Daniel Carlson

About movies, mostly.

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Month: January 2012

The Joys Of Penny Can

Cougar Town shirt.jpg
Had a blast over the weekend at the Alamo Drafthouse’s “Cougar Town” screening and shindig. Check it:
“Cougar Town” Season Three Preview Event: I Won’t Back Down

Review: The Grey

Pretty solid.
Click here for the review.

Review: Haywire

Not bad, not great. Somehow calmly in the middle.
Click here for the review.

My Gaming Year in Review, 2011

I bought an Xbox 360 in December 2010, though I already owned a few games for the system. My former roommate had one, and we lived together for four years, so it made sense to pick up a few used titles to play when he wasn’t using it. However, he and I parted ways in the fall of 2009, so I went quite a while without playing video games. It had been even longer since I’d owned a gaming system: I sold my PlayStation 2 in summer 2004 to help defray the cost of moving to California after college, meaning I hadn’t been anything remotely like a real gamer in years. I knew I wanted to get back into gaming, but I also wasn’t sure what kind of gamer I’d become. I spent the year finding out what I like and don’t about games, as well as discovering just how much my gaming preferences have changed.

What follows is a mostly chronological list of the games I played in 2011:

Medal of Honor: Airborne (unfinished, sold)
One of the carryover titles I sold soon after I got my own Xbox was Medal of Honor: Airborne. I was a huge fan of first-person shooters growing up, especially the Medal of Honor series, so I’d picked this up years earlier while living with a roommate. I knew when I fired it up this time, though, that my days with simplistic games stuffed with infinitely spawning enemies were at a close. I still like a good combat game, and I’m not even averse to playing through something as narratively derivative as a World War II shooter laden with hilariously somber quotes about the cost of battle. But I want a shooter to be a real game, by which I mean a challenge I am asked to solve. Just running around and triggering waves of enemies (or, equally troublesome, their elimination) by hitting hidden checkpoints is pointless. There’s no strategy, no thrill. It’s just mindless explosions. I’ve got a feeling I won’t be returning to the MoH series for quite a while.

Burnout Paradise (unfinished)
Leaving a racing game unfinished isn’t the same as quitting on a narrative. Burnout Paradise is meant to be played in discrete chunks. It’s a great game, too, and one of the very few racing titles I like. (I got hooked on the series with Burnout Revenge.) I like the open-world set-up that lets you start challenges whenever you want or just drive the roads to explore and set speed records. The challenges are more interesting than typical races, too, involving stunts and crashes. It’s a solid title.

The Orange Box (unfinished)
I bought this just to get my hands on a copy of Portal again, and the game remains as pleasing and frustrating as ever. Pleasing because it demands concentration and smarts as you build out the moves in your head you will need to execute; frustrating because too many of the solutions rely not on intellect but on twitchy reflexes. This problem was solved in the sequel, which I loved.

Fallout 3 (finished)
An amazing game, and the first title to really show me the possibility of open-world storytelling. I fell in love with the postapocalyptic wasteland of Fallout 3, and I was enamored of the karma system that let you influence the world around you through your actions. I also really liked the mix of RPG and FPS in the combat system, which let me stack moves with the game’s special targeting system or just fight it out in real time. Great powers, great choices, great story. The enemies scaled up as you went along, too, though there seemed to be a plateau at the end. Once you level up past a certain point, you can take down most enemies with some basic strategy (though I will never forget the genuine worry I felt when I had to fight mirelurks). My only real complaint is that the main narrative seemed to reach a point of no return toward the end, and while I thought I’d have time to explore the world some more between missions, I found myself rocketed toward the end. (Though that also meant recruiting an ally in Fawkes, which meant mowing through enemies like so much grass.) In a lot of ways, 2011 was the year I relearned how to play games.

The Beatles: Rock Band (unfinished)
I had to. Great songs and interface, though the Beatles-style guitar controller isn’t quite as good as the previous Rock Band models. The buttons don’t have quite enough give, but that could just be a fluke with my hardware.

