Monday, September 19, 2011

My All-Time Favorite Book? Nope! My All-Time Favorite Books! That's Better.

The lovely and wonderful Lola over at "Women: We Shall Overcome" ( has posed a question I've never thought about: What is your all-time favorite book? (

Impossible, you say! How can I, a voracious reader since I was two, not choose even one book to sit atop all the other books I love and crow and crow about being my favorite?

When I was 14, and began writing movie reviews for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel's Teentime pages (It's no longer published, but used to be in the back of their weekend Showtime section every Friday), I used to make top-10 lists at year's end to determine what I had liked best, as a good little aspiring critic does. When I was a member of the Online Film Critics Society, receiving awards screeners of films that were being pushed for Oscar consideration, the ballot I received asked for your favorite movie, actor, actress and other categories to be ranked, with the top choices getting the highest number of points, and the lesser choices getting lower numbers of points.

I ended my association with film criticism entirely after I finished writing my first book, What If They Lived?, co-written with Phil Hall. I loved that after all the years I had been reviewing movies, it had led to this incredible opportunity, which I surely wouldn't have gotten otherwise. When Phil had offered it to me, and I was considering it, and initially didn't want to do it, my mom told me I had to do it because it would not come again like this, just being handed to me.

At that point, I wasn't enjoying writing movie reviews anymore. When I had started, I had the notion that I could do this full-time. Getting paid to watch movies and write about them? It was my goal. But before the book came along, the experience had become a hamster wheel for me. I knew how Hollywood worked: The movies Hollywood wished it hadn't made were dumped in January; the summer was for big and loud butt-scratcher movies; the fall and winter were given over to those movies that the various studios felt deserved Oscar glory and dammit if they weren't going to go all out to try to make that happen.

This wasn't for me anymore. Couple that with watching the screeners that came in through the Online Film Critics Society, determing through those what I liked the most and what I would vote for, and I was exhausted. I realized that I still loved movies, but not to that extent. I would be happy if I never wrote another movie review again, if I removed myself from that grind, and therefore ceased being a member of the Online Film Critics Society. And I am!

It's been three years since I left the Online Film Critics Society, left film criticism entirely, and all those rankings attached to it. The books you will read about are my all-time favorites. There is no rank for them, and it hews to my way of living life: No one is above me and no one is below me.

I begin with The Complete Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby, a compilation of three short books of his book reviews: The Polysllabic Spree, Housekeeping vs. The Dirt, and Shakespeare Wrote for Money. Hornby's book reviews first appeared in the McSweeney's publication, The Believer, but they're not your typical book reviews. They are pure love about books, about the frustrations inherent in bad books, about the excitement of finding books you so desperately want to read that your entire being tingles, and just living the reading life, which, for Hornby, includes his beloved football.

The Complete Polysyllabic Spree was published in 2006 by Viking, then in paperback in 2007 by Penguin Books, both in the U.K. There is no American edition of this, just the three volumes published by McSweeney's. I ordered this from a U.K. bookshop, and am happy to have all of Hornby's writings in one book, to reference, to revel in, to smile in recognition at his love of books, which is also my love. Reading is living, and Hornby embodies that.

I want to quote large passages from Hornby's introduction, which says everything true that there is to say about reading, especially in that if you don't like a book that you're reading, you don't have to finish it:

"One of the problems, it seems to me, is that we have got it into our heads that books should be hard work, and that unless they're hard work, they're not doing us any good. I recently had conversations with two friends, both of whom were reading a very long political biography that had appeared in many of 2005's 'Books of the Year' lists. They were struggling. Both of these people are parents - they each, coincidentally, have three children - and both have demanding full-time jobs. And each night, in the few minutes they allowed themselves to read before sleep, they ploughed gamely through a few paragraphs about the (very) early years of a major twentieth-century world figure. At the rate of progress they were describing, it would take them many, many months before they finished the book, possibly even decades. (One of them told me that he'd put it down for a couple of weeks, and on picking it up again was extremely excited to see that the bookmark was much deeper into the book than he'd dared hope. He then realized that one of his kids had dropped it, and put the bookmark back in the wrong place. He was crushed.) The truth is, of course, that neither of them will ever finish it - or at least, not in this phase of their lives. In the process, though, they will have reinforced a learned association of books with struggle.

