Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Some Good Stuff in a Terrible Time

Monday, August 14th, 2017

This is a wonderful movie. The more Kumail Nanjiani in my life (and, I hope, in yours) the better.

This is a beautiful book. Sometimes I have the sense that Alexie is a stuntman first and a writer second (though this quietly arresting story is 100% stunt-free), and for me, the jury was out for the first 25% or so of his new memoir. But the book won me over and then bowled me over. His voice is so singular, and his willingness to open his wounds is astonishing. Plus, You Don’t Have To is a primer on the power of repetition. Alexie uses it to harrowing effect.

This is a thing you can do, at least theoretically (calendar is currently booked up), that would make your life better.

This is a series of incredibly smart, compassionate videos about how to connect with other humans.

This, this, and this are good places to donate money.

This is a website dedicated to wonder.

This is a place to see something new.

Two Breathtakingly Humane Novels

Monday, July 17th, 2017

1

David Grossman wrote one of my all-time favorite novels, To the End of the Land, which is also one of the most openly, unapologetically racking novels I’ve ever read. (I find myself equal parts wanting-to-read-it-again and bracing-against-the-incoming-pain.) As of a month ago, I had yet to attempt any of his others novels, although I’ve been meaning to. Then A Horse Walks into a Bar won the Man Booker International prize. And while I’m generally against prizes, I do have a soft spot for the Booker. So I read the novel. And it is brilliant.

A Horse Walks into a Bar takes place in a single evening, during a performance that is supposed to be stand-up comedy but is actually a largely improvised one-man show, the details of which—i.e., both the performance and the content of the performance—become increasingly harrowing as the evening wears on. There is plenty of flashback, and Grossman raises the stakes (which is he so good at doing) by placing people in the audience who are relevant in surprising ways. The pacing is perfect. The characterization is unbelievably (i.e., super-believably) distinct. And the pain, the pain, the pain: It’s right there again, right out front. Grossman’s ability to inhabit and explore pain is a marvel to me.

2

I read every Elizabeth Strout novel as soon as it’s released, and her newest—Anything is Possibleis my favorite. It’s more a series of connected short stories than it is a novel, although I was left with the feeling of having inhabited a unified world and completed a coherent arc. Nearly every chapter begins with the feeling of a small life being lived in a small town, and then the floor falls out from underneath us and the stakes go through the roof (mixed metaphor), and we’re living in the biggest tragedies there are.

It’s such a masterful work of narrative. I was reminded of Alice Munro, both in the gentle unraveling of plot and in the shocking surprises that wake us up from what we thought was a provincial stupor. Additionally, Strout is astonishingly skilled at developing character in a few deft strokes; after only a couple of remarks or a short internal monologue, we know these people so well. Riveting and gorgeous and humane. I wished it were longer.

The Gifts of Art: May Edition

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017

Of all the things I’ve been reading, listening to, and watching, here’s what moved me the most in the past month:

The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Is there anyone more charming than W. Kamau Bell? Reading this book feels like sitting down with somebody who is not only smart and hilarious and feeling but kind and forgiving and connected*. I’d listen to what he has to say on any topic at all. Fortunately, there are many ways to do that, including multiple podcasts and one-offs and interviews. For what it’s worth, though, this book is my favorite iteration of Bell yet. It feels so eminently him.

*There’s an asterisk here, because Bell has said on more than one occasion (and he says in the book) that his amicability is in some ways an appeasement/apology for the fact that he’s a tall black guy. He’s trying to connect across race lines, and he’s excellent at that, and/but there’s a calculation in it that’s a response to racism, and that makes me wonder which parts of him we’re missing out on. I am in no way blaming him for using a tool that’s working. I’m sad for him and pissed at the world that he has to.

Manchester By the SeaEver since You Can Count on Me, which remains one of my favorite movies of all time, I’ve been in the tank for Kenneth Lonergan. I’d have been first in line to see Manchester in the theaters if it hadn’t been two hours long (back pain); I’ve been waiting for a streaming option, and it’s here; John and I watched as soon as we could. Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow. The layering on of the backstory is masterful. The emotional build is earned and real. The payoffs are quiet and delicate and spot-on. It’s all exactly as you would want it to be without having been able to imagine it until you’re seeing it. It was, in short, the best movie I’ve seen in an age—and contrary to what people said about its capacious sadness, I felt uplifted by it. It is undeniably sad, but it’s sad in a way that breaks you open, if you let it. And that, as we know, is when the light streams in.

