Nine for Mortal Men Doomed to Die
Having sort of set myself up as an occasional critic, I kind of feel compelled to try to say something to sum up various pop-culture elements of 2003. This is something of a foolish task, given that my actual experience of these things is awfully idiosyncratic. I just don't listen to enough music, see enough movies, or read enough books to really be able to say anything about what the absolute best of 2003 in any category was.
I can, however, cherry-pick a few good albums off everybody else's lists and comment on them. This is a selection of records that turn up on "Best of 2003" lists that I've actually listened to enough to have an opinion about, in no particular order. All opinions are mine, but if you were smart, you'd share them.
- The Wind by Warren Zevon. Hands down, Best Album by a Dying Man. Of 2003, certainly, possibly ever. Spare, haunting, self-aware, funny-- everything you'd want from a Zevon record, let alone the last one ever.
- The Old Kit Bag, by Richard Thompson. We might as well get all the really cheery albums out of the way up front. This is about as upbeat as you'd expect from a record whose opening track it titled "Gethsemane". Still, this is an excellent album. "She Said It Was Destiny" is a really catchy song, and "Outside of the Inside" is one of the best "inside the mind of an extremist" songs ever.
- Welcome Interstate Managers by Fountains of Wayne. As I said back in June, this isn't quite as good as Utopia Parkway, but it's certainly good enough to be one of my favorite records of the year.
- Electric Version by New Pornogaphers. Like Welcome Interstate Managers, an album of slightly bent pop songs, though these guys have a bigger sound than Fountains of Wayne. I haven't listened to it quite enough to really resolve individual songs, but it's very good.
- Mary Star of the Sea by Zwan. Billy Corgan, never a man of small ego, got the idea that he was a musical genius, and people would be ecstatic to listen to any damn fool thing he felt like recording. The result was a couple of late Smashing Pumpkins albums that really sucked. With his new band, he seems to have realized that what people were really after was the soaring and crashing guitar sound of their earlier records, and he delivers that here. Time will tell if he's actually learned his lesson or not.
- Elephant by the White Stripes. While I'm praising with faint damns, and having said mean things about their last record, I feel obliged to note that this record doesn't contain any songs that are throw-it-across-the-room awful, while "Seven Nation Army" is brilliant. I'm still not sold on Jack White as a musical genius, but this is at least a good album.
- Room On Fire by the Strokes. I only picked this up yesterday, so I'll withhold detailed comments, save to note that if you're going to be anointed the Saviors of Rock, you really ought to act like you give a damn about what you're doing.
- Hail to the Thief by Radiohead. Another album that I can't get a good handle on. I've liked the "singles" I've heard off it (which is why I bought it), but the few times I've tried listening to the whole record, it's just noise. I really can't figure these guys out.
- Reconstruction Site by the Weakerthans. OK, this wasn't on anybody else's best of, but if you put a gun to my head, and asked me to name a single favorite album from 2003, this would be it. There wasn't another record this year that got welded into the CD player the way this one did (well, OK, Too Far to Care by the Old 97's, but it's not a 2003 record). Yeah, it's ostentatiously arty in places. Yeah, the singer's voice is kind of nasal. And yeah, the lyrics are really weird. But I love it. Record of the year.
That's only nine albums, instead of the ten that tradition demands, but I have trouble coming up with another one that would be in contention. The Fire Theft's self-titled record made one list, and it's good, but not quite "Year's Best" material, and the other records that have gotten heavy play in Chateau Steelypips this year either don't quite rise to the necessary level (Ryan Adams's Rock 'n' Roll, John Hiatt's Beneath This Gruff Exterior), or weren't released in 2003 (Too Far to Care, Trouble Bound by the Blasters). So we'll leave it at nine, which also gets me a cute post title...
(Also posted at Blogcritics, if you want to see what they thought of the list.)
With the end of the year upon us, it's time for the annual round of "Best [noun] of 2003" awards, lists, and recaps. I'm sort of at a disadvantage in this, as my book and record purchases tend not to be confined to new material, so the best book I read in 2003 may easily have been published in 2002, or 1982 for that matter.
Then, of course, there's the question of breadth. Given my rather time-consuming day job, I really don't have the time (let alone the inclination) to read widely enough to be able to make a sensible statement about the best anything of 2003. This is nowhere more apparent than in the blogging arena-- a little Googling will turn up plenty of people offering weblog awards, the vast majority of them given to blogs I've never even heard of.
That said, there really ought to be some sort of special award for Slacktivist's series of posts on Left Behind. The "Shorter Steven Den Beste" Prize, perhaps, after Daniel Davies's pioneering work in the field of dismissive analysis of turgid and philosophically repellent work. Though that's probably not entirely appropriate, as 1) Slacktivist has already stuck with this longer than D-squared did, and 2) If he keeps at it, the resulting exegesis will be substantially longer than the original books.
I've often been tempted to stop in at some trashy mall bookstore that I never intend to visit again, and snag the first Left Behind book in paperback (even better would be to find a used copy somewhere (ideally, in a trash bin in an airport), so I needn't feel guilty about providing indirect funding to millennial loons), just because the concept sounds awful enough to be entertaining. Slacktivist has almost cured me, only thirty-seven pages in.
Really, a name-only weblog award doesn't go far enough to recognize this essential service for humanity. We should do better-- if a million bloggers contributed $10 each, we might be able to get it added as a special Nobel Prize category (there is, after all, precedent for this sort of thing). I'd be happy to handle the money-- just send small, unmarked bills to Chateau Steelypips, and I'll take care of the rest...
TSA Idiocy of the Week
Via a mailing list, another great moment in the War On Terror:
I was led back to the US Airways ticket counter, stocking-footed and alone, where the agents reasserted that they did not see a problem for me to have a fish on board, properly packaged in plastic fish bag and secured with a rubber band as MJ was. But the TSA supervisor was called over, and he berated me profusely. He exclaimed that in no way, under no circumstances, was a small fish allowed to pass through security, regardless of what the ticket agents said.
Who can blame them? The finny little terrorist was probably smuggling almanacs, too...
I Know This Grapevine
Jim Henley links a post by Mary Kay Kare which leads me to two important realizations: 1) I've been neglecting to add Mary Kay's blog to the links at left, which I've now taken care of, and 2) Alton "Good Eats" Brown has a blog. Who knew?
(Mary Kay, obviously. You're very smart. Now shut up.)
Oh, yeah, he also says some good things about Mad Cow Disease. But really, after that kind of bloggy reference chain, it's a miracle that any actual information gets transmitted at all.
Desert Island Experiment
On one of the long car trips that were so big a part of our Christmas season, Kate and I passed the time by talking about books. Shocking, I know, but true. Kate brought up the idea of "Desert Island Books."
This is, of course, a concept with a number of problems (after all, if you're going to be stranded on a literal desert island, the key books to have are How to Survive on a Desert Island and How to Build a Boat with Things You Can Find on a Desert Island. Fiction is superfluous...). A better phrasing of the question is "pick ten books that you'd be willing to have as the only books you can read for the rest of your life." Of course, this is still a lousy way of getting at the real intent of the question, namely "list your ten very favorite books in all of the world." As part of the pleasure of reading fiction is the novelty of discovering new places and characters, it's not clear that a real "desert island" list should be the same as your list of favorite books. You'd probably want one or two "comfort reads," but you'd also want to take along a fairly wide range of stuff, including a few things you had never read before.
Anyway, as we kicked this around for a while, I realized that I've actually done this experiment, at least in a limited version. It wasn't a desert island, granted (Japan is fairly thickly settled), and it was only for a few months, but I have, in fact, packed books for a trip to an island where I wasn't certain to be able to find any other reading material.
Having an obsessive-compulsive streak, I actually kept a list of the books I read while I was there. It's not exactly a true "desert island" list, as I did buy a fair number of books there (especially once I was shown how to find Good Day Books), but I can more or less reconstruct what I bought for the trip. In the end, I didn't take any comfort reads, though I did take several books by reliable authors, but the range of stuff I did take is probably illustrative of something.
Here's the list, as best I can recall, in approximately the order in which I read them:
- Tomcat in Love by Tim O'Brien. A very strange book about a lecherous academic. Unsurprisingly, it collides with a Vietnam novel halfway through.
