Category: Literary criticism
Best Books Read in 2020: The Roundup
I try to read at least a hundred (100) books a year but in 2020, due to various circumstances, I didn’t quite make that goal.
Ninety-three was the best I could manage; not bad, but still, c’mon, Cliff, you should be able to make it to the century mark. There was a roughly equal split between fiction and non-fiction and, as usual, my tastes were all over the place.
Here’s my “Best of…” roster for 2020 and, man, when compiling it I had to make some very difficult choices:
PROCESSED CHEESE by Stephen Wright
YELLOW EARTH by John Sayles
VANISHED BIRDS by Simon Jimenez
RED PILL by Hari Kunzru
STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel
AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad
AUSTERLITZ by W.G. Sebald
RULE OF CAPTURE by Christopher Brown
METROPOLIS by Philip Kerr
PLAINSONG by Kent Haruf
GROWING THINGS (Stories) by Paul Tremblay
A CHILDREN’S BIBLE by Lydia Millet
PROVIDENCE by Max Barry
THE ASSAULT by Harry Mulisch
MAY WE SHED THESE HUMAN BODIES (Stories) by Amber Sparks
THE GLASS HOTEL by Emily St. John Mandel
RABBIT FACTORY by Larry Brown
HITLER: ASCENT (1889-1939) by Volker Ulrich
POETRY FROM THE FUTURE by Srecko Horvat
SAPIENS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND by Yuval Noah Harari
ON TYRANNY by Timothy Snyder
THE UNWOMANLY FACE OF WAR by Svetlana Alexievich
IN TRUTH: A HISTORY OF LIES FROM ANCIENT ROME TO MODERN AMERICA by Matthew Fraser
CULT OF GLORY: THE BOLD AND BRUTAL HISTORY OF THE TEXAS RANGERS by Doug J. Swanson
CHURCHILL AND ORWELL by Thomas E. Ricks
THATCHER STOLE MY TROUSERS by Alexei Sayle
SONGLINES by Bruce Chatwin
ROAD TO LITTLE DRIBBLING by Bill Bryson
HOW THE SCOTS INVENTED THE MODERN WORLD by Arthur Herman
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?
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)
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
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
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.
I have “Seasonally Adjusted Reading Disorder”
Autumn has arrived, which means my reading tastes are in the process of changing.
During the summer, I tend to favor faster, more plot-driven narratives–thrillers, mysteries, noir—but once the leaves start turning, taking on brighter hues, I seek out more somber, atmospheric efforts.
John LeCarré, for instance, is the perfect fall read. His complex novels, populated by morally compromised characters and deep, dark secrets, are well suited for cooler, drabber days and nights. British novels, in general, are better enjoyed during autumn and winter than they are brighter, cheerier times of the year. Ian McEwan and Hilary Mantel aren’t really appropriate for the beach and only a complete fool would pack Orwell or Rushdie in with the suntan lotion and towels.
Glancing at my bookshelves, I can tell you in an instant which books match each season.
Contemporary Fiction (Spring-Summer)
Literary Fiction (Autumn)
Historical Fiction (Summer)
Biography and History (Winter)
Science Fiction (Summer-Autumn)
Critical Essays/Creative Non-Fiction (Winter)
Breaking it down by individual author: Jim Harrison (Spring); Cormac McCarthy (Autumn); Jonathan Franzen (Spring); W.G. Sebald (Autumn); Colson Whitehead (Autumn); Richard Russo (Spring); Raymond Chandler (Summer); Don Delillo (Autumn); Alastair Reynolds (Summer); David Mitchell (Spring-Summer); Italo Calvino (Autumn-Winter); Denis Johnson (Autumn); Thomas Pynchon (Autumn-Winter).
There are exceptions, of course, cases where those generalizations don’t apply. Works relating to politics, ecology, religion and philosophy are sprinkled throughout the year. And every so often I can’t resist plucking up some big, fat biography (ex: Robert Caro’s magisterial portrait of Lyndon Johnson) and just having at it. A two or three day binge that leaves me disoriented, out of step with everyday life. Barely able to prepare and eat a five-minute boiled egg. And, no, I do not exaggerate.
It’s become sort of a tradition that I tackle a real forearm-strainer right after Christmas and heading into the New Year. The kind of tome you have to bench press. Hardcover, if possible. A single volume history of World War II or the collected essays of Christopher Hitchens. To counteract the effects of all that turkey, red wine and good fellowship.
Tell me I’m not alone, that someone else out there has to deal with their own version of Seasonally Adjusted Reading Disorder (SARD). Perhaps we can start our own support network, help each other overcome our entrenched habits, learn to read what we want, when we want.
Oh, and, by the way, did you hear there’s a new LeCarré book out this month.
Wouldn’t you know it?
You might call that a coincidence but I’d say it’s right on time.
Writers are “hungry gods”
“How little of ourselves we give even to the writers we love best, compared to what they asked and expected of us. Genuine admiration and respect for a writer’s work is very intermittent; usually, we think only about ourselves and how we can use what we’re reading. But this must be considered a legitimate technique of self-defense, since if we opened ourselves to all the just demands for attention made by the dead, we would be totally overwhelmed, placed permanently in the wrong. For dead writers are like gods who are always hungry, no matter how many sacrifices they inhale.”
Adam Kirsch, from his essay “Rocket and Lightship”
Don’t start thinking about the last pass you made through the new release section of ___________ (fill in the blank with your favourite box store).
Shelves of books by the likes of Tess Gerritsen, Harlan Coben, James Patterson.
Tepid mysteries and formulaic thrillers. No music to the prose, no originality, nothing to recommend them except their elementary school reading level. Forgettable and digestible; like fast food, only not nearly as good for you.
Comparisons are inevitable but you can’t start placing the intelligent, literate work you do alongside such mindless pap. That way lies madness. It will only inspire a blind, incoherent fury toward the “average reader”, which, these days, appears to be a euphemism for “hideously in-bred moron with the reasoning capacity of a plasmodial slimeworm” (see? it’s started already!).
A couple hundred thousand books published every year, God knows how many cable channels, the internet, social networking, “sexting”…it’s pretty hard for anyone to get noticed these days, at least for the right reasons. Behave badly, on the other hand, and the whole world seems to lap it up. Check out the latest wardrobe malfunction or celebrity meltdown; share it, like it, plug another quarter into some asshole’s ad revenue stream.
After all, it’s essential to keep up with the latest trends, highlighted by hashtags like #Kardashianweightgain or #femaleViagra. Absorbing the world in 140-character bites, possessing the attention span of a Jack Russell terrier.
Let’s face it, you’re not the kind of author who appeals to that sort. No media stroking or flame wars for you, right? You’d rather folks discover your work on their own, rather than hawking it about like an old style newspaper vendor. Or a whore. You’d like to believe there are still smart readers out there, looking for original, daring fiction. Looking for you.
But you’re fifty years old now, heading into the autumn of your life. You’ve got ten solid books to your credit, given everything you’ve got to Literature…and part of you is starting to seriously wonder about those discerning, thoughtful readers. If they really exist, why aren’t more of them finding you and singing your praises? Spreading the word. Providing for your retirement.
Maybe they don’t exist. Deep breath. Maybe the internet and connectivity has rewired brains to the extent that light entertainment and diversions are all people can handle these days. Dark, depressing visions like yours are out—bring on the mind candy! It explains the proliferation of rom-coms and the continued existence of “talents” like E.L. James, Jennifer Anniston and James Cameron.
Suddenly, it’s become clear to me. It’s the day after the zombie apocalypse.
Cripes, what a depressing post.
I warned you not to go there, didn’t I? And I’ll bet it’ll take a lot more than a Marx Brothers flick or a few old Looney Tunes cartoons to shake you out of it this time…
Winding up David Mitchell’s THE BONE CLOCKS
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 kind of review that keeps me pushing my pen across the page
An 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.
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)
Hating the sin, not the sinner
Anyone who buys or reads Fifty Shades of Grey:
* immediately loses the right to vote (only adults have that privilege)
* is likely obese (physically or mentally)
* won’t be able to decipher this quote from Jung: “People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls.”
* should be consigned to menial jobs (cleaning, service industry); work more suited to stunted intellects and invalid brains
* must enter mandatory counseling for those suffering from “intimacy problems” (i.e fear of penetrative intercourse and/or anything remotely resembling a healthy sexual attitude)
* will immediately enroll in Morons Anonymous, rising at their first meeting and loudly proclaiming: “Hello, my name is ______________ and I’m a fucking moron”
* should turn in their library card (in a post-literate world, you won’t need one)
* probably hasn’t had a date for awhile
* is likely to be a shut-in (and if not, should be)
* clearly made a mistake not finishing high school
* signs their name with an “X”
* reads tabloids
* needs help
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…