10 Books that Stuck with me in 2021

I wasn’t planning on reading as many books this year as I did last year. At the end of 2020, I had hopes that I would read far fewer books in 2021, but as they say “Man proposes and God disposes.” And it so happened that God disposed of a number of things that would prevent me from reading a shit ton of books.

A small note: people often ask me how I have so much time to read and do the other things I do in my life. The answer is simple: audiobooks. As a writer and filmmaker, most of the time during the day I could be reading would be better spent sending emails begging for employment and so that’s how I spend it. However, audiobooks can be fit in while grocery shopping, working out, or cleaning the house. They have the added bonus of not making you as irrational angry as current events-related podcasts and news programs.

A note on that note: you will see that I read mostly non-fiction. This is not because of a preference for fact over fiction, but because I get so absorbed in fiction, I can’t listen to it and multi-task. I fear that I would get in a car accident if I listen to a novel while driving. So really, this is more about your safety than my taste

And one last note: before I begin, I want to give a special shout-out to my brother-in-law’s father Chris Davis. I am not sure how many people will read this, but I know that he will. His son, my wife’s sister’s husband Dan, connected us over our love of reading and we exchange our recommendations every year. And while he will never convince me to read Tucker Carlson and I doubt he will read “In Defense of Looting,” which will appear on the list below, I appreciate him taking the time.

I read 70 books in 2021, but here are the ones that really stuck with me. These aren’t necessarily the “best” books I read, but the ones I remember, which is probably a better metric than “best.” Okay, here we go.

Room to Dream by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna

I read a lot of artists’ biographies and memoirs. At their best and most honest, they get me through difficult times and provide a path forward. They can change your blueprint for success in real time. It’s hard for me to think of a memoir that has had this impact on me as quickly as Lynch’s.

Of course, Lynch being Lynch, he couldn’t just write a memoir or commission a biography. Here he does both, contrasting chapters of McKenna’s rigorously researched biography with his own unchecked biased foggy recollections. The result is predictably fascinating.

Lynch talks unapologetically about living the “art life,” meaning that he has built his life with art at the center and has discarded those things which do not fit. While some readers may find this approach cold or selfish, I suspect most artists will read with either admiration or envy.

My wife Claire and I live the art life, so I found it validating and inspiring. At some of the year’s hardest points, I just looked at her and said, “Well, that’s the art life” and we both smiled.

The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown by Michael Patrick F. Smith

I have read more than my fair share of “dispatches from Trump Country” narratives and I have read more than my fair share of “I took a blue-collar job and here’s what I learned” books, and this one is probably the most honest of either genre. This is because Michael Patrick F. Smith has skin in the game.

Smith took a job in an oil boomtown and wrote about his experiences. While he is a published journalist and musician, the economic circumstances of that particular moment in his life lead the author to consider actually switching careers. He did it and he meant it. As a result, the journalistic distance that you usually feel in books like this fades away.

“The Good Hand” is deeply human and beautifully written with a degree of empathy many a Harvard-educated sociologist or oh-so-bohemian New Yorker writer spends decades trying to approximate. Smith bleeds on the page and his characters are so real that they will walk into your mind when you least expect it months later, like finding out a regular at a dive bar you used to go to ended up in jail.

The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel

Claire and I made a short film this year that was more-or-less a Western, so I watched a lot of Westerns to prepare for production. And predictably, one of the movies that stuck with me was John Ford’s The Searchers.

Glenn Frankel is one of the most effective and thorough people writing about film today, and the subject of The Searchers turns out to be an incredibly rich one for him to tackle.

Frankel uses the story as a springboard for a discussion of how myth is made. He identifies various “authors” of the story that would become the film, from Cynthia Anne Parker who the events depicted actually happened to down through the decades to the critics who would reframe Ford’s film in the context of modern sensibilities.

Frankel’s book stands beside works like Greg Grandin’s “The End of the Myth” as a text that gets at the heart of America’s idea of itself by exploring perceptions of its frontier. It is also a stellar work of history, covering both the end of the American West and the golden age of American cinema. Perhaps most importantly, Frankel draws a clean line between the two, explaining how the very people who were involved in the making of the American West were also some of the first people to start making American movies. In fact, relatives of the men who were involved in the brutal lives of the Parkers on the Frontier became “cowboys and Indians” on film.

