Categories
Books

Favorite Books of 2019

Compared to 72 books in 2018, I read a relatively paltry 24 in 2019. Between work, a new house, and a new baby, I just didn’t have the mental bandwidth to stick with as many books for extended periods. This resulted in a little more fluff than usual, including several Queer Eye-adjacent memoirs and tons of board books I didn’t even count.

Pickings for this list were slim since most of my reads weren’t from 2019. But here’s what I liked the most:

5. The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Johnson

A strange, infuriating true crime story from the world of Victorian fly-fishing tie obsessives. The last third isn’t as compelling and propulsive as the first two, but I learned a lot about ornithology.

4. Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein

Probably could have just been a longform magazine piece, but I appreciated its evidence-based advocacy for an interdisciplinary approach to learning and life in general.

3. An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz

A kaleidoscopic narrative of a violent Chicago summer, from the perspectives of the people most affected by it. “The shooting doesn’t end. Nor does the grinding poverty. Or the deeply rooted segregation. Or the easy availability of guns. Or the shuttered schools and boarded-up homes. Or the tensions between police and residents. And yet each shooting is unlike the last, every exposed and bruised life exposed and bruised in its own way. Everything and nothing remains the same.”

2. Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport

Newport’s definition of digital minimalism is “a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.” This certainly inspired me to ask some hard questions about how and why I use certain technologies. A key aspect of this approach is to have what Newport calls “high-quality leisure” activities ready to fill the space in your life formerly filled with mindless scrolling. Otherwise Mark Zuckerberg will win.

1. Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell

“The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.” With his trademark incisiveness and critical insight, Gladwell dives into the gray areas surrounding the cases of Amanda Knox, Jerry Sandusky, Bernie Madoff, Sandra Bland, Brock Turner, Sylvia Plath, and other events and figures of recent history you only thought you fully understood. Dovetails nicely with the most recent season of Gladwell’s excellent podcast Revisionist History.

(Also interesting to contrast with Kio Stark’s When Strangers Meet, a much more positive though less clinical take on similar territory.)

Other favorite reads

Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Michael Schumacher

Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon

What is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything by Rob Bell

All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire by Jonathan Abrams

The Odyssey by Homer (translated by Emily Wilson)

Categories
Etc. Life

2019 in Review

The view from my New Year’s Eve.

This year in review is a little shorter than the last few, primarily because it consists of whatever I could do outside of work, having and raising a baby, and buying and managing a house—all of which took most of my time and energy. But here, roughly in chronological order, are some highlights from my trip around the sun:

Categories
Music

Favorite Albums of the 2010s

See also: my favorite books, TV shows, and films of the 2010s.

Listed alphabetically by artist, here are the albums from the last 10 years that sustained and entertained me:

Abigail Washburn, City of Refuge. Favorite track: “City of Refuge”

The Book of Mormon Original Broadway Cast Recording. Favorite track: “You And Me (But Mostly Me)”

case/lang/veirs, case/lang/veirs. Favorite track: “Atomic Number”

Dawes, Nothing Is Wrong. Favorite track: “A Little Bit of Everything”

Good Old War, Come Back As Rain. Favorite track: “Amazing Eyes”

Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Recording. Favorite track: “One Last Time”

Ingrid Michaelson, Songs for the Season. Favorite track: “Auld Lang Syne”

Joe Pug, Messenger. Favorite track: “The First Time I Saw You”

John Mayer, Born and Raised. Favorite track: “Queen of California”

The Lonely Island, Turtleneck & Chain. Favorite track: “Jack Sparrow”

Lord Huron, Lonesome Dreams. Favorite track: “Ends of the Earth”

Lucius, Wildewoman. Favorite track: “Turn It Around”

The Okee Dokee Brothers, Through the Woods. Favorite track: “Walking With Spring”

Over the Rhine, Blood Oranges in the Snow. Favorite track: “First Snowfall”

The Tallest Man On Earth, The Wild Hunt. Favorite track: “Troubles Will Be Gone”

Categories
Television

Favorite TV Shows of the 2010s

See also: my favorite books, albums, and films of the 2010s.

I spent a lot more time reading and watching movies over the last 10 years than watching TV, but here are the 10 series I enjoyed the most.

10. Catastrophe. For keeping it (brutally) real.

9. House of Cards. For the pulpy thrills of the first three seasons (the only ones I’ve seen).

8. Archer. For the many deep-cut references and H. Jon Benjamin’s voice.

7. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. For the breezy wit.

