What is time? Matthew McConaughey says it’s a flat circle. I say it’s a slippery devil I can’t get hold of. Which means I haven’t done monthly books on a, well, monthly basis lately. So here is a curated collection of what I’ve read in the in-between times.
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us – Hanif Abdurraqib
This is the first book I’ve read by Hanif Abdurraqib, but I’ve loved his essays on music and culture for a long time. Abdurraqib is everything – eager to engage in new and old content, wary of the world but full of love for some of its inhabitants, a quivering soul with some great stories about the punk scene in Ohio in the early 2000s. In this essay collection, he writes about everything from Prince’s unparalleled Super Bowl performance in 2007 to Carly Rae Jepsen. Nothing I can say will do his writing justice; it’s poetic and personal and wrapped up in empathy. I can’t wait to read his latest, the just-released “Go Ahead in the Rain,” about A Tribe Called Quest.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Ottessa Moshfegh
It was just a month ago, but feels like eons since I read this book. Like I was living a different life – I think that’s the effect of Moshfegh’s writing; she seizes your mind and pulls it into a different plane while you’re reading. (I know, isn’t that what all reading does? Reading Rainbow travels? Not like this. Not like Moshfegh does it.) Whatever world she’s created is jarringly different but has all the same scenery as modern life that you feel like a zombie in an alternate world.
An unnamed young woman in 2000 New York decides to narcotically enhance her life by sleeping as much as possible. She finds the worst psychiatrist imaginable and gets endless prescriptions to aid in this endeavor. During her fleeting waking moments, she is addicted to watching Whoopi Goldberg movies on VHS and has to find ways to keep her drug cocktail calibrated for maximum unconsciousness.
I’ve heard this book described by multiple sources as “utterly depressing.” And maybe my mind chemistry is addled, but that wasn’t my first impression. Sad, yes, but Moshfegh is too good for this to just be a sinking stone. This was…funny. Darkly so, but it took the concept of alienation and pushed it into another universe. The protagonist doesn’t only want to escape from the world, but her own inner one, too. Moshfegh steers us through the narcoleptic fugue states and arrives at something almost hopeful.
To paraphrase John Mulaney, 2018 was “an on-fire trash can.” But it’s been this way forever: to paraphrase another great philosopher, every year is trashy/fiery in its own way. To be sure, lots of bad things happened in 2018, but that’s not why I’m here today. My initials are CGB, not CNN. I’m here to bring you goodness, not unending coverage of an orange menace. Puppies, not plutocrats.
In semi-chronological, semi-I did what I wanted order, what follows are some of my favorite 2018 happenings, both from the world and large and closer to home.
This one is first for a reason. It doesn’t get any better than an ARM RELOAD. “Mission Impossible: Fallout” was a lot of things, but this punch prep was the absolute best bit of acting in it. I saw this movie twice, mostly so I could see this in large format again. Henry Cavill is fighting dudes in a French bathroom, getting smashed into some porcelain and pipes, and has a confusing mustache that Tom Cruise may or may not have ordered in a fit of insecurity. But the context of why he’s doing this doesn’t even matter; the gesture stands on its own as a power move for the ages. He is reloading his guns so he can crush you into a jiggly figgy pudding. I for one am still crushed by association.
Getting Jeni’s in the mail
In February, the bleakest month of the year, I received a dry ice-encased surprise in the mail. There it was, a sherbet-orange box, with the sacred name “Jeni’s” inscribed on the side. Inside were three flavors of the best ice cream this city has to offer. It may as well have been sent from heaven, a place I’m never going because I have a handbasket already reserved in my name. It was an insanely sweet gift pulled off by a master of the delightful and unexpected, a tasty version of the arm reload I’m still reeling from. A poster in the box informed me that “these ice creams are made to be devoured, shared, paired, spooned, licked, lopped, and loved.” Which is exactly what I did.
Holidays in my family are food-mad. We obsess over how many dishes we should prepare, swell with ideas to execute. Tables creak under our feats of dough and cheese. There is not enough Tupperware in the world for the leftovers; our meals cannot be contained. We save a special reverence, though, for the recipes that fortify multiple generations. One of those: my grandma Ruth’s sticky buns.
Sugar was a key ingredient in my grandparents’ life. Sweetness was their constant gift. Earl showered sugar on strawberries, churned ice cream, and reveled in a simple box of donut holes. Ruth plied sugar in her recipes.
This woman contained multitudes, and was an artist in everything. We still use the beautiful things she made. But about those buns: they are a mix of postwar food engineering and the time-tested tradition of simply waiting for your dough to rise. Butterscotch pudding mix, frozen dinner rolls, and plenty of butter – it’s a special kind of glue.
Christmas at my grandparents’ house in Iowa meant Ruth was going to make us her sticky buns (“overnite rolls” in her recipe). They were simple to make, but added to the agonizing wait of Christmas Eve, as you couldn’t have those suckers until the next morning. They had to rise. We’d “help” by buttering the Bundt pan (“largest gold mix bowl”) and putting in the frozen rolls, while Ruth stood at the stove, mixing a glorious caramel cover for those soon-to-be buns. After we marveled at her pour-over skills, blanketing the buns in liquid sugar, she wrapped the whole package tight with foil and shooed us out of the kitchen. The wait began.
Ruth’s handwritten recipe bears the stains of many a stick of butter, and probably grubby grandchild hands trying to sneak a taste. The sticky bun is a franchise that Ruth started and we inherited. We can’t let it die. Now that both she and Earl are gone, it would mean too much of a loss to consider risking.
In this family, food is love. You can tell someone how much they mean to you, but will they truly know it until you make them something that took time, took effort, took the part of your brain that responds to sweetness and wants to transfer it to them? This recipe is a caramel adhesive for Ruth’s ancestors, and we dutifully carry out her cursive instructions. The conjuring is strong. Time and talismans guide us, our recipes for climbing through the years.
The morning after these buns have risen, we take the foil off the Bundt pan and put it in the oven. The kitchen begins to smell the way it did in Ruth’s house. Out of the oven, our sticky buns awash in a golden brown river of caramelized sugar, we smile at each other through massive bites of bun. This sweetness is what gave us this family.
I broke a promise to myself this month – that I would read mainly works by women authors. All dudes this time around. And I didn’t mean for it to happen this way, but one of the books involves actual sausage. I shan’t bow to patriarchal pressure to apologize. (You’re not the kielbasa of me.) Brace yourself for some meatiness.
The Winter Soldier – Daniel Mason
This is such a beautiful, devastating book. Lucius is a young Polish medical student in 1914 Vienna, and thinks signing up for military service will get him the actual experience he craves. He ends up stationed at a field hospital (a former church) deep on the Polish eastern front, with a mysterious nun named Margarete as his guide in surgical and all other matters. With Margarete heavily in the lead, the duo go on to treat the gruesome, innumerable wounds of the war raging all around them. When a soldier wanders into the town with intensive internal trauma, Lucius gets an even greater shock than the physical brutality he’s witnessed so far.
Lucius has long been fascinated by neurological cases, and believes he can probe the mind as much as he’s learned about physical ailments. “There was a beautiful clarity in the patterns, the possibility of locating a tumor simply by whether it destroyed language or vision. The opportunity to reduce the complexity of other people to architecture of their cells.” Lucius, in the brutality of war and the incapacity of medicine, learns that unseen pain from combat trauma far eclipses his enthusiasm to find such equations. I don’t think he ever truly recovers from that realization.
Mason is a masterful writer, and also happens to be a physician, so he imbues everything with incredible medical detail along with emotion. Lucius is such a real, complicated man full of feelings and angst. (He is also full of sausage, as at one point he keeps some links in his pocket for days of rounds.) Mason’s deep research brings us a brilliantly realized World War I-era Vienna, and an intriguing reckoning of the early work with patients who would later be diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Margarete is as full a character as Lucius, who falls in love with her but can’t quite spin out her whole story. That Mason can pull this off is how stunning a writer he is. He doesn’t fall into the “women are such a mystery, oh well” trap; he sketches out just enough to make her utterly unforgettable and a resilient survivor.
Somehow I made it this far in life without seeing “The Sound of Music” the whole way through. My own mother saw it in a Detroit theater in 1965, so I’m not sure how I missed getting it burned into my brain at a young age. But I parked myself in an antique movie theater seat for three hours recently to watch this beloved musical, and it was a spiritual journey complete with nuns. As usual, I had a lot of questions, especially: why did Julie Andrews not win all the Oscars for this? The Dame almost got blown right off a mountain by a helicopter while singing her heart out, and the Academy just didn’t care. Other than that oversight, here are some other impressions upon seeing this movie for the first time.
1. Nuns won’t hesitate to roast you down into hell
It has come to my attention that movie nuns get the sickest burns. They may already be married to the son of God, but they are also endowed with the incalculable power of Ya Burnt. Maria is a problem that just can’t be solved, and they let us know. While discussing her incorrigibility, Reverend Mother responds to the search for the wayward nun with a curt “Sister, considering it’s Maria, I suggest you look in someplace unusual.” They had also likened her to a cow in an earlier burn. Then the nuns conclude a litany of her faults with a simple “Maria’s not an asset to the abbey.” My face melted off. These Jesus brides are singing a nice little song but it’s going to take a while for me to recover from their barbs. Nuns can see right through your shenanigans and don’t you forget it.
Also, at the end of the movie, they stealthily steal car parts from Nazis so they can’t chase the Von Trapps, so they win at history, too. (“Reverend Mother, I have sinned.”)
Bonus: Marni Nixon gets her only film appearance here in the flesh as Sister Sophia. (She had done voice work for Audrey Hepburn (“My Fair Lady”), Debra Kerr (“The King and I”), and Natalie Wood (“West Side Story”), among others.) It does make me sad that she has to appear in a nun costume, her visage partly obscured. Force of habit, I guess.
2. 1938 Austria was a fashion paradise
I’m pretty sure the historical accuracy of this is questionable, but apparently everyone in pre-WWII Austria had some fabulous frocks. Even their drapes could be used for fashion purposes. The dresses in this movie are just so good (thank you, Dorothy Jeakins). Let’s start with Maria’s novice dress – nothing too special, but it had big pockets and the skirt was roomy enough for frolicking in the mountains as an escape from external restrictions so I stan it as a feminist fashion moment. Defy the patriarchy with your clothes and then take over the system, I say. Then there are the nuns’ habits, which do count – one must be practical but fabulous for Jesus.
Liesl’s pink dress – let’s forget about her falling in love with a Nazi for a second to appreciate this confection. It fits her character so well. Seems a little risque for a sixteen-year-old in the 1930s but again, we are not going to talk about what the late 1930s in Austria was really like.
Curtain clothing – just the fact that Maria took a page from Scarlett O’Hara’s book and used drapes to make a defiant sartorial statement is enough. I do wonder how she managed to make seven outfits for different-sized children seemingly overnight – is the abbey a secret sweatshop?
Maria’s I am the Captain Now dress – also appears like former upholstery but she gets to drape herself all over Christopher Plummer while wearing it, so it fits the scene.
The Baroness’s Satan dress – I know everyone hates her but she rises to the occasion and dresses like the villain she is, complete with cigarette holder. This red sparkly vision showcases her dishy devilry. I choose to believe her hairstyle was meant to mimic devil horns.
Maria’s I’m Your Mom Now suit – Julie Andrews somehow makes mustard yellow and bell sleeves look chic. She’s married to a man who drives boats so she has to look the part.
Maria’s wedding dress – I like to think the nuns made this for her because it is divine. It’s got a mock turtle/V-neck going on and seems like an homage to Grace Kelly’s own wedding dress from 1956. The veil whispers over the train and everyone faints. It’s a fairy tale in God’s house. Which reminds me: why do the nuns have to stay behind the cathedral grate? Are they prone to rage in the cage? Are they afraid to accidentally get shadow married to the Captain? Additionally, did the Austrian pope marry them? Did no one tell him the Papal Schism ended in 1417?
