::Literate Blather::
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Cowboy Up!

10 Westerns That Make You Want to Saddle Up

There’s one thing you’ll notice about our picks – most of them star either Clint Eastwood or Kevin Costner. These are two actors who understand the rugged individualism, fast violence, and morality of the old West. So faster than you can draw your pistol, here are DaRK PaRTY’s picks for the Best Westerns Ever Made.


Synopsis: A retired outlaw named William Munny struggles to run a hog farm after the death of his wife. A young gunslinger makes him an offer to hunt down two cowboys who cut-up a prostitute in a saloon in Big Whiskey. Unable to resist the lure of easy money, Munny coaxes his old partner, Ned, to join him and the gunslinger. They get more than they bargained for when they run into Sheriff “Little Bill” Daggett who uses violent tactics to keep the peace in Big Whiskey.

Release Date: 1992

Big Name Stars: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, and Richard Harris

Director: Clint Eastwood

Best Scene: A chilling scene where Munny stalks into the saloon after Little Bill and his posse has killed Ned and propped his dead body in a coffin outside the entrance. Little Bill is in the middle of a toast when slowly the entire saloon realizes that William Munny stands behind them with a loaded rifle. Munny asks: “Who owns this shithole? You, fat man, speak up.” The bar owner stutters and Munny tells the men around him to clear out and then he shoots him down in cold blood. Little Bill screams: “You just shot an unarmed man!” Munny stares at him and says: “Well, he should have armed himself if he’s gonna decorated his saloon with my dead friend.”

Best Line: “Hell, I even thought I was dead 'til I found out it was just that I was in Nebraska.”

Weird Fact: Richard Harris was allegedly watching “High Plains Drifter” when Eastwood phoned to offer him a role in the film.

In a Nutshell: “Unforgiven” blurs the lines between good and bad by making the mass murdering William Munny a likable sort and Sheriff “Little Bill” Daggett as cold hearted and ruthless. One of the best Westerns ever made and deserving of its Best Picture Oscar in 1992.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Synopsis: The two leaders of the Hole-in-the-Wall gang are the visionary idea guy – Butch – and the man-of-action gunslinger, Sundance. When they rob one too many trains, a special posse is formed to track them down and bring them to justice.

Release Date: 1969

Big Name Stars: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Cloris Leachman

Director: George Roy Hill

Best Scene: Butch is losing his influence with his gang and is challenged to a knife fight by the enormous Harvey. He’s got no chance to win so he interrupts and says he needs to get the rules straight with Harvey. Incredulous, Harvey says: “Rules? In a knife fight?” Butch proceeds to kick him in the nuts and then punch him when he’s down. One of the other gang members rushes to Butch’s side to tell him how he was rooting for him the whole time. Butch puts his arm around him and replies: “Thank you, Flat Nose. That’s what sustained me in my time of need.”

Best Line: “Think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?”

Weird Fact: Jack Lemmon was offered the role of Sundance, but turned it down because of a conflict with another movie.

In a Nutshell: This movie gets panned by many “critics” because of its light hand. But the key is watching the movie as a comedy (in a bumbling sort of way). It’s damn amusing even if it does a grave disservice to history.

Dances With Wolves

Synopsis: A burned-out Union lieutenant named John Dunbar is assigned to an outpost on the western frontier after the Civil War. The post is deserted, except for a lone wolf. Dunbar befriends the creature and then becomes friendly with the local Sioux tribe. He falls in love with a white woman adopted by the tribe as a child. Soon he finds himself relating more to his Indian friends than the white society he came from.

Release Date: 1990

Big Name Stars: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, and Graham Greene

Director: Kevin Costner

Best Scene: The buffalo hunting sequence when a herd of rampaging buffalo thunders across the prairie with dust billowing in the air and Kevin Costner as Lt. Dunbar rides over a ridge and his cowboy hat flies off his head. Riding his horse with the Sioux Indians they begin the hunt. A young Indian hunter wounds a buffalo, but falls off his horse. The buffalo rears up and charges at him. Dunbar turns, assesses, and begins to shoot at the charging bull. One shot. Two shots. Both misses. With a final shot, Dunbar kills and buffalo and it drops dead at the boy’s feet.

Best Line: “Turned injun, didn't ya!”

Weird Fact: Graham Greene’s character, Kicking Bird, is the step-father of Stands With A Fist even though Mary McDonnell is older than Greene in real life.

In a Nutshell: “Dances With Wolves” is Costner’s best film and while it gets heavy on its criticism of manifest destiny, it is one of the most emotional and impactful westerns ever made.

High Plains Drifter

Synopsis: A lone, unnamed gunfighter rides into the town of Lago. He is hired to kill three outlaws who were just released from prison and want revenge on the town for betraying them. The townspeople are embezzling money from the nearby gold mine and when their sheriff discovered the crime they hired the three outlaws to kill him. Then they turned them in and they went to prison. The stranger, however, has more than a passing resemblance to the dead sheriff. The stranger gets his revenge – on the outlaws and on the townspeople.

Release Date: 1973

Big Name Stars: Clint Eastwood, Stacey Bridges

Director: Clint Eastwood

Best Scene: After riding into Lago – the townspeople gazing at him with fear in their eyes – watch the stranger enter the barber shop. The nervous barber slathers cream on the stranger’s whiskers and covers him with a white sheet. Three toughs from the saloon, bored, approach the stranger looking for trouble. They get it when they spin his chair and the stranger shoots all three of them – one of them falling back through the shop window.

Best Line: “You're going to look pretty silly with that knife sticking out of your ass.”

Weird Fact: The names on the tombstones in the Lago graveyard bear the names of directors that Eastwood had worked with in the passed including Don Siegel, Brian G. Hutton and Sergio Leone.

In a Nutshell: “High Plains Drifter” is all western and part ghost story. It’s the tale of a sheriff betrayed by the people he was hired to protect. Coming back from the dead, he gets his revenge on everybody.

Open Range

Synopsis: A group of free grazing cattlemen end up in the town Harmonville and run into trouble with a corrupt lawman and the rich rancher he works for. The cattlemen don’t want trouble, but are pushed to the edge. And finally, the rancher murders one of them and severely wounds another. The two remaining cattlemen, Boss Spearman and Charley Waite, end up in a murderous showdown with the rancher and his minions. But not before Charley falls in love with Sue Barlow, the town’s doctor’s sister.

Release Date: 2003

Big Name Stars: Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Annette Bening

Director: Kevin Costner

Best Scene: In the open street of town, Charley and Boss face off against four bad guys. As they stand sizing each other up, Charley stalks toward the murderous, bowl-hatted Butler (the toughest of the bad guys) and says: “You the one who killed our friend?” The Butler, with a smirk, answers: “That’s right. I shot the boy, too. And I enjoyed it.” Without another word, Charley shoots him from point blank range right in the forehead. The Butler drops like a sack of bricks.

Best Line: “Men are gonna get killed here today, Sue, and I’m gonna kill them.”

Weird Fact: Costner gave up a role in “Kill Bill: Volume 1” to film “Open Range.”

In a Nutshell: Open Range” was a sleeper that somehow failed to do well at the box office. It’s a shame because the movie a mortality play focused on Charley – an ex-gunslinger who regretted his passed to live in harmony and freedom on the open range. When pushed, however, he has to tap into his skills as a gunslinger to save himself and his friends. The movie features one of the most intense and violent gunfights ever (see above).

The Magnificent Seven

Synopsis: A ruthless band of outlaws terrorize a Mexican village. The town fathers tire of the violence and decide to hire a group of gunmen to fight for them. They end up with seven gunslingers who decide to defend the village for various reasons. They train the village to fight off the gang of more than 100 bandits.

Release Date: 1960

Big Name Stars: Yul Brenner, James Coburn, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn and Eli Wallach

Director: John Sturges

Best Scene: When the bandits ride into the village to get food for the winter they are confronted – one by one – by the seven gunslingers. At first, the bandit leader, Calvera, seems more irritated than concerned by the boldness of these strangers. But then the shooting starts and he starts to see his men drop and his irritation turns to rage.

Best Line: “We deal in lead, friend.”

Weird Fact: This legendary western is a remake of the Japanese film “The Seven Samurai.”

In a Nutshell: Has there ever been a more star-studded western? The beauty of “The Magnificent Seven” is the direction of John Sturges who utilizes his all-star cast to perfection.


Synopsis: A group of old friends end up together in Silverado for various reasons. The town is in the hands of a corrupt sheriff and his men. Finally, the friend band together and fight the bad guys and bring peace and justice to Silverado

Release Date: 1985

Big Name Stars: Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Kevin Costner, Danny Glover, John Cleese, Brian Dennehy, Jeff Goldblum, Rosanna Arquette

Director: Lawrence Kasdan

Best Scene: It doesn’t get much better than the open two minute of this film. The camera drifts over the cramped and dirty confines of an old cabin – sunlight sluicing through the cracks in the walls. It’s dark inside and you can hear a crow squawk in the distance. A horse whinnies and then the door bursts open and a cowboy begins firing two guns. Emmett fires back, killing him. Then bullets tear through the walls followed by beams of sunlight. Emmett dives to the floor. He ends up killing three men – one of which falls through his roof. Emmett creeps outside of the small cabin and into a panoramic view of the mountains and canyons of the old West (see below).

Best Line: “We're gonna give you a fair trial, followed by a first class hanging.”

Weird Fact: Kevin Costner received one of the starring roles because director Kasdan ended up cutting all his scenes from the movie “The Big Chill.”

In a Nutshell: Another star-studded western. “Silverado” had a throwback flavor to it and helped revive the western for mainstream audiences.

The Outlaw Josey Wales

Synopsis: A farmer who had his family murdered by Union soldiers joins a group of Confederate raiders during the Civil War. After the war ends, he travels west and becomes an outlaw. He seeks vengeance of those who killed his family, but even through his violent ways, Josey Wales yearns for peace.

Release Date: 1976

Big Name Stars: Clint Eastwood, Sondra Locke, John Vernon

Director: Clint Eastwood

Best Scene: Josey rides on a raft to the other side of the Missouri River when a dispatch of Union soldiers shows up on the other bank. Rather than run, he takes a short nap as the raft loads up with soldiers to pursue him. The soldiers expect Josey to try and pick them off, but instead he shoots the tow lie of the raft and the raft and soldiers go whisking off down the rapids.

Best Line: “Yeah, well, I always heard there were three kinds of suns in Kansas, sunshine, sunflowers, and sons-of-bitches.”

Weird Fact: “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson called “The Outlaw Josey Wales” the greatest western of all time.

In a Nutshell: “The Outlaw Josey Wales” was Eastwood’s coming of age as a director. The plot is often convoluted, but the consequence of violence that became a major theme in his future movie making gets its first try out here.

Pale Rider

Synopsis: A preacher rides into a gold mining village in California. The miners are being forced out of their stakes by a rich landowner intent of stealing their claims. The preacher steps in to protect the miners from the landowner, his corrupt sheriff, and his thugs.

Release Date: 1985

Big Name Stars: Clint Eastwood, Michael Moriarty, Carrie Snodgrass, Chris Penn

Director: Clint Eastwood

Best Scene: A young girl is recited a passage from the Bible to practice her reading as she sits in the kitchen with her mother. Horse and horsemen begin to ride into the village. The girl pauses and her mother urges her to continue reading. She recites a passage from “Revelations” about the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse – Death riding on a pale horse. As she says the words, the Preacher rides into view on a white horse.

Best Line: “Nothing like a good piece of hickory.”

Weird Fact: Eastwood pays homage to the movie “Shane” through “Pale Rider.” Many of the scenes and plotlines echo the older movie, including the end when the girl shouts “I love you” to the departing preacher.

In a Nutshell: Another ghost story and western combination by Eastwood. This one, however, is spiced with religious undertones that give the movie incredible depth and mystery.

The Searchers

Synopsis: Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards returns to Texas after the war hoping for peace at last. But when his niece is kidnapped during a Comanche raid, he becomes obsessed with finding her. He searches for years until his nephew begins to realize that Ethan’s hatred for Indians is driving him more than his love for his niece. After the girl has become an Indian – Ethan’s quest changes to become one where he will kill her instead.

Release Date: 1956

Big Name Stars: John Wayne, Natalie Wood

Director: John Ford

Best Scene: A group of cowboys walk out of the fog and through a moor carrying rifles. Crickets chirp in the night as they slosh through the water. They come upon a cold campsite where the Indian kidnappers had recently been. Ethan, with a scowl, glares at the man next to him. “Any more orders, captain?” he says with disdain. “Yes,” the captain says. “We’ll keep on going.” They hear a bird and swing their guns into action, but it is a false alarm. “Well?” Ethan says. The captain, annoyed, says: “You want to quit, Ethan?” Ethan answers, “That’ll be the day” and stalks off.

Best Line: “Figure a man's only good for one oath at a time; I took mine to the Confederate States of America.”

Weird Fact: John Wayne named his son Ethan in honor of his role as Ethan Edwards in the movie.

In a Nutshell: The western that all other westerns are compared to. It is that good. John Wayne as the racist old soldier turns in his finest performance ever.

Read why "3:10 to Yuma" would never ever make this list

Read "Our Man Clint" about the 5 Best and 5 Worst Clint Eastwood movies

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Essay: We All Die

In the dead of night, in those chilling hours when trees scream and stillness suffocates, I awoke roughly at the dream of my own violent death.

It was one of those disconcerting nightmares.

I was in the suburbs – the woods – as terrorists attacked Boston. I ran into an open field to get a better view of the black clouds rising up from the ruined city. An attack helicopter streaked toward me. I realized at the last moment that it wasn’t an ally. I dove behind a tree – a sapling really – and the copter hovered, blades whirling, loud.

And then it fired at me; bullets ripping up the turf.

I woke before the bullets struck me.

I lay in bed, heart thumping, in those long hours before dawn when being awake is a bad thing. It was the witching time when imagination takes shape and every sound and movement becomes your impending death.

It’s primal in the dead of night. Mortality feels real. Death – so often ignored – whispers terrible things.

And you’re afraid.

I can rationalize death. In fact, I probably ponder about death more than most people. It can be an awful thrill to sit and think about death. You can feel the change in your body – the slow panic as you realize that you will die. Death is frightening on such a biological level – living things don’t want to die and will fight – often violently – to remain alive.

It’s one of the reasons I don’t believe in god (in heaven or Valhalla or reincarnation). If people truly – through and through – believed that life was just the first step in a journey that continued with death then why would living things fight so hard to remain alive?

If death was next – if the afterlife existed – then why wouldn’t we joyously celebrate death? Why wouldn’t a person’s funeral be as happy and mirthful as their birthdays? Is it because instinctively we understand that death is the end? Is it because the promise of an afterlife is nothing but a fairy tale to soften the harsh reality that is death?

I believe that when I die my body will rot and the being that I was will cease to exist – forever.

I have friends that find this belief troubling – and sad. I understand why they think so. Most of them are religious (on the surface anyway) and clutch at the biggest hope that a belief in god brings: eternal life. When they die, they think they will go somewhere else and meet up with their dead relatives and friends.

But isn’t that foolish? Isn’t it a lie?

Don’t all of us – every one of us – know deep down that death is an end? It’s why we mourn. It’s why we weep at funerals. It’s the reason why we fear disease and car wrecks on the freeway. It’s why we’re frightened when we wake up in the dead of night after dreaming about dying.

I do take comfort in a couple of things. One, I was dead before -- before I was born. I didn’t exist until my birth and when I die I will go back to that place or that state. I don’t remember it. So how bad can it really be? Two, death is normal. In fact, it is what we were born to do. It’s what makes life so damn precious.

By ignoring death or pretending that it’s a step to another dimension, aren’t we actually belittling life? Reducing it?

We shouldn’t take this short time we have for granted. We should recognize it for the beautiful and special gift that it is. And the first step in doing that is realizing that it is fleeting – and that it will eventually come to an end.

Death is final and can be scary – but only if you let be so.

Read the essay "The Undiscovered Country" here

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Monday, January 28, 2008
A Menu of Tasty Books
DP’s Best Books from the Last Seven Years

Since 2001, DaRK PaRTY has kept a written record of the books we have consumed. Generally, we like our books prepared medium well (seasoned with bold spices) and served with sides dishes of roasted sweet potatoes and steamed broccoli. We also like crusty French bread smeared with butter and a large goblet of a Burgundy.

Our menu of books runs eclectic. For example, our fiction tastes go from classics like Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to genre thrillers like “Echo Burning” by Lee Child to modern literature like Jennifer Haigh’s “Mrs. Kimble.”

But we also sample quite a bit of non-fiction, volumes of short stories and poetry, and lately we’ve sunk our teeth into graphic novels (fried and slathered with hot sauce).

Obviously we can only comment on the books that we digest, but here is an attempt to provide a tasty menu of the best books that we’ve eaten in the past six and a half years. We encourage readers to add their own recommendations for books that dazzled their taste buds.

The most difficult part of this exercise was narrowing down each category to only five books each.


  • “The Straw Men” (2002) by Michael Marshall. Paranoia and conspiracy intersect in this debut thriller.
  • “The Deep Blue Good-bye” (1964) by John D. MacDonald. The first of the Travis McGee novels is one of the best.
  • “Blue Edge of Midnight” (2002) by Jonathon King. Ex-cop Max Freeman moves into the Everglades to get away from his past and becomes caught up in a search for a child killer.
  • “The Butcher’s Boy” (1982) by Thomas Perry. The adventures of a resourceful and relentless hitman.
  • “Echo Burning” (2001) by Lee Child. A hard-boiled thriller about a drifter who saves a married woman from her rich husband in the Texas panhandle.


  • “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1940) by Ernest Hemingway. The story of Robert Jordan, an American helping the communists fight the fascist government during the Spanish Civil War.
  • “Madam Bovary” (1857) by Gustave Flaubert. The wife of a country doctor searches in vain for happiness.
  • “David Copperfield” (1850) by Charles Dickens. The life story of David Copperfield is well worth the effort.
  • “Pride and Prejudice” (1813) by Jane Austen. Perhaps the greatest love story ever told.
  • Revolutionary Road” (1961) by Richard Yates. The destruction of a suburban family in the 1950s.


  • “House of Sand and Fog” (1999) by Andre Dubus III. What happens when three flawed and misunderstood people collide over ownership of a house.
  • “The Hours” (1998) by Michael Cunningham. A contemporary retelling of Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway.”
  • “Old School” (2003) by Tobias Wolff. A prep school teenager enters writing contests to meet Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway.
  • “The Feast of Love” (2000) by Charles Baxter. Multiple stories converge to paint a portrait of modern love.
  • “The Road” (2006) by Cormac McCarthy. A man and his son try to survive in post-apocalyptic America.


  • “In the Heart of the Sea” (2000) by Nathaniel Philbrick. The fate of the crew of the whale ship Essex after being sunk by an 85-foot Sperm whale in the South Pacific. The story that inspired “Moby Dick.”
  • “Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century” (1999) by Jonathan Glover. A probe into the brutal history of the 20th century from Nazi Germany to Stalin and Mao to Rwanda.
  • “An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America” (2003) by Henry Wiencek. A compelling argument that George Washington came to despise slavery and what it meant for America.
  • “Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero” (2004) by Leigh Montville. A warts and all biography of the greatest hitter in baseball.
  • “The God Delusion” (2006) by Richard Dawkins. The best book ever written about why there is no god.


  • “The Consolations of Philosophy” (2000) by Alain de Botton. An accessible introduction to the philosophies of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Montaigne, Socrates, Epicurus, and Seneca.
  • “Romance in the Roaring Forties and Other Stories” (1986 collection) by Damon Runyon. Be transformed back to Depression era New York City.
  • “Dubliners” (1916) by James Joyce. Perhaps the greatest collection of short stories ever published.
  • “Nine Horses” (2002) by Billy Collins. A collection of his poetry.
  • “Alex” (2006) by Mark Kalesniko. A graphic novel about a washed up artist returning to his hometown to start over again.

Read about 10 Very Strange Ways Famous Authors Died here

Read about 10 Movies that are actually better than the Books they were based on here

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Saturday, January 26, 2008
Random Musings on Hollywood While Waiting for the Academy Awards to be Cancelled

  • The new Ironman movie starring Robert Downey Jr. – set to hit theaters on May 2 – looks like a flop. While the trailer shows Downey eating up the screen with his deadpan humor, the premise that he’s kidnapped to assemble a missile and instead creates “Iron Man” armor to escape is – well – right out of the Funny Pages. I’m predicting a movie closer to the lame factor of “Fantastic Four” than the wow factor of “X-Men.”
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman ripped through Hollywood in 2007 with three unmatched performances in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” “The Savages,” and “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Yet he was only nominated for best actor in a supporting role for “Charlie Wilson’s War.” One wonders who Hoffman managed to piss off not to get the nod for a best actor nomination. Maybe it’s because he looks like he rarely bathes or combs his hair.
  • The 2005 film “Hard Candy” is an underrated gem. The movie begins as a story of a pedophile that picks up a young girl at a coffee shop and then does a complete 180. It’s a magnificent example of how to pull the rug out of from under an audience. But not only is the plot constantly twisting and the tension ratcheting up, the performances of the two leads – Patrick Wilson and Ellen Page – are deep and complex. If you haven’t seen it, you should do yourself a favor and rent it.
  • I got blasted for a post I did more than a year ago called “The Yawn-Inducing Films of Stanley Kubrick” where I opined quite articulately that “2001: A Space Odyssey” sucked. I still stand by my point that Kubrick’s esoteric films were made for himself and for nobody else resulting in overly long, boring movies. But I don’t question the man’s intelligence or his desire to try and create something more. I just believe he failed. However, this is a link to one of the best explanations of “2001” that I’ve ever seen. It’s done in flash video and is quite entertaining – something that Kubrick never was.
  • Sad news: the death of Heath Ledger. The trailer for “The Dark Knight,” the sequel to the hit “Batman Begins” features Ledger as the legendary villain The Joker. It looks like it could have been a breakout role for the young actor who showed so much promise in “Brokeback Mountain.”
  • One great aspect of the Web is the humor – the ability to tap into the creative talents of geeks, freaks, and humorists from all over the world. Case in point: Hitler and the Cowboys. It was made by the folks at Cracked.com (who apparently can’t spell the word “lose”). But if you are a fan of football and the NFL – then this one will have you in tears.
  • The movie “Gone, Baby, Gone” should have been nominated for an Academy Award for best picture. While Casey Affleck was miscast as the lead (he just looked way too young for the role), he did a remarkable job with what assets he had. I never gave up on Ben Affleck and now I’m looking forward to the next movie he decides to direct.
  • Is it me or is Christian Bale creepy (see above)?
  • M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” is set for release in June of this year. Talk about a director that is in desperate need of a hit. His last film “Lady in the Water” was terrible and one of the biggest disappointments of 2006. Before that was “The Village,” which felt like a CBS Sunday Night Movie. He’s yet to match the promise he showed after his blockbuster “The Sixth Sense.” I’m already suspicious of “The Happening” because it stars Mark Wahlberg and John Leguizamo, two actors who are known for their ability to pick bad movies.
  • The bloody rampage known as the new “Rambo” movie is getting lousy reviews, which isn’t a surprise. But it does remind me that the first Rambo movie “First Blood” (see below) wasn’t that good either. It started off with promise and the action sequences in the Oregon woods were outstanding. But once Stallone moved out of the woods and back into civilization (and starting trying to act while preaching), the movie went downhill fast. Not to mention that he repeats the urban legend that Vietnam vets were spit on by protesters -- which has never been documented.


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Friday, January 25, 2008
Knock Your Socks Off Books -- Part 2
(Yup, we promised you a second part to our question: What book changed your perspective on life and why? Here's another roll call of our favorite people tackling this provocative question with the depth and insight you expect from DaRK PaRTY. Don’t forget to read our First Part either.)

Billy Conway, musician and former drummer for Morphine and Treat Her Right: “The Philosophy of Civilization” by Albert Schweitzer. The title is a wee grandiose but it was written in a different cultural time that begged for answers. For one thing he observes that at a certain point after the printing press and wider dissemination of philosophical knowledge was available, the shamanesque nature of philosophy fell prey to endless critique of the other positions and the search for meaning was left unattended while we put faith in the academy of critique.... as if the meaning and purpose were there if one merely read enough. More importantly he digs deep into making the case that happiness and fulfillment occur through satisfying an innate inner urge to be helpful and worthy as a communal citizen. He argues that satisfying your own needs is not a way to achieve happiness, but rather that good ole feeling of doing something for somebody else is where our greatest good lies. Still learning from that book.

