Sunday, December 29, 2013

Favorite Films, 2013

Wow. What a great year for movies. For the past couple of weeks, I've been squeezing in many of the Fall Oscar-run releases, and I've been deliberating over my list of the year with the nagging feeling that I'm forgetting something from earlier in 2013. I'm including my favorite movies of the year and some others from prior years that I finally got around to. My main criteria is probably still visceral (I want to be moved and transported), but I'm finding that more and more, I appreciate a film that shows me something new. So I'm including an Honorable Mention section, for those films that perhaps didn't hit homeruns but are must-sees for one reason or another.

My 5 Favorite Films of 2013:

Inside Llewyn Davis

A week or so in the life of a struggling folk singer, circa 1961, and one of the most intriguing portraits of an artist I've ever seen. Great performances by Oscar Isaac and John Goodman and like any Coen brothers film, lots of enigma and comedy. Loved, loved, loved.

12 Years a Slave

Honestly, I hadn't planned on seeing this. I didn't think it would offer anything new on its subject, and I thought it would be extremely depressing. I'm so glad I changed my mind. Beautifully filmed, the depth of a saga, outstanding performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o but really, if Michael Fassbender doesn't win an Oscar for his role as a disturbed and cruel slave-owner, it will be a crime. He commanded every scene he was in and was just amazing. And the screenplay, which is based on a memoir, does indeed offer a unique look at the time period. Simply a great film.

The Hunt

While it may be true that you'd be hard-pressed to find a movie with Mads Mikkelsen I wouldn't like, this year's offering is outstanding. Mikkelsen plays a passive teacher struggling to retain his son's custody. When a child accuses him, the entire town begins to turn against him. I loved the mood of this film, the dark shadows and the way it felt that each person was like a spinning top--just one push and they could turn animalistic and destructive. The fear behind all anger. Mikkelsen's character was frustrating and Hamlet-esque, and the movie seemed to imply that in being this way, he may have brought it all on himself. Suspenseful, provocative, and highly entertaining.

Before Midnight

OK, lets start at the beginning. Did you see Before Sunrise (1995)? What about Before Sunset (2004)? If your answer is no, then you have some work to do. The former was the story of two strangers who meet in Paris and fall in love. The second, the story of their reunion almost a decade later. This latest installment catches up with Jesse and Celine another nine years later. They are middle-aged and taking a trip to Greece, where we watch them rehash their now-long-term relationship and decide on a future course. One of the best, truest marital arguments I've ever seen, and a mesmerizing portrait of the couple who have remained engaging for twenty years. You will only be sad that you may have to wait nine years for another.

All is Lost

A man on a boat, alone. Problems ensue. Man fights, time and again, to survive. Take it as an allegory of each man's final, solo journey or as a primer on how to keep your communication devices dry and working properly. Either way, this film grabs you from the first frames and never lets go. Robert Redford is seventy-seven years old but honestly, this role would challenge a man of any age. He is amazing and you won't be able to look away, even though he speaks maybe four or five sentences the entire film. Gripping, from start to end, and plenty to think about when you get home. I keep returning to this one, replaying parts in my mind and finding greater depths.

Honorable Mentions (Subtitle: Films I liked very much for one reason or another but I felt missed the mark on something else):

Philomena - A nuanced performance from Judy Dench, who creates one of the more memorable characters of the year. A bit connect-the-dot in other ways but still, had me crying throughout and pretty much any time I talked about it afterwards. Good stuff.

Blue Jasmine - Woody Allen's latest offering, entertaining throughout but notable for the remarkable performance by Cate Blanchett. A very good movie that left me frustrated because it could have been better.

Her - I include this on the list because it will be one of the more original films you see this year. Solid performances, visually fun and really clever. I enjoyed it but I wonder about staying power. I just saw it yesterday and already feel like it's slipping away.

American Hustle - Entertaining, with standout performances and some fantastic scenes but sluggish throughout the middle, at least for me. Original and funny.

Nebraska - Elderly man and son take a road trip to pick up a cash prize that doesn't exist and along the way, find out much about each other. I loved the way this was filmed--patiently, and in black-and-white, but I was never 100% invested. Some great moments, though.

Stories We Tell - A woman's exploration of her family, especially her mother, through stories and memories. She ends up uncovering a huge secret and tracing the reverberations it makes, once revealed.

Side Effects - I'll be the first to admit that this film got a little silly towards the end but it was so, so entertaining until then. Underrated, I thought.

Other Stuff, Other Years:

The Kid with the Bike (2011) - A coming-of-age film about a boy who is abandoned by his father but saved from an orphanage on weekends by a hairdresser he meets by chance.

Craigslist Joe (2012) - Documentary about a young man who decides to spend a year living on the kindness of strangers, via Craigslist. Fascinating look at society, humanity.

Pina (2011) - A movie I'm not sure I fully understood but could not stop watching. All about dance, in tribute to a German choreographer.

Footnote (2011) - Father and son Talmudic scholars competing for an important prize. But really, a story about relationships and family.

The Flat (2011) - Another documentary about unearthing family secrets; this one follows a grandson's search for the truth about his grandparents, who emigrated from Germany to Israel before WWII.

Through a Glass Darkly (1961) - A Bergman classic about a family reuniting to splinter apart. Includes a crazy sister and an evil spider.

Mud (2012) - Matthew McConaughey's much-lauded role as a fugitive serving as mentor to two young boys in the bayou.

Holy Motors (2012) - A film that defies explanation but which contains one of the best scenes EVER. I include it here, mostly for my own pleasure.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Favorite Reads, 2013 Edition

I read fifty-six books in 2013, a good number for me and really, sort of hard to believe because it certainly doesn’t feel like I average a book a week. For sure, lots of these were read in batches, during a vacation or at times when I was avoiding writing. In 2013, I made a concerted effort to read more short story collections, a decision which is happily reflected in my year-end list with the inclusion of not one or two but three collections. What constitutes a favorite? That’s simple: a book that amazes and stays with me. The easy choices were the ones that immediately came to mind. Some I had forgotten a little but they flooded back, full of detail and feeling. As always, this list includes MY favorite reads of 2013 and not only books published within the calendar year. I’ve included the publication year, in case that’s of interest. And so, without further ado, the best 12 things I read this year, in no particular order:

Benediction by Kent Haruf (2013)
If you read several reviews by people who love Haruf’s writing, you may notice a repeating element: we fans are fervent as cult-members, not always sure how he accomplishes his effects or retains his quiet power over us. Benediction is the last in Haruf’s Holt, Colorado, trilogy and although it can be read alone, I’d strongly advise that you eventually get around to the first two: Plainsong and Eventide. This story centers around a elderly denizen as he lives his final months. Memories flood back; family and friends gather. What can I say? Haruf is one of my favorite writers and you just have to read this book. I wrote more about it here.

Erasure by Percival Everett (2001)
Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is a critically celebrated author having a hard time selling his latest manuscript. His family is fractured, by his father’s suicide several years back and his mother’s failing health, and by his own inability to face things. Frustrated by the success of a novel he considers offensive drivel, he updates his own manuscript to surprising effect. Erasure is a sharp satire and yet, touching and deeply moving. It’s about family and race and much, much more, and it’s one of the more unique things I read this year.

John Adams by David McCullough (2001)
This book took up a substantial chunk of my summer because after I read its 600+ pages, Jason and I watched the HBO miniseries (which was very good). The breadth and depth of this book are impressive and yet, McCullough writes in an engaging and insightful way. It reminded me of my love for history books, especially those that delve into the social, cultural, and personal. (Following this read with McCullough’s 1776 reminded me that I do not enjoy as much those focusing on military/war.) John Adams is an amazing accomplishment that will enrich your understanding of America’s beginnings and help you to personify those wacky founding fathers.

Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell (1969)
This is the story of Mr. Bridge, a family man, a businessman, a father. He lives a typical mid-twentieth-century American existence. The novel tells the story of his life in impressionistic vignettes. These glimpses of Mr. Bridge build and build, revealing secrets and fleshing him out until we have, at the end, a fuller picture of his character. I loved this book. I compared the style to the paintings of Chuck Close (read more here) but you can also think of those photos that are broken down into pixels, and every pixel is actually another photograph, when you look close. I was riveted by this book and I also read its companion, Mrs. Bridge, but thought this one much better. And if you’re interested, there was a movie made, a dubious attempt that fell short but was noteworthy for the incredible performance by Joanne Woodward.

