Baltimore City Paper

Top Ten Baltimore Books of 2015

1. Ta-Nehisi Coates, "Between the World and Me" (Spiegel & Grau) West Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates has garnered national attention for his intelligent, deeply researched, historically based journalism at The Atlantic, and for his second book "Between the World and Me," he turns his analytical mind to his own life experiences as a black man in America. The result is an intensely thought-provoking look at what it means to inhabit a black body in this country and how "the Dreamers"—his term for white Americans who are obsessed with the idea of the American Dream and pulling oneself up by one's boot straps—refuse to acknowledge the structural forces that oppress black people. (Anna Walsh)

2. D. Watkins, "The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America" (Hot Books) This collection of essays, all of which appeared online or in print somewhere (including a few from City Paper—full disclosure, D. Watkins is a contributing writer for CP and a friend) in the past two years, presents a diverse and complex series of boiling-hot takes on contemporary issues in Baltimore and the country at large surrounding blackness as we move into a second civil rights movement. Watkins' conversational prose, coupled with his ability to casually morph an essay into a history lesson or a storytelling session, is an exercise in being smart as hell and regular-ass at the same time. Each piece here builds on the next and the result is an accessible, populist book in the mode of other soul-baring, political books that speak for those that are not often spoken for, such as Iceberg Slim's "Pimp" or Akil's "From Niggas To Gods." (Brandon Soderberg)


3. "The 2015 Baltimore Uprising: A Teen Epistolary" (AK Press) As a city, we've already endured so much misinformation surrounding the Baltimore Uprising—or as your dumbest friends say, "the Baltimore riots"—and as the six officers' trials occur one after another, there will only be more fuckery. And meanwhile, networks are planning their hourlong specials and some weasels are running around the city making documentaries. So consider "The 2015 Baltimore Uprising: A Teen Epistolary," a collection of tweets from teenagers during the uprising and nothing more, the antidote to all this big-picture, supposedly objective mainstream media coverage. Originally published as a zine by Research and Destroy New York City (with proceeds going to the Baltimore Algebra Project), it was picked up by Oakland-based subversive lit publisher AK Press. It's just page after page of tweets from teens wrestling with the reality of the uprising, often cracking jokes ("Dear Mayor, SUCK MY DICK"), tweeting truth to power ("Police quick to shutdown a party or any event in Baltimore but late to shut down a planned riot they knew about"), and so on. The only document of the uprising you need, all right? (BS)

4. Laura van den Berg, "Find Me" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) Set sometime in the not-too-far future, "Find Me" focuses on one character, Joy, who's navigating her way through the world, where everyone is sick and dying of a memory-eating disease, while she searches hopefully and frantically for her birth mother. Until the disease broke, Joy had been blocking out the trauma she endured, beginning with her mother abandoning her and her subsequent experiences in foster homes. But after a hospital stay (where she finds out she's immune to the disease), finding friends and losing most of them, and getting lost while traveling south to Florida, she uncovers the history she'd hidden from herself and kind of comes to terms with it. Written in dream-like, poetic prose, van den Berg (an erstwhile Baltimorean) links identity with loss and memory and trauma against a subtly dystopian landscape. (Rebekah Kirkman)


5. William A. Richards, "Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences" (Columbia University Press) This colloquial though still-heady book about the spirituality inherent in psilocybin (or magic mushrooms) begins with William A. Richards, a clinical psychologist and lifelong psychedelic researcher at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center arguing a rather controversial statement: It isn't that the drugs change your mind; rather, they open up things in your mind, serious things, spiritual things, common archetypal things, and what might actually be God. "Different skeleton or universal keys that can unlock the door within each of our minds to other forms of consciousness, essentially providing an opportunity for exploration and discovery," he writes early on. In "Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences," Richards is a generous and gregarious writer, who avoids platitudes for a mix of hard evidence (he's been doing research for 30 years) and anecdotal stories and memoir-like ruminations that makes it not quite scientific and not quite autobiography (RIYL: if Oliver Sacks' book on hallucinating felt undercooked to you). And there's something timely about the book. As we're amid protests and adjustments to weed laws, things feel like the '60s again—in a good society-is-changing way rather than a hippy-dippy way, you know? (BS)

