Monthly Archives: January 2014

Soundtrack to my life, part 2: joy

My last post on the soundtrack to my life was all about the angst. And while I love Alanis Morrisette as much as the next thirty-one year-old, there is a time (turn, turn, turn) to every season (turn, turn, turn), and so forth, and so now it’s time for a little joy (and pain — sunshine — and rain). [Editor’s note: I have recently diagnosed myself with a disease where I can’t write a sentence without inappropriately inserting song lyrics. It comes and goes.] ANYWAY. In this installment of my life soundtrack blog, I want to focus on the opposite of angst: pure, unadulterated joy. There are certain songs, you see, that I can put on and know that my mood will be boosted. These songs are either great fun to sing along with, or they remind me of a specific, happy time in my life, or they just have infectious, happy-making tunes — or sometimes, all three of the above. Here, then, are ten songs, in no particular order, that never fail to make me smile.

1. “It’s A Great Day To Be Alive,” by Travis Tritt. This was my freshman year dorm’s theme song (what up, Otero 2001-2002?!) and it speaks for itself. If you’re not a country music fan, I ask you to listen to this song and make an exception. Also: name me one other song that involves not one, not two, but THREE full-throated howls (“oww-oooooo!”) followed by banjo interludes? Other reasons to love this song: it references microwave rice, homemade soup, Harleys, Fu Man Chu beards, and the word “goofy.” TRY NOT TO LOVE THIS SONG. I dare you.

2. “There’s Too Much Love,” by Belle & Sebastian. As I mentioned in my last post, this is my “jaunty walking song.” If this song comes on in my earphones while I am walking, you best believe things are getting jaunty. There’s just something about the melody and instrumentation of this song that is like catnip to me. I think it’s the strings. (By the way: if you’re listening to this song for the first time, by all means, make sure you wait until the strings kick in). God, I love a good strings section! But while we’re talking about Belle & Sebastian, they have a whole catalog of really cheery-sounding songs that just perk me right up. Try “Sukie in the Graveyard,” “Funny Little Frog,” or “The Blues Are Still Blue.”

3. “Já Sei Namorar,” by Tribalistas. You can’t spend any amount of time in Brazil and not come out of it with a profound appreciation for Tribalistas, a Brazilian super-group/collaboration of three already famous singers. They only produced one album but dang, it was a good one. “Já Sei Namorar” (which means “I already know how to love”) is one of the best on the album and it is catchy as heck. If you’ve ever been to any gathering at my house, you’ve probably heard this song on in the background, because it’s perfect for any occasion, and it’s nearly impossible to feel bummed out while listening to it.

Tribalistas

Tribalistas

4. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” by Whitney Houston. First of all, RIP, Whitney. Second of all, this song makes me want to dance — like, REALLY dance — every single time I hear it. Including now. And the video is awesome (Whitney’s neon make-up and crimped hair!! I miss her).

5. “Australia,” by The Shins. I listened to this song on repeat when I was taking a break from studying for the California Bar Exam. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, let me assure you that I needed a heavy duty dose of happy to pull me out of the self-pitying misery that defined my bar-studying experience. I used to put a CD with this song on in the car when I drove to and from my yoga class (the other thing that kept me sane that summer) and totally rock out.

6. “Luna,” by Juanes. Maybe I should start a separate list of my favorite peppy Latin songs, but that could take all day, so I’ll confine myself to just a few. Juanes, in case you’re not familiar, is a pop sensation (and all-around good person) from Colombia. I first discovered his music in 2003, when I was studying abroad in Chile and his album Un Día Normal was being played non-stop everywhere in Santiago. My friends and I all jumped on the Juanes bandwagon and never got off. I recall standing in one of my friends’ teeny-tiny bedrooms in her host family’s house and blasting this song, “Luna,” over and over, while shrieking the lyrics at each other. Good times. (Our host families loved us.)

7. “Would I Lie To You?” by Charles & Eddie. This song makes me smile every time I hear it because it reminds me of hanging out with my high school best friend, Rachel, driving around and singing along to this, one of the stupidest of songs ever produced. Yet, you have to admit, there’s something catchy about it — maybe it’s all the “woo!”s? Also, if you can get through the video without laughing, you are a stronger man than I.

