If you're like us, you spent a lot of time this year reading words. But which words were the best words? (Not "amazeballs," for sure.) Here, each Gawker staffer recommends the best things he or she read this year—books, articles, blogs, comics and more.
"Boys Town" by Jim Shepard in The New Yorker (sub. only)
This was a short story from the Nov. 8, 2010 issue of the New Yorker. Something about the opening sentence ("Here's the story of my life: whatever I did wasn't good enough, anything I figured out I figured out too late, and whenever I tried to help I made things worse.") spoke to me and my sad little turkey burger at the counter of an L.A. diner. It just seemed like the right place and time to read a story that started that way. The narrator was 39, my age, and I instantly liked the guy. We were way different. He had just come back from the Iraq War, lived with his mom, who put him down a lot. He was fucked up from the war and lonely, and really proud of how he could trap his own food and live off the land, even in the dead of winter. I don't want to give too much away, but Shepard kind of plays the reader a bit. You don't really see the end coming, and it's kind of a "wow" realization. By the time it's all over, you never even learn the guy's name.
I read this story in a few minutes and it stuck with me all year. I read all of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom over the course of several weeks and haven't thought about it since. So take that for what it's worth.
"Born for Reality: Courtney Stodden and Tavi Gevinson," by Molly Lambert at Grantland
Molly Lambert makes surprising comparisons between the very different, increasingly famous lady-"teens" (a teen is what people tell me Courtney Stodden is, but that leather face begs to differ). A highlight of the article? According to Molly, "Young people are going through their mirror stage on Facebook, and bending the mirror to reflect what they'd most like to see." Holy moly, burn down the internet and shield the children from it forever.
"Lars Attacks!" by Anders Overgaard in GQ
Following Lars Von Trier's complete Nazi meltdown at the Cannes film festival, Anders Overgaard interviewed the director, or, as a young Lars used to refer to himself, "Lars all alone." Uh, yikes. The profile attempts to explain the notoriously misogynistic, impossible-to-please director and sheds some light on the way this brilliant lunatic's brain functions.
"On the Movie Set That Ate Itself" by Michael Idov in GQ
Michael Idov visits Russian director Ilya Khrzhanovsky's "movie set" in Ukraine, which consists of an enormous, built to scale city where the production of Khrzhanovsky's film, or rather, his film experiment, began over five years ago. It's like an exceedingly more complicated version of the set in Charlie Kaufman's, Synecdoche, New York. Idov describes what it was like to become one of the thousands of actors in the cast, to live under Khrzhanovsky's watchful eye in the totalitarian society he has created, and how exactly it felt to be on a set in which the cameras haven't stopped rolling, not once, in five years.
"Flick Chicks" by Mindy Kaling in The New Yorker
In defense of the Rom-Com! Minday Kaling stands up for the misunderstood and perpetual punchline that the romantic comedy has become, and explains the seven female archetypes that make up a romantic comedy heroine.
"And...Scene." by Brian Raftery in New York Magazine
Through countless interviews with the likes of Janeane Garofalo, Conan O'Brien and Horatio Sanz, Brian Raftery looks at the formation of the Upright Citizens Brigade and its impact on the New York comedy scene. The article is also accompanied by thirty or so delightful little snapshots of Amy Poehler's makeup tests from Comedy Central's Upright Citizens Brigade TV show, 1998-2000.
Hacker Crackdown by Bruce Sterling
For me, 2011 was the Year of the Hacker, and I read as much as I could about this strange world will probably destroy us all in about five years. As dozens of members of the hacking groups Anonymous and Lulzsec were being swept up in a federal crackdown this summer and fall, I downloaded Bruce Sterling's 1992 book The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier on my iPhone. The Hacker Crackdown is the best journalistic account of the digital underground I've read. Sterling turns a 1991 federal hacking crackdown into a cyberpunk epic. (Sterling is an accomplished sci-fi novelist.) It's a fascinating introduction to the combination of smarts, massive ego and obsession with information behind many of the LulzSec and Anonymous hackers. Best of all, you can download The Hacker Crackdown for free, thanks to an agreement Sterling reached with his publishers. A more recent book on hackers Wired editor Kevin Poulsen's book Kingpin, about a prolific credit card fraudster, is great, too.
"Paper Tigers," by Wesley Yang in New York
I almost never think about being Asian-American, and I read even less about it. I may be the only person, Asian, white, black or Latino, to have finished school without having read a single word written by Amy Tan. But Wesley Yang's May cover story for New York got to me. It begins with a puzzle: If Asian Americans are the standardized-test-destroying, hard-working, all-conquering model minority why are they so invisible from American society, outside of the professions? Through profiles of a lonely Chinese-American high schooler, a douchey Asian playboy, a striving a tech worker, and himself, Yang elegantly traces the outlines of Asian-American alienation, and offers a path toward resistance.
Prefatory note: I have no idea what happened to me, or anybody else, in 2011. There's a sharp memory of my second son's birth in January, followed by a four-month haze of sleepless panic, and then... nothing. My job—like all news jobs nowadays, save for a few atavistic holdouts—works relentlessly at the mind, hammering it into a frictionless thruway for data, a machine-tooled aluminum tube for information to sluice through at maximum efficiency. Nothing lodges. All is evacuated to make way for the unceasing torrent of new stories being pumped into my cortex. My cache has been flushed. So if I still remember reading these things, they must be good.
Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge by Mark Yarm
All the bands in this book basically ruined high school for me, and I had no inclination to enjoy reading about them. But Our Town—which has no authorial voice to speak of, turning over the story of "grunge" completely to those who lived it—doesn't treat its subject with reverence. It presents the early '90s "alternative" music boom as a bubble, an accident, a confused dream that wasn't supposed to come true. The characters for the most part are hapless, usually lovable junkies dressed like idiots, but speakng now with the perspective to understand how stupid the whole thing was. The best moments document the lesser known, and generally lesser, bands—Malfunkshun and the U-Men, the progenitors of the Seattle scene, and the hilarious pretentions of Candlebox. Remember Candlebox? This book will make you feel old, if you are old.
"A Reunion with Boredom" by Charles Simic on NYR Blog
Charles Simic is a national treasure, and his idle meditation on the pleasures and anxieties of living without electricity in the wake of Hurricane Irene is a brief, tossed-off masterpiece: "[T]here was nothing for us to do but slump idly in some chair with our heads dangling and our smiles fixed crooked, while Irene ran around the yard beating up trees like the riot police and in the process telling us what little regard she has for us personally and everything we've done over the years to make our home more attractive."
Intelligence scoops by Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo for the AP
The AP's national security team had a banner year: They exclusively profiled the CIA analyst who led the hunt for bin Laden, they exposed the promotion within the CIA of the agent responsible for illegally kidnapping, sodomizing, and torturing Khalid el-Masri, and they located a CIA black site in Romania. Most importantly, they relentlessly documented the NYPD's collaboration with the CIA to exhaustively and illegally spy on basically every Muslim in the tri-state area, for being Muslim. It's kind of shameful how little attention (relative to the breathtaking criminality alleged) their reporting has received.
"For Libyan Family, a Deadly Encounter and Search for Justice," by Marc Herman, in The Atlantic
A gripping account of a war crime—one of thousands no doubt committed by Qaddafi loyalists during that country's civil war—reported out in meticulous, clinical, and humane detail. Herman's reporting from Libya has been collected in The Shores of Tripoli, a Kindle single. Buy it.
"American Marvel" by Edith Zimmerman in GQ
There have been plenty of attempts to demolish the magazine celebrity profile formula, but Edith Zimmerman's self-deprecating-journalist-meets-self-deprecating-superhero was brilliantly haphazard throughout, and even worked when it appeared she was trying to undermine her own story.
Isle of 100,000 Graves by Jason
If you're not familiar with the dog-headed creatures of this prolific Norwegian graphic novelist, this is the perfect one to check out. A girl finds a treasure map and goes looking for her long-lost father, who turns out is trapped on the island of 100,000 graves. Jason is constantly exploring genre, narrative conventions, deadpan humor, and existential dread, and he combines all of those things perfectly in this succinct little tale.
Life with Mr. Dangerous by Paul Hornschemeier
You'll be shocked that this tale about a 20-something dissatisfied with her job, love life, and passive aggressive mother is written by a man. It is so spot on about the pitfalls of the quarter life crisis and looking for solace and a sense of identity in pop culture when life isn't as rewarding as we'd like it to be. Though the ending is a little bad, the keenly observed details and sharp artwork will leave an impression.
Kathy Griffin's Bio by Kathy Griffin in Playbill
Usually the actor bios in a Playbill (that little book they give you when you go to a Broadway show) are a litany of regional productions of shitty musicals and guest stints on various and assorted Law & Orders. Leave it to Gawker intern alumna Kathy Griffin to come up with a genius bio for the program of her Great White Way debut Kathy Griffin Wants a Tony. It is part fact, part fiction and totally hilarious. There's even a Law & Order joke! You know a true comic genius has you howling before the curtain even goes up.
Late pass etc.
Sorry, "worthwhile" things to read!
Since my Instapaper archive is more organized than any other part of my life, here are a few feature articles that I found so enjoyable, I ended up re-reading them in the process of making this list.
The Incredible True Story of the Collar Bomb Heist by Rich Schapiro in Wired
Remember that bizarre Pennsylvania bank robbery from 2003, where the robber was a pizza guy in a locked collar bomb, and he said if he didn't rob the bank, the people who locked the collar on him would blow him up? And the police were like, "Really?" and then the guy actually blew up? Wired's Rich Schapiro reexamines the whole affair, including the mechanics of the crime, the police who investigated it, and—most compellingly—the eccentric autodidacts behind it. Each character tells a slightly different, plausible version of the events. It's the Rashomon of freakishly intelligent western Pennsylvania psychopaths.
Life on the Line Between El Paso and Juarez by Andrew Rice in The New York Times Magazine
I happened to in the El Paso-Las Cruces region when The New York Times Magazine published this article, and it colored my entire trip. Andrew Rice's detailed, thoughtful portrait of how El Paso and Juarez function as permeable twin cities changed my understanding of the Mexican-American border. Among the people and businesses Rice profiles is a white Texas midwife's birthing clinic, which caters specifically to Mexican nationals who want to give birth on American ground:
Mexican women had a long tradition of crossing the border to give birth, and Arnold soon made herself one of the busiest midwives in the state. Back when she started, getting over the border was as simple as wading across the Rio Grande or paying a ferryman a dollar for a tow on an inner tube. "They would come in with their jeans still wet," she said.
It's the "anchor baby" nightmare realized! But, as it turns out, more delicate and peculiar.
Blood in the Water by Tim Zimmerman in Outside
Tim Zimmerman's investigation of orca-training Sea World deaths is journalistic twofer: A document-driven expose of a ubiquitous multimillion dollar industry, wrapped around a chilling man-versus-nature narrative about a Canary Islands orca trainer brutally and slowly killed by a whale.
The story runs parallel to San Diego Sea World's 2010 orca mauling incident, and answers many questions you may have been wondering since then. For instance: Is it really a good idea to lock violent 10-ton carnivores in tiny tanks with defenseless human beings paid by the hour to torment them? Answer: No, this is really not a good idea.
The Faux-Vintage Photo: Full Essay (Parts I, II, and III) by Nathan Jurgenson at Cyborgology
You have to be in the right mood for this academic-y meditation on What Instagram Means, but when you are, it hits all the right notes. Nathan Jurgenson is a sociology PhD candidate "working on a dissertation about self-documentation and social media." He uses images and zillions of hyperlinks to build an argument that is fun to engage on one of those nights when you're up late, don't feel like going to bed, and would perhaps indulge in a Wikipedia binge, if it weren't for this cool long blog post about faux-vintage photographs that you've been meaning to read.
