Favorite Novels

Since a while back I shared my favorite anime, and I just reorganized my bookshelves, I figured I would share my five favorite novels. Well, favorite this week, anyway; the number of novels I love is probably an order of magnitude higher than the number of anime I’ve seen, and so the category of “favorite” is ever-shifting. I am deliberately leaving out short story collections, novellas, short story collections disguised as novels by use of a framing device, and graphic novels; I may do other lists which allow those at some future date, but for now I’m sticking to clear-cut examples of prose novels. Also this is in no particular order; it’s hard enough to narrow the list to seven, let alone rank them.

  • Foucalt’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco: Everything you would expect a conspiracy thriller written by a Nobel Prize-winning author/world-renowned semiotician to be. Dense, convoluted, twisty, a glorious celebration of the twin facts that conspiracy theories are fundamentally silly and the mystical is fundamentally a conspiracy theory.
  • Desolation Road, Ian MacDonald: A bizarre, largely episodic history of a small town in the Martian desert, peopled by outcasts and oddities. By turns silly and profound, and sometimes both at once. But mostly it’s just deeply, deeply weird.
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis: Time-travel comedy of manners farce. In which two separate comedies of manners, one in the late 21st century and the other in the late 19th, collide gloriously. Nothing deep here, just a very funny and fun book.
  • Night Watch, Terry Pratchett: It was a very hard choice between this and Hogfather, the climax of which helped solidify a lot of my own worldview, but I think ultimately this is the better book. It’s a fascinating inversion of Les Miserables, and without the interminable boring asides that prevent that book from being on this list. Like Les Miserables, it is ultimately an exploration of what it means to be good in a fundamentally corrupt world; this has better jokes and a less ridiculously uber-competent hero, though.
  • My Name Is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok: If you’ve read one Potok book, you’ve read all of them. This is that one. The story of an artist torn between the calling of his craft and the strict rules of his insular religious community, between his own integrity and what his upbringing and everyone around him tells him is “right.”
  • VALIS, Philip K. Dick: A bizarre, hallucinatory journey, another conspiracy thriller (odd that there are two on this list; I don’t usually care for the genre) caught in a complete psychotic breakdown, a narrative collapse par excellence that, ultimately, can only be resolved by the reader’s own choices and interpretation. This is either an absolute masterpiece or a complete train wreck, and after three readings over ten years I’m leaning towards saying it’s both.
  • Magister Ludi (a.k.a. The Glass Bead Game), Herman Hesse: I cannot even begin to describe this book. It is a living book, a growing thing that keeps changing every time you go back to read it, that writhes and shifts even in your hands. A slippery thing. It’s about a guy that’s really good at this very complicated board game. It’s about academia. It’s about life in a prison that isn’t really there.

Favorite video game soundtracks, by era

Here’s a quick list of my favorite video game soundtracks for each generation since I started playing (not including current generation–can’t pick a favorite if there’s still new stuff coming out, plus I haven’t actually played any games from the current generation).

8-bit: Mega Man 2, Takashi Tateishi: C’mon. That intro? Wily 1? Does this even have competition?

Honorable Mention: Yes, it does. Ducktales.

16-bit: Final Fantasy VI, Nobuo Uematsu: Another one with little in the way of competition. The Opera House sequence was like half an hour of kinda-crappy gameplay not only redeemed, but rendered classic, by the SNES sound chip being made to do things it had never done before–and then that glorious ending! Not to mention some truly outstanding character themes in between, such as Kefka’s, Celes’, and Cyan’s, and of course the utterly haunting world map and incredible second airship theme… I could go on like this.

Honorable Mentions: Chronotrigger, particularly when you know it was Mitsuda’s first professional job. (We’ll be seeing him again shortly.) Mega Man X.

PSX/N64/Dreamcast: Xenogears, Yasunori Mitsuda. Holy crap yes, from the vaguely Celtic-sounding “Aveh–Ancient Dance” to the Arab-flavored “Dajil–City of Burning Sands,” the ethereal majesty of “The Beginning and the End” to whatever the hell (other than FRICKING AWESOME) “Awakening” was, this was the game that announced Mitsuda as someone to pay attention to (since Uematsu kind of ganked the credit for Chronotrigger.)

