Monday, 30 December 2013

13 of 2013

I've been clutched by the desire to write a year-in-review post and, being who I am, I'm listing media. (I'm departing from just books because I've started watching more tv shows and movies.)

TV Shows

1. Supernatural

I could have listed Game of Thrones or Andromeda, if I were simply choosing based on whether I had watched and enjoyed them; I think I've seen the first season of Game of Thrones three times now, and it remains one of the most compelling fantasy TV shows--or even fantasy movies--that I've seen so far, and while my enjoyment of Andromeda was more mixed, I thoroughly enjoyed both the overall idea of the show--a diplomatic version of the Pax Romana--and the characters Andromeda/Rommie and Trance Gemini (as characters and as thought experiments). But I've got to choose Supernatural. I might even mention Once Upon a Time, which was compelling at least in its repeated undercutting of the "happily ever after" idea and its surprising second season twist on Sleeping Beauty.

I have an appetite that only The X-Files has come close to really satisfying. I started to watch Supernatural in a half-hearted attempt to appease that appetite, and found that it was something worth watching all on its own. Those first few seasons were atmospheric in the particularly wonderful way of being their own atmosphere: the mix of classic rock, staticy radios, dive bars, abandoned buildings, and strangely filmic ghosts worked well together to make a feel which was distinct. That atmosphere faded out as the series went on, and Supernatural did become an inferior show, but I'd still say that other show it became was also worth watching, at least some of the time, because of its secondary characters. I, like everyone else, I think, got frustrated with the show's habit of killing off it's most interesting characters, sometimes even permanently, but I suppose the good thing about the Senecan death rate is that it prompted them to make more wonderful characters. The best summary I heard was this: "For a show that hated women, it had some of the best female characters."

Books (fiction)

2. The Golem and the Jinni

I've written about this already (link). But it really was wonderful--for me.

3. The Homeward Bounders, by Diana Wynne Jones

I've written about this one, too (link). It took me a while to work into it, and it struck me as bizarre that Diana Wynne Jones has two books with Middle Eastern (and fairly Orientalist) young girls who are the avatars/manifestations of divine beings and, therefore, have magical powers. (cf The Lives of Christopher Chant.) I liked both characters, though, and Homeward Bounders wound up being pretty excellent.

4. Paper Towns, by John Green

Paper Towns is one of those books for which I made bad decisions regarding bedtimes and schoolwork. I wouldn't say it's so fantastic as some people say it is, but its fairly transparent themes are ones that I think are important: our repeated failure to imagine other people as complexly as they deserve, the sorts of selfish motives which bungle our empathy, the foolishness of the idea that love can fix certain problems, the way some people's brokenness is close enough to hurt us but still too far from us to fix, the importance (or, anyway, omnipresence) of artistic creation. If you pick it up and start feeling uneasy about how much it looks like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl story, be assured that it doesn't end up that way. John Green has joked that the alternate title is The Patriarchal Lie of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Must Be Stabbed in the Heart and Killed.

5. The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy

When I'm at my least charitable, I want to use this book as a litmus test to see if someone is worth my time or not: if someone finds the book annoying, they have failed it. The novel is an extended observation of an insufferable man's death, in which the man becomes more insufferable as he is in pain. But, for me, anyway, my irritation about this man came out the other side as compassion for him, and that seems to be the whole exercise of the book; that, and a commentary of the social norms of dying. Even the mere observation that something so un-social as dying has its norms is an observation that makes the book worth reading, in my opinion.

This quotation stuck with me: The awful, terrible act of dying was, he could see, reduced to those around him to the level of a casual, unpleasant, and almost indecorous incident (as if someone entered a drawing-room diffusing an unpleasant odour) and this was done by that very decorum which he had served all his life long. He saw that no one felt for him, because no one even wished to grasp his position.

6. The Collected Fictions of Jorge Louis Borges

I presume I have written enough about this (link).

Books (non-fiction)

7. Why Marx Was Right, by Terry Eagleton

I've written about this one already, too (link). I'll note, though, that the reason on this list was not that I enjoyed the book terribly much, nor that I couldn't put it down, nor that I found its main thesis compelling (the first two are untrue, and the third is true in a very limited and qualified sense). The reason it's on this list is because I've found its secondary (or even tertiary) ideas fruitful. The post I've written enumerates the most interesting and summarizable of those ideas.

8. The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, by Andrew Solomon

This encyclopedic treatment of depression is well worth reading for anyone who has depression; I don't think it especially pulled me out of depression, but it helped me understand depression, whatever that is worth. I suppose that other people who seek to understand depression would also find it helpful. This tome is simultaneously thorough and engaging, which may make up for its length.

One distressing thing about it: parts of the book led me to believe that there was something worth my time that I could wrest from my depression, something like a combination of compassion, empathy, and perspective, a sort of moral capability that was hard to develop otherwise. And then it told me that many people with depression fail to get this benefit, that they become morally cramped people, that the moral capability is something you still have to work for. That was disheartening; part of realizing that I'm not as good and moral as I'd like to be is wanting to be a better person, a generally good impulse, and it's distressing when that impulse is frustrated.

9. The Dynamic of Faith, by Paul Tillich

Since I just finished this book last week, it may be too soon to put it on the list. (That's why I haven't put Home on it, even though I found it tremendously good. Eve Tushnet's review of it is worth reading [link].) Further, I wasn't entirely convinced by Tillich's argument; too much of it derives from how he's chosen to define words, without any argument about why we should understand those words this way. But I think I can tentatively justify it's inclusion for a few reasons: in Tillich's "Protestant Principle," I found an articulation of why, precisely, I am compelled by Protestantism for which I myself hadn't been able to find the words; I found answers to particular questions about what faith is which might be useful in those arguments that sometimes happen about whether or not atheists have faith, what systems count as religions, etc.; and I was actually engaged enough by a book of theology that I overcame my cynicism about it. Maybe it'll be a gateway book; maybe from here I'll go on to somebody like Barth.


10. The Beasts of the Southern Wild

This is an absolutely wonderful movie. You'll encounter reviews of it saying that it romanticizes poverty; don't listen to them. The answer to that charge is either, "No, it really doesn't," or "Yes, and it ought to, and it must"; I'm not yet sure which it is. The film is about a little girl named Mudpuppy who lives in The Bathtub, the swamplands on the water side of a giant levee. For the first third of the film I was mainly in horror about what I perceived as the poor parenting Mudpuppy was receiving; by the second half of the film I found myself desperately in love with the screwed-up and misguided adults around her. (The transition time was maybe the most startling.) These are a people who can't trust the system trying to help them because that system has betrayed them so many times before, and as much as I understand the officials representing that system, I can't fault the people of the Bathtub for refusing that help, either.

But the movie is also about the mythology of childhood--not that childhood has become sort of a myth in North America, though that is also true, but the way certain children make myths out of their lives, are reliant on the strange and screwed-up and ignorant people around them for the resources they need to express their moral feelings. And in that sense, the on-going metaphors of the film--the flood, which is real, and the monstrous Aurochs, which Mudpuppy believes/imagines are stampeding towards them from the Antarctic--are very compelling.

A friend of mine said of the movie, "I learned so much about strength from an eight-year old."

11. The Fingersmith

I don't know what to say about this (or whether it ought to go here or go under TV Shows, since it's one of those two-part BBC mini-series). But I still feel like The Fingersmith edges out Catching Fire, which I almost put here, so I suppose I must account for it.

I can't really even say what it is I liked about it: I almost never go in for the whole "the character you thought was innocent was actually jaded/compromised in an unexpected way, and the character you thought was compromised was innocent in an unexpected way" schtick, maybe because the idea of innocence seems so weird to me, but here it worked surprisingly well. Perhaps it was the theme of reconciliation that caught my interest, and the compelling way that people hurt those they love for selfish and cowardly purposes. Who will you hurt in order to escape a life that is killing you morally? What harm will you do to save your soul--and, of course, can you save your soul by doing harm? I don't think The Fingersmith even begins to answer those questions, but at least it asks them.

It does becomes dangerously close to have the standard sorts of problems that depictions of same-sex relationships tend to have--the "love that can never be" theme, etc.--but I think that it does manage to dodge a few of them and it manages to hobble on despite the rest.

Short Fiction-ish

12. "A Collection of things I like in order", by Sunny Chan

I often think that including things written by people I know is cheating, but I'll do it anyway. I have almost nothing to say at all about this piece, except that it's fantastic and a must-read and all of that good stuff. If you've ever thought that there's nothing poetic about academia, then let this put that error to rest. (link)


13. Postmodern Jukebox

What's this, you say? Christian is putting music on a list like this? I almost thought he had no ears, he's so indifferent to music. Not so!, I say. I just don't talk about it much because I haven't the vocabulary.

There's something super-catchy about Postmodern Jukebox's songs. They do covers of pop-songs in the musical styles of the past (or the gauche present): a jazz "Thrift Shop," a "Just (Tap) Dance," a swing (?) "Gentleman." And, since the lead singer is female, their bluegrass cover of the terribly misogynistic "Blurred Lines" comes off in her voice as inspired by a common misreading Adrienne Rich.

I may not listen to Postmodern Jukebox as much as I listen to some other groups, but I'm nonetheless excited about what they do.

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