Aug 29, 2012

by English Muse

Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, virtually here but actually 2,000 miles from my keyboard.

It’s that time again. My brood has stood guard over offices, camps and my little corner of the Web all summer, and now it’s our turn to flee. This year we’re off to hike where the last significant event occurred 70 million years ago. After a year of titanic egos rattling through Manhattan’s canyons, Zion will provide a humbling sense of scale — as will a day floating in a Vegas pool with our daughter.

But that doesn’t mean you get to slack. I’ve put together a selection for you: the best of the best. Lots of froth, some seriousness, all top-shelf.

NEW AND NOTEWORTHY

John Green: The Fault in Our Stars
I’ll say it again: “The Fault in Our Stars.” Hell, I’ll say it as many times as it takes to get you to read it. A friend finished it well after midnight. “I was bawling,” she wrote. So will you. And you’ll write to thank me too. Because it’s that good.

Alan Furst: Mission to Paris
“In Paris, the evenings of September are sometimes warm, excessively gentle, and, in the magic particular to that city, irresistibly seductive. The autumn of 1938 began in just such weather and on the terraces of the best cafés, in the famous restaurants, at the dinner parties one wished to attend, the conversation was, of necessity, lively and smart: fashion, cinema, love affairs, politics, and, yes, the possibility of war—that too had its moment. Almost anything, really, except money. Or, rather, German money. A curious silence, for hundreds of millions of francs — tens of millions of dollars — had been paid to some of the most distinguished citizens of France since Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933. But maybe not so curious, because those who had taken the money were aware of a certain shadow in these transactionsand, in that shadow, the people who require darkness for the kind of work they do.”

Brandi Carlile
This is the year of Brandi Carlile. Her new CD, “Bear Creek,” opened high on the music charts. Her tour is a nightly revelation. She just got engaged. It’s been a long time since she sold some of her guitars to buy microphones for Tim and Phil Hanseroth — “The Twins” — the guitarists who stand lean and tall behind her on stage.

William Boyd: Waiting for Sunrise
“It is a clear and dazzling summer’s day in Vienna.” That’s how it starts. August, 1913, and Lysander Rief, a 28-year-old English actor, has come to Vienna for — what else — treatment from one of those newfangled creatures, a psychoanalyst. His problem? He’s interested in sex, but can’t have an orgasm. In the waiting room, he meets the military attaché at the British consulate. And, more to the point, he meets Hettie Bull, a free-spirited sculptor who will quickly solve his problem.

David Byrne and Caetano Veloso

My wife and I saw the 2004 Veloso-Byrne concert from about the tenth row. It was magic, spectacular right from the from start — I think pretty much everyone there got that, and felt privileged, and went nuts with pleasure and gratitude after each song. A while back, we ran into Byrne at a gallery and asked about a CD. “Soon,” he said. “Maybe.” Well, what’s eight years — half as long as it takes for single malt to be drinkable.

Michael Lindsay-Hogg: Luck and Circumstance: A Coming of Age in Hollywood, New York, and Points Beyond
On the surface, this is an exploration of Michael’s paternity, about which his mother had persistently lied. His father, she insisted, was Edward Lindsay-Hogg, an English baronet who was tall and dark and thin and lived in Ireland. Michael was to ignore all rumors to the contrary. “We [Orson Welles and I] would go out for dinner together,” she told her son. “And you know how people can put two and two together and make three.”

FIFTY SHADES

Fifty Shades of Grey
“Fifty Shades” is a category all by itself. As a piece of writing — sorry, I can’t finish that sentence. “But all my friends have read it,” you say. Fine. Get it done. Just don’t spend more than two hours with it, or it may render you stupid for life.

CLASSICS

The Quiche of Death
“Mrs. Agatha Raisin sat behind her newly cleared desk in her office in South Molton Street in London’s Mayfair. From the outer office came the hum of voices and the clink of glasses as the staff prepared to say farewell to her. For Agatha was taking early retirement. She had built up the public-relations firm over long hard years of work. She had come a long way from her working-class background in Birmingham. She had survived an unfortunate marriage and had come out of it, divorced and battered in spirit, but determined to succeed in life. All her business efforts were to one end, the realization of a dream — a cottage in the Cotswolds.”

Walter Tevis: The Queen’s Gambit

An eight-year-old orphan named Beth Harmon turns out to be the Mozart of chess. Which brings her joy (she wins! people notice her!) and misery (she’s alone and unloved and incapable of asking for help). So she gets addicted to pills. She drinks. She loses. And then, as 17-year-old Beth starts pulling herself together, she must face the biggest challenge of all — a match with the world champion, a Russian of scary brilliance. You think: This is thrilling? You think: chess? You think: Must be an “arty” novel, full of interior scenes. Wrong. All wrong. “The Queen’s Gambit” is “Rocky.;

Edmund Crispin: The Moving Toyshop

A noted English poet named Richard Cadogan cadges the awesome sum of fifty pounds from his publisher and heads off to a vacation in — of all places — Oxford. He arrives late at night and stumbles into an unlocked toy shop, but before he can make himself comfortable he finds a freshly-murdered female. Hit on the head, Cadogan wakes hours later in another room and rushes to the police. They hurry to the toy shop. No body. In fact, no toy shop — it’s a grocery. As it always was, apparently.

Denis Johnson: Jesus Son

“Jesus’ Son” is one of the ten funniest books I’ve ever read. A guy has a knife stuck in his eye; a drugged-out hospital orderly saves him without quite knowing what he’s done. Another guy gets shot in a farmhouse, for no reason. A third guy overdoses. Prison looms for everyone. And it all takes place in the gloomy flatland of the Midwest, circa 1971. Funny? You’ll see….


HOT AND BOTHERED


Annie Ernaux: Simple Passion

64 pages. A #1 bestseller in France. And not a bit of actual smut.

James Salter: A Sport and a Pastime

“She cannot be satisfied. She will not let him alone. She removes her clothes and calls to him. Once that night and twice the next morning he complies and in the faint darkness between lies awake, the lights of Dijon faint on the ceiling, the boulevards still. It’s a bitter night. Flats of rain are passing. Heavy drops ring in the gutter outside their window, but they are in a dovecote, they are pigeons between the eaves. The rain is falling all around them. Deep in feathers, breathing softly, they lie.”

Françoise Sagan: Bonjour Tristesse
Her father has rented a large white villa on the Mediterranean for the summer. It’s the house you dream of: “remote and beautiful, standing on a headline jutting out over the sea, hidden from the road by pine woods. A goat path led down to a small, sunny cove where the sea lapped against rust-colored rocks.” The water? “Cool and transparent.” Ahhhhhh…

GREAT LIVES

Julia Child: My Life in France
Her first meal, in Rouen, started with oysters, served with a pale rye bread and unsalted butter. They were followed by sole meuniere, “perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley.” Mr. and Mrs. Child washed it down with a bottle of Pouilly-Fume. They moved on to a green salad and a baguette, fromage blanc and cafe filtre. “Absolute perfection,” Julia decided. “The most exciting meal of my life.”

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout

Marya Sklodowska, a brilliant student from Poland, came to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. In 1894, she met Pierre Curie, an iconoclast who taught physics and chemistry. How deep was their love? As Pierre wrote to her, “It would be a fine thing … to pass our lives near to each other, hypnotized by our dreams; your patriotic dream, our humanitarian dream, and our scientific dream.

Jacques Lusseyran: And There Was Light

A leader of the French Resistance in World War II. Oh, he was blind. But in fact, he could see — “radiance [was] emanating from a place I saw nothing about.” He could see light, after all. It only faded when he was afraid.

Georgia O’Keefe: How Georgia Became O’Keeffe: Lessons on the Art of Living
The standard stuff, and a lot more. Like: Alfred Stieglitz — her lover, mentor and husband — wrote at least 50,000 letters. “Those letters were Angry Birds and I Can Has Cheezburger and American Idol and retail therapy, and everything else we moderns like to do.” Like: The “epic marriage” of Stieglitz and O’Keeffe: “She was the red Porsche purchased by a middle-aged man; he was the football hero who falls in love with the awkward new girl in school.”

Johnny U: The Life and Times of Johnny Unitas
Team first. That was Unitas. In the huddle, a black player said that an opponent had called him “nigger.” Unitas said: “Let him through.” And he threw a bullet pass into that guy’s head so hard it felled him. To sportswriters, after a game, he described everyone’s goofs as his mistakes. He played hurt; he had a Terminator’s tolerance for pain. Of course his teammates loved him. “Playing with Johnny Unitas,” one said, “was like being in the huddle with God.”

MUSIC THAT MATTERS

Teddy Thompson
‘Separate Ways,’ his second CD, starts like this: “I want to be a huge star who hangs out in hotel bars/ I want to wake up at noon in somebody else’s room/ I want to shine so bright it hurts….” Amusing. We’ve all been there. But what is this? “I wanna be death bed thin.” And “I wanna be high strung/Make people wonder/what they’ve done.” Hey, these dreams are new territory.

Krishna Das
“I’m just another person who hears me chanting, you know? That’s why I do it. I’m not doing it for anybody else. I’m doing it because it’s my life blood. It’s what I do. I recognize that so many people get benefit from it. That’s wonderful. Isn’t that great? But that’s not why I do it.”

Albert King: Born Under a Bad Sign
He used a thumb rather than a pick. And he used that thumb sparingly. “It ain’t how many notes you play,” he said. “It’s how you play them.” Guitar players revered him. Mike Bloomfield, no slouch himself: “Albert can take four notes and write a volume. He can say more with fewer notes than anyone I’ve ever known.

DEARLY DEPARTED

Etta James
Leonard Chess liked “triangle” songs, and he found a great one for Etta’s Chess debut: “All I Could Do Was Cry.” The set-up: Etta watching her lover marry another woman. The refrain: “I was losing the man that I loved, and all I could do was cry.” Etta needed only one take. When she was finished, she was crying — and so were some of the engineers.

Levon Helm
Rock legends die all the time — for some, death is how they become legends — and the rituals of modern mourning follow. But losing Levon Helm feels different. He’s one of the few Authentics, one of the deans of the Old School. As his wife and daughter say, “He loved nothing more than to play, to fill the room up with music, lay down the back beat, and make the people dance. He did it every time he took the stage.”

EXTRA CREDIT

You read thick books in summer. Skip the action thriller for a foreign movie. Or just aspire to read/see/hear better. These are for you.

Troubled Water
Alec Baldwin says that Trine Dyrholm is “the best actress in the world.” Michael Moore has said “Troubled Water” was the best film he saw in 2009. I am in love with Trine Dyrholm — both the actress and her character. I don’t see how anyone could not feel that. No makeup, ravaged by grief, she is nonetheless beautiful. Beauty defined thus: you can see into her and share her struggle to keep it together.

Wislawa Szymborska: Poems
In 1996, Wislawa Szymborska (l923-2012) won the most money in the history of Nobel awards and the most money ever won by a poet: $1.2 million. She stayed in her small apartment — a fifth-floor walk-up. Her output was small, just 350 poems. Why so few? “I have a trash can in my home.” Her favorite phrase was “I don’t know.” This wasn’t conversational. It was the entire matter.

Albert Camus: The Plague
People worship money and devote all their time to making it. Love flourishes briefly, then dissolves into habit. Government is slow and formal; it is shockingly late before it agrees that frothing rats and dying people have any connection. In short, a thoroughly modern city…

This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 29th, 2012 at 6:11 am. It is filed under authors, Books, Fashion, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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One Response to “So much great stuff, so little time: Here are my picks for this year’s ‘best of the best’”

  1. Terri Lynn says:

    Damn you Jesse Kornbluth. Every time I read one of your posts, I feel like my reading list grows exponentially. I can’t wait to read The Moving Toy Shop and The Fault in Our Stars. I’ll save my allotted Fifty Shades two hours for a future recommendation however. I still consider the time I spent reading the preview on my Kindle seven minutes of my life I can never get back . . .

fin.
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