Nestor’s Breath


Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art
James Nestor

A clear example of book that should have been an article. There’s some good stuff in here on breath work and its (arguable) importance to health as well as heaping helpings of the kind of anecdotal bro science I tend to enjoy, but don’t take too seriously. All in all, the chaff outweighs the wheat, in my opinion. Still of interest to those intrigued by breath work with excellent easy to follow instructions on various kinds of breath work.

Recommended for the enthusiast.  

Ross’s Wagnerism

Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music
Alex Ross

Let’s get something out of the way here first. I do not like Wagner. Even if he wasn’t an anti-Semite (he was, this really isn’t up for debate) his operas would still repulse me – I hate the grandiose and Wagner is nothing if not grandiose. But I’m living proof that you’re don’t have to like Wagner to enjoy Ross’s new book, which is, frankly, extraordinary.  All you have to do is acknowledge Wagner’s important to Western culture and watch Ross draw out his connections to huge swaths of Western art.

It’s a remarkable achievement. Ross seems to have read every novel, looked at every piece or art, seen every movie and play, made in the West from the end of the 19th century up to today. I learned so, so much from this book, about Wagner, about pre-war European anti-Semitism, about turn of the century occultists, and so, so much about art. It’s a stunning achievement and I’m surprised more people aren’t talking about it.

Highly recommended.   

Delillo’s The Silence

The Silence

Don Delillo

In recent years, Delillo has turned to short works focused on small groups of people and I’m hear for it. Yes, I loved Underworld and it’s expanses of time and characters, but books like the Silence, focused on the actions of an intimate group of people showcase Delillo’s gift for sketching compelling (if not always believable) characters filled with nuance and contradiction.

The plot here is simple, but compelling. The power is out, everywhere, and we’re stuck with each other. What happens now? We stare at blank screens, we talk about the things we rarely if ever discuss, we go a little mad. Perhaps not a major Delillo work but remarkably enjoyable all the same.

Recommended.

Mateer’s Aphrodite Made Me Do It

Aphrodite Made Me Do It
Trista Mateer

I don’t know what to make of this book. I truly don’t. It made some best of the year poetry lists, but it is very much not my thing.

That said, I’m a forty something year old CIS white dude and I’m pretty damn sure I am not the writer’s intended audience. This is a combination of art, selfcare advice and poetry. It left me confused about the strong reviews, but we must accept that its quite possible I just don’t get it.

When I started doing these reviews years ago I committed to either recommending, not recommending, or recommending for the enthusiast. I considered not doing that here, but that felt like a bit of a copout. So I’ll honor this author by being honest and saying while I cannot recommend it that could really very well be more about me than the author.

Not recommended.    

Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa

Dancing in Odessa

Ilya Kaminsky

Another beautiful collection from the talented Illya Kaminsky, this one more focused on the beauty in the ordinary. I like this collection fine, but Kaminsky’s slightly later work, Deaf Republic, which I read last year is a work of true brilliance and really worth reading. If you’re new to Kaminsky (or really even new to contemporary poetry) start there.

Recommended for the enthusiast.  

Weatherford’s Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
Jack Weatherford

Before reading this, I knew nothing, like seriously nothing, about Ghengis Khan and the Mongol empire. I knew stereotypes, about rape and pillage, but that was it. This book was a revelation. A fascinating account of how a small nomadic tribe ended up taking over a large chunk of the world.

This is the story of Ghengis Khan, who rises from humble beginnings to rule a vast empire. He does this through relentless war and destruction of his enemies, but also by allowing those he conquers to go on about their lives, worshipping how they choose, living how they choose, as long as they accept his reign (and tax).

It’s also the story of how future generations both expanded and lost territory through theory leadership successes and victories. (There is the drunk heir who fucks up the western expansion, and the careful distant relative who ends  up taking over much of China.) All in all a fascinating book that walks that pop history line well. I totally enjoyed it.

Recommended.

Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval
Saidiya Hartman

This is probably my book of the year.

An incredible use of the archives to tell the stories of the lives of Black women at the turn of the century. Hartman uses criminal records, photographs, memoirs, to show how precarious and wonderful the lives of these women were. The writing is gorgeous, but the subject matter is often very dark – violence, especially sexual violence, runs through this book. But so does love, and joy, and loss and growth and everything else that makes up life. It’s brilliant. I have never read anything like it.

Recommended.  

Lanier’s Dawn of the New Everything

Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality

Jaron Lanier

I think Jaron Lanier is among the most interesting people in the world. This, his memoir, shows just how fascinating he is. Raised largely by a single father in a house Jaron built himself as a child (yes, really) he has carefully carved out a life of creativity and innovation. He is in many ways the last true weirdo of Silicon Valley milieu.

The book is broken into two interchanging parts – memoir and then a sort of technical / philosophical history of VR. I loved the memoir but was far less interested in the VR parts. Lanier himself says you can skip that if you want and I’d take his advice. Still worth the price of admission for a glimpse into a fascinating person.

Recommended.

Book review jaron laniers memoir

Carroll’s Bullet Journal

The Bullet Journal Method: Track the Past, Order the Present, Design the Future
Ryder Carroll

I have been keeping a journal off and on since I was a teenager, this year I started experimenting with using a bullet journal and got this book.

In basic, Bullet journaling is a system for journaling that is flexible enough to handle project planning, standard journaling, note taking and to-do lists but has enough set rules that it all holds together. This is a great short video on it.

 Bullet journaling is great, I’ve found it very helpful for tracking habits and projects and the book was helpful for understanding the system. More than that, the book is a sort of manifesto for working slow and by hand. Not much new here (besides the system, which you can find elsewhere) but I enjoyed it.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Jacobson’s Pale Horse Rider

Pale Horse Rider: William Cooper, the Rise of Conspiracy, and the Fall of Trust in America
Marc Jacobson

William Cooper you have so much to answer for. The author of Behold a Pale Horse, the ur-text of modern American conspiracy theory gave birth to a thousand late night stoned conversations, perpetuated antisemitism, encourage the militia movement, is adjacent to the sovereign citizen insanity and much, much more.

He is an example I think of the con man turned true believer, which is a trope that appears often in the world of conspiracy. He starts lost, a disappointment to his family, and selling “insider knowledge” to the UFO crowd. He ends alone, drunk, and broke being killed by the local police in a mishap that never had to happen. In between he goes from slide shows at UFO conventions to writing the most popular conspiracy book of all time and hosting a surprisingly popular short wave radio show. He never gets rich, but he does get famous in the world of the weird and along the way, he believes more and more of his madness.

It’s a pretty depressing story from start to finish but one I found fascinating. I was involved in left wing radical publishing circles when Cooper was at his height of influence and while I had heard of him, I knew none of the gory details. Now I do. A sad, but fascinating life.  

Recommended for the enthusiast.