Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Best Books I Read in 2012

Oh...it's you. So I guess you want to know about the seventeen best books I read in 2012, is that it? The absolute nerve of you. I don't, I can't even, how do you...okay fine. Here it is, below, the list. As always, while I do actually include on this list one novel that was published in 2012, most of these books were published whenever the fuck, and I just happened to read them over the past twelve months. Convention is no mistress of mine. Plus, there's really not much going on here by way of ranking, until you get to the last couple, which are close to being tied as my favorite novel of the year. Anyway, this is shaping up to take me a while (you'll no doubt breeze right through) so I'd best get started.
The Brave by Gregory McDonald - This one is something of a grower, or perhaps a sticker. Before the almost verbatimly-named Pixar film, this title, about a young, illiterate, impoverished American Indian man who decides to provide for his family by agreeing to be murdered in a snuff film, was possibly best known, and even then just barely, as the basis for the notoriously hooted-at film directed by Johnny Depp (his only such effort so far) back in 1997. That film is indeed something of a howling mess, but the novel, written by Fletch author McDonald, ultimately has, while imperfect, the force of a clawhammer to the kneecap, or perhaps the skull, or more than likely one, then the other. McDonald makes the mistake of painting the world around Rafael, his hero, and his homeless community as one full of unspeakably vile people, but I'll be damned if that strategy -- born of a very palpable anger -- doesn't manage to place Rafael in the middle of a silently shrieking vortex that the reader is powerless to escape. Most of the novel chronicles Rafael's experiences after agreeing to be murdered and accepting from McCarthy, the "filmmaker," a meager down payment. It ends with an occasion of unstated uncertainty, and one of the most hideous and unbearable and pathetically funny final pages I have ever read.
Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis - Amis is one of my favorite writers, but this is the first of his novels I've read since 2003's Yellow Dog. Explaining why (it's not because I didn't like the mostly disliked Yellow Dog) would take too long and bore you too thoroughly, but I was determined to jump back on the train with this new one because I thought the plot -- about Asbo, one of Amis's long string of frighteningly stupid British thugs, winning a massive lottery jackpot -- seemed like a good opportunity for Amis to crank up his particular style of nastily erudite, even smug, humor, and I was right. This is one of his most casually entertaining novels in years, blunt in its satire, open about its sleaziness, occasionally moving, and once or twice something close to spooky. If this is minor Amis, then okay, I'll take it.
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill - I was inspired to finally read this classic ghost story by the then-pending release of the new film version starring Daniel Radcliffe. Long-time fans of Hill's book were not best pleased with that movie, but apart from some reservations I thought it wasn't half bad. However, apart from my inclination to bask in Hill's brand of very precisely eerie prose, the novel boasts an ending that, while the film doesn't entirely discard it, it is nevertheless shied away from. The Brave isn't the only grower on this list -- when I finished reading The Woman in Black I thought it was perfectly good, and I admired its final paragraphs, particularly the last two lines, but as I've gotten some distance from that reading experience I've come to believe that those two lines, and especially the novel's final word, is about as perfect and horrible a capper as you're likely to find in a story like this. Chillingly brilliant.
A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin - Perhaps you've heard of this one. I somehow doubt that I can add a great deal to the discussion about, or the phenomenon of, this now-massively successful fantasy series, not least because I've only read the first two books, this volume being the one that kicked it all off (in 1996!). But suffice it to say, where I am now in the whole deal, it's quite easy to understand why this all started happening for and to Martin, a rather interesting writer of horror and science fiction before one day being struck by the idea to meld J. R. R. Tolkien with The War of the Roses (the history thing, not the Danny DeVito thing). These books are long, and Martin has a ton of information to dump on you, but he knows, at least back then he did, exactly how to write it, with a clarity that is just lightly touched with bits here and there of antiquary. His world is massive, and his characters are very specific. The tragedy of this first novel is both enormous and, in its way, very quiet. The blood and thunder is mostly on the edge. This first novel is roughly 800 pages of something overwhelming just busting to get loose. I know that as the series goes on, past book three, a lot of people began to feel let down by Martin's sprawl, but I find it very hard to not feel confident, and anyway, at the very least, to appreciate the astonishingly ambitious task he's set for himself.
The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hadayet - I wrote about this novel very briefly in this throwaway post earlier in the year, when I hadn't even finished reading it. So I don't even really know why I just linked to it now, but anyway Hadayet's most famous work is the kind of thing that people should be reserving the phrase "fever dream" to describe, instead of pasting it to something Fight Club that just acts like it's crazy. The Blind Owl really is, though, morbidly so. It's a novel about a man who has quite possibly committed murder -- but who really knows for sure? -- and whose mind and life has transformed into a phantasmagoria as a result. Hadayet's life ended in a suicide. In The Blind Owl he writes that "it is death that beckons us from the depths of life." Most other fiction seems pitifully fraudulent in comparison.
The Man With the Black Feather by Gaston Leroux - Next to The Blind Owl, this novel by the author of The Phantom of the Opera is possibly the strangest novel I read all year. Something of a spiritual thriller about Theophastus Longuet, "the timidest man in Paris," who one day discovers that he harbors within himself the thieving, murderous spirit of Cartouche, the famous French criminal. He and his loved ones struggle to keep his kind soul from being lost to the monster Cartouche, and for a while Leroux's story follows a fairly conventional narrative. But along the way, Leroux first makes room to insert a little self-contained locked-room mystery (a favorite form of his) before plunging two characters into Paris's Catacombs, a move that turns out to be thrillingly unconcerned with ordinary payoffs or plot satisfactions. Meanwhile, I've learned from Tim Lucas that the novel also exists in another form, the one Leroux reportedly preferred, that bears the less interesting title The Double Life, but which, according to Tim, expands on the Catacombs sequence to jaw-dropping effect. I'm gonna read that version too, one day.
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith - I wrote about this pretty extensively here. You can go read that, if you'd like.
Julius Winsome by Gerard Donovan - Worryingly, er, winsome title aside, this 2006 novel is a both heartbreaking and hard-edged story about a hermit who lives in a cabin in the woods with his dog. One day, the dog is shot and killed, and Winsome, hunting rifle at the ready, decides to take revenge on whoever did it. "Whoever" being the key word here, because Winsome is cracked not just by despair and grief, but also by having existed mostly outside the rest of the world for years. So when he finds a hunter in his woods near where his dog was killed, he will mortally wound the man and then try to find out if he might be the culprit. This is a brutal, deeply disturbing, and splendidly written novel of revenge with which it is easy to sympathize but impossible to ever justify. It goes beyond that, though, to create a man whose simple life it might be easy to envy, but Donovan sketches out the damage it can do, taking its toll like a kind of second, and simultaneous, aging.
The Black House by Paul Theroux - It's been a little while since I've read this one, another classical ghost story set in England, and more than most of these books it's not exactly fresh in my mind, but in essence it's about a quite off-puttingly arrogant academic who, with his wife, moves to a quiet rural English village, where he dislikes and is disliked by the locals in about equal measure. Shades of both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Man, perhaps, but it's not really much like either. It's a fascinating book whose horror element is slow to take shape, and even slower to assert itself -- when it does, it's of a decidedly sexual nature -- but once it's all over and the exquisitely tragic implications are clear, the unnatural seems to have seeped into the lives of the characters in the most natural way. It's a supernatural horror story with the sting of the inevitable.
Fowlers End by Gerald Kersh - Fowlers End is about Daniel Laverock, the ugliest man in England, getting a job at a movie theater. Along the way, it provides a very blackly comic look at alcoholism, terrorism, amorality, immorality, intellect and its absence, cruelty, self-deception, and suffering. It's very, very funny. Kersh (proclaimed by Harlan Ellison to be his favorite writer and this Kersh's best book) is an odd duck who I've thus far, through my only meager reading of his work, been unable to really pin down, but there's an undeniable genius at work here, especially in the character of Sam Yudenow, the theater manager, and possessor of most of the books amorality. Great big long stretches of Fowlers End is given over to his long, delusional, barely-educated Cockney rants. On page two, Yudenow offers up what might function as something of a life philosophy, or maybe a wisely defeatist approach to existence: "You need edyacation in show biz. You'd be surprised the idears you pick up reading. Only don't put on no airs. You'd be surprised what they'd do to you rahnd Fowlers End if you put on airs."
Plunder Squad by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) - I continue to be fascinated by the weird structuring Westlake loved to play around with in his Parker novels. For instance, in this one a couple of characters last seen in The Green Eagle Score reappear, not because Plunder Squad has anything to do with that earlier novel, but because they're a couple of guys Parker wants for this story's central heist. But Westlake's done that before. No, the really unusual thing here is the return of yet another character from The Sour Lemon Score, a loose end of sorts, and the way Westlake approaches this material is so ingeniously off-hand that it doesn't even count as a subplot. That aspect of Plunder Squad is dealt with as if it carried no more significance than Parker's stealing of a car to use on the job. Which, to Parker, it doesn't. Once more easily brutal in its violence, this is also the Parker novel that made me finally realize that one of the keys to the whole series is that Westlake allows, or forces, the reader to share Parker's very low opinion of his victims. That is to say, of us.
"Remember You're a One-Ball!" by Quentin S. Crisp - I talked about this bizarre novel a little bit in this post about Crisp's novella "Ynys-y-Plag," and in all honesty it's hard to know, in the space I'm providing myself here, what else I can add. But I don't think I mentioned that at it's heart, this novel is about the sometimes, for some, unbearable cruelty of childhood, which in this case is exaggerated to a grotesque horror parable of sorts, or experiment, or conspiracy theory, and how that cruelty can transform a child into a hopelessly unhappy adult. It's about a schoolteacher who takes a job at a school where he learns that child abuse of an especially horrifying sort is not just institutionalized, but the grease that keeps the wheels turning. And I'm not even sure that's right. I am sure that it's a terrible oversimplification of Crisp's indescribable first novel. I don't know what it is, exactly. That is a recommendation.
The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns - Speaking of cruelty and child abuse, this very slender novel is soaking in it, too. Thinking back on the book now, it's very unhappy title character strikes me as not at all dissimilar to the heroine of Elizabeth Jane Howard's short story "Mr. Wrong," which I wrote about here, one of the major differences being one of genre. Which is not meant to imply that The Vet's Daughter is some piece of kitchen-sink realism -- it is, in fact, quite strange, even fantastical, though in this case that element doesn't manifest itself as supernatural horror, but as pure fantasy. It's just that the outcome is horrific. It's about a terrible father and his terrible lack of heart and the terrible ways this affects his daughter. I believe that's the novel in a nutshell. It's short, otherworldly, great, and painful. In other news, I should probably try to lighten up.
Kramer's War by Derek Robinson - Well, at least this one's funny. Robinson is the author of one of my all-time favorite novels, the magnificent World War II comic epic Piece of Cake; that novel, like a lot of Robinson's novels, chronicles some aspect of the lives of British fighter pilots (either World War II or World War I), but Kramer's War puts his airman -- an American bombardier named Earl Kramer -- on the ground, after he crash lands on the British island of Jersey, which is the one portion of WWII England that has been occupied