Thursday, April 30, 2015

Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael Davis

In high school, I participated in linguistics competitions that pitted students from area schools against each other. I was very good at prepared speeches but extemp was my domain. I owned it. In one of these winners, I referred to kids my age as "the Sesame Street Generation". For some reason, the judges, a panel of smart teachers, thought this terribly clever though I'm not certain why because we were the "Sesame Street Generation". I was only two years old when it debuted on TV but it seemed a constant to me the way the Steelers always won the Super Bowl in the '70's or FDR was always president to my Dad's generation. Michael Davis does a tremendous job of giving us a very complete picture in this worthwhile 2008 history. 

Street Gang is a story of wannabes, gonnabes, lesser-knowns, and more than a few rebels at all levels, Jim Henson and the Muppets the most prominent. However, without the alchemy of Joan Ganz Cooney, Jon Stone, Joe Raposo, Tom Whedon (Joss Whedon's dad!), and others, Henson would likely never have gone into children's TV and without Henson, no Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster or Big Bird, no Frank Oz, Carol Spinney, or Kermit. 

The idea to utilize public television to teach poor, inner-city pre-schoolers began as dinner party conversation in 1966, when Bonanza, Gomer Pyle, and Green Acres were top-rated programs. It was an incalculable gamble though many thought it sheer folly. Remarkably, the right people came together to create a landmark in television, one that broke socio-economic, racial, and educational boundaries forever.

We know now that young kids in poverty have fewer opportunities than other kids and it is accepted wisdom that educating them at such a young age is vital to their academic success, earning potential, and ability to break the cycle of poverty. That kids, poor and otherwise, could learn from television (public television, no less) was astounding in 1968 and that the show succeeded to such an extent was without precedent. 

For kids of color to see themselves on TV was groundbreaking but it was also meaningful to a kid like me who grew up in a world of white. Of course I didn't realize it at the time but seeing those faces made them less exotic, less unusual, more real. They were just kids like me so when I met them later on, I didn't fear them in the manner of the generations before me. 

I was, however, a bit intimidated by the small font size of this generously footnoted, 350 pager but Davis writes with ease and authority. The story is informative, entertaining, and, at times, gossipy. Turns out Bert was sleeping with Ernie. 

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Yesterday, I meandered into my favorite second-hand book bazaar to kill some time before treating a friend to a belated birthday lunch at the diner of a nearby bowling alley (his choice). Pickings were slim on this visit but I was fortunate to find a copy of Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher which I began reading in the car while waiting for the birthday boy to arrive and completed it by beddy-bye. As regular Reed-ers know, I'm a sucker for an epistolary novel and this slender collection of letters of recommendation doesn't disappoint. 

The letter writer, Jay Fitger, is a creative writing professor at the appropriately named Payne University, a small Midwestern school whose English department has seen far better days. He labors in a building that is under extensive construction, mostly for the benefit of the Economics department whose upstairs offices are getting a royal makeover while his department suffers toxic dust, loud noises, and foul, leaky restrooms. Retired professors aren't being replaced, funding has gone the way of the dodo, grad students aren't being added, and the new department head is (gasp!) a sociologist. 

Like the department, Fitger, a once promising novelist whose backlist is largely out of print, is slowly spiraling into literary obscurity. His spark for academia no longer burns brightly and his personal relationships are in tatters. Like Sid Straw in Michael Kun's delightful The Locklear Letters, Fitger can't get out of his own way. Unlike Sid, he is not a likeable man. He is bombastic, cranky, misanthropic, sexist, and unpopular with colleagues and administrators, all of which he is acutely self-aware. Seemingly, he spends more time writing letters of recommendation for students and colleagues than he does teaching or other more literary pursuits. But oh, the letters! 

Schumacher, herself an academic at the University of Minnesota, is obviously no stranger to the folderol but she imbues Fitger's considerable ire with biting commentary on the state of academia and publishing to great effect. In one instance, he writes on a friends' behalf to a Dean of a school he believes entirely unworthy of her. And so:

"Let's consider the facts: Carole is comfortably installed at a research university--dysfunctional, yes; second tier, without question--but we do have a modest reputation here at Payne. Shepardville, on the other hand, is a third-tier private college teetering at the edge of a potato field and is still lightly infused with the tropical flavor of offbeat fundamentalism propagated by its millionaire founder, a white-collar criminal who is currently--correct me if I'm wrong--atoning for multiple financial missteps in the Big House in Texas". Ouch.

Later in the novel, he grudgingly defends his own department head to Payne's Dean of Arts & Sciences: "In my wildest nightmares I never imagined that I would make or endorse such a recommendation, akin to Hamlet naming Uncle Claudius counsel (Hamlet is a play by a writer named William Shakespeare: I'll send you a copy on some other occasion.)"

While it might have been enough to let Fitger froth at the mouth for the entire 180 pages, Schumacher wisely and slowly brings about a sense of decency in the man, mostly in his desire to help a promising grad student in whose novel, a re-telling of Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener set in the accounting department of a 1960's Vegas casino, he believes and the reappearance of an old friend with whom he studied at an Iowa-like writing program years before. On their behalves, Fitger reaches out to agents, publishers, and academics in a knowing effort to do something for someone other than himself. While he doesn't spare his spleen with any of these recipients, he makes an uncharacteristically sincere effort with mixed results. 

If I had a criticism, it is that the ending came too quickly, both in the narrative sense and for my own selfish reason that I didn't want the book to end. Both of these are small beer compared to the joy the book brought me. Find a copy soon.


Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Of Fans and Vans

Sometimes I come across a book that I believe I should have written. Two that come to mind are The Day I Turned Uncool by Dan Zevin and Talking to Girls About Duran Duran by Rob Sheffield. Zevin's book was right on the money and it made me feel cheated that he beat me to it and desperately lazy because not only did I not think of it first, I probably wouldn't have had the wherewithal to actually write it. Sheffield's book missed the mark entirely by my account and so I felt justified and appropriately pompous. With John Sellers' Perfect From Now On, I'm somewhere in the middle. 

Perfect From Now On is Sellers' examination of his own musical obsessions, which are plentiful. Remember that kid in junior high that couldn't stop talking about The Ramones while wearing his Ramones t-shirt and jeans with holes in the knees a la The Ramones with music by the Ramones leaking from the headphones of his Sony Walkman? That was me. That was Sellers, too, only his bands were U2, Joy Division/New Order, The Smiths, Pavement and, ultimately, Guided By Voices.

I remember well the need to know only the "cool" bands before they became so as well as the need to disavow them as sell-outs once they enjoyed mainstream success. I remember the long, stoned discussions with like-minded pals about the "importance" of the music and musicianship. I recall almost going broke buying all the obscure bootlegs of my favorite artist, most of them imports and therefore even pricier than normal. I strove to be a completist and flaunt my musical superiority. Sellers goes even further, seeking to touch the hem of GBV lead singer, Robert Pollard, in which he succeeds and fails brilliantly. 

Sellers writes with honesty and considerable self-deprecation however his "righteous" anger overwhelms any sympathy you might have for him. He also uses copious footnotes, many of them lengthy asides on even more trivial matters, that slow down the book. It's only in the last third of the book that he reveals that his copious footnotes are, in fact, in tribute to Nicholson Baker. Aren't we clever? 

Ultimately, I did enjoy the book mostly because I could see where my path diverged from the authors': I grew up. 

Speaking of the boys from Forest Hills, I thoroughly enjoyed On the Road With The Ramones by the band's long-time, long-suffering road manager, Monte Melnick. This is about as insider as it gets and gives a clear portrait of the band that influenced so many musicians and inspired so many listeners.

With the exception of Marky and C. J., Monte is the last man standing and he was there for the entire ride. Having read most of the Ramones bios out there, I think Monte's version comes across as an honest and loving account of the band especially because he wasn't a performer. The band, even in good times, was difficult and it only became more fractious as their career continued. Here, Monte comes off as the glue that held them together. 

And what a big job that! Dee Dee was crazy, Marky was drunk (then not), Johnny was the all-powerful overlord, and Joey was plagued by insecurity, OCD, and other health problems. Only Tommy comes off as a normal adult human being and he left because he thought he'd have a breakdown because of the others. We're a happy family? Not by a longshot.

Told in the oral history style of Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil, Monte shares the pages with band members, road crew, producers, fellow musicians, and management but Monte is again the glue that makes On the Road... a worthy addition to the story that was The Ramones. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

An interview with the authors of the We Are Still Tornadoes

Full disclosure: I met Michael Kun around the time The Locklear Letters was published so I'm guessing that was Spring 2003. We were both at Book Expo and his publisher at the time, MacAdam Cage, threw a reception on the show floor which meant there would be drinks. Mike and I hit it off right away and he turned me on to a couple of his fellow MacAdam Cage authors like Mark Dunn, Amanda Eyre Ward and Craig Clevenger. We stayed in touch.

Not long afterward, Mike approached me about a sports book that he was co-authoring that was irreverent but written from a knowledgeable fan's perspective. It hit all the right marks and the small house I was with at the time published The Baseball Uncyclopedia, a book we did well enough with that we published a follow up, The Football Uncyclopedia. We stayed in touch.

Recently, Mike was kind enough to ask me to read his latest work, an epistolary novel titled We Are Still Tornadoes, co-written by first-time author Susan Mullen. Set in the early 1980's, it features the correspondence between two high school friends, Cath, who is beginning her freshman year at college, and Scott who has stayed in their hometown and is reluctantly helping to run his father's clothing store. It is sweet and insightful, funny and surprisingly touching. (It's also peppered with some great '80's music references and that's always a plus in my book.) Full disclosure: I think it's terrific and deserves to be read, far and wide. 

The book is being shopped to publishers but I wanted to do my little bit. In an effort to help spread the word, they were kind enough to agree to submit to (or shall I say commandeer) the following interview. Like the characters in the book, it is obvious they write with genuine chemistry and great affection. 


  1. Mike, you have written two epistolary novels before, The Locklear Letters and its sequel, Everybody Says Hello as well as novels in traditional formats. What is it about the epistolary format that you like so much?

Mike: I enjoy using the device for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I was an avid letter-writer when I was younger, so it comes naturally to me. Letters not only allow you to give the character a very distinct voice, but what the character shares and how he or she chooses to share it can tell you more about a character than traditional prose might. How much does the letter-writer share with the person he or she is writing to? What is their relationship? How does the letter-writer feel about that person? What response does the letter-writer want from that other person? I’d like to think that by the third or fourth letter in Tornadoes, readers will already understand that Scott and Cath have a unique friendship, and it’s one that we might not have been able to convey as well had we written the novel in a traditional format.

If you don’t mind me adding something, I’m concerned that the epistolary novel will disappear soon. No one writes letter anymore. The friendship that Susan and I have was developed in no small part from the letters we used to write each other when we were young. And Susan’s letters were lovely and funny. She’s the only person who’s ever written me letters with drawings of her latest haircuts. But, Susan, when is the last time you and I exchanged letters? Not emails, but letters?

Susan: Twenty-five years ago?

Mike: See, that’s my point. I’ve missed 25 years of new haircut drawings because people don’t write letters anymore. It’s all emails and texts, and who wants to read a book that’s all emails and texts? By the third “LOL,” I’d put the book down.

Susan: Which is why we set our book in the 1980s.

Mike: Right. That, and because Susan wanted to drop in a few references to Elvis Costello and the Smiths.

Susan: That was you.

Mike: You can’t prove that.

Susan: I have the working drafts of the book.

Mike: Oh, well, then I suppose you can prove that.   

  1. Susan, are you new to being an author? How did you and Mike join forces?

Susan: Yes, this is my first time writing fiction. Mike and I met in law school and bonded over literature and writing. I had been an English major at Duke, and he was fresh out of the writing program at Johns Hopkins. When I learned that, I asked to see his stories. He eventually showed a few to me and I, of course, was genuinely impressed and encouraged him to keep writing and keep trying to get his stories published. He’s a beautifully gifted writer. Over 25 years or so, with busy careers and families, we’d sort of lost touch, until Mike called me a few years ago and said something like, “Hey, we used to swap some pretty funny letters. Do you have any interest in trying to write a book together?” I think you know how I responded.

Mike: This isn’t the first time Susan has written fiction. Maybe she’s forgotten about it, but I encouraged her to start writing when we were younger, and she wrote a short story about a family playing cards in the car on a family trip. It was pretty good for a first crack at writing. I still have that story.

Susan: I forgot about that. Can you send it to me?

Mike: How much are you willing to pay me for it?

Susan: I have to pay?

Mike: It’s a one-of-a-kind. Make an offer.

Susan: Five bucks.

Mike: You’re nuts.

Susan: Ten.

Mike: You’re wasting my time.

Susan: I’ll send you some chocolate chip cookies.

Mike: You think that will work?

Susan: Yes.

Mike: Fine, it’s a deal.


  1. Susan, was it at all intimidating to work with an experienced author?

Susan: Yes and no. “Yes” in that I really didn’t want to waste Mike’s time. Mike adores his wife and daughter, is a very successful partner at a large law firm, and is likewise a very successful author. In other words, his time is quite valuable. I was conscious of the fact that he could be spending the time that he was spending on our book in many other productive ways. If I felt pressure during the writing process at all, it was out of my own respect for Mike and my desire to write something worthy of the time and effort that he was putting into it. And “no,” it wasn’t intimidating working with Mike because he and I have been friends for a long time, we communicate well, he’s tremendously kind and supportive, and he did everything he could to welcome me to the writing life, rather than to intimidate me about it.

Mike: I’m sorry you were concerned about wasting my time, but I never felt like you wasted a second of it. It was an absolute pleasure from the very start.

Susan: Are you trying to get more cookies out of me?

Mike: Is it working?

Susan: Maybe.


  1. Tell me about the writing process. Did you write this like the characters, one letter by Mike then answered by Susan and so on? Did you begin with an outline of where the story would go? Did you ever just riff on a letter to see where it would take the story?

Susan: Primarily, we wrote it by swapping letters. We talked at the outset about the framework of the book and the characters, how it would take place over the course of one school year when Cath was a freshman in college and Scott was at home working in his dad’s clothing store. We had some key events that we wanted to hit, and a general idea of how the book would end – which we eventually scrapped – and then we just started writing. Mike would write a draft letter from Scott, I’d send back my proposed edits and additions, then I would add a draft letter from Cath. Mike would send back his proposed edits and additions, then send the next draft letter from Scott. There were times that we talked on the phone to sketch out ideas or storylines, but usually we communicated with emails. It was a really enjoyable process.

Mike: It was an enjoyable process, although we both have lives outside of the book that sometimes caused delays in getting back to each other. I know there were a few weeks here or there where I owed Susan a response and didn’t get back to her, and vice versa.

Susan: I’ll admit that I’d worry that he didn’t like something I’d written if I didn’t hear back in a day or two.

Mike: And I’d apologize. But it worked the other way, too. Susan would get tied up with something else and I’d grow a little concerned that she hadn’t liked something I’d written or some new direction I’d take the story that maybe I hadn’t discussed with her.

Susan: Maybe?

Mike: Well, there was at least one major plot point that I knew I wanted to write about but didn’t mention to Susan in advance only because I didn’t want the letters she was preparing to anticipate it. I wanted her, Cath and the reader to get hit with it at the same time, just like you would if you got a letter from a friend describing some event in their life that you hadn’t heard about before. And, to be candid, Susan would do the same, which was exactly what I hoped she would do. I would learn about things that were going on in Cath’s life at the same time as Scott and the reader.

Susan: It worked out well.

Mike: Damn straight it worked out well.

Susan: One of our early readers, a person I don’t know, paid us a great compliment, saying that the two characters have very different voices, but seem to have come from the same author. I enjoyed hearing that because it’s what we were aiming for. A coherent novel with two different voices.  


  1. Did you write in sequence or did you work on certain scenarios and then go back and bridge them together?

Susan: We generally wrote in sequence, editing it at every step along the way, and then went back and edited it all at the end.

Mike: We also did a major edit midway through when we came up with the idea that gives the book its title.

Susan: That’s right. I sometimes forget that we were calling it Tell Me Something I Don’t Know for a long time.

Mike: That was just a working title. It was from a short story I started 20 years ago but never finished.

Susan: My daughter informed me that it’s also the title of a Selena Gomez song.

Mike: Are you suggesting Selena Gomez read a draft of a short story I wrote 20 years ago and stole the title?

Susan: Maybe I am, maybe I’m not.

Mike: Was she even alive 20 years ago?

Susan: I think so. Anyway, We Are Still Tornadoes is a much better title.

Mike: Agreed. And if Selena Gomez should stumble upon this interview, all I have to say is, “Hands off that title!”

Susan: Right, that one’s our title!

  1. You live on opposite coasts, Susan on the East and Mike on the West. Were you ever together during the writing process?

Susan: I think we saw each other four times during the writing process. My husband and I attended a 50th birthday party that Mike’s wife threw for him in Baltimore. I had dinner with Mike’s family while I was in Los Angeles for a graduation ceremony. Mike spent a few hours with me and my family after his law firm partners’ meeting in Virginia. And my husband and I attended a Nationals baseball game with Mike and some of his Baltimore friends last summer. Each time we meant to talk about the book, and each time we ended up spending maybe 10 minutes on the book.

Mike: I think we spent a couple hours going through the book when I came to your home in Virginia, didn’t we?

Susan: Oh, yeah, that’s right. But it wasn’t our home, it was a house we were renting while we were having work done on our house.

Mike: Admit it, the whole thing was a ruse to keep me from visiting your home.

Susan: Right, we rented another house just so you couldn’t come to our house and go through our bookshelves to see what books we’ve been reading.

Mike: I’d only go through your bookshelves to see if you have any of my books up there.

Susan: I knew you were going to say that. You know we have your books on our bookshelf.

Mike: Even the bad one?

Susan: I’m going to pretend that I don’t know which one you’re talking about.

Mike: But you know which one I’m talking about, don’t you?

Susan: No comment.

Mike: Just make room on your bookshelf for Tornadoes, okay?

Susan: Of course.

Mike: Can I come see it then?

Susan: I think we’re having work done on the house then.

Mike: You don’t even know when that will be.

Susan: Is there another question?


  1. Sort of spoiler alert: there is a death in the novel that is important to the story. It is handled with tremendous grace and economy; the weight of it is felt deeply but the writing about it is only a few pages. Can you talk about writing that without giving too much away?

Susan: There’s a death in the book?

Mike: There is? In our book?

Susan: He wouldn’t have asked the question if there weren’t.

Mike: Do we want to talk about it?

Susan: I don’t.

Mike: I don’t, either. But, hypothetically, if there were a death in the book, what would we say about it?

Susan: Hypothetically, we’d say we’ve both lost family members, and we each tried to tap into those thoughts and emotions while writing those letters.

Mike: Yeah, that sounds like what we would say. Hypothetically.


  1. Mike, you’ve co-authored at least two books that I’m aware of before. Is it very different writing fiction this way? How is it different than writing fiction by yourself?

Mike: It is very different. With those non-fiction books – The Baseball Uncyclopedia, The Football Uncyclopedia, and The Movie Uncyclopedia – we each wrote our own sections which were then attributed just to that author, and the books were supposed to have a disjointed feel to them, like an encyclopedia would, where one subject doesn’t necessarily relate to the subject it follows. And, of course, there was no plot that had to be created, and no characters to be developed. Those books literally start at letter A and end at letter Z. Fiction is different in that there has to be a plot, there have to be characters that develop, and it all has to come together.

Writing fiction is normally a solitary endeavor. Sure, you can bounce ideas off people from time to time, or share a chapter or two, but ultimately you’re writing it alone. While there was some collaboration in the non-fiction books, and while there were hundreds of phone calls and emails exchanged, writing fiction with another writer is very different because it really has to be a collaboration. You have to trust each other and be able to work together. You need to agree on the plot, the characters, everything, and if you don’t agree, you’d better figure out a way to work it out or else the whole project could fall apart in a second. If there’s something I want a character to say in one of my solo novels, he’ll just say it. It’s that easy. But if there were something I wanted a character to say in Tornadoes and Susan disagreed, or vice versa, what were we going to do, go to an arbitrator? Decide it by playing “rock, paper, scissors”?

Susan: We could decide it by playing a tennis match.

Mike: That’s not fair. You’d beat me.

Susan: Or by a race.

Mike: Same result. Ultimately, though, it never came to that, not once. We talked everything through. We never came anywhere close to needing an arbitrator.

  1. Susan, as a first-time author, was the experience at all what you thought writing a book would be like.

Susan: No. In thinking about writing in the past, I was very intimidated by the scope of a potential project. This was a great first project in that our process demanded only one letter at a time. I put a lot of thought and effort into each letter, but the process didn’t overwhelm me, which was important because I’m a working mom. Also, the writing was more satisfying than I would have expected. I couldn’t wait to get the next draft letter from Mike or his comments on the most recent letter I’d drafted, and then I would be challenged to think on several levels about how to respond. How would Cath realistically respond? How to write it in a way that would be interesting to the reader? How to keep the story going? How to set up a potentially interesting response from Scott? It was very fun and challenging.

Mike: Susan’s a very good writer. I’m glad people are going to see that.

Susan: Thanks.

Mike: I told you that almost 30 years ago.

Susan: You also told me you were a decent tennis player.

Mike: Is there another question?


  1. What’s next for We Are Still Tornadoes?

Susan: Mike, why don’t you answer that one?