Fallout: New Vegas (finished, sold)
I was so excited to play this after loving Fallout 3, which made my disappointment that much greater when I discovered an unwieldy, messy game. The maps were poorly layered (the map on the HUD was never clear about whether certain areas adjoined each other or if one was inside the other), the story was far too broad and complicated, and the overstuffed narrative led to burnout long before the game ended. I powered through out of sheer determination. Once I saw how things would end, I loaded an old save and maxed my persuasion skills (I usually load up on charm when I play an RPG to take advantage of more character loyalties and dialogue options) so that I could pass every speech check from there to the end. Then I just talked both final bosses out of fighting me. I’d have tried to fight them, but my companion dog vanished and couldn’t be found, thanks to a glitch in the game. Not a title I’d be willing to replay.

Alan Wake (unfinished)
This came as a free download with my Xbox, but I wasn’t too intrigued. I played through the first level or two, but it was a bit heavy on the cut-scenes for my taste. I don’t mind cinematics that forward a narrative; these just seemed like padding.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (unfinished, sold)
I will always remain somewhat of a sucker when it comes to the opportunity to wield a lightsaber and fling objects with my mind. Plus, this was maybe $5 used at GameStop. Still, it got old quickly. Some fun Star Wars flair aside, it’s a pretty repetitive button-masher with fiendishly hard bosses (typical for a Star Wars game) that become harder to beat when the game takes over the camera and limits your movements and sightline. I’m curious about the sequel, but only mildly.

Gears of War (unfinished, sold)
This was another bargain-bin pickup that I remembered from playing at a friend’s house years before. I found it at turns too maddening and too simple, and the erratic AI of my teammates grew tiresome. Not a big loss.

Call of Duty 2 and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (revisits)
I revisited these on a few occasions throughout the year just to have a palette cleanser. I stand by what I said about needing more from a game than just bodies and bullets, but these remain reliable guilty pleasures when I need to really unplug in times of high stress.

Halo 3 (finished, sold)
This was the first Halo game I’d played all the way through, and though I liked a lot of the combat situations (I was especially taken by the aerial stuff, which totally took me by surprise), I found the actual play-through to be sluggish and uninvolving. Now, obviously, the caveat is that I was fresh to the series, so maybe with the previous two installments under my belt I’d have been more forgiving of the experience. I think not, though. It’s a pretty game, but a pretty standard run-and-gun.

Portal 2 (finished)
As challenging and as wonderful to play as you’ve heard. The game ditches the nail-biting mechanics of the original in favor of big rooms that give you all the time in the world to solve the puzzles inside. The new additions — cubes that redirect lasers, bridges made of light, and a number of gels that alter the physical properties of surfaces — are physically pleasing like few other game objects, but the real triumph is the way the producers have made a very linear story feel like a giant world that’s under your control. Rooms are designed to push you along a specific path, and there’s only one way to win the game, but there are many ways to play it, and that’s what makes it so rewarding. My favorite section is the middle third, in which you navigate through staggering caverns while playing tests that introduce a 1960s-era story and a host of new tools to use. A fantastic experience.

Red Dead Redemption (finished)
This has to be one of the best games I’ve ever played. Period. The gorgeous open world is a joy to behold, and you can ride what feels like forever through the open West without suffering load screens or frame lags as you move between regions. On top of that, the generous amount of side quests and mini-games make the world of New Austin and its environs feel completely at the player’s disposal. This was a game I could craft as I saw fit. I loved the honor and fame systems that let you choose how to morally navigate the world; I chose to play as a good guy, largely because it’s a lot easier to move through the game’s world when the merchants respect you and outlaws fear you. (Not to mention that it’s a pain in the ass to fend off bounty hunters and law enforcement.) The combat’s great, too, and the escalating levels of Dead Eye made for nice challenges. Above all, the story was strong, and I found myself hooked on learning what would happen to John Marston on his long journey home. Just about perfect.

Batman: Arkham Asylum (finished)
Good game. Not great, but good. The combat’s solid, and I loved being able to play as Batman while swinging between gargoyles and taking out henchmen. Yet I found the boss levels to be, well, overly traditional “boss levels” in a classic platformer sense. I never quite got over the whiplash between giant maps that welcomed exploration and limiting battles that required a monotonous pattern of running, jumping, and throwing Batarangs. Still, well worth playing, and I’m looking forward to the sequel.

