5 Favorite Books of 2011
Bossypants by Tina Fey (Reagan Arthur Books/ Little, Brown and Company)
America’s top comedian has written a hilarious and witty memoir. If you haven’t read this yet, what are you waiting for?
Back in the 1990s, Tina Fey was living in Chicago after college. Like many comedians who end up at Saturday Night Live, Fey did a stint at Second City, the Midwest mecca of improv and comedy writing. She says Second City was the only workplace where she experienced “institutionalized gender nonsense.” She recalls a director could cut a sketch by simply saying, “The audience doesn’t want to see a scene between two women.”
This did not compute for Fey, or for her then and future colleague Amy Poehler. Flash forward a dozen years. Fey and Poehler opened Saturday Night Live on September 13, 2008, with their first-rate portrayals of Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton. Ten million people tuned in. “So I guess that director at the Second City who said the audience ‘didn’t want to see a sketch with two women’ can go shit in his hat.”
Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolutionby Sara Marcus (Harper Perennial)
Girls to the Front may not be as funny as Fey’s book, but it’s just as perceptive. Sara Marcus delves into the “riot grrrl” world of the early 1990s. Riot grrrl was a grassroots feminist movement, with a do-it-yourself ethos. Third-wave feminists combined punk rock with consciousness-raising support groups. It was idealistic, fun, in-your-face feminism.
Driven by music and ’zines, culture and politics were at the forefront of this underground yet influential movement. Tobi Vail of the band Bikini Kill summed it up: “Our vision was of creating a feminist youth culture that was participatory and would change society. We wanted all girls in all towns to start bands.”
Black Flags and Windmills by scott crow (PM Press)
Crow is a long-term activist who shares the lessons he’s learned in organizing.
He and a few others founded the Common Ground Collective in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. There’s a lot of trauma in NOLA, and that comes through in the book.
But you also get the sense that writing this book was healing for Crow
“I don’t tell a personal narrative to build myself up but to show that we can all do this,” he told me during a phone interview a few weeks ago. “I’m not trying to set myself up as a hero. I’m setting ourselves up to be heroes for each other.”
Crow has been subjected to close scrutiny by the FBI. He requested his FBI file and received back 440 heavily-redacted pages. In 2006, he found out he was listed as a “domestic terrorist” due to his activism. He has been arrested in demonstrations but never charged with anything more than trespassing.
Crow says the surveillance and ongoing criminalization of dissent is “an absolute farce. People like me are paper tigers. If you are going to have a war on terrorism, you need terrorists. Who are easy to find? Social activists.”
He knows that the FBI uses surveillance as a way to intimidate activists. “What everyone fears about surveillance, it’s happened to me, and I’m OK,” he says. “It hasn’t been pleasant. But I’m OK.”
Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Falloutby Laura Redniss (It Books/HarperCollins)
It’s not just the astonishing story of the Curies that makes this book so extraordinary. The book itself is a work of art. Redniss uses both words and illustrations to tell her tale. The technique she employs—cynotype printing—creates imagery in faded blues. The colors resemble, as Marie Curie wrote, the “faint, fairy blue” emitted by radium.
Redniss works from original sources and quotes heavily from the Curies throughout the book. The author manages to interlock their stories of discovery with Hiroshima, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the Nevada nuclear test sites.
Marie, who kept a little jar of radium by her pillow, was the first woman in France to receive a doctorate. That same year, the Curies received the Nobel Prize together. But she couldn’t travel to Stockholm. Pierre did not attend either. Both had become easily fatigued. “Radioactivity had made the Curies immortal,” writes Redniss. “Now it was killing them.”
Their private life was fascinating. Pierre dabbled in Spiritualism and went to séances. Marie did major research while also cooking meals for her husband and nursing a child. There is tragedy, heartbreak, scandalous affairs, and even a duel in these pages. Radioactive is wholly original, just like the Curies.
Grapefruit by Yoko Ono (Simon & Schuster)
Yoko Ono is another original. I saw her work at the Venice Biennale in 2009, where she was given a lifetime achievement award for being a pioneer in performance and conceptual art. Her exhibit blew me away.
So I was very excited to find out that her book Grapefruit is back in print. It’s a slim, sly volume full of “instructions for art and life.”
Each page contains a suggestion for an art piece. She covers music, painting, film, and more. One can see the idea of Yoko and John Lennon’s Bed-in for Peace in these pages. But what really comes shining through is her sense of humor.
5 other notable picks:
The John Carlos Story by Dave Zirin (Haymarket)
If you like sports, don’t miss Zirin’s latest book on 1968 Olympian and lifelong activist, John Carlos.
Rin Tin Tin by Susan Orlean (Simon & Schuster)
I am a huge fan of Orlean’s New Yorker pieces. Rin Tin Tin’s owner believed his dog was immortal. Don’t we all? It was especially poignant to read this while my beloved white German Shepherd was dying.
Roger Ebert: Life Itself by Roger Ebert (Grand Central Publishing)
The film critic’s memoir gets a thumbs up. “We must try to contribute joy to the world,” Ebert writes. “I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”
Blue Nights by Joan Didion (Knopf)
Who does grief better than Didion?
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (and Other Concerns)by Mindy Kaling (Crown)
The staff writer and actor on the hit comedy The Office had me at this line: “Can I just say one last thing about this, and then I swear I’ll shut up about it?” Another smart, funny memoir/essay collection by another smart, funny woman.
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