Opinion | Finding Inspiration in an Otherwise Dull Year

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By Jay Caspian Kang

Opinion Writer

I want to end the year with a bibliography of sorts. I’ve written, to date, 33 editions of this newsletter, all of which required quite a bit of reporting, reading and writing. What follows isn’t so much a list of citations, although there’s some of that, but rather a collection of things that I encountered over the past six months that influenced this project. It ranges from books that changed the way I thought about something to the food I was eating while putting all this together.

Thelonious Monk by Robin D.G. Kelley

An exhaustively, almost oppressively researched and detailed biography of Thelonious Monk by one of my favorite writers and thinkers. Everything you would ever want to know about Monk — how he innovated, what pianos he liked, what his grades were as a student at Stuyvesant High School in New York City — it’s all there.

Kelley also painstakingly shows how genius is collaborative. We want to believe that Duke Ellington recorded “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” and the world changed until Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues,” which held up until Charlie Parker arrived from Kansas City. But these artists came out of ongoing conversations, communities and traditions. More than writing a biography of Monk, Kelley shows all that made Monk possible. This was the best book I read all year.

Better Booch

My local grocery store has an entire refrigerator case filled with different types of kombucha. I’ve tried them all because I’m told kombucha is good for one’s health. Better Booch is the best of the bunch. It has that fermented, earthy flavor but doesn’t make you feel like you’re French kissing a mildly toxic mushroom. I suggest the “cherry retreat” flavor. There’s a “morning glory” one too, but both the flavor and the concept are confusing to me.

The Resegregation of Suburban Schools, edited by Erica Frankenberg and Gary Orfield

A mass migration of Latino, Black and Asian families into the suburbs has been taking place over the past 30 or so years, which has fundamentally changed politics, our ideas about segregation and schooling. What’s strange to me is that very few people seem to understand this, even if they live in or frequently visit a diverse suburb like San Gabriel, Calif., to eat Chinese food.

Frankenberg and Orfield’s book contains a number of studies and essays that chart the changes that have taken place in specific suburbs around the country. Of particular note is a lengthy look at what has happened to Waltham, Mass., a city that once was a hub for Irish, Italian and French Canadian immigrants and now has become the home to thousands of people from Central America and Southeast Asia.

Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart

It’s almost impossible to write a funny novel. It’s not particularly hard to write very serious, tragic books because you just have to find the saddest story out there and bravely anoint yourself as the voice of the voiceless, or whatever. Being funny, on the other hand, is something you either have or don’t have. This doesn’t mean the process of writing a funny book is any less labor intensive than any other novel — in fact, it’s much more difficult because you can’t rely on the plot to get you anywhere. It’s just you and whether you can make people laugh and feel something more through that laughter.

I won’t spoil this book too much, but I will tell you that it’s about the pandemic, some friends who shelter together, and what happens when the striving children of immigrants hit middle age. And although the book takes place in the Hudson Valley, it reminded me of the friendships you make when you’re young and in the city and how those can either deepen or sometimes ossify into a type of semi-hostile competitiveness.

The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates by Daniel Golden

I spent a lot of time this year thinking about testing and college admissions. The most comprehensive and well-reported book on the topic comes from Daniel Golden, a senior editor at ProPublica. His book, which was recently updated to include an introduction about Operation Varsity Blues, the infamous 2019 cheating and bribery scandal, is the most honest and carefully argued text I’ve found on the subject. Golden is unafraid to call elite college admissions what it is: a processing mill for the children of the wealthy masquerading as a meritocracy.

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