Frankel understands that in any one story, especially a popular one, there are many stories. And in reading them all, we learn something about each individual author and ourselves.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

William Faulkner has been one of my favorite writers ever since I read “As I Lay Dying” in high school. His work that at once explored, celebrated, and condemned his hometown gave me a blueprint for scripts I’ve written inspired my rural Pennsylvania upbringing and I tend to check a couple books of his off my “to-read” list every year. I think I own all of his major novels, though I’ve only gotten through half of them. They are notoriously difficult to read on a technical level, but they are also difficult on an emotional level. I love his work and still I need a breather after two or three.

“The Sound and the Fury” is about the fall of a once-proud Southern family, but it is also about how so much of what the South valued, what it was built on, led to its collapse. The supposedly positive characteristics associated with the antebellum South are deconstructed and mocked: honor, chivalry, aristocracy etc. etc. The result is a devastating and mournful analysis of the inevitability of the South’s demise. The image of downwardly mobile farmers watching cotton stocks crater from the front porch of decaying mansions echoes through the book, repeating in new ways from new perspectives over and over again.

And Faulker isn’t just concerned with the South. The things that rotted the South, in his view, have also rotted America. This is plainly obvious in the contempt Faulkner shows for Harvard, Wall Street, and Hollywood at various points in the book. In “The Sound and the Fury” there is a beauty to life, but it is a beauty despoiled by the despicable actions of human beings, by the many sins that created the United States.

What Faulkner didn’t know is that the rot he saw a century ago wouldn’t be enough to take out the foundation. America, it turns out, can endure a lot of rot before it finally collapses.

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber

When David Graeber passed away in late 2020, the Left lost one of its greatest thinkers. Graeber died at the early age of 59 and left behind an intellectually daunting body of work. “Bullshit Jobs” is probably Graeber’s most accessible work, as anyone who has had pretty much any job in America can “get” it.

Graeber’s thesis is that modern capitalism is basically neo-feudalism where those who do nothing are paid more than those who do something. Being a yes-man executive, heir, or political officeholder is more profitable than say, preparing food or driving a truck.

Capitalism needs to create a certain amount of “bullshit jobs” to yield a ruling class invested in the success of the system just as you needed barons and dukes to enforce and perpetuate feudalism. As technology and income inequality continue their demonic dance, jobs like these will become a larger and larger part of the economic engine. Those who functionally do nothing will take more and more from those who actually do something until the whole thing collapses on itself.

He applies his theory to many different fields, and if he dissects yours, as he does with Hollywood, it will make you want to die in the absolute best way.

The Writers: A History of American Screenwriters and Their Guild by Miranda J. Banks

Every worker deserves to have a labor history of their job and workplace. Hollywood writers are lucky enough to have this resource thanks to Miranda J. Banks. We are doubly lucky that the text she created is meticulously researched and written with engaging clarity. There is a movement in the Writers Guild to issue this book to every new member and I think it might just happen in 2022.

Banks’ understanding of the relationship between studios and artists, and more broadly between capital and workers, informs her excellent case studies of each WGA strike and the circumstances surrounding them. These analyses punctuate the book, alongside in-depth looks at major historical events like the Blacklist and key shifts in the business such as the rise of indie film and streaming television.

Here’s hoping the WGA gives her a new case study in a couple years, well-armed with the institutional knowledge she has provided us with this book.

In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action by Vicky Osterweil

I have shared Matt Bruenig’s old Gawker piece “Actually Riots are Good: The Economic Case for Riots in Ferguson” (https://gawker.com/actually-riots-are...) more times than I care to count when faced with typical objections to rioting and looting. Where Bruenig’s piece is a nice quick corrective, Osterweil’s book is a deeply thoughtful, well-researched, controversial inversion of the logic of respectability politics.

Osterweil begins with a strong introduction that pulls out typical objections to rioting and looting, dismisses them with razor-sharp analysis, and holds onto them for further evisceration. Some of the common arguments she tears apart are that looting/riots are the work of “outside agitators” (Outside of what? She asks.), that rioters/looters are burning down their own neighborhood (What stake do they have in the CVS, Bank of America, or Cash Til Payday Store?), and that they are hurting their cause (Well, what are their demands and what other tactics do they have at their disposal?).

From there, Osterweil opens up a provocative American history from the perspective of the BIPOC (largely Black) rioter and looter. She begins with the rise of the Atlantic slave trade and demonstrates that capital and force have always been used to degrade and devalue Black and poor life and that violent outbursts against capital have historically been valid and effective forms of protest.

