“In a long-tail market…the job of filters is to screen out noise. Call it pulling wheat from chaff, diamonds from the rough, to elevate a few products that are right for whoever is watching.” Chris Anderson
It’s that season when mavens everywhere feel obliged to tell you the best and worst of what they’ve seen in the past year, some even for the whole decade. Little did I realize the importance of this role till I recently started reading Wired editor Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail. For Anderson, recommendations (filters) are crucial to sorting the good stuff from “the crap” – his term – in the vast content cornucopia that is the Internet.
So here we go – the best stories of 2009, as spotted by one veteran story enthusiast.
These are not necessarily stories that first appeared in 2009 but stories that caught my fancy for various reasons during this past year. Some go back to the dawn of Baby Boomer time in the 1960s. And we define story telling quite liberally here at 317am, everything from the traditional novel or short story to videos, blog vignettes, vooks, and who knows what.
“A & P,” 1960 short story by John Updike – This is pristine early fiction from the late grandmaster of American prose. Updike exquisitely sniffed out the dark nooks of the male mind, and here he nails the adolescent version in the form of his naively cynical grocery-clerk narrator. Pure pleasure from the opening sentence on: “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.”
Bonnie and Clyde, 1967 film by director Arthur Penn and Warren Beatty, who played Clyde and produced – A French New Wave movie with odd couples and shocking mood shifts set in the American heartland. LOL funny and imbued with le joie des flics throughout. Marvelous acting in breakthrough roles by the young Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, and Michael Pollard.
“Democracy Is…” a video by Nepal’s Tsering Choden – One of six winners of the 2009 Democracy Video Challenge and my favorite. Which is odd, since I’m not a fan of hip-hop, but there’s just something about the two Nepalese rappers who fuel the beats for this herky-jerky, stop-motion vid that I love. I also like the way a message about governmental chaos comes through without a linear story. Talent blooms everywhere.
Dinosaur Mom Chronicles – Describes herself as “a suburb-dwelling federal wage slave” and yet what a way with a story this blogger has. Try “Degeneration” for a fine, deserved rant against a TV commercial or “Unhealthy Interest” for how taking the mother-in-law for a doctor’s visit can morph into a consideration of our healthcare system. “I set out to be Anais Nin and I turned into Mrs. Dalloway,” writes Dinosaur Mom. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but she has voice enough for both of them.
“Mad Men,” TV series written and produced by Matthew Weiner – This worthy successor to “Sopranos” and “The Wire” in long-form TV probes the emptiness at the heart of the American Dream, a fine literary theme since 1950s. Set in the early 1960s, when adults were really adults, or at least so we kids thought, it demos once again that great alpha males have great internal conflicts. Don Draper is like Clark Gable with a back story – women want to sleep with him and men want to be him.
Methland: The Life and Death of an American Small Town by Nick Reding – That would be Oelwein, Iowa, where globalization, Big Agriculture, and the end of the union wage have fueled a meth epidemic that has wiped out the small town life we once-rural types cherish. Great reporting can make superb nonfiction story telling. Reding rounds out each character, from the meth dealers and addicts to the town doc, DA, and mayor who are working to hold things together.
Moon Tiger, a novel by Penelope Lively – This life story is told from the deathbed of a war correspondent and historian who happens to be one fierce intellectual of a woman. You can see why the novel won the Brit Booker Prize a couple years back. Lively takes on all the big themes – love, death, memory, history, war, incest. Women tend not to like Claudia Hampton – she’s admittedly not much of a mother to her daughter – and men would not want to be married to her, but she’s a grand fictional character. As Claudia puts it, “Our conversation with reality is always tenuous.”
“The Sandbaggers” by Ian Mackintosh – The category: 1970s Brit TV shows with cult followings. Easily the best. Neil Burnside runs the special ops branch of the British intelligence service, but what he really does every episode is battle his bureaucratic bosses. Roy Marsden, who later went on to play P.D. James’s Inspector Dalgleish, is masterful at acting a clever, ruthless brain as it plots and zings the higher-ups with the nasty truths of reality.
Six Armies in Normandy, 1983 nonfiction by the great Brit military historian John Keegan – Story after story about what happened at one of the great turning points of Western civilization. Keegan handles the varying terrain of detail better than any writer I know. We get the big picture and plenty of little ones too. His preface about life as a boy safe in the west of England is a marvelous personal essay and scene-setter for the battles that follow.
The White Tiger, a novel by Aravind Adiga – What Slum Dog Millionaire might have been if director Danny Boyle had not opted for the Bollywood fairy tale formula. The bitter, self-justifying, truth-telling narrator rises from village life to chaufferhood in the vast part of the Subcontinent he calls the Darkness. The book, another Booker winner, tells you more about how India really works than Fareed Zakaria ever does.
So what did I miss?