6. Big Mouth. For really going there (and crossing over with honorable mention Big Little Lies.)

5. The People vs. OJ Simpson. For making someone too young at the time to understand to understand.

4. Rick & Morty. For making me laugh more than anything else.

3. The Crown. For finding ordinary truths in extraordinary circumstances.

2. Parks & Recreation. For being the Breaking Bad of network sitcoms. (And very rewatchable.)

1. Breaking Bad. For being a perfect television show.

Categories
Books

Favorite Books of the 2010s

See also: my favorite films, TV shows, and albums of the 2010s.

This list happens to coincide perfectly with the period of time I began (1) reading for fun once I graduated college, (2) tracking my reading, and (3) reading a lot more.

This means I had tons of titles to consider. I forced myself to determine which books both expanded my mind and soul, and exhibited exceptional writing or creative vision. Not for nothing, almost all of the chosen ones got 5-star ratings on my Goodreads.

(My yearly best-of lists have a lot more gems that just missed the cut. Consider them honorable mentions.)

Here—listed alphabetically because I spent all my ordering energy on my movies list—are my favorite reads from the last 10 years.

Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America by Craig Childs

Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City by Sam Anderson

Circe by Madeline Miller

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches by S.C. Gwynne

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

Here by Richard McGuire

How We Got To Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson

The Hunt for Vulcan: And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe by Thomas Levenson

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks

Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker

Station Eleven by Emily Mandel

The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist’s Companion for the 21st Century by Richard Polt

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper

Just missed the cut:

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler

But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past by Chuck Klosterman

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

The Glass Cage: How Our Computers Are Changing Us by Nicholas Carr

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs

Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion by Robert Gordon

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks by Keith Houston

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Categories
Film

Favorite Films of the 2010s

See also: my favorite books, TV shows, and albums of the 2010s.

My initial list for this endeavor had 77 movies. After I barely managed to winnow it down to 50, I just couldn’t figure out how I’d get to that arbitrary yet appealing round number of 10.

But once I realized most of the movies could be grouped pretty cleanly into 10 different categories (some of which I devised myself), that allowed me to compare movies of the same genre or subgenre to each other rather than to movies doing something completely different. Using that system, my top picks of each slot fell almost immediately into place.

Note that the list ranks the movies, not the categories they represent. The categories made picking the top 10 easier, but the finalists in each one—consider them my honorable mentions—wouldn’t have necessarily ended up in the same ranking and often could fit in several of the categories.

As with all best-of lists, I strove to use an alchemy of my head and my heart to make the final determinations, consulting my yearly best-of lists and trusty logbook to make sure I didn’t miss anything. It was at once overwhelming and rewarding to consider all I’ve seen and decide both what has stuck with me the most and what best represents a decade in cinema.

Here’s what I got.

10. This Is Martin Bonner

this-is-martin-bonner.jpgA serene and sure-handed film about two men with a faith problem, which inspired one of my favorite blog posts.

Category: Quiet Drama

Finalists: Moonlight, The Rider, Paterson, Ida, Columbus, A Ghost Story

9. Arrival

arrival.jpgHow could I not love a movie exploring the intersection of language and love across the space-time continuum?

Category: Sci-Fi/Dystopian

Finalists: Interstellar, Edge of Tomorrow, Looper, Snowpiercer, The Lobster

8. Minding the Gap

minding-the-gap.jpgA stunning documentary about teen skateboarders that’s about one thing before it becomes about many others.

Category: Documentary

Finalists: Nostalgia for the Light, Tower, These Birds Walk, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, California Typewriter

7. The LEGO Movie

lego-movie.jpgWhat should have been just a brainless cash-grab brand-stravaganza was also a surprisingly rich, hilarious, sunnily dystopian meditation on creativity and existence.

Category: Comedy

Finalists: Coco, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, They Came Together, The Muppets, Midnight in Paris

6. Mad Max: Fury Road

mad-max-fury-road.jpg

Submitted without comment:

mad-max.gif

Category: Action

Finalists: Creed, Noah

5. Spotlight

spotlight.jpgThis video by Nerdwriter1 gets at what makes this movie so compelling and why I’ve returned to it repeatedly, despite the heaviness of the subject.

