Saturday, March 25, 2017

Revisiting Colson Whitehead's Zone One

A couple of years ago I wrote in my usual year-end recap that I had attempted, for the second or third time, to read Colson Whitehead's novel Zone One (2011), and once again found it frustrating and off-putting. I remember having a similar initial reaction to Margaret Atwood's novel Oryx and Crake, which I eventually came to love and now see as easily one of the best science fiction novels of the 21st century so far. I wanted badly to love Zone One, given my general love of all things zombie-related, but it wasn't until the summer after my preliminary exam, after having read and really liked his earlier book The Intuitionist, that I sat down once more determined to get through it. This time through I still found it dense and over-written in places, but getting to the end felt satisfying in a hard-to-describe way. I took a chance in the Fall when I put together my syllabus for "Zombie Apocalypse: Economic Plague Monsters at the End of Capitalsm" and it came down to a choice between either it or Max Brooks' zombie novel World War Z. I re-read both, discovering that I liked Zone One better overall than World War Z.

It was a risky, difficult book to assign to first-year college students because if it turned out they disliked it as much as I did the first couple of times I tried to read it, I thought I might have a hard time getting them to connect to the text and successfully complete the course. I've had my students tackle Dune before and Oryx and Crake and a number of other dense texts, so I thought it might work, but I knew going in it was going to be tricky. Like Oryx and Crake it's the sort of novel that really comes alive in audiobook format, and so when I assigned it, I all but insisted my students read it along with the audio version, which they were hesitant about at first but soon agreed was definitely the better way to experience it. This last time through, I found I could finally piece together the timeline (which I made an entire lecture/lesson of in class) and once I had that part, the story seemed quite a bit more cogent and entertaining. I taught it alongside Danny Boyle's terrific zombie film 28 Weeks Later, a rare sequel that improves on its original source material, and in my opinion second only to Dawn of the Dead (if even second to that one) as the best-ever zombie film. It had the added advantage in this case of being a film set in a major city in the aftermath of a zombie outbreak, and while the thematics are obviously different it had enough in common with Zone One's plot that it gave my students a similar aesthetic vision to chew on. The ending of Zone One is ambiguous, in a way not unlike I Am Legend, and my students seemed to appreciate that, and they made much of what it meant. Ultimately I think I'm happy I chose Zone One instead of World War Z because, even though Max Brooks' novel is quite a bit easier to read, it's heavy on form and concept and lighter on atmosphere and pathos, whereas I tend to prioritize the opposite in a novel meant to be an entry point to zombie discourse for a first-year college research writing class.

So with that, I'd revise my earlier opinion and say Zone One is worth your time, but be prepared for it to feel unlike a floor-model zombie narrative, and be ready to wade through a denser-than-usual linguistic exercise to get to both the plot and the zombie-slaying heart of the novel. It pays off, but you'll need to meet it halfway.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Zombie Apocalypse: Economic Plague Monsters at the End of Capitalism

They're coming to get you, Barbara!

I'm very excited to announce I'll be offering a new zombie-themed research writing class at Wilbur Wright College this Spring titled: "Zombie Apocalypse: Economic Plague Monsters at the End of Capitalism." We'll be reading Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (1954) and Colson Whitehead's Zone One (2011) alongside George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), Danny Boyle's 28 Weeks Later (2007), and selections from AMC's The Walking Dead. We'll be digging into the origins of the zombie and its evolution from 19th century supply-side to 20th century demand-side economic metaphor, as well as its new post-postmodern aspects as humorous, cuddly, heroic, and even sentient.

I contributed a brief rationale for the course to Assessment News the quarterly newsletter for assessment published by the City Colleges, and you can read it here (pages 2 and 5).


Wednesday, February 24, 2016

United We Read


Saturday, February 20, 2016

Prelim Reading List: the Good, the Bad, and the Ones You Can Skip

I'm a little more than 2/3 of the way through my prelim reading list, and I have some winners:
1) Willa Cather's My Antonia. More charming than if Downton Abbey took place on the American Frontier. I'd recommend this book to literally anyone, and I'm trying to steal as much of its effortless warmth as I can for my own work. In a world of Big Important Books that try so hard to make you feel how serious they are (or to hide all of their emotionality under too-cool disdain for the reader), Cather lets you fall in love with the eponymous Antonia right alongside the narrator. A must-read and criminally under-appreciated book.
2) Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried: I'd (stupidly) avoided reading this for the longest time because it's such a critical darling, but I was very wrong. I mean, to be fair, this is the book that gets touted with a straight-face as "one of the greatest war novels of all time" (because, you know, no one else has ever written novels about war that were worth a damn), so you can understand my hesitation. I'd read the short story that the book is named after, of course, and I found it to fall roughly into the same gimmicky, so-so cadence that sometimes sinks other literary writers for me. But I read the entire thing, and it absolutely lives up to the hype. I don't want to ruin it by going into detail, but if you haven't read this thing yet (or maybe I was the only person left on earth who hadn't) you should do so, immediately.
3) Super Sad True Love Story, A Visit From the Goon Squad, and Oryx and Crake: I've read and talked about these books before on this blog, so I won't bother re-explaining in detail why they're great, but this time around, read in a sequence, they represent to me a remarkably cogent set of work that addresses the post-9/11 despair and resignation of the 20-aughts. There's paranoia, but it's a savvy paranoia, there's malaise, but it's a malaise whose satire lashes out at everyone, there's a disappointment, but it's a disappointment that feels indignant when it comes down to questions of who has what and why. These novels are quietly accusatory, and they succeed to the extent that they implicate the reader in a system of failures that encompass the sharp break that 9/11 caused between the twentieth and twenty-first century American ways of life. Unsurprisingly, age and generational-transfer have a lot to do with why these books feel so immediate, a dynamic that continues to be the lasting legacy of my generation's inaugural trauma.
I have some books you can safely skip
1) Joseph Heller's Catch-22: "His mother was a Daughter of the Revolution and his father was a Son of a Bitch." Re-mix and repeat this same funny-in-a-vaguely-paternalistic/mysogynistic way WWII-era joke again and again and again for 400 pages. Yawn. A lot of the same schtick as Kurt Vonnegut, but if you've read Cat's Cradle or Slaughterhouse Five, Catch-22 will feel like an also-ran.
2) Nelson Algren's The Man With the Golden Arm: "Shucks Frankie, I need a fix really bad..." Probably cutting edge for its time, but seems far too naive now to connect properly, especially alongside Richard Wright, Upton Sinclair, and other writers who took on the grittier parts of early 20th century Chicago.
3) Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Louis Rey: A really neat premise, and some good moments, for sure, but it's easy to see why this has faded in importance over the years. It's a whole bunch of neat aesthetic ideas crammed into a book that feels positively ancient, despite being released at the very tail end of American Naturalism (almost 30 years after My Antonia). Worth it to see how well a frame narrative can work in a story cycle, but underwhelming in most other ways.
4) Saul Bellow's Herzog: I'm still grinding my way through this. It's only 500-ish pages long, but it's so deliberately aimless and glacially self-congratulatory that it might as well be 50,000 pages long. Like Heller, Bellow makes what I'm discovering is the common, American-mid-century mistake: thinking that one's prose is clever enough to sustain a length that it just can't. It's the literary equivalent of those masturbatory prog-rock guitar solos. Go home, Herzog, you're drunk.
And I also have some concerns:
1) Philip K. Dick. For real, you guys? I've largely avoided his work for most of my career because I just wasn't all that drawn to the themes of his stories, but I'm three chapters into Ubik right now, and good lord is it terrible. I mean, to be fair I'm on a four-month binge of a hundred books, including Nabokov and Steinbeck and some truly legendary writers, but is this a common reaction to PKD? Because I've heard a lot of glowing talk about him over the years (you know who you are), and I think you, my misguided friends, should take a second, much harder look at the object of your fandom. And speaking of vastly overrated authors...
2) Thomas Pynchon is insufferable. Full stop. I gave up about halfway through Gravity's Rainbow, even with the annotated critical edition and an audio version to listen to again to try and keep up with whatever the hell it was about, and I held my nose through several painful hours of The Crying of Lot 49 as a sort of hellish consolation prize, convinced by the end that Pynchon may have done more to hurt the reputation of sci-fi than to help it, despite being mentioned in more critical articles than almost any author I can think of. What on earth is this guy's appeal? I jumped at the sweet release of hand-scrubbing my kitchen floor to escape him.
3) William Gibson... gets a pass this time around because Pattern Recognition was actually pretty good by comparison. Not amazing, not "this guy is the beating heart of literary-minded sci-fi," but a solidly OK post-9/11 novel; not as self-cannibalizing as I feared it would be and not anywhere near as puzzlingly off-putting as Pynchon or Dick.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

