Cambridge Writers’ Workshop Recommends: Here’s to 2016!

david-bowie-reading-listHello everyone, and a Happy 2016 to all of you! We here at the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop are excited to begin a new year of creative literary expression. As we prepare for our retreats to Newport, Granada, and Barcelona/Narbonne, we have asked some of our staff members to share their literature and film recommendations for the new year. These are the books and movies that they recently discovered, have enjoyed time and time again, and that they most want others to know about. Thanks to Rita Banerjee, Alex Carrigan, Alyssa Goldstein Ekstrom, Casey Lynch, David Shields, Emily Smith, Diana Norma Szokolyai, and Emily Teitsworth for their recommendations. Check out our recommendations and look forward to an exciting year with the CWW. -Alex Carrigan (curator)

CWW Lit Picks:

Tipsy-KobayashiNaomi by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki
(Recommended by Rita Banerjee)

Naomi was the first novel I read that I literally threw across the room when I was done it.  For those bored by Nabokov for “his style,” Naomi, written by Jun-ichiro Tanizaki in 1924, gives Lolita a run for its money and then some.  The novel focuses on the story of Jōji, a mundane, over-educated, routine-driven Japanese salary man, who one day, as he’s walking around a particularly seedy part of Tokyo, spies a beautiful young Eurasian-looking girl named Naomi. Naomi, who’s put to work as a waitress in a café by her parents, is both young (she’s only 15 while Jōji’s a healthy 28!), and exotic (her face and eyes look Western as does her foreign-sounding name). Needless to say, Jōji falls head-over-heels in lust with Naomi and has to have her. He tells Naomi’s parents that he’d like to “adopt” Naomi. He promises to raise her like a daughter–give her a “good education” and all the luxuries a young modern girl could want in life. And somehow, Naomi’s parents agree (anything for a quick buck). So Jōji lures Naomi into his home. He promises not that nothing untoward will happen between them until she’s at least 18 and can give him her consent. But in the meantime, he’s happy to attend to her daily bathing rituals (I think you know where this story is heading…) But alas, it turns out that Naomi has a mind of her own. She immediately notes that Jōji hopes to transform her into a Mo-Ga (モ-ガ, modern girl), and she raises his stakes. She comes to embody everything Western, everything sexy, and everything dangerous about modern women. She takes up dancing, she takes up Jōji’s wallet (spending and partying until his cash is through), and most of all, when Jōji approaches her for sex, she uses her body against him, and parades an ever-rotating line of boyfriends under his nose. In reading Naomi, it’s hard to figure out who’s the protagonist and who’s the antagonist. Jōji and Naomi seem equally conniving and crooked. At the end of the novel, you don’t know who you’re rooting for, and you don’t know how you could care for a character so perverse. Naomi might make you want to throw the novel across the room, straight out an open window, and shout a string of expletives after it. Or, it might make you do something completely opposite. And that’s where Tanizaki’s great power lies: in making you, the reader, feel.

GlengarryGlenRossGlengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet
(Recommended by Rita Banerjee)

One of the best theatrical performances I’ve seen to date was “Stealing the Leads,” an all-female led adaptation of David Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize winning play, Glengarry Glen Ross. Mamet’s play focuses on the fall-out of late capitalism (a term that’s been hotly debated since at least 1848 ;-)). The play focuses on a crew of desperate and despairing business men in Chicago as they attempt to close-deals, form alliances and mergers, and profit on real estate acquisitions before their rivals steal their leads or sabotage their careers. This is a story about businessmen and corporations in the middle of a meltdown. And it’s full of bites and stings (take those lacerating comments on the Patels and South Asian businessmen taking over finance…) But most of all, the play is an exercise in masculinity. In the world of Glengarry Glen Ross, the characters assume, that in order to desire and have power, the most successful candidate has got to be an alpha-male. Mamet slightly destabilizes this notion through small sleights of hand. But the best kick to the patriarchy happens when an all female cast performs Mamet’s play. One of my favorite renditions of Mamet’s play, “Stealing the Leads: Women Read Glengarry Glen Ross,” was performed in Berkeley’s famed Pegasus Bookstore a few years back, and it was spooky to see these women transform into testosterone-driven business men. The play, once in the hands and voices of an all-female cast takes on a new edge. The play’s do-or-die ethos and cast of saboteurs no longer revolve around the crisis of money and power. But what’s at stake itself is the underlying anxiety in Mamet’s writing: masculinity, itself.

