Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Let's Enjoy! The Last Blog Entry of 2008

Before we could realize it (Before it really hit me, anyway, having been under the weather on and off this month. Presently relishing the fact that my voice is still functional.), New Year's Eve crept up on us again. What a year it's been, so much has happened, both good and bad, that Flying Pig tragedy sure was sad, and all those other trite little year-ending statements.

Of course, this is a retrospective post - I'm sure you began reading this expecting that anyway - so we're taking an in-no-way-all-inclusive look back over the events of this year, whether you like it or not.

To try something a little different from last year, I'm just going to toss out a few categories and mention a few things in each (In no particular order) and slap out a little of that newfangled commentary that people love to clog the intertubes up with.

- Things got pretty vicious between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as the last days of the primary season ran down, but after Obama got the nomination, Clinton eventually came around and helped the party to unify a bit more. (Though she was a little late in getting to that.)

- John McCain got the Republican party nomination and a lot of people pushed themselves to pretend they liked him a lot more than they did after spending months tearing him down during the primaries. (And they really didn't have a single non-schmuck candidate during primary season anyway.)

- New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's career quickly sputtered out as he resigned in disgrace over a particular prostitute habit of his. The prostitute in question was treated like a bit of a celebrity and then quickly forgotten. Girls Gone Wild founder Joe Francis chimed in on the matter of her a few times to remind us all that he's still a rotten human being. (But everyone was already well aware of that.)

- Ted Kennedy went through some truly difficult health problems this year, suffering from a cancerous brain tumor and resulting seizures. Fortunately, he's stable and still certainly active in politics now.

- Former North Carolina Senator, Presidential, and Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards admitted to an affair he'd had with a former campaign worker back in 2006, and like Spitzer, suffered a pretty big public image backlash, causing him to largely withdraw from public politics during the last few months of election season. And unsurprisingly, conservatives have tried to use his failings in his personal life - which are as legitimately criticizable as anyone else's - to undermine his politics, as though character flaws and mistakes in one's personal life suddenly invalidate things like the fight against poverty.

- At the Republican National Convention, John McCain introduced Sarah Palin as his running mate, in an act simply insulting to Americans as a whole, and especially so to American women. It was his "I bet women are so angry over Hillary Clinton not getting the nom that they'll be pissed enough to vote for me based on my personal anti-Hillary Clinton, based on their anatomical similarities!" (I like to imagine this being concluded at a campaign staff meeting wherein someone makes a comment similar to George Tenet's infamous "slam dunk" comment. But with more misogyny.)

- Tom Tomorrow sums up "Joe the Plumber" even better than I could.

- As the last days of the election wound down, things only got nastier by the week. McCain performed exceedingly poorly in all three debates, as did Sarah Palin (Who hoped we'd overlook her complete incompetence on account of her folksy "don'tcha know" ways. Thankfully, more of us were insulted by that implication than won over by her.), and many desperate statements were made. Palin herself pretty much outright started catering to racists. (And entirely unsurprisingly, there was no shortage of racism from conservative-leaning voters during election season, openly using Obama's middle name as a substitute for a particular epithet and looking no less racist for it. Of course, racists generally aren't too bright to begin with. Tends to be prerequisite in the whole racism thing.) Obama tossed plenty of legitimate political criticism back their way in riposte.

- Then in November, we saw the historic Obama/Biden presidential victory along with some much-needed strengthening of the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. And hey, we managed to elect some pretty good people here in North Carolina too, ousting Elizabeth Dole from the senate and replacing her with Kay Hagan. A nice bit of progress.

- Since his victory, Obama's gone on to make some interesting political choices in the formation of his "team of rivals," committing to strong bipartisan leadership in these tough times, showing that he's in no way the socialist that conservatives who don't understand socialism tried to paint him as. Of course, like many young activists who openly supported him during the election and were hoping to see a dramatic reversal of more of the Bush administration's policies and politics right away - with a sharp political turn to the left that this country is in absolutely sore need of - I'm not entirely happy with all of Obama's decisions. (Including his asking Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation.) But I'm not about to rush to condemn him either. These are complicated times (Aren't they all?), and while this country certainly is in sore need of that aforementioned sharp political turn to the left after these past eight years of regressive neo-conservative leadership, we're also living in a very unstable time, and the American people won't be well served by partisan political bickering at this point. Lasting progress won't likely be most effectively made by swinging from the ridiculously far right to (at least) the center left. (Though that would be a far more ideal place to be overall.) In a country as depressingly stuck in the past as this one can be, lasting change seems to need to be gradual, though introduced and pushed by bold leadership. And this will be an administration that may have that power - they're inheriting disastrous times, but it's at times like these that history is made, and its course changed. Even after we saw awful legislation passed like California's Prop 8, we're still seeing sharp opposition (Including California's Attorney General now as well) and the possibility of the legislation being struck down by the courts, restoring the newly gained right to marriage that California's same sex couples first achieved earlier this year. The Obama team is currently formulating plans for decisive action on the economy as well. (It won't help the deficit, but at this point, we don't have too much room to worry about that these days. That'll be an issue for more stable times.) Suffice to say, my own cynicism aside, I do have quite a bit of hope for this administration, and I'm looking forward to seeing what they accomplish in the coming years.

