Top 5 Best Books in 2018 (via The Mandorla 200)

On February 16, 2018, I started a personal reading/writing Instagram project called the Mandorla 200.

The mission statement was simple: Micro-distillations of 200 necessary books on ecology, justice, and place-belonging for our times. 200 words or less. 

The Mandorla 200 emerged from a need to keep up with reading all the wonderful books I had accumulated over the years. I also understood that, as a writer, reading is as much a part of the practice of writing as writing itself.

So I made 3 goals:

Goal #1: Read 200 books of high cultural and ecological importance (goal: read more; read better).

Goal #2: Write a 200-word or less "distillation” for each book’s deepest message (goal: more concision).

Goal #3: Express gratitude for the author, the publisher, and the person whose recommendation made me read the book (goal: more gratitude).

So far I’ve featured 25 books, doing my best to balance genre, gender, ethnicity, modern/classic, etc.

I am 13% completed with the project at the end of 2018, and it’s been a wildly satisfying and generative project for me. Thank you for following along.

Reading is, in practice, such a solitary thing, so the feedback, community, and conversation sparked has been perhaps the most beautiful part of the process.

Below are my five favorite reads so far. I’ve reposted the 200-word micro-distillations here, but you can follow along on Instagram, too. Thank you.

There There, by Tommy Orange.  Shots fired, holes everywhere, draining and bleeding, wounds old and new, past and present, staring through your own reflection, everywhere. How does one move forward, stay visible, while also dancing and drumming into tradition, into heritage? Spiders carry webs, miles of filament, both home and trap, and all lives they braid together, all of it, all the joy and pain, victory and violation, they all converge at the powwow for celebration and ceremony and robbery, white guns and white violence manifest. There is no longer a “there” to locate with any certainty, when home’s been paved over, homogenized, settled, and surveilled by mall cops and modern palates. Colonialism fires its white-hot bullets, so hard, so breakneck. In this flurry, where’s Home, where’s Mother, where’s firm ground after Earth and the cultures that most respect Her are being turned into spectacle and artifact? Earth is everywhere: Earth is bullet. Earth is urban. Earth is imperial coliseum holding native ceremony. Earth is drone. Earth is feather. Shots fired, holes everywhere. Do you stay or flee? Perhaps you dance through the onslaught of bullet-rain, old moves and new ones, transformed ones. You dance any way and anyways, for sustenance, for survival, for grieving, for healing, for homecoming.

There There, by Tommy Orange. Shots fired, holes everywhere, draining and bleeding, wounds old and new, past and present, staring through your own reflection, everywhere. How does one move forward, stay visible, while also dancing and drumming into tradition, into heritage? Spiders carry webs, miles of filament, both home and trap, and all lives they braid together, all of it, all the joy and pain, victory and violation, they all converge at the powwow for celebration and ceremony and robbery, white guns and white violence manifest. There is no longer a “there” to locate with any certainty, when home’s been paved over, homogenized, settled, and surveilled by mall cops and modern palates. Colonialism fires its white-hot bullets, so hard, so breakneck. In this flurry, where’s Home, where’s Mother, where’s firm ground after Earth and the cultures that most respect Her are being turned into spectacle and artifact? Earth is everywhere: Earth is bullet. Earth is urban. Earth is imperial coliseum holding native ceremony. Earth is drone. Earth is feather. Shots fired, holes everywhere. Do you stay or flee? Perhaps you dance through the onslaught of bullet-rain, old moves and new ones, transformed ones. You dance any way and anyways, for sustenance, for survival, for grieving, for healing, for homecoming.

Rising  by Elizabeth Rush.  The brine is here. Sea level rise means temperature rise means species rise means we must rise from the stupor of our ego-systems to meet the challenge of responsible retreat, unspooling the red and blue from our flag to wave bone-white in surrender from all we’ve wrought. But our colonial, frontier-eating patriarch buries narratives like these as if they were bundled in cowardice and defeat. Instead, we bury ourselves in saltwater graves, paying no heed to nonhuman life on the move, en masse, all forced from known thermal niches. We too must make coastal resettlement fair and honest, a retreat to firm ground, a place of observation and reflection, not investing in the same sinking developments atop marshland and mangrove, these selfless edge zones that gulp our carbon and ask for nothing in return. Exploit the edges and we lose, for edge zones are where the great conversations happen: between Earth and us, between us and us. The brine is here and it laps at our doors, fists knocking harder and louder, megastorms dervishing off-shore and on-deck to bowl their strikes of ecological indifference. Retreat or rebuild, rise or raze. Ask these questions now because the brine is here, the seas they rise, and we must rise with them.

Rising by Elizabeth Rush. The brine is here. Sea level rise means temperature rise means species rise means we must rise from the stupor of our ego-systems to meet the challenge of responsible retreat, unspooling the red and blue from our flag to wave bone-white in surrender from all we’ve wrought. But our colonial, frontier-eating patriarch buries narratives like these as if they were bundled in cowardice and defeat. Instead, we bury ourselves in saltwater graves, paying no heed to nonhuman life on the move, en masse, all forced from known thermal niches. We too must make coastal resettlement fair and honest, a retreat to firm ground, a place of observation and reflection, not investing in the same sinking developments atop marshland and mangrove, these selfless edge zones that gulp our carbon and ask for nothing in return. Exploit the edges and we lose, for edge zones are where the great conversations happen: between Earth and us, between us and us. The brine is here and it laps at our doors, fists knocking harder and louder, megastorms dervishing off-shore and on-deck to bowl their strikes of ecological indifference. Retreat or rebuild, rise or raze. Ask these questions now because the brine is here, the seas they rise, and we must rise with them.

Housekeeping  by Marilynne Robinson.  Invite curiosity for the dark, investigations of the underworld, for what’s been sealed over, frozen shut. Otherwise, this moonless lake might orphan us from tributaries of loss and abandonment that need our attention most. But we’re often told to keep scrubbing. Keep brushing that hair, that toilet. Wear twice-ironed button-ups and bleach everything. Purell your life clean. Upkeep, housekeep, keep the veneer of civility polished while scars and skeletons roil beneath to encrust the unaddressed with overcivilized worship of the prim and proper. Such posturing sweeps “waste” into unseen corners and under bridges, thumbing corks into bottles to trap the ferment. This slow violence of concealment scrapes the psyche like glacial creep, ice-floods inching us ever closer to reset. Tend not to the dark night of the soul and we remain in dollhouses of perpetual adolescence. Instead this: pull up the anchor, pop the cork, and drift our vessels into waters below the fast-moving train tracks of modern life, into ink-fog night, fingerbones paddling into more honest directions, even when, in the distance, our house rips apart in fantastic blaze, set by us, crude purchase from the night but an offering, too, signal fires suggesting where we go, and what we do, next.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Invite curiosity for the dark, investigations of the underworld, for what’s been sealed over, frozen shut. Otherwise, this moonless lake might orphan us from tributaries of loss and abandonment that need our attention most. But we’re often told to keep scrubbing. Keep brushing that hair, that toilet. Wear twice-ironed button-ups and bleach everything. Purell your life clean. Upkeep, housekeep, keep the veneer of civility polished while scars and skeletons roil beneath to encrust the unaddressed with overcivilized worship of the prim and proper. Such posturing sweeps “waste” into unseen corners and under bridges, thumbing corks into bottles to trap the ferment. This slow violence of concealment scrapes the psyche like glacial creep, ice-floods inching us ever closer to reset. Tend not to the dark night of the soul and we remain in dollhouses of perpetual adolescence. Instead this: pull up the anchor, pop the cork, and drift our vessels into waters below the fast-moving train tracks of modern life, into ink-fog night, fingerbones paddling into more honest directions, even when, in the distance, our house rips apart in fantastic blaze, set by us, crude purchase from the night but an offering, too, signal fires suggesting where we go, and what we do, next.

The Overstory  by Richard Powers.  Stand still. Listen, because right now trees are whispering stories they wish you would hear. Tune ears and downshift gears from that hyperrational buzz so that you actually hear their song, for trees are much older and smarter than us, offering moral lessons daily on generosity. That is, if we listen, if we set aside our hunger, intestinal slurries pining for more resources, more prestige, more safety. Cup your ears to canopy moan and leaf twizzle, sounds of ancient neural pathways, governance systems, trade routes. These intelligent bodies teach us to give and forgive, to offer shade to our enemies, to reach up and up only to send gifts down and down. Humans and forests, we sprout from shared trunk, and our task is to come home, a return to forgotten belongings, an inheritance of care. Treetops whisper as they watch us, patiently, crash. Sit still and we might hear their hymns, that we are but one expression of life branching in millions of directions, arms long and elbow-knotted, appearing separate but bound together all the same. It’s time we return here, home, and listen for further instructions, which might go something like this: slow down, grow with intent—as much below ground as above—and give, give, give.

