Showing posts with label best of. Show all posts
Showing posts with label best of. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Best of 2009 (part 2)

All right, it's time for books and games now, two categories that become difficult to relegate to just what was released in 2009 and here's why. When it comes to books, I really wasn't reading much before 2009. I would read a book here and there, for instance in 2008 I read 90% of George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series (4 books), having begun in 2007 and finished in early 2009. It wasn't until this year that I specifically made an effort to read more. Between the books that people would recommend to me that I never got to until years later and the podcasts like This American Life and The Moth that were getting me interested in all the new non-fiction out there, I suddenly had a huge list of books I wanted to read. At my former pace there was no way I would ever be able to get through them, so the only solution was to make a concerted effort to read more. You see it's not that I don't read well or don't enjoy reading, but more a case of my having not made time to read. Somehow in 2009 a combination of my will to read more, aided by an attempt to calm my mind before sleep and conquer the insomnia that crept into my life last spring (which has since vanished) I was making time to read almost every night, completing a book or two every month. With that as the case, a lot of what I read in 2009 was not released on 2009, but out of what I did read (for the first time) these are my top 5 picks:

5. Emergency by Neil Strauss
The sub title of this book is "This Book Could Save Your Life" and I think what I was expecting was more survival manual, less autobiography. Emergency is the story of writer Neil Strauss and how in the wake of 9/11 and the beginning of Bush's second term he begins to fear that the end may be near for civilization as we know it. His whole premise is summed up nicely at one point in the book where he talks about being a high school student and learning about the Holocaust. In retrospect there was a long lead up to the Holocaust and in realizing this young Neil Strauss wondered why people didn't leave Germany when they started seeing the signs. The answer is two-fold. On the one hand it is natural for people to assume that things won't get any worse. Hope can be as harmful as it is helpful sometimes. On the other hand, it actually isn't that easy to just up and leave one country for another one. So Neil as an adult living in fear of a time "when the shit hits the fan" in the United States goes about seeking a second citizenship in nearby St. Kitts in order to have a viable safe haven WTSHTF. Eventually he begins to realize that an escape plan may not be enough and he goes about learning how to survive a multitude of situations. The great part about the book is that it's really not what you think, or at the very least it not what I thought. It't ultimately not a story about learning how to run away or fight back, it's a story about learning how to live and in the end while Neil does gain all the skills he was looking for, he gains a new outlook as well and while he'll be ready WTSHTF, his outlook on the present and his role in life has made that at most a secondary concern.
 4. Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman
I had heard about this book a lot before I started reading it and after thumbing through it in a Borders while waiting for my new car stereo to be installed at the Best Buy across the street I decided to buy it. Chuck Klosterman is an intellectual Generation X writer who manages not to come off as an elitist, nor overwhealmingly cynical although he is both these things. When Chuck Klosterman writes he just sounds like he knows what he's talking about. The book's opening essay on how John Cusack is the reason why his every relationship is doomed to fail is nothing short of brilliant. I became an instant fan with this book and I think anyone who's ever argued the social impact of MTV's The Real World or pondered the significance of Saved By The Bell, should read it.
 3. Just a Geek by Wil Wheaton
Some of you may remember Wil Wheaton as the lead kid in the film Stand By Me where he acted alongside River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry Conelly. Some of you may remember Wil Wheaton as the oft times annoying Wesley Crusher on Star Trek the Next Generation. Since that time he's managed to keep busy in more ways than one, ultimately arriving where he is now as well followed blogger, writer, and yes ... actor. More than anything though he's making a living being a geek. Just a Geek is a reworked collection of Wheaton's blog posts spanning the first couple years of his and chronicles his journey of self-discovery from the point where he is still a struggling actor trying to break back into the business and loathing the perception of himself as a character he played on a sci-fi show in the 90's, to the point where he realizes that he loves to write and begins making the transition from actor to writer. Wheaton is a very captivating writer and I've been following his blog for 7-8 years now. Just a Geek is an amazing story for anyone who ever got a second chance in life and was able to start over and discover what they really wanted to do. All told, Just a Geek is moving and fun and Wil continues to blog and write books and prove that above all else, he's a geek. 
 2. Killing Yourself to Live by Chuck Klosterman
This is the second book I read by Klosterman and it's different from Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs in that it's not a collection of essays but rather the story of a journey made in the writing of an article for Spin magazine. The task was simple enough, visit the sites where various rock stars have died and write an article about it examining the culture of glamorous death that seems to surround rock and roll. Killing Yourself to Live is only marginally about this process however as it ultimately becomes the tale of Klosterman riding around the country in his Ford Tauntaun, gathering information for this article while trying to piece together these three past and present doomed relationships in his head. It's like if High Fidelity were about a road trip. I think Klosterman sums it all up very nicely near the end of the book when he says "I've been inside a car for 1000 years, worrying about women and thinking about death and playing KISS and Radiohead and all this other shit, and - for some reason - I keep writing all this stuff down, and I don't know exactly why. But it all feels the same, you know? It seems like love and death and rock 'n' roll are the same experience."and he couldn't be more right.
 1. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
I'm a fan of the apocalypse, we all are. We're all just sitting around waiting for the day it all comes crashing down because deep inside we're pretty sure things can't keep up the way they are forever. I read The Road because of the movie. I knew the film was coming out and I had heard the book was good and I wanted to read the book before I saw the movie. I'm glad I did, because while the movie was good and a mostly faithful adaptation, the book is incredible. The Road is simply the story of a  man and his boy barely surviving on an Earth that has undergone some unnamed calamity and is all but dead. The simple premise is that the winters have been growing progressively colder and in order to survive they make the decision to head south to the shore along the eponymous road. It's a story about survival and desperation, but more than anything else it's a story about the relationship between the man and the boy and it is incredibly moving. The end of this book has got to be one of the most moving pieces of fiction I have ever read, a scene that not film could ever hope to reproduce with all it's emotional magnitude intact. It's a quick read, but a good read and probably the best book I read in 2009 if not one of the best I have ever read.
 I thought I was going to get to games in this post, but it's already taken me a while to get through books so there will be a part three. Until then, farewell.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Best of 2009 (part 1)

I'm starting a "Plenty for All" tradition here tonight, listing my favorites from the past year. These lists are of course culled from things that I read, saw, or listened to and were released in the year 2009. Let's begin.

