Curator Staff

What We Loved in 2014: Part II

This is part two of our editors and staff writers sharing the books, movies, or music they loved in 2014. What they contributed didn’t have to be from 2014. And so here we have a personal mix of beloved cultural artifacts (a lot of which are books). This piece was illustrated by Milwaukee artist Adam Stoner.

Part I can be read here.

Curator Reading List Medians #1

Alex Miller

“In the forty years it took me to write this book,” the essayist, poet, and translator Clive James writes at the beginning of Cultural Amnesia, “I only gradually realized that the finished work, if it were going to be true to the pattern of my experience, would have no pattern.” Like many celebrated contemporary authors (one thinks of the novelist David Mitchell, or the poet Robert Hass), James wants to salvage a meaningful pattern from the ruins of the conflicted twentieth century. With magnetic wit and cold skepticism, he makes the attempt in an alphabetically-organized collection of biographical essays, and as he discusses the life and work of figures as widely dispersed as Duke Ellington, Coco Chanel, Egon Friedell and Josef Goebbels, his axiomatic style and compassionate humanism make every salvaged memory exhilarating for the reader. Published in 2006, this is James’s masterpiece, a collection that elevates the cultural essay to a form of high literature, and hopes to show us that in spite of our horrendous inhumanity, history might be what Hegel thought it was: “liberty becoming conscious of itself.”

Curator Reading List Medians #2

Julie Hamilton

For me, this year has been about watching auteur writer/director Woody Allen’s minor works, the pieces he made between his beloved academy award-winning Annie Hall and Manhattan, as well as ones no one ever watches. As a contemplative comedian-turned-filmmaker, his “routines” of approximately 90 minutes often recycle characters in their philosophical questions through re-imagined scenarios. Making on average a film a year, he has an extensive oeuvre. Three of my favorite underappreciated Woody Allen films are Alice, Interiors and The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Alice is his 1990s spin on Alice and Wonderland, where a pampered Upper East Side, Escada-wearing mom seeks help for her ailing back from a Chinatown medicine man, and through psychoanalyses uncovers her unhappy marriage instead. A dark comedy and commentary on social class.

Interiors is Allen’s tribute to filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, a psychological drama of a New York family dealing with their mother’s mental illness. The interiors of Allen’s characters and the spaces they dwell within are a haunting nod to Bergman’s Kierkegaardian existentialism.

The Purple Rose of Cairo is about a woman’s escape from reality by daily frequenting the cinema, in the vein of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. When the main character (Jeff Daniels) of the film she watches exits his film into the world of the audience (Allen’s film), Allen’s sophisticated yet subtle play on film theory considers the relationship of the audience to the work of art.

Curator Reading List Medians (#3)

Amy Wilson Sheldon

I’m not Irish, but I live in Ireland. So when I talk to Irish writers – which I have the great fortune of doing once in a while – I often ask them if they consider themselves “Irish writers” or their books to be indicative of “Irish literature.” I’m mostly met with chuckles—“that’s such an American question”—or annoyance at the notion. But as an outsider looking in, there are three books I read this year that have helped me understand this place. What Are You Like? by Anne Enright is essentially a book about twins separated at birth, yet, at its core, delves into the different ways we sense things, particularly given our surroundings and the settings.

In 2014, I also re-read The Commitments by Roddy Doyle. You want a glimpse into working-class Dublin? Sure, you can watch the movie or listen to the soundtrack again, but read the book and really savor the dialogue that Doyle has put forth. You may need a glossary, though.

And then there’s Donal Ryan, author of The Thing About December (as well as the acclaimed The Spinning Heart). It was another Irish writer who at a recent event said this about Ryan: “He just can’t construct a bad sentence.” ‘Tis true. I’ve always thought that Irish authors should be proud of their “Irishness,” for despite the lack of leprechauns and fairies, these books encompass the kinds of magical writing that put a definitive passport stamp on our psyches.

Curator Reading List Medians (5)

Jenni Simmons

This year, I devoured beautiful poetry — What the Light was Like by Luci Shaw and Blue Horses by Mary Oliver, both of which helped to heal and reset my brain. These sages reminded me of the art of seeing. As Mary Oliver said in her poem “Good Morning” — “It must be a great disappointment to God if we are not dazzled at least ten times a day.

I read A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor, which was brilliant in that stark, sarcastic, reverent/irreverent way she had with words. I prayed a few of her prayers myself, “Dear God please help me to be an artist, please let it lead to You.” I felt guilty as I laughed during a few of her prayer entries, but hilarity was in her bones.

I tried to finish the last half of The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, but I couldn’t process anything that brilliant during the stressful, exhausting two weeks when my mom was waiting to have unexpected heart surgery. I enjoyed The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. But I spent most of the hospital time reading the Divergent series by Veronica Roth — easy, mindless, and enjoyable reads.

