Okay. Weird week.
It started out well enough. Monday was fine. On Tuesday I went to J&S’s house to celebrate J’s birthday, which was fun even if their kids were extra squirrely.
Then Wednesday came along.
I walked outside on Wednesday morning, and it was weirdly warm and humid. Like it might be on a late May morning. Not a December morning. The wind picked up around 10:30, and by 2:00 that afternoon, the clouds started building. Around 3:00, a thin line of storms was sweeping toward us. When it hit, it brought a 93mph wind gust (the second-highest recorded here), and cloud rotation that prompted a tornado warning. We had heavy rain and yet more wind that blew the roof off an apartment complex and a couple of area houses, flipped a semi-trailer truck, and caused several cars on a coal train to derail.
My neighborhood was mostly fine. The tree in front of the ever-under-renovation house was blown down, but aside from that and a few branches, our trees and roofs are fine. We didn’t lose power, either, like about 6,000 other people in town did. So it was a nasty and unseasonable storm, but given how strong its elements were, it could have been a lot worse.
Thursday night, I listened to the NCAA Division I volleyball tournament semi-final (the Final Four), where Nebraska played Pittsburgh. Because the Wisconsin/Louisville game went to five sets, the Nebraska game started an hour late. It took Nebraska four sets to beat Pittsburgh to advance to the championship, which was Saturday night.
On Saturday night, I fired up the computer to listen to the live stream of the final game. Nebraska started out hot and won the first set handily, but Wisconsin rallied and from there it was a battle to the end, when Wisconsin ended up winning in the fifth set, 15-12, to win their first national championship. This Nebraska team has nothing to feel bad about, though, as they had a rough road midseason, and made it to the championship game with a lot of young players who were dealing with illness (the flu, not covid) and injuries in the final week. So congratulations all around!
Obligatory Mina Photo:
Doesn’t she look glamourous? Like she’s the most beautiful cat out there? Like she is the cat of cats, and all the other cats want to be just like her?
Don’t be fooled. The light was great in my bedroom that afternoon, and Mina was positioned perfectly on my chair, but I had to wait so long for her to stop grooming herself so I could get a couple of photos of her looking amazing in that light. It’s like the Instagram influencers who only show the very best bits of their lives, and pretend the awkward behind-the-scenes stuff never happens. Believe me, she can be completely awkward.
For example: I have had to get a doorstop for the bathroom door, as Mina developed this habit of going into the bathroom in the middle of the night, rooting around in the recycling cabinet, and then closing the door on herself. This resulted in some frantic pawing at the door until I woke up and set her free. Repeat almost every night, because she never learns.
Fortunately, I finally learned and got myself a doorstop. Now there is no more frantic pawing at the bathroom door at 5AM.
What I Finished Reading Last Week:
- Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver
- The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzō
- Alaric the Goth: An Outsider’s History of the Fall of Rome by Douglas Boin
Upstream is a gorgeous collection of some of Oliver’s essays about both nature and literature. They weren’t the sorts of essays I was expecting, and I’m glad they weren’t. Oliver’s perspective on nature is different from others I’ve encountered, and her writing is so beautiful and effective. It only took a paragraph or two for me to be sucked into each essay, and I cried more than once. If you enjoy nature writing, give Upstream a try.
The Book of Tea is Okakura Kakuzō’s early twentieth-century treatise on the importance of tea and the concept of ‘teaism’, which he says is a philosophy of aesthetics common to eastern Asian countries like Japan and China. He argues that this philosophy, which embraces minimalism and an appreciation for simple things, is superior to Western notions, which were (and are) all about maximalism and collecting cheap goods. I really appreciated Okakura Kakuzō’s insights and his perspective on Western ideals. This is probably something I will read again, as it didn’t entirely soak in the first time through.
Alaric the Goth was an interesting look at Alaric the Goth, whose army sacked Rome in 410 CE. He and his people are usually portrayed as wild, blood-thirsty barbarians who invaded Rome for no reason except for the love of violence, but Boin flips the narrative, using historical evidence to point out how Rome had discriminated against tribes like the Goths for generations, and finally committed acts of genocide against them thanks to the paranoia against immigrants. Alaric was lucky to have survived to adulthood because of this, and yet he was initially still loyal to Rome, was an officer in the Roman military, and was moving up in the ranks until he was summarily dismissed thanks to prejudice against the Goths. His disaffection grew and grew, and with the growth of religious zealotry that furthered discrimination against his people, Alaric finally had it, and invaded Rome. So the story of Alaric is not a simple, “savage barbarians invade Rome, destroy everything” story. It’s a complex series of events building up thanks to discrimination, genocide, and zealotry. It wasn’t the most enthralling popular history book I’ve ever read, but it did make me re-evaluate the narrative I’ve always heard of the later Roman empire.
What I’m Currently Reading:
- The Lord of the Rings (Illustrated Edition) by J.R.R. Tolkien, illustrated by the author (65/1248)
- The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell (39%)
- The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho, audiobook narrated by Nancy Wu (77%)
I started my annual re-read of The Lord of the Rings, but thanks to this very busy week, I’ve only just reached chapter three, ‘Three is Company’. So I’m looking forward to getting further into it this week. Gandalf has just explained the basic history of the Ring to Frodo, and Frodo has decided to take up this burden and keep it safe for the time being. And Sam is definitely not eavesdropping.
The Diary of a Bookseller is just what the title says it is: a light-hearted and often snarky bookseller’s diary, taking the reader through a used bookshop owner’s year as he explains how he runs his business (a little used bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland). It’s not an easy thing to make a living at, given that there are days where people hardly buy anything, Amazon screws with his sales and the listed prices of his books, and he’s often offered worthless books from people looking to offload unwanted collections. He describes his customers, both the good and the bad. You can sense how he appreciates the good customers, and how annoying the bad ones are. Like the ones who will find a great bargain on a used book, and then try to haggle the price down ever further. I’ve worked retail before, so I completely sympathize with Blythell when it comes to bad customers. Folks, don’t be a bad customer. Retail workers have enough problems on their hands. They don’t need even more bad customers. I’m looking forward to finishing this one, and I will probably look for Blythell’s next book, Confessions of a Bookseller.
I’m nearly finished with the audiobook of The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, and so far it’s fine. That’s all. It’s fine. I’m enjoying it. It’s a character-driven story about a group of men (they’re definitely not bandits) who are carrying a shipment of precious goods to a buyer through hostile territory. They inadvertently cause a former nun to lose her job in a coffee house, so she takes up with them and does her best to make herself useful. Of course things go awry, and now everyone is trying to pick up the pieces to make the best of a bad situation.
Did Not Finish:
- The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling, audiobook narrated by Mandy Weston
I don’t know if it was just me or what, but the farther along I got in this book, the less interested I was. I may come back to this, I might not.
What I Plan to Start Reading This Week:
- The Forgotten Kingdom (The Lost Queen #2) by Signe Pike
I got this for Christmas last year, and I intended to read it in 2021. That has not happened yet, and time is running out. So once I’ve gotten farther along in my current reads, I’m going to start this one.
What I’ve Been Watching:
Directed by Rebecca Hall
Starring: Tessa Thompson, Ruth Negga, Andre Holland, Bill Camp
Streaming on Netflix
Passing is based upon Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name. High school friends Irene (Thompson) and Clare (Negga) haven’t seen each other for years, but a chance encounter brings them back together. Irene is living a mostly comfortable life with her husband, a doctor, in Harlem. Clare has been passing as a white woman since she left school– enough so that she married a bigoted white man whose money has given her a luxurious life, as long as he doesn’t find out that she’s Black. But that chance encounter awakens old desires in Clare, and soon she appears everywhere Irene turns, charming everyone with her beauty and charisma, leaving Irene more unsettled with every passing day.
This film, shot in a 1:1 ratio and in black and white, is absolutely gorgeous. Every frame is a work of art. Really, it’s a masterclass in composition and lighting, and I would fully expect to see this under consideration for best cinematography at the Oscars. I’m a bit less keen on the directorial decisions. There’s a lot of odd spacing in the dialogue and blocking, which makes it feel like a cross between 1940s films and stage productions. It’s an odd effect, and if I watched more mid-century cinema I probably wouldn’t notice it, but as I mostly watch 21st-century movies, there’s a marked contrast.
Still, I can’t fault Thompson or Negga’s performances. I think they nail the characters of Irene and Clare, and though it’s been a few years since I’ve read Passing, the tension between the two women in the film feels like what I recall from the book. There are a lot of things going on between Irene and Clare: the stresses caused by being Black women in the U.S. in the 1920s, the stresses of motherhood, and of marriage. I also read some amount of sexual tension in the interactions between the two women, mostly initiated by Clare.
I definitely recommend Passing. It’s a quietly tense story with a lot of layers, and it’s gorgeous to look at.
The Power of the Dog
Directed by Jane Campion
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jesse Plemons
Streaming on Netflix
Phil Burbank (Cumberbatch) is a menacing but charismatic rancher in charge of a cattle ranch in 1920s Montana. The normal rhythms of his life are unsettled when his brother George marries Rose (Dunst) and brings her and her teenage son Peter (Smit-McPhee) to live with them. Phil immediately loathes Rose and seeks to break her down in any way that he can. But a strange relationship begins to develop between Phil and Peter that could utterly unravel Phil and everything he has built.
The Power of the Dog is Jane Campion’s first film in something like twelve years. It’s another gorgeously shot movie (filmed in New Zealand, which stands in very well for Montana) that is both open to the land and extremely claustrophobic. Cumberbatch is already getting Oscar buzz for this performance, and I think he’ll be a strong contender for it. It’s not easy to make a deplorable human also be charismatic, but he manages it. He’s also frightening, as Phil is the sort of intelligent character who can figure out what your weaknesses are, and will just dig down into them to take you apart.
This is a slow-building film, and I’ll admit to being confused about what was going on in the first twenty minutes or so, but once the pieces started falling into place, I was entranced. It’s an intense story that weals with a raft of issues: of what toxic masculinity does to everyone affected by it, how repressed desire can damage a person, and how we cling to ways of life that are being lost to the past, among other things.
I’m betting that The Power of the Dog will be up for a whole bunch of awards once the Oscar nominations are announced.