My album of the year is "The Hazards of Love" by the Decemberists. This summer I had to hear it every day or I'd get in a bad mood. Have only recently overcome, to some extent, those delicious withdrawal symptoms. Good to know I can still get that deeply immersed in a record, the way I used to get in my teens -- with Jimi, or Led Zep, or Pink Floyd. There was something about "Hazards" that moved me at the same chemical level, evoked the same intensity, provided the same nourishment. It's fabulous that a band today is still honoring the concept of the album as an art form that works as a whole -- like a novel -- so each song is a chapter in a larger tale. So few records today, even good records, hold together in the same seamless way. And "Hazards" transitions are simply brilliant. As my tabla ustad used to say: it's the gap between the notes that make the notes. The Decemberists have those gaps in their blood.
Another discovery of the year is a Turkish-German film from 2007, called The Edge of Heaven, by director Fatih Akin. Again, it was the structure that enthralled. I have a weakness for interwoven storylines; for multiple characters with ties to one another that unravel slowly, surprisingly. (In this way it was like another favorite, Babel.) The Edge has been described as "unagitated" and that's pretty apt. Though the themes are painful, the telling is unglamorous, and the acting entirely understated. Baki Davrak, who plays the son of the Turkish immigrant who ignites one of the downward spirals, was a smooth kind of troubled: the calm before the storm, except the calm and the storm in him were one. Nursel Kose, who plays the Turkish prostitute, was nothing like a Hollywood Julia Roberts hooker. She had a face lined by a zillion emotions; she felt real. And her daughter, a political activist played by Nurgul Yesilcay, was a fiery fantastic. I have not found women characters as strong, conflicted, and multidimensional in any other recent movie. Will definitely follow this director, and this cast.
Absent by the Iraqi writer Betool Khedairi is my book recommendation. In a sense, it's told in a similar tone to The Edge of Heaven: calm, unadorned. It weaves a story that's deeply painful, yet the delicate telling prevents it from crumbling under the weight. The book's set after the 1991 Gulf War and before the 2003 US-led invasion. Sanctions and bombings are the backdrop. But it's the resilience of the characters that the book is about. There is no self-pity. No preaching. Just incredibly innovative and moving ways of getting by. That it takes place before the 2003 war just makes it more cruel, more heart-wrenching ... If life in Iraq was so hard before, what about now? I'm honored I have the chance to teach this book in the fall.