I don’t think I will be doing a half-year favorites list, but I might do seasonal favorites instead, meaning this list covers stuff I read and watched in December, January and February.
Favorite novel: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
Last year I read Butler’s Lilith’s Brood (or Xenogenesis) trilogy, which I really liked because it is a very intelligent, original science fiction series. However, as much as I found it intellectually engaging, I found it a bit difficult to connect with on an emotional level because the alien culture is so completely…. Well, alien (which is clearly a personal thing rather than a flaw in the writing – I’d actually say it is one of the greatest accomplishments of the writing). This means I was not at all prepared for the emotional roller coaster that was Kindred when I decided to listen to the audio book last month. Kindred is an incredibly smart and hard-hitting time-travel novel. It follows a young, African-American woman called Dana, who finds out she has a connection with one of her forefathers – a white man called Rufus, who lives in the antebellum south. Whenever he is in mortal danger, Rufus (intentionally or not) summons Dana to him, and she has no way of knowing how to get back to her own time safely. As can be gleaned from the concept, this is not an easy read. The book does not revel in the cruelties of slavery, but when violent acts are described, they are all the more shocking. Next to that, Butler is also careful to point out the more subtle dynamics at play here, the small cruelties and indignities that are woven into the complete dehumanization of a group of people. The conceit of time travel also allows here to draw parallels between the past and present, to talk about how history influences contemporary society. Not content with being thematically rich, the book is also filled with memorable characters and complex relationships. Dana is a great protagonist, often torn on how to act, often afraid but always willing to do the right thing – if she can figure out what that is. She is fiercely compassionate and her voice is well-realized, full of personality and wit. I also loved the relationships between Dana and other characters, her bonds with the slaves on the plantation, her conflicting and constantly changing feelings towards Rufus, and especially her relationship with her (white) husband – who, at one point, also travels back with her. Their dynamic is a genuine, emotional, loving connection that still is vulnerable to misunderstandings and the like, which felt very real to me: they love each other so much, but some experiences cannot be shared, and there are some things – especially with regards to race – that Dana’s husband cannot completely comprehend. My only problem with this book is that the end felt a bit rushed. Otherwise, I highly recommend it (though I should give a major content warning for… everything, but most importantly: depictions of slavery, abuse, torture, racism and (attempted) rape).
The runner-up is probably N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky, which was a perfect conclusion to the great Broken Earth trilogy. It beautifully showcases Jemisin’s knack for complex world building, complex characterizations and complex themes. It is a dark, heartbreaking but hopeful fantasy novel with gorgeous writing and deeply flawed characters who are not always likable but are always believable and still sympathetic. The only reservation I have is that it was sometimes a bit difficult to get into because I could not remember everything from the first two – but that’s okay, because it only means that this book will somehow be even better when I finally reread the trilogy as a whole.
Favorite comic or graphic novel: Emil Ferris – My Favorite Thing Is Monsters
My Favorite Thing Is Monsters tells the story of 10-year-old Karen, an artistically gifted but socially awkward girl with a love of monsters. After Karen’s neighbor, Mrs. Silverberg, is found dead, Karen decides to investigate as she is convinced that it was murder. The book is presented as Karen’s diary, and while it might be completely beyond belief that a ten-year-old could ever draw this – hell, I am having trouble believing Ferris herself can draw like this, and she’s in her fifties – it doesn’t really matter because a) you wouldn’t want Ferris to restrain her drawing skills, trust me, and b) while it might not be a believable representation of what a girl like Karen could draw, it is an absolutely perfect way to make the reader see the world the way Karen sees it. Nothing makes this more clear than Karen’s own version of herself: a small, werewolf-like girl in a detective coat. Next to the expected coming-of-age troubles and the unraveling mystery, the book is also a reflection on how we relate to others, to ourselves, to stories (in this case specifically through Karen’s love of monster movies and pulpy horror comics) and art (there are many marvelous reinterpretations of famous artworks that Karen goes to visit in the museum). Ferris knows how to capture everything – from a person to a painting – with an incredible eye for detail and personality, looking for beauty in places and faces where we might not expect it. The only thing that keeps this book from being perfect is the sheer amount of (heavy) topics that are included. None are badly written but some elements end up feeling a little rushed or underdeveloped (though some of this might be solved in the second and last book, which comes out later this year). Having said that, the writing displays so much empathy, humor and emotion that it almost doesn’t matter while you’re reading. It also helps that Karen is an amazing protagonist (though, mind: while the main character is a kid, this is definitely NOT a children’s book). And the art. I think I may have mentioned the art. I could keep on telling you how stunning it is, but instead I should probably just show you (images taken from this review):
In short: this was a magnificent, beautiful monster of a book and I cannot wait for book 2. If it lives up to my expectations, I might dedicate a separate post to it. One thing is for sure: IF I end up doing a list with my favorite reads by the end of the year, this title will surely make another appearance.
Favorite short story: Fran Wilde – Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand (Uncanny Magazine)
Like with most short stories, I cannot tell you so much about this one in fear of spoiling it (not so much spoiling the plot as spoiling the experience). I’ve listened to or read quite a few memorable short stories in the past few months, but this is the one that really stands out. It is an angry, uncomfortable but mesmerizingly written story about the demonization of deformity and difference that makes perfect use of the very tricky second-person narration. You can read it at the Uncanny Magazine website, but I personally recommend the podcast version, because the second-person style lends itself incredibly well to audio adaptation, making the story all the more haunting. Plus, the podcast episode also includes an interview with Fran Wilde about what inspired her to write this story.
Novella: Cassandra Khaw – A Song For Quiet
I loved Khaw’s dark, deeply unsettling cosmic-horror-combined-with-real-life-horror in Hammers On Bone, and the sequel did not disappoint. While the main character from the first novella appears in this one, it follows a different (much more human, in multiple ways) protagonist: a Blues musician who is haunted by a very dark, very unique song that just demands to be played… if you like strange, creepy tales about reality being possibly torn apart but also like them to have a connection with real, human emotions and problems, look no further. Khaw’s prose is such a perfect match for this type of story, making the words hum and breathing life into this strange, scary world. I hope there are many more to come, but in the meantime, I will be catching up on her short stories.
Poetry: Wilfred Owen – Poems (the version freely available at project gutenberg).
I do not read a lot of poetry, but this is one of those collections that really reminds me I should change that. Much has been written about ‘the horrors of war’, but not a lot can compare to the compassion Owen clearly feels for the fellow young men drawn into the First World War, or the anger and pain that is poured into these poems in such evocative ways. The beautiful language and unsettling imagery convey the horrifying experiences in ways that are both emotionally affecting and thought-provoking. It is also a good way to get into poetry (in my opinion), if you can deal with the heavy subject matter (and sometimes fairly gruesome imagery).
At the cinema:
Considering I already wrote about my favorite films watched in the cinema in 2017, I’m only counting January and February here. Since I’ve already gushed about You Were Never Really Here (which would indeed be my favorite new film of the year so far, if I hadn’t already seen it in 2017), I will not repeat myself by picking it here. That makes the decision a lot more difficult however, since most of the movies I watched this year were the kind that, if I gave ratings, I would rate 4 or 5 stars easily (not counting the four films I already reviewed on here, which probably would not make such a list but I still am really glad I saw them and would recommend them). That leaves me with 6 really good movies to choose from. The Shape of Water and Black Panther were both delightful, awesome movies that I am so happy to have seen in cinema. The Florida Project is an incredibly well-crafted and gracefully told showcase of empathy and understanding. Call Me By Your Name is a beautifully filmed story that takes its time to establish atmosphere and develop nuanced characters. It made me feel nostalgic for summer romances I never had, even though I hate being outside in the heat AND am also, at heart, a spinster hermit with the romantic sensitivities of a brick. All are well worth watching, but if I HAD to pick my personal favorites so far, I would probably go with Lady Bird for its genuine emotions and wit and for its focus on a complex female character’s coming-of-age story, or with the romantic comedy of the year strange, beguiling and slightly messed up world of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread.
I’m also really proud of one of my friends from uni, who somehow made a feature film next to his studies. It premiered in February and finally seeing the finished product was really cool. Since it will (in the nearby future) mostly be making rounds at local film festivals, I don’t know if anyone reading this will ever get a chance to see it – but if you, by any chance, come across a film called Sunny Juliette, please consider giving it a chance. Especially if you enjoy original concepts, female-led mystery thrillers and, well, a bit of mindfuckery.
Of course I also watched some movies outside of the cinema. Of those, my two absolute favorites were definitely:
12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957).
Catching up on films considered indisputable classics is fun, but also tricky:
on one hand, I almost always at least appreciate the movie because I can value the craftsmanship it displays as well as the influence it has had on film and/or film criticism over the years. On the other hand, that in no way equals being personally affected by a movie. So it is always fantastic to be completely floored by a classic, and 12 Angry Men absolutely did that for me. It made me want to run out and yell at people to watch this movie, because, did you know it’s really good? Even though, yes, a lot of people know, because people have been saying this movie is good for over 60 years. Deservedly so, because everything is terrific: the writing is amazing, the direction is amazing, the acting is simply phenomenal. It somehow manages to be a thrilling movie without a dull moment despite being 90 minutes of a small group of men getting increasingly agitated in a small room. It is the ultimate proof that, if you know how to tell a story beautifully and if the characters and performances are strong enough, you only need a simple premise and then you can just make the characters bounce of off each other in order to move the story forward. It has barely (if at all) dated and if you want to watch some classic Hollywood films and aren’t sure where to start, please give this movie a chance – it still stands the test of time as one of the great American masterpieces of cinema.
Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964).
Also a classic (albeit from a different country and a very different genre), Kwaidan is a Japanese horror anthology which adapts four folk tales about contact between the everyday world and the spirit world. As always with anthologies, there is a difference in quality, but all are well worth watching. My favorite was definitely The Woman in The Snow (which is a wonderful, sad love story as well as an incredibly atmospheric ghost tale, and also makes the most of the films stunning visual style), followed by the longest (and most violent) story, Hochi the Earless. The stories are great, the way they are being told here is even better, and the movie looks amazing – in no small part thanks to the often hand-painted sets, which add a dreamlike beauty as well as a slightly unsettling sense of disconnect from the real world. I highly recommend getting the Masters of Cinema (although the Criterion version is probably just as good if not better) edition, which contains a booklet with the four stories the movie is based on, as well as the last interview the director gave (it is not specifically about the film, but very interesting nonetheless, displaying a clear love of film and storytelling).
TV show I finally watched: Avatar: The Last Airbender
I never watched Avatar as a kid. I know, I know, my childhood is ruined in retrospect. But at least I finally made up for it by watching it from start to finish this January, and I am so happy I did. Why? The terrific, likable characters that grow while remaining completely recognizable. The excellent balance between humor and pathos. The difficult themes that are somehow still made accessible to children but don’t feel overly simplistic to adult viewers. The fact that it follows a clear story arc to its completion and doesn’t overstay its welcome. The world building. The terrific use of the serialized format to tell both an overarching stories as well as standalone ones that are not necessarily part of that arc, but still inform or improve it in some way. It is not just a hallmark in children’s storytelling, or one of the best animated TV shows of the previous decade, it is one of the best shows of the previous decade, period. What a delight. It should be one of THE standards children’s media is held too. And, to be quite honest, a lot of so-called adult TV shows could learn from its smart storytelling as well. Consistently entertaining and much more complex than you might think at first glance, this is one show well worth watching no matter what age you are.
I genuinely adored all of the things mentioned above and cannot recommend them enough. Maybe I should write about one (or more) of them in-depth some day, though I am not sure which one… any suggestions?
(I still haven’t figured out how to end these posts, so please imagine a clever goodbye phrase here)