Live from Memphis.
Here are the books I read in 2012.
1. My Life with Elvis – by Becky Yancey.
The first book published after Elvis’ death from one of the insiders on his team. She worked in the office at Graceland. The book is extremely positive about Elvis, although honest about the difficulties of working for him. It is horribly written, with no sense of chronology, no segue from paragraph to paragraph, but the overall tone is sincere, and her motives do not appear to be suspect. She felt horrible about the awful things said about Elvis by his turn-coat friends in Elvis: What Happened? (published a month before Elvis passed), and was very upset by Elvis’ death, and wanted to counteract the negativity. She was a teenage girl in Memphis when she met Elvis, who was already the biggest star in the world at that time. She had been invited to the amusement park by a friend, on one of the nights when Elvis would rent out the entire park for himself and his entourage. She rode the roller coaster, seated in a car next to Elvis, and she threw up on him, all over his gorgeous skin-tight silk pants and shirt. He was very nice about it, and concerned for her well-being, and later, he offered her a job. That was Elvis’ thing. You make a good first impression (even if that involves vomiting on his lap) and he needs to co-opt your entire life and corral you in with his team.
2. Me and a Guy Named Elvis: My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley- Jerry Schilling
Jerry Schilling was a Memphis boy, who met Elvis in 1956 (Elvis was a bit older than Schilling). It took some years until their paths crossed again, and then Jerry basically joined the “Memphis Mafia”, and was Elvis’ companion and friend for many years (until the end). He was the one who went with Elvis on the infamous “let’s go meet Nixon and get drug badges” trip. Jerry was a steady and sweet man (still is, it seems) and there was a deep connection between the two men. Jerry eventually felt he had to branch out on his own, he felt that being employed by Elvis was negatively impacting their friendship, and he learned film editing, working his way up the ranks at various studios. Elvis seemed to respect Jerry’s independence. The two were tight. This is a strangely emotional book (Jerry Schilling is a disarmingly open man, it’s apparent in interviews as well), and I am grateful that he wrote it.
3. Untold Gold: The Stories Behind Elvis’s #1 Hits – Ace Collins
Ace Collins tells the stories behind each of Elvis’ #1 Hits. Songwriter, anecdotes about the writing-of, how it came to Elvis’ attention, etc. It’s good.
4. Elvis and Gladys (Southern Icons Series) – Elaine Dundy
One of the best books thus far written about Elvis, and I include Peter Guralnick’s two-volume biography. In many ways I prefer the Dundy, although I disagree with some of her conclusions. This book is meticulously researched and gives some excellent geneology information, especially in terms of the Gladys side the family. Elvis grew up in a matriarchy, that’s for sure, and Dundy has done her research. She theorizes, correctly, that Gladys is not just key to understanding Elvis. Gladys is THE key. Dundy finds Gladys’ old friends, people who knew her in grade school, old colleagues and neighbors, and gives us a fascinating portrait of this hard-working suffering woman, who poured her heart out solely into loving her one surviving child. This book should not be missed, not just for the Gladys stuff, but also for Dundy’s imaginative and empathetic contemplations about what drove Elvis, who he was, and where he was coming from. Superior to Guralnick in that respect. It’s a very Southern book.
5. Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians – Peter Guralnick
Not to be missed. A survey of the “lost highways” of American musicians, on the road, in the juke joints, making gold records, a step away from poverty, in most cases. With a distinctive chapter on Elvis Presley, almost just to get him out of the way – as must be done, in order to talk about other artists. Guralnick displays some of his incomprehension at the artistic process which is also evident in his bio of Elvis (and I am not throwing out the baby with the bathwater, but I have some issues with him, serious issues). He just can’t believe that these people are able to REPEAT things from night to night … they say the same jokes, to different crowds … and Guralnick seems to find this strange, and hard to believe, because when he’s sitting in the audience it feels so fresh it can’t possibly be something the performer has ever said before! This is sheer naivete and a lack of understanding at the showmanship that is required of any performer, a showmanship that is both intuitive and intellectual. Guralnick likes the wildness of the music, he likes the feeling of the performer being “lost” in it, he wants it ALL to be intuitive, he doesn’t want ANY of it to be intellectual – and so he seems almost dismayed that ANY of it might be conscious. If you’re familiar with Guralnick’s work you’ll know this strain in his writing/thought process. It’s a huge blind spot. It keeps him from fully getting Elvis. But Lost Highway provides unforgettable portraits of Charlie Rich and Ernest Tubb, these giants of American culture.
6. Elvis Presley: A Life in Music : The Complete Recording Sessions – Ernst Jorgensen
7. Elvis: What Happened?- Red West, Sonny West, Dave Hubler – as told to Australian music writer Scott Dunleavy.
This came out the month before Elvis died. It was “written” by his three former associates (and Red West was his best buddy since high school). It is a treacherous book, mean-spirited, self-serving, and I take every single word with a grain of salt. They were just pissed that Elvis had fired them. It’s a smear campaign, which devastated Elvis when he heard of it. We get a lot of the anecdotes about Elvis that are now famous from here: shooting out the TV, Elvis’ belief in UFOs, stuff like that. It’s written in a breathlessly scandalous style. The whole thing is disheartening. I’d read it before, but had to read it again. This book is far more revealing about the guys who wrote it than it is about Elvis. A petty book.
Another book by one of Elvis’ friends, this one by George Klein, who is still a Memphis DJ and was since he first got out of high school (he and Elvis were in the same class at Humes High). It was music that brought them together, their paths hadn’t really crossed in high school. Klein, like most people who got close to Elvis, went to work for him, but he also maintained his busy DJ career, and Elvis supported him in that. This is another good and positive book about Elvis – honest about his flaws, and how infuriating he could be (“Elvis, I can’t go to Vail on a moment’s notice for a week – I HAVE SHIT TO DO HERE.”), but also kind-hearted, with some very funny stories.
9. Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays (FSG Classics) – Joan Didion
I read this collection of essays about once a year. Here are some posts I’ve written about it.
10. A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown – Julia Scheeres
Harrowing. Scheeres has done her homework, and it shows. Very tough book to get through, though.
11. Then Again – Diane Keaton
A beautiful book. It’s really about mothers and daughters. I found it very emotional. Also, that Keaton is a woman who has never married and never had her own kids (she adopted very late) is also inspirational to me, in a very bittersweet way, but she’s a real role model for me. This isn’t your typical “here is how I became a star” memoir. It’s really about her relationship with her mother, and also – her mother, outside of her relationship with Diane and her kids. (When her mother passed away, Keaton went through her mother’s copious journals, which are works of art in and of themselves.) I loved this book.
12. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) – Mindy Kaling
Hilarious, and also inspiring. I love her journey and I love how radical it is, in terms of her gender and her race. And the book doesn’t even mention these things, or not directly. It’s not about “how I overcame adversity” or “how everyone underestimated me until I proved them wrong”. It’s about a creative girl, living a sort of chaotic life, not really knowing where to put her energies, until she started doing what she wanted to do. And then, things began to fall into place, in a chaotic way that ends up resembling momentum, until here she is, with her own show, and doing awesome. I read somewhere recently, maybe on Twitter, someone referring to Kaling as “smug”. Would you refer to a man in the same position as smug? Or does Kaling’s sheer confidence in herself bother you (the person who made the comment was a male) because she’s a female, AND she’s Indian, and therefore she rocks the boat on all kinds of cultural levels? I don’t mean to be suspicious and that is not normally my bag, but when it comes to dissing women for being “smug”, when really what they are doing is “having it all” and being fabulous and going after their dreams just like men do – I call bullshit. The book is great about not worrying about how other people “do it”, to just do things that interest you, to keep pushing yourself to follow your own interests/obsessions. There is no template. The only thing you have to do is keep moving forward, and create create create.
13. Under the Dome: A Novel- Stephen King
I read this summer. I loved it! One of King’s apocalyptic event novels. With no warning, a dome covers an entire town in Maine, trapping them all in a desperate situation that grabs the world’s headlines. Great characters. King is best with the life-in-a-small-town stuff. I wrote about that here.
14. Blue Nights – Joan Didion
Joan Didion’s latest, and it was so painful to read that I had to finish it as quickly as possible. It was unbearable, is what I am trying to say. She is so unblinkingly clear and austere that she forces me to see things that way too and I basically become Blanche Dubois, yearning for a soft scarf flung over a glaring lightbulb. If you thought Year of Magical Thinking was painful, that’s nothing compared to Blue Nights.
15. Hitch-22: A Memoir – Christopher Hitchens
Yay! I had been dying to read this. Waiting for it to come out in paperback and also waiting to be in the mood. Suddenly this summer I got into a Hitchens mood, and I have yet to come out of it. But then, I’m always in a Hitchens mood. Hitch 22 was awesome.
16. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
One of those books I never read until now. How is that possible. It is as brilliant as they say (no revelation there – although it certainly is exhilarating to discover something for myself). I also found it so acutely disturbing that I raced to finish it, because it was too much to bear. But the scope of its Americana really struck me (especially since America was not Nabokov’s native land, English not his native tongue), the road-trip aspect to it, the movie magazines and soda fountains and polished grilles of 1950s America, with Humbert Humbert and his captive careening through it … I cried for the final two pages. It’s a tragedy in the classic sense, and one of the great examples of a first-person narration told by an unreliable narrator. You cannot trust anything he says. And until the last two pages, he really dissembles, and hides, and prevaricates. An astonishing book. So glad I finally bit the bullet.
17. Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens – Christopher HItchens
A collection of his essays. I had read most of these before, when they originally came out, in Vanity Fair, or The Nation or Slate. It was fun to re-visit them again.
18. Women Without Men: A Novel of Modern Iran – Shahrnush Parsipur
So controversial when it was first published that the author was imprisoned (what a shock). It was recently made into a movie (which I loved), which sparked my interest in the source material. Written in a sparse fairy-tale style, it has elements of magical realism (touched on in the film, but way more out there in the book), and is a hard-hitting and vicious critique of the position of women in Iran. A short book, but explosive.
19. Love, Poverty and War – Christopher Hitchens
Another collection of essays. I had already read this one when it first came out, and again, most of these essays I had already read, since I’ve been following him as a writer for many years. I love the book reviews collected here, most from The Atlantic. Hitchens encouraged me to take another look at Kipling (what a joy!!), and also to discover Evelyn Waugh for the first time, a huge gap in my reading until a couple of years ago.
20. Opium Season: A Year on the Afghan Frontier- Joel Hafvenstein
A very good book written by a guy who had been hired by one of the aid organizations in Afghanistan whose job is “poppy eradication”, one of the huge hot topics in Afghanistan, and obviously very complicated and controversial. Hafvenstein, like many aid workers, came to Afghanistan with good intentions and he – along with his entire organization – was basically run out of town on a rail. The project was hampered on all sides, and slowed down by kidnappings, murders, and sabotage. A sad book, but very well written, and gives a great look at a situation that made the news at the time.
21. Selected Letters of Rebecca West – Rebecca West
One of my idols. Her letters are almost too good to be true.
22. Gone Girl: A Novel – Gillian Flynn
A novel I resisted because I am a contrarian and if everyone is reading it, I dig my heels in and refuse. I finally caved when my mother told me how good it was. She leant it to me and I read it in a frenzied manic state and could not put it down. I actually went without lunch on the weekend I was reading it because I could not take the time to put the book down and go foraging for food. So good. Great portrait of psychopathy.
23. Rythm Oil: A Journey Through The Music Of The American South – Stanley Booth
Haunting. Booth was basically ‘writer in residence’ for the Rolling Stones, and hails from Memphis (at least his formative years) and this is an incredible book about the musicians in Memphis and the surrounding areas. Man can write. There’s a lot of anger in the book, anger at how Memphis has treated its phenomenal cast of geniuses – many of them died in poverty.
24. Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial – Janet Malcolm
I would read Malcolm’s thoughts about her internet service provider, so compelling do I find her prose. This murder trial held no interest for me, but after reading this slim volume I found myself Googling up a storm. Malcolm is great on the analytical and observational side of complex issues where everyone else appears driven by emotion (she wrote a book on how hard it is to write a book about Sylvia Plath, for example).
25. 11/22/63: A Novel – Stephen King
Siobhan gave this to me for my birthday. I was itching to start it. It took me about a week to plow through it. Fantastic, thrilling, and thought-provoking. Stephen King at his very very best. I also loved the brief cameos of two of the kids from It, during the main character’s stay in Derry. This book shows that King is dealing with life-or-death issues in his books in a way that authors with more serious reputations are not. King is dealing with mortality and change and grief and history, and Don DeLillo can only HOPE to reach the level of profundity that King reaches here. (I love Don DeLillo, but seriously I wanted to cut 100+ pages from Underworld – and that is not a good sign. He was straining for profundity – the sheer length of the book showed that strain). I think 11/22/63 is one of King’s best. I know most people say they like The Stand the best, but I consider It to be his masterpiece. 11/22/63 approaches that level. LOVED IT. It also made me cry.
26. The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden – Mark Bowden
Some cheerful reading over the blue Christmas I just had. I like Mark Bowden, and loved Black Hawk Down. I have found his other stuff to be a bit too influenced by Ryszard Kapuściński (and I know of what I speak!!) – and Bowden makes clear in his epigraphs, etc., which are often Kapuściński quotes, how much he admires the man and his writing. But Bowden is a journalist, not a sweeping and sometimes messy but brilliant political thinker like Kapuściński was. Bowden is too American for all of that. This is not a criticism. His Black Hawk Down could not be improved upon. But deep contemplations on the nature of power and tyranny is just not his thing, although he is trying to go into that direction now (his recent book on “the Ayatollah” and “Road Works” show the strain). Here, Bowden is back on Black Hawk Down territory, although in his chapters on “The Sheik” (Osama), you can feel him once again emulating Kapuściński. It’s a good book, although I have no idea why maps and diagrams were not included. You really need them for such a book, where you’re talking about distances and Black Hawks and Chinooks refueling at a certain point, and a compound, etc. Maybe they rushed the book to print or something. The lack of illustrations is bizarre in a book like this.
27. Elvis Presley Calls His Mother After The Ed Sullivan Show – Samuel Charters.
A brilliant short novel of imaginative empathy.