I liked a lot of things last year. A lot of things also offended my sense of taste, hurt my admittedly sensitive feelings, disappointed my not-even-that-high expectations, smothered my heart with a hot, stuffy pillow of rejection, and gave me tummyaches until I had a Maalox mustache.
But let’s focus on that very first sentence, shall we? And I don’t mean the personal relationships forged, the professional goals achieved or even the spiritual insights attained. Oh no, I mean the shit I bought. More specifically, the music, movies and books I consumed.
Now, I tried to restrict it to media actually released last year, but that’s too hard. It’s not really the way I consume media. Who, beside the most self-consciously taste-making list creators, pays close enough attention?
My defense is that with constant access to ALL THINGS ALL THE TIME, pop culture time is collapsed. I really don’t want to go in to what I mean by that – just read the damn blog, and allow me the liberty to present awesome things both 2010 and before, with me (somewhat) careful to point out which is which, for the discerning media consumer.
Books! (Just in case you don’t recognize the objects in the above picture and thought it depicted a stack of painted Kindles) The italicized text are passages from the books.
The Geography of Nowhere – James Howard Kunstler (First published in 1993)
This is a light-hearted romp through one man’s love of the American automobile obsession and the subsequently lovely infrastructure built and adoringly groomed to maintain and bolster it. Sarcasm aside, it’s an essential read that will make you loathe your driving habit and look with newly disgusted eyes at the places we’ve created to live lives disconnected from nature and each other.
America has now squandered its national wealth erecting a human habitat that, in all likelihood, will not be usable very much longer, and there are few unspoiled places left to retreat to in the nation’s habitable reaches. Aside from its enormous social costs, which we have largely ignored, the whole system of suburban sprawl is too expensive to operate, too costly to maintain, and a threat to the ecology of living things. To lose it is tragic not because Americans will be deprived of such wonderful conveniences as K Marts and drive-in churches – we can get along happily without them – but because it was a foolish waste of resources in the first place, and it remains to be seen whether its components can be recycled, converted to other uses, or moved, or even whether the land beneath all the asphalt, concrete, and plastic, can be salvaged. In the meantime, Americans are doing almost nothing to prepare for the end of the romantic dream that was the American automobile age.
The road is now like television, violent and tawdry. The landscape it runs through is littered with cartoon buildings and commercial messages. We whiz by them at fifty-five miles an hour and forget them, because one convenience store looks like the next. They do not celebrate anything beyond their mechanistic ability to sell merchandise. We don’t want to remember them. We did not savor the approach and we were not rewarded upon reaching the destination, and it will be the same next time, and every time. There is little sense of having arrived anywhere, because everyplace looks like noplace in particular.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed a committee to study the prospect of building a national network of superhighways. The commission chairman was Lucius D. Clay, who also happened to be on the board of General Motors. To no surprise, boosted also by the tireless promotion of oil, tire, asphalt, steel, and other such lobbying interests, the committee’s report enthusiastically endorsed the project. The economy boomed, certainly, as it was the largest public-works project in the history of the world.
The distinction between the booming economy and what that boom yielded can’t be stressed enough. The great suburban build-out generated huge volumes of business. The farther apart things spread, the more cars were needed to link up the separate things, the more asphalt and cement were needed for roads, bridges, and parking lots, the more copper for electric cables, et cetera. Each individual suburban house required its own washing machine, lawnmower, water meter, several television sets, telephones, air conditioners, swimming pools, you name it. Certainly, many Americans became wealthy selling these things, while many more enjoyed good steady pay manufacturing them. In a culture with no other values, this could easily be construed as a good thing. Indeed, the relentless expansion of consumer goodies became increasingly identified with our national character as the American Way of Life. Yet not everyone failed to notice that the end product of all this furious commerce-for-its-own-sake was a trashy and preposterous human habitat with no future.
Indulging in a fetish of commercialized individualism, we did away with the public realm, and with nothing left but private life in our private homes and private cars, we wonder what happened to the spirit of community. We created a landscape of scary places and became a nation of scary people.
Hard Rain Falling – Don Carpenter (First published in 1966, republished in 2009 by the New York Review of Books)
This book will put hair on your chest. It’s a prison novel populated with gamblers and pool hustlers along the Pacific Northwest. It’s a story of drinking binges and rock bottoms and the complicated quest of an orphan struggling for money, women and that cliche yet powerful, true and elusive redemption.
He knew what he wanted. He wanted some money. He wanted a piece of ass. He wanted a big dinner, with all the trimmings. He wanted a bottle of whiskey.
One night an old man was brought in for assault with a deadly weapon. They got the story from the deputies: The old man lived with his son’s family, and his grand-daughter had been gotten pregnant by a boy, and there had been a conference of the two families in an attempt to fix the responsibility and decide what to do. At first it was decided that it was the boy’s fault for making the girl go all the way; then they blamed the girl for allowing the boy to take these liberties with her (they were only juniors in high school), and then both sets of parents decided to blame themselves for not raising their children properly, and finally, after much self-recrimination, it was decided that modern society itself made it impossible to raise children properly, what with the movies and television and violence, too much sex in the magazines, and the way girls dressed these days; and the old man, who had been sitting in the background listening in disgust, finally went upstairs to his room and came back down with his double-barreled 12-gauge shotgun and terrified everybody by pointing the deadly weapon at the boy and telling him by God he would do the right thing by the girl or the grandfather would come looking for him and would find him no matter how far he ran and when he found him he would blow a hole through him, by God. The boy let out a scream and jumped through the picture window, and cut himself pretty badly, and the boy’s parents called the police right after they called the ambulance. It did not occur to them to blame the grandfather’s actions on society.
