what I’m listening to

This is the third in the trilogy of posts on what I’m watching, reading, and listening to.  I may make this a regular, periodic feature.  

This category is harder to write about because listening to music is easier to do, and therefore I do so much of it throughout the week.  As you probably do, I listen to music while I’m doing other things, though I make a point of not listening to music with lyrics while I’m working or reading.  (I’ve had that personal rule for several years now, ever since I heard a neuroscientist talk about how lyrics distract us on some level even when we think we’re not listening to them.)  This means that at work, I listen to a lot of classical, post-rock, ambient music, movie scores and trailer music, and yoga/New Age/relaxation music.  I’ve also been listening to a bit of modern funk, a lot of which has no lyrics.  Spotify (I use the free desktop version) is brilliant at finding me new tracks in these genres, so my Discover Weekly playlist, which I listen to every Monday, is almost all instrumental.  (If you’ve never listened to your Discover Weekly playlist, try it–Spotify “curates” it from music similar to what you typically listen to.)

Lately, I’ve also been listening to ambient music, nature sounds, and something called “binaural beats” (supposedly scientifically proven to help you relax) while falling asleep.  I find these tracks on a meditation app called Insight Timer.  The Yoga Radio station on Pandora is also a good sleep soundtrack.

In the car, I mostly listen to audiobooks, and although those are not the topic of this post, I will mention that I’m thoroughly enjoying The Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd, another recent children’s lit selection.  When I feel like rolling down the windows and singing, I like modern folk, like the Avett Brothers, and timeless-sounding rock, like Dawes.  I also enjoy Pandora’s 80’s Alternative station when driving or running.

But let’s talk about the music I love enough to buy.  Lately, I have been buying music only in the form of records.  My record collection is growing and extremely eclectic, and it includes some thrift store finds that are just plain weird, like Sacred Music from the Russian Cathedral and an electronic version of Holst’s The Planets.  Here are my most recent acquisitions: Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, Dawes’s We’re All Gonna Die, NEEDTOBREATHE’s The Outsiders, and an orchestral album that includes songs from Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I always say I’m going to take a tour of my albums, listening to all of them in some sort of order (alphabetical, chronological, or just the order they happen to be sitting in), but I end up listening to whatever I feel like at the moment.  Sometimes, there are strategic reasons for my choice (e.g., I had people over Saturday afternoon and didn’t want to put on something with distracting lyrics, so I chose the soundtrack to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them); other times I just feel like listening to The War on Drugs or The Head and the Heart.  Last Tuesday evening, I knew I was going to be cooking for a while so I chose to listen to my entire Decemberists collection.  (It consists of only two albums, The Crane Wife and The King Is Dead, but the former is a long album.)  Yesterday, before I watched the Steelers’ pre-season game, I put on Born in the USA because both Bruce and the Steelers make me think of steel, sweat, and working-class America.

I hope you didn’t start reading this post expecting me to review recently-released albums.  I don’t listen to much new music.  But maybe some of my scattershot name-dropping has inspired you to revisit a classic or look up an artist you haven’t tried.  Let me know what you’re listening to, too!

 

 

what I’m reading

This is the second in the trilogy of posts on what I’m watching, reading, and listening to.  I may make this a regular, periodic feature.  

I teach a college-level children’s literature course, so I read a lot of children’s books, and I have no reason to be ashamed of that.  Most of the below list of books I’ve finished or started within the past week are children’s or YA (young adult, technically a subcategory of children’s lit).

  1. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys.  I mentioned this YA novel in my recent post about World War 2 stories.  It’s about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustlav (an overcrowded ship that was evacuating civilians, many of whom were not ethnic Germans, from nearly-defeated Germany in 1945), the largest maritime disaster of the 20th century.  I think being informed about this little-known event is important, but I was disappointed with the book.  Sepetys was too ambitious in trying to write in the voices of four very different adolescents, some of which voices succeed more than others.  In particular, I became increasingly annoyed over the course of the book with the voice of Emilia, a character with whom readers are clearly meant to sympathize.  I think part of the problem was the too-precious voice of the audiobook narrator, but beyond that, the character was overly dreamy and seemed strangely unmoved by the horrors that had occurred in her young life.  Several of her overwrought similes made me cringe.  In contrast, the most successful voice belonged to Alfred, the probably sociopathic young Nazi sailor.  I occasionally felt sorry for him in his delusions, but I mostly felt disgusted–as the author wanted me to feel–by his racism and cowardice.  But the most effective scenes in the book were the minimalist, objective descriptions of the human and inanimate flotsam that floated by the protagonists during the long, freezing night after the sinking.  These scenes were actually more powerful than similar scenes in Titanic (to the extent that you can compare a book with a movie), but the rest of the book was a disappointment–to me, anyway.  Apparently not to people on Goodreads.
  2. And now for a book with a wonderful narrative voice: Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis.  I reread this book over the weekend because I’ll be teaching it this fall, and I chose it because the protagonist, who tells the story in first person, is an absolute delight.  He reminds me of Huckleberry Finn in that he’s an at-risk youth in pretty dire circumstances, yet he shows his resilience by finding the humor in everything.  I laughed out loud at several of his flights of imagination, like when he tries to drive a car (he can’t) to escape a man he suspects of being a vampire, or when he pretends his mop is the submarine in “20,000 Leaks under the Sea”–“10,000 leaks stopped, only 10,000 more to go!”  The hilarious, genuine voice of Bud–along with the fact that readers are learning unobtrusive lessons about the Great Depression, labor unions, and the Jim Crow era–is probably why this book won the Newbery Medal.
  3. A Ring of Endless Light by Madeline L’Engle.  I’ll probably finish this one tonight.  I read An Austin Family Christmas every Christmas as a child, so I’m enjoying reading about Vicky and her family (and Mr. Rochester the Great Dane) now that they are all a little older.  It took me a little while to get used to the dialogue–it seemed stilted at first, but I eventually realized that these are just really thoughtful and articulate people.  This isn’t a fantasy in the sense of A Wrinkle in Time, but Vicky’s dolphin communication project hovers at the line between science and magic (to quote a Thor movie).  The rest of the novel, though, is firmly realistic.  It’s about death, family, growing up, dating–it’s pretty weighty.  But Vicky’s subtle faith and strong support system make it a hopeful story.
  4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.  This is a book that breaks textual convention (it includes blank pages, photos, cross-hatching, etc.) in an attempt to articulate the inarticulable–death and, more specifically, the deaths of thousands of people (represented by one man) on September 11, 2001.  In keeping with this theme, I won’t say a lot about this book, but I will say that it’s a great example of the principle that having a child narrator (even a successfully authentic one like Oskar in this book) does not make a book a children’s book.

Let me know if you have opinions about any of these books.  Next week, I’ll be back with music I’m listening to.

what I’m watching

I was inspired by my brother’s podcast, Does Anyone Really Need to Hear This(listen to the latest episode here) to begin regularly reporting on what I’m watching, reading, and listening to.  But since the blog format is less tolerant of long-windedness than the podcast format, I am going to focus on just one of these today—on the three movies I watched this past weekend, to be exact.

  1. Logan.  I may have mentioned before that I’m a regular platelet donor and that one of my favorite parts about donating (aside from knowing that I’m helping to save people’s lives) is getting to watch a movie while tucked under one or more electric blankets.  Last Thursday, I chose to watch Logan, the first X-Men movie—indeed, the first Marvel movie—to have Oscar hopes.  I’m always a little hesitant to watch violent movies while donating because it’s hard to escape or even look away from a particularly gruesome scene when I’m strapped to a bed, but even though this R-rated film was very violent (more than I expected), I’m glad I watched it.  Probably the most striking feature of Logan is how well it captures the artistic trends and cultural anxieties of 2017.  The setting—a not-too-distant, not-quite-apocalyptic future (technology still works, but things are quickly falling apart, especially along the US/Mexico border)—reminded me of The Walking Dead and even more of its borderland spinoff Fear the Walking Dead.  Fears about genetic experimentation devoid of human conscience were represented in the character Laura, basically an 11-year-old female Wolverine, who, in her silent and deadpan (and occasionally delighted) observation of the “normal” world, reminded me of Eleven from Stranger Things.  The cinematography made the whole world look hot and tired, and the music (especially the Johnny Cash song in the credits) added to the weary and foreboding tone.  In spite of the cynicism of both the characters and the general tone, the movie still had the heart of a more traditional Marvel film, and I nearly cried at the end.  I had always thought of Wolverine as one of the least interesting X-Men, but, like many viewers of this startling film, I’ve done a complete reversal on that opinion.
  2. Jaws.  One of our local theaters was showing this 1975 classic last week, and I saw it Friday night.  It was my first time seeing it in many years, and it was both gorier (they blew up a shark!) and better than I remembered.  John Williams’s score, though sometimes over the top, is a classic of his early style.  The acting is fantastic, the writing is straightforward yet understated, and even though the special effects are not what they would be today, the pacing of the film contributes to a dramatic tension that never lets up.  I’m kind of a sucker for male bonding stories, so I really like the camaraderie (and tension—more tension) among the three men who go out to hunt down the shark.  It’s a classic seafaring story.  And now that I’ve used the word “classic” three times in one paragraph, I think I’ve made my point, so I’ll move on.
  3. Moonlight.  On Saturday night, I finally watched the real Best Picture winner of 2017.  I can’t comment on whether it’s better or worse than La La Land; the movies are too different.  But I can say that it’s very good.  And although it couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to Jaws in every way, Moonlight, too, has some great dramatic tension.  I think I may have been holding my breath for the last 20 minutes of the movie as I watched the main character and his old high school friend (and lover? That’s what he wants to find out) conversationally dance around and around the topic neither of them wants to broach.  The score of this movie is also excellent, and the camera work and lighting, combined with the bright colors of many of the buildings in Miami, make everything look not cheerful but lurid and sad, in keeping with the story.  And Maharshala Ali deserved that Best Supporting Actor win, even though he’s only in the first third of the film.

If you’ve seen any of these movies, let me know what you thought.  Next week I’ll be back with what I’m reading.

the war that launched a million stories

The thesis of my blog post today is going to make you say, “Duh.”  Here it is: There are a lot of books and movies about World War 2.  (Really?  I didn’t know that.)  It’s just something I’ve been thinking about over the past couple of days, ever since I watched the new Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk on Sunday night, listened to the YA verse novel American Ace by Marilyn Nelson in the car yesterday, and then started listening to another YA novel, Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys.  Also on Sunday, my grandmother told me she’d been watching some documentaries on the war (which took place when she was a young girl) and observing that there was a lot more to it than the heavily-narrated European front, and I recommended that she read and/or watch Unbroken, the story of American POW Louis Zamperini.  Even in the murder mystery that I’m reading for book club, Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, the detective-protagonist of the book-within-the-book (this story is very meta) had been in a concentration camp, and the fictional novelist modeled him after Ben Kingsley’s character in Schindler’s List.  So now we’re telling stories about stories about World War 2.

This is not meant to be a philosophical post on causes and consequences, but I want to offer two (again, really obvious) reasons why we can’t seem to stop telling stories about World War 2.  One is that the war changed everything: It brought whatever Victorian optimism was still lingering after the first world war and the Great Depression to a screeching halt.  It reminded the world that the human race is capable of committing–and of surviving–horrors so outlandish they seemingly can’t be narrated (but they can be, of course, as writers and filmmakers have proven over and over).  It changed the way we think about ourselves–and “we” includes those of us born many years after the war.

The other reason there are so many World War 2 stories is that it was a world wara sprawling, complicated event that encompassed hundreds of battles and thousands of stories–millions, if we consider the story of every person who was affected.  So there are always new narrative angles to be taken and under-researched events to be reported.  To use the examples above, Dunkirk and Salt to the Sea are both about massive water evacuations (one in France, one in Germany) that I knew almost nothing about before the release of the movie and book.  American Ace is about a present-day white teenage boy who finds out that his real grandfather was probably one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the squadron of African-American fighter pilots whose story has only recently begun to receive wide exposure.  Unbroken focuses on the war in the Pacific, which I know very little about compared to the war in Europe.  A children’s book I listened to earlier this year, The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, is about the children who were sent to the English countryside before the bombing of London–who were, functionally, orphans during that time.  Other than the frame narrative of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I had never read a book or seen a movie about the experiences of these children.

These stories not only teach us the facts of history, which are important to remember if we want to avoid repeating history, but they also give us examples of hope, sacrifice, and courage.  Again, you’ve heard this a hundred times.  But there are millions of stories from World War 2 that we still haven’t heard.

my out-of-body writing experience

Ok, I confess to the charge of clickbait once again.  I didn’t have a true out-of-body experience.  But a weird thing did happen to me last Friday while I was writing.  Let me tell you about it.

In last week’s post, I mentioned the story, eventually to become a screenplay, that I am writing.  (Reviews of the eventual movie will probably call it “a funny and sensitive exploration of friendship, zombies, and clinical depression.”)  Last Friday at the end of my workday, I spent half an hour working on the death scene of Sam, a beloved (if only by me, at this point) character who I knew, from the time I conceived of this story, would have to die.  (Did you catch that echo of J.K. Rowling?  Not that I have any illusions of being able to tell a story like she can.)  I was writing from the perspective of the dying man’s best friend, Adrian, who is starting to lose it as he realizes there’s nothing he can do to save his friend.  About ten minutes into the writing, I started crying myself.  But after putting my hand over my mouth and taking a few deep breaths, I was able to go on writing.

The really weird thing happened a few minutes after that and continued through the end of my writing session: I forgot where I was.  I didn’t feel like I was a character in the story, surrounded by zombies, but I did feel like I was on a cracked, leaf-covered rectangle of pavement next to an abandoned Dollar General on a fall afternoon.  Then it got really, really weird: while I was still writing, I started going back into the dreams I’d been having the night before.  I couldn’t remember the details of them, but I definitely had the feel of them.  I hope you know what I mean by that because I can’t articulate it any more clearly.  It was as if I fell asleep but kept writing.  I know I didn’t lose consciousness because I was watching the clock the whole time.  It just seemed that my story, my dreams, and my present experience all merged.  When I got up to leave my office, I had a brief moment of confusion.  I do mean brief; it took no more than a second for me to remember where I was and what I was about to do.  But when I went outside, I felt as if it were a different day than the one before I had started writing.

There are some likely contributing factors that are very mundane.  I hadn’t gotten much sleep the previous night, so I was tired.  And maybe I had woken up in the middle of a dream.  Also, when I went outside, it was raining, whereas it had been clear before—so no wonder it felt like a different day.

But I also think that I partly took on the persona of Adrian, the character whose perspective I was writing from.  I had already given him a number of my characteristics: he’s fidgety, he overthinks things, he wants to be a good friend but is easily annoyed by people, and he gets angry when he doesn’t know what to do or feels like he’s lost control of a situation.  So when I started writing about Sam’s death, I started crying, just like Adrian.  And then, as it became increasingly clear that Sam was going to die and nothing could be done, I started taking on Adrian’s mental state: just clear enough to continue having a conversation and understand what was going on, but numb to external stimuli.  And when I finished—I stopped writing at the moment of Sam’s death—I felt like something big had happened.  I felt I had gone through catharsis, the emotional purging that Aristotle writes about.

After that, I went to a weight-lifting class at the gym and forgot all about what I’d been writing, at least for a while.  I didn’t spend the weekend grieving Sam.  Don’t worry; I am quite capable of separating fiction from reality.  But I feel like I’ve joined an inner circle (which is probably pretty big, actually) of writers who have gone beyond emotional investment in their stories and had almost an altered-consciousness experience.

If you write or create any type of art, have you ever had a similar experience?  How about while reading or watching a movie?  Basically, I just want you to tell me I’m not a weirdo.

weekend miscellany

I couldn’t think of a unified topic for my blog post this week, so I’m going to tell you a few things I learned or re-learned this past weekend.

  1. Grilling okra is a good idea. It takes away the infamous sliminess of the oddly-shaped vegetable and brings out the true flavor.  You may want to consider wrapping your okra in foil, though.  The slippery little guys kept falling through the grates on my grill.
  2. Bambi is a great movie. I’ve mentioned before that it’s in my top five Disney animated films, but sometimes I forget how excellent it is.  It’s visually gorgeous, from the watercolor backgrounds to the use of color to convey emotion—note the liberal use of red during the scene when Bambi fights with another young buck.  It uses orchestra and voices to create mood and replicate sounds in nature—“Little April Showers” is not the only musical composition in the world that approximates a thunderstorm, but it’s a good one.  And one of my favorite things about Bambi is the use of real children to voice Bambi, Thumper, Flower, and Faline.  Their line delivery is a little more studied than that of the absolutely hilarious children in A Charlie Brown Christmas, but their delight—sometimes conveyed through hysterical laughter—is pure and genuine.  Even the dialogue captures the way a child would really talk, like when Thumper says the water in the frozen pond is “stiff.”  Maybe this relatability in the main characters was why I enjoyed Bambi as a child, even though the film as a whole could be justly be described as scary, sad, and slow.  Even though it’s only 70 minutes, I’m not sure if most children today would sit through it.  And maybe that’s okay—perhaps the real audience for this audience is art- and nature-loving adults.
  3. A guitar string may not be the best weapon for killing zombies. This falls under the category of things I learned for the first time this weekend.  I’m writing a story, which I eventually hope to adapt into a screenplay (so I can win my Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar) for a buddy road-trip movie that is set during the zombie apocalypse and sensitively explores the topic of clinical depression.  (Here I need to say that anyone who has ever written or ever will write a zombie movie screenplay is profoundly indebted to George Romero, who passed away yesterday.)  I read one of the final scenes at a creative writing group on Friday evening, and while I got really positive feedback about the emotional impact of the scene (technically, it was negative feedback—as in, “No, you can’t kill that really nice guy!!!”—but I knew that meant my character development had worked), I also got some practical comments about the impracticality of slicing off any head—even a dead one—with guitar string.  I also got some alternative suggestions, like using the neck of the guitar, which apparently contains a metal rod—who knew?—as a stabbing weapon.  The people at this creative writing group (I highly recommend joining one, by the way) are serious sci-fi/fantasy nerds who can sustain serious, unironic conversations about stuff like this, and I benefited from their suggestions.  Perhaps I’ll share some of this story on my blog!  It’s still in the early stages (I skipped ahead to write the last scene), but I’ve “known” the two main characters for a long time.  I posted a non-zombie story about them a few years ago.
  4. Sixteen miles is a long way. I know this because I ran ten miles Saturday morning and walked six more Saturday evening.  I don’t regret it, but I would like to make this public service announcement: If you run first thing in the morning, make sure to drink water first, since we all wake up slightly dehydrated.  Also, do not wear yoga pants for a long run, especially in the dead of July.  The more you know…

State of the Blog

Today I thought I would take the time to tell you how I think this blog is doing and to ask for feedback from you, my readers, without whom this blog would be nothing but the digital equivalent of a secret diary hidden under my mattress.  A couple things prompted me to do this.  For one thing, it’s been about a year since I implemented my weekly (usually Monday, sometimes Tuesday) post–before that, I was writing whenever I felt like it, and sometimes months would go by before you heard anything from me.  Another reason I wanted to stop and assess the blog this week is that I heard from some people yesterday who either mentioned a specific post they had enjoyed or indicated they knew something about the style of my blog–people I had no idea were reading it.  So that made me curious as to how many “silent” readers I have out there and what they’re thinking.

Let’s start with the weekly post thing.  I began this practice as part of a larger discipline of writing something (anything–could be a PowerPoint presentation for a class or a sketch of one of my screenplay ideas) for 30 minutes each weekday afternoon, which was inspired by the class on spiritual disciplines in the workplace that I audited last summer at Regent College.  (See below for a link to the series of posts I wrote following the course.)  Besides the fact that I’m now posting every week, another thing this practice changed about my blog is that my posts are now limited to what I can write within half an hour, which–I think–is keeping them to a manageable length, in contrast to the marathon posts that I used to write.  But, with the emphasis on actually writing for 30 minutes, I’m including fewer pictures, videos, and external links in my posts.  What do you think about all this?  Am I posting too often/not often enough?  Have my posts been too short lately, or are they still too long?  Would you like me to shut up occasionally and direct you to other people’s work (through the aforementioned pictures, videos, and links)?

I would also like your feedback about the topics I write about.  My blog has always been, unapologetically, about a wide variety of topics.  I know that I’d probably get a bigger readership and more mentions on the web if I focused in on a niche, like travel or home decor (or even something that I actually know a lot about, like Harry Potter), but I’m not trying to get famous or make money through my blog.  Although, as I hope this post attests, I do care very much about my readers, my blog is just as much a vehicle for me to process what I’m thinking and learning.  So I’m not sorry for writing a string of posts recently about The Godfather, even though most of you–at least those who are talking to me–don’t care about the Corleones (and, I still maintain, don’t know what you’re missing).  But I do want to know which topics you’d like to see more of–and what topics I haven’t addressed that you’d be interested in reading about.  Anecdotally, it seems that some of my most popular posts have been the confessional, gut-spilling ones where I let you snoop into the embarrassing parts of my interior life, usually through the screen of humor.  But I know that many of you also share my love of music, movies, and TV, and so you prefer posts on those topics.  Let me know what you think.  I will take your suggestions seriously, and I’ll write about pretty much anything that I know something about (and maybe even some things I know nothing about!).

In closing, let me share what I think have been some of the highlights of this past year on penelopeclearwater:

  • Here is the first of the series I wrote following the class on spiritual disciplines.  The series continued through July and August 2016–check out the archives.
  • There was a lot of excitement on my blog leading up to and following the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
  • This post from a few weeks ago–which was both a confessional post and a music post–got a lot of good feedback.