Another Post About Reading


The defining authors of my year of reading. Because it’s my list.

End of year lists go in the box with things that we like but have to pretend we’re tired of, like new podcasts, superhero movies, and reality TV. And so when someone on some platform puts together a list with the best, worst, most memorable, etc., of the year, sometimes it’s delivered with a rueful self-awareness, like “Sorry to bother with you with another one of these but please hear what I think.” Likewise, it seems we sometimes receive these with an eye roll, sighing and saying “Okay, well, I guess I could see how your end of year list differs ever so slightly from the five other lists I’ve read today.” And still, people write them and people read them, and I think we all actually enjoy it.

This year I’ve been seeing a lot of lists of what people read in 2018. In addition to the numerous “Best Books of 2018” lists, there are many posts about “The Best Books I Read in 2018.” This is a very different kind of list, and my first impulse is to say these lists are a way to boast about how well-read the author is. “Look at me and the 100 books I read ranging from Greek philosophy to Cormac McCarthy!” Yes you’re very smart. Shut up. It also seems like a way for someone to get in on the end of year thing without actually having a sufficient grasp of current culture, like that person who is going to talk about their best films of the year without having seen Burning, The Favourite, or Minding the Gap.

But you know what? I think these lists, while not accomplishing the same thing as a conventional “Best Of,” are defensible and even of similar value. For starters, I get the impulse to share what you’ve been reading because reading is for many the most isolated culture we engage with. By that I mean many of us read a book without expectation of talking about it with someone else, while it’s a little maddening to watch a film or television show and have no one to talk about it with. But, even without the expectation of discussing the book, that sort of solo work eventually takes a toll, and you want someone to know what you think about the things you’ve been reading. So I get that.

Furthermore, trying to get any sort of grasp of the year in books is a fool’s errand, and any year-end list is going to leave out entire genres and fan bases. It’s worth reviewing the year’s trends, rising authors, and groundbreaking works, but, even more than with film and television (and even music), trying to wrangle a culture’s year of books is bound to be seriously flawed. And, because of the great volume of books that come out every year, these lists, too, will be “personal,” as no one is able to sufficiently cover everything. Personalized lists of books across the years, then, provide an alternative. These bibliographies tell a story about one person’s year of reading, and through that specificity they have the capacity to make more meaningful connections to the people reading those lists. They give a picture of what one person actually read. I care more about what my friend read this year than what “everyone” supposedly was reading this year. The books my friend read will stay with them, while the “Year’s Best” might not stand the test of even a little time.

Given the lasting power of good books, isn’t that just as fair a summary of the year in books as one limited to books released this year? I think it might be.

So all of that is a preface to my own list, which is actually a list of authors. I read many more books and authors than I list here, but these are the four authors who most affected my year of reading. I’d like to say a little about each of them.

Per Petterson(Out Stealing Horses, I Refuse, I Curse the River of Time, It’s Fine By Me, To Siberia, In the Wake, Ashes in My Mouth Sand in My Shoes)

One of Norway’s most celebrated writers became one of my absolute favorites this year. His novels blend together ordinary everyday experiences with dramatic, life-changing moments to great emotional effect. He writes with profound wisdom and emotional perception while remaining unassuming, and his style is simple and straightforward while allowing for flourishes. There’s lots of cold weather, cigarette smoking, and family troubles. He writes the way I wish I could, and I’m a little obsessed with his aesthetic. I’ll be revisiting his works for the rest of my life while looking forward to what he writes next (and trying to get hold of a copy of Echoland). If you’re interested in getting introduced, I’d recommend starting with Out Stealing Horses or I Refuse.

Jeff Vandermeer (The Southern Reach Trilogy)

This only covers three short books, but these recent works of science-fiction were a highlight of my year reading. The first book, Annihilation, is one of the better books I’ve ever read, and while Authority and Acceptance are not quite as good, the world, story, and stakes Vandermeer creates are compelling enough to make you have to read to find out what happens, even if Annihilation works as a standalone novel. The style of Annihilation is simple, yet haunting and affecting, and its narrative perspective and subject matter has made me think a lot about the relationship between our inner selves and the outside world. I don’t know if I will seek out more of his work (although Borne is on the list), but this trilogy had a profound impact on me.

 George R.R. Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire)

Game of Thrones is one of my favorite shows, and while waiting for a new season I found myself wanting to spend more time in that world. So I did, reading all five books over the course of the last year, and now I too am waiting with a little impatience for the next book (I can’t imagine what it’s like for people who have been with the series from the very beginning). Yes, these books are violent, sexually explicit, and prone to killing off characters, but they’re also just really, really good. The world building is stunning, the characters are phenomenal, and the story is addictive. And they’re smart, which I think a lot of people don’t know. Fire and Blood, a work related to ASoIaF written like a history rather than a novel, is next on my list now that I finally got through the waitlist at the library.

J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, Beren and Lúthien, The Fall of Gondolin, The Children of Húrin)

I have been a Tolkien fan for a long time, and while I’ve watched the films regularly since they were released, I had not read any of the book since I was a child. I thought it was time to revisit them. I did more than that, reading the recent releases edited by Christopher Tolkien and going back to works I had never got around to, like The Silmarillion. He’s just the freaking man, you guys. I already want to read The Lord of the Rings again, because, while his world-building is an unfathomable accomplishment, he’s also a legitimately great storyteller. FOH with that nonsense about this works being boring. One main takeaway for me reading these works was how good The Children of Húrin is, not just as a great tale, but as a compelling, thought-provoking work of literature. Critics say Tolkien’s characters are too simple, that his world is too black and white. Not so with this one. It’s darker than most of his other works, and features complex characters in tough situations. Really, guys: he’s just the freaking man.

(Speaking of freaking men, yeah these authors are all (white) men. So that’s not ideal, and while I promise you I do read women and POC, it’s a goal of mine to be a little more diverse in my selections. It’s important.)

So there’s my list. I’ll leave you with three quotes from A Song of Ice and Fire about reading:

Tyrion: “I have a realistic grasp of my own strengths and weaknesses. My mind is my weapon. My brother has his sword, King Robert has his warhammer, and I have my mind… and a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge. That’s why I read so much, Jon Snow.”

Rodrik: I prefer my history dead. Dead history is writ in ink, the living sort in blood.
Asha: Do you want to die old and craven in your bed?
Rodrik: How else? Though not till I’m done reading.

Jojen: The reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.

Happy Holidays!

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter


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Winter Short Story Collection

Below is a link to a collection of five short stories that are all some degree of winter-influenced. I like the way winter feels when reading and writing.

I want to say a few things first.

It’s a little embarrassing sharing these, because I know a lot of people who also write fiction who are better than me and don’t share it with the public. Maybe these stories are good, maybe they’re not. But I wanted to share them, and there’s at least a little ego in that. I think.

I’ve been writing, even if I don’t post on here all that often. Sometimes that writing takes the form of short stories. Most of these are from quite recently.

Look for one more new blog post for 2018 tomorrow.

Thank you so much for reading. I’m going to keep writing. Happy Holidays!

Roma is a Great Film. And That’s Only the Beginning.

Every once in a while, I watch something that breaks parts of me I didn’t know I had. There are rare pieces of art that take pieces of humanity and compose them in a tapestry so fierce and vivid so as to make me feel so spent, and – by feeling what has gone out from me – realize what is there in the first place.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which was released in select theaters last month and premiered on Netflix yesterday, leaves an emotional crater like only a few works of art can. If you’ve heard anything about the film (a clear contender in the coming awards season), you’ve heard that it’s very good. But it’s better than that. It’s better than a film probably has any business being. 

I don’t mean that it’s the single best-made film ever, or even this year. Among the defining films of the year, it might not be as entertaining as A Star is Born, as well-acted as The Favourite, or as important as Black Panther. These are things we can debate. Yes, Roma is expertly-made, insofar as it is one of the best-looking, best-photographed films I’ve seen, features superb acting performances, and is a marvel of sound editing, but these are not the things that make it a singular achievement; every year – this one included – a few films reach such heights of craft. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is one such film, but the Coen Brothers’ latest project, despite its technical excellence, lacks a certain something which their other films have had, a certain something Roma does have.

With Roma, Cuarón uses technical skill and the brilliance of his actors to deliver a story and experience which puts the audience through a gauntlet of pathos woven into every shot of every scene. Any Hallmark holiday film can generate emotional response from the audience, but only through overt, intentional moments of sentiment – Aw, they worked it out! – Roma so thoroughly immerses the audience in its emotional and artistic aesthetic that the film’s dramatic and mundane moments both feel like the most important thing in the world.

The film centers around Cleo, a housekeeper for a middle-class family in Mexico City, and the story covers a few months in which…well, let’s keep this spoiler-free. Her life changes, as do the lives of the people she lives with and works for. And it’s set against some turbulent times in Mexico’s history. There are dramatic moments in this story, some of which are so intense, so vivid, so visceral, that it defies my description. But these moments are what they are because of the gravitas in the way Cleo collects laundry, the way she turns off the lights at the end of the day, the way she makes sure to grab the dog every time the garage door opens, and even in the way she cleans up that dog’s shit. The poet William Carlos Williams was the master of giving emotional heft to the ordinary and everyday in poems like “This Is Just To Say” and “The Red Wheelbarrow,” in which he plucks our heartstrings with a playful message about eating plums and a brief statement about the beauty of a wheelbarrow. I don’t really have much time for Williams anymore after watching Cleo collect and wash the family’s dishes.

But Roma is not so easy on the viewer as to just bid us look at a working-class woman doing her job with care and devotion. We are not permitted to merely look and admire or take pity. The catharsis is not that simple, and “the point,” if I dare use that term, is not that plainly stated. Instead, as we observe Cleo and the family and the city, we are drawn into an emotional climate, a pervasive pathos which immerses the world of the film in big questions and infects the audience with an acute sense of those questions, even if the questions are not explicitly asked. 

The result is breathtaking. Life and death circle in a delicate dance that is equal parts beautiful and terrifying. The absurdity of materialism is laid bare even as our need for material sustenance is made plain. Our capacity for cruelties both big and small ebbs and flows with the profound love and kindness contained in simple gestures. The remarkable capabilities of humans shine in the most humble places while our absurd shortcomings manifest on the grandest stages. And, from beginning to end, Roma achieves this by showing, not telling. It has a message, of course, but that message is portrayed by a beautiful painting which doubles as a mirror, through a fire and brimstone sermon delivered through a quiet conversation. 

In short, Roma reaches into you and pulls you into it, and, without telling you what to think, makes you feel what words fail to conjure. And then, as you dry your tears, you realize you know something new without ever being told.

If it isn’t obvious, I recommend this film. In fact, I demand you see it, especially since it’s streaming on Netflix. Which brings me to one of the other main points of this film, which is the nature of its release. I won’t go into the larger conversation about how and where we watch movies, but I will offer my two cents on the effect of watching this film at home versus on the big screen. I watched it at home, and while I can only imagine wistfully what the visual and visceral experience would have been like in the theater, my experience was that this was one of those films that made me forget where I was. I was so drawn into what I was seeing that it didn’t matter I was watching on a small TV with basic audio. If you can see it in a theater, do it. But, if not, you will be totally overwhelmed in front of your TV or computer, provided that you put your phone away (which most Americans have to anyway because it’s subtitled). 

There is one caveat to my recommendation, and that is that I can’t guarantee that you will like this film. Its beauty is great and terrible, and there are scenes which are undeniably hard to watch. It aches, but it’s the good kind of ache. It will make you feel human, and the simultaneous familiarity and mystery involved with that feeling can be uncomfortable. But it will take you someplace few works of art can, and that’s a thrill that’s worth the cost.

So put your phone away for a couple hours and watch Roma. It is an achievement in film-making that becomes more than the sum of its exceptional parts, and a movie-watching experience like few others. It will take your breath away, and, when it does, the simple act of drawing another will seem so sacred. And you won’t know exactly why.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

Thanksgiving Dinner Reminds Us of What Food Can Mean

You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart. 

Psalm 104:14-15

We’re in the run up to Thanksgiving, a week or so which allows us a brief respite from the irrepressible Christmas season. It’s a time to consider what we’re thankful for and to whom we are thankful. It’s also a time, before we gather with family and friends around a dinner table, to gather around the newsfeed with strangers and learn what it is everyone else is eating. This year, the internet rediscovered that the Western half of the country is big into salads as a side dish, which has the rest of us wondering if everyone out there is okay.

On the day itself, the online exchange of food happenings will continue. Food defines most holidays, but perhaps no more than Thanksgiving, and the internet will be appropriately resplendent with beautiful pics for the Gram, interspersed with tweets lamenting how long the dinner has been delayed.

It isn’t a very long run up, and the holiday’s true extended influence might be the leftovers that we continue to consume to the brink of December, just as Christmas scythes through whatever precious memories of autumn remain.

It’s a great holiday (my personal favorite) defined by the things we do with food – share it, discover it, talk about it, argue about it, make it, photograph it, eat it. It’s a pretty neat thing we’ve done in making a holiday which is about general thankfulness an excuse to immerse ourselves in the joys of conspicuous consumption.

There is, of course, a dark side, or at least a dark subtext to the way we celebrate Thanksgiving. Primarily, this relates to reveling in plenty while so many of our neighbors go without. It is, after all, a choice we make every day in this country to let people live in poverty. But it is also a reflection of a moment in our history when food is the dominating factor in our daily life. There’s a clip in the very underrated Over the Hedge which delivers some blazing social commentary as the raccoon explains to the other animals that “We eat to live, [humans] live to eat.” American culture is dominated by food, food apps, food science, diets, cookbooks, cooking shows, restauranteuring, foodies, and the politics of food. It is, more or less, what we do and the thing that we all have in common.

Food’s preeminence is not inherently bad, but I believe food-in-general holds a precarious position, both at a societal and individual level, between being an obsession and being taken for granted. Its omnipresence brings it to our table both as an opportunity to make choices – choices based on personal preference, the chance to customize, and life-altering health consequences – and as an afterthought, a satiation of base desires, a mechanical part of a routine. As individuals and as a collective, the way we do food is always at risk of being too much or not enough.

And so it is with Thanksgiving, when our great collective celebration of food, our exercise in excess, risks being not enough. Gatherings will lack certain friends or family, and lonely people will go without an invite. People with food-related illness will make requests for menu alterations or may have to pass a few plates or prepare themselves for digestive regrets. Meal planners might trade in their apron for a jacket as they pick up the dinner from someone else’s kitchen. Others will work hard all day to see their efforts either nibbled with apathy or consumed with ingratitude. Thank yous will go unthought and unsaid. And before the leftovers are in the fridge Christmas consumerism will sweep over the land in a wave of red and green.

I’m well-acquainted with some of these shortcomings. I was away from my family the last two Thanksgivings and didn’t even have a Friendsgiving to compensate. It was awful. I have a chronic food-related illness which drives me to think twice about every single thing I eat and sometimes forego foods I love. I wouldn’t say I have an eating disorder, but I’m clinically underweight and I obsess over what and how much I eat. I spend an unfathomable amount of mental energy thinking about what I am going to eat as part of a vain self-image project. When I let myself eat, I have a habit of eating too much and sometimes too quickly. And, being between jobs with an advanced degree, I find myself doing too much wishing and too little thanking.

However, my point in writing this is not so much to direct attention to the potential shortcomings of this food-focused holiday, but rather to highlight the grand opportunity it presents in spite of these various pitfalls. Rather than warn against excess and the value we place on the table next to the turkey and the pies, I would see us double down. Thanksgiving is not, like St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo, a culturally-appropriated excuse to eat, drink, and be merry. Thanksgiving is an observance and ritual of the things that deserve culinary celebration; it is a most excellent manifestation of a culture’s infatuation with food.

Thanksgiving incorporates the best parts of food culture into the holiday meal in authentic, meaningful ways.

The holiday is defined by gathering together. Food is key to Independence Day, but it just so happens that there are other people around you while you do it. At Thanksgiving, the gathering of family and friends around a table is a pillar of the dinner ritual, and this reminds us that family and community is not just a fact of proximity, but a life-giving, life-sustaining, joyful part of our existence. Families and friends and neighbors feed and support one another, and it is best when this happens through a gathering in a particular physical space like a dinner table.

Coming in the wake of harvests and in the midst of hunting seasons, Thanksgiving is visibly connected to the work and processes which go into providing food. I have no idea how that hotdog on the Fourth of July ended up being something I am supposedly able to eat, but I can understand, with some accuracy and appreciation, how the Thanksgiving meal ended up on the table. The image of the cornucopia refers to the direct motion of field to plate, of the wild to the civilized, and the mythology of the first Thanksgiving is bound up in the miracle of growing corn with fish fertilizer. Whether or not what we eat on the day is actually ethically cultivated or free from wonky chemicals, the food itself is still symbolic of our dependence on the cultivation and harvesting of plants and animals.

Before eating, always take time to thank the food.

Arapaho Proverb

Our shared anxiety as the dinner’s start time continues to be pushed back is valid (for how is one supposed to exhibit patience in the face of cheesy broccoli?), but it calls to mind how much the significance of the meal itself is tied to its preparation. Halloween and Valentine’s Day are defined by treats we get in packages; no one gets a bag of candy or a box of chocolates and then expresses appreciation for the work that went into its preparation. But Thanksgiving dinner is, for those who prepare it, the Kentucky Derby of cooking. It involves hours of work to get multiple courses ready, potentially for more people than they will cook for at any other time of the year. It is the grand event of food preparation in this country because it demands to be really and truly prepared. If you want to go out to eat on Mother’s/Father’s Day or for Easter Sunday brunch, that’s well and good. Thanksgiving puts paramount importance on the preparation of food within the home. And it’s with good reason that “home-cooked” and “home-style” are still selling points. Thanksgiving celebrates the home-cooked meal and the people who prepare them.

The Thanksgiving dinner is also an opportunity to express heritage and tradition. There are common staples, of course, but each meal is just a little different. It’s one of the few holidays which allows – even encourages – diverse contributions to a common observance. Thanksgiving is an inclusive holiday, but also one that celebrates traditions and highlights regional pride. Food should be like this; it should be something shared and something to have in common, but also an expression of what makes us unique and diverse.

Each strength of Thanksgiving, each way in which this meal is an ideal expression of food culture, presents us with great opportunities for Thanksgiving Day and beyond. And this is where this essay becomes an exhortation.

Gather together. Revel in the company of others. Rejoice in the gifts of family and friendship. Extend your hospitality to someone who might be alone. Share your table.

If more of us valued food and cheer above hoarded gold, it would be a much merrier world.

Thorin to Bilbo
The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

Contemplate the earth and its bounty. Engage in its preservation and stewardship. Understand how it sustains you, and how you can love and protect it. Pray for the harvest and the harvester. Consider what you put in your body and where it comes from. Observe the change in seasons and the cycle of time.

Appreciate the preparation. Say thank you to the cooks. Share your recipes. Show your children how it’s done. Ask your parents how to do it. Engage in the process. Savor the results.

Take pride in your heritage. Keep your traditions alive. Find out how others do it and try something new.

As my generation grows older, as we begin to feed ourselves and buy our groceries and make our own food, we have the means to shape what food culture looks like in America. We have the chance to change (hopefully for the better) what and how we eat, and how that affects our bodies and the world around us. We’re already doing some of these things better than our parents and grandparents, but there are so many things to learn from them too. How we do Thanksgiving, how we live and work together as families and friends and communities, can be a nexus for greater changes in the dominating fact of our daily lives.

It burned in his spirit
To urge his folk to found a great building,
A mead-hall grander than men of the era
Ever had heard of, and in it to share
With young and old all of the blessings
The Lord had allowed him, save life and retainers.

Beowulf, Lines 79-84

Lastly, I don’t want us to forget that Thanksgiving is a feast. In today’s usage, feast seems to just refer to the amount of food served, but in bygone eras a feast was a big celebration in a big room with food and drink and merriment, and I think everyone – not just fans of fantasy stories like me – recognizes something wonderful about this. It’s like a wedding reception, only you actually get to eat as much as you want. So maybe a Thanksgiving dinner doesn’t feature live music and dancing, and maybe you won’t slosh around horns of ale and fill in bread trenchers with venison stews. There might not be a bard filling the mead hall with cries of Hwæt! But Thanksgiving recreates, to some degree, those things that make the feast something which captures our imagination. It’s a time for joy and a time to give thanks, to eat and drink freely, to laugh and tell stories. And maybe it’s a time to bring up politics, too. And if that’s the case remember that the Red Wedding was also a feast.

I love Thanksgiving, if you couldn’t tell. I’m thankful to be home for the holiday again, and I’m looking forward to setting aside my anxieties (food-related and otherwise) for a day and focusing on the many things I am grateful for. By focusing on what Thanksgiving compels us to see, I am able to work towards being free of the ways in which food burdens me. And what a great gift that is, especially when I can share it with my family. It’s a holiday unlike any other, and one I believe represents the best of food and food culture. For one day, we have the chance to celebrate the ways in which food brings us together and sustains us in this life.

Thinking about that for any amount of time must make one thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. 


Colossians 3:15-17

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter