Thursday, December 31, 2015

Favorite Films, 2015

An international film star looking for inspiration, a young girl whose village is ravaged by AIDS, a 40-year-old ox living out his last days in the Korean countryside--these are just a few of the characters I found memorable in movies I saw this year. I'm happy to share with you my favorite films of the past twelve months. As always, the list can include movies from any year. Although my top ten are mostly non-2015 releases, I did watch many reasonably good movies released this year (Sicario, Mad Max, Room, Brooklyn, The Martian, The Big Short, etc., etc.). All worth a view but missing that special subjective something that would land them on my list. Probably my favorite end-of-year watch was Spotlight, which was entertaining throughout with some great performances. My most-anticipated for December was Youth, and so probably, the most disappointing although it had many good points. And I retain high hopes for 45 Years and Anomalisa, both of which haven't made it down to our neck of the woods yet. But here are the films I did watch, and love, in 2015:

Broken Circle Breakdown (2012)

The tragic love story of Elise and Didier, one of the best I've ever seen. Also, great bluegrass music throughout.


A Simple Life (2011)

When a family's faithful servant of sixty years falls ill, a bachelor son decides to take care of her. A poignant drama about relationships and responsibility, and the bonds between all of us.


Amy (2015)

The intriguing and ultimately, tragic story of Amy Winehouse. An intimate, unapologetic look at a remarkable talent.


Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

The mind-twisty story of an aging actress who sees herself in a current role. A clever play on art in life starring Juliette Binoche, whom I could probably watch eat cheese.


Seraphine (2008)

The incredible story of the French painter, Séraphine de Senlis, and a film in one of my favorite genres: tortured, misunderstood artist.


Life, Above All (2010)

12-year-old Chanda fights to keep her family intact after the death of her baby sister. Set in modern South Africa, this film is an intense and unforgettable experience.


About Elly (2009)

An award-winning film from Iran that finally got its US release this year. A thriller about a missing kindergarten teacher that I watched from the edge of my seat. Literally.


Ex Machina (2015)

This provocative drama about man's evolving relationship with technology succeeds in many ways Her didn't. It took a silly turn at the end, but I didn't care.


Old Partner (2008)

A story about an elderly farmer and his wife, and the ox that's been in their family for 40 years. Contemplative and unforgettable.


Spy (2015)

The most I laughed in a theater this year, and that has to count for something. In the right hands, Melissa McCarthy is hysterical; she is here.


As always, I'd love to hear your movie recommendation and comments! What were your favorites?

Monday, December 14, 2015

Favorite Reads, 2015

I really enjoy the process of looking over the past year’s reads, especially when I have the chance to pass on something that perhaps evaded your radar. In 2015, I read a total of seventy books, which is a high number for me; for many months, I was avoiding writing the novel I finally began in November. Or maybe because it was such a good year of reading, I just couldn’t stop myself. I have 17 favorite reads to share with you: 10 novels, 6 short story collections and 1 book of essays. Short stories continue to play an important role in my regular reading and interestingly enough, three of the novels on my list straddle that genre line between novel and short story. As always, my list includes books released in any year, because it's all about me here on my blog. Here they are:
The novels:

We the Animals (2011) by Justin Torres

A searing, immediate portrayal of a family, through the eyes of three brothers. In stark, honest prose, it’s a coming-of-age story, a psychological inquiry and the best type of reading: a fully immersive experience that leaves your senses reeling. People always say this but truly, it's a book you’ll have a hard time putting down.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) by Shirley Jackson

The suspenseful tale of the Blackwood family, as told by one of the remaining survivors, 18-year-old Mary Katherine “Merricat.” An unreliable narrator in the best sense, Merricat lives in the family’s large, creepy house with her sister, who hasn’t left the grounds for six years, and her uncle, whose mind and health are failing. An amazing tale that should be required reading for anyone who fancies writing a novel.
See How Small (2015) by Scott Blackwood
One of the books that straddles the line between short story and novel (in fact, I mistakenly included this book in my mid-year round-up of short stories). The chapters in Blackwood’s novels read like independent stories. Inspired by a true crime—the rape and murder of four teenagers—the novel explores the reverberations in a fictional small town. With a cast of damaged characters trying to keep going, and an innovative form that feels like a fresh start.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) by Thornton Wilder

I can’t believe I hadn’t read this classic before (or maybe I had?). Another story of people linked by a tragedy; several interrelated people perish when a rope bridge collapses in Peru. A friar who saw the accident makes inquiries about each victim, trying to make sense of the random event. Amazing this was written so long ago; it felt modern in every way. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize, deservedly so. A truly great book.

The Night Guest (2014) by Fiona McFarlane
A novel I chose randomly in a local independent store, primarily because of its striking cover. A hypnotic story about a lonely woman, Ruth, who lives in an isolated beach house and decides to let in danger either knowingly or unknowingly, in the form of a brusque government worker, Frida. This absorbing story reads like a mystery, and it is one, but it’s also a heart-wrenching exploration of so much more.

The Unraveling of Mercy Louis (2015) by Keija Parssinen
Another psychological suspense tale, this one is set in a southeast Texas refinery town, where the teen girls are falling victim to a mysterious illness and the town begins to implode. The originality of the story and prose stayed with me long after reading; a modern gothic I reviewed in detail for LitChat here.

A Tale for the Time Being (2013) by Ruth Ozeki
This story goes back and forth between the perspectives of Nao, a suicidal sixteen-year-old in Tokyo, and Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a Hello Kitty lunchbox put to sea by Nao. As she works her way through the lunchbox’s contents, Ruth learns about the girl and her life. A story about big ideas—history, quantum physics, and fitting in—and the path we all trod towards home. I loved this inventive novel.

Our Souls at Night (2015) BY Kent Haruf

A short tale about two elderly neighbors falling in love, written as he was dying by my favorite author, Kent Haruf. A beautiful novel, perhaps not perfect but because of who wrote it, heads above most anything else you can pick up this year or any year.

The Snow Child (2012) by Eowyn Ivey
Set in the harsh landscape of Alaska in the 1920s, the story follows the lives of two homesteaders. This childless couple build a snow child and the next day, it’s gone but they spot a young girl in the forest. This magical tale follows the relationship between these three and is touching and resonates like a folktale. A truly enchanting read.

Did You Ever Have a Family (2015) by Bill Clegg
Well, this is my third favorite read that is about a tragic event and the aftermath amongst a group of people. Clegg’s tale is part short-stories, part novel; each chapter tells about a character and his/her connection to a house fire that killed four people the day before a wedding. Beautiful writing, and the construction and pace of the novel is exquisite. Seeped with regret and the ache of loss, with a tiny spark underneath. Also reviewed for LitChat here.

The short stories:
Praying Drunk (2014) by Kyle Minor

Literally the first book I read in 2015, and a tough act to follow. Minor’s lonely characters struggle for footing in a sometimes dark, always visceral world. These interconnected stories are unique in form and build one from the next, like a series of calculated punches.

The News from Spain (2012) by Joan Wickersham
Seven love stories that all relate to the phrase “the news from Spain.” The stories vary greatly in theme and execution, and it was entertaining to see how the title would play out in each piece. Wickersham has much to say about human folly and faith, and the role each plays in the game of love.

The Secret Lives of People in Love (2010) by Simon Van Booy
The eighteen very short stories in this collection are like bright, smooth stones in a pond. Each creates a moment (or moments) you can imagine into a full life; each story seems to hold enough potential for a novel. That Van Booy can say and imply so much so concisely is awe-inspiring.

Collected Stories (1998 edition) by Carson McCullers

It’s Carson McCullers, readers. If you haven’t, you should. I had read several of the pieces included here before, but many were new to me. All were spectacularly McCullers. I wrote about this collection by one of my favorite authors here.

Stay Up With Me (2014) by Tom Barbash
An assortment of lonely folks, living under a perpetually gray sky. Yet like so many situations reeking of tragedy, we can’t look away. Barbash’s characters flounder a bit in what we might call “first world problems,” but empathy and the appeal of his wonderful prose will make you want to persevere and stay up with them anyway.

Someone to Watch Over Me (1999) by Richard Bausch

The first story in this collection, “Not Quite Final,” knocked me off my feet. Really, I think it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever read. The rest are outstanding too. Bausch is a writer who evokes the complexities of relationships through the light touch of simple prose; within his masterful sentences, true life pulses. My first reading of this wonderful writer, another one who might go some distance in filling the Haruf-sized hole in my heart.


The Empathy Exams (2014) by Leslie Jamison
A critical examination of our connection with others: How deep are they? Can true understanding exist? Each essay succeeds on its own terms. Sewing together bit of philosophy, memoir, science, history and cultural examination into a study that will make you think deeply and more critically about your interactions and place in the world. And Jamison has the prose chops of a novelist, making this a read that will please fine fiction connoisseurs. A stimulating and important book, especially in these times.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

My NaNoWriMo Results: Deadlines, Diversions and Determination

Somebody needs to tell the NaNoWriMo organizers that Thanksgiving week is in November. Do they know that? Children are home from school and food must be cooked and/or ordered, eaten, packed up, unpacked and eaten again. There’s unavoidable socializing and the naps caused by it, afterwards, the inevitable food coma and/or trudging through the local mall. These last two do not go well together, I can tell you.

The thing is, I started off very strongly. I posted about my first week here, and I was shamelessly proud of myself. After months (years!) of thinking about a certain novel, I was finally out of the gate. The first chapters spilled out almost effortlessly. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to get 1500-2000 (or more!) words down each day. It was almost embarrassing, like when you procrastinate something like shaving your legs and then afterwards, can’t believe how long you let it go. I had missed the process of writing every day, the single-mindedness of it, the intensity. I cruised right through the second week. I had a hard time reading fiction during this time. By the end of the day, I couldn’t focus on anything beyond silly television shows or non-fiction magazine reading so I gave up. The third week was tougher still. I was now into the second part of a planned three parts, new terrain that I had outlined but hadn’t deeply contemplated. I kept writing, day after day, but it felt less inspired. And then I had a previously-planned three-day trip with a girlfriend to eat, shop and hit the spa. I was not unhappy to go. After that, Thanksgiving week bore down. I haven’t written since November 19th.

What I’ve learned: there is a definite benefit to immersing yourself in that single-mindedness. Elements of your writing cross-reference themselves nicely, effortlessly. The growing word count is ego-enhancing. But the experience is all-consuming, at least for me, and I'm not sure I could have kept it up. Perhaps without the real life distractions, I would have, or maybe I’m the type of writer who would’ve needed to come up for air. For certain, it became easier, day after day, NOT to write.

The good news: I wrote over 33,000 words in basically, eighteen days. This week, I’ve been reading through what I have so far and it’s not entirely terrible. So that’s good news too. I think the best part of the experience for me this year is the relief of finally beginning the story, for better or worse. And I’m not giving up. I’ve set a new deadline for mid-January, by which time I hope to have the first draft done, or at least, about 60%. There are the holidays to think about, after all.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka