"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
These short summaries distill what I’ve learned from or thought about different books, films and performances.
Also: Some spoilers
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho: An allegorical tale about the importance of realizing your unique destiny. Santiago is a Spanish shepherd with a love of books and the steady, meandering pace of his quiet life. That is, until he becomes haunted by a mysterious dream that beckons him to find his “treasure” in the shadow of the pyramids of Egypt. Encouraged by a gypsy fortune teller and a mysterious king to leave everything he knows and set out in search of his treasure, Santiago heads for Africa. His journey is long and taxing, and at many points he becomes waylaid by unforeseen forces and temptations. Ultimately, even the thrill of making money and finding his true love will not distract him from his ultimate aim, nor the threat of violence and death. Deep in the Sahara desert, an alchemist teaches Santiago how to listen to his heart and to speak the languages of the natural world. Coelho teaches us that although the trajectory of our Personal Legends may be circuitous and fraught with difficulty, it is the only journey worth taking. (6/2018)
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: A memoir crafted as a letter to the author’s 14-year-old son, Coates discusses what it can mean — emotionally, culturally, socioeconomically — to be a black person living in the United States. Coates points to multiple aspects of structural racism embedded in our (housing, criminal justice, financial …) system and asserts that the (American) Dream is largely an ignorant fantasy; it is the presumption that (typically “white”) individuals are entitled to prosperity without the recognition that prosperity is not equal access — indeed, U.S. prosperity has only been earned at the expense of generations of black and brown lives. Even more poignant, Coates describes the fear inherent in black existence (which often gives rise to an overcompensating, hyper-masculinity and aggression, particularly in the urban areas where Coates grew up). This fear derives from the “fragility” of black bodies, which are routinely cut down and/or disgraced by racially biased police forces and the very status quo itself. In the end, we must engage in a “beautiful struggle” in which we study and come to understand these invisible forces that impact our lives and society, learning to cope with reality rather than lose ourselves to the deception of the Dream. (9/2016)
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert: The perfect complement to The War of Art, Gilbert tackles the demands and philosophy of the creative life with playful stories that embody ancient themes. For instance, she mourns the passing of the Latin idea that a “genius” was a spirit that guided individuals to creative mastery. The transition from “having” a genius to “being” a genius gave too much strength to the ego, and the ego is the biggest stumbling block for many who pursue the creative life. Indeed, rather than seeing creative ideas as personal possessions or testaments to our innate talents, Gilbert describes them as autonomous, even magical beings that collaborate with one human being (or another, or several) in order to manifest themselves in our world. This pet idea of hers could be a delusion, she admits, but the point is that it’s a helpful delusion. In sum, Gilbert recommends that we set the ego aside and stop placing heavy demands on our creativity (e.g., that it must pay the bills, that it must become a tragic and beautiful torture), and instead allow ourselves to tread lightly, follow our curiosity, create for the sheer joy of it, and trust that our commitment to making things is worth it, regardless of the outcome. (10/2017)
The Cabinet of Curiosities by Preston & Child: This thriller is part of a series that tracks the fascinating activities and obsessions of FBI agent Pendergast. In this book, Pendergast must join forces with a quirky subset of New York City’s intellectual elite to solve the mystery behind mass murders carried out over a hundred years ago. In turn-of-the-century New York, prominent men of leisure — amateur scientists and world explorers — were compiling private collections of rare and titillating objects. Mammoth bones, severed heads, taxidermy, fossils, gems and mummies, displays of artifacts both real and fake became known as “cabinets of curiosities.” These cabinets would later become the bedrock for the New York Museum of Natural History. In our story, one cabinet in particular became the site of a macabre tomb for victims of a grisly, life-extinguishing surgical procedure. As similar serial killings throw present-day New York into a panic, Pendergast must face his demons and unite forces to find the killer before he meets his own demise under the knife. (5/2017)
Demian by Hermann Hesse: A coming-of-age story told on the precipice of World War I, Demian examines a lonely struggle for individuality in an age of conformism. We meet our protagonist, Sinclair, as a mere ten-year-old boy. From this tender age, we see him begin to recognize what distinguishes him from society. Sinclair suspects that he cannot continue the moralizing Christian traditions of his wholesome family; there’s a darkness in him — a part that recognizes the will to lie, self-destruct, even to embrace death — that in time he will explore and embrace as an essential aspect of his humanity. Through the tutelage of several mentors, especially the eponymous Demian, Sinclair learns that only by going inward and forging one’s own path can we become fully human, glimpse our destiny, and perceive the destiny of a world set to transcend its stale, unquestioned values. (5/2018)
“I live in my dreams — that’s what you sense. Other people live in dreams, but not their own. That’s the difference.”
Everything You Want Me to Be by Mindy Mejia: A murder mystery told from the perspectives of the high school victim, her illicit lover, and the local sheriff assigned to her case. Hattie is a small town princess in rural Minnesota, starring in her school’s production of the infamous “Scottish play” as a blood-soaked Lady MacBeth. We learn that her extraordinary stage talent is not just a flash in the pan; she’s been cultivating her acting skills over a short lifetime of role-playing. Hattie has constructed a host of facades to satisfy everyone around her. She dreams of escaping her small town and becoming an actress in New York City, not so much because she craves fame but because manipulating her identity may be the only skill she has. As she falls in love for the first time, however, we learn of the real curse behind Shakespeare’s masterpiece: the knowledge that when our passionate desires run our lives, they threaten to destroy us. (1/2018)
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote: One of the earliest and greatest novels in the true crime genre, Capote’s incredible journalistic feat earned him international recognition when it was first published. The book chronicles the lives of scores of people involved in the brutal murder of the Clutter family in a rural Kansas town in the 1950s. Capote peers deeply into the lives of the victims, their friends and surrounding community as well as the two killers in this deeply humanizing account of horrific, seemingly senseless and impersonal violence in America. It’s generally believed that during his research, Capote fell in love with one of the killers, a half-Irish, half-Native American man traumatized in youth and with frustrated aspirations for advanced education and a life of music, art and adventure. (9/2016)
Daily News, Eternal Stories by Jack Lule: This fascinating look at the hidden assumptions of journalism claims that reporters (unconsciously) use timeless myths to craft their work. People rely on myths, he says, to understand their world and make sense of a deluge of facts assaulting them, especially in the Information Age. Furthermore, since the end of the Cold War, newsrooms have faced a crisis of values; without the specter of global communism, foreign correspondents lack an organizing ethic and lens through which to evaluate and relate global affairs. Some say this void can be filled with a broad-minded, social justice perspective. Lule seems to side with a more pessimistic view, showing how news outlets manufacture consent for US policy and the prevailing status quo.
