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2018 Books in Review

January 21, 2019

In 2017, I didn’t read any white men. I chose instead to read only women and men of color. In 2018, I wanted to try and reduce my to-read list, and add to it as little as possible. This was especially true for books that I own. I had been putting off reading books that I had inherited from my uncle in 2005 for over a decade. I started with nearly 100 books, mostly classics of American, British, and European fiction. Some of it I ditched nearly immediately, others I saved for post-college, when I figured I would read these classics. And after college, I did! I read East of Eden by John Steinbeck, and loved it, and then tried to read some other things. I made it through some Hemingway, attempted F. Scott Fitzgerald a few times, and read some French Existentialist books by Camus and Sartre. The books eventually dwindled. I made big purges each move. Four or five years ago, I set myself the challenge to read or get rid of all the unread books I possessed before I was 30. I’m 32 now, and there’s still about 35 books in my possession that I’ve never read, though only a handful came from my uncle. But I also have digital bookshelves at Goodreads and the Library, filled with things I’m interested in, that seem more fun and urgent than reading Wuthering Heights or Emma.

When I ended my self-imposed “no white men” ban in 2018, I reshuffled my physical book shelves, but just started trying to get my to-read lists under 100 books. I devoured easy graphic novels: Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye, his independent book Sex Criminals, and John Allison’s Bad Machinery and Giant Days books. I finished the rest of the Indiespensible books I intended to read: the delightfully weird Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash, and the historical page-turner Bark Skins by Annie Proulx.

But at a certain point in the year, around late April I ran out of gas. I reshuffled my book shelves again. Staehli had slowly been accumulating more books, and despite her purging instincts, didn’t want to get rid of anything more than she had already dispatched. She wanted to grow her collection a little. She has one bookshelf. I have three. I said I would get rid of some books. The choice to get rid of more books, books that I hadn’t necessarily hated, but instead felt obligated to, forced me to confront the questions: who do I want to be? And the question behind that: why?

After college, when I set my initial goal of reading more and watching movies more, I wanted to not be ignorant. I wanted to get references. I wanted to have cache. In history class, I always admired the literary salons, where artists and poets and thinkers gathered to hash out the ideas of the day. I always wanted to create that atmosphere. I wanted to be fluent with the classics and track their influence through history. Yet, I found a lot of the classics boring. None of my friends were reading them with any regularity. The whole point of so much of my reading, of this entire endeavor of summarizing my habits at the end of each year, is to start a conversations about books and movies. I’ve been a member of a book club for five years now, and we meet pretty reliably 9-10 times a year to talk books. But no one was pushing me to read the lesser known works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. No one wanted to discuss the Iliad and the Odyssey (unless it was the new translation, the first by a woman). No one was eager to revive the Beat Movement. I continually asked myself again and again this year: was I reading these books for me? For someone else? If that someone else, then who? Why did I even want to read these in the first place?

I ultimately realized that the only person who put these expectations on me…was me. And why I had these expectations was based out of a false sense of duty to a resolution an 18-year-old Brandon made. That was 14 years ago. I have grown since then, my interests have changed. No one is going to judge me if I haven’t read the canon, because I don’t have a PhD in literature. Even people I know with PhDs in Literature haven’t read “the canon” because academia doesn’t work like that anymore. I don’t have to worry about letting anyone down with what I choose to read. If I didn’t feel like I could loan out or re-visit these books, then I didn’t need them.

So I’ve been purging a lot of books over the last year. I got rid of books I’d never re-read, books I didn’t feel comfortable loaning out, books I finally admitted to myself that I felt I was saving because I was obligated to, not because I was actually excited about reading them. After feeling like I was just checking a lot of boxes in the first four months of the year, I began to move little more instinctively – I gravitated back towards Sci-Fi and Fantasy. I used to be a devoted fantasy and sci-fi reader, but I was made to be ashamed of them in high school, and thought of them as a guilty pleasure. But my friends are nerds, and they have encouraged me throughout the years to re-embrace these genres. The sci-fi and fantasy books I used to read before, they were all white male power fantasies that at best explored the responsibility of ruling the world. This seemed normal to a teenage white boy because in part of the privilege at play: it was eminently possible that a white boy could grow up to be the President, and would have to make decisions about the fate of the world. But that stopped being interesting or compelling, and I fell out of love with the genre. But since I had been away, authors had been doing interesting things, exploring interesting ideas in these same realms. My friends were talking about interesting books, so back in I went. I found myself devouring Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels so much quicker than other books. I like the questions they ask about our society. I think especially the authors who are able to blend new sensibilities into their literary fiction and literary fiction’s strong point of view into their genre fiction are my favorite. A book that really sold me on this way of writing way back when was Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a book about Jewish identity, comic books, and love. I felt some of the similar ideas in N.K. Jesimin’s Hugo-Award winning The Fifth Season trilogy: The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky. These books are about race, responsibility, community, and love. They are also about a race of people who can sense through and manipulate stone. I bought all of these books, loved reading them, and then immediately sought to press them into the hands of friends. I’ve already loaned the first one out. These books feel urgent in their discussion about racism and how it operates, yet clever enough to abstract the hated idea beyond the color of skin but into an ability. Which is ultimately what people fear: the difference. With its setting based on a geological time table, you can chart the systemic impact of racism over time. This was powerful, heady stuff that was a far cry from another orphan becoming the world savior by divine inheritance. These books were some of the best things I read all year.

This year, I read 71 books, of which 28 were by Women (39%) and 43 by Men (61%). However, by author count, 21 women to 22 men, which is better. Most of what I read this year was fiction, though I did read 25 Graphic Novels and 6 non-fiction books. As for international authors, I read 9 books by authors with backgrounds outside of Britain and America, with no repeats: Vietnam, Taiwan, Russia, Pakistan, Native-American, Koreans in Japanese, French, Italian, and Chinese. I read 21 British books by only 6 authors (most were just from two authors: John Allison Terry Pratchett). I read 41 books by Americans, with 28 authors represented.

In the upcoming year, I’d like to read at least 50% books by women. I’d also like to continue to break down my to-read list. I would also like to be able to talk to more people about the books I am reading, which is a different thing entirely, but I miss that. This list, and my book club shouldn’t be the only forums for my book discussions. So I’d also like to make that commitment.

Favorites:

While N.K. Jemisin’s series was the perfect marriage of topics for my year, I also really liked the following books.

The Idiot, by Elif Batuman
This was on my to-read list, and also was in the Tournament of Books. It features a unique thing I haven’t seen much in media in general: a failure-to-launch relationship. We get to see all the ways in which this fails: the way Selin (our main character) and Ivan (her beau) talk around one another, the way Selin doesn’t know how to communicate her desire, the way Ivan can’t give her space to do so. This is a great college novel, more true than others I’ve read to a certain kind of college experience. There’s the late night philosophical conversations, discovering the centrality of alcohol to college socializing, and navigating turning acquaintances into friendships. Selin is searching for meaning in all sorts of ways, and seems on the cusp so many times, and learns little lessons, but never gets to any big conclusion. I think that’s a unique experience to read about, and we’re keep reading because the voice of Selin is engaging, and funny.

Stephen Florida, by Gabe Habash
This was also in the Tournament of Books, but I owned it since it was one of the last Indiespensible books I received (Powell’s book club). This book was a strange trip about an obsessive, somewhat off-putting but still funny NCAA Division III wrestler, the titular Stephen Florida. Stephen’s world is essentially: wrestling and everything else, which creates choices for himself when obstacles like physical injury get in the way of wrestling. Very visceral and compelling. A very different kind of college novel.

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, by Svetlana Alexievich
I tried reading this in 2016, I think, or maybe in 2017. For my book club, I suggested all non-fiction books, and this is what we picked. A series of  oral histories from people who lived under Russia’s Soviet rule contrasted with the youth, who never experienced the Soviet system. This book was rough, there’s a lot of misery and unhappiness here. At the same time, there’s a lot to unpack about how the transition was handled, what happened, and how it explains Russia today. I really appreciated it. 

John Allison, Bad Machinery (1 – 6 and Giant Days (1 – 4)

John Allison tops the sheer number of books I read in 2018. Scary Go Round was one of my favorite webcomics, and I wanted to give his newer stuff a try. All winter, I kept myself cozy with John Allison’s continuing stories in Tackleford with Bad Machinery. Bad Machinery follows boy and girl detective groups, as they tackle selkies, aliens, and serial arsonists, as well as the struggles against puberty and general school issues. Alison’s writing style is just great, so dry and funny. His work can be unexpectedly emotional, as he experiments with character pairings, their growth, the elderly, and more. This is great work, and I’m eagerly awaiting the last three series to get published. 

Giant Days takes characters we met in Scary Go Round, and sends them off to college.
It has a different feel because John Allison isn’t also illustrating it. It’s a little more colorful, cartoony, and real, not quite like Allison’s usual stretchy and sketchy palette. It took me a little while to adjust, but it’s great stuff. 

Monstress, by Marjorie Liu (Vol 1 – 3)
Monstress was one of my favorite books from last year, and this year I caught up on the next few books. Taking place in a very stylized world rooted in Japanese mythology, humans, animal spirits, and their mixed-children battle for the right to exist. There’s also some literal giant ghost gods wandering around. I re-read the first graphic novel, and there’s so much detail, it holds up well to additional reads. The books are lushly illustrated, creating an imaginative world that I desperately want to spend more time in.

Kushiel’s Dart, by Jacqueline Carey
This was the turning point for my year. This was Maggie’s book club selection. I wound up really liking this. It was was like a better Game of Thrones. A mediaeval world with light magic (more like fate and prophecy, with one or two exceptions), our main character, a consort to the rich and powerful, swept up in the thick of things by political machinations, sold into slavery, who tricks her way back into the kingdom to help save the day. I found this very readable, and it was so much more interesting that what I had mostly been reading during the beginning of the year. It made me want to have more fun reading. 

Men at Arms, by Terry Pratchett
This is probably the Pratchett that people have been talking about all this time. I tried reading Terry Pratchett many years ago, but started at the beginning, and couldn’t find a grove in his books. I know friends who swear by the Night’s Watch subsection of Discworld, and wanting something lighter toward the end of the year, I sprang for this. This book was written in 1993, and feels like it could have been written a few years ago. Pratchett gets to the heart of racism and discrimination, especially within a police force. I found it compelling, funny, and interesting.

Circe, by Madeline Miller
This was Charlotte’s book club book, and one of the more recent books we’ve read. I’m glad we opted for something recent. The story is essentially Circe’s life story, told from her perspective. I actually wasn’t as familiar with Circe (I confused her with Calypso), so this book proved to be surprising over and over again. The writing was really beautiful, evocative, and the story was strongly paced. Totally recommend

Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson is one of my favorite authors, but this massive tome had sat on my shelf for years. I tried reading this several years ago, but gave up after 100 pages because I couldn’t quite get the math it was trying to talk about. This time, I got it. This self-contained book gets into some heady stuff about existence, parallel worlds, and the ability of math to communicate complex ideas, while managing to be drolly funny and exciting.

The Art of Gathering, by Priya Parker
Staehli got this for my birthday, because I had been talking about my idea of how people congregate, and what affects how and why people are able to congregate. This non-fiction book was more about the details of event/party planning, but was still fascinating to read about the formal pieces of bringing people together. A little self-helpy, but I liked it.

Fiction:

Kill Creek, by Scott Thomas
A tight horror novel with a fair amount of a meta-twist about horror novelists staying in a haunted house. Interesting, though all of the female authors were poorly described, especially the only female author. Wanted to be a screenplay, it felt. A Book-Club Book.

Barkskins, by Annie Proulx
This went much faster than I was expecting, and was quite good. It tells the story of America through the history of plundering its forests, and the idea of forest management. The novel follows to very different families, including one primarily of Native descent across the Canadian/America border. The book is realistic about what has actually happened to America’s virgin forests. I was really impressed, and liked it a great deal. An Indiespensible Book.

Sphinx, by Anne Garreta
An experimental book about two lovers that does not identify either by any gender pronouns. Translated from French (Where this is supposed to have been incredibly difficult, since its a gendered language). This didn’t seem as groundbreaking to me now, 30 years later with many different types of literature have since explored the different trans and LGBTQ narratives. 

Exit West, by Mohsin Hamad
This was so, so good in the moment. I picked it up for the Tournament of Books. A small, sensitive novel about the current refugee crisis that was incredibly moving story about place, faith, identity, and trauma. However, looking back, this book did not stick with me through the year. It felt like a fable, a beautiful jewel, but somehow didn’t make as much of a long-lasting impact. 

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
This was okay, a twist on the Snow White fairy tale until it was revealed that our closest thing to a villain, the abusive dad of Boy was trans or at least gender non-conforming. That really was not handled well. A Book Club Book.

A Murder of Quality, by John Le Carre
I really liked The Spy Who Came In From the Cold when I read it years ago. I got the first two books to learn more about the characters who appeared in that novel, but only got around to reading them much, much later. Except…none of those characters really appear in these books. This was totally servicable. Better than the first book, and you could really tell Le Carre hated British private schools. Late last year, I learned about them on Twitter, and they seemed abominable. So, very warranted!

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
George Saunders short stories are renowned for good reasons. His first novel is on brand: weird, poetic, moving and scatalogical both. Not my favorite though, but still good.

Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris
This was interesting, a bunch of actions and material that has been foregrounded by adaptations of Hannibal Lecter is backgrounded here. This seems like a sequel to a book that was never written. Fascinating! A book club book.

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee
I took my time with this one, and it was so, so good, though filled with a fair amount of misery. The story of a family of Korean immigrants in Japan over three generations. With this novel, I got the chance to explore something that I had never explored before, and was relevant. And, I could talk to Staehli about! She confirmed that the Korean’s experience in Japan is not…great.

Universal Harvester, by John Darnielle
This was not as thrilling as I thought it would be, and is more of a story about loss and mothers, and the weird things we do to help cope with those things. It is about cults though. Nothing special. 

Play It As It Lays, by Joan Didion
This was depressing! Well written and depressing. My second Joan Didion book, I think I prefer her non-fiction.

American Knees, by Shawn Wong
Good, sexy, complicated. A self-described beach read that I read on the beach! Also about identity, especially Asian identity and mixed-race identity.

My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante
I heard all about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, and was curious. I traded in some books to Third Place Books, and picked this up. It was a bildungsroman, but also sort of claustrophobic in that none of the characters seem to be able to escape the crippling poverty. Sly, with interesting characters. I’m not sure I’ll pursue this story through the rest of the novels.

This Is How It Always Is, by Laurie Frankel
Both very interesting, mostly well written, and somewhat problematic. Explores a variety of trans topics super well, while also being told very much from a place of upper-middle class privilege. Also, a very white book that literally has a magical person of color. There are definite elements to like in this book, but detractors too. A book club book.

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
I learned about the Vietnam War in history class, and the American perspective through a variety of narrative fiction films. I learned about some from the Vietnamese students I met at work. But I’ve never read about the Vietnam perspective, and The Sympathizer attempts to rectify that. Nominally about an assistant to a South Vietnamese General, the book expands to include Vietnamese diaspora in California following the war, the developing community there, the American story around Vietnam, the resistance efforts, and divided loyalties along the way. Powerful book. 

The Last Report of the Miracles of Little No Horse, by Louise Erdich
I liked this more than I thought I would. I’m not a religious person, so I tend to avoid stories about faith, but our Book Club chose this story about a woman living as a male priest on a reservation. Lyrical, full of moments both earthy and divine, while also archiving the various injustices perpetrated against Native peoples. I quite liked this.

Undermajordomo Minor, by Patrick DeWitt
My book club read the Sisters Brothers ages ago, and I remember hearing good things about DeWitt’s follow up about a teen who takes a job a far-away castle run by a madman. Our teen falls in love, things happen. I really didn’t like this at all. The main character was a weasel of a man, there’s a weird terrible ending, and it’s just all no good.

Notes of a Crocodile, by Qiu Miaojin
I really enjoyed my first few encounters with the New York Review of Books classics imprint. I soured a little on some of the selections – Kingsley Amis isn’t my jam, and had a similarly mixed experience here. I recognize that Taiwan just legalized being LGBTQ just recently, so Taiwanese LGBTQ “fiction” is important. However, reading the introduction to this book kind of spoiled it to me, since it’s based on the authors journals. The book was published posthumously, and it’s not difficult to read some real struggles and difficulties with mental health into the narrative. Groundbreaking, heartbreaking, and ultimately not my cup of tea.

Sci-Fi and Fantasy

Black Powder War, by Naomi Novik
I started the Temeraire series in 2017, and picked it back up in 2018. It continues to be enjoyable reading, though the first book is the best, I think. I really appreciated its commitment to history. 

Empire of Ivory, by Naomi Novik
The fourth book in the Temeraire series. This one didn’t seem quite as deep, but history changed again. Very little colonialism in this book, in part because of the presence of dragons. A very fascinating view of Africa, where they throw off the yoke the European colonizers. I liked that. 

A Victory of Eagles, by Naomi Novik
The alternate history continues, this time with a successful invasion by Napoleon into Britain. However, folks are ready, and the general course of history continues. Interesting problems afoot in future books, which I hope to get to in 2019.

Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer
This was good, and interesting, but not necessarily great. In a world ravaged  by genetic editing (which has culminated in an enormous flying bear), Rachel attempts to survive in a wasteland. She ultimately discovers a new kind of life, balled Borne, that can learn and mimic life. This book had the possibility to be great, but it diverged from the heart of the novel, which is the relationship between Rachel and Borne into something else.

The Best of Connie Willis: Award Winning Short Stories, by Connie Willis
I bought this when we went to see Connie Willis read at the Seattle Public Library. I had read some,  but finally decided to complete it this year. I liked some stories better than others. Essentially, her time travel novels and stories tend to be my favorites.

The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien
After reading Kushiel’s Dart, and wanting to read more fantasy. Something I wanted to try again is re-reading Lord of the Rings. I read the books in high school, before the movies came out, and remember them being much more stiff, almost Shakespearean. Reading them now, they’re structured more like Beowulf, sort of. Re-reading these, it’s more apparent to me how faithful the movies are to the book. Re-reading it, with a few exceptions, the scenes have replaced my visions of the book in my memory. 

The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The second LOTR book has its ups: Ents, Faramir, and Helms Deep. Contrasting, the Frodo stuff can drag soooo much. I lost steam after this one, and feeling pressed by other books, didn’t finish the trilogy. 

Palimpsest, by Catherynne Valente
One of my favorite books last year was by Valente, so when I wanted something to read quick, I turned to one of her earlier works, about a dream city (or the real one?). People in our world can only access the city if they’ve slept with someone who has access. You can only visit a particular neighborhood, its map tattooed on your skin, when you sleep. You can visit other neighborhoods by sleeping with other people. You can see some of the things that I admire and enjoy in Valente’s novels in their early stages here: romantic obsession and sacrifice, playing with genres, her familiarity with mental illness, but this never coalesces into something more than an interesting idea.

The Last Continent, by Terry Pratchett
Later in the summer, I picked up this book out of a Free Little Library. For me, this is was a nice breath of fresh air. This is where my Terry Pratchett re-read started. A cute look at Australia, with some satirical elements.

Guards, Guards! By Terry Pratchett
To finish out my year of reading, my friend Aaron loaned me a passel of his Terry Pratchett books. I started with the predecessor to Men at Arms, when Vimes is at his drunkest, and there are dragons. The seeds of cleverness are there, and the Nights Watch is my favorite.

Equal Rites, by Terry Pratchett
This book is the beginning of the Witches novels. Supposedly, I head read this book before, but I don’t remember it all. I liked this one a fair amount, about a witch born into a wizard’s power, and working on being accepted into the Unseen University. It’s a nice start. 

The Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett
Around Christmas, I figured I’d start with something seasonal. This is a novel in the Death series, and is enjoyably meta. I liked the general conceit, even when it ended in a  slightly different place than expected. I want to check out more of the Death novels later.

Graphic Novels

Matt’s Fraction’s Hawkeye (Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon, Little Hits, LA Woman, Rio Bravo)
I always liked Hawkeye as a character and this is really interesting take on him: less openly pure than Captain America, just a very talented man trying to do good. I like this little world quite a bit, especially the minimalism of the design of New York. And pizza dog. Always enjoy pizza dog. Later in the series, there are some nice interludes to develop Kate, the other Hawkeye. As the series goes along, it feels a little less focused, like she should be able to do more than she has, though she is out of her element. Overall, the series ended okay, I think the beginning two books were better. The resolution seemed clear, and maybe a little rushed?

Matt Fraction’s Sex Criminals (Vols 1 – 3)
Technically an ongoing series about a small group of people who can stop time when they orgasm. This starts funny, but also poignant, exploring how sexual hangups come to be, how people deal with them both alone and with partners. The later books dives deeper into therapy, sex work, and the weird developments that occur when people who can stop time with their orgasms exist. The third novel feels like it loses steam compared to the first two volumes, where people’s explorations were put on hold.

March, Vol 1, by John Lewis
I have heard many praises to the March series, and found a copy on Martin Luther King Day in a Free Little Library. I picked it up, and started reading. Finished on the day of the Women’s March, six days later. It’s a great read, tells me history about a person I didn’t know and gives me more details about the broader civil rights movement. Totally recommended.

Fatale, by Ed Brubaker
I don’t remember how this got on my to-read list. It’s very much detective fiction with a Lovecraftian bent. It’ reminds me a little of Hellboy, but it super leans into its tropes knowingly, and not always in a fun or good way.

My Favorite Thing is Monsters, by Emil Ferris
This was really good, and a nice breather, a reminder that not all graphic novels are superhero books or little witty British slice of life mysteries. This is a diary-style graphic novel that is part murder mystery, part coming-out tale, part growing up in poor parts of Chicago. Our protagonist loves to draw her life, and classic Universal Monsters stuff. There was some horror, but some great autobiographical stuff in here (although fictionalized). The second book comes out this year. 

Rocket Girl, by Brandon Montclare
Staehli got me this for our first anniversary. It’s a fun and pulpy story about a rocket-powered police officer teenager.

Non-Fiction

Wine Wars, by Mike Veseth
Nick and Megan heard all the good things I had to say about Cork Dork, and loaned me this book, by a former professor from our Alma Mater. This book was all about wine economics, which was interesting in its own way in shaping wine history, and touched on similar themes to Cork Dork, but just I liked Cork Dork more. Still not bad for someone wanting to learn more about that side of wine though.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion
I liked these short articles more than Play It As It Lays, but I could definitely see the same connections of the authors. 

Taste of Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Empire, by Lizzie Collingham
The exploration of Britains changing diet during its empire period. Collingham does a good job interrogating how many dietary changes came about, and how most of them were actually pretty bad for people, and were largely tied into economics, and issues of scaling appropriately. It’s an informative read, but unfortunately it didn’t feel like it built to much a formal conclusion. A Book Club Book. 

Last Train to Paradise, by Les Standiford
This had sat on my to-read list for some time, essentially about one of the five richest men in America inventing the state we now know as Florida, by installing a train route to Key West. A phenomenal task that he simply threw money at until the problems went away. The train line stood for over thirty years before a hurricane destroyed a big chunk of the bridges. The entire effort was predicated on the idea that ships would flock to Key West as the first port of call on the East Coast after exiting the newly build Panama Canal, but that never happened. The rail road was never re-built, but this is a pretty entertaining story nonetheless.

And that’s it!

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2018 Movies in Review

January 6, 2019

When I look back on my year of watching movies, and look for movies that moved me, challenged my own expectations, or surprised me, the films that come to mind are smaller movies, movies about relationships, and what other people can mean to us, and what we mean to other people.

This year, I watched roughly a movie a week, though looking at the actual dates, my viewing habits were hardly regular. It was feast or famine, or in the parlance of our times, bingeing. There are movies I enjoyed watching, that were an enjoyable way to pass the time, and that’s sometimes what I want from a movie. Yet, those hardly stick with me. The films I enjoyed the most this year were sometimes work, or sometimes required me to not bring pre-judged expectations. Which was difficult! I struggled a lot this year with managing my expectations of myself, and my expectations of what I should be watching and reading. I’ve been tracking the movies I watch for ten years now, and I thought I had my taste dialed in: I don’t especially like horror films, westerns, or musicals. I’ve historically avoided dramas though appreciated them usually when I saw them. I felt I had a blind spot among the so-called “cinema canon,” even with some of my film studies background.

After writing up last year’s list, I wanted to address some of the film canon issues. To that end, in January, I signed up for an Ingmar Bergman festival through the Seattle Art Museum. Every Thursday, I thought I would go to their theater and watch a Bergman flick, which I knew by reputation to be emotionally cold, religious dramas. But I’d seen Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, and knew the mythical portrayal of death, and how Bergman said that making the Seventh Seal cured him of his fear of death. I wanted to be similarly cured of my fear of death, I wanted absolution that can sometimes be found in art. I tried to find a friend to go with me to these movies, but no one was interested. I went alone to four of the nine films, and only enthusiastically liked Persona, Bergman’s most circular, avant garde film about dissociative identities, female identity, and mental health. The rest I had opinions on, but no one to really talk to about them. I found myself wondering at the end of the little experiment then, what was I trying to prove, and to whom? No one cared if I watched these movies or not, only me. I felt like I was trying to live up to some idea of a film buff, but rather than giving myself credit for the things I enjoyed and was knowledgeable about, like animation and action films, I wasn’t spending time celebrating those parts of myself. I was stubbornly trying to keep all my options open, to be extremely knowledgeable about all kinds of movies, even when I didn’t especially like all of them.

To me, this is indicative of my year in media, be it television, movies, or books: Am I having fun or learning something? I am spending my free time reading and watching these things, and if I don’t find the thing in itself pleasing or informational or fascinating, should I keep doing it? Why was I watching these things?

It’s a cultural version of the fear of missing out, or FOMO. What if *this* movie will help me come to some realization about myself or the world? What if *this* becomes my new favorite movie? But that’s no way to approach any kind of media, because it assumes value on the work before accepting the work for what it is. I am not appreciating the work on its own terms, and therefore will find myself constantly disappointed except in the rare instances where some magical piece of media lives up the absurd expectations that I put on it.

This is a problem backed into my initial approach of tracking all of my media: I wanted to be culturally literate, to not miss out, to be a part of whatever conversation was happening, rather than approaching these works of art on their own terms, and charting my journey over the past year. It was a big realization for me, and one I’m still trying to come to terms with in my approach to films and books. This upcoming year, I’ll try to re-examine my own expectations, to take more risks with the genres of films I watch, and manage my own expectations.

Movies I Loved This Year

If you haven’t seen any of these, I would recommend each and every one.

Phantom Thread really stuck with me for its gorgeous visual tableaus, and a totally bonkers storyline. I saw it on MLK Day, after going for a walk, and was glad to see it on the big screen. The emotions here are simmering until they come to a roar.

Crazy Rich Asians was probably some of the most fun that I had in a theater this year. Romantic comedies can be fun! Also, the music really makes this pop. Staehli and I saw this with friends in theaters.

Night is Short, Walk On Girl was a celebration of living life. The ending is a little weird, but I really appreciated this long, extended celebration of friendship and love. We caught this as part of a special roadshow right after Crazy Rich Asians. 

The Witch was creepy, good, and gave me nightmares. It was effective, and had some gorgeous cinematography. Staehli and I watched this as part of a series of spooky movies to get ready for Halloween.

Widows was an excellent genre masterpiece, with effective filmmaking the blends a life of crime with themes of racial identity, representation in politics, and much more that really give you food for thought in this whole thing. I loved it. I’ve always wanted to see a Steve McQueen movie, and his earlier films have been on my to-watch list for years.

I re-watched Blade Runner 2049, and that was also one of my favorite things that I saw this year. It’s not really like Blade Runner at all, and the cinematography, and the music. This is such a solid film.

Dawson City, Frozen Time This is a documentary about a small town in Alaska, that was the center of the Alaska Gold Rush, right after film was invented. A lot of things got shipped up there and then were buried (so they wouldn’t spontaneously combust, as old film was wont to do). When they were constructing something, they dug it all back up and recovered several lost-films. This exploration of film and American history is essential for anyone who likes the history of old film.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse The last movie I saw in 2018, but easily one of the best. It was funny, it was self-aware, it was gorgeously animated, it had heart, it made narrative sense, it had small twists and big twists, I loved this. See it on the big screen!

Everything Else I Saw This Year

Gentleman Prefer Blondes was snappier than I expected, and a worth-while star making role for Marilyn Monroe. Fans of old musicals would like this, I think.

Summer with Monika was part of my Ingmar Bergman viewing, and it was confusing. Sumptuous and sexy while also being a moral tale that may be saying that the poor are dumb and too fertile.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 had some pretty good emotional grounding with dad stuff, but ultimately did become the heroes fighting a giant blue ball of energy.

The Shape of Water was a good fairy-tale from Guillermo Del Toro. I’m surprised this won the Best Picture Oscar, though go Guillermo Del Toro.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (re-watch). A re-watch of this in theaters actually really helped my initial impression of the movie. Again, with expectations: once I took it on its own terms, this was really good.

The Seventh Seal has been on my to-watch list forever, and when I finally saw it, I didn’t come to any new conclusions about death that I didn’t already have. Good, influential, but not groundbreaking as I had hoped.

Black Panther Staehli and I saw this for Valentines Day, and were rewarded with quality entertainment. Some of the better story beats, although the ending fight had stakes, the CGI-ness of it wasn’t so good.

The Virgin Spring More medieval moralizing from Bergman. Don’t rape and murder people!

Persona is an intense dissection the female psyche, with close-ups, cross-cutting, and long shots to emphasize the pressures women face. I really liked this.

Red Dragon We read the book for Book Club, so we watched this. It was as fine as it ever was. I liked Edward Norton less than I remembered.

Annihilation I am a big fan of the Southern Reach books, and I appreciate the weird tone this movie took with the source material, which sort of matches with the book. The whole movie is strange, gorgeous, and also slightly off-putting(in a good way). I really liked it, but it was also not quite as engaging as I hoped it would be.

Pacific Rim: Uprising Staehli is a huge Pacific Rim fan, and this sequel…did not live up to expectations. There were two movies at play here, and they couldn’t quite agree what kind of tone to play with one another. Our viewing experience was also slightly strange in that the showing we picked had Chinese subtitles, and a very loud Chinese audience.

I Am Dragon A Russian fairy-tale romance with dragons and shadow puppets. Actually not terrible.

Shakespeare in Love This was so much worse than I remembered, and I am sad to think it beat Saving Private Ryan at the Oscars.

Your Name This was a really gorgeous, funny, great anime about a time-traveling romance.

Captain America: Civil War Finally caught up on other Marvel movies this year. The airport fight is fun and good, and its own little mini-movie. The rest is…fine.

Baby Driver I typically love Edgar Wright films, but this one didn’t grab me as much. It was kinetic and good, with excellent music, but I just…didn’t feel as though I was invested in the lead or the romance as much as I should have been.

Deadpool 2 Funny, profane, and a pretty good dumb movie. Would recommend with drunks, or as a hangover movie.

Ant-Man I loved how low-stakes this was for a Marvel movie. Michael Peña steals the scenes he’s in.

The Little Hours Re-watch with our friend Mal, and about as funny as I remembered. It hangs together a little better than I remember.

Ocean’s 8 Did they need to make this an Ocean’s Movie? Why not just make it a ladies’ heist movie with the same cast? It was enjoyable, though they really underused Awkafina, as we learned in Crazy Rich Asians.

Jurassic World This wasn’t very good. I guess I’m glad Chris Pratt is finding work? But this just…felt inessential.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle This was better than I thought it was going to be, though totally a kids movie. Jack Black is great, and Karen Gillian is a big goof.

Mission Impossible III This was super straightforward as a McGuffin plot, and easily outclassed by the other movies in this franchise.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol This was really good, and is probably among my favorites in the series. I appreciated the addition of Jeremy Renner, and all of the crazy stunts. Very much an amazing action movie.

Mission Impossible: Fallout Amazing stunts, car chases, engaging villains, positive stakes, and they even interwove plot points from the other movies. This was well worth seeing in the theaters. I saw it on my birthday.

Jurassic Park Wali had us over for a back-yard movie for Labor Day Weekend. This movie totally still holds up. Excellent construction, with themes that pay off.

Gremlins II This became the basis for our halloween costumes: Staehli went as Gizmo, I went as a corporate raider. Watched as a sort-of Halloween movie.

Green Room Neither Staehli nor I are much of horror film fans (mostly because we hate jump scares), but we crafted a list of horror movies we were interested in seeing. Green Room was one of mine, and this movie was a good thriller about a band battling neo-nazis in Oregon. Gruesome, a little funny, and a nice little film. Less horror than thriller though.

Hellboy Hellboy is when I first really fell in love with Guillermo Del Toro as a director, and I still really like the ambling pace of this movie, with its ludicrous world filled with deep cavernous spaces. As a kid, I liked our audience surrogate, though as an adult, I don’t like John. I want more Hellboy, especially at the end.

Nosferatu (1922) Part of our Halloween movie watching efforts, this was a re-watch for me, but new for Staehli. The version we watched was all in black and white, not with the color plates. I missed them, because I felt like they really did add atmosphere. This wasn’t quite as creepy and weird as I remembered, it just came across as strangely paced, and it just…ends.

Shadow of the Vampire Part of a double-feature with the above movie, this movie supposes that the vampire is real (since the elaborate vampire makeup from Nosferatu was supposed to be painful to apply, and take forever, Max Schrek just dealt with it, and wore it all the time), and goes from there. Some really strange performances in this one, but Willem Defoe as Schrek really steals the show.

House A strange 1977 film from Japan. Not quite scary, more goofy with strange editing. A campy-good time.

Halloween (1978) Neither Staehli nor I had ever seen any of the movies in the Halloween series. This was effective, and creepy, and tense. Carpenter isn’t one of my favorite filmmakers, so I really felt he benefited from Debra Hill’s touch here.

Venom The memes were too good, so Staehli and I had to go see this in theater. It…wasn’t super good, but was fun to see Tom Hardy chew some scenes.

