Tuesday, September 23, 2014

779 Research, Week 3

I'm going to be sharing some notes here from my research into literary utopias and dystopias for coursework I'm working on at UW-M for my PhD. Why? Because it's the 21st century, baby, and otherwise all of this will just rattle off of the inside of my head or the walls of the library as I mumble words like "exegesis" and "hegemony" between the occasional forlorn, wordless wail. So gather 'round. Trust me, there's nothing out there in the rest of the internet except cat posters and Facebook invitations to parties in cities you don't live in.

Week 3: What do Steamboat Explosions, the Mummy Craze of the 1830's, and the Hicksite-Orthodox Quaker Schism have in common?

This sort of a continuation of my thoughts on Mary Griffith's Three Hundred Years Hence. I'm not even sure really what to call the story. We would call it a "novella" today because it's 67 pages long and covers a little too much to be just a short story. Then again, it was published short-story-like in a collection called Camperdown: or News from Our Neighborhood. Then AGAIN, some of my sources call it a novel, which it clearly isn't, nor is it by itself a "book". A "story" I guess, then?

Anyway, I've already gone on at length about how it constitutes one of the earliest feminist utopias we have, and it IS the first American feminist utopia written by a woman. I've gone into great detail about how many of the female-penned utopias that follow tread the same ground, and do so with an ever-expanding body of science, sociology, and utopian literature to draw on for influences. What makes Three Hundred Years Hence so interesting is that it didn't have a whole lot of any of these things to draw on. Instead of a proto-argument about eugenics, which we'll definitely see again later this term, we get a much daintier and more tentative set of proposed social changes that are, as Vernon Parrington points out, served buffet-style.

What's striking about the story, though, is that it touches on so many cultural flash points that you'll miss if you aren't paying attention. The mummies, the steamboat explosions, the fear of dogs and "hydrophobia" (rabies), but also women's property rights and, weirdly, the state of the Quaker religion.

What's this last one about? I know almost nothing about the Quakers and a sortie to Wikipedia has left me with more questions than answers. This is one of those research moments where I feel like I've dived down a rabbit hole only to discover an equally-large and deep tributary rabbit hole. The basic sense I got, though, from what I read, was that the Hicksite-Orthodox split involved a third group (the Gurnyites) who wanted to formalize the Church and take it in a more Protestant direction. This naturally would alienate women, particularly as the shift away from a home-grown worship centered on individuality tended to situate power in the family and hearth rather than the pulpit. To say that the Hicksite (the more agrarian, rural, home-focused portion of the debate)-Orthodox split was directly detrimental to women's place in the Church is probably oversimplifying things, but Griffith dwells enough on the topic to make it stand out, and its importance shouldn't be lost on us as researchers. It's the very essence of fiction-writing that real-life debates and controversies play out among contemporary fictional characters, but I'm hesitant to let this stand only for a "pulled-from-the-headlines" narrative strategy. 

Why? Because, later on my timeline of feminist utopian fiction, which is wrapped up intimately with the birth of theories of evolution, eugenics, sociology, and the emerging movements for temperance, suffrage, and Women's rights, I discovered that the Seneca Falls Convention (maybe the single event that most significantly kicked-off these last three movements) was organized partially by Quakers. This isn't perhaps as oddly coincidental as it seems. Keep in mind that "Quaker" was originally a pejorative jeer, not the actual name of the organization, which is something closer to "Society of Friends." At worst, they were persecuted as heretical apostates, at best, they were considered an odd crackpot offshoot of Christianity, but of interest is the fact that among its founders, the "Valiant Sixty" was a woman named Margaret Fell, who not only was an actual missionary and preacher of the faith, but whose ideas helped form the core ideology of the Quakers. All of this happened in the late 1600's. There goes my "ripped-from-the-headlines" theory.

But fast-forward 200 years and the Society of Friends somehow finds itself with a hand in maybe the most important single event to mark the beginning of a series of movements that would span a century or more (and, you might argue, are still underway). So now my theory goes a little something like this: Mary Griffith, a bright, talented writer, was pulling from all sorts of source material for her utopia. She brought up contemporary issues of technology, popular imagination, and social concern, wove it together with a historicized understanding of family and feminist equality inspired by Quakerism (the most readily-available conceptual model, perhaps), and propelled it 300 years into the future, all at a time when the idea we now think of academically as metropolis was just on the horizon, and its heralds were the steam engines that promised to collapse the enormity of North America into an interconnected series of travel hubs separated by days instead of months of travel.

