I can’t stop reading Nicholson Baker’s novels, though I hesitate to call them novels. They read like mini-essays that include quiet observations that you might find in a poem. Precise and vivid and peaceful. You feel like you’re sitting on a couch next to the author listening to him spin little yarns of wisdom. In this last one I read, A Box of Matches, the entries are made up entirely of his thoughts each morning as he rises early and approaches the fireplace. No plot. No forward thrust. But always engaging. If you’ve been meaning to read more poetry but can’t force yourself to slow down to do so (because reading poetry is more demanding?), try reading Baker.
Speaking of poetry, here’s another novel full of some of the richest sentences you’ll read anywhere: Alice McDermott’s newest book, Someone. There’s plenty of plot here, but McDermott offers it up in flashbacks and flash-forwards, all handled masterfully. The plot centers around a woman and her family, but the satisfaction in reading this book comes not from finding out what happens next but in sharing this character’s intimate glimpses into what it’s like to live a life. Some of the scenes are joyous and sweet, others are torturous in their specificity, especially one birthing scene that you won’t soon forget. This is easily one of the best books I’ve read in a while.
I’m always drawn to those “Best of” lists that come out at the end of the year, so I thought I’d create my own. I have not made any attempt to be objective or comprehensive. When I list Best Novel of the year, for instance, this means I read the book in 2013 and flew through it. The book didn’t even have to be published in 2013.
A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick.
Earlier this month, I reviewed his other book, Heading Out to Wonderful, which is also a fine book. But RW, set in 1909 Wisconsin, is gripping, one of those books that you read with dread because you see what’s coming and know more than the characters. The writing is rich, and the ending is satisfying and earned.
Still Foolin’ ‘Em by Billy Crystal. I just finished this today. I found myself both laughing aloud and wiping my eyes because the humor is balanced well by sweetness and poignancy. He calls it “leaving a tip,” revealing something about himself amid the jokes. As with any good memoir, you root for him to succeed, even though you know the outcome. Throughout, Crystal holds nothing back, revealing his most intimate fears and joys.
Most Thought-Provoking Book
The Universe Within by Neil Shubin (reviewed earlier)
Nebraska (reviewed earlier)
Elton John. The guy played for nearly three hours without a break or breaking a sweat. I was most impressed with his improvisation.
Carlos Santana: To grow, “Sometimes you have to commit career suicide.” I imagine someone thinking: Well, yeah, easy for you to say since you’re so successful, which serves as a kind of safety net. But I think his advice could apply in a more modest way as well. I taught high school for over 30 years, and I always found myself, not risking the security of my job, but moving in directions that challenged me and pushed me from my comfort zone.
Most Surprising Discovery
Nicholson Baker in his book, The Anthologist, reveals that Carpe Diem does not mean seize the day. Translated carefully, the phrase means Pluck the day, which is much softer, which suggests we appreciate each summer petal, which would never have been remembered!
Best Health News
Every winter my hands become so dry that I get these little annoying cuts. Solution: use coconut oil as hand lotion. Skin still feels a little rough, but no more cuts. Second discovery: once the oil dries, apply some ordinary mild lotion for baby smooth skin.
Notable Deaths of 2013. Every year newspapers print something like this. I always think, aren’t all deaths notable?
Best Kitchen/Bathroom “Gadget”
We have these grates on our oven that have accumulated layers of grease that we can never clean, no matter the product. Well, I discovered a $2.49 item that did the trick: a scouring stick. No chemicals, no harm to the grates. Just a little elbow grease.
FAVORITE PHOTOS TAKEN
About a week ago I posted a couple of reluctant recommendations. I have another. Nicholson Baker’s Traveling Sprinkler. The reason for my reluctance: the book reads more like a series of meandering blog entries than a novel. Not much happens, other than the smoking of cigars, the eating of mixed nuts, the sprinkling of lawns, and other mundane activities, all of which unfold loosely and as if on a whim. When plot does appear, the book becomes endearing and sweet.
So why am I recommending the book? The narrator, Paul Chowder, is a poet who, without a hint of pretention, observes his world with such precision that you feel as if you’re on a calm expedition with the most able tour guide. As an aspiring songwriter, the narrator offers especially intriguing observations about the composing and appreciation of music, returning often to Debussy—and then he ties such observations to other astute observations about politics. Did you know that the poet Archibald MacLeish helped establish the C.I.A.?
I usually need a little more plot, but this quirky book kept me turning pages and always thinking.
How’s this for a great book title: “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” The one posing the question is Nobel Physicist Richard Feynman. He addresses this question, along with other intriguing mysteries, including why the space shuttle Challenger exploded. Anyone familiar with this disaster knows full well about the failure of the shuttle’s O-rings, but most don’t know the story of how the O-rings became the focus of the investigation, which is fascinating and which is ultimately a story about human failings. Feynman was the guy who helped direct the investigation toward these little pieces of rubber.
