Resolutions and Reminders for 2016

1. Do not pre-order.

2. Don’t buy everything.  Remember that you have an active Gamefly account.

3.  It’s OK to not finish stuff.  It’s OK to not start stuff.  It’s OK to not want to feel like you’re wasting your time.  Recall #1 and #2 above.

4.  Don’t worry about “missing out on the conversation.”  For starters, the conversation will be happening with or without you.  Recall that at this very moment, the entire world has already seen Star Wars twice by this point, even if you’ve yet to see it once; there’s nothing to be done about it.  For another thing, remember that you kinda hate Twitter.  Take the necessary time to form your own thoughts and then put them into words and then leave it alone.

5. Write when you can write;  read when you can read; listen when you can listen.  Enjoy what you can, and don’t fret about what you can’t.  Try not to be idle, unless you’re looking to achieve stillness, which is another matter entirely.

6.  Set reasonable goals.  You wanted to read 30 books in 2015, you ended up with 41.  Don’t challenge yourself to read 45 books in 2016 when you already know that’s impossible.

7.  GET BACK TO MAKING MUSIC AGAIN.  Don’t procrastinate by playing games you’re not even enjoying.  You like making music; you always have; if you need to fancy up the studio area, do it, but the work is the work is the work, and if you’re not working, there is no work.

8.  Make regular doctor appointments.

9.  Hug and kiss your family every day.  Don’t go to bed angry.  Communicate always.

10.  Be good to yourself.

2015: My Year in Games

It’s December 28 as I write these particular words, which means I’m beyond late in terms of getting this thing out the door.  And if I’m being honest, I should admit that I’ve barely started it.  Usually at this point I at least have my GoogleDoc template filled out with rough ideas of what I want to say, nominees for categories, etc., but it’s practically empty.  Indeed, it’s only because I’ve had to make some Top 10 lists for other people that I have even the slightest idea of what I might write here at all.

It’s hard for me to come to grips with this, but here it is:  my apathy towards games is starting to become less of an abstract threat and more like a very real thing.  I feel like I have more or less checked out in terms of keeping tabs on the “scene” as far as things like Twitter.  Nothing in my to-play pile is holding my interest.  I look at what I played this year and can only identify one true masterpiece, two better-than-expected games, two out-of-nowhere surprises, and the rest of my Top 10 is really just me scraping the barrel.  I look ahead to 2016 and while there’s certainly more than a few games I’m looking forward to, I can’t necessarily pick any that would cause me to call in sick.*


* For the record, the announced-for-2016 games that I’m looking forward to are as follows:

  • The Witness
  • XCOM 2 (especially if it eventually comes to consoles, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t)
  • Far Cry Primal (maybe?)
  • Uncharted 4 (though I worry that this game’s emphasis will be far more focused on action than exploration)
  • Mirror’s Edge Catalyst
  • Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
  • No Man’s Sky
  • Mass Effect: Andromeda (50/50 this comes out in 2016)
  • Crackdown 3 (see ME:A)
  • Dishonored 2
  • FF15 (50/50 for a 2016 release is very optimistic, I think)
  • Gears of War 4 (if only to give my Xbox One something to do)

What would I like to see in 2016?  I don’t even know.  I’d love to hear something about Red Dead Redemption 2, if only that it exists.  I’d obviously love to hear something about Portal 3, though that seems even less likely than Half Life 3.  I’m curious to know if the new Mass Effect will incorporate any save data from the original trilogy – if only in terms of the end-of-game state.  (This would also impact what platform I play it on, as I played the original trilogy twice on Xbox 360.)


In previous editions of this post, this would be the point where I’d spend a few thousand words recapping all the games I didn’t finish, all the games I barely started, all the games I consciously ignored; my favorite gameplay mechanic, my most irksome glitch.  But it’s too depressing to revisit some of that stuff, and in any event if I went through all the disappointments this post would be 10,000 words long, and not even I can bother with that sort of nonsense.  So I’m cutting to the chase.

I give 2015 a big fat “meh”, but – as with many things these days – I don’t know if that “meh” is directed at the games I played, or at myself for not getting into them.   In any event,  I humbly present my Top 10 Games of 2015.

10.  You Must Build A Boat (iOS)
An expansion on, and an excellent refinement of, the sliding-tile-based 10000000 from a few years back.  The recent addition of a new daily dungeon has brought this one back into my daily rotation.

9.  Alto’s Adventure (iOS)
I can’t speak for anyone else’s apathy as far as endless runners/scrollers go, but I’m still a fan of ’em; there’s a bunch more that came out this year that I still play regularly that didn’t make this list, actually.  Alto’s Adventure is a side-scrolling skiing game with an absolutely gorgeous graphical style and atmosphere, and I only wish I hadn’t gotten so terribly stuck on two of the three level goals at level 38; there’s still more to see and do, and I simply never got there.

8.  The Room Three (iOS)
I love the Room games; they’re magnificent showpieces for what mobile games are capable of.  More to the point, though, the puzzles are almost always fair; they might be tricky and obscure, but they ultimately make logical sense in order to proceed.  This edition is bigger and more complex than the previous two combined; I’ve only been able to solve one of the four endings, and the only reason why I’ve not been able to continue is that my iPhone’s low on available hard drive space.

