- The Man Who Wasn’t There, Anil Ananthaswamy
- The Mysterious Mr. Quinn, Agatha Christie
- An American Story, Christopher Priest
- Disease & History, Frederick F. Cartwright and Michael Biddis
- The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood
- Curious Behavior, Robert R. Provine
- Those Were the Days: Why All in the Family Still Matters, Jim Cullen
- Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem
- Wilson, A. Scott Berg
- The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, Merve Emre
- Babylon Berlin, Volker Kutscher
- Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s, Otto Friedrich
A lot of my book choices this year were made because or in spite of the pandemic: some, like Disease & History and Wilson, were conscious efforts to try to understand and place it and our times in a context. A few were easy escapism; one was a deliciously long read. A couple of the nonfiction were quite disappointing: Curious Behavior is a specialist’s end-of-life wrap-up of pet research topics rather than an engaging narrative. The Personality Brokers is, to my mind, rather mean-spirited and formless, ultimately neither fish nor fowl nor good brown bread and making me wonder why it was written or published. Those Were the Days, in contrast, is a very nice piece of pop culture scholarship: clean and clear and cogent and engaging; my brother, for whom I bought this book, has blogged about it. My favorite book all year, hands down, was Before the Deluge. I also greatly admired, but did not love, Berg’s Wilson. Berg is a painstaking researcher, but the book exposes the huge problem in crafting a responsible biography, particularly of someone long dead: some stuff — important or trivial — simply can’t be explained or contextualized; no records or witnesses remain. Berg steadfastly refuses to speculate. Which means there are odd anecdotes, people, incidents that sort of mysteriously trail off. Berg also refuses to draw conclusions about his subject. While I appreciate his leaving it to me to make judgments about Wilson, I would have liked some help from Berg in understanding how, for instance, such a devoted husband could so quickly court and marry a second wife.
- Naked Lunch, William Burroughs
- All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy
- Sentinels, Bill Pronzini
- Death on the Nile, Agatha Christie
- The Last Outlaw, Thom Hatch
- Miracle at St. Anna, James McBride
- Invisible, Paul Auster
- The White Album, Joan Didion
- Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise, Oscar Hijuelos
- Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem
- The Great American Novel, Philip Roth
- Babylon Berlin, Volker Kutscher
- Rum Punch, Elmore Leonard
- Lives of the Poets, E.L. Doctorow
- The Girl with the Silver Eyes, Dashiell Hammett
Steve’s top picks were Motherless Brooklyn, The Last Outlaw, Miracle at St. Anna, and All the Pretty Horses. The McBride must have made a particular impression, as he has collected a couple others to read this year. He was impressed by Hijuelos’s creative nonfiction, an imagining of the real-life friendship between Mark Twain and explorer/journalist Henry Stanley (of Stanley and Livingstone fame). His favorite book of the year was The Great American Novel.
Dance, Theater, Performance, Lectures, and Readings
- Coal Country (Public)
- Che Malambo (Joyce)
- What Do We Need to Talk About? (Public)
- Fab 4 Master Class, “The Road to Love Me Do”
- Puppet Slam (La Mama)
- Various online readings of Sarah’s short plays
- The Princess Bride (Wisconsin Democrats)
- A Christmas Carol (No.11)
The first two were in theaters; the rest were virtual; all were savored. Steve particularly enjoyed Coal Country, noting that that was maybe because it was the last theater we saw live. However, he really did enjoy the music and the story and Steve Earle, so I don’t think it was its finality, so much as its actuality, that appealed. I also liked it; it was extremely moving and a plea for seeing commonality and humanity. The dance performance at the Joyce was slight, but having attempted to watch dance on line since, even slight live is so much more alive than via Zoom. This year’s Puppet Slam was an abbreviated shadow of previous years’ efforts, but it had heart and soul and good intent. Similarly, daughter Julie’s No.11’s traditional holiday outing, always a heartfelt delight, was this year split into a patchwork of homemade contributions, brimming over with sincerity and cheer. As live performance migrated to projections beamed from living rooms to living rooms around the world, coziness and ingenuousness have replaced grandeur and immediacy. The tradeoff is not completely commensurate, but it has had a refreshingly equalizing effect, making theater accessible to everyone, if not remunerative for practitioners. Further, our family has gathered on Skype from three households to act out plays written by “the littlest Congress,” resident playwright and pandemic housemate Sarah. Maybe not the same thrill as house seats to Company, but satisfying in a wholly different way.
Movies (in theaters* and first-run on TV)
- Pain and Glory*
- 2020 Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts*
- 2020 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Animation*
- Little Women*
- Horse Girl
- Motherless Brooklyn
- Blow the Man Down
- The Kitchen
- In the Tall Grass
- Lost Girls
- Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn
- The Lovebirds
- Invisible Life
- Bad Education
- I’m Thinking of Ending Things
- Strange But True
- The Wolf House
- The Good Liar
- Wasp Network
- The Trial of the Chicago 7
- Sometimes Always Never
- The Kindness of Strangers
- An Affair to Die For
- Let Them All Talk
- Dick Johnson Is Dead
I so miss going to the movies, sitting in the dark with invisible strangers and smelling (presumably) fresh popcorn. It seems churlish to say this given the plethora of movies we have access to via streaming and subscription, and even though I can’t keep all our access options straight, I do spend more time than I should on Letterboxd, Netflix, Amazon, HBO Max, TCM, Showtime, and Decider queuing up possibilities for movies new and old.
But this year was…strange.
We watched lots and lots and lots of movies and TV shows of all shapes and descriptions, with a little bit more discipline since Sarah has been in residence; because she keeps regular hours, long movies are for weekends and hour-long shows are on weekdays. Nonetheless, very little of it has had lasting impact or made much of an impression. It is possible that this is because it has been on the TV screen rather than experienced with movie theater sound and projection qualities. More likely, though, it’s because of the pandemic and the politics of 2020: a part of our brain was not really present, not really fully engaged, not capable of wrapping around the intricacies of unfamiliar points of view. So a lot of the new stuff — Trial of the Chicago 7, Dick Johnson Is Dead, The Wolf House, Let Them All Talk — however ballyhooed, didn’t quite grab us, although we could appreciate it; a lot of it we didn’t even bother to engage with, or haven’t yet.
Instead, our movie pleasure derived from revisiting the familiar: the outright nostalgic and nonthreatening, some of which we got to introduce to Sarah for the first time — Hitchcock, Hepburn, Hopscotch, Harvey, Hannah and Her Sisters, Moonstruck, Dummy, Peter’s Friends, Pieces of April, The Fisher King, Logan Lucky, Galaxy Quest, Lost in Paris, Angel Heart, Sweet Smell of Success, Arthur. Documentaries on Orson Welles, Robert Altman, Tom Waits, Brian De Palma, Hal Ashby, Hunter S. Thompson, The Who, and many others. Some horror movies, most of which were quite silly and forgettable, but the best of which was the aforementioned almost lyrical The Wolf House.
We watched old or older movies we’d somehow missed, some challenging, some sentimental, some potboilers; a lot of noirs and thrillers: Zorba the Greek, Topkapi, Mr. Love, Meek’s Cutoff, Rififi, Elevator to the Gallows, Stranger on the Third Floor, The V.I.P.s, A Single Man, Inception, Moonlight. We indulged in quick infatuations with Roman Polanski (The Tenant, Cul-de-Sac, Knife in the Water), Peter Bogdanovitch and Orson Welles (The Great Buster: A Celebration, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, The Tell-Tale Heart) — spurred in very large part by the wonderful podcast series, The Plot Thickens — Powell and Pressburger (A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, 49th Parallel), and Taika Waititi (Boy, Jojo Rabbit, Hunt for the Wilderpeople).
The standouts of all these movies new and old tend more toward the sentimental than the cerebral. Steve’s favorites among the new were 1917, Motherless Brooklyn, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things; he (and I) also really enjoyed revisiting Jojo Rabbit and stumbling on the rest of Waititi’s quirky, offbeat, but so sweet, work. For me, there were a few disappointments: notably Shirley (the pairing of the equally off-kilter and brilliant Elisabeth Moss and Shirley Jackson thwarted by a script trading in fantasy and misplaced feminism), The Story of Roy Cohn (a half-hearted effort), and The Good Liar (simply ridiculous). But there were also a few unexpected gems: Sometimes Always Never and I Capture the Castle, both eccentric and compassionate family tales featuring the always eccentric Bill Nighy; The Lovebirds, a charming screwball comedy; Transit, a deeply unsettling and fascinating German thriller; 78/52, a comprehensive look at Psycho’s shower scene. The new movie highlight was Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which I intend to rewatch. It is very much, in its solipsistic stuck circles, a movie for our time. The rewatch highlight is The Fisher King; I can never tire of that Grand Central waltz.
We deeply mourn the passing of our local arthouse, the much-loved Showroom, a victim of the Covid economy.
As with movies, we turned to a lot of old familiar faces on TV to escape 2020: Sgt. Bilko, Car 54, Laugh-In, Larry Sanders. We introduced Sarah to three series, each fabulous in its own way: Upstairs, Downstairs, Russian Doll, and Babylon Berlin. Steve and Sarah tore through Schitt’s Creek, which they found to be sheer delight and I will have to follow them there this year. We all watched The Good Place, which turned out to have its heart in the right place and was quite satisfying and sweet.
We didn’t go in for a lot of the pandemic fare we kept hearing about (Tiger King, The Crown), but we did watch and greatly enjoyed The Queen’s Gambit. In its latter episodes, we watched The Undoing primarily for Nicole Kidman’s coats, and deplored the too-easy ending. We watched Watchmen, The Plot Against America, and My Brilliant Friend religiously and devotedly, although the latter two were not quite as satisfying as I would have liked, and the first trades in wildly crazy sci fi tropes. Nonetheless, they are expensively and beautifully realized, well acted, and largely deliciously escapist — just what was needed.
Museums and Field Trips
We made a fleeting trip to the Mütter Museum in October to see its “Spit Spreads Death: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918–19 in Philadelphia” special exhibit which Sarah and I had very much wanted to see all year and which we all agreed would be safe to attend, since, well, the likelihood of catching an infectious disease there would be too ironic to be possible. I grant you, not a scientific calculation, but the exhibit and the Mütter were smart and salient and safe.
Food and Restaurants
This was the year of no new restaurants and very few meals out, except for maybe a half dozen very cautious outdoor dining experiences. It was, though, as Julie pointed out, very much the year of the picnic. We had many picnics well into November and they were all greatly savored: here at Sunset Lake in Asbury, watching the heron and the turtles; at Spring Lake, walking on all the bridges, crossing and recrossing the lake; in Red Bank overlooking the Navesink; and at Sandy Hook, sitting on the rocks and watching the bay. We learned early on that carryout — particularly of Italian food — is rarely as good as in-restaurant meals.
A further limitation was my April gallbladder attack, which after a half day in the hospital, convinced me of the need to make changes in order to leave this world with the same complement of internal organs with which I entered it. After implementing a very low-fat diet, I was symptom free for eight months. Another flareup after a highly stressful deadline made for a further realization: my gallbladder literally feels my pain. So perhaps it is not so much fats as stress; who knows? In any case, Steve turned deprivation into a virtue, and our meals have been sumptuous and delicious and fresh and mindful. No ersatz ingredients or substitutions, no pretending no-fat yogurt is heavy cream. Instead, we made full use of our easy access to fresh produce and fish; measured and weighed; cut back or out. Highlights of Steve’s culinary achievements this year were tomato soup, a wonderful restaurant-quality roasted potatoes recipe, perfecting his buttermilk shrimp and corn chowder, and innovating with an herb-coated pork tenderloin. He also came up with a highly satisfying cornmeal-coated baked “fried” shrimp and scallop recipe. I made a lot of roasted peppers this year, which Sarah in particular loves, and which take me an inordinately long time to prepare. The upside to that has been having the leisure to listen to long, smart podcasts.