Thursday, December 21, 2017

Holiday Challenge 2017

Welcome to the 2017 Holiday Challenge! There are two challenges—try either or both. Email your answers to 

(Previous Holiday Challenges: 2016, 2015, 2014.)

Challenge 1

Here is a diagram I made. The diagram shows actors Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Chris Pratt. And for each pair of actors, the diagram shows an acting credit the two actors share.

So here is the challenge: make a diagram like this with as many actors as you can. Each pair of actors must share an acting credit, according to the filmography section of the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). And a given movie may only appear once in the diagram.

(In case it wasn't clear, my diagram was only an example; your diagram doesn't have to include any of the actors shown in the example.)

Challenge 2

Find a pair of rhyming, one-syllable words with no letters in common

  • One-syllable words only.
  • Avoid sophisticated notions of rhyme that poets sometimes use (such as slant rhyme, feminine rhyme, etc.). The rhyme should be extremely simple, such as we find in a limerick or a nursery rhyme.
  • If you aren't sure whether your rhyme is simple enough, send it anyway.
  • Words can be any number of letters. 
If you need further clarification, ask in the comments below or send an email.


The prize this year is my 2015 puzzle book Word Games for Kids! I'll send a copy to:

The first person who emails a diagram of 4 or more actors meeting the conditions of Challenge 1;

The first person who emails a pair of words meeting the conditions of Challenge 2;

The person who emails the diagram with the greatest number of actors meeting the conditions of Challenge 1;

The person who emails the longest pair of words meeting the conditions of Challenge 2, as measured by the sum of the letters;

The person who emails the longest pair of words meeting the conditions of Challenge 2, as measured by the product of the letters.

Plus, everybody who attempts either of the challenges will be entered into a drawing to win a copy of the book.
Have fun! Contest ends December 31st at 11:59:59 p.m. Eastern time.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Gee's Bend Quilts, Last Night's Surprising Alabama Senate Outcome

By coincidence, I drove through Alabama a couple of weeks ago. I never came across any Washington Post reporters, but I did eat some excellent barbecue! After entering from Tupelo, Mississippi, my friend and I passed through such towns as Winfield, Fayette, Tuscaloosa, Uniontown, Gee's Bend, Hybart, Franklin, Claiborne, Blacksher, Stapleton, Fort Morgan, Alabama Port, and Bayou La Batre. This wasn't a political quest; for years, I'd wanted to visit Gee's Bend, Alabama, because of the quilts made there. But driving through Alabama in December 2017 meant that you were going to think of politics.

My conclusion after the drive was that Roy Moore would win—not because there were so many Roy Moore signs on the roadside, but because across the state there were so few signs for either candidate. I thought the whole thing must have disgusted and depressed everybody too much to participate. Instead, the proposition of Senator Roy Moore appears to have raised their gumption!


Gee’s Bend is a remote area of Alabama. There, a group of women has made some of the best American art of the past hundred years. You can read about it here. Here are images of just a handful of these stunning works, many of which are in the permanent collection of the Met and other museums.

Nettie Jane Kennedy (1916–2002)

Mary L. Bennett (1942–)

Lutisha Pettway (1925–2001)

Annie Mae Young (1928–2012)

Annie Mae Young

Friday, December 1, 2017

My Year's Best List 2017

The best things that I read, watched, listened to, and otherwise ingested in 2017!

(Previous lists: 2016201520142013.)

Best Books—Fiction

Rachel Cusk, Transit (2013)

More eventful and funny than the first installment in Cusk's trilogy, Transit has the same sensibility and the same flawless prose.

I'll leave it there because I reviewed the book in a previous post. Here is a review from the Guardian, and here is a review from a different angle in the LA Times.

Buy it online: Transit

Honorable mention: Edward St. Aubyn, The Complete Patrick Melrose Novels

It's always hard to read stories about characters who suffer from their parents' cruelty, but in these brief novels set within English aristocracy's rotten core, the narrator's psychological insight and wickedly funny value judgments offer pleasure amidst pain.

Here is critic James Wood writing about the series in The New Yorker. A profile of St. Aubyn himself also appeared in The New Yorker.

Buy it online: The Complete Patrick Melrose Novels.

Best Book—Nonfiction

Chester Wilmot, The Struggle for Europe (1952).

If you read only one history of World War II, make it this one. Sir Max Hastings wrote last year that "a good case can be made that The Struggle for Europe—the Australian Chester Wilmot’s 1952 account of the conflict—was so authoritative ... that every subsequent author has merely followed in his footprints."

A journalist during the war, Wilmot manages to create high drama from weather reports. His account of the Allies' D-Day preparations was the most suspenseful thing I read this year. Then, my heart raced as he narrated the invasion itself. You'll have to stick with it through the initial detail-heavy chapters.

In addition to the book's sturdy writing, well organized accounts, and subtle causal analyses, The Struggle for Europe remains relevant because of its thesis: "I have endeavored to explain how the present situation [in Europe] came about; how and why the Western Allies, while gaining military victory, suffered political defeat.... I have tried to show not only how Hitler was overthrown but also why Stalin emerged victorious; how Russia came to replace Germany as the dominant power on the Continent; and how Stalin succeeded in obtaining from Roosevelt and Churchill what he had failed to obtain from Hitler."

A 1952 hardcover edition can be purchased here; you can buy a contemporary edition here.

Best Short Stories

Patrick Modiano, "The Hat." Paris Review, Summer 2017.

Ann Beattie, "Ruckersville." Paris Review, Fall 2017.

Best Poetry

James Tate, "Goodtime Jesus." Reprinted in "Inexhaustible and Brilliant," by Charles Simic, New York Review of Books, February 23, 2017. (Prose poems seldom work, but this one does.)

Meghan O'Rourke, "Poem for my Stranger." Paris Review, Summer 2017.

Donna Stonecipher, "The ruins of nostalgia 21." Paris Review, Fall 2017. (Another unusually good prose poem.)

Best Essays

Annie Dillard, "Total Eclipse" (1982). This is as good a nature essay as I've ever read—and I've read hundreds. Read it online, and/or buy this book of Dillard's essays (which I don't have yet).

Stanley Fish, "Free Speech Is Not An Academic Virtue." The Chronicle Review, March 20, 2017. Fish frames the issue of campus speech in a novel way, by distinguishing academic values from political values.

Ta-Nahesi Coates, "The First White President." Agree or disagree with him, few writers enable the reader to inhabit a point of view—at least temporarily—the way TNC can. Read it online.

Best Long-Form Journalism 

Peter Keating, "What Am I Paying For?"

It was a bold new idea: an all-sports college, classes be damned. But for the athletes at Forest Trail Sports University who faced hunger, sickness and worse, it turned into a nightmare. Read it online.

Caitlin Flanagan, "The People's Princess." The topic of this piece isn't especially interesting (it's about Ivanka Trump), but Flanagan, a talented writer, is on her game here. Read it online.

Danielle Allen, "The Life of a South Central Statistic"

My cousin became a convicted felon in his teens. I tried to make sure he got a second chance. What went wrong? Read it online.

Best Music

Joshua Redman, "Still Dreaming"

Joshua Redman has assembled a group of first-rate musicians to honor Old and New Dreams, a quartet from the 1970s and 1980s that consisted of Dewey Redman (Joshua's father), Charlie Haden, Don Cherry, and Ed Blackwell. This year, my wife and I saw Redman's troupe play a show called "Still Dreaming: A Tribute to Old and New Dreams." Bassist Scott Callie played a terrific solo, and there was a fascinating interaction between Callie, Ron Miles on cornet, and the great Brian Blade on drums. Ron Miles is a cool performer who moves little while he plays; he didn't seem to meld all the time, but the bluesy last-gasps of some of his notes tugged on the soul. The great impact of the show came from Joshua Redman, ferocious and swinging, cerebral and stunning, making music out of silence and noise.

Honorable mention: A late-night fall down the rabbit-hole of the Internet in 2017 led me to this series of well-annotated videos giving musical sources of samples by rap artists and producers. It’s a trove of lost musical treasures and a broad, uh, sample of rap itself. Video 1, Video 2, Video 3, Video 4. (Warning: explicit lyrics, content.)

Best Meal in an Airport

Bardenay is a small chain of restaurant-distilleries in Boise, Idaho. They make a pretty good piece of salmon at the BOI outpost.

Best Movies

(Links point to reviews; some reviews have spoilers.)

Out of the Past (1947) – This shortlist noir starring Roberrt Mitchum has all the trimmings: a femme fatale, a tough (or abusive) private eye, hard-boiled dialogue, and more cigarettes smoked per minute of run-time than in any other film I know.

Personal Shopper – Spiritualism in a milieu of materialism, with a lonely kind of sensuality at the intersection; a good, spooky ghost story.

Singin' In The Rain (1952) – The film-within-a-film is a great genre; Gene Kelly is the boss; and my daughter loved it, too.

Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, both by Denis Villeneuve. Arrival is the more broadly interesting film; Blade Runner 2049 is the better choice for sci-fi devotees. Both, sadly, are a little less than perfect.

Surprisingly good: Kong: Skull Island. Tonally confused and schlocky, but popcorn-munchable. Kong versus the big lizard might be the best big-monster fight ever. (See also my survey of the major King Kong films.)

Best Barbecue

Archibald's & Woodrow's, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

The pulled-pork sandwich at Archibald's & Woodrow's in Tuscaloosa, Alabama was the single best thing I have ever eaten in a barbecue place. I was entranced by its melange of flavors, a result of the interplay between the mop sauce (with its kick of tart vinegar and a dash of mustard seed) and the smoky-sweet pulled pork. The picture shows the humble-looking sandwich in the background.

(The sandwich in the foreground was my appetizer, a "catfish snack" of hot, flaky, perfectly fried cornmeal-breaded catfish.)

Not shown: the fried green tomatoes, which I think in this context counts as a salad?

Honorable mention, rib category: Central BBQ, Memphis, Tennessee. The best kind of low-and-slow, these ribs were soft inside and had a chewy bark and a complex sauce redolent of molasses.

Honorable mention, brisket category: Alamo Icehouse, San Antonio, TX. Good texture, smoke, and bark.

Honorable mention, combo plate category: The burnt-ends sandwich & two rib bones at Gates BBQ in Kansas City, MO. Beefy burnt-ends on a hoagie and well cooked ribs on the side (not unctuously overdone), plus a terrific, zesty sauce. The chicken at Gates was excellent also (but get the sauce on the side for that, because the hot rub is enough seasoning for it).

Biggest disappointment: Joe's Kansas City, Kansas City, MO. Year after year, Joe's is named the number-one BBQ joint in the country. To get in, I waited in a line of perhaps two hundred customers. I thought the strengths included the impeccable sides and sweet tea, and the spice rub. But the rib meat itself was spongy, and the chicken meat wasn't infused with the wood essence. Maybe Joe's is becoming a victim of its success.

Best Art

Paintings by Peder Balke (1804–1887) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Balke's early canvases are textbook exercises in the Sublime. His later works—often flat, nearly colorless, with surprising techniques such as scraped-off areas or the use of thumbprints—prefigure modernist freedom. Here's a review of the exhibition in the NY Times, and a more critical review in the Daily Telegraph.

Eugen Gabritschevsky (1893–1979) at the American Folk Art Museum.

During his decades living in a mental institution, Gabritschevsky created arresting artworks in a variety of styles. Some of the works are abstracts with intricate, energetic designs that achieve harmonies of color and composition. Some feature arresting human figures, amorphous or pulpy. The most representational works are a fanciful series of royally dignified birds with lizardlike feet. Gabritchevsky drew inspiration from madness, but the results are the work of an artist, not a madman. Here is a link to the exhibition with a few of the works, and here is a review of the show from the New York Review of Books that includes additional striking pieces.

Best three-dimensional art. Japanese Bamboo Art: The Abbey Collection, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A mixture of exquisite traditional pieces (flower baskets, tea things) and contemporary sculptures, ranging from pleasing to mesmerizing to dazzling. Overall, a meditation on perfection, form, and formlessness; on tradition, discipline, and choice.

One picture can't do the show justice. Here is a link to the exhibition overview, and here are images of the works

Note added in 2018: I entirely forgot to include Maya Lin's Wavefield at Storm King Art Center. Walking among Lin's elegant waves is an engrossing, immersive, poetic experience. Here is the best photograph I could manage of this difficult-to-photograph artwork. To see better images, and hear Lin herself discussing the work, watch this video. For a full survey of Lin's incredible body of work, try this book.

Best of the Year—Period. 

Viewing sunspots - the telescope is being aimed by a nice music teacher and amateur astronomer from Utah

This year we built our family vacation around the August 21 total solar eclipse. Seeing totality for the first time was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

For a few days prior to the eclipse, we camped in Yellowstone National Park, a place with amazing natural features and abundant wildlife. On the morning of August 20th, we broke camp and drove to the Snake River Plain, in Idaho, where we pitched our tent on farmland alongside the tents and campers of one or two hundred other amateur astronomers. The atmosphere was festive, with flocks of kids running around after dark and everybody telling astronomical war stories over the campfires. The next morning broke perfectly clear, and everybody settled in to wait.

The partial eclipse that began the event was plenty interesting, but at the moment of totality, my jaw fell open and I lost my mind a little bit. It was like nothing I'd ever seen, or even imagined, and none of my astrophysics knowledge prepared me. I can't possibly describe the feelings I was having during those minutes, but Annie Dillard accomplishes that in her phenomenal essay.

The next total solar eclipse visible from the U.S. will be April 8, 2024. If you're going to travel to view it, then a good idea is to use historical cloud-cover data along the path of totality (data like this) to choose a viewing location with the best chance of a clear sky.


That's it for 2017! And since I like to sign off with something to watch or listen to, here are some musical sources for rap samples (drawn from the videos noted above). Warning: explicit lyrics! (Also: for some reason the timestamp link doesn't work on mobile; I'm linking here only to the part of the video from 6 minutes, 25 seconds onward.)