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:

Categories
Design Life

This is my backpack

Part of the This Is My series.

Thanks to the magic of email, I know that in March 2009 my mom asked if I wanted anything from REI. She had a coupon that was about to expire but didn’t need anything for herself.

REI is one of those stores I love in principle but don’t actually buy from, mostly due to the prices. So I jumped at that opportunity to get something I normally wouldn’t. I considered what I could use and landed on the CamelBak Blowfish Hydration backpack, pictured here over 10 years later in its usual hangout spot by the door:

(You might recognize the jacket next to it.)

It’s slim yet expandable, with just enough compartments, and padding in the back to make it breathable. In the picture it’s stuffed with library books, CDs, and my notebooks, with assorted pens, my sunglasses, and earbuds in the front pouch. It’s not super convenient for transporting my laptop, which I have to wedge in between the tapered zipper design, but it’s gotten the job done for a long time.

And in that time, it has accompanied me on every flight, hike, and trip I’ve taken, to every college and grad school class I attended, and darn near every workday I’ve logged. Somewhere along the way I stopped using the water pouch because it made everything in the main compartment a little damp and took up too much space.

It’s not available at REI anymore, so once the end of its useful life arrives I’ll have to find something else like it. I’ve tried satchels and messenger bags, but nothing beats the two-strapping reliability of a quality backpack.

Categories
Film

The Big Country

big-country

William Wyler’s 1958 film The Big Country is many things you’d expect from an epic western of its era. Nearly three hours long. A plot about families feuding over land and pride in the Wild West. Two vastly different men with vastly different styles vying for the same woman.

But what took me by surprise was just how resolutely the film subverts many of the expected tropes of its genre.

This is epitomized in one scene between the two leads. Gregory Peck, handsome as ever, plays the genteel New Englander McKay who arrives in the “big country” of the western plains to marry the local honcho’s daughter Patricia. Charlton Heston, laconic and smoldering as ever, plays the tough-guy ranch foreman Leech, whose own ambitions for Patricia put him at immediate odds with McKay.

But McKay isn’t interested in fighting, for her honor or his. He repeatedly refuses to be goaded into a fight, whether by a posse of ruffians from the rival family or by Leech, who brands McKay a liar in front of Patricia to try to shame him into fisticuffs.

It doesn’t work. Says McKay:

You aren’t going to prove anything with me, Leech. Get this through your head. I’m not playing this game on your terms, not with horses or guns or fists.

He’s only half-right. After Leech successfully spooks Patricia away from McKay due to his seeming unmanliness—”I’ve never been so humiliated” Patricia tells him—McKay decides to settle things with fists, but not as we’ve come to expect from westerns.

He wakes up Leech in the middle of the night, saying he’ll be leaving in the morning but had in mind a farewell. He says this so evenly and without anger that it’s a wonder Leech even got the meaning. The two of them amble out into the twilight and duke it out.

We get our “epic” fight, but it’s in the dark, without horses or guns, without spectators, without any music whatsoever, let alone anything heroic. Just two men silently slugging each other because they feel they have to, and they don’t even look cool while they do it. They’re like drunks brawling in an alley. Wyler pulls the camera way back, the high and wide framing exposing them as insignificant specks against the infinite plains.

They finally wear each other out. McKay:

Now tell me, Leech, what did we prove?

This is merely a subplot in a larger story of rival clans in a lawless land and the consequences of revenge. But it’s a powerful illustration of a new path being forged within the lives of these characters and, metatextually, within the genre of American westerns at large.

There are many more Wyler films I’ve yet to see, but The Big Country—along with The Best Years of Our Lives, Mrs. Miniver, and Roman Holiday—make him an all-timer in my book.

Categories
Film

Booksmart

Booksmart, the directorial debut of the actress Olivia Wilde, was charming as hell.

Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever star as Molly and Amy, two friends and straight-A students on the eve of high school graduation who realize their academic drive kept them from enjoying the more party-heavy pursuits of their peers. They seek to remedy this in one night, pursuing their crushes along the way.

Hijinks, as they say, ensue.

If you’ve heard of this movie, you’ve probably heard it compared to 2007’s Superbad, starring Michael Cera and Jonah Hill (Feldstein’s real-life older brother). The two movies do share a setting, concept, and R-rated comedic sensibility. But there’s more to Booksmart than hijinks.

Wilde’s script, in conjunction with the natural chemistry between Feldstein and Dever, brings the film to depths of character, understanding, and humor that’s rare in debut features and in movies about teens. When we meet them, Molly and Amy share a goofy and loving rapport. But as their one wild night progresses with mounting setbacks, detours, and stresses, cracks appear in their relationship. This culminates in a fierce and painfully public confrontation, which is stunningly captured by Wilde’s enveloping camerawork and adept use of the soundtrack.

Still, it is a comedy, and an often absurd one as a fish-out-of-water story with razor-sharp leads. Similarities to Superbad aside, I find it more akin to 2017’s Lady Bird in its depiction of the experience of young women striving against strictures—imposed by themselves or others—and arriving at a hard-won honesty. Not always with grace, but definitely with admirable wherewithal and wit.

I couldn’t help but reflect on my own high school experience while watching this film. Though I wasn’t bound for the Ivy League like the girls of Booksmart, I never attended or got invited to the kinds of parties I so often see on screen. (Thus I don’t know if they’re even accurate. Are unsupervised, red Solo cup ragers at nice houses actually a thing?) As an introverted and mostly well-behaved Christian boy, I considered sex, drugs, and drinking taboo, which is how I usually found myself hanging out with my church youth group friends on Friday nights.

It was a lot more fun than it sounds. We goofed off, played games, pranked each other. Though my horizons broadened in college and beyond, I’m grateful for that experience throughout high school. It kept me out of trouble and showed me you don’t need mind-altering substances to have a good time.

Booksmart shows this too. Though focused on their maniacal pursuit of what they imagine will be a fulfilling rite of passage, the film takes care to show Molly and Amy before the plot ensues loving their cloistered friendship. The subsequent developments they experience together only strengthen their existing bond, which will be helpful as they transition into adulthood.

High school friendships don’t often make that transition, but the film is hopeful about this one. And I’m hopeful whatever comes next for Wilde as a filmmaker and Feldstein and Dever as performers will match what they’ve done with Booksmart.

Categories
Life

Build it up, knock it down

My favorite new game with 7 Months is to build a small tower with his rubber blocks—to almost as tall as he is when sitting—and watch him knock it down.

He never does it the same way twice. He’ll grab the top one and bring it to his mouth, the whole tower leaning towards him before it crumbles again. The next time he’ll kick it from the bottom. Then he’ll gently caress the middle section before pushing it, or pulling it.

There’s not much point in enjoying the building part when he knocks it down so quickly. I keep rebuilding the tower so fast because I want to watch him consider it anew every time, because the world is too new for him not to.