My Mental State:
I found researching Three Hundred Years Hence much more difficult than I expected. It wasn't just because of the general lack of information about Griffith, or the fact that I really don't know all that much about the 1830's. I'm discovering in the program as I branch out into several different vectors of inquiry spread out over several different periods of time that I see so many connections between them and Three Hundred Years Hence that it becomes very difficult to know where to start with an analysis. Even with a story that's such an obscure footnote in the history of utopias, I could have easily written 200 pages of analysis about it based on what I know of feminist utopias. That's before I ever touched on the topics I don't know about: the historical situation of the 1830's, the gigantic and storied history of the Quakers, the effects of steam technology on agriculture, travel, and commerce... This unassuming little 67 page utopia has been defying my efforts to encapsulate it. Which is especially frustrating considering my research turned up only half a dozen meaningful scholarly articles about it, most of which relegate it back to footnote status without touching on ANY of these endless connections to technology, sociology, and literature. 

So what can I even do with this story? It would take me months of research and potentially years of writing to give Three Hundred Years Hence the same scholarly treatment that texts like "Sultana's Dream" and Herland enjoy, and I had a week. A busy week, where this was only one of about fifty pressing tasks I was given. You can see my frustration: I'd love to give this story the examination it deserves, but its historical situation, and my broadening understanding of the world in the 19th century, is working against me. My initial reaction was to go after it the same way that Joe Nydahl and others have done: explain that Griffith's story is the first in a series of stories that rode on the century-long currents of social change regarding women. That these trends aren't tied as tightly to the story as I'd like for simplicity's sake, but that trying to understand the story without first understanding the bigger history and where this story stood in relation to that history is a bad approach. What I end up with, though, is an examination that doesn't (and maybe can't, barring the months and years of work I mentioned above) feel complete or very authoritative. I find myself dumped again and again back  at square one, trying to study this story and write something meaningful about it without doing the exact same thing I'm criticizing Pfaelzer, Nydahl, and others for.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

779 Research Week 2

I'm going to be sharing some notes here from my research into literary utopias and dystopias for coursework I'm working on at UW-M for my PhD. Why? Because it's the 21st century, baby, and otherwise all of this will just rattle off of the inside of my head or the walls of the library as I mumble words like "exegesis" and "hegemony" between the occasional forlorn, wordless wail. So gather 'round. Trust me, there's nothing out there in the rest of the internet except cat posters and Facebook invitations to parties in cities you don't live in.

Week 2: swarm-sourced research questions

I had a very productive conversation on Facebook this week following a series of Tweets about non-fiction and utopias. I've consolidated the whole thing and reposted it here (with names removed for privacy, but the responders are all current or former colleagues of mine):

Mark: Sorry for all the separate posts: I'm trying to put a complete thought together on Twitter, which is not, as it turns out, a place for complete thoughts. Here's what I was asking for my working research question on utopias:
Lyman Tower Sargent describes a "utopia" as "a non-existent society, described in considerable detail, and normally located in time and space." This definition isn't without its problems--it describes nearly any fictional setting, for one--but it is helpful because it starts to tell us what utopias AREN'T.

By his logic, the Declaration of Independence qualifies as a type of non-fictional utopia about an America that didn't yet exist, even if the writers and their intent were very real.
So my research question is this: if non-fictional texts can be utopias (and presumably dystopias) in the future tense, then do books about the PAST like George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia or John Hersey's Hiroshima qualify for Sargent's definition? They're certainly dystopian (and at moments of Catalonia, utopian), but they did exist, and the detail they can be described in is limited by subjectivity and scale. Are these texts "merely" history, or are they full-fledged utopias/dystopias?

Friend 1: This is fascinating, and I'm glad you posted it.

Friend 2: This is a tough question Mark, because at its root is the wild card of perception. One man's utopia is very likely not utopia for the next man. As in Shrodingers Cat theory, there is the possibility of more than one utopia, depending on the viewer.

Friend 3: This is hard to answer, but a good question! I'm tempted to take issue with Sargent's definition; IMHO, it's much too broad and nondescript. He might as well call a utopia simply "a place." My answer to your question: no. As you said, those places did exist. I think you could only really use the terms to label an incorrect telling of the past. Good question! Hope that helped.

Friend 4: I need a drink, now.

Mark: (Friend 2 and 3): Well, Sargent's definition is just the beginning of his taxonomy of utopia, and it goes a little something like...

Utopia: A non-existent society, described in considerable detail, normally located in space and time.

Eutopia: (note the different spelling to offset the commonly-used "utopia" which was a pun by Thomas More meaning "no-place" versus "good-place." The correct spelling is restored in this definition of what we commonly refer to as utopia) A non-existent society, described in considerable detail, normally located in space and time that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as considerably better than the society in which the reader lived.

Dystopia: A non-existent society, described in considerable detail, normally located in space and time that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as considerably WORSE than the society in which the reader lived.

I tend to agree with you Amanda, that Sargent's definitions are broad to the point of silliness, even when you don't take into account epistemological questions of how we can even know if a place "exists" or "existed" or how hopelessly subjective such a term must be when it comes to a reiterated account of that place.

Nevertheless, it DOES give us a place to start, and by these definitions we can start to rule things out. A utopia (either a eutopia-which hilariously my spell check autocorrects-or dystopia) that doesn't proceed in detail is not a utopia. For example, "Elsewhere" in Lois Lowry's The Giver is never described in substantial detail, which rules it out, whereas the town the story takes place in IS described in detail, which means that place could be a dystopia. The America described by the Declaration of Independence (and even the Bill of Rights) didn't at the time, and still at times doesn't really exist; it's an ideal that's as flawed as the human beings who try to bring it into existence. 
So my question is that if utopias (eutopias, dystopias) can exist in the future, and they can be told about the past if they didn't actually provably exist (the legends of Atlantis, El Dorado/Manoa, the Scholomance, etc.) AND non-fictional places based on utopian texts exist (the United States, but also think smaller like experimental communes and "intentional communities" from the 19th and 20th centuries), then can we look at texts like Homage to Catalonia, Hiroshima, and Journal of the Plague Year as falling somewhere on this same taxonomy of "societies in great detail in space and time that are better/worse than our contemporaneous reading"?

Mark (continued: Journal of the Plague Year is a particularly interesting example because it's a fictionalized account of an actual event, but it's EXHAUSTIVELY detailed, down to precise body counts and population numbers and demographics, organized painstakingly by district of London. The characterization is kept minimal, which also screams utopia. In most glaringly utopian fiction, characters are secondary to the society described and what choices it represents. But there's a wonderful moment in JotPY where the narrator is observing London from afar, a 17th century city reeling from a "visitation" of the Black Plague that wiped out huge numbers of people with frightening swiftness, and the narrator thoughtfully observes that it's only a few months later, after the visitation is ended, when he stands on the same place and watches the entire city burn, engulfed in the flames in the Great Fire of London in 1666.

It's an extraordinarily haunting moment of the book, and very apocalyptic. Is it a comment on the ways in which the people of London exacerbate the Black Plague by being awful to each other while enduring it? Hard to say. Does the description of London overwhelmed with the dead and dying and the authorities' inability to handle it constitute a dystopia? I sure feel like it does. It's critical, it's highly detailed, and it's much more about the social mechanism of London than specific Londoners. There's only a handful of characters in the book that even have names.

Friend 2: In light of what you have written here, I'd love to see big data projects pulling specific detail from the fictional lives of some of those huge online games where you have millions of people building their own version of utopia. I'd love to compare the trends to the findings of your research into fictional and non fictional books on the subject. Human nature is fascinating and finding usable patterns in the evolution of human perspective on "no place" and "good place" would be make my head spin.

Friend 5: This is really fascinating. I've been reading all your posts wishing I could take your class! I wonder if it would be useful to think about the purpose of utopian/eutopian/dystopian stories (without getting too mired in authorial intent issues). Why do writers tell stories about imagined future societies? What do these stories tell us about the fears, issues, etc., of the time they were written? Can you apply those same characteristics to stories about past imagined places? Because I would think that would be a defining trait of utopian literature--ie if someone writes a book describing Atlantis because they think it might have been real and are just trying to figure out how it worked, that's not necessarily a utopia. But if their Atlantis story is a thoughful exploration of or metaphor for societal fears and hopes and issues...then maybe it is?

Mark: (Friend 2): I agree, especially games like Minecraft, where you can control everything from the weather to the number and abilities of the other players you allow to play with you. You really can (within the limits of the game's engine) create or modify the "world" any way you see fit if you own the "world" that you're playing on. Most other MMO's make you adhere to a set of standard world rules and they don't give you the option to play solo or dial up and down the interaction you have with other players. I'd think that would be one of the first things you'd need in order to create a "game" utopia. Though, by Sargent's definition you would have to play with at least a few other poeple, because a utopia is a "society" not just an individual existence.

Mark: (Friend 5): we've actually had some discussion about authorial intent, and came to the tentative conclusion that it is at least sometimes knowable. Your question about why people write utopias gets to one of the earlier points I was exploring while I was wrestling with the problem of definition. I personally think the definition of utopias (eutopias, dystopias) MUST contain some element of criticism of the present time/space. It's almost impossible to separate criticism from utopianism (the dreaming aspect, the urge to create a utopia), and I might even go so far as to say it's impossible to separate satire from utopias, though the argument can be made that this is all just semantics and a utopia is satirical if it's "mostly" satirical in intent, etc.

Your point about that same mode with regards to past imagined (or even real-but-subjectively-rendered) places is exactly what I'm getting at here. Certain historical fiction, creative nonfiction, or even journalistic nonfiction veers noticeably into the realm of examining an ordered society in great detail in order to be critical of it, and with the evident intent of making us compare these past societies to what we have now. Even the most faithfully rendered past society can only at best be authorially subjective, so they didn't really ever "exist" in the strictest sense. We're only getting an impression. With that in mind, they satisfy almost all of the same qualifications as a garden-variety, future, fictional utopia.

My Mental State: Definitely improved from last week. Getting a start on the mountain of texts I need to absorb this term helped. Once you get into the groove of reading 19th century fiction and nonfiction it comes more easily. It helped that I really enjoyed Frank Norris's McTeague and Capt. John Cleves Symmes' Symzonia. Both were a pleasure to read, so it's not all slog-and-drag, at least. Freud and Marx are as impenetrable and loopy as ever, though a reread of a portion of Darwin's The Origin of the Species was a pleasant surprise. I didn't remember his writing being as lucid and down-to-earth as it is. One thing that fascinates me is how books from the 19th and very early 20th century were marketed. They were a form of entertainment, at least to some extent, and part of a world in which radio and television didn't yet exist in widespread form. There were early arcades and nickelodeons and theater and carnival-type entertainment spectacles, but one of the only types of entertainment you could take home with you were books. If that's the case, I'm interested to know more about how texts from the 19th century in particular were meant to be experienced by their audiences. Many were published serially like seasons of a TV show, so we know they were meant to be enjoyed in small doses, rather than jammed through in a day or two (I'm looking at YOU Sister Carrie), but others were published as standalone texts, like Symzonia, and their pacing is noticeably different. I read Symzonia in two sittings and never felt like the author was trying to dole out the action to me in any deliberate way. Whereas Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, broken into discrete sections not just by chapter but by his habit of beginning each chapter with abstract philosophical claims, seems almost impossible to smoothly read through over a weekend. A note for more exploration later: have we lost the ability to do this with fiction? In the age of the summer beach novel and the Netflix series season released all at once and ready to binge-watch, do we even have patience for serially-produced narratives anymore? The recent spate of Hollywood films that take the final book of a trilogy or series and split it into two separate films suggests that this pattern of slowly doling out a narrative is something we associate with capitalizing on a story to the embarrassing utmost, rather than it being a deliberate narrative strategy.

I'm also starting to really enjoy this process of sharing the research process with the world. At first I was worried the unwelcome extra layer of work and engagement was going to be robotic and forced, but it seems to be engaging my online spheres rather spiritedly, and if nothing else it does help maintain some sort of social media presence while I'm in school; something I had a very hard time doing last term. It makes me feel a little less isolated, and hey, I even got a decent research question out of it this week. I'm reminded of undergrad when my friends and I would sit in the dining hall long after we'd finished eating and talk over what we'd learned in our respective fields and try to find the places where our knowledge-bases connected. Of course we'd also argue over which Star Wars movie was the best, but at least we did it together, and that seemed to add something.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Week 1 (continued):

Thoughts on Digital Humanities:

Forgive me and my Millennial-ness for maybe taking too much for granted here, or for oversimplifying the concept, but even as a child of the late 70's the idea that research can and should take into account the connected digital nature of itself seems glaringly obvious. This might have been a big deal in the early 1990's when just getting computers to connect to each other was a skilled feat, but today... you almost have to assume that everything is digital. It's like saying "we should be critical of the role that networked digital technology takes in interpersonal relationships." Today's college freshmen were born in 1996, the year I got my first email address. They have never known a world that wasn't intimately interconnected through digital means, and they can be forgiven for their blank stares when we suggest that it has an impact. The fact that huge percentages of the world now own smartphones and communicate with friends seamlessly all over the world online as well as the real world is a nearly-decade-old concept. It's the norm, is what I'm trying to say, not something new or flashy to hang the hopes of refreshing a field of study on.

What WOULD feel new about Digital Humanities is if we could somehow iron out the cross-platform incompatibilities. Anything published in the United States before 1923 is in the Public Domain; this means that a huge chunk of freqently-taught Western literature, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, criticism, scientific texts, religious texts, music, art, games, etc. are all public property. Why, then, is there no single simple, searchable, printable, annotatable format for these texts? Private sector businesses are exceedingly proficient at creating tools that provide uniform experience and compatibility, but academia is wretchedly bad at this, even when the content itself is free and not protected by intellectual property rights. In an effort to track down twenty five or thirty public-domain texts for two courses I'm using Librivox.org, Project Gutenberg, Archive.org, half a dozen websites, a few printed books, and excerpts of texts on Google Books. The texts aren't easy to collate, arrange, read, move from device to device, annotate, or excerpt. This is a problem that needs solving, because they should be. Volunteers have made huge headway on this project already at Gutenberg and Librivox, but theirs is a homegrown effort, and it shows. A beefier interface experience of Public Domain texts, preferably one that could seamlessly transition to copyrighted, paid-for electronic texts, would make interaction with these texts much easier for scholarship. D2L and Blackboard are clunky, disappointing prototypes of what really should be something more akin to a user-owned mobile-capable MS Office suite, a set of tools that set a standard by which we can usefully archive, access, manipulate, and interpolate texts for scholarly purposes.

Why Apple isn't all over this, I have no idea. They could dominate education forever with a tool set like this. Sure "everything published before 1923" is a monumentally huge amount of data, but it's not infinite, and it's not locked down by copyright.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

779 Research, Week 1

I'm going to be sharing some notes here from my research into literary utopias and dystopias for coursework I'm working on at UW-M for my PhD. Why? Because it's the 21st century, baby, and otherwise all of this will just rattle off of the inside of my head or the walls of the library as I mumble words like "exegesis" and "hegemony" between the occasional forlorn, wordless wail. So gather 'round. Trust me, there's nothing out there in the rest of the internet except cat posters and Facebook invitations to parties in cities you don't live in.

Week 1:

Some questions I asked, and some partial answers:

1) Utopia = "no place" and dystopia = "broken place". If they're not opposites, does this mean they're two sides of the same concept?

A) I think they utopias and dystopias are both forms of criticism, often satirical, of the present-day world. A utopia points out the ways in which our current social world could be better, and a dystopia points out the ways in which trends in our current social world could lead us toward a future that is worse. At their heart, both story types are talking about the future, and both are criticizing the present.

2) How extensively do dystopias draw on apocalyptic mythology or (post-Darwin) acceptance of the universal struggle for existence?

A) Not sure about this one yet, but I did re-read a chunk of The Origin of the Species and found a passage I didn't remember from the first time I read it in undergrad. Darwin mentions that in this field where he tried to grow a number of plants he had several different plots. One was untilled, and the seeds had to struggle with this primarily. The next was tilled but unweeded, and the seedlings struggled primarily with the weeds. The next was tilled and weeded and the seedlings struggled with insects and slugs that tried to destroy them. The final field was tilled, weeded, and cleared of slugs and the plants struggled with each other, the stronger plants against the weaker. I found this fascinating; the idea that the struggle for existence is something that cannot ever be eliminated by perfections of environment.

3) How did literary naturalism alter the criticism inherent in utopias and dystopias from earlier periods? Did it obscure meaning?

A) This is a pretty complex question, but the short answer is yes I think it did obscure meaning. Consider very early utopias and dystopias like biblical, classic, or Renaissance texts. The meaning of the Book of Revelations is abundantly clear, as is that of Plato's Republic, as is (to a more satirical extent) Dante's Inferno. But once you see the seeds of naturalism take hold, you get texts that are lavishly detailed and they assume that the reader will meet the author halfway when it comes to making sense of the metaphor and meaning beneath the imagery. One criticism of the Naturalists is that they were mere specialists, like an artist who can create a picture of a banana that's so realistic it appears to be a photograph. The "art" of the picture is that it's indistinguishable from a photograph, but in order to appreciate this hypothetical piece, it requires that its audience understands what a photograph is, how a photograph is different from a painting, and has some sense of how difficult this accomplishment is. Literature is similar with regard to description. Your audience must understand why certain details matter before they read the book in order to understand the meaning beneath the details. The same isn't true, or at least isn't AS true, of earlier forms of utopias and dystopias.

My mental state: Poleaxed. I've read over 1000 pages of primary and secondary texts this week and I've got at least a couple hundred more to finish by the end of the night, about half of which consists of mind-bendingly abstract and dense critical texts. I had hoped I'd have at least a week or two before this level of commitment to coursework kicked in, but evidently that's not the case. I got a slight head-start on my work for ENG781 by reading Sister Carrie and McTeague before the class started, but if this week is any indication, I'm in for a grueling term. I had a headache last night that would have incapacitated a grizzly bear and it's only a matter of time before all of the sitting, driving, and scraping my eyeballs across Georg Lukacs's impenetrable prose starts to wear on me. Think Rocky was a tough-ass? If you really want an inspirational montage with 80's rock music, watch someone survive four months of PhD coursework. My initial thoughts about the social media component of this research: I love the idea of sharing PhD-level research with the world. I do not love the additional work that it represents.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Mark’s 2013 Scrapbook of All the Things

So I’m a dad, which means that half of the stuff on this list was released in 2012 or before, but I finally got around to reading/watching/listening to it this year. I'd like to preface this by saying that at no time have I ever watched a show concerning the manufacturers of high-quality waterfowl lures, nor am I completely sure what the fox say. Nevertheless, even up to my eye- and earballs in PhD coursework and teaching my own first semester's load of classes, I managed to absorb my share of sweet, sweet brain candy this year. And because I'm just that narcissistic, I think I'll share it with you. In a ranked list. Because the internet doesn't have enough of those. 
Without further ado: here’s the best of what I came across in 2013.

The best film I saw this year:

Melancholia (2011) - Lars von Trier’s halting apocalyptic masterpiece is beautifully filmed, well acted, and, as his other films, deeply affecting. As usual, von Trier seems to cast his films by taking one person he's worked with before, one aging character actor, and throwing open a copy of E! Magazine to random pages to choose the rest. As if eliciting startlingly good performances from Kiefer Southerland and Kirsten Dunst weren't enough, Melancholia is as suffocatingly slow and bursting with inexorable dread as the rest of von Trier's films. Except this time, for once, the world really does end. Along with Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men and Michael Winterbottom's Code 46, I think this is one of the best sci-fi films of the 21st century so far, and it will stay with you for a long time after you watch it.

Other excellent choices:

Oblivion (2013) - A miscast and unevenly-paced film that nevertheless manages to be balls-out gorgeous. One of the most visually-impressive films I’ve seen in a very, very long time. It’s like watching a concept artist’s portfolio come to life.

World War Z (2013) - A rare instance where I felt the film improved on the book. I liked, but didn’t love, Max Brooks’ novel, and I thought the film was a superb adaptation. Zombie fiction is about far more than just thrills and gross-out horror, and is quickly becoming the thinking-person's horror genre. To a successful extent (if not as much as The Walking Dead) World War Z taps into what catastrophe means to an economically-fragile, globalized, late-Capitalism world.

Elysium (2013) - I remember enjoying District 9, but feeling like Neill Blomkamp could have pushed his plot layering a lot harder and written scenes that interacted more fully with his premise than he did. Elysium goes the distance, and it’s glorious. Many scenes where actors interact with humanoid robots are some of the most realistic-looking scenes of that sort ever filmed, and Matt Damon is terrific. Jodi Foster, of all people, manages to sound the only sour note in the film.

Ender's Game (2013) - I’m still not 100% sure how to feel about this. It felt to me somewhat like the film adaptation of The Road. A great movie faithfully adapted nearly verbatim from a great book ends up feeling like a zero-sum game somehow. Watch it with the confidence that it does the book justice, but don’t expect it to improve in any way upon the book. Is that a recommendation? I don’t know.

Film that was way better than it had any right to be:

Dredd (2012) - On paper, this film should have sucked badly, but it turned out to be one of the more entertaining surprises that I came across this year. Innovative cinematography, pitch-perfect pacing, a Blade Runner-like look, and cameos by Lena Hedley and Wood Harris sold me, Olivia Thirlby put in a solid performance, and Karl Urban stayed out of his own way. I know, I know. Judge Dredd. Just trust me.

The best TV I watched this year:

The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, and Girls - Despite the general bitching on Facebook that the plot of The Walking Dead drags at times, and the villains in Sons of Anarchy become more and more cartoonish as the show progresses, I think these first two shows put together some of the most consistently entertaining and meaning-laden television out there this year, eclipsing even some other great offerings from HBO, AMC, and Netflix. These two shows, more than any other, are encapsulating what life as an American in the Great Recession is all about. Girls is amazing for other reasons. It, too, is a Great Recession austerity narrative, but it's much more unevenly plotted and focused on a smaller scope. For smart scripts, great acting, and some of the most biting satire around, you’ll not find a show better than Girls.

Other great TV to check out:
The Newsroom, Game of Thrones, Archer, Family Guy, Downton Abbey, Hell on Wheels, Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Justified and Lilyhammer.

Shows you can skip:

HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and Getting On, and the Netflix reboot of Arrested Development. Boardwalk Empire has been limping on for two seasons after the series-crushing departure of Michael Pitt, and there’s very little sense to any of it anymore, and Getting On is like watching Nurse Jackie if Nurse Jackie wasn’t funny and smelled like a nursing home. I’m not sure why I don’t like the new season of Arrested Development. It’s just noticeably less feisty than the older episodes, and the cast seems not to interact as well as they once did. Which is sort of a bummer, really.

The best book I read this year:
George Saunders’ Tenth of December (2013)
If I had to pick a favorite, and I don’t like to, but if I had to, this would be it for me for the year. Not only does every story in this collection swing for the fences, but it had my favorite short story of the year (“The Semplica Girl Diaries”) in it, as well. I got to interview Saunders last winter, and he’s just as charming, witty, unpretentious, and brilliant as his fiction. If you only read one thing this year, read Tenth of December.

Runners up:
Cormack McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985)
A late addition to the list, as I just finished it yesterday, but this book totally blew me away. One of those books that you use to mark your maturation as a reader. As in “this was the first book since so-and-so that changed the way I look at novels.” I didn’t give it the top spot because it’s so fresh in my mind and because I need more time to digest it and think about what it means and how or whether I’m going to allow it to inform my own work, but it’s easy to see why so many critics regard Blood Meridian as a game-changer of a book.

James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce (1941)
Despite its dull premise, Cain (who also wrote Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice) managed here to write one of the most sharply mimetic female protagonists I’ve ever seen. Mildred, the down-to-earth and likable lead, is saddled with an exceptionally gifted daughter named Veda, with whom she has a turbulent relationship. Set in the tail end of the Great Depression, when economic hard times dragged into the better part of an entire decade (sound familiar?), I found this, and the novel’s eponymous main character, impossible not to like.

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2011)
I was certain—absolutely certain—that this book was going to suck. After all: I AM a gamer dork from the late 1980’s, and I didn’t think any dopey parody of it was going to be able to tell me anything about those years and growing up at that time that I didn’t already know. I was so wonderfully, hilariously wrong. This book (and I read the audiobook version, narrated by Wil Wheaton of all people), had me laughing and smiling and giving myself unselfconscious air high-fives from almost page one. It also has a remarkably poignant dystopian message about net neutrality and the commodification of leisure. Highly, highly recommended for anyone who grew up in the 80’s. This book is like a little energon cube of fun.

Other excellent choices:
Daniel DaFoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, Jack London’s The Star Rover, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Mark Blyth’s Austerity: The History of A Dangerous Idea, and Angela Pneuman’s short storyOccupational Hazard.”

Biggest disappointments:
Justin Cronin’s The Passage (2010) and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011). These two came highly recommended to me by several sources and they were both just wretchedly terrible. Cronin’s bloated, thousand-page mess read like it was written by a hormonal Mountain Dew-guzzling teenager fresh off a Dean Koontz/Mad Max binge, and Zone One was like reading the lifeless, book-length backstory of the corporate villains from a Paul Verhoven film. Given that Cronin and Whitehead are both Ivy League academics with eye-popping intellectual pedigrees, someone at some point should have known better than to greenlight these books.

My favorite musical discovery of the year:
PHOX- A late addition to Lollapalooza this year, and evidently a huge hit there, they opened for (and slightly outshined) Jose Gonzalez’s band Junip when I saw them at Lincoln Hall earlier this year. Their EP Confetti is terrific, and they’ve got some of the best YouTube music videos I’ve ever seen. Imagine a multi-instrument ensemble playing nerdy, Pink-Floyd-infused-Mumford jams with an adorable lead singer who sounds vaguely like Nina Simone, in all the best senses of whatever the hell that is. When I complained via Twitter that their EP had disappeared from Spotify, one of the band members immediately tweeted me back recommending I pirate the tracks I wanted. PHOX is awesome.

Other excellent choices:
"Nashville" Noah Gundersen, “Who You Love” John Mayer feat. Katy Perry, "Annabel" The Duhks, "Some Nights" Fun, "Walking Lightly", "Line of Fire" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad" Junip, "The Lost Boy" Greg Holden, "Coal War" Joshua James, "The Final Trawl" Back of the Moon, "Bothan airigh am braigh raithneach," Julie Fowlis.

Guilty Pleasures:
This was also evidently the year I stopped being much of a music snob, or the year that poppy female starlets started producing unusually good music. I say it with some sheepishness, but I listened to quite a lot of Katy Perry, Lorde, and Miley Cyrus this year. Their respective new albums managed to be just catchy and punchy enough to strike the right tone for a twice-weekly commute to Milwaukee in a car by myself. I’ll wait a moment while you picture me singing along.

Favorite stage shows of the year:
Wicked (the Broadway in Chicago cast, at the Oriental Theater) - It seems like I always get to see musicals onstage long after their heyday. I missed two chances in the late 80’s and early 90’s to see Les Miserables and Miss Saigon with Colm Wilkenson, Alan Ball, Frances Rufelle, and Lea Salonga, some of the greatest stage talent of their generation and the originators of the roles. And of course I missed Kristen Chenowith and Idina Menzel’s Wicked when I had the chance, sadly. I’ve seen Les Miserables twice since then, and Miss Saigon, with alternate (and far inferior) casts, and I was pretty sure I was in for the same with the current cast of Wicked in Chicago, but Allison Luff and Jenn Gambatese owned the living hell out the show, and made it so much theirs that it sent me to YouTube to find their version to listen to rather than the original. Gambatese was hilarious throughout and she and Luff got the loudest applause I’ve ever heard at a musical after her rendition of “Defying Gravity.” Her Elphaba seemed far more girlish, vulnerable, likable, and lived-in than Menzel’s stiffer (if maybe 5% vocally stronger) Elphaba. It’s a toss-up which cast is “better” but the new cast doesn’t give an inch of ground in the quality department and the current tour of Wicked is one of the most thoroughly entertaining things I’ve ever seen on stage.
The Steppenwolf production of Stephen Adly Gurgis’ The Motherfucker With the Hat, starring Jimmy Smits and John Ortiz was also tremendous. Full disclosure: I’m distantly related to director Anna Shapiro, but this was a wonderful departure for Shapiro in terms of both content and pacing, and seeing her stretch her usual wheelhouse to accommodate Adly Gurgis’ snappy, raunchy, and clever script was one of the most impressive creative wins I saw this year. The set design was terrific and Ortiz, in particular, was great. I don’t know anyone who saw this that didn’t enjoy it.

Favorite video game of the year:
I’m not even sure this deserves its own category, but this was the year that John and I discovered Minecraft, a deceptively simple-looking game that turned out to be one of the most fun video games I’ve ever played. Ostensibly plotless, Minecraft sets you down in the middle of a cartoonish but fully-interactive world and dares you to survive. During the day, blocky clouds drift past, trees can be chopped down to make shovels, pickaxes, hoes, and various other basic tools, and you can even start a little farm for crops and livestock. When the sun goes down, though, the monsters come out. Zombies, giant spiders, skeletons, and terrifying Enderman and Creepers lurk in the darkness and you’ll need a sword, armor, a bow and arrow, dynamite, and plenty of torchlight to keep them at bay.
And here’s the beauty of Minecraft: despite it’s blocky and primitive appearance, you can interact with every single object in it. Every piece of ground can be delved into, every pool of standing water can be scooped up in a bucket, every animal can be tamed, bred, befriended, ridden, or hunted, and you can build, as if you had the world’s largest box of Legos, anything you want. Want to make an entire castle out of transparent glass? Done. Want to recreate King’s Landing? Can do. Currently the world that John and I have built (because the game is much more fun in multi-player mode) contains a town of interconnected towers, a massive farm, a seaside-town, a skyscraper, a pirate ship, a minecart roller-coaster, a floating pyramid, several castles, and of course miles and miles of underground mineshafts and paths that we’ve cut into, around, and through the massive, endless wilderness of Minecraft. Fun for all ages, especially 35.