Tuesday, December 31, 2019

tops of 2019

Hello from the tail end of what I think was a good year? I’m too superstitious to make proclamations, and hindsight usually doesn’t kick in till a few years out anyway. I’m not so into the personal decade-in-review blurbs people are offering up on Twitter. The same people who call out privilege all day long seem awfully quick to boast about their triumphs as if they’re not the result of good luck and not dying.  


AK, Dash, and I just got back from a three-day trip, two of which were spent in Cambria at my brother-in-law’s family vacation house, and those days were excellent ones to end on. My sister is the only person who can take care of me in the exact way I need without eliciting a parallel guilt reaction. She mimics my mom in all the right ways. And her husband, David, is a natural caretaker too, eager to share his ancestral home with newcomers, to feed them fancy cheese and cook hash browns and tell the story of the time he scratched up his grandparents’ banister by sliding down it in zippered pants. I felt myself decompress in a way I hadn’t all year, my soul unfurling from its tidy carrying case and rising like heat in their high-ceilinged living room. 

We watched the new What We Do in the Shadows and walked down to the rocky beachfront and took our traditional booze cruise around Morro Bay. We ate really good seafood at an old family-owned spot called Dockside, and I laughed more than I have in a long time.  

Today I’m back home, polishing the rough edges off my memoir while AK and Dash ring in the noon New Year at Kidspace, and hoping there aren’t major structural issues with the book. Time is a construct, and also the only thing that’s real, and I want to declare Draft 1.5 DONE today. I’m taking this interlude to bring you my annual roundup of cultural recommendations, things I took in this year that may or may not have been produced this year. Keep in mind that I didn’t see most movies or read the Hot New Books, but books, movies, TV, and podcasts still kept me going. Here goes. 

Oak Flat by Lauren Redniss: With gorgeous red-purple Southwestern skies and near-ghost towns drawn in colored pencil, this book--about Apache efforts to protect sacred land from copper mining companies in Arizona--is utterly original in form and urgent in content.

Roma: I know it came out last year, but I didn’t see it until March. (And the book above doesn’t come out until spring of 2020, but I got my hands on an ARC. CALENDARS ARE A CONSTRUCT.) This movie is sweeping and epic and personal. It centers an indigenous housekeeper and nanny, and depicts washing dishes and hugging children as the quietly heroic acts they are.

Us: I definitely don’t want to see this movie again, but I’m so glad I saw it once. It’s riveting and terrifying, a perfect allegory for the randomness of injustice and the efforts people make to deny the legacies to which we’re all still tethered.

Delicious Foods by James Hannaham: This book shares some traits with Us, actually, in that it’s weird and scary and reveals how slavery is still with us. Narrated by crack (yes, the drug), Delicious Foods is the story of how a big agricultural company leverages addiction and creates a maze of subcontractors to get away with enslaving workers. It seems too bizarre to be true, but this shit happens.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse: Another 2018 movie, but I can’t not mention how brilliantly this movie wed comic book illustrations with 3D animation, and what a beautiful tribute it is to the powers of both mentoring and self-actualization. I say this as someone who cannot even tell you who belongs to the Marvel Universe and who is a DC Comics character.

Operatic by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Byron Eggenshwiler: Maclear is a master of picture-book poetry, and here she brings her talents to a middle grade graphic novel about marginalized kids finding themselves in music. Byron Eggenshwiler’s illustrations are a perfect accompaniment, equal parts high drama and subtle detail.

House of Anansi Press
Good Talk by Mira Jacob: Jacob’s funny, touching memoir about talking to her kid and her Trump-supporting in-laws in the wake of the 2016 election is one of those books that had me nodding along, feeling like I was part of the conversation. It’s the rare book that suggests we can find common ground as a country without just splitting the difference and throwing marginalized populations under the bus.

Fleabag: I’m still not sure I liked this series quite as much as everyone else did, but I liked it very, very much. Sometimes I think I struggled to watch it because it hit too close to home. Sisters struggling to get on with life after their mom dies of cancer? Check. One is very successful but high strung, one is bad with money and always says the thing she’s not supposed to? Check. For Christmas, AK gave me a key chain with one of the show’s concluding statements: Love is not something weak people do. No, it’s not.

Unbelievable: Toni Collette and Merritt Wever would be reason enough to watch just about anything, but this series also has true crime, feminism, and a satisfying ending following an expose of the “justice” system’s most infuriating elements.

Rocketman: A few scenes in, my face lit up. No one told me it was a musical musical! But it is. So well done. So moving. So singable. So, so gay. Taron Egerton as circa 1970 Elton John is precisely my type.

Getting On: If Fleabag is about someone fucking up her life in the sexiest way possible, the American version of this British show about a long-term care unit makes a tragicomic unsexy counterpart. Every character fancies themself a good person, but is horribly petty and selfish in the execution. I relate.

White Lies: A true crime podcast that is about so much more than whodunit. The Alabama-native investigative journalists at the helm examine the culture of silence that kept the 1965 murder of white civil rights activist Rev. James Reeb from being solved. I was particularly fascinated by how medical misunderstanding (namely that hematomas get worse over time) dovetailed with racism to create a conspiracy theory. And the final episode, in which the descendants of Reeb and the murderer meet, is a beautiful and hopeful example of intergenerational healing.

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones: I read this early in the year, and it stayed with me. A novel about a mistress’ daughter that reads like a memoir. Jones is razor-sharp in her dissection of domestic power dynamics.

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