Things We Loved in the Year 2016

Book: Flowers for Mrs. Harris by Paul Gallico

It’s been a long time since I felt such pure delight in a book as I did for Paul Gallico’s “Flowers for Mrs. Harris” (published in 1958 and also available under the alternate title “Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris”). I snagged it from a thrift store early in the year based on the cover alone. It’s thin, which initially was a draw, but ultimately left me hungry for more. The first thing that struck me about Gallico’s writing was that his observations about human nature and the details of human life felt immediately intimate, yet not cliché. I can’t think of anything I respect more as a writer and a reader.

I’ve since read another of Gallico’s novels (“Scruffy”) which was perhaps “better”, but this one had so many points of personal connection for me that it stands out in my memory. The basic story is of an older working-class woman who falls helplessly in love with the awesomeness of Chanel couture, and becomes determined to own a piece of her own for the sake of pure frivolous adoration. Indulgence without loss of wonder is something I treasure. My one criticism is that Gallico’s work tends to be a bit “precious”, wrapping up in the most perfect of bows at the end of each book. I gravitate toward realism and sadness in media, but I simply cannot begrudge Mrs. Harris a happily-ever-after, especially when I’m invited into that warmth as the reader.

–  Karissa Tucker

Book: The Well at the World’s End
by William Morris

As we sit back and reflect on the year, I can’t help but remember one of the books that took me the longest to read. The Well at the World’s End is a longer novel, but what makes it more difficult is its use of older English. I was first introduced to the work by C. S. Lewis himself, in his essay “On Story”.

The Well at the World’s End”, can a man write a story to that title? Can he find a series of events following one another in time which will really catch, fix, and bring home to us all that we grasp at on merely hearing those six words?… Morris in The Well at the World’s End came near to success, quite near enough to make the book worth many readings.”

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The story follows a young prince, Ralph, the fourth son of the king of a little land called Upmeads. When he is chosen to stay and rule the kingdom while his brothers earn fame and glory, Ralph runs away on his own journey. Along the way he hears whispers and legends of the well at the world’s end, and through many adventures, determines that he must journey to it if it exists. It’s the story of Ralph’s coming of age as he discovers love, honor, loss, glory, and that people are not always what they seem. The Lady of Abundance, Ursula, Bull shockhead, Richard, the Champions of the Dry Tree, and Gandolf all add richness to the story, showing their own characters’ and surprising the reader. As the pages turn, Ralph grows and matures in front of your eyes. At the end, I was proud of him and hope that when I have a son, he turns out like Ralph.

wweThe Well at the World’s End encourages me to continue to grow and mature. Ralph’s young heart was restless, so he went out and did the things he desired. But at the end, when he has completed those tasks, his desires shift. It’s not that those desires were bad and he needed to grow up, rather they lead him to where he needs to go. As someone who’s likely in the same stage of life as Ralph, I’m inspired to go on adventures and enter worlds beyond my own “Upmeads” with the hope of coming home some-day.

– Richie Gowin

Music: Photographs and Memories by Jim Croce

tumblr_m7lam3qhmx1qgl228o1_400According to its release date this isn’t from 2016, but that’s when I found it. This year the
music I was hearing made me feel a little like Bing Crosby’s character in White Christmas: “everyone’s got an angle.” Artists either focused on a specific subject, or a specific mood, or the intensity of a certain experience. With Jim Croce, there’s no angle. He’s what would once have been called “just folks.” It’s remarkable how comforting that can be.

I know it’s considered a bit on the nose to recommend greatest hits albums, but after listening to Croce’s whole oeuvre, this is the one I returned to consistently. It’s plain and simple about everything: heartbreak (“Operator” and “Lover’s Cross”) the defeat of local bullies (“Bad Bad Leroy Brown” and “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim”), a job you don’t want (“Workin’ at the Car Wash Blues”), love and infatuation (“I Have to Say I Love You In A Song” and “Roller Derby Queen”), hating where you live (“New York’s Not My Home”) and just wanting company (“I Got a Name”). In 2016, when I just wanted company, I turned on this album. In 2017, I’ll probably do the same.

Full album on youtube here.

–  David Shelton

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Music: We Got It from Here…Thank you 4 Your Service by A Tribe Called Quest

2016 was an amazing year for music. Hundreds of albums were released and the hip-hop, rap, R&B, soul world boomed. Beyoncé created the stunning visual album Lemonade, her sister Solange released an incredibly thought provoking a timely album entitled A Seat at the Table, Young Thug gave us Jeffery, and Gallant produced a beautiful soul album called Ology. While these are all in my list of favorite albums from this year, the top place has to go to A Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ) who released We Got it From Here…Thank you 4 Your Service. Following a rough breakup and years without new work this album seemed unlikely to be realized. The group produced 5 studio albums and are known for their forward-thinking innovations and unusual sampling choices. 18 years later they released their sixth and final album We Got it From Here. The process of finishing the album was colored by the death of one of the group’s four members, Phife Dawg, making the release a tribute to him as well.

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While musician’s reunions are often met with excitement by their fans they are also frequently disappointing. These attempts can be forced, rely heavily on nostalgia, and leave listeners thinking “they just ain’t what they used to be” (like the fourth Indiana Jones movie…ugh). This album does none of that. While the style from ATCQ’s early work shines through, the music and lyrics are decidedly fresh and piercingly relevant. Songs like “The Space Program” and “We the People” comment on racial inequality and the contradictory intolerance of America on display in the events of this year. The artists call out injustice in songs like “Killing Season”: “I swear it’s killing season / Cause killin’ is still in season” “Things haven’t really changed/ Or they’re dormant for the moment” and “Movin Backwards”: “Po puts braces on my wrists like he was clapping his hands / How demeaning y’all? Who could be blind to racism?” The music that makes up this album stands as a strong independent work in the world of rap/hip-hop and perfectly polishes ATCQ’s indelible body of work.

The album features guest artists including Kendrick Lamar, Jack White, André 3000, Kanye West, and Busta Rhymes. ATCQ continues their sampling prowess integrating audio from diverse sources including Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Elton John’s Benny and the Jets, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and Behind the Wall of Sleep by Black Sabbath.

Read more:

NPR

Pitchfork

–  Jessica Webster

Mystically Mournful Music, A Terminally Ill Physician, and Your Life in Seconds

 

For this post I asked contributors to respond to increasing global turmoil evidenced by shootings and rising tension between police and laymen in the US, international bombings resulting in hundreds of deaths in Turkey and Baghdad, and large political shifts such as the bizarre American presidential election race and the UK leaving the EU in ‘Brexit’.

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Music album: Scandalize My Name by Ida Maria (Børli Sivertsen)

Where the heck did this woman come from? As far as I know, she’s not very well known, and her sound is so… so…otherworldly. I almost hate to use that term because it feels overused, but I can’t think of any other theremin-heavy, shouted, album of hymns. ida-mariaThis album is explicitly Bible-y in the way that only a non-Christian artist could make it: that is to say, it’s really intriguing and good. Growing up as a missionary kid, I can tell within a half second (not kidding) if someone is preaching or singing about Jesus as I flip through radio channels. Ida Maria had me tricked, though. She has this Icelandic witchy sound and it happens to be beautiful in the context of these laments with titles like “Fix Me Jesus” and “City Called Heaven.” In light of the darkness nipping at our heels in the world right now (or in some cases, just plain devouring us), going around wailing, “I’ve heard of a city called Heaven, I’ve started to make it my home” seems absolutely appropriate. Ida Maria has created this space between my ears that is my private Cathedral chapel on the moors in which to mourn.

– Karissa Tucker

 

 

 

Book: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

In our neighborhoods, on our streets, across the globe, people are dying. Today, political and social crises swell – Black Lives Matter, Brexit, and Aleppo to name a few. Reckless hate and extreme violence threaten everyone. However, many of us meet death in a another, but no less painful, way – through injury and illness, in a hospital bed.

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When Breath Becomes Air offers insight and inspiration for anyone who struggles with grief and loss (past, present, and future). The realm of medicine remains unique yet universal. It is the arena in which humans grapple with death, and, “in so doing, … confront the meaning of a life.” From his unique identity and perspective as physician and patient, Paul Kalanithi teaches us how to live courageously in the face of one’s own mortality.

– Nancy Davong

App: 1 Second Everyday created by Cesar Kuriyama

Every day we create memories whether we like it or not: good, bad or indifferent (a phrase I’ve heard a lot lately). I think people want to create good memories and I hope with everything happening in the world today we will do things to get involved in the fight for justice and peace. Many of us collect/filter/hashtag moments using social media apps such as Instagram and Facebook. Kuriyama developed 1 Second Everyday (1SE) after a series of events including dissatisfaction with a demanding job, blunted creativity, and minimal family time. He took a year off work as a sabbatical and this project began. It was funded as a Kickstarter and now has over a million downloads. (Watch the TED talk he gave for more on his story here.)

This app allows users to capture video clips that are one second long and in a streamlined, extremely user friendly interface provides tools to create mashups of the clips into longer movies. You might be wondering why we need another app on top of all the others we use to take photo/video but this is different. Something Kuriyama mentions in talking about this project as he recorded a year of his life in one second intervals is that it forced him to think about how he was spending his days. If you do nothing but watch TV for a day you’ll have nothing to record. 1SE gives its users an impetus to get up and do things worth remembering.

– Jessica Webster

An overlooked American Classic, Edge-of-your-seat Anime action, and a Visceral Music Experience

Book: The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hawthorne is typically associated with his short stories. He’s even more typically associated with the austere New England setting of his work. However, in this lesser-known novel, Hawthorne takes the reader to Italy, into the heart of old Rome. The Marble Faun is one of the first of the American international novels, a form perfected later in the century by the likes of Henry James. James himself had high praise for the book, which I will not quote because James was clearly writing before the advent of the “spoiler alert.”

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The themes of the work are the usual ones for Hawthorne: guilt and repentance, morality and sin, heaven and hell. Hawthorne’s work benefits from the historical setting, and the additional room afforded by the novelistic form. More than any other of his works with which I am familiar, The Marble Faun displays the author’s uncanny ability to deliver, in the midst of describing a scene, an observation that speaks directly into the heart of an apparently unrelated matter. This book is one of those few which are not considered American classics, but should be.
– David Shelton

 

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Anime: Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin) original manga by Hajime Isayama, anime directed by Tetsuro Araki
Yes, my roommate got me into an anime. It also happens to be one of the top animes of all time. In this world, all of humanity (mostly German) lives behind a wall to protect themselves from human devouring Giants called Titans. When the wall is breached, death and tragedy ensue.attack gif Titans are impervious, mindless, eating machines. The show is full of tragedy, complex relationships with well developed characters, a theme song you CANT skip, and gore galore. The first season is on Netflix, but you’ll have to wait along with the diehard fans for season two that’s been postponed for three years, even though it’s nearly complete! It’s hard not to binge watch this action filled thriller.

– Richie Gowin

 

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Music album: A Man Alive! By Thao Nguyen and the Get Down Stay Down (2016)

I’ve loved Thao Nguyen ever since she sang “As sharp as it stings / As sharp as I sing / It still soothes you doesn’t it / Like a lick of ice cream” in 2008. This fourth album from Thao Nguyen was produced by Merrill Garbis of tUnE-yArDs (both artists are from the San Francisco/bay area). Thao explains how many of her new songs explore feelings of abandonment and recovery from her father leaving when she was young. In her World Cafe session/interview she says that she has been acutely aware of the fact that her father isn’t dead. He left and still exists somewhere in the world. She could find him. He is a man alive.

Thao’s lyrics carry powerful emotion and convey raw vulnerable questions. With lines like “We’re not born for departure / But we do learn to take it” and “Leave me here / In disbelief again” in the song “Departure”, the artist sings honestly about her own experience with hurt. Her poetic and striking lyrics are backed by incredible tracks that incorporate dissonant/discordant beats and noise with driving melodies that pair perfectly with Thao’s voice and circling choruses. The sound has descriptions like “a driving banger fueled by a chopped-up hip-hop beat and analog squelches” (NPR’s Mike Katzif on “Meticulous Bird of Prey”) and “a cool-down strut sounds like its slinked off some mid-’70s Rickie Lee Jones record” (Stuart Berman for Pitchfork on “Guts”). The songs on this album often evoke a little girl putting on a brave face. She combines an innocent straightforward expressiveness with a questioning that borders between wounded and accusative. The swinging arc of the album shows Thao’s visceral reaction to her father’s abandonment, but simultaneously displays a fierce liveliness that shows strength and willingness to confront trouble head on. The final track, “Endless love”, doesn’t offer the listener concrete resolution. The simple lyrics, “I’ve got an endless love no one can starve / I don’t want it, carve it on out of me,” sound less like a nice tidy end and more like a lament. It would be easier not to feel than to be vulnerable to the world. Despite this final line the artist hasn’t gotten rid of her capacity to feel, instead she allows herself to be transparent with her audience in a beautiful, tender yet resilient and accomplished body of work.

– Jessica Webster