There’s no need to rehash what a dumpster fire many consider 2016 to be, with (sometimes beloved) celebrity deaths leading the charge. Many of those who passed left us a legacy of books, others tackled their personal demons, and still more gave us laugh-laden memoirs. What better way to honor their memory than by reading the stories they personally penned?
[In some cases, we may just pick an interesting, relevant book – not necessarily their own.]
This will be in two parts because 2016 cannot contain its own misery.
David Bowie – David Bowie in His Own Words – Our year started with a monumental loss. You can simply lose yourself in this icon’s lyrics, or go a step further and read this collection of words not set to music.
Carrie Fisher – Postcards from the Edge and The Princess Diarist – This loss is still raw, just like she was. Since I didn’t see Star Wars until high school (I know), it’s the later, sunglasses-clad Fisher I know the most. Something tells me to start with her latest, The Princess Diarist, which was published just last month. Those diary entries could lay the foundation for her battle with mental illness and drugs, leading to her memoir Postcards from the Edge. Life isn’t always pretty, but it can always be as she wished: a life lived as art.
Richard Adams – Watership Down – I have no idea how I didn’t read this book as a child. An adventure story with anthropomorphized rabbits, some of whom face a grueling death? Sign me up. Adams wrote the book at the insistence of his daughters, based on stories he told them during long car rides. Although certainly steeped in The Hero’s Journey, with tastes of The Iliad sprinkled throughout, Adams renounced any claims of a religious allegory. Keep an eye out for the BBC miniseries on Netflix next year.
Other works include Shardik, The Plague Dogs and The Girl in the Swing.
Gwen Ifill – The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama – Gwen Ifill was a renowned journalist and newscaster, the first African-American woman to host a national public affairs television show (Washington Week in Review in 1999). The Breakthrough shows connections between civil rights protests and African Americans in politics today. It was published on President Obama’s first Inauguration Day in 2009 and may act as a balm for the next one. It may also just be too depressing to think of where we could have gone versus where we landed.
Gene Wilder – When Gene Wilder passed, we all lost a little twinkle in our eye. I expected to hear that he wrote memoirs: Kiss Me Like A Stranger – My Search For Love And Art and Gilda’s Disease. Then I learned he is an accomplished fiction writer as well? And he mostly writes historical romance? Done. Take a look at Something To Remember You By – A Perilous Romance, What Is This Thing Called Love?, The Woman Who Wouldn’t and My French Whore
Tom Hayden – Journalist and activist Tom Hayden’s first wife was Jane Fonda, if that gives you any idea of his politics. He has been a voice to end war, sweatshops and reform our democracy to be more, well, democratic. He also served in the California legislature for 18 years. His latest book, Hell No: The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Peace Movement will be published on January 31, 2017. Until then, you can check out The Long Sixties: From 1960 to Barack Obama, Writings for a Democratic Society: The Tom Hayden Reader, Reunion and more.
Arnold Palmer – A Life Well Played: My Stories – I mean, it’s Arnold Palmer. I know next to nothing about golf and I know he is one of the best regarded players in its history. He also has a refreshing summertime drink named after him, so who wouldn’t want to read his stories?
Edward Albee, Playwright – Albee’s death shook my theater community. He was one of the few playwrights who was both an integral part of theatrical history and still maintained his relevance on Broadway today. Albee was a well-known master, whether through the favorite plays for college students to tackle: The Zoo Story and The Sandbox, or his definitive Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? My favorites include A Delicate Balance & Three Tall Women, mostly because they were the two I was lucky enough to see on Broadway. The memory of one sequence in A Delicate Balance still affects me, and I saw it at least twenty years ago.
Imre Kertész – Kertész was a Holocaust survivor from Hungary and won the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize in Literature. He had mixed feelings towards his homeland of Hungary, and initially found Germany to be more welcoming of his work. That seems odd since most of his books center around the Holocaust, though they are not strictly autobiographical. They include: Fatelessness, Kaddish for an Unborn Child, The Pathseeker, Liquidation and Dossier K: a Memoir.
Ahmed Zewail – The “father of femtochemistry,” chemistry on very short timescales (yes, I did have to look that up), was awarded the 1999 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Among Cal Tech’s many scientific works, he also scribed Voyage Through Time: Walks of Life to the Nobel Prize. Voyage seems to be both a memoir, femtochemistry primer, and philosophical journey through two cultures – Egyptian and American – which often seem to contrast yet he feels are harmonious. To be honest, this book sounded so intriguing that I immediately put it on my wish list.
James Alan McPherson – McPherson was curious as a child, but it wasn’t until he discovered the “colored” section of his library that he understood the power of words, and their ability to show him new worlds. He studied law, then moved to writing, and was one of the first “geniuses” to win a MacArthur Award in 1981. Some well known works include Crabcakes: A Memoir and A Region Not Home: Reflections on Exile.
Garry Marshall – When you need to forget the blues of 2016, pick up Marshall’s My Happy Days in Hollywood. Considering this is the same man who adapted Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple for television, his autobiography has to be a fun read.
Elie Wiesel – When the Norwegian Nobel Committee calls you a “messenger to mankind” before awarding you its 1986 Peace Prize, you know your books must be something special. Beyond Wiesel’s Holocaust-themed The Night Trilogy, his work for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and activism against oppression around the world led to the creation of the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies at Boston University, where he also taught. Other books are Open Heart, All Rivers Run to the Sea, and how can you resist a title like this: The Trial of God: (as it was held on February 25, 1649, in Shamgorod).
Muhammad Ali – With so many unauthorized biographies out there, read the man’s own words in The Soul of a Butterfly or The Greatest: My Own Story. You may learn more about how his activism, lauded at his death, required a lot of sacrifice in his career while he lived.
Doris Roberts – Are You Hungry, Dear? Life, Laughs and Lasagna – Talk about beloved. You probably know her as Ray Romano’s meddling mother from Everybody Loves Raymond, and Romano said her character was the audience favorite, hands-down. If her recipes are half as prolific as her acting, this part-memoir-part-recipe book is worth the price. Roberts’ acting career began in the fifties and spanned theater, television and film. This woman worked.
Now I want lasagna.
Peter Shaffer, playwright – Imagine your two greatest artistic achievements involved Mozart (Amadeus) and teenagers riding a horse in the nude (Equus). He wrote a lot more, including Lettice and Lovage specifically for Dame Maggie Smith (she won a Tony Award for her role). No wonder we love Peter Shaffer so much.
Morley Safer, Flashbacks: On Returning to Vietnam – I haven’t watched 60 Minutes in many years, but mention Morley Safer and his voice pops right back into my ear. I’m sure if I read his book on Vietnam, his voice would narrate it for me like an audio book.
Patty Duke – Her bio reads like one grasping to take control of her own story for once, but you can’t deny Patty Duke’s imprint on the world of entertainment. She started her career playing Helen Keller, for criminy’s sake. If you don’t want your ideal image of her tarnished, I wouldn’t suggest Call Me Anna: The Autobiography of Patty Duke. If you’d like an idea of how royally screwed up people can feel while putting up a perfect public front, then read Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic Depressive Illness.
Garry Shandling – Confessions of a Late Night Talk Show Host – Dude. It’s Garry Shandling. It’s The Garry Shandling Show. It’s The Garry Shandling Show. Garry called me up and asked if I would write an overview…..
Nancy Reagan – My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan and The Long Goodbye – She was my first First Lady, yet over the years my image of her got tarnished as I matured and understood just how opposed I would be to her policies now. And let’s face it, the “Just Say No” campaign was a total bust. Yet I can’t help but think the autobiography of this actress turned political wife must be fascinating. Until I watched a documentary on The Reagans, I had no idea how much of their political life was simply another role they both played, off screen this time.
Pat Conroy – You likely know The Prince of Tides (at least, if Barbra Streisand was a goddess in your house too), but Conroy’s other work came from his personal experiences in an abusive household, and struggling with discipline as a schoolteacher early in his life. His mother actually presented his novel The Great Santini as ‘evidence’ against her husband during divorce proceedings. I knew nothing about him before reading his obituary and would now like to go on a Pat Conroy reading binge.
Umberto Eco – “When men stop believing in God, it isn’t that they then believe in nothing: they believe in everything.” Eco had a fascination with symbols, and how we can interpret all of culture’s various emblems, music, banners. He explored these ideas through his professorship and fiction. The Name of the Rose (with all its nods to Sherlock Holmes) and Foucault’s Pendulum are perhaps his most well known works, yet he leaves behind many titles for a lover of puzzles and people to discover.
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman – Some day soon, the very beloved Harper Lee’s story will become a Lifetime special or miniseries, the woman who had one great novel in her. Then her lawyer found the pages cut from Mockingbird and decided to publish them. Or Lee herself wanted them published. Or Lee’s mind is too frail to make decisions, and her lawyer saw a cash flow she couldn’t resist. Whatever the story, we are sure to see many versions of them soon. In the meantime, re-read Mockingbird and check out Watchmen, just to come to your own conclusions. Our dear Atticus Finch cannot escape the inherent racism of his time, and Scout as an adult is less appealing than the Scout who draws out Dear Boo Radley, from what I hear.
(PS – Did you remember that Robert Duvall played Boo Radley? I hadn’t. God, I love that man. I’m not sure anyone can beat his performance as the Commander in The Handmaid’s Tale, but we’ll see in 2017.)
Continued in part two…