Assassin’s Creed II (finished)
I briefly played Assassin’s Creed a few years ago, and I found it fun but stressful. Looking back, though, I realize it’s because back then I was more interested in shooters and open combat and less willing to try a game that asked me to be OK with running and hiding from major threats. (After you assassinate big targets, you pretty much have no choice but to high-tail it through the village and go to ground.) I don’t remember what inspired me to pick this one up aside from its high critical and consumer reviews and a desire to check out a franchise rumored to be good, but whatever it was, I’m glad I followed the urge. This turned out to be a wonderful game with dazzling physics, great puzzles, and a strong narrative to augment the gameplay. The combat was always a little wonky — it’s usually easier to just run up and assassinate someone rather than engage them in a straight-up fight — but fighting is downplayed here, anyway. The real fun is running around and exploring the maps, climbing everything in sight (seriously, everything), and using a variety of learned techniques to distract your enemies and turn the city’s crowds against them. Tons of fun. I just purchased the third entry, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and I’ll likely check out Revelations after that.

Mass Effect (finished)
A great friend of mine urged me to play this for months, finally loaning me his copy to make sure I did it. I’ve already thanked him profusely for making me see the light. This is a killer RPG with great first-person combat and exploration, and it’s the kind of game that I really wouldn’t have enjoyed before now. The scope’s enormous, but what really won me was the variety of gameplay options and narrative choices at key moments. There’s also not a lot of hand-holding, which shows a respect for the gamer; after a few tutorials, you’re expected to just jump in and get it, which was awesome. Some repetitiveness did creep in during the side quests, which all seemed to take place in identically designed bunkers and mines. Still, that’s a minor reservation The game’s an epic space opera with memorable characters and legitimately tough choices: I found I felt good when I could please my teammates and sad when I had to leave some behind. That’s the sign of a good game.

L.A. Noire (unfinished, sold)
This was a disappointing way to end the year, though I’m currently on to other, better games. L.A. Noire‘s biggest failing is that it pretends to be an open-world game that puts you in charge of the narrative (not unlike a lot of the other RPG/FPS combos I played in 2011), but in reality it’s a narrowly focused game that’s essentially idiot-proof. The story revolves around Cole Phelps, a dickish LAPD cop who shuffles between desks as you guide him through cases and try to unravel ever larger mysteries. The trouble is that the story is too much of a mess. As I worked through cases, I would want to interview certain suspects only to be told they were unavailable; other times, I’d know that the likely suspect was probably innocent, but the case would resolve and end without my consent before I had time to question my other suspects. I knew I was being shuttled toward a “twist” that would reveal a killer on the loose and the wrong man behind bars, but that twist would’ve been a lot more believable if the guys I’d arrested actually had enough motive and evidence against them to be guilty. In addition, the game seemed to think I was an idiot. When tasked with deciphering location-based clues, my on-screen persona would eventually feed me the right answer; when pursuing subjects on foot, I was reminded what buttons to press to capture them (though, in another annoying twist, I was only allowed to tackle them when the game wanted me to, which it announced via the prompts); and so on. It’s a great idea for a game, but the execution’s awful. I quit halfway through and didn’t look back.

The Best: Red Dead Redemption, Fallout 3, Assassin’s Creed II, Portal 2, Mass Effect
The Worst: L.A. Noire, Gears of War, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Fallout: New Vegas

My Cinematic Year in Review, 2011

I’ve kept a running list of every movie I’ve ever seen (or as near as I can recall) for years now, but 2011 was the first time I charted my monthly movie-viewing habits with the same approach I take to my nightly reading. There aren’t too many firm conclusions to be drawn in terms of scheduled viewing or preferred genre, though it’s interesting to note that my paid reviews drive most of my screenings. I rarely get to the theater for something I’m not reviewing, mostly because I can’t stand the graceless and selfish attitudes in which most theater audiences seem to revel. In 2011, it was June by the time I went to a theater to see something for pure consumption, not review, purposes. Also, the only movies I saw in September were ones I was paid to see.