6. Lia Purpura, "It Shouldn't Have Been Beautiful" (Penguin) Lia Purpura's poems pretty much always contain a line or two that reads like some heretofore undiscovered aphorism—a thought, worry, concern, or concept articulated via some airtight, memorable phrase that you can't shake or that you might want to get tattooed on your body somewhere because it's so profound. But Purpura often writes these lines in a personable, enjambment-filled nervous syntax you may adopt while excitedly texting a friend about something or ranting after too much coffee. A few lines from 'Gone,' my favorite among these 75 poems, about how death is scary but also there isn't much to do about that now is there: "being gone (perhaps/ a state everlasting,/ who knows),/ this moment (stand closer love/ you can't be too close),/ is not a thing I'll know to miss." Imagine Philip Larkin drunk-texting you some witty, heavy shit and you're close to comprehending "It Shouldn't Have Been Beautiful's" intricate charms. (BS)

7. Kathy Flann, "Get a Grip" (Texas Review Press) There's a touch of Barry Hannah's cosmic what-the-fuckness running through Flann's short-story collection, the way an intimate scene's humor or horror depends on the point of view. From the woman whose husband died in flagrante with a prostitute to the teacher who gets a hard-on every time he sees his ex-wife in the cafeteria, these eight Baltimore-set stories dive into the lives of people a little bit desperate. Flann animates their responses to such crises with a merciless humanity, and whether you're laughing or crying with the results, you always feel a little empathy and a little, well, unclean. (Bret McCabe)

8. Christine Ferrera, "Starbux Diary: My 10-year Journey to Caffeinated Enlightenment" (self-published) Ten years ago performance artist Christine Ferrera wrote to the void of a corporation's customer feedback cards—and the void replied. Every day for years, Ferrera sent a missive to a certain Seattle-based omnipresent coffee corporation, in a series of notes that move from the banal to the awkwardly philosophical and confessional, and Ferrera's writing—and the at-first polite, professional corporate communications the company sends as responses—becomes an intimate portrait of a woman's heartbreaks, thoughts, and daily life. Hilariously personal. (BM)

9. Michael Kimball, "The One-Hour MFA (in fiction)" (Publishing Genius Press) A few years ago, rapper and "Law & Order" actor Ice-T put together a fairly excellent documentary titled "Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap," in which he spoke to a number of rappers about craft and style. The most fascinating was the legendary Rakim, who explained that he writes his rhymes by putting a series of dots on a piece of paper and then slowly, meticulously plugging in words for each dot and all of a sudden, he has an airtight rap verse right in front of him. In a sense, author Michael Kimball is Rakim-like: He explores his art form through systems and a set of rules which paradoxically make his work feel more open and free. See last year's excellent "Galaga," which explored the classic video game and its connection to his life via terse chapters corresponding to the number of stages in the game, or books such as "Big Ray" or his postcard biography project—all of which become more expressive thanks to their limitations. In this 75-page book, Kimball details how he writes and gives stern, confident advice. It's great for teaching writing, but it is also a great look at how one of the most compelling fiction writers around gets it done. (BS)

10. Ray Lewis, "I Feel Like Going On: Life, Game, and Glory" (Touchstone) Sports memoirs are for the most part by-the-numbers safe, total snoozes written for dads. Occasionally, they can be brutal and nuts like Dennis Rodman's "Bad As I Wanna Be" or important like Jim Bouton's gossipy "Ball Four," but most sports books smooth out the edges of men who sacrifice their bodies for sport and keep it simple, stupid. Baltimore Ravens legend Ray Lewis' isn't quite on the level of Rodman or Bouton, but "I Feel Like Going On" is truly eccentric and oddly sincere—except when Lewis is talking about the time he probably helped his buddies out after a murder went down but hey—and pretty much derails the highlight-reel chapters you'd expect and instead ruminates on race in America, explicitly invoking Freddie Gray and police brutality, as considered through a Christian lens (it is like Kendrick Lamar's "To Pimp A Butterfly" in that it is also a functional, inviting piece of Christian art). And most important, Lewis' distinctive voice is loud and clear. He writes like he talks—in long winding sentences, murky mixed metaphors, and a goofy syntax derived from reading the Bible a lot and listening to other athletes before him ramble. Not just another sports memoir. (BS)