Remember that lyric from Rent (admit it: you know all the lyrics to Rent) about measuring your life in love? Well, based on these year-end book review posts, I’m pretty sure I’ll be measuring my life in books. What’s so interesting about looking back on the round-up posts from last year and the year before is the way they evoke a sense of time and place way more than pictures do. Not only do I remember where I was while reading a particular book, I can vividly recall how I felt while reading that book. Same for the books of this year, which were all consumed under varying circumstances–flights to Australia, periods of Craiglessness while he was shooting his movie, at my favorite coffee shop in New York as the weather turned cold–and all of them worked different kinds of magic on me, altering my moods, my attitudes, my feelings about the world and life in general. And so, here they are, the books that I read in 2013.
The Ask by Sam Lipsyte. Sometimes you start reading a work by a writer you don’t know and a thing happens–something clicks–and you feel instantly connected, privately amused; like suddenly the voice in your head that’s been there all along has been captured, more wittily, more vividly, by a person far more talented than you. That happened to me when I first read a short story by Sam Lipsyte in The New Yorker. I don’t remember much about the story except I found it unbearably hilarious; I was reading it by the pool at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs and way more than the margarita I was sipping, the story got me drunk with its offbeat humor and dark sensibility. Which is why, soon after, I bought Lipsyte’s novel and had an equally delightful time reading it. Though the plot is smart and resonant and relevant and all that (something about a college and a guy who has to raise money for it and a wealthy old friend and his son) what makes the book so fun to read is the voice behind it. If you like things that are acidic and arch (how’s that for A-literation), this is the book for you.
Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles. In case you missed the saga, two years ago, Craig bought me five books that John Waters listed as his favorites in his memoir / book of essays, Role Models. Instead of reading those books, I read Role Models. Craig held a grudge until I finally picked up one of those books, In Youth Is Pleasure (by Denton Welch), and loved it. This year I continued working my way through the John Waters books with We Need To Talk About Kevin (we’ll get to that in a bit, but it’s my favorite book that I read this year) and this very strange, very wonderful book by Jane Bowles called Two Serious Ladies. How to describe it? Well, it’s utterly unconventional yet deeply compelling; perhaps the best book I’ve ever read about the importance of travel, not in the sense of going to see a new country for the food and the culture, but to really lose yourself and to rediscover yourself in a totally foreign, exotic place. The book charts the journeys of two women, society women, who are barely acquaintances; one finds herself in South America with her husband, the other finds herself becoming a regular at a seedy bar just outside of town. The two stories don’t overlap, really, but they reflect each other in profound ways. Plus: the book is a lot of fun to read in a naughty, glass of champagne in the afternoon kind of way. I hope to reread it someday.
Notes on a Cowardly Lion by John Lahr. It’s not an exaggeration to say that John Lahr’s book, Prick Up Your Ears (a biography of the playwright Joe Orton) changed my life. Upon reading it (back in 2003, working as an intern at a law firm in L.A.) I was inspired to write a play called Tragedy At Camp Zebullon which I recklessly, and perhaps bravely, submitted to three graduate schools in playwriting: Yale, Julliard and NYU. When the acceptance letter came from the latter, my life instantly changed. It was there that I’d become a writer, sell my first book, meet Craig and most of my closest friends. Was it all because of that one book? It’s possible. After reading it, I bought a bunch of other Lahr books–a collection of his profiles, Show and Tell (which I still absolutely love: his profile of Roseanne is essential reading), biographies of Dame Edna and Cole Porter–but the one I’ve always wanted to read that I hadn’t gotten around to is the one that I read this year, the biography of his father, Bert Lahr, Notes on a Cowardly Lion. What makes this book so powerful is that it forces Lahr, who normally keeps himself at a distance from his subjects (he writes in a smart, bemused, mostly academic style) to emote–however covertly–through the text. What you get, from this book, is a real sense of what it’s like to grow up the child of a beloved celebrity; the darkness that lurks beneath a famous smile. For example, Lahr talks about watching The Wizard of Oz at home with his family; his dad at his desk, back to the TV, occasionally spinning around and poo-pooing his own work. It’s a mixture of self-hatred and self-love that fuels his father to the superstardom he attains; there’s also a deep sense of existential angst which he channels, famously, in the first American production of Waiting For Godot. The book takes you step by step through the making of an American icon and the unmaking that ensues, privately, at home.
