Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Favorites Books Read in 2014

I normally don’t post a Best Books of the Year list because I so rarely read books that come out during a particular year.  I’m not much on reading whatever the big hyped book of the moment is (in fact, all the hype usually turns me against a book).  This year I read dozens of books and out of them only a handful were released this year.  But despite all of that I wanted to talk briefly about the books I loved reading this year…three of which were actually published in 2014…and also about the books that weren’t published this year but that I really loved reading. 

Favorite reads of the year that were published in 2014:

All the Light We Cannot See-Anthony Doerr.  So many trusted friends of mine loved this book so much that I caved in and picked it up, too.  I was quickly swallowed up by the world of WWII era occupied France and came to care deeply for all of the characters, but especially the main two:  Werner, a young German boy who gets swept up in the tide of Nazism and loses all of his dreams while sacrificing everything for a leader he doesn’t understand, and the lovely, strong, and defiant Marie-Laure, a young blind French girl who has to flee Paris with her beloved father to go a doomed walled city on the Brittany coast of France.  I don’t want to say too much for fear of giving away the intricate and masterful plot but I will say that this is one of the best books I’ve ever read.  I could not put it down.  Nor could I find one false note in the entire epic.

Long Man.  Amy Greene’s debut, Bloodroot, in 2011, ushered in a stark new talent in Southern literature, and her second novel is even better.  This is a novel with prose so lovely it threatens to rise up and take flight from the page.  Add to that a suspense-fueled plot people by characters you come to love and a vivid sense of place that allows you to luxuriate in the hills of East Tennessee.  This is the best Appalachian and Southern book of the year, to my mind, and definitely one of the best American novels of the year, too.

Lila.  Marilynne Robinson is one of my five favorite writers (along with Hardy, Lawrence, Cather, and Hurston) and I love each of her books (Housekeeping, Gilead, Home) in a deep way but I think that Lila may have touched me deeper—and more unexpectedly—than any of the others.  I found this novel very hard to get into.  It was slow-going for the first 75 pages or so, but then suddenly it bloomed in my hands and I began to see what Robinson was doing.  Told from the point of view of a young woman who has been through incredibly hard times, this novel is about the beauty found in not judging others, in the way our country thinks it understands poverty but does not at all.  Lila is about many, many things but most of all it is about a way of life that is gone forever and about maintaining dignity no matter what.  I thought it might never start but then I realized that I was in the middle of a meditative prayer.  I’m also adding this to my Favorites of All Time list.

Favorite reads of books that weren’t published this year but were read by me this year (parentheses denote when books were first published):

Ron Hansen is my new favorite writer.  He's probably best known for his novel The Assassination of Jessee James, which became a Brad Pitt film.  I read his books Exiles (2008) and Marietta in Ecstasy (1991) this year, although I have been hearing about them for ages.  Exiles is a novel about one of my favorite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and centers on when he wrote one of his most famous poems, about a shipwreck that killed several nuns.  The novel also gives us insight into the nuns' lives.  Phenomenal. Mariette in Ecstasy is about an American nun who starts to experience stigmata in the early 1900s.  It is like a long poem.  Some of the most beautiful language I've ever read, and a plot that will keep you up into the wee hours, turning the pages.  

The Daylight Gate (2013).  Jeanette Winterson is one of the most inventive and wonderful writers I know of.  Her book Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? is my all-time favorite memoir and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a modern classic.  Only Winterson could take the story of a witchhunt in the 1600s and make it so original, sensual, and completely readable. This novel was a big hit in England but never gained traction here, probably because its historical basis is so widely known there, but not here.  At any rate, a very fine and short read. 

I devoured Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (2013), one of the most readable and beautiful novels I’ve ever read.  Completely original and inventive and moving and powerful.  READ IT.  I was so taken by that novel that I read two more of hers:  Case Histories (2004) and One Good Turn (2006).  Both of those are mysteries and thus very different from the more literary bent of Life After Life.  They didn’t touch me the way Life After Life did but they were hugely entertaining and very well-written page-turners.  I’m an Atkinson fan for life and can’t wait until the 2015 release of the companion novel to Life After Life, which is called A God in Ruin.

