If this year’s reading has a theme, it’s one delineated by Philip Roth quoting Kafka: “I believe that we should read only those books that bite and sting us. If a book we are reading does not rouse us with a blow to the head, then why read it?”
And so it was that I gave myself permission, this year, to put down books that just weren’t doing it for me. You’ll see them below. Life’s too short, I figured, to finish books just to finish them. If, a hundred pages in, I wasn’t in love, down it went with no regrets. The books that I did finish run the gambit, from cooly earnest (Marilynne Robinson, Emily St. John Mandel) to hilariously raw and Jewish (Roz Chast, Philip Roth). Let’s get to it.
Home by Marilynne Robinson.
There’s a simplicity to this book that’s misleading at first. On the surface, it tells the tale of a woman living with her father, a priest, who’s approaching the end of his life. They live a relatively peaceful existence, until her brother–the long-vanished, black sheep of the family–signals his intention to return to the family home. His arrival, and how it affects her and her father, form the backbone of the story. It’s really in the telling that the novel earns its depth and its power. Robinson delves deeply into ideas of goodness and badness, what it means to live a spiritual life, and what it means to be a non-believer in a family of believers. The world of the book isn’t one that I immediately related to, having grown up Jewish on Long Island as opposed to Christian in Yoknapatawpha County, but it’s a testament to Robinson’s writing that I found the whole experience of reading it incredibly relatable and compelling. She’s one of President Obama’s favorite writers (he interviewed her recently for The New York Review of Books) and in reading it, you can see why: she’s a truly American writer, straddling the deeply fraught divide between church and state. I can’t wait to read more of her.
Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin.
Talk about a foil to Marilynne Robinson, after the sincerity and piety of Home, I craved a tonic. Tales of the City was definitely it. Despite being slightly dated (in a wonderful way, like listening to the Original Cast Recording of A Chorus Line), Tales of the City is a bright, shiny, bauble–like a never-ending tasting menu of adorable little bites, short segments that somehow add up to a delectable whole. If you don’t know it, and if you haven’t seen the PBS series with Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis that you can now watch on Hulu (I just started), it tells the story of Mary Ann Singleton who disobeys her strict Ohio parents and moves to San Francisco to have an adventure. And have an adventure she does: there’s sex, there’s drugs, there’s rock n’roll. There’s also, through her friends and neighbors (namely, the delightful Michael Tolliver) a portrait of what it meant to be gay in the late 70s, before AIDS devastated the gay community and made sex a possible death sentence. If you’ve seen “A Normal Heart” and “Angels in America,” as I have many times, it was refreshing to have a window into the period that preceded it–a brighter, fizzier time; similar, in a way, to the cabaret world of Christopher Isherwood, just before the arrival of the Nazis. Yet none of that heaviness is present here; if you’re looking for a gay ol’ time, this is the book for you.
The first 70 pages of Ulysses by James Joyce.
Look, I don’t claim to be the kind of person who can read Ulysses like it’s no big deal. Every time I’ve picked it up, it’s felt like the most daunting project ever. And this time was no exception, with one key difference: I decided to take someone’s advice (I forget who) and just read it for pleasure, to let the language wash over me and not to worry if I didn’t get every single detail. And you know what? On that level, the first 70 pages were really enjoyable: beautiful, really. The language is so very much alive, vibrant, exciting, brilliant; I really got, this time, what all the fuss was about. But, by page 70, I had to ask myself: “Can I go for another 830 pages?” And the answer to that was, sadly, “not right now.”
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast.
Craig has always been a fan of graphic novels (his newest movie, Wilson, is adapted from a graphic novel by a pioneer in the field, Daniel Clowes), but I’m late to the game. A few years ago, before I saw the musical, I fell in love with Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. Her follow-up, Are You My Mother?, also affected me deeply. Enter Roz Chast and her own forthcoming graphic novel about her parents and her strained relationship with them as they enter old age. At first, this book seems to have a lighter touch than Bechdel’s. Her style is more cartoonish, which makes sense because she’s a cartoonist for The New Yorker (side note: the HBO doc about New Yorker cartoons, Very Semi-Serious, is really wonderful, and Chast is prominently featured). But eventually, this book gets deep and disturbing and devastating. It makes me think of another Philip Roth quote: “Old age isn’t a battle: old age is a massacre.” The cartoonish style and humor here become essential coping mechanisms; without them, the story Chast tells would be too bitter a pill to swallow. The book, ultimately, is as much about the importance of having a sense of humor as it is about anything else.
The First 100 pages of Leaving The Atocha Station by Ben Lerner.
The awards and praise lavished on this book are massive in scope and number–flipping through the opening few pages in the book store, you would think I was holding a holy document–and yet, despite giving it a real shot, I did not care for this book. I won’t go as far as to say that I hated it, but I just didn’t care about the character; a privileged, disenchanted white guy goofing off in Spain. There was a definite moment, about 100 pages in, when I realized that I could easily put the book down and not care a whit about what I’d be missing. And so put it down, I did.
The First 100 pages of The Stand by Stephen King.
This one, I feel a bit worse about. I’ve always liked Stephen King. As a youngin’, I read The Green Mile in installments (the way it was originally published), The Dark Tower, Dreamscapes and Nightmares. His book on writing (On Writing) is one of the best books I’ve ever read on the subject; his dictum to write 1,000 words a day got me through writing my first two books. And so it was that I’ve always meant to read what’s widely considered his masterwork, The Stand. The mistake that I made was buying the unabridged version. Jesus Christ. He writes in the introduction to this version that it restores what careless editors thoughtlessly hacked out of the original publication. I’d like to find those editors and give them a medal. Man, those first 100 pages were so overwritten, so unnecessarily descriptive that I was more terrified of how many paragraphs he’d devote to his next subject than I was of the book’s villain, who I barely got to know because I put the book down after 100 pages. You’re all going to yell at me, but I also found the writing itself to be kind of juvenile and inelegant–like the kind of thing a coked up creative writing major might write after graduating college. Apparently there’s a big movie in the works, so I’ll just wait for that. Hopefully it has a good editor.
My Lunches with Orson by Henry Jaglom.
OK, before you think I gave up on every book I started reading this year, here’s one that I finished quite joyfully. At the end of his life, Orson Welles held a regular table at the L.A. restaurant Ma Maison (the chef was a young Wolfgang Puck) and he’d regularly hold court for the young filmmaker Henry Jaglom, who recorded their conversations. That’s basically what this book is, a series of transcriptions of those chats. But there’s so much going on here: a master mentoring a young disciple, the desperation of a man who’s lost almost all credibility in Hollywood desperate for a fresh start (which he thinks Jaglom might be able to give him), and–most pleasant of all–enthusiastically told stories of old Hollywood, including all of the gossip that really makes you feel like you’re eavesdropping on the most delicious of conversations. There are cameos, celebrities who come over to Orson’s table to say hello, and then you get to hear what he says as they walk away. He also has strong opinions about the food and Puck himself (“I don’t like Wolfgang. He’s a little shit. I think he’s a terrible little man.”) A really fun read.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.
Here’s another book that I finished, and there’s so much about it that I loved, though I didn’t love it 100%. It’s one of those “end of the world” books, where human civilization is threatened and lots of people die and now we’re in a post-apocalyptic landscape with marauding gangs, etc., etc. If that were it, I wouldn’t have even gotten past the description on the back of the book. But that’s not it at all. In fact, the book concerns a roving group of actors and musicians, The Traveling Symphony, who perform Shakespeare for surviving clusters of civilization. Instead of dwelling on survival itself, the book focuses on the “why” of survival–what’s the point of human existence? What makes it so worthwhile? There are multiple threads that seem unrelated and all tie up at the end (my favorite concerns the Station Eleven of the title). It’s a really beautifully written book–the first chapter completely won me over–and yet, somehow, the book didn’t completely satisfy me by the end. It’s like a meal you spend all day cooking, and when you’re finished you’re still craving pizza. Not sure why, but sometimes that just happens. (Update: I thought about this more, and I think the issue was that while it was cool to see each of the stories connect, the stories in and of themselves weren’t particularly compelling. If you pulled the stories apart, they wouldn’t stand on their own. There, that’s better than my pizza analogy.)
* The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.
I feel like I’m betraying a secret. This book came recommended to me by two friends who are two of the most talented writers I know. It’s a book they reference frequently, and one that I’d kept on my nightstand for a while but didn’t really want to read because I was starting to write a screenplay (one that I’m currently in the middle of) and I didn’t want to be too influenced by one particular style of storytelling. That was dumb of me. This book, which I tore into after finishing my TV job, is one of the very best books I’ve ever read about writing—screenwriting or otherwise. It channels the ideas of Joseph Campbell (whose book of interviews with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, shaped the way that I feel about religion and spirituality) into practical ways of thinking about story. That sounds very specific and, in some ways, it is. But I found the book to be universally helpful, especially when thinking about the journeys that we all take. The call to adventure. The refusal of the call. Threshold guardians. Approaching the inner most cave. These are all things I can apply to my own life (coming out of the closet, changing my career) as much as I can apply it to my writing. And Vogler’s analysis of everything from The Wizard of Oz to Pulp Fiction had me rethinking everything I thought I knew about those stories (for example, Dorothy’s line “there’s no place like home” isn’t referring to her literal home–it has to do with her feeling at peace with who she is). Weirdly, this was one of my favorite books that I read this year, even though, again, it’s sold as a practical guide about screenwriting. It is, but it’s also so much more. But let’s just keep it between us, OK?
Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine.
Here, another graphic novel, that also functions as a book of short stories. There are about five in here and each is amusing but also, quietly, profound. My favorite is the title story which–spoiler alert!–is hilariously titled when you learn what it’s about: a girl who attempts stand-up comedy despite her father’s concern that she isn’t very funny. There’s more to that story than meets the eye. In fact, in terms of form, I don’t think you could tell that story (the story within the story) in another medium that allows for such subtlety and such grace. Check it out and you’ll see what I mean.
* Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth.
This book is so fucked up. There’s no other way to describe it. It’s so outlandishly, outrageously offensive, that to even tell you a little bit about it makes me feel like I should be put in jail for indecency. But what makes it such a marvelous read, and possibly my other favorite book that I read this year (possibly, because I’m just finishing it now), is how masterful the language is despite the repulsive subject matter. Imagine the most brilliant writing you can imagine describing the most disgusting thing you can think of: that’s what this book is. And yet, even that, sells it short. Once you get beyond the perversion and the shock, there’s really deep stuff going on here; big questions are asked, sometimes they’re answered, sometimes Roth takes a shit on them. If sex makes you squeamish, this is definitely not the book for you. I’m still a bit traumatized by certain passages, but I don’t think a book has made me laugh harder in recent memory. You’ve been warned.