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Idiot box. Boob tube. Little blue screen. Television: It’s bad for us. It scrambles our brains, makes us passive, kills creativity and eats up time. To most people, though, it’s irresistible.

Until I got older and began spending so much time alone in silent apartments, I wasn’t into random viewing at all. My family  got our first tv set when I was four, and even then I remember being restless and bored when it was on. When the whole family came together to watch The Ed Sullivan Show or Dinah Shore, it was such a rare event that I’d stay just to be in the same room with them, but I found it almost painfully difficult to sit still. (Maybe it was their choice of programming, come to think of it!)  I did like Jackie Gleason and Red Skelton, but most television bored me.

Now I couldn’t live without it. When I used the phrase “random viewing,” I meant that (1) I didn’t keep it on if I wasn’t actually watching;  (2) I never, but never, turned it on before dark; and (3) I only turned it on to watch a specific show, about which I was often obsessional. These were few in number; usually one or two shows a season grabbed me and I couldn’t miss a single episode—and we had no copying apparatus then. (I remember being freaked out lest I  go into labor with my daughter during the anxiously awaited final episode of The Fugitive.)

Since I love to make lists, I’m always looking for new topics. Herewith is one of the tv shows I’ve been insanely attached to over the years. If they seem like a lot, remember, we’re talking about a time period of fifty years. Half a century. Good Grief!


Father Knows Best (I was ten-plus and wanted to be “Kitten.”)
All in the Family
Mary Tyler Moore (#1)
Golden Girls
Kate & Allie
Roseanne (in reruns only)


The Fugitive
Doctor Kildare
The Lou Grant Show
Hill Street Blues
Cagney & Lacey (#1)
Law & Order (still!)
Knots Landing (guilty pleasure)
L.A. Law (in reruns–it ran opposite Knots)
Judging Amy
House (getting ready to retire this one soon; it’s going downhill)


Lately I find myself much more interested in reality shows – though some are truly unbearable – than in fictional tv. I’m just more curious about what real-ish people are doing these days (as much as they can be real on tv).

Wife Swap (actually I can no longer bear this, it’s vile; I used to like it until it devolved into real slime, and I needed to take a shower afterwards)

Top Chef
Kate and her 8 Kids, in whatever format
Millionaire Matchmaker with the crazed Patty Stanger
Animal Planet
(lots of shows that keep changing. Some favorites are Animal Cops, It’s Me or The Dog, Parolees and Pit Bulls, and #1, Pit Boss)

Then There’s Radio…

I’ve got NPR on 99% of the time, and occasionally KFOG. Now, Sunday morning at 11:00 a.m., I’ll be switching on KPFA for Robbie Osmon’s Across the Great Divide. Robbie chooses a topic from the past week and puts together two fantastic hours that express the theme. He knows every genre of music; he plays corny country, old rock n’ roll, and obscure artists with cult followings. GREAT stuff!) (Except that he began today with four, yes, 4! versions of We Shall Overcome, which he has been playing every single week lately! I suppose it’s appropriate, given the times.


My Personal, Quirky, and Wildly Eclectic Cultural List for 2010




As I recently said on my post about the Millionaire Matchmaker, I’d hoped to compile a list of all the movies, books, and other cultural items I’ve ingested during the year 2010. Lacking time and energy to complete it, I’m just going to post what I managed to finish. I’m in awe of those critics who post Best Of lists, considering they must have read and seen a lot more than the ones they choose as “Best.” Me, I just dump everything – best, worst and middling – in the same place. I can barely get it together to do that.




First-Run Films

Warning: Spoilers Ahead


The Kids Are All Right. As the first mainstream movie about lesbian parents, this of course stirred up a bit of controversy. I found it to be a fun, enjoyable movie, if marred by an implausible ending. Full review here.

Religulous: Bill Maher’s funny, intelligent rant on religions across the spectrum held my interest for the first hour, but eventually got repetitive. Still, bless Bill Maher, even if he doesn’t accept blessings. I’m almost always in agreement with his views, so naturally I think the world needs his intelligent outspokenness, and more media figures like him.


