Thursday, December 24, 2009

My Favorite Songs of 2009

A quick entry for the holidays! 

I'm no music critic but I know what I like!  These are my favorite songs for 2009.  I'll leave it to others to write about their merits (or lack thereof . . .):

"While You Wait For The Others" – Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest

"Cannibal Resource" – Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca

"Hey, Snow White" – New Pornographers, Dark Was The Night

"1901" – Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

"Valiant Brave" – Ganglians, Monster Head Room

"Wake" – Antlers, Hospice

"Skeletons" – Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz

"Middle Cyclone" – Neko Case, Middle Cyclone

"The Tenure Itch" – The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart

"Daniel" – Bat For Lashes, Two Suns

"Feel It all Around" – Washed Out, Life of Leisure EP

"Introducing Palace Players" – Mew, No More Stories

"Horchata" – Vampire Weekend, [single]

"Summertime Clothes" – Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion

Friday, December 18, 2009

Sometimes I Buy a Comic Just for the Art: First Thoughts on Avatar

You hear the word "spectacular" used a lot in movie reviews these days.  Usually its hyperbole.  Or an empty term used by a lazy writer.  But I can think of no more apt a word than "spectacular" to describe James Cameron's Avatar

Spectacular is derived from the word, spectacle, which, according to my American Heritage College Dictionary, means, "something of a remarkable and impressive nature" and "a public performance or display, especially one on a large or lavish scale."  That's Avatar.  It is pure spectacle.  It is beautiful and stunning and unlike anything I've ever seen on a movie screen. 

That's the only way to really appreciate Avatar, by the way -- at the theater.  Don't wait for Blu-Ray, or HBO, or whatever.  See it on a BIG screen and in 3D.  It's worth it.  Really.

Yes, there are many things you can complain about in Avatar:  The retread story.  The (ironically) two-dimensional villain.  The many weak spots in the plot.  The thing is, I kinda' expected those things going in.  I figured there would be simple narrative with stereotypical characters.  But, you know what?  The story isn't half-bad and the characters are all well-performed.  And while there isn't exactly thematic subtlety in the film, it doesn't hit you over the head with a "message," either.  In short, the story does everything it needs to do so that Cameron can showcase his dazzling, awesome, groundbreaking visuals.

I was thoroughly delighted by Avatar.  It was worth my money and my time.  So much so, in fact, that I'll be going to see it again.  Because there aren't too many opportunities these days to sit in a movie theater and see something truly and unquestionably spectacular.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of the Decade (Part 2)

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2004) – Susanna Clarke. Heralded as the greatest new fantasy since Tolkien, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was a refreshing, stand-alone epic about two feuding magicians in Victorian England. Though it was not as good as Tolkien (ha!), Clarke’s book was a lively, imaginative tale and one of the most engrossing books of the decade. There are unforgettable images in this book, from Mr. Norrell’s amazing library of magic books, to Strange’s eternal column of darkness. Vivid and inventive, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell begs for movie treatment and for a sequel.

Iron Council (2004) – China Mieville. Mieville returns to New Crobuzon to tell a tale of anarchists who seek to change the city’s political structure but are exiled into the wastelands of Bas Lag. The story in Iron Council is almost as good as the one found in Perdido Street Station. But here, Mieville’s prose has improved. It is still uniquely thick, and cluttered with the multi-syllabic, but in Iron Council it approaches poetry.

A Princess of Roumania, The Tourmaline, The White Tyger, The Hidden World (2005-2008) – Paul Park. Together, these four books comprise the Great Roumania quartet, the best example of a multi-volume fantasy in years, maybe decades. Much was made of the first book, but by the time the fourth arrived, Park’s work was being overlooked. In fact, I don’t think any of the four books won any major awards. That’s a shame because Park fashioned one of the most original and moving fantasies I’ve ever read. In it, our world is an illusion, a story in a book. Miranda Popescu has been hidden in our pages for years, but when the book is destroyed, she returns to the real world of a nineteenth-century, Roumanian-dominated Europe, where, of course, she must fulfill her destiny. Park’s story is terrific and highly imaginative: there are vampires and shape-changers, radioactive debris and time-tunnels, and one amazing gun that fires demons as bullets! This is the fantasy series I most want to re-read. Together, these are great books, featuring some of the best cover art (by John Jude Palencar) of the decade.

