My Year in Pop Culture, 2020
(Presented in rough chronological order. * indicates rewatch. Please note, I don't actually recommend all of these.)
- Flavors of Youth (2018)
- Hell or High Water (2016)
- Uncut Gems (2019)
- To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You (2020)
- Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)
- Onward (2020)
- Trolls World Tour (2020)
- Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
- Little Women (2019)
- Tigertail (2020)
- Howl's Moving Castle* (2004)
- The Half of It (2020)
- Scoob! (2020)
- The Little Vampire 3D (2017)
- 13th (2016)
- Spirited Away* (2001)
- Hamilton (2020)
- Palm Springs (2020)
- The Lovebirds (2020)
- The Old Guard (2020)
- The Truth (2019)
- Bill & Ted Face the Music (2020)
- Magic Mike (2012)
- What We Did On Our Holiday (2014)
- The Addams Family* (2019)
- The Witches* (1990)
- Over the Moon (2020)
- My Octopus Teacher (2020)
- Groundhog Day* (1993)
- Blinded By the Light (2019)
- Happiest Season (2020)
- Rio* (2011)
- Gremlins* (1984)
- Gremlins 2: The New Batch* (1990)
- The Santa Clause 2* (2002)
- Soul (2020)
- Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)
- The Witcher (S1, 2019)
- Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995)
- Shirobako (2014)
- The Good Place (S4, 2019)
- Dr. Who (S12, 2020)
- Steven Universe Future (2019)
- Star Trek: Picard (S1, 2020)
- My Hero Academia (S4, 2019)
- Schitt's Creek (S6, 2020)
- The Ancient Magus' Bride (2017)
- Free! (S1, 2013)
- Little Fires Everywhere (2020)
- Free! (S2, 2014)
- Free! (S3, 2018)
- Normal People (2020)
- Kim's Convenience (S4, 2020)
- Never Have I Ever (S1, 2020)
- Parks & Rec (S1, 2009)
- Natsume Yuujin-cho (S1–S3, 2008–2011)
- Haikyu!! (S1, 2014)
- Avatar: The Last Airbender* (S1, 2005)
- Parks & Rec (S2, 2010)
- Haikyu!! (S2, 2015)
- Haikyu!! (S3, 2016)
- Parks & Rec (S3, 2011)
- Haikyu!! To the Top! (S4.0, 2020)
- Dr. Stone (S1, 2019)
- Log Horizon* (S1, 2013)
- Mob Psycho 100 (S1, 2016)
Avatar: The Last Airbender* (S2, 2006)
- Mob Psycho 100 (S2, 2019)
- Log Horizon* (S2, 2014)
- One Punch Man* (S1, 2015)
- One Punch Man (S2, 2019)
- Watchmen (2019)
- Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun* (2014)
- Tsurune (S1, 2018)
- Silver Spoon* (S1, 2013)
- Silver Spoon* (S2, 2014)
- Chihayafuru (S1, 2011)
- Last Tango In Halifax (S1, 2012)
- Chihayafuru (S2, 2013)
- Chihayafuru (S3, 2019)
- Star Trek: Lower Decks (S1, 2020)
- Ted Lasso (S1, 2020)
- The Queen's Gambit (2020)
- The Undoing (2020)
- Haikyu!! To the Top! (S4.5, 2020)
- Inuyasha (S1, eps. 1–24, 2000)
- Star Trek: Discovery (S3, eps. 1-11, 2020)
- Space Brothers (eps. 1–13, 2012)
- Animal Crossing: New Horizons
- Final Fantasy VII Remake
- Night in the Woods
- A Short Hike
50 Things That Mattered to Me in 2019
Today is the last day of the year, and it has become a bit of a tradition for me to send out my year-end list on this day. Year-end lists are, of course, always at least a little bit controversial, and I do dislike the idea of being exclusive, or of trying to say that one thing is deserving of your attention and another is not. For me, though, making a list like this is really just an opportunity to reflect on my own year, to look back and remember what moved me and think about why. It’s something I find useful, and I appreciate having space to do it out loud. So, here are fifty things that I experienced in 2019 that mattered to me, in roughly chronological order:
- Christina Xiong’s poem “The Cup in the Sink” puts venom and tenderness side-by-side in a way that is so beautiful and so true.
- Helena Fitzgerald’s newsletter Griefbacon has been a favorite of mine for years, and it has sadly come to an end as of today. One of my favorites from this year was from January, when she wrote about Jenny Lewis and the phenomenon of the Sad Hot Girl Singer.
- Lydia Kiesling’s novel The Golden State had in it perhaps the best depiction of the feeling of parenting a toddler that I’ve ever read. I also loved how it engaged with a part of my home state that’s often overlooked (even by me).
- Hannah Stephenson’s poem “SHOO” is about the difference between “nice” and “kind,” and I loved it.
- Esmé Weijun Wang’s essay collection The Collected Schizophrenias was both intense and nuanced, an intimate and affecting look at mental illness unlike anything I’ve read before.
- The late Stanley Plumly’s poem “At Night”, which was published only about a month before his death, is about memory and mortality. It’s profound, I think, and all the more so for its quietness.
- All My Relations is a podcast about Native issues, hosted by Dr. Adrienne Keene and Matika Wilbur. I found the first season interesting and educational, and I’m looking forward to what’s yet to come.
- Hanif Abdurraqib’s essay collection Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest was some of the best music writing I’ve ever read, giving both historical context and deeply personal reflections on one of the most influential hip-hop groups of the 1990s.
- M. NourbeSe Philip’s poem “Discourse on the Logic of Language” is remarkable for how it makes English strange, revealing and inverting the colonial gaze.
- In their essay “Impostor/Abuser: Power Dynamics in Publishing”, Sarah Gailey talked about how impostor syndrome can keep you from recognizing and taking responsibility for the power you have, and how that can be dangerous.
- The poems in Ilya Kaminsky’s book Deaf Republic were kind of terrifying, in the most necessary way.
- I listened to Scene On Radio’s two podcast series Seeing White and MEN, which go deep into racism and misogyny, respectively. If you want to understand the fundamental tensions of our time, these are essential listening.
- This interview between Carmen Maria Machado and Theodore McCombs is one of the wildest things I read all year, and the less I say, the better.
- Literary interview podcasts are a mainstay of my listening, and a new favorite which started this year is The Poet Salon. The conversations are engaging and smart and a lot of fun. If you, like me, are still missing The Poetry Gods, this goes a long way toward filling that hole.
- This episode of The Cut on Tuesdays is about the friendship between Nicole Cliffe and Daniel M. Lavery, and listening to it just made me happy.
- Cathy Ulrich is one of my favorite flash fiction writers. Her story “The Hole in the Center of Everything” has this haunted quality that she does so well.
- Engaging with masculinity was something of a theme for me this year, both in understanding how masculinity can be toxic and in looking for healthy forms of masculinity. One essay that stood out to me was Mark Greene’s “Why Do We Murder the Beautiful Friendship of Boys?”
- This song (and video) by David Sikabwe was just so adorable.
- When I started reading Rakesh Satyal’s novel No One Can Pronounce My Name, I thought I knew what it was going to be—another harrowing story of immigrant trauma. I turned out to be wrong in the most delightful way. What a wonderful, funny, big-hearted, lovely story it turned out to be.
