The 2022 Weirdly Specific Holiday Book Guide
Gift ideas for very particular people in your life
I guess this is a tradition now.
Most of the following books are available to order via Bookshop, an online bookseller that’s slightly more ethical than Amazon. If you buy via an affiliate link in this newsletter, I also get a small cut of the proceeds. You can also find these books on the Brutal South Bookshop page.
For the Appalachian Rambler
George Masa's Wild Vision: A Japanese Immigrant Imagines Western North Carolina by Brent Martin (Hub City Press, 2022, 160 pages)
I originally heard George Masa described as a sort of little-known counterpart to Ansel Adams whose stunning black-and-white photographs of the Southern Appalachians showed every bit as much commitment and technical prowess. Flipping through this small coffee table book, I learned he was so much more than that.
Born Masahara Iizuka, Masa originally immigrated from Japan to California in 1906 or 1907 to pursue a career in engineering, but ended up in Asheville, N.C., working in the laundry room at the Grove Park Inn. Some of his biographical details are hazy, but we know that this was where he fell in love with the rugged landscape and began to hone his skills as a photographer. Eventually he built a career as a cameraman for Pathe News, the Asheville Citizen, and the New York Times.
Along the way Masa became an early advocate for preserving the land that would become Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He took painstaking notes on Cherokee place names, mapped out paths in the wilderness with a trundle wheel, and made stunning photographs rich in contrast and detail. He was a master of his art, and we who hike in the same wilderness today owe him a debt of gratitude.
For the Appreciator of Slow-Burning Dread
The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell: Stories by Brian Evenson (Coffee House Press, 2021, 248 pages)
I impulse-bought this book based on a recommendation from R.L. Stine, who said of Evenson, “His stories are deeply terrifying and so troubling that they linger in your mind long after you've read them.” He was … not wrong!
There’s a story in here based on Scandinavian folklore about the mylingar, the souls of children roaming the earth begging for a proper burial. “The Shimmering Wall” is told from the perspective of people living inside a domed city who reach out through a jelly-like membrane and pull in mysterious, physically distorted objects to sell secondhand.
If you’re like me, you prefer horror that washes over you in waves of dread and dawning realization, rather than cheap jump-scares. This is that kind of horror.
For the Winsome Radical Who Feels the Pull of Despair
Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil by W.E.B. Du Bois (Verso, 1920, 192 pages)
(As featured in the July 15, 2022, issue, “What kind of book is Du Bois’ Darkwater?”)
What kind of book is Darkwater? It’s a wide-ranging, experimental book by a socialist, teacher, historian, sociologist, and towering intellectual who was a founding member of the NAACP. Its chapters include a capsule autobiography, a statistical analysis of racial politics and political economy, a proto-feminist rallying cry, and a plan for postcolonial independence of African nations.
The fourth chapter, “Of Work and Wealth,” draws on Du Bois’ 15 years as a teacher and his experience covering the East St. Louis Massacre as a journalist for The Crisis. Teaching history, economics, and sociology to Black students at Atlanta University, he struggled to discuss current events with the class in a way that was authentic but not despairing:
I fought earnestly against posing before my class. I tried to be natural and honest and frank, but it was a bitter hard. What would you say to a soft, brown face, aureoled in a thousand ripples of gray-black hair, which knells suddenly: "Do you trust white people?" You do not and you know that you do not, much as you want to; yet you rise and lie and say you do; you must say it for her salvation and the world's; you repeat that she must trust them, that most white folks are honest, and all the while you are lying and every level, silent eye there knows you are lying, and miserably you sit and lie on, to the greater glory of God.
In between the essays, he inserts philosophical poems and fictional sketches ranging from high fantasy to religious allegory to science fiction. The final essay, “The Comet,” is a darkly comic piece of dystopian literature that laid some groundwork for Afrofuturism (it also could have made for a great Twilight Zone adaptation).
Connected by these creative ligaments, the essays take on a philosophical unity, building something that isn’t exactly a manifesto, but a framework for observing and critiquing the world. I think about it at least once a week.
For the Droll Speculative Fiction Fan
Bliss Montage: Stories by Ling Ma (FSG, 2022, 240 pages)
Full disclosure: I’m currently reading this one so I can’t render a final judgment, but I love it so far. Ling Ma’s debut novel Severance was a kind-of zombie novel that had as much to say about global supply chain management as it did about our relationship to our careers as it did about the Chinese-American immigrant experience. I knew going in that her work was impossible to pin down, never a neat allegory, always “about” a multitude of things at once.