He also explores mysteries such as the atoms in the phosphorous tissue in our brains, half of which are replenished every two weeks. How do the new ones know what to do!
Feynman’s writing can be clunky, but his voice in these brief essays and letters is true. And he’s not afraid to show his vulnerabilities. The sections on his first marriage are particularly moving. More than anything, the book will leave you with a sense of wonder about nature.
I’ll end with an inspiring passage that is categorically not clunky:
“It is our responsibility as scientists…to proclaim the value of…freedom; to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed; and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations.”
DOUBT IS NOT TO BE FEARED BUT WELCOMED.
Why does this idea make so many feel uncomfortable?
Sometimes I read books or see movies that I love but refrain from mentioning here because I wonder about their broader appeal. We’ve all gotten recommendations that, for us, turn out to be duds. I suppose any recommendation could turn out that way because tastes are so particular, so I will forge ahead, knowing that these picks may not suit everyone.
Robert Goolrick’s novel, Heading Out to Wonderful, may haunt your dreams for a while. Set is 1948 Virginia, the book is about a man without a past or future who searches for a place to call home. As always, I hesitate to offer up details because (1) those details are so easy to find, and (2) I’m afraid of spoiling the pleasure of turning the page and learning that the plot takes you here and not there, which is why when I read reviews my eyes become a little glassy. I just want to know if the reviewer was floored by the story and by the writing. In this case, for me, yes and yes. The writing reminds me of John Steinbeck and Fred Chappell and Rick Bragg. And if you don’t know the latter two, do something about that. Goolrick’s is a fine book with exquisite writing, full of poetry and nuance, gentleness and dismay. I take back my reluctance. Read this book.
I’m also wary of movie previews. Dann Gire in The Daily Herald writes scathingly about how they ruin movies. I must admit, I have a harder time looking away from these because they are jewels in themselves. But I do wish they would show less.
I walked into the theater to see the movie Nebraska, knowing very little. I’d read a review, in which my eyes glassed over of course, but I could barely recall a single detail, for which I was grateful. This was, for me, a deeply satisfying movie, about an old man who convinces his son to escort him to Nebraska. So it’s a father/son road trip. That should be enough information, right? You just want to know if I was floored by this movie, right? Well, I’ve already said I was, so I will simply add that the movie is beautifully shot and includes moments of dark humor and tenderness and wisdom. The acting is outstanding. How actors achieve this high-wire effortlessness never fails to impress me.
I suppose the reason for my reluctance is that I wonder what young people will think of the movie. As a grown man who lost his father about two years ago, I can’t help but view nearly every old man I meet through this lens. So many old men have the same grizzly glare and befuddlement and gleam that I saw in my old man. In the movie, when Will Forte, who plays the son, becomes exasperated or proud, I couldn’t help but think back on the last couple of years I had with my own father. And this movie became, for me, a sort of gift.
Here’s a biased and quirky list of my 35 favorite novels. I admit to gaping holes in my reading. If there are any books you think belong in anyone’s top 35 list, I’d be happy to hear those suggestions. I had to amend the list to include my favorite short story writers, who taught me everything I know about writing.
1. Grapes of Wrath / Steinbeck
2. Risk Pool / Russo
3. American Pastoral / Roth
4. Underworld / DeLillo
5. All the King’s Men / Warren
6. Love in the Time of Cholera / Marquez
7. Nobody’s Fool / Russo
8. Human Stain / Roth
9. Great Gatsby / Fitzgerald
10. Coal Black Horse / Olmstead
11. Confederacy of Dunces / Toole
12. A Dream of Kings / Petrakis
13. East of Eden / Steinbeck
14. The Big Sleep / Chandler
15. The Fortunate Pilgrim / Puzo
16. Stone Diaries / Shields
17. March / Brooks
18. The English Patient / Ondaatje
19. All the Pretty Horses / McCarthy
20. 11/22/63 / King
21. Canada / Ford
22. Plainsong / Haruf
23. Revolutionary Road / Yates
24. Farewell, I’m Bound to Leave You / Chappell
25. I Married a Communist / Roth
26. Serena / Rash
27. Catcher in the Rye / Salinger
28. Olive Kitteridge / Strout
29. Devil all the Time / Pollock
30. Blue Angel / Prose
31. Blue Diary / Hoffman
32. Short History of a Small Place / Pearson
33. Ancient Light / Banville
34. The Sense of an Ending / Barnes
35. Moby Dick / Melville
Top Short Story Writers, in more or less chronological order by when I encountered:
1. Arthur Conan Doyle
2. Edgar Allan Poe
3. H.P. Lovecraft
4. Harlan Ellison
5. Ring Lardner
6. Ray Bradbury
7. Ethan Canin
8. Raymond Carver
9. T.C. Boyle
10. Charles Baxter
11. Richard Yates
12. Sandra Cisneros
13. Andre Dubus
14. Stuart Dybek
I don’t follow sports closely enough to predict playoff teams during any given preseason, I don’t go to the races, I don’t read isobar maps to predict next week’s rain, but I do love movies, and while I’m no expert, here are a few early nomination predictions based on the last four movies I’ve seen.
12 Years A Slave
12 Years a Slave, which haunts you for days after, has the best chance to win of the three. The movie feels familiar: white, greedy landowners, some more vicious than others, believe blacks can be property, a notion that seems unfathomable today (I hope), yet as you’re pulled in by each tragic turn that occurs as a consequence of this belief, you begin to dehumanize the callous “masters.” In fact, there are moments when you root for the slaves to rise up and take a shovel to the masters’ skulls. So while you can’t understand or identify with the cruelty shown by the landowners, you’re left wondering what to do with your own feelings of revenge. I know, the impulse for revenge is based on their actions, which is quite different than dehumanizing someone based simply on skin color, but I’m always left more than a bit uncomfortable by what I’m capable of feeling.
Best Actor / Actress
• Chiwetel Ejiofor, the lead in 12 Years will win. He should win.
• Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips may get nominated. He’s so good, he makes everything look easy. But he won’t win if nominated. The reason I think he should get nominated: put any other actor in this movie, and the balance is lost. As is, you actually feel some compassion for the pirates, and I think Hanks helps create this dissonance.
• Sandra Bullock will get nominated but won’t win.
Gravity will dominate. An easy call. This is a pretty good movie, well worth seeing. But I don’t think I need to see it again, as visually stunning as it may be.
Sound or sound editing or sound-something
That Ron Howard knows what he’s doing and knows how to get the best out of the people around him. Not that I’ve been on set or anything. But that’s always the impression I have. Excellent movie. But won’t be one of the top ten best.
Steve McQueen (12 Years)
Alfonso Cuaron. (Gravity) He’ll probably win, but I think McQueen should.
Of course, all this could change as new movies come out. But I feel confident with these choices. Why not? I don’t have anything on the line. Unless someone wants to step up for a friendly match!
Fourteen-year-old June Elbus, the narrator of Carol Rifka Brunt’s engaging first novel, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, strikes me as a cross between Holden Caulfield and Scout Finch. If you’re not familiar with these references, stop reading right now, hang your head in shame, then haul yourself to the library. June is less brash than Holden and more daring than Scout, but she shares these other characters’ charms and their sense of wonder, especially regarding the mystery of where they best belong in this wide and often brash world.
If you’re over 35, you’ll be familiar with the late 80s setting, when the little known virus called AIDS wormed its way into our awareness. Very few people then knew how the disease could spread, and as a result, superstitions and intolerance reigned. June’s godfather and uncle, Finn, whom she worships, contracts the disease and must deal with his own mortality and the increasing distance from his family.
Young June is the only family member who remains close to her uncle, and that’s why this book works, because of their sweet and endearing bond. Though she’s often immature, she sees the world more clearly than everyone else. And so we root for her. We feel privileged to know her. Which is a familiar feeling for me. I’ve known plenty of young people who possess this sort of wisdom. And Brunt captures this all beautifully.
A former student of mine sent an email a few days ago asking if I wanted to participate in a friendly exercise of choosing my top 100 movies. Of course! He and a few friends were compiling their lists and they wanted to spread the cheer, and I will do the same by asking you to submit your own lists here. If you can’t think of 100, then try 50 or even your top 20. I couldn’t stop at 100 so I added one more.
The task is a challenge but satisfying. My first 25 are in order, though that will change from day to day. For example, I switched the two Godfather movies, placing the original higher. After I thought about it, I like the original’s spare plot and the unfolding of Michael’s character. The remaining 75 are more or less random in rank.
Placing the two Godfather movies in the top ten seems almost cliché, so I thought I’d at least offer some rationale: THEY ARE DAMN GOOD MOVIES. That should be enough, right? You don’t have to defend what you like. I could talk about the soft lighting and the cramped sets and the way the camera crawl-zooms in on a still Michael as he begins to redefine who he is. I could talk about the acting and the writing and the way no music plays during the violence because Coppola didn’t want to stylize that; he wanted you to know the brutality and still somehow get you to root for these characters. No, I won’t talk about any of those things. (What about the third installment, G III? I’ve tried about five times, but I can never watch more than about 20 minutes. It always feels sterile to me.)
What’s fun about creating the list is that you create other categories, which I’ve included below. When I asked my daughter, who studies film, to think of her own list, she said she’d rather make a list of top television shows, so that’ll be the next post.
