current status: that thing where i buy too much stuff all at the same time and thus can’t concentrate on any of them because i’m trying to give them all an equal opportunity and i end up going to bed early because i’m mentally exhausted and also feeling guilty for spending money that i don’t have
Look: the release of the Mueller report is depressing and disheartening and the Barr summary is absurd, and it’s hard to maintain optimism when the President of the United States is gloating like a schoolyard bully who won a punching contest with a 1st grader. In these troubled times, I end up doing what I usually do; I spend way too much money on stupid shit. And so I bought a bunch of games this weekend, and barely had time to play any of them.
I died 4-5 times in the tutorial section of Sekiro. I am intrigued and I want to continue, but I will need patience (which is in short supply) and a long stretch of uninterrupted time (which almost never happens).
I made it to the first real checkpoint in One Piece. I don’t know why I bought this game; I’m not an anime fan, and I’d never even heard of this franchise before a week or two ago. But I saw some rather intriguing preview footage, and lord knows I could use some colorful nonsense these days.
I’m up to chapter 5 in Devil May Cry 5. I’m not that much of a DMC fan; the only game I’ve played and actually liked is Ninja Theory’s DmC from a few years ago, and that was mostly because it was visually stunning. (The setpiece where you jump inside the graphics of Fox News is still one of my favorite things ever.) DmC5 is thoroughly ridiculous, and to that end I suppose it’s entertaining enough because it refuses to allow you to take it seriously. But I’m not particularly good at it, either, and my “style points” aren’t anything to brag about, which kinda defeats the purpose of the game.
I’m level 14 in Division 2. So much more to go, so much more left to do, and yet I appreciate that I can jump in and mess around for an hour and then jump out and feel like I accomplished something. Still trying to figure out a good weapon loadout; assault rifles don’t do enough damage, but rifles fire too slowly and have small ammo capacity. Weapon mods can only mitigate these issues so much. At least I’ve settled on the drone and the hive as my skills; the hive is very necessary for saving armor kits while being engaged in drawn-out firefights, and the drone is far more versatile than the turret in terms of keeping enemies occupied.
If this blog is to ultimately serve as a diary of my media consumption, well, that makes it a bit easier to figure out what to write. Especially on days like today, when I’m feasting on the good stuff.
Last summer I wrote a thing about falling in love with a song, and it appears to have happened again. In this case, it’s “Plimsoll Punks” by Alvvays, and while I don’t necessarily need to do a moment-by-moment breakdown of it, I would like to point out a few highlights.
#1: That opening is straight out of The Smiths, and I adore it. #2: The “You’re getting me down, getting me down, getting me down” hook is killer. #3: Again – the guitar work all over the place is straight out of Johnny Marr’s playbook, and I have no complaints about that. #4: Listen to the bassline at 1:53 or so, the way it hits the third instead of the root. UGH. That shit melts my brain. #5: The singer’s voice in the third verse is so gorgeous.
[I was going to write a much longer First Few Hours-style post about The Division 2, but I don’t have the mental bandwidth today. (I feel like I haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep in about 3 months.) And in any event, while I have put in a solid dozen or so hours into it already and just dinged level 12 last night, there’s still so much more to do. In any event, what follows is what was in my drafts folder from the other day:]
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again – I’m generally not into online games. I am a curmudgeon and a hermit and have no need to trade insults with young, racist whippersnappers. I like the single-player experience because it’s like playing a book. It’s made for me. I get to experience it on my own terms. And I also need to pee a lot, so I need a game that won’t punish me if I need to pause it.
When I have dabbled in online games, it’s generally for a co-op, PvE experience. The two notable exceptions to this were a several month-long phase when I had a somewhat unhealthy addiction/obsession with World of Warcraft, which needs its own post at some point, and when my Gamespot forum buddies and I would play Burnout 3 every night.
But I digress. I’m not good enough to play competitively, which is why I tend to shy away from both traditional deathmatch stuff and also the newer battle royale genre. Never cared for it, and that’s fine.
That hasn’t stopped me from playing stuff like Destiny or Anthem, or, also, the topic of today’s post – The Division 2. While they’re obviously meant to be played with groups, you can solo these games without getting unduly punished, and you can also join in with strangers rather seamlessly to take down the game’s enemies. Sure, the endgame probably won’t be as interesting if you remain a solo player, but to be honest I generally never get that far. I’ve beaten the vanilla campaigns of both Destiny 1 and 2 and The Division 1, and I got my money’s worth.
[That’s as far as I’d gotten.]
So the point that I was eventually going to get to is that The Division 2 is really and quite unexpectedly terrific. I can’t seem to get enough of it. AND THAT’S WEIRD, because, as noted above, I normally don’t get this attached to this particular genre. Playing solo is fine, though a bit more challenging than I’m happy with – but that usually just means that I need to tweak my loadout and realize that I’ve been using a wildly under-powered weapon, or that I should probably use a drone in a particular fight instead of a turret. Playing in a group with random people is, to my great surprise, A LOT MORE FUN. We’re all using different perks and playstyles and we end up complementing each other. I tend to hang back and snipe and heal, and my run-and-gun comrades end up needing my services, and I actually feel useful for a goddamned change.
Now, is the story good? OH, MERCY, no it is not. But narrative is totally unnecessary for this experience. I open the map and see that I have a mission, and in that mission I will acquire loot, and that is my primary motivation. And that’s enough. The more missions I complete, the more I can improve the quality of my safehouses, and then I can acquire better gear there, too.
And DC – as Manhattan was in the first game – is a wonder to explore. So many nooks and crannies! So many hidden caches and crates to discover! If I don’t feel like engaging with the many feral gangs roaming the streets, that’s totally OK. I mean, I’ll have to deal with them eventually, but in the meantime there’s this whole entire building that I can sneak into and pilfer to my heart’s content. It is glorious.
The whole package seems genuinely well-thought-out and put together, in all the ways that Division 1 wasn’t, at least at launch. I’m gonna be playing this for a long while.
If you want to hook up, I’m generally on during weeknights after 8pm on Xbox; my gamertag is JervoNYC. As noted above, I believe I’m at around level 12 or so. I’m always happy to tag along with fellow Agents; shit, I might even be persuaded to put on my headset.
Forgive me, readers, for I have lapsed. It’s been almost a full month since my last blog post. I have no idea why I’ve been away for so long, other than the usual self-consciousness about contributing to the noise of the internet by putting my thoughts out in public. Which, again, is weird, considering that I’ve generally had no problem doing that very thing since 2001. But here we are.
I’ve been feeling… well… weird. The usual stuff:
the specific, nostalgic melancholy of social media and its accompanying feelings of loneliness;
managing the wildly unpredictable emotions of an almost-six-year-old boy;
fretting about the health of family and friends;
daylight savings time;
the constant need to be distracted while also being unable to concentrate on the thing I’m trying to distract myself with.
I’ve been zooming through books without really taking them in – most of the books I’m reading, while enjoyable, are more like candy than a satisfying meal. I’m playing a whole bunch of Xbox games but I’m also looking at my phone. I’m listening to tons and tons of music – old, new, heavy, poppy, acoustic singer-songwriter, 90’s east-coast hip hop. I feel like I’m in 20 different places at once, which also means that I feel like I’m nowhere at all.
In other words, this is life in 2019. But at least I’m getting better at identifying what the specific things are, so there’s that.
Books: Since my last post I’ve added eight (8) more books to the “finished” pile, which now puts my Goodreads Challenge at 27 out of 40. As noted above, almost everything I’ve been reading this year has been fun, but also more or less disposable; there’s not that much that I’ve been able to retain and really feel like I’ve lived with except for The Overstory, which was way back in January, which feels like 20 years ago. Anyway, the list:
The Last Samurai, Helen DeWitt. Not to be confused with the Tom Cruise movie. It’s an impressively written book, to be sure, but the final third of it kinda fell apart on me.
The Plotters, Un-Su Kim. A paranoid haze about Korean assassins and the agents who hire them.
Come Closer, Sara Gran. I’m still on my Sara Gran kick from earlier this year (her Claire DeWitt trilogy is among the best things I’ve read in a while), and this is a short but very effective little nightmare.
Case Histories (Jackson Brodie #1), Kate Atkinson. I have, like, 7 or 8 Kate Atkinson books in my Kindle library, and for whatever reason this is the one I went to first. It’s pleasantly enjoyable, which is a very weird thing to say about some rather graphic and disturbing murdering. And I can’t necessarily say that the detective in this book actually did any detecting. And it’s also weird that there’s a genuinely happy ending just a few pages after the genuinely surprising and disturbing final reveal. I got a chapter or two into book 2 but decided to put it off for now.
The Dreamers, Karen Thompson Walker. An intriguing premise, beautifully written, but I’m not quite sure what the book’s intentions were.
Invasive, Chuck Wendig.
Zeroes, Chuck Wendig. I read these out of order – not that it matters, necessarily, though Zeroes is better than Invasive. I follow Wendig on Twitter but these are the first books of his that I’ve read; he’s like a more down-to-earth Neal Stephenson.
I did end up giving up on Black Leopard, Red Wolf for the time being; I will get back to it. I also picked up and attempted to start at least 10 other books in between a lot of the above, and decided to put them down when I couldn’t find my way into them. I suspect that when I finally hit the 40 mark and can put the Challenge to rest, I’ll be able to enjoy what I’m reading at a more leisurely pace.
Music: As noted in my last entry, I’m still trying to get rolling on finishing this album. I’m not necessarily that much further along than I was a month ago – inertia is a bitch – but I haven’t given up, either. It’s taken me a little while to remember how all my software works, and it’s also difficult to carve out free time where I can work without interruption and without being completely exhausted and/or mentally drained. And, of course, there’s this – the music that I’ve already got is over 3 years old at this point, and I’m not sure if I want to keep all or any of it. (Well, there’s at least one or two that I definitely want to keep, though I should probably just re-record them from scratch at this point.)
And don’t get me started on lyric writing, because I don’t even know how to begin cracking that particular egg without giving myself a nervous breakdown. It’s fair to say that I’m not in the same emotional place that I was back in late 2014-early 2015, when the concept for this thing was taking shape, and I’m not really sure I want to keep walking that specific road anyway. I’d reached out to a few folks for brainstorming purposes; some never wrote back, and that kinda made me a little gunshy about reaching out again.
In any event, as I mentioned above I’ve been listening to tons of stuff that’s all over the map. My son is obsessed with the Spiderman – Into the Spiderverse movie, which means we’re all obsessed with it – and hey, I’ll take it any day of the week over The Polar Express. But while he loves the newer songs, I love the 90s hip-hop that appears in the first Uncle Aaron / graffiti sequence. Which led me down this road:
And as for everything else that I’ve been listening to, there’s this:
Games: If you’d told me that I’d find myself juggling between two different online shooters at the same time, I’d tell you that you were insane. But here we are. I am juggling between Anthem, which is enjoyable despite some serious flaws, and The Division 2, which is enjoyable despite me being kinda terrible at it. At some point I’ll have to pick one and ride it out for as much as I can, and I can already tell that it’ll probably end up being The Division, because even though I’m terrible at it I understand what it’s doing and the exploration part of it is quite pleasant and diverting.
(You’ll notice that Apex Legends is not mentioned in that paragraph; well, I like my online shooters when they’re cooperative, not competitive. I have downloaded it, but I haven’t started it, and at this point I’m so far behind the curve that I might as well delete it.)
I’d meant to sing the praises of Ape Out a few weeks back, when I’d first started playing it and it was blowing my goddamned mind. Alas, time continues its relentless march and I forgot most of what I’d wanted to write. What I can say is that you should get it and play it immediately, and make sure you’re using good headphones or otherwise have access to a good sound system, because the way the game uses music is mind-blowing. It’s a very simple premise but it’s executed with an astonishing sense of style and flair, and I can’t recommend it enough.
I got right up to the end of Far Cry New Dawn, but the last boss fight is a bunch of bullshit and I turned it off. I tried to get into the new Metro game but the writing is janky and the atmosphere is stressful, which is something I’m actively trying to avoid. My son and I have been sorta playing Toe Jam and Earl, which is silly and goofy; we’ve also been dabbling with Minecraft Story, which is as good an introduction to interactive storytelling as anything else that’s age-appropriate.
I will endeavor to return here sooner, rather than later. In the meantime: be well, be safe, be good.
I am, I think, finally on the back half of the 2019 edition of our annual WINTER COLD THAT WOULD NOT DIE, which has laid up my entire family for basically the last month. I caught it first, then my son had it – it turned into the flu for him – then my wife got it – which turned into both the flu and strep throat – and then I’ve just had a weird frog in my throat for the last week, which was probably brought on by talking too loudly at an already loud social gathering.
One thing about being cooped up and helpless for so long – it tends to get my depression out and about. Everyone’s depression comes in different forms; mine takes the shape of me isolating myself, turning inwards, shunning social media, and kinda just swimming through a haze of lethargy and exhaustion. This tends to make being an active parent even more difficult. I want to be present in my son’s life, I want to participate in activities with him and keep him interested in what’s going on, and this is VERY HARD TO DO when all I feel capable of is hiding under a pile of blankets in the fetal position. It’s also not a great look to be hiding out in the basement playing video games, especially since he’ll want to come down and play also, and I’ll want to let him, and then I have to watch him be terrible at them.
Anyway. I’m saying this out loud [he typed, bloggingly] because I’ve found that saying things out loud tends to diminish their power. I had a therapy session over the weekend and I talked myself hoarse without meaning to, and a lot of what was discussed was precisely this – that acknowledging depression and anxiety and the act of just saying it out loud gives me an element of control over those feelings; they don’t magically disappear, but they do start to take some sort of shape that I can recognize and then deal with.
I’ve been ready to start finishing up / re-starting this album for a while now, but of course I have trouble getting started because a body at rest tends to stay at rest, and there’s always the inevitable rust that you have to shake off before you can actually start making good stuff. That being said, last night I started to feel like I could actually sit down at my music station and start tooling around and that it wouldn’t sound like shit, and that’s a feeling that is vitally important that I hold on to, because otherwise nothing will continue to happen. I’ve been in a state of heightened listening lately, which usually means that I’m very close to having ideas again. That is a regrettably unusual feeling for me these days, and I gotta keep holding on to it while I still can.
The one good thing about writing here so infrequently is that when I do bother to show up, I actually have some shit to talk about. I’ve been reading like a man on fire lately, and since my last post I’ve added another eight (8) books to my “finished” pile.
The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins. I can’t recall when or why I picked this up, but I ended up giving it a go, and I’d give it a solid B+. It is a fun and super-fucked up book; the characters aren’t quite as consistent as they could be, which can be distracting, but it’s not a deal breaker. I’m reluctant to say any more, because the less you know about it the better.
Circe, by Madeline Miller. This was at the top of quite a few people’s lists last year, and I’m very glad to see what all the fuss was about; it is as magnificent as advertised.
Golden State, by Ben H. Winters. This is not quite as brilliant as his Last Policeman trilogy or Underground Airlines; the first 80% of the book is absolutely brilliant and the ending just totally falls apart. But it’s certainly worth checking out for that first 80%.
The Reason I Jump, by Naoki Higashida (tr. David Mitchell). Yes, I picked it up because David Mitchell translated it, and I am in desperate need of anything David Mitchell-related. But this is something else entirely – a first person account of life with severe autism. It is gorgeous and illuminating.
Last Days, by Brian Evenson. Grisly and unsettling, but with an ambiguous ending that feels more like a cop-out than anything else.
The Farthest Shore, both by Ursula K. Le Guin. I know there are other books in the Earthsea series, but finishing these three feels like a complete cycle. What a magnificent time; her writing is incredible.
American Spy, by Lauren Wilkinson. A moving, affecting spy novel; it’s a small story, and it has an ambiguous ending, but it’s not a cliffhanger – the ending is deliberate and it works. This is, to my understanding, a fictional retelling of a true story, that of one of the first black women to be a successful spy.
I have not yet finished Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf; the writing is so stylized that it’s somewhat difficult to tell who’s talking and what’s happening. I don’t want to give up on it, but I also don’t want to drive myself crazy, either.
As this blog is still ostensibly about gaming, I might as well talk about what I’ve been playing of late. Up until Friday, the real answer was “not all that much”; I’d been tooling around replaying stuff I’d already finished last year. But then Friday happened and I went a little nuts and got Crackdown 3, Far Cry New Dawn, and Anthem. I’m saving Anthem for its proper launch date – I gave it a quick spin, saw that it was working better than it was in the beta, and decided to let the big launch-day patch happen before sinking any real time into it.
As for the other two – well, look. I don’t know what to say about Crackdown 3. It is not the debacle that Crackdown 2 was, but it’s also not the must-have console exclusive that I’d been hoping for. It is, instead, for better or worse, basically the exact same experience as Crackdown 1, but with better graphics. It is still janky in the same ways as the original; it might even have some of the same sound effects. But chasing orbs is something that never, ever, ever, ever, EVER gets old, and since I’m a Game Pass member and thus didn’t actually pay for it, I’m certainly getting my money’s worth. In these troubled times, sometimes you just want to turn off your brain and jump really high and throw cars at bad guys, and to that end I can’t really complain.
As for FC:ND – well, I got pretty far into Far Cry 5 but I didn’t actually finish it, so I only know what happened through YouTube. Given that New Dawn very explicitly spoils the ending of FC5, I am not feeling all that inclined to finish it now. But I’m enjoying New Dawn to the extent that it’s a silly Far Cry game, and that it’s absolutely gorgeous, and that the designers have done some cool things to FC5’s existing map; I am traipsing around in places that I recognize, but only vaguely. And I can’t emphasize enough how goddamned beautiful it is.
I’ve been having a weird thing with the internet lately. I’ve written more than a few variations on that sentence here over the last few years, but it’s even more weird now because it’s not even all that antagonistic. Unlike previous episodes, I’m not disgusted by the internet, or depressed or angry or any of that. I’m on a brief hiatus from Facebook – not for the first time – but this time it feels different because I’m actually sticking to it, and that’s because I don’t particularly miss it. I mean: I miss the people that I know on it; that’s what made social networking so attractive in the first place. But Facebook isn’t about my friends anymore. It’s about advertising and branding and algorithms and nonsense, and I don’t miss that shit at all.
This is kinda how I feel about politics right now, too. I reached my anger limit about a year ago – who knows what specifically set it off – and ever since then I’ve been at the exact same level of disgust. I’ve reached maximum disgust, is what I’m saying. And as much as I’m disgusted by almost everything that I read about current events, I also know that we’re in a weird little phase here where nothing is going to happen until the Mueller report comes out. The current government shutdown is arguably one of the stupidest political shitshows of my lifetime, and yet it’s barely in the top 10 of the stupidest things that Donald Trump is responsible for during these first 2 years (or is it 40?) of his presidency*.
What I’m trying to say is that I am, quite literally, exhausted. And I want to conserve my energy for when it’s actually needed. Living in a state of perpetual outrage is unhealthy. I’m not saying that it’s good to stay uninformed – but I am saying that it is good to allow for a psychic vacation (so as to better avoid a psychotic break).
What I’m doing to fill the void, then, is to finally conquer my absurd Kindle backlog. We’re not even one full month into 2019 and I’ve already finished reading eleven (11) books. I traded in my Kindle Voyage for the new Kindle Oasis, the wildly unnecessary Rolls Royce of e-readers, and I’ll be goddamned if it isn’t totally worth it. (My one and only complaint is that it is just too wide to fit into my back pocket, which makes toting it around during the day a bit of a pain in the ass.)
What have I been reading, you ask? I’LL TELL YOU.
The Last Equation of Isaac Severy, by Nova Jacobs. A pleasant, low-stakes intellectual thriller; it doesn’t really go anywhere, but it’s certainly enjoyable.
My Sister, The Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Short, wicked, savage.
The Overstory, by Richard Powers. Simply put, one of the most beautiful books I’ll ever read.
Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss. A heartbreaking story of a daughter caught up in the wild madness of her father’s reenactment fantasies. To say more would spoil it; it’s quite short.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, by Denis Johnson. I’d been aware of him for years but this was the first book of his that I picked up; had I been more of a fan, I supposed this would’ve packed a heavier punch. I enjoyed this enough to want to read more, for whatever that’s worth; whether it’ll be Train Dreams or Up In Smoke or Jesus’ Son remains to be seen.
The Claire DeWitt trilogy (City of the Dead, The Bohemian Highway, The Infinite Blacktop), by Sara Gran. Loved this series – I hope it continues. Her ear for dialogue is unparalleled.
The Word is Murder, by Anthony Horowitz. A pretty good detective novel, though not quite as meta / 4th-wall-breaking as I was anticipating.
Twilight of the Gods, by Steven Hyden. I’ve been aware of Hyden’s work as a critic for years, and this study of classic rock as it slowly fades away is quite enjoyable – provided you’re prepared to read several hundred pages about white males. (In fairness, he discusses that specific issue in the book as well.)
A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin. How did I not read this earlier? How have I been without this for so long? It’s a masterpiece. And since I have no idea when Patrick Rothfuss is going to wind up his Name of the Wind trilogy, I might as well keep reading these books, because it’s clear from just the first few chapters here where Rothfuss’s books are coming from.
I have not done all that much in the way of playing games. My son and I finished the Darker Side of the Moon in Super Mario Odyssey, but that’s not enough for him – he wants to play the whole thing from the beginning again, for the 5th time. I did finally finish the four main questlines in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, which means this is as good a time as any to take a break before diving into the DLC. I think the one-two punch of Odyssey and Red Dead 2 kinda broke me, a little bit, in terms of devoting that much time into a game; I just don’t know that I want to do that anymore, especially since the return on my time investment didn’t feel particularly satisfying. Weirdly enough, I’m kinda sorta doing a New Game+ run of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, if only because playing so much Assassin’s Creed reminded me of the Tomb Raider games, and I wanted to see if Shadow was as unmemorable as I thought. (And also because I want to see the new DLC, and in order to do that I need to remember how to play the game in the first place.)
February is when I should be starting work on finishing my album, though who the hell knows what’s going on with that. I just ran across a piece of advice that John Lennon gave to George Harrison, which goes something like: if you’re starting to write a song, don’t stop until you finish it completely. Otherwise it fades away and you’ll never get it back. I kinda feel that way about the tracks I’ve got so far. I still really like what I recorded all the way back in 2015, and I’ll probably go back and re-record the good stuff (rather than just overdub over the original tracks), but I probably want to include newer stuff as well. I don’t have any newer stuff, but as soon as I start working in earnest I’m hopeful it’ll arrive.
I’m a thousand words into my Games of 2018 post without even having settled on a definitive ranking of my Top 9, for whatever that’s worth – and then I considered trashing the whole column and doing something similar to my Books post (which coincidentally looks a lot like Stephen Totilo’s recap), BUT:
Last night I played the first hour of Astro Bot on PSVR and now everything is in flux. I hadn’t turned on my VR unit for pretty much the whole year, but I’d rented Astro Bot, Tetris and Moss and figured I’d give them each a fair shake before deciding if I should just get rid of the thing. Tetris is basically super-trippy Tetris, which is either your thing or isn’t. (I like Tetris, but I’ve never been particularly good at it, and I’m not sure that VR is the extra kick in the pants that I needed.) And I haven’t even put Moss into the PS4’s disc drive.
But Astro Bot…. wow. Even for a relatively simple platformer, it genuinely feels like a new thing, and it’s also just so goddamned cute and charming and delightful. It felt like magic. I finished the first world and was absolutely floored by it. And given that games aren’t often a vehicle for pure joy these days, I am definitely going to need to finish the whole thing before I can fully reconcile the rest of my Games of 2018.
And speaking of which, one of the games that gets a substantial write-up in that post would be Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, which I’ve now sunk over 70 hours into and I’m starting to see the finish line off in the distance. I’ve wrapped up 2 of the 4 major campaign storylines, and the other 2 are somewhat tied into each other anyway, and so that’s where I’m spending the rest of my time when I’m not in VR-land. (Or when I’m not playing the hard parts in Super Mario Odyssey for my son.) I would like to see the credits roll before I figure out where to rank it inside the AC franchise; it has so much in common with Origins that it’s hard to think of the two as separate games, and I don’t think I actually made it to the “end” of that one, either. In any event – it’s good! It’s janky and clunky, as AC games tend to be, and it’s really hard to play it without thinking of Red Dead Redemption 2 (and vice versa), but in and of itself it’s quite something.
In other news, I’m upping the ante on my Goodreads challenge – 40 books, instead of 30, which still shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Since I put up that Books post, I finished 4 more:
Jeff Tweedy’s excellent memoir “Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back)”;
Bethany Morrow’s art deco sci-fi story “Mem”, which has a really interesting premise but also a lot of unanswered questions;
Ottessa Moshfegh’s astounding “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”; and
Tara Westover’s mesmerizing “Educated”, which deserved every bit of praise it received.
And I’m already 2 books into 2019 – I finished Nova Jacobs’ “The Final Equation of Isaac Severy”, which was pleasant but slight, and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s short and savage “My Sister, the Serial Killer”, and now I’m reading Richard Powers’ “Overstory”, which is just absolutely gorgeous. There is something to be said for escapist fiction – it’s easy, it’s fast, it’s something else to think about for a little while – but there’s also something to be said for reading a real-deal Novel, where the language is more like music than anything else. I’d read a previous novel of his, “Orfeo”, and I appreciated his poetry even if the novel fell a little flat; but “Overstory” feels like a genuine work of beauty.
Anyway – this is just to say that the 2018 Games post will be coming eventually, and that in the meantime I’m still here. Hope you’re all doing well.
Considering that 2018 took about 10 years to finish, it should come as no surprise that I ended up finishing over 60 books. That’s not necessarily that big a number, but it’s the most I’ve read in years – or at least since I kept track of this sort of thing. As an ironic counterpoint, though, since 2018 was a year filled with anxiety, dread, and depression, I made it a point to try to emphasize quality over quantity. Anything that didn’t immediately grab me, I put down. Fortunately, most of what I read this year was excellent.
The other thing, with respect to everything I read this year, is that I tried my damnedest to expand my reading horizons beyond primarily white cis men. I read more women this year than I think I ever have before, and I read more than a few books translated from other languages. I say this not to earn a pat on the back; I’m just saying it because it’s true.
An earlier draft of this post was going to have a few words on every single book I read or attempted to read, but I soon realized that wouldn’t be fun for anybody. So I’m gonna condense a bit on focus on the highlights.
The year started off with a bang, as the first book I finished turned out to be one of my favorites: Spoonbenders, by Daryl Gregory. It’s a lively, fun cross that felt like a mashup of Royal Tenenbaums and Carter Beats the Devil. This was soon followed up Fire And Fury, which was as trashy as it was depressing. (That was also about as much Trump-related prose I could handle; I didn’t read the Woodward book.)
Next up was Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon, which was enjoyable even if it never quite lived up to my hopes for it. (I’m not sure anything will ever top The Gone Away World, which is one of my all-time favorites, but if anybody can do it, I’d like to think he could.) Then there was Void Star, which I sadly couldn’t get into – I would like to give it another shot – the premise is really interesting – but the writing was almost too poetic and flimsy.
At some point I decided to dip back into my backlog and finally read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and, well, yeah, that book is incredible. I followed that up with some earlier George Saunders that I’d never gotten around to – In Persuasion Nation and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. (This was, as it turns out, the beginning of this year’s infatuation with short story collections – I also finally got around to Laird Barron’s The Imago Sequence.) I should also note that the afterword in CivilWarLand is one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever read.
And then we arrived at my first nominee for Book of the Year: The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin. An absolutely breathtaking portrait of four siblings, each given the date of their death by a psychic, and the ensuing aftermath that comes with that knowledge. I adored this book; it’s moving, tender and thoughtful, and is compulsively readable. This book set a very high bar for the rest of the year.
And then I read The Sky Is Yours by Chandler Klang Smith, a fun bit of world-building with three great and distinct characters; Tim Wirkus’ The Infinite Future, which never quite delivered what it promised; A.J. Finn’s The Woman In The Window, which is a fun homage of Rear Window that will certainly make for a fun movie; and then The Gone World, which is a time-traveling murder mystery which gets buried under its own flowery prose.
And then we got to Red Sparrow, which was the year’s first book I deliberately and angrily put down and refused to finish. Shitty premise, shitty writing.
At this point I needed to cleanse my palate a bit and decided to re-read the first two mega-epics in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, so as to then read Edgedancer (a mini-novel that bridges the gap between book 2 and book 3) and then Oathbringer. I appreciate Sanderson’s prolific nature, and his world-building continues to be among the best in the business, but that’s 3500+ pages of nonstop Sanderson and I definitely needed a palate cleanser.
So I read a bunch of short fiction. Samantha Hunt’s The Dark Dark was not quite what I thought it was going to be, but it was really quite good; Stephen King’s The Outsider was a really good way of bridging the gap between his procedural Bill Hodges trilogy and his usual supernatural horror; Fuminori Nakamura’s The Thief was a very interesting and brief philosophical meditation on pickpocketing.
I finally got around to reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which was staggering. It didn’t necessarily knock me out the way it did for friends of mine, but it’s still quite something.
I feel bad about how I treated Lauren Groff’s Florida. I started reading it in June, but didn’t get around to finishing it until a week ago. I’d put it down only because I felt like I needed to switch things up from all the short stuff I’d been reading; I certainly didn’t mean to give it short shrift. In any event, I’m glad I finished it, and I do plan on reading the rest of her stuff that I’ve got in my to-do list.
