Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: The Best and Worst

Here's some thoughts, sneaked in right under the wire here.  2012 had a lot of good things, but my hopes for 2013 are even higher.

Best Movies (in no particular order):

The Hunger Games
I had high hopes for this one from the day I first heard they were adapting the book into a film, and I was not disappointed.  The casting was spot on, the big moments shone the way they were intended, and director Gary Ross took things one intriguing step further by using the film to force us to question our own beliefs and practices.  Hopefully Catching Fire can continue the trend of success in 2013.

This is probably the most well-crafted movie I saw this year, and I think that everyone else should see it, at the very least so they can reassure themselves that Ben Affleck deserves the acclaim he's currently receiving.

Silver Linings Playbook
This movie is heart-wrenching, painfully real, and hysterically funny all at the same time.  Both Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence give performances that are just plain fantastic (believe me, I was surprised about the former too), and the story is one that is incredibly poignant and accessible.  If I had to pick a personal favorite among these, this movie is most likely it.

The Amazing Spider-Man
This movie surprised me-- I expected it to be pretty good, having Marc Webb, Emma Stone, and Andrew Garfield (among others) on board, but I didn't expect it to be SO good.  

The Dark Knight Rises
I believe I have already expressed my full thoughts (probably to some excess) on this one.  But yes, a tremendous ending to a remarkable trilogy of films.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Another book adaptation that far surpassed my expectations.  Not only did it adhere to the spirit of the novel in all its teen angst glory, the casting turned out to be brilliant.  All three of the lead actors were superb, and it definitely added to the realism of an occasionally melodramatic story.

Pitch Perfect
This is the best cheesy movie I've seen in ages.  Not only does it have Anna Kendrick (and believe me, that alone lends it quite a bit of cred), it also has some elements to it that seem to have been forgotten in the movie industry's recent efforts aimed at teenagers.  It offers the things that appealed to me initially about Glee, except you know, the music is far more impressive and the plot lines make sense; it also features a protagonist who defies a lot of the unofficial "rules" that make adolescent leading ladies so unbearable to watch lately.  Written by Kay Cannon of 30 Rock and SNL, Pitch Perfect doesn't underestimate its audience and has some truly laugh out loud moments as well as a few that will give you goosebumps.

*Note:  I haven't seen Zero Dark Thirty yet, as it hasn't been released in my city, but I'm giving it a preemptive honorary spot on this list based on how good I'm anticipating it will be.

Best TV Shows:

Parks and Recreation
Season 5 has been heavily focused on character development, which I think is what may be underwhelming some viewers when compared with Season 4 and its exciting build to Leslie's election.  But that's something that I love about this show, and something that if you love these characters, is the kind of payoff you've been waiting for.  Tom's maturing and starting his own business; Ann is realizing that it's okay to be alone and get to know yourself; Ben and Leslie are settling into a relationship largely free of its early dramatics; April and Andy are finding their paths; even Ron is embarking upon what just might be a healthy relationship.  The gang in Pawnee is growing up, and I can't wait to see what's next. 

Game of Thrones
The show's second season lived up to escalating expectations, with penultimate episode "Blackwater" making a lasting impression as one of the more recent achievements in dramatic television, outshining what many films have been able to do with more generous resources.  And season three only promises more epic-ness to come.

Happy Endings
The most hilarious show that almost no one is watching (and ABC is making little effort to air).  Give this one a chance, and if it doesn't make you laugh out loud at least once, well, there might be something wrong with you.

Best New Shows:

The Mindy Project (FOX)

Go On (NBC)

Best TV Episodes:

How I Met Your Mother, "The Last Page"
This had one of the better head-fakes in HIMYM's history, and especially made up for the streak of lackluster episodes which preceded it.  I won't spoil the twist for those who haven't seen it, but it's pretty legendary.

Parks and Recreation, "Halloween Surprise"
BEN AND LESLIE ARE GETTING MARRIED.  Also, some other stuff happened.

Grey's Anatomy, "Remember the Time"
RIP Mark Sloan-- I didn't even like you that much, but this episode proved that Grey's still knows how to tug at the strings (and induce ugly-crying to boot), even after all these years.

New Girl, "Injured"
This was the episode that really brought me around on this show, because the showrunners seemed to have finally figured out the magic and potential of the ensemble rather than simply relying on the quirky cuteness of Zooey Deschanel ad infinitum.  Season 2 has continued that trend, and I think good things can be expected.

Favorite People*:

Jennifer Lawrence
We can disregard House at the End of the Street as a fluke and just continue drooling over how talented Ms. Lawrence is, right?  That's what I've been doing, anyway.  Not only did she emerge in popular media playing one of the most badass characters out there at the moment, but she also gave one of the best performances I've seen in years in Silver Linings Playbook, which will probably earn her a second Academy Award nomination (it's a crime if it doesn't).  Oh, and she's only 22 years old, so no need to feel bad about your own accomplishments or anything.

