My daughters have gotten majorly into Into the Woods lately. I took the older one to go see it when it played at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown LA, and she loved it and has been listening to the soundtrack, playing the songs on the piano and singing it ever since, and now her little sister basically knows the whole thing, too. I showed them the Bernadette Peters recording, and that got me on a bit of a Bernadette Peters kick.
Back in the day when I was a teenager and college student driving around town, I listened to showtunes incessantly, and in my roving through the great American showtune catalog, I came across a pair of albums by Bernadette Peters – I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight and Sondheim Etc (a live Carnegie Hall concert) and added those to my rotation. I found them both on Spotify the other day and immediately went back to nostalgia central with them. It’s amazing to me the forgotten memories that hit me when I hear songs from that time period. I not only remember most all of the songs, but also her little inter-song bits from the live show! “That last song was from a Stephen Sondheim show….that I wasn’t in. But this next song is from a Stephen Sondheim show that I was in! But I didn’t sing this song in the show.”
At some point in the past a friend recommended me to watch a recording of Company, which I did, and realized I knew “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” even though I’d never seen the show. How did I know that song? It drove ME crazy for a while. Finally realized, it was this Sondheim Etc album! I knew Bernadette Peters singing it.
These albums are from the mid-90s, but I recommend any musical theatre fan check them out if you haven’t already. Fun stuff.
I know I’m out of the loop on music news, but a new single from Camera Obscura just popped up on my Spotify Release Radar, and after doing some minor Googling, YES, they are coming out with a new album in May!
Their previous was Desire Lines in 2013, but I have to be honest, I don’t think I listened to that. 2013 was the year my oldest daughter was born and that basically stopped my entire media intake for a couple years at least, no joke. Their previous three albums, though, were major favorites in the 2000s.
In 2015 the death of keyboardist Carey Lander sent the group into hiatus, and I guess I never thought they’d be back, but here they are.
If there’s anything I love more than reading itself, it’s making lists of books to read. No, seriously, I sometimes think I like making the lists more than the actual reading. It’s a fault. Here are some I added in January.
Where do I find new books to add to my TBR, you may ask. Well, I troll BookRiot, Literary Hub, and Modern Mrs Darcy for a lists of new-release fiction and general non-fiction, as well as themed lists. I also get lots of older book recommendations from the Literary Life podcast and Discord, and from various other posts. Basically, my eyes and ears are always open and I add anything and everything that sounds interesting to me. Most of these books I doubt I’ll ever get around to reading. But keeping an expansive to-read list both pleases me in and of itself and allows me to choose my next reads with some amount of whim from a pre-curated selection.
First a special mention, as this is the only book I’ve become aware of in the past few days that I ordered immediately:
Thanks to this post from Alan Jacobs, which he posted in response to the recent David Brooks article about whether art makes us better people.
I mentioned in my year-end recap post that I was thinking of starting a Substack, and I did just that last week. I now have twoposts up, and if you’ve appreciated what I’ve written here in the past, I’d love to have you follow me there! I’ll be writing about similar stuff as I have here, but with a higher ratio of books and teaching stuff compared to film. Click the image below to go to my Substack page.
I’m still keeping this blog around for now, planning to do smaller, more off-the-cuff posts here, and more thoughtful posts (and link roundups) over there, HOPEFULLY about once a week, but I am terrible at keeping with schedules, so grain of salt right there with that.
As usual, I’ve failed at getting back into posting regularly, and as usual, I’m making another resolution to do better. But in the meantime, let’s take a look back at 2023.
It’s been a great year for me personally, even if my writing time has not reflected that! I’ve started my third year of teaching 11th/12th grade literature at a Classical Christian School, and it’s going better than ever. I’d heard the third year is when you really start to feel comfortable teaching, and I’ll back that up. Of course, I still have so many notes I’m making on what to tweak for next year! I don’t think that will ever stop.
My kids are now ages 10 and 5, which are some really fun ages. Older is in 5th grade at the school where I teach, and she loves it – except when they take forEVER to read a book in literature! So far they’ve read Tom Sawyer and The Family Under the Bridge this year and I’d read both of them to her before, oops. But I also don’t regret it – the joy of sharing Tom Sawyer especially with her was something I couldn’t resist. The little one is in Kindergarten, just starting to sound out her first words. This stage is so exciting! She’s also a totally different personality when it comes to school than my older was, so that’s been interesting to figure out.
In reading, I managed to finish 54 books, including rereads and read alouds, of which there were many. My older daughter and I have been enjoying story-based history and legends – we’ve done Norse mythology, English history (best history story book I’ve found: Our Island Story, it’s seriously so good), King Arthur, and now we’re on American history and the Arabian Nights. I’m largely following Ambleside Online booklists for our read alouds, though I did slip in A Wrinkle in Time earlier this year! See below for my fave reads of the year.