DeathofaPunkDeath of a Punk by John P. Browner
(Recommended by Rita Banerjee)

In Munich, Germany, I teach creative writing classes at a pretty nifty little English-language bookstore called the Munich Readery. And one of the owners, John Browner, is not only an author, himself, but was part of the NYC underground punk scene in the late 70s and early 80s. His novel, Death of a Punk, combines the frenetic, no-fucks-allowed peroxide cool of CBGB’s with the beats and campy electricity of a noir thriller. The novel centers on what happens when Lenny Hornblowner, who moonlights as a private eye and is a fat middle-aged square (by his own estimation), is hired Mrs. “Call me Lisa” Perlont to find her “beloved” stepson, Blinky, a young man whose gotten himself lost in the carnival of New York’s first-wave punk scene. The result, as Browner labels it, is meant to be an “airport read” highlighting an alternative New York where the snarky ads in the Village Voice, three-chord punk spiked with cocaine, and the elegance of defending your turf with just a pair of brass knuckles reign supreme.

MFA vs. NYC, ed. Chad Harbach & Workshops of Empire by Eric Bennett
(Recommended by Rita Banerjee)

MFAvsNYC61Z1hhz0+FL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Anything produced by N+1 is part magic.  And the press’s 2014 collection, MFA vs. NYC is no exception.  (I remember reading this anthology in one sitting on the airplane ride back home from AWP 2014). The anthology, edited by Chad Harbach, draws a fault-line between American creative writing communities: those centered in big, commercial, cocktail-party-driven metropoles such as New York, and those produced in well-groomed, well-crafted but often myopic literary networks of the American MFA program periphery. While Harbach’s categorization of these two diametrically-opposed literary spheres and successful enclaves of American fiction veers towards essentialism, MFA vs. NYC offers an eye-opening look into what it takes to be a writer in the 21st century. Essays such as “My Parade” by Alexander Chee, in which the author wryly interrogates the racial and gender politics inscribed in the very curricula of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop are thrilling to read. As are essays such as “Seduce the Whole World” by Carla Blumenkranz, in which the author examines the-larger-than-life persona of Raymond Carver, whose minimalist aesthetics, mystique, and influence were largely crafted and set in stone by his editor Gordon Lish. Other essays such as “Into the Woods” by Emily Gould and “Money (2006)” by Keith Gessen offer unapologetically candid looks at the financial woes and socioeconomic dilemmas which haunt contemporary American authors. And one of my favorite essays in the collection, Eric Bennett’s “The Pyramid Scheme” examines how the Iowa Writers’ Workshop rose to the top of the American MFA empire in the mid-20th century, partly due to funding from the Fairfield Foundation, a dummy corporation set-up by the CIA. Bennett examines how Paul Engle, the second director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, utilized CIA money to round-up left-leaning individuals from around the world and set the rubric for 20th century American literary tastes. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to reading Bennett’s new book Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and the American Creative Writing during the Cold War this Spring.

RobinCosteLewisVoyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis
(Recommended by Rita Banerjee)

Robin Coste Lewis’s debut collection of poems, Voyage of the Sable Venus, just received the National Book Award for Best Poetry Book of 2015! The collection is a spiky, electric trip through confrontations of race, racism, agency, responsibility, and encountering other people and other cultures. The title of the collection takes its inspiration from Thomas Stothard engraving, “The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies,” an infamous propaganda piece for the African slave trade. But in Lewis’s book, the fault and possibilities of history lie in all hands. In her opening poem, “Plantation,” the speaker confides, “I could tell you the black side / of my family owned slaves // I realize that perhaps / the one reason why I love you, / because I told you this / and you–still–wanted to kiss // me.  We laughed when I said plantation / fell into our chairs when I said cane.”  Discomfort, fascination, guilt, awe–these are only some of the series of emotions which weave through Lewis’s verse as she examines the ways in which images and narratives of black women, black bodies, and the black voyager have been depicted in art, propaganda, and in personal histories. Cultural and psychic ambiguity hover over Lewis’s work as the speakers of her poems reflect their own private travels and own private traps, or as the speaker of “Plantation” recalls, “You said, The bars look pretty, Baby / then rubbed your hind legs against me.”

HarariSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
(Recommended by Rita Banerjee)

I first heard of Yuval Noah Harari a few years ago when I was researching MOOCs, and took his class on the History of Humankind, which was “telecast” from the University of Jerusalem. Harari’s lectures were engaging, self-deprecating, informative, and fantastic. In 2015, his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, was translated from Hebrew into English. The book, like Harari’s lectures, explores how Homo Sapiens came to be the dominant human species on earth and how they rose to power. Harari’s discussions on ethnicity and the genetic basis for race are eye-opening and provocative as are his discussions of the cognitive, agricultural, and industrial revolutions. One of my most favorite sections from Harari’s text focuses on how human societies are formed: through fictive language and gossip culture. It appears that everything from our fascination with God to our fascination with Louis Vuitton and fascism derive from our very human love of myths. As Harari explains, it’s the storytelling that brings us together, and it’s the fictions of our lives and our understandings of the world that bind.

510iAdsKYdL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
(Recommended by Alex Carrigan)

This book really hurt me. The latest book by acclaimed Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami follows a man whose group of friends cut off all ties with him for unknown reasons sixteen years earlier. Now middle aged, he goes on a journey to find his old friends and understand what happened back when they were teenagers. The book isn’t as weird as Murakami’s other books, but still carries a lot of the melancholy and heart that a lot of his works have. This book depressed me with its premise and the first fifty pages, but I think it was worth feeling that way if it meant I could read the rest of the story. I got to follow Tsukuru on his journey and grew to really understand how complex and sordid he and the other characters were, making it one of my favorite books in recent years.

51KwYPrCLjL._SX283_BO1,204,203,200_Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
(Recommended by Alex Carrigan)

I finally got into Neil Gaiman last year, and I found his collaboration with the late Terry Pratchett to be one of my favorite new books to read. The book follows the days leading up to the rapture, where an angel and a demon, who have both “gone native” after being on Earth since Eden, realize they’ve misplaced the Antichrist, throwing the entire prophecy out of order. The story follows them and dozens of other characters as the pieces of the end times begin to fall into place. It’s satirical, hilarious, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s one of the best interpretations of the end of days I have read, and I had a blast reading it.

51PXSCEFWZLA Separate Peace by John Knowles
(Recommended by Alyssa Goldstein Ekstrom)

Of all the books I read in high school, this one stuck with me the most, even years later. The story takes place at an all-boys boarding school right at the very beginning of World War II. It is of course a time when tensions are running high, where boys who are at the very precipice of becoming men have the possibility of joining the war looming over them. But it’s also in these darkest times of uncertainty that great friendships can emerge, or at least a friendship that appears to be great. In Gene and Phineas, Knowles creates two characters who will stay with readers for a long time after the last page. They say opposites attract. Even in friendships, this proves true, for Phineas is everything Gene isn’t. He’s athletic, social, popular, extroverted. While Gene is a loner and more reserved, and as the story unfolds, growing tired of living in Phineas’s shadow. Gene’s jealousy quickly evolves into resentment and in a split second, a decision is made that has irreparable consequences. A most poignant novel about jealousy, friendship, forgiveness, and growing up.