2112

Despite having a near-equal love for both science fiction and rock music, I somehow got to be 36 years old without ever really hearing this song. Which isn't to say I'd never heard it, but rather that until a day or two ago I'd never paid much attention to Rush, or understood that their flagship song was a 21-minute standalone sci-fi epic. I've been listening to it obsessively all weekend and, like Shakey Graves' "Dearly Departed" last year, Rush's 1976 title track from the album of the same name "2112" is shaping up to be my back-to-school song of 2015. Roaring guitar riffs? A funky opera-style length and organization? A freaking 40 page graphic novel based on the original album liner notes? Jesus, what's not to love? In a summer spent rediscovering all of the things that made me love writing, I'm happy to report that I finally wised up and discovered something I'd been ignorant of literally my entire life. I can only imagine how much I'd have geeked out over this when I was a teenager...

Click here to play the song, and then here to open the graphic novel in another window and follow along.

Air guitar and throwing up the sign of the horns optional, but highly recommended.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Learning, Relearning

It's been almost a year since I've written anything here, and a big year. Like many other things in my life, this blog has been patiently waiting for me, largely neglected since 2011 when I went back to graduate school. Last summer I cast off Facebook for my own mental health, and in hopes that I could find better things to do with my time, but, like Michael Corleone, every time I try to get out they pull me back in. I came to a sort of disappointed peace with the idea this summer that I would never be able to completely extract myself from Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Eventually I'll need to promote something for work and reach out to a list of friends and professional contacts that I maintain primarily on social media, or someone will text or email me in frustration demanding that I log in and view their pictures, articles, or other digital flotsam.

But this summer, the best summer I can remember, I moved away from all of that as far as I plausibly could. I let my Twitter feed, which I never really cared for in the first place, rot, turned off all notifications from my LinkedIn account (one of the worst junk mail offenders) and I deleted the Facebook app from my mobile devices. I logged in to Facebook on my computer whenever I was bored or curious about something specific, rather than habitually every time the little glowing, buzzing apparat in my pocket beckoned me. It made my cellphone a quieter, somewhat less compulsive device to own, which was a relief; More like a Spotify-enabled iPod with the capacity to send emails and text messages instead of a non-stop hub of demanding information. I still do text people a lot, but texting, as I explained to my students last week in their first class of the term, at least has exclusivity and temporality on its side, in terms of replicating the experience of communicating with someone.

But this was a quiet, warm, and connected summer in a different sense; I taught my son to swim. I don't mean doggy-paddling or floating on his back rescue-dog style, I mean I taught him to really swim. When the summer began and we lined up outside of Centennial pool with our one big splurge for the summer (our season passes to the enormous water-park-like pool), John was unable to dive, cannonball, swim without goggles, swim underwater at all, retrieve objects from the pool's bottom, jump off of diving boards, use the bigger grown-up slides, or really do much of anything except dog-paddle, float, and splash people in boredom. At the end of the summer, the week before school started for him, he could do all of these things, and more. Underwater flips, sitting on the pool's bottom, handstands, jumping off of my shoulders, swimming 20-30 feet underwater at a single breath. I went with Beth and John to St. Louis, exploring the surprisingly pleasant and livable city, and making a mental note that if a job opportunity arose when I finished my PhD that took me there, that would be just fine with me. I took John on a father-son road-trip to northern NY to visit my family, including my niece and nephew who I do not often get to spend time with. We spent a week there, and plenty of time on the road, bonding, playing games, listening to rock music, and reading Calvin and Hobbes.

I began the summer determined to make the most of having extensive stretches of free time, something that's sharply reduced the moment I set foot back on campus in the Fall and Spring, and which evaporates almost entirely during the busiest parts of the term. I had some success; I wrote most of a chapter of my ongoing critical book project, and I researched another, not writing it yet, but doing most of the background legwork. Once I'm back to academic speed, this will give me a firm boost toward finishing the companion piece to my dissertation novel. I tried to work on my novel as well, but found that I needed some time and distance to reframe what I thought of it, especially since it will represent the bulk of my work as a doctoral student when it's finished.

I've had a hard time getting this particular novel out and finished. It's not writer's block, exactly; a better way to describe it would be that my newfound PhD-level ability to be critical of things has squashed my ability to enjoy the process of writing. When I'm immersed in heady, postmodern texts that seem to make no sense and then perfect sense in turns, and the mental gymnastics necessary to understand them at all, it becomes very easy to lose sight of what exactly I enjoyed about writing in the first place. I had several points this summer, surrendering to the soft, warm happiness of a poolside lawn chair on a sunny day, where it occurred to me that I couldn't remember why I even liked writing. Creating something fragile, instinctual, reflexive, and intuitive, and then feeding it through the hateful buzzsaw of "critical inquiry" or whatever it's being called at the moment, seemed like the very definition of self-defeating behavior. My critical work tends to admire while it synthesizes, to build while it catabolizes, but mine is far from the only, or most common approach. I was re-reading one of the earlier entries here about how I'd learned to hate Cormack McCarthy's No Country for Old Men simply by virtue of sitting through a three-hour class where everyone else seemed obligated to trash it in the name of '"critical" thinking. Looking back, what I hated wasn't the novel, it was the schooling, the suffocating overly-critical academic atmosphere, that was so off-putting to me. None of the writers in that class had any business turning their noses up at McCarthy's novel, which was, and is, a masterpiece, and I could sense that even during the actual critique some of them felt the contradiction therein. Criticize because it is expected, we are not getting PhD's in order to like things.

An informational packet that is handed out at the beginning of every term suggests that the winter and summer breaks of a PhD program should be spent reading and writing as much as possible. This is a cruel, quasi-impossible exhortation; an extension of the already-unreasonable level of academic "rigor" expected by the program during the school months, where my colleagues and I digest a novel's worth of written material approximately every 72-hours for four straight months. Reading and  writing become nauseating by the end of the term, the written word on a white page can literally make me feel queasy, my head will throb and my eyes will blur. Last summer I read Dracula, most of which I actually listened to as an audiobook rather than drag my tired eyes across, and that was the extent of my reading and writing for the entire summer. I felt incredibly guilty about that for most of this year. Hadn't I just shot myself in the foot? My colleagues were probably locking themselves away in some writing-retreat and crafting the latest paper to submit, to present, to publish, while I, who could barely stand to even look at a book, played stay-at-home dad during the day, and World of Warcraft at night.

This summer was different. There were still plenty of video games, to be sure: I played through The Last of Us for what must have been the fourth or fifth time, Knights of the Old Republic I and II, and Hitman: Absolution, but I tackled some more serious texts as well. I read critical work on Spike Jonze's Her, and I read Peter Paik's From Utopia to Apocalypse. I wrote a critical chapter and made notes for more chapters and revisions to chapters. I revised chunks of Passbook and came to some new ideas of how to proceed with the book in a way that could salvage my problematic protagonist. It wasn't as much work as I'd have liked to get done, but it was something rather than last summer's nothing.

But this is misleading. Saying I accomplished "nothing" or "very little" is selling myself very short. What I accomplished is marshaling the will to continue this grueling graduate program, a program that has so far done little to change the way I write, but has permanently damaged my net worth, my physical health, and my relationship to my social circles. These are all things, mind you, that I signed up for, and realized were part of the deal when I enrolled; I wasn't despairing about this feeling, but I recognized approximately halfway through this summer that a revision of my expectations was in order. I had taught my son to swim this summer. That wasn't nothing. I had lost almost 30 pounds, and improved my health largely through reducing my stress level. When the term is in full swing, I can almost predict my own blood pressure from minute to minute, so sensitive am I to changes in day-to-day stressors. This summer I remembered how to do an (admittedly less graceful) swan dive, and returned to the world of immediacy, physicality, and dynamic interaction with he world, rather than the world of scholarly interactions in an imaginary inner-space of academic prestige, largely accomplished through reading, writing, and sometimes teaching. The division between who I am during the school year and who I am when left to my own devices had perhaps never been so stark.

But I was still disappointed when, after going to the library and borrowing Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and Kim Stanley Robinson's Pacific Edge, I discovered that I just couldn't bring myself to read them. I got 50-100 pages into each and just abandoned them. This was bad, my critical self insisted, these are important texts that I'll need to read, understand, and be able to write about for my degree, and in my field. If I can't read them when there's very little other stress in my life, how's it going to work when I'm trying to read them, say, during the term I prepare for my prelim exam? Fine, I thought, don't panic, I'll just switch gears and leave that for later, and work on my novel instead.

Except that didn't work, because I also discovered that I didn't much relish the act of writing fiction, either. Was it that I had just burned out and needed rest from writing to get back to a place where I could do it? Had I lost the train of thought or the internal drive to finish the novel because I had created a plot that no longer inspired me? Did I even like writing anymore at all? This was even more troublesome as recurring thoughts go, paired with my mounting educational debt. Would I come through this program, in the end, having paradoxically lost the ability to enjoy something I've loved since I was 12 years old? The idea was frightening, to say the least.

So instead of Gravity's Rainbow I threw my copy of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash in my pool bag, and happily re-read it. Then I re-read Mario Puzo's The Sicilian, discovering that my memory of really liking Puzo's work before I went back to grad school hadn't been just the uncritical eye of an unschooled fanboy. It really is a delightful, readable novel that makes a modest promise to entertain, and then transports me. I rented the original Mad Max trilogy and then saw Mad Max: Fury Road in a crazily-equipped high-definition theater with speakers so loud that they shook the floor when the Doof Wagon's drummers hammered out their tune. It was something I hadn't felt in a long time: wonder, bliss even. I fired up the video game Fallout 3 and played through it again, while re-watching the entire series of David Chase's The Sopranos, re-experiencing these "texts" as something I'd enjoyed once, before all of the demands and quality strictures of graduate school took over. I built dozens of sets of LEGOs with my son, Star Wars spacecraft and medieval castles, ninja temples and space shuttles, even robot mecha reminiscent of the old BattleTech tabletop board game. I re-read Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, delighted that it was every bit as good as I remembered, and then some, delving into the more obscure geek ephemera that he touched on in the novel, and discovering, among other things, Rush's epic sci-fi rock song "2112" from the album of the same name, which I've been listening to obsessively for days. I bought my first Blu-Ray disc: the classic dystopian anime film Akira, and I remembered some of the imaginative glory of 1970's and 1980's sci-fi that fueled my drive to write to begin with. I finally watched The Plague Dogs which Amazon Prime helpfully offered this season, a very obscure, Ralph-Bakshi-like grown-up cartoon from the 80's about a pair of partially vivisected dogs who escape from a research center and go on the run in a remote rocky wasteland. My best friend Jeramy Gee, himself a recent doctoral graduate, visited for four days and we spent almost the entire time in my apartment sharing stories and showing each other all of the fun, interesting crap we'd run across in the three plus years since we'd seen each other.

And so that's what brought be back, finally, from this weird place of writerly anomie: I had to reach into the past, a place I'd long since learned to mistrust after reading about the existential dangers of nostalgia in some of the more brilliant critical theory I'd encountered, and some particularly unkind revisionist criticism of the work itself in some cases. After reading and re-reading these old and new texts, I remembered what it was that I liked about writing: that I could experience, through texts, delight, cleverness, even awe. The part that was missing for me, across years and genres, in the academic consumption of hundreds of texts, was the ability to enjoy the connection between myself and the author that can only show its modest face when I'm willing to let myself be awed or even just simply touched by something, instead of immediately jamming it into an emotionless, cosmically-complex and unforgiving wood-chipper of critical inquiry. When I took Gravity's Rainbow back to the library, unfinished, and with a sense of unshakable disappointment, I tried to remind myself on a conspiratorially non-scholarly level that anyone who would write something so insufferably dull and impenetrable was mostly doing so to bait the sort of academic inquiry that I was trying to apply to it, and not to connect or communicate with me in a writerly way. Have it your way, Thomas Pynchon, I thought to myself, and gratefully fed the book into the steel return slot.

And so once more, the Fall term begins with a syllabus that demands I write every day; a worthy goal, if a somewhat needlessly compulsive one. Last year, the demand came in the form of social media, which I neither enjoyed nor particularly wanted to return to. This year, I get my pick of how to accomplish it, with the caveat that each week I need to devote some time to reflecting on my writing, and I think I may just go ahead and leave those thoughts here, starting now. What I realized, at some point during this blissful summer, is that even though it felt cleansing and right to be rid of Facebook, what I missed was an older version of the internet; one not so tied to instantaneous, always-on communication. I missed an earlier, earthier internet that you could access when and if you had time; an internet where the "content" (God, I hate that term) you read would occasionally have some sort of beginning or ending, ideally both. An internet for writers instead of talkers, and for thinkers rather than disinterested or compulsive grazers. I longed, in a sense, for the internet of message boards and blogs, for community instead of "reach" and "data" and "stats."

I'm as much to blame as anyone, really, for this. I don't read blogs anymore, either. I check half a dozen sites regularly for updates, but even these are largely subsumed by the big FB these days. So what chance does this little blog have, I wonder, to garner attention from anyone? I'm starting to feel like maybe I don't care who reads it, and that just writing it is, as James Tadd Adcox puts it, "a good in itself."

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Best of 2014

It's that time again! What time is that? you ask. The time when Mark shares all of the best stuff he came across this year, most of which is actually last year's stuff because he's a graduate student and luxuries like being culturally cutting-edge are for actual real people with lives and money. Nevertheless, even in an otherwise dogshit year like 2014, I found some pretty rad stuff you should check out. Here it is! On with the stuff!


Films
The best film I saw this year:

Her (2013) - I've often thought that there have been only three truly great science fiction films of the 21st century so far: Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, Michael Winterbottom's Code 46, and Lars Von Trier's Melancholia. This year, though we got a fourth. Spike Jonze's Her isn't just an amazing science fiction film, it's an amazing comment on the world we live in, period. The best way to describe it was that watching it the first time made me feel the same way I did the first time I saw Fight Club. For some people, this will either mean nothing or will mean something negative, but for those GenX/Millennial cusp-ers like me who know what I'm talking about, this film interrogates the world in a way that almost no film ever does. A brilliant script, terrific acting by Phoenix, Johanssen, and Amy Adams, and a premise that manages to say something profound about the loneliness of a digital world in perpetual Recession, while simultaneously providing the best critique I've ever seen of the Millennial generation. A once-in-a-decade film, and a must-see.

