Read Harder Review (and Five Star Book!): Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman

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I underlined so many passages in this book. A fact I know Ms. Fadiman would appreciate. I also bought it on a trip to a bookstore that was explicitly to buy a book club book, and nothing else. But it fit the “book about books” line on my Book Riot Read Harder challenge list, so naturally I had to get it. (If that reeks of rationalization and addict behavior, you’re not wrong.) I knew from the blurb on the back that I was going to love this book, but I didn’t know just how much I would identify with it. Yes, I knew that Fadiman and I are both book people, who were also raised by book people, but more than that we’re both the same kind of book people.

For one, we’re both obsessive annotators, she described it as treating reading like a conversation, which I loved. We are also both collectors of words. She has an essay in here about quizzing her friends and family on words she had to look up while reading a 1920 Carl Van Vechten essay, something I have never done – I want my friends to keep liking me – but I have definitely made the same kinds of lists. (Honestly, I made a long one reading this book. I would argue her word choice was overly grand if I didn’t know she was just reveling in the diversity of the English language.)

Aside from the kinship with a fellow book and word nerd, I really loved her description of her family. When she was growing up they used to watch quiz shows religiously and shared a love of proofreading menus. I know that to some (most?) of you that must sound insufferable, but to me it was warmly familiar. My dad gives my mom (and anyone else who is around) a history quiz from the morning paper. My brother once took a victory lap around our dining room table after besting us all on a final Jeopardy question. A couple of months ago my brother’s high school friend responded to my correcting my father’s statement that Faneuil Hall opened in the 1990s by saying that he meant it was renovated then, by saying, “You can’t get away with anything with the Dennetts.” So maybe we’re a little insufferable too, but this book made me feel in good company.

Side note: She writes a lot about her husband George, and each time he came up I thought, “he seems great.” Turns out – I had read and loved his own memoir The Big House and thought the same about her!

Midweek Music

I’ve been meaning to post a playlist for awhile, but misplaced the page in my notebook where I had been keeping my list. I found it last week and added a couple to make it a square 10. As always they mostly come from the Dinner Party Download or TBTL (what can I say I rely on the men of the APM Podcast network to give me new music…)

Emerald St. – Jamila Woods feat. Saba

Direct Address – Lucy Dacus

She Turns My Radio On – Jim Ford

Eternal Flame – The Bangles

When I was in 5th grade I watched a Behind the Music about the Bangles and even though I never remember to listen to their music, I pretty much still want to be them when I grow up.

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I mean look at the attitude (and the hair) #goals

Nuit de Foile – Début de Soirée 

Please enjoy this bonus video of another role model of mine, Isabelle Hupert – possibly the coolest woman alive – dancing like a giddy teenager to this song.

Alex Chilton – The Replacements 

Cherry Hearts – Prom Queen (cover a Shins song)

Delta Lady – Joe Cocker

How I Left – Sean Hayes

Who Says – John Mayer

(I know, he’s a sleazeball, but I just love this song…)

 

 

Thing I Love – Joe Cocker: Mad Dog With Soul

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I’ve been on a documentary kick lately, which luckily seems to be the genre of movie that Netflix has decided to continue paying to keep on their platform. The all knowing “you might like” algorithm got it completely right last night when it suggested that I watch Mad Dog with Soulwhich I had previously never heard of (apparently it’s going to air on Sky TV in Britain, I don’t know if it was produced for that purpose or what the deal it.)

Like any 90s child, I grew up knowing Joe Cocker’s voice from this:

And then a few years ago (while watching another documentary) I saw this clip of him singing “Space Captain” live on stage and I fell in love:

Many of the talking heads in this documentary talk about Cocker’s unique (to say the least) performance style. At least one referred to it as someone in a trance, and I’ve always felt listening to him sing that he is channeling something raw and beyond himself. I would be tempted to say it’s almost supernatural, but that would grandiose, and would also discount the deep humanity you can hear in that gravel (particularly in the ballads):

There’s nothing incredibly inventive about this as a film, or particularly revelatory about Cocker as an artist or a man. He was a kid form Sheffield England who fell in love with Ray Charles music, and skyrocketed to fame. Once there he was uncomfortable with the attention, and predictably found chemicals that could help him deal. (Though on the scale of rockstar excess he seemed to veer more to the side of “difficult to work with” rather than “force for destruction.”) But it is a lovely portrait of an incredibly talented man, who seems like he was, by nature, gentle and sensitive and dear. (There’s a long section about their life in Colorado, where he enjoyed gardening and hanging out at the local pool hall that I found particularly endearing.)

It’s mostly just an excuse to listen to him sing, which is a pretty great way to spend a Sunday evening:

Also this:

Weekly Adventure: Mini-Break to Salem

The idea of witches has always been pretty fascinating to me. I’ve always loved reading Alice Hoffman novels, in high school I wore out my copy of The Probable Future, and I still return to her sprawling tales of New England women with complicated “gifts.” It’s no surprise that this was my favorite sign at the Women’s March in January:

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Because so much of the moral panic of witch trials can be tied back to women who didn’t fit into the idea of what a woman should do. Which is why its surprising that I actually hadn’t been to Salem, MA until this past weekend. Well, this weekend I took the Megabus up to visit Hanna in Cambridge (well actually Somerville…) and we took the train out to see what Salem had to offer.

And…it was awesome! For a few reasons:

1. It’s a super cute little New England harbor town, which is a particular kind of charm I really enjoy.

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2. The history, both of the witch trials and otherwise (it’s also Nathaniel Hawthorne’s hometown)

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3. The witchy wonderfulness. There is so much camp, and so much earnest Wiccan stuff. It was just exactly what I wanted it to be, and it was also incredibly strange once I stopped to think about it. The actual historical trials were about the paranoid superstition of a group of people who were wrongly accused of witchcraft, which is obviously a tragedy. But now the town is forever associated with witchcraft, and is a Mecca of sorts for the Wiccan and neo-Pagan community. Which is cool in that it’s sort of the ultimate fuck you to the Puritan authorities, but it also leads to a strange tension where the town can’t decide if they believe if witches are real or not, which opens the uncomfortable question about the (obvious at least to me) innocence of those executed. This narrative is most confused at the Salem Witch Museum, which I wish I could describe to you but it is beyond my power. Please just go, it costs $12 but you will never experience anything quite like it….

Anyway, it was also just a great first real Spring weekend up here in the Northeast, and Hanna and I had a delightful time being silly through the streets:

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I did not buy any, but I’m really regretting that now…

Thing I Love: All This Panic

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When I first moved to New York last summer, Julia bought me a membership to the IFC Film Center, which I have been taking more advantage of in the last few weeks. (It’s helpful that they’ve been having great screenings followed by Q&As with female filmmakers.) And last night I saw one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in a long time. From first time director Jenny GageAll This Panic follows the story of a group of teenage girls in Brooklyn as they move through high school and the beginning of college, navigating their friendships, families, ambitions, and romantic lives.

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I loved so many things about this movie that I’m not even sure where to start. First these girls are so articulate and open about the particular struggle of being a teenage girl. They talk about the ridiculous expectations we place on 16 and 17 year olds (to know what they want to do with the rest of their lives, to have sex but also not have sex, to know exactly who they are) with an incredible wisdom. If this wasn’t a documentary I can just imagine the reviews that would claim “kids don’t talk like that.” But of course they do, when they’re asked what they think and we actually listen to them.

It’s so rare that we as a society take teen girls seriously. We write them off  as frivolous (for proof look at the aghast response to Teen Vogue publishing critical political reporting), so it’s refreshing to watch these girls muddle their way towards something like wisdom. And also to watch them be silly and naive and stupid the way that young people should be.

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Gage mentioned in the Q&A last night that while they thought about including a couple of boys in the group, the girls themselves were adamant that this was their film, that boys already have Stand By Me and Boyhood. I’m so glad that this generation of girls will have All This Panic. It was the best portrait I’ve ever seen of truly sustaining power of female friendships, especially when you’re really young, these girls drive each other crazy sure. There are moments of “drama,” (refreshingly never about fighting over a boy), but mostly they love and take care of each other. And it’s beautiful to watch.

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Weekly Adventure: I’m Nobody Who Are You at the Morgan Library

I love Emily Dickinson. I didn’t always. When I first read her I found her cold and distant and overly formal. Which looks ridiculous to me now. Imagine, thinking of a poem like this as reserved:

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But I also love what I know about her as a person. Not the mythical figure of the ghostly pale woman upstairs in her New England attic scribbling away and never leaving her house, but the weird and wonderful, and yes unmarried (gasp!), woman that I’ve pieced together over the years. The most clues for me came not from a biography but this collection of her “Envelope Poems.” I feel like that book made it the most clear how integral writing poetry was to her daily life, but also showed that she had a life beyond poetry. She was cooking or going to a concert or reading a letter when had these flashes of inspiration.

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Poem draft on a program card

The small show of her letters and drafts on view right now at The Morgan Library does a nice job of depicting Miss Dickinson’s quiet, but not empty, life. I especially liked the way they presented her interest in botany, with a digitized version of the plant catalog she made while a student at Mt. Holyoke. (It’s really beautifully designed and lets visitors flip though the pages, which obviously could never be done with the fragile original.) I also liked the way she wrote up and down on the pages of her letters, like she simply had too many thoughts to contain them to one direction:

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I had never been to The Morgan before, and I really appreciated the design of the exhibition. There was a lot of contextual information, but it was presented in a clear, uncluttered way. Also, this was the correct paint color:

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Though it doesn’t photograph very well apparently. It’s much greener than this in person.

It’s also just a beautiful space, J.P. Morgan’s library had me swooning (as my Instagram followers can tell you), and while I was there a classical duo was playing in the central courtyard, which was a lovely addition. I highly recommend a trip as a way to pass a gray Sunday afternoon.

The exhibition is on view through May 21st at The Morgan Library & Museum at 225 Madison Ave

Weekly Adventure: Amélie on Broadway

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I wasn’t sure what to expect from Amélie as a musical. I had seen the movie it’s based on in high school, but I admit that I really only remembered the image of Audrey Tautou‘s mischievous smile from the DVD case. Oh and that it was “quirky.” While I’m ambivalent about the current musical theater trend to musical-ize every even marginally successful film, the opportunity to Phillipa Soo (otherwise known as Eliza-freaking-Schuyler-Hamilton) and my longtime love* Adam Chanler-Berat would have been inducement enough to see pretty much any show.

And this one was definitely worth the trip! As my New York godmother, and frequent theater date, put it as we were walking out this was completely “charming.” And it is quirky. (There are extended sequences involving a garden gnome.) But, mostly due to the truly great central performance from Soo, it also has a lovely emotional center about how hard it can be to allow yourself to connect to the people around you.

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This scene/song was lovely (Photo Credit: Joan Marcus for Playbill)

Obviously anyone who has listened to “Burn” already knows that Phillipa is a star, and this role lets her share all of her effervescence, but she’s backed up by a great supporting cast. The production design is also really great, Amélie lives in a daydream world, and set & costume designer David Zinn, created a world and (closet) I’ll be dreaming about for awhile.

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(Photo Credit: Instagram user alisonsimmet)

 

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*Baby (ok 19-year-old) Kath meeting Adam outside iNext to Normal (Photo Credit: Hanna Katz)

Read Harder Review: History Was All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

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I have a book buying problem. Even while I’m forcing my way through a library book that has already been renewed multiple times, and staring at the book club book from last month that I haven’t even opened, I cannot stop myself from perusing the shelves of any bookstore I pass. Which is how I stumbled upon History Is All You Left Me a couple of weeks ago on a table at the Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side, but it’s OK, because it helped me cross “A YA or middle grade novel by an author that identifies as LGTBQIA+” off my Book Riot Read Harder challenge list. 

This is the story of a high school boy, Griffin, whose first boyfriend (and first ex-boyfriend) has tragically died. The story flashes back and forth between the “history” of their relationship and the present day confusion of grief that Griff is grappling with. He’s also dealing with the dead ex-boyfriend’s current boyfriend whose claim on the dead boy makes Griffin super jealous.

It’s a heavy premise, and at times Silverberg handles it with great care and style. But the machinations of the plot – the time jumping conceit, the way he is clearly withholding information from the reader until the very last seconds – made the experience of reading it less emotional for me. The strongest sections of this book are the ones where Griffin’s emotions are allowed to take center stage, even when those emotions are petty or ill-advised. Those sections are relateable and heartbreaking, the “mystery” of why the relationship ended or even how the boyfriend died left me feeling a bit colder.

Award Show Round Up: Oscars 2017

I’m just going to start with the elephant in the room…this happened:

The most important thing that happened here is that Moonlight won Best Picture. It’s one of the most original and best films I have ever seen. I feel so bad for everyone involved in this mistake (no it wasn’t staged, shut up with your conspiracy theories Twitter). I also don’t think it was Warren Beatty’s fault.

I have watched this video countless times this morning and the only reaction I cannot understand is Jimmy Kimmel’s. “You guys should get it anyway”??!! Obviously they should not. They didn’t win. Just shut up and let Jordan Horowitz and Warren handle this. Otherwise though, I thought he was a pretty good host. (Though the show felt long. That’s not his fault really though, it is just long. I miss being in the central time zone where it ends after 11 instead of after midnight.)

Anyway, there were hours of show before the most interesting end to an awards show ever. My highlights are:

An opening with real energy (whatever your feelings are on this song):

The first award of the night went, as it absolutely should have, to Mahershala Ali:

Viola finally has an Oscar, which is great, but I would like to state one last time for the record that she deserved to win Best Actress in a Leading Role for this film. Her studio should have had that confidence in her, but I’m happy for her all the same:

Lin-Manuel was there! And, I confess that I have yet to see Moana, but this girl just punched her ticket to Broadway if that’s where she wants to go:

(Also, Dwayne Johnson for Oscar host next year?)

I also, really liked the rearranged La La Land number. (Because, the music is good. It’s a good movie. You don’t have to hate it to love Moonlight, despite what the internet tells you.)

(I’ll post a better video of this once its available…)

Also, this happened:

Unfortunately, they then presented an Oscar to Hacksaw Ridge which is not a good film.

Good Will Hunting was formative for me, and though they are imperfect people, I will always love Matt and Ben and the little fraternity they surround themselves with and I loved that they got to have this moment of presenting an Oscar to their friend. (And this was one of the best Kimmel-Damon ‘feud’ moments of the night:

(I’m not going to rehash my take on Casey Affleck again, but I’m glad he won. And he should have combed his hair.)

I would have given my personal Oscar to Natalie Portman for Jackie, but I’m happy for Emma:

But I’m even happier for these men:

And now, dresses. There were fewer strange appliqués last night, which I appreciated. And a lot of sparkle:

 

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Ruth Negga in Valentino (Photo Credit: Jeff Kravits/FilmMagic)*

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Felicity Jones in Christian Dior (Photo Credit: Glamlog)

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Emma Stone in Givenchy Haute Couture (Photo Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images)

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Scarlett Johansson in Azzedine Alaïa (Photo Credit: David Fisher/REX/Shutterstock)

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Alicia Vikander in Louis Vuitton (Photo Credit: REX Shutterstock)

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Michelle Williams in Louis Vuitton (Photo Credit: Noel West)

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Taraji P. Henson in Alberta Ferretti (Photo Credit: Lionel Hahn/ABACA USA/INSTARimages.com, Getty)

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Isabelle Hupert in Armani Privé (Photo Credit: WireImage)

*The blue ribbon is to support the ACLU

And the Nominees Are 2017: Final Round

Happy Oscar Sunday! I’m going to a watch party at Q.E.D. in Astoria in a few hours, but I wanted to get my last few catch up reviews posted before the ceremony.

Toni Erdmann

Pretty much every film critic I read, listen to, and/or follow on Twitter heaped praises upon this movie. But they all also mentioned that it was almost 3 hours long…so it took me awhile to find time to go. And while I really appreciated the performances, and some of the set pieces had me laughing out loud, it was too long. No comedy, even one as emotionally layered as this, needs to be 3 hours long. (In fact, I can tell you exactly when it should have ended, and it was at least 15 minutes before the actual end, with the yeti hug in the park.)

That being said, the parts of this that are a satire of international business culture are scathingly spot on. And the central message, that we should all take ourselves a little less seriously, is a welcome one.

Also, I’ll never again be able to heat “The Greatest Love of All” without thinking of Sandra Hüller and laughing.

The Eagle Huntress

I needed this story right now. Aishlopan, a 13 year old girl living with her nomadic family in the mountains of Mongolia, wants to be an eagle hunter like her father. Her parents let her despite there never having been a female hunter before. When she tries, she’s brilliant at it.

It’s a feel good feminist story. Parents, please take your preteen children of all genders to see this (though, warning for the squeamish: Eagles are birds of prey and nature has some gruesome aspects, but they are handled tastefully.)

May we all, as we face our own versions of the old men sitting in huts saying in the same breath that woman can’t hunt eagles because they will get cold in the mountains and that Aishlopan only succeeds in competitions because she is a girl, maintain the strength and ease that she has & ride off to break those men’s records with smiles on our faces.

(Also, Mongolia looks really beautiful.)

13th 

This movie should be required viewing for all Americans. Ava DuVernay (who you may recognize as the Oscar-snubbed director of Selma) lays out the devastating history that leads directly from slavery, through the dismantling of Radical Reconstruction through Jim Crow to today’s mass incarceration and police brutality. It isn’t an easy watch, but we are never going to make progress if we ignore the reality of the history that informs out current debates and tragedies.

Although she clearly has a point of view, DuVernay does a good job of including voices from across the political spectrum. I was pleasantly surprised by the nuance that Newt Gingrich brought to his interview. And if you need a definition of unhelpful white nonsense you can play a compilation of all the times that Grover Norquist reduced complicated political grievances to complaints about “mean people.” She also doesn’t let Democrats off the hook, because racism isn’t a Republican issue, it is a human issue and we all need to acknowledge this in able to fix it.

Just watch it. It’s on Netflix. Go now.

I Am Not Your Negro

I’ve loved James Baldwin since I was assigned Giovanni’s Room in a class in college. (I had read Go Tell It On the Mountain before that but it had gone over my head.) So, I knew I was in for brilliance when I went to see Raoul Peck‘s new documentary that uses only Baldwin’s words to examine the lives of MLK, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers and through them the story of the mistreatment of black people in America.

A Facebook friend of mine called this “required viewing” and it certainly is. It’s well crafted and edited and well-deserving of its Oscar nomination. I found it to be very emotional and distressingly relevant to our current moment. I hope that it inspires people to read Baldwin, and more history in general, because its beautiful, but there are gaps that may need filling in for an uninformed viewer. (Such as the fact that Malcolm X was not murdered by a white man, but a member of the Nation of Islam.)

Overall, this is a remarkable documentary, worth waiting in the lines I’ve seen at every independent movie theater showing this in NYC.