After The Secret History became my all-time favorite novel in 1992, I waited breathlessly for Donna Tartt’s follow-up…only to be soundly disappointed a solid decade later by The Little Friend. I stopped tracking the author’s literary movements after that, allowing my brothers-in-laws (brother-in-laws?) to surprise me this year with a Christmas copy of Tartt’s latest doorstopper, The Goldfinch. Whether it lands at the top of next year’s Best Of list remains to be seen…but for now, here are my favorite reads of 2013:
1. THE CENTER HOLDS: OBAMA AND HIS ENEMIES (Jonathan Alter)
I spent 2012 clenched in white-knuckle suspense (and barely suppressed rage) as the bizarro reality show of American electoral politics vomited across the 24/7 media landscape. While the underrated, over-hated Barack Obama was being accused of everything from gross incompetence to evil genius schemes against humanity, a rogue’s gallery of dimwits, zealots, Ayn Rand fanboys and smarmy plutocrats were gunning for his job. How and why they failed is the topic of Jonathan Alter’s dishy layer cake of political strategy and schadenfreude as satisfying to me as our 44th President’s bruising fifth year in office has been for his foes.
2. THE REVOLUTION WAS TELEVISED (Alan Sepinwall)
3. DIFFICULT MEN (Brett Martin)
A virtual tie, with Sepinwall narrowly edging out Martin only because I read his book about the current television renaissance first. And while neither author gives proper credit to the groundbreaking small screen cinematic aesthetic of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, they both trace the pop culture through line from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad to reveal how “showrunner” replaced “movie director” as the top creative job in America…and also why being a TV staff writer isn’t nearly as much fun as you’d think (unless you’re lucky enough to work for America’s sweetheart, Vince Gilligan).
4. I WANT MY MTV (Rob Tannebaum & Craig Marks)
Every Gen-X-er I know who’s encountered this book, myself included, seems to have gone through the same thought process. You have fond memories of MTV, but you’re not sure you really have time for a 700+ oral history about the lifespan of music television from conception to its Jersey Shore death. So instead, you figure you’ll just flip to the part about how Billy Squier’s “Rock Me Tonite” became the worst video of all time…then you find yourself reading the story about the guy in the gondola who kept yelling “Duck!” so Madonna wouldn’t get brained by the Venetian bridges behind her in “Like A Virgin” (or the lion that nearly ate the Material Girl because she was on her period during the video shoot)…and before long, you’ve devoured every page of Marks and Tannenbaum’s tome and spent 100 hours watching all the songs on YouTube that never show up on Music Television anymore.
5. LOST AT SEA: THE JON RONSON MYSTERIES (Jon Ronson)
The politely gonzo British journalist Jon Ronson has a witty, conversational writing style that could make even the dullest topic compelling…at least theoretically, since the subjects he covers in his latest collection of short articles (from the hidden treasures of Stanley Kubrick’s mansion to a town obsessed with Christmas) are never less than fascinating.
6. MORNING GLORIES (Joe Eisma & Nick Spencer)
Eisma & Spencer’s ongoing serial about the desperate students and diabolical faculty of a sinister, supernatural boarding school is the graphic novel equivalent of Lost: I have no idea what’s going on, none of the mysteries are ever revealed in a satisfying way, and yet it’s so entertaining from moment-to-moment that I can’t help following the story down every blind alley and bottomless rabbit hole.
7. HAUNT (Laura Lee Bahr)
Writer/actress Laura Lee Bahr’s adult update of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books allows the reader to experience multiple realities simultaneously in a clever, spooky burst of quantum storytelling about a frustrated ghost, the perils of romantic obsession and the living death of modern corporate culture.
8. ATTEMPTING NORMAL (Marc Maron)
After decades of confessional stand-up, one season of an autobiographical sitcom and nearly 500 hours of his navel-gazing WTF podcast, you’d think comedian Marc Maron wouldn’t have much left to say about his life and neuroses…but this breezy collection of ramblings on love, death and why it’s okay to steal stevia from Whole Foods proves it ain’t so.
9. FRANCONA: THE RED SOX YEARS (Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy)
This quasi-memoir reveals less dirt than I was hoping for about the epic Red Sox collapse of 2011 (and more than I probably needed to know about ex-manager Francona’s clubhouse bathroom habits), but nevertheless provided a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of Fenway Park (while serving as a great prologue to Boston’s 2013 World Series run).
10. OTHER STUFF (Peter Bagge)
Until the next Hate “annual” comes along (and before I dive into Woman Rebel, the graphic novel biography of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger), I got my 2013 fix of Peter Bagge’s noodle-armed, nonsensically no-nonsense comic worldview through this collection of B-sides and collaborations with the likes of artistic pals Daniel Clowes, Robert Crumb and Adrian Tomine.