Ok, here’s my list of things I’ve been enthusiastic about in the year 2017. Anything which I highlighted in red and bold are not just great stuff, but things which bowled me over and probably will bowl you over too.
AUDIO PLAY (45 minutes): PROGRESS OF THE SOUL OF LIZZIE CALVIN . This free/streamable drama by poet Michael Symmons Roberts imagines a dialogue between a human soul and all the other creatures of the world. Entertaining, poetic, melancholy, profound, starring Glenda Jackson as the main soul. BBC’s Drama of the Week are almost always a treat, and they force you to experience stories in unexpected ways. This fully realized work sends you into a new and amazing world….
MOVIES AND TV SHOWS
It probably shouldn’t count, but over the last decade I’ve been a fan of this PBS travel show called “GLOBE TREKKER“, a one hour show where a young enthusiastic adult travels to some farflung country or city. I’ve been trying to watch all the episodes, and realized earlier this year that the reason I couldn’t find it in my local library was that the show is listed under “Pilot Productions” or “Pilot Film and Television Productions.” Suddenly I realize to my delight that my library in fact has over 100 episodes.
It’s hard to describe what’s so special about this series. Maybe it’s the fact that the hosts are so charming and adventurous or the fact that they go out of their way to seek out the nontouristy things. For example, I was eagerly looking forward to their Ukraine episode (a country I thought I knew pretty well). Instead of hitting the usual destinations, they visited an S&M themed cafe in Lviv, a former USSR missile base and finally Chernobyl. Talk about tourist attractions! In the last 2 weeks I watched a 3 part 3 hour excursion through Indonesia, a wild trip through Uganda and the Congo, and an amazing train ride through Vietnam. While watching these episodes, I realize that they were filmed in the early 2000s, and that these places have probably changed a lot since then.
On Netflix I watched a great ABC miniseries called “THE ASSETS” about the CIA analysts who figure out that Aldrich Ames is the mole revealing the identity of defectors. I usually don’t like docudramas, but the acting and dialogue and suspense was all great. (Plus, there’s an interesting twist near the end I never could have predicted). The great thing about these docu-dramas is that they usually arose from an interesting book (It had to be, or else a studio wouldn’t have made it!). The added bonus is that watching the movie or TV show doesn’t spoil any enjoyment of the original book.
The same happened for the BIG SHORT, a caustic movie about the subprime crisis. I saw the movie a year ago but was driven to watch it again and savor the details. (Although the movie presents these details very effectively, the details are very complex, and even more complex when you go back and read Michael Lewis’ book). (Update: The more I ponder this movie, the more interesting it seems; it aims not only to educate, but to warn. It also tries to dramatize the abstract. Yes, the moralizing seems a bit too much, but this movie will soon join the list of most subversive movies about America. By the way, if you watch clips from this movie on youtube, the comment section is filled with MBA and economics type trying to understand every detail and artistic choice of the movie).
Perhaps I should also mention PHILOMENA, a road trip movie about a reporter and a mother who travel to USA to locate her long lost son. Terrific movie inspired by a nonfiction book. Similarly terrific was the FOUNDER (about the life of Ray Croc who founded MacDonalds). I enjoyed that movie if for no reason that I found the subject of how McDonalds got started to be fascinating, and the movie does not sugar coat anything. I guess I should also mention two longtime fave movies inspired by books, APOLLO 13 and DOWNFALL. (I was much less impressed by the maudlin you go girl, Hidden Figures).
I was intrigued and mystified and spellbound by Christopher Nolan’s THE PRESTIGE. The movie is a shock to the system; I feel misled and misdirected, but ultimately I buy into the movie’s obsessions with illusion at any cost. Yes, I think, magicians could actually be that way.
AVE, 2011 Bulgarian drama film directed by Konstantin Bojanov. Bulgarian teenagers hitchhiking to get to a funeral. God, this tragi-comedy was an absolute masterpiece!
I’ve been a fan of the TV comedy series SCHITT’S CREEK (also Netflix), this hilarious tale about a wealthy and superficial family who lose all their money and have to move to a rural town they allegedly own. There’s a lot of comic potential here, plus an interesting statement about the American dream, urban sophistication vs. rural naivety. A father and son not only play the main parts, they are the executive producers (plus the real life daughter/sister has a minor role). This series is warm and gently satirical in a Garrison Keillor way. The show SEEMS to be condescending towards the people who live in Schitt’s Creek, but in fact it is respectful and engages in good-natured ribbing on all sides.
I finally got around to watching FRANCES HA, which is turning out to be one of my favorite quirky movies. It’s the kind of movie I can turn on at any random place and just enjoy the great dialogue. For example, the set piece about visiting Paris has to be one of my alltime faves — makes me feel that I’ve already been there…. Whenever I feel a desire to actually go, all I need to do is to rewatch that part of the movie.
I have started watching operas on DVD, which I’ve decided is really the only way to experience opera. I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy the librettos so much for two operas, Eugen Onegin and Puccini’s Turandot (this version directed by Zeffirelli at the MET). I hope someday to be able to afford to go to live opera in Houston — we have a pretty active opera house.
(Speaking of which, I’ve become a huge fan of the Great Lecture series on music by Robert Greenberg. Greenberg is a great teacher about classical music and music history and opera, and I hope to go through all his musical series very soon).
