December 31, 2010
Best Portrayal of Massachusetts in Film: I spent the first half of my life living in the Bay State, so I always appreciate it when it is depicted on the Silver Screen. Ben Affleck's "The Town" rang true to my own experience: the neighborhood loyalty, the casual violence, the Bruins tracksuits. In fact, the array of tracksuits in the movie deserves its own special category, Best Use of Tracksuits. Jeremy Renner rocks a spectrum of said uniforms, sometimes changing from a Celtics hoodie to a Red Sox fleece in the same scene BECAUSE HE IS FROM BAH-STUN. The only thing more believable than the costuming was the fact that Rebecca Hall's character quits her banking job to volunteer full-time at a Community Garden.
Best Theatrical Experience: While I saw many moving pieces of theater this year (including Gregory Todd's own exemplary Chicago debut), the most riveting ten minutes of theater I witnessed was this May's extraordinary pas de deux performed by My Elderly Neighbor and That Pixie-ish Census Worker Who Kept Coming Around. My Elderly Neighbor took what could have been a stock caricature (the Elderly Shut-In) and turned it into something far more complex. A simple smack of her lipstick-stained dentures served both as a cunning ploy to extend a badly wanted social interaction and a mournful howl of life's loneliness.
Not to be undone, the Pixie-ish Census Worker, in what was essentially a silent role, conveyed a wealth of emotions on her nose-pierced face. Her journey from the hope that she would be allowed to slip reminders under the other tenant's doors to disgust to mild terror was felt palpably by the audience (of one, me, silently holding Elderly Neighbor's Groceries after having unwittingly purchased a ticket to the show by passing Elderly Neighbor on the sidewalk and asking if she needed help). This play was notable also for being the only show in Chicago where a Caucasian character was referred to as "you people."
Best Theatrical Experience, Runner-Up: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Holy crap, this show was fantastic. While My Elderly Neighbor would have been fascinating as Martha, Amy Morton is equally nuanced in the role and makes you reevaluate any notion of the role, especially if your only familiarity with it is the Taylor-Burton movie (plus, as the old lady behind me said when Ms. Morton first walked on stage, "She's so skinny!"). Tracy Letts is so good you feel badly for Richard Burton. See it!
Best Book That Should Have Gotten More Acclaim: Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn. I don't know if it's sexism or genre-bashing that has prevented Dark Places from showing up on more Best-Of lists, but in my opinion, this book heralds a major new talent. Flynn's writing is virtuosic, adroitly capturing the perspective of a hardscrabble farm mother on the day of her murder, her disturbed teenage son who might also be her killer, and her emotionally damaged daughter twenty years later. It's hard to enjoy a book that's drawing you closer to really awful events, but such is the pull of Flynn's writing that you can't put it down.
Best Book that Made Me Regret Not Having Read David Mitchell Earlier: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Mitchell's prose is gorgeous and he's one of those writers that makes you realize the huge gaps in your education (in this case, eighteenth and nineteenth Japan). It's a really fun, rousing, and romantic read.
Best Things that I Read/Saw That Will Help Me Make Small Talk With Wes Anderson When We Eventually Become Best Friends: Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger. Truffaut's "Day for Night."
Best Celebrity Feud: Neil Hamburger Vs. The World. I think the hardest I laughed in 2010 was at Neil Hamburger's show. His tweets cause me to laugh out loud consistently. If you don't have time to peruse his entire Twitter feed, Screenjunkies.com has compiled some of his best Anti-Yogi Bear thoughts.
Proof You Can Go Home Again: Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game was my jam from late 1984 through mid 1986. I reread it in 1998 and was struck by how dated it was, only because I clearly was a freaking moron in 1998. While perusing The Book Cellar, I bought it as a last-minute Christmas add-on for my niece. When my flight home was delayed by two hours, I dove back in, careful not to break the binding lest I be criticized on Christmas Day by a nine year-old.
Well, twenty-four years later, the book is still fantastic! Couched in a young adult mystery are valuable lessons about bigotry, equality, and a person's immense capacity for change. That scene where the Judge realizes her debt has been paid? Well, let's just say that there was a lot of hard blinking done in Seat 27C on the flight from Midway to Logan.
Winner of Modern Day Ellen Raskin Award: Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me is a modern-day young adult mystery that teaches valuable lessons about bigotry, equality, and a person's immense capacity for change. Stifled sobbing by the end.
