The weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year’s are frequently a time for publications and pundits to declaim their “Best Of”s, usually in the form of a top ten list. (What is it about “Top Ten” that year after year serves as such potent reader catnip?)
Rather than focus on any one topic, here are ten things I enjoyed this year that you might like for the year to come 2016 (in no particular order).
10. Jim Martin’s Facebook Page
In many ways, the internet remains the undiscovered country for spirituality. Yes, you can find hundreds of blogs, feeds and websites dedicated to spirituality of one form or another. But few have figured out how to effectively offer actual spiritual experiences to people.
This year the best that I’ve found has been America editor-at-large Jim Martin’s public Facebook page. Curated by Martin himself, the page is updated multiple times each day with article links, photographs, videos and short reflections that offer rich invitations to consider one’s own life and relationships. Oftentimes for me the most powerful part is the amazingly honest sharing that people do in the comments. Like his books, Martin’s site has real knack for connecting with people right where they’re at. It’s a great place to go to at the end of the day for a little spiritual nourishment.
9. “What’s Alan Watching”
About two years ago a friend of mine insisted I pick up “The Revolution Was Televised”, a book about revolutionary TV dramas of the last twenty years – shows like “The Sopranos”, “Mad Men”, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, “Battlestar Galactica” and “Breaking Bad”. And I was shocked to find it as impossible to put down as the greatest summer novel. Combining interviews with the creators and actors with insightful analysis of the shows themselves, “Revolution” was a brisk, irresistible read that made me want to stop what I was doing immediately and spend the next year rewatching all the great shows.
In the aftermath of reading the book (which has just had a second edition with extra material), I searched out more material by the writer, Alan Sepinwall, and came upon his online column “What’s Alan Watching”, which is basically shorter versions of the same great writing about current episodes of many ongoing television shows, as well as occasional long (and fantastic) interviews with creators. Sepinwall doesn’t cover everything, but he’s also not a snob – sitting between articles on “Fargo” and “Transparent” you can find his take on the latest “Arrow” or “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD”. And many times his reviews have helped me find my next favorite show.
One of the great parts about being an editor at America was all the great writers and editors I got to meet. The staffs at Commonweal and Busted Halo, the fantastic writers and thinkers who would came through or lived at America House – it was like living at a 24-hour all-you-can-eat intellectual smorgasbord.
One of the great people I got to know back then was David Gibson, who at the time had written “The Coming Catholic Church”, a prescient look at the future of the church in the United States. Since then, he’s written a number of other major books, articles and documentaries, including last year’s “Finding Jesus” on CNN, which he co-created with another great writer, Michael McKinley (and which media site Deadline.com deemed “ratings manna”).
Gibson writes for Religion News Service, and maintains an excellent Twitter feed, one I regularly turn to both for up-to-date information on current events in and outside the Church, and for his perspective, which is usually ahead of the curve and also sometimes wickedly funny. Highly recommend a look.
7. The Earthquake to Be Afraid Of
In July the New Yorker published “The Really Big One”, a long piece by Kathryn Schulz about the possibility of a major earthquake in the Pacific Northwest. I first started to read it because a) I assumed it was a joke and b) it helped take my mind off the fact that I live in Los Angeles and some members of my family think it’s entertaining to posit a time when the state of California sinks into the ocean. (I like to remind them that with us will go much of the U.S. economy.)
But it turns out the piece was not a joke. In fact, it’s maybe the most terrifying piece of nonfiction I’ve ever read. It’s not about if a major earthquake hits the Pacific Northwest, but rather when a catastrophic earthquake/tsunami disaster will wipe out much of the northwest coast (and also do real damage across the Pacific in places like Japan), based on a long history of the same having happened before.
That sounds ridiculously hysterical; the article is anything but that. And whether you think the analysis disputable, the prose is undeniable in quality, better than the best summer blockbuster. I cannot recommend the article highly enough.
If you ever told me there would come a time I would actively be looking for newsletters to read, I would shake you very hard and tell you to go away. But after about a year of listening to the people at the podcast “Reply All” (a great weekly show about life and the internet) kid about their often-late newsletter, I decided to see what they were talking about. And almost immediately I was hooked. Rather than a means of marketing product or events, it was basically just a shorter (better written) version of this article you’re reading right now, fun people I like pointing me to cool stuff they’ve found this week on the internet.
If you’re looking for a place to start, I highly recommend Reply All’s newsletter or the newsletter of Todd Vanderwerff, who writes about pop culture for Vox.com. Here’s a recent piece Vanderwerff did about Christmas. He writes a lot more often than Reply All, and in a short essay format, but I must say I find his pieces often rich both in heart and insight.
5. “Mystery Show”
So about a year ago, just as “Serial's" first season was heating up, there was another podcast people were talking about called “Start Up.” It was about a guy from NPR who decided to start his own podcasting company. Each episode he would chronicle his own struggles and misadventures to build the business of his dreams.
The company he started, Gimlet Media, now has four podcasts in business – among them both “Reply All” (mentioned above, and highly recommended) and my personal favorite, “Mystery Show”, in which host Starlee Kine takes seemingly absurd ‘mysteries’ like finding the original owner of an unusual belt buckle or determining Jake Gyllenhaal’s actual height and discovers within them ideas and stories but funny and profound.
Each episode – and so far there’s only one been one season of six episodes, so it’s very easy to get through – there seems to come a point where you wonder if this hasn’t all been kind of ridiculous and what are we doing here. Then all of a sudden Kine finds something special – not necessarily the answer (although she does solve all six mysteries) – but a little moment of truth. Like the conversation she strikes up with the ticket agent who she’s working with to get a meet and greet with Britney Spears in episode two; or the story behind the belt buckle in episode four. Honestly, it’s a show that will make you laugh hysterically one moment, and then choke up the next. And Kine does it all seemingly effortlessly.
4. “Secret Avengers”
So I realize this is America and not Marvel Comics, but I recently read this brief comic book series called “Secret Avengers” that I just can’t stop recommending to people. Written by Ales Kot and drawn by Matt Walsh, the comic presents itself as a sort of wacky take on the superhero spy genre. No capes or flying people or even much in the way of super powers; much more cool fighting and international espionage.
The reason I can’t stop recommending it to people is that as it goes on, even as it stays incredibly wacky, “Secret Avengers” becomes a meditation on fear and war. I can’t really say more than that without ruining it, but suffice to say, if you ever wanted to pick up a comic book series, I recommend this one.
(Here's the link for volume one of what is three slender volumes).
3. “The Expanse” novels
Speaking of nerd bait – last year at the San Diego Comic Con the Syfy network passed out a free short story called “The Drive”, as a marketing tool to draw attention to their new show “The Expanse”, which debuted last month. The story was a prequel to the very successful set of Expanse novels by two novelists who go by the pen name James S. A. Corey, about the circumstances that led to the invention of the propulsion system that allowed humanity to expand throughout the solar system. It was very short, and unbelievably good. I started reading the five Expanse novels immediately thereafter and couldn’t put them down.
Without giving away too much of the storyline, the novels are sort of a Game of Thrones of the near future – humanity on Mars, Earth and various moons and asteroids –each struggling to survive and jockeying for position against one another. Its depictions of living on Mars or on the moons of Saturn are noteworthy for the amount of effort put into imagining how that life would look and work and what its problems would be. And the story – which is framed in the first book around a great gumshoe of a mystery – just can’t be beat. The writers know their craft; they also turn around a new book and a new short story each year. They’re currently working on book six of what it is to be a nine book series.
“Sicario” is a movie from this fall about an FBI agent on the border who finds herself recruited into an attack on an Mexican drug lord. It starred Emily Blunt as the agent, Josh Brolin as the by-any-means-necessary CIA agent who recruits her and Benicio del Toro as the enigmatic figure working with the CIA to bring down this drug lord. It seems like a movie that just kind of came and went, but I have to say it’s one of those films that grabs you by the throat at the beginning and then never lets you go. It’s a tale of idealism destroyed and of the veneer of civilization peeled away to reveal what is almost total social insanity; sort of an “Apocalypse Now” or “Heart of Darkness” for the American border today. A spare, taut script – for me, the best script of the year -- and a story that will make you want to know so much more about the violence in Mexico and our own government’s maneuverings there.
1. “Star Wars”
For the last sixty days or so, my Facebook feed was pretty much nothing but Star Wars trivia. I even had the opportunity to write a little piece for America about the theme of mercy as it works in the original films. I have been very careful not to say anything about the new film online as of yet (I’m giving myself until New Year’s Day; then the floodgates open); but I think it’s a fantastic addition to the canon. In fact I’ve walked out of the theater each time not quite believing that it was actually real. It’s just been so long since anything actually “felt” like “Star Wars”.
The films hardly require recommendation at this point, having already made well over a billion dollars. But it was definitely the favoritest of favorite things this year.
(It also inspired what has got to be the coolest toy of the year.)