A whirlwind North Island road trip with the best company I could imagine

What do you do when two of your favourite people fly to the other side of the world to see you? Go to some of the north island’s most amazing sites of course! My bestie Erin and her husband Jason came to visit Steve and me last week, breaking up their Australian holiday with a few whirlwind days in New Zealand. Because they only had two weeks total, their time in NZ was brief—only four full days—but I think we managed to squeeze a whole lot into that quick trip.

They arrived in Wellington late Sunday night and we immediately got down to business with a long-overdue catch-up (and some of our favourite local wine and beer). I hadn’t seen Erin and Jason since the end of last summer, and the four of us hadn’t been in the same place since their gorgeous wedding last May.

Despite staying up until nearly 3am (an especially impressive feat for me since I’d run a half-marathon earlier on), we got up early the next morning—so much to do, so little time! Because Wellington weather is unpredictable, we took advantage of the decent if a bit overcast day and as soon as we picked up the rental car we drove up to the Mount Vic lookout for a view over the harbour.

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April/May Microreviews

January microreviews
February microreviews
March microreviews

Books:

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IV, Chuck Klosterman: Chuck Klosterman does the kind of journalism I would love to do. Funny, sarcastic pop culture essays with smart commentary on the impact of entertainment on society. I’ll always point to his essay on The Real World as one of the best I’ve read. This collection was decent; the non-fiction was great, the semi-fiction was okay, and the fiction was barely worth reading. I particularly enjoyed the profile of Morrissey’s hispanic fans and the one about tribute bands.

The World’s Wife
, Carol Ann Duffy: I love Carol Ann Duffy’s poems and their clever, feminist slant. The World’s Wife is a perfect example. Duffy writes from the perspective of the wives and lovers of famous historical and literary figures: how does King Midas’ touch affect his marriage? or alters the stories to give women more agency than in their original tellings.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
, Neil Gaiman:  I read this book over the course of two days; whenever I needed a break from wandering around London I would take advantage of the comfortable sofas in the Piccadilly Circus Waterstones and curl up for a few minutes with this book. It’s a beautiful little fairy tale about monsters and magic and growing up.

Salt: A World History
, Mark Kurlansky: I may be sick of Mark Kurlansky by the time I finish writing my thesis as one of his books is a major source I’m using, but in the meantime I loved reading this. He looks at a common material—salt—and through evidence and anecdote, explores its impact on history and contemporary life and food in an interesting and entertaining way.

The Little Friend
, Donna Tartt: Not as good as The Secret History and certainly not as good as The Goldfinch, but a book can still be pretty excellent with both of those things being true. I didn’t find myself caring much for the central mystery, which is good because I also didn’t find much resolution, but it was all the little pieces of southern gothic description and all the side stories about minor figures and all the miscellaneous everything else that I really enjoyed.

Paper Towns, John Green: Paper Towns is known for being a story that points out the ridiculousness of the idea of the so-called “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” I found it to be mostly successful in this regard, but it would’ve been more effective if it had been from the perspective of the girl, rather than about her. Still, a quick and fun read.

Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann: I absolutely loved this. Set in 1974, while Philippe Petit crossed the World  Trade Center towers on a tightrope, the novel features characters from all walks of live, and the city of New York itself is as strong a character as any of them. It’s a beautiful book, and one I look forward to reading again in the future.

Live by Night
, Dennis Lehane: I didn’t realise that this was a sequel of sorts to The Given Day until I started reading it, but instead of the sprawling historical novel and social commentary of its predecessor, Live by Night is a fast-paced crime story more in line with Lehane’s other detective works.

Bark: Stories, Lorrie Moore: Whenever you can finish a book in one sitting you have to assume that a) it’s not very long but b) it is very good. The first two stories didn’t entirely hook me, but by the time I got to ‘Paper Losses’ I knew I wasn’t moving until I had gotten to the end. Luckily it was a beautiful day outside. The descriptions were visceral and the relationships devastating.

