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
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
Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams
The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow
Without by Donald Hall
Felicity by Mary Oliver
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
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
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.
I’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…
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 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.
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.
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)
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…
Standing before a tower of unread books, feeling a bit queasy but also defiant. These are books that have bedeviled me for months, years, decades. Tomes I know will be excellent, enlightening, life-enhancing…as soon as I find time to read them. Others are volumes I read many moons ago and want to revisit. Some big, fat, brain-building Pynchon titles, a few of the early Cormac McCarthys; works I read when I was young, stupid and trying to impress everybody. Now when I read them, I’ll be a helluva lot more worldly, slightly smarter and apt to grasp more than I did during that initial encounter. Can you really comprehend the magnitude of Gravity’s Rainbow or Marcel Proust’s convoluted, gorgeous prose at nineteen or twenty?
Never in hell. I’m convinced human beings don’t start developing adult-sized brains until they’ve turned thirty and have popped at least one kid. A teenager reading War and Peace is like handing a mandrill an iPad. Seriously.
This past week I was visiting The Big City and had occasion (okay, I lurked) to listen while a couple of teenage girls discussed their school reading assignments.
“This book,” one said, stabbing a livid finger at Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, “ought to be banned.”
“Did you read The Englishman’s Boy?”
“Only the chapter I had to.”
“Me too! Catcher in the Rye sucked too. What’s the big deal? The Outsiders--”
“That was half decent.”
“It was o-kay. But the main guy is such a whiner…”
And so on. Book club night at the Stephen Hawking residence it was not.
What were those gals doing, hanging out in a book store? Waiting for the rain to subside? I wonder what sort of books they actually liked?
* * * * *
I must do something about my To Be Read pile. Make that piles. It’s getting scary. We’re running out of space. Books are double-stacked on the shelves, some even (gasp!) relegated to the floor. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, essays…good God, things have gotten completely out of hand. I catch my wife looking at me, her expression cagy: pondering involuntary commitment? What are the legal hurdles? How much can she get for all these fucking books?
And now that I’m hooked up to the library system through the internet, I can log on and troll for more books, secure them free, via inter-library loans. If three weeks pass and I need more time, I can renew the tomes in question with a few taps on my keyboard.
Or perhaps not. It’s like having after hours access to the world’s biggest bookstore. I get messages as soon as another book is ready for pickup at my local branch. Can’t wait to get down there, scoop it up and bear it home…
Understand, I already have dozens, scores of books—wonderful books, classic books—waiting to be read but I’m still ordering more. Isn’t that weird? Isn’t that, well, nuts?
It’s called bibliophilia, folks, and I’ve got it bad.
I’m a collector on the verge of becoming a hoarder. When I find a good bookstore, especially a good used book store, my hands get clammy, my stomach churns and I feel light-headed, like I’m suffering from some kind of sugar deficit. I kid you not. I’ve heard junkies say similar things when they find themselves in the vicinity of dope or paraphernalia. A feeling of anticipation that leaves you weak in the knees.
Have to say, when I visited my last big box book barn I didn’t experience anything like that. The “New Release” shelves didn’t turn my crank at all—the majority of the fiction seemed to be geared toward women, and particularly stupid ones at that. The most dreadful shite. Spotted a number of offerings in the history section, including David McCullough’s bio of Truman, but the prices scared me off. After all my browsing, over an hour in the store, I came away with one thin volume, a beautiful little Penguin edition of Stefan Zweig’s novella Chess. That’s it.
Pitiful, ain’t it?
But, of course, it isn’t just books. I’m no longer part of the desired demographic, and that goes for music, movies, television, you name it. I’m an old fogie with a critical brain and a handle on his spending. Not exact a walking advertisement for consumerism.
No, the ones the advertisers, viral marketers et al are after are the 16-25 bunch, the gamers and mall crowd, armed with credit cards and completely lacking impulse control. Unmarried, no kids, disposable income, too much time on their hands. The morons that have kept Michael Bay, JJ Abrams and Bill Gates filthy rich and reduced the popular arts to public urinals. Thanks, kids!
We have them to thank for the current state of publishing/bookselling. The explosion of graphic novels, the flood of zombies and vampires and knock-off fantasy and franchise novels, and media tie-ins…can you say dumbing down? That extended period I spent in the big box store was most educational. It told me that in their efforts to cater to their sought after demographic, traditional publishers won’t just go for the lowest common denominator, they are willing, nay eager, to debase the language, alienate their traditional clientele and reduce an art form to mere commodity. The rot is evident in every genre—what little “literary” fiction out there is getting harder to find, forced off the shelves by establishments that offer whole sections devoted to the excremental writing of James Patterson, Jody Picoult and the like.
I turn on commercial radio, flip through the TV channels during a rare hotel visit, check on-line movie listings for anything that might look promising and I feel old. Nothing in the entertainment world speaks to me these days. I don’t look forward to the summer movies or check to see who made the Oscar shortlist. Ignore the bestseller lists, rarely buy a magazine or new book…and we’re the last family I know of who still don’t have cable TV.
I’ve been a reader all my life. Forty years with my nose in books. Books have always offered me comfort and consolation. In childhood, they were a security blanket, helping me escape the depredations of reality. As I got older, they became my primary sources of learning, as well as steering me down spiritual/mystical paths I might otherwise have missed. Without books, I would not be the person I am today. I would be one of them: mall zombies, semi-literates, half-simian.
All this might go a long way toward explaining that ever-growing TBR pile. I never stop seeking out new Masters, new teachers; men and women who can perform alchemy with the printed word, transmuting it into something more than mere sentences on a page.
A casual scan of the pictures reveals not too many of the books are of recent vintage. Most picked up from thrift shops, secondhand places or on-line purchases; heavily discounted, showing the effects of their time in remainder bins or battered about in the mail.
New and old enthusiasms: Samuel Beckett, Walter Kirn, Ken Kalfus, Richard Powers, Robert Stone, Raymond Queneau, Roberto Bolano, Fernando Pessoa, J.M.G. Le Clezio, Denis Johnson, Tom McCarthy, Terence McKenna, Georges Perec, Jorge Luis Borges, Gert Ledig, W.G. Sebald…and that’s just scratching the surface. These Jpegs hardly do my TBR pile justice. It goes on and on…
When am I going to find time to read the gorgeous edition of Don Quixote Sherron picked up for me at least five years ago (translation by Edith Grossman)? How about the three volumes by the incomparable Louis Ferdinand Celine that are only an arm’s length away from where I sit, typing these words? Will I ever tackle Madame Bovary, War and Peace or the 1,000+ pages of The Collected Short Stories of J.G. Ballard?
Not as long as I keep adding to that pile.
How many titles are on the “Wishlist” I’ve kept in the same steno pad for the past twenty years? Two hundred? Three hundred? The roster constantly revised; one title acquired and crossed off, three others added…
I’m a sick man. Addicted to the printed word. Always seeking out the best of the best, authors who present fresh perspectives, re-ignite the language, push the envelope thematically and stylistically. Just when I think I’m making headway, someone mentions Ben Okri or Joseph McElroy. How could I have missed them? Fabulous, unprecedented talents, my collection incomplete without them.
The kind of authors no longer being published by the trads and, thus, increasingly unfamiliar to today’s readers.
Creators capable of composing work that ennobles us as a species, presenting an alternative to the superficiality of the processed, plastic universe the corporate types are peddling, the reassuring sameness one is sure to find there. Our souls would be impoverished without these artistes, our “culture” reduced to inanity and tiresome cant. A nightmare I hope never to endure, a history I pray we avoid.
Photos by Sherron Burns