As you might expect, the Greenwich Library staff are an erudite bunch; opinionated too. Here are some of their favorite things from the past year.
My Favorite Design Books
Design Sponge at Home, by Grace Bonney
This is an amazing book by the creator of the popular design blog Design*Sponge. The book features beautiful photos and illustrations with home tours, realistic DIY projects with helpful step-by-step tutorials, and before and after makeovers. If you're looking to personalize your home on a budget, and need to know how to do it all yourself, this is the perfect place to start.
Black & White (and a bit in between), by Celerie Kemble
Black and white is my absolute favorite color combination. It is striking, dramatic and glamorous but can also be soothing and understated. In addition to her own, designer Celerie Kemble includes rooms by other well known designers, so you experience many points of view along the common theme of black and white. Kemble also covers adding neutrals and pops of color to accentuate your space. Great for inspiration.
Some 2011 highlights
Beginners, directed by Mike Mills
This deft and charming film focuses on sad guy Oliver Fields, played by Ewan McGregor, as he comes to terms with the death of his father and his attempt, after many failures, at a meaningful relationship. The story, told in flashbacks as well as the present (well, 2003 but, close enough,) allows us to see the baggage that Oliver is carrying around in his adult life. We learn that after his mother dies his father, which much aplomb, comes out of the closet. And, in a way, it's the story of Oliver coming out of his own closet of sadness and self-doubt.
He begins a romance with the lovely Anna (played by the super cute Melanie Laurent))after they meet at a costume party. It's the scenes of their sometimes awkward courtship that are intermixed with the back story of Oliver's life. Neither of them is very good at relationships and, thanks to Mills excellent script, we learn why Oliver is reticent but we are offered just brief clues as to what lies in Anna's past.Despite the fact that they are in their late 30's, they are still beginners.
Christopher Plummer nearly steals the show as Oliver's dad and, even despite the presence of a cute little dog, things never get too precious.
Our Lives are Shaped by What We love: Motown's Mowest Story 1971-1973, by various artists
Who knew that, in the early '70's, Motown records founder Berry Gordy, Jr. ran a left coast version of his legendary Detroit record label. It was called Mowest and was dedicated to the grooving sounds of the west coast, with a sharp eye on the top of the charts. (Those were the days when top ten records really mattered.) Even though the label released over forty singles and close to a dozen albums the hits never happened and the imprint called it a day in 1973. But...that doesn't mean the music wasn't worthwhile because, in retrospect there were scores of great songs that were released during that time. Forty plus years later the best of those have been collected on this beautiful re-issue.
Nearly every track is a winner and what's most striking is the wide variety of styles found on the collection. There's quite a bit of top shelf R&B, of course, by the like of such unknowns as Syreeta, G.C. Cameron and Sister Love but there's some nice Topanga Canyonesque rock from Lodi and some straight up hippie sounds from Odyssey. And after listening to this record I guarantee you that you'll never think about Frankie Valli & the Four seasons. They show up twice here, once offering up a fierce Meters like funk workout with a killer horn break called "Sun Country."
The real highlight is a sneaky number by Syreeta called "I Love Everything Little Thing About You" that captures the breezy west coast sound Gordy was after with Mowest. It features an unmistakable Stevie Wonder on keyboards (he also produced her record for Mowest) and brings a synthesizer inflected funk sound to the track. I'd love to hear the whole record someday.
This one was a super nice surprise.
Jernigan & Preston Falls, by David Gates
If all this Holiday cheer has you down I can recommend the writing of David Gates. While they aren't necessarily new (they were published in 1991 and 1998) these novels they're new to me. The men In these books, Peter Jernigan and Doug Willis, manage to wreck nearly everything and everyone they come in contact with.
Jernigan is a self-centered drunk who is trying to come to terms with the death of his wife, who apparently was a bigger drunk than him. His dubious method of doing so is to drink even more than he used to and by losing his job. And, just when you think he can't sink any lower he moves in with the mother of his son's girlfriend. It's a creepy arrangement but it works...for a little while.
It's a grim story but Gates makes it compulsively readable by creating characters that are entirely believable. He also adds a healthy dose of gallows humor to the book. Expanding on the same ground that Raymond Carver covered, Gates offers up a glimpse of a life that's spinning out of control. It's unclear if Jernigan actually wants to get well (at times he seems perfectly content to be a wretched drunk.) He doesn't do a whole lot of soul searching but, despite his shortcomings, he is still saved from his certain demise by his sadly neglected son. It's a powerful book that, in the wrong hands could have been too much. But Gates knows the territory well and cushions the blow with a strong dose of humanity.
In Preston Falls, Doug Willis isn't much better but at least he has a job. He's also smack in the middle of a mid-life crisis. To combat that, he decides to take a sabbatical from his corporate job and head to his summer house in Vermont with the intention of fixing it up. He leaves his wife and kids to fend for themselves. But a series of poor decisions ends turning his vacation into a nightmare. Throughout the book Gates drops hints that Willis's marriage has been on the rocks from quite some time. His wife is resentful that he's left but, in a way she seems thankful as well. His absence is one less hardship for her to deal with.
Soon after his arrival in Preston Falls Willis falls in with some disreputable townies and before you know it, things are spinning out of control. He handles it about as poorly as a person could and ends penniless and on the run. And once again it's his wife, friend and family that do their best to get things squared away. Even though things are rough for a good portion of the novel, Gates leaves us with a little glimmer of hope.
Gates has scarcely been heard from since the publication of Preston Falls. Besides a short story collection there has been nothing. I can't help but suspect that some of the issues that surround his male characters come from direct experience. I also get the feeling that writing these books was a very difficult process. One that he may still be recovering from.
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson
Helen Simonson has written a real charmer of a book with Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. Whether one is a avid or infrequent reader, this book can be a thoroughly entertaining and rewarding reading experience. The Major Pettigrew of the title is a retired, widowed British military officer recovering from the death of his brother. A chance encounter with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, a Pakistani shop keeper, is the starting point of a friendship based, at first, on a mutual love of literature. Set in a seemingly tranquil English small town, the balance of this very well-crafted story follows the events in Pettigrew's life as he rediscovers the fact that joy can return to his life. While Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is Helen Simonson's first novel, this reviewer is hopeful that she will continue to write books as enjoyable as this one. The bonus of reading the Random House Reader's Circle edition available at the Greenwich Library is an interview with Simonson as well as a readers discussion section. This would be a great selection for a book club.
Briefly, if this reviewer were to pick the best books read in 2011, the fiction winner would be Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson and for nonfiction, it would be Founding Gardeners : The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation by Andrea Wulf. That book is reviewed in the Staff Picks column.
Chamber Music, Vols 1-3, by Rodolfo Halffter
My musical discovery of the year is the Spanish/Mexican composer Rodolfo Halffter (1900-1987). The Library owns a series of three CDs (COMP DISC 785.1 HALFF) devoted to his chamber music and I was particularly impressed with the third installment. The distinctive mix of neo-classicism and accessible atonalism on this recording has led me to more repeat listenings than any other recent release. All three discs can also be auditioned via Naxos Music Library on the Digital Music Page of the Library's website.
Complete Music for Piano, by Joaquin Rodrigo
Joaquin Rodrigo isn't particularly well known for his compositions for piano. However, I discovered his Complete Music for Piano a few months ago via the Library's subscription to Naxos Music Library and continue to revisit this uniformly charming release regularly. Magisterially played by Gregory Allen, the two disc set is also available on CD (COMP DISC 786.2 RODRI) at the Main Library.
All the Devils are Here: the Hidden History of the Financial Crisis, by Bethany McLean & Joe Nocera
If you are still looking to read a single book that will explain the cause of the continuing recession, All the Devils Are Here is the right one to read. One of the authors, Bethany McLean, is also the author of the highly readable Enron expose, The Smartest Guys in the Room, and Joe Nocera is a business columnist for The New York Times. They two have woven together the history of the mortgage industry, the historical role of the U.S. government in promoting home ownership, backgrounds of the many financial institutions that devised financial instruments to trade mortgages and the human failures at all levels. They show that there is plenty of blame to go around.
Germinal, by Emile Zola
"Out on the open plain, on a starless, ink-dark night, a lone man was following the highway from Marchiennes to Montsou,1 ten kilometres of paved road that cut directly across the fields of beet." That first sentence and Nicholas Kristoff's recommendation in the NYT last summer led me to tackle a major novel of the 19th century. This work describes coal miners in France during a strike in the 1860s. The miners are not just the simple poor, but complex men and women living an impossibly bleak life. The mine owners and managers are multifaceted characters also buffeted by the changes of the Industrial Revolution. This book resonates long after a rousing group discussion. Read this novel and you will understand the labor movement as never before. I can't recommend Germinal highly enough
Narrow Dog to Carcassone & Narrow Dog to Indian River, by Terry Darlington
These are among the funniest books I've read. "We could bore ourselves to death, drink ourselves to death, or have a bit of an adventure..." Retired Welsh couple Terry and Monica Darlington and their whippet Jim, take a couple of journeys on their narrowboat (a canal boat), first down the Rhone River to the south of France, and then down the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. It quickly becomes clear why no narrowboat has been seen in the Eastern U.S. These two books are comic, poignant, dangerous and joyful. If you love the witty observations of Bill Bryson, and if you love Mark Twain, these two books will be right up your alley!
Games of the Year
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, developed and published by Bethesda Softworks
Bethesda's fifth entry in its popular Elder Scrolls series, Skyrim, is pure fun. Explore a massive and beautifully detailed world as just about any kind of character you want to be with a multitude of things to do. Just make sure you wear some knee armor!
Just Dance 3, developed and published by Ubi Soft.
Just Dance 3: Wow. As an early adopter of the Wii version of Dance Dance Revolution, I was sure I was going to like this game. But I had no way of knowing how ridiculously fun it would be to dance by myself in my living room. Do I look like a complete idiot? Most definitely! Am I having an amazing time and learning ridiculous dance moves that will certainly be displayed at the next wedding I attend? Yes! I've never been to a wedding where a good representation of the Robot is not appreciated.
I also had the opportunity of playing multiplayer. It's like being in a music video and if I can convince someone to memorize some of these dance moves with me, I will have a full on performance planned in the near future. And for anyone looking for some physical activity, look no further. This game will get your heart pumping .
The basics are simple. Pick your song (literally any genre) and follow the choreographed dance moves of the character. Your movements are judged on how closely they mimic the character and points are awarded accordingly.
** I should note that all dogs, people and furniture that you don't want impaled by flailing limbs should be moved as far away as possible as you will dance like you have never danced before.
L.A. Noire, developed and published by Rockstar Games
I love crime shows. And playing this video game was like taking control of a crime show set in LA in 1947. Rock Star Games, who also created the Grand Theft Auto series and Red Dead Redemption, is responsible for this epic tale of murder, drugs, and corruption.
So the synopsis of the game is as follows. You're an ex soldier who returned from the war to become a police officer in LA in 1947. As you solve crimes you are slowly promoted. Solving crimes involve all of our favorite things Rock Star Games has offered us over the years: shooting, fighting and driving fast. Unlike other Rock Star Games however, this one is slightly more structured and setup more like a level-up kind of game. Each case involves interrogations, clues, chases and or shoot-outs and not all conclude with a happy ending.
I don't usually play a game for its graphics, but not mentioning them in this game would be doing this review a disservice. For anyone with an interest in old historical Hollywood, this game gives an unbelievably accurate representation. The sheer detail of the land makes you stop and look around. And the characters in the game look so real you actually can read their facial expressions.
For any movie history buffs, this game will certainly excite you. The game is made to have that "Film Noire" look to it. It's dark, gritty and there's a crime of passion around every corner. It also references a lot of the emotions many men and women were going through post WWII (which for me, seems to be pretty deep for a video game).
I highly suggested giving this game a shot, just be prepared to devote 60 hours of your next month!
Lego Harry Potter: Years 5-7 , by Warner Home Video
As a fan of the Lego series games I am rarely disappointed by the release of another Lego game. And Lego Harry Potter Years 5-7 held up to my expectations.
All the basic game play is the same as previous Lego games. You break blocks and build them, wizardry can be used to move items and potions help you change characters. They added a few helpful hints to help you complete the game at 100% (which I was certainly grateful for).
Much like the books and movies this game takes a dark turn during the last 4 chapters. Things have gotten a lot more serious for Harry. However, the game still takes the liberty to make small jokes whenever possible (which I appreciate- Keep your eye out for the Monty Python reference).
I am not as familiar with the Harry Potter story as I am with some of the other Lego franchises. However, I was still able to complete the game. After unlocking several characters you are able to return to Hogwarts and unlock the evil areas as Lord Voldemort or perform new spells on signing mandrakes. Each level has characters to unlock and crests to collect. Red bricks can be found throughout Hogwarts (unlocking these give you extra abilities) and there are a total of 200 gold bricks to collect!
The one thing I noticed first when playing this game is how much of the base area they expanded since Lego Harry Potter Years 1-4. There is still Diagon Alley and Hogwarts, but they have also added some parts of London and the train stations. Seeing these areas in the movies was cool, but interacting with them in a video game is even cooler!
In the end this game is not really that hard, but it is fun and lasts long enough so that you can really enjoy the game play.
Life Itself, by Roger Ebert
Having lost the ability to speak, eat and drink due to multiple surgeries for thyroid cancer, Roger Ebert has written an eloquent memoir. He recalls his early life in the Midwest, his career in journalism as a film critic, and stories about his colleagues, celebrity actors and movie directors. He writes lovingly about his relationship with his father and honestly about his own and his mother's struggles with alcoholism as well as their divergent views of the Catholic church. His vivid memories of meals he has savored are entertainingly recalled. The account of how in later life he met and married his supportive wife, Chaz and bonded with her large extended family is especially endearing. Edward Herrman's narration of the cd version of the text is perfect.
The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia, by Paul Theroux
When I thought back to the books I've read in 2011, the one that stood out in my mind was "The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia" by Paul Theroux.It reminded me of the great Agatha Christie novel "Murder On the Orient Express". Theroux decided to take a train trip to a warm, dry climate to shake off an illness brought on by the cold, damp British climate.He meets a motley crew of characters as he transfers from train to train. Train politics consists of bribing the conductor for an upgrade in accommodations. The trains seem to vary in their conformance to any kind of schedule. There are colorful descriptions of people and landscapes, as well as local customs. Sacred temples and sites are used differently from country to country. Perhaps the most striking aspect is the abject poverty visible across Eurasia. If you'd like to read a book with a touch of romanticism from an earlier time and space, and a stark look at other cultures, I suggest you download this e-book
Adventure Time: My Two Favorite People.
The only television program I watch with any regularity, Cartoon Network's Adventure Time, is a rollercoaster ride of fun and surrealism. An added bonus is having a show that I can enjoy on equal footing with my 9 year old son! Read more here.
Music for Merce, by Various Artists
The New World Records label has really outdone themselves with this 10 CD boxset. Chronicling over fifty years of music written/performed for Merce Cunningham's dance pieces, the names here are a who's who of modern music: John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, David Tudor, Morton Feldman, Gordon Mumma, and many more. The music is incredibly challenging, using primitive electronics and amplification processes to open up new avenues of composition. If you are a fan of experimental music, this boxset is simply manna from heaven.
The Viola Works, by Giacinto Scelsi
Italian composer Scelsi's work was relatively unknown during his lifetime, but his status as a true giant of 20th Century composition has been growing ever more prominent. These works for viola demonstrate his transcendent aesthetic perfectly. Touching upon elements of minimalism, non-western musical idioms and atonality; his compositions enter a realm of somber beauty all their own.
Duncan the Wonder Dog: Show 1, by Adam Hines
Hines' ambitious 400 page graphic novel may initially appear daunting, but upon reading the first few chapters the reader is transfixed. Detailing a world where animals can speak, their varying relationships with and treatment by humans are explored in depth. Hines' paints a realistic world that uses a dizzying array of layouts to form a visual narrative that never ceases to amaze. The story itself is a philosophical landmine, provoking the reader to question his/her relationship to nature and the world around them. Duncan may well be one of the smartest graphic novels I have ever read and will stay with you long after you read it.
We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, by John Maus
Maus has refined his craft as a member of Ariel Pink's collective over the years and his newest disc shows him to be at the pinnacle of his craft. Each track on this album feels like it was culled together from my own memories of the synthpop/postpunk tracks of my youth. This is further exemplified with the album's hazy, dreamlike production, leaving one with a disc that feels oddly familiar yet whose emotions are startlingly relevant.
Someone Gave Me Religion, by Arnaud Rebotini
Rebotini has always come across a vintage synthesizer fetishist, going so far as to list each piece of equipment used on past recordings. But with his newest release he finally gets his cherished gear to sing. From the opening 13-minute cosmic ambient track onwards, Rebotini references everything from minimal techno to ebm to Chicago house with giddy aplomb.
White Material, by Claire Denis
Claire Denis latest film to explore her youth in Africa is a stunning portrait of a stubborn French woman's quest to retain her family's coffee plantation amidst the violent collapse of African imperialism. Isabelle Huppert plays the woman with stoic intensity, trying her best to go about life ignorant of the chaos around her. She unwittingly becomes the savior of a wounded rebel army leader as warring factions within the country run rampant. The film's portrayal of Africa is both haunting and beautiful and carries an intense sense of foreboding till it's bitter ending. The rest of the cast are also superb including Christophe Lambert (Highlander!)and Isaach de Bankolé.
Human Centipede: The First Sequence, by Directed by Tom Six
A real guilty pleasure with this one, a horror movie that manages to disgust and humor simultaneously. Not for the faint of heart.
From the Cos Cob Branch Staff
The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach
Highly enjoyable with several coming of age stories. It's set in a small college community in Wisconsin with a background of baseball as a metaphor for life.
The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
A moving story of a young woman whose gift for understand the meaning of flowers helps her overcome her past and learn how to love. A very powerful, beautiful work.
State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett
I felt transported by this book to the jungles of the Amazon. Fascinating and unpredictable and a unique read.
The Tiger's Wife, by Tea Obreht
A young doctor in a small Balkan country find secrets abound after the war. A mix of myth and reality. It's a beautifully written tale with several stories unfolding.