Personalness

Best of 2018

Obviously, I’m the kind of person who loves end of year summaries. Have you even met me? Here we go.
Sidenote: I’m only counting the things I read and saw for the first time this year.

Favorite books

5. An Enchantment of Ravensby Margaret Rogerson
A truly charming attempt at a fairly tale for adults (even if young ones).

4. The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason
A thoughtful play on the original Odyssey, and, I feel, more palatable to a modern reader. Reviewed here.

3. Faith beyond Belief: Spirituality for Our Times by David Steindl-Rast and Anselm Grün
Not the kind of book I usually discuss here but this is a book on spirituality I would recommend even to those who feel allergic to the very idea (or maybe expecially to them). I’ve been a fan of brother David for a while now.

2. Among Others by Jo Walton
A perfectly original, delightful book, combining a few of my favorite things: magic, geek girls and a boarding school. Reviewed here.

1. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
I know you’ll excuse the obvious pun but this classic that I never knew before has absolutely captured my heart.

Favorite movies

5. Avengers: Infinity War
Mainly for being better than I expected it to be. It certainly didn’t shake my world. Reviewed here.

4. Love, Simon
A cute, little movie, but with a progressive edge. Reviewed here.

3. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
While not nearly as progressive, this movie gave me so much simple joy.

2. Whiplash
Tense, exciting and somewhat relatable, an intellectual treat. Reviewed here.

1. Song of the Sea
An absolute beauty. Reviewed here.

Favorite TV shows

5. The Tick (S1)
Superheroes done differently. Also, Lint. Reviewed here.

4. Nashville (S6)
It was so bad but I still want to mention it. Reviewed here.

3. Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (S2)
A lot of fun and looks lovely but maybe loses some of season one’s edge.

2. The Americans (S6)
Such a smart, emotional show. One of the best I’ve ever seen. Reviewed here.

1. The Magicians (S2 & S3)
The most fun I’ve had with TV in a while. Reviewed here.

Favorite songs

(Or: new additions to my Spotify playlist of discoveries, not necessarily the songs I listened to the most this year.)

5. “Don’t Know How” by honeyhoney
A bit of an earworm, but enjoyable.

4. “Tougher than the Rest” by Camera Obscura
Silly but sweet.

3. “The Way It Goes” by Gillian Welch
This one has a kick to it.

2. “My Antonia” by Emmylou Harris
Melancholic and charming.

1. “Iowa” by Dar Williams
This has a hold one me. Discussed here.

Have a great new year, everyone, full of books, movies, shows, songs (and anything else you enjoy) that gladden your hearts!

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Show Case

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Legion (S2)

You might remember or not but I was really impressed with the first season of Legion. The second… Well…

Legion (S2)

Category: TV shows

Find it on: IMDb

What it is:
David and his mutant buddies are now working with the government organization which tried to kill them in the previous season. Shadow King is looking for his body. Syd from the future tries to change the past. There might be a plague? Black-goo aliens? Also, educational videos. Also, also: cows.

How I found it:
I was a fan of season one.

Summary judgment:
It’s like jazz. Ambitious and you know someone is enjoying it, but that someone is not me.

Best things about it:
It remains an ambitious show which looks beautiful. You just know somebody is planning every detail of every scene and working hard to come up with striking visuals. The form of this show leaves nothing to complain about.

Worst things about it:
But it is so much style over substance. After a while you realize you just won’t be getting answers and resign yourself to a numb admiration of the show’s prettiness. While some stories get resolved, most of them leave the viewer hanging (the cows? the chickens?) and I finished the season with a vague feeling of wasted time. (I’m not a fan of artsy cinema though. Fair disclosure.)

Other pluses:
✤ The storylines which do get resolved work well enough, I suppose, though they take their sweet time to reach a conclusion.
✤ I liked how some of the episodes tried more gimmicky structure, particularly the one with the mystery of Syd’s mind (maybe less so the one with alternate realities but it still felt more structured than most of the regular episodes).
✤ Most of the actors still do a great job, they just often don’t have much to do.

Other minuses:
✤ Mostly, the season bored me: it took such a long time to do anything. It felt like the creators focused so much on how everything looked that they forgot about the satisfaction one could get from the story.
✤ Too much of the story was surreal and followed some sort of dream logic – and when anything goes, the stakes drop.

How it enriched my life:
It helped pass the evenings when I was waiting for childbirth. But as I was watching it after The Magicians, I felt acutely the lack of avid interest.

Follow-up:
I’m not decided about the third season but I’ll probably end up watching it anyway. However, I’m not sure it’s possible to build this show around a villainous David so unless it’s a story of redemption, I don’t see how it could work.

Recommended for:
People who thought the first season was too straightforward to enjoy.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Next time: Longbourn

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Mildly Enthusiastic Review: The Magicians

I read a few pages of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians in a bookstore once (it’s a thing I used to do) and I fell in instant love. Then I read the whole book and I still enjoyed it a lot though I very much did not enjoy volume two and so didn’t read on. However, I was still interested in the TV adaptation.

er-themagiciansThe Magicians (S1–3)

Category: TV shows

Find it on: IMDb

What it is:
This is this adaptation. So far it’s had three seasons, each one, I’d say, better than the previous ones. The story in the show (it differs a lot from those books I read) focuses on a group of students who are accepted into a mysterious college of magic where they learn to harness, well, magic. They are, however, all damaged in their ways and so their magical talents might do them (and the world?) more bad than good. They also discover that the magical world of Fillory of which they (some of them) read as children is real and much less idyllic than the books claimed.

How I found it:
Even though I didn’t love the second book and gave up on the literary series, I knew the adaptation was in the works and was curious. In fact, I watched season 1 a long time ago and barely remember it, especially as it didn’t enchant me (har-har) but I’m glad I never gave up on the show after that.

Summary judgment:
I seriously can’t wait for the next season!

Best things about it:
As the show progresses, it manages to get you more and more interested in the story and the characters (who start off as pretty unbearable). As it embraces the silliness of the premise, it finds ways to become what it should: a fairy tale for adults, not just because of the sex and violence (which, mercifully, they limit later) but especially because of the sense of wonder. It’s so rare these days that a story would evoke this fascination and simple curiosity about what’s going to happen next, which used to be the main reason for reading and watching stuff as a child.

Worst things about it:
Season one starts drunk on the fact that they’re able to show an “adult” fantasy in precisely the wrong sense. This results in a rather depressing story about a bunch of people you’d like to see quartered (well, not literally) rather than succeed.

Other pluses:
✤ Grossman’s book tries to take a more realistic view on what it would be like for young people to get magical powers. It seems to suggest that they wouldn’t do a whole lot of good with it, instead ending up as burnt out disappointments. Starting with this assumption, Grossman gets to play with fantasy tropes and famous series (most notably Harry Potter and Narnia) in quite an interesting and often funny way. The show finds its way to this fun, too, and adds to it a lot of meta-humor, with characters recapping stuff to each other and explaining the archetypes which they represent. I know there are classy people who frown upon such things but me this ain’t.
✤ I love the kickass women of the show: Alice and Julia. Both of them are beautiful, smart and powerful and leave the men of the story in their dust without even trying.
✤ But I also like Penny, jerk that he is. Arjun Gupta is doing possibly the most convincing job with inhabiting his character.
✤ I’m so glad that as the show progresses, the creators stop  being afraid of showing heart: they gradually shed the cynicism and discover that the story only gets better for it.
✤ The fantasy world looks very pretty: from the slightly psychedelic Fillory, through rather unimpressive Brakebills to the gloomy city, all the environments have recognizable visual tone.
✤ I particularly liked the structure of the third season. No more storylines dragging so long that you forget what they are about: instead the characters go on a quest and each episode has a slightly different idea (or gimmick). They even managed an unrepulsive musical episode (gosh, how I normally hate those).

Other minuses:
✤ Even though she slightly grew on me, especially during the last season, it was still a long way to grow and I am not entirely sure I’ve forgiven Margo for being the worst.
✤ Some other characters that it took me a while to, well, even recognize, let alone care about are Kady and Fen. I just don’t find them as compelling.

How it enriched my life:
It gave me many pleasants evenings and the, already mentioned, child-like sense of enchantment and wonderment.

Follow-up:
I wish season 4 was here already because I’m really curious about what’s going to happen (unfascinating as the new big bad looks yet).

Recommended for:
People who love urban fantasy and Narnia-like fantasy and would like to see them not only combined but also from a (sort of) adult perspective.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Arthur & George

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Show Case

Wildly Enthusiastic Review: The Americans

Another brilliant show that ended not long ago (and I only recently caught up with the final seasons):

er-theamericansThe Americans (S1–6)

Category: TV shows

Find it on: IMDb

What it is:
A period drama, happening in Washington of 1980s, it focuses on a pair of KGB agents working under the disguise of a typical American married couple. The show focuses on the question of lies and deception, imagining the mentality of people whose entire life is a facade and what happens when this facade begins to crumble. Also, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes spy stuff, if that’s more your jam.

How I found it:
When it first aired, I saw a trailer and found it interesting – though it was a trailer for an entirely different show, a sort of action-packed satire and not this existential psychological drama that we were eventually graced with. So I’m glad both that the trailer got me interested in the show and that it misrepresented it.

Summary judgment:
That might be the most thought-provoking, truly adult show I have seen in recent years.

Best things about it:
No show ever has made me and my husband discuss it as much as this one. We would pause the show to vent our emotions about the story and the characters and we would carry the conversations after we finished watching, analyzing the motives and illusions of the protagonists. Of course, being from Central Europe, we can’t look at KGB as a stock action-drama Agency but we have a more visceral reaction to the issue.
The show’s focus on the inner drama of the characters: their psychological motivations and limits, their humanity (or its lack sometimes) catapults the show so, so far away from any James Bond-nonsense that the theme might suggest.

Worst things about it:
Sometimes, rarely enough, the show will veer into more action-packed Cold War thriller one might expect (particularly badly in season four) and while this would be fully acceptable and maybe even enjoyable somewhere else, on The Americans it feels like a wasted opportunity for further moral explorations.

Other pluses:
✤ What I said so far will probably sound to some of you very much as anti-praise and a recipe for a perfectly boring show, sort of Bergman about Russian spies. But that would not take into account how tight most of the story is and how invested one feels in the plotlines.
✤ Matthew Rhys as Philip is breathtaking. He creates such a nuanced, heartbreaking performance that you want to hug him, shake him and slap him, sometimes in the same scene. But mostly you just keep rooting for him to do the right thing.
✤ Most of the other performances are also very convincing and memorable.
✤ Perhaps most importantly this is such a smart show. It never tells you too much, at the risk of confusing you or allowing for different, conflicting interpretations of the characters’ motives and feelings. Instead, it allows you to draw your own conclusions.
✤ The 1980s work in this vision – the period feels lived-in not caricatural, as it is often shown. I read that the producers had to limit the 1980s fashion so as not to make it distracting and in the first season I was a bit surprised to see this visually calmer version of the 80s but then I really got used to it. Also, the show has a distinctive visual style, with the muted color palettes (so much brown).

Other minuses:
✤ Keri Russell as Elizabeth does not, unfortunately, rise to Rhys’s standard (but calling this tour de force “standard” is probably unfair) and her character for most of the series is odious in her blind devotion to a child’s notion of communism.
✤ That’s not a minus exactly but the show does not give a lot of historical background for its political plots. I wonder if people from other areas of the world realize just how bad Philip and Elizabeth’s employers are. But again, it’s part of the smartness of the show, letting you figure things out for yourself.

How it enriched my life:
I rarely watch shows with such excitement and so many emotions about whatever’s going on. This was also a bonding experience for me and my husband because of all the discussions it provoked.

Fun fact:
Philip and Elizabeth constantly wear disguises and most of them are unbelievably silly. You would think they couldn’t possibly work but then again I have no idea how people are ever able to describe anyone to the sketch artist so they would certainly work on me. (Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to accurately describe things like the chin or nose of my closest friends from memory.)

