Favorite Books of 2014

Previously: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

I read 100 books this year. Each year I blog about my favorite books, an idea I got from the incomparable Aaron Swartz.

What follows are the books I most enjoyed in 2014.

* Drive by Daniel H. Pink – A lot of great ideas about how to motivate creative problem solving in a business environment. Pink clarifies the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in the workplace. Pink also makes a compelling case that creative employees work best when they are given autonomy, an opportunity for mastery of their craft, and a sense of purpose.

* The James Bond books by Ian Fleming – My favorites were “Moonraker,” “To Russia With Love,” “Live and Let Die,” “Dr. No,” “The Man With the Golden Gun,” “Diamonds are Forever,” “Thunderball,” “In Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” “The Spy Who Loved Me,” “For Your Eyes Only,” and “Casino Royale.” I’ve seen all the Bond movies and think there is still opportunity to do justice to the depth and complexity of Bond’s character.

* Red Mars and Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson – Extremely well-researched and fun imagining of Mars colonization and terraforming. A bit like Asimov’s Foundation series in that there is no clear protagonist – it’s really more about the ideas than the plot.

* American Sniper by Chris Kyle – Extremely compelling read; a complete page turner. A really fascinating portrait of an American hero.

* Letters to a Young Poet by Ranier Maria Rilke – The first letter is brilliant – the idea that one should only become a writer if one sees no alternative. The next nine letters contain little to no specific advice on writing, but rather give increasingly vague ideas on love and loneliness. Nevertheless, some moments of extraordinary prose.

* The Conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar – Astonishingly clear prose reflecting an incredible mind. Caesar is a tireless worker, a brilliant politician and diplomat, and an incredibly successful general. Each strategy and ruse-de-guerre is breath-taking.  So little has changed in politics and warfare in 2000 years; a fascinating book.

* The Civil War by Julius Caesar – Just astonishingly good. Possibly the greatest military leader of all time. He fought in hundreds of military engagements and won all of them against staggering odds. When Bibulus uses his naval superiority to try to blockade Caesar and cut off all supply ships to Greece, Caesar blockades the entire Aegean so Bibulus has nowhere to land his fleet and dies of thirst and exposure. That is just the ultimate testament to Caesar’s confidence and his extraordinary mind.

* Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury – I reread from my childhood. Astonishingly lyrical prose; like Jimi Hendrix lyrics – a jumble of language that works together to form perfectly evocative imagery.

* Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – I reread for the third time. This book is just wonderful on every level.

* Richard Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell – This year I read “Sharpe’s Gold,” “Sharpe’s Havoc,” “Sharpe’s Eagle,” “Waterloo,” “Sharpe’s Sword,” and “Sharpe’s Regiment.” I love everything about these books. I particularly admire Cornwell’s ability to craft insidious antagonists who are often more incompetent, racist, haughty, or immoral, than one-dimensionally evil. “Sharpe’s Regiment” may be my favorite of this bunch, though “Sharpe’s Eagle” is also fantastic.

* The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts by Issai Chozanshi – I find these old Japanese texts to be 10% brilliant and 90% inscrutable.  But I suppose that’s the point of zen.

* The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris – An ingenious book that feels extremely current despite being published in 1967. Sort of the Malcolm Gladwell of its day, it evaluates humans from the perspective of a zoologist, and finds how – for all our sophisticated behaviors – we are just fancy chimpanzees.

* Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin & The Way to Wealth and other letters by Benjamin Franklin – I reread for the first time in ten years. Such a fantastic piece of work – just an astonishing human being of myriad accomplishments. There is so much to be learned from this book.

* Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson – Fascinating, astonishing, inspiring, and revolutionary. What an amazing man with an amazing life. A brilliant diplomat, from the Declaration of Independence, to the treaty with France that saved the American Revolution, to the British peace treaty ending the war, to the Constitution. Massive contributions to science – he coined the language of electricity with words like “current,” “conductor,” “positive,” “negative,” and “battery.” An incredible mind – so far ahead of his time – and so well accomplished in all things.

* Meditations by Marcus Aurelius – If you ask me, the Stoics are sanctimonious bores. Still, it was interesting to read the diary of an emperor who lived 2,000 years ago.

* Travels by Michael Crichton – Very readable and interesting. To a certain extent a biography, to another extent a travelogue, but mostly it is a man’s quest for meaning. I didn’t realize how successful Crichton was by age 30; that he was a Hollywood director and a Harvard Med School grad. I really just knew of him as a sci-fi best seller.

* Tell-All by Chuck Paluhniak – He’s an astonishing talent. The first few chapters are mesmerizing. Ultimately, this book is not too heavy on plot, but it is a tour-de-force of style.

* Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins – Beautifully planned and structured, with a plausible heroine we root for from start to finish.

* Divergent Trilogy by Veronica Roth – Quite the page-turner. Hard to put down.

* Freeway Rick Ross by Rick Ross – The story of his rise from an illiterate high school dropout in South Central Los Angeles to becoming the largest crack cocaine dealer in LA. An interesting piece of history. Ultimately, the book is slightly disturbing in that Rick Ross comes across as unabashedly proud of what he accomplished as a crack dealer and really shows no remorse.

* Cyrus the Great (Cyruspaedia) by Xenophon – Cyrus was an extraordinary leader, conqueror, and humanitarian. This 2400 year-old book sets the stage for modern biography in that it seeks to instruct in moral character.

* Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters – Very fun. Lots of linguistic British cleverness and certainly a page turner.

* Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull – A very insightful book on how to manage a creative company like Pixar. Fascinating to gather the inside history of the most consistently successful movie studio in history, and how Pixar’s philosophy turned around Disney animation. Building that creatively supportive culture drew a lot from Silicon Valley ideas.

* Hombre by Elmore Leonard – Very well crafted with lots of cleverness and believable details woven into the prose.

* Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom by Amy Chua – Permissive American parenting is a big issue that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough. I understand why this book is controversial, but it prompts a discussion worth having.

* Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy – I’ve never encountered a writer with McCarthy’s virtuosic powers of word choice, description, and simile; he utters a phrase and the picture springs into the mind’s eye both familiar and fully formed. He is the greatest American author, the greatest living author, and possibly the greatest author, period. Better even than Nabokov in turning a perfect phrase.

* To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway – Say what you will, he is always interesting.

* Einstein by Walter Isaacson – A fast primer on Einstein.

* Pimp: The Story of My Life by Iceberg Slim – Utterly gorgeous prose writing, like Electric Kool-Aid acid test or William Boroughs. Very shocking material. It’s astonishing how all of the 1990’s rap slang was alive and well in the 1930’s. There is nothing new under the sun. This book is far ahead of its time; delving into the Pimp’s psychology, the prostitute’s psychology, and the criminal mindset.

* The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton – Well researched and enjoyable.

* Dataclysm by Christian Rudder – Some interesting observations on the information age.

* Anabasis: The March Up Country by Xenophon – Fascinating tale of Xenophon’s 10,000 Hellenic mercenaries who were hoodwinked by Cyrus the Younger into fighting the King of Persia. The Greek army officers were assassinated by the Persians in a red wedding. So Xenophon, only a young warrior, rallied the Greek mercenaries to fight their way home through hostile territory. A fascinating read and a great adventure.

* Bossypants by Tina Fey – Very funny and with jokes in every sentence. And yet ultimately, this book is an important meditation on feminism.

* Selected Works by Cicero – I found this book tedious and interminable. Cicero himself I found insufferably vain, self-pitying, self-righteous, back-stabbing, and egotistical. Nearly every moral argument in this book fell flat for me. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to glimpse how surprisingly modern Roman society was, in its law, politics, and business.

* What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell – Gladwell is always fun and interesting.  Such a treat.

* Myth and Meaning by Claude Levi-Strauss – I am not clever enough to decide whether structural anthropology is blithering, unsubstantiated nonsense.  Still, I’ll read anything that discusses the mono myth.

* The Hard Way – A Jack Reacher Story by Lee Childs – Really terrifically smart and well-executed.

* Not Taco Bell Material by Adam Carolla – Really entertaining.

* Rumi Translation by Coleman Barks – Really wonderful modern poetry from a 13th century poet. I slowly savored this poetry collection over the past five or six years.

Books Read 2013

In 2007, I started blogging my favorite books of each year, an idea I got from the incomparable Aaron Swartz.  Aaron is a genius who tragically took his life this year.  He co-wrote RSS at age 14, co-founded Reddit his freshman year at Stanford, and was one of the most prolific Wikipedia editors in the world.  He was a crusader for freedom of information and is greatly missed by the Internet community.

This year I read 75 books. I’ve tracked my books read since 2003, always with the goal of reading at least 50 books each year.

What follows are the books I most enjoyed this year.

*A Natural History of the Piano – Stuart Isacoff – Fun anecdotes and a surprisingly comprehensive history.

*The Master and Commander series – Patrick O’Brian – I finished this series of 20 novels this year.  They are my favorite historical fiction.  After so many books, you come to love the characters like old friends.  An astonishingly three-dimensional portrait of the Royal Navy and its characters.

*Psmith in the City – P.G. Wodehouse – Full of linguistic cleverness and sparkling dialog.

*Holes – Louis Sachar – Very fun read and cleverly tied together.

*An Essay on Criticism – Alexander Pope – Published in 1707.  This essay should be required reading for all critics.  So many notable quotes in this essay: “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” “Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread,” “To err is human, to forgive divine,” and “What the weak mind with strongest bias rules, is pride the never failing vice of fools.”

*River of Doubt – Candice Millard – Great adventure writing with amazing characters.

*Which Lie Did I Tell – William Goldman – Sequel to “Adventures in the Screen Trade.”  In many ways, a very odd book.  But essential reading.

*The Big Short – Michael Lewis – A captivating and lucid window into the financial crisis, its causes and characters.

*To Hell and Back – Audie Murphy – Amazing tale of heroism and character.  Astonishing.

*Marine Sniper 93 Confirmed Kills – Charles Henderson – Some amazing scenes; particularly the duel where he shoots an enemy sniper in the eye through the enemy sniper’s own scope.

*Writing Movies for Fun and Profit – Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon – Tremendously funny, useful, and therapeutic.  I read several screenwriting books this year that I did not find particularly useful.  It is rare to find a screenwriting book written by actual working screenwriters, full of relevant and honest advice about the business of screenwriting.

*Hagakure – The Book of the Samurai – Yamamoto Tsunetomo – (Translated by William Scott Wilson) – A lot of useful philosophy to be garnered from this book.  A samurai makes every decision within the space of seven breaths.  And a samurai always dies facing the enemy.

*You Can Be a Stock Market Genius – Joel Greenblatt – Despite the cheesy title, this is a brilliant book that marries the fundamental analysis of Peter Lynch and Benjamin Graham with the strategy and timing of the derivatives market.

*The Man Who Heard Voices – Michael Bamberger – Fascinating tale of M. Night Shyamalan making “Lady in the Water.”  It is both hagiography and cautionary tale.  Nina Jacobson, then at Disney, comes off as a genius.

*The Elements of Style – William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White – Wonderful.  I grew up thinking grammar was the mindless passion of pedants.  But really the point of grammar is clear and effective writing.

*Sleepless in Hollywood – Lynda Obst – An interesting window into the challenges of being a producer now that studios are changing their business models.

*Zen in the Art of Archery – Eugen Herrigel – I reread this as I became increasingly interested in Samurai philosophy this year.  Zen and mastery of one’s craft are inextricably tied.

*The Life-Giving Sword – Yagyu Munenori – The best part of the book is the preface giving a sense of Japanese feudal history. What a fascinating period.  The book itself is incredibly arcane, obfuscated with Zen koans, but not without a certain sense of poetry.

*The Battle of Brazil – Jack Matthews – Fascinating account of Terry Gilliam’s somewhat pyrrhic victory over Sid Sheinberg and Universal in releasing his version of Brazil.

*Richard III – William Shakespeare – Kind of a propaganda piece for the Tudors at the expense of the Plantangenets.  I liked the first speech, and a few speeches in Act V.  It picks up around Act IV.  It’s unclear why Richard is so clever in ascending to power and so immediately unclever once he attains power.  Although I suppose it’s all motivated by his general misanthropy.  In this new Golden Age of television, filled with anti-heroes, it is worthwhile to revisit one of the original anti-heroes of literature.

