by Andrew Osborne
I didn’t have much time for reading this year (partly because I was preparing my own novel, Building Heaven for publication…now available in Kindle and paperback editions!) — but the following fiction, non-fiction, and funny books still managed to penetrate my pea-brain in the Annus Horribilis that was 2016.
O’Nan landed on my list of all-time favorite authors this year with a novella and novel as separate from one another in subject matter as their bi-coastal settings. The first chronicles the human comedy and life-size drama of the final shift at a Red Lobster slated for closure on a dark, wintry night in New England. The broader canvas of the second encompasses the last few years of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald as he drinks away his health, cheats on his long-institutionalized wife Zelda, and fraternizes with the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Dorothy Parker while struggling to make ends meet as a hack screenwriter in 1930s Hollywood. Neither story is driven by fast-paced action or suspense, but O’Nan’s voice and style is so unfussily precise and compelling that it’s hard to stop reading as he focuses on the day-to-day work of life, whether that involves cleaning a fry vat or rattling off movie pitches to a surprisingly tough-minded Shirley Temple.
Sex sells. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry with countless permutations, which means someone must be providing and consuming all that erotica, though Americans are famously squeamish about discussing any of it (except, typically, in the censorious terminology of shame, fear, and embarrassment). Not so Devora Gray, who chronicles her own experiences as an exotic dancer, escort, S&M “sessionist” and more with humor, clear-eyed insights into gender politics, and smart, sassy sex appeal.
The perfect book to read before Trump walls off Mexico, Berkeley’s darkly comic psychedelic fever dream of sex, drugs, and rock & roll savagery hums along at a gonzo clip. Cancun drops us smack dab into the middle of a mysterious road trip and hits the gas from there, taking us on a wild, unpredictable ride through history, mythology, the Yucatán Peninsula, and the protagonist’s nihilistic, insatiable consciousness.
I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid, the literary equivalent of interactive video games where the reader periodically gets to influence the direction of the story (often with deadly results for the protagonist). Thankfully, writer Jeff Burk and illustrator Chrissy Horchheimer have reimagined the genre for adults, with a trio of potential main characters (a punk, a scientist, and an office drone) battling aliens, monsters, and corporate drudgery (the most terrifying evil in a book full of comically gruesome eviscerations).
Rachel Dratch had a great run on Saturday Night Live, where she was known for recurring characters like Debbie Downer and one half of the Boston townie couple Denise and Sully. Yet unlike her more conventionally attractive castmates Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, her career led not to movie star fame but third-tier supporting roles with dismissive character descriptions like “fifty-five-year-old bull dyke. Obese.” Yet Dratch ain’t bitter (mostly), and the bulk of her charming story is about the performer (mostly) letting go of show biz and embracing regular life (including the surprise and challenge of an unexpected middle-aged pregnancy).
Honorary Mention: The Fade Out (Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips), Just a Pilgrim (Garth Ennis & Carlos Ezquerra), Harrow County (Cullen Bunn & Tyler Crook), Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa & Robert Hack), and Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks by Brad Dukes
KINDA DISAPPOINTING: Patience by Dan Clowes
A rare misfire from one of my favorite funny book artists, Patience is a time travel graphic novel with an anti-climactic end game that doesn’t really live up to the sum of its parts.
ON DECK FOR 2017 (books I’m either currently reading or planning to read):
Based on a True Story: A Memoir by Norm Macdonald
The Secret History of Twin Peaks by Mark Frost
Walk Hand In Hand Into Extinction: Stories Inspired by True Detective by Christoph Paul, edited by Leza Cantoral