Top 101 Movies
2. The Graduate
5. Godfather II
6. Groundhog Day
9. Cast Away
10. Stranger than Fiction
11. To Kill a Mockingbird
12. The Third Man
14. Truman Show
15. Cool Hand Luke
16. Black Stallion
17. The Man Who Would be King
20. On the Waterfront
21. Singin in the Rain
22. Sound of Music
23. Being There
24. Life is Beautiful
25. Toy Story 3
26. Dr. Strangelove
27. Monty Python’s Holy Grail
28. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
29. The Last Detail
30. Raging Bull
31. Schlinder’s List
32. It’s a Wonderful Life
33. Some Like it Hot
34. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
35. Bridge on the River Kwai
37. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
38. Sixth Sense (his only good movie)
39. French Connection
40. Modern Times (the first half)
41. Cinema Paradiso
42. Body Heat
43. Batman Begins
44. Touch of Evil
45. Strangers on a Train
46. Annie Hall
47. Monsters Inc
48. Stand by Me
49. Beautiful Mind
50. Rain Man
51. Double Indemnity
52. High Noon
53. Young Frankenstein
57. Citizen Kane
58. Lost in Translation
59. Best in Show
60. No Country for Old Men
61. Revolutionary Road (but so sad I wouldn’t recommend to anyone)
62. Ghost (I’m embarrassed to admit)
63. Purple Rose of Cairo
64. Last Picture Show
65. Places in the Heart
66. West Side Story
67. 12 Angry Men
68. The Conversation
71. Skyfall (and two Bond movies before that)
72. Raging Bull
75. Streetcar Named Desire
76. Across the Universe
77. Meaning of Life
78. Funny Farm
79. Shadow of a Doubt
80. Shawshank Redemption
81. Spiderman (not sure which is which)
82. Star Wars (first one out)
83. Superman (I’m a sucker for most of them)
85. Finding Nemo
86. Romeo and Juliet (“musical”)
88. Rear Window
89. American Beauty
90. When Harry Met Sally
91. His Girl Friday
93. Rome: Open City
94. Duck Soup (or some Marx Bros movie)
95. Minority Report
96. Naked Gun
97. The Pink Panther
98. Caddy Shack
99. The Odd Couple
100. Blues Brothers
Movies everyone else seems to love that I could not get through or did not love
1. The Shining
2. Iron Man 3
3. Jurassic Park
4. Gone with the Wind
5. John Wayne movies
6. As Good as it Gets
7. Three most recent Star Wars movies
9. Dark Night
10. Good Fellas
12. Shutter Island
14. Austin Powers
15. Adam Sandler movies
Movies that I enjoyed after I saw them but not so much after time
1. American Graffiti
3. Superman scenes with Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor
4. Heaven Can Wait
5. Dances with Wolves
6. Silence of the Lambs (though I haven’t seen in a while)
7. North by Northwest (can’t get by the poor back-screen projection)
8. Edward Scissorhands
9. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
10. E.T. (maybe just need to watch again)
11. Back to the Future
12. King Kong
14. Top Gun
Movies I hated when I first saw them but now like
1. Blazing Saddles
3. Citizen Kane (but still didn’t make my top 100)
An addendum: I love the snow scene in Citizen Kane when he's taken away from his parents. For that reason alone, I'm adding CK to my top 101. I'm not going to say which one I took out.
If you like coming of age stories, if you’re fond of fast paced memoirs, if you’re a movie buff, if you’ve ever had issues with your parents or your children, if you enjoy reading about the turbulence that is family, then you will love this book: David Gilmour’s The Film Club.
Gilmour’s 15-year-old son, Jesse, struggles with school, which is fairly typical, right? But Gilmour’s response is anything but ordinary. He allows his son to drop out of school, provided that Jesse agrees to a different sort of education. He has to sit down with his old man on a fairly regular basis to watch movies. An education gleaned from movies! From discussions on The Godfather and The Bicycle Thief and On the Waterfront and many more. I can think of worse ways to learn about the world.
What movies to choose? In what order? How much do you explain and how much “education” do you allow the boy to pick up on his own? Do you assess? Gilmour asks all these questions and works through his “lesson plans” in his own plodding way—because to implement them in a systematic manner threatened to shut down any learning.
The book makes you wonder about the regimentation that has reigned in schools for the last 100-plus years. I’m not sure we’re ready for an all-cinema alternative, and I’m not sure how this particular story would have ended if Jesse had been forced to stick with school, but the questions Gilmour asks are worth our consideration.
My only disappointment while reading. Every time I searched on Netflix to find a movie mentioned, I came up empty—I’m referring to the instant access feature. Does anyone know a better subscription option?