Sunday, August 10, 2014

My Top 100 Favorite Books of All Time (in no particular order, except for #1, which is my fave)

Because a number of people have asked me lately what my all-time favorite books are, and a couple even asked me to put together a list of my top 100 that I would recommend...
      I submit this list without much commentary. It's eclectic -- new and old books, fiction and nonfiction, at least one graphic novel, even some poetry. Because I don't believe in age dictating what a person should read, there are both adult books and young adult books and even some books originally marketed to children. There are classics, there are chick lit masterpieces, and there are books about rock and roll. There are some favorite books about spirituality and a few about writing -- I was going to leave those off but then decided that was dumb, because they are good books and have something to teach anyone who reads them.

      So without further ado... 

1)               The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon 
2)               Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, JK Rowling
3)               Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, JK Rowling
4)               Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, JK Rowling
5)               Voyager (Outlander series), Diana Gabaldon
6)               Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
7)               A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett
8)               Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell
9)               Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell
10)                    Attachments, Rainbow Rowell
11)                    The Dovekeepers, Alice Hoffman
12)                    Practical Magic, Alice Hoffman
13)                    About a Boy, Nick Hornby
14)                    A Long Way Down, Nick Hornby
15)                    The Perks of Being A Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky
16)                    Tell The Wolves I’m Home, Carol Rifka Brunt
17)                    Ten Thousand Saints, Eleanor Henderson
18)                    The Fault In Our Stars, John Green
19)                    The Mockingjay Trilogy, Suzanne Collins
20)                    Sister of My Heart, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
21)                    The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri
22)                    Skipped Parts (and the rest of the Grovont Trilogy), Tim Sandlin
23)                    Girl, Blake Nelson
24)                    Exodus, Leon Uris
25)                    The Outsiders, SE Hinton
26)                    Persuasion, Jane Austen
27)                    Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
28)                    Unbroken, Lauren Hillenbrand
29)                    Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simmons
30)                    Bridget Jones’ Diary, Helen Fielding
31)                    Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Helen Fielding
32)                    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
33)                    Gospel: A Novel, Wilton Barnhardt
34)                    Microserfs, Douglas Coupland
35)                    Life After God, Douglas Coupland
36)                    Ellen Tebbits, Beverly Cleary
37)                    The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, JRR Tolkien
38)                    Tales of the City (whole series), Armistead Maupin
39)                    The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
40)                    The Collected Short Stories, Ernest Hemingway
41)                    Kitchen, Banana Yoshimoto
42)                    Good In Bed, Jennifer Weiner
43)                    In Her Shoes, Jennifer Weiner
44)                    The Amulet of Samarkand (Bartimaeus trilogy), Jonathon Stroud
45)                    The Fact of A Doorframe (poems), Adrienne Rich
46)                    44 Scotland Street (series), Alexander McCall Smith
47)                    No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency (series), Alexander McCall Smith
48)                    The War of Art, Steven Pressfield
49)                    NP, Banana Yoshimoto
50)                    A Tale For the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki
51)                    Chocolat, Joanne Harris
52)                    Mandy, Julie Edwards
53)                    The Commitments, Roddy Doyle
54)                    Anne of Green Gables (series), LM Montgomery
55)                    Emily of New Moon (series), LM Montgomery
56)                    Any Man of Mine, Rachel Gibson
57)                    Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
58)                    Istanbul Passage, Joseph Kanon
59)                    A Storm of Swords, George RR Martin
60)                    The Murder Room (Adam Dalgliesh series), PD James
61)                    The Confessor (Gabriel Allon series), Daniel Silva
62)                    The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova
63)                    A Game of Thrones, George RR Martin
64)                    Allen Ginsberg: Collected Poems 1947-1980, Allen Ginsberg
65)                    An Actual Life, Abigail Thomas
66)                    Getting Over Tom, Abigail Thomas
67)                    The Moralist of the Alphabet Streets, Fabienne Marsh (out of print)
68)                    Peace Is Every Step, Thich Nat Hanh
69)                    Death At La Fenice (Commisario Guido Brunetti series), Donna Leon
70)                    Nowhere But Home, Liza Palmer
71)                    Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris
72)                    The Idiot Girl’s Action Adventure Club, Laurie Notaro
73)                    The Majic Bus, Douglas Brinkley
74)                    The Great Deluge, Douglas Brinkley
75)                    Homecoming, Cynthia Voigt
76)                    All The Lonely People, Jess Riley
77)                    The Unlikely Spy, Daniel Silva
78)                    Help Thanks Wow, Anne Lamott
79)                    Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott
80)                    A Writer’s Life, Annie Dillard
81)                    The Feast of Love, Charles Baxter
82)                    Floating In My Mother’s Palm, Ursula Hegi
83)                    Fasting, Feasting, Anita Desai
84)                    Life, Keith Richards
85)                    Just Kids, Patti Smith
86)                    Chronicles, Vol. I, Bob Dylan
87)                    Self-Inflicted Wounds: Heartwarming Tales of Epic Humiliation, Aisha Tyler
88)                    Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny Lawson
89)                    Arranged, Catherine McKenzie
90)                    Forgotten, Catherine McKenzie
91)                    Hey, Nostradamus, Douglas Coupland
92)                    Killing Yourself to Live, Chuck Klosterman
93)                    Song Yet Sung, James McBride
94)                    The Good Lord Bird, James McBride
95)                    Whistling Past the Graveyard, Susan Crandall
96)                    Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klosterman
97)                    Possession, AS Byatt
98)                    We’ll Always Have Paris, Jennifer Coburn
99)                    The Paris Wife, Paula McLain
100)        The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker

Saturday, August 02, 2014

To The Pook, on the occasion of his bar mitzvah

You’ve always known who you are. When you were little, you introduced yourself to random strangers in the grocery store with your full name: “Hello. I’m Daniel Schwartz. Welcome to King Soopers.” So that – that was clearly a Schwartz move. Your father’s son, for sure. Extroverted to your very core.

But you’ve also always had your geek flag flying. One of the best days of your early childhood was the day Star Wars Episode III came out and we “finally” got to go see it, and you were jumping up and down on the couch excitedly for hours till it was time to go. And then, in a quiet theatre of 800 people, at the crucial moment, at the top of your lungs, “But Anakin Skywalker HATES the Dark Side!” I’d never been so proud in all my life. Mommy’s little fanboy.

So yes. A nerd and an extrovert. This has led you to the proper place now that you’re in middle school: the life of a theatre and choir geek. And again, I and many people in this room couldn’t be more proud.

And then there is this story that someone reminded me of recently: You were five. You had just started kindergarten. We were having dinner with some of your aunties, and one of them said, “So Daniel. You’re a kindergartener now?” And you looked at her very seriously and said, “No. I’m a Jew.”

It was kind of brilliant, honestly, an epic comedic moment, and I can’t wait to tell this same story fifteen years from now after you win your first Oscar.

But it was more than that. It’s always been more than that for you – more than just being about your heritage, about that touchstone through time to those who came before you. It was a faith at your core that being Jewish meant something. Something special.

Now, this is not to suggest that I and several other people in this room didn’t often despair of this day every happening. I think we can all agree that your early religious school career was not what we would call an auspicious start. It was a bit of rude awakening for you to realize that learning about being Jewish would actually require a bit of work on your part. And the Hebrew – oh, man, the Hebrew! It was like speaking a foreign language. But your teachers didn’t give up on you, even though you declared to me sometime around fourth grade, “I am NEVER getting my bar mitzvah. Don’t even think about it.”

So I was a little surprised in the spring of 5th grade when you decided you were going to JCC Ranch Camp that summer. But you were adamant. I’m sure at the time it was about getting away from all of us for two weeks more than it was about your religious faith. But every evening, I would anxiously pore over the camp photo galleries, looking for your face, and I remember seeing photos of you from the Shabbat service the first Friday evening – you were up on the stage as part of the group leading the service, looking for all the world like you were just meant to be there. And I was like, “WHOA. Look at my amazing son.”

(I would have made such a good Jewish mother.)

And when you came home, the conversion that we began when you were born, with your bris and your immersion in the mikvah, was really complete. There was no longer a question of whether or not you were going to have your bar mitzvah when you turned thirteen – it just was, from that point forward.

Which is still not to suggest that some of us in this room didn’t despair of ever seeing this day come to pass. Your teachers here – Sophie and Sandy and Michelle – and I’m sure I can add the young ladies of your b’nai mitzvah class to the list – and Karen and Daddy and me – we sometimes wondered if you would pull it off.

But you knew. You had unwavering faith in yourself, most of the time – there was that moment a few weeks ago but we’ll just chalk that up to being a dark night of the soul even though it was the middle of the day and you were like, “Forget it. I just can’t do this,” and there might have been stomping and a notebook thrown… maybe.

And by the way, for all the non-Jews in the room – this is how Daniel spent his summer vacation. Studying Torah. Chanting prayers. Mostly alone. Sometimes on the couch in his underwear. But just as often at the side of his tutor Sophie. It’s not exactly your usual 12-year-old’s summer vacation.

But to see you this morning, on this day – it’s really hard for me to put it into words without just breaking down in tears, because as you know, Mommy is a bit of a crier. But it’s pretty amazing. And you sounded way, way better than the kid from the Ben Stiller rabbi movie. And your Shabbat shalominess is a thing to behold. But you know this already.

Anyway. What I want to make sure you know is that I find your faith impressive. I have seen it make you a better person, a stronger person, a leader. I’ve seen it give you a voice, both at school and at home. I draw strength from it. And somewhere in the strength of your faith, I’ve found my own that I had lost for a time. And you’ve reminded me once again how much we learn from our children. And so I thank you. And I’m so proud of you. And I love you.


Wednesday, July 02, 2014

That Time Some Books Tried to Kill Me

The very first book that ever tried to break me was A Little Princess. I may have cried a bit over a book here and there beforehand, but I can't recall one that made me do the copious snot/sore throat/uncontrollable tears weeping before this one. I was 10 years old, my parents had gone into the hardware store's lumberyard on a Saturday afternoon, leaving me in the car to read, and came back out to find me silently sobbing over the fate of Sara Crewe. 

Next up was The Outsiders, which I think I read for the first time in 6th grade. This book changed me. I didn't realize it until much later in life -- maybe only recently. But there was so much in it that I related to even at the age of 12, and so much that opened my eyes. And yeah, it made me cry. And I think what made me cry was seeing myself in the main character. People read as much as I do growing up because they feel a little bit alone and a little bit on the outside. And obviously that's kind of the central theme of this book -- feeling overlooked.

At one point, I had read it so many times that I knew it nearly by heart. I'm a bit rusty on it now.

A family friend gave me Exodus when I was in 8th grade. This is the same family friend who introduced me to Monty Python, poetry, Masterpiece and the BBC, and Jane Austen, so obviously her taste is impeccable. She always seemed to kind of know my heart without me having to say a whole lot, so I'm certain she knew I would find a lot to love in this book. It's a fictionalized account of the founding of Israel following World War II. My previous experiences with devastated sobbing at the hands of a book were a mere warm up for this one. It's another one I've read at least 100 times, and I always play this game when I re-read it every few years to see how far I can get before the first tear drops onto the page. I never get past page 60 or so. And the end? Forget it. I've never read it through clear eyes. 

I can't think of any books that I read in high school or college that touched me the way all of these have, but almost immediately upon college graduation and moving across the country from my family came this book, Girl. It's the story of a high school girl in Portland in the early 1990s, and the music scene in that city and Seattle. It cut right through to the heart of me and I remember wondering how a male writer could know so well what it was like to be a teenage girl. They once made a super shitty movie out of it, trying to make it a comedy. This is not a comedy. It's not depressing, either, but it is the very definition of bittersweet. 

I discovered Skipped Parts later in my 20s and Tim Sandlin remains on my list of favorite writers to this day. This was kind of what all the bookish hipsters were reading in, like, 1997 -- Tim Sandlin and Infinite Jest. This book is a coming of age tale of a 13-year-old boy in a small Wyoming mountain town (faux-Jackson, really) who doesn't quite fit in, and his first romance with a girl in his class -- I don't want to give too much away because it's too good but ultimately kind of devastating, though not in a Fault In Our Stars kind of direction. I just love how Tim Sandlin captures the teen angst without mocking it and that feeling -- again -- of being the outsider. Kind of a recurring theme for me... 

Sister of My Heart is so lyrical and beautiful you nearly forget later on how devastating it is. You just know from the beginning that these two girls are doomed in a way. The book begins on the night they're born and I was sad from the get go because I just knew it couldn't end well. But it's GORGEOUS. You have to read it. I mean, no one dies or anything. Come on! 

So yes -- I picked this up after Seth Cohen referred to it on The O.C. and gave a copy to Ryan. And wow -- am I glad I did. I'm normally a person who gets pissy about prize-winning books because they are never quite my thing -- usually they are too deep or weird or painfully depressing, or all three. But this! This is a beautiful book about the lives of comic artist cousins who are more brothers than all that. It's just a beautiful book -- I don't know what to say about it other than that. Really if you've never read it, just read it. It's not about comics, not really. It's about families and love and all that good stuff. It tried to kill me but really it just made me stronger. Because it's soooooo good. (Incidentally, this the ONLY book I ever give to people. The only one. I am always reticent to be all, "Ohh, you have to read this." But with this book -- YES.)

Mockingjay was the perfect end to the perfect series. I began doing the ugly cry intermittently early on -- second or third chapter or so -- and then sobbed for the last quarter of the book. I hadn't owned my Kindle very long when this book was released, and I had a terrible time figuring out how to clear the screen of tear stains. I really thought this was as bad as YA could get in terms of heartbreaking devastation, but I was proven wrong a couple of years later with The Fault In Our Stars.  

So no. We weren't going to get through this without a Harry Potter book. There are places throughout the series that make me cry -- some more now that it's all over than when I was first reading them. But the last several chapters of The Deathly Hallows make me do the ugly cry. Beginning with what Harry sees in the Pensieve after witnessing Snape's death, and then his walk into the forest, and all that follows -- holy shit! It's like the cumulation of all the things that make me cry in books -- death, love, orphans. The usual. 

 Ahhh yes, The Fault In Our Stars. Killer book of all killer books. Devastating and beautiful and funny and sad, I remember reading it the first time through with my mouth hanging open, amazed that someone could do THIS with words. There is a very real part of me that loves John Green.

The year after my older sister died, I just wanted the catharsis of a good solid cry, so all the books I sought out provided that. Ten Thousand Saints is a painful read for about the first third and then gets into a less depressing rhythm of beauty tinged with sadness. I found the ending happy in its way. This is another one I'd love to recommend more but when people read it, they get upset because the first third is so hard to read. It takes place amidst the straight edge punk scene of the 1980s, mainly in Greenwich Village. Give it a chance! 


Another coming of age tale, Tell The Wolves I'm Home is a beautiful story about sisters and family and art and love and all that stuff. It felt cathartic. It caused ugly crying. Of course it did, because it was about sisters who both loved and hated each other at the same time but couldn't live without each other. For obvious reasons, I'll never read another book about sisters again without sobbing if it's well done. Perhaps the rest of you have better self-control.

I didn't read The Perks of Being a Wallflower till after the movie came out -- I hadn't seen the movie, but I had heard a lot about it, and honestly I'm just more likely to pick up a book first than see a movie based on said book. So I read this, and it damn near killed me in its perfect depiction of a shy bookish boy trying to figure out his high school years and cope with some tragedy in his past that he keeps buried. 

This passage was probably my favorite part:

“I walked over to the hill where we used to go and sled. There were a lot of little kids there. I watched them flying. Doing jumps and having races. And I thought that all those little kids are going to grow up someday. And all of those little kids are going to do the things that we do. And they will all kiss someone someday. But for now, sledding is enough. I think it would be great if sledding were always enough, but it isn't.” 

But then, there is also this... 

The Dovekeepers is a fictionalized account of the events at Masada after the Romans drove all the Jews out of Jerusalem. Because it is Alice Hoffman, it focuses on the women -- four particular women whose paths cross when they are given the task of caring for doves. Also because it is Alice Hoffman, it is lyrical and beautiful and even as I was sobbing my way through it, I was marveling at its beauty. The fantastic thing about this book, being based on a historical event, is that you know it's not going to end well, so you go into it with clear eyes. That doesn't make it less devastating, but at least you can brace yourself. 

I keep telling myself that, anyway. 

Which brings us to this little gem. Eleanor and Park. I knew it was going to break me the minute Eleanor walked onto that damn bus and started reading Park's comic books. It's got all my favorite things in a book -- teenage misfits, music, books. I related the most to Park, not to Eleanor -- I think I was a lot like Park back in high school. Possibly still am.

Also it had this to say about music...

Anyway. Like they always say, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.