Other excellent choices:
Under the Skin (2013) - I almost gave Under the Skin a tie-spot with Her but I decided not to for one very good reason: Whereas I've seen Her about 20 times, I'm not in a hurry to re-watch Under the Skin. Not because it isn't brilliantly acted (it is) or incredibly well-directed (oh baby, is it), but because it's absolutely terrifying. Not in a horror-movie sort of way, either. Have you seen, for example, Lars Von Trier's Anti-Christ? It's that level of terrifying. It makes you want to crawl out of your skin to make that deeply unsettling feeling it generates stop. Very few films have this effect on me, and comparisons of Jonathan Glazer to Stanley Kubrick are not at all unwarranted. See it, because it's incredible, but be ready for it to unnerve the shit out of you.

The Wall (2013) - A gorgeous adaptation of Marlen Haushofer's book Die Wand, which I also discovered this year and included here below. It's not a perfect adaptation of the book, but this doesn't in any way take away from the brooding and innovative photography, and the tremendous acting by Martina Gedeck. While a dark and slow meditation on solitude and connectedness with the world, it still manages to somehow feel light and enjoyable alongside Under the Skin. If you're a fan of Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler but you're sick to death of wading through the endless sludge of rah-rah YA dystopias and their mediocre film adaptations, this film (and especially the book it's adapted from) will be a breath of fresh air to you.



Film that was way better than it had any right to be:
Europa Report (2013) - I was pretty sure I was in for another generic low-budget crap-fest when I queued up Europa Report on Netflix about a week after I wrote last year's "best-of" list, but I was very wrong about that. It is sort of low-budget in a hard-to-define way, but it's also incredibly smart, claustrophobically thrilling, and succeeds aesthetically far beyond the quiet release it got. Everyone raved about Gravity which I thought was a fluff-heavy and forgettable film, but Europa Report I will watch again for sure. I won't ruin the plot for you but if you want to watch something smart, different, and with some genuine bite, Europa Report delivers.




Books
The best books I read this year:

(NOTE: So this was an unusual year for me. With almost every good novel or short story I read being written before 1900 there's only a few of note that you either haven't already read or, as in the case of things like Dracula, need my recommendation to go ahead and pick up on your own. I DID read a few particularly great books this year, though, and here they are.)
Ignatius Donnelly’ Caesar's Column (1890)
Just when I thought I'd read every (or even most) of the early American dystopian novels, I finally had a chance to read Caesar's Column which had been on my reading list for years. It's a little bit hokey, a little bit scary, a heaping dollop of satirical, and surprisingly a whole lot of good plain fun. Doomsday airships, poison-knife wielding revolutionary sex slaves, secret societies of unselfconsciously racialized everymen, and an apocalyptic distaster-porn ending that puts Stephen King to shame. What's not to love? A novel just as crazy (and crazily awesome) as its author, and definitely worth your time.




Cormack McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2005)
This book as the distinction of being one of the few novels which have actually endangered my personal safety. I was listening to it while driving to Milwaukee and I was so engrossed, hands on the steering wheel but mind a thousand miles away, that I very nearly ran out of gas in the middle of Route 94. I mean the gas light was blinking and the car was dinging and trying to flash and get my attention and I noticed that the gas pedal suddenly didn't accelerate the car anymore. I was literally running on fumes. You will be too. You were warned.



Ben Tanzer's Lost In Space: A Father's Journey There and Back Again (2014)
People who know me know I had a bumpy Spring term at UWM; personal stuff, financial worries, anxiety over high-pressure hoops to jump through for the program, a bottomless reading list, etc... Anyway, after Spring term I found I could barely stomach even looking at a book for about three months, and one of the few things I did successfully read over the summer was Ben Tanzer's new book about fatherhood. It's a fast read, and a humanizing one, and what father-slash-overworked grad student couldn't use a dose of that? If you liked Ben's other work, you'll love this.


Jack London's The Call of the Wild (1903)

I had read this book before as a kid, but I discovered on re-reading it this year that it actually does hold up to the hype that it continues to generate 112 years later. I remember reading once that Junot Diaz said Octavia Butler was his favorite author because she'd written three "perfect" novels. I'm not sure if such a thing as a "perfect" novel exists, but if it does I'd be inclined to hesitantly point to The Call of the Wild as a candidate. "The pride of trace and trail were his, and sick unto death he could not bear that another dog should do his work." Amen, Jack.


Marlen Haushofer's Die Wand (The Wall) (1963)

A novel with a very simple premise: a woman visiting friends on top of a mountain discovers that a transparent wall now separates her from the rest of the world, which appears, from what little she can see through the wall, to have ended. A deeply moving meditation on human-ness, solitude, aging, stewardship, and responsibility. This one will stay with you for weeks after you read it. Like I mentioned above, if you're as bored as I am with YA dystopian novels but you've already read everything Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood have written, this book is for you.

Other excellent choices:
Herman Melville's Typee, Robert E. Peary's The North Pole; it's discovery in 1909 under the auspices of the Peary Arctic Club. Frank Norris's McTeague. Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower. William F. Nolan's Logan's Run, J.M Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, Sherry Turkle's Alone Together: Why we Expect More From our Technology and Less from Each Other, and Margaret Morganroth Gullette's Aged by Culture, Wolfgang Schivelbusch's The Railway Journey, and Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Theater
Favorite stage show of the year:
It isn't a new play, and it was one of the only plays I saw this year, but This is Our Youth directed by Anna D. Shapiro (full disclosure, I'm related through family to Anna) was nevertheless a wonderful trip through a very Generation-X-friendly postmodern wasteland. Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin have long been favorite actors of mine, and they didn't disappoint live, though the Chicago-native firecracker Tavi Gevinson positively lit up the stage and gave them a run for their money. Highly recommended.





Games
Favorite video game of the year:
I toyed with the idea of reducing this annual list to just two things, because those two things more than any other had the biggest impact on me this year, the film Her and this video game, Naughty Dog Studios' The Last of Us. If you play one video game this year, you MUST play The Last of Us. The story concerns an aging smuggler/killer and his adopted daughter Ellie as they traverse a long-collapsed United States thirty years after a super-virus kills most of the people on earth. They trek through the burned out and overgrown wreckage of 21st century suburbia, trying to scavenge to stay alive, but more importantly, trying to bridge the gap of age and era that separates them and the horrific demons of their pasts. Be warned that this game is incredibly, almost unrelentingly bleak, and the first twenty minutes will have you sobbing with the horror of everything these two have to deal with. If you've ever read Cormack McCarthy's The Road or you know why Carol tells Lizzie to look at the flowers in The Walking Dead, you will find more, much more, of the same here. There are no easy "good" or "bad" characters, just a world of desperate, awful collapse as inevitable as it is terrifying.

Many things about The Last of Us are utterly groundbreaking: the game is easily the most photorealistic video game I've ever played, with environments, objects, and characters rendered with such care that they outstrip even the heart-stopping visuals of games like Skyrim, and all but the most recent Pixar films. The Last of Us feels incredibly real, from the curve of a beanbag in the corner of a forgotten teenager's bedroom to the way that the controller vibrates heavily when your character falls or punches something. It is a visceral, violent, and gripping game that you will want to play in the dark in the middle of the night with the best sound system you can get your hands on. Immersive doesn't even begin to cover it. It can be loud, frightening, and cacophonous one moment, and then hauntingly silent and intimate the next; The Last of Us is a milestone of modulated storytelling for the medium of video games, and one whose major downside is that it makes all other games seem instantly shallow, obsolete, and one-dimensional in comparison.





I was so blown away by Joel and Ellie's story, and this game in general, that I immediately made plans to include it in the book of critical essays I'm working on regarding narratives of parenting in austere times. More on this soon, but it suffices to say that the subtexts in play include biting comments on fatherhood, stewardship of civilization, and what it feels like to inherit the ruin of a once-great civilization, ideas spectacularly relevant and timely just now, and presented here with a narrative flair unlike I've ever seen in any other video game. I can't stress enough how amazing this game is, and I would almost go so far as to say it's worth purchasing a PlayStation console solely for opportunity to play it.