I am a slow reader and sometimes avoid long novels because of that.  I had toyed with the idea of reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna (2009) ever since I got it when it was first published but something finally came over me to start it earlier this year.  From the first page on I never looked back and now would list it as my favorite book of hers.  She manages to seamlessly take us to Washington DC, the mountains of western North Carolina, and Mexico and making all of those locales vivid and knowable.  She also has created a completely memorable lead character and uses language more beautifully than she ever has before.  I think it’s a modern masterpiece. 

I had read, and loved, many of William Trevor’s short stories before but had not read any of his novels until this year, when I read Love and Summer.  I’ve continued to think about it ever since.  He is a master at creating a mood so that each time I opened the novel I fell under the spell of him, his characters, and the complete world of the small Irish village he created in the book.  I loved every word.

Honorable Mention:  The Good Lord Bird (2013) by James McBride was compulsively readable.  I structured my day around when I was going to be able to spend time with it.  The story of a young slave—disguised as a little girl—who is taken under the wing of the abolitionist John Brown is storytelling along the lines of Mark Twain, mixed with real historical events that keep you guessing even though you know the real outcomes.  The problem is that I think it fails in the third act where it becomes too tied to the historical details of the raid on Harper’s Ferry.  And I didn’t think it rang true that none of the ruffians encountered along the way tried to mess with the boy-disguised-as-a-girl except for a very handsy Frederick Douglass.  Despite those problems I still think it’s a real feat of storytelling.

There are many others I read this year (including the very enjoyable and light mysteries of Ann Cleeves, most of which are not published in America yet, but are the basis for the great British TV show “Vera,” which you can watch on Netflix;  the mysteries of Agatha Christie are never a disappointment; and I read every biography of Willa Cather I could get my hands on this year, as well as re-reading My Antonia, O Pioneers!, and many others of Cather’s) but these are the ones that stuck with me the most, in one way or another.  There’s so much great literature out there, just waiting for us. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Favorite Music of 2014

My top ten in alphabetical order:

The River and the Thread-Rosanne Cash's meditative travelogue of the South gets better with every listen.  

Self-titled-Hozier.  What a voice, what a songwriter.  His massive hit "Take Me To Church" was worn out this year but the album as a whole is a masterful debut and cements his place as one of the most important new artists out there today.  

Wildewoman-Lucius. My daughter introduced me to this band and I've been loving them ever since.  Seeing them live is wonderful but they're one of the rare duets who translate just as beautifully to recordings.  I love the 80s vibe mixed with soul and country.  Music that is joyous and poignant. 

Lost on the River-The New Basement Tapes.  A supergroup composed of Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops), Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons), and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), and produced by T Bone Burnett, takes some of Dylan's best lost lyrics, adds to them, and ends up with one of the most beautiful albums in recent memory.  

American Middle Class-Angaleena Presley's (Pistol Annies) debut solo record could be the soundtrack for contemporary Appalachia.  It's that honest, that subversive, and that complex.  A completely original and uncompromising album from an artist who is ahead of her time.  Presley shines a light on the heart of modern rural life, exposing its joys, sorrows, hypocrisy, and everything in between.  

Self-titled-Parker Millsap.  I attended a concert of Millsap's in New York City where he opened for Patty Griffin. His set drew a five minute standing ovation from one of the toughest audiences in the world.  His music is keenly intelligent, moving, and singable.  

Fair Warning-The Rails.  This one hasn't been released in America yet, although it's a hit in England.  This duo (including Kami Thompson, daughter of Richard and Linda, sister of Teddy) not only has some of the best harmonies of recent memory but has also assembled an album full of longing and beauty.  I love every single song on this one.  You can get a free download of their song "Bonnie Portmore" (my favorite on the album) by going to www.therailsofficial.com

In the Lonley Hour-Sam Smith.  I'm not much of a sucker for pop albums but I was for this one.  

Lazeretto-Jack White.  The king of contemporary rock n roll has always loved country music and he has perfectly merged the two here.  If you ever have the chance to see him live, do it.  Amazing show.  

The Way I'm Livin'-Lee Ann Womack.  The country album of the decade.  Womack has that unmistakeable voice, that great knack for songcatching, and is a true class act.  Even if you're not a country fan, this is a record to put on repeat.  

Other favorite albums of the year, arranged alphabetically:

Tori Amos-Unrepentant Geraldines
Beck-Morning Phase
The Secret Sisters-Put Your Needle Down
First Aid Kit-Stay Gold
Hurray for the Riffraff-Small Town Heroes
Supernova-Ray LaMontagne
Lydia Loveless-Somewhere Else
Nickel Creek-A Dotted Line
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers-Hypnotic Eye
Linda Thompson-Won’t Be Long Now
Lucinda Williams-Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone

Singles, in no particular order

Call Me-St. Paul & the Broken Bones
The Devil Is All Around-Shovels and Rope
Take Me to Church-Hozier
Figure It Out-Royal Blood
Dontcha-The Internet.  This is a pretty perfect pop song.  Makes me want to dance.  
When I Get My Hands On You-The New Basement Tapes
Riptide-Vance Joy
Your Southern Heart-Rosanne Cash
Don’t Just Sit There-Lucius
Heart is a Drum-Beck.  One of his best songs, ever.  I can't get it out of my head.  
No Rest for the Wicked Lykke Li.  A haunting song.  
I Hate to See Your Heart Break-Paramore.  Maybe my favorite single of the year.  A perfectly written country-influence pop song by an underrated band.  
Left Hand Free-Alt-J.  So weird, so much fun, so catchy.  
Rude-Magic!-The catchiest song of the year, and one of the most fun, if not the most profound.  But beats most of what's at the top of the charts. 
Latch-Disclosure (with Sam Smith)
Always N Forever-The Orwells.  
Blue Collar Jane-The Strypes.  This band is big in Ireland.  I wish American teenagers could get excited about rock and roll that is this much fun.  

I hate it when I hear people say that there's no great music out there.  There is.  It's just not usually on the radio.  Dig deeper and find it.  

Monday, December 15, 2014

Favorite Movies of 2014

Boyhood-Profoundly moving and incredibly real.  My favorite thing about it is that characters like this so rarely get featured in films—working class people doing their best to make it, parents who try their best and fail anyway, kids who are better than they might appear to be.  And the “trick” of it—following the same boy for twelve years of his life—is much more than a trick, managing to instead articulate what it means to grow and change and become one’s self.

Birdman, Or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance-I was mesmerized by this movie from the first moment until the last, wondrous shot.  While giving us the illusion of one long continuous shot for almost two hours, it is more an experience than a film. Deep and thought-provoking without ever being pretentious. It is very funny, very moving, incredibly performed, beautifully-written, and I thought it was flawless filmmaking.  Phenomenal.

Calvary-Besides Birdman, this is the movie I have continued to think the most about.  Rooted by a beautiful performance by Brendan Gleeson, this film is also a harrowing look at contemporary Ireland, a country ravaged by banking and church scandals.  It is one of the most symbolic movies I’ve ever seen—so symbolic, in fact, that it took me awhile to figure out that each character was representative of a specific sin or facet of contemporary Ireland and not just a one-dimensional stereotype.  Not a perfect film but certainly a thought-provoking one, and those are my favorite kinds.

Chef-One of the most entertaining films I’ve ever seen.  I actually found myself smiling while watching it.  Characters we care about, great music, and—best of all—a plot that goes places we are not expecting.  This was the most unexpected treat of the year for me.