- Maggie Tokuda-Hall wrote about fertility and violation and baking and control and it was beautiful and heartbreaking and enraging. (CW: sexual violence)
- I liked Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach’s poem “The moon is showing” because it is about butts, and because of the way it moves from emotion to emotion, from humor to sensuality to shame to transcendance.
- Emma Hunsinger’s New Yorker cartoon “How to Draw a Horse” is so sweet and lovely, gentle to her younger self.
- Jonny Sun, who many of us know for his particularly wonderful Twitter presence or for his book Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too, gave a lovely TED talk this year about loneliness and vulnerability and connection.
- Yanyi’s book The Year of Blue Water resists categorization—it’s poetry and it’s essay and it’s both and neither. I appreciated how the book is confident in being wholly itself.
- Sarah Gailey’s novel Magic for Liars is a detective story set in a magical high school, and it is so good.
- One of my favorite literary podcasts, Storyological, had its final episode this year, which I was sad about, but which was also perhaps the best possible conclusion to a show I loved.
- Katie Ford’s poem “Sonnet 31” has this feeling of ambivalence to it, by which I mean not that it is apathetic but rather that it is pulled equally in two directions, and it is that tension in which we live, I think.
- Natalie Eilbert’s poem “Crescent Moons” is about the aftermath of sexual assault, and it is breathtaking in its immediacy and potency.
- I got to see more movies this year than I had gotten to in a while, and probably the one that has stuck with me the most is The Farewell. To me, this film was quintessentially Asian American in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever really experienced before, and it was wonderful getting to see it.
- I’ve been enjoying US poet laureate Tracy K. Smith’s podcast The Slowdown for a while now. Over the summer, she read A. A. Milne’s poem “Spring Morning”, which has this lovely innocence to it, a sense of wonder that I recognized and that I try to hold onto when I’m out in the world.
- In her poem “Litany”, Chloe N. Clark writes “maybe what I want most is to grow / back into exclamations,” which is one of the things I want, too.
- CJ Hauser’s essay “The Crane Wife” is about self-erasure and leaving a bad relationship and finding her way toward herself.
- I think the book that I loved the most this year, the most beautiful book I read, was Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s time-traveling, lesbian, spy-vs-spy, epistolary novel This Is How You Lose the Time War. That description, while accurate, cannot contain how simply gorgeous this story is.
- Sarah Rose Etter’s novel The Book of X is about a woman born with a literal knot in her body. The writing is so physical, and the story is surreal, grotesque, even gross at times. For all that it is a fantastic story, though, it is one that embodies truths about being a woman in the world that resonate deeply.
- Danez Smith’s poem “acknowledgments” has in it the lines “& how many times have you loved me without my asking? / how often have i loved a thing because you loved it? / including me.” It’s one of the poems about love that felt most true and memorable to me this year.
- In her debut essay collection, The Pretty One, my friend Keah Brown discusses disability, pop culture, representation, and her own journey to self-love. I’m so happy that this book is in the world.
- Tommy Pico’s fourth “Teebs” book, Feed is perhaps my favorite of the tetralogy. It has all of the fire, humor, and insight that the previous three have, but it also has certain sweetness to it that complemented the other emotions, rounding it in a way that felt authentic and complete.
- There has been a lot of good music this year, but the album that I have listened to the most was without question the Steven Universe The Movie soundtrack. Partly this is because it’s music I can listen to with my kids, partly it’s because I like to sing along. But mainly it’s because that show and the movie are just wonderful portrayals of friendship and family, and I love the way it makes me feel.
- In September, Mother Jones published an interview between an anonymous staffer and her mother, about the mother’s abortion. I don’t think abortion is a topic that ever will be an easy topic, and maybe it shouldn’t be. The way this conversation humanizes the discussion is, I think, necessary.
- There is a moment in Lucy Dacus’ cover of "Dancing in the Dark where everything pauses for just a brief second of silence, and it was probably the most transcendent moment of music for me this whole year.
- I got to read an advance copy of Brandon Taylor’s forthcoming novel Real Life, and it is everything that I would have dreamed a Brandon Taylor novel would be. It is a campus novel, a story about what we ask of each other, how we do and don’t see each other. It’s brutal at times, intimate at others, and beautiful throughout.
- One of my favorite narrative podcasts for the past few years has been the McElroys’ role-playing show The Adventure Zone. Their second big series wrapped up this year, and, yes, the finale did make me cry.
- Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s poem “If In Its Advance the Plague Begins to Fiercen” stretches language but the message is still quite clear.
- One of my favorite new podcasts and a consistent source of joy lately has been McKenzie Goodwin and Chuck Tingle’s show My Friend Chuck. It’s funny, generous of spirit, inclusive, and just decent. Just two buckaroos proving love is real.
- Ross Sutherland’s experimental audio fiction podcast Imaginary Advice released its fifth anniversary episode this fall, an audio version of a novelization of the 1995 Jackie Chan film Rumble in the Bronx. It is every bit as ridiculous as it sounds, and it is also truly sublime.
- As I do every year, I attended the Medium Festival of Photography this October. Of all the work I saw at this year’s festival, it was Anna Grevenitis’ series Regard that has stuck with me the most. In this series, Grevenitis makes images in collaboration with her daughter—who has Down syndrome—inverting the gaze and challenging the viewer, exerting control over the image and the perspective.
- What’s Good, Man? is a new podcast by rappers Guante and tony the scribe in which they discuss masculinity, and particularly ways that men can engage with healthier forms of masculinity. We so often hear that men need to have these conversations more often, so it’s nice to see two men doing this work, and doing it well.
- One of the most talked-about new audio dramas in the past few months (at least, that I’ve seen) has been James Kim’s series MOONFACE. The series starts in media res in a sex club, so you will know right away whether or not it’s for you. For me, I thought that it was brilliant in both concept and execution, telling the story of a young gay Korean American man who literally doesn’t speak the same language as his mother, and who is struggling to make something out of his life.
- I’ve mentioned masculinity several times in this list already. Well, one of the people I’ve looked to a lot recently as a role model for a gentler masculinity is Mr. Rogers, and so Carvell Wallace‘s new podcast Finding Fred has been wonderful for me. In this series, Wallace looks at Mr. Rogers’ life and philosophy, and wrestles with how to apply those teachings as an adult in the world today. It’s exactly what I’ve been thinking about lately, and what I needed to hear.
- Finally, just this week I listened to the full 7-episode run of the audio drama The Tower, which follows a woman’s journey as she climbs a seemingly endless tower. I thought the writing and performances were top-notch, and I found the story haunting. I just love the way podcasts are continuing to grow as a medium, and this is a great example of what’s happening right now.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me this year. If you’re reading this then you got through 2019, and that matters to me, too. I don’t know what 2020 will bring, but I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful that our work pays off, that we can find respite and joy, and that we all get what we need. I hope that you—you—get what you need.
53 Things That Mattered to Me in 2018
It’s been a hell of a year, hasn’t it? But then, it seems like we say that every year nowadays. The last few years it has felt not just that things are awful but that the rate of awfulness has accelerated. It is exactly that feeling that makes it all the more important to me to spend time thinking about the things that were good, the things that mattered. Here are some things that mattered to me this year. Please note, this list only reflects my own limited, incomplete, personal experiences. I didn’t see everything that could be seen this year, and not everything that I saw this year was released this year. These were things that stood out to me in 2018; I’d love to know what stood out to you, especially where our lists differ.
- One of the first things I shared in my weekly round-ups this year was this Steven Universe-inspired ballet piece, with dancer Juliet Doherty. I remember showing it to my dance-obsessed daughter, six years old at the time, and the way her eyes lit up as she watched.
- Amal El-Mohtar’s poem “Thunderstorm in Glasgow, July 25, 2013,” beautifully illustrated by Molly Crabapple. When I first read it, what struck me was how language informs identity. Now, I see too how it shows the separations between people, the barriers and the otherness.
- I read Erin Horáková’s 2017 piece “Kirk Drift” in February, and it did something I would not have expected after a lifetime as a Trekkie: it changed the way I think about Star Trek.
- Natalie Eilbert’s book Indictus was a searing collections of poems about trauma. It was so alive, so kinetic in its language. Troubling, but in a deeply necessary way.
- Everything Devin Kelly writes, whether essay, poem, or story, has at its core this searching, longing, tender quality. He wrote a piece about Goose from Top Gun that was also about his father, and about masculinity, and which I loved.
- L. D. Burnett, a historian and professor, wrote a piece called “Keeper of the Stories,” examining both the struggles of her Dust-Bowl-migrant family, and their complicity in the Japanese American Internment. It’s the kind of honesty in history that I still find to be unfortunately rare, but that I think we desperately need more of.
- 2018 was my year of superhero movies, the year I decided to finally catch up on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. I watched 18 MCU movies this year, and there were a lot that I liked quite a bit, but Black Panther stood out in that crowd for a lot of reasons, not least because it had characters saying things I’ve never heard in a blockbuster before.
- Rivers Solomon’s 2017 debut novel An Unkindness of Ghosts was intense and amazing, both an excellent example of a long science fiction tradition and something that pushed the genre in new directions.
- I think I started listening to The Adventure Zone’s “Balance” arc last year, but I finished it in March and it has remained one of my favorite pieces of fantasy I experienced all year. God, I just love those boys.
- Min Jin Lee’s 2017 novel Pachinko was both grand in scope and intimate, deeply empathetic, and taught me about a community I knew very little about before: Koreans living in Japan.
- I've read a lot of poems about injustice and our nation's disregard for black lives, but I'm not sure I've read any quite so tender and haunting as those in Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead.
- It’s been really wonderful reading so much speculative fiction by writers of color this year. One that stood out to me was Elaine Cuyegkeng’s 2017 story “These Constellations Will Be Yours,” about colonialism and forced servitude and revolution.
- Like just about everybody, I loved Paddington 2. Not just because it was a respite from the stress of the world, but because it was unabashedly itself, a children’s movie for children in an era when darkness or sarcasm seem to be more the rule in kids’ entertainment.
- I just adored Hannah Stephenson’s new chapbook Cadence, a collection of poems about new motherhood and all of the wonder and anxiety that comes with the care of a new life.
- Maggie Nelson’s 2015 memoir The Argonauts was by turns vexing, hilarious, troubling, heartbreaking, and throughout so deeply intelligent. Nelson insists on complicating every narrative, every system, every way of being. Perhaps this could be a lonely thing—it is for me, at times—but reading this was so affirming as well.
- Brandy Jensen’s “How to Poach an Egg and Leave a Marriage,” especially for this line: “Chasing the egg around the pot will only remind you of how often you run away from things, only to eventually coincide with yourself. You will wonder if it’s the running or the coinciding that makes you most miserable, and before you know it the eggs will be overdone.”
- I thought Franny Choi’s chapbook Death by Sex Machine was so interesting, both formally inventive and thematically resonant. Using artificial intelligence as a metaphor for the otherness of race and gender is just so, so smart.
- The most consistently entertaining and hilarious podcast I started listening to this year was definitely Drunk Safari. As host Maggie Tokuda-Hall puts it: “Essential animal facts as brought to you by dilletantes.”
- Another podcast I started listening to this year was Commonplace, and by far the episode that has most stuck with me was “Inside Commonplace.” Getting the behind-the-scenes conversations about the show, as well as the conversation between host Rachel Zucker and her husband, really showed me a lot about what an interview show can be.
- Alexander Chee’s essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel wasn’t just beautiful and insightful—though it certainly was those things. It was also the single most inspiring book I read all year, the kind that helped me keep going.
- In May, Laura Turner wrote about being pregnant after three miscarriages, about the anxiety of it. It was a beautiful piece, I thought.
- Then in August, she shared her son’s birth story. That was beautiful, too, and made me so happy.
- Probably my favorite album of the year was Lucy Dacus’s Historian. I came back to those songs over and over again, particularly the song “The Shell” and its line “You don't want to be a leader / Doesn't mean you don't know the way.”
- Jerry Takigawa’s “Balancing Culture” photographs, about the Japanese American Internment, won the Curator’s Choice Award from Center Santa Fe this year, which is how I found them. I love them for their strong visual compositions, and for the personal nature of the exploration.
- Kathy Fish’s poem “Collective Nouns for Humans In the Wild” was published in 2017. It’s just as heartbreaking this year.
- Many of the poems in Ada Limón’s The Carrying have a heaviness to them, but there’s a core of resilience in them as well, and Limón passes that feeling along to us, showing us the reasons to keep carrying on, showing us how.
- I’m not going to be able to sum up Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir Heart Berries in just one or two sentences. It has in it trauma and mental illness. It is a Native story. It is about writing your way towards yourself. But it’s more than any or all of that, too.
- One of my absolute favorite podcasts is David Naimon’s Between the Covers, and I was very happy to see his conversations with Ursula K. Le Guin be turned into a book. I particularly enjoyed the introductions David added to introduce each section, which provided context and deepened the experience.
- I’ve been heartened to see a number of pieces this year engaging with complicated topics with a lot of nuance, acknowledging the messiness of the questions involved and the lack of clear, simple answers. One of those was Connie Wang’s “I've Written About Cultural Appropriation For 10 Years. Here's What I Got Wrong.”
- R. O. Kwon’s debut novel The Incendiaries was utterly gorgeous in its prose, and I found it resonant in how it looked at the ways in which we form personal narratives, both how we attempt to invent ourselves and how we see (or fail to see) the others in our lives.
- Nicole Chung’s memoir All You Can Ever Know is without question one of the best and most personally important books I read this year. What an amazingly honest, open, full-hearted story Nicole has given us about adoption, about heritage, about self-understanding, about family, and how families are both made and inherited. I’m just so happy this book exists.
- Kirsten Tradowsky’s “Time Echo” paintings really interested me. I find the finished paintings aesthetically interesting, particularly in their gesture, but I think that the process behind them is what really nails it for me, the way that Tradowsky blurs details mirroring the way memory blurs details.
- I have to admit that I never listened to Superchunk before this year, but What a Time to Be Alive was a great place to start. I’d describe the songs as “defiantly joyful,” I think.
- I often find myself thinking that Fred Rogers’ existence is proof that the world can never be all bad. Watching the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? made me cry a lot, of course.
- Brandon Taylor’s piece about his mother was so moving, so beautiful. I’m so grateful for him.
- Lyz Lenz’s essay “Why Writing Matters In the Age of Despair” was a potent reminder of the necessity of documenting and commenting on these times.