I am not trying to say that the book itself was the cause of this anguish. I can imagine other people racing through it, and I can certainly imagine these two people racing through books that others might find equally daunting. It seems clear to me, though, that the combination of that book with these readers at this stage in their lives is not a happy one. If reading books is to survive as a leisure activity - and there are statistics which show that this is by no means assured - then we have to promote the joys of reading, rather than the (dubious) benefits. I would never attempt to dissuade anyone from reading a book. But please, if you're reading a book that's killing you, put it down and read something else, just as you would reach for the remote if you weren't enjoying a TV programme. Your failure to enjoy a highly rated novel doesn't mean you're dim - you may find that Graham Greene is more to your taste, or Stephen Hawking, or Iris Murdoch or Ian Rankin. Dickens, Stephen King, whoever. It doesn't matter. All I know is that you can get very little from a book that is making you weep with the effort of reading it. You won't remember it, and you'll learn nothing from it, and you'll be less likely to choose a book over Big Brother next time you have a choice.

'If reading is a workout for the mind, then Britain must be buzzing with intellectual energy,' said one sarcastic columnist in the Guardian. 'Train stations have shops packed with enough words to keep even the most muscular brain engaged for weeks. Indeed, the carriages are full of people exercising their intellects the full length of their journeys. Yet somehow, the fact that millions daily devour thousands of words from Hello, the Sun, The Da Vinci Code, Nuts and so on does not inspire the hope that the average cerebellum is in excellent health. It's not just that you read, it's what you read that counts.' This sort of thing - and it's a regrettably common sneer in our broadsheet newspapers - must drive school librarians, publishers and literacy campaigners nuts. In Britain, more than twelve million adults have a reading age of thirteen or under, and yet some clever-dick journalist still insists of telling us that unless we're reading something proper, then we might as well not bother at all.

But what's proper? Whose books will make us more intelligent? Not mine, that's for sure. But has Ian McEwan got the right stuff? Julian Barnes? Jane Austen, Zadie Smith, E.M. Forster? Hardy or Dickens? Those Dickens readers who famously waited on the dockside in New York for news of Little Nell - were they hoping to be educated? Dickens is Literary now, of course, because the books are old. But his work has survived not because he makes you think, but because he makes you feel, and he makes you laugh, and you need to know what is going to happen to his characters. I have on my desk here a James Lee Burke novel, a thriller in the Dave Robicheaux series, which sports on its covers ringing endorsements from the Literary Review, the Guardian and the Independent on Sunday, so there's a possibility that somebody who writes for a broadsheet might approve . . . Any chance of this giving my grey matter a work-out? How much of a stretch is it for a nuclear physicist to read a book on nuclear physics? How much cleverer will we be if we read Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck's beautiful, simple novella? Or Tobias Wolff's brilliant This Boy's Life, or Lucky Jim or To Kill a Mockingbird? Enormous intelligence has gone into the creation of all of these books, just as it has into the creation of the iPod, but the intelligence is not transferable. It's there to serve a purpose.

But there it is. It's set in stone, apparently: books must be hard work, otherwise they're a waste of time. And so we grind our way through serious, and sometimes seriously dull novels, or enormous biographies of political figures, and every time we do so, books come to seem a little more like a duty, and Pop Idol starts to look a little more attractive. Please, please, put it down.

And please, please stop patronizing those who are reading a book - The Da Vinci Code, maybe - because they are enjoying it. For a start, none of us knows what kind of an effort this represents for the individual reader. It could be his or her first full-length adult novel; it might be the book that finally reveals the purpose and joy of reading to someone who has hitherto been mystified by the attraction books exert on others. And anyway, reading for enjoyment is what we should all be doing. I don't mean we should all be reading chick lit or thrillers (although if that's what you want to read, it's fine by me, because here's something else no one will ever tell you: if you don't read the classics, or the novel that won this year's Booker Prize, then nothing bad will happen to you; more importantly, nothing good will happen to you if you do); I simply mean that turning pages should not be like walking through thick mud. The whole purpose of books is that we read them, and if you find you can't, it might not be your inadequacy that's to blame. 'Good' books can be pretty awful sometimes."

And now I've got an overwhelming urge to re-read this one.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro is another of my all-time favorite books. I saw the movie first, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, in our condo in Pembroke Pines, Florida back in early 2002. I think it was one of the only times I watched a movie on Turner Classic Movies while it was airing.

I was impressed with the detail of the time period, the 1930s, nearing the time of World War II, and the cloistered life of Stevens the butler in the somewhat gloomy, haunting Darlington Hall, in the employ of Lord Darlington, who strives to achieve an understanding between the French, British and Germans in order to prevent war, but is misled on many fronts and is naive in his understanding of diplomacy. Plus, Anthony Hopkins can be so many different people, and this was in 1993, two years after Hannibal Lecter.

In August 2006 (I'm only so exacting because of what followed after), my family and I went on a trip to San Francisco. Driving. Normally, every time we go on a trip, it's because Dad has something to do at the destination, a conference, a meeting, related to business education. This seemed to be the rare time when that wasn't true.

Before we left Santa Clarita for San Francisco, I had been to the library, found the hardcover edition of The Remains of the Day, and decided it was finally time to read it, after five years of just adoring the movie. It was hard to read anything on 70 miles of winding mountain road that make up part of the Pacific Coast Highway, and the worst thing was that at the start of it, when Dad was trying to find a way to turn around, and stopped somewhere to ask about it, he was told he couldn't. We were on that road and we could only follow it all the way to its end, to San Francisco.

I had a migraine by the time we got to the motel, but I had read most of The Remains of the Day and was utterly impressed by the detail put forth in such formal language, as is the way of Stevens. And not once did I think about Anthony Hopkins as Stevens or Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton, the housekeeper. Images from movies do not remain in my mind when I read the source material, and this book stood very well on its own. It's no wonder that director James Ivory found something so extraordinary in it to make a movie from it. Some changes benefited the movie, such as the new owner of Darlington Hall, Mr. Faraday, now being Congressman Lewis, retired from politics, and played by Christopher Reeve, which gave him more screen time, as the gray-haired Lewis, as well as the young man that came to Darlington Hall as part of President Roosevelt's Brain Trust.

Came October of that same year, and we went to Palm Springs, to Hotel Zoso, for a business education conference Dad had there. Otherwise, we would have never gone to Palm Springs.

I fell hard for the downtown area, which we happened to be near on a Thursday night as well, so we saw the street fair they have with various vendors, artists, food carts, and there was such a vibrancy there, like this was all that was needed in the world, this intimacy in close spaces. And even just to walk it without the street fair there, in the daytime, was pure pleasure. I felt at home walking those sidewalks, sensing a community amidst those storefronts. There was still a feeling of detachment, as would be expected with the wealthy people who live there, but it wasn't as pervasive as it is in Santa Clarita.

While Dad was at his conference, and Mom, Meridith and I walked those downtown streets, we happened upon a bookstore crammed with books. And the owner, who had few teeth, looked like he lived there and he immediately, temporarily, became a hero of mine, because I would love that, to always be among all those books.

In the back, there were stacks of paperbacks, floor-to-ceiling, sections for Stephen King, John Grisham, Dean Koontz. And I walked those floors, near those wooden bookshelves, looking at all those titles that were just waiting again to be read.

Near a glass case with a few rare books inside, I found what I had been hoping for: The Remains of the Day, in a paperback edition from Vintage International. This one was mine. And I still have the original receipt from October 9, 2006, from that bookstore. It was $5.95, with $0.46 tax, and so it came out to $6.41. It's a very simple receipt, no logo of the store, a strip of paper torn off from the role after printing. No perforation. I think the bookstore was called G.W. Books. It closed a few years ago, and I wish it hadn't happened, but perhaps the rent in the downtown area had gone up. That guy couldn't afford it. I hope he's still around, somewhere, still with his books, still reading a lot, as he was reading when we had walked in.

I read The Remains of the Day at least once a year, and with this edition, and that receipt, I always remember him, a lone literary explorer.

I found Subways are for Sleeping by Edmund G. Love, who wrote for Harper's Magazine, while searching for Subwayland: Adventures in the World Beneath New York by Randy Kennedy, inspired by a journalism 101 class at College of the Canyons in October 2004, in which one of the assignments had been to listen to a radio news program, such as NPR or another station, and write down what had been reported and the stories that had been told. I got up early one morning for "Morning Edition" on NPR, and heard a story by Robert Smith, who had spent the night in the New York City subway system, taking in all the sights and sounds at those hours, including a guitarist who preferred to play in the subway at night because all the stage is his. Only his.

That story inspired me to seek out more about the world of the New York City subway system, with no desire to visit. Just read. I couldn't find Subwayland in the County of Los Angeles library catalog, but I did find Subways are for Sleeping and it sparked in me what I like to do when I randomly come across a book: I put it on hold and look to read it. I love doing that because it could be one book that affects me greatly. And this one did.

Love writes about the homeless population in New York City, and the resourcefulness of a few figures there, such as Henry Shelby, who picks up various odd jobs along the way, and keeps a tight hold on the money he makes, only spending money for a small hotel room when he hasn't spent a great deal in two or three days, preferring to sleep on the subway. There's old radio shows available for download online, and this particular story, in 1956, was turned into an episode of the CBS Radio Workshop ("The theater of the mind," as the narrator intoned). I downloaded it and have listened to it often. But that stemmed from my association with this book, which began after I checked it out.

I wasn't a sociable type at College of the Canyons. I only wanted to take my courses, do what was necessary, and in between, I'd find what amused me, what interested me, and I'd go with it. I remember being acquaintances with a few of my classmates, but nothing further. I don't remember any of them. I do remember the small arcade with two pinball machines in the student center building where the cafeteria was too. And I remember the cafeteria, the booth I always chose in the back to spread out my math homework, and promptly ignored all the problems facing me. I pulled out Subways are for Sleeping and I read about Shelby, and Charlie, and Father Dutch, awed by these great feats of living, how these people survived on the streets of New York City, what their days were like.

In his decision to write about this particular New York City population, Love writes:

"A few years ago I was caught up in a whirlwind of my own. When it all ended, I found myself walking the streets. I needed more than just a job. I needed to reassess life. Something, somewhere, had gone wrong. I may have listened wrong. I may have thought wrong. Or, I could have been right and the world wrong. It seemed to me, at the time, that the reassessment was more important than the material side of things. I had to think. I had to have time to think. So I drifted. I remember a long series of days and weeks during which I slept on the sofas in the apartments of friends. I recall that during one whole winter month I went down to the Hospital for Special Surgery every afternoon at two o'clock to call on a girl who was confined there. I hardly knew her, but the hospital was warm and I was cold. This may sound hard-boiled, but by that time I'd found out that necessity takes precedence over nicety. I bought a tablet and a pencil and sat on a bench in Grand Central, trying to write and think there.

I say all this because I want it understood that I did not drop into this world of which I write simply to study it. I was there because I couldn't seem to escape it. My rehabilitation, if it can be called that, was a long drawn-out process because it involved a complete change in my thinking as well as a simple economic readjustment. In some ways, it is still going forward. I worked intermittently at a wide variety of jobs. I did not stay in New York, but I did return to the city two or three times. I met a lot of people and I learned a lot of things. More than once I had a stranger suggest to me a place to eat, or a place to sleep, or a place to keep warm. I learned a hundred ways to pick up a dollar or two. I consider this knowledge important, but I learned something even more valuable. I learned a lot about human beings."

I was seized by Love's writing. It was exactly how I wanted to write. Just tell the story. If you're involved, express how you were involved, but do it in the service of the story. And the stories of these people were absorbing, a world I never knew, and god willing will never know, but it became a world I wanted to understand, to see what might have happened that brought these people squarely to the streets of New York, and how they lived, what they were hoping for, what they were striving to do that would let them live how they wanted to live again.

I checked out this book constantly from the Valencia library, alternating between the one that came from the Norwalk branch and the one from the Hawthorne branch. The Hawthorne branch copy had a green cover, the pages likely fitted into a new cardboard cover after the old cover probably distintegrated from age. The Norwalk branch cover is an understated aqua color, with little tree and leaf branches drawn on in black. Likely the same process as the Hawthorne branch copy.

This book got me through my two years at College of the Canyons, 2004-2006. I would often ignore my math homework and other homework on campus in favor of reading it again. I have fond memories of that back table in the cafeteria because of this book, because of the peace afforded me. There were times when the cafeteria was completely empty and it was just me. And I loved it, especially on Friday afternoons when the campus was also empty, when everyone had other places to be, better places, and it felt as if I owned the campus.

There came a day in May 2008 when I decided that I could not live without this book, particularly the Norwalk branch copy. I had checked it out so many times (The Hawthorne branch copy only came to me twice) that I felt it was mine. I had developed such a kinship with this book. And on the last Sunday of that month, I walked into the Valencia library, knowing exactly what I had to do in order to keep my book: I declared it lost. I told the librarian at the desk that when my family and I were traveling back from Las Vegas and had stopped at the state line toward California at the convenience store/travel center there, the book had dropped out of the car and I didn't even notice, and when we got home, I couldn't find it at all and determined that that's where it was, and there was no chance of going back to get it, so all I could do was pay the necessary fines.

And I was prepared to do so because I had the money with me. On the library card pocket on the inside cover, the price was $3.75, but surely it had gone up since then, since the last time a person had checked out this book, with a due date of October 28, 1978. It probably was checked out many times after that, but by then, they were likely using due date cards and then there came the self-checkout system, but I don't think this book ever saw that because this wasn't a book people had sought out. All the pages were still intact when I first got it, still are. A bit of yellowing from age, but it had been well-protected by the books on either side of it.

The charge for "Lost Material," as stated on the receipt I got, was $29, plus a $5 processing fee. I paid it. It was worth it. Every time I read this book, I know what my future can be in writing. I know that I subscribe to Love's style of writing: Keep it simple, keep it straight, and just tell the story. And by that, I know that I am home.

One genre I've never read at length has been science fiction. I should get into it more for pure imagination, but it's never attracted me. I think of the playwright Sam Shepard, one of my heroes, who so easily intertwines reality and surrealism. You read his works and when you get to those surreal moments, it's no big deal. It's part of the lives of those he writes about, it's part of the landscape. Few writers can do that successfully and Shepard is one.

But give me a sci-fi tale set at Walt Disney World and I'm in. That's what Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow is, especially the Walt Disney World the guests never see after they leave the park, and in this case, it's "ad-hocs" who keep the attractions running, with little new technological touches, but nothing that does harm to Walt Disney's original vision, except for a new group that's taken over the Hall of Presidents, replacing the audio-animatronics with direct-to-brain interfaces that let guests feel that they're the presidents, and the "ad-hocs" do not like this at all.

I discovered Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom on DailyLit (, back when I was reading full-length books on there. There's the option of receiving a page of a book a day by e-mail, and clicking a link that sends you the next installment if you want more. The title alone got me curious, but then I kept clicking that link, wanting more and more and more, wanting to know what would happen to Jules, his girlfriend Lil, and Keep-a-Movin' Dan, and especially the fate of the Magic Kingdom. This was, to me, accessible sci-fi, for amateurs like me. But it was brilliant, so rich in what this world was, in a far different Walt Disney World than I ever knew, but one that I would have loved to visit as well.

Eventually, I bought it in paperback. I actually haven't read it again since I bought it, but I know that when I do, I'll be right back in that world, utterly fascinated with what Doctorow has created, in awe of such a complex, imaginative mind.

I have other all-time favorites, but I can see that this entry is quite long, and the evening is coming. The new seasons of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune begin tonight, and there's the season premiere of Two and a Half Men (I'm curious), as well as the series premiere of 2 Broke Girls (Looks funny from the clips I saw), and I'm also curious about the second season premiere of Hawaii Five-O, after watching the first season finale with Governor Jameson (Jean Smart) being killed off, though I had not seen an episode before that. But I did learn a bit about the leeway Jameson gave the Five-O team from what I read, and I want to see what the new governor does with the team, and how it goes with McGarrett, framed for the murder of Jameson.

Plus, I've got the penultimate and final episodes of the second season of The Good Wife Tivo'd from last night, and I really want to see those. And yes, I'm also curious about The Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen. Really weird how contrite he's become in such a relatively short amount of time, after the entertaining craziness from before.

Thanks to Lola (truly, because I've enjoyed thinking about why these particular books are my all-time favorites), I will write another installment in the coming days, and and it will include three Charles Bukowski books, a later Steinbeck, Harlan Ellison as a film critic, and truly one of the best, Alan Bennett writing about a bibliophile queen, my childhood experiences with Robinson Crusoe, and a book of letters by one of my heroes.