On Making Lists
We are coming up on the end of 2019. This is bullshit. Who approved this? I would like to speak to the manager. Why is this happening to me? *ahem* Sorry.
End of the year is a time of reflection. It’s a time for us all to look back at the last twelve months and think about the high points, the low points, and, well, we mostly forget the stuff in between. And because everyone is thinking about it, media outlets start writing about it. People wanna know. What were the best books this year? What were the best covers? What made an impression?
It’s a rough time of year for folks in books. It says “BEST” right there at the top. Of course we want our books to be on it! Of course every writer opens them and scrolls and scrolls desperately looking for their name, their title, hearts leaping at a cover with the same color palatte only to realize it’s someone else who is being called best.
I’m an agent. I love every book I help get published. So even if I get one book on the list, I’m excited and happy, of course, but I’m also enraged for all the ones that didn’t get on there. We are ambitious. We want the accolades. Of course we do.
Also, so what if you don’t get on a list? What’s the consequence? I’m sure getting on a year end lists helps sell a few books. But more likely they’re a recognition of a strong marketing campaign, or strong word of mouth, or good sales. More likely they’re the outcome of a plan already working rather than a reward in and of themselves. Best of lists are a consequence, not a goal.
Like I like to say: it all matters except for all the ways in which it doesn’t matter. So if you got on a list then take the win. If you didn’t, you didn’t lose anything. There’s just more to do next year.
Every year I start out by making a list of all the books I’ve read, all the movies I’ve watched. By April, I forget to write anything down. I wish I had a complete log of the stuff I enjoyed or hated this year. But it’s more fun to talk about stuff I liked so here’s my top books, movies, tv shows, podcasts, and games that I remember from 2019.
Books I loved in 2019:
- Wilder Girls by Rory Power
This is the weird, gross book of my heart. It’s queer af and the world building is unsettling, fascinating, and genuinely disgusting. It’s what if Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation was about a bunch of queer teen girls and their emotional interior lives. I can’t stop yelling about it to everyone and I’m not sorry.
- Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
I read this because I was working on a YA romance book and felt like I needed to understand the category better. Thank god I did because this was one of the most delightful reads I can remember. It’s like a window into an alternate universe where everything is just a little nicer but young men are still idiots who don’t know how to handle their feelings. It’s funny, it’s hot, it’s sweet, it’s got a bite to it. It’s everything I want in a book.
- The Likeness by Tana French
I have a new theory. You can’t read two Tana French books in a row. I tried this right after In the Woods and bounced hard. But now, years later, I think it’s an incredible book and is French in true form, devastating us and thrilling us by turns. I’ve never read A Secret History but I’m pretty sure this is the book I’d want that to be.
- Claire Dewitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran
This is one of the weirdest things I’ve ever read. 1/3 classic murder mystery. 1/3 portrait of social, racial, and economic injustice. 1/3 surrealist masterpiece. This is a detective yarn that takes place in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It follows the titular Claire Dewitt, the world’s greatest detctive, as she tries to solve the disappearance of a local political figure in the storm. She does a lot of drugs along the way. She consults a manual of detection like it’s the god damn I Ching. She falls deep into the weirdness of New Orleans culture. She solves a mystery.
- Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino
Tolentino is easily one of the most absurdly talented essayists working today. Her work is incisive, confessional, and far reaching. The essay that opens the collection works as both a deep dive into her own personal history on the internet and a critique of modern media’s demand for confessional stories. It’s a brilliant piece of work and every single essay in this collection just slaps.
Stuff I wish I read in 2019:
- The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang
- The Monster Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson
- Circe by Madeleine Miller
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
- The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix Harrow
TV/Streaming Shows I loved in 2019:
- Fleabag S1, S2
Everyone told me how great Fleabag was and I was like yeah, yeah I’m sure it’s good. Reader, I was wrong. It is not good it is perfect. I can not remember ever watching a show I loved so completely from the jump. The high formalism, the raw honesty, the deep commitment to character. Series one is a brutal gut punch of a season, but not without grace, empathy, and a genuine affection for all of the humans that populate Fleabag’s world. Series two, the season of the much lauded Hot Priest, is an order of magnitude better than the brilliance of series one. It’s tighter, focused, and gives a portrait of a genuine, heartbreaking bond between two people struggling to find their best selves. The show finds empathy for even the worst characters on the show and is utterly devastating and revelatory by turns. The first episode is a masterwork and I’ve watched it half a dozen times to pick apart it’s incredible structure, timing, and phrasings. Watch this show if you want to be a better writer, editor, or, like, human.
- Russian Doll
I adored this show. I think whether you like it or not hinges on whether or not you like Natasha Lyonne but her pitch perfect disaffected New Yorker schtick hit me exactly right and I simply fell in love with the show from the first shot. In a year where I watched some incredible horror I don’t know that anything unsettled and terrified me more than episode seven of this show. It’s funny, heartbreaking, terrifying, and hopeful by turns. Also, it’s a show about the history of the East Village and cycles of violence, gentrification, and forgetting. How could I not love it?
- The Mandalorian
It’s not even over and I can say this show is one of my favorites of the year. I have a total weakness for Star Wars and if you give me those spaghetti western/Kurosawa vibes on top of it? Fuck me up fam. Mando is the new man with no name. Pedro Pascal is the new Toshiro Mifune. Also, baby yoda.
Barry is a show about the impossibility of making art in the gig economy. It’s hilarious, dark, and very very real in spite of its outlandish premise. I love this show completely. I watched episode 5 of the most recent season, ronny/lily when it aired, immediately after GoT’s much lauded climactic battle. That episode has some of the best fight sequences outside of a John Wick movie. The violence is startling, the timing is hilarious, and the sprawling madness of the action is stunning in its brilliance. The contrast between that and the dark, muddled, boring mess of the big assault on Winterfell could not have been more stark. Give me characters struggling to survive at a human scale over bombastic nonsense any day of the week.
- Schitt’s Creek
This is one of those shows that takes the format of the half hour sitcom and launches it into the stratosphere. What starts as a very funny, slightly mean comedy about a rich family receiving their comeuppance evolves into one of the most genuinely heartfelt shows on television. At the end of season four, through an embarrassing amount of tears, said out loud to an empty room “I’m just so proud of my children.” I stand by it.
Stuff I wish I watched in 2019:
- The OA S2
- Sex Education
- Tuca & Bertie
- Killing Eve S2
Podcasts I loved in 2019:
- Friends at the Table
I’m biased because I work with these folx, but holy shit the end of Seasons of Hieron was incredible. This is the actual play podcast of my dreams. Funny, smart, and deeply committed to character and worldbuilding and consequence. If you can subscribe to their Patreon, Bluff City is also a fantastic show that’s something like if you moved Twin Peaks to Atlantic City and also there were wrestlers.
- Waypoint Radio
There’s a lot of Waypoint radio. It’s the podcast version of the now sunsetted brand Waypoint, Vice’s gaming vertical. Again, I’m biased because my client Austin Walker is a big part of the show and led Waypoint for years before bowing out this winter. The podcast is a savvy, funny, and critical take on the state of video games and pop culture. Happily wandering off mandate at the drop of a hat the evolving crew of critics each have distinct, fascinating perspectives from a range of backgrounds. That said, I sometimes wish they had a critic of East Asian descent with how often they end up dealing with Japanese-made stuff. I never wanted to yell through my headphones more than listening to the brilliant if extremely frustrating Evangelion rewatch this year. Nonetheless, it’s one I look forward to as the bookends of my week.
- Reply All
I never know how to explain what Reply All is. It’s about the internet. But really it’s about people. And it’s from these two guys who have the best laughs in podcasts. So instead of explaining it I just talk about Yes, Yes, No which is not even my favorite feature, but summarizes the appeal of the show. In it, Alex Blumberg, their boss, brings in a tweet he doesn’t understand and then they spend the next ten to forty minutes unpacking the meme and wandering through every weird corner of the internet that’s been evolving in the past few weeks. It’s such a smart way to unpack what’s going on in the digital world and also is relentlessly entertaining.
- Song Exploder
I will never not enjoy creative folk talking about their craft. This year the podcast has been hosted by Thao Nguyen of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down fame and she’s done an incredible job continuing in Hrishikesh Hirway’s shoes as they unpack how an artist puts a song together in minute detail. Expertly edited, the episodes are a sonic delight and help me understand in new ways not only why I like the songs I like but how an artist approaches and executes on their craft.
- The Adventure Zone
I know everyone’s down on TAZ Amnesty but my previously documented love for PBTA games means I enjoyed this a ton. While it never quite reached some of the absurd highs of TAZ Balance, I loved how the gameplay led to some delightful, unexpected outcomes. Always funny, always engaging, I enjoy the heck out of some McElroy game time.
Podcasts I wish I had time for in 2019:
- Dolly Parton’s America
- How to Survive the End of the World
- My Favorite Murder
- 99% Invisible
- Our Opinions are Correct
Movies I loved in 2019:
- The Lighthouse
I don’t even know where to start with this one. It’s a movie about a lighthouse. It’s a movie about the sea. About guilt. About faking it. About wanting to have sex with a god. And a mermaid. And a man. It’s about toxic masculinity. It’s about seagulls. I know I love this movie and I’m still, months later, trying to unpack what the hell I watched and what it means to me.
I wrote a whole damn essay about this for this newsletter so I’m not going to go in depth here. Bong Joon-ho is one of the leading lights of the Korean new wave. The Host will always be my favorite of his movies but damn if this isn’t the best thing he’s ever made. To quote the man himself, it’s scary and it’s funny.
- Pain and Glory
I adore Almodóvar’s work and I think this is the best thing he’s done. A reflection on his life and career, it’s a beautifully rendered piece of work with a stellar performance from Antonio Banderas at the heart of it. I loved it completely and found it a deeply affective meditation on what it takes to make art.
Jordan Peele is a straight up genius. He’s single-handedly reinventing the horror genre. Us is a messier film than Get Out but that makes me love it all the more. It swings for the god damned fences and I’m always here for the big, messy ambitious take. The performances are incredible, the writing is sharp, the direction has impeccable timing. Peele’s comedic sensibilities are on full display here showing that a joke and a scare are at their core, built with the exact same toolkit.
I’ve seen this three times now and it gets better for me on each watching. Midsommar is a masterpiece. At its core it is the heartwarming story of a young woman who finds solace in community. It is also is about the terrors of white supremacy and indoctrination. It succeeds at both goals simultaneously and I found the experience of watching it to be profoundly cathartic and I left the theater feeling harrowed and rebuilt. Like I’d been scraped clean in that brilliant arctic sun even as the world burned down around us.
Movies I wish I watched in 2019:
- The Last Black Man in San Francisco
- The Farewell
- Portrait of a Lady on Fire
- High Life
Games that I loved in 2019:
This is a tabletop roleplaying game about teenagers who are also monsters. It’s largely a game about queer identity, sexuality, and how to have feelings. It’s based on the Powered by the Apocalypse system and written by the brilliant Avery Alder. I’m MCing a game for some dear friends and it’s been the most fun I’ve ever had in tabletop. Play it with people you trust and can be open with. It’s not a casual game and it’s not a safe game (so please read and enact the safety tools. don’t be like that one person I played with who was like “it’s just a game so who needs boundaries”). But it is a great game.
Control is easily my favorite video game of the year. Without spoiling anything about the masterful worldbuilding and plotting, the game follows a woman who has been searching for a government agency called the Bureau of Control housed in a building called the Oldest House somewhere in Manhattan, hidden by unknown means from the world at large. It’s like Fringe as made by a David Lynchian madman who decided to build the house from House of Leaves but with a Le Corbusier design aesthetic. Also you fly around and throw chairs at people and also there’s a gun that when you pick it up makes you the Director of the whole agency and all the portraits change to your face and everyone you meet just calls you Director and there’s never any explanation of how they knew to do so. It’s brilliant and I can’t remember loving a video game this much in a long long time.
This is an Apple Arcade game and is the best puzzle match game I’ve ever played. You build a path of matching colored little monster guys and your big monster guy smashes through them all with his big sword. It’s strategic, visually delightful, and endlessly entertaining. It’s the perfect “will this flight never end” or “another train delay” game.
- Remnant: From the Ashes
I didn’t get very far in this game because life is busy and complicated but what I did play was fantastic. It’s a co-op Dark Souls style game with the worldbuilding from Annihilation and instead of swords and armor and stuff you have guns. It’s incredibly difficult and impossible to play solo. Me and my buddy spent three hours working on the first boss alone. The exhilaration when we finally took that teleporting asshole down was the equivalent of downing Illidan for the first time back in Burning Crusade days or clearing Oryx in Destiny. I wish our lives left more time for sitting down on our consoles and beating our heads against impossible odds and skill ceilings just out of our reach.
- Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Part dating sim, part fantasy tactics game, the whole internet seem to fall into Fire Emblem madness this year. At the start of the game you choose to belong to one of three houses in a school for training the next generation of heroes. Immediately it seemed like everyone aligned with the house of their choice and became ride or die for their house leader. For the record, I’m team Black Eagles and if you dare disparage my axe-wife Edelgard, we fightin’. Anyhow, this game is great and very long and got me through a number of annoying cross country flights.
Games I wish I played in 2019:
- Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
- The Outer Worlds
- The Outer Wilds
- Disco Elysium
Anyhow, I hope y’all liked stuff this year. Liking stuff is fun and good and is easier than hating stuff.
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