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Mike Young’s Best of 2009

AWESOME THINGS THAT I ENJOYED FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 2009

1. Frank Lima
Now my third for a holy trinity of Frank poets (the other two being Frank Stanford and Frank O’Hara, with CA Conrad’s hero in the Book of Frank getting a wink), Frank Lima is a woefully underappreciated poet. He’s got Cedar Tavern cred and chops that melt together an urban sizzle-drip, a bird-on-fire flight of Lorca/early Paz surrealism, and a caramel sensitivity and straightforwardness ala Kenneth Koch. Now a teacher at the New York Restaurant School, Lima is the author of a new book of selected poems, Inventory, that shivs me into shivers. I first heard the name Frank Lima in Lisa Jarnot’s poem “Poem Beginning With a Line By Frank Lima,” but it wasn’t until I read one of Lima’s own poems in a collection of work dedicated to John Wieners that I realized I had to rush out and click around until I found this book. Gawk these lines from his poem “My Heart”: “My heart is the shyest object in the world … It blushes when / it dies or becomes a monster when it loves. Imagine / the size of it when you undress. It becomes a periscope / each spring. It would like to be a lighthouse instead of being / in my chest.” Lima’s all mustache and truth.

2. Lewis Nordan:
Chris Bachelder, fiction guru at UMass Amherst, has mentioned Lewis Nordan in not one but two interviews, bestowing space so tenderly on a decidedly “regional” Mississippi author—and calling the dude funny, no less—that I had to check him out. Chris was right. Nordan’s collection of stories Sugar Among the Freaks is more than enough to recommend him by. Nordan is a spinner of the raunch and the weird in the way that only a swamp can wonk. We’re talking spiked coffee, suicidal matriarchs, freak elephants, eels, arrow catchers, sin eating old ladies, all girl football teams, and more. All with a great tick for comic timing and patterns of speech, all with a heart wide enough to sweep the field and deep enough to burrow. Ignore the silly fonts: Sugar Among the Freaks is sweet and weird and good.

3. Billy Joe Shaver:
Weird, these first three dudes were all born in 1939. My dad was born in 1939? Weird. Regardless, Billy Joe Shaver should be on the dusty Rushmore of cowboy music—and you probably know him even if you don’t. He sings the theme to Squidbillies on Adult Swim. He wrote songs like “Willy The Wandering Gypsy and Me,” and “Honky Tonk Heroes,” songs immortalized by folks like Waylon Jennings and David Allen Coe. His album Old Five and Dimers Like Me should simply appear anytime you reach for whiskey anywhere. Honking and tonking and rollicking for that home you’ll never know. It’s that good. It’s enough of an ache to make you believe in the exclamation O!, especially the O! you groan when you turn over in your sleep and your pillow’s a bus seat or a dream cough. “Low down freedom / you done cost me / everything I’ll / ever lose.”

4 Jim Ford’s album Harlan County:
Quick, tell me everything you know about country-soul. Exactly. It makes me sad to think that I was bumming my stupid kid gorsh around Ft Bragg, CA some of the same years Ford was falling apart there, trailer sequestered until his death in 2007. But before he died, he made an amazing album in 1969 called Harlan County, which combines country steel with soul horns, drums like slick railroad spikes, and a sort of sparkling gravy over the whole damn thing that makes you unsure whether you should eat or dance. This album doesn’t shake nothing but what’s it’s got. It’s cocky like that. And Ford’s backing musicians were named Pat and Lolly Vegas. He was friends with Sly Stone and wrote songs for Bobbie Womack. Nick Lowe’s called him his biggest influence. Did I make this up? If it weren’t already true, I would make it up, yes. If only to hear songs like “Love on My Brain,” “Working My Way to L.A.” (“with a roll of bologna and a hunk of cheese and a box of saltine crackers”) and the masterful “Harlan County,” which features just about the best “spoken fake funeral speech breakdown” I’ve ever damn heard.

5 Melaine Joy’s Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows:
My 1939-born father eats meat, but he refuses to eat lamb because he was once witness to an ewe’s butchering. Melaine Joy’s book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows explains the processes of cognitive dissonance behind “carnism,” and what results is a truly clearheaded and provocative text about why we pet dogs and fork pork. Joy points out that the time for a post-carnism society is now more now than ever, what with the potential for vegetarian and vegan lifestyles to dovetail with increasing cultural concerns about waste and longevity—both ours and our planet’s. I know I mentioned a roll of bologna in the paragraph above: I’m not immune to the dissonance Joy does a great job describing. What I aspire toward, however, is a brain that knows when it’s duped by received hack patterns. Joy’s book is clear and challenging and explores not only why we eat meat, but why we don’t think about it, and what we can do to change that.

6. Pasta with beans:
When my favorite girl Carolyn Z asked me if I wanted beans in my pasta, I said “Are you joking?” Apparently, however, this is a dish people eat all the time, especially people who can’t get their protein from meat. Sure, I remember something about a “pasta bean soup” I might’ve once eaten. But until last week, I’d never had a bowl of elbow noodles, kidney beans, and salt. Lots of salt. It was good! Then I got to wondering: are there other things I’ve never eaten? That people eat all the time? So I ate some of my roommate’s breadsticks today, with peanut butter. I’m on the lookout for new experiences. That’s just the kind of guy I am. Somebody hand me an owl and I’ll try to get a ride. Maybe these scissors will make my pants a new kind of weather. This is the sort of open I’m at. I’m like a free bike.

7. Scrooged:
Okay, not Bill Murray’s best acting. He sort of shouts and mugs and flings his way around, does things he’d do better in Groundhog Day. And some of the most annoying 80s comedy tropes are here in full effect: overblown premise, relentless ending that has to show all characters mentioned throughout the whole movie having fun or dancing or whatever, etc. But whoa if this movie isn’t weird as a tinfoil coat. That cab driving ghost? The sloping floor right before the hell scene? The brother on the treadmill? The scene where Bill Murray’s character is dressed as a giant dog waving goodbye to his beau? Was there a whole drawer of the 80s where mainstream comedy was this dark and pleasingly brainwhacked? I admit to my ignorance of this drawer. The song at the end is great.

8. Catallus:
Very old poet. Very fun poet. Very clever poet. Very sexy poet. Very dirty poet. Very sweet poet. We didn’t invent even the quickest jokes of contemporary walking around. Togas done did it first.

Mike Young is the author of We Are All Good If They Try Hard Enough (PGP 2010) and MC Oroville’s Answering Machine (Transmission Press 2009). He co-edits NOÖ Journal and Magic Helicopter Press and blogs HERE.

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

3 thoughts on “Mike Young’s Best of 2009

  1. This is a great list, Mike. Lots of good suggestions here to check out (and Bachelder’s recommendation holds a lot of weight with me too, so I’ll probably start there). I like how different the stuff on your list is from everyone else’s–It’s good to be reading different books than the rest of the crowd, I think.

  2. Thanks, Matt. I’m glad you liked the list. It’s actually probably bad to be too different, because no one can relate and then no one cares, but I just tried to be honest.

  3. Bill Murray’s, what is it now, decade-long resurgence (albeit with some clunkers muddying things up) gives lie to the idea (mine) that most comedians have a shelf life of only a few years before they become stale. I even love his cameos (Coffee and Cigarettes and The Darjeeling Limited). So, based on your recommendation, I’ll check out Scrooged.

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