Pop Picks

Pop Picks – October 31

Posted on October 31, 2019

October 31, 2019

What I’m listening to: 

It drove his critics crazy that Obama was the coolest president we ever had and his summer 2019 playlist on Spotify simply confirms that reality. It has been on repeat for me. From Drake to Lizzo (God I love her) to Steely Dan to Raphael Saadiq to Sinatra (who I skip every time – I’m not buying the nostalgia), his carefully curated list reflects not only his infinite coolness, but the breadth of his interests and generosity of taste. I love the music, but I love even more the image of Michelle and him rocking out somewhere far from Washington’s madness, as much as I miss them both.

What I’m reading: 

I struggled with Christy Lefteri’s The Beekeeper of Aleppo for the first 50 pages, worried that she’d drag out every tired trope of Mid-Eastern society, but I fell for her main characters and their journey as refugees from Syria to England. Parts of this book were hard to read and very dark, because that is the plight of so many refugees and she doesn’t shy away from those realities and the enormous toll they take on displaced people. It’s a hard read, but there is light too – in resilience, in love, in friendships, the small tender gestures of people tossed together in a heartless world. Lefteri volunteered in Greek refugee programs, spent a lot of interviewing people, and the book feels true, and importantly, heartfelt.

What I’m watching:

Soap opera meets Shakespeare, deliciously malevolent and operatic, Succession has been our favorite series this season. Loosely based on the Murdochs and their media empire (don’t believe the denials), this was our must watch television on Sunday nights, filling the void left by Game of Thrones. The acting is over-the-top good, the frequent comedy dark, the writing brilliant, and the music superb. We found ourselves quoting lines after every episode. Like the hilarious; “You don’t hear much about syphilis these days. Very much the Myspace of STDs.” Watch it so we can talk about that season 2 finale.

Archive 

August 30, 2019

What I’m listening to: 

I usually go to music here, but the New York Times new 1619 podcast is just terrific, as is the whole project, which observes the sale of the first enslaved human beings on our shores 400 years ago. The first episode, “The Fight for a True Democracy” is a remarkable overview (in a mere 44 minutes) of the centrality of racism and slavery in the American story over those 400 years. It should be mandatory listening in every high school in the country. I’m eager for the next episodes. Side note: I am addicted to The Daily podcast, which gives more color and detail to the NY Times stories I read in print (yes, print), and reminds me of how smart and thoughtful are those journalists who give us real news. We need them now more than ever.

What I’m reading: 

Colson Whitehead has done it again. The Nickel Boys, his new novel, is a worthy successor to his masterpiece The Underground Railroad, and because it is closer to our time, based on the real-life horrors of a Florida reform school, and written a time of resurgent White Supremacy, it hits even harder and with more urgency than its predecessor. Maybe because we can read Underground Railroad with a sense of “that was history,” but one can’t read Nickel Boys without the lurking feeling that such horrors persist today and the monsters that perpetrate such horrors walk among us. They often hold press conferences.

What I’m watching:

Queer Eye, the Netflix remake of the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy some ten years later, is wondrously entertaining, but it also feels adroitly aligned with our dysfunctional times. Episode three has a conversation with Karamo Brown, one of the fab five, and a Georgia small town cop (and Trump supporter) that feels unscripted and unexpected and reminds us of how little actual conversation seems to be taking place in our divided country. Oh, for more car rides such as the one they take in that moment, when a chasm is bridged, if only for a few minutes. Set in the South, it is often a refreshing and affirming response to what it means to be male at a time of toxic masculinity and the overdue catharsis and pain of the #MeToo movement. Did I mention? It’s really fun.

July 1, 2019

What I’m listening to: 

The National remains my favorite band and probably 50% of my listening time is a National album or playlist. Their new album I Am Easy To Find feels like a turning point record for the band, going from the moody, outsider introspection and doubt of lead singer Matt Berninger to something that feels more adult, sophisticated, and wiser. I might have titled it Women Help The Band Grow Up. Matt is no longer the center of The National’s universe and he frequently cedes the mic to the many women who accompany and often lead on the long, their longest, album. They include Gail Ann Dorsey (who sang with Bowie for a long time), who is amazing, and a number of the songs were written by Carin Besser, Berninger’s wife. I especially love the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, the arrangements, and the sheer complexity and coherence of the work. It still amazes me when I meet someone who does not know The National. My heart breaks for them just a little.

What I’m reading: 

Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of Homer’s Iliad through the lens of a captive Trojan queen, Briseis. As a reviewer in The Atlantic writes, it answers the question “What does war mean to women?” We know the answer and it has always been true, whether it is the casual and assumed rape of captive women in this ancient war story or the use of rape in modern day Congo, Syria, or any other conflict zone. Yet literature almost never gives voice to the women – almost always minor characters at best — and their unspeakable suffering. Barker does it here for Briseis, for Hector’s wife Andromache, and for the other women who understand that the death of their men is tragedy, but what they then endure is worse. Think of it ancient literature having its own #MeToo moment. The NY Times’ Geraldine Brooks did not much like the novel. I did. Very much.

What I’m watching: 

The BBC-HBO limited series Years and Years is breathtaking, scary, and absolutely familiar. It’s as if Black Mirrorand Children of Men had a baby and it precisely captures the zeitgeist, the current sense that the world is spinning out of control and things are coming at us too fast. It is a near future (Trump has been re-elected and Brexit has occurred finally)…not dystopia exactly, but damn close. The closing scene of last week’s first episode (there are 6 episodes and it’s on every Monday) shows nuclear war breaking out between China and the U.S. Yikes! The scope of this show is wide and there is a big, baggy feel to it – but I love the ambition even if I’m not looking forward to the nightmares.

May 19, 2019

What I’m listening to: 

I usually go to music here, but I was really moved by this podcast of a Davis Brooks talk at the Commonwealth Club in Silicon Valley: https://www.commonwealthclub.org/events/archive/podcast/david-brooks-quest-moral-life.  While I have long found myself distant from his political stance, he has come through a dark night of the soul and emerged with a wonderful clarity about calling, community, and not happiness (that most superficial of goals), but fulfillment and meaning, found in community and human kinship of many kinds. I immediately sent it to my kids.

What I’m reading: 

Susan Orlean’s wonderful The Library Book, a love song to libraries told through the story of the LA Central Library.  It brought back cherished memories of my many hours in beloved libraries — as a kid in the Waltham Public Library, a high schooler in the Farber Library at Brandeis (Lil Farber years later became a mentor of mine), and the cathedral-like Bapst Library at BC when I was a graduate student. Yes, I was a nerd. This is a love song to books certainly, but a reminder that libraries are so, so much more.  It is a reminder that libraries are less about a place or being a repository of information and, like America at its best, an idea and ideal. By the way, oh to write like her.

What I’m watching: 

What else? Game of Thrones, like any sensible human being. This last season is disappointing in many ways and the drop off in the writing post George R.R. Martin is as clear as was the drop off in the post-Sorkin West Wing. I would be willing to bet that if Martin has been writing the last season, Sansa and Tyrion would have committed suicide in the crypt. That said, we fans are deeply invested and even the flaws are giving us so much to discuss and debate. In that sense, the real gift of this last season is the enjoyment between episodes, like the old pre-streaming days when we all arrived at work after the latest episode of the Sopranos to discuss what we had all seen the night before. I will say this, the last two episodes — full of battle and gore – have been visually stunning. Whether the torches of the Dothraki being extinguished in the distance or Arya riding through rubble and flame on a white horse, rarely has the series ascended to such visual grandeur.

March 28, 2019

What I’m listening to: 

There is a lovely piece played in a scene from A Place Called Home that I tracked down. It’s Erik Satie’s 3 Gymnopédies: Gymnopédie No. 1, played by the wonderful pianist Klára Körmendi. Satie composed this piece in 1888 and it was considered avant-garde and anti-Romantic. It’s minimalism and bit of dissonance sound fresh and contemporary to my ears and while not a huge Classical music fan, I’ve fallen in love with the Körmendi playlist on Spotify. When you need an alternative to hours of Cardi B.

What I’m reading: 

Just finished Esi Edugyan’s 2018 novel Washington Black. Starting on a slave plantation in Barbados, it is a picaresque novel that has elements of Jules Verne, Moby DickFrankenstein, and Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. Yes, it strains credulity and there are moments of “huh?”, but I loved it (disclosure: I was in the minority among my fellow book club members) and the first third is a searing depiction of slavery. It’s audacious, sprawling (from Barbados to the Arctic to London to Africa), and the writing, especially about nature, luminous. 

What I’m watching: 

A soap opera. Yes, I’d like to pretend it’s something else, but we are 31 episodes into the Australian drama A Place Called Home and we are so, so addicted. Like “It’s  AM, but can’t we watch just one more episode?” addicted. Despite all the secrets, cliff hangers, intrigue, and “did that just happen?” moments, the core ingredients of any good soap opera, APCH has superb acting, real heft in terms of subject matter (including homophobia, anti-Semitism, sexual assault, and class), touches of our beloved Downton Abbey, and great cars. Beware. If you start, you won’t stop.

February 11, 2019

What I’m listening to:

Raphael Saadiq has been around for quite a while, as a musician, writer, and producer. He’s new to me and I love his old school R&B sound. Like Leon Bridges, he brings a contemporary freshness to the genre, sounding like a young Stevie Wonder (listen to “You’re The One That I Like”). Rock and Roll may be largely dead, but R&B persists – maybe because the former was derivative of the latter and never as good (and I say that as a Rock and Roll fan). I’m embarrassed to only have discovered Saadiq so late in his career, but it’s a delight to have done so.

