After seeing and being taken with Chloe Zhoa’s The Rider, one of my all time favorite films, I became enamored with whatever it was that she was going to make next. When Nomadland was announced I eagerly awaited it’s arrival. Which took a long, long time to finally become available. Having read the book in the meantime, I became even more excited to see what Zhoa could bring to the intimate nature of this true life story. The end result is a poignant and emotionally gripping reminder of the world we call home, the spaces we occupy and call home within this world, and the people that give these spaces and these homes their sense of life.
Saint Maud (2019)
A haunting portrait that explores that line between religious devotion and obsession. It gets particularly powerful in the way it examines the nature of past sins and the possibility of restitution, especially where these things connect with important religious ideas such as salvation and transformation. It’s wonderfully atompsheric, giving us a sense early on that something is not quite right, and the film exploits that sense of unsettledness to evoke the weight of its own spiritual concern.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
My first thought after catching up with this older gem from the 1940’s was, they don’t make them like this anymore. This story about three World War 2 soldiers returning home and the life they struggle to reoccupy is epic in nature, rich in substance, character and dialogue, and beautifully structured around the simple power of its story beats. The film has a visible presence in the post war world and captures a world emerging from its rubble while also giving us a sense of these particular American stories. Undeniably perfect in so many ways.
The One I Love (2014)
Probably the biggest surprise for me of the month, this film represents one of the most billiant depictions of relational struggle that I’ve seen in a long, long time. It’s creative, incredibly astute, equal parts reflection, joy and devastation, and also challenging in how it posits these ideas of forgiveness, fualts, healing and reconciliation as connected to both matters of the will and choice and the reality of our social circumstance.
My first real contender for my top films of the year. And unfortunately, and not suprisingly, no one is seeing or talking about this film much at all. This film from India is an exceptional retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (more inspired by than an interpretation of), giving the themes in that familiar tale some weighty context as it explors the evils and trappings of greed, isolation, family struggle and guilt. It’s a slow burn approach, but it utilizes every ounce of the space that it lives in, which is a contained setting (a large house and its grounds) rich with symbolism, especially in how it imagines these hierarchal systems in terms of this vertical and horizontal movement (most notably as we move from the despair and the sludge of the pit to the nearly royal position of the mansion’s highest rooms). Equally present is the picture of blood, with the blood defining relations, life and death, purity and evil, with the binding relations contrasted with the tearing apart of these relations.
Honorable Mention: What Drives Us (2021) Another leading contender for film’s of the year. A documentary for the hidden rocker in all of us.
Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots by James Suzman
I have written in this space about some of the ways this book inspired me over the course of this past month. It certainly would not have been Suzman’s intent, but his examination of this notion of work inspired my faith and awoken me to some questions about the way we do things (and why) that I had not really considered before. Most compelling is one of his central thesis, which posits that with the discovery of fire, for the first time in human history we have an energy source doing the work normally attributed to us. This changed the force of entropy in terms of our human development and social discourse, and also redirected the evolutionary narrative away from a model of abundance to one of scarcity, which has been the dominant narrative ever since. Scarcity lies at the root of so much of humanities social struggle.
Super compelling book that I’ll be thinking about for a long while.
The Orchard by David Hopen
If ever there was a book that deserved the moniker “compulsively readable” it would be The Orchard. I kept waiting for this story about a conversative Jewish family from a conservative Jewish neighborhood and Church in Brooklyn who move to a liberal neighborhood and Liberal Jewish school in L.A. to devolve into tropes and caricatures of either the necessary secularizing of the religiously conditioned and pious young boy (the central character of the story) or the pitfalls of outmoded religious belief. And yet the book never goes there, instead following this boy’s journey from innocence to discovery, and thus from faith to questions and back to faith again with fresh perspective in tow.
I was actually quite surprised actually with where the story ultimately ended up, which is in a place I did not expect, but what makes this book so compelling is the character development. Structured by way of the months of the school year, as our main character arrives in the summer and begins this new school, watching him gradually come to grips with this foreign world is never treated in black and white terms, but rather captures the nuance of faith’s uncertainy and the world’s allure, as well as the world’s pitfalls the faith’s power. Unconventional in this sense, but I could not put it down.
New Yorkers: A City and Its People In Our Time by Craig Taylor
I absolutely loved Taylor’s book The Londoneers. This one isn’t quite as focused given the nature of his writing process. It’s basically a collection of interviews he derived from different relationships he established when he intentionally moved to New York for a short while for the purpose of this research. He wanted to capture the authentic voice of the city and allow it to speak for itself as it it at this moment in time.
I adore New York City, and so to that end this one left its mark in a way that was different than Londoneers, which compelled me more on an intellectual level. This one carries more of a personal bent with its focus on experiences, and while it has something of a narrative structure to it, the meandering style is easy to get lost in. Not every interview works as well as the next, but taken together they offer a compelling snapshot of a city defined by change.
Northland: A 4,000 Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border
We can’t travel right now, so this was going to have to suffice. And it was a ton of fun. The early going is the most interesting as we saunter across the borderlands from East to West. The book does an interesting job at pulling out the history and development of this shared area of our two countries, and in the process links that to the larger history that plays out from these forgotteen spaces. If there is one knock, it would be that it ignores Canada even though its story depends just as much on the Canadian side of the border as the American. I felt like this was short sighted and could have provided a really interesting way into the discussion that we don’t otherwise get. That aside, this is still a well written book with lots of great information, history, adventure and personal experiences. That’s what happens when you set out to travel the forgotten borders with next to nothing.
Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer
I highlighted this book like crazy, documenting much of its information on memory for my own personal research. This is another book I reflected on elsewhere in this space, and most of that reflection came from the unexpected attention it gives to the history of memory. This is not a how to book, even though there is a componant of the book that deals with how to strengthen your memory with key memory exercises. Rather this is an exploration of what memory is, what memory does, and why we have lost sight of memory and its importance in our modern age. This the portion that excited me the most, and much of what this book has to say intersects with much of our modern practice in a revealing way. We don’t tend to think of memory as something we are gradually losing due to the way we function in modern society, and yet this is precisely what is happening. We can literally see that we are rewiring our brains. Not only that, our brains are being rewired in artificial ways, redirecting the evolutionary narrative in ways that force our brains to adapt to artifical rather than natural function. A sobering thing to consider.
Honorable Mention: My Salinger Year by Rakoff Joanna (I talked about the film last month, and the book proved to be a great compliment, highlighting and bringing to life in a fresh way some of the best parts about the film)
The C.S. Lewis Podcast with Alister McGrath (Episodes 1-4)
Alister McGrath penned an official Biography on Lewis’ life (titled Lewis: A Life), and he is recognized as a leading expert in C.S. Lewis. I had been eagerly awaiting this podcast which arrived this month, and thus far it has not disappointed. Each episode looks at a different theme related to Lewis, with a short run time making them an easy and breezy listen.
Undeceptions with John Dickson: Childish God (Episode 50)
Guest Justin Barrett wrote a book studying the science of religious belief called Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief. Not everyone will embrace his findings, but ever since he published back in 2012 I have found some of the conclusions to be fascinating. Especially in a world where assumptions about religious belief abound. This was a great refresher on on the ways these studies helped to shape our understanding of belief.
History Unplugged Podcast: The 15-Hour Work Week Was Standard For Neearly All of History. What Happened? (Episode 527)
This was the podcast interview that led to my interest in James Suzman’s book, which also made my list above. If you don’t have time to read it, I would highly recommend this episode as a way into some of the bigger ideas he explores regarding why we have the view of work that we do today.
Myths and Legends: Samurai Legends, The Devil Went Down to Kyoto (Episode 307)
These stories are always fun, and for anyone interested in a mix of history and myth and culture, this episode on Samurai’s should hit the mark.
Gifford Lectures 2018 (N.T. Wright)
This led me to pick up the book based on these lectures by Wright called History and Eschatology, a book exploring a way back into natural theology following years of ignorance and suspicion in our modern age. The lectures are amazing, and so far the book is just as profound.
Amy Shark- Cry Forever
Intimate and revealing, but also bursting with energy, this personal record tells her story while offering us these intricately woven arrangements that invite us into these stories in a way that makes it our own, or at least a participant in them. This intricacy never betrays the simplicity of the melodies, making that the most defining trait of these songs.
Dante Bowe- Circles
A modern fusion of hip hop, R+B, Gospel and truly urban pop vibes. Bowe’s hooks are undeniably catchy, the soul immediately enrapturing, with both of these things sweeping you under its spell.
Eric Church- Heart and Soul
This has been described as a “concept record… about the everlasting power of music” in Bernstein’s review for Rolling Stone. He notes Church’s penchant for making bonafide, simple, Country songs while also quietly and subtly pushing the boundaries of what Country is, both on a creative level and on the level of genre. He stands apart from the crowd in this respect, adn taken together these two albums provide both the heart and soul of what makes Eric Church Eric Church. It’s a church serivce I will always be keen on attending.
The Choir- Deep Cuts
The product of a kind of kickstarter campaign, Deep Cuts was finally brought to life and made available officially to the broader public. It’s one of their most compelling records in their long history of making music, and it’s such a thrill to have them gracing the stage again (and still). It’s recognizably them with its fusion of instrumentation and melody, but it also feels very intentional, deeply personal and genuinely interesting as composition.
Justin Bieber- Freedom/Justice
We didn’t get just one, but two suprise releases by Bieber this month, with Freedom being the biggest suprise of the two given how it came out of nowhere and just might be his most vulnerable, pasionate, and spiritually laden record to date. Taken together this represents a genuine creative effort that hlds suprising power and intrigue moving forward.
Honorable Mentions: Two new singles announce the return of Imagine Dragons to the scene with the dynamic tunes Follow You and Cutthroat singling that they are as strong as ever. Also, Needtobreathe’s Live From the Woods Vol. 2 captures the spirit of this hopeful return to some kind of normalcy in the future with its first live show captured and taking me back when I saw them playing against the backdrop of downtown Minneapolis and the Mississippi river. Memories and hope combine with this band’s unique fusion of gritty country roots rock, spiritual reflection and soulful/singable melodies.