I CALL IT MY STACK OF SHAME, this teetering pile of half-read and slept-on books by my bedside. Not finishing what I start is a habit I copped writing copy, a job that thrives on quick hits of understanding (both in and out). Now I second-guess the value of depth vs. speed in everything I do. As a result, I know a very little about a lot.
But just as I adapt to being a shallow quitter, a new subgenre is rising from the pile—things I really finally finished reading. Here’s what’s moving from my Stack of Shame to the Shelf of Triumph:
Detriot: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff. LeDuff is a hard-living native Detroiter who, after covering war and politics for the New York Times, returns home to sort out the truth from the ruin porn. It’s not pretty: thieving and incompetent public officials, abandoned bodies, soul-crushing factories, and children in a daily life and death struggle. Over two years he takes some lumps, kicks some ass, and wins a little justice for the good people trying not to drown in the muck. Makes me grateful not just for journalists, but for decent public services, a functioning justice system, and an economy that isn’t stuck in reverse.
Alien vs. Predator by Michael Robbins. I’m a poetry rookie but I know what I like. Robbins mixes cultural arcana high and low with whiplash wordplay to create gems of reference and rhythm. They even rhyme sometimes. One of the book’s jacket blurbs namechecks John Berryman (whose unreadable Dream Songs is on my Stack of Shame), a writer who lived in the house next to mine until his untimely demise. Berryman’s disciple—just as fractured but less esoteric—is more my speed. From the poem Dig Dug:
Hold me closer tiny reindeer. They saw
Oliver Stone distribute juice boxes.
He counts the headlights on the highway:
one if my reptile, two if by foxes.
Slash is both sad and happy for Axl.
The nation’s pets are high on Paxil.
First & Fifteenth by Steve Powers: Powers a/k/a ESPO is a street artist from Philly who adapts the flat aesthetic of sign painting to self-reflection and gritty storytelling. First & Fifteenth is a collection of visual narratives, like a graphic novel but punchier (shallow reader’s note: this one takes about a 1/2 hour to read). See also ESPO’s “Daily Metaltations,” which you can follow on Instagram, graphic anthems of mind over modern grind. There’s kinship here to another one-panel hero, Raymond Pettibon, but Powers favors everyman truths over Pettibon’s mystical ambiguity. “Float like a check, sting like an overdraft.”
Bullet Park and Stories by John Cheever. I wouldn’t care to hang out with Cheever’s characters: bland suburban commuters, alcoholic socialites, indifferent husbands and wives. What I admire is how he writes about them. He’s a lucid, generous God ruling over a bunch of hopeless bores dealing (badly) with depression, alienation, jealousy and class anxiety, and seething beneath proper appearances. Some of it’s dated, sure, but you don’t meet prose craftsmen like him anymore.
North Country: The Making of Minnesota by Mary Lethert Wingerd. This hefty volume gives the play by play of how white people robbed, massacred and eventually evicted the native Sioux and Ojibwa from “our” territory through a combination of ignorance, greed and outright malice. The sordid legacy is still plainly visible today. Like slavery, this is the kind of historic wrong you can never really make right. I swear, my indignation made 1000 pages fly by.