Lule pinpoints seven archetypes — the hero, the good mother, the scapegoat, the trickster, the Other World, the flood and the victim — and analyzes how modern-day news stories encapsulated these tropes. He describes how Mark McGwire became a modern-day hero and exemplar of social values in his quest to surpass Roger Maris’ home-run record. Despite staunch critics like Christopher Hitchens, Mother Teresa was reduced to a stainless good mother trope. Meanwhile, in their obituaries for a co-founder of the Black Panthers, The New York Times made a convenient scapegoat of Huey Newton; their reporting summarily dismissed his achievements and significance in the black community and instead dwelled on his criminal rap sheet to subtly criticize protest tactics unsavory to the white elite. Similarly, their reporting on the OJ Simpson trial painted the former athlete as a craven trickster, driven by animal instincts rather than human passions.
The Other World trope helps societies define themselves in a positive light in contrast to outside territories deemed barbaric or unsafe. Lule unearths this trope in New York Times coverage of Haiti during the violent reign of a de facto military junta with secret backing from the CIA. While failing to probe quality international reporting about US complicity in the violence, the Times’ foreign correspondent repeatedly painted the country in broad strokes: Haiti was unsophisticated in questioning its assigned role in a US-dominated global economy; Haiti was host to strange voodoo cultural traditions and rituals; Haiti was a place of savage violence, poverty and insecurity. All these depictions helped reinforce a US agenda and mindset about the region. Similar themes emerge in coverage of floods and other catastrophic events internationally. Such stories echo ancient themes of sinful societies facing punishing devastation, leaving survivors to emerge from the ashes. In post Cold War reporting, most international news focuses on this “entertaining” coverage of catastrophic events that dramatize stark perceived contrasts between the US and the Other World.
Of course, mythic archetypes aren’t used solely for racist and xenophic purposes. The victim trope helps find meaning in random violence and tragedy by framing victims as small-time heroes. By emphasizing the victim’s families, their role in the community and their humble backgrounds, the news reinforces the notion that all lives are valuable, meaningful, even beautiful.
Lule’s book brings uncommon insight to the news and values in journalism. Equipped with these ideas, a discerning reader can bring a healthy skepticism and nuance to their reading of current events. (1/2018)
Genius and Heroin, by Michael Largo: What does it look like when the desire to produce original work eclipses the self-preservationist instinct? This book compiles snippets about the deaths of creative geniuses with obsessive and self-destructive tendencies. What emerges are shocking but somewhat predictable patterns of human behavior:
The list is not comprehensive, and certainly not all creative geniuses die of their obsessive tendencies (not even all those profiled in Largo’s book do). Indeed, a certain level of obsession seems necessary for these folks to reach the epoch of their creative power in the first place. But after a heavy, 300-page romp through death and self-destruction, I can’t help but feel what a horrible waste it is to destroy the body in a prison of the mind. (4/2017)
The Holy Thief by William Ryan: This novel explores the psychology of low-level civil servants during the Stalinist regime as it unfolds the eery tale of murders surrounding a missing icon of the Virgin Mary. Korolev, an astute and impossibly good fortuned investigator of Soviet-era murder and mayhem, must tread carefully as he tackles a case that trespasses dangerously on political territory. The truth behind the unfortunate demise by unspeakable torture of an American nun cannot be a simple black-and-white, whodunit matter; in fact, the very notion of truth itself is suffering greatly under the Stalinist regime:
“Being a good communist these days was like following an arbitrary God who required you to believe that white was white one day and black the next. It only made sense if you remembered that the country was surrounded by enemies who were terrified by its very existence. Faced with such implacable foes, sometimes the Party took steps which seemed at odds with its long-term historical destiny. That could be confusing for ordinary workers like Korolev and Semionov, but everyone knew the Party had to keep going forward, no matter what the cost. Korolev believed in the Party line absolutely, even if it required a leap of faith to do so from time to time. After all, unity was as important as truth sometimes – you learned that in the trenches, if nothing else.”
