Since I did a list last year, I might as well burden myself by turning it into a tradition. Unlike “Ten Bests,” mine’s just a compilation of most of what I’ve read, watched and listened to during the year, with best, worst and everything in between thrown about haphazardly. I must confess, I barely remember some of these books and movies. True, my memory isn’t what it used to be–but I think that if something is that un-memorable, it must’ve sucked—or at least I didn’t much like it.
Naturally, not everything here came out in ‘09, especially the movies.
Books (Fiction and Nonfiction)
True Compass. I took in Senator Ted Kennedy’s autobiography through my ears, and had to return the CD set to the library two discs short of finishing; I’ll probably take it out again someday. At times I was inspired; at other times beat myself up for doing so little in my life compared to Teddy’s huge accomplishments. My personal hangups aside, TC is an absorbing account of one of the most dramatic and fascinating lives in American politics. The assassinations, the big sprawling family he carried on his brotherless shoulders, the commitment, the scandals, joys, and sorrows beyond sorrow—all were so much larger than life. Surprisingly, the personal was more interesting then the political in this account, though some details were glossed over—like the invisible life of sister Rosemary. On the other hand, Kennedy’s treatment of the Mary Jo Kopechne incident was surprisingly thorough, and I believe that it went down the way he says it did. He didn’t justify his behavior, but expressed regret, and apparently spent his life atoning for the incident. Too many people discount the great things this great man did because of that mistake; I wonder if they would’ve done any better under the same circumstances. I wish Teddy had lived to participate in the Great Health Insurance Sellout: things might’ve gone differently with the Liberal Lion leading the charge. ****
Indignation: The older Philip Roth gets, the faster he seems to write. In Indignation he offers up sociological observation as only he can do it, this time on the Midwestern college as experienced by a working-class urban Jew. The story goes along at a good clip, but about 50 pages before the end Roth drops a bomb: the narrator, it turns out, has been speaking from the grave all along. Not too long after this revelation he leap-frogs from college into the Korean War and his death, and it feels like Roth just got bored with the story. So did I.**
The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler. Another book I experienced through my ears, except I remember almost nothing about this one. It was, I think, about an ordinary marriage. I used to adore Anne Tyler; anyone interested in her work should read one of her earlier novels, e.g., Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant, instead of this latest.*
Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness by Ariel Gore. Reviewed here. *****
The Position by Meg Wolitzer. Reviewed here.**
Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period by Michelle Mercer. Reviewed here.*****
My Baby Rides the Short Bus. Edited by Yantra Bertelli, Jennifer Silverman, and Sarah Talbot. Full disclosure: I have two essays in this collection. See description here.
The Yankee Years by Joe Torre with Tom Verducci.You might have to be a Yankee fan to appreciate the gossip and glory in this book. I am and I did. ****
The Last Days of Dogtown by Anita Diamant. Another novel experienced through my ears, this was actually the best book I read in 2009. A rich historical tale, it weaves together the desperate lives of an eclectic group of characters living in on-its-last-legs Dogtown; it’s based on a real place that existed in Massachussetts in the 1800s. This is a town where people scratch out livings in sometimes devious ways, and do ugly things to one another to make it through their hardscrabble lives. If you liked Diamant’s The Red Tent, you’ll love this one.*****
The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper. I’m still reading this story of upper-class Liberians forced by revolution to leave their country. Liberia has an unusual history: it was partly populated by newly freed African-American slaves after the Civil War, with blessings and assistance from the U.S. government. I’d read an excerpt in the New Yorker a few years back, and found it mesmerizing. Unfortunately, that turned out to be the best, possibly the only good part of the book. The narrator is a pre-pubescent girl, and the voice is immature, a common pitfall that occurs when using younger people as narrators. I may not even finish reading this—life’s too short to read bad books. **
Jane Bites Back by Michael Thomas Ford. Full disclosure: Mike’s a friend, if you consider someone you met just once a friend, which I do. We’ve been communicating for maybe a dozen years, first via email and now on Facebook. I adore his wicked humor and full-throated imagination, both on ample display in this just published novel. He gives us Jane Austen as a vampire, living 200-something years and forced to witness post-modern Austen mania. I’ve read no vampire novels with the exception of Dracula as a kid, so I couldn’t swear that everything in here runs true to vampire lore—but it sounds authentic. Similarly, I haven’t read any of the Jane Austen wanna-be’s, so I couldn’t swear Ford’s satirical jabs are on target—but I’d bet my Austen collection they are. Going along with Mike’s sharp and twisted mind on this roller-coaster read makes for a rollicking good ride. Or the ride makes a rollicking read? Either way, it’s a pretty wonderful book, and I’m not just saying that because Mike paid me to. (Joke, joke!) *****
Up in the Air. Loved the story, loved George Clooney (forever), loved the young trainee, awed by the girlfriend’s balls. *****
Avatar When I was younger I had zero interest in ‘special effects,’ and would never forgive a weak plot in favor of fancy tricks. I loathed Star Wars. I suspect I still would today…yet I was blown away by Avatar…and that’s without even seeing it in 3D! If the story is weak and clichéd, as the critics say—who cares? Avatar is a feast for the senses and transcendent for the soul. In fact, the story, though familiar, isn’t that bad, it’s even sort of sweet. Sigourney Weaver, still a hot babe after all these years, gives a standout performance as a chain-smoking scientist. I’m soooo glad I didn’t reflexively dismiss Avatar. I can’t wait to see it again, and in 3D this time.*****
Me and Orson Welles. A small, arty film that might get lost in the holiday shuffle. Absolutely delightful. ****
Grey Gardens: Based on the life story of the mother / daughter duo of Edith Bouvier Beale aka “Big and Little Edie,” the eccentric aunt and cousin of Jackie O. They were once Park Avenue débutantes but left New York society to live in seclusion at their Long Island summer home, and as they became poorer and more isolated, they lost their their grip on reality. Drew Barrymore, who’s fast becoming my favorite actress, gives an outstanding performance as Edie the Younger. Jessica Lange’s not half bad either. Rent it.****
Sugar: The true story of a Latino baseball player. See my review here.****
Burn Before Reading: I remember absolutely nothing about this movie. How is that possible?*
Pirate Radio: See my review here. ****
Cadillac Records: Another rock n roll movie, a genre I obviously adore. ****
Across the Universe. Beatles, Beatles, Beatles. The love story of Lucy and Jude is intertwined with the social movements and young people’s lives of the 1960s. Beatles’ songs are artfully woven into the plot; my favorite moment is when a strange girl climbs into the apartment via the bathroom window, and someone asks how she got in. With this music, what could be bad?*****
Music and Lyrics. Again, Drew Barrymore! And here she plays opposite the adorable Hugh Grant. He’s a recycled ’60s singer from a Loggins & Messina-type act, she’s a plant caretaker who comes over with her watering can and stays to help him write songs. The music is surprisingly good, the romance delicious, the plot quite clever. I saw this twice in one year. *****
Memento: This crazy-making movie is an enigma wrapped in a mystery etcetera. I’ve taken it on as a Zen koan to work at for the rest of my life. Google it and you’ll find a plethora of discussions and analysis; here’s one I particularly like (it’s #10 on his list). It’s probably considered a cult film, so I suppose that makes me a cultist.****
The Ballad of Narayama (1983). I saw this movie something like two dozen years ago, and some of the images in it have haunted me all these years. I wasn’t disappointed by my second viewing of this story about a small Japanese village where, when a person turns 70, they must go to the mountain top to die. If anyone should refuse, he/she would disgrace their family. Orin is 69, and this winter is her time. Totally fascinating, visually transcendent.*****
Update January 1st, 2010: I saw my favorite movie of 2009 yesterday. It’s Complicated is (a) hilarious, (b) a great story, (c) has fantastic actors acting fantastically, (d) that rarest of Hollywood products, a sexy story about old(er) people, (e) all of the above. Alec Baldwin is a revelation. Meryl Streep is, as always, flawless. I laughed more than I remember doing at any movie since The Wedding Crashers. This points out the utter folly of “Best” lists–comparing It’s Complicated to Avatar is like comparing strawberries to bananas. For me, though, a great story and acting will always matter more than the most special of special effects.
All the music listed here is five stars or I wouldn’t be listening to it. This year I realized that music might be the only art form that hasn’t diminished in bringing me pleasure. Movies are getting predictable, it’s harder and harder to concentrate on books—but my joy in music has actually intensified, and the ever-changing delivery platforms add novelty. I love playing with Genius on iTunes, or making themed lists, sending CDs to friends–I made one on the occasion of Obama’s election, for instance. I am so in love with my iPod that, to paraphrase Charlton Heston, if anyone ever tried to take it away, they’d have to rip it out of my cold dead hands!
Peter Paul & Mary on PBS: Like many people my age, I love the old PPM songs—Puff, Flowers, Hammer, etcetera. Only serious folkies, though, stuck with them through the years. Then, in the wake of Mary Travers’ death this year, PBS did a special on them, and suddenly I heard all these songs I’d never heard before. “Light One Candle” brings on the goosebumps. PPM rules!
Joan Baez and the history of her political journey from 17-year-old idealist to 60-something respected activist also got a fresh look from PBS. With her long hair flowing over her guitar strings, she looked like a beautiful waif–but she’s even more beautiful today. Her voice too: unlike some women singers whose voices lose vocal range, Joan’s has remained as clear and beautiful as ever.
Old Man Mellencamp: John Mellencamp’s latest album is a serious elegy about aging and what’s a-comin’ down the pike, namely, the Grim Reaper. Songs like “Ain’t Gonna Need This Body” are validating to those of us who feel alone with such thoughts–but they’re not for the faint of heart.
Leonard Cohen revisited by a new generation: I rented I’m Your Man, a film tribute, and fell in love with some of the performers, like Rufus Wainwright and Antony of Antony and the Johnsons. Distinctive voices, great music; of course, when it comes to Leonard Cohen, nobody does it better than LC himself.
Gil Scott-Heron: The first hip hop artist (c. 1978) and still relevant.
NEW to me
(Music I got turned on to through radio or podcast or the ether)