3. Christopher Plummer’s hair is a supporting character
The Captain spends a lot of time in Vienna, ostensibly on official business doing boat stuff and unofficial business romancing the Baroness (boo). I think there’s more to the story, because those caramel highlights didn’t come from nowhere. The Captain is straight out the salon with one of the best haircuts 1938 could buy. I don’t think he could have put in this performance without it, as he and his coiffure do some top-rate cinematic giggling and winking. (I’m also a bit confused about his role in the Austro-Hungarian Navy but I’ll let that slide.)
4. The famous “Lonely Goatherd” puppets are amazing but terrifying
I’m sure these puppets took many hours to make and follow some sort of storied Austrian tradition, but they will haunt my dreams forevermore. There is lipstick on these goats. The mountain men are carrying pick axes and seem kind of murder-y. Two balding dudes at a table elongate their necks like a premonition of “Exorcist” nightmares to come. The lonely goatherd song is delightful and I can’t get enough of the yodeling, but this scene scares me more than nun burns. Also, how did Maria teach seven children from ages 5 to 16 perfect, intricate puppetry? Did any of them suffer from night terrors as a result of interacting with these beautifully made, scary-as-hell marionettes?
5. How did no one die from being blown off an Alp by a helicopter?
I’m not a pilot but I have seen “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” more than once and those helicopters generate a lot of wind. Picture yourself climbing up a mountain with one of those machines flying alongside you – how do you stay upright? How did Julie Andrews not perish from the earth because the blades were whipping wind at her so hard? And then when the Family Von Trapp (spoiler alert) escapes the Nazis over the mountains at the end, one would think a whole line of children would be like helicopter bowling. Yet another reason Dame Andrews should have gotten her Oscar for this movie. She put herself in grave danger and didn’t get the gold. She would go on to win for “Mary Poppins,” and thanked America and Walt Disney in her speech. Dame went high. No helicopter can blow her off the lofty perch she sits on.
I think about “The Princess Bride” probably every day. I don’t especially care if that’s too much; it’s a pair of lungs to me now. So it was an unexpected loss of air to hear that its storyteller, William Goldman, recently passed away. I never knew this person, but his work was a joy that seeped into my own life.
My love for this movie (and the book that preceded it) is complete and all-encompassing. Its lines and ethos permeate all of my days – my need to rhyme with “peanut,” my knowledge to never get involved in a land war in Asia, my tendency to overuse the word “inconceivable” even in the most conceivable of situations. Buttercup and Westley gave me a love that’s as fun as it is deep. A sense of humor is key when dealing with the forces of evil. The Dread Pirate Roberts knows this.
I’m not sure of the precise moment “The Princess Bride” arrived in my life; like most lasting cultural touchstones, it seems to transcend origin and simply exist across planes of time. My existence has always been wrapped around a VHS tape that brought me this story. I know it came to my family’s house one Christmas, but I don’t remember its manger-like presence under the tree. My awareness came later. I’m not positive on when I first popped that tape into our tiny white TV unit, that moment of discovery. I do know I’ve never been the same.
When Tommy Orange writes, speaks, or generally puts anything out into the universe, you should pay attention. Just the first dozen pages of “There There” are enough to jolt you to rapt observance – in that space alone, he lasers through centuries of wrongs against Native American people, across continents. Orange zeroes in on the contemporary urban space: “…nothing is original, everything comes from something that came before, which was once nothing. Everything is new and doomed. We ride buses, trains, and cars across, over, and under concrete plains. Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.”
At the very least, here is a voice big enough for the Grand Canyon, booming and bitingly philosophical, yet precise enough to convey the particularities of people with both named and unnamed trauma.
In his debut novel, Orange follows a range of Native Americans through Oakland, California, as they converge on a powwow at the city’s Coliseum. He has created people who want to forget, discover, hide, be seen, who grieve but find ways to make it through the world, who have been ascribed a restricted identity by a country that still doesn’t let them create one for themselves.
Orange gives life to a wide array of characters struggling with these identities. At one point, one of them flies a drone into the open top of the Coliseum to take in the scene – Orange is a drone himself, a flyer who has only just begun to show what he can do.