Alrighty, here’s November in books, movies, and such. Some really powerful works this month.
“If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America. It was a joke, then, from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness.” — from The Underground Railroad
Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad — which has won a National Book Award and a Goodreads Choice Award for Historical Fiction — tells the story of Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. When a fellow slave Ceasar tells her about the Underground Railroad, she agrees to escape with him and begins a journey north, taking her through various states and cities — each one with its own unique culture, some welcoming her with open arms, others openly hostile. The story unfolds the landscape of the Unites States, unveiling the many shades of racism, both openly violent and disguised behind a seemingly friendly face. This is a powerful book, at times uncomfortable in its straightforward portrayal of the violence inflicted on Cora and her peers, but always beautifully written and challenging in all the best ways.
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis was also a fantastic read this month. I have read and loved two books by Connie Willis, Bellwether and All about Emily — both of which were shorter-lenght science fiction novels imbued with humor. They’re intelligent, light reading — quite different from my most recent read, Doomsday Book, which I listened to as an audio book. Set in Oxford at a university in which historians are able to actually travel back in time to witness and experience the past eras they research, the story is split between Kivrin, who travels to the Middle Ages, one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history, and Dunworthy, her mentor who is terrified to see her go and who is left to face his own crisis in the present day as a sudden influenza outbreak flares up, forcing Oxford to go into quarantine. It’s a considerably darker story than her other books, although it, too, is laced with Willis’ wit and humor. Kivrin’s journey to the Middle Ages was particularly compelling, as all her expectations of the kinds of people she expected to meet in the time period were altered by the experience of meeting the actual people, who were kind and loving and flawed and so many other things besides. I fell in love with the family that took her in, just as Kivrin did herself. This was a fantastic book, one that had me itching to read more. I can’t wait to get my hands on more of Willis’ time travel stories.
Another great read was A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, in which a monster — made of yew tree and distant ages — rears up out of the night to greet Connor, a young boy with monsters of his own. I loved this story, which is about heartache and imperfect people and stories in which the hero is not always the hero and the villain not always the villain. It’s a story that had me weeping big, sloppy tears by the time I reached the end. Also, the art is lovely, dark and scratchy and beautiful.
In graphic novels, I read through two volumes of Lumberjanes, written by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis, illustrated by Brooke A. Allen. These are fun, riotous stories about a cabin of girls at a summer camp who always seem to find themselves in the strangest of situations, from fighting shadowy foxes, to getting lost in a cave full of tests and traps, to facing down greedy gods. I don’t love this one quite to the degree I loved Nimona, but it’s still fantastic.
1. The War of Words by Amy Neftzger
2. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
3. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
4. Doomsday Book (audio book) by Connie Willis
5. Lumberjanes Vol. 1: Beware the Kitten Holy, written by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis, illustrated by Brooke A. Allen
6. Lumberjanes Vol. 2: Friendship to the Max, written by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis, illustrated by Brooke A. Allen
Total books for the year: 49
Still in Progress: Independent Ed by Edward Burns and Tim Burton: Essays on the Films, edited by Johnson Cheu
Gorgeous animation ruled this month, starting with The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, an absolutely stunning movie about a bamboo cutter discovers a tiny girl inside a stall of bamboo. He takes her home to his wife, where she turns into a baby that the two raise as their own. The child quickly grows into a beautiful young woman, who is much desired by many — although her happiness lies elsewhere beyond the wealth and nobility offered her.
Isao Takahata, who also directed Grave of the Fireflies (which left me equally weeping), is a phenomenal director. This film draws from simple moments of work and play to explore human emotion, love and sorrow and despair and joy. Quiet moments interwoven with imagery and sound from nature let these feelings settle and resonate.
The art itself is lovely, full of soft lines and shades, some images blurring slightly, showing imperfection in moments of heightened emotions. It’s so beautiful, making the movie worth watching for the art alone, but the story, too, brings so much more. I adore this.
Song of the Sea is another animation full of beautiful artwork illuminating an Irish fairytale about a brother and sister facing the realms and creatures of fairy together. It’s about family and love and forgiveness. The art is richly colored and geometric, sometimes almost flat and two dimensional, making it feel like stained glass in some cases and water color in others.
I also went on a small X-Men kick this month, watching Days of Future Past, followed by Apocalypse and First Class. It was interesting to return to the franchise after falling away from it due to the abysmal X-Men 3 and the so-so Origins: Wolverine. I’ve been pretty much residing in a lack of interest for the past several years, which was reignited with by the fantastic Quicksilver scene in Apocalypse, which I’ve watched dozens of times on youtube over the past couple of months. That alone brought me to jump back in.
Days of Future Past is the best of the three new X-Men movies I watched. I enjoyed seeing the connection between the past and present versions of the characters and the historical presentation of mutants in the ’70s. It’s the version of X-Men I’ve been waiting to come back around, smart, fun, and well balanced in its portrayal of characters and relationships.
Apocalypse was also fun, if somewhat disjointed in its tone sometimes. Maybe of problem of trying to fit in too many subplots at once. But there are some things I love about it, such as the portrayal of young Storm and Nightcrawler, Phoenix being absolutely as I imagined her, and, of course, THAT QUICKSILVER SCENE.
First Class had its moments, but it felt too much like an introduction to the young versions of the characters — and, as such, the story didn’t feel self contained and the characters didn’t seem fully developed.
And finally, because I’m still obsessed with it here’s that Quicksilver scene:
Other good watches this month: Edge of Tomorrow as a fun time travel romp, in which a character dies in a battle against aliens only to find himself caught in a timeloop in which he experiences the same day over and over again — and Deep Red, a classic Italian horror movie full of bright red blood, creepy dolls, and amazing music.
New-to-me movies this month:
1. Sausage Party (2016)
2. The Conjuring 2 (2016)
3. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
4. Deep Red (1975)
5. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
6. Conan the Barbarian (2011)
7. Song of the Sea (2014)
8. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)
9. X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
10. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
With all the holidays and traveling I did this month, I didn’t have time to catch up on much in TV land. Although I did finish up the Neon Genesis Evangelion series, which ended with an enigma. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what caused the alien creatures to attack in the first place or who the real bad guy was or what really happened — other than figuring out which giant bio-engineered robots defeated which alien. Ultimately, I think this is a series that needs to be watched more than once, but even then, I think it intends to be somewhat mysterious (maybe). At any rate, I have the two follow up movies in my queue — either they’re going to clear things up or confuse me more.
That’s it for me! What are you reading? Watching? Loving right now?