I’ve enjoyed perusing the circulating lists of bests of 2014. I’ve had the opportunity to consume quite a few books and movies this past year, perhaps partly due to breaking a couple bones as summer approached, which caused me to swap out gardening for more intellectual pursuits.
I don’t remember where I first heard someone say that her measure of mortality was the small number of books she would have time left to read. So maybe taking stock is working toward some kind of immortality. With that, I’ll toss in my list of favorites, in reverse chronological order of when I read them.
For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway
I listened to this book on CD, and was so taken with it. I’m striving to fill in my knowledge gaps. I was an exchange student in the south of Spain in 1977, a few years after the death of Franco, and wish I had been more prepared to understand what I was seeing. The characters in this story are so fleshed out, it seems like I may have crossed paths with them on the cobblestone streets. Hemingway’s famously spare language zings with beauty.
Caleb’s Crossing, Geraldine Brooks
I listened to this book as well, and enjoyed the performance of many voices. The narrator, Bethia, is an intelligent, sensitive young colonist, a product of her times who yearns to transcend her times.
Here is an excellent review by Jane Smiley.
American Dervish, Steven Reese
Poet Steve Reese sets American history and culture in motion in this engaging and skillfully written collection. I particularly loved the tender poems on domestic life, but each poem is excellent and inspires re-reading.
Through the Children’s Gate, Adam Gopnik
Another view of American life, this time in essays through the lens of a young family returning from France. Gopnik is witty, practical and a wonderful storyteller.
Life of Pi, Yann Martel
This was one of those rare books that made me ruminate over it all day, waiting until I could jump into bed to read. A riveting story on a teeny tiny stage. So impressive. I have not yet seen the movie.
The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander
A book that kept me awake when I read at night, and it should keep all of us awake until we take action to make our justice system fair and accountable. Alexander weaves stories into her well argued research, making it readable, compelling and essential. If you haven’t read it yet, don’t be afraid. Dive in. You’ll be glad you did.
Inequality for All (2013)
One of our favorite public intellectuals, economist Robert Reich, outlines the specific policies that have led to the hollowing out of the middle class. It’s a great film because it’s clear and concise, because Reich himself has a wonderful wit and humanity, and because he’s not pitching the issue to the political left. He demonstrates that inequality this severe undermines everyone.
Living Downstream (2010)
I first read Sandra Steingraber’s book of the same name shortly after it came out in the late 90’s. A professor of urban planning gave it to me, saying it was written by a scientist and poet, and the language was as gorgeous as it was investigative and important. I have gifted this book to many, and was thrilled to discover this film, which takes up where the book left off. Steingraber is so compelling in part because she has a brilliant and curious mind, a fierce morality and a deep compassion for people. Her tools of persuasion are stories and scientific data, explained well.
Ken Burns: The Address (2014)
In Vermont, there is a boarding school for boys with neurological anomalies. The boys often arrive after suffering through horrendous public school experiences, so there may be psychological healing as well as learning how to learn. The boys are challenged to memorize the Gettysburg Address, and Ken Burns uses this as the backdrop for his documentary on this famous speech. As we see these students struggle and overcome, as well as learn to care for each other and themselves, well, I won’t say “we.” I’ll just say I cried like a baby. It was even more meaningful since I saw Ken Burns speak at Kent State this year.
A Raisin in the Sun (2008)
This remake is powerful and engaging, and enlightening for those who didn't live through the mid-20th century. The cast is tremendous, including a commanding Phylicia Rashad.
Planet of Snail (2011)
I’m not sure how this movie came to be on my Netflix queue, and at the beginning I thought it was a drama. But it’s a documentary about a poet in China who is deaf and blind. He lives with his wife, a small woman with a back deformity. It’s a tender yet clear-eyed look at their life together, shot through with humor and grief. I love it when foreign films are subtitled and not dubbed. I want to hear their own voices.
When the Levees Broke (2006)
Spike Lee’s appropriately blistering account of the savage way stranded survivors of Hurricane Katrina were treated. Again, it will be hard to watch, but if we didn’t have to live it, that seems like a small thing to ask.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008)
So sweet and charming, and nice to see Frances McDormond get a day off from Nazis and serial killers. Amy Adams, too. Wow.
The Other F Word (2011)
I lived through the age of punk rock but was completely unaware of it, so I don’t connect musically with these rockers who are now dads. But I loved this documentary that does a little exploration into their lives to uncover why they were so rebellious, and what they’re going to do with all that rebellion now that small people are looking to them for all the answers.