2017: Second Quarter Note

Since my First Quarter Note I have diligently, doggedly, at times reluctantly, maintained a rigorous schedule of listening to a new album of music each week. There have been difficult dry spells when I felt burned out (See Weeks 17-19) and times of glorious abundance when I had the world on a string (See Week 22). This self-imposed pursuit of music has not had a 100% success rate, but my persistence continues to reward me with gems from time to time.

Again, my impersonal rating system:

★★★★★ I listen to it regularly.
★★★★☆ I will listen to it again.
★★★☆☆ I wouldn’t mind listening to it.
★★☆☆☆ If it comes on I won’t turn it off.
★☆☆☆☆ I’m not interested in hearing it again.

Week Fourteen

Purple RainPrince – Purple Rain (1984) ★★★★☆

Until his death, I was not aware that Prince was considered a serious musician. I only knew him as a punchline and a very strange recurring SNL character. Thankfully my misunderstanding has been corrected, and I can fully enjoy his smooth voice and banging tunes. The Purple Rain songs I know from the radio (“When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy”) are even better in context. “Take Me With You” and “Darling Nikki” are two other favorites.

 Week Fifteen

Fear is on our sideI Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness – Fear Is On Our Side (2006)
★☆☆☆☆

My memory of this album: first song sounds like the Pixies, and I don’t remember a single lyric or note after.

Week Sixteen

Thing_a_Week_TwoJonathan Coulton – Thing A Week Two (2005)★★★★★

Not since Hamilton have I heard an entire album of insatiable earworms. “Chiron Beta Prime” and “Re: Your Brains” are the sci-fi novelty songs I needed in my life. “Dance, Soterios Johnson, Dance” is an absurd delight. “Stroller Town,” “Curl,” and “Don’t Talk to Strangers” are brilliant ideas, executed perfectly. “Take Care of Me” is beautiful satire, and “So Far So Good” is just beautiful.

Bonus Tunes: Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. (2017)

DAMN. is incredible by every metric–the intricate lyrics, the powerful beats, the unity as a concept album, the depth of the concept.

Week Seventeen

Through_the_Looking_GlassSiouxsie and the Banshees – Through the Looking Glass (1980)
★★★☆☆

“This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” is a slamming opener, and I also enjoy “Little Johnny Jewel” and “Hall of Mirrors.” I would like to hear this album’s songs mixed into a playlist, but not necessarily as a front-to-back unit.

Week Eighteen

Led_Zeppelin_IVLed Zeppelin- Led Zeppelin IV (1971)★★☆☆☆

The softer, acoustic songs are lovely, and I learned to like “Stairway to Heaven.” This is the fourth Led Zeppelin album I have listened to (progressing chronologically through their catalog), and I have more or less resigned myself to the fact that their music is Boy Music. It is not meant for me, and it is ok if I don’t care for large portions of it.

Week Nineteen

BlacklistedNeko Case – Blacklisted (2002)
★★★☆☆

I wanted to be drawn in to Blacklisted, but that hasn’t happened. I will keep it in rotation; I think it needs more time to creep in.

Week Twenty

Power,Corruption&LiesNew Order – Power, Lies & Corruption (1983)★★★★☆

As a friend recently observed to me, New Order is “a rock band that makes dance music,” and I am grateful to finally have those words to describe them. I find long, instrumental songs rarely have lyrics worth sticking around for, but Power, Lies & Corruption has just the right mix.

 Week Twenty-One

Nancy_lee_album_coverNancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood – Nancy & Lee (1968)
★☆☆☆☆

Nancy & Lee…confuses me. I cannot tell if it is a joke. Hazelwood’s vocals on “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” are so poor, so painful, that I don’t know why else someone would choose to open an album with them. Even so, some of the songs are very enjoyable, particularly “Some Velvet Morning.”

Week Twenty-Two

Heart of StoneCher – Heart of Stone (1989)★★★★★

This may sound like an overstatement, but Heart of Stone is the greatest album of all time. “Just Like Jesse James” is a masterpiece of raw energy and lyrical wonder that could only become manifest through the power of our blessed goddess, Cher.

Bonus Tunes: Original Broadway Cast – Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (2017)

This musical captures with remarkable effect the social interactions and subtle character portraits of great Russian novels. The music flows masterfully between grand orchestral style and modern electronica. The performance of each singer is striking and unique: Sonya’s dark, sweet voice; Anatole’s foppish, hair metal crooning; Natasha’s naivete cut with lines like a stake through the heart. “Dust and Ashes” is the “Memory” of the 21st century. I love this album.

Week Twenty-Three

Violent_FemmesViolent Femmes – Violent Femmes (1983)
★★★★☆

Even more stripped down Modern Lovers. I like it! Considering the fact that I thought “Blister In the Sun” came out in the early 1990s, I suspect this band influenced a lot of those grungy folks. (I’m receiving word that I’m the last person to realize this. Yup. Common knowledge. Got it. Over and out.)

 Week Twenty-Four

Waiting_on_a_SongDan Auerbach – Waiting on a Song (2017) ★★☆☆☆

Like a lot of recently released music, each track on Waiting on a Song sounds like a tribute to 1970s genre music. Some are especially catchy, like “Malibu Man” and “Cherrybomb,” while others are more clever, like the title track and “Stand by My Girl.”

Week Twenty-Five

Boys_and_Girls_in_America_coverThe Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America (2006)
★☆☆☆☆

This album plays like a series of indie movies about bored white people doing drugs. Arena rock is not my scene.

Bonus Tunes: The Killers – “The Man” (2017)

Another new song heavily influenced by the ‘70s. I’m guessing this is somewhat satirical, but it’s a pretty hot jam. I look forward to the release of the album.

Week Twenty-Six

Aimee_Mann_-_WhateverAimee Mann – Whatever (1993)★★★★☆

At the intersection of Joni Mitchell and Liz Phair, Whatever balances beauty and skepticism using incredible songwriting. “Say Anything” and “I Should’ve Known” rock especially hard. I don’t know if another song like “Mr. Harris” exists.