412XH9UvpbLFangirl by Rainbow Rowell
(Recommended by Alyssa Goldstein Ekstrom)

Starting college in and of itself is a scary time, but when you add in a twin who is looking to gain a separate identity from that of her sister, a prickly roommate, a father who is frequently manic, and online fandom clamoring for the next chapter of your beloved fanfiction, that scared feeling is multiplied by one hundred. Meet Cather. Her twin sister, Wren, doesn’t want to dorm with her, and not only that, is pulling away from their obsession with Simon Snow. Think Harry Potter and you’ll understand. With Wren putting some distance between them, Cather is reluctantly left navigating the world of college as a freshman alone. Adding insult to injury, the fiction class that Cather has found herself in, the one class that should come easy to her, is proving to be much more difficult. And as if this isn’t bad enough, Cather’s goal of finishing her Simon Snow fanfiction before the last book comes out seems very unlikely. Lastly, among all of her other troubles, Cather can add falling for her roommate’s ex-boyfriend to that list. For anyone who has ever felt the pangs of growing up and struggled in finding their own voice, Fangirl is an incredibly relatable, funny book that should not be missed.

81M62hCovYLAbout a Boy by Nick Hornby
(Recommended by Alyssa Goldstein Ekstrom)

When I found out NBC was adapting Hornby’s About a Boy into a television show, I was super excited. I loved the book, adored the movie, so it seemed only natural that I would enjoy the show. And I did. But unfortunately NBC pulled the plug on it, which is a shame in my own humble opinion. However, fear not; for even without a show, About a Boy as simply a novel is good enough for me. About a Boy follows Will Freeman, a man who has never really grown up. Living off of the royalties stemming from his father’s one-hit wonder, Will lives a comfortable life. He doesn’t need to work and therefore, doesn’t. At his core, Will is a fairly shallow individual, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone when he joins a group for single parents, Single Parents Alone Together, and fabricates a son to boot, to meet women. Will’s plan is extremely flawed, seeing as he doesn’t actually have a child, but it is this lie that brings young Marcus and his mother Fiona into Will’s life.

At twelve, Marcus is having a rough time. His mother is depressed, and he doesn’t know how to help her. And her failed suicide attempt has only left him more rattled. At school he’s the awkward outcast who gets picked on. At first, Marcus intends to set Will up with Fiona, believing Will can be the person to bring her out of her depression, but when that plan backfires, Marcus decides to befriend Will. Soon Marcus is going by Will’s flat everyday after school and it seems that finally, Will is growing up and learning to care about someone other than himself. But then it all appears to take a turn for the worst. Marcus finds Fiona crying again, and he fears she is going to attempt suicide once more. He needs Will’s help, but Will is unwilling after his own latest setback. Will meets Rachel at a dinner and leads her to believe that Marcus is his son. Rachel herself is a single mother of a twelve year old boy, and it seems Will has fallen hard for the first time. But when his lie is revealed, Rachel ends the relationship, leaving Will devastated and with the realization that he is not the person to help Marcus. But despite his best efforts, Will cannot stop caring about Marcus. In short, About a Boy is about one man’s lesson that there are connections we can’t sever and families we create for ourselves and it’s about the boy who teaches him this lesson.

51P7tPu16XL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Self-Help by Lorrie Moore
(Recommended by Casey Lynch)

Need some help getting back into classes/work/general productivity after the winter break?  Self-Help can help! Self-Help is not, in fact, a self-improvement manual, but New York Times bestseller Lorrie Moore’s first collection of short stories. The book includes titles like How to Be an Other Woman and (the introductory creative writing class classic!) How to Be a Writer or, Have You Earned This Cliché?. While Moore writes primarily in the second person, the ‘you’s who populate these stories are very specific people, with problems a self-help manual aimed at the general ‘you’ would be wildly insufficient to mend. The collection tightropes so many lines so artfully: it is accessible and literary, witty and tragic, quirky and universal. Self-Help is a perfect first book of Fall if you are looking to ease back into serious fiction after a summer of beach reads.

51khWutZqCL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
(Recommended by Casey Lynch)

“Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the Fall”—chances are, one of your Facebook friends will add this caption to a Fall-themed profile photo.  But how many will revisit the classic from which the line has been lifted?  These words are actually spoken by Jordan Baker of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Though you probably already read it for high school English, the Great American Novel is always worth another look. If not for all the gossip and glitz, or for Fitzgerald’s warm, loping prose, then to weigh in on some newer theories being applied to the classic. Some of the most colorful contentions I’ve heard: Nick is in love with Gatsby, and Gatsby is on the Autism Spectrum. Think it’s hearsay?! Then reread!

41PB9UVybpL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
by Robert Louis Stevenson

(Recommended by Casey Lynch)

A wonderful novella, with a scarier rep than it deserves, is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Though it features plenty of potions, alleys, and strangers, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is so much more than the guy-to-monster story we all know. It is a comment on industrialism and male professionalism, and an early study of bi-polar disorder. It is also chalk full of descriptions of late-nineteenth century London, written in beautiful, prim Victorian prose. If you are looking for a short, rewarding, not-too-scary classic this fall, Dr. Jekyll and Hyde is a great choice. If you want something a little scarier, I would still recommend it.  However, I would suggest that you read it under the conditions I did: from 2 to 4 AM the day the paper is due.

41KMMWCnkcL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_Speedboat by Renata Adler
(Recommended by David Shields)

D. H. Lawrence: it’s better to know a dozen books extraordinarily well than innumerable books passably. In a documentary on Derrida, when he shows the filmmaker his enormous private library, she asks him if he’s read all the books. He says, “No, just a few—but very closely.” I’ve read Speedboat easily two dozen times. I can’t read it anymore. It’s one book I’ve read so many times that I feel, absurdly, as if I’ve written it; at the very least, I feel that I know a little bit what it must have felt like to write it. In any case, I learned how to write by reading that book until the spine broke. I typed the entire book twice.

41kL+aXv5JL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The End of the Novel of Love by Vivian Gornick
(Recommended by David Shields)

The very embodiment of the critical intelligence in the imaginative position: literary analysis as farewell to feeling.





The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg
(Recommended by Emily Smith)

The Isle of Youth, a short story collection by Laura van den Berg, explores the survival of women as they battle unhappy marriages, false magic, and a plethora of other dizzying scenarios. My personal favorite is “The Greatest Escape,” which follows the story of Crystal, a teenage girl, who works as an assistant for her second-rate magician mother. After years of pick pocketing her patrons and listening to her mother’s romantic illusions about magic, Crystal realizes that the greatest escape is more than a magic trick: it’s a cripple for her not so magical life in the middle of nowhere Florida. Many have compared Laura van den Berg to a young Margaret Atwood.

41cOaCCUlWLPlay It as It Lays by Joan Didion
(Recommended by Emily Smith)

Joan Didion captures the essence of ennui in Play It as It Lays, a story as scalding and brutal as the desert it takes place in. As the anti-heroine Maria notes, she is an expert on “nothing”: she’s from a town that no longer exists, is the mother of a child who’s dead, and generally exists as the bedfellow of absence. The story, which has an empty resolution, will be satisfying to anyone who’s ever felt restless without reason.

51qbFfsCU9L._SX355_BO1,204,203,200_Histories of the Future Perfect
by Ellen Kombiyil

(Recommended by Diana Norma Szokolyai)

Ellen Kombiyil’s Histories of the Future Perfect is an enchanting collection of poetry that explores the depth of our relationships to one another and the world through examining grammar, one-ness, the nature of water, mathematical equations, and the myth of return. Water is a motif that takes many forms in the book, but always flows. The sun is an interrogator of the heart. In one of the poems that is the cradle of the book, “How I Came to Love,” Kombiyil writes, “It was a game of Chinese whispers I played/with the tarot-reading parrot. She picked/the cards like pecking crumbs, trilling Perhaps,/Perhaps, her warning note loud as a tolling bell.” Reminiscent of Poe’s raven, and his trilling call of “Nevermore,” Kombiyil’s bird spells out a different kind of fate…the frightening revelation that there are many life paths lined with the fog of “perhaps.”

415dXipj-dLThe World Doesn’t End by Charles Simic
(Recommended by Emily Teitsworth)

This short collection of prose poetry is one that leaves its readers with an impression of humor and heartache. Simic does not shy away from logical-or illogical-extremes. The poems themselves move seamlessly between what is extraordinary and what is not, which leaves readers puzzled and pleasantly surprised. The poems never fail to end powerfully, with lines such as: “It’s so quiet in the world. One can hear the old river, which in its confusion sometimes forgets and flows backwards.”

41+a4c0P5+LBluets by Maggie Nelson
(Recommended by Emily Teitsworth)

This book is meant to be a comprehensive encyclopedic index of the color blue. It also acts as a poetic memoir that reaches into Nelson’s memories of honesty, confession, and sadness. It is a collection of poetry that gives readers glimpses of compassion, loss, hope, desire, sex and everything blue. While the book is about Nelson’s own experiences and the color blue, the theme that ties the poems together is the reality of life being a messy thing. Nelson writes “And it must also be admitted that hitting the wall or wandering off in the wrong direction or tearing off the blindfold is as much a part of the game as is pinning the tail on the donkey.”

517aTl9FTjLThe Inconvenience of The Wings by Silas Dent Zobal
(Recommended by Emily Teitsworth)

This is a collection of fictional short stories from one of my professors at Susquehanna University. It is not a collection that leaves your heart pounding by the end, but rather leaves you wondering whether your life is what you really want it to be. The stories inhabit a vast landscape of imagination that falls somewhere between reality and fantasy. They show us that what seems beyond us is as much a part of the world as the ground under our shoes.

CWW Film Picks:

Me-And-Earl-And-The-Dying-Girl-PosterMe and Earl and the Dying Girl (dir. Alfonso Gómez-Rejón)
(Recommended by Rita Banerjee)

The first time I met Jesse Andrews, he was jumping out of the sky.  Literally.  It was about a year and a half-ago, and we were celebrating a mutual friend’s wedding.  More specifically, Jesse, the groom, and their friends were celebrating the groom’s last days of bachelorhood by jumping out of a plane, flying three miles high over Newport, Rhode Island.  As you’d expect, Andrews made quite an entrance as did his book, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.  In 2015, Alfonso Gómez-Rejón’s film of the same title made it’s stellar debut and won the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award.  The film follows the narratives of three mismatched characters, Greg, a loner and awkward film nerd who sits outside of all the usual social cliques in high school, Earl, his African-American fellow film buff and would-be friend, and Rachel, a girl of their acquaintance who has recently been diagnosed with leukemia.  Through the course of the story, Greg is forced by his mother to befriend Rachel who’s feeling increasingly isolated and alone due to her sickness.  To cheer her up, Earl introduces Rachel to the pastiches and short fan parodies of classical art house cinema (like Rashomon, A Clockwork Orange, Breathless, etc.) that he and Greg have made in their spare time. Greg feels that showing Rachel their secret films is a betrayal of their trust, but as Rachel’s chemotherapy begins to worsen her health, he begins to change his mind (a lot). Soon Greg and Earl are commissioned to make a short film for Rachel by Madison (Greg’s crush). And as the stakes of the film are raised, the trio find themselves dancing around issues of friendship, trust, and vulnerability like particles drawn together and repelled apart. The film which Greg finally makes for Rachel is breathtaking and full of emotion.  That scene alone makes Me and Earl and the Dying Girl a film I wish I had made and a book I wish I had written.

HaiderHaider (dir. Vishal Bhardwaj)
(Recommended by Rita Banerjee)

Haider is a gorgeous little film made by Vishal Bhardwaj, a director who has adapted other Shakespearan classics such as Othello and Macbeth for popular Hindi cinema. Haider, an adaptation of Hamlet, is not exactly Bollywood, and it’s not exactly Hamlet either. The film is set in the turbulent political era of 1990s Kashmir, a territory continuously fought over by the Indian and Pakistani army since 1948. The drama of the film evolves from the story of one family. Hilal Meer is a doctor in Kashmir who secretly tends the wounds of separatists and insurgents, who are attempting to free Kashmir from Indian rule. One day as he is nursing a pro-separatist leader in his house, the Indian army pulls up and orders all men and women to appear before their council. When it is Dr. Meer’s turn to face the council, a hooded whistle-blower calls him out, and he is lead away somewhere (presumably to a concentration camp or to death). His ancestral home (along with the separatist patients hidden there) is subsequently destroyed. When his son, Haider returns home, he realizes that not all is what it seems. For one thing, his mother Ghazala, a “half-widow” is dancing and singing in the arms of his uncle, Khurram Meer, a well-to-do lawyer who later decides to run for office.  Haider is also haunted by the question of whether his father is actually dead or alive, and who betrayed his father’s trust. As the story unfolds, the relationships and tensions within Haider’s family and community take on a sinister twist. The implosion of family ties and trust on screen becomes symptomatic of the violence and greed which tear the sociopolitical fabric of Kashmir apart. And watching this story of Hamlet unfold in such unexpected ways is both heart-stopping and poignant.

MV5BMTQ0MjU1ODU5NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODE1NzAyNDE@._V1_SY317_CR5,0,214,317_AL_The Russian Woodpecker (dir. Chad Garcia)
(Recommended by Rita Banerjee)

I had a chance to see Chad Garcia’s gorgeously shot film, The Russian Woodpecker, at the Filmfest München last year.  A student of mine, inspired by our discussions on Marxism in class, recommended the film to me. The Russian Woodpecker follows the life story and quixotic hero’s quest of Fedor Alexandrovich, a painter and theatre artist, whose early childhood was nearly destroyed by the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine. Alexandrovich has a hunch that the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown is not what is seems and that somehow the history of the plant is intricately linked to Duga, a Cold War Soviet-Era signal tower near Chernobyl, which from 1976-1989 broadcasted a mysterious radio signal across the world known as “the Russian Woodpecker.” Was Duga a Cold War era spying device?  Was the Chernobyl disaster a cover-up for something more sinister?  Throughout the documentary Garcia follows Alexandrovich on his Herzogian hero’s quest as political tensions in Ukraine escalate and Putin’s army sets in motion the events that lead to the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

MV5BMTQ4NTY5NDAxN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzUxMTA3MTE@._V1_SX214_AL_Ivory Tower (dir. Andrew Rossi)
(Recommended by Rita Banerjee)

Ivory Tower is an eye-opening documentary film made by Andrew Rossi about the rising cost of higher education in the United States. The film asks several hard-hitting questions such as: Why has the tuition for colleges and universities sky-rocketed when fewer and fewer academics are being hired full-time or receiving tenure? Are universities in an arms race with one another to build better and more lavish facilities at the cost of more robust academic programs? When did universities become corporations and adopt the ethos of industry? The film is incredibly revealing in terms of investigating how universities wheel and deal their money. The day I defended my doctoral thesis, there was a lecture “Humanities and the Future of the University” at Harvard. And Homi Bhabha, Drew Faust, Sheldon Pollock, and other academic leaders discussed the rising cost of higher ed and the very viability of the humanities for future generations of students. One topic under fire, of course, was the ratio of administrators to faculty (4:1) and another was how increasing university tuition was creating a class-war between incoming students. Rossi’s film interrogates both of these questions especially as it examines the recent history of Cooper Union (an institution that was free-of-charge and tuition-free by decree until 2013). The rising cost of American higher ed offers a sharp contrast to the state-funded university systems of Europe. Faced with these costs many Americans are opting to earn their degrees abroad, and at LMU Munich, for example, the university only charges students €111 to study per semester.

41iRoDZTwxLA Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
(dir. Ana Lily Amanapour)
(Recommended by Alex Carrigan)

I spent 28 hours in an airport last July due to a canceled flight, and it took two attempts for me to watch this film. It was worth it, because this was one of my favorite films of 2015. This film is set in a dumpy Iranian town filled with drugs, prostitution, and general misery, where the residents have no idea one woman is actually a vampire who feeds on vile men. The film is creepy and atmospheric, and to get a western vampire story out of Iran by a female director in 2015 is something quite amazing, so I had a blast watching this film over two days while I battled exhaustion, sleep deprivation, and general airport misanthropy.

On_connait_la_chansonOn connaît la chanson (dir. Alain Resnais)
(Recommended by Alex Carrigan)

I watched this comedy/musical/drama a few days before heading to Paris, and it helped get me into the mood. The film follows six people over a few days in Paris as they deal with real estate, thesis projects, and love triangles. The main draw of the film is that, at random moments, the characters will start singing songs, with the lyrics filling in for dialogue. All the songs are classics by musicians like Maurice Chevalier and Edith Piaf, so the characters will be dubbed over by these songs with no warning, leading to some real great mood shifts. I began to watch the movie waiting for the next random musical number, and it helped make the film more of an experience for me.

91zWn2jJBfL._SX385_The Babadoo(dir. Jennifer Kent)
(recommended by Alex Carrigan)

I always feel like the best horror movies are the ones where, if the fantastic element is removed from the story, the film still manages to be really scary. Rosemary’s Baby without Satan is about a stressed out pregnant woman going mad from a difficult pregnancy. The Stepford Wives without robots is about misogyny and criticism of traditional gender roles. The 2014 Australian horror film The Babadook without the titular monster (who, by the way, is one of the creepiest film monsters in recent years), is even more unpleasant. The film follows a stressed single mother having difficulties raising her emotionally disturbed son, all while the two are harassed by a creepy children’s book monster. Without the monster, the film looks to be an examination of an abusive parent, her distressed child, and looks like the only possible ending for these characters is murder-suicide. The movie is atmospheric, scary as hell, and has a terrific leading role with Essie Davis as the mother. Just be warned if you start hearing ba-ba-ba-DOOK-DOOK-DOOK any time after watching the film.

81ZIWy4YZ4L._SY550_Breakfast at Tiffany’s (dir. Blake Edwards)
(recommended by Diana Norma Szokolyai)

One weekend this fall, I was visiting my mother, and after the movie she rented from Redbox turned out to be a dud with no plot, we turned to this classic.  It goes without saying that this movie is a masterpiece.  Audrey Hepburn gives a captivating performance as Holly Golightly (just one of her many pseudonyms).  Not only entertaining to watch because of the intriguing backdrop of an older New York and Hepburn’s iconic performance of “Moon River,” it is also a film that makes the viewer examine the many masks of and veneers of identity that one wears in society.  It takes Holly confronting her true feelings for Paul Varjak, the character who plays a struggling writer in the film, to confront her true self underneath all of the masks.  The real brilliance of Hepburn’s performance is that although she is playing a character who is putting on a superficial show to the world, we also feel a deeper person, a struggling person peeking through the lighthearted outward appearances.

imgresMaster of None
(Created by Aziz Ansari, Alan Yang)

(Recommended by Diana Norma Szokolyai)

A new Netflix Original Series that came out in 2015, Master of None is  exceptionally clever in its ability to make light of, yet at the same time, raise serious questions about important, yet often taboo topics. Tackling issues of the complicated contemporary dating scene, parenthood, sex, death, friendship, career, and racism, the writers have a style that will spur laughter and thoughtful reflection at once. The characters are multi-dimensional and full of surprises. Dev (Aziz Ansari) is the main character, an actor living in New York, struggling with getting roles that are not stereotypical. His friends are a multi-cultural group that include a strong-willed lesbian, black woman named Denise, a charming first generation Taiwanese-American named Brian, and Arnold, a tall, bearded white man who acts like a big kid. Dev’s girlfriend, Rachel, is a dynamic character who brings up issues surrounding vegetarianism and feminism. One of my favorite moments are when the fathers of Dev and Brian have a dramatic flashback during a brief interaction with their sons. It brilliantly highlights (in a humorous, yet compassionate way) the disparity between the immigrant parent vs. the first generation American child experience and how it effects relationships. Another favorite moment is when Dev puts a T.V. executive in his place for being outright racist. The writers use language that is very real, incorporating contemporary lingo, full of colorful expressions currently in use. One can see why The New York Times has called Master of None “the year’s best comedy straight out of the gate.”