Psycho This was creepy, effective, and just as good as a classic should be.

Spotlight This was really good, though I’m still sort of surprised it won Best Picture at the Oscars. I love seeing Rachel McAdams get good work, and also love seeing Liev Schriber get to play nerdy roles, instead of big old tough guys. This worked in a lot of different ways for me.

Go Not as good as I remembered at all. It’s technically a Christmas movie, but it’s only the last third that has anything to sell it on.

Tokyo Godfathers A fun Christmas movie about miracles. I never thought a bunch about Japan’s homeless population, though this was a clever way to highlight them, the meaning of Christmas, and the ways in which we build temporary families around us. Funny, and affecting.

Jingle All the Way Not as terrible as I remembered, but not as fun as it could be. Arnold doesn’t get to do much that’s fun, and Sinbad only gets to be evil.

Suspiria Ugh. This is seen as a big classic in horror, and while visually interesting, there’s not much there in terms of story. I was bored, and not terribly frightened by the visuals. I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.

Game Night This flew under my radar until late fall when a bunch of critics talked about it as a sneaky broad comedy. I like Rachel McAdams, and especially love her getting to be funny (since I really loved her early funny and dramatic work in Slings and Arrows). This was pretty good actually! It doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t: it’s broad, concise, but also precise in its machinations or integrating games into the situations. A solid comedy.

Final Stats and Figures

This year I saw 51 movies, of which 12 were re-watches. I saw 18 movies in theaters (many more than in previous years), though 4 were Ingmar Bergman films as part of that festival, so it was a little different. 12 movies were international, with chunks from Bergman (from Sweden) or Anime flicks from Japan. I saw 4 animated films, though many of these were my favorite from the year, which is interesting to reflect on. I saw only one documentary, but liked it a great deal.

In the next year, I’ll probably aim for the same number of films, and I’ll continue to pick away at my to-watch list, though I’ve worked to strip that of things that I feel like I “should” watch rather than things I am genuinely interested in. We’ll see how it goes, in a year.

2017 Films in Review

January 1, 2018
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2017 turned out to be a year of reckoning for the movie industry. Certain aspects of movies have always been associated with sexism: the casting couch, the male gaze of the camera, the emphasis on sexiness and youth. The movie industry seemed like this morass, where good things could happen, but the system seemed a bit broken. We finally found out how broken. In October, Harvey Weinstein exposed as a monster, exposing himself to hundreds of stars and potential stars, with allegations of sexual assault and rape. Once seen as an immovable object in Hollywood, Harvey Weinstein has been toppled and cast aside. That revelation helped trigger an outpouring of other stories, allegations, and accompanying firings including Matt Lauer and Brett Ratner. Maybe the revolution will finally come for Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, whose actions have long been public and known.

I decided to read no white men in 2017, but didn’t set myself any goals for movie watching. The means of production are a little different for movies, and just fewer films directed by women or men of color are made. Despite knowing, and arguing about the lack of quality representation of women in film (see Bechdel test, and the other possible new variations), my fiance Staehli is much better about attempting to reconcile her watching habits with her ethics than I am. That is something I’d like to do better in 2018 is watch ethically.

2017 Breakdown

Overall, 2017 is a year where I found myself watching more films than television, the reverse of 2016. This year, I saw 12 movies in theaters (a standard amount for me). I rewatched 12 films this year, some requisite holiday films, others as comfort films. I saw 11 international films (mostly from Japan or Korea), 7 animated films, and 2 documentaries.

I credit a new-found taste in movies on two developments: the realization that I could rent movies for free from my local library, and using Letterboxd, a movie review website and app. One of the reasons I originally got into Netflix years and years ago was the lure of the queue. In the queue, I had a list of hundreds of movies and TV shows that I was interested in watching that I could re-sort at will. I would get 3 DVDs at a time and burn through them quickly. But as Netflix’s focus changed from DVDs to streaming, with price changes, and TV and books competing for my time, I switched away from DVDs in 2013, reasoning that I could go to my local movie store. Then the two closest to me closed, and my streaming queue got buried under Netflix’s push for its own promotions for its original movies and shows. Letterboxd effectively gave me back a list, reminded me that I am interested in film history, and how films are in conversation with one another, because filmmakers watch other filmmakers. I tried to explore more this year, and expect I will explore more next year too as I use my newfound tool to educate myself better about films.

Favorites

My favorite films from this year moved me, and are the reason I chase movie stories. I realize that I do still like seeing films in theaters because it does force me to turn off outside influences, that I can watch the movie a little better. However, there were still movies I saw on my couch that kept me riveted for hours.

At the beginning of the year, I found wonderment, joy, and sly comedy in Tampopo, a film nominally about ramen, but also a secret Western, and an exploration of Japanese culture in the early 80s. Staehli and I saw a special SIFF engagement in a lovingly restored 4k print by the Criterion Collection. The plot is loosely about a woman attempting to turn her small ramen shop into a powerhouse, but there are a variety of other bizarre sketch pieces that help make this movie memorable.

The movie that I heard the most about from my friends first was Get Out, which I did manage to see in theaters. The clever, astonishing satire of that film still leaves an imprint, especially the turn at the end, which was one of my favorite “what the fuck” moments of the year. I also felt a bit of shame as I could see small aspects of myself and my politics in the clever excoriation of systemic racism by Jordan Peele.

I felt astonishment, and a small piece of my own personal history click into place when I finished the monumental piece of documentary filmmaking that was OJ: Made in America. My grandmother and Aunt lived in LA for all of the 1990s, and I remember going to visit during the trial, and everyone watching the news day in and day out that year. The amazing ESPN 30-for-30 documentary “June 17, 1994” helped show me that the OJ Bronco chase effectively helped create reality TV as we know it now, but this seven hour documentary puts his whole story into context, especially Los Angeles’ very robust history of racist police tactics. I didn’t understand the history of the place where my aunt and grandmother lived, but now I feel like I understand it so much better.

This year, my friends finally caught onto a strange habit of mine: filling narrative gaps. For films that exist broadly in the background of popular culture, but I haven’t seen, I attempt to bridge what I know into a semblance of a narrative. When my book club discovered that I had not seen Dirty Dancing, we had a movie night to rectify this. They asked me what I thought it was about. I said:

There is a dancing contest that Baby (apparently that is her name) is gonna do with her boyfriend, but she doesn’t know how to dance, so goes to Patrick Swayze, who has to teach her. He is lithe and erotic, so she has feelings for him, but then gets accidentally pregnant (I guess?) and realizes she doesn’t want shitty boyfriend, she wants Patrick Swayze. She gets an abortion right before the big dance competition, gets snubbed by shitty boyfriend, Patrick Swayze calls foul (the infamous Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner! line), she and Patrick Swayze dramatically dance for the sure thrill of dancing (take that competition), and they dance off into the sweaty sunset together.

This is very wrong. But I knew Dirty Dancing was a romantic film, a film about abortion, and featured a dancing contest, and the famous line “No one puts Baby in the corner” (for the longest time, I was never sure who Baby referred to, Patrick Swayze or the girl). It turns out I was wrong on many counts. Dirty Dancing is a fun film, that is yes secretly about abortion, but also class warfare. In terms of today’s films, the men are allowed to express a range of emotions, instead of just being stoic. The music is also A+. My friends later discovered that I haven’t seen many of the classical musicals like The Sound of Music or Les Miserables, so they recorded me espousing what I think these movies are about. I don’t know what they plan to do with these videos.

Speaking of dancing, another surprising movie for me this year was Magic Mike XXL. Staehli had a viewing of this for her birthday, and that film was a movie filled with joy, male affirmation, and an amazing end sequence like none other I’ve ever seen. This movie made me want to get a pair of sweats because Channing Tatum wore them so well. I think this movie would benefit from re-watching as well on my part. Another discovery of mine this year is the excellent online magazine of film writing, Bright Wall/Dark Room. They published a great FAQ about the film.

Another film that was just plain fun to watch over the summer was The BoxtrollsI like Laika’s films, and admire the dedication it takes to make claymation films. The Boxtrolls is easily my favorite of their films, an detailed and odd film that nevertheless is funny, has heart, good villains, and a whimsical story that is fantastical and grounded both. I know some people may not favor this film, but boy did I ever connect with it, and like, and the sheer originality.

The latter part of my summer movie watching got more serious. I finally saw Princess Mononoke. This is Staehli’s (and a number of other friends) favorite Miyazaki film. I knew pretty much nothing going into this film, and was transfixed by story with many heroes and villains. It has many of the same themes of environmentalism that runs through his work, but has no easy villain. Instead it asks thorny questions about the price of modernity and human civilization, the rural way of life, acceptance of others, and mystery in the world. It’s both a very controlled film, and a somewhat messy film, intentionally so. I was really surprised by this one, and made me reflect on how I think about Miyazaki’s films as being lighthearted, when in reality, most are quite serious.

I finally committed to seeing a film that I have been meaning to watch since I was in college: The Battle of the AlgiersI listen to The Next Picture Show podcast, a movie podcast run by former A.V. Club movie reviewers that left to start the wonderful film site The Dissolve, which went under in 2015. All four live in Chicago and started a podcast to keep up. They pair older films with current releases to talk about how the films are in conversation. They paired this film with Detroit, and gave me an excuse to finally watch Battle of the Algiers. It’s a tremendous film about rebellion and revolution, exploring what people are willing and able to do in the name of what they think is right. This film tracks the Algerian independence movement against French colonizers in the 1950s, a good decade before France would let Algeria rule independently. It’s a difficult film, but riveting, with propulsive music, and totally different than nearly any film I’d seen this year at all.

A movie that I didn’t necessarily like, but certainly made me think was Bullets Over Broadway, and god damn Woody Allen. I think this is the film where Woody Allen finally froze. Bullets Over Broadway is a star-studded comedy set in 1920s Broadway. John Cusack is a playwright trying to produce an important piece of art, but keeps questioning how talented he actually is. The bodyguard for a mob boss’s moll, starring in the play, has very constructive and salient advice for how to make the play better. There are many shenanigans, but thematically Allen is interested in trying to explore what makes a person (although for him specifically, a man) an artist, how separate is art from the artist, and why is art satisfying for us? But the neuroses never settle, I think because Allen doesn’t know, he never answers the question for himself. Instead, he has become paralyzed with indecision about the matter, he can only track the rhythms and patterns of becoming an artist and becoming frustrated with the process, he can’t make up his mind, and thus his work has stagnated. I think Woody Allen has a sharp sense of humor, and wants to tackle big themes, but he’s also a rampant sexual abuser with a penchant for young girls, and monomaniacal.

The fall featured a few big sci-fi movies, but the one that I felt the most attached to immediately was Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049. I had only ever seen the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner, and to prepare for Blade Runner 2049, Staehli showed me the Final Cut of Blade Runner. They cleaned up the film visually, brightening the picture, which to me, makes the film less dreamy. Because of the worse film stock in The Director’s Cut, the background is blurrier, hazier. As a result, I remembered Blade Runner as being dreamy and moody as a callback to classic noir films, while being a detective story about tracking down replicants. In the final cut of the film, when everything is more precise, the plot snaps back to the foreground, and the film seems less moody and more of a straightforward mystery. It’s an excellent film, but I found it lacking just a little of the ambiguity that I remembered in my first viewing.

However, those memories stuck with me for Blade Runner 2049, which I thought was a great update and exploration. I liked Villeneuve’s interpretation of the Blade Runner universe, I liked the world building, the plotting, and I totally bought K’s journey hook, line, and sinker. I think the film has some really interesting things to say about originality, creating memorable experiences, the beauty of ephemerality, and how we remember and experience the world, and choose to make meaning out of it and our experiences in the world. Both Staehli and I were blown away, and walked out of the street a little shaken, trying to comprehend what we’d just seen, and spent the next hour talking about this film. I think a big screen is definitely the way to see this film. The score is very sumptuous too.

I also made time for smaller movies this fall. Swiss Army Man is a weird little film. You may have heard of it as the “Daniel Radcliffe plays a farting corpse” movie, which is both not wrong, but not entirely right. Daniel Radcliffe’s corpse doesn’t just fart, but also pumps water, finds humanity, and eventually talks. One of cinema’s pre-eminent weirdos Paul Dano tries to teach him about life beyond the particular stretch of wilderness where they find themselves stranded. The movie really commits to its particular strain of weirdness, and carries it through to the end. For a cinematic experience unlike any other, see this film.

I tried to make room for recommendations in films when I can, and someone recommended Spielberg to me. I watched this long, long documentary about the works of Steven Spielberg on the bus ride back from Portland. I came away with a much better understanding of Spielberg as an artist, what he attempts to do, and a better understanding of his transformation. Some movies make more sense and become more personal (The Color Purple, Munich), others are still just strange choices (what is the deal with The Terminal? Why was that movie made?). I would really recommend this movie to someone who wants to know more beyond the common idea that Spielberg is just a sentimental filmmaker. I think the documentary could have dug in more to A.I., but it’s already more than 3 hours long, so I understand that some edits were necessary.

I watched a lot of films on my holiday vacations, but two really hit home with me. Columbus is a film I initially wanted to see at SIFF, but missed out on. I’m sad I didn’t get to see this on the big screen, but pleased that Hulu is carrying in. It’s a great little film set in Columbus, Indiana, an unexpected mecca for modernist architecture. The film stars Haley Lu Richardson as a young high school graduate taking care of her mom. She meets Jin (played by John Cho, who I’ve loved since Harold and Kumar), the son of a famous architecture professor who collapsed and is now in the hospital with a coma. The film explores the nature of devotion, responsibility, and family, as well as place. This a great, quiet film.

The other film was Lady BirdLady Bird wasn’t initially on my radar until it was. I saw it in theaters with Britney and Matt, and was really moved. This is a great film about growing up and high school. I remember the subtle class distinctions, friends finding out you lived in not the greatest part of town, spending time in cafes and diners and other kid friendly places, and having to make do. I think this film is a great character study, and while our protagonist may not have a full arc as a character, her mom definitely does. This film is filled with great acting and great choices. Greta Gerwig was a revelation in Frances Ha, and this movie illustrates she has a ton of potential.

OTHER STUFF

Of course, I saw more movies than that this year. Here are all the others, with short notes.

Hidden Figures, a pretty good movie. Very straight forward but representation matters, and this movie hopefully inspires many more just like it.

Ghost in the Shell, Saw this on the big screen. Reminded me a little of Blade Runner, with a very moody middle. Less obviously philosophical than I was expecting, but very good.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, watched this at home to help celebrate punching Nazis in the face.

The Nice Guys, Ryan Gosling plays smarmy, and Russell Crowe is, well, sort of a nice guy. This was totally ridiculous and a pleasant find on HBO.

The Little Hours, Aubrey Plaza nun-comedy. We saw at SIFF, and ran into my former boss. There was a Q&A with Plaza and the director, and even a party afterward at the Seattle Art Museum. Hilarious and light.

The Handmaiden, A re-watch. Still slippery on re-watching but quicker than I remember. Still a visually lush and moving film.

Napping Princess, an anime film Staehli and I saw at SIFF that I wound up liking more than she did. The visuals were lush, the movie was cute, and I thought the integration between the real world and the fantasy world was clever. The ending is a bit of a mess though.

The Lego Batman Movie was full of surprises, including the surprising sentimentality that exists at the heart of all good Batman stories. This movie joyfully incorporates all of the Batman canon, and steers into the heart of Batman: his relationships with others. I was not expecting to feel feelings at the end of this.

Legally Blonde, Staehli has long championed this film, and we did a Reese Witherspoon double feature with this and wild. Legally Blonde is essentially a sort of mock romantic comedy with an element of a Fairy Tale, but again, representation matters, and this was fun.

Wild, I was a big fan of the book by Cheryl Strayed, but there’s so much that’s internal in the book with Cheryl reflecting back on different parts of her life on the Pacific Crest Trail that the movie tried to put together but it felt a little distant. The middle was the best part, but the beginning and the ending needed more meat to help us care.

Moana, still great music, great animation, great Disney movie.

Ghost, this was way worse than I remembered. We watched this after Dirty Dancing, and man Whoopi Goldberg is the only redeeming part of this movie, and she is great.

The Duke of Burgundy, I was prepared to love this movie. I heard it was a great little secret for film lovers. But man was this film a little too weird for me. It’s nominally about a lesbian BDSM relationship and the struggles of meeting your lover in the middle, but the world is so segregated, it seems like it’s just this weird community of lesbian BDSM couples in the French countryside. I could have really done more with the underpinning of that story, which I think is an important one!, but in the real world.

Oh Hello, on Broadway, I do like John Mulaney and Nick Kroll, but was hesitant to watch this. My friend Josh recommended it, talking about how he watched it three times over the past few months. I gave it a shot, and wound up watching it twice in quick succession. The clever send-ups of Broadway, the specificness of the jokes, it’s catnip for a certain kind of comedy fan.

Jupiter Ascending, this was surprisingly sloppy. Just on a shot composition and story-wise, this was incredibly sloppy in a way that I didn’t expect from the Wachowski’s.

Pacific Rim, still very much Pacific Rim, and still a big dumb monster movie.

The Dark Tower, I think this is the perfect movie for a kid-friendly PG-13 rating. Really made me interested in the Dark Tower series widely. Also, Idris Elba is a pretty good movie dad between this and Pacific Rim.

It Follows, Beautiful cinematography, atmospheric, and well realized horror film. The script doesn’t have a ton of development between the characters in terms of dialogue, but the movie instead leaves the characterization up to the actors and actions they make.

The Host, darker, goofier, and more trenchant satire than I was led to believe. A great monster movie.

Logan Lucky, I didn’t realize how much I missed great caper films until I saw Logan Lucky. Funny, with stakes and great plotting, this was a ton of fun, and I am sad that it didn’t make more money. Soderberg is missed.

Shin Godzilla, Staehli owns the blu-ray version of this movie now. I do think this lost something on the small screen. Something about the big screen helped emphasize Godzilla’s size, grandeur, and menace. Still excellently plotted and fun though.

Julie and Julia, I discovered the Youtube channel Bingeing with Babish early in the year, where Andrew Rea attempts to cook food that appears in television and movies. I made his, that is to say Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon one evening. Staehli brought some to work, and her co-workers were amazed. One of her co-workers lent her this movie, which is the best film adaptation we have of Julia Child’s amazing life. Again, the Julia part of this movie is far superior to the Julie part. I’m glad Amy Adams is getting better work.

Waitress, I started playing Destiny 2, which features the great voice talents of beloved nerd king Nathan Fillion. It turns out that Nathan Fillion has only been in a handful of movies, including this one (which was later turned into a successful Broadway musical). A lot of odd ducks pop up in this one, and it has a tragic backstory about the writer/director. However, it is a staunchly feminist film, and features a great performance by Keri Russel.

The Thing, I’ve been hearing all the good things about John Carpenter’s The Thing for years, the supposed better adaptation to The Thing from Another World (which I saw in college for a film class), but man do I just not really care for John Carpenter films. I find the plotting mundane, the themes basic, and the music dizzy. He just doesn’t do it for me.

John Wick, I had heard great things about John Wick as well, about it being a great modern American action film, and those things were right. Keanu Reeves sells action very well, and the stakes never go too big for this one, they keep it just small enough that it makes sense, and the action scenes are phenomenal.

Thor: Ragnarok, Staehli and I really liked What We Do in the Shadows, and were excited to hear the director for that film, Taika Watiti, was slated to direct the next Thor film. Boy were we ever rewarded. Thor: Ragnarok is silly and great, though the ending isn’t quite as satisfying as it could be, because Marvel gotta Marvel.

Treasure Planet, for some reason, I had heard that Treasure Planet was an inferior Disney animation film, but it’s actually quite a solid take on the Treasure Island myth, with good animation, solid voice acting, and actually quite a compelling villain. I liked it a lot.

Thunderball, I think of Thanksgiving as James Bond season, I think because TNT or TBS used to run the James Bond movies non-stop during November during some formative years. I went to visit Peter and Kate for Thanksgiving, and finally filled in this missing piece of Bond films. This one is water focused, and features the famous man-eating sharks, and some clever derring-do with a boat.

Spider-Man: Homecoming, I hadn’t necessarily been sold on the third variation of Spiderman. Tobey Maguire was missing the scientific acumen that made Spiderman worthwhile, and Andrew Garfield wasn’t quite nerdy enough. Tom Hooper though seems to get him right (in part because he really does look the age, and we don’t have to go through the whole origin story AGAIN). This was pretty satisfying, and they took the Vulture thing seriously, which I really appreciated. Michael Keaton was a much more satisfying Birdman here.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Staehli’s folks DVRed a marathon of the Harry Potter films, and threw the first one on. I remember hating this when I saw it in theaters as a kid, but looking back, it’s not terrible. There are some missing pieces that would have made more sense (a better look at Harry’s life prior to Hogwarts), but it was not the Crime Against Cinema that I remember it as a teenager. I still think it spends too long on Quidditch, but more entertaining than I remember.

The Muppet Christmas Carol, we threw this on while decorating the Christmas tree. I love the Muppets sense of humor, and they treat the Christmas Carol story with an appropriate mixture of fun but also seriousness of the task of changing a man’s perspective on his life. An excellent Christmas film.

Okja, after seeing The Host earlier this year, Staehli and I were interested in seeing Okja as well. This was a weird film, more like a screed against big agribusiness with a horse-and-his-owner style relationship at the center, and some downright bizarre performances here, especially whatever the fuck Jake Gyllenhaal is up to in this movie. This movie did make me feel bad about eating meat.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, This is a movie that I think will improve with re-watching. Already it is a good solid Star Wars film that opens up the universe (or rights the direction it was going?) with good visuals and a sense of direction. I should re-watch this in theaters.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, I remember seeing the short film Rare Exports way back when, but never got around to seeing the full-length film it inspired. A tight and tense story, but never quite verging into horror, this film hands down some reckoning about the meaning of Christmas.

Singing in the Rain, like I said earlier, I haven’t seen many of the classic musicals, but did manage to get to this one this year. I saw it while cat-sitting at Lucinda’s apartment. It was quite good, although different than expected. I recognized the Carrie Fisher in a young Debbie Reynolds, and admire the enormous amount of work that went into this film. It was funny too.

Gremlins, Staehli had never seen this classic, and apparently I didn’t remember anything beyond the first 30 minutes. This weird little horror film is zany, irreverent, and I think was among the first of non-Christmassy Christmas movies to debut. The lead is totally flat, which is okay, the puppets really carry the day here.

Tangerine, when looking up non-Christmassy Christmas movies, Tangerine was one that came up. Not enough Christmas in it to make it an annual option, but still a great film about trans sex-workers in LA that takes them seriously, and doesn’t really dig into them fighting with their identity, but instead has them talking about work and relationships, which was great. Also, it was filmed entirely on iPhones.

Krampus, this was our Christmas film this year. Very much a horror film, and if there hadn’t been initial bullying, none of this would have happened. It felt more prescient in 2016, right after the election, not quite as prescient in 2017, after a year of Trump.

The Great Muppet Caper, it turns out that I had never seen this Muppet film. It takes place in London, is about a series of jewel heists, has Charles Grodin, and some solid jokes. I especially loved the bit with Miss Piggy sneaking into the mansion and idle dinner conversation of John Cleese and his wife.

La La Land, while Staehli was gone at work, I tried to watch films that she may not want to see. She was adamant about not wanting to see La La Land, so I gave it a shot. The music is stupidly catchy, and I still have the Oscar winning song stuck in my head a week later. This wasn’t as problematic as some folks made it seem. I felt like the downbeat ending really did work for this.

 

That’s it, that was my year in movies. Having some more focus, with a list on Letterboxd, I think, will help make my year have more focus, and be more intentional with my film watching.

2017 Year in Books

December 29, 2017

This year I made a resolution for my year in reading: no more white guys. After the election of Trump to the presidency, I thought I ought to spend a year reading and listening to other voices instead of white men, especially when most of the novels I loved from 2016 were by women and men of color. White men kept letting me down. Within the broader goal of no white men, I set smaller goals for myself: create space to read the books and authors I had always meant to read like Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Agatha Christie and Haruki Murakami. They represented well-meaning forays into diversity, but I had yet to follow through on the aspirations of 18-year old me, which saved several copies of Jane Eyre, Emma, and Wuthering Heights.

I started my year by physically re-arranging my bookshelves, putting all the authors I couldn’t read on one bookshelf, and placing everything eligible right at eye height. My (now) fiancé Staehli said I should peruse her bookshelf if I ran out of ideas, as she quickly discovered she had very few white men on her own bookshelf. I outlined some initial books from 2016 that I was excited to read, and began my year of reading.

Reflecting now at the end of the year, I can say I read some of the books I meant to read. But my literary ambitions kept wandering, and many of the big books I was hoping to read to in fact stayed unread. Instead, I plowed through some of to-read list in the library, then consolidated my multiple to-read lists into a long-unused Goodreads profile in May, re-discovering books I had meant to read, and adding even more books. As I read, I discovered new authors, and dove deeper into the back catalog of authors I enjoyed, something that I hadn’t actually done in years, but reflected how I used to read as a young sci-fi and fantasy fan, voraciously gobbling up an authors oeuvre before moving on to their peers or influences. As I began catching up with to-reads, and contemplating my budget, I decided to stop my Indiespensable subscription from Powells, not just because of the expense but because I kept getting white guys I couldn’t read, and after spending some more time with books, I found the selections had a similar feel, incisive psychological portraits, often by debut authors, that was refreshing at first, but now felt rote. I wanted more experimentation, I wanted different voices.

The first book I read in 2017 turned out to be an Indiespensible release, and an author whose back catalog I’d already gobbled up: Moonglow, by Michael Chabon. I had a Chabon binge in 2010, but wound up not liking his Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Final Solution, and only moderately liked his swashbuckling novella Gentlemen of the Road. I avoided his regular releases until 2015 when I grabbed Telegraph Avenue out of a free little library. I wound up falling in love again, and was excited for this. I counted Chabon as an eligible author because of his Jewish heritage. I felt like the rise of anti-Semitism in 2016, which only intensified in 2017, definitely warranted the inclusion of Jewish voices in my reading. However, reviewing my own history, I’ve often read a variety of Jewish literature, so I didn’t want to give in to the familiar so much. Chabon’s fictional memoir about the relationship between a man and his grandfather stayed with me this year. The grandfather was obsessed with going to the moon, and spent WWII hunting down Nazi scientist Werner Von Braun, and later dealt with his wife’s mental instability, and loneliness later in life. This novel stayed with me this year because of it’s complicated exploration of masculinity, mental health, family history, and the nature of evil. I was reminded of the time I spent with my own actively dying relatives and hearing their stories, reading their histories in year books and other formal documents in all their sadness and their joy. Despite these heavy themes, Chabon explores them all with warmth, humor, and a necessary humanity. I’ve found myself reflecting on this book a lot during the past year.

LGBTQ Voices

My second book of the year, Blackmail, My Love, by Katie Gilmartin sent me searching for other similar books over the course of the year. This slim detective novel is set in San Francisco in the early 1950s, and is meticulously researched. Our crossdressing detective gumshoe tracks her missing brother through the gay underground. As she visits suspects and witnesses, Gilmartin recreates the many different ways the LGBTQ community coped with not being able to come out publicly. This book is riveting, sexy, and engrossing. I’ve recommended it a ton all year, and it has stayed a favorite of mine throughout the year.

When I returned Blackmail, My Love, the library’s system thought I might be interested in Maxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante, by Monica Nolan. My book club selected out of my offerings of pulpy fiction, so we read this over the summer, and it was a grand old time. A retro-pulp, and technically third in a loose series, Nolan writes the story of Maxie, a lazy broad in a women’s-only apartment complex who struggles to find purpose and a real career. Nolan was inspired by the real dime store novels of the 50’s and 60’s that featured racy lesbian exploits that many women read and subsequently discovered their own predilections. This book is loose, funny, and fun to read. You can freely borrow it from my shelf.

Initially, I grabbed The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson because it was short, but I took a long-time to read this French-translated novel if only because the language was so sumptuous. During the long, cloudless summer in Seattle, this novel came in like a storm. Nominally a story of a romance during the Napoleonic wars between a French soldier and a cross-dressing bisexual casino attendant in Venice, the narrative crosses decades, briefly becomes epistolary, features magical realism, and a whirlwind romance. I loved this book.

While selecting options for my book club, I realized that when I suggested books, I didn’t always follow-up on also-rans. For my pulpy options, I chose to try to read my other options. Two of the also-rans became my favorite books of the year. Featuring a cross-dressing, bisexual, bi-racial woman protagonist, Vermilion, by Molly Tanzer was the pulpiest book I actually offered. Set in a world where ghosts, psychopomps (basically ghost busters), dragons, jackalopes, and talking bears are real and plentiful, our hero must travel from the comfort of San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1890s to the Rocky Mountains to investigate disappearing Chinese men. The plot moves, and has delightful twists, turns, and plays out like a good, if somewhat madcap, Western.

Different from the magical or mysterious LGBTQ novels I read this year, Under the Udala Trees, by Chinelo Okparanta was instead a very moving, somber, realist look at growing up as an LGBTQ woman in rural/southern Nigeria. All of the other Nigerian fiction I’ve read takes place in modern Nigeria, in and around Lagos, with brief sojourns to the country. Getting a different picture of the country reminded me how someone might get a similar view that America is basically New York City if they only read from the New York literary set. Nigeria is a deeply religious county, so this book deals not just with a coming out story, but also a religious story, as Ijeoma struggles with her faith, her feelings about a civil war, and her own sexuality as she attempts to understand her own self. I read parts of this book, and also listened to parts as part of an audio book because I had some issues staying engaged with the book. I recommend both, but the audiobook helped me get hooked. The book is read in a Nigerian accent, which I think really emphasizes the correct pronunciation of the names, but also brought a real element of humor and liveliness that I hadn’t necessarily caught in the book before. The narrator helped me appreciate the many dimensions of Ijeoma, and propel me through the rest of the book. It’s a bit somber, and confounded my expectations, but was probably the book that helped challenge my pre-conceptions the most this year.

Other Favorites

It’s at this point that I must admit that late in the year, I realized that while I wasn’t reading white men, I wasn’t reading that many authors of color either. Most of my list was predominantly white women. These white women came from many different backgrounds, but ultimately were still white women. I didn’t read that many men this year. The one big standout for me, as different and challenging as Under the Udala Trees was A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James. James writes about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976, and the fallout from that in Jamaica. Told from dozens of points of view, written mostly in Jamaican patois, and featuring multiple deceased ghost narrators, this book is a fascinating look at Jamaica’s transformation over a few decades. This book was challenging, in part because once you get into a character, their narrative skips over to another character or a few years forward. Some conflicts aren’t brought to a head, but instead occur in skipped time as James jumps a few years into the future. However, this book was invaluable in helping me question my own assumptions. I had always though of Jamaica as the most successful of Caribbean countries, seemingly stable and successful where the others were not. This book proved to me that I didn’t know really anything about Jamaica at all, and served as a valuable lesson in interrogating cultures. This book is ambitious both formally, but also in the scope of the story it is trying to tell that no other book I read this year attempted.

Two other favorites from this year were both clever, moving science fiction novels: Version Control, by Dexter Palmer and Radiance, by Catherynne Valente. Version Control was the only book I purposefully read for this year’s Tournament of Books. It’s nominally a science fiction novel about time travel, but I think it really explores all the little ways that people already time travel, like getting blackout drunk, or how you wake up and suddenly it’s the end of the summer and you wonder what happened to all of the days. It’s about existing technology and the potential future of that technology if used for evil. It’s about the choices that we make, and why we choose to make them. My friend Aaron had some issues with this book, finding Palmer a little too-distancing, but I found the book thoughtful and interesting.

Radiance is another book that has just stayed with me this year, with its inventiveness and emotional clarity. Valente is formally playful with the book’s structure, composing it almost as a screenplay but the structure also ties back to the central theme of grief and how people deal with grief. Valente calls this book deco-punk, which I think works. Set in a retro-future, the one where everyone thought we could just visit Mars and it would be different but basically habitable, we encounter a kaleidoscope galaxy of possibility. Yet the Edison company still wields its ownership of sound and color patents with an iron fist, all the movies are still silent black and white pictures. The novel is ostensibly presented as a screen play, and different sections of the book skip around from genre to genre as the in-book authors attempt to find a way to track how the mysterious disappearance of its central character came to be. Scattered among everything are gossip columns, commercial breaks, and other errata to help fill out the world. Valente fills out her world admirably, cleverly, weaving in horror of Lovecraftian and Edgar Allen Poe types. I really loved this book, and will probably re-read it.

Connie Willis

Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog was one of my favorite books last year, and is now an author that I can talk to my friends about and with, as many of us have read a few of her books. Staehli had read The Doomsday Book, which I bought her for Christmas a few years ago, having very little idea who even Connie Willis was. This year, I read three books of hers: Crosstalk, The Doomsday Book, and A Lot Like Christmas. Staehli and I even went with our friend Maggie to see Willis speak in June. Connie Willis is like the cool, badass grandma you wish you had. She read a story about going to see the last eclipse that occurred in America, in Montana in the 1970s. She convinced me to take time off to hitch a ride with my friend Jake to Oregon to see the eclipse with his family. Let me tell you, it was totally worth it, and not like anything else I’ve even seen. In fact, the changing half-light of the eclipse may have been more surreal to me than the eclipse itself.

The Doomsday Book was my favorite out of three of these books. It is Willis’ first book about time travel, introducing her conception of time travel, which would later play out in To Say Nothing of the Dog and a few other novels. Willis is excellent at identifying the ways in which human pettiness, bureaucracy, and just general misfortune throw a wrench in the best laid plans. When Kivrin winds up stuck in 13th century England, the researchers at Oxford must attempt to rescue her and battle an infectious plague as well. There are some real punches to the gut in this novel, and it earns all of them.

