Monday, December 28, 2009

Best books of 2009

In chronological order, here are the books that I loved the most in 2009:

The Stories of John Cheever
The Beautiful Struggle
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
A Free Life by Ha Jin
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
Lush Life by Richard Price
Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein
Netherland by Joseph O'Neill
The Other by David Guterson
Cathedral by Raymond Carver
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro
The Stories of Richard Bausch
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power by Robert A. Caro
Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3 by Annie Proulx

I didn't read as many books this year as usual, but in my defense there are some real door-stoppers on this list. I continued my exploration of the short story, starting with the master, John Cheever, and continuing through my second Carver collection (even better than What We Talk About When We Talk About Love) and read the stories of Richard Bausch. Discovering Bausch's work was a revelation; his writing is a synthesis of the writers who came before with a modern, literally Virginian sensibility that immediately felt familiar yet utterly new. I loved his stories passionately and they almost felt within my reach. The idea that my friend John actually studied short fiction under him is boggling.

Besides short stories, this was the year I discovered Robert A. Caro. The Power Broker is one of the best books I've ever read. It changed the way I look at New York, at government, at urban planning, at the use of power. More than once I have found myself in a sticky political situation at work and asked myself, what would Robert Moses do? It made me think about ambition and happiness and the tensions between the two. I also started reading Caro's unfinished four-volume biography of LBJ. Johnson, like Moses, was a real bastard, so it makes for fascinating reading. I am excited to continue the LBJ saga (he's not even a senator yet and I've read 700 pages about the man) in the new year.

I think my favorite novel of the year was David Guterson's The Other. Beautifully written and artfully structured. I wrapped up the year with a volume of Annie Proulx stories, including a stunning piece originally from The New Yorker, "Tits-Up In A Ditch." The book also included "Them Old Cowboy Songs" and "Testimony of the Donkey," which were nearly as good. Now I'm devouring Stephen King's Under the Dome, which I requested for Christmas, and I'm loving it.

Looking ahead to 2010, I want to continue my trek through the life of LBJ, courtesy of Robert Caro, and I might tackle Moby Dick, too. I can't wait for Blake Bailey's Cheever biography to come out in paperback in mid-March. And then, of course, the baby arrives, and my reading life will change too -- I'm trying to do consume as much as I can before my attention is redirected.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

This is our first Christmas alone in New York, uncomfortably far from our families. This afternoon we set out to buy a Christmas tree, my first in the city. Earlier this morning I stopped a guy on our block to ask where he got the Christmas tree he was lugging in his handcart -- for you non-New Yorkers, here they wrap your tree in tight netting for the trip back to your apartment. It looks like you are holding it hostage, but really it's a sign of good cheer and merriment.

As the afternoon started darkening we headed over to Amsterdam and La Salle to get a tree. We also needed a Christmas tree stand, and we assumed we could get one where we bought the tree. But, like Mary and Joseph getting rejected from all the good hotels in Bethlehem, this was not to be. We then embarked on a 40-minute trek through the neighborhood, stopping at many pharmacies, bodegas, 99-cent stores, houseware stores, and hardware stores until, again like Mary and Joseph, we finally found a reasonably-priced Christmas tree stand. Then we lugged the stand back to the original tree place on La Salle, and selected a slim little fir tree to wrap up in netting and parade back to the apartment: our festive little holiday hostage. As you can see, she's a real beauty.

Tonight we had lasagna for dinner, a nod to the Christmas Eve Stouffer's lasagna dinners of my childhood. Tomorrow we are eating L's classic beef brisket, which is marinating in our fridge. L bought some cheap stockings from a dollar store in Florida to bide our time until she finishes cross-stitching our real, long-term stockings, and we have a handful of ornaments we've gathered from the last few years -- a few brightly colored balls, a couple of random Bush-era White House ornaments, and some quality ones we got as wedding gifts. We have the ornament we received from my cousin who passed away (the card says, "special delivery from heaven") and the crystal snowman I received from my late Aunt Evie. It's a little funny because our tree is severely under-decorated -- we had to be strategic about where we placed the ornaments, because we don't have many. Originally I thought we should divide the tree into equal sectors and decorate accordingly, but for some reason this plan was not implemented. We didn't have a star for the top of the tree, either, so we ended up tying a bow out of a length of ribbon -- and it wasn't even a pretty bow, but more like a utilitarian shoelace bow. In the end, though, I'm very happy with the result. It felt lovely and genuine to listen to old Christmas songs and decorate our tree and welcome our family, in whatever small way we could, into our new home.

