Cultural itinerary: the holidays

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.

Read it.

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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).

See it.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3.  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.

Hear it. 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Weekly digest (10/21/11)

You know, it’s very easy to add things to your Netflix Queue and library request list – much harder to get through it.

  • Read it. Somewhere along the line I stopped reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman so I just re-started and now all I want to do is binge in its creepy, fantastic, mythical glory.
  • See it. So it’s getting a lot of flak, but I’ve caught the first few episodes of American Horror Story, and even I – admittedly not a horror fan – am getting into the campy gore. I say: True Blood for winter!
  • Hear it. Oh boy, the Bandana Splits are retro songstresses from Brooklyn and I just want to listen to them and go roller skating.

Rules of Civility

I frequently wonder about first-time novelists who had alternate careers. According to his bio, he studied English at Stanford, then went on to become a principle at an investment firm in New York.

This gives me a complex. How many other of my fellow commuters, 9-to-5ers, coworkers, have such a rich and varied novel brewing within them?

Forgive the digression. I just find it astounding that someone who was working somewhere else could have the time and energy to produce a first novel as polished as Rules of Civility.

It’s a New York story, through and through: girl grows up in Russian Brooklyn in the 1920s and 1930s, then moves to a Manhattan boardinghouse and begins to haunt various Village bars with her roommate, a vivacious, ambitious woman named Eve. On New Year’s Eve in 1937 they meet a monied, WASPy perfect gentleman who seemingly falls for both of them – until a tragic accident forces priorities to shift.

Wow, that made it seem like a soap opera. There is is much more character development, and meditations on class and personal drive and how we deceive ourselves in doing what we think is right.

This quote, for example:

Uncompromising purpose and the search for eternal truth have an unquestionable sex appeal for the young and high-minded; but when a person loses the ability to take pleasure in the mundane – in the cigarette on the stoop or the gingersnap in the bath – she has probably put herself in unnecessary danger. …[This] risk should not be treated lightly. One must be prepared to fight for one’s simple pleasures and to defend them against elegance and erudition and all manner of glamorous enticements (128).

The title comes from a pamphlet written by George Washington – a collection of 110 rules by which to live simply and decently. The book manages to evoke a glamorous lifestyle of New York in the 1930s and 1940s but also how the choices one makes to get there ripple out.

Want more?

Rules of Civility on NPR.

Read Washington’s list here.

Weekly digest (10/15/11)

Man, there is some fine art out there. I wish sometimes that someone would pay me to consume cultural objects all day.

  • Read it. I just roared through Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility. What a poised, engaging first novel – lengthier review to follow.
  • See it. Drive isn’t my typical movie fare of choice (more dialogue needed!). But it was moody and definitely got under my skin in a way that many recent movies haven’t.
  • Hear it. Papa opened up for Girls (who I caught last week at the Great American Music Hall) and I liked ’em so much I bought an LP. Fun and bouncey.

Check it out: Scandals of Classic Hollywood (via the Hairpin)

Quelle scandalle!!

Like many other (heck, it’s a multimillion dollar industry), I can easily get sucked in by the celebrity gossip industry. In fact, it used to be my decompression internet timewaster of choice. (Now I do t.v. recaps…. maybe one day I’ll read Paris Review interviews).

I did stop. But the sordid appeal is still there, and that’s why I can’t get enough of the Hairpin’s Scandals of Classic Hollywood. It’s  a monthly feature (as far as I can tell) laying out the details of famed Hollywood characters: Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Lana Turner.

Written by Anne Helen Petersen, who is getting her Phd in Media Studies, the series is funny, engaging and insightful. The perfect way to while away an afternoon.

Want more?

Read on!  

Weekly digest (10/7/11)

The fun and late nights of the last few weeks (James Blake! Bon Iver! Jens Lekman!) left me a little worse for the wear. I’m finally feeling better after a mild but annoying cold. It cooled down significantly, but the notion of rain and staying cozy seemed quite appealing.

  • Read it. We chose the spooky classic Frankenstein for one of my book clubs this month. It plays with so many themes, I wish I had a Norton Critical edition to unpack them all.
  • See it. As the whole internet was, I was sad to hear about Steve Jobs’ passing. If you haven’t watched his 2005 Stanford University commencement speech I would make time to do so.
  • Hear it. After 3+ years, new Feist album (“Metals“)!! It’s melancholy and textured and I love it already.

James Blake (9/21/11) & Bon Iver (9/22/11)


James Blake, Great American Music Hall (9/21/11)

I had some awesome back to back concert experiences recently: James Blake at the Fillmore (9/21/11) and Bon Iver at the Greek (9/22/11).

Both artists have similar artistic temperaments,  specializing in songs that tug on your heart’s memory, but with different musical styles: James Blake relies on computer-based sounds, while Bon Iver has a more organic, woodsy approach.

At the James Blake show, opener Teengirl Fantasy let me experience some true dubstep (which I totally had to look up, old person that I am – it’s basically electronic dance music from London). They made LOUD and POWERFUL sounds come from their computers and drum sets, and even if it was entirely my scene, it was a good preview for what came next.

Blake is a rather unassuming presence – his striped shirt and sideways (Bieber?) hair make him seem like a recovering art student. But his voice? Even as he proclaimed to be sick, it hit the highs and held the lightness of an Antony.

The highlights for me were “To Care (Like You)” and “Limit To Your Love,” during which Blake recorded live samples that he looped, including the whoops from the crowd. In between the intense light show and the wall of noise, it was a show that really swept me away.

Bon Iver at the Greek was a different story. We got there too late for the opener, and it was at the Greek, which is outdoors and huge (also, trivia: where I had my English graduation). It was hard to find a seat, as the picture below attests.

Justin Vernon, the man behind the band, came to (relative, indie music status) fame with 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago. Legend quickly established that he wrote it after a devastating heartbreak in a cabin in Wisconsin. Somehow the music-listening public erupted in sympathy and understanding.

With this year’s Bon Iver, Vernon’s sound became bigger, and this was evident by how big his touring band is. I love the epic, Peter-Gabriel-Genesis “Holocene” and “Flume.” Having the entire auditorium erupt in the encore “Skinny Love” was awesome, but I do feel sad that I missed the time when I would have seen this talented artist on a smaller stage.

Bon Iver @ Greek Theatre (9/22/11)

Want more?

Check out the collaboration between James Blake and Bon Iver, “Fall Creek Boys Choir”!

Weekly digest (9/30/11)

We’re officially straight in the fall season. Going to check out the bands (and crowds) at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass this weekend, and it looks like we are going to be chanced with some mild early autumn weather.

  • Read it. It took me some time, but I finally finished Judith Thurman’s biography of Isak Dinesen. It was really illuminating, and I would recommend it for any fans of Dinesen’s work.
  • See it. Parks and Recreation is back with new episodes! Let’s just admit it – best comedy on tv right now.
  • Hear it. Tom Waits’ new album comes out October 14 and there have been a few (too short!) listening parties on the ANTI website.

Cultural itinerary: London

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…

Read it. 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

See it.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Hear it.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Weekly digest (9/23/11)

Today’s my mom’s birthday – so a happy day to moms everywhere! (As it should be).

  • Read it. This Esquire profile of Jon Stewart makes for a fascinating read, as it tries to explain how he still gets away with being the funny newsman.
  • Saw it. Fall t.v. alert! Up All Night, with Will Arnett and Christina Applegate, is pretty funny. Glad to see both of them! Plus, Maya Rudolph as an Oprah-character is hilarious.
  • Heard it. Jens Lekman has a new EP out (Argument with Myself). You like fun, talky, smooth Swede pop? You’ll love this!