Cultural Notes: January 2018

With a nod to Kottke's monthly "Media Diet" posts, I'm experimenting this year with short monthly recaps of interesting things I've read, watched or listened to. (This is as much for myself, as noting what I took in can help me better recall it.)



  • The Big Sick (B+)
  • Columbus (A) — Unique and sensitive debut with such lovely and surprising  architecture.
  • The Sopranos, Final Season (A)

Listened To

  • Lomelda, "From Here," — Stumbled on her via Spotify Discover. The last-third build-up gets me singing.  
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on "Discovering America" — On this recent New Yorker Radio Hour interview with David Remnick, Adichie was incisive and funny. Moved me to pick up Americanah, which I'm reading now.
  • Slow Burn — Binged-listened to this podcast about Watergate. Hard to believe.
  • Saint Louis Symphony Concert Family Concert  — First time taking Leo, who looked up with wide eyes at Powell Hall's magnificent ceiling. It was a treat that the special guest was the 442s, friends and collaborators on this Forest Park Forever project. A week since going, Leo's been loudly 'conducting' in the kitchen. 

Emily Nussbaum on "Downton Abbey"

Really liking Nussbaum’s work in her new role as The New Yorker’s TV critic:

Like “Luck,” “Downton Abbey” arrives wrapped in the shiny foil of cachet TV (PBS, WWI, tea and corsets!). But the British series, about the aristocratic Crawley family and their titular home, goes down so easily that it’s a bit like scarfing handfuls of caramel corn while swigging champagne. To let us know that we’re safely in the Masterpiece zone, Laura Linney, clad in a black cocktail dress, introduces each episode with a tense grin, as if welcoming us to a PBS fund-raiser, which I suppose she is.

I could pick at small elements of the show, especially the extraordinary obstacles placed in the way of about fifteen separate couples. (There’s enough unrequited love to make “The Remains of the Day” look like “Caligula.”) A few villains have hearts as black as coal; a few of the decent people could use a good noogie. A threat of blackmail is overheard through a heating duct. And, despite the show’s reasonably nuanced examination of social class, there’s a suspicious ping of nostalgia that one detects over time. But I can’t lie: when I reached the final DVD in my preview package and realized that it was missing the Christmas finale, I let out an animal howl. With its perfectly crafted zingers, waves of pure heartbreak, and a visual thread count so dense it may actually qualify as a controlled substance, “Downton Abbey” is situated precisely on the Venn diagram where “prestige” meets “guilty pleasure”: it’s as much cake as it is bread. And, sue me, I like cake.

2011 in Review

A continuation, in slightly different form, of the “Annual Favorites” list I’ve been keeping for the past decade:

Favorite Books

  1. One With Others, by C.D. Wright

  2. Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

  3. Beautiful Evidence, by Edward R. Tufte

  4. The Architecture of Happiness, by Alain de Botton

  5. The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace

  6. Havana, by Michael Eastman

  7. The Big Short, by Michael Lewis

  8. Why Mahler?, by Norman Lebrecht

  9. Beloved, by Toni Morrison

  10. Decoded, by JAY Z

  11. To End a War, by Richard Holbrooke

  12. The Hare With Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal

  13. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. I

  14. The Pentagram Papers (anniversary collection)

  15. Saul Bellow: Letters

  16. Enduring Love, by Ian McEwan

  17. In the Plex, by Steven Levy

  18. A Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan

  19. In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson

  20. Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

  21. Butcher’s Crossing, by John Williams

  22. The Submission, by Amy Waldman

  23. Buddhism, by Donald W. Mitchell

  24. Out Stealing Horses, by Per Patterson

  25. At the Same Time, by Susan Sontag

  26. Solar, by Ian McEwan

  27. The Elements of Content Strategy, by Erin Kissane

  28. Content Strategy for the Web, by Kristina Halvorson

  29. Richard Serra: Sculpture: 40 Years, multiple authors

Other Book Notes: Meh on Life of Pi by Yann Martel and The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. Was impressed by the early portions I read of Hitch-22. Gave up early on Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje, Blue Nights by Joan Didion (despite really liking Magical Thinking), and The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (despite loving Middlesex way back when). Enjoyed paging through a handful of art books and catalogues, most especially Marina Abromivic: The Artist is Present. And about the Jobs bio: I’m a grateful and admiring Apple user, but it’s troubling how much time Jobs seemed to spend — and enjoy spending — belittling others.

Favorite Movies: 2011

  1. Tree of Life

  2. Midnight in Paris

  3. The Artist

  4. Beginners

  5. Cave of Forgotten Dreams

  6. Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol

  7. Tabloid

  8. Drive

Other 2011 Movie Notes: So-so on Contagion. Disliked The Descendants.

Favorite Movies: Pre-2011

  1. Macbeth (BBCs’ 2010 version)

  2. The Mirror

  3. The Death of Yugoslavia (6-part BBC documentary)

  4. Blue Valentine

  5. Inside Job

  6. Another Year

  7. Rabbit Hole

  8. Of Gods and Men

  9. Toy Story 3

  10. True Grit

  11. Objectified

  12. The Other Guys

  13. The Fighter

  14. Casino

  15. The Secret in Their Eyes

  16. The Town

  17. Badlands

  18. Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Schulman

  19. Happy Go-Lucky

  20. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

  21. Salt

  22. The King’s Speech

Other Pre-2011 Movie Notes: Meh on Separate LiesThe September Issue could have been a decent 30-minute TV segment.

Favorite TV Programs

  1. Parks & Rec

  2. Colbert & Stewart

  3. Modern Family

  4. Curb Your Enthusiasm

  5. 30 Rock

  6. Top Chef (Season 6)

  7. American Masters: Woody Allen

  8. The Buddha (PBS)

  9. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979 series)

  10. Downton Abbey

  11. The Hour

  12. American Masters: Charles & Ray Eames

Favorite Music: This was the year I turned to Rdio, paying $5/month for access to its terrific (though not complete [no Will Oldham, for example]) library. It’s not a perfect set up, but I love the chance to listen to a lot of new-to-me music (including classical and hip-hop) without committing to a complete purchase. I also like being led to artists and albums I wouldn’t have known to seek out (like the movie soundtrack below). And I certainly don’t miss weighing down my MacBook with mp3 after mp3 — traveling lightly has its advantages. Looking at my Rdio history, here’s an alpha-order look at some of my favorite music from the past year’s listening:

CDs that weren’t on Rdio that I actually bought (digitally) and like a lot: Bill Callahan, Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle; Radiohead, The King of Limbs; The Decemberists, The King Is Dead; and Gillian Welch, The Harrow & the Harvest (though I always end of skipping the banjo-heavy tunes).

While we enjoyed some great St. Louis Symphony Orchestra concerts this fall (Rachmaninoff, Chopin, and Elgar; Stravinsky), the personal music highlight this year was seeing the Fruit Bats in concert in St. Louis. Tamara and I chose “Seaweed” as our wedding song back in 2007, and I’d requested, via Twitter and Facebook, that the songwriter play it during his St. Louis show. He ended the evening with a phenomenal, slightly altered version, solo, in a dead-quiet Off Broadway.

Favorite Museums & Exhibitions

  1. Permanent Collection, Neues Museum, Berlin

  2. “Dreamscapes,” The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, St. Louis

  3. Permanent Collection, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin

  4. Permanent Collection, The Joan Miró Foundation, Barcelona

  5. “Laszlo Moholy-Nagy: Kunst des Lichts (Painting with Light),” Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin

  6. “Robert Mapplethorpe Retrospective,” C / O Gallery, Berlin

  7. Permanent Collection, Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona

  8. Permanent Collection, New National Gallery, Berlin

  9. “Italiens Junge Kunst in der Botschaft,” Italian Embassy, Berlin

The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts hired me to edit its print and web catalogue for “Reflections of the Buddha,” so my opinion isn’t terribly subjective; but it’s a tremendous show.

Favorite Articles & Essays: Yes, it’s New Yorker-heavy.

  1. “The Aquarium,” by Aleksandar Hemon, The New Yorker

  2. “A Murder Foretold,” by David Grann, The New Yorker

  3. “Revolt of the Elites,” by The Editors, n+1

  4. “Coming Apart:” by George Packer, The New Yorker

  5. “The Apostate,” by Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker

  6. “The Gulf War,” by Raffi Khatchadqurian, The New Yorker

  7. “Behind the Curtain” and “Exit Bin Laden,” by David Remnick, The New Yorker

  8. “The Broken Contract,” by George Packer, Foreign Affairs

  9. “The Joy of Vex,” by James Parker, The Atlantic

  10. “Post-Artifact,” by Craig Mod,

  11. “Are You Ready for More?” by Sharon Begley, Newsweek

  12. “State for Sale,” by Jane Mayer, The New Yorker

  13. “Franzen’s Ugly Americans Abroad,” by Tim Parks, NYR Blog

  14. “Story’s End,” by Meghan O'Rourke, The New Yorker

  15. “Inside David Foster Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library,” by Maria Bustillos, The Awl

  16. “Personal Best,” by Atul Gawande, The New Yorker

  17. “The Book on Publishing,” by Chad Harbach, Vanity Fair

  18. “Mapping Home,” by Aleksandar Hemon

  19. “The Disposable Woman,” by Anna Holmes, The New York Times

  20. “Today, Muslims; tomorrow, you,” by Roger Simon, Politico

  21. “Dubai on Empty,” by A. A. Gill, Vanity Fair

  22. “Universe Dented, Grass Underfoot,” by John Gruber, Daring Fireball

  23. “Fear of Missing Out,” by Caterina Fake, (link’s currently broken)

  24. “Don’t Release the Photos,” by Philip Gourevitch,

  25. “Fact-Free Science,” by Judith Warner, The New York Times Magazine

  26. “The Future of Books,” by James Warner,

  27. “No Depression,” by Sasha Frere-Jones, The New Yorker

  28. “My Job Pt. 1 — I have no idea what I’m doing,” by Ben Pieratt,

  29. “Karen Green: Interview,” by Tim Adams, The Observer

  30. “Bruce Springsteen Releases New Concept Album About Struggles of Poor Miners Working on Mars,” The Onion

  31. “Mitt Romney Haunted By Past of Trying to Help Uninsured Sick People,” The Onion

  32. “Josh Hartnett Returns To Pearl Harbor For First Time Since Film,” The Onion

  33. “David Chipperfield: A master of permanence comes home,” by Rowan Moore, The Observer

  34. “How long does it take to ‘get’ an album?” by Steven Hyden, The Onion AV Club

  35. A good number of posts by Andrew Sullivan, Amy Davidson, and Shawn Blanc.

Favorite Audio & Podcasts: Love The New Yorker’s Political Scene podcast. My find this year was Slate’s The Culture Gabfest. The BBC’s Arts and Ideas podcast is consistently great. Planet Money’s “Inside the Mind of a Financial Criminal” was a terrific and entertaining individual episode. The BBC’s “Europe’s New Politics” was troubling and important (though I’m happy to say it looks as if this trend has slowed in northern Europe). I greatly enjoyed On Being’s episode called “A Wild Love for the World.”

Favorite Technology: iPad 2. Remarkable. And we love our PanasonicGF-1.

Personal Highlights: Spending half the year living with Tamara in Berlin, spending 10 days with her family in Bosnia, visiting friends in Spain, and reunioning with family in Oregon. Back here at home: Joining TOKY and buying a house we dig.

Weisberg on The Wire

At Slate, Jacob Weisberg makes a call I can live with:

“The Wire,” which has just begun its fourth season on HBO, is surely the best TV show ever broadcast in America. This claim isn’t based on my having seen all the possible rivals for the title, but on the premise that no other program has ever done anything remotely like what this one does, namely to portray the social, political, and economic life of an American city with the scope, observational precision, and moral vision of great literature.

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Saw “Crash,” which was terrible. I’ve since been thinking of it as “Hate, Actually.” Like “Love, Actually,” it was overstuffed and overblown, though its self-seriousness and every-three-minutes-message-thumping made it even more frustrating. Beyond the whole coincidental plot interweavings (which I’m not against; K. Kiesklowski’s “Red” might be my all-time top movie), there are loads of just ludicrous scenes. That hugely successful and savvy DA’s twice-repeated comment about “black people”? Right. Sandra Bullock’s terribly mean and unhappy character slipping on a slick wood floor and transforming – not even overnight; overday – into a completely aware woman looking for a hug? The smooth and successful black television producer reclaiming a bit of his non-honky history by heaving some debris into a street fire? What’s strange is that much of the acting was very fine, especially Ryan Phillippe’s. But the structure and the writing and the pacing and the editing produced a crummy product. David Denby’s glowing New Yorker review is beyond me. David Edelstein’s review in Slate made more sense to me. I wish the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum – one of my favorite writers on film – would’ve better justified his three-star review.

Also: Watched the first three discs of season two of “The Wire.” I don’t have cable and hadn’t seen an episode until a few months ago. I rented the entire first season and ate it up. It was so, so great. Can’t wait to continue with the rest of season two.

Read C.J. Hribal’s new novel “The Company Car.” Hribal was my fiction prof. in college, and I plan to do an extended interview with him over the summer. He’s a smart, funny guy, and this book was the same. Also read Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead,” which won the Pulitzer last year for fiction. It’s probably the most human and calm and warm and humble book about religion I’ve ever read. I also started Cormac McCarthy’s “All the Pretty Horses,” to prep for reviewing his forthcoming novel “No Country for Old Men.” I think my next post – once I finish “Horses” – will be a round-up of McCarthy passages. The guy’s possessed.