The Obamas
Yeah, Barack may not have gotten everything done that he wanted to do (fortunately he's got another 4 years to make it up to us), but Michelle and the girls more than made up for it by being their usual fabulous selves and providing America with more sorely-needed lady role models.

Jon Stewart
Nobody handles the increasingly dismal, frustrating, and sometimes terrifying developments in the news quite like Jon Stewart.  He's been perfecting his on-air persona for years, but it's the moments when his genuine concern for this floundering nation that truly set him apart.

Amy Poehler (always)
Do I even have to explain this one anymore?  She's hosting the Golden Globes on January 13th; watch that and maybe you'll begin to understand a fraction of what there is to love about this fabulous lady.

Maisie Williams
Well, I'm probably biased because she plays my absolute favorite character on Game of Thrones, but this girl is adorable, and pretty darn talented to boot.  Arya gets some even meatier stuff to work with during A Storm of Swords, so I for one am psyched to see what Williams will get to do come Season 3.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Dude was everywhere in 2012, and it looks like that's a trend that will be continuing in the new year.  No complaints here, especially if another team-up with Chris Nolan (and I'm not saying it HAS to be Batman related, but that'd be pretty cool...) is on the horizon.

The IKEA Monkey
Not a person, I know, but have you seen this little guy?  If there's anything I love more than animals dressed as humans (and fashionable humans at that) and shopping for affordable furniture, I do not know what it is.

Biggest Disappointments:

The Casual Vacancy

The Apocalypse

The 2012 Emmy Awards (the award recipients, not the broadcast itself, though that wasn't great either)

People I'm Sick of Hearing About:

Taylor Swift

One Direction/Justin Bieber/any of their female counterparts

Donald Trump

Tom Cruise

Biggest (Positive) Surprises:

Positive Female Role Models (in media especially)
Katniss Everdeen.  Arya Stark.  Princess Merida.  Michelle Obama.  Gabby Douglas.  Hilary Clinton.  The list could go on, but suffice it to say that ladies rocked in 2012, and I'm fairly certain there's no end in sight.

The Rise of Folk 
I actually read a magazine article recently that reference the door that had been opened for bands like the Lumineers and Of Monsters and Men in the "post-Mumford" era.  If that's not an indicator of where the trends are headed, I don't know what is.

Saturday Night Live (without all-stars Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg)
Here's the little secret about this season of SNL that no one's talking about:  it's actually been pretty great, all things considered.  The old favorites are delivering their usual brilliance, and new faces like Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong have me persuaded that things in Studio 8H are not as bleak as previously anticipated.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

100 Books: The Journey

I promise I'll get to talking about the books themselves, but first kindly indulge some personal reflection.  For me 2012 was a year of learning.  I learned that being a real, live "grown up" is both wonderful and terrifying (the latter more often, particularly when you're unemployed, which I was for the first quarter of the year).  I learned (or rather, re-learned) that I have some truly remarkable people in my corner, in multiple cities, no less.  And I learned once again that stories really are the thing that means more to me than almost anything else in my life.

Don't get me wrong--the wonderful people and the comforts I'm fortunate enough to have are important too, but I've always loved stories, and they've been there for me every step of the way, through thick and thin.  In a way that's what my goal of reading 100 in a year was about:  I wanted to immerse myself in other worlds and in the minds of characters completely different from myself, and see if stories were still everything I thought they were by year's end.  And you know what?  They were all that and more.  Those places, fictional and otherwise, gave me somewhere to go when I was feeling down or lost, somewhere I could dream and think and just be.  And those characters, even the ones with whom it seemed, on the surface, that I had absolutely nothing in common?  I found tiny links of understanding, a million little ways I could relate to each and every one of them; reasons to root for them, and commiserate with them, and learn from them.

I received a lot of uninvited commentary on my plan to read 100 books, mostly a lot of arguing about quantity vs. quality, and here at just about the end of December I've finally sussed out my response:  for me the quantity is an essential part of the quality.  Not only was I more likely to find things to love with a wider field of stories and voices, but it also added variety and diversity and color to a life that occasionally becomes bogged down in the boredom of my routine.  That's without mentioning too the impact reading so many stories and experiencing so many writing styles has had on my own writing--I definitely feel more certain than ever that I can one day be a part of the canon from which all of these stories came.

What else did I learn, specifically?  I learned that in a year without any new Harry Potter-related projects, there was still magic to be found elsewhere.  Lev Grossman, George RR Martin, and Gail Carson Levine continue to work magic with their stories, and fill a need so many of us have for a little bit of wizardry in our lives.  I also learned that maybe once you've dabbled in the fantastical world of magic, Muggle realism is a more difficult realm to transition into than it seems (sorry, Jo).

