The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2016 is awarded to Bob Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.
by Bob Dylan
They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row (more…)
Symptoms: Fear and despair over the state of the world
Treatment: Stranger Things.
It’s supposed to be a horror series—bizarre stuff happens, and some of it is quite scary—but its real hook is nostalgia. Specifically 80s nostalgia: Steven Spielberg of the Close Encounters and E.T. era; Stephen King’s The Body/Stand By Me, It, Firestarter; Goonies; a smattering of 80s music from The Clash, Joy Division, Foreigner, The Bangles and others; Winona Ryder as a harried single mom whose Dungeons and Dragons-playing kid goes missing. The early episodes are the best: they create a mood of unease and “What the hell!” while telling us nothing. When they start explaining the baffling events, the intensity slackens. The series becomes less interesting, but by that time you’re emotionally invested and you have to see it through. Part of the fun lies in identifying the movie references and predicting what happens next. Kids protecting a fugitive and fleeing the authorities on bikes: Will they fly?
Effects: Watching horror mysteries makes us feel that we can make sense of the absurd. And nostalgia is very comforting: it takes us back to a past in which we believed we could understand what was going on.
Symptoms: Life has lost its flavor, and you are mired in ennui.
Treatment: The Great British Bake-Off.
I’ve never been much interested in reality show cooking competitions in which judges terrorize the contestants and reduce them to tearful blobs of jelly. That does not happen here. Everyone is polite, the hosts are funny, the competitors don’t try to destroy each other (if they do, it’s not in the final edit), and the criticism is constructive (The judges soften the blow because life is hard enough as it is).
Effects: Observing the process of creating cakes and pastries is deeply soothing.
Symptoms: You suspect you will never fulfill your ambitions and that you have wasted your life.
Treatment: Sing Street
This musical drama-comedy by the guy who made Once and Begin Again (and got a lot of flak for bad-mouthing Keira Knightley) is about a bunch of kids in economically-depressed Ireland in the 80s who deal with domestic strife and school bullies by forming a band, writing songs and making primitive music videos. The pastiches of songs by Duran Duran, The Cure, Hall and Oates are actually good. I would buy “Drive It Like You Stole It”. The film features the best brother in the world, who makes the nerdy kid listen to Joe Jackson and tells him to follow his dreams while everyone else is mocking or ignoring him. Listen, it’s corny and it’s usually an over-promise, but everyone needs to hear some variation of the “Go for it” speech as a kid. (Technically I got a lot of “Go for it” speeches but they were couched as “Why are you wasting your time when you could be blah blah blah.”) Jack Reynor plays the big brother, and Littlefinger Mayor Carcetti is the dad. Think of it as The Commitments, junior edition.
Effects: The film has a contagious joyfulness, and may remind you of your younger, brasher, more optimistic self.
This has been my worst reading year so far. For many years I’ve read at least one book a week to keep my brain running; in the last six months I’ve finished exactly three (The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild—very amusing, Gun Dealers’ Daughter by Gina Apostol—required reading on the last years of martial law, and the Modiano. Almost forgot Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, which is a very short novel). In that time I started but abandoned A Little Life, My Brilliant Friend, The Three Body Problem and City on Fire. I will go back to them, but for now I just want to get back into the habit.
So method reading. Like method acting, but not so extreme. Just pick a soundtrack for the novel, and maybe food and drink. It’s all about the mood.
Patrick Modiano writes short (120pp), intense novels about memory and identity, very “French” in that nothing much happens outwardly and he doesn’t go for great stylistic effects but you feel wrecked afterwards and wonder how he did it.
Pair with the Elevator to the Gallows soundtrack by Miles Davis, and Pernod.
Noah Hawley is the creator of TV’s Fargo, which is better than any movie I’ve seen at the theatre this year. I’m looking forward to this thriller.
Pair with the Fargo season 2 soundtrack, and whiskey.
Update: Riveting. It’s a lot like Fargo season 2, in which every character is the protagonist of her own story, and then all their stories collide and we try to make sense of the rich randomness of life. Before the Fall starts with a literal bang: a private jet takes off from Martha’s Vineyard (which reminds me of JFK Jr) and crashes into the water minutes later. Was it an accident, or was it a crime? The Bill O’Reilly-like TV host thinks it’s terrorism because the passengers included the head of a cable news network who routinely receives death threats and a Wall street guy who deals with blacklisted governments. The only survivors are a four-year-old boy and a failed artist whose canvases, unfortunately for him, portray the aftermaths of disaster. Especially recommended for long-haul flights.
Emma Cline’s novel is about a girl who joins a cult led by a Charles Manson-like character in late 60s California.
Pair with California Dreamin’ by The Mamas and The Papas. Do not read while eating a chicken sandwich (Look it up, children).
Update: Compelling and evocative. Transforms the reader into a 14-year-old girl in California in 1969. Evie is living with her divorcee mom who is on a perpetual quest to find herself and bouncing from one terrible boyfriend to the next, fed all the cliches about how girls are supposed to be, and raised to believe that a female is nothing if she does not get male attention. One day she sees a girl not much older than herself, who seems to be perfectly comfortable in her own skin. She gets drawn into the cult. The descriptions of the filth and squalor of the cult’s ranch made me want to boil myself. The Girls is both seductive and repulsive: you can’t stop reading it; you know the horror that is coming and you want details. It makes a snuff movie voyeur out of you, and as good as the novel is you find yourself asking why this oft-told story had to be repeated.
WHAT A COMFORT it is after an intense and contentious election to hear a musical that makes you want to give standing ovations to the idea of nationhood. The hairs on my arms rose, there were icy sparks down my backbone, and an irresistible force propelled me out of my seat to applaud this work. And I was all alone in my room.
Good luck getting tickets to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, which apart from earning a MacArthur genius grant for its author has won a Pulitzer, a Grammy, Obie, and Drama Desk Awards, and is poised to win a truckload of Tonys. Hamilton has united two often opposing camps, the critics and the audience, with its rousing hip-hop treatment of American history. Until you manage to book your tickets, you’ll have to content yourself with listening to the original Broadway cast recording.
The subject of the play is Alexander Hamilton, the founding father who established the American financial system and is best known today as the face on the ten dollar bill. As a line from the show says: He doesn’t get enough credit for all the credit that he gave (them). I know little about American history, but I know who Hamilton is because I read a Justice League comic book in which he and his adversary Aaron Burr traveled through time and met Superman and company.