By Sandy Gillis
Busy summer? Time to read just one book before daylight savings time kicks in? Make it 1993’s Promise and Power: the Life and Times of Robert McNamara, a biography by Deborah Shapley. It’s an especially important tome in understanding global economics and the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam.
Or if you don’t have time to get so serious, here are three thoughtful, funny, shorter books to invest in.
When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win, by Carol Leifer (Villard, $24). A charming collection of essays about the comedian’s life as she approaches 50, this book is very much in Leifer’s voice; her cheerful, smart observations, sometimes surprising, are always refreshing. (Leifer’s midlife adventure to the island of Lesbos isn’t salacious, so don’t believe anyone who tells you to start reading on page 24.) In one essay, she presents a funny, grave list of concerns about our preoccupation with cosmetic surgery. In another, she lampoons young women who eschew political awareness. The most joyful and giggle-inducing pieces, though, are the ones about her childhood, with her joke-telling optometrist father and her earnest psychologist mother. As the baby of the family, she’s a kid falling in love with a wonderful world. For starters, there’s a ticket to see the Beatles at Shea Stadium, backyard barbecues with parents who tell jokes and always get a laugh, and tales of working at Dad’s office in the city and having lunch at the Automat. And that’s just elementary school! Leifer says she always loved to work, and, better for us, she finds the joke in every situation. When finally making enough money but too busy to fly home to see her folks, she offered them first-class airplane tickets. “Carol!” her incredulous father proclaimed. “First class? We’re not even drinkers!”
My Booky Wook, by Russell Brand (Harper Collins, $25.99). Originally published in the UK in 2007, this ode to bad behavior is a must read for anyone who howled at the slithering, electric-haired rocker from Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Brand is a wildly successful rude-boy standup comedian and TV presenter in Britain. In this zippy tale of addictions he documents his childhood and career thoroughly, without judgement, in the process presenting haunting pieces of this huge talent’s puzzle. Raised by a single mother who couldn’t bring herself to discipline her only child, as well as two grandmothers and a drop-in dad with appalling parental instincts, Brand was an outsider at his various primary schools but found happiness as a teenager when admitted to Drama Centre London. Of course, by this age he’d had at least 14 years’ worth of narcissistic, undisciplined behavior under his belt — normal to Brand is miscreant to everyone else. Lovely observations abound — he is charmed, for instance, by the anachronistic vocabulary of those raised by their nans. We Americans have had less exposure to Brand’s voice, which may damage our chances of flying through the book; some sections are terribly bleak, but he keeps recording it, without irony — or am I missing some innuendo, since I understand American and he writes in English? At the end of the book he’s sober and working regularly and happily. I hope he sticks with it, but I find myself waiting for the next installment.
39 Years of Short-Term Memory Loss, by Tom Davis (Grove Press, 2009, $24). Writer and performer Tom Davis was on the original 1975 staff of Saturday Night Live with his partner, Al Franken. If for no other reason, read this book to get a better picture of the seriousness of purpose of our new senator from Minnesota. The comedy team met in prep school, split up for college (Davis dropped out of University of the Pacific), reunited and split up again. Along the way, Davis challenges his rigid, unapproving father and gleefully learns he has a constitution well suited for consuming mass quantities of booze, pot (a reference to the title) and other drugs. He also really, really liked sex. He writes about his many long-term girlfriends, all of whom seem to dissolve like a sugar cube in a glass of absinthe. But you won’t find self-examination or regret here. It’s all about the action, and there’s plenty of it: the travels to India at 18, learning improv in San Francisco, working in Los Angeles with Franken, getting called for a job on an unnamed late-night TV show in New York (for which he would collaborate on the Julia Child sketch and the Coneheads, among other classics), numerous appearances on David Letterman, friendships with Jerry Garcia and Timothy Leary, stories about Dan Akroyd, and the tale of John Belushi’s beef with Davis. One of the funniest moments is Davis’s shock at becoming a question on Jeopardy: “Who was Al Franken’s writing partner on SNL?” The question went unanswered. A great and entertaining reference for those interested in TV-comedy history.