- From the looks of things, Caroline Kennedy is a strong potential replacement for Hillary Clinton as one of New York's senators as well, since Hillary's leaving to become Obama's Secretary of State. (Certainly an improvement from Condoleezza Rice.) New York Governor David Paterson hasn't made his choice yet, but he's remarked that she could certainly be a good political choice for him. From what she's said on the matter, Kennedy seems like she could be an interesting new figure in the Senate, especially considering her family's political legacy.

- On a more negative side of things, of course, we have Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's scandal around his having tried to sell Obama's Senate seat, and the recent blocking of his appointment of Roland Burris. (Who probably would've been a fine replacement, not having had anything to do with Blagojevich's efforts to sell the seat, but given the circumstances, it's understandable why any replacement appointee from Blagojevich would be rejected.)

- Dick Cheney himself has now admitted that he's a war criminal by definition, but we're left with the question of whether or not we'll see anything done about it. (The outgoing administration certainly deserves to be held accountable by the law for their criminal activities.) One also has to wonder whether Bush will pardon him before he leaves office in the next few weeks. And just how many pardons will Bush issue? He's already attacked further endangered species and environmental protections in his final days. Bill Clinton's last few days in office were hardly something to be proud of, and in many ways, that'll make seeing how Bush handles his exit all the more interesting, considering how disgraceful his presidency has been.

- Israel and Palestine are back to bombarding each other (The former doing more damage to the latter at this point) after a few Hamas members fired rockets into Israel. It's hard to talk about this conflict, not only because it's so dreadful, but because it seems to be endless. Let's just keep our fingers crossed that they're able to work out another ceasefire soon. The world keeps turning, but some violence just never seems to end. The human race at its most depressing.


- As tends to happen every year, what with people not exactly being immortal, a bunch of famous people died, including: Heath Ledger, Isaac Hayes, Brad Renfro, Bernie Mac, George Carlin, David Foster Wallace, Gary Gygax, and numerous others. (I'm too lazy to compile a full list, and let's be honest - we're both limited in how much we care to compile or read a list of all the celebrity deaths this year.) Suffice to say, the world certainly lost some more talent.

- The WGA strike was finally resolved in February, allowing the writers to return to work, resuming the usual schedules for shows like The Daily Show, Colbert Report, and Late Night with Conan O'Brien. (All of which were certainly notably affected by the strike.) The strike also spawned a wonderful crossover conflict between Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Conan O'Brien that played out across each of their respective shows. The only primetime shows I keep up with that saw much of a return in the spring were Reaper, The Office, and Scrubs, though. And unfortunately, the strike and the long duration between new episodes of newer series it created likely helped sink some of the newer shows from that fall - including Pushing Daisies, the cancellation of which I'm still lamenting.

- America confused length with writing quality (Yet again) and fell in love with The Dark Knight over the summer. But there were much better superhero offerings. Personally, I don't consider The Dark Knight or the Will Smith vehicle that tried to be a superhero comedy (And ended up being too heavy-handed to really be all that funny or achieve the full potential of the amusing premise.), Hancock to be worth your time. Iron Man was an excellent example of a superhero film with a sociopolitical conscience. (And Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark is a far more enjoyable and relatable multimillionaire character than the grating manchild that Christian Bale's one-note Bruce Wayne amounts to. "Shut up, Alfred! I can do everything!" indeed.) Hellboy II: The Golden Army was simply extremely entertaining with absolutely beautiful artistic direction courtesy of the fantastic Guillermo del Toro. Funny script that works when it tries to take itself seriously without being heavy-handed, and is very funny when it takes that angle as well. The Incredible Hulk was good too - not spectacular, but still well worth seeing if you're a fan of superhero movies.

- Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull finally revived the long-awaited and much-beloved franchise as well, but frankly, it just wasn't very good. If you turn your brain off, you can certainly have fun watching it, but it doesn't live up to its predecessors. (The usual trend from Lucasfilms these days.)