The Book of Harold, the Illegitimate Son of God (2010) – Owen Egerton
Egerton is an Austinite, and I’m disappointed it took me over two years to discover this great local author. The entire opening description of a nativity scene gone horribly wrong is amazing and hilarious. Essentially, it’s the story of a man claiming to be the Second Coming of Christ, and the movement which springs up in support. I thought it would be mostly satire, and while it contains just that, it’s also a fairly earnest exploration of faith.
Nothing happens and time is running out. I know I’m dying. It feels lonely. I think it’s what’s made me lonely my whole life. Not death as an end, but death as an always. It’s like dancing on an iced pond, that cold water always just an inch below you. You keep your feet moving so you won’t crack through. But the cold still makes you shiver. Always there. And if you stop dancing, just for a second, that cold air creeps up your legs, soaks in. Cold just below. Death right there. Trying to tell me it’s already in my veins.
God, you hear this? You hear what the cold is telling me? What nature keeps whispering? How much this all hurts? Do you hear this, you mute? I put my ear to your chest and listen for a heartbeat. I can’t hear a heartbeat.
Motherless Brooklyn – Jonatham Lethem (1999)
This is a detective novel bursting out of any genre limitations with help from it’s Tourette’s-suffering narrator. He’s an orphan searching for the killer of his mentor/boss, consumed by verbal tics and hollers, annoying or upsetting everyone he encounters. It’s funny and entirely believable in its depiction of the narrator/main character’s disorder. A narrator with Tourette’s allows Lethem to dissect, explore and riff on language that is entertaining and inventive.
Instead of quoting passages, just do yourself a favor and “Search inside this book” on Amazon. Those first six pages should hook you.
Fever Chart – Bill Cotter (2009, but I bought the 2010-released paperback. Loophole?)
By far, this was my favorite book this year. Hilarious, disturbing, and description-rich in an obsessive yet never tiring style. Amazon’s product description is better than I can do:
“Having spent most of his life medicated, electroshocked, and institutionalized, Jerome Coe finds himself homeless on the coldest night of the century — and so, with nowhere else to go, he accepts a ride out of New England from an old love’s ex-girlfriend. It doesn’t quite work out, but he makes it to New Orleans, and a new life — complete with a bandaged hand, world-champion grilled-cheese sandwiches, and only the occasional psychotic break. Things get better, and then, of course, they get worse. From a writer who’s worked as a debt collector, book restorer, toilet scrubber, and door-to-door vacuum-cleaner salesman, Fever Chart is filled with a cast of Crescent City denizens that makes for one of the most vivid ensembles since Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.”
Take away my meds, leave me outside in the cold, sic violent pets on me, batten me to a gurney, but please don’t separate me from my toilet. I could never, ever, ever be more than a few hundred yards away from a toilet, a good, clean, private lavatory, with an exhaust fan, some sort of high-decibel white noise, the essential side items, and a nonwobbling ceramic commode with suction like an airlock on a space station.
I had strange, pelvicentric feelings toward Daniel Day Lewis’s Adam’s apple.
So that was it then. My time with Julie had come to an end. She had to go to work. Maybe she’d let me come along on her rounds! Maybe I’d just follow her. No. If she caught me, she’d think I was a stalker and never, ever allow me near her again. I had no choice but to go home and lie on the floor by the phone for hours and hours, while the jaws of lust and uncertainty ground me to a digestible paste.
Then, from above her mouth a wide red ribbon began to unroll. It followed the contours of her lips, and of her tongue, which had reflexively darted out to taste it. A thick, lush ribbon; shiny, without a trace of weave. The ribbon paused at her chin, then fell heavily. I rushed forward with my hands cupped and caught the ribbon in midstream. She jumped back and some of the blood splashed onto her white t-shirt. It continued to pour from both nostrils, bright cadmium red. In an instant my cupped hands filled with several ounces of her blood. On the glass counter streaks and pools and splatters glowed around their edges from the fluorescent light below.
Inception – Duh.
Winnebago Man – Sure, this was funny and compelling for the subject matter – a man infamous for an underground vhs tape and viral Internet clips depicting outtakes from his expletive-filled breakdowns while shooting an RV promotional video – but it became more than that. I thought it really considered the roles of, and relationship between, documentary filmmaker and subject in a thoughtful way. Following clip NSFW.
Leaves of Grass – I wrote this off at first, and would not have seen it if I didn’t have a free movie ticket to burn. I would have missed a really great movie. Edward Norton plays twin brothers that embody a dichotomy of intelligence – one is book smart and teaches philosophy, one is a street-smart and inventive hydroponic pot grower. Just…just trust me on this one.
Machete – Brutal, hilarious, and Danny Trejo beds an insane of amount of pretty ladies.
Dogtooth – This may be weird for the sake of weird, but it has stuck with me far longer than most movies.
A Prophet – My favorite
Movies I have not seen, but I imagine are quite good: The Social Network, Black Swan, The King’s Speech
Next post: The music portion of our program…
Hint: Train’s not on it.