Archive for the ‘Highly Recommended’ Category

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!

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?

That Time o’ Year Again

Friday, December 4th, 2015

We’re in the countdown to Winter Travel (i.e., our annual 2+ weeks on the East Coast), so I’m lumping in my latest recs with my goodbye-for-this-year note.

Recently read and beloved:

1) The Story of My Tits, by Jennifer Hayden. Charming, funny, moving, and beautifully drawn graphic memoir that is much more than the story of Jennifer Hayden’s breasts. It’s the story of her life, more or less, told through the frame of her breasts—and the breasts, bodies, and souls of her mother, father, siblings, husband, children, etc.

I love the way Hayden depicts emotional experience, using dreamlike and visceral imagery to express what can’t necessarily be contained with words. I felt drawn in and held close, which was a privilege and a pleasure. Tits is densely packed with wit and keen observations, sometimes seemingly almost tossed away in tiny details. (I wish the frames were larger, actually, for that reason.) Anyway: highly recommended! A delightful and delightfully warm piece of work, full of tremendous heart and plentiful skill. YAY, YOU, JENNIFER HAYDEN.

2) El Deafo, by Cece Bell. Another graphic memoir, this one intended for young audiences, about the author’s experience as a deaf child in a hearing world. The drawings are incredibly compelling—brightly colored, adorable, and fully felt, with a spot-on sense of perspective and emotional richness. And everyone is a rabbit! Plus, the storytelling is pretty much perfection; it goes right to the heart with its emotional clarity. I wish I could buy this book for every 10-year-old on the planet. YAY, YOU, CECE BELL.

3) The podcast explosion is for real, and the embarrassment of riches can lead to magnificent experiences that are all too quickly forgotten. In recent weeks I’ve heard marvelous and stunning episodes on:

Sometimes, it’s good to live in the modern age.

Okay, peeps. That’s it until 2016. Hope your holidays are warm and bright or, failing that, that you don’t too much mind being in the soup. If you end up there, know that a large portion of humanity will be there with you. And maybe go outside and look at the sky and think about how big the universe is and how you don’t really matter anyway.

I find that helps.

Franzen, Again (+ Two Movies Worth Seeing)

Monday, September 14th, 2015

I thought about not writing about the new Jonathan Franzen novel. I also thought about writing about it at length. I had the idea to pitch a piece called “I am a Feminist, and I Love Jonathan Franzen—Although Not Unequivocally.” But when I began the (inside-my-head) outlining process, I determined that the piece would run to book-length, since my response to Franzen is multiply layered and since he’s always writing and saying (very) problematic things that beg for a response. (Google “Jonathan Franzen Iraqi war orphan” and weep.) Even a recent phone chat re: Franzen with a friend (Hi, Sarah!) ran into the many tens of minutes.

So, here’s what I’ll say about Purity: It’s a fascinating read, but it doesn’t feel like more than the sum of its parts. Its parts are impressive and riveting and beautifully sentenced as per Franzen, but in the end, the emotional connection just isn’t there for me. It’s a convergent novel that doesn’t quite converge.

In The Corrections (solidly maintaining its status as my all-time favorite novel), the characters are so gorgeously and completely drawn that even when nearly everything they do feels problematic (Enid, Albert, Gary), I’m with them. The narration is bathed in compassion (while also finding plenty of space for irony), with insight after insight about family psychology raining down like a shower of illuminating diamonds. (And Franzen spends these diamonds so freely! So generously!) Plus, the structure is impeccably composed. Everything knits together deliciously at the end.

In Freedom, which I also think is a gargantuan accomplishment, Franzen is equally compassionate to his central characters; he dives equally deeply into their unique dilemmas. (He also manages to write about topics—obsessive college friendships between women that have the power to direct the course of a life!—that I had never seen written about before, at least in that way.) And while in some senses I feel that Freedom is the Vilette to The CorrectionsJane Erye (in other words, it’s the messier, more disheveled, less perfect—but perhaps more raw and alive—novel), when I recently read Freedom for the third or fourth time, I appreciated just how carefully constructed it is.

Purity . . . well. The parts are there, as I said. The flame of aliveness . . . isn’t. At least not to me and not on my first read. I find myself wishing that Franzen would choose another structure to work with, another way of writing a novel, that isn’t a convergent multinarrative. Stick with one character throughout? Tell it chronologically? Maybe don’t worry so much about sociopoliticocultural relevance? Because he has written this type of novel twice before (and maybe more than twice? I read Strong Motion, but too many years ago now), it’s starting to feel formulaic.

Two movies worth seeing:

1) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Beautiful, funny, warm, sad movie about teenagers and death and friendship and art. I wish we lived in a world where this movie, and not The Fault in Our Stars (rendered unwatchable past 20 minutes via painfully awkward script—and I liked the book fine!) was the teen movie about cancer that everyone saw. It’s so much more sensitive and delicate and aware. It’s also funny! Highly recommended.

2) Diary of a Teenage Girl: Darker and more disturbing than the preview (fwiw), and/but really, really good. Committed to realness in a way I love. Integrates art and animation in ways that feel just right. Portrays a teenager from her own point of view, without condescending. Looks at sexuality without the lens of moral judgment but instead the frame of personal experience—i.e., what does and does not feel okay to the person experiencing the sex. Plus, fantastic performances all around, but especially by Bel Powley.

My YA Binge, Plus Two Great Movies

Friday, July 11th, 2014

Until about a month ago, I had never heard of John Green. Then suddenly he was everywhere in my particular media niche: In The New Yorker, on NPR, in my Facebook feed. In other words, tipping point—everywhere and all at once.

I took the hint and read The Fault in Our Stars, followed by An Abundance of Katherines and Looking for Alaska. That’s in reverse order of how he wrote them, and it’s plenty evident: Fault is by far the most accomplished (the deepest, the most realized) and was by far my favorite. A spell was cast, and I was bound. Heartbreaking, of course—and also electrifying in its willingness to spend unflinching time with dying teenagers, never stooping to pretend that they aren’t dying.

I do take a certain amount of issue with Green’s pretensions, which arise in the form of references to certain authors or literary works or philosophies, etc. I don’t mind that kind of content, per se, but I wish he’d bring it in a little more subtly, or organically . . . something. It feels so very instructional. But maybe not to teens?

Now I’m reading Rainbow Rowell‘s latest book, which is, at least 60% in, my least favorite of her books so far. Ah, well. Can’t every book be the best book.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED FROM HERE DOWN

In movie news, Short Term 12 is the very most emotionally devastating (in the best possible sense) thing I’ve seen in forever. And it’s streaming on Netflix! Gorgeously tight writing, beautiful acting. rivetingly wise. Just, if you’re going to watch it, don’t already be in a hard place with your feelings. You’ll need a little fortitude to get through it. And maybe have a buddy. And also some tissues. And then just let your heart break forever and ever. Oh, and this’ll help you get through it: happy ending. Mostly.

And finally, Obvious Child! Hilarious, smart, and totally singular voice. A comedy about abortion (and romance, and career, and art, and being a young adult) that is truly funny and truly wrenching. Also known as the film version of Jenny Slate! Of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On fame! Now I love her even more and hope that she makes a million movies, all of them as good as this one. Or at least five. Can she make five more movies? Jenny?

(ETA: I did wonder whether the film accurately represented the full spectrum of options re: abortion—i.e., why no mention of the medical vs. surgical procedure?—and here’s more on that.)