Book Challenge Update

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:

StationElevenHCUS2Reading 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.

oryxcrakeBook 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

boyhoodI 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

Brody-Whiplash-1200No 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.

Book Challenges #9 & #33

More books for the challenge. I’ve completed 6 out of the 35 and read 11 books total this year so far!

stone mattressBook Challenge #9: A Short Story Collection

Stone Mattress: Nine Tales, Margaret Atwood

This book was released last year, and I was thrilled to read a short story collection from Margaret Atwood. Until this, I had only read (and loved and respected) The Handmaid’s Tale (although I’m now over halfway through Oryx & Crake).

This collection is, for the most part, thematically addressing aging although in a wonderful variety of ways. The first three stories are interconnected, following a group of writers who lived and wrote together in the 1960s folk-era NYC. At some point, each character has to confront the role that those early years in New York played in who they became later. It felt like I was sort of reading about some of the people who could have been in the lovely, but dark, Coen Brothers’ movie Inside Llewyn Davis.

But other stories also addressed aging in fantastic ways. My favorite, above all, was the very last story, called “Torch the Dusties.” The protagonist is an elderly woman who lives in a nursing home; she has an eye disease called Charles Bonnet Syndrome, in which her blindness causes her to hallucinate tiny people who dance around. That fact alone begins to blur the line between fiction and reality. But then the residents in the home realize that someone is picketing and blocking the entrances into the facility, a group who believe that the elderly are using up all the resources and should be left to die. The situation worsens, and finally, the residents are alone in the home, with no food and no assistance or medication. It’s what I love about Atwood the most: a hauntingly relevant dystopian setting that gave me chills. I love dystopia, and no one does dystopia like Atwood. This collection was marvelous, even for a reader in her 20s who hasn’t yet begun to really consider the aging process.

inhimBook Challenge #33: A book I started but never finished

I Never Had It Made, Jackie Robinson and Alfred Duckett

This book was on sale on the Nook last summer, and I started it in July after finishing Mariano Rivera’s The Closer, and I was so desperate for more baseball. I made the mistake of starting, however, while teaching summer school, so I stalled out after about 75 pages and finally started reading again in late December. I read the last 160 pages, however, in the last few days. Somehow, I was just as riveted at his life post-baseball as I was about his historic career with the Dodgers.

This book is one of the most authentically straightforward books I’ve ever read. It’s not the easiest book to read in that sense as I sometimes felt like someone was sitting in front of me, staring straight at me, and speaking with an uncomfortable level of candidness. Once I got used to the writing style, however, I found this autobiography to be refreshingly honest with more emotional depth than I imagined.

So many aspects of Jackie Robinson’s career are covered here: his close relationship with Branch Rickey, his tense relationship with some of his teammates, his decision to retire from baseball at the same time as he was traded to the Giants. But there was so much here that was unexpected: I didn’t realize how powerful politically Jackie Robinson became in the years after baseball. I never would have guessed his strong ties to the Republican Party and his role as NY Governor Rockefeller’s assistant. I had no idea about his roles in the various businesses and banks, either.

And I didn’t know the story of his oldest son, Jackie, Jr., who served in Vietnam, where he established a drug addiction that followed him back to the States. He was arrested and spent several years getting cleaned up in rehab and beginning to work with youth and addicts in a beautiful, powerful way before dying in a car accident at the age of 24. The last chapters of the autobiography, in which Jackie Robinson talks about his relationship with his oldest son and his family’s grief are beautifully written and devastating and a powerful testament to the love of family.

And Jackie Robinson’s work in the black community and fighting for the rights of blacks in America is, I think, his most notable legacy. His voice, speaking out against injustice and for his people, is strong and clear and inspiring.

More Book & Movie Challenges

January has been a busy month, so let’s get to it, shall we?

Movie Challenge #4: A Movie by a Female Director:

SELMA-movie-posterSelma, directed by Ava DuVernay

A glimpse into just a few months of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life during the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in support of lessening the restrictions and difficulties of the African-American vote. It’s incredibly difficult to believe that these events happened just 50 years ago. My parents and a lot of other people I know were alive then. And while African-Americans legally had the right to vote, it was almost impossible due to voting taxes imposed for all the years in which they weren’t registered or the voucher system in which they had to have the recommendation of another voter to be allowed to register. This movie did an excellent job, I think, of portraying what those difficulties were like. It’s never enough just to say that something is allowed or that a particular group of people has a kind of freedom that they didn’t have before. Systemic racism is still an issue, and I appreciated the portrayal of this hugely important event. I think David Oyelowo was remarkable as MLK, and seeing other Civil Rights leaders, like a very young, college-aged John Lewis was awesome as well. I’m glad this movie was nominated for Best Picture; it’s definitely deserving, but I’m sad that Ava DuVernay missed out on the nomination for Best Director. She would have been the first African-American female to receive that nomination.

Movie Challenge #7: A Wes Anderson Film: Fantastic Mr. Fox

Since I saw (and LOVED) The Grand Budapest Hotel, I’ve been meaning to watch everything else Wes Anderson has ever made. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long. This is the first movie I’ve watched of his since it seemed to be the easiest to track down from the public library, and it is so delightful. A stop-motion animated version of a Roald Dahl book, this story is about a fox couple voiced by George Clooney and Meryl Streep. It’s cute and funny and quirky and lovely.

Book Challenge #4: A book Written by Someone under the Age of 30

theduff__140528194115The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend), Kody Keplinger

This book is being made into a movie, which is the challenge that I had originally planned it for. I was also really intrigued by the concept/title. But once I started reading, I wondered about the age of the author because, honestly, the writing felt similar to the stuff I had written in high school. And, sure enough, Kody Keplinger wrote this novel as a senior in high school. This was published in 2010, and she’s published several more books since then, so it would be interesting to see how her craft has improved. Knowing her age, I was a bit more forgiving of this book, but some aspects were still problematic.

Bianca, the main character, has an encounter at a teen club with the hottest guy in her grade, Wesley. He hits on her because he tells her she’s the DUFF, and her hot friends will appreciate that he’s paying attention to their Designated Ugly Fat Friend. She dumps her Coke on him, but somehow also kisses him, and so begins their “friends with benefits” relationship. She falls in love with him, even knowing that she’s just a hookup, but of course, because this is a high school romance, he falls in love with her, too. Everything ends nice and neat, including Bianca’s relationship with the guy she’d been crushing on for three years because, surprise, he’s also in love with someone else.

Ugh, why did I read this? I should have paid more attention to the reviews on GoodReads, but I was willing to give it a shot (especially as someone who has potentially been the DUFF before–I’m rather glad that term didn’t exist when I was in high schoool!).

Book Challenge #19: A Book Older than 100 Years

kilmenyKilmeny of the Orchard, L.M. Montgomery

Okay, so the physical book wasn’t 100 years old (in fact, I read the Kindle edition), but this book was published in 1910, which was my intention when I took on this challenge. This was a suggestion for book club although we ultimately read something else, but it’s been on my radar for awhile. This is one of Montgomery’s stand-alone novels for adults, and since I love Anne of Green Gables so, so much, I gave this one a shot. It’s really a novella about a recent college graduate who moves to a small town to substitute teach for a friend who has fallen ill. Eric, the teacher, is taking a walk one night and finds an orchard, where a beautiful woman is playing a violin. She gets frightened and runs, and he discovers that she’s a local woman who has been mute her whole life. He continues to visit the orchard, they fall in love, and he has to overcome the conflict of her unwillingness to marry him (because she fears she will be an embarrassment), and a few other issues. I liked this all right, but I didn’t love it like I love other Montgomery works. Maybe because it’s so short and there’s not much character development? At any rate, it’s a Montgomery book, and I’ll never regret reading anything of hers.

Movie Challenges #5 & #14 and Book Challenge #1

SFP-LaBelleEtLaBete-03Movie Challenge #5: A Foreign Film: La Belle et la Bete

This is a 1947 French version of Beauty and the Beast directed by Jean Cocteau. It’s beautiful and creepy and fascinating and, obviously, follows the original story a bit more closely than the Disney version. Belle lives in big house in France with her father, two sisters, and a brother, whose friend Avenant is always hanging around because he is in love with Belle. The father is a shipping magnate who has lost his fortune when 3 of his ships go missing at sea. They are resigning themselves to a life of poverty when the news comes that one of the ships has returned. The father heads to the port city, only to discover that his debtors have already claimed all of the cargo, and they are just as poor as ever. On the way back home, he gets lost in the woods, finds the Beast’s enchanted castle, and explores a bit. The castle’s enchantments are weird: arms extend from the wall to light the candelabras, faces turn to look at you from the mantlepieces. The father never sees the Beast until he picks a rose to take back to Belle, the only reasonable request from his daughters. The Beast makes a deal with the father that either his daughter will take his place or the father will return within 3 days. Naturally, Belle takes his place and grows fonder of the Beast, etc.

The ending is the most interesting part of the story. When Belle returns to the castle and finds the Beast nearly dead from grief, he transforms into his human character–with the face of the friend Avenant who was in love with Belle! Avenant and Belle’s brother Ludovic had been attempting to break into the building where all the Beast’s wealth was kept, and in the process, a statue who may have been a conduit of the goddess Diana comes to life and kills Avenant, who transforms into a Beast just as the original Beast was transforming. The original Beast’s new human form had a much better haircut than Avenant, did, and was far more attractive that that animated version from Disney. When Rebecca and I watched the movie, we couldn’t decide if the Beast just looked like Avenant or if he actually was some kind of body-snatcher. But either way, it’s an interesting choice for the transformation.

fountainMovie Challenge #14: A Movie Recommend by a Friend Who Loves Movies: The Fountain

Two friends–Bryce and Rebecca, with whom I actually watched the movie–recommended this to me in the past few months. The Fountain is directed by Darren Aronofsky and stars Hugh Jackman (Tommy) and Rachel Weisz (Izzie), who play several different characters throughout the movie. In the present time, Tommy and Izzie are married. Izzie is dying of cancer, and Tommy is trying to find a cure for cancer through experimental drugs and surgery on primates. In the past (around 1500), Izzie is actually the Spanish queen Isabella, and Tommy is Tomas, a Spanish explorer. Isabella sends Tomas on a quest to find the Fountain of Youth, which is contained within the Tree of Life somewhere in the Mayan rainforest. And in the future (around 2500), Tommy is guarding the Tree of Life within a spherical space ship heading toward a nebula. He is haunted by memories (I think?) of Izzie.

I don’t know that I could actually write a summary that fully explains how captivating this movie is. First of all, the cinematography is brilliant. The images of the spaceship and the nebula and the Tree in the forest are some of the most beautiful images I’ve ever seen on film. And Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz give such emotionally captivating performances with very few supporting actors to aid them. This is a movie that I’m going to have to watch many more times to even wrap my brain around some of the ideas of death and life, of reincarnation. ‘

winters-tale-english-5.previewBook Challenge #1: A Book Longer than 500 Pages: Winter’s Tale, Mark Helprin

I don’t even know what to say about this book. There are honestly too many words for me to say about how beautiful and lovely and profound this book is. Back in November, my book club chose this for our January pick, on the premise that, since we wouldn’t be discussing a book in December because of Christmas, we would have 2 months to read Winter’s Tale, which clocks in at 748 pages.

I only need 8 days to read it. It was that good.

The book was made into a movie starring Colin Farrell that we’ll be watching at our book club meeting this weekend, but I can’t even imagine how the movie could convey even a fraction of the story. It’s the story of Peter Lake, a professional burglar, and Beverly Penn, who is dying of consumption in the early part of the 20th century. But that’s not even 100 pages of the book, I don’t think. The book spans a century of New York City life and is as much a love story about the city as it is about Peter and Beverly, or Hardesty and Virginia, or any of the other characters in the story. There’s a massive street gang led by a delightful fellow named Pearly Soames; there’s a group of Indian-like people called the Baymen who raise Peter Lake; there’s a magnificent place called the Lake of the Coheeries that is magical and weird; there’s a bridge-builder named Jackson Meade and his workers Rev. Mootfowl and Mr. Cecil Wooley. There’s a magical cloud wall that transforms everything and there’s a concept of reincarnation that I’m still working around in my brain.

There’s a bit of Dickens here, in the character names and the descriptions of New York as an industrialized city and the discussion of the weird orphanage where Peter Lake grows up. There are strong elements of magical realism very reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. There’s a love for place that I’ve really only seen in Henry David Thoreau’s descriptions of Walden Pond.

This is the perfect winter book. I’m going to buy a physical copy of my own someday on the off-chance I’m ever snowbound and need to read a book that won’t make me hate snow and winter. Also, I will be reading this again, I’m sure. Every page of those 748 had some grand treasure, and this quickly became one of my new favorite books.

Book Challenge #13 & Movie Challenge #2

Thank God for Christmas break and a new apartment with no internet. No, really. I have done so much reading and movie-watching, and it’s wonderful!

Book Challenge #13: Read a book by an author I love that I haven’t read yet

preludesnocturnesThe Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes, Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is, far and away, one of my favorite authors. I had read the first issue of The Sandman years ago, and I’ve owned the trade paperback of volume 1 but had never gotten around to reading it. Before Gaiman became famous for his novels and works of short fiction and episode-writing for Doctor Who and his marriage to Amanda Palmer, he made his name known in the comic book world with this critically-acclaimed series.

In Vol. 1, a man named Roderick Burgess acquires a grimoire that should enable him to capture Death. Instead, he ensnares Death’s little brother Dream (also known as Morpheus), whom he imprisons for about 70 years. When Dream is captured, he is no longer reigning over the dream and nightmare realms, and of course things go horribly awry.

morpheusWhen Roderick’s son Alex finally releases Dream, he immediately punishes Alex and then goes on a quest for his tools. Dream teams up with John Constantine to find a small, but powerful, bag of sand. He ventures to hell to fight a demon in order to get his helmet back. And, with a little help from old members of the Justice League of America, he finds Doctor Destiny, who has used Dream’s ruby amulet to take control of the dreamworld and attempt to bring about the apocalypse. (Also, Morpheus is kind of attractive in that 80s, early-Neil Gaiman, comic-book sort of way.)

The editor, in the introduction to vol. 1, states that this is the weakest of the collected volumes, that Gaiman was still trying to find his voice. But I still found it wonderful. It’s almost like there’s this band that you’ve loved for years, and you discover their unreleased EP that they recorded in someone’s garage, and you still think it’s wonderful. This volume of the comics is really, really good, and I know Gaiman’s voice well enough to hear it in the voices of Morpheus and his sister Death. And I’m eager to get my hands on the rest of the series now.

Movie Challenge #2: Watch a movie made more than 50 years ago

Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949)

take me outI found this on sale at B&N a year or so ago, and I’m so glad I did. It’s a musical about baseball! Frank Sinatra plays a young second baseman to Gene Kelly’s veteran shortstop on a championship baseball team in the early 1900s. In the off-season, Sinatra & Kelly do vaudeville acts, and the movie begins when they’re late for spring training in Florida. Shortly after they arrive, the teams learns that the old owner has passed away and left the team to a distant relative who wants to see the team. They immediately assume it will be an old, fat man who thinks he knows more about the game of baseball than they do. Instead, the new owner is a beautiful woman, played by Esther Williams. She immediately clashes with Gene Kelly, and young Frank immediately falls in love with her but has no game, so he doesn’t no how to talk to her about anything other than baseball.

There’s baseball and romance and bad guys betting on the game of baseball and a clambake. It’s really delightful. My friends who love musicals would love it. Also, Frank Sinatra is a skinny, young guy who looks absolutely adorable in his team sweater.

Movie Challenge #3: Movie with a Number in the Title (28 Weeks Later)

28 weeks laterFirst challenge completed! I finally got around to watching 28 Weeks Later, the sequel to the excellent Danny Boyle-directed zombie movie 28 Days Later. Danny Boyle shifted to producer on this as he was busy directing another film, and a Spanish director named Juan Carlos Fresnadillo joined the film. None of the cast of the first movie returned, but that’s okay because this is a completely different story.

Obviously, we know from the title that more time has passed since Cillian Murphy woke up in that hospital in the first movie and the world had gone to hell. We get a brief glimpse of the early days of the apocalypse in this film, but only so that we can see the ramifications of certain characters’ actions later in the movie. Through a quick timeline, we learn that all the infected actually died of starvation after 5 weeks, and then cleanup began. NATO forces arrived to begin reconstructing Great Britain, and the first survivors move into a heavily-guarded area called District 1.

One of those guards is Jeremy Renner, playing the role of a sniper. Idris Elba plays a general (with an American accent…in a movie set in Great Britain…so surreal). The rest of the case is fantastic, too, especially the 12-year-old boy Andy, played by an actor named Mackintosh Muggleton, who just missed his chance to be a Harry Potter character, I think. Andy and his older sister Tammy had been on a school trip when the outbreak began, and they are returning to live with their father in District 1. They become the emotional focus of the movie, even when the outbreak unexpectedly begins again.

This was a good sequel, almost as good as the original. Lots of unexpected things happen, and the ending just sort of pulls the rug out from under you. I loved the way it ended. My only complaint about the movie was the shaky-camera work. It made me a little dizzy, but it did cut down on some of the gore, so I don’t suppose I should complain too much.

So there’s one movie down, and one spoiler-free review! If there are more dreary, rainy days next week, I expect I’ll nail down more movie and book challenges then.

2015 Book & Movie Challenges

In addition to whatever book challenge I do every year, I decided that I would also add a movie challenge since I watched so many wonderful movies last year. I’ll be tracking my watching/reading on my blog, and I’ve made pages to keep track just like I do with my reading every year.

I feel like I became a movie fan late in life. It’s only been the last 3 years that I’ve cared about Oscar races or well-made films or watching every great movie by particular directors. So I’ve missed a lot in all those years before 2012. This challenge will hopefully make up for lost time.

In 2015, I resolve to watch the following films. They must be first-time viewings, and I no movie can count for two or more numbers on the challenge.

  1. A movie longer than 3 hours
  2. A movie made more than 50 years ago
  3. A movie with a number in the title
  4. A movie by a female director
  5. A foreign film
  6. A documentary
  7. A movie directed by Wes Anderson
  8. A DC superhero movie that did not receive critical acclaim
  9. An Oscar-winning Best Picture
  10. A movie that came out in 1985 (the year I was born)
  11. A movie based on a graphic novel not involving superheroes
  12. A movie I own but have never watched
  13. A Quentin Tarrantino movie
  14. A movie recommended by a friend who loves movies
  15. A musical or movie based on a play
  16. A movie with a color in the title
  17. A movie based on a fairy tale
  18. A classic horror movie
  19. A classic science fiction movie
  20. A movie set in South Carolina

I adapted the movie challenge from my book challenge, which in itself is an adaptation of one I found on Tumblr. In addition to my goal of reading 100 books this year, I will fulfill the following 35 requirements:

  1. A book with more than 500 pages
  2. A book published in 2015
  3. A book with a number in the title
  4. A book written by someone under 30
  5. A book with nonhuman characters
  6. A funny book
  7. A mystery or thriller
  8. A book with a one-word title
  9. A short story collection
  10. A book set in a different country
  11. A nonfiction book
  12. A popular author’s first book
  13. A book from an author I love that I haven’t read yet
  14. A book that a friend recommended
  15. A Pulitzer Prize-winner
  16. A book based on a true story
  17. A book at the bottom of my to-read list
  18. A book that scares me
  19. A book more than 100 years old
  20. A book based entirely on its cover
  21. A memoir
  22. A book I can finish in a day
  23. A book with antonyms in the title
  24. A book set somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit
  25. A book published in 1985
  26. A book with a color in the title
  27. A book by an author I’ve never read before
  28. A book I own but have never read
  29. A book set in South Carolina
  30. A book originally written in another language
  31. A book written by an author with my initials
  32. A play
  33. A book I started but never finished
  34. A classic science fiction novel
  35. A book that became a movie or TV show

Follow by movie challenge here and my book challenge here. Let’s see how much I can read and watch in 2015!

