I asked some of my friends to name their all-time favorite books and movies. The range was from the very, very romantic to the very, very serious. I’ll skip around and try not to mix them up, but they’re all worth a look or a read.

A male friend, beset with linear thinking, cuts right to the chase:

“Fiction: Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones is one of the first novels ever written, and it’s perfect: structured as an epic so that the hero, by the exact middle of the book, has descended (as if into Hell) and has lost everything: his name, his family, his love, his money, his freedom. From there on he grows into grace, regaining much that he lost (without the bad stuff), and into wisdom, personified in his great love, Sofia (which means, in Greek, ‘wisdom’).

“Non-fiction: Timothy Ferris’ Coming of Age in the Milky Way, which describes the arc of human understanding of the cosmos from one in which it was thought one could go to a high mountain and touch the stars to the ideas of deep space and deep time.

“Favorite movie: Chinatown is a morality play, beautifully written, superbly cast, with outstanding acting. And it’s relevant to today’s water issues in California.”

Now let’s get to the romance and adventure.

My all-time favorite movie is The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a French film from 1965 with a young Catherine Deneuve and music by Michel LeGrand. The clothes, the color, the music! I’m not sure I’d ever get tired of watching it.

Another friend, also a registered romantic, first read Gone with the Wind as a senior in high school when it was assigned at a Catholic all-boys’ school. The English teacher, a Christian Brother, considered it a great piece of American literature: a novel with a strong female heroine! My friend says it’s “Not exactly Huckleberry Finn.” No, but I taught The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn several times and still don’t consider it the Great American Novel. Try Philip Roth.

The thing he remembers from the movie is Scarlett’s “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” Followed by an intermission! I remember two things about Gone with the Wind. The first is that I was waiting to go out on a date on a summer night in high school. My mother and I were chatting while I waited to be picked up. The book came up and she said, “I can’t believe a daughter of mine hasn’t read Gone with the Wind.” She let me go out anyway. Years later I saw the movie for the first time, late in the summer of my first pregnancy. My feet swelled out of my sandals, which was not romantic at all.

Also along the romantic lines, is the coming-of-age novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. It’s about a poor Irish family in guess-where in the early 20th century. I believe it changed my life.

One friend, a university professor, said, “I know my selections are not deep, but as I get older, who cares, if the book was enjoyable!” My sentiments exactly.

Here are her faves: “One of the books I enjoyed in high school was Rebecca. I didn’t know it was a mystery at the time, but I loved it because it was a page-turner and I didn’t expect the ending. That may be why I like to read mysteries now and liked the contemporary books, Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. I didn’t expect the endings either.”

Her movie selection was the original Man in the Iron Mask. Her reason: “When I was young, there was a black-and-white version that I watched with my father so often, I could recite some of the dialogue. Isn’t it amazing that our past reading and movie viewing can have such a major influence on current reading and movie viewing?”

Yes, as well as the importance of what we did with our fathers.

Don’t test me, but I’m pretty sure I can recite most of the lines from the taxicab scene in On the Waterfront. Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger. Speak to me not of other great movies or other great actors. Or hunks.

Think women don’t like adventure movies? Read this: “The Great Escape is one of my favorites. I was in grade school when I saw it. It was my first war movie. I was surprised at how prisoners were treated with dignity and respect — until they were gunned down! I must have thought they would be behind bars or with a ball and chain. Their resourcefulness and creativity amazed me, and how everyone pitched in to help, even when it meant getting caught and spending time in the cooler in order to find out what existed beyond the trees. Finally, there were outstanding performances by so many great male actors: James Garner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Richard Attenborough, James Coburn and Donald Pleasence.”

Frankly, I think any oldie where they say “in the cooler” is worth seeing!

Another war movie rave is King of Hearts with Alan Bates, who plays a British soldier in WWI who cares for the pigeons that carry messages between units. He witnesses the wretchedness of war and at film’s end stands naked at the gate of a small French town’s insane asylum, asking for admittance. He has fallen in love with the various inhabitants who seem to be perfectly normal in comparison to those he’s seen in the war.

Another friend, also a university professor, takes a more scholarly approach to her faves. She loves “movies or books I want to return to again. Experiences of heightened awareness and intense meaning, they are reflections and contemplations, along with moments of surprise and joy.”

Several women mentioned The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. It’s a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo. One friend said, “You can take a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. He would not listen to the local people with regard to planting a garden or many other things. He and his family pay dearly for his block-headedness.” 

Another, who describes herself as a “constant reader,” said Poisonwood Bible comes “pretty close to her number one for the writing, themes, characters, etc. So strong in every category.”

A musician sends three faves: “My all-time favorite book is The Chosen and its sequel The Promise, by Chaim Potok. It follows the unlikely friendship between a young Hasidic man and his Orthodox friend, and has tremendously powerful insights into Judaism in America. One idea in the book goes something like this: It is important to do something that gives purpose to your life. Meaning is not automatically given to life. It is not enough merely to survive.” As for movies, her all-time favorite is Auntie Mame — not the musical, but the 1958 version with Rosalind Russell, which has that great line: “Live, live, live. Life’s a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.”

I do have a taste for dark movies or at least dark humor. A friend is a huge Paul Thomas Anderson fan (did you know he’s married to the divine Maya Rudolph?), and loves his movies, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, which I also liked. And then there’s the wonderful Fargo, by the Coen Brothers (another favorite of mine). My friend “was mesmerized” by Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. (You can always tell a movie buff when they talk about the director, not the actors).

For a complete change of pace, she and I both read the graphic novel, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast. It’s gaspingly hilarious. I highly recommend it for anyone who is dealing with aging parents or looking in the mirror at their aging self. Just read it.

Yes, To Kill a Mockingbird, book and movie, were mentioned, but what’s there to say now that we have the prequel/sequel? I guess summer days must give way to loss of innocence. 

Mary Kay O’Grady writes a blog on senior issues at OakPark.com.

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Mary Kay O'Grady

Mary Kay O'Grady is a former high school English teacher and later owned her own public relations business, The O'Grady Group. She has lived in Oak Park for almost fifteen years. She is currently the chairperson...