Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best of Everything 2014

2014 happened. Here is the best stuff I encountered in it.


New Fiction:

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer

My first encounter with Jeff VanderMeer was in the pages of Steampunk, an excellent anthology of short stories and other excerpts from various steampunk writers that Jeff and his wife Ann VanderMeer put together as an introduction to the genre.1 Until this year, I only knew his writing from the introduction to said anthology. This spring, someone on Tumblr mentioned that he's a great speculative fiction writer himself, so I bought a copy of City of Saints and Madmen2 off Better World Books and enjoyed it so much that I immediately headed over to the Ball State library to scrounge for more Jeff VanderMeer. The only book of his on the shelves was Annihilation, but boy, they picked a great only book by Jeff VanderMeer to have, I tell ya.

Annihilation messed me up something fierce. From the first moments of the book, I felt this palpable dread radiating off the page, wafting gently onto me like tropical humidity until I was drenched with it. The dread in this book clung to me for days afterward, messed up my sleeping patterns and work habits.

It was great.

Equal parts Stalker, Twilight Zone, and Goosebumps-cranked-to-11, Annihilation is a first-person account of a biologist sent as part of a team to explore Area X--about which, the less said the better. She quickly realizes that everything she thought she knew was a lie, but instead of trying to figure out the truth, or leave, she kind of just realizes she's screwed and decides to stick around to see what happens. It's all quite terrifying and magnificent and weird.

Runner Up: The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

Old Fiction:

The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun, by N. K. Jemisin

I spent the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014 digging up fantasy and sci-fi from authors of color, because, let's face it, you can only read so many books by white guys before you need someone else's perspective. One great find was N. K. Jemisin, who creates fantasy worlds where, just like in our world, most of the characters are people of color. How about that.

The Dreamblood books, The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun, take place in a world dominated by various Middle Eastern- and African-inspired cultures, deities, and political powers. The plots are full of political conspiracy, culture conflict, and strange magic. They're also just really rad, so I'm quite glad I found them. I'm pretty stoked for her next book, which is coming out in August, 2015.

Runner Up: the Xenogenesis trilogy, by Octavia Butler

Honorable Mentions: If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino;
Embassytown, by China Mieville

New Nonfiction:

The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession, by Dana Goldstein

This fall, I started taking classes toward an elementary school teaching certificate. But my interest in education, and education policy, goes back a number of years. So I was delighted to hear Terry Gross interview historian Dana Goldstein about her book on the history of teaching in America. It's actually mostly a history of Americans fighting about teaching: who should teach, what they should teach, and what they should be paid.

It's a very balanced, thoughtful, and thorough treatment of the subject, but it never gets bogged down with all the details, and almost always retains a human, personal touch, examining the issues of each period through the lives of a few key figures. The key lesson I walked away with was that, however much we may fight about education today, Americans have tried a lot of the current strategies for reforming education before, and we can actually just look to history to help us decide what works (teacher mentoring and coaching!) and what doesn't (merit pay!).

Old Nonfiction:

Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, by James Oakes

Race and racism in America were on my mind a lot this year; I think many Americans can say the same, what with police brutality protests in Ferguson, NYC, and around the country, as well as "The Case for Reparations" and other racial issues coming to national attention throughout the year. I wrote several posts on this subject, and I researched them all as thoroughly as time would allow. My best find while researching was Freedom National, a book that examines in fine detail the ending of slavery in America.

It's a rich book, full of lively detail and incisive analysis. Most crucially, though, it functions as a striking rebuttal to historians and laypeople alike who allege that the Civil War was not "about" slavery, or that Lincoln and the Republicans had no intention of abolishing slavery. At every turn, author James Oakes points out how fervently anti-slavery Lincoln and the Republicans were, and the measures they were taking to destroy slavery within the boundaries set out for them by the Constitution of the United States. (Read about Oakes's thoughts on revisionist Civil War history here.) Freedom National is a great work of history, and a brilliant read to boot.

Runner Up: When I Was a Child, I Read Books, by Marylinne Robinson

  Jesus and the Victory of God, by N. T. Wright;
The Information, by James Glick

New Comics:

The Shadow Hero, by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew

I've been in love with Gene Luen Yang's work ever since my friend Daniel put his copy of American Born Chinese in my hand and said, "Read this." Yang's work is elegant in its simplicity, always poignant, yet never maudlin. His latest collaboration with Sonny Liew brings new life to a forgotten character from the Golden Age of comics, the Green Turtle. Yang and Liew reinvent the Green Turtle as a gangster-era, Chinese-American superhero, stirring up trouble and upending the corrupt social order in Chinatown. The art is zippy and kinetic, colorful, lively, and keen. The story is a fun, light-hearted tribute to a bygone era, with Yang's perennial theme, the Chinese-Western culture clash, never far from view.

One of my favorite things in comics is when creators include commentary on their work within the book itself: Scott McCloud's combination of nostalgia and faint embarrassment about his early work in the Zot! anthology, Chester Brown's copious historical notes at the back of his Louis Riel biography, Juanjo Guarnido's meticulous color studies in A Silent Hell. So it was a special treat for me to open my copy of The Shadow Hero on Christmas and discover at the end, not only a detailed commentary on the original Golden-Age character and his creator, but a full reprint of the original issue of the Green Turtle's debut comic! This volume is a delight.

Runner Up: Blacksad: Amarillo, by Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido

Old Comics:

Finder: Talisman, by Carla Speed McNeil

My entry point into the world of comics was Douglas Wolk's book of essays, Reading Comics. It's a great volume, partly because just about every chapter is an essay on a single comic creator's work, so you end up with a good idea of who you'd like to look up (and who you might want to steer clear of) when you're done.

Carla Speed McNeil's Finder universe is one of the ones I initially decided to steer clear of. Her work is rich in the way that Tolkein's is: when you read it, you sense a carefully thought-out, extremely detailed world in the background, of which you're just glimpsing bits and pieces of the surface. This can make it pretty daunting to the beginner. I've tried reading her collected works a few times, but had trouble getting into them because of how little handholding she does in the beginning; your introduction to the Finder universe--a sort of indigenous, retro-punk, post-disaster future--is a glorious, cacophonous mess, not because McNeil is bad at her job, but simply because that's how the world she writes in is. It's clearly great inside; it's just hard to get in.

Talisman finally broke the world open for me this year. It's short, it follows a single character all the way through, and it's beautiful, sometimes wrenchingly so. I'm hoping to finally get into Finder now that I've finally found a way in.

Runner Up: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, by Hayao Miyazaki


Feature Film:

Coherence, directed by James Ward Byrkit

Coherence is the movie I made everyone watch this fall; I must have screened it five or six times for various groups of friends. I told each of them this: Coherence is like if you watched Primer and actually cared about the characters. If you haven't seen Primer, it's on Netflix instant, it's like 70 minutes long--just do it, go ahead, I'll wait.

Okay, so Primer uses a small budget to play with a sci-fi concept--time travel--in ways that deliberately mess with the viewer and, hopefully, makes you want to watch it again to puzzle out what you miss the first time. It's really great if that's what you're into; but the major flaw is that you don't necessary come away from it caring very much about the people who are caught up in its convolutions. Not so with Coherence, which rapidly establishes each character in its eight-person cast, creating buy-in from the audience from the first moments, and providing an emotional through line that keeps you invested even as the plot starts to spiral into madness. Best of all, it rewards multiple viewings even better than Primer (since you can actually figure out what's happening in another watch-through or two).

Maybe my favorite thing about Coherence is the story behind the movie. The film flows really well, with realistic, overlapping dialogue and an intimate feel. That's because it was all filmed at the director's house over the course of a few days, with the actors improvising their lines. (The actors were given their motivations and basic to-do's by the director each night, but not told what anyone else would be doing or saying.) It's a testament to how important the editor's job is that this film is even watchable; I can't imagine how hard it must be to assemble a normal film with lines and discrete scenes, never mind an ad-libbed deal like this one. But it's not merely watchable: it's a marvel, clear and gorgeous throughout, and loads of fun to boot.

Runner Up: Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon-ho

Honorable Mention: Noah, directed by Darren Aronofsky

Short Film:

Straight Down Low, by Zach Wechter


I'd never heard of Wechter before I saw his short, Straight Down Low, but he's definitely talented. The film nails the film noir feel, to a T, but rather than taking the Chinatown route and revisiting the 30s, 40s, and 50s settings of the original noirs, it heads the way of Brick instead, and uses the genre to explore different territory--in this case, a 90s-era gangland. It's twisty, gritty, wicked fun.

Runner Up:  Submarine Sandwich, by PES

Honorable Mention: The Missing Scarf, by Eoin Duffy

Music Video:

Shia LaBeouf, by Rob Cantor

I don't really have words for this one; just watch it, and you'll either get it, or be like "who is Shia LaBeouf lol." 

