I’ve been meaning to write here for the last few weeks, but instead I’ve been distracted because I’ve been listening to old Rush albums ever since the news broke of Neil Peart’s passing. Indeed, even now, I’ve got “Red Barchetta” in my head instead of figuring out what word is supposed to come next. Apologies in advance if this post doesn’t end up making any sense.

Can I take a second to talk a little bit about Rush, my 2nd favorite prog band? Especially since I’m 44 years old and no longer care about being “cool”? Because Neil Peart’s death is hitting me a lot harder than I was prepared for. I’m arguably taking it harder than I did the death of Chris Squire, the heart of my other 2nd favorite prog band.

My first exposure to Rush was almost certainly the summer camp I attended between 1986 (the summer my parents split up) and whenever it collapsed, which was probably the early 90s. Hell, that camp was my first exposure to pretty much everything necessary for the development of a young, arts-inclined teen-aged boy – prog rock, D&D, French kissing, high-speed dubbing, the breaking and mending of broken hearts.

Anyway, the point is: when you’re 12 and your home life is falling apart and you’ve discovered that you’re really into theater, which is probably going to spell certain doom once school starts, going to a performing arts camp and meeting dozens of other people just like you is basically the greatest thing that could ever happen to you. And so when these older, wiser people start introducing you to things, you pay attention. And so I was introduced to prog rock, and very specifically three bands – Yes, Genesis, and Rush.

I can’t possibly explain the appeal if you’re not already indoctrinated. Prog is inherently ridiculous and defiantly uncool; the only people who have the time for 20-minute epics about space wizards are 14-year-old boys who can’t pay attention to anything else EXCEPT learning how to air-guitar and air-drum every note of each of those 20-minute epics. Why learn how to talk to girls when you and the rest of your bunkmates learn how to air-shred the hell out of “YYZ”?

When the news of Neil’s passing hit last week, I couldn’t help myself; I immediately went back and listened to everything, though I eventually settled on my old favorites – Moving Pictures, Signals, Power Windows. And I have to tell you, those records hold up much better than I thought they would. I remember being dazzled by the production back in high school – I recall seeing the “DDD” on the back of the CD and thinking, wow, digital really is the way to go – and yeah, maybe in 2020 it’s a little over-produced, but you can hear every single goddamned drum that Peart pounds on. You can hear how ridiculously full Geddy Lee’s bass lines are. And while Alex Lifeson’s solos are perfectly fine as far as shredding, the real key to his genius is how good his rhythm playing is and how all-encompassing his guitar tones are. When I think about my guitar heroes growing up, I think about Jimi Hendrix and Trey Anastasio and The Edge, but the guitars in Rush are still fucking fantastic and when I think about my own guitar parts in songs I’ve played on, I can certainly trace quite a bit of it back to how Rush arranged their songs.

What I’m ultimately saying is that however uncool Rush might’ve been to the rest of the world, they were absolutely huge to me and a lot of the other musicians I’ve met along the way. And listening to them now – while the world is on the brink of chaos – brings me back to a much more innocent time, when all I needed to focus on was the next drum fill to play along to.

R.I.P., Neil Peart. You were a hero, even to us non-drummers.

It was never my intention to finish 100 books this year – I think my original goal was 40. And it’s highly likely that I’ll never finish 100 books in one calendar year ever again. 2019 was a year in which I wasn’t particularly busy, I lost access to most of my time-wasting internet at work, and the news was so generally horrible that I was in desperate need of distraction.

There was no real rhyme or reason to my reading habits this year, though I think I read more short-form fiction than I ever had before, and I also read a great deal of cosmic/weird horror, which I suppose isn’t necessarily that out of the ordinary – though given the state of the world, I suppose I needed some sort of reminder that things could always get worse, and weird horror is a great source of comfort in that regard.

I read some old stuff that I’d been meaning to get to – the first three Earthsea books, for one – and I managed to tackle a not-insignificant amount from my Kindle Library of Shame backlog. I discovered some new favorite authors (Sara Gran, Nathan Ballingrud, Sam Sykes), re-discovered some old favorites (Julian Barnes, Claire North, Anthony Marra), and since everyone needs one long multi-part epic to have hanging around, I finally started reading James S.A. Corey’s Expanse novels. (I should note here that I have zero interest in the show.)

And I’ll also say this – while it’s true that not everything I read this year clicked with me, there’s almost nothing that I read that was truly awful. There’s a few books that I couldn’t get into (most notably Marlon James’ “Black Leopard, Red Wolf”), and there’s one short little novella that I need burned from my memory because of how absolutely disgusting it was. My larger point is simply this – almost everything I read this year was awesome, which means that distilling 100 books into a top 10 is going to be very difficult indeed, which is why I’m doing a top 15 instead.

But before I get into the top 15, here are the ones that just missed the cutoff:

And so here are my top 15 books that I read in 2019. In no particular order, except for the first one below, which is one of the best books I’ve ever read:

There aren’t enough superlatives I can lay on this one that won’t make it weird. Every single word is carefully chosen and yet effortless to read. I’ve never wanted to hug a tree as badly as I did immediately upon finishing this one. Absolutely beautiful.

Yet another stunner from Whitehead, arguably even more powerful and gut-wrenching than “Underground Railroad.”

I’d heard about this one but hadn’t gotten around to it; then I saw it was free for Kindle Unlimited readers, of which I’m one; and then I completely devoured it. Fabulous modern retelling of ancient Greek myth; I have her “Song of Achilles” at the top of my to-read pile for 2020.

A heartbreaking, stunning collection of interconnected stories that moved me to tears. Between this and “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena”, Marra has become one of my favorite authors – I’ll read anything he puts his name on.

As noted above, I read a lot of short horror fiction this year, and this is arguably the best collection I read. I haven’t seen the movie that was made out of the title story, nor do I intend to – the story itself was more than enough to send shivers down my spine. These stories aren’t just scary – they’re meticulously crafted and written with great skill. His other collection, “North American Lake Monsters”, is also quite excellent.

This might be the scariest novel I read all year, though I’m not sure that was its intention; it’s certainly a hard-boiled masterpiece of police corruption. If even half of this book is based on reality, it’s amazing that we’re all still alive.

I read this pretty much in one sitting; it floored me. Consider the patriarchy thoroughly smashed.

The problem with reading 100 books in a year is that they tend to blend together, and if my Google spreadsheet is to be believed, I read this one and the one below pretty much one after the other. This one hit me particularly hard if only because it took me right back to my theater summer camp days; I might as well have been one of the characters in the book.

One of the better studies of young love and friendship and the crossed lines of class and power that I’ve come across.

Towles’ “A Gentleman in Moscow” will appear in my Best Books of the Decade; this one might just miss the cutoff but not for lack of effort. I might not be as into the Roaring 20s as I should, perhaps, but this opened the door for me.

If this isn’t as magnificent as “Stories of Your Life”, it’s still one of the best collections of philosophical science fiction ever written. Chiang is a genius, and his gift for prose is remarkable.

The only way I would’ve liked this book more is if I had any emotional investment in Fleetwood Mac, which, alas, I don’t. Even so, this is a very good book and very true-to-life; while most people will focus on the love story between the two leads, I couldn’t stop laughing at the one rhythm guitarist who was completely oblivious to everything that was happening; I know that guy particularly well.

This one is hard to describe, as it’s essentially 100 pieces of micro-fiction that are both self-contained and interlaced. I’ve never read anything quite like it, and I didn’t want to put it down.

Next to Nathan Ballingrud’s “Wounds” mentioned above, this is one of the best collections of cosmic horror I’ve ever read. Extremely effective and marvelously creepy.

I just finished this one yesterday, and it broke my heart into a thousand pieces. Breathtaking and beautiful.

I’ve been having a low-grade anxiety attack / depressive episode for the last several days, which has prompted the usual retreat from social media, the desperate wish for an Ativan-type drug that specifically deals with mood swings, and the complete and total avoidance of any responsibility that isn’t directly work or family related. This is why there’s been no Top 10 Book / Music / Game posts. This is why there’s been, well, nothing.

I don’t know why this is happening. Or why it keeps happening. I mean, I know that I’m incredibly stressed out about the news. I’m also pissed off because normally I read Twitter for news updates, and I got the ending of Star Wars 9 spoiled for me yesterday morning, which means I’m now completely avoiding the internet until next Saturday (which is when I’m finally seeing it). I’m also anxious because my job is about to change at years’ end – I’ll be switching locations and teams and basically starting from scratch, which is a lot to deal with all at once.

I am feeling nostalgic for the internet of 20 years ago – as well as the me of 20 years ago, who had no problems venting on LiveJournal during episodes like this. I’m feeling incredibly self-conscious about it right now, actually, and I’m doing this more out of obligation to you – whoever you are – than out of any personal benefit.

Anyway. Hugs and kisses and love and such. If I don’t write, have a wonderful holiday season. I’m hoping to return in 2020 with the aforementioned media posts and some sort of regular posting schedule.

I’m on the verge of turning 44, folks, and as per usual I’m feeling weird about it. Even just mentioning it here, the casual act of drawing attention to it, feels weird. I feel incredibly self-conscious celebrating it, or even pointing it out, and so I do this little meta-dance of “aww, shucks, you guys”, and it makes me feel awful. And yet, the one and only good thing that Facebook has ever done is help people remember birthdays, and the endorphin rush of birthday greetings (mostly from internet friends that I’ll probably never meet) is one of the only things keeping me from deleting the app.

Anyway. I’m feeling weird. And that’s without reading the news.

There’s a bunch of stuff I’m working on behind the scenes:
– Books of 2019
– Books of the 10s
– Games of 2019
– Games of the 10s
– Probably something music related? Even if it’s just my Spotify stats?

But I also feel like I’m losing steam with getting this stuff together. I’ve been having trouble staying engaged in anything that isn’t a book. (One thing that I will certainly mention in the book posts is that I’ve finished 91 books this year – and the year isn’t yet over, which is why I’m tempted to put everything off until January.) Now that I’ve finished Jedi Fallen Order (which I realize I haven’t talked about), there’s really nothing pulling me in. I have a gigantic backlog that I’m not particularly interested in, both on the Xbox and on the Switch. I’ve been tempted to revisit some old favorites (e.g., Control, which is probably my GOTY), but then I remember the difficulty spikes. Or there’s also the issue of just having to relearn the controls, which means starting over from scratch. (Speaking of which, I was tempted to replay both Control and Outer Wilds, but for some reason both games only allow you to have one save, which is bullshit.)

So… yeah. I’m probably gonna keep working and revising and then post all of that stuff in January, although it’s quite possible that my day job’s responsibilities will change somewhat radically as well, so who knows what kind of time I’m going to have.

What a stupid post! Sorry, you guys. I needed to type, so I’m typing.

OH, before I forget – I’m currently reading Jia Tolentino’s essay collection Trick Mirror, and while I’m only halfway through the 2nd essay I feel confident in saying that the first essay (“The I in the Internet”) is one of the best things I’ve read all year. Those of you who’ve been online since the late 90s will recognize a lot of yourself in that piece. Highly recommended.

I’ve been really enjoying fatherhood lately. I don’t mean to sound like I’m surprised by that; it’s just that, well, my kid is awesome and super-sweet and we’ve been hanging out a lot together over the last few months, and it’s been wonderful.

The two of us started and finished Luigi’s Mansion 3 this weekend, in fact, and while I did most of the controller work it was he who ultimately figured out how to beat the last boss, and when the credits rolled he gave me a huge hug and it was all I could do to not just start crying all over the place.

And then we started recording a rap album, as you do, and that was also awesome. I’ve written here recently about how I’ve been in a creative rut, and yet I was able to turn out 3 or 4 beats for him in a very short amount of time, and he was so happy to be shouting into a microphone.

Anyway. It was a busy weekend.

Finished: Luigi’s Mansion 3, Outer Worlds.
Started: Jedi Fallen Order
Bailed: Death Stranding
Continuing: Dragon Quest 11

Regarding LM3: one of the first “real” reviews I got to write was about Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon on the 3DS, which I was pretty lukewarm about. (Indeed, I never finished it, which made me feel even more sheepish than usual about submitting my final copy.) I’m happy to say that LM3 is a much, much better game in every respect; it’s generous with checkpoints, you never get lost, it’s absolutely gorgeous and chock full of tiny details, and the game feels great to play. There’s nothing quite like sucking up a ghost in the Poltergust 2000 and whomping it all over the place, breaking everything in sight. (Plus: no bullshit tilt controls to worry about.) My kid loved it; I loved it; it’s the second game on the Switch that we’ve played through to completion (after Super Mario Odyssey), and he’s already started a second playthrough (where he’s doing most of the controlling this time around, letting me handle boss fights).

Regarding Outer Worlds: yeah, that game is excellent. Not nearly as janky as these sorts of Elder Scrolls-esque RPGs tend to be, which is probably because the game is wildly reduced in scope; I beat the campaign and finished just about every side mission I could find in maybe 12-15 hours, which is exactly the right amount of time for someone who loves open-world games but doesn’t have a lot of time. There’s no filler; just great writing up and down, lots of interesting people to meet, relatively satisfying combat (though there’s plenty of non-violent options to get through encounters as well, which was in line with how I like playing anyway).

Regarding Jedi Fallen Order: I was skeptical, as everyone was, because there hasn’t been a good Star Wars game in years and I hadn’t been following any coverage. Well, color me surprised, because the reviews were positive and I ended up downloading it and I’m having an absolute blast with it. It’s scratching the much-needed Uncharted/Assassin’s Creed/Tomb Raider third-person action platformer itch that I’ve been having all year. I’m still very early on so I’m not going to heap any more superlatives on it just yet – it could certainly use a performance patch, as the frame rate can hitch up – but I’ve very much enjoyed what I’ve seen so far.

Regarding Death Stranding: I wrote a gigantic thing about my attempts to get through MGS5 for Unwinnable a few years back, and my opinions on Hideo Kojima remain unchanged. My rental copy of DS arrived late last week and so I played the first hour or so of it and while it’s visually stunning, it’s also fucking ridiculous, and life is too short to sit through that much bullshit. (Or even that much absurd in-game advertising for Monster Energy Drinks.) The Twitter discourse seems to agree that the game really picks up speed about 10 hours in, and that is 10 hours that I don’t feel like wasting. You’re all aware that the world is currently on fire, yes? Spend your time wisely.

I also finished Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Boys on Friday, and my GOD, what a book. What a writer. What a horrible, terrible, true story he tells. I’ll have more to say about it when I get my Year of Books post online.

My wife and I were hanging out the other day, and she asked me what I’d hope to accomplish for myself in 2020. I thought about it for a while, and it occurred to me that the mere act of having to think about what I’d like to accomplish next year meant that I didn’t have a clear goal already in mind. Which felt unusual.

I did come up with an answer, eventually, which was this: I would like to have some sort of reckoning with myself and figure out what exactly I’m doing, creatively speaking. Like I said above, having to think about what I’d like to accomplish is odd, because for the last several years the answer has been the same – I want to finish this album I’ve been working on. Even if it just means taking the 4-5 songs that are almost done and putting out an EP, rather than a full-length album, I still want to get this stuff off of my hard drive and into other people’s ears.

I’m not sure why I stopped, unless it’s just that I can’t trust myself to keep myself motivated. When I was in bands, I had my band mates there to kick me in the ass – indeed, we kicked each other’s asses all the time. Working with other people meant that we could each pick up each other’s slack. We could fix problems that the others couldn’t see/hear. We could support each other when we felt directionless. And if nothing else, we could just plug in and turn up and see what happened.

It’s harder to do music by myself, which I also understand is ironic if only because the downside of working with collaborators is the loss of total creative control. If I know how I want everything to sound, it’s easier and faster to do it myself. It’s just that, these days at least, I don’t know what I want to sound like. I could finish the 4-5 songs that are pretty much ready to go, but I couldn’t tell you if they accurately reflect what I sound like right now. I don’t even know what I sound like right now. I know what artists I listen to that sound like what I’d like to sound like (Tycho immediately comes to mind), but I also know that I listen to tons of different things and all that stuff is quite literally all over the map – my Spotify Discovery algorithm is still pretty good at guessing what’s going to hit my brain the right way, but how it gets from Japanese prog/punk to indie songwriter to Zappa circa 1973 is far beyond me.

I’d thought about doing NaNoWriMo this year, because writing prose is easier than writing lyrics and I’m less inclined to beat myself up during the process and I thought that maybe the simple act of throwing thousands of words out of my head into some sort of coherent order might help me figure out some lyrics; but the thing about NaNo (for me, at least) is that I need to get myself prepared, and I didn’t even really consider the idea of doing NaNo until November had already started. And the last time I tried doing NaNo, I nearly gave myself a nervous breakdown.

So, maybe I’ll try doing the RPM challenge again in February? I can give myself a head start and re-record the songs that are still works in progress in the interim? I can try to settle into some sort of evening routine?

I don’t know. But I need to do something. At the very least, I need to do just enough to be able to go get my taxes done next year and not feel like a fraud by declaring myself to still being a musician.

CURRENT STATUS: Around 12 hours in. Level 16. Running around on Monarch, all companions unlocked.

As much as I love classic BioWare RPGs, they’ve instilled some gameplay habits that I’ve found hard to shake. From KOTOR to Dragon Age to Mass Effect, I always do the same thing; my first time through, I err on the side of good, always picking the supportive/positive dialogue option, always being a good guy. THEN, 60 hours later, I’ll start a New Game + and pick all the bad guy options. I didn’t necessarily feel the urgency of my choices; I only wanted to achieve maximum virtue.

The Outer Worlds has, thankfully, broken me out of this loop, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

To begin with, the world you find yourself stumbling into is essentially a sci-fi capitalist dystopian nightmare; and like the good socialist I am, I try to help people break free from their corporate shackles. And sometimes those people don’t want to be free. They don’t know how to live independently. In short, doing the “right” thing isn’t always doing the “best” thing. Which means that you have a bit more emotional investment in the choices you end up making, because there is no clear “Paragon” path to follow. You do what you think feels right, and then you react to the repercussions.

Freedom of choice is, in essence, what the game is about. And even when I leave the main narrative aside, I’m still very much playing it in my own style. I’ve talked a lot here about trying to move away from playing violent shooters, and as such I’m opting out of combat when possible, just because I’d rather explore my way through something than kill everything. And the game respects this choice, and rewards you just as easily; you can gain plenty of XP from lockpicking and hacking and dialogue options, not just headshots. (This is helpful also because the combat is not quite as satisfying as other, similar shooters.)

That said, my crew and I are fully prepared to wreck shit when necessary. I do try to stay off the main roads whenever possible and sneak around and explore, but if I accidentally catch an enemy’s attention, well, that sucks for them. My companions and I are well-prepared to end threats.

I don’t really know how far into the story I am, and I’m not feeling particularly inclined towards picking up a walkthrough and finding out. For the first time in a long time, I’m allowing myself to truly role-play. (It is for this reason specifically that I wish there was a third-person view, because I’d love to see my character in this world.)

All things considered, The Outer Worlds was the last “big” game on my personal radar for the year. (Everything else either got pushed back to 2020, or is Death Stranding, which I remain extremely skeptical about; I’m sure there might be one or two more indie gems that pop up, too, though I don’t yet know what they are.) It’s certainly one of the best.

And on that note, I’m gonna start putting together my 2019 lists… and then I guess I also have to start putting together my decade lists. Hoo-boy.

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