Favorite Things of 2017

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Books, movies, albums, concerts, and television series: Five Sets of Five (with links to further information for the curious).

Books

  • The Idiot by Elif Batuman overflows with sweetness and sadness, with quirky grammatical key mappings that condemn English at the same time that you realize it is the only language with which your dumbass American voice will ever enjoy fluency. The Idiot is thick like the O’Reilly book that takes you beyond the basic to reveal the secrets of Emacs, so elegantly meta that you will not be able to remember the syntax if you ever need it again, which is why O’Reilly knew you would have to purchase the book and keep it forever because once you love Emacs you will feel physically ill if it is not found at /usr/bin/emacs. The Unix security geeks broke finger and ping, but Emacs lives on (version 25.3 was released on September 11, 2017). Yet there is no going back to those days except via fiction (so just learn Markdown instead). This is a novel with characters who had lives and loves that depended on Emacs, finger, and ping. For me, this was a laughing-out-loud page-turner.
  • Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World by Billy Bragg. I imagine he (and his old friends) might cringe at calling him a gentleman and scholar, but this book proves it. In July 2017, he gave a talk about the book at the US Library of Congress.
  • Chief Seattle and the Town That Took His Name: The Change of Worlds for the Native People and Settlers on Puget Sound by David M. Buerge. Most residents around the edges of the Salish Sea have only vague awareness of the local wars and the peace-makers who shaped our region in the mid 19th Century. Buerge shares what he has discovered about Chief Seattle in an elaborate narration, enhanced with his various speculations and several interesting maps (one of which includes a serious error as to the location of Smith Island, though the information in the text will make it obvious to most readers).
  • Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean by Jonathan White.  Being somewhat familiar with the area, I particularly enjoyed the chapter about the Skookumchuck Narrows and the Sechelt area. Jonathan excels at turning science into readable stories. Kirkus Review has a nice write-up.
  • Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. At one level, I found this bird book to be an illumination of the American immigrant experience, demonstrating how easily we fall into the trap of denying our own immigrant heritage in order to lay blame on others for the impact of human activities both intentional and accidental. If you have not already read it, you may want to track down Haupt’s previous book, Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness

Though it is not one of my top five favorites published this year, I cannot resist mentioning the last 2017 book I finished (on Dec 31):

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland is a rollicking, bawdy, hilarious, and in some moments heart-touching Wrinkle in Time for 21st-century adults, especially anyone who has worked for a branch of the federal bureaucracy.

One of the characters, born in the 19th Century but living in the current era, reassuringly welcomes a new time-traveler from some century past, saying, “I will show you how to order take-out and flush a toilet and use Instagram. Although you are older. Perhaps you would prefer Facebook.”

If Mozart’s Starling can be interpreted as about the immigrant experience, then this time-travel tale can be considered a caution about contemporary forces dedicated to reverting America to medieval ways.

You may know some of them. They have one thing in common: Denial that the US Constitution was framed to exercise post-Enlightenment values and philosophies. It does not matter if the movement is controlled by anti-science pagans (as in this book), neo-Fascists, or any brand of theocrat, the result they seek is basically the same: unbalancing the Constitution to concentrate power and wealth in their own could-not-be-further-from enlightened hands. If you enjoyed Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle, try this.

Movies

To my eye, all of these are brilliant examples of cinematic art, tugging us into contemplation of and empathy for the inevitable consequences of birth and human treachery.

  • Lucky by John Carroll Lynch, starring the late-great Harry Dean Stanton.
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri by Martin McDonagh. “Mildred is painted as a female avenger, styled after the famous ‘We Can Do It!’ American wartime propaganda poster that was latterly co-opted as an icon of modern, can-do feminism.” –David Jenkins in Little White Lies No. 72 (p. 9)
  • Blade Runner 2049 by Denis Villeneuve.
  • Wind River by Taylor Sheridan.
  • The Killing of a Sacred Deer by Yorgos Lanthimos. Some have called this “the feel bad movie of the year.” It is not an easy-going experience. The scene of Kim standing against the tree singing Ellie Goulding’s Burn (which you can hear in the trailer) to Martin (the character demanding a sacrifice) may sum up the whole movie. Taking responsibility for our own trespasses (and those who trespass against us) without shuffling the blame onto a sacrificial placeholder… We are not so good at that, so we have to live with the nightmares. The ways we treat our children and spouses like property is another matter that we tend not to let ourselves come face-to-face with. Nothing new in any of that: it’s all ancient Greek dramatic material. There are religions born out of this material.

Albums

Another favorite discovery (that was not new enough to be in my Five for 2017) would be Beneath the Skin (2015) by Of Monsters and Men.

Concerts

  • Jesca Hoop at the Fremont Abbey (Seattle)
  • Billy Bragg at Fríkirkjan (Reykjavík)
  • Fleet Foxes at Harpa Eldborg Concert Hall (Reykjavík)
  • Nick Sherman at Jericho Beach (Vancouver BC)
  • Gróa at Lucky Records (Reykjavík)

Also at Jericho Beach: Tift Merritt, Kathleen Edwards, Shawn Colvin, Rhiannon Giddens, Si Kahn, Ferron, Aoife O’Donovan, Luke Wallace, Noah Gundersen, the Mae Trio, Gabrielle Shonk, the Slocan Ramblers, Billy Bragg & Joe Henry (performing their tribute to the railroads of America, Shine a Light), and the magnificent Native North America: A Gathering of Indigenous Trailblazers (including Willie Thrasher & Linda Saddleback, Willy Mitchell, Lloyd Cheechoo, and Gordon Dick Sr.).

Also in Reykjavík: William Doyle, Högni Egilsson, Hildur, RuGl, Between Mountains, Pascal Pinon, Árstíðir, and Mumford & Sons.

Television Series

  • Twin Peaks by David Lynch and Mark Frost. In a weirdly pathetic way, the Dougie Jones character (Mr. Jackpot) reminded me of how Alzheimer’s Disease victims experience the world. I do not understand why Lynch and Frost ignored the obvious relationship between the Black Lodge and the Hanford Project. (The other four entries on this list also have ties to the Black Lodge.)
  • The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.
  • Stranger Things by the Duffer Brothers.
  • Mr. Robot by Sam Esmail.
  • I Love Dick by Jill Soloway, Sarah Gubbins, et al.

PS

In the 21st century, it is impossible for anyone to be well-enough informed in any art genre to make a valid claim for a “best of” list. The quantity of production is beyond one person’s ability to assess qualitatively.

Even if you are a full-time reviewer, you will be exposed to only a few percent of annual art production. So, be honest. You can only form an opinion about what you have allowed into your consciousness. Unless you base your preferences on those of influential taste-makers (which makes you a follower of fashion whether you form an opinion or not), what you end up liking and remembering is a subjective process.

Your opportunities to experience new art are limited by your time, habits, budget, willingness to seek information about what is new, and how much of a life you want to have. You might get your news via mass media or whatever niche and social media you enjoy (or are addicted to). You might be exposed to what is new by visiting libraries, stores, or galleries. But no one has a realistic hope of monitoring all the new books, new music, new movies, etc., in any given year of the 21st century. Which is why no two “best of” lists are alike, and why the awards pageants can get things so wrong. This also explains why you may not have heard of things I included on my lists.

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