Tag Archives: emma donoghue

2019 In Review

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Stuff That Happened

Stuff I Did

  • Things I tried and liked: line dance, spades, Master Swim Club.
  • Things I tried but did not like: CrossFit, acupuncture, testing for CPO.
  • I turned 30.
  • I KonMari’d my house. It is still just as organized, months later!
  • I visited Maui and Olympic National Park.
  • I saw ionnalee live in Seattle. I’ve been a huge fan of hers for a decade now and I was so lucky to see her while she was in the US.
  • I ran a 10k with a friend. I don’t have any desire to run farther than a 10k ever again, if I can help it; meanwhile, said friend is now training for a marathon!
  • I deployed for hopefully the last time.
  • I began the pre-separation classes from the Navy. I have a little over 200 days left until I become a civilian again.
  • I put in an application for graduate school!
  • I saw Hamilton (Hartford), Phantom of the Opera (Honolulu), and the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra play Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
  • I got PRK surgery and it changed my life.
  • I started volunteering at the women’s prison on Oahu.
  • My cousin came to visit me in Hawaii! This is the first time someone has come to see me since I joined the Navy.
  • My dad got married! We now have two teenagers in the house, and it’s actually pretty fun to have them around.
  • I read some books. Not as many as last year, but enough.
  • I started playing a lot of Pokémon Go. Like, a lot. I also met a ton of folks in my neighborhood this way.
  • Emma Donoghue visited a library near my mom. Not only did Mom get a book signed for me, she went completely over the top.

Favorite Book of the Year

Card reads: “Trash-talking, queer AF Necromancers in outer space! So many bones, such magic, major flexing. This genre-bending novel is my favorite thing published this year. I laughed, I cried, I obsessed and joined the cult of the ninth. Join me!”

(Kelsy from Savoy Bookshop & Cafe, Westerly, RI)

The hook of “lesbian necromancers” is obviously a huge draw, and it’s mostly true. Gideon the Ninth combines fantasy, sci-fi, and murder mystery in a big spooky mansion, where nine necromancers and their bodyguards have to outwit one another and overcome physical and mental trials to become the immortal, omniscient right-hand servant of their Emperor God. The titular Gideon, a rowdy, queer orphan, gets tricked into protecting the necromancer from the Ninth House, the ruthlessly ambitious and cruel girl who spent her childhood bullying Gideon. The two have to learn to trust one another if they’re going to succeed – and survive.

The majority of the dialogue consists of Gideon and Harrow mercilessly roasting each other (“I completely fucking hate you, because you are a hideous witch from hell. No offence,” Gideon tells Harrow early on, to which Harrow replies pityingly, “Oh, Griddle! But I don’t even remember about you most of the time”). But beneath the hate emerges fondness and respect; these two care about one another more than the job dictates. As they proceed through the tests, the relationships they develop with each other and the other necromancers and bodyguards are, at turns, intriguing and delightful and suspenseful, especially considering only one pair can win.

Muir sums up the tone of the story in an interview with Forbes: “I wanted a book that was absolutely saturated with horrible things, but leavened with a more flippant narrative style.” I enjoyed this book from start to brutal finish, and I intend to reread it soon – the sequel comes out next summer.

Runners-Up

City of Girls (Elizabeth Gilbert)
The Light Brigade (Kameron Hurley)
Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier) (read for the first time this year)

Favorite Movie of the Year

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A down-on-their-luck working class family cons their way into a wealthy home by providing services to the family under false pretenses. As the story progresses, the means that the family is willing to take to keep their identities a secret escalates, going from amusing, slapstick obfuscation to a truly shocking display of violence. This is not a spoiler; the arrangement is quickly revealed to be untenable and the breaking point is inevitable, but you don’t know when or what it’s going to look like.

Moments of suspense are so thick you could cut them with a knife. What made this story stick with me, though, was its moral ambiguity, especially regarding its underlying themes of socioeconomic hierarchies and the cycle of poverty. It was all very disturbing, but in a way, I think, that people will come out the other side better and more empathetic.

Runners-Up

Booksmart
Bombshell
Marriage Story

Favorite TV Show of the Year

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Based on the very good memoir by Lindy West, Shrill explores navigating life – family, friends, work, relationships, dieting – as a fat woman. This is a story about moving through a world that demeans you at every turn, and it is incredibly rewarding to watch Annie evolve from humble, self-effacing, and apologetic into funny, brash, and brave. Shrill made a strong and lasting emotional impression on me, and it changed the way I see myself and others – especially their invisible struggles.

Runners-Up

Letterkenny
Good Omens
Tidying Up with Marie Kondo

Favorite Game of the Year

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There was some quiet indie hype surrounding Outer Wilds. Published by Annapurna Interactive – which also produced Florence, a wonderful app game I reviewed in a previous post – this game is Firewatch meets Firefly meets Groundhog Day. The player, armed only with a translation tool, radio, and camera, is caught in a 22-minute loop, starting with awakening at a campsite beneath the stars, launching into space, and researching a long-dead civilization, before the sun goes supernova and destroys everything in the system. Wake up, explore, die, repeat – until you understand why it’s happening. And maybe do something about it.

Look, I’ll be real: if you are prone to existential dread, Outer Wilds is going to mess you up. The whole Groundhog Day gimmick is in service to a shockingly bold question about the purpose of our existence in a way that I’ve never seen any other medium – game or otherwise – try to do. I still think about it a lot.

Outer Wilds took me on an adventure I was not expecting or, honestly, entirely emotionally prepared for. It gave me moments of fear and triumph that haven’t experienced in anything else in some time. The game is far from perfect: the ship flies like a toilet covered with banana peels and it gives you no guidance whatsoever on how to actually finish the story (though, admittedly, that’s sort of the point). If all of this seems extremely vague, it’s because I desperately want you to play it for yourself and feel all these terrible and wonderful feelings without expectations, because the struggle is absolutely worth the payoff.

Runners-Up

Untitled Goose Game
Pokémon Sword and Shield

Dead by Daylight (not from 2019 – just played a lot of it!)

Favorite Album of the Year

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The trajectory of Lizzo’s career across 2019 is basically a straight vertical line: from the release of the music video for “Juice” in January to performing “Truth Hurts” at the BET Awards in June, Lizzo went from relative obscurity to the longest-running #1 song by a solo female rapper in the unbelievable span of only six months. Cuz I Love You had more plays for me than any other album this year by a long shot, and for good reason: Lizzo’s incredible pipes and relentless confidence, packaged in 11 unskippable tracks, create a nearly transcendent state of positive self-love. The twerking-while-fluting is a great gag, too.

Not sure if Lizzo is for you? Watch her NPR Tiny Desk Concert, where she is at her most effervescent and charming.

Runners-Up

Dedicated (Carly Rae Jepsen)
Wasteland, Baby! (Hozier)
My Name is Michael Holbrook (Mika)

Resolutions for 2020

See as many movies as I read books

I’m always scrambling at the end of the year to get caught up on the pop culture that I was neglecting throughout the year, by which I mean movies and TV shows. I think I’ve figured out my problem: when I’m sitting at home, I rarely want to take a risk on renting a movie I’ve never seen before, potentially losing an hour or two on something I won’t like, and instead defer to a movie I’ve seen a million times but know I will love, namely Mad Max: Fury Road or Pride and Prejudice or Spirited Away. But I end up missing out on a lot this way and I’d like to do better. So, for 2020, my big goal is to see as many movies as I read books, which usually works out to one per week. I’m not the movie-watching type, but I’d like to be!

Get out of the Navy

You’d think this was a done deal by now. I think it is. But I guess you never really know; I could sleepwalk into my own reenlistment (story of some people’s careers). Regardless of whether or not I get accepted to graduate school, my time in the Navy will come to an end in 2020. It’s just a matter of when: July or October.

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Books to Recommend to Anyone

I struggle with giving recommendations of any kind – movies, music, games, TV shows, and books especially. I worry that my taste is so niche that no one else will like what I like – or worse, that my recommendation will reflect some bizarre personality trait that will forever change that person’s perception of what I’m all about. So when you find me giving an emphatic recommendation, when I’m begging you to experience something, it’s because I believe so strongly that it isn’t just for weirdos like me.

It definitely helps to know the other person’s tastes. I thought that the movie Your Name was so beautiful and moving that I want everyone else to see it, too, and have a nice therapeutic cry, but I also understand that a lot of people are not about that weeaboo life. That’s totally fine; in fact, it’s probably for the best. Personally, I’m offended when someone recommends any young adult-genre books to me or any movie where violence and gore are featured prominently. Y’all gotta know by now that those are not part of my brand.

So when I say I would recommend these books to anyone, I mean that I would include no less than the following people: my family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, Bible study group, strangers, significant others, and people whose opinions of me I genuinely care about. It should come as little surprise that the majority of these picks were also recommended to me by friends and family – the people who know me best.

In no particular order:

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (1936)

An extremely useful book with a very lousy title. It would be more accurate to call it Common Sense for Dealing With People. It contains gentle reminders that other people are just like you and want to be treated with dignity and respect. Wild, right? But sometimes we do need those reminders, especially when we hit social roadblocks. Recommended to me by my mentor.

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell (2008)

An entertaining romp through New England history. This is worth listening to on audiobook – Sarah Vowell has a very distinct voice. I am partial to this particular book of hers because I’m from the region, but I think it is enjoyable for anyone interested in learning about our country’s earliest days. I also really liked her book Unfamiliar Fishes about Hawaii’s history and its “acquisition” (very dramatic air quotes) by the United States. Recommended to me by a close friend.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017)
We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen (2011)

Usually I’d feel a little uncomfortable recommending books exceeding 500 pages, but these two stories made huge impressions on me. Both are translated works by non-American authors and both are multi-generational family sagas – the first about the Korean experience in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Japan, and the second about sailors from the Danish town of Marstal. I read Pachinko when it started receiving a lot of critical acclaim, and I picked up We, the Drowned completely on a whim (actually because of the very good cover art).

Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson (1953)
Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson (1957)

Shirley Jackson is best known for her spooky stuff. People read “The Lottery” in high school to scare them out of being judgmental little terrors, and now that The Haunting of Hill House has a Netflix remake, Shirley Jackson is probably more popular than ever (at least, since she first published “The Lottery” and got flamed for it). A lot of folks don’t know that she has written humor, too, centering around her family life with her husband and children. Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons are those rare books that made me laugh out loud. Shirley Jackson is masterful at calling attention to small, seemingly mundane details – only this time, it’s for the sake of humor rather than horror. I’m on a quest to read everything Shirley has written, and if you don’t have a taste for horror, this is a book anyone can and will enjoy.

Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel (2013)

I picked this up at the small, dusty library at one of our deployment sites. Where better? As I worked my way through this book, I had a hard time containing my emotions – especially when reading in public. This investigative account of Iraq war veterans readjusting to civilian life will be challenging to read if you, too, have served, but it is so important that stories like these – true, tough, sobering stories – become part of our American collective social consciousness. So many people live their lives completely unaffected by our many wars churning overseas; they have to know what it’s like for the people who come home from them.

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (2016)

An English nurse is sent to a small Irish town to observe a child, hailed as a miracle from heaven, who claims she can subsist entirely without food or water. Is the child telling the truth? If not, to what lengths will she go to maintain the lie? This story, based loosely on true events, demonstrates the careful balance between scientific skepticism and human empathy. It poses a tremendous moral question about the limits of personal autonomy. Recommended by a book podcast, and read it almost entirely in one sitting.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2018)

This is a little closer to the “weirder” end of the spectrum given the subject matter one of the principle characters is obsessed with, but this is a short and important story about identity and belonging amidst intense social pressure to be different. The main character finds herself falling behind other people her age, socially – she only works part-time and has no interest in dating or starting a family. She is completely fine with it until the people around her make feel like something is wrong with her for being happy with what she has. There is something wrong with her, but not in the way that everyone thinks. Recommended by a ton of book reviewers toward the end of 2018.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo (2011)

Oh yes, you know I’m on this bullshit right now!

Despite being very interested in cleanliness and organization, I put off reading this book for ages. I was afraid of being browbeaten into minimalism, shamed for wanting to surround myself with all of my worldly possessions. But, at the start of this year, Marie Kondo’s show on Netflix was released, and she got wildly popular – and also widely condemned. I read her book not with the intention of implementing her method into my life, but to get educated on her ideas so I, too, could participate in The Discourse™. Unfortunately for me, Kondo is such a sweet and charming person, and her ideas about keeping only the belongings which bring you the most joy seem so fundamentally true and useful, that I couldn’t find much wrong with her system. In fact, I discovered that her critics were deliberately or mistakenly misconstruing Kondo’s principles. I am in the process of tidying my house right now.

Harry Potter (series) by JK Rowling

Obviously. Yes. Of course.

I am astonished that I am meeting grown adults who never experienced the Harry Potter stories. But what if the appeal wears off with age? Are the books still enjoyable as an adult? I started re-reading them a few months ago and, yes, these books are absolutely still a delight. So if you’re late to the Hogwarts Express and worried that it won’t appeal to you anymore, fear not: these stories are just as magical now as they were decades ago. JK Rowling is an incredible storyteller. Her ongoing murder-mystery novels (the Cormoran Strike series) are also very, very good, but I know that genre is pretty niche and not for everyone.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1996)

If I were to write a book, I would want to write one just like Jon Krakauer.

This is an account of Chris McCandless, a young man who hitchhiked his way up to Alaska to live alone in the wilderness – and how he died. This is, I think, the only book recommended to me by my brother, who has way more interesting hobbies than reading. It appealed immediately not only to my love of investigative journalism, but also my heart’s deepest desire, which is to live in complete solitude in nature. This story shows clearly the dangerous line between idealism and cold, hard reality, and it is something I will never forget. Jon Krakauer is a truly gifted writer.


The most fascinating thing about this list is that none of my most favorite authors or books are on it. These books are so important to me that recommending them to someone else makes me feel intolerably vulnerable. Having someone reject them would feel like they are also rejecting me. It’s hard not to take it personally when it is your most favorite thing. These books reflect who I am.

But I am going to be brave. Here are some of those books, just in case:
Cryptonomicon or Anathem by Neal Stephenson
Mélusine by Sarah Monette
Saga (comic series) by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples
The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
The Likeness by Tana French
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood

I hope some of these books will strike you as interesting. Please feel free to recommend your favorite books to me! I am always happy to read the things that you think are important or left an impression on you.

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