*The Unfettered Mind – Takuan Soho – The Zen priest who advised Yagyu Munenori and even met Miyamoto Musashi, offers his ideas on the relationship between zen and swordsmanship.

*Conversations with Wilder – Cameron Crowe and Billy Wilder – Wilder’s wit and charm – even as a 91 year old – shine through.  The book inspires a great nostalgia for the greatest generation and the glamour of the golden age of Hollywood.

*Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish – David Rakoff – A rhyming novel of stories of characters who connect across time; I really enjoyed page 94.

*Sharpe’s Tiger – Bernard Cornwell – I read several of the Richard Sharpe novels this year.  So far, “Sharpe’s Rifles” is my favorite.  In Sharpe’s Tiger, Sergeant Hakeswell is one of the most loathesome antagonists I’ve encountered in literature.

*Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan – The subject matter is such a guilty pleasure.  Not literature and yet very satisfying.  Somebody needed to write this book.

*The Green Felt Jungle – Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris – A somewhat dated book cataloguing Vegas mafia corruption in the 40s, 50s, and 60s.  Informative and very much of its time.

*Difficult Men – Brett Martin – A very enjoyable read about the show runners of the new Golden Age of television.  Martin’s thesis is that the same conditions that created wonderful 70s film – execs taking risks and getting out of the way of writers – is exactly what happened to create the cable television revolution.  Great show runners like Matthew Weiner and David Chase took zero studio notes and maintained complete creative control.  And thus created ground-breaking television.

*The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini – Well done; an emotional book.

*A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy O’Toole – Some very colorful moments.

*The Summer of Katya – Trevanian – Very well written.  Somewhat different from his spy novels.

*Goldfinger – Ian Fleming – Fun and full of ideas.  Dated in terms of its sexism, ethnocentrism, and post-war nihilism.  But an extremely entertaining read.

Books Read in 2012

I read 50 books this year, nine fewer than last year. I’ve been tracking my books read since 2003, always with the goal of reading at least 50 books. What follows are the books I most enjoyed this year.

The Sicilian – Mario Puzo He is fantastic at what he does. I thought the downbeat ending is what makes this mafia story less popular than The Godfather.  But very enjoyable escapist entertainment.

Moonwalking With Einstein – Joshua Foer Fun, well-written, and interesting.

Bambi vs. Godzilla – David Mamet He makes arcane arguments, quotes in French, and is constantly cynical.  But I enjoyed this fast, fun read.

Three Uses of the Knife – David Mamet His book, “On Directing Film” made a tremendous impression on me.

The Mailroom – Compiled by David Rensin Fascinating.  A must-read for anyone working in entertainment.  Historically interesting how abusively un-PC the culture in Hollywood was in the 80’s and 90’s.  I find myself mentally referencing this book constantly.

Right Ho, Jeeves – P.G. Wodehouse So brilliant.  Just laugh-out-loud funny.  I’ve read this book before.  Wodehouse is a genius like no other.

Uncle Fred in the Springtime – P.G. Wodehouse Again, his usual linguistic brilliance.

Pirate Latitudes – Michael Crichton Beginning is brilliant, well-researched, and fun.  Later on it gets a bit silly.  This book is published posthumously, so arguably it’s not Crichton’s fault the story falls off toward the end.

Harry Potter – J.K. Rowling Yes, I finally read the series this year.  Each book is better than the last.  What wonderfully imaginative world-building.  A tremendous accomplishment.  Fantastic, transcendent work.

Wigfield – Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinillo, Stephen Colbert At points as verbally brilliant as P.G. Wodehouse and yet not really a captivating tale as there is no likable protagonist.  Still, very, very clever.

Once a Pilgrim – Will Scully Wow, could not put this book down. One man holds off 1,000 looting, pillaging rebels in the ’97 Sierra Leone coup. True story.

Master and Commander – Patrick O’Brian Incredibly well-researched with swash-buckling action sequences.  I’m now on the 7th book in this series and am loving every moment.

The Art of Worldly Wisdom – Baltasar Gracian Some good nuggets of 18th century wisdom.

Many Lives, Many Masters – Brian Weiss, M.D. A fun read; totally not peer-reviewed science.

Easy Riders and Raging Bulls – Peter Biskind Fascinating read about how and why studio movies made incredible movies from 1970 – 1980. Very illuminating.  I mentally reference this book constantly.

Tchaikovsky – Letters to his Family So good.

Where Angels Fear to Tread – E.M. Forster Enjoyed it much more than A Passage to India; lots of fun insight into people and places and behavior.

Whores for Gloria – William T. Vollman Great moments of poetry and innovation; ultimately, the ending left me hanging.

Desperate Characters – Paula Fox Really skilled craftsmanship, brimming with truth and insight.  Not a ton of forward plot here, but just excellently observed – like a good Mad Men vignette.  Extremely Franzen-esque in its honesty.

Agincourt – Bernard Cornwell Really fun and well researched.  A clever way to follow a long bowman through the events leading up to and including the Battle of Agincourt.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich – Leo Tolstoy Insightful and courageous but not my favorite Tolstoy.  I also read Prisoner of the Caucuses and that’s a bit more fun.

The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga A good read; really informative about the state of India and a page turner from an innovative new writer.

Dark Pastoral – Jessica Hutchins A collection of odd po-mo short stories; she has a gift.

Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl On surviving the Holocaust – very powerful book and filled with ideas on the meaning of life that resonate and inspire.

Some Screenplays I really enjoyed this year:  “White House Down” by James Vanderbilt; just dynamite execution.  “St. Vincent de Van Nuys” by Ted Melfi – a tear-jerker for sure.  “Django Unchained” by Quentin Tarantino – what a brilliant idea – challenging and fun.

Great Books I Read in 2011

I read 59 books this year, one more than last year. I’ve been tracking my books read since 2004, always with the goal of reading at least 50 books. What follows are the books I most enjoyed this year.

Jaw Breaker – Gary Berntsen – a really fascinating and fun tell-all by the lead CIA operative in Afghanistan.

John Adams – David McCoullough – An incredible American story and deeply inspiring.

True Grit – Charles Portis – Extremely fun although the ending didn’t sit very well.

Making Movies – Sidney Lumet – Worthwhile.

Islands in the Stream – Hemmingway – Strong and innovative writing; humorous dialog and fun adventure.