All told, I saw 79 films in 2011. That only counts those films I hadn’t seen before, too; repeat viewings of previous releases or cable favorites aren’t included in the final tally. I’ve included links below to those films I’ve reviewed, and any other thoughts that have come up for those I haven’t.

The King’s Speech (2010): Sweet, small, and easy-going. Not the most magnificent movie ever made, but entertaining.
Restrepo (2010): An absolutely riveting war documentary that captures the sisyphean nature of battle in all its horror.
Casino Jack (2010): A decent turn from Kevin Spacey, but mostly forgettable.
Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010): The documentary that inspired the feature film is a little better, but too overstuffed.
The Extra Man (2010): Genuinely awful and off-putting. Unfunny and awkward at every turn.
The Green Hornet (2011)
La Moustache (2005): Nice existential thriller from France about a man who shaves his mustache and promptly begins to question his sanity when his wife tells him he never had one. Pleasingly ambiguous.

Unknown (2011)
Easy A (2010): Solid, smart comedy that wouldn’t be half of what it is without Emma Stone in the title role.
Cedar Rapids (2011)
Waking Sleeping Beauty (2010): A great documentary about the modern Disney renaissance, which included their releases from 1989-1994 (basically The Little Mermaid to The Lion King). It makes you realize just how much heart the creatives there used to have, and why Pixar saved the company.
Crazy Heart (2009): I missed this award contender from the end of 2009, and I was glad to finally catch up with it. Great music, great performances.

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
Despicable Me (2010): Cute, if insubstantial. Steve Carell has some surprisingly moving scenes, though.
Red Riding Hood (2011)
Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times (2011): A fascinating look behind the scenes at the Times, albeit one that doesn’t quite know how to handle the industry’s self-immolation.
New Jerusalem (2011): An actor’s piece, through and through. Well-observed, but very slow.
Turkey Bowl (2011)
A Bag of Hammers (2011): I walked out. Too sloppy and cute by half.
Wuss (2011): One of those festival entries you only see at festivals, for good reason. Can’t even remember what happens.
The Other F Word (and here) (2011)
Sound of My Voice (2011): Amazing movie. Great story, wonderful cast. When it finally earns a theatrical release, I’ll go see it again.
Undefeated (2011)
Buck (2011)
How to Train Your Dragon (2010): DreamWorks isn’t up to Pixar’s level, but films like this (and Kung Fu Panda) are solid family movies.
I Am Comic (2010): I checked this out because I’m a comedy nerd. It’s average. There are more penetrating comic docs out there, but it’s worth visiting if you’re a completist or collector.

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995): This movie’s less than 20 years old, but it feels like it might as well be from another planet. It’s a nuanced adult drama, but not preachy or self-serious. It’s got adventure and mystery, but it’s not a remake or ironic meta-narrative. It’s just a solid movie. Well worth seeking out.
Your Highness (2011)
Tron: Legacy (2010): Worth not a single cent more than the 99 I paid to rent it from Redbox. Maybe less.
Gun Fight (2011): Riveting if depressing documentary about gun control and modern crime. It might not move you from one side of the fence to the other, but it’s still got some fascinating moments.
Fast Five(2011)

Everything Must Go (2011)
Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949): Sometimes, my wife and I will stay in on a Friday night, order some food, and watch whatever old movie happens to be on TCM. One friday night in May, it was Take Me Out to the Ball Game, a 1949 musical starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as baseball players who fall in love with Esther Williams, who just swims around. Ideal escapism.
The Tree of Life(2011)

Beginners (2011)
Submarine (2011): A great, bittersweet coming-of-age story.
Bridesmaids(2011): Like most comedies bearing the Apatow imprimatur, this one’s about 20 minutes too long, and so many of the scenes go absolutely nowhere. Yet it’s worth it just to see Melissa McCarthy throw herself into a manic role and come out the other side. She’s practically in her own movie (a better one).