Tony Carrillo, cartoonist (F-Minus): The book that changed my view of comedy more than any other is “The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams. His perspective on the world was unlike anything I had ever read. When describing an army of spaceships about to destroy the Earth, Douglas says they "hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't." This backwards view of life was something I wanted to emulate in my comic strip F-Minus.

Laurie Foos, author (“Before Elvis There Was Nothing”): I wouldn't say this book changed my perspective on life, per se, but it certainly changed — irrevocably -- my perspective on literature. And that book is Nikolai Gogol's The Nose.” The metaphor is brilliantly sustained, both funny and oddly moving in parts, and it taught me what metaphor could accomplish. It completely changed the way I thought about writing, and it's one I re-read once a year.

Judith Wilt, Boston College professor: Let me cite two books: Ayn Rand's “Atlas Shrugged” got me thinking about and fighting with its ideas in my late teens: how could I be so drawn in and yet so resistant? How could her world seem so seamless in the reading and so hard to credit as I looked at my actual world? And Charles Dickens's “Our Mutual Friend” made me commit to graduate student life -- a book read in my mid-twenties that got me out of the “high” vs. “popular” literature dichotomy I had brought from college life and made me feel there could be a place for me in the 'profession.'

Adian Moher, blogger (“A Dribble of Ink”): I hate to sound cliché, but I've got to go with J.R.R. Tolkien's “The Hobbit,” a classic of the genre and the single novel that really set me on the path towards Fantasy. “The Hobbit” helped me realize that sense of adventure that is lurking around any corner as long as you're willing to look for it and take a hold of it yourself.

Bilbo, as a Hobbit, was content to let life come to him, to laze away the days and aspire to nothing more than smoke his pipe weed, quaff some ale and relax. Now, this doesn't sound like a terrible life, in fact, it sounds rather tranquil and perfect, but Bilbo, through Gandalf's insistence, reached out beyond that life and found a whole other world of adventure that existed, just there for the taking.

I live in a place very similar to Hobbiton: a small, sleepy little place that is absolutely perfect for lazing away the days. But Bilbo taught me to look outside, to take a look at what else the world has to offer. Without Bilbo I wonder if perhaps I would have discovered my lust for travel, if I would have seen as much of the world as I have. Travel has taken hold of me and threatens never to let go as I keep looking for a dragon to plunder, a mountain to save and goblins to flee.

Now I just need to gather some good friends for the ride.

Gretchen Rubin, author and blogger (“The Happiness Project”): The first is Wayne Koestenbaum’s “Jackie Under My Skin.” It showed me that a biographer could tackle the study of a life in a completely idiosyncratic way. When I started to write my own biography of Winston Churchill, having read that book made me aware of the possibilities of breaking out of the standard chronological form.

Jess Myers, poet: There have been several books that changed my perspective on life after I read them. I often find myself imitating a style as I'm reading something new. David Sedaris' “Me Talk Pretty One Day” inspired me to change majors in college from vocal performance to creative writing. “To Kill a Mockingbird” (by Harper Lee) was the first book I ever loved and couldn't put down. I kind of skated through English classes before that and never really got much enjoyment out of the books that we were forced to read in junior high. That might have been the one that really opened my eyes to a lifetime of loving words. From there it was “Slaughterhouse Five” (by Kurt Vonnegut) and “East of Eden” and “The Grapes of Wrath” (by John Steinbeck) and there are a handful of women writers that I really enjoy for their wry humor and unique but sort of unfeminine perspectives: Dorothy Parker, Flannery O’Connor, and Joyce Carol Oates. I like the gritty dirty feminine voice.

Dave Zeltserman, blogger and author (“Bad Thoughts”): I don’t think any single book changed my perspective on life, although I’m sure the thousands of books I’ve read have had some influence on the way I look at things. The one book that probably had the biggest impact on my life since I’m now writing crime novels, was “I, the Jury” by Mickey Spillane, because that book got me hooked on crime fiction.

Kevin C. Fitzpatrick, author and president of the Dorothy Parker Society: This has to be “Here Is New York” by E.B. White. My friend gave it to me as a gift the year I moved to New York. I have read and re-read it every year for the last 16. I read it whenever I get down about the city or about what it means to be a New Yorker. The book took on new importance to me in the days after 9/11, when I found strength in it. For those that don't know, White wrote it in 1948 as a travel piece; he was living in Maine and came into the city and observed his former home as a visitor would. What it has become is a testament about what New York means, and what I draw from it is why we New Yorkers want to live and work here. It is so light and so smooth, it really is the best thing ever written about this city. My favorite sentence, which I quote all the time, is "No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky." I have since given the book as a gift to about a dozen people when they move to the city. And I'm ready to send it one who just left for Los Angeles, to remind him what he gave up.

Rebecca Traquair, poet: This is actually a conversation I've had with any number of people. The answers never cease to interest me. My most influential book is actually a slim volume of aphorisms by an American writer named Jean Toomer. It's called “Essentials” and was originally published in 1931.