Third Quarter Projections

I enter the second half of 2017 without expectation. There are many albums remaining on my to-listen list, both from external recommendations and personal choice. I have faith that the next 26 weeks will bring me the music I need to hear; I will keep my ear to the ground and my heart open.

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Inventory of a Stolen Purse

Black leather purse.

Portable battery charger.

4″ lightning cable.

Small, rectangular, metal plate stamped with La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre. Recovered from my grandmother’s home in Miami after her death.

Magnet spelling out “DENVER,” decorated with the “C” of the Colorado flag. Airport souvenir for my Dad.

Plastic pill container with emergency stores of ranitidine, ibuprofen, and diazepam.

Diamond stud earrings, one back missing. Given to me by my mother. Belonged to my grandmother and her mother, who brought them from Spain.

Small, rectangular mirror. Skeleton playing the ukulele on the reverse side. Found in a shop in the Mission in San Francisco. Mirror sheathed in a blue rubber sleeve, featuring a trolley and the words “San Francisco,” from another souvenir store.

Small, purple, Moleskine notebook. Blank.

Black leather wallet.

Pearl. Found in an oyster I ate in an Orange Beach restaurant.

University of Alabama student ID. Photo taken upon starting master’s program in 2015, replacing the ID featuring an awful photo taken upon starting law school in 2010.

Bounds Law Library card. Expired 2013.

Gift certificate to the restaurant Little Savannah. A gift from my brother and his wife to my dad and his wife. A gift from my dad and his wife to me.

Alabama State Bar ID cards from 2015, 2016, and 2017. Never used.

Membership cards to Barnes and Noble, the Jefferson County Library Collective, The Nick, the ACLU, Pie Five.

Canvas pouch, black cats on white. A gift from my mother, purchased at a fair in Washington DC.

Pink lipstick.

Pen I received the first day of my internship, featuring the logo of my host firm.

Red lipstick.

Cloth jacket, light blue, from Gap. Comfortable lightweight covering when worn, but insufficient for hiding valuables in car floorboard.

In Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I ought to warn you that this essay will contain spoilers for Wolf Hall (and lots of them), img_3096but I am not sure that this book can be spoiled. Wolf Hall is historical fiction, based on the actions of Henry VIII and his councilors surrounding the English Reformation. In addition to the king, the three main characters are Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, and Thomas More. The death of one of these is particularly notorious, but (and here’s where the Spoiler Alert gets tricky) all three met the same, headless end. Wolf Hall concludes with the death of More, prior to the deaths of Boleyn and Cromwell. Evidently Wolf Hall is the first novel of a Thomas Cromwell trilogy. Bringing Up the Bodies (2012) ends with [Spoiler Alert] the execution of Anne Boleyn. Presumably, the final installment will put an end to Thomas Cromwell, as well.

Surely the author intends the reader to anticipate their executions. Indeed, if one does not know that everyone involved is doomed to decapitation, there seems little weight to the novel. It is a spoiler to say “Thomas More dies,” but unless you know Thomas More is going to die, you are missing a crucial piece of the dramatic puzzle. Historical knowledge of the personalities involved in the English Reformation is a prerequisite to grasping Wolf Hall. This is not in and of itself a flaw; a good book can be enriched by a historical founding, and I don’t dispute the possibilities of historical fiction. This book rewards those familiar with the history, while those unfamiliar must hold on tighter. Titles are used interchangeably with names, somewhat aggressively at times, challenging readers’ history and memory.

THomas More by Hans Holbein

Thomas More, by Hans Holbein

The driving literary device in Wolf Hall (and much historical fiction) is dramatic irony: the reader knows Katherine will be dethroned, the Church will split, heads will roll, Mary will be bloody, but the characters do not. If the reader knows what is going to happen, why bother reading? Two main reasons: to learn the history more intimately or to enjoy the book as a literary work. I certainly learned a lot from Wolf Hall. I gained a different perspective on the historical sequence of events surrounding the English Reformation, and what feels like familiarity with the names and actions of the individuals involved.

For the other purpose, to enjoy the novel qua novel, the piece of historical fiction must cross from a simple dramatization into a work of literary art. To stand on its own, it needs to do more than go through the historical motions. Wolf Hall does not. It is as if each of the many characters is simply a vehicle for his or her historical actions. We know Anne Boleyn and her family wormed their way onto the throne, so they are constantly worming, deceiving, scheming. We are shown Thomas Cromwell’s childhood with an abusive father and the devastating loss of his family members as an adult, but these events don’t seem to change his personality or motivation. He is a calculating, family-oriented boy, and he is a calculating, family-oriented man. We are told he was a fighter as a youth, but the novel opens on Cromwell not fighting back, and we never see him throw a punch.

We do not receive the literary joys of character growth, philosophical insight, or linguistic novelty. The prose drags. Instead of the cleverness or subtlety of real irony, Wolf Hall is dripping with dramatic irony, which is an excellent supplement but a poor substitute. The weight of the novel is borrowed from the subject matter, so that the whole book is written with a faux gravitas that is more muddled than affecting.

The one literary device with which the author takes great liberty is her disregard of the rules of pronouns and antecedents. Most of the time, the pronoun “he” refers to Thomas Cromwell. Unless and until the reader internalizes this convention, the text is almost unintelligible. Take, for instance, the following paragraph:

On October 2 the cardinal reaches his palace at Cawood, ten miles from York. His enthronement is planned for November 7. News comes that he has called for a convocation of the northern church; it is to meet at York the day after his enthronement. It is a signal of his independence; some may think it is a signal of revolt. He has not informed the king, he has not informed old Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury; he can hear the cardinal’s voice, soft and amused, saying, now, Thomas, why do they need to know?

The subject is established as the cardinal, to whom the following “his”s and “he”s refer until the second half of the final sentence. The last sentence uses “he” twice to refer to the cardinal, and a third time to refer to Cromwell.

Jarring shifts like this are on every page of the book, and require some mental rewiring

Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein

Thomas Cromwell, by Hans Holbein

to read comfortably. The implications of typical sentence structure are upended, as in this sentence: “When he meets the king, Henry rages about Gardiner.” In a normal sentence, “he” would refer to “Henry,” but in Wolf Hall, Henry is the king (except when Henry is not the king). Of course, King Henry is easy to remember, but when less distinctive titles and names are used, like “duke” and “Thomas” or “secretary” and “Stephen,” deciphering becomes even more complicated. Thomas Cromwell is given precedence over all other characters, with the effect that Wolf Hall is narrated by something less than first person, but more than omniscient third person. Occasionally a sentence or two from outside Cromwell’s ken is thrown in, and these are often jarring in themselves, as unjustified by the scope of the preceding narrative scheme.

The two things that make Wolf Hall intelligible are getting used to thinking “Cromwell” when you see “he” and simply knowing who everybody is. This brings back the issue of spoilers. If a book contains historical fact, and the reader is presumed to know the fact, and foreknowledge of the fact is necessary to appreciate the book, is there anything the reader can “know” to spoil the book? What is the meaning of Thomas More torturing and executing others unless you know he will meet the same fate? Where is the power in Thomas Cromwell having More executed unless you know he will also be subject to trumped up charges that will be his end? I am a card-carrying anti-spoiler activist, but I can’t imagine a book more in need of a spoiling. I value walking away with the new perspective on history, but I am disappointed that this novel turned out to be a slog.

2017: First Quarter Note

The first fourth of 2017 is mercifully behind us. Thanks to the recommendations of friends, strangers, and society-at-large, my weeks have been full of new music of all shapes and sizes. Every Sunday I choose an album to which I’ve never listened, and throughout the week I listen to it at least five times (to give it a fair shake). Here is how I’ve been struck by albums in 2017 so far.

N.B. My rating system is not based on objective quality, but on the likelihood of me ever choosing to listen to the album again. It’s personal to me, so don’t take it personal.

★★★★★ I love it, and it’s already a regular listen.
★★★★☆ I like it a lot and will definitely play it again.
★★★☆☆ I like it, but I may not listen to it often.
★★☆☆☆ If it comes on I won’t turn it off.
★☆☆☆☆ I’m not interested in hearing it again.

Week One

The Jam – In the City (1977)1 The_Jam_-_In_the_City
★★★☆☆

A punk band with interesting chord structures and actually meaningful lyrics, I started off the year hot and hopping with The Jam. Especial favorites are “Away from the Numbers” and “I Got By In Time.”

Bonus Tunes: Talking Heads – Little Creatures (1985)

I have listened to Little Creatures more than any other album all year. I can’t get over how much I like Talking Heads.

Week Two

2 Outkast-atliensOutKast – ATLiens (1996)
★★☆☆☆

For reasons I cannot quite identify, ATLiens had a depressive effect on me. Of the many clever rhymes, my favorite is from “Elevators:”
Yes, we done come a long way like them slim-ass cigarettes from Virginia
This ain’t gon’ stop, so we just gon’ continue

Bonus Tunes: Kanye West – “Monster” (2010)

I wanted to know what all the fuss was about w/r/t Nicki Minaj’s verse on this song. I understand now.

Week Three

Sleigh Bells – Treats (2010)3 Sleigh_Bells_-_Treats
★★★★★

This album is exactly why I started this project. I had never heard of Sleigh Bells, and if I had, I am sure I would have dismissed them as “not my kind of music.” Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I get to enjoy this fresh, high energy, positive, killer album.

Week Four

4 Dead_Kennedys_-_Fresh_Fruit_for_Rotting_Vegetables_coverDead Kennedys – Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (1980)
★★★★★

Folks, this is what it’s all about. With relentless rock and righteous lyrics, Dead Kennedys condemn you, your mom, and your worst enemy. Everybody can go to hell equally. I’m in.

Bonus Tunes: Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3 (2016)

This album is the reason I signed up for Apple Music–I was tired of hearing about popular releases but not experiencing them. Now I know I love Run the Jewels.

Week Five

Emmylou Harris- Roses in the Snow (1980)5 Roses_in_the_Snow_(Emmylou_Harris_album_-_cover_art)
★★☆☆☆

The problem with covering “The Boxer” is it’s probably better than anything else on the album (see also: Mumford & Sons’ Babel bonus tracks). “Root Like a Rose” and “Miss the Mississippi and You” are very strong, and I always like a Wronged Woman tune. Crazy to think this album and Fresh Fruit were released in the same year.

Week Six

6 WallflowersBringingDowntheHorseThe Wallflowers – Bringing Down the Horse (1996)
★★☆☆☆

Like many albums of the 1990s, I am convinced I could make Bringing Down the Horse better by cutting three songs, and 30-90 seconds from most of those remaining. If anyone would like to pay me to do this, please contact my agent.

Bonus Tunes: Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels (2013)

There are a few verses on this album that make me bona fide bowled over. Specifically, Killer Mike’s Tyson lines in “Job Well Done” and his description of taking Molly in “No Come Down” are incredible.

Week Seven

Broadcast – Tender Buttons (2005)7 Tenderbuttons
★★★★☆

Another electronic rock album that I would have never chosen on my own. Tender Buttons crept under my skin and stayed there.

Week Eight

8 Cheap_Trick_One_on_OneCheap Trick – One on One (1984)
★☆☆☆☆

This is probably a very exciting album for 14 year old boys.

Bonus Tunes: The Kinks – The Kinks Are the Village Preservation Society (1968)

In a world of British bands pretending to be American, The Kinks proudly sing about the Village Green and the Sherlock Holmes English-Speaking Vernacular. “Picture Book” is a Grade-A fantastic song, and this album is a joy.

Week Nine

Television – Marquee Moon (1977)9 Marquee_moon_album_cover
★★★★★

I know I like a band/album when I enjoy the 10-minute song with a five-minute guitar solo. I can’t stop singing “Prove It” and “Torn Curtain” to myself.

Week Ten

10 The_Pirate's_GospelAlela Diane – The Pirate’s Gospel (2004)
★★☆☆☆

Nice songs, like a B-grade Rhiannon Giddens.

Bonus Tunes: Migos – “Bad and Boujee” (2016)

I wanted to know what all the fuss was about w/r/t every single person on earth talking about this song. I understand now.

Week Eleven

The Mountain Goats – Sunset Tree (2005)11 Themountaingoatsthesunsettreealbumcover
★★★★☆

This album continues to grow on me. I am strongly reminded of The Decemberists, with less death and more drugs.

Week Twelve

12 Licensed_to_illBeastie Boys – Licensed to Ill (1986)
★★★☆☆

This album goes down easy, like a meal of Budweiser and White Castle.

Bonus Tunes: Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2 (2014)

RTJ2 might include the most obscene song I’ve ever heard. Doesn’t stop this old prude from enjoying it! My personal RTJ ranking: 1, 3, 2. Can’t wait to see them this summer.

Week Thirteen

The Sundays – Reading, Writing & Arithmetic (1990)13 Sundays-readingwritingarithmetic
★★★★★

Sometimes I pick an album because I’ve been eyeing it for years; other albums I pick because I hear people on an old podcast raving about a band I’ve never heard of. The Sundays are very The Smiths-y, and I’m grateful I listened to that episode of Do You Need A Ride? I’m so excited to have this album, and The Sundays’ other albums, to listen to.

Second Quarter Projections

Kicking off Quarter Two with some long-overdue Prince. I have a lot of albums ready to go, but I’m still accepting recommendations. If you have a favorite album, an album you want everyone to hear, or just an album you think I would like, please send it along!

Queen Harvest’s Top Five (5) Albums of 2016

This year was not my most musically adventurous. I spent a lot of listening time on podcasts (SSDGM), lecture series (Russia, Ulysses, Ireland), and Hamilton (again), and made minimal efforts seek out new music. I have decided to take action against musical malaise next year. I will listen to a new album every week, at least four times to make sure they get a chance to sink in. I crowdsourced a long list of albums (some new, all new to me), and I am excited to get started. Until then, here are the albums that I enjoyed the most in 2016.

5. Rocket to Russia (Ramones, 1977)

Favorite Song: “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker”

ramones_-_rocket_to_russia_cover

Listening to Rocket to Russia, I can almost hear the crowded New York club, filled with rollicking girls and  rowdy boys. The songs are not meant to be played cleanly into a silent space (like my car), but played with living energy and breathing motion, directly into the bodies of the listener. Once I got over the impression that the album was made of two songs, each rewritten several times, I found joy in the simple lyrics and driving beats. The repetition and pace are hypnotic. On the downside: I can’t imagine why they included “Surfin’ Bird.” The Clash would never do that.

4. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (The Flaming Lips, 2002)

Favorite Song: “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell”

theflaminglips-yoshimibattlesthepinkrobotsOne impression of Yoshimi: So this is what all those indie bands are trying to do.

Though I was initially wary of the musical interludes (I am a lyrics-first person), I soon found the melodies crawling under my skin, making themselves a backing track to my day. Once the lyrics broke through, they hit me squarely in the chakra. The Flaming Lips’ new age philosophy (which is really old age philosophy) in catchy rhythms with just a touch of science fiction makes for a fun and beautiful album that grows on me more with every listen.

3. Sail Away (Randy Newman, 1972)

Favorite Song: “Sail Away”

randy_newman-sail_away_album_cover

Any communication folks have had with me this year has probably included some version of me melting into “Randy Newman is a genius.” Randy Newman is so good at satire, you can love and know every word of his songs and not even know they have meaning beyond

their face value. The title track of Sail Away feels like freedom–sail away, cross the ocean, stop running, take care of your home–but it is a lie coaxing someone to surrender themselves into bondage. “Political Science” is one of the funniest songs I know. At the same time,

it simply relates a terrifying endpoint of American exceptionalism (they’re of no use to us, drop the big one). Newman is not a religious man, so you know his two songs on God, “He Gives Us All His Love” and “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind),” mean more than meets the eye. Then there is “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” which is just a jam.

Each Newman album has a handful of gutpunches. Standouts to me are “Jolly Coppers on Parade” and “Baltimore” on Little Criminals and “Rednecks” and “Kingfish” on Good Old Boys. I have not begun to crack the all nuts that are Randy Newman songs, but there is a whole barrel worth gnawing on. Because I don’t know if you realize this, but Randy Newman is a genius.

2. The Modern Lovers (The Modern Lovers, 1976)

Favorite Song: “I’m Straight”

the_modern_lovers_albumThis album is a gem. I am grateful for John Hodgman’s continual pushing of “Roadrunner” that finally brought The Modern Lovers to me. Jonathan Richman sounds like a self-aware teenager doing an impression of a regular horny teenager. “Pablo Picasso” is the comeback of a rejected adolescent bemoaning the injustices of life and love. “Government Center” is a ‘60s garage band playing a ‘50s dance number. Great music, great lyrics, great delivery. Richman loves the Old World but wants to live in the Modern World, and I want to live in the Modern World with him.

1. Blackstar (David Bowie, 2016)

Favorite Song: “Girl Loves Me”

I may not have listened to Blackstar much this year if David Bowie had not died; perhaps I would not feel the weight of its greatness under different circumstances. Nevertheless, Blackstar is inseparable from Bowie’s death–the themes of age, illness, legacy, and life are felt in every song. Bowie knew he was leaving and he gave us Blackstar as a parting gift. The man who once had Friday on his mind is now wondering “where the f*¢k did Monday go?”

blackstar_front_coverTechnically, Blackstar is not “my kind” of music. But there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music. Whether it is folk, funk, metal, or jazz, David Bowie makes good music. Like a symphony the title track carries the listener from movement to movement, and somehow drops you off where you started with no memory of the return. “Sue (or In a Season of Crime)” is a slow ballad sung over a breakneck jazz beat in a triumph of musical engineering. “Lazarus,” “Dollar Days,” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away” are mesmerizing, haunting, heartfelt reflections in peak Bowie style.

There is an old monk in a Robertson Davies novel who laments that since Jesus died at 33 he did not have the opportunity to teach the monk how to be old. There is no end of music describing the pleasures and sorrows of youth, but many of us will grow old and all of us will die. In his final months Bowie turned his inner state into art, as he had so many times before, and we are all his beneficiaries.

Honorable Mentions

Little Creatures (Talking Heads, 1985)
The only reason Little Creatures didn’t crack my top five is because I only started listening to it in the last week of 2016. “Stay Up Late?” Are you kidding me with this? Of course.

Hamilton Mixtape (Various Artists, 2016)
I’m not as Hamilton-crazed as I once was, but the Mixtape mostly nailed it. Kelly Clarkson’s “It’s Quiet Uptown” is magnificent. The original tracks “Immigrants” and “Say Yes to This” have convinced me that I need to listen to more rap (please don’t laugh at me).

Elephant Power (MC Yogi, 2008)
I cannot stand Christian rock, but Hindu rap I am 100% in favor of (I asked you politely not to laugh).

Here’s to 2017!

May I have 52 entries on this list next year!

Queen Harvest’s 2016 Reading Recap

I’m now in my second year of prioritizing reading as an adult, and I don’t know how I let all those years before slip past. I used to have four or five TV shows in regular rotation, but I have spent the last three months just slowly rewatching Mad Men because TV isn’t as important to me. I recently (¯\_(ツ)_/¯) got a library card, so my reading is no longer hampered by costs (as if that stopped me before) and has expanded to serendipitous selections, rather than premeditated purchases. Once again I can justifiably define myself as a bookworm, and I’m happy to be back.

Of the 44 books I read this year, only one was an audiobook. I am also making my way through a One Year Bible, which gives a daily reading from the Old Testament, New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs (hence the misplaced Gospel). I won’t count these as whole “books,” so they get their own numbering system because I want to keep up with my thoughts on them.

1. 100 Best-Loved Poems, Philip Smith, editor

I use my phone as my alarm clock, so I literally wake up with my phone in my hand. This has resulted in the negative habit of looking at Twitter first thing in the morning. What a terrible start to the day! I wanted to change this at the same time that I realized that I rarely read poetry. I claim to enjoy poetry, and I read a lot of books, but I rarely sit down to a book of poetry. My plan to kill two birds with one stone was to read a poem every day as soon as I wake up. Certainly, I don’t always remember what I read, but I like starting my day with some nourishing brain food instead of bad jokes and worse news. This collection hits all the high points of the Western canon; easy on the sleepy eyes.

2. Ulysses, James Joyce

james-joyce

Why are the Js different??? Scholars may never know!

Much of my 2015 reading led up to Ulysses, and all the preparation was worth it. It is as good as [the people who have actually read it] say it is.

3. Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor

Wise Blood is like a nightmare that feels real and sticks in your gut even after you wake up. The characters in this novel struggle with seemingly every level of human consciousness: spiritual, faux spiritual, anti-spiritual, faux anti-spiritual, man reduced to artifact, man as animal, thinking man, impaired man, and certainly others. Even though I don’t quite speak the language, the message is powerful.

4. The 158-Pound Marriage, John Irving

This novel of intertwined wrestlers and relationships shines a light on the instability of a polyamorous lifestyle. Expecting the emotions of several individuals to line up without conflict is a pipe dream. You can tell that Irving is bursting at the seams with stories to tell. His novels are stories within stories about stories on top of stories.

5. Henry V, Billy S

While reading Henry V, the mood of the play felt heavy and solemn. I read somewhere that a high-profile mock trial found the titular King guilty of war crimes, which further colored my feelings toward the play. Then I saw a production of Henry V that framed it as essentially a comedy. I was impressed by the humor the actors brought out in both the goofy bit parts, and also the more serious schemers. I’m sure that other troupes could perform the play as a tragic piece. Ah! The majesty of The Theatre!

6. The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, Michael Booth

Everything I know about the Nordic nations (which remains very little) I learned from this book. Booth takes the reader country by country (i.e., Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland) and discusses each nation’s history and culture–what they do well and what they do poorly. He also explores how they see themselves and each other, and how they fit into the present day. Booth is an informed outsider with a lovely sense of humor, so he makes ignorant Americans like myself feel right at home.

7. The Victim, Saul Bellow

The Victim feels like more than a novel. It feels like a play. Or like reading someone’s dream journal, specifically an entry describing a nightmare he had after reading The Trial.

8. The Comedy of Errors, Swan of Avon

The Comedy of Errors is another Shakespeare play I had the good fortune to see performed live soon after reading. There is no question this one is a comedy, and the actors certainly brought out more humor than I could deduce from the writing (which is flawless itself, obviously).

9. Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

I am very impressed by Robinson’s thoughtful, literary writing. In an age where religion often comes with hostile connotations, Gilead is a lovely example of the complexities and beauties of living with Christianity at the center of your world. I look forward to reading Robinson’s previous lauded novel, Housekeeping.

10. The Moviegoer, Walker Percy

The Moviegoer is about two people who face death and then have to learn how to face life. Personally, I did not pick up on what I needed to understand while reading it. This novel is one I can imagine angsty teens relating to, but after reading about it I am more aware of what I missed out on.

11. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

On my to-read list for a long time, The Handmaid’s Tale is an incredible read. The Handmaid’s Tale fits into the rich adult literary tradition of 1984 and the later The Road with a focus on the experience of women–a point of view found more often in the Young Adult dystopian novels that are so common these days.

12. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë

This was one of those that I enjoyed in img_2094high school, but couldn’t justify claiming to have read it since I didn’t remember a thing about it. The mixing and matching of names is hard to keep up with, so I used my index card bookmark to make a family tree (my habit for all Victorian and Dostoevsky novels). I read the same copy from all those years ago, and late in the game I found the bookmark I had used then–I have not changed.

13. A Concise History of Germany, Mary Fulbrook

I read this book to prepare to read Simon Winder’s Germania (which I have on hand but have not begun). It is remarkable to realize that the united nation-state of “Germany” as we know it was only created in 1871, and the “Germany” my generation grew up with has only existed since 1989, having been expanded and contracted and divided and united many times in the interim. Germany is at once an ancient land, and a nation technically younger than the United States. “Concise” is the right word for this history–all facts, no fuss.

14. Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foereverythingisilluminated

I have heard this novel described as a “Holocaust book,” and I would like to make that description a little clearer. Everything Is Illuminated does not deal with concentration camps, but it does involve an anti-Jewish pogrom. Despite the heavy subject matter, this book is written in a light, humorous hand. Foer combines the absurdist energy of Catch-22 with the magical generational narrative of One Hundred Years of Solitude and creates a beautiful, engaging novel I am grateful to have read.

15. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde

The first half of Dorian seems to confirm every stereotype about Oscar Wilde. The characters are pretentious to the point of exhaustion; I found myself questioning whether I even wanted to finish it. The second half, however, is some of the most thrilling storytelling I’ve ever read, and I couldn’t finish it quickly enough. At that point, I realized (doofus that I am) that Wilde knows exactly what he is doing. Gray and company’s highfalutin speech and behavior are creating a world that Wilde goes on to utterly destroy. I love it when a Classic holds up.

16. The Master Classics: Poems I, Doubleday, Page & Company c.1927

My next morning poetry collection was this tiny hardback volume, purchased secondhand and without much identifying publication information. The world of poetry changed dramatically in the last century, and these old collections are beautiful little time capsules of the world that came before. The reader gets to read poems that might have otherwise been removed to make space for Robert Frost (who, of course, deserves the space he takes up).

17. Ulysses, James Joyce

I read it twice, so I get to count it twice. Sue me.

18. James Joyce’s Ulysses, Stuart Gilbert

As discussed here, I alternated between this book and the corresponding episode of Ulysses. Gilbert discusses plenty of symbols and meanings that I had not been aware of, but I was also aware of meanings he does not discuss. Ulysses is a novel that requires multiple additional books to cover every possible interpretation and meaning (and there are probably still many uncovered). For every reading of Ulysses, I can look forward to the help of a different Joycean scholar.

19. Blonde, Joyce Carol Oates

After reading this fictionalized account of Marilyn Monroe’s life, I feel like I know her. It is difficult to see her image used in commercials and movies and elsewhere without feeling a deep sadness for her and the difficult life she lived. Blonde was the first book I’d read in months that had me desperate to keep reading.

20. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me truly changed the way I perceive and understand many events, institutions, and relationships. Coates describes the world as I have never had to experience it. He wrote this book as a letter to his son, but the lessons therein are meaningful for any of us willing to listen.

21. God Knows, Joseph Heller

godknowsIn God Knows, the Biblical King David retells the story of his own life, speaking as an old man looking back on his deeds and accomplishments and considering the world he is about to leave behind. Heller delightfully brings David out of his historical setting; David talks like a man of the 1960s, and freely quotes Jesus and Shakespeare, as well as poets and politicians. My knowledge of the Old Testament is limited, and I know I would get so much more out of God Knows (and all of Western literature) if I were more familiar with the Bible. It was this book that convinced me to pick up a One Year Bible and start reading.

22. How to Read Novels Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster

Even though it is the subject about which I am the most passionate, I have never formally studied literature. I love to read about novels after I complete them and have scholars tell me the symbols, themes, and other facets that I didn’t pick up on. Slowly but surely I am educating myself on how to identify the elements of the craft for myself. I had never given much thought to the novel as a distinct, and relatively new, branch of literature.

23. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

Foster’s How To book left me itching to ingest some classic novels, and Huck Finn is as Great American Novel as they get. Often while reading I was struck by how modern Twain’s sense of humor is, how unlike the humor of his English contemporaries. Then I would remind myself that Twain pretty much invented American humor; he isn’t just like David Letterman–he caused David Letterman.

24. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K.Rowling

I took the release of Cursed Child as an opportunity to reread the Harry Potter series beginning to end, which I’d never actually done at one time. Reading Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time in over a decade, it hit me: This book was written for children. The series quickly advances in complexity and reading level, but Sorcerer’s Stone is definitely for young readers (as it should be).

25. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K.Rowling

Many years ago, my neighbor recommended and lent the first few Harry Potter books to me. I read Chamber of Secrets first because she told me it was the better book. I’ve long wondered how I was able to enjoy it, since I lacked knowledge of setting and events from the first book. Reading it now, I see that the story and characters are fully reset. Everything that occurs or is explained in Sorcerer’s Stone is retold in Chamber of Secrets as needed. The first few Harry Potter books stand alone and can be consumed in any order, like a multi-camera sitcom. The final, more serious Harry Potter books require understanding and knowledge of the entire series and must be consumed consecutively, like a single-camera drama.

26. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K.Rowling

The Harry Potter series can be classified within several different categories of fiction: Young Adult, fantasy, adventure, coming of age, and British fiction all at once. At the heart of each novel is a category not immediately associated with the Harry Potter name: Mystery. Amid the adventures and lessons learned are unknowns pondered and clues dropped until the denouement when a mystery is solved (usually: who is Voldemort hiding behind this year?). Like Agatha Christie, Rowling shows the reader all the cards, but she never tips her hand. Christie will reveal a character has changed her name and is living among those she is plotting to harm. In Prisoner of Azkaban Rowling reveals that Scabbers, a quiet presence in the first three books, is more than just a pet rat.

27. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K.Rowling

Goblet of Fire (the best Harry Potter book) is a masterpiece of mystery. The intricate plot weaves countless clues into multiple mysteries, ending in a spectacular resolution. I’ve always thought Goblet of Fire, and specifically the death of Cedric Diggory, carries the series across the boundary from children’s stories into serious fiction.

28. The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle (Audiobook)

This was perhaps the fourth time I have listened to this book, as read by the author. I revisit it from time to time when I become particularly anxious or discontented. Before The Power of Now I literally did not understand the meaning of “peace” or “enlightenment.” It is not hyperbole to say that the teachings of Jesus only began to have meaning for me after learning from Tolle.

29. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K.Rowling

Order of the Phoenix is the least good Harry Potter book. I understand that Harry is dreaming of a real family, but he is never around Sirius enough to be so attached to him. Also, he is awfully whiny this year.

B1. Genesis, King James Version

Pretty much everything I have ever heard of from the Old Testament (except Moses) happened in Genesis, evidently. It is not a new piece of business, but I must point out here: There are two (2) creation myths right at the top.

  1. Eve made from Adam’s rib.
  2. Adam and Eve made from mud.

Literal readings of the Bible are in conflict with the Bible.

30. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K.Rowling

Half-Blood Prince is incredible. So much of what you wished would happen in the first five books finally happens: Harry is good at Potions; Snape teaches Defense Against the Dark Arts; Harry and Dumbledore hang out all the time. And then the ending, of course. There is a circle of hell reserved for anyone who spoiled this ending for another reader.

31. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K.Rowling

Deathly Hallows is about seven books in and of itself, and they are all great. Each escapade and battle and explanation (wrapping up series-long mysteries) is satisfying and worthy of the Harry Potter finale. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Harry Potter is the mythical hero of my generation, and I couldn’t be more proud to have grown up with him.

32. Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow

Lin-Manuel Miranda says that he read this biography and could not believe a musical had not already been written about Hamilton’s extraordinary life. He is not exaggerating. From birth to death and at every age in between, Hamilton led a life of adventure, tragedy, and accomplishment worthy of wonder. There are several wild biographical details that are not represented in the musical–Hamilton was simply too much.

33. Watchmen, Alan Moore

I had never read a graphic novel before, but I am usually willing to read The Best writing of any genre. Watchmen lives up to the hype. After reading it I better appreciate what a graphic novel is capable of–what it can do that a written novel or film can’t do.

34. A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson

I enjoy Bryson’s writing because we share a fascination with origin stories. Not like Batman’s origin story, but like the origin of a particular English phrase or the origin of an idiosyncratic ritual. In Short History, Bryson writes the origin story of science itself–of concepts, facts, and fields of study that we citizens of the 21st century take for granted. Bryson covers everything from the age of the earth to the size of the universe; how life began and how extinction events will wipe it out. A Short History of Nearly Everything is a trivia player’s dream, and like a dream I forgot each fact as it passed through my brain.

35. The Adolescent (aka The Raw Youth), Fyodor Dostoevsky

the-adolescent

There is a lot to keep up with.

If Dostoevsky’s titular narrator were living in 21st century America instead of 19th century Russia, he’d fit right in with all the other 19 year old guys with half-baked philosophies and father issues. The first half of The Adolescent is mostly set up–there are many characters and tangled relationships–but the second half is meaty, funny, and worth working for.

36. The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins

This year’s superstar pop fiction. I appreciate that there are no real heroes and no loose ends. A satisfying little thriller.

37. The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison

Beautiful and terribly sad. My heart breaks for the little girl, and also for her parents who were once little children, too.

B2. Exodus, KJV

Moses murdered a guy and had to skip town! That didn’t get much airtime in my early religious education. Also, at one point I was reading and (out loud) said “Oh!” because I realized I was reading the Ten Commandments. My edition of the Bible doesn’t come with a lot of fanfare.

B3. Matthew, KJV

This Gospel gets right to the point. It cuts through a lot of Jesus’s childhood and we quickly find ourselves in the Beatitudes. A note here: I had not realized that at least some lines of the Beatitudes are directly quoting Psalms. It makes sense that Jesus would be using existing Jewish holy texts to get his message across, I just didn’t know it. It was like when I read the Tao te Ching and came across the Beatles song “The Inner Light.”

38. The Joke, Milan Kundera

Like his well-known novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera frames The Joke around the political and social upheavals of mid-20th century Czechoslovakia. This setting is at once familiar (e.g., ‘60s cultural revolution) and foreign (e.g., Moravian folk festival), so that it can feel like a fantasy novel. None of the characters are without blame or blemish, or are particularly likeable, but that is not why The Joke is worth reading. Kundera’s effortless reflections on people and society stopped me in my tracks. He may be writing in another language about a faraway land, but he exposes universal truths of timeless quality. His writing reminds me why I read.

39. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

fabritius-vink

The titular Goldfinch.

I had my eye on this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel for many months, but upon reading it I was ultimately disappointed. The Goldfinch starts off with a bang, but most of its hundreds of pages are drawn out and boring. This review expresses a lot of my feelings about this novel. In addition to the tedium, I found the lack of consequences–personal, physical, or legal–suffered by the main character to be unbelievable. By any metric, he should have been in turn expelled, debilitated, sued, arrested, and rejected by his friends and society. Instead, this morally bankrupt narrator is free to offer his banal and contradictory philosophy as the “moral of the story.” No thank you.

40. How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster

How to Read Literature Like a Professor provides an excellent foundation to do-it-yourself literary criticism. Foster gives straightforward explanations with plenty of illustrative examples. He leaves the dense theory to other books, at one point saying outright, “I like to keep things fairly simple. I’m no fan of the latest French theory or of jargon of any stripe.” Right up my alley.

B4. Leviticus, KJV

I spent Leviticus thinking, “Hey! That’s where that rule comes from!” Seeing the lengthy list of sins and abominations brings into stark relief just how much folks who “adhere to” the Bible pick and choose.

41. A Pocket Full of Rye, Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie does not waste a single word. Every action, every line of dialogue, every off-hand detail is a purposeful thread in her tapestry. To finish the book and see the all the mysterious pieces resolve into focus is incredibly satisfying. Did you know Christie is the best-selling author of all time? Even though every single TV show seems to feature a knock-off Poirot or Holmes, they cannot match the suspense and resolution of the genius at work.

42. Jack of Spades, Joyce Carol Oates

This thriller is narrated by an established mystery author as the dark side of his psyche, which pseudonymously writes less-reputable noir fiction, takes over his thoughts and actions. Jack of Spades moves swiftly from a natural inner monologue into an unsettling insanity.

43. The Variety of Poetry: An Anthology, Edward A. Bloom, et al.

Another poetry collection, read one morning at a time.

44. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo

Perhaps I am predisposed to her way of thinking, but by page three I had bought in 100% to the KonMari method. One notion I’d never heard before Kondo was striking to me: We receive instruction on how to cook, clean, buy, and organize, but when it comes to decluttering and discarding our possessions, we are all self-taught. I am naturally sentimental and genetically predisposed to hoarding, so I value Kondo’s guidance and the chance to develop my discarding intuition.

B5. Mark, KJV

The Pharisees feel threatened by Jesus and are looking for any reason to kill him. Because he violated the laws of the Old Testament, he must die. I can’t imagine anyone using Mosaic Law as a reason to ostracize and punish a peaceful citizen today….

Epilogue

I reached all my reading goals this year. Instead of an overall number of books, I specifically wanted to read at least 12 books written by women. I read 19 (including seven Harry Potter books :P) by 12 different women. Reading Ulysses was another major goal for me. I was pleased to not only accomplish that goal but also truly enjoy the novel.

The following are my top five books on the year:

  1. Ulysses
  2. Everything Is Illuminated
  3. Blonde
  4. The Handmaid’s Tale
  5. Alexander Hamilton

Next year I want to up my percentage of books by female authors to at least 45%. I also intend to read more works by authors who aren’t white. I recognize a lack of minority voices in the culture and history I consume, and I am working on remedying that disparity.

2015 was for Infinite Jest, 2016 was for Ulysses, and 2017, in my effort to become The Biggest Literary Snob In The World, will be for Finnegan’s Wake. As is my policy, if the book can be read by literate English speakers, I won’t be convinced I can’t read it. Joyce has become one of my favorite authors, and I won’t feel complete if I don’t take the time to wade through the Wake.

Until next year, Happy Reading!

Smile and Safety Pins

Some months back I read an article about how the AmazonSmile program can have a suppression effect on users’ charitable giving. Essentially, with every purchase through AmazonSmile the user gets the good feelings that come with donating money to charity, and this satisfaction relieves the user of any obligation he or she may feel to donate to charity out of pocket. Whereas a normal charitable donation may be $20, or even $5, AmazonSmile sends only pennies to the selected institution–.5% of the price of your Amazon purchase. You would have to spend $4,000 on Amazon for the charity to receive $20; for a $50 donation, you would have to make Amazon purchases adding up to $10,000. AmazonSmile users get the satisfaction of donating to charity (which makes them more likely to buy from Amazon), and charities miss out on potential additional donations. Users win; Amazon wins; charities lose.
In the aftermath of this presidential election, some Americans are borrowing a particular symbol used after the UK’s Brexit vote. The Leave campaign was waged on a platform of xenophobia and Islamophobia, and violence toward immigrants, Muslims, and other villified members of the community was a serious problem following the vote. Wearing a safety pin was meant to signify that a person in danger could find safety with the wearer. Similarly, the success of Trump’s anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican, anti-black, anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-women, etc., campaign was a signal to some of his supporters that these groups were fair game for violence, threats, and other abusive acts. Some Americans have adopted the safety pin symbol to signal that they would protect those who are the subject of abuse.

This seemingly harmless practice has aroused friction among those who otherwise agree that Trump and his abusive supporters should be resisted. While many people feel the safety pin is a unifying and potentially beneficial tool, many others reject the safety pin as simply an empty symbol. I believe the AmazonSmile conundrum gives credence to this latter position. 

Wearing a safety pin is the literal least somebody could do; finding and applying a safety pin is cheap, quick, and painless. Wearing a safety pin is not speaking out vocally or with actions against racism, sexism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, or the other repulsive and dangerous values that threaten the people in our communities.

The danger of wearing a safety pin is inaction similar to the noncharitable effects of the AmazonSmile program. When someone feels that they need to do something and that something that they do is as simple as wearing a safety pin or clicking through a link, they may choose to do no further or more meaningful action. Like the AmazonSmile program, wearing a safety pin does not require additional time, money, or action on the part of the doer. The good feelings you get from self-identifying as part of a movement or group (i.e. the group that opposes Trump and supports people of different cultures and ethnicities) are soothing, but the world is not better off because you are personally soothed.

Of course you can wear a safety pin and donate to groups that defend voters’ rights and protect people of color when you see them abused and call out racists in your life who use hurtful language or openly attack others, but you cannot simply wear a safety pin and think your job is done. You cannot simply set up your Amazon account to click through AmazonSmile and think you saved the world.

Many of us are reeling from the realization that white supremacy, misogyny, and intolerance are more rampant throughout our country than we had allowed ourselves to believe. We want to fight these forces, and we want to show the world where we stand. A safety pin seems like a simple solution, but it is nothing more than a vanity project. We do not need external vanity; we need internal reflection. You do not need to tell the world who you are with a safety pin in your shirt; you need a tack in your shoe that reminds you quietly, personally, every moment, that the world you love is in danger, and to save it you cannot take the easy way out.