Gabe Delahaye's "The Hunt For The Worst Movie Of All Time: Eat, Pray, Love" on Videogum in January made me fall hard in love with that website, and also introduced me to up-and-comer Delahaye because I had definitely never heard of that kid before. I guess it's kind of a blogger cliché to take a massive dump all over a piece of pop culture, but I was absolutely taken with the burning sincerity and unrelenting vehemence of Gabe's hatred for the entire Eat Pray Love ecosystem, from the movie to the book (which he actually never read) to the dark soul of author Elizabeth Gilbert, to the point where I was rooting like a sports fan by the time Gave called Elizabeth a "horrible, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, narcissistic, garbage nightmare person." I posted an approving link to the review on my Facebook, then later took it down when I noticed a female editor I really respected listed Gilbert or her book as a favorite, and now I'm manning up and high-fiving this long post again in public because it set an incredibly high bar for evisceration I was never ever able to personally meet in the course of 2011 - you win, Gabe, here take my laptop and my blogging pass and my tethering iPhone or whatever, RIP me.
In April I loved Nicholas Carlson's fantastic "The Real History Of Twitter" at Business Insider, which basically revealed, if I recall correctly, how everyone typically credited with inventing Twitter was, in his own way, a horrible thief. May brought Matt Taibbi's "The People vs Goldman Sachs" in Rolling Stone, one in a series of infuriating articles on how Wall Street plays by its own set of rules that aren't really rules at all.
Rebecca Armendariz's "Chat History" in Good, about reliving love via Gmail and Gchat archives, was a heartbreaking way to begin September. But then the Daily Beast's Dan Lyons started to really mock the tech press in earnest, starting with two funny posts about TechCrunch, continuing through to the scathingly sarcastic "All of life has been utterly, profoundly changed thanks to Facebook's new features, and nothing will ever be the same, and all I can do is sit here and weep at the beauty and magic that Mark Zuckerberg has brought to this world" and ending on this thoughtful piece on absurd scoopmongering.
In October came programmer and drunken essayist Steve Yegge's searing dissection of Google dysfunction, "Stevey's Google Platforms Rant," an internal memo that Yegge, a Googler, accidentally published on Google Plus. It's now available only in republished form on someone else's Google Plus. Burkhard Bilger's "True Grits" in the Oct. 31 New Yorker was a surprisingly moving and graceful bit of food journalism. John Richardson's profile of labor leader Richard Trumka in the December Esquire was unapologetically inspiring.
Though I was early out of the gate with a fun excerpt, I must have been among the last professional Steve Jobs obsessives to actually read Walter Isaacson's authorized biography of the Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, having been on deadline with a big project when the book arrived on my doorstep. John Siracusa, a deeply technical and thoughtful writer of software journalism, recorded a worthwhile critique of—or attack on, really—the book, slamming it for superficial and factually incorrect treatment of some of the tech advances driven by Jobs, for failing to sufficiently explore various promising narrative threads, and for failing to do definitive original journalism on certain epochs within Jobs's life, among other complaints. But such criticism undervalues the extensive, unsentimental reporting Isaacson did on Jobs as a human being. Jobs relentlessly courted Isaacson as a biographer because he wanted to be understood as more than a technology executive, and Isaacson delivered on that count, even if the portrait he paints is less flattering than what Jobs would have hoped for. As I put it in an email to a writer acquaintance, Isaacson "captured Steve better than anyone else ever has as a man - as a mortal, commendably, but also as someone pushing the world to a higher plane and elevating himself a little in the process. There is a real elegance to how [Isaacson] painted this human portrait through thousands of bits of reporting, subtly and humbly surfaced in just the right places, sculpting Jobs's public image into something sharper, more honest, and ultimately more illuminating" than what it had been.