Follow-up:
We had a huge break between seasons 3 and 4 so not everything happening was crystal clear and this is a great reason for a re-watch some time in the future. Also, I’m possibly there for Matthew Rhys’s next project (unless it’s something awful).

Recommended for:
People looking for a smarter kind of show.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Next time: The 50 States

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Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Younger (S5)

And here we go back to Younger to talk about its fifth season.

er-younger5Younger (S5)

Category: TV shows

Find it on: IMDb

What it is:
The season starts with further exposition of Liza’s secret and this time it’s Charles who finds out. Most of the season revolves around the ramifications of this discovery and the other characters have something to do, too, but it’s messy and less memorable.

How I found it:
I was glad the show was back.

Summary judgment:
Again, I enjoyed the ride.

Best things about it:
I was glad they didn’t keep turning away from Liza and Charles’s romance, which kept developing from the very beginning and we deserved to finally see where it could go. As I’m usually a shipper unless I hate a party of the ship, I was happy to see them together and interested in how the show chose to present the relationship.

Worst things about it:
This felt less essential than the previous season. I feel that perhaps the premise of the show is slowly winding down and maybe it would even make sense to finish with season 6? Not that I wouldn’t miss my TV bubble gum.

Other pluses:
✤ I’m glad the show manages to keep telling the story even if the original premise is increasingly less relevant. I don’t mind seeing the moment when everyone learns the truth: it’s high time to try that and I hope season 6 goes there.

Other minuses:
✤ I didn’t like Quentin the Magician as Kelsey’s love interest, nor really anything else Kelsey had to do away from Liza.
✤ Many of the characters, most noticeably Lauren, have absolutely nothing to do in the story.
✤ As I already indicated, it wasn’t really a memorable experience. In fact, except for the romance between Liza and Charles, I have trouble coming up with things that happened this season.

How it enriched my life:
It gave me, as always, 20 minutes of respite each week (this time I got to spend it lying down because pregnancy).

Follow-up:
Season 6 and probably onwards.

Recommended for:
Fans of the previous seasons, particularly those invested in Liza and Charles.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: The Wicked + The Divine

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Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Nashville

Another show I watched regularly ended quite recently so let me share with you a few reflections on the whole of

er-nashvilleNashville (S1–6)

Category: TV shows

Find it on: IMDb

What it is:
A TV show about the country music industry in Nashville, focusing, at least at first, on two divas: Rayna James played by Connie Britton and Juliette Barnes played by Hayden Panettiere. The show had six seasons, two of which happened on another TV station after the first one cancelled it, and most of the initial premise didn’t last past season one but it also sometimes dealt with local politics and a lot of family drama and always provided a lot of sudsy entertainment, even at its worst.

How I found it:
Six years ago when the show debuted I was quite up to date on all the new TV happening (not so much since) so I was immediately interested in it from the preview. And the first season really grabbed my interest.

Summary judgment:
It never lived up to the initial promise but I still enjoyed the bumpy ride.

Best things about it:
Season one and what the show tried to do then promised a quality story about an interesting corner of the world and it did deliver a part of it. I didn’t care so much about the diva rivalry and I didn’t mind when they dropped it but, unfortunately, together they also gave up on more mature aspects of the original story and replaced them with a whole bunch of random guest stars and increasingly ridiculous plotlines.

Worst things about it:
As hinted above, the fact that the show didn’t manage to remain what it set out to be, instead becoming a true soap opera with many caricatures instead of characters and many ridiculously contrived stories. It gradually gave up on treating Nashville as an interesting place worth showing, replacing the local color with generic settings. And after season one the music got worse, too.

Other pluses:
✤ Still, some of the music was pretty good. True, most of it veered toward bland pop (which I think is true of most popular country today?) but every now and then they offered a song that stood out, particularly those sang by the marvelous (and fan-hated, for some reason) Clare Bowen.
✤ Clare Bowen deserves a separate bullet point because while her character, Scarlett, rarely got a worthy storyline and was mostly manipulated into boring would-be romances, she always managed to deliver a heartfelt performance and she sings beautifully.
✤ Special mention to other actors I enjoyed on the show: Charles Esten, Jonathan Jackson, Aubrey Peeples and Oliver Hudson (another hated couple) and, unsurprisingly, Connie Britton. Also, the Stella sisters, sometimes. In general, many of the actors and the relations they build between the characters lift the show above a soap, even when writing doesn’t, and make the stories more human and believable.

Other minuses:
✤ From season three the shows gets a bit boring. In fact, when I was trying to rewatch all of it, I only got so far as the beginning of season three and gave up. I did enjoy revisiting the first one, though.
✤ Most of the later storylines are so random, centering on new characters that’s just been dropped on us and giving them up later without proper resolution. It often feels like the creators weren’t sure what they wanted to do with the characters in the long run.
✤ I know she was a fan-favorite but I almost never liked Juliette or missed her when she disappeared from the show for episodes at a time. There’s just something about Hayden Panettiere in this role that grates on my nerves.

How it enriched my life:
While it was never the most exciting watch of the week for me, it almost always delivered an hour of pleasure. And even though the show grew weaker and weaker as the seasons went by, I was still sorry to see it go.

Fun fact:
I’m not saying I did buy I’m not saying I didn’t listen to some of the soundtrack albums, particularly for the first two seasons.

Follow-up:
Ah, I wish there was one but so far I have found nothing to fill this hole in my heart that is reserved for a show about mostly acoustic music and the drama it causes among those who sacrifice their life to it. Granted, it’s a very specific hole.

Recommended for:
People looking for a slightly better soap for whom its saturation with country music is a good thing not a deterrent.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Tropic of Cancer

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Show Case

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Cloak & Dagger

Keeping up with the superhero fare, we watched

er-cloakanddaggerCloak & Dagger (S1)

Category: TV shows

Find it on: IMDb

What it is:
Freeform tries their own approach to Marvel with this story of two teen superheroes discovering their powers. Tandy, or Dagger (though, to the show’s credit, they don’t really use nicknames) has light powers: she can manipulate hopes and create deadly daggers made of light. Ty (Cloak) manipulates fears and teleports. They go against evil corporations and corrupt police in a very lovingly portrayed New Orleans.

How I found it:
I knew it was one of Marvel shows in development and while I didn’t wait excitedly for this one, I was still interested enough to give it a try.

Summary judgment:
I enjoyed this one well enough.

Best things about it:
I guess the surprise that this show is. Even though it’s produced by Freeform, the home of teen soaps, it doesn’t focus on love triangles and dramatic backstabbings. Instead it goes for a more sombre tone and not everyone looks like a supermodel.

Worst things about it:
I guess Ty and Tandy’s personal stories and stakes didn’t grab me as much as they could’ve: for most part I was only somewhat interested in their troubles.
And a particular pet peeve: the shaky camera. We know you can afford a tripod, Disney, stop being pretentious.

Other pluses:
✤ The city of New Orleans and how it’s an integral part of the story, not just an anonymous setting. The stakes become more intimate (they don’t fight to save the world, just their city) and this is always a feature of any good urban fantasy that the city lives in it.
✤ I particularly enjoyed the police storyline, which is normally not my interest. But the corrupt police department and the one good cop won me over.
✤ I liked the proportion of action scenes to drama. It didn’t feel like the writers were obliged to put a fighting scene into every episode just so it would be there.

Other minuses:
Sometimes it was really hard to root for Tandy with all the cruel decisions she habitually made.

How it enriched my life:
It became another show to watch with my husband – and literally the only Freeform show he’s ever seen with me (yes, I’ve seen quite a few; miss you, Greek).

Fun fact:
The thing that made the show double fun for me was the fact that Comic Book Club guys made an after-podcast about it. Hearing their take on the show made watching it more fun.

Follow-up:
I will watch season two and see which way it goes.

Recommended for:
Marvel fans looking for a slightly younger angle without the overpolished look that Runaways have.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: The Age of Wonder

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