Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Chris Farley Show by Tom Farley Jr. & Tanner Colby

When I was in college, I saw Tommy Boy for the first time. At one part, I laughed so hard that I fell off the sofa with tears in my eyes. I thought I was going to hurt myself.

Chris Farley was from Madison, Wisconsin. Maybe it was his Midwestern roots, or his Chicago connection, or my age when he was at his peak, but he was one of my favorite comedians. This book is a hilarious and heartbreaking oral history of Chris’s life by those who knew him best. I was laughing out loud at page 3, and nearly cried several times through the second half of the book. By the end, it had brought back all the good memories I had of watching his skits, and I felt like he was a friend I had grown up with.

Chris would do anything to be funny: not to get a laugh, but to give a laugh. Chris believed God gave him a talent and that it was his ministry in life to make people laugh so hard they cried. This comes through loud and clear from everyone in here. People loved Farley. He walked into a room and you laughed before he could say a word. He had such a good heart and such a giving personality.

What became apparent at the end of his life, was that he also had more than his fair share of demons. He wrestled with numerous addictions, constantly struggling with his weight, alcohol and drugs. He visited rehab more than a dozen times. His friends reached out to him time and again, but in the end, nobody could break his downward spiral.

All the big names are in here: Dan Akroyd, Lorne Michaels, David Spade, Adam Sandler, Tom Arnold, Chris Rock—all of his fellow Saturday Night Live cast members and writers, people who knew him from Second City and The Improv Olympic, as well as childhood friends and family. They paint a portrait of a spectacular man who, at his best, could light up any room with his larger-than-life personality and, at his worst, could tear up a room with drug-crazed antics.

There are a lot of facets to this book. Some celebrity exposé material, some stuff on Chris’s philosophy and what it was like to work with him, and a good deal on his complicated relationship with his father and the culture of alcoholism that ran through his family. The book chronicles his many trips to rehab and subsequent relapses. It covers his movie-making, including interesting bits on the movies that he had in the works (he was originally cast as Shrek and had recorded a good portion of the film and was trying to get a Fatty Arbuckle biopic off the ground). It talks about his deep faith and superstitious quirks and his on-the-set antics and friendships. But the most touching thing, I thought, was the amount of charity work he did unbeknownst to many of his closest friends. He visited old folks’ homes and hospitals regularly. He befriended a homeless man with whom he had dinner weekly and treated to plays and concerts (something nobody knew about until the man spoke at Chris’ funeral).

The toughest part of this book is that even as you find more and more to like about Chris Farley, it pulls no punches when it comes to discussing his addictions. And a sadness pervades all of the great and hilarious stories, because we all know how this one is going to end. I haven’t been this affected by a book in awhile. I still have a heavy heart.

On a strange side note, as I just finished the book, I looked on Facebook to see if there were any Chris Farley fan pages. There are. And then I noticed that today is his birthday. He would have been 44.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Songs For The Missing by Stuart O'Nan

In the first chapter of this book, we meet Kim Larsen, an 18-year-old girl from a small town in northern Ohio, savoring the last days of summer before heading off to college. She is nothing remarkable—just a young high school girl in Everytown, USA. And then she disappears.

Somewhere between hanging out with her friends at the river and her job at the gas station, she goes missing. It takes her family until the next morning to realize that Kim never came home the night before. As they call around to friends, they begin to suspect the worst.

The novel shifts viewpoints between those most affected and makes us feel the weight that presses down on the family in every moment. As the hours, then days, then months and years pass, everyone is pulled between the need to carry on with life and the guilt of not spending every waking moment in search of Kim. Her father must eventually go back to work, her friends must go off to college, her mother obsessively organizes fundraiser and awareness events but still must go to the mall and feed the family. And in all of it, we feel the anguish of not knowing.

This is both the central strength and greatest frustration of the book. It’s not a suspense thriller or crime novel in the traditional sense. There are no fast-paced chase scenes. There is no trail of clues. The novel leaps in the air in the first chapter, and then hangs there, coming down like a helium balloon. Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone) is quoted on the book’s back cover. And although the subject might be familiar to Lehane fans, the pacing and plot is the polar opposite. It is a meditation in loss, poetic, reflective, and ultimately painfully realistic.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

It’s tough to say anything bad about this a classic, always included in “Best Novels of the 20th Century” lists. The story is about a group of partying American ex-patriots living in Paris, and their week-long sojourn to Spain. It’s full of drunkenness, love triangles and assorted debauchery. But the strength of the novel is the style. Although the book was originally published in 1926, it still feels fresh. Sure, some of the language and details are dated, but it’s hard to miss how much Hemingway’s style influenced modern writing. It’s sharp and insightful, with crisp dialogue and characters that are all relatable in one way or another. While I wouldn’t put it on my list of favorite books, the style alone is worth the read.