For the last couple of years, I’ve done my year’s best posts AFTER Christmas, but maybe it’d be a greater public service to do them now in case you want to buy gifts for that special someone on your list who is…eerily like me.
(Remember, by the way, that these are things I’ve encountered this year. They may or may not have been produced recently.)
Far and away the book of the year for me was Stephen King’s 11/22/63. If King were to sit down in a lab with a keyword list of things I like to write the perfect novel for me, it might include time travel, the Kennedy assassination, the 60s, thwarting an abusive father, fighting against a capricious universe, references to his previous books like It, doomed romance, writing, teaching English, living in primitive Florida, and retreating to the wilderness of Maine. Either I’m just another ordinary member of a marketing demographic or he was chanelling something Will-like in these pages.
I read it twice this year, if that gives you any idea.
I’m not sure it is his greatest novel, but it has the feeling of a swan song. King here hits all the notes he has perfected over the years (vices, too), and I have the uneasy feeling that the books that come after this one aren’t going to be as good. He has a sequel to The Shining coming out that might be interesting, but I’d be surprised if it had this novel’s passion behind it.
Earth Abides by George Stewart was everything I’ve wanted from my science fiction, a human story whose speculative elements serve to focus us on big thoughts. You’d imagine that would be common in the genre, but it isn’t. Too many sf books do what I call “playing with the box,” chasing the superficial tropes without putting anything inside them. Earth Abides is a wonderful exploration of how we make our own society (in this case after a pandemic wipes the slate clean), starting with ourselves.
One big surprise was how much I liked William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. I listened to the most recent edition on audio book read by the author himself, so I doubt this is quite the same book that Stephen King worked over in Danse Macabre. Blatty mentioned that he did some rewriting, and I found it a terrifying exegesis on the nature of evil. It has a great deal more subtlety than the movie, and I find Catholicism oddly fascinating. I love watching big institutions grappling with the unknown.
One of the great boons of a Netflix subscription is that I’m finding the obscure films that nobody else but me seems to like. It’s telling, I think, that none of the films I’m praising here as my year’s best were promoted heavily by the Hollywood shit machine.
- The Moth Diaries was a standout. Girls’ school, creepy cadaverous young woman who is probably a vampire, stylish visuals, delicate psychology…come on. It’s extraordinarily good, which is why it got rated a star and a half on Netflix by the Cro-Magnons looking for porn and gore. Or, as I call it, gorn.
- The Sound of My Voice was also extraordinary. The female leader of a cult claims to have come from our future with dire warnings, and we’re never quite sure if she’s insane or not. A young couple goes undercover to expose her but things get deliciously complicated. Watching it reminded me how great stories raise questions more than answer them.
- I prefer genre fiction that uses the tropes of the genre to say something about being human; I want the cosmic made personal. In Safety Not Guaranteed, the trope of time travel (almost always personal as the science of regret) is depicted with a wonderful intimacy. It’s a nicely understated movie that most viewers probably found confusing for being romantic and a comedy without being a romantic comedy, and for having a speculative element that doesn’t explode on the screen into your eyeballs. God, I’m an angry old man.
Thank God that anybody with a decent HD video camera can now make the kind of documentaries I’ve always wanted about strange shit going on in the world. I saw two of them this year.
- Resurrect Dead is about all those strange tiles with rambling messages that have turned up embedded in city streets and sidewalks; it essentially solves the mystery but with the nagging edges that you’d expect of any post-modern “solution.”
- Cropsey is about an abandoned mental institution on Staten Island (how can they tell?) at the center of several missing children’s cases.
Like my beloved In Search Of, these films may or may not come close to the truth…but they make the world slightly more wondrous at least.
I broke down and watched Game of Thrones this year, and it was wonderful as expected. Louie is some of the best television you’ll ever watch, as long as you have the neurons to hold a couple of ideas in your head at the same time, one of them funny and the other poignant.
A surprise was Parks and Recreation, driven by a great cast and great characters plus the occasional flash of a dark absurdity.
When I was younger, I had an obsession with owning all the books, movies, television shows, and music that I’d ever want, essentially archiving it myself.
These days, I’m pretty sure the Internet can do it better for me and of the 40 books I read this year, I only still “own” a couple. Seventeen were on audio and seven were on the Kindle. I still read books in the ordinary paper format and still enjoy them, but I’ve found the electronic versions less distracting than I imagined. My small cheapie Kindle is light and easy to carry, and I can underline all I want with a pretty easy feature.