The first story in this new story collection, “Los Angeles,” starts with a deliciously funny premise: The protagonist lives in a big house with her husband and her 100 ex-boyfriends. The exes are consigned to “the largest but ugliest wing.”
In her Jacobin review of the story collection, Marianela D’Aprile calls Ma’s prose style “deadpan,” which is both the source of her humor and the source of some frustration as we try to suss out her characters’ motives. I’m leaning into the frustration as I read. It feels like a deliberate artistic choice.
For the Lover of Old English and Bog Bodies
North by Seamus Heaney (FSG, 1985, 73 pages)
I read this in college, when I took a class on Irish literature with the great Ed Madden at the University of South Carolina. Many of the poems were inspired by the discovery of “bog bodies,” eerily preserved remains of early humans that were dug up from the cold wet murk of northern European peat bogs. Check this out:
I am Hamlet the Dane,
smeller of rot
in the state,
infused with its poisons,
pinioned by ghosts
You’ll want to read these poems a few times through, and don’t be ashamed to Google old English loanwords like “quern” or to look up gnarly photos from the archaeological digs he’s referencing. As with a lot of the great (post?)modernists, reading Heaney takes some work, but I think he’s worth it.
For the Unironic Lover of Guy Fieri
Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer by Rax King (Vintage, 2021, 208 pages)
Rax King is my favorite personal essayist right now. I bought this book on the strength of her essay “Love, Peace, and Taco Grease,” on leaving an abusive husband and falling in love with Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives host Guy Fieri. Her essay “Six Feet From the Edge,” on the raw emotional power of the band Creed, originally ran in Luke O’Neil’s Hell World newsletter and remains my favorite defense of earnest early-2000s alt-rock.
This book opens with two epigraphs, one from Horkheimer and Adorno, the other from “Snooki” of The Jersey Shore fame. That sets the tone for a book of cultural criticism that acknowledges anyone’s relationship to art — whether high-brow, low-brow, or no-brow — is inextricably embedded in their own emotional world.
For the Flannery O’Connor and/or Mountain Goats Fan with Moral Reservations About the True Crime Genre
Devil House by John Darnielle (MCD, 2022, 416 pages)
(As featured in the April 27 issue, “Into the Devil House”)
John Darnielle’s newest and best novel is a gothic masterpiece that centers around a grisly crime scene in a vacant adult film store, where a group of teenagers squatted and installed Satanic-looking art projects all over the walls and video booths.
The narrator (the main narrator, as the perspective shifts a few times) is a successful true-crime writer named Gage Chandler who’s working on a book about the multiple murders that took place inside “Devil House” in the 1980s. As part of his research, he moves into the house.
As I read the novel (and Helen Rosner’s excellent interview with Darnielle in The New Yorker), I realized that the dramatic tension holding it together wasn’t as much about solving a mystery as it was about Gage justifying the ethics of his career to himself. A book that I had assumed to be a commentary on the ‘80s Satanic Panic turned out to have much more to say about a current cultural phenomenon: the multimedia juggernaut we call true crime.
For the Healthcare Activist Who Cares As Much About Mutual Aid As They Do About Self-Care
My Body and Other Crumbling Empires: Lessons for Healing in a World That Is Sick by Lyndsey Medford (Broadleaf Books, March 2023)
This one doesn’t come out until March, but I am going ahead and recommending it because my brilliant friend Lyndsey, who wrote it, has already taught me more about contemplative Christian spirituality, disability, and feminist theory than any book I’ve read.
My family and I have spent countless Friday nights over the course of the pandemic commiserating around the fire pit in Lyndsey’s backyard, sharing the sacred gifts of hospitality and solidarity. I’ve also seen her preach, and she remains the only person I’ve heard quote bell hooks from the pulpit.
From what I know of it, this will be more than a self-help book. If I know Lyndsey, it’s going to be a sharp analysis of health, healthcare, and the radical possibilities of communal care. I can’t wait to read it.
For the Slightly Feral Parent
Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder (Doubleday, 2021, 256 pages)
My wife got me on a kick reading offbeat novels about motherhood this summer: Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq, in which a young woman from Nunavut navigates the animistic spirit world of her Arctic home after becoming pregnant; Chouette by Claire Oshetsky, in which a human woman gives birth to a baby owl; and Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder, in which a conceptual visual artist has a baby and begins stalking her neighborhood like a feral dog at night.
I loved them all in their own way, but Nightbitch was the most darkly humorous of my summer beach reads. It commented on some aspects of parenthood that might be particular to mothers in a male-dominated society, but I recognized some shared experiences — particularly the moments of social isolation and the guilt she feels about creating art (or not creating art) with a baby at home. The ending is juicy and satisfying. I won’t give it away.
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