2015 Round-Up

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Books (me)

  • The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch 1743–1933, Amos Elon
  • The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales, Franz Xaver von Schonwerth
  • Available Dark, Elizabeth Hand
  • Tudors, Peter Ackroyd
  • When You Are Engulfed in Flames, David Sedaris
  • Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable, Steve Volk
  • Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, David K. Randall
  • Drunk Tank Pink and Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave, Adam Alter
  • Nothing So Strange, James Hilton
  • The Science of Monsters: The Origins of the Creatures We Love to Fear, Matt Kaplan
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith
  • House Party, Patrick Dennis
  • The Third Man, Graham Greene
  • The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
  • The Great Silence, Juliet Nicolson
  • Out of the Ordinary, Jon Ronson
  • The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, Sam Kean

The most important book I read all year was Fringe-ology; all my other reading and a great bit of my thinking since has been colored by this book. It is essentially about keeping your mind open to possibilities, even the unexplainable, seemingly illogical, ones. A fascinating book. And many of my reading choices since were influenced by it. In line with this, Drunk Tank Pink, which explains why we do what we do when we don’t know why we do it (the title refers to the anti-aggressive influence a particular shade of pink has, effectively subduing drunks and criminals, hence its use as the wall color of choice in drunk tanks), was revelatory. Coupled with the information in The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, I came to realize how little of what we do we do consciously, how little we consequently can really say we KNOW. Which of course leads back to Fringe-ology

In fiction, aside from the James Hilton which I wrote about elsewhere (see link above), the Philip Roth was the standout. I did not realize he was such a careful writer. Impressive.

The weakest book was Ackroyd’s Tudors. Apparently constructed from memory, it had no notes, no sources. Very disappointing.

Books (Steve)

  • The Gangs of New York, Herbert Ashby
  • Timbuktu, Paul Auster
  • The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
  • The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien
  • East of Eden, John Steinbeck
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice, James Cain
  • Time and Time Again, James Hilton
  • Showboat, Edna Ferber
  • New York Trilogy, Paul Auster
  • They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Horace McCoy
  • Lives of Poets, E.L. Doctorow
  • Angelica’s Smile, Andrea Camillea
  • Candide, Voltaire
  • The Third Man, Graham Greene
  • Best and Brightest, David Halberstram
  • Being Invisible, Thomas Berger
  • The Gun Seller, Hugh Laurie
  • Out of the Ordinary, Jon Ronson
  • Short Stories, O. Henry
  • The Big Clock, Kenneth Fearing

Favorite was East of Eden and Things They Carried. Short stories and the noirs were also great. Also liked The New York Trilogy. Was reading Doctorow when he died… Found Best and Brightest a little disappointing; dragged on a bit.

Concerts

  • Ellis Paul and Peter Mulvey, Rubin Museum
  • Alan Parsons Live, Paramount, Peekskill
  • Loudon Wainwright, Paramount, Asbury Park
  • Road of Promise (Kurt Weill), Carnegie Hall

Alan Parsons was truly an excellent show — unexpectedly so — and that’s Steve’s judgment and he is not a real fan. Crisp and taut and excellent sound and musician- and showmanship — a treat. Very impressive, and quite a departure from many “old time” rock shows we’ve seen, where half the words are unintelligible, and the audience is constantly on the move for more beer. Beautiful theater too (Paramount Hudson Valley).

We had never been to Carnegie Hall, and felt privileged to attend a rare performance of Kurt Weill’s Road of Promise; I include above a link to my review. Not my favorite Weill music, but oh so lovely to be at Carnegie Hall. Just drinking it in was a joyful experience.

Ellis Paul and Peter Mulvey at the Rubin Museum were a treat and unexpected delight. We did not know either musician, and we did not know the museum. The Rubin features art and culture of the Himalayas; their music series asks the artists to pick an item in the collection for which they feel an affinity. This is then projected as a backdrop during their set. And it did make a difference, infusing and informing the music, adding a layer of meaning and tone. Both musicians were kind of folk-acoustic-blues, difficult to categorize, but lots of meaning and texture in their work, which ranged from solemn to silly, with all shades in between. I was particularly impressed by Mulvey’s first number, which repeated only a few words to tell a moving story of love and loss (a recent live set from Mulvey can be seen here; he also has a lot of videos on Youtube). Paul had a couple of songs that resonated as well, especially “Home.”

Steve saw Loudoun Wainwright here on the Boardwalk, at a very intimate session. It was part of a summer concert series, and the audience got to sit on the stage with the musician, about 200 seats in all. Wainwright is a great storyteller, and it was a delight.

Dance and Theater

The most exhilarating performances, the ones that I think really took you out of yourself and brought you to a place of beauty and awe, were — for me — American in Paris, Bill T. Jones’s Analogy/Dora: Tramontane, and the puppet piece Shank’s Mare at La Mama. These were the most artistically profound and satisfying, soaring and dreamy and delicate and containing moments of glory. (I reviewed American in Paris; link provided above.) Hamilton, while impressive and energized and endlessly entertaining, never touched me emotionally — which saddened me (and I think that was why I never turned in a review, which is unforgivable); I had hoped to be moved as I had with 1776! and Rent. I was moved, as was Steve, by Curious Incident of the Dog; I had thought it was going to be a more impenetrable piece, but it was very accessible and very affirming. The way it which the stage, sound, and lighting design approximated the sensory overload experienced by the autistic hero of the piece was breathtakingly powerful. And its message of tolerance, acceptance, and accommodation was most satisfying and always timely.

Our NY Fringe shows (see my reviews at links indicated above) made for a couple of delightful days in the city. We had no mad rushes or long lag times between shows, which was extremely pleasurable. We also made a nice detour over to the Tenement Museum for nice air conditioning and good book browsing. The shows themselves were a nice mix of serious and silly. The best was Bullet for Unaccompanied Heart, a very beautiful and powerful play.

Of course, best of all was Sarah’s The Death Play, or What Is Brad Doing in the Supply Closet? (Which is available for purchase at Martin’s website, here.)

Steve’s standouts were American in Paris and Hamilton; he really enjoyed  Curious Incident of the Dog as well. (At Hamilton, we both especially enjoyed having attended with John Turturro, who sat a few rows behind us.)

Movies

  • Carol
  • Spotlight
  • Trumbo
  • Bridge of Spies
  • Grandma
  • Crimson Peak
  • Goodnight Mommy
  • Maps to the Stars
  • The Imitation Game
  • Welcome to Me
  • What We Do in the Shadows
  • Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
  • Clouds of Sils Maria
  • I’ll See You in My Dreams
  • Mr. Holmes
  • Phoenix

These are the movies we saw in theaters, which still for us count as the “official” movies. Of these, Bridge of Spies and Spotlight were the Academy Award–type best of the year. Good, serious, well acted, and moral; I lean more toward Bridge of Spies as my favorite, because it took the part of the little people in the face of big events. But Michael Keaton’s performance in Spotlight was amazing. As was Lilly Tomlin’s in Grandma. I didn’t like all the gratuitous aggressiveness in the movie, but I sure liked her and Marcia Gay Harden — and, above all, the movie’s tacit respect for a woman’s right to choose. Crimson Peak, much anticipated by Sarah and me since we love Guillermo del Toro’s work, was lush, lush, lush, redolent with Gothic effects and colors; so rich and delicious, we mightily enjoyed it. Another light pleasure was the quirky What We Do in the Shadows, a very funny vampire mockumentary (trailer here, if you are not familiar). More cerebral and disturbing was Clouds of Sils Maria, a discomfiting movie about aging and acclaim — how implacable is the one and how fickle the other. Truly, I think there were more white knuckles associated with this picture than Crimson Peak.

We consumed many many more movies courtesy of Netflix. Among our rental/streaming highlights for the year were the following. Their tones are wildly divergent. What most share is that they turned out to be unexpected delights, particularly Populaire, Dean Spanley, The Card, and Hector and the Search for Happiness. A few were richly textured, disturbing, and thought provoking, notably It’s Such a Beautiful DayThis Must Be the Place, and Mood Indigo.

  • It’s Such a Beautiful Day
  • Force Majeure
  • 3 Women
  • The Wolf of Wall Street
  • 360
  • The Card
  • Nightcrawler
  • The Trial
  • Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed
  • Night Train to Lisbon
  • Blancanieves
  • The Babadook
  • Septimo
  • This Must Be the Place
  • Populaire
  • Dean Spanley
  • Hector and the Search for Happiness
  • Coast to Coast
  • Mood Indigo
  • Cinema Paradiso
  • The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears

We found ourselves watching a lot of documentaries; following are some of our favorites from the year, all of which are exceedingly well done and fostered a real appreciation for their subject matter. Standouts for me were the highly intriguing Genius on Hold and The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden. I think I like these best because unlike many of the others, there are mysteries still unplumbed. Many other documentaries “solve” their topic through exhaustive research and analysis; these two left me still intrigued and puzzled. Steve’s favorites were Keith Richards: Under the Influence and Reel Injun.

  • Out of the Clear Blue Sky
  • Salinger
  • Hava Nagila: The Movie
  • History of the Eagles
  • Gasland
  • Radio Unnameable
  • Winnebago Man
  • Casting By
  • The Search for General Tso
  • The Search for Michael Rockefeller
  • Keith Richards: Under the Influence
  • Genius on Hold
  • Reel Injun
  • There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane
  • Iris
  • Listen to Me Marlon
  • The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden

Streaming also brought us some wonderful TV series this year. We fell in love with Foyle’s War and are still under the spell of the glorious Mad Men. HBO’s documentary on Robert Durst was more fascinating and unbelievable than a fiction piece, but we were unsettled by its manipulations, particularly its final twist, which left a sour feeling of being had. Also noteworthy and unmissable was HBO’s Show Me a Hero.

Food

This year’s restaurant find was a new nearby Greek restaurant:  Apella Greek Taverna. A late year discovery for pizza, found purely on a whim — as so many of our best food finds are — was Pacini’s in Red Bank. And a revelation: the Shore doesn’t do romantic. So we are still in search of a special occasion restaurant. But the quest is lots of fun! Farther afield, we discovered Han Dynasty in Union Square; so nice to have exotic, spicy Chinese (nonexistent in our part of Jersey).

Our new cooking discovery was butternut squash soup. So easy and so good; Steve roasts the squash with herbs before pureeing it. Also some apple salad combinations: spinach and apple and beet and apple. And a wonderful chopped scallop and breadcrumb concoction served in a ramekin.

We also perfected two recipes that have eluded us for years: first successfully recreating Zeffirelli’s  veal chop (the key is a bold, but simple, overnight marinade of lemon, wine, olive oil, and paprika). And just last week recreating the old Flagship rum buns. This recipe is lost to time — and apparently to most people’s memories; they seem to think that the D.C. Flagship rum buns were like Hogate’s cinnamon rolls. They were not! They were popover shaped and not rolled at all. So we baked brioche studded with raisins in flower pots and poured rum glaze on top. Pretty damn close, pretty damn close. And fun to do after years of research and reminisces.

Field Trips

Three successful day trips stand out. For Julie’s birthday, we went to the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria. It’s fascinating and chock full of wonders, like an old Edison film of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots and exhibits of movie makeup, scripts, prosthetics, costumes — plus there was a glorious exhibit of Mad Men memorabilia and artifacts. We lingered longly: it was wonderful.

Our most distant field trip was to Peekskill when we went to the Alan Parsons concert in June. A nice little town, a lovely day, TWO used bookstores to browse, a farmers market, a whiff (but no opportunity to taste) of an enticing pizza, beautiful weather… a very very nice day. And beautiful scenery on the drive up and back.

We also visited, at long last, the Philadelphia Zoo in November. It was a beautiful day and a quite nice zoo. Standouts were the roast pork and cheese steak from John’s — another long-promised destination at last achieved — and the tigers pacing above our heads in a unique and unnerving environmental design. Sarah’s favorite, the red panda, was on vacation, which was a disappointment; we’ll try to catch up with the new babies at the Bronx Zoo next year.

Not technically a field trip, but highly satisfying and thrilling, were our several late-night jaunts to the beach to see various meteorological events including the lunar eclipse, the Perseids, and the Orionids. The best was a night in summer on the pier in Ocean Grove, lazily counting some dozen meteors with Danny over the course of a very special hour.

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