7.  Lara Croft GO (iOS)
Yes, you read that correctly; this is the 4th iPhone game to appear in my top 10.  This is a puzzle game in the vein of Hitman GO, except that it’s a bit less frustrating to solve, and the art style is actually quite complementary to the Tomb Raider aesthetic.  I’m currently picking my way through the recently released DLC episode; it’s much trickier, but no less fun to work through.

6.  Batman: Arkham Knight (PS4)
If this is the end of Rocksteady’s Batman run, they certainly did a bang-up job.  I’m not sure that anything will ever top their first one (Asylum), but I still had a great deal of fun with this one; I certainly enjoyed it a lot more than I recall the common critical consensus indicated I would.  The introduction of the Batmobile was surprisingly great, even if I still preferred to grapple/wingsuit my way around the city.  And it looked absolutely stunning; the decision to stay current-gen only was clearly a good one.  (Well, maybe not as far as the PC was concerned, but that’s a different story.)  It was exhausting, eventually – I can’t claim to have come anywhere close to solving all of Riddler’s challenges, nor did I feel any desire to try – but everything else was quite satisfying.

5.  Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (PS4)
Here’s maybe the feel-good story of the year, as far as AAA development goes; fresh off the utter disaster of last year’s Unity, Syndicate turned out to be one of the best games in the whole franchise – and starred my favorite protagonist yet.  Evie Frye is a bad-ass, and more than redeemed her douchebag of a brother.  I should probably go back and check out that newly released Jack the Ripper DLC, actually…

4.  The Beginner’s Guide (PC)
I absolutely adored Davey Wedren’s Stanley Parable, and found this a uniquely compelling and emotionally involving follow-up.  To say more would spoil it; the game itself only takes about an hour or so to experience, and so I’d simply suggest you run out and pick it up.  (I’d also very strongly recommend picking up “Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger And The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist“, which is free and 20-minutes long and works as a very interesting companion piece to Beginner’s Guide, as it was created by one of the Stanley Parable’s other developers.  It too has quite a lot to say about game development, but from a much different angle.  Literally.)

3.  Rise of the Tomb Raider (Xbox One)
Like a lot of people I was initially irked that this was an Xbox-only release, especially since at the time of that announcement I hadn’t yet bought one.  All that said, I’ve grown to appreciate that the decision to concentrate development on one console was the correct decision; this game looks fantastic and runs incredibly smooth, and is an excellent showcase for what the Xbox One is capable of… even if I have no doubts that the eventual PS4 release will look even better.  Deeper analyses of the game’s narrative might reveal some unfortunate developments in terms of Lara’s character arc, but as far as the moment-to-moment experience of playing it I found it quite wonderful.  It’s got everything I like in these sorts of 3rd person action/adventure/exploration games, especially with regards to the exploration/combat ratio; I spent far more time exploring than killing, which is exactly how I like it.  (And which, as noted earlier, is why I’m more than a little nervous about Uncharted 4.)

2.  Rocket League (PS4)
The feel-good story of the year, bar none; this little indie game came out of nowhere and became one of the most addictive multiplayer experiences I’ve had since the days of Burnout 3.  There was a stretch earlier this summer when I could do nothing but play Rocket League; it didn’t matter whether I was good or not, even just touching the ball was fun in and of itself.  It’s been so long since I picked it up that I’m probably too rusty to be an effective teammate… but a lack of skill didn’t stop me from having a blast earlier this summer, either, so there’s no reason why I shouldn’t go back as soon as possible.

1.  The Witcher 3 (PS4)
This was hands down the best game I played in 2015, and maybe one of the best games I’ve played in years.  Hell, I should probably revisit my all-time top 10 and see if I can’t fit this one in somewhere.  I’d dallied about in the first two Witchers but wasn’t at all familiar with the world or the lore, and it hardly mattered; each and every character was incredibly well-written and presented, and nearly every mission and side-quest was interesting, no matter how small or trivial; the attention to detail is second to none.  This game scratched all the itches I had from Red Dead Redemption, and so if we’re not getting Red Dead Redemption 2 any time soon, this is as worthy a substitute as we’re likely to get; and if anything I might’ve enjoyed this one even more.  An absolute masterpiece, and without a doubt my favorite game of 2015.

 

weekend recap: principles, portals, and other p-words

Some scattered thoughts while I have a few seconds:

1. I picked up The Talos Principle for PS4 a few days ago, as it’s currently on sale for $20.  (Yes, I own it on PC, but my PC is falling apart, and as it happens the PS4 version runs incredibly well.)  That game is pretty good!  Tricky puzzles that give that pleasant euphoric rush once you finally piece it together, all tied together with a very subtle sci-fi / metaphysical narrative.  I think my only real issue with it is one of jarring textural elements – I know there’s a better way to phrase to it, but the words aren’t coming to me at the moment.  Essentially, each puzzle involves you trying to unlock a gate to pick up a puzzle piece; unlocking the gates requires manipulating certain things in the environment.  The disconnect is that the worlds each take place in very specific environments – the first hub world could be Ancient Greece (but with red brick), the second could be Ancient Egypt – but the puzzle elements are strikingly modern (laser-sighted machine gun turrets, light-beams guided by prisms mounted on industrial-grade tripods, etc.  Maybe there’s a narrative reason for this?  I’m about as far into the PS4 version as I was on the PC – maybe a little further along, actually, since I’m using a walkthrough when I get truly stuck (which is happening a bit more than I’d like).

2. So among the Xbox 360 games recently announced by Microsoft as now being backwards-compatible is Portal: Still Alive, a stand-alone digital-download version that came out maybe a year or so after The Orange Box was released.  Of course I bought it, even though I’d already beaten Portal a dozen times on both 360 and PC, and of course I immediately downloaded it for my Xbox One, because come on.  Portal is one of the best games ever made.  I mention this only because this past Saturday night my living room TV happened to be free, and my PS3 is hooked up to it as our blu-ray player, and I decided to give Portal 2 a whirl, as I hadn’t played it in a long time.  You know what?  Portal 2 is a perfect game.  I appreciate the argument that the first Portal might be a better game if only because it was so completely unexpected and that the narrative twist was (as my friend Greg put it) that it had a narrative in the first place.  Portal 2, though, is bigger and funnier, and the puzzles are just as inventive, and Cave motherfucking Johnson, and Glados is a potato, and Stephen Merchant as Wheatley is, bar none, my favorite voice performance in any game I’ve ever played.  My save game put me in place to finish the final third, and now that I’ve experienced the ending again I can certainly see why a Portal 3 might be difficult to pull off (from a narrative standpoint, at any rate), but that doesn’t stop me from wanting more Portal in my life.

3. Harmonix has announced a U2 DLC bundle for Rock Band 4, which means I have to now buy Rock Band 4.  It’s only 8 songs, and not the 40-song bundle that I’d hoped for many years ago, but it’ll do.

4. Still haven’t started my Games of the Year post; still not sure when I’m going to get to it, or if I’ll even be able to fill out a top 10.

5.  I’m actually more interested in working on a Music of the Year post, even though I haven’t written one in years, and even though I don’t really listen on an album-by-album basis.  My music consumption process has changed so radically in the last few years that it’s barely recognizable to me; the me that posted ridiculous lists on LiveJournal would be hard-pressed to wonder what the hell has happened to me.  It’s something I’m very much wanting to explore, at any rate, so… look forward to that, eventually.

Further Adventures in Paralysis

I’m writing this without having anything meaningful to say, really; I have a very brief window of opportunity to write, so I’m here.

The day job continues to be insanely busy and stressful – but in a good way, by which I mean that the stress is due to having an insane amount of work to do in a very short amount of time, rather than having a sociopathic boss trying to belittle and emotionally manipulate me.  One of these is much better than the other.

Ordinarily I’d be deep into my GOTY post by now, which is usually my favorite post to write.  But I’m completely unmotivated to get to it.  I filled out a Top 10 ballot for Unwinnable’s year-end poll and I did it so half-assedly that I’m contemplating taking it back until I can actually do it for real.  I can’t tell if my apathy is due to the utter lack of emotional investment I have in anything I’m currently playing, or if it’s just that when I look back on 2015, very little stands out.  I have a top 3 that I could give you right now, and maybe a top 5 if I thought about it for a little longer (and expanded the category to include iPhone games), but beyond that I’ve got nothing.

I’ve been thinking about doing a Year in Music post, except that I couldn’t really do it by album anymore.  Spotify has so utterly changed the way that I listen to (and discover) music that my old criteria simply doesn’t apply, and I’m just not listening to albums as much as I’m listening to my own curated playlists.  I have a Favorite Songs of 2015 playlist; a Favorite Songs From the Weekly Discovery playlist; and I also have a playlist which is full of songs that are what I want my forthcoming album to sound like.  I don’t know if anybody else besides me is interested in that stuff, though; it’s so hyper-specific that it probably doesn’t mean anything to anyone.  If you were to listen to these playlists, you’d have a pretty good map of my emotional geography over the last 12 months; but that’s not really the same thing as a critical analysis.

(Speaking of which: I’m currently trying to work on lyrics for this album, and ugh.  It’s tough.  Lyrics have always been the weakest link in my songwriting chain, so much so that for years I abandoned them entirely.  It’s doubly tough because this album has an actual theme, which kinda needs words in order to properly articulate.  Ultimately, I’m very afraid of someone writing something like this.)

I’m around 2/3 of the way through “number9dream“, aka the second David Mitchell novel.  I’m not necessarily seeing any parallels to the larger Mitchell universe, though the book itself is still very enjoyable on its own merits.  It’s closer to “Thousand Autumns” than his other work if only because it’s following one character very closely, rather than jumping from person to person, location to location, era to era the way his other books do.  If nothing else, this exercise is simply reinforcing the notion that he’s my favorite author out there right now.

Anyway; that’s what’s up, in case it gets quiet here again over the next few days.

The Last Weekend of my 30s

1. I had an epiphany the other day.  I’ve been reading “The Monster at the end of this Book” to my son for the last week or so – he loves it, and I love reading it to him.  It’s the sort of book that I can’t help but act out; I immediately hear it in my brain in Grover’s voice, for one thing, and certain words are drawn in such a way that I instinctively react to them as I say them out loud.

The epiphany part of this is that, as I continue to read this book every night, and re-live my own childhood as I read it to my son, I’ve realized that the book’s emphasis on conversational rhythm has had a profound effect on my own writing style.  I know I’m prone to excessive hyperbole, but I’m also prone to italics and digression and I have a very informal writing style; I try to write as if I were talking, or at least as if I were transcribing my thoughts in the way that I think about them.  (I hope that makes sense.)  There are plenty of books that I’ve read in my life that I’ve unconsciously absorbed into my writing style, but I’m not sure that any of them ever had the same sort of influence that this one did.  I mean, look at those pages!

2. The wife and I finished Jessica Jones last night; wow wow wow, is all I can say.  I don’t really watch that much TV these days, but I’d heard too much good stuff about JJ to ignore it, and my wife is as big a Marvel fan as anybody, so it seemed like a no-brainer for us to watch it together, and I’m so glad we did.  At the pivotal moment of the finale, I literally jumped off the couch, did a touchdown dance, and high-fived my wife.  There’s so much to be said for the show’s unconventional casting, and feminist point-of-view, and this and that and the other – which is a terrific achievement in and of itself, and better critics than I can explain why; at the end of the day, it’s a rich world with (mostly) well-drawn and well-acted characters, and David Tennant is possibly the best villain in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Very excited for the forthcoming Luke Cage show, and in the meantime I’ll probably have to go back and watch Daredevil now.

3. I was going to do a “first few hours” post about Just Cause 3, but I honestly don’t even know where to begin with it.  Yes, wing-gliding is amazing, and once you get the hang of the traversal system there’s really nothing quite like it.  And yeah, shit blows up real good.  But it’s abundantly clear that it’s not a finished game, and it’s lacking some sorely-needed optimizations; loading times are atrocious – hell, even the in-game map doesn’t load all that well, frames drop all the goddamned time which greatly diminish the impact of all those awesome explosions, and I often have no idea what I’m supposed to do next.  But there’s also a weird tone issue, where I can’t tell if the game is meant to be super-ridiculous and over-the-top (Saints Row), over-the-top but also maybe a bit grounded in some subtle geo-political observational satire (Crackdown), or just a playground where it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing or why you’re doing it (fucking around in GTA).  It’s clearly ridiculous, but it also feels like it’s lacking purpose beyond simply blowing shit up.  Which makes the experience feel a bit more shallow than I’d like.  I’m not saying I need this game to mean anything; I’m just observing that without any real narrative motivation, I’m finding it hard to stay interested in it.

4.  I’m not necessarily ready to give up on Fallout 4 just yet, but I haven’t played in a couple days and I haven’t found myself missing it.  I’m going to get to Diamond City, which appears to be the first real “hub”, and if the game opens up in a pleasing way, then I might find myself drawn in.  Otherwise, I’ll have a PS4 Pip-Boy Edition for sale, if anybody’s interested.

5.  I’m going to be 40 tomorrow.  I’m not as freaked out by that as I thought I might be; I think turning 30 was a bigger deal, if only because I distinctly remember waking up on my 30th birthday and having my entire body ache for no particular reason.  Frankly, I’m in better health now than I was back then; my hair is grayer, of course, but I’ve gotten a lot of my various physical and mental health issues dealt with and as such I’m able to enjoy myself, my family and my life a lot better than I’d been able to.  So it’s all good.

My Year In Reading: 2015

Way back in January – another life ago, it seems – I wrote that I’d hoped to read 30 books by year’s end.  As it turns out, I made it to 35 – and I’m working on 36 at the moment.  I gotta say – my new commute makes reading a hell of a lot more convenient, but it also helps when you’re really enjoying what you’re reading.  I’d like to say I could make it to 40 next year (which would be neat, given that I’ll also be 40 years old), but one never knows how these things go.

Still and all, here’s what I read in 2015, in something approximating chronological order:

The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber  A-
Technically I started this in late December, but the book is long.  I found it rather beautiful, but also quite heartbreaking.

The Martian, Andy Weir  B-
I still haven’t seen the movie, and my initial impulse was to leave it that way, since I found the book rather dry, overly technical, and surprisingly devoid of tension given the circumstances.  But hey, people seem to love the movie, so maybe it’s worth checking out.

The Egyptologist, Arthur Phillips  A
One of the best books that I read this year – at once funny, mysterious, and moving, and featuring one of the most dark, twisted and unexpected endings I’ve ever come across.  The less said, the better.

Your Face Tomorrow (trilogy), Javier Marias  B+ (combined)
I’d wanted to read these for a long time, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that Kindle versions were made available; I promptly devoured them, or at least attempted to devour them – as interesting as they are, they can be slow and tedious at times, and his endless sentences, while deliberately stylistic, can be exhausting.  Of all the books I’ve read this year, these probably got under my skin the most – even if, during the reading, I found them slow-moving.  Still, when I put up my Favorite Sentences post, a great many excerpts will appear from this series; even though the people and places of the book couldn’t be further removed from my own experience, there were whole sections that felt ripped out of my own life (for better and/or worse).

Silver Screen Fiend, Patton Oswalt  B+
Patton is a tremendous writer – his best stand-up routines succeed in large part because of his ability to pick the perfect words – and I found this memoir of his early stand-up years to be rather affecting.  That said, it didn’t get nearly as dark as he kept insisting it would, and the last third of the book is simply a list of all the movies he watched during the relevant time frame, without providing any additional insight beyond the specific few he talks about in the book proper.

Yes Please, Amy Poehler  B+
I’ve been a Poehler fan for, what, nearly 20 years now, back when the UCB was a cancelled Comedy Central series and a free weekly improv show instead of the all-powerful comedian factory of today.  I was going to enjoy this no matter what.  I think certain sections are a little phoned in – her Parks & Rec chapter might as well be a multiple-choice quiz – but other sections are deeply powerful and resonant.

Orfeo, Richard Powers  B
As with games, I keep a spreadsheet of the books I read; it helps tremendously for posts like this, but also just to better remind myself of what I read and what I was thinking about at the time.  My comment this year’s spreadsheet, alongside this entry, simply says “remarkable prose, & remarkable grasp of the act of listening, but what did I actually read?”  I suppose I expected more of a plot that was advertised as some sort of hybrid between a technological thriller and a study of avant-garde classical music of the 20th Century.

I Am Pilgrim, Terry Hayes  B
One thing I need to do for these spreadsheets going forward is to figure out why I bought certain books; I have no memory of buying this (or the next two books on this list, for that matter), or what might have made me get it.  It’s a solid thriller, very much the sort of thing you’d buy at an airport, and I seem to recall enjoying it because it wasn’t trying to be something that it wasn’t; it’s an espionage thriller and that’s all it wanted to be, and to that end it’s a fun read.

Submergence, J.M. Ledgard  C
My spreadsheet comment:  “Beautiful writing, but what is the point of this book?”  Even now I have trouble remembering what happened here.

Skinner, Charlie Huston  B-
“Fast-moving technobabble”, I wrote, though in retrospect I do seem to recall liking this more than the B- I gave it at the time.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell  A
I’d bought this when it first came out, but was reluctant to start it given that I’m not really a big fan of historical fiction, especially during a time and place that I know literally nothing about.  But I’m glad I finally got around to it, because it’s beautiful and absorbing and has one of the best and most satisfying endings I’ve ever read.  I wrote a little more about it here.

The Disaster Artist, Greg Sistero and Tom Bissell B-
I’m a “fan” of the “movie”, and I’m also a huge fan of Tom Bissell, and so this seemed like a slam dunk – an insider’s account of not only being a part of one of the most legendarily terrible movies ever made, but as a close confidant of Tommy Wiseau, the film’s star, writer, director, bankroller, and all-around weirdo.  Alas, it’s not as illuminating as one would hope; Wiseau remains as opaque as ever, and the behind-the-scenes stuff mostly ends up being depressing.

VALIS, The Divine Invasion, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, Philip K. Dick —?
I’m not sure how it happened, but I realized I’d never read any PKD before.  I’ve seen a bunch of film adaptations, and one of my favorite books from the last few years is The Cardboard Universe (which is a fake encyclopedia about the fictitious Phoebus K. Dank), but I’d never gotten around to the genuine article.  A good friend gave me a copy of Timothy Archer a few years back, and then Amazon apparently had some sort of PKD bonanza because I bought, like, a whole bunch of his stuff on the cheap.  To that end, I decided – for some reason – to start with the Valis trilogy.  Maybe not the best choice?  It’s paranoid and angry and feverishly written – although I suppose it’s a better place to start than the Exegesis, which I must admit I did not finish, or even really start.)  In 2016 I’m gonna try to read …Palmer Eldritch and Ubik, which I also picked up in that Amazon sale.  (And if you have other recommendations, I’m all ears.)

The Song is You, Arthur Phillips B-
As noted above, I loved the hell out of The Egyptologist and felt compelled to check out Phillips’ back catalog, and when I read this book’s synopsis – an unrequited love story told through music – I felt like this book was literally made for me (especially as I was trying to write lyrics about the same subject matter).  I suppose my expectations were too high, then, because I didn’t enjoy this nearly as much as I’d hoped – even if the writing is still excellent.  There’s some unintentionally creepy bits to the story, and there’s also some very unnecessary and distracting side-plots that add the wrong sort of tension.  I will get around to the rest of his stuff next year.

The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu B+
Having never read Chinese science fiction before, I didn’t really know what to expect from this highly acclaimed first volume of an award-winning trilogy.  The prose is a bit dry – and it’s hard to tell if that’s the translation or just the source material – but it’s certainly very fascinating, and it’s quite a treat to read a familiar genre from a radically different socio-economic perspective.  I learned a lot about Chinese history, too, which helped flesh out Susan Barker’s The Incarnations (which I’ll get to shortly).

The Rabbit Back Literature Society, Pasi Jaaskelainen C+
So one of my projects this year was to tackle my ever-increasing backlog, which is the sort of thing that happens when you own a Kindle and have poor impulse control; you buy stuff and then forget you have it, because you can’t physically see it.  I don’t remember buying this, or why I might’ve bought it, but I felt obliged to read it for some reason; I don’t remember reading it.  My Google notes say:  “a ghost story with no ghost and very little story.”  And yet I gave it a C+, so I guess it had something appealing in its atmosphere.

Going Clear…, Lawrence Wright A
This had already been on my to-do list even before the HBO documentary came out; the documentary was stunning, and the book is even more exhaustive in its story-telling.  It’s riveting, meticulously researched, objective, and scary as hell.

Seveneves, Neal Stephenson A-
I’d worried a bit about Neal, frankly.  His previous book, Reamde, was rather dull and disappointing – I recall hearing that he’d intended it to be the sort of thriller you’d pick up at an airport, but it was still dreary and unexciting – and his recent foray into videogame development ended on a sad note.  I might’ve been hedging my bets heading into this one, but I came out feeling like he’s on top of his game yet again.  It’s hard (and occasionally dry) sci-fi, but it’s also truly thought provoking and interesting, and the meticulous attention to detail in the first two thirds of the book results in a final third that is simply breathtaking.

The Ghost Network, Catie Disabato B-
This book had a bit of hype surrounding it, as well as an intriguing set up – a Lady Gaga-esque singer suddenly goes missing, and the quest to find her reveals a whole bunch of secret-society-ish stuff within a hidden underground train system – and as such this ought to have been in my wheelhouse.  It’s an entertaining enough read but it doesn’t quite go anywhere, although the ending is pleasingly enigmatic.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz A
So glad I finally got around to this one.  It’s magnificently written; Diaz is enormously talented and the prose nearly leaps off the page.  Enthralling and intoxicating.

The Gone-Away World, Nick Harkaway A
And here began my obsession with Nick Harkaway; if I hadn’t read this book, I probably would’ve continued on my Arthur Phillips spree.  A good friend had raved about him for years and I finally gave it a go, and I’m really glad I started here, because this one is the best of the bunch.  Without question, the most fun I’ve had with a book in years; my Year In Sentences post could easily have been twice as long if I’d elected to quote everything I’d highlighted.

Angelmaker / Edie Investigates!, Nick Harkaway B, B-
Angelmaker is another fun romp, though reading it immediately on the heels of Gone-Away World probably did it a disservice; Edie Investigates is a very short side-story with one of Angelmaker’s characters which I finished in about 30 minutes.  It’s fun, but didn’t feel necessary.

The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes B
A fabulously intriguing premise (surviving victim hunts her time-travelling serial killer), not quite as well executed as I’d like.

My Struggle part 1, Karl Ove Knausgard B+
I’m not sure if I’m going to get around to the other volumes – there’s only so much navel-gazing I can take, and I already take quite a bit, and it’s not quite the earth-shatteringly brilliant thing I’d been expecting.  But as far as memoirs go, it’s absorbing and his descriptive abilities are really quite stunning; I remember this book visually more than anything else.

A Head Full of Ghosts, Paul Tremblay B
A creepy little ghost story with a dark and horrific twist of a tableau at the end; it had been brought to my attention as something that a fan of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves might enjoy, and that’s certainly true, though the book’s structure might get in its own way a little bit.

Tigerman, Nick Harkaway B+
As with Angelmaker, it’s fun and well-written and with a gut-punch of character reveal and a heartbreaking ending; also as with Angelmaker, it’s not quite as magical as Gone-Away World.

The Rook, Daniel O’Malley B-
As with most of the B-minuses on this list, The Rook is a really interesting premise (an amnesiac soon discovers she has supernatural abilities and is part of a secret organization that battles other supernatural monsters and such), which isn’t quite well-executed as it could be.  I might stick around for the inevitable sequels, though; the world is pretty neat.

The Incarnations, Susan Barker B+
A Chinese taxi driver receives a series of anonymous letters documenting his previous lives and how they intersected with the letter-writer.  It’s a bit more heavy and dark than I expected it to be – which is not a knock on it at all, I just wasn’t prepared for how fucked up it is, emotionally speaking.  As noted in the entry for The Three-Body Problem, there’s a lot about China’s history that is also pretty fucked up.  (I’m also learning a bit more about it at the present moment, as I’m reading David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, which talks a bit more about 20th Century Chinese history and how deeply, deeply fucked up it was.)

Gilliamesque: A Pre-Posthumous Memoir, Terry Gilliam B-
Entertaining but also a bit scatterbrained – much like his films.  Not nearly as detailed as I’d have liked it to be – for instance, I might’ve blinked and missed the part where he joined Monty Python.

Slade House, David Mitchell A-
This is a short novella, which I believe may have started as a Twitter experiment before turning into a rather haunting series of interconnected stories.  Hard to say if it’s necessary to have read The Bone Clocks before starting this one, but I can’t imagine anyone reading this who hasn’t read Bone Clocks, so take that as you will.  If nothing else, this also inspired me to start reading Mitchell’s complete works, in chronological order, because it’s become apparent that every single one of his books is connected to the other.  And considering that almost all of his books contain interconnected stories inside of themselves, I feel compelled to see just how far the rabbit hole goes.  (As noted above, I’m already 3 or 4 stories into Ghostwritten, and I’ve already seen brief glimpses of characters I know.)

City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg A-
THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, screamed the advance hype, in addition to the gigantic advance the author received and the subsequent bidding war over the film rights.  I’m happy to say that it does live up to the hype; this is a 900+ pager that never feels self-indulgent or overly clever.  It’s vivid and memorable and extraordinarily well-paced (which I believe I’ve mentioned here several times over, but it’s worth mentioning again if only because making a 900+ page book move quickly is a rather impressive feat).  Maybe it doesn’t quite stick the landing as well as it could, but I can’t hold that against it too much; the book itself is a wonder.

 

“It Is Time To Turn In Your Kazoo”: Favorite Sentences of 2015

In keeping with last year’s post, here are my favorite sentences/phrases/passages from the books I read this year.  (And I’ll get to those books in a separate post.)

from “The Book of Strange New Things”, Michel Faber:

“Some people go through heavy stuff. They fight in wars. They’re in jail. They start a business and it gets shut down by gangsters. They end up hustling their ass in a foreign country. It’s one long list of setbacks and humiliations. But it doesn’t touch them, not really. They’re having an adventure. It’s like: What’s next? And then there’s other people who are just trying to live quietly, they stay out of trouble, they’re maybe ten years old, or fourteen, and one Friday morning at 9:35 something happens to them, something private, something that breaks their heart. Forever.”

from “The Egyptologist”, Arthur Philips:

The following items will be irretrievably lost someday quite soon: Beethoven’s works. The beer you prefer. All record of your ancestry. The place you first kissed a girl. Toffee. Coffee. The landscape you associate with peace and liberty. Any evidence of your boyhood, real or just fondly recalled. The sensation that all that stands before you and your loved ones is a series of aspirations, accomplishments, setbacks, meals, ceremonies, loves, heartbreaks, recoveries, next acts.

 

from the “Your Face Tomorrow” trilogy, Javier Marias: (the books are hard to recommend, and yet I could fill up an entire post with passages from them)

Part One:

…it’s shocking how easily we replace the people we lose in our lives, how we rush to cover any vacancies, how we can never resign ourselves to any reduction in the cast of characters without whom we can barely go on or survive, and how, at the same time, we all offer ourselves up to fill vicariously the empty places assigned to us, because we understand and partake of that continuous universal mechanism of substitution, which affects everyone and therefore us too, and so we accept our role as poor imitations and find ourselves surrounded by more and more of them.

* * *

…we forget what we say much more than what we hear, what we write much more than what we read, what we send much more than what we receive, that is why we barely count the insults we hand out to others, unlike those dealt out to us, which is why almost everyone harbours some grudge against someone.

* * *

…when someone withdraws their laughter from us, that is a sign that there is nothing more to be done.

* * *

The kind of people who, on the phone or at the door, say simply ‘It’s me’ and don’t even bother to give their name are those who forget that ‘me’ is never anyone, but they are also those who are quite sure of occupying a great deal or a fair part of the thoughts of the person they’re looking for.

Part Two:

“You never felt for me what I felt for you, nor wanted to; you kept me at a distance, not even caring if we never saw each other again, and I do not reproach you with that in the least; but you will regret my going and you will regret my death, because it pleases and contents one to know that one is loved.”

Part Three:

I want it to be known that I exist and have existed, and I want my deeds to be known, but that frightens me too, because it might ruin forever the picture I’m painting of myself.

* * *

Nostalgia, or missing some place or person, regardless of whether for reasons of absence or abandonment or death, is a very strange and contradictory business.

* * *

More time passes, and there comes a day, just before the last trace vanishes, when the mere idea of seeing the lost person suddenly seems burdensome to us. Even though we may not be happy and may still miss them, even though their remoteness and loss still occasionally wounds us—one night, lying in bed, we look at our shoes alone by the leg of a chair, and we’re filled with grief when we remember that her high heels once stood right next to them, year after year, telling us that we were two even in sleep, even in absence—it turns out that the people we most loved, and still love, have become people from another era, or have been lost along the way—along our way, for we each have our own—have become almost preterite beings to whom we do not want to return because we know them too well and the thread of continuity has been broken.

* * *

Luisa was for me one of those people whose company you seek out and are grateful for and which, almost in itself, makes up for all the heartaches, and which you look forward to all day—it’s our salvation—when you know you’ll be seeing her later that evening like a prize won with very little effort; one of those people you feel at ease with even when times are bad and about whom you have the sense that wherever they are, that’s where the party is, which is why it’s so hard to give them up or to be expelled from their society, because you feel then that you’re always missing out on something or—how can I put it—living on the margins.

* * *

‘Why do I tell you these things? You are not even here.’
(which, as it turns out, is actually from:
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/182860 )

 

from “Silver Screen Fiend”, Patton Oswalt:

Does anyone act more like an over-serious senior citizen with time running out on their chance for immortality than someone in their twenties?

* * *

There was comfort in preemptive disappointment. Because it was never your fault.

 

from “Yes Please”, Amy Poehler:

Apologies have nothing to do with you. They are balloons in the sky. They may never land. They may even choke a bird.

* * *

Getting older makes you somewhat invisible. This can be exciting. Now that you are better at observing a situation, you can use your sharpened skills to scan a room and navigate it before anyone even notices you are there. This can lead to your finding a comfortable couch at a party, or to the realization that you are at a terrible party and need to leave immediately.

* * *

It’s important to know when it’s time to turn in your kazoo.

from “Orfeo”, Richard Powers:

You want to live in a hermitage in Times Square, with a big sign pointing to you reading, hermit.

* * *

A friend says: “I just heard the strangest song ever.” Do you run away or toward?

from “Valis” (book 1), Philip K. Dick:

They ought to make it a binding clause that if you find God you get to keep him.

* * *

The gentle sounds of the choir singing “Amen, amen” are not to calm the congregation but to pacify the god.

from “The Song Is You”, Arthur Philips (a disappointing book, but which is endlessly quotable.)

he had the sensation that he might never be so happy again as long as he lived. This quake of joy, inspiring and crippling, was longing, but longing for what? True love? A wife? Wealth? Music was not so specific as that. “Love” was in most of these potent songs, of course, but they—the music, the light, the season—implied more than this, because, treacherously, Julian was swelling only with longing for longing.

* * *

He recognized his dumb urge never to think about her again even as he failed to stop thinking about her, perhaps because of the energy required to stop those other thoughts.

* * *

“You never know when you’re about to be too old for some things. You only know when suddenly you are too old.”

 

from “The Transmigration of Timothy Archer”, PKD:

I should stand up and ask Mr. Barefoot a meaningless question and then go home while he is phrasing the perfect answer. That way he wins and I get to leave. We both gain.

* * *

I would not want to make you unhappy by detailing pain, but there is a crucial sort of difference between pain and the narration of pain. I am telling you what happened. If there is vicarious pain in knowing, there is actual peril in not knowing. In aversion lies a colossal risk.

from “The Gone-Away World”, Nick Harkaway (I could quote this goddamned book all goddamned day):

There is a noise as of incoming mortars or a train crash or the steeple of the church falling into the vestry. It is a vast, tectonic, tearing noise which seems to come from everywhere. In truth, it is probably none of these things, but it is very loud, and I am a small boy.

* * *

From somewhere across the room comes the sound of a mime getting beaten up.  

//  

You have to worry about someone even mimes find creepy.

//

All the walls come down inside my head. I am betrayed, murdered, rescued, healed and bereft. I have saved the world and been rewarded with five shots in the chest, booted out to die in mid-air on a dusty road. I am toxic waste. I have known heaven, and now I am in hell, and there are mimes.

* * *

We all carry a multitude of ghosts around with us: impressions of other people, strong or weak, deep from long acquaintance or shallow with brevity. Those ghosts are maps, updated with each encounter, made detailed, judged, liked or disliked. They are, if you ask a philosopher, all we can ever really know of the other people in the world.

* * *

He has made his loathing of height into a definition. He is not so much short as antitall.

from “Submergence”, J.M. Ledgard:

She walked all the way to the Hotel Ostende and back and bumped into him when she came into the lobby. It was awkward. But then life is never neat, it is made up of doors and trapdoors. You move down baroque corridors, and even when you think you know which door to open, you still need to have the courage to choose.

* * *

If you talk about the acceleration that is in the world, you have to talk about the advances in computational power. There was a recent momentous day when a computer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico achieved petaflop speed. One thousand trillion calculations a second. How to conceive of such a rate? If everyone in the world were given a pocket calculator and ordered to tap out sums for six hours a day, it would take them until the twenty-fourth century to match the calculations a petaflop computer can perform in a day. The exaflop is the next step in the history of computing: one quintillion calculations a second. Then the zetraflop, yottaflop, and the xeraflop. The goal is nothing less than to slow down time and colonize it. Of course, a petaflop computer uses more electricity than the power grid of an African city. Then there is the problem of asking useful questions of it.

 

from “My Struggle, Volume 1”, Karl Ove Knausgaard:

…an enormous contradiction arose between the person he was, the person I knew him to be, and the person he presented himself as.

* * *

I remembered hardly anything from my childhood. That is, I remembered hardly any of the events in it. But I did remember the rooms where they took place. I could remember all the places I had been, all the rooms I had been in. Just not what happened there.

 

from “Tigerman”, Nick Harkaway:

He didn’t really have much of a temper. Hadn’t, until this moment. But here he was, alone in a garden, declaring a war of extinction on a field of tomatoes. It was so wasteful. That notion made him stop, bewildered, and he wondered at the idea that it was wasteful to chop down plants, but somehow not so much so to do the same with men.

* * *

“…Space. The place where British people do not go because the British space programme is, what, two guys with a really long stick?” “In that way, Jed, it is very much like U.S. healthcare.”

 

from “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet”, David Mitchell:

Creation never ceased on the sixth evening, it occurs to the young man. Creation unfolds around us, despite us, and through us, at the speed of days and nights, and we like to call it “love.”

* * *

“The soul is a verb.” He impales a lit candle on a spike. “Not a noun.”

from “Gilliamesque: A Pre-Posthumous Memoir”, Terry Gilliam:

Suddenly everything was being commodified, and once an act has to have a particular object attached to validate it, then it isn’t the same act any more. I think what it ultimately comes down to is not being able to be sure of the line between what you’re really experiencing and what has been programmed into you. These days I’d call this a ‘Philip K Dick moment’, but at that point I had yet to read any of the visionary books Dick was churning out at an astonishing pace just up the California coast in San Francisco. As it was, I’d just be walking along the beach in Venice or Santa Monica – hand in hand with the woman I loved, the waves lapping and gulls crying – not being sure if this seemed wonderful because it actually was wonderful, or because I had seen so many ads that said it was.

from “City on Fire”, Garth Risk Hallberg:

“…an artist is someone who combines a desperate need to be understood with the fiercest love of privacy. That his secrets may be obvious to others doesn’t mean he is ready to part with them.”

* * *

But why do they call you Sewer Girl?” “Nicky says I’m stuck on a lower level of consciousness. Because I’m from Shreveport, or whatever. It’s like, if you didn’t grow up in the city, it’s hard for dialectical materialism to be your bag. I still get sentimental about moms and deer and my horoscope and stuff.”

* * *

He feigned slumber for the couple hours it took to reach Altanta, and the ten minutes from there to the farm. When he opened his eyes, he was facing a plain, tin-roofed house, pale in the dusk. It might have been someone else’s except for the complicated things it did to his heart.

* * *

… Mercer looked around. There was no way anyone could hear. But the walls could, and the earth, and the ghosts of horses, and the state of Georgia.

 

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