What I’m reading:

Just finished Marilynne Robinson’s Home, part of her trilogy that includes the Pulitzer Prize winning first novel, Gilead, and the book after HomeLila. Robinson is often described as a Christian writer, but not in a conventional sense. In this case, she gives us a modern version of the prodigal son and tells the story of what comes after he is welcomed back home. It’s not pretty. Robinson is a self-described Calvinist, thus character begets fate in Robinson’s world view and redemption is at best a question. There is something of Faulkner in her work (I am much taken with his famous “The past is never past” quote after a week in the deep South), her style is masterful, and like Faulkner, she builds with these three novels a whole universe in the small town of Gilead. Start with Gilead to better enjoy Home.

What I’m watching:

Sex Education was the most fun series we’ve seen in ages and we binged watched it on Netflix. A British homage to John Hughes films like The Breakfast ClubFerris Bueller’s Day Off, and Pretty in Pink, it feels like a mash up of American and British high schools. Focusing on the relationship of Maeve, the smart bad girl, and Otis, the virginal and awkward son of a sex therapist (played with brilliance by Gillian Anderson), it is laugh aloud funny and also evolves into more substance and depth (the abortion episode is genius). The sex scenes are somehow raunchy and charming and inoffensive at the same time and while ostensibly about teenagers (it feels like it is explaining contemporary teens to adults in many ways), the adults are compelling in their good and bad ways. It has been renewed for a second season, which is a gift.

January 3, 2019

What I’m listening to:

My listening choices usually refer to music, but this time I’m going with Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast on genius and the song Hallelujah. It tells the story of Leonard Cohen’s much-covered song Hallelujah and uses it as a lens on kinds of genius and creativity. Along the way, he brings in Picasso and Cézanne, Elvis Costello, and more. Gladwell is a good storyteller and if you love pop music, as I do, and Hallelujah, as I do (and you should), you’ll enjoy this podcast. We tend to celebrate the genius who seems inspired in the moment, creating new work like lightning strikes, but this podcast has me appreciating incremental creativity in a new way. It’s compelling and fun at the same time.

What I’m reading:

Just read Clay Christensen’s new book, The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty. This was an advance copy, so soon available. Clay is an old friend and a huge influence on how we have grown SNHU and our approach to innovation. This book is so compelling, because we know attempts at development have so often been a failure and it is often puzzling to understand why some countries with desperate poverty and huge challenges somehow come to thrive (think S. Korea, Singapore, 19th C. America), while others languish. Clay offers a fresh way of thinking about development through the lens of his research on innovation and it is compelling. I bet this book gets a lot of attention, as most of his work does. I also suspect that many in the development community will hate it, as it calls into question the approach and enormous investments we have made in an attempt to lift countries out of poverty. A provocative read and, as always, Clay is a good storyteller.

What I’m watching:

Just watched Leave No Trace and should have guessed that it was directed by Debra Granik. She did Winter’s Bone, the extraordinary movie that launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career. Similarly, this movie features an amazing young actor, Thomasin McKenzie, and visits lives lived on the margins. In this case, a veteran suffering PTSD, and his 13-year-old daughter. The movie is patient, is visually lush, and justly earned 100% on Rotten Tomatoes (I have a rule to never watch anything under 82%). Everything in this film is under control and beautifully understated (aside from the visuals) – confident acting, confident directing, and so humane. I love the lack of flashbacks, the lack of sensationalism – the movie trusts the viewer, rare in this age of bombast. A lovely film.

December 4, 2018

What I’m listening to:

Spending a week in New Zealand, we had endless laughs listening to the Kiwi band, Flight of the Conchords. Lots of comedic bands are funny, but the music is only okay or worse. These guys are funny – hysterical really – and the music is great. They have an uncanny ability to parody almost any style. In both New Zealand and Australia, we found a wry sense of humor that was just delightful and no better captured than with this duo. You don’t have to be in New Zealand to enjoy them.

What I’m reading:

I don’t often reread. For two reasons: A) I have so many books on my “still to be read” pile that it seems daunting to also rereadbooks I loved before, and B) it’s because I loved them once that I’m a little afraid to read them again. That said, I was recently asked to list my favorite book of all time and I answered Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. But I don’t really know if that’s still true (and it’s an impossible question anyway – favorite book? On what day? In what mood?), so I’m rereading it and it feels like being with an old friend. It has one of my very favorite scenes ever: the card game between Levin and Kitty that leads to the proposal and his joyous walking the streets all night.

What I’m watching:

Blindspotting is billed as a buddy-comedy. Wow does that undersell it and the drama is often gripping. I loved Daveed Diggs in Hamilton, didn’t like his character in Black-ish, and think he is transcendent in this film he co-wrote with Rafael Casal, his co-star.  The film is a love song to Oakland in many ways, but also a gut-wrenching indictment of police brutality, systemic racism and bias, and gentrification. The film has the freshness and raw visceral impact of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. A great soundtrack, genre mixing, and energy make it one of my favorite movies of 2018.

October 15, 2018 

What I’m listening to:

We had the opportunity to see our favorite band, The National, live in Dallas two weeks ago. Just after watching Mistaken for Strangers, the documentary sort of about the band. So we’ve spent a lot of time going back into their earlier work, listening to songs we don’t know well, and reaffirming that their musicality, smarts, and sound are both original and astoundingly good. They did not disappoint in concert and it is a good thing their tour ended, as we might just spend all of our time and money following them around. Matt Berninger is a genius and his lead vocals kill me (and because they are in my range, I can actually sing along!). Their arrangements are profoundly good and go right to whatever brain/heart wiring that pulls one in and doesn’t let them go.

What I’m reading:

Who is Richard Powers and why have I only discovered him now, with his 12th book? Overstory is profoundly good, a book that is essential and powerful and makes me look at my everyday world in new ways. In short, a dizzying example of how powerful can be narrative in the hands of a master storyteller. I hesitate to say it’s the best environmental novel I’ve ever read (it is), because that would put this book in a category. It is surely about the natural world, but it is as much about we humans. It’s monumental and elegiac and wondrous at all once. Cancel your day’s schedule and read it now. Then plant a tree. A lot of them.

What I’m watching:

Bo Burnham wrote and directed Eighth Grade and Elsie Fisher is nothing less than amazing as its star (what’s with these new child actors; see Florida Project). It’s funny and painful and touching. It’s also the single best film treatment that I have seen of what it means to grow up in a social media shaped world. It’s a reminder that growing up is hard. Maybe harder now in a world of relentless, layered digital pressure to curate perfect lives that are far removed from the natural messy worlds and selves we actually inhabit. It’s a well-deserved 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and I wonder who dinged it for the missing 2%.

September 7, 2018

What I’m listening to:

With a cover pointing back to the Beastie Boys’ 1986 Licensed to Ill, Eminem’s quietly released Kamikaze is not my usual taste, but I’ve always admired him for his “all out there” willingness to be personal, to call people out, and his sheer genius with language. I thought Daveed Diggs could rap fast, but Eminem is supersonic at moments, and still finds room for melody. Love that he includes Joyner Lucas, whose “I’m Not Racist” gets added to the growing list of simply amazing music videos commenting on race in America. There are endless reasons why I am the least likely Eminem fan, but when no one is around to make fun of me, I’ll put it on again.

What I’m reading:

Lesley Blume’s Everyone Behaves Badly, which is the story behind Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and his time in 1920s Paris (oh, what a time – see Midnight in Paris if you haven’t already). Of course, Blume disabuses my romantic ideas of that time and place and everyone is sort of (or profoundly so) a jerk, especially…no spoiler here…Hemingway. That said, it is a compelling read and coming off the Henry James inspired prose of Mrs. Osmond, it made me appreciate more how groundbreaking was Hemingway’s modern prose style. Like his contemporary Picasso, he reinvented the art and it can be easy to forget, these decades later, how profound was the change and its impact. And it has bullfights.

What I’m watching:

Chloé Zhao’s The Rider is just exceptional. It’s filmed on the Pine Ridge Reservation, which provides a stunning landscape, and it feels like a classic western reinvented for our times. The main characters are played by the real-life people who inspired this narrative (but feels like a documentary) film. Brady Jandreau, playing himself really, owns the screen. It’s about manhood, honor codes, loss, and resilience – rendered in sensitive, nuanced, and heartfelt ways. It feels like it could be about large swaths of America today. Really powerful.

August 16, 2018

What I’m listening to:

In my Spotify Daily Mix was Percy Sledge’s When A Man Loves A Woman, one of the world’s greatest love songs. Go online and read the story of how the song was discovered and recorded. There are competing accounts, but Sledge said he improvised it after a bad breakup. It has that kind of aching spontaneity. It is another hit from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, one of the GREAT music hotbeds, along with Detroit, Nashville, and Memphis. Our February Board meeting is in Alabama and I may finally have to do the pilgrimage road trip to Muscle Shoals and then Memphis, dropping in for Sunday services at the church where Rev. Al Green still preaches and sings. If the music is all like this, I will be saved.

What I’m reading:

John Banville’s Mrs. Osmond, his homage to literary idol Henry James and an imagined sequel to James’ 1881 masterpiece Portrait of a Lady. Go online and read the first paragraph of Chapter 25. He is…profoundly good. Makes me want to never write again, since anything I attempt will feel like some other, lowly activity in comparison to his mastery of language, image, syntax. This is slow reading, every sentence to be savored.

What I’m watching:

I’ve always respected Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but we just watched the documentary RGB. It is over-the-top great and she is now one of my heroes. A superwoman in many ways and the documentary is really well done. There are lots of scenes of her speaking to crowds and the way young women, especially law students, look at her is touching.  And you can’t help but fall in love with her now late husband Marty. See this movie and be reminded of how important is the Law.

July 23, 2018

What I’m listening to:

Spotify’s Summer Acoustic playlist has been on repeat quite a lot. What a fun way to listen to artists new to me, including The Paper Kites, Hollow Coves, and Fleet Foxes, as well as old favorites like Leon Bridges and Jose Gonzalez. Pretty chill when dialing back to a summer pace, dining on the screen porch or reading a book.

What I’m reading:

Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. Founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson tells of the racial injustice (and the war on the poor our judicial system perpetuates as well) that he discovered as a young graduate from Harvard Law School and his fight to address it. It is in turn heartbreaking, enraging, and inspiring. It is also about mercy and empathy and justice that reads like a novel. Brilliant.

What I’m watching:

Fauda. We watched season one of this Israeli thriller. It was much discussed in Israel because while it focuses on an ex-special agent who comes out of retirement to track down a Palestinian terrorist, it was willing to reveal the complexity, richness, and emotions of Palestinian lives. And the occasional brutality of the Israelis. Pretty controversial stuff in Israel. Lior Raz plays Doron, the main character, and is compelling and tough and often hard to like. He’s a mess. As is the world in which he has to operate. We really liked it, and also felt guilty because while it may have been brave in its treatment of Palestinians within the Israeli context, it falls back into some tired tropes and ultimately falls short on this front.

June 11, 2018

What I’m listening to:

Like everyone else, I’m listening to Pusha T drop the mic on Drake. Okay, not really, but do I get some points for even knowing that? We all walk around with songs that immediately bring us back to a time or a place. Songs are time machines. We are coming up on Father’s Day. My own dad passed away on Father’s Day back in 1994 and I remembering dutifully getting through the wake and funeral and being strong throughout. Then, sitting alone in our kitchen, Don Henley’s The End of the Innocence came on and I lost it. When you lose a parent for the first time (most of us have two after all) we lose our innocence and in that passage, we suddenly feel adult in a new way (no matter how old we are), a longing for our own childhood, and a need to forgive and be forgiven. Listen to the lyrics and you’ll understand. As Wordsworth reminds us in In Memoriam, there are seasons to our grief and, all these years later, this song no longer hits me in the gut, but does transport me back with loving memories of my father. I’ll play it Father’s Day.

What I’m reading:

The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin. I am not a reader of fantasy or sci-fi, though I understand they can be powerful vehicles for addressing the very real challenges of the world in which we actually live. I’m not sure I know of a more vivid and gripping illustration of that fact than N. K. Jemisin’s Hugo Award winning novel The Fifth Season, first in her Broken Earth trilogy. It is astounding. It is the fantasy parallel to The Underground Railroad, my favorite recent read, a depiction of subjugation, power, casual violence, and a broken world in which our hero(s) struggle, suffer mightily, and still, somehow, give us hope. It is a tour de force book. How can someone be this good a writer? The first 30 pages pained me (always with this genre, one must learn a new, constructed world, and all of its operating physics and systems of order), and then I could not put it down. I panicked as I neared the end, not wanting to finish the book, and quickly ordered the Obelisk Gate, the second novel in the trilogy, and I can tell you now that I’ll be spending some goodly portion of my weekend in Jemisin’s other world.

What I’m watching:

The NBA Finals and perhaps the best basketball player of this generation. I’ve come to deeply respect LeBron James as a person, a force for social good, and now as an extraordinary player at the peak of his powers. His superhuman play during the NBA playoffs now ranks with the all-time greats, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, MJ, Kobe, and the demi-god that was Bill Russell. That his Cavs lost in a 4-game sweep is no surprise. It was a mediocre team being carried on the wide shoulders of James (and matched against one of the greatest teams ever, the Warriors, and the Harry Potter of basketball, Steph Curry) and, in some strange way, his greatness is amplified by the contrast with the rest of his team. It was a great run.

May 24, 2018

What I’m listening to:

I’ve always liked Alicia Keys and admired her social activism, but I am hooked on her last album Here. This feels like an album finally commensurate with her anger, activism, hope, and grit. More R&B and Hip Hop than is typical for her, I think this album moves into an echelon inhabited by a Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On or Beyonce’s Formation. Social activism and outrage rarely make great novels, but they often fuel great popular music. Here is a terrific example.

What I’m reading:

Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad may be close to a flawless novel. Winner of the 2017 Pulitzer, it chronicles the lives of two runaway slaves, Cora and Caeser, as they try to escape the hell of plantation life in Georgia.  It is an often searing novel and Cora is one of the great heroes of American literature. I would make this mandatory reading in every high school in America, especially in light of the absurd revisionist narratives of “happy and well cared for” slaves. This is a genuinely great novel, one of the best I’ve read, the magical realism and conflating of time periods lifts it to another realm of social commentary, relevance, and a blazing indictment of America’s Original Sin, for which we remain unabsolved.

What I’m watching:

I thought I knew about The Pentagon Papers, but The Post, a real-life political thriller from Steven Spielberg taught me a lot, features some of our greatest actors, and is so timely given the assault on our democratic institutions and with a presidency out of control. It is a reminder that a free and fearless press is a powerful part of our democracy, always among the first targets of despots everywhere. The story revolves around the legendary Post owner and D.C. doyenne, Katharine Graham. I had the opportunity to see her son, Don Graham, right after he saw the film, and he raved about Meryl Streep’s portrayal of his mother. Liked it a lot more than I expected.

April 27, 2018

What I’m listening to:

I mentioned John Prine in a recent post and then on the heels of that mention, he has released a new album, The Tree of Forgiveness, his first new album in ten years. Prine is beloved by other singer songwriters and often praised by the inscrutable God that is Bob Dylan.  Indeed, Prine was frequently said to be the “next Bob Dylan” in the early part of his career, though he instead carved out his own respectable career and voice, if never with the dizzying success of Dylan. The new album reflects a man in his 70s, a cancer survivor, who reflects on life and its end, but with the good humor and empathy that are hallmarks of Prine’s music. “When I Get To Heaven” is a rollicking, fun vision of what comes next and a pure delight. A charming, warm, and often terrific album.

What I’m reading:

I recently read Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, on many people’s Top Ten lists for last year and for good reason. It is sprawling, multi-generational, and based in the world of Japanese occupied Korea and then in the Korean immigrant’s world of Oaska, so our key characters become “tweeners,” accepted in neither world. It’s often unspeakably sad, and yet there is resiliency and love. There is also intimacy, despite the time and geographic span of the novel. It’s breathtakingly good and like all good novels, transporting.

What I’m watching:

I adore Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film, Pan’s Labyrinth, and while I’m not sure his Shape of Water is better, it is a worthy follow up to the earlier masterpiece (and more of a commercial success). Lots of critics dislike the film, but I’m okay with a simple retelling of a Beauty and the Beast love story, as predictable as it might be. The acting is terrific, it is visually stunning, and there are layers of pain as well as social and political commentary (the setting is the US during the Cold War) and, no real spoiler here, the real monsters are humans, the military officer who sees over the captured aquatic creature. It is hauntingly beautiful and its depiction of hatred to those who are different or “other” is painfully resonant with the time in which we live. Put this on your “must see” list.

March 18, 2018

What I’m listening to:

Sitting on a plane for hours (and many more to go; geez, Australia is far away) is a great opportunity to listen to new music and to revisit old favorites. This time, it is Lucy Dacus and her album Historians, the new sophomore release from a 22-year old indie artist that writes with relatable, real-life lyrics. Just on a second listen and while she insists this isn’t a break up record (as we know, 50% of all great songs are break up songs), it is full of loss and pain. Worth the listen so far. For the way back machine, it’s John Prine and In Spite of Ourselves (that title track is one of the great love songs of all time), a collection of duets with some of his “favorite girl singers” as he once described them. I have a crush on Iris Dement (for a really righteously angry song try her Wasteland of the Free), but there is also EmmyLou Harris, the incomparable Dolores Keane, and Lucinda Williams. Very different albums, both wonderful.

What I’m reading:

Jane Mayer’s New Yorker piece on Christopher Steele presents little that is new, but she pulls it together in a terrific and coherent whole that is illuminating and troubling at the same time. Not only for what is happening, but for the complicity of the far right in trying to discredit that which should be setting off alarm bells everywhere. Bob Mueller may be the most important defender of the democracy at this time. A must read.

What I’m watching:

Homeland is killing it this season and is prescient, hauntingly so. Russian election interference, a Bannon-style hate radio demagogue, alienated and gun toting militia types, and a president out of control. It’s fabulous, even if it feels awfully close to the evening news. 

March 8, 2018

What I’m listening to:

We have a family challenge to compile our Top 100 songs. It is painful. Only 100? No more than three songs by one artist? Wait, why is M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” on my list? Should it just be The Clash from whom she samples? Can I admit to guilty pleasure songs? Hey, it’s my list and I can put anything I want on it. So I’m listening to the list while I work and the song playing right now is Tom Petty’s “The Wild One, Forever,” a B-side single that was never a hit and that remains my favorite Petty song. Also, “Evangeline” by Los Lobos. It evokes a night many years ago, with friends at Pearl Street in Northampton, MA, when everyone danced well past 1AM in a hot, sweaty, packed club and the band was a revelation. Maybe the best music night of our lives and a reminder that one’s 100 Favorite Songs list is as much about what you were doing and where you were in your life when those songs were playing as it is about the music. It’s not a list. It’s a soundtrack for this journey.

What I’m reading:

Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy was in the NY Times top ten books of 2017 list and it is easy to see why. Lockwood brings remarkable and often surprising imagery, metaphor, and language to her prose memoir and it actually threw me off at first. It then all became clear when someone told me she is a poet. The book is laugh aloud funny, which masks (or makes safer anyway) some pretty dark territory. Anyone who grew up Catholic, whether lapsed or not, will resonate with her story. She can’t resist a bawdy anecdote and her family provides some of the most memorable characters possible, especially her father, her sister, and her mother, who I came to adore. Best thing I’ve read in ages.

What I’m watching:

The Florida Project, a profoundly good movie on so many levels. Start with the central character, six-year old (at the time of the filming) Brooklynn Prince, who owns – I mean really owns – the screen. This is pure acting genius and at that age? Astounding. Almost as astounding is Bria Vinaite, who plays her mother. She was discovered on Instagram and had never acted before this role, which she did with just three weeks of acting lessons. She is utterly convincing and the tension between the child’s absolute wonder and joy in the world with her mother’s struggle to provide, to be a mother, is heartwarming and heartbreaking all at once. Willem Dafoe rightly received an Oscar nomination for his supporting role. This is a terrific movie.

February 12, 2018

What I’m listening to:

So, I have a lot of friends of age (I know you’re thinking 40s, but I just turned 60) who are frozen in whatever era of music they enjoyed in college or maybe even in their thirties. There are lots of times when I reach back into the catalog, since music is one of those really powerful and transporting senses that can take you through time (smell is the other one, though often underappreciated for that power). Hell, I just bought a turntable and now spending time in vintage vinyl shops. But I’m trying to take a lesson from Pat, who revels in new music and can as easily talk about North African rap music and the latest National album as Meet the Beatles, her first ever album. So, I’ve been listening to Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy winning Damn. While it may not be the first thing I’ll reach for on a winter night in Maine, by the fire, I was taken with it. It’s layered, political, and weirdly sensitive and misogynist at the same time, and it feels fresh and authentic and smart at the same time, with music that often pulled me from what I was doing. In short, everything music should do. I’m not a bit cooler for listening to Damn, but when I followed it with Steely Dan, I felt like I was listening to Lawrence Welk. A good sign, I think.

What I’m reading:

I am reading Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Leonardo da Vinci. I’m not usually a reader of biographies, but I’ve always been taken with Leonardo. Isaacson does not disappoint (does he ever?), and his subject is at once more human and accessible and more awe-inspiring in Isaacson’s capable hands. Gay, left-handed, vegetarian, incapable of finishing things, a wonderful conversationalist, kind, and perhaps the most relentlessly curious human being who has ever lived. Like his biographies of Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein, Isaacson’s project here is to show that genius lives at the intersection of science and art, of rationality and creativity. Highly recommend it.

What I’m watching:

We watched the This Is Us post-Super Bowl episode, the one where Jack finally buys the farm. I really want to hate this show. It is melodramatic and manipulative, with characters that mostly never change or grow, and it hooks me every damn time we watch it. The episode last Sunday was a tear jerker, a double whammy intended to render into a blubbering, tissue-crumbling pathetic mess anyone who has lost a parent or who is a parent. Sterling K. Brown, Ron Cephas Jones, the surprising Mandy Moore, and Milo Ventimiglia are hard not to love and last season’s episode that had only Brown and Cephas going to Memphis was the show at its best (they are by far the two best actors). Last week was the show at its best worst. In other words, I want to hate it, but I love it. If you haven’t seen it, don’t binge watch it. You’ll need therapy and insulin.

January 15, 2018

What I’m listening to:

Drive-By Truckers. Chris Stapleton has me on an unusual (for me) country theme and I discovered these guys to my great delight. They’ve been around, with some 11 albums, but the newest one is fascinating. It’s a deep dive into Southern alienation and the white working-class world often associated with our current president. I admire the willingness to lay bare, in kick ass rock songs, the complexities and pain at work among people we too quickly place into overly simple categories. These guys are brave, bold, and thoughtful as hell, while producing songs I didn’t expect to like, but that I keep playing. And they are coming to NH.

What I’m reading:

A textual analog to Drive-By Truckers by Chris Stapleton in many ways is Tony Horowitz’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning Confederates in the Attic. Ostensibly about the Civil War and the South’s ongoing attachment to it, it is prescient and speaks eloquently to the times in which we live (where every southern state but Virginia voted for President Trump). Often hilarious, it too surfaces complexities and nuance that escape a more recent, and widely acclaimed, book like Hillbilly Elegy. As a Civil War fan, it was also astonishing in many instances, especially when it blows apart long-held “truths” about the war, such as the degree to which Sherman burned down the south (he did not). Like D-B Truckers, Horowitz loves the South and the people he encounters, even as he grapples with its myths of victimhood and exceptionalism (and racism, which may be no more than the racism in the north, but of a different kind). Everyone should read this book and I’m embarrassed I’m so late to it.

What I’m watching:

David Letterman has a new Netflix show called “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction” and we watched the first episode, in which Letterman interviewed Barack Obama. It was extraordinary (if you don’t have Netflix, get it just to watch this show); not only because we were reminded of Obama’s smarts, grace, and humanity (and humor), but because we saw a side of Letterman we didn’t know existed. His personal reflections on Selma were raw and powerful, almost painful. He will do five more episodes with “extraordinary individuals” and if they are anything like the first, this might be the very best work of his career and one of the best things on television.

December 22, 2017

What I’m reading:

Just finished Sunjeev Sahota’s Year of the Runaways, a painful inside look at the plight of illegal Indian immigrant workers in Britain. It was shortlisted for 2015 Man Booker Prize and its transporting, often to a dark and painful universe, and it is impossible not to think about the American version of this story and the terrible way we treat the undocumented in our own country, especially now.

What I’m watching:

Season II of The Crown is even better than Season I. Elizabeth’s character is becoming more three-dimensional, the modern world is catching up with tradition-bound Britain, and Cold War politics offer more context and tension than we saw in Season I. Claire Foy, in her last season, is just terrific – one arched eye brow can send a message.

What I’m listening to:

A lot of Christmas music, but needing a break from the schmaltz, I’ve discovered Over the Rhine and their Christmas album, Snow Angels. God, these guys are good.

November 14, 2017

What I’m watching:

Guiltily, I watch the Patriots play every weekend, often building my schedule and plans around seeing the game. Why the guilt? I don’t know how morally defensible is football anymore, as we now know the severe damage it does to the players. We can’t pretend it’s all okay anymore. Is this our version of late decadent Rome, watching mostly young Black men take a terrible toll on each other for our mere entertainment?

What I’m reading:

Recently finished J.G. Ballard’s 2000 novel Super-Cannes, a powerful depiction of a corporate-tech ex-pat community taken over by a kind of psychopathology, in which all social norms and responsibilities are surrendered to residents of the new world community. Kept thinking about Silicon Valley when reading it. Pretty dark, dystopian view of the modern world and centered around a mass killing, troublingly prescient.

What I’m listening to:

Was never really a Lorde fan, only knowing her catchy (and smarter than you might first guess) pop hit “Royals” from her debut album. But her new album, Melodrama, is terrific and it doesn’t feel quite right to call this “pop.” There is something way more substantial going on with Lorde and I can see why many critics put this album at the top of their Best in 2017 list. Count me in as a huge fan.

November 3, 2017

What I’m reading:

Just finished Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, her breathtakingly good second novel. How is someone so young so wise? Her writing is near perfection and I read the book in two days, setting my alarm for 4:30AM so I could finish it before work.

What I’m watching:

We just binge watched season two of Stranger Things and it was worth it just to watch Millie Bobbie Brown, the transcendent young actor who plays Eleven. The series is a delightful mash up of every great eighties horror genre you can imagine and while pretty dark, an absolute joy to watch.

What I’m listening to:

I’m not a lover of country music (to say the least), but I love Chris Stapleton. His “The Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning” is heartbreakingly good and reminds me of the old school country that played in my house as a kid. He has a new album and I can’t wait, but his From A Room: Volume 1 is on repeat for now.

September 26, 2017

What I’m reading:

Just finished George Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo. It took me a while to accept its cadence and sheer weirdness, but loved it in the end. A painful meditation on loss and grief, and a genuinely beautiful exploration of the intersection of life and death, the difficulty of letting go of what was, good and bad, and what never came to be.

What I’m watching:

HBO’s The Deuce. Times Square and the beginning of the porn industry in the 1970s, the setting made me wonder if this was really something I’d want to see. But David Simon is the writer and I’d read a menu if he wrote it. It does not disappoint so far and there is nothing prurient about it.

What I’m listening to:

The National’s new album Sleep Well Beast. I love this band. The opening piano notes of the first song, “Nobody Else Will Be There,” seize me & I’m reminded that no one else in music today matches their arrangement & musicianship. I’m adding “Born to Beg,” “Slow Show,” “I Need My Girl,” and “Runaway” to my list of favorite love songs.

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