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?
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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?
Books, movies, games and more! If you were wondering how I spent my time in 2017 (when not going to work, drawing comics, or attending to the minutiae of life), you’ve come to the right place! Read on for recommendations, reviews, and the trophies of badness. See the bottom of the post for a complete listing (entries with stars are recommended, skull and crossbones to be avoided).
Best Fiction of 2017
It’s Edgar and Lucy by Victor Lodato! I enjoyed Lodato’s debut novel, Mathilda Savitch, a few years ago, and this second book was well worth the wait. The book weighs in at over 500 pages, but I breezed through it in a matter of days. The characters are profoundly developed, the plot perfectly timed, and the prose beautiful. It was everything I look for in a great novel, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
- A Book of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates. I don’t know how she does it, but she does. Oates as usual has created a monumental novel that holds together from beginning to end. A fascinating story with many unpredictable turns, and possibly the most brilliant ending I’ve seen this year.
- Blue Angel by Francine Prose. Prose is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers, and this book in particular held me rapt for several days. Strong characters and a plot in which the pressure just keeps increasing.
- The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. This book is disqualified from any trophies because I’ve read it once before, but on this second reading I found it even more brilliant than it was the first time. Do give it a try if you’ve not read it before.
- Honorable Mentions: The Dinner by Herman Koch. The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall. The Terranauts by T.C. Boyle. Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld.
I can’t recall why I first picked up Holes. I was mostly a reader of science fiction and fantasy, and didn’t typically read a book just because it had a medal on its cover. I was never quite sure whether I liked it, even, though I did read it several times. What really kept me engaged with it, I think, was a sense that it was deeper, more profound, than other books I’d read.
Holes, written by Louis Sachar, is the story of one Stanley Yelnats, a kid who is sent to a hellish camp for juvenile delinquents, Camp Green Lake. His crime: he unknowingly stole a pair of sneakers that were meant to raise money for a homeless shelter. This miscarriage of justice he ascribes to his family’s history of bad luck, brought on by his “no-good dirty-rotten pig-stealing great-great-grandfather.” While initially played for laughs, this detail, like most details in Holes, becomes highly significant to the plot. Stanley’s story, and the story of his ancestors, are joined tightly together in a multigenerational jigsaw puzzle.
It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that I read a lot as a kid. I went through dozens of books and pillaged the library on a weekly basis. There were, however, a few books that attracted my attention more than others, books I read over and over again. This is series is about re-reading those books as an adult. Are they good? Are they bad? Are they weird? Let’s find out!
Most of my friends were readers to some degree or another, and we all read Animorphs. No wonder: it was so popular in the late nineties as to be practically inescapable. The series was written by Katherine “K.A.” Applegate, who in more recent years was honored with the Newbery Medal for her book The One and Only Ivan. As such, her credentials as a writer should be beyond question, yet still I expected to be less than enthralled by Animorphs when revisiting it as an adult. After all, even as a kid I read less than half of the fifty-plus volumes. But there was one book in the series that captivated me more than any other: the prequel, The Andalite Chronicles. If there was anything great about Animorphs, I’d find it there.
The premise of the series: there are two warring alien species. There are the noble Andalites, centaur-like creatures who have perfected a shape-shifting technology; and the evil Yeerks, a race of space-slugs that have the ability to take over other creatures’ bodies. In the Animorphs series, the Yeerks have begun a covert invasion of Earth with the intention of enslaving the human race, and a mortally wounded Andalite gifts the “morphing” technology to a group of children. These kids, the titular Animorphs, thus become the last hope of humanity. But our story today isn’t about the Animorphs at all. It’s about the Andalites.
The Dark Knight Rises returns to the story of Bruce Wayne, already in progress after a minor interruption involving an evil clown who robs banks. The film opens with a scientist being kidnapped by… somebody. The somebody takes the scientist onto his plane along with a few hostages, but little does he know that one of the hostages is a mask-wearing man called Bane. Bane is to be the Mega Bad Guy of the film, and like most Mega Bad Guys he can do anything, regardless of how implausible it is, so he naturally has his own cargo plane and uses it to kidnap the scientist himself and destroy the somebody’s plane.
Meanwhile, Gotham has actually lived up to its status as the world’s best city by totally eradicating crime. Now if you do so much as run a red light you can be locked up for life, no questions asked. However, Commissioner Gordon is not so sure this is a good idea, but he’s not going to be a party pooper.
Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, is moping because without crime he doesn’t know what to do with himself. His mope is cut short when a Mysterious Woman steals a necklace that belonged to his mother. Uh-oh, crime! That gets Bruce’s attention real good.
In order to recover the necklace, Wayne traces her to a high-society bash, where he also meets a woman with a foreign accent. Nobody else in this film has an accent, so this is probably indicative of Deep Evil. Wayne doesn’t think of that, though, and for some reason he trusts her so much that he turns over control of Wayne Enterprises to her.
Bane, like most villains, has a deep grudge against The World’s Best City, and he strikes where it will hurt the most: the Department of Public Works! This is actually a surprisingly good plan. He also attacks the stock exchange, which is a less good plan, but leads to a motorcycle chase. Vroom!
Wayne Enterprises has, of course, continued its campaign of building dangerous weaponizable energy sources. This time around it’s constructed a fusion reactor that can be made into an atom bomb with minor modifications. (A job for the kidnapped scientist! Did you forget about him?)
When Bane finds out about this, he steals it and threatens to blow up Gotham! In the meantime his army of mercenaries (volunteer mercenaries, the worst kind!) sacks the city and force rich people to walk on thin ice.
Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, got in a fight with Bane that landed him in a prison somewhere in the Middle East. It is a literal hole in the ground which light cannot penetrate, and yet it is very well-lit. While Wayne is in the prison, he finds out that the Influential White Guy lives on in spirit… he had an offspring who is even now behind the plot to destroy Gotham! That guy just can’t give it a rest.
Soon, Wayne escapes from the foreign prison and gets back to Gotham by… by… I guess he learned to teleport himself while he was in there. Anyway, he gets back to Gotham in time to find out that Foreign Accent Woman is not only in league with Bane, but she is the offspring of the Influential White Guy! She tries to blow up the city, but it’s not going down without some vehicular action. Vroom!
So the whole crew pulls together: Wayne, Gordon, and Mysterious Woman manage to strap the bomb to Wayne’s Bat-Copter and Wayne flies it away just in time for it to blow him up… or does it?
Soon things are back to normal in Gotham despite having been the site of the most horrific terrorist coup in American history. Wayne’s mansion is turned into a Dickensian orphanage. And Bruce Wayne, who did not die, elopes with the Mysterious Woman. God bless us, every one!
Batman Begins is the story of Bruce Wayne, a rich and influential white guy who has an unhealthy obsession with crime. This obsession, like most such things, can be traced back to childhood traumas. Wayne’s parents were gods among men, simultaneously working as doctors and as venture capitalists whose multibillion-dollar corporation coincidentally worked for the betterment of humanity. However, they fell prey to a violent mugger, and Wayne’s hatred of the disenfranchised and desperate was born.
We meet up with adult Wayne in a Chinese prison for reasons which are never satisfactorily explained. He meets up with another influential white guy who, it turns out, runs a mystical mountaintop martial-arts monastery. He trains Wayne to be a ninja (ninjas are well-known to be part of Tibetan/Chinese culture), then makes a critical error by asking Wayne to kill a murderer. Wayne, of course, would never kill (never!) so he escapes from the monastery by setting fire to it and battling his fellow ninjas. Most if not all of them die in the process, including (probably) the guy he refused to kill. It’s all right, though, because the other white guy told him that a secret society of urban-renewal conspirators was planning to torch Gotham, which is the world’s best city despite being totally corrupt at all levels of society, and Wayne isn’t going to let that happen.
Well, folks, it’s that time of year once again. What did I read this year? What did I watch? What was good, and what was bad? Read on for my recommendations, reviews, and the coveted trophies of badness.
Best Fiction of 2016
Top prize goes to The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall. I make a habit of picking up books by authors I haven’t read before, and in this case I’m sure glad I did. Udall paints a sophisticated and detailed portrait of the complicated lives entwined in a polygamous Mormon family. The book has a very rich cast of characters and a solid overarching plot, all spun together with tight and effective prose. This was the first book I read this year, and still it managed to take the top spot. Highly recommended.
- Mister Monkey by Francine Prose. This is a wonderful book. It revolves around a terrible play for children and each chapter follows a different character: actors in the production, audience members, and so on. A former instructor of mine said that a novel should be a world, and Prose’s book is a shining example of that approach. Each chapter is almost a standalone short story, and yet they still all fit together like the gears of a clock. I loved it.
- Honorable Mentions: Summer House With Swimming Pool by Herman Koch. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill. The Magicians by Lev Grossman. This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides.