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. 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: Eugene 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:
Best 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 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?