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Twisted by Jessica Zafra – Pumping irony since 1994
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Archive for the ‘Books’

Weekly Report Card 1 and 2: A Bigger Splash, La La Land, Nobelists and ex-wunderkinder

January 17, 2017 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Movies No Comments →

In 2016 I was so distracted by the horror of the outside world that I read fewer books and watched fewer movies than I usually do. This was a mistake because I live in my head. I know one must be aware of what’s going on, but it’s not necessary to get the bizarre news as it happens or read vile tweets as they are posted. In my case it only leads to helpless rage, despair and catatonia, and I’m not even on the social media.

It is precisely in times like these that novels and films are essential to survival. To ensure that I do not slacken in my reading and viewing, I’m starting a weekly scorecard. I urge you to do the same. File under sanity maintenance.

Week 1: Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney and A Bigger Splash by Luca Guadagnino.

Precious is the word, as in precioussssss. This is a seriously overwritten book about well-to-do people who feel poor among richer people. Oh, the humanity. Typical sentence: “Inside, she’s confronted with a vast creaking stairway composed of ancient oak planks that recedes as it ascends in front of her, each floor taking her farther back into the building, until finally she finds herself on the top floor, where the door stands ajar.” Wow, he just described how stairs work.


A Bigger Splash: Emotional Rescue

(I saw Star Wars: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back on the plane—every time Princess Leia appeared I felt like bursting into tears.)

Ralph Fiennes is hilarious in A Bigger Splash as a loud, disruptive, middle-aged music industry guy who turns up uninvited at the Italian island retreat of his rock star ex (Tilda Swinton) and his ex-friend (Matthias Schoenaerts), dragging along a young woman (Dakota Johnson) whom no one believes is his daughter. Trouble ensues. Since The Grand Budapest Hotel Fiennes has been in a comic phase (See Hail Caesar) and it’s unleashed something wild and unpredictable in this serious thespian.

Week 2: A Strangeness In My Mind by Orhan Pamuk and La La Land by Damien Chazelle

Reading Pamuk in Istanbul is an incredible experience. Combine with a visit to his Museum of Innocence and you can sit in the van for the rest of the trip (But don’t).


An exhibit from the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul.

La La Land is beautiful to behold, Emma Stone graduates from her protracted ingenue phase to break your heart in her final audition song, Ryan Gosling’s frustrated jazz musician is so real that you want to kiss him and punch him in the face at the same time, and that Last Temptation of Christ-like montage nearly killed me. I wish the composers had listened to Sebastian’s rants about jazz and used more bebop. But though I am also partial to Bird and Monk, I know that jazz isn’t dying, it’s simply moved on. You got a problem with Miles?

Near the end of an epically terrible year, remember the good things that happened.

December 21, 2016 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Current Events 22 Comments →

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Doctors of the World Reality Xmas cards designed by McCann London. ’tis the season to give a damn.

2016 has been HORRENDOUS, and it still hasn’t stopped sucking. Surrounded by such gruesomeness, we tend to lose all perspective. We even start thinking that this horror is normal. Well, it isn’t. This will pass—we don’t know how long it will take, but it will. In the meantime there is something we can do. We can live AS IF the world is a good place, AS IF people are kind, AS IF honesty, decency and justice prevail. This is not denial or airy-fairy optimism, but a form of resistance based on our favorite instrument, irony.

From Letters to A Young Contrarian by Hitchens:

Vaclav Havel, then working as a marginal playwright and poet in a society and state that truly merited the title of Absurd, realised that “resistance” in its original insurgent and militant sense was impossible in the Central Europe of the day. He therefore proposed living “as if” he were a citizen of a free society, “as if” lying and cowardice were not mandatory patriotic duties, “as if” his government had actually signed (which it actually had) the various treaties and agreements that enshrine universal human rights. He called this tactic “The Power of the Powerless” because, even when disagreement can be almost forbidden, a state that insists on actually compelling assent can be relatively easily made to look stupid.

And this stratagem sounds like something out of Clueless! Later in the same chapter:

The process often involved an inversion in the usual relationship between the ironic and the literal. The “People Power” moment of 1989, when whole populations brought down their absurd leaders by an exercise of arm-folding and sarcasm, had its origins partly in the Philippines in 1985, when the dictator Marcos called an opportunist “snap election” and the voters decided to take him seriously. They acted “as if” the vote were free and fair, and they made it so.

No matter how recent history is revised and spun, no matter what disillusionment followed, it was the right thing to do.

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While we poke into the wreckage of 2016, we should remember that it wasn’t completely dreadful, even if it feels like it. Hey, gravitational waves were detected. There’s Proxima B and SpaceX. There were wonderful moments in pop culture.

In our personal lives, it can’t have been all dire. Everyone had small victories and big victories. Let’s acknowledge them, and allow ourselves to gloat a little. Tell us about the good stuff that happened to you this year in Comments. I have three things:

1. After two and a half decades of stopping and starting, I finally wrote a novel I didn’t shred.
2. After a lifetime of trying to get my hair to behave, I got a hairstyle I like. (Jay Lozada is a genius.)
3. After a ten-year absence, I visited New York. My timing was off: I figured that by the time I landed, the celebrations would be on. The opposite happened. But New York was exactly the way I wanted it to be: thrilling, tough, slightly scary, vigorous (if somewhat shellshocked), thought-provoking, and also strangely kind. (Lav Diaz said that when he was penniless and without prospects, he would take refuge in the New York Public Library and it became his school. He’s learned something.)

You?

Your holiday book-buying guide for readers, bibliophibians, and especially yourself

December 14, 2016 By: jessicazafra Category: Books 1 Comment →

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If you’re looking for presents for friends, colleagues, family, consider something time-warping, reality-bending, brain-expanding yet extremely affordable: Books. Bad as it was, 2016 doesn’t have to be the beginning of the end of civilization. If we all take up reading, there’s hope.

mcewan
For readers who love a clever adultery-and-revenge plot, from the author of Atonement and The Cement Garden. The narrator is even younger than Briony Tallis or the kids in The Cement Garden: He’s an embryo.

chabon
For readers who fell in love with The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay a decade ago and have been waiting for Chabon to revisit the territory.

berlin
Short stories by a master who is finally getting her due. Famous fan: Pedro Almodovar.

endo
Recently filmed by Martin Scorsese, an exploration of religious belief that should appeal to the faithful and to atheists.

foer
A domestic drama set during an international crisis, by the author of Everything Is Illuminated.

highsmith
The source of last year’s forbidden love drama Carol (by Todd Haynes, with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara), by the woman who invented The Talented Mr. Ripley.

houellebecq
The controversial novel about a traditional Muslim president winning the French election in 2022. (The novel was on the cover of Charlie Hebdo the day of the shooting. Was that the point at which everything started going to hell?) I do not like Houellebecq but feel compelled to read his novels.

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For readers who like their prose rich, with the consistency of molten lava.

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In Modiano’s novels, the protagonists are always trying to remember something they forgot, or forgot that they forgot, or forgot that they remember. It’s just as well they are short. But no one evokes mood and place better—one page and you’re in the grottier sections of Paris. You could argue that Modiano writes the same novel over and over again, but he forgot that he’d already written them.

schmitt
When people say, “That’s so French,” this novel is what they mean. If your friend already has the Hermes scarf and the box of Ladurée macarons, this should complete the ambience.

semple
A particularly frantic day in the life of a successful illustrator who has disappeared into motherhood and domesticity. Sounds like her previous novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and that is a good thing.

whitehead
Race in America has never been a more incendiary topic, and this novel about escaping slavery is perfectly-timed.

All titles available at National Bookstores.

bibliomania
A bibliophile, from Bibiliomania, the Dark Desire for Books That Infected Europe in the 1800s.

If you’re disappointed in your species, here’s a story to give you hope (and clean your tear ducts)

December 09, 2016 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Science 5 Comments →

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The Coma Cluster of Galaxies from the NASA APOD Archive.

Allora & Calzadilla collaborated with author Ted Chiang on their video installation The Great Silence, which centers on the world’s largest radio telescope in Esperanza, Puerto Rico— home to the last remaining population of a critically endangered species of parrots, Amazona vittata.

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(I copy my favorite writing into a notebook, hoping to figure out how they were created.)

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The Arecibo telescope, from the National Geographic.

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Endangered Puerto Rican parrot ceremonially released at the new flight cage of the flight cages at the Iguaca Aviary.	Saturday	Photo by Tom MacKenzie
Amazona vittata photo by Tom MacKenzie from Wikimedia Commons.

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Continue reading The Great Silence.

It’s that time of year. If you are not one of the cheery sunshine people, here’s how to deal with it.

December 04, 2016 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Psychology 5 Comments →

The Oatmeal has some thoughts on happiness that puts it into the proper perspective.

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My solution to seasonal glumness: Read a good book (I’ll post a selection soon).

You’re at a party you really don’t want to be in: Find a quiet spot, read a good book. (Though my first solution is: Don’t go. Granted, you have to train for decades to resist the social pressure. I started by avoiding family gatherings from the time I was 11.)

You’re stuck in traffic, read a good book. If you’re driving, listen to a good audiobook.

If you need a plausible excuse to be absent from festivities, leave a comment and I’ll invent one for you. Who says fiction is not useful? Don’t feel guilty. It would be worse if you forced yourself to show up and made like it was a funeral.

We live in science-fiction times. You have to read Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life (filmed as Arrival).

November 29, 2016 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Movies 1 Comment →

Movies showing in New York: Moonlight (which I have to see with my friends), Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford’s latest, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Venice where Lav Diaz won the Golden Lion), and Manchester by the Sea, the new film by Kenneth Lonergan starring Casey Affleck. Cost of a movie ticket: $16.


I loved the ill-fated Lonergan movie Margaret and wanted to see Manchester by the Sea. Casey Affleck, who has used his freaky stare to great effect in his brother’s Gone Baby, Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James, is said to be terrific in it (the word Oscar has been used). But when I got to the Angelika both screenings of Manchester were sold out (there was a Q&A with the filmmakers aargh) so I settled for Nocturnal Animals.

Tom Ford’s first movie A Single Man, an adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood novel, was a feature-length perfume commercial (Bawal ang pangit) lifted by a heartbreaking performance by Colin Firth (who really won his Oscar with that). Nocturnal Animals, an adaptation of Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, is actually two movies. The first is about an art gallery owner played by Amy Adams who seems to have everything she wants: a thriving career, a rich and gorgeous husband (Armie Hammer), a fabulous house and glamorous lifestyle. It still looks like a perfume commercial, but this is to underscore the shallowness of her existence.

The second movie is a dramatization of the novel her first husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) has written and dedicated to her. It’s a nasty, alarming thriller in which a man (Jake), his wife (Isla Fisher, brilliantly cast—she looks like Amy) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) are driving through a Texas highway in the dead of night when they are forced off the road by a trio of thugs led by a terrifying Aaron Taylor-Johnson. The worst that can happen, happens. The ensuing investigation is led by the always disconcerting Michael Shannon, who would’ve made off with the entire movie if Jake were not so solid.

As the gallerist reads the manuscript, she recalls her relationship with her sweet, unambitious ex and how she destroyed him at the prodding of her mother (Laura Linney, who is brilliant). Nocturnal Animals stays in your head for days, and should cause a few arguments about the ending.

Amy Adams is having a great year. I’m looking forward to Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario). Even before I’ve seen the movie, I already owe it a great debt for introducing me to the work of Ted Chiang.

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Arrival is based on Chiang’s The Story of Your Life. Ostensibly a first contact with extraterrestrials tale, it is a mind-bending rumination on language and cognition, and a deeply emotional story of motherhood. The main idea is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis:

the theory that an individual’s thoughts and actions are determined by the language or languages that individual speaks. The strong version of the hypothesis states that all human thoughts and actions are bound by the restraints of language, and is generally less accepted than the weaker version, which says that language only somewhat shapes our thinking and behavior.

Chiang is a writer who explores exhilarating ideas without losing sight of the familiar and human. Like many of the finest writers today, he is isolated from the general audience by the label “science-fiction”. But we live in science-fiction times, and the only way we can make sense of this pandemonium is to read writers like him.

If you see Ted Chiang’s books in stores, buy them all. Read them and give them to your friends. If for some reason you don’t like them, send them to me and I’ll swap other books for them.