December 20, 2010
I make my sheepish Culturephiles return to participate in my favorite type of post --- the year end lists! I thought long and hard as to whether I would look at Martin's list before I posted mine for fear that they would be identical, that this blog is truly dominated by the the same tastes, and that Martin and I are just the same person, with and without glasses. I looked, and my fears were somewhat confirmed. Here's hoping my departures will give my identity/dignity back.
2010 was chock full of great music. I found myself having the following conversation:
Me: You should build some system, or logarithm in iTunes, so you know what you listened to most and why.
Me: What is a logarithm?
Me: I don't know.
Me: I am going to determine my list by A) Albums I returned to over and over, and B) Albums that were adventurous and cohesive.
So here they are, sans math, all feelings:
10. Justin Townes Earle -- Harlem River Blues
Always an admirer but hardly a fan, this album rounded out Earle's sound in a way that I loved. Well crafted songs and great guitar playing; I loved that he wrote a country album about New York, following the simple formula that writing about what you know is always best. If I could find cheap drinking in the East Village, this is what I would play.
9. Das Racist -- Sit Down, Man
There is a lot that I wanted to hate about Das Racist, but the fact of the matter is they are smart, funny and can rhyme. I love the smooth flow on this album that is often accompanied by fractious, off-kilter beats and texture. The lineup of producers on this album gives it an "anything can happen" feel -- more like a mixtape. This is rap for people with no experience hustling on the streets but did well in college.
8. Sufjan Stevens -- Age of Adz
Whe I first listened to this album I wanted to call it "Age of ZZZ." It was so far removed from what I was used to with Sufjan (tinkling/precious/historically-motivated music) that I don't think I gave it a fair chance. Having spent time with it, I'm hooked. There is an insane depth of sound to this record - like Sigur Ros meets Brian Eno. Hopefully his next one will go in a total opposite direction: like a concept album about the presidency of James K. Polk played entirely on dulcimer.
7. Josh Ritter -- So The World Runs Away
Always disliked Josh Ritter. Why? Who knows. If you looked at my iTunes library you'd think he was a shoe-in. Maybe it's because he is
6. A.A.Bondy -- American Hearts
This guy needs more press. Jagged, raw Americana, there is a chance I listened to this album the most in 2010. The playing on "Vice Rag" is great and "American Hearts" will make you wish this milquetoast recession was straight up Dust Bowl.
5. New Pornographers -- Together
I got goosebumps when I heard the opening track of this album. Not a far throw from previous NP's stuff, but who needs departures when Delta has it as their in-flight magazine? It is also Martin's #5 record, so I will stop talking about it now.
4. Broken Bells -- Broken Bells
This album made the list almost solely because of the single "High Road," which may be one of the best pop songs of the last few years. Listening more, I love how James Mercer sings on this album - out in front of the music - whereas with the Shins, he is often buried more. The production is straight Danger Mouse, who has yet to lay his hands on something I don't like. If you like pretending you are in your own movie (who doesn't) listen to "High Road," break up with your girlfriend, and walk around alone in the snow somewhere.
3. Dr. Dog -- Shame, Shame
Another band I have always liked but "Shame, Shame" threw the switch. Holy sh*t are there some great songs on this album. In a year of albums that took some time to access, this was the opposite -- nearly every song is straight hook and and juicy fish.
2. The National -- High Violet
I'm sure you are on the edge of your seat seeing that my #2 is Martin's #1. Everything he said, plus the fact that I have listened to a bunch of their older stuff (pre-Boxer) and it's amazing to hear how far this band has come. Dark and textured, this is an album in it's truest sense. It has an amazing overall feeling and tone -- like a painting. A sad, sad, expensive painting.
1. Jonsi -- Go
This is on so many lists and for good reason. Sigur Ros lead man Jonsi has conjured some Icelandic wizardy on this album. With help from neo-classical composer Nico Muhly (who I once tried to get Martin into) each track on this album feels like it's a delicate, fantastical toy. Some of the toys are robust. Others break in your hands, turn into doves, and shit stars from the sky. All are fun to play with on Christmas morning.
Honorable mentions go to:
Tallest Man on Earth - The Wild Hunt
It took everything I had not to include this. I just got it last week. I will regret this for the rest of my life.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. EP
Didn't make the list because of it's EP status but it's a must get in my opinion.
Black Keys - Brothers
Ceelo Green - The Ladykiller
Local Natives - Airplanes
Well, that was fun. I'll be back, when the lists are due for 2011.
December 17, 2010
December 16, 2010
O'Connor dissects the social politics of train travel, which was pretty fascinating because it was almost an anthropological examination of a rite that doesn't exist anymore. The line for the dining car, the ritual of getting into one's sleeping berth, the fact that you have to talk to the strangers who are your traveling companion (the thought of not being able to hide behind noise-canceling headphones struck a shiver of terror down my spine): all of these are recorded in exacting detail. And in case you've been busy patting yourself on the back for forgetting the helpless terror of unraveling a new social situation, O'Connor captures it in crystalline precision.
December 15, 2010
Well, another year has flown by and The Culturephiles are still hanging on by the skin of our teeth! With the short, cold days of December comes the needed, warming joy of winnowing and ordering all this year's music to a wonderfully arbitrary Top Ten List. What makes a good top ten list to finish off the year? Beats me, but for whatever reason I had an easier time this year than most. Perhaps below I actually nailed it, and created the objectively accurate list of the ten best albums of the year, period! Did I do it? Maybe!!!
1) The National - High Violet
Not flashy, no insane rock & roll pyrotechnics, just great, catchy songs that get more interesting the more you listen to them. With lots of albums: you get them, you essentially put them on 'repeat' until you overdose, and then don't listen to them again for a year. This album is the exception that proves the rule: it's been in near-constant rotation ever since I brought it home (from the Amazon.com store, natch) seven months ago. Muted without being depressing, thoughtful without being wonky, this is simply, purely excellent music from beginning to end. Previously seen here in May.
2) Sun Kil Moon - Admiral Fell Promises
Spare, haunting, claustrophobic stuff. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it'd be tough to find a more spare, haunting, claustrophobic album unless you made an entire album of Ralph Stanley singing spiritual dirges a capella. Previously seen here in November.
3) Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
Largely the opposite of Sun Kil Moon, this is a wonderfully maximalist record! Not many indie rock bands hit #1 on the Billboard charts, even in these modern days of fractured marketplaces and plummeting record sales. Between huge sales and innovative projects, like a live concert streamed on YouTube (directed by Terry Gilliam!?), and Google Earth-powered individualized web-music-videos, the album was not hurting for attention. At the same time, the songs themselves could almost be overlooked in the maelstrom of hype and buzz and cutting-edge marketing. But that would be a mistake, because it's absolutely wonderful music: grandiose, personal, anthemic, simple. And catchy as hell.
4) Dr. Dog – Shame, Shame
While my April write-up in these pages was far from my finest hour -- they can't all be gems, people! -- the album itself is excellent. It's fair to say that Dr. Dog's particular brand of shambling, shaggy, sugary rock & roll deserved better, far better, from me. Great grooves, cool sound, excellent production, and understated lyrical sharpness add up to a superb album.
5) The New Pornographers – Together
More muscular, elegant pop from the undisputed kings and queens of muscular, elegant pop. Previously seen here in May.
6) Horse Feathers - Thistled Spring
Hushed and elegant, my gentlefolkamericana album of the year -- also known as The Hem Award. Previously seen here in July.
7) Mumford and Sons - Sigh No More
After overcoming some initial reservations with this band and album, both have crept up on me. While their songs may be somewhat repetitive in structure, at least their pattern/template is both excellent and something that nobody else is doing (except for perhaps the Avett Brothers who do it slightly better). Previously seen here in July.
8) Ray LaMontagne & The Pariah Dogs - God Willin' and the Creek Don't Rise
A funkier and nuttier album than previous Ray LaMontagne efforts, this may also be, pound-for-pound, his best. Also, not that anybody -- least of all me -- cares about the Grammies, but Ray is up for a bunch, including (craziest of all!) Song of the Year!!! (???) Beats me! The Grammys may be a total waste of time, but this I can get behind! Previously seen here in November.
9) Rogue Wave – Permalight
Solid, catchy pop-rock, previously seen here in March.
10) Junip - Fields
A late addition to this list -- and an album only just recently received as a gift from a friend. There's a persistent drive to this album I love -- a groove, a mood, a vibe, a something. The songs are simple but catchy, perfectly produced, somehow soothing but not sleepy. Suffice it to say, this album almost immediately worked its way into perhaps my most precious iPod playlist: "Albums to Play at Work" (partial list of critical criteria: calming, not soporific, melodic, never irritating).
Lastly, two albums make the Honorable Mention list, since neither are from 2010, but both were discovered and enjoyed this past year. A begrudging tip of the cap to ex-Culturephile Greg for introducing me to both:
Cary Ann Hearts & Michael Trent – Shovels & Rope (2008) Rave from September.
