Look at the Light: Thirteen Songs for 2013

Arcade FireGuest Post by Joel Heng Hartse

I’m writing my dissertation right now and for once I am trying to be bold, to not worry about whether what I am arguing has been substantiated by someone with more knowledge or status than myself. This is probably what is called for.

Sometimes, though, it is nice to shut up and let the wise ones have their say. This is my sixth annual end-of-the-year playlist for Good Letters, and unlike previous years, I am not going to offer any commentary on the songs I’ve chosen; instead, I offer these songs paired with excerpts of books, articles, or other things I have read recently (or not-so-recently) which resonate with me and, I hope, the songs. [Read more...]

Orthodox Films Fill the Void

Living on the F train subway line in Brooklyn, I am regularly exposed to one of the more consistently curious sights that New York City has to offer, one that tends to trump those attention-seeking sights that surround it by virtue of its contrasting virtues: the Hasidim, the black-clad ultra-Orthodox Jews who’d rather go unnoticed in our midst.

From where I’m standing, their disdain for the vanities that drive those other eye-catching strangers on the train who actually want your attention only makes the Hasidim that much more interesting.

All the full-sleeve tattoos, cringe-worthy piercings, and whacky hairdos combined can’t add up to the sight of a single Hasidic man mumbling over the Torah in his broad black fedora and long black coat deep down the infernal New York underground during last week’s brutal heat wave.

From my standpoint, they’re nothing short of fascinating for their steadfast resistance to the mores of the larger culture into which they refuse to be absorbed. Is there anything more radical in our workaholic, super-consumerist day and age than a genuine observance of the Sabbath? I don’t think so. [Read more...]

The Impossible Shows Us How To Live

If you were to live a day as though you’d be dead at the end of it, you’d be a better person. That’s a trope that’s as true in the saying as it is rare in the realizing. It’s impossible to know what’s coming, to know how many hours, if not seconds, we have left. 

So we go about living each day by way of a much more outrageous artifice: that the end of the sun will be followed by the rise of the moon, and that they will parade in their courtly circle above our heads, neither catching the other—well—for a long, long time yet.

But just the same, every once in a while we hear these amazing stories. People are dying out there. Planes crash. Buses collide. Maniacs work their horrors. Bodies decide to turn on their hosts and eat them away, either in vicious holocausts of disease or in slow landslides of decrepitude.

Such carelessness, we think; how slipshod and unwise. With a little foresight—with a little planning—with a little attention to detail and the taking of sound advice—all this can be avoided—well—for a long, long time yet. [Read more...]

Living Fossils: Discovering Undercover’s Branded

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” —Matthew 13:44

As a Lawrence, Kansas, resident, I am proud to live in a place where record stores are not extinct. The MP3 meteor that impacted the music industry over a decade ago left behind the skeletons of stores that once thundered with music—stores that bridged the gap between my childhood love of dinosaurs and music that likewise shook the Earth.

Dinosaurs live on in Lawrence in the form of two record stores: Love Garden and Kief’s Downtown. I visited Love Garden a few weeks ago and found myself playing the part of a musical paleontologist of sorts. In the alternative record section, I unearthed an unexpected fossil in the form of Undercover’s Branded album. [Read more...]

Moonrise Kingdom and the Divine Symphony

“It’s the rhythm in rock music that summons the demons,” said the church community of my childhood. So I took my musical thrills where I could find them. In front of my grandfather’s turntable, I air-conducted Ferde Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite,” Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” and Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.”

In the latter, a narrator introduces each instrument and section, then the orchestra weaves those signature melodies into a symphonic harmony that left me breathless.

In the latest film from Wes Anderson World—Moonrise Kingdom—Britten’s orchestral guide becomes the central metaphor for the way the world should be. Through that lens, all of Anderson’s films (especially The Royal Tenenbaums) make more sense.

No American filmmaker—not even Woody Allen—has a more recognizable aesthetic or a stronger authorial voice, and this may be the most, well, Andersonian movie yet. His style recalls storybook illustrations, puppet shows, school-project dioramas, and community theatre productions. And in his out-of-tune communities, one rowdy musician—a somewhat holy fool — plays a theme that inspires the rest of the orchestra toward harmony. [Read more...]


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