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2016 Best Entertainment Book. The Comedians by Kliph Nesteroff

It’s December and time for my Books of the Year List.  I finished 120 books this year with several non-fiction titles showing exceptional merit.  I had to create a couple new categories to fit them all in.

Best Entertainment Book.  The Comedians: drunks, thieves, scoundrels and the history of American comedy by Kliph Nesteroff.  If you are a comedy geek, you must absolutely read this book.  If not, then you may feel like you’re walking uphill through knee-high snow as its 360 pages are dense with information about comedy since 1900.  What Nesteroff does best is trace the progression of comedy through time, both at the artistic level and the business side.  He describes entire comedic family trees: Jack White to Jack Waldron to Jack E. Leonard to Don Rickles to Robert Smigel and Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog.  You learn who did “Who’s on First?” before Abbott & Costello and who did the telephone operator bit long before Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine on Laugh-In.  He defines the multiple degrees of separation and connection between joke book writer Robert Orben of the 1940s and 50s and Chris Rock’s success fifty years later.  He points out who influenced (and stole from) whom throughout the 20th century.  But beyond the personalities, he also chronicles how the industry changed from vaudeville to radio to Mob-controlled nightclubs to tv talk shows to the comedy club boom of the 1980s to cable television and podcasts in the new century.  The focus is heavily on stand-up as a presentation form, but he also talks about comedy records, television (though sitcoms are sadly missing) and movies to a lesser degree.  The historical facts are the result of incredible research from written sources, supported by copious endnotes, though no bibliography, and from over 200 interviews with the subjects themselves.  As an amateur student of comedy, I have read several books on the subject and this is the best I have encountered since Steve Martin’s autobiography, Born Standing Up, in 2008.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.


2015 Book of the Year: The Red Moth

Book of the Year, Best Historical Mystery. The Red Moth by Sam Eastland. Three years ago, I chose one of William Ryan’s mysteries set in Russia as Best Historical Mystery. At the time, I also recommended Sam Eastland’s Inspector Pekkala series set in Stalinist Soviet Union featuring Inspector Pekkala, the former personal detective for Tsar Nicholas II. Pekkala was sentenced to a Siberian work camp once the Bolsheviks seized power, but was brought back by the paranoid Stalin because he doesn’t trust any of his own men and because of Pekkala’s unique skills. Pekkala is a fascinating lead character, who struggles to reconcile working for a man he despises with his love for his country and its people’s need for justice. I do suggest starting the series from the beginning with The Eye of the Tsar, but if you don’t feel like reading all the books, then The Red Moth, the fourth book, is the best one yet. The Germans are marching towards Stalingrad and Moscow in the early stages of the war. In addition to capturing territory every week, they are also continuing to plunder the artworks of their defeated opponents. So when a small German plane is shot down near the old Tsarina’s palace and the passengers commit suicide rather than be captured and interrogated regarding their cargo, it raises Stalin’s suspicions. The Germans carried with them only a small painting of a red moth and the Supreme Leader assigns Pekkala and Major Kirov to discover its meaning and whatever else the Germans might be planning. This particular story reveals even more of Pekkala’s history as he is reconnected to people from his past and eventually heads behind enemy lines to a home he left far behind. The main tale is told at a blitzkrieg pace, but still allows for secondary characters and sub-plots to be developed. And the cliffhanger ending will leave you wanting more. Fortunately, book five, The Beast in the Red Forest, has already come out. In fact, it is a lot easier to find than The Red Moth, which has not been published in the U.S. yet, but it is worth the effort to track down.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2015 Books of the Year: Historical Mystery Runner-up

Runner-up, Historical Mystery. Inspector of the Dead by David Morrell. Quality historical mysteries should have interesting characters including a good villain and also capture the atmosphere of the setting. Morrell’s second book featuring 19th century author Thomas de Quincey and his daughter, Emily de Quincey, assisting Scotland Yard in mid-century London has all of these elements and more. Prior to returning to their home city of Edinburgh, father and daughter agree to attend one last service at St. James’s Church with their friends, Detectives Ryan and Becker. But when a dead body appears in a curtained pew, they are drawn in to a complex mystery involving an assassin killing and threatening members of the nobility all the way up to the Queen herself. Morrell creates a fine, psychological thriller in this sequel to “Murder as a Fine Art.” The only flaw is that he fails to fully reintroduce the main characters, so readers should consider finishing the good, though less worthy, debut novel to get a better understanding of de Quincey and others.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2015 Books of the year: Non-fiction Runner-up

Runner-up, Non-Fiction. Rejection Proof by Jia Jiang. People often ask me where I find all the books I choose to read. I first heard about Jiang’s book on interpersonal relationships and entrepreneurship when it was reviewed in my college alumni magazine. Jiang was struggling to attract venture capitalists to fund his start-up business and was doubting himself due to the rejections. He decided to try an experiment, with his wife’s approval, where he would be forced to get acceptance from others in order to complete various, quirky assignments, would videotape the interactions and would, hopefully, learn to accept rejection in a better way. Sometimes he failed, but often he would succeed. His video of getting Krispy Kreme doughnuts in the shape of the Olympic rings went viral and he soon was dealing with issues of celebrity and rejection at the same time. He delved further into the academic research on how to ask for help, salesmanship and self-doubt and combines that information as well as his personal story in this entertaining volume.

Honorable Mention, Non-Fiction. China’s Second Continent by Howard W. French. French looks at how China’s foreign policy of assisting African governments with major building projects, both with cheap financing and by immigrating Chinese labor, is helping China gain influence on this developing continent today and its implications for the future.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2015 Books of the Year: Best Non-Fiction

December: time for my Books of the Year.  This was a disappointing year overall with few stand out, must recommend titles, especially among the non-fiction selections.

Best Non-Fiction. The Immortal Game: a history of chess by David Shenk. I appreciate books that take a unique perspective of history such as Tom Standage’s A History of the World in Six Glasses, which examines different civilizations by focusing on the dominant beverage of the time. David Shenk’s history of chess is similar in that he doesn’t just recap the developments of the game and its noteworthy players and matches, but also shows its importance in each society over the last 1,400 years beginning with the game’s origins in India. He is able to track the game’s changes through its foundation in the Muslim world into its expansion in Europe in medieval times and to today’s global landscape. He connects chess to broad concepts such as social morality and class standing, the Enlightenment, and totalitarianism. By looking how chess relates to military strategy, mathematics, psychology, politics and artificial intelligence, Shenk takes what could have been a very dry topic and makes it very readable. And by delving into his personal relationship with the game, he adds a human perspective as well.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2014 Book of the Year: What we see when we read

Book of the Year, Best Non-Fiction. What we see when we read by Peter Mendelsund. Another fine recommendation from the Ron Kaplan blog (I even heard the author being interviewed there), this is an intriguing book. Mendelsund investigates not only the physical act of reading, but focuses primarily on the mental relationships that develop during the process between the reader and the author and the reader and the characters described by the author. I especially liked the idea of the “’eye-voice span,’ which is the distance between where our eyes are looking on the page and where, on the page, our inner voice is reading.” This creates a fluid activity of “the memory of things read (past), the experience of a consciousness ‘now’ (present), and the anticipation of things to be read (future).”

He also discusses how reading is a collaborative effort between reader and author because “good books incite us to imagine – to fill in an author’s suggestions.” But it’s also not a completely shared event: “These images we ‘see’ when we read are personal: What we do not see is what the author pictured when writing a particular book. … We colonize books with our familiars; and we exile, repatriate the characters to lands we are more acquainted with.” Further essays describe how the narrative voice can change our internal camera viewpoint, how our imagination is shaped by our memories and the how, ultimately, we are constantly filtering and adding information provided by the author to create the world in our own minds. Some of these topics could get pretty deep and could easily have become bogged down in academic jargon, but Mendelsund uses illustrations and sparse text on every page spread, which keeps things moving along. This book will make you think about how you read, but won’t overwhelm you in the process.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2014 Books of the year: Non-fiction Runner-up

Runner-up, Non-Fiction. The Antidote: happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking by Oliver Burkeman. Boy, is this a hard book to explain, but fascinating nonetheless to read. For those seeking the state of happiness promised in the sub-title, it fails to provide any clear path or even a clear definition of such a state. Moreover, the author doesn’t even attempt to show how one achieves happiness by following the book’s tenets until the final two pages and then seems to admit defeat at the idea: “The negative path to happiness, then, is a different kind of path. But it is also a path to a different kind of destination. Or maybe it makes more sense to say that the path is the destination? These things are excruciatingly hard to put into words, and the spirit of negative capability sure dictates that we do not struggle too hard to do so.”

However, the book fully succeeds is in its penetrating critique of the cult of optimism and the culture of positive thinking that makes up so much of today’s self-help literature. It sharply attacks motivational speakers, ambitious goal-seeking, and the constant efforts to be happy as being too focused on an uncertain future, which is always just over the time horizon, rather than concentrating on the reality of the present. Burkeman skillfully weaves together counterintuitive thinking and historical and scholarly references with personal accounts of philosophical exploration. He brings together many different ideas: such as the Stoic concept of examining the worst-case scenario and accepting its possible occurrence as a way of relieving anxiety; the Buddhist idea of non-attachment to inner thoughts and outer events, the benefits of examining failure and “being willing to face, and to tolerate, insecurity and vulnerability” and even death.

This is not a book to be read on the subway or on an airplane with lots of distractions, but if you can find a tranquil location to contemplate its ideas, it’s well worth the effort. Really, what’s the worst that could happen?


Honorable Mention: The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny by Peter McGraw. An academic and a journalist travel the world examining why people laugh in different cultures. This could have been a great book, but gets bogged down sometimes in academic references.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.


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