Hereafter:  In contrast to the above, this movie explores the spiritual dimension and what might happen after we plotz. It’s a subject I’m always drawn to, and I was expecting at least a glimpse of enlightenment from Clint Eastwood’s take on it. Unfortunately, he didn’t contribute much of anything new to the conversation. Everything in here was said by the hospice movement and people who’ve had NDE’s (near-death experiences) over two decades ago. A rarity from Clint Eastwood: disappointing.

Inception: The premise –people can enter other people’s dreams and change them – is intriguing, so, despite knowing this would be replete with explosive special effects, which I usually can’t abide, I went to see it. I tried hard to stay alert and to follow the plot for the first half hour or so, but finally gave in to, first, annoyance, and second, boredom. Finally I fell asleep, jerked awake every now and then by an on-screen explosion. I suppose it’s unfair to ‘dis a movie I slept through, but there’s a reason I slept through it.

Going the Distance: A romantic comedy about a couple who try to keep their love alive, shuttling back and forth between their respective home bases in New York and San Francisco. 
Drew Barrymore is, as always, a joy in both appearance and performance, and this is a pretty funny movie. Still, it paled by comparison to another romantic comedy that came out months later:

Love and Other Drugs: This was THE best film I saw in 2010; apparently I’m alone in my opinion. The movie didn’t get a Golden Globe nomination, though the actors — Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhall —  did; nor is it getting much press on Best lists. On a recent radio show about the year in film, speculation was that the subplot, centered on the main character’s younger brother, destroyed the movie with its inanity. Also, the relationship story skittered all over the place, so audiences didn’t know what to make of it. Now, I’m the first to underestimate the capabilities of movie-goers, but I
can’t believe that people didn’t get this picture of a real relationship (hence the many shifts in tone). I wouldn’t be surprised if the critics’ problem with Love… stems from the many sXXXplicit scenes. Which, as well as being emotional, advance the relationship and the plot, and are aesthetically pleasing, to say the least (look at him!). Many levels to the relationship and the movie; It has a lot to say about values and the way we choose to live our lives.

Social Network: I can’t believe I forgot to include Social Network on my list (I’m adding this to the list weeks later), especially considering it looks to be the big winner of the awards season. I loved it — thought it was engaging, interesting, and well-acted. Best of the Year, though? I dunno–the pickings are slim when something like this gets so many raves. I remember when Big Important Movies got chosen as Best. OTOH, maybe Social Network is a Big Important Movie.

Little Fockers: Totally trashed by the critics, Little Fockers was nonetheless the best-selling movie of Xmas weekend, no doubt because it was just about the only comedy playing. I knew it’d be a stretch to dredge up anymore humor from these characters, and it was. One running gag centers around twins who look nothing like one another: the girl is huge and smart, while the boy is little and dumb. “Jokes” about suffering children just aren’t funny. Harvey Keitel and Laura Dern were thrown into the mix for their star power; a half-minute scene between DeNiro and Keitel was the best bit in the movie. I sure hope they don’t try for a fourth go-round.

Older Movies (Via DVD or TV), rated with the 5-star system

****Heat and Dust (second viewing)

***Michael Jackson (his swan song)

***Being Julia

***The US v. John Lennon

***Yoo Hoo Mrs. Goldberg

**The Ballad of Jack and Rose

***The Bucket List

***Angels in the Outfield (Second viewing)






The Appeal : While I could never subsist on a steady diet of John Grisham, he’s good for an occasional jaunt. The Appeal was, unlike most of his books, a bit depressing, without even a hopeful ending. Because of it, though, I will never again regard an electoral campaign for a judge in the same way, and in this last election I declined to vote for any judicial candidates. In an afterword, Grisham warns, “As long as private money is allowed in judicial elections we will see competing interests fight for seats on the bench.” Actually the whole book is a warning – and a highly effective one.

Deer Hunting With Jesus by Joe Bageant: See his website. Defender of every average Joe, whether plumber or bartender, this guy writes great radical critiques of America from a working-class POV.

Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker: Maybe they weren’t much fun for her, but for readers they definitely are. Just don’t consume too many at one time or you just might want to go out and shoot someone – or yourself.


Jane Bites Back by Michael Thomas Ford. This is a hilarious page-turner. Ford and his twisted mind take the reader on a roller-coaster ride that made me wonder why I’ve shunned the vampire genre up until now. Actually, JBB doesn’t fall into any genre, fangish or otherwise, but is a novel/romance/satire / mystery all rolled into one. Jane, by the way, is Ms. Austen, undead in a remote little town in upstate NY. Ford, who (full disclosure) is a friend, has a sequel in the works. Complete review here.

Confessions of a She-Fan: The Course of True Love with the New York Yankees: Jane Heller, a writer and passionate Yankee fan, served notice in an op-ed piece for the New York Sunday Times her intention to “divorce” the team. The huge angry response she got from readers spelled out book contract, so Heller went on the road to follow the team. The result is the first book about baseball (as far as I know) that talks about the game from the perspective of a woman. Full review here.


The Beauty of Love: A Memoir of Miracles, Hope, and Healing: Yankee catcher Jorge Posada and wife Laura tell the gut-wrenching story of their son, born with a condition called craniosynostosis. If untreated, it can cause seizures, visual impairment, misalignment of the spine, and / or developmental delays. He was operated on at nine months old, at two, and at three, altogether racking up eight complicated, 12-hour surgeries in his first six years of life. The Posadas describe, in alternating chapters, how each evolved “from victims to warriors.” Full review here.

Frank Lloyd Wright, OR, My Mid-Year Mania: It all began with The Women by T.C. Boyle; I’d read several of Boyle’s books and loved every one, so I bought this historical novel about Wright’s life, his eccentricities, and his work, told from the vantage points of the four significant women in his life. Despite the poorly chosen title, Boyle managed to pass along the intensity of his own obsession with the man. Wright was a visionary who juggled massive building projects and complicated households of lovers, children and apprentices, without a steady income and without being able to pay those who worked for him half the time. The house he built as a home base for his empire, Taliessin, burned down at least twice, rising from the ashes like the phoenix, and was rebuilt each time despite there being no money for materials or labor.


The beginning of Wright’s story is told by his first wife Catherine; next comes Mamah, his soul mate who was brutally murdered; then there was Miriam, an evil nutcase who manipulated him into a relationship; and finally Olgivanna, the last Wright duchess who carried on his name and work at Taliessin for many years after his death. After I finished The Women, I wanted to know  more about Wright’s architecture, and read Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, the New York Times architecture critic (I wonder why the names of books about Wright are so unimaginative). After that I did my own online research and rented several video tours of Wright’s houses. See where a novel can lead? Who needs school?

On Beauty by Zadie Smith: A page turner with a lousy ending.  I’m lately noticing that too many books, short stories, and movies, simply go kerplunk at the end. You can tell the writer had no idea how to end things. Sometimes these abrupt or, the opposite, hanging endings can ruin everything that came before. Anyhow, I liked Smith’s earlier book, White Teeth, much better than this one: it was fresh and new, with a broad view of contemporary London.


The Help by Kathryn Stockett: I read this at the start of 2010, and I wish I’d written about it while it was still fresh in my mind. The story of black maids in the South during the 1950’s, it’s a riveting page-turner with the ring of truth, and it’s based on truth: the author is a white woman from the South who lived it out. Here are some links to stories about the book and the writer.

California Literary Review:

Interview w/ KS:

Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. These two books, along with The Help, were the best books I read this year – they were certainly the most profound. Atwood’s vision of a future dystopia is staying with me a long time. While Oryx and Crake was written first, I read The Year of the Flood before it; I think if I had not, I wouldn’t have liked the earlier book as much as I did. Flood is much juicier, with more characters and events, and because I didn’t want to leave Atwood’s world when I finished it I immediately got the other book. I don’t think it would have worked the same way in reverse.

Just Kids by Patti Smith: A memoir of her relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, this book won the 2010 National Book Award in the genre. Before she became the godmother of punk rock, before she sang one song or read one poem in public, Patti Smith fantasized becoming the wife, or the muse, of a great artist whom she could nurture and support. (I guess you can take the girl out of the frilly dress, but you can’t take away her frilly-girl fantasies.) Patti found her great artist in the person of Robert Mapplethorpe and for a few years lived out her dream on a grand scale. They lived in the Chelsea Hotel, where they did their art and, more significantly, bumped into and befriended people like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Warhol Factory crowd, and a cast of thousands. In Max’s Kansas City she met Sam Sheppard, with whom she had a torrid affair, while Robert was off exploring his homosexuality. From their first meeting in a Brooklyn apartment to their last moments before Robert died of AIDS, it’s a romantic, poignant tale of eternal soul-mate friendship written in poetic prose. It’s also a vivid evocation of a remarkable time and place.

Whew! It took almost as long to write this as to read and see everything!

Five Reasons I Love The Yankees.

Posted on

Yesterday I ran into a blog here on WordPress, Five Reasons I Love the Yankees. Naturally, it got me thinking, and, being an inveterate list-maker, I had to do my own. Here goes.

1. Commitment to Excellence

There is nothing more inspiring than to witness a person or, in this case, an entire team, that will not settle for average, or even just good, but consistenly aspires for the top. While I’ve always thought it’s a shame the guys have to feel like failures any time they don’t win the World Series – a trip Georgie S. laid on them – it does encourage fantastic baseball. They are a pleasure and a joy to behold.

2. Heart

Even with GS hammering away at them, they’ve always managed to keep their hearts, to treat one another with love and respect, to be there for each other, and to give off a certain emotional vibe that can’t be missed. The bottom-line love and loyalty they feel for one another was evident when, for instance, A-Rod was nailed for taking steroids. His press conference was about as lame-ass as you can get – yet sitting loyally in the audience were Rivera, Jeter, and Posada, the latter looking openly disgusted. And yet, later on, Posada told a reporter, “Alex is my teammate and Alex is going to be my friend forever.”

3. History

As we all know, the Yankees are drenched in baseball history and significance. They’re also a part of mine: I grew up taking it for granted that everyone around me was a Yankee fan; that’s just the way the world was arranged. My father took me and my sibs to several games, but, sadly, I barely remember them. Mostly I remember listening to games on my transistor radio.

4. The Holy Trio

Those three guys who’ve been together for 16 seasons – Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada – are, together and individually, genuinely good people who not only play excellent baseball, but have integrity. If I ever learned that one of them was on ‘roids I’d probably have to hang myself; thank the baseball gods I don’t think this is likely to occur.

Each of them is involved in charitable work. Rivera spends much of the off-season in his native Panama, where he helped open two after-school programs to give young people access to computers, and helped finance construction of a new elementary school. When Posada’s son was born with craniosynostosis, he founded an organization to raise funds for research. And Derek Jeter, at the tender age of  22, started his own group for kids (“Jeter Leaders”). All three give generously of their time, their money, and themselves to all kinds of charitable organizations.

5. Winning

I don’t get to be on the winning side of life all that often. Rare is the politician I consider radical enough to wholeheartedly support, so my favored candidates usually lose elections. I’m alienated by mainstream values/behavior/assumptons. I’ve never won a contest. As a writer I’ve lived with constant insult: for every acceptance of my work there’ve been at least ten rejections. I’m not complaining, just pointing out that by being a Yankee fan I finally get to win —  a lot.  I see what my son goes through as a Mets fan, and I want no part of that. Even if they weren’t in my blood, I would have chosen the New York Yankees as my team.  Say what you will about their money and their corrupt Republican owner, I don’t give a damn. I’m sticking with the winners – and I’ve got a right: after all, I was


Second Annual Culture List

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. ****

Sunshine Cleaning. In order to raise the tuition to send her son to private school, a single mother starts a biohazard removal/crime scene clean-up service with her flaky sister. Mildly amusing. ***

Older (rentals):

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.


The Playlist

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)

Cold Play

Alex Cuba


My Own Personal, Quirky, and Wildly Eclectic Cultural List for 2008

The following list of books, television shows, and movies is not to be construed as a “Best Of…” It isn’t even grounded in 2008, but wanders through time the way most of us do. These are merely the cultural phenomena I’ve delved into during the year about to end. I’ve probably forgotten a few, some of which I might’ve even enjoyed, since I don’t keep track in an organized fashion; but anything I forgot obviously didn’t make enough of an impression to rate a mention.


*****Numero Uno : The best book I read this year was GIRLS LIKE US: Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation. What a juicy read! See full review.

*****A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini. Devastating, awful and wonderful. See full review.

****Sex Wars: A Novel of Gilded Age New York, Marge Piercy. Piercy’s take on turn-of-the-century (the last one) New York. See full review.

***The Innocent Man, John Grisham. I use Grisham’s books as airplane reading, then a week later forget them. Having read this one several months ago, I surely don’t remember the plot details—and in a Grisham book, plot is everything. Going by the title, though, it must’ve been about defending an innocent man.

*****The Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency, Alexander Mccall Smith. I found this book lying in the street. As someone who leaves my own finished books in airports and supermarkets hoping a person who needs to read them will, whenever I come across an abandoned book, I treat it as destiny. This is the first in a series; each book concerns a case investigated and solved by the only female detective in Botswana. It’s fast and entertaining enough to serve asladies-detective-agency airplane reading, but, unlike Grisham’s books, it’s peopled by fully-drawn characters, and the African setting adds a fresh layer of interest for most American readers.

*****Main Street, Sinclair Lewis. Every so often I realize my literary education is woefully lacking, and run off to the library for one of the classics. This one knocked my socks off and inspired me to read more books by Lewis. See full review.

****Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis. Not quite as awesome as Main Street, but I suspect that if I’d read it first I might have been just as smitten. As it says on the back cover, “Readers find the Babbitt in themselves,” and much to my dismay, I did. The same themes of American conformity and empty lives are explored, but reading it immediately after Main Street, it all began to wear a little thin. Thus ended my bout of classics fever; it will surely strike again.

*****The Cleft, Doris Lessing. A fantastical treatment of the beginnings of human civilization. Most reviewers trashed it, but Doris Lessing’s my guru, and I treasured every word. See more commentary on this and the following book (not full reviews).

*****Alfred and Emily, Doris Lessing. My guru’s latest book, it’s divided into two parts: the true life story of Lessing’s parents, and a fictional novella of what might have been if not for World War I.

* Advice on Living and Dying. Based on The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, Patrick D. Gaffney, and Andrew Harvey . People tell me it’s morbid and depressing to think about death as much as I do, but now that it’s coming closer, I think it’s a good idea to start preparing. Having no strong system of religious belief, I’m searching for clues, reading what philosophers and great thinkers have to say on the subject. On my better days I believe the purpose of life is to evolve spiritually, that death is just another step on our evolutionary path, and that we need to be prepared for that day of reckoning. I keep books like this one around for those days when I get panicky about not doing the preparation thing. I didn’t actually read all of Advice… this year, but that’s when I finally admitted defeat: most of the book was as mysterious to me as death itself.

In Progress:

*Nothing to be Afraid Of, Julian Barnes: Since this was touted as a meditation on death and dying, I immediately bought it, only to be disappointed: not only is Barnes not a great thinker, but much of this book is filled with childhood memories, relationship stories, and other extraneous, uninteresting, nonsense. I’m still looking for good books on the subject of death, so if anyone has any recommendatons, feel free to leave them in the comment box.

Chekhov’s Short Stories, Anton Chekhov. Only read a couple of stories so far; the verdict’s not in yet.

***Time Bites, Doris Lessing. A compilation of reviews and criticism by you-know-who. The only problem is, I haven’t read most of the books she critiques here. Still, I read every word the woman writes, knowing some day soon they’ll stop coming.

****Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, Jane Hirschfield. A fine poet addresses the art and craft of writing poetry from a Buddhist perspective. Some of it sails right over my head, but every once in a while a paragraph will light up my brain like the proverbial electric bulb. Provides a glimpse into the profound intelligence behind Hirschfield’s poetry.

Memoir Mania:

Sometime near the end of 2007 I started writing a memoir, primarily about my relationship with my mother. To inspire, teach and motivate myself, I began reading memoirs, most of which were entirely forgettable. These few are worth remembering.

*****The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls. Walls is a television reporter who had a wildly colorful—okay, dysfunctional—family and childhood. Publisher’s Weekly writes: “Walls’s parents—just two of the unforgettable characters in this excellent, unusual book—were a matched pair of eccentrics, and raising four children didn’t conventionalize either of them.” glass-castleI knew the author meant to show how bizaare her childhood had been, but it was difficult for me to judge her parents: some of the things they did were charmingly delightful, certainly superior to many parenting methods. Maybe Walls meant it to come across that way after all.

****Paula, Isabel Allende. Novelist Isabel Allende’s adult daughter suddenly fell into a years-long coma, and was eventually diagnosed with a little-known illness called porphyria. Given Allende’s literary chops, it’s no surprise tht this is one of the most beautifully written books in this sub-genre of memoirs–parents writing about sick children.

*****Liars Club, Mary Karr. The best of Memoir Mania. Full review.

TV Set


I spend more time watching tv these days than I ought to admit. I was never, until recently, a huge tv fan; I would become utterly devoted to one drama every season—The Lou Grant Show, Cagney & Lacey, Hill Street Blues–and watch little else. I never used the television for background noise either, and I looked down on people who did. But living alone, and I suppose getting older, I find that what They say has come to pass: I derive a sense of comfort and company from the tube. I still have a low tolerance, though, for most network fare as well as much of the crap they’re throwing onto cable these days: I can’t watch anything that has a laugh track, and can’t bear the assault of commercials, so I either press the mute button or switch channels. My favorite m.o. is to watch one primary show with a story line, and switch during commercials to something requiring little concentration, like Animal Cops or Jon & Kate Plus Eight.

****House. I began watching House this year, and fell in love with the young curmudgeon. Being bitter and cynical myself, I can’t help but respect the guy—but the longer I watch, the less I can handle him–he can be terribly cruel. The show’s gone into reruns after just a few years on the air, so by now I’ve probably seen every episode. Viewer beware: House, with its graphic medical displays, soon turned me into a germophobe: the sheer multitude of potential illnesses is overwhelming, and Dr. House’s patients seem to catch them from nothing more than a scratch on the arm or a whiff of pigeon shit.

****Jon & Kate Plus Eight. A reality show about a family of twins and sextuplets, emphasis on the latter. SextupletsI don’t much like the controlling uptight Kate, who verbally humiliates hubby, but I watch this for the kids, who are beyond adorable. I love their speech patterns, the way they interact, and how they’re so different from each other. There’s a lot more to say about the adults in this family, who seem to be building a business out of parenting sextuplets. If I had the time, I’d gossip and dish dirt on the forums—but hell, it’s bad enough that I watch the show.

*****Animal Planet: Doesn’t everyone love AP? My current favorite is It’s Me Or The Dog, in which British canine dominatrix Victoria Stillwell transforms obnoxious dogs into perfect pets. The animsls she’s called on to train do things that’d get them tossed from my house on their first day: they poop and pee on kitchen counters, eat their own poop right in front of everyone, attack visitors at the door, and wreck marriages by taking over half the marital bed (usually hubby’s side). No matter how inorrigible, Stillwell never fails to whip (not literally) these creatures into shape (at least in front of the camera).Victoria Stillwell
My other favorites are the shows in which SPCA’s from various parts of the country—Houston, New York, Detroit, SF—rescue abused and neglected animals and prosecute their owners. I’m frequently frustrated by the puny punishments, though: 100 hours of community service is not, IMO, enough of a sentence for someone who starved his dog, or kept a metal collar on him so tight it gets embedded under the skin and has to be surgically removed. The best part of these shows is that they deliver big emotional rewards, with scenes of once-suffering animals in their happy new homes. Dogs are so forgiving.

*****Roseanne. Why am I not embarrassed to admit that I only just discovered Roseanne, two decades after she went off the air? I guess because it proves I wasn’t lying about not watching tv back when I had a more exciting life. Reruns are broadcast at 5:00 a.m., so I drink my morning coffee with the Connor family. See more Roseanne commentary.

Top Chef.
Of all the reality shows where people compete at some skill (or at eating spiders), TC is, IMO, the best of its kind. Each season the cheftestants shop, cook, and feed community groups or the crème de la crème in a different city; now, in its fifth season, they’re in New York. Some groups have vicious fights, but the current crop’s behaving fairly well—they even chipped in to help when some cooks’ food went bad after the fridge was left open overnight. During Season 3 women got behind Casey en masse, wanting a female Top Chef almost as fervently as we want a woman president. We were bitterly disappointed—until next season, when Stephanie Izard emerged victorious.

*****Law and Order (the original). jack-mccoy-bigOld Faithful. It’s hard to believe any show could last 18 years and still be this good. Because their subject matter really is “ripped from the headlines,” new episodes are almost always relevant. I’ve seen some old eps four or five timnes without getting bored. Even when characters leave and I don’t particularly like their replacements, I manage to adjust (though I’ll never be fully reconciled to the death of Lenny Briscoe/ Jerry Orbach). I just wish more television was this good.

Movies (first-run and rentals)

I’m sure I saw more movies than this—I haven’t even included those seen on television. These are the ones I remember.

****Sex and the City. The movie of course. Great fun. More commentary.

***Tropic Thunder. I probably wouldn’t have gone to see this if not for the protests from the disabled community—I was curious to find out what the noise was all about. Full review.

****John Adams on HBO. Not quite as good as the hype made it out to be, but this is still well worth seeing. Laura Linney as Abigail is magnificent.

****The Other Boleyn Girl. Interesting in the way of most books and films that bring history to life, this tale of intrigue, romance and betrayal is based on real people, though events seem mostly fictional. Sisters Anne and Mary Boleyn, driven by their family’s greedy ambition, compete for the love of King Henry VIII. The girls are exploited, humiliated and abused for other people’s purposes.

***Bingo Long and the Traveling Motor Kings. Baseball players from the old Negro League quit their teams to escape the corrupt, ruthless owners, and go on the road to play independently. Eventually they achieve independence from the owner system. Funny in places, but not hilarious. Based on a true story.

*Click. One of Adam Sandler’s true disasters (he does have a few winners). Starts out as a comedy in which he controls his world via remote clicker, but it soon devolves into a maudlin mess of cliches with an obvious message shoved into our faces. The movie made me mad: it was a great premise that could’ve worked if it stuck to comedy, but as it was, I felt manipulated.

*****Angels in the Outfield (1994). I loved this baseball movie, a remake ofangelsoutfield one from 1951. I saw it before seeing the original, and surprisingly—since I usually prefer old classics—I liked this one better. They both went with the same idea more or less, but because of what film can do now, like show “angels” manipulating the players on the field, the new one is more engaging. Also, Equal Opportunity Adoption gets a plug. Danny Glover is great, but the younger kid played by Milton Davis Jr. easily walks off with the movie. As he says all the time, “Hey, it could happen.”

****Angels in the Outfield (1951) In the original, a reporter blames the Pittsburgh Pirates’ losing streak on their obscenely abusive manager. While she attempts to learn more about him, he begins hearing the voice of an angel promising help for the team if he’ll mend his ways. As he does, an orphan girl who’s a Pirates fan praying for the team begins noticing angels on the ballfield. Sure enough, the Pirates start winning, and the manager turns his life around. Very Fifties.

**The Stratton Story: Another fifties baseball film. Major League pitcher Monty Stratton loses a leg in a hunting accident, but is determined to leave the game on his own terms. A little low-key, but it’ll do if you’ve got the jones for a baseball movie. More about baseball movies.

***Dan in Real Life. I barely remember this now, but at the time I liked it well enough. Dan falls in love with a woman who later shows up as his brother’s girlfriend at their family Christmas celebration.

****Connie and Carla. Hilarious cross-dressing musical with overtones of Some Like It Hot, one of my all-time favorites. In this case it’s two women who witness a murder and escape to another city, where they pretend to be male drag queens in order to perform in a gay nightclub. Great fun.

****Bolt. I saw this with my grandsons. The plot centers around a small white dog named Bolt who, having spent his entire life on the set of a television series, thinks that he has super powers.
Unfortunately, it starts off horrifically, with endless scenes of inane violence from Bolt’s show—but there’s no explanation of of these scenes and, thinking the whole movie would be this unbearable, I walked out and read in the lobby until my younger grandson came and dragged me back in. I’m glad he did: it turned out to be thoroughly delightful. The 48th animated feature in the Walt Disney Animation Studios canon.

*****Slumdog Millionaire. I saw this just a few daysJamal in Mumbai ago; some very powerful images are still popping up in my head. A big, sprawling film with India as the star, and when it comes to movies I’m something of an Indiophile–actually going there is another story altogether—so I was enraptured.

*****Milk. I went to see this on Xmas Day. I’ve seen the documentary on Harvey Milk a couple of times, yet I learned some things about Harvey I hadn’t known, and the movie was extraordinarily well done. Sean Penn’s performance was remarkable, although there was a moment, when he was crying for joy ,that he seemed to suddenly channel the disabled Sam from Sam I Am. Except for that moment, he was totally convincing: how does he manage to look different in every role, even physically resembling the characters? The man of a thousand faces.