Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2009, Pt. 6: Rachel Swirsky

Best of 2009
by Rachel Swirsky

There's a kind of seriousness to year's best lists – if not reading them, then writing them. They seem to be an attempt to define the previous year and make it meaningful. This year was worthwhile because of these best books, these best films, these best celebrity pet names or Dan Savage columns or charity dinners hosted by rodeo clowns.

Personally, I can't muster enough seriousness to ponder the profound insights into the human condition I gained in 2009. I'm still recovering from grad school.

So don't look at me for the best reading, listening and viewing experiences of the year. I can only give you the most entertaining.

1. Ace of Cakes

Charm city cakes is a Baltimore bakery that makes custom cakes in the shapes of things like Venetian architecture, convertible cars, pet dogs, and alien monsters. The reality TV show Ace of Cakes shows the charming, geeky staff going about the strangely artistic business of sculpting with sheet cake and decorating with frosting and fondant.

While Ace of Cakes is my newest discovery, I have long been obsessed with skill-based reality TV. On Top Chef (and better yet Top Chef Masters!), skillful craftspeople compete to make excellent gourmet meals. On Project Runway, fashion designers cobble together outfits from car parts and candy wrappers. I've happily watched photographers on The Shot and hairstylists on Sheer Genius.

While I adore seeing strapless gowns made out of twizzlers, I have to admit that these shows occasionally become tiresome when fifty percent of the camera time gets dedicated to why Will hates Jean-Luc and how Leo and Wyatt might make out even though Wyatt has a fiancé at home and blah blah I don't care make another dress already.

Pleasantly, Ace of Cakes isn't competition-style and – apart from the occasional cake collapse – is entirely drama free.

2. Cute Fucking Animals

Look. If we're talking viewing pleasure, then yeah, yeah, yeah, we all like a great movie, but second for second, very little matches the per-eye-blink awesomeness of watching a cute fucking animal. Seriously. A stray cat had kittens behind our house last month, and every time I looked out my office window, I would see tiny little orange, black and white kittens romping. Romping! I'd start with, "Awwwwwwww," and then start making incoherent gooey gargling noises and finally have to look away because it was too! much! cute!

(Kittens have since been moved inside where we are raising them to adopt out. Want a kitten? Ping me.)

And it's not just real life kittens. Oh, no. Sites like Cute Overload bring hours of viewing pleasure straight into your home – which, if your home is anything like mine, does not usually contain baby bats, baby pandas and baby tigers.

If you're the kind of cynical bastard who prefers to maintain a pretense that you don't like cute animals, you can STILL indulge with your skepticism intact by going over to Cute Overlord instead of Cute Overload where the animals are just as cute, but probably want to kill you.

And if you're an angry son of a bitch, you can go to Fuck You, Penguin where the blog owner berates animals for thinking they're so fucking cute. "Owls are always making snarky fucking asides like they're above it all. A perfect example of this was the other day. We were eating some really good watermelon sorbet together, and I was like, "Is this great or what?" and this owl gave me this look and said, "What." (He actually said "who," but I'm pretty sure that was just his lame meta-commentary on the commonness of the actual "What" joke.)… So I was all, "I should already expect it from owls, but you're a real piece of work even for your species, with the curved beak and the silent judging. Sorry I'm just a person and you get to be inherently wise just because you can turn your head around to look behind your shoulders, Owl. IT'S NOT A CRIME TO OPEN YOURSELF UP TO NEW EXPERIENCES, ASSHOLE."

So you can totally maintain your dignity while watching cute animals.

…though not while watching *these* cute animals.

3. Weird Animal Facts

When you're done sating your misplaced parental instincts by looking at things with big eyes and large head-to-body ratios, you can still derive reading, listening and viewing pleasure from reading about animals.

You can, for instance, pick up Wesley the Owl by Stacey O'Brien, a fascinating and sometimes touching memoir about a biologist who raises a barn owl. The book is fully of funny anecdotes about whacky owl behaviors, such as Wesley's obsession with Stacey's toothbrush. It's also full of funny anecdotes about whacky biologist behaviors.

For similar reasons, I enjoyed reading The Dog Who Loved Too Much: Tales, Treatments, and the Psychology of Dogs by Dr. Nicholas Dodman.

Online, Pharyngula is a fabulous source for reading about and sometimes viewing weird animals, from discovering pictures of the ginormous coconut crabs to watching videos of tool-using octopi making off with coconut shells.

Just avoid the tongue parasite. Trust me.

4. Rereading Old Books

While discovering a masterful text is a pleasure, rereading books is a lot more time efficient – after all, you already know you love them. It's also familiar, comforting, and nostalgic. My mom would say it's a waste of time, but she's just a librarian. What does she know?

This year, I enjoyed delving back into Pratchett's Discworld, Octavia Butler's Lilith's Brood and Wild Seed, and Tanith Lee's Biting the Sun or Silver Metal Lover.

5. Indecipherable Codexes

Like a lot of people, I learned about the Voynich manuscript via the web comic XKCD. The Voynich Manuscript is a 240 page illustrated manuscript written in a script that code breakers have been trying to decipher for centuries. Its strange illustrations include both real and unreal plants -- and more intriguingly, strange women immersed in greenish fluid. Some people say they look like bizarre">baths, but I think they look more like organs and the strange women seem to be dying or being tortured.

The manuscript first turned up in the historical record in the 17th century, but seems to come from the 15th or 16th. There are a lot of reasons to think this manuscript might be forged, but no one could figure out how medieval code-writers could have come up with something that looked so much like an actual language until a computer programmer came up with the means for replicating such a hoax.

The Codex Seraphinianus is a similar manuscript, except that we know it records a fake language because its creator, an Italian architect named Luigi Serafini, is still alive. The book imitates an illustrated encyclopedia from another world. Its evocative and sometimes disturbing images depict oddities like eyeball fish, fantastical plants and even a couple turning into alligators while making love.

The pictures are accompanied by an indecipherable alien script that hints at an explanation that will never be forthcoming. The viewer stares at an image of a man and woman being assembled by surgeons with mushroom heads and wonders what meaning, context and explanations the text could give us.

Ultimately, that hinted-but-denied meaning seems to be what makes these manuscripts fascinating. It wasn't until I found this excellent article about the Codex Seraphinianus at The Believer that I could put a name to my obsession and douse it.

6. Nighttime Soap Operas

Apparently the daytime soap is dying (although I have to wonder: is this death like the much-discussed death of science fiction?). But luckily nighttime television is ever increasingly more soap operatic! At Big Other, Tim Jones-Yelvington considers this phenomenon: "Even those crappy Jerry Bruckheimer police procedurals seem to be including more connective tissue, more evolving relationships between characters, across episodes. The biggest difference between nighttime soaps and daytime soaps (aside from production values) is, I believe, pacing. While on a daytime soaps, two characters will stand around a country club for an entire week having the exact. same. conversation, entire social worlds rise and fall during a single episode of Gossip Girl."

As someone who never liked daytime soaps in the first place, I salute the evening soap. Happy are the hours I spend in front of my television, devouring Dexter, Big Love, Satisfaction, The L-Word, Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me, Six Feet Under, and so on.

Much is made of the unintellectual nature of television, but this is silly. Any narrative medium will inevitably contain work that stimulates and work that fails to. Shows like Dexter and Dead Like Me may owe their high-stakes drama to the daytime soap, but they're just a new iteration of serialized fiction. And for someone who spends day in and day out immersed in words, it's a serious pleasure to get on with some visual entertainment.

So, come on over. Let's watch Dexter pull out his syringe.

7. Jojo's Goddamned Fashion Show

According to some people, I'm no gamer – I can't even make it through a few songs of Guitar Hero without starting to yawn, much to my husband's chagrin.

But when it comes to casual games, I – like many women – am a gaming champion.

Not all casual games are created equal. Here are some of the best I've found.

Chocolatier 2 – Secret Ingredients: Travel the world, collecting recipes for chocolates. Buy ingredients so that you can manufacture and sell your own brand. Play involves fulfilling quests, managing prices, and match three.

Dream Chronicles I, II & III: An evil fairy has kidnapped our heroine's husband and she must pursue him through a dream world, fending off malevolent magic. Play is a mix between old infocom games and Myst.

Sally's Spa: The best designed of the time management games in which the player must manage their time to create a successful business – in this case a spa.

Jojo's Fashion Show I & II: Fashion designer Jojo and her daughter have created a new line, and the player must coordinate their fashion shows. It's a bit like a cross between playing paper dolls and watching Project Runway – the player must assemble outfits that match a prescribed style, such as flapper, punk, futuristic, or mod.

Top Chef and Cooking Academy I & II: Top Chef is based on the reality show of the same name. The player chooses and prepares ingredients, gaining bonuses when they select flavors that go well together, such as ginger and chicken or basil and tomato. Cooking Academy provides the player with common recipes that the player follows by playing mini-games to collect ingredients, roll out dough, arrange sushi, and so on. Unfortunately, Cooking Academy II, which includes "world" recipes as well as American ones, indulges in racist caricatures which may make the game unplayable. (Racist and sexist depictions appear in many casual games, just as they appear in many non-casual ones – the example I found most jaw-dropping was Jewelix which features a shady Jew trying to cheat the shop owner.)

Tasty Planet: Like Katamari Damacy, but with a more intuitive playing system. Scientists have created a cleaner that's supposed to devour dirt, but the goo turns out to eat much more. Play the goo as it starts out eating amoebas and eventually grows large enough to devour planets, galaxies, and finally the universe.

8. Magnatune and Pandora

Two online music sites – Magnatune and Pandora – have been instrumental (see what I did there?) in helping me find new listening pleasures.

On Magnatune, I listen to Ehren Starks (minimalized, jazzy piano and cello), Shiva in Exile (gothic world music), and Jami Sieber (enchanting cello music).

Pandora has introduced me to Kate Nash, who brings interesting instrumentation to her pop roots, and my most recent favorite, Gabriel Kahane, whose musical style represents a blend of influences from Stephen Sondheim to arias to popular music.

His Craigslistlieder is my favorite musical find of the year, a song cycle based on anonymous ads posted at craigs list, culminating in the dramatic climax, VIII. Opera Scene, which chronicles the epic difficulty of finding a roommate when you have a compulsion to put ice cubes down people's shirts.
I have a compulsion to put ice cubes down people’s shirts. As my roommate, you will likely bear the brunt of this problem. Don’t ask me why I do this. Why do I do this? Why do I do this? Years of therapy hasn’t helped. Hasn’t helped. Hasn’t heeeeeelped.

Except for Kate Nash, all this work is available for free listening online (though I'm sure all the artists would appreciate a few dollars if you feel it worthwhile).

9. The Video of "Oasis" by Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer has posted videos for each of the songs in her latest album, Who Killed Amanda Palmer? These videos have caused some controversy – her record label refused to sponsor her video of "Leeds United" because they declared Palmer too fat, while TV outlets refused to air "Oasis" because it "makes light of rape, religion and abortion."

Luckily, both videos are available online. "Oasis" a strikingly dark song, contrasted with bright music. This strange, uncomfortable mix creates an important sense of disjunction, forcing the listener to engage with the character beyond their preconceptions.

Palmer's videos are always compelling. The Dresden Dolls' "Coin-Operated Boy" is a perfect science fiction story in three minutes. Their angry "Girl Anachronism" is enhanced by Palmer's acting. Also of note is Palmer's reworking of the classic song "What's the Use of Won'drin'?"

Another of my favorite online music videos this year was produced as a protest against California's proposition 8, and features LGBTQ teenagers and their allies lip synching to the Lily Allen song "Fuck You."

10. Green Porno

In this series of two minute videos released by the Sundance Channel, Isabella Rossellini employs puppets, costumes, and props made of cardboard to act out the sex lives of animals. During season one and two, she focused small, easily overlooked creatures that exist on the periphery of human lives, such as spiders (who have no penises) and snails (who are sadomasochistic hermaphrodites). During season three, she concentrated on sea creatures, ending each skit with an appeal to biologist Claudio Campagna for information on how to salvage the over-fished ocean ecosystem.

The skits are compelling, funny, seductively strange, and possibly even sexy -- if your tastes swing toward exoskeletons.

Rachel Swirsky holds an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her fiction has been published in a number of magazines and anthologies, including year's best collections edited by Jonathan Strahan, Rich Horton, and the VanderMeers. Aqueduct Press will be publishing her collection of fiction and poetry, Through the Drowsy Dark, as a volume in the Conversation Pieces series in 2010. She lives in Bakersfield with her husband and two cats.


John said...

Hey Rachel,

I love Octavia Butler as well. Her Xenogenesis trilogy and her two "Parable" books are favorites.

And those Rossellini vignettes are wonderfully bizarre.

Rachel Swirsky said...

Aren't they great? I love biology. Heh, that comment could apply to either Xenogenesis or Rosselini.