The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan. The next time you go to New York, do yourself a favor: head down to the Three Lives bookstore in the West Village and let one of the people there steer you towards a book. Carol never fails me. She recommended this book in February, when it was icy and gray outside, and it was a perfect pairing of weather and content. Imagine a pulpy werewolf book imbued with style, sensitivity and sophistication, and you’ll get the idea here. There’s a lot of plot that happens–the protagonist lives up to the title, he really is the last werewolf–but the turns come quick and genuinely take you by surprise. Some are upsetting. There’s also graphic sex, insane violence, lavish settings: think James Bond by way of True Blood. As much as I enjoyed myself reading it, I’m not necessarily eager to read the sequel (Talulah Rising). Maybe that says something.
Relish by Lucy Knisley. File this one under “C” for “Cute.” I’ll confess, when I saw the blurb from Alison Bechdel on the cover (see last year’s post for how much I loved Fun Home and Are You My Mother?) I was expecting something equally deep and profound. But this one’s more of a lark, a well-written, well-drawn culinary memoir that’s heavy on the whimsy and light on the introspection. There’s some of it, by way of her parents, both of whom love food in interesting, personal ways (her dad loves to eat out at restaurants, her mom is a fantastic cook). You’ll also find recipes: mostly stuff you’ve seen before, though drawn in a delightful way. I wanted to love this book more than I did because it had all of the elements of things that I love (food, humor, heart). Instead, it felt pretty slight; the kind of thing you can read on a plane or a train or an automobile (if you don’t get carsick) before moving on to something more substantial. Still, as a stocking stuffer (too late!) it’s totally apropos.
The first 100 pages of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. No image here because I don’t get credit, even if I read 100 pages. Here’s the thing: I was enjoying it! It’s really wonderful. I got as far as Pierre and his father dying, which is a wonderful sequence, and then I was going away to the San Juan islands and the book was really heavy and I decided to bring something lighter, both in content and weight. When I got back from my trip (we’re in summer now), I’d lost touch with this book and left it buried in my nightstand. A shame, too, because every year I try to read something really challenging and important and this book would’ve given me several years worth of vouchers. Maybe I’ll pick it up again in 2014.
The Boy Who Followed Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. So here’s my beach read, which I found at the used book store in Atwater Village (one of my favorite places, actually, for books and cookbooks; corroborated by L.A. Weekly which named it the best used bookstore in L.A.). I’d never read a Ripley book, and it felt strange to start here–a totally obscure one that I’d never heard of–but I’m happy with my choice. What makes this book (and I imagine most of the Ripley books) so intriguing is how very gay they are without being explicitly gay. This one comes close. The basic premise is a high school student starts stalking Ripley around town and you find out he’s on the run, blah blah blah, Ripley takes him to Germany. They go to a dirty gay bar. There’s a kidnapping. Um (spoiler alert!) Ripley dons drag. I suppose the fun of this book is how very dated it is. The shame of gayness percolates under every scene so that, to really understand what’s happening, you have to imagine a time where gay things were totally verboten. The frisson between who Ripley is on the surface and who he is underneath fuels the narrative. Otherwise, it would be on the level of any mystery/detective story. The ending, though, is surprising and worthwhile. A good beach read if you like gay stuff that’s buried under the surface.
