I wish to recommend the four best books that I have read in the past year. Three are non-fiction, one is fiction. I regret not having written full-length reviews of these books yet, but I may get around to it eventually.
By far my favorite book of 2010 has been Daniel Okrent's Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. The title is self-explanatory but completely understates the rich lode of historical matter that Okrent has gathered between the book's covers. I thought I knew the story of Prohibition, and I was wrong. So many rich details had slipped my notice over the years, including the seminal work of Wayne B. Wheeler, the pre-eminent lobbyist for Prohibition, who basically invented grass-roots political organizing and direct-mail fundraising years before Marvin Liebman, Richard Viguerie, or MoveOn.org.
Neither did I know how the forces of Prohibition had undermined the Constitution by preventing for a full decade the mandated reapportionment following the 1920 census, because those favoring Prohibition knew that a Congress that more accurately represented cities, suburbs, and recent immigrants would be less inclined to support stiff enforcement of the Volstead Act and would be more inclined to move toward full repeal of the 18th Amendment. As a result of the manipulation of Wheeler and others, the Congress elected in 1930 represented the same districts as their predecessors did in 1912, a clear violation of the Constitution.
What's more, Okrent did some digging and discovered no evidence for the widely-held belief that the patriarch of the Kennedy clan, Joseph P. Kennedy, was a bootlegger. Though Kennedy had imported liquor legally at just about the time that repeal seemed inevitable, there simply is no documentary proof that he had imported illegal liquor during Prohibition. The rumor that the senior Kennedy had been a bootlegger, and had built his family's fortune on that, seems to have begun sometime in the 1950s and, as Okrent points out, if any evidence had existed prior to that date, Kennedy -- who had many enemies in business and politics -- would certainly have been called out on it.
Another book of history that I really enjoyed was Jennifer Burns' Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. Burns, who teaches at the University of Virginia, wrote a page-turner about the Objectivist philosopher and novelist's life.
That may be hard to believe, since the outlines of Rand's career are so well-known, given previous biographies and memoirs. Somehow, however, Burns is able to keep the reader's attention. As I read along through the book, I kept saying to myself, "I know what happens next, but I want to find out how it happens."
Burns was the first outside scholar to be given access to Rand's personal papers and library, and the result of her research is a highly readable yet informative chronicle, not only of Rand's life but of her influence on the American conservative and libertarian movements.
Over the course of the past eleven or twelve months, I have had at least three opportunities to see Burns speak: once at the Miller Center, once at the Virginia Festival of the Book, and once at a forum she assembled on the idea of "liberaltarianism," or the cooperation between libertarians and liberals in the public square. On two occasions, I was able to interview her about Ayn Rand and about her book.
In the world of entertainment, it was my pleasure to see TV's Craig Ferguson perform his stand-up act at the Paramount Theatre in Charlottesville on October 17.
In anticipation of that show, I read Ferguson's own autobiography, American on Purpose: The Improbably Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot.
As the title implies, the story culminates in Ferguson's decision to become an American citizen. I was actually a bit disappointed that, for all the detail about his life and "adventures" earlier in the book, the section on the naturalization process was thin. It certainly was not as complete as the reports Ferguson gave about it on The Late, Late Show on CBS while he was going through it. (That included numerous offers of "honorary citizenship" from state governors, including a then-unknown-outside-Alaska Sarah Palin, whom Ferguson described at the time as something of a "sexy librarian.")
Still, Ferguson's chronicle of his life growing up in a lower-middle-class household near Glasgow in the 1960s and '70s, his love affair with the United States that began upon his first visit here at the age of 13, his early life as a drunk and drug addict, his first attempts at performing (which began with him as the drummer for a punk rock band, leading to a stand-up act as the character "Bing Hitler") that included encounters with other beginners like U2 and Alan Cumming, through his long-term engagement as a regular on The Drew Carey Show and finally, his becoming the best of the late-night talk show hosts (in my opinion, at least).
As the picture was being snapped, I said to Craig, "You're the smartest host on late-night TV," to which he replied: "That's like being a tall midget." Maybe so, but I stand by my statement.
For what it's worth, I also purchased Ferguson's novel, Between the Bridge and the River, on that night at the Paramount. I have not yet had a chance to read it.
I don't read much fiction, in general, but when I received a review copy of James Magruder's Sugarless late last year, I simply could not put it down.
It has been almost a year since I read the book, but I still think about it because it resonates with my personal experience so much: not in every aspect, but hitting a sufficient number of points on the matrix to make me believe it.
Sugarless is the story of Rick, a 15-year-old high school student in suburban Chicago during the mid-1970s who, almost purely by chance, ends up on the speech team and finds out he has a talent for dramatic interpretation (or dramatic interp, for those in the know).
Magruder's verisimilitude about high school forensics struck me more than anything else in the book, even the parts about the protaganist's struggle with coming out as gay in an era far less accepting of that than it is now. His descriptions of the scenes at speech tournaments are amazingly accurate, and his portrayals of coaches and competitors are eerily familiar to me.
The one detail that other readers might find difficult to believe is the choice of the protaganist's speech coach to have him do an excerpt from Mart Crowley's play, The Boys in the Band. People unfamiliar with high school forensics may think that a play about gay men would be off-limits, especially in 1976, and especially in the American Midwest.
The truth is, a cutting from The Boys in the Band was circulating at that time, and my own coach asked me to do it. For reasons unrelated to the content of the piece, I ended up doing a different selection. (If I recall correctly, it was the courtroom scene in A Man for All Seasons, a far more conventional choice.) So I can testify against the doubters that an excerpt from The Boys in the Band was, indeed, being performed on the high school forensics circuit in the mid-1970s.
Having just seen the excellent documentary about Crowley and his play, Making the Boys, at the Virginia Film Festival, my memories of reading Sugarless earlier this year and my own experience in high school rushed back to me. I recommend Sugarless to anyone who has competed in speech and debate or to anyone who was once a gay teenager. It's an excellent book, and a compelling read -- a real achievement for a first-time novelist, even one who, like Magruder, is an accomplished playwright and translator.
(This review essay is excerpted from a longer blog post at Rick Sincere News & Thoughts on November 28, 2010.)