Anything by P. G. Wodehouse.
Anything by Leo Strauss.
Anything by Donald Westlake.
The best almost-new book I read this year, by a long stretch, was Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism, by Joan Acocella, which came out in 2000. At 125 generously typeset pages, it's more of an essay than a book, but it has more interesting information in it, and more wisdom, than most books 10 times the length. Acocella's subject, as the title says, is the great novelist Cather and the mostly unkind and quite often clueless treatment she has received at the hands of critics and other eggheads since the publication of her first novel a century ago. But as you read along you see that Acocella is after bigger game. What she's really laying out is a clear-eyed and courageous expose of the superficiality, the wind-sniffing trendiness, the thinly disguised self-interestedness that have corrupted the critical establishment itself, and brought the country's intellectual life to its present unhappy state. Literary critics don't read a writer like Cather any longer, they just use her for their own, often idiotic, purposes. Acocella herself isn't a literary critic--she writes subtly and beautifully on dance for the New Yorker--and maybe that's why she sees so clearly what has happened. Anyway, it's a lovely book, as unsentimental and passionate as Cather's finest stories.
In The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that Hollywood can be understood, but only dimly, and in flashes. That was nearly 65 years ago. And while the industry has been sanitized and corporatized since, his assessment remains mostly true: Hollywood, the thing, is difficult to fully comprehend.
Every year we get books which try to make sense of one part or another of the Hollywood equation. This year we had mediocre offerings from Joe Eszterhas on the culture of Hollywood (Hollywood Animal) and David Hayes and Jonathan Bing on the economics of Hollywood (Open Wide). Neither is much worth you time.
What is worthy, is an older book I stumbled upon this year: Steven Bach's Final Cut. Written in the wake of the Heaven's Gate disaster, Final Cut is the definitive chronicle of a train wreck. It is definitive because (a) Bach is an elegant writer and unsparing observer and (b) because he was the United Artists executive who greenlit the doomed picture. It is one of the three indispensable books about the movie business.
In one striking vignette, Bach visits the filming of Heaven's Gate deep in the wilderness of Montana. He has been sent by his corporate bosses, who are concerned with the movie's rapidly growing budget, and arrives to find a production in disarray. Bach begins to grasp the magnitude of the situation only when he overhears one actress furtively asking, "Who do I have to f*** to get off this picture?"
For a flickering moment, all of Hollywood comes clear.
--Jonathan V. Last
In the category of books I've read, there are two I find particularly appropriate for the season. The first is The Longest Winter by Alex Kershaw. It is the story of the most decorated American platoon in World War II--from their training in Texas to the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge to some of the most dreaded POW camps in the Reich. This month also marks the 60th anniversary of the Bulge, a battle that ultimately claimed some 19,000 American lives. The second is the reprinted Between Meals by New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling. It is a gastropornographic journey through France from the early 1900s through the 1950s. Along the way, Liebling shares some of his favorite French fare ("truite au bleu--a live trout simply done to death in hot water, like a Roman emperor in his bath") and some of the worst (he calls rosé wine the "Pink Plague"). Liebling takes his "feeding" to Caligulan heights. It may inspire you to eat as bravely--at least just for the holidays.
In the category of books I haven't read (yet), I'd like to mention two: my friend David Evanier's Roman Candle: The Life of Bobby Darin, which has become a movie starring Kevin Spacey, and Michael Crichton's State of Fear--a book that's got the environmental movement up in arms over Crichton's calling their global-warming concerns over-exaggerated. Other books have done this before but not one penned by a mainstream bestselling author.
If anyone consistently gets short shrift around Christmas time, it's the Antichrist. Make it up to him by reading Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's fantastic novel Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, in which Satan stars.
Here's the story: The Antichrist is born on Earth. But due to a mix-up in a nursery manned by Satanic nuns, he is raised by a perfectly normal British family in the village of Lower Tadfield. He gets fond of humanity and is thus understandably reluctant to bring about the End Times. Crowley--a fallen angel assigned to lay the groundwork for Armageddon (a task he begins spectacularly as Crawly, serpent in the Garden of Eden)--and his heavenly counterpart, Aziraphale. race around and try to set things right before their respective bosses find out that they botched the Apocalypse.
To get the general idea of what the prose in Good Omens is like, imagine two of the smartest, funniest writers around today holding a (possibly drunken) Ouija séance to channel Hitchhiker's Guide writer Douglas Adams, and then transcribing the results.
Now go buy it.
Joseph Epstein's recent review of Gerald Clarke's Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote inspired me to read that book, and also some of Capote's stuff which somehow never found its way onto my college reading list. I couldn't find a copy of his masterpiece In Cold Blood at a nearby bookstore, so went with the Modern Library's edition of the equally famous (thanks to Audrey Hepburn) Breakfast at Tiffany's, which also includes three of his best short stories. Breakfast at Tiffany's is not an especially cheerful story and the plot as a whole is not what makes the book so worth reading. It's the descriptions, the revelations about human nature, and the characters that make it sparkle.
Also, the book's last story "A Christmas Memory" is sweet, sad, and appropriate for the season.
More literary fiction: The names and generations of the characters in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights get tricky, but read it for the romantic and eerie plot, perfect for the cold, dark winter. The book is even better than its best movie adaptation, the 1939 version with Laurence Olivier.
Arthur Herman's new story of the British navy, To Rule the Waves, is a book for buffs: history buffs, Britain buffs, empire buffs, nautical buffs, and lovers of all things swashbuckling. It's also a remarkable piece of scholarship and a darn good read. And there are plenty of surprises. (Did you know, for example, a bunch of limey seamen ended the Atlantic slave trade?) Herman deserves the hearty thanks of us Anglophiles--and of everyone else, too. Would that more historians were like him!
Also check out James Mann's Rise of the Vulcans, a comprehensive portrait of George W. Bush's foreign policy team. Learn about the life and times of Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, Powell, Wolfowitz, and Armitage.
Finally, Natan Sharansky's The Case for Democracy. There are so many reasons to read this book. Not least is the fact that Sharansky, an ex-Soviet dissident, is among the Great Men of the 20th century. He's also a masterful lyricist of liberty. But leave that aside. President Bush read Sharansky's book. And if it's worth Bush's time, it should be worth ours.