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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.

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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.

2015 Book List with Commentary

January 1, 2016

Winter

The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan

I expected Michael Pollan to be some sort of demagogue, a firebrand, a man calling for the food revolution. Put everyone up against the wall who wasn’t down with the future! Give me Sustainable Farming or give me death! A suave writer with a gift for words and hard science to back it up. I didn’t expect him to be an author who seems almost timid. I had looked at his followers, the people around Seattle who demonize the commercial farming industry, buy all organic and seemed to radiate an earnestness at the farmer’s market, that desperate passion. I understand. Global warming terrifies me too. Maybe Botany of Desire isn’t his best book, maybe his style has advanced, or maybe the seeds of food revolution around Seattle were sown by something else, suspicion over the slick packaging of meat, a series of unhappy meals, a great organic meal, I don’t know. But Michael Pollan was wimpy. He explores four big plants: the apple, the potato, the marijuana plant, and the tulip, and how they influence people just as much as we influence them. He gets in a weird argument with a Johnny Appleseed historian. He gives you the Potato Famine from the plant’s point of view. He gets a little high and describes the room he’s sitting in in immense detail. He explains why the Dutch were insane to sell Tulip Futures. It was no big realization, it ended more in a sputter than a bang. Our book club realized all four of these plants grew in Washington, and we talked about where our food comes from, but I did not have an epiphany about food thanks to Michael Pollan. I did think the apple chapter was the best though. I’ve actually used that chapter in conversation.

Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie

Something I attempted to do more this year was to read local. Sherman Alexie was one of the biggest holes I identified in writers from the Northwest. He gets read in schools, for chrissakes, but the most I’d ever read by him was some articles for The Stranger. I borrowed this book up from Peter. Ostensibly, it’s about a Native American band getting ahold of Robert Johnson’s cursed guitar, and propelling them to fame, although not quite fortune. In simple, clear language and sentences, Alexie sketches out the absolute poverty of the Spokane reservation. He doesn’t make their world maudlin, or over-dramatic, but simply accurately represents their life — the ups, the down, the good times, and the bad. It was good, but very, very sad. After this book, and the rest of the Tournament of Books, I started trying to mix up my reading to include more people of color.

Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch

The third book in the Gentleman Bastards series. Staehli loves this series, and pushed this tome into my hands. I liked this book better than the follow-up, Red Seas Under Red Skies. We got to see more of what Locke and Jean were up to, and the broader context of what their actions meant. Flashbacks also meant more of the characters we liked from the first books came back, and Locke’s first love was explained. There were some fun theater allusions, but I still think the first book was definitely the best.

My Drunk Kitchen: A guide to eating, drinking, & going with your gut, by Hannah Hart

Hannah Hart is amazing. I’m surprised that she wasn’t included in the biggest Youtube earners list by Forbes, although her videos don’t usually make it to millions, but she was able to turn herself cooking while inebriated into a full-time job. Anyway, the Drunk Kitchen videos are amazing, and as Hannah became more confident in her videos, she started talking to other Youtube celebrities about cool projects, took a trip around the US in a Winnebago, and then began teaming up with other stars. Part of the reason Hart has been a success is because she’s such an infectious optimist with amazing delivery. But a big chunk of this comes across in person. In book format, some of the charm was gone, and the writing wasn’t quite up to par. Also, she is self-admittedly not great at cooking, so the recipes weren’t the best. Which is okay, because this is actually an inspirational self-help book disguised as a cook book, reflecting Hart’s own journey from simple entertainer, to entertainer with a message.

Glow, by Ned Beauman

Beauman’s first novel, The Teleportation Accident was a surprise hit for me two years ago. When I heard he had another book coming out, I was eager to read it even when facing down other reading for the Tournament of Books. This book about sleep disorders, foxes, underground dance music, pirate radio, and bizarre psychotropic drugs is fun. It’s a little short, and the plot flits around pretty quickly, and I think we could have a better ending, but this was fun. I think there is a little category of writers who are writing some new, modern day weirdness, one of which I read in the Spring and liked a whole lot more. You’ll see when we get there.

At Risk, by Stella Rimington

Phoebe picked this for book club. Written by former MI5 chief Stella Rimington, this is the first of a series of mystery books. It started off strangely, aiming at that series component with some character background that never really comes up again in this novel. I liked the book more once it turned into a spy novel. A very procedural spy novel, again because Stella Rimington helped run MI5, so there are some fun actualities about trying to find someone who entered the country legally, but it being like a needle in a haystack when you don’t know their name, only their gender. Even though this was written in 2004, there are definite echoes of current issues that surfaced this year: Muslim extremists recruiting European nationals to become willing participants in attacks against their own country. Very current.

The Tournament of Books

All the Birds, Singing; by Evie Wyld

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer

Two of my favorite books of the year were All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld and Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer. This year, Charlotte and I egged one another on to read as many books as we could in The Tournament of Books, by the The Morning News. Many of the books I had never heard of, much less read, All the Birds, Singing especially so. It was recommended into the hands of the organizers by a book shop in Chicago. Both books in roundabout ways are about trauma and not fitting in. I tend to avoid books with trauma as a central theme. The Room, Winter’s Bone, books that evoke abuse are not “go-to reads” for me, no matter how beautiful the writing. I am a reader who does appreciate a good sentence, but I’m reading for plot, for what happens, for exploring new and unknown and forgotten things. Science Fiction and Fantasy were those things for me, and constituted the bulk of my reading for many years, but my 10th grade honors English teacher didn’t see them as “serious books.” When I was told that my taste was bad, that these books didn’t belong, I fell into a funk. Books transport, they give company to the lonely. As an only child, I was lonely a lot. Never wanting siblings, but wanting more friends. Miraculously a friend came along, my friend Wes, who had a more mature taste in movies, and insisted I borrow a few. I think I started with Mulholland Drive or maybe Y Tu Mama Tambien, but it set me down a path to take movies much more seriously, to lend a critical eye to this format of stories too.
My books languished for a year and a half, until my senior year, when I took my AP Literature class, specifically British Literature, and copious amounts of books and plays were on the docket, demanding I read a lot. I didn’t take to Tess of the d’Urbervilles very well, nor Crime and Punishment, but I was enraptured and spooked by what I thought was the much more plausible A Brave New World, enjoyed the punchy pacing of Lord of the Flies, entirely fascinated by the feminist subtext of Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House, spirited away by the weirdness of the Hunger Artists by Franz Kafka. I re-discovered my passion for reading. There was something about the unknown, the weird, the perhaps unknowable entirely outside the bounds of science fiction and fantasy that Mrs. Wheeler taught me to appreciate and hunt for.
All the Birds, Singing, and Annihilation are these kinds of books. All the Birds, Singing alternates chapters going forward and backward in time from a central point (think Memento). We see where our heroine is, and how she got there. Wyld includes some excellent foreshadowing and call backs, which link previous desires and unintended consequences. We start in England then dip back to Australia, where Jack is from and move back and forth. I learned a great deal about sheep shearing, which sounds unpleasant, and we learn about predator and prey, and that complex relationship that stalks its way through the novel, as we struggle to determine what the threats are, and how close they are to breaking down the door.
Annihilation was more in the vein of science fiction, though I hesitate to call it such. Our main character, The Biologist, operates from a scientific point of view, but is exploring Area X, an area the rest of the world thinks is an environmental superfund site, but in reality is something much different, a pristine place where nature has reverted control over the land, and something is keeping it that way, despite the best efforts of an entire organization, Southern Reach, to investigate. This reminded me of some of the early X-Files a little, yet so much more fleshed out, allowed to breathe and explore what the unknowable actually wants, if it even has wants.

An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay

Speaking of books about trauma, this one was tough to get through. This was the one book that Charlotte read before the Tournament of Books began, and she loved it. She had to encourage me to continue to read when I wanted to quit, to put it aside because the Tournament had advanced and it looked like An Untamed State wasn’t going to make it much farther. Charlotte’s encouragement and Gay’s reputation as a thoughtful writer encouraged me to finish the book. In thinking about my reluctance, I think it was my own privilege that made me want to not finish. Reading about trauma isn’t pleasant for me, but with All the Birds, Singing, or Annihilation, there is a veneer of strangeness, of separation that creates a reasonable distance. Whereas An Untamed State is about a kidnapping, and what happens over 13 days to Mirelle, our main character. There is no separation. This story is about dealing with rape, and torture, and the society that creates the circumstances for these to be acceptable options. It is about family pride, and patience, what it takes to heal, or if healing can ever really occur. Reading about these events can be a solace for some readers, for those who need an example of strength, or escape from the normal every-day microaggressions into something more explicit. Seeming something extreme can help you feel a bit better about your own life.. Gay is always careful to escape easy categories. Mirelle is difficult, argumentative, headstrong. When I first read this book, I found some of her behavior with her husband unrealistic — shutting him out, not talking to him for days, ignoring him. That seemed outrageous behavior, who really does this? But having read Americanah at the very end of the year, I am thinking that this might just be truly different way for black women to approach relationship problems, and I am culturally white, so I’m not exposed to this style often. Overall, I’m glad to have read the book.

A Brave Man Seven Stories Tall, by Will Chancellor

I read two different novels loosely about college or at least college-aged characters for the Tournament of Books, and had very split feelings about them. A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall is a book about the in-betweens of life. As such, it’s difficult to pin down. Chancellor covers American academia without ever making this a campus novel. He takes us across Europe, but this is no travel novel. Main characters Owen Burr and his father Joseph Burr grow and grow, finding themselves, but you would be hard pressed to call this a coming of age tale or a bildungsroman.Owen Burr, the Olympic level athlete loses his eye in a college water polo match, dashing his hopes as a career. He splits for Europe to start a career in art, and his worried father Professor Joseph Burr follows him months later after no contact. The characters attempt to take their place among the many, many allusions, name droppings, and outright fictionalizations of famous artists, philosophers, poets, musicians, and politicians. I did my best to recognize many of the philosophers, but some of the artists left me totally blank. Chancellor seemed to honestly want to have a far-ranging conversations about the in-betweens of the world, one that made many, many references as examples. His characters chat about somewhat odd topics: like what would be your top three albums of all time that you could never listen to again? Or when does performance art start or stop? or why do the Olympics matter?  It’s a messy novel, all over the place, but never displeasing. It has a genuine desire to talk about these subjects that I enjoyed and connected with. I enjoyed my weird time with the novel, and wanted good things to happen to the characters.

Wittgenstein Jr., by Lars Iyer

This book, I almost didn’t like. In fact, this book was one of my least favorite books of the year, right up until the last thirty pages. Until that point, Iyer has been writing highfalutin academic prose light on most of the details, setting the campus life of parties and drugs against the academic contortions of a possibly too-brilliant philosophy professor, as we follow a sympathetic student, very worried about his professor’s state of mind. Toward the end of the novel, Iyer made a choice (that maybe others saw much, much earlier than I did) that put the beginning of the novel in a totally different light. Then I actually really liked the book. In part because it did something powerful: it normalized an experience of a minority, without us knowing the character was a minority. This book made me question all of my assumptions as a reader. Beyond that, this novel is pretty slight, and I have absolutely no idea who I would recommend this to.

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

Another novel featuring British campus life, this novel is somewhat controversial. If you’ve never read any David Mitchell, then this next part may get a little complicated, but I will do my best.
Prior to this novel, I had read two other David Mitchell novels: Cloud Atlas, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. I had mixed feelings about Cloud Atlas (see Fall for more on this one), but loved The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. In reading the both of them though, and talking to others who have read other David Mitchell novels, it’s clear that Mitchell has a definite style: one that’s gently funny with snappy dialogue, has a mixture of the unexplainable fantasy softly woven into the narrative (never outright science fiction or the workings of God, but far flung chances, or strange obsessions repeated). Typically, they are presented without comment. His books often have fractured narratives, meaning we switch characters and perspectives throughout the novels. Mitchell has proven himself an adept writer about different styles – science fiction, histories, modernist comedies, near-future dystopias. Although while Mitchell’s writing is top notch, I have questions about his overall goal. Is he just mimicking things, or using them to prove a point? The themes seem to be both about not being able to explain everything in life, but also the futility of trying to do so. Does everything need an explanation? That’s one of the central questions at root for the criticisms of The Bone Clocks. Because it turns out that all of his books, as disparate as they have been, all exist in the same ur-narrative, and their keystone is The Bone Clocks. Characters or relatives of those characters from each of those novels pop into the narrative around a new character: Holly Sykes. Holly can hear voices as a kid, and the voices graduate to Ms. Constantin, a late night visitor who tells Holly not to tell others about her visits. But eventually Holly tells her mom, who takes her to visit a nice Doctor, who makes the voices go away. As the book skips around in perspective, Holly is always a figure, a central piece as she travels around Switzerland, marries and has children, becomes an author, and grows old.  As the secret world parallel to ours is revealed, the voices in her head are revealed to not just be idle chatter, but something far more strange but also somewhat sinister.
But in writing this book, some argue that Mitchell retroactively makes his other books worse because he explains and explains. The mystery and the associated thrill of not knowing, disperses under the weight of explanation. Mitchell is a good enough writer that I kept enjoying the book the whole way through, but upon reconsideration, and thinking about what I’ve read, I was dissatisfied with the novel. Where Jeff Vandermeer and Evie Wyld chose to keep their mysteries hidden, Mitchell exposed his to the light, gleefully explaining why things were happening. And as it turns out, that makes the novel less fun. There is a tradition in Science Fiction of presenting a new concept, a new technology, and then examining how that one alteration affects human behavior. But the fascinating part of that kind of science fiction is the human exploration of how we would behave and react when exposed to a new situation. Mitchell instead apes the worse science fiction novelists who want to explain how the cool thing they invented works, and why it’s important. It removes the human element, and I think that’s what this novel and some of his others are missing: that fun sense of humanity. It comes across as an imitation, rather sincere. The sentence by sentence construction works, but the overall feeling of satisfaction or revelation never comes through.
Obviously I had some feelings about this book, and this New Yorker article by James Wood helped me sort through those feelings very well.

Silence Once Begun, by Jesse Ball

Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun is among the strangest books that I read this year. That and Octavia Butler’s Dawn. Silence Once Begun is written as a series of transcripts of conversations between the author and different people surrounding a man condemned to death 20 years earlier in Japan. Members include his family, friends, and witnesses. The prose is spare, describing the bare minimum of the scenes, and often as a reader you have to interpret the silences, the biases. This is because the central mystery about the man who supposedly murdered 10 elderly folks systematically did not speak at all in police custody, his cell, his trial, or anywhere else. To anyone, about anything. Once arrested, he spoke rarely, only referring back to his signed confession, which turned up at the courthouse with, having signed it in a bar bet. The novel has this strange feel of almost reality. I wasn’t sure if this was based off of a real event and lightly fictionalized, or was written so well that it seemed like it could be real. I was frustrated by parts of this book, liked others, but the twist at the end, and there was a twist, seemed unoriginal, inauthentic.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

I had a lot of feelings about this book while reading it, but find them harder to sum up. Emily St. John Mandel wrote a light apocalypse novel. A disease spreads, people die, some people live, and then they attempt to begin again. We switch back and forth between the beginning of the outbreak and 15 years in the future.
What I like about this novel though is that it is largely about art. Music, theater, comic books, myths, stories, the things we tell one another to survive, to make life worth living. The novel explores where the notion to create these stories comes from, how we create or change those stories, and how those stories can define us, or inform us, or how we can reject them entirely. Or how two people’s interpretation of the same event can spin two wildly different results, based on the information they have. This novel was a pleasure to read, and maybe I should revisit it.

Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill

Charlotte’s favorite book of the tournament. Well written in punchy sentences that depict a certain kind of New York lady. One you may identify with, who maybe drinks a little too much, lives in a too small apartment, and has a job that she likes, but maybe isn’t that great. She gets married, and the relationship takes off and struggles, and attempts to come back from  actions that can’t be taken back. The writing is almost like vignettes, some only a single, short sentence long. We weave in and out of this narrative, like someone’s combined social media postings, except very well written. It is the examination of a relationship, and what that means. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t my favorite.

SPRING

Authority, by Jeff VanderMeer

Upon finishing the Tournament of Books. I read the second book of the Southern Reach Trilogy. Alas, the Biologist is gone, but instead we get Control. We get a look inside the disorganized backwater institution attempting to understand Area X. We discover that maybe living on the edge of something unknown has a profound effect if you start paying attention. Not quite as good the first, but still excellent and weird. At the end of March, I pledged to read more books that I already owned.

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

How to describe Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway. It is a genre book without irony. There are no nudge nudge, wink wink references to other books or films. There is only the pulpy plot: a man accidentally fixes an old clockwork doomsday device and must prevent the end of the world. There is a bad-ass lady spy, a mad scientist, London gangsters, a possibly immortal Nepalese warlord King, sewer scavengers, and mad monks who built the Art Deco crossed with steampunk technology. And all of it is taken seriously! Harkaway writes like Charles Dickens, with intricately described background characters popping up for a scene or two before fading back to whence they came. The world feels lived in, like there are more stories to tell. This was some of the most fun I had reading all year. This was the book that absorbed me, made me read past my stop on the bus (more than once). A rip roaring tale with some actual character growth.

Self-Inflicted Wounds, by Aisha Tyler

A book club book! This is the only audiobook I “read” all year. Thinking about it now, and my predilections towards audiobooks, I prefer people reading their own material, and I prefer people talking about themselves. So I guess I only like audiobooks if they’re memoirs/ personal non-fiction like David Sedaris? Regardless, this was fun. Aisha Tyler was an enormous nerd, grew up in a strange family (her dad sounds like a total badass), and injured herself a lot. She tells her own story pretty well, and doesn’t apologize for who she is.

Dataclysm, by Christian Rudder

I got this as an advanced reader’s copy from Kate. One of the things that lured me to use OkCupid was their neat statistics website OkTrends. It turns out that Christian Rudder ran that part of the website and used a bunch of that data to write this book, re-examining that data with new things from eHarmony, Match.com and other dating website, as well as some general statistics. With this intimate data, he is able to draw some fascinating conclusions. Because I followed OkTrends religiously, not much of the data was new to me, but he positions to the book as a way to watch people say one thing and do another. Jake calls it lying with actions rather than words. Here the data is laid out across some basic factors of identity and dating, which provides some fascinating insight into issues of race, class,  and culture. We may say we’re willing to date someone of a different race, but how often do you actually message someone from a different race? Rudder is smart about the limitations of his data, and what conclusions he is willing to draw, pointing out flaws and other areas to examine. This was a swift read for one of the only non-fiction books I read all year.

Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon

One of the only books I’ve plucked from a Free Little Library. Chabon has been a little hit or miss with me, I tend to like his longer works, not his shorter stuff. This was the book that solidified that for me though. At first, the idea of two record store nerds in the East Bay struggling with running successful business against new money gentrification, race in a predominantly black neighborhood, and being parents didn’t sounds that exciting. But Michael Chabon is a master of context. Putting familiar ingredients in new situations, drawing out the complexities of time, place, situations, upraising, the myriad of factors that simultaneously make us unique and just like everyone else. I wound up really liking this book, the weird rhythms of the language, the frank conversations about race, class, and gentrification. Chabon doesn’t shy away from the inbetweens, the white guy who identifies more with black culture than white culture, the kid who doesn’t identify as gay but does play around sexually with his other male friend, the cultural importance of home births in some cultures against the recommendation of western medicine. While written in 2012, I feel like this novel was making observations that wouldn’t become mainstream for another year or two.

The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac, by Sharma Shields

I tried to read more local this year. This book was getting some good local press, Sharma Shields is from Spokane, so I decided to go for it. This book reminded me a little of George Saunders, a little of Catherynne Valente, but taking place around the state I call home. The book follows Eli over the course of his life as he attempts to find Sasquatch (or Mr. Krantz), who he met when his mother chose to leave his father for a life with Sasquatch. Weird monsters abound in chapters that read like short stories, but feed into one another. I was alarmed how jaded some of the characters became, how unstable, but then this is a story about monsters, what was I expecting?

Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl

My book club book this year. Charlotte and I both loved the extremely crazy Night Film, the second book by Marisha Pessl. Maddo suggested this to me many years ago, and Book Club picked it. This was not as crazy as I wanted it to be. It reads as a very literate bildungsroman that takes a real left turn in the last 100-150 pages. It’s like Pessl decided that she wanted to give the most insane but potentially plausible answer possible to the question of whodunnit and why. That was the kind of insanity that occurred in Night Film, which is my favorite of the two books. We felt okay about this book. I haven’t had a hit in like two  years at Book Club.

SUMMER

For summer, I played Summer Book Bingo with the Seattle Public Library.

Welcome to the Monkey House, by Kurt Vonnegut

The Collection of Short Stories square. My friend Aaron gave me his kindle shortly after I gave mine to Madeline. His came loaded with some books, and I had always meant to read more Vonnegut, hearing that Slaughterhouse Five, while popular, was not necessarily his greatest work. I was surprised at Vonnegut’s unique blend of New England sensibilities against utterly bizarro situations. It reads like easy-going absurdism, but I really liked pretty much all of this. Alas, I never followed up with more of his work.

Count Zero, by William Gibson

The Published The Year You Were Born square. A re-read, but one I didn’t remember at all. This book was much more coherent and much better than I remember. Gibson has a knack for futurism that I never appreciated until I re-read this. A treatise on power, money, and the ease with which people will trade their humanity for longer life and more power is portrayed on a great scale with hackers struggling to get by, and huge corporations battling for the control. I think Gibson picked up with Bradbury left off.

The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison

The Banned Book square, and a book club book to boot! Most of my experience with Toni Morrison is from mandatory readings of Beloved and Song of Solomon. This is one of the only stories I read this year explicitly from the point of view of a child. It was simple, refreshing, but also incredibly sad. Morrison has a way of sketching out families, traditions, and communities with ease. In book club we talked a lot about internalized racism, but also subtler racism, the ways we act without thinking. You could also see Morrison building her powers as an author here. She already has a voice in this book, but as she wrote more, she became one of the most outstanding authors we have today. I’d be willing to read more Morrison after this.

Neuromancer, by William Gibson

The Prizewinner Square. Gibson wrote the first book ever to win the Hugo and Nebula awards in the same year. It deserved it. I mis-remembers a lot of Neuromancer, and found it very engaging the second time around. I was sold more on Gibson’s talent as an author to uniquely envision the near future. He was right in many, many ways. We don’t live in domes, but the communication, use of technology to placate the masses, the shrinking sense of time, the control of massive corporations, these are all things that have come to pass. All we’re missing is some of the local space tourism, and we’re getting there, we’re getting there. This book played out as a twist on a heist plot, but with enough different and philosophically different that it deserved to be its own thing. I loved re-reading this book.

Dawn, by Octavia Butler

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks square. I had wanted to read Octavia Butler’s Brood series, and when I saw it pop up on the hashtag, I was excited at the opportunity. What I wasn’t expecting was how alien this book would actually make me feel. As I said earlier, one of the immense powers of science fiction is to imagine a new situation, and to explore humanity’s reaction to that situation. In what ways do we adapt, or fail to adapt to the needs of our own survival? Butler composes one of the most powerful, most authentic reactions to encountering an alien civilization that I have read in a long time, possibly ever. The revulsion, curiosity, and difficulty flow throughout the writing. Lilith, our hero, engages in a Henrietta Lacks like exchange with an alien race, trading her cancer for the chance to rebuild human civilization several hundred years after we’ve nuked one another into oblivion. The aliens gathered all the survivors they could, and began experimenting with them to see who could adapt, who could tolerate them, and who could be swayed. Butler creates a novel that I found difficult to finish, but also singularly compelling because of how blatant but also nuanced the discussion of race, attraction, humanity, and gender roles came into play when put into context with the aliens she created. I want to keep reading these books.

Unfamiliar Fishes, by Sarah Vowell

The Set Somewhere You’ve Always Wanted to Visit square. This is a half-re-read for me. Sarah Vowell was recommended to me by some literary friends in 2011 or 2012. I picked up this book, stormed through the first half in an afternoon, and it fell by the wayside. I indulged too quickly and got sick. I picked it back up again to prepare for my Hawaiian vacation. I enjoyed giving this a second chance. Having heard Vowell on This American Life since then, I was able to follow her voice much better than before. I enjoyed learning about Hawaii, and things I learned in the book helped inform my journey! Some of the island history and resulting politics helped me navigate conversations a little better, and figure out where we’re supposed to be going. Also, it helped explain the immense amount of churches on the island.

The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni

The Outside Your Comfort Zone square. I had to read this book for work. I have nothing to say about this book, except that it sort of sickens me to see another book of his on the airport shelves when traveling this Christmas.

The Butterfly Mosque, by G. Willow Wilson

The Memoir square. I don’t read many memoirs, and was having a hard time figuring out what to expect. However, This turned out to be one of my favorite books of the summer, and one I talked up to friends. It made me re-evaluate what I think of as a memoir (my first introduction was George H. W. Bush on The Simpsons), and their cultural currency as unique stories, told by the people who lived them. G. Willow Wilson is a local author, introduced to me by my grandmother in LA. She sent me both of her books. I read Alif The Unseen in 2013, which I thought was fine, but didn’t want to dive deeper into her work. But this was literally the only memoir I had in the house, and it was waiting to be read.
Wilson writes about her conversion to Islam as a teenager, her decision to teach abroad in Egypt, and falling in love with a local man. This book is so wholly about different cultures colliding, coming to terms with the choice for assimilation — become an ex-pat or make the jump to “go native.” It’s a rich topic, especially within the religious context. As Americans, our culture expects immigrants or visitors to go native in America as quickly as possible (while we also remain skeptical about their motives or true allegiances), yet we seemingly cannot understand Americans who immigrate to other communities, for love, for politics, for a better chance at a life they don’t feel comfortable with here. For me, this book showed me a unique perspective, and opened up a whole new world for me that was hereto unknown. I very much want to read Wilson’s other work now.

Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson

The Graphic Novel square. I had heard about Nimona before, but never committed to reading it. I saw Noelle Stevenson’s art on Tumblr (dwarf racist party dad) but didn’t connect the two. Kate lent the book to Charlotte, who lent it to me. I really, really enjoyed this. Comic books are strange things. We develop language through imitation, first learning to speak, to associate words with objects. Then we begin to ascribe meaning to the objects and the words. When we are learning to read, we see pictures of the objects we learn the words for, learning the shape of the sounds that we say to convey the meaning of our thoughts. Eventually, as we grow older, the pictures drop away into simple text. Not so for comic books and graphic novels, which keep the dialogue, but eschew description for a visual language, one that maybe we have forgotten to read, or must re-learn how to read. Visualization is how we first learned to communicate, and there is something about the combination of words and images that I think is still potent and different than what a standard novel may put forth. I loved Nimona, in part because Stevenson plays with shapes and our expectations about what those shapes mean, quite literally. Nimona is a girl, or at least seems like it, who teams up with the villain of a kingdom, but maybe he is not the villain? Like I said, Stevenson’s art toys with our expectations of visual language, and begins to subvert our readings for a more engaged and thoughtful presentation of identity.