The Night of the Hunter (1955): Stunning, gorgeous, haunting, and totally unforgettable. One of the two best non-2011 movies I saw during the year. The sad part is that it was so ahead of its time that audiences in 1955 didn’t bite, and Charles Laughton never directed again. It was also screenwriter James Agee’s last movie made while he was alive.
Horrible Bosses (2011)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)
Adam (2009): Tolerable in a direct-to-cable kind of way.
Meek’s Cutoff (2011): Proof that you have to be Terrence Malick to get away with abandoning a traditional narrative.
Night Moves (1975): Wonderful neo-noir from the 1970s, which means it’s all about infidelity and depression and being stuck between two equally unpleasant outcomes. Amazing work from Gene Hackman, as always.
Super 8 (2011): J.J. Abrams’ film was written off as Spielberg Lite by a lot of people, but that’s unfair both to Abrams and to Spielberg (who served as executive producer). It’s really a solid story about the end of childhood, set against an admittedly splendiferous and Spielbergian backdrop about alien invaders. The film’s biggest fault is actually that it doesn’t acknowledge its own era’s culture in the right ways. It’s set in 1979, which means these movie-mad kids should be hip-deep in Star Wars talk (and that the nerdy movie buff who leads their film crew should be able to speak Close Encounters at the drop of a hat). By pretending those movies don’t exist, Super 8 tries to live in their universe instead of exploring its own.
Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
X-Men: First Class (2011): I saw this at the $1.50 theater, which was a perfect price for the experience. Fun, and better than Ratner’s X-Men, but still a little weak. I would, though, watch an entire miniseries about a young Magneto hunting former Nazis.

The Change-Up (2011)
Source Code (2011): Soft even by pop-sci-fi standards, Source Code is a fun movie for Saturday afternoons with low expectations. The mechanics of the time travel aren’t internally consistent, but still, not a bad way to spend a couple hours.
Animal Kingdom (2010): A gripping crime drama that doesn’t pull any punches. People start dying almost immediately, and the ones you like the most are in the most danger.
Fright Night (2011)
Our Idiot Brother (2011)
Good News (1947): This is the 1947 version of the 1927 stage musical that was also put on film in 1930. (The next time someone complains about Hollywood’s modern obsession with remakes, send them to Google.) Peter Lawford and June Allyson flirt and sing. It’s a pleasant Friday night.
It Should Happen to You (1954): George Cukor’s film is billed as a romantic comedy, but it’s got a heart of sad loneliness. Judy Holliday stars as a deluded woman who uses her savings to rent a billboard in the heart of New York City and plaster her name on it in hopes of becoming famous. The film’s a shrewd, heartbreaking look at love and human nature. Bonus: It’s the first on-screen appearance of Jack Lemmon.
Forbidden Planet (1956): Total classic. The animation’s pretty good for 1956, too.
Kiss Me Kate (1953): Like having a really bad fever dream.

Contagion (2011)
Drive (2011)
Machine Gun Preacher (2011)

Dream House (2011)
The Ides of March (2011)
S.W.A.T. (2003): I wanted a laundry-day action movie, and I got one. Of course, I got hung up for a while on the fact that the movie was based on the TV show of the same name, and that characters in the movie shared names with their TV show counterparts but also referenced the show, watched it, and could sing the theme song. Basically, an ontological mindfuck. Pretty explosions, though.
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (2011): Spoiler alert: high-strung entertainers mostly look like dicks after they get fired. Conan O’Brien comes off like a mostly benevolent dictator in this doc about the comedy tour he mounted after he quit The Tonight Show.
Catfish (2010): Fake or not? (Fake.) Great story, though.
Anonymous (2011)
The Black Room (1935): The story and twist aren’t really strong enough to support even a 70-minute running time, but Boris Karloff does great work playing dueling twins.

