Heyoka’s Workbench

My Best Reads in 2021

Scan from an antiquarian book

Depressingly Good

The author who impressed me most last year was a contemporary of my 2020 literary heroine. Tom Kromer was born in 1906 in West Virginia and was active as a writer for only a very short spell, five years, give or take. Consequently, his oeuvre is slim measured by mere quantity. But nonetheless he is counted among the modern classics of the United States or, more particularly, regarded as one of the voices of the Great Depression.

Kromer’s only novel »Waiting for Nothing« is gripping. It’s the author’s own experience of several years spent as a jobless and homeless hobo that the narration is build up around. The terse style, the unsentimental matter-of-fact language in which Kromer relates even the direst scenes in the twelve short, loosely connected episodes reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s »The Road« but I also thought of J. D. Salinger’s »The Catcher in the Rye« with its use of slang and its stream-of-consciousness perspective.

There is a really well-made edition of Tom Kromer’s works by The University of Georgia Press (with well-chosen illustrations from 1936, laconic and intense – a perfect match). The book is worth every cent.

»What is a man to do? I know well enough what he can do. All he can do is to try to keep his belly full of enough slop so that he won’t rattle when he breathes. All he can do is to try and find himself a lousy flop at night. Day after day, week after week, year after year, always the same – three hots and a flop.«

(Tom Kromer, »Waiting for Nothing«)

Talk Less, Tell More

My other belletristic favourites of 2021 fit in with a pattern that has become ever more apparent during the recent years: I’ve developed a marked predilection for short novels and short stories.

The satire »Stilpe« by Otto Julius Bierbaum is a case in point (though it’s not really a novel but rather a … – well, let’s call it a novel for now). It’s not available in English, I’m afraid, and would probably drive translators into suicidal phantasies. In it, Bierbaum relates the life of a man, Willibald Stilpe, who is obsessed with the conviction that he is special and destined to literary fame and general acclaim, while at the same time he idealises the literary figure of the enfant terrible, the maverick outcast, and tries to emulate the »Scènes de la vie de bohème« by Henri Murger.

The other novel I want to mention is »Die Lehrerin« by my friend Dirk. Also pleasantly concise, and subject of a review here on the blog.

Things Below The Surface

Mainly, however, I read nonfiction books covering very different topics. The first, in January already, and most compelling was Merlin Sheldrake’s work on fungi: »Entangled Life«. I’d already been aware of the fact that fungi are much more than the mushrooms we collect every autumn, that they are crucial for a healthy forest and that they are everywhere. But Sheldrake opened my eyes for a much, much broader view. The world of fungi is a whole universe of dazzling diversity, of miraculous resilience and unlimited adaptability. A breathtaking read – thanks a lot to my friend Hannes for the recommendation!

There is, by the way, a mushroom that, at a first glance, has some resemblance to a brain: the Sparassis crispa (or Krause Glucke in German). Which leads me to the next book, one concerned with the brain’s inner workings.

An addition to my Hydra-like list of authors worth reading had been Anthony Storr (I’d stumbled upon him in the book »Churchill: Four Faces and the Man« that was one of my last year’s favourites). Storr was a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and among his main subjects were aggression, sexuality, and creativity and the correlation between them. Now I read Storr’s »Human Aggression«, one of his main works, and »Churchill’s Black Dog and other phenomena of the human mind«, a collection of articles and short essays.

I’m aware that Storr’s books might not represent the latest state of science but I found many of Storr’s reasonings very convincing (and very well written too, for that matter). He shows how aggression is a positive and necessary drive for human beings and animals alike (for example, to get independent from your parents, to explore and influence the world around you, and to have sexual relations) but then describes the pernicious forms of aggression and their sources (repression of the normal aggression, for example). He examines how the depressive, the schizoid, the paranoid, and the psychopathic are in increasing degrees debilitated by aggression (directed toward the self or toward the outer world) and how the first two are often capable of extraordinary feats in the arts and sciences not despite, but because of their affliction. His collection of essays takes a closer look at some prominent examples like Winston Churchill and Isaac Newton.

»We have to face the fact that man’s proclivity for cruelty is rooted in his biological peculiarities, in common with his capacity for conceptual thought, for speech, and for creative achievement.«

(Anthony Storr, »Human Aggression«)

And Back To The Poor Again

Finally, I want to mention Nancy Isenberg’s book »White Trash«. I read it for the second time last year though, as I should admit, I find it no easy read – not because of the subject (which is not pleasant, of course) but due to Isenberg’s way of writing. My impression is that she jumps between thoughts too often and is a bit too repetitive. There are many passages where you expect a conclusion or at least a progression of the thought but then find the author skip back again and quote other samples. I was missing a guiding thread. Nonetheless the book is so rich and so important that I think it’s worth putting up with the author’s style.

Nancy Isenberg – perhaps as the first author – illuminates the fact that the New England colonies and later the United States have never been the land of opportunity nor the land of the free for all white immigrants (we already knew that it wasn’t for African slaves, Chinese workers, and the indigenous peoples). Isenberg tells the tale of those on the lowest rungs of the social ladder, those who came to the colonies as convicts or as indentured servants, of the small tenant farmers, the workers. Those who have been called all sorts of names: Lubbers, Waste People, Crackers, Clay-eaters, Mudsills, Hillbillies, Rednecks, Swamp People – or simply White Trash.

The book reveals how they have always been marginalised and used (when cannon fodder or cheap votes were needed) and, as a class, never really had a chance to escape from their predicament. A bitter aspect being that – as is so often the case between different groups of underprivileged people – white and coloured poor were time and again pitted against each other and racist attitudes were (and are) so rife among poor American whites.

»It was not only pellagra or illiteracy that stood in the way of their rise; there was also the fear of the wealthier classes that poor whites, like blacks, might not be willing to stay in their place.«

(Nancy Isenberg, »White Trash«)

There were more interesting and entertaining books – but these are the ones I wanted to recommend. Now for a new year – my list of authors to read has not got shorter, alas, and a pile of new reading matter is lying on my desk already! :-)