Merry Christmas, everybody.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Barrow Street

We just finished packing for the move tomorrow morning. It has been too busy a night to feel sad or anything besides relief that we are finished with the task at hand. Taking the pictures off the wall was kind of sad, though. The movers estimated that we would have 15 boxes per person, yet I think that we have about 50 total. A couple of minutes ago we shifted a few boxes to the side to veg out and watch some TV for a little while before bedtime. This week has been another epically bad week at work and all of my thoughts have been clouded by anger and sadness for the last 48 hours. I needed to clear my head, and packing up our house/lives has been a good distraction.

Barrow Street. We have enjoyed four good years here. This has been the home we returned to as husband and wife. We earned a couple graduate degrees here. We had some good professional experiences and some bad ones. Our marriage was formed here, and we endured those early crucibles here. Hell, the baby was created here. We've started new traditions here, like Faux Thanksgiving and those rituals that punctuate our daily lives together. I could tell you dozens of stories about every room in the house -- the places where we have laughed and wept and fought and made up and made out. It was all here. I am so thankful we had this time together, in this place. L and me. How we will bore our children with stories of these days.

I am really tired right now. I tell myself that we could always move back to this neighborhood someday -- there's always that possibility of return. I'm the kind of person who needs to find that doorway back.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Baby by Chipotle

Tonight L and I went out to pick up some Chipotle for dinner. We were both tired from work and our kitchen was full of broken-down boxes in anticipation of the move -- there would be no home cooking tonight. At Chip we saw the usual motley crew, and they were excited to see L in all of her pregnant glory (she is honestly a really objectively good-looking pregnant lady). One of them said she had a present for us, and she ducked in the back -- and she came back with the onesie you see above (sorry for that word, "onesie", which sounds like a game girls in Britain played in the 1940s) as well as a bib that says something along the lines of "When I Have Teeth I Will Want to Eat Chipotle Products." On the front of this onesie, it says "food goes in here," with an arrow pointing to the kid's mouth, and then on the back, it says "food comes out here," with an arrow pointing towards the rear end. This is not only factually true, but it's also classy.

We were both really touched by this. Will our child grow up to enjoy Chipotle? Yes. Will we dress her in Chipotle-branded clothing, making her into an adorably fat little billboard? Hell to the yes.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Top Ten Songs of 2009

Whenever I need a break from (1) thinking about our mysterious incoming baby, (2) worrying about work, or (3) moping over our upcoming move from the West Village to upstate New York, I think about which songs will make my annual top ten list of the year. Music is the currency of my life, in a lot of ways, and listening to these songs already provokes such a rush of emotion and memory. Without further ado, and keeping in mind that this list is objectively correct and not up for debate, here are my top ten songs of 2009:

11. Kanye West, "Heartless" & Kris Allen, "Heartless" -- I spent a lot of time this winter listening to Kanye West's bleak, spacey new album. In January I spent several long Saturdays in Newark for continuing legal education, and I have one particularly tart memory of a late January afternoon on a platform at Newark Penn Station, waiting for the train to take me back to Manhattan, watching the snow flurry down through the overhang and onto the cold tracks below. In its own way, it was perfect. Later in the spring and summer I listened to Kris Allen's cover of "Heartless" -- he added a warmth and a fullness that was deliberately absent from Kanye's pulsing, insistent synethesizers. And, unlike a lot of acoustic/white versions of R&B or hip hop songs, Kris did not try to be cute and ironic about it. He played it straight, and the result was greater depth and some beautiful vocals. I wrote about it a little bit here.

10. Adele, "Hometown Glory" -- This summer, when I was really trying to focus on my writing and dig something deep, "Hometown Glory" was the song that opened me up to the process. When James was in town this summer we talked about this song, and I told him how this song just seemed to split me open down the middle. He asked me why this song had such an effect on me, and I really struggled to answer. Maybe the melody, I thought, or the lyrics about home or nostalgia -- but it really isn't any of that. I still don't quite know, but the song retains its undeniable alchemy, its potency. This song goes deep. I talked about it before here.

9. Drake, "Best I Ever Had" -- Ohhh! Heeeey! It's a hip hop love song, y'all! This song is so exuberant, it just makes me feel great. It makes me think of L. It reminds me of Method Man and Mary singing "You're all I need to get by." Drake's rapping and singing, finely retouched with some autotuning, seems genuine and heartfelt yet full of swag. This song makes me dance dorky to it, every time.

8. Ron Browz, Jim Jones, and Juelz Santana, "Pop Champagne" -- This was the song of the night the first time I ventured up to Alvin Ailey for some hip hop, back in January. To me this song sounds vaguely sinister, between the sing-songy chorus and spare instrumentation. Once you embrace that aggression, though, and make it work for you, this song has everything. I wrote about it a little bit here.

7. Black Eyed Peas, "Ring-a-Ling" -- This was another Alvin song. I have really come to appreciate as a producer, and this song, as well as "Imma Be," from the new Black Eyed Peas album, are fantastic. At Alvin, we were doing some popping and locking to this song -- two styles of hip hop I am not good at, not at all -- but this song made it work. The guys are rapping and Fergie is riding into the track on a wave of synthesizers like some kind of electronic sex goddess. The syncopated bass line and the relentless melody, skittering all over the place, capture the sheer impulse and dizzying logic of the late night call. And at the end of the song, when there's about a minute left and he finally admits what the song is about -- a booty call -- there is a slight shift in the music and you get one of those sequences that I just want to live in, when everything is working together and you can think of a million ways to fill the space the song creates.

6. The-Dream, "Take U Home 2 My Mama" -- Dream had a new album, not as good as the latter-day classic he created the last time around, but this one had its moments. This song is pure exuberance, kind of stupid, completely good-natured, like a hip hop golden retriever. This song is another good one for the corny dancing. Yet there are also a few plaintive moments in the song, perfectly balanced by his own smart-ass echo on the verses and his wordless appreciation of his paramour's assets: "her t****** like wooooooo, her booty like oooooooo." You know exactly what he means.

5. Mariah Carey, "Inseparable" -- Mariah's new album turned out to be awesome in a completely unexpected way -- she included a few slow- to mid-tempo tracks that to me captured the essence of 90s R&B. Something about the production, the wordy verses packed into the melodies, a certain sense of melancholy and nostalgia perfectly expressed in a minor key. I have read criticism of her that she doesn't sing in full voice enough, but this song, like several others in the suite, is remarkably restrained until the end, when the wall comes down and she is finally singing and emoting the hell out of it all. As she lets it all go her upper octaves come in and provide some texture, and she is off to the races. One thing I appreciate about Mariah is that I feel like her runs and ad libs are always absolutely focused and necessary - there is never a spare or inarticulate note. This song is my favorite on the album: "no one is inseparable...except for us." My neighbors must love this song too, because I sing the hell out of it whenever I can get away with it.

4. Ryan Leslie, "Out of the Blue" -- This is one of the best slow jams I've heard in a long while. I really love this guy's production, and his vocal range is right where mine is, so I have worn this song out. There is also a moment after the bridge when he is singing, at approximately 2:13-2:28, "I almost died when you left me, baby" -- and this line honestly gives me chills, even now, even when I'm running or standing on a crowded subway. For some reason he says "baby" more like "booby," and what is in his voice at that moment is so honest and genuine. The emotion in this song really strikes a chord with me.

3. Mariah Carey, "Obsessed" -- Ok, this is a dumb song. I understand that. But it was produced by The-Dream (as was "Inseparable," no. 5 above), and I just like it. I like all the broken up "oh-oh-oh-oh-oh"'s. I like The-Dream yelling "Ay ay ay ay!" in the background. Like "Hair Braider" from last year's list, this song is not particularly ingenious or clever or otherwise meritorious, but sometimes it's enough to make you get your groove on while riding the subway, tapping your foot or snapping your fingers or even flexing your butt to the music and assuming no one can see you. And any song giving a shout-out to a dude's napoleon complex is kind of funny.

2. Jamie Foxx and T-Pain, "Blame It" -- I was really late on this song, but it propelled me through the first half of the year. T-Pain's verse is more lively than Jamie Foxx's, but the chopped up chorus is irresistible. This was another Alvin song, but they played it only once, as the class was leaving and we were all filing out, so I was getting my bop on and shuffling across the floor with my jacket and my bag over my shoulder, stopping a minute to groove with the teacher and her pals. It was the kind of song and moment that I really missed.

1. Beyonce, "Sweet Dreams" -- The video to this song actually does it justice -- it captures the groove, the sensibility, the sense of strangeness. I like the ambivalence of the lyrics, the poetry, the changes in mood. I have been interested in this song for months now, thinking about the disparate elements and how they come together, and I think it's a really fascinating piece. My favorite element is the roiling bass line, which envelopes the melody and folds itself around you. Sometimes I listen to the song just to follow that low groove, listening to the song dance on top of it. And then the bass finally relents as the song fades: "Either way I don't want to wake up from you..."

So those are the ten songs that sum up this past year. If you read all this way, kudos and thanks. Once again, it's all about the music that moves me to get my groove on or sing my heart out or take a pen to paper. In a certain way, music does more for me than anything I read or see -- finding music to love is like discovering a new vocabulary, even though I feel like the words I use to describe it are so limited. But it's undeniably there.

Music makes me so damn happy.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009