Reader’s Notebook: Wrapping 2017

Again I’ve fallen behind on my book sharing. Here are my final four books of 2017.[1] I’ve already polished off one book for 2018 and will get to it next week.

Fantasyland – Kurt Andersean
I’ve mostly avoided the quick, “How Did We Get Here?” assessments of our current political state. They tend to be too depressing and infuriating for me to read. But I decided to give in and tackle this one because of a couple blurbs I read about it. The pitch was that Andersen was going to explore all of American history to look for threads through time that explain why we Americans are so nutty right now. While I wasn’t sure if that very broad view would offer any answers, it seemed like a better approach than simply rehashing the 2016 campaign, or even looking at a thinner slice of history, say just since Obama’s 2008 victory, since 9/11, since the Clinton impeachment, etc.

That said, I began reading this just after Thanksgiving. Then I set it aside when we traveled to San Antonio. I finished it about a week later and have tried to write about it a few times but, for some reason, struggled. And now it’s a month and several books in the past and I’m still struggling to put a coherent summary together.

So, briefly, Andersen largely blames our core tenant that anyone can practice any religion they want in the US as the elemental explanation for Trump. That freedom has allowed American religion to develop in a manner very different from religion around the world. Andersen, who has issues with all religions, argues that we’ve let some very large, very American religions grow around some flat out wacky views.

From there grew the acceptance of all kinds of nutjob beliefs that had nothing to do with religion. “If it feels good, do it,” became not just a mantra for hippies in the 60s, but for every member of society. From that grew an acceptance that each American is entitled to their own facts and reality, no matter if science or observation or consensus suggests otherwise. If something makes us uncomfortable we are free to discard and ignore it regardless of its truth.

Along with that was the broader idea that we can’t tell people what not to believe. We can protest against and mock white supremacists, but there is a general understanding that even if their views are abhorrent, white supremacists still have the right to their beliefs.

The cherry on top was the explosion of the internet. There have always been wackos of all stripes in this great land of ours. But they were generally limited in how broadly they could spread their views, and how those views would be accepted by the mainstream. But today, with people overwhelmed by information in general, a hostility towards the traditional press, and endless access to “facts” that make us more comfortable, those ideas that were once tucked into rather small pockets of our culture have exploded across it. And, let’s face it, no matter how crazy the assertion, if it gets repeated enough, more and more people begin to believe it.

To Andersen all that adds up to Trump 2016. I don’t know if I buy all of what he’s selling. But I think the answer is far closer to something like he suggests than simply examining a 5, 10, or 20 year slice of recent American history.

Basketball (and Other Things) – Shea Serrano
One reason it took me so long to knock out Fantasyland was that I set it aside when we went to San Antonio for this, which I figured would be a better traveling book. Mostly because I have a tendency to fall asleep on planes when I’m trying to read non-fiction that demands you use your brain a little. This did the trick, as it kept me entertained and my eyes open on our four legs to-and-from SA.

Serrano is one of the NBA experts at The Ringer, and his boss’ influence shows.[2] But while I have a hard time reading Simmons anymore – to his credit in many ways the dude hasn’t changed in the 16 or 17 years I’ve been reading him – Serrano’s voice is new and fresh to me. Plus he doesn’t seem full of himself yet.

Anyway…here Serrano tackles some of the most important questions surrounding the NBA. As in, how would legendary NBA players’ careers have changed if they had slightly different names?[3] What are the most disrespectful dunks of all time? What was the most important NBA championship of the modern era? Which version of Michael Jordan was the best? What historical person would be most satisfying to dunk on? And if you placed in-his-prime Karl Malone in the wilderness and replaced him on the Utah Jazz with a black bear, who would fare better?

And on and on. Some of it is silly, some of it dives into the advanced stats to solve real dilemmas. Serrano writes with passion, humor, and deep knowledge of the NBA. Even if you don’t follow the Association, this is a fine read.

Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh
This book is a good example of the weird way I build my To Read list. Moshfegh got all kinds of praise for this slim novel, which is written as a memoir of a woman in her 70s in the current era looking back on a pivotal week in her life in 1964. I came across it on several Best Of lists late in 2016, noted that it takes place around Christmas, so I tagged it with a note that just said “Holidays” on my To Read list. Thus I did my best to read it in December, thinking it would somehow enhance my holiday experience. I was especially excited about it because most Christmas novels are garbage; stories clearly aimed at the Hallmark or Lifetime channel sets.[4]

Sadly, this did not live up to the holiday hype. Christmas is but a marker on the calendar for this book.

The story, though, was pretty solid.

As I said, Eileen is looking back on December 1964, when she was 24 and working as a secretary in a New England detention facility for juvenile boys. She lives with her alcoholic father, a former cop who sits in the kitchen and drinks himself to oblivion each day. Eileen has no friends or close relatives and barely interacts with her coworkers. She wears her dead mother’s clothes and rarely takes care of her appearance.

Just before Christmas a new counselor joins the staff. She is young, glamorous, dynamic, and immediately, for some reason, takes the very unglamorous Eileen under her wing. They make plans for a Christmas Eve get together, which quickly becomes something very different than what Eileen was expecting.

There is some very adept shifting of focus and genre from Moshfegh here. The story begins to drag a bit, making me wonder if it was worth it, before a very powerful and satisfying shift late in the book. Throughout the story the older Eileen hints at how her life changed because of those days right before Christmas 1964. For a pretty good chunk of the book I was wondering “How did she get from here to there?” What happens in the final pages makes that transformation totally believable.

Beyond the Steak – Jason King with C.J. Moore.
My Christmas week, travelling book.

King should thank the journalism gods that he got the KU beat from the Kansas City Star years ago. His time as the primary KU writer has been good to him, both allowing him to expand into being a national college hoops writer and write two books about the KU program, which lunatics like me greedily snatch up. This follows the format of his previous KU book, Beyond the Phog but rather than focusing on 2000–2010, this is centered on KU’s 13-year reign over the Big 12. The chapters that overlap are not mere re-hashes but rather based on new interviews with the players of that era. It’s cool to see how their perspectives have changed as they got older. Keith Langford is an especially interesting cat, as Bill Self would say.

There are tons of great stories and insights. What I really enjoyed was how King and Moore went outside the KU program to talk to the coaches and players they’ve faced over the years. Kevin Durant breaks down his one, epic trip to Allen Fieldhouse. Kim English, Marcus Denmon, and Michael Dixon all talk about the final year of the KU-MU conference rivalry. Jacob Pullen and Georges Niang are both fantastic interviews. And Sherron Collins is probably the best KU interviewee. As King said on a KC Star podcast when the book came out, Sherron just doesn’t care what people think, so he’ll say anything.

It was fun reliving all the many highs of the Bill Self era. I admit I debated whether to skip the section on the VCU Elite 8 game in 2011. But I often found the comments by other teams that have beaten KU in March to be more enlightening that painful.

And thus ends my 2017 year in books. I read 45 “traditional” books. I also read 11 photography-related books. Some of those had text, some did not, so I decided to break them out into a separate list. Regardless, it was a good year for reading, again.

My favorite books that I read this year were:
The Nix – Nathan Hill
The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead
A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles
Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic – Jason Turbow
The Regional Office Is Under Attack! – Manuel Gonzalez
The Force – Don Winslow
Runnin’ With the Devil – Noel Monk
The Lock Artist – Steve Hamilton

  1. I also did my annual reading of Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story in December.  ↩
  2. The Ringer is Bill Simmons current venture. Serrano also wrote for Grantland.  ↩
  3. Wilt Chamberlord was even better than Wilt Chamberlain. James Harden became an action movie star when named James Harder.  ↩
  4. No offense to my Hallmark and Lifetime holiday movie loving friends.  ↩