Ah, 2011…how I’ll miss thee! To commemorate the passing of this year, here is a list of my favorites things. While some of these websites, books and artists have been around a while, I really enjoyed them this year.
favorite novel of the year
The Jazz Bird by Craig Holden
Her Mother’s Daughter: A Memoir of the Mother I Never Knew and of My Daughter, Courtney Love by Linda Carroll
Bossypants by Tina Fey
favorite new (to me) music
Favorite new sad bastard music
Scala & Kolacny Brothers
Bill Cunningham New York (available on netflix streaming)
favorite music documentary
Foo Fighters: Back and Forth
favorite new tv show
favorite obsession (same as last year)
best ‘what’s old is new again’
My So-Called Life
best useful website
I have ridden the snake-like road of I-64/77 through southern West Virginia at least twice a year since I was a girl and grew up in awe of the ancient Appalachian Mountains. But a few years ago, I noticed my first mountaintop removal site just off the highway between the valley of two other mountains. Its bleak look, desert tan in high elevation, was shocking in contrast to its green counterparts.
Michael Shnayerson recounts a similar situation in his book, Coal River: How a few brave Americans took on a powerful company—and the federal government—to save the land they love (2008). Shnayerson’s principal character, Joe Lovett, noticed similar sights as he drove along the same road also known as the West Virginia Turnpike. Lovett is a West Virginia environmental lawyer who has been working on stopping mountaintop removal mining years before I noticed anything.
The book concentrates on Lovett’s representation of local activists and their lawsuits to stop mountaintop removal. The suits were mainly brought against the Army Corps of Engineers, the coal company, Massey Energy, and its CEO and political big-spender Don Blankenship.
Coal River’s literary tradition comes from other legal nonfiction such as Jonathon Harr’s book, A Civil Action (1995), and the 2000 movie, Erin Brockovich. (But this book does lack the fun use of feminine wiles). Water polluting is a major factor in all of these stories, including Coal River.
Lovett’s main legal argument is that, beside the loss of America’s “mother forest,” mountaintop removal permanently obliterates waterways with debris and dangerous contaminants, making the process a dire short-term solution with irreversible consequences.
While Lovett makes a sturdy case against mountaintop removal mining, Shanyerson is heavy-handed in his retelling, never attempting to provide a decent case for the other side. His heroes are portrayed as faultless angels; his villains as close cousins to Skeletor.
But once I was able to accept the author’s bias, I found Coal River a satisfying read even with the need to supplement the knowledge. It is a relevant book about what is happening now in terms of energy production, corporate responsibility, mine safety, environmental law, and state and federal politics–a complex policy issue not just for West Virginia but for the nation.
To provide more information mountaintop removal mining, here are some additional links:
- Check out Google Maps to see mountaintop removal mining sites in West Virginia. Type in “Kayford Mountain WV” to see a large site. Make sure the “satellite” button in turned on.
- A CBS 60 Minutes interview with former national mining regulator, Jack Spardaro, about a coal slurry spill in Eastern Kentucky and alleged cover-up.
- A Google News feed about mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia
- Michael Shnayerson’s original article for Vanity Fair in 2006, “The Rape of Appalachia.”
- ABC’s Nightline April 2008 investigation of Don Blankenship and his relationships with West Virginia state officials:
I enjoy adding some gender/age diversity to this no-woman zone, but, just once, I want to run into Doris Kearns Goodwin. I want her to autograph my Candace Bushnell novels. It would be a fitting way to bring my worlds together.
Sometimes, I have to think about a book for a while before deciding if I really liked it or not, and Brock Clarke’s novel, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England (2007), is one of those situations.
It is a story about a 40ish man who spent 10 years in prison for burning down the Emily Dickinson house (it is still there in real life) and who has avoided the consequences in all his major relationships (wife, parents, victims, etc). Until now.
Basically, it is a satire of people who care deeply about the written word. English majors with a propensity to burn–both inside and out.
I usually find satire, much like heavy sarcasm, to be too disingenuous. But in this case, I enjoyed it, especially how it worked with the theme of one’s life can be stranger than fiction.
What is harder to accept is that the main character, Sam, is either passive or drunk in the most of the action of the story, and it is hard to stick with a character like that.
I can say the writing is great with lines that would make any writer (read: me) jealous. Such as:
This new mother of mine was less pretty but more beautiful than my old mother, which is to say, I guess, that prettiness is something to like and beauty is something to be scared of, and I was scared of it, and her.”
These sorts of observations, especially in the last half of the book, reminded me of another first-person narrative, Prep (2005) by Curtis Sittenfeld, the queen of the true life anecdote.
The bottom line is I will have to smolder on the novel some more, but the fire is probably worth the ash.
Author Lauren Weisberger gets back on track with her third and newest novel, Chasing Harry Winston (2008). As with her first book, The Devil Wears Prada (2006), we are in the heart of New York City with a couple of gals definitely into brand identity.
Weisberger is a master at the product push. New York City is her canvas of images, interweaving the hip hotspots, cool designers and brunch spots of ill repute into her narrative. She wised up and dropped another big name designer in her title. The product placement is slick, even Project Runway has nothing on her.
The story’s best appeal is as a primer for the girls trapped in the flyover states. We miss out on the hottest things if it is not featured on Oprah’s Favorite Things or in Sex and the City. Because of Winston, I now know things like Sky Studios, Kérastase Products and Dwell Magazine exist. Lucky me.
As for the writing, Winston is better crafted than Prada with more character development than monster recall. This is a definite improvement over her second novel, Everyone Worth Knowing, a hard-to-believe take of boutique public relations and party girls.
The bottom line is Chasing Harry Winston is like Lucky Magazine in paragraph form.
Audition: A Memoir (2008), Barbara Walters’ autobiography, made me think of the word tome. Clocking in at 612 pages, Audition is no small snack of a book, but a dense-as-cheesecake read.
If you’re a celebrity, no doubt you received a shout out as Walters probably opened her Rolodex as she was writing, saying, “Oh, I forgot about him.” And the second half is more like a Barbara Walters’ Special retrospective in print…Anwar, Monica, Fidel, Rosie, Oprah and on and on.
But it was the first half that I enjoyed most. As the daughter of famed nightclub owner, Walters grew up in New York and Miami around the entertainers of the 1930s and 40s. She learned not to trust the dreamers, as least financially, because her father made and lost many fortunes through his work. She says she had to work to support herself and her family (nightclubs were a losing business once televisions became the family entertainment). So ironic.
Her first TV job was in the publicity department of an NBC affiliate and soon became a producer, thus on her way to “becoming Barbara Walters.” She was a woman in a man’s world, and she seemed to not let them bother her. Sure, there were lecherous men, condescending executives, and Walter Cronkite on the next plane trying to scoop her exclusive. But a girl can’t let them get her down.
Between relating her life story, Walters throws in some good interviewing tips. One is to ask someone about his or her first job. “Trust me, everyone, from presidents and movie stars to policeman and moving men, remembers his or her first job and will relate it in minute detail,” she writes.
The bottom line is Audition is a must for those interested in television news and media. Just be prepared to spend many, many hours with Barbara. She is persistent.