Master of None, Season 2I know, I know, everybody loves it, but THAT IS BECAUSE IT IS BEAUTIFUL. In particular, the episodes “New York: I Love You” and “Thanksgiving” are ebullient and loving portraits of regular people of color having regular life experiences, with an undercurrent of compassion and Ansarian joy in the world. In fact, the whole season is infused with Ansari’s joy and wonder at living, from his adorable celebratory chants with Arnold (“Eating in Italy is my favorite thing!”) to the gorgeous wide shots of Italian and American exteriors (and interiors: heads up, Brooklyn Museum!), to the deliciously lugubrious music, to his pleasure at simple memes (“Allora”). And while some people seem disappointed or frustrated with the love story, I think Ansari, Yang, and team actually do a remarkable job at portraying a very specific and understandable and relatable kind of excruciation. I wish that the love interest hadn’t been yet another white woman (the season is otherwise solid at presenting women of color in romantic roles), but they were in Italy, so there is some justification for it.

I Am Not Your Negro: From end to end, this film is a scorching fire of righteousness, and it’s smarter and more beautiful and more gutting and decimating and enraging than anything I can possibly say about it, except just go see it and feel it and take it in. And then, perhaps, do some kind of thing that will inch us forward in some kind of way, especially in this era of rekindled white supremacy. They’re shouting things they used to whisper, and we need to step up and SURJ.

April Books and Movie

Sunday, April 23rd, 2017

Four “highly recommendeds” for your springtime enjoyment (and dismay):

1.  Ghettoside, Jill Leovy. Gripping account not only of a particular murder and subsequent investigation in L.A. in 2007 but of a policing and criminal justice system that is deeply failing black people and especially black men. One of the big surprises of the book is the idea that poor communities of color are vastly underpoliced, not overpoliced; in South Central L.A. as in any community of any ethnicity in any country, underpolicing  creates a gap of lawless instability that gets filled in by a street code. Fascinating and horrifying.

2. Zadie Smith, Swing Time. Really engrossing novel that contains layers of racial, social, and psychological complexity in a story that never stops being fascinating. I love that we stay with one (unnamed) narrator throughout the novel. I love that the novel is more or less her internal monologue, tracing the various in ways in which her awareness dawns over time. I love that things keep turning slightly on their axes, so our perspective shifts and the view changes, and I love that the story has stayed with me.

3. O.J.: Made in America. Hoo-boy. Harrowing and haunting and humane. Despite its length, there’s plenty that got left out — a discussion of football-related traumatic brain injury, a more general look at domestic violence (the specifics of O.J’s violence against Nicole Brown are documented) — but what’s there is incredibly important and, to me, brought layers of contextual understanding to a story that I failed to grasp at the time. Had I not been watching with John (which slowed things down, given his limited tolerance for crime-related anything), I’d have binged it in one or two sittings and walked away in a daze of dark horror and grief.

4. Tim Kreider, We Learn Nothing. Incredibly smart, palpably felt, hilarious, and exceptionally perceptive personal essays on topics like friendship and politics and love, all of it examined with so much honesty and originality and integrity that I felt I was constantly waking up to things I might have known but had never named. In other words, it was a richly satisfying experience, and I was sorry it had to end. More, Tim Kreider, more! (Apparently, he cartooned relatively feverishly re: politics in the Bush era but hasn’t published much else by way of the personal essay. There’s a new book coming out in 2018, from its title I’m going to assume we’re staying with the less political and more personal.)

Amid the Chaos, Outrage, and Horror, Two Books

Thursday, January 26th, 2017

I didn’t intend for it to be this way—I read what I read, when I read it, for somewhat arbitrary reasons—but each of these books throws some light on the current state of affairs:

1) Trainwreck, by Sady Doyle. Incredibly cogent feminist criticism, written in gorgeous sentences, with dark humor. What could be better than that?

I had wondered, before reading this book, whether its focus would be too narrow to bear meaningfully on the life of your average woman (i.e., moi), but Doyle is using celebrity “trainwrecks” as a lens through which to view misogyny in our entire culture, so . . . no. The answer is most definitely no. I loved every last page!

2) The Undoing Project, by Michael Lewis. There’s nobody better at spinning a chewy yarn (yes, mixed metaphor, unless you spin yarn made of . . . meat?) from a non-fiction phenomenon that’s influencing our lives without our knowing it. He’s doing it again here, and there are two fascinating lines of story: 1) the friendship between Amos Tversky and Danny Kahneman, and 2) the discoveries the two of them made about the inadequacies of the human mind. There are times when it feels like Lewis is overselling—there’s drama enough in the facts—but those are relatively few.

Ideally, a book like this would sow healthy seeds of doubt into certainty of any kind, on any position. We already know that certainty does not correlate with accuracy; now we can also know the specific ways in which our thinking fails us. That we seem to be moving farther and farther into a world of tyrannical bullying and bullying tyranny where government propaganda is issued almost hourly and believed by a portion of the populace . . . That is a sentence that today, I do not know how to end.

It’s my first post of the new year. In the coming months, I hope the human mind’s well-documented inability to predict the future proves 100% true. In other words, I’m seeing terrible things ahead, and I would love to be wrong.

November Two-Fer

Friday, November 25th, 2016

Two Highly Recommendeds in one post:

1) Moonlight. It’s just as gorgeous (and as gutting) as reported. The direction is so taut, the acting so contained (it’s almost all in the faces), the mood so encompassing . . . and the end, my friends, the end. I still feel wrecked by the end. What a perfect last moment, capping a perfectly composed film. Cue sobbing.

2) The Wangs versus the World, by Jade Chang. A funny, compassionate, intelligent, and sneakily ambitious debut novel about a once-wealthy Chinese-American family that has gone bankrupt. It’s a warm, companionable book—the kind you don’t want to step away from—but it doesn’t shy away from showing you things you didn’t know.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody. I hope it was a good one.

September Culture Update

Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

As loyal readers may recall, I have a saying about this time of year: “When it’s September, it’s December.” In past seasons, I’ve enjoyed the rapid free-fall into the holidays, but this year I’m experiencing some freak-out. There’s a lot I’d like to accomplish before the calendar turns over into another year. But honestly, rather than attempt to get it all done, I’m probably going to have to breathe into some lower expectations. Sanity matters! As does my physical health.

Meanwhile, a culture update:

1) American-Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang. Delightful, surprising, funny, and smart graphic memoir about the author’s experiences as the only Chinese-American in his school—what it felt like, how he coped, and what happened when he attempted to date. His story is braided together with the ancient Chinese fable of the Monkey-King, which is not only beautifully (and hilariously) rendered but which pays off in unpredictable ways. I found the book perfectly composed, both at the level of the frame and the level of the story. Highly recommended.

2) Season 3 of BoJack Horseman, Netflix. A look at Wikipedia reveals that I am not alone in my assessment of this show. I set the first season down after a couple of episodes and didn’t bother to check out Season 2. But when someone I trusted recommended the third season, I gave it a shot, and I could not stop watching—and exclaiming wonder. It’s not just smarter and funnier; it’s deeper. BoJack is now just as likable as he is lost; his relationships matter, and so does the arc of every other character (even/especially Sarah Lynn). Plus, the storytelling has become wildly innovative, with techniques I’d never seen before (but instantly understood). No opportunity has been overlooked; every moment is densely packed with gifts from the writers. LOVED it.

3) A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry. Another rec from people I respect, and I agree that it’s fantastic and important; I learned a tremendous, crushing amount about India during the Emergency years. But I could barely tolerate it. As I wrote to a friend, the quotient of brutality and injustice essentially broke me, such that I felt my heart closing (and my eyes squinting). The title refers to life’s supposed balance between what is intolerable and what is beautiful, and to me, this book lands heavily in the intolerable camp. Still, I can’t blame a book for an honest portrayal. And the beauty is there. One of my mothers-in-law told me that she found A Fine Balance especially memorable; she read it many years ago and still thinks of it.

4) Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Charming, hilarious, heartfelt story of a foster kid and his antisocial foster father, on the lam in the New Zealand bush. Watch the trailer; it’s everything you imagine it will be, and then some. Emotionally rewarding. Muchos tears. A good movie to see with the hubband, if your husband loves wilderness, feelings, kindness, and teenagers.

Happy December!

Four Excellent New Things

Monday, July 18th, 2016

Two highly recommended reads, a stripped-raw and gobsmackingly brave confessional, and the funniest podcast I’ve ever heard:

1. We Were Feminists Once, Andi Zeisler. The co-founder of Bitch magazine (for which [full disclosure] I penned a few features, back in the day) writes beautifully, passionately, and wittily about the depressing co-optation of feminism by popular culture. Her point is that the transmutation of feminism into a “go-girl” individualist cheer, entirely decoupled from political action, leaves behind the actual societal shifts we desperately need to enact. It also puts the onus of empowerment on individual women, ignoring the structures that have been in place for centuries which prevent/limit/undermine women’s achievement.

At the same time, pop culture’s version of feminism (“feminism”) leeches the power from what is supposed to be a political and social movement by rendering it “judgmental” to call out specific actions as unfeminist. In other words, as long as any woman chooses to do something, we’re told that implying that she might be choosing against the common good is wrong and even anti-feminist. SIGH. At any rate, Once is a fantastic book and a reminder that the work of feminism is very much unfinished. It’s also fiercely entertaining, for whatever that’s worth.

2. I’m Just a Person, Tig Notaro. I read a lot of memoirs by comedians, in addition to a lot of comedic memoirs, and I feel conflicted about them. I find the genre compelling and funny, which is its point. I also love getting to know more about people whose work I admire. But it’s almost inevitable that writers joke lightly about what I take to be serious things, laughing over their pain. It can feel like they’re selling out their wounds for a laugh, which . . . I know, I know. That formulation applies basically to all of comedy, right? That’s kind of what stand-up is? And yet there’s something about the book version of it that amplifies my discomfort and sorrow. I wish everyone had the permission to let the bad shit be as bad as the bad shit actually is.

Cue Tig Notaro’s recent memoir. It’s certainly funny, at times, and it’s always compelling. But mostly it’s real and heartfelt and well told and emotionally present. She’s not trying to make her suffering smaller. It’s the opposite, in fact: She’s diving deep into the details of her now infamous Four Months of Extreme Agony, in which she nearly died from a bacterial infection, her romantic relationship broke up, her mother died in a freak accident, she was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts, and she had a double mastectomy. It’s all right there in the title: Hey, I’m a person with all of the terror and confusion and conflicts and non-knowing that everyone else has, and/but I’m happy to share that with you in my very specific and charming and humble voice. Beautifully done.

3. Elna Baker’s recent segment on This American Life. To say too much about this piece would be to risk ruining its many heart-plundering surprises, so I mostly want to recommend a listen. It’s not long, but it is dense, packed with moments of epiphany and wonder that you’ll need to press Pause on. I had already listened once when I shared it with John, and by the end, his entire face had cracked open and his eyes were wet with tears. I almost can’t believe the degree to which Elna Baker is willing to be publicly vulnerable, particularly because she is in the middle of what she’s relating; she’s taking us through a new, raw, and frightening crisis that’s currently playing out for her and for her marriage. I bow in deference and in gratitude.

4. My Dad Wrote a Porno. A podcast in which a thirty-year old British guy reads his father’s self-published pornography, line by line, and he and his two charming friends deconstruct it. This is the stuff of gut-clenching hilarity, and you don’t even have to feel bad about it, since the father (whose pen name is Rocky Flintstone, natch) is delighted. Just a few quick deets to help convey the beauty of this project:

  • The book is called Belinda Blinked.
  • The heroine’s full name is Belinda Blumenthal.
  • Belinda is a sales manager for Steeles Pots and Pans. Not Steeles Kitchen Supply. Not Steeles Restaurant Wares. Steeles Pots and Pans.
  • Rocky tends to use overly medical terminology to describe female genitalia—and/but he doesn’t have a clear understanding of the landscape. At one point, for example, Belinda’s partner “grabs her cervix.”
  • There is a sex-slave situation in which the safe word is “thimble.”

Start at the beginning, because the jokes build. And don’t listen while riding your bike! There have been accidents!

The Perks of Being a Bedflower

Thursday, May 19th, 2016

I wasn’t planning to spend the bulk of two weeks in bed, no matter how many times I’ve fantasized about it (flashback to 12-year-old me, huddled over a science test, realizing with sudden and self-knowing rue that if only I’d had control over my own life, my first choice for time-spending would involve bed and a book), but hey, my spine does things. And this time, it decided to go on a major strike. Not a petty little Day Without a Melissa. Nope: This was a full-on, massively coordinated, all-points-bulletin French transit strike. Nobody was going anywhere. For weeks.

I made the best of it. And by best, I mean I read books and watched shows. Here’s what rose to the top:

1) Carrie Brownstein, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. I love the way Brownstein writes—and thinks; i.e., with a smart and sensitive specificity of voice, of herness. I love that this book is so much about how hard it is to tour, as opposed to the glamour that we all project onto entertainment. I love how vital and vivid and evolving her relationship to music is, what it means to her, what she gives to and gets from it. I love what she says about fans’ needs (that they’re bottomless) and how she has to protect herself from them. I love how honest she is about her difficulty in relationships; she refers achingly to romances she wishes had lasted, admitting, in some cases, that she doesn’t understand why they didn’t. Brownstein writes with a plain rawness that doesn’t apologize or pander. It might be defense, but it comes across as power.

2) Lindy West, Shrill. And here’s an entirely different way to be powerful as a woman: big, proud, and loud. This is an absolutely fantastic book, a gorgeous and hilarious and enraging and fiery manifesto by someone who is really killing it as a woman and a person in the world. I can’t recommend it highly enough, for everyone everywhere doing anything. I’m immensely grateful to West for having the guts and the willingness and the strength to keep advocating for human decency (also known as feminism) despite the ceaseless stream of hate that’s directed at her. She’s brilliant and glorious and should be elected not merely president but also queen.

3) Transparent, Season 2. I was an enthusiastic fan of Season 1, but 2? OMG OMG OMG. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the topic of Jewish trauma, and more specifically what Eckhart Tolle refers to as the pain body—as I understand it, the trauma that is passed down through a people over generations—explored so overtly on the screen. And it’s executed so incredibly beautifully, so feelingly, that it’s electrifying. Half the time, I couldn’t believe what I was watching: how smart it was, how careful, how knowing, how deep. Jill Soloway is showing us things we’ve never seen before but that we instantly recognize; another word for that is naming. And she’s doing it with tremendous compassion as well as aesthetic integrity.

4) And . . . um . . . Gilmore girls [sic]? I obviously feel guilty about this, given its Height of Twee, plus the fact that every single character—except, notably, Emily (and Dean, but he has no traits!) (and Jess, but he doesn’t speak!)—speaks in Lorelai. They even put patter into Luke’s mouth, which snips the strings of my suspended disbelief every time. The fast-forward function is important with this show, because there’s an awful lot of filler.

That said, there’s plenty of beauty, too, in the form of strong dramatic moments between mother and daughter that feel loaded and messy in all the right ways. The central premise of Lorelai/Rory/Emily is incredibly rich, such that even in the fifth season, there’s new stuff to mine (although again, retreading is rampant; hence the FF). As a binge-watcher I’ve also noticed the show’s crypto-Jewish sensibility, which is something that escaped me way back in the early oughts, when I would now and again catch an episode on actual television (but would always stop watching b/c of the twee).

One thing I wish: Why can’t they give Rory a boyfriend who’s worthy of her? Lorelai gets them. I understand that the show needs conflict, but I’d be happier if the conflict came from a more authentic place, as opposed to “Dean is a townie with no personality,” “Jess is a bad boy who at all costs remains mute,” and now, ugh, we’re on the path to getting “Logan is an entitled asshole who isn’t even remotely attractive, so WHY WHY WHY?” We’ll see whether I make it into Seasons 6 and 7, about which I have heard depressing things.

