Here is the third annual summation of all that I read/watched/played this year. Titles appear in the order that they were read/watched/played. Unreserved recommendations are in bold. Mini-reviews, where applicable, appear in italics. So, read on and perhaps you’ll find something you might like. Satisfaction is not guaranteed, however.
Saunders, George – Tenth of December
Saunders’s newest short story collection is perhaps his best yet.
Brautigan, Richard – The Abortion: A Historical Romance 1966
I’ve never read one of Brautigan’s novels before (only short stories and poems) and I found this to be something of a surprise. It’s far more coherent, for lack of a better word, than I expected, and his short, concise style makes for a remarkably readable story.
Scalzi, John – Redshirts
So, this was the big science fiction novel of the year, and Scalzi took home a Hugo for it. It’s funny in parts, but overall it left me cold. Its ideas are not particularly groundbreaking and the storyline leaves something to be desired. I seem to recall the “three codas” which follow the novel proper were somewhat better, but then again I can’t recall any of them.
Atwood, Margaret – Life Before Man
Stead, Christina – The Man Who Loved Children
This book was mentioned in Jonathan Franzen’s essay collection (to be discussed later) and is indeed a fascinating book. It’s not for everyone (including, to some degree, me) but it’s well worth a look if you’re interested in lesser-known classics.
Coupland, Douglas – Girlfriend in a Coma
I’m probably not going to read any more books by Coupland, let’s put it that way. He’s a good writer, but his novels always seem to ultimately end up sacrificing character, plot, etc., on the altar of a Big Important Moral. This book starts off strong and ends with a few dozen pages of a ghost lecturing the characters (and by extension the reader) on how they should live or some such crap. No thanks.
Oates, Joyce Carol – What I Lived For
Much, much better. Oates commands a pseudo-epic tour of a few seminal days in the life of a conceited, rich, local politician. Exceptionally well-conceived and realized. I was deeply impressed.
Jin, Ha – The Bridegroom
Shipstead, Maggie – Seating Arrangements
A well-done first novel.
Heller, Joseph – Catch-22
I tried to read Catch-22 once as a teenager and failed. This year I tried again and loved it. Its status as a classic is well-deserved, and it’s still incredibly funny.
Thompson, Jean – The Humanity Project
Atwood, Margaret – MaddAddam
This book… it’s just not up to the Atwood standard. It’s not up to the Oryx and Crake standard either. At best it was just passable, at worst it was actually cringeworthy. Don’t do this to me, Margaret Atwood!
Smith, Zadie – NW
Homes, AM – May We Be Forgiven
O’Donnell, Lisa – The Death of Bees
This book could have been a lot better. It has some good characters and well-written narrative voices, but its last act careens into the melodramatic and improbable and spoils the effect. It might still be worth reading, though.
Vasquez, Juan Gabriel – The Sound of Things Falling
Oates, Joyce Carol – Mudwoman
The Verdict: Top prize to Oates’s What I Lived For. I can’t really say that it did a single thing that bothered me, which is pretty impressive for a book this long. Bottom prize to Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma. Maybe someone would like it, but this Jonathan Livingston Seagull thing isn’t for me.
Pendle, George – Strange Angel
Asimov, Stanley (ed.) – Yours, Isaac Asimov
Can’t go wrong with the collected letters of Isaac Asimov!
Franzen, Jonathan – Farther Away
Franzen, it turns out, is a mean essayist in addition to a mean novelist. Well worth reading.
Sturrock, Donald – Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl
Angier, Natalie – The Canon
An enthusiastic overview of the world of science, but Angier’s style is “playful” to the point of being cutesy for the sake of cutesy. It gets old remarkably fast. Also, the book doesn’t have any conclusion…it just ends.
Singh, Simon – The Code Book
Sedaris, David – Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim
Sedaris is funny, but his essays never really seem to have any insights into the world (see Franzen and George Saunders), which is where the greatest strength of the personal essay lies. He is really funny, though, I grant that.
Orenstein, Peggy – Cinderella Ate My Daughter
A detailed and insightful look at the hyper-feminine culture built up around young girls. Not perfect but well worth reading.
Foer, Jonathan Safran – Eating Animals
Everyone should read this book, and that’s not something I say lightly. Foer (formerly appearing on this blog to take bottom prize for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) covers almost every conceivable question pertaining to the practice of eating meat. Those of you who know I’m a vegetarian may think I’m just pushing a book to further that cause…and you might be right, but please read it anyway. Whether you eat meat or not, this is an important topic, and one about which everyone should be informed.
Fine, Cordelia – Delusions of Gender
Wallace, David Foster – A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again
I’d read the title essay in this collection before, but the others are quite good as well. Wallace’s suicide is probably the greatest tragedy in contemporary writing, and this book is a sad monument to what we miss. (It’s not in bold because I didn’t read all the essays… the one on the tennis player I simply couldn’t get into, and some of the others were over my head, in all honest.)
Greer, John Michael – Monsters
I found this by accident. It’s a book about how to find “monsters,” such as dragons, mermaids, and ghosts. The author seems to really believe it, too, though he doesn’t seem to have successfully found most of them himself.
The Verdict: Top prize to Foer’s Eating Animals. Bottom prize to Angier’s The Canon, which is annoyingly chirpy from beginning to end.
Powell, Nate – Swallow Me Whole
I read this before, of course (it took top prize in 2011). On re-read it’s weirder than I remembered but still good.
Moriarty, Jerry – Jack Survives
Rickheit, Hans – Folly
Lasko-Gross, Miss – Escape from “Special”
Carre, Lily – Heads or Tails
These short, surreal stories are pretty great. Highly recommended.
Van Sciver, Noah – The Hypo
Mouly, Francoise (ed) – Best American Comics 2012
A suspiciously large number (close to half) of the creators included in this volume live in Brooklyn. You can draw your own conclusions about what that means.
Hernandez, Jaime – The Education of Hopey Glass
Long, Mark, et al – The Silence of Our Friends
Nate Powell illustrates this true story of segregation and the civil rights struggle. Well done.
Ott, Thomas – The Number
A wordless story which is worth checking out for the scratchboard illustrations alone.
Herge – The Calculus Affair
In retrospect, this is a surprisingly boring Tintin book, and some of its cliffhangers are close shaves to the point of being totally absurd. (Most notably, the anti-tank gun that blows itself up instead of Tintin’s tank.)
Herge – The Seven Crystal Balls
Herge – Prisoners of the Sun
Tintin’s Inca adventure is a lot better in terms of storytelling, although the depiction of the Incas themselves is more embarrassing than I recalled.
Various – The Best Cartoons from Punch
Smith, Jeff (ed) – Best American Comics 2013
Stewart, Cameron – Sin Titulo
I first read Sin Titulo as a webcomic, but I didn’t finish it during its online run. The book release seemed like a good time to revisit it. Stewart’s artwork is wonderful and the first couple acts of the book have a fantastic weird/intriguing atmosphere. Unfortunately, the final act fails to pull it all back together. Regardless of the copy on the back cover, this isn’t Murakami. But it is pretty good. Do take a look at it, at least online.
The Verdict: Top prize to Heads or Tails. I enjoyed the artwork and the stories were unique and unexpected. Honorable mention to Sin Titulo, which was not completely satisfying but was nonetheless a good ride. Bottom prize to Escape From “Special”, for being so profoundly unmemorable I can’t even remember what it was about. I seem to recall it had painted illustrations and there was a scene on a bus? I don’t know, but apparently I read it.
The Human Resources Manager
I recall recommending this on Twitter back when I saw it, so I’ll just go ahead and recommend it again though I can’t quite remember what I liked about it.
This movie made a big impression on me. It’s about a walled compound in which two parents keep their adult children isolated and in ignorance of the outside world. Wikipedia says it’s a critique of homeschooling, which I suppose means I should have been offended by it. But it’s well-written and strange and I’m not offended that easily, I guess.
Here’s a strange movie for all you strange-movie lovers. Plus, the idea of a story which is meant to embody a specific mental state (in this case, depression), is pretty fascinating.
The Time That Remains
Not without some plausibility problems, but hey, it’s a police procedural mystery written and directed by David Mamet, so it’s can’t be all bad.
Wes Anderson’s whimsical story of two children in love excels in almost every direction. It’s hard to explain. I’ll just say you should watch it and leave it at that.
Sofia Coppola directs a bland and directionless story of a worthless father. He is changed by spending a couple days (weeks? hard to tell) with his daughter. Or so it’s implied; he doesn’t really seem to be a better person at the end, he just walks out into the desert for no real reason, something which we’re given to understand he wouldn’t have done before. Skip it.
Kim Ki-duk directs a story of characters trapped in a cycle of cosmetic surgeries and confused identities straight out of The Twilight Zone. Excellently done.
This movie has an imaginary set. The story’s pretty good too.
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!
An early movie from Pedro Almodovar, and not a good one. Having a character fall in love with her abductor/rapist is not, I think, something that can be done well. By anyone.
Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone
It’s as bad as people say it is. No understanding of pacing or mood, and Harry Potter is the biggest Mary Sue ever.
Requiem for a Dream
I watched the Edited Version by accident, but it’s still good. A lot better than Black Swan, so far as it even makes sense to compare the two.
Harry Potter & The Chamber of Secrets
Not as bad as the first, not as good as the third.
It really is so bad it’s good. Grandpa Seth forever!
Dancer in the Dark
Lars von Trier goes where Kubrick never went and directs a musical. A musical starring Bjork, and one which goes in very unexpected directions.
Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban
This is probably the best of the lot from what I’ve seen so far. No, it’s not perfect, but it’s at least genuinely enjoyable. Mischief managed.
Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire
Two plot threads, neither one interesting. Frequently predictable. Danger level of the games, both to participants and bystanders, is unacceptably high. Contains very little magic considering the ostensible subject matter. Is often trite. Story is centered on the largest plot hole in human history. I don’t think I need to continue.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix
Probably the most topical of the Harry Potter movies, and not half as bad as a lot of them.
Leon the Professional
It’s hard to imagine that a movie about a hitman becoming the unlikely caretaker of a young girl could become a rich and captivating character piece, but there you have it. And suspenseful, too.
Eyes Wide Shut
Kubrick’s final film is not what I expected. It’s probably not what you expected, either. But it is good.
The Verdict: Top prize was a tough choice this year. I’m loathe to go with a movie I saw so recently, but in the interest of choosing something I’m going with Leon the Professional, in part because I can’t remember the last time I was so emotionally invested in fictional character. Other contenders were Dogtooth, Moonrise Kingdom, Melancholia, Fargo, and Time. Bottom prize goes to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, for its crimes are legion.
Game of Thrones, Season 1-2
Is Game of Thrones good? Yes, actually, it is. Gratuitousness aside, it’s tightly written and thoroughly plotted, nearly every scene bursting with exceptional character moments. Casting, acting, music, scenery… really there’s very little truly wrong with it, and the superfluous sex scenes are noticeably reduced for the second season.
A very flawed anime. Like Darth Vader, it still has good in it, but it has many problems. For example, one of the most pivotal battles in the series is conducted entirely by no-names and also-ran characters while the main cast are literally doing nothing. That’s not an exaggeration, they’re just kind of moping around while non-characters do something critically important. But it has its moments. My favorite character was Lord Dio.
Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex 2nd Gig
A much better anime, and at least in my opinion superior to its predecessor. That’s probably blasphemy; please don’t sic the tachikomas on me.
Downton Abbey Seas. 1-2
I probably won’t watch any more Downton Abbey. The first season is well-written and engaging. The second season contains copious amounts of soap-opera-grade melodrama and sentimentality, and some all-around stupid plot twists. I recommend watching the first season and then calling it quits.
Breaking Bad Seas. 1-2
Breaking Bad and I are not exactly on good terms. I can see that there’s nothing technically wrong with it (it’s well-written, well-acted, etc.), but it consistently frustrates, annoys, and irritates me anyway, for reasons I’m at a loss to determine. You’d probably like it better than I do.
The Verdict: Top prize to Game of Thrones, with an honorable mention to Ghost in the Shell. Both are well-written and engaging. Bottom prize to Downton Abbey Season Two, for taking something good and polluting it with a river of stupid.
Myst V: End of Ages
It seemed about time I played one of these violent games the kids these days are so smitten with. The original Half-Life looks surprisingly good for its age, and adeptly conducts atmosphere and mood. Its cutscene-free storytelling approach should still be the gold standard for narrative in games. As for the violence, it often comes across as a hindrance, for lack of a better term. It would be kind of nice to explore Black Mesa without something trying to kill you at almost every turn.
I don’t feel ashamed to admit that I upgraded my computer primarily to play Dear Esther. It didn’t disappoint. Can we skip the argument about whether it’s a “game” and just agree that whatever it is, it’s very well-executed?
It’s perhaps more grand and cinematic than was really necessary, but Portal 2 is a pretty great experience all around. It keeps what was good about its predecessor and adds plenty of nice twists and turns.
Antichamber seemed a lot more exciting in its trailer than it turned out to be. I didn’t get very far into it, I’ll admit, but the stark minimalism of its design just didn’t appeal to me, I guess.
Saying this makes me feel philistine, but I just don’t understand Proteus. Would someone please explain it to me?
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
At the outset my impression of the game was “pff, this isn’t very scary,” but it didn’t take long for me to reassess to “this is so scary that I’m not even sure I can continue.” But I persevered! Story is a bit campy and some gameplay elements are nonsensical (why include candle holders if they player’s not allowed to carry them?) but overall it was very enjoyable, in a heart-racing white knuckle sort of way.
The Stanley Parable Demo
Will start playing the real game soon. Best demo ever!
Full review is forthcoming, but for now I will say this: Gone Home is a hugely overrated game which fails to measure up to even its own supposed intentions. Ready your rotten tomatoes if need be, but I will have my say.
The Verdict: Top prize to Portal 2, which among all the games I played this year was the hardest to stay away from. Honorable mention to Dear Esther, which was well worth the cost of my computer upgrade by itself. Bottom prize to… yes, I’m really going to say it. Gone Home. My myriad problems with it will be the subject of an upcoming full-length essay, so stay tuned.
So that’s the story, boys and girls! See you back here next year!