(I may have never done this for breweries, instead choosing to do this for individual beers. Did you know that 8 tiny lists is a lot of tiny lists?)
- Boss Dog
- Noble Beast
- The Butcher and the Brewer
(I may have never done this for breweries, instead choosing to do this for individual beers. Did you know that 8 tiny lists is a lot of tiny lists?)
(new words only, none of these are new sub-entries or new senses of existing words. Obviously entry into the OED does not mean the word is newly-coined, just that it is newly-recognized)
Vince Staples – FM! (Vince Staples needed barely any time at all to say a whole lot about the images/roles of black people in pop culture, and his batting is approaching all-time figures)
Peter Brotzmann & Heather Leigh – Sparrow Nights (Their second collaborative record is more fully-realized, and has some truly amazing playing from Leigh)
Meg Baird & Mary Lattimore – Ghost Forests (Mary Lattimore remains a surprisingly excellent collaborator, Meg Baird a wonderful guitarist, and this record is really gorgeous)
Hypnodrone Ensemble – Plays Orchestral Favorites (What can I say, I guess November of 2018 was the month for experimental team-ups.)
Anderson.Paak – Oxnard (While it’s true that it fails to scale the dizzying heights of Malibu, it’s also true that almost nothing does, and it’s a very good record on its own merits)
Sometime in the mid-eighteenth century, John Montagu wanted to gamble and/or do work 1, and he asked for a lump of meat to be shoved between two slices of bread, and then he ate it, and, in so doing, created the sort of portable instameal that the world over has been happy in which to indulge ever since.
By 1909, in fact, the sandwich was two things: impossibly variegated and stodgy and old-fashioned. Thus, Eva Greene Fuller came along, to rescue the sullied reputation thereof and to convince America that the sandwich was a foodstuff more than worthy of their time and attention (I may be extrapolating as to the author’s goals here). To do so, she assembled the Up-to-Date Sandwich Book: 400 Ways to Make a Sandwich. The book is, as most old cookbooks are, a very interesting window into the way food was addressed in the past.
1909 is before the supermarket, before most refrigeration, several decades before the interstate system made it possible to haul food across the country in any kind of timely fashion (although not before the train, which did some of this also), before automobiles, and before the widespread availability of electricity. It was before, in short, anything that made the process of sandwiching anything like it is now. As a result, many things were just bang out of the question.
The whole book is downright fascinating, a look at the many functions of sandwiches – some are portable meals (then as now), some are cocktail hors d’ouevres, some appear to be cake-replacement-style desserts. The book itself is divided into seven sections – Fish, Meat, Cheese, Nut, Sweet, Miscellaneous and Canapes 2 – and seems, to me at least, to be alarmingly comprehensive.
The upshot of all this for our purposes this week 3 is that this book was also written before travel was anything like commonplace. Even if you lived in the middle of the country, you were largely unable to have seen either end of it, let alone another country entirely. Travel was time-consuming, expensive, and simply out of the question for just about everybody 4. That does not stop the book from containing several attempts at “worldly” (or, y’know “elsewhere-in-the-country-ly”) sandwiches, and they are….weird.
What follows, then, is an examination of the various place-derived sandwiches, and a guess at what the hell the people that made them 5 were thinking, first by trying to decipher what the name means, and then trying to decipher how it does as a representation of that thing.
The “salted cracker” has not actually changed in the intervening century-plus, so this really is a fish sandwich on a cracker.
WHY IS IT CALLED THAT: I guess….there’s some kind of dutch association with sardines – they’re still out there, in fact, although the more-commonly found Dutch canned fish is herring. I’m not sure where the Bermuda onion comes in there, nor the lemons, as neither is found in The Netherlands 6. I suppose the “lunch” designation is also there to point out that this one is a meal, not a snack or an appetizer. It does not make me think of Holland, that’s for sure. If you placed this sandwich in front of me and asked me to name a country, I would probably come up with, well, Chicago. Which is not a country. So.
There’s all sorts of stuff like this about the bread, and it’s very common in old cookbooks – cut them “rather” thick. A hundred years before this, cookbook instructions would go one step further and say things like “mix with enough olive oil” or “add a quantity of flour” or other such subjective measures. I love it, and I miss it.
WHY IS IT CALLED THAT: I’d imagine if you used Spanish olives 7 there’d basically be no argument. Seems reasonably Spanish to me. Actually, puttanesca aside, olives + sardines seems a reasonable stab at “Spanish”, so I’m pretty willing to go along here. There are even lemons in Spain, so it doesn’t have that weird “what the hell” quality to the inclusion of the lemon like the Dutch Lunch Sandwich.
Cottage cheese used to come in balls! And it was common enough that it was just…in the recipe there like that! I suppose that makes sense. I would have guessed “can” rather than “ball”, but I also wouldn’t have thought much about the state of cottage cheese in 1909. Also, here’s some of that vinegar I mentioned earlier.
WHY IS IT CALLED THAT: I’m not sure what says “Austrian” to people about a sardine and cottage cheese sandwich with a bunch of herbs in it. Oh, also grated lemon rind. There are no lemons in Austria. Enough with the damn lemons already. I sort of dig the adorable self-vinaigretting process that comes with the lemon juice and the vinegar and the oil all mixing together with the…uh….cottage cheese. Am I answering the question? No I am not. I have no idea what is Austrian about this. This is not only a sandwich that isn’t Austrian, it’s a sandwich that sounds gross. Even going a step into the past and imagining that the cottage cheese is something more like ricotta 8, it’s still a weird, highly-acidic, fish-and-cheese sandwich spread on uh…rye bread. I don’t know, man. I don’t think they did well.
Obviously, this and the three preceding are from the “fish” chapter.
WHY IT’S CALLED THAT: Well, it looks sort of like a head-wound version of a Nicoise salad on bread – the cold fish, the eggs, the capers, the cress. It drops the ball a little at “any cold meat may be used instead of the fish,” although I would agree that the sandwich wouldn’t suffer from not being made with leftover fish. I would think after the acid-storm of the Austrian sandwich that she might be willing to throw, like, a lemon or something at this, but maybe that’s just not the French way. It’s easy enough to decipher as French. It’s even a reasonable-enough sandwich!
WHY IT’S CALLED THAT: I can’t imagine what’s going on here other than that a dude from Montpelier made this sandwich and whoever acquired this recipe was then like “oh dip this is how they sandwich in Montpelier”. While it’s true that sometimes there are regional recipes that have nothing to do with a materialist or functionalist look at the area from which they pop up 9, this one has me scratching my head.
WHY IT’S CALLED THAT: I genuinely have no idea. This is remarkably similar to the Montpelier sandwich, except that it’s got mayonnaise in it, sardines are the small oily fish instead of anchovies, and black pepper instead of cayenne pepper. But the spirit of the thing is similar enough to make me wonder why it is credited with originating ont he other side of the planet. Oh, and it’s garnished with an olive, which somehow makes it less Japanese. There are eggs in Japan, I’ll say that.
This is a BLT without the B, then? An LT?
WHY IT’S CALLED THAT: Because Maine doesn’t have access to pigs? I mean, pork is an essential ingredient in a traditional (i.e. circa 1909) clam chowder, so there’s bacon there, right? Or at least salt pork? It also looks like a lobster roll on different bread 10. Is it a joke? Are all Bar Harborians poor and can’t afford bacon or lobster? In 1909 lobster was still peasant food, so maybe this is an opportunity to get the lobster thing off the plate and just be left with a tomato sandwich? Later on in the book there is a “tomato sandwich” where the tomato involved is actually just ketchup, so this is a double cruelty visited upon the early-twentieth-century sandwich-eating public. Although I will say: a tomato and lettuce sandwich mayonnaise on toast is pretty good. Just not “Bar Harbor,” you know?
