2018: Recommendations and Rejections

I know you’ve all been waiting with bated breath to find out what I’ve been squandering my free time on this year. Well, you can now relax, because here’s the run-down. Time for the annual reviews, recommendations, and (of course) the trophies of badness. See the bottom of the post for a complete listing.

Best Fiction of 2018

This was an incredibly weak year for me in terms of prose fiction. Very little of what I read was particularly memorable, and there were quite a few novels that I didn’t even manage to finish (and hence are not included in this list). I think perhaps I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind for some reason. Oh well, at least that meant that I wasn’t for a moment tempted to try to write the stuff.

I do want to award a “best” though, and it’s going to be: Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon! I haven’t read any Pynchon since The Crying of Lot 49 (which I also liked), mostly because most of his books are frighteningly long. I picked this one up because I wanted to see the movie version (which I still haven’t), and I’m sure glad I did, because it was easily the most fun reading I’ve had in a long time. Pynchon’s usual zaniness mixed with hardboiled detective fiction and sixties counterculture is a pitch-perfect brew. It’s an often hilarious and never predictable book, and I loved it, despite the fact that I couldn’t for the life of me keep track of what was going on. Maybe next year I’ll see the movie, but honestly, who needs it?

Fiction Runner-up!

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. What a horrifying and fascinating story this is. Ripley is an awful person by any measure imaginable, but Highsmith’s incredible mastery of suspense and tension still keeps you enthralled to know how he’s going to get away with his misdeeds.

Worst Fiction of 2018

Withheld. While very little of what fiction I read this year did I genuinely love, neither did I particularly hate anything. Most of it was just really unmemorable (I literally cannot remember a single event or character from David Mamet’s Chicago, for example), and I suspect that had more to do with me than it did with the books.

Best Non-Fiction of 2018

While I didn’t read nearly as much fiction as I usually do, I likewise read a lot more non-fiction than usual. There are a lot of serious contenders for the top spot!
That being said, The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn takes the prize quite readily. This biography of notorious suicide-cult leader Jim Jones is a fantastically explored and compelling narrative. The story of how Jones went from a champion of the needy to murderous jungle despot is a bizarre one, but in Guinn’s telling it somehow manages to make sense. This is the most complete account I’ve ever read of the cult phenomenon, and how it can transform good intentions into something monstrous.

Non-Fiction Runners-up

  • White Bread by Aaron Bobrow-Strain. Who knew that white bread was at the fulcrum of every social movement in American history? I sure didn’t, but it makes for a fascinating story. Bobrow-Strain traces white bread’s rising and falling popularity from the industrial revolution to the present day, exploring its ties with everything from racism and class war to feminism and health-food fads.
  • Hunger by Roxane Gay. Gay’s new memoir is beautifully-written, as anyone who’s read her work before would expect, but it’s also harrowing and intimate to a degree that she’s never attained before. While my own problems are not at all the same as Gay’s, the book nonetheless profoundly resonated with me. Please read it.
  • Bad Stories by Steve Almond. I don’t generally read politically-oriented books, but Almond’s timely and insightful look at how America arrived at its present condition is not to be missed. Each short chapter looks at a different aspect of American culture that lead up to the Trump administration’s rise to power, guiding the reader gently from “how did this happen?” to “oh, that’s how.” You won’t be reassured by his explanations, but at least you’ll understand.

Non-Fiction Honorable Mentions

Special attention to cartoonist autobiographies: Jules Feiffer’s Backing into Forward and Bill Mauldin’s The Brass Ring.
Also: Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat by Hal Herzog, Imbeciles by Adam Cohen, and Mortality by Christopher Hitchens.

Worst Non-Fiction of 2018

Withheld. There were some books I liked better than others, but nothing truly bad, and nothing that made me angry. You’re probably disappointed to have been denied two entire rants from me (which probably the only reason anyone looks at these things), but I’m just glad I didn’t waste my time on as much stuff I didn’t like. Can’t you just be happy for me?

Best Comics of 2018

This list consists primarily of book-length comics, though in reality I read a lot more comics than just those this year. So many, in fact, that it got kind of hard to keep track of them all. So for now we’ll just work with what we have here, and maybe I’ll make a separate post another time for things I forgot.
But anyway, our blue-ribbon winner is… The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo by Drew Weing! Drew Weing is probably one of the best cartoonists working right now, especially among those working in a more “cartoony” style, and this new series (first published in 2016 actually, but who’s counting?) is pure delight. The characters are charming, the monsters creative and unique, and the mysterious backstory is endlessly compelling. (It occurs to me, in fact, that the core story is remarkably similar to my own The Non-Seen comic, if it were fun instead of bleak and miserable.) And Weing’s impeccable artwork is the icing on what was already a very nice cake. Get a copy for yourself and some more copies for any kids you know.

Comics Runners-Up!

  • The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis. My goodness but this is a delightfully weird book. I’m not even going to try to describe the bizarre world it takes place in, just know that this is probably the closest we’re ever going to get to a comic by Salvador Dali. Davis’s artwork is beautiful too, dynamic and expressive black-and-white brushwork pulled off with virtuosic aplomb.
  • Fante Bukowski by Noah van Sciver. Fante Bukowski is the perfect Noah van Sciver character, in the same way that Jimmy Corrigan is the perfect Chris Ware character. Bukowski is a miserable lump of a person, a young man who wants nothing more than the life of an ascetic urban novelist, but can’t seem to motivate himself to write anything worth reading. A story centered on this kind of character can easily fall flat, but van Sciver brings to it his usual tragic humor and surprising pathos.
  • Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez. Good God the artwork in this book is beautiful. There’s no point in trying to put it into words, just go look at it. The bar has been raised in the world of comics for kids, everybody. Don’t wait up.
  • Young Frances by Hartley Lin. Is Lin a “cartoonist’s cartoonist”? I don’t doubt that anyone with an interest in contemporary fiction would enjoy this book, but to anyone who understands comics craft on a personal level, the things Lin does with ink on paper are downright magical. And it’s just straight black and white, with not a halftone in sight! Shelve this next to Asterios Polyp as a reference for sheer mastery of the form.

Comics Honorable Mentions

Ghosts and Sisters by Raina Telgemeier. The Monkey in the Basement by Corrine Mucha. Sabrina by Nick Drnaso. Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol. Giant Days by John Allison et al.

Worst Comics of 2018

Eh, well, I got all these trophies of badness, might as well start handing ‘em out. Here you go, Memetic by James Tynion et al! I don’t know why I picked this up given that I have a low tolerance for apocalyptic stories. I don’t even like the artwork very much. I really need to stop picking up these kinds of Image-Comics-style publications, as I rarely enjoy them. Does it deserve the trophy? I dunno, really. It’s probably fine. Just not my thing.

Comics of 2018 side-note!

The original book of Blue is the Warmest Color, by Julie Maroh, is fine. The movie changed everything for the worse. I didn’t love the book, but it also didn’t leave me feeling cheated and robbed, so how about that. You’re lucky you were so boring, movie, or you’d be next up for a scathing overly-long review, believe me.

Best Movie of 2018

It’s a tie! I can’t choose between Paris, Texas and Raw, so what the hell, let them both go home happy.

Paris, Texas is an incredible film directed by Wim Wenders and starring the late Harry Dean Stanton as a sad drifter, reunited with his brother and his son after several years of mysterious absence. I don’t even know which is more beautiful, the photography or the writing. (Or the acting, for that matter.) It’s one of those films that just perfectly encapsulates the essence of “America.” I don’t know what I mean by that. Just watch the movie and maybe you’ll agree.
Raw is something entirely different. It’s hard to describe without making it sound trashy or gratuitously awful, but trust me, it is neither of those things. It’s an utterly compelling film that you won’t be able to look away from–though you may want to. The film deals heavily in an underappreciated emotion: disgust. I have never been so viscerally repulsed by a movie. And yet somehow that’s a good thing. Raw is a potent and horrifying brew, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. (I’m purposefully not talking about the plot, as I think it’s better to go into this unprepared.)

Movies Runners-Up!

  • I, Tonya. A pleasant surprise for me given that I generally avoid “true story” movies, but this one works really well, mostly because it’s very creative with its directorial choices. All the actors really nail their characters, too.
  • Little Miss Sunshine. A nearly perfect movie. Funny, moving, unpredictable, zany… what more could anyone want?

Movies Honorable Mentions

Adaptation. Videodrome. Aliens. Dogtooth. The Shape of Water.

Worst Movie of 2018

Do I really have to say it?

Awful movies runners-up!

  • Coco. I really liked Coco–most of it. The problem is that it thinks the funniest idea imaginable is to depict Frida Kahlo as a narcissistic wacko. I thought this was more insulting than amusing, but the film just won’t let it go. Also, hasn’t the “kid wants to do X but family is stridently opposed to X for no real reason” story been done enough? But a lot of it was good, and the visuals were fantastic. It’s like trying to eat a brownie full of broken glass.
  • Monster’s Ball. This was a movie, apparently? I can’t name a single thing that happened in it.
  • Psycho. Still good suspense, but the payoff is dated to an embarrassing degree. Also, that final scene where Dr. Exposition shows up and explains everything felt like amateur hour.
  • WarGames. Dated in a more enjoyable way, but not really a good film by any objective measure. Still, it’s worth watching if only to see the protagonist using floppy discs the size of pizza boxes. The good ol’ days!

Best Shows of 2018

A lot of good choices this year. After some deliberation, I’m giving the blue ribbon to Wasteland, a Czech HBO limited series that really resonated with me. It’s a missing-person mystery set in a small town that’s about to be razed by a mining company. The characters are strong and nuanced, and the setting beautifully realized. Really good stuff.

Shows runners-up!

  • Inevitably, Twin Peaks: The Return has to appear on my list. It’s an odd bird to be sure, and its connection to the original feels like a burden at times. Where the original was largely driven by its characters, Return is more interested in just being weird, and its plot jumps all over the country rather than remaining situated in the titular town. But is it still very good? It is still very good. Lynch takes the opportunity to produce some of his weirdest stuff yet–and some of his funniest, too. The thing that unites both its good and its bad moments is that there’s not a single scene that doesn’t leave the viewer asking “what the hell am I watching?”
  • Maniac is a weird and fun new limited series from Netflix about the subjects of a groundbreaking psychiatric treatment in which the characters (and their actors) are injected into lucid dreams in a variety of genres, everything from high fantasy to wacky heist. The show’s “real world” is wonderful too, a sunny future-as-seen-from-the-80’s with a lots of odd-yet-believable details. Despite the plethora of Philip K. Dick movies out there, this show is probably the closest anyone has ever come to putting Dick’s more playful sensibilities to the screen. Can these same people adapt Ubik, please?

Shows Honorable Mentions

The Deuce Season 2. Gravity Falls. Over the Garden Wall.

Worst Show of 2018

Sharp Objects. Buy a damn tripod and learn how to use it. If I have to take dramamine to watch your show, I don’t need it.
There was no new season of Game of Thrones this year, thank the old gods and the new.

Best Video Games of 2018

It’s Dishonored 2! Much as I liked the original Dishonored, it had a significant flaw in that it encouraged a stealthy playstyle but most of the gameplay elements were not supportive of that approach. The sequel hugely improves on this problem, adding lots of tricks that improve the stealth experience specifically. The setting is beautifully realized, too. And for one last special treat, finishing the game unlocks the “New Game +” mode, which allows you to start over while keeping all the powers you gained in the first playthrough. You end up ridiculously over-powered by doing so, but hey, that can be fun!

Video Games Runners-Up!

  • Ghost of a Tale. This game has some of the most beautiful visuals I’ve ever seen, often looking more like a stop-action film than a video game. It’s a story of some medieval mice in a world of dastardly rats and magic magpies. I didn’t quite make it to the end for some reason but I did have a good time with it. My one criticism of it is that the gameplay consists almost entirely of fetch quests, which gets rather tedious after a while.
  • Rime. I haven’t finished playing this yet, so I don’t have a lot to say, but perhaps I will later, because it’s really nice.

Video Games Honorable Mention

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is a really beautiful game, and its simulation of schizophrenia is one of the most interesting things I’ve seen attempted in the medium. It’s too bad, therefore, that I had to give up on it in frustration after dying too many times in the fire maze. Nothing breaks the illusion of a game so effectively as watching the same failure animation a dozen times.

Worst Video Game of 2018

Remember a few years ago, when I awarded the Trophy of Badness to Bioshock, and then last year it was my top spot winner? Well, maybe that pattern is about to repeat itself, because this year the Trophy of Badness goes to Bioshock Infinite! I just never managed to feel immersed by this game. Every single moment feels artificial, resembling more a garish cabinet game at a movie theater than a rich, believable world. Many people seem to like the game’s story, but to me it felt like an afterthought that was inserted between meaningless action sequences. Also, where the original Bioshock was specifically built around the evils of a libertarian “utopia,” I couldn’t figure out what Infinite‘s theme was, beyond “senseless nationalism seems silly when you dial it up to 11.” Gameplay elements are either ripped straight from the original without context (the “vigors” system being basically identical to “plasmids”) or unrelated nonsense that has no ties to the context of either game (Elizabeth’s powers). One could be forgiven for thinking it was a shameless cash-grab made by an entirely different team, which is odd considering that it isn’t. Will I reconsider and give it a blue ribbon in three years? We’ll see!

Complete Listing

★ represents recommendations, ☠ represents things to avoid.

Fiction

  • Egan, Jennifer. A Visit From the Goon Squad. (Jan. 17)
  • Coetzee, J.M. Disgrace. (Jan. 31)
  • ★ Highsmith, Patricia. The Talented Mr. Ripley. (Feb. 6)
  • Prose, Francine. My New American Life. (Mar. 7)
  • L’engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle in Time. (Mar. 28)
  • Franzen, Jonathan. Strong Motion. (Apr. 22)
  • Banks, Russel. The Sweet Hereafter. (May 10)
  • Abbey, Edward. The Monkey Wrench Gang. (Jul. 12)
  • Mamet, David. Chicago. (Jul. 24)
  • McAllister, Tom. How to Be Safe. (Oct. 2)
  • Kang, Han. The Vegetarian. (Oct. 9)
  • Romano-Lax, Andromeda. Plum Rains. (Oct. 28)
  • Fox, Paula. Desperate Characters. (Nov. 1)
  • ★ Pynchon, Thomas. Inherent Vice. (Dec. 11)

Non-fiction

  • Gawande, Atul. Being Mortal. (Jan. 4)
  • Quinn, Zoe. Crash Override. (Jan. 23)
  • Homes, A.M. The Mistress’s Daughter. (Feb. 9)
  • Miller, James. Flowers in the Dustbin. (Feb. 21)
  • ★ Walker, Jesse. The United States of Paranoia. (Mar. 18)
  • ★ Feiffer, Jules. Backing Into Forward. (Mar. 29)
  • Stravinsky, Igor. Conversations with Igor Stravinsky. (Apr. 30)
  • ★ Mauldin, Bill. The Brass Ring. (May 18)
  • Roth, Alisa. Insane. (May 23)
  • ★ Guinn, Jeff. The Road to Jonestown. (Jun. 7)
  • Fitzharris, Lindsey. The Butchering Art. (Jun. 11)
  • Klinenberg, Eric. Going Solo.
  • ★ Karasik, Paul; and Mark Newgarden. How to Read Nancy. (Jul. 3)
  • ★ Gay, Roxane. Hunger. (Jul. 14)
  • ★ Almond, Steve. Bad Stories. (Aug. 17)
  • ★ Bobrow-Strain, Aaron. White Bread. (Sep. 11)
  • ★ Herzog, Hal. Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat. (Sep. 22)
  • ★ Kreider, Tim. I Wrote This Book Because I Love You. (Sep. 24)
  • ★ Cohen, Adam. Imbeciles. (Nov. 15)
  • Feynman, Richard. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Dec. 14)
  • Macy, Beth. Dopesick. (Dec. 22)
  • ★ Hitchens, Christopher. Mortality. (Dec. 23)

Comics

  • Walden, Tillie. Spinning. (Jan. 11)
  • Bell, Gabrielle. Everything is Flammable. (Jan. 22)
  • ☠ Tynion, James, et al. Memetic. (Jan. 24)
  • Nations, Erin. Gumballs Issue 1. (Jan. 27)
  • ★ Telgemeier, Raina. Ghosts. (Jan. 27)
  • ★ Davis, Rob. The Motherless Oven. (Feb. 2)
  • Reynolds, Eric, ed. Now #1. (Feb. 4)
  • Maroh, Julie. Blue is the Warmest Color. (Feb. 7)
  • ★ Telgemeier, Raina. Sisters. (Feb. 12)
  • ★ TenNapel, Doug. Cardboard. (Feb. 15)
  • Stevenson, Noelle, et al. Lumberjanes. #1 (Feb. 17)
  • ★ Brown, Chester. I Never Liked You.
  • Schulz, Charles M. You Don't Look 35, Charlie Brown! (Feb. 26)
  • Robinson, Alex. Box Office Poison. (Mar. 11)
  • Feiffer, Jules. Tantrum. (Mar. 17)
  • O'Malley, Bryan Lee. Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life.
  • ★ Vehlmann, Fabien, et al. Beautiful Darkness. (Mar. 29)
  • Consiglio, Tony. 110 Percent
  • Prince, Liz. Alone Forever
  • Brown, Chester. The Little Man
  • ★ Mucha, Corrine. The Monkey in the Basement and Other Delusions.
  • van Sciver, Noah. The Lizard Laughed.
  • ★ Auster, Paul, et al. City of Glass. (May 16)
  • Campbell, Sophie. Wet Moon. Vols. 1 & 2 (May 28)
  • van Sciver, Noah. Fante Bukowski. (May 31)
  • ★ van Sciver, Noah. Disquiet. (Jun. 2)
  • Bagge, Peter. Buddy Does Seattle. (Aug. 23)
  • Seth. Wimbledon Green. (Sep. 7)
  • ★ Alvarez, Lorena. Nightlights. (Sep. 22)
  • ★ Drnaso, Nick. Sabrina. (Oct. 3)
  • ★ Weing, Drew. The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo. (Oct. 5)
  • ★ Brosgol, Vera. Be Prepared. (Oct. 24)
  • Nate, Benji. Catboy. (Nov. 18)
  • ★ Powell, Nate. Come Again. (Nov. 19)
  • Clowes, Daniel. David Boring. (Dec. 4)
  • ★ Lin, Hartley. Young Frances. (Dec. 12)

Movies

  • The Thin Blue Line.(Jan. 5)
  • The Shape of Water. (Jan. 6)
  • I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore. (Jan. 12)
  • Paths of Glory.(Jan. 19)
  • Adaptation. (Jan. 27)
  • Colossal. (Feb. 2)
  • The Exorcist. (Feb. 3)
  • The Godfather. (Feb. 16)
  • Back to the Future. (Feb. 18)
  • Videodrome. (Feb. 23)
  • Ghostbusters. (Mar. 2)
  • Kill Bill. Vol. 1 (Mar. 3)
  • Kill Bill. Vol. 2 (Mar. 4)
  • Solaris. (Mar. 10)
  • Monster’s Ball. (Mar. 17)
  • Last of the Mohicans. (Mar. 23)
  • Fido. (Mar. 29)
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. (Apr. 15)
  • Midnight Cowboy. (Apr. 20)
  • Paris, Texas. (Apr. 27)
  • Isle of Dogs. (Apr. 29)
  • Raw. (May 4)
  • The Devil’s Backbone. (May 11)
  • Mulholland Drive. (May 18)
  • Under the Tree. (May 25)
  • Monty Python’s Life of Brian. (Jun. 2)
  • I, Tonya.
  • Tabloid.
  • Coco. (Jun. 30)
  • A Clockwork Orange. (Jul. 7)
  • The Princess Bride. (Jul. 23)
  • Sunset Boulevard. (Aug. 1)
  • Chinatown. (Aug. 4)
  • Psycho. (Aug. 11)
  • Little Miss Sunshine. (Aug. 17)
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. (Aug. 22-23)
  • Wild at Heart. (Aug. 24)
  • Inside Out. (Sep. 1)
  • The French Connection. (Sep. 21)
  • Aliens. (Sep. 28)
  • WarGames. (Sep. 29)
  • Phantom Thread. (Oct. 12)
  • Sex, Lies, and Videotape. (Oct. 26)
  • Pan’s Labyrinth. (Oct. 28)
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas. (Nov. 2)
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai. (Nov. 5)
  • Howl’s Moving Castle. (Nov. 9)
  • The Unknown Girl. (Nov. 10)
  • Widows. (Nov. 18)
  • ParaNorman. (Nov. 24)
  • Lady Bird. (Nov. 28)
  • Rogue One. (Nov. 30)
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. (Nov. 30)
  • Dogtooth. (Dec. 4)
  • Leon the Professional. (Dec. 7)
  • The Informant! (Dec. 14)
  • Kramer vs. Kramer. (Dec. 22)
  • The Third Man.

Shows

  • Wasteland. (Jan. 28)
  • Twin Peaks: The Return. (Mar. 11)
  • The Wire. Season 3. (Mar. 12)
  • Over the Garden Wall. (Mar. 19)
  • Boardwalk Empire. Season 1. (Apr. 28)
  • The Wire. Season 4. (Jul. 10)
  • The Deuce. Season 1. Re-watch. (Aug. 10)
  • Gravity Falls. Season 1. (Sep. 22)
  • Maniac. (Oct. 25)
  • The Deuce. Season 2. (Nov. 4)
  • Gravity Falls. Season 2. (Nov. 16)
  • Sorry, Boardwalk Empire, you’re pretty good, but just not the best at anything!

Games

  • Dishonored 2. (Jan. 20)
  • Tomb Raider. (Mar. 24)
  • The Talos Priniciple.
  • Bioshock Infinite.
  • Ghost of a Tale.
  • Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice.
  • Hitman.
  • Rime.

The End!

Posted on December 31st, 2018. Filed under Review.

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