The book I most anticipated this year was Lila by Marilynne Robinson. I realize she has not written a trilogy per se, but Lila contains such satisfying continuity from Gilead and Home by way of truly exquisite writing. I confess that I’m a romantic, and the sweet, awkward conversations between the old preacher and Lila made me swoon. The hardships and shame of Lila’s early life made me wince. Her baptism made me cry.

I love how Marilynne Robinson pulled Rev. Ames and Lila out from behind the epistolary narration in Gilead and enfleshed their unlikely courtship, marriage, and parenthood onto the pages of Lila. I savored the story, reading slowly as if I were meandering Lila’s complicated and redemptive life alongside her. I only hurried a bit toward the end to verify that it was my favorite book of 2014 and indeed it was.

Curator Reading List Medians (7)

Meaghan Ritchey

Music from the 95 Corridor

Starting from the south: Releasing solo records from Howard Ivans of The Rosebuds and also one from Megafaun’s Joe Westerlund under the AliasGrandma Sparrow & His Piddletractor Orchestra,  I’m grateful and glad for what Matthew E. White is doing in Richmond VA with Spacebomb Records.  Wye Oak (Shriek) and Future Islands (Singles), both from Baltimore, released the albums I danced with a hairbrush microphone to, and at SXSW I thought their shows were the most fun by far. Baltimore Bonus: Dean Deacon‘s newest will be released in Feb 2015. I also found myself listening to The War on Drugs’ new album Lost in the Dream more often than not. Not off I-95, but still, Nashville let William Tyler rise to the top (for me at least) with his full-instrumental release Impossible Truth which I started to listening last autumn and never stopped.

Curator Reading List Medians (8)

Laura Brown

I wouldn’t have found poet Kevin Young’s Book of Hours if a friend hadn’t invited me to read it with her. Many of the poems deal with the death of his father; others reflect on the birth of his son. We read a poem a day, almost, and took turns being the one to initiate the nearly daily email discussing them. The book itself is a marvelous collection, a mix of loss and reckoning and humor, with the rhythms of jazz throughout. But the experience of working through it with a friend is one of the things I loved most in 2014. I can recommend that, too, with any book of poetry that both agree on.

I don’t own a TV and I seldom watch Netflix, but I got hooked on Breaking Bad. Anyone who’s seen it knows it’s a fascinating story arc, with top-notch acting and a textured range of suspense and drama and humor. As the story got darker and harder to watch, the thing that kept me tuning in was Aaron Paul’s character, Jesse Pinkman, who, I’d argue, is easily the most moral character in the show.

My rule for Christmas music is “not until after Thanksgiving.” I broke it when the New York Times’ Press Play streamed Over the Rhine’s latest, Blood Oranges in the Snow, their third CD in the genre they call “reality Christmas.” This is a crappy season for a lot of people, and even the strongest adult sense of wonder is like a Crayola 24-pack compared to the 96-box-with-sharpener of childhood. This music acknowledges the tarnish and still finds the wonder.

Wonder infuses and animates the essay collection Things That Are by Amy Leach. They’re divided into “Things of Earth” (like trees and sound and sea cucumbers) and “Things of Heaven” (like moons and stars). She’s like the kid at the science fair who has studied her thing obsessively and has all kinds of fascinating things to tell you about it, except all grown up, so winsome in her writing style and so full of unusual questions and packing all kinds of things into each essay and somehow they fit. I’d read anything she writes. I haven’t yet finished Loitering, New & Collected Essays by Charles D’Ambrosio, but I’m nuts about his writing, too — distinctive voice, engaging personality, precise vocabulary along with an appealing sort of rumpledness. Both of them have minds it’s fascinating to be inside. Both of them make me wish I could write like that.

What We Loved in 2014: Part I

Instead of a “best of” list we asked our editors and staff writers to share the books, movies, or music they loved in 2014. What they contributed didn’t have to be from 2014. And so here we have a personal mix of beloved cultural artifacts (a lot of which are books). Part II will be published tomorrow, and this piece was illustrated by Milwaukee artist Adam Stoner.

Curator Reading List Medians #1

Carolyn Givens

There’s a moment, at the very, very end of Andrew Peterson’s The Warden and the Wolf King that you suddenly realize what might happen, and what incredible joy that “might” would bring. It’s basically the final sentence of the book, but your heart leaps for what’s next. Peterson’s brother, A.S. “Pete” Peterson, also an author, once spoke about authors who leave a signpost on their final page, as if saying, “The story goes on…that way.” Even if the book had been dull (it wasn’t) or hadn’t finished out The Wingfeather Saga well (it does), I think it might have been worth the read just for that one moment of hope and joy.

I’ve been meaning to read Unbroken for about four years now. I loved Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit and knew she could do justice to a true tale. But with the movie looming on the horizon, reading Unbroken became an urgent matter. I needed to get the story straight in my head before I saw it acted out before me. Hillenbrand manages again to bring to vivid life a decades-old story.

I’d only read Jonathan Rogers’ short fiction before picking up The Charlatan’s Boy this spring. But I knew I was in for a treat. Rogers can spin a tale—full of feechies and swamps and the lovely lilt of his dialogue. Grady is an orphan boy looking for the truth of who he is and where he came from, and his guardian is, in Grady’s own words “a liar and a fraud.” Grady’s adventure is full of fun, full of heart, and a balm for anyone who has ever searched for where they belong.

Curator Reading List Medians #2

Trevor Logan

The poetry of Toby Martinez de las Rivas has been my gold among the dross this year. His recent collection Terror will stay close by for what I hope is foreverThere is something eternal about his poetry. And then there’s Oliver Ready’s wonderful translation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment; Ready’s rendition of Raskolnikov’s stochastic moods is as raw as ever, and now perpetually lodged in my consciousness. Lastly, David Marquand’s Mammon’s Kingdom: An Essay on Britain, Now is necessary reading for anyone concerned with how we became such strong votaries of Mammon’s “melancholy creed,” as Thomas Carlyle put it.

Curator Reading List Medians (#3)

Tessa Carman

Each essay in Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams could be described as a carefully woven elaboration upon Terence’s assertion that “nothing human is alien to me” (the book’s epigraph). It’s a book that deserves a slow, attentive read, but is also incredibly hard to put down.

William Gaunt’s novelistic The Pre-Raphaelite Dream is a lovingly crafted and tragic account of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: the lives, loves, and losses of Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Morris, Holman Hunt, and others. Their quixotic dreams are still relevant and relatable, it seems to me, and that is perhaps part of the tragedy of their tale.

The theme of home—homemaking, leaving home, homecoming—came up a lot in my reading this year: Rod Dreher’s The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and Home, Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood, Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs. Looking back, I realize this may have been (subconsciously) intentional, since the question of home-creating became especially meaningful for me this year.

Curator Reading List Medians (5)

Charity Singleton Craig

“Are we missing our lives by obsessing over our souls?” So wrote Jess Mesman Griffith in a letter to Amy Andrews in the epistolary memoir, Love & Salt: A Spiritual Friendship Shared in Letters. After strong recommendations from several friends, I wasn’t sure a book of letters about faith, marriage, and career by two graduate students could live up to its hype. But in the process of reading letter after letter— first exchanged daily each year during Lent, but then crossing seasons and years, chronicling births and deaths, unearthing the past and hoping for the future—Amy and Jess became my friends. Their letters to each other became a note written to include me, as well.

If you know E.B. White only as the author of the children’s favorite, Charlotte’s Web, then get to know the rest of the man through his Essays of E.B. White. The chapter called, “Geese,” is worth the price of his book. “Winter is a time of waiting, for man and goose,” he writes as he plots to comfort his grieving gander. In the end, his tinkering has created a greater sadness for the gander, a sadness White feels acutely himself. “I don’t know anything sadder than a summer’s day,” he writes.

Curator Reading List Medians (7)

Laura Tokie

I read The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen for the first time this fall. Published in 1983, Hansen tells a 100+ year old story of these two complicated men, their associates, and their families. It took me several pages to adjust to the pace of the detail-rich narrative, but once I settled into it, themes including celebrity worship and image manipulation seemed both timeless and timely.

In nonfiction, I recommend The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care by Thomas G. Long and Thomas Lynch. While some of this work is geared for funeral directors and clergy (and I am neither), I found it touching, moving, and troubling in the best way: stirring thoughts about honoring life and acknowledging death physically. I read it in June. A month later, the ideas in it brought shape and comfort to a blurred summer of grief.

Curator Reading List Medians (8)

Andy Scott

Tales about prodigals returning home are as old as the Bible. What is remarkable about Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief is that the story feels genuinely new. Written from a semi-autobiographical perspective, Every Day is for the Thief is a captivating series of short excerpts about life vis-a-vis a man’s re-entry into Nigeria after 15 years. Tired as the genre may be, Cole gives a startling new breath to an examination of existence through concise, poignant narration. Chapters are never more than a few pages, and offer only snapshots of the simultaneous disorientation and joy of rediscovering home.

I finally got around to reading George Saunders’ Civilwarland in Bad Decline. Being somewhat familiar with his style, this was something I had looked forward to, and spent many days reading. Saunders carries the ability to inject the absurd with a dose of humanity with such accuracy that you forget Downtrodden Mary is fictional. While his writing is a dark shade of humorous, it’s also rooted in a deep understanding of what drives humanity to those dark yet funny places. Civilwarland in Bad Decline is at once who we are and who we might very well become.

Icelandic post-rock is great. It could merely be a symptom of my stunted musical development, but Sigur Rós is still the reigning champion of my iTunes account. There is a new contender from the tundra now. Ásgeir, who I’d describe as the Icelandinc Bon Iver, was a welcome addition to my collection and has been playing on repeat from many months. He brings a depth of sound and melody that pairs well with lyrics written by his father. If I were Icelandic I’d be accused of bandwagoning– the album is now the best-selling album of all time– but I’m not, so do yourself a favor and check it out.