Book Time: April Titles

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland – Patrick Radden Keefe

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One of my favorite books of the year so far. It’s about The Troubles in Northern Ireland, as seen through the lens of a family whose mother was taken by the IRA (AKA disappeared) in 1972, and select IRA members themselves. Radden Keefe unfolds disappearance as another weapon of war -deployed on a smaller scale in a tiny country but still sending giant aftershocks into the community and decades ahead.

A code of silence undergirds everything about both the IRA and living in Northern Ireland at this time. Everyone knew things, whether what they had witnessed or information they picked up, but had to be very careful about using it. So silence it was, for years on end. Radden Keefe also uses this thread to explore repression and lying, noting especially that Gerry Adams, once a key IRA operative and then a leading member of Sinn Féin, still flat out denies ever having been a militant.

Information – both in withholding and wielding – is the weapon that can’t be contained or defeated. Radden Keefe is a measured but giving storyteller, and the research and time that went into gathering all these details is staggering.

The Friend – Sigrid Nunez

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A beautiful book about the nature of grief. Well, about a woman who inherits a Harlequin Great Dane from her friend, who died by suicide. The woman wonders how she’s supposed to keep living without his presence, all while the years go on and on, and she loves the dog more and more.

Stay Up with Hugo Best – Erin Somers

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A somber look at comedy. June is a writer’s assistant at a late night show (it’s Hugo’s, you guessed it) wrapping up its final episode. After the final party, she wanders into an old haunt comedy club, not so much wondering what she’ll do next but more sliding into a fog. After her impromptu set, Hugo Best himself comes up to her and asks her to spend the long weekend at his house in Connecticut. Sort of an “Odd Couple” setup with a mystery edge. Off they go, and the weekend unfolds more or less moment by moment.

Somers populates the story with entertaining details and fully realized characters, and there are some excellent one-liners. It just made me sad – I don’t know what I expected; perhaps I was hoping for more head high and fuck ‘em all from June and less middle-aged-white-man-has-an-identity-crisis from Hugo. Maybe that was the point. I liked the humor and sadness mixing to an extent, but Hugo Best wasn’t a nut I wanted June to have to crack. In any case, I think this book will go in the pantheon of millennial literature, because I’m still experiencing existential tinyshocks after reading it.

We Don’t Know What We’re Doing – Thomas Morris

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After gobbling up Conversations with Friends and Normal People, I needed more Sally Rooney in my life immediately. So I dredged the internet for her interviews, looking for mentions of what she reads. She mentioned Thomas Morris, and here we are.

The stories are all set in Caerphilly, Wales, and are an examination of ordinary lives. Everyone is grappling with averageness, but there are moments where the banality mixes with happiness. Overall – yes, also depressing, but great stories all the same.

The New Me – Halle Butler

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This book also made me almost irrepressibly depressed. Something about my reading selections this month, I guess. I couldn’t stop reading once I started, though, so I just had to endure the feelings.

Millie is an office temp in Chicago, and Butler’s descriptions of cubicle denizens and workday mundanity are something to behold. Millie keeps spiraling down into unemployment and despair, with Butler keeping up the ever more manic voice in her head. I really can’t articulate a better reason why this was so compelling other than it looks you straight in the eye.

The Authentic Lie – Pandora Sykes

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This is technically an essay, but the Pound Project bound it into a beautiful little book, so I’m counting it. Sykes tackles the maelstrom of self, culture, and social media, and what it means to be real. These topics encompass a lot of what I think about all the time – philosophies of pop culture, the nature of gossip in society, and how the social sausage gets made. I also love the podcast Sykes hosts with Dolly Alderton, the High Low, so I suppose I was primed to like this essay.

I love that Sykes and this outfit collaborated – I’ll read anything she writes, and I can’t wait for the Pound Project’s future campaigns. I wish I had known about them earlier so I could have a little library of their titles going.

 

Bathroom Fights

The first rule of Bathroom Fight Club is that I get to talk about it.

When you fight in the bathroom, there is so much at stake. The amount of porcelain alone is a threat to anyone’s well being, and no one wants an Elvis-esque death in such proximity to a toilet. But I want to see it – how are people going to have an altercation in a small space? No room for error, it’s just you and some fists and a lot of tile.

This is an ode to the commode fight. Bathrooms are a kind of cathedral. Often marble-y, with different kinds of founts, for holy water or regular water – you get doused all the same, ritualized cleansings occur. So why not fight it out in there, too? Ashes to ashes, bust to bust.

You’d think the genre is restricted, but no, like a stained glass window, the possibilities tessellate. Movies with bathroom fights are inherently creative, as you have to put a lot of action in a smaller space, and my god, the camera placement alone is a logistical puzzle I love to contemplate. There should be an Oscar category for this. I’m calling the Academy right now. In the meantime, here are three of my favorite dust-ups in water closets that have informed my cinematic universe. [Contains spoilers, duh.]

Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018)

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The fight scene: I’ve mentioned an element of this particular bathroom fight on this here platform before, but the full tableau is too good to not discuss. (On YouTube this scene is titled “bathroom brawl” or “toilet fight.”) Plot points aside, all you need to know is that Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill parachute into the Grand Palais in Paris and go in search of their target. They follow him into an impossibly clean bathroom. Tom has a fun secret knife-needle thing he’s ready to deploy, but this being a public restroom, he and Henry run into issues trying not to bust their target apart in front of any witnesses. It’s almost physical comedy. Henry does the shortest, fakest hand washing. Finally, Tom goes in for a hit. The target sees him coming from a French bathroom mile away, but luckily Henry clocks him with his briefcase. More physical comedy ensues as the pair has to hide their hit from more plebs, and eventually the target regains consciousness. This is where stall doors get busted, Henry gets punched in the throat, and the target gets thrown through a mirror.

He somehow survives this relatively unscathed, and grabs a sink pipe to wreak more havoc (a tip I’ll have to remember). Henry recovers from having his windpipe smashed, winds up his fists, and goes in for the body punches. He still gets owned, and Tom gets backwards kicked in the stomach. There’s some more wall smashing and the target gets hold of an errant gun, then Rebecca Ferguson comes in and saves the day.

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Why it’s the right scene: The gauntlet for the genre has been thrown. Henry Cavill and his Tom Cruise-mandated moustache Wind It Up, throwing themselves around the lavatory like teenage boys at a middle school dance, but a woman gets the last word/bullet. She brings a dose of efficiency to the drag-out fight, and probably could have saved the guys some work and internal bleeding. But then we wouldn’t have had this magnificent scene, so she gets to be their deus ex machina. I like this setup because the target is a worthy adversary, and cannot be dispatched with a quick one-two. If he hadn’t had to die in a bathroom, it would have been fun to see him and Rebecca team up and start their own international spy ring. Another call I need to go make.

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Book Time: March Titles

Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest – Hanif Abdurraqib

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Hanif Abdurraqib is one of the best writers at work today. He’s a poet and essayist but no box can contain everything that comes out of his brain – and I can’t get enough. With this latest book, Abdurraqib writes about and to A Tribe Called Quest, combining a deep love and appreciation for the group with a far-reaching history of why people make and share music, an elegiac sensibility for cultural legacies that have come before and cannot always be carried forward, epistolary sections to the group’s members, and and personal ode to the mark it left on him and his world.

It’s one of my favorite openings to a book I’ve read in a while: “In the beginning, from somewhere south of anywhere I come from, lips pressed the edge of a horn, and a horn was blown. In the beginning before the beginning, there were drums, and hymns, and a people carried here from another here, and a language stripped and a new one learned, with the songs to go with it.”

I got to see Abdurraqib speak and read recently, and I want to leave some of his sentiments here. The joy and love for his subject, while still holding it at arm’s length, was palpable and insanely fun to hear about firsthand.

“Sampling is speaking backwards.”
“I’m not speaking as an authority, but as a fan. I raise the personal stakes while keeping a distance.”
“Adam looked upon the apple and said ‘I have no choice but to stan.’”
“There are moments you can tell a rapper is fully in their bag.”
“I don’t care how much you know about music. If you have one song you love, I’m with you.”
“To love a musician is to already have mourned the world without them in it.”

Ghost Wall – Sarah Moss

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In the 1970s, teenage Silvie and her family are on a two-week trip of sorts reenacting the lives of Iron Age Britons in northern England. Her father is obsessed with this period of life, turning out to be an abusive bigot (not a spoiler). He would like to think that if he goes back far enough, there will be no foreign influence to be found, and he can wallow in the sameness. At his behest, the group falls into gender-segregated tasks, with the women cooking foraged food and the men “hunting.” We learn more about Silvie’s everyday life, with her father looming over with painful control. The patriarchy is strong in this one – the men eventually build a “ghost wall” after something ancient Britons apparently did. Silvie’s father is also drawn to sacrificial practices, and is locked in a past of his own design. Moss explores the thread of violence connecting women in all spans of time. Walls may not be new, but they seem to speak to the dangerous sensibilities of assault and subjugation in any period.

Continue reading “Book Time: March Titles”

Suits I Have Seen and Loved

It has come to my attention that certain celebrities have been sporting sundry suitage of late. Specifically, three of the best famous people at work today have showed out in suits that telegraph their talent, their esteemed personage, the David Byrne-esque boxiness that says “I cannot be contained. But I’m wearing a suit that draws a map of my territory.”

Before I present the suit saviors, I need to establish my qualifications. My grandma wore a homemade suit to her wedding in 1947, smashing the patriarchy and serving a timeless look. She meant fashion business even with limited resources at her disposal. So I know from good suitage. Let’s begin.

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Sandra Oh hosting Saturday Night Live

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To host SNL on March 30, Ms. Oh and her fabulous hair rocked a blue tartan suit with a drop blazer (I’m making that a thing), and I now want to make that fabric my family crest. She noted it was her one-year anniversary of becoming an American citizen while recognizing her Korean and Canadian roots. Can we please have Ms. Oh in every editorial from now on? She and fellow visionaries like Whoopi Goldberg are underappreciated fashion plates who have discovered all the secret pathways in Mario Kart while the rest of us can’t even figure out how to get up the ramp in Koopa Troopa Beach. It takes someone with both verve and poise to wear a suit of less conventional proportions, and she gives us a lecture in making style your own. I want to attend her class and sit in her office hours. This country is beyond lucky to have Ms. Oh grace its screens, let one count her as one of its citizens. We are not worthy.

Harry Styles at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

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Mr. Styles had the honor of introducing Stevie Nicks at this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony. (She is the first woman to be inducted twice, which is something I needed to lie down after hearing. Induct all the women multiple times, you soulless award-hoarding men.) And he certainly came correct: a royally blue velour suit, an ultramarine dream, also with a drop blazer and wide-legged pants, complete with Navy-esque white shoes and buttons. All aboard the SS Styles. After saying things about our Stephanie like “she’s the magical gypsy godmother who occupies the in-between,” and “She is a beacon to all of us. Whenever you hear her voice, life gets just a little bit better. When she sings, the world is hers, and it is yours,” he bowed down to her like the royalty she is. Naturally, he knew blue was the only true color to wear on such a divine occasion.

Steven Van Zandt at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

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Not one to be showed up by younger generations, E Street veteran Little Steven brought his own brand of suiting to the same fete as Mr. Styles. Also royally resplendent in a monochrome purple ensemble, the Jersey don rolled up looking like a rock and roll turtle, the kind that lives forever and bears the markings of history on its shell. My theory is that while not on tour with Bruce Springsteen, he moonlights as an enforcer for Grimace, hence all the purple suiting he has apparently accumulated. I stand in awe of his accomplishment in making myriad McDonald’s spokesman violet tones look regal. Or I might just be blinded by the light. But as Bruce himself says, any good magic trick begins with the setup, and Little Steven has Set It Up.

In-between times: Selected readings

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

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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

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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.

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A Few of My Favorite 2018 Things

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.

Arm reloading

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.

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Locking and loading

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.

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Stick to Your Buns

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.