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011)
J. Edgar (2011)
The Descendants (2011)
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (2011): Thoroughly moving and sweet, if a bit one-sided. The documentary focuses on puppeteer Kevin Clash, who plays Elmo on “Sesame Street,” but it glosses over his other projects as well as some of the darker aspects of the way the show plays into modern consumer nightmares. (Never has “Tickle Me Elmo” been so casually dismissed.)
A Dangerous Method (2011): Great performances from the cast, and bracing (if aloof) filmmaking from David Cronenberg.
Margin Call (2011): A smart drama about the 2008 recession that feels a bit too much like it was made for cable. (Blame the small cast and few extras.) Similarly, some of the structure was a bit too new-viewer-friendly, as when the head of the firm asked to have his junior analyst explain the market like the old man was a child. I’ve got a feeling that a CEO in that position would probably have a pretty good grasp on liquidity.
The Artist (2011): Sweet, moving, and thoroughly engrossing, not to mention one of the most likable love stories in a long time.

Young Adult (2011)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (U.S.) (2011)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Moneyball (2011): Not bad, not great. Brad Pitt does good work, but the rest of the film is flat.
Tootsie (1982): As entertaining and funny as you’d expect an American classic to be. Great story, great performances, and a gap in my personal viewing history I’m very happy to have finally filled.

Random Data:
Total: 79
Documentaries: 11
Movies released before 2011: 26 (about 33% of the total)
Movies released before 2000: 10
Of the 10 highest grossers of 2011, number I saw: 2

My Literary Year In Review, 2011

This is the third year I’ve kept tabs on what I read (here’s 2009 and 2010). My number’s down from last year, when I read 30 books; this year, I finished 22 and abandoned two at various stages. And that decrease becomes more stark when you realize that quite a few of my choices this year were graphic novels, which take much less time to read than traditional ones. I’m not totally sure why the number went down, or even if that’s something I should be concerned about. I was always working on one book or another, and (typical for me) I’d start a new book immediately after I’d finished the one before. I think it’s because I traveled more in 2011 than ever before (both for work and myself), and because I finished the year with Justin Cronin’s The Passage, which runs 800 tightly scripted pages and is not a journey to be taken lightly. Yet I’m not doing this as a contest, and my goal isn’t to set a new personal record every year (if only because I’d eventually have to stop working, eating, and sleeping to squeeze in more titles). I just like keeping the list because I enjoy watching patterns emerge in my reading habits, whether it’s seeing recommendations from certain friends appear with more frequency or uncovering certain genre patterns. I sought out more humor writing in 2011 than ever before, and I also explored more memoirs and nonfiction. Picking a favorite is almost impossible, but for sheer emotional power and ambition, The Pale King was hard to beat.

Anyway, here’s a chronological list of what I read in 2011. As always, suggestions for future reads are welcome.

The Somnambulist (2007), Jonathan Barnes
There’s a ton of potential in Barnes’ historical fantasy-thriller, including the pleasing device of having the reader experience time travel from the perspective of the characters who aren’t traveling through time. (So our narrative moves forward as progressive meetings with the time traveler are earlier in his life.) But the final product was too cute by half, and suffered from some of the pacing and dialogue issues that trouble first novels. I finished it out of sheer commitment to the project.

And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations With 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft (2009), ed. Mike Sacks
For a comedy nerd, this is a fantastic read. Sacks talks with a smart group of comedy writers to pick their brains about how they got into the industry and what they think is funny. The interviews are introduced with biographical chunks that are a little too cheesy, but the talks themselves are worth it.

Sleepwalk With Me: And Other Painfully True Stores (2010), Mike Birbiglia
Mike Birbiglia is a hilarious comic who’s found success by shifting away from typical sets and telling longer narratives that weave in jokes; when I saw him a couple years ago, his show was nothing but a few stories drawn out to epic length. Those stories work wonderfully on the stage, but they don’t translate that well to the page because Birbiglia commits the sin that many stand-ups do when they write a book: he assumes that a transcript of his act will work as a humorous essay. But humor written is far different from humor spoken and performed. What feels natural out loud reads as choppy and far too short, meaning much of Sleepwalk With Me reads like half-formed pieces. There are some good punch lines in here, but you’re better off hearing them than reading them.

The Likeness (2008), Tana French
I really dug In the Woods, French’s first novel, and The Likeness is just as good. It’s not a sequel exactly, but a sequential novel involving a supporting character from the first book and now told from that character’s point of view. It’s a solid device that lets French poke around in whole new personalities while keeping the story rooted in the world readers have come to enjoy. Great literary mystery.

I Found This Funny: My Favorite Pieces of Humor and Some That May Not Be Funny At All (2010), ed. Judd Apatow
The title doesn’t lie: some of these stories are bitter, weird, and intentionally off-putting, while others are plain anti-humor, anti-drama, and anti-enjoyable. Still, there are some highlights, including Paul Feig’s piece about his brief flirtation with sports announcing (imported from Feig’s Kick Me) and Conan O’Brien’s “Lookwell” pilot. Some of the dramatic pieces are good, too, but overall the collection is pretty hodgepodge.

The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop (2010), Dan Charnas
Dan Charnas used to be a talent scout for Profile Records and later the head of the rap division for American Recordings, meaning he had a front-row seat to the rise and bloat of hip-hop as a cultural force. His book is a dense but readable history of hip-hop from a business perspective, charting the path the music took from blowing out New York basements to dominating pop culture worldwide. Great read.

Kick Me: Adventures in Adolescence (2002), Paul Feig
Now this is humor writing. Feig has worked on a number of TV series and films (he directed Bridesmaids), but it’s his role as creator of “Freaks and Geeks” that earned him a place in TV history. His personal essays about growing up as a weird, repressed little geek are heartbreaking but hilarious, and anyone who’s seen “Freaks” will recognize many, many story lines in Feig’s own childhood. A fantastic memoir.

In the Event of My Untimely Demise: 20 Things My Son Needs to Know (2008), Brian Sack
Brian Sack (who blogs at Banterist) brings his sharp wit to a series of brief, vaguely cartoonish essays written to his child. Cute but insubstantial.

What I’d Say to the Martians: And Other Veiled Threats (2008), Jack Handey
It sounds stupid and unoriginal to call something “laugh-out-loud funny,” but the phrase genuinely applies here. Jack Handey’s quick essays are dependably hilarious, but the books packs so many of them together that it’s easy to overload. The book feels like an ideal bathroom reader.bookwrap11-monkeytown.JPG
Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions (2010), Rachel Held Evans
I don’t agree with some of Rachel Evans’ conclusions, but then, the book is about learning to live in those kinds of tensions. Her background mirrors my own in many ways: politically and theologically conservative upbringing, plenty of time with her church’s youth group, and a growing sense of unease at the way some of the things she was taught didn’t mesh with her developing understanding of the world around her. She’s still a believer (as am I), but she’s no longer on the same path as her parents or peers because she started asking tough questions and realizing that some of them don’t have easy answers (if they have answers at all). If you grew up in a Southern church and/or went to a private religious university, this is worth your time.

Superstud: Or How I Became a 24-Year-Old Virgin (2005), Paul Feig
Brilliant and sad and wonderful. Feig re-creates his romantic misadventures with amazing detail, and the brief chapters make for an easy (if cringe-inducing) trip through one repressed boy’s rocky sexual discoveries.

The Pale King (2011), David Foster Wallace
Wallace is my favorite author. The first thing of his I read was Infinite Jest, and after that it was over. I had to get everything. My heart broke when he committed suicide, and I met the release of The Pale King, his unfinished final work, with equal parts anticipation and sorrow. I was wowed by the book, but it’s definitely a partial novel. The bare bones of a story are there, and so many sequences channel the humanity and brilliance of Wallace as well as anything he ever wrote, but it’s ultimately more a coda to his career than a swan song. It’s definitely one I’ll revisit.
Gun, with Occasional Music (1994), Jonathan Lethem
Lethem’s first novel is a compelling mix of retro-futurism and detective noir. It didn’t hit me as hard as The Fortress of Solitude or some of his essays, but it was still fun to see where he got his start.
Gilead (2004), Marilynne Robinson
Absolutely beautiful. Every sentence is a finely carved work of art, and I found myself reading more slowly as the novel went on so I could revel in Robinson’s pace and style. It’s also one of the most realistic and moving depictions of faith and struggle that I’ve ever read.
Let the Great World Spin (2009), Colum McCann
McCann’s novel has a number of wonderful scenes and ideas, but it’s also one of those “disparate stories that are tangentially connected” books that feels like a shortcut to a novel instead of an actual profound narrative.
The Magician King (2011), Lev Grossman
I really liked The Magicians, so I was excited to get this when it dropped over the summer. The sequel is thinner than the original — the page count is smaller and the typeface is bigger — but it’s still a great narrative about two characters working from different emotional places to try and achieve the same result. That said, I had the wind knocked out of me by the ending. It didn’t feel like a legitimate or organic twist, but a forced and overly bitter way to make the main character grow up a little. The disappointing final pages colored my feelings about the rest of the book, but I’d like to dig back into this one in a couple years and see how I feel.
Batman: Year One (1987), Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli
I decided to catch up this year with a few Batman graphic novels that I’d always meant to read, and I figured Year One was a good place to start. It’s a good book, just four collected issues, but I liked the approach Miller took to plugging some of the gaps in the hero’s early years.
Batman: The Killing Joke (1988), Alan Moore, Brian Holland
What a terrifying, riveting story. The hardback edition nicely fleshes out the issue’s history with background info, character sketches, and so on, but all you really need is Moore’s wicked little one-shot. This is the merciless Joker that Christopher Nolan brought to life in The Dark Knight, not the cavorting goofball of so many comic book and cartoon stories. One of the all-time greats.
Batman: The Long Halloween (1997), Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale
Loeb and Sale’s Long Halloween is a cool idea, unfolding over a year as a holiday-themed serial killer makes life difficult for the denizens of Gotham City, but I found myself groaning at the overly orchestrated dialogue. Comic book dialogue tends to hit one or two words in every sentence with additional force conveyed in bold text, but that means taking the narrative control away from the reader. Good dialogue has its own flow, but I found Long Halloween unwilling to let that flow build on its own. Still, a fun read.
Zombie Spaceship Wasteland (2011), Patton Oswalt
Like most comedians, Patton Oswalt is a great public speaker and an awful writer. Where Birbiglia’s long-form comedy has at least some similarities with printed essays, Oswalt’s style doesn’t really work on the page. He’s fantastic at knowing how to make a bit work on stage, but he’s not nearly as skilled at organizing his ideas into chapters (or even coherent narratives). I checked this out on faith, but I found myself skimming almost immediately. I barely remember finishing.
Faithful Place (2010), Tana French (abandoned)
As a fan of French’s previous two novels, I was sad that this one didn’t connect for me. I quit after a while, but I might be able to find a way in if I wait a while and come back to it.
Batman: Dark Victory (1999), Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale
Again, another decent story undercut by rocky dialogue. Still, I’m something of a sucker for Batman origin stories, and this introduction of Robin was fun to read.
Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (1999), David Foster Wallace (abandoned)
I’d never tackled Brief Interviews before, and I had to quit when the bitterness became overwhelming. It’s not like I didn’t know that was the point of the book; Wallace’s focus here is as sharp as ever, and he digs unforgivingly into the sad and awful world of semi-fictional men. Still, it was a little too much for me to take. As a Wallace fan, I plan on coming back to this one, though I might have to do it in small sips instead of bigger gulps.
The Passage (2010), Justin Cronin
Cronin’s novel (his first) hooked me from the start, opening with a sad vignette about a poor woman and her lonely child, but I didn’t know just how emotionally invested I’d become until major characters went missing and I found myself saddened by the loss. The Passage feels at times like a perfect mix of I Am Legend and The Stand, but Cronin digs into the hearts and minds of his characters with more skill than your typical genre author. The novel’s first third is sprawling and dense, as Cronin sets up the viral infection that will eventually turn a dozen unlucky people into vampire-like monsters whose disease will unmake the world, and things get even bigger when he abruptly jumps forward almost a hundred years to pick up the plot in the postapocalyptic wasteland of future America. Yet he makes it all work, weaving together big stories and great characters in a classic page-turner. I had more fun getting lost in this world than I’d had with a book in a long time, and I’m looking forward to the sequels. (This is the first in a planned trilogy.) A great read.