List 2003: Ben Varkentine on books

A few things you should know before we begin:

1) Ordering a list like this is difficult because it is arbitrary. What I mean is that I would not want anyone to think that I’m saying American Presidency As Television Drama is necessarily a “better” book than Language Police. Though one appears higher on my list than the other, both are collections of merit and very different listening experiences. You can’t really compare one to the other.

2) It’s very roughly in bottom to top order. But as you read this list, please keep in mind that the order is essentially unimportant. You could just as easily read it top to bottom or throw all the pieces into the air to see where they come down. In fact, I’ve decided to remove the numbers from it. But the mathematically inclined among you will notice that:

3) There are only 17 slots and 18 books on this list. The missing 19th title represents all the great books you and I both missed last year.

4) Even more than in the music list, I have not been wholly faithful to the idea that all these picks should have been released in 2003. These are 18 of the best books I read (and one tape, to which I listened) last year, regardless of when they were released and I want to single them out for special attention.

  1. As you•ll see, in a few cases I have chosen not to give a capsule review of the book under discussion but to give a favorite quotation instead.

And now, on with the countdown:


The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, Diane Ravitch (Knopf)

This tells how US schools have been completely fucked by pressure groups from both the right and the left.

It’s a great, thought-provoking cautionary tale which speaks to why modern literacy rates are so low, among other things. All the reading material that might engage students has been leeched out of the system, leaving only bland, boring stories selected only because they meet an agenda, regardless of whether they’re actually any good.

Ravitch’s writing is detailed; some of her examples of censorship in textbooks will astound you. An essay on Matthew Shepard was ordered to be rewritten to remove references to his sexuality…

I hope this book is making some noise in educational circles; her recommendations are eminently reasonable. And as someone who gained a love of reading almost in spite of my elementary school teachers, I know the system needs help.

Norma Jean: The Life of Marilyn Monroe, Fred Lawrence Guiles, (McGraw-Hill)

I wrote a play this year with a character that is, shall we say, not a hundred miles from Marilyn Monroe. This was one of the books I found most helpful.

On writing well: the classic guide to writing nonfiction, William Knowlton Zinsser, (Harper Perennial)

Writers: Read this.

Additional dialogue: the letters of Dalton Trumbo, Christopher Trumbo (L.A. Theatre Works)

Audio theater piece adapted from the letters of the noted screenwriter (Roman Holiday, Spartacus) who served time in prison as one of the •Hollywood Ten• that refused to give the House Committee on Un-American Activities what they wanted. The letters chosen reveal a funny man (do not miss his advice to his son on the subject of courtship), with the full-blooded prose and true, rich voice of a writer, and with a beautiful turn of phrase. The production also benefits immeasurably from a sparse but able cast led by Harry Groener as Trumbo.

Who put the rainbow in the Wizard of Oz? : Yip Harburg, lyricist, Harold Meyerson, (University of Michigan Press)

“In 1955 work was abruptly halted on production of John Hubley’s animated feature-length version of Finian’s Rainbow which was to feature the voices of Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Ella Logan, and Frank Sinatra, among others; it was killed, according to John Canemaker, by Roy Brewer, head of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union (IATSE), after Hubley refused to appear and name names before the McCarthyite Hollywood Committee. After Hubley’s refusal, Chemical Bank, the film’s principal investor, withdrew all financial support.”

Cash: An Autobiography, Johnny Cash, (Harper SanFrancisco)

“Even closer to me, right at my feet, is another memory, the skin of the rogue crocodile I killed back in 1976, eleven feet and 560 pounds of very tough, very dangerous old creature, One-Eyed Jack we called him in his prime. I put three bullets from a rusty .30-30 into his brain – good shooting even if I do say so myself, over open sights in the dark – until he quit thrashing around and we were able to drag him into the airboat with us, where of course he came right back to life. Not a good moment, that.”


