Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Found in '15

In this day and age, there are seemingly endless forms of entertainment competing for our attention in a multitude of constantly evolving mediums. Because I am part Luddite, I find most of the newer mediums abhorrent. I’ve never tweeted, don’t visit Instagram (that’s probably not the proper verb), and I haven’t logged onto Facebook in seven or eight months. Instead, I gravitate to classic forms of entertainment: books, music, movies, television and theater. I canceled cable last summer so my consumption of new television has drastically decreased, and I’ll take a Gilmore Girls marathon over most of the new shows out there. I can count on one hand the number of movies I saw in 2015. $7 for a matinee? In Des Moines? I’m not made of money. So movies and TV are out, but I discovered some fantastic books, music and theater this year. They were not necessarily created or published in 2015, but I found them this year and if you haven’t found them yet then I beg you to put them on your list for 2016.

As the saying goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover. But let’s be honest, sometimes that’s all we have to go on. I don’t have time to stand in the stacks reading the first fifty pages to decide whether to read the book or not. Cover art not withstanding, I discovered a lot of great books this year.  And as different as they are, these novels have one thing in common: superb writing. Each author has their own distinct style, but all write in such a way that there is never a wasted word.
Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle pulls you forward to a point when the end of the world is near. Told with humor, heart and just the right number of fornicating mutant grasshoppers, the book sparked my interest in Smith’s other books and, with only a couple of exceptions, I have devoured them. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel also deals with the end of life as we know it. Yes, there is a theme here; I’ve found apocalyptic fiction fascinating since my ninth grade Alas, Babylon assignment. Mandel’s flowing prose belies the complications contained in the multiple plotlines. Finally, I’ll Give You the Sun, Jandy Nelson’s coming of age tale about two inseparable twins who grow apart and must find their way back to each other, is equal parts heartbreaking and life affirming. Nelson’s imagery is so rich that the characters and their surroundings seem to spring forth from the pages right before your eyes. Read them all, you won’t be disappointed.

There is not enough praise in the world to heap upon Josh Ritter. I have been a fan of everything he does for many years now, and cannot implore you enough to seek out his music. A true storyteller, Ritter’s lyrics are a mouthful in the best way possible. His fantastic new album, Sermon on the Rocks, came out in October. The style is not what we’ve come to expect from Ritter; Sermon on the Rocks is looser and rowdier than some of his previous work, but that style lends itself perfectly to the rollicking, pulsing feel of the songs. Luckily, Ritter's telltale wit and turns of phrase remain front and center. One of the standouts is “Getting Ready to Get Down,” a thumping anthem about a girl sent to Bible school only to learn “a little bit about every little thing they ever hoped you'd never figure out/Eve ate the apple cause the apple was sweet/What kinda God would ever keep a girl from getting what she needs?” Brilliant. Ritter’s live shows are epic - you’ve never seen someone enjoying himself so thoroughly - and he’s hitting the road this winter so check him out in a city near you. One complaint: no stops near Des Moines. Come back to Iowa Josh!

Last, but certainly not least, theater. Where else but in a theater do you get to see a story come to life before your eyes? Different than TV or movies, the story unfolds thanks to performers who are standing, singing or dancing right in front of you, taking you to another time and place. And nobody gets a second take. The performers have to be on. That kind of immediacy is impossible to replicate. This year I saw several shows that were new to me. One of the highlights was Kinky Boots, a show whose feisty music and positive message are impossible to resist. The Bridges of Madison County, a show I went into with rock-bottom expectations, snuck up on me and won me over with breathtakingly beautiful music and lyrics. And in the not new to me category, I was lucky enough to see Wicked for the 29th-32nd time. Wicked will always be my #1 and I am thrillified each and every time I see it. It’s live theater, people. Get on board.

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