"The book I'm looking for,' says the blurred figure, who holds out a volume similar to yours, 'is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world."
- Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 - List of Top Best Mosts

Top Best Books

Most Book Actually Written This YearDept. of Speculation by Jenny Offil

There's a special power that the small novel has. Like the mythical Big Novel, there's a sort of audacity related to it's size, in this case for a writer to wipe her hands together after fewer than 200 pages and say, All done!

For me, 2013 was dominated by one Big Book (Infinite Jest) and one meaty one (Independence Day). Looking back, 2014 was my year of the small novel. I read Renata Adler's Speedboat (interesting, but couldn't get my hooks in), Julian Barnes' Sense of an Ending (exciting, sad), Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold (too mythical), Justin Torres' We the Animals (beautiful, forgettable).

But the best of these was Jenny Offil's Dept of Speculation.  It's written in small, paragraph- or sentence-long chunks, describing the dissolution and eventual reconciliation of a marriage. It's a great. And like many small books, it's highly poetic, by which I mean that it takes power from it's spareness, that the individual pieces are given as much meaning as the whole, that it faces several directions at once, and that it invites its reader to do some work.

This is the other way in which small novels are like Big Books--the good ones ask us to do our homework. They leave things unsaid and aren't afraid to leave space for the reader to jam in the texture of her own life.   

Top Whimsical Class WarfareThe Collected Works of P.G. Wodehouse

I've tried to read Wodehouse once or twice before, but it never stuck. But in 2014, I picked up one of his works on Audible for a road-trip, and within the next few months five novels and story collections had breezed by.

Wodehouse wrote 90 books in his life, but the most famous fall into two series: Jeeves and Wooster, about a silly, wealthy young man and his brilliant valet; and Blandings Castle, which revolve around the titular locale and the amiable elderly aristocrat who runs it. The stories all take place in a non-specific inter-war period. They concern the idle-rich of England, and although the jokes are often at the expense of the characters, it's clear that Wodehouse has nothing but affection for them. Bertie Wooster may be an idiot, but he's the most likable idiot in the world. He's the hero of his stories, not Jeeves. The series is gentle. The stakes are low (a missing pig; an accidental engagement). The solutions are neat.

Because I was simultaneously watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, I came to see these two canons as sort of political opposites to one another. Just as TNG creates a perfect universe out of liberal ideals--one forward-looking, anti-capitalist, meritocratic, government-sponsored, peace-loving, science-centered; one where a reoccurring storyline involves the characters flying to a new planet and literally trying to find the best way to respect the culture there--Wodhouse creates a thoroughly conservative utopia. Wodehouse's world is one that doesn't change, is patriotic, is domestic; one that values tradition; one where the aristocracy is gentle and well-meaning and harmless. 

And just as TNG is a fantasy future that no one will ever see, Wodehouse represents (as Evelyn Waugh noted) a past that never quite existed. But both have value anyway, in their articulation of a utopia, the way that that is comforting and thoughtful. 

Most Non-FictionNotes of a Native Son by James Baldwin and American Prometheus by  Martin J. Sherwin and Kai Bird

I only read two non-fiction books this year, and they're both worth mentioning. I read Baldwin for the obvious reasons: that this was a year where we talked about race a lot, and where the experience of black people became a (deservedly) regular political subject. Notes of a Native Son almost lives up to its reputation. The title essay is one of the best I've ever read by miles and miles. Everyone should read it. Other highlights include "Harlem Ghetto" and "Equal in Paris." But some of the others are more forgettable, and the essays of Part One are particularly weak. And it's also hard sometimes to see the freshness of the work; today, Baldwin's influence reaches to just about every contemporary essayist or journalist. The best writers about race today (Ta Nehasi Coates) borrow in huge ways from his work, and sometimes improve on it. But that's the way of the essay, a form aimed at educating as much as creating beauty, and so inherently tied to the affectations and peculiarities of communication and persuasion in it's time. 

American Prometheus, the definitive biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, took more than the length of the year to read. Actually, I'm not quite done yet. But I read the bulk of it in 2014. I kind of don't know what to say about a biography or about a history book. I don't read many. But this one lingers.  Oppenheimer was a fascinating character--simultaneously strange and awkward and totally compelling and charismatic to everyone around him--and the story of the development and use of the bomb is captivating. 

Best Most Television That Isn't Mad Men

Most SadLaughsReview, "Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes"

For my money, the "best" TV of every year since 2007 has been Mad Men. Even in 2011, between seasons 4 and 5, when Mad Men was off the air for a whole year amid bitter contract disputes, Mad Men was still somehow the best television of the year. 2014 was no different. The show pulled no punches. It explored, in its slow, poignant way, the ways in which life doesn't just change or become unfamiliar, but actually finds replacements for us--new technology, new cities, fresh faces, new ways of living and thinking. We'll enter the final half season of the series reminded, appropriately, that there are no permanent fixtures in life and that our projected futures are not guaranteed. 

But lists should be surprising. So I want to give my Top Best to the single funniest and saddest episode of television this year: "Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes," from the single-season Comedy Central show Review

The show is mockumentary-style and revolves around a man--Forrest MacNeil--who is sent requests to review real-world experiences for his television show, Review. These requests begin as basically benign ("Stealing") but quickly escalate to activities that disrupt the stability of his outside life ("Addiction," "Racism," and, in this episode, "Divorce"). As you might guess from the title, this episode involves our hero eating  "an upsetting number of pancakes" both before and after divorcing his wife. It's the third episode of the series, and the one that begins to set the tone for the insane, dark lengths that Forrest will go for the sake of the show's experiment. 

Good comedy has teeth, and "Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes" takes Forrest headlong through ordinary physical pain, and then devastating emotional pain. But it doesn't rescue him with the final request of the episode, or even use the set up to lavish in his misery. Instead, it uses another instance of physical pain to bring a kind of deliverance for Forrest, a petty victory in a series of substantial losses. And it's really, really funny. "These pancakes couldn't kill me, because I was already dead."

Most Hours Spent Sitting on the Couch in the Only Life I'll Ever HaveStar Trek: The Next Generation and Gilmore Girls

Each of us gets one life, and the only thing that waits for us at the end of it is the hungry wolf of oblivion. In 2014, a tiny sliver in my brief flash of awareness between two eternities of darkness, I came home from work each day, opened a beer, turned on Netflix, and slammed back every episode of Star Trek: TNG (133 hours) and the first four seasons of Gilmore Girls (74 hours). Meanwhile, I got older and older and inched closer and closer to the finish line on my one and only trip around this Earth.  B+.

Top Most Songs I Listed to on Repeat Too Many Times

Songs for which I Owe my Fiancee the Most Apologies for Playing Them Ad Nauseam 

Kendrick Lamar - i (Live on SNL)

2012 was Kendrick Lamar's year. His album that year, Good Kidd m.A.A.d. City, was enormously positively reviewed and cemented his place in the American musical cannon, for both critics and casual listeners. It was a serious, strange, and dark album, one which told a story about being a young man in Compton.

And the first song released off his as-yet-unreleased new album, "i," is a poppy, upbeat tune about finding positivity and overcoming hard times. It samples the jangling guitars from the Isley Brothers. I love the song. But there's no way around its seeming departure from his previous album: it's radio-friendly, with a simple, positive, and utterly universal message, whose hook repeats throughout the track, "I love myself."

In November, he took to the SNL stage to perform the new single.

Although he's backed by a large band and several back-up singers, he's alone in the center of the stage, in a purple wash. His hair is set half-loose. His eyes are black, completely black, thanks to large scleral contacts. As the song begins, Lamar stamps his foot and spits, punctuated by percussion, "Dedicated to my homies in the penn--hit me!" and sets the tone for this performance, explicitly politicizing and racial-izing the song's otherwise milquetoast message. Here, between the chorus he chants, "When you're lookin' at me, tell me what do you see? / put a bullet in the back of head of the police?" 

He's reminding us that this song about finding self-love in depression is political, that his experiences of depression or loneliness or self-doubt are in part informed by a life in Compton--by poverty, racism.

His voice strains, his dance is herky-jerky and shuffling. There's a barely-controlled energy in his twitching, and it gives the song much-needed teeth.

La Roux - Sexotheque
Future Islands - Seasons
Ryn Weaver - OctaHate

Best Podcast Shows (Not Serial) with Links to Mostly Random Episodes

Slate Culture Gabfest 
          Gild This 
          Wolfie is My Safe Word
Slate Political Gabfest
My Brother My Brother and Me
          Glass Shark
          Yogi The Stareater
Very Bad Wizards
          Free Willie
          Killer Robots

Most Video Games

Donkey Kong Country Returns: Tropical Freeze
Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag
Gone Home

No comments:

Post a Comment