Category Archives: Books

Best Books 2022

I’m such a slow reader. (And you should see me texting; my kid acted like I was torturing her when she witnessed me one-finger plucking at my phone screen.) Every year I try to read 2 books a month. (Aim high!) In 2022 I read the exact same number of books that I did in 2021: 27, or 1 every 13.5 days. Pitiful, I know, but enough to draw a top ten list from. Here are the best books I read in 2022:

3FCEF26DDF2EB122470A88FDDA23FD8DD1F588A81. The Night the Lights Went Out: A Memoir of Life After Brain Damage, Drew Magary. I actually own this book because I checked it out of the library and took it in a backpack somewhere; my lovely wife Jen finished almost all of a smoothie and stuck it in the backpack. When we got home, the whole book was purple from the smoothie leftovers. “Why would you put it in with the book?!?” I asked. She said, “I thought the lid was secure.” So I had to reimburse the library for the book, and I got to keep it. Good thing I liked it! Magary tells the harrowing story of how, one night out singing karaoke with co-workers, something happens that leaves him hospitalized; not only does he describe his recovery from a traumatic brain injury, but he also goes back to try to piece together the mystery of what happened to him. (It’s Rashomon-like; no one witnessed his fall but many people were present that night.) What might surprise you is that this is a very funny book, and Magary is able to find the humor in even the darkest moments of his life.

9781911231424-us2. Now Is Not the Time to Panic, Kevin Wilson. “The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.” Frankie Budge, settled into her adult life, receives a call from a reporter asking if those words mean anything to her. For years, Budge has hidden the truth behind her role in causing a mass panic in her small hometown of Coalfield, Tennessee, that spread around the world. This funny and introspective novel toggles between present-day Frankie and her 1996 self, an awkward teen who makes a connection with a new boy in her town one summer, and how what they created sent them down different paths.

9780593542163-us3. This Time Tomorrow, Emma Straub. I’m not a fan of time-travel stories. And yet here I am, recommending Straub’s “what if we can go back” novel. About to celebrate her 40th birthday, Alice wakes up in her childhood home, on her 16th birthday, in 1996. Startled by how different her life has turned out from what she imagined when she was young, Alice seeks to “fix” things in hopes of ending up in a different place at age 40. It asks the question, “What would you change if you could go back?” It’s also an examination of the father-daughter bond, and a heartbreaker in exploring how far we would go to get our parents back to who we need them to be for us.

9780063215689-us4. Mika in Real Life, Emiko Jean. There’s a theme in these last three books: grown-up characters confronting their teenage years and asking if they are who they thought they could become when they were young. In this romantic novel, thirtysomething Mika, her life a shambles, receives an out-of-the-blue call from Penny, the girl she gave up for adoption while in college. Attempting to impress Penny, Mika embellishes her work and relationship situations. When Penny decides to visit with her adoptive father, Thomas, Mika has to choose which part of her to expose to them. This novel explores cultural challenges with adoption, dreams gone haywire, and what it means to truly face our own inadequacies.

51SGTsvGrUL._AC_SY400_5. The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, Kevin Birmingham. Reading Joyce’s Ulysses was a rite of passage and a long, hard slog for college English majors like me. Some passages are pure poetry; some are like deciphering hieroglyphics; and the most controversial parts, the ones addressed in this book, are, let’s face it, raunchy. Joyce and his publishers spent decades trying to get his book published in various countries, it was banned in the UK, the United States, and most of Europe for obscenity. This book opens up the legal proceedings, the unlikely patrons on both sides of the Atlantic to supported Joyce financially (and illegally printed and distributed his book), and the ramifications of the landmark 1933 federal obscenity trial. Ultimately, Joyce’s backers argued, if we censor a book because someone, somewhere, of some young age, might be offended by it, then the only things that would ever get published would be G-rated. Also enlightening were the letters between Joyce and his wife/muse, Nora Barnacle, although they were even raunchier than what got his book banned!

9780802159236-us6. Architects of An American Landscape, Hugh Howard. The subtitle of this dual biography is “Henry Hobson Richardson, Frederick Law Olmsted, and the Reimagining of America’s Public and Private Spaces.” Whew! Was Howard paid by the word for that title? This book delves into the friendship and collaboration between Olmsted, regarded as the world’s first and foremost landscape designer (New York’s Central Park, the Biltmore Estate, many other naturescapes throughout the world) and Richardson, the most influential architect of his time who has largely been forgotten, even though his influence endures. They could not have been more different: Olmstead was thin, reserved, and lived to be 81, while Richardson was obese, had a lust for life and celebrating it, and died at age 47. Howard proposes that, in a way, the greatness of Olmsted can only be viewed as an outcome of his working with Richardson.

9781529399349-us7. Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama, Bob Odenkirk. You might know Odenkirk for his role as Saul Goodman from “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul.” It surprises many to know that his long career before those dark dramas was all comedic. Hence the book’s title, which is one of my youngest child’s favorites; if she hears the word “comedy,” she yells out, “comedy comedy comedy drama!” Odenkirk writes of his tough upbringing in the Chicago area and his difficult relationship with his dad, his friendship with the legendary Second City founder Del Close, and his baffled bemusement at becoming better known for serious roles than for his turns as a writer for “Saturday Night Live” and writing and acting on “The Ben Stiller Show” and “Mr. Show with Bob and David.”

9780063065246-us8. The Boys: A Memoir of Hollywood and Family, Ron and Clint Howard. The Howard brothers alternate chapters in this story of their childhoods and diverging paths into adulthood, Ron as the award-winning director and Clint as a character actor (who appears in all of Ron’s films). “The boys” in the title refers to what their mother called not just the brothers but also their father Rance, himself an actor of varying success. Ron and Clint aren’t afraid to address their own shortcomings (including Clint’s struggles with drugs and alcohol and living in his more successful brother’s shadow). On the heels of their father passing away, Ron and Clint wrote what amounts to a love letter to their parents and a way to tell them that all of their sacrifices for their children were worthwhile.

9781641292979-us9. Slow Horses, Mick Herron. Herron’s Slough House novels are now a TV series on Apple TV+, taking its title from this first book in the series. “Slow horses” are what disgraced MI5 spies are referred to, as they are sent to work out of Slough House and attempt to rehabilitate their careers under the command of Jackson Lamb. River Cartwright, whose career got derailed before it even began by a botched training session, sees an opportunity to change his image when a terrorist cell threatens to air a kidnapped man’s beheading on live television. But all is not what it seems, and Slough House might be hiding secrets of its own. A true page turner and also full of humor.

9780345476395-us10. The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, Mark Kurlansky. I came across this history book when someone on a podcast mentioned it in discussing the famed New York-New Jersey Harbor estuary, and that when Europeans first arrived in America, the waters of the rivers surrounding Manhattan were so thick with sea life that you could reach your hand in the water and pull out fish after fish. I had to read this book. The oysters alone drove commerce in New York; from the seventeenth century until well into the twentieth, New York’s oysters fed the world and drove the development of both the riverside slums and the Gilded Age mansions of Manhattan. The oysters’ filtration system kept the water in the harbor clean until the oyster beds’ eventual, inevitable overfishing and collapse. A cautionary tale for sure.

Books that just missed the top ten: Where the Deer and the Antelope Play, Nick Offerman; Into the Rip, Damien Cave; Mean Baby, Selma Blair; You Can’t Be Serious, Kal Penn.

Best Books 2021

When I was a grade schooler in the (ahem) late 1970s, I loved going to the school library at the center of the school building’s top floor. The library room was a pass-through: on one side was a door that led to the 3rd and 4th grade rooms, and on the other side was the door to the 5th and 6th grade rooms. Weirdly, each grade’s two classes were in one big room separated by either an accordion wall or just moveable bulletin boards, and for example, to get to the 5th grade rooms, you had to traipse through the back of the 6th grade rooms. So it was a constant stream of interruptions, with children or teachers or whole classes of children and teachers opening the main door and walking behind the desks of all the other classes; no wonder I have attention-span issues.

UnknownAnyway, back to the library: I fell in love with a certain type of book: realistic stories of kids leading normal lives. I didn’t want to read science fiction or horror or fantasy or anything that was too far out of the real world. The books that got all the attention were the Judy Blume books, specifically Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Otherwise Known As Sheila the Great, and Superfudge. So funny and relatable for kids trying to figure out how to navigate the world. Those led me to books by another author, Constance C. Greene, and her five “Al” books:  A Girl Called Al; I Know You, Al; Your Old Pal, Al; Alexandra the Great; Just Plain Al; and Al’s Blind Date. There was something about the way she wrote with heart and warmth about characters my age who weren’t idiots that appealed to me, even though I didn’t have divorced parents or live in an apartment building in a big city like they did. I bring this up because Greene, who published 25 books, passed away in 2021, at the age of 96. If you have a grade schooler or know a grade schooler (or are a grade schooler, or act like a grade schooler), track her books down.

I managed to reach my annual “24 books by New Year’s Eve” goal: I read 27 books, or 1 every 13.5 days. These are my top ten:

Unknown1. This Will All Be Over Soon, Cecily Strong. You might know Strong, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, from Saturday Night Live, but this book is not a typical memoir and isn’t a book of funny stories or “how I got famous.” It deals with some heavy topics: the death of Strong’s close cousin at age 30, some painful events from her youth, and a fledgling relationship during the pandemic. I was avoiding reading “pandemic” books, but this one was worth it. Very honest, raw, and unexpected.

Unknown2. Bewilderment, Richard Powers. The multiple-award-winning author (National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize) who grew up in the Chicago suburbs (is this a pattern on this list?), Powers’ latest novel had a few things going on. This is a story about a father and son dealing with grief; a science-fiction story about searching for life on other planets; and a comment on topics as diverse as climate change and the overmedication of our youth. It took me about a third of the book to figure out what was going on; that’s a sign that a book has my attention.

Unknown3. No Cure for Being Human (and Other Truths I Need to Hear), Kate Bowler. Another searing memoir, this time from a professor of religion who, at the age of 35, receives a cancer diagnosis that puts her life on hold. She walks us through the frustration and absurdity of dealing with her illness; the often misguided suggestions of the “live your best life now” self-help movement; and how to balance hope and despair while facing death.

Unknown4. Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney. It seems as if I have an Irish writer on my list every year. Rooney, tagged with the “voice of her generation” label, has already had one novel turned into a BBC series (Normal People). This novel follows four characters: an Irish novelist living in a small coastal Ireland town; her Tinder date/new friend, a warehouse worker; and her two best friends from Dublin, a man and woman who may or may not have a thing for each other. Filled with Rooney’s droll humor, frank sex scenes, class issues, and ruminations on art, aesthetics, and history, it also mirrors Richard Powers’ book (described above) in addressing a generation that feels that the world as we know it is beyond repair.

Unknown5. Stories to Tell, Richard Marx. Memoir from another Chicagoland native (it is a trend!). You might know Marx from his massively successful pop ballads from the late 1980s-early 1990s (“Don’t Mean Nothing,” “Right Here Waiting,” “Hold On to the Nights”) or from his massively poufed hair. You should know him for his ability to speak his mind on social media. This book is the best type of memoir: a rise/fall/rise again story with tons of name dropping (Lionel Richie, Whitney Houston, Madonna, Kenny Rogers, Barbra Streisand, Kenny Loggins, and a cast of dozens more) and wild stories you don’t see coming, like his dealing with a Covid-like illness starting in 2019, or his band fleeing a Taiwanese gangster on a race to the airport. Good read.

Unknown6. How to Live, or A  Life of Montaigne, Sarah Bakewell. This biography examines the life and writing of Michel de Montaigne, whose essays in the 1500s in France arguably were the first time someone wrote honestly about their innermost thoughts and published them for the world to see. There’s a through-line from his writing to the personal blogs and Instagram of today. You have the sense when reading Montaigne all these centuries later of, “how did he spell out what has been in my brain?” Some 250 years after Montaigne’s death, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life.” Bakewell puts Montaigne’s writing in the context of the constant wars raging around his hometown his whole life.

Unknown7. Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory, Deena Kastor. Kastor, the great American marathoner, writes the story of how strengthening her mind did more for her running career than logging miles ever did. Not just for runners, her backstory is amazing enough (adopted at birth, no one in her family had any running experience, and it was a total shock to them and her when she immediately had success in grade school), but the mind games she lays out would work for anyone struggling with goal setting.

Unknown8. Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches, John Hodgman. A great summer read, humorist Hodgman is recognizable as the PC in the old Apple commercials (vs. Justin Long as the Mac) and as a former Comedy Central The Daily Show correspondent. His earlier books were satirical almanacs with made-up facts; this is an actual memoir of Hodgman’s life, focusing on his family’s vacation homes in Massachusetts and Maine. Very funny.

Unknown9. Brat: An ’80s Story, Andrew McCarthy. Best known as a member of the “Brat Pack,” young actors labeled Hollywood’s next big thing; even though McCarthy was in some of what we consider the “Brat Pack” films (“Pretty in Pink,” “St. Elmo’s Fire,” “Less Than Zero”), he was a New Yorker who wasn’t actually close with any of the other actors he was lumped with. McCarthy, now a travel writer and director, focuses on the early, years-of-struggling part of his career and his difficult relationship with his father.

Unknown10. Yearbook, Seth Rogen. The funniest book I read all year. This memoir is pretty much what you would expect and more from Rogen, an actor/writer/producer: stories from when he was a child, including starting his standup career in middle school; lots of weed smoking; and great vignettes about famous people (his description of two very uncomfortable encounters with Nicolas Cage is a standout, and I’m guessing they will never work together if Cage read this book.)

Books that just missed the top ten: I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy, Erin Carlson; Before the Ruins, Victoria Gosling; Good Company, Cynthia D’Aprix; Live Your Life, Amanda Kloots; Paul Simon: A Life, Robert Hilburn.

Best Books 2020

Can somebody poke a stick in 2020 and see if it’s really dead? I’ve procrastinated on doing my year-end book and movie lists because I can’t shake the feeling that we’re still slogging through last year. For the second year in a row, I got bogged down in a book that took me a ridiculous amount of time to read. Plus, it didn’t even make the list! (It was a feel-bad-about-what-we’ve-done-to-the-world New York Times bestseller with the subtitle A Brief History of Humankind. It was not brief, and it was not kind to humans.) I spent a lot of time reading up on the global pandemic and not enough on reading books for enjoyment; I read 23 books, or one every 15.9 days. Anyway, here are the ten best books I read last year:

511ZpFF6RuL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_1. Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu. This novel is either (a) the story of Willis Wu, an actor who can only get certain “Generic Asian Man” jobs in film (and never the leads) because he is of Asian descent, or (b) the screenplay for a kung fu movie in which Willis acts, filmed in his Chinatown neighborhood, or (c) the inner thoughts of an actor on the set of a buddy-cop TV show, or…There’s a reason this book won the National Book Award for Fiction last year. Funny, imaginative, deals with deeper issues like immigration, racism in Hollywood and the wider world, and how assimilation affects different generations of a family. I kept thinking, “Ah, now I know what’s happening,” and then things would change again.

81VYo5yM+HL2. Horror Stories: A Memoir, Liz Phair. Phair is a Chicago-raised musician who came to fame with her 1993 Exile in Guyville album, and anyone familiar with her stuff would not be surprised to know that this is not a typical celebrity name-dropper memoir. It’s a nonlinear recounting of dark moments in Phair’s life (there’s a reason the title is not Happy Stories), and she’s never more clear-eyed than when she examines her own failings. (In recalling an affair that ended two marriages, she says of herself and the other guy: “We both wholly and totally suck as human beings and we know it.”) She doesn’t talk much about her songs, which is fine; she speaks especially to young women who need to hear how to navigate a world (specifically, the music industry) that doesn’t exactly roll out the red carpet for them to show their talents.

61ypIeAVG7L3. Sweet Sorrow, David Nicholls. I can tell how much I’m enjoying a book by how frequently I want to interrupt my lovely wife Jen and read her the funny parts from it. I did that a lot with this one; I kept saying, “You should read this book, but let me tell you about this one section.” Eventually, I told her the whole plot and the ending. (Ruining books and movies for my wife; that’s part of my rascally charm.) In Nicholls’ book, Charlie Lewis is about to get married in London, but he gets invited to the 20-year reunion of a theater troupe that he belonged to one summer when he was 16 years old. In flashbacks, we hear the story of how this directionless kid with a falling-apart family follows a girl into a building and gets talked into acting in a local production of “Romeo and Juliet.” There are really four or five stories going on here, and Nicholls jumps back and forth, leaving us wondering what happened in his relationships with his father, his friends, and his teen crush, and what’s going to happen to him at the reunion and with his fiancee.

41ccu2CHdgL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_4. When All Is Said: A Novel, Anne Griffin. 84-year-old Maurice Hannigan sits down at a hotel bar in his small Irish town and, throughout the course of an afternoon and evening, offers five silent whiskey toasts to the people who have meant the most to him in his lifetime. We hear the story of his life, his loves, his regrets, and one secret that he has kept since his teen years that changed the course of two families for generations. Hard to believe that this is a debut novel.

Unknown5. What Makes Olga Run?, Bruce Grierson. My neighbor loaned me this book because she knew I’m a runner and would like it. The hilariously long subtitle says it all: The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives. Grierson is a reporter who had heard about this nonagenarian track star, Olga Kotelko, and how she kept getting faster and stronger as she aged. He convinced her to allow him to put her through a battery of tests (physical, DNA, mental) to see if he could find the keys to her astonishing accolades and longevity. (At the time of the book, Olga held 23 age-group world records in track and field events.) Was it her genes? Her exercise? Her diet? Where she lived? A fascinating story of one woman’s life and how her resilience shaped her success.

Unknown6. Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt, Steven Johnson. I love reading good pirate stories, and this one’s about the seventeenth century’s most notorious pirate, who has somehow been all but forgotten. Henry Every commandeered a ship on which he served, aimed it toward India, and led a ruthless assault on an Indian royal convoy that led to one of the most lucrative robberies in seafaring history. The worldwide manhunt and bounty that the British government placed on his head led to the first global effort to stop piracy, and in the process, the British and Indian governments’ and the British East India Company’s roles in the outcome changed the course of world history and led to the rise of multinational capitalism. Think I’m exaggerating? Then read the book!

images7. True Grit, Charles Portis. I had watched the original movie version of this 1968 book, with John Wayne as one-eyed US Marshall Rooster Cogburn, helping a 14-year-old Mattie Ross avenge her father’s death at the hands of his farmhand, Tom Chaney. The John Wayne version had a lighter tone than the Joel and Ethan Coen-produced remake; I heard that the book had way more humor than one might expect after watching the films. Portis’ only western novel tells the story of an elderly Mattie Ross recounting what happened in her childhood in Arkansas in the 1870s. After Chaney kills her father, young Mattie seeks out the toughest lawman she can find, and matches up with Cogburn. A Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, who has been tracking Chaney, comes along, and they end up taking on the notorious Ned Pepper gang. A dryly funny page turner.

Unknown8. Less, Andrew Sean Greer. This Pulitzer Prize winner tells the story of Arthur Less, a (mostly failing) novelist about to turn 50, who gets an invitation to his ex-boyfriend’s wedding. Seeking an excuse to avoid it, he decides to say yes to an unusual series of adventures that take him around the world, from Paris to Morocco to Berlin to India. A picaresque novel that was a great summer read during my travel-free quarantine summer.

images9. Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard, Douglas W. Tallamy. Did the subtitle already put you to sleep? Well, wake up, America! Because Tallamy proposes a new national park, one that stretches from sea to sea and runs through every homeowner’s backyard. Dubbed Homegrown National Park, it would create conservation corridors that would help stave off the extinction of animal life that is crucial to keeping our ecosystem thriving. He connects the reader to an online database that will tell you which native plants that you can plant in your backyard that will support the most diverse and abundant wildlife (hint: in almost every region of the country, it’s the oak tree). An engaging read that has me rethinking some of the plants I have in my yard. (The evil ornamental pear tree in my front yard is on his no-no list.)

images10. Star Wars From a Certain Point of View, various authors. This collection of stories was written to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Star Wars saga and contains 40 different stories from (mostly) minor or as-yet-unexplored characters from the Star Wars universe. This is really for Star Wars fans who would like to hear what was going on in the mind of, for example, a Jawa on the sand crawler that found C-3PO and R2-D2 in the desert on Tatooine and sold them to the Skywalkers. The stories range from humorous to eerie to surprisingly heart-wrenching. A great tapestry of scenes that weave together all of the main Star Wars stories, and there are a few sections that provide new information that will enter the Star Wars canon.

Books that just missed the top ten: New Waves, Kevin Nguyen; The $64 Tomato, William Alexander; On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane, Emily Guendelsberger; What Are You Going Through, Sigrid Nunez; A Very Punchable Face, Colin Jost.

Best Books 2018

Here in the Great Midwest, we’re all hiding away indoors, under the spell of the polar vortex. (As I type this, it is 22 degrees below zero, with a windchill of 50 below.) A good time to review the books I read in 2018! I read 24 books last year, less than the year before, for one main reason: a health scare in the family limited me to reading waiting-room magazines amid daily doctor visits for 2 months. So I learned a lot about Meghan and Harry’s wedding. Anyway, here’s my top 10:

s-l6401. Ghosted, Rosie Walsh. Some novels stick with you. I kept telling Jen, “You have to read this book,” but I couldn’t tell her why because I didn’t want to spoil the plot. At first, I thought it was a simple romance, but it took a turn for the thriller genre midway through. In a nutshell, it’s about Sarah, an English woman who meets Eddie while visiting her hometown; they have one of those whirlwind weeks where everything is perfect, and at the end, when he is leaving for a business trip, he promises to call her from the airport before he boards his flight. And then, he doesn’t call. And never responds to her texts, calls, emails, etc. She’s been “ghosted,” and if you’ve ever had this happen to you, you’ll know how hard it is to tell when to give up on a person. I won’t say more, only that I thought I knew where this was going, and I was wrong, and I couldn’t stop thinking about this book after I read it.

s-l6402. Small Fry, Lisa Brennan-Jobs. In this memoir, Brennan-Jobs focuses on her mom’s struggles raising her as a single parent and her fraught relationship with her dad, who initially denied paternity. You might have heard of her dad: Steve Jobs, the founder of and creative force behind Apple. Brennan-Jobs is unfailingly honest about her father’s (and her own) shortcomings. Although she has been criticized in the press by Jobs’ widow and his sister, he also showed how he loved her (example: the first personal computer he invented, the Lisa, was named after her).

41K0Q5O20IL._SX350_BO1,204,203,200_3. Failing Up: How to Take Risks, Aim Higher, and Never Stop Learning, Leslie Odom, Jr. Odom originated the role of Aaron Burr in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton; he won the Tony for Best Actor in 2016. In this motivational book/memoir, he offers stories that showed how he found success in acting and music, and how the lessons he learned can help anyone looking for success in life.

Unknown4. You Think It, I’ll Say It, Curtis Sittenfeld. Sittenfeld’s first short-story collection (she has written five novels and numerous nonfiction articles for magazines) is at times hilarious and biting. Mostly about middle-aged and middle-class women grappling with some aspect of their former selves, I felt like I was overhearing conversations at a backyard barbecue.

5. Thanks for the Money, Joel McHale. Unknown-1McHale, an actor who was the star of the sitcom “Community” and the host of Comedy Central’s “The Soup” (and of the short-lived Netflix show “The Joel McHale Show”), is a smart aleck, and if you think he’s funny, you’ll like this book. Not so much a true memoir as a mix of exaggerated stories of his youth and gossip about Hollywood, it had me laughing throughout. And yes, there are stories about Chevy Chase and his infamous blowups on the set of “Community.”

Unknown-16. Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, Eric Idle. I’m a casual fan of the Monty Python comedy group, meaning that I know all of them as “John Cleese and those other guys.” Eric Idle is one of the other guys, and this is his funny memoir. Actually, I like Idle for his Beatles sendup, the Rutles. Like all great autobiographies, this one’s a name dropper: his best friends were George Harrison, Mick Jagger, and many other rock stars who seemed drawn to the Monty Python guys.s-l640

7. This Will Only Hurt a Little, Busy Philipps. This bubbly memoir is from the actress known for “Dawson’s Creek,” “ER,” and “Cougar Town.” Bizarrely, it reminded me of the comedian David Spade’s memoir, probably because they both grew up in Arizona. The book caused a stir because she accused James Franco of being an a-hole on the set of “Freaks and Geeks.”

8. The Story of Arthur Truluv, -JdnDQAAQBAJElizabeth Berg. This bittersweet novel is about an octogenarian widower who befriends a 17-year-old girl who is going through a rough patch in life. Try not to cry.

ycEKAgAAQBAJ9. 10% Happier, Dan Harris. The subtitle of this book says it all: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help that Actually Works. It’s about a guy who tamed the voice in his head, etc. Harris is a newsman who had a panic attack live on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” This is the story of his search for methods to calm himself (legal and illegal drugs among them) that led him to meditation. The “10% happier” part is what he tells people when they ask him why he meditates, usually with a “that’s weird” tone in their voices: because it makes him just that much happier.

Unknown-110. The Art of Forgery, Noah Charney. I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but this nonfiction work had me with its cover, a reproduction of a painting by my favorite artist, Jan Vermeer. Charney, an art history professor and world expert in art crimes, delves into some of the most famous forgeries of all time and analyzes not just how forgerers attempt to recreate masterpieces but why (it’s not always for the money).

Books that were close but just missed out on the Top Ten: The Big Rewind, novel by Libby Cudmore; Love Life, memoir by Rob Lowe; I’m Keith Hernandez, memoir by Keith Hernandez.

Best Books 2016

I’m about to quote an article that quotes an article. That seems reliable. You can quote me and take it even further away from the truth. A blurb in the November/December issue of WebMD magazine reads, “Books could add years to your life. In a study of 3,635 people older than 50, book readers were 20% less likely than their peers to die during the 12-year study. (Source: Social Science & Medicine.)” So, the message is: Read books or you will die in the next 12 years. I might be misinterpreting, but you get the idea. Books = good.

Which brings me to my annual review of the books I read in the previous year. My tastes run toward a few types of books: memoirs, biographies, and humorous fiction.  Why memoirs and biographies? I like to learn about famous people for two reasons: 1. to learn how they were just like me when they were young (because it’s always, “I was just like a normal person when I was young!”), and 2. to learn the whats and whens about them becoming extraordinary. And why humorous fiction? Because the world is cruel and the bastards are trying to grind us down, so humor keeps me sane.

I read 34 books in 2016, a letdown from the 49 I read the year before. My excuses: my son graduated from high school, and we sent him off to college; I didn’t want to neglect my daughters’ needs; volunteer work got in the way; having a strong relationship with my lovely wife Jen is a constant work in progress; and I spent too much time watching TV and streaming movies. Mostly the last excuse. I read a book every 10 days and saw a movie every 4 days. (No comment on the TV viewing.) Anyway, here are some suggestions for you:

The_Martian_2014-21. The Martian, Andy Weir. First on my list is this sort-of sci-fi novel set only a little bit into the future. Mark Watney is an American astronaut who, through a series of incredibly unlucky events, is left behind on Mars by a crew that presumed him dead. Using only the few supplies abandoned by his fellow astronauts and his wits, he has to figure out how to “MacGyver” himself a way to survive until he can communicate with NASA. I haven’t seen the film version, so I can’t comment on it, but man, this is one thrill ride of a book with a surprising amount of humor. I couldn’t put it down. I’m not a huge fan of sci-fi, but this really isn’t anything other than a story of a guy trying to overcome his surroundings. Strangely, the main character reminded me of my father-in-law, a scientist by training with a curiosity for how things work and, more importantly, how to make workarounds when things stop working.

Unknown2. Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist, Sunil Yapa. Up next is this fictionalization of the real events of November 1999, when 50,000 protesters descended upon the streets of Seattle during the World Trade Organization meetings there. This book is serious (a rarity for books that make my list), and I couldn’t shake it from my mind. Told from the viewpoints of several different fictional characters (the police chief, a protest organizer, a runaway, a diplomat, and others), this book weaves together their stories as they move toward a violent and potentially avoidable conclusion. The author doesn’t take sides, and everyone involved is shown as a human being whose motivations we can sympathize with.

Unknown3. The Emperors of Chocolate, Joël Glenn Brenner. Chocolate! Chocolate! Chocolate! In July of 2016, I was reading the obituary of Forrest Mars, Jr., the eccentric billionaire co-owner of Mars Inc. and the grandson of the company’s founder. This book was quoted in the obit to highlight the Mars family’s slavish devotion to two things: chocolate and secrecy. And eccentricity. This book is a combination history of the development of chocolate and history of the rivalry between the Hershey and Mars companies. Both companies have traded the title of “World’s Largest Candy Company” over the last several decades, and the top-level espionage between them would be unbelievable if it weren’t true. (Coincidentally, Mars’ headquarters is within 2 miles of CIA headquarters.) A fun read, although it’s pretty long and the last third gets slow.

Unknown-14. A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers. King Abdullah Economic City is a technology hub being developed in Saudi Arabia (that part is true), and Allan Clay is a consultant for an IT company trying to win over the good graces of the king’s nephew for a major contract (that part is not true); the nephew may or may not be jerking around Clay, whose 2 days in Saudi Arabia stretch into several weeks. This novel deals with culture clash, the frustrations of a middle-aged man dealing with family dysfunction and relationship problems, and the economic downturn of the 2000s. I read most of what Dave Eggers has written because I worked with him at our student newspaper in college (I’m 100% sure he doesn’t remember me), but he’s also insanely talented. The tension and frustration of dealing with politicians and not getting answers will remind some readers of “Waiting for Godot” and anything by Franz Kafka.

Unknown-15. and 5a. Quench Your Own Thirst, Jim Koch, and Shoe Dog, Phil Knight. This is cheating, I know, but these two memoirs are like bookends (I’m all about the wordplay) to each other. Koch, the founder of Samuel Adams Brewery, and Knight, the co-founder of Nike, have a few things in common: they were innovators in well-established industries that looked to freeze them out, and their personalities shaped the direction of Unknownthe company. Where they differ: Knight was hell-bent on making Nike the biggest shoe company in the world (he succeeded), and Koch wanted to bring craft brewing back to a beer industry that had foisted big-name beer with little regard to flavor on the world. Knight’s book was more than a business book: he was a runner first, and I appreciated that aspect of his life story. Koch’s book is for anyone who wants to know how to run a successful business and still be considered a nice guy.

Unknown-16. and 6a. Petty, Warren Zanes, and Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen. Rock legends and their stories. (And yes, I’m cheating again by adding an extra book to the list.) Tom Petty allowed Warren Zanes full access to tell the story of his life, warts and all; Zanes even interviews Petty’s exes and bandmates with whom he had a falling-out. Springsteen’s autobiography is way more of a fever dream by a poet-troubador recalling his younger days. You don’t have to Unknownlike either the Heartbreakers or the E Street Band to like these books, but it sure helps. The one takeaway from these books: a brutal upbringing can lead to some great art.

7. Mister Monkey, Francine Prose.  Under the guise of a straightforward story about the theater, this is a bizarre, funny, thought-provoking novel. Margot, a middle-aged actress stuck in a long-running, wacky off-off-Broadway play for children based on a Unknownbeloved children’s book called Mister Monkey (picture Curious George), has an awkward on-stage run-in with Adam, the 12-year-old boy who portrays the monkey in an ape suit. From there, we get glimpses into the lives and thoughts of Margot, Adam, the costume designer, the director, the original book’s author, an audience member, and others. “It kept me guessing” would be an understatement.

Unknown8. The Sherlockian, Graham Moore. Moore’s rollicking, funny historical novel/modern-day murder mystery starts in 1893 with Arthur Conan Doyle contemplates killing off his invention, Sherlock Holmes, having grown tired of the character. Flash forward to today, when Harold White, a copyright lawyer and Holmes enthusiast, is inducted into the Baker Street Irregulars, one of hundreds of Holmes-obsessed societies. When a colleague suggests he may have found the long-rumored, presumed-lost Doyle diary from 1883-1901 that may have explained why Doyle killed off Holmes only to resurrect him 8 years later, an unexpected death and the search for the diary lead White on the trail of Holmes and Doyle.

Unknown9. Thomas Murphy, Roger Rosenblatt. Poet and raconteur Thomas Murphy battles against aging in this poignant novel. Murphy, a literary giant, feels his mind slipping from him but doesn’t want to give up his freedoms. His daughter, Maire, is onto him and tries to get him to the doctor. The reader jumps back and forth from his present-day Manhattan life to his childhood on the Irish island of Inishmaan.

Unknown-110. Nutshell, Ian McEwan. This modern tale of deceit and betrayal is told from the extremely unusual viewpoint of a highly, highly precocious 9-month-old fetus growing in the belly of Trudy, a woman who plots the murder of her husband John with her lover, John’s brother Claude (shades of Shakespeare in this one). The baby, whose college-level education and erudite thoughts are thanks to his mother’s tendency to listen to BBC Radio (just go with it), struggles with his feelings of hatred for his uncle, compassion for his father, and a mixture of both for the woman who is keeping him alive and growing. Gripping and provocative.

Other books I recommend that just missed the cutoff: Almost Interesting, David Spade; But Enough about Me, Burt Reynolds; The Bronte Plot, Katherine Reay; The Math Myth, Andrew Hacker; Modern Lovers, Emma Straub; Disrupted, Dan Lyons.

The Best Books I Read in 2015

I am not a big “Oh, let’s totally make New Year’s resolutions so we can learn and grow and then compare and share our lessons on learning and growing at the end of the year” type of guy. Well, I am, but I just don’t say it out loud. (I’m not even sure what type of voice one would use to say that quote; I’m imagining Shoshanna Shapiro from “Girls.”) I usually set a reachable goal and then quietly keep track of it myself. Because, if I don’t say it aloud, no one will know how badly I have failed. (Rule for Living No. 83 for the Dudley kids!)

In 2015, my goal was to read 48 books for the year. I had done 40 the year before, so I figured it wouldn’t be that much harder to crank it up to 4 per month. To prepare, I sang the Speed Reader theme song from “The Great Space Coaster”: “Who can read on the run and have lots of fun? Speed Reader, Speed Reader!” (“The Great Space Coaster” was an early 1980s kids’ show whose plot didn’t even make sense back then. Unless you were on drugs. Then it made all kinds of sense.)

By year’s end, I read 49 books. (I’ll wait for a minute to let the applause die down.) Then my mother-in-law stopped by for a visit and casually mentioned that she checked her reading history at her library’s website: she had read 80 books last year. I said, “Oh, great! Now I suppose you’re going to tell me you’re a better cook and that you traveled more than me in the past year!” (Um, yes and yes.)

The lesson is, you shouldn’t compare yourself to others. Unless you are clearly better than them at something. But do it quietly in your head.

Of those 49 books, here were my ten favorites. I had trouble cutting the list down to only ten. Now, on to my 2016 New Year’s resolution:  To stop using so many parenthetical asides in blog posts. (Probably not going to happen.)

51uAnaPJE1L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_1. Ally Hughes Has Sex Sometimes, Jules Moulin. If the title doesn’t grab your attention (sorry, it’s not a picture book), the plot should: Ally Hughes, a college professor and the single mom of a precocious girl, has a weekend fling with one of her former students. Flash forward 10 years, and her now-grown daughter brings home her new boyfriend, an actor whose star is on the rise. Oh, and one more thing: he’s the former student with whom she shared a passionate weekend. Awkward. Funny and deeper than one would expect. I read most of this book out loud to my lovely wife Jen, but she read it herself, too (mostly for the sex scenes, I think).

Unknown2. After Visiting Friends: A Son’s Story, Michael Hainey. A heartbreaking memoir about a family’s secrets and a son’s need to discover truths about his father, however painful they might be for him. When Hainey was 6 years old, his 35-year-old father, a newspaperman, died on a Chicago street in the middle of the night. Now a reporter himself, Hainey goes looking for answers to questions that have nagged him into adulthood, including inconsistencies in the obituaries published in two different newspapers. Unfolds like a mystery.

Unknown3. The Clasp, Sloane Crosley. Part wild goose chase, part comedy of manners, Crosley’s novel starts as a look at the dynamics of a group of friends who knew each other in college but now find themselves in their late twenties wondering if they still have any reasons to be connected: Victor, recently fired from the world’s seventh-largest internet search engine; Kezia, personal assistant to a demanding jewelry designer whose latest necklace has a clasp that may be so defective that it could bring the company down; and Nathaniel, a television writer. When a classmate gets married and Victor passes out in the mother of the groom’s bedroom, he is awakened to the story of a necklace that may or may not have been hidden from or by the Nazis and may or may not be the necklace upon which Guy de Maupassant based his story “The Necklace.” Anyone who is a fan of Crosley’s droll humor in her essays will like her debut novel.

Unknown4. The Great Beanie Baby Bubble, Zac Bissonette. The subtitle of this book is “Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute.” Parents of young kids in the late 1990s will remember the insanity of chasing down Beanie Babies at mom-and-pop stores and in McDonalds Happy Meals, and the inflated prices that they were supposedly worth, a modern version of the Holland tulip craze of the 1600s. This book is a combination of retelling how the heck that all happened and the bizarre life story of Ty Warner, the eccentric billionaire creator of Beanie Babies. I checked this book out thinking it would be good for a laugh, but there was nothing funny about what happened as people poured their life savings into collecting $5 stuffed animals believing that they would eventually be worth hundreds of dollars each.

3774553b6f174c9fd5eaa7e07927e978-w204@1x5. The Understudy, David Nicholls. Stephen McQueen is an English actor whose biggest role so far has been a corpse in an episode of a TV police procedural. He lands the understudy part in a play about Lord Byron, “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know,” backing up Josh Harper, the Twelfth-Sexiest Man in the World and the husband of Nora, an American who surprisingly takes an interest in Stephen. His hopes to impress his ex-wife and his 7-year-old daughter rest on somehow finding a way to get Josh off the stage so he can have his chance to shine. Like Nicholls’ other novels, this is a sad-funny tale of a striver who just can’t seem to get to where he thinks he needs to be.

Unknown-16. 81 Days Below Zero: The Incredible Survival Story of a World War II Pilot in Alaska’s Frozen Wilderness, Brian Murphy. Here’s how clueless I was: I didn’t even know we had military bases in Alaska that faced attack from the Japanese in WWII. We tested planes in cold weather and then sold them to the Russians, who had a presence on our Alaskan bases. This is the gripping tale of Leon Crane, a 22-year-old co-pilot from Philadelphia who was apparently the only survivor of a B-24 crash in December 1942, somewhere east of Ladd Field. Somehow, with little outdoor survival training, and carrying only his parachute, a pack of 30 matches, and a pocket knife (no gloves), he finds the will to live for nearly 3 months in the harshest of weather conditions.

Unknown7. As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, Cary Elwes. Elwes, who starred as Westley, offers a behind-the-scenes look at the production of “The Princess Bride,” one of my family’s favorite films. Sections of the book are contributed by fellow cast members, director Rob Reiner, and others involved in making the movie. Probably my favorite parts were the stories that they told about the late Andre the Giant, who played Fezzik. A must for people who loved the movie.

Unknown8. Love May Fail, Matthew Quick. Quick’s debut novel, Silver Linings Playbook, was turned into a hit film. His latest follows Portia Kane, who returns to her New Jersey home (and her hoarder mother) after her marriage falls apart. She makes it her quest to track down Mr. Vernon, her high-school English teacher who resigned after a traumatic classroom incident. It’s about redemption, healing, finding love again, and, especially, hair-metal bands from the 1980s.

Unknown9. Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story, D.T. Max. The first biography of David Foster Wallace, the brilliant and tormented writer who battled addiction and depression before his death at age 46 in 2008. Reading a Wallace novel or collection of essays (Infinite Jest is his most well-known) is like trying to decipher hieroglyphics or read Joyce’s Ulysses. Max’s haunting book is thorough (he uses almost as many footnotes as Wallace did in his books). I only wish it didn’t end the way I knew it had to.

Unknown10. Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, Frank Bruni. As someone who is going through the college-admissions process with one of my kids right now, I needed to read this book to calm myself down. I have spent the last several months quoting from it to other parents. Bruni’s basic message is: Your kids will still be fine if they don’t get into Ivy League schools. In fact, he offers reasons why the top-rated schools might not be the best for everyone. If you have high schoolers, you should read this book.

Other books that I recommend but just missed the cutoff: Stories I Only Tell My Friends, Rob Lowe (funny, revealing, and surprisingly insightful); Rod: The Autobiography, Rod Stewart (he does not apologize for living the rock-star lifestyle); Factory Man, Beth Macy (true story of American furniture manufacturer who innovates to keep his factory open); Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari (not a memoir by the comic but a sociological study of dating in America); Even This I Get To Experience, Norman Lear (legendary TV producer looks back on his 90-plus years of living).

Take Your Eyes Off the Computer and Read These Books

When I was young, my grandfather lived with us on and off. One of his endearing quirks (and by “endearing quirk,” I mean “thing that most drove my mom insane”) was reading aloud anything he saw: cereal boxes (“‘Lucky Charms: Frosted Oat Cereal with Marshmallow Bits,’ yum”), newspaper headlines (“‘First Lady Visits Refugees in Hungary,’ interesting”), and, while we were driving, restaurant and store signs, which was a running commentary as we rolled along our town’s commercial strip (“‘McDonalds: Over 50 Billion Served,’ I wonder how they know,” “‘Arby’s Roast Beef Sandwich Is Delicious,’ yes it is,” “Burger King: Home of the Whopper,’ I’ll stick with McDonald’s”). Much to my lovely wife Jen’s chagrin, I have become my grandfather. I read everything aloud to her and to anyone else who is listening. Later, I’ll probably read this blog post aloud to her.

The problem is that I have a short attention span. I am not a fast reader. I lose interest quickly. I struggle to read a New Yorker cover-to-cover in one sitting (or, let’s be honest, at all). On the other hand, Jen and my kids are freaks of nature. They read books like they are going out of style. (Which they are, according to a recent study; see below.) I’ll start reading a book, recommend it to Jen, and then, the next time I open the book, find a bookmark deeper into the book than mine is. Way deeper. I’ll spend a few weeks plodding through a book; she’ll read it in a night. She has a Nook because when we go on vacation, she doesn’t want to carry 10 books; I bring 3 magazines and I’m set. (As long as there are cereal boxes and restaurant signs to read…)

The Pew Research Center keeps track of American’s reading habits, and in the January 21, 2014 issue of The Atlantic, which I just got around to reading, Jordan Weissmann reports that the average American read 5 books in 2013. Five measly books. In 1978, 8% of Americans didn’t read a book at all. In 2013, it was 23%. Yikes. The silver lining, though, is that 18- to 24-year-olds’ reading patterns are holding steady over the years. Young adults’ reading habits are, as Weissmann notes, “the same as in the pre-Facebook days of 2002.” Whew! There’s hope for us yet.

Here are my 10 faves of 2014, with brief comments (I know you don’t have time to read this because of all those books you’re plowing through). I managed to read 40 books last year. So these are the top 25%:

BN-BH259_0131no_DV_201401291444321. One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, B.J. Novak. This short-story collection caught me off guard and I laughed throughout. You might know Novak as Ryan from “The Office.” He’s also a writer and executive producer. He’s also funny and smart. I kept thinking of Steve Martin (in his writing, not his standup) when I read these stories. I judge how funny a book is by how much of it I read out loud to Jen; I pretty much read something on every page to her. The standout story for me was “The Something by John Grisham.” I snicker just thinking about it. Bonus: Many of these short stories are a few pages long, matching my attention span.

us-book2. Us, David Nicholls. Douglas is a chemist who plans a European tour with his wife Connie and their teenage son before he goes off to university. Then Connie says that she is thinking of leaving him but that they should still do the trip. Hilarity ensues. Very sad and funny in dealing with what happens when a marriage takes a wrong turn and about a father’s relationship with his son.

Unknown3. Thank You, Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse. You’d think I would have read me some Jeeves and Wooster stories before this point in my life, seeing as I have always preferred funny over serious. But I was an English major in college, where we had to read serious literature and not, you know, enjoyable literature. Please find a Wodehouse book and read it. It’s “Downton Abbey” with a laugh track. (That metaphor makes no sense because it’s a book.)

Unknown4. This Is the Story of A Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett. This is actually several nonfiction pieces, not just about marriage. Patchett is a novelist (Bel Canto) and also a magazine writer. This collection of her shorter works is bravely honest and confessional. If only my writing was this deep and insightful. (Instead, I’m blathering on about cereal boxes and McDonald’s signs.) Also, she co-owns a bookstore in Nashville called Parnassus Books. Talk about supporting the cause!

5. Bad Luck and Trouble, Lee Child. This is a departure from the other books on my list, but I’m a sucker for Child’s Jack Reacher novels. Reacher is a former Army MP who roams the country and solves grisly crimes. The Reacher books remind me of John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee books from the 1960s to the 1980s. Tough man, sharp mind, not afraid to bend the law to lay a heavy dose of justice on the bad guys, and he has a way with the ladies: isn’t it obvious why I relate to Reacher? (Because I’m nothing like him. Sorry, I thought that was obvious.)

Unknown6. The Map Thief, Michael Blanding. The subtitle of this is “The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps.” In a nutshell, it’s the gripping story of…oh, forget it. True story, too.

Unknown-17. Born Standing Up, Steve Martin. If you’ve read any Steve Martin books (An Object of Beauty is a good place to start) you’d think, “Wait, is this witty, serious-and-funny writing from the same comic with the arrow through his head?” Yes, same guy. This memoir traces his standup years and is not really an autobiography; it’s more an explanation of how Martin’s standup act developed; in fact, it focuses only on his childhood and adult life for how they related to his act, and it ends just as he is about to transition to his movie roles. Also, very funny. (A must for almost all the books on my list.)

Unknown8. I Must Say: My Life As A Humble Comedy Legend, Martin Short. Consider it a companion piece to the previous book. Wonderful, obviously funny, but less obvious is the fact that this is a love story about Short and his wife. You will laugh and cry. (Well, I did.)

Unknown-19. Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living, Nick Offerman. Do you like the Ron Swanson character on “Parks and Recreation”? Do you like meat? Do you like woodworking? Then this might be the book for you. Warning: There are raunchy parts.

Unknown10. The Storied Life of AJ Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin. I didn’t think that I would like this book. I was wrong. Should I say it was funny and sad? Do you sense a pattern in some of my selections? AJ Fikry is a bookstore owner who was recently widowed. In rapid succession, a rare book of his is stolen and a baby gets left in his bookstore. And we go from there.

These books barely missed the cut: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson; One Plus One, Jojo Moyes; I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, Courtney Maum; In the Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent; Food: A Love Story, Jim Gaffigan.