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

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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

High Fantasy, A Suspenseful Road Trip and a Comic Book

Book Series: The Dagger and Coin Series, by Daniel Abraham

Let’s be honest. We all have our favorite classic books, and we would love to be the person who reads only deep, “impactful” literature that appears in the Atlantic (or whatever). But sometimes you just need a story to hold your attention for a little while. It’s like food. You can only eat so much filet mignon and red wine before you need some beer and pretzels. If I had a nickel for every light fiction book I’ve devoured because I just needed five hours to not think, I could buy my next book.

That next book will be The Spider’s War, the final volume in Daniel Abraham’s five-part high fantasy saga, “The Dagger and the Coin,” just published this past January. With this series, Abraham has demonstrated deceptively masterful craftsmanship. The books read like any other light fantasy you might pick up off the shelf, but without the syntax errors and formulaic plot-lines that usually plague the fantasy genre. The characters are rich and complex, and Abraham treats startlingly relevant themes (such as the hidden power of a bank) with nuance and grace. Bottom line: if you just want a distraction, this series can give that to you. And if you want food for thought, you can have that too.

 

– David Shelton

 

Movie: Joy Ride, directed by John Dahl (and co-written by J.J. Abrams)

Ok, am I the only person who didn’t see or hear about this movie (came out in 2001)? I’d never heard of it before watching it with friends on New Year’s Eve a few years ago, and they put it on right after forcing me to watch Labyrinth for the first time. Sorry if you love Labyrinth, but after that, I didn’t have a lot of faith in their movie-picking choices. At this point, my husband had fallen asleep and I had drunk 3/4 of a full-size bottle of Martinelli’s by myself because as a nursing mom, I wasn’t drinking booze like everyone else (for the record, I finished the bottle, and it wasn’t my brightest moment). Anyway, this movie starts out kinda 80s/90s with two brothers on a road trip, and maybe it was just because I was expecting so little of it, but it was gripping the entire time. It’s perfectly suspenseful without being horror-y. The basic plot is about the brothers messing around on their radio making fun of some truckers, who may or may not decide to kill them for their pranks. It’s funny and believable, and you keep wondering, “are they actually in danger”? That’s the genius of this story. It really creeps up on you. It sounds like a ridiculous premise, but this movie really just impressed the heck out of me and continues to. I did not see it coming. At all. Also, cliffhanger ending, so you have been warned.

 

-Karissa Tucker

 

Graphic Novel: Daytripper, by Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon:

I’m admittedly pretty embarrassed about how I used to look at the graphic novel. I thought comic books were a waste of time and a bunch of fluff. How could I not recognize the potential for amazing art used to tell poignant, gripping, and funny stories? blind reader snobbishness. Well, my eyes are opened to a whole new world. I’ve read several graphic novels recently including The Underwater Welder and The Gigantic Beard that was EvilThis genre is rich and rewarding, somewhere between literature and film.

Daytripper is a beautiful book. To begin with the art is stunning and beautiful. The artists are genius at using gesture and progression in each frame to tell a story in such a way that you almost feel you’re watching a movie. The story itself is about an obituary write, Brás, who aspires to become a “real” writer. His obituary writing naturally provides a theme of death and, necessarily, the life (quantity, quality, and content) leading up to the end. Each section/chapter is imaginative, profound and thought provoking. The only thing I regret is how fast the book went by, but it was an amazing experience and I’m sure I will re-read this one.

 

– Jessica Webster

A Guide to Life-enrichment, Some Outsider art, and a Supernatural Novel

 

Kind-of-a-book: Experience Passport by Alex Egner:

This little diary-pamphlet was designed to mirror a system of learning offered to students in the Communication Design program at the University of North Texas. Think of it as providing the growth experienced in art school without the price tag. Yet it covers more than fine art – it’s “part life coach, part Sherpa guide, part itinerary of amazing activities.” It’s “how not to be boring”, wrapped up in a cute slightly-larger-than-passport size book, complete with passport-like stamp stickers to mark completed experiences and page margins with those nifty patterns you find on real passport pages. Two examples of prompts in the book are as follows:
1. Watch three Academy Award winning films made before 1945. What stood out most about the film making compared to today’s cinema styles?
2. List three of your most strongly held convictions. Choose one, and using a minimum of 500 words, try to persuade yourself to change your mind.
I would love it if someone blogged their way through this entire book. I’m fascinated by how we change as people if we allow ourselves the opportunity to do so.
Karissa Tucker 
Artwork: The Electric Pencil Drawings by James Edward Deeds: 
An unlikely and lucky thing happened when a someone happened to stumble on this lost notebook filled with drawings. The drawings, most of people with cavernous, staring eyes, were colored onto pages of an old ledger from State Hospital No. 3 Nevada, Missouri. These drawings were found and eventually revealed to the art community as the “outsider art” of James Edward Deeds. Deeds was a patient at the State Hospital which housed mentally ill people at a time when electro-convulsive-therapy was coming into vogue as a treatment option.
Deeds drew obsessively during his time at State Hospital No. 3 and these remaining pieces are what is left of his work as a self-taught artist. The pieces themselves are fantastic. Mainly flat, colored, portraits mixed in with some animals and buildings, the images draw the observer in with their mystery. Several have words like captions such as “Why Doctor?”, “Look Out”, and the most emblematic from the collection “ECTLECTRC” with a picture of and the word “pencil” to the right.
I’m very interested in this idea of self-taught original artists who can create such incredibly imaginative work. Deeds was considered mentally ill, perhaps schizophrenic, and spent his life in an institution, yet he drew these pictures which are considered great and valuable works of art today (each two-sided drawing sells for ~16,000$). To see some of the pictures click here, a more in depth article can be read here.
– Jessica S Webster

Book: The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams: 

Williams is known for his ‘supernatural thrillers’, stories that take place in contemporary England, which is then filled with the supernatural. My friend said Williams, “wrote his doctrine in novels.” While Descent Into Hell is mostly contained within the mind, The Place of The Lion is a physical invasion of the Platonic forms, or the Celestial hierarchy, into rural England. Anthony and Damaris, both philosophers in the novel, find the things and ideas they have studied are coming from the ethereal into physical manifestations.
It’s certainly not the lightest fiction I’ve read. I found it helpful to be familiar with the Platonic forms and the celestial hierarchy of Dionysius, though without having read them, one can still appreciate Williams.

Richie Gowin

The Conversation Collective

The idea for this website began developing on a long scenic drive from Phoenix Arizona to El Paso Texas. After the wedding of a friend where I talked with both familiar and new people I began thinking about the way people recommend things in conversation. It begins with a common interest and like wildfire you start volleying back and forth. “Have you heard of…?” “I think you would really like…” “That reminds me of this other thing” and so on and so forth. I was reliving some of those conversations and reveling in the feeling of finding something I’d never heard of. These referrals build on one another infinitely. In a world where people are constantly creating it’s exciting to share in discovery and learning with those around you. One problem was that I am separated from so many people I have, or could have, these experiences with. This collective will be an experiment in an effort to bridge gaps of distance and time, to build community, and to share life.

Recommendations will encompass a virtually limitless spectrum. From a new book you’re reading to an old one you’ve loved, an article that sparked your interest, music you wish the whole world could hear, art that moves and inspires you, a story you wrote, a website that needs to be shared, a business worth patronizing, an activity someone else should try, an idea sprouting in your head, or anything else you want to share.

To begin:

Music album: b’lieve i’m goin down by Kurt Vile:

This record was perhaps easy to miss, but easily could snuggle its way into anybody’s ‘best-of 2015’ list.  Do you know Kurt?

Kurt Vile:  Likeable Kurt Vile:  Father Kurt Vile:  Unheralded anti-prodigy Kurt Vile:  Sophisticated Funnyman Kurt:  Vile

I first saw the man whilst he was opening a set in the Hollywood Cemetery for Connor Oberst’s Bright Eyes (Don’t even trip dog! Bright eyes ruled and you know it.)  He was hidden behind long dirty locks of hair but the sound he offered that night made the tiny hairs on my neck give up any notion of getting distracted.  Now don’t get me wrong, I didn’t run out and snatch up every record he’d ever made (and there’s a grip I tell you) in fact I listened to relatively little of his songwriting after that.  Listening to this album felt like catching up with an old friend: The friend that never judged you The friend whose face never changes but that you can’t quite picture The friend who will be there 20 years from now even if you don’t speak until then. The songs on ‘B’lieve I’m Goin Down are the perfect companion for road trips, airplanes, soundtracks and bedroom corners.

(also see: Feel-good-not-feeling-good-tunes)  

– David Webster

Book: If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino:  Not a new book, but a great one. Calvino’s postmodernist narrative explores the idea of beginnings by never losing sight of them. The reader finds herself questioning the relationship of the reader to a text, of the text to it’s author, and to other writing.  In reading this book I am at once distanced from the story, and forced to relate to it more intimately than with most books where I am simply the observer. Since starting this book I’ve been challenged to be a more responsible, aware reader and freaked out a little by how Calvino seemed like he was in my bedroom watching me read it.  – Jessica S Webster

Anime: Code Geass: Rightly so, Anime has a bad rap of being something that is hyper sexualized, primarily constructed for the geeky inclined and a place for adults to prolong that season of their lives consumed with cartoons.  Though I believe a majority of anime can rightly be criticized for the above, Code Geass stands apart. It is the story of a boy on a quest for vengeance, against a malicious father. The boy, Lelouch Lamperouge, attempts to remake the world in his vision of justice through what we can safely call magic and wit. I love this story because it is a classic “strike against the heavens in self-righteous disdain”. It has awesome robot fights, scorned love, and asks freakin huge questions like can justice be brought about through power and is hope the final opponent to peace. 50 episodes, 19 mins each, total time 16 hours.  justchris