Of course a complete list of my favorite things would be too long. Instead, I’ve gathered some “heartwarmers”, the ones I turn to when the rain is cold and the night seems endless. Guaranteed to please, or I reimburse you for the popcorn :-)
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon
As one reviewer put it, “Super-colossal and gosh-wow!” I couldn’t agree more. So good I actually don’t believe it’s a book: I secretly think it’s real. But don’t tell anyone :-)
Tender at the Bone (and its sequels) by Ruth Reichl
Entertaining, funny, sweet, fascinating, and full of great stories. Among other things, it tells the story of Ruth Reichl, one of America’s best-loved food writers and cooks, from childhood until (almost) the present. Great stuff.
Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin
But it’s heartbreaking, you say. All I can say is, when writing is this good it uplifts me, regardless of how sad it is. I’ve recently bought the full set of Baldwin’s works from the Library of America, but I kept my dog-eared, paperback copy of Giovanni’s Room so I can take it into the bath with a glass of wine and cry all over it.
The Fountain Overflows (and its sequels) by Rebecca West
Absorbing, intricately plotted, deeply real portrait of a young girl’s life. Features, among other treasures, the best descriptions of classical music I’ve ever read.
Angela’s Ashes (and its sequels), by Frank McCourt
Poverty, disease, childhood sibling death, the “shiftless, loquacious, alcoholic father, the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire,” and that’s only the beginning. I don’t know why, but for me this was a tremendous page-turner, and a magnet for good thoughts. Try it - although you may agree with my sister Kendall, who called it “chatty and sad” and put it back on the shelf.
Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert
For me, this is the quintessential spiritual journey book. Gilbert shares all the details of an extraordinary year in her life, in honest, clear, and endearing prose.
Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov
This is the funniest book I have ever read. Granted, Nabokov is not exactly known as a humorist, but trust me. Hapless, befuddled, adorable, deluded Russian immigrant Victor Pnin stumbles through life as a professor of Russian studies at a small New England college. Nabokov, even more magically than usual, makes this a manifesto of the human spirit. (Thanks Sergei!)
My Uncle Oswald, by Roald Dahl
And this is the close runner-up: supremely funny, scandalous, ribald and inventive. I don’t want to give too much away, but think Proust, a delightfully pretty girl, a rascally anti-hero, and artificial insemination.
American Primitive, by Mary Oliver
For a taste of her poetry, see Wild Geese, here
The Wild Party by Joseph Moncure March, illustrated by Art Spiegelman
This is an American classic. A bit ribald (not for kids!) but so funny and interesting, and its observations on human nature are so true. And it’s illustrated wonderfully by Spiegelman.
Maurice, by E.M. Forster
Precise, loving exposition of a young man’s journey from confused bigot to free man in love with the gardener...in Victorian England!
The Mask of Apollo, by Mary Renault
A fascinating depiction of the life of an actor in Ancient Greece. Love, danger, the Gods, and history close-up. Also intelligent discussions of philosophy, art, the human character, and other joys. Features Plato, Dionysius of Syracuse, and Alexander the Great as supporting characters.
Persuasion, by Jane Austen
Austen at the top of her game. Love, danger, courage, loss, prying relatives, moral dilemmas, and sparkling humor. I also like Emma.
Passenger to Tehran, by Vita Sackville-West
An amazing and exotic journey through Persia, delicately and precisely observed by a wonderful storyteller
Eastern Approaches, by Fitzroy McLean
The best adventure book I know, and it’s all true. McLean helped found the SAS, parachuted into Yugoslavia to help Tito fight the Nazis, and found time for black-tie events in Cairo. Much cooler than James Bond, and he isn’t stuck on himself.
Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck
Pure and perfect, gritty and real. Covers the full spectrum of life, from existential despair to the rapture of a glorious wild party. Includes an excerpt from a Sanskrit poem so beautiful I still catch my breath when I read it. Steinbeck, having posed a bold, uncompromising question to the heavens with this book, wrote his own answer with Sweet Thursday, the little-known sequel.
Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman
This is the strong medicine. One shot and your hair will stand on end, your eyes will spark, energy will shoot through you, and you’ll remember how close to God you really are. If I had a Bible this would be it. For more on Whitman, check out Stephen Mitchell’s fascinating commentary in the introduction to his edition of Song of Myself, and Michael Cunningham’s touching description of his first encounter, in the introduction to Laws for Creations.
The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahme
Okay, this is for kids. But if you somehow missed reading it when you were small, I highly recommend it. The ultimate innocent, charming, bucolic English fairy tale. And yes, I still re-read it (and the worthy sequel by William Horwood, The Willows in Winter) from time to time. Got a problem with that?
I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith
Fascinating, charming, self-indulgent, and if you’re in the right mood, perfect. The movie’s not bad either. This was Smith’ first novel - she later wrote A Hundred and One Dalmatians.
Annie On My Mind, by Nancy Garden
OK, this is pure teenaged schmaltz. If you are looking for something grown-up, move on. But if a tear-jerking love story between two intelligent, lovely, hopelessly teenaged girls in New York City appeals to you, well, this is it. Needless to say, I love it.
Danny, the Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl
Yes, more kid’s fiction. What is it with me and kid’s books? I don’t know. I do know that I adore this book, have read it dozens of times, and it never lets me down. I gave it to my Dad one year for Christmas, and he liked it too. Score one for Dahl.
Boy, by Roald Dahl
Actually, score two for Dahl. This, the first book of his autobiography, is sweet and winning, and honest, and funny. If you like this, there is a sequel, where he joins the RAF, gets married, and grows up
Kim, by Rudyard Kipling
I know, I know. Colonialism, racism, misanthropy and silliness. But I love this book. I read it the first hundred times when I was too young and innocent to see the flaws, and now, like a faithful lover, I squint past them and look at the good stuff. Forgive me.
The World at Night, by Alan Furst
Seductive, dark, human and tender: a view of occupied Paris during WWII. Features a gripping plot and characters who will move into your heart and stay there.
My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell
This is more than a kid’s book. Gerald Durrell and his family moved to the island of Corfu when he was around ten, and this is his funny, brilliant, carefully observed description of what happened next. Features an unforgettable cameo of Gerald’s brother, the author Lawrence Durrell (The Alexandria Quartet), as a soggy and arrogant teenager.
Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury
You haven’t read Dandelion Wine? My gosh, this is a classic. As sparkling and fiery as its namesake. American small-town life, as seen through the eyes of Douglas Spaulding, ordinary-extraordinary boy on the edge of growing up.
Here are my favorite “feel-good” movies...not a bad apple in the bunch.
For many of us this clever, romantic thriller was our first taste of Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branaugh. It’s still fun all these years later...
Out of Sight
Stylish, romantic thriller with Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney, directed by Stephen Sonderburg.
Somehow this tear-jerker with Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick, Jr. works...for all its cheesiness, it’s also charming, and guaranteed to lighten your mood.
Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake
Two (unrelated) blockbuster hits by my idol, the director Mira Nair. Endless riches, dazzling beauty, sweetness and shadow. I’ve got them both memorized. And the soundtracks are great, too.
Eat, Drink, Man, Woman
Before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee was already making great movies. This one, about a demanding, brilliant father and his three daughters, is a favorite.
You have to slightly modify your definition of “feel-good”, but for Wong Kar Wai, it’s a privilege. This sumptuous morsel is better experienced than described. If you like it, try the darker Happy Together and In the Mood for Love
The Nine Queens
Intelligent, sexy, tightly plotted movie about con artists on the streets of Buenas Aires...and just when you think you have it all figured out, think again.
A fabulous ride from the first moments until the bittersweet end. Precocious music-crazy teenager gets a dream job writing for Rolling Stone, and goes on the road with the band. With brilliant turns by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Kate Hudson.
A Nick in Time
Available in the “short” movies section of the ITunes music store. A sweet, soulful morality tale with a light touch, set in an inner-city barber shop.
Another short film, this one is free (also from iTunes). Hilarious. I won’t even try to describe it.
Our time is up
A psychiatrist gets a dose of his own medicine. You really have to see this: I think I’ve watched it thirty times, and I still laugh. It’s available in the iTunes short movie section.
The Barbershop series
Sweet, lighthearted comedy set in a Chicago barber shop. The script isn’t going to win the Nobel Prize for Literature but it’s funny, the music is good, and the whole thing goes down well with a cold beer.
Mysterious, lovely, sad, desperately beautiful. Three seasons, five intertwined stories, set in Ho Chi Minh City. Made by a joint Vietnamese-French crew, this movie seems to have got the best of both cultures.
Tiny, fascinating, honest. Two people, twelve songs, one new album, and a heck of a movie. The soundtrack is great, too.
Shakespeare in Love
Clever, entertaining, romantic, dazzling, and sometimes even serious- what more could you want? Lots of theater in-jokes add to the fun.
This ultimate teenaged heartthrob movie ages surprisingly well... Leonardo di Caprio and Claire Danes are stunning.
Sense and Sensibility
Jane Austen, Ang Lee, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, and some wonderful colleagues create two hours of sheer joy.
Breakfast on Pluto
A boy seemingly born for heartbreak finds it...but then moves on to love, self-confidence and redemption. Wierd, fiercely honest, unforgettable.
The Family Stone
Funny, heartwarming, wince-provoking, and delicious visit with a family during the holiday season.
Dave Chapelle’s Block Party
This is the ultimate concert film. Chapelle rented a stage in the middle of his old neighborhood in New York City, invited his favorite groups, and gave a free concert for thousands of people. The music is better than good, it’s awesome. Valery and I sat through the whole thing with our mouths hanging open, and then just stayed in the theater and watched it a second time.
Music and Lyrics
Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore in a sweet, strangely funny comedy about an ‘80’s has-been pop star. If you hate cheesy ‘80s music, might want to steer a wide berth...otherwise, enjoy.
Astoundingly clever and entertaining farce, closely drawn from Commedia del Arte, featuring Heath Ledger and Sienna Miller
The true story of the first all-black lineup in a college basketball team. A brilliant movie, neither soppy nor moralistic, it hits the high notes all the way through. Also has great music, lots of humor, and amazing acting. (Thanks Robin!)
Clever, intelligent, heartwarming, and easy on the eyes. A love story set in the kitchen, with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckart.
Quirky, intelligent love story with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, set in a radiant Paris. The sequel to Before Sunrise - you may want to watch that first.
Buena Vista Social Club
From the opening credits with that immortal music and Ry Cooter’s cool monologue, to the joyous, tear-filled concert at Carnegie Hall, this is an essential film.
Just the first five minutes of this movie, with their unforgettable dialogue-free montage of images and music, raised the hairs on the back of my neck. Will Smith in an unforgettable role as Muhammed Ali, the greatest of all boxers.
The Station Agent
A mysterious man inherits a remote train station from his only friend in the world. Magic ensues. See also The Visitor, from the same writer-director, Tom McCarthy.
Fried Green Tomatoes
Pure fantasy, but no less fun for that. Plucky heroines loving the world and each other in a slightly cleaned-up, idyllic South. A tearjerker.
I’ve worn out the grooves on my DVD copy of this. Jamie Foxx doesn’t just portray Ray Charles: he resurrects him, allowing us to share his journey from childhood poverty to realization of all his dreams...and nightmares. I don’t have to say the music is amazing.
You have to be in the right mood for this movie- a contemplative, quirky, open mood - but if you are, it’s just the thing. A lonely cafe in the middle of the American prairie receives a visit from the most unlikely person imaginable.
Wristcutters: a love story
Now you know I’m crazy. A film about a strange purgatory inhabited entirely by suicides, through which the protagonists wander in an endless, waiting-for-Godot road trip wasteland...is an upper? OK, so I’m crazy. Try it anyway. Bonus if you like the strange Russian rocker sidekick (modeled on the lead singer for Gogol Bordello), and his bizarre songs.
Across the Universe
A whirlwind tour through recent American history, from the late ‘50s to the end of the Vietnam war, crafted into an intricate, colorful, often amazing quasi-musical love story and set - amazingly - entirely to Beatles songs. Easier to enjoy than describe. Bring a solid knowledge of the main events of the ‘60s, or you’re likely to be totally baffled.
Be Kind Rewind
Inventive, sweet, totally improbable, and strangely powerful. This running gag of a movie has no more solidity than a Saturday Night Life skit; it just shouldn’t hold together; yet somehow it does. I found it totally charming. Wonderful performances by Mos’ Def and Jack Black, with a host of supporting worthies.