Categories
Books Review

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
Categories
Life

2020 in review

See other year in review posts.

Me and Little Man gathering snowballs, here at the end of all things 2020:

A lot of bad things happened in the world this year, but in my own little world there was mostly just good. Chiefly because I’m blessed to have a COVID-proof job that has let me work from home since mid-March.

This has also meant doing lockdown and social distancing with a toddler, which was simultaneously easy (he doesn’t know what COVID-19 is nor what he’s missing because of it) and challenging (*random shrieking and tantrums*).

Still, life continued to happen in spite of everything, as it is wont to do. Here’s what that looked like for me:

  • Got to watch Little Man:
  • Coined a new Filmspotting segment
  • Celebrated five years of marriage with my bride
  • Made several home improvements, including adding can lights, getting a new front door, remodeling our house’s original 1956 kitchen (shout-out to soft-close cabinets and drawers!), and opening up a wall between the kitchen and living room
  • Learned I’m an Obi-Wan, and pondered statues and Star Wars
  • Mulled over marriage and music
  • Ranked my top 10 songs from Disney movie musicals
  • Kept up my ongoing Recent Views, Magazine Mashups, and Media of the Moment series
  • Became a person who listens to podcasts at 1.5x speed
  • Became a person who has a pre-lit, artificial Christmas tree
  • Refinanced our mortgage to jump on those sweet ‘n’ low interest rates
  • Hosted some out-of-town friends for a socially distant autumnal hangout in our garage, complete with space heater and hot cider
  • Learned my 3-year-old niece said this about me: “I love Chad because he holds me. He’s the best Chad I’ve ever had.”
  • Explored the wilds of Pure Michigan during a weekend getaway, our only out-of-town excursion this year except for a surprise day trip to see family and say goodbye to my sister’s dog (RIP Nox)
  • Said goodbye to my beloved iPhone SE and said hello to a new second-generation SE
  • Sold our Nissan Leaf to some friends and saw our electric bill drop by about 40%
  • Took a few much-needed and much-enjoyed solo bike rides to and through a nearby forest preserve
  • Got a new leaf blower with a gutter attachment, which is a game-changer
  • Finally got my garage workspace set up with some steel pegboards for tools and our old kitchen’s counter/cabinet as a workbench
  • Continued adding to my DVD collection, with new entrants including Out of the Past, Contact, Toy Story 3, Ikiru, and several library discards
  • Read 17 books and watched 78 movies
  • Watched lots of quality TV, including The Queen’s Gambit, The Great British Baking Show, Big Mouth, Love on the Spectrum, Queer Eye, and The Crown
Categories
Film Music

Top 10 songs from Disney musicals

A friend of mine recently posted: “Let’s stir up some controversy: What are your thoughts on The Lion King?” I replied that a certain song on that soundtrack was a top-5 Disney song, and it wasn’t “Circle of Life” or “Hakuna Matata”.

That inspired me to consider how I would actually rank the best Disney songs. My needlessly arbitrary rules:

  • only one song per movie (live-action or animated)
  • from a movie that’s actually a musical where characters sing songs, not just a movie with a lot of original songs (sorry Tarzan)
  • judging the song itself, not the movie it’s from

Let’s get to it.

Just missed the cut

“The Bare Necessities” – The Jungle Book (1967), “Under The Sea” – The Little Mermaid (1989), “Not in Nottingham” – Robin Hood (1973), “Love Is An Open Door” – Frozen (2013)

The List

10. “Carrying the Banner”Newsies (1992)

I must admit that seeing the superior Broadway stage version has made me partial to that version of the soundtrack (both of which were composed by Disney music maven Alan Mencken). But for the purposes of this list I have to go with the opening number, which ably and jauntily establishes the setting and characters in under five minutes. (Runner-up: “Seize the Day”)

9. “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You”Mulan (1998)

To be honest I barely remember Mulan and most of its songs, so the fact that this one stands out so much is a testament to its enduring appeal. The a cappella chorus towards the end is a nice touch. (Runner-up: None)