Werewolves in their Youth, Michael Chabon: I shouldn’t have read this immediately after Bark, I don’t think. Too many  stories about relationships facing harsh realities. Michael Chabon is one of my favourite authors, and this isn’t his best work. There were still moments and sentences that really resonated, but overall I didn’t find the stories or characters as memorable as in most of his books.

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February Microreviews

January Microreviews

February books

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Play it As it Lays by Joan Didion (1970): This is the second work by Didion I’ve read and I understand why everyone whose opinion I trust has been recommending her to me for so long. This novel is smart and bleak and some part of me is glad it was a quick read because I couldn’t put it down.

How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti (2010): At some points, I was annoyed by this book and it’s author. She’s petty, pretentious, probably watches Girls religiously. And yet in some ways I could relate, and it made me feel for her with all her insecurities and all her triumphs.

Between Dog and Wolf by Elske Rahill (2013): After seeing Rahill read at the Dublin Book Festival in the fall, I was intrigued by her novel. And it didn’t disappoint—although I admit I was turned off by the number of graphic sex scenes, the story overall is dark and compelling.

One More Thing by BJ Novak (2014): A funny but also bittersweet collection of short fiction. I wrote a full review HERE.

February films

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Fruitvale Station (2013): A harrowing film about the last day of a real-life young man killed by the police in California on New Year’s Day 2009. Michael B. Jordan is excellent as always as the protagonist—although I’m not going to lie, Chad Michael Murray’s appearance as one of the police officers pulled me out of the story somewhat.

Dallas Buyers Club (2014): This biographical film about a AIDS patient in Texas who goes up against the FDA when he starts a business selling unapproved medicines is has received both controversy and acclaim. I thought Matthew McConaughey’s performance was surprisingly excellent but overall I didn’t find the film to be that fantastic.

The Book Thief (2013): I was very disappointed in this film. It wasn’t bad; some of the cinematography was beautiful and the acting was good, particularly from the children playing Liesel and Rudy. However, I found the film lacked a lot of the emotional that made the book such a moving and powerful story.

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January Microreviews

One of the goals on my 101 Things in 1001 Days project (2 goals complete and another 5 in progress so far!) is to start a blog dedicated to reviews. Unfortunately, at the moment I’m hardly seeing enough new films or reading enough new books or listening to enough new albums to make it worthwhile—it can be fun to read reviews of older works, but not fun enough to create a whole blog around it unless there’s some sort of theme other than “what I’ve read/seen/listened to.” However, in the meantime I’m going to do a microreview roundup each month of all the books, films, and anything else old or new that I’ve consumed (for the first time). Sure this month is a little late, but there’s still plenty of time before I’ll need to write February’s entry.

If you’re interested in seeing what pop culture I’m looking at as it happens, you can follow me on Goodreads or take a look at my 2014 scrapbook. What have you read, watched, or listened to in the last month? Tell me about it!

January books

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The Letters by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg (2012): A compilation of the correspondence between Kerouac and Ginsberg from 1944 to 1969, this book amazed me with the depth of the relationship between these two icons of the Beat generation. At times it is pretentious, of course, but in other instances there’s a rawness and sincerity that helps to explain the reason their writing still resonates so strongly.

While the Women are Sleeping by Javier Marías (1990): I’ve been wanting to read something by Marías for ages, but judging by the reviews on Goodreads for this collection, it’s not the one to choose as a first look at his work, and maybe that’s why I had trouble fully connecting with it. However, I did like the creepiness of the stories, whether it was due to a paranormal element or simply the weirdness of human nature.

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1929): I see why Bradley Cooper’s character threw this novel out the window at the start of Silver Linings Playbook. While I enjoy Hemingway’s style so I liked the writing as much as I have in his other works, the unresolved nature of the plot, particularly the ending, made the book lack closure and feel almost unfinished.

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013): Like a lot of people, I was introduced to Adichie’s work by Beyoncé’s ***Flawless, which samples one of her speeches. Americanah covers race, feminism, cultural and national identity, and does so through the wonderful character of Ifemelu. While some of the characters were somewhat one-dimensional, the protagonist was so compelling that I couldn’t set the book down.

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Best of 2013 in books, films, albums & television

I know you are probably wondering what I’ve been getting up to in Ireland (New Year’s resolution: update at least every other week), but for right now, the requisite Best of 2013 post. Unlike all the music publications who put out their Best Albums of 2013 lists at the start of December and got egg on their faces when Bey caught them slippin’, I’ve waited until the very last day of the year to avoid any chance that I’ve missed the best of the best. And because I’ve been busy/am lazy, take your pick. Anyway, without further ado, my favourite book, film, album, and television show of 2013. And my first post since September; I’ll do better next year, promise.

By the way, if anyone out there feel like they’ve got a story (or poem, or play, or art piece) about “home” they’ve been dying to tell, the literary journal I’m working with, ROPES, has just extended its submissions deadline to January 10th. Find out more information at the ROPES Facebook page.

Book of 2013: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Honourable mentions: Joyland by Stephen King, Red or Dead by David Peace

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I don’t generally tend to read too many books in the year of their release, mainly because my to-read list is a mile long so I’m constantly catching up. Even when I’m excited about a book, like Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 this year or Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue last year, they still have to take their place in line. But I did manage to read a couple new books this year, and it was just yesterday that I finished The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I had high expectations for it, since I read her novel The Secret History last year, loved it, and immediately recommended it to everyone I know, but The Goldfinch not only surpassed my expectations but absolutely left them in the dust.

This novel isn’t a light read; it’s dense, heavy, and while it doesn’t make as many obscure references to Greek and Latin as The Secret History, it’s not something you can just pick up and put down when you feel like it. Luckily, once you start reading it, you won’t want to put it down. If I hadn’t been reading it over the holidays where I had the occasional obligation not to be totally anti-social, I probably would’ve read the whole thing in one marathon sitting. As it is, the closer I got to the climax, the harder it was for me to stop reading to do minor things like eat and sleep. A friend said she thinks she read the last 150 pages without blinking; I’m pretty sure I read them without breathing.

But—and I may be acting a bit melodramatic here, but only a bit—who needs air when you have this perfectly crafted, emotionally devastating novel? It starts off like your typical tragic child novel—Theo’s mother dies in a terrorist attack in a museum in New York city—but takes a series of wild turns that completely changes the atmosphere and characters of the book. I bet the kid in that Jonathan Safran Foer novel about 9/11 doesn’t grow up anything like Theo Decker does. There’s corruption, scandal, art, and possibly one of my favourite supporting characters of all time in Theo’s partner in (usually literal) crime Boris Pavlikovsky.

 

Film of 2013: Before Midnight dir. Richard Linklater
Honourable mentions: Pacific Rim dir. Guillermo del Toro, Frozen dir. Chris Buck

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Maybe I’m too much of a cynic for movies, but usually those typical happy endings to films make me think “Yeah, okay, you’re in high school, I’m sure this relationship is going to last you until marriage/the rest of your lives.” That’s one reason I liked the first film in Richard Linklater’s trilogy: in Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine don’t end up together; they spend the night talking and then go their separate ways. When they meet up again in Before Sunset, the coincidence is a bit unbelievable, but their relationship still plays out in a realistic way.

Released nine years after the second film and nearly two decades after Before Sunrise, I was definitely curious to see what had become of Jesse and Celine. In Before Midnight, they are married with children, but the realism of their relationship hasn’t changed. They still have long, deep conversations that are beautifully written (the stars of the film, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, wrote the script with director Linklater). More importantly, their relationship isn’t perfect.

The cynical side of me always wondered if things could actually work out for two people who knew barely anything about each other. As it turns out, they have their fights and their issues, and Before Midnight is definitely a darker film than the previous two films. But it’s a beautiful movie about love and family, and a satisfying conclusion to one of my favourite trilogies. 

 

Album of 2013: AM by the Arctic Monkeys
Honourable mentions: BEYONCÉ by Beyoncé, Trouble Will Find Me by The National 

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Picking honourable mentions for best album was difficult (I could’ve added Josh Ritter’s latest, the new One Direction album, and several others) but choosing a number one gave me no trouble at all. Since the Arctic Monkeys released their fifth studio album in September, my housemates can attest to the fact that I’ve listened to very little else. It’s the band’s best album since their debut, Whatever People Say I Am… (and I might even like it better), but it’s not the same style. The music is slightly more downbeat and the importance of production is a lot stronger—listen to the start of my favourite song on the album, “Do I Wanna Know?” and the hand claps/foot stomps digitally enhanced to create the beat.

AM is one of those albums where you think you know which songs you like the best but then you listen to one of the tracks you didn’t think you liked as much, and suddenly you have to reevaluate your ranking. Just the other day I was talking to a friend about it and I said that my favourite songs are “Do I Wanna Know?”, “Stop the World I Wanna Get Off with You” (even the b-sides are amazing), and “Snap Out of It,” then immediately realised I’d forgotten “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” Even right now, looking at the tracklisting, I’m not sure if I should’ve dropped one of those picks for “I Wanna Be Yours” or “Mad Sounds.” I didn’t think I loved “Knee Socks” originally, but I’ve been listening to it the most over the last few days.

Pretty much everything about this album is perfect. The lyrics are clever, the influences of every genre from Motown to rap are evident, and the rhythms of every song are the kind to get in your head and refuse to leave. I’ve listened to AM more than any other music this year, released in 2013 or otherwise. It’s my favourite album of 2013, but also one of my favourites in a long time.

 

Television show of 2013: Breaking Bad, the final season
Honourable mentions: Orphan Black, season 1; Elementary, season 1-2

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In any other year, Orphan Black would be the clear winner in this category on the strength of star Tatiana Maslany’s acting alone, but this year nothing was as important as finding out if Walter White was going to get what was coming to him. The series finale of Breaking Bad was the television event of the year (and judging by the internet’s reaction to it, possibly the event of the year for entertainment overall) but the entire final season was full of last-minute plot twists and turns that made every episode more thrilling than most shows’ sweeps week episodes.

There’s an episode a few before the finale in which the final scene was full of action and totally changed the direction the plot was going up until those last few minutes. When my neighbour came over the day after it aired and said she just had a few minutes to go in the episode, my roommate and I were incredulous that she managed to leave before it was finished. “Have you caught up on Breaking Bad?” was a common conversation starter among, oh, everyone I know.

This was for good reason. The season finale was one of the best and most satisfying final episodes of a television show I’ve ever seen, but the whole last season was pretty amazing. The writing was tight and well thought-out, and the acting, particularly from Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman, was fantastic. Add this to the joy of endless speculation about how it would end, and great moments like showrunner Vince Gilligan calling out internet misogynists for hating Skylar White, and there could be no other choice for tv show of 2013.

Let’s Go to the Movies

Roger Ebert died this week. And I’m glad to see that in the countless articles and blog posts eulogizing him, he is never referred to “only” as a film critic. As someone whose dream job used to be entertainment critic, I’ve sometimes felt like my ambitions were less serious than my peers who dreamed of parachuting into a war zone armed only with a notebook and a tape recorder, even of dedicating their lives to small-town papers to report on their city council meetings.

But entertainment journalism, although it has the potential to be “soft” when reporting on the comings and goings of D-list celebrities, has its place. As the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, Ebert demonstrated not only the value of film itself in reflecting or subverting the values of society, but also in discussing and critiquing film and the way it reflects or subverts those values.

1365105444_roger-ebert-articleIn the thousands of reviews he wrote over four and a half decades at the Chicago Sun-Times and other media outlets, he was never afraid to digress into a commentary on social and political issues. Ebert was criticized over the summer for speaking out in favour of gun control in the wake of the movie theatre shooting in Aurora, Colorado, and many of his opponents said that he should stick to talking about movies. But as Ebert so often proved, there are so many times when you can’t talk about movies without talking about life.

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