movie: Brokeback Mountain (2005)

I just recently rewatched this movie, which I saw when it first came out, and appreciated. I’m quite blown away. This is masterful understatement. Emotions run fast and deep; Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar are men’s men in a classic sense, macho, physical, and (in Ennis’s case) of few words; they are also lovers. There is a rough physicality to their affection, as in the scene when Jack shows up at Ennis’s apartment after four years apart. It’s a deeply sexy, sensual movie, perhaps more movingly so because of how different this love and sex is from what we’re accustomed to seeing in romance movies.

And it’s a very romantic movie, in several senses. For one thing, there is the romantic relationship at its center; but there’s also the romanticism of ranching and rodeoing and the gorgeous scenery and harsh weather of the Montana mountains. (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are gorgeous, too.) I think the power of the film is in part in the overturning of expectations about romance (in both those meanings) and about who we expect Jack and Ennis to be. To put a point on it, we don’t expect cowboys to be gay, and we don’t expect gay men to be rough-and-tumble, macho-masculine cowboys. Those are stereotypes, and Brokeback Mountain is here to dispel them. But that makes it sound didactic when in fact it’s anything but that: it’s deeply beautiful, starkly painful, and at every point feels true.

I have dim memories of enjoying the Annie Proulx story this movie is based on, but perhaps because I saw the movie first, my standard remains this cinematic, visceral, visual version.

I could watch this movie over and over again.


Rating: 10 hats.

movie: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (2019)

There’s a movie version out of We Have Always Lived in the Castle! Boy, rereading that review was interesting. This blog was still pretty young back in 2011. I cringe a bit at the thought that I didn’t know the book yet, and didn’t make the Shirley Jackson connection; but that’s what life is, is a learning process. Everything you ever know, you at one time didn’t know yet! (Don’t make fun of beginners!) Also, it’s interesting to note that now the big Shirley Jackson reference is not “The Lottery” but The Haunting of Hill House, since it’s recently been made into a successful TV series. My students this coming semester will be reading “The Lottery,” of course.

First note: the movie is scarier than the book was. I recall (and it seems from my review) that the book was more spooky or creepy than outright frightening. Well, the movie is not straight horror, in the sense that there are no jump scares; but I was more upset by the things that lurk in the night. For one thing (spoiler follows here in white text, highlight to read): Cousin Charles reads as physically threatening, as in he assaults each sister in turn in what might be a sexual fashion, which I don’t recall happening in the book.

Reviews are mixed. Some reviewers found the tone of the movie off; others felt there wasn’t enough substance, or something like that. I found it to be quite a successful adaptation, and wonder if some of the criticisms aren’t missing the point, or if things I’m calling positive were what most bothered those reviewers. For example, it’s true that the aesthetic of the movie is bright and colorful – not at all matching its content. Constance is forcefully cheerful, with a bright Stepford smile; she almost seems drugged (and her pupils are dilated – how’d they do that? give her eye drops?). This contributes to a weirdly upbeat vibe, even though it’s patently faked, and often in extreme contrast to the conflicts taking places around Constance. It’s odd, but not I think by accident. Each character – weirdo Merrikat; forced-chipper, porcelain-beautiful Constance; increasingly angry Charles; and poor unbalanced Uncle Julian – delivers their own lines in varying forms of deadpan; each believes their own reality. It’s most disturbing, and that is absolutely the point.

There is a trailer here, which on the one hand gives a good impression of visuals and atmosphere, but on the other hand maybe you should go in without having seen so much of it? Maybe the latter; I’m glad I went in more or less blind.

It has been eight years since I read the book, which undoubtedly helps, but I’m inclined to say that as far as book-to-movie adaptations go, this one was quite good and less likely to frustrate the book’s fans than most. Full credit for capturing the feel of the original; great visuals and a hair-raising effect, even without your traditional horror movie’s jump scares. I’m looking forward to reading “The Lottery” with my undergrads now.


Rating: 7 pies.

movie: Hellfighters (1968)

Well this was a fairly silly but also awesome film. Extra points for vintage Houston footage, and a most interesting look at how they (used to) put out oil well fires. A little family drama and a bunch of feel-good, handshakin’ male friendship make for an all around warm-and-fuzzy (although seriously dated) John Wayne movie about firefighting and love.

IMDB calls this “disaster/action/adventure,” but it’s at least as much soap opera as it is any of that. Chance Buckman (John Wayne) is the best in the world at what he does: puts out oil well fires, “around the clock, around the world,” as says the slogan of The Buckman Company. He split with his ex-wife Madelyn because she can’t take the stress of his highly dangerous work, but they still love each other. When Chance is badly injured on the job, his assistant Greg fetches his daughter Tish to visit him in the hospital (against Chance’s wishes). Lickety-split, Greg and Tish are married, and the new generation gets their own chance (no pun intended) to navigate matrimony against a fiery backdrop. The final action takes place at a five-well fire in Venezuela, choppers chopping and bullets whining overhead, as both Tish and Madelyn show up to spectate.

I’d like to give some credit for these women being treated less as delicate flowers in need of protecting than I’d expected from 1968. It’s not modern, but it’s better than I’d have thought. Also, these people have phones in their cars and on airplanes! I understand 1968 less well than I thought I did, all-around.

It’s silly – I wonder how seriously the filmmakers took themselves – but pretty fun, too. The brawl between the Americans and some Australian firefighters in a gambling parlor in Malaya was fine slapstick. It’s got a 14% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and I fell asleep once. But I had good fun with it, in the end. Keep your expectations low and have a good time.


Rating: 7 delays with the nitro.

Short Fiction

I thought it would be fun to share with you some of the reading I’ll be doing this semester, for an other-than-usual reason: I am teaching the undergraduate lit course Short Fiction (ENGL 165) to a mix of freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors, and I’m very excited about it. My students will read something like 50 stories this semester, and we’ll discuss elements of fiction (like plot, setting, character, point of view, style, and theme) in context of those stories. I cannot imagine that I’ll be writing about each one for you all here! (Although I suppose it’s possible that I’ll be moved to write about a few standouts. And some are already covered, of course.) But I thought at least you might appreciate a list of what stories I have in mind.

I’m using an anthology as a textbook: The Story and Its Writer, which also includes pretty good text on those elements of fiction, and supplementary materials such as analyses and author commentaries. I’ll also use Jon Corcoran’s The Rope Swing – we’ll discuss how it functions as a whole as well as in each individual story. And there will be a few “extra” stories that I’ll scan for my students. So, the list – in no particular order for now.

  • “I Stand Here Ironing,” Tillie Olsen
  • “Crazy They Call Me,” Zadie Smith
  • “A White Heron,” Sarah Orne Jewett
  • “Sonny’s Blues,” James Baldwin
  • “Interpreter of Maladies,” Jhumpa Lahiri
  • “Desiree’s Baby,” Kate Chopin
  • “Samuel,” Grace Paley
  • “The House on Mango Street,” Sandra Cisneros
  • “The Blood Bay,” Annie Proulx
  • “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • “Everyday Use,” Alice Walker
  • “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” Richard Wright
  • “Yellow Woman,” Leslie Marmon Silko
  • “Girl,” Jamaica Kincaid
  • “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Ursula K. Le Guin
  • “A Brief Encounter with the Enemy,” Saïd Sayrafiezadeh
  • “Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut
  • “The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket,” Yasunari Kawabata
  • “Journey to the Seed,” Alejo Carpentier
  • “Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case History,” Art Spiegelman
  • “The Shawl,” Cynthia Ozick
  • “A Continuity of Parks,” Julio Cortázar
  • “Looking for a Rain-God,” Bessie Head
  • “Cathedral,” Raymond Carver
  • excerpt from Persepolis: “The Veil,” Marjane Satrapi
  • “The Moths,” Helena María Viramontes
  • “Dimensions,” Alice Munro
  • “Brownies,” ZZ Packer
  • excerpt from Palestine: “Refugeeland,” Joe Sacco
  • “Vision Out of the Corner of One Eye,” Luisa Valenzuela
  • “The Colonel,” Carolyn Forché
  • “The Fellowship,” Alison Bechdel
  • “The Swimmer,” John Cheever
  • “Barbie-Q,” Sandra Cisneros
  • excerpt from Barefoot Gen, Keiji Nakazawa
  • “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien
  • “Appalachian Swan Song,” Jonathan Corcoran, from The Rope Swing (RS)
  • “The Rope Swing” (RS)
  • “Pauly’s Girl” (RS)
  • “Through the Still Hours” (RS)
  • “Felicitations” (RS)
  • “Corporeal” (RS)
  • “Hank the King” (RS)
  • “Excavation” (RS)
  • “Brooklyn, 4 a.m.” (RS)
  • “A Touch” (RS)
  • “Pea Madness,” Amy Leach, from Things That Are
  • “Four Boston Basketball Stories,” Brian Doyle, from The Mighty Currawongs
  • “The Pull,” Lidia Yuknavitch, from Verge
  • Any Other,” Jac Jemc
  • The Little Mermaid,” (Daniel) Mallory Ortberg
  • Who Will Greet You At Home,” Lesley Nneka Arimah

This list includes writers of various ethnicities and national backgrounds, gay and trans writers, Westerners and non-Westerners, graphic stories, recent and historic ones. It is probably a few stories too long – definitely subject to some change, but not much. I meet my students in just a few days, and I want us to more or less have a plan.

What do you think? A class you’d be interested in??

2019: A Year in Review

Happy New Year, friends! The other day you saw my best of the year post, and here we are today with another traditional annual post. (You can see my past years in review here: 2018; 2017; 2016; 2015; 2014; 2013; 2012; 2011.) I’m always glad to put these numbers together and see what’s changed, and in writing this post, I knew the numbers would be very different. I finished 2018 by finishing an MFA program; I spent the bulk of 2019 living in a van, with no day job except the book reviews.

In 2019, I read 88 books, compared to 66 in 2018. While not up to my good-old-days numbers nearing 150 books per year, this increase definitely reflects some change. A season for all things…

Of the books I read this year:

  • 55% were nonfiction (last year I read 70% nonfiction).
  • 41% were written by female authors (53% last year); 59% were by men (41% last year), with the remainder being collections by multiple authors, or variously unidentifiable, or “other” – this was a negligible category this year, although it made a larger proportion in 2018.
  • Of the fiction I read, 25% were contemporary (a growing number), 22% historical, 18% mysteries, and a whopping 23% were sci fi (that would all be The Expanse). Last year I mostly read fiction I was categorizing as “misc,” which seems to indicate I need better categories, although I didn’t so much change my classification scheme as read more in the categories I’d already established (like sci fi!).
  • In perhaps the most notable (and most predictable) change this year, nearly 20% of what I “read” I listened to as audiobooks. This is all about the van travel, of course. In 2018 I listened to just one audiobook, although in previous years I’ve been as high as 25%, back when I was a commuter.
  • Another big and predictable change: reading for school. Combined reading as student and as teacher this year amounted to just 6% of the books I read; while I was an MFA student my years were 49-70% schoolwork. Happily, 36% of my reading was purely for pleasure, plus a handful marked with the reason “travel” (which can be counted as pleasure: researching places I was headed). 51% were read for reviews. I think I need to make it a life goal to get out from under that majority, much as I love my work.
  • I was sent 54% of my reading by authors and organizations seeking reviews (which means I marked several as read for pleasure; sorry if that’s confusing). Another 24% I purchased (down from 64% last year!), and the remaining 22% were gifts, loans, or library books – sources not much in evidence these last few years.
  • I found time to reread three books this year. I thought it was more than that! With just one in 2018, this remains a negligible category, but I’m glad for each and every one (hello, Brian Doyle).

Some of these numbers changed less than I thought they would – total books read, and rereads, for example. Overall, I’m pleased to see the increased variety in what I read. I’m very grateful to the Shelf for being so flexible with me while I’m on the road, and for being my only employer for most of the year; but I confess I wish I were choosing a few more books for myself and purely for pleasure. (It’s true that the Shelf sent me almost every favorite book of the year. But you know, there’s so much more out there, too…) And now heading into 2020, I can just imagine that we’ll have another drastically different year, with teaching a literature course – surely this will suck up much of my reading time? – and the at-present-total-unknown second half of that year… All I can say is stick around and we’ll all find out together what the heck I’m doing. Thanks for bearing with me through all the surprises!!

How did 2019 treat you as readers? What do you hope the new year – and decade – holds?

best of 2019: year’s end

My year-in-review post will be up Wednesday, as per usual. But first, also as usual, I want to share the list of my favorite things I read this year. (You can see past years’ best-of lists at this tag.)

The short best-of-the-best list:

Honorable mentions:

Note that these are overwhelmingly new releases, which bodes well for the publishing industry in general (and probably reflects my reading habits) (and credit to my lovely editor Dave who sends me such great books to review).

Bonus: Shelf Awareness’s Best Books of the Year is available at that link. It includes none of my choices but that’s okay – more to choose from! Bonus-bonus: their Best Children’s and Teen Books.

Hooray for good books always! What are some of the best things you read this year?

Come back Wednesday to see a further breakdown of my reading habits in 2019.

Tara Westover at West Virginia University

Last month, I traveled with a small group of English faculty, English majors, and Honors College students from the little town where I live and teach, up to Morgantown and West Virginia University. My department chair organized several activities around the memoir Educated, by Tara Westover. She got us books at a discount; we set a couple of book club meetings; and she got us tickets to see Westover speak at WVU.

It was a perfectly pleasant evening, driving up at dusk and gathering for dinner (at a most strange pseudo-Mexican joint), and then over to the university, which was an experience for those of us from a college of about 1500 students: the ballroom seats several hundred, and was located in a building that reminded me more of the big universities I come from. After a notably awkward introduction, Tara Westover came on.

At this point I had read about half her book, as directed for the book club meeting later that week. So I was familiar with part of her story (and I knew how it finished, at least in broadest terms). Westover was raised in Idaho by fundamentalist Mormons. She did not go to school or see a doctor. At seventeen, she followed in the footsteps of an older brother and self-studied for the ACT, then went off to Brigham Young University in Utah – her first time in a classroom. It was here that she was exposed for the first time to many concepts we take for granted, including (in a memorable example) the Holocaust.

I thought we were attending a reading, but instead Westover spoke about her thoughts on education. She was quite informal and off-the-cuff, although as the talk proceeded I decided it was more practiced than I’d originally thought. (Which is fine.) She retold her story, as in the book, for the benefit of those who hadn’t read it (and in slightly different terms). She spoke of education as having value in broadening our perspectives, and helping us see multiple points of view. This feels like an obvious and simple observation, on some level; but it was a revelation, to think of someone having to learn this in early adulthood from such a limited perspective as she had growing up. I also found very useful one thing she said, about how young people – like my freshman students – can tend to overemphasize the events of their lives (or so it appears to us, a few years older), because their perspectives are so different: if you’re 18, a year is an awfully long time, as a percentage of your lived experience. Whereas it’s a bit easier, if you’re 40, to see how little that test failed or boyfriend lost really matters in the long run. We can tend to say patronizingly that kids that age don’t know what love is (or whatever), but it’s just that their perspective is quite different. We could reframe things. In the same way, she talked about the shape of the narrative arc, and how you can’t see your own arc if you’re still on top of the damned thing; you can’t see where the narrative arc peaks, where the climax is, until it closes. I’m going to try to use these ideas when talking to my freshmen students next semester – about narratives, no less!

Westover’s experiences make her a compelling figure for the college student to consider, especially the first-generation student, as many of mine are. Her talk was often interesting (her story is quite sensational, for one thing), and inspirational. I’m glad we made the trip.

My review of Educated will be up on Monday.

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