This Guy! (Pretend you care.)

- I've nearly finished 25 of the 28 chapters and the epilogue to my first novel now, after working diligently all year. I'll definitely be finishing it within the first couple of months of 2009 (After countless delays. It's easy to be "nearly done" with a project of this scale for a long time.), and then it'll be all about looking for an agent while working on my second novel and hoping like hell I get lucky and find someone interested in representing me, and that they in turn find a publisher willing to get behind my work.

- I also got published for the first time this fall, in The Raleigh Quarterly's second issue. (I can't plug my absurd little comedy piece there enough. For a newly published author, I'm turning into quite the self-promoting whore already. ... HAVE I MENTIONED THAT I LIKE TO WRITE WORDS?!)

- Once I get a writing sample in the mail, I'll have my one grad school application for 2009 out too. (To UMass Amherst. The other schools I planned on attempting required three recommendation letters. Frankly, given that I'm not so great at keeping in touch with professors, I was astonished that I managed to get the two I needed for UMass.) No idea if I'll have much of a real shot at getting in, but I'm giving it a shot anyway, since getting to go to school there and focus on my writing full time for a few years would be amazing.

(My life is exciting.)

Just for some pop culture stuff as well, my top 5 picks in several categories for things I've seen, read, and played this year.

Video Games

#1) Opoona (Wii) - An absolutely tremendous, relaxing mix of a science fiction old school role-playing game with a life simulation about contributing to society. I haven't had this much fun with an RPG since EarthBound on the SNES. Easily one of the most underrated games of 2008. Fantastic soundtrack, and vast sci-fi city environments that're wonderful to get lost and immersed in. One of the only RPGs I've ever seen that's gone out of its way to make appreciation of a variety of the world's unique art movements and pieces a part of the gameplay.

#2) Moero! Nekketsu Rhythm Damashii Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan 2 (DS) - The sequel to the popular comical rhythm/music game in Japan that was reimagined by the same developer here in the west as Elite Beat Agents a couple of years ago. More great Japanese pop and rock songs, lovable characters, and tremendously fun and challenging music gameplay. A definite favorite acquisition from the yearly Animazement convention here in the Triangle, from an import gaming vendor.

#3) Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World (Wii) - The long-awaited sequel to the Gamecube's original hit Tales of Symphonia. A good mix of RPG story with frenetic combat and enjoyable character writing (Though the two leads start out a little grating.) make for another of the strongest games in the genre this year.

#4) No More Heroes (Wii) - Suda 51's stylistic follow-up to the brilliant Killer7, amongst the few truly great M-rated games on the market. Where Killer7 focused on being insanely surreal and psychological in its framing, laden with political commentary about America and Japan, No More Heroes doesn't take itself nearly as seriously, playing out as an effective parody and criticism of games like the Grand Theft Auto series, while being one of the bloodiest video games ever made. The strong arcadey hack and slash gameplay makes the game a lot of fun, but the writing and phenomenal cast of characters - like Killer7's - make No More Heroes a game absolutely not to miss.

#5) Animal Crossing: City Folk (Wii) - Effectively fusing the best elements of the previous entries in the series on the DS and Gamecube, and coating that with a new level of polish with a bunch of additional content easily made City Folk the best game in the Animal Crossing series to date. Lots of fun character interaction, relaxing daily life sim gameplay, fantastic new features and variety to character dialogue, and the introduction of Wii Speak voice chat and the Wii Speak Channel make this game one that belongs in every Wii owner's library.

Honorable Mentions: (Wii) Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon, Baroque, Okami, Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, Endless Ocean, Dewy's Adventure, Mega Man 9, Ys Book I & II, Art Style: Orbient, Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People, Endless Ocean. (DS) Etrian Odyssey II, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Justice For All.

Movie Picks (Another top 5)

#1) The Fall - A visually breathtaking masterpiece of modern cinema. A remake of Yo Ho Ho, a 1981 Bulgarian film. The Fall tells a simple, but conceptually classic tale of a suffering stuntman telling a little girl fantastic stories through fantasy sequences, drawing on the characters and actors from their hospital. As the stuntman has the girl bring him medication with which to commit suicide, things start to take a tragic turn. Tarsem Singh knows that film is a visual medium and shows it in incredible ways with this film. The Fall is, in many ways, what great filmmaking is all about. It's hard to rank my favorite first time viewings of 2008, but this gets #1, in the end. (The cast is led by the fantastic Lee Pace as well, of Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies.)