Merlin (on Netflix) is a great British series about the adventures of King Arthur and Merlin. It has a unique take: Merlin is a teenage boy who must hide his magic powers from King Arthur while being his bumbling personal servant. Lavish sets, great acting and dialogue (although unfortunately the possible plots are limited by the number of characters in the show). There’s a dragon (played by John Hurt) who utters all these cryptic messages… I loved this series to death, and the series ended on a high note — I am happy to say.
It is hard to explain. I open so many books, but finish so few. This is the first year that I actually read a good bit — mainly nonfiction, not fiction. I don’t have time to read for pleasure. I’ve mainly reading for a specific purpose or because it’s about an oddball topic. In 2018 the ratio of fiction-to-nonfiction will be considerably higher.
MADE TO STICK, by Chip Heath. Definitely the most useful nonfiction book of the year! It’s about how to optimize your business messaging.
DEEP WORK by Cal Newport. This learning expert talks about how to work without distraction. Newport has great insights into learning. It’s too bad that he thinks that every problem is like a computer programming problem.
DAILY RITUALS: HOW ARTISTS WORK by Mason Curry consists of 1-2 page vignetttes about how artists, writers and scientists work. Fascinating to read.
TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN by Betty Smith. This is a lovely realistic novel about growing up in poverty in the early 20th century. Apparently this book is widely beloved (and was made into a movie) but is now forgotten.
NIGHT AT THE OPERA: IRREVERENT GUIDE TO THE PLOTS, SINGERS, COMPOSERS, RECORDINGS by Denis Forman. This is a cheap kindle opera reference book. It also is great fun to read. (Update: Apparently the kindle price went way up. It’s not that great, but if good if you can buy it for a bargain price).
INSIDE OF A DOG by Alexandra Horowitz. A deep discussion about dog consciousness from the standpoint of a biologist. Great, fascinating book! (This book is about a dog’s nature, but there’s another book WHAT PHILOSOPHY CAN TELL YOU ABOUT YOUR DOG by Steven Hales is more about philosophy).
REALITY IS NOT WHAT IT SEEMS by Carlo Rovelli. Famous introductory lessons into physics by an Italian physicist.
TRYING NOT TO TRY: ANCIENT CHINA, MODERN SCIENCE, AND THE POWER OF SPONTANEITY by Edward Slingerland . This is a deep and thoughtful book that encompasses ancient philosophy and contemporary psychology. I checked out and renewed this book about a dozen times, and to my luck, the ebook was offered through bookbub for $1.99
Biographies: I’ve been reading through several biographies (on Erasmus, Bach, Melville). Haven’t finished one of them!
ORIENTATION AND OTHER STORIES, Daniel Orozco. I only read half of the stories in this collection (they are all great). I just wanted to mention that my library has a special section specifically for short stories. I love grabbing a random book and reading one or two stories from them…
MY publishing Projects:
As you know I’ve been publishing ebooks by author Jack Matthews. I was going to publish my “Minor Sketches and Reveries” story collection this year, but several things happened. First, I ended up switching the stories around a bit and writing some new stories. Then I realized that one of the stories was too long to fit in the collection. Getting this collection finally ready should turn out to be a kind of anti-climax, but expect it next summer.
I went to my local writers’ group, and realized to my amazement that none of my stories have heroes or villians. So I am resolved that from this point forward, I will include more heroes and villians in anything I write.
Here’s a comic sketch I performed at a storytelling event about a talking stop sign. When I performed the story, I quoted the lines of a Fleetwood Mac song as though I were reciting Shakespeare.
(Note: In most cases I have been able to give links to bandcamp page which lets you hear the album in full).
MIRAGE DREAMS BY Breanna Barbara. Stirring and emotionally fraught gothic blues by a Minnesota-born female crooner. Haunting melodies and guitars, but Barbara’s vocals really sear the soul.
INSCRIPTIONS BY Wil Bolton. Lovely ambient soundscapes that incorporate natural sounds (flickering, bird songs, etc) with slow moody electronica and soft instruments (harp, piano, etc). This is gorgeous stuff, and Bolton has created 4 separate pieces which feel different and don’t tax the listeners too much. Probably now my favorite ambient piece.
Amara Toure (1973-1980). Milestone album by Senegal singer with Gabon-based L’Orchestra Massako. Combines two different recordings, both of which incorporate the Cuban/Latino style with Afrobeat. Stunning and beautiful
Mande Variations by Toumani Diabate (from Mali). Lovely performance using the kora — a harp-like string instrument. Pared-down composition, resembling the solo Spanish guitar, but more ambient, less driven by melody. These are very relaxing soothing performances and yet lively enough to keep you listening.
Most recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Indonesian pop music. Koes Plus is the Indonesian “Beatles.” (Here’s a free Koes Plus album you can download).
Finally, one high point of my year was watching the Eurovision song contest live on Youtube (commercial free!) in May 2017. It was an unbelievably fun way to spend 3-4 hours — the songs and dance numbers were outstanding. I plan to make this a yearly ritual….
(I made a youtube playlist of some fave Eurovision/SXSW tracks: Most are really new tracks from the last 3 years or so. )
See also: My rundown of favorite emusic discoveries (which I always update), my online database of music reviews on Google Docs and my annual list of things I read/watch (here’s the 2017 list)
Finally, I’m not creating a hyperlink (I don’t want google to find it), but I collated the various yearly lists of critic Michael Barrett and put them all at this link: https://www.personvillepress.com/private8/mike-list.txt Well worth looking through.