Counting Heads (2005) – David Marusek. Looking for strong, heady science fiction? Look no further than the books by David Marusek. His first, Counting Heads, showcases one of the most fully-realized futures in the genre. Marusek’s work is reminiscent of Bruce Sterling in its careful extrapolations, but where Sterling sometimes lose control of his plot, Marusek spins a strong and satisfying tale, even if (as of December, 2009) it has yet to fully close. In more ways than one, Counting Heads is the future of Science Fiction.

River of Gods (2005) – Ian McDonald. Some will argue that River of Gods is the best of the decade’s science fiction novels. I’ve made the case for Harrison’s Light, but River of Gods is still an amazing accomplishment. In it, McDonald has fashioned a fascinating future India in which rogue AI’s are hunted by special police, a third gender has been biologically developed, and the skirmishes for scarce supplies of water have created a delicate and vicious political scene. River of Gods is bravura storytelling and unabashedly, joyously science fiction on every page.

Galileo’s Dream (2009) – Kim Stanley Robinson. I’ve blogged about this book just recently so I won’t write much more here, other than to say Kim Stanley Robinson has integrated two of his specialties into one book: He combines alternate history with the future of the solar system. It’s as if he folded The Years of Rice and Salt into his Mars trilogy. Amazing! Galileo’s Dream is one of Robinson’s best books, which obviously makes it one of the best of the decade.

 Bonus! The Best Non-Genre Books of the Decade.

(Sorry, no time for descriptions. Though I will say that The Road is the best book (of any genre) I read this past decade. In fact, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. Some say it might be science fiction (it is post-apocalyptic). If so, consider it the best SF book of the past ten years and add it to the list above. Oh, and the Wallace title isn’t a novel (it’s a collection of essays), but, really, I’m going to make a list of best books of the 2000’s and leave Wallace off? No way!)

The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon

Consider the Lobster – David Foster Wallace

The Plot Against America – Philip Roth

The Brief History of the Dead – Kevin Brockmeier

The Road – Cormac McCarthy

The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz

The Savage Detectives – Roberto BolaƱo

James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon – Julie Phillips

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of the Decade (Part 1)

(Holiday obligations are leaving little time for writing. Sorry for the lack of links this time around.)

Here’s part one of my list of the best science fiction and fantasy novels from the past ten years. All these books come with the highest recommendation. I’ve listed them by date of publication.

Look to Windward (2000) – Iain M. Banks. Released a year before the September 11th terrorist attacks, Look to Windward may be Banks at his most prescient. Terrorists threaten a major population center in the Culture, the utopian society that rules most of the galaxy. But the Culture is always one step ahead and hardly threatened by a band of small-time plotters, no matter how determined. (If only reality was this clean and simple.) Look to Windward is the most controlled and thoughtful of Banks’s books and easily his best Culture novel.

Perdido Street Station (2000) – China Mieville. This is the book that put China Mieville on the map. Perdido was a big, sprawling mash-up of fantasy, science fiction and horror—and arguably a masterpiece. There was, for a time, an effort by some writers (led by Mieville) to define a new sub-genre called the New Weird. It was equal parts Lovecraft, steampunk, and The Island of Dr. Moreau. It may have been a real thing for a time, just like Cyberpunk was in the Eighties; if so, Perdido Street Station was its Neuromancer. Whatever its label, though, this first tale of the fictional city, New Crobuzon, is also sui generis and one of the most important genre books of the decade.

Return to the Whorl (2001) – Gene Wolfe. Don’t read this book until you’ve read the first two books in the trilogy (On Blue’s Waters, In Green’s Jungles). Of course, the trilogy is a sequel, of sorts, to the "Long Sun Quartet" (which is a companion series to the five-book "New Sun" series). Got all that? This is a great book, but typical of Gene Wolfe. In other words, it’s dense and challenging. It’s emphatically not a casual read. I recommend it for the serious SF fan, only; someone who enjoys puzzling-out Wolfe’s hidden narratives. Is it worth the work? Absolutely. (And I can’t say that about some of Wolfe’s most recent novels.)