Best of 2014

I’ve never done a best-of-the-year list before, but I love reading them, and I’ve consumed a lot of really good stories this year. So here’s a list of my favorite things of the year.

Favorite Books Read

As of today, December 20, I’ve read 96 books towards my goal of 100 for the year. Eleven days to read 4 more books? No problem! But of those 96, some were fun, some were mediocre, and some were so shockingly wonderful.

woolWool by Hugh Howey

I honestly don’t know if I have enough words to praise this book! My friend Micah told me a couple of years ago to read it, and since then, two other highly respected book friends have recommended it to me, and I finally got around to it a few weeks ago (and have since read the second book in the trilogy). Howey self-published Wool several years ago, and it gained ground quickly, for good reason.

In the first novel, we’re introduced to the residents of a silo, which is a self-contained civilization. There’s a distinct class system, perfectly delineated by the levels of the silo, and everything seems to run as it should. But in the very first chapter of the book, we’re introduced to a sheriff who elects to go to a “cleaning,” in which he is put into a kind of biohazard suit and sent outside the silo to clean the windows…and then to die. Through his perspective, we learn that all is not well within the silo, but this main character is gone before he really gets to narrate any of the story. In the aftermath of his cleaning, the mayor and deputy must appoint a new sheriff, and I won’t tell you anymore because that would strip away all the joy you’ll get in reading this thought-provoking, fascinating dystopian series. The second book, Shift, isn’t as strong as the first one was, but I’m nonetheless eagerly looking forward to the conclusion to the story, Dust.

fangirlFangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Everyone loves Rainbow Rowell. With Eleanor & Park, she (deservedly) made a huge name for herself in the YA world. And as wonderful as Eleanor & Park is, her second YA novel Fangirl is far and above my favorite of all the books she’s written (and I’ve read them all this year!). Fangirl, in fact, is the only book I actually read twice this year, and I’m already itching to read it again.

Fangirl is the book I needed long ago, and probably still need now. Cath is beginning her freshman year at college and trying to balance a class load (including a Serious Writing Class) and writing Harry Potter-esque fanfiction. She struggles to maintain her relationship with her twin sister and her father, but she also struggles to define who she is and what she wants. And there’s a great guy named Levi who loves Cath because of her geeky, fangirl ways, and my gosh, doesn’t every fangirl dream of that?

A lot of my less-geeky friends didn’t enjoy Fangirl as much because Rowell blends the story of Cath with excerpts from the fictional Simon Snow stories as well as excerpts from Cath’s fanfiction. It’s such a great love story–both between Cath and Levi as well as for Cath and the worlds of fiction that she loves so much.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

I wrote about this in my last blog post about Interstellar, so I won’t summarize or reflect here. But this science fiction novel about Jesuits traveling to space in search of extraterrestrial life is one of the most profoundly moving explorations of faith I’ve ever encountered in fiction. I love it when science fiction, which is often overlooked as being trivial or unworthy, can so accurately depict issues of the human condition. This is a heavy book to read, but it’s a book that has never left me, that I’ll carry with me always.

hawkeyeThe Hawkeye comics by Matt Fraction

I LOVE HAWKEYE. I loved Jeremy Renner’s portrayal of him in The Avengers, obviously, but Matt Fraction has done incredible things with Marvel Now’s Hawkeye series. I bought a subscription to Marvel Unlimited, which allows me access to comics on my tablet, and I burned through all the Hawkeye comics available very quickly. They are funny and moving and just so wonderful. And the best thing about them is that the Hawkeye name is shared–by both Clint Barton and Kate Bishop, who is part of the Young Avengers. The fact that both a male and female can share the name and the responsibility of working with the Avengers is wonderful. There is just so much right about these stories, and the artwork, relying on lots of purple illustrations, is beautiful!

Favorite Movies Watched

grootbabyFavorite Superhero Movie: Guardians of the Galaxy

I mean, really. I saw this four times (as many times as I watched The Avengers in theaters) and had to talk myself out of seeing it at least a dozen more times. It’s funny. And snarky. And super weird and sci-fi. With a great soundtrack. And Chris Pratt. And Groot. My gracious, I love this movie. And as much as I loved X-Men: Days of Future Past and Captain America: Winter Soldier (which were both better than their predecessors), Guardians was definitely my favorite superhero movie released this year.

And everyone needs more dancing baby Groot in her life.

snowpiercerFavorite Dystopian Film: Snowpiercer

All the survivors of the world after a major climate disaster are placed upon a train that continually travels and sustains the life on board. Eighteen years have passed since the disaster, and Chris Evans leads a revolution that reveals the class struggles on board the train. He begins his fight at the end of the train, where he works and lives with all the other lower-class people who must help to power the train. He fights his way through all the classes on board to the very front, where he confronts the leader of the train, played by Ed Harris. It’s violent and gripping and highly revelatory of Marxist class struggles: everything that I look for in a dystopian film. I can’t believe how good this movie is.

grand budapestFavorite Comedy: The Grand Budapest Hotel

To be fair, I don’t watch a lot of comedies, so this one was by far the easiest pick. But this was also one of my favorite movies of the whole year. It’s the first Wes Anderson movie I’ve ever watched (please don’t stone me–I’m a fan now and I’ll make up for it, I promise!), and I laughed out loud through the whole thing. Ralph Fiennes as Gustave H and Zero Moustafa as his Lobby Boy are just the kind of weird characters I wish I could find at hotels. (And the supporting cast: Tilda Swinton and Adrian Brody and Owen Wilson and all the other Wes Anderson regulars!) They fight off Nazis and steal artwork and have grand adventures, and this movie is just so wonderful and wacky and fabulous and lovely.

Favorite Classic Movie that I Should Have Watched Years Ago: 2001: A Space Odyssey2001

I really have no excuse. I’ve even owned this for two or three years. But after Interstellar, which relies heavily on imagery that reflects 2001: A Space Odyssey, I finally watched it–and loved it, of course. The monoliths and Hal 9000 and Dave the Astronaut–it’s such a pivotal, important sci-fi story, and I was riveted through the whole movie. The imagery of space travel is lovely, and the cinematography is astonishing. I mean, the scene of Frank running onboard the round spacecraft! It’s so good! I’m glad I finally watched it, if only to understand jokes about getting shoved out of an airlock.

Favorite Movie About Space: Interstellar

I love Matthew McConaughey. And time travel. And black holes. And this movie.

Favorite Animated MovieThe Lego Movie

An everyman named Emmett (voiced by Chris Pratt) is summoned to save the world from a terrible dictator. It’s a dystopian movie! And it’s funny! And cute! And, yes, it might have some feminist issues, but I had a lot of fun watching this. And Lego Batman is delightful.

‘Mastery of small, telling gestures’: Tom Hardy as a man who goes awol in Locke.Favorite Movie Starring Tom Hardy: Locke

It was hard to choose between this one and The Drop, but ultimately, Locke has to win on the sheer basis that Tom Hardy is THE ONLY PERSON IN THE MOVIE. I mean, sure, we get the voices on the other end of the phone, but the movie is literally just Tom Hardy driving from one place to another, trying to solve a crisis at work, take responsibility for a personal problem that he has, and fix his family life. It’s hard to watch, and Tom Hardy is stellar at telling a story using his voice and facial expressions and reactions to the people on the phone. I was riveted by a movie that literally involves one guy driving down the road the whole time. Tom Hardy is a freaking genius actor, and I wish more people realized that. (Also, he’s beautiful. There’s that.)

In 2014, I saw almost as many movies as the number of books I read. And, honestly, I saw more great movies than read great books. I read books that disappointed me, or angered me, or were just intended to be light, fluffy reads. But with films, I’m drawn to superhero films, sure, but also well-made dramas and insightful, if violent, movies. And there were so many great films that I watched this year that I had a hard time narrowing it down to just these 6. I’m very eager to see what my reading/viewing habits look like in 2015.

As for reading, I found this great reading challenge on Tumblr this morning that I’m going to try. I’m thinking about revising it for a movie-watching challenge, too, for the first time, so stay tuned for that!

reading challenge

On to 2015! 


Note: possible spoilers below. Also, a somewhat meandering path until I actually start talking about the movie.

Mary-Doria-Russell-The-SparrowBack in the spring, I read a book called The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. My book club had selected it for our May meeting, and my friend Katherine and I had actually met the author after she gave a lecture at Newberry College a few weeks before.

The novel is a story of a Jesuit priest/linguist, some scientists, and a doctor and her husband who travel into space after hearing a series of alien voices singing. They are the first mission to travel into space successfully and integrate into an alien culture on another planet.

From a sci-fi perspective, the book is fascinating and covers topics of relativity and the adjustments humans must make to an alien planet. From a linguistic perspective, the novel explores how, even though one may learn another spoken or written language, sometimes cultural conventions are not as easy to translate.

