I am a dreadful reader. Let’s just get that out of the way. For someone who writes books, I’ve always been ashamed of the fact that I don’t seem to read anywhere near as much or as speedily as I should. To make myself feel better, I tell myself that the books I do get around to reading are read well and deeply. This is, of course, bullshit. I’m a slow reader, distracted by everything flashing and bleeping, who tends to read three books at a time, none of them in a proper fashion. It can take me weeks, even months to get through a single book. (Unless I’m researching something for one of my own books, in which case, I can zip through something pretty quickly.) The best time for me to read would probably be the morning, which is exactly the time when I’m writing. As the day passes, it is nothing but eroding attention spans and diminishing returns. Still I manage to find and read books that I love every year. Here’s a few of them.
Perforated Heart by Eric Bogosian was one of my much-loved (though still slowly consumed) books of the year. Richard Morris, the protagonist, is a real piece of work. A selfish, narcissistic novelist, a Rothian literary-lion figure, except for the fact that his novels are regularly outshined by his very first book, a slim volume of short stories that took the literary world by storm, resulting in a hit motion picture. The book takes the form of journal entries: those from his present-day journal (during recuperation from heart surgery) alternate with recently unearthed diary entries from the ’70s (when he was a raw and ambitious bootstrapper first arrived in New York City). The earlier journals prompt the ailing, suddenly vulnerable older writer to seek out the important characters from his youth, present colliding with past, resulting in many unwanted revelations. I’d never read Bogosian before, but I’ve already picked up his other novels.
God, I love John O’Brien’s work, even though the man finished only one book in his lifetime. He committed suicide in 1994, shortly after finding out that his gritty gem Leaving Las Vegas was to be made into a motion picture. Still, his three unfinished books are all great (kudos to his sister, Erin O’Brien for superbly completing them): Stripper Lessons, The Assault on Tony’s, and the book I discovered this year, Better. It’s the story of Double Felix, a rich, solitary, enigmatic alcoholic, who occupies a mansion in the Hollywood hills. He surrounds himself with a revolving door of misfits, fuckups, and denizens of the underbelly of L.A., creating an unlikely surrogate family, of which Double Felix is the perpetually intoxicated paterfamilias. Various conflagrations, hook-ups, Morning Vodka, and emotional double crosses ensue until, as Sherwood Anderson would say, things go to smash.
Sally Franson’s A Lady’s Guide to Selling Out won me over quickly for a number of reasons, particularly because it takes place in the realm of advertising and marketing, a world that subsidized my fiction writing for many decades. When I saw that the narrator, Casey Pendergast, shared much of the same ambivalence about the business that I did, I was totally on board with this smart and charming book. It was a treat to watch Casey, trapped in the weedy bardo between literature and commerce, try her best to succeed in business with her integrity still intact. You can imagine how that works out.
I’m always reading books about music and one of them really floored me this year. Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist by Steve Lowenthal is the life story of one of the most talented, damaged, and self-sabotaging artists of the 20 century. A man so supremely talented and so dedicated to the guitar that he is considered godlike in many musical circles, but who also managed to blow up pretty much every other aspect of his life. It’s a painful journey in many ways, but Lowenthal deftly explains how this consummately gifted man was able to leave all that exquisite music in the process.
I’m a sucker for reading about radio, which is probably the literary equivalent of dancing about architecture, but I loved the story of Ohio’s legendary rock ‘n’ roll station in The Buzzard: Inside the Glory Days of WMMS and Cleveland Rock Radio by John Gorman with Tom Ferran. Starting in the ’70s in the early days of progressive FM radio, Gorman, who was there spearheading the aural attack as bloodthirsty program director, tells how WMMS went from being a “Find Me” FM station to one of the most influential radio stations in the country, breaking acts like Bruce Springsteen, Rush, and David Bowie. It’s amazing to read how one station in one broken city could totally change how people listened to radio.
Along with music, I never get tired of reading about Detroit. Though I’ve lived here all my life and all my novels are set around here, this place still never ceases to fascinate me. So it was thrilling to read Leo Early’s excellent history, The Grande Ballroom: Detroit’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Palace. For the uninformed, the Grande was Detroit’s Fillmore, a 1920s-era dancehall that became a rock ‘n’ roll mecca for a white-hot moment in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Grande is where proto-punk gods the MC5 first screamed “Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!”—not only as ideology, but as admonition to other bands, who dared not to bring their best when they came to Detroit. As exemplified by the steamy July night in 1968 when the 5s explosive set blew a little band named The Cream right off the stage. Gotta love that Dee-troit attitude.