Carry On, Jeeves – P.G. Wodehouse – Always a complete delight – Wodehouse is pure genius.

The Good Earth – Pearl S. Buck – Really engaging story told with straight-forward powerful language; she’s fluent in Chinese and English so her language seems to reflect Chinese syntax and values.

Daydreaming and the Creative Writer – Sigmund Freud – more of an essay but makes great points equating the writing process to daydreaming, wish fulfillment, and the hero as the ego of the writer.

The Zombie Survival Guide – Max Brooks – In my opinion, this is the book that originated the current zombie fad in popular culture.

The Future of an Illusion – Sigmund Freud – Pretty astonishing work; he rather bravely asserts that religion and God are an illusion resulting from psychoanalytic needs and that the progress of humanity – from a standpoint of psychological maturity – rests in recognizing this illusion and embracing science.

Blink – Malcolm Gladwell – His stories and studies are fascinating and fun – always a pleasure.

Shooting to Kill – Christine Vachon – A specific and useful description of what an indy New York film producer does to actually produce a movie.

Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast For Crows, A Dance With Dragons – George R. R. Martin – Extraordinary plotting and world building; brutal on the protagonists and therefore the reader. But an overwhelming literary accomplishment.

Tess of the D’Ubervilles – Thomas Hardy – Compelling and innovative in its day.

The Naked Sun, Robots of Dawn, Robots and Empire – Isaac Asimov – Fun, clever, and wonderfully plotted.

Island – Aldous Huxley – Lots of interesting ideas, but absolutely no plot whatsoever.

A House Boat on the Styx – John Kendrick Bangs – A Bangsian fantasy comprised of compelling sketches.

Cities of the Plain – Cormac McCarthy – So much skilled dialog and his usual fantastic writing sense.

Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston – Some fascinating writing – rich and colorful description and delightful dialog.

Unfamiliar Fishes – Sarah Vowel – Always enjoy her voice and point of view.

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee – Dee Brown – devastatingly good. Every American should read it – astonishing stories.

The Secret History – Donna Tartt – some really good prose writing.

The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War – Leonard Richards – Pretty interesting how everyone in congress in the 1800’s was packing guns and knives and dueling and brawling at every political debate.

Les Fleurs du Mal – Charles Baudelaire – Some of the poems are sensational; finding profound and beautiful ways to express new ideas on new topics, and influencing every poet who came after.

Michael Strogoff – Jules Vernes – He really created the art of modern adventure story-structure.

Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut – Interesting.

The Lost Symbol – Dan Brown – When it comes to plot, he’s the best.

Still No Oscar for Best Casting Director

Casting Director is the only above the line movie credit that does not receive an Academy Award.  For years, I have awkwardly cornered people at parties demanding to know why this is the case, but nobody seems to know the answer.

This month, the Los Angeles Times interviewed the Academy Executive Director, Bruce Davis, and it appears we finally have some answers.  According to Davis:

  1. “There’s no easy way to tell who did the casting in a movie.”
  2. “We’re not looking for a lot of new categories. People think the award show is long enough.”


Fascinating.  To the first point, Davis is referring to the fact that Producers often cast the starring roles, and Casting Directors often fill out the supporting roles.  To the second point, it’s just sort of interesting the Oscars can squeeze every above the line credit into a four hour show, with the sole exception of Casting Director.

To appreciate the role of Casting Director, consider how many thousands of teenagers Allison Jones had to wade through before discovering the likes of James Franco, Jason Segel, Seth Rogan, Jonah Hill, Linda Cardellini, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse.  Or consider Lisa Beach and Pat McCorkle’s casting of School Ties (1992) that launched the careers of Brendan Fraser, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Chris O’Donnell and Cole Hauser.

The Casting Society of America has petitioned the Academy three times in the past 15 years to add an award for Best Casting Director.  This would bring the Oscars in line with the Emmys and the Spirit Awards.  Here’s hoping they are someday included.

Great Books I Read in 2010

This year I read 58 books, a little more than one per week. As ever, a chipper tip of the hat to Aaron Swartz, who reads over 100 books every year, and inspired me to start blogging annually about the books I read. Swartz is an absolute James Franco of productivity; his article on being productive is worth a gander.

I’ve tracked my books read since 2003. It’s interesting seeing how your perceptions change with time. For instance, I really dogged “Atlas Shrugged” when I read it in 2008, but find myself constantly mentally referencing the book – it’s definitely affected the way I evaluate my world. So what follows are books I loved reading in 2010, whether or not I will still agree with myself come 2012.

The Eiger Sanction by Trevanian

Really very good.  Almost worth rereading sheerly for the clever dialog in the first half. Great rapport between characters and deeply clever descriptions, particularly in the first quarter of the book.

I Am America And So Can You – Stephen Colbert, Laura Krafft, and a bunch of other writers

Colbert is just wonderful – when he’s good, he’s great – some laugh out loud wonderfulisms in here – really well done.

The First Billion is the Hardest – T. Boone Pickens

Everything this guy touches turns to gold. He became a billionaire twice in his career. His predictions on the future of energy are startling. It will be interesting to see if America proceeds with wind power and with natural gas vehicles. I think Pickens’ book is a strong inspiration for seniors as he’s having the best time of his life as an 80 year old, and achieving incredible and growing success in his billion dollar commodities trading business.

Shibumi – Trevanian

A strong read.  A book about character that is heartfelt and inspires the imagination; really a great spy book with extremely clever dialog that feels amazingly current.

On Writing – Stephen King

I particularly enjoyed the first third; you just hear his voice so plainly with its humor, honesty, and realism.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – Jules Vernes

Really captivating. A great and imaginative adventure with great ideas.  Granted, the protag is not particularly proactive, but the ideas are neat and there’s great suspense.

Jeeves and The Mating Season – P.G. Wodehouse

Just wonderful and laugh-out-loud funny.

The Hot Kid – Elmore Leonard

The first chapter is astonishingly well written.  All in all a very terse and gripping writing style – highly enjoyable.

“Killer in the Rain” and “The Curtain” – Raymond Chandler

Always a delight.

Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell

A riveting read. Truly fascinating. Empowering and chock full of wonderful and engaging ideas. A great book.

Freakanomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

I liked the connection between abortion and crime and the sections on crack dealing and sumo wrestling in particular. This book was a huge best seller in part because it’s great fodder for dinner party conversation. I reference this book incessantly in conversation.

