In any given year, more books cross my path than I could ever possibly read, let alone review. As this particular year winds down, I want to devote a column to the books that land on my desk and never leave; I never get around to writing about them, but I hang on to them just the same—sometimes for personal enjoyment, sometimes with horrified fascination. So here, a highly selective list of the best—and the weirdest—of the orphans, cast-offs and also-rans that lit up my 2012 while you weren’t looking.
Biggest Boat Missed: Jerry Scheff’s memoir Way Down. Scheff was the longtime bass player for Elvis Presley’s TCB Band, and logged hundreds of studio sessions for a Who’s Who of pop artists: Johnny Mathis, the Doors, Elvis Costello, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, and the proverbial many more. Way Down blends autobiography, road stories, and a deep musicality in a wry, wise voice, for one of the most purely enjoyable celebrity books I’ve ever read. The issue was timeliness. Much as I liked the book, I simply couldn’t find a way to tie it to current events, and something newer and more immediate kept bumping it off my schedule, week after week, until finally it dropped off the radar entirely.
Favorite Book to Have Around the House That I Would Never, Ever Review: I’ve long thought myself immune to nostalgia, but I’ve have developed a sneaking fondness for Mark Clark’s Star Trek FAQ. The thing is, there’s no critical angle to take on it. You’ll either dig it or you won’t, and I dug it. Clark’s blend of goofy trivia and backstage dish punches all my pleasure buttons, and it managed what even J.J. Abrams could not: it inspired me to check out the original 1960s series for the first time in 20 years
Most Hermetic Vanity Project: Did you know that actor and producer Henry Winkler—still most famous for playing Fonzie on Happy Days—is an avid fly fisherman? Hell, did you know that Henry Winkler was still alive? Me neither. And yet here is an artsy memoir entitled I’ve Never Met an Idiot On the River, a sort of spiritual autobiography detailing the wisdom that Winkler has learned in years of fishing, illustrated with his own nature photography. It’s just...odd. I tried a couple of times to write a review of it, but ultimately the book defeated me. I simply could not find an angle into it.
Promising Newcomer Now Just a Little More Promising: As stated elsewhere, I make it a policy not to revisit subsequent books in a series I’ve already reviewed. But I did have a second look this year at the Music on Film line, and it merits reassessment. When the books made their debut in 2011, I noted the surface similarities to Hyperion’s 33 1/3 series, but doubted that Music on Film could ever accommodate the broad range of artistic approaches and authorial voices that characterizes 33 1/3. It doesn’t, yet—but there’s some delightful work here, nonetheless. Dave Thompson’s meditation of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a standout, focusing as much on the fan community that surrounds the film as on the film itself, to bittersweet and moving effect. John Kenneth Muir’s entry on Purple Rain is a more conventional making-of narrative, but it is exceptionally good—sharply observed, crisply written, and deeply-sourced.
Most Inexplicable Promotion: For some unknown reason, major publishers keep sending me prose fiction. My beat is pop culture and entertainment, but at least twice this year I have received, unsolicited by me, thick novels accompanied by hopeful letters. Both of the books (which I won’t name here) were tie-ins with popular film franchises, so I suppose there’s some logic at play, but still. People wonder why publishers are bleeding money, when publicists are sending untargeted, expensive packages to reviewers who haven’t asked for them and cannot review them. I’m just sayin’.
Breaking Up the Double Act: I reviewed a couple of academic books about comics this year, but Marc Singer’s Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics—a full-length study of the Scottish writer’s work—wore its intellectual credentials on its sleeve. There’s a lot to like in Singer’s book, but it’s unavoidably dense; Morrison is self-consciously postmodernist in his own writing, and it’s impossible to talk about his comics without resorting to some heavy critical theory and jargon. My idea was to pair Singer’s academic study with Morrison’s own book What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human—a general-audiences meditation on the ethos and morality of comics—and contrast the styles and themes. But my copy of Supergods never arrived, and the project languished.
Object of Existential Dread: The anthology Best American Short Plays of 2010-2011, edited by William W. Demastes. I plowed through this one sticky late-summer afternoon and was depressed for days afterward. If these really are the best short plays on offer, the theater is in worse trouble than I thought.
Grappling with the Topic: There’s a big hole in my coverage of pop culture and entertainment, and it is sports. I passed on some very good straight sporting books—Dirk Hayhurst’s baseball memoir Out of My League, most notably—attempting to ease into athletics via its intersection with show business. This led me, naturally enough, to check out some books on pro wrestling. Unfortunately, the first one I investigated was Irvin Muchnick’s Chris and Nancy—the harrowing story of WWE superstar Chris Benoit’s descent into drugs and madness, culminating in a horrific murder-suicide. It’s forcefully written and thoroughly damning, and it might just have put me off sportswriting forever. It’s that good, and that unsettling.
Evergreen Subject: The Beatles. I reviewed one Beatles book this year—one and a half, if you count the Yoko Ono biography—but there were many more I didn’t get to. There was a Fab Four FAQ, a volume of If You Like the Beatles... (you’ll like pretty much all of the past 50 years of pop culture, apparently), and many more. I fell hard for Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock ‘n’ Roll, by Robert Rodriguez—a full-length, richly detailed look at the making of the Fab Four’s psychedelic masterpiece. But with only 52 Mondays in a year, I simply couldn’t justify reviewing it.
And to turn the critical eye on myself for a moment...
Most Overused Word in My Reviews: “Lacuna.” Which I only used twice, but really, once is plenty, don’t you think?
A safe and happy new year to all, and thanks for reading!
Jack Feerick, Critic at Large for Popdose, practices a New Year’s ritual involving giant-sized servings of both Chinese takeout and shame.