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Head Butler’s “Top Ten” for 2009

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Dec 21, 2009
Category: Beyond Classification

With this edition, I close the books on Head Butler 2009, settle in by the fire with wife, child and a stack of books, and rediscover what life is like without a daily deadline. I hope this break is a splendid opportunity for you to do the same — catch up, refresh, trade the virtual for the real, think, heal.

Before I head off, I thought I’d take a quick look back at my “top ten” list of the dying year. As ever, my choices are idiosyncratic — when I looked at the “top ten” lists of book critics, for instance, I realized I hadn’t read a single one of them. And not for lack of trying, believe me.
The Help
This time last year, Kathryn Stockett was an unknown. Much like the narrator of her novel, she sat down and wrote what she knew — what it was like to be raised in the South by African-American women who loved her, but whose lives were a mystery to her. Last winter, when “The Help” was published, something occurred that doesn’t happen much any more; the women who read it told their friends. Soon it was The Book in thousands of book clubs. It hit the bestseller list, climbed to #3 and stayed there for months. About 450,000 copies have been sold — mostly to women, by women. In a time when franchise writers crank out a meet-the-new-book, same-as-the-old-book genre title a year, it’s inspiring to witness an actual phenomenon: a well-written novel that’s really about something, and readers who get it. Hope lives.
The Talented Miss Highsmith

If you told me that a 684-page biography of a twisted and unlikable novelist who’s more admired in Europe than here would get a rave review on Page 1 of The New York Times Sunday Book Review — but that’s exactly what happened for Joan Schenkar’s riveting biography of Patricia Highsmith. [Here it is.] How does the review end? "A biography of clarity and style. A model of its kind.” It’s nice to have talented friends, even nicer when they drop in to — like Ms. Schenkar — to write about Highsmith’s encounters with the iconic Michael Jackson and her visit to Oscar Wilde’s grave.

Annie Mae Tripp Southwest Community Center
Just before the holiday party, the Annie Mae Tripp Southwest Community Center in Orange County, California burned to the ground. Lost in the fire: hundreds of crates of food and 100 stockings filled with small gifts. The community rallied to help this soup kitchen, but there’s always a need in facilities that feed the poor and homeless. To donate, click on United Way, then enter "SMEDA Fire" into the Promo box. Closer to home, there are surely food banks and shelters that would welcome your help.  
Ultrasonic Travel-size Humidifier
It’s dryer than the Sahara in steam-heated buildings in New York, and our apartment is near the top of ours — the harsh dry heat rises. Over the years, humidifiers have come and gone. They leak. They get dirty and spew foul air. They’re bulky — I could go on. Now I use the 4” x 3” Air-O-Swiss travel–sized humidifier, and my lungs can’t thank me enough. The secret is technology (silver ions, or whatever, keep the thing clean). And the standard-issue Poland Spring/Fiji/whatever water bottle, which is easy to fill and doesn’t leak. Bonus: transcontinental travel AC adapter and exchangeable plugs included. Secondbonus: The little water tank emits a cool blue light — like lunar ice — which makes it a night light. For some, that’s an annoyance. But not me. I’m sleeping in the rain forest, and my lungs thank me.
The Pianist
In the early morning, a girl in a Little Miss Trouble t-shirt practices for her lesson on a Yamaha YPG-535 88-Key Portable Grand Piano Keyboard. And I think: Who needs Richard Goode?
Up in the Air
Smart, sexy, cynical, romantic, disturbing, witty — these adjectives don’t often flow together, but they do in Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air”. And they flow from a screenplay that is so far above the Hollywood norm it’s a throwback to Gable-and-Lombard. Whatever it is, I enjoyed this movie more than any other this year. But why gas on about the script? This film has George Clooney, doing what he does best. And here the women aren’t background. Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga stand up to him so well this film really has three co-stars. Seen the trailer? Watch, please:

Amadou & Mariam
At the club, my musician pal was gobsmacked: “Never saw anything like it.” Because this wasn’t music from Mali, it wasn’t rock, it was something else — world music made for the world, from all the music of the world. Paradox? Start here: The blind guitarist — his wife is also blind — plays a shiny gold guitar. I forced this CD on the choreographer Twyla Tharp. “That’s Philip Glass music, from my piece ‘In the Upper Room,’” she exclaimed. Yes, but in the Bambara dialect and with a dance beat. Do watch the inspiring video:


Poet. Best-selling author. Teacher. That’s Mary Karr…after. Before? Poet. Wife. Alcoholic. What happens to an intellectually arrogant woman who’s too proud to surrender and too smart to believe? She hits bottom, finds Alcoholics Anonymous, becomes a Catholic. And lives much more happily ever. An improbable story? She’d be the first to admit it. In fact, she does admit it, in my interview with her and in her memoir. 

Stephen Colbert
Throw a dart here — Colbert is the reigning genius of real-reality TV, and just about every show is a greatest hit. But Alica Keys was on recently, and Colbert joined her for a heavily rewritten version of “Empire State of Mind”….

Empire State of Mind
The song of the year, by a moonshot. Derek Jeter had it played every time he came to bat in the World Series. That was almost unnecessary — it was in the air in my city all fall. [It’s on Jay-Z’s record. Or on the MP3] What makes this song the leader of the pack? Not for the Jay-Z lyrics, which are a tour of the thug background, the star ego and the completely ridiculous odds against anyone getting anywhere here. What brings tears to my eyes — almost every time, it’s so embarrassing! — are the Alicia Keys lines:
Concrete jungle where dreams are made of,
There’s nothing you can’t do,
Now you’re in New York!!!
These streets will make you feel brand new,
the lights will inspire you,
Let’s hear it for New York….

Those lines are a fist bump to all of us who live here, but they’re so much more. They’re a lighter raised to the idea of New York, the American capital of ambition, hope, determination, good instincts, tolerance, diversity and independent thinking. So, yeah, let’s hear it for New York — the New York of the soul, or for any place that lifts you up — this holiday season and for the coming year.
Peace out. See you on January 4th.