2016 Round-Up

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Books (me)

  • What You Make It: A Book of Short Stories, Michael Marshall Smith
  • Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies, Dave Itzkoff
  • Grandmama of Europe, Theo Aronson
  • The Scapegoat, Daphne du Maurier
  • So, Anyway…, John Cleese
  • Subliminal: The Revolution of the New Unconscious and What It Teaches Us About Ourselves, Leonard Mlodinow
  • Falling Angel, William Hjortsberg
  • Inspector Queen’s Own Case, Ellery Queen
  • On the Move: A Life, Oliver Sacks
  • Mrs. McThing: A Play, Mary Chase
  • Max Perkins Editor of Genius, A. Scott Berg
  • Control, William Goldman
  • The Making of Donald Trump, David Ray Johnston
  • Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann
  • Let Me Tell You, Shirley Jackson
  • The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, Leonard Mlodinow
  • The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy, Kliph Nesteroff

A fair balance of old and new, fiction and non, escapist and serious. The short works from Smith and Jackson were almost uniformly excellent, and lingered deliciously. The du Maurier, Ellery Queen, and Goldman were not up to their usual standards, but still quite readable. Of the nonfiction, the science works by Mlodinow were standouts—he is an optimist and sees an upside in the fact of a large percentage of our brain and its workings remaining inaccessible to our conscious mind. Like Oliver Sacks, his humanity shines through. Aside from the Trump, which was useful and depressing, the biographies were delightful: the Perkins I have written about previously, the Cleese was surprisingly modest and friendly, Sacks’s was so lovely and poignant, and Aronson’s breezy treatment of Victoria’s children and grandchildren was an enduring pleasure. The two other nonfiction works were much less successful, with both Itzkoff’s take on Chayevsky’s masterpiece and Nesteroff’s panorama of 20th century comedy essentially striking me as wasted efforts. Neither ultimately makes an important point, and Nesteroff in particular had no intention of killing his darlings in order to make a coherent narrative. Colum McCann’s book was excellent, and it was fun to read the source novel for  Angel Heart.

Books (Steve)

  • The Teammates, David Halberstam
  • Indignation, Philip Roth
  • Town and City, Jack Kerouac
  • So, Anyway…, John Cleese
  • A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
  • Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
  • Looking for Chet Baker, Bill Moody
  • Paganini’s Ghost, Paul Adams
  • Thoughts without Cigarettes, Oscar Hijuelo
  • Don Quixote, Cervantes
  • Heart of Crow Country, Joe Medicine Crow
  • Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann
  • Mr. Arkadin, Orson Welles
  • The Fortunate Pilgrim, Mario Puzo

Steve’s favorite was Don Quixote, which he had wanted to read for years. He greatly enjoyed the Hijuelo book; that author died this past year. Roth and Kerouac are favorite authors of Steve’s, and they did not disappoint. His summer beach book was Heart of Crow Country; he has always had an affinity for Native Americans, since his days on the reservation with Waho—a long story.

Books (Martin)

My brother wanted to contribute his lists to our annual round-up; I think just to show us up with his prolific readings.

  • Grandmama of Europe, Theo Aronson
  • A Play of Isaac, Margaret Frazer
  • A Play of Dux Maraud, Margaret Frazer
  • The Novice’s Tale, Margaret Frazer
  • The Fleet Street Murders, Charles Finch
  • Arsenic and Old Books, Miranda James
  • Where Shadows Dance, C.S. Harris
  • Arlene Francis, Arlene Francis
  • A Stranger in Mayfair, Charles Finch
  • The Abbot’s Agreement, Mel Starr
  • Christmas Crimes, Anne Perry
  • The Servant’s Tale, Margaret Frazer
  • Paganini’s Ghost, Paul Adams
  • The Wars of the Roses, Dan Jones
  • Pythagoras’ Revenge, Arturo Sangalli
  • Murder on Amsterdam Avenue, Victoria Thompson
  • On the Move: A Life, Oliver Sacks
  • A Burial at Sea, Charles Finch
  • The Probability of Murder, Ada Madison
  • Shooting for the Stars, R.G. Belsky
  • A Play of Knaves, Margaret Frazer
  • Death of a Stranger, Anne Perry
  • A Play of Lords, Margaret Frazer
  • The Case of the Haunted Husband, Erle Stanley Gardner
  • Divine Inspiration, Jane Langton
  • Digging Up the Dirt, Miranda James
  • The Thief of Venice, Jane Langton
  • The Paris Librarian, Mark Pryor
  • The Angel Court Affair, Anne Perry
  • Cruel is the Grave, Sharon Kay Penman
  • The Whole Cat and Caboodle, Sofie Ryan
  • Presidents of America, Jon Roper
  • The Edge of Dreams, Rhys Bowen
  • A Death in the Small Hours, Charles Finch
  • Murder in the White House, Margaret Truman
  • I Loved Her in the Movies, Robert Wagner
  • Murder in the Ball Park, Robert Goldsborough
  • Coming to Our Senses, Jon Kabat-Zinn
  • The Queen’s Head, Edward Marston
  • Buy a Whisker, Sofie Ryan

Concert

Our only concert this year was seeing Donovan at Peekskill’s Paramount Theater. It was the most low-key, friendly, cozy concert imaginable. He sat cross-legged on rugs piled up on a little platform on the stage. There were no lighting effects, no other musicians, no props. Just Donovan telling stories and singing songs and weaving a quietly magical spell of peace. So nice.

Dance, Theater, and Performance

  • Mathilda (Broadway)
  • Burnished by Grief (Talking Band)
  • You Better Werk (Sarah)
  • City of Glass (based on Paul Auster story)
  • Taming of the Shrew (Shakespeare in the Park)
  • Krapp’s Last Tape (Robert Wilson)
  • Twyla Tharp and Three Dances
  • Hamlet (Public Theater Mobile Unit)
  • Puppet Slam (La MaMa)
  • Carnival of the Animals (Columbia)
  • A Christmas Carol (No. 11)
  • The Front Page (Broadway)

Of course, the best was Julie’s A Christmas Carol and Sarah’s You Better Werk. Both productions were refreshing in their sincerity and essential optimism. As to the rest, the two Public productions were Steve’s first professionally staged Shakespeare plays, and he found them to be accessible, rousing, and absorbing. I particularly liked how the director set the mood for Hamlet, as she did as the show toured the boroughs of New York, reaching diverse audiences throughout the city, drawing everyone in with its universalities. Mathilda was very strong, with interesting and at times subtle staging and an uplifting, moral message of individuality and intellectuality; and of course, in all of these, the diction was perfect (all, of course, due to Julie—and what fun to see her listed in a Broadway Playbill!). Our two La MaMa shows were suitably offbeat and arresting. We always love seeing the Talking Band’s work, even when we don’t entirely get it, and it was such a treat for the annual Puppet Slam (short puppet pieces of varying tone and texture) to be held on a weekend, so we could finally go. The standout of that evening was a touching and simple piece, created by the puppeteer’s father: the little marionette learned to roller skate, and it was sheer joy. Not as successful for us were Krapp’s Last Tape, which completely eluded (and frankly, bored) both of us; and the Twyla Tharp, which just didn’t move us as she has in the past. I reviewed City of Glass earlier this year. As for The Front Page, it was great to see up close and personal some truly outstanding talent, notably Robert Morse and Nathan Lane. But in general, I found the director’s choices and presentation to be rather flat: the delivery and pacing never crackled and you never really got the nostalgia inherent in the piece—a rueful appreciation of a time and a species now long vanished. Plus the costumer design was not good; no sense of the era, and a very silly joke for Holland Taylor’s hat and coat.

And we also started the year with a play in our bathtub, which was tremendous fun and caused quite the stir here! The wildest part was that it was advertised in the NY Times, which brought a couple here who already had connections to us and the piece but didn’t know it till they arrived: he is a local poet whom I have worked with in past Gargoyles and she was the playwright’s babysitter a decade ago!

Movies

  • Anomalisa
  • 2016 Live Action Shorts and 2016 Animated Shorts
  • Hail, Caesar!
  • Brooklyn
  • The Hateful 8
  • Lady in the Van
  • Experimenter
  • 45 Years
  • Hello, My Name Is Doris
  • The Man Who Knew Infinity
  • A Bigger Splash
  • Citizen Four
  • The Lobster
  • Maggie’s Plan
  • The New Girlfriend
  • Absolutely Fabulous
  • Genius
  • Cafe Society
  • The Dressmaker
  • Sully
  • Florence Foster Jenkins
  • Indignation
  • Equity
  • Eight Days a Week
  • Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You
  • 99 Homes
  • Deconstructing The Beatles’ White Album
  • Nocturnal Animals
  • Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened

These are the movies we either saw in movie theaters or could have seen at the movies, but we missed them and caught them soon thereafter on Netflix or, in one case, PBS. A few were stunningly innovative: Anomalisa, the wistful tone of which I can still summon up after almost a year; the grand and glorious and gleeful The Hateful 8; the baffling The Lobster; the sleek Nocturnal Animals, whose style unfortunately outran its substance, but still, what images!; and Experimenter, a thoroughly riveting account of the work and life of Stanley Milgram, so absorbingly and interestingly told. Perhaps the one we liked best of all, though, was the documentary Eight Days a Week. This clean, sincere, and utterly heartfelt depiction of the Beatles’s touring years was moving and sweet. What came through so clearly was that these four were a team, a partnership. No scandals, no snark, just appreciation. And, together with another documentary we saw later in the year, Deconstructing The Beatles’ White Album, so educational and enriching. A few of our choices didn’t live up to our expectations, notably Cafe Society, which was simply terrible; Equity, which had all the right ingredients for twisty, but just didn’t do it; Indignation, which missed the scope of the book, focusing too narrowly on the love story; and Hello, My Name Is Doris, which fell into all the traps of movies made for and about women of a certain age: an assumption that they have the same needs and desires as women of the director’s age. Also terrible was the Norman Lear documentary. The remainder were largely enjoyable, and a few contained real pearls: The Dressmaker had a wonderful conceit—why can’t there be beauty in the middle of nowhere for no good reason—but unfortunately left this rather lovely point behind in an increasingly senseless yet ostensibly comic violent third act. And Florence Foster Jenkins contained the most wonderful acting I have ever seen by Hugh Grant.

As with other years, we saw seemingly jillions of other movies online via streaming, Netflix, HBO, and YouTube, among others. We mention a few standouts here: The Big Short; which was superlative; CBGB, an unexpected pleasure with Alan Rickman; a somber and uplifting The Railway Man; Bogdanovich’s She’s Funny That Way, which turned out to be frothy and delightful and charming; and the oddly stirring and evocative old Michael Powell movie, I Know Where I’m Going!, with Wendy Hiller and amazing cliffs of Scotland. We also revisited several old favorites, including Barton Fink, The Usual Suspects, Quiz Show, and The Sound of Music—which was actually a first time viewing for Steve.

I should also mention a few outstanding documentaries, all of which were tremendously insightful and thought provoking: Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview, which really shone a light on his brilliance; The Day Kennedy Died, which pieced together a cohesive narrative to a story we are so used to hearing in bits and fragments; Women He’s Undressed, an innovative and entertaining take on the life of Orry-Kelly; Boom Bust Boom, another innovative effort, this one from Terry Jones on economic cycles; (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies, my favorite science documentary of the year; and the excellent Muscle Shoals, All Things Must Pass, and Spymasters.

In TV, we continued our fascination with Mad Men, stubbornly not ending it just shy of the last episode; and became entranced with both Stranger Things and Insecurity.

Food

Standout new find was right here in Asbury: Capitoline, a fun cheap eats joint. Speakeatery became the year’s favorite for subs, and Pacini’s in Red Bank for pizza. Miss Saigon in Freehold supplied sorely missed authentic Vietnamese food. And a visit to Central Michel Richard in D.C.—what a nice restaurant and another sad and untimely death.

Recipe-wise, Steve perfected chowder, making both corn and New England clam varieties. And an impromptu application of Julia Child’s lamb/chicken mustard coating to pork tenderloin yielded terrific results. Also some very satisfying variants on blackened and Cajun chicken and pork bites. And a very nice chopped scallop ramekin treat.

Field trips

Northern trips to Peekskill, Montclair, Paramus, Washington Heights, and Brooklyn—this last through Staten Island, a new adventure. A lovely trip with Sarah to the Philadelphia Zoo, which, although not as vast a zoo as we had hoped—although with an unforgettable view of great cats overhead—yielded a food treasure: John’s roast pork, well worth the wait. A quick trip to Buck’s County to get out the vote, as disappointing as the results. A quick and delightful visit to Arlington for Rick Peabody’s birthday. Two quick day trips to Virginia to visit Steve’s mother in the nursing home: first, for her birthday in January, was a disaster, as we got caught in the freak ice storm and had to spend the night in Oxon Hill; the second, last month, much nicer with side visits to Dr. Witter and Ikea (who would think a trip to a dentist and to, God help us, Potomac Mills, could be fun? but they were!). And both trips featured dinner with old friends Jen and Bob.

We also had a nice share of friends coming to visit us this year: Georgiana and Rick, Rick Peabody, Susan and Mark, Chris and Aimee. All of these visits were a delight, the opportunity to see Asbury through fresh eyes.

We are getting quite adept at navigating the city and successfully (usually) avoiding bad tunnel traffic and snatching up good parking spaces in the East Village. A favorite field trip we’ve done a few times now: Union Square/East Village/Cooper’s Union for brunch/books/movie/farmers market and then home with carryout from Han Dynasty and a shopping trip to Westside Market. In that vein, a very nice movie experience with Sarah at the East Village Cinema to see The Eightful 8, in an old-time theater with balconies and curtains: a lush experience.

The year’s only museum visit was to the Neue Galerie to see a Munch exhibition. A privilege to be in the same room with these paintings.

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4 thoughts on “2016 Round-Up

  1. Wonderful roundup as always! Thanks for letting me play this year: I appreciate the chance to do a bit of reflection on what I read and saw and did this past year. My reading list may be long but it is almost 100% “comfort food” – no Don Quixote here. My favorite books this year were probably the ones by Charles Finch: I find him far and away the best contemporary mystery writer, in a league with Dorothy Sayers in terms of both plotting and style. I was happy to discover several new mystery writers that I like–Sophie Ryan’s mysteries featuring Elvis the Cat (and her owner Sarah) are quick and charming reads, featuring friendly characters with a minimum amount of snark; and Margaret Frazer, Edward Marston, and Sharon Kay Penman (the first of whom is sadly deceased) all have fun series of historical mysteries set in medieval/Renaissance Britain that I am enjoying. Oliver Sachs’s memoir was probably the best-written book I read this year and I am glad to have read it, but it did ultimately make me feel sad. I was very glad to re-read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Coming to Our Senses”-coming to it AFTER having started a program of meditation brought a different and better understanding, and his wisdom is very valuable to me. I enjoyed Arlene Francis’s memoir, too, since I’ve become such a WHAT’S MY LINE devotee. (Watching that show as diversion during exercise is great fun and also offers a true microcosm of a certain kind of American pop cultural history that’s surprisingly informative.) I tend to stop reading books I don’t like, so there are only a few disappointments on my list, most notably Mark Pryor’s “The Paris Librarian,” which featured some of the dopiest plotting that I have seen in a contemporary mystery: why a supposedly brilliant detective who is compared to Sherlock Holmes would allow himself to get into the place of danger that he does get to is utterly ridiculous. I am also getting tired of Anne Perry: it was nice to get to the root of the mystery of William Monk in “Death of a Stranger,” but not particularly satisfying and such a slow book to trudge through! Similarly, the places she is now taking Thomas and Charlotte Pitt in her newest books (“The Angel Court Affair”) just don’t interest me all that much.

    As for films, my list is very short: only two seen in theaters, both movies I am very glad to have seen. “The Best Worst Thing That Ever Happened” is a terrific documentary, featuring the music of Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” as soundtrack. “Sully” was great storytelling (that is not on Nita and Steve’s list!) featuring excellent direction by Clint Eastwood and another terrific performance by Tom Hanks, our best contemporary movie star.

    Some discoveries on TV: “The Glass Menagerie” starring Shirley Booth, Hal Holbrook, Barbara Loden, and Pat Hingle, all of whom nailed their roles, making this the most satisfying version of the play I’ve yet seen. Also, via TCM, “For Me and My Gal,” which is a much better film than I expected; “A Tale of Two Cities” and “Mutiny on the Bounty,” both exemplary epic MGM ’30s movies full of adventure; “Casblanca,” which I finally saw for the first time, and liked (but didn’t love, alas). And via video, thanks to Nita and Steve, “The Phil Silvers Show”–we are watching the entire run of the show (currently at the beginning of the final season). The first season is astonishingly great; the fun diminishes as the seasons pass, but Silvers himself is always a marvel.

    The only other things I want to mention here are my dabbles in electronics (with Raspberry Pi and Arduino devices) and, more recently, in Legos. Enjoying building things with my hands. And learned a lot about electronics, a little about robotics and architecture, so far. Looking forward to more of that in 2017.

    Very happy to be part of the great family tradition, thank you Nita!

    • Nita Congress

      And I am so glad you participated! Your breezy and earnest summary is much appreciated and so elucidating (as always); you so quickly pick up on and highlight the inherent values of the works you prize. I would say that’s a gift, but no, that’s craft and experience. I have amended our list (and added some other items that had “…slipped my mind”) to include Sully, which we also really liked — mostly, we liked going with you to both of the features on your list! Let’s hope the new year provides many more such opportunities; it is fun to sit together in the dark and be taken away together to new places…

  2. freestylergbb

    What a wonderful array of books and movies and food and more! I feel a competitive urge to catch up and a wish that I required no sleep. Note on Donovan, my favorite as a teenager and who I later met at an art opening in DC (he’s a good friend of the owner). At first I said this can’t be possible! He was sweet and gracious and gave me a magical book he wrote w the art gallery owner after signing with a lovely note to me. Later he sang for the crowd of 30 or so people followed by a concert at a local club a few days later. Don’t miss his Beat Cafe album, a jazzy musical experience.

    Thank you, Nita for reading and watching and doing so much in 2016. I will try to catch up selectively before 2017 gets too far along. And I obviously still have a crush on Donovan.

    • Nita Congress

      So nice of you to plow through all of this! and nicer still to hear the anecdote about Donovan. Sweet and gracious exactly describe how he came across at the concert, and magical sounds right too.

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