By Tara Burke Sullivan
“Best Of” or “Favorite” lists, whether they’re comprised of books, music, film or plays are by nature absolutely subjective. Which is why I appreciate reading them. Many gems which may not have crossed my path otherwise have been discovered reading the “Best Of” lists put together by other people. Beginning in childhood I possessed an appetite for reading which seemed insatiable, bottomless, bordering upon desperate. (As long as it wasn’t school work I was being directed to read. My poor beleagured teachers.) By far my two favorite places to haunt were the Little Silver Book Shop and the Little Silver Library. I think there’s still a “Wanted” poster with my face on it in that sweet, magical little library (returning books on time was not a strong suit of mine). But where else would a skinny, odd, Pippi Longstockingish girl have chosen to spend her free hours? It was heaven on earth to me. Heaven on earth. Even now there are times I willingly forfeit sleep in order to continue on for just “one more chapter”, which all too easily turns into “ten more chapters”. Film holds the same magical appeal…instant escapism and a view of life as it is elsewhere. The following lists developed because these books and films, one way or another, stayed with me after the last page was read and the last credit run. Hopefully your interest will be picqued by a book or movie or two on this list. They are listed in random order.
1. Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children By Ransom Riggs
I’m a fool for old, strange photos and this book had a plethora of them, all of which were connected to characters in the story. Odd children with a variety of freakish powers, a grandfather with more mysteries than answers and a teen aged protagonist who is sent to a “shrink” to help him with the problems his parents think he has…add in some time manipulation and a great cast of characters. You had me at “Peculiar”.
2. The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan
I’d not known anything about this book before taking it home and reading it in one sitting. Levithan has authored a clever though decidedly not gimmicky book about two lovers, how they met, what they went through together and how they stopped becoming “us”. As indicated by its title, this book IS written in dictionary form. An exerpt: “cadence, n. I have never lived anywhere but New York or New England, but there are times when I’m talking to you and I hit a Southern vowel, or a word gets caught in a Southern truncation, and I know it’s because I’m swimming in your cadences, that you permeated my very language.” There are darker entries and lighter, we never learn the names of these lovers and it’s not in chronological order. Yet it enchants.
3. I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive by Steve Earle
This is Earle’s first novel (he published a book of short stories about 10 years ago) and it was quite sharp. A mystical tale which includes: a doctor who has lost his status and his livelihood and become a hard-core heroin addict, Graciela -a young girl who speaks no English and has been abandoned by her callous prat of a boyfriend at a most fragile and painful time in her life, Jacqueline Kennedy, sin, redemption, kindness, cruelty and the ghost of Hank Williams. Sounds like a lot but it reads easily. The characters are stronger than the plotline but they’re enough to keep readers engaged till the end of the book. Vaguely reminded me of William Kennedy’s superior Ironweed.
4 The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier
Brockmeier’s Fairy Tale of sorts is comprised of intertwined stories which revolve around a phenomenon which comes to be called “the Illumination”. At 8:17 one Friday evening something occurs, causing pain and suffering began to glow and emit light. Illness and hurt take on a mystical beauty of their own. Central to the plot(s) is a book of beautiful love notes left each morning by a husband for his wife. (“I love when I take my wedding band off to do the dishes and you put it on your finger and go around the house saying, ‘I’m married to me. I’m married to me’) The book of notes passes through several sets of hands and each person who comes upon it has a compelling story of their own.
5 Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman
To read this book is to fall in love…fall in love with Aura, the reason it was written- the quirky, elfin, raspy voiced young wife to whom this work is an unrequited love letter. It’s not a spoiler to say that the lovely Aura dies. We are told that fact in the very beginning. What was unexpected was the sense of loss I felt as a reader, as witness to the story of Francisco and Aura. Their love seemed against all odds, he being 22 years her senior and she a young, Mexican academic who ultimately wound up at Columbia in the PhD program, an only child and the center of her mother’s life. They shared 4 amazing, loving, funny years together before tragedy struck. Francisco expounds on this at length, seeking some sort of explanation, some reason as to the sequence of events which precipitated Aura’s death. He bares his soul and his very core in this book, some of it so personal it creates a sense of guilt while reading it, tantamount to trespassing into his personal, private thoughts and acts. He, who found his true love as he was nearing the age of 50, writes this book as a broken man. A year after reading this book, Aura occasionally shows up in my daydreams and I feel compelled to say her name…
6 The Buddha in the Attic and When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
“When The Emperor Was Divine” was not published in 2011, but I include it because “The Buddha in the Attic” was, and I recommend reading both. WTEWD tells the tale of a Japanese family from California, post WW II, taken from their home and shipped to an internment camp in Utah. Their story is told in an economically worded and unsentimental way. TBITA is equally beautiful and emotionally charged. Using a collective voice Otsuka tells the story of Japanese mail order brides, their journeys to America, the strangers who met then married them and how their lives continued on afterward as dutiful wives. Otsuka is a marvel, her careful use of language paints full and beautiful and often terrifically sad pictures.
7 Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg
After working in the Children’s Room of the library for the past 5 years and loving every minute of it, children’s books hold a special mystique for me. Saltzberg is a solid children’s author and illustrator. His books speak TO children, not above them or worse yet, at them. This book is a revelation for not only the rug rats but all age groups. Beauty and art may be born of many things…including “mistakes”.
8 Just My Type – a book about fonts by Simon Garfield
If ever you’ve looked at a font and wondered about how it came to be, who originally designed it, you must pick up this book. Worth reading just for the history of the Letter Masters behind the fonts we use, read and identify each and every day. (Hey, how did IKEA manage to change their font without many of us noticing!) Also some fascinatingly dark sides to aforementioned Fontists…a character study as well as an homage to all things lettered.
9 Blue Nights by Joan Didion
Readers know they’re in for a bit of heartache when they open this book, but Didion’s elegant, honest writing style is irresistible. A tiny, steel like bird of a woman, her fortitude facing the loss of all which was dear to her as she contends with her own aging is as inspiring as it is melancholic. Sad yet never self pitying, Blue Nights book-ends Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking perfectly.
- The Descendants
Any film which elicits laughter as easily as it does tears is a treasure. This is certainly the case with The Descendants. Clooney masterfully creates one of the most beautifully heart wrenching scenes I’ve ever witnessed in a movie. Familial dissent, the beauty of Hawaii, marital heartbreak, growing old, coming of age…it covers a wide swath of life. A strong, gorgeously filmed work of art.
- The Artist
Impossible to discuss without giving too much away, The Artist is simply pure love of film.
Possibly one of the best ensemble casts ever brought together. Albert Brooks as you’ve never seen him before, Ron Perlman as a true beast, Bryan Cranston, Carey Mulligan, Christina Hendricks, Oscar Isaac and golden boy Ryan Gosling make for one hell of a ride. As the main character- one with no given name- Gosling plays a mysterious, almost unflappably calm stunt driver by day, getaway driver by night. He is a study in cool broodiness. He’s also definitely the guy you want on your side. SPOILER ALERT: The one thing I was not prepared for was the intensity of the violence in this film. It is brutal. And not indicated at all on any of the trailers/ads I’d seen.
- The Guard
Brendan Gleeson, playing an quirky Garda in Western Ireland, elicits steady laughter with his crude, certainly off color banter. This movie is a joyful word play, with enough seriousness and depraved criminality mixed in to keep it from becoming silly. Don Cheadle is the perfect straight man to Gleeson’s cop who lacks any self editing whatsoever. Fionula Flannagan is sheer, sharp loveliness as Gleeson’s Mum.
- Win Win
Truth be told, I feared before seeing it that this one would dip into cheap sentimentality, “After School Special” style. Thankfully it didn’t. Paul Giamatti and Bobby Cannavale play best friends perfectly and hilariously. Jeffrey Tambor adds sad sack humor. Amy Smart plays Giamatti’s no-nonsense though big hearted wife. It is a pleasure to see Bert Young on screen again. The real surprise, cast wise, is teen Alex Shaffer who embodies his role pitch perfectly.
- The Ides of March
Gosling again. And Clooney again. Hey, Giamatti’s here too. If there are 3 actors who are eminently watchable, it’s this lot. Add Phillip Seymour Hoffman and it’s acting perfection. Evan Rachel Wood is luminous in her role as young campaign staffer who becomes enmeshed in events far more sinister than any good campaign can withstand.
“Girl Power” film extraordinaire. Not for the faint of heart or the easily offended, but a sincere testament to the power of friendship.
- Crazy, Stupid Love
Funny, Touching Film.
Based upon David Selznick’s fantastic book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”, “Hugo” is a beautiful love letter to the art and magic of film. It’s a bit slow out of the gate but makes up in beauty and heartfelt adoration what it lacks in pacing. Sir Ben Kingsley is nothing less than wizardly in his role of toy kiosk owner with a history.
- The Muppets
Need I say more? No, I thought not. True to its roots and well worth watching. Plus, we all KNEW Animal would wind up in an Anger Management Program one day. Right?
- Money Ball
Truth be told it wasn’t initially on my “must see” list. Then I saw it. And am glad I did. It is the super engaging tale of Billy Beane, GM of the Oakland A’s, and his innovative plan to build a winning team with a shoestring budget. Brad Pitt was nothing less than ideal for the role of Beane and Jonah Hill played Yale educated number nut Peter Brand perfectly. Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays put-upon manager Art Howe, who has no faith at all in Beane’s dream. Beane, using Brand’s statistical info, begins to take players at the bottom of the Pro pay scale (due to various physical ailments and deformities) and puts together a Franken-team with the hope they can turn their losing streak around.
- The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
An absolutely delicious confection of a short film, I was moved to tears by this piece. Twice. It is as much an homage to film as it is to books, which are depicted as living beings- flying, migrating, roosting at night upon library shelves…heavenly creatures. Mr. Lessmore, a sweet Buster Keatonish character, wins the audience over effortlessly with his sad eyed charm and reverence for the Story Book Land he is deposited in after a (Katrina like?) storm whips him away from New Orleans. With all due respect to Frank L. Baum, I won’t make the obvious comparisons between this film and other storm-centric fantastical stories. It is more than capable of standing on its own. Hugo, The Artist and The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore comprise a perfect trifecta of cinephilia. The Fantastic Flying Books may be downloaded (free of charge) from iTunes.
Here’s hoping 2012 holds as much literary and cinematic appeal as 2011 did. And here’s to the librarians of our childhoods, (Mrs. Ayres and Mrs. Flannery, Mrs. Silverman and Miss Balkan) and to each and every keeper of books we’ve ever been lucky enough to know. “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”~Jorge Luis Borges