TV Show:

Bojack Horseman

Okay, so apparently this is a controversial choice: Bojack Horseman divided critics and fans alike. I thought it was gut-bustingly funny, and also weirdly mesmerizing. I watched it all in a single day, which is almost unheard of for me. It's about a washed-up former Hollywood sitcom star--so about half the jokes are about being a has-been in Hollywood. But he's a horse, and other people are animals also, so the other half of the jokes are about what it would be like to live in a world where some people are animals: a chicken woman lays an egg after a fight in a bar stresses her out; Cameron Crowe is a raven, who is really annoyed that people can't get that he's not actually a crow; and so on. It's fun/weird.

All of that wouldn't be enough to put this on top for me. The two things that did were (1) the opening credits, for which see the above clip--it captures the essence of the show so perfectly, so surreally, and so catchily, that just those 54 seconds of music and visuals obsessed me for quite a while, and (2) the way the series winds up, which is surprisingly emotionally resonant--beautiful even. Check it out sometime; it's all available on Netflix instant.

Runner Up: High Maintenance

TV Episode: 

"Food Chain" from Adventure Time

Adventure Time is probably my favorite current piece of pop culture, in any medium, currently being created right now. This episode was a great demonstration of why: we're six seasons in, but the creators are still experimenting. This gives me life.

In this case, they handed the reins of the show over to a complete outsider for a whole episode, and the result is a masterwork of psychedelic visuals, zany music, and surprisingly educational content; yet the emotional core, the friendship between the two main characters, remains intact. That ability to balance emotional resonance with experimentation and zaniness is what keeps me coming back for more.

Runner Up: "Island Adventure" from Steven Universe

Honorable Mention: "Matilda" from High Maintenance

Video Game:

Gone Home

Gone Home
is not a conventional video game, and that's a big part of its appeal. There's no bad guys to fight, no puzzles to work out, no points or lives or any of that. It's purely an interactive story, one that you investigate at your own pace, watching it, and--crucially--hearing it unspool in front of you. The sound design on this game is unreal. A game like this lives and dies on atmosphere--and Gone Home has atmosphere in spades.

The game takes the player back to the pre-internet 90s, a world of CD players, typewriters, video cassettes, and zines. The human story is the real heart of the game, though--and the less I say about it, the better, because you should experience it for yourself. If you hurry, you can get it on Steam for ten bucks.

Gone Home is an evocative, poignant, lush experience. I loved it.

Runner Up: Gunpoint

Honorable Mention: 2048



You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes

Podcasting can be anything, but the classical form is two people talking smack into a microphone, and no one in my experience talks better smack or finds more interesting people than Pete Holmes does on You Made It Weird.

Pete Holmes is a comedian, and he brings a lot of fellow comedians on to talk to him, which is great, and he's great at it. But what I love most about You Made It Weird is that, no matter who he brings on, Pete almost always brings up religion at some point, and he's great at drawing people into religious conversations in a way that you won't hear on On Being or pretty much anywhere else. Mostly because they're usually pretty uproarious.

Runner Up: The Nostalgia Trap

Honorable Mentions: Meet the Composer

Podcast Episode: 

"Love Hurts" from Strangers

Lea Thau's podcast Strangers is pretty great, but you wouldn't really know it from the premise: it's really just people telling their stories. But Lea Thau was one of the main people behind The Moth--she was its Executive Director for a decade, and she started the podcast--so when it comes to getting people to tell their stories, she's a legend.

What makes "Love Hurts" so special is that it's Lea's own story, just not from her perspective. She lays out her romantic woes, true, but then she does something unique: she interviews an ex, to ask him: what went wrong? The question we all have but can't ever really ask--was it me? is there something wrong...with me?--she asks it. And it's brilliant, involving stuff, let me tell you.

Runner Up: "60 Words" from Radiolab


Oh Christmas Trees Volume Two, by Oh Christmas Trees

I've stopped buying or even really looking for new music over the last few years--I dunno why. But that hasn't stopped me from occasionally making some of my own. In 2013, some friends and I put together an album of Christmas songs, and this year, we came back and did it again. This year's album was a lot of fun, and I was really proud of my contribution, a recording of the Advent hymn Lost in the Night.

Runner Up: Enamored, by Dave and Erica


Life Event: 

Got married. Our wedding was really, really cool, and we still think back on it with pride and glee. The music, the ceremony, the guests, the food--it was all a blast. Check out the summary below, or heck, just watch the whole thing here.

Runner Up: Went back to school.

Trip Destination:

Washington Island, WI.

We went here for our honeymoon. It's an island in the middle of Lake Michigan. Ask me about it sometime.

Runner Up: Manhattan, Isle of Joy

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