The Books of 2013

This last year has been short on cinema and long on literature, and it has all gone by far too quickly. But what a great year for literature it has been. I set for myself the goal of reading (more or less) a book a week and I surpassed it by one. Most of the books I read were new to me, and the majority of them ranged from quite good to simply breathtaking. The following are the ten (er, technically eleven) best books of fiction I read for the first time in 2013.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Thank you so much, Professor Jacobs. I’d been meaning to read more Dickens for years, and your post spurred me into tackling this wonderful, wonderful book. Tell them my opinion of it.

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. My wife has already written extensively about this one. Maddening as its protagonists are, they are ineffably human. Between this and Bleak House, I’ve been left in awe of the ability of two writers, centuries and hemispheres apart, to convey the weight, in anything but minor detail, of life’s pageant.

The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. Without a doubt, I will return to this one. As sure as I am that I’m missing significant depths of meaning, I was unmistakably astonished by the richness and complexity plainly evident on the surface. I’ve no doubt that it will reward further contemplation.

Tales of Civilians and Soldiers and Other Stories by Ambrose Bierce (edited by Tom Quirk). This was the most pleasant surprise of the year for me. Bierce’s range is amazing, and I was as moved by his calculated portraits of cosmic cruelty as I was delighted by his macabre sense of humor.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Can you believe I made it this long without reading this? The prose is pure pleasure, and it manages to be empathetic without embracing solipsistic hedonism.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein. Sure, Heinlein’s forays into Platonic dialogues are a bit hoary, but there’s a vibrant power in the sheer commitment to his looney prophetic vision. He stares the messiness of revolution in the eye, then sticks out his tongue.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Another one that will likely disclose more layers upon revisiting, but an impressive feat at first glance, if nothing else than for the stylistic mastery of different voices.

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. Impeccably constructed and radiating compassion, even as it claws and scratches as the darkness infecting the land we’ve made for ourselves. Hopeful but anti-saccharine.

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad; Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks (tie). Stunning tapestries of corruption, violence, and misguided teleologies anchored by different incarnations of The Right Man For The Job, who are inevitably crushed under the burden of civilizations’ dreams — which are, of course, nightmares.


Miyazaki says sayonara

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One of the world’s greatest living directors has retired from feature filmmaking. Miyazaki Hayao has been circling retirement for several years already (I had been under the impression that Ponyo would be his last film until I heard about The Wind Rises). As both ANN and Guardian Enzo note, he may still participate in other projects in various capacities — I suspect that such a restless muse as Miyazaki’s isn’t quite done yet — but it looks like we won’t get any more films directed by the man himself. The finality of this announcement strikes a chord of bittersweet triumph. It’s sad that we can’t expect any more masterpieces from the single biggest artist in Japanese animation, yet it’s a testament to the size of his achievements that he’s retiring at the top of his game at the age of 72. Most artists fade away; they may retain some cultural stature, but few choose to abdicate the throne while their reign remains virtually unchallenged. Fewer still are in a position to step down after a reign of decades. To see a giant gracefully lay himself to rest, rather than fall, is a privilege, if a poignant one. Arigatou gozaimasu, sensei. Here’s hoping we haven’t quite seen the last. ☕ Continue reading


Talk about softening the blow

Patrick Troughton Doctor

I was pretty disappointed when I heard that Matt Smith is leaving Doctor Who in this year’s Christmas special. Not upset — he’s given us what I consider to be the definitive New Who Doctor, and if he wants to take a bow while he’s still in peak form, I can’t blame him. Not to mention that it’s always exciting to anticipate what fresh face we’ll get to see next. But I’m still disappointed. Smith is such a joy to watch, and he’s done such a great job bridging the feel of classic and new Who in his performance that I had been hoping to see him grow with the role for a few more years, especially since he started so young. Though he might pop in here and there in the future, his era is coming to an end, and it’s a bit of a shame that we won’t get another year or two out of him.

But this news, if true, could very well make up for it. I’ve tried listening to the audio recordings of some of those missing episodes. It’s just not the same. Half the reason (possibly the biggest reason) to watch the classic episodes, apart from the imagination and wit of their better scripts, is to relish the performances. The core cast members especially are often doing quite a lot with their roles, and nobody more so than the people playing the Doctors. Finally getting to see such ballyhooed stories as “Evil of the Daleks” would be a real treat. I’ll definitely be keeping an ear to the ground on this rumor. Via io9. ☕


Sinister ☕ d. Scott Derrickson, 2012

Sinister

 

Morality tales aren’t really about nuance; they’re about getting across a point clearly and forcefully. I’m willing to forgive Sinister its one-dimensionality because it achieves two modest goals requisite for most great horror films: 1) it’s creepy, and 2) it is about evil. The first goal ought not be much of a stretch for someone as well traveled in horror filmmaking as Derrickson or the producers of Blumhouse, which has recently rolled in the dough with other morally-inflected shockers like Insidious and the Paranormal Activity franchise. Sinister is of a piece with those films, relying primarily on atmosphere, suspenseful build-up, and cheap-but-effective jump scares. Continue reading


“Are you from a defective clone batch?”

Commander Strax at a kids’ Q&A session. Sample quote: “I serve a penance to restore the honor of my clone batch. As a result, The Doctor chose the most fearsome punishment a Sontaran can endure: helping the weak, and sick, and  feeble… or humans, as I like to call them.” Via io9. ☕


Quote of the week: Williams on “the new social world”

The critical demystification has indeed to continue, but always in association with practice: regular practice, as part of a normal education, in this transforming labour process itself: practice in the production of alternative ‘images’ of the ‘same event’; practice in processes of basic editing and the making of sequences; practice, following this in direct autonomous composition.

We shall already have entered a new social world when we have brought the means and systems of the most direct communication under our own direct and general control. We shall have transformed them from their normal contemporary functions as commodities or as elements of a power structure. We shall have recovered these central elements of our social production from the many kinds of expropriator. But socialism is not only about the theoretical and practical ‘recovery’ of those means of production, including the means of communicative production, which has been expropriated by capitalism. In the case of communications, especially, it is not only, though it may certainly include, the recovery of a ‘primitive’ directness and community. Even in the direct modes, it should be institution much more than recovery, for it will have to include the transforming elements of access and extension over an unprecedentedly wide social and inter-cultural range. — Raymond Williams, from “Means of Communication as Means of Production”

If I were ever to teach a class on film, this would probably be a required text. Williams goes a long way toward clarifying the social importance to every level of society of understanding media. ☕


The Winter 2013 anime review

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Apart from my reading schedule, the most media I’ve consumed in the last few months has mainly been anime. Since anime has comprised most of my entertainment diet, and since the 2013 winter season ended just a few weeks ago, here’s a set of capsule reviews of the stuff I’ve been consuming… Continue reading


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