I learned that history, whether reimagined grimly (Roth), dramatized (Bolt), or weaved with fiction to create harrowing adventures (Hollick) or stories of people in a different time who just aren't that different from us (McCann), still serve as one of the best foundations for a truly poignant tale.

I re-discovered the merits of literature for young people done right by authors like John Green and Suzanne Collins, as well as the fact that not all red-hot trends are deserving of the acclaim they receive (looking at you, E.L. James, and you too, Elizabeth Gilbert).

I traveled countless miles without ever leaving my home.  I went around the world with the likes of Salman Rushdie and Paulo Coehlo, and even visited Kenya alongside the President himself.  I slipped some educational non-fiction books into the mix, learning the secrets of how we socialize from David Brooks, how the global economy collapsed in on itself from Matt Taibbi, but most importantly all the ins and outs of shows like Saturday Night Life and Late Night with Conan O'Brien from the people involved.

I fit many obligatory classics in there too, from Shakespeare to Bradbury to Forster to Wharton back to Shakespeare again, and suffice it to say, they hold up just like you'd expect.

With so many diverse works enjoyed over such a compact span of time, it would be impossible to pick a single (or even a single dozen) favorites.  I recommend experiencing many of these books for a variety of reasons, though there are a few obvious exceptions (trust me, no one else on the planet needs to read Fifty Shades of Grey).  More than that, though, I recommend making your own list for 2013, compiling all those stories you've been meaning to read for ages, and making a commitment to really doing it this time.  It might be tough, but I guarantee it'll be worth it, because it will open up your world in ways you can't even begin to understand.  And if you can't think of anything to read, you know at least one person with a whole host of recommendations.

(It's me, by the way.)

For those wondering (and I saved this till the end in case you weren't), the following is the list of each book I read during 2012.  Those marked with an asterisk are the ones I most particularly recommend.

1.  The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
2       Game of Thrones and Philosophy by William Irwin
3.     The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
4.       Watership Down by Richard Adams
5.      The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
6.       The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta*
7.      The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
8.      The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth*
9.      The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon
10.  The Romantics by Pankaj Mishra
11.  American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
12.  Watchmen by Alan Moore
13.  Reasons to Live by Amy Hempel
14.  Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
15.  Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury*
16.  The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins*
17.  Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
18.  Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
19.  The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
20.  Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard
21.  A Passage to India by EM Forster
22.  The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
23.  A Room with a View by EM Forster
24.  Damned by Chuck Palahniuk
25.  The War for Late Night by Bill Carter
26.  The Paris Wife by Paula Mclain
27.  The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obrecht
28.  The Social Animal by David Brooks*
29.  Room:  A Novel by Emma Donoghue
30.  A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin*
31.  A Clash of Kings by George RR Martin
32.  A Storm of Swords by George RR Martin
33.  A Feast for Crows by George RR Martin
34.  A Dance with Dragons by George RR Martin
35.  Crossers by Phillip Caputo
36.  In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez*
37.  Pawnee:  Greatest Town in America by Leslie Knope
38.  The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo*
39.  On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
40.  One Second After by William Forstchen
41.  Bright’s Passage by Josh Ritter
42.  Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler
43.  The Art of War by Sun Tzu
44.  Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
45.  The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs
46.  The Grief of Others by Leah Cohen
47.  Talk Talk by TC Boyle
48.  Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
49.  Live from New York:  An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live
50.  Griftopia by Matt Taibbi*
51.  I Am the Chosen King by Helen Hollick*
52.  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
53.  The Hypnotist by MJ Rose
54.  Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann*
55.  The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
56.  Seriously, I’m Kidding by Ellen Degeneres
57.  A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt*
58.  Fugitives and Refugees by Chuck Palahniuk
59.  Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk
60.  Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway
61.  I Am the Messenger by Marcus Zusak*
62.  It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini*
63.  Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
64.  The Seagull by Anton Chekhov
65.  Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire*
66.  Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
67.  The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
68.  A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
69.  The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald
70.  Spring Awakening (play) by Frank Wedekind
71.  Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama
72.  Othello by William Shakespeare
73.  Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare
74.  Regarding the Fountain by Kate Klise
75.  Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
76.  Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson
77.  50 Shades of Grey by EL James
78.  Paper Towns by John Green
79.  The Fault in Our Stars by John Green*
80.  Onward by Howard Schultz
81.  The Magicians by Lev Grossman*
82.  The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling
83.  Zoe Letting Go by Nora Price*
84.  Alanna: the First Adventurer by Tamora Pierce
85.  In the Hand of the Goddess by Tamora Pierce
86.  The Woman Who Rides Like a Man by Tamora Pierce
87.  Lioness Rampant by Tamora Pierce
88.  Blue is for Nightmares by Laurie Faria Stolarz
89.  The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine
90.  Looking for Alaska by John Green*
91.  An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
92.  Will Grayson Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
93.  Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie*
94.  I Won’t Learn from You by Herbert R. Kohl
95.  World War Z by Max Brooks*
96.  Rabbit, Run by John Updike
97.  One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper*
98.  The Funny Thing Is… by Ellen Degeneres
99.  Henry and June by Anais Nin
100.          Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Schteynart

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Reading List Round-Up 2012: Books 78-88

Henry and June by Anais Nin
This is the forerunner of Fifty Shades of Grey, except Nin injects a lot more pseudo-intellectual discussion into her long-winded accounts of various sexual encounters (unlike EL James, who wouldn't know even pseudo-intellectualism if it smacked her in the face with a whip).  Basically, it becomes clear in reading this book why Nin's most important contribution to society was being that girl Henry Miller was sleeping with whilst he penned his novels.

The Hypnotist by M.J. Rose
Full disclosure:  I think this may have been the wrong The Hypnotist, because I did not include the author on my initial reading list, and there are many books which share this title.  However, it all worked out pretty well, Rose's novel is a very formulaic yet still mildly intriguing thriller featuring a plot which focuses primarily on the idea of reincarnation and our own past lives.  It's a fast read and though it is fairly predictable, there are a few moments of genuine emotion that make spending those few hours worth it.

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
Of all the books I read this past month, this certainly wins the award for best premise before I'd even read a page.  Roth imagines a world in which the events surrounding the United States and its role in World War II take a drastically different turn.  It is told from the perspective of a Jewish boy growing up in New York as America slowly but surely allies itself with Hitler, and the ensuing chaos as well as the nuanced ripples taking place within the narrator's family are bot gut-wrenching and downright terrifying to envision.

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin
 This book details the crusade of Mortensen to build schools in Pakistan during the late 1990's and early 2000's, and it is certainly recommended reading on a social awareness level (although I've since read rumors of various exaggerations and inaccuracies in the book, which may put a damper on its inspirational spirit).  The co-authors paint Mortensen as a bit more heroic and dreamy than he likely was, and the portions of the book detailing his personal life (and particularly his romance with his wife) are at times downright gag-worthy, but I did my best to forgive him that, and recommend you do the same.

A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt
I will never not be intrigued by fictionalizations of British history, and so this play dramatizing the last few months of the life of Sir Thomas More was right up my alley.  More is painted as a heroic victim of King Henry VIII's crusade to well, pretty much to do whatever the hell he wanted at all times; and by the end both More and the reader are left with a fresh tragic yet resigned understanding of the injustice and inevitability of More's execution.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Surprisingly dry and slow-moving for a story so well-loved for the fear it inspires.  I was underwhelmed by this one, though I think that may be more a case of too much pre-emptive hype than any other factor.

Zoe Letting Go by Nora Price
This is one of those YA books that boasts a considerably higher level of sophistication in its prose as well as an acutely accurate adolescent voice.  The novel details a young girl's stint in a recovery facility for teens with eating disorders, but the somewhat choppy unreliable narration lends mystery to the tale, making us wonder what, exactly, led to a seemingly healthy girl's life being turned upside down in such a way.  Sure, the intended game-changing twist at the novel's end is a bit predictable for anyone not in the book's intended demographic, but the punch it delivers straight to the gut is no less potent for that.

Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama
I read and enjoyed Obama's later work, The Audacity of Hope, when I was in high school, and I think it played no small part in my decision to vote for him in 2008.  As someone who, like many, became just a little bit disillusioned with our President during his first term, I needed my faith restored, and it turns out this book, written well before Obama aspired to the White House, may just have been the thing to do it.  I trust him as a leader now more than ever having read about his struggles to understand himself, his ancestry, and his place in the world.  I recommend Dreams From My Father to any who feel that Obama has lost sight of what the common man (or woman) needs, or who just wants to understand the man himself a little bit better.

Regarding the Fountain by Kate Klise
A charming little children's book fervently recommended to me by my younger sister, this book is a quick and easy read that shows that even a story intended for kids which consists more predominantly of pictures than words can have subplots, intrigue, and a fantastic take-away message for readers of any age.

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
Simple, existential, and strangely poignant in its own way, this play is everything my philosophy professors always promised it would be, if I could just manage to get around to reading the damned thing.  Well, mission accomplished.

Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk
This is I think my third attempt to read this one, out of a strong sense of loyalty to Chuck P and his fantastically strange style, but I just couldn't find it enjoyable at all.  Not only was the narrator's "dialect" incredibly distracting, the events of the novel themselves were disturbing without that usual glimmer of redemption or at least logic that we usually get in a Palahniuk story.  Oh well-- every batch has to have one bad apple, right?

Best Book:  The Plot Against America
Worst Book:  Pygmy
Fastest Read:  Regarding the Fountain
Slowest Read: Three Cups of Tea