- Innuendo Studio’s video “Lady Eboshi Is Wrong” was really good. It’s about the difference between empathy and agreement, a particularly important distinction right now, I think.
- I really like Mikey Neumann’s Movies With Mikey videos. I think they’re some of the most insightful film criticism out there right now. His video “Get Off the Floor” showed us more of himself, shared his personal story, and that’s something that more and more I’m finding to be admirable and even necessary from cultural commenters.
- Crazy Rich Asians showed me just how much I needed a movie like this, where Asians and Asian Americans get to just be people.
- A story that has stuck with me since I heard it on the podcast The Other Stories is Mary J. Breen’s “Pieces of String Too Short to Be of Any Use.” There’s something about the idea of a story that engages with regret but refuses nostalgia that feels very right to me.
- The movie Eighth Grade was just about the perfect encapsulation of the most awkward part of adolescence. It’s such a strange thing, too, to be able to connect so deeply to both sides of the teen/parent struggle.
- I love how José Olivarez’s debut poetry collection Citizen Illegal encompasses both fire and tenderness, poems about race and place, but also about love in many forms.
- Gretchen Felker-Martin’s essay “You Called for Me” showed me something new about the classic anime Akira, which I first watched when I wasn’t too much older than my son is now. Teaching him how to process his emotions, how to avoid the isolation that masculinity so often demands of boys and men, is something that’s important to me, and this essay gets at just why it’s important.
- I always love when Noah Cho writes about food, and his “Bad Kimchi” column at Catapult is just great. I particularly loved the first installment, “The Love of Korean Cooking I Share With My White Mother.”
- Sarah Gailey’s short story “STET” grabbed my eye at first for its experimental form, but what made it stick was the potency of its emotion.
- I heard The Heart podcast’s 2017 series “No” when it was rebroadcast on Radiolab in October this year. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything that engaged with the concept of consent in such a concrete way, and I really think that it’s something everybody should listen to.
- KangHee Kim’s “Street Errands” photographs are so weird and just love them so much. I can’t stop thinking about them.
- I don’t know who Noah and PJ are but their first wedding dance just made (and makes) me radiantly happy.
- This Ask Polly column from November about shame and art and treating yourself well and being where you are was just wonderful, I thought.
- I did not expect after the first chapter that I would love Sarah Rees Brennan’s YA fantasy novel In Other Lands but by the end I really, really did.
- Shivanee Ramlochan’s book of poems Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting was pretty amazing. Not just for how it blends together the myths and religions and folklore found in Trinidad, but for how it makes something powerful out of traumatic experiences.
- Before last year I really thought I was done with Spider-Man movies. And then after last year I thought that there was no way I’d be able to love a Spider-Man movie more than I loved Spider-Man: Homecoming, especially not another origin story. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse proved me utterly wrong. The climactic scene where Miles Morales takes his leap of faith was breathtaking in every way.
- A while back, maybe two or three years ago, I had this idea to write a story set in a fantasy world but using the conventions and themes of literary fiction. I never wrote it, of course. But reading Kelly Link’s short story collection Get In Trouble, I feel like I don’t have to, because she’s done it so much more brilliantly than I ever could. I don’t understand how these stories do what they do—it just feels like magic. Which is fitting.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me this year. I saw how many people worked so hard this year. I’m hopeful for how that work will bear fruit in the new year.
58 Things That Mattered to Me in 2017
Every Friday—or, at least, as many Fridays as I can manage—I write a list of things that mattered to me over the preceding week, and then I share that list on social media. I started doing this last summer, just as a way of shouting out the people who helped make my life a little better, and it’s something I’ve enjoyed doing from the beginning. It helps keep me positive and makes me consider a bit more closely the pieces of media and culture that I consume. This year, though, it felt a little more urgent to me to make these lists, a little more defiant, perhaps. It feels a little grandiose to say that these lists were an act of resistance, but if nothing else, 2017 has given me a lot of opportunity to think about what kind of world I’d like to live in, and what I can contribute. It’s a small thing, these lists, but they help me, and I hope that other people find them useful as well.
Over the course of this year, I shared over 200 essays, poems, articles, and bits of pop culture in my weekly round-ups. But there were others that didn’t quite fit, or for which I couldn’t find a link. And, looking back, some have stuck with me more than others. But I wanted to take some time and share some of the things that did stick. It’s not an exhaustive list of everything I read or saw or did in 2017, nor of everything that was good or important. Some of the things were new when I encountered them, some were quite old, but they were all new to me, and perhaps they’ll be new to you as well. In any event, here are 58 things that mattered to me this year, presented in roughly chronological order:
“When I think of wearing a kimono, I think of every way I have failed.” Rowan Hisayo Buchanan wrote that line in her essay “The Woman Scared of Her Own Kimono,” and it summed up a lot about my own relationship to my ancestral culture. I read a lot of essays about diasporic and mixed-race experiences in 2017, but this was one of the first, and one of those that I continued to think of most over the course of the year.
There was a lot on Thundercat’s album Drunk that I liked, but hearing Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins show up in the song “Show You the Way” brought me back to my childhood in the best possible way.
The first time I read Eve Ewing’s poem “to the notebook kid” I thought about it from the perspective of the student she describes, dreaming past the situation he’s in. The second time, I thought about it from the perspective of the teacher who sees that kid, and I thought about the students I worked with way back when. Every time I’ve read it, there’s been something new to it. That’s something, I think.
So much has been written about Moonlight and there were so many memorable things about it. What I think about most is the ache and hunger in Black’s eyes when he looks at Kevin as they talk in the diner.
I loved Moana for a lot of reasons: for the music, for getting to see a Disney story led by a woman of color, for that woman getting to have her own story without reference to a love interest. But, honestly, the thing I love most is hearing my now-three-year-old daughter belting “I am Moana!!!!” at the top of her lungs.
“You May Want to Marry My Husband,” by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, is perhaps the most romantic, tenderest, and most devastating thing I’ve ever read about love.
In March, Hanif Abdurraqib shared Kim Dower’s poem “He said I wrote about death” to Twitter, saying “excuse my language friends but this poem fucked me up.” It did that to me, too.
I like Noah Cho a lot, just as a person, and I have liked having the chance to talk to him and get to know him better this year. His piece “How My Parents Met” was wonderful, full of both warmth and longing.
I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite episode of The Poetry Gods podcast’s second season. I’m going to link the third episode here, the one featuring Patricia Smith, but honestly they’re all great.
Alyssa Wong’s short story “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” was nominated for a Hugo this year. The story was fantastic, and also introduced me to her bibliography, something I’m glad about.
I found my endurance flagging at several points in the year. Ada Limón’s poem “Instructions on Not Giving Up”came to me at a very opportune moment, and helped me keep going.
“How to Write Iranian-American, or the Last Essay,” by Porochista Khakpour. It’s about the way that the world will take from you, and try to make you into what it needs from you, when you are a marginalized person. I wonder how many people reading this saw themselves in it, and how many saw something entirely new to them.
Levar Burton launched a new podcast this year that people described as “Reading Rainbow for adults.” Levar Burton Reads was that, and it was delightful. It also gave me the spark for what may be my next project, but that’s another story and shall be told another time.