"A Murder Foretold" by David Grann in The New Yorker
David Grann is a master storyteller, able to provide copious amounts of information while never losing the momentum of the story he is telling. In his April piece for the New Yorker about murder, corruption and deceit in Guatemala, all his skills are on full display. The piece is powerful, gripping and structured so precisely that not one bit of it feels flat.
Vince Gilligan walks The A.V. Club through season four of Breaking Bad (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)
There's little doubt that Breaking Bad is one of the best shows on television right now. The show is smartly written, beautifully acted and masterfully conceived by creator Vince Gilligan. After the end of the fourth season, he sat down with AV Club TV writer Todd VanDerWerff to dissect it episode by episode and, in doing so, shed a tremendous amount of light into not just Breaking Bad but into how great television is made. Reading how Gilligan and his staff construct the show balancing character motivation, season long arcs and the need to make each individual episode compelling in its own right is true lesson in how the best television goes from idea to execution without losing the thread.
Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
Although it was published in 2009, I didn't get around to reading Inherent Vice until this year, which is something I regret because I really enjoyed it. It's a very welcome return to the Crying of Lot 49 Pynchon, as the story moves through the drugged out subculture of 1960's Southern California and Pynchon balances character and conspiracy with tremendous command. Like Oedipa Maas, Inherent Vice's Doc Sportello wanders into a mystery wherein he confronts all kinds of villains and manipulators, and of course himself all the while getting closer to a truth that ends an era. The book is full of atmosphere, mood, music and television references that bring every page alive. Few people can balance character and conspiracy the way Pynchon can, and Inherent Vice showcases that excellently.
Red Shift by Alan Garner
It feels like every time I went to the bookstore this year I came away with at least one of NYRB's unfussy paperbacks (key for subway commute readers), most of which I'd never heard of before they were re-animated by the New York Review of Books imprint. The best of the bunch—and they were all terrific—might have been Red Shift, Alan Garner's 1973 retelling of the legend of Tam Lin, which was completely new to me when I picked it up (I bought it because the description made it sound a bit like David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas), and which I read in a day, held in place by its raw, knotty strength. A deft juggling act between three simultaneous and mystically intertwined stories—a band of Roman deserters in premodern Britain, a village's preparations for raids in the English civil war, and an adolescent romance in a 1970s RV park—Red Shift is "technically" young adult fantasy, but it's terrifyingly grown-up and bitterly honest in that way that only YA fiction can be. I don't think I read a more perfectly-realized book all year.
i'm not racist, but, *cranes neck to see if anyone's around. keeps craning. head unscrews entirely. out of the hole pour jewels & mysteries*— bandit (@UtilityLimb) September 27, 2011
War On Xmas Continues As Neighbors Say Jesus Was Born In A Manger Not "Found In A Mine" & That Their Kids Are Trapped In My Nativity Tunnels
— bandit (@UtilityLimb) December 19, 2011
"Inside David Foster Wallace's Private Self-Help Library" by Maria Bustillos on The Awl
Even if this wasn't a fantastic essay I would recommend that you read it: a few months after its publication, the Ransom Center, which holds all of David Foster Wallace's papers, removed some portion of the collection of self-help literature that forms the backbone of Maria Bustillos' well-reported and critically-engaged reflection on Wallace, genius, depression, and being in the world, and this may be the only essay that ever gets written on Wallace's engagement with popular psychology. (For better worse it's certainly not going to be the only essay ever written about Wallace's struggles with mental illness.) But it is a fantastic essay, and in the event that no one else is allowed access to the material, we're lucky that someone as smart, compassionate and talented—and as adept at walking the line between exploitation and understanding—as Bustillos got there first. She's been killing all year at The Awl (a week after I wrote this blurb, she dropped an essay that might outstrip this one for the elegance of its connections and clarity of its insight), but this was head and shoulders above even the rest of her stuff.