My 2017: A year in books (and a few films)

a montage of the covers of the books I read in 2017
The books I’ve read for pleasure / personal curiosity in 2017, in the order I read them

Books

Yes, this is a film blog (don’t worry, I’ll get to the films shortly). But – for me – reading replaced writing this year. I said at the start of the year that I had lost interest in writing about films…twelve months later that remains the case. I tried publicly recording (on here) what I watched each month hoping that it might make me write something on a regular schedule but it became nothing more than a listing exercise, and a flurry of activity around a new approach to the Carlos Saura Challenge petered out again once I’d got to the end of the first section (although I am intending to continue with the second section). Books were what managed to hold my attention in 2017.

I always used to have a book on the go, and throughout my teenage years and my twenties could easily get through a book a week (more during the holidays). I’m talking about reading for pleasure or to satisfy personal curiosity (not studying); the ‘list’ above excludes anything I read for job-related purposes. Back in 2013, concurrent situations in personal and professional spheres pushed up my stress/anxiety levels to a point where I couldn’t concentrate on things that didn’t have a clear purpose (or that weren’t obligatory) – reading ceased to be a relaxing activity for me, and I stopped reading for pleasure.

I felt the loss of that in my life, but I got too frustrated by my inability to concentrate on what I was reading. I managed to read fiction occasionally (usually started when on holiday but it would then take me several months to read a not-very-long book) but generally my only reading was the news or magazine articles. I started writing more during this period but knew that I would find it easier (or less difficult) if I was reading more, in terms of grasping both ideas and words. Last year I was determined to get back into reading properly (strangely enough the news isn’t particularly attractive reading material at the moment): I set myself the challenge of a book (fiction or non-fiction) each month. I managed fourteen books in 2016, only five of which were fiction. Non-fiction was easier to get into because such books usually involved me trying to find an answer to something, or understand something that had crossed my radar and piqued my interest, so a sense of purpose came into play. But I was disappointed with my continued distraction in relation to fiction (the five fiction books were all read in the first half of the year), given that it used to dominate my reading habits.

So, to 2017. I doubled my challenge: two books a month, and at least one had to be fiction. I considered how my habits had changed since the days when I always had a book on the go: the bulk of my reading used to be done in the evening but now I was more likely to be on my laptop at that time of day. I decided that my laptop would have to be switched off by 9pm (unless I was studying an online course or watching a film on it). I looked for short story collections and novellas with the idea that I’d be more able to maintain my concentration with shorter texts as a starting point (probably 30-35% of the books I’ve read this year have clocked in at under 200 pages), but I also tracked down the ‘next’ book in several long-running crime fiction series that I’d previously read avidly – the longest books I’ve read this year have all been from the latter category. Although I clearly surpassed my target, I have still had periods where I’ve drifted back into a listless lack of concentration and not read anything for several weeks at a time. I’ve noticed that this corresponds to peaks in my levels of stress/anxiety; obviously that’s something I still need to address. Overall I’m happy with the progress that I’ve made: I’ve enjoyed reading again, and got properly engrossed in a book again (to a stayed-up-far-too-late-to-finish-a-book-when-I-had-work-the-next-day extent). The fiction/non-fiction split has also reversed – 29 fiction / 16 non-fiction – which feels like a good balance (although I’d also be happy with 50/50). I’m currently still reading book no.45, one of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series (it’s the right time of year to reacquaint yourself with old friends) – A Man Without Breath – but should finish it before the year is out.

My top 10 books read this year:

My Top 10 books of 2017

As I’ve said, these were all read for pleasure or to satisfy personal curiosity – I don’t write notes about books read outside of a work/study context, and I don’t read them in order to critique them, so I’m not going to expand on my choices book by book. But they are all books that resonated with me, moved me, made me laugh, or made me consider the world / society from a different perspective. Some aspect of each one has stayed with me, continuing to flitter through my mind long after I finished reading them.

  1. Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson (no, I’ve not seen the film)
  2. A Field Guide to Getting Lost – Rebecca Solnit
  3. A Far Cry from Kensington – Muriel Spark
  4. The Lonely City – Olivia Laing
  5. Closely Watched Trains – Bohumil Hrabal
  6. Nights at the Alexandra – William Trevor
  7. Heroes and Villains – Angela Carter
  8. The Moro Affair – Leonardo Sciascia
  9. The Knowledge Illusion: Why we never think alone – Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach
  10. Tell Me How It Ends: An essay in forty questions – Valeria Luiselli

Honourable mentions (alphabetical by title): A Song of Shadows – John Connolly, Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury, Hold Everything Dear – John Berger, They Can’t Kill Us All – Wesley Lowery.

