Monday, October 10, 2011

My All-Time Favorite Books, Part 2

(This entry is dedicated to Lola at "WOMEN: WE SHALL OVERCOME" ( Eventually, I continue.)

Upon Andy Rooney's retirement from 60 Minutes the Sunday evening before last, I went to my room in search of On the Road with Charles Kuralt by Charles Kuralt, which I had bought from a $1-only used bookstore in Burbank on a chilly January night ( During Rooney's final essay, I was reminded of Kuralt, a great American journalistic explorer who brought us closer to our fellow citizens while showing us how vast our country truly is and the treasures it contains in its people.

To the right of my bed, there are 10 stacks of books, and back issues of McSweeney's The Believer along with 8 books in a long Cheez-It box lid I took from a Costco because I had never seen it before. There is a somewhat order to nearly all the stacks, naturally books I want to read, though not always stacked according to what order I want to read them in, but rather what I happen to notice at the time that I put on top of the stacks so I don't forget. The only fully-organized stack is made up of books about or involving Las Vegas and Florida, in front of a box bookshelf (bookshelves made from moving boxes since we thought we wouldn't be here in Saugus too much longer after we moved here, but here we are) containing my permanent collection of books.

So I had at least 10 minutes of searching to do, as I pulled out one precariously-perched stack after another, looking inside box bookshelves behind some stacks, seeing if perhaps the book was in one of those dark spaces. And then I found The Runaway Jury by John Grisham and wondered how it had gone so long unnoticed in this space. It's my favorite Grisham novel since it involves a courtoom and a jury and is reminiscent in a way of 12 Angry Men, one of my favorite movies, albeit on a much wider scale.

I moved that to my permanent collection, atop two volumes of a memoir by Neil Simon, books of plays by Sam Shepard and Herb Gardner, and a few plays I had bought from Dramatists Play Service, Inc. ( that involve only two characters in a certain time frame. I'm interested in plays featuring only two or three characters, since those are the kind I want to write one day. Hence also the book Duo! Best Scenes for the 90's, featuring two characters in each excerpt, which was under those plays.

Yesterday, while at Ralphs, I started reading Belle Weather: Mostly Sunny with a Chance of Scattered Hissy Fits by Southern humorist Celia Rivenbark, and today I wanted to read the rest. Yet I had a set of chores in washing containers Mom wanted washed, sweeping dead pine needles from the patio, putting it all into a white garbage bag and taking it out to the garbage bin before I rolled that and the recycling bin to the curb for pickup tomorrow. I still have to do that later.

I seemed to move slower, though. Before I started washing those containers, I read two chapters in Belle Weather and was reluctant to move on to the rest of the day. I wanted more, also because I've got Rivenbark's two subsequent books (I've read her previous three) to read, including her latest, called You Don't Sweat Much for a Fat Girl.

As I washed the containers, I thought about the books that are my all-time favorites that I still needed to write about, versus the ones that are just my favorites. What are the differences? What propels Post Office by Charles Bukowski far above The Runaway Jury?

I think it's a matter of where I am when I read certain books. Before we moved to Southern California, I naively believed that I could take the Metrolink from the Santa Clarita station to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles and there would be a public library right there. And I could do that every weekend. That was the impression I got from what Mom and Dad described about Santa Clarita after they had gotten back from a second 10 days there in late July of 2003, which led to us having only a week to move since Dad had to be there to report in with the rest of the teachers.

Upon arriving as a new resident, I saw that there was no chance of that. Santa Clarita was 30 minutes north of Los Angeles, but it was so isolated from the vast metropolis. When you are here, you are truly cut off from there. And there I was, trying to make sense of this entirely new world, which in the late '90s I thought was on the other side of the universe. After becoming a student at College of the Canyons and discovering the library there, I immediately sought books and novels about Los Angeles, searching for some path that made all this accessible, more palatable. I got the sense as a new resident that if you weren't from the area, if you didn't know anything about it, you were on your own. There's no help. Now I realize that there was no one answer. Los Angeles doesn't have an overall explanation. There are many, and you pick the one that you can live with and take it with you.

But as that newbie, I wanted to find different types of authors that could explain something to me, anything. What was all this? Who could live here? Why did they live here? What did they find in such isolation (Even with the massive population of Los Angeles and nearly 200,000 people in Santa Clarita, it still feels like you're removed from everyone you encounter, and connections are shallow)? Most importantly, where was I?

At the time of arrival, I was a new writer at Film Threat (, having been accepted because the editor, Eric Campos, had liked the reviews I had written for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel's Teentime section when I was in high school.

At the end of May 2004, Campos posted a review of the documentary Bukowski: Born Into This on the site (, and I wondered who in the hell would call a novel Post Office or even write about it? What about a post office could possibly inspire a novel? I had to know.

