It’s been almost 2 months since I last posted any reviews, and I just haven’t made the time, despite having watched quite a few movies and having read some great books. I’ll just blame my absence on all the research papers that I grade in between the reading and watching.
So, briefly, here are some of my recent favorites:
Reading Challenge #3: A Book with a Number in the Title: Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
A dystopian novel that has been nominated for the Clarke Award (the British Award for sci-fi books). The novel begins on the night that a terrible flu begins to wipe out the population, and the novel moves back and forth between different characters’ perspectives and the timeline of the apocalypse–from several years before all the way up until 20 years post-flu pandemic.
Mandel creates a fascinating cast of characters: a medic who tries to save a famous actor who collapses on-stage during a performance of King Lear; that actor’s best friend and ex-wives both pre- and post-apocalypse; a young actor on stage who becomes part of a traveling theatre/musical group; a “prophet” who kidnaps and threatens various members of the group. And all the narrative centers around the interconnectedness of the characters as well as a futuristic, sci-fi comic book called Station Eleven.
This book is wonderful. It contains so much that I love about postapocalyptic stories: what happened on the First Night, how people survive, the effects of such a harsh reality on both individual and community psyches. But it is, ultimately, a story about people with the apocalypse as a backdrop, and it is very effectively done.
Book Challenge #14: A Book Recommended by a Friend: Oryx & Crake, Margaret Atwood
I read this book and Station Eleven in the same week, back in February. Two very different postapocalyptic novels by Canadian women. That’s what I get for lamenting that dystopian novels just haven’t satisfied me lately: I manage to read two really stellar ones back to back!
My friend Tyler and I both love books, but until recently, we didn’t actually like very many of the same books. But one that we both loved was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a brilliant, searing, feminist dystopian novel, and the first winner of the Clarke Award. So when Tyler loved Oryx & Crake, I tracked down a copy and started reading.
Oryx & Crake is the first book in a series called the MaddAddam trilogy. I have since read the sequel, called The Year of the Flood, and will soon get to MaddAddam to conclude the trilogy. These books focus on what happens when a society gives all its power to the corporations, when we become so focused on having everything better, cheaper, faster. The books are far more complex than what I could possibly summarize here, and there’s a strong understanding that everyone is in some way complicit in allowing a huge tragedy to happen. Margaret Atwood’s work is prescient and haunting, and I’m thankful when fiction can make me consider the world more critically.
I’ve watched a lot of movies, too (many while grading papers so that I feel less guilty–it’s the plight of the English teacher, I’m afraid). So here’s a very, very quick review of some of the best, even if they didn’t fulfill a challenge:
Boyhood, dir. Richard Linklater
I wanted this to win Best Picture at the Oscars, but I’m at the very least grateful Patricia Arquette took home the Best Supporting Actress award. I admire, first of all, the dedication that it takes to make a film over 12 years. This movie felt like flipping through a scrapbook of a person’s life or reading a series of journal entries. At the end, you’ve seen some important and seemingly unimportant moments in a life, but when they’re all considered together, the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. We get a boy growing up, but the development of his parents and the characters around him is just as fascinating to watch. It’s not perfect, of course, but it’s moving and thought-provoking and has stayed with me.
Whiplash, dir. Damien Chazelle
No lie: I’ll probably never watch this again. It was painful. I love my students, and to watch a movie about a teacher who berates, belittles, and damages his students hurt a lot. However, this movie has some of the best acting I’ve seen this year; J. K. Simmons earned every bit of that Best Supporting Actor award, and Miles Teller matches him pace for pace. I can’t wait to see how Teller continues to develop as an actor. And as painful as this movie was to watch, it was incredibly effective at raising the question of How far is too far? and Does the end justify the means? Do we celebrate this teacher for demanding (and receiving excellence), or do we punish him for his methods?
If you can’t handle the whole movie (which is likely to happen if you are a deeply caring person, especially one who teaches), then at least find the last scene in the movie, when Teller and Simmons go head-to-head in one of the best cinematic endings I’ve ever seen.
Ideally, I would have been grading more of those research papers instead of posting this on my blog. However, one thing I’ve already realized about these book and movie challenges is that stories are hugely important to me. If I don’t make time to read and watch movies, I feel myself losing focus, getting angry and discouraged about life. After watching Boyhood, I had a conversation with a friend about how strange it felt that most of the things that I care about most in life are fictional stories. And there have certainly been times when I’ve privileged and sought out fictional stories as a replacement for stories in my own life. But when I’ve sought out great, well-crafted stories and I’ve found others who appreciate those some stories, my real life becomes fuller and richer. In the past year or so, I’ve developed solid relationships with people who also appreciate stories, and our connection transcends what we see on a page or screen.
So for the next few hours, I’m going to go watch another version of Beauty and the Beast with my friends who love fairy tales, and then I’m going to have dinner with my small group friends, in which we’ll talk about life, but also probably about movies at some point. And I’ll text a few friends in the meantime about a movie I watched last night and a book I’m currently reading.
And eventually, the papers will end up graded, but I’ll be a better person for having taken the time off to rest and appreciate a world outside of the job that I devote too much time to and the expectations that are placed upon me.