2017 – A Year in Books

In 1987, I began keeping a list of the title and author of every book I finished reading. I started near the back of a notebook/journal and, in August 1998, I filled the last page. So I went back to the first page of my list and started filling in pages going backwards toward the front of the notebook from there. In 2017, I still have a few more blank pages left before I run into other content, and when I do I’ll have to figure out how to keep going. Sometimes I think about rewriting the whole list in a new blank notebook, and I guess that will ultimately have to be the solution – or at least keep going in a whole new notebook. Anyway, I have a couple of years before I have to decide.

Meanwhile, 2017.

My list of books does not contain the date I finished a particular book. I just have at the top of each page the range of dates. I write the month and year I finished the first book on that page, and when I get to the bottom of the page, add that month and year. So my last three pages are marked “April 16 – February 17,” February 17 – October 17,” and the current partially filled page “October 17 –       .”

Part of the pleasure of the list, for me, is looking at titles and thinking about where/when I read them. I can’t always pinpoint even a month, especially going back a few years. But looking at the 2016-2017 page I know clearly which books were the first I finished in 2017. The first was James, a novel written by my then 10 year old son. It is eight chapters (and consequently eight handwritten pages) long. It tells the story of a runaway slave during the Civil War and my son would really like me to type it up and make it for sale on Amazon. I am so proud and amazed that he finished it and am, frankly, jealous that I never finished writing a novel until high school. He is so far ahead of me in so many ways.

The next book I read (and I promise I’m not going to go over every single one) was Make ‘Em Laugh by Debbie Reynolds. At the time I, along with the rest of the world, was still reeling from the loss of Debbie and her daughter. I had, coincidentally, just finished reading one of Carrie’s books about a month before they died. Sigh. I now cherish even more the autographed photo of Debbie I have stored in a closet somewhere.

 

When I count them all up, it looks like I read a total of 72 books this year. That includes audiobooks.I was reluctant, for many years, to include audiobooks in my main list. But I eventually started consuming a lot more audiobooks (thanks largely to the wonderful Hoopla app tied to my local library) and in 2016 began listing them just like any other book.

Here are a few of the books I read last year that stick out to me when I read through my list.

Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon. Very inspirational about creating things and, particularly, about not being afraid to share your process.

Sapiens by Yuval Harari. Fascinating book about how our ability to believe in fictions defines our species.

The Hunter by Richard Stark. Several years ago I read The Score, an excellent thriller about a criminal named Parker. This year I saw audiobooks of the series available on Hoopla and began listening to them from the beginning. They’re relatively short and always enjoyable. I think I’m up to number 11 in the series now. I intersperse a Parker novel here and there amongst the others. I guess I’ve averaged about one a month, probably more since I began them in February or March.

Infinite Tuesday by Michael Nesmith. A sort of memoir by my favorite Monkee. He’s had a fascinating life and I think the audio version is definitely the way to go. I loved hearing him tell his own story.

Dreaming the Beatles by Rob Sheffield. Loved it. I listened to it on audio and had to also go buy the print edition so I could reread sections at my leisure.

South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby. I wrote about this one when I finished it. Terrific. It would make a great setting for a TV series.

Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen. Explains how we got to this surreal moment in history.

Vacationland by John Hodgman. Another one I highly recommend on audio. Hodgman has a great voice anyway, and listening to him tell these stories adds an extra dimension. He’s a charming, funny, and wise person, as well as a great storyteller, and all those qualities come through here.

I look at my list and I keep seeing more and more books I loved. I could go on and on. It’s been a good year of reading for me.

What are your favorite 2017 reads?

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Context

Today I started listening to the book How Music Works by David Byrne.

I was struck by the opening sections, by the thesis he lays out, and am looking forward to hearing how he develops it further.

context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung, or performed. That doesn’t sound like much of an insight, but it’s actually backward from conventional wisdom, which maintains that creation emerges out of some interior emotion, from an upwelling of passion or feeling, and that the creative urge will brook no accommodation, that it simply must find an outlet to be heard, read, or seen. The classical composer gets a strange look in his or her eye and begins scribbling furiously. The rock-and-roll singer is driven by desire and demons, and out bursts this amazing song. This is the romantic notion of how creative work comes to be, but I think the path of creation is almost 180º from this model. I believe that we unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit preexisting formats.

My thoughts immediately drifted to the theatre, and how certain choices – particularly the choice of where you stage your show – determine a lot about the overall shape of the production. I also thought about theatre classes I took in college, and the methods of play analysis I learned. Essentially, the whole point of the classes was learning that the context of the play’s creation – the historical and cultural forces at work when the play was written – are fundamental pieces required to help understand the work itself.

These are just half formed thoughts, typed here while one of my kids babbles to the dog in a very annoyingly distracting singsong voice, so I can barely think at all. So that’s the context of this blog post and the reason why it’s likely not coming together as a coherent piece.

Act One

I’m currently reading (listening to, actually) Act One, an autobiography by Moss Hart. It’s both a seminal theatre work and a highly enjoyable read (listen).

Moss Hart co-wrote several classics, including You Can’t Take It With You, a play I did in high school (which reminds me of a line from the New York Times review of a recent revival: “Those who saw, or performed in, You Can’t Take It With You in high school should not let that trauma taint the Broadway revival of that show.”).

Hart also directed the original productions of My Fair Lady and Camelot, so the guy was no slouch.

This is a book that, frankly, I wish I’d read when I was young and impressionable. His drive and ambition, as well as his ability to keep going despite setbacks, is inspirational. I suspect this book resulted in a lot of people moving to NYC over the years, in pursuit of theatrical careers. But few of them had Hart’s talent or – as he would likely be the first to admit – his luck. It’s a wonderful story, well told.

UPDATE:

I finished this afternoon and the ending is fantastic. What a story. What a life.

Frank Rich wrote this about Act One, and it encapsulates the book’s appeal: “Hart’s memoir is one of the great American autobiographies because it gives a certain kind of reader hope. It says you can escape a home where you feel you don’t belong, you can escape a town you find suffocating, you can follow a passion (the theater, but not just the ­theater) that is ridiculed by your peers, you can—with hard work, luck, and stamina—forge a career doing what you love. However modest or traumatic your beginnings, you can find your way to Oz—and you don’t have to go back to Kansas anymore.”

Lisa’s Book

One of the best things social media – and particularly Twitter – did for me was introduce me to Lisa Bonchek Adams. She was funny and snarky and wise.

She began most days by sending out this message:

Find a bit of beauty in the world today.
Share it.
If you can’t find it, create it.
Some days this may be hard to do.
Persevere.

When I met her, she was already a breast cancer survivor. She used her website as well as her presence on Twitter to raise awareness of metastatic breast cancer and help people work through grief.  She was tremendously helpful to me when my own father died.

In 2012, she learned her cancer had returned and she chronicled her journey -its highs and lows – for all of us. In 2015, she died.

Last month, her brother and her mother put out a book of Lisa’s writings. It is “a guide for patients, families, friends and caregivers, written in Lisa’s unique writing style—part poetry, journal and memoir.”

A wonderful tribute to a wonderful person, someone I still think about all the time even though, sadly, we never met in person.

Sometimes social media seems to be hastening the rise of hatred and division. But it can also introduce us to people who touch our lives in ways we never could have anticipated.

Interview with author Kristina Riggle

I can’t remember how I came across Kristina Riggle on Twitter. Do any of us really remember how we stumbled across the people we follow?

We bonded over our children’s love of Star Wars and, in particular, the Wilhelm Scream. I’ve enjoyed her tweets as an insight into both her personal life and her writing life. Naturally, then, I’ve always rooted for her as an author.

So I was particularly delighted when she recently reported that an old novel of hers, Things We Didn’t Say, had seen a sales bump and was suddenly a USA Today Bestseller.

I enjoyed her most recent novel, Vivian in Red, which takes place in Broadway’s tin pan alley days. It tells the story of Milo Short, a producer who, nearing the end of his life, is haunted by a woman he hasn’t seen since the 1930’s. It’s up to Milo’s misfit granddaughter, Eleanor, to piece together the fragments of the mystery woman’s life and finally tell the real story behind Milo’s greatest song.

When the novel came out in paperback earlier this year, I published an interview with Kristina Riggle on BroadwayWorld.

South Pole Station

I went through a long period of fascination with Antarctica, especially the doomed Scott expedition. I don’t know how much of that was spurred by the 20th Century Vole motion picture and how much might have been just a natural progression from the general cuteness of penguins. In high school, I wanted to mount a production of Terra Nova, but our drama teacher just laughed at me. In the nineties, I filled out an application to join Antarctic Support Associates and become a south pole worker.

 

I recently finished listening to a very entertaining novel called South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby and when it was done I was glad I’d never actually mailed that application.

The book gives an insider look at pole life while also offering sharp characters and some interesting discussions of science. I had some visceral reactions (which, for good or ill, I tweeted to the author) and generally found myself eager to return to the audiobook as often as I could. I loved it.