My then-new Valencia library had a copy available and I checked it out. And I was knocked to the floor over and over again. Bukowski had worked in the U.S. Postal Service for 12 years. And what he described in this novel, through his alter ego Henry Chinaski, was a hard shit job, but there was such life in his writing, such funny rawness about it. And Bukowski revealed to me the Los Angeles that I knew had to be there under all that reputation. This wasn't the Los Angeles of television nor of Hollywood. This was the Los Angeles of the regular citizens, the ones just trying to make their days work in any way they can, before heading home or doing whatever suits them, what keeps them sane. It is an odd city many times over and one that I can never love because I don't fit into what it stands for, in being so spread out as to be totally separate from everyone else. But it is a city that makes me shake my head in wonder and think, "Geez. Only here. Nowhere else."

I wanted more Bukowski. And I found more with Notes of a Dirty Old Man, a collection of his columns from the underground newspaper Open City. I remember we were living in the apartment in Valencia in our first year (we moved to Saugus the next year), and it was a Saturday afternoon, and I was in my room, laying on my bed, my head under my window through which there was sunlight filtered through dusty blinds. And I spent the entire afternoon reading it, and I knew that I had found an incredible writer who had lived life according to his own beliefs, no one else's. If anyone objected, too damn bad.

More Bukowski followed. I discovered his books of poems, such as The Night Torn Mad with Footsteps, which is my favorite collection. It's said that those who don't like poetry read Bukowski's because it's the poetry of the working man. It is, and it's what I always like in my reading, the author shouting, "YOU'RE GONNA LISTEN RIGHT NOW!" And I do because the writing matches that demand.

His War All The Time: Poems 1981-1984 is another of my all-time favorite books because there's a 28-page section titled "Horsemeat," in which he writes about spending time at the racetrack. He went for years and you can tell that he knows what you can't possibly glean in a first visit and certainly not if you go only, say, twice a year.

I first read Harlan Ellison's Watching by Harlan Ellison as a film critic for Film Threat, realizing that I would never be as famous as Ebert is. That was not only sheer luck (Ebert had been in the right place at the right time in 1967 when his predecessor at the Chicago Sun-Times left), but Ebert truly loved movies and made himself unique in that respect. He wasn't trying to play King of the Hill, to be the best (though for himself I'm sure he wanted to be the best in what he was doing), but just remained fascinated by movies, excited by them, and it always showed in his writing.

I loved movies then, though in retrospect, I probably had just liked them when I was writing reviews. I did love the opportunity to review truly independent films (those that didn't have a distribution deal and were pretty much unknown), but later on, it felt like a hamster wheel when I was a member of the Online Film Critics Society and awards season came around along with the screeners to match of those movies being pushed for Oscar consideration, movies that we'd see as well to determine collectively what the best of the year had been. And every year in the years I was a member, it was always the same.

Ellison loves movies, but was smart in not only letting that be the only thing he was known for. His list of works is longer than mine will ever be, including the famous Star Trek episode "The City of the Edge of Forever," graphic novels, many short story collections, retrospectives, essays, and I think the only time Ellison will ever stop writing is probably at least 5 years after he dies. Maybe even 10, because he'll only just notice where he is.

Most importantly, Ellison is honest in his appraisals. Brutally. If his time has been wasted, get the hell out of the way, crouch down, and shield yourself. Ellison is no mealy-mouthed critic who hasn't realized that writing also contains personality. Ellison has a lot of it, and I remember reading this book a few times when I was writing reviews, amazed that it could be done like this. I thought you summarize the plot, give your opinion, and that's it. That's suitable for Supreme Court opinions, I realize now, but not movie reviews. What the hell are you doing writing movie reviews if you're not passionate about movies? I was for a time. But based on the reviews I read of other critics, I thought there was a set format and only gradually did I begin to break out of that. The first time I applied to be a member of the Online Film Critics Society, I was rejected because my reviews had too much plot summary and not enough opinion. I adjusted as necessary and was accepted the next year. But Ellison, man. Ellison does not care about being in an organization, doesn't care about being lauded, doesn't worry about if he's well-liked. He knows how he feels and he lets it be known. That's all.

Here's the start of his review of Les Carabiniers (1963), directed by Jean-Luc Godard: "Jean-Luc Godard's 1963 film is an exercise in audacity. It is also, like Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, an exercise in directorial self-indulgence. It is, in many ways, an exercise in idiocy. Life is too short. To be bored for even seventy-nine minutes is too long."

I know of many movie reviewers who are looking to become as famous as Ebert and they keep trying through their blogs and the websites they write for. But it's one opinion. What makes your opinion so special that you'll be permitted to assume the mantle of Ebert after he dies? Eventually, I found that movies weren't my life, that I couldn't live only on writing movie reviews. I'm much happier because of that discovery, but I never forget what Ellison teaches through these writings, that you need to live for you. You need to be yourself.

And at this point, I think there needs to be a third and final part. Whether that will happen sooner than this entry appeared, I can't be sure, but I can be sure that Steinbeck, Robinson Crusoe, Alan Bennett, Sarah Stewart, and Helene Hanff will be featured.