One of the best and most exciting things about podcasts is the possibility of giving you a look into worlds and experiences that might otherwise be inaccessible to you. Or, conversely, the prospect of seeing your own community presented and represented in a way you never have before. For me, Ear Hustle was the former, presenting slices of life from inside San Quentin prison. But I have to imagine that for some other people it must have been the latter as well, not least for the inmates themselves. Anyway, it was really good.
I enjoyed a lot of Devin Gael Kelly’s writing this year, and I’m very much looking forward to his new book of poems, In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen. The first piece of his that I read—this year or ever—was his essay “Running Toward My Father,” which was beautiful.
I got to see a lot of acts of protest and resistance this year, both in person and online. The most beautiful was this one.
Another new podcast to me this year was WMFA. I really enjoyed the conversations and the focus on craft. One episode I especially enjoyed was the episode with Hanif Abdurraqib. On a personal note, I’ve also enjoyed getting to know the show’s host, Courtney Balestier, with whom I’m now collaborating on a new project.
I had a hard time picking out just one piece of Brandon Taylor’s writing to share with you. I sincerely love everything I’ve read by him. One example, his short story “Grace.”
My kids and I have been watching Steven Universe together for a while now, and it’s one of my favorite things. The official soundtrack was released over the summer, and it’s become a sing-along staple in our family.
If you’ve listened to my podcast or even just hung around me for any length of time, you’ll know that Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You was life-changing for me. This year she released her second book, Little Fires Everywhere, and it was absolutely a highlight of my reading year.
Maggie Smith’s book Good Bones was lovely—like the title poem, the collection acknowledges the darkness but turns its face toward the light.
I’m not sure I can quite articulate why I loved this breakdown of Sammo Hung's movies as much as I did, but I really did.
In “If What I Mean Is Hummingbird, If What I Mean Is Fall Into My Mouth,” Natalie Diaz wrote about language and identity and history and poetry, and it was pretty amazing.
We got my son a Switch for his birthday, though I admit that I was as excited to play with it myself as I was to give it to him. The opening scene of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, when Link walks up to the overlook and the music comes up for the first time, transported me. More than that, though, getting to play through at the same time as my son, and connecting with him over our experiences in the game, was something I’ve been waiting for for a long time.
The poem “Wildlife,” by William Evans, about death and parenting, and dealing with both as a black person in America.
The images in Michael Marcelle’s “Kokomo” series were weird and unsettling in the best way. That first image in particular has stayed with me the whole year.
“The Paper Menagerie,” by Ken Liu, was such a wonderful story. In looking over this list, it seems that some common themes came up for me this year, in particular family and culture and language. God this was good.
When I talked with Maggie Smith about her book for my podcast this year, she told me about Katherine Fahey’s “crankie” animations, in particular one called “Francis Whitmore’s Wife.” Beautiful and haunting.
This isn’t a terribly profound thing to say but, damn, Baby Driver was a lot of fun. Right from the get-go.
Spider-Man: Homecoming was fun, too, and I think it’s safe to say that it was my favorite Spider-Man movie ever. The scene that sticks in my mind the most, though, wasn't fun. It comes toward the end of the movie, when Peter is stuck under a pile of rubble. At first he calls out for someone to help him, but no one is there and he has to find the strength to get out on his own. More than any other Spider-Man movie I can recall, this one really drives home that Peter Parker really is a kid.
I read and talked a lot about food as a cultural touchstone and food as heritage this year (and last year, if memory serves). Dongwon Song’s essay “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Eat the Damn Eyeball” was particularly good on that topic.
“The Story of the DuckTales Theme, History’s Catchiest Single Minute of Music,” by Darryn King, was a great piece of nostalgia for me. And getting to watch the new series (and sing the theme song) with my kids was great.
“A Map of Lost Things: On Family, Grief, and the Meaning of Home,” by Jamila Osman, about home, connection to place, to land, to people, about family, about loss. Such a beautiful piece.
I’m not sure if “Seasons of Glass and Iron” is exactly my favorite of Amal El-Mohtar’s short stories, only because I don’t think I could pick a favorite—I’ve loved every single one I’ve read, each in its own way. But it was the first one I read, and the one that led me to all the others I read this year, so it has a certain exalted position in my mind.
It’s kind of remarkable to me how before last year I’d never read any fiction that resonated with me in terms of Asian-American representation. You can see from this list that this is no longer the case. I first encountered Laura Chow Reeve’s story “1000-Year-Old Ghosts” on Levar Burton Reads, and I just loved the mixture of magic and food and family.
I read the first two books of N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy back-to-back, after the second one came out last year. The concluding volume, The Stone Sky, finished the story off in a way that couldn’t have been more perfect, for me anyway.
I started listening to the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat last spring, and it carried me through most of the year. I loved (and continue to love) that music dearly, but by the time the show swept through the Tonys I had more or less resigned myself to the idea that I’d never get to see it in person. But, in a total surprise to me, J and ten or so of our family members pooled their resources to get me tickets to see the touring production in Los Angeles, which they gave me for my birthday. We went to see it in September, and I started crying as soon as the house lights dimmed, and kept crying through most of the first act, and then cried again at “Burn” and then all the way through the finale. It was, without exaggeration, the best gift I’ve ever received.
I loved José Olivarez’s poem “(citizen) (illegal).” I can’t wait for his forthcoming book of the same title.
UNC law professor Eric Muller did a limited-run podcast this year called Scapegoat Cities, about the Japanese-American Internment. I found it gratifying that someone would take the time to tell these stories, which are beginning to be lost from living memory. And they were done quite well, too, I thought.
I have gotten pretty down on tech lately, which I suppose is odd for a person who makes his living as an electrical engineer. But there are still ways that technology and scientific endeavors manage to bring a sense of wonder to me, and one time that happened this year was getting to look through these photographs from the Cassini mission.
“A Nest of Ghosts, a House of Birds,” by Kat Howard, was just lovely.
I love Mallory Ortberg’s writing in a way that makes me vibrate with happiness every time I get to read something new from her. Her Shatner Chatner newsletter (and the subsequent website) brought me so much joy over the course of the year. But for all that, the piece of hers that I loved the most this year was “When Every Bra Size is Wrong.” Because getting the chance to be happy for someone who makes you happy is simply wonderful.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Nicole Chung this year, who edited my first-ever paid essay. The reason I was so excited is in part because of pieces like this: “On American Identity, the Election, and Family Members Who Support Trump.” I admire the hell out of her.
Speaking of people I admire, Martha Crawford wrote some amazing personal essays for her blog this year, of which my favorite was definitely “Dancing in the Graveyard,” about dreams, symbols, the collective unconscious, mortality, and Geoffrey Holder.
After the announcement that Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel, I went back and read his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, a story that I found haunting and tricky in all of the ways that I love about Ishiguro’s writing. But the thing I think most about Ishiguro’s Nobel is actually not about him at all, but rather a Twitter thread that Kenny Coble posted about what Ishiguro’s work meant to him.
Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s debut poetry collection, Peluda, was funny and poignant and ultimately triumphant. I loved it.
The first line of Tricia Gahagan’s artist statement for her photo series “11:11 Mirroring Consciousness” reads “How often do we pause and pay attention to the messages the world is mirroring back to us?” The photographs themselves made me gasp when I first saw them. The images were so perfect for my aesthetic, but also not something I think I could ever have done.
There’s a scene somewhere in the middle of The Florida Project where Moonee and one of her friends come out from under a tree where they’ve been sheltering from the rain, and step into a green pasture where some cows are placidly chewing. I recognized something in the color and the sudden quiet and calm, a sense of awe and the sublime that I used to feel when I was a kid, but which I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe at the time.
I saw Christina Riley at the Medium Festival this year, where she was participating in the portfolio reviews. It was great catching up with her, and seeing the prototype of the book she’s making of her “Born” series, a series I’ve been watching take shape for some time now, and about which I’m very excited.
Dimas Ilaw wrote about the nightmare happening in the Philippines in his piece “The Shape of the Darkness As It Overtakes Us.” It puts into perspective our own political situation, and shows us what the stakes are. He tells us, too, about both the necessity and limitations of hope, and the value of continuing to make art in such an environment.
Isobel O’Hare’s erasure poems “What We Know About Men” took powerful men’s statements about their alleged sexual harassment and assault, and transformed them into something else. That’s a powerful act, I think, and one I’m heartened by.
The newest podcast I’ve been listening to—and one of my favorites—is Carvell Wallace’s show Closer Than They Appear. In it, Wallace talks to celebrities, family members, old friends, doctors, journalists and others about the state of America. That description makes it sound like any number of other articles and books and podcasts out there, but the way he does it is unlike anything else I’ve ever heard, personal and honest and both broad and specific.
Both J and I cried when we watched Coco. Whew, what a beautiful movie.
I’ve only read one of J. Y. Yang’s Tensorate novellas so far: The Black Tides of Heaven. The world-building, the sibling relationship, the presentation of gender, it’s all so fresh and well done, and it has me very excited to read The Red Threads of Fortune, not to mention the ones that are still forthcoming.
I’ve been wrestling with Sofia Samatar’s essay “Why You Left Social Media: A Guesswork” for several weeks now. I think there’s an essential truth in there that I’m maybe just not ready for yet, but I think I’ll get there.
There’s a scene in Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird in which Sister Sarah Joan, one of the nuns at the Catholic school the title character attends, is talking to Lady Bird about her college application essay. She suggests that Lady Bird must love Sacramento, which Lady Bird finds surprising. She (Lady Bird) replies “I guess I pay attention,” to which Sister Sarah Joan asks, “Are those not the same thing?” I loved the whole movie, but I especially loved that scene.
Just this week, J and I took a short trip up to San Francisco by ourselves, and while we were there we saw Call Me By Your Name. We both loved the movie. The conversation between Elio and his dad (if you’ve seen the movie, you know which one I mean) just destroyed me.
Finally, one of my favorite things in the world is reading to my kids, and this year I’ve gotten to revisit some of my own childhood favorites with them—The Lord of the Rings with my nine-year-old son and The Wizard of Oz and Charlotte’s Web with my six-year-old daughter were particularly fun for me (and them). Earlier tonight as I’m writing this, my son and I finished the last Harry Potter novel. It was wonderful.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me. I know that there’s a lot of work to do in 2018, but I feel that we’re up to the task. I’m looking forward to it. Here’s wishing you (and all of us) a safe, happy, and prosperous new year.
While We're Young
There’s a moment late in While We’re Young where Ben Stiller’s character, Josh, is in the middle of a moral outrage-fueled rant, and his elder-statesman filmmaker father-in-law (Charles Grodin) says to him something like “It doesn’t have to be one way.” I don’t know if writer-director Noah Baumbach intended for that to be a comment on his film as a whole, but it’s that scene that keeps coming to mind as I’ve been mulling over what I think of the movie.
While We’re Young appears at first glance to be a comedy about Josh’s mid-life crisis. Josh is a mid-career, middle-aged documentarian, frustrated by a decade-long project whose resolution continues to elude him. After meeting their best friends’ new baby, he and his wife, Cornelia (Naomi Watts), return home and have nothing to talk about but a series of what feel like familiar rationalizations: “We’re happy not having kids. We’re free. We could go off to Rome tomorrow if we felt like it.” The dissatisfaction, of course, shows right through.
Soon after, a young, aspiring filmmaker named Jamie (Adam Driver) and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) approach Josh after a continuing ed class Josh teaches, telling him that they’re fans and asking for guidance. They strike up a friendship, and Josh and Cornelia quickly become enchanted with and invigorated by the younger couple’s youthful energy and neo-bohemian lifestyle.
There’s a lot of comedy that can be mined from the juxtaposition of the two couples, and the film does. Still, it’s hard to know exactly what Baumbach thinks about it all. The easy laughs mostly come from the foolishness, the trying-too-hard vibe you get from Josh’s trying to ingratiate himself with the new friends who are close to half his age. That plays well into a critical tone that the movie takes toward the preciousness and pretentiousness of millenial hipsterism. They make everything! They’re all about the moment and the art and the authenticity! Isn’t that great! (No, not really.)
On the other hand, it’s not as though Baumbach spares Josh’s (that is, his own) generation much. There’s as much scorn for the disconnected, screen-driven tedium of the aging Gen-Xers as there is for anything else. In one montage we see Josh and Cornelia mostly experiencing their marriage in parallel, never intersecting—one watches YouTube videos while the other plays Two Dots, or one watches TV while the other is absorbed in a Kindle—which contrasts with the easy connection between Darby and Jamie, who spend their evenings entwined in each others’ arms, sprawled on a couch watching a VHS tape together, or playing a vintage board game.
There’s no real resolution here. At times in the movie, the millenial life seems warm and adventurous; at others it’s shallow and self-absorbed. Sometimes Gen-X middle age seems to be full of hard-won truths, honesty, perspective, reality; sometimes it’s just cold and disaffected. Even though Josh and Cornelia eventually figure out their own path forward, and head down it with enthusiasm, Baumbach isn’t interested in letting that stand—the very last shot of the movie is a giant question mark.
The thing is, in life there aren’t easy answers, and things don’t have to be one way or the other. So maybe I could laud Baumbach for making a movie that doesn’t aim for safe, pat comfort. Still, stories aren’t life. Art is something that people make, intentionally, for a reason. I tend to want a narrative to come with a point.
Still, I can’t deny that there’s something familiar here. If not in the movie itself, then perhaps in between the lines, in the way it’s put together. Right now I’m rounding the corner into the back half of my thirties, coming to terms with certain realities about my life, and struggling to find my place as an emerging artist. I find myself wanting to grapple with big questions, while at the same time feeling arrogant and hypocritical for assuming I have anything to add to these conversations. This tension between self-aggrandizement and self-loathing seems to be the underlying drive of the whole process of While We’re Young, at least, if I’m reading it right. It feels like the kind of thing I would make, if I were making movies about myself (instead of making photographs and writing essays about myself).
Is a narrative film with a public release the right place to deal with that internal struggle? I don’t know. Maybe you’d find such a movie resonant, insightful. Maybe you’d find it narcissistic. I can’t even make up my own mind at this point, but if nothing else it’s something else for me to chew on while I wrestle with my own questions—and, you know, things don’t have to be one way.
Viewed: 4/25/2015 | Released: 3/27/2015 | Score: B-
April Review Round-up
The Autumn Republic, by Brian McClellan: In the round-up I wrote on my 2014 reading list, I said about Brian McClellan’s then-unfinished Powder Mage Trilogy, “I tore through the first book, picked up the second the day it was released, and am now impatiently waiting for the finale …” As it happened, I ended up buying the last chapter just as promptly as I did the middle, and read through it as voraciously as I did the first. The Autumn Republic delivers in every way I would have wanted: action, intrigue, epic scale, old gods, and new regimes. A very satisfying ending to a highly entertaining series. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
Birdman: In her Oscars round-up post back in February, NPR’s Linda Holmes had this comment about Birdman:
Birdman is an offbeat film in many ways and has real visual inventiveness, but it also has hugely familiar themes: the lone struggling genius misunderstood by the world, yelling at his daughter about social media and defending the importance of real art. (IMDb)
The thing is, I’m not sure Birdman is that movie. I mean, it might be. Certainly the main character, Riggan Thomson—played by Michael Keaton—would describe himself as a lone struggling genius, and his story as one of defending art. But then, the film also goes to great lengths to show Riggan’s insecurity and ego, and ultimately his patheticness. When his daughter (Emma Stone) verbally takes him apart, shouting that he is irrelevant, so get used to it, she’s completely right.
So, which is it? Does Birdman praise the independent artist or skewer a self-important blowhard? It swings back and forth between the two, and the famously strange ending doesn’t really help resolve the question. I think, in the end, it’s going to be whatever you want it to be, and so while I found it interesting, I can’t say I really loved it.
The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss: Long-time readers may have picked up on the fact that I have a lot of anxiety about my eventual death. So the fact that the opening chapter of this book describes the daily routine of an old, lonely man who is basically waiting around to die very nearly put me into a panic attack. I had to put the book down for a few days and come back once I’d calmed down. I’m glad I did come back, though.
The History of Love is the name of a book that the old man, Leo Gursky, wrote when he was young. It is also the name of a book written by a Polish emigrant to Argentina named Zvi Litvinoff. It is also the name of a book, the main character of which provides the namesake of a girl named Alma. Throughout The History of Love, we follow these three viewpoints—Leo, Litvinoff, and Alma—as their stories unfold and eventually converge.
The Litvinoff sections read like something out of Borges or Kundera. The Alma sections reminded me a bit of Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake—in feel if not in the details—or perhaps some of John Irving’s teenage longing. It is, as the title suggests, about love. But it’s about more than that. It’s about the human desire for connection, the ways that we try so hard to know the people near us, and the ways that they nevertheless remain a mystery to us. It’s a beautifully written, very affecting novel, and although it was at times difficult for me to read, I highly recommend it. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi: I’ve been reading military SF since middle school, and though my tastes have broadened a lot since then, I still find myself coming back to the genre. It’s just so much fun. This one, John Scalzi’s first novel (published back in 2005), is energetic and entertaining, just like I’d want from a space war story. It does hew a bit close to Starship Troopers structurally, but trades the semi-Randian political philosophy for a sardonic sense of humor and a lot more sex. It’s a quick read—I finished the whole thing in a day—and after finishing The History of Love it was exactly what I needed. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
The Dagger and the Coin, by Daniel Abraham: One of the things that Daniel Abraham does really well is write characters who are flawed—sometimes deeply so—but still somehow relatable. The central characters of this series are a young woman who is a brilliant banker with scrappy, underdog beginnings and also a certain lack of empathy or self-awareness and a tendency to drink too much; a mercenary captain who is highly skilled but tends only to thrive when he’s at his worst; and a bookish young nobleman who turns out to be a self-deluding monster. Each of them—as well as a few others—get time as the viewpoint characters, and because we see things from their perspective, there’s a natural tendency for each to become sympathetic. Especially in the latter case, that winds up being seductive but misleading; the guy really is a terrible person.
Another thing that Abraham does well is find new ways to come at existing genres. In The Long Price Quartet that meant coming up with a very novel magic system and a setting that wasn’t a stand-in for medieval Europe. In The Expanse series, that means incorporating tropes from a different second genre into the overall science fictional arc with each new book. And in this series, it means taking all of the hallmarks of traditional epic fantasy and entwining it with a highly nonstandard motive force: money and banking. Abraham has said before that a big part of the origin of this series came from his research into Renaissance banking practices, and it makes for a pretty interesting take on a kind of story that’s been around for quite some time. The first four volumes of this series are well-paced, interesting, and populated with great characters, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what happens in the fifth. (The Dragon’s Path: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. The King’s Blood: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. The Tyrant’s Law: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads. The Widow’s House: Amazon, B&N, Goodreads.)
City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett: Man, this was a good book. I’m not sure how to describe it in a way that makes sense, though. It’s a fantasy novel, but set in a world that’s roughly technologically equivalent to the 1920’s. This is a world where the gods were real, and their power allowed one nation to enslave the entire world. But it’s also a world where the gods were vulnerable, and were killed in a slave uprising that overthrew the existing order, and whose deaths caused a cataclysm that reshaped an entire continent. But all of this is backstory.
Yes, it is a fantasy novel. But in its plot, City of Stairs is really more of a cloak-and-dagger thriller. In the aftermath of the uprising and war I mentioned before, the former slaves have come to rule their former masters, burying the old oppressors’ attempts to rebuild their civilization under a mountain of bureaucracy. Eighty years later, a visiting professor who is investigating the history of the Divine and their old empire winds up dead under questionable circumstances, and a woman—an operative—named Shara arrives to investigate. But the more she uncovers, the more huge the conspiracies become.
City of Stairs features amazing world-building, wonderful characters, and not a little commentary on the nature of politics and nations and power, but all of that is done so skillfully and naturally that it never feels forced or heavy-handed. If you like contemporary fantasy, I can’t recommend this book any more highly. (Amazon, B&N, Goodreads)
A Few Quick-Hit Reviews
The Book of Life: I’ve been thinking a lot about representations of other cultures in American film and television lately, so the idea of a kid’s movie centering around Mexican folklore, which was written, directed, and produced by Mexicans, seemed intriguing. I honestly have no idea how good a job it does at representing Mexican stories, being neither Mexican, myself, nor an expert in Mexican traditional or modern culture. What I can say is that the animation style was both beautiful and (I thought) innovative, with the character design cleverly echoing the narrative structure—the main plot is presented as a story-in-story, and the characters in that plot look like wooden dolls. Moreover, it was a fun, light movie that both my kids and I enjoyed. (IMDb)
Paddington: At the risk of damning with faint praise, I have to say that this movie was not nearly as bad as I expected it to be. Like many parents with young children, Juliette and I will often take any excuse to be able to go to the movies with our kids—hence why I found myself at Walking With Dinosaurs 3D last year. The trailers for Paddington didn’t leave me feeling very confident that I’d get more out of the experience than having an opportunity to eat popcorn with my kids, but despite the somewhat off-putting animation of the title character, I actually thought this movie had its charms. Maybe I’m just a sucker for English accents. (IMDb)
Guardians of the Galaxy: By the time I had finally gotten around to seeing this movie, the conversation around it has gone through a pretty remarkable cycle. At first it seemed like everyone expected it to be terrible, then it became a surprise hit. By the end of the summer, people were holding it up as an example of a new wave of American cinema, holding it up as an example of the greatness underlying a form of pop culture previously seen as a guilty pleasure at best. But by the time the awards season had started, everyone had backed off a bit, ultimately deciding it was a lot of fun but probably didn’t deserve a Best Picture nomination. For me, it was neither more nor less than I expected. Everything people loved about it—Chris Pratt, the soundtrack, the action sequences, the sense of humor—I loved about it. Everything people thought was a little over the top, well, I agreed with that as well. All in all, a fun action movie that probably won’t end up changing the world. (IMDb)
My parents divorced when I was two. Afterwards, my brother and I lived with my mom, visiting our dad every other weekend. When I was six, we moved into a small cabin in a Big Sur Canyon, where my mom’s boyfriend lived. We stayed there for about a year, until my mom couldn’t stand his mood swings and drinking and the fact that he spanked me and my brother. We never lived with him again, though they were on again and off again for the next few years. Eventually, we settled in the house that I think of as “where I grew up,” and she married my stepdad.