Cross Talk, on the other hand, takes place in modern times and deals with being able to hear people’s thoughts. Cross Talk is very much more a romantic comedy with will-they/won’t-they tension, all with Willis’s penchant for intricate plots. Compared to the overall drama of The Doomsday Book, Cross Talk felt more effervescent and light. Hearing Willis speak about her writing, it seems like she prefers to alternate between being very cruel to her characters, or being very kind. The lovers in Cross Talk do have some unpleasant things happen to them, but wind up very well in the end with a happy ending. Willis is unabashedly a fan of happy endings, and a fan of Christmas, so A Lot Like Christmas reads very sweetly, with many different stories that wind their way to the meaning of Christmas. I’m not particularly religious, and so when Willis dives into the practical parts of going to church in some of her stories, rather than the spiritual parts, it seems nearly exotic. There’s a nursery! A nave! Some sort of clerical office! It reminds me that churches aren’t just a house of worship, but community centers as well. The story with aliens and choirs was probably my favorite.

Naomi Novik

The second best represented author on my list is someone I picked up from Staehli, Naomi Novik, who wrote the Temeraire series. Staehli has been trying to get someone, anyone to read this series, and the pitch seemed a bit difficult: Napoleonic Wars but with dragons. Initially, I expected this to read like fantasy, but instead it reads much more like historical fiction, but with dragons. There’s not necessarily magic, dragons are treated like beasts of burdens similar to horses or cows. They can talk, have varying personalities and intelligences, and are treated differently from culture to culture. I’ve made it through His Majesty’s Dragon and Throne of Jade, by Naomi Novik so far. There are eight books in the series, and it just ended in 2015. This has been excellent comforting end-of-the-year reading that is just a good old-fashioned buddy adventure story. I’ve been very pleased so far.

Graphic Novels

Monstress, by Majorie Liu 
Monstress was the first graphic novel I read this year, and my favorite. Set in a magical world, there are some echoes of the wars in Saga, but set against a different backdrop, with witches. There is a distinct Japanese influence here that I really enjoy. The art is detailed and impeccable. Very recommended.

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, by Sonnie Liew 
This was a good concept that I didn’t enjoy as much in execution. Theoretically, this book is about the life of a fictional artist over time, and Liew draws in many different styles to illustrate Charlie’s growth as an artist. Really, the book is about the history of Singapore, as told by Charlie, and how it came to be. I was expecting something more autobiographical, but once I came to understand the book on its own terms, I really appreciated getting to know the history of Singapore. However Charlie’s own arc seemed to stagnate a little, although this may reflect the history of Singapore that I myself just didn’t get.

Rolling Blackouts, by Sarah Glidden
The Seattle Globalist is a training ground for young journalists of color. It was sponsored by UW, but as of 2017 now is entirely crowd and grant funded. This graphic novel operates as an origin story, as Glidden documents the process these founding journalists take as they wish to bring other stories from the Middle East into light. Glidden wrestles with the journalistic ethics of the various situations, realizing what a difficult position these journalists can operate in. It’s a revelatory “how-the-sausage-gets-made” type of book that I really enjoyed.

Imagine Wanting Only This, by Kristen Radtke
I liked this book better in retrospect. I don’t remember what I thought it was about, maybe a love story? But Radtke’s debut graphic novel is a meditation about grief, travel, and navigating life. It’s not necessarily sequential, but almost more of a mood piece, as Radtke’s interest in urban decay documentation intertwines with her own processing of grieving over relationships, family members, and “what-could-have-been” situations.

Faith: Hollywood and Vine, by Jody Houser 
This light interpretation of celebrity superheroes is fluffy, warm, and does feature a body-positive look at super heroes. But It was a little too light for my taste.

The Girl Genius Graphic Novels, by Kaya and Phil Foglio
Looking back on my year, there is a big chunk during the spring, where I can see my anxiety. The reading slows down, and what reading that does occur was mostly comfort reading. The constant barrage of the 2017 news cycle, especially during the beginning of the year when I was still struggling to adapt to this new reality, caused a general low-level anxiety. I also had somewhat significant job struggles for a big chunk of the year, so my anxiety disorder developed a new fascinating wrinkle where I developed insomnia for about two months on specific nights of the week. To try to calm myself, I re-read all of the Girl Genius graphic novels, figuring that since Kaya and Phil co-wrote them, it was fair game, because they were technically written by a woman. I still adore these graphic novels, and appreciate both the pacing and the attention to detail that keep these consistent and fun. We’re now FINALLY getting to places mentioned in the first few books.

Food Writing

Food writing has always been an interest of mine, ever since my friend Peter introduced me to Anthony Bourdain in college. I still have a well-thumbed copy of Kitchen Confidential, and fond memories of being sleep deprived while traveling for the holidays, reading the first page of his second book, laughing hysterically, and passing out on the plane. I followed Bethany Jean Clement from The Stranger to The Seattle Times, and this year some of my favorite reading was food writing.

For my book club, we read Consider the Fork, by Bee Wilson. This is a non-fiction exploration of the history of common kitchen implements, although Wilson goes much more basic than I expected. Obviously there is the fork, but also the stove, the pot, the refrigerator. The basic considerations of how people eat, and social change radically that transformed our concept of cooking over a few decades is fascinating. Wilson is British, so this does come from a British point of view, but this book is littered with interesting tidbits and history.

Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler was a turning point book. As my Aunt Julia said, it was pretty straight forward: a post-college grad woman moves to New York City, gets a job as a hostess in a restaurant, and gets swept up in the food service life, with late nights, questionable food romance decisions and more. But while the narrative itself was not necessarily the most riveting, what moved me was other people’s reactions to this book. I started using Good Reads finally, and people on there were eviscerating this book, calling the narrator a privileged white girl, how she should just buck up and deal with stuff, etc. And as I read, I realized that if our main character were a man, she wouldn’t face half of the same criticisms. I saw the layers of expectations built up around her. Reading this book made me go back and look at all the other books I had read this year, and I was able to point out to myself the many different sexist expectations that the straight women characters had piled upon them by men. It was different for the LGBTQ characters, who dealt with different problems, but Danler helped open my eyes by taking a genre I was familiar with and give it a different point of view. Everything I read after this book felt different.

Cork Dork, by Bianca Bosker is a late entry favorite. I read this book on my way down to Portland for thanksgiving and was transfixed. I enjoy wine, and I have dabbled with different tastings. I know a decent amount of what I like. I’ve seen Somm and Red Obsession, and a few other wine movies. But Bosker brought it all to life for me in Cork Dork. If you like food, or even wine, I recommend this book to you. Bosker, the Tech editor for Huffington Post, discovers wine freaks on her normal beat of obsessives, and then quits her job to attempt to pass the Certified Sommelier’s test in 1-year to 18 months. Along the way, she learns the NY wine scene, manages to bargain her way into various high-end events, and helps her readers about what she discovers. I really loved this book, and would like to own it and press it into the hands of my friends.

Nonfiction and Memoir

Wanderlust: A History of Walking, by Rebecca Solnit
Solnit is best known these days for her essay that coined the term “mansplaining,” and a wide variety of other cultural or feminist essays. Before that however, she wrote this book about walking. As my friends know, I love to walk, and while I bought a bike this year, I still love to walk. Solnit explores the history of walking in literature, but also documenting the purpose of previous long walks, like pilgrimages, or human migration, and how walking has begun to take on different socio-political meanings over time. I expected to devour this book, but it was much more academic and slow-going.

The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson 
When I started my year, I told myself that the only exception I would make for my year of reading men was if my book club chose a book by a white man. Surprisingly, it only happened once, in the fall. Johnson explores the somewhat famous cholera outbreak in London. I had learned an apocryphal tale about the incident, but Johnson really does explore the various systems that contributed to the outbreak, the doctor who mapped it and helped eventually prove germ theory, and how modern industries have learned (or not learned) from the example. Even if this book wasn’t especially long, I felt like it got a bit repetitive in the middle, and could have used some editing.

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, by Lindy West
I don’t tend to read many memoirs, although I tend to greatly enjoy the ones that I do read. G. Willow Wilson’s The Butterfly Mosque was a favorite of mine from two years ago, and Lindy West’s debut memoir had a similar effect on me. I started reading Lindy when she wrote for The Stranger way back when, and I remember her moving to LA, and then becoming one of these sort of omnipresent writers for a variety of publications. Her memoir of her youth, coming up in the world as a fat woman, and tackling trolls was everything to me. I laughed, I cried, and recommend this to people. It’s short but beautiful.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou 
This book came from a legendary book haul from my uncle when I was 18, where I got around 100 books that I’ve been slowly reading, but mostly winnowing, as time has gone on. When I realized that I hadn’t read that many women of color, I picked this up from my shelf for a flight to DC for work. I know a little bit of trivia about Angelou, but this fixed me. I barely believed what I was reading was not fiction, as Angelou wrote with such verve and charm about things that were devastating. I thought I was in for one kind of narrative, but instead wound up with something quite different. I loved this, and it deserves all of the hype.

Horror

I’m not much of a reader of horror. My mom likes scary books, and my friend Danny is a huge fan, so whenever his turn in book club comes up, it’s usually a selection of books of horror. I get a desire for horror in the summer, something about the long days somehow makes the horror both far way but also totally more plausible. I picked up the classic The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson, totally stunned to learn that while I had known Shirley Jackson for the incredible short story “The Lottery,” she also wrote this classic. This was more psychological than I expected, and less what I think of a haunted house wanting to keep its occupants. I always think it is interesting and instructive to read classics, as they essentially are exploring the form. The haunted house genre didn’t necessarily exist quite as it does now, in part because Jackson is still helping write the rules here.

The Grip of It, by Jac Jemc
When I stopped my Indiespensible subscription this year, I still had a variety of books I still hadn’t read, including and bonus books, usually advanced reader copies, that Powells sends send along with the main selection. As Halloween approached, I read this and the next three books to get prepared. This was my favorite of the four, a haunted house story given a modernist spin. This was a nice and tight spooky story featuring newlyweds and their new home that may not actually be theirs. Staehli read House of Leaves before I could get to it before this year, and I feel like these two books could be in conversation. Except this one is a sharp 250 pages.

The Doll’s Alphabet, by Camilla Gurdova
Another bonus book from Indiespensible, this one a short story collection. I sometimes have issues with short stories, because each is treated as a different piece of work by the author, when they are collected together, it can be easier to see the obsessions of the writers as they return to the same well of inspiration. Sometimes this is good, as Gurdova explores the interior lives of all kinds of women (there’s only one really one story with a man as the central character), specifically young women. The stories present some simple joys and many of the terrors of being a young woman. At the same time, a lot of the imagery and tone returns to an almost unrelentingly bleak pseudo-dystopia. Most stories take place in abject poverty, but the social structures are all oblique nonsense or never mentioned. Nearly everything is squalid, all the food is Dickensian slop, but there’s none of the trenchant broad social critique to go with those images. All the grotesques seem ornamental, put up for admiration. Gurdova’s stories are formally constructed well, which makes me admire them more than I actually liked reading them.

The End of the Sentence, by Maria Dahvana Headley and Kat Howard
I don’t remember how this book got onto my list. It’s a ghost story sort of about a goblin blacksmith. There’s a bit of a haunted house, some ominous letters, but ultimately this novella felt too trite and cute for a fairy tale. The writing never quite hit me where it should have.

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, by Angela Carter
Angela Carter gets mentioned a great deal in the history of short stories, feminist fairy tale adaptations, and horror. I kept running into her name, but realized I had never read any of her work. I tracked down her short story collection, and read it just after Halloween (apparently reading horror in time for Halloween is a popular idea). Many of these stories worked for me in part because Carter spends more time with her narrators in a meaningful way than the blank slates in The Doll’s Alphabet and The End of the Sentence. Especially the Bloody Chamber and other tales twists on classic fairy tales, I found myself captured by the narrators and the choices they were making. Unfortunately for anyone who came afterward, they’re only going to be compared to Carter, who was really, really good at it.

Everything Else

The House of Spirits, by Isabel Allende
A book club book, this one about about an unnamed South American country (essentially Chile), and a multi-generation family saga. Magical Realism abounds here, and surprisingly, and this huge family saga featuring a big old abuser makes you feel for him a little at the end. I had to sprint to the end of this though in a whole afternoon of concentrated reading.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark and Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen
A book club double feature. Muriel Spark’s novel was sort of about fascism, but also about a girl’s school in Scotland. Apparently Spark is huge in Scotland, but we had a little bit of an issue seeing what made this book so revolutionary.

I did manage to read a Jane Austen book, just not the ones I intended. Once I figured out that Austen is supposed to be relatively funny, this helped. It got sold to me as a send up about gothic novels, which came true in the end, but wasn’t nearly as large a part of the book as I expected. My favorite part was honestly seeing how relatable our narrator was, and why Austen adapts so well, because her heroines talk about girl stuff and gossip in a way that young girls still do. All these little parts transcend time in funny ways.

The Light Between Oceans, by M. L. Stedman
A book club book. This Australian post WWI-era weepie totally caught me up in its melodramatic plot. I totally bought the characters, and got why someone would either hate this or love this. Personally, I loved it, though the end was a little pat.

Hamilton’s Battalion, by Courtney Milan, Rose Lerner, and Alyssa Cole
The last book club book of the year, a trio of romance stories based around Alexander Hamilton’s time. Diverse authors, diverse stories, but Courtney Milan’s road trip was by far the best, the funniest, and the hottest. A fun time for Hamilton fans, though I need to remember romance does not equal erotica.

The History of Wolves, by Emily Friedlund
An Indiespensible book from Powell’s. This book is not really about wolves, but mostly about scrabbling together a life in rural Minnesota. When new neighbors move in, and our narrator starts baby sitting for them, things start to change a little. I liked how feral our narrator seemed, reminded me of Jennifer Lawrence’s turn in Winter’s Bone.

99 Stories of God, by Joy Williams
Microfiction, meaning no story is longer than three small pages. All nominally about God. On a sentence-to-sentence basis, Joy Williams is a really good writer.

The Regional Office is Under Attack, by Manuel Gonzales
This book is so light. Most of the book takes place in one day, when an unknown element attacks the super secret elite all-women assassins guild headquarters. It is fun, and weird, but I did not need to buy this. I was hoping for more of an emotional punch a bit like what I got from other similar books like Nick Harkaway, but the landing doesn’t stick.

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle
There is a cottage industry of re-imagining H.P. Lovecraft’s work and adapting it to make the stories not racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, etc. LaValle’s novella of an H.P. Lovecraft story from a black man’s point of view is powerful and understandable. Recommended.

And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie
I had never read an Agatha Christie novel, and Sarah let me borrow this book from her collection. A locked room mystery with a slightly odd solution, I was surprised how quickly I read this whole thing.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
People have been recommending The Handmaid’s Tale to me for years, but I haven’t made time for it. By virtue of Agatha Christie being so readable, I needed a new book for my plane ride back to Seattle from DC. Since Hulu adapted Atwood’s novel into an award winning TV series, the book is all over the airport shelves. I picked it up, and was reminded of Atwood’s mastery for exploring the mundanity of oppression, which she displayed in The Blind Assassin as well. The ways that avenues are cut off, and secret internal lives are explored are quite interesting, and this novel is no different. Deservedly taught in schools.

Looking Forward

This year I’m proud that I stuck to my guns and committed to my year of women. I wound up reading 57 books, of which 13 were not from America (the others were United Kingdom, Canada, Chile, France, Jamaica, Nigeria, and Singapore). Only 11 were people of color, so I could do better there.

I feel better about my ability and interest in reading diversely on topics, and anything that I didn’t get to this year is still there for me to read, including Zadie Smith and Haruki Murakami. My plan this year is to try and stick to my to-read list, which does have diverse authors and not add to much to it this year. Of course I will read things for Book Club, but without Powell’s, I feel like I can actually commit to different reading projects, like spending time with authors like Connie Willis and Naomi Novik. I’d like to read more non-fiction, more international fiction, and clear my shelves a little bit more of things that I have been meaning to read forever.

2016 Movie List

January 1, 2017

In 2016, I watched 27 movies. 10 I saw in theaters, and re-watched 6. 12 were animated, two were documentaries, and 10 were international (counting a bunch of Miyazaki). It was an okay year for movies, it got stronger at the end.

The Hateful Eight

Staehli and I saw this in 70mm as part of a special roadshow, on New Year’s Day. This version had an overture, and an intermission. We had very conflicted feelings about this movie in part because we saw it with an audience. Tarantino is making a point with the grotesque amount of violence in this movie as a commentary about Westerns and the myth making around them by shoving many gross things together: confederate generals, a black bounty hunter who torturers his victims, and just all around bad types of folks. But the audience we saw this with responded to some of these things with laughter, specifically when terrible things happen to the sole female and black character. They seemed to find the violence genuinely funny versus more as a commentary about how white men oppress and abuse both women. Tarantino is a smart filmmaker, these things are intentional, but at the same time, I don’t think the audience was watching for the same reasons Staehli and I were. This movie kind of gave Staehli and I a hangover. Also, no reason to see it in 70mm when all Tarantino does is use it to shoot super wide interiors.

Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

Jake had a series of showings of Lord of the Rings on the enormous screen in my (now former) apartment. People came over, we talked over/watched this. Although the commentary about the films from ardent book readers seems more poignant now about the cost of war, and how Peter Jackson didn’t seem to understand the ending, which is why there are like five of them.

Attack the Block

Staehli has a small (read: large) crush on John Boyega, especially after The Force Awakens. His other major movie appearance was in Attack the Block, which I saw on my birthday a few years ago. Knowing what kind of movie you’re getting helps enormously (this was getting a ton of hype as a cool monster movie, but that’s not all it is). I liked it a lot more the second time around. It builds characters well, the action is well shot, the monster design is pretty cool, and it actually has some interesting things to say about teenage masculinity and poverty.

Deadpool

Staehli and I saw this on a date night, and it was both fun, and more conventional than I was expecting. Ryan Reynolds does an excellent job with Deadpool (and apparently got the job by simply just never going away). It is more stylized and cruder than other Marvel Movies, which in some way is a benefit, because I remember more of this movie than the second Thor movie.

The Master

I really enjoy the work of Paul Thomas Anderson, I think he’s one of the major American filmmaking talents working today, his films always have ambition. I had always heard good things about The Master, which outlines the beginnings of Scientology (or a cult much like it). This movie is intense, and I was surprised at how well Joaquin Phoenix’s character and acting stood up to Philip Seymour Hoffman. I was expecting his character to simply bow to the charismatic force of will that was Lancaster Dodd, but this much more of a sparring match between the two characters, about one who has the indomitable will, and one who is just plain wild. This movie is mesmerizing with its camera and editing. I think this would reward re-watching.

A Cat in Paris

Both The Master and this movie had sat lounging in my Netflix “to watch” list for some time (literal years). Staehli and I both share a love of animation, so we sat down to watch this short (~1 hour) long french film. It’s a cute story about a cat who accompanies a cat burglar on his rounds, and then returns to his normal life as a pet to a family. All sorts of hijinks ensue when a young girl follows the cat to figure out where he goes at night. We liked it, and the animation, while pretty different than most American animation, is quite good and stylized, very good night scenes to set the mood.

April and the Extraordinary World

One of my favorite film critics is Tasha Robinson. I discovered her while she was at the A.V. Club, followed her to the sadly defunct The Dissolve, and then over to The Verge. She’s a big animation buff as well, and she recommended this. It had a special one-weekend exclusive at SIFF, so Staehli and I got tickets. This was a totally unexpected silly and great animated feature. French, but drawn in more of a French-Belgian Tin Tin style, this tells the story of a time when the Industrial Revolution never really got going, so everything is still steam powered, leading to intense deforestation. The world’s great minds are disappearing, including the parents of a young girl. She is left to attempt to solve the scientific puzzle they were working on, while also eluding the police. This movie is funny, full of excitement, and a surprisingly great message for family. The grandfather in this movie is amazing, and the clockwork gadgets are all great. Totally recommend.

My Neighbor Totoro

My friend Aaron has hosted a few movie nights this year, nearly always featuring something from Studio Ghibli. I got to see Totoro again, which was sweeter than I remembered from last year, and still absolutely gorgeous. I think there’s just enough spice of the unreal here to help the story move along.

Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind

I think I’ve seen Nausicaa more than any other Miyazaki film now. This viewing felt longer, and the Ohm still freak me out a bit, mostly because I have a fear of enormous bugs from watching Them at too young of an age. How can she be so calm?! The movie came across darker this time, especially when compared to Totoro, but still quality.

The Road to El Dorado

Staehli and I had never seen this, and again, we like animated movies. This vocal pairing, of Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh is actually brilliant. This movie was also supposed to be fabulously gay, but there was a little subtext, and even there, it was very sub, not much text. Thought this was 15 years ago in a Disney film. This is the one of early DreamWorks animation films, and it show.The production design is lavish, but the plot and character design is all a bit thin. Missing the Disney powerhouses they left.

Best of Enemies

This was a documentary about a series of debates featuring Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. I was sick, in a weird mood, and this was not terribly captivating. Also, apparently this took nearly a decade to make apparently, so some of the people who were interviewed like Christopher Hitchens, were dead by the time this came out. Basically their debates introduced the concept of the talking head in part because ABC couldn’t afford to pay people to cover the electoral convention like CBS and NBC could, so they offered counter programming. The history is sort of interesting, but at the same time, this isn’t a very good documentary.

Dope

I remember wanting to see this, and Staehli was game. This is actually a charming, funny, broader-than-expected take on black youth in LA. I thought it was going to be “all-in-one-day” type films, but it actually takes place over the course of a year. And it resists moralizing or being a movie deliberately making a statement about black youth. Our protagonist Malcolm is a nerd, trying to make his way to college, and this presents his struggle to get there. It’s a good slice of life portrayal that you should see.

How to Train Your Dragon

Saw this at Nick and Megan’s when they switched over to movie nights for the summer instead of TV nights. Still gorgeous animation and still quite funny. One of Jay Baruchel’s best roles.

Ghostbusters (new)

New lady Ghostbusters! This movie was pretty funny, and the obvious standout is Kate McKinnon. All sorts of ladies discovered they had enormous crushes on her character, which is fair, she’s pretty badass. There are some interesting set pieces, but at the same time, some of the editing, especially at the end, is really off, as it seems they cut a bunch of stuff that could have been meaningful? The villain is a but underdeveloped, but at the same, perfect for the kind of response the movie got. There are some smart things happening here, it just doesn’t cohere as well as one might hope.

Kubo and the Two Strings

I really like the work of Laika Animation studios, they’re more offbeat than Pixar, willing to take some chances with a traditional format of stop motion that no one else does. This movie is fantastically inventive and I had to keep reminding myself that they basically hand-built (with the aid of some neat 3D printing technology apparently) everything in this movie. Staehli got all sorts of references to Japanese culture that she kindly explained to be afterward. She had a profound emotional reaction to it, whereas I had a more muted reaction to it. It was still very good though. It’s a story about stories.

The Secret Life of Arrieitty

Aaron had another movie night, this one featuring two more Miyazaki movies. I had forgotten this one existed, and saw it for the first time. Most people describe it as “basically, the Borrowers.” This is true, but it also a weirder twist in that the big person who discovers them is basically really sick, and can’t do much to help them. The animation is very well done, and does some fun things with scope, size, and picturing the terrifying world that these small people must inhabit that seems perfectly normal to us. There’s very little dramatic tension here, more of an exploration about two different worlds.

Porco Rosso

I remember this as being the weirder and most-nonsensical of the Miyazaki movies I saw while doped up on pain medication from my wisdom tooth removal in late August. Not being doped up on meds, I think this is probably the funniest and most adult of the Miyazaki movies. It’s silly, but it also features dating, a young female engineer, pirates, and a man and a pig fighting for her future. It’s rollicking good fun, and I could what I missed before.

Zootopia

This movie was great! It was funny, had a believable twist, excellent characterization, and man it have some discourse! All sorts of things about race are coded into this movie in a way that is respectful, and a great primer for children. This is more than simply “all people are equal” or “don’t judge people by their appearances,” this movie gets into actual shades of gray in ways that I think kids could relate to. This movie was inventive and interesting, and I loved all the little references. A great film.

The Big Short

Sick over a long weekend when Staehli was away, I spent some more time with my Netflix queue. The Big Short caught all sorts of Oscar heat that I wasn’t expecting, so I decided to check it out. This movie was sort of funny, but mostly made me very angry, which is what Adam McKay was going for. This was an engaging blow-by-blow for how the 2008 economic crash came to be. It was very informative, and fact checking later, was pretty spot on for how everything happened. It’s weird to see how Adam McKay has evolved as a filmmaker. This was a little rough, but compared his comedies of Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers, this is pretty different in style. It works well though.

The Hunter

I remember seeing a trailer for this several years ago and thinking it looked moody and tense, a different kind of thriller. This is both true and not true. Willem Defoe is a professional hunter hired to track down the last Tasmanian Tiger, which is believed to be extinct. This no easy feat, as this beast has eluded capture for the past seventy years, and it’s in a very, very remote part of Tasmania. Defoe is magnetic and portrays someone who is pretty independent, though he grows to care for the family that he is staying with between two week-long trips out into the wilderness. This proves to be the big push-and-pull, with some various political overlay about the logging industry. This is a small little movie that I enjoyed quite a bit. Not life changing, but interesting and good.

City of Gold

Jonathan Gold was the first (and only) food critic to earn a Pulitzer prize in criticism. He operates entirely in LA, and has become the pre-eminent food critic there in part because he does not disdain the many ethnic cuisines that exist there in less-than-fancy digs. He’s reviewed taco trucks, pop-ups, and fancy restaurants. This documentary explores his life and the restaurants he’s helped keep open or bring awareness too. This documentary was less comprehensive than I was hoping for, in part because I think Jonathan was not terribly forthcoming about elements of her personal life.

Shin Godzilla

Staehli was incredibly excited about the new Godzilla movie, in part because it was directed by the main creative mind behind Neon Genesis Evangalion. She arranged the tickets, and I agreed to show up. I didn’t even see a trailer. I was delightfully surprised at the depth and nuance in this Godzilla movie. I haven’t seen the original Godzilla, only the late series where he did battle with a variety of other giant monsters, and the bad 1998 remakes with Jean Reno doing a cowboy accent. Big monster movies are fun, but this was something else. Imagine that giant monster does attack, but also fades off. What is the government response? How do those decisions get made? How does that affect the response of the normal people, or other parts of the government? This movie asks those questions, which I’ve never seen asked before in a giant monster movie. It’s about efficiency across government, but also the government actually doing something, attempting to address what is effectively an environmental disaster gone terribly, terribly awry. There is wry humor, funny special effects, and not only that, but I felt Godzilla’s menace here like I hadn’t ever before. I actually believed that maybe Tokyo just wouldn’t exist any more, and that humans had shuffled themselves off the mortal coil. But the movie takes a different tack, which is probably for the better.

The Handmaiden

Earlier this year, I showed Staehli an article about a lesbian Korean drama directed by the same person as Oldboy. She was very excited about it, and kept more tabs on it than I did. Again, I don’t think I saw a trailer for this movie, I only knew that Staehli was excited about it. I’ve taken to watching fewer trailers, just because they tend to give so much away these days, and that really helped me with this film. This is one of the best movies I watched this year. It’s twisty, it’s turny, it’s sensual, it thrills, it chills, it empowers. Go see this movie.

The Cat Returns

Aaron strikes again with a Studio Ghibli movie that sounds like it was written by a committee of 8-year olds. A girl saves a cat, who it turns out was the Prince of all Cats. To thank her, the cats decide she should be turned into a cat, and marry the Prince. She seeks help from a cat statue come to life, a rebellious fat cat, and a crow. Hijinks ensue. The voice actors only sort of make sense. Elliot Gould does a voice! I don’t know why! It makes like no sense. This is a kid’s movie, with kid logic, and could have benefitted from some wine.

Arrival

Staehli and I saw the trailer for this movie before the Handmaiden, and were sold. We caught it a few weeks later, and couldn’t be more pleased. This science fiction movie was dreamy, circular, and perplexing. Amy Adams does a wonderful job selling a linguistics professor who is struggling through a problem unlike anyone has ever faced.

Rogue One

New Star Wars movie! That isn’t officially labeled a Star Wars movie! This movie has a lot going for it. It has an amazing cast, a clearly defined concept, good special effects, and a great use of camera to create spectacle. The plot is a little muddy, especially at the beginning, and a few of the characters don’t…really…have motivations, but despite this, the movie makes you care about them in the final act, when they risk it all. This movie makes you understand why Darth Vader is feared across the galaxy, and the stakes everyone is playing for in A New Hope. A good movie.

Moana

Apparently this was the year of the animated film, and Staehli and I capped it off with a final animated movie. Moana is Disney’s latest film, and follows in the fine traditions of musical princess movies. This was a very worthy entry into that genre, one of Disney’s best in years. It helps that the music was written by phenom Lin-Manuel Miranda. The animation here is stunning, gorgeous, the story is a hero’s journey, but filled with doubt, and emotion. I liked it a lot. The songs are also very catchy.

2016 Book List

January 1, 2017

Winter

Bluets, by Maggie Nelson

One of the literary blogs I read is The Millions, and every year they run a series of features about people’s Year in Reading (like this, but shorter). Bluets appeared on a number of people’s lists in 2014 and 2015, so I’d bee interested in reading this. I wanted to like this book more than I wound up actually liking it. I had heard this book discussed in tones reserved for small, personal masterpieces. A series of meditations on the color blue, and the variety of forms the color takes, this book is feminine without being for women, sad without being obsessed with guilt and sadness. It’s not quite fiction, it’s definitely not non-fiction. It has elements of memoir mixed up with fiction. Some of the passages more captivating than others. Some are sexy, some are melancholy. There’s a lot of meditation about the ocean. It doesn’t cohere, quite for me, but I like cohesion versus the scattering that probably more truly reflects reality. I am curious to read more of her work. I’ve heard good things about The Argonauts, which is more true memoir.

Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari

A book club book! Staehli really loved this, and it wound up becoming our first book club book of the year. I had already read a lot of the statistics Aziz covers in his book in last year’s Dataclysm, by Christian Rudder. The personal anecdotes are the more interesting here: the qualitative research of how people talk about dating and their sex lives, specifically across cultures. It was fascinating to discover how dating expanded options, but the wide choice can paralyze some people as they refuse to settle down. I’ve thought a fair amount of Aziz’s concept of being a maximizer, a person who has to have the best possible thing at any given moment, and how that can actually be detrimental to long-term happiness. This is something I feel like I struggle with myself, wanting to maximize an experience, have it be perfect. As a result, I have done a lot of research about the best tacos in Seattle, the best burritos, the most authentic Chinese, cool cocktail lounges. But I haven’t been to all of these places, I haven’t done that exploration myself (who has that cash?!). But this eliminates a series of explorations, of authentically finding something rather than just yelping and googling the shit out of restaurants, bars, massage parlours, hotels, and others. In some ways, the research is just shoring up against risk. And Aziz’s book is all about being able to take risks, and being comfortable with that fact. Moderate risks, mostly, but still there is an element of risk in dating, and in other things.

Mort(e), by Robert Rapino

This is a book about giant ants transforming people’s pets into giant sentient animals, and how those animals begin murdering humans with the ants, until one of those animals, our Mort(e), and yes, that is really how the name is spelled, and it has an explanation, but its a bad explanation, teams up with the humans to attempt to save a dog he fell in platonic love with when he was a normal cat.

Don’t read this book. You have better things to read.

Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, by Hunter S. Thompson

When Presidential Election Primary season was in full swing, I re-read this book. It was prescient then, and even more prescient now. It is interesting to see how things have changed. People literally didn’t declare candidacies until like December or January of the election year, more candidates traditionally won states, rather than one person just steamrolling the rest, and you could technically use parliamentary procedure to avoid a contested convention and win the nomination(there was an enormous revision of the Democratic party nominating rules as a result of the 1972 nominating process, where this actually happened). In 1972. George Wallace, famed racist Alabamian Governor was beginning to pick up speed in the nomination process, before nearly getting assassinated in May. He was shot in the back, and was paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. (Fun fact, he was the first public figure to survive an assassination attempt in a long string that started with JFK.). This put an end to his nomination process, but Trump essentially copied his rhetoric and plan for a successful nomination. I was hoping 2016 would end better than 1972, but again, this book turned out to be more prescient than expected.

Mr. Splitfoot, by Samantha Hunt

In 2015, I subscribed to Indispensable, Powell’s book box subscription service. I liked the first few I received, but this was the first “wow” book that I read this year. After disappointments with Bluets, Morte, and some of the Tournament of Books nominations, this book impressed me. It’s sort of a ghost story, about a newly pregnant woman walking with her silent, horribly scarred aunt in upstate New York, a place that has spawned more cults than anywhere else in America. It is also about the Aunt, and her past with her boyfriend, their spiritualism act, and encounters with backwoods hucksters. I went back and forth about whether what our main character was experiencing was real, the line between lived truth and spoke truth, and so much more. I really liked this book. It was unsettling in many ways, like I was re-watching a marathon of Unsolved Mysteries.

Delancey, and A Homemade Life, by Molly Wizenberg

Everyone so often, I will get a hankering for writing about food. Food is such an elemental part of what makes us people. In fact, there is an anthropological argument that cooking food is actually what makes us human, since all those linguists were proven wrong by other mammals capable of a rudimentary language. Molly Wizenberg is a local Seattle writer, and somewhat unwilling restauranteur. She and her soon-to-be-former husband Brandon founded Delancey, which has now grown to include Essex and the recently opened Dino’s Tomato Pie. My friend Maureen originally clued me into her blog, back in 2008, I think, and I’ve been an on-again, off-again reader. Her recipe for caramel corn is really good. These books however, are part memoir, part recipe. Molly comes off as a well rounded person, one who loves passionately, who will cry quickly about many things right before she begins tackling the problem, a person who likes a good raucous night out at a cool kid bar, and then go to the farmer’s market for hangover food the next day. It makes me understand the original appeal of blogs, when the person’s writing and outlook on the world was creative, personal, and compelling enough to make you want to read. There’s just enough there to keep you satisfied while also making you want more, more more. Her recipes are solid, nothing fancy. I think I will try the lasagna bolognese that has been kicking around my “to make” drawer. I’ve been keeping up with her blog since reading these books, and at the end of the year, she made a big life change. Her sexuality evolved from men-focused to be woman-focused, something that apparently has been building since she gave birth to her daughter. She’s still amazing friends with her soon-to-be-former husband, and I hope their businesses continue.

Tournament of Books

Oreo, by Fran Ross

Fran Ross was a black, female comedy writer who died the 1980s. This was her only novel, long out of print that was re-published last year. The book plot summary is a bi-racial girl re-enacts the quest of Theseus in 1970’s New York. It’s a strange, but funny novel. In college, I took an African-American Literature class, and we hit on a few of the books in the Civil Rights and Post-Civil Rights era that was shaking in the 60’s and 70’s: Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, a few others. This book reminded me a great deal of that, the need and drive for representational stories, the East-Coast absurd humor, the satirical skewering in a New York that would just get worse until the Mid-80s. This book wasn’t really for me, but that’s okay. I enjoyed reading it nonetheless.

The New World, by Chris Adrian and Eli Horowitz

Man, did this book have a powerful ending for an interesting conceit: man has defeated death (maybe) in the future. However in order to get there, your head has to be removed from its body, and cryogenically frozen. You wake up in cyberspace, and must forget all of your past life in order to live forever. The book tells the tale of a married couple, where the husband is dead (but alive) in the future, and the present, where his bereaved wife attempts to understand his choice. The chapters alternate between the two of them, as Jim attempts to understand his new world, and Jane does the same. It’s dark, funny, profound, and metaphysical. The book explores grief, doubt, the concept of self-hood, and marriage fidelity, even in the afterlife.

Bats of the Republic, by Zachary Thomas Dodson

At first glance, this was the book I was most excited to read in the Tournament of Books this year. Science Fiction, with maps even!, in a dystopia future/past that also has its own version of 1800’s America. It had drawings of wild animals, weird atmospherics, interesting typesetting. But that is all it had, it turned out. The plot is paper-thin and relies on characters not having motivations, or constantly having blockades thrown in their way for plot reasons. The characters, their motivations, their emotions, they were all severely lacking. This is a novel where I kept expecting some version of the characters not to be real, that they were all in a dream. That’s how paper-thin they were. Then this book went on a surprising tear in bracket, and I was sad.

The Story of My Teeth, by Valeria Luiselli

I loved this little book about a Mexican auctioneer, who is an incredibly unreliable narrator. Over the years, he has collected a variety of materials, and to give all of his treasures a home, he has decided to auction among the most famous of them, a collection of teeth. But whose teeth are they really? Luiselli actually wrote this book as part of an art-experiment to be read by Juice factory workers, who gave feedback and commentary about the plot, and things they wanted to see in the book. It harkens back a little to the magical realism tradition of South and Latin American authors.

The Tsar of Love and Techno, by Anthony Marra

A series of short, connected stories in Russia from the fall of Communism to the present. Most of the stories take place near the Arctic Circle in an incredibly poisoned town that is responsible for harvesting tons of nickel out of the earth, and the small, corrupt life there. There’s some wonderful imagery: a fake forest made entirely out of metal, that won’t be killed by the cold or the pollution, the placid lake of toxic waste, the fake museum of Russian space travel. Certain stories resonated more with me than others, but I found myself really enjoying the overall idea. Something about the fatalism of modern Russia I think will be relevant in the political future. I was also not surprised at all to find out that Anthony Marra is friends with Adam Johnson, who wrote the Orphan Master’s Son. They have the same ton about them.

The Sellout, by Paul Beatty

The winner of this year’s Tournament of Books, and Man Booker Prize (the first for an American). This book is a satire about American racism, from the historical, oppressive, blatant racism, to the quiet, systemic racism of the present. Our narrator is a black farmer in LA, who accidentally winds up with an elderly black man who makes himself a slave, for which our narrator eventually winds up in the US Supreme Court, smoking an enormous blunt and getting yelled at by Clarence Thomas. This is the first 20 pages, I’m not spoiling anything for you. I laughed a lot during this book, and found it compelling, thoughtful, and well-written. This was one of my favorites to read, and it totally deserves all the awards it got.

And to round out winter, I read

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nahisi Coates

Written as a series of letters to his son, Ta-Nahisi Coates explores what it means to be a black man in a time in America where black men’s bodies have no real autonomy. Life, freedom, fundamental concepts enshrined in American minds, are mere illusions for a lot of black men. He positions this not as fundamental racism, but white supremacy, that their must by a racial hierarchy built on race and class that positions whites as above black men. The concept is different than racism, and Coates articulates a lot of the ways in which even the founding of the country are predicated on practices and institutions that perpetuate this belief. Powerful, incisive, and fundamentally hopeful, while also realistic this is excellent racism-201 level work for white folks looking to be allies. I also believe that this book fundamentally gave whites a critical eye enough to begin talking about white supremacy just when it took over the country. Coates has helped shift the conversation from racism, to white supremacy, which is more accurate, and what must be disassembled.

Spring

Tale of Sand, by Jim Henson, Jerry Juhl, and Ramon Perez

This year, I read only a few graphic novels, and I felt it, both in numbers of books I read (which usually includes around 10 graphic novels), and in my habits. I found myself missing the visual stylings, the art. I caught up with my friend Jenny right after the Emerald City Comic-Con (for which I have tickets this coming year), and she made some recommendations. I read both of Ramon Perez’s webcomics back in the day, Butternut Squash and Kukuburi. I remember his blog post when he got his first Marvel job, and the resulting hit in update schedule that Butternut Squash took at the time. Tale of Sand is a visual feast with no dialogue, based on an unproduced script of Jim Henson’s. It’s absurdist, circular, and oddly diverse, which sounds like Jim Henson. I wasn’t quite taken with it as I wanted to be, and I think part of it is just that the script wasn’t fully fleshed out, and I think some dialogue would have helped that versus an entirely visual story. Which is not to say that an entirely visual story couldn’t work, but the character motivations needed a little work, I think.

The Divine, by Boaz Lavie, Asaf Hanuka, and Tomer Hanuka

I have heard quibbles about the term graphic novel, especially related to on going series, like X-Men, Batman, etc. How can these things be considered novels when they seemingly never end? Novels imply an end! I usually point these people to detective novels and mysteries, featuring detectives and characters who seemingly never die, never get old, and have novel after novel published featuring them. The Divine is actually a graphic novel in the sense that it is not a part of an ongoing feature. The Divine tells the story of some American mercenaries caught in the South East Asian jungle at the mercy of some child warlords, who may or may not control the magical ancient spirits of the land. It’s a little Alice in Wonderland, a little Heart of Darkness. The art is fantastic, and it’s based somewhat on real circumstances. I re-read sections of this book to better understand it, and recommend it to anyone looking for some short graphic fiction.

Mistborn: The Final Empire, by Brandon Sanderson

A book club book! Mistborn is a weird book. I have heard of Brandon Sanderson before, as one of those good fantasy authors who can build a convincing world, and write believable characters. After reading, I concur but also disagree. I think Brandon Sanderson does build a believable dystopia world, where a seemingly all-powerful ruler keeps evil in check. The plot has enough twists, turns, feints, and clues that I always wanted to keep reading. Our two main characters are well-written, fleshed out, and well-explored. I liked them a great deal, actually. However, the entire surrounding cast was mostly stock characters. They never seemed to be more than stereotypes, their existence primarily to serve the main characters and their plot. Many of us in book club felt this way, that this book had a compelling plot but not compelling characters.

The Doubter’s Almanac, by Ethan Canin

An Indiespensable book. I had never heard of Ethan Canin, never heard of any of his other books, and wasn’t sure initially to make of this book about a possibly too-brilliant mathematician. But The Doubter’s Almanac was a compelling story about brushes with genius, addiction, family, and compulsion. The first part of the novel focuses on Milo, a brilliant though eccentric boy who grows up to make a major mathematical breakthrough. This catapults him into the stratosphere of the math elite, for which is deeply unprepared, or perhaps uniquely prepared, as he drinks, philanders, and curses his way out of job. About halfway through the novel, we switch to Hans, his son, and see how Milo further disgraced himself, and inflicts his compulsions and alcoholism. We see how math becomes vitally important to the finance industry, and how Canin believes some behaviors and tics are inherited. I think your mileage may vary with this book based on how much you enjoy reading about monstrous humans, and then watching their downfall. Reflecting on this book though, is that it was very, very white. I think our token diversity was a Russian lady.

The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway

My friend Aaron and his roommate Brandi pushed this book onto me. I had read Angelmaker last year, and they both said this was a better. Telling the story of a dystopia spoiled by anti-matter accidentally erasing parts of the world, and the odd things that fill the places that were once there. Now inhuman monsters lurk beyond the pipeline that pumps out gas to keep them away. Enter Gonzo, and his never-named best friend, who received ninja training (in Britain, though never named), and now operate part of the “Haulage & HazMat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company.” This book has ninjas, kung-fu, traveling mimes, Tibetan monks, special ops, a Mad Max Style obsession with revved up cars, and some odd twists and turns. It was a fun ride, but ultimately, I think I’m more of a noir guy than a kung-fu guy, so Angelmaker remains my favorite. In doing research for this, I learned that Harkaway is John le Carré’s son, which was odd to learn.

Summer

The Lost Time Accidents, by John Wray

This book seemed like it would be a home run for me: a darkly comic take on the devastations that time travel has taken on an Austrian family, including a family tie-in with Nazis, eccentric aunts in bohemian New York, and current iterations with a current Brooklyn layabout struggling with family history. Alas, I wound up not liking this book. It was more procedural than expected, and a slog to read. I struggled to make time to read this book, and found the main protagonist more annoying that anything else. I was glad to be done with this one.

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer

My pick for book club this year was a re-read of a weird fiction, or novels I wished I could talk about with other people. Annihilation was one of my favorites from last year, and I wished I could talk with others about it. I got my wish, and it was interesting to tackle with others. We did a lot of discussing about what actually happened, what was real, and essential questioning about what was real, what could be trusted, and how much you had to like the narrator to feel compelled to keep reading. Both Lucinda and Maggie got hooked on the series, and finished it before I did. Still need to talk with them about that ending however. We’ll get to that later on.

To Say Nothing of the Dog or How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump at Last, by Connie Willis

This is one of my favorite things I read this year. For Christmas last year, I bought Staehli Willis’s first novel, The Doomsday Book, after looking for good science fiction written by women. She read it, and enjoyed it, and it turns out that Maggie was a big Connie Willis fan. She suggested this for book club, and I had an absolutely fabulous time with this book. It is science fiction, but also a romantic comedy and a mystery, and a Victorian novel. This book is incredibly smart, and devilishly funny. I read a vast chunk of this over the Fourth of July weekend, when Staehli and I fled to Victoria, B.C. for Canada Day. Victoria has a pretty British sensibility, and it was glorious goofy fun to read about Victorian mannerism and then recognize them in the people I was interacting with. It was a good time. I want to read all of her books now.

Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee

I didn’t actually finish this book, but got 2/3 of the way through it’s meaty 500 pages. This is a book that I actually savored. It’s about Opera, in Paris, in the late 1800s. The description is sumptuous, and female, and everything is filled with intrigue, and court society. It was romantic, and mysterious, and also sort of hypnotic. Chee created a strong, fierce protagonist, and I’m sad that I didn’t finish this book.

Leviathan Wakes, by James S.A. Corey

SyFy turned this book into a television show, the Expanse, which I enjoyed quite a bit for it’s diversity, complexity, and mystery. Needing something diverting to read while on a plane to Arizona to attend my Aunt’s wake, I brought this along, having lent it to Matt Beman for several months before I actually opened it up. This was a quick read, especially when I already knew most of the plot beats, but at the same time, I really like what the TV show has done with it: I think it lent crucial diversity and perspective that the story needed to broaden out. The television does a good job with the character depictions, motivations, and the subsequent tragedies that move them. I think more of this book actually comes to life in the TV than in the page. Yet, the show only covers 2/3 of the book, leaving the biggest twists for the future. Suffice to say that when the book goes big, it goes big and insanity totally results for a change. I didn’t really feel a need to keep reading, as the writing was pretty pedestrian, but would recommend this for someone looking for a rip-roaring space opera adventure.

Dissident Gardens, by Jonathan Lethem

One of my creative writing teachers, the one who has been published the most actually, she said my stories reminded her of Jonathan Lethem’s work, specifically Men and Cartoons. He’s been on my to-read list ever since. I tried reading Chronic City, but gave up after it was too dreamy, and I didn’t care about the central mystery/metaphor. Kate had an ARC of this on her shelf, and I had heard it was one of the best Lethem books in years, so I borrowed it. I didn’t get it. I mean, it was fine. The book was about Jewish communists/radicals in the 1950s until the present, including some nice stuff about the Occupy movement in the end, but it was all so intellectualized, so high-falutin, so distanced that I had a difficult time caring about any of the characters. After a few misses, I am not excited to read much more of Jonathan Lethem.

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

An Indiespensable book. I will be honest, and say that I fell of the wagon with some of my books from Powells. I have a few still not read, but each one has been good, and usually surprising. Homegoing is the debut novel of Yaa Gyasi that tracks the stories of two half-sisters from the beginning of the slave trade until present day. Each character gets a chapter, and represents a portrait into Ghanian or American worldview during that time and place. Gyasi does an excellent job embodying each character, making them realistic, dropping hints about their future, connections to the past, and how some things come through, and how some are forgotten. I stopped this book about 1/4 of the way through when my Aunt was dying and I needed something less serious, but picked it back up again after a break and devoured the last part. This was a challenging, good novel that made me happy to have diverse reading habits.

Fall

Authority, by Jeff VanderMeer

I didn’t set a goal for myself in reading this year, no number, no book bingo, I just wanted to read freely for a year. I expected myself to read the big thick books that I said I was going to read, but I really didn’t get around to that this year either. I did work my way through some of the things that had been sitting on myself, which included reading the Area X trilogy. Authority is the second book in the series, and re-reading it was pretty valuable. I caught a variety of details I didn’t catch before, and understood more of where the series was going. Annihilation acts as more of a keystone that I expected, and Control’s descent into the weirdness, and the madness he flirts with there is realistic, on-par for genre conventions.

Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer

Last year, I wrote that I enjoyed Annihilation because it doesn’t really explain it’s weirdness, just hints at it. This book unfortunately explains, but does so in a way that isn’t quite satisfying. This is sort of the problem with most horror, the unknown is usually better than the known. Here the knowing robs the story of some of its punch. The jumping around in time is okay, but I didn’t have a very compelling reason to like some of the characters, who seemed to dredge up more mysteries that were unsolved. Again, the first book acts as more of a keystone to the whole story, as we revisit and explore the events of the first book from different perspectives. This is illuminating, but at the same time, I’m not sure I cared about the characters as much as VanderMeer wanted me to. That fault may be mine.

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

Lucinda and Jake both recommended this to me. Staehli and I visited Elliott Bay Books one weekend in the Spring/Summer, I decided against buying this book, and then found it in a free little library on our walk to a tea shop immediately afterward. Good choice me! I wanted to read more female authors, and this book totally delivered for me. The story of a wayward ship AI trapped in the body of a human, and her goal to set a trap for a similar entity, it’s an excellent exploration of justice, morality, individuality, and also gender. The last one is in part because the ship generalizes by calling everyone “she” regardless of their actual gender, due to a quirk in the original linguistic programming.. This subtle shift in perspective makes the reader question their assumptions. I very much envisioned an entirely female military society until they kept mentioning this woman’s beard, and I realized a character was male. This change complicates normal interactions, sexual interactions, and all sorts of things. I really appreciated the change in worldview, and made me re-examine my own assumptions about default modes. Leckie also admirably builds up a world with characters I did care about, with consistent motivations, and an interesting history. I understand that there are sequels, and I’m not sure what direction they’ll go in, but I am interested.

When She Woke, by Hillary Jordan

A book club book. This is a version of The Scarlet Letter, and most of book club liked the first third of the book, that hewed pretty closely to a future version of the Scarlet Letter: abortion is illegal, as there exists a reproduction gap. There is also a new harsh penalty for anyone who breaks the law: they are “chromed” meaning dyed a bright color consistent with the type of crime. Our narrator is bright red, and faces all sorts of new discrimination because of her choice. However, once we get exposed to a wider world, the book begins to lose its way. Characters make asinine choices that barely make sense, and there are jumps over details, tidy wrapping up of story that doesn’t really call for or need it. This was actually a fun book to pick apart, because it has the elements to be really good, but didn’t stick the landing.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things, by Iain Reid

I think it was the Millions’ Preview that put this on my radar, but I hated this book, and only finished it in a pitch that could be described as hate-reading, something I almost never do. I hated the main character, I hated her boyfriend more. I hated the twist at the end, and I hated the dumb non-sensical choices the characters made to get there. I hated the reasons the author attempted to justify those choices, I hated the message that this implied, I hated the tone, the structure, I hated the pat little summary at the end, I hated the unsolved mystery of who kept calling our main character, I hated basically all parts of this book. Do not read this book.

The Man in the High Castle, by Phillip K. Dick

A book club book. This was weird to read, especially in the context of the election. America lost WWII, and the country has been carved up between the Japanese and the Nazis. This book reflects the racist realities of both of these regimes, which is awkward reading today. The book jumps around in time and place within chapters, and sometimes from paragraph to paragraph. This reads more like an experiment than a fully-fledged novel, but at the same time, there is some excellent stuff here, and actually it mostly has to do with violence, which I’m not sure is a good thing or not, now that I reflect on it.

The Mothers, by Brit Bennett

This surprise book from Indiespensible was my other favorite book from this year. This is a literary page turner about a secret, and how it affects the lives of three characters. The book takes place just two towns over from where I grew up, in a religious black community, one I didn’t know existed there, but I can definitely imagine existing. Bennett’s writing is gorgeous, especially her writing about loss, conviction, and deciding. There are some flourishes that don’t quite work (our main character Nadia in law school reads a little more like a parody), but otherwise, this is a gorgeous novel that I really loved and want others to read.

Slade House, by David Mitchell

My friend Aaron and I talk about books. We’ve talked about David Mitchell previously, and he was curious to read more. He lent me Slade House, and read Bone Clocks in exchange. I liked Slade House more than Bone Clocks because it plays to David Mitchell’s strengths more: repetition with different flourishes, jumping into different characters and exploring the things that drive them, make them unique but also similar to other characters. However, the sci-fi/horror aspects of this book rely heavily on the previous work of Bone Clocks. I’m not sure how much would get caught by someone who hadn’t read Bone Clocks, which is my finally worry about this book: how accessible is it to someone who isn’t already a fan?

Carrie, by Stephen King

I think of Carrie most in the context of the film, which in someways has come to overshadow the book. Carrie was Stephen King’s first published novel, and the paperback rights made him rich pretty much overnight. It launched his career. I’ve read only two other Stephen King books, and it’s interesting to go back and look at his first book. He’s grown as a writer, tamped down some of his worst tendencies (there is a lot of unnecessary breast description in this book). There are some odd stylistic choices here that probably would benefit from an editor making some choices to clarify, but King does make you feel for Carrie. The ending of this novel is very dramatic, and as you get into Carrie’s head, you begin to really empathize with her and her struggle, as the butt of everyone’s jokes. He really does create a compelling motive for her final ending. It’s all a little dramatic, but it is also effective.

The Future and Reflection

Following the election, and looking back on the year, I was considering my reading habits.

I read

  • 2 graphic novels
  • Three memoirs (counting Bluets)
  • Three non-fiction books
  • 9 sci-fi/fantasy weird books
  • 18 literary fiction

I knew I wanted to read differently in 2017 than I did in 2016. I remember a few years ago that a few folks I respected were reading only women, which sounded good. But at the same time, I looked at some of my favorite books, and I appreciated the book with diverse perspectives and diverse representations: The Sellout, The Mothers, To Say Nothing of the Dog, Mr. Splitfoot, Delancey, even Ancillary Justice. These books do the things that we love about literature, it creates a sense of empathy for people who are very different than us, and I felt that was missing from so much of what I read this year, with white men focusing on white men: I’m Thinking of Ending Things, The Lost-Time Accidents, Leviathan Wakes, The Doubter’s Almanac, Bats of the Republic. I decided this year that I was going to read differently.

So after reading 36 books this year, and only 11 by women (worse than last year by about 20%), and only reading five non-American authors, compared with 13 the previous year, I have decided to exclude white men from my reading diet in 2017. I will only be reading women and men of color in 2017. I already have a list of books I am excited to read, from graphic novels to detective fiction to literary fiction to cook books. I’m exited to read diversely, and I encourage everyone to do the same. It’s a small change in my worldview, but one I hope to continue.

2015 Movie List with Commentary

January 3, 2016

This year, I saw 43 movies. I re-watched 7 movies, went to the movies 12 times, watched saw 4 documentaries, and 9 animated films. Below, you will find my thoughts!

Her

A complicated but good movie. I liked how nuanced the portrayal of love was: between a man and perhaps a computer, or between two computers, or between people even. Set in the near distant future, this was really good. I like it when Joaquin Phoenix isn’t being creepy. He’s a good actor when he isn’t pretending to be a dick bag for the younger Affleck.

Birdman

Staehli and I saw this in the theater. We hated it. It was pretentious. Well-made, but pretentious. I was sad when it won many Oscars.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

This was fun! Although I don’t remember much about this movie, which I think is maybe a problem with a number of superhero movies: lots of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The Brothers Bloom

When we got word that Rian Johnson was writing and directing Star Wars Episode 8, Staehli said she hadn’t seen any of his work. Jake showed her this movie, which was much better than I remember. This movie was more clever, sadder, and funnier than I recalled. Staehli was happy that her crush Rinko Kikuchi was in this movie. She was very pleased.

Only Lovers Left Alive

This is a Jim Jarsmuch movie about vampires featuring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston. If you’ve never seen a Jim Jarsmuch movie, and I’ve only seen a few, they are very dreamy. Meaning, the camera will occasionally go look at something more interesting than the characters, some things happen or are explained with a simple line of dialogue, the plots are very loose, and you watch the characters having somewhat cryptic conversations. It’s a movie that requires some active watching and thinking. They are moody. Perhaps worth a re-watch for more details. I prefer to watch Jim Jarsmuch movies with others, because I can lose focus sometimes. Although this does an excellent job portraying Detroit as a place where things can disappear or re-appear.

Lucy

This movie was terrible. Do not see this movie. It combines ever-escalating action with pseudoscience-pseudo-philosophy into a non-sensical gibberish plot about a human basically becoming the singularity. It is terrible and awful.

The Kingsmen

I didn’t like this as much as others did. There’s some poor treatment of women, grotesque violence, and a weird role for Samuel L. Jackson. This was one of the more memorable movie going experiences that I’ve ever had because a bunch of young people enjoying this movie RUINED the experience for the rest of the old people in the theater. Two separate groups people told us this after the movie.

Under the Skin

Scarlett Johansson the alien. More and more she has been portrayed as not really understanding humans, as being detached. Just in this list: Her, Lucy, and now Under the Skin. Apparently Scarlett Johansson just likes toying with human beings. Beyond that, this movie is great. It was dreamy, but had a firmer plot than Only Lovers Left Alive, although that plot required some attention to detail to understand. It was definitely sci-fi in the old school sense, and wonderfully set in Scotland. I think it had a very tragic ending, although you may disagree.

Obvious Child

Funny, but not uproarious, sad but not weepy. This was a great character piece about an important topic: abortions! This movie never makes light of the choice facing the character, but also doesn’t make it a decision weighed down with other factors. Instead, the film positions the decision as important but also in context with everything else going on with the character.

Waking Sleeping Beauty

I have seen this twice before, and finally got other people to watch it during a night of movie watching. I was glad that others got to see the strange, wonderful history behind the resurgence of Disney Animation in the late 80s and early 90s. You’ll see some faces you recognize and have your eyes bug out of your head, but also some unfamiliar faces that were the actual geniuses behind your childhood. I cannot recommend this film enough. Watching it with Julia and Jake was great.

Frozen

Immediately after watching Waking Sleeping Beauty, we were encouraged to watch a recent great animated Disney film. Surprisingly Jake knew most of the words to the songs.

To Be Takei

Interesting and light documentary about George Takei who is a way more well rounded and interesting person than I anticipated. Somebody usually reposts something he’s reblogged in my Facebook timeline every day. And now his husband has gotten in on the act too. I’m glad Takei is around to spread the message of acceptance.

True Lies

This basically completes my James Cameron series, I think I’ve seen every movie he’s ever made. This was surprisingly good, and also over the top in a way that early 90s action movies were when they were still using practical effects for most things. This film also features a parable about government overreach regarding surveillance 20 years before it became popular. Arnold Schwarzenegger was a total creep in this movie.

Riddick

A ridiculous movie about Vin Diesel surviving near death through monsters, bounty hunters, and more. Much better than The Chronicles of Riddick, in part because the stakes are so much lower. Also, it is weird to realize that Vin Diesel has only been in a handful of movies that were not Fast and Furious or Riddick movies. So long as he’s happy.

What We Do in the Shadows

Funny and low-key mockumentary about vampires in New Zealand. I’m glad I saw this in a theater and with Staehli, because we could both laugh with other people about what we were seeing. This is definitely the kind of movie that would have been much worse without the crowd.

Fast Five

For reasons still mysterious to me, Jake downloaded all of the Fast and Furious movies. We randomly selected this one, which takes place mostly in Brazil, to be the one we would start with. This was a dumb action movie, with some very strange editing. I barely remember the story (stealing….something from…the police? The government?). I worry a little bit about Star Trek since it has the same director.

My Neighbor Totoro

I have seen the visions of Totoro around since I was a kid. I have known that there was an entire movie about this big half-bear half-cat looking creature, but I wasn’t really prepared for what I saw. This movie was cute, and again, was dreamy without much a plot. Some young children move to a new town with their overwhelmed father and sick mother and have to adapt. There was much, much less Totoro than I expected, but there was also this immense, magical lushness to the animation, particularly the backgrounds that blew me away. I really appreciated the craft of this animation a great deal, and also saw connections to Avatar: the Last Airbender both in terms of animation but also story and culture. In some ways, I understand the symbolism here if only because there’s not a ton going on, but the fundamentally sound structure to build on. Imagining your own adventures with Totoro becomes really compelling, it encourages you to play around with Totoro the character, and the close-by world that isn’t entirely out of reach.

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

Staehli’s big crush on Rinko Kikuchi meant we really had to see this movie in theaters. A Japanese woman finds a hidden VHS tape of Fargo, becomes convinced the treasure in the movie was real, and goes to find it, despite not knowing much English at all, or having any semblance of a plan. This movie was weird, uncomfortable, but beautifully shot. Also, an a testament to the willingness of the Minnesota State Patrol to help people. Apparently based on a true story. Staheli has thoughts about this movie re: when people don’t fit into Japanese Society they get ostracized, and the pressure to conform is really, really high. Also, we were very pleased to see a pet bunny called Bunzo.

Big Hero Six

This was cute. I liked that the primary thing the hero is “fighting” in this story is his own sense of guilt in emotions. The cultivation and development of emotional stakes is central to the story. There was also glorious animation in a future San Francisco, and cool side-characters.

Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind

Upon seeing Totoro, I realized that I hadn’t seen many other Miyazaki films. So, I began to try and complete my gaps. First up, Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind. There were more bugs than I was expecting, but it was also more meditative about our actions as a human race, and our role in the world’s ecosystem. There was less swordsmen and fighting, and much better flying. Despite the creepy bugs, this may be one of my favorite of the Miyazaki movies.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America was one of my favorite comic book characters growing up. His sense of justice was always paramount. This movie had some of the key ingredients to be good: the role of spying in our world, the meeting place of our idealism in freedom and justice, the practical applications of security. These are themes and conversations that are pertinent and uniquely suited to Captain America. I did not like the bombast and enormous set pieces that capped off this movie.

Thor: The Dark World

This movie was better than the first one, but still had issues. Loki remains the most compelling character, in part because Thor is a weird character. In the comic books, it’s a little easier to talk about Asgardians as essentially being aliens, and different planets representing the different realms, and playing with alternate dimensions. In the movies, that gets trickier, and when trying to make Thor relevant to the Avengers, rather than just taking care of space business, managing the two demands can be tricky. This movie had roughly the same plot as the second Hellboy movie, and about the same problems. Good visuals, bad motivations, big smashy things.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Bonnie said it best: Sassy banter, explosion, sassy banter, explosion, James Spader. There, now you’ve seen Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Mad Max: Fury Road

This movie never let up. A visceral thrill ride that holds up on second viewing (saw it on a smaller screen with Kate and Peter at Thanksgiving). This was so good for many reasons, and the potential for it to win awards is amazing. I don’t know that I can add anything to many, many articles about this movie.

Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal plays a self-starter who gets into the evening news business, filming footage of car crashes, robberies, arrests, shootings, and more on location. But, how far will he go to make his business successful? This movie is tense, well-made, and Gyllenhaal is completely repulsive, almost lizard like in his affectation of cool intensity.

Stripped

A documentary about comic stips. The dailies that you might read, or the webcomics that came afterward. There were so many different perspectives in making comics, but all of them showed how much work-a-holics comic creators are, totally in love with their characters, driven to see them on paper, but also slaves to the need of content. But also the range of styles: formalists, abstractionists, those willing to integrate pop-culture, those wanting to strive for simple themes. The sheer variety there was great, and I recommend it to comic nerds.

Inherent Vice

I saw this on a plane to Hawaii. That was not the way to see this movie. I want to re-watch this movie because Paul Thomas Anderson deserves better. This movie picks up where the Big Lebowski left off, but with a hint more crime.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

By Friday of our vacation to Hawaii, Staehli and I were sunburnt and tired. We wanted to be in a place that was both air-conditioned and not moving. We had only had air-conditioned moving places (the car) or un-air-conditioned not-moving places (everywhere else). This was more fun than I expected. Tom Cruise was more charismatic, the action was good, and it was perfect for what we wanted: escapism.

Zatoichi

Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman has literally hundreds of films made about him. This was an attempt at a reboot while I was in college that Staehli and Jake recommended. Zatoichi is a blind but excellent swordsman who wanders into a town, and works to try and right wrongs. The special effects were a little cheesy, but the acting and set dressing was good. Watching the behind the scenes demystified parts of the film once I realized certains tics were innate to the actor, not necessarily acting choices that he was making. There is also a bollywood style dance sequence at the end that is neat.

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

I was going to get my last wisdom tooth removed. I anticipated a drug-induced haze on the couch. Staehli and I planned programming of many, many Studio Ghibli movies. To prepare, I watched this documentary about Studio Ghibli, in particular making of Miyazaki’s last film. Miyazaki is a cranky, demanding old coot, but also it solidified some of the impressions from earlier: animators are work-a-holics, dedicated to their craft and obsessive about their work. Every movie is an insane labor of love and worth all of your money.

Howl’s Moving Castle

Who doesn’t want to be a wizard’s apprentice? Grand, well-animated, and more of a plot than some of Studio Ghibli’s films.

Porco Rosso

This is arguably the strangest of Miyaki’s films, and the one I had the hardest time figuring out. It was good, don’t get me wrong, but I think it didn’t live up to some of the traditional themes that Miyazaki works with. It was more of a character piece about a man who got turned into a pig, but was still an excellent fighter pilot in the Mediterranean. The animators made some really gorgeous shots of their invented scenery. I liked the zany pirates and plucky girl. Michael Keaton was both a good choice, and a strange choice to play Porco.

Kiki’s Delivery Service

A girl witch becomes a woman witch. I would argue this is the cutest of all of Miyazaki’s movies, and yes, flying is a trope of his, here I think there’s some interesting scenes and motivations that invoke a true love of flying versus some of his other films. I was sad to recognize Phil Hartman’s voice, who did great work as the cat.

Spirited Away

Prior to this year, the only Miyazaki movie I had seen. It fits better with his oeuvre better than I thought it would, in part because the movie is weirder than I remember. Children: much more likely to just accept new circumstances and go along with stuff than adults. This was also as good as I remember. It was strange to realize how big an impression some things made on me, and how little others did. I thought Zenbaba was a bigger part of the plot, but the boy-dragon a much smaller part. Reverse!

Ponyo

Of the films, my least favorite, I think because it was the most-childlike. Again, animation was gorgeous, but the language was so-so simple.

The Wolf of Wall Street

This film is pretty repugnant, but glamorously and gleefully so. I think The Departed was the last time Leonardo DiCaprio played a decent human being.

The Martian

One of the central features of this movie, I feel, is that everyone is pretty good at their jobs. Everyone makes the right choices, or takes calculated risks, and they either pay off or don’t pay off. I enjoyed this movie a great deal, and it was thrilling to watch in part because I had no idea what the ending would be like.

Crimson Peak

A simple story in a glorious setting. Girl whirlwind marries man who whisks her off to his haunted house in England that oozes red clay. Guillermo Del Toro pumps this simple tale full of atmosphere and visual splendor. It’s a bit of a pity this is so straightforward. It was not a horror film, but instead a ghost story.

Spectre

Bad Bond movie (they’ve gone good, bad, good, bad now with Daniel Craig). I saw this at Thanksgiving with Peter and Kate. We worked to re-write the film after seeing it. It was so bad. It had all the ingredients to be good, but didn’t do anything with any of them. It re-hashed the plots of the past three films poorly, and made references to previous Bond films that didn’t make any sense in context. It was flashy and good looking, but underwhelming.

The Hebrew Hammer

A Hanukkah tradition with Julia and Jake. This movie is comical, never takes itself too seriously, and I wish there were more Hanukkah movies! Word on the street is that there will be a sequel!

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Delivered on most of the promises it made. It was Star Wars. It didn’t go any wild, new places (which made some people upset) but laid the groundwork to do so. This movie harkened back to what made the previous ones good, and re-invested us in new characters (yay women and people of color!). I saw it twice in theaters, and it was amazing both times. A fine way to cap off 2015.