Look, I know that “St. Patrick” isn’t a place, but there is pointedly not an “Irish” sandwich in there and it feels like there should be, so I’m assuming this is the stand-in. NB that 1909 is about the end of the period of time when the Irish were a widely-discriminated-against group in the US. so maybe we’ve just got some weird old hateful viewpoints going on here.
WHY IT’S CALLED THAT: I’m going to imagine because it’s green (mint/parsley), orange (paprika, at least after it’s in the mix) and white (onion). Which is the, y’know, Irish flag. Or the St. Patrick’s flag, if you must. Of all of these, this one’s name is the among the most scrutable.
The best thing about this recipe coming in 2018 is that it contains no chicken, which means the brain-dead rumormeme about “club” being an acronym for “chicken and lettuce under bacon” is even more thoroughly debunked here. This is a 109 year old recipe! So there!
WHY IT’S CALLED THAT: Brown bread comes from Boston. Can’t make it any more simple than that. I’m not sure where the mutton comes in – are there a bunch of sheep in Massachusetts I don’t know about? – but it definitely very much has brown bread. The fussy “cut it into circles with a cake cutter” bit also means that she’s not recommending the use of canned brown bread, which existed in 1909, as did the more-common and probably-less-gross method of cooking the loaf in an empty can.
In 2018, “Italian Sandwich” pretty easily conveys “cured meats in a pile, generally on a hoagie bun or whatever”. This is a very different take on that idea.
WHY IT’S CALLED THAT: I would imagine the thing that makes it Italian is the fact that it’s pressed in the style of a panini. Olives are the general-purpose “Mediterranean” ingredient (cf. the French and Spanish sandwiches above). It contains butter, cream cheese and mayonnaise dressing 11, which seems to me a not-terribly Italian thing to combine on a lettuce and olive sandwich, and neither of the two breads is a particularly Italianate bread (in fact, your guess is as good as mine what the graham bread is doing there), so we’re pretty much just left with the method. Also this is one seriously squishy sandwich. Oh, and how “crisp” do you suppose that lettuce leaf is after you mush it into the butter/cream cheese/mayonnaise mixture? I bet not very!
Please note that this one is the “cheese” sandwich, not the “sweet” sandwich, despite, y’know, the ingredients.
WHY IS IT CALLED THAT: I’m not even going to get into the use of the term “oriental” here, I’ll just call it a wash due to the date of publication on the book, and assume that we have all of East Asia to play with here. I’ll be as generous as I can be and say that China does have maple trees. Whether they produce the same kind of sap as sugar maples, and whether there’s a set of people there to exploit that sap into sugar production is pretty dubious. There are also cherry trees in Southeast Asia, quite famously. I doubt they have maraschino liqueur there to preserve what fruit those cherry trees produce, but I guess you do what you can in 1909. I’m going to assume that the cherries are what makes it “Oriental.” We’re still a few decades out from the invention of crab rangoon – the “Oriental” dish that most famously makes use of cream cheese – but maybe Trader Vic was picking up on something that already existed culturally when he started on it, so maybe the cream cheese has something to do with it also.
This is the “sweet” sandwich. You can tell because it doesn’t have cream cheese in it, I guess.
WHY IT’S CALLED THAT: Given that it’s the ingredient they both have in common, I’m going to continue to guess that “cherries” read “oriental” at the time. “Sweet thick cream” is almost certainly whipped cream (that’s what it usually is in recipes from the time period), so this is a whipped cream, banana, honey and maraschino sandwich. On buttered bread. Just like they it in the….ugh….”orient.” Yep.
I almost had to make this sandwich just to get some kind of idea of what was going on with the proportions here. 1 part whipped cream to 2 parts ginger and 2 parts candied orange peel seems like a weird, chewy candy sandwich. In Ms. Fuller’s defense, it is in the “Sweet” chapter, but holy crow that’s a lot of weird, chewy candy for one sandwich.
WHY IT’S CALLED THAT: Oh, ginger and orange peel still read pretty “Indian” to this day. After the contortionary head-scratching necessary to decode “oriental,” this is a fat slow pitch straight down the middle.
I wonder if large crackers used to be more available? Is it something like salted matzoh? Because I’m thinking of something like matzoh.
WHY IS IT CALLED THAT: Well, it’s a bean torta if you aren’t super-familiar with what a tortilla is or how Mexican bean recipes function. As an avowed lover of both crackers and baked beans, I think it’s probably a worthy thing to eat, especially if you leave out the catsup/butter business 12, and I can see how, if someone only ever described Mexican food to you, you might land on it as a reasonable approximation. This is the only sandwich recipe with a place-name to be in the “miscellaneous” section of the book, so it seems obvious that even Fuller had no idea what to do with this thing. Shame, really.
And there you have, a brief survey of what the cuisine of other places looked like when made into a sandwich in 1909. Tune in sometime in the nonspecific future, when I look at some more of these weird-ass sandwiches.
Let’s all place ourselves back in 2009. The Black-Eyed Peas have been on the charts for fully half the year consecutively, first with the unbelievably dumb, marketing-robot-generated “Boom Boom Pow”, and then by the somehow-even-dumber “I’ve Got a Feeling” 1. Ahead of them is a sort-of remake of the song from Dirty Dancing that absolutely no one asked for, a completely lifeless Super Bowl performance, and a breakup, but 2009 is clearly the peak of whatever mountain Will.I.Am and is Wil.Ing.Accomplices were trying to scale. The world was irritated, and yet the songs just wouldn’t. Stop. playing.
It wasn’t always like this – three of the then-four members of the group had started out as backpack-y “conscious” rappers 2 with one foot in the gangsta world. They started as Atban Klan, signed to Eazy E’s record label, and evolved into a sort of Tribe Contractually Not Actually Called Quest, and made a splash with their early highlight “Joints and Jam,” along with a couple of records of just-fine nineties-style backpack rap 3 that managed to contain some pretty strong pop instincts, despite not being particularly popular.
Seemingly unhappy with their place in the firmament, they decided to grab that brass ring and morph into something…else. Their third album, Elefunk, wasn’t so much as a reinvention as it was a winnowing – the words got simpler, the choruses more prominent, the beats simpler. They connected with Justin Timberlake 4 for the monster “Where is the Love?”, which launched them into full-on pop stardom, and then, having moved through a few different lady-hook-singers 5, landed on the apparent magic-bullt of girl-group washout and former child actor Fergie.
Having achieved their apparent star-oriented goal, and with Fergie fully ensconced, the BEP spent the next six years terrorizing the radio, coming up with the worst radio hit of 2005 in the form of “My Humps,” as well as a handful of other brain-dead, forgettable pop songs.
Things then clearly start to drift apart. After the aforementioned pinnacle (see paragraph 1), a period of radio silence. They continued to be public figures, there was a will.i.am solo record, Taboo wrote a book, that sort of thing. Then, for their twentieth anniversary, the new song “Awesome” and some noises about reforming. Fergie was absent from the proceedings for a couple of years, and the band was weirdly insistent that she was not out of the band until, in 2017, it was confirmed that, having not appeared with the band for half a decade, she was, in fact, not in the band anymore. But the band would go on, newly-reinvigorated with a new sense of purpose 6.
Their new direction, it turned out, was to be more like their old direction. Taking the title and over-arching theme from will.i.am’s comic book 7, they rolled back huge whacks of their sound to once again resemble the band that made “Joints and Jam,” albeit augmented by both a larger budget, and with a production sense that is still touched by a somewhat-greater set of pop instincts.
So they filled the record with jazzy beats and features from other conscious rappers, and some deeply political lyrics, moving away from the good-time party music of the previous three records 8. They recruited Nas, Posdnuos and Ali Shaheed Muhammed, picked up a verse from the late Phife Dawg, and sampled Slick Rick, shoring up the idea that this was a return to the old-style BEP, while also making use of Nicole Scherzinger 9, K-Pop star CL, and will.i.am’s mentee from The Voice, Jessica Reynoso (who, as far as I can tell is actually a member of the band).
If the reviews are to be believed, the gambit worked: they have seemingly been nigh-universally praised (although, weirdly, it doesn’t have a metacritic page, so this is hard to establish) 10, and, while I don’t have access to much else yet, their Spotify numbers are certainly very high.
It’s…sort of deserved? It’s probably the best Black Eyed Peas album, taken as a whole. It’s entirely too long – it’s 12 songs and an hour long, and while only one of the songs is superfluous, many of them could do to be shorter. The major single, “Ring the Alarm” is as good a BEP song as there’s been in a very long time, and if “Back 2 Hip Hop” fails to live up to its potential as the declarative album-opening statement that it’s reaching for 11, the highly-publicized “All Around the World” – which is the song with the Phife verse on it – works about as well as it could. “Wings” is the record’s major misstep, and seems to me like a bet-hedging measure: they got Nicole Scherzinger to do some Fergie stuff and re-sing a very famous song, with a sample of another very-famous pop song in the mix, and kind of bopped around. The record could lose it and it would be fine, although it also gets widely-praised in other reviews 12.
So I suppose by being an actually-good record that actually does well with listeners, this is, by any available measure, a successful comeback. They even managed a couple of songs that I like – I could see myself listening to “Ring the Alarm” for fun even, although I kind of didn’t notice it as a single when I’d hear it at the gym or whatever. Good job, everybody. It’s a Hanukkah miracle! Mazel Tov!
So the People’s Choice Awards are here, and they’re tremendously different! This year they’re owned by E!, having previously been broadcast on CBS and owned by Procter & Gamble 1. Whether this is a chemical company divesting itself of some television interests, or a basic-cable network’s hostile takeover for some more eyeballs, either way I think the net result is a win for all of us, because the People’s Choice Awards are exactly the sort of brightly-colored, absurd candyfloss that E! exists to bring to us.
With the new network, and the new production, comes not only a move to the other end of the year 2, but also a bunch of differences in the categories, including podcasts and one of the vaguest categories known to man. So strap in and prepare as I speed my way through the categories, because there’s still a billion of them. Here we go!
The Pop Podcast of 2018
Many things will bear out over the course of this awards show, but one of them is E!’s unquestionable devotion to Amy Schumer. For example: here she is in the podcast category, which I was not aware she was an entrant in. I will say for someone plagued by accusations of not writing her own jokes, coming up with a podcast title that is infringingly-similar to early-podcast stalwarts Keith and the Girl is a weird choice.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Anna Farris is Unqualified
The Game Changer of 2018
On the one hand, Colin Kaepernick has had an enormous impact in how football 3 was talked about, and Serena Williams had an enormous impact in what we talked about when we talked about the behavioral expectations of black women. On the other hand, Aly Raisman was part of the group of people who got a monster put in prison, and helped steer the conversation around everything. So. Her then.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Aly Raisman
The Style Star of 2018
Zendaya is the sharpest dresser of this set of people, although I’ll be damned if I can figure out why they’re all nominated. I guess E! would know better than I would.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Zendaya
The Comedy Act of 2018
See? Here’s some more Amy Schumer 4. On the one hand, nobody had a bigger year or so than Tiffany Haddish. On the other hand, the funniest of these people is Kevin Hart. I think I need to stop relying on my hands to sort people.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Kevin Hart
The Animal Star of 2018
I…don’t understand this category, beyond its potential for absolute delight at having, say, a giraffe on the red carpet. My favorite famous animal of 2018 was Ariana Grande’s pig, but I’ll accept Lil Bub as a reasonable substitute. I like cats so much, guys.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lil Bub
The Social Celebrity of 2018
So often at these huge, galumphing awards shows my question is: what are we evaluating in a category like this. In the case of social celebrities, it’s usually a pretty clear answer – I’m not on social media, so whichever celebrity’s social media presence I’m most familiar with is the best one. In this case, however, I think that Taylor Swift’s seismic decision to weigh in on politics is the most notable use of social media by an American celebrity all year, at least in terms of generalized impact, and probably deserves the award.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Taylor Swift
The Beauty Influencer
I’m sure Esther Povitsky is not precisely bummed to not be nominated here, but as she’s the only “beauty influencer” with whose career I am familiar, I suppose I am bummed about it. But hey, this is my website! I call the shots!
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Esther Povitsky (who is not nominated)
The Social Star of 2018
Shoutout to Jenna Marbles for still managing to stay on top of this shit after so many years. Even bigger shoutout to Lele Pons for being actually funny, and managing to navigate the end of vine 5.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Lele Pons
The Concert Tour of 2018
You know, I didn’t mention it yet, but I kind of like the editorial stance of calling all of the categories the. As in this is the concert tour of 2018. It seems in keeping with the E! house style, I think. Anyway, this one’s still just Beyonce & Jay-Z.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: On the Run II Tour, Beyonce & Jay-Z
The Music Video of 2018
It’s pretty clearly “This is America,” and I will be very interested if the fine folks at E! try to pretend otherwise, given the other nominees here.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Childish Gambino, “This is America”
The Latin Artist of 2018
I’ll tell you this definitively: it’s not Becky G, because I had no idea she was even still out there.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: J. Balvin
The Country Artist of 2018
Because the non-country awards nominated the same, like, seven people over and over again, it’s worth noting that I’m not choosing Blake Shelton, like I usually do, because I hate “I’ll Name the Dogs” that much.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Keith Urban, I guess Or Carrie Underwood.
The Album of 2018
Well, there are two of these albums that I’ve listened to all the way through. And while I’m sure I’ve listened to Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy all the way through more than once, I tend to stick with the singles, and even then not all of those. Nicki Minaj’s Queen is pretty good (Although still too long) and the only song I don’t listen to on that one at least occasionally is the one with the sex criminal on it.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Nicki Minaj, Queen
The Song of 2018
I hate all of these songs. I mean, I’m not surprised that the move to E! meant a drop in the quality of the music here selected for award, but it is kind of alarming how awful all of this is.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Cardi B, Bad Bunny & J. Balvin, “I Like It”
The Group of 2018
My love of the “the” notwithstanding, this really should specify that it’s the music group, and not, like, the assemblage of more than one person at a time, y’know? Anyway. I don’t like any of the music of any of these people, but I like everything else about BTS.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: BTS
The Female Artist of 2018
E! is doing their best to capitalize on the Nicki/Cardi beef. Nicki Minaj is on as a performer, and I’m willing to bet publicly that, given that Cardi B just shows up to everything all the time, they’re counting on having them in the same room together, and that creating sparks or headlines or shoe-wounds or something. Anyway. I’m not really in favor of this sort of thing – I love giant spectacle until people are getting hurt – and, besides, this is a really boring beef. So that brings me to Nicki’s friend Ariana Grande, who is the BTS of young ladies, in the sense that I like everything about her (and her pig) except her music, because her scream-singing gives me panic attacks.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Ariana Grande
The Male Artist of 2018
You know who isn’t like BTS or Ariana Grande? Any one of these assholes. Well, maybe Keith Urban a little bit I guess.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Keith Urban
The Sci-Fi/Fantasy Show of 2018
There’s something kind of comforting about Supernatural’s ability to just…keep going. It trucks on and on, after years and years and years. It’s rumoured to be ending any day now – I think the current guess is that season 14 (!) is the last one, but there’s nothing official – but it doesn’t, and I kind of like that it’s out there. I think I’ve seen, like, four episodes of it ever, and it isn’t very good, but it’s there, and isn’t that the important thing about TV?
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: I mean, The Expanse is the rightful winner. But it’s nice that Supernatural is still on.
The Bingeworthy Show of 2018
I mean, it should be Bojack Horseman. These people are dumb. I do wonder if bingeing Outlander makes it better than watching single episodes, but not enough to actually try it, because Outlander is the most boring thing I’ve ever seen that was intentionally made for people to intentionally watch. So I guess it’s Queer Eye or whatever.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Queer Eye or whatever.
The Reality TV Star of 2018
I know that it’s, like, the old-man-yelling-at-clouds-iest thing to say, but I genuinely actually don’t watch any of this. Like any of it. At all. Except Queer Eye a little bit. So, once again, I guess it’s Antoni Porowski, or whatever.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Antoni Porowski, or whatever.
The Competition Contestant of 2018
This one really should include Fatima Ali, who was one of the best competitors in Top Chef history 6 even before her story is rapidly accelerating toward unbelievable tragedy. So I’m writing her in, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop me.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Fatima Ali, Top Chef (also not actually nominated)
The Nighttime Talk Show of 2018
See? There’s Andy Cohen, right there! Also most of these are terrible. There are plenty of good nighttime talk shows these days, and these are none of them. Except The Daily Show. That’s still pretty good.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Daily Show with Trevor Noah
The Daytime Talk Show of 2018
I would rather be tied by my ankles to the rear bumper of a car and dragged down the road than consider which of these shows is the “best”. A man must know his limits.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Uh..The Ellen Degeneres Show
The Comedy TV Star of 2018
I hate having to choose between Atlanta and The Good Place (which are, of course, the only real options). Luckily “Teddy Perkins” made that very easy for me.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Donald Glover, Atlanta
The Drama TV Star of 2018
The best-case scenario for an actor (I’d imagine) is getting cast in something that, even though you’ve been on tv so much, makes people notice that you exist. That’s what appears to have happened for Darren Criss, and very much deservedly so – he’s great in American Crime Story, and I don’t even like acting.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Darren Criss, American Crime Story
The Female TV Star of 2018
I feel like Viola Davis is the most obvious choice. I also feel like she’s also the correct choice.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Viola Davis, How to Get Away With Murder
The Male TV Star of 2018
I don’t know everything. I mean, contrary to my editorial stance here, I don’t even know most things. The more I find out that I don’t know, the more I think I don’t really know anything. But I do know some things. I know several things. Among the things that I know, without a doubt, is this: Jughead. Is. Asexual. And Riverdale can go fuck itself.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: literally every male tv star of 2018 who isn’t Cole Sprouse
The Competition Show of 2018
It’s the competition show category that really suffers from peak tv – there are over eleventy billion of them, and it’s almost impossible to evaluate them all. I will say this: I always liked American Idol at least a little bit, and I liked its revival just fine, and I’d be happy to see it win. Especially since the rest of the actual nominees in this category are dumb.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: American Idol
The Reality Show of 2018
I don’t actually have a lot of opinions about Queer Eye or whatever. I just think it’s better than all the rest of these shows or whatever.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Queer Eye or whatever. Again.
The Revival Show of 2018
I don’t want to live in a world where this is a category. I don’t like it circumstantially, I don’t like it practically, and I don’t like it specifically. I am, however, relieved that I don’t necessarily have to give another of these to Queer Eye or whatever. That’s kind of nice. Not super nice, but kind of nice.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: American Idol
The Comedy Show of 2018
This category is made easy by the fact that the best show on television is nominated here, which is great.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Good Place
The Drama Show of 2018
This category does not have the same advantage as the comedy category, as none of these shows are the best show on television. Some of them aren’t even among the good shows on television, to be honest.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Handmaid’s Tale
The Show of 2018
They had the opportunity, here, to include The Good Place, but they elected not to do so. That’s dumb, they should have nominated The Good Place. I guess it’s time to go rogue again.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Good Place (which, once more, was not actually nominated)
The Action Movie Star of 2018
The stars of Black Panther were Michael B. Jordan and Letitia Wright, obviously. So this cannot stand. But since I suppose Chadwick Boseman played the title character and all, he’s a reasonable compromise between the forces of what’s right and the forces of the production staff of the People’s Choice Awards.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Chadwick Boseman, Black Panther
The Comedy Movie Star of 2018
This is where E!’s devotion to parent company Universal really starts to show. Some of these movies would not be nominated otherwise, and it’ll pop up throughout the remainder of the movie categories 7. Anyway, the kid from Jurassic World was pretty good in Love, Simon, I suppose. He wasn’t particularly funny, but I guess that’s how it goes.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Nick Robinson, Love, Simon
The Female Movie Star of 2018
NB: A different lady cast member of Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again is here in this category 8. Anyway, Ocean’s 8 is not a Universal movie, which means that it’s here twice for whatever other reason it would be here twice. You got me, man. I have no idea.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Scarlett Johansson, Avengers: Infinity War
The Male Movie Star of 2018
Plenty to love here, but only one Chris Hemsworth.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Chris Hemsworth, Avengers: Infinity War
The Drama Movie Star of 2018
There is something to be said about the way that various strains of “genre” filter in and out of respectability, and one of the keys to understanding it is this: no one from Black Panther or Avengers: Infinity War are nominated here 9, which means superhero movies aren’t “drama” in the eyes of the nominating body for the People’s Choice Awards. That’s fine. What is more interesting here are the nominations for the principles of A Quiet Place, a movie whose nominal genre – horror – was also excluded from serious consideration at various times in the history of awards-granting 10
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Emily Blunt, A Quiet Place
The Family Movie of 2018
I think The Incredibles 2 should probably have been nominated in more categories, but I do understand the difficulties of evaluating voice performances against in-person performances. Anyway, it’s nominated here, and it should win here.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Incredibles 2
The Drama Movie of 2018
I suppose it’s nice to see a set of nominees so thoroughly divorced from the consensus critical opinion. Obviously Fifty Shades is another one of those shared-corporate-overlord situations, but Red Sparrow? What the hell? It’s refreshing, is what I’m saying. I don’t know how else I’d get an opportunity to imagine which of these movies I liked better otherwise.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: A Quiet Place
The Action Movie of 2018
Boy oh boy, here’s Oceans 8 again. This is a deeply strange movie to get this attached to. I still have no idea what’s going on. Luckily, it wasn’t ever really in it, y’know?
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Black Panther
The Comedy Movie of 2018
I feel like the other possible explanation for the odd, largely un-praised selections is that E! Knows what they want to win, and are padding out the categories with things that they think won’t get the vote. That is, if I’m going to go full conspiracy theory, easiest to see in this category, where Crazy Rich Asians is the only good movie.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Crazy Rich Asians
The Movie of 2018
Hey, here’s The Incredibles 2 again! This is excellent news! Also I’m pretty sure my aforestated conspiracy theory falls right the heck apart when it comes to this category. So either they didn’t stack the big ones, or I’m being overly paranoid about their enthusiasm for Oceans 8 and/or Mamma Mia!: Here I Go Again.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: The Incredibles 2
So anyway, there you have it. We’ll see how E!’s first foray into awards-grantsmanship goes, and hopefully we’ll all meet back here again next year!
Mick Jenkins – Pieces of a Man (Mick Jenkins takes big swings in naming his record after a Gil Scott-Heron record, and also by writing about the biggest of life’s questions, and connects pretty well with all of it)
Yowler – Black Dog in My Path (the erstwhile All Dogs singer moves away from her previous Grouper-lite style and makes much more interesting, band-oriented music, and it is a real win)
Cloud Nothings – Last Building Burning (Cloud Nothings still only do the one thing, but this time they do it louder, and more efficiently, and with a kind of fury they haven’t shown in a couple of records)
Chester Watson – Project 0 (Chester Watson adds a considerable sense of humor to his abstract, tense style and I couldn’t be happier)
Petite Noir – La Maison Noir/The Black House (simultaneously brief and maximal art-R&B, with some fantastic features)
As always, I close out the year of book-awards-declaiming with the World Fantasy Awards. It started out a few years ago as a way to open up my reading horizons 1, and has continued because, well, I enjoy them. There’s considerable overlap 2 with the other awards, but that’s alright, it gives me an opportunity to reconsider them in a slightly different context.
The World Fantasy Awards are also, this year, without much drama. I mean, I’m sure there’s some hurt feelings or long-simmering resentments or whatever, but the controversy over the form of the award itself pretty much stopped causing problems last year, so this year there’s nothing left for it but to be a completely respectable, absolutely normal awards-granting ceremony.
Which means this can be a completely respectable, absolutely normal awards-granting-writing-about, complete with absolutely infallible information about who deserves what award.
It’s worth noting that the Lifetime Achievement awards are going to Charles de Lint, who is one of the guys who helped invent urban fantasy (and whose work I haven’t read as much of as I’d like to), and Elizabeth Wollheim, the head of DAW books, who do consistently excellent work as publishers. Additionally worth noting is that the World Fantasy Awards always includes special awards for various and sundry services to the field of world fantasy, and I always skip those also, because I do not have the knowledge base to evaluate who deserves them.
Artist categories are always tricky ones for me to cover, but at least in terms of the World Fantasy Awards I’m able to more-or-less capably evaluate whether its effective in terms of its milieu 3, but I still don’t have what you’d call a reasonable critical eye in this regard.
That said, this should be pretty quick, since I don’t know enough to have much to say. Omar Rayyad is good, but draws in what I think of as “Basic Fairy Tale Modern” – even if you aren’t familiar with Rayyad’s work itself, you’re familiar with the idea – soft lines, pastels, familiar forms. It’s well done, but it’s not really jumping out at me as particularly original.
Similarly, Gregory Manchess is an impressive formalist 4, but it doesn’t really stick out for me for anything beyond his mechanical ability. Fiona Staples is in a similar boat, with art that is well-rendered, but without a lot that makes it jump out 5. It is with these artist that I am the most willing to cede that my lack of background in analyzing their form leads to what could be the least on-base call: I tend to find myself more impressed by things that are weirder and more visually distinctive, which could lead me to novelty-based decisions more than I would be if I knew what I was talking about.
Victo Ngai was my favorite last year, and continues to do excellent illustration work in some unlikely places (i.e. advertising), which continues to be impressive, but I was more struck by Rima Staines weird-ass fantasy troll people. I found it the most compelling on its own, which means I’m comfortable declaring her the rightful winner here.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Rima Staines
The single-author collections category (this one) is one of the categories I look forward the most to reading through – it takes a lot to get a single-author collection published, and it usuall points to someone doing a great deal of highly-worthwhile work, and it tends to have the highest hit rate of any of the categories I read for any of the book awards that I cover here.
Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties is tremendous, and is certainly the most-nominated collection of, I’m comfortable saying, any author collection all year 6. I wrote about it more extensively when I wrote about the Shirley Jackson Awards, but in the interest of situating it here I will note that “Especially Heinous” is still one of the absolute best things under consideration here by anyone under any circumstances. “Eight Bites” and “The Resident” remain incredible pieces of well-wrought prose that get the reader deep into a very specific frame of mind, and “Inventory” is a wonderfully innovative piece of post-apocalypse fiction. It’s a fantastic contender, and worth reading by just about anyone
Tim Powers’s Down and Out in Purgatory is a bit more of a mixed-bag. Powers is a veteran fantasist, and any collection of his best work is going to be a sure bet, as this book definitely is. He’s reliant on a handful of plot-drivers – weird time travel features prominently, and several of the stories are about rare book collectors, for example – and makes his interests 7 plain throughout, which can make the stories blur together a bit. The title story is rightfully the start of the show – a fantastic look at revenge, the afterlife and what it means to determine one’s course, as well as what it means to be responsible for things and the consequences of our actions, all told in an amusing, unfancy tone that suits the story. The book-opening “Salvage and Demolition” manages to be sort of the archetypal Tim Powers story, as it contains all of the repertory elements mentioned earlier – a rare book dealer travels through time to smoke cigarettes in Los Angeles, and everyone’s car figures prominently – and does so in a gripping, twisty story that ends up going to some really surprising places. “Fifty Cents” 8 is the other great time travel story, and is even more surprising and open-ended. The trickiness of having a family and not really wanting the same things out of yourself as they do comes up in the immortal (and immoral) family of “The Way Down the Hill,” the negligent parents and attendant imaginary friend of “Night Moves” and, in the outright-funniest story in the collection, in the perhaps-doomed Thanksgiving of “Sufficient Unto the Day,” where some relatives literally just won’t leave. We could probably throw the loopy rollercoaster of “Pat Moore” into either of those two categories also, although it’s not really a time travel story or a family story 9. His Catholicism also comes to bear on “The Bible Repairman” (in which damnation is averted by those with the resources to hire someone to make it so by “repairing” the bible to make sure that they aren’t in conflict with it) and “Through and Through” (in which damnation is unaviodable, because if the rules exist they must exist) 10. All told it’s a very good, if fairly uneven collection, and probably the best thing published by Baen all year.
Jane Yolen’s The Emerald Circus is a collection of previously-released material specifically taking a look at characters from other works. The two best stories are both about real people – “Andersen’s Witch” recasts Hans Christian Andersen’s career as a version of his own story about the Snow Queen, and “Sister Emily’s Lightship” puts Emily Dickinson in space – but she has a way with finding a new way to tell the story of a well-known character. “Blown Away” 11 finds the farmhand who does or does not turn into the Tin Woodsman telling an earthbound story of Dorothy, in which the circus of the book’s title makes its appearance. “Lost Girls” gives Wendy her agency back, and also gives us the very best portrayal of Captain Hook ever committed to the page. “Rabbit Hole” shows us an aged Alice, and is surprisingly moving. “The Gift of the Magicians, With Apologies to You Know Who” gives us Yolen’s excellent and under-seen sense of humor 12. It’s all well-done, and it was surprising in that the stories I ended up enjoying the most (“Sister Emily’s Lightship”, “Lost Girls”, “Rabbit Hole”) were about things that I had no real prior close relationship to – I like Lewis Carroll, for example, but he never really left the impression on me that he did on other people 13. That said, it’s not one of her more impressive collections, even if it is a lot of fun to read.
Sofia Samatar’s Tender is probably the most ambitious, or at the least the collection that covers the most ground, of the ones nominated here. Her stories have a wide range of voices and tones, and include a great many subjects. The leadoff story, “Selkie Stories are for Losers” 14 contains probably the best paragraph in contention, which I won’t include here because it also spoils the ending (it’s at the end of the story, and is the thesis statement of the story, and kind of of the collection in general). Youth and memory figure into “How to Get Back to the Forest,” about the kinds of things that happen at camp, in “Honey,” where the idea of parents sacrifice for the future of their children is literalized, and in which the fair folk are as effectively made terrifying as they were in anything I’ve read in a long time. “An Account of the Land of Witches” and “Walkdog” are both highly experimental stories about friendship and being a young person, and while they are not very much like each other, they are similar in their treatment of the intersection of the real world and the world of stories. Actually, “Fallow,” the longest and most emotionally-engaged piece here is similarly about that same sort of loss, and takes place on a spaceship populated by a very particular-minded set of people 15. “A Girl Who Comes Out of a Chamber at Regular Intervals” is a pretty effective look at people that dream of being robots, and robots that dream of being people. “Request for Extension on the Clarity,” similarly, is also about the desire to forget about being a human being, and the desire to move forward into the future by severing the past entirely. “Tender,” by contrast looks at a woman who believes that her loss is the result of her dishonesty, and who ends up also in a debatable state of human-ness. The whole collection is well-rendered, and often emotionally effective, and it misses out on being the rightful winner because of the last collection here.
Ellen Klages’s Wicked Wonders is, if nothing else, pretty well completely unlike anything else. It’s far ranging and effective in a bunch of different ways, from the not-at-all-supernatural “Woodsmoke” – a long story about young love and finding oneself – to the realist science fiction of “Goodnight Moons,” which turns out to be about the first person raised on Mars, to the creeping horror of “Singing on a Star,” where there’s a song that literally transports the listener, and it may not be entirely good, to the outright mythological fantasy of “Friday Night at St Cecilia’s,” in which an ancient folk evil must be defeated through the playing of games. There’s also some more deeply-moving stories of young girls’ friendship 16 both on a generation ship (in “Amicae Aeternum”) and in the world where you try to do all the magic you can to prevent tragedy (“Gone to the Library”). Early attempts at doing magic also grace “The Education of a Witch,” which the story notes reveal was as autobiographical as Klages could make it. She really wins the day here, however, by not sacrificing her world or her storytelling ability to be tremendously, uproariously funny. “Sponda the Suet Girl” is a long-ish story about alchemy and getting one up on con men. “Household Management” is a wicked screamer with an equally-wicked punchline. “Mrs. Zeno’s Paradox” is about not actually sharing a brownie. And then, of course, there’s the formerly-viral, all-time-classic “The Scary Ham”, which is not a work of genre fiction by dint of it not being at all fictional, and at the same time being so wonderfully, life-affirmingly hilarious that it absolutely couldn’t be anything but the last story in such a collection.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Ellen Klages, Wicked Wonders
Unlike the collection category, the anthology category can be a lot more slipshod. This year, interestingly, it also featured a couple of different sort of “Best-Of” scenarios and, perhaps predictably, they were better than the theme-arranged collections. Nevertheless, it all had something to recommend it, for the most part.
The Djinn Falls in Love was covered back in the Shirley Jackson awards, and is still probably the one of these that I like the least. Saad Z. Hossain’s “Bring Your Own Spoon” is still inspiring and amusing, Catherina Farris King’s “The Queen of Sheba” is still a well-constructed, satisfying story, and if KJ Parker’s “Message in a Bottle” is the least of the KJ Parker stories that were under consideration here, well, it’s still a pretty good one. The price of admission 17 is more than paid by Maria Dahvana Headley’s peerless “Black Powder,” which is truly first-rate.
Black Feathers: Avian Tales was also covered at Shirley Jackson time, and while I understand why it’s here, I wasn’t as into that one as I was into other collections either. Pat Cadigan’s “A Little Bird Told Me” would make a nice opening act for Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr (see below). Seanan McGuire’s “The Mathematical Inevitability of Corvids” is also about crows, and manages to make a deeply affecting, deeply sympathetic portrait of its lead character. It may be the story from this collection that has stuck with me the most emotionally. As a piece of craftsmanship, though, I can’t let this pass without praising Priya Sharma’s “The Crow Palace”, which is just a masterful work of construction and execution. All told, this one had more worthwhile bits than The Djinn Falls in Love, but it still isn’t quite on the same level as the better collections here.
The Book of Swords is one of the last books edited (well, co-edited) by Gardner Dozois, and that’s kind of sad, since it isn’t actually very satisfying. The essay at the beginning situating Sword and Sorcery as a genre is fantastic 18, but most of the stories kind of fall short of being the same level of quality. KJ Parker’s “The Best Man Wins” is a good, if standard-issue Parker-style story about a craftsman and the things that compel one to ambition, with a pretty satisfying ending. Robin Hobb’s “Her Father’s Sword” distinguishes itself by its ambiguity – there are a lot of mysteries about the vagaries of the world that are raised and never really answered 19. Rich Larson’s “The Colgrid Conundrum” is a con-man story, and I’m a genuine actual sucker for those. Almost as big a sucker as I am for Beowulf fan fiction, which is what CJ Cherryh’s “Hrunting” is. Both are effective, but that about wraps it up for the highlights in this collection. It’s probably something you’d enjoy more if you have any real affection for sword & sorcery as a genre. Obviously I do not.
The Best of Subterranean definitely benefits from both it status as a best-of 20, as well as from its prodigious length. It loses some steam by being not particularly well-selected – it seems, specifically, like some things were included to include the names of the authors rather than any particular actual merit 21. That’s not to say that all of the big names were a bust – Joe Hill’s “Last Breath” is a particularly terrifying work about a very specific collector and George R.R. Martin’s script for an unproduced Twilight Zone episode titled “The Toys of Caliban” would have been a fantastic episode, had it been made. A much better showing is made by the standard-issue (if indeed there is such thing) anthology-titans that may not be as well-known outside of sff circles. Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” is about posthumanism, and the purpose of language, and a missionary, but mostly is about how memory and the way that we keep memories informs the way that we related to each other. Kelly Link’s “Valley of the Girls” is similarly about the way that the encroachment of technology shapes our interactions with each other, and also about our relationship with the past and how it shifts as the way that we related to each other changes. It’s also about sarcophagi. James P. Blaylock playful literalizes the sort of solipsistic sense of being cursed that affects anyone who takes the weather personally in “The Dry Spell.” 22 KJ Parker’s huge, affecting “A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” again concerns the price of mastering a skill, and the relationship between economic realities and our emotional centers. It’s probably the best of the stories that were considered in anthologies here (there are three of them). Catherynne Valente recasts folkloric coyote stories as a high school melodrama in “White Lines on a Green Field,” and in so doing makes them somewhat scarier. Karen Joy Fowler’s “Younger Women” takes a rather biting look at the penchant for immortals to take up with younger women, and comes to some conclusions about neurocranial development in the process. “Dispersed by the Sun, Melting in the Wind” finds Rachel Swirksy cataloging the end of the world, one person at a time. 2018-sff-mvp Maria Dahvana Headley contributes “Game,” about a hunter who was not honest, even with himself. Michael Marshall Smith’s funny “The Seventeenth Kind” tells the story of a television snake-oil salesman whose career goes quite alarmingly sideways. Kat Howard’s “The Least of the Deathly Arts” deals with an actual encounter with death and, perhaps most impressively, contains an actual sestina. Hal Duncan’s “Sic Him, Hellhound! Kill! Kill!” reimagines both werewolves and vampires, taking a marked distaste to the latter, and is perhaps the most outright entertaining story in the collection. Tim Pratt’s “Troublesolving” is the best book about time travel, interior designers and a really twisty espionage plot that I’ve read all year. Possibly ever, given the relative lack of interior designers in time travel stories. Kelly Armstrong’s “The Screams of Dragons” is a dark attempt to look at what would happen to children who actually exhibited reality-altering magical powers. If this seems less like a sort of thematic look at the book and more just a list of what the best stories in the book were 23, that’s also sort of the trick: the book doesn’t flow well, and there are many more stories. It is likely that more of them would appeal to any given writer, but with little unity beyond “these all were published in the same magazine”, it’s not an easy book to get through. Perhaps it would be good to skip around in. In any event, its lack of unity is the main thing that keeps it out of the top spot here
I feel like the clear winner here is the Peter S. Beagle edited New Voices in Fantasy. There’s a part of me that wants to declare it – a sort of greatest-hits survey of the best work being done in out-there fantasy – unsportsmanlike, but it really is a remarkably effective collection of stories. Several of the stories have been nominated for awards that are here considered, including Alyssa Wong’s terrifying “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers,” about a terrible secret society, Ursula Vernon’s “Jackalope Wives,” which, as the story of a skin-changing woman, makes an excellent companion to the also-here Sofia Samatar story “Selkie Stories are for Losers” (see above), Carmen Maria Machado’s beautiful retelling of “The Green Ribbon,” “The Husband Stitch” and Usman T. Malik’s “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Djinn,” a genie story that actually works 24. It also contains awards standbys. Brooke Bolander’s “Tornado’s Siren” is, as the title would suggest, about the love story between a woman and a tornado. Sarah Pinsker’s “Left the Century to Sit Unmoved” is about people who jump into a pond and mostly crawl back out again. Maria Dahvana Headley’s 25 “The Tallest Doll in New York City” is about the courtship of city buildings. It also includes some things that were utterly new to me. Max Gladstone’s “A Kiss With Teeth” is a surprisingly sweet story about a vampire who has something of a minor midlife crisis. Hannu Rajaniemi’s “The Haunting of Apollo A7LB” is another of the stories in the book that can, surprisingly, be taken more-or-less at its title, and is about the memory of things, and the nature of ghosts. Chris Tarry’s “Here Be Dragons” is another excellent con-man story 26, it’s also about dragons, the allure of the unknown, and how far responsibility goes in the face of temptation. The whole thing passes by very quickly and is expertly arranged, and every story is at least worthwhile, even if I didn’t single them out here. If you’re only going to jump into one of these, this would be the one.
RIGHTFUL WINNER: The New Voices of Fantasy, edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman
Best Short Fiction
The set of short stories that came up this year is better than I can remember it being for some years – each of these is very good, and even if they didn’t all stick with me, they all have their merits.
Fran Wilde’s “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly-Steady Hand” was also nominated for a Nebula and a Hugo this year, and what I said about it in both of those write-ups still stands: it’s a good piece of tone work. Stitched together out of wisps of description and with a really powerful narrative voice, it really does slip past like someone giving you a tour of a very strange place. It didn’t make a huge impact when I read it, but I find that months later there are parts of it that still very much stick with me, so perhaps I’ll get more out of it upon re-reading it.
Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” was not only nominated for the Nebula and the Hugo this year, but it won both of them. I can’t argue too strenuously against this – it’s a fantastic, haunting piece of writing that manages to be absurd and upsetting in equal measure. But I still don’t think it’s the best one here.
Natalia Theoridou’s “The Birding: A Fairy Tale” is the story of a plague, and is indeed arranged as a fairy tale, an explanation of something that is beyond human comprehension. It’s affecting, and it’s somewhat more “literary” than most of the other stories in this category. It wouldn’t be a terrible thing if it won, but it’s also kind of forgettable, and while the broad strokes of the story itself stick around, it doesn’t have a lot of staying power.
But there is a better story. Caroline Yoachim’s is an allegorical parable for individual difference, as told via a world of clockwork denizens who have to go through life with wound springs. It’s beautiful and said and unfair, and I’ve read it over and over again since it came out, just for the sheer joy of the words. Even without being a sturdy, useful parable it would still be an impeccable piece of craftsmanship, and by being successful in every vector in which a short story can be successful, it is a singular achievement and deserves the award.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Caroline Yoachim, “Carnival Nine”
Best Long Fiction
The World Fantasy Awards saw an unusually strong set of nominees in almost every field this year, and the novella category was a surprise because I had less misgivings about it than I usually do 27. Only one of these stories is really the wrong length 28, and they’re all pretty good.
Stephen Graham Jones’s Mapping the Interior was also nominated for a Shirley Jackson award, and is still suitably scary, and still deserves full marks for its fantastic ending. Without that to recommend it, it’s merely a pretty-good ghost story that really deserves more space. As it is, it squeaks into “excellent” territory at the end.
JY Yang’s The Black Tides of Heaven is enough to convince me to give more silkpunk a try 29, and is even better when taken into consideration alongside The Red Threads of Fortune. It’s got a fantastic lead character, and not only justifies its length, but is actually made all the better for it. It’s very good, although there are aspects of it that didn’t stick with me very well, and it really does need the other bit to feel like a complete story.
Simon Avery’s The Teardrop Method is about a psychic musician, and might actually be the weakest of the stories here – there’s rather too much middle, and it takes forever to actually get going. The last third or so of it is pretty strong, but even then it just sort of dissipates into the memory, and it’s hard to recall what I liked or didn’t like about it specifically 30.
Peter S. Beagle’s In Calabria wins the award for being the most fun to read. It is definitely one of the most fun-to-read things I read all year, in fact, for this or any other reason. I would happily have spent many hundreds more pages in the head of Claudio Bianchi, with this farm, his sheep, and (especially) his cats. It’s got a unicorn in it, as perhaps we should come to expect from Peter S. Beagle, and it’s funny, light and moves very quickly without skimping on time spent with our protagonist in his idyllic setting. Its only real downfall here is that the interpersonal stuff isn’t as rewarding as the rest of it, and the end just…happens, very quickly and seemingly without the care for plot as the rest of the book.
Ellen Klages’s Passing Strange was very nearly my pick to win the Nebula 31, and it’s my pick here. It’s an extremely rewarding story about magic and San Francisco, and love and revenge, and also witches and dancing. It was so good, in fact, that I made audible noises of delight when a couple of the characters popped back up in Wicked Wonders (see above). There’s little else to say about it beyond: it’s great, it’s wildly inventive, and it’s tremendously satisfying.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Ellen Klages, Passing Strange
If many of the other categories could not escape mention for having been marked by their relatively-high quality, then let me say here that this one was kind of disappointing. I find that fantasy, in general, lives better lives in its shorter work – there’s more space to suggest rather than explicate, and more room to focus narrowly rather than spread out into something that lends itself to being more sprawling than necessary.
The usually-steadfast Fonda Lee’s Jade City is rather indicative of the trouble here: it’s too long, and there’s too much of it. There are a lot of characters, and about half of them are worth following around the book. Furthermore, it’s the first book in a series, so an enormous amount of the time is spent setting things up. While there are stories in there that are as good as Lee usually is 32, a lot of it is soggy, and it could use about two fewer pov characters.
S.A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass has a similar set of problems 33, but fares a little better. It doesn’t have as many point of view characters, for starters. It also squeezes its mythology in a bit better. Nevertheless, it is still sprawling and takes a long time for the story to settle into itself. While I would recommend it generally, it would come with some heavy qualifications. Nahri’s attempts to learn to practice medicine in Daevabad, on the other hand, is something I would read a whole lot of books about, and the book really shines during the parts that aren’t related to the (ugh) love triangle or the court machinations. Maybe later books in the series can course-correct.
I also evaluated Theodora Goss’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, and the deluge of praise that it has received has turned me around a bit on it – things have been pointed out that are admirable. I still think it seems unnecessarily like The League of Extraordinary Gentlewomen, and I still don’t like the narrative conceit of the characters interrupting the narrative in the weird meta-way that they do 34, but, again, these are things that can be worked out as the series goes, or maybe I’ll just get used to them. As it is, I’m not converted to actually liking it, but I have been shown what there is to like about it, and I don’t begrudge it its fans or its likability.
Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders should be eligible for the same special “extreme likeability” award as Peter S. Beagle’s In Calabria – it’s great, and wonderful to read, and I’ll probably read it a couple more times before I’m done with it just for the sheer joy of it. It’s being turned into a tv show, which seems excessive, but if that gets more people to read it, then I’m in favor of the idea. It’s not as weighty as the other selections here, and it’s not as innovative, but it’s a tremendously fun story about a family of psychics 35, and very well executed.
John Crowley is an author whose work I had not, before this very moment, read very much of. He’s one of the architects of urban fantasy 36. Perhaps it is the case, then, that Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr is atypical of his work (it’s in no way urban). Even so, the book is incredible, with the story of an immortal crow through the ages turning out to be touching and thought-provoking, and rocketing from adventure to action to melancholy to all sorts of other, secondary modes. The crow remains a crow the whole time, and if nothing else it would be an interesting thought experiment in how sapience would work for a corvid – that is to say, he always seems to think like a crow, and have a crow’s set of values 37. There’s also a lot of really great stuff about how language shapes the crow’s thought, and how exposure to the crow’s thoughts shapes the thoughts and language of the people around him. It’s kept out of the top spot by being slightly draggy, and also by being a bit weighed down by a not-super-necessary framing plot that never quite arrives in the same sense as the rest of the story.
Victor Lavalle’s The Changeling received scads of praise and heaps of awards, and back at the Shirley Jackson awards I declared it the rightful winner 38, and I’ll do so again here. It’s lean, it’s deep and it’s a fantastic piece of craftsmanship. It may also be built around a pun 39, which I approve of wholeheartedly.
THE RIGHTFUL WINNER: Victor Lavalle, The Changeling
And that wraps it up for the World Fantasy Awards! See everybody next May, when the literary awards start back up with the Nebulas.
Welcome to a special Rocktober edition of The Comeback Trail, everybody! This one is a bit weird, so you’ll have to stick with me.
Generally when an artist impels me to write a Comeback Trail piece about them, they’re returning to the world of publicly making music after some absence. Occasionally, however, it isn’t so much that they’ve been gone as it is that they’re notably pivoting, and, in this case, seemingly reacting to their own public discourse in a way that says “hey look, I made a new album!” instead of doing something else 1. So here we have Calvin Johnson teaming up with Pat Carney to make rock music, instead of goofy-ass dance music, as he had done for most of the last couple of decades.
The album, which is only a few years past one of the aforementioned goofy-ass dance records, is being pitched as his return to the genre that launched him, and is garnering him press that he hasn’t seen in some time – reviewed just about everywhere, for example, and written about in Rolling Stone 2 – and drowning out the press over his inability to run his record label.
It turns out, however, to be unusually appropriate for Rocktober, especially around here in this space, where it combines my twin purpose statements of writing about what becomes popular and/or marketed to be popular with what is done by unique weirdos for self-satisfactory purposes. Calvin Johnson, come whatever may and given whatever other context he has, is one of our most unique weirdos.
In the beginning, when Calvin Johnson established K Records, it was to release the music of his own band, the tremendously, unbelievably amateurish Beat Happening 3, among other like-minded folks. Beat Happening were a trio of unskilled musicians, whose childishness and inability to play were soon stuff of legend. Consisting of Calvin Johnson (who sang in a sort of nasal baritone that is easily the band’s most distinctive element – if you think of anything about Beat Happening it’s probably the yawning frog at the center of “Bury the Hammer” or “Indian Summer”), Heather Lewis (who had a more sing-song-y, “girlish” voice) and Brett Lunsford (who did not sing), with the person who wasn’t singing generally either playing a guitar or drumming, and everyone swapping instruments around regularly.
The music turned out to be wildly influential on a couple of fronts. Taken in tandem with bands like The Raincoats, the Young Marble Giants and Shonen Knife 4, they were using the infrastructure – the network of bands, labels and venues – of what had to that point been punk-rock-derived music 5 and made it something significantly less masculinity-oriented.
They also created a sort of anti-scene in Eugene, Oregon to the scene several miles away in Seattle 6, forming a space where amateurism and non-seriousness were encouraged, and fomenting a place of inclusivity where a lot of previously-underserved (especially female) rock-and-roll-interested people could form bands and be heard 7
Johnson was in bands that weren’t Beat Happening at all. He followed it up with the revolving-door Go Team 8, and the goofy-ass dance-music project Dub Narcotic Sound System. While there may very well be people that know him from his later projects, it seems from everything that I’ve been exposed to (and tried to figure out for this piece) that it all pretty well comes down to his time in Beat Happening.
Well, and K Records, which is his real legacy. This also pops up – complete with attendant press-push and all – a couple of years or so after it came to light that K Records was, shall we say, not perfectly-run. As detailed in this article that ran in The Stranger, they are having enormous trouble paying their artists what they are owed, and are currently launching harebrained schemes to make money quickly to cover their enormous back payments 9. Which makes it seem less-than-coincidental that here we are with a highly-public Calvin Johnson album, complete with all-star producer, etc.
So this record, released on K Records, is framed as a return to the rock and roll spirit that made Calvin Johnson famous, or at least, y’know, known. He was able to leverage the involvement of Pat Carney 10, and generally get written up in places he wouldn’t ordinarily. Hopefully the gambit works out and he can pay Phil Elverum the money he owes him. Ultimately, however, this is why this is a Comeback Trail record, and not just another record.
It’s the first record Johnson has released under his own name in thirteen years, but it’s only been a couple of years since his last record as Selector Dub Narcotic, and he hasn’t exactly been hiding in the intervening time anyway, but here we have him putatively returning to rock music 11. So, does it work?
Before I try to answer that question, I need to play the rest of my cards: I do not like Calvin Johnson’s music. I think that Dub Narcotic Sound System were occasionally ok, and I like maybe four or five Beat Happening songs, but by and large I don’t think it’s worth listening to. I feel like the point was made more or less immediately, and the point was the thing that was worth doing about the band. The music of the band is much less worthy of consideration than the fact of the band.
And by “the point” I mean the dedication to amateurism – the simple structures, the un-technical playing, the bare arrangements. It’s worthy to tear something down as far as it will go and see if it’s still the thing. In terms of making compelling music, however, they weren’t as minimal as Suicide 12, they weren’t as rocking as The Swell Maps, they weren’t as amateurish as Daniel Johnston 13, they weren’t as fun as The Cramps. They also weren’t memorable, and they only really had a couple of ideas, each of which is played out quickly. And this is my opinion of Johnson’s best band.
So upon embarking on this journey of music that we call an album, I am coming at it from a place of deep pessimism about how good it’s actually going to be. And, indeed: it is not very good. It has its moments. I’m certain that it has just about as many of them as any other given Calvin Johnson album 14. As previously mentioned, it sounds like a mid-aughts dance rock record, only with instruments played by Pat Carney. It seems impossible to mention the record without mentioning Carney’s fiancee, Michelle Branch’s, contributions to the record, but they seem pretty minimal – she sings the chorus on the lead single and bubbles up a bit here and there throughout. She’s fine. It’s fine.
But it’s not really a “Comeback” in any meaningful sense. Maybe it’s unfair to judge it by a criterion that I assumptively gave it, based on the timing of its release and the press attack that accompanied it. I’ll admit that it’s not really something the record bears up under. But it’s also not really worth all the time spent on bringing it into the light, and really: it’s not good. Where it aims for “Fun” and “Sincere” and perhaps “Naive” it lands on “drippy,” “performative” and “falsely confident.”
It is a good record in a very specific sense, and it’s a sense that Johnson has spent a career inhabiting, and that is frightfully common, especially among older rock folks – on paper, it’s got things that are praiseworthy about it (a veteran with a specific vision who was once responsible for vital recordings teams up with a somewhat-younger rock dude who he inspired 15), and everyone loves an inspiring tale of the sort. It’s got a built-in press hook in its amateurism and its eagerness to be liked. It’s easy, in short, to write about, to think about, and to remember. But it’s not good.
So, in terms of records that it’s easy to like without listening to, it’s a wild success, but it’s still liable to be little more than a weird blip of a minor work in the legacy of someone who, by all appearances, is trying to shore up his failing business model 16. or at least make enough to stop the bleeding.
I suppose, in closing here, that there are worse reasons to make a record, and certainly worse reasons to appreciate an album, so if it sounds like your thing, feel free to make it so. I’ll probably never listen to it again, though.