This was the year I almost gave up movies and social media entirely, which kind of makes me wonder who I even am anymore. But I’m okay being a teacher/reader for now, anyway. What movies I did watch were mostly in the first half of the year and largely followed the whim of the Criterion Channel‘s featured programming. I watched a lot of really fun stuff this way that I might not otherwise have sought out, so I was really happy with this plan. The other main moviewatching I did was introducing older daughter to a lot of movies – she’s becoming a big fan of classic movie musicals, which gives me great glee. She’s even favorably disposed to black and white movies on principle, and it’s so fun to find out what an old soul she already is. We’ve also had the opportunity to go to two of my favorite stage musicals at the downtown Ahmanson Theatre – The Secret Garden and Into the Woods, both of which she loved as well!
I have been extremely sporadic on social media – I haven’t posted at all on Facebook this year, though I have succumbed to checking in on a few individuals and groups. I don’t think I’ll delete it, but I was very happy not being active on it, so don’t expect me to return in force. I similarly dipped in and out of Twitter (or X, whatever); I still follow a lot of people I like reading there, but the general vibe of the place is so negative and complainy that I can’t stay there for long. I’ve dabbled in Microblog, which I like overall but don’t know anyone else personally who uses it, so it feels like starting a whole new community – too daunting right now. My happy place is the Patreon-gated Literary Life Discord, and I will say that if you’re into old books and not listening to The Literary Life Podcast, you’re doing it wrong. I am considering starting a Substack, though what I’d do there that I’m already not doing here, I’m not sure? But all my favorite online READING is currently happening on Substack, so I’m feeling drawn there. And maybe the easy email option would be nice for readers now that RSS is all but faded from use for most people.
Enough jabbering. To the lists!
Things that guided my reading this year were mostly school (both rereading books I teach and reading books on education/philosophy/literature that inform my teaching), the Literary Life reading challenge (check out the 2024 edition here), and the 12 Books in 12 Months challenge I gathered recommendations for one of my last posts on Facebook in Dec 2022. Plus a few personal goals like wanting to read Anna Karenina finally, which I did! Here are a few highlights. Note that I could highlight everything – I didn’t read a single thing I didn’t like this year!
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
As if Anna Karenina were not enough, I also set myself the task of reading this Dickens behemoth. Aha, said I, but I will do it via audiobook! Somehow that time-saving device does not work for me and even though I started early in the year I had only made it through half the book by October when I gave up on audio and gobbled up the rest via print. (I do HIGHLY recommend the Richard Armitage audio; I’m just not an audiobook person.) This one my mom and I started when I was a teenager and we both got bored and stopped. I’m so glad to return to it years later – there are still sloggy parts, but it all ties up so beautifully and heartbreakingly and heartwarmingly that I’m kicking myself for not reading it earlier.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
I feel like this was the year of me finally getting to a lot of books I’d put off because I didn’t feel like I’d like them, and being TOTALLY WRONG. I inhaled this book (which isn’t short!) in a week over spring break and instantly placed it among my all-time favorites. It’s evocative and sprawling and mythopeoic. I loved it so much I’m considering doing it in class some year instead of Brothers Karamazov (and I LOVE Brothers Karamazov).
Another book I read almost at the same time and felt paired really well was Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. Like parts of East of Eden, it’s set in California (and environs) in the early settler period, about a young woman from the East who marries a mining engineer – a surprise to many because she is cultured and artistic and he is taciturn and very rough around the edges. It’s a hard, beautiful, and poetic book.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
I’ve always felt this book was probably not for me. Adultery and all that, plus I already knew the ending! Then I watched the 2012 Joe Wright film and LOVED it. Then I had babies and reading a 900 page Russian novel felt pretty daunting. But 2023 was the year, I planned it as soon as summer started, and wow, was this a showstopper. It’s sprawling and intimate and complicated and beautiful. It has me ready to read War and Peace next summer, is that overly ambitious?
Love What Lasts: How to Save Your Soul from Mediocrity by Joshua Gibbs
I’m going to use this space to mention several similar books, but I honestly think I got the most out of this one. Gibbs argues that we should avoid what he calls “mediocre” (things that are ephemeral by nature and not intended to last) and focus instead on “common” (ordinary goods) and “uncommon” (great/holy things). The main point is about taste – that taste matters, and a steady diet of the mediocre will prevent us from developing good taste, and that this affects our soul (not in terms of salvation but in terms of living the good life). I find his argument compelling but also challenging and controversial at times, which I love in a book like this.
In similar books, I read The Wisdom Pyramid by Brett McCracken as our assigned teacher development book for school, and I spent the whole thing going “yes, I agree, but Gibbs is better”. McCracken’s point is similar, that to seek wisdom, we need to plan our “diet” carefully to prioritize things that give wisdom – scripture, church community, nature, great books, beauty all above social media/internet. Like, he’s right, but it’s pretty surface-level and not really the good struggle like I had with Gibbs’ book.
Other things I read and recommend in the broad education/cultural criticism/philosophy category: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialist World by David Epstein (I’ve never felt better about being a generalist), Reading for the Love of God by Jessica Hooten Wilson (really good and deep exploration of reading as a spiritual practice, and how to use spiritual disciplines to read better), Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman and Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey (honestly, a tragedy I hadn’t read these before), and both Consider This and Know and Tell by Karen Glass (an argument for Charlotte Mason being in the Classical tradition, and a nitty-gritty book on narration which I’m using every day in class).
A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914-1918 by G.J. Meyer
This was the recommendation from my history teacher friend when I asked him what I should read over the summer. He knows I’m pretty into World War I, and this is one of the few books he says deals with the WHOLE war. It was great – covered the lead-up, the battles, the aftermath, as well as the historical backgrounds of various groups that informs the conflict.
The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates
For some reason I had Joyce Carol Oates in a category with prolific “literary” but shallow bestsellers, and I think I was wrong. This was recommended to me in the 12 in 12 Months challenge and I was like, really? But then I looked it up and was like, oh, a gothic novel set in 1910s Princeton? Okay, we’ll give it a try. It is a RIDE, let me tell you. Woodrow Wilson and Upton Sinclair are major characters, there are demons and vampires, and a whole sojourn into a hellish dimension. And all of this in dispassionate prose meant to be by a young historian telling the real story behind an outbreak of hysteria in Princeton. Somehow this “historical” approach makes what happens even more horrifying.
I realized about the time I read The Accursed that I really do need some more modern fiction, especially speculative fiction, mixed in with classics, so I picked up a few more to finish off the year. Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty was actually another 12 in 12 pick, and I basically couldn’t stop reading it once I started (except the three days of agony when I left it at church). Premise is cloning is common, and the six-person crew of a spaceship trying to safely find a new planet for their generation ship all wake up in new cloned bodies and find their previous clones had been murdered…but by whom? This is exactly the kind of hook I can’t resist, and it plays out very satisfyingly. I chose The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern on my own due to enjoying her The Night Circus and being in love with stories about libraries and stories. I do think this one went off the rails a bit at the end (she’s more modern than traditional in her treatment of story and I don’t love that), but overall, I was captivated. Finally, I grabbed a classic I’ve been meaning to read for a while: The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin. It was pretty fantastic, though I did find the ending a bit tropey. Throughout there was so much to love, and I’m told I really need to read on in the series, so hopefully that will be a 2024 thing.
The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse
I always try to get in a few Wodehouse novels every year, and this was the only one that made it in this year, but it was a doozy of a good one! The hilarity kicks off when Bertie has to be the unfortunate go-between in the acquisition of a coveted cow creamer desired by two relatives, both of whom Bertie greatly wants to stay on the good side of. This leads to elaborate schemes which only the genius of Jeeves can untangle.
Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare for Children by E. Nesbit
I don’t love children’s versions of novels, but I make exceptions for legends and stories like this – most of these stories existed in some form before Shakespeare and it’s actually really helpful to be familiar with the story before reading the full play version. I read this to my 10yo and we LOVED it. For me, it really made clear how so many Shakespeare storeis are structured like fairy tales and need to be understood as such – a harder thing to realize when reading the plays because so much focus goes on the language (not incorrectly!).
Other great read-alouds (most of which I had read before): King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green, Our Island Story by H.E. Marshall, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, The Good Masterby Kate Seredy, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald and d’Aulaire’s Norse Myths.
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
I just finished this one yesterday, and I admit I don’t yet feel ready to say a lot about it (though I do have a lot of unorganized notes about it!). In a way, I read David Copperfield because of this book; a friend recommended it for the 12 in 12 challenge, and I had been intrigued by it already, but I didn’t want to read it without having read David Copperfield. Due to how long it took me to finish Copperfield, I ended up reading this IMMEDIATELY after it, and I’m not sure if that was a great idea or a terrible one. It was a great one in the sense that I could see very clearly all the references and allusions Kingsolver is making to it, many of which I might have missed had I not read the Dickens so very recently. On the other hand, with how much I loved Copperfield, Copperhead had a lot to live up to, and it’s probably not fair to put it in such close proximity with what is only its inspiration, to be fair. Kingsolver is not trying to write the same story, and she does not. She makes changes that are very fitting for her modern Appalachian setting, and a lot of it works very well. I slammed through this very long book, too, easily reading 60-70 pages at a time, fully engrossed. That said, Kingsolver seems to understand Dickens’ story as his “experience as a survivor of institutional poverty and its damages to children in his society” (a quote from the flyleaf which is born out in her treatment of Demon and the story in general) which is extremely reductive of Dickens’ story, which is about so much more than that. Many of the characters are interesting in their own right, but are mere shadows of Dickens’ creations. The sense of place is MUCH stronger here, which I think is a strength in some ways, but also ties her story down to social criticism in a way that Dickens is not, despite her reductive understanding of him – Dickens is interested in transcendent truth.
Okay, I guess I did have a lot to say about it. LOL. I appreciated reading it. There’s a lot here. I just also found it frustrating.
As I said, most of my film-viewing this year was of the Criterion programming or watching with my family variety, though I did slip a few others in there.
I wrote about a few of these early in the year, so I won’t belabor them. From the Joan Bennet series in January, the most memorable two were Me and My Gal and Man Hunt, with an honorable mention for the craziness of Wild Girl. From the Pre-Code Paramount series in February, Merrily We Go to Hell is the clear standout. I also watched almost the entirety of the Michelle Yeoh series in March, but I didn’t end up getting a post up about it. The Heroic Trio series was ridiculous but super fun, and Police Story 3 was a major standout. A few other Criterion notables were Robert Siodmak’s stylish The Phantom Lady (maybe my fave new-to-me film all year), The River of No Return (Monroe + Mitchum, how had I not seen this?), Jacques Tourneur’s Experiment Perilous, and Backfire from the recent Christmas Noir series.
Les Vampires (1916)
My one attempt early in the year to revive my old chrono project; and this is pretty great. A great example of silent storytelling, consistently mysterious and engaging (though some episodes are more so than others), and so clearly influential on later films. Does crime cinema start here?
This movie is off the chain in all the best ways possible. I love Indian cinema in general and haven’t watched enough of it lately. This was a great one to get back into it. Not AS MUCH music as it could have had, honestly, but it makes up for that in some of the most insane fight/action scenes I have ever seen in any movie.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023)
The one and only time I made it to the theatre this whole year – and get this, it was my first time in the theatre since December 2019. A far cry from the old days, where I saw at least a movie a week in theaters no matter what! Ah, well. If I missed it more I would make more of an effort, so I guess I’m okay. Anyway. This was great, like the first one, and I will see the third in theatres as well.
Alfred Hitchcock on Criterion
After several months of NO movies except the occasional famiyly rewatch, I used Christmas break to get back into Criterion festivals a bit. I watched a couple from the Christmas noir series (see above) but mostly focused on the Hitchcock for the Holidays series, because it included several of his early British films that I have missed. (I’ve seen every post-1934 Hitchcock feature except The Paradine Case.) I crossed off Downhill, The Lodger, Murder!, and The Skin Game. The first was pretty routine, but the others are quite good, with Murder! the clear standout – mystery, courtroom drama, and backstage story all rolled into one!
The Kid Who Would Be King (2019)
I had intended to watch this when it came out due to Joe Cornish and King Arthur, but missed it then. Came up as a possibility for a friends’ movie night pre-New Year’s Eve, and we jumped at the opportunity, especially since 10yo and I have spent so much time on King Arthur this year. It was a lot of fun! It brought elements of the legends in quite nicely and had a good Attack the Block-ish vibe. A bit earnest at times, but I find that pretty easily forgivable.
It may not have been a plentiful year for new-to-me watches, but it was a pretty fantastic year for family watches. The kids are finally getting old enough to enjoy a lot more in the way of movies, classics and otherwise. Among others, this year we watched the Back to the Future trilogy, Karate Kid and Karate Kid II, Superman, Superman II, and Superman Returns, the Lord of the Rings trilogy (a new Thanksgiving break tradition!), Galaxy Quest, Porco Rosso, The Mask of Zorro, National Velvet, Arsenic and Old Lace, Charade, It’s a Wonderful Life, Camelot, and to cap things off, a late night viewing of Jurassic Park as we let 10yo stay up late for New Year’s Eve.
I didn’t have a lot of time for video games this year, but I did play Starfield extensively. Meanwhile, my husband has been playing Baldur’s Gate 3 incessantly since it came out, so we’ve had ample opportunity to discuss these two very different RPGs (he’s played some Starfield also and since BG3 came out on Xbox we’ve been playing co-op). I have loved Bethesda games since Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and my very first console, and I have not really gotten tired of their schtick, so I’ve enjoyed Starfield a ton, and have gotten to new game plus and am working my way back through all the faction quests a second time. I really like the additional Bioware-inspired romances (I didn’t play the Fallout that had romances), I’ve always liked Bethesda-style missions and dialogue, and the combat style works really well for me. THAT SAID, I also really love BG3‘s very different approach to character interactions. My husband has pointed out that Bethesda games think the player character is the greatest in the universe and BG3 couldn’t care less, really, so the dialogue is a lot punchier and funnier. I think BG3 is probably the future of RPGs but I have no shame about continuing to enjoy Bethesda’s more old-fashioned style.