Top 5 Video Games I Played in 2019

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This list will be more unburdened than the last as far as prolegomena go, but I would like to highlight one obvious thing: possible spoilers for all the games discussed below.

5. Celeste by Matt Makes Games

Celeste heartbreaks with its loveliness. It’s such a sweet, quiet, unpretentious story, painted in beautiful visuals, graced with phenomenal music. It’s also one of the best single-player platformers ever made, with capital P Perfect controls, godeye precise inertia/momentum, and a deeply satisfying, eminently doable difficulty curve. With Towerfall, Matt Makes Games created something I admired but couldn’t love. Here, with Celeste, they made something that’s even better mechanically, but has the heart and art to match.

4. Crusader Kings II by Paradox Development Studio

Everyone has a Crusader Kings II story. Mine is the tale of Dubchoblaig, the Spider Queen; I won’t recount her long and bitter life here, because if you’ve looked into CKII you’ve heard such tales before. CKII broke out of the Paradox clique and into a wider audience based (mainly) on this endless narrative fecundity. I can’t add a lot to the discourse except to confirm that, yeah, it really does create these epic (in the old, not the roflcopter sense) tales, spinning out characters, events, micro- and macrodramas, births and deaths of kings & kingdoms, desperate wars and overwhelming crusades for the entirety of your 60, 70, 80-hour playthrough. If you have any sort of imagination at all CKII will devour your life. It’s also free now (but buy the Way of Life expansion before your first game).

3. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice by FromSoftware

After crafting and honing a phenomenal melee combat system in the Souls games, FromSoft went on and made an even better one in Sekiro. No game, ever, captures the riverine poetry of a sword duel better than this one. Nearly every encounter comes at you with lethal threat, bare death, pushing you to incredible-feeling feats of awareness and reflex; key encounters end with you crowned Conqueror, adrenaline networking into hot wires and glorious burning fractals beneath your skin. As much as I love (most of) the Souls games, Sekiro makes me want to tell From: Never Look Back.

2. BattleTech by Harebrained Schemes

Soldier through the laborious, vague, lumpen, unhelpful tutorial and drab first mission. When BattleTech shifts into gear it becomes an engrossing tactics game that constantly presents you with crunchy, high-stakes battles. I can play engagements out over and over again in my mind, because the palimpsesting tactical considerations make them so tangibly there. And once you finish BattleTech‘s mostly superb campaign you can play again in Career Mode, living the unencumbered, de-training wheels’d life of a merc, cruising around a galaxy as wide and dangerous as a shark’s mouth, with a crew of lovable rogues and a hangar full of badass ‘Mechs.

1. Slay the Spire by Mega Crit Games

Slay the Spire is, to paraphrase Mary McCarthy, a creation of perfect beauty and symmetry. McCarthy was talking about Nabokov’s Pale Fire when she wrote that sentiment. Slay the Spire is objectively better than Pale Fire.

It’s a deckbuilding roguelite dungeon crawler that takes card game precepts, alloys them with the possibilities of a digital playspace, and creates something so good, so tight, so endlessly fresh and surprising that I feel like I could – and will – play it forever. I love each of the classes. I love the art. I love the enemies and bosses, even the ones that are fucking insufferable assholes. I don’t know if I love the music because I’ve never listened to it (update: it’s good but not great). Slay the Spire is so good the only complaints I have are requests: more classes, beta access on the Switch version or if not than at least cross-platform saves. For a certain type of person, Slay the Spire will be as primordial and eternal as chess.

Miscellaneous Awards:

Best Video Game Podcast: Cane and Rinse

The more I listen to Cane and Rinse, the more I appreciate just how good it is. A great cast of contributors with truly different viewpoints on the games provides refreshingly nuanced, multifaceted texture to the discussion. Cane and Rinse also provides an incredible amount of extras for its Patreon supporters while asking for so little in return. Go listen to them, and support them if you can.

Worst Game I Played This Year: Red Dead Redemption 2

It’s important to stress how shitty RDR2 is, both as a game and as one of the most visible representatives of ethics in the games industry. Kotaku’s report on the crunch culture at Rockstar gives an evenhanded account of what went into making this game. When a trendsetter like Rockstar creates a massive critical and commercial success despite reports like this, it gives the All Clear to other companies, signalling that nobody – not consumer nor critic – will take any action against unethically-produced games. Kotaku themselves reviewed the game, glowingly. This is the most insidious form of FOMO: nobody, no matter how moral, is willing to take a stance on something if it means even the possibility of missing out on something.

And RDR2‘s also a bad game. Yes, on a graphical level their vision of the West is (for now) superb, but with a titanic budget bouyed by meticulously extracted blood, sweat, and tears, how could it not be? Underneath the glamour the game is shambolic, infuriatingly conventional. From the flat-feeling gunplay to the non-operational survival systems, this game clanks and clatters under mechanics that are bland or worse. RDR2 has graphics from a year in the future but gameplay that was outdated 10 years ago. Rockstar also squandered the best character they’ve ever written with a story that rapidly devolves into the most drawn out, pewling instance of fan service I’ve ever seen in a video game.

 

Image Credit: Anailis Dorta

Top 5 Books I Read in 2019

I’ll be doing a few Top Fives to wrap up 2019, starting, obviously, with books.

Before the list proper, here’s everything I read in 2019:

J R by William Gaddis

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

2666 by Roberto Bolaño

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

Herzog by Saul Bellow

Fat City by Leonard Gardner

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

Airships by Barry Hannah

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

Suldrun’s Garden by Jack Vance

The Stand by Stephen King

The Green Pearl by Jack Vance

The Shining by Stephen King

The Croning by Laird Barron

Morte D’Urban by J.F. Powers

How to Read Donald Duck by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart

Cosmic Trigger by Robert Anton Wilson

I try to adhere to a 30 pages a day regimen in my reading. I settled on 30 pages because A) it’s a feasible fit-in with an obstructed modern life, and B) if observed, guarantees I’m able to finish nearly any book in about a month, which keeps things tidy on the mental calendar. I thought I fell short of that goal this year, but did better than expected. In total, I read 10,224 pages this year: about 28.01 pages/day.

Some observations about my readings:

Which two exceptions, everything I read this year was originally written in English.

With two exceptions, everything I read this year was fiction.

This is the first year in which I listened to audiobooks; three of them: The StandThe        Road, and A Game of Thrones (I read the first third, but switched to the audiobook).

Only two books this year were rereads.

I, and I cannot state this enough, do not like New Years’ Resolutions, but if I were to draw some possible guidelines for 2020’s reading based on what I did/didn’t do in 2019, they would be:

Read more literature in translation.

Keep audiobooks a key part of my regimen.

Read more nonfiction.

Keep the ratio between new reads and rereads approximately the same.

Oh and also: maintain a list of everything that I read somewhere because collating    between my blog and twitter account to make sure I found them all was a pain in the  ass.

FIVE FAVORITE BOOKS 2019

  1. Morte D’Urban by J.F. Powers

A winter surprise. Not super happy with my review of Urban, which I wrote right after finishing it and which fails to address the strange, elegant presence this book has continued to maintain inside my head. Superficially so straightforward, Urban teems with strong characterization, clean prose, and (a particular catnip) Heavy Midwestern Vibes. There are other things that I like about it, but don’t want to talk about for fear of spoiling them for others. Still don’t know who I’d recommend this one to; guess I’ll say that if you liked Silence by Shusaku Endo or the movie First Reformed, give Morte d’Urban a try.

 

  1. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

It was so strange and rewarding to return, after ten years, to the book that ignited all the literary drypowder in my skull and has always been a personal emblem to me of what books can achieve. Its place as fourth on this list speaks to the simple, obvious inability of a Top 5 to be authoritative in any way, or even ‘correct’; from lots of angles GR should be higher, and from any angle its place in my life is singular. But from a pure “reading for pleasure” point of view, for all that I admire GR (and there aren’t many books I admire as much), it is a lot. It was a fatiguing reread, and gave me full-on Epstein Brain three months before he was killed; I became paranoid to the point of exasperation, nearly to a point of despair. Not that either feeling was/is unwarranted.

 

  1. J R by William Gaddis

J R is a powerful book, angry and funny and beautiful; whereas The Recognitions can be a little too unvarnishedly angry to the point of unpleasing obviousness at times, with J R Gaddis struck perfectly the balance between anger and art. I mean, the book is still very obvious; there’s nothing subtle in Gaddis’s satire (with the exception of J R himself); but the eloquent vehemence of the attacks and their particular accuracy channel much vivid power. The characters are stronger in J R, too, and the whole thing is grounded in a more direct, tangible realism that I like; this is our world, in all its hot and cold ugliness, indicted in words on the page.

 

  1. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño

2666 is dark, arcane, driven by death and thoughts of death, death-obsessed; but also bravely makes the key leap and shows that engagement with death means engagement with life; and life, to Bolaño, isn’t a cheesy positivity, or some facile reconciliation with finiteness; instead, for Bolaño, life comes down finally to those few stretches of time in which we are steeped in art. Divided into five obliquely-related parts, what should feel like a congeries comes together like a cathedral. Highly excited to reread this one.

 

  1. Herzog by Saul Bellow

No surprise here, except for the first, eternal surprise that against all odds Herzog, most novely of novels (even the page count – 341 pages – is so fucking novely), stormed my heart and became my favorite book of the year. It hit me right in the red marrow. Herzog is magnificent.

A Couple Miscellaneous Awards

Best Audiobook: The Stand by Stephen King, read by Grover Gardner

I like Stephen King but he’s exasperating for me to read; I much prefer to listen to his novels; it somehow mitigates his excesses. The audiobook for The Stand is, hands down, the best audiobook I’ve ever heard. Grover Gardner seems totally in sync with the text, allocating the perfect voices to each of the (many) characters. This is one case where I can say that not only did the audiobook help me finish the book, it also actively made it better.

Worst Book I Read in 2019: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

It sucked.

A Mid-Year Book Ranking

I like lists, rankings, reviews, organizations, schema and structures, anatomies; because of this, and since the year is halfway over now, and since I don’t want to forget what I’ve read as I often do (I’m basically a bad, sloppy reader), I wanted to make a ranked list of everything that I’ve read in 2019 so far.

Each book’s rank is derived from an admixture of 1) how much I enjoyed reading it, and 2) how it stands in my esteem now, today, June 19th, after having finished it and moved on for shorter or longer stretches of time.

God Tier

Herzog by Saul Bellow
A full piece is forthcoming on Herzog, easily the biggest and best surprise of the year. I expected to love 2666J R, Train Dreams, books that’re so clearly fashioned from the stuff I gravitate towards. But I thought, wrongly, that I had moved beyond Saul Bellow, who seems so normal, so achingly, boringly a “writer,” with his natty bow ties, stable of standard awards, the sheer noveliness of his novel’s names: The Dean’s December? Seize the Day? Get the fuck outta here.

But, I am a bad reader, and I was wrong. Rich, funny, sad, raw – pick your favorite blurb-word fallalerie, it applies to Herzog  – but applies truly: this is a work of deep erudition and deep heart, a character study that’s as richly drawn as any I’ve ever read, a book about a man thinking that, through the all-grabbing vitality of its prose, manages to make that process of thought a thrilling, page-turning experience.

(And out of anything I’ve ever read it’s the book I most wish you would read; I want to know what you would make of it).

2666 by Roberto Bolaño
I reviewed this book here. Amazing, looking forward to taking another pass at it next year. One thing that’s worth mentioning, I think, is the sheer readability of 2666; although it is long, and juggles some arcane subjects like evil, death, and our own human hearts, it reads so easily, so smoothly – without losing any artistic individuality.

S-Rank

J R by William Gaddis
I actually began J R last year, but read about half of it in January so I think it counts. A very great book, and by no means as difficult as its reputation would suggest – in many ways I found The Recognitions harder to get through, although that is also a powerful and most excellent novel.

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
I reviewed Jesus’ Son here. Since reading it I’ve had to dig it out again, and I keep it on the stack on my nightstand to browse through on occasion, reading choice passages – and almost every passage in this slender little knife of a book is choice.

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
Johnson did it again with Train Dreams, which I read in two delightful hours a couple weeks ago. I thought about reviewing it, but really, if you’re interested at all in Johnson’s work, just pick up a copy and read it yourself.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
My first reread of GR since I read it in ’07 or ’08 was mostly positive. The sheer force of the art here is beyond reproach, but truth be told there was much in the book I didn’t enjoy, or didn’t quite ‘get.’ The near insanity of GR‘s constant, onrushing density of detail, its endless appurtenances of fantasy and fever dream and aside, do induce fatigue, even if the prose is uniformly capital-B Beautiful. I highly recommend it and love it, and it’ll always be a totem for me, but it does engender some readerly brennschluss.

A-Rank

The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa
At some point I have to write something articulating the concept of Perfection in fiction: what an author gains and loses by pursuing, and maybe even achieving, it. The Leopard is pretty damn perfect, a beautiful book, and if you ever need a guide of how to write historical fiction – what to include, what to show, etc. – this one’ll teach ya. Rich and invigorating.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Found this one manifestly great, but also kind of…cold? It’s hard to explain in brief, but there’s a certain distance to the narration that made 100 Years easy to admire but hard to love. It does have an unbelievable, perfect first chapter though, and an ending that’ll rip your heart out (don’t worry, it’ll grow back).

B-Rank

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
I took some notes on this one here. This cowboy epic went down easy, but didn’t stick with me. I can see why people like it, and I don’t think that it’s without artistic merit, unlike other popularly apotheosized doorstops (cough A Game of Thrones cough), but I think it fails to be the critique of Western myth it so clearly wants to be.

20 Tasteful Book/Environment Pairings for the Aesthetically-Inclined Reader

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I should – and intend to, at some point – continue to process my thoughts on Lonesome Dove. But today it’s cold, or more specifically I’m cold, so cold the backs of my hands feel like they’re being gently grazed with steel wool or a sparking livewire. So cold that writing about a dusty, sweaty book like Lonesome Dove seems weird.

And it was a weird time for me to read Lonesome Dove: during the last sad remaindered weeks of Ohio winter. It only snows once or twice during Lonesome Dove, towards the end when they reach Montana – and it comes across (mostly) as an otherworldly novelty to the cowboys, not the monotonous threnody that it is here.

I’m able to – and mostly do – read what I want regardless of the season, weather, locale, time of day or night. Unless you want to be a demoniacally arcane and prescriptive reader you have to accept that you’ll never always synchronize the aesthetic of a book to the aesthetic of the world outside.

But that interplay between the two is a real thing, and generates real alchemies inside your brain. In Heian Japan they knew (and by ‘they’ I mean ‘the nobility;’ and by ‘knew’ I mean ‘had the undeserved luxury to know’) that aesthetics were everywhere, that in some way most of a life could be lived artistically; that sitting in a particular spot, at a particular time of the day and year, looking out over a particular landscape with a particular weather cast over it, and reading a particular poem could, in fact, deepen the aesthetic impact of that poem.

All art creates its own world, but as we experience it by bringing it into our individual minds, it mixes with the experience of reality past and present kept there (because art’s made of the same stuff, ultimately, even if it is refined, distilled, altered, organized, given structure), and can develop additional deepnesses & resonances from that commingling, incorporating the unformed aesthetic of lived reality into its own architecture.

Here: some notes on possible book/environment combinations that may deepen the impact of the work itself, but also may not, because each of us develop our own correspondences between things and yours may be – probably are – completely different.

There’s a Mystery sub-genre called ‘Cozy Mystery,’ presumably because they’re ideal for hearthside winter evenings.

Moonwise, by Greer Ilene Gilman – winter book through and through. Wouldn’t read this one in summer. I’ve tried, but it didn’t work. You have to wait.

When I was in high school my cousin told me that On the Road is strictly a summer book,  and to wait till then to read it; unintentionally condemning Kerouac’s book to years of waiting itself, standing on ugly gray carpet under ugly fluorescent lights, waiting in the endless shifting line of my inner literary bureaucracy for conditions to align so that it can be processed.

Proust is often described as autumnal, and I can see that; but I seem to remember starting In Search of Lost Time in the spring, and finishing it on a late summer evening. And my favorite volume, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, is most definitely a summer book.

Find a good stretch of sultry days for Ulysses, the June book. Read the early chapters in the morning, salivate over Bloom’s kidney breakfast as you prepare your own matutinal meal.

Lolita: a summer book for sure; Pale Fire an autumn one. There’s something inherently literary about Appalachia in the fall. But maybe don’t read either of these; I’ve had a years-long ice cream headache from Nabokov’s fatty, rich prose – it gave me cavities. And yet in my memory it lacks a certain something; David Markson describes Nabokov’s style as ‘pinchbeck,’ and I’m currently inclined to agree. So just read Wittgenstein’s Mistress instead, alone in a cabin on a wintry beach – you kind of have to roleplay for this one.

You should read The Book of the New Sun in the summer. Summer is the season for all Dying Earth media. But also, just generally read The Book of the New Sun.

Peace, also by Gene Wolfe, is October only. You really ought to time it so that you finish it during the afternoon on Halloween, before it gets dark.

Last Good Kiss by James Crumley takes some even preciser timing: late summer only, heavy summer, when the sky seems stark white even when it’s cloudless; after the merciless beatdown of the dog days, when the weather is hovers between continuing late summer’s madness or commencing its own death with the onset of fall. (N.B.: you should also be on the road for the duration of the reading).

Read Misery in the winter (I didn’t).

I remember The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle taking place in the summer. I read it last year – or maybe the year before. There’s something about this book, and Murakami’s prose, that isolates itself from particular flavors, specific resonances; it’s sterile in a way that I can’t decide if I like or not – but it’s probably a summer book regardless.

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page G.B. Edwards: early autumn, preferably during a stretch of wet but not unpleasantly so weather. And really you ought to be in Guernsey.

Dracula would work best as a box of documents to be sorted through. A box of evidence. Like the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society did with “The Call of Cthulhu” and the Angell Box. Give me the Stoker Files.

I wish I’d read Foucault’s Pendulum during the summer, in a rainy city. I’d walk to the subway, avoiding puddles and people, and cram in some fevered reading during my transit. Urban life seems like the corresponding madness to the madness of this book – which is, to be honest, at least a partially feigned madness. I need to return to this one because I’m not sure what to think of it still.

Nightwood, naturally, needs the night. 

And The Tale of Genji is, indeed, best read in autumn.

The tone of Lord of the Rings: ancient, mystic, Yuleish. It seems older than it is, and so it should be read in winter. The first time. But then read it in each other season, to extract different colors and tones from Middle Earth.

Anno Dracula by Kim Newman: required reading during wet, cold, miserable falls.

Who wouldn’t want to read Wuthering Heights on a wind-lashed night in northern country, with the wind lashing the earth’s bare back and the trees swaying in unison, urging on the flagellation?

What I am currently reading now is 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. For me, this one is tied to time, not season; it’s best read at night – although now that I think about it I think summer nights would work best. And like most big books, I find it to make particularly good reading when I’m a little bit abstracted. The capaciousness of these bigger books allows them to let all of that abstraction and nervous energy in. There’s room for lots.

This is my second crack at 2666, which I bought when it was new, riding into North America on cataclysmic hype. At the time, I started it and got through Parts 1 & 2, but abandoned it. This time, less than a week in, I’ve already caught up to where I left off, and am positive I will finish it this time.

Image Credit: Suzuki Harunobu (c. 1725 – 1770)