21 September, 2018

Eighteen Books I Spent My Summer Reading

What better way to start the summer than with neuroscience? Longtime Pariah's Syntax followers know that I'm too big a book snob to fool around with thrillers, courtroom dramas, or anything by Dan Brown, which is why so few people recommend stuff to me — they think I'll snub their picks. At least this is my suspicion.

In any event, under my own advisement and typical degree of enthusiasm for promising reading material, I went all in on brain food (pun intended), with Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?: A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain, by Bradley Voytek, who pair neuroscientific fact with fictional flesh-eaters for educational effect. The Zombie Research Society should've been my first stop, looking for information to help me with my novel; although, I can at least boast that there's nothing I've written so far, using my existing knowledge of biological science, that needs rewriting.

I followed this kind-of fanciful material with a more grounded book by David Eagleman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. If you want to know why schizophrenics can tickle themselves, why low-interest Christmas banking clubs are popular, or how real-time brain imaging can curb impulse eating, Incognito might be the book for you.

Despite my interest in the subject matter, neither of these titles thrilled me, unfortunately. Drown, on the other hand, the debut short-story collection by the peerless Dominican American author Junot Díaz was an unsentimental look at immigrant life, alive itself with Díaz's vibrant prose, that I finished in a day and a half. Its stories made me think seriously about the voice of one of my novel's characters, who's also bilingual. More than an excellent read, Drown also gave me the reassurance to stay true to that character's inner dialog, irrespective of which language it flows in.

With Milan Kundera's earthy and profound novel of ideas, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (translated from the Czech by Michale Henry Heim), which masquerades as a love story, I shaved another book off of the "Reality Hunger" cagegory of my Amazon wish list. "NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE," touts the cover of my 1984 edition, but I'd like to know how that happened. The book is internalized and ruminative. (I love its passages meditating on the concept of kitsch.) However sexy, the film has got to be a shallow simulacrum.

Next on my ''Reality Hunger" list was the Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. Wow. When the seemingly freewheeling school-days narrative of Barnes's novel, having ratcheted up with a species of intrigue in the narrator's later years, lifted its final veil and lay bare the true import of all that'd come before, it nearly stole my breath away.

Moving down the list of Booker Prize-winners in the prison library, I lit on Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin. It's a gorgeous, emotionally exhausting epic. Afterward, the conceptual majesty of Exit West: A Novel, by Mohsin Hamid, rejuvenated me. I'd read an excerpt from it in The New Yorker a while back and was still stunned by the beauty of this magical-realist tale of lovers on the run. Thanks go out to V.V., who ordered me this phenomenal text. Every page transported me.

And Emily: I know you selected the Kevin Brockmeier book Things That Fall from the Sky because it was on my wish list, but I really enjoyed critiquing its stories with you. In the end, it was almost like the first copy you ordered me hadn't even been destroyed in that Crossroads riot. Almost.

Kat the Human also got me a couple of books this summer. The first was the Raymond Carver collection All of Us. I can now say that I've read all of Carver's published poems. I might even be a better poet for having done so. At a minimum, some of his poems inspired new ones of my own, which, really, is how it always should be.

Back in July, when the blast-furnace heat absolutely drained me of any inclination to be outdoors, I sequestered myself with the fantastical imagination of China Miéville, which delivered me to worlds previously unthinkable (albeit no less miserable than mine). His 2016 novella, The Last Days of New Paris, a conceptual master stroke, I read in one night. His earlier, more deeply explored sci-fi novel Embassytown took somewhat longer and, surprisingly, pleased me less. Running low on Miéville novels to read, as I now am, feels like cause for worry.

Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life misled me with that subtitle, which all but promises a collection of essays on the literary craft, by the venerable author and critic Joyce Carol Oates. It turned out to be a compilation of Oates's writings for The New York Review of Books, with a smattering of pieces from elsewhere. Of the former, her reviews, several read like stand-alone works in their own right: solid, entertaining, worth my time. But the book ends with three very blah boxing-related pieces, then a Lonely Planet essay, entitled "A Visit to San Quentin," that reads like what any moderately competent journalist could produce after a prison tour — not what I expect from a writer of Oates's caliber.

The young Londoner who authored What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours: Stories, Helen Oyeyemi, on the other hand, wowed me with these nine fantastic almost-fairy tales. She writes like a dream, lush and unsettling, and I'll be on the lookout for her other work, for sure.

Thanks to L.B., who follows @FreeByronCase on Twitter and likes all of my #ByronSays tweets (she's obviously too generous), a couple of surprise books came in August. In André Breton's short novel Nadja (translated by Richard Howard), the Surrealist offers a narrative of a relationship dubbed the epitome of Surrealism, the movement as a way of life. Funny, I was reminded, by passages like this one, of the kinds of romances I entered as a very young man:
[O]ne evening, when I was driving a car along the road from Versailles to Paris, the woman sitting beside me (who was Nadja, but who might have been anyone else, after all, or even someone else) pressed her foot down on mine on the accellerator, tried to cover my eyes with her hands in the oblivion of an interminable kiss, desiring to extinguish us, doubtless forever, save to each other, so that we should collide at full speed with the splendid trees along the road. What a test of life, indeed!
I used to think that interesting was everything, that anything less was as good as death. Breton writes, "It is by an extreme capacity for defiance that certain unusual people who have everything to hope and everything to fear from one another will always recognize one another.'' So of course I sought and found romances born of bizarrely destructive circumstances — but was my life, then, Surreal?

