It’s been nearly a year since I discovered the Forty Days of Dating project and I’m embarrassed to say I’ve still only read up to Day 21. In my defense I kinda don’t want to get to the end too soon; it’s a fascinating experiment made even more beautiful by the presentation, and a good reminder that Life needs to be not only a series of Emersonian experiments but a series of finished projects as well.
One of my favorite things about watching a new late night show is the experimentation. I just love how weird and awkward this “Fake or Florida” segment gets, some of it planned and some of it unplanned but all of it delicious. Seth’s doing a great job already but I hope they continue to try crazy things and innovate.
Time is becoming downright relentless. One minute you’re compiling your list of favorite things from 2012, polishing it off, thinking it might even look fashionably forward to release the thing a few weeks after 2013 has begun and before you know it suddenly it’s 2014. That’s right, kids, that best of 2012 post never got published.
So to nip this thing in the bud of 2014 I present to you my favorite things from 2013 (that I’ve remembered in the past 48 hours):
Literally everything about Spike Jonze’s Her, Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha, Amy Adams in anything, anything put out by Annapurna Pictures, the lighting and music of Inside Llewyn Davis, those first two long takes that open Before Midnight, “Suit & Tie” by Justin Timberlake, “Diane Young” by Vampire Weekend, “Tennis Court” by Lorde, “This Charming Man” by the Smiths, the entire Lightning album by Matt and Kim, Readability, the redesigned New York Times app, Vine, Tweetbot, Clash of Clans, the Walking Dead video game, Arkham Origins for iOS, Comics, Venmo, Heyday, the worlds of comics, writing, alt lit and gifs as seen through Tumblr, Rap Genius, my iPad Air, my third Nike Fuelband, “Hawkeye”, anything written by Matt Fraction or illustrated by David Aja, “Understanding Comics”, “New York Four” and “New York Five”, “Day Tripper”, “Saga”, “Batman Incorporated”, “The Walking Dead”, “The Intelligent Investor” by Benjamin Graham, “Jesus’ Son” by Denis Johnson, “The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson, getting to read the New Yorker on my commute, the Breaking Bad Insider podcast, the Monday B.S. Report podcast with Cousin Sal, the comiXologist, War Rocket Ajax, Talking Comics, Welcome to Night Vale, Drive to Work with Mark Rosewater, the Blackhawks championship, the unstoppable tandem of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey, Josh McCown, any running play against the Bears defense that resulted in a gain of less than 5 yards, Atlantic City with the OMGPop crew, clubbing with the Entourage crew, launching a mobile game from the NY studio, indie movies with Jenny, visiting Stephen on the set of his Happy Baby movie, Tokyo robot girls with Honmun and Felicia, Shakespeare in the Park’s production of “The Comedy of Errors”, the weekend of debauchery in New Orleans with the San Francisco bachelor party crew, road tripping on the west coast with Kishan, the circle boat tour with Angie, Robby and Nadia’s wedding in New York with Kate, Seeyew and Katie’s wedding in Madison, chicken sandwiches with Chad at Corner Bistro, Tom & Jerry’s with the NY office crew, the unanticipated but much welcome migration of Bay Area writer friends to New York, any gathering involving said writer friends, Duff’s Bar with Anthony, Ryan and Nate, the Stanford-Oregon game at SNAP bar, Chad and Emily’s pumpkin party, any drinking and/or eating session with Tom and Doris, Magic nights with Tom and Thebao, the weather at Lincoln Financial Stadium during the Bears’ epic loss to the Eagles, walking the streets of Chicago with Sara and Kishan, any event at Housing Works Bookstore, any random encounter with a celebrity, any form of ramen, any form of bagel, chicken and rice from the Halal Guys, La Colombe coffee, Shamas Deli, “Day of the Doctor” with Anthony, “Girls” and “The Newsroom” with Angie, the entire buildup leading to and throughout the last 8 episodes of “Breaking Bad”, the ridiculously good cliffhanger for the “To’hajiilee” episode of “Breaking Bad”, the “Ozymandias” episode of “Breaking Bad”, the pop culture explosion of “Breaking Bad”, anything having to do with anything about “Breaking Bad”.
Let’s do this, 2014.
No, I haven’t stopped reading them, dear reader. I just got behind. And while every week is still hit or miss there’ve been enough enjoyable moments to make me believe this a worthwhile exercise. What I don’t want this to come across as is some form of judgment on each writer (though I suppose that may be impossible), think of these more as notes on what worked and didn’t work for me personally while encountering each of these stories.
“Victory” by Yu Hua (August 26, 2013 issue) — A cheating husband always presents a potentially interesting scenario. Unfortunately I found the language (translated from the Chinese) too cold and distant to foster much empathy.
“The Colonel’s Daughter” by Robert Coover (September 2, 2013 issue) — A group of revolutionaries gathers to plot a coup. Loved the tone and atmosphere of this piece, as the characters size each other up like suspects in a game of Clue.
“The Heron” by Dorthe Nors (September 8, 2013 issue) — I actually appreciate when authors have the conviction to make their short stories short. Unfortunately this one, about a narrator’s thoughts at a park, just didn’t have enough meat on the bone to stay with me.
“By Fire” by Tahar Ben Jelloun (September 16, 2013 issue) — An interesting portrait of the life of an Arab street seller that takes a sudden political turn. For me the ending felt a little too jarring and pointed, not quite earned.
“Bad Dreams” by Tessa Hadley (September 23, 2013 issue) — A young child has a bad dream in which she finds the details of one of her favorite books have changed. The premise seemed a bit indulgent to me, but the consequences of the dream and what it foreshadows for the parents felt like the hint of a great story to be.
“The Breeze” by Joshua Ferris (September 30, 2013 issue) — A New York couple plays out several hypothetical date-night scenarios as they live through modern relationship ennui. This story frustrated me. A great premise, great setups that cause you to reflect on your own life and relationships, exceptionally confusing execution.
“I’m the Meat, You’re the Knife” by Paul Theroux (October 7, 2013 issue) — A grown man goes back to visit the bedside of a dying childhood teacher. I really appreciated the oblique angle in which this story approaches its subject matter, showing that there are never easy answers (or straightforward consequences) to childhood horrors.
“Katania” by Lara Vapnyar (October 14, 2013 issue) — Two girls growing up in Soviet Russia compare dolls and dollhouses, and by extension their lives. Vapnyar does a great job of putting you in the shoes (and shoebox dollhouses) of these girls; the ending just didn’t work for me though, and seems to completely undercut the realism that comes before it.
“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro (October 21, 2013 issue) — This reprint (first published December 27, 1999) felt more like a valedictory lap for both The New Yorker and Munro immediately following her Nobel prize. It’s probably unfair to even evaluate this story along with the others shown here because it’s so damn good; within the first page it was clear that Munro simply writes on a different level.
“Samsa in Love” by Haruki Murakami (October 28, 2013 issue) — A cockroach awakens to find he is now Gregor Samsa. I count myself a huge Murakami fan, but even this (his first New Yorker story in a while) felt too Murakami-esque with not enough wrinkles to imply any kind of interesting growth. At what point should a writer be concerned about becoming a parody of himself?
“Weight Watchers” by Thomas McGuane (November 4, 2013 issue) — A construction worker helps his dad lose weight in order to reunite with his mom. This was one of my favorite stories from this group; its sheer joy of language shines through in the narrator’s colorful diction and idioms, and there’s a loopy world-weariness that seems honest and hard-won. I really need to read more from McGuane.
“Benji” by Chinelo Okparanta (November 11, 2013 issue) — A lonely rich man becomes involved with a married woman. I enjoyed the sly trickery this piece is constructed on; the existential question it ends with is food for thought as well.
“Find the Bad Guy” by Jeffrey Eugenides (November 18, 2013 issue) — A man approaches his old house and family, including his wife who has a restraining order against him. This was an incredibly fun read, with a main character who is the most unreliable of unreliable narrators but charms you anyway with his wit, hysterical voice and the exciting possibility that anything can happen in the next paragraph. I loved every minute.
I did a rare thing and got Madden 25 for the Xbox 360 the day it came out this year, seduced by the idea of finally becoming a pro Madden player while my real life Chicago Bears would reach the inevitable Super Bowl championship that awaited them.
Cut to 10 weeks into the season: the actual Chicago Bears are 5-4, having just handed the division over to the Lions (you’re welcome, Detroit), while my virtual Bears haven’t even made it out of preseason. Sigh.
Hollywood may have finally milked future dystopia and the post-apocalypse to death but I still get tickled pink every time an unexpected writer throws their hat into the sci-fi ring. This week’s New Yorker gives us Zadie Smith (of White Teeth and On Beauty fame) with an original story in that genre. It’s not wholly complete, in the way that short story sketches are wont to be, but it does have some intriguing extrapolations about living in a future mediated age of augmented realities and contextual displacement.
In “Meet the President!” Bill Peek is a young boy outfitted with some sort of personal technology (descriptive details are both few and ambiguous) temporarily visiting a nature scene whose nearby human inhabitants have not been privy to the same toys he has. His special equipment allows him simultaneous access to the world’s information and a more interesting existence in the form of a virtual layer that gamifies his real-world surroundings. The equipment also allows Bill to be perpetually distracted and disinclined to connect with the primitive, technologically unaided young girl and older woman he encounters in real life. Why live in the Now when you could always live in the More Interesting?
As one might guess, the story (thin plot and all) isn’t really about the tech itself. It may not even be about the inherent relationship with technology and class, something Smith is probably quite interested in; it may simply be about quality of life, of finding a true experience. The title seems flippant but the ending is infused with such strange foreboding that one could interpret this story’s theme in a number of pleasurable or damning ways. I have yet to read any of her books to know where these ideas stand in relation but I wouldn’t mind a return trip to the world of this brief but interesting thought experiment.
Previously unpublished, “Paranoia” by Shirley Jackson reads like a prototypical Philip K. Dick or Hitchcock yarn. It centers on a man named Beresford as he makes his way home from work for his wife’s birthday while attempting to evade a mysterious man who seems to be everywhere at once. There are some goodly unsettling moments here, where background characters may not be who they seem — even the mysterious stranger himself alternates between menacing and ambivalent — but it’s really the distance imposed by the language (the protagonist is consistently referred to only as “Mr. Beresford”) and the deliberately spare choice of details (the stranger is “the man in the light hat”) that succeed in amping up the unease. For a story written half a century ago the details are so choice that it reads like it could have taken place in 2013 New York, excepting the fact that the subway no longer costs a nickel to ride.
While the story doesn’t amount to too much it did make me appreciate the subversiveness of Jackson; her most famous story “The Lottery” was a New Yorker premiere, and one wonders what it would take to make a New Yorker story of today feel equally boundary-pushing and revelatory.
Of the last ten New Yorker stories I’ve read, Daniel Alarcón’s “Collectors” might be my favorite. It hums along at a good pace, has several well-observed moments and effectively sketches an environment (a dangerous prison in Peru) that is believably familiar yet unique. The story tracks the lives of two cell co-habitants in Collectors prison: Rogelio is a simple-minded mechanic brought in for drug trafficking, while Henry is a playwright imprisoned on charges of terrorism for a play he wrote. The pseudo-climax of the story (of course the hardcore prisoners end up staging a play) stretches believability, but it’s the postscript that helps put things in perspective and leaves you wondering about how at least one of the characters fares after.
My only real quibble: “Collectors” is excerpted from Alarcón’s upcoming novel “At Night We Walk in Circles”. It always bums me out a little to read excerpts; Jhumpa Lahiri’s excellent short “Brotherly Love” from a few weeks ago was similarly extracted from her new novel. Commercial interests aside I’ll admit that these are effective in getting me re-interested in these writers but I always take a moment to mourn the weekly slot that could have gone to an original short. Can’t we at least have these well-known writers promote their novels with original material — e.g. a prequel short story incorporating the novel’s characters, or new scenes involving secondary characters? Even deleted scenes might be interesting…
Jesus, there are lots of little funny things. I can’t even remember half of them. That’s what happens to a life, though, isn’t it. The little ornate things drizzle away, like cakes in rain, while the big blocky stuff is left to stand in for a lifetime of minutiae. Sad and beautiful.
- former San Francisco Film Society Executive Director Graham Leggat
Yeah, it’s kinda like that. Best of 2012 list coming soon.