8. “When We’re Human”The Princess and the Frog (2009)

Happy to show some love for Randy Newman since his Toy Story work is ineligible. The soundtrack as a whole (which I have a history with) is a great showcase for jazz, zydeco, gospel, and blues—and this song is probably the most danceable on this list. (Runner-up: “Almost There”)

7. “Life’s A Happy Song”The Muppets (2011)

Nothing but respect for “The Rainbow Connection” from the original Muppet Movie, but this reboot and its music by Flight of the Conchords alum Bret McKenzie really surpassed (at least my) expectations. I favor the finale version of this song, which includes the entire ensemble. (Runner-up: “Pictures In My Head”)

6. “A Whole New World”Aladdin (1992)

For a long time this was my stock answer for best Disney song. It’s an Alan Mencken joint, after all, and I’m a sucker for a soaring strings-melody combo. (Also Jasmine is the most attractive Disney princess.) But it just kept getting pushed down the list as I considered other songs. (Runner-up: None)

5. “A Star Is Born”Hercules (1997)

This whole soundtrack is up there in terms of all-around quality. No surprise since it’s another Alan Mencken production. Just an explosion of gospel/soul ebullience. I went with this song over the runner-up because it sticks with one tempo and, as the finale, brings some extra zest. (Runner-up: “Zero to Hero”)

4. “That’s How You Know”Enchanted (2007)

Guess who again? I swear I wasn’t tracking the composers when making this list, though I could have told you beforehand that Mencken would dominate. Anyway, this song rules. (Runner-up: “Happy Working Song”)

3. “We Know The Way”Moana (2016)

Like Hercules, this is one of the stronger soundtracks top to bottom. Even the villain song isn’t terrible. This particular track—while not the best sung given Lin-Manuel Miranda’s less-than-professional voice—is propulsive and buoyant like an ocean wave. Of the two iterations I’d have to pick the first, but the finale version provides a nice punch. (Runner-up: “Where You Are”)

2. “Proud Corazón”Coco (2017)

(Spoiler warning on that link as this song ends the movie.) To date, this is the only Disney song that has given me goosebumps and tears at the same time. I now watch Coco every Dia de Los Muertos while thinking of my ancestors, and this song is a hell of a climax for such a tradition. (Runner-up: “Un Poco Loco”)

1. “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King”The Lion King (1994)

I think I’m as surprised as you are. As I mentioned above, “A Whole New World” was my #1 for a long time. But listening to this one recently, I was struck by an epiphany that it’s really just an amazing bubblegum pop song. Goofy, sure, but with a killer guitar/flute (?) hook, colorful bass lines, and an inspired chord progression. I once played a stripped-down acoustic guitar cover of it at an open mic and still worked brilliantly. Think I’m getting wildly out of wing? Nah—this is my finest fling! (Runner-up: “Circle of Life”)

Categories
Film Television

Obi-What Can I Be

I took the Statistical “Which Character” Personality Quiz from the Open-Source Psychometrics Project, which they describe as a “slightly more scientific but still silly” version of those Buzzfeed “Which Character Are You?” tests I mostly avoid.

Here are my top five results, with the percentage of overlap in perceived personality traits:

  1. Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars (87%)
  2. Daniel Jackson, Stargate SG-1 (86%)
  3. Lester Freamon, The Wire (85%)
  4. Bruce Banner, Marvel Cinematic Universe (84%)
  5. Derrial Book, Firefly and Serenity (84%)

And I don’t even like Star Wars. Haven’t seen Serenity/Firefly or Stargate SG-1, but I’ll take Lester Freamon and Bruce Banner any day. (Maybe not The Hulk though.)

I looked up some Obi-Wan quotes to get a better sense of him (here’s his personality profile from the test) and yeah, this is about right for me:

You’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.

The truth is often what we make of it. You heard what you wanted to hear, believed what you wanted to believe.

Be mindful of your thoughts, Anakin, they betray you.

Only a Sith deals in absolutes.

If you define yourself by the power to take life, the desire to dominate, to possess…then you have nothing.

(Gotta say I’m very proud of this post’s title.)

Categories
Film

What practical lessons have you learned from movies?

A while back I started keeping a list of things I’ve learned from movies. Not grand philosophical lessons about life and love and all that, but practical, everyday stuff. Stuff I’ve integrated into my life specifically because I saw it in a movie. When I saw this tweet recently along the same lines, I thought I should share what I’ve accumulated thus far, assuming that I will continue adding to it.

In no particular order:

“Just start from the outside and move your way in.”Titanic

I don’t attend many fancy dinners, but when I do encounter more than one type of the same utensil, I think of this line.

“Keep your station clear.”Ratatouille

I’m borderline religious about this now. Whether during meal prep or cleanup, I try to keep things moving quickly through the process so I’m not left with a mound of work at the end.

“Cardio.”Zombieland

All of the rules from this movie and its pretty decent sequel are tongue-in-cheek, of course, but also sound about right for surviving a zombie-infested world.

“You know that ringing in your ears?”Children of Men

Julianne Moore’s character continues: “That ‘eeeeeeeeee’? That’s the sound of the ear cells dying, like their swan song. Once it’s gone you’ll never hear that frequency again. Enjoy it while it lasts.” Now every time I hear that eeeeeeeeee, I give a silent goodbye to that particular note.

Categories
Film

Favorite Films of 2019

Having already conquered my list of favorite films of the 2010s, I found this list much easier to assemble. I knew my movie watching would take a hit when my son was born last February, and it did, though not as much as I expected. My logbook tells me I watched 63 films in 2019, which is only 10 fewer than 2018. Turned out my 9pm-12am baby shift was perfect for catching up on titles old and new (though I can’t say I was always fully awake for all of them). Props to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Kanopy, and my library card for making that happen.

10. Ad Astra. Apocalypse Now meets Gravity. Can’t say I endorse the use of narration, but Brad Pitt plus a lunar car chase plus a personal/cosmic quest more than made up for it.

9. Booksmart. Charming as hell.

8. Toy Story 4. What do you do when your worldview crumbles?

7. The Irishman. One day I’ll have time to rewatch this straight through rather than broken up over several days. I suspect I’ll appreciate it even more then.

6. Avengers: Endgame. There was a 1 in 14,000,605 chance this MCU saga ended well, and they nailed it.

5. Apollo 11. A fresh, intimate, and riveting perspective of a world-famous event.

4. Parasite. Had I made this list immediately after seeing this, it would have been lower. But I haven’t stopped thinking about it.

3. The Lighthouse. I watched this alone since I knew my wife wouldn’t enjoy it, but I showed her the first meal scene just so she could behold Willem Dafoe.

2. Knives Out. Rian Johnson knows how to make a movie. A little goofy at times, but the scenery-chewing fun and all-time ending made for an exhilarating ride.

1. Little Women. Yes to everything: Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet together, Florence Pugh’s difficult yet delightful age-spanning performance, Desplat’s score, Chris Cooper as a good guy, Gerwig’s time-turning script that (compared to my beloved 1994 version) redeems Amy and enriches Beth, Gerwig’s direction of the Altmanesque ensemble scenes, the grand exuberance permeating this little world. Gerwig’s Lady Bird didn’t hit me as hard as it did others, but this one knocked me out.

Honorable mentions: Zombieland: Double Tap, The FarewellUs, El Camino, Knock Down the House, Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood, Hustlers, The Report, Marriage Story, High Flying Bird

Favorite non-2019 films:

The Big Country
Hard Eight
Jackie Brown
Minding the Gap
A Clockwork Orange
Saturday Night Fever
Swingers
Cold War
The Talented Mr. Ripley
The Wages of Fear

Categories
Books

Favorite Books of 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other favorite reads

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

Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon

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

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

The Odyssey by Homer (translated by Emily Wilson)

Categories
Etc. Life

2019 in Review

The view from my New Year’s Eve.

See other year in review posts.

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

Categories
Music

Favorite Albums of the 2010s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Television

Favorite TV Shows of the 2010s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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