It’s happening. Can you feel it? Whether or not you love this time of year (as I do), stretching from Halloween through Thanksgiving and the winter solstice holiday of your choice all the way until New Year’s, it is here. How to survive, or enjoy it even? My suggestions below.
Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections. Odds are you’re spending the holidays with your family – or perhaps avoiding them. Watch and cringe as the Lambert family tries to come together for Christmas. If you need a caustic, vibrant, intense dose of perspective regarding your own nearest and dearest, Jonathan Franzen’s epic 2001 novel is it.
Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass. What will you do now that you are at your childhood home? Go through and revisit all your childhood literary favorites. At this point I could suggest Tolkien or L’Engle or Lewis or Rowling, but I am partial to Pullman’s fantastic Oxford epic about a girl named Lyra who gets in the middle of a metaphysical battle very powerful forces (that I won’t spoil here).
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. There’s a reason that the Victorian design sensibility comes out during the holidays: the whole season becomes heavy with its own excess. Dickens’ 1843 novel does not disappoint, with figgy pudding and Noel balls and ghosts of Christmas past. And it’s also a true story of redemption, affording us to hate, pity and grow with one Ebenezer Scrooge (a contender for best-named character ever).
The Nightmare before Christmas, Tim Burton (1993). Burton’s creepy claymation film nicely bridges the period from Halloween until Christmas. Jack Skellington rules over Halloweentown but cannot rest once he discovers the delights of Christmas Town. The songs (“This is Halloween”), the characters (Sandy Claws!), the Burtonesque world touches makes it a modern, if slightly offputting, holiday classic.
When Harry Met Sally, Rob Reiner (1989). If any time of year excuses sentimentality, late October through early January would be it. So this classic romantic comedy verges on the schmaltzy side, but as you follow friends Harry and Sally (Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan shining as the unlikely duo) through their eras of friendship and eventual dating. There’s even a New Year’s Eve countdown! Impossible not to let your heart be tugged.
Un conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale), Arnaud Desplechin (2008). Sometimes the beauty of the holidays can get swept away by anger or sorrow or dispair. As I wrote about before, Desplechin’s French film is a gorgeously shot trainwreck of a family. Watch when you are feeling strong.
Vince Guaraldi Trio, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965). Classic. If you’ve heard the soundtrack to the 1965 tv special once, you’ve heard it one hundred times. And yet it still best captures the melancholy as well as the joy that springs up this time of year.
Sufjan Steves, “Songs for Christmas” (2006). If you’re a fan of the singer-songwriter, you’ll love the melodic, sweet songs, including some classics and some original compositions (“That was the worst Christmas ever!”). And if you don’t know him, you’ll be charmed – and pleased you can listen to something without be reminded of the mall.
Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour, “Thanksgiving.” Never checked out the great man’s radio show? You are in for a treat. Each show comes with a theme, full of old classics among anecdotes and history. The Thanksgiving show is perfect to play while you’re prepping – or even during the hallowed meal itself.
I studied abroad at Oxford for one term when I was in college (uni, ahem). While I was there, I got to know London fairly well. Not local-well, but enough to have favorite cheap Chinese restaurants, hostels, and museums (which are all free, thank goodness; that city is so expensive). I loved wandering the well-paved streets and organized gardens, with cardinal red and navy blue accents, the hodge-podge mix of the city balanced by its sense of propriety and history. London! You are so resonant in all of my Anglophile taste. This may have been my hardest Cultural Itinerary yet…
Zadie Smith, White Teeth. It’s hard for me to write about Zadie Smith without gushing, but I can say with a clear head that one of the things I like most about this book (as well as all her writing) is how she tells a very modern story that is as steeped as a tannic tea bag in the British literary tradition. The story of Archie and Samad and their families, immigrants and British locals, journeys through a magical realism version of London. A knockout.
The Night Watch, Sarah Waters (2006). London was hit hard by the Blitz in World War II. Sarah Water’s novel describes people trying to pick up the pieces of their lives after war, amidst secrets and ruins. It’s a haunting tale of discovery and renewal, and London is both the cage and the release for its inhabitants.
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925). “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Virginia Woolf’s book captured the stylistic reaches in English literature of the time. As Mrs. Dalloway plans her party, and Septimus Smith sits in the park, their everyday London activities are contradicted by their whirling interior monologues.
A Hard Day’s Night, Richard Lester (1964). Simply put: if you are sad, this will make you happy. Watching the 4 young Beatles scamper about mod-era London, getting into scrapes, meeting fans and playing songs is pretty much the best pick-me-up (until you think about how they will be broken up in less than 5 years but nevermind). It’s a pop-era view of the city at its swinging-est.
Four Weddings and a Funeral, Mike Newell (1994). As the title suggests, a group of London friends attend 4 weddings and 1 funeral. The characters seem even more quintessentially 90s-yuppie British (embodied by Hugh Grant with his hair at its tousliest) when contrasted with the broad American (Andie MacDowell). This London seems safe, warm, slightly posh, both full of life and promise. But beware – your heart will fully break with the “Stop all the Clocks” speech.
Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón (2006). This is possibly one of the scariest movies I have ever scene because it is the most realistic. London as you know it today is here, complete with the addition of scary border checkpoints and barbed wire. In this dystopian world without children, the pomp and splendor of 19th century London clashes with the gray and imposing police state. One of the best scenes is when Theo (Clive Owen) goes to visit his brother-in-law, a collector of art that is safe and sterile with him as museums have been rendered obsolete.
The Kinks, “Something Else” (1967). Of all the British Invasion bands, the Kinks carried the most of their motherland’s sensibility with them. “Waterloo Sunset” is a perfect song for meandering the streets and getting somewhat lost.
Oasis, “What’s the Story (Morning Glory)?” (1995). Want to know the English equivalent of “Don’t Stop Believing”? The song that drunk people will happily on their merry way home? “Wonderwall.” Most of the songs off Oasis’ second album rely heavily on embedded Beatles nostalgia, but that doesn’t make “She’s Electric” any worse.
The Clash, “London Calling” (1979). London was not just the seat of Parliament and the birth of literary scenes. It was the home of some very angry young men, who didn’t see any opportunities in their homes. “London Calling” is the smartest of all punk albums and expresses the anger of the time as well as the musical hodgepodge (reggae, punk, ska, rockabilly) brewing in the late 1970s.
My mom moved recently from Hollywood to Santa Rosa, leaving me with no official reason to head down to L.A. anymore. So of course I get to thinking about how much I will miss parts of that rambling, celebrity-infested, trafficky, beach-y, beautiful city. I decided to honor it with a Cultural Itinerary – not gospel, not complete, but how I choose to remember it.
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, by Peter Biskind. Hollywood movie-making became very interesting in the period of late 1960s to the 1970s (think The Graduate and Easy Rider), only to be overtaken by the blockbuster, evidenced by Jaws and Star Wars. Biskind doest a fantastic job of connecting all the dots of the larger-than-life characters, shifting creative projects, and the nasty business of making movies.
The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler. It’s possible to imagine that everyone in Hollywood is or has been on some end of a private investigation, for there’s something undeniably noir about the seedy, desperate fringe elements. Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel takes the private eye Philip Marlowe all over L.A. investigating a failing writer while trying to defend his friend. It’s a great introduction to the genre.
The Peculiar Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender. Now this wasn’t written when I lived there, but when I read it a few years ago, I was struck by a certain melancholy chord in the novel. Bender’s magic-realism version of L.A., where a young girl is able to taste the emotions of those people who made the food she eats, captures the daily lonelyhearts of the city’s (slightly) normal center, rather than its intense outskirts.
Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott. Los Angeles gets much flak for embodying the worst of suburban sprawl and urban overconsumption. The 1982 film version of a Philip K. Dick story is not only groundbreaking for the science fiction tropes it created (man vs. AI), but also because of the image of a futuristic L.A. it depicts – smoggy high-rise buildings with commercials broadcast on them? It’s hard for any resident to say that it couldn’t be just so.
Clueless, directed by Amy Heckerling. Backstory? I went to a West L.A. private school just as Clueless hit theaters. We totally soaked up Cher’s Beverly Hills High School lifestyle, from fuzzy pens to “as if!” (though thankfully avoided some of Dionne’s more questionable hats). My pre-adolescent obsession aside, Clueless is one of the smartest, funniest films aside, made even more enjoyable by the wink-y L.A. asides.
Boogie Nights, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Film-making is the most high-profile industry in Southern California – including not only big-studio action movies and small independent movies but the incredibly successful pornography industry in the San Fernando Valley. Boogie Nights is a twisted version of the “star is born!” trope, with Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlburg) turning into the star Dirk Diggler in the midst of excess. A most awesome soundtrack, too.
Midnight Vultures, Beck. Beck was an original poster child from the L.A. post-grunge scene (and came to represent it with “Loser”). He first got his start being played on the taste-maker station KCRW, and several folk-rock-alternative (remember that word!!) albums that made his name. For me, it’s always going to be the slow-jam-heavy, funky and freaky Midnight Vultures, from “Hollywood Freaks” to “Debra,” that makes me think of Los Angeles.
Sublime, Sublime. So I, uh, grew up in a beach town. And pretty much from 7th until 9th grade (when I discovered pop-punk, natch), this was somewhere on my CD player’s rotation. It’s the mix of ska, reggae, surf-rock, with some deeply-rooted Long Beach roots. Was I beachy at all? No. Did it matter? Not at the time.
Crosby, Stills & Nash, Crosby, Stills & Nash. I learned to drive enjoying the sounds of the now-defunct classic-rock station Arrow 93.1, so I have many memory cells devoted to recalling Bad Company lyrics. Crosby, Stills & Nash’s 1969 album represents the best of the California sound coming out of Laurel Canyon at that time: free, wheeling and easy. I personally still love driving to “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.”
Mad and KO and I are getting ready to road-trip up to Happy Valley, Oregon to camp and enjoy music at Pickathon! I thought it may be a good time to recommend cultural essentials for a road tripping.
Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. Because however you’re travelling is guaranteed not to be as weird as Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters’ trip.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson. Ditto to #1. Your ride is hopefully not as crazy as Hunter S. Thompson’s fictional alter-ego Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo, but there’s some great writing and fantastic flights of fancy on a drug-fueled trip to Vegas.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Remember: the figure of Lolita is actually a stand-in for America. Also, the second half of the novel is all road-trip.
Motorcycle Diaries. Take a trip on motorcycles with young Che Guevera through South America. Beautifully shot.
Paper Moon. This 1973 movie won Tatum O’Neal an Oscar at age 10 for playing a kid attached to a drifter travelling through Prohibition-era America.
Big Lebowski soundtrack. You’re going to be in the car. Probably with other people. This soundtrack has something for everyone.
Girl Talk, All Day. Samples of every pop and hip-hop song from the last 10 years, and then some. Impossible to listen to without getting excited (or stepping on the gas). Perfect when accompanied by some gas station goodies.
Podcasts. Try This American Life or Radiolab. Upload as many as you can before you go. As everyone stops being excited and starts being tired, these will keep both drivers and passenger engaged.
It’s almost a long summer weekend and that means it’s time for camping. Hopefully you are packing up tents and sleeping bags, making very long grocery lists, and trying to decide whether or not you actually need to bring your toothbrush (confession: I always bring mine but use it really, really rarely).
As a family we didn’t take many camping trips, but I started going with friends in college. I totally understand how people may find it gross, or dirty, or just prefer sleeping in your own bed. To them I say this: camping is a study in contrast. The simplest meal of quesadillas and hot dogs tastes delicious over the open fire. Even if you’re on the ground, the air is so fresh you and it’s so dark you sleep like a log. And there is nothing to compare to that first shower when you come home.
So here’s a few of my favorite picks for camping – all picks that may heighten your enjoyment of our attempts get back to nature.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has some of the greatest camping scenes in literature: Huck and Jim coasting by the river, both on the path to their respective freedoms. Give Twain another reading if you haven’t picked him up since high school.
I typically shy away from nonfiction but The Lost City of Z by David Grann is an epic telling of the search for the mythic Amazonian city that entranced many explorers to their doom, including the famed Victorian Percy Fawcett. If you’re uncomfortable with a few mosquitoes, the descriptions of bloodsucking insects and poisonous snakes might give you a little perspective.
You may feel self-conscious about picking up a YA novel, but The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness is both engrossing and stylistically sophisticated. Todd Hewitt lives in a town of only men, where they can all hear one another’s thoughts. He has to go on the run and survive with his dog and a knife. It’s a great mix of Hachet and The Golden Compass.
Not all camping occurs in tents. Sometimes your parents drag you kicking and screaming to do outdoor crafts with a bunch of other pre-adolescents under the supervision of hungover twentysomethings. Wet Hot American Summer is one of those cult comedy classics that has pretty much every funny actor you’d dream of inviting to your dinner party. It’s an homage to 80s camp movies, but darker and a bit more surreal. I especially love Christopher Meloni as the Vietnam vet mess hall cook.
If you haven’t watched it in a while, you may forget that The Parent Trap (original, please) takes place at a girls’ camp, where the twins Sharon and Susan (both played by Hayley Mills) meet for the first time and decide to (spoiler!) change places. There’s also the camping trip they take with their dad and his girlfriend, in which the two break her down with bear cubs and mosquitos. A good reminder of the sweet side of camping.
When Brokeback Mountain came out in 2005, everyone focused on the cowboy love story rather than the gorgeous Wyoming backdrops filmed by Ang Lee. Ennis and Jack take several camping trips, and although your heart will probably be broken by the end of the film, the outdoor scenes are beautiful homages to America’s wide open spaces.
My friends and I have a campfire tradition. We are not especially good at it, but all enjoy warbling “The Weight,” by the Band. Our “and… annd…… AND….” chorus probably annoys the sites nearby, but I seriously can’t believe anyone could really be bothered by the classic songs off “Music From Big Pink.’ Loose and easy rootsy rock.
Their new album is awesome, but Fleet Foxes’ first album is a perfect sonic soundtrack to leaving the city for the pastoral life (or at least a weekend). It manages to be both swooping and soothing, perfect for when everybody zones out staring into the fire.
Sometimes you just need some upbeat music that everyone knows the words to. The Cars’ Greatest Hits is a perfect collection of summertime pop.
Starting a new feature over here at Scenic World! It’s called Cultural Itinerary, and will lay out my suggestions of what to read, watch and listen to before you head out on a certain trip.
First up? New Orleans, where KO and I are going this weekend!
Start with Truman Capote’s The Dog’s Bark. Don’t worry, you won’t have to read all of it (although it wouldn’t hurt if you did; it’s some of Capote’s most poignant and least indulgent writing). But his descriptions of the neighborhoods of New Orleans while he lived there as a struggling writer in the early 20th century? Luminous.
NoLa evokes that intersection between magic and reality, so tucking Anne Rice’s epic Interview with a Vampire will definitely fulfill your quota of history and the supernatural. Flowery prose, but hundreds of times more stirring than that other vampire novel.
Recent books about New Orleans are of course going to cover Katrina. Dave Eggers’ recent Zeitoun does a great job of showing the determination of the city’s residents and how the government systems let them down.
There’s a reason that streetcars in NoLa are tourist traps and that there’s a restaurant named Stella!: Streetcar Named Desire, the 1951 film adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. His Stanley and her Stella share an animalistic tension, and the city is their unholy cage. Here’s the scene that should convince you.
So it’s not strictly New Orleans proper, but the HBO series True Blood is a swampy, sexy, bloody mess of a show. Seasons 1 and 2 definitely outshone Season 3 (way too gory for me), but the half-naked mix of vampires, werewolves, and human bayou dwellers makes it a delicious summertime addiction.
From its opening scene, a black and white tour of New Orleans homes over Tom Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon,” Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law is an awesome, quirky New Orleans tale starring Tom Waits, John Lurie and Roberto Benigni in his first American starring role. One of my favorite movies.
I still haven’t caught up on the show, but HBO’s Treme has a great soundtrack with 19 songs reflecting the city’s musical history of funk, country, Cajun and jazz music. Great primer to the New Orleans’ sound.
Dr. John is one of the city’s most famed musicians, and his Best Of shows his gumbo mix of psychedelia and traditional piano blues.