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Read These Books:

Once again, the Santa Monica Library’s Citywide Reads Committee is soliciting nominations – for the book that will be the focus of the 2006 iteration of the program.

And, once again, we are suggesting that the committee choose Carolyn See’s Golden Days or Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely.

In advance of the first Citywide Reads program in 2002, we wrote, “It’s a piquant notion -– people of all ages, in all situations, all over town, reading the same book at more or less the same time and then talking about it – in forums, check-out lines, gyms, on the beach. But right away, we’re in trouble, because if there is any single thing that is unsusceptible to committee-think or mass programs, it’s a book. Whether you’re writing a book or reading one, it’s a solitary activity – very private, very personal. In that light, the idea of reading a book chosen by a committee seems at least contradictory.

“Still, it’s impossible not to think about what Santa Monica should read. The complete works of Christopher Isherwood perhaps. The distinguished English writer came here as a young man and spent the rest of life in a tile-roofed house on Adelaide. Aside from his diaries, he didn’t write a lot about Santa Monica, but he wrote a shelf of novels and memoirs in Santa Monica.

“Then there’s Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright who fled the Nazis and lived for a while on 26th Street. His play, Galileo, was written here and first produced here. But, as we have recently learned, Brecht did not really write all the plays he took credit for.

“The son of Salka Viertel, whose salon on Mabery in the Canyon was legendary, Peter Viertel wrote a splendid novel about growing up in Santa Monica, The Canyon, but, since it’s out-of-print, it’s out of the running.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum definitely deserves a spot on any short list because it’s a splendid story, and because Baum knew all about Hollywood before there was a Hollywood, and because, years later, he wrote the theme song for the Uplifters’ Club.

“One book of non-fiction, Southern California: An Island on the Land, by Carey McWilliams must be on any list of vital reads. Though it was written in the 1940s, it remains the definitive depiction of the L.A. nation, and it is gorgeously composed.

“But, of course, in any contest of this sort, one writer rules! We’re speaking about Raymond Chandler, the master, the maker of Bay City (aka Santa Monica) and the first supreme L.A. writer. Ostensibly, he wrote mysteries and is credited, with Dashiell Hammett, with inventing the private eye, the penultimate American hero – solitary, incorruptible, idealistic, melancholy, and cool — out there by himself in the mean streets, tilting with the bad guys.

“Born in America, educated in England, a successful oil executive until drink bushwhacked him, Chandler didn’t start writing until he was in his 40s, out of a job and in need of money. He didn’t think much of what he did, but a great many other people did.

“In Farewell, My Lovely, his second novel, published in 1940 during a period when Santa Monica (aka Bay City), for all its middle class airs, was pocked with corruption, Chandler wrote of it, ‘It’s a nice town. It’s probably no crookeder than Los Angeles. But you can only buy a piece of a big city. You can buy a town this size all complete, with the original box and tissue paper. That’s the difference. And that makes me want out.’

“As one of Chandler’s literary heirs, Ross Macdonald, said, ‘Chandler wrote like a slumming angel.’

“If Santa Monica is going to read one book, it must be Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler. It’s set here, and, like the place, shot full of both sunshine and noir. It’s a classic work by a great American writer who recognized that the mystery was the perfect genre for this ultimately mysterious coast we inhabit. It’s dead-on true, and it is an incomparable and utterly original literary work. It’s great fun to read, but it will tell you things you didn’t know and make you see things in a new way, as all works of art do.

“If, for whatever reason, the community, and/or committee, insists on a contemporary novel, then the choice is equally clear: Golden Days by Carolyn See.

“See lived in Topanga for years and now lives in Pacific Palisades. It must be said, too, that she is the mother of our associate editor Clara Sturak, but that should not disqualify her – especially since Golden Days is a brilliant book.

“In 1987, the Cold War was still very much on. Analysts at RAND were busy preparing scenarios for World War III, such as M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction), Ronald Reagan, late of the Palisades, was still talking about ‘the evil empire,’ and up in Topanga, See, one of this country’s most accomplished novelists, was conjuring a whole other scenario. It is set in the more or less immediate future and, in it, the long-running the war between men and women is literally and figuratively eclipsed by nuclear war, but it all ends happily. Writing in the New York Times, Carol Sternhell said, ‘If an inspirational novel about nuclear war seems a bit, well, perverse, that’s only the beginning (or the end, of course) …In its weird way, this may be the most life-affirming novel I’ve ever read.’

Golden Days is a roller coaster ride of a book. It seizes you and doesn’t let you go until it’s done with you. And when you finish it, you will be lighter on your feet and braver and and you will be smiling, perhaps laughing, because, like the utterly mad characters See has assembled, you will have seen the unthinkable, and seen that it is, yes, not the end, but the beginning.

“We read Golden Days the day it was published, and it still rings somewhere inside us. It remains fresh, utterly idiosyncratic, and, if anything, more relevant than ever.

“That’s it, then. Farewell, My Lovely, if a classic is desired, Golden Days, if a contemporary novel is preferred. Or, if we had our way, both.”

Clearly, we assumed then that Citywide Reads not only should but would concentrate on literary masterpieces set in this storied land, We were wrong on both counts. Based on its choices, the Citywide Reads program apparently had no interest in either this turf or masterpieces.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie was the Committee’s inaugural choice. The following year, while the committee didn’t choose either Farewell, My Lovely or Golden Days, we were semi-molified because it chose Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. This year, we were again left out in the cold, as Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner got the nod.

According to the most recent library press release, “Citywide Reads’ mission is to encourage a culture of reading and to promote book-centered dialogue in Santa Monica. Book selection criteria include: fiction, amenable to good group discussion, broad appeal, challenging but not exclusive, and available in a variety of formats, such as paperback and audiobook.”

Our “mission” and our criteria are somewhat more ambitious. We want nothing less than masterpieces, books that will rattle readers’ minds, astound them, capture then, obsess them, change their lives.

Further, we continue to believe that the focus of the Citywide Reads program should be Southern California literature. This is one of the most complex regions in the world and it is also very rich literary turf, and the lives and works of people who abide here would be enriched by acquaintance with its literarure.

An extraordinary number of extraordinary books have been written here – by natives and writers from all over America and the world. Together and separately, they are in the process of making a kind of four-dimensional map of the territory and its people.

The Citywide Reads program would be far more valuable if it had some focus and some point beyond simply being something to talk about.

Thus far, the program has suffered from a kind of listless randomness. Both Balzac and The Kite Runner are minor books, new when they were chosen, momentary best-sellers, set in foreign lands, “multi-cultural,” and “suitable” for younger readers, and they have already slipped into that limbo where minor books go to die.

The Berlin Stories was an infinitely better choice and a better book. It is beautifully wrought and revelatory, and it is a classic work of literature, but the library hyped it less as a sterling book than as the basis for the Broadway and Hollywood musical, Cabaret.

There could be no better beginning for a re-imagined Citywide Reads program than Golden Days or Farewell, My Lovely. Each is a masterwork. Each is galvanizing, mesmerizing.

Both See and Chandler know a whole lot of stuff and have a whole lot to say, and know how to say it so distinctively that it stays in readers’ heads.

They are originals, not copies, and they are enormously wise and talented writers, and they not only can but should be read by everyone who can read – whatever his or her age.

Whether or not the Citywide Reads committee is smart enough to choose one of these books, we think everyone should read them – because, like water and sunlight, they are essential.Readers can nominate one of these or any other book for the 2006 program by going to www.smpl.org/cwr, and filling out the form by August 8. We did.

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