Category: Book review

Best Books Read in 2018

My book count was down 40% in 2018.

Gad, that’s embarrassing.

For the first time in ages I read less than one hundred books last year—blame that on Netflix and podcasts, both of which have been stealing my time like a furtive thief.

Below, you’ll find my list of favorite reads, fiction and non-fiction.

How does it compare with your choices?

Fiction:

The World to Come (Stories) by Jim Shepard

Sweet Nothing (Stories) by Richard Lange

All For Nothing by Walter Kempowski (Translated by Anthea Bell)

Greeks Bearing Gifts by Philip Kerr

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

Nobody Move by Denis Johnson

Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson

The Implacable Hunter by Gerald Kersh

To Die in Spring by Ralf Rothmann (Translated by Shaun Whiteside)

Honorable Mentions:

The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem

Straight Cut by Madison Smartt Bell

American Rust by Philipp Meyer

Wait Until Spring, Bandini by John Fante

Neon Rain by James Lee Burke

Non-Fiction

Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson

No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla

Tunnel At the End of the Light (Essays) by Jim Shepard

Fighting Fascism by Clara Zetkin

Reporter, A Memoir by Seymour Hersh

Stanley: An Impossible Life by Tim Jeal

The Bending Cross (Life of Eugene Debs) by Ray Ginger

Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler

Space Odyssey (Making of 2001) by Michael Benson

A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain

Honorable Mentions:

St. Paul, The Apostle We Love to Hate by Karen Armstrong

The Killing of Osama Bin Laden by Seymour Hersh

Remember, Remember (Essays) by Charles Beaumont

The Nasty Bits by Anthony Bourdain

Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard

Note: You’ll find a list of my favorite films of 2018 over at Cinema Arete.

Best Reads of 2016

9780812987232Managed to read over a hundred books and view about the same number of movies in 2016.

You’ll find my list of favourite films over at my blog, Cinema Arete.

Read slightly more non-fiction than fiction last year, a bit of a worrying trend. I’ve really cut back on my genre fiction in the past while; I’ve found the suspension of disbelief rarely works for me any more. The last horror novel I read, by Peter Straub, struck me as completely implausible and I barely finished it.

More and more, I’m looking for quality reads, books that are innovative, literate and unique.

And, more and more, contemporary fiction just doesn’t meet that criteria.

 * * * *

Best Books Read in 2016

Fiction:

Fortune Smiles (Stories) by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

The Execution by Hugo Wilcken

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo

The Heavenly Bible by Donald Ray Pollock

Today I Wrote Nothing (Stories) by Daniil Kharms

Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse

The Reflection by Hugo Wilcken

The Adulterous Woman (Stories) by Albert Camus

Honorable Mention:

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow

Poetry:

Without by Donald Hall

Felicity by Mary Oliver

Non-fiction:

Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life by James Hawes

Ghost Wars: Secret History of CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden by Steve Coll

Contrary Notions by Michael Parenti

When the Facts Change by Tony Judt

Disaster Capitalism by Antony Lowenstein

Young Orson: The Years of Luck & Genius by Patrick McGilligan

We Learn Nothing (Essays) by Tim Kreider

Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum

Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk

Honorable Mention:

The Idea of Communism by Tariq Ali

Goebbels: A Biography by Peter Longerich

My Life & Travels by Wilfred Thesiger

Hogs Wild (Essays) by Ian Frazier

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The Trouble With Neil Gaiman

coralineOkay, here’s the thing: I’ve never believed a single word Neil Gaiman has written.

Wow.

I can already detect a collective gnashing of teeth as Gaiman’s legion of fans leap to his defense, their counter-attack, predictably, hysterical, vitriolic and ad hominem. Shoot the messenger and deal with the actual, y’know, message later.

I know what I’ve just said might seem a tad critical and extreme at first glance but, as my hero Bill Hicks would say, hear me out.

Clearly, Neil Gaiman is effective at what he does. He sells a ton of books, has earned a bevy of prizes and a significant number of people await each new Gaiman release with genuine pleasure and anticipation.

All to the good.

And speaking for myself, I’ve found Gaiman’s stuff, for the most part, diverting, and he writes in a straightforward, unpretentious style. But upon opening any Neil Gaiman offering I’m immediately struck by the realization that this is not a tale set on Earth Prime—there is an unworldly feel to the material. Indeed, nearly everything I’ve read by the man distinguishes him as someone who, in one way or another, is a purveyor of modern day fairy tales and moral fables. But no one truly believes fairy tales or thinks they have any basis in reality. Do they?

And therein lies the problem.

That lack of credibility produces, I would argue, an emotional distance, a safety margin from which readers can observe the action without being unduly concerned with the fate of the characters. When your audience is granted that kind of dispensation, they stop closely identifying with the people at the heart of the story, stop caring. A potentially gripping yarn becomes merely entertaining. Good, escapist fun.

Doesn’t that pretty much sum up the Gaiman oeuvre?

While he tells a decent story, there’s not the kind of intimacy and closely observed detail that ramps up our emotional investment to another level. Think of the work of masters of the macabre Richard Matheson or Charles Beaumont. They frequently dealt with fantastic subject matter but in their best efforts (see: “Matheson’s “Mute” or Hell House) there is an unnerving sense that this creepy account could be real…and our concern for what the characters are enduring becomes all the more genuine and heartfelt.

Give him credit, Neil Gaiman is conversant with contemporary cultural touchstones, borrowing shamelessly from mythology (Old Gods and Sandman) or re-imagining familiar standards (Coraline). But, to me, none of his work succeeds at suspending disbelief. And while I see a lot of archetypes—vampires, werewolves, ghosts, the usual suspects—I don’t, frankly, detect much innovation or originality. Tropes and stock monsters, employed in a standard story arc, with (almost invariably) happy, satisfying resolutions. Gaiman’s approach to writing is quick, punchy, visual; perfect for graphic novels. Illustrative but not particularly deep or insightful. His characters speedily sketched, unceremoniously thrust into peril, even mortal danger.

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife…

(First line of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book)

Ah, yes, The Graveyard Book. In that 2008 novel Gaiman presents us with the story of a young human child raised in a cemetery by a variety of well-meaning ghosts and supernatural creatures. Clever, but by Page 50 my interest in the central character, Bod, was purely academic: how would he be successfully re-integrated into human society? The rest of the book zipped past in a blur.

Likewise, I was almost immediately turned off by The Ocean at the End of the Lane. A more recent effort (2013), it’s told (mostly) from the point of view of a child whose observations are so mature and thoughtful as to defy credulity. I disliked the book from its initial pages and it never really caught on with me. Finished it out of a sense of obligation, not joy.

It strikes me that Neil Gaiman is a perfect author for our sped up, ADHD-afflicted society. He writes moderately well, with visual acumen, setting the table quickly, not bothering with niceties like realism or verisimilitude. His fans will say I’m being unfair—after all, with fairy tales the effect is more important than the nuts and bolts of narrative (and perhaps they’re right).

But there’s a fine line in dark fantasy and horror literature, a point where the author must create the impression that what we’re reading is actually taking place, expend every effort to ensure we’re fully immersed in the story, crying and bleeding along with the protagonist, experiencing their dread as the knob starts turning, the door inching open. If we have no faith in their ordeal, no stake in what’s happening to them, the writer has failed us, failed to devise a scenario that is, at once, dramatic and nerve-rending and, despite our best efforts to think otherwise, believable and authentic.

Personal, intimate horror. What really goes on in the dark.

That’s what scares us and leaves a permanent mark on our psyche.

Fairy tales are fine for children, but surely adults require narratives of more depth—aesthetically sound and literate and, at the same time, unrelenting and provocative, seeking to exact an emotional toll, while defying and frustrating expectations.

It’s time Neil Gaiman started writing for grownups.

People old enough to know that in life there are no happy endings…and no such thing as a great artist who stoops to please.

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Winding up David Mitchell’s THE BONE CLOCKS

boneclocksI’m still pondering James Wood’s rather unenthusiastic review of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks.

I read the review about an hour ago and now that I’ve had a chance to shower and clear my head, I’d like to get some thoughts down, try to sum up why I think Mr. Wood—and a number of other critics—have missed the point. Let me make clear, I have nothing against Wood, I think he’s a thoughtful, articulate reviewer, a smart man…I just don’t always agree with him.

There’s a taint, if I can put it like that, to his review, a whiff of innuendo. Mitchell’s a good storyteller, he allows, and The Bone Clocks is admittedly “entertaining”, but…

But what?

Well, apparently, The Bone Clocks lacks coherence, there’s a dearth of human significance and, then, near the conclusion of his critique, Mr. Wood finally lets the mask slip and his biases show:

Gradually, the reader begins to understand that the realism—the human activity—is relatively unimportant…the emphasis is shifted away from the human characters toward the supernatural goings on, and the human characters become mere decoders of the peculiar mystery that has befallen them: detectives of drivel. The fantasy rigs the narrative, so that there is something wearingly formulaic whenever Mitchell stages, as he regularly does, a spot of ‘realistic’ skepticism.”

I’m not sure how much fantastic fiction Mr. Wood has read but he must be aware of some of its noble practitioners, Kafka and Borges, Maupassant and Poe. While Mr. Wood opines that “supernatural” skullduggery detracts from the human story, I wonder if he would say the same thing if he was reading a novel or short story by one of the authors I just cited.

What I like most about Mr. Mitchell’s work is that it refuses to acknowledge genre constraints; he delights in playing with tropes and is fearless about introducing SFnal elements to his narratives, creating a vast and varied universe that astonishes literally at every turn.

Mr. Wood’s final assertion, that The Bone Clocks is a “theological allegory”, reflecting a “bleak Gnosticism” must have made the author laugh out loud.

Really, Mr. Wood?

I suspect David Mitchell’s bookshelves are extensive and a good deal more eclectic than James Wood’s. He (Mitchell) is also of a generation whose childhood was enlivened by tales of the mysterious and macabre, whether in books, movies or on TV. From “Dan Dare” to “Dr. Who”; Lord of the Rings to the magic of Ray Harryhausen. All of those influences going into the creative hopper…and what emerges is a mashup that doesn’t discriminate between “literary” and  “genre” fiction, employing elements of both, worshipping at the altar of neither.

Maybe that’s why a number of science fiction scribes I know are less than approving of Mr. Mitchell’s body of work. They think he’s nicking their best material without giving due credit, while some of literary crowd (like James Wood) would accuse him of slumming every time he goes off reservation and presents them with a “bad-faith tussle with a fantastic assailant who has already won”.

I’ll admit, initially I found the supernatural elements in The Bone Clocks a bit off-putting. I’d read no reviews or advance articles on the novel, not wanting to risk spoilers (and you won’t find any in this piece, I promise). The book startled me, intrigued me, then absolutely drew me in. Imagine a collaboration between Jonathan Carroll and Thomas Pynchon, both operating at the top of their form. There are conspiracies and mazes and secret societies and psychic shootouts…but, sorry, I swore I wouldn’t ruin the fun for you.

If The Bone Clocks was a song, it would have “crossover hit” written on it in big, block letters. The novel defies mere description and resists being slotted into any safe, comfortable niche.

Like its author, it is ambitious, ridiculously intelligent, culturally attuned, charming, witty and serenely confident.

David Mitchell is a marvel.

He’s managed to surprise us, yet again.

What a guy.

 

 

The kind of review that keeps me pushing my pen across the page

Front coverAn astonishing review of my New & Selected Poems (1984-2011) just posted over at a site called Pseudo-Intellectual Reviews.

The reviewer and I belong to the same LibraryThing group and she mentioned she was picking up a copy but, sheesh, I didn’t expect such a smart and, yes, glowing review.

It’s the first critique of any sort the poems have received. I get general rumblings of praise from the people who’ve read New & Selected Poems but folks seem reluctant to address the subject matter or prominent themes. I worried, in my Afterword, that the collection might be too personal, too intense and I think there might be something to that. If you watch the footage of the book launch, the poems are often received in what I would describe as strained silence. Sherron told me that at one point a woman near her was softly weeping.

Dear Lord

What kind of strange zeitgeist has my verse tapped into?

Poems are a hard enough sell these days—apocalyptic, mind-bending excavations on the human spirit may not be what readers are looking for.

Cripes, look at the bestseller list.

Yup, once again, it appears I’ve missed the mark.

“Gulag”


"Gulag"After a long drive across the frozen wastes of Lake Baikal, Frazier arrived at a long-abandoned prison camp near the town of Topolinoe. The camps along the Topolinskaya Highway were among the most dreaded destinations in Stalin’s gulag, the prison system that claimed the lives of more than a million people during the height of the Great Terror in 1937 and 1938. Frazier walked through one of the barracks where inmates starved and froze in the Siberian winter: “This interior offered little to think about besides the limitless periods of suffering that had been crossed off here, and the unquiet rest these bunks had held.” As always, Frazier locates the apt historical anecdote that captures the horror with precision. He tells the story of two child prisoners who were given a pair of guard-dog puppies to raise, then struggled to find names for them: “The poverty of their surroundings had stripped their imaginations bare. Finally they chose names from common objects they saw every day. They named one puppy Ladle and the other Pail.”

-Joshua Hammer (from his New York Times review of Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia)

A Brief Fit of Pique

I have to get this off my chest.

Right now there are, count ’em, three volumes from E.L. James’ vile, puke-stained series Fifty Shades of Grey at the top of the bestseller list.

Let me remind you folks:  this “author” honed her chops on Twilight fan fiction and has, apparently, graduated at the head of her class when it comes to derivative, amateurish, abysmally written gutter trash.  Reading the first five lines of any offering by Ms. James immediately reveals her paucity of skills, the crudeness of her prose.

I would never have believed it was possible that popular fiction could sink any lower than Stephenie Meyer…but then along came Amanda Hocking (ptui! ptui!) and, now, (God help western civilization) E.L. James.

Am I supposed to draw comfort from the fact that an unheralded talent can still score a lucrative contract from a venerable publisher? Should I holler and celebrate because at least two of these authors come from the independent/DIY/self-publishing world, same as l’il ol’ me?

Sorry, but that’s not the case. I’m embarrassed by the success of authors as horrible and sub-literate as James, Hocking, et al.  I’m embarrassed to belong to a society where the printed word has become so devalued and compromised, this kind of crap is not only published but gobbled up by a public whose brains have gone soft and fatty from all the junk food we take in through our eyes, mouths and ears.  We immerse ourselves in trash, refuse to task our minds with challenging artists and works, seek escapism the way a junkie craves the needle.  The mind is a muscle and ours’ have gone flabby, resisting even the lightest exercise.

Video games, comic book movies, books written for an intended audience with a mental age of fourteen…all part of a decline, the barbarians at the gates garbed in corporate robes, enticing us with baubles, buying our delinquent souls with the equivalent of beads and flim-flam.

I shudder to think what the next step down the evolutionary ladder might be, how much lower literature can sink.

What comes after E.L. James?

That’s something too terrible to ponder…