Mike: We’ve gotten a lot of great reads on the manuscript and it’s off to a couple publishers. It will go off to more shortly. We already have some interest in developing a movie or TV series based on Tornadoes, which is fun to think about. We’re trying not to get too excited about it because, well, I live in Los Angeles, and I know how cheap talk is in this town. Every idea is being developed by someone for a movie or a TV show. The percentage that pan out is tiny. If I had a dime for every time I thought there would be a Locklear Letters movie . . . .

Susan: How much would you have?

Mike: What?

Susan: If you had a dime for each time, how much would you have?

Mike: I don’t know, 70 or 80 cents.

Susan: It might make more sense if you said, “If I had a million dollars for each time.”

Mike: I’ll remember that.

Susan: Are we allowed to say that you and I are going to try our hands at writing a script for a TV pilot?

Mike: I think you just did.

Susan: And I’m going to try to talk Mike into writing a sequel to Tornadoes.

Mike: And I will quote from Apollo Creed at the end of Rocky: “There ain’t gonna be no rematch.”

Susan: But they ended up having a rematch, didn’t they?


  1. What’s next for each of you? What are you working on?

Susan: Truly what’s next for me are two graduations this Spring. My older daughter is graduating from college and is heading to China to pursue a graduate degree next year, and my younger daughter is graduating from high school and heading off to college, location TBD. I have started writing a new novel, but it is in the very preliminary planning stages. Nothing I couldn’t set aside to spend time on a Tornadoes’ pilot or sequel!

Mike: I just finished a draft of a very personal, non-fiction book called Nobody Dies, which I posted in installments on Facebook, of all places. It’s about how my sister and I survived a boating accident during a storm on a lake when we were kids, how we kept each other from drowning, and how our lives ended up going in entirely different directions afterward. I’ll be polishing it up at some point and taking it to publishers. I’m also getting back to a novel I’ve been working on called The Allergic Boy versus The Left-Handed Girl. And I’ll be spending too much time at The American Girl Store and Disneyland with my wife and daughter.

Susan: You need to let me read more of The Allergic Boy.

Mike: And you need to let me read some of the new book you’re working on. Deal?

Susan: Deal.


12. Can you recommend any favorite epistolary novels?

Susan: Aside from Mike’s prior epistolary novels, my favorites are The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer, and Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn.

Mike: Hey, I’m the one who told you about Ella Minnow Pea.

Susan: I know.

Mike: Ella Minnow Pea’s one of my favorites. It was written by my friend Mark Dunn. Great guy. I also loved Ring Lardner’s You Know Me, Al. In fact, I was tempted to call my first epistolary novel You Know Me, Heather as a tribute before deciding on The Locklear Letters.

Susan: I didn’t know that.

Mike: Because I didn’t tell you.

Susan: You could have put it in a letter to me, you know.

Mike: Excellent point.


How's that for full disclosure? 

I will keep you posted on the progress of We Are Still Tornadoes but make a note and add this to your future reading list. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Bring On The Hyperbolic Superlatives! My Top Books of 2014

Enjoying a book in my study
It's almost the end of another year and so we are besieged by Best-Of lists. I eagerly anticipate the book lists to see who agrees with me and whether or not I'm still hip. While there was some agreement, the books I read this year didn't make many lists and, thus, I fear my literary hipness is on the wane. It makes sense. I've been out of the "biz" now for almost five years and though I try to stay up to date, it's obvious I'm missing a lot of titles. At first, I was saddened by this and then I realized it just makes for more books for Reed to read and that is hardly a bad thing. 


As for my own list, I read about thirty-five books this year with another dozen that went unfinished. Below are my favorites:

Non-fiction
Mad World by Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein
Elephant Company by Vicki Croke
Carsick by John Waters
Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart
  • I want to thank Majewski & Bernstein for making me feel like a 16 year old new waver again. Where is my eyeliner? 
  • Croke introduced me to a remarkable man and an equally great tusker. 
  • John Waters delighted and repulsed me, as is his wont. It's what he does, after all. 
  • Shteyngart made me cry with laughter while breaking my heart. 
Fiction
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by A. J. Jansma
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Chop Chop by Simon Wroe
Perfect by Rachel Joyce
2 AM at the Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino
& Sons by David Gilbert
The Guts by Roddy Doyle
  • Outstanding debut authors in Jansma, Sloan and Wroe. More please, gentlemen, and soon. 
  • As for sophomore efforts, Bertino knocked me out with her main character and Joyce continues to provide us with fiction so luxurious, her books should cost more. 
  • Gilbert threw me for such a loop, I still can't even begin to write about it as I'm just not equipped. 
  • Even as the most established writer on this list, Doyle continues to amaze me and if I must pick one, my book of the year is The Guts

Thanks to the booksellers and librarians. Thanks to the authors and the publishers. Thanks to my friends in the biz who indulge me and keep me in books. Thanks to the reviewers and listmakers and, as always, thank you for reading what I write about what I read. See you back here in 2015.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle

Last year, Mrs. Next and I embarked on a wonderful trip to England and France. I visited France at 18 and always wanted to return. Neither of us had been to England, despite my long-held interest in the country, especially for its many cultural exports--music, film, literature, humor, oh and there was some history, as well. In fact, Mrs. Next had never made the transatlantic trip before so this was a big deal. 

In the planning stages, I realized I was over my head and turned to a dear old friend, Wendy, the former groovy ghoulie and now, so glamorous, it hurts to look at her. She plied her travel agents' experience, I brushed up on the French I failed to learn well in college, and we had a marvelous time. With each leg of the journey, Mrs. Next and I were delighted again and again. And so we found ourselves staying at le Bastide de Marie, a luscious resort in a town called Menerbes. Chatting poolside with an English couple, we learned that the book, A Year in Provence, was set in this very town. 

Flashback time!

Years ago, when I was just a cub of a bookseller, you couldn't swing a salami without running into a Peter Mayle book. He became something of his own industry with his travelogues of being a transplant in southern France. He was on the bestseller lists for ages. This book begat sequels and calendars and fifty-year old women dreamily describing how much they loved his work as you rang them out. Naturally, in my callow youth, I was a skeptic and a snob. "Who the hell cares about life in small-town France?", late-twenties Reed Next snorted, "I read heady, provocative, contemporary fiction, damnit!"

To say the least, A Year in Provence is a delight and not simply because we stayed in Menerbes. Mayle's storytelling style is so breezy and nonchalant, it belies the hard work that writing must be to be this good. He brings out the color in the characters and their many idiosyncrasies, which are likely quite maddening in real life but damned charming from a distance. He is also able to capture the beauty of the region and the French way of life as to make both irresistible to our hurried American existence. And did I mention Mayle is funny? 

I will admit to remaining skeptical and snobbish though slightly adjusted for my age. However, I'm at the very age when I look back on our trip as dreamily as the readers Peter Mayle enchanted 20 years ago. Mrs. Next and I will return to the south of France in the near future, perhaps even taking a sabbatical and teaching English or something equally silly for a middle-aged man and his ageless bride. Neither of us can wait.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

I Only Read It For The Cartoons by Richard Gehr

I love The New Yorker. Truth is, I am sort of obsessed with it. Many of my literary heroes wrote for it and I try to read just about everything that comes out about the mag and its' illustrious history while still trying to keep up with my subscription. (Last Summer, I got caught up for the first time in three years, a triumph known only to regular subscribers, but soon fell behind again. Currently, I'm reading the July 21st issue and Friday is Halloween.) Naturally, I was thrilled to receive an advance copy of this. 

Cartoons are part of what makes The New Yorker distinctive and enduring. Here Richard Gehr writes about and speaks with twelve prominent cartoonists whose work you'll recognize even if you don't know them by name. You get a wealth of background, back story, and behind-the-scenes stories. Some of these characters (and they are characters!) have been drawing for the magazine for decades, others far less, but they all have that certain something that makes their cartoons "New Yorker cartoons". Few other cartoons can be distinguished in such a way, especially these days, with newspapers having gone the way of the dodo and few other magazines bothering with the art form any more. Cartooning is practically an endangered species and that makes this examination of these artists all the richer.  

A real treat comes at the end when New Yorker cartoon editor and contributor Bob Mankoff discusses the process of choosing the cartoons for each issue. As one would expect from the mag, it is a painstaking process but it obviously pays off time and again, week after week. 

That said, this might be a book for dorky New Yorker obsessives like me and not for someone who wishes to read cartoons. For that, you'll need another book entirely. May I suggest The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker, a magnificent coffee table volume that will supply you with all you need and more.

Sadly, one of the greats featured in the book, Charles Barsotti, he of kings and puppies, passed away this June, just a few months before the book pubbed.