In the last edition of Marginalia for the year, some of my favourite things in 2023 – books, movies, podcasts, and more.
Seasons greetings, friends. When Substack first announced its social media app, Notes, I marked my joining it with this post:
“The unbearable weight of choosing profundity or irony in your first post on a new platform…”
I find the inclination towards profundity is similarly strong when writing an end-of-year review. Here is a chance to capture something of the tenor of the last twelve months with, if one has the talent, style and maybe even wit. Lacking those qualities, a person can always compile a list of things worth directing their reader’s attention at, signposting some favourite films, books, podcasts, and articles from the year in question. Here is a list of such things.
I do hope you can find here some quality signal that got lost in the noise of 2023. I’ve included some of my own reviews of books and films that had a huge impact on me, as well as some articles and video-essays that demonstrate how well cultural criticism is thriving in the digital era.
See you all in the new year.
The Vegan, Andrew Lipstein
“I greatly enjoyed Lipstein’s first novel, Last Resort, so I fully expected to enjoy whatever he wrote next. The Vegan met my expectations and went well beyond. While Lipstein is not always the most graceful prose stylist (there are no sentential fireworks here), he knows how to get to the truth of things in a manner that often giddily plays with sheer thrills and literary introspection. The Vegan is much sharper with its ideas than Last Resort, much more assured and mature in its telling. Here is a book that makes the reader grateful for words even as the central character derides their value.”
So Late in the Day, Claire Keegan
“Reading So Late in the Day, I was reminded of Meister Eckhart’s expression, “The eye through which I see God is the eye through which God sees me.” The same can be said of literature, which is seen by the reader and sees the reader in turn. Great writing often implicates us in its moral universe, dares us to identify with the worst of its actors before challenging us to cast the first stone. So Late in the Day is a masterpiece of such moral body-switching.”
The Best Minds, Jonathan Rosen
“Jonathan Rosen’s account of an individual’s descent into extreme mental illness is actually many things — biography of his childhood friend, Michael Laudor; potted biographies of seemingly everyone in a twentieth century who’s-who in the arts, philosophy, academia, and psychiatry; a history of “madness”, its vilification and glorification, and how governments have struggled to accommodate the mentally unwell — and it brings them all together in a seamless, eminently readable whole.”
Hello, Bookstore, dir. A. B. Zax
“Hello, Bookstore is the cinematic equivalent of browsing for books. The camera is always leisurely, never in a hurry to make a point or even tell you what you ought to be looking at (although, like a good bookseller, it does occasionally draw your attention to things that might interest you). […] Hello, Bookstore is not after converts. It unfolds to reveal the overlapping lives that depend on this store (and those who simply enjoy it; the film makes clear that this simple pleasure is not to be sniffed at). It is enough for the film to lay out how many people value the bookstore. The viewer, in possession of a beating heart and a feeling soul, cares that these people might lose the place they love.”
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, dir. Kelly Fremon Craig
C. S. Lewis once wrote, “The neat sorting-out of books into age-groups, so dear to publishers, has only a very sketchy relation with the habits of any real reader.” This derision could be as appropriately aimed at the division of books into those for boys and those for girls. I learned this after the fact, not knowing until I’d already fallen in love with the books of Jacqueline Wilson and Judy Blume that theirs were not “meant for boys”. According to the culture, that is, rather than according to the authors.
I first read Are You There, God? when I was on the cusp of puberty, the first of my siblings to cross that threshold. The book didn’t explain much of my own experience or what I could expect, but it was the first time I felt true empathy for the hidden lives of my sisters. As we all went through our teen years, even as we pissed each other off as only siblings can, I recalled from time to time what I’d learned in the pages of Blume’s book about the secret passions and horrors my sisters were facing. For all of that, I never forgot Are You There, God?
So I was thrilled to learn that the story would be brought to another generation in a film adaptation that looked to be preserving much of the novel’s innate charm, along with its period setting. By the time I saw the film, I was steeped in the wonderful commentary surrounding it, from women talking about what it meant to them as girls, to mothers writing about their hopes that their own children would benefit as they had from it, to cultural critics rightly moved that a book so often censored in its time can now be shown on a big screen. This filled me with so much goodwill I knew I would be grateful for the film regardless of what I thought of it critically.
As it turns out, the film is really good. It is lovely, charming, important, and deals with the material with great sensitivity. That said, its handling of religion is disappointingly thin and feels a little tacked on, but this is more than made up for by the depth of feeling evoked by Margaret’s relationship with her grandma and the joys and sadnesses of female friendship. I highly recommend the film itself, and also this particular piece from The New York Times, in which the journalist meets Judy Blume at a screening of the film — every reader knows the feeling she describes:
There were so many things I wanted to say: You showed me how honesty can suck the sting out of just about everything — worry, embarrassment, loneliness, fear, even the bafflements of the human body. You taught me that nothing is unspeakable. Margaret will always have a place on my shelf. And, just curious/no pressure, have you considered a sequel about menopause? Did Margaret suffer from insomnia? Did she have any luck with melatonin?But when it was my turn to say goodbye to Judy Blume, I only managed to choke out two words: “Thank you.”
Around the Web
The Absurdist Reality of Asteroid City, Thomas Flight [YouTube]
To be frank, I could have picked any of Thomas Flight’s video-essays at random and had a quality pick for a highlight from this year. But I have to signpost his video on Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City. It is, first and foremost, a beautifully made video-essay, and its third chapter (“You Can’t Wake Up If You Don’t Fall Asleep”) is incredibly moving.
Flight’s analysis is sharp and compelling, and it runs directly counter to my own uncomplimentary review of the film. Asteroid City’s postmodern iconoclasm and rending of the metaphorical curtain (made actual in this film) did not endear me to it. Try as I hard as I did — because why wouldn’t I want to love a Wes Anderson film? — I couldn’t get excited by Asteroid City.
Flight’s analysis has convinced me that there’s something there that I am missing. It certainly could be the case that I fundamentally have a lower tolerance than Flight has for postmodern tomfoolery. But what his video-essay does show without any doubt is that the film should not be easily dismissed; I owe it a closer look and will go back to the film soon. You can watch Thomas Flight’s video-essay in the player above or by following the link here.
Wes Anderson’s Roald Dahl Quartet Abounds in Audacious Artifice and Stinging Political Critique, Richard Brody [The New Yorker]
“Wes Anderson’s new quartet of films, based on stories by Roald Dahl, which dropped on Netflix last week, may be brief — three are seventeen-minutes long, one runs thirty-nine — but there’s nothing minor about them. They make even clearer what his features have long shown: Anderson is one of the two most original inventors of cinematic forms since the heyday of the late Jean-Luc Godard. […] Anderson’s Dahl shorts go further than ever in foregrounding his conceptual work, but the results are more than just theoretical; they embody a vision of human relations, of society at large, that is properly understood to be political.”
Will AI Change Our Memories?, Evan Puschak as NerdWriter [YouTube]
While some of us have been considering the inevitability of AI for years now, it always seemed a niche concern. Sam Harris’ 2016 Ted Talk on our ability to control AI seemed like fear-mongering to some at the time and appears now as equal parts prescient and totally unheeded. Invocations of Cassandra are too obvious, but also disconcertingly apt. With a rapidity only a computer mind could keep up with, the concept of how AI might interact with society and culture has become a topic that everyone’s cat has an opinion on.
Through the noise, a few voices have articulated the right questions — answers are perhaps the wrong thing to look for at this juncture; too much remains unknown and changes come with such speed that assumptions are turned over at a mile a minute. For obvious reasons, I have been largely interested in the ways that AI is currently interacting with art and how that might change in the future. (I wrote this piece on the difference between art and artificial creation.)
One of those asking interesting questions is Evan Puschak of NerdWriter on YouTube. His video-essay on the ways that memory is shaped by the media with which we capture our memories — specifically photographs and videos — and how AI threatens to alter our perception of reality by altering our memories is, I think, required viewing. You can watch it in the player above or by following the link here.
Marginalia, plur. noun: “In getting my books, I have always been solicitous of an ample margin … for the facility it affords me of penciling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.” ~ Edgar Allan Poe