Books, art, ballet, movies, tv in 2023

I made a bullet list but it seemed dull. We need to talk about why we loved a book, a film, a ballet this year.

Here’s my favorites. 

First, Joffrey Ballet’s Frankenstein was like no other ballet I’ve ever seen. Literally, electric. Also, frightening. Mary Shelley’s story is changed and tightened, though the themes of the other, regret, vengeance remain. Bravo to all who created it. 

Faith Ringgold at MCA, through February. See it, especially for her early work.

Next, movies. My sister Mary Beth and I Barbenheimered, seeing Barbie and Oppenheimer the same week. What fun to be back in the theaters with crowds. We saw Barbie first in a crowd of mostly women, age 3 to 85. Then, so many opinions! For me, Barbie was a confection that made me laugh and think and cry, at its end. Thank you, Greta Gerwig — writer and director — for thoughtfully bringing Barbie (and Ken) to life. 

We saw Oppenheimer at the Music Box Theater, a movie palace that dates to 1929. An organist played songs from the era. My sister was dazzled by the ornate setting and music. More than three hours later, I was dazzled, by the acting, storytelling and cinematography of this film. What a life, what a telling! Thank you, director Christopher Nolan. You made a masterpiece. 

Which leads to books. After that film, I had to read the book it was based on, American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. The book completes what couldn’t be told in the movie, and fleshes out Oppenheimer’s brilliant but alcoholic (unfulfilled ambition?) wife. A great read. 

A book I loved that didn’t get much year-end praise: The Guest, by Emma Cline. It’s not a pretty read. A young woman named Alex assumes she is loved by Simon, an older wealthy man who invites her to summer in the Hamptons. When Alex dings his car, he kicks her out — and that’s when the story takes off. Alex has nowhere to go. Her New York roommates already booted her and a drug dealer in the city is on her tail for double crossing him. Alex thinks that if she can survive the week in the Hamptons, Simon will take her back at his Labor Day party. My sister-in-law, Georgia, put this down, because of “all the meanies” but I was hooked by Alex’s ingenuity and delusion. A modern-day Edith Wharton. 

I’ll read anything by Ann Patchett. Her Tom Lake is a pandemic story. Lara, a mother of three grown daughters — stuck at their cherry orchard home — shares the story of her youthful acting career and love affair with Peter Duke, who went on to become a movie star. Charming and propulsive. 

Another overlooked gem: Girlfriend on Mars, by Deborah Willis. Not sure how I stumbled on this one; probably hooked by its title. Amber lives in a basement apartment growing pot with longtime boyfriend Kevin. Amber launches herself from that trap by auditioning for a televised competition to be one of two people to travel to Mars. This is a very funny read, until it isn’t. We’ll put this in the laugh/cry category, a la Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus, which people are still talking about. Loved the book, loved the tv series, though the book is laugh-out-loud funny and the series is more somber. 

I belong to the Columbia University Club of Chicago, which hosts a book club. A member recommended Horse, by Geraldine Brooks, saying she’d never read such an intimate and revealing story about slavery. She was right. Brooks set out to tell the story of the famous thoroughbred racehorse, Lexington, and wound up weaving a tale that spans from 1850 to 2019. It concerns art, artists, art dealers, museum curators, horse owners and their groomsmen, slavery — and the deadly racism that lingers to this day. A magnificent read, like all of Brooks’ work. 

The Postcard, by Anne Berest, is the story of a French family betrayed by their neighbors, who turned them over to Nazis. One, named Myriam, hid in the woods and survived. Anne, a modern-day Parisian, is the granddaughter of Myriam. Anne receives a postcard with the names of Myriam’s parents and siblings, who perished in the camps. Who sent the postcard? How did Anne grow up knowing she was a Jew, but ignorant of its rituals? This is a complex tale, beautifully told. As my friend Jacquie said, there are lots of books about the French resistance, and few about collaborators. 

I mostly read fiction but appreciate well-told nonfiction that teaches me something. Kevin Cooke’s Waco Rising: David Koresh, the FBI, and the Birth of America’s Modern Militias tells the astonishing tale of government overreach — over 51 days — that ended in death and mass suicide at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, in 1993. Cult leader David Koresh separated young girls from their parents, and wives from their husbands, for his own sexual needs. To make money, the Davidians stockpiled and sold arms. Koresh was not in hiding. He shopped at Wal-Mart, jogged in the neighborhood. The FBI could have picked him up any day. Instead, it stormed the compound; 76 died, including 25 children and two pregnant women. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh protested at Waco; Alex Jones began his call-in radio career because of Waco.

I also enjoyed The Life of Anthony Bourdain, by Charles Leershen and Going Infinite, by Michael Lewis.

As for TV and movies on TV: I’m loving The Buccaneers (Apple TV), based on Edith Wharton’s last unfinished novel. Loved The Empress, Succession, The Bear. I was okay seeing the movie Master Gardener on the small screen. It’s written and directed by Paul Schrader, starring Sigourney Weaver and Joel Edgerton, who plays a White supremacist healed by horticulture and an unlikely love.

Merry everything, and happy new year. Thank you for reading me.


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