Saturday, December 31, 2011

Books of the year, 2011

In chronological order, here are the books I loved most in 2011:
  • The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
  • Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life by Carol Sklenicka
  • The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate by Robert A. Caro
  • Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
  • Something is Out There by Richard Bausch
  • Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar edited by Richard Ford
  • The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty
  • The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall
  • A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  • Ladies and Gentlemen by Adam Ross
  • 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
Themes of this year's reading: more short fiction; more biography; bloated long novels; and starting things without finishing them.  New batches of short stories from Alice Munro and Richard Bausch were as enticing and flawless as their previous efforts.  Adam Ross wrote stories that made me jealous.  And the Ford-edited collection, a gathering of stories dealing with work, achieved an unexpectedly elegant cohesion with its subject matter.  It made me think about how we relate to our jobs and vocations in a new way, and to see diverse writers grapple with this fundamental source of identity and purpose was inspiring.

This year I also found myself getting stuck in long novels that could have used some decent editing, particularly Paul Murray's Skippy Dies and, as much as it pains me to say it, 1Q84.  It frustrated me to wade through bloated prose that deserved to be leaner and finer.  I am usually very lenient with big ol' doorstops, but these books tested my patience (even if I enjoyed the ride, as in the Murakami).  

This year I also ended reading chunks of books and then dropping them, for various reasons: The Imperfectionists, Love and Summer, Madame Bovary, and others.  This was embarrassing but unavoidable.

I think my favorite novel this year was The Lonely Polygamist, a sprawling look at a polygamist in contemporary Utah.  The writer juggled multiple voices and created a universe all his own.  It was moving, funny, exciting, and unpredictable.  It's a long novel that justified its scope and breadth.

I'm currently reading Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now (as I said I would in last year's annual book round-up, oddly enough).  I've been pleasantly surprised so far - Trollope knows how to maintain the reader's interest, and his characters are well-developed, complicated, and profoundly, irredeemably selfish.  It makes for great reading (more on this soon).  Other books in the queue for 2012: The Steve Jobs biography, Game of Thrones, and who knows what else.  I'm hoping the final volume of Lyndon Johnson comes out in the fall, and then we'll see whatever comes my way.  Hooray for reading!

Music of the year, 2011

My music consumption this year was dominated by two big, random albums.  Last winter I bought Diddy-Dirty Money's "Last Train to Paris," a completely synthetic piece of music that nonetheless captured my interest for much of the year.  For this album Sean "Diddy" Combs gathered two girl singers by his side and attempted to replicate the magic of his old duet with Keyshia Cole, "Last Night."  The result was a solid and shockingly consistent album of R&B/electronic/dance music.  My two favorite tracks were the classily named "A** on the Floor" and the epic "Shades."  Although the videos for this album were uniformly grim and lifeless, like some kind of dank urban vampire film, the music was compulsively danceable and great for running.  There were a good 6-8 songs I really loved here, which is rare.  This was an amazing album for me.

The second big album this year was Foster the People's "Torches," a relentlessly peppy and energetic jumble of indie rock with deep undercurrents of R&B and hip hop (at least as I found it).  The rock elements were balanced by some good electronic arrangements and some definite swag.  This album reminds me of training for the marathon in Central Park and it revs me up.  There were a lot of great songs on here:  "Helena Beat," "Life on the Nickel," "Miss You," among others.

Inspired by "Torches," I followed Foster the People down the rabbit hole of Pandora to discover myself really enjoying some twee white people music performed by dirty hippies.  Two songs really wormed their way into my consciousness and conjured great feelings about life and family: The Middle East's "Blood" and "Home" by Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros.  (I'm a couple years late on the latter, but whatever.)  I found myself enjoying a lot of other songs of similar ilk, although I couldn't help thinking that this is music for racists who don't want any trace of black culture in their music.  I don't know if this is true or not. 

There were some other great songs this year too.  I enjoyed the unabashed dance music of David Guetta's "Where Them Girls At," featuring Flo Rida and Nicki Minaj, and Usher's "DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love."   The-Dream released an EP online under his given name, Terius Nash, that was mostly forgettable except for the aggressive and rhythmic "Ghetto," featuring a great verse by Big Sean.  Kelly Rowland's song "Motivation," featuring Lil Wayne, was an odd little confection.  I'm still not sure what the song is actually about, but it always engaged me with its mysterious structure and lilting chorus.  The remix with Trey Songz was great too.  And Kelly's former bandmate Beyonce had some interesting songs on her latest album, particularly "Countdown," featuring a bizarre use of a Boyz II Men video and a music video that was irresistible and jubilant.

One other album hit it big for me this year, like it did for everybody: Adele's "21."  At this point she has reached a peak of cultural saturation, and the recent SNL sketch mocking the emotional depth of "Someone Like You" both proved the point and laughed at the power of the song.  But "Rolling in the Deep" remains a profoundly amazing song, and other songs carried a similar power and honesty, especially "Turning Tables" and her cover of "Lovesong."

Overall this didn't feel like a great year of music.  There were albums I meant to get, like the new Coldplay and the new Drake, but I just didn't.  I feel like I'm aging out of pop music and hip hop, and a lot of R&B feels musty and repetitive.  Where do I go now?  Into the flannel-clad arms of all these bearded white people? I refuse to let that happen.  In the meantime I'll keep listening to find something new, something to keep me moving.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Shake Shack

The other Friday night the three of us headed down to 79th Street to have dinner at Shake Shack.  It was a cold night on the Upper West Side, the kind of night that reminds me of my first year in the city, when I would walk down to the Loews theatre on 68th Street to watch movies by myself on Saturday nights.  It's the feeling of being wrapped up in a hat and scarf, carrying a book, and knowing you have everything you could need for the moment.

Shake Shack was its usual riot of children and strollers, but we were able to find a table by the wall-length windows.  The glass was cold and dark to our touch, but we were warm and comfortable.  The food was delicious.  Afterwards we walked eastward back towards the train.  Alice acquiesced to wearing her hat and mittens, and we made our way by playing "One-two-three-RUN," in which the family counts to three and then runs for a bit.  She was flushed and beautiful.  I carried two half-drunk milkshakes in my hands.  It was a good night.


 Ah, December.  Where are we.  Our Christmas tree this year is a thing of beauty.  It's taller than last year's, and Alice seems impressed by it.  We have rituals during the day when we plug in the lights and turn the tree "on," after the fanfare of Alice's countdown (parents: "one..." Alice: "two...three!"), and she and I have a ritual at night of watering the tree (both of us kneeling on the ground, an incantatory "pour pour pour," following a similar counting exercise).  We have taught her to treat the tree gingerly -- after a few early ornaments made the ultimate sacrifice -- and now Alice eyes it warily, an object of beauty stricken with risk. 

I'm trying to compile my lists of my favorite songs of the year and the best books I read, so it's time to take stock of the year.  When I look backwards I see a lot of great things.  In chronological order: I took an amazing writing class; we went to Spain; we went to Rehoboth; I ran a marathon; we cooked Thanksgiving dinner.  Throughout the year I felt good about my work professionally, and I've had a good semester with my students.  Alice has brought an absurd, abundant measure of joy into our lives.  We worry about money, but we sleep well most nights. 

In some ways, though, I also feel like this year has been affected by an undercurrent of exhaustion, or compromise.  There is never enough time or energy to do what I think I should be doing.  Time spent pursuing my own endeavors -- exercise, running, writing -- often feels like time taken away from my family.  After spending much of my work day staring at a computer and pinging back emails, I struggle to want to come home to write for pleasure, or to write the personal emails that I should be sending to maintain important ties.  After a workweek spent sprinting through our precarious routines, I can't find it in myself to get up early for the gym on Sunday mornings.  It just doesn't make sense right now.  And yet there's always time for garbage television.  But I'm trying to revise my internet consumption to get away from the things that don't really excite me -- no more Gawker, less Facebook.  Less time wasted, hopefully.   

I think as 2012 begins I want to try to be more purposeful about the decisions I make, how I decide to expend my time and energy.  Because this was a good year, and I think a great one could be around the corner.  It feels good to put words together.  I want to do more of that.

More to come in the next few days.