- No Ordinary Time — Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the Home Front in World War II, Doris Kearns Goodwin
- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie
- Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe, Simon Winder
- From the Dust Returned, Ray Bradbury
- Your Turn to Curtsy My Turn to Bow, William Goldman
- Starshine, Theodore Sturgeon
- You Have Never Been Here, Mary Rickert
- Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, Anne Boyd Rioux
- Less, Andrew Sean
- Irresistible, Adam Alter
- The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer
- Death on the Nile, Agatha Christie
- Shortest Way Home, Pete Buttigieg
It was fun to read quick and easy Christies amidst the heavier tomes tackled, but the best fiction was by Mary Rickert: that woman can WRITE. Her worlds are strange, dreamlike places tinged by tragedy and melancholy, where ordinary people cope and hope. And of course, Bradbury: it is always a pleasure to visit his sunny, soaring, and strange shores. As to the nonfiction, Danubia was not as successful as Winder’s Germania, to my mind: an overwhelming mass of geography, history, and Habsburgs, tempered of course by Winder’s irrepressible humor. Ultimately, I am not sure of the takeaway: it seems to be that long-simmering nationalist tendencies can only be quelled or mollified within a sprawling, distracted empire or contained in separate ethnic nation-states. In any case, it inspired our seeing my favorite movie of the year. Mayor Pete’s autobiography is thoughtful and smart, as is he; I liked reading the lessons he’s learned about people, expertise, humility, and humanity. Shermer’s Believing Brain was depressing overall; its point is that our thought processes are corrupted by lazy shortcuts and myriad cognitive biases. It is useful, however, to recognize, as Shermer notes, “how our brains convince us that we are always right.” This explains a lot about people, a satisfyingly schadenfreude conclusion; more disturbing is the realization that it applies to me, too.
- The Informant, Kurt Eichenwald
- Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano
- Five-Carat Soul, James McBride
- Wild Bill Hickok, Joe Rosa
- Goodbye Columbus, Philip Roth
- Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie
- L.A. Stories, Ry Cooder
- The Italian Party, Christina Lynch
- Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt
- Trans Atlantic, Collum McCann
- The Glass Key, Dashiell Hammett
- Hope Never Dies, Andrew Shaffer
- The Expats, Chris Pavone
- Mystery Train, Greil Marcus
- Lady in the Lake, Raymond Chandler
- The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy
- The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The year’s standout was The Forsyte Saga, but Steve says he has a great appreciation too for James McBride and intends to read more by him. The noirs were a real pleasure, but by now, Marcus’s Mystery Train has already faded, which is a bit upsetting. And Chris Pavone — who might be a relative; Steve’s mother was a Pavone — was great fun. A nod too to The Sisters Brothers, a great Western adventure story.
- Alan Parsons, Tarrytown Music Hall
- Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets, Tarrytown Music Hall
- Arlo Guthrie, Paramount Asbury Park
- Peter Mulvey, City Winery
- David Bromberg, City Winery
- Los Straitjackets, Wonder Bar
Standout for me was Alan Parsons; again, a superlative show. Parsons and company are in excellent voice, and his commanding presence is compelling and engaging. Steve liked Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets the best. And Arlo Guthrie came right next door to us with his son and daughter, making it a very low-key, comfy family evening.
Dance, Theater, and Performance
- A Bright Room Called Day (Public)
- A Christmas Carol (No.11)
- David Byrne’s American Utopia (Broadway)
- Let ‘Em Eat Cake (Carnegie Hall)
- To Kill a Mockingbird (Broadway)
- The Michaels (Public)
- Soledad Barrio and Noches Flamenco (Joyce)
- Puppet Slam (La Mama)
- Victor (Axis)
- A Woman of the World (59 East 59th)
- Asbury Dance Festival (House of Independents)
- Lifespan of a Fact (Gloucester)
- Height of the Storm (Broadway)
- Round Went the Wheel (Michael Gnat; Broadway Bound Festival)
- The Last Man Club (Axis)
- Strangers in the World (Axis)
- Feral (59 East 59th; puppets)
- Frankie & Johnny in the Claire de Lune (Broadway; Terrence McNally)
- Gary, A Sequel to Titus Adronicus (Broadway; Taylor Mac)
- Mary, Mary (United Stages)
- The Tempest (Public Mobile Unit)
- King Lear (Broadway; invited dress rehearsal)
- City of No Illusions (La MaMa; Talking Band)
- Madame Marie the Psychic/The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (staged reading; Sarah Congress)
What a fantastic year for high-end, high-quality theater! We were so fortunate to get to see so much lovely, haunting, thoughtful, and uplifting material. And legendary performers: Glenda Jackson, Lindsey Crouse, Jonathan Pryce, Kathleen Chalfont, Michael Shannon, Ed Harris, Audra McDonald, Nathan Lane. A privilege to see them. It is impossible to rate the plays we saw; each — from the tiny paper dolls making up the world of Feral to the mountain of gaudily rotting carcasses that comprise the blackly gleeful set for Gary; from the stark, dark, discomfiting Axis Theatre productions to the massive stage of Carnegie Hall chock full of musicians and singers — all, all had majesty and magic. The ones that stick most with me, though, are the poignant, naked, powerful performances of Michael Shannon in Frankie & Johnny in the Claire de Lune and Jonathan Pryce in The Height of the Storm. And the wonderful, warm, vibrant, exciting, positive energy of David Byrne’s American Utopia. The lighting had to be the best and most innovative I’ve ever seen; the colors and patterns and shadows made in that plain white square of a stage were incredible. And I must also mention the wild flamenco at the Joyce. And a little theater friendship blossomed from Feral, where we sat next to a very nice lady who is a sculptor and devotee (as are we) of all things puppet; we later all went to La MaMa’s puppet slam.
Lectures and Readings
- The Round Table 100th (Algonquin)
- Selected Shorts: Comedy Tonight (Symphony Space; featuring Jane Curtin and Dick Cavett)
- 400 Years of Manhattan (Noah Diamond; United Solo)
- Abbey Roadshow (Newark Grammy Awards Center)
There were enough of these to list as a separate category; these were uniformly light, informative, and pleasant, although I wish the Algonquin had put more conviction into its centennial celebration. Noah Diamond’s excellent lecture was drowned out by bar patrons. We did get to sit at the ACTUAL Round Table, under the famous painting, which was a thrill. The fascinating Abbey Roadshow was a double dose of Beatles experts, Prof. Kenneth Womack and Scott Freiman of “Deconstructing the Beatles” fame, analyzing the nuances of the Beatles’s last album.
Movies (in theaters* and first-run on TV)
We saw a lot of movies this year, and many of them were superlative. Steve cites as his favorites for style and substance The Irishman (can’t go wrong with gangsters), Roma, and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (just getting to SEE that was a privilege: it only ended up playing the one day). My favorite is Sunset; there is something about how and what it evokes that has stuck with me all year: a world on the brink of collapse? The audacious Jojo Rabbit was a pleasant surprise for both of us; another collapsing world order saved by learning to know and accept the other. Two “girl” movies were catnip for me: A Simple Favor and Ocean’s Eight: both delicious, delightful; the former also notably balanced a wild mix of tones: dark twisty-mystery and bright suburban tale bordering on camp — a mix Soderbergh carries off in The Informant! and does not in The Laundromat. Swiss Army Man, which we streamed, also somehow balances absurdity and existential crisis. Absolutely unbalanced, practically to the point of unhinged, are a trio of Grand Guignol epics: Suspiria, The Lighthouse, and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Of the three, I think I prefer the first, which was honestly out there without anything to prove or show beyond being crazy. Tarantino’s earnest, violent revisionist history ended by restoring a very white, privileged world. And, aside from Defoe’s fantastic, fearless performance, The Lighthouse invested in no context that would justify its off-the-rails engagements.
Marriage Story was devastating and excellent. Other excellent older movies we watched this year were the surprisingly touching and powerful The Edge of the World, directed by Michael Powell; Lars von Trier’s innovative and inexorable Dogville; Rachel, Rachel, featuring a haunting Joanne Woodward performance; the literally haunting 2016 The Lighthouse, which we found far superior to the overwrought 2018 version; two very entertaining 1960s Brit comedies featuring, among others, Maggie Smith: Hot Millions and The Honey Pot; the moody and sophisticated Journey to Italy, directed by Rosselini and starring Ingrid Bergman and George Saunders. But I think my favorite of these was the 2002 French movie The Man on the Train, about a thief and a poetry professor; very smart and moving.
Aside from the touching 63 Up!, none of the documentaries were terribly exciting, although the Muhammad Ali was the most informative and absorbing. I can’t even remember The Great Hack, and we only watched it a couple of months ago. What I do remember, and which continues to irk me, was the manipulative, overripe Tell Me Who I Am. This highly regarded crowd-pleaser tells the story of a twin who, after a traumatic injury that erases his past, relies on his brother’s stories to reconstruct his own life — thereby losing any knowledge of the childhood abuse they both suffered. Like last year’s equally annoying Three Identical Strangers, Tell Me Who I Am has been carefully edited to promote a particular point of view, with huge chunks left out. A reliance on the cheesy faux-confessional tropes of reality TV destroys whatever authenticity might have remained, ruining both movies.
My favorite TV for the year was Russian Doll, which I instantly found weirdly and utterly appealing and offbeat. Also highly appealing was the decidedly strange and plaintive and wonderful Fleabag, which at first repelled us and then totally won us with its irreverence, shocking humor, humility, and humanity. Good Omens, Gentleman Jack, and Stranger Things were all entertaining and humane; very pleasant to spend time with. We are slowly edging up on the last season of The Wire, which, like Mad Men before it, we never want to complete. All other dramatic TV shows dim by comparison: it brilliantly portrays the entrenched bureaucracies and senseless systems with their callous disregard of the ordinary people who alternatively challenge and sustain them. We also watched the original Forstye Saga, a wonderfully intricate and elegant realization of the novel — albeit without the keen distinctions of values so well clarified by Galsworthy. Steve also greatly enjoyed Ken Burns’s series on country music.
Museums and Field Trips
Only one art show this year, but it was splendid: the Escher Exhibition at Brooklyn’s Industry City, which is going to be quite the hip and happening place. The show was comprehensive and enlightening; among my favorites was Three Worlds:
We went with Sarah to the Mütter Museum, which always delights me: its macabre and sometimes disturbing subject matter is always clinically and compassionately presented (and its gift shop is a riot). We saw a retrospective on Leonard Cohen at the Jewish Museum, which reflected its subject’s solemn and joyful character.
A trip to the Bronx Zoo in October and a magical day in September at Seaside Heights were peaceful and restorative, filled with quiet pleasure.
There were two wonderful trips: a Hudson Valley overnight featuring a walk through Beacon with Julie, a concert at Tarrytown, the Culinary Institute, Hyde Park and the FDR Presidential Library in April (coincidentally, on the anniversary of FDR’s death); and three days in Cape Ann, Massachusetts, with a side visit to Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House. Both trips were well beyond our expectations, satisfying all senses and leaving us eager to return.
We figured we could polish off Hyde Park and the Presidential Library in a matter of a couple of hours, but not at all. FDR’s home was unexpectedly poignant, particularly the reminders of his methods to accommodate but not succumb to his disability, like the dumbwaiter he used to hoist himself up to his bedroom. As to the library (his desk there is pictured below), this was a wealth of information and history. Hours upon hours could be — should be, hopefully will be — spent soaking it all up.
As to our Massachusetts trip, it was simply terrific. We explored Rockport, which really does seem like the absolute end of the world; this photo does not quite convey the sense you have of standing on the last little outpost of land before the immensity of the ocean.
Beautiful and unpretentious, filled with artists and shops, Rockport was so nice. And then a quick stroll though downtown Gloucester, not quite as tony as Rockport, but so friendly and filled with interesting shops and the sense of a working fishing community. Theater that night starring Gloucester resident Lindsey Crouse, whose work I’ve always admired. Wonderful seafood, particularly at the very local, down home Lobsta Land. And, coming home, a few hours at Orchard House, where the presence of Louisa and May Alcott is palpable, and not in a spooky way, but in a friendly matter-of-fact way. So fun to see May’s sketches on the walls, and the lovely calla lilies she painted for Louisa near her desk.
My main reason for going to Cape Ann was to see whales. And oh my, oh my, oh my, did we. We were on a disappointing whale watch in San Francisco, where we both got slightly seasick and ended by seeing sort of-kind of a bit of whale, maybe. But here, the weather was perfect, the boat size sufficiently large to ensure against seasickness, and we encountered a pair of whales once we were out the requisite distance. It soon became apparent that one of the whales was in distress; apparently, its tail was entangled in a tuna net. Its companion stayed by its side — and so did we, for the ship alerted the Center for Coastal Studies to rescue the whale. We stayed watching, fascinated, worried, until they arrived.
On the way back to shore, it was as if the good news about Nuke’s imminent rescue had been telegraphed to the undersea residents. We were treated to a show of wondrous activity, with whales, dolphins, and sunfish dancing and cavorting all around us. It was glorious, and the Cape Ann Whale Watch crew obligingly stopped for each new episode, with our trip extending well beyond the scheduled three hours as we reveled in the great mammals’ playfulness and majesty. It was beyond words to share in another species’ happiness, like being invited to somebody’s house to enjoy their hospitality.
Food and Restaurants
New restaurant find for the year was Cajun restaurant Drew’s in Keyport. In New York, we finally found two nice picks in the Theater District; long-running restaurants with very pleasant ambiance, extensive menus, and good food and service: Chez Josephine and Mont Blanc 52. And the Culinary Institute was a delight: so elegant but with this nice earnestness and occasional small blunder, reminding you that this is a student-run enterprise. Recipe-wise, Steve has successfully replicated (and improved on) the long hots featured occasionally at Christine’s, stuffing them with a ground turkey or chicken bolognese sauce. We made a pretty dish for Thanksgiving of multicolored sliced sweet potatoes. For crab season, we discovered another friendly seafood market: Ahearns, near Seaside Heights. And we finally ditched my old dinnerware set in favor of an assortment of dragon and/or phoenix plates and bowls. A symbolic gesture on my part: comprehensive no longer means as much to me as individual, eclectic pleasures.