George Orwell and his concept of “doublethink” haunts this novel. Korolev, amid his honest appraisal of the abysmal living conditions and morally bankrupt institutions governing society, manages to maintain the simultaneous view that progress is eminent and the Soviet utopia is on the horizon. The protagonist’s relentless naiveté, paired with his upstanding approach to criminal investigation in a world of political arrest quotas and prison sentences for thought crime, becomes surprisingly sympathetic; optimism is a mechanism for survival, it seems, an antidote to despair and crippling paranoia. (3/2017)
I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid: An unreliable narrator takes us on a reality-distorting jaunt through a disturbed psyche. As an unnamed girlfriend struggles with the question of should she “end things” with her boyfriend, we’re made to consider the very purpose of relationships to begin with. Is it possible to achieve happiness in a near-complete and unending solitude? Does the significance of your life depend on your connection with others? This is a novel of questions, and one in particular. And if the conclusion of the story is any indicator, some questions are best left unanswered. (5/2017)
The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead: A thought-provoking novel that suggests that however absurd it may seem in the day-to-day reality of oppression, racial progress is always just on the horizon. By striving to imagine and bring about a more perfect world — and not continuing to prop up the status quo — we can liberate our society from the profound gravity of persecution. The main character, Lila Mae Watson, is living in an alternate reality in 1950’s New York. Hers is a pre-civil rights society structured around guilds of vertical transport specialists. Watson, a black female elevator inspector, has broken the glass ceiling in an industry with “undeniable macho cache.” After one of the elevators under her purview suffers a catastrophic failure and the establishment is on the hunt for someone to blame, Watson must navigate the dangerous culture clash between traditional Empiricist inspectors and the up-and-coming Intuitionists (of which she is one) in order to find the truth. It’s by peering more deeply into Intuitionism and the veiled world of its founder that Watson realizes the secret to hope and progress.
And how do we reach “the second elevation” and the perfection of our cities, the apotheosis of our struggle for justice? It appears to me the author suggests our success has less to do with changing hearts and minds. Instead we might achieve uplift via the banalities of competition and innovation in a capitalist society. (2/2017)
I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabel: This tragicomic novel shows the gradual refinement of hedonism into a mature epicureanism, a more elevated pursuit of the pleasures in life. We follow Ditie, a simple man who grows to maturity during a tumultuous period of European history: the ascent of Nazi Germany and eventually the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia. Through Ditie we see the progression of a life and the very notion of what to live for: from his sexual awakening in the brothels of Prague and a focus on beautiful women, through the advent of his dreams of attaining tremendous wealth as a hotelier, through his disappointing first love and marriage, until he finds himself in solitude, seeking a sense of meaning and beauty, beyond the distraction of his previous obsessions. Hrabel leaves hints throughout the book that the gilded world of sex, status and luxury is vacuous and shallow, just like the pseudoscientific pretensions of fascist Germany, or the pitiful attempts at economic justice under communism. The book is worth reading just for its last thirty pages, when we join poor Ditie in combing through the events of his troubled life and realizing the underlying beauty that was hiding there the whole time. (8/2018)
“On my way [home] I’d think things over, talk to myself, go over everything I’d said and done that day, and ask myself whether I’d said or done the right things. The only right things were the things I enjoyed — not the way children or drinkers enjoyed things, but the way the professor of French literature taught me, enjoyment that was metaphysical. When you enjoy something, then you’ve got it, you idiots, you evil, stupid, criminal sons of men, he would say, and he’d browbeat us until he got us where he wanted us, open to poetry, to objects, to wonder, and able to see that beauty always points to infinity and eternity.”
Island by Aldous Huxley: This philosophical novel unfolds in a series of in-depth conversations about the nature of wisdom and what it means to cultivate a society of fully realized human beings. Will Farnaby, a journalist and errand boy for a British oil baron, finds himself cast away on the remote island of Pala. While he’s nursed back to health by the Palanese, he learns of their 150-year progress from an isolated nation of scarcity and superstition to a cosmopolitan hub of Western science, literature and language, infused with a sophisticated brand of Eastern mysticism and spiritual practice. As Farnaby learns how Pala’s institutions promote personal growth and healthy relationships, he slowly comes to terms with his own trauma and despair. The book is worth the effort for its relevant critique of consumerism, industrialization and militarized nationalism, as well as its exciting ideas about multi-household families, personalized childhood development and the ritualistic use of psychotropic substances for spiritual purposes. (9/2017)
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: This novel arises from a reinterpretation of Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return, the idea that if you had to live your life over and over again, you might think twice about how you spend your days. Ursula, our main character, is living her life again and again, but each time she makes subtle changes with effects that ripple out and touch the lives of her generation. Lives are lost, or they are preserved. Lovers taken, or avoided. Ursula has a nagging sense of deja vu that dogs her more and more as the web of her possible lives becomes more intricate and complex. Born during a snowstorm in 1910, she bears witness to two world wars that threaten and come to define a distinctly English consciousness. Ursula’s experience of the air raids in both England and Germany (in two distinct timelines) are as moving and important reading as they are difficult. Atkinson immerses us in a world where women were just beginning to make waves in their society in greater numbers. She also explores the deep, timeless and universal bonds of family. (1/2018)
Little Brother by Cory Doctorow: This engrossing book explores the issue of privacy versus security with a fantastic story about nerdy teenage rebellion. Terrorists have attacked San Francisco, killing thousands. In response, Homeland Security agents institute strict surveillance and social control methods to capture the culprits and avert future threats. One method involves a secret prison designed to detain and torture suspected “enemy combatants” without due process. Marcus, our hero, must use his tech savvy and organize other young people to counteract these efforts that have turned his hometown into a police state. This book not only grapples with both sides of the privacy vs. security issue; it also provides concise and fascinating explanations of tech phenomena like cryptography, botnets, coding and much more. (1/2018)
Mindfulness Meditation Made Simple by Charles Francis: This straight-talking guide to spiritual development makes ancient wisdom accessible and relevant. In addition to prescribing a very specific regimen of sitting, walking and writing meditation, Francis describes how to make mindfulness a part of everyday life. In short, we walk the path to enlightenment by incorporating the “Three Jewels” of Buddhism into our life: the Buddha (your understanding and embodiment of wisdom), the Dharma (your use of proper meditation and mindfulness techniques) and the Sangha (your participation in a spiritual community). From losing weight to volunteering in your community, mindfulness training is a practical method for achieving better health, greater insight and inner peace. (5/2017)
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick: The author, a journalist for the Los Angeles Times, pieces together the stories of North Korean defectors as they reflect on their hardships under totalitarianism. From times of relative prosperity — marked by free healthcare, education and gainful employment — the regime slumped into economic stagnation and eventually famine after the fall of the Soviet Union and the liberalization of China. Without a robust safety net of resources from former authoritarian communist regimes, the inefficiencies of the North Korean system plunged the society into devastating circumstances. Whereas at one time the government provided its people with everything from food, housing and utilities to haircuts, clothing and cinematic entertainment, the population eventually found themselves plunged into darkness as electric grids powered down, factories shuttered, government employers stopped paying their workers and the state was forced to look the other way as mom-and-pop enterprises and the black market emerged to fill in the gaps. Those who refused to violate their anti-capitalist ideals in the markets or resort to thievery were likely to pay the ultimate price: a slow and agonizing death from starvation. Demick doesn’t shy away from describing the immense suffering of those times, from diets of grass, corn husks and tree bark to rumors of cannibalism. And amidst this torture of daily life, a single sentence of complaint could earn someone a year or more in a labor camp for thought crime.
Despite the communist imperative to build a classless society, each of Demick’s interview subjects occupied a different rung in North Korea’s rigid class structure. The social classes are in part derived from designations assigned in the aftermath of the Korean War, with the families of former South Korean prisoners of war at the bottom of the ladder and ethnic-Korean immigrants from Japan looked on with suspicion. Social mobility most commonly takes a downward trajectory, as the political “crimes” of one family member can trickle down at least three generations, creating severe constraints for relatives in areas like education, employment, and marriage potential.
As we delve into the painful recollections of North Korean refugees, it’s hard to fathom a government that strategically sacrificed the lives of millions of its citizens in favor of developing its fledgling nuclear weapons program. And yet, Demick bluntly states that most North Korean defectors long to return home; they find it hard to adjust to the flashy capitalism of South Korea, which offers them a myriad of choices whereas they previously had none. Most refugees are incredulous that the regime still exists and continues to exert such control over its people, prohibiting any contact between ordinary folks from different sides of the border. They remain poised in their cushy new homes and careers in what was once sworn enemy territory, ready for the opportunity to go back and rebuild. (8/2018)
Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman: This informative book explores contemporary research into child and adolescent psychology. Exploding popular theories such as the validity of IQ and other testing for admittance into K-3 gifted programs, the authors summarize the studies with two principles: 1.) Child psychology is essentially different from adult psychology and is thereby immune from adult reasoning and logic, and 2.) The presence of positive childhood behaviors (such as sharing, gratitude, honesty) does not necessarily imply the absence of negative behaviors (aggression, depression, risk-taking, etc.). The authors emphasize the cultivation of psychological skills — like focus, interpersonal skills, and intrinsic motivation — during educational play. These skills are not innate, and they will not spontaneously emerge thanks to sibling relationships or homework assignments. In fact, the Tools of the Mind curriculum (adopted in some school systems in the US) adopts this skills-based approach to learning and has enjoyed fantastic success compared to traditional programs. Furthermore, the book discusses the most effective tactics to bring about early language acquisition (highlighting the importance of parental responsiveness to baby babble rather than mere exposure to language). The authors also try to make sense of the curious neural networks that chemically incentivize teens to lie, cheat, and put themselves in danger, and they blast wide open our societal focus on identity-based praise (“Honey, you’re so smart.”) in favor of praise for specific behaviors (“I’m proud that you worked so hard on that project.”). We even learn that poor sleep habits are more correlated with childhood obesity than levels of activity and daily exercise. This book is essential reading for parents, teachers, caretakers and armchair psychologists. (9/2017)
The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday: This book is organized into three parts outlining the author’s interpretation of ancient Stoic philosophy: Perception, Action, and Will. Using numerous examples from recent history, Holiday argues that our perception can be a source of strength when we realize we can control our thoughts, beliefs and reactions. With focus and discipline, we can stay present and temper our emotions by practicing objectivity and testing our assumptions about a situation, always remaining open to new ideas. Our Stoic forefathers also taught the importance of constant, relentless, incremental progress through disciplined action. Never in a hurry, Never worried. Never desperate. And never stopping short. Finally, the will to follow the path you’ve chosen is at the heart of everything you perceive and do. Though you might be visited by obstacles and failures that challenge your ability to see objectively or thwart your capacity for progress, a strong will can keep you grounded in the most important aspects of your humanity, your identity, and your vision for your life. (4/2018)
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: This multigenerational story delves into the lives of members of the Korean diaspora as they struggle to survive in Japan from the early 1930s through the 80s. The constantly shifting narrative gives a depth of insight and humanity to each character we encounter, even in those fleeting moments of contact outside our main family. The result is a rich and empathic look into the fraught decisions of a small group that shows the dignity and hardship of a marginalized people. We also see a kind of struggle of worldview: some characters are driven by a deep sense of spirituality, traditional morality and pride, while others find their way in the world through clever maneuvering, manipulation, and a no-holds barred approach. This book gave a clear voice for the winners in a rigged economy, and in the enthralling personality of Hansu, I felt like I could understand and even admire the ruthless cunning necessary to guide a family through the instability and privations of wartime. (8/2018)
“He had never attended secondary school or university. Hansu had taught himself both how to read and write Korean and Japanese from books, and as soon as he could afford it, Hansu had hired the tutors to learn the kanji and hanja necessary to read difficult Japanese and Korean newspapers. He knew many rich men, strong men, and brave men, yet he was most impressed with educated men who could write well. He sought friendships with great journalists, because he admired their well-composed thoughts and points of view on the issues of the day. Hansu did not believe in nationalism, religion, or even love, but he trusted in education. Above all, he believed that a man must learn constantly …”
The President and the Assassin by Scott Miller: This engaging work of history delves into important sociocultural and economic trends that shaped the United States at the turn of the 20th century, especially those trends that culminated in the assassination of a very popular president, William McKinley, by the renegade anarchist Leon Czolgosz. This was a period of ascent for the American empire, an empire not built solely on the accumulation of colonial territories (although the acquisition of Hawaii through annexation and Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba and the Philippines through the spoils of war with Spain helped the imperial cause). Instead, the idea of world domination through commanding economic performance was becoming the eagerly anticipated next phase of American “manifest destiny.” Furthermore, US factories were producing goods at such a fantastic rate, they’d saturated the domestic market and desperately needed to export. At the other end of the macro/micro economic spectrum, an exploited labor class was continually forced to suffer inadequate wages, dangerous working conditions, child labor, capricious layoffs and wage cuts and more. A labor movement was gathering steam through strikes and demonstrations, and the radical message put forth by anarchists like Albert Parsons and Emma Goldman also galvanized thousands among the frustrated lower classes. With appearances by such notables as Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, pacifier of the Philippines (and future president) Howard Taft, a feisty war-mongering Teddy Roosevelt (who took the reins after McKinley’s assassination and brokered a deal to construct the Panama Canal by supporting Panamanian separatists in declaring independence from Colombia) and more, this book offers an entertaining and broad understanding of where we are today based on the currents of American confidence and domination that began just over 100 years ago. (1/2017)
The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason: A young man who lost his father in a car crash before attending Princeton becomes caught up in his father’s legacy: entangled in the mysterious writings of a 15th century humanist. The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is a real text (look it up) with disputed authorship and even more controversial intentions. In our novel, Tom and his brainiac friend Paul discover that the obtuse text actually contains a series of ciphers and codes, delicately crafted to lead a committed reader to a crypt of priceless treasures. (5/2018)
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson: A flamboyant counterpoint to self-help staples like positive thinking and affirmations, Manson tells his readers to cut the bullshit and take responsibility for their lives. First, recognize that suffering is inevitable; you will always have problems. Know that suffering occurs because of friction with your values: You value perfect health so getting sick really drags you down; You value happy relationships so conflict grinds your gears. People seldom identify let alone critique their own value systems, but do so and you recognize that some of your values do more harm than good. If you care a lot about what other people think (or you have some other value that is dependent on people or circumstances you can’t control), then your value system is messed up and you should change it. Instill better values and you start to confront “better” problems. Commit to your values over the long haul and your life has meaning. Because if you must suffer and eventually die anyway, you might as well suffer for something noble and important. And as for the inevitable conflicts, the detractors, the setbacks … who gives a fuck? (9/2016)
Superior Women by Alice Adams: This novel takes on the lives of women who met at college in 1940s Boston and follows them through decades of growth and profound frustration as they struggle through challenges of career, family, friendship and romance. At its worse, this is a story about “types” of women: the career type versus the socialite versus the unfulfilled wife and mother. At best it is a poignant story about the choices we make to be happy, and how we can never rely too much on our friends, lovers and occupations to fill the yawning void in our soul. The chief morsel of wisdom I take from Adams is the importance of love without expectation, which can be a balancing act between blissful romantic self-expression (penning steamy love letters with no hope for a reply) and pitiful acceptance of the unacceptable (from loveless marriage to betrayal and abuse). To my mind, the book even offers us a surprise heroine: a woman unbent and undaunted by the callous treatment of those around her, she finds pure joy in keeping remarkably healthy and active into old age, and by pursuing the simple whims of her heart. (9/2018)
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley: This quaint murder mystery follows the exploits of a precocious 11-year-old girl living in a country manor in 1950’s England. Flavia, a skillful amateur chemist despite her diminutive age, and two more brilliant young women live with their father in the shadow of their deceased mother Harriet, who met her demise while mountaineering on the other side of the world. Although Flavia’s thoughts and observations seem far-fetched for her age, I love her plucky attitude as she seeks to rescue her father from a murder conviction involving a rare and mysterious set of penny black stamps. Bradley invites his readers to imagine a simpler time, and helps us remember the sweet, wide-eyed innocence that is a child’s obsessive pursuit of the truth. (8/2018)
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: An ambitious catalog of the evils committed against African Americans, especially during pre-Civil War America, as witnessed by a runaway slave named Cora. In a controversial example of artistic license, Whitehead re-imagines the underground railroad as an actual subterranean engineering feat – a set of railroad tracks and locomotives secretly conveying hunted passengers to safer havens across the United States. We watch as Cora traverses plantation life in Georgia, a tenuous freeman community in South Carolina (marred by compelled sterilization and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments), weekly blackface minstrel shows followed by a lynching in North Carolina, and an ill-fated agrarian paradise for freed blacks, abolitionist intellectuals and runaways in Indiana. Each state represents a different historical phenomenon in America’s dark past, and Cora must pass through each in her desperate bid to escape the notorious slave catcher Ridgeway. Cora herself is a survivor: a no-nonsense woman who endures tremendous loss and suffering without the pacifying comforts of a spiritual conviction. On the contrary, her life has taught her that poetry and religion alike risk blinding one to the dangers of the ruthless machinations of a cruel and violent world. The Underground Railroad allows us a glimpse into the mind of an eminently normal human being who is so consumed with the struggle to survive that she never quite realizes the opportunity to truly live. (2/2017)
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield: This self-help book for creative types comes in three parts: defining the enemy, turning pro, and the higher realm. Pressfield identifies “resistance” as the enemy of all creatives. An artist may resist the urge to paint, and a writer may resist the urge to write… Resistance may be excuses, familial obligations, self-doubt or any other impulse that draws you away from your creative journey. It might spring forth from evolution, as the creative urge is typically individualist, and individualism runs counter to thousands of years of tribe-mind mental programming. And yet, resistance has become an impulse toward self-annihilation, a kind of psychic death (Pressfield even suggests that it may cause cancer). Defeating resistance requires becoming a professional (Book Two).
A professional starts from a passionate love of their craft and then quickly gets down to business. A professional requires an organized area to work every day, and he doesn’t shirk the real-world concerns of getting an accountant, a lawyer, an agent. The work area becomes your creative territory – the place where you look within and remember who you are and why you’re here. A professional also manages their time differently: the vocation comes first, and urgent life matters come second. A professional doesn’t shirk from the misery they might encounter on their journey. A lofty purpose makes any amount of misery manageable. And furthermore, a professional doesn’t over-identify with the work, nor does he pander to his audience (a hack does). Pressfield believes in an otherworldly source of all creativity, so the creative person is really just a conduit and the work itself belongs to this higher realm (Book Three). Interestingly, Pressfield never addresses the process of deciding on a vocation amid competing interests (Should I be a scientist or an artist? Can I be both?). Instead, he believes that everyone’s calling is innate, embedded in us from this higher realm from which all inspiration emanates. (4/2017)
Borg vs. McEnroe directed by Janus Metz Pedersen: This historical character study looks at two professional tennis players who, on the surface, have little in common as they both attempt to win Wimbledon. Similar to Ron Howard’s fascinating racecar driving protagonists in Rush (2013), our story follows a pensive Stoic and his wildly passionate opponent as they compete for the same prize. As our understanding of these characters deepen, however, we realize that their public personas hide the truth that these men are far more similar than they appear. (4/2018)
Eighth Grade written and directed by Bo Burnham: This heart-warming film depicts the struggles of teenage life in our modern, smartphone-obsessed epoch. Elsie Fisher plays Kayla, a painfully relatable example of social awkwardness, insecurity and sexual innocence. She produces a YouTube channel, where she ad-libs profound life advice that she herself struggles to apply. Like most kids her age, she’s glued to social media apps on her smartphone, which provide her a glimpse into the lives of cliques at her school she couldn’t penetrate otherwise. Elsie’s father, a single dad with the patience of a minor saint, seems to annoy his daughter at every turn, but in reality his fatherly insight into Kayla’s inner beauty and good-heartedness can save her from despair. (8/2018)
Elle directed by Paul Verhoeven: This unflinching French film explores our fear of the darkness embedded in humanity – the evils we are capable of committing and inviting into our lives – and the hatred and shame that accompany this fear. Verhoeven’s film has been called “daring” for portraying a strong, intelligent and career-driven woman seemingly carrying on a relationship with a man who brutally raped her. In fact, Elle’s involvement with her rapist tragically makes sense in the context of her shattered childhood and her complex and amoral decisions as an adult; she’s having an affair with the husband of her best friend/business partner, and she’s a big player in a competitive videogame industry that thrives off the fetishization of violence against women. Elle manages to be both complex and unfathomable at first glance while also being painfully consistent in the core of her outlook and behavior. Her glib flirtation with self-destruction highlights the ambivalence she feels about her role in the horrors committed by her father. To paraphrase her exquisite French, “Shame is not a powerful emotion. It rarely influences what we do.” Indeed, much more powerful emotions are at work in Elle. (1/2017)
Gifted, directed by Marc Webb: This touching story follows a child math prodigy and her relationship with her uncle/guardian (Chris Evans). After her mother, another math prodigy of some renown, takes her own life, the girl’s uncle steps in to raise the child. He’s determined to give her a life that won’t produce the self-annihilating angst that destroyed her mother. This plan goes awry when the child’s grandmother sues for custody. The grandmother’s strict and obsessive focus on mathematical excellence seems to have been at the root of her daughter’s suicide, but she’s determined to try again with her granddaughter. The film explores what it might look like to find a balance between childhood and intellectual superstardom. (5/2017)
I Am Not Your Negro directed by Raoul Peck: The perfect compliment to Ta Nehisi-Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, this searing documentary engages the life and thought of African-American writer James Baldwin as he witnessed the violence surrounding the civil rights movement in America. We explore the adversity and eventual murders of notables like Malcolm X, Medgar Evers (NAACP) and Martin Luther King, Jr. in their fight for a more equitable world. This struggle unfolds in a climate of institutional and cultural racism based on segregation and ignorance of the “other” (the complete lack of knowledge about how the other half lives) and the necessity to dehumanize an exploited class of cheap labor. With clips from popular media of the era as well as Black Lives Matter protests today, the barely recognizable voice of Samuel L. Jackson suggests a complex moral argument that the white ruling class must wake up from their simplistic fixation on material wealth and progress to take an honest look at the conditions that have always made their cultural and economic ascension possible. This important work, of course, must coincide with renewed efforts to counteract modern day segregation and finally acknowledge the human dignity of the continuing black struggle. (2/2017)
Jackie directed by Pablo Larraín: This film explores the immediate aftermath of the JFK assassination from the perspective of the president’s wife, “Jackie” Kennedy. The film meditates on two themes, I think: grief, of course, and powerlessness. The first theme is rather obvious, but immediately piercing and moving (from the very first frame, in my opinion) thanks to Natalie Portman’s spectacular portrayal of the first lady in crisis. Interestingly, the relationship between Jackie and her husband is not explored in great depth, so the audience must grasp for meaning to contextualize how we see her behaving in her grief. This confusion, I think, in effect does an even more effective job at allowing us to better empathize with the grieving experience. Even Jackie, it seems, is bewildered by the complex and not altogether happy or unhappy relationship she shared with JFK.
Jackie is powerlessness not only in the implacable face of death and unfathomable violence, but we also see her powerless in the socio-political context of government intrigue and patriarchy. Her attempts to outfit the White House with historic American artifacts are dismissed as budget-wasting vanity projects. Her great beauty is made an excuse to downplay her intelligence and label her as little more than a “debutant.” Throughout the film we see her attempts to empower herself by taking command of her story. Again and again, the film questions the existence of a determinable “Truth.” Really, there is no such thing as a truth that encompasses the full reality of complex events and emotions … or there certainly is no such truth that a mass audience can digest. Instead we have stories, and as Jackie implies in the film, it’s the writers of history who often have the last say. Working with a prominent journalist (played by Billy Crudup), Jackie makes a bold final attempt to take command of her own life by putting forth her own story. (1/2017)
Loving Vincent directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman: A mix between a detective story and an oblique attempt at coming-of-age and self-discovery, Loving Vincent poses Vincent Van Gogh’s death (by supposed suicide) as a murder mystery. We join the young Armand Roulin on a meandering journey through France to deliver a letter to the Van Gogh estate on behalf of his father, the postmaster. In the course of his mission, the aimless young man starts to strongly identify with the pensive artist and get a sense of his own yearning for greatness. His goal to bring clarity and meaning (if not justice) to Van Gogh’s death gives him a new sense of purpose; the artist’s redemption in the eyes of the people who wrote him off as crazy and suicidal may also redeem our struggling Roulin.
This film is most notable for being the first fully painted full-length feature. Whereas the screenplay and acting come across as rigid and overly expository at times, the painting grips the emotions. Each shot a painting, it conveys the heady possibility that each moment is a work of art, and the world itself can be a canvas for the most startling revelations of beauty in the seemingly banal. (11/2017)
Manchester by the Sea directed by Kenneth Lonergan: A film about how tragedy, grief and guilt can transform a fun-loving family man into a pugilistic recluse, as well as the power of youth and innocence to pierce through a nearly unrelenting gloom. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a Massachusetts native who lost his family after a tragic mistake, must return to those painfully familiar, close-knit neighborhoods where the unthinkable occurred to pick up the pieces following his brother’s sudden death. Haunted by memories and treated with extreme prejudice by some locals aware of his dark past, Chandler is further shocked to learn that his brother intended him to serve as his nephew’s legal guardian. Patrick Chandler (Lucas Hedges), a plucky 16-year-old with charm, friends, and girlfriends to spare, may be the last thread of hope preventing his estranged uncle from surrendering completely to the dark void of despair. (1/2017)
Neruda directed by Pablo Larraín: This film follows a young, idealistic police officer and his attempt, on behalf of an oppressive government regime, to capture the popular and illustrious Chilean senator, poet and communist agitator Pablo Neruda. We see how the pursued dissident blisters in the confinement of safe house after safe house, how he compulsively seeks out booze and naked parties and gratuitous allusions to his talent and self-importance. We see his great rotund belly, incongruous next to the sleek sexiness of undressed women half his age. We see him, obstinate and ungrateful toward those who risk their lives and freedom to help him. And yet, amidst this stark and unflattering portrait of a man who truly did care for the suffering of his people, we see the immense power of an artist dedicated to his craft. This power can create movements, uplift hearts, and even give life, meaning and beauty to a humble policeman whose mission is futile. (2/2017)
Paterson directed by Jim Jarmusch: This superb example of “slice of life” art follows a young bus driver and his artistic girlfriend over the course of a week in Paterson, New Jersey. The bus driver is also named Paterson, which invites some easy comparisons between this kind-hearted, soft-spoken poet and a quiet town that gave rise to such literary and cultural luminaries as William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg and more. Visually, the film revolves around a meditative, atmospheric exploration of the town and glimpses of its eclectic residents (including surprising, even mystical numbers of twin siblings) as well as intense close-up shots of everyday objects – a glass of beer, a bowl of cereal, a matchbox. Like Paterson’s poetry, these objects are cast in a new light by the searching, emotional tenor of the main characters. The matchbox turns into a love poem. A glance toward a street corner becomes an ode to gratitude. Recurring references to the town’s illustrious former residents cast our titular character’s extreme modesty in sharp relief; we’re left with a conviction that there’s actually greatness in his modest life, and there’s immense beauty in the mundane. (2/2017)
Phantom Thread directed by Paul Thomas Anderson: Legendary actor Daniel Day Lewis introduces us to a bygone era of elite women’s fashion in 1950s London — and the dour seriousness and reclusive artistic tension needed to dominate this realm. Reynolds Woodcock (Day Lewis), our master tailor, is a slave to his rigorous habits of eating, sleeping and working. On a sojourn to his country estate, he meets and becomes infatuated with a young woman named Alma (Vicky Krieps), who seems to embody the physical perfection he tries to reflect in his work. Alma, however, does not want to be merely an obedient, pretty companion. She becomes determined to break through the steely barrier around her paramour’s artistic heart, and she conceives of a dangerous way to do this. Perhaps poisonous mushrooms are what Woodcock needs to restore his humanity …
Rebel in the Rye directed by Danny Strong: This straightforward biopic about the writing career of J.D. Salinger (author of the classic The Catcher in the Rye) depicts an artist’s transformation from a smart-mouthed, self-described “juvenile delinquent” to a deeply spiritual, relentlessly disciplined artist who seemingly sacrificed all worldly pursuits for his commitment to literature. Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) the student starts to find his creative stride under the mentorship of Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), his college professor and editor-in-chief of the literary magazine Story. World War II interrupts this fruitful artistic development, however, and nearly fatally. Salinger returns to the US a fractured man, most likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but destined to finish breathing life into Holden Caulfield, the autobiographical character whose development kept him alive through the war. Through Salinger’s eyes, we see the world go topsy turvy as mentor becomes wounded supplicant, as his own fictional character comes to life and stalks him, and prying fans and the publishing industry start to encroach upon the purity of his art. Salinger’s famous descent into reclusiveness is still seen as tragic, and yet, ultimately liberating. (10/2017)
School Daze directed by Spike Lee: This 1988 Spike Lee joint follows a group of students at a historically black university. The film really succeeds at transcending flat, reductive characterizations of African American life and thought by featuring different social classes and students committed to pan-Africanism versus those solely interested in their American surroundings. The characters deal with aspects of colorism, or the bias surrounding different shades of complexion among racial minorities, and we also question the notion of racial authenticity (conveyed superficially through hairstyle or fashion sense). All the while, our in-depth look at the ritualistic hazing of a popular fraternity suggests a more powerful message about the lengths that people will go to belong to a group. What this film lacks in plot and pacing it more than makes up for in its contribution to the discussion on race and culture. (4/2018)
The Shape of Water directed by Guillermo del Toro: Mid-20th century Americana looms dark and repressive in this whimsical ode to romance as a refuge from pain, boredom and meaninglessness. Even as our narrator paints a Norman Rockwell-esque tribute to Jello for his thankless corporate (former) benefactors, we see the heart-rending distance between his lonesome lifestyle and the happy scenes in his work. Each of our heroes — including a mute, a homosexual, an African American woman, and a Russian communist — falls short of the discriminatory standards of their time. Separately, they are uniquely vulnerable to all kinds of abuse. Together, they unleash a world of hurt for their nemesis, a deliciously evil head of security (played by Michael Shannon). A love affair with a being wholly outside the norm will resurrect the full, gorgeous potential of life for these misfits. (2/2018)
Toni Erdmann directed by Maren Ade: This German-Austrian film seems to sell itself as a comedy, but instead delivers a deep character study of a driven career woman pushed over the edge of sanity by her job, her lifestyle and a meddling, eccentric father who’s trying to bridge the chasm between them. Ines works as a consultant to an oil firm in Romania; her current aim is to formulate a plan for her client to outsource their operations elsewhere with minimal public relations fallout, especially from the communities set to be harmed by the transition. Aware of the moral problems in her work, Ines seems resigned to the status quo, but not oblivious to the human cost of her work like her male peers. Indeed, resignation pervades every aspect of Ines’ lifestyle, from her empty sexual tryst with a coworker, to her vapid female friendships and the relentless sexism of her industry. Her father Winfried, reeling from the death of his beloved dog, decides to try and bridge the yawning gap between them by surprising Ines in Romania. Apart from learning more about his daughter, Winfried also seems intent on inserting a bit more whimsy and fun into his daughter’s life by assuming his alter ego, Toni Erdmann. The pair barely communicate, but the words they exchange go deep. Winfried wants to know what his daughter is living for, but Ines dismisses the question impatiently and demands that her father answer it first. He can’t. As the stress of her work and her father’s intrusions drive Ines to the breaking point and beyond, what’s on the other side is a tenderness and humanity that was previously unattainable. Toni Erdmann reminds us that the meaning of life might not reside in our ability to get things done, but in those subtle precious moments of human connection. (2/2017)
Margaret Glaspy at High Watt in Nashville: This powerful show paired daring and emotional vocals with magnetic melodies for a spectacular night of original music (and a couple covers). Glaspy is not afraid to growl, to pant and to huff her bittersweet lyrics about an independent woman with mixed ideas about romance, mostly to good effect. With her eyes closed and body swaying a white electric Danocaster guitar, she seems to hypnotize herself onstage. Coming up for air, she rarely engages the audience and seems a bit uncomfortable doing so, until a quirky coincidence (an audience member yells “Save the puffin!” between numbers, and she shares her knowledge of Icelandic puffin-eating and her personal preference for the gluten-free cereal) seems to break the wall of vulnerable indifference, if just for a moment. Glaspy’s music has power and heft, and she rarely holds back even when her exhortations seem strained or incongruous with the song (to this untrained ear). If there’s any justice in the music industry, her art will continue to develop and she will go far.
Distinct from but complementary to Glaspy’s no-holds-barred delivery, her opening act Bad Bad Hats embodied the sing-songy pop melodies of infectious Indie rock. Front woman Kerry Alexander enchanted the audience with cute asides about all manner of quirky experiences, including a time when, working as a barista, she mistook the word “couple” for a range of quantities, including but not necessarily equal to 2. Oh, the shame! Bad Bad Hats delighted their audience without challenging them like Glaspy. Their nineties rock sensibility cuts to the quick of this nostalgic millennial. (2/3/2017)
Lauryn Hill at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville: Ms. Hill’s lightning performance had at least two distinct phases: the first, what felt like a natural evolution of her political and artistic preferences, and second, a powerful return to Fugees and Miseducation classics. Out the gate, an eight-plus piece band pounded out Afro and Afro-Caribbean beats with impeccable execution and style, while Hill warped hit songs like “Everything is Everything” into the new paradigm. As Hill rapped her lyrics at an incredible speed, I oscillated between thinking she was at her authentic, creative apex and thinking she was rushing. Those characteristic Lauryn Hill runs were still there, only abbreviated. Still, prowess and supreme command over all aspects of the performance was eminent. Ms. Hill creates an impression of exacting control; she knows exactly what she wants ahead of time and has the skill to execute it precisely. On the one hand, this makes for a truly arresting, virtuosic performance. On the other, one could be excused for wishing the reigns would loosen a bit to afford the thrill of artistic spontaneity. As the second set wound up, Hill slowly edged her way into the climax of the night, proclaiming our collective march to Zion. Her ageless, inimitable voice careened back into 90s soul and my mind completely melted into disbelief, awe and ecstasy at her unearthly mastery. (2/9/2017)