Archive for the ‘Highly Recommended’ Category

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

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.)

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.

Heavyweight

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!

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!