The Overstory by Richard Powers. Stand still. Listen, because right now trees are whispering stories they wish you would hear. Tune ears and downshift gears from that hyperrational buzz so that you actually hear their song, for trees are much older and smarter than us, offering moral lessons daily on generosity. That is, if we listen, if we set aside our hunger, intestinal slurries pining for more resources, more prestige, more safety. Cup your ears to canopy moan and leaf twizzle, sounds of ancient neural pathways, governance systems, trade routes. These intelligent bodies teach us to give and forgive, to offer shade to our enemies, to reach up and up only to send gifts down and down. Humans and forests, we sprout from shared trunk, and our task is to come home, a return to forgotten belongings, an inheritance of care. Treetops whisper as they watch us, patiently, crash. Sit still and we might hear their hymns, that we are but one expression of life branching in millions of directions, arms long and elbow-knotted, appearing separate but bound together all the same. It’s time we return here, home, and listen for further instructions, which might go something like this: slow down, grow with intent—as much below ground as above—and give, give, give.

Braiding Sweetgrass  by Robin Wall Kimmerer.  Ecology is home and home is a ballerina on a seesaw dancing the world into being while listening to the eeks and creaks of bird beaks and full creeks, a world alive despite our violations. Humans, we’re the new kids on the evolutionary block, and what we seek is the long view: to learn the dance of the give-and-take, that we don’t own her or control her but are of her, a planet that feeds us daily. So we feed her back, slowing and listening and celebrating a world that sees us, sniffs us, hears us, and lest we forget this reciprocity, well that’s where ceremony helps: dance and poetry and science and music teaching us to live into cultures of gratitude, reminders that we’re in this swirl of belonging together and that the world calls upon our gifts right now to sustain life, as squirrels carry seed and algae nestles lichen and pecans hold council and cedars teach resilience. Go afield and view others not as inert bundled burps but as life that leaps and flies and swims and burrows into their own niches on behalf of the whole, a balanced exchange from which we all flourish. Go afield. Listen. Bring gifts.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Ecology is home and home is a ballerina on a seesaw dancing the world into being while listening to the eeks and creaks of bird beaks and full creeks, a world alive despite our violations. Humans, we’re the new kids on the evolutionary block, and what we seek is the long view: to learn the dance of the give-and-take, that we don’t own her or control her but are of her, a planet that feeds us daily. So we feed her back, slowing and listening and celebrating a world that sees us, sniffs us, hears us, and lest we forget this reciprocity, well that’s where ceremony helps: dance and poetry and science and music teaching us to live into cultures of gratitude, reminders that we’re in this swirl of belonging together and that the world calls upon our gifts right now to sustain life, as squirrels carry seed and algae nestles lichen and pecans hold council and cedars teach resilience. Go afield and view others not as inert bundled burps but as life that leaps and flies and swims and burrows into their own niches on behalf of the whole, a balanced exchange from which we all flourish. Go afield. Listen. Bring gifts.

All the Hers

christine-blasey-ford-is-sworn-in-before-testifying-the-news-photo-1041671136-1538060790.jpg

At some point our human expression somehow leaned into an atrophied gender asymmetry where the outer, unguided masculine began to make all the rules, and have now, for thousands of years, subjugated and dehumanized other groups thereof, only to harden their own hegemony.

Today we’ve inherited such white male dominance, a hallmark signature of global market capitalism, too, penetrating penises of fossil extraction, gun shafts erect, fleshy fingers pointing, shouting and shooting and shooing and spouting over the calm, over the collected, verbal and sexual and ecological assaults at every corner firing shots across the world without consent, barreling through town to clench what’s left of our psycho-adolescent control of the sandbox while previously unsung voices continue to shine through with ever-more truth, ever-more vitality, ever-more authenticity, and, therefore, ever-more authority.

It’s all a threat to the Secret, the lie we’re told as young boys, of hyper-masculine dominance, of power acquired through the Take: steal the football, steal the base, capture the flag, go for the jugular, go for the gold, that never-take-no-for-an-answer approach to making deals, making friends, getting paid and getting laid.

This calculus of oppression—colonial, racial, sexual, environmental—are all to be glazed over, set firm to law and textbook, truth eclipsed by a machismo perpetuated through failed generations of broken men just following protocol: to be a man, to nut up, that, to be a feminist is to somehow threaten one’s manhood, to get down and give me twenty, to some militant allegiance to secrecy all the way down to its hollow core, a core stewing in lies, lies that keep us on top, so to speak.

No more. I am a man. I am also a feminist. And I believe her. All the hers.