Honorable Mentions: Lunar: The Silver Star, a fun, energetic, and sprightly sound perfectly fitted to its pre-FF7 largely-angstless RPG aesthetic. Chrono Cross, another Mitsuda work, and the polar opposite of Lunar, a soundtrack that utterly doesn’t fit the game at all as a consequence of being, y’know, actually good. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, much like the game itself, went for a weirder and darker tone than the safe path followed by Ocarina, and (again, like the game itself) ends up the stronger work as a result. Final Fantasy 8, despite being nigh-universally (and rightfully) reviled for its easily breakable gameplay, uninteresting cast, and convoluted story, is Uematsu’s best post-SNES work.

PS2/GameCube/X-Box: Xenosaga, Yasunori Mitsuda (Episode 1) and Yuki Kajiura (Episodes 2 and 3). Okay, yeah, I’m cheating and giving it to the whole franchise, but it’s the only way to get someone other than Mitsuda some space, because his bombastic, operatic soundtrack for Episode 1 is both a perfect fit for the game’s vast scope (and, let’s be honest, joyous pretention) and an excellent listen on its own, reusing and expanding upon certain key themes from Xenogears in ways that transcend that game’s soundtrack. Yuki Kajiura, on the other hand, does the second-best work of her career to date (only Madoka Magica is better) on the next two games of the series, including particular standouts “Image Theme” and “Communication Breakdown” from Episode 2 and “Godsibb” from Episode 3.

Honorable Mentions: Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is the only one I can think of. This is the generation where my gaming time began to shrink.

PS3/Wii/X-Box 360: Smash Bros. Brawl. Yeah, I am completely cheating, since the soundtrack is almost entirely made of remixes. But they’re good remixes of tracks that deserve to be remixed!

Honorable Mentions: None. This is the generation where my gaming time vanished entirely.

Favorite vs. Best

Since there’s no new episode of Friendship Is Magic today, have a short post instead.

Do you distinguish between your favorite examples of a genre or form and the best examples? I was musing the other day about the fact that my five favorite anime and the five anime I consider the best of what I’ve seen are the same five anime, but if I were to create actual top five lists, they’d be different.

In fact, here are those lists, plus an explanation of why the anime is where it is.

Favorites:

  •  Princess Tutu: The most badass anime about a ballet-dancing duck ever. Also, super-secret ultra-hidden direct Neverending Story reference.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood: It makes me laugh, it makes me punch the air and cheer, and certain episodes make me cry no matter how many times I watch them. Also it just looks great.
  • Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Total brainsink. I can just watch and think about it for hours. Also, it’s absolutely visually stunning.
  • Revolutionary Girl Utena: Compelling, emotional, intriguing, great fight scenes, and an utterly kick-ass soundtrack.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion: Explosions, giant plot twists from nowhere, and an emotional continuity that more than makes up for the plot spending most of the middle part of the series meandering aimlessly, and then, just as it’s finding its feet again, collapses into total incoherence.

Best:

  • Revolutionary Girl Utena: The most semiotically dense thing I have ever watched, easily surpassing any other TV show or film.
  • Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Packs more thematic complexity, character growth, and intriguing ideas into 12 episodes than most series manage in 50.
  • Princess Tutu: Masterfully constructed as a pastiche of dozens of classical ballets and folktales, and yet despite the fact that in each episode the characters are playing out the roles of characters in a given source story, there is also a strong character arc for each of them across the series as a whole.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion: The last two episodes are a staggering work of absolute genius and the best-executed narrative collapse in all of anime.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood: A masterclass in creating a sprawling, complex plot with a massive cast (by the Promised Day arc, there are fifteen separate groups of characters being independently followed by the narrative) and still making sure that everything is driven by the choices of the characters, and every character’s choices are consistent with their distinct and idiosyncratic personality.

How about you? Do you distinguish between “favorite” and “best,” and if so, what are some examples?

Five Episodes I Like

Reminder: MLP Liveblog tomorrow. Details go up at noon EST, actual liveblog chat thingy is at 2 p.m.

Something I’m toying with doing on occasion: Here’s a list of five really good episodes of television. It’s not a top five list or anything, although the intention is for the episode mentioned to be at least a contender for best episode of its show; they’re just five episodes I really, really like, with a brief explanation of what’s so good about them. No pattern, just the first five I think of.

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “Once More with Feeling.” Buffy has enough truly great episodes to easily fill one of these lists on its own–“The Body,” “The Gift,” “Surprise”/”Innocence,” “Graduation Day,” “Hush” all come to mind swiftly and easily–but my postmodern heart swells with joy at “Once More with Feeling,” a musical wherein the protagonists’ main goal is figuring out why they keep singing their feelings and making it stop, while the villain uses the inability to feel without singing about it to torment them and disrupt their relationships. On top of this, unlike most musical episodes (a trend it more or less invented) it is not a one-off; it continues plot and character threads established in prior episodes and is a vital turning point for several of the season’s major plots. Plus it’s a genuinely good musical in its own right!
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “In the Pale Moonlight.” It’s the best episode of the best Star Trek, and the one that goes farthest in exploring the moral ambiguity that characterized (most of) DS9. Trekkies who hate DS9 frequently cite it as their go-to example of how the series betrayed the founding values of Star Trek, to which my response is that yes, it absolutely does, and it’s amazing.
  • Veronica Mars: “Pilot.” This is, quite simply, the best first episode I’ve ever seen. It is confident, well-acted, engaging, and not bogged down in exposition; it’s the kind of episode a series has at the start of its second or third season, not its first. Plus, how often do you get to see a rape victim tell her own story for herself and define it for herself? I flung myself headlong into Veronica Mars late last year, and this episode is the main reason why.
  • Puella Magi Madoka Magica: “I Won’t Rely on Anyone Anymore.” Ten episodes into a twelve-episode series is not, usually, when you completely recontextualize every event of the series so far, up to and including the meaning of the opening credits. But Madoka doesn’t do things the usual way. This episode is, by turns, unsettling, heartbreaking, and fantastic, and it blows open the path to the end of the series in an utterly spectacular way.
  • Babylon 5: “Sleeping in Light.” One of the most satisfying, heartbreaking, bittersweet series finales ever shown. I cannot make it through this dry-eyed; there is one musical track in particular that I cannot hear without tearing up. My father died in 1992; that was the last time I cried until I saw this episode for the first time in 1998.

What are some of your favorites?

ETA: Fixed a couple of typos in the last two bullets: Madoka is a twelve-episode series, not thirteen, and “Sleeping in Light” was the series finale of B5, not just a season finale.

Good Intercontinuity Crossovers

As a general rule, crossovers are actually pretty bad. Perhaps a better way to put it is that they are easy to do badly–a crossover that sounds good in concept may founder because the characters or settings turn out to be incompatible, for example. But the crossover nature of the campaign I’m running for Anime USA this weekend makes me think about actually good crossovers. Here’s a sampling of some of my favorites:

Jason and the Argonauts: Not any of the film versions, I mean the original legend. Think about it, Odysseus, Perseus, Hercules, Nestor, Ajax, Atalanta, and so on, all on the same ship going questing together? It’s the ancient Greco-Roman equivalent to The Avengers!

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The comic, not the movie. It’s a brilliant conceit, mashing together a team of the pop-culture heroes of the 19th century, and an excellent bit of comic-book storytelling to boot.

The Subspace Emissary: AKA Smash Bros. Brawl‘s story mode. I think the moment at which I knew I was in love was when it has Red from Pokemon become Lucas from Mother 3’s mentor–but it’s full of all these golden little paired-off character interactions that are sheer joy to watch. Frankly, I’m torn on whether the best moment is Pikachu shocking Ridley, then standing tiny but fierce and protective over the temporarily indisposed Samus, or Link and Samus Zelda extending a hand of friendship (or at least temporary-truce-to-fight-a-bigger-threat-ship) to Ganon. If you’ve never played it or seen the story, and you have any fond memories of classic game characters at all, I strongly recommend trying to find the cutscenes on YouTube and giving them a watch.

ETA 9/16: Fixed a sense-breaking typo in the last paragraph.