Archive for the ‘Highly Recommended’ Category

Bounty (or Long Time Gone)

Thursday, April 5th, 2018

I didn’t slide into the new year so much as crash-land on a series of boulders, some (most?) of which were self-created, as is my way. (When I will learn, friends? When?) At any rate, I’ve finally come around to a schedule open enough to write a catch-up blog entry. So here are my favorite books and movies from the previous few months:


H is for Hawk: Caveat: I was forewarned that the sections on T.H. White featured bad things happening to animals (animal?), so I skimmed those while trying to take in the gist of what Macdonald has to say about him and what he’s meant to her. (I hope I did.) This book is so lusciously, broodingly evocative of a time, place, and mood. It feels historical, natural, British, and hawkish while being personal, too, tracing Macdonald’s psychology while she flees from the pain of her father’s sudden death into the agony and wild glee of raising a goshawk. I tend to prefer psychology to natural history, but Macdonald’s weaving of the two works magnificently to bring us into her grief-stricken (and sometimes ferocious) world. And oh, her vocabulary! Her poetry of description! She can capture the smell of the English cloud cover.

I Wrote This Book Because I Love You: Remember when I read We Learn Nothing and panted with anticipation over the forthcoming release of Kreider’s next book, about his romantic relationships? That book is no longer forthcoming: It’s out, and I inhaled it in a couple of sittings (lyings-down) while we were at Wilbur. Kreider is wickedly intelligent, riotously funny, and surprisingly insightful about why his romantic involvements do and don’t lead where he does and doesn’t want them to. And contrary to my earlier surmising, he manages to get plenty of politics in there, too. So much is quotable. Here’s one of my favorites:

“A couple of days ago I got dumped — first-world problem, I know. It’s not as if it’s a heart attack; it’s just a rejection of your whole self by the person who knew you best.”

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine: I don’t think I’ve ever recommended a book I couldn’t finish, but wow, this novel. It’s a scathing indictment of the emptiness and superficiality and privilege of popular culture’s body and dating obsession, written largely through narrated and recursive references to invented commercials and television shows. (Sounds perfect, right?) The problem for me is that its characters, in the thrall of those superficial obsessions, are gutted; they’re nearly empty of emotions or opinions or will, so I couldn’t stick with them. But I saw the genius.


Autumn: This is one of those books which, like J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (high on my list of literary masterpieces), manages to capture enormous themes in small or single acts, so that you feel as though you’re reading the world in a poem. If that makes it sound precious or boring, it’s a disservice; I whipped through the novel in a day or two over the holidays, stunned by Smith’s fantastic writing, pulled in by her thoughtful characters, and dismayed that I hadn’t heard of her earlier. (Thank you, mothers-in-law!) Not only does Smith evoke the stunned and foreboding feeling of a post-Brexit England in the simple daily actions of her protagonist; she also calls back across the generations to historical resonances and calls across the human experience to encompass universal themes like friendship, love, home, belonging, identity, and more. Incredible to know that there are three more coming in the series! Winter is already out and, of course, on my list.

The Answers: A Novel: One of my favorite books in recent memory. Similar in theme to both You Too (above) and Made for Love (below) but an inch closer to living in the recognizable current world. There’s rabbit-holing here, too, into the consciousness of a young woman who is also unformed, and partly misformed (definitely misinformed) by a home-schooled, off-grid, survivalist childhood with a fundamentalist father in the woods. But in this case, she’s not sitting in front of the television but participating in a couple of fascinating experiments in her pursuit of meaning and a self, and intersecting with those same pursuits in men who have more power, money, entitlement, and defensive internal architecture than she does. Lacey’s writing is impeccable and mesmerizing and surprising in all the best ways.

Made for Love: Is there such a thing as farcical literary near-future fiction? There is now! Although: I don’t want to brand this marvelous, rollicking, bizarro-genius novel with any labels, given how generous and hilarious and expansive it is. It’s the kind of book you didn’t know could exist until you read it, with a way of looking at the world that feels both searingly relevant and jauntily askew. I kept losing my lower jaw to the floor, wonderstruck that we were going where we were going — but Nutting’s writing is so assured that I just shrugged and joined the ride. I kept turning to John and saying, “I can’t — I don’t — There aren’t — You have to read this!”


Isle of Dogs: Simultaneously everything that’s great about Wes Anderson (which: plenty) and everything that isn’t. The great: Gorgeously composed, fanatically art-directed shots jammed with visual wit; winningly quirky characters whose sincerity is stylishly tempered by a wash of ennui; and still, actual emotional stakes. The not-great: A world made up almost entirely of men/male animals, in which women serve either as assistants, love interests, or (usually) both*; and cultural appropriation that (despite apparent attempts at harm reduction) still feels unconscious — especially in the character of the American exchange student, who while being a girl with power (which in small part counters the previous point) is also a White Person Savior. Here’s some great writing about this Anderson problem; here’s more; and here’s a discussion by the good people at Pop Culture Happy Hour, which is what pointed me to same.

*Once in a while there is a mother, if Angelica Houston is available. (In this film, which is animated, she is credited as a Mute Dog.)

Brad’s Status: I’ve been a Mike White fan since Chuck & Buck, and I’ll always be grateful to School of Rock for having been instrumental in my hiring for a movie-reviewer gig at a national syndicate back in the day. But for my tastes, White truly came into his own with his brilliant HBO series Enlightenment, whose cancellation I experienced as a blow. (Laura Dern’s character, gripped between the potentially mutually undermining forces of moral rectitude and psychological instability, had just reached the top of her outrage arc, and it was anything but clear what would happen next.) When I heard White’s excruciating interview about his personal status anxiety on . . . what? Where did I hear that? Oh, the problem of incessant podcast-listening! Anyway it was somewhere, and I heard it and knew I would be first in line for Brad’s Status. Except it flew in and out of the theaters (WHY), so I missed it. And it’s so good! Uncomfortable to watch, yes; there was a moment when John and I got up from the couch to get snacks, and, before we returned, looked at each other in “Here-we-go-again” resignation. But it is such a precise and accurate portrait of a man caught in a toxic value system and batted about by its giant, destructive paws.

Call Me By Your Name: Gorgeous to watch, sublimely sensual, impeccably paced, joyously simple. I stumbled over one (admittedly very large) thing, and that was the character of Oliver. I couldn’t tell whether the problem was in the writing, the directing, or the acting — some of each? Although the writing can’t have set Armie Hammer up for success — but I found Oliver pompous and chilly and boring, almost a caricature of (American) intellectual pretension, and appealing only in his physical beauty, which is not enough to sustain the kind of love Elio feels. Or if it is (Elio is seventeen, an age not known for its discernment), the movie should know that, but it doesn’t; it tells us time and again that Oliver is universally lovable and universally beloved. I wish he were. Meanwhile, Timothee Chalamet.


The Florida Project: Impeccable, gutting storytelling that’s not as painful to watch as I’d feared. (Any movie that puts children or animals in harm’s way is a squint-and-suffer experience for me.) There’s plenty of joy and wonder here, too, and love. Director and co-writer Sean Baker has so much compassion for his characters that even as we watch a young mother make disastrous choices, we root for her, and even as we know we’re spiraling toward irrevocable consequences, we wish mightily for a happy ending we know can’t possibly come. Vivid, memorable, and electrifying, with a final shot that made me gasp.

November Culture Haul

Friday, November 10th, 2017

A few Highly Recommendeds for your holiday season enjoyment:

1) Vacationland, by John Hodgman. I’ve always had more of a wish to connect with Hodgman’s work than an ability to, much to my own consternation. But now that he’s written a memoir, we’re in business! I found this book so tonally winning—not just hilarious (though definitely that) but also warmly convivial. His persona is self-deprecating without being self-hating, and rather than confining himself to the priggish, sterile caricature he has such a talent for inhabiting (I mean that as a compliment) (and I’m thinking of his podcast), he allows room for tenderness and love. The result is far more nuanced, rounded, and emotionally connected than anything else I’ve seen him do, and I loved every minute of it.

2) American Vandal on Netflix. Over at Pop Culture Happy Hour, a podcast I can never recommend enough, Linda Holmes has a name for this genre of media: “a parody of the thing that is also the thing.” In this case, it’s a (fake, invented) true-crime documentary that masterfully reproduces every convention of the genre, from the shaded edges of black-and-white stills running in succession under the opening credits to the Cello Strums of Doom on the soundtrack.

The central joke (and there are so many adjacent ones) is that the crime in question is the vandalism of 27 cars in the teacher’s parking lot at a high school, each of which has been emblazoned with a giant, red, spray-painted penis. “WHO DID THE DICKS?” is a running phrase, taken very seriously. And yet the series is not a farce; the stakes are high for the kid who’s been accused. It’s possible, and immensely enjoyable, to watch this thing on both levels at once, tracking the minutely observed parody and the impeccably crafted mystery plot at the same time.

3) Transparent. Can the fourth season of a groundbreaking show be as surprising, carefully wrought, and humanely rendered as the first? If you’re Transparent, it can be—and maybe even more so. I can’t remember another show that so ably moved its characters and its themes forward in seasons beyond the second or third; even Mad Men would retread the same tracks, albeit beautifully.

In this season, the Pfeffermans travel to Israel, which is one of those I’d-never-have-thought-of-that-but-it’s-perfect plot moves, opening up almost infinite possibilities while making explicit what is a fundamental conflict for so many American Jews—i.e., “What is my relationship to the state of Israel?” Of course, the Pfeffermans are nothing if not narcissistic; their internal voices are loud enough to drown out almost anything coming at them from the outside. But it’s fascinating to watch what comes up for them, what they do and don’t see, and how they are with each other when they’re not in L.A. Not to mention the light! Oh, that gorgeous Mediterranean light!

My New Favorite Writer: Elizabeth McKenzie

Monday, October 9th, 2017

I read a lot, and I enjoy much of what I read. I fall in love with a book at least a few times a year. I fall in love with an author far less frequently, and when it happens, it’s thrilling. But only very rarely do I discover a writer whose work I adore so passionately that I wish I had written it—and fantasize that I might have, if a) I had lived a different life, in particular a life involving education in the sciences and/or material world, such that a wealth of unusual yet evocative metaphors would make themselves available to me; and b) I could rotate the intelligence dial in my brain sharply to the right. What I mean is that the sensibility feels enviously perfect, that the writer has nailed a tone, a use of language, a specificity of character, and an emotional knowing that I wish I could bring together in my own work. And she’s just so freakin’ smart!

That’s what happened—that falling in love—when I read The Portable Veblen and, immediately after, MacGregor Tells the World, both by Elizabeth McKenzie. Not a single sentence or even a single image in these books feels like something I have read elsewhere, but/and the emotional universe is one I recognize completely, because it feels (unlike so much of what’s out there in more commercial books and media) like reality. Like the place we would all be living in, were we paying close enough attention. These books are hilarious while also being sad; they’re about the ways we’re shaped by our early experiences and have to live inside that shape, limited by its contours, until and unless we become conscious of what happened to us. The dialogue has all the crackle of the spoken word, but better. The characters are new yet easy to know, so specifically are they drawn. And the plots bring us through the chop and over to the other shore, where we’ve learned something (satisfying!) without being instructed. The experience of reading each of these books is an experience I am always in search of and only rarely encountering. Delight, joy, surprise, grief, wonder. Thank you, Elizabeth McKenzie!

Stop that Girl is next—and then the waiting (for her next book, naturally) begins.

Convalescence Media

Tuesday, September 19th, 2017

I’ve just been through a bit of not-terribly-major surgery, and recovery, after I got through the initial stuff, has been a pleasure. (What is better than a two-week stretch of bed rest? Absolutely nothing.) Here’s what I’ve liked most of the books I’ve read and films I’ve watched:

1) Off Course, by Michelle Huneven. A sharply observed, gorgeously written story of a twenty-eight-year-old woman who gets sidetracked by an obsessive relationship with a married man. What I love about it, in addition to sparkly quality of the sentence-level writing, is the incrementality of the emotional observation, the way we’re taken through every vicissitude of the relationship as the course keeps turning. It makes perfect psychological sense, all of it, and yet I never knew what would happen next. Highly recommended. I wish there were more books in the world like this one.

2) Carol. I think it’s easy to find Todd Haynes’ movies oversaturated, not merely with color but with feeling (they’re melodramas, yo), and there were moments in which I thought a tighter cut would have helped. But his films are also tone poems, mood pieces that you’re supposed to sink into, and this one is as beautifully crafted as they come. Cate Blanchett is insanely taut and wirey and vaguely predatory (though . . . arguable, given her cirucmstances) and wrecked. Loving her isn’t quite possible, but feeling for her, whoo-boy.

3) Afternoon Delight. I remember seeing the preview for this movie and thinking that the premise was too weak and too unreal to withstand any kind of plausible narrative. Then I found out (only recently) that it’s a Jill Soloway movie, so I queued it up. And I liked it! Humane, ecumenical, fair to all of its characters and points of view. It’s uncomfortable to watch (i.e., not the comedy it was marketed to be), and/but it pays off satisfyingly. I even believed in it, ultimately, which came as a surprise. And now . . . only a few more days until Season 4 of Transparent.

Two Breathtakingly Humane Novels

Monday, July 17th, 2017


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.


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.)

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.


Monday, November 14th, 2016

Last week was not a good one for . . . humanity, I would say. And while I usually embrace darkness in art, literature, and podcasts, on Thursday I was tending carefully to my shredded nerves. I searched my podcast subscriptions for an episode of something that would cradle me in hope, and instead I found . . . something devastating that is also gorgeous.

Episode #7 of Heavyweight. Haunting.  Unexpected. Gutting. And astonishingly relevant—although not literally. Highly recommended, unless you’re in emotional danger.

I’ve also been dipping into the work of Kate Braestrup, who told my single favorite story on The Moth. I started with her second memoir, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity, and now I want to read the rest of her books.

It might also be time to head back to For the Time Being, the Annie Dillard book that helped me through a dark year in 1999.

Sending out love to all of us who need it, which is, of course, all of us.

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!