who grew up poor in Ohio with family roots in Kentucky. His mother struggled with addiction and had a string of bad boyfriends and husbands. Vance was mostly raised by his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw; his sister; and a cast of eccentric aunts and uncles.

Vance’s childhood was chaotic at best, and he might have been headed down the same path as so many of his peers (unemployment, drugs) were it not for Mamaw’s tough love and his spontaneous decision to join the Marines after high school. After the Marines came college, then Yale Law. Then a year clerking, a year lawyer-ing, a year in operations, and then—oh the end. Then this book. Because Vance, now a Silicon Valley investor and contributor to The National Review, is only 31. Continue reading

5 books, reviewed real quick

25 Oct

Summer 2016 went by far too fast, distracted as we were by Donald Trump and the return of the bare midriff. But even though my ST updates this year have been lackluster at best—it’s my 2017 resolution, I swear—I did actually manage to finish some books this summer. So before the frost fully sets in, here are a few things I done read recently. Continue reading

Timehopping with Homegoing

14 Oct

img_2430As cars and RVs line up to pay the $25 entry fee to Arches National Park, I find myself tempted to assume that what’s ahead will be overwrought. Commercialized. Banal. The minimum-effort visitor to Arches (i.e. any rando with a car) can take an 18-mile drive around the park, at the entrance of which sits a quintessential visitor center—part education, part kitsch. I haven’t seen Delicate Arch yet (Arches’ most iconic landmark) and yet I have: on keychains, t-shirts, laminated posters, and lighters—and painted in great detail on a canvas in my Moab, Utah hotel room.

Once inside, a winding road takes me up a rock cliff, which I notice absently, and then with something bordering on panic. All the relevant alarms start to sound in my brain: YOU ARE DRIVING ON A CLIFF! THE SIDE OF THE CLIFF IS RIGHT THERE! And while I know I’m supposed to be feeling some sort of How Stella Got Her Groove Back exhilaration—I’m here! On my road trip! Seeing natural beauty!—mostly I am terrified. I’ve had a driver’s license for 17 years, but I’ve also seen Final Destination a bunch of times.  Continue reading

Oryx and Crake is the future humanity deserves

19 Sep

Oryx_Crake_Margaret_AtwoodI got my first taste of the apocalypse driving west on Route 50.

US-50 spans Maryland to California, and much of its Colorado/Nevada leg tracks I-70, one of several highways that have more or less rendered Route 50 obsolete. Sometimes they’re the same road, and sometimes I-70 is visible in the distance, its familiar green signage and rush of 18-wheelers a comforting talisman against the isolation of the elder thruway. But every so often the highway is miles off, and the visual lull of gas stations and rest stops give way to a different kind of lull: the thrum of tires on barely paved asphalt, the rush of breeze through open windows, vistas of untouched landscape in every direction.

Near Fruita, Colorado, Route 50 and I-70 part ways, and the former enters a stretch of near-total isolation (what I will come to know as one of many). The smooth surface of well-maintained blacktop gives over to worn, crumbling asphalt, and sometimes gravel. Lane lines fade and then disappear; desert shrubbery creeps in at the shoulders, threatening to overtake the pavement entirely. For 23 minutes, I didn’t see a single other car. Surrounded by mountains, vegetation, the mutterings of unseen wildlife, and one disintegrating road, it suddenly wasn’t hard to imagine a world in which people ceased to be, to imagine the planet reclaiming the land we colonized, bulldozing the evidence of humanity in the slow-motion manner of mother nature. It felt wrong, even, to be the only human thing, the only piece of civilization in sight. Like encroaching on someone else’s property, or stepping behind enemy lines. Continue reading

The Mandibles is Titanic for the economy, and there isn’t enough room on the door

27 Jul

y450-293For as long as there have been disasters, there have been disaster stories. Sometimes they’re natural, sometimes extraterrestrial, sometimes militaristic. Sometimes a disaster story is only personally devastating—a sudden death, a fatal illness. And sometimes it’s national, or global, or even inter-planetary.

Catastrophes have long since been molded into narrative archetypes, such that any new movie or book or television show centered on the unraveling of human society after [fill in life-changing event here] can be easily folded into a pre-existing canon of work ruminating on those same hypotheticals. There is clearly something in us that experiences a perverse glee imagining the upending of everything, perhaps because such thought experiments cast in blissful relief the advantages and conveniences of a charmed life in the modern, real world.

But even in our imaginations, economic collapse ranks low on the list of fictional conjectures, somewhere between friendly aliens and symbolic single-symptom afflictions (see: mass blindness). The world’s somewhat recent flirtation with financial crisis has produced some emergent economic fiction, but it tends to focus on financial firms—who runs them, how, and whether they should be held accountable (see: Margin Call, ArbitrageMoney Monster.) Rarely is there a story centered on the machinations of an economic undoing as experienced by normal people; usually that kind of homey cast is reserved for plagues or earthquakes or the zombie apocalypse.  Continue reading