Entries in My Humble Opinion (24)

Saturday
Dec312011

A Crack in Everything: The Best of 2011

This time last year, I characterized 2010 as my most difficult year ever.  2011 was much better: still hard, but with lots of good stuff, too. I don't regret the trials I've experienced over the past two years. Looking back, I am reminded of those lines from Leonard Cohen's "Anthem": "There is a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in." I've been blessed with many glimpses of light in past months, which means I have to be grateful for those cracks, right?

Anyway, here are my highlights of the past year.

Best Books Read:

This year, I’ve decided to rank only books I read for the first time (no re-reads, as in years past). I’m also only ranking books by writers whom I don’t know personally.

1. The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson

2. A Dance with Dragons, By George R. R. Martin

3. Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, by Wendy Watson Nelson

4. Pathfinder, by Orson Scott Card

5. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua

6. Matched, by Ally Condie

7. The Healing Spell, by Kimberley Griffiths Little

8. Little Elvises, by Tim Hallinan

9. Sweater Quest, by Adrienne Martini

10. Save the Cat!, by Blake Snyder

Now I’ll list some outstanding books written by people I do know.  These are in no particular order—but they’re all worth your time.

Band of Sisters, by Annette Lyon

Keep Mama Dead, by S. James Nelson

I Don’t Want to Kill You, by Dan Wells

Not My Type, by Melanie Jacobson

The Scorch Trials, by James Dashner

Pumpkin Roll, by Josi Kilpack

Variant, by Rob Wells

Special Mention: Unwound, by Lee Ann Setzer—This book isn’t published yet. Lee Ann is in my critique group, so I got the immense privilege of reading this YA historical fantasy a few weeks ago. What. A. Joy.  Definitely one of the best books I read this year. My prediction: Lee Ann is the next Shannon Hale. Remember, you read it here first.

Best Music Purchased:

1. “Noisy Birds” (and so many other fantastic tracks), by Fictionist

1. “The Bird Song” (and the rest of the new record), by The Wailin’ Jennys

1. “Born on a New Day,” by The King’s Singers

4. “Sweet Bells” by Kate Rusby

5. “This Little Light of Mine,” by The Lower Lights

6. “You’re My Best Friend,” by The Once

7. “Baby We Were Young,” by The Dirty Guv’nahs

Best Movies Seen (I am wayyyy behind on movie viewing right now):

1. Jane Eyre

2. Midnight in Paris

3. Harry Potter 7.2

4. Super 8

5. Moneyball

6. The Help

7. Cowboys and Aliens

8. The Adjustment Bureau

9. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Most Disappointing Movie:

Hanna

2011 Movies on my To See List (See? Wayyy behind):

We Bought a Zoo

Hugo

The Adventures of Tintin

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Kung Fu Panda 2

Queen to Play

The Tree of Life

Dream House

Yarn of the Year: Blue Moon Fiber Arts Woobu in the Ravenscroft colorway

Best Meals Eaten:

1. Private party at the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, London

2. Craft, NYC

3. Maze, NYC

4. Thanksgiving Dinner, Cold Spring, NY

5. Em’s, Salt Lake City, UT

6. Café Cluny, NYC

7. Bernard’s Inn, Ridgefield, CT

8. Keens Steakhouse, NYC

9. Shake Shack, Citifield, Queens, NY

10. Valley, Garrison, NY

Best Theatre of the Year:

MusicalHugh Jackman: Back on Broadway—DIVINE.

PlayThe Mountaintop, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett—TRANSCENDENT.

ConcertGreat Big Sea—AGAIN and ALWAYS.

Thursday
Dec312009

2009 Favorites

In case you are interested, here is my Best of 2006 list, here is my Best of 2007 list, and here is my Best of 2008 list.

We had dinner with our friend Trevor a few days ago.  As we got caught up with one another, he mentioned that he was currently at work on his soon-to-be-released "Best of the Decade" list.  This Bear of Very Little Brain is not so ambitious.  It's all I can do to record and recall what I've read, seen, and otherwise experienced in the past twelve months.  I'll leave the decade retrospectives to smarter people (like John Scalzi and Trevor).  Following is what I thought was most memorable about 2009.

Best Books (Read or Re-Read):

1. M. Catherine Thomas, Selected Writings
2. Allegra Goodman, Kaaterskill Falls
3. Ysabeau Wilce, Flora Segunda
4. Larry Brooks, Story Structure Demystified
5. Janet Soskice, The Sisters of Sinai
6. Jeannette Walls, Half Broke Horses
7. Tahmaseb/Vance, The Geek Girl's Guide to Cheerleading
8. Herve This, Molecular Gastronomy
9. Kathryn Stockett, The Help
10. Neal Stephenson, Anathem

Worst Book of the Year: Nick McDonnell's An Expensive Education

Best Eating Experiences:

1. L'Abbaye des Vaux de Cernay
2. Chez Papa
3. Cafe Angelina
4. Every other meal we ate in France
5. JoJo
6. Shake Shack
7. Dovetail
8. London gastropub, the name of which escapes me
9. eighty-one
10. Ouest

Top Movies Seen (I haven't seen very many):

Up
Food, Inc.
Star Trek
Where the Wild Things Are
Sherlock Holmes
Julie & Julia

Worst Movie of the Year: Year One (Please, oh please may I have that 97 minutes back?)

Top Music Downloads:

1. The Avett Brothers, "I and Love and You"
2. Great Big Sea, "When I'm Up"
3. Eddie Vedder, "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away"
4. Sting, "The Snow It Melts the Soonest"
5. Straight No Chaser, "The Twelve Days of Christmas"

Greatest Personal Accomplishments:

1. Planning, catering, and cheerleading our family's three-week trip to France
2. Helping friends in need
3. Breaking down a few genealogical brick walls on some of my family's lines
4. Not literally bursting with pride while watching my sons perform
5. Giving two successful lecture series on Family History and Temple Work
6. Producing some rocking-fun Sharing Times in Primary
7. Getting my short stories "Fugue" and "Truck Stop" published
8. Perservering in the novel submission process
9. Getting on the Clapotis bandwagon with great results
10. Making a successful Pandoro from scratch

It was a quiet but lovely year.  I feel like I'm slowly but surely achieving better balance in the various aspects of my life.  I have big plans for 2010, mostly having to do with more structure and consistency in my daily routines.  Here's to the year ahead!

Monday
Jun222009

Define "great."

"The real Brahms…is nothing more than a sentimental voluptuary…the most wanton of composers…his wantonness is that of a great baby…rather tiresomely addicted to dressing himself up as Handel or Beethoven and making a prolonged and intolerable noise.” —George Bernard Shaw, in The World, 21 June 1893

“The final business of art is not with ‘impressions’….The man who can convey an impression of what he has heard is listened to only until that other man comes who has both the impression and the knowledge. We want not ‘impressionists’ but ‘expressionists,’ men who can say what they mean because they know what they have heard. In art we want the same. We want…still more that the artist should be at pains to give us of his knowledge, and we want not always the scratches and blotches and misty suggestions of the ‘impressionist’ drawings…” —Unsigned Review: “The Impressionists and the ‘Values’ of Nature,” in Artist, 1 May 1883

“[In Moby Dick,] the idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed. Our author must be henceforth numbered in the company of the incorrigibles who occasionally tantalize us with indications of genius, while they constantly summon us to endure monstrosities, carelessnesses, and other such harassing manifestations of bad taste as daring or disordered ingenuity can devise....” —Henry F. Chorley, in London Athenaeum, October 25 1851



Lately I’ve been reading a lot of conversations about the quest to write the Great Mormon Novel. Will there ever be one? If so, will it be literary fiction? Will it be speculative fiction, which, as I wrote here, is a genre in which LDS writers feel especially at home? Or will it defy categorization, as great art often does until the critics and marketers catch up?

The first quote at the top of this post comes from the book The Lexicon of Musical Invective, by Nicholas Slonimsky, which presents scathing reviews of every significant classical music composer from Beethoven onward—all written by prominent reviewers who were the composers’ contemporaries. Chopin, Debussy, Gershwin, and many others whom we now revere as geniuses were often held in utter contempt by arbiters of taste of their day (note: this makes for highly entertaining reading).

As all three quotes above show (and the emphases are mine), this critical short-sightedness is not limited to reviews of music. Often the consuming public needs the perspective that the passage of time affords to recognize artistic genius, whatever the medium.

When Orson Whitney called upon the shades of Milton and Shakespeare to spur his people on to greatness, those worthies had already been dead for 200 years. He wielded their names with authority.  History had already given them the stamp of ultimate approval: greatness.

Today, more writers than ever are creating the best stories they possibly can and getting published in one form or another. Is it possible to identify true artistic genius when a work is comparatively new, or do we need to let it age for a while? What are we to do in the meantime? How do you define “great” when it comes to art that is being produced in our lifetime?

Personally, I’m not sure I’m worried about “great” right now. As far as books go, what I want is a thumping good read with characters who feel true and complex, plots that that arc in satisfying fashion, and stories that are imbued with what I call “surprising inevitability.” By this I mean that I can’t necessarily predict what will happen (or, more importantly, how it will happen). But when I reach the last page, I’ll know that the story had to turn out in just this way and no other. (As it happens, this is precisely the kind of books I’m trying to write.)

I’ve read two books recently that exactly fit these criteria. Bound on Earth, by Angela Hallstrom, caught my attention when it won the Whitney Award for Best Novel by a New Author this year. Judges, I concur. Bound on Earth is a series of interconnected narratives told by characters who feel real and familiar. Hallstrom’s writing is graceful and spare, and her expositional judgment is keen.  Highly recommended.

I gather as I scan the reviews that the press has not been kind to Shannon Hale’s The Actor and the Housewife. I, however, liked this book very much. Pregnant LDS mother Becky Jack meets her favorite movie star under highly unlikely circumstances. Said star finds himself drawn to Becky and her quirky charm, and the two become best friends. Yes, the premise is a fantastic one, but story feels true and believable.  I easily identified and sympathized with the main character and her family. The book's chatty, confessional style served as a skillful counterpoint to what is ultimately a tale of heartbreak.  I literally laughed (many, many times) and cried (at least twice, with more wellings here and there) while reading it—and Ms. Hale, that doesn’t happen very often.

Another plug for both Hallstrom and Hale: they have written mainstream books with well-drawn and three-dimensional LDS protagonists. It’s one of my dearest dreams to see interesting and complex Mormon characters become as familiar to the general public as those of other faiths and cultures. These writers have made a great beginning toward realizing this dream; I hope to follow in their footsteps someday very soon.

Monday
Jun152009

The Holy Glimmers of Good-byes

When I told Christian that Patrick and I were going to hear Benjamin Britten's War Requiem at Avery Fisher Hall, he asked, "What is it—a mass?" I answered that it was a choral piece set to the traditional liturgical text, but that the composer had also included several anti-war poems written almost a century ago by Wilfred Owen.

"Wow," Christian said. "It sounds like a protest song." He studied protest songs in his freshman songwriting class and has gained a healthy appreciation for the genre.

I agreed. "The War Requiem is the ultimate protest song," I said.

Wilfred Owen was no draft dodger; his poems draw on his own harrowing experiences in the trenches of France during World War I. Hospitalized for shell shock—what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder—Owen began writing in the hope that doing so would exorcise the horrors he had witnessed. Once healed and back on the battlefield, Owen was shot through the head by a German gunman and died just a week before Armistice Day.

Britten composed his Requiem in 1962 for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral. German bombs mostly razed the 15th century cathedral during World War II, and in 1956 a new structure was begun alongside the ruins. The British government turned the old cathedral site into a memorial monument; Britten hoped his composition would also stand as a monument, a warning to future generations against the senseless waste of war.

When my friend Tina Fairweather told me that her choir would be singing the War Requiem, accompanied by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of the great Lorin Maazel, I couldn’t wait to get tickets. Benjamin Britten looms large in my pantheon of personal artistic heroes, and I knew hearing the Requiem live would be a transcendent experience. Saturday night’s concert exceeded my expectations.

The Requiem is a 20th century composition, perhaps not very accessible to the casual listener. The key to appreciating it is to let go of expectations of traditional Western melodic progression and instead glory in the way the gorgeous textures of the music highlight and underscore the poignant text.

Throughout the performance, the violins and the choral voices created almost palpable tissues of sound, great swaths of silk that arose and twined around one another. The honey-voiced tenor and baritone (Vale Rideout and Ian Greenlaw), along with some of the woodwinds, embroidered upon this rich fabric. And the brass: if I hadn’t known better, I would have thought that the brass section was manned by a corps of angels: thrilling perfection.

During the third movement, the Offertorium, a boys’ choir pleads (in Latin) that the souls of all the faithful be delivered “from the pains of hell and from the depths of the pit: deliver them from the lion’s mouth, that hell devour them not, that they fall not into darkness.” The adult chorus continues the prayer: “But let the standard bearer Saint Michael bring them into the holy light: which of old Thou didst promise unto Abraham and his seed.”

Then the tenor and baritone sing a duet that tells of Abraham and Isaac’s journey to Mount Moriah. But Owen turns the traditional Bible story on its head: “Lo! An angel called [Abraham] out of heaven, saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do anything to him. Behold, a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns; Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him. But the old man would not so, but slew his son—And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

“Half the seed of Europe, one by one.” As this refrain is repeated, the listener understands that Abraham in this telling represents government turning away from heavenly urgings of humility and peace. It’s a chilling, inspired moment, one of the high points of the piece.

The Requiem closes with another such transformative musical scene. In the sixth movement, the Libera Me, the tenor and the baritone represent two spirits of soldiers from opposing sides of a conflict. They meet in the afterlife and recognize one another.

“Strange friend,” one says, “here is no cause to mourn.”

“None,” answers the other, “save the undone years, the hopelessness….the pity of war, the pity war distilled. Now men will go content with what we spoiled….”

They dream of an end to war: “When much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels, I would go up and wash them from sweet wells, Even from wells we sunk too deep for war, Even from the sweetest wells that ever were.

“Let us sleep now,” the two sing in counterpoint as the choirs chant the traditional words “Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord: and let light eternal shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.”

As the last whisper of chord died away, as we applauded madly with the rest of the audience through three curtain calls, and as we drove the long, dark road home from the City, I thought about war and peace.

It is not enough to wash the chariot wheels; it is not enough to treat the symptoms of war. We must eliminate its cause altogether. War on a global scale will not end until we have cleansed hate from our hearts, until we have swept disharmony out of our homes, until we have replaced the filth of enmity with the sweet water of unconditional love in our communities.

We can march, we can petition, we can wear ribbons. But until we look inward, rooting out pride and intolerance within ourselves even when we are convinced of the correctness of our position—especially when we are convinced of the correctness of our position—we will never free ourselves from war.

Dona nobis pacem.

Sunday
Apr052009

V3ry C00l

Okay, so I'm late to the party. Back in February, Charrette blogged about a cool project her husband was doing with his New Media class at BYU. I was slammed with deadlines, but kept promising myself I'd check it out.

I finally got to it, and it was so worth it. My big boys and I snuggled up with the laptop tonight and watched all eleven webisodes--that's all there are so far--of the new webcast series The Book of Jer3miah. It sounds like a marathon, but it wasn't; each webisode is only about five minutes long.

I'm always up for a good conspiracy theory, and Jer3miah does not disappoint. It's alternately sad, suspenseful, creepy, and funny (hint: I love the elven-dressed, RPG-playing next-door neighbor and his secret-combination-obsessed roommate). After the first three episodes, it stops going "all Cloverfield" (as Christian put it) with the handheld camera and settles down into some pretty cool cinematography.

If you find yourself wanting more (and each webisode manages to leave its audience hanging over a cliff), there are two ancillary websites offering extra clues to the mysteries surrounding Jeremiah Whitney and his fate. The Davenport Papers looks like a social networking site, and zoobynews.com is the reporting outlet set up by one of Jer3miah's characters.

Go watch it! You can get caught up in inside of an hour--less time than it takes to watch an episode of Lost or 24. You can bet the boys and I will be tuning in every Friday from now on.