The Grand Budapest Hotel-My favorite Wes Anderson film is still Moonrise Kingdom but I really did love this one, too.  Pure fun, and surprisingly moving. 

Nightcrawler-I went into this film expecting it to be pretty run-of-the-mill but I found it exhilarating.  Gyllenhaal has said that he played this entire role thinking like “a hungry coyote” and it shows in a brilliant performance.  The scenes between him and Renee Russo (also great) are electric.  A thrilling car chase, real questions of ethics in a time when the media is becoming less and less moral.  This is not only a pulse-pounding film, but also an important one for our times. 

Ida-This was my favorite foreign film of the year, and it’s also the most visually stunning.  Shot in stark black and white, it’s the simple story of a Catholic nun in early 1960s Germany who is told a shocking family secret that sends her on a sad journey.  If quiet beauty is your thing, then check this out. Every single frame is like an amazing photograph.  

The Theory of Everything-I didn’t think this was a great film but the performances certainly are, and while the movie doesn’t do anything groundbreaking it also does everything pretty perfectly.  Eddie Redmayne is getting all the Oscar hype (and he should) but I thought Felicity Jones stole the movie from him in a much harder role.  His performance is completely physical but hers is all heart and soul. 

The Immigrant was the most underrated film of the year, showing up only on a handful of Best Of lists, but I thought it was lush and lovely filmmaking like we rarely see these days, a throwback to female-centered films of the 1930s.  Marion Cotillard is wonderful, as always, as an immigrant who finds herself in an impossible situation once she gets to America.  It’s the movie you may not have heard of on this list, and I encourage you to find it.  It’s already available on Netflix. 

The Babadook-I knew I wanted to see this movie as soon as the director of The Exorcist announced that it was the most frightening film he’d ever seen.  Pretty high praise from a horror master.  And while I don’t think it approaches the terror of my favorite horror movies like The Exorcist, The Descent, and The Conjuring, it is very, very scary.  But also very, very sad.  The mark of a true horror film is its sound design and this one has that in spades, with grinding teeth, creaking floorboards, whispers, and screams being equally frightening.  The ending becomes a little too heavy-handed in its symbolism, though. 

Blockbusters I loved: 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes-A somewhat conventional action movie, but with some real heart and audacious visual-storytelling.  This is one of my all-time favorite franchises. 

Mockingjay (Part One)-That scene where Katniss sings “The Hanging Tree” and the orchestra builds and then the masses begin to sing with her and storm the capitol—that’s one of the most powerful moments on film this year, and it gave me chills.  Mockingjay is a beautiful entertainment but it’s also about social justice, about the power of the people, and it seems especially relevant right now.

Interstellar was uneven (that whole sequence where he's behind the bookshelf is ridiculous...if the people of the future are so smart why do they have to leave a weird code that is impossible to figure out in the dust of a little girl's room?  Why is he still in his space suit in this sequence?) but full of some beautiful and surprising moments (and some overwrought ones, too). 

The Big Hit Film I Hated This Year: Gone Girl.  I thought it glorified (and eroticized) violence, made rural people look stupid (the dialect coach on this was way out of line), celebrated selfishness, and was a sad commentary on longterm relationships (they're not all that way, and I would say that very few of them are).  I felt it was incredibly manipulative and insulting and it troubled me that it was so embraced by mass audiences.  And come on, those twists were totally unbelievable.  

Big critical favorite that I liked but didn't love:  Belle

Letdowns: Rosewater (first half was thrilling, second half was every hostage TV movie I've ever seen), Locke (if you're going to put us in a car with one character for the entire movie you better make it really visually stimulating; it wasn't, even if his performance was).  

2014 movies I want to see but haven't yet:  Selma, Snowpiercer, Unbroken, Wild, Love is Strange, Pride, Under the Skin, Foxcatcher, The Skeleton Twins, Fury