Best Album of 2009
In any given year I'm likely to be listening to more old stuff that I haven't heard before than newly released albums, but out of the 174 albums I purchased this year, there are bound to be more than a few that were also released this year.

5. Cave In - Planets of Old
An EP, but worthy of mention nonetheless. Cave In is as schizophrenic a band as there has ever been and in their career they've played metal, space rock, pop, psychedelia, and have ultimately arrived at this weird fusion that paradoxically still rocks. "Planets of Old" is very much a continuation of the sound Cave In brought us with 2005's "Perfect Pitch Black", a mix of all the above stylistic influences and a brilliant EP, even if it was only available on vinyl.
4. And So I Watch You From Afar - s/t
I heard these guys on the cover CD to an issue of "Rock Sound" last spring and the track that was offered was more or less a mathy post rock song. When I finally obtained the album as a whole I realized that they were much more. Sounding something like a more metal version of From Monument to Masses except without the electronics, And So I Watch You From Afar may have created a new genre if Stadium Post Rock is a term people will accept. The album is prententious as anything with plenty of reverb and a couple instances of faux live cheering in the midst of songs, but I'll be damned if it doesn't rock, while still being an at times mathy post rock album.
3. From Monument to Masses - On Little Known Frequencies
I didn't even know that this album had been released until I chanced upon it used at CD Cellar in Falls Church Virginia not more than a month after it had hit the shelves. Quite simply this is From Monument to Masses doing what they do best, epic post rock with a mix of live instruments, electronics, and samples.
2. Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown
I had purposefully ignored Green Day until this year when my Dad insisted I borrow "American Idiot" and "21st Century Breakdown" from him. Yes, it's still mainstream rock that gets confused for punk, but it's a concept album and you can't deny that it's catchy.

1. The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love
I had written off The Decemberists after their first major label album "The Crane Wife" failed to impress me. I wrote them off as sell offs and then they released "Hazards of Love" this year and I kept hearing how good it was. Ultimately it was the lure of the concept album that got me to check it out and I was ultimately glad I did.They manage to execute perfectly on all fronts and have created something that while perhaps not a cash cow, will certainly be remembered as a landmark record in the future.

Best Film of 2009
This was an awful year for film, absolutely awful. I was saying the same thing about 2008 as well until the final 4 months of the year produced some amazing films. 2009 had no such saving grace and most of what I've seen this year has been disappointing. One need only look at the lackluster choices for the year end awards to see how bad it is. And it wasn't that there weren't any independent films or daring projects, it's just that most of them weren't that good.

5. Star Trek
I was skeptical as any Trek fan would be, but J.J. Abrahms ended up making one hell of a film that while toying with the origins of the franchise, still managed to preserve the sanctity of all that had come before. One question remains though. What's with all the lens flares?
 4. Zombieland
This movie was an instant classic that could have been an instant flop. After seeing so many trailers for the film I had pretty much written it off. I figured that they were just showing me the most interesting stuff in the trailers and that there wasn't anything else worth watching. Man was I wrong. The Bill Murray scene alone is worth the price of admission. Ultimately, in the genre of Zombie-Comedy, "Zombieland" is second only to "Shaun of the Dead"
 3. Avatar
I would call James Cameron's films a guilty pleasure if the man wasn't so damn good at making films. Yes, he's an action film maker, but unlike Michael Bay, Paul WS Anderson, and their ilk, Cameron understands pacing, emotion, and just how to tell a good story. The effects serve the narrative, with Cameron, not the other way around, even in such an effects laden film as "Avatar". I was not disappointed when I left the theater. Avatar is James Cameron doing what he does best and I hope he doesn't make us wait another 10 years before he does it again.
 2. Goodbye Solo
This is a tough film to describe. It is essentially about a cab driver (Solo) who has a fare that asks him to take him to this park where there's a cliff so he can end his life in a couple weeks. Solo and the man make a deal and the rest of the film sees solo trying to persuade the man not to kill himself, while they both get involved in each other's lives. Yeah ... I'm not doing it justice, because it's really good. Even more astounding is the fact that the cast are non-actors, a bold decision by the director that actually pays of in some marvellously genuine performances.
 1. [500] Days of Summer
If you haven't seen this movie, see it. Maybe I'm biased with this one, because not only have I been in the situation presented in the story before ... I'm ALWAYS in this situation. "[500] Days of Summer" is not a romantic comedy, it's a romantic tragedy where Joseph Gordon-Levitt's main character tragically falls in love with Zooey Deschannel's manic pixie dream girl character and the end result is heartbreak. This movie is about what relationships are really like for nice guys who fall in love with girls who are ultimately, more involved, and more interesting than they are. One would like to think that the main character's efforts towards the end of the film to become more involved and interesting will ultimately pay off, but the movie doesn't bring us quite that far and I can't speak from experience on how that works out yet.
 That's all I've got for now though. I'll be back tomorrow with books, games, and whatever else I can think of to write about.