In a just world, “In Defense of Looting” would be the kind of work that respectable liberals pass around to challenge their own self-perceptions, but Osterweil’s entire project proves that liberals are incapable of such introspection, and as long as neoliberal hegemony reigns supreme, riots, as Dr. King said, will remain the language of the unheard.

How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood by P.E. Moskowitz

“How to Kill a City” is a thorough exploration of gentrification that uses case study, history, and policy prescription to create a fairly brief and truly essential view of the realities of modern city life and the housing policies that have created it. Moskowitz chooses New Orleans, Detroit, San Francisco, and New York as their case studies of modern gentrification. In each example, they demonstrate how gentrification is not a destiny but the result of political choices that privilege wealthy white investment that treats housing as a commodity.

This analysis offers a clear path forward. The answer to gentrification is not finger-pointing or hand-wringing, but an understanding that just as political decision-making has created gentrification, political decision-making can undo it, or at least ameliorate its impacts. One of the most compelling data points in the book is that displacement in developed countries is directly proportional to the laxity of real estate market regulation. Gentrification, like so many things, is the result of top-down policy-making that privileges whiteness, maleness, and wealth.

Moskowitz both weighs the true challenge of changing the direction of capital and offers an optimistic future filled with tenants movements and rent control measures. They are at once viscerally honest about the current reality and militantly fervent in their prescriptions for a better future.

Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light, 100 Art Writings 1988–2018 by Peter Schjeldahl

Critics have come in for a drubbing this year as celebrities, corporations, and their PR flacks have continued to perfect the art of making punching up look like punching down. Collections like this one remind us that critics are actually on the audience’s side and that great criticism can be a ladder, a magnifying glass, a shotgun, or whatever tool the writer thinks the audience might need to better access the work they are writing about.

In preparation for a work trip to Madrid this summer, I vowed to brush up on fine art criticism, and along the way I found what might be the best collection of critical writing I’ve ever read. There is a lot to appreciate about Schjeldahl’s writing. For me, above all, his fearlessness is his best quality. Though not an artist himself, Schjeldahl immersed himself in the art world for decades and as a result, he can write (it seems at 79 years old he is still active) beautifully and convincingly about any artist from the Old Masters down to the most densely ironic installation artists of today.

The sheer confidence of his writing goes a long way. From his perches at hallowed institutions, he clearly had nothing to fear from the powers that be, whether they be artists, gallerists, academics, or his peers. He mentions offhand that he “lost a friendship” over one of his reviews. I cannot imagine any in-house critic at Rotten Tomatoes even risking an imaginary friendship with Marvel, let alone a real one.

Schjeldahl even writes brilliantly when it comes to those necessary and difficult moments when a critic must express how truly good a beloved artist really is. Schjeldahl writes lovely pieces about a number of well-admired masters, and his pieces on Vermeer, Jackson Pollock, and Rembrandt, in particular, will remind you that art appreciation is a hard-earned skill separate from that of the artist.

After all, critics don’t set out to write negative reviews. But the realities of capitalism often give them no choice.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

As an artist, it is never too late to find influences and inspirations. New ones appear to you as long as you seek them. Sadly, I discovered Larry McMurtry only about a year before he died.

Claire and I were listening to the “You Must Remember This” podcast series about Polly Platt, in which McMurtry plays a huge role. Not only did he write the novel “The Last Picture Show” but he loved Polly, and stepped up to do many of the things in her life that Peter Bogdonovich was too much of a coward to do. It’s hard not to listen to the episodes and imagine a world in which McMurtry and Platt made each other happy. It’s also hard not to wonder if Peter Bogdonovich was more lucky than good, but that’s another conversation.

After listening to the podcast, I watched “The Last Picture Show” and rewatched “Brokeback Mountain,” for which McMurtry co-wrote the screenplay. Then I listened to his memoir about his time in Hollywood and I was hooked.

“Lonesome Dove” is the first novel I have read by McMurtry and now I think I am going to have to read the other 30. Loosely, the novel is about Call and Gus, two aging cowboys who decide to run their cattle from Texas to Montana, and Lorena, the sex worker (though that is not the term of the era) who is Gus’s last great love.

In a broader sense, the book is about being a man, about searching, about longing, about the things we can’t say to each other, and about the weight that past events always bring to the present moment. Often that weight, the book reminds us over and over, is too much to bear. “Lonesome Dove” is at once heartbreaking and beautiful, tragic and lovely, tough and tender.

Rest in Peace Mr. McMurtry. You will live on in the books on my shelf and if I’m lucky, in the words I write.

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Brenden Gallagher

Brenden Gallagher

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