8. “Mi Primer Millon,” by Bacilos. Okay, I know this list is Latin-heavy, but come on, there’s a reason for this. And that reason is HORNS. I love a good horn section almost as much as I love a good string section, and “Mi Primer Millon” (“My First Million”) has the horns covered. For those who speaka da Spanish, the lyrics are really fun (I always sing along to the line, “Tranquila, querida, Paulina solo es una amiga“), and for those who don’t speak Spanish, it doesn’t matter. This song is great and undeniably joyful.

9. “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise,” by The Avett Brothers. Oh, The Avett Brothers: marry me! (Kidding – sort of). This may not be the peppiest song on the list, but I find it uplifting, soothing, and, most importantly, sing-along-able.

10. “California Love,” by 2Pac and Dr. Dre. No explanation needed. Okay, fine: I love so many things about this song. I love that it involves rapping AND singing, and I rap and sing along with it, well aware that I sound like a jackass when I say things like “ever since honeys was wearin’ Sassoon,” especially since I don’t actually know what that means. But listen, I lived in California for a few years, and I feel justified in loving this song unreservedly and letting out my secret West Coast rapper whenever it comes on. RIP, 2Pac. (Also, just because: my favorite Chapelle show sketch of all time.)

Obviously, I have a lot more happy-making songs on my playlist, but these ten are near the top of the list. Stay tuned for my future installments, including songs to chill to, songs for romance, and songs for kicking ass and taking names.

Soundtrack to my life, part 1: angst

Like any narcissist, I often dream about the movie that will inevitably be made of my life. I don’t focus on which actor would play me (although, let’s be real, Jamie Lynn Sigler could use the work), but I do tend to fantasize heavily about the soundtrack. When I think about the soundtrack to my life, I don’t try to connect songs to particular scenes that I’ve lived (since most of the foundational moments of my life were not, as it turns out, set to music), but I match specific songs to moods that I’ve experienced or general feelings that I’ve had. So, for example, my happy, jaunty walking song will always and forever be Belle and Sebastian’s “There’s Too Much Love.” Listen to this song and try NOT to walk jauntily. It’s impossible.

Since there are so many songs that I love and that figure prominently into any dramatic rendering of my emotional life, it won’t do to try to sum them all up in one post. So let’s just start with the most fun: the angsty songs — you know, the songs you listen to when you just want a good wallow. Sometimes I listen to angsty songs when I’m in a good mood, just to feel superior (it’s like Schadenfreude). So, here, in no particular order, are ten (plus a couple of extras) essential, angsty, life soundtrack songs.

1. My go-to, moody, blissfully sad, self-indulgently angsty song: “Goodnight L.A.” by Counting Crows. Counting Crows is one of my all-time favorite bands. They’re up there with The Beatles. They’re geniuses, and I won’t hear anyone say a word against them. My cousin Catie and I actually joined the Counting Crows fan club as high schoolers and we used to blast August and Everything After and This Desert Life (and yes, Recovering The Satellites, although it’s not their best work, in my humble opinion) every time we were together. Adam Duritz’s beautiful, ragged voice is present throughout a large chunk of the soundtrack to my teenage years. “Goodnight L.A.,” however, is off of the album Hard Candy, which came out in 2002, and which I listened to heavily during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. Hard Candy, for me, in some ways signaled the beginning of the end for Counting Crows. It included their awful, plasticene cover of “Big Yellow Taxi” (ugh), and although a lot of the songs on the album were good, only a few moved me. “Goodnight L.A.,” though, is perfect. The melody is gorgeous and the lyrics are pure, old-school, poetic Adam Duritz (“So I put my head on the ground, and the sky is a wheel” kills me every time). Whenever I’m feeling like I want to wallow in loneliness or angst without going full Elliott Smith, I put on this song. It’s wonderful.

Counting Crows: angst kings

Counting Crows: angst kings

2. My other go-to angsty song: [Insert any Sarah McLachlan song here]. Oh, Sarah: I love you. So much. Here’s the thing: Sarah McLachlan has the voice of a Canadian angel, and her lyrics are so lovely and heartfelt. If I had to pick one song out of her catalog to be my go-to angst song, I’d probably have to go with “Elsewhere.” It’s slightly churchy in its arrangement and harmonization, the lyrics are great (yet inscrutable), and it’s angsty while still being soothing. You could totally take a nap to this song. A sad nap.

3. My angsty-with-banjos song: “Maybe,” by Allison Krauss. I seem to recall listening to a lot of sad country songs when I was a freshman in college, when EVERY moment in my life held what felt like great emotional import, and I was surrounded by people from Texas: so, a perfect storm of banjo angst. Allison Krauss and her sad, sad voice (lady always sounds like she’s about to burst into tears) was delicious during these moments.

4. My angsty-in-love-in-my-head song: This song hasn’t really applied to my life since I was in college, but I used to listen to Guster’s “Either Way” and just feel like it was speaking to me, about my actual life, even though I never had a real boyfriend until I was out of college and spent most of college pining after people who did not return the feeling. I was basically Noel from Felicity. Anyway, from its first notes, “Either Way” just captures the feeling of delicious misery of having one’s heart stomped upon as a young, impressionable person. It’s hard not to listen to this song, with its sad violins and sad piano, and not immediately picture my freshman year dorm room and its chili lights hanging over the bunk bed. I love it! (Runner up: “Only In Dreams,” by Weezer. Oof.)

5. My so-depressing-you-can’t-even-take-it-seriously song: “Talk Show Host,” by Radiohead. It’s Radiohead. Enough said. (Runner up: “Karma Police.”)

6. My slightly drunk, angsty song: “Wildflowers,” by Ryan Adams. I say “slightly drunk” to be generous to Mr. Adams, who once fell off a stage during a concert. I’ve seen Ryan Adams twice in concert, and he was visibly intoxicated both times, but do you think that stopped him from singing and playing the harmonica, the guitar, and the piano, sometimes all at once? Hell, no. The man’s a dynamo (and I think he’s been clean and sober for quite a while now — hat-tip to the sobering presence of Mandy Moore).

7. My late-nights-working-at-the-law-firm sad song: “The Sword and the Pen,” by Regina Spektor. Used to play this one a lot past midnight while sitting in front of a glowing computer screen.

8. My favorite angsty cover song: Bon Iver’s cover of “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Holy crap. Shivers.

9. My saudade brasileira song: “É Isso Aí,” by Ana Carolina, with Seu Jorge. This is set to the same tune as Damien Rice’s “The Blower’s Daughter,” which is pretty angsty in its own right, but there’s something about the acoustic guitar and Ana Carolina’s husky voice that makes this version even better. Brazilians are known for being happy and upbeat, but they’re also experts at saudade, the feeling of longing or nostalgia for the past, or for a place or person far away. This song pretty much nails saudade.

10. My obligatory Ben Folds angst song: “We’re Still Fighting It.” I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a Ben Folds song on an angsty music list. The guy’s like a teenage girl trapped in an adult male body. I adore his music, and a lot of his songs capture specific life moments. “We’re Still Fighting It” is about growing up, and a relationship between a parent and child. It’s sad, but ultimately hopeful. And it still gives me chills when I listen to it.

So! Everyone feeling nice and angsty now? What are your favorite sad, wallowy songs? I’m sure I’m missing some gems here, but I wanted to keep the list relatively short so as not to overwhelm. Happy/angsty listening!

 

 

Unpacking

I’m writing from my new apartment in DC where, for the past 48 hours, I’ve been a virtual whirlwind of activity: unpacking and breaking down and throwing away boxes, putting away clothes and shoes and dishes and glasses and books, directing movers, getting groceries, doing laundry, driving, walking, scurrying — yes, there has been a lot of scurrying going on.

Putting away dishes is strangely satisfying.

Putting away dishes is strangely satisfying.

And now, 48 hours after repatriating, all of my furniture is in my apartment, I have an internet connection, and the majority of the stuff is put away. The apartment, which 48 hours earlier was an empty series of rooms, finally feels like the place where I live. Now all that’s missing is Al, who’s coming back from the UK next weekend, and the belongings we shipped from South Africa, which are going through customs at the moment. Whew!

My moving process involved wine and Felicity on DVD.

My moving process involved wine and Felicity on DVD.

Finally settling into an apartment that’s ours — not a corporate apartment, or a hotel, or some other form of short-term housing — has made me feel very happy. It’s also energized me practically to the point of mania (hence, the scurrying), which only began to peter out this afternoon, after I finished color-coding my bookshelves. Tomorrow, I think I’ll start to settle into my life outside the walls of my apartment: I’m trying out a new yoga studio, going to the Walmart a couple of blocks away, and having dinner and drinks with friends.

It feels good to be back.

 

Book review Monday: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

Programming note: book reviews are back on Mondays (for now), as my Tuesdays will henceforth be consumed by blogging about The Bachelor over at Previously.TV (you can check out my posts here).

I’m a big fan of Donna Tartt — really, as big a fan as one can be of an author who has only produced three novels. I thought both of her first two books were brilliant: both The Secret History and The Little Friend were well-crafted, chilling, and un-put-downable. So, I was really excited to read Tartt’s latest effort, The Goldfinch. Since I’m an enthusiastic fan of her work, I dove into The Goldfinch without even bothering to read its flap-copy, let alone a review. Unlike how I approached Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, I went into this thing completely blind, and I’m glad I did. The Goldfinch is one of those books with a twisty, turn-y plot that’s more enjoyable if you have no sense of what to expect; it’s like a haunted house ride, and you’re constantly waiting for the next ghost to pop out of nowhere and give you a thrill.

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The barebones plot summary of the book is as follows: thirteen year-old Theo Decker and his mother are wandering through a museum in New York City when a terrorist’s bomb is detonated. Theo survives, and — for reasons that are a bit complicated to go into here — walks away from the scene with an exceedingly rare painting, Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch, in his possession. The novel then follows Theo from his early teenage years into adulthood, tracing his wild, unstable trajectory as he’s bounced from house to house, state to state, country to country, and his increasingly precarious situation as an international art thief. Even though the novel is a hefty 755 pages long, the plot moves — and changes — so quickly, that you understand why Tartt expended so much ink capturing the many facets of Theo’s story.

As always, Tartt’s writing is impeccable. The characters, like real people, are colorful, yet sympathetic, understandable, and yet essentially mysterious. Theo, as the narrator, is complex and multi-dimensional. At various times, I felt sorry for him, was annoyed by him, rooted for him, and wanted him to fail. Tartt masterfully develops the jarring conflict between Theo’s inner life — one wracked by guilt and self doubt — and his seemingly confident and respectable outer life. Other characters are also given their own layers; although there are a few stock characters thrown in (Kitsey and Andy spring to mind), most of the main characters seem like real people, with their good sides and bad sides, noble impulses and cowardices.

One of the characters who plays a major role in the story is Hobie, the proprietor of an antiques shop whose life and livelihood eventually become intertwined with Theo’s. Although Hobie was one of the few characters — perhaps the only character — in the story who seemed to have no human failings apart from a few mild eccentricities, I enjoyed Tartt’s descriptions of him nonetheless. I particularly loved this passage:

By contrast Hobie lived and wafted like some great sea mammal in his own mild atmosphere, the dark brown of tea stains and tobacco, where every clock in the house said something different and time didn’t actually correspond to the standard measure but instead meandered along at its own sedate tick-tock, obeying the pace of his antique-crowded backwater, far from the factory-built, epoxy-glued version of the world. Though he enjoyed going out to the movies, there was no television; he read old novels with marbled end papers; he didn’t own a cell phone; his computer, a prehistoric IBM, was the size of a suitcase and useless.

Now, a small complaint. As gifted as Tartt is as creating marvelous, complex, interesting characters, her ear for dialogue seems, to me, to be fundamentally off. The characters in this book are so real, and yet they don’t talk like real people — or, at least, not like real people in this century. For example, Kitsey, a love interest, is supposed to be a young, modern woman in her mid-twenties living in present-day Manhattan, and interested in fashion and parties and glamour. Yet she sounds as if she was plucked from a Connecticut estate in the 1940s. She says things like, “Really? Are you sure it’s all right? We none of us drink it — Daddy always ordered this kind…” and, “Do say, Theo, I know you must prefer one of the two.” Similarly, Theo, as a teenager in the mid-2000s, said, in one passage, “Say, you ought to try one of these peppermints.” Say? What kind of old-timey teenagers has Donna Tartt been hanging around with, if this is her impression of how young people talk? I often found the dialogue to be so jarring that it took me right out of the story, and made me wonder whether Tartt wrote this novel from inside of a time machine.

My only other complaint about this book was the finish. Without giving too much away, things get pretty neatly tied up by the end in a way that felt out-of-step with the rest of the story, which was consistently wild and unpredictable and chaotic. Also, at the very end of the book, Theo, the narrator, spends a long time pondering the meaning of life, death, and art in a way that I didn’t find particularly engaging. I understand that Tartt was trying to imbue the story with greater meaning, but I don’t think a soliloquy was necessary. On the contrary, I think Theo’s relationship throughout the book with The Goldfinch in particular and with art in general spoke for itself, and didn’t need to be elaborated quite so explicitly at the end of the novel.

Despite my little complaints about the book, overall, it was a great read, and Tartt’s writing is astonishing. As a writer, I appreciate her exceptional ability to cast otherwise mundane objects, moments, and feelings in a meaningful light. I recommend this book for other Tartt fans, for those looking for a long but engaging read, and for those interested in fiction involving art.

Lessons from 2013

It’s the last day of 2013 and I feel as if I should write a post reflecting upon the year: the places I went, the lessons I learned, the ways I grew. But quite honestly, to quote Sweet Brown, ain’t nobody got time for that. Plus, I already did one of those posts, way back in October. And all of the stuff I said in my earlier post still applies: I still like routine, I still like putting things away in drawers, I still hate getting rejected. So today, I’d like to add just a few additional (and surprising) things I’ve learned over this past year of living abroad, moving constantly, and trying new things.

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1. Writing takes perseverance.

I’ve said this one before, and I’ll keep saying it, if only to remind myself that this writing thing isn’t meant to be easy. When I started off on my professional writing endeavor last October, I knew, intellectually, that it would be challenging and would require a certain amount of stick-to-it-iveness. I didn’t realize, though, just how much stubborn, unflappable perseverance it would take. I’ve learned, after a year of trying, that to hack it as a professional writer, you must develop a skin of rhino-like thickness, constantly muddle through morasses of confusion and disappointment, and force yourself to continue to pursue a goal that might not actually be reachable. Because it’s worth it. (And I’m still not giving up.)

2. You don’t need that much stuff.

Since moving to London in July, Al and I have moved apartments (and/or hotels) eight or nine times (we lost track of the exact number after a while — I blame PTSD). And the main thing one learns very quickly after being forced to haul one’s stuff around London in a taxi cab at rush-hour is that one simply has too much stuff.

When we moved to South Africa last October, Al and I put most of our earthly possessions into storage in Virginia and brought only a fraction of our belongings with us to South Africa. Then, when we packed up for London, we took only a fraction of THAT. And now, after living in a series of one-room corporate apartments, that amount of stuff even feels like too much. At this point, we’ve each pared down to two suitcases of stuff, because we only have a month left in London, and traveling with more is just too hard.

When we move back to DC in a month, I’m really looking forward to getting all of our things in one place and doing a giant purge of our belongings. We did a purge once before, a few years ago, and man, it feels great (and it’s cheaper than therapy, a spa day, and/or buying more stuff). By the way, anyone interested in doing a purge, or even in just decluttering, should read the excellent book The Hoarder In You. (Don’t be put off by the title!) The book breaks down the emotional reasons why we hold on to stuff and gives the reader strategies for simplifying, decluttering, and lightening. Highly recommended!

3. However, some stuff enriches your life. Keep that stuff.

I could never get rid of ALL my stuff. What would I do without yarn, knitting needles, books, and my running shoes? What about my underwater MP3 player, my pink leather gloves, and my Le Creuset Dutch oven? Sure, I COULD get rid of that stuff — but it would negatively impact the quality of my life. I’ve learned that some stuff is not just necessary, but happy-making. My advice is to figure out what those things are for you and hold on to them. Get rid of the rest (or at least, a lot of the rest).

4. Coming home is still the sweetest part of travel.

I love to travel, and I wouldn’t trade our last year of adventures abroad for anything. But I’m really looking forward to coming back to the States and starting my life there, with Al. We’ve enjoyed being away, but we’re so excited to come back.

So, that’s it: just a few life lessons I’ve picked up during the past year. What have you learned this year? Was 2013 a good one for you or an absolute stinker? For me, it was one of my best years — but I’m optimistic that this next one will be even better. Happy New Year to all of my readers, whoever and wherever you are. I wish you success, peace, and joy in the new year. See you in 2014.