- 253 by Geoff Ryman. A collection of 253 character sketches, each containing 253 words, of the 253 passengers on a London subway that crashes. It makes more sense as a Web novel, and would've been a surreal reading experience even if I hadn't been reading it in the middle of a 12-hour flight to Tokyo.
- Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson. I had just discovered Bryson at that point, and this is one of his better books. In this one, he travels around England, seeing the sights, before moving back to America.
- The Best of H. P. Lovecraft by H. P. Lovecraft. I had never read Lovecraft before, and figured I ought to in order to understand:
- Resume With Monsters by William Browning Spencer. Dilbert meets Lovecraft. Both funnier and creepier than the original stories.
- Blackburn by Bradley Denton. Best. Serial. Killer. Novel. Ever.
- Eat the Rich by P. J. O'Rourke. Had I realized that I had read most of these pieces as columns in Rolling Stone, I would've brought something else instead.
- Future Indefinite by Dave Duncan. The conclusion to the Great Game series, and the best novel he's written. Much better than his usual popcorn fantasy.
- The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Deserves its good reputation. Eco consistently manages to make me feel semi-literate.
- Ribofunk by Paul DiFillipo. A collection of biology-based hard SF, published in a special $3.99 edition. Worth about what I paid for it.
- Desolation Road by Ian McDonald. Kate recommended it as "a magic realist Martian Chronicles," which isn't far off, even if it is redundant.
- The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker. Evolutionary psychology's most eloquent advocate holds forth on linguistics.
- Lucky You by Carl Hiaasen. Good popcorn reading from South Florida's best crime novelist.
- The Famished Road by Ben Okri. Nigerian magic realism, that kind of spins out of control at the end.
- What's Bred in the Bone by Robertson Davies. I'm not positive that I brought this with me-- I may have bought it there. Second in the Cornish trilogy, and a very good read.
- City of Diamond by Jane Emerson. Again, may have been purchased in Tokyo. Generation-ship space opera.
- Crown of Shadows by C. S. Friedman. Ditto regarding its origin. Conclusion of the Coldfire trilogy, and not quite as good as the previous volumes.
- A Song of Stone by Iain Banks. A deeply unpleasant book, which may explain why it's not listed in my journal from Japan, but I vividly remember reading it there.
- Underworld by Don DeLillo. The opening scene at the baseball game just blew me away. The rest of the book isn't quite as good, but there are some absolutely wonderful bits.
Readers of my book log will note that this is skewed a bit more toward weighty books than my normal reading tastes. Non-readers of my book log will either take it on faith, or check out the title index for confirmation.
It's also interesting to note that, while I hadn't read any of these books before the trip, I had a pretty good success rate. Of the 19 books listed above, only one was really actively unpleasant (and that wasn't because it was badly written), and three (Lovecraft, O'Rourke, and DiFillipo) were "duds." Several of them, I'd be happy to read again.
Were I actually forced to make up a "desert island" list, I suspect I'd do something fairly similar to what I did in picking this list: choose a mix of new books by known authors, and highly recommended books by authors unknown to me. I'd also throw in a few more "comfort reads" than I list above, though, because sometimes you just have to have old favorites and popcorn books (I did read a good deal of fluff while I was there, but it didn't come on the plane with me).
(Update: I posted this over at Blogcritics as well, where they may or may not post interesting comments.)
Nihil in Moderato, Media Tie-In Edition
Kate and I went to see The Return of the King again today. A week and a half after opening, the Sunday 11:50 am show was still packed. Early reports have the movie making another fifty-odd million over the weekend, and they've cleared $200 million already.
I realize that there's no way to actually predict how well a movie will do in advance, and there was a finite, non-zero probability that the third chapter would bomb at the box office. Still, was there really a need for the filmmakers to hedge their bets with Lord of the Rings Monopoly?
In other news, the booklog is now up to date. This won't last, so check it out while you can. If you like doing compare-and-contrast, you can also look at numerous bookloggy comments about the new Lois Bujold novel: me, Kate, Mike, and Trent. Collect all four.