THIS YEAR'S SUMMATION:
I don't like Top Ten lists. For one, I usually have more or less than that to go on the list. For two, I tend to see most things in a bewildering array of shades of gray. For three, I break things down into an enormous number of concise categories. (Not just "books." Not even just "mysteries." Not even "mysteries," "thrillers," "literary fiction," "non-fiction," etc. I'd have to have dozens of Top Ten lists and I don't have the time, or the inclination.) For four, some of my favorite things came out prior to this past year and I just now got around to them.
So here's some stuff I liked this year. (Don't worry, to maintain my somewhat cranky reputation I'll get to some stuff I didn't like, below.)
Among the books I especially liked, loved even, were:
INTO THE BEAUTIFUL NORTH, Luis Alberto Urrea. It was fun, allegorical, magnificently written, smart as all get out, political, sexual, social and about nearly anything and everything worth giving a damn about. The beautiful, but not sappy, side of the human condition.
BEIJING COMA, Ma Jian. One of the most depressing, disturbing, fantastically written novels I have ever read. It is awfully hard to think anything kindly about China after reading this book. It is about the ugly, brutal, avaricious side of the human condition. Dostoevsky would have been proud to have written it.
THE KINDLY ONES, Jonathan Littell. Okay, another depressing novel. And really gross and hard to read in places, too. The fictional argument for Hannah Arendt's "Banality of Evil." Makes you think about things you probably don't want to think about.
MIRRORS, Eduardo Galeano. A history of the world through snippets of biography, memoir and quotes from people who are real, mythological and no one knows for sure. Wildly entertaining, easy to read, and thought-provoking.
A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING, Bill Bryson. Extremely amusing and informative. Intelligent science for us non-scientists.
I tend to avoid too much pimping of my friends' books, even though I buy and read all of them, or as many as I can. I'm sure to forget someone. Sometimes I might not like a friend's book (as they might not like mine) and so I don't feel like I can be honest. And, well, at this point I know too many fellow writers. I have a hard enough time keeping up with my own blather on this blog.
But, that said, I do want to add my voice to the growing chorus that is singing the praises of the first novel by Sophie Littlefield, A BAD DAY FOR SORRY. It is one very damn fine read from a writer who I know works harder at her craft than many of the rest of us; certainly more than myself. I'm looking forward to her future books.
I liked some movies this year, too, but for the most part I think it was a lousy year for movies, so I'm having a tough time remembering them. Not that many appealed to me, so I didn't see as many as usual. Among the ones I do recall are:
THE HURT LOCKER. About as suspensful and riveting a movie as I have ever seen. I got so wound up watching it that I felt like I had to do stretches and take deep breaths when I got out of the theater.
THE HANGOVER. It was funny - even the second time. (I saw it again at Thanksgiving with my family.) And I find so few comedies actually funny, that that was enough. But it was smart, too, and somewhat sabotaged it's genre - which I appreciated.
That's about it, at least that I can recall. I tried jarring my memory by looking at the current rash of Top Ten lists online, but I just didn't see much that I loved at the movies this year.
On the other hand, this is the year that I finally decided television is capable of being a whole lot better than movies. I think this is because of the medium itself. Most movies are anywhere from 90 to 130 minutes long. That has nothing at all to do with artistic or storytelling decisions. It has to do with the fact that in the past movie theaters were set up to best handle films that involved a certain number of reels of film, and that they also need to squeeze in a certain number of showings per day to make a profit. (And overpriced popcorn and sodas, of course.) That severely limits the amount of character and plot development any movie can engage in. In some cases, it's a good thing. Too many movies are already too long.
But I have come to see movies as the equivalent of short stories - no matter how big their scope. While television series can stretch out, much like a novel. Perhaps that is a reason why the best movies adapted from previously published works, tend, with a few exceptions, to come from short stories, rather than novels.
I read, and enjoy, and write, more novels than short stories. So here's some of the television series that I have most unabashedly enjoyed in the past year:
BREAKING BAD. As dark, complex, bleak and yet at times funny as anything I have ever read or seen.
MAD MEN. Ditto, but also about the very human struggle against the brain-numbing responsibilities of daily and family life.
BIG LOVE. Sexual and religious politics to the max. A Shakespearean drama that has the ability to make me squirm.
UGLY BETTY. I dunno, I just like it. I think it's smart, funny, charming, touching and sometimes makes some pretty good points.
THE BIG BANG THEORY. The only half-hour sitcom I have ever liked this much. Very smart, very funny, politically incorrect. If laughing really is good for you, this show is medicine for me.
Okay, I could go on and on and on if I wanted: music, websites, restaurants, art shows, etc. But enough's enough.
Here's a short, incomplete list - in no particular order - of some (domestic only) things I didn't like this year:
The Supreme Court
Big financial institutions
All TV "news"
Sherlock Holmes - the movie.
Bored To Death - tv series.
About 77.8 percent of what I see on Twitter
Bob Dylan's Xmas album
"Reality TV" (other than Top Chef, which I have a weakness for.)
A Prairie Home Companion
The NY Yankees
There's plenty more where those came from, but it's time to wrap up this year end wrap up.
I hope, as I always hope, that next year is better. Although on the whole, for me at least, this year's been pretty good.