Category: Searing Drama

Finalists: The Florida Project, Like Someone In Love, Calvary, First Reformed

4. The Social Network

social-network.jpg
The final confrontation
between Mark and Eduardo might be the best scene of the decade. I’d wish for more collaborations between David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin, but how would they top this?

Category: Creative Nonfiction

Finalists: The Founder, The Favourite, The Death of Stalin

3. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

spider-man-into-the-spiderverseAn electric, vivid, and original vision that I hope instigates a sea change in film animation and superhero movies.

Category: Superhero

Finalists: Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, Wonder Woman

2. Lincoln

lincoln.jpgA biopic done right: not as a shallow, decades-spanning survey treated like a greatest hits album (cough Jersey Boys) with bad aging makeup (cough J. Edgar), but as a focused, intentionally contained story that captures its subject and his times with an appropriate mix of reverence and rigor.

Category: Historical Drama

Finalists: Selma, Brooklyn, Inside Llewyn Davis, Roma

1. Hell or High Water

hell-or-high-water.jpgBut me, I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue

—Bob Dylan, “Tangled Up in Blue”

Lots getting tangled up in this steely, ruggedly graceful, no-bullshit modern western: family, friendship, the past, the future, tragedy, redemption. A dangerous momentum drives the two bank-robbing brothers and the lawmen hunting them through a dust-choked Texas toward their fates. All we can do is buckle up and hold on.

Category: Family Drama

Finalists: Wildlife, Boyhood, Before Midnight

Categories
Books Film Music

Media of the moment

An ongoing series on books, movies, and music I’ve encountered recently.

May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers. Heard about this documentary from the Armchair Expert episode with the Avett Brothers. Made me appreciate them anew.

Closer Than Together by The Avett Brothers. “We Americans” should be the new national anthem.

The Feather Thief by Kirk Johnson. A strange, infuriating true crime story from the world of Victorian fly-fishing tie obsessives. The last third isn’t as compelling and propulsive as the first two, but I learned a lot about ornithology.

Toy Story 4. Liked it a lot. They still should have stopped at 3.

Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Michael Schumacher. Well-told narrative about an essential event in Great Lakes lore.

Hard Eight. I would say this is shockingly well made for a debut film, but it was by Paul Thomas Anderson so I guess it’s not terribly shocking.

Categories
Photography Typewriters

The Smoking Type

Under The Ocean of Words by Adrian Borda on 500px.com

Love this photo by Adrian Borda, called “Under An Ocean of Words”, which captures the view from inside a typewriter looking up through smoke. I’ve seen this view plenty during repair and cleaning sessions, but never quite this dramatically. Perhaps I should take up smoking.

h/t Kottke

Categories
Television

They went back! On a ‘Lost’ retrospective podcast

Really enjoyed the SYFY limited podcast series Through the Looking Glass: A LOST Retrospective, which celebrates 15 years since the premiere of Lost in 2004.

Hosted by Tara Bennett and Maureen Ryan—two television writers who covered the show’s original run—the podcast consists of six episodes that examine Lost from different perspectives, including how it revolutionized fan engagement, viral marketing, the phenomenon of showrunners, and television in general.

The final episode features Lost showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, who were game as always. Their own podcast that they ran while making the show was the first one I ever followed. Before social media was a thing, they made interaction with fans a vital part of the show’s development and marketing.

As an avowed fan of the series finale (fight me), I couldn’t help but relish Damon’s harsh but true words for George R. R. Martin, who was critical of the finale at the time but has now very publicly run into his own issues ending Game of Thrones. Even if his ending matches or exceeds the now crazy high expectations, he will have done it with far more time and creative control than the Lost guys were afforded for theirs.

And yet, despite my appreciation for the series, I haven’t felt compelled to rewatch it since the original airing. Perhaps because of the time commitment, or the foreknowledge of having to wade through some of the weaker episodes.

But this podcast makes me want to revisit it. You all everybody want to join me?

Categories
Photography

Recent Views

More photography here and on my Instagram.

The view of downtown Madison from a pontoon on Lake Mendota:

Some good reflection action at the park by our house:

You know I love a good “sunrise through the blinds” shot:

You know I love cider donuts and fall stuff:

Morning view from my hotel room in St. Louis:

Obligatory Arch shot (it was way bigger and closer in person):

The central branch of the St. Louis Public Library’s got it going on:

The field lights at my local park: