Welcome to the Man Repeller Review of Books, inspired by our wild and well-attended Google spreadsheet, where we burrow into the virtual reading nook of our website and talk books. The format is bound to shapeshift, while the objective remains the same: to broaden the horizons of our reading queues and to consider books we might not have heard of otherwise by sharing both our recommendations and modes of discovery.
I’ll be forthcoming: For someone who espoused a trick for reading more books, I haven’t exactly been realizing my fantasy of plowing through stacks of literature this summer. In the midst of (overdoing it on the) travel, managing the complexities of being freelance for the first time, and catching a vertiginous virus, I’ve underdelivered on my loose goal of two books per month. I feel fine about it. The upshot is that I can endorse everything I have read, which I deem better than the alternative.
First: Gwyneth Paltrow’s Mic Drop
“Fame is such a weird and distorting thing. I’ve thought a lot about it, and my theory is that you kind of stop growing at the age you are when you become famous.” I learned pretty much everything I needed to know about fame and the entertainment industry from this one passage in Gwyneth Paltrow’s contribution to Live from New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told By Its Stars, Writers and Guests, a crystallized diagnosis that alone made reading the book worth it, though I’d recommend it in its entirety.
She elaborates on her theory of fame: “…what happens is, people start removing all your obstacles, and if you have no obstacles you don’t know who you are. You don’t have real perspective on the problems that face you in life, how to surmount them, and what kind of character you have. When you’re in the public eye, people project things onto you, and if you take them on yourself, they’re very scattering and they can alienate you. Being famous can be very damaging in lots of ways. Saturday Night Live is proof of that.”
Most of my reading energy this summer has gone toward the aforementioned tome on four decades of SNL. (Yes, I am a fan.) The book tells the story of how an irreverent upstart (the first cast, which boasted John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, and Gilda Radner, was referred to as the “Not Ready for Primetime Players”) turned into an American institution, the most regular, reliable program on network television in the age of streaming and bingeing. Here’s what I love about SNL, and why I read the book on it and then created my own fantasy draft revolving around it (and no, the reason is not Pete Davidson): The show’s format is as conceptual as a John Baldessari painting.
With exacting and self-inflicted constraints and controls (time, content mix of evergreen and reactionary material, one guest host, aims to appeal to a local and national audience, etc.), you get the feeling that the SNL team’s process is akin to repeatedly locking themselves in a vault and then spending the week trying to find a way to get out. Starting on Monday, the writing staff cranks out 40 ideas for sketches, which are later processed at a read-through meeting and edited down to a show’s worth of content, at which point the cast and the various art departments have about three days to prepare for Saturday’s dress rehearsal. After dress, a few sketches are cut for time or quality. And then, as executive producer Lorne Michaels is famous for saying, “We don’t go on because we’re ready. We go on because it’s 11:30 p.m.” The process begins anew the next Monday, as it has for the last 45 years.
Just as SNL is an ensemble show, this is an ensemble book: it stitches together a quilt of voices, with interspersed interview snippets from most of the show’s living participants (writers, music department, NBC executives, guests) offering a panoramic view of the show. It’s a venn diagram of Hollywood, comedy, and music’s recent history, seen through the lens of Saturday Night Live, which is as comprehensive a lens as any. Oddly humorless considering its subject matter, the book is instead rich with irony when read during the Trump administration: There are so many moments when figures like Rudy Giuliani assert that they don’t mind being parodied on the show, unaware of what’s to come.
Then, An Essayist’s Essayist
Not to be confused with Live from New York, the book Gone to New York by Ian Frazier had long taunted me from my shelf after a friend inscribed it on the occasion of our high school graduation. It’s a collection of Frazier’s essays, some of which originally ran as snappy “Talk of the Town” pieces for his employer The New Yorker. His writing is an exemplar for the traits I most aspire to in nonfiction writing—more often than not, Frazier is batting 400 against solipsism.
For those not sated by this endorsement: Frazier’s stories are sticky, which is to say I still think about certain essays all the time. One places the Holland Tunnel right next to the spot where Hamilton and Burr once dueled. Another traces the precise coordinates of New York’s antipodes across the earth. Three separate tales feature his patented “bag-snaggler”. There’s also the story of a brilliant sketch of a guestbook in a 1993 Brooklyn Museum Impressionism exhibition, which is proof enough that the Internet’s comment sections were doomed from the start. Frazier shifts between the personal and the local with such finesse, and makes me break into peals of laughter in a way that few writers do.
Last, In the Midst of Summer’s Biggest Book
I’m halfway through Trick Mirror, which feels looser than Jia Tolentino’s stories for The New Yorker, maybe because they’re in conversation with her various experiences of self-delusion and therefore more personal than usual, or maybe because the kind of brevity necessary for a weekly publication need not apply here. The first essay, a high-level ethnography of our cyclical and unspoken relationships with our internet identities, is a superb example of what Tolentino is known for: contextualizing and articulating a universal, contemporary, and banal phenomenon. (This is also what I, and many others before me, find appealing about David Foster Wallace.)
These are just my first impressions. I would certainly not want someone who read four of my 10 essays to review my collection, so I’ll report back once I’m done. In the meantime, please refer to Haley’s bibliography of the media blitz surrounding this book—I’m still on the receiving end of push notifications from new Tolentino-centric podcasts, so like this review, the blitz is not over yet.
Adding to My Queue…
As I wrote before, the source of my motivation to keep my regular reading habits purring is an enticing to-read list. Here are a few books I’ve added to my list—may they rev your reading engine, too:
- May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes (This was recommended and bestowed by a friend. After, I learned that Homes had staged an opera libretto called “Chunky in Heat,” which only increased my interest.)
- Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom
- On a theme: The Castle on Sunset by Shawn Levy and Los Angeles by A.M. Homes
- Forty Seven False Starts by Janet Malcolm (I bought via Books are Magic)
- Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer
- Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield
- The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe (a play I missed at Lincoln Center)
- The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, prior to the movie premiere
- Talent by Juliet Lapidos
- Grantland’s “Issues” published in collaboration with McSweeney’s
- A bunch of rescued Spy Magazines
- A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (I saw this at a Birch Coffee book swap earlier this summer and knew I should have snapped it up then—it was gone the next day.)
- Old in Art School by Nell Irvin Painter
- I Like to Watch by Emily Nussbaum (I bought via Green Apple Books in San Francisco)
- Fleishman Is in Trouble: A Novel by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (ditto)
- Inheritance by Dani Shapiro
Literary Morsels for the Road:
- Our new friend Al generously built and shared a version of our communal reading system on Coda which can handle more volume than our Google spreadsheet. Click here to check it out.
- Bask in the braininess of Maggie Nelson on her episode of the Otherppl podcast.
- I was early to a meeting this summer and had to stall in a neighborhood I’d never been to before. Presto: a fortuitous foray into Skylight Books in Los Feliz, which refuses to conform to bookstore homogeneity. They had zines I’d never seen before and others by old favorites, the kind of riso-printed fare often reserved for art book fairs. I know it’s LA, but look at this screenwriting section.
- A time hop: Last summer, on this date, I was reading John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, compelled to wake up and crack it open before checking my phone—a rare feat for a bound book in this economy, and particularly so for a book on “craft.” Guzzle this one up.
- I’m a subscriber of Literary Hub’s Saturday newsletter, a missive of news from the week.
- A trifecta of literary Instagrams worth following: @bibliofeed, @book_thing and @secondshelfbooks.
- Aligned with the community conversation here, I too am fervent about the local library as a chief access-point to books, which can run up a tab despite good-natured, readerly ambition. I use the Chrome extension tool to ascertain whether books I browse online are available at the library. My NYPL card also grants me access to Libby, a breezy app for reserving both ebooks and audiobooks.
- Emma Straub just announced her new book on Instagram.
- Have you noticed a sudden influx of this Daunt Books tote bag?
- And finally, a twofold explanation for why you should get comfortable with the pre-order button:
pre-ordering books is so great because: 1) it helps the authors in EVERY way in that it helps the book hit bestseller lists, helps bookstores know to stock it, builds buzz, etc. and 2) you forget you did it and then get a surprise gift in the mail
— rachel syme (@rachsyme) August 14, 2019