5 best books of the year

  1. “Cherry” by Nico Walker — Walker’s precocious debut novel is tough, streetwise and gruesomely war-torn. It is ugly, scabby — drugs, crime, graphic combat violence — yet lovely still, bristling with heart, candor and raw youthful love that throbs unvarnished truth. What emerges is a pungent, probing snapshot of America today, what has been dubbed “(perhaps) the first great novel of the opioid epidemic.” 

2. “There There” by Tommy Orange — This smashing debut is a novel of ambient beauty and a penetrating portal into urban Native American culture. It’s a world at once broken, squalid and, by the skin of its teeth, empowered. The writing swings, crackling with observational fire. Much of it hits home, like a lightning jag, pulsing with candor and woe.


3. “Kudos” by Rachel Cusk — My favorite book in Cusk’s remarkable Outline Trilogy, this slim volume continues a minimalism that feels maximalist, a headlong plunge into the circumscribed but deeply philosophical world of a single female protagonist who’s on a first-person journey amidst many places and people. Cerebrally and queerly enthralling.

4. “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh — A young woman is determined to hibernate from life via shelves of pharmaceuticals and we don’t quite know why. She is a wreck, in cryptic self-exile. This wiggy, sometimes wayward study in alienation is at once comical, unnerving, depressing and iridescent.

5. “Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History” by Yunte Huang — The lone non-fiction book in the bunch, this sensitive, captivating and occasionally creepy biography of conjoined twins Chang and Eng is a strange tale, a sad tale, one of courage, dignity, triumph and increasing oddness, yet one of naked humanity and pulsating historical vitality.  

Bonus best: Classic book of the year, “The Easter Parade” by Richard Yates, from 1976, whose grim opening line sets a searing tone: “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life … ” By the author of 1961’s caustic suburban masterpiece “Revolutionary Road.

And, as always, I chucked aside the predictable pile of unsatisfying titles, including Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s hyped stories “Friday Black” and Lauren Groff’s collection “Florida, which is brawny, but I was distracted by stronger stuff. (I also thought her 2015 novel “Fates and Furies” was hysterically overestimated.) 

Good but overrated: “The Mars Room” by Rachel Kushner. I gladly finished it. Not bad, not brilliant. Same goes for Nick Drnaso’s perplexingly ballyhooed “Sabrina,” the first graphic novel to make the Man Booker Prize longlist. A few grades above meh.

The weird and wiggy, worldwide

As one who seeks out the freaky and farout in my travels, serendipity seems to be the best GPS for the fiendishly, often funnily, strange. Mostly this is in the form of art, mainly sculpture and statue and the occasional painting. (Or some decidedly unfunny human cremations in India and Nepal — I’ll spare you.)

Sure, it’s superficial this fascination. (So weird! So hilarious!) What does it mean? Not much. It’s aesthetics of the outré, stimuli out of left field, tailored, perhaps, to the oddballs among us. It’s striking, warped and wonderful. The more ghastly the better. The more shocking the cooler. (Note: I have yet to stumble upon art or artifact that’s sincerely blasted my senses. It’s out there, and I will find it.)

Here, meanwhile, are irresistible curiosities I’ve come across around the world: 

Cast of Joseph Merrick’s, aka the Elephant Man’s, skull, Royal London Hospital. One of the most interesting, most hideous and saddest skeletal specimens ever.
Latex cast of the Elephant Man from the 1980 David Lynch film “The Elephant Man” at the Museum of the Moving Image, New York. This is the mold they used to make-up John Hurt as the real-life Elephant Man.
“Crucified Woman,” an unsettling work by supreme provocateur Maurizio Cattelan, hanging in the Guggenheim in New York City. Note the pigeons. I have no idea what’s going on.
Cracked cherub in Iglesia de El Salvador, a gorgeous church in Sevilla, Spain. I love the little fella’s decrepitude and pink and bulgy doll-like creepiness.
Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona. Stacked: a sheep, a pig, a cow, all with unicorn horns. Interesting, until you realize it’s just bad art.
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Rugged hiking man with primates. The bloke’s head is like a bobble-head.
The Met, New York City. Exactly how I wake each morning.
Body cast of Chang & Eng, original Siamese twins, Mutter Museum, Philadelphia. Gross and glorious.
A baby through Picasso’s eyes, Paris. I just like this poor warped toddler, so bulbous and twisted — and probably demonic.
Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg, Russia. At the resident Torture Museum. Highlight: the saliva string and puddle.
Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC. Trump in two years, in his cell. 
Malformed Baby Jesus, flea market, Barcelona, Spain. So distorted and freakish I desperately wanted to take it home and cuddle it.
Hanging horses by crazy Cattelan, Guggenheim, NYC. Something out of Fellini. See the little Pinocchio puppet by its front legs. Discuss.
Monkey murder. I really haven’t the foggiest. I wish I did, but I don’t. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. 

A not-so-tall tale, in short

True story: A woman came into the cafe and she was so short, I thought she was a dwarf. On my third or fourth glance, I realized she was indeed not a dwarf, just spectacularly diminutive, stout and normally proportioned, yet Lilliputian.  

Is my vision that bad? Am I seeing things? Has my fascination with human anomalies and “very special people” warped my lens on the world so that normality contorts into the freakish? 

Upon entering, the child-size woman was immediately surrounded by cafe baristas crying her name in joy as though they had not seen her in many ages. This was a moment of celebration. Hugs were fulsomely exchanged, and every employee had to crouch considerably to administer an embrace that would not be too awkward. 

Who was this center of such lavish attention, this magical elf? From where does she hail? Was she treated so kindly out of pity? That seems doubtful. Short, maybe, but also a human being, and one with many adoring friends. 

Arriving later, a very rangy barista saw the woman and bent down dramatically to hug her, his body a folding, upright accordion. She asked him if he’d sprouted even taller since they last met. No, he laughed.

She also laughed, chuckling, “Maybe I just shrunk.”

Siamese twins: Freaks? Marvels? No. Human.

“There is the 19th-century obsession with abnormality — that insatiable desire of humans looking at other humans as monsters.” — “Inseparable” by Yunte Huang

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Chang and Eng Bunker, the “original” Siamese twins

Siamese twins don’t keep me up at night, don’t chill my bones, not like Julia Pastrana, enshrined in her time as the Ugliest Woman in the World, or the appetite-suppressing Grace McDaniel, the Mule-Faced Woman, that poor, poor dear.

Freaks they may be, but Siamese, or conjoined, twins aren’t freaky enough for me. They are marvelous and reality-bending, sometimes shocking but usually just remarkably human and, despite wincing deformities, almost normal. They are not, as so many freak show stars are reduced to, depraved monsters.

Take Chang and Eng, the most famous of all conjoined twins. Whisked from their native Siam (present-day Thailand) as teenagers by Western opportunists who swore to bring them back to their aggrieved mother in five years time, the twins embarked on a journey that would take them to America and England as wildly celebrated sideshow attractions. They would never return home. 

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It was the early 1800s and the boys, who became forever known as the “original Siamese twins,” wowed spectators used to ogling human marvels, from the limbless to the scale-covered and, later, the extreme likes of the Elephant Man and Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy.

A London newspaper wrote, “Without being the least disgusting or unpleasant, like almost all monstrosities, these youths are certainly one of the most extraordinary freaks of nature that has ever been witnessed.”

That’s the start of the true story told in the sensitive new biography “Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History” by writerly crack reporter Yunte Huang. It’s a strange tale, it’s a sad tale, one of courage, dignity, triumph and increasing oddness, yet one of naked humanity and crackling history, including illuminating nods to the Civil War, Herman Melville, Lincoln (who apparently liked cock fighting) and Mark Twain, who, transfixed, wrote a story based on the twins.

Conjoined twins have existed since at least recorded history, in royal courts (alongside impish dwarves and the cruelly deformed), Indian villages to brimming metropolises. “The occurrence is estimated to range from 1 in 49,000 births to 1 in 189,000 births, with a somewhat higher incidence in Southeast Asia and Africa. Approximately half are stillborn, and an additional one-third die within 24 hours,” notes a scientific journal.  a6667e8dffd824d02b052c8f2a63dba2

Those are abysmal survival odds. Indeed, the whole conjoined-twin phenomenon seems like a hateful prank played by a sadistic God. But somehow Chang and Eng made the best of it, despite inevitable exploitation on the sideshow circuit, invasive, humiliating medical examinations by gawking, prodding doctors, and of course racial prejudices of the era.

They were also comparatively lucky. Chang and Eng were joined by a mere cord of ligament at their sternum, as opposed to twins conjoined at their skulls or buttocks, sharing multiple organs, rendering them certifiably handicapped, facing heartbreaking physical hardships. (Bittersweet aside: If they were alive today, modern medicine could easily and safely separate Chang and Eng.)

They were bound for life by “the connecting band — the key to the twins’ mystery,” writes Huang. The band looks like a slab of rubber stretched to the brink, rather like an arm on Stretch Armstrong, bridging their stomachs. The twins did share a fused liver, an oversized organ on permanent display in a pan of liquid at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. (I’ve seen it, twice. It is disgustingly glorious.)

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Chang and Eng’s death cast at the Mutter Museum, Philadelphia

A single bellybutton was nestled in the center of the flesh tube, which actually grew with daily wear and tear. Once, “as Eng tried to stand up, he was pulled down by the fleshy string that had tied him to his brother,” says Huang. “Over the years, constant tugging had stretched the cord from its original four inches in length to five and a half, allowing a little more flexibility.” (Some Vaseline and a good masseuse might have done wonders.)

Here the story veers to, at minimum, vigorous eyebrow raising. After lucrative years on the exhibition circuit as “freaks of nature,” Chang and Eng moved to rural North Carolina where they bought land, owned 32 black slaves (!!) and married two white sisters and, spectacularly, sired 21 children. (They had separate genitalia.) In the book’s chapter “Foursome,” Huang explains how the twins had sex: gingerly. Tangled limbs, “Pardon me’s,” whispered apologies, averted eyes — one envisions a hot, or not so hot, mess.

During the Civil War, the Bunkers pledged allegiance to the Confederacy, which didn’t work out so well for the brothers financially. Soon they were on the freak circuit again to cover costs. They died of natural causes at age 62 in 1874.

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The remarkable cast of a 19th-century freak show.

“Freaks,” “marvels,” “wonders” — sideshow performers, trading in dubious self-exploitation, were labeled florid epithets to amplify their bizarre and exotic natures. It must have been a beating on their psyche and self-worth, robbing them of a portion of their soul, exposing themselves to dehumanizing gawking. It’s an ugly, despicable racket.

Chang and Eng might have, by virtue of their mostly normal appearances, been spared the worst of it, avoiding fainting audience members, brutish hecklers and degrading qualifiers, like “terrible” and “horrifying,” in their promotional material.

Yet nothing was ordinary for them. They were extraordinary, suffering under constant “otherness,” a state critic Leslie Fiedler so sharply dubbed “the tyranny of the normal.”

Still, they were in their own way normal. Wives, children, struggles, longevity, relative happiness. They were like the rest of us strivers and survivors — human, all too human.

A few things keeping me afloat

A glass half-empty sort of fellow, I maintain a suspect relationship with reality, an existential leeriness that has proven keenly unhelpful. Though I’ve fought it, I’m kind of stuck with it, a black and blue complexion not unlike a bruise. 

The world’s not helping — Trump, Syria, Israel, Bolton, the EPA, fires, flooding, shootings — but I’m still able to locate an array of things to be glad about. Small, but good.

I could mention the pleasures of last week’s birthday, my family’s sound health, my sister-in-law’s spiffy new car or the dog’s chewy glee over the pig’s ear I got him. I could mention my niece’s turquoise hair, my friend’s marriage or how the Stormy Daniels affair is closing in on the president like a vice. 

But I won’t, even though I just did. 

Here are a few other things currently leavening my oft-smudged outlook:

  • Last week saw the release of “Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History,” a book this circus freak-show fanatic had to get, and did as a birthday present. Yunte Huang’s widely praised biography of famed conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker is a vast, panoramic narrative of the twins’ bizarre, unlikely life (wives, numerous children, slave ownership) in 19th-century America that deftly weaves details and personalities from U.S. history into a rich, fluttering tapestry. Elegant prose twins with magnificent detail.

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  • The giddy anticipation of mulling world travels is a reliable endorphin. I recently posted my dual urges to go to Budapest and Amsterdam — the former I’ve never been to, the latter I’ve visited in quick, couple-days spurts. Always looking ahead, with one eye on the calendar and one on the map, I get a jolt just thinking about strolling new streets, eating exotic cuisine, ogling art, architecture and people. It’s already April. Time to start some serious research. (Spoiler alert: I’m leaning toward Amsterdam.) 

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Amsterdam

  • I’m captivated by the film “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library” by that doyen of documentarians, that genius of fly-on-the-wall observation, Frederick Wiseman (“High School,” “La Danse”). Released last year and running a whopping three and a half hours, the movie is a leisurely, painstaking amble through the hallowed marble halls, offices, shelves and auditoriums of the NYC institution. Wiseman’s eminent pointillist eye and febrile curiosity fashion an immersive experience inside everything from folios to fundraising, e-books to behind-the-scenes bureaucracy, programs to performances, community outreach to the organization’s pumping inner organs. Almost defiantly, “Ex Libris” is culturally kaleidoscopic. 

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  • Another birthday gift whacking the sweet spot is a squat, artisanally stylish bottle of Monkey 47 Schwarzwald Dry Gin, a German, handcrafted, batch-distilled, 47-percent alcohol (94 proof) beverage that tastes like an Everlasting Gobstopper in liquid form, swirling and multi-chromatic — fragrant, aromatic, smooth, rich and tangy. My brother was scanning the gin shelves and three individuals, one who worked in the shop, voluntarily told him that Monkey 47 was the best gin they’ve had. Three random people. He was sold. Now we both are.

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Museums of mortality — spooky, sublime

Last year I paid visits to those twin emporiums of ick and awe, the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia and the smaller but almost equally macabre Kunstkamera Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Festooned with bullet-riddled skulls, deformed fetuses crammed into jars, gnarled, twisted skeletons, diseased human organs, rusty surgical tools and random gangrened digits, these palaces of the perverse satisfied the ghoulishly curious. They were extravagantly ack-inducing, deliciously quiver-making. Paradise.

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He’s checking his texts.

As noted earlier, I’m deliberating my next journey, and, because I went large last year, I’m thinking small this year. Which means I might go to Chicago, a 2.5-hour flight away. And which means, more importantly, the International Museum of Surgical Science, a less squishy warehouse of medical wonders than the two above, but still a marvelous assemblage of stuff that spurs contemplation about our mortal flesh and all that can go wrong with it via disease, accident and sheer shitty luck.

Highlights include a vintage iron lung machine (can I climb inside?), an exhibit about pain and anesthesia through the ages and one about the history of wound healing (“From the use of herbal ointments and therapeutic clays among prehistoric hunter-gatherers to Galen’s treatment of injured gladiators in Ancient Rome, the care of wounds is among the earliest applications of medicine”), and the museum structure itself, an elegant, historic lakeside mansion. And who could pass up the exhibit “A History of Blood Transfusion: 350 Years of Apparatus Advancement”?

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Mural of early Caesarean section. Gleefully gruesome.

Reviewers note that the four-story manse is compact and, naturally, its array of freakish displays is no match for Philly’s world-class Mutter. Small is all right; I enjoy a good bite-size museum, especially one of such narrow scope. Sort of like the Russian Vodka Museum or Tokyo’s Meguro Parasitological Museum.

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Iron lung machine. May I?

For more grim exhilarations, I pivoted my research to Chicago cemeteries — I’m always up for a calming stroll through deathly opulence — but decided to skip the offerings. Several notable cemeteries pock the area, boasting the resting holes of everyone from Al Capone to Jesse Owens, Emmett Till to John Belushi, Gene Siskel to John Hughes. I sought out film critic Roger Ebert’s grave, but he was cremated and his ashes are kept by a private party, most likely his lovely widow Chaz.

We should all be so lucky. Cremation is the way to go, although I don’t want my cremains kept by anyone but the wind and the water -— whoosh. Thoughts like these will surely visit me at the Surgical Science Museum, a place rife with death and decrepitude. But they won’t get me down. They’re wondrous in their way and, far from depressing, something of a mind-reeling, soul-stirring tonic for the living.

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