The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) – Kim Stanley Robinson. Another timely book, depending on your point-of-view. The Years of Rice and Salt is a grand alternate history in which the Black Death wipes out most of Christian Europe, leaving the world to be settled and advanced by Muslim nations and China. The book came out in early 2002, shortly after 9/11. The alternate time line allows Robinson to explore the strengths and weaknesses of different cultures and religions. The Years of Rice and Salt is one of Robinson’s strongest and most thought-provoking books. But he’ll surpass it before the decade ends.

Bones of the Earth (2002) – Michael Swanwick. Here is Michael Swanwick having fun in a delightful tale about time travel and dinosaurs. It’s full of old-fashioned “sense-of-wonder” and adventure but with good characters and strong plotting. I love the way Swanwick dismisses the paradox of time travel: “Step on as many butterflies as you wish!” (Rather than spend pages of explication, Swanwick efficiently establishes time travel as possible then moves on with the fun part--the story.)  Still, time travel has its many dangers (and so do those dinosaurs!).

Light  (2002)– M. John Harrison. Light may be the best science fiction novel of the decade. Harrison perfectly melds big ideas, SF tropes and world-building with some of the strongest characterization you’ll find in (or out) of the genre. What struck me about Light was the fact that much of the story—the struggle of the characters to discover themselves, to overcome their self-imposed obstacles—works regardless of the SF setting. There’s no science fictional crutch, here. Light is the one SF novel of the past ten years I most look forward to re-reading.

Cloud Atlas (2004) – David Mitchell. Here’s a book with SF at its core—literally. There are six nested narratives in Cloud Atlas, two taking place in the past, two in the present and two in the future. They fit perfectly into one another and my jaw dropped while I read Mitchell masterfully connect them. This is one of the most unique books of the decade.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Best TV of the Decade

It's that time again.  Time for lists and more lists.  Best books.  Best movies.  Best comics.  Everyone's got a list.  I used to rant against lists.  (It seems that Entertainment Weekly's got a "best of something" issue every few months.)  But blogs are a great place for lists.  Plus it is December and the last year of the so-called "aughts" . . . . So, in the best spirit of "if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em," here's my first list for the month:

Best TV of the Decade:
(Note: This is not a top-ten list.  Why limit--or force--myself to ten entries?)

1) The Wire.  Hands-down, the best show of the decade. (Any list that doesn't have The Wire in the top two or three slots is worthless.  (So there, Hollywood Reporter!))  The Wire is the most accomplished and satisfying show I've ever seen.  Yes, I love Twin Peaks (which I still consider the most daring, innovative and mesmerizing show of all time) and although The Wire never challenged me like Twin Peaks--wow!--did it ever engross me!  Over five seasons, The Wire told a Dickensian story of drug-dealers, junkies, cops and politicians in Baltimore, Maryland.  It managed all at once to be tragic and hilarious, thrilling and thought-provoking.  The acting, directing and writing were pitch-perfect.  And the characters!  Oh man, the characters.  Who can forget Omar and Bunk and McNulty and Stringer Bell and Bubbles and Freamon and Ziggy, etc. etc?  No character was a stereotype.  There were no heroes or villains, just realistic people trying to survive in a desperate environment.  The Wire, with its intricate, finely-tuned plots remains the best example yet of what can be accomplished in the medium of television.

2) The Office (British version).  The first series to skewer the "genre" of reality TV and lampoon the kind of people who seek an easy road to "fame;" the 12 episodes (and two-hour finale) of The Office told a complete and satisfying story of what happens when ordinary people are put on extraordinary display.  The star of the show (and "the show") was the smarmy, self-centered, fame-seeking, David Brent, played to heartbreaking and hilarious perfection by Ricky Gervais.  Brent thought he deserved to be on TV, thought fame would solve all his problems. But his bid for fame turned out to be sad and delusional (not unlike what has happened with many recent reality "stars" and wanna-be's).  Like The Wire, The Office took full advantage of television's strengths, not so much with extended narrative (as in The Wire) but with the medium of television, itself.  The "idea" of the documentary--the presence of the cameras in the workplace--was as much a part of the story as the characters.  The Office was innovative and refreshing, and it paved the way for so much of what is on TV today.

3) The Sopranos.  There is much to like in The Sopranos, but what really strikes me is how series creator, David Chase, developed such complex and flawed characters.  The stories on The Sopranos delivered thrills and intrigue, certainly, but it was the characters who, for me, provided lasting entertainment.  Chase found ways of making their psychological states--their internal conflicts, rationalizations, and avoidance--the stuff of high drama.  He was also lucky (and savvy) to cast James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano.  Together, Chase and Gandolfini shaped the most fully-realized TV character of all time.  To be sure, there were other brilliant performances and memorable characters on The Sopranos, but Tony will always stand out among them.  (Oh, and let's not forget that brilliant series ending.  It goes on and on and on           )

4) Mad Men.  Intricate plotting (like The Wire) coupled with complex characters (like The Sopranos) easily makes Mad Men one of the best shows of the decade.  And the series may have many more seasons to go; I don't doubt Mad Men will appear on many "Best TV " lists for the next decade.  Mad Men has brilliantly explored the idea of different "identities" found in every person (the work persona, the home-life persona, the persona you only reveal to yourself).  These identities compete for control in the show's main character, Don Draper (aka Dick Whitman) but are also evident in the show's other wonderful characters, particularly Peggy Olson and Pete Campbell.  Mad Men is also about the sharp cultural shifts happening in the United States in the early sixties and while sometimes the show is too obvious in the way it highlights the differences between "now" and "then," it does provide a valuable look at unique moment in time: that still-point between the conformist, propagandized Fifties, and the radical, authority-defying Sixties.  With season three, that still point has passed.  The series has clearly reached a turning point and all signs indicate that it will redefine itself.  What will Mad Men of 1964 look like?  I can't wait to see.

5) LOST.  Finally, network TV gets it right!  A long, complicated, mind-bending mystery!  From the beginning, LOST was about questions ("Guys, where are we?").  Could a show with such a strange premise and huge cast possibly keep its secrets and keep viewers satisfied?  The X-Files tried and failed.  So did Alias and Heroes.  Somehow, though, LOST managed that most difficult of balancing acts: it simultaneously delivered satisfying answers while withholding complete narrative closure.  Over LOST's five seasons, layers of mystery have been stripped away to reveal glimpses of a grander structure.  There is a sense that the characters (and the audience) are getting closer to the truth.  In fact, the greatest pleasure of LOST is piecing together clues from episode-to-episode and sensing the bigger picture come into view. Still, we have yet to see the whole picture and there is a chance that everything could fall apart.  There's a lot at stake in the upcoming final season of LOST.  Big revelations are due, but can they possibly meet viewer expectations?  I think the creators of LOST know what they're doing (a rarity for ongoing network serials) so I'm expecting surprising and satisfying answers.  I've got my fingers crossed, anyway.

OK, that's five shows.  There are many other great series from the past ten years and I'd like to discuss them all, but time and other obligations prevent me.  Still, I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention these other noteworthy series from the 2000's.  They are:

The West Wing, Deadwood, Big Love, the first two seasons of Battlestar Galactica (the last few seasons of Galactica make it one of the worst shows of the decade so let's just pretend they never happened!), Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars, and The Office (US version).

Of course, there are many series I've failed to see.  Shows like Arrested Development, The Shield and House have consistently garnered great reviews.  Their absence here says nothing about their quality.

Bonus!  Best Single Episodes of the Decade (in no particular order):

* "Blink;" Doctor Who 
* "The Body;" Buffy the Vampire Slayer
* "17 People;" The West Wing
* "The Return of the Fellowship of the Ring to the Two Towers;" South Park
* "Out of Gas;" Firefly
* "Training;" The Office (UK)
* "The Constant;" LOST
* "Pilot, Parts 1 & 2;" LOST
* "Here Was a Man;" Deadwood
* "33;" Battlestar Galactica
* "You Can't Go Home Again;" Battlestar Galactica
* "Hush;" Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Technically, this aired in December of 1999, but I can't let such a great episode be overlooked.)

That's it for now.  More lists to come!