This Close by Jessica Francis Kane (2013)

A superb story collection with the connecting theme of human estrangement. We can all get “this close” to understanding each other, but probably not more. I loved the mood of these stories, I loved their interconnecting elements, I loved the characters. I blabbed on and on about it here.


The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski (2008)
I’ve had this book on my shelf for a long time. I knew that lots and lots of people loved it but I’d usually be put off by its length. I’m so glad I picked it up this year. The novel does what the title says, it tells about the life of Edgar Sawtelle, a mute born to dog-breeders in rural Wisconsin. You don’t have to be a dog person, I wouldn’t think, to appreciate the descriptions of the family’s life with these animals, any more than you have to be a Shakespeare buff to appreciate the allusions to Hamlet. Hamlet, you say? Dogs? Trust me, this is a fabulous read. And Oprah and Tom Hanks are working on a film version, so get your copy before you have to get one with a movie tie-in cover.
Assorted Fire Events by David Means (2000)
A bracing, powerful collection of stories. Means examines the less-than-pleasant aspects of the human condition with an unflinching gaze and yet, a poetic soul. Full of masterful writing and images I couldn’t release. Perhaps a less optimistic viewpoint than what I’m usually drawn to and yet, this is partly why I was so impressed by its effect on me. I explain in more detail here.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (2013)

You know, I had just read Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall when I picked this up. Both books deal with educated East-coasters involved in art. Really. They both do. So when I realized that Messud’s main character was a schoolteacher but also the frustrated artist of dioramas, and that for much of the novel, she’d be waxing on about art and her experiences in a shared studio with an artist who was building a life-size, modern-day Wonderland installation…well, I thought maybe I’d better pick it up some other time. But despite the high-minded musings, The Woman Upstairs snuck up on me. It’s sly and evocative, with building suspense and much to sink your teeth into. While reading it, I thought a lot about the film Notes from a Scandal; this, too, is the story of delusion and unnatural attachment. It will make you think about many things, including art and its many manifestations, and it will surprise and confound you.
Ramadan Sky by Nichola Hunter (2013)

Vic is a young woman who has just arrived in Jakarta to teach English. It’s the type of job perhaps normally undertaken by slightly younger adventurers; we know from the start that Vic is atypical in this and other ways. She’s an outsider. She is outspoken and decisive and although surprised by the mores of her new surroundings, she doesn't become flustered or defeated. She meets Fajar, a local young man who floats from job to job with little thought beyond the day-to-day. The resulting relationship is the glue of this novella, a romantic entanglement unlike any I’ve read before, full of surprises and humanity. The story is told from both point of views and also that of Fajar’s on-again-off-again fiancée. A unique, poetically-written story that is about culture and expectation as much as it is about personal responsibility and connection. The characters have stayed with me and I find myself wanting to read it again.

The Illicit Happiness of Other People by Joseph Manu (2013)
Thoma lives with his mother and father in Madras amongst Catholics, evangelicals and Hindus. Three years before, his charismatic brother, a cartoonist, committed suicide, an event that his father can’t move beyond. Thoma’s mother despises her husband, often to comedic effect, and Thoma is afraid, confused, and directionless. This novel was funny and read at times like a mystery, as the truth of the brother’s suicide is fleshed out through the comics he left behind, his relationships, and Thoma’s own recollections. Overriding everything is the thought that the actual truth may be nothing more than a story everyone’s agreed upon, and that the same could be said about actual happiness. A wonderful read.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (2000)
Believe it or not, this was the first novel I’ve ever read by Michael Chabon, and if it hadn’t been recommended by a friend, I may never have picked it up. It’s the story of two Jewish cousins who immigrate into the US before World War II and become important figures in the Golden Age of the comics industry (think early superheroes, stuff like that). Nothing about that would have appealed to me, probably, and yet there is nothing this book doesn’t do. As I writer, I was overwhelmed and maybe a bit depressed while reading because THERE IS NOTHING THIS BOOK DOESN’T DO. Think of something you like about a book, any book. Memorable characters? Great story? Historical interest? Layers and layers of meaning? I’m telling you, THERE IS NOTHING THIS BOOK DOESN’T DO. It is fabulous. I went back to read Chabon’s first novel to assure myself that he wasn’t always, in fact, a superhero himself. He wasn’t. Although even at the beginning, he was very, very good.

This is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila (2013)

This story collection is set in Hawaii and it offers up a local’s perceptions of the sights, sounds and culture. Kahakauwila offers us a rare view into the juxtaposition of native traditions and modern, mainland life, and how this conflict manifests in both individual families and society at large. Her characters are unpolished and true and I loved the fresh and unusual situations she placed them in. A beautifully written exploration of human relationships amidst a setting that might not be the paradise it seems from outside.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Music in the Creative Process

The last three times I went out running, my iPod has served up “Sweet Home Alabama” as part of its shuffle. There’s no rhyme or reason to this, only sheer mathematics, which is certainly no specialty of mine. So I won’t try to analyze anything like probability. But I will say that every time the opening strains of the song start up, the same set of associations runs through my mind. I think about a guest post I did for a blog when my novel, The Qualities of Wood, came out in ebook last year, and I think about one of the final scenes in the book, when my character Vivian is chugging beer and singing along at a small town fair/festival. Because I might just know a thing or two about that.

The blog is called "The Undercover Soundtrack" and its creator, Roz Morris, describes the thought behind it:

“The Undercover Soundtrack is a weekly series by writers who use music as part of their creative process—special pieces that have revealed a character to them, or populated a mysterious place, or enlarged a pivotal moment.”

As I start to gear up for my novel’s print release in June (YAY!), I thought it would be fun to share a few of my favorite interviews, articles and guest posts so far. In case you missed them the first time around. The piece I wrote for Roz would certainly fit the bill. Setting plays a big role in anything I write, and I’m always mining for sensory detail. Sights, smells, sounds. Music surrounds us—in our houses, our cars and now, it’s pumped out in mall parking lots. How does all of this have anything to do with Lynyrd Skynyrd??? You’ll have to read the article to find out:

And by the way, don’t just read mine. If you scroll to the bottom, you’ll find a complete list of authors who have submitted pieces, as well as a list of the musicians mentioned. The posts are quite interesting and may just lead you to a new book or a new song.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

What's Left Behind

The Flat is a documentary from 2012. The filmmaker, Arnon Goldfinger, along with the rest of his family, enters his grandparents’ flat in Tel Aviv with the aim of clearing it out after his grandmother’s death at the age of 98. His grandparents were Zionists who left Germany prior to World War II and settled in Israel. The historical element of the film is interesting. He uncovers an unlikely friendship between his grandparents and a high-ranking Nazi and begins to question the sequence of events. But the personal aspects struck me as well. Goldfinger interviews his mother, his siblings, his cousins, and nobody seems to know much of anything about his grandparents. Where they were born, what his grandfather did for a living. And shockingly, what ever happened to his maternal grandmother, who remained in Germany. When he presses his mother for reasons, she only says that she never asked her parents about anything, and that she doesn’t know why. Goldfinger says “The third generation is asking questions. The second generation didn’t ask questions.”

We can all probably relate to this. Often, it isn’t until our elders are gone that we develop an interest in knowing them.

Goldfinger’s grandmother was a bit of a hoarder. Closets are full; cupboards are packed. They find boxes of gloves and jewelry, countless shoes, hats, letters dating back to the 1930s when they first arrived in Israel. In an attic crawlspace, Goldfinger brings down a stack of suitcases that reaches almost to the ceiling. One discouraging part of the film came when a “book expert” callously went through the grandparents’ cherished collection, most of which were in German. “Nobody reads these,” he said, gesturing to a row of Shakespeare. “Balzac? Nobody reads that anymore.” He threw the books into boxes and down from the higher shelves, dust rising in clouds.

I’m not much of a hoarder myself. I tend to throw most things away and yet, to see those books treated that way, to watch their belongings carried out in countless garbage bags—it was a bit depressing.

Can a life be pieced together by the flotsam remaining after someone has gone? It relates to my last blog post, when I talked about the things I have from my grandparents; it relates to The Qualities of Wood, in which the very same thing happens—third generation enlisted to go through an ancestor’s house and belongings. What would someone be able to tell about you by what you’ve chosen to keep? Are there things you have kept secret, items you’ve hidden, topics you’ve never discussed?

I highly recommend The Flat, which is about the human ability to create reality as much as it’s about anything else.

"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka