Summer lists: Top five recommendations

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Around late July, many people are frankly a bit worn out from running their families to theme parks and beaches, and have caught up with many of their friends for margaritas and beer. Yes, it is now the book season before the unspoken “official” book season (fall), and it can be frustrating to find that the novel you’ve begun reading was not worth bringing along on the camping trip. On that note, entertainment of any kind can be a real gamble, and who wants to gamble with their time in beautiful throws of summer?

Maybe you’re on Goodreads, or you read Amazon reviews, or you rely on Pandora, but whatever you use there’s nothing like a hardy, semi-personal invitation of: “You ought to read/watch/hear this!” Furthermore, why limit yourself to new releases and recent critic darlings? The obscurities of the past need — nay, deserve! — some love too. So with no further ado, I give you an unorganized list of five recommendations for books, movies, and music to help you escape from in-laws or simply beat the heat.

Strange HoursBooks:

(1) All the Strange Hours by Loren Eiseley

Eiseley was a paradox in terms of personality and life experience. Living his young life as a drifter from Nebraska who was tough enough to survive various ailments of the time (e.g. tuberculosis), his voracious reading habits and love for nature shaped him into an academic powerhouse with the ability to probe deeply into any subject from any vantage point — historical, philosophical or scientific.

He writes entire chapters on domestic pets and discoveries about human nature — and his own doubts regarding the interaction between scientific facts and spiritual beliefs. This book, a memoir, gives readers a chance to not only learn more about Eiseley’s life, writing, teaching, and research, but about themselves. Whether it’s in reading his views on his parents’ loveless marriage or his earnest admonitions about animal testing for university and scientific studies, Eiseley makes you think about what you really believe and why.

Contact_Sagan(2) Contact by Carl Sagan

This was the first book I read that also had a movie version to accompany. I was about twelve when I watched Jodie Foster track radio signals and combat sexism within the male-dominated world of the SETI program as Ellie Arroway, and I wanted to be her, with every fiber of my being. Not only an intriguing story, the book (and movie) characters are terrific, and the messages are universally relevant.

Sagan was not only a great mind in science, but he had an uncanny ability to unearth the most common elements of human existence for reexamination from a new perspective. Contact touches on themes such as: isolation, the need for belief yet the reliance upon facts, the barriers and power struggles of dogma, humanity’s hesitance to explore the unknown, amongst others.

(3) Quiet by Susan Cain

Everyone’s been talking about this book, so a few people out there are probably sick of hearing about it. “Another book touting the values of introversion!” Well, not exactly. It’s explaining, justifying, and perhaps even making a case for the acceptance of introverts to be themselves within our often narrow Western view of socially acceptable (ie: primarily extroverted) behavior. It’s also an invaluable read for more extroverted, gregarious types who wonder why some of their friends who seem perfectly charming only stay ten minutes at a party, or why their child doesn’t seem to like spontaneous playdates.

ChroniclesVolumeOne(4) Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan

Don’t like music? No problem, there’s a lot of history here too. Don’t like history? No problem, there’s a lot of music references. Don’t like either? Well, it’s just a damn good read. Dylan has a way of telling stories, both in his songwriting and otherwise, that scrapes off all the frills and gets straight to the business of life — and that’s why it’s fascinating.

He writes about times when he was prolifically inspired, times when he was bored, times when he met legends in the most mundane of circumstances, and he does it all with a candor and sincerity that is rare. In this day and age of “tell all” memoirs, the most people usually share is about irrelevant (and frankly, boring) details of their sex lives. Here, we read of Dylan’s early career, mostly in 1960s Greenwich Village, and his encounters with musical legends.

(5) I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

If I had the money, I’d buy a copy of this book for most adults I know. It’s charming, it’s funny, it’s got great pictures, and … it’s a children’s book. But never mind age; if you’re feeling down and need a chuckle, this should do the trick. Oh, and the pictures therein brilliantly accompany the story’s darkly humorous undertones. You’re never too old for brilliant pictures.


(1) In Theaters — Love and Mercy

Most biopics follow a semi-chronological order, and focus on giving your more insight into a noteworthy figure’s life. This just lets you in on the person himself. Brian Wilson, lead songwriter of The Beach Boys, has a great story. His life is one of those “stranger-than-fiction” accounts, if only because every detail that seems too bizarre to be true is actually one of the most accurate elements of this movie.

IT-FOLLOWS-PosterDetails like the brave and lovely Melinda who gives Brian a second chance at life and music (despite his obvious struggles with mental illness), as well as the crazed, megalomaniac psychiatrist who pulls his strings like a puppet, are not only factual but compelling.

And the recording session scenes? Don’t get me started. I can’t claim to be a huge Beach Boys fan, but I do happen to have some songs from The Smile Sessions on a few favorite playlists of mine, and just watching the process (largely improvised by Paul Dano here, playing young Brian, but filled with actual dialogue from moments in the recording studio) of creating music was a treat. If you can’t make the matinee, don’t worry: This one is worth the money.

(2) New Release — It Follows

Pros? Great acting, an interesting premise, strange nostalgic touches, a haunting score, and the plot is a not-so-subtle metaphor for STDs (AIDS in particular). Plus it’s full of old school horror tricks. (Warning: Full frontal nudity is treated as if it’s completely mundane, which is actually one of the most effectively eerie factors.)

Cons? You won’t see many young actors or actresses whom you recognize, so if you don’t care for the story, acting, or visuals, there will be little to keep you in your seat. Also, the finale is rather lackluster.

DRS-Poster(3) Oldie but Goodie — Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Steve Martin and Michael Caine, you say? Yes. If you haven’t seen this, it’s no gem by lofty film standards, and it’s never going to be on any critic’s top ten list. I just find it hilarious. It’s also extremely re-watchable. If you haven’t seen the film, it’s about two scam artists with conflicting styles and personalities working with and against each other, who ultimately find themselves both outwitted.

(4) Family friendly — (New) Inside Out

The Disney Pixar Empire has taken on psychology. If you’re looking for something that doesn’t make you feel like a terrible parent, but you also don’t want to be bored (or annoyed) to the point of tears, this is a great way to pass a few hours. It’s funny, clever, not too long, and the concept of getting inside someone’s head is new territory for mainstream animation. Well played, Pixar, well played.

(5) Family friendly—(Old) Milo and Otis

Who doesn’t love this film? It’ll introduce your kids to some great classical music, and they’ll be amused by the antics of Milo, the adventurous tabby, and Otis, the lovably cautious pug. On top of that, it’s not obnoxious background news if you’re using it as a babysitter while you clean the house, call your mom, and pay the bills. Oh, and there’s some excellent dry humor in that narration. If you didn’t catch it when you were little, it’s worth another viewing.



(1) New to me: Maria Taylor’s album, Overlook is hot chocolate with a little Bailey’s for the ears. She’s got a silky smooth voice, none of that hipster-warbling that (personally) drives a person mad after a few tracks in a row. Her songs are a mix of folksy and almost-country, with some definite pop influence. My favorite tracks on this album are the sultry and darkly comic “Bad Idea?” and her louder, darker “Matador.”

(2) New-ish (and new to me): The Head and the Heart’s self-titled debut album was released in 2011, and the results were rather shocking. Maybe I have a soft spot for them because they’re from Seattle, my beloved rainy city, but I loved “Lost in My Mind” and “Honey Come Home” before I knew their origin story.

Undeniably, they’re easy-listening Indie music for the young, up-and-coming crowd, but they’re consistent. The melodies are pleasant, if not always terribly complex or stimulating, and the vocals bring out a depth to the often surprising lyrics. For instance, their song “Sounds Like Hallelujah” is a mix of tranquil acceptance and plea for innocence lost. But you can block out the message and enjoy the mere sounds of the album if you’d like. Either way, they’re perfectly acceptable for either background music or a great analytical listening session.

pet_sounds(3) Older: After recommending the movie Love and Mercy, it would be unpardonable not to put Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys on this list. It was an album that critics didn’t even know how to label. It received every title from “progressive rock” to “symphonic rock” to “psychedelic pop,” and it literally contains all the bells and whistles — and pet sounds. Almost entirely written by Brian Wilson in his early twenties, the album was expensive, difficult to record, and entirely different from anything else on the scene at the time. Even now, it’s hard to listen to “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” without nodding in agreement. No, Brian (et al), you weren’t. Thank goodness.

(4) Recent Soundtrack: Let’s just go for scores. I can’t vouch for any of the actual soundtracks lately (despite having seen that Guardians of the Galaxy which had a great tracklist), but the last score to impress me in recent films was Alexandre Desplat’s string-laden, James Horner-esque themes for The Imitation Game.

(5) Older Soundtrack: I hate that James Horner died, and obviously he’s on my mind, so let’s just go back and listen to Braveheart again. Tell me you didn’t have fragments of that movie replaying in mere musical form in your mind for weeks after your first viewing. You didn’t? Oh. Well, I’m sorry.

The haunting music in that film probably cemented it as a favorite movie of mine for far longer than it deserved. As for an actual soundtrack listing, pop and rock music fans will not be disappointed by the High Fidelity soundtrack, with everyone from Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello to The Velvet Underground and The Kinks. It’s a great 65 minutes of auditory brain confetti.

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Hopefully, there’s enough here for a variety of readers, moviegoers, music appreciators, and personality types. Best of luck to you in your sensory input endeavors!