2018: I’ll be looking to attempt some longer books, and my overall aim will be fifty-two books for the year.

 

Films

At the time of writing, I’ve watched 75 films (56 features and 19 shorts) this year – I actually thought it was fewer than that, but it is still a marked drop in comparison to a couple of years ago (e.g. the 312 films I watched in 2015). I didn’t go to any film festivals this year and only went to the cinema once. I don’t want cinema-going to become what reading was to me a few years ago but it’s not really the same set of circumstances – there’s a general lack of interest/enthusiasm on my part…and I don’t currently feel the need to try to counteract that (in relation to reading I felt the lack; I don’t feel like I’m missing anything at the moment). I intended to make an effort to see Blade Runner 2049 at the cinema (Denis Villeneuve’s last three films have all justified a trip to the big screen) but didn’t get around to it; I just wasn’t bothered enough (to go) in the end. I’m still watching older titles on DVD/VOD, although the demise of Lovefilm has narrowed the options (I have ended up getting Netflix – mainly because of TV series I wanted to watch – but the range of films is nowhere near as extensive as Lovefilm was).

I also haven’t caught up with films that came out earlier in the year that are now available on DVD/VOD. My list of titles to catch up with includes: Baby Driver, The Beguiled, The Fits, Good Time, Jackie, Logan, Moonlight, Neruda, Personal Shopper, SilenceWonder Woman…and more. I’ve also got at least a dozen Spanish DVDs that I’ve bought throughout the year but still not watched: Abracadabra, Júlia ist, María (y los demás), No sé decir adiós, Que dios nos perdone, Tarde para la ira (which is also available on Netflix UK, under the title The Fury of a Patient Man), Verano 1993…and more. I’ll be looking at other people’s ‘best of 2017’ lists to see whether there’s anything else I should be tracking down – although the more unusual works (the hidden gems that get championed by certain film writers) often don’t make their way beyond the festival circuit.

Anyway, that’s a longwinded way of saying that I haven’t seen enough new films this year to compile a top 10 or even a top 5 of 2017, so instead my top 10 for this year encompasses all of the films I’ve seen in the past twelve months (irrespective of when they were produced) –

a moment of confrontation in Hunt for the Wilderpeople

1. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi, 2016) – I knew when I watched this back in January that I’d likely not see anything else this year as chucklesome and enjoyable (no, I haven’t seen Thor: Ragnarok yet…but I will, and it’s the first time I’ve been remotely interested in a Marvel film). I bought it for both of my brothers for their respective birthdays – the last film that compelled me do that was Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier, 2014) [very different films, just similarly on my wavelength] – and am still quoting it at random intervals. More Sam Neill in films, please.

 

an image from A Touch of Zen

2. A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1969) – ‘widely regarded as the greatest martial arts epic of all time’ says the blurb on the back of the DVD. I wouldn’t disagree.

 

a still of Jeanne Moreau, Marcello Mastroianni, and Monica Vitti together in La notte

3. La notte (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961) – Moreau, Mastroianni, and Vitti. One of those films that I find difficult to write about because my engagement with it was felt rather than thought.

 

an image from Radu Jude's Scarred Hearts

4. Inimi cicatrizate / Scarred Hearts (Radu Jude, 2016) – in 2015, I wrote in relation to Jude’s Aferim! that ‘it just feels as if you’re in the hands of a director who has something to say and knows how he wants to say it’, and Scarred Hearts confirmed that for me. He is one of the most interesting directors working today. I hope that his latest film – a documentary, The Dead Nation – gets some kind of distribution here (Scarred Hearts so far has only been available as VOD for limited periods).

 

an image from King Hu's Dragon Inn

5. Dragon Inn (King Hu, 1967) – As with A Touch of Zen, one of the striking things was recognising how many later films have paid homage / ripped off the original work. I’ve already pre-ordered King Hu’s Legend of the Mountain (1979), which is being released by Eureka in March.

 

an almost unrecognisable Geraldine Chaplin in Carlos Saura's Los ojos vendados

6. Los ojos vendados / Blindfolded Eyes (Carlos Saura, 1978) – by no means a perfect film or a masterpiece, but definitely one of Saura’s most interesting films (of those I’ve watched so far) and one that I knew little about before watching it. It coheres to the director’s oft-explored themes but feels like the work of someone refining their view of the world – or refining how they represent that viewpoint on/in film. I wrote about it for the first time in July.

 

an image from The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

7. Die Bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant / The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972) – this is like last year when I had to admit that Modern Times was the first Chaplin feature film that I’d watched; this is the first Fassbinder film I’ve seen. My aversion to date has mainly been the number of people who’ve told me that I have to watch his films, usually with the hushed earnestness employed by Naomie Harris’s character in A Cock and Bull Story (Michael Winterbottom, 2006) when she proselytises her love of Fassbinder to Steve Coogan. This one is hysterical (in both the heightened emotion and humorous senses of the word) and oh-so-perfectly framed and staged (so much is done with one defined and limited space – and silently expressed via the positioning of the camera and different characters within that space). Yeah, ok, I’ll make an effort to watch some more of his films.

 

a still from the documentary Machines

8. Machines (Rahul Jain, 2017) – I like films that show work processes (as in the machinery / mechanical process by which something is made but also the actual human labour involved). Machines is a full immersion (sights and ear-racketing sounds) into a labyrinthine Indian textile factory where workers toil for a pittance under minimal safety regulations and with little recourse for improving their conditions. It highlights social injustice without preaching and allows the workers to express themselves (and their fatigued resignation) in their own words.

 

a still from I Called Him Morgan

9. I Called Him Morgan (Kasper Collin, 2017) – earlier in the year I read this interview with Kasper Collin about how he came to make his documentary on the life (and death) of trumpeter Lee Morgan (how certain aspects of the story came to be told is a story in itself – and forms part of the film). The interviewer’s enthusiasm for the film stuck with me sufficiently that when I randomly saw it listed on Netflix, I decided to watch it. It is one of those instances where the film form is shaped to reflect the artistry of the individual it examines in a way that feels organic to the material rather than a stylised add-on. I won’t detail how the tragic story unfolds but the sense of loss (for those interviewed but also what Lee Morgan’s absence represents for music) is palpable long before the finale is in sight.

 

a still from James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro

10. I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016) – I didn’t know all that much about James Baldwin beforehand but could quite happily have watched a lot more footage of him holding forth, which may point to a shortcoming of the film – although it uses his words throughout, the film is more impactful when he is the person speaking them and slows down when he isn’t on screen. Some reservations (mainly in relation to stylistic choices) about the film notwithstanding, the man and his insight (born of lived experience combined with an extremely articulate intellect) are sufficient for an enthralling viewing experience. I need to add him to my To Be Read pile.

Honourable mention: The Prison in Twelve Landscapes (Brett Story, 2017).

 

What next in 2018? First of all, another extended break from blogging, but this time I won’t be posting at all. Like last year, I’m doing some courses in the first few months of the year and need to concentrate on that. I didn’t achieve the other part of what my 2017 break was intended to do – work out a clearer direction for what I want to do on here – so that’s something else to think about. If I’m feeling so disengaged from film, is there any point in continuing with a blog? I don’t know…although I’m not inclined to shut down the blog altogether because I don’t think my disengagement will be a permanent state of being. But the blog will be quiet for the first half of the year – I hope to return later in the year with the next stage of the Carlos Saura Challenge, but I’m not setting any dates.

I noted at the end of last year that I wanted to spend less time on Twitter, and I put that into effect after I’d finished the first part of the Carlos Saura Challenge in July. I haven’t found sources of news that are as potentially diverse as Twitter but I’d reached the point where spending time on there negatively impacted my mood too much, and – while there are people with whom I miss chatting about books/films/the general fuckwittery and sheer incompetence of the British government – I had effectively already changed from a participant to an observer most of the time. I’m not closing my account but I’m also not intending to spend much time on there (FYI: I switched off email notifications for everything except DMs) – aside from anything else, I’ll not get those books read! So there will likely be radio silence for the first half of the year – but I should reappear on Nobody Knows Anybody part way through the summer.

For now, I wish you all health and happiness in 2018!

 

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