Category: Review

My favorite Boomtown moments

After writing my paean to Boomtown, the cry of the masses rang out from sea to shining sea with a resounding message: “More Boomtown content!!!”

I live to serve.

During my latest rewatch, I took note of the moments that have stuck with me in the almost 20 years since the series debuted. I considered including them in that post but figured I’d give them some space of their own.

This list is, of course, inexhaustive. Though I’d derive much pleasure from an episode-by-episode review of the show, I also want people to read this blog.

There will be spoilers. I include quotes from each moment, but they’re best experienced through the original show in the provided YouTube links.


“I don’t have any prayers, but I do have a story.”

(Episode 1, “Pilot”)

In a scene that bookends the episode, a man is dumping the ashes of his grandson into the Los Angeles River with detectives Joel and Bobby “Fearless” by his side. He asks if either of them have a prayer. “I’m fresh out,” says Joel, for reasons we’ll learn later. But Fearless offers a story—the first of many times he’s good for a wise and timely one—and tells what serves as a riverside eulogy:

There was this wave, way out on the ocean. And he was just racing along having a great time—and just sunlight glinting, spray just flying—until one day he looked ahead, and he saw wave after wave in front of him crashing on the beach, and he got scared. And this older wave in front of him said, “I know exactly what your problem is. You’ve been having so much fun being a wave, that you forgot you’re really just part of the ocean.”

It’s a fitting preamble to a show that follows the perspective of several waves, so to speak, and watches how they blend into a narrative ocean.


Don’t help the police.

(Episode 2, “Possession”)

The husband of a dancer at a private club is dead and the cops are questioning the business owner, who refuses to reveal his clientele. Enter Neal McDonough as the razor-sharp deputy district attorney David McNorris in a two-minute scene that sets up so much about him: his charisma, his love of boxing, his tortured relationship with his father, his ruthless cunning. He begins on the ropes, lying to his wife on the phone about his whereabouts, but then comes out swinging—literally and figuratively:

*David punches a wall*

So the favor I’m gonna ask is really quite simple. Don’t help the police. Don’t tell them who was at your party last night. Don’t help them stop a guy from killing his wife. Just don’t. ‘Cause let me tell ya, I’m not in a good mood today, and there is nothing I’d rather do than beat that supercilious look off of your face. You get me?

Needless to say, he got him.


“I just don’t understand how you can let someone go.”

(Episode 11, “Monster’s Brawl”)

Sam Anderson (a.k.a. Bernard from LOST) shines in a guest spot as Scott Dawson, the father of a homeless addict named Bradley who’d been mistakenly considered killed. After talking about his wayward son’s struggles with sobriety and having to let him go emotionally, he overhears Joel wonder aloud how a parent could let their child go and confronts him in an exchange that touches on the joys and anguish of parenthood:

BERNARD: Do you have any children?

JOEL: A boy.

– How old?

– Eight.

– Magic age. You can play catch but you can still chase him and tickle him. You ever just watch him? Without him knowing—just watch him, the back of his head, his hair. You look at that and you just can’t believe it because you never thought you could love somebody so much, or be so loved. OK, now jump forward 20 years, and that same little perfect boy is now a hopeless drunk. You have tried everything you can think of to help him and nothing works. And every time the phone rings you think, This is it, he’s dead. And then one day the call does come, and you come down to a police station and you look at a jacket and you think, My boy died in that jacket. Can you imagine how that feels, detective?

– No sir, I can’t.

– Well, try. You go home to your wife and your little boy, and you try to imagine exactly that.

In another great moment at the end of the episode, Joel shares with Fearless that his wife Kelly, suffering from postpartum depression, had tried to kill herself after their baby died mysteriously (more on this later), which is why Scott’s words had struck him so deeply:

For Bradley’s dad, it’s coming home, hearing the phone ring, and thinking it’s going to be news that his son’s dead. But for me it’s coming home, finding a knife out in the kitchen, thinking I’m going to see Kelly in all that blood again.

Dark, for sure, but also a reminder that people’s motivations and inner battles are often unknowable.


“Will Andrea Little be covering this story?”

(Episode 15, “Storm Watch”)

Officer Ray Heckler is often portrayed as just an affable chatterbox, but he’s also sneakily smart and a reservoir of veteran savvy. That comes in handy during this riveting two-episode arc (along with Episode 14, “Execution”) where a dirty cop in the LAPD facilitates the killing of three fellow officers, and suspects abound. Ray is already tainted by a corruption investigation involving his ex-partner, and McNorris tries to use that as leverage against him to spill on his fellow cops. But Ray has some leverage of his own:

RAY: Oh, I’ll talk. I just gotta ask you a question first. Will Andrea Little be covering this story?

DAVID: How would I know that?

– If she is, I suppose she’ll be banging out the first draft over there at Fulham’s on Eighth. She’s got a back booth reserved there. She’s there all the time—it’s where she writes her stories. And sometimes she’s joined by this guy. Between swapping spit with him and knocking back the Jamesons, it’s a wonder she ever gets anything done. So you do what you gotta do.

– Nice try, Ray. FYI, though, in the future, if you’re going to blackmail someone, make sure you have a little leverage. My marriage is over.

– Oh no, I wouldn’t think of bringing up a tawdry little subject like sex. I’m talking politics! I’m talking about a deputy district attorney wrapping up with a crusading reporter who’s supposed to be covering his office. Not exactly going to help your credibility in certain circles, is it?

Not only does his maneuver keep McNorris at bay, he also got information earlier in the scene that he uses to identify the crooked cop. It’s one of many times in the show that Ray cracks a case, pleasantly surprising his colleagues and viewers.


“You knew it wasn’t my brother.”

(Episode 16, “Fearless”)

In a mirror version of the previous Joel/Fearless scene, Fearless is now the one confessing a secret shame to his partner in an episode that follows his personal reckoning with being a sexual abuse survivor. He was able to track down his abuser and get an opportunity to exact the vengeance he’s long sought, but decides against it. Then Joel arrives:

FEARLESS: I didn’t do it.

JOEL: I know.

– But what if I had?

– You wouldn’t do that.

– But what if I had?

– It’s not who you are.

– But what if I had?

– I brought a shovel. You’re my partner, Fearless. Of all the people I’ve met, I’ve never respected anyone as much as I respect you. If you’d have done it, then he’d have deserved it.

– You knew it wasn’t my brother.

– You knew my wife didn’t break our shower door.

This is an amazing exchange for several reasons. Joel shows up for Fearless in a crucial moment, ready to sacrifice everything for the sake of his colleague and brother-in-arms. Then they mutually confess to the fictions they’d perpetuated with each other out of fear (even for “Fearless”): that it was Fearless’s brother who was sexually abused and that Kelly’s arm cuts were from accidentally breaking the shower door.

Later on, Fearless talks to his lover about the triggering event that set him off on his painful journey:

It was in the store. There was a father walking with his son. And out of the blue he just bent over and kissed the top of his head. I knew it was innocent, but I couldn’t help but have a moment of suspicion. I mean, I’m cursing myself that I should even question this loving gesture. I guess I’m still a prisoner of something that happened a long time ago.

As someone who loves being affectionate with my son all day, every day, I can only grieve for the people whose instinctual response to such a loving gesture would be poisoned by their traumatic history.


“You don’t have to do this alone.”

(Episode 17, “Blackout”)

Andrea and David began the series in an affair, but by now they’ve drifted so far apart that Andrea is grasping at David while he descends toward rock bottom as a philandering, self-destructive, and reckless alcoholic. With experience as the daughter of an alcoholic and as a savvy reporter, Andrea cuts through David’s bullshit:

ANDREA: David, you don’t have to do this alone. There are people that can help.

DAVID: See, now therein lies the problem. The lie.

– What lie?

– That somehow we’re not alone, that we’ll be somehow there for each other.

– And what’s the truth, David?

– The truth is that we’re born alone and we’re gonna die alone. And sometimes there are these sweet little moments that we have this illusion that we’re connected.

– You just don’t get it, do you? It’s all right there in front of you and you can’t even reach for it. All we have is each other, David. That connection. All the rest—the careers, the homes, the cars, the money—that’s the illusion.

– Can you really see me unfolding chairs in a church basement singing “Kumbaya” with a bunch of drunks?

– No, you’re right. You’re so much better off going on like this…

Season 1 does find David in a better place, heading off to rehab with a newfound humility and gratefulness. (Again, haven’t seen season 2, so don’t know if that stuck…)


“You haven’t read this? You should have.”

(Episode 18, “Lost Child”)

This is the payoff the entire season was building toward, at least in Joel’s arc. He and Kelly are at their psychiatrist’s office after Joel gets tangled in an investigation on the mysterious death of their infant child Emma. They requested a second coroner’s report but haven’t read it, not wanting to confront the awful possibility that Kelly might have inadvertently caused the death while having a bad reaction to sleeping pills.

Joel and Kelly finally lay it out to each other: she thinks she somehow killed the baby; he knows she didn’t because he was watching her that night instead of the baby. Meanwhile, the psychiatrist has been reading the report and delivers the news:

You haven’t read this? You should have. According to this, Emma had a brain aneurysm. It was bound to go off—then, or in grade school, or as a young mother with three children herself. There was nothing you could have done, even if she was in your arms. Your little girl got dealt a bad card, and so did you.

This moment is so cathartic—for Joel and Kelly, but also the viewer, who’s been piecing together this story arc throughout the season. The fact that they’d avoided reading the report out of a fear for what it could reveal illustrates the power of guilt to forestall any attempts at healing and finding closure.

Boomtown, the one-season wonder

At least once a week something makes me think of Boomtown, one of my favorite TV shows of all time.

Not to be confused with the excellent book Boom Town (my favorite of 2018), Boomtown was a one-season wonder that aired on NBC from 2002-2003 when I was a freshman in high school.

(To be clear, there technically was a second season of six episodes before it was axed, but I’ve never seen it because of everything I heard about how bad it is, and I’d like to preserve the memory of its one beautiful, special season in my heart, thank you very much.)

The show was a Rashomon-esque crime drama set in Los Angeles that told the story of a crime each episode from multiple points of view—primarily the beat cops, detectives, the assistant district attorney, a reporter, and a paramedic. They all interact with the crime and with each other, and through each of their perspectives we learn more and more about the case.

I like how Christopher Orr described the show in The Atlantic:

If the Paul Thomas Anderson of Magnolia, the David O. Russell of Three Kings, and the Doug Liman of Go had gotten together to produce a weekly cop show, it would have looked something like this. Out-of-sequence storylines, vertiginous plot twists, imaginative camera effects, clever dialogue—Boomtown had it all, and sometimes too much of it. The best episodes were brilliant television; even the worst usually failed in interesting ways. Its audacity was refreshing, the kind of envelope-pushing we’ve come to expect from cable but is still rare on network TV.

It was written and produced by Graham Yost (Band of Brothers, Speed), who talked about his inspiration for Boomtown coming from researching a battle for Band of Brothers:

Each veteran I talked to described a different battle because that’s all they knew. One of them told me, ‘All you know is the 12 feet around you in battle.’ That’s where the divergent narratives thing came from.

That inspiration also relates to one of the show’s key themes, which is the fungibility of memory. Very often we watch a scene play out the first time, then see it again through another character’s point of view but slightly different than the first time—whether with a modified line reading or a change to sepia or black-and-white. Each iteration cleverly reveals new information for the viewer, in the way that viewpoint’s character learns of it.

The result is that Boomtown is more like a prism than a puzzle. There’s only one way to put together a puzzle, but a prism refracts light into many different colors and directions, changing its appearance as you move it.

To illustrate how a show like this got on network TV at all and why it didn’t last, it helps to understand the television landscape at the time, which Yost talked about:

NBC was the only place that would put that on the air. They were coming from a position of great strength, so they were willing to take a chance. They had kind of put out to the community, “If you’re thinking of taking something to HBO, bring it here first.” Boomtown was perhaps, in retrospect, better suited for HBO or FX. But at that time, HBO had The Wire, and FX had The Shield. So NBC was really the only place for it, and they embraced the Rashomon structure and were excited by that.

But then when the ratings weren’t spectacular, what happens is everyone questions everything. “Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe it’s the music. Maybe it’s this. Maybe it’s that.” And the doubt becomes corrosive.

I’m not a Law & Order junkie or crime show connoisseur, so I can’t tell you how Boomtown compares to its counterparts. But I was blown away by the richness of the characters and smart plot development, both within each episode and stretched across the entire season. And unlike the many shows that take a few episodes (or even a full season) to really hit their stride, Boomtown metaphorically busts down the door right away and keeps up the quality throughout.

This is a credit to Yost and the creative team, for sure, but also to the ensemble. The seven main actors (on the poster at top) were perfectly cast and really hit the sweet spot of being seasoned pros while not being too famous and thus too distracting in their roles. Many shows have a character arc that drags or feels skippable, but the Boomtown gang (mostly) doesn’t let that happen.

Finding the show at the age I did surely made a difference in my admiration for it. As a budding cinephile I strongly responded to its combination of intelligent storytelling and humanist affection for its characters. The occasional action and frequent humor were appealing too, but it’s the small yet profound moments that have stuck with me. The father of an addict lamenting the joys and anguish of parenthood. A riverside eulogy. The reading of an coroner’s report. Even the theme song gives me a warm feeling.

Though it’s not officially available for streaming, the whole series is unofficially available on YouTube for free. (I have the DVD set, of course.) Give the first episode a try, and then all 18 if it strikes you as it did me.

Further Reading

Down from Basswood: Voices from the Boundary Waters

A friend of mine recently moved to northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He said he’d been looking online for information about the region when he stumbled upon mention of an obscure book that was supposed to really capture the area well. It was the short story collection Down from Basswood: Voices from the Boundary Waters by Lynn Maria Laitala, and having now finished it I can say it’s one of my favorite reads in a long time.

I’ve never been to the Boundary Waters. I had a chance in high school to take a canoe/portaging trip with other kids in my youth group, but I didn’t go and regret it. I do, however, have lots of memories in northern Wisconsin, where I’ve spent time fishing, hunting, and exploring. That experience, combined with my interest in the stories of people from the Northwoods and my family history (more on this later), made this book a big, bright green light.

If not for my friend’s strong recommendation, I probably would have never heard of this book or given it much of a chance if I had. This is mostly for superficial reasons: it has an amateur, self-published look (excepting the beautiful chapter-heading illustrations by Carl Gawboy, as sampled in this post) and contains far too many basic and frankly egregious editing errors.

I’m glad I pushed past my pedantry and focused on the storytelling, because it’s exceptional.

About the book

Spanning several generations, from the early twentieth century to the 1970s, each of the 27 relatively short and standalone stories are told from a different person’s perspective around the northern Minnesota town of Winton. (The Genealogy of Characters was very helpful for orienting myself throughout the book.) Each story intertwines and overlaps with the others, both explicitly—through shared characters and setting—and implicitly, through common themes of people struggling against nature, their kin, and themselves.

Laitala’s brief preface is worth quoting in full because it sets the stage well for the rest of the book:

The Minnesota Historical Society hired me to collect oral histories in northern Minnesota after I went home to Winton in 1974. I designed a questionnaire to elicit information for scholarly use. My first aged informant patiently answered the formula questions; then he said, “That isn’t how it was, Lynn.” When I learned to listen, people told me intimate stories of love and loss, failure and grief.

In 1978 federal legislation made the Boundary Waters—including Basswood Lake—a legal wilderness, a place without history. Inspired by the oral histories and wanting to memorialize the old spirit of the border country, I began to write these stories.

Down from Basswood is told in many voices, the way I learned the history of the place.

Laitala movingly memorializes “the old spirit” of this region by exploring two of its people groups—the Chippewa natives and the Finnish immigrants—and how they struggled to cobble together an existence in a hardscrabble time and place.

A family connection

Being one-third Finn myself, I take a vicarious pride in Finlanders both past and present. My grandpa Cliff was even more Finnish than I am: he spoke the language and, as an FBI agent, was eventually stationed in Superior, Wisconsin, largely due to his heritage. (According to his memoir, it was his supervisor who thought “because I was of Finnish extraction that I should go where the Finns were.”) He was there for 24 out of his 25 years in the FBI—an unusual feat given how most agents were in multiple offices. He would have had lots of experience with the Finnish community and specifically the Finnish communists, given how virulently anti-communist J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was at the time.

Also part of his job was investigating crimes in the region’s Native American reservations, which at the time were under federal (rather than state) jurisdiction. Undoubtedly this would have influenced his views of the indigenous tribes he encountered, but how exactly I’ll never know.

A master class of insight

I do wonder what he would have thought of this book, because it doesn’t succumb to the worn tropes of Native Americans in fiction. Quite the opposite: Laitala’s ability to empathize with all her characters while maintaining an observer’s distance turns the book into a master class of keen insight, both at the sentence level and through the overarching narrative.

Like this sentence from chapter 4 (“Burntside Spring”):

Frogs were singing along the riverbanks and the great cloud of sorrow that enveloped me lifted just enough for me to realize that Matt must be lonely.

This is from the perspective of Kaija Lahti, a grieving and pregnant widow who took in Matt, a stranger and fellow Finnish immigrant, as a farm worker. He’d returned wearily from a long day. By pausing to take note of the frogs and other sensory cues from her surroundings, Kaija could get present, step outside her own skin, and see another person’s struggles as just as important as hers.

Another thing that was so invigorating about the book was how much I learned. Knowing it’s based on real people’s testimonies and the author’s own experience helped illuminate a whole world and collective of people that are too often kept in the dark.

Chapter 5, for instance (“When Darkness Reigns”), serves as a mini seminar on Finnish communists, logging camps, the IWW, and how abuses of power by corrupt governments and bosses can perpetuate socioeconomic hardship. Other stories shine a light on the gritty work of mining, conflicts with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, true outdoorsmanship as a way of life, and the immigrant’s struggle between expectations and reality.

The book also follows people finding grace even in defeat, as is the case with Aina in chapter 7 (“Children of God”):

I would never find happiness if I had to change the world in order to be happy but that didn’t mean that I had to accept persecution and abuse. I found happiness doing what I knew was right. When I defied people who abused their power—the steel trust, the clergy, the deputies, my brother, my father, my husband—I had felt God’s grace. “You’re smiling,” Arvo said to me one day, angrily, reproachfully. I smiled more broadly.

Updating my priors

Another unexpected development was the appearance of Sigurd Olson, the late wilderness guide, nature writer, and author of The Singing Wilderness, one of my favorite nature books. He’s portrayed in a few of the stories as a well-meaning but patronizing buffoon—and worse, as an opportunistic interloper who exploited the lands and indigenous people he romanticized for his own financial gain.

Specifically, chapter 10 (“Jackfish Pete”) has Olson waxing rhapsodic about the supposed uncivilized wilderness his indigenous guides know actually to be long settled and familiar land to the locals. On the contrary, they claim:

There’s more to living up here than paddling and portaging. It takes skill for a man to provide for others. It’s not as simple as paddling through, catching a few fish, maybe shooting some ducks. A man gets his honor by taking care of other people, being generous. That was the Chippewa way.

How closely Laitala’s portrayal of Olson hews to reality is hard to discern, but given her source material and Olson’s documented role in promoting the Boundary Waters, it’s not hard to imagine it being uncomfortably incisive.

Making wilderness

But that’s just what she does in Down from Basswood, chapter after chapter. At just over 200 pages it has the concise, spartan writing style of a journalist not wanting to waste words, yet beneath those words are an evocative depth befitting the multi-generational epic it truly is. In that way it felt like Wendell Berry’s Port William stories and Joel & Ethan Coen’s 2018 anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs condensed into a single volume you’d be able to read in a day but actually couldn’t for its sheer richness.

I’ll conclude with a passage I consider to be one of the defining metaphors of the whole book. It’s from chapter 21 (“Clearances”), which finds Emily—a second-generation Finnish American teen who’d endured a traumatic childhood like most of her peers—walking with her date alongside a work zone demolished in preparation for the coming freeway:

I got off the wall, walked up the front walk that ended in a pile of rubble and picked a tulip. I peered into its dark center.

“On Basswood they say they’re restoring the past and here they’re supposed to be clearing for the future,” I said, “but it looks the same. Making wilderness—places where man passes through and does not remain.”

Eric didn’t answer. He was already moving on.


Favorite quotes

  • Charlie called Ira “bourgeois”, or big shot, because he sat between them in the middle of the canoe. In the fur trade days, the bourgeois were the men who didn’t want to work. The Indians laughed at them because paddling is the joy of traveling.
  • When Aunt lay dying she said to me, “Don’t harden yourself to death, Mary, because if you do, you will harden yourself to life.”
  • Frogs were singing along the riverbanks and the great cloud of sorrow that enveloped me lifted just enough for me to realize that Matt must be lonely.
  • I was wounded in the Battle of Mukden. Over 8000 men were killed, more than 50,000 wounded. It’s hard to imagine, when you hear those numbers, that each was a man who once delighted in the freshness of spring.
  • As I carried gear into the tents, Magie jerked his head in my direction. “Finlander,” he said. One of the officials laughed. “Weak minds but strong backs.”
  • Spring peepers trilled their shrill evening song and I heard them with my heart.
  • I would never find happiness if I had to change the world in order to be happy but that didn’t mean that I had to accept persecution and abuse. I found happiness doing what I knew was right. When I defied people who abused their power—the steel trust, the clergy, the deputies, my brother, my father, my husband—I had felt God’s grace. “You’re smiling,” Arvo said to me one day, angrily, reproachfully. I smiled more broadly.
  • There’s nothing I like better than a meal of fresh fish—but fight fish for sport? If you look at it one way, it’s torturing creatures for fun. Look at it another, you’re playing with your food.
  • There’s more to living up here than paddling and portaging. It takes skill for a man to provide for others. It’s not as simple as paddling through, catching a few fish, maybe shooting some ducks. A man gets his honor by taking care of other people, being generous. That was the Chippewa way.
  • In school, the teachers talked about a great America beyond the woods and lakes, beyond men in ragged overalls who worked on rock farms and in lumber camps, beyond women who spoke Finnish and danced to accordion music on Saturday nights. America, the land of opportunity, was somewhere else.
  • My cheek pressed into the rough wool shirt. I smelled spruce and woodsmoke, heard the thumping of Jake’s heart. “Do you have to go home today?” he asked. “No,” I said. I was home.
  • Legend has it that a Finnish man once loved his wife so much that he almost told her.
  • Only sometimes, when I sit near the shore at my cabin watching the waves ebb in the waning light of the midsummer sun, does my heart fill with old yearnings.
  • My parents say the immigrants were fools who expected to find streets paved with gold. They got hardship and misery. But if you go out walking in the early spring when the marsh marigolds run riot, you will find the woods carpeted with gold.
  • On Basswood they say they’re restoring the past and here they’re supposed to be clearing for the future, but it looks the same. Making wilderness—places where man passes through and does not remain.
  • It’s easier to find two sides in history than in life.
  • The sounds that break the silence of the north are haunting sounds—the crying of the wolves, the loons, the wind.
  • Things seldom turn out the way we expect them to.
  • You know what I liked about the culture? Tolerance, frugality, humor, generosity. How do you restore that with funding? Those are the things that money destroys.

Favorite Films of 2020

Along with all the other lamentable things that happened (or didn’t happen) this year due to COVID-19, I mourn the movies I missed out on seeing on the big screen. The last time I was in a theater was in late February to see Little Women, which ended up being my favorite film of 2019.

But I’m also aware that I probably wouldn’t have done much moviegoing this year anyway with a toddler at home. That makes me very grateful for the plenitude of at-home viewing options available to me. Between Netflix, Amazon Prime, Kanopy, Disney Plus, and library checkouts, I was able to see most of what 2020 had to offer and then some.

My logbook tells me I saw a total of 78 films in 2020, 34 of those being 2020 releases. Here’s what stuck with me the most.

10. Greyhound

This got a lot of “meh” reviews, but I found it to be a gripping, well-made, and admirably brief thriller, written by and starring Tom Hanks as the Navy commander of a destroyer protecting a convoy of Allied merchant ships in the U-boat-infested waters of the Second World War’s Battle of the Atlantic. (An unexpected benefit of having to get a new iPhone recently was getting a free one-year trial of Apple TV+, which is the only reason I was able to see it. So shout-out to my first-gen iPhone SE for crapping out!)

9. Dads

A sweet and insightful documentary from Bryce Dallas Howard that celebrates modern fatherhood, with talking heads from her father Ron Howard, Jimmy Fallon, Judd Apatow, Will Smith, and other celebrities interwoven with the stories of four everyday men and their parenthood journeys. (Watched on Apple TV+.)

8. Wolfwalkers

In the tradition of previous Cartoon Saloon animated films Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells, this is a resplendently illustrated magic-infused folk tale set in 17th-century Ireland with some familiar story elements (rebellious daughter, stern but loving father) embedded with many surprising and delightful turns. (Watched on Apple TV+.)

7. Soul

In the last five years, Pixar has hit the bullseye with only Inside Out, Toy Story 4, and Coco. It’s those films that Soul echoes the most, with its jazz musician protagonist undergoing a metaphysical (and physical) journey rediscovering his own life and purpose. Kids will like its zanier bits, but only adults can fully appreciate the worldview-tilting wonder in this ode to finding meaning in “regular old living.” (Watched on Disney Plus.)

6. First Cow

In 1820s Oregon, two men hatch a scheme to steal milk from the area’s only cow to make and sell biscuits at the local outpost. Sneaks into something very different than what you expect initially. A classic western and American tale of enterprise gone wrong, with a blend of sparseness and depth that only Kelly Reichardt can pull off. (Watched on library Blu-ray, but also available on VOD.)

5. The Assistant

Julia Garner (whom I first discovered in 2012’s Electrick Children) stars as an office assistant of an unseen and unnamed Harvey Weinstein-esque Hollywood producer, whose malignant presence nevertheless follows her as she navigates workplace gaslighting, emotional abuse, and a crisis of conscience. The film’s oppressively hushed tone creates a horror/thriller atmosphere that’s fitting for the psychological menace she has to endure. (Watched on Kanopy.)

4. Driveways

While a woman fixes up the house of her recently deceased hoarder sister, her shy son develops a sweet friendship with the elderly neighbor, played by Brian Dennehy in his final role. Really enjoyed seeing Hong Chou in a different light compared to her role as Lady Trieu in HBO’s Watchmen. And Dennehy’s quiet, abiding presence culminates in a touching monologue that captures the ache of end-of-life regret. (Watched on Kanopy.)

3. My Octopus Teacher

I already wrote about this documentary, which captures a freediver’s unexpected encounters with an octopus in a South African kelp forest. It’s a beautiful and emotional story that shows the stunning possibilities of what being present in nature can offer. (Watched on Netflix.)

2. Sound of Metal

Riz Ahmed (previously known to me from Nightcrawler) plays a drummer and former addict who suddenly loses his hearing and finds refuge at a community for deaf recovering addicts, led by a deaf Vietnam vet (played by a riveting Paul Raci). His struggle to regain his hearing and old life clashes with new insights, and make this a stunning, humanist portrait of addiction and transformation. (Watched on Amazon Prime.)

1. The Vast of Night

The Twilight Zone meets Super 8 in 1950s New Mexico, where a young switchboard operator and a radio DJ discover a mysterious, possibly extraterrestrial audio frequency. Their search for answers around their small desert town alternates between vexing, exhilarating, and downright eerie. No other 2020 movie captured my imagination and attention as much as this debut feature from writer-director Andrew Patterson, who displays an impressive one-two punch of technical prowess and storytelling panache—with a no-name cast and tiny budget to boot. (Watched on Amazon Prime.)

Honorable mentions: One Night in Miami, Downhill, Tigertail, Blow the Man Down, Miss Americana: Taylor Swift, Hamilton: An American Musical, Da 5 Bloods, Boys State, Lovers Rock, Mangrove, Yes God Yes

Haven’t yet seen but want to: Minari, Nomadland, Another Round

Other non-2020 films I enjoyed:

Only Lovers Left Alive
Magic Mike
Kramer vs. Kramer
A Night to Remember
Margin Call
The Firm
A Hidden Life
The Last Temptation of Christ
Waves

Favorite Books of 2020

In his year-end summary of reading, Seth Godin wrote: “Books are an extraordinary device, transitioning through time and space, moving from person to person and leaving behind insight and connection. I’m grateful every single day for the privilege of being able to read (and to write).”

I read 18 books in 2020. For some people that might be a lot, but for me it’s an all-time low and a continuation of a downward trend since my peak of 80 books in 2016. The global pandemic had something to do with it, as once I started working from home I lost the time I had previously spent reading during my daily commute and lunch break.

But that’s OK. Like Seth I’m grateful for the privilege of being able to read at all, let alone whatever I want. Of what I was able to read this year, here (in alphabetical order) is what stood out.

Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused by Melissa Maerz

While I’ve been a fan of Dazed and Confused for a while, I knew next to nothing about its making aside from Richard Linklater’s freewheeling filmmaking style. This book is a good mix of context-setting commentary from the author and contributions from everyone involved with the movie. (The funniest part is everyone dumping on one insufferable actor who thought he was the next Brando.) Rewatched the movie after reading and appreciated it anew.

Choice quote:

Every few years, as a new crop of high schoolers graduates, new generations discover Dazed. The fact that it doesn’t really have a plot means it holds up better with repeat viewings. You aren’t watching for the story. You’re watching to hang out with the characters.

Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy! by Claire McNear

I took the online Jeopardy! test back in March after I started working from home. It… didn’t go well. But that made me appreciate the show and its contestants all the more, along with how televised trivia has managed to remain not only relevant but beloved for so long. This book digs into all of that and more with a combination of concision and panache that Alex Trebek (RIP) would appreciate.

Choice quote:

The real Jeopardy! is not the machine. It’s the show, the thirty minutes of pleasant syndicated reassurance that the machine produces five times a week. Jeopardy! isn’t in a chilly California soundstage; it’s in your home, as you yell answers at the TV screen or furrow your brow during a tense Daily Double. … The real Jeopardy! is the illusion of simplicity: Alex Trebek, three contestants, roughly sixty answers and sixty questions. The real Jeopardy! is the magic trick.

The Bear by Andrew Krivak

Set in a dystopian future, this short novel follows a man and his daughter forging a lonely existence in the wilderness. What begins as a rugged, sparse tale soon combines with elements of magical realism, and that’s what really made it sing. Makes me eager to read more Krivak.

Choice quote:

The wood you burn to cook your food and keep you warm? The smoke that rises was once a memory. The ashes all that is left of the story.

Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind by Alan Jacobs

Jacobs’s writing is very influential to me. His blog is a constant source of bemused, no-bullshit commentary about politics, religion, culture, and the life of the mind. His latest book seeks to make the case for “temporal bandwidth”—the idea of widening your understanding of the present by engaging with old books and ideas that provide an “unlikeness” to your own assumptions. This means accepting good things about the past along with its baggage. It’s a short but punchy book, the third in a trilogy (along with The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction and How to Think) that together puts forth a commendable vision of intellectual engagement.

Choice quote:

If it is foolish to think that we can carry with us all the good things from the past—from our personal past or that of our culture—while leaving behind all the unwanted baggage, it is a counsel of despair and, I think, another kind of foolishness to think that if we leave behind the errors and miseries of the past, we must also leave behind everything that gave the world its savor.

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor

Nestor’s previous book about freediving really spoke to me, so I was eager to see where he went next. His immersion journalism takes him into the surprisingly deep terrain of respiration, especially timely this year given how central breathing is to Covid-19 transmission. Obviously breathing is important to your health, right? But it’s fairly astounding how just breathing deeply through your nose can improve your overall well-being. This book taught me a lot, but mostly it made me more attentive to the aspects of our humanity we often take for granted.

Choice quote:

Everything you or I or any other breathing thing has ever put in its mouth, or in its nose, or soaked through its skin, is hand-me-down space dust that’s been around for 13.8 billion years. This wayward matter has been split apart by sunlight, spread through the universe, and come back together again. To breathe is to absorb ourselves in what surrounds us, to take in little bits of life, understand them, and give pieces of ourselves back out. Respiration is, at its core, reciprocation.

Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre by Max Brooks

M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs and The Village meet Home Alone. Though I read Brooks’s previous book World War Z, it didn’t stick with me nearly as much as this one, which treads similar realistic sci-fi territory. Because the main event is right there in the title, the dramatic tension builds so exquisitely throughout the book. It was one of those stories that delightfully defied prediction, and managed to end on a tantalizing yet satisfying note.

Choice quote:

They all want to live “in harmony with nature” before some of them realize, too late, that nature is anything but harmonious.

Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt by Steven Johnson

One of my favorite authors, Johnson nailed it again with this riveting historical epic that weaves together 17th-century seafaring, the surprising culture of pirate ships, the dawn of the multinational corporation, and much more. Johnson’s magic trick is being able to stuff so much fascinating information into a crisp narrative without making it seem stuffed. It really feels like a rewarding reading journey.

Choice quote:

Ancient history is always colliding with the present in the most literal sense: our genes, our language, our culture all stamp the present moment with the imprint of the distant past.

