This week’s question is part of our look back at 2016:
What non-2016 book did you finally get around to reading this year?
About three years ago, a good friend lent me a book, and finally, 34 years after its publication, I read Ham On Rye by Charles Bukowski. I appreciate concise prose and am a fiend for a great bildungsroman. Bukowski provides both in spades. The semi-autobiographical novel follows Bukowski’s alter ego, Henry Chinaski, from a childhood in Germany to an adolescence in L.A. during the Great Depression. It’s harrowing stuff, but Bukowski’s astute observations as a social outsider and his straightforward descriptions ground the storyline, making things like his father’s abuse less of a tawdry tale and more an honest depiction of a hard life. What’s most engaging is reading about an accomplished author’s first exposure to books, which he originally found dull. Only later does he realize and write that “Words weren’t dull, words were things that could make your mind hum. If you read them and let yourself feel the magic, you could live without pain, without hope, no matter what happened to you.” And Ham On Rye brings the hum.
Out of all the manuals devoted to teaching improvisation, Keith Johnstone’s Impro might be the weirdest. It predates the standard text on the subject, Del Close and Charna Halpern’s Truth In Comedy, by years, and has almost no interest in teaching people how to be funny. Instead, Impro is more about theater and therapy than delivering jokes, with extensive sections on hypnosis and performing in masks. I’ve had a copy on my shelf for years—stolen from a guy I used to play racquetball with in my ill-fated grad school days—but I’d never cracked into it until this year. Once I got past the hippy-dippy tone and the references to my “inner child,” I found a remarkable grasp of improv’s most important elements: spontaneity, a belief in the unifying power of make believe, and even some concrete exercises to help my work. Given how much of modern improv philosophy is derived from Close’s teachings, Johnstone’s book feels kind of like stumbling onto a complete symphony, written by someone who’d never heard Mozart or Bach.
In any given year, I am reading memoirs or biographies of former SNL cast members that came out some years before, but let us not dwell on how 2016 was the year that I forced myself to read a book written by Jim Breuer. Instead, I’ll embrace the technicality that I did not read 2015’s The Life And Death Of Sophie Stark by Anna North until early 2016. I heard North read a chapter at an event where I was inexplicably allowed to read on the same bill as her; when I finally got around to picking up a copy, my dumb luck continued as it became one of my recent favorites. It’s about a young filmmaker who leaves a trail of personal wreckage as she learns her craft, as narrated from a variety of viewpoints, but North doesn’t indulge miserable-artist clichés. Instead, she deepens and personalizes that trope with a great sense of humanity, which some of the supporting characters would probably say Sophie lacks. It’s also a beautifully written book, and a cross-section of fiction lovers and movie obsessives will love it.
As my Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club entry on it hopefully makes clear, Donald Trump’s The Art Of The Deal is one of the worst books I have ever read. Actually, to even call The Art Of The Deal Trump’s book is an act of unmerited generosity, as the fascinating article about Trump’s The Art Of The Deal ghostwriter Tony Schwartz suggests that the book is a lot like other Trump ventures: He had relatively little to do with its actual construction and making, yet decided to slap his name on it and claim credit all the same. In previous years, The Art Of The Deal was culturally important as one of the most iconic books of the money-crazed, crazily materialistic 1980s and as the book that catapulted Trump to household-name fame. Now, alas, the book is important as an early look into the myopic self-absorption and unrelenting narcissism of a man who defied all odds, decency, and the will of God to be elected president. I’m glad I finished the awful, punishing process of reading this book. I’m even happier that I never have to do so again.
I finally read Jill Lepore’s The Secret History Of Wonder Woman, which combines my fascination with superhero mythology and admiration of badass women into 432 pages. To be honest, the title is a little misleading—the secret history is mostly about one person, a man named William Moulton Marston, whose truly batshit belief system was, in many ways, still ahead of his time and led to the creation of an enduring superhero. I started it, put it down for a couple months, and finished it later. But I’m glad I did: The ways in which Marston and Wonder Woman encircle feminism, Planned Parenthood, BDSM, polygamy, psychology, and even more is truly stranger than fiction. Although the book draws more from Marston’s history than Wonder Woman’s, it’s still an important (and occasionally mind-blowing) look at pop culture history.
I’d long been hearing about Arthur Bremer’s An Assassin’s Diary, first published in 1973, in articles and documentaries related to Taxi Driver. The book was an influence on Paul Schrader’s script. But it took me until 2016 before I decided to go to my local library and read the thing. It’s been out of print for years, and even the library had to special order it. The book itself turns out to be a comedy of errors, not much like Travis Bickle’s haunting journal. Bremer is an incompetent, bumbling would-be assassin who switches his target from Richard Nixon to George Wallace when the former proves unreachable. But Bremer is a hapless loser who hides a gun so well at one point that he can’t retrieve it. The guy can’t get good customer service anywhere, and he has no sense of direction. An Assassin’s Diary is the story of a ridiculous, trivial man who wants the world to take him seriously. In retrospect, it’s closer to The King Of Comedy.
Night Film by Marisha Pessl is one of those books that looks and sounds like something you’ve either already read or have somehow heard about even before you have, as though it triggers a reverse déjà vu (which I just learned is called jamais vu), simply by dint of its excellent title and intriguing cover. I think I had judged this particular book by its cover for several years before I finally got around to reading it back in January, and it made for an engrossing experience, albeit featuring some occasionally uneven writing. Storywise, it’s the kind of rabbit hole of conspiracy and mystery I find irresistible—a journalist begins investigating a legendary (and legendarily mysterious) cult filmmaker, only to become pulled into a potentially supernatural web of forces beyond his control—and I basically lost sleep every night for a week devouring it. The twisty puzzle-box fun is so fleet and compelling that the occasional groaner of a line (“Her name was Jeannie, but no sane man would ever dream of her”) can be overlooked. I’m planning to check out Pessl’s debut, Special Topics In Calamity Physics, sometime this year, and though I’m hard-pressed to imagine she could top the pressure-cooker magic of Night Film, this very site tells me I might be wrong.
This year I caught up with Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which made such a big splash in 2013 that it seemed every single person I knew was reading it. It’s one of those books I have trouble talking about, as I both really liked it in some ways and really hated it in others. It’s a deeply intimate story of a boy whose life, at 13, is dramatically changed when he and his mother are victims in a terrorist bombing. Tartt writes intoxicatingly personal prose, making the character almost too empathetic, so great is the insight into his head. But the same issues I took with Tartt’s The Secret History are in abundance in The Goldfinch. She’s obsessed with romanticizing moneyed East Coasters, like a Wes Anderson film minus the over-the-top parody or a Woody Allen story minus his self-awareness of how he glorifies New York City. Tartt’s fixation on the elite ultimately turned me off to this story, not to mention how the story itself is almost comically dour. The boy’s life is just one shitty thing happening to him after another. But having said that, I tore through the 700-plus page book in under a week. So it couldn’t have been that bad.
There are two big reasons why I didn’t rush to read The Kennedy Chronicles: The Golden Age Of MTV Through Rose Colored Glasses when it first came out in 2013. First, I’d thought Kennedy, the former MTV VJ, was annoying from the get-go and lost all chance of redemption after her infamous interview with Martin Landau; second, the book’s subtitle was ridiculous, since anyone who thinks the ’90s were “the golden age of MTV” clearly wasn’t paying attention during the ’80s. Nonetheless, something about the book kept drawing me to it… and, no, it wasn’t the cover photo of a naked Kennedy straddling a horse. I just enjoy reading behind-the-scenes stories of the entertainment industry. As it turned out, the book was a quick, fun read, and it definitely provides a perspective about her former TV employers that I’d not experienced before. In fact, after reading it, I was surprised to find that I actually liked Kennedy… until I watched the Landau clip again.
I’m an undisciplined reader. I tend to stick with only the books that entertain me instantly, and I lose focus and ultimately discard books that put up the slightest resistance. What’s more the pity for my wife, a voracious and curious reader who has tried in vain to engage me with a lot of really great literature that I cast aside when 50 pages pass without a sword fight. So it speaks to how incredible Andrew Solomon’s Far From The Tree: Parents, Children And The Search For Identity is that my wife persisted until I gave it the attention it deserves. The book deals with children born deaf; as prodigies; or with dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, or schizophrenia. It centers on how these children and their parents deal with an identity distinct from that of the families they were born into. It’s a massive book, but every page is earned. Solomon spent years interviewing families and has compiled a detailed collection of stories, all told through his painfully humanist and caring perspective.
For someone who used to refuse to give up on a book, I’ve been incredibly shitty about finishing the ones I started this year. There are some great works of literature that I just never completed in 2016. I am wholly embarrassed about that. I did, however, have quite a fun time with Gillian Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects, the only one of hers I hadn’t previously read. Like her others, it’s a vicious mystery about the harm women do to others and themselves. It follows a troubled journalist—to be played eventually by Amy Adams, perfectly cast—who is assigned to cover a gruesome murder case involving young girls in her hometown. Naturally, the crimes end up being incredibly relevant to her own trauma. I can end up feeling a little guilty consuming Flynn’s novels as I’m thoroughly enjoying her descriptions of intense emotional and physical pain. But she just writes them so delectably.
While “finally” getting around to might not be the most accurate way to describe my reading of Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun, in part because the novel is only a few years old and in part because Ball releases new books at a fairly even clip, I did read this beautiful, absorbing book this year. The novel’s premise alone is fascinating: A man named Oda Sotatsu confesses to a crime he didn’t commit, is arrested, then falls silent, refusing to defend himself. The narrator, “Jesse Ball,” investigates the occurrence years later, interviewing family members and acquaintances, each individual offering their own explanation for why Oda did what he did and often contradictory information. Beyond Silence Once Begun’s compelling setup, Ball’s prose unfolds with quiet grace, occasionally conjuring the plain, simple language of fairy tales or fables. I read this in winter, and it elicited in me the kind of hush that a pristine blanket of new snow does.
I picked up America’s Women: 400 Years Of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, And Heroines by Gail Collins at New York’s excellent Lower East Side Tenement Museum bookshop earlier this year not really knowing what to expect. The topic sounded interesting enough, and I trust their picks, so I figured I’d take the risk. It turned out to be a fascinating book, and one that helped me understand the cyclical journey of women’s place in American society over the past 400-odd years. It’s got some of the characters you know—Pocahontas, Eleanor Roosevelt, et al—but also takes interesting and quick looks at a number of other figures, using diaries, letters, and books as source material. It’s really fascinating stuff, and I’d recommend it for both women and lovers of women alike. As a bonus, it’s also one of those books that’s broken up into little sections, story by story, meaning that I could always pick it up for 10 minutes while my pasta was cooking or whatever, absorb some great information, and then walk away at a good stopping point.