While it feels like I just filed the summer edition of my little biannual literary rundown, the last six months or so since have actually brought quite the book bonanza, even by my normal reading standards. There’s been a lot of good new stuff to choose from and, unusually, all of my selections here are quite recent releases. For your consideration and for what it’s worth, my favorite finds from the second half of 2022 follow:
George Michael: A Life, by James Gavin (Abrams Press, June 28, 2022, 528 pages)
In this, his fifth book, James Gavin grabs our hand and leads us clear-eyed through the waters of all things George Michael. These waters as we learn run murky, deep, and often turbulent — much more so than perhaps even the most devoted fan would ever imagine.
There are so many observations I could make, but the most important would be this: as dark and difficult as the tale can get in parts, particularly as we get into the years that would be George’s last, it leaves us not in distress but with a clarity and appreciation that comes from having a much broader understanding of one of the most gifted singer-songwriters of our time. Gavin has done Michael’s legacy, and indeed the business of proper biographical writing, an immeasurable service. (Note: I wrote separate features on this book with author Q&A here and here).
The Warrior Within: Own Your Power to Serve, Fight, Protect, and Heal, by D.J. Vanas (Portfolio, Aug. 2, 2022, 256 pages)
“Wellness” is certainly all the rage, and that’s entirely unsurprising considering the increasingly unwell times we find ourselves living in. Bookstore shelves overflow with self-improvement and motivational titles, many of which I’ve found essentially say the same things, just tweaked for different demographics and maladies. The needles in this haystack are those works that are universally applicable and don’t need tweaking.
Comes D.J. Eagle Bear Vanas — a member of the Ottawa Tribe of Michigan, internationally sought-out speaker, and former U.S. Air Force officer, whose newest book, The Warrior Within, hit the shelves this year. Applying lessons drawn directly from tried-and-true Native American philosophy and tradition, Vanas has set out to advance “a new model for personal power in the face of overwhelming chaos.”
He’s produced a highly readable and relatable manual primarily directed at those who serve (military, first responders, healthcare front-liners, etc.) but totally applicable to any and all, packed with lessons and tools that can be applied to both one’s personal and professional worlds. (NOTE: I wrote a separate feature about this book including author Q&A here).
Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels, and Crooks, by Patrick Radden Keefe (Doubleday, June 28, 2022, 368 pages)
It’s hard to say anything that hasn’t already been said about this book, a compilation of twelve extraordinary essays from Patrick Radden Keefe which originally appeared in The New Yorker as a series on some of the more colorful characters and stories of our time. After all, the book has sucked up an awful lot of oxygen in the literary room since its release in June of this year. It is the very definition of a blockbuster and deservedly so.
One thing that does strike me is that it can be easy to view Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels, and Crooks as a book all about bad people. While bad people certainly factor in, several of the essays are actually stories of good people who’ve nailed bad people. Others, per the word “Rebels” that’s kind of hidden in the title, are decidedly not bad folks, just different thinkers, such as Mark Burnett and Anthony Bourdain. Not a huge deal, just something that’s occurred to me.
What really draws me to weigh in on a type of book I tend to leave to others is what it is made of — and that is the great, old-school long-form essay traditionally crafted by great writers for great magazines which, when combined under one theme, make for such excellent books. Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel — another anthology of magazine essays that came out in 1992 — is a great example of this, and if you’ve not read it, you must. Of course, The New Yorker, where again the essays that make up Rogues originally appeared, is as strong and reliable as ever in that area, and with few occasional exceptions, it begins and ends there nowadays. And this is tragic. So if by expressing my delight in Keefe’s great work I can flag this unfortunate truth and perhaps make some people think about it, then this time and energy of mine were well spent indeed.
Neon Crosses, by Chris Queen (Conservatarian Press, March 7, 2022, 411 pages)
When I ordered Neon Crosses, I had no idea what it might be about. The cover certainly betrayed little beyond the fact that it might be a novel of some kind, perhaps having something to do with old-school houses of worship. Who knew? I just knew one of my favorite modern writers, Chris Queen, had written a book, and I was very keen to read it.
Turns out it is neither a novel nor a guide to houses of worship, though one of the early chapters gets into Christianity and the South, quickly clarifying the choice of title. Neon Crosses is a fascinating and eye-opening love letter to true Southern culture from one of her proudest sons. A guide of sorts, set against the backdrop of a regular family road trip from the Queen home just outside of Atlanta and Walt Disney World in Orlando. Suffice it to say there’s an awful lot of good history, good fun, good lessons, and excellent factoids and anecdotes packed in between those 450 miles or so of the country. Queen delivers an outstanding crash course (“Southern Culture 101?”) in just under 400 pages with sharp chapters dedicated to subjects ranging from aforementioned Christianity to food (with bonus recipes!), to music, agriculture, race, sports, and of course a Queen signature fascination: Disney. Anyway, you’ll like this one. I am only half kidding when I say it should be required U.S. History reading. Stereotype-busting, edifying, fun. And finally:
Ezzy’s Education: A Story of Politics Invading a High School, by Garrett Murch (New Degree Press, Sept. 24, 2022, 279 pages)
I was surprised and impressed to stumble upon the news that my old pal Garrett Murch had published his first book — and a novel nonetheless (lots of my friends write columns and nonfiction books, but there are few novelists in my orbit, and I have a special respect for them).
Once I got my hands on a copy, I dug in and dug it. I quickly came to realize that Ezzy’s Education — a satirical sociopolitical take on modern-day high school life centered around a contest for student body president — is much deeper than it seems, to Murch’s credit. In fact, the book acts as a mirror of sorts — reflecting the fact that we as a “grown-up” or “civilized” society, through our increasingly bizarre and tribal behavior, have pretty much regressed into one big high school campus. The premise totally works. I asked Murch about this recently, and he confirmed that the novel was born of deep frustration with both the state of our politics and our education system. Thought-provoking. Great read, clever narrative, pick it up.
And that’s that! Wishing you and yours a happy and healthy holiday season and a prosperous new year. Make time to read. I’ll (hopefully) catch you in June with the Summer 2023 edition of Reading With CJ.