Go to Sleep (I Miss You): Cartoons from the Fog of New Parenthood by Lucy Knisley

This laugh-out-loud hilarious cartoon collection is a short, sweet, and stunningly accurate depiction of the small moments and observations new parenthood allows. Though mostly geared toward the experience of mothers, so much of it resonated with me. Really glad to have stumbled upon this at my library’s New Graphic Novels shelf.

Choice quote:

Dude, I love you so much… but could you *please* stop discovering the infinite wonder of the world for, like, two minutes?

Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Banded Together in World War II Europe by Kathy Peiss (review)

The book tells two primary, interweaving stories: how the information-collecting missions of the Library of Congress, OSS, and Allied forces conflicted and aligned before, during, and after the war; and how individuals engaged with those missions on the ground. I found the parts about the people much more engaging than the broader institutional machinations. But if you share my interests in librarianship, archives, history, and World War II, you’ll dig this.

Choice quote:

The war challenged these librarians, archivists, scholars, and bibliophiles to turn their knowledge of books and records toward new and unpredictable ends. The immediacy and intensity of their experience tested them psychologically and physically. Whether soldier or civilian, American-born or émigré, these people’s lives changed as they engaged in this unusual wartime enterprise. They stepped up to the moment, confronting shifting and perplexing circumstances armed only with vague instructions and few precedents to guide them.

Favorite non-2020 books I enjoyed

  • Meditations on Hunting by José Ortega y Gasset (review)
  • The Night Lives On: Thoughts, Theories and Revelations about the Titanic by Walter Lord
  • One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson
  • Watchmen by Alan Moore
  • Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books by Edward Wilson-Lee

Are You Paying Attention? On ‘The Social Dilemma’ and ‘My Octopus Teacher’

I don’t have to go looking for synchronicity because it always finds me. This time it was on Netflix.

The other day I watched Netflix’s new docu-drama The Social Dilemma (trailer) based on the recommendation from a friend and a lively text thread about its implications.

The film’s thesis is that social networks are engineered to hack human psychology and prey upon our attention as a means to serve advertisers, which is detrimental to humans specifically and society generally. We learn this from the talking heads of former Silicon Valley executives, whose firsthand experience with the dark side of social media have motivated them to speak out against their former employers and advocate for reform.

Interwoven with the talking heads is the drama part of the film, which depict a family wrestling with the many ways technology can negatively affect our lives: the son slowly being radicalized by extremist propaganda, the tween daughter tormented by insecurity and social media bullying, the mother witnessing the fraying of family cohesion.

Though the dramatized storyline sometimes felt a little “anti-smoking PSA” to me, as a morality tale it was an effective companion to the talking heads. (This interview with Tristan Harris, one of the subjects and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, gives some needed context to his contributions.)

The documentary stimulated a valuable discussion between my wife and I about social media’s role in our family. But it wasn’t until later that night when its lessons sank into my consciousness in a tangible way.

Diving into the divine milieu

Later that same night, I decided to watch My Octopus Teacher, another new Netflix documentary featuring freediver and filmmaker Craig Foster. The banal description (“A filmmaker forges an unusual friendship with an octopus living in a South African kelp forest, learning as the animal shares the mysteries of her world”) belies the transcendent richness of what we see develop on screen—both between Foster and the octopus and between Foster and the underwater environment.

He describes how diving in the cold seawater makes you “come alive to the world” and focuses your mind intently on your surroundings. I’ve written about freediving before, and how the “divine milieu” of the sea—or any uncivilized landscape—can open us to transformation.

Foster’s own transformation happens over the course of a year as he encounters and befriends a common octopus. And thanks to his abundant underwater footage, we get to witness a series of moments—surprises, scares, sorrows, and simplicities—that teach so much about a reclusive and otherworldly creature. Due to Foster’s soothing narration, the gentle piano score, and the meditative quality of being immersed underwater, it’s a beautiful and emotional story that shows the stunning possibilities of what being present in nature can offer.

That also makes it a fascinating contrast to The Social Dilemma, chiefly in how it offers an antidote to all the ails social media can create. If we feel distracted, we should seek focus. If we feel fragmented, we should seek embodiment. (Brené Brown: “We move what we’re learning from our heads to our hearts through our hands”—a lesson I have to constantly relearn.)

Being in nature, in silence, or at least away from screens allow for both of those things if you let it. And recently I did.

My toddler teacher

A few days after watching both of these films, for undetermined reasons Mr. 19 Months was refusing to fall asleep. I brought him out to his play area and he started tinkering with a wooden train set we recently put into toy circulation. He usually doesn’t focus on one activity for very long, yet for at least 15 minutes he sat there quietly exploring and experimenting with this new contraption.

Usually my phone is with me in our living room post-bedtime, but it wasn’t that night. I could have retrieved it, but I didn’t want to break this spell as I knew he’d either want to follow me or jump to another activity. I soon realized that if I did have my phone, I would have missed so much.

I would have missed his subtle gestures as he figured out how to put the cylindrical blocks into their corresponding holes in the train car.

I would have missed trying to decipher his thought process of how to slot the various discs onto their poles.

I would have missed out on pondering how toddlers can be ferocious one moment and beautifully serene the next—not unlike octopuses.

Similarly, Foster’s unique story wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t dedicate himself to visiting the kelp forest every day, and if he hadn’t noticed the octopus beneath its camouflaged hideout, and if he didn’t intentionally seek to cultivate trust with a marvelous and mysterious creature.

My own marvelous and mysterious creature has taught me a lot in his short time on Earth. (See the tag Baby Comello for the continuing journey.) Just by living out his full self—and toddlers can’t do anything else—he demonstrates the rewards of using your attention wisely, whether it’s for a glowing screen or a wooden train set or an inquisitive toddler or a reclusive cephalopod.

You don’t have to choose one, but you do have to choose.

Ideology and ‘Information Hunters’

When I first heard of the new book Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Banded Together in World War II Europe by Kathy Peiss, I thought it was so far up my alley it should have just moved in.

The book tells two primary, interweaving stories:

  • how the information-collecting missions of the Library of Congress, OSS, and the Allied forces conflicted and aligned before, during, and after the war
  • how individuals engaged with those missions on the ground

One person’s story that stood out was Maria Josepha Meyer, employed by the Library of Congress and the publisher Hachette to collect books, documents, propaganda, and any other useful material in pre-occupation Paris. When the Nazis invaded in June 1940, she found herself trapped in Paris with no money and an expired passport. She eventually got an export permit from the Germans for her professional library, personal effects, and furniture, and at the last minute swapped her furniture for the war collection she would have been forbidden to ship.

Another was Adele Kibre, an academic who found herself spearheading a clandestine microfilming operation in Stockholm as a way to send foreign publications to OSS for intelligence gathering. Microfilm technology was in its infancy, so quality varied generally. But Kibre’s results were clear and consistent despite her limitations and the secrecy required.

A central figure in the book was Archibald MacLeish, the poet and writer who served as Librarian of Congress from 1939-1944. His work with William Donovan to develop the Research & Analysis branch of OSS helped modernize the Library of Congress and push it beyond the traditional understanding of libraries as neutral providers of books and information.

Peiss:

With the growing international crisis, [MacLeish] raised the stakes for books and democracy, calling upon librarians to be not merely custodians of culture but defenders of freedom. Like Donovan, he had perceived the dangers of fascism early and believed in American intervention. As an artist, intellectual, and the nation’s leading librarian, he was convinced, as he later put it, that ‘the country of the mind must also attack.’

As MacLeigh wrote in 1940, the keeping of war-related records “is itself a kind of warfare. The keepers, whether they wish so or not, cannot be neutral.”

As much as I’d like to view libraries as places that don’t discriminate or take ideological stands, the right to read is itself an ideology, as are the rights to privacy and access. Despite being taken for granted in democratic and literate societies, they must be believed in, fought for, and defended like any other ideology. (Notice too the war-like language.)

Peiss’s book examines how people and institutions reckoned with that dilemma in extraordinary situations. Overall, I found the parts about the people much more engaging than the broader institutional machinations, which often get bogged down in the acronyms and esoterica endemic to academia, government, and the military.

But if that sort of thing is your jam, Information Hunters is right on target.

(See also: The Book Thieves by Anders Rydell and When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning.)

Favorite films of 2018

My theme for last year’s movies was the strength of women. This year, it’s time for some manly love. (Archer voice: “Phrasing!”)

Since June, when I found out I was going to be a father, I’ve been keenly aware of how fatherhood has been portrayed in this year’s crop of movies. What strikes me now, looking back on all of them, is the wide array of characteristics the 2018 Film Fathers represented.

There were men who weren’t fathers yet but pined to be (Private Life and Game Night) or despaired of their fatherhood (First Reformed).

There were men whose defining characteristic was their absence (the doctor in Roma, Apollo in Creed II, T’Chaka in Black Panther)

There were men whose children inspired in them unconditional love (Eighth Grade), desperate determination (Searching), painful grief (First Man), righteous if misguided zeal (Blockers), and a longing to stop time (Hearts Beat Loud).

And there were men whose family life, whether through inspiration or inertia, led them towards apathy (Tully), frustration (The Incredibles 2), and flight (Wildlife).

Not all of these films made my best-of list, but I’m grateful to all of them for demonstrating just how consequential fatherhood can be.

On to the list…

1. The Death of Stalin

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this, Veep creator Armando Iannucci’s film about the machinations of Stalin’s inner circle after the dictator’s sudden death in 1953. Don’t be fooled by the serious title: this is social and political satire at its sharpest, loosely based on real events but also exactly right about much more than its titular subject. (Review)

2. The Favourite

Rachel Weisz I’ve loved since The Mummy, Emma Stone since Superbad. But Olivia Colman is basically new to me, and she might have won this movie as a querulous, manipulative Queen Anne balancing the competing bids for favor from Stone’s Abigail and Weisz’s Sarah. Writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster barely missed my top 10 list in 2015, but he nearly conquered this year’s with this delicious, darkly comic period piece that takes “be careful what you wish for” to a delightfully daring level.

3. Wildlife

Stunning directorial debut from actor Paul Dano. A very well composed and controlled story of a 1960s family struggling against disintegration, experienced by the perspective of 14-year-old only child Joe. Everything felt so specific and slo-mo tragic, Carey Mulligan’s performance especially.

4. First Reformed

What to do about despair? As the priest of a small historical church, Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Toller communes with it for a living, whether fighting his own ailments, struggling against professional obsolescence, or pastoring a young couple haunted by the specter of global warming. An intense portrait of the search for meaning, a reckoning with darkness and extremism, and a worthy entry into the “priest in crisis” canon (a personal favorite subgenre) alongside Winter Light, Calvary, and other gems.

5. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

It’s a rarity for me to see a movie in theaters twice, but I was happy to do so for this one so I could see it with my wife. This could be the movie that changes superhero movies—in style, personality, and thematic exploration. If you haven’t seen it yet, go into it with as little foreknowledge as possible.

6. The Rider

A rodeo accident forces horse rider Brady off the saddle, leaving him in poverty with brain damage and an existential crisis. This lithe, mesmerizing, and richly empathetic film rides a fine line between fiction and documentary, as Brady and most of the characters are essentially playing themselves. Director Chloé Zhao has an eye for beautiful shots and tender moments.

7. Roma

I didn’t fully appreciate Roma until it was over, when I could see the full scope of Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical take on a year in the life of Cleo, a live-in maid in 1970s Mexico City. Still, from the first shot—a meditative long take of a floor being mopped—I cherished Cuarón’s ability to see grandeur in the granular, to magnify the minute details of a humble woman’s hidden but compelling life.

8. Searching

“Thriller whodunit that takes place solely on a computer” sounds like a cheap direct-to-video B movie, but Searching is shockingly effective at overcoming this supposed gimmick. Why is this story of John Cho’s David using everyday technology to track down his missing daughter effective? I think it’s the specificity of the tools—everything from Windows XP to Facebook and FaceTime—used in a panicked silence throughout. David could be any of us, alone at a computer clicking desperately against time.

9. BlacKkKlansman

Based on a true story of the first black police officer in 1970s Colorado Springs infiltrating the local KKK chapter, with the help of a fellow officer, played by Adam Driver. True to a Spike Lee joint, it’s brash, cutting, funny, loose when it needs to be but solid at heart. The Birth of a Nation montage could be the scene of the year. John David Washington (son of Denzel) deserves not to always be compared to his famous father, but they share a compelling verve that bodes very well for John David’s career.

10. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Not all of this Coen Bothers anthology’s six parts are equally good: “The Girl Who Got Rattled” and “Meal Ticket” did a lot of the heavy lifting (or gold digging?) to get to this spot. But this would have made the list for the Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck performances in “Rattled” alone. Like most Coen Brothers joints, I expect this to reward repeat viewings.

I also liked: Avengers: Infinity War, Leave No Trace, Tully, If Beale Street Could Talk, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Black Panther, Private Life, Game Night, Hearts Beat Loud, Annihilation, Widows

Favorite non-2018 films I watched this year

  • Moonstruck
  • Anatomy of a Murder
  • Tension
  • Monty Python and the Life of Brian
  • King of Comedy
  • Battle of Algiers
  • The Seventh Seal
  • Three Days of the Condor

Favorite books of 2018

Goodreads tells me I read 72 books this year. Though I didn’t read as many as last year, with a baby on the way I’ve been trying to read abundantly while I can, for both quality and quantity. Here are the books published in 2018 that I enjoyed the most. (See previous best-of book lists.)

1. Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City by Sam Anderson (review)

You might have heard good things about this book. I’m here to tell you all of them are true. The pleasure I felt from the first page on is a feeling I chase with all my reading. Your mileage may vary, of course, but this kaleidoscopic story of Oklahoma City is more than just a rote retelling of a city’s history. Anderson wraps the OKC Thunder, tornadoes, Timothy McVeigh, city planning, a truly insane founding process, Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, and much more into a cohesive, sure-handed, wry, and enlightening narrative.

Choice quote:

Radar data, like starlight, is information about the past: it tells you about the distant object it bounced off seconds or minutes before. This can tell you a lot—that conditions are perfect for a big storm, that something is in the air—but it can’t actually look at the storm for you. For that, you still need people. Storm chasers provided the stations with what they call “ground truth.”

2. Circe by Madeline Miller

My highest-ever ranking of a novel, and it damn near took the first spot. A retelling of the story of Circe, daughter of the sun god Helios, this isn’t something I’d normally read, but the rave reviews made me give it a try. Boy am I glad I didn’t let my woeful lack of knowledge on Greek mythology stop me. I found Miller’s prose to be so rich and empathetic, powerful yet tender. Read half of it on audiobook and friggin’ loved Perdita Weeks’ narration. I just started reading The Odyssey for the first time; I sense it will be that much richer having gone through this odyssey.

Choice quote:

Only that: we are here. This is what it means to swim in the tide, to walk the earth and feel it touch your feet. This is what it means to be alive.

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

Archaeology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, imagination—all come into play in this meaty and winding travelogue around North America to investigate notable Ice Age locations. Made me immensely grateful for our (not so) distant human ancestors.

Choice quote:

We have all but forgotten how to inhabit this kind of fear. We gave up spears and skins and the weather on us day and night for cup holders and cell phones and doors that close behind us. What, I wonder, was lost?

4.Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine by Alan Lightman

Picked this up on a whim and luckily was in the right mood for its meditative style and mix of mind-expanding ruminations on astrophysics, God, philosophy, nature, and the meaning of life. Do not read if you don’t want your worldview—or really, galaxyview—bent like spacetime.

Choice quote:

[Earth is] a large family of noisy and feeling animals—the living, throbbing kingdom of life on our planet, of which we are a part. A kingdom that consecrates life and its possibilities even as each of its individuals passes away. A kingdom that dreams of unity and permanence even as the world fractures and fades. A kingdom redesigning itself, as we humans now do. All is in flux and has always been so. … Flux is beyond sadness and joy. Flux and impermanence and uncertainty seem to be simply what is.

5. Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results by James Clear

Learned about this when I stumbled upon the author’s Twitter, which proved to be quite the hotbed of interesting replies about people’s habits. The book does a great job laying out practical tools and ways of thinking about behavior, especially in how conceptions of identity and systems influence it far more than emotions and willpower.

Choice quote:

You get what you repeat.

6. How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan (review)

From the author of The Botany of Desire, one of my favorite narrative nonfiction books, comes this new revelatory exploration of practical and transformative uses of psychedelics. Probably because I’ve never done psychedelics, I was eager to learn about them from a reputable and investigative source with an open mind like Pollan. He explores the history of psychedelics, how they were used in clinical trials in the 1950s before Timothy Leary and the damned dirty hippies ruined them for everyone (my words), and how modern science is discovering their powerful affects on the brain and mental health.

Choice quote:

Psychedelic experiences are notoriously hard to render in words; to try is necessarily to do violence to what has been seen and felt, which is in some fundamental way pre- or post-linguistic or, as students of mysticism say, ineffable. Emotions arrive in all their newborn nakedness, unprotected from the harsh light of scrutiny and, especially, the pitiless glare of irony. Platitudes that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Hallmark card glow with the force of revealed truth.

7. The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together by Adam Nayman

A big and beautiful book of essays on the works of America’s most reliably excellent filmmakers. Nayman covers every Coen film from Blood Simple to Hail, Caesar! and includes interviews with frequent collaborators. It made me appreciate the Coen Cinematic Universe much more.

8. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Richly drawn characters in modern Atlanta dealing with a false imprisonment and how it upends life’s expected narratives. I think this is the second Oprah’s Book Club selection I’ve read while it was still reigning—the first being The Underground Railroad—so I’m 2 for 2 so far.

9. Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

Wouldn’t you know it, all I wanted to do after reading this was rewatch 2001: A Space Odyssey.

10. Am I There Yet? The Loop-de-Loop, Zigzagging Journey to Adulthood by Mari Andrew

Discovered Mari Andrew on Instagram. She packs so much insight, emotional intelligence, and artistry into deceptively simple illustrations, and has a great eye for the little things in life and how to turn them into art.

Honorable mentions: Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most by Steven Johnson, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Word of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King, The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Favorite non-2018 books I read this year

  • On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  • The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan
  • A Life In Parts by Bryan Cranston
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World by Rob Sheffield
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
  • Truman by David McCullough
  • Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
  • 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (review)

The Seventh Seal

Because the only screengrabs of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal I’ve ever seen are of a knight playing chess with Death, I really thought that would be the whole movie. Just a Very Serious Film that would be more film-buff obligation than an enjoyable experience. But wow, am I glad to be mistaken. It’s a profound, disturbing, grotesque, even goofy film, impressively rooted in religious inquiry but humanist at heart.

Two quotes stood out from Antonius Block (played gracefully by a young Max von Sydow), a disillusioned knight returning home from the Crusades to plague-ridden Denmark. His wager with Death—being spared if he wins—sets him apart as a determined, sensitive, and thoughtful seeker. So his wrestling with God is keenly felt:

“Is it so terribly inconceivable to comprehend God with one’s senses? Why does he hide in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles? How can we believe in the faithful when we lack faith? What will happen to us who want to believe, but can not? What about those who neither want to nor can believe? Why can’t I kill God in me? Why does He live on in me in a humiliating way—despite my wanting to evict Him from my heart? Why is He, despite all, a mocking reality I can’t be rid of?”

Yet later, while enjoying a moment of solace amidst the chaos of his journey, he practices a Middle Ages form of mindfulness and calls out his gratitude:

“I shall remember this hour of peace: the strawberries, the bowl of milk, your faces in the dusk. Mikael asleep, Jof with his lute. I shall remember our words, and shall bear this memory between my hands as carefully as a bowl of fresh milk. And this will be a sign, and a great content.”

This is only the third Ingmar Bergman film I’ve seen after Winter Light and Wild Strawberries. My regard for Bergman has shot up based on the caliber of these three alone. God bless Kanopy (free with a library card) for making it available. Looking forward to discovering more.