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 as 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.
*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.
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.” I 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.
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. I 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).
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.
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). Old 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 of 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 days 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.