3 uses of the knife: on the nature and purpose of drama, David Mamet, (Columbia University Press)

David Mamet is what you call your basic sharp cookie, and this is one of those books that you should read even though – actually, because – you won•t agree with everything in it.

The Return of the Black Widowers, Isaac Asimov, (Carroll & Graf)

The Black Widower mystery stories are my favorite of the late Isaac Asimov•s vast output, and this anthology of previously uncollected stories plus a best-of assortment was like an early Christmas present. Add a bit of homage, top it off with an introduction by Harlan Ellison, one of my favorite writers and Asimov•s great friend, and you•ve got a book to savor. Even if one of my very favorite stories was left out (gnashes teeth).

Harold Arlen: Rhythm, Rainbows, and Blues, Edward Jablonski (Northeastern University Press)

“Another ‘date’ was Marilyn Monroe. One evening while she and Arlen were dancing, he said, ‘People are staring at us.’ ‘They must know who you are,” she told him.”

Bubblegum music is the naked truth, Kim Cooper, David Smay, Editors (Feral House)

Among other reasons, because this is the book that hipped me to the fact that New Wave is music for geeks, girls and gays.

Shattered Shell and Tales from the Dark Woods, Brendan Dubois (Thomas Dunne Books and Five Star)

I don•t read as much fiction these days as I once did; one of the only exceptions seems to be mysteries – see Asimov collection above. This year I discovered a new (to me) writer, Brendan Dubois, in an anthology of The Best Mystery Stories of the Century. The story included there, Dark Snow, is also in the Tales from the Dark Woods collection. Shattered Shell is part of a series about Dubois’ character Lewis Cole, an ex-researcher for the department of defense. One of the supporting characters is a lesbian cop, and the book is partly about what happens when her girlfriend is raped and she asks Cole to find the man who did it. I recommend the book for its non-stereotypical (in my view) portrayal of a lesbian relationship, but more importantly it’s a good mystery, too, and very suspenseful.

Dispatches from the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit, Danny Goldberg (Miramax)

In part a catalog of attacks on free speech in the past 20 years, this compelling written book illustrates a larger point: Politicians from both sides, but most especially the left, have shot themselves in the foot time and time again when it comes to understanding, or maybe even harnessing popular culture. Goldberg has been on the “front lines,” so to speak, of politics in general and free speech in specific for years and has seen both the myths and the realities of his time.


Cole Porter: A Biography, William McBrien (Knopf)

“Although it was not a hit, Porter and Chaplin both thought of ‘I Love You, Samantha’ as their favorite number from the score. John Patrick remembered that one exchange he had with Cole when working on High Society concerned rhymes: ‘[Cole] said to me once, ‘The leading lady’s name is Samantha; what the hell rhymes with Samantha?’ [Patrick] said, ‘Lovely as a panther?’ He said, ‘Get out of my house.’”

Da Capo best music writing 2001: the year’s finest writing on rock, pop, jazz, country, & more, Nick Hornby, Editor (Da Capo)

It shouldn•t surprise anyone that the author of High Fidelity knows good music writing when he sees it.

Colored Lights, John Kander, Fred Ebb (Faber & Faber)

Full review forthcoming. The only way this book, subtitled “Forty Years of Words and Music, Show Biz, Collaboration and All That Jazz,” would be a greater experience is if it came with an accompanying CD of Kander & Ebb•s greatest creations.

Against The Grain: Mad Artist Wallace Wood, Bhob Stewart, Editor (TwoMorrows)

Wallace Wood was, unquestionably, one of the world•s greatest cartoonists. His work ranged from parody to mainstream superheroes to the undergrounds and was loved by his colleagues and fans alike. Yet this could not erase the rough edges of his life.

The West Wing: The American Presidency As Television Drama, Peter C. Rollins John E. O’Connor, editors.

Full review forthcoming. In 2002 I wrote a combined review of three books then recently published on the series. Calling The West Wing a serious TV show, I called for serious books to look at it. In 2003 that call was answered. ◼

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