Books & Movies

In addition to looking back on what I’ve done over the past year, I also like to look back at what I’ve read and seen. Books (and for that matter, movies, which are just another way to present a good story) are important to me, so I like to reflect on what stood out.

Let’s do the books first: 

Most spellbinding: Uprooted, by Naomi Novik.22544764 I picked this up over Christmas break, wanting to indulge in a good story over the holidays. Uprooted reminded me what a pleasure Story is. I had a hard time putting this one down. It’s the story of a girl taken from her family and village by the Dragon, a nearby Wizard who protects the village from a mysterious danger; Agnieszka discovers, once she’s taken, a great world of magic and mysterious.  One of the chief pleasures of this book was the Magic in the story was strange and organic and beautiful; it reminded me very much of eastern Europe, appropriate since the book draws on eastern European folklore.

Best children’s book: C.S. Lewis said once that there’s nothing wrong with adults loving good children’s books, as such books are often the best written stories. I love continuing to read children’s books; if nothing else, it gives me something to recommend to my friends who are parents. I enjoyed many books this year, but one of the most inventive and heartwarming was Circus Mirandus, by Cassie Beasley. A story of discovery and friendship, Circus Mirandus tells of a boy who reaches out to a legendary magical circus in a last-ditch attempt to save his dying grandfather. The characters from the circus, especially the Man Who Bends Light, are interesting and well-developed. Like Uprooted, the magic in this one is different; it doesn’t belong to Narnia’s family tree, or Hogwart’s; it’s unique, and that makes this book worth reading.

Most beautiful book: laurusEugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus. From its gorgeous red and gold cover to its meditative and transformative ending, I found this a beautiful, enthralling tale of grace in a human life. This is the story of Arseny, a healer in 15th century Russia; responsible for the (unshriven) death of his betrothed, Arseny leaves his village and goes on a pilgrimage seeking redemption. Along the way he meets characters who likewise seek spiritual life; in this, the book feels similar to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, being richly peopled and interesting, like a tapestry. Woven into the story are questions about the nature of time (is it cyclical or linear?), what makes us holy, where magic comes from, and  how we handle both death and life.

Memorable nonfiction: Nonfiction is a taste I’ve developed as an adult, and I’ve really come to appreciate the way that it can weave its own stories, about who we are and how we live. I read so many good books in this category this year, so there’s a tie: Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft, for one. His argument that we become better people through doing handwork, due to its insistence that we attend to what is around us and follow some law besides my own, has stuck with me, particularly as I’ve pursued my own forms of handcraft this year – knitting, and increasingly, bread baking.

For another, Jamie Smith’s You Are What You Love. His argument that we are more a product of our desires than our brains, and that our desires are shaped by daily rituals in our church, homes, and vocations, also speaks to where I am currently. I have been seeking to establish healthy, enriching, and spiritually fruitful life patterns, and Smith’s book provides a strong justification for this. I am going to try teaching it in English Composition next semester.

And now the movies: 

arrivalBest movie: Among all the good movies that came out at the end of the year, I was planning to see Dr. Strange. Then over Thanksgiving, three separate people recommended Arrival, so I went to see that instead. It was excellent: a moving story with a measured pace, a thoughtful aesthetic, compelling characters. It’s a science fiction movie in the vein of Asimov and Clarke, more interested in thinking about big questions than blowing stuff up.

One of the things that I really appreciated about the movie was that it used its own medium, film on story, to convey the themes; the characters didn’t simply talk about what was most important in the story; the film showed it too, essentially immersing the viewers in one of the key ideas: what makes our lives matter, and whether time is in fact linear.

Most heartwarming: I watched Wild back in May and loved it. I was a little worried that watching a woman walk on a trail for two hours would be dull, but the story weaves in some interesting characters, some bringing tension and fear; others, humour. The scenery is gorgeous. I came off this film with a new interest in through hiking.

Most surprising movie: mad-maxMad Max: Fury Road. When this first came out, I heard it was good, and I added it to my to-watch list. Then, I put off seeing it for a long time, as I also heard it was one long action scene and I was worried it wouldn’t have enough story and character development to interest me.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes, it is one long car chase scene, but that improves the story, not weakens it. The constraint of keeping the whole story on the Fury Road brings focus to the story, and pushes the filmmakers to establish an actual rhythm, with periods of action and periods of rest, instead of creating interest by changing settings or blowing new stuff up. Plus, there are some really gorgeous shots of the desert scenery.

Weirdest movie: The Lobster, hands-down. Basically, this is the tale of a man living in a society where single people who cannot find a mate are turned into an animal of their choice (such as a lobster); the story chronicles the man’s successes & failures in romance, if it can be called that. It came to recommended by Eve Tushnet, a writer I’ve really enjoyed, but she also enjoys horror films, and there is something horrific about the nihilistic humor and abrupt cruelty of this film. The Lobster is not a particularly graphic film, and it does perceptively skewer some of our society’s odder hangups with romance and singleness. But it’s also brutal and odd, a parable told in muted neutral colors and leaves the viewer cold.


What did you read and watch this year?


To Do 2016: What I Accomplished

Growing up, I laughed at the tradition of setting resolutions, but when I finished my master’s degree, and was left without the usual goals of Write good papers! and Graduate! I discovered that goals are really helpful in giving my life forward direction and structure. So now I too set New Years’ Resolutions!

Here’s what I’ve accomplished over the last year:

Professionally, I resolved to read up on teaching developmental courses, as well as read John Milton Gregory’s The Seven Laws of Teaching (recommended by my mom). I also made a tentative resolution to pursue the opportunity to teach online and to pursue further professional development for myself.

I’ve done really well in this area. Over the past year I’ve

  • Read Teaching Underprepared Students, by Kathleen Gilbert
  • Read Gregory’s Seven Laws of Teaching 
  • Taken a course in online assessment
  • And taught a course online! I’ve even designed new assignments for it!

I made progress on my personal goals too.

I wanted to get more comfortable baking yeast breads, since traditionally I make Christmas morning cinnamon rolls, and traditionally, I panic about making cinnamon rolls. Are they rising enough? Did I kill the yeast? Is this a warm enough spot for them?

But this spring, I joined a bread baking group on FB and started making my own bread. I regularly post panicky questions (most recently: What happens when you forget to add the oil ?) to the group, but the people there are kind about helping me through my problems, and I’m really starting to understand the process better. And the bread I’m making is delicious! It’s nothing spectacular, just white bread that never seems to rise as high as I want; but it sure is yummy!

Sadly, I didn’t get to make cinnamon rolls this year, as a helpful family member commandeered the process. So I treated my cousins to a chocolate babka instead!


Babka, or as my cousin Dan calls it, “chocolate goodness”.

I also opened a retirement account and purchased a new car (a blue Toyota Corolla); the car purchase was especially wise since I put nearly two thousand miles on it driving about southwestern Colorado this summer, hiking a 14er with my aunt and uncle.


Me, my aunt, and my uncle on Mt. Handies. 

But I missed a few things personally:

I never learned to pick up dropped stitches. Just a few days ago I dropped two or three stitches, and when I tried to pick them up, I dropped a few more stitches. So into town I went today, to get the yarn store ladies to pick up the stitch for me.

I never owned a pet. I tried, but it turns out I’m not rich enough for that yet. Back to the shelter my cat went.

I accomplished a few spiritual goals, too: I found a new church home, and I’ve gotten involved, reading Scripture during the morning service and participating in a Friday evening women’s event. I also kept Lent, with a fast from sweets, including Brach’s peppermint candies, to which I’m slightly addicted. Beyond giving me a break from my addiction, the Lenten fast was a good reminder of how much I depend on the Lord’s grace for spiritual life.

But there were spiritual goals I missed, too. I never read Dante again, nor did I finish George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons. To be fair, I own the Unspoken Sermons on Kindle, and it’s a little daunting to read 19th century religious essays on a tiny iPhone screen!

It’s worth noting that I accomplished a few others goals in addition to the ones I formally set, too:

  • I got my first smartphone, an iPhone SE. I love it!
  • I took up yoga. I also really love yoga.
  • I baked Christmas cookies and delivered them to people in my church. This is a really good way to connect with people personally.
  • I visited Mesa Verde and Four Corners. I’ve wanted to visit Four Corners all my life – totally cheesy, yes, but I’ve always been fascinated with standing on the boundaries of things. Mesa Verde, incidentally, was super cool, much more so than I expected it to be.

Me at Four Corners. I’m smiling, but it’s like 105 degrees here. 

Now it’s time to look forward to next year; look for a post in the next week or so laying out a few goals for 2017.

Till then, tell me: What did you accomplish this year?


Teaser Tuesday

22544764Over Christmas I chose a lighter book to read, Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. How lovely to put aside philosophy and social commentary and read Story again, and find myself caught in its spell!

While I have a few bones to pick with it, I’ve enjoyed the book, a fairy tale that draws deep on Eastern European folklore. It has the feel of Howl’s Moving Castle (the book, not the movie) and, surprisingly, picks up on some themes I’ve encountered elsewhere, about the meaning and importance of being at home, of being rooted.

Here’s my excerpt, chosen (mostly) randomly from page 105:

But there was something watching. I I felt it more and more with every step the deeper I went into the Wood, a weight laid heavily across my shoulders like an iron yoke. I had come inside half-expecting corpses hanging from every bough, wolves leaping at me from the shadows. Soon I was wishing for wolves. There was something worse here. The thing I had glimpsed looking out of Jerzy’s eyes was here, something alive, and I was trapped inside an airless room with it, pressed into a small corner. There was a song in this forest, too, but it was a savage song, whispering of madness and tearing and rage. I crept on, my shoulders hunched, trying to be small.

And here’s the book’s Goodreads blurb:

“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”

Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.

Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.

The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.

But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.

And in case you missed the last Teaser Tuesday post, which was way, way more than a week ago: This is a (semi) weekly series I’m doing, posting an excerpt from a randomly-selected page in whatever book I’m reading. More info here. Feel free to chime in with whatever book you’re reading!