If you’re like me, you’ve got them everywhere, scribbled at the bottom of your grocery list, on the backs of deposit slips and drycleaner receipts, strewn across your desk, in your glove-box, on your bedside table, stuffed into drawers, tacked to the wall, tucked under the pencil jar, and even where they belong!–in that notebook you keep in your backpack for just this reason, just in case somebody mentions a movie, a show, a song, a symphony, a book–a must-see, must-hear, must-read, might-even-change-your-life title you’re planning to get to one of these days…
Herewith, I offer you one of those lists, but conveniently all in one place: Our very own MPW faculty Best of the Summer recommended seeing, hearing, viewing, reading–a survey for you to enjoy at your leisure, and in the order in which they came in, starting with Janet Fitch, who writes:
Best of my summer was reading a truly gorgeous novel, Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand by Gioconda Belli, a retelling of Genesis from Adam and Eve’s point of view. Also a book from the Forties, The Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead, philosopher and colleague of Bertrand Russell at Cambridge in the late 1890s, was famous for his informal gatherings at Harvard in the thirties. It’s a look at the kind of intellectual life we can only dream about now, where even the neighbors and the doctor’s wife and the daughter in law had educated interesting things to say over dinner, back when people really embraced the life of the mind. We should be more dissatisfied with our contemporary mediocracy. We forget how engaged people were in the lntellectual life, once upon a time. So inspiring. I also discovered the poetry of Jeffrey McDaniel, Ilya Kaminsky, and Patricia Smith, quite a thrill. Looking forward to the exhibitions of Los Angeles art at the Getty this fall. And enjoying the new Los Angeles Review of Books–one new essay every weekday. Great way to start the day. www.lareviewofbooks.org
Madelyn Cain says:
Some books from this summer come quickly to mind: Diana Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End, a remarkable, honest look at aging by a very gifted 90 year old writer and Reading My Father by Alexandra Styron about growing up with her talented but troubled father, Bill Styron of Sophie’s Choice fame. These books are especially comforting/enlightening for writers.
On television, the Dick Cavett interview with Mel Brooks was laugh out loud funny. Hopefully you can find it somewhere.
And a reminder that your local library is one of the greatest gifts available that is FREE to all of us. (It’s also a great place to recycle books you’ve read and don’t wish to keep in your personal library.) The Young Reader Classics section is a great place to peruse when nothing strikes your fancy. It a reminder of all the great books out there – many of which I have not still availed myself!
And Amy Gerstler admits: Obsessed, embarrassingly, with the TV Show Justified. The female characters are often disappointing, but the hero is an incredibly charismatic and compelling character. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God slayed me. I listened to Ruby Dee reading it, and found it an incredible book not just about race but about relations between men and women, love, individuality, resilience, the beauties of colloquial speech, stubbornness and vitality, womanhood, etc. New poetry books by Tracy K. Smith, Henri Cole, Noelle Kocot, Anna Moschovakis, Peter Gizzi, Dean Young, Michael Dickman, and Aracelis Girmay are inspiring. Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty is super smart and well written and researched and yet accessible, in the cultural and aesthetic criticism zone.
From Kenny Turan: I took advantage of two weeks spent in Montana to read Stephen Ambrose’s magisterial and compelling Undaunted Courage, the story of Lewis & Clark’s astonishing trip across the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase to the shores of the Pacific. It was great fun to read about the trip while actually in territory the expedition crossed. A little more daunting was reading about ferocious bear attacks while hearing from friends about more recent bear encounters of their own.
Bernard Cooper reports: The Clock by video British artist Christian Marclay was recently purchased by The Los Angeles County Museum of art. Twenty-four hours long, the piece is a montage of all kinds of films–Hollywood blockbusters, foreign classics, public service films–that feature a clock or sundial or or wrist watch, thereby keeping track, minute-by-minute, of the actual time during which the video is played. The museum will occasionally screen the video over a twenty-four hour period, leaving the gallery open to the public. What’s hard to convey is how poetic and surprising the editing is, switching from color to black and white, changing characters and moods and narratives. A man is hung at high noon in a technicolor Western, and the next minute an English schoolboy is playing hopscotch while a clock tower in the distance shows 12:01. Lovely collisions of meaning while time tics away.
And Prince Gomolvilas announces: My favorite film of the summer (still in limited release) was Attack the Block, a spirited sci-fi/horror/comedy flick about an alien invasion smack dab in the middle of a London housing project.
From Judith Freeman: It’s been a summer of jazz & noir for me—listening to Charlie Parker (the early Dial Recordings) and Billie Holliday, Horace Silver, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, all part of research for a new book I’m writing on jazz and noir. I discovered Dorothy B. Hughes’ 1947 thriller, In A Lonely Place, and watched the film adaptation with Humphrey Bogart. I reread Nathanael West’s novel, Day of the Locust (1939)—still one of L.A.’s great novels—and read Jay Martin’s biography, Nathanael West: The Art of His Life. One of my favorite reads of the summer was David Kastin’s biography of the woman known as “The Jazz Baroness,” Nica Rothschild de Koenigswarter, called Nica’s Dream, just out from W. W. Norton, the story of the English heiress who was wild about jazz and befriended jazz musicians in the 40s and 50s, moved to New York, and became their patron. What strikes me about this music, and these books, is the deep passionate engagement, both among those who made the music, and those who loved it: as Charlie Parker said, If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.
And Julie Hebert writes: A non-fiction book I read this summer moved me tremendously– The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It’s a biography of cancer from its very first mention in ancient manuscripts until now. Rather shocking information, profound insights… and in the end unexpected hopefulness about this most human condition. If you can bear not to turn away from the subject, the rewards of this book are great.
Also, at a garage sale, I picked up a collection of short stories that has floored me. Something that has never happened to me before… after reading the opening story by Michael Chabon, I closed the book… and all I wanted to do was read it again. Instantly. I wanted the experience of reading it again for the first time. Not possible, of course, but– a perfectly written story. I admired Chabon before, but at that moment I fell to my knees in front of him. Metaphorically. What actually happened was I tried to get my husband to read it, he wasn’t interested… until he suggested he read it aloud to me while I was in the bath. Well, alright, that worked out. “Along the Frontage Road.” From Best American Short Stories, 2002, collected by Sue Miller, edited by Katrina Kenison.
From Howard Ho: I’ve returned time and time again to the documentaries of Adam Curtis. Produced for the BBC, his pieces usually take a relatively modern subject (e.g. the war on terror, public relations, corporate raiders) and finds the intellectual and political underpinnings which produced them. The New York Times describes his work as the “task of unearthing a secret history of the 20th century.” Airing earlier this year, his most recent piece is called All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, a three-part look into the 21st century’s big idea, namely the computer network and how it unintentionally informs our lives. He populates this sprawling and often irreverent narrative with Ayn Rand, Dian Fossey, Monica Lewinsky, Buckminster Fuller, and Sigmund Freud among others. Bringing rather stark ideas to life, Curtis consistently entertains and engages with playful editing, inspired musical scoring, and his own voice as narrator. His films are not so much polemics as they are the collected insights of a curious mind.
Dana Goodyear’s contribution: I read Room, by Emma Donoghue, in one long, tense sitting. It’s a book predicated on a terrible crime—a Jaycee Dugard-like abduction and imprisonment—that becomes a meditation on parenthood, the imagination, and how fiction remakes the world.
And a highlight from Rita Williams: Watching an interview with Tony Hopkins. When his agent gave him the silence of the lambs, he’d given up on Hollywood and gone back to London.
He has a ritual to keep himself sharp. He learns a poem a week. And when he’s working on a part, he reads it aloud 250 times. Because “its all there in the text. You just have to find it. You don’t need anything else.”
An assortment of things from Tim Kirkman, who says: Vera Farmiga’s directing debut, Higher Ground, was the most satisfying and inspiring film I’ve seen in years. The story of an evangelical Christian living in upstate New York in the early 1970s, Higher Ground tackles the tricky subject of religious faith with a fresh eye. There’s not a false or judgmental note behind or in front of the camera.
Richard Nelson’s play Sweet and Sad is a nearly two-hour narrative played out in real time on stage at the Public Theater in New York (it closes in two weeks, so run don’t walk to see it). Set on September 11, 2011, Sweet and Sad reunites siblings with their uncle and a sister’s lover in Rhinebeck, New York, on the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks. It’s a voyeuristic, painful, moving and, at times, hilarious story about many things: the ever-shifting roles we take on (or are assigned) by our families; how we each choose to grieve; how we remember and what we choose to remember; and the greater family of humanity and the necessity of connection. This was part two in a four-part series of plays by Nelson that will include the same characters in each. Maryann Plunkett’s performance is forever burned into my memory.
Betrayal by Harold Pinter, is more dazzling to me now than ever. The nonlinear structure that once seemed so simple now feels startlingly complex. Pinter’s ability to say so much with so little inspires me to sit down in front of my laptop and work.
Calvin Trillin’s piece in The New Yorker about the freedom riders of the Civil Rights Movement has stayed with me all summer. I want my nieces and nephews to read it, then go see The Help, then come home and watch Spike Lee’s documentary called Four Little Girls and send them all home with Nina Simone CDs.
I finally watched (and greatly admire) the gritty realism of The Wire, and though I remain perhaps the all-time biggest fan of The West Wing, until further notice my heart belongs to Friday Night Lights, which finally ended its five-season run. As a southerner, it’s refreshing to watch a series that can boast character authenticity that matches the (perfect) accents. Much has been written about FNL, but I’ve rarely been moved by television the way that this series moves me (four words: Tyra, you surprise me!) “Clear eyes, full hearts.” Indeed.
And riches from Mark Richard: Here goes, for books – When All the World is Old - new poems by John Rybicki. I read a galley this summer when asked for a blurb. Rybicki’s wife, also a poet, succumbed to cancer after 15 years of fighting, and this book is a celebration of her life, their life. What the heck, here’s the blurb – “If you have ever loved, read this holy book. If you have ever grieved, read this holy book. As an angel traveling between the here-now and the hereafter, John Rybicki is blessed with the sacred knowledge of how immediate we must be against the avalanche of time. As a man, he is blessed with having loved so much and known so much love, and with having found the language to marvel at his terrible good fortune.” Then there’s Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, suggested to me by the excellent members of our MPW summer writing workshop. The book reminded me at times of a 2011 Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. The Yearling, by Marjorie Rawlings, was on one of my sons’ summer reading lists, I thought I knew it, I didn’t, or don’t remember. Got choked up several times; father and son watching the miraculous dance of the whooping cranes from the sawgrass and its intoxicating aftermath; the unexpected happenings with the Forrester neighbors after the father is struck by a giant rattlesnake, and of course, the story of Jody and of Flag. An amazing book misclassified as a children’s book, won the Pulitzer in 1938. For films, took the boys to see Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the doc about the 35,000 year-old cave paintings in Chauvet, France. Torchlight sets the images of the prehistoric beasts in motion, the first cinema. Old movies revisited – The Wild Bunch, the director’s (Sam Peckinpah) cut. Starring William Holden, Robert Ryan, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, (and a great Ernest Borgnine!), an 80-day shoot in Mexico after which Peckinpah had a nervous breakdown. A real Western bromance preceding Butch and Brokeback bookended with amazing gunbattles including 300 extras from the real Mexican army, watch the documentary at the end. Then there’s Peir Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew, a “cine-verite” documentary of the life of Christ set in Calabria, Italy, with Jesus as an Italian peasant. Remarkable. For music, there’s the latest Bootsy Collins- Funk Capital of the World, fresh and off the chain, that Bootsy, the original Funkateer (started out as bass player for James Brown). Still listening to Just Roll Tape, the wonderful, raw, and 40+ years late release of then 23-year-old Stephen Stills’ demo tape cut after a session with Judy Collins with whom he was in love (“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”), great to listen to just an artist and his guitar working out his works-in-progress, songs that would span decades of later albums, and we see it was Stills the genius of CS&N early on. Other stuff I’ve forgotten or haven’t finished, including T.R. Fehrenbach’s Lone Star, the 800-page definitive history of Texas, (the memorable weeping Caddo Indians who crossed the Gulf of Mexico in canoes from present day Venezuela, a fierce mound-building culture briefly flourishing in the Mississippi River Valley, even the Comaches were terrified of these cannibals who carried captured children strung on their backs as road food)…
Cort Brinkerhoff reflects:
Some plays I read over the summer that are still on my mind:
The Aliens by Annie Baker
A surprisingly insightful and touching look at the lives of three young men who frequent a coffee house in Vermont. I think Annie is my new favorite writer. Her work is intimate and penetrating. I will instantly remember this play every time someone says the word ladder — also check out Circle Mirror Transformation.
The Metal Children by Adam Rapp
A mediocre novelist travels to Iowa to defend a book he wrote a dozen years ago about teenage pregnancy and abortion. The novel was banned by the school board and some of the local girls are stepping up to defend the novel with questionable tactics. Rapp is an astute writer with something to say.
Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph
A young boy and a young girl keep having chance meetings in hospitals and sick rooms and develop an odd relationship that runs the course of three decades. This is a unique play that doesn’t completely pay off in the end, but Joseph is an inventive writer — also see Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.
Church by Young Jean Lee
A Christian sermon, the likes of which you’ve never heard before. This is meta-theatre and performance art smashed together in to one entertaining ride. While this was engaging on the page, I really yearned to see it live.
Natalie Inouye says: I’m a couple years behind but the 2009 movie, Un Prophète, blew me away. It was the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes andis streaming on Netflix. I saw it many months ago and am still thinkingabout it. I won’t be able to do it justice, so here’s a trailer…http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi2107900953
And did you know that there are scientists who study happiness? If I asked you on a scale of 1 – 10 how happy you are, I bet you’d be able to give me an answer pretty quick. And no one would be able to argue with your answer. It turns out that America is not among the happiest of places, but it’s also not at the bottom of the list. What makes one nation’s people happier than another? Or what makes one person happier than another person? In his book, The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World, Eric Weiner, a veteran correspondent for NPR, traveled the world in search of the happiest places. Weiner visits a few of them, including Thailand, Iceland, Bhutan, and Switzerland, and interviews many people in each place, always asking them how happy they are on a scale of 1 – 10. I loved getting a glimpse into different perspectives on, and paths to,
happiness, as well as learning about what people have in common when it comes to making us happy. A clue: One of the main requirements for happiness is not having a lot of money, but instead trusting the people in our lives, including our neighbors.
Nan Cohen offers: This was my ninth summer as Poetry Director of the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, in preparation for which I read or reread collections by conference faculty: USC professor David St. John’s The Face: A Novella in Verse (http://www.powells.com/biblio/17-9780060593674-1), Major Jackson’s Holding Company (http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780393070804-1), recent MPW visitor D.A. Powell’s Chronic (http://www.powells.com/biblio/7-9781555975166-5). And shortly I’ll be reading Jane Hirshfield’s just-released new collection, Come, Thief (http://www.powells.com/biblio/2-9780307595423-1), which includes, of course, poems we heard at her Napa reading.
Summer brings more time for reading novels, and among others I revisited an old favorite, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (http://www.powells.com/biblio/17-9780060931414-40), which seems different and better to me every time I read it. I’m currently reading Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (http://www.powells.com/biblio/17-9780060854089-1). Another nonfiction work I enjoyed was Making Babies (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2004/aug/01/booksonhealth.features), by Irish writer Anne Enright, who visits the ALOUD series at Central Library next month.
I also wrote a post on my own blog (http://nancohen.wordpress.com/2011/08/13/learning-from-masterchef/) about my family’s attachment to the summer TV show MasterChef. I loved following its “home cooks” as they moved from being accomplished amateurs to committed practitioners. I’ve seen that process as a writer and as a teacher of writers, but I’ve never seen it unfold in the kitchen!
And from MG Lord: Last summer I discovered the poignant side of Futurama. Yes, Futurama, Matt Groening and David X. Cohen’s brilliantly comic imagining of the thirtieth century, which also has a heart.
To tell this story I must include a spoiler. The episode titled “Jurrasic Bark” left me in tears. It deals with the dog that Philip J. Fry, the series’ central character, adopted in the 20th century, before he was transported into the future. Fry loves his dog, and tries to use futuristic technology to resuscitate him. But when Fry learns that his beloved canine had lived for years after his disappearance, Fry decides not to. Then we–the audience–see how the dog, in fact, survived: not loyal to another owner, but year in, year out–watching seasons change, growing old–waiting for Fry’s return. I went through a box of Kleenex.
And to avoid spoilers, I will simply say that the “The Luck of the Fryrish,” “Leela’s Homeworld,” and “Teenage Mutant Leela Hurdles”are equally moving, as is “Kif Gets Knocked Up a Notch,” a genius meditation on growing up and accepting responsibility.
I realized that no matter how 2-D animated characters may initially seem, great writing can transform them into 3-D, without allthe muss and idiocy of those special glasses.
Brighde Mullins’ “favorites” include: Matthew Zapruder’s book of poems Come On All You Ghosts in which he writes about global warming and his favorite word (pocket) and reminds me that poetry is where it’s at in terms of the inner/outer life and the necessity of articulation.
Anne Enright’s novels and short stories: What Are You Like, Taking Pictures, The Gathering, and her latest, The Forgotten Waltz. Reading her is like reading a fairy tale that has the bone structure of psychological realism. Her characters include ghosts, prostitutes, adulterers, strange children. Her odd lyricism blows my mind.
Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others in which she re-assesses her former stance on how images of horror can inure us. She is brave, brave, brave, and one holy hell of a writer.
Justin Cronin’s The Passage, a young adult post apocalyptic epic that I read in two days, and it’s 800 pp. long.
Plays: War Horse at Lincoln Center– the sheer amount of spectacle was disturbing in an impressive way. Reminded me of a saying “down to the puritan marrow of my bones there is something in all this richness that I hate.” My favorite theatre piece was John Fleck’s low-budget high-energy solo about his obsession with Judy Garland, Mad Woman, that played in a tiny theatre in Los Feliz.
What he said, what she said, what she said, what he said–on top of which, I recommend Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia on stage and on the page; and Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock, in which she, too (like Stoppard, I mean), is consumed with time, and memory, and imagination; also Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, which holds up beautifully as a meditation about marriage and friendship. And, at the movies, I loved Beginners–a gem of a film, and a perfect slice of memoir (fictional or not)–which features Christopher Plummer at his very best.
Last thought–if you haven’t yet found your way to the Hollywood Bowl, haven’t seen Gustavo Dudamel in action, treat yourself soon, please do… And that’s all for now. Whew.