Monster of the Year, by Bruce Coville

The From Your Childhood square. Bruce Coville was my favorite author as a kid. Jeremy Thatcher Dragon Hatcher, Jennifer Murdley’s Toad, I Left My Sneakers in Dimension X, The Search for Snout, these books helped define my childhood. They blended monsters and mystery with science fiction, with the child’s narrative of being special or selected, chosen to go on this grand adventure. As an adult, there are many things that I can see as borrowing or being homages to great works of science fiction and fantasy, adapted for a child’s eyes. Monster of the Year was a favorite of mine as a kid, because we loved Halloween. Although I now see it as being pretty slight (two kids accidentally run a Monster of the Year contest that attracts your classic movie monsters who turn out to be real) compared to some of the other richer works that develop the characters more. Something I like though is that Coville makes an interracial friendship just because, and also a Step-Dad. Normalizes it for kids! I read this in like 90 minutes.

This One Summer, by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki

The Finish in a Day square. Another graphic novel, this one pushed into my hands by Staehli. This One Summer reminded me of Blankets, but in a good way. The story follows two girls, Rose and Wendy becoming teenagers at a lakeside cottage. This is apparently a summer tradition, but things are different as they age and begin to adopt new interests: horror movies and boys, and not engage with others, like horsing around and swimming. Rose’s parents are arguing about things that seem incomprehensible to her, and we begin to catch on. This is a subtle work that boasts amazing art, in particular for swimming scenes. There’s a lot of rich visual language in swimming that the Tamaki’s play with, in particular for navigating out of the shallows of childhood and into the deeper waters of adolescence and teenagerdom. In the same way that Craig Thompson plays with the blankets of snow, blankets on a bed, and blanket emotions in his teenage graphic novel, The One Summer plays with swimming into the deep end. I really liked this book.

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

The Author Under 30 square. This book came up last year in the Tournament of Books, and I put it on my to-read list. I forgot about it until I saw it in a bookstore when I was visiting a bookstore in Victoria, Canada  last year (Munro Books, founded by the short story and now Nobel Prize winning Alice Munro!). Researching writers under 30, Catton was one of the only non-children’s writers I could find. She was 29 when this was published and won the Man Booker award. The Luminaries is quite a good, a take on old-fashioned Victorian novels, where a group or one specific man recounts his travails to an audience. Yet this one is given a twist by adding usually unheard of voices in New Zealand: Chinese laborers, native Maori tribesmen, the underclass, an unwilling prostitute, their actions all mapped to the zodiac during a specific period of time. The plot is actually dictated by star patterns. I don’t pretend to know the zodiac, but the novel is entirely pleasurable beyond that piece. Neither Charlotte nor Kate could finish this, and I can see why. Unless you’re super intrigued by the central mystery and willing to wade through the artifice, you don’t have a chance. I did both and was very pleased with my decision. It also reads well for extended sessions, as this is what I read on the plane back from Hawaii.

Heat, by Bill Buford

The Re-read square. This was my second or third re-read of Heat. I find new things in it each time. Essentially the history about Italian Cooking through the starting point of Mario Batali, but also about the growth of the celebrity chef industry, this reading one made me want to visit Italy more than in previous versions. I found the portrayal of early Food Network fascinating in a sort of anthropological sense. The network has changed so much from its origins as a sort of “how-to for different cuisines” roots. Now it is basically for foodies. I did some research, and Bill Buford alludes to writing a book about French Cooking after thoroughly exploring Italian cooking for this book. 10 years later, that is still the case, as he researches and prepares different French food. I cannot wait for that book!

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Turned into a Movie square. Also a book club book! Kazuo Ishiguro got a lot of press earlier this year for The Buried Giant. I forgot that he also wrote this book about a sort of dystopian future England where certain children are very sheltered from the world in order to prepare them for a life of working in hospitals. We follow Kath, as she cares for the sick and dying all over England. At least that’s what it appears to be, but as we’ve learned, not everything is as it appears. Never Let Me Go is a strange little tale, written so close in this insular world that doesn’t seem bad, but more existentially exhausting. Roads and sick rooms, Kath’s existence seems so lonely, despite being primarily about her kept-up relationships with her friends from school and their time there. There are some echoes of Britain’s best paranoia books like 1984, but also some of it’s exquisite domestic fiction, which Ishiguro wrote, famously “The Remains of the Day.”

Native Guard, by Natasha Tretheway

The Collection of Poetry square. I don’t read much poetry, despite writing self-professed poetry texts for five years now. I still have a few  poetry collections on my bookshelf, but I was reading for speed, and all of them were at least 350 pages long. Native Guard, the prize winner of the bunch, was also the shortest at just under 90 pages. A true chapbook, rather than collection of a poet’s entire work. I really liked this, in part because I got a much clearer sense of theme from this collection. Tretheway writes about race, specifically the heritage that can come with family, the good parts and the bad parts, and dealing with the frustration and weight that can come with family, but also the pride and purpose of identity that is the second edge of the sword. I had read some of these poems in college, and was glad to come back to them anew. Also, it turns out that I really like imagery about skeletons, bones, and earth, which feature heavily.

Artful, by Ali Smith

The Checked Out From the Library square. I thought it was going to be non-fiction, a collection of essays and topics. Then the book turned out to be a book of fiction based on a series of lectures Ali Smith gave as a guest lecturer. But they’re framed as her deceased husband’s lectures (which may be truth), and during the middle of each, her writing wanders off to more journaling type work about seeing her dead husband (like something out of a George Saunders story), and her trying to re-build her life after his death. It’s a story about criticism, the things we leave behind, and the importance we give some things. I’m still not sure what I think about this. Some gorgeous writing, that was almost more about the rhythm of the words than their actual content, which is usually not my thing. I think that is why I struggle with it.

FALL

Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link

A short story collection. This was a book club book, but I read it after we discussed it. Link has long been on my to-read list, but on the back burner. I leaped at the chance to finally read her and was surprised. She’s a formalist and an absurdist. Some people don’t realize this, but absurdists are usually excellent formalists, because they must know the conventions they want to break, and the ways they break cleanly, so the reader will want to continue reading, no matter how weird the story gets. At the same time, Magic for Beginners is a bit dated. I feel like Link is riffing of a certain kind of literary fiction written around the 90s and early 2000s when this came out. Having read some of those books, I’m able to pick up a bit of what she’s throwing down, mocking traditional gender roles, wholesome families, workplace dramas, and retellings of fairytales. These were pretty rote for the time, and I had to read a lot of these short stories in my undergrad class. She twists these conventions until they scream, turn into cats, turn into men wearing cat costumes, and then turn into mean wearing cat costumes on a television show you meant to watch but never did. They’re interesting intellectually, but I wouldn’t say they’re a fun read, necessarily.

Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

Or as I called it: Neal Stephenson’s overly elaborate D&D Campaign. This is really two different stories sort of smooshed together. In the first two thirds of the book, humanity struggles to survive when the moon randomly explodes. Significant questions about getting people into space, who to send into space, and how to survive there while the moon then rains down comets for about 5000 years makes for good science fiction. There are real stakes, interesting characters (including a Neil DeGrasse Tyson mock-up), solid science, disturbing political dynamics, and some fun dry humor. The last third of the book jumps far into the future and literally plays like a D&D Campaign. I would love more stories to occur in the world that Stephenson has created in the last third, although I’m not sure how likely that will be. I read this over a weekend when I was really sick, so this may be worth a re-read.

Titus Groan, by Mervyn Peake

I tried. I really did. This was my second crack at Titus Groan. I got 300 pages into this thing, an oddball series written by one of the official British WWII artists dedicated to portraying the war. The only novels he ever really wrote were the Gormenghast Trilogy, which starts here. But the plot was stagnant, taking forever to move, all the characters are grotesque, and our title character is a baby for the majority of the entire story. It wasn’t fun to read, and wikipedia told me that it took another book before things really got going. WIth that death knell, I gave Kate back her family heirloom copy of the book.

Tuesday Nights in 1980, by Molly Prentiss

The worst book I read this year. I wanted to join Indiespensible all year, and finally managed to snag a spot in September. My books shipped in October. The actual book they sent was Did You Ever Have a Family, see below. They also sent some coffee and an Advanced Reader Copy of this book, Prentiss’s debut. It is terrible. I liked reading about art scenes in A Brave Man Seven Stories Tall, but these were interminable. The male characters were all brilliant and selfish, the female characters were long-suffering muses, New York played itself, and I didn’t care about anything. I regret this book.

Mona Lisa Overdrive, by William Gibson

To cleanse my palate, I decided to finish off the Sprawl Trilogy of William Gibson. This was again a quick propulsive read, bringing together characters from the first two novels as they attempted to deal with the consequences of spawning out a truly unregulated Artificial Intelligence, one that didn’t want to conquer the world, or destroy humanity, but instead had an existential crisis and fractured into many different personalities that take the form of Haitian Voodoo gods. That’s when things got weird on this version of the internet. This was a satisfying conclusion on the whole trilogy, and it made me want to take up some of Gibson’s other novels.

Lumberjanes, by Noelle Stevenson

For our one year anniversary in October, Staehli gave me a packet of graphic novels, which made me very pleased. We had both read Nimona, and I wanted to read Stevenson’s more regular work: Lumberjanes. I was totally pleasantly surprised. One of the TV shows we fell in love with this year Gravity Falls, and Lumberjanes reads as an alternate version of that: girls in the woods at slightly dangerous feminist summer camp battling against potentially supernatural forces that includes references right out of Indiana Jones. This was fun, affirming, and well-written. I definitely want to go back and re-visit this

Did You Ever Have a Family?, by Bill Clegg

The actual book I received for my Indiespensible package. I was afraid to read this, because it sounded sad. It didn’t sound like a book I would have chosen for myself: the morning of a wedding in small town Connecticut, tragedy strikes, people die, and everyone has to sort through their grief. This sounds like weepy literary fiction, the very kind that I find little to no interest in. But the tastemakers at Powell’s didn’t pick wrong here. I was surprised at how moving the writing was, how well it navigated small town politics, and different voices of characters. I was blown away when a small town on the Washington coast, Moclips, became a major setting of the novel. A bunch of friends spent two long weekends in that small town, and one time both Charlotte and Phoebe stayed in the very motel Clegg sets the novel, I think in perhaps the same room. This blew my mind, and it made me re-think about my connection to local fiction. It was a total surprise to see something that connects to me and the setting I find myself. I try to buy local with my groceries, my gifts, my booze, why not my literature? How many times do I need to read about New York, a place I have visited, but have no real frame of reference for? Many of the unfilled squares on the Summer Book Bingo were local things: local authors, stories set in WA. I was pleased when I read about places around here, and I want to make a bigger commitment to reading local in the future.

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

A re-read for me, but a Book Club book. Having had such strong feelings about the Bone Clocks earlier this year, re-visiting Cloud Atlas wasn’t high on my list of things to read. But the opportunity to re-visit helped crystalize some of my thoughts about Mitchell as an author, but also organize my own perceptions. I think Mitchell is the least successful the closer he gets to contemporary times in Cloud Atlas, and when he is more speculative or historical, he benefits enormously. I think that is because we can tell when he’s not being realistic or emotionally honest, whereas the abstraction of setting in these other places helps distance us from an emotional reaction. I was better able to follow the similarities in each of these books this time through, how each story sets the other one up, and the theme becomes clearer and clearer as time goes on. It was also fun reading about Hawaii again, having been in some of the exact spots mentioned in the book. That was a lot of fun. I would still recommend Cloud Atlas to a certain kind of reader who was curious.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I won this book at a training for the college. I galloped through the first half, put it on a shelf and didn’t pick it back up again until almost a year later. I’m glad I did. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie got a little internet famous a few years ago for her fabulous TED talk about the danger of a single story. The story most people have of Africa doesn’t acknowledge the fact that there are over 50 different countries there, each with its own government, culture, middle class, city life, and way of being. This book does well to help dispel some of the stories I had about Africa, while illuminating the African perspective into America and England. Adichie is a keen observer of race, class, and how those things change depending on what country your in. Race doesn’t matter so much in Nigeria, but class matters much more. In America, we focus so much on race rather than class. In England, class stratifies within a race too. We follow Ifemelu and then Obinze as the grow up in Nigeria, and then seek lives outside the country before returning. This is a book both about its characters, but also the way they experience those huge concepts of race, class, culture, and being ex-aptriots. I would recommend this to a wide audience.

The Martian, by Andy Weir

Another book club book. I saw the movie in October (it’s great!) This is more science than fiction. Weir dreams up some neat ideas, and commits to the scientific principles. His gift isn’t in the writing though, and telegraphs some of the “twists” without any subtlety. But that’s not quite the point, I suppose, since Mark Watney is in an environment that is trying to kill him at seemingly all times. This works pretty well as a fun science thriller, where also everyone is doing their jobs pretty well. That’s something that I think is really fascinating: everyone is working at high capacity to get work done, and yes, mistakes are made, but they are calculated mistakes, rather than sloppy ones. I think you could watch the movie and do perfectly well.

Saga, Volume 3, by Bryan Vaughn
Saga, Volume 4, by Bryan Vaughn
Saga, Volume 5, by Bryan Vaughn

Staehli gave me volumes 4 & 5 for our anniversary. I re-read three to remember where things were going. We jump around in time, the inter-species family goes through some really messed up travails (what do fugitives do for work?), but some of my favorite developments were from people outside of the family: the Will, his sister, Sophia, and of course, Lying Cat. For anyone looking for a comic book with gorgeous art that isn’t about superheroes, but is science fiction/fantasy, Saga is an excellent option.

Statistics

I read 51 books this year, one shy of my 52 goal. I read:

  • 6 graphic novels (not counting the regular comic strips I read)
  • 2 memoirs
  • 4 non-fiction books
  • 8 science-fiction books
  • 2 short story collections
  • and 23 fiction novels

I re-read 6 books. I read 29 books by men, and 22 books by women (better than in previous years!). I read primarily Americans: 35. 5 Brits, 4 Canadians (3 being William Gibson), an Australian, an New Zealander, a Nigerian, and a Native American from the Spokane tribe.

Of the books I read, 26 primarily featured women characters, and I was all over the place with character identification in terms of race. Lower on the LGBTQ/ability spectrum.

Next year, I think I will spend some time tackling those longer books that have sat waiting on my shelves, the fat books I have been avoiding. I think I will focus less on numbers, and more on clearing the queue of the likes of A Naked Singularity, by Sergio De La Pava, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, and maybe even Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, which I bought while drunk.

Happy 2016

2014 Book List with Commentary

January 4, 2015

For the past six years, I have attempted to read 52 books a year, or roughly a book a week (graphic novels included). Various years have been successes, others have been incredibly challenging. In 2011, I only read 16 books, in 2013 I read 55. This year, I only read 45 books, although I read considerably fewer graphic novels than I usually do. This year, I spent less time traveling, but spent a whole lot more time dating. I dated 12 different people throughout the year, and was in and out of relationships for about half of the year. I also spent a lot more time writing in my journal. I made it about 2/3 through a brand new journal in just a year, which I think the most I’ve ever written about myself. I also took up running as a hobby, completing both a 5k and a 10k this year. I also started playing a lot more boardgames this year, which I think is a very pleasant way to spend an evening. So, I diversified my interests, and how I spent my time. When I think about my reading that way, I’m a little surprised at just how much I did actually read. Of course, my reading ambitions are always bigger than I can seem to manage.

Kate and Charlotte were big cheerleaders for my reading habits this year, and both have read many, many more books than I have this year. Although Kate works for a bookstore and Charlotte can read much faster than I can. One of the things Kate and Charlotte inspired me to do was create a spreadsheet of books. which has revealed some interesting things about my reading habits. I have read 14 Graphic Novels, only 5 non-fiction books, 6 fantasy and sci-fi books, 3 young adult books, and 17 books of fiction. I only read 10 women this year, accounting for 11 books. I was worse for people of color: just 3 appear in my reading. I read 18 books by Americans and 19 by British folks.

This year, I am again putting all of the graphic novels together as a series because I tend to think of those books together.

1. Paris I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down, Rosecrans Baldwin

In the beginning of 2014, I thought I was going to spend my New Year’s Day with the girl I spent New Year’s Eve with. I planned a special breakfast, I reupped my coffee and tea supply, and was looking forward to a drowsy, happy day. She went home around 1:00am. The first morning of 2014 I made breakfast alone, and settled in with this book, which I had started earlier in the week.

Rosecrans Baldwin moved to Paris with his wife to work for an ad agency. In this quick non-fiction account of his time, we learn about being an American in Paris, and how living in a city where no one speaks your language can be incredibly isolating. Rosecrans spends most of this lunch hours writing and editing a book, and during his evenings goes out dancing a ton with his wife, hosts a lot of dinners because they’re cheaper than going out. You get the insight of an ex-pat life very well, and I would recommend this book to anyone contemplating spending a lot of time abroad. This book had been sitting on my to-read list for years, and kicked off a year of attempting to check off books from that list, which you’ll see more of below.

2. The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

You never know if a book is going to be one of your favorites, or one of the worst books you’ve ever read. I’ve read Pulitzer Prize winners that I’ve loved like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. I’ve also read Pulitzer Prize winners I am entirely ambivalent about: Gilead by Marilynn Robinson and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. The Orphan Master’s Son had won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tournament of Books in 2013. I thought I would give this weird novel about a fictional North Korea a go.

I was glad I did, because I absolutely loved this book. I pressed this book into the hands of my friends Peter and Kate. I would like more people to read this book, especially in the wake of The Interview debacle. North Korea is an oppressive dictatorship like no where else on earth. The control of information, the control of the government is near absolute. Adam Johnson fictionalizes a version of North Korea seen through Jun Do’s eyes. A theoretically normal John Doe, we explore the many facets of North Korea through his unique perspective: from their version of Hollywood to prison camps, their military hierarchy to kidnapping of Japanese citizens. It is both sad and funny, absurd and cutting in a satirical take on accounts of living in North Korea. It’s an amazing book, and one of my favorites I read this year.

3. Poem Strip, by Dino Buzzati

There’s no question that I’m a big fan of the New York Review of Books classics imprint. They’ve revived a number of books I’m incredibly happy to have read like The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy or The Book of Ebenezer LaPage by G.B. Edwards. Other books from their catalog have been challenging, but always different and worthwhile from other things I’ve read. This early graphic novel by Italian Surrealist Dino Buzzati was my first disappointment from them. I found the book in a used bookstore while searching for Conan the Barbarian stories for our short lived Cheap Scotch and Pulpy Fiction book club (see below). Initially, I was excited NYRB had published a graphic novel but this erotically charged re-telling of Orpheus and Eurydice was bland, meandering, and unfocused. I recognize that this may have been groundbreaking at one point, but there are much better graphic novels out there now challenging the form and telling new stories.

4. Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

The first e-book I ever read was The Hunger Games in 2011, and I waited three years before finishing the series, inspired to catch up by the much celebrated movie release of this book. I actually stole this book from the complimentary shelf of a hotel in Bellingham while on a work trip, needing something to read on my train ride back. I meant to mail this book back to them, but this hardback edition still sits on my shelf.

The Hunger Games trilogy does advance and deepen the universe in satisfying ways. I found the deepened theme of literal hunger compelling, as the supposed win in the arena is actually more of a Sword of Damocles situation for Katniss and her family. She struggles and struggles to find a way to live with herself, but she’s haunted by the trauma of the arena. Her willful rebellion against the Capitol also brings her more harm as she’s forced back to arena eventually. There’s much more happening in this novel around Katniss, and the novel is better for it.

5. Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis

Another pull from the shelves of the NYRB Classics Imprint, another book I had been meaning to read for years. Kingsley Amis has been described as one of the great comic authors of the 21st century, and this book his funniest. Yet I find him incredibly dull. There is some comedy in Lucky Jim, a tale about an beleaguered Associate Professor at a provincial college in England attempting to either earn himself some respect, as well as do as little work as possible. I did not find Jim himself to be terribly sympathetic as a character. I wanted to root for him, but he kept spurning any likability with his boorish approach to teaching, his loathing of students, his failed relationships, his fledgling alcoholism. Perhaps this would be better translated to screen than text. This book did challenge me with an unlikeable main character, but in particular Amis’s treatment of women in the novel I found pretty abhorrent. I was very glad the first wave of feminism broke out not long after this novel was written. The weird thing is that this novel is funny, so I was conflicted that I hated many of the characters, but still found myself laughing at many of the jokes and situations. Anyone else ever had this happen to them?

6. Night Film, by Marisha Pessl

This novel bewitched me. I’ve experimented with reading thrillers in the past, and Charlotte recommended this book to me because it made the Tournament of Books Long list. My friend Maddo has long suggested Pessl’s first book Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I wound up loving this book. Pessl experiments with formal elements like including blog post in website format and clipped news photos. She also writes a tense, puzzle-like thriller that resists easy answers, encouraging you to ask what’s real and what’s not real.

The plot, very shortly, is: disgraced journalist Scott McGrath investigates the death of Ashley Cordova, the brilliant but troubled daughter of legendary filmmaker Stanislas Cordova, like if Kubrick had made cult films on the level of Cannibal Holocaust while maintaining the media presence of Thomas Pyncheon. Mysteries abound, and they are delightfully weird. This book is much like it’s own fictional tagline: soverign, deadly, perfect (a phrase I used to describe a friend’s art project just a few short weeks later after reading this).

7. Dune, by Frank Herbert

Except for a few comics, this was my only re-read of the year, as I attempted to tackle books that had been lingering on my to-read list for years. Re-visiting Dune was strange. The first portion of this novel, when Paul is basically a child, takes up way more pages than I remembered. I did like that the quotes from The Princess Irulan that begin many of the chapters make much more sense and give you some nice foreshadowing if you know what’s coming. We read this book for the Cheap Scotch and Pulpy Fiction Book Club, as many of my friends had never read this book. We attempted to watch the Sci-Fi mini-series but the cheap scotch took hold and we lost patience and attention spans. We determined that this book was probably too high brow for us, and we needed something pulpier.

8. The Book of Gin, by Richard Barnett

My friend Nick put this book into my hands because he is an enormous cocktail nerd. I was expecting a lightweight take on gin, maybe talking about TV and American cocktail culture, but there was a surprising depth and thoroughness to this non-fiction tackling of gin. A sociologist by trade, Richard Barnett explores the complicated history of how consuming gin and stronger spirits in general was viewed truly as an act of sin by many in Britain. I was surprised by how close gin nearly came to being outlawed multiple times. I recommend this book to those looking to explore a little more about the history of alcohol.

9. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

I remember when I was a senior in high school, looking through the University of Puget Sound’s promotional materials, they pushed the Ben and Jerry’s Literature House, which combined the wacky ice cream flavors with a book club. The first one my Freshman Year was Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card. I wound up becoming friends with people in the house, but never got involved with the book clubs.

Ender’s Game stuck around in my life. It was recommended to me many times, and Jake and Wali’s drunken conversation about this movie spawned the idea for the Cheap Scotch and Pulpy Fiction book club. I was reminded of my desire to read this book when The Stranger writer Anna Minard wrote about picking up a used copy of the book at the new Twice Told Tales/Bauhaus location in Ballard. While on the hunt for another book, I picked up a copy which has one of the most intimate inscriptions I’ve ever seen in a book.

Ender’s Game has a kind of trick ending, which I knew was coming, but it still took me a little by surprise, because the twist still snuck up on me, happening earlier than I expected in the book. I was surprised at how much was hinted at in this book. Card does well to build a universe in which much is assumed, and how in some ways this book comes across more like YA before that was even a proper thing.

I am sort of interested in continuing more into the Ender series, although I hear things get weirder.

10. The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch

The next selection of the Cheap Scotch and Pulpy Fiction book club. I started this book on Jake’s Nook, when a surprise Kindle came my way from Wali, after he was disappointed with the user interface. This book is the epitome of pulpy goodness. I derived a kind of joy from Locke Lamora that sent me straight back to being 13, staying up late in the summer nights eating cherries and cheese, reading fantasy books. Scott Lynch creates a well-built universe, engaging characters, pulpy dialogue, and a plot that speeds along with plenty of gut punching twists and turns. This is exactly what I wanted out of the Pulpy Fiction book club, exposure to books like this that were pulpy and silly, but also good. A few more of my friends plunged into the rest of the series.

By waiting to get the next few books, I arguably was very forward thinking, as this book helped drum up a conversation online which led to a date, which has lead to a relationship over the past two months. So, this has worked pretty well for me! Go Cheap Scotch and Pulpy Fiction book club!

11. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

The Kindle that Wali gave me had some other books on it, which included this book by Neil Gaiman, which I had been meaning to read, having read every single other Neil Gaiman offering for adults. Phoebe had raved about it when it first came out, and even gone to get it signed at a reading. I loved reading Neil Gaiman when I was younger, it helped bridge my love of fantasy with books with more literary aspirations. Yet, I didn’t like this book very much at all. It felt like a re-tread of some of his other work: Coraline, The Sandman, and even American Gods. Gaiman has a few things that he consistently returns to: powerful beings living out normal-ish lives, observant children, and cats bridging the gaps between different kinds of worlds. All of those appear in Ocean, but none of them seem fresh at all. I was disappointed by this novel a lot.

12. Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games trilogy is compulsively readable, which I think is something Suzanne Collins really has going for her. After devouring Catching Fire in one night, I worked to get my hands on a copy of Mockingjay. The library was able to accommodate my needs, and I chewed through this. At first, I didn’t like where Collins decided to take Katniss and some of the other characters, but as I talked through my feelings with Charlotte, I gained a new appreciation for their journey. I think Collins put a lot of work into giving Katniss some very real PTSD syndromes that were more subtle than I gave them credit for. Once I got this perspective on the characters, just how damaged and dark things had gotten, I was better able to understand the stakes. I wound up really liking the last part of this, though it was very different from where we began in The Hunger Games.

13. Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore

Real Book Club continued apace alongside Drunk book club, though I skimped out on a couple of the novels (see below). Phoebe’s offerings of satires led us to Lamb, which was my first Christopher Moore book. Maddo had recommended them to me for some light and funny reading.

I was surprised, because Real Book Club had just read Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan the month before this, which was really good, and one of the books I wished that I had finished, but I had difficulty getting a copy. Moore, who wrote his book nearly 10 years before Aslan, had arrived at many of the same general conclusions about the life of Jesus, so it was interesting to see how well this book mirrored the historical perspectives on Jesus while also introducing a very American Jewish comedy angle. Moore’s Jokes, specifically for Biff, felt steeped in American comedy history, which has a strong Jewish influence and tone. I laughed and smiled a lot through his book, and would definitely recommend it to people. Reading the afterward for this book gave me a lot of respect for Moore and the amount of research he poured into this book.