The other book that L.B. had sent was The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead. Great title, right? It's a quasi-memoir by David Shields, who wrote the book that recommended every title now listed under "Reality Hunger" in my wish list (and provided that category's name). The Thing About Life filled me with no small amount of existential dread, thanks to its barrage of actuarial data, but I'm fine with that. Sick, I know.

The second of the books sent by the above mentioned human, Kat, was another poetry collection, this one by Ann B. Knox. The listless, pastoral poems of Staying Is Nowhere did nothing for me, aesthetically, I'm sorry to say, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate the gesture.

Much, much more to my liking was Zombies: A Cultural History, a surprise gift from an entirely different L.B., written by Roger Luckhurst. It wasn't materially helpful with my novel-in-progress but did enrich my understanding of the zombie genre/phenomenon in ways that'll doubtless improve the manuscript and (I hope) eventual book.

I finished out summer's last days wrapped in William Faulkner's sweltering world, with his breathless masterpiece Absalom, Absalom! — a gift from my mother (thanks again, Mum), who might know my tastes better than anyone.

16 September, 2018

Soft Water Makes for Hard Time

The first time I washed my hands here really got me in a lather. Furiously working them in the sink for what had to be the third minute of my wash, I finally turned to my new cellmate. “What is this, have they got a water softening system here?” He nodded, and I cursed with frustration at the oily sensation that would not rinse off.

This is my life now, standing at the sink, scrubbing, scrubbing, ceaselessly.

Look online: you’ll see page after page of universally positive reports detailing how soft water — water treated to remove the minerals that can dry your skin and scale your plumbing fixtures — is some kind of modern miracle. I haven’t viewed the results personally, since I lack Internet access, but I’m told that googling “does soft water leave residue” gets you only praise for the stuff. This is weird. A Season Two episode of the FX series Fargo, set in the late-1970s, included a scene of two gangsters voicing displeasure at a hotel’s soft water. And this dry humor (no pun intended, this time) worked because soft water does somehow seem like a throwback technology, the kind of thing your grandparents would’ve bout into, as passé now as Pet Rocks and polyester pants.

The only people I’ve ever known who could tolerate (in fact love) soft water were my paternal grandparents. They were Missourians, through and through, and fixed in their ways. Their three-bedroom house had built in the ’60s, out of what always struck me as cheap materials, and moved in to at some point in the ’70s, after which they never gave a thought to redecorating. A console TV and pilly brown couch populated the living room for as long as I can remember. A bland landscape painting graced the wall. Precious Moments figurines, sleepy eyes gazing from polished honey-gold wood shelves, mutely, as though narcotized just enough that they could hold their enormous heads steady forever while embodying Scripture. The rest of the house maintained the same mid-century Midwestern middle-class aesthetic.

As a kid I overnighted there on occasional weekends, on a twin bed that crinkled viciously, thanks to its plastic undersheet. A worshipful blue-eyed-Jesus print hung on the wall overhead, the guest room’s sole decoration, watching over my fitful rest. Grandma’s saccharine “Rise and shine, the morning’s fine!” always came too soon. Raisin Bran with skim milk didn’t improve matters. But more than any other aspect of the accommodations, it was the shower that soiled little Byron’s experience.

Grandma and Grandpa told me I used too much soap, too big a dollop of shampoo. If I simply eased up, they insisted, I wouldn’t need to linger under the spray, and they wouldn’t have to knock and ask what was taking me so long in there. Many were the fantasies I had of disabling their water softener. The problem lay in first finding the key to the utility room in their basement. Why keep it locked, anyway? I was tempted to imagine foul, maybe even supernatural, doings in there, all my grandparents’ Christian piety just a front concealing their true, demonological beliefs.

Water softeners don’t use salt to treat hard water, they use the rendered fat of unbaptized children! It’d be a Soylent Green-level revelation. News of this kind wouldn’t have surprised me much — it might’ve even explained the Raisin Bran and skim milk: keeping their grandchildren thin would deter Grandma and Grandpa from sacrificing one of us if their water softener supplies ever ran too low.

But I digress. Unpleasant simply what come to mind, the water run and run and weekends from my formative years are unbidden, when I’m standing, letting run. My hands hardly ever feel fully clean, these days. And showers are always a bit of a letdown. Contrary to what Google will show you (pro-treatment fake government websites included), not everyone’s happy using soft water. Once again, conspiratorial ideas dance in the shadowy regions of my mind. Why, if it’s so great, doesn’t everyone have soft water?

Eastern Reception, Diagnosic & Correctional Center has it, and I’m not pleased. This blog post is proof that soft water’s not as great as its proponents want you believing, and if it’s buried irretrievably deep in search results I’ll only be that much more inclined to suspect a diabolical soft-water plot. Keep close tabs on your unbaptized kids, my friends, and be wary of anyone who spends an inordinate amount of time bad-mouthing calcium. Better to be safe than sorry.

07 September, 2018

Grievance Addressed (If Confusingly)

Among the numerous topsy-turvyings elicited by the mass transfer of nearly 200 prisoners from Crossroads Correctional Center was the misplacement of a couple of boxes containing my legal files. Since a lot of the documents in those boxes were certified copies and original pieces of correspondence, I was concerned. Where had my transcripts, briefs, motions, attorney correspondence, and printouts of case law ended up? Who’d pay for their replacement (or, more accurately, the replacement of the stuff that could be replaced) if those boxes didn’t turn up? Were those boxes even salvageable, following the destruction of that part of the prison where they’d been stored at the time of the riot that led to these transfers in the first place?

I wasted no time in filing a grievance. The staff here at ERDCC knew mistakes had been made. So did the decision-makers in Jefferson City. My grievance, like those of everyone else who lost property in the transfer, was fast-tracked.

Over my seventeen years’ imprisonment, I’ve filed a handful of these formal complaints. They yielded favorable results about half of the time, which really isn’t bad, considering how the process tends to be weighted against. Maybe I know what I’m doing. Maybe I’m just lucky. The point is, I tried to keep my issues succinct, my requests modest, and my expectations low.

Here was the result:
It’s basically a fifty-fifty thing. The two boxes of my invaluable legal paperwork mysteriously manifested in the ERDCC property room, which is awesome. The short-story collection Things That Fall from the Sky, ordered some weeks prior for my reading pleasure, which I should’ve received before any of that insanity at Crossroads kicked off, was declared “lost and/or destroyed.”

Putting aside the wanton destruction that those thoughtless asshole rioters visited on everything in sight — the personal property of their fellow prisoners included — what irks me is that the Department of Corrections’ stance here is to say, in one breath, “CRCC assumes no responsibility for the loss of your book,” and then, in the next, quotes DOC policy, which holds that I should be reimbursed or have my book replaced because it was in staff’s possession when the book was “lost and/or destroyed” through no fault of my own. Typical bureaucratic doublethink.

I could’ve pursued it and had the Department pay to order me another copy of the book. Kevin Brockmeier, its author, would be pleased, surely, by the additional sale. But I decided not to appeal the grievance. By the time all was said and done, months would’ve passed, my patience would’ve frayed, and the book might even have lost some allure. Besides that, what if I actually won? Taxpayers reportedly are going to have to contribute some $10 million to repair and replace everything that the rioters razed. Why add to that? If I could extract the cost of the book from the accounts of those seventy-eight marauding pricks, then yes, sure. The thing is, even if they do succeed in charging the culprits for every penny’s worth of property that they destroyed, you can’t wring restitution from the indigent. Missouri taxpayers will still get stuck with the bill.

Another copy of the book came a couple of weeks after the grievance response, reordered from Amazon. I read it pretty quickly. It was worth the wait, in no small part due to the amusing anecdote I now get to share with people — the story of the ruined book and the absurd refusal to take responsibility.

04 September, 2018

The Satisfaction Met By Subverting Snail Mail

A couple of weeks ago I sent my first e-mail from a JPay kiosk in my wing. It was the first electronic communique I'd fired off since June of 2001. (To save you from doing the math, that was seventeen years and three months ago... but who's counting?) The experience of clicking Send, knowing that my message was going to reach its recipient not four days hence but that very day, excited me so much that I fist-bumped the guy behind me in line. I even blew it up, after.

JPay mini tablets will finally be issued in October, says the Missouri DOC. Until then, we get ten-minute sessions on the kiosk, as many as five times per day. It's not enough time to compose anything really substantive — no manifestos, treatises, or theses — but the convenient immediacy makes it the best lifestyle upgrade I've gotten since the chow hall menu brought back black-eyed peas. I can hardly wait to start doing most of my textual communication (and these blogs) digitally — a wish come true nearly ten years after this post about kissing the USPS goodbye.

30 August, 2018

I Wear the Green Dot

When I arrived at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center, there was a whole raft of rules to internalize. Maybe the one that’s taken the most getting used to concerns Department of Corrections ID cards. At Crossroads we could stash our IDs anywhere on our person, as long as we were able to produce it whenever a staff member told us to. I carried mine in my right front trouser pocket. Transferring to this facility, ERDCC, where all pants are elastic-waisted and pocketless has caused some awkward moments of motioning to tuck away my hands, only to slide them along my thighs. Ridiculous, how some habits can leave us to flounder.

Each housing unit here is designated a certain color code. Black is for Housing Unit 11. Green is for Housing Unit 6. Yellow is for 5. Red is for 4. Blue is 3-House’s color. And because there aren’t suppliers, apparently, of circular vinyl stickers in any other colors, yellow, with a black dot in the center, is for Housing Unit 1. When you’re assigned to a housing unit, a guard in its control module takes your ID and sticks a dime-sized indicator onto its upper-right corner. Thenceforth are your name and address indicated. In theory, it’s like any driver’s license.

Then I got my little clip, with its dangly transparent pocket, to hold my ID. I was told to always have this affixed to my shirt front, on the left side. Always.

“Hey,” I want to tell people, ‘’my eyes are up here.” The instinct here is to look at everyone’s ID before engaging, reading the name, studying the mugshot, and doing the math to figure out, based on the birth date, how much respect to convey in the exchange.

A quiet, low-visibility day-to-day hasn’t kept me from being somewhat widely recognized, by name and at significant distance, here. Comparatively, I remained a nameless face to most of the guards and administrative staff at Crossroads, even after sixteen years there. Being identified by strangers feels like wearing an odd size of coat. I’m sure I’ll get used to it with time. Meanwhile, please forgive me if I fidget a bit with the strange fit.

09 July, 2018

Rocking the Pasty-Ass-White-Boy Look: Thoughts on Sun Exposure and Prejudicial Views of Pale People

The distinction between needs and wants, as in: "You need to get you some sun, white boy." I could write a fucking dissertation. Instead, I just lie. It's easier to tell someone that my fair complexion is the necessary result of — not a condition, exactly, but a propensity to crisp. I reference my last sunburn. September of 2002. Purpling was involved. Afterward, dramatic peeling. I pulled small, thick sheets of skin from my agonized scalp and neck for days. (Oddly, my arms were unaffected.) This I got from a half hour outside, on a not particularly bright afternoon.

My account of sunstroke usually does the trick, eliciting sympathies from melanin-rich interlocutors who can't imagine a life deprived of regular, prolonged direct sunlight, and lets me go about my day in the shade.

Let's get this straight now: I'm not freakishly pale. Placed in a lineup of albinos, I'd stand out prominently — even wearing pink contact lenses. I'm just not what you could call tan. Not by a long shot. And I happen to take pride in my pallor. It's at least part of the reason that people take me for younger than I am. (Someone very recently guessed that I was twenty-eight, a full eleven years off.) Sure, it's probably mostly genetic, but my legs haven't seen daylight since Bill Clinton was in office, so I'm giving circumstances some credit.

What's this fixation that Americans have with tans? In many Asian cultures, deeper skin tones have historically signified lower status. Field workers toiled under the harsh glare of Sol; the high-born's milk-white hue was the product of pampered indoor lives. Look at any Renaissance painting — go on, I'll wait — and you'll see the same standard of beauty at work, with every fair young maiden and overfed king as white and luminous as the moon. The West wasn't always obsessed with appearing sautéed.

All racist interpretations (which, for the record, are bullshit) aside, there's good reason to appreciate paleness. Skin tans because it's working to protect itself from further harm. Calluses form for the same reason, but who thinks those are sexy? Hands that labor's rendered as numb and inflexible as a catcher's mitt shouldn't be any less attractive than epidermis discolored by damage. I find this a counterintuitive, just plain weird double standard.

And don't get me started on bronzer, spray tans, or fake-baking in general. Pourquoi the aesthetic appeal of the Oompa Loompa? As out-of-place as my whiteness makes me in a crowd of sun-worshippers, at least I come by it honestly without resorting to chemical or otherwise extraordinary measures. The same vain people of gold who flock to tanning salons today will tomorrow populate dermatologists' and plastic surgeons' waiting rooms, desperate to repair the signs of abuse — premature wrinkles, dark spots, sagging, disconcertingly shaped moles. Mine is the body pristine. This guarantees nothing, of course, but a life in the shadows definitely improves my odds. (Plus, my shirt collars don't discolor, and I can walk through sudden rainstorms without fear of streaking.)

Regarding the down side of extra-whiteness, the endless comments, I remain baffled. A certain lack of pigmentation invites "helpful" criticism like no case of leather-face will.

"You know, you're allowed to come outside once in a while."

"Damn, you're white!"

"Sunshine's free, dude."

"Did you ever see that movie, Powder?"

"What are you, a vampire or something?"

And so on, often not as polite. Not even ridiculous, extreme, or outré hairstyles, the closest analog I can think of, meet with others' outspoken opinions on such a regular basis. Most remarks about someone's 'do happen, mercifully, behind that person's back. Whispers about my skin tone would be preferable. They're at least proof that those doing the psst-psst-psst recognize the limits of acceptable behavior.

21 June, 2018

Fifteen Books I Spent My Spring Reading

Last season's reading list ended with some speculative-fiction collections. The SF trend continued into this season, beginning with the tense, eerie China Miéville novella This Census-Taker. Miéville's novels, most of which I've read, have made him my favorite SF writer, edging out M. John Harrison by a mere hair's breadth (an irony, since Miéville's bald). This Census-Taker reminded me of why. It's as powerful as it is short, as vivid as it is obscure, as touching as it is unsettling — a perfect balance, especially since I don't want too much of any one thing while engaged in my own novelistic effort.

The next book I read was David Mitchell's 2015 novel, Slade House, which occupies a prominent place in the world Mitchell's built with his other novels, Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks, and so on. Their interconnectedness rewards ardent fans, but I wonder if Slade House isn't too reliant on that mythology. Newcomers might not appreciate this quasi-haunted-house story's grand climax, dependent as it is on the appearance of a very, very old friend to those in the know. Being in the know, I enjoyed every page.

Then NW: A Novel, by Zadie Smith, revealed the sort-of sordid world of British government-housing residents. That same week, Sigmund Freud's essay collection The Uncanny (as translated by David McClintock) offered up the Austrian psychoanalyst's examination of the mind's approach to strangeness. The latter was a delightful surprise gift from Emily C., whose curiosity about human psychology rivals my own and leads us to some truly great conversations. I absorbed the Freud book in two sittings, during the second-to-last institutional lockdown I endured before my unceremonious transfer from Crossroads Correctional Center. With my cellmate so present it was hard to shift my mind into novelist mode. I sublimated the urge to write and did some research instead — something old Siggy probably would've had a thing or two to say about.

Before that lockdown was lifted, I'd borrowed a Christopher Hitchens book from Crossroads' library. The late bon vivant wrote Mortality, a short collection of atheistic deathbed essays, over the agonizing months he languished from esophageal cancer. I tore through it in a night and, the following morning, picked up the most recent fantasy by Hitchens's friend and fellow member of the unbelieving literati Salman Rushdie, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, which didn't stir me as much as Rushdie's previous novels have — but they can't all be masterpieces.

To wit: the good Lady V. indulged my deathless inner fanboy with the gift of Ready Player One, Ernest Cline's massively successful '80s-obsessed sci-fi adventure. My curiosity had been eating at me for years. Finally getting my hands on a copy, though, was a mixed bag. I can't remember another book that I liked so much even while wincing at its many flaws. Judicious editing would've caught the factual/continuity errors and, maybe, massaged the obnoxious exposition smoothly into the streamlined story line. Will Steven Spielberg's film version be as fun? I'll give it a watch, even though I'm leery.

Alternating between lowbrow and highbrow for a few days thereafter, I bounced between Stephen King's Desperation and Markus Gabriel's anti-"neurocentric" I Am Not a Brain: Philosophy of Mind for the 21st Century (translated from the German by Christopher Turner) as my mood demanded. I'd never read any of King's horror, so my friend Jenna recommended that I jump right into Desperation to see what I've been missing. The Gabriel book was from my wonderful mother, who knows so well my tastes and ordered it from my Amazon wish list. No shocker here: the philosophy book's oppositional stance to the increasingly popular idea that the fatty goo of the human brain constitutes the mind made a deeper impression than the gore-fest. At least now I know what readers get from King's fiction that draws them back again and again, even though one round was quite enough for me.

Following the riot at Crossroads was another lockdown. About sixty hours later I was en route to a different prison altogether — time used for handwriting some long-overdue letters and cards to friends, and for reading. Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from a Dead House (as translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, but commonly titled The House of the Dead) might not seem like ideal literature for someone under lock and key. It's Dostoyevsky's novelization of the eight years' hard labor he served, a political prisoner, in a Soviet gulag in Omsk, after sharing a letter criticizing Stalin. I was halfway through the book on the day of my transfer and finished Part Two on the opposite side of Missouri, the week after. Whether or not it's ironic that the novel ends with its narrator's escape I leave to minds more inclined to long associative leaps.

Having gotten a high enough dose of literary masochism to last me awhile, I picked up several pleasure-reads at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center as soon as I could: Haruki Murakami's South of the Border, West of the Sun (translated by Philip Gabriel), A Wild Sheep Chase (translated by Alfred Birnbaum), and the disappointing After Dark (translated by Jay Rubin); the late, great George Carlin's hilarious hodgepodge, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?; and Colson Whitehead's stunning speculative pseudohistory The Underground Railroad: A Novel. ERDCC's library is roughly three quarters the size of the one I left behind at CRCC, but there are enough books of interest on its shelves to pack these quarterly reading lists for a while yet.

One book that I began to read but, much to my own disappointment, abandoned after 149 pages deserves mention: Swann's Way. I had the best intentions. In truth, though, this first volume of Marcel Proust's seven-part Remembrance of Things Past, in which he writes in minutest detail and at great length about his childhood, recalled abruptly and all at once after taking a bite of a little tea-cake, was just too much for me to handle. It felt like a grind the instant its novelty wore off. Conceptually, I think it has value; as a readable work, though, I find it lacking. A pity. I really wanted to enjoy this one.

15 June, 2018

Fifty Favorite Films

My parents started me out young — so young that my feet didn't even touch the sticky floor when I took my seat beside them. The theaters were small, always. I didn't see the interior of a multiplex before age eleven, whereas I could describe for you, in immense detail, the lobbies, the concession counters, and even the uniforms worn by the young adults who tore our tickets in half as we passed into the sancta santorum and seated ourselves among the twenty or thirty seats of the Bijou, the Fine Arts, or the Tivoli. These places ran all-weekend screenings of Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut, Spike and Mike, Fritz Lang, Ed Wood, Frederico Fellini…. We watched so many subtitled foreign films that, to this day, I'm still more apt to read words that appear on a screen before placing full attention on the images surrounding them. I do really well watching closed-captioned TV.

An indoctrination into the world of limited-release, foreign, and revival cinema endowed me with broad-ranging tastes and an eye for color, for style, for symbolism. I like films that take risks. The more a movie lets its audience come to its own conclusions, make its own interpretations, instead of prodding it down the narrow road of plot by means of musical stings or sentimental yanks (for his abominable Forrest Gump, Robert Zemekis earned permanent shit-list status), the more I appreciate it. Several people have asked me, over the years, what my very favorite films are, so I figured that a list was in order. I did the same with my forty favorite fiction books a few years ago and got some positive feedback. Whether this is as interesting or not remains to be seen.

* * * * *

Such a weird concept: a hidden door in an office building leads down a tunnel, into the perception center of a well-known actor. Being John Malkovich is as brilliant as it is bizarre.

Big Fish is director Tim Burton's paean to the power of storytelling. Its premise — a father who teaches his practical son to find enjoyment in the suspension of disbelief — echoes a debate my father and I used to have, and the movie is one of just a few that's made me teary-eyed.

I'm a fan of Philip K. Dick's trippy sci-fi novels and stories, and the writer's fingerprints are all over Blade Runner, Ridley Scott's fine adaptation of his work. As of this writing, I have yet to see the sequel. I have, however, seen all three edits of the original and insist that The Final Cut is the best.


As the rest of this list shows, I'm kind of a David Lynch enthusiast. The first of his movies that I saw was this one, Blue Velvet, arguably his best-known, in which Dennis Hopper gives the most unsettling performance of his career, Dean Stockwell flirts with androgyny, and suburban idealism gets a nasty black eye.

I concede that Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder mangling British accents threatens the ambiance of this movie at countless points, but Francis Ford Coppola manages such gorgeously stylized imagery, and Gary Oldman is pitch-perfect as the undead Count in Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Ex-Python Terry Gilliam's made a number of surreal movies in his day. None, for my money, beats the futuristic high jinks he (metaphorically speaking) filmed through a fish-eye lens, in Brazil.

Moody, artful, and generally sublime, Bride of Frankenstein is easily the best of all Universal Sutdios' classic monster movies.


Playfully dark cinematography pairs with a plot about a mad scientist who steals children's dreams because he can't have his own. Whimsical use of the butterfly effect, oafish dwarfs, and Ron Perlman as a big lummox with a heart of gold keep the material from slipping into ghoulishness. There are more smiles here than scares, in The City of Lost Children.

Compare that to A Clockwork Orange. This notorious adaptation of Anthony Burgess's controversial novel about one juvenile delinquent's arrest and experimental "reform" in a near-future Britain was rated X when first released in the United States. There was just a jot too much of ultraviolence for the MPAA's taste. Forty-odd years later, viewers see more graphic sex and violence while watching Wednesday-night cable.

Coraline is a stop-motion fantasy based on Neil Gaiman's children's novel of the same name, but Laika's animation is spectacular and I think there's plenty here for adults to appreciate.

The first time I saw Dark City, directed by Alex Proyas, my ticket cost a buck. The dollar theater's sound system sucked, but still: $1 for two hours of highly stylized, genre-bending noir that twists and coils until you can scarcely be certain of what's what was a bargain.

Forget the early-aughts remake starring Keanu Reeves; the 1951 original The Day the Earth Stood Still, starring Michael Rennie and a flesh-and-blood human inside the big silver Gort costume, is classic, meaning-rich science fiction. Klaatu barada nikto! Because there's hope for humanity yet.


Tangent universes, scary bunny-men (plus Echo & the Bunnymen on the soundtrack), plummeting aircraft, and the most beautiful phrase in the English language — cellar door — make Donnie Darko a film too compelling to keep from discussing for days after watching it.

The local public library, where I grew up, loaned VHS cassettes of hundreds of classic movies, and young Byron loved taking his library card out for them. Some that I returned to again and again were the Universal Studios monster movies. Tod Browning's Dracula, with the incomparable Bela Lugosi, earned its place on this list early.

One could call Edward Scissorhands a study of how fragile society's conditional acceptance of difference is. One could say that Edward Scissorhands advocates self-isolation by those with extraordinary qualities, that its message is that the world doesn't deserve what unique people bring into it. Or one could declare Edward Scissorhands a beautiful, tragicomic suburban fantasy and walk away, at the end credits, carrying the glow of that.

Another Tim Burton delight is Ed Wood, his black-and-white biopic of the infamous director who brought us such schlock as Glen or Glenda? and the truly awful Plan Nine from Outer Space (neither of which appear on this list).

Decidedly more fraught than the life of a cross-dressing Hollywood director is the one dramatized in David Lynch's second most straightforward film, The Elephant Man. The tone is also a lot less jokey. A lot less.

It's doubtful that any remake will equal the finesse with which 1931's Frankenstein was scripted, acted, and filmed. There's a good reason that it's Boris Karloff's flat-headed, bolt-necked, sunken-eyed portrayal of the monster that comes to mind when we think of that character.


Not many people seem to know about Freaks, the early talkie about love, camaraderie, and revenge among members of a traveling circus. They should. How many other movies this old have the power to astound jaded modern audiences? Freaks is melancholy, heartwarming, and horrific in the perfect proportions.

Gattaca is the type of pensive science fiction that I love watching, as it grapples with big moral questions at the level of the individual. In this case, the issue is human genetic engineering. A lesser film would've been fine with leaving ethics behind as it related one poor, unenhanced man's audacious journey to pass as one of society's gene-perfect elite. Gattaca has movement and suspense, but the human element never takes second place to them. It really is extraordinary.

The story of a young woman's mental breakdown and resulting institutionalization in a 1960s American mental facility, Girl, Interrupted is one of those rare movies that's as good as the novel it was adapted from. I think it's also the last worthwhile thing Winona Ryder appeared in.

Laugh all you like, but I admit it unreservedly and without shame: I've watched Groundhog Day well more than fifty times. Seven of those were in a theater, when it was still in wide release. Then I wore out a VHS copy. Then I bought it on DVD. I still feel disappointed when it doesn't appear in the TV listings on any given February second. Outdated as they are, I also continue to drop references to the movie during conversations. What's wrong with me?

Fake suicides never seemed as funny as when the young male lead in Harold and Maud stages them for the benefit of his wealthy, seen-it-all parents. Except he really is suffering, and they can't see that past the theatrics. Enter Maud, an elderly iconoclast, living her life to the fullest, happy, free, and completely in the moment. The two strike up a friendship, then a romance, and the story that unfolds makes Harold and Maud the closest thing to a romantic comedy on this list.

The Hudsucker Proxy is a delightfully quirky satire, starring Tim Robbins as a peon who finds himself neck-deep in corporate scheming.

Released in 1956, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers played off the rampant paranoia sweeping the United States during the McCarthy era, resulting in a taut, tense alien-invasion movie that holds up well to this day.


Anticipating invasion, all of the residents abandon their small French town during World War One, but neglect to evacuate the local insane asylum, where the committed finally decide to take charge of their lives. That's the premise of King of Hearts, a lovely, delirious comedy that I can't recommend highly enough.

Jim Henson's Creature Shop provided the fantastical beasts that inhabit it, but it's David Bowie's turn as the Goblin King that really made Labyrinth. Sure, it's a kids' movie, but I'm far from the only adult to tell you it's worth watching even if you think you've outgrown fairy tales.

My friend Brahm and I used to make a point of watching Monty Python's Life of Brian every Easter. What better way to celebrate the holiday than with this hilarious, irreverent comedy about a thirty-something Judean man who gets mistaken for the Messiah and ends up, accompanied by one hell of a catchy musical number ("Always Look on the Bright Side of Life"), crucified?

For his role in The Machinist, a disorienting waking dream of a film about a man who hasn't slept in a year, Christian Bale starved himself until he weighed less than 100 pounds. The grim determination of the actor is matched by his character, a man haunted — in a very literal sense — by the past.

Perhaps equally haunting, and certainly just as sad, is Magnolia, a gorgeous movie comprised of several separate but linked episodes about the ordeals of everyday people.

Another favorite film of mine that happens to star David Bowie is The Man Who Fell to Earth. The Thin White Duke plays an extraterrestrial living incognito among humans, wracked by ennui and homesickness. The movie is languid and poetic, with long shots devoid of dialog or action, so be prepared, if you're going to watch it with a date, for her to fall asleep beside you on the couch. Take it from a guy who did, and wasn't.

Like just about everyone else in Western society, I was blown away by The Matrix (less so, its sequels). Despite its turn-of-the-millennium trappings, I find that the groundbreaking special effects, classic myth-inspired storytelling, and advocacy of disillusionment are timeless.


Several silent films came very close to making this list, but there was no question about 1927's Metropolis. Fritz Lang directed this stunning sci-fi paean to the working class, creating imagery that burned itself into my mind at a young age. I first saw it at Kansas City's Fine Arts Theater (the one I mentioned at the top of this post) when I was seven. I was rapt. From the film's shimmering skylines to the final flickering of the flames of revolt, Metropolis astounds. I've read that Criterion recently released a new, extended restoration of the film that's become definitive, which I long, rather powerfully, to see.

Someone once said that discussion of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, specifically the sort that includes (as is virtually unavoidable) quotes from the movie, is like a black hole: nothing within a certain range of it can escape; and the more it absorbs, the larger and denser it grows. At a minimum, it's like Spanish flu: highly contagious and apt to make you die… from laughter.

Monty Python's Meaning of Life isn't as consistently hilarious, being a collection of skits relating to the different stages of life — from the rousing "Every Sperm Is Sacred" musical number, to John Cleese's concluding monologue about how best to live. Nevertheless, none of the bits land flat, and the Pythons' signature absurdity reaches such heights that the film as a whole is raised to the level of art.

I'm ordinarily allergic to "cute," but Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom manages to tell the story of a runaway scout and his quest for independence without devolving into a treacly mess, thanks to its top-notch cast and relatively light touch of twee.

Far on the opposite end of the spectrum is Mulholland Dr., David Lynch's surreal murder mystery. Nothing cloying to be found here, just confusion, suspicion, and existential dread.

A taxi driver in Los Angeles. A taxi driver in Rome. A taxi driver in Helsinki. Night on Earth is made up of five distinct vignettes about taxi drivers, these and two others, and one memorable fare that each takes. One is funny, one is tragic, and the others fall somewhere in between. Like life, this film runs the gamut of human experience.

George A. Romero's 1968 cult classic, Night of the Living Dead, set the bar and spawned an entire genre of horror that, in my opinion, would never quite equal its progenitor.

Stop-motion animation hit a new high point with Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. The movie's craftsmanship is incredible, its story is utterly winning, its songs are hummable.

Jack Nicholson embodies the unregenerate R.P. McMurphy from Ken Kesey's novel perfectly, and I remember thinking that no one but Louise Fletcher could've been a better fit for the part of Nurse Ratched. The first time I saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, I missed Big Chief's perspective from the book for a while. The movie's so good that I quickly got over that.


I have never seen another sci-fi film that so perfectly mates plausibility, ingenuity, suspense, and a budget so meager that it makes those of most student films seem lavish — yet that's what Primer, quietly released in the early aughts, does. It's demanding, yes, refusing to dumb down the logistics of time travel for its audience, and delivering exactly zero fancy effects to wow your eyes, but, holy crap, is it ever rewarding of your attention!

Another genre that I don't much get into is family drama. The Royal Tenenbaums, about one man's questionable tactics for getting back into his family's good graces, proves an exception. I've got the writing and directing of Wes Anderson, who knows how to create characters we like despite their unsavory traits, to thank for this fact.

Slickly remade thirty-some years later, with extra star power, my preference is for the original Solaris, released in 1972. This beautiful, contemplative Russian sci-fi film grapples with loss and attachment better than any other movie I've seen in the genre, and presents a magnificent panorama in the process.

I watched a fair amount of anime in my teens. A lot of it was the stereotypical mix of science fiction and action — geek catnip. Spirited Away is anime of another sort, a gorgeous Japanese fairy tale about a young girl lost and trying to find her way out of the Spirit World. Its detail is stunning; even the color palette of the animation feels ethereal.

After one tenant of a creepy Paris apartment commits suicide there, a hapless office drone moves in. He becomes obsessed with the former resident while nursing a growing paranoia about the neighbors. The Tenant, a sublime suspense by Roman Polanski, is a work of art deserving of our attention even if its creator's an odious human being.

THX 1138 was George Lucas's first film and surpasses much of what came after. In a future society, people live underground. Computers regiment the onscreen entertainment that pervades their existences. Pharmaceuticals regulate everyone's emotional states. No one has a proper name, just a letter-and-number designation. Then THX 1138 falls in love, violating the social order, and flees. Risking everything for love isn't a new story, but it can make for a really good one.

Since Franz Kafka's novel The Trial was never finished, Orson Welles adapted it at his own peril. Anthony Perkins plays the falsely (?) accused Josef K. to a T in this imperfect film. There are a few issues with continuity, but it's supposed to be expressionistic, and its vibrancy makes me love it too much not to have on this list.

Twelve Monkeys is the second Terry Gilliam movie to appear here (or the fifth, if you include his Monty Python work). It was probably his biggest commercial success. I mean: time travel, Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, Madeline Stowe…. He had me at "time travel."


A retrospective of Stanley Kubrick's movies would be one long look at greatness, but to my mind it all started with 2001: A Space Odyssey. The director's legendary fastidiousness fills this (I'll say it) masterpiece, all the way down to the silverware. Less sci-fi than a hypnotic meditation on time, with near-infinite sweep, it's poetry, visual poetry, plain and simple. Don't try to solve the mystery, just let yourself be drawn in by it.