Books

My favorite things of 2010


At the end of 2009 I put together a quick list of things I liked from the year. Earlier in December some friends asked if I would be making a similar list this year. And indeed, I have made one, and it is more ambitious than last year’s in its scope, volume, and design. Check it out here.

Inevitably, there are some things that I would like to mention that I liked during the year but, for one reason or another, didn’t quite make the list. Here are the honorable mentions:

Henri Cartier-Bresson at the MoMA — I’ve only gotten a quick preview of this show, but it’s very promising, and I can’t wait to take the time to really take it in. Without Bresson, the sort of photography I practice wouldn’t even be possible, so I’m looking forward to the chance to see so many of his prints in person.

Audrey Tautou — I love her acting, her films, her style, and the fact that she uses a Leica to photograph people she meets.

Difficulty — This one really should have been on the list, but I chose to write it into a couple other entries. I feel like we’ve become less and less patient when it comes to difficult things—people, art, technology, and work. But one of the things I learned in my life as a reader is that difficulty often conceals great value. And that’s something I remembered in 2010. Difficulty is something to engage with, not run away from, because the rewards for doing so can be so great. It’s closely related to insistent compassion and creating possibilities, which both made the list. You can find someone difficult to know and just throw your hands up and walk away or you can insistently try to know them because, perhaps, their worth will justify their difficulty. You can leave Gaddis and Proust and Foster Wallace and Pynchon on the shelf because their books are too long and confusing or you can take the time to read them and, perhaps, find yourself changed. And, ah ha, wouldn’t that be worth any level of difficulty?

Yanidel — The street photographer Yanick Delafoge calls himself Yanidel, and his post-processing techniques produce a look that it utterly unique and European and brilliant. I especially enjoy his photographs from Paris.

Cosi on rue de Seine in Paris — In April I returned here for the first time in nearly nine years. It still serves the best sandwiches in the world.

Ken Griffey, Jr. — He was the hottest minor league prospect in baseball at the time when I really became fanatical about the sport, and I followed his entire career until it ended this summer. His swing was beautiful, and he should go down as the greatest player of his generation. I got to see him play in the 2007 All-Star game when he started in the same outfield as Barry Bonds in San Francisco, something I’ll never forget.

Subjective Time — This is the simple but not often cited concept of how we experience time subjectively in relation to our age. It’s no secret that time seems to pass faster as we get older, but it’s not commonly known that this concept has been scientifically studied and verified. In fact, there’s even an equation that describes one’s perception of time based on her age. Given current average life expectancies in the Unites States, we feel like we’ve lived half of our lives before the age of 20. Twenty is the subjective halfway point of our lives. It’s no wonder that it seems like such a formative age!

Concord, Massachusetts — Walden Pond, Mount Misery, Sleepy Hollow, and ridiculously large servings of ice cream—and only a 30-minute drive from Cambridge!

Love and Its Opposite by Tracey Thorn — That no one else writes songs about the disappointments of middle age makes this a unique album. That Tracey Thorn does so with brilliance and nuance makes it spectacular.

Printing Photos — So much better than storing them in the “cloud.”

Generation Why? by Zadie Smith — This is one of the better things that has been written about online culture, i.e. what the Internet has done to our culture.

J.D. Salinger — Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.

Don’t forget to read the final list. Click on the images to reveal the descriptions. And click on the Away arrow to open the page for a random favorite.

Songs from childhood

I’ve been listening a lot to Arcade Fire’s record The Suburbs this weekend, and I’m reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s line that seems entirely applicable to the Canadian band: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” Whoever picked one of their songs for the Where the Wild Things Are trailer could not have done better.

The great review of Great House

Rebecca Goldstein reviews Great House in today’s New York Times Book Review.

What gives the quickening of life to this elegiac novel and takes the place of the unlikely laughter of “The History of Love”? The feat is achieved through exquisitely chosen sensory details that reverberate with emotional intensity. So, for example, here is George Weisz describing how, when his clients speak of their lives before the war, “between their words I see the way the light fell across the wooden floor. . . . I see his mother’s legs move about the kitchen, and the crumbs the housekeeper’s broom missed.” Those crumbs are an artist’s true touch. They demonstrate how Krauss is able, despite the formidable remove of the central characters and the mournfulness of their telling, to ground “Great House” in the shock of immediacy.

