2017 was, for the most part, a pretty garbage year. Let’s celebrate the silver linings that helped get me through the tough headlines. These things did not have to be new in 2017–they just had to be new to me. And I am presenting them in no particular order.
To date, S*Town is the only podcast that has made me cry. I dare you to listen to Chapter VI and not cry. S*Town begins with a man who despises his hometown in Alabama reaching out to an NPR reporter to come investigate a crime he says is being covered up. That (and a subplot involving possible buried treasure) are red herrings for what quickly becomes a stirring investigation into one man’s life and the people he left behind. It’s a work of staggering beauty that won’t leave you when you finish the last episode.
A Manual for Cleaning Women, by Lucia Berlin
Lucia Berlin lived a somewhat chaotic life, so it’s perhaps fitting that this collection of her brilliant short stories often reflects moody, chaotic lives of desperation. Her sumptuous writing draws you in and refuses to let you go–forcing you to look at the people who usually live on the periphery, unnoticed. She makes you see the magic in the everyday. Many short story masters have credited her as a key influence on their writing, and it’s not difficult to see why.
Unquestionably the best picture of 2016, Moonlight is like poetry put into motion. Each segment is profound and moving–if removed, they could stand powerfully on their own, but together they form a masterpiece. The final segment in particular left an emotional imprint that is still with me months after I watched this movie. It will probably stay with me going forward. “Hello Stranger” has a permanent spot on my iTunes playlist now. Yes, it deserved to win Best Picture over that garbage movie, La La Land.
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
I’m a ride-or-die fan of Linda Carter as Wonder Woman, so I’ve rolled my eyes at each attempt to recast the character over the years. Who could possibly play the part better than Carter? After her short introduction in the otherwise execrable Batman vs Superman last year, I was cautiously optimistic that Gal Gadot was a good choice. Wonder Woman proved that she was actually a perfect choice: she’s tough, funny, inquisitive, honorable, and vulnerable. Not to mention that she’s far more interesting than anyone else in DC’s movie universe right now.
2 Dope Queens
This was the very first podcast I started to listen to in 2016 and in 2017 it became my go-to. If I need something to listen to, or if I’m having a bad day, I turn to the 2 Dope Queens to turn things around. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve cycled through every episode but it always feels fresh, honest, and hilarious. Billy Joel once said that honesty is hardly ever heard, but I know I’ll always be able to rely on Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams to give me the real-real on life.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies, by John Boyne
When I read the description of The Heart’s Invisible Furies, I had a pretty good idea that it was going to speak to me. I did not, however, expect it to be one of the few books that has made me both laugh and cry. It’s a witty, humane story that is well-crafted and manages to be both timely and timeless. I enjoyed it immensely. Full review here.
Judgment at Nuremberg
Speaking of something that is both timely and timeless, I watched Judgment at Nuremberg for the first time this year and was staggered by how relevant it is following the 2016 presidential election. Like my favorite Kurt Vonnegut novel, Mother Night, Judgment explores what it is to be complicit and asks tough questions about how helping to do bad–even for the purpose of doing good along the way–makes you just as culpable as the perpetrators. It makes stellar use of its all-star cast, too.
Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History, hits all of my buttons. I discovered it last year and eagerly awaited this year’s season two. In the meantime, I devoured almost all of the books Gladwell has written on audiobook. That’s how obsessed I am with his work. I don’t always agree with his conclusions, and I think he’s sometimes better suited to smaller formats like his podcast (some of his books meander and don’t connect to the central thesis very well in parts). But the fact remains: Gladwell is addictive to me, and I just can’t get enough.
It’s not the most popular show on right now by any means, but I would happily tell you why Code Black deserves more recognition any day. It’s a medical drama that emphasizes the medical aspect. Unlike Grey’s Anatomy, it isn’t concerned with the drama of who’s sleeping with who. Unlike Chicago Med, it actually has good doctors who understand how to respect their patients (and who are actually likable). It’s the best heir to ER I’ve seen, and I am here for that.
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
I’m not always a fan of George Saunders. I’ve found some of his narrative tricks tiresome over the years, so when he releases a book to rapturous praise I am always suspicious. I finally picked up Lincoln in the Bardo after it won the Man Booker Prize, when it felt like I needed to experience it to properly hate on it. For the first thirty pages, I thought I was right. Imagine my surprise, then, when I fell totally in love with it after that? It’s a gorgeous, elegiac look at life and death populated with truly unforgettable characters. I have never been so happy to be proven wrong.
Fun Home: The Musical
Fun Home is one of my favorite books, so I was nervous about whether or not the musical would be able to properly capture it. Boy, did it. What a joy to experience. I saw it performed by a regional theater in Helena, Montana, and the casting was surprisingly impeccable. That regional players performed it with such enthusiasm and care speaks volumes about how universal the story is. If it comes near you, grab tickets.
Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner
This book has been on my radar for a while now, which usually only means that a build-up of hype crushes the reality. Not so. Angle of Repose is, like its narrator, unreliable, wordy, and highly intelligent. If parts of it seem to drag with a surplus of detail, it all adds up to a glorious whole. By the end, there wasn’t a single part I would remove because every moment added something. It asks deep questions about whether or not we can ever really know history, how we relate to our families and friends, and how the past finds ways to repeat itself. One of my all-time favorites.
The March Trilogy, by John Lewis
There’s a bitter coda to the graphic novel memoirs by Civil Rights activist John Lewis (now a Congressman). The premise of the first volume is that Lewis reflects on the civil rights movement on a day of great celebration: the inauguration of Barack Obama, the first African American president. Reading it after the election of 2016 adds an unexpectedly somber footnote, but it also makes the story all the more important to share and remember.
We watched this Ken Burns documentary on Netflix. I expected to watch this the same way I watch most things nowadays: mostly by listening while my face focuses on my smartphone. But The Roosevelts grabbed my attention and I ended up watching reverently. It’s a wonderfully thorough, intelligent examination of three notable figures (Theodore, Eleanor, and Franklin) and the people who shaped them in their lives. I found it inspiring and entertaining.
You Must Remember This
I’ve always been something of a Hollywood junkie, so Karina Long’s expertly researched podcast about Hollywood’s first century is right up my alley. She tells the stories of big stars and gives behind the scenes stories about their lives and their roles in larger issues. But the most fascinating episodes frequently focus on the lesser known or forgotten stars and how they came to be passed over in the collective conscious. I dig it.