14. A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World, by Rachel Cantor

I read this book right around Easter, and the note I have next to this book on my spreadsheet that keeps track of every book I attempt to read was “Weird and not what I was expecting. Why do I keep on choosing books about Jewish mysticism?!” After ZealotLamb, and Dune, I was surprised this book was not a satirical take on service culture in a vein like the beginning of Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson, but instead wound up directly addressing Jewish identity and elements of Jewish mysticism. I originally plucked this book off The Millions 2014 Preview of the year, trusting Melville House Books, who published the odd but enjoyable Aurorarama. 

I did not care for this book, and would not recommend this book at all, however it has forced me to change some of my thinking about Jewishness. When I was a kid, I had approximately one Jewish friend, but films and literature penned by Jewish folks portrayed the neurotic, hairy, nebbish, and bespectacled portrayals of Jews as normal (See: Seinfeld and many Coen Bros movies). Perhaps this is one of the effects of 90s sitcoms and movies being very focused on NYC, which is the cultural capital of Jews in America. Never mind that this portrayal of Jews are in many ways broad caricatures of male Jewishness, but I internalized these portrayals as normal, something to aspire to and model my own behavior off of. I had minimized many of the true serious differences about Jewish culture. My assumptions about these  difference do no justice to the beliefs of the oldest of the monotheistic religions. I have very little understanding of the Torah or its teachings, and so while I may feel like I understand some of the cultural aspects of being Jewish, I was confronted with my ignorance about the deeper aspects of Jewish culture through this book, as well as others in the past: Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon. This is one of the few books I have read that portrays Jewishness as a true other, rather than striving to integrate and assimilate. I may have hated this story, and found the writing to be absurdist in the way that I don’t like, as well as nearly childish, but I did learn a few things from the book.

15. Stoner, by John Williams

Another one from the NYRB Classics imprint. One of the first things I found a little weird about this book is that on the back, there is a blurb from Tom Hanks. I don’t think of Tom Hanks as being a blurb kind of guy, so that caught my attention. Hanks accurately sums up the book this way: “It’s simply a novel about a guy who goes to college and becomes a teacher. But it’s one of the most fascinating things you’ve ever come across.” The plot is simple: a life is lived. A boy goes to college and stays, becoming a professor. While Lucky Jim attempted to skewer the academic life, I felt that Williams truly dresses down the good and bad parts of the academic life in equal measure. There is a joy in helping people discover knowledge, but the stakes and potatoes in a university can be so small yet so many people can fight over them.

I loved this book. It is one of the best things I read all year. I’m not much of a quote person, but I stopped reading to note the following passage:

“In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.”

The writing is gorgeous, and Williams crafts Stoner as a creature of empathy. He also turns out to be one heck of an English professor. I surely would have failed one of the exams they describe in the book. I recommend this book wholeheartedly.

16. Sabriel, by Garth Nix

The last selection of Drunk Book Club. I read the Seventh Tower series by Garth Nix when I was a kid, and I remember the Sabriel series being a big deal then. Reading it now, I appreciated some of the twists and turns the plot took, but the ending felt completely abrupt. This is one of the books I read, unlike the Hunger Games, that felt directed at children. It also had a big sense of flight, as in running from things, rather than battling them, which I didn’t really like. I guess I just want more challenges.

17. Robopocalypse, by Daniel Wilson

I did not like this book. Robopocalypse was chosen for Serious Book Club, and tells the story of a battle between humans and AI in a series of vignettes that tell the story from multiple point of view characters. Many people compared this to World War Z, which covers much of the same territories for zombies. I liked some of the characters, but not many of them, and the author’s reliance on happenstance, coincidence, and other chance encounters were not believable. It’s a little funny that I read this on an e-reader though.

18. Clever Girl, by Tessa Hadley

This is one of my surprise favorites for the year. I plucked this novel from The Millions 2014 Preview, and then promptly forgot why I put it there. My digital hold came through, and good lord this novel just enchanted me. The story Clever Girl tells is a tough one, about Stella growing up in working class 1960’s England, and progressing through middle age. She has a very tough childhood, sleeping in the bed while her mom sleeps on the couch, dad long gone. She succeeds in school, but struggles at home as she wishes her mom and especially her eventual step-dad made different choices. Her life begins a different path, but she shows determination, grit, humor, and subtlety. Tessa Hadley weaves together episodes in Stella’s life that begin to mirror one another, yet also contrast in significant ways. She’ll jump years in a sentence, but languor in a small encounter. I tried pushing this book on Charlotte, but alas, it came and went from her house unread (like so many books).

19. Mink River, by Brian Doyle

Kate recommended this book to me some three years ago. I only made it about 20 pages before I closed the cover up, never picked it up again, and then returned it to the library. I’m glad I gave this a second shot, because again, I loved this book. Brian Doyle is not even a full time author, he works for the University of Portland, and wrote this sort of mystery about a fictional town on the Oregon Coast. But Doyle brings his town to life, incorporating the local Native American stories about the Oregon wilderness, the opera loving cop, the ne’er-do-well Irish family, the sculptors, the school teachers, and the fabulous lists that appear in this book. Sometimes this book feels almost like a categorization of life in Oregon and a small town. Spiritual, magical, real, and sad, this book is one I would definitely recommend to someone who wanted to deepen their love of the Northwest. Arguably, this is one of the most diverse books I read this year because of the heavy Native American influence.

20. Saga, Vol. 3, by Brian K. Vaughan

Jake picked this up for me in Portland because I owned Volume 1 and 2. This was a great introduction to the next stage in the story, and I’ve just spied for my research in writing this enormous review that Vol. 4 is out there. I may have to pick that up. The books are pretty lightweight though, as they don’t stick in my head that well. I think a re-read may be necessary.

21. Deathless, by Catherynne M. Valente

I stalled out on this book. I almost gave up. Catherynne Valente has been on my to-read list for a few years now, after Lev Grossman gave her a plug in one of his columns as someone writing genre fiction extremely well, taking it new places. Valente writes about Koschei the Deathless, a devil-like figure in Russian folklore, and how he enchants Marya Morevna, and how she also bewitches him. This fantastic take on Russian history, and how folklore changes with the country seems like it’s coming to an obvious conclusion before it takes a left turn about 2/3 of the way through the novle and goes somewhere more interesting. I’m glad I persisted in this book, and had a little faith.

22. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

I remember how the world celebrated The Kite Runner. It was all the rage at bookstores, on talk shows. A movie was made, and the American people discovered more reasons to feel terrible about the war in Afghanistan. Hosseini’s novels were recommended to me, but I was afraid of them, because I knew they would be sad, heartbreaking, when how could I afford my heartbreak when I was already distraught about what was happening to Afghanistan?

Serious book club chose this book, and having not read the previous book, I felt obligated to finish this one, and read this entire novel in one day. I was afraid of heartbreak, and to be sure, this book has sad parts, but it also covers the many stories of life, of vitality and middle class existence that exists in Afghanistan. In typical American fashion, we never really thought of countries like Afghanistan as being more than just a few villages. But in fact the throbbing, beating heart of Afghanistan can be found in it’s myriad cities, far from the villages that do exist. Hosseini brings a while country to life, and I was very glad to have read this book. In particular, the passage about a driver who becomes more of a caretaker for an old man was one of my favorite things I read all year. So was the indictment of an American-Afghan and his cultural tourism of his own country.

23. Cassandra, by Christa Wolf

Another selection from Serious Book Club, another challenging tale. Christa Wolf is an East German author with a lot of thoughts about how stories and perspectives become perpetuated. The novel (novella?) of the Trojan War from Cassandra’s perspective takes up only the first 120 pages of a 400 page book, the rest are essays from the author about how and why she wrote the book. She takes an academic perspective about her own writing, but the novel itself is rooted in emotion and passion. Cassandra struggles with her family, her own femininity, and the Trojan political machine as she attempts to navigate the Trojan War. The Greeks are portrayed as the other, these hairy warlike people. Many of the supposed supernatural elements are entirely dismissed and even Cassandra’s second sight is addressed perhaps as canny observation rather than divine observation. This is a very political novel, and one of gender politics. Cassandra was one of the more perplexing but interesting novels I read this year.

24. The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton

Another book that I pulled from The Millions 2014 Preview. I was expecting something that would instruct me on how to become a better traveler, and that is kind of what I got, but not quite. British/French essayist Alain de Botton writes about his travels over the past few years, using the lens of previous famous writers who have been there before him: Baudelaire, Wordsworth, Coleridge. He also explores the idea of travel through the ages. I didn’t love parts of this book, although I will always be indebted to de Botton for one chapter about this book that put into words something I had been experiencing: The Sublime. That feeling, where you are overwhelmed, enveloped, surrounded by natural beauty that grants you just a semblance of perspective? That is the sublime, and what the word was meant to describe: the religious experiences provoked by nature. I have experienced these things just a few times. Once on Mt. Rainier, once in Scotland, some smaller ones in Arizona and the Olympic Peninsula. But it is a feeling I chase, and a reason to travel, to experience the sublime, the feeling of greater than myself.

25. Borderliners, by Peter Hoeg

Without a doubt, one of the most challenging books I read this year. I put this one my “to-read” list several years ago on the recommendation of Nicole Cliffe, back when she was with The Hairpin before starting the phenom that is The Toast. Hoeg’s  writing is simple, and story is also relatively straight forward: three students believe that something is afoot at their Danish boarding school in the mid-1970s. Yet the devil is in the details, because our narrator is an adult relating his childhood as a victim of frustrating bureaucracy that put him in and out of foster homes and orphanages. He was bullied, fought, and discovered more insidious survival techniques which come to play as he attempts to navigate his new school.

The reality of their situation is slowly revealed, but the novel functions as a kind of philosophical treatise on time, and the nature of time in our lives and our need to categorize time. Hoeg approaches these topics in such a straight forward way he brings to question things I had long assumed were just “the ways things were.” The story takes a pretty unpleasant turn, but I felt like I really got something out of this book, and I struggled to find even a major reviewer who was willing to engage with the odd and fantastic things Hoeg wrote here.

26. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin

After Borderliners, I took a bit of a break from reading, though not intentionally. I wound up with this book, which I do not remember how it wound up in my pile. Perhaps The Millions, perhaps some other odd source.. I think I read this book in a day? Maybe two. It is very lightweight and easy to read. This book is also totally aimed at people who read a lot. This book covers the life of A.J. Fikry, an Indian-American man who happens to own a bookstore on an island off the coast of Maine (or is it Massachusetts). Anyway, this book describes the ways that so many books touch the lives of the island residents, and how AJ stubbornly resists building a life and then begins to build a life. This is definitely a crowd pleaser aimed at people who love their local bookstore.

27. The Steady Running of the Hour, by Justin Go

This novel. Ugh. It was long listed for the Man Booker Prize, and seemed like the only one I thought would be interesting. Half of this book (which takes place before, during, and slightly after WWI) is good and well written. The other part, written in the modern day was terrible. I hated our narrator and his boring quest, his stubborn refusal to make good choices. The novel is tonally discordant, and there is nothing compelling about our main character. A debut novel, which makes me slightly interested where Justin Go may write in the future, if it’s more like the WWI chapters and less like the modern stuff.

28. Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers

I am a little afraid of Dave Eggers because I really enjoyed A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius or at least the first 120 pages about his parent’s deaths, which would slightly mirror my own experience. I have been hesitant to engage his other work, but was forced by Serious Book Club, and actually quite enjoyed myself. Zeitoun is a work of non-fiction that covers the Hurricane Katrina disaster from the point of view of a local family. It gives a very separate account of what happened there, and what the true response was like. It lays bear just how ill-equipped law enforcement, the government, and other agencies were to provide necessary aid, while at the same time incredible prepared to jail and punish people. I went to New Orleans in 2013, and portions of the city certainly have not recovered from what happened to them.

There’s a certain life this book has taken on after it was published because Zeitoun and his wife Kathy’s story did not end well, and they were not as forthcoming about their marital troubles. Soon after the book was released, issues of domestic abuse surfaced, ending in a divorce and protection order. These ordeals created an interesting conversation about whether or not these facts change any of the story they provided, or if it shows how the treatment of Zeitoun at the hands of government broke him, rather than the Hurricane?

29. Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

I devoured this book in one long day of traveling to my Grandma Jackson’s scattering. This book is about a weird quirk where Ursula keeps living her own life, getting subconscious suggestions about when to try and steer clear from a situation that may have ended her life previously. It was actually kind of comforting to read about a life that continued over and over and over again on my way to a funeral. Atkinson does an excellent job weaving details, recreating situations over and over again from different perspectives, and creating different potential futures. The narrative is chopped up over different possibilities, and I was glad that I had voted for this book at the Tournament of Books, setting it up as the Runner Up in a tumultuous year.

30. Red Seas Under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch

I had a much longer break in reading following Life After Life. I attempted books, my interest petered out, things got returned to the library, I struggled to finish. I was in a funk. Then I started dating Staehli, based on our mutual appreciation of Scott Lynch. She is an enormous fan of the series and loaned me her signed copy of Red Seas Under Red Skies. This continues the story of Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen, but this time they are pirates, or rather conscripted to become pirates. These books are silly fun, although I liked this one a little less, if only because these parts of the world didn’t seem as sketched out. Locke and Jean weren’t as integral parts of their environment as they had been in Camor. I did like the sleights of hand, the shifting allegiances, but the pirate thing seemed like not necessarily a good choice. I’m interested in seeing what else happens in the series, as Staehli loaned me the next book.

31. Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

One of my favorite books from last year was Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. A few months later, a copy was for sale cheap at Elliot Bay Books, so I picked it up. In the interest of checking books off my list, I finally went and read Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel’s follow up in the life of Thomas Cromwell. I felt like this book began with a bit of retreading before settling back into Mantel’s gorgeous prose. This book didn’t capture me as much as Wolf Hall did, but it did do something that other readers describe as “good company.” Spending time with Mantel and Cromwell is good company, and I was always happy to pick up with Thomas, and all of his schemes, those that work and those that do not. Heavy lies the responsibility on the man that aids the crown.

32. Wild, by Cheryl Strayed

Some time ago when I was creating a possible list for Book Club, I was playing with one entirely about travel and travel fiction. I had heard good things about Wild, and my ex-girlfriend Bonnie had been reading it, and gave it her seal of approval. I was interested in reading it. I am glad I did, because over the past few years, especially as I have gone out running more, I have felt a deeper connection with nature. Reading Cheryl Strayed’s personal journey, struggling with a parent’s death, struggling with her personal life, love life, addiction, and so much more, I fell a little bit more in love with the Pacific Northwest and our deep connection to nature. I wasn’t able to go camping or on as many hikes as I would like, but one of my goals in the New Year is to do more in nature.

33. & 34. Scary Go Round: Ahoy Hoy and Peloton, by John Allison.

Scary Go Round is one of my favorite web comics. I think it’s just well written, and has engaging stories. I wanted to buy the graphic novels for a long time, but never did. Then they went on sale, so I snatched them up. They are just volumes 5-8, but I love them all the same. John Allison is great at making up fantastical things, but then bringing them down to a human level. I connect with his bizarre notions of faeries, the underworld, and the Easter Bunny. I also appreciated reading these because I’m can get a bigger picture on where the story was going, rather than get mired in some of the day-to-day reading frustrations that angered or confused me.

35. – 45. Transmetropolitan, by Garth Ennis

 My friend Aaron loaned me the entire run of Transmetropolitan, which is basically like the continued adventures of Hunter S. Thompson, now Spider Jerusalem. Spider continues to tackle politics, culture, cities, people, and many other topics with the vitriol usually reserved for hate manifestos. For those who have no experience with Hunter S. Thompson, this graphic novel series could have been groundbreaking. But for me, a person who has read much Hunter S. Thompson, I found it all quite familiar. Although, it was nice to see Thompson again, and imagine what he might have had to say about our current policies. I miss some of those unique voices.

So! That was 2014 in reading. Books I did not finish: Zealot by Reza Aslan (ran out of time, but enjoyed a lot of what I read), You Are One of Them by Eliot Holt (not what I thought it was), Search Sweet Country by Kojo Laing (my own book club pick that garnered the dubious honor that not one person finished the book), Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner (good, but ran out of time at the Library!), A re-read of The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (for book club. Much better time with the book now that I knew what it was. Better writing than I remember), The Green Man by Kingsley Amis (oh god, I loathed this and I wanted nothing but bad things to happen to the philandering main character who was so obviously a stand-in for the author), The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto (a book club pick that I just gave up on because I got bored), Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (good lord did I hate this book. I loathed this book. I hated the main character so much that I basically rage quit the book halfway through).

In the next year, I’d like to read more women, in part because I think I found many of their books more challenging. On my to-read list: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, Artful by Ali Smith, Bluets by Maggie Nelson, The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link, and for other books: The Big Roads by Earl Swift, Joan Didion, The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, and Nick Harkaway.

2013 Movie List, with Commentary

January 2, 2014

Since 2008, I have attempted to read a book a week, and watch a movie a week. In 2010, I saw 66 movies, in 2011 I saw 55 movies, in 2012 was the first year I didn’t meet my goal, watching only 47 movies. This year I saw even fewer movies: only 39. Although if we look at the statistics:

  • 9 movies in theaters, which is the same for three years running
  • 5 documentaries, up from 4 last year.
  • 4 rewatches this year, a big drop from 10 last year
  • 4 foreign films, way down from 12 last year (although most of those were binge watched kung fu movies with Jake and Babs).
  • 3 animated movies, up from 2 last year.

Let’s take a look at what I watched.

  1. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (theatres). I expected this to be my Christmas movie last year, but my parents surprised me with Django Unchained. Instead, I watched this with friends. I remember it being enjoyable at the time, the dwarves killing Goblins in a comical fashion, the trolls being both silly and menacing, everything associated with Radagast the Brown, but looking back from the end the year, my mind is not as kind to The Hobbit. It doesn’t seem to be quite as epic, or satisfying as the Lord of the Rings.
  2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (re-watch). To be frank with you, I do not recall the circumstances surrounding my viewing of this movie I watched this movie. I assume I saw this again because someone had not seen it (possibly Katie?). My general impression remains the same: it is an excellent movie, a pinnacle of well-executed action from the 90’s with a strong female protagonist. Between this and Aliens, James Cameron is pretty good at action movies, I wonder what the new Avatar’s will be like.
  3. Sleepwalk with Me. I listened to a lot of WTF with Marc Maron, and this movie was plugged over and over during their ads. I liked Mike Birbiglia’s comedy, so when this popped up on Netflix, I tuned in. This movie was much more soulful than I was expecting, much less a straight up comedy. I liked it, but had far fewer ambitions than I expected, instead staying small and intimate. I think there’s something to be said about comedy I like being relatively intimate, coming from a discernable place rather than being incredibly broad (PEOPLE FALL DOWN HAHA).
  4. Indie Game (documentary) (x2). Jake happened to turn this documentary on one day, and I was pulled out from my room to sit and watch this because I was so fascinated by the culture and people making these games. I have not traditionally been a gamer, but I like the idea of games telling a story, because I am a story whore. I watched this movie later in the year because I kept thinking about the people who make these games. I’m totally Team Meat in this movie.
  5. The Hunger Games. I was hanging out with Charlotte, and I wanted to watch this, and thought I would make fun of it. This turned out to be much more difficult than I anticipated because the movie is good. The action was riveting, the mood depressing. This was actually a survival film, which made making fun of it a non-starter. Very different than I envisioned in the book, but still good.
  6. Rescuers Down Under (re-watch, animated). I was hanging out with Babs, and she had not seen this movie. I insisted we watch. It didn’t quite live up to my expectations, as it is kind of over-simplified kid fare. The mice world is fascinating though! I like Joanna the Goanna more, especially since she is voiced by Frank Welker, who does a lot of Futurama voices. Aaaaaaaaaand I rule 34ed myself searching for Joanna the Goanna. Good lord internet.
  7. Senna (Documentary, re-watch). I think I watched this when I was in Portland, hanging out with Peter, Kate, and Kim. It is still sad, and very well made. I find it affecting even as a person who has not been a fan of motorsport, especially about what Senna’s place on the world stage did for Brazil in the world’s standing.
  8. Winter’s Bone. Peter recommended this movie to me a while back, and I’d heard good things about the book. I was somewhat entranced by the movie’s simplicity: girl seeking to prove that her father is dead. And yet the weird family politics, rural politics, and utter alienation of the rural Appalachia make for an almost alien experience. Jennifer Lawrence embodies a quiet will power quite well, something she had drawn on later in her career.
  9. The Good, The Bad, and the Weird (foreign – Korean, re-watch). I believe made Babs watch this during one of our movie nights. The first time, the movie keeps taking turn after turn until it becomes crazy, escalating into dizzying heights. On rewatch, it seems like it really could have used an editor to get rid of about 10 minutes or so. Some meandering, some fat, but still a goofy movie.
  10. The People Vs. George Lucas (documentary). I was incredibly bored one evening, and in a fit, I threw this on. One of those central questions about art: who owns the piece once it is released into the world, the person or the public? Well copyright law still says the artist, but the fans can adapt. The movie did bring one thing to my attention: Lucas Arts has been pretty loose with what people can do with Star Wars, having extremely loose enforcement about their property. I wonder if this will continue to be true now that it is owned by the House of Mouse.
  11. Wreck-It Ralph (loved, animated) (x2) This is one of my two favorite movies of the year. It was astoundingly cute, well animated, great story, great redemption, tons of little Easter Eggs, great voice acting. I was utterly charmed, and just thinking about it has made me want to watch this again. I wonder what it says that some of the movies I’ve liked the most over the past few years have been animated, but have also had a childlike sensibility like Moonrise Kingdom.
  12. Le Samourai (foreign – French). Ever since I learned of its existence, I have been fascinated by the Criterion Collection. Also, in a still image standpoint, I have always liked New Wave Cinema, for creating some truly interesting and powerful images. This film, made in 1967, shows a seedier side of Paris, with a French assassin suddenly going terribly wrong. This movie was of great influence to John Woo’s The Killer, which I saw…last year? Two years ago? I think if I had not seen that movie first, I would have been more enamoured with this one. The moody middle left me drifting, although it dragged me back in toward the end.
  13. The Amazing Spider Man. Jake was a big fan of this film, and I grabbed it from Netflix. I really did not like the iteration of Peter Parker in the Sam Raimi movies because they ignored a chief part of Peter: he is a very good scientist. He’s a super-nerd. This movie nailed that better, although I felt the Lizard was underdeveloped, allowed to become a cartoonish psychopath rather than develop into something more compelling.
  14. Star Trek: Into Darkness (theaters). I liked the new Star Trek enough, but I found this over-long, over-actioned, not as funny, and actually visually hard to follow from time to time. The beginning started relatively well, but it developed into something much much worse.
  15. Source Code. I remember wanting to see this because I saw Moon and while I did not like it as much as Jake did, I found it fascinating. This started off as more straight forward science fiction/action, and then began to take some wonderful science fiction bends as the ramifications of the plot unfolded. It was carefully constructed, although there are some horrifying questions to be contemplated at the end of the movie vis-à-vis locked in syndrome. Anyway, this is good and well-made. I also sometimes am surprised that Jake Gyllenhall made it as an actor, especially an action actor. He can be so doofy.
  16. The Wrath of Khan (rewatch, loved). Since “Into Darkness” retreads the Khan plotline (although in a very different way), Lucinda invited people over to her apartment to watch the original Star Trek: TOS episode with Khan, and then The Wrath of Khan. I had seen it before, but I have a whole new appreciation for this movie now. The camera work was great, the plot moved quickly, the theme was given actual consideration and was relevant because the movie let the actors and characters age, and considered what that meant in their story line. Truly, the greatest Star Trek film.
  17. Caddyshack. I had never seen this all the way through, and watched it with some friends of my Dad’s while I was in Arizona right after his death. This is deservedly a comedy classic (Chevy Chase used to be attractive, charming, and funny!), although definitely in the wacky 80’s vein that apparently did set the stage for a lot of improvisational comedies made by the Judd Apatow crew.
  18. John Dies at the End (weird). My mom came to visit for Fourth of July, toting up my things of my dad’s that she wanted me to have. We watched this movie one evening, which is truly an amazing B-movie, made by the same people who made Bubba Ho-Tep. It’s almost Southland Tales good-bad, but with less familiar actors, more monsters, more insanity. A bunch of things just stop making sense, but that’s okay. Roll with it. Also, great delivery from the lead actors.
  19. Seven Psychopaths. Jake was right. A worse version of Adaptation, as done by Martin McDonagh. Basically less than the sum of its parts, although I did like some of the little vignettes, and I continue to like Sam Rockwell as this nutty wild card of a man. He is so enjoyable to watch.
  20. Iron Man III (theaters, okay). I saw this by myself long after it was very popular, because I heard it was a great answer to some of the other summer movies coming out. I wasn’t super impressed with the end. I liked the film more when Tony didn’t have powers, understanding that Robert Downey Jr. just talking is one of the movies central strengths. Also, I really liked that they viewed the events of the Avengers as pretty traumatic, and Tony was having a hard time dealing with that. The use of Ben Kingsley was quite magnificent as well.
  21. Crazy, Stupid Love. I thought this would really be more charming than it was. Sigh. Silly me.
  22. Big Trouble in Little China. I was introduced to the idea that Kurt Russell agreed to make a movie, but was not given the script and was forced to improvise during the entire film. He does ask a lot of questions. Tom and I turned this into a very enjoyable drinking game.
  23. The Brotherhood of the Wolf (foreign – French). Way back in high school, I briefly served as the host for a movie review show for our high school video department. My friends created the introduction to the show out of movie clips they enjoyed, one of which was from this film. I have always been intrigued by the film since, and finally watched it. Man, is this film ever French, man is it ever weird (even for the French), and will Victor Cassel ever stop being insane/damaged?
  24. Blowup (foreign – British/Italian) Blowup is one of the seminal mod/new wave films, made by Michelangelo Antonioni. Again, the film is wandering as it displays a day in the life of a feckless art photographer. There were moments I hated, and moments I loved, which I think is perhaps the point of the thing. It was made in a gorgeous way, but the character is, well not amoral, but very self-involved. I think the film indicts the very surface level mod style (a style I love) which never had the philosophical under pinnings of other movements at the time.
  25. Argo. Peter and Kate made me watch this. It was very well put together, and Ben Affleck puts in an understated performance. The film was tense, although I kind of want there to be more to it? I don’t know.
  26. Pacific Rim (Theatres, liked). This is one of the films that I keep coming back to in my head. Yes, Charlie Hunnam is not a charismatic leading actor, yes Idris Elba was often wearing a suit a little too big for him, and yes this is basically giant robots versus giant monsters, with maybe some ecological disaster underpinnings. But good god, can Guillermo Del Toro build a world. This world feels lived in, and dealt with the beginnings of the world in the first five minutes, and went to the middle, and the end of the conflict. Of course you had to see this in theaters, because the sheer scale of the things. This was amazing. Also, an excellent argument for more infrastructure.
  27. The World’s End (Theatres, liked). The last of the Cornetto ‘trilogy’. The most introspective and adult of the movies. While Hot Fuzz remains my favorite, I did really like this one. Each movie deals with the horrors of conformity, be it through becoming a shambling dead thing, one member of a creepy town, or part of an alien collective. In each wake, the solution is different, either by banding together to form the community, relying on yourself, or insistently pursuing your own way of life. This one may improve with rewatching.
  28. Invincible. The first movie in a long time I watched on broadcast TV, with commericals and everything. This was an enjoyable sports movie. A good representation of the drama, that wasn’t about winning a super bowl or anything, it was about just being good enough to play the game at a professional level at all.
  29. Killing Them Softly. I loved Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and took a chance on this film. It is an odd film, extremely talky for a gangster movie, concerned with politics of the time, and can be read different ways. Critics have been giving it different looks as the year has gone on, some arguing that everyone, absolutely everyone hated it, others excited by the ways that the film does not really conform to genre expectations. Me, I found it boring, and hope for something interesting to come up from Dominik soon.
  30. Shut Up and Play the Hits (documentary). I caught on to the LCD Soundsystem wagon late, only in time to appreciate their last record, right as it came out. It remains my favorite record of all of LCD Soundsystem. Normally I don’t go in for documentaries or concert films, not being a big concert guy, but for a band I liked, with a large interview by the provocative Chuck Klosterman, how could I resist? This was pretty good, and made me reconsider some of my concert decisions. I also found James Murphy fascinating, and the end, good lord, that was actually quite emotional.
  31. Tabloid (documentary). I have seen some of Errol Morris’s short work, and found it quite compelling. The trailer for this impressed me, so I took the leap. The woman featured in this is really strange, and man, I don’t even know who to believe in this thing, I suppose that is the point. A weird film, although I really did feel awful for the woman with her dog issues at the end of the movie.
  32. Margin Call. Jake and Jeremy threw this on late one evening. Tense, good acting, and entirely believable, which is frustrating.
  33. Gravity (theaters). The other best movie I saw this year. I generally love most of Alfonso Cuaron’s work, and this was no different. This movie helped bring back wonder. I have no idea how he made this film. Literally, I do not understand how these shots were composed, edited, and then put to film. I don’t know what was CGI, and what was not. For all I know, Alfonso Cuaron shot several actors into space, and then did terrible things to them for a few weeks. This is hands down some of the best filmmaking I have seen in a long time. It is tense, it is sensual, and it damn near made me cry. Above all, Alfonso Cuaron is a very human filmmaker, and he was able to give some language for why I fear space, and find it so alienating, because literally, some of the natural forces I experience every day do not apply. I know this movie had some casting issues in the lead part, and I was initially worried about Sandra Bullock, but really, she did something quite amazing in this film, and I’m glad it wasn’t anyone else.
  34. Anastasia (animated). I watched this on my way to Scotland, on the plane. I had wanted to see this film when I was a kid, and never got the chance. It was very silly, and weirdly white washed communism and the Bolshevik revolution. I was stunned by this turn of events.
  35. Prometheus. I watched this one on the back from Scotland. This movie was infuriating, which I am late to the party to. I actually looked up the plot synopsis on Wikipedia to ensure I wasn’t watching some weird airplane version of this movie. No, the movie really stops making sense, and narratively makes weird leaps and doesn’t answer many of the questions it brings up. Really, I am beginning to believe that Ridley Scott just isn’t a good filmmaker. The longer version of Kingdom of Heaven being one of the last movies he made well, right after Matchstick Men, which I kind of want to re-watch because it is one of the last Nicholas Cage controlled crazy roles.
  36. We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (documentary). I appreciated and liked Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and figured I would like this as well, made by the same people. This film was good, but not quite as focused as I wanted. I did learn a great deal about wikileaks, and the film covers Bradley Manning, but so many people have such political agendas to maintain in this documentary, things get a bit skewed.
  37. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (theaters). I saw this in Portland, and there are elements I liked (Smaug himself! Some of the elf stuff!), but again: did we need Disney’s Barrel Ride from Hell, and other such extended sequences? I think not.
  38. American Hustle (theaters). I saw this with Emily Strait in San Diego! This movie meandered more than most heist/con movies do, but I think that was in greater service to the characters: who is conning who, and for how long, and how? It may not be different, but it is good. The actors may not be cast in quite the best roles, but they are so good, it barely matters. I think this even adds a level of conning/craziness. Also, Robert DeNiro becomes scary again.
  39. Inside Llewyn Davis (theaters). Saw this with Katie just before the end of the New Year. I have have seen most of the Coen Bros movies, and this one was like an excellent nap. It was soothing, just the right length, and waking up was pleasant. Some delightful narrative tricks, good music, and great niche performances that only the Coens could come up with. Fans of folk and the Coen Bros should definitely watch this.

 This year I canceled my DVD subscription to Netflix, and went Instant-View only. I live just a few blocks from a movie store, and still have a giant list of movies I would like to see. I plan to take advantage of them.

2013 Book List

January 1, 2014

Since graduating from college, every year I have attempted to read a book a week and watch a movie a week. Various years have been successes, others have been incredibly challenging. In 2011, I only read 16 books, last year I read 65 books and this year I just hit my target. I was not in graduate school, but I was in a relationship, out of a relationship, dating, traveling both in and outside the country, dealing with the death of my father, helping my best friend get married, and moving. It was a busy year, and I’m a little amazed I was able to fit in as much reading as I did, now that I think about it. Of course, I borrowed extensively from my local library (although in fits and spurts).

Kate and Charlotte were big cheerleaders for my reading habits this year, and both have read many, many more books than I have this year. I eavesdropped on books they were reading with interest because they were often books I never heard of and never considered reading. So many books are released and marketed towards very specific niches, the sheer wealth of reading material can be staggering. My booklist has some more diversity this year, because I am in a book club, which has forced me to read different kinds of books than I might otherwise. However, I read a lot less non-fiction this year.

One of the things Kate and Charlotte inspired me to do was create a spreadsheet of books. Previously, I was keeping track of all of my books, movies, and television in a Word Document. I still prefer this method (because I get to see where my focus lies) but the spreadsheet did make it easier to organize and compute the kinds of books I’ve been reading. I refuse to count pages, because that way madness lies.

This year, I have read 55 books, which included 23 books of fiction (mostly literary fiction with 1 short story collection, 1 plain science fiction, and 1 thing I don’t know what to make of) 31 graphic novels, and 1 non-fiction collection. Looking at those numbers, it is no wonder that I found myself craving non-fiction at various times during the year. This year, I am again putting all of the graphic novels together as a series because I tend to think of those books together.

1. Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy

I kick started my year with a pair of short books, beginning with some very serious literary fiction. This slim novel takes place among an English family at an Italian villa. Looking back, nearly a year later, I found this book had all the stereotypes of literary fiction: switching point-of-views, reoccurring passages, babbling interior monologue, SECRETS coated in fine Italian dust, failed relationships examined through lens of new experiences, the possibility of sex, significant-past-histories, and of course trademark Chekov guns. Thank goodness this was short. I found the writing pretentious, the characters shards of stereotypes. I felt it was a waste of time. I put this on my to-read list because it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (the prize for the best fiction written by British, Irish, or Commonwealth authors), and seemed like it could be fun, sexy, and interesting. I regret this decision.

2. Skios, by Michael Frayn

I read this book in a single afternoon. Skios is a puff-piece of farcical fiction written by a master of the genre: Michael Frayn (theater friends may know him as the writer as Noises Off, a play Jeremy used to rave about, and may have actually been in). The structure goes like so: there is an identity mix-up at an elite Ted-Talk style conference on a secluded Greek island. Hijinks ensue for both of the mixed up men, one a very serious lecturer, the other a compulsive liar. The book can be funny, but whereas a good farce maintains the tension and balance, this one really begins to wobble in the last third. One review I read pointed out that a simple Wikipedia search would have ended everything. I didn’t feel like the situation was that slight, but it was close.

3. Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will, by Judith Schalansky

I don’t quite know what to make of this book, even a year later. Schalansky details 50 of the most remote islands on earth with gorgeous hand drawn maps and short stories about their history, some of them true, some of them entirely false because some of these islands have no occupants, and no recorded history. The book was originally written in German, and has been translated by Christine Lo, which adds another layer of curiosity. The book is gorgeous, and a few of the stories have stayed with me (there is one about penguins that was one of the most horrific things I have read this year). Because some of the stories are true, and some are not, the book actually brings up some central questions about history, the truth of historical documents, and questions about traveling: why do we travel, where do we go, and why do we go there? The book doesn’t even attempt to solve any of those questions. I have struggled to categorize this book: fiction, non-fiction, a reference book? Either way, I recommend you read this book.

4. Next, by James Hynes

This book caught my eye way back in 2011 when it made the Semifinals of The Tournament of Books. (This year’s long list was released, and I recommend you follow it if you like books, because it an excellent conversation. 2013 in particular was a good year for judging and commentary). It’s a little hard for me to talk about this book, because I found it so affecting, although I know I am in the target audience. This is the single day in the life of a middle-class white man working for the publishing arm of a college. He flies to Austin for a job interview and occupies his time by walking around the city. Small things trigger memories of past relationships, past experiences, both good and bad. Our narrator is a bit of a nerd, and buildings are described in the lingo of Lord of the Rings, and superhero comics. This book also has one of the best sex scenes I’ve read since James Salter’s A Sport and a Past Time. It was a little weird to read smut at The Stranger’s monthly Silent Reading Party but it was extremely well written. This book got to me, and it was hard to express why initially. Basically, it was like looking at a grim possible future, and really wanting it not to occur.

5. The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie

The book that caused Iran to issue a fatwa (an Islamic legal judgment) on the author, calling for his death. I read Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in 2009, and felt stranded by the dense language and references to parts of Indian History I didn’t know existed. I was hesitant to read this book, but it was Lucinda’s Book Club choice, so I give it a go. Coming out of this book, I was really surprised. When was the last time a book caused this much stir? I mean outside of the entertainment machine, where Dan Brown, Steven King, J.K. Rowling, and Susan Collins have made a stir with movie adaptations and making large amounts of money. This book is a piece of weird, fantastical literature that asks some of the big questions about the duality of man, about changing your mind, about compromising your ideals, about mental illness, about our relationship with reality, and whether or not we should consider the people who began founding religions as people with wants, desires, failures, and unrealized dreams. Authors and filmmakers have been doing this with Jesus for a long time (I particularly like Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov), but to do so with Muhammad is against the tenants of Islam, and this book caused assassination attempts. This book challenged me, and while I struggled while reading the book, I am glad to have read the book, and I really appreciate that the book was written. It was not my favorite, but challenging works like this are good for me.

6. Bastard out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison

I would not have read this book, were it not for my Book Club. In this book, Bone grows up among the crushing poverty of poverty of the South, dealing with all manner of trials that children should not have to endure, and yet do. It is also based on Allison’s lived experiences. Perhaps this says something about my coping mechanisms, but while many of the other members of Book Club threw the book across the room, were angry on Bone’s behalf, and cried, my reaction was to create more distance between myself and Bone, to say “I have read worse,” and to not be surprised at the terrible depths of human interactions. I suppose this is because I have witnessed poverty in other novels, and in my personal life, poverty similar to what I have read here. The story is still affecting, and challenging, but more in an emotional way, rather than the intellectual way I enjoyed in The Satanic Verses.

7. Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin

A movie version of this novel is coming out in February, so I expect to see a lot more chatter about this book in the coming months, but this is a very strange book. It was a book I picked up in the bookstore, read the first page, and immediately bought. Winter’s Tale is filled with magical realism, written with an amazing love of the English language, and glories in the weird time around the turn of the 20th century when things were modernizing, the wildness was still present among New York City. However, the novel unexpectedly switches gears about half-way through, when the writer writes himself into a corner, and then spends the next half of the novel with characters I could not give a damn about, and the magic is lost. I absolutely loved the first half of this novel, but when we switch over, I began to lose patience with the passages spewing about the grandness of spectacle, the modern world, of being in love, and the power of love. The movie seems to accentuate the crazy bullshit that I began to hate, rather than the clever charm of a modern kind of tall-tale. This started out as one of my favorite books, and wound up as stunningly disappointing.

8.  Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

Part one of a book club duo, I got the chance to re-read Bradbury’s classic, and discuss it with folks, a right denied to me in 10th grade by moving up to the AP English class. This was way better than I remembered. I forgot how quickly the book clips along, the impending sense of dread, the sheer brooding oppression of the novel. I forgot the importance of the women characters, and how well Ray Bradbury could write. This was an excellent quick read that I enjoyed a great deal, and unfortunately is still relevant. Banning books, or rather, monitoring who accesses what information is a huge part of our culture, whether we like it or not.

9. The Giver, by Lois Lowry

Part two of the book club duo. I had never read this YA (or middle grade?) classic before, and I imagine it would have been much more profound had I read the book around that age. What I like about Fahrenheit 451 is that there are layers that kids can appreciate, as well as adults. The Giver is pretty straight up kid’s fiction, with very simple sentence construction. It poses some interesting questions about growing up, understanding the consequences of your reactions, and whether the suffering of one is appropriate to support the well-being of many. The book is more of a disruptive book, posing the questions without necessarily answering any of them. The ending was more ambiguous than I expected, and I wonder if perhaps that is why it is a favorite of many.

10. Pastoralia, by George Saunders

I have heard much lauding of George Saunders and his mastery of short fiction in our time. I got my first brush here, and quite enjoyed myself. I tend to have mixed reactions to short story collections, but his were quite good. I really enjoyed the title story, Pastoralia about a failing naturalism park, which made me want to spend more time with the characters and there crazy, crazy world. Some of the other stories were more familiar territory, although the one about the dead aunt, that one is also amazing, and has stuck with me. I don’t recall many of the other stories, but I would still recommend this book to others.

11.Speedboat, by Renata Adler

Last year, one of my favorite books was The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy, put out by the New York Review of Books classics imprint. When The Millions published their Most Anticipated list, Speedboat was one of the titles that stuck out to me. I was the first person to get this copy from the library, and this is perhaps one of my most challenging books of the year. There is no real set point of view, more like a cast of characters that float in, out, and around New York City. City life itself becomes a kind of character, illustrating the life of career women in the 1970s. Living in a city, and coming from a smaller town (although not too small) background, I readily identified with the wonder and perplexities of living, working, dating, and leaving a city. Of course New York City is its own beast, but I definitely got, and was challenged by the various observations. I wanted to talk to someone else about this book a great deal.

12. The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole

This is the oldest book I read this year, written in 1764. Phoebe chose this as part of her book club selection, as it is the original Gothic Novel. It is a very strange book, and I appreciated the introduction, which helped explain all of these odd tropes, like gigantism, which were common at the time, but seem entirely “WTF?!?!” today. Some things, like incest, and mistaken identity, are still tropes in the genre today. Despite the very short length, this took me a while to read because the language was all screwy.

13. Phantom of the Opera, by Gaston LeRoux

When Phoebe suggested this book for book club, I wasn’t sure where it would take me. I have never seen the famous musical, or the opera, or any of the movies except for the great 1925 Lon Cheney one, which remains the best silent film I have seen to date. I don’t remember the movie that well, but the book was better than I was expecting. There isn’t quite the level of lovey-dovey romance that I was expecting for the whole book. Instead, around 1/3 of the way through, the book becomes almost detective fiction, and the last 1/3 goes totally off the rails into crazy town. There are elements in the book that never seem to make it into adaptation, which I suppose fits into the common conception about adaptions of books. I really appreciated having read this book.

14. Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson

My grandmother heard an interview with the author on the radio, was intrigued, bought the book, read 100 pages, didn’t like it, and sent the book to me. I was surprised, as I had been strongly considering an Indian/Middle Eastern fiction theme for my upcoming Book Club choices. I plunged in, and was a little disappointed. This book was hyped as being like a Neil Gaiman novel set in the Middle East, and I found that to be false. The book is still good, but it isn’t quite as serious as I would have expected. I suppose I was hoping for something like a more fantastical Reamde by Neal Stephenson, but instead this was pulpier, and the plot was pretty straight forward. The book is pretty well-executed, and I think the vision of Middle Eastern hackers, and the racial dynamics at play in that setting was illuminating. I believe I still have my copy, although I may have given it to Goodwill.

15. The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, by G.B. Edwards

Because I had good experiences with the NYRB classics imprint, I trawled through their archive, selected four books, and put them to Book Club. This is what they chose, and I am glad for it. This is Edward’s only book, and the story of Ebenezer Le Page, as narrated by his older self, growing up on the Isle of Guernsey, in the English Channel. We learn about his life on the island, his convoluted family, and the good times, and the bad. Ebenezer himself is a dry, cantankerous, unusually self-sufficient man, as well as devoted, and somewhat unusually observational. Again, NYRB proved itself an excellent tastemaker, having reprinted a book that was utterly unlike anything else I have read. At Book Club we had an excellent discussion about aged narrators, which usually range from the infirm, to the guilty, to the regretful, to the dead. Ebenezer instead is much more honest, charming, and complex as a narrator. I definitely recommend this.

16. Where’d You Go Bernadette?, by Maria Semple

This comic novel was all the rage in Seattle and on the national scene for a while. I have lived in the Northwest for 9 going on 10 years now, and I am happy to call Seattle home. I went into the novel defensive, prepared to defend my city against the author, but instead came out utterly charmed. Not only is the novel incredibly funny, and intriguingly constructed as an epistolary, and it turned out to be softer on Seattle than expected. It was a lot of fun to see the city through someone else’s eyes, especially from the vantage point of someone else a few classes higher than myself.

17. The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt

For his final choice in Book Club before he moved to San Francisco, John chose a book he had read, but none of us had. While this book won the Rooster in 2012, it wasn’t on the top of my list of books to read from the Tournament. I read the majority of this book on a sunny day in the Madison Park Arboretum, and quite enjoyed the experience. This is a weird book, sort of mundanely supernatural. I remember though my grandfather talking about reading westerns as a kid, and studying westerns in film classes, but the genre is mostly something that our culture has by and large given up on. To read a book that both embraces the genre, and subverts it a la Unforgiven was fun. There is some surprising depth to this book, and not an insubstantial amount of charm and humor. To the right people, I would recommend this book.

18. The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, by Teddy Wayne

Ever wonder what it is like to be a tween pop-star, attempting to come of age, and lead a career? Well, Teddy Wayne thought a great deal about it too, and this book is funny, awkward, and sad, much like most tween pop stars. The voice of Jonny is unnervingly accurate, displayed a child’s penchant for incredible focus on topics that interest them, for instance: pop music here, and the complete obliviousness to topics they don’t care about, like US history. This book did make me want to read more things by Teddy Wayne, because he is a talented writer.

19. Bad Monkeys, by Matt Ruff

Madeline’s choice for Book Club was all local authors. I described this book as nu-pulp, which I think is pretty accurate. There are weird side-characters because, hey, why not? There are twists, turns, evil killer clowns, giant ant farms, experimental drugs, shadowy organizations, and all manner of things packed into just over 300 pages. I would say this book begin turning the wheels for what would become The Pulpy Fiction and Cheap Scotch book club. We had a pretty good conversation about trusting your narrator, and what was real, and what was not.

20. Some Remarks, by Neal Stephenson

This was my sole non-fiction book this year, and even then, it included some fiction. The collected articles of Neal Stephenson, I finally got to read what has been described as one of the best magazine articles written in the 90’s: laying a wire around the Earth. It is fascinating, and one of those monumentally large infrastructure projects that perhaps you do not hear a lot about any more. Stephenson also writes a great deal about contemporary literary culture, nerd culture, computer culture, and other issues in a reasonable, informed way that sometimes struck me as akin to some of David Foster Wallace’s magazine articles. I really liked all of these.

21. For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway

I discovered that during his life, Ernest Hemingway only wrote 7 books. Just seven. Others were released post-humously, and he left a wide variety of correspondence, journals, and articles, but I have read four out of seven of his novels now. I think I still like The Sun Also Rises the best, but For Whom the Bell Tolls has some really fantastic writing about the Spanish Civil War, love, and trust. I always thought of Hemingway was writing like a machine gun, in staccato bursts, but it is more the diction, the plain words, strung together in a way that makes you think about the power of the words we use.

22. Tun-Huang, by Yasushi Inoue

My third translated novel, again from NYRB. This was one of the rejected novels from Book Club that I saw at Elliot Bay Books for cheap. I picked it up, and again, not like anything else I read this year. However, with viewings of Red Cliff, Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and other Chinese Cinema, I found I actually had a frame of reference for the style and tone. This novel tells a fictionalized story of how a giant cache of treasure, books, and government documents made their way to Western China, stored in a walled up Buddhist cave until discovered in the early 1900s. There is another non-fiction book (Foreign Devils on the Silk Road) about how Westerns archaeologists appropriated and stole many of these from the Chinese.

23. Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

The writing in this book is so good. So beautiful. I started this book last year, didn’t finish because I didn’t want it to end, and then gave my copy to Peter as a birthday present because the book sticks closely to historical fact. I don’t remember my history of King Henry VIII terribly well (except divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded survived), and didn’t know much about Thomas Cromwell, his to-be advisor. I enjoyed the surprise of history, loved Thomas Cromwell, who made me feel like a slacker. I am having a hard time expressing how much I loved this book.

24. The Teleportation Accident, by Ned Beauman

I don’t remember how this book made it on to my reading list. I’m kind of glad it did, because it was silly, pulpy, fun, and time traveled in the conventional way. The book follows the travails of Egon Loeser, and his quest to both find the girl he has fallen for, and the truth behind an accident in a Parisian theater. Not super serious, but interesting to explore how so many people interpret the same set of facts. The total irreverence it gives the Berlin art scene continues. It takes place during WWII, but steadfastedly ignores the war, relegating it to the background.

25. Starplex, by Robert J. Sawyer

Back when The Hairpin used to suggest books (before Nicole Cliffe left to found The Toast), I plucked this from her recommendations. I was also interested in reading some more science fiction, which likes to explore “what if?” more than pretty much anything else. This book was an easy read, and wasn’t quite as challenging in its ideas as much as I wanted, but was an incredibly solid effort in science fiction.

26 – 36. Girl Genius, by Phil and Kaja Foglio (Graphic Novels and web comic)

I re-read Girl Genius again. Purchasing those graphic novels was an excellent choice, as I re-read them every 15 months or so. I continue to appreciate the depth this webcomic offers. I need to mail these to Kate, so she can re-read them!

 26. Agatha Heterodyne and the Beetleburg Clank (graphic novel, re-read)

27. Agatha Heterodyne and The Airship City (graphic novel, re-read)

28. Agatha Heterodyne and The Monster Engine (graphic novel, re-read)

29. Agatha Heterodyne and The Circus of Dreams (graphic novel, re-read)

30. Agatha Heterodyne and The Clockwork Princess (graphic novel, re-read)

31. Agatha Heterodyne and The Golden Trilobite (graphic novel, re-read)

32. Agatha Heterodyne and The Voice of the Castle (graphic novel, re-read)

33. Agatha Heterodyne and The Chapel of Bones (graphic novel, re-read)

34. Agatha Heterodyne and The Heirs of the Storm (graphic novel, re-read)

35. Agatha Heterodyne and The Guardian Muse (graphic novel, re-read)

36. Agatha Heterodyne and The Hammerless Bell (graphic novel, re-read)

37 & 38. Saga, by Brian K. Vaughn (Graphic Novels)

Maddo is a giant fan of this series, and I was able to pick these up for cheap. Gorgeous art, interesting story, and it’s the first time in years I’m following a printed comic as it becomes available! The tension!

39 – 45. Bone, by Jeff Smith (Graphic Novels)

The more I read, the more I understood why this graphic novel is in the kid’s section. I was always surprised how simple the story seemed, so straight forward, with none of the layering I have come to expect of graphic novels, which are aimed more at adults. It was refreshing to read a pure hero’s adventure story though.

 39. Bone: Eyes of the Storm, by Jeff Smith (graphic novel)

40. Bone: The Dragonslayer, by Jeff Smith (graphic novel)

41. Bone: Rock Jaw, Master of the Eastern Border, by Jeff Smith (graphic novel)

42. Bone: Old Man’s Cave, by Jeff Smith (graphic novel)

43. Bone: Ghost Circles, by Jeff Smith (graphic novel)

44. Bone: Treasure Hunters, by Jeff Smith (graphic novel)

45. Bone: Crown of Horns, by Jeff Smith (graphic novel)

46 – 51. Sweet Tooth, by Jeff Lemire (Graphic Novels)

I read these in Scotland one after noon, while Maddo did homework. I actually did not like these. I found the appropriation of Native American culture weird, the plotting like a worse Y: The Last Man, the violence gratuitous, and the art ranged between ugly in an off putting way, and ugly in an entrancing way. I didn’t like the ending, I didn’t like the cynicism.

46. Sweet Tooth Volume 1: Out of the Woods, by Jeff Lemire (Graphic Novel)

47. Sweet Tooth Volume 2: In Captivity, by Jeff Lemire (Graphic Novel)

48. Sweet Tooth Volume 3: Animal Armies, by Jeff Lemire (Graphic novel)

49. Sweet Tooth Volume 4: Endangered Species, by Jeff Lemire (Graphic Novel)

50. Sweet Tooth Volume 5: Unnatural Habitats, by Jeff Lemire (Graphic Novel)

51. Sweet Tooth Volume 6: Wild Game, by Jeff Lemire (Graphic novel).

52. Lucifer: Mansions of Silence, by Mike Carey (Graphic Novel)

I read and really liked Lucifer last year, but the Seattle Public Library lost all copies of graphic novel number 6. I found this on an epic quest for Conan the Barbarian, and grabbed it. I read it, half-remembering everything that happened last year. I think I need to re-read, because this became quite confusing at times. Still good though!

53. Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzucchelli (Graphic Novel)

Maddo recommended this to me because it blew her mind. I think from a formal perspective, this is probably one of the better graphic novels I have read in a long time, because of the way the book interacts with art, our perspecitve on certain art, and treating the panels themselves as art, singluar pieces to be digested, that also tell a story.

54. Batman: The Long Halloween, by Jeph Loeb (Graphic Novel)

Most of this story line got rehashed into the Christopher Nolan movies, so this was a weird re-tread. I found the rogues gallery inclusions intriguing, but didn’t like the repetitiveness of some of the books, because they were initially released sequentially, and felt the need to continually update the reader on things and identities. Nice reveal towards the end though.

This year I only gave up on a few books: Ghosts by Cesar Aria, Our Man in Iraq by Robert Perisic, and Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. I would like to return to Cesar Aria, because he predicted this weird phenomenon in Venezula, where giant sky scrapers were abandoned as slums. I just didn’t click with Our Man in Iraq. I stopped reading Jimmy Corrigan because it happened right when my dad died, and the story is about a dying father, and really I didn’t want to keep reading.

In my to-read list: Joan Didion, Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry, Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway, The Facades by Eric Lundgren, more non-fiction like The Big Roads by Early Swift. Also, I would finally like to take the plunger and read some David Foster Wallace.

What are you going to read this year?