I think I wrote here earlier this summer about Phenomena, Annie Jacobsen’s non-fiction account of the US Government’s research into paranormal activity, which is definitely the sort of thing that scratches certain itches of mine. It’s a fantastic read, well researched and full of remarkable revelations.
And then we get to what might very well be my favorite book of the year: Claire North’s extraordinary The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. I have a soft-spot for time-travelling stories, and this is one of the best ones I’ve ever come across. Indeed, I ended up going on a bit of a Claire North bender after this – her Gamehouse trilogy was excellent, and 84K was also quite brilliant, and Touch wasn’t quite as great as everything else but it’s still quite good.
At this point I started moving to some darker fiction. Joe Hill’s Strange Weather is probably the best stuff he’s written – at any rate, I do think I prefer his short fiction to his novels. Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin At the End of the World is seriously fucked up, which is to be expected from Tremblay. Harold Schechter’s Hell’s Princess is a lurid and morbid true-crime story that never quite arrived at any conclusions, which kinda defeated the book’s purpose. The Price You Pay, which is written by “Aiden Truhen” (a pseudonym that might belong to Nick Harkaway) is essentially what the Crank movies would look like if they were books. V.E. Schwab’s Viscious was, well, viscious – I do need to get to the sequel. Arkady Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic is a perfect example of why reading books from other cultures – especially science fiction – is so necessary. Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel did not quite wow me as much as I’d hoped it would, but it was remarkably surreal – as was Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, which is exactly what it sounds like.
I’m trying to keep things moving along but I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother, a super-spooky collection of dark stories, and Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter, which was deep and dark and moody and absorbing.
Moving on… I finally got around to John Crowley’s Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, which is just absolutely gorgeous. I think I wrote about this book earlier in the year; I don’t know how to describe it other than that it’s an astonishing modern myth. I have a bunch of Crowley in my to-read pile, and I look forward to setting aside a long period of time in which to soak them all in.
I was one of the many who got sucked into the Netflix adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, but I made sure to read the book first. I understand why fans of the book hate some of the choices that were made in the series; I still liked them both.
Emma Donaghue’s The Wonder was fantastic, and I can only wonder how I’d react to it if I weren’t a parent. There’s certainly a straight line running between this and her earlier Room, to be sure.
Tana French’s The Witch Elm was a refreshing break from her Dublin Murder Squad books; it also might be one of the best things she’s written. Likewise, Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore was much better than the last few books he’s written, though it suffers from some of the same weird tics he’s developed (i.e., super-creepy attempts at erotica, passive protagonists, etc.).
Then I got to this wondrous book: Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Shape of the Ruins. I’d originally bought it because it sounded like it had a Foucault’s Pendulum sort of vibe, albeit based in Colombia; but it turned into something both larger and more intimate. JGV is a marvelous writer and this translation is wonderful. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I put it down. Indeed, it might be my favorite book of the year, except that I then read…
Tommy Orange’s There There should be required reading for every American citizen, even if only for the prologue/introduction, which is among the most gut-punching things I’ve ever read. This book concerns what it means to be a Native American in a country that has been taken away from it; how to retain one’s culture while assimilating into another that is thrust upon it; it is vibrant and gorgeous and utterly necessary.
I also got to Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, which I liked, though I’m not quite sure the third section held together for me; I also suppose I need to start reading Philip Roth (I have three of his books in my to-read list, of course). And Ling Ma’s Severance got quite a lot of end-of-year hype, and for good reason; I’ve read quite a lot of apocalyptic fiction in my time but this was a unique take on it.
But the last book I finished (as of today, 12/19) was Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s harrowing, bleak and utterly brilliant Friday Black. This collection of stories is somewhat reminiscent of Black Mirror, if Black Mirror wasn’t afraid to take on race head-on. It is startling and vivid, dark and urgent. The final story in this collection will haunt me for a very, very long time – they all will, actually. Again, along with There There, this is absolutely necessary reading.
All in all, this was a tremendous year for reading; there wasn’t much that I didn’t like, and even the lesser things in my pile were very quickly devoured. If there’s one good thing about living in a nightmare, it’s that I’m very easily distracted, and nothing helps the time go by like getting lost in a ton of great books.