Against metrics, for art

Jed Perl’s piece in The New Republic is too short, but makes all the right points about why the arts matter and why being interested in things you know nothing about matters. It also reminded me of how so much media, so much of the online world assumes that its audience is stupid and incapable of handling or enjoying difficulty.

Too much Sex (and the City): a review of SATC2 featuring Susan Sontag

There are many cringe-inducing moments in the second Sex and the City film—the poor jokes, the cheap moralizing, Samantha waving around condoms and giving the finger to an angry mob of locals in Abu Dhabi—but the one that really got me came at the very end of the film when Carrie places her latest book—its subject is marriage, and the New Yorker pans it complete with a cartoon drawing of Carrie Bradshaw—on a shelf next to Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation in her apartment. It’s the same Picador paperback edition of the Sontag book hat I purchased when I was fresh out of college and living in New York. It’s an excellent collection with two very well-known essays, the first of which I’ll mention is “Notes on Camp.” The appearance of the Sontag volume finalized what was already obvious: SATC2 went too far—it was Camp that acknowledged itself as such, it went beyond Camp so as to be meaningless.

Sontag’s most famous lines on Camp: “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration” and “The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful.” The HBO series of SATC always had some qualities of Camp about it. The characters, while developed over time, remain, with the possible exception of Carrie, archetypes. The jokes and situations were often clichéd and predictable. But the show always had what Sontag considers an essential quality of true Camp: it was dead serious. And that it maintained that seriousness throughout six seasons is what allowed audiences to love it unequivocally, to feel connected to and care about the characters.

I confess to the potentially unforgivable sin of being a straight, white male who fell for the show. I appreciated Carrie’s outfits as much as someone in that position could, which is to say that I thought she looked interesting and I now know the name Manolo Blahnik, but I wouldn’t stand a chance of picking a pair of his shoes from a lineup even if the other suspects came from Nike. Although I’ve lived in New York City twice, SATC probably did more than any other media to shape my idea of New York—the way I think about the City when I’m not there. I mentioned clichés, and it occurs to me that there are good and bad ways to employ clichés in art: you can use them out of laziness because you can’t come up with anything better to resolve a conflict or a silence or you can use them to give a universal quality to some experience, some emotion. SATC the series did both, but more often it did the latter, and sometimes it did so extremely well—nailing the perfect pitch of a line or a break-up or a fight that you, as an audience member with a history of relationships, couldn’t deny of its elemental truth. Yes, sometimes SATC was Camp, but sometimes it wasn’t, and when it wasn’t it was real and relatable and brilliant.

In the show and into the first movie, there were real things at stake for the characters. Sometimes they were disappointed: think of the end of season four—Carrie’s engagement has ended and Big has decamped to the other side of the country, Miranda has become a mother on her own, Charlotte is divorced, and Samantha’s boyfriend has cheated on her. A happy ending was, by no means, assured, and so we watched on for two more seasons.[1. I actually haven’t seen most of these seasons, but I feel I’ve seen enough to have a perspective.] Even in the first movie, it was unclear whether Big and Carrie would ever marry or see each other again after he left her at the altar. It might have carried the prefix of melo-, but this was dramatic tension. Perhaps, as a novice fan, my viewing here is naïve. That, I’ll admit. But I heard the biggest gasps produced by the second film’s plot, and they came when Carrie accidentally left her passport in the stall of a shoe vendor in Abu Dhabi. Did anyone ever doubt she would get it back?

As for the film’s plot, there isn’t much of it. Each character begins the film with a dilemma: Can Miranda have a fulfilling career and her family? Has Carrie’s marriage become staid and stale? Will Samantha maintain her sex drive and sanity with the onset of menopause? Is Charlotte’s husband cheating with their bra-less nanny? That said nanny turns out to be a lesbian at the movie’s conclusion tells you everything you need to know about how low the stakes are in this film—for the characters and, consequently, for the audience.[2. The absence of plot doesn’t bother me. In fact, I tend to find plot cheap and distracting from character development. However, the absence of any sense of risk in this film is inexcusable.]

Before that and other similarly simple resolutions, the girls spend the bulk of the two-plus-hour film in Abu Dhabi thanks to Samantha and a potential hotel client of hers. They stay in a $20,000 per night suite and have individual, chauffeured Maybachs to drive them around until things go wrong and they offend the locals—at least, Samantha offends the locals. Excess is an understatement. Excess is up, but because seriousness is out, the film misses the mark of being even Camp—it’s too awful to be good.[3. Cf. Sontag: “The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” She might as well have cited Carrie’s gold Louboutins in SATC2.] Carrie runs into her ex- Aidan in the souk, they have dinner, they kiss, she runs away. The kiss is supposed to be the climax of the film, but it feels entirely inconsequential. She confesses it over the phone to an impassive Big, but of course he takes her back at the end shortly after she returns to New York and moments before she puts her book next to Sontag’s.

Other reviewers wrong-headedly interpret the placement of Against Interpretation as a nod to the women’s liberation movement, in embarrassing contradiction to the film’s message, as they see it. First, if you read Sontag’s journals, it’s obvious that she was just about as dependent as anyone alive on love and affection and relationships. Second, the title essay of Against Interpretation argues against the marshaling of film and literature and art to serve political causes and for experiencing art as what it is and not what one thinks it might represent. Therefore, I find many of the discussions about SATC and feminism to be entirely off base, especially when it comes to this second film.[4. Jessica Bennett at Newsweek takes this the farthest: “But it’s still sad to see the characters go from trailblazers to conformists, suddenly telling us that work and child-rearing actually don’t mix, that it’s a bling on a ring finger that will prove a union to the world, and that we must worry—no matter how stable a marriage—that a husband will cheat. It’s fiction, we know. But these characters, like the lubrication they inspired, helped legions of women embrace their own fierceness—and here they are, 12 years later, nothing more than stereotype and cliché.”] Yes, three of the girls end up married and yes, the other, Samantha—big surprise!—is on her back at the end of the film. But to focus on this is to miss the point of the film: it’s an extension of the SATC brand.

And perhaps, it’s unfortunate that such a lackluster screenplay will still succeed at the box office by trading on that brand name.[5. Cf. Mencken: “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American Public.”] But for a certain set of fans—those who liked the show more for the clothes than for the content—there’s evidence that this film is actually enjoyable. And by evidence, I mean the oohs and ahhs emitted by girls in the Marina theater on the film’s opening night each time the characters appeared in new outfits—or, to appropriately place the emphasis: new outfits appeared on the characters.[6. When Lori and I left the theater, there were more girls lined up outside for the next showing, girls who would inevitably ooh and ahh in unison at the same scenes because that is what people who stand in line for a film will do. The Marina seems to attract these sorts of people, whom we find hilarious, which is why we went there.] And there’s nothing wrong with a little fun, it just that this sort of fun isn’t really for me.[7. I recently heard Sarah Jessica Parker recount, in an interview, the story of HBO’s refusal to produce the first SATC film. She was convinced, however, as she proceeded to shop around the concept, that the film could be an event for people to get together. Is this a complete dismissal of any artistic value or is the community that the SATC brand created, at the very heart of artistic value? Is it not the very thing that a director or a writer aspires to, to bring people together around her work?] Or rather, I care little about clothes and a lot about character; if it were the inverse, I might have found this film something other than a disappointment.

I’m not a doctor but I still want to save lives

I just recalled one of my favorite quotes from anyone: Ricky Moody in an interview with the Times Book Review stated his aspiration to “save lives” with his fiction. After all, why shoot for anything less?

I still want short stories to save lives. I want people to feel about the short story the way they feel about “Strawberry Fields Forever” by the Beatles, like their lives were changed by it in some way. And that requires I think a real commitment to dealing with . . . you know, the human passions and not being . . . not feeling that that’s in some way uncool.

Awesome, heartbreaking David Foster Wallace interview from 2003

Get ready to give 90 minutes of your life right now.

Get the Flash Player to see this video.


Responses to Salinger

Over at the New Republic, Gish Jen asks, Why Do People Love Catcher in the Rye?

Meanwhile, the New Yorker’s Book Bench blog has collected remembrances and responses from several people, including Wes Anderson, Dave Eggers, and Joshua Feriss. The New Yorker’s Lillian Ross has also unearthed some photos she took of Salinger during the 1960s.

James Barron, who often lends his voice to the Times’ daily Front Page podcast, goes over the New York sites from Catcher in the Rye on the City Room blog.

The Guardian has a good roundup of other coverage.

News from New York bookstores

Vanishing New York collects some news on a shake-up in Manhattan bookstores: Biography Bookshop in the West Village, which you might know because it’s across the street from Magnolia, is moving. Left Bank Books, which has a wonderful selection of collectible and signed editions. Finally, Skyline Books in Chelsea is closing.

Why the iPad buzz doesn’t matter

A lot of people are saying a lot of things about the iPad. It’s revolutionary! It’s too compromised to be useful! It lacks important features like a phone, multitasking, camera, Flash support, etc. What’s certain to me is that the reactions—pro and con—are pretty much meaningless right now. I was trying to think last night about previous Apple product launches and how I felt about them. As I recall, there have been two Apple products in the past ten years that, when introduced, immediately prompted me to say, I want that! One was the Titanium PowerBook in at MacWorld in 2001 and the other was the iPod with video in 2005. Both products were updates to existing product lines. In the case of the PowerBook, it added a design unlike any other that I had seen before. In the case of the iPod, I thought that video would be a great feature that was worth waiting for. (Everyone knew it was coming once Apple had introduced the iPod Photo.) But here’s the thing, I’ve ended up not using the video feature at all during the past four years, really. I watched one movie on a plane once, and that was it. It wasn’t until I got an iPod Touch with a larger screen and better battery life that I really bothered to use an iPod to watch video.

The greater point here is that no one disputes that the iPod and iPhone were both game-changers—products that people now love and that redefined Apple as a company and a brand. I can safely say that when they launched, I didn’t want either one. I didn’t have anywhere close to enough of my music in MP3 format to make the iPod useful, and it was expensive too! The iPhone was even more expensive when it launched, and I remember thinking that there was no way I would get one because it would never handle email as well as my BlackBerry did. Of course, I did eventually get one, and it still doesn’t handle email as well as my five-year-old BlackBerry. But I don’t care because it does so many other things that I value. I can read the newspaper—several newspapers—in formats that are actually useable! I can listen to Internet radio. I can listen to live baseball games. I can listen to NPR on demand. I can browse the web. I can read stories from the web that I started reading on my laptop. In short, I can do a lot of things that I either didn’t know I wanted to do or whose value wasn’t properly contextualized for me until I actually had and lived with the device for a while.

I’m not saying that the iPad will succeed, but I am suggesting that the factors by which people are predicting its success or failure are, more than likely, incorrect because they are captive to our previous experiences. Who knows that developers will come up with for the device? Who knows what features a second or third generation update might add? Who even knows what it’s like to live with an iPad in your bag or on your desk for even a week? If anyone can take a product for which I feel I had no need and make it desirable, it’s Steve Jobs and Apple. As usual, I’ll be rooting for them. More

My favorite things of 2009

Here’s a list of things from 2009 that I particularly liked. The list has no order to it. And so:

Leica M9 — A full-frame camera that not only is not an intimidating SLR but also comes from the greatest line of cameras—the Leica M series—but is also a gorgeous rangefinder, but also gives you access to the best glass in the world. In short, it’s my dream camera—the one that leaves me short of breath and utterly destroys my syntax when I attempt to write about it.

New York Yankees — There’s something about this team that I really liked more than any Yankee team since the 2001 group that lost the World Series to the Diamondbacks. Teixera, Sabathia, Damon, Matsui, Melky, Burnett, a beautiful new stadium, and the Core Four! What fun they made October and November.

Albert Stash — A laptop bag with a handle that you can actually use to carry it for long periods of time—score!

A Gate at the Stairs — Lorrie Moore’s first novel in I don’t know how long is ambitious and acutely observed and flawed and wonderful. It made me relive, for the first time in years, one of the most intensely felt periods of my life. It reminded me what it felt like then. Can I ask any more of a novel, of a work of art?

Changing My Mind — Many of the essays in this collection by Zadie Smith have appeared in the New York Review, the Guardian, and the New Yorker, but reading them in sequence gives you a greater appreciation for the intellect and wit behind them. Smith’s new essay on David Foster Wallace alone is worth the price of admission.

Too Big to Fail — Andrew Ross Sorkin set out to write a book structured like the film Crash and as thrilling as the business classic Barbarians at the Gate. I haven’t seen Crash, but his book is every bit as thrilling as Barbarians and full of choice quotes and anecdotes from the people at the top of the financial world.

Hiroshi Sugimoto at Gagosian Gallery — I walked across town in nine inches of snow to see this show. Was it worth it? Absolutely.

Sag Harbor — Colson Whitehead’s latest novel should be read on summer evenings on Long Island. Funny and nostalgic with language that is full of vitality and of the 1980s, its effect on me was similar to that of Lorrie Moore’s book, but the world it gave me access to was entirely imaginary—Whitehead’s not mine—and altogether enjoyable. Dag!

Lamy Noto — Okay, so this pen really came out in 2008, but I didn’t see it anywhere in the U.S. until the summer of 2009. A well-designed Lamy for $10? Yes, please.

Dehumanized — Mark Slouka’s essay in the September issue of Harper’s was, perhaps, the most refreshing thing I read all year—someone standing up, for all the right reasons, to the wrongheaded bias toward math and science (and away from the humanities) that has come to pervade everyplace from the university to the corporation to the op-ed page of the New York Times.

Ellipse — Imogen Heap’s first album in four years is awesome and her live show is even more awesome. The leadoff track on Ellipse, “First Train Home,” was my favorite song of the year, and I challenge you to not like it.

iPhone 3GS — I’m still using the original 2g version of the iPhone, but this year’s update brings more storage, video capability, and faster speeds. It’s great to have a product that delivers both Apple’s design sense and a large library of applications. (The Macs I’ve used for the past 15 years have always delivered the former but never the latter.) Listening to baseball games wherever I am? Check. NPR shows on demand? Check. The New York Times in a format that’s easier to browse than NYTimes.com? Double check. Now, if only it was available on a network other than AT&T.

Panasonic GF-1 — It’s no M9, but it’s sort of a poor man’s, i.e. my, rangefinder. When paired with Panasonic’s 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens, it’s the closest thing to a great compact camera that I’ve ever used. See sample photos from others here.

Unibody MacBook Pros — These things look solid!

Range — Was this San Francisco restaurant new in 2009? I don’t know, but it’s good.

The President — Our country got a new one in January, and it was a glorious moment. The man can play basketball and speak and write in complete sentences, and he seems to have a genuine intellect and conscience and sense of ambivalence.

San Francisco Panorama — A very well-done one-time newspaper for a city that has no good regular publication.

Economic Recovery — The Dow and I are both lower than we once were, but we’re certainly better off than we were a year ago.

Cape Cod — I had never been before this year and now I hope that there won’t be a year when I don’t go there.

Empire State of Mind — Maybe this isn’t a new anthem for New York but Jay-Z’s new single is certainly fun. Sinatra needs a break now and then, anyway.

Some things that I haven’t yet gotten around to that came out this year but that I think I might like when I do: The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, Wild Things by Dave Eggers and Where the Wild Things Are by Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze, and Wes Anderson’s film adaptation of the Fantastic Mr. Fox.

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What is poetry good for?

I just read (and enjoyed) Ian McEwan’s story, “The Use of Poetry,” in the New Yorker at the recommendation of T-Rex Tragedies, who cited this passage, which must make you laugh:

She said goodbye politely enough and went on her way, but Beard walked after her and asked if she was free the next day, or the day after that, or at the weekend. No, no, and no. Then he said brightly, “How about ever?,” and she laughed pleasantly, genuinely amused by his persistence, and seemed on the point of changing her mind. But she said, “There’s always never? Can you make never?,” to which he replied, “I’m not free,” and she laughed again and made a sweet little mock punch to his lapel with a child-size fist and walked off, leaving him with the impression that he still had a chance, that she had a sense of humor, that he might wear her down.

The most popular independent bookstores in America (on Twitter)

NFI Research has compiled a list of the independent bookstores with the most Twitter followers. Powell’s of Portland comes in first, by far, with 9,880 followers as of October 13, 2009. New York stores dominate the list, and only one Bay Area store, Booksmith, even makes an appearance on it. This is a sharp reversal of the state of things earlier this decade when notable stores, such as Coliseum and Gotham, were closing in New York, while Cody’s and Book Passage were expanding in San Francisco. A revival of indie bookstores has taken place in New York over the past couple years with successful openings of Idlewild, Greenlight, and Word, among others.

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