What I’m Reading (and Watching): February 2017


Those of us who once nursed ambitions of reading the whole internet before we died have now had to lay them aside. There is just so much of it! There are so many journalists wanting you to read their opinions. They seem to increase by the day.

Perhaps it is time we set aside our youthful notions of the internet as a place where opinions are read, and thought of it instead as a place where books are recommended. I have read several books in this year of our Lord twenty-seventeen, gentle reader. Today I share them with you.

Wildwood (Colin Meloy)
wildwood_by_colin_meloy_coverAre you familiar with The Decemberists? Those acoustic troubadours who specialize in sea shanties and murder ballads about half-starved orphans and treacherous mariners bent on revenge? It may surprise you to learn that band leader Colin Meloy is also a writer, a writer of fictions for children. Even more surprising, his books are every bit as good as his songs. This novel, the first in a series about a girl whose brother is kidnapped by a murder of crows, will delight those who enjoyed The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Lemony Snicket books. If you like novels in which coyotes yip and snarl and wear French military uniforms from the nineteenth century, this is the book for you.

Miss Pym Disposes (Josephine Tey)
I’m almost halfway through this slim novel by one of the acknowledged masters of mid-century murder mysteries. I think there’s supposed to be a murder, eventually? So far all the heroine has done is wander quietly around a girl’s college, nipping into the village at one point to have tea at noon. When she opens the storage closet, she finds badminton equipment and no bodies. The tea is lukewarm but unpoisoned. Every murder mystery is a delicate balance of coziness and danger; by entirely removing the murder, this one proves cozier than most.

Dombey and Son (Charles Dickens)
There are certain times in this strange, mixed-up world of ours, dear reader, when one is seized with an irresistible impulse to run out into the street singing the praises of Charles Dickens. For me those times usually coincide with the reading of one of his novels. They are all so vivid, so colorful, so fanciful, so Gothic; so full of the sort of weird imaginative details that only he seemed to come up with. I’m less than a quarter of the way through this one, but already it has provided enough of those details to delight my heart. An old sailor with a hook for a hand who replaces the hook with a knife when peeling potatoes. A brave and innocent girl who is kidnapped and whose beautiful hair is nearly chopped off by a mad old biddy. A house in Brighton where the soil is chalky and giant snails cling to the windows and doors the way a young man clings to the book he loves.

Our Chemical Hearts (Krystal Sutherland) [mild spoilers ahead]
If you think John Green’s books don’t have enough manic-pixie dream girls, then here is an ample supply. If you thought Hazel and Augustus making out inside the Anne Frank museum was a model of restraint and sobriety, then you have undoubtedly already read this novel about a girl who wanders the cemetery in her dead boyfriend’s musty clothes, occasionally making out with live boys and saying things like, “The best thing the universe ever gave us is that we’ll all be forgotten.”

… and what I’m watching
The Good Place
This NBC comedy by Michael Schur (Parks & Recreation) was pitched as a comedic version of Lost or The Twilight Zone. It portrays events in the afterlife of Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) after she’s run down and killed while chasing after a bottle of margarita mix in a store parking lot. She finds herself in “The Good Place,” a colorful village inhabited by those who led saintly lives on earth. Yet she soon realizes that she doesn’t belong here, and that some kind of clerical error has saved her from eternal damnation. I watched the entire first season of this show in a single day (it’s currently available for free on NBC’s website) and I have no regrets.

endeavour-3Every so often there appears a work so perfect that even to critique it feels like a faintly blasphemous act, an intrusion on the sacred. The four Gospels, for example. The first two Killers albums. And this Inspector Morse prequel set in 1960s Oxford and starring Shaun Evans, Roger Allam, and Anton Lesser. If you like men in fedoras, cleverly orchestrated killings, and sunlight falling on ancient stone streets, then you are obligated to watch this. I formally absolve you from all your professional and family obligations until you have finished it. You have nothing else holding you back. Just watch and enjoy.


What I’m Into: September 2015

20110925-011821This month I came through an existential crisis and reaffirmed my trust in the goodness of life and an ultimate purpose to human existence. I also watched a lot of movies about outer space, because apparently that’s what I’m into in September 2015.


            A few of the lesser films I saw this month (there were a lot, okay?): Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, The Road Warrior, 2012 (blame this on my brother-in-law), Home, Tom Brown’s Schooldays (with Stephen Fry), A Tale of Two Cities (1989), Arabesque (with Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren), Week End (Godard’s worst movie? hopefully?), Bigger than Life (a fine performance from James Mason), The Haunting (1963), Never Let Me Go.

            Now for the better ones:

            Kingsman: The Secret Service. Somehow I saw the censored version of this one. A few days later I watched the original cut and walked away with a less positive feeling. The violence is cartoonishly over-the-top, but it features an excellent performance by Colin Firth as a Hagrid-type father-figure shepherding a young man into a secret spy organization. The narrative combines elements of Ender’s Game and Harry Potter. ***1/2

            Captain Phillips. Based on a true story and powerfully directed by Paul Greengrass (who also directed the second and third Bourne movie), this movie about Somali pirates hijacking a merchant vessel features one of Tom Cruise’s best performances in years. ***1/2

            Saving Mr. Banks. More fine performances from Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson as Walt Disney and P. L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books, respectively. Colin Farrell appears somewhat randomly in flashbacks. ***1/2

            The Theory of Everything. A Stephen Hawking biopic that tells you almost nothing about Hawking’s ideas, choosing to focus on his disastrous marital life. Excellent performances by Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne (who won an Oscar for the role).

            Westworld (1973). Initially I rated this one only three stars. But then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Or talking about it. Michael Crichton writes and directs this pre-Jurassic Park story about a Wild West theme park staffed with robots who turn and kill the human guests. But the highlight of the movie is Yul Brynner as a gun-toting, slow-walking, murderous robot cowboy—the Terminator in spurs and a Stetson. ***1/2… actually, no, make that **** stars

            Stalag 17. One of the classic prisoner-of-war dramas, about a group of men being held prisoner by the Nazis and the one man (William Holden) who is suspected by his fellow soldiers of being an informant. Great script and several unforgettable moments. ****

            Inside Llewyn Davis. Come for the folk music, stay for a sweet story about a cat and a vivid evocation of winter 1960 in New York. ***

            The Lady from Shanghai (1947). It’s no secret that I love everything Orson Welles has ever done. This noir film about a man framed for murder occasionally stretches credulity (how could anyone be so gullible?), but features possibly the first use of a “hall of mirrors” climax in cinema. ***1/2

            The Stranger (1945). Another great Welles noir, featuring the first use of concentration camp footage in a motion picture and a dizzying denouement atop a clock tower. ***1/2

            Carrie (1976). The movie that helped launch John Travolta and Sissy Spacek into stardom, this is one of those films that everyone knows the plot of, even if they’ve never seen it. Still, I was surprised by how effectively it made me feel for Carrie in the moments just before she wreaked her unholy vengeance. ***

            They Live! John Carpenter’s quasi-Gnostic, pre-Matrix parable about a man (Roddy Piper, sporting a mullet and fresh out of bubblegum) who discovers a pair of sunglasses that reveal a hidden alien society all around him. Simple, sometimes troubling, but always engrossing. ***1/2

            Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (special edition): the highlight of this late western is the Bob Dylan soundtrack. (Dylan himself appears in an understated role as a curly-headed young man). ***1/2

            The Secret Garden (1949). Great black-and-white cinematography and set design elevate this story about three children who discover a secret garden. Directed by Fred Wilcox (who would go on to direct Forbidden Planet), this movie is a wonder to look at. ***1/2

            Howl’s Moving Castle. Stunningly original, visually brilliant, with a story that is convoluted (in the grand tradition of most Miyazaki films) but always compelling. ****

            2001: A Space Odyssey. I loved this movie. I don’t understand why everyone thinks it’s so boring. It’s contemplative. It’s a prayer. It’s humanity in search of the meaning of our own existence. ****

            Lawrence of Arabia. Several finely staged setpieces, some unforgettable narrative twists, and the most epic cinematography ever committed to film. Worth it just to see Peter O’Toole and Alec Guinness together on screen.

            Before Midnight. The third film in Richard Linklater’s Before series deconstructs the romance of the previous movies, showing us a Jesse and Celine who are nine years older and beginning to wonder if their relationship is really worth it. Includes one of the most realistically written and acted arguments in any movie. ****

……....Fanny and Alexander. Bergman released this movie in a theatrical edition and a TV version for Denmark television that was five hours long. I started watching the shorter version and became so engrossed I knew I had to watch all of it. Having now finished part one of the TV series, I can already say it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen, like a Tolstoy novel on screen.

            TV Series

            Black Mirror. A modern-day spin on The Twilight Zone, but focused on the perils of technology. The first, unforgettable episode recently made the news when Lord Ashcroft claimed that David Cameron had had sexual relations with a pig at Oxford, which happens to be almost the exact plot of that episode.

            Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Continuing my trek through this decades-in-the-making TV series, I finished Season 6 with “Dumb Witness” and began Season 7 with “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.” The series has adapted Christie with admirable consistency (and at this point might be my favorite show, ever).

            Veronica Mars. Joss Whedon called this teen mystery drama the TV version of Harry Potter, and it’s true. This show is everything I need right now.


            Dombey and Son. Almost a hundred pages into this one. It has some of Dickens’ best prose, which is both a virtue and a drawback. Dombey has a son (and possibly a daughter?), but apart from that I have no clue what’s going on.

            Spooky Texas (S. E. Schlosser). Now that I’m home, I have access to several collections of southwestern folklore. This one compiles several of the best-known legends of Texas.

            We Were Liars (E. Lockhart, 2014). This is a gorgeous book and everyone must read it.

            The Missing Girl (Norma Fox Mazer). I read this book about five girls and the man who decides to kidnap one of them in one sitting.

            Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream (H. G. Bissinger). A powerful and damning indictment of Texas sports culture, and possibly Texas in general.

            Jane Austen’s England (Roy and Lesley Adkins). A breezy but informative handbook for writers.

            The God of Hope and the End of the World (John Polkinghorne). A book that helped me through a profound crisis.

            Collected Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor. Flannery! FLANNERY!!!

            First Term at Malory Towers (Enid Blyton). The first in a series of books about a girls’ boarding school. I LOVE this book. The relationships are all beautifully, convincingly rendered and the girls’ mischievous antics are reminiscent of the Weasley twins, among others.

            What about you? What did you read or see this month?