And from a Christian perspective, the book is by far the most thought-provoking exploration of faith I’ve ever read. (And it could never be labeled a “Christian” book, incidentally, which is rather a discussion for another time.) Russell has been both a Jew and an atheist and confessed in her lecture that, often, she doesn’t believe in God’s existence. This is a topic, however, that she has obviously spent her whole life exploring and considering. In the novel, the main character is the Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz. The devastating and fascinating truth is that the novel opens with Emilio’s return to Earth 40-some years after leaving (though he is considerably younger than he should be, thanks to relativity and all). He is the only survivor of the mission; he has been tortured and is in very bad condition, and he cannot speak for months about what happened on the alien planet.

The title of the novel, The Sparrow, is an allusion to Matthew 10:29: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” Of course, the hymn that references this verse states that “His eye is on the sparrow.” Emilio is a character who sort of landed in the role of priest because he had no other option. He was a troubled kid, taken in by a Jesuit priest and trained up to join the clergy. His mastery of languages led to his invaluable role as a linguist and missionary, and he is given the task of learning how to communicate with the alien species. When the group lands on the planet, they are able to establish good relationships with the natives of the planet, and after several years, Emilio realizes that, for the first time in his life really, he is able to feel a contentment in his calling. He is able to believe that God specifically led this group of people to this particular place for a very specific reason. Yet, when tragedy strikes, and Emilio is left alone and persecuted and injured and humiliated and broken, his faith wavers. He questions the idea that, if God’s eye is on the sparrow, why does it still fall? Why does God watch it fall and do nothing? He compares himself to the sparrow, and he questions a God who will place His people in certain situations only to watch them suffer and fail.

This is certainly a question that Christians have had to wrestle with for a very long time. What’s wonderful and devastating about this novel is that Russell places her characters in outer space and has them wrestle with the very same issues that believers and humans on earth must address.

I felt very similarly at the end of seeing Interstellar tonight as I did when I finished reading The Sparrow back in May. On the surface, the only real comparisons are the aspects of space travel. The motives are different, the stakes are higher, and there’s less focus on faith and more on science in Nolan’s film.

The space travel in Interstellar is born out of sheer desperation. Nolan’s dystopian version of the earth is reminiscent of the Dust Bowl. Crops are failing, dust storms are devastating, and there may be no way to survive on the planet. The resources are used up, and there aren’t many options left beyond leaving and trying to start over somewhere else. But McConaughey’s character Cooper is somewhat similar to Emilio Sandoz. Both men are young and gifted: Emilio as a linguist, Cooper as a pilot and a scientist. Both feel out-of-place in their roles on earth, Cooper as a farmer and Emilio as a priest. Both are needed to lead their missions into outer space, and both are the ones who have to wrestle with and find solutions with their questions of faith: Emilio with God, but Cooper with the mission he’s been given and the situation back home (specifically with how he was told to resolve the problem–am I vague enough her to avoid spoilers?). Both men make incredible sacrifices for the sake of the mission, and both undergo extremely difficult circumstances to return to a home that has changed so drastically in their absences.

Both men, however, must also consider the power and role that love plays in their lives. In Interstellar, Cooper’s love for his family, particularly his daughter Murph, is vital in his success with the mission and the future of civilization. It is their close connection that enables humanity to survive. And I think Nolan is making the argument that love trumps many things that should be far greater. Love enables our survival instincts and our innovative skills and is, of course, our very reason for existence.

Similarly, Emilio Sandoz has to wrestle with the love he feels for his fellow traveler Sophia. He is training her in linguistic theory so that they can learn to communicate with the natives of the planet. The two of them share many characteristics, including a thirst for knowledge, and they fall in love with one another. Their relationship never establishes itself, however, because Emilio is committed to his celibate existence and his devotion to his calling and his God. Sophia respects that and, over time, falls in love with a scientist who is part of the mission. They are married, and Emilio believes that his sacrifice and his continued commitment to his faith will be blessed by God. He falls in love with God on this mission and feels secure in his purpose in life, which naturally leads to his struggle when he feels that love has been betrayed in the tragedy that ultimately sends him back to earth alone and broken.

Both men are strong, intelligent characters who overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and sacrifice more than anyone else should for the sake of humanity. I find it fascinating that both of these stories are celebrations of both science and faith (although faith in different areas). Honestly, neither of them resolves the questions of faith, but so many stories are actually incapable of resolving those questions. Struggles with faith are very personal, but both Nolan and Russell have crafted powerful stories intended to reflect what it means to be human and question the universe in which you live. I walked out of Interstellar desperate to hug the people I love most in the world. (In fact, I leaned over to hug my best friend, who whispered that she was grateful to have seen it with me instead of her father, which she had originally planned to do–watching it with her dad would have been too difficult.)

I recognize that this is a very emotional reaction to a movie. I could write a post about the beautiful cinematography and the incredible soundtrack and the issues I had involving the plot and characterization, but that’s been done. The fact is, I walked out of the theater crying but also somewhat desperate to turn around and see it again (because I am a glutton for the emotional punishment wrought by films). I walked out thinking about how I feel about humanity and the future and my own faith, and that is a very powerful feat for a film to accomplish. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is not without its flaws, but it is also unlike any other movie you will ever see.

(Also, you should read Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. Because questions of faith are worth asking and wrestling through and exploring and considering.)

The Counselor

I accidentally went to see The Counselor last night. My friend Erica and I had dinner and went to a bonfire at the university where we work, but it was really cold last night, and we decided to see a movie. Erica read a one-sentence summary and told me Michael Fassbender was in it (which was really all I needed to be convinced).

Somehow, I failed to remember until the opening credits rolled that The Counselor is the film for which Cormac McCarthy wrote the script. (The Daily Beast posted a great explanation of why it’s important that McCarthy wrote the script and that it was successfully made into a film.)

Cormac McCarthy is a brilliant contemporary American writer. The Road is one of the best post-apocalyptic books of all time, and one of my favorite pieces of contemporary fiction. After reading that novel in 2009, I picked up Blood Meridian, a friend having told me that it was McCarthy’s best work. I finally abandoned that novel halfway in because I actually couldn’t handle the gritty, violent bleakness of the book. The Counselor very effectively captured McCarthy’s narrative style, which worked sometimes and failed at others.

To summarize the film, Michael Fassbender plays the Counselor, an unnamed lawyer who gets involved in drug trafficking. The film moves between El Paso, where the Counselor lives with his fiance and where Brad Pitt drinks in bars and holds meetings with the Counslor, and Juarez, Mexico, where Javier Bardem and Cameron Diaz’s characters are primarily based. There are brief forays into London, Amsterdam, Chicago, and Boise, which reveal the widespread operation of the drug traffickers. The Counselor joins the trafficking operation, but things quickly fall apart when the son of one of the Counselor’s clients is killed. Those involved in the operation attempt to run, mostly unsuccessfully. The film closes with one man facing the graphic, horrifying results of the choices he made, understanding that his greed (and the others’, though that isn’t necessarily made clear) led to unbearably tragic consequences.

There are some aspects of the film that worked really well. Ridley Scott directed, and the film was a fantastic visual representation of McCarthy’s prose; vast landscapes of both the city and the desert, combined with shots of a man driving a motorcycle at 200 mph and cheetahs chasing jackrabbits, immediately foreshadow how the film’s plot will play out. These people are driven by greed, by a futile search for wealth, by a desire to hunt and vanquish anyone who gets in their way. They are intensely selfish and engaged in a lifestyle that the Counselor really can’t fathom.

Where the film doesn’t quite work well lies with McCarthy’s writing, I think. His prose is sparse. In The Road, for example, he has virtually no organization pattern: no chapters, no quotation marks or attribution phrases to indicate dialogue or speaker. This works really well for his stories, though. When style can combine with content to reveal desperation and desolation, writing can be more powerful. An author can leave out major plot elements (like what caused the apocalypse) and trust the reader either to fill in the gaps or to recognize that those plot elements never mattered to begin with. The blending of form and content can propel the story, add suspense, and keep the reader engaged, constantly looking for clues as to what’s really happening. 

That doesn’t work as well in film, though. The first 3/4 of the movie left me confused but interested (and, frequently, disturbed) as I tried to piece together the story–how did all these people connect, what specific role does each play, why are they all so messed up, who are these random people who are clearly antagonists? But none of that really gets explained. The subtlety of the story doesn’t always give the reader enough to work with. (It does provide some weird and disturbing sex scenes that I wish I could remove from my memory.)

And then the last part of the film involves a lot of conversations on phones, and the film beats the reader over the head with METAPHORS and DEEP (or perhaps empty) PHILOSOPHICAL CONCEPTS and THIS IS WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO UNDERSTAND. Oh, so those cheetahs were supposed to be metaphors for Cameron Diaz’s characters; somehow I missed that EVEN THOUGH she has cheetah prints tattooed on her body (I didn’t miss that; note the sarcasm). I was rolling my eyes at the point when Fassbender is on the phone with some guy, who tells him about all the different kinds of worlds there are and why he can’t live in one world when he’s entered another and THESE ARE THE CHOICES YOU’VE MADE and IT’S HOPELESS and SUCK IT UP, COUNSELOR. The film shifts from very subtly showing to over-the-top telling, then to a suckerpunch of a conclusion (not unexpected, just really, really bleak). I wish we could have worked more toward a middle ground: slightly less subtlety in the beginning and slightly less preaching at the end.

Books and films are different mediums. Both are vital, but they can’t be treated the same way. In books, the writer only has his or her words; subtle descriptions can blend with narration to craft the story. But trying to blend subtlety with too much exposition in the dialogue is frustrating.

Yes, the film is visually artistic. It is visceral and bleak and violent (though not the most violent thing McCarthy could have written, so there’s that). Fassbender and Bardem are fascinating to watch, as usual. And it left me feeling hopeless at the end. I wish I’d been more prepared for the film, but I don’t actually regret watching (most of) it. I’ll never see it again, and there are very few people I would recommend this film to. I’m impressed that McCarthy managed to get an original screenplay produced, but I think he should focus on novel writing and let other screenwriters adapt his work instead.