Toomer's most famous book, “Cane,” made his reputation as a Harlem Renaissance writer, but his own spiritual questing led him away from that vein. He lost popularity, but he was true to himself. “Essentials” is a distillation of his ideas and ideals, a rejection of prevailing standards and classifications, an absolutely revolutionary book for his time and for ours. I found the book almost by accident while working on a university project, and this is one of the reasons I am a great believer in the happiness of accidents.

I can't quote directly some of the phrases that grabbed me so completely, as my copy is currently on extended loan to my friend Jadon (I have at least 4 of Jadon's books right now, so this is only fair). I can attempt to paraphrase though... “All our lives, we have been waiting for an event that will gloriously upset us. All our lives, we have been waiting to live.”

Reading “Essentials” gloriously upset my thinking, or at the very least, it gave me a framework for thoughts that I had been formulating but had not yet been able to put into words. More than any other book I have ever read, “Essentials” made me consider exactly what it means to be human, to be an individual, and to be part of something greater than oneself. It is well worth seeking out.

L. Kenyon, writer: When I was 22, I landed a terribly shitty job in a horribly shitty strip mall. I was interviewed by a man who had bad hair and small teeth. He'd driven an hour north from Albany, New York to meet with me. I didn't like him very much and I could tell he felt the same but they needed someone to fill the position of store jerk. The last guy just stop showing up. Soon I was working eleven-hour days alone and was seeing less than that number of customers a week. It was my first introduction to corporate bureaucracy. I used to get an automated call three times a week from the mother office. I would stand at the dusty register in sagging khakis and recite the meager sales totals into the mouthpiece.

For the first month I did everything by code, fearful of a few mentioned surprise visits from corporate. Then, as the days began to tick on and the hours grew longer, I broke. I went from rushing an occasional cigarette out the backdoor and rubbing myself down with soap afterward, to lighting up out front beside the window sale signs for Lung Power and C Vitamins. Weeks turned to months. I starting hauling my TV and Playstation in but a little while I gave up the hassle. Friends would come visit and hang around in the back room for hours but I was lonely. I was bored. I was miserable.

Then one afternoon I was doing laundry at my mother's when I noticed a box of books by the door. "Throwing them out," she said. "Why not burn them," I said. "Don't get smart," she said. I'd been avoiding just that for twenty-two years. As I stood there looking down into that box, I realized that I had never read a single book in its entirety.

I had not read "The Cat in the Hat" or even "Green Eggs and Ham." Did not would not read Vonnegut, Salinger, or any text in hand. I faked book reports with lame retorts and silly see-through lies. I'd watch the movie or cheat, and then fail with indignant surprise. No Shakespeare, no Poe, not even Tolkien or B. Potter, No Dick, No Jane, and magazines? Bah, couldn't be bothered.

A friend of mine, Jen, would visit me at home and shake her head saying things like, "I mean you're a smart guy, why don't you read?" "Why?" I'd ask setting down the controller and taking another hit from the bowl, "Why don't you read to me?" And it went on like this until that afternoon at my mother's. Boredom will make a man do strange things. In this case, it led to a whole new everything.

I bent and took the box with me. I brought it to work the next day and sifted through it. I pulled out “Insomnia” by Stephen King and set it down on the desk. I stared at the cover and sighed. "Reading," I scoffed. If I WERE to read, I figured I'd give this one a shot
considering I liked a handful of King book based movies (only but a handful mind you) and it was also a familiar name; it had been hiding the lower half of my mother's face for the greater part of my childhood.

A few hours passed and the book still sat on the desk untouched. So finally giving in with nothing to do and no visitors, I opened the first page. It's been almost eight years, and I've never stopped turning them. Thank you Mom.

I was fired a few months later. I was in the back room in blue jeans with my feet up on the desk and reading “The Catcher in the Rye” (by J.D. Salinger) for the first time when the dreaded surprise visit from corporate finally happened. I took my books with me.

Knock Your Socks Off Books - Part 1

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Thursday, January 24, 2008
Knock Your Socks Off Books -- Part 1
(DaRK PaRTY is a book junkie – a quiet, but ferocious jones for paper cuts and that damn smell when you open a brand-new book. We’ve got problems – we’ve come to terms with it. We wanted to know what other readers read, but mostly we wanted an answer to this question: “What book changed your perspective on life and why?” So we asked some of our favorite people and these are the answers they came back with. Read Part 2 here.)

R.A. Salvatore, best-selling fantasy author, co-founder 38 Studios: If we're talking about the work of other authors, it would have to be “The Hobbit” (by J.R.R. Tolkien). I read it during a blizzard in 1978 and it was the first time since my childhood that I actually read a book for enjoyment. School had all but beaten the love of reading out of me by that point, but Tolkien gave it back. That book made me want to read again, and eventually led me to write.

For my own work, “Mortalis,” the fourth book of my DemonWars series, changed my perspective, or rather, I was writing it while I was going through a great change of perspective. My brother, my best friend in the world, was dying of cancer while I was at work on that book, which happens to be about grief. It was very cathartic, for sure, but the truth is, I haven't even had the guts t
o go back and read it, these eight years later.

The story gets even more compelling for me, more introspective. With that book, I finally got to work with my dead friend, Keith Parkinson. I consider him to be one of the greatest artists the fantasy genre has ever known. The work he did on “Mortalis” touched me deeply, because I saw within Brother Francis, my brother, and the woman, Jilseponie, standing behind him very much resembles both my sister-in-law and my wife. The painting hangs in my office at 38 Studios and I can't look at it without thinking of my brother, about what he went through, about our discussions, knowing what was coming. Also, we lost Keith to cancer, way too young (he was around the same age as my brother when my brother died).

I can't look at that painting without being reminded of making the most of every day, because you just never know what's coming.

Elizabeth Miller, scholar and Dracula expert: I would have to say Dracula” by Bram Stoker, published in 1897. It opened up for me an entirely new field of study and research. During the course of those activities, I have traveled widely, lectured at many universities and other venues, and met some fascinating people.

Nigel Patterson, president of the Elvis Information Network (EIN):The Magic of Thinking Big” by David Schwartz. In my early 20’s I just couldn’t get enough of this book. I read it and re-read it several times. Its message of positive thinking and not limiting one’s self was just what I needed at the time and helped shape my thinking into something more balanced and forward focused.

Harry Bliss, cartoonist (Bliss): “Raise High the Roof Beams” by J.D. Salinger (more of a long short story). This story is simply perfect. The innocence and wonder of the main character really connected to me as did most of the characters in Salinger's work. It's funny and very dark and after reading this story, the world got a hell of a lot more complicated for me.

Steve Almond, author of “(Not that You Asked) Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions”: “Slaughterhouse Five” (by Kurt Vonnegut). Good God, there's not a more seditious book you could read in this age of pointless, feelingless violence. It was like someone blew up some love dynamite in my skull.

Jessica Fox-Wilson, poet and blogger (“9 to 5 Poet”): The book that has changed my perspective the most was “The Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison. I was 16 when I read it, when my English teacher assigned it to me because I had already read the assigned "African American Literature" in our class at my last high school. This was the first book that really opened my eyes to the racial politics in the U.S. After reading it, I knew I would never be able to look at racism or living with difference in the same way again.

Jeff Belanger, author and founder of GhostVillage: Boy” by Roald Dahl -- the autobiography of his childhood. Roald Dahl is my literary hero. “Boy” taught me that there is a good story around every corner, under every rock, and certainly within every chocolate bar -- sometimes you just have to stand on your head to see it.

Dave H. Schleicher, blogger and author of “The Thief Maker”: I was required to read Toni Morrison's Jazz” for an African American Literature course during my second year of college. It was the first bit of serious literary fiction that I took to task reading seriously. It opened my eyes to the fact that I didn't need to write just genre fiction. I could attempt something more artistic, more stylish, and more ambitious with my own writing. The book had a profoundly haunting effect on me because of the style in which it was written, and it opened my imagination to possibilities I hadn't previously considered.

Paul Sinclair, lead singer of Get the Led Out: It's an interesting question because until a few years ago I don't believe ANY book had ever changed my perspective on life.

This one truly fits the bill though, “The Power of Intention” by Dr. Wayne W. Dyer. I've always had an interest in self improvement and spirituality. I've also always been a real logic-driven person. My more science-minded approach to things has always prevented me from going too far down the religious path. In “The Power of Intention” Dr. Dyer sort of melds the two. With stories, humor and science (sometimes basic quantum physics, but don't be scared) he describes what I've come to believe are concrete laws in our universe. The way I view the world and go after achieving my goals has changed so dramatically for the positive I can't begin to explain. Some of the concepts in this book are fairly obvious, others not so. Maybe it's Dr. Dyer's humor? Maybe it's the balance of science and god? Or maybe it was just the right time in my life for me to hear it, but something clicked.

I'll just give one example of the kind of thing that really drew me in to this book. Dr. Dyer tells a story about a young woman driving on her way to work and approaches a toll booth. The toll taker says “Go on through, the man ahead of you paid your toll.” “There must be some mistake; I don't know that man," said the young woman very confused. The toll taker explained, “The man said to tell the next person that came through to have a nice day.” The woman was so moved by this random act of kindness that she decided she would do this same thing every day on her way to work, “after all it's only 25 cents.”

Dr. Dyer goes on to explain how acts of kindness raise endorphin levels in the body and in turn strengthen your immune system. Also, not only does this benefit the person receiving the act of kindness, but the person performing it and those observing it as well. You can see how far reaching this can be from one thoughtful, random act.

It's this kind of thinking where the age old “do unto others” mantra is proven to have real, quantifiable health benefits that had me wanting to delve even further. It's hard for me to write this without feeling like I'm coming off too new age. I'm a guy who's always looking for a witty, sarcastic punch line in every conversation. Life to me can seem at times like a series of SNL skits; particularly where religion and spirituality are concerned.

So, no, I haven't “found god.” No, I won't be taking flying lessons with no interest in learning to land... and no, I won't be found naked in a field preparing for the mother ship anytime soon. However, “The Power of Intention” is a good read and if you approach it with an open mind... who knows?

Knock Your Socks Off Books - Part 2

How to fix "Our" Reading Problem

Books as a Time Machine

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