Thursday, December 31, 2015

my six favorite books of 2015, and all the movies i saw

AK took the kid to the park so I could blog, meaning I only have as long as it takes for Dash to get his pants filthy, crawl after a half dozen big kids and lick several pieces of playground equipment. Poignant reflections on 2015 will have to wait. Instead I’m going to post my annual list of favorite books and movies I’ve read/seen this year.

The catch is that I only read twelve books and saw seven movies in the theater. I’m actually pretty impressed I got even that much culture in. And they were mostly good ones—the theme this year is quality over quantity, I suppose. Can you choose six top books when you only read twelve? Can you just list all the movies you saw? Yes, you can, because this is a blogocracy.

Top six books I read in 2015:

1. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson: Maggie Nelson says exactly what I didn't even know I was thinking, but better and smarter. I would resent her for it if I didn't feel so grateful. Here, she takes on the subjects of parenthood, step-parenthood, queer parenthood, love and happiness...but as someone who sees and knows darkness, who distrusts narrative. My Kindle version of this book is basically one big highlighted block.

2. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler: You know that thing where you're reading four books at once and then one of them takes the lead and you put all the others aside? This is that book. Karen Joy Fowler is a masterful storyteller, playing with time and memory to tell this story of a family torn apart by a sister's disappearance. She layers mysteries like a chef would layer pastry; the result is elegant and buttery, and you would never know how much work probably went into it. I don't want to give away too much (there are several twists, but even the semi-obvious one took me by surprise), so I'll just say that it's hard to write about animals and their rights (or lack thereof) without getting maudlin, cutesy or dogmatic. This book is none of those things.

3. Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle: For most of the time I spent reading this book, I thought of it as a novel about imagination. As the narrator, a recluse disfigured by an unnamed "accident" as a teen, reckons with the real-world fallout of a role-playing game he invented, he (and we) contemplates the nature of imagination. Darnielle depicts a childhood both haunted and saved by an active imagination (I related, as I suspect most artists would, and maybe most people). He engages with the sublime without trying to explain it; it's a book against explaining, in a way.

But as the book meanders backward to the aforementioned accident, I started to read it as a story about choices (paralleling the many paths in the narrator's invented game) and how each choice is comprised of a million mini choices and influences.

The novel is strange and ambitious, sometimes existing almost too much in the realm of dream but pulled forward by a pretty damn compelling plot. I think the plot is a bit of a red herring; I think the book is a treatise about how plot is always a red herring, yet also the only thing that tethers us to the world.

4. Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham: Some things I have in common with Lena Dunham: hypochondria, envy, a tendency to binge eat and journal about it, a certain eager-puppy hard-worker quality, a desire to say fuck you to those who deserve it, awareness of my own privilege. Things I do not have in common with Lena Dunham: a boho Soho childhood, an HBO show. But I won't hold the latter against her (despite my envious nature); actually, I think Lena Dunham is one of those rare hyped wunderkinds who lives up to her reputation. Or defies it, if you are on Team Backlash. Perhaps more importantly, she's a person committed to lifelong learning, and she learns by creating, and she's not afraid to fall down or hold herself up for ridicule along the way. Those are qualities that will get anyone far in life, and they also make for very funny, wise essays, peppered with perfectly chosen details.

5. Devotion by Dani Shapiro: Sometimes the exact book that you need to read finds you. I have questions about death and God and trying not to live in fear after you've narrowly dodged a bullet. So does Dani Shapiro. They may not be answerable questions, but she writes about them beautifully and honestly, threading together stories about her parents, her son, the religion Orthodox Judaism of her youth, and the yoga and meditation of her adulthood.

Some of my favorite quotes:

"I come from a long line of religious people who aren't so sure the sun will rise in the east and set in the west--much less that their own lives will unfold predictably. I was born and bred to fear the worst. And I know that the worst either happens or it doesn't. Worry isn't a form of protection. So who's the fool?"

"As I looked around any given dingy church basement, it would occur to me that perhaps this *was* God.... In the eloquence of rising out of despair, the laughter out of darkness. The nodding heads, the clasping hands. The kindness extended to strangers. The sense--each and every time--of *Me too, I've been there too.*"

"Their stories stirred up the old terror, the latent fear--and yet what I felt beneath all that was the simple beauty of human connection.... It wasn't everything, but it was something--wasn't it? The reaching out--needing to believe that a hand would be there?"

"Where else was a sensible person to live, but on the edge of sorrow?"


In an era of big dresses and wood-burning stoves, Dr. Mutter had plenty of business.

6. Dr. Mutter’s Marvels by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz: I started Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz's biography of Thomas Dent Mutter because I have a thing for the macabre, and I knew that the museum bearing his name was full of horned skulls and giants' skeletons. What I didn't know is that Dr. Mutter was a hero and a trailblazer: Medicine in the first half of the 19th century was a bloody, screaming, disrespectful mess until Dr. Mutter came along with the radical ideas that 1) doctors should be kind to their patients and explain procedures, 2) doctors should wash their hands and tools (hygiene was for pussies as far as many of his contemporaries were concerned) and 3) patients should receive medical care after surgery. Aptowicz's book is intriguing, engaging and makes a solid case for Mutter as someone to whom any 21st century patient should be eternally grateful.
 
You call it captivity, I call it co-sleeping.

All the movies I saw in the theater in 2015, in descending order of how much I liked them, but I liked them all a lot. Hell yes, even Fast & Furious.

Room
Carol
Spotlight
Inside Out
Grandma
Straight Outta Compton
Fast & Furious 7

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