Friday, December 31, 2021

Best books I read in 2021

The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch (1978, *audio*) I’m not sure if The Sea, the Sea is a good book. It’s a haphazard, crazy, bonkers book. It felt as if Murdoch was making it up as she was going along. But sometimes a story is worthy if it’s simply an entertaining ride, and The Sea, the Sea may have been my most enjoyable audiobook experience ever. The book is fun and ridiculous and atmospheric. But most of the praise should go to actor Richard Grant for his astounding voice acting performance. If there’s an annual best “narrator” award for audiobook narrators, it ought to have gone to Grant.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (2015) This is a book about an epidemic of memory loss in a post-war Arthurian Britain. I admire Ishiguro for cheekily playing with Arthurian legends—Merlin may have been engaged in dark sorcery; Arthur may have sought peace via brutal means; Sir Gawain wrestles with internal demons from his warring past. The book brought to mind the Rwandan genocide, in which one ethnicity vied against the other. (The Buried Giant is about the aftermath of the Briton-Saxon wars.) Memories breed anger which breeds revenge, and the violent cycle continues. One can imagine how forgetfulness can be a salutary disease under such circumstances, and I like how Ishiguro played with these themes. The “buried giant” — you could say — was simply the memory of the war atrocities that would, if unearthed, wreak havoc on Britain.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989) One of my favorite things about this book is how flawed Stevens, a self-denying English butler, is as the narrator. There is something boyish and endearing, if pathetic, about how persistently self-deluding Stevens is. Once you see this as a reader, the reading experience changes, because you can now see through Stevens and begin to tease out the truth for yourself. 

Beverly by Nick Drasno (2016) I love Drasno’s two graphic novels, set in Anywhere, USA. The illustrations are likely deliberately bland: blank expressions, boring bodies, neat suburbs, and undecorated interiors. It all suggests a lack of spiritual richness in the characters’ lives. These characters are victims of a soulless and impoverished American culture: bad TV, recreational binge drinking, advertisements everywhere, media-generated paranoia…These characters seem to be wandering through these boring landscapes, searching, but rarely finding, connection or understanding. It all sounds so dreary, but there’s humor on every page. Drasno’s books are some of the best critiques — or diagnoses — of American culture, and the alienation, loneliness, and “something’s missingness” so many of us feel. 

Gotta Get Theroux This by Louis Theroux (2019, *audio*) I’ve long been a big fan of Theroux. There’s a casual wisdom in this memoir, which covers everything from boyhood, to marriage, to his career. (It’s mostly about his career.) He spends an inordinate amount of time on his interviews with Jimmy Saville (who later turned out to be a serial pedophile), but I found myself enjoying this theme, and I suppose the continual fascination with the subject says something about Theroux. I strongly recommend the audio version, as Theroux is a gifted speaker.

Best books read in 2020 
Best books read in 2019
Best books read in 2018
Best books read in 2017
Best books read in 2016
Best books read in 2015
Best books read in 2014

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Best movies I watched in 2021

Warrior (2011, USA) I am no fan of MMA, but the acting from the three leads (Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, and Nick Nolte) was exceptional enough to make me overlook all of the sport's unsavory barbarism. It’s not normal when the “final game” scene in a sports movie is unpredictable. Yet this scene was. I might go as far to say that the ending was not only the greatest sports movie ending, but the greatest ending of any movie ever. 

Honeyland (2019, Macedonia) Beautiful documentary about beekeepers in rural Macedonia. Documentaries often have to stray from conventional storytelling structure because the filmmaker can only work with whatever content they have on film. So I was impressed with how novelistic this documentary felt. It was as if these real people were acting out a beautifully written story that fits together so perfectly it could only be fiction. 

Margaret (2011, USA) This was my Kenneth Lonergan year. I’m embarrassed that I’ve long overlooked one of the great American writer-directors. I came across Margaret on Richard Brody’s (of The New Yorker) “best films of the 2010s” list. Margaret certainly belongs.

You Can Count on Me (2000, USA) Another Kenneth Lonergan film inhabited by characters with punchy East Coast attitudes and soft souls.

A Star Is Born (2018, USA) There is nothing about this movie's plot (alcoholic country musician falls in love and is tempted to reform) that intrigued me, but I found no reason to discontinue watching. By the end, I had to grudgingly admit that I loved the movie. The best thing the movie had going for it, in addition to Bradley Cooper's performance, were the musical performances in front of real and huge audiences. It was easy to feel the energy of the actors/musicians on a stage in front of real crowds.

Nomadland (2020, USA) I thought Zhao captured the vandwelling lifestyle wonderfully—everything from impromptu bathroom emergencies, to worrying about people harassing you, and to feeling snug under your covers as rain gently drums against the van's metal roof. I hope Zhao, who recently directed a superhero movie, goes back to making movies about the unseen peoples of America.

Dune (2021, USA) My main gripe about Dune is that the filmmakers did nothing to freshen up Herbert's writing. Herbert lacks a sort of earthy humor and wit that George R.R. Martin has in abundance. Why not hire a few good writers to lighten up a few scenes with a touch of humor? Or just make the writing feel less stilted? Weaknesses aside, Dune was a visual spectacle with some of the most inventive world-building we've seen in film: from the moisture-proof suits, to the cool ships, to the body armor, to the curvy sand dunes, to the costumes. Plus, some of the actors were all-in on their characters, such as Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd as the creepy Harkonnen floating guy, and I thought Paul's mother (Rebecca Ferguson) gave a strange and outstanding performance. (It was nice to see a mom run like an Olympic sprinter.) I was completely immersed in this fictional world, but the movie didn’t stick to my ribs. It left my system as soon as I left the theater; my only remaining impression is of the terrific visuals.

Paper Moon (1973, USA) The writing remains funny and sharp for a movie from 1973. I have a little girl now, making me a sucker for father-daughter movies. (I just watched the trailer to Father of the Bride and teared up.) I agree that Tatum O’Neal’s performance belongs in the “best kid actor performance ever” conversation.

An Officer and a Gentleman (1982, USA) I’m surprised this movie hasn’t experienced a second life with the Millennial generation, as I found so much of the story relevant to the 21st Century dating scene. The two male protagonists, who are officers in training at a miltary base, must morally navigate their "flings" with local working-class women. They must determine if and how to end things. This is something that young folks, who are serial-dating with apps like Tinder or Bumble, must deal with all the time.

Manchester by the Sea (2016, USA) I watched this shortly after it came out on video years ago, and I found the movie forcefully melancholic and the dialogue inauthentically folksy. But after watching and loving Lonergan’s two other films, I had to revisit Manchester by the Sea. I can’t think of another re-watch in which my opinion had flipped so significantly. This time around, it was easy for me to appreciate the subtle humor, the folksy (but not inauthentic) dialogue, and Casey Affleck’s outstanding performance as a man whose life-spirit has almost been drained by grief.

Another Round (2020, Denmark) A group of male friends getting drunk every day at work as a philosophical and existential exercise sounds like a bad Seth Rogan/Jud Apatow movie, but Another Round succeeds in Thomas Vinterberg's hands. (See also, The Hunt.) Despite the silly premise, it's ultimately a serious movie about reinventing yourself, escaping middle-age torpor, and seeking to reclaim a vivacious life. 

The Father (2020, France, UK) I loved Nomadland and it was a good-enough selection for Best Picture at the Oscars, but I think we’ll remember The Father as the better movie in 25 years, helped by some exquisite film editing. It is hands down the most accurate and artistic cinematic depiction of memory loss. Hopkins’s final scene is one of his greatest.

Honorable mentions
The Sound of Metal (2019, USA)
Borat II (2020, USA)
The Nest (2020, UK)
First Cow (2019, USA)
Minari (2020, USA)
The Sisters Brothers (2018, France, USA)

Previous years

Thursday, September 23, 2021

My article, Out of the Wild, in National Parks Magazine

I have the cover story for National Parks Magazine this month. The story is about my summer living among grizzly bears in southern Alaska. I titled it "Out of the Wild," a playful allusion to Krakauer's "Into the Wild." There are many stories that call us to be "Wild," to go "Into the Wild," or to heed the "Call of the Wild," but there aren't any to my knowledge that call for you to leave the wild and live a, well, more normal life. Perhaps that's a less exciting story, but it's an honest one and probably a common one, and therefore it ought to be explored and told. My story is about how a bunch of bears, and the many shortcomings of the seasonal itinerant life (no place to call home, weak relationships, unclear life direction), led one man to say goodbye to Alaska. (For now...) 

"That summer in Lake Clark National Park, I went into the wilderness, and the wilderness told me to leave. Sometimes the right journey isn’t to venture into the wild, but out of it."

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Movie Review: Nomadland

When I saw The Rider (2017) by Chloe Zhao (now 39), I was amazed that a young Chinese person (with less than 20 years of experience in the U.S., and most of that time spent in culturally elite milieus and/or coastal metropolises) could so vividly and accurately portray the working-class in The American West, which is a region many Americans themselves are unfamiliar with.

How did she do it? The details in speech, atmosphere, and vocation were so spot on and precise. How does she get non-actors to act... pretty damn well? She made me think of Nabokov or Conrad, who wrote English masterfully despite not becoming familiar with the language until well into adulthood. That level of mastery, without the head start, is just, well, unfair. You wouldn't be mistaken if you detect the slightest hint of envy, but it's also hard to be envious of superlative talent.

I watched Nomadland last night, which didn't disappoint. It's the rare Best Picture winner that I think the Academy got right. Or right enough.

I lived in my van for two years, though in less rugged circumstances than Fern, played by Frances McDormand. Fern had to use a bucket as a toilet, work jobs for low pay, and move her van according to the seasons. Me, on the other hand... I lived on a college campus, which had every convenience I could desire within a short walk.

Anywho... I thought Zhao captured the vandwelling lifestyle wonderfully--everything from impromptu bathroom emergencies, to worrying about people harassing you, and to feeling snug under your covers as rain gently drums against the van's metal roof. I've read a few think pieces about how Nomadland delivers a cutting critique of 21st Century American capitalism. Okay, but let's not forget that Fern was a restless soul who craved her own company. The movie makes it clear that she had the option to take on a more comfortable lifestyle, but she voluntarily chose the thornier path. The scene I identified with most was the one where she was offered a big comfy bed in a room of her own on a farm. Yet she leaves the room and sleeps in her van. I remember that feeling. It's not just the coziness of your enclosed space, and its delightful mix of cold air and warm sleeping bag. Your van feels like a kind of pet, and you feel like it's wrong to leave it outside, all alone. In the van, you feel closer to the natural world. You don't feel the need to stifle snores or wake up at a respectable hour. Really, you just feel free in your little tin shell. Fern wasn't rundown by the system. Nor was she running. She was just happier alone. That's my take.

Last year, I was disappointed to learn that Zhao signed on to direct a superhero movie after the critical success of The Rider. A comic book movie plays to none of her strengths (capturing moody landscapes, drawing authentic performances from non-actors, and having characters engage in openhearted dialogue). How will she pull that off with Marvel characters for a general movie-going audience hungry for winky one-liners and CGI explosions?

When I read about the superhero movie, I thought she was doing it for the money (understandably so, given how little her first two movies made). If she could go back in time, I wonder if she'd still sign up for a superhero movie knowing that Nomadland would win the Oscar and open a lot of doors. My hope is that Eternals will be an interesting mistake, she'll cash her check, and Zhao will go back to making interesting stories about everyday people in America, set in lands in between NYC and LA. God knows we don't need more stories about writers, actors, and musicians.