The Loo Sanction – Trevanian

Some really enjoyable stuff and very ahead of its time.  Yet another Trevanian spy thriller with great ideas, impressive action sequences, and clever dialog. Very well constructed.

Goodbye Columbus – Philip Roth

The first half has very good dialog writing. Ultimately, I’m not sure what the book is really about. The big plot point seems to center around buying a diaphragm?  The book felt excellent at capturing a Jewish slice of life for the time period, but what does it all mean?

Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy

Just gorgeous, masterful writing – absolutely immense; an American classic.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson

Very enjoyable read.  Very well plotted and delightfully Swedish.  Perhaps the idea of a father/son serial murder duo is a bit much to swallow.  But the book is so much fun and really stays with you.  Just excellent.

The Girl Who Played With Fire – Stieg Larsson

Really page-turning and impressively plotted.  Larsson was already setting up this story in book one, which is outstanding.

The Girl Who Kicked a Hornet’s Nest – Stieg Larsson

So much fun.

In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

Lots of color and detail and psychological background that must have been extremely cutting edge in its time.

All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy

One of the great accomplishments of American literature by one of the very best; outstanding literature and outstanding writing.

The Wordy Shipmates – Sarah Vowell

An exploration of what it means to be Puritan, and what it means to say that America is puritanical.  Interesting and accessible and fun.

Assassination Vacation – Sarah Vowell

She has a fun, immensely likable voice that is informative in a neat and pleasant way.

Silmarillion – J.R.R.Tolkein

Pretty delightful, amazing how he pulls everything together.  Quite possibly it’s the last chapter that really got me amped up (the whole beginning is a bit meandering).  Fun seeing how Middle Earth was in its last gasp preparing for the final battle of LOTR.   Awesome to see the origins of Isuldur, Elendil, Gondor, Sauron, Mordor, Mirkwood, Rivendell, Lothlorien, Morea, the Elves, the Dwarves, the Hobbits, the Numenoreans, the stewards of Gondor, the Rohanim, and the Wizards.

1776 – David McCoullough

Excellent. Truly outstanding. An amazing tale that brought tears to my eyes and made me proud to be an American.

On Directing Film – David Mamet

Many excellent ideas in here.   For a guy known for his dialog, he adamantly believes the shots should tell the story.  I find myself preferring Mamet’s interpretation of Stanislavski to Stanislavski himself.  Mamet’s a guy who knows a thing or two about a thing or two.

The Crossing – Cormac McCarthy

The first third of the book is immensely gripping and then, suddenly, takes a very cruel turn that alienates me from the rest of the book. The hero switches superobjectives three times in the story, which further alienates me as the story keeps winding down and then firing back up again. The prose is usually gorgeous. Except when McCarthy repeatedly departs from the forward action of the plot to meet with crazy people soliloquizing long Doestoyevskian stories about death and God.  His writing is masterful but this story did not turn the pages for me the way his other books have (although the first 100 pages or so are just wonderful, wonderful, wonderful).  This book was emotionally tough for me, so perhaps I am just too close to it.

“Extra Lives, Why Video Games Matter” by Tom Bissell

Absolutely laugh-out-loud funny. A really enjoyable read. Ultimately, the book does not in any way answer the question “why video games matter.” Which is fine I suppose.

The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand

A chore to read, but arguably worth it.  I didn’t understand any of the character’s motivations.  They are drawn as straw men for Rand’s arguments. I also notice that like Atlas Shrugged, the lead female gets to have quasi-adulterous relationships with three men without suffering any tangible consequences, a fantasy Ayn Rand attempted but did not quite achieve in her personal life. While I have trouble appreciating The Fountainhead as literature, I’m sure I’ll find myself thinking about the individualist, objectivist, and anti-altruistic ideas she presents for some time.  As mentioned above, Atlas Shrugged is a book that continues to percolate in my mind, years after reading.

Best Screenplays Read in 2010:

Source Code by Ben Ripley

A really tight and superbly crafted script.  Developed at the Mark Gordon company.

All You Need is Kill – D. W. Harper

Based on a Japanese novel and bought by Warner Bros for $3 Million.  Amazing script – excellently written.

Great Books I Read in 2009

This year with 48 books read, I fell a hair shy of my usual goal of 50 books. While I’ve tracked all my books read and movies watched since 2003, I’ve only had this blog since 2007.  So what follows is my third annual posting of Great Books  I Read This Year.

If my 2009 list seems parochial, just know there are a certain amount of New York Times bestsellers I read that I just didn’t get super amped about. Any book on this list below is a book I can confidently recommend.

“Getting Even” by Woody Allen

This was a re-read. Guite a few of these short stories absolutely inspired – particularly the one about the 1930’s private eye searching to find out who killed God. My love of Woody Allen is a borderline violation of the second commandment.

“Chopin in Paris” by Tad Szulc

The subject matter is absolutely riveting – at times I wished the book would never end.  What a fascinating period in world history.

“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” by David Foster Wallace

DFW is just such a brilliant, original, likeable narrator. So, so smart in a way that’s wonderful and reminds me of the 90’s and everything I liked about college and living in the constant company of smart people.

“Rebel Without a Crew” by Robert Rodriguez

An absolutely amazing story about the luckiest guy in the entire world.

“Consider the Lobster” by David Foster Wallace

DFW is just wonderful; the article about English usage is about the most erudite thing I’ve ever read. He is really just fantastic. Just a wonderful read.

“What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” by Haruki Murakami

Murakami has such an enjoyable and minimalist prose.  The first half of the book offers a rare glimpse of a respected author openly discussing their craft. Comparing novel writing to marathon running – two things Murakami excels at.  I have extremely complex feelings about Murakami’s writing, so this is a qualified recommendation. As is “Sputnik Sweetheart” by Murakami that I read this year as well.

“Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert A. Heinlien

This was the unabridged version, so it had more scandalous material than the 1961 version. While the book is filled with novel ideas and clever dialog, I wasn’t quite taken with the overall story-telling. The hero of the story has infinite money and power and wisdom and no character arc. All the good guys are always right about everything.  I’m not sure, but I think the moral is that if you’re young and attractive and willing to have sex with a Martian then you get to be enlightened.

“Dune” by Frank Herbert

Pretty amazing. A wonderfully sophisticated universe. Really smart, scheming characters, constant danger and suspense, really sharp dialog, and everything fitting together really snugly in the end. A pillar of the genre.

“Thank You Jeeves” by P.G. Wodehouse

Just the absolute height of British wit.  Just absolutely brilliant and delightful. I love this author. Genius.

“Beowolf”

Another reread.  Sort of funny how obsessed the author is with “swords” and “slaughter.”  The storytelling is clunky and Beowolf is one dimensional. But dragons guarding treasure and heroes seeking glory? This is where it’s always been at.

“The Man in the Iron Mask” by Alexandre Dumas

Some flashes of the brilliance of Monte Cristo or Three Musketeers, but a plot that goes awry and is a bit sadistic to the reader invested in the story.  This makes my list for some very eloquent dialog and fun action scenes.

“The Inferno” by Dante Alighieri

So much incredible imagination and descriptive power from such an early, early author.  Dante is visualizing special effects that Hollywood studios can only now begin to render.  Pretty remarkable for the 1300’s.  Granted, some of the theology seems a bit judgmental, vindictive, or logically odd.  But good literature.

“The Feudal Spirit” by P.G. Wodehouse

Just fantastic; every sentence is a masterpiece of cleverness and wit.

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” by Neil Simon

What can I say, he’s an amazing writer.

“The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

Astonishingly well written; I blitzed through this book in 24 hours. Not particularly uplifting. But his craft is sensational – his description and evocative prose – just so inspiring.

“Painting with Light” by John Alton

How to DP in black and white in the 1940’s. Interesting from a historical perspective, but technologically it is of course extremely dated. Interesting how inventive these early DP’s were, but kind of funny how “realistic” they thought they were being in the 40’s. People will chuckle at us too in 60 years (or much, much sooner).

“I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov

Clever situations and logic puzzles.  Although it seems like the characters all have borderline personality disorder.

“Cut to the Chase” by Sam O’steen (compiled lovingly by his wife, Bobby)

Really fascinating view into Hollywood history.  A fascinating man with great anecdotes and rare insight into the editing process.  Very enjoyable and definitely recommendable; also insightful into directing.

“Jeeves in the Morning” by P.G. Wodehouse

Absolutely laugh-out-loud brilliant.  Shakespearian levels of linguistic innovation, mastery and genius.

Akira (Books I, II, III, IV) by Katsuhiro Otomo

A classic; Neo Tokyo, post-apocalypse, wonderful artistry, framing, and vision.

“On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin

A masterpiece. Written with that Ben Franklin narrational style of being unbelievably humble, reasonable, charming, objective, and utterly logical. It’s flawless from start to finish – I don’t think there’s a single inaccuracy in the entire work, as far as contemporary science goes. It’s just a pleasure to hear the reasonable workings of a perfect mind. And Darwin’s predictions at the end are astonishing. Man seems to have been aware of natural selection for millennia, via animal husbandry and basic agricultural for instance, but Darwin codifies it with aplomb.

“Angels & Demons” by Dan Brown

Dan Brown knows how to build a compelling story with suspense. He does a wonderful job of putting ordinary people into impossible situations – and then finding an amazing way for them to escape.

“The High Tech Knight,” “The Radiant Warrior,” “The Flying Warlord,” “Lord Conrad’s Lady,” all by Leo Frankowski

A modern day engineer is trapped in 13th century Poland. A guilty pleasure. But honestly very fun.  And well-researched as far as I can tell.

“Kim” by Rudyard Kipling

Some captivating and exquisitely stylish writing.

“A Passage to India” E.M. Forester

Really insightful writing into human manners and behavior.  Granted, it may suffer a bit from the lack of a protagonist.

And the best screenplay I read this year goes to:

“Medieval” by Mike Finch & Alex Litvak

Awesome fun.  Fantastic writing.  A thrill to read.

Testing the Blog

Testing

Testing and Tinkering

This week I’m migrating servers and hosting.  I’ll also be testing out a new design for the blog, as well as playing with widgets and CSS.  Things may be weird for a few days…

The Puzzle is…

I’d like to navigate the transition from blogging The Last Hurrah, to just plain blogging.  I have the urge to write about writing, Los Angeles, books, movies, and tacos.  More importantly, I’m beginning to contemplate my next project after The Last Hurrah.  So there must be a way to incorporate all that without having to start a brand new blog.

I’m trying to figure out how to present all these things while maintaining a clear focus to this blog.

Please bear with me for the next few weeks while I experiment with new layouts and designs, and non-Last Hurrah-related posts!

Great Books I Read in 2008

In 2008 I made yet another attempt to read 52 books in one year.  Again, I have fallen short, this time with 44.  However, this beats last year’s attempt.

In my defense, I read some doozies this year.  “Das Capital” isn’t exactly a page turner, and you have to turn 1,300 of them.  Regardless, here are some books I read in 2008 that I think are worth a mention.

For 2009, I am particularly looking forward to fewer books about holocausts.  And more books under 1,000 pages.

The Communist Manifesto – Marx & Engels

Last year I read Harpo Marx and Groucho Marx.  This year, I switched to Karl.

“Working men of the world unite!”  Terrifying, and rigorously rhetorically effective.  Tremendous logical fallacies throughout.  Probably helps that the working men of Russia and Asia didn’t have high school educations.

Notes From Underground – Dostoyevsky

Very ahead of its time!  The first literary anti-hero I can think of…  A century before Holden Caufield!

Riveting arguments on Free Will.  Very, very first person.  Forerunner of existential thought.  Memorable quotations and really ground-breaking in every way.

For Dostoyevsky, this is a quick read.  And well worth it.

Five Essays on Philosophy – Mao Tse-tung

A historically fascinating albeit nearly philosophically useless collection of essays.  Probably Mao’s attempt to equal Lenin and Stalin in adding to the communist cannon.

“Where do correct ideas come from” was written three years before the Great Famine that killed 60 million Chinese through Mao’s insipid agricultural policies.  Mao expounds on his philosophy of “Let 100 flowers bloom, let 100 points of view collide,” while outlining how dissidents must be eliminated by the state.  Very eerie.

Almost all the logic of this book is confident but absurd, much like Marx.  The only interest I found is the symmetry between Yin/Yang Chinese philosophy and dialectical materialism, not that Mao was very explicit in this analogy.  A disturbing man.

I Wake Up Screening – John Anderson and Laura Kim

Really a terrific source of information on the independent film market as told by the community of buyers, filmmakers, producer’s reps, publicists, and press.

The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

WONDERFUL.  Swashbuckling, romance, betrayal, vengeance, smuggling, pirating, dueling – just great.  And with serious themes of God and Free Will.  A fantastic adventure story with a great main character trapped in impossible situations.  Tore through this book in just over 24 hours.  Brilliant dramatic situations – every chapter is a self-contained adventure, forcing you to turn every page.

Musicophilia – Oliver Sacks

Interesting info and anecdotes about music and the brain; basically, music is really good for you.  This is the psychiatrist who wrote “Awakenings” and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat.”

Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious – Sigmund Freud

The first 200 pages are like Aristotle’s Poetics – dryly defining categories of wit.  Then, at page 200, it gets interesting.  Freud asserts that jokes occur in the unconscious from conscious stimuli just like dreams.  And therefore wit – in its puns and absurdity – speaks the language of dreams.  And is therefore a direct window into the unconscious.  Pretty impressive book.

The Painted Bird – Jerzy Kosinski

Devastating portrayal of the decay of human decency in WWII.  Gut-wrenching display of Polish peasant life in all its cruelty, bigotry, and superstition.  Makes it easy to understand how the holocaust happened.  Really gripping writing.  All that said, the story is more than a little fantastical, and of course is not the true autobiography Kosinski claimed it to be.  Still, eminently readable; a good (albeit disturbing and nihilistic) book.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer

Virtuosic brilliance.  The narrative cleverness is absolutely breath-taking.  Safran Foer infuses every sentence with astonishing wit and sensitivity; this level of writing requires a high IQ indeed.  Safran Foer is easily one of my favorite novelists.

The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas

Monte Cristo I much preferred, but this is still a great treat.  Making it all about the female villain was interesting and more cerebral, but prompted no big sword and gun battles at the finale.  Also, a surprising amount of lead characters kick the bucket.

I never actually saw the words “all for one and one for all” so that was confusing.  Fwiw, I was not reading a perfect translation.

Iron Jack – Johnny Rosenthal

This is a screenplay that sold this year for $1.25 against $2 million.  I mention it only because of all the million dollar scripts that have sold in recent years, this one really made me laugh.  The first act is truly inspired – as good as anything I’ve read.

Aspects of the Masculine – Carl Jung

Some neat, albeit heavy ideas.  For instance, the belief that women become more masculine as they age, while men become more feminine.  The trouble with this sort of dense reading is that six months later, I can only remember a few sentences about the book.

Walden – Thoreau

Some great moments of inspired prose.  Some fireworks close to the end.  A revolutionary and inspiring piece of work.  Like Moby Dick, many parts are pure naturalism.  But many passages are transcendent (Well, I guess, “transcendental”), even when he’s simply describing the formation of bubbles in ice.

Das Capital – Karl Marx

Interesting from a historical perspective.  The vivid descriptions of the mistreatment of factory workers in the industrial revolution make it easier to understand why communism arose, and why it took the form that it did.

I was particularly intrigued by his idea of “fetishization of the commodity.”  Only a commodity’s function is relevant.  Helps explain why communists aren’t much for aesthetics.

Nevertheless, all of Marx’s economic assertions here are just wrong, wrong, wrong.  From his first premises (e.g., equating a commodity’s value to the labor required to produce it), to the irrational math he derives from those first premises (I’m talking Wittgensteinian levels of post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacies).

His narrational voice is surprisingly whiny for an economic treatise, often resorting to ad hominem, and taking it at face value that anyone in power must be resented.  From page one, this book is a shell game of faulty reasoning.  It’s too bad hundreds of millions of people went in for this stuff.

The Last Tycoon – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald is one of my all time favorite authors.  In his defense, he died before he could finish The Last Tycoon.  If I knew people were going to run around publishing my unfinished drafts, I would probably die, too.

Shopgirl – Steve Martin

Clever.  Possibly the only piece of Steve Martin’s entire oeuvre that I did not rabidly love.

Born Standing Up – Steve Martin

Read in one sitting.  Very fun and interesting.  It takes ten years to make an overnight success.

Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card

This has been recommended to me for years.  Zillions of people on Facebook list Ender’s Game among their favorites.

Money – Martin Amis

Pretty much a masterpiece.  If I ever get OCD enough to compile a 100 best list for books, I will put this on it.

The anti-hero and subject matter are in the gutter, as with most Amis!  But Martin Amis’s command of language is nothing short of astonishing.

The Kid Stays in the Picture – Robert Evans

Truly amazing life.  A very fun read.

Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut

Lots of neat ideas in a constantly evolving story.  Ultimately, for me the message of the book was a one-sided argument that religion is a joke and war is stupid, without really discussing alternatives, or real-world ramifications.  I think we all understand that war is bad; the interesting question is what do we do about it?

Nevertheless, an entertaining read.

The World’s Worst Book – Justin Heimberg

My roommate Justin has written a slew of coffee-table comedy books that you can find in the humor section of Borders or Barnes and Noble.  They’re all worth a read, starting with the “Would You Rather…” series.  Very clever stuff.

Save the Cat Goes to the Movies – Blake Snyder

Snyder has a lot of slap-yourself-on-the-forehead good ideas.  He’s the kind of writer I would give anything to sit down and have a cup of coffee with.  But I’m going to come right out and say I have a beef with some of his readers.

The sort of people I shake hands with in creative meetings who’ve never read a story structure book in their lives – until they read Save The Cat – and now they think they’re structure mavens.  It’s the exact same species of disdain I have for adults who haven’t finished a book since high school, and then start gushing to me about Harry Potter.  I think it’s great that you read a book, but it doesn’t make you Ravelstein.

Like any good theorist worth his salt, Snyder is standing on the shoulders of giants.  Joseph Campbell, Christopher Vogler, Syd Field, and Georges Polti leap to mind.  Also Carl Jung, Aristotle, Robert McKee, Terry Rossio & Ted Elliot, Michael Hauge, Lajos Egri, and Linda Seger.  Snyder is not the first story structure theorist to discuss these ideas and he won’t be the last.

This is why I get annoyed when entertainment industry friends try to talk about “Blake Snyder’s +/- midpoint,” when Syd Field used that exact terminology thirty years ago.  It’s like loving Chris Tucker and having no idea who Eddie Murphy is.  Note, my ire here is not directed at Blake Snyder – who has great new ideas – it’s directed at many of his fans – who often don’t.

I suppose the good news is that someone has finally written a story structure book that everyone will read.  And for that feat, Blake Snyder probably deserves his zillions of dollars!

Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand

The first 100 pages I absolutely loved – the battle between the competent people and the incompetent.  The idea of telling all the incompetent people to go shove it deeply appealed to me.  Like, cathartically so.  My relationship with this book in week one was borderline anaclitic.

The next 1,000 pages required a bit of effort (e.g., the palaverous 100 page John Galt speech).  On the whole, my libertarian side is deeply sympathetic to Ayn Rand’s message.  But my understanding is that Fountainhead is the better piece of fiction.  It’s on the list for 2009.

The Princess Bride – William Goldman  (Also Buttercup’s Baby)

Really a delightful book.  There should be more books like this.  This is definitely one of my favorite books of the year.

Foundation – Isaac Asimov

Clever solutions to unsolvable situations; the only weak point for me is the story takes place over 300 years.  So everyone dies off every fifty pages and you have to learn all new characters.

Also, Asimov writes, “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” about seven times.  I have never understood this quote.  Wouldn’t violence be the first refuge of the incompetent?

Great Books I Read in 2007

Taking a big cue from the over-achieving Aaron Swarz, I decided to post my favorite books from 2007. It would be nice to read 52 books a year, but I fell short with 37, possibly due to directing and producing a movie.

What follows is an unranked list of books I loved. I hope this list doesn’t out me as a philistine; while I read some literature in 2007 (Flaubert, Dante, Henry Miller, Gabriel Garcia Marquez*, Jorge Amado) these literati did not ring my bells enough to make the all important Stokes’ 2007 list.

The Hero With 1,000 Faces – Joseph Campbell

Reread. Myth as social-psychoanalysis. The advent of the monomyth. And the belief that denial of the ego and realization of the whole is the central enlightenment of all religions. A must read.

The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler

GREAT!!! The first half is sensational; halfway through the story seems to resolve and loses some momentum…plus the cleverness of the dialog and description seems to fall off a tad. Still, the opening half is absolutely pitch perfect and carries the whole story; an amazing novel.

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim – David Sedaris

Wonderful; possibly his best – the story about SinterKlausen is laugh out loud funny.

Blink of an Eye – Walter Murch

The legendary editor. Very readable book on film theory. A central idea is that for an audience, editing is blinking. Understanding when humans tend to blink helps inform what will feel natural in timing your edits.

One of the most under appreciated areas of “movie magic” is good editing.  The best editing is often invisible.  Poor editing reminds you that you are watching film, and pulls you out of the story.

From Reel to Deal – Dov S-S Simens

Wow, what a great book, and written from an incredibly likable voice. Really a tremendous source of great information about independent film.

The Areas of My Expertise – John Hodgeman

Every few pages I stop and think, “how did he think of that?”  I’m glad for this book’s success.

Antigone – Sophocles

Some great, great, Shakespeare-level speeches; particularly from Antigone and Haimon. Not sure it would translate well to modern theater without major revision – but it’s a pleasure to read.  Here’s a taste: “Leave me alone with my hopeless scheme; I’m ready to suffer for it and to die.  Let me.  No suffering could be so terrible as to die for nothing.”  Boo-yah!

Trouble is my Business / Finger Man / Goldfish / Red Wind – Raymond Chandler

Great, Great, Great, Great.

The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett

The last scene is remarkably good, particularly when he finally has it out with the treacherous femme-fatale. This is enjoyable writing, the height of craft.

Medieval Europe; A Short History – C. Warren Hollister

Basically making the point that the middle ages weren’t the “dark ages” but a continual evolution from the ancient to the modern, giving rise to legal, constitutional, nationalistic, scientific, architectural, and technological innovations.

No Country For Old Men – Cormac McCarthy

The first 2/3rds are brilliant; witty characters with wonderfully colloquial dialog.  The last 3rd of the book is the long, moralistic ramblings of an old man.

I found the tone of the movie to be remarkably faithful to the book. However, because the movie obeyed classic three act structure, and kept the denouement short and sweet, the film ending felt more satisfying than the novel.

Farewell, My Lovely – Raymond Chandler

Just Great, Great, Great. It’s just incredible writing, regardless of genre. As poetically beautiful as Proust or Shakespeare.

World War Z – Max Brooks

Really wonderful. It captured my imagination – how to stave off a Zombie attack. It’s so realistic and stunningly well-researched.  I agree with the author’s politics. Perhaps best of all, it successfully tells a compelling story while abandoning classic structure. Really great literature.

Harpo Speaks! – Harpo Marx

Amazing autobiography. A reminder of how to live and how to be and an amazing snapshot of American history. Probably the most important book I read all year.

Screenplays I liked

*Bim-Bam-Baby Screenplay by Jeremy Catalino

A strong lead character with funny lines.

*The Bucketlist Screenplay by Justin Zackham

A powerful story about death and the meaning of life.

*Flamers – Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor – aka “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry”

This script’s concept and structure are great. There are almost no jokes on the page, but it doesn’t seem to matter. The characters and situations completely drive the story, creating all the textbook required tension. They are forced down this path – every step seems inexorable. The pages turn themselves on the strength of the story and its conflicts.

Good Will Hunting – Matt Damon and Ben Affleck

Read the original screenplay; it’s very good. There are many extra scenes not in the movie and probably not necessary; however every scene is a great scene – with a clever beginning, middle, and end. Some great dramatic writing.

It continues to be a great mystery in Hollywood how these guys wrote one script, won the Academy Award for best screenplay, and then never wrote again. How is this even possible? I’ve heard rumors around town about the writing credits on this movie… What is the explanation?

*Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “100 Years of Solitude” or “Love in the Time of Cholera” are among my absolute favorites. But this year I read “Autumn of the Patriarch.” It was intriguing because each sentence lasts forty pages and switches POV multiple times. But it may be an example of experimentation sacrificing story rather than supporting it.