Bookworming, Personalness

100 Years of Poland (the Literary Edition)

On 11th November Poland celebrated 100 years of independence which was a grand occasion – and I’m only writing this post now because my time management sucks these days, what with nursing and working.

This post has been inspired by my friend A’s celebration on Facebook, where he listed his favorite Polish music albums (hi, A). What music is to him, books are to me and I decided to celebrate (belatedly) with writing about something I actually thought a lot before. See, I read almost exclusively in English these days and I have for quite a few years now. So I wondered the experience of reading which books and authors I would actually miss if I didn’t speak any Polish. Here’s the list:

  1. We’ll get more serious than that but I will start with Małgorzata Musierowicz. She was my introduction to YA before I even knew the term or could be considered any sort of adult (I was 7 when I got one of her books for Christmas and fell in absolute love). She’s been writing for some 40 years now a series of books centered around one family and their friends. The newer books are arguably not up to the level of the older ones and you can certainly have a lot of complaints about the details of the story but it didn’t matter to me then: instead I was delighted to find a book reflecting the world I lived in. See, the great innovation of Musierowicz was the fact that she placed the romantic and family adventures of her heroines in the realistically described world of Poland as it was: first the People’s Republic, then the 90s transformation (which happened to be my childhood experience) but kept it cheerful and optimistic. I still return to those books regularly because if you know one thing about my reading habits, you know I like reading to be fun.
  2. From now on we’re moving to what will feel like a required reading for school but only because these books belong to the canon for a good reason. I’m starting with my absolute literary, theatrical, all-around favorite: Wesele by Stanisław Wyspiański. This alone is a reason enough to cherish one’s knowledge of Polish because the play is untranslatable: both its poetry and its historical context make it exclusively Polish. But it’s such a beauty and I used to know most of it by heart, I swear.
  3. And if we’re speaking of poetic plays, here’s another: Balladyna by Juliusz Słowacki. Słowacki is one of the most cherished Polish writers for his patriotic poetry but Balladyna is different: it’s a sort of Polish folk take on Shakespeare and it’s quite delightful. I read it first as a kid and liked it already without getting the whole context (same with Wesele, actually) – which confirms my theory that you can read good literature at almost any age and intellectual level and get something from it.
  4. Chłopi by Władysław Reymont is actually a Nobel Prize winner so a little less obscure outside of Poland than the rest of them. This story happening in the 19th century countryside can rival the best of 19th century novelists (yes, even Hardy and I love Hardy). It’s written partly in a peasant dialect and I don’t believe it translates very well.
  5. Another 19th century novelist who can rival any of the greats is Bolesław Prus, with his historical novel about Egypt (Faraon) and my personal favorite: Emancypantki. I guess some of British classic novels provide similar levels of enjoyment but Prus still belongs on the list of writers I’d be sorry to miss.
  6. Moving on to the 20th century again, Marek Hłasko and his short stories. I’ve outgrown them somewhat but my first encounter with them was such a revelation that he defined for me what a writer should be like, to such an extent that for a while I thought in his sentences.
  7. For someone who’s at best lukewarm about poetry I sure put a lot of poets here but that’s because they suffer most in translation. One of the most original and charming Polish poets is Bolesław Leśmian, who created a whole mythical, fairy-tale world through his poetry. He was also my dad’s favorite poet so that gives him extra points.
  8. Leopold Tyrmand’s Zły is this weird picaresque novel happening in post-war Warsaw and I guess you can live well enough without knowing it but you’re missing a good book.
  9. Witold Gombrowicz. His are some of the most ambitious books on this list, particularly as he embraced the 20th century’s opaqueness of literature – in other words these are books to study rather than just enjoy. But the way he plays both with language and with patriotic ideas and obsessions of his predecessors makes it for fun, iconoclastic reading.
  10. Finally something slightly different: a tribute to my childhood reading, the poetry of Jan Brzechwa. If I didn’t speak any Polish, I would probably know enjoyable children’s poetry in whatever language I would speak, but Brzechwa is in a class of his own, with his joy and his absurdity.

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Sounds of Music

Christmas Songbook: 2000 Miles

This series of posts needs to finish with my favorite Christmas song which has held this position for the last couple of years (a gooood couple of years) and hasn’t been dethroned yet. My favorite is always the song which makes me feel most Christmassy at heart and this is by far

“2000 Miles” by the Pretenders

A special badge for marking the things that continue to delight me.

Album: Learning to Crawl

Year: 1984

Category: Christmas playlist

Why it rocks:
This is not a very insightful song or one that would say anything original about Christmas but somehow, to me, it manages to contain the heartbreaking beauty of this time.

Favorite bit of lyrics:
“In these frozen and silent nights / Sometimes in a dream / You appear.”

Favorite moment:
How it fades in at the beginning and how happy it makes me when I recognize that this is the song playing.

Best for: The moment just before the Christmas Eve dinner when the guests are almost arriving, the tree is up and everyone is getting excited.

Sidenote: The Pretenders is my second-favorite band name ever (the first is the Replacements).

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Show Case

Wildly Enthusiastic Review: True Blood (S1)

I told you once about my relationship to True Blood and how it bordered on dysfunctional. Well, once I pushed through all the seven seasons I almost forgot how much I loved season one and doubted if I could ever re-live the joy of watching it. Nevertheless, here I am, having just – gleefully! ecstatically! – re-watched the entire season in a few days.

er-trueblood-1True Blood (season 1)

Category: TV shows

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
Southern gothic as southern and as gothic as they come. Based on a series of Charlaine Harris novels, this drama produced by Alan Ball takes place in a small Louisiana town two years after vampires’ existence has become public knowledge. The resident psychic waitress, Sookie Stackhouse, is dating a southern gentleman-type vampire Bill but someone has taken to murdering women who associate with vampires.

How I found it:
Originally I read in a paper about a new show with vampires. It shows you how long ago it was: True Blood was new and I read newspapers. I loved it at first sight. This re-watch, however, was prompted by a dream I recently had: I was running through tunnels under Paris with Bill (who wasn’t a vampire) and we were escaping a gang of bank robbers. I don’t control those things. Anyway, when I woke up I decided I really missed True Blood.

A special badge for marking the things that continue to delight me.Summary judgment:
It was and still is one of my favorite things ever produced for TV and apparently nothing can change that.

Best things about it:
From the first episode I was hooked like a V addict. I kept sitting up at night to watch an episode to the end (I did the same thing the first time I watched but this time I knew who the murderer was). This show knows exactly what it wants to say and how: it’s got such a precise tone and writing. Details matter. Everything looks just right: from the lush green outdoors to the peeling paint on doors. And don’t get me started on the accents: I think this is where my whole thing for southern accent started.

Worst things about it:
I guess towards the end some threads loosen up in the effort to introduce season two smoothly. I didn’t mind the first time but now I know how much of a problem this will become for the show and I didn’t love Sam’s backstory or the whole Mary Ann business.

Other pluses:
✤ I spent the seven years that True Blood first ran hating Bill. I would go on rants about how he didn’t work as a romantic interest. So fixated was I on my idea of what Bill should be that I didn’t pay attention to anything the show (and Stephen Moyer) was doing well with him: and he really is an interesting character. In fact, I spent the first few episodes crushing on him a bit, but that might’ve been the dream.
✤ I always liked Sookie, for her sass and inner sense of justice, and this has not faded. Anna Paquin was born to play her.
✤ Lizzie Kaplan is so pretty. I always wished she could stay on the show longer.
✤ Lafayette is perfection. Nelsan Ellis combines strength, vulnerability and independence so beautifully.
✤ The show will lose footing with Tara in later seasons but her introduction as an angry infatuated intellectual was such an interesting direction. I wish they hadn’t given up on it.
✤ When you know the solution to the mystery, it’s a different watching experience but I could appreciate how the show adds red herrings like it’s a Creole seafood stew.

er-trueblood-extra-dogOther minuses:
Sam doesn’t work for me: he never did throughout all the seven seasons but this time I realized I didn’t like him from the start. He’s just too whiny.

How it enriched my life:
It’s one of the things that makes me so happy and apparently will make me happy when I re-watch it again. Hereby, it receives an All-Time Favorite badge in recognition.

Fun fact:
Back when I first watched the show and was proselytizing it to everyone and their dog, I recommended it to a guy I was studying with and who was very much a movie buff and he came back complaining about camera angles and scripting and what not. I still hold it against him. (And it’s beautifully filmed, actually, especially the light – or its lack.)

Follow-up:
I will go as far as season two (three, if I’m feeling desperate) for this re-watch but I will surely get back to this one some time.

Recommended for:
Anyone who hasn’t seen the show yet (and is not a movie snob). Those who saw the show and its later seasons and forgot how good the first one was.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

 

Next time: The other season of Stranger Things

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Sounds of Music

More Top Songs

When compiling my last list of top music I felt a little bad about leaving out newer songs (it was necessary though). And today I have many photos to retouch and a long text to set so, just to exercise my superpower of procrastination, here comes a follow-up list of 10 songs: Top Songs, part 2. This one includes everything I skipped last time because it seemed too new for me to be sure it would last.

1. The White Stripes “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet).” With the White Stripes it’s very hard for me to pick one song because (like many other artists on this list) I like them almost in entirety and I admire how each new album was more ambitious than the previous one. I’m picking a cover because I’m feeling mischievous, I guess, but probably also because it’s very much in tune with the previous list.

Favorite bit of lyrics: “And sometimes I get jealous / Of all her little pets / And I get lonely, but I ain’t that lonely yet”

Runners-up: To name just a few “Hotel Yorba” | “Seven Nation Army” (yes, I like the hits) | “In the Cold, Cold Night” | “Icky Thump” etc.

2. The Kills “Superpowerless.” Another case of a band that I like almost completely and only pick a song because I follow my own rules. The Kills are absolutely hypnotic for me; they were an instant fascination, even though they’re unlike my usual favorite bands, and I can listen to them forever.

Favorite bit of lyrics: I really don’t listen to the Kills for the lyrics, just for the rhythm. I don’t even know them, a weird thing for me.

Runners-up: So very many, “Rodeo Town” | “URA Fever” | “Nail in My Coffin” | “I Call It Art” (my first the Kills favorite, different from the rest but gorgeous) | “Cheap and Cheerful” and more.

3. Laura Marling “I Speak Because I Can.” I will finally stop repeating that, but with Marling it’s again a whole bunch of songs of which it’s practically impossible to pick the best one. I fell in love with her music after the first album (perplexed as I was with her crazily young age) and heard the first two albums about a million times. I’m less fond of her later work but when I love her, I’m obsessed.

Favorite bit of lyrics: “When you’re running up the highway / Singing I’m the king, the king of you all / When you look back to where it started / I’ll be there waving you on”

Runners-up: “Ghosts” | “Night After Night” | “My Manic and I” | “The Captain and the Hourglass” | “Hope in the Air” | “What He Wrote” (all of these songs are so powerful and atmospheric).

4. Isobell Campbell and Mark Lanegan “Ramblin’ Man.” My listening to Campbell and Lanegan’s first collaboration honestly bordered on obsession, I loved this album so much. This song is particularly interesting in how it makes a more-dimensional dialogue out of a typical manly nonsense.

Favorite bit of lyrics: No particular bit, I like the interplay.

Runners-up: “Do You Wanna (Come Walk with Me)” (too bad it ended up in commercials) | “Revolver” | “Keep Me in Mind Sweetheart.”

5. Ani DiFranco “As Is.” Frankly, Ani can be boring every now and then but when she’s not, she’s awesome. I went through an Ani DiFranco phase and “As Is” is my favorite because of its simplicity and contained bitterness but lots of her songs are so, so good.

Favorite bit of lyrics: “‘Cause when I look down / I just miss all the good stuff / And when I look up / I just trip over things” (wonderful, isn’t it).

Runners-up: “Little Plastic Castle” | “Fuel” (the only rap I enjoy though I know it’s no rap to those who really care about it) | “Marrow” | “Untouchable Face” (awesome lyrics).

6. Emmy the Great “First Love.” While we’re talking about wonderful women songwriters, we might add Emmy as well. I like many songs from First Love but the titular one is my favorite, with its crazy story and Cohen references.

Favorite bit of lyrics: “I remember you like a verse / That I didn’t want to learn” and also “You were stroking me like a pet / But you didn’t own me yet,” such lovely cynicism about romance (I don’t share it but I’ve always enjoyed it).

Runners-up: “Dylan” (no duh) | “On the Museum Island” | “A Woman, a Woman, a Century of Sleep”

7. Deer Tick “Ashamed.” Let’s pick up the tempo for a moment with one alt-country song I dare to enter here. Love the guitar in this one.

Favorite bit of lyrics: Well, I really like the guitar more than lyrics but I guess “oh, what a crying shame, a crying shame / What we became” has certain true-to-life quality.

Runners-up: I like some songs from Born on a Flag Day and “Dirty Dishes” but no other could make it to the list.

8. The Pixies “Here Comes Your Man.” It was R that got me interested in Pixies but they have a similar effect on me that the Kills do: when I start listening to them, time flies. I know “Here Comes Your Man” is shamefully poppy and I should pick something less known but I can’t help loving this one the most, it’s such a good song.

Favorite bit of lyrics: Some of their songs have almost-meaningful lyrics but not this one, sorry.

Runners-up: “Hey” | “Debaser” | “The Holiday Song.”

9. Langhorne Slim “By the Time the Sun’s Gone Down.” The newest addition and my instant love but I’ve already written about it.

Favorite bit of lyrics: “And by the docks we’ll take a walk / and discuss things we have and never wanted”

Runners-up: “In the Midnight” (it could make the list just as well, the two are equally awesome to me) | “Back to the Wild.”

10. Carla Bruni “Quelqu’un ma dit.” This is not-too-smart an album, lyrics-wise, but Carla has so much charm and her French is gorgeous I can listen to her for hours. It started as an exercise in French but easily ended up here.

Favorite bit of lyrics: This is silly lyrics, no doubt about it. But oh, French is so lovely I don’t care.

Runners-up: “Le toi du moi” (possibly the silliest lyrics ever, but kinda funny).

And I still had to eliminate a lot of songs so I’ll just throw it out there: Johnny Flynn “The Wrote and the Writ” | Yeah Yeah Yeahs “Hysteric” | Fiona Apple “Waltz (Better Than Fine)” | Cowboy Junkies “River Waltz” | The Lumineers “Stubborn Love” | something by Mumford and Sons. There, I feel better already.

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Sounds of Music

My Top Ten Songs

Last weekend our friend A, in between playing board games, told us how he and his wife regret that no one had asked them to compile a list of their top ten songs of all times. But luckily they thought to ask each other this question and are in the process of compiling the list right now.

A is very serious about music but R and me somewhat less so and, as it looked like our kind of challenge (one which doesn’t involve stripping or singing in public), we adopted the idea and have already completed the lists. I know you’re dying to hear all about it so here, without further delay, it goes.

No, wait. First, there have to be rules. So, one spot per one artist or it would be all taken up by Dylan. Also, I pay a lot of attention to lyrics and it affected many of the choices. Finally, after much (some, passing) internal struggle I decided to focus on oldies rather than anything from after 2000 because I just can’t tell if I will still even remember most of those newer artists in another ten years. It made sense when I decided that so here goes the list now.

1. Bob Dylan “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” Because of the one song per one artist rule, of all the brilliant songs I pick this one because it’s the brilliantest. It tells a story and the story is interesting, rich and well-constructed, it has a plot, memorable characters and a surprising reveal and please show me another song by anyone that does that, no, I know you can’t. Also, it’s the best attempt at the redefinition of the ballad tradition, not that you care.

Favorite bit of lyrics: “She slipped in through the side door lookin’ like a queen without a crown / She fluttered her false eyelashes and whispered in his ear / ‘Sorry, darlin’, that I’m late,’ but he didn’t seem to hear”

Runners-up: “To Ramona” (powerful and atmospheric, it touches upon some undefined mystery; or I’m just being pretentious) | “Love Minus Zero” (Dylan’s best love song) | “Like a Rolling Stone” (it just might be the best song ever written) | “Visions of Johanna” | “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” (for early-Dylanesque humor) and so on.

2. Patti Smith “Kimberly.” I love Patti Smith dearly but more for her overall feel than for individual songs so this was a bit of a challenge but “Kimberly” has a lot of magic.

Favorite bit of lyrics: “Oh baby, I remember when you were born / It was dawn and the storm settled in my belly”

Runners-up: “Because the Night” (played to death and still lovely) | “Redondo Beach” | “Till Victory” (because Patti is a rocker).

3. Tom Waits “Hold On.” I guess I might choose a different song from today’s standpoint but I definitely listened to “Hold On” the most and I love the lyrics. Also, it might not be cool to admit but I much prefer Waits that’s actually listenable than when he starts doing what one of my online friends once called “vocal torturing” and I never heard a better description of that thing he does sometimes.

Favorite bit of lyrics: “Everyone’s looking for someone to blame / And you shared my bed, you shared my name / Well, go ahead and call the cops / You don’t meet nice girls in coffee shops”

Runners-up: “I Hope that I Don’t Fall in Love with You” (when a bar story becomes a human story) | “Time” (surrealist charmer) | “Tom Traubert’s Blues” (messy but gripping) | “Long Way Home” (a hymn for a rebel-without-a-cause kind of romantic interest – was that complicated?).

4. Leonard Cohen “The Stranger Song.” Cohen is mostly about the lyrics and I had a problem choosing my favorite song based on that so I chose on the basis of replayability. “The Stranger Song” is nice to listen to.

Favorite bit of lyrics: “But now another stranger seems to want you to ignore his dreams / as though they were the burden of some other”

Runners-up: Quite a lot, including “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy” | “Tonight Will Be Fine” (so much fun, especially for Cohen) | “Famous Blue Raincoat” (so much lyricism, and it’s like a puzzle, trying to identify the pronouns) | “Chelsea Hotel #2” (probably closest to making it to the actual list, what with that famous third line and the fact that I sometimes try to translate the lyrics into French when I really need to occupy my mind with something, it helps that I’m so bad at it; It even deserves a favorite bit of lyrics mentioned: “And clenching your fist for the ones like us / who are oppressed by the figures of beauty”).

5. Dire Straits “Romeo and Juliet.” Sometimes I feel like people don’t appreciate this song, how it’s not silly and meaningless (the way most love songs are) and that’s why it’s so popular. But it has lovely lyrics full of subtle humor and not so subtle heartache and Knopfler plays guitar just so well (I don’t know anything about guitars).

Favorite bit of lyrics: “You can fall for chains of silver / You can fall for chains of gold / You can fall for pretty strangers / And the promises they hold”

Runners-up: Not really.

6. Cornelis Vreeswijk “Veronica.” When I tried to learn Swedish my teacher would sometimes make me fill in the blanks to Swedish song lyrics. I didn’t get that much better at Swedish from that (though it was a lot of fun) but I found this gem of a song, proving that American-styled folk is not exclusively American.

Favorite bit of lyrics: “Veronica, Veronica släpp ner ditt långa hår / Och se din vän i ögonen och säg att han får / Och somna i hans armar och vakna lycklig sen / När det dagas.”

Runners-up: Hardly applies.

7. The Velvet Underground “Pale Blue Eyes.” Simplicity makes this song. Unlike the previous ones it has fairly simple lyrics but the delivery makes it very emotional.

Favorite bit of lyrics: “The fact that you are married / Only proves you’re my best friend / But it’s truly, truly a sin”

Runners-up: I like “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “Sweet Jane” and others but there’s really no competition.

8. Marc Cohn “Walking in Memphis.” One hit wonder that is really wondrous. Possibly my favorite singalong song that is not terribly embarrassing to speak of in public (hello, Gloria Gaynor).

Favorite bit of lyrics: “And I sang with all my might / She said, ‘Tell me are you a Christian, child?’ / And I said, ‘Ma’am, I am tonight!'”

Runners-up: Not really by Cohn, just other one hit wonders, such as Merrilee Rush “Angel of the Morning”  (love the unidentifiable instrument – I must tell you one day the story of my lack of musical education, it’s colorful – and the corny lyrics) | Free “All Right Now” (I always liked the cynicism of the lyrics, for some reason) | and especially covers; I’d really love to put covers on this list but it doesn’t feel exactly right, with their being so obviously covers.

9. Having said that, Jeff Buckley “Hallelujah.” I can’t help it, it’s my favorite version. It has a sort of middle-of-the-night focus that gives Cohen’s lyrics the power that his delivery denies them. And these are shockingly good lyrics.

Favorite bit of lyrics: I can hardly choose, but I’ll go with “But all I’ve ever learned from love / Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you”

Runners-up: Beth Orton “Sisters of Mercy,” another cover that is better than the original and delivered in a breath-taking manner.

10. “Piece of My Heart” Janis Joplin. This is really a group spot for this song with other runners-up because it includes songs that I no longer listen to very often but once they were so important to me that they shaped my musical taste forever, pushing me towards older music and making me uncool in the eyes of all the Nirvana fans (yes, it’s been a while since I was in school; and I did have a passing Nirvana fascination, to be honest, but it was no longer so cool then).

Favorite bit of lyrics: Eh, these are not great lyrics, to be honest, but let’s say “And baby deep down in your heart I guess you know that it ain’t right / Never, never, never, never, never, never hear me when I cry at night / Babe, and I cry all the time!”

Runners-up: Jefferson Airplane “Somebody to Love” and The Doors “Light My Fire” (songs that really showed me what music could be and started my music quest) | “Me and Bobby McGee” if we’re speaking of Janis (another favorite singalong).

And there we went. The hardest thing when making such a list is definitely elimination and I feel bad about all the newer stuff I excluded (not that I had any spots left): these songs might even deserve another list and if I get another free Friday night (and yes, this is what passes for fun around here) I’ll think about drawing one.

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Personalness

Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it?

Where I live summer is indeed the best part of the year (but isn’t it everywhere?), particularly if you define it broadly as most of the period of summer saving time. Even though as a teenager I tried to be original and claimed not to like summer too much, that was only because teenagers are famously stupid and I was no exception because – what’s not to love about summer? I guess, maybe bugs, hot stuffiness and sweaty people on buses, but there’s so much more to love. Like these Five Best Things About Summer (as creative a title as they get):

1. Gloriously long days! From fall to mid-spring when I return from work and eat dinner it’s the middle of the night and all I can do is slump in front of the screen and watch TV shows. True, I’ve seen a lot of good TV this way, but I prefer to be able to read some Arnheim and work on posters and then clean the basement… well, okay, I don’t necessarily prefer that but I love having options.

2. Summer reading. I don’t know why but almost every book reads better in sunshine. When it’s bright outside I visualize better and recall scenes from books later almost as if they were movies. Of course, it fits especially well with stories happening in summer.

3. Berries. All sorts of them: strawberries, blueberries, raspberries. And also currants, despite their misleading name, and cherries – but not so much gooseberries. On a related note, I love how eating greens stops being a chore and happens naturally because, unfortunately, I’m the kind of person who has to remind herself to add a salad to dinner. In summer, I hardly ever bother.

4. Also, ice-cream. Particularly with berries.

5. Walks in the woods – where everything is green and smells of summer and invites you to touch it and makes you realize that a genius invented the word lush because it describes the woods perfectly with its very sound.

Bonus 6, because there always has to be that extra one. Meetings with friends when the afternoons and evenings are long and everybody seems to have more time.

I probably write affirmative pieces too rarely but this is it, as affirmative as anybody could ask (nobody asked though). I’d ask what you love about summer but then no one would answer and it would just look silly.

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