* We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. This is definitely the best book that I read this year. I know that because it got under my skin in such a profound way, I needed an antidote when I was done (see next book). Even though I knew what to expect when I started reading it, I had no idea what I was in for. Yes, it’s a book about a mother whose son shoots up a school (how appropriate in this day and age) but it’s way more complex than anything you can imagine. For starters, it’s funny. The book is narrated by the mother character and her observations are so wry and trenchant, she lures you into her world bit by bit, until you feel utterly complicit in everything that unfolds, including the nightmare scenario at the end. Don’t let anyone spoil it for you, by the way. There are surprises in store. What the book ultimately explores is the nature of evil, questions of nature vs. nurture and, finally, how you reconcile the awful with the sublime during your short time on earth. Warning: some scenes are so graphic and disturbing, you may have nightmares. Really grisly stuff. But, trust me, it’s worth it; a truly masterful book.
Cooking For Mr. Latte by Amanda Hesser. I hardly ever re-read books and yet, after reading We Need To Talk About Kevin, my soul was smarting so much, I needed a tonic and this book was it. The short little essays that lead up to recipes all put a smile on my face and, more importantly, the love story that enfolds here (with New Yorker writer Tad Friend) still charms after all these years. Funny, though; when I first discovered this book (here’s my original review from 2004), I was so naive about the food world and everyone in it, this book just sort of came out of the blue and I took it for what it was. Now I also (despite my resistance) see it through the jaded eyes of Gawker readers and Hesser-detractors (like The Gurgling Cod) who find her pretentious and cloying and insincere. To all of them, I cry “humbug.” What makes Hesser so excellent at what she does is her willingness to be vulnerable, to render herself unlikable. She’s always authentically Amanda, for better or for worse. I only wish she didn’t let the detractors get under her skin. I want another Amanda Hesser book, more articles, more personal reflections. Food52 is great, Mr. Latte is better.
All Gone by Alex Witchel. In case you missed it, I had Alex Witchel on my podcast earlier this year. Wanting to live up to my reputation as a “professional” (no, not a hooker), I made sure to read this book carefully before our interview. Then we had all kinds of snafus–Skype difficulties, miscommunications, technological glitches–that almost made our interview not happen. But it happened and I’m so glad it did because this memoir is truly a remarkable work, a candid tale of a daughter dealing with her mother’s dementia while trying to piece together the recipes she loved in her childhood. I got a big kick out of those recipes; they’re the opposite of “foodie,” they’re just very real: salami and eggs. Blasted chicken breasts with garlic and rosemary. Chefs will recoil, normal people will rejoice. The most harrowing part of the book, though, had little to do with her mother and a lot to do with her father: as I mentioned in the podcast, there’s a scene where her father, annoyed at Witchel for being glib, punches her in the nose. That moment made my heart beat fast; it was fascinating to hear Witchel talk about the process of telling that story and how her father reacted to it in real life. Overall, the book is a sensitive exploration of a disease that many of us will have to face–whether ourselves or with our loved ones–at some point in our lives, written with style and verve.
The first 100 pages of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. You’re going to yell at me. Let me start out by saying that I read Kafka on the Shore a few years ago and genuinely loved it; it was so weird and dream-like and transportive. Same here, only this one kept slipping away from me. Every time I’d pick it up, I’d have to pep myself up again to read it. Maybe it’s just too long. Or maybe I wasn’t in the right head space to read it. I don’t know. A good test, though, if you’re on the fence about a book is this: if, after 100 pages, you don’t care about what happens next, you probably don’t need to keep reading it. That’s where I was and so I let it go.
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson. And here it is, the last book that I read in 2013. I finished it over Christmas and, yet again, it was selected for me by Carol at Three Lives. This one I liked even better than The Last Werewolf. That one was all gothic and gory; this one was light, witty, but also deeply emotional. It’s about the children of two performance artists who are totally screwed up in their adult lives. They move back home to get their lives together and, in doing so, begin a sequence of events that will take them deeper and deeper into a profound truth about themselves and their parents. At times, the book seems maybe a little too light on its feet (a bit wink-winky) but most of the time, the book hits exactly the right note; like The Royal Tenenbaums, only in novel form. A good book for the end of 2013.
More Amateur Gourmet:
Favorite Food Sites:
- 101 Cookbooks
- Chez Pim
- Chocolate and Zucchini
- David Lebovitz
- Serious Eats
- Simply Recipes
- Slice NY
- The Food Section