Best of 2016: Music Edition, Part 2

The musical theme of my year seems to be strong women and emotional ballads. Hey, I can think of many worse themes. Music is wonderful during happy times, but these are the kind of songs to get you through the tough times. Here are my top 5 songs of 2016!

5. Lady Gaga, “Million Reasons”

At first I was skeptical about the new Lady Gaga album, but soon I was living for it. After going to theatrical extremes on her previous efforts, she was wise to move in a more personal direction. I love that Gaga is so in earnest with everything she does, even the songs that don’t work, but “Million Reasons” definitely works for me. Besides the country-twinged melancholy, my favorite part is the play on words between needing a good reason and a good man to stay.

4. Tegan and Sara, “Dying to Know”

“Dying to Know” became a sneaky favorite off of Tegan and Sara’s new album. The jittery vocals and instrumentation fit perfectly with lyrics about wondering how your ex is doing now. In true Tegan and Sara fashion, a potentially depressing topic is softened by an infectious beat. With the album’s throwback vibe, you can imagine yourself as the protagonist in a John Hughes movie.

3. Lykke Li, “Sadness Is A Blessing”

Since Lykke Li still hasn’t blessed us with new music, I went back to her previous album instead. Wounded Rhymes is great all-around, but “Sadness Is A Blessing” has the best blend of melodrama and genuine emotion. My English major heart loves a song that sounds like it could be sung by the heroine of a Victorian novel. To say “Sadness is my boyfriend / Oh sadness, I’m your girl” is an act of defiance hidden by words of acceptance, something Jane Eyre knew all about.

2. Beyoncé, “Sorry”

My spring was dominated by Lemonade, the latest Beyoncé album. I loved it for its depiction of female experience—both the parts that are specific to my experience and the parts that aren’t. “Sorry” is catchy and angry and crass and amazing. Surely we can all agree that “He only want me when I’m not there / He better call Becky with the good hair” is a couplet of lyrical genius. This is another downright dismissal for the ladies (and gentlemen) to revel in.

1. Sia, “Alive”

“Alive” was released in 2015, but I didn’t pay any attention to it until this year. When I really listened to the song, it resonated with me on a very personal level. Sometimes you’re at a point in your life that needs a survivors’ anthem. I love how her vocal delivery toes the line between pretty and pained, and that juxtaposition is always exciting to me. What could be more primal than declaring “I’m alive”? Sia turns those words into a powerful declaration of strength.

Come back tomorrow as we start on the movies!

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Best of 2016: Music Edition, Part 1

It’s my favorite time of year on Courtney Coherent: Best Of Lists! We begin, per usual, with my top 10 songs. Any song first heard in 2016 is eligible for inclusion, but since I’ve been making a concerted effort to buy new music, almost every song was released this year. Give a listen to numbers 10 through 6!

10. Ingrid Michaelson, “Hell No”

I suppose there’s nothing groundbreaking about this song, but I just enjoy it. There’s something endlessly pleasing about the way the lyrics trip off each other, particularly in the chorus. Plus the sing-chanting style is especially fun for singalongs. Instead of being angry or sad, this breakup song is a downright dismissals. And I always give bonus points for referencing Johnny and June.

9. Little Big Town, “Better Man”

Anyone craving some old school Taylor Swift (me, apparently) was pleasantly surprised when Little Big Town released “Better Man,” which was written by the queen of confessional songwriting herself. The band’s gorgeous harmonies add musical depth, and the lyrics are breakup song gold. To get personal for a moment, after a year of crappy dating experiences, I needed this in my life.

8. Fitz and the Tantrums, “Roll Up”

Fitz and the Tantrums is happy-making music. I gladly invested in their new album and danced along in the car. “Roll Up” is my favorite for its sweet lyrics and raucous chorus. For some reason, it brings to mind a wedding reception flash mob or another unabashedly joyful event. The song also made an appearance on my gym playlist, where quality upbeat indie pop is always welcome.

7. case/lang/veirs, “Atomic Number”

The collaboration between Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs was my favorite chill-out album of the year. (If you don’t know of Veirs, she’s notable in my world for being a Carleton alum.) Among many gorgeous songs, “Atomic Number” stands out for blending these three unique voices into the most eerie harmonies. As soon as each woman delivers one of the first three lines, I’m turn to mush.

6. Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, “High Dive”

“High Dive” wasn’t love at first listen, but then one day I really heard it and something clicked. I bought the album the same day. This song has all the romantic trappings of travelling home and headlights in driveways, perfectly suited to Andrew McMahon’s vocal style. Most of all, “High Dive” feels like such a genuine expression of love: “You dance with your headphones on / And I could watch you all night long / Dancing to someone else’s song.”

Come back tomorrow for my top 5 songs of the year!

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Craving Classic Hollywood: Billy Wilder


Very few directors have as many iconic films to their name as Billy Wilder. When the American Film Institute named its 100 Greatest American Movies in 1998, four of Wilder’s films made the cut, three in the top 50. Over the past few years I’ve seen those four movies, plus a fifth. In fact, Double Indemnity (1944) was the subject of my very first Craving Classic Hollywood post and continues to be my idea of film noir perfection. Most recently I watched The Apartment (1960).

I always had the impression that The Apartment was a rather zany comedy, perhaps associating it with Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959). And yes, the premise has zany written all over it. C.C. Baxter, played by Jack Lemmon, is a low-level businessman who hopes to advance his career by letting executives use his apartment for trysts. Scheduling conflicts and awkward encounters with the neighbors naturally ensue. Baxter also hopes to woo spunky elevator operator Fran Kubelik, played by Shirley MacLaine. While both are fantastic comedians, there’s a deep sadness to each of their characters. Baxter is profoundly isolated, waiting in the cold for married men and their mistresses to vacate his apartment, and Fran happens to be in love with one of those married men.


The dark side of The Apartment is actually mentioned in the first season of Mad Men. Joan is upset with Roger after seeing it because of the way Shirley MacLaine is “passed around” by the men. Watching the movie myself, I could easily imagine how it would feel a little too realistic for Joan’s character. Not only is Fran deceived by both of the men in her life, but the affair distresses her to the point that she tries to commit suicide. Looking back at the Wilder movies that I’ve seen, there are two other occasions when women attempt suicide over men. That’s what we in the world of feminist critique would call problematic.

Wilder often wrote about women wreaking havoc on the lives of men, such as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity or Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Norma Desmond is former silent-film star who is clearly mentally ill, so her attempted suicide is at least quite plausible. Fran Kubelik, on the other hand, seems self-possessed, if a bit glum. The most perplexing example is found in Sabrina (1954), which involves a suicide note played for laughs. None of the women succeed, and with the exception of Sabrina, the attempts are treated seriously. However, the fact that none of them succeed also frames it as an attention-seeking act. Not a particularly enlightened view of women, Billy.


Underneath the veneer of comedy or glamour, there’s a cynicism to much of Wilder’s work. He takes on the Hollywood star machine in Sunset Boulevard and acknowledges the ugliness behind the womanizing businessman in The Apartment. Actors deliver great performances in his movies, and some credit must be given to his writing and direction. Setting aside the aforementioned problematic elements, Shirley MacLaine brings depth to a character who could have become a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. In one monologue she describes kidding herself about dating a married man until “it all begins to look so ugly.” Lemmon’s performance has the physical comedy and nervous energy you would expect, but he also taps into Baxter’s loneliness in subtle and heartbreaking ways.

Although I’ve now seen the Billy Wilder Greatest Hits, there are many lesser classics if I really wanted to delve into his career. The Apartment fit perfectly into my 1960s reading and viewing theme of late. Despite his shortcomings, I would have to say that Wilder is among my favorite Classic Hollywood directors, perhaps second only to Hitchcock. It might be because he writes as well as directs, or because women wreaking havoc is not my least favorite thing to watch.

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Courtney Coherent, By the Book 3

It’s been over two years since my last “By the Book” post, so I think I can safely indulge myself again. These questions are taken from the By the Book interviews in the New York Times Book Review. Some questions are new, some updated.


What book is on your night stand now?

I’m currently reading two books, which is unusual for me. The first is Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris. It’s a detailed look at the five movies nominated for Best Picture in 1967 and how their productions reflected the breakdown of the Old Hollywood studio system. I’m also working on Nutshell, Ian McEwan’s new book, because I got it off the library waitlist and won’t be able to renew.

What genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?

This year my reading has gone between literary fiction and psychological thrillers. I’ve also integrated some nonfiction into the rotation: a smattering of literary biographies, history, and psychology. I haven’t found myself reading young adult this year, so I must have needed a break. All the better to return to the genre with fresh eyes. Although I’m much less averse to mysteries these days, I still don’t find myself interested in legal dramas or straight-up romance novels.

Who writes the best thrillers?

My favorites are Gillian Flynn and Dennis Lehane. Although she’s only put out one book so far, I’m excited to see what Paula Hawkins comes up with after The Girl on the Train. Lauren Beukes, author of The Shining Girls and Broken Monsters, also knows how to scare the bejesus out of me.

Tell us about your favorite short stories.

I’m not particularly well-versed in short stories, but my favorite is “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates. It captures the vulnerability of being a young woman and teeters on the uncanny edge of reality as only Oates can do. J. D. Salinger also meant a lot to me as a teenager.

How do you organize your books?

Moving into a studio apartment, my biggest concern was whether there would be room for all my books. Thanks to some generous shelving in the closet, there was! Outside of the closet, I have a long, skinny bookshelf with perfect spaces for poetry, nonfiction, and books about writing. My larger bookshelf has most of my young adult and favorite adult fiction. Overflow is relegated to the closet.


What was the last book that made you cry?

Definitely Room. I ugly-cried watching the movie, and even though I knew what would happen, I cried again reading the book. If you want to reduce me to tears, just show me a child in distress.

Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain? 

There are way too many good ones, but I love Jane Eyre as a heroine. Despite having little social power, she stands up for herself and makes her own choices. My favorite villain would have to be someone whose villain status is ambiguous, like Amy Dunne from Gone Girl or Odalie and Rose from The Other Typist.

What book read for school had the greatest impact on you? And which book did you hate reading as a student?

Eleventh-grade English was a formative year for me, particularly studying poetry and the modernist writers. The Great Gatsby sparked my interest in literary criticism, as well as evoking themes that still fascinate me today. On the other hand, I loathed reading Ernest Hemingway. I had to read The Sun Also Rises again in college, and my feelings were much the same.

What was the last book you just couldn’t finish?

Oddly enough, I’ve tried twice this year to read books about Puritans and never made it past the first chapter. The first attempt was The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell, and the second was The Witches by Stacy Schiff. I will have to give Sarah Vowell another chance because she seems very much in my wheelhouse. Apparently Puritans and the Salem Witch Trials are topics that I find interesting in theory but not in practice.

What do you plan to read next?

The new Blackthorn & Grim book just came out, so hopefully I will be getting that from the library soon. I’m also interested in reading Five Came Back, the other book by Mark Harris, and some of the writers referenced by Suzanne Rindell in Three-Martini Lunch, like James Baldwin and Truman Capote.


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If You Were Me: Mad Men, Season 3


“I keep going to a lot of places and ending up somewhere I’ve already been,” Don Draper tells a sexy stewardess in the first episode of the season. From the start of season three, we know that the past will be encroaching more persistently than ever before. The first scene involves flashbacks to Dick Whitman’s birth with adult Dick/Don staring across a dark kitchen at the ugliness of his own conception. Born to a prostitute who died in childbirth, Dick was raised by a woman who never allowed him to forget his origins. Reinventing himself as Don Draper has taken him far, but he always returns to the reality of his self-loathing.

Given his background, there are certainly Freudian implications to Don’s interactions with women. Is he seeking the love and acceptance that he never received from a mother-figure? Or is his sporadic disregard for their feelings a way of getting back at the callous woman who raised him? Despite his hatred for his father, Don bears similarities to him in his drinking and philandering. The biggest difference is that Don’s misbehavior is usually controlled. In the seventh episode, a drug-induced stupor shows Don a vision of his father, who watches him with disgust. Fear of being his father’s son looms large in Don’s psyche.


After two precarious seasons, season three sees the final breakdown of the Drapers’ marriage. Don and Betty both conduct affairs, physical or emotional, that suggest what’s missing in their relationship with each other. Don is entranced by Sally’s teacher at the end of the second episode. As she dances barefoot in the grass, Miss Farrell seems to offer purity and renewal, but she resists Don’s advances until episode nine. She also calls him out for being a cliché of suburban boredom, saying that he wants her “because I’m new and different. Or maybe I’m exactly the same.” Despite pointing out the exhausting inevitability of Don’s affairs, he seems to appreciate that she isn’t fooled by him.

Betty loses her father early in the season—the man who indignantly told Don that his daughter is a princess. There are paternal aspects to her relationship with Henry Francis, who promises that he wants to take care of her. Don made similar attempts, but his care was usually financial rather than emotional. In Henry she finds someone who will treat her delicately while being direct about his intentions. Henry tells her, “I’m not in love with the tragedy of this thing. It’s not Romeo and Juliet. I want it to happen.” After years of marriage to Don, Betty is tired of playing the tragic heroine and ready to be revered again.


There are several lines of dialogue in the final episodes that are reminiscent of meaningful moments from the previous season. Most heartbreaking, when Betty confronts Don about his true identity, she asks, “What would you do if you were me? Would you love you?” I was reminded of Pete going to Don for guidance after his father’s death, skeptical to believe that Don would follow his own advice. Both scenes emphasize the unknowable facets of other people. Another callback comes in Don’s speech to recruit Peggy for the new agency. He tells her that she understands this concept: “There are people out there who buy things, people like you and me, and something happened—something terrible. And the way they saw themselves is gone.” This echoes Peggy’s speech to Pete in the season two finale, explaining to him that she feels a part of herself is gone and won’t come back. Don sees this in Peggy and considers her a kindred spirit because of it.

Want is a central theme of the show, and the final episode of season three gives us a direct articulation of what Don Draper wants. Furious that Bert Cooper is willing to let the agency disappear without a fight, Don declares, “I want to work. I want to build something of my own. How can you not understand that?” It’s a simple statement, but also one of the truest things his character has ever said. The dogged determination to create something out of nothing is Don’s greatest virtue. Roger tells Don, “You’re not good at relationships because you don’t value them,” to which Don replies, “I value my relationship with you.” If this is true, it’s because Roger understands The Work, and The Work is everything to Don.


The gleeful creation of Sterling Cooper Draper Price is a high point of the series. When Don looks around the hotel suite bustling with the members of his fledgling agency, he actually appears content. He’s ready to let go of his marriage and start anew. It just so happens, the next season is my absolute favorite.

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Photo Friday: East Isles Autumn


Last Saturday was one of those days that just demands to be appreciated on a leisurely walk with camera in hand. I love Lake of the Isles in autumn.


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This Never Happened: Mad Men, Season 2


Don Draper’s life is all about moving forward, or so he would like to believe. In the first season of Mad Men, two women ask him how he goes from work and affairs to an outwardly normal home life, and his response is “I don’t even think about it.” Don and several other characters try to live by his philosophy in season two, but the results are often less successful than they first appear.

Episode five, “The New Girl,” has several flashbacks to Peggy’s time in the hospital after giving birth. Peggy is in deep denial, but she doesn’t extract herself from the situation until receiving a visit from Don. After giving his patented advice to move forward, Don tells her, “This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” As we see throughout the season, Peggy is trying to live by his advice, yet Don seems to be cracking under the pressure of his own secrets and self-denials. By the third episode, he’s returned to his old pattern, entering into an affair with a comedian’s wife. However, unlike his affairs in the first season, his interactions with Bobbie Barrett have no warmth or affection. Their liaisons are about a fleeting moment of domination and oblivion.


In episode five, “Maidenform,” Don becomes uncomfortable under his daughter’s loving gaze on two occasions. After the first time he runs to Bobbie, and the second time he just asks Sally to leave him alone. Both instances prove that for all his talk about forgetting the past, Don feels like a fraud when faced with his daughter’s blind admiration. By mid-season, when Betty is tipped off to his most recent affair, Don’s self-loathing must be reaching maximum capacity. Jimmy Barrett tells Don, “You’re garbage and you know it,” and we believe him. As Don escapes to California for a business trip, we see a more drastic attempt to either forget the past or find a place where he is truly known.

And where Don feels truly known is not in a stranger’s mansion with a group of cosmopolitan nomads. The companionship of a young, carefree woman would seem to offer everything his philandering heart desires, but he ultimately rejects her as well. Instead he goes to Anna Draper, the widow of the man whose identity he stole. In her presence he can be plain old Dick Whitman again. During this visit, Anna delivers one of the most important lines of the entire series: “The only thing keeping you from being happy is the belief that you are alone.”


The desire to be known also creeps into Pete and Peggy’s conversation in the season finale. I’ve long contended that “Meditations in an Emergency” is one of the best television episodes ever. The backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis gives everyone an “end of the world” mentality, which befits Sterling Cooper’s looming merger with another ad agency. In the case of Pete Campbell, it leads him to wonder who would care if he was gone. “I mean, Trudy would care,” he tells Peggy, “but she doesn’t know me. But you do. And I know you.” The scene is tragic because Pete really doesn’t know Peggy, a fact that she makes clear by telling him about her pregnancy. It’s an end to innocence for both characters.

If season one asks, “What do I want?” then season two asks, “Who am I now?” When Pete learns of his father’s death, he goes to Don with the news. A rather bewildering choice, given their contentious history, but Pete still looks up to Don. As Pete talks over what to do next, it amounts to asking, Don, how do I be a person? Pete knows that Don won’t make a scene, not to mention Don is familiar with lacking the proper emotional responses to situations. Yet there’s something very sad about turning to Don Draper, Human Cipher, for reassurance. When Don tells him to be with his family, Pete skeptically asks, “Is that what you would do?” It’s as if he believes that Don has the key but won’t give it to him.


In season two, Peggy continues her transformation into a career woman, eventually rejecting the earnest confession of love that her earlier self probably craved. Don tests the limits of his dual lives before ending up back at the kitchen table with Betty. In the midst of an emergency, Don goes home to his family, just as he told Pete he would, but he hardly seems less alone than the season before.

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