Jon Robin Baitz: TOP TEN BOOKS


Jon Robin Baitz photographed by Michael Sharkey

As a young playwright, Jon Robin Baitz, who was born in Los Angeles but grew up in part in South Africa, established his reputation with a series of witty, literary, acutely-observed plays including The Film Society (1988) and The Substance of Fire (1992). He was a finalist for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his semi-autobiographical play, A Fair Country,  and again in 2011 for his family reunion drama, Other Desert Cities.  Widely associated with the ABC series Brothers & Sisters, which he created and produced for two seasons (before departing over creative differences), Baitz has a rare ability to tell it as he sees it. His columns for HuffPost in its formative years remain fresh and pertinent today. “Our mainstream culture encourages an anodyne internal shut-off of the heart, and of the senses by which we see and hear that which is real, that which matters,” he wrote in 2009. “You have to be outraged in order to be an American, and you have to be hopeful, and work hard to make this country better, or it is not going to survive.” Of the books that have left their imprimatur on his life, he says, “My list has been Hollywood/male/monster-centric, but these are part of my subject, and what I know. My list of the unread is shameful, but starts with Memories of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar and maybe I get to  Emile Zola’s The Belly of Paris. I know books will save us, because they are saving me yet again. They can save almost, almost anyone, or at least, a small tribe that was blessed with a love for them.”

Below are Jon Robin Baitz’s favorite books, available to purchase individually or as a set


A Way of Life Like Any Other

Darcy O’Brien
A very simple, perfectly observed slip of a novel about growing up in a long, long gone Hollywood. O’Brien, the son of stars from early Hollywood who soaked their marriage in booze has written an almost sui-generis pre-coming of age story - I say almost – because his writing has a Fitzgeraldian elegance to it, and contains a description of riding horses with his dad from Santa Monica to Santa Barbara through the mountains that is indelible.
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City of Nets

Otto Friedrich
Another great book about Hollywood from another time, this time non-fiction. Hollywood in the 1940’s, a city and industry where European intellectuals found refuge in Santa Monica Canyon, (Thomas Mann finishing Dr. Faustus on Mayberry Drive), Igor Stravinsky wrote music for Walt Disney’s Fantasia, a match made not in heaven, but somewhere way down below. Freidrich writes with a kind of exuberance about foolishness, pretense, possibility and licentiousness in the 40’s as World War II provides both a murmuring drumbeat in the background, and subject matter for some good, bad and absurd films.
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Tender is the Night

F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald’s last novel and in my opinion his most heartbroken, hardest-earned, most costly book. The story of a young psychiatrist, Dick Diver who marries a patient, Nicole, a wealthy traumatized beauty, and moves her to the quiet, almost empty off-season South of France before it was vulgarized into just another gorgeous place destroyed by market-forces. He takes care of her at increasing expense to his own well-being, losing his sense of self, his own wits and agency along the way, until all light is occluded by his wife’s madness.
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David Hare
David Hare has for me, been the model of playwright as public intellectual, a brave, insatiably curious explorer blessed with the driest of mordant wits, and leavened by a deep sense of what it means to be actually good, decent, even loving, in a bloody and ruthless world. Skylight is the story of the aftermath of an affair between a restauranteur/mogul/hotelier and a younger woman who used to work for him and his wife at their first restaurant. Long after it has ended, Tom, now a heart-sick furious widower, now rich, now a raging, restless and very broken soul blessed with a first rate mind and a blinkered view of his own nature, shows up at his ex-lover, Kyra’s flat in search of something much like salvation.
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Children of Light

Robert Stone
Stone captures a Los Angeles where dissipation was still a passion as powerful as lust for money, wherein a dissolute, sodden and spiraling screenwriter on the way down starts on a journey to a film set in Baja California where his screenplay of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is being shot, starring his great love, another crazy madwoman, Lu-Ann Verger, cousin to Nicole Diver of Tender is the Night is trying to hide the hallucinations that have come with not taking her meds in order to be ‘present’ for the camera, so her eyes are ‘there’. The reunion is a perfect admixture of chaos, debasement, and a race to oblivion for both of them, to the dismay of everyone watching; director, producer, husbands, wives, supplicants, stuntmen, crews, etc. It is a brutal and hilarious book, a picture of all the dreams that go wrong when the dreams all come true and look nothing like the George Hurrell glamor shots that stand in for truth in show biz.
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The Stars at Noon

Denis Johnson
Central America as a kind of actual hell, set in an imploding Nicaragua in 1984, an American woman, marginally some sort of observer for an anti-war group, equally contemptuous of the Sandinistas and the Americans brewing trouble, it takes the form of a vast and almost Malarial vision of Latin America in free-fall. Not far from there now, Venezuela also now totters precariously and apparently the great Clair Denis is making a film of Stars at Noon – the perfect film maker for such an endeavor, having once turned Melville’s Billy Budd into Beau Travail, a movie with French Foreign Legionnaires, madness and stillness set in Djibouti. The late Denis Johnson would no doubt appreciate that she is essaying his words into pictures.
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Fore Majeure

Bruce Wagner
In the early 1980’s I worked at Book Soup in Los Angeles, a great L.A. indie bookstore, still there, still thriving, new owners (Froman’s, Pasadena) took over post the death of the great Glenn Goldman. I was there for around 4 years. Bruce was a regular, restless, late-night Book Soup customer, and that was my shift, and I annoyed the fuck out of him, always wanting to talk, and preen, and so, as John Gregory Dunne said, and I paraphrase, “never piss of a writer, we always have the last word," or something like that, he added me to the cavalcade of freaks. Force Majeure feels like the compilation of aches from insomnia, smog, neon, traffic and hope that make LA so singular.
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Martin Amis
An incandescent novel about a hapless Englishman named John Self who is about to direct his first film in New York, but really it is the great novel about the vanishing point of the soul, that poor little invisible organ wherein it is obviated, smashed, run through and defenestrated by excess. It is a novel of the catastrophe of useless self-knowledge, self knowledge as mirage. It is THE novel of Excess; of drugs, booze, porn, sorrow, sloth, greed, and self-hatred. Mr. Amis allows himself to appear here and there, to try and get Mr. Self to help himself before all is lost. All IS lost. The book is populated exclusively by monsters, and all of them are hilarious, gaspingly so. Most thrilling though is Amis’s masterful command of the hypnotic, mesmeric power of all these fucking words strung together like firelights across the Atlantic.
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Home Cooking

Laurie Colvin
She was a brilliant novelist, and an even better short story writer, but nothing compares to her two volumes about life in a kitchen (this and the follow-up, More Home Cooking), about cooking for friends, about de-mystification of the sacred temple of high cuisine, and about what it is to be a woman in New York and to cook with love. She batted these out for the late lamented Gourmet Magazine, apparently on a little green typewriter. There is a perfect set piece of a little story about a dinner party that turns into a fiasco before it even begins, and a couple of recipes that I prefer to Alice Water’s versions, but more than that, is the idiosyncratic voice of a reliable narrator with a sense of humor.  
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How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

Alexander Chee
There are so many books about writing about this mysterious blob called the self, there's so many books about how to write, but nothing has the singular idiosyncratic kindness and careful humanism of this transformational collection of essays about how a young boy grows up to be a full-fledged artist. I do not throw the word around lightly but I do think this will come to be regarded as a masterpiece of not just memoir writing but Queer culture in America in the last quarter of the 20th century. And into this new one. This is a book I love unconditionally, almost a photo album from within.
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