Bill Callahan - Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle (2009)
Presciently profiled by Greg in January!
December 14, 2010
Sentence that indicates you never want to ask Flannery O'Connor, "How do I look?": "Her face was the color of a dead chicken's skin."
Who I would cast in the film version: Nationwide search for Ruller, resulting in the casting of an unknown child actor from Huntsville; Hal Holbrook as the Voice of God; Ginnifer Goodwin as Alice Gilhard
December 12, 2010
Story number four, “The Crop,” is so far my favorite. A spinster maid tries to carve out some time in her day to write a short story. And not just any story, a story of Great Social Importance, and thus she tackles the most appropriate topic to achieve her goal: sharecropping. The story is wry and charming and we quickly identify with Miss Willerton’s Need to Say Something With Her Art. Who hasn’t attempted to write about something they have no business touching with a ten-foot pole? But then Flan pulls the ol’ bait and switch and delineates a lifetime of suffused happiness, making loopy leaps with time to show us the heartbroken machinery that runs poor Miss Willerton. Again, I don’t want to accuse anyone of plagiarism, but Charlie Kaufman, Woody Allen, and Buster Keaton probably owe Miss O’Connor a small percentage of royalties.
Who I would Cast in the Film Version: Miss Willerton: Melissa Leo, Lucia: Amy Madigan, Garner: Hal Holbrook, Lot Motun: Armie Hammer, The Woman: Elizabeth Banks
December 11, 2010
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I suppose it's always hard to judge the next book you read right after reading a book you love. It's hardly fair to poor Keith Gessen and his slim grouping of (sort-of) interlocking stories to immediately follow an awesome, massive novel that was a really beautiful reading experience. So maybe I'm judging more harshly than I would have otherwise, but what can you do?
This was an OK book: I was bored during long stretches, while some sections were skillfully and convincingly written. None of the characters ever really came alive; not enough happened to hold my attention; I didn't particularly care about anything going on. Occasionally my sympathy would be tugged; every once in a while I'd feel a connection. Mostly I just read and read and the words went by and eventually I got impatient and read more quickly so it would be over and I could move on to something else.
I didn't even dislike the book, really, it was just boring, forgettable. Especially in the light of my last book, the bar has already been set so high for writing about relationships in the context of the larger social world, that you really must have extraordinarily keen insights and express them in an effortless, elegant way. The insights offered by this book felt entirely ordinary, the expression nice but nothing special.
Again, this comparison is neither fair nor warranted. It's a pure accident of my reading sequence, but oh well. Part of me is sorry that this book had to be capsized in the massive wake of Freedom, but something had to be. C'est la vie. Moving right along.
December 3, 2010
And so we have "Wildcat," a terrifying story where a blind elderly man fruitlessly warns whoever will listen about the dangers of the wildcat that's been on the prowl for the past few days. His preternatural sense of smell makes him the only one who can sense when the cat is about to attack, but his infirmity and blindness cause others to laugh off his advice. So the reader is treated to nine pages where the old man, alone in his cabin in the middle of the woods, prepares himself for the inevitable showdown. I don't want to say that Hollywood has since stolen this idea, but et tu, Audrey Hepburn? O'Connor ratchets up the tension and probably says some profound things about how death is a predatory beast from whom you can't escape, but I missed all of that because I was too scared of the GIANT FREAKING WILDCAT THAT EATS OLD PEOPLE.
Most beautiful sentence that conveys what it is to be old and blind: "When he woke up, the darkness was full of morning things."
Who I would cast in the movie version: James Pickens, Jr. (with old age make-up and white contacts)
Had I read either of the two New York Times reviews of Freedom before reading the book myself, I’d be furious! So much of the book is wrecked, so many plot points blown, and such wonderful discoveries unearthed prematurely. Furious! Yet avoiding reviews also creates a weird conundrum: how do I determine what is good and what I might enjoy reading if reviews are off-limits? Do people read reviews to determine whether they should read a book anymore?
I would hate to imagine reading Freedom after getting the ruinously detailed inside scoop from Sam Tanenhaus. Why do the able reviewers in the best newspapers feel compelled to spoil vast swaths of the book in question, while still remaining purposefully vague in a way that I suppose is meant to entice? In trying to please too many people, they please no one (well, maybe they just don’t please me): I can’t read the review beforehand because too much gets spoiled, and the intentional vagueness makes it less than interesting to read afterwards.
A dividing line must be drawn at last when it comes to book reviews! If you are going to discuss the plot of a book in your review, just go ahead and do it in detail: I will then avoid your review like the plague until I’m finished. After I finish the book for myself, I can then read your detailed review to compare your thoughts against my own. If you’re writing your review to sway public opinion – “read this, not this” – then don’t say anything about the plot. Just convince me of the merits (or lack thereof) of the book and keep your trap shut about the rest!
Therefore, I call, here and now, for an explicit distinction between book PREviews and REviews! One will excite us about books, and give us the salient info we need to make our reading decisions: style, tone, setting, similar works, maybe even a character name or two if necessary; the other will help us ruminate, dissect, and evaluate.
The best PREview I read came from Esquire, which managed to stoke my interest in the book, make a number of salient points, and not ruin the entire plot. Well done, Esquire.
But the aforementioned New York Times devoted tons and tons of words (two separate reviews!) to telling us about the characters, plot, and so forth – casually destroying much of the fun and adventure of opening a brand-new book – while persistently skirting any genuine analysis because, I can only presume, they don’t want to blatantly ruin the entire book. Well guess what, clowns? You HAVE ruined it! So go ahead and actually give me some full and unabashed criticism! This wishy-washy back-and-forth middle-of-the-road garbage is garbage.
Realistically, in the world of blogs and the internet, we ought to rely on places like the NYTimes to give us those enticing PREviews – published on the day of the books’ release, and then rely on book blogs like The Millions and periodicals like The New Yorker to actually get in there and digest.
Sure, reviews like the Times’ don’t spoil everything, but they spoil more than enough. Why read them? I’m sure high-powered newspaper reviewers won’t take kindly to removing the tiny shards of analysis with which they lace their reviews, but if you really want to show off your scholarly insight, do it right, do it thoroughly, and take it to the New York Review of Books or something.
December 2, 2010
O’Connor (who wrote the story while enrolled in Iowa’s Writer's Workshop at the age of thirteen, I believe) perfectly captures that feeling of powerlessness when you get blindsided by an outrageous comment. It’s one of the small sadnesses of life that our dialogue isn’t written by Ben Hecht or Aaron Sorkin, and we have to rely on our own inarticulate mumblings to make it through the day. As the story’s protagonist, Rayber, gets bullied by his hectoring barber over who he’s voting for, his own attempts at verbal combat only serve to make him appear increasingly pathetic and hapless. It’s perhaps the best “Seinfeld” episode set within the segregated South.
Who I Would Cast in the film version: Jason Alexander/Paul Giamatti as Rayber, Bruce McGill as the barber, Hal Holbrook as the racist businessman
December 1, 2010
My tribute to one of America's premier authors, as well as my rip-off of Robert Osborne's yearly celebration every March on TCM, was sparked by the fact that Ms. O'Connor remains entrenched in the pantheon of Authors I Should Have Read, But Haven't. I've tried to break the seal, having (maybe) read "A Good Man is Hard to Find" sometime in high school or college. I even stole Martin's copy of the eponymous collection for several months, although it remained unopened on my bedside table the entire time.
But when I was home for Thanksgiving, I realized that my mother unwittingly had purchased two copies of "Flannery O'Connor: The Complete Stories." Surely she wouldn't mind if I pinched her forgotten edition of the thirty-seventh printing, with its distinctive peacock cover and seemingly uncracked spine? She assented, and I got to work.
As luck would have it, there are 31 stories in "The Complete Stories," and this symmetry to number of days in the month sparked my grand idea. I will read one story a day, post my reaction to it, and end the month a better, more interesting person.
Which brings us to "The Geranium." Right away I got depressed. O'Connor writes so masterfully and creates such a full world within such an economy of space, that you lament what she could have done with Twitter. But I live in the moment, and felt this story (written, I believe, when she was eleven) served as a solid introduction to her work. Her depiction of a widower spending his dotage in his daughter's apartment building, sustained by the sight of a geranium across the way, somehow encapsulates so many aspects of the human condition in just twelve pages. O'Connor deftly handles loneliness, aging, racism, and the solitary aspect of city living with aplomb. By the end, after you've tackled the suitably downbeat ending, you're sustained by her gorgeous prose and ready for more. You feel like you've been slapped, but you're ready for more.
Who I would cast in the film version: Hal Holbrook, Allison Janney, Mos Def
*Desperate to know my hilarious take on "The Town?" Too bad! It remains unwritten in my brain.