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)

Revisiting my top films of 2008

Ten years ago I ranked my top 10 films of 2008. (I also started filmlogging.) Since last year’s revisit of my top films of 2007 was so fun, I thought I’d make this an annual tradition.

Here’s my original 2008 list:

  1. WALL-E
  2. Happy-Go-Lucky
  3. Man on Wire
  4. In Bruges
  5. Rachel Getting Married
  6. Shotgun Stories
  7. The Dark Knight ­­
  8. Tell No One
  9. Encounters at the End of the World
  10. Milk

Lots of interesting choices here. Kinda shocked Happy-Go-Lucky was so high and that Milk made the list. Also surprised I was so into Man on Wire and Rachel Getting Married. That year in general was a time with an odd mix of hope (Obama elected) and darkness (the world economy). The tenor of these picks falls all along that spectrum, as I suppose any year with a properly diverse array of films should.

Ten years out, that hope-despair spectrum remains but my taste has changed, if only slightly. As always, without rewatching all the candidates it’s hard to make a totally fair and accurate list, but here’s where my gut goes:

  1. Summer Hours
  2. WALL-E
  3. Goodbye Solo
  4. In Bruges
  5. Shotgun Stories
  6. Tell No One
  7. Man on Wire
  8. The Dark Knight
  9. Rachel Getting Married
  10. Encounters at the End of the World

With honorable mention to Rachel Getting Married, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Iron Man, Burn After Reading, The Wrestler, W., Happy-Go-Lucky, and Milk.

The precipitous drop of Happy-Go-Lucky, which went from #2 to honorable mention, was surprising. Perhaps a rewatch would put it back on the list. But I had to crown a new champion in Summer Hours, the Olivier Assayas family drama, and bump Milk for Goodbye Solo.

I fondly recall watching all of these during college, when I was also discovering so many old and new films in the cinephile canon. My college library and the public library were go-to sources. Some things never change.

Favorite Books of 2017

Goodreads tells me I read one less book this year than last. Though always tempted to read ever more and more, I’ve become less concerned about hitting arbitrary reading quotas, so I’m able to better enjoy the books I do read. Here are the 2017 books I enjoyed the most, with links to reviews I wrote when I read them:

  1. Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper (review)

  2. Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler (review)

  3. High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic by Glenn Frankel

  4. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

  5. The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World by Damon Krukowski (review)

  6. Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks (review)

  7. How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs (review)

  8. Movies are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings by Josh Larsen (review)

  9. The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek by Howard Markel (review)

  10. The Vanishing American Adult by Ben Sasse (review)


Honorable mentions:

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures by the Library of Congress

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries by Anders Rydell (review)

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues by Pamela Paul

Rainy Lake House: Twilight of Empire on the Northern Frontier by Theodore Catton

#SheToo: Favorite Films of 2017

The overarching theme of the year in film, to me, was Wonder Women. Not only was the Wonder Woman film good, but in a year when badly behaving men dominated the news, I’m grateful there were so many richly drawn female protagonists who ran the gamut of strong, vulnerable, funny, and complicated, and who made their movies better.

I mean, just consider Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird, Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman, Elizabeth Olsen in Wind River, Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water, Brooklynn Prince in The Florida Project, Jenny Slate in Landline, Haley Lu Richardson in Columbus, Jennifer Lawrence in mother!, Meryl Streep in The Post, Jessica Chastain in Molly’s Game, Cynthia Nixon in A Quiet Passion, Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Margot Robbie in I, Tonya, and Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, to name a few.

As with the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, I hope #MeToo and the new Time’s Up campaign in Hollywood lead to positive change in cinema. (I just realized all the aforementioned actresses are white…) The world benefits from different kinds of stories being told in fresh ways by people who in a different time wouldn’t be able to tell them. More power—and funding!—to those people.

So many films from this year have stayed in my mind. Ranking them felt as arbitrary and borderline sadistic as ranking works of art actually is. I almost took the coward’s way out and listed them alphabetically. But in a bid for clarity and uniformity with my previous best-of lists, here are my favorite films from 2017:

1. The Florida Project

No joke: Brooklynn Prince for Best Actress. Her very real chops as a 6-year-old allowed Tangerine director Sean Baker to wrangle from her a well-rounded, film-carrying performance as Moonee, a wily, incorrigible kid tromping around unsupervised in a low-income motel community. The fragmentary, mosaic-like narrative structure might have dragged a bit here and there, but it also created images that pay off later in the film, like Moonee in the bath. Very well done, with an ending that slams like a motel room door.


2. A Ghost Story

“Casey Affleck in a bedsheet” is technically what most of the movie consists of, but that ain’t the half of it. Focus too much on that and you’ll miss a beautifully shot, melancholic, slyly funny, and mercifully concise meditation on the slipperiness of time and memory. How mesmerizing it is to follow a ghost that is unstuck in time. Pairs well with Richard McGuire’s graphic novel Here.


3. Coco

It’s become a cliche to laud the technical advances in film animation, especially from Pixar. But damn: this is a resplendent piece of work, and one that elicited a rare theater-cry from me. With music, family, memory, and a young boy playing a stringed instrument at the center, this makes a great companion to 2016 favorite Kubo and the Two Strings. The soundtrack is available on Hoopla for free with your library card.


4. The Lego Batman Movie

Holy Joke Density, Batman! Like The Lego Movie, every moment is packed with something: action, humor, meta-humor, color, or heart. How is it that an animated superhero movie accomplishes this way better than most human ones? I suppose I should be annoyed by another [Insert Brand Name Here] Cinematic Universe, but I’ll revisit this one any day. After all, friends are family you can choose.


5. Get Out

I don’t like watching horror films, so I was planning on skipping this until the universal acclaim compelled me otherwise. So glad I did because there’s a lot more going on than cheap scares. Speaking of scary: if this is writer-director Jordan Peele’s debut work, what does he have in store for the future?


6. Columbus (review)

Another debut, from film essayist Kogonada, this gorgeous film calls enough attention to its subjects—the modernist architecture of Columbus, IN, and the two sudden companions who take it in—to captivate viewers, but keeps enough distance to inspire pursuit. That’s usually a good formula for great cinema. Bonus points for the library references.


7. Wonder Woman (review)

The only movie I saw twice in theaters this year. What I found powerful about the now iconic No Man’s Land sequence, beyond the single-minded drive and badassery Diana shows in battle, was how it was the culmination of a day’s worth of her being told No over and over again, and choosing to ignore it each time. No, you can’t dress like that. No, you can’t go to the front. No, you can’t brandish your sword. No, you can’t enter this men’s-only room, or that other men’s-only room. No, you can’t stop to help people on the way to the front. No, you can’t go into No Man’s Land. Nevertheless, she persisted.


8. Dunkirk

In a film that’s so short and efficient (by Christopher Nolan standards), Nolan still captures the full scope of war: from the smallest stories of individual soldiers trying to survive and do their duty to the haunting grandness of thousands of soldiers trapped on a beach awaiting their doom. The interweaving timelines from the air, land, and sea might confound at first, but a second viewing confirms they fit snugly together, and build dramatically towards (78-year spoiler alert) the successful evacuation, or Miracle On Sand as I’m calling it.


9. Obit (review)

An eloquent, observant, and superbly crafted documentary by Vanessa Gould on the New York Times obituary writers and the people they cover. It’s the rare instance of the writing process being just as interesting as the writing itself. Now how about a documentary just on Jeff Roth and the Morgue (pictured above)?


10. California Typewriter (review)

Doug Nichol, a commercial and music video cinematographer, finds lots of lovingly framed images and scenes in this documentary about the “People’s Machine” and the people who love them. Between talking heads of famous typers and a reading of the Typewriter Insurgency Manifesto, Nichol’s best decision was picking a subject that is already damn photogenic.


Just missed the cut: I, Tonya, Wind River, mother!, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, A Quiet Passion, The Shape of Water, and Lady Bird

I also liked: The Big Sick, Landline, Thor: Ragnarok, Spider-Man: Homecoming, I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Haven’t seen yet: The Post, Phantom Thread, The Square