#2) Dolls - This devastating 2002 Takeshi Kitano film is very close to perfection in many regards. It requires a little patience, and a bit of appreciation for Japanese Bunraku puppet theater. (The first 10 or so minutes of the film consists of such a performance.) But the three stories running parallel will eviscerate your heart with their ferocity. Kitano doesn't hold back with these stories, and the film is an absolute feast for the eyes and ears, with its incredible cinematography, use of color, and last Joe Hisashi score for a Kitano film.

#3) Funky Forest: The First Contact - This collaboration between Katsuhito Ishii (The Taste of Tea, Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl, Party7) and two other Japanese directors is one of the strangest, most absolutely surreal works of comedy cinema I've ever seen. It's mindblowing, absolutely random, and there is nothing else quite like it. And you'd have to have no sense of humor not to laugh at this one. One of the funniest and most creative films I've seen in years - effectively a cinematic mix tape.

#4) Once - A beautiful, simple love story with an incredible soundtrack. The music makes the movie in so many ways. Glen Hansard's enjoyable, and Marketa Irglova makes a strong impression. Another film for lovers.

#5) Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi's uniquely presented animated adaptation of her graphic novel tells the story of her youth between Iran and France, and the cultural changes occurring in Iran at the time. A superbly done and thoroughly entertaining film with a powerful and memorable story to tell, without being too melodramatic or heavy-handed - it's a life, animated. Satrapi's story is something everyone should watch, considering the distorted cultural perceptions most Americans have of Iran and its history these days. (It's all well and good to despite Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It's something else to get into that "bomb bomb bomb Iran" state of mind where you forget about the actual people of the nation and their suffering under their turbulent political changes.)

Honorable Mentions: Snow Cake, Leon, Chungking Express, Paprika, Wall-E.

Literature Picks (Top 5)

#1) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami - I'm still reading this at the present. At just over 600 pages, the story separated into 3 separate "books" within the novel, it's not exactly light reading. But upon reading it, it's easy to see why this is the novel that really made Murakami's readerbase explode globally. Ridiculously good, insanely elaborate storytelling.

#2) After Dark by Haruki Murakami - A more recent Murakami novel, which I read back in January. In terms of closure and completeness in the story, it's one of Murakami's weaker works, as it leaves you with far more questions than answers, and only really gives you some small semblance of closure with one of its main characters. But the book more than makes up for its shortcomings with its brevity - the passing of a single night - extremely likable cast, magical late night Tokyo atmosphere, and complete break from Murakami's usual protagonist archetype, voice, and storytelling style. After Dark leaves you wanting a lot more - the story feels woefully incomplete, but what's there feels like a fantastic experiment in breaking from his usual approach to writing, and what we get is excellent. It's easy to fall in love with this book, so it ranks highly on my 2008 reading list.

#3) The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut - The story of Malachi Constant's voyage across the solar system is absolutely captivating literature. One best experienced for what it is - Vonnegut was no lightweight with science fiction like this, writing literary sci-fi full of meaning here, as opposed to the usual pulp that the genre's crammed full of. (Like most fiction genres. In many ways, the literary world sustains itself on pulp - while it grows in meaningful directions with literary fiction. ... And somehow that aside made me feel really pretentious for a second there.)

#4) Villa Incognito by Tom Robbins - One of Robbins' more recent novels, and in particular, a post-9/11 one. (And no doubt amongst the first books to contain references to the attacks in humor. Gutsy stuff.) The story itself follows the animal spirit Tanuki, one of everyone's favorite mischief-making Japanese animal levels, and one of his human descendants generations later. (Tanuki got down with whoever he felt like getting down with.) The present, the story follows three Vietnam MIAs as well, and their efforts to avoid capture by the US government. As you'd expect from Robbins, much strangeness ensues, coupled with meaningful reflections on humanity and our world. A very fun read.

#5) Coyote Blue by Christopher Moore - Moore's second novel, from back in the '90s. A strong step up from Practical Demonkeeping, his debut work, and a thoroughly entertaining tale of a Crow tribe man running from his past and his true self. When his spirit animal god, Coyote, suddenly shows up in his life and starts wreaking havoc - as well as helping him find himself and happiness - Moore brings even more wackiness to southern California. Also an extremely fun read.

There you have it, another (Hopefully more coherent) Spiral Reverie look back at 2008. Here's to the upcoming year of (Hopefully) grad school, publishing (In finishing my first novel and at least beginning my agent hunt then.), and far more productivity as a blogger. And also to producing more content that might someday draw readers here. (Maybe.)

Have a good New Year's, everybody.


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