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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.

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Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

Content warning. This film deals with sensitive topics including rape, assault, suicide, sexism, hate crime, terminal illness, and racism. As such, so does this essay. Read on at your discretion.

This essay also contains spoilers, but you shouldn’t care about that, because seriously, you shouldn’t watch this film.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri parody teaser image

Introduction

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri was one of the most highly-acclaimed films of 2017. It holds an aggregate rating of 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, where one critic is quoted describing it as “one of those great films that never strikes a false note.”

Did he watch a different film than I did? The Three Billboards I watched was essentially a couple good notes drowned entirely out by a cacaphony of bad ones.

I hardly even know what to make of the overwhelming critical consensus on this film. Is mainstream criticism so insulated that it can’t criticize something that has a veneer of intelligence? Is most high-profile cinema so poorly-made that a modicum of “seriousness” is all it takes to for a film to stand out from the crowd? In either case, it reflects poorly on the Hollywood establishment here in America.

I’m not the first person to call out the film’s shortcomings, but it irritated me enough that I feel compelled to write my own take. From its unbelievably superficial understanding of social issues to its ridiculous plot conveniences, this film is so loaded with problems that it’s hard to even know where to begin.

So let’s kick things off with a brief discussion of what I didn’t hate about this film.

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A Cavalcade of Covers: Ramona

Last time’s dive into Wrinkle of Time was too much fun, so I had to do it again. For whatever reason, Ramona doesn’t seem to have had its covers reinterpreted as much as Wrinkle, but there are still quite a few, as usual spanning a range of good, bad, and indifferent.

Beady-eyed Ramona
These cartoony editions were quite popular for a while. I’ve never liked them. There’s a certain energy to the linework, but those beady little eyes give me the creeps. Unfortunately I’m not sure who the artist is. 3/10

Ramona of the 90s
Hoo boy but these airbrushed “photoreal” covers were popular in the 90s. (The Boxcar Children books all had them, too.) Most of my Beverly Cleary books were from this edition. I guess it must have been a real golden age for these artists, but it strikes me as pretty uninteresting now. And what is Beezus wearing? It’s not Easter, despite Ramona’s bunny ears. 5/10

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BoMC: Ramona

Ramona books

While re-reading Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books, two questions kept coming up in my mind: What makes a book timeless? And what makes a book dated?

It’s been nearly seventy years since Ramona Geraldine Quimby’s first appearance (in Cleary’s Henry Huggins, 1950), but Cleary’s rendering of the character remains as vivid today as it was then. Moreso than practically any author I can think of, Cleary excels at capturing the experience of childhood and making it viscerally relatable. And Ramona embodies these qualities more than any of Cleary’s other characters, which is how she managed to eclipse Henry Huggins in fame despite having started out as no more than “Henry’s friend’s little sister.”

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Behind the Scenes: Lynch & Lucas

In terms of the sheer amount of time spent on each page, Lynch & Lucas is probably the most labor-intensive comic I’ve ever done, so I thought it might be nice to do a quick overview of where all that time went.

The comic’s text comes from this short interview with David Lynch. My first task was to get a transcription that I could work from. First I thought I would have to transcribe it by hand, but then I remembered that YouTube generates a transcript automatically! (Click on the “…” icon and choose “Open transcript”.) It wasn’t perfect but it was more than good enough for my purposes. I printed it out and reworked my script on paper. If you watch the video you’ll notice that I rearranged the order of some of the sentences, but other than that the whole thing is more or less verbatim.

Next I had to figure out how I was going to draw the characters. Drawing likenesses is not one of my strong suits so it took some experimentation to come up with the best way to do it. Generally I just redraw the person over and over again until I hit on a simplification that seems to work. With George Lucas it took a few tries, most of which looked nothing like him at all, before I got a result that seemed usable:
George Lucas sketch process

Note that I also switched to a brush pen before doing the final drawing there. Maybe that helped get a good result; who knows. In any event, I thought that one brush pen drawing ended up being a better likeness of Lucas than most of the appearances in the final comic. Oh well!

David Lynch was next up. Since the comic features both his younger and older likenesses, I had to figure out how to draw both. I started with his current look.
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Two new “biographicomics”!

The reason Non-Seen updates have been a bit sluggish lately is that I’ve been sidetracked by some side projects, including some short biographical vignette comics. These have been announced on Twitter previously but not everyone is on there (such as me. I’m not really on there.) so I thought I’d better mention them on here as well.

First up, we have Igor Stravinsky telling us about his dreams of the perfect interval:
Igor Stravinsky's Interval Dream

And then we have David Lynch’s tale of his fateful meeting with George Lucas:
When David Lynch met George Lucas

Normal updates to The Non-Seen should resume soon!

A Cavalcade of Covers: A Wrinkle in Time

While working on my review, I couldn’t help but notice that A Wrinkle in Time has had a bajillion different covers, of varying degrees of quality. Unfortunately I have no information about the artists behind most of these covers, but let’s take a look anyway!

wrinkle_airbrush

Well isn’t this a delightful bit of van art! We’ve got Mrs. Whatsit as the centaur, the kids, an alien landscape, and some sort of misplaced line of emphasis under the word “in.” I give it a 6/10.

wrinkle_petersis

This was a very common edition when I was a kid. It was painted by Peter Sis, a peculiar Czech illustrator who produced some very strange children’s picture books. It’s an interesting image, although I’m not sure it really represents the book all that well. 5/10. Sorry Peter!

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BoMC: A Wrinkle in Time

There was a period in my childhood, around the age of twelve or so I think, when A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’engle was my favorite book. In fact, it was probably the last book upon which I ever bestowed such a title, since I stopped trying to quantify my preferences around then.

wrinkle_sm

As such, I had high expectations for it when I reread it, possibly too high. It’s not a bad book by any means, but it’s difficult to explain what it was that so captivated me about this novel. In many ways it’s a very skilful piece of writing, but the actual story is convoluted and vague, and the events so isolated from one another as to feel episodic. There were almost certainly books that I read simultaneously that were better constructed formally–why was this one the favorite?

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Chef John presents: Ratatouille “confit byaldi”

And now for something completely different: I’ve been cooking a lot more in recent months, and I thought maybe it was time to try writing a bit about it. My goals for these kinds of articles are twofold:

* It was an attempt to make Pad Thai without following any particular recipe. It came out looking like a pile of grayish sludge and tasted like vomit.

First, I want to present the process of exploring new recipes from the perspective of an enthusiast/amateur. I don’t intend to portray myself as an expert (because I am not one), but rather as a hobbyist cook learning on the go. Don’t take my methods as gospel. I tamper with recipes willfully (and I will say why where relevant), and you shouldn’t be afraid to experiment either. Only once have my experiments produced a result so dreadful that I couldn’t eat it.*

Second, I want to provide a window into what a vegetarian diet looks like. I’ve met a lot of people who express confusion over what vegetarian food entails, and it’s my hope that non-vegetarians who happen across these articles may get a better sense of the scope of my home cooking menu. It’s far from limited–I could make a new recipe every week and never run out of new dishes to try.

So, without further ado, let’s dive in to my most recent dish: confit byaldi!

Confit byaldi, served

I’ve made ratatouille (which is essentially a French vegetable stew) many times in the past from the recipe in Mollie Katzen’s The Moosewood Cookbook. Hers is a delicious recipe and I highly recommend it, but I was always puzzled by one thing: why did Pixar’s interpretation of the recipe appear to be a weird little stripy stack, rather than the coarsely-chopped stew I was familiar with?

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Color flatting for Linux!

Hello everyone! If you’re like me, you’ve spent plenty of time thinking, “I wish Linux had an automated color-flatting tool.” Well, your days of wishing and hoping are over, because I have produced exactly the tool you’ve been wishing for. Behold:
pyflatter

For more information, check out the PyFlatter page, or just go download it on GitHub. Enjoy!

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