Another thing I wish: Less racism. (None, actually, would be my preference.) It’s not just the lack of diversity but where they place the characters of color. I just watched, in horror, as Rory “returned” the African-American chauffeur to Logan, saying, “I fed Frank.” Because Frank is both property to be returned to his rightful owner and an animal that needs to be fed. (Never mind that Frank was with Rory for nearly 24 hours and would have needed more than one meal, not to mention a place to sleep, not to mention relief from a legally appropriate 8-hour-shift.) HOW did the people producing this show miss THAT one?

Macbeth, Again

Monday, February 22nd, 2016

After seeing last night’s Berkeley Rep performance of Macbeth (with Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth, yo!), it was fun to cycle back to my blog entry of 6.5 years ago, after we’d seen the show at OSF. I was reminded of how electrified I was by the OSF performance, which was useful in light of—well, of feeling not a whole lot of anything after the Rep production. (Sorry, Berkeley Rep! The run is either entirely or very nearly sold out, so . . . I doubt this review [reaching, as it will, multiple tens of people] will decrease sales.)

I think the problem was the direction, which made me notice everything that’s weird about the play, especially the pacing. For instance, why is the annoying scene between Malcolm and Macduff, where Malcolm pretends to be abjectly sinful to test Macduff’s loyalty to Scotland, so freaking interminable? Do most directors just cut it from the play? I was also surprised by how brief Lady Macbeth’s hand-washing scene is (though: nicely done, Frances McDormand) as well as Macbeth’s “tomorrow” speech. And then there’s the fact that so many very important things happen in a flash and offstage—the killing of Duncan, the death of Lady Macbeth—whereas the slaying of Macduff’s wife and children, which is admittedly horrifying and important but which you would not expect to see, given the above, is dramatized.

During the Rep production I was struck by how unjustified Lady Macbeth’s murderous ambition is. I mean, maybe this is the sort of thing where Shakespeare is writing for King James, so he can’t imply that a man who became King of Scotland (apparently for 10 years!) would have murdered his predecessors, but wasn’t that just part of Scottish history? (I suppose kings aren’t exactly known for their ability to tolerate reality.) Either way, the play gives the initial impetus to kill Duncan to Lady Macbeth, and . . . I just wasn’t buying it this time around. She gets the letter from Macbeth about the witches’ prophesy, and that’s enough to convince her to plot the murder of a beloved king?

Funnily enough, I think costuming was at issue here. In the OSF production, Lady Macbeth was dressed in a velvet crimson gown (the only spot of color in an otherwise black/gray set and costume-scape); it was as though she was already bathed in blood, and she was instantly identifiable as a site of power. The Rep chose to go full-on period piece (i.e., 1040ish), with costumes in layers of drab cotton and linen, which left Frances McDormand in an Eileen Fisher-style getup (no makeup or hair, either) that broadcast vulnerability, not power. The raw unadornment of this look also siphoned impact away from the sleepwalking scene, in which Lady Macbeth is supposed to be shockingly unraveled and exposed; in the Rep production, she looked exactly the same.

Another costuming issue: With actors playing multiple parts, the costuming should have been different enough to avoid confusion. It wasn’t—to the point where it looked as though Macduff were in the forest with the murderers when they ambushed Banquo and Fleance. Turns out it was just the Third Murderer, looking exactly (literally exactly) like Macduff.

There was some silly staging, too, where characters ran in place, toward the audience, while video of a receding forest was projected on a screen behind them. The audience had to stifle laughter. Oh, and so many cawing crows! I joked to John that Macbeth was most certainly the Thane of CAWdor.

On the other hand, great banquet scene. I’d never seen it played both for horror and for laughs, and while I was a bit worried that the director intended otherwise (i.e., just horror, no laughs), John convinced me that it was a good thing either way.

An addendum to my 2009 question re: witches: Last night I learned from a sign hanging in the bathroom that King James was obsessed with witches, to the tune of writing a book called Demonology and advocating for witch hunts. (That’s . . . not great.) So, now I have a basic answer to “Why witches?”, although it doesn’t explain their aesthetic or thematic purpose in the play.

Bottom line: I wish the director had made a host of different choices. I’d also really like to see a production that isn’t done with such obvious genre tropes but is still horrifying. Like, what if everything were extremely stylish and minimal? Maybe a Calvin Klein version?