As a younger man I harbored dreams of becoming a writer, which, to me, meant writing novels. But though I’ve worked my way into being a decent essayist, I’ve found that fiction is beyond me—as with my photographs, my strength is in observation, not construction. I know now that the only story I could ever really tell is my own, and writers who write only about themselves have long struck me as tiresome navel-gazers.
But then there is Richard Linklater, and Boyhood.
I’m sure that by now you all know about this movie. The thing that everyone is talking about is the remarkable length of the production, Linklater having brought the same cast together every year for twelve years in order to allow us to watch them grow and age. To be sure, that’s an impressive logistical feat, and it allows for a level of verisimilitude that I’ve never seen before in a movie. But what makes Boyhood the breathtaking experience that it is isn’t the fact that it took so long to make. No, the special thing about this film is how it presents a life in a way that is undramatic, yet intimate and resonant. Watching it, I felt like I could have been watching my own childhood. It makes sense, considering that Linklater drew from his own youth in writing Boyhood.
It’s more than just a portrait of a young man, though. Because in it I also recognized pieces of myself as a parent, and pieces of my own parents. One of the things that is so strange about growing up and having kids of your own is the way it makes you re-evaluate your memories of the people who raised you, to see them as people who were muddling through as best they could, the same way you are now. I watched this movie and couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like for my mom to have two young sons on her own, or what it must have been like for my dad to only get to see us for two days out of fourteen.
I wondered, in one of my recent movie reviews, whether there were any interesting stories left to tell about men. Boyhood showed me that a story well-written, a story with emotional weight, told with insight and quiet confidence, can make a familiar story fresh and vital. I’m so glad I got the chance to see it.
Viewed: 2/6/2015 | Released: 8/15/2014 | Score: A
The Hundred-Foot Journey
Thinking about this movie, it really feels like it’s got just about everything you’d come up with if you were making an awards checklist. Beautiful food? Check. Award-winning female lead? Check. Danceable, Bollywood-style music behind a “we can do it” montage? Check. “Quirky,” ethnic side characters? Check. A rags-to-riches story about a lone genius who has to overcome the odds? Check. The Hundred-Foot Journey really seems like a bat upside the head of potential Academy voters. And, like a lot of awards-bait movies, it never rises above the level of feel-good schlock.
The Hundred-Foot Journey opens with a young Indian man named Hassan (Manish Dayal) telling his backstory to a European immigrations officer. After his family’s home and restaurant in India are destroyed during a political upheaval, they have come to the Continent (after a short stint in England) to try to make a new life. They are grudgingly admitted, and when their brakes serendipitously fail just outside of a small, picturesque French town, they decide to start again there. Unfortunately, the building they buy for their restaurant is just across the street from a Michelin-starred French restaurant, run by the aloof, driven Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). A rivalry ensues, during which the culinary genius of young Hassan is revealed.
The story of a young genius’s rise from poverty to fame is pretty standard fare, and there just isn’t much in this version to elevate it into something interesting. Om Puri gives a fine performance as Hassan’s father, and, as I mentioned, the food is beautiful. Helen Mirren was good in her performance, although I did find myself wishing they’d hired someone more convincingly French—accents are far from the be-all, end-all of good acting, but at the end of the day it’s very hard to accept a performance as real when the accent is wrong.
Mostly, though, it was just trite. The most interesting female character and performance was, in my opinion, Charlotte Le Bon as Marguerite, but while she starts out as both a friend and mentor to Hassan, she winds up being nearly dropped by the film once Hassan’s ascent begins. It’s so predictable and disappointing, having a woman be presented as interesting but ultimately only be used to prop up the leading man.
It’s not a terrible movie, but, for me, The Hundred-Foot Journey ends up being conventional and treacly. And as can happen with things that are overly sweet, it leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.
Viewed: 1/30/2015 | Released: 8/8/2014 | Score: C-
This Is Where I Leave You
I’m told that the novel this movie was based on is hilarious. I took the liberty of looking up the 2009 New York Times review, in which critic Janet Maslin called it “smartly comic.” Some of that carries over to the film adaptation, but mostly when I was watching it, I kept thinking “This would be better as a book.”
This Is Where I Leave You is a movie that comes tantalizingly close to being good, but ultimately winds up just being OK. The bulk of the story deals with the four Altman siblings—Judd (Jason Bateman), Wendy (Tina Fey), Paul (Corey Stoll), and Phillip (Adam Driver)—as they return home in the wake of their father’s death. Now, you look at a cast like that, which is rounded out by the addition of Jane Fonda as the mother of the family, and Kathryn Hahn, Timothy Olyphant, Dax Shepherd, and Rose Byrne in supporting roles, and give them a premise like that, and what you’d imagine—what I’d imagine, at least—is a witty, heartfelt, observant ensemble movie. And at times that’s exactly what This Is Where I Leave You feels like, but it can’t hold onto it.
I think the main problem has to do with the fact that, rather than being truly an ensemble piece, the movie begins with Jason Bateman’s character, Judd, and follows his thread the most closely throughout. As the film opens, Judd appears to be a successful radio producer with a good life, but that gets upended when he walks in on his wife having sex with his boss. That this is shortly followed by the news that his father has died seems a bit piled on, but perhaps not unworkably so. No, the problem for me is that I’ve just seen too many movies about sad dudes who have to overcome some personal or emotional obstacle, mostly with the help of some Manic Pixie Dream Girl. That kind of story felt fresh when I was 25. At 35, I want to see something different. (At one point while watching this movie, I wondered aloud whether there were even any interesting stories left to tell about men. Perhaps that’s taking things a bit far, but certainly the shine has come off of this particular story.)
Still, if the main plotline fell flat for me, This Is Where I Leave You does get some things right, mainly in its portrayal of the Altmans as a family. There are little sprinkles of insight and realness here and there, bits of amicable dysfunction and the closeness that can only come from a shared history, which rang true to me. There are ways that, for many of us, family brings out both the best and worst of ourselves, and this movie understands that, and shows it in a way that doesn’t feel contrived or heavy-handed. Or, rather, it doesn’t feel any more heavy-handed than real families can be.
Still, those moments of connection only serve to make me all the more frustrated that the whole thing is so mediocre. And that’s especially true given the collective talent of the cast. I can’t say that this is really a bad movie, but it’s not one that I’m going to be coming back to often.
Viewed: 1/17/2015 | Released: 9/19/2014 | Score: C+