Archive for the ‘Highly Recommended’ Category

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.


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.)


This Week in Highly Recommended

Friday, April 4th, 2014

A beautiful book and a delightful movie:

1) My Life in Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead. My favorite thing about this book is its wholeheartedness. In some ways, it’s a fairly factual and even scholarly account of both George Eliot’s life and her writing of Middlemarch, with more biography than I was expecting or tend to like. (There are also beautifully informed, and insightful, readings of the book.) But it is so infused with Mead’s feelings about Middlemarch, and her appreciation for the characters and the themes, that I felt warmly held as I read, and very connected to Mead, even as she reveals little about herself. In fact, that was my only complaint: that despite the title, we don’t get much of Mead’s life. A more accurate (and less interesting, to me) title would have been George Eliot’s life in Middlemarch.

At any rate, it’s a warm and wonderful book. And it brought me back to my final semester in college, in which I wrote my thesis on Middlemarch, Mill on the Floss, and the much less known Miss Marjoribanks (Margaret Oliphant). Those were long days spent at the computer, scouring my pages and pages of notes on the novels, living in Eliot’s world. During my first two years in college I had toiled under the literature (read: theory) major, so by the time I threw off that mantle and opted for English instead, I’d missed out on quite a lot of novel-reading. By my senior year I was finally able to get to those classes, and it was such a pleasure to be deep into Victorian prose.

2) The Grand Budapest Hotel. I think by now everyone pretty much has the same worry about Wes Anderson movies, i.e., is will he sacrifice depth and/or emotional connection in favor of set-dressing, no matter how beguiling his mise en scene may be. I thought the scales tipped against him in Moonrise Kingdom, which I didn’t find charming and also wasn’t moved by. But with Hotel, he’s back, both with the visual magic (it is entirely stunning entirely 100% of the time) and with feeling. I liked it quite a bit, and I especially liked the sobriety of the ending.

I was also not surprised to discover that Lonesome Quill punching bag David Denby (ohhhh, David Denby!) has once again failed to grasp the point—and has also misunderstood the movie’s central character! Denby thinks that M. Gustave is gay, perhaps because he’s fastidious. But, save for one instance in which a character (an emotionally blunted bully) accuses Gustave of being gay, there’s nothing in the movie to suggest that that’s the case—and plenty to suggest that he isn’t, i.e., the fact that he sleeps with the elderly female guests. Sure, he may want their money (or does he?), but what Gustave is about is service—impeccable, compassionate service—plus a kind of lightness of living that gets him through whatever has to be gotten through. (SPOILER: That’s why his defeat of that lightness at the hands of the Nazis at the end of the movie feels appropriately devastating: because that is what would have happened.) Gustave isn’t about gayness, and to think that he’s literally gay is to attach a crude (and again, incorrect) label to someone who resists being boxed.


ANYway, a book and a movie both worth of the “highly recommended” tag.



On Gary Shteyngart and Facing the Previously Unfaceable

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

Back in 2003, I happened upon Gary Shteyngart’s first novel—The Russian Debutante’s Handbook—on a bookstore table and was almost immediately smitten. The opening paragraphs were so funny, vivid, alive, and surprising that I swept up the book, bought it, and devoured it in a few sittings. It was an immensely pleasurable read, rollicking and minutely observed, the hilarious voice both recognizable (witty participant in contemporary culture) (Jew) (Russian) and also, somewhat, not. Shteyngart’s character, like himself, is an immigrant, and while two of my best friends are immigrants (one from Brazil, one from Mexico), I had never heard the voice of a contemporary Russian Jewish immigrant, someone my own age and with some of my own preoccupations.

It wasn’t, of course, emotionally difficult or challenging. Debutante is a comic novel, one of the laughing-over-the-pain sort. We’re never meant to get terribly close to our hero, or to feel too much for him. Absurdistan, which followed, was in the same vein. And I’ve not yet read Super Sad True Love Storyalthough it’s on the shelf, waiting for me—mainly because by the time it came out, I had somewhat tired of Shteyngart’s avoidance. A brilliant comedian and prose stylist, sure. A guy who was willing to face the pain? Nyet.

So when I heard that Shteyngart was publishing a memoir, I was of two minds. On the one hand, I was sure I would read it the moment it came out. I wanted to understand what had shaped him, how he had come to be the person who writes what he writes. But I was also bracing myself for another slightly hollow laugh-fest.

The verdict? Not to worry. Little Failure is not merely cracklingly smart and cannily observed; it’s also very emotionally real, and raw. Shteyngart manages the seemingly impossible: He somehow finds a way to talk about the (dark, dark) abuse he suffered at the hands of his parents (who are very much alive and readers of his work) without hurling it at them in rage. He somehow is able to look at his own pain, and even trauma, and to question why it happened and why it had to happen, without attacking. I would imagine that the book won’t be easy for his parents to read—not least because they probably won’t understand the impacts their actions had; they seem likely to throw up their hands—but there’s nothing in it that they could fault him for, or have a right to complain about. The memoir is simply honest, factual, and real. Shytengart reports what happened. He reports his feelings. And he doesn’t shy away from the pain.

He also very smartly brackets the book with one particular childhood incident, something both shockingly violent and somehow, in the context of his harsh Russian childhood, also eminently mundane. By the time we get to the bottom of the incident, near the end of the book, we know enough to understand how it could have planted the seeds of the panic attack, twenty-five(ish?) years later, that opens the book. But we also understand how it could have gone underground for so long, and why even now, Shteyngart might be questioning its power. The way Shytengart talks about his wounds, and his life, is so large that it leaves room for everyone else’s pain, too. For his parents’ pain, for Russia’s pain, for the history of human suffering, really. That’s quite a generous stance.

Bottom line: highly recommended. And hey—it’s also hilarious. (You can start with the book’s trailer, here.)


The Delightful and the Unwatchable

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

Two Netflix movies that have made me extremely happy in recent weeks:

1) Beauty is Embarrassing. Oh, Wayne White. Why did you not hang your early word paintings in a cafe in Berkeley (as opposed to LA), so I could have seen them and bought one before they cost a bazillion dollars? Ah, well. At least you are a brilliant and inspiring and hilarious person, and this documentary about you made me want to jump up and down and make lots of art.

2) Her Master’s Voice. The ideal way to watch this one is without knowing anything about Nina Conti, because it makes the weirdness all the more magical and inhabitable. For much of this movie I didn’t understand quite what I was watching, but I was entranced nonetheless (or perhaps therefore). I watched it a second time with John and then saw Conti again on Family Tree, the sweetly funny HBO show. At this point, I have developed an attachment to Monkey such that I need to impersonate him occasionally. Maybe more than occasionally.

Oh, and ALSO: Nina Conti is a genius.

Three movies (not Netflix . . . and that’s all I’m going to say about that) I have started and have not been able to watch:

1) Les Miserables. I laughed so hard, I nearly fell off the treadmill. Bail mark: 3:47.

2) We Bought a Zoo. Slick, overwritten, pandering. Bail mark: 4:09.

3) Anna Karenina (2012). This one lost me pretty much right from the start, because HOW CAN YOU NOT OPEN ANNA KARENINA IN THE TRAIN STATION, where it is meant to be opened, but I didn’t quite bail until Keira Knightly showed up. Nothing against her, but Anna Karenina she is not.


Reading Round-Up

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

A very quick pass through what has been scrolling on my Kindle of late:

1) Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, by David Rakoff. Well, this one I didn’t Kindle, since the print version was carefully crafted, including illustrations. It’s beautiful and moving, catching my breath about once a chapter, and I’ll read it again before too long. Rakoff is (was, sigh) remarkable with language. However, it’s not a novel. It’s more like a collection of stories, told in verse. I get that they couldn’t have sold it as well that way, so. I’m just being annoyingly sticklerish, I suppose. Nothing new there.

2) The Stench of Honolulu: A Tropical Adventure, by Jack Handey. Also not a novel (more a series of one-liners), and not even funny, which was the promise. Alas.

3) Too Bright to See, Too Loud to Hear, Juliann Garey. A competently told fictional story of a years-long manic bender, but I don’t understand why the protagonist is so unlikable. I wanted to root for him but, mostly, couldn’t.

4) We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler. If you can, read this one before you know anything about the plot, because there’s a creepy-delicious reveal partway through. It’s a very satisfyingly written novel, with an angry and articulate female narrator, something I’m always trying to find and always delighting in when I do—well, assuming that she knows she’s pissed off. Lionel Shriver tends to write rageful female narrators without acknowledging as much, as that sours the stew, my friends. Anyway, I’m going to stamp We Are All with a Highly Recommended.

5) Americanah, by Chimamanda Adichie. The latest novel by Adichie but the first I’ve read; from what I can tell, much of it is autobiographical. Adichie grew up in Nigeria and moved to the U.S. at nineteen, where she eventually wrote a blog interpreting American behavior for the non-American black person. Fascinating and smartly told. I have one objection, which is the final couple of pages, which revert to a fake-feeling romanticism that the rest of the novel doesn’t seem to share.

6) My Education, by Susan Choi. Oooooo, so very delicious. Incredibly smartly written and very emotionally satisfying. Franzenesque, even, but distinctly Choi. I loved it. My petit quibble is that the protagonist is not sympathetic—and now that I’m reading another book by Choi, A Person of Interest, I wonder if it’s not a tendency of Cho’s, to create characters we can’t care for. At any rate, if the protagonist in My Education had been more likable, it would have made the book even richer, and I imagine it would have earned a spot on my list of all-time favorites. As it is, I still give it a Highly Recommended.

Thanks, Rainbow Rowell

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

You know when you’re having a colossally difficult week and you’ve been reading a lot of great and “serious” fiction but at this moment what you really need is something light but not insipid or insulting to your intelligence, so you download a YA book that your friend told you about and it’s so perfectly sweet and heartfelt and minutely observed that you get junior-high-level goosebumps and finish it in one night, and then you download the author’s other book which is not quite as good but still compelling in all the right ways so you finish it the next night, and then on the third night you feel bereft that her next book isn’t coming out until “fall 2013″ and beyond that there are no other books from her?

That just happened to me.

Here’s the author.

And here’s the first book I read (which she wrote second).

And the second book I read (which she wrote first).

Thanks, Rainbow. You helped a girl out this week.

Highly Recommended: Newly Consumed Media

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

Yeah, I worked over the long weekend, but I also did stuff. Like read. And watch things—sometimes even with others! (It’s a glamorous life I live.) And you know what? All good. All very, very good. Here’s the report of Highly Recommendeds:

1) Alice Munro’s latest. Munro pretty much never goes wrong, so. This is basically another Alice Munro book, quietly removing the breath from your chest. I’d already read most of the stories in The New Yorker, but it was wonderful to experience them again, since her work rewards a second (and third, etc.) read. Also, there’s a story kind of buried halfway through that is punch-to-the-gut shocking. How’s that for an enticement?

2) George Saunders’ latest. Similar situation to Munro in that 1) I’d already read most of them in the NYer but was very glad to read them again, and 2) Saunders does not, as a rule, go wrong. He also takes your breath away, but not quietly. He kind of ravages your breath. Expect to have no breath left at all. In a good way. I did think that the final story (which is also the titular story) was less successful than the others. Everything else: WOW WOW WOW EFFING WOW.

3) How To Survive a Plague. Intense, rousing, sad, inspiring, provocative documentary about the history of ACT UP and their extremely instrumental role in getting AIDS drugs developed, tested, and distributed. Still brooding about this one.

4) Enlightened, the HBO series. I am in the early stages of giddy love with this show, having snarfed it all down in the last week. HOLY FREAKING BLEEPFEST, Mike White is a brilliant writer. I am so totally gobsmacked by his ability to walk the line between compassion and ridicule, to show his protagonist having authentic spiritual experiences and then mocking her (ever-so-gently) for how she attempts to apply those experiences to her life and her job. Laura Dern is fantastic, the plotting is super-smart (and thrilling!), and EVEN THE VOICEOVER works. AND I HATE VOICEOVER. Mike White, I bow down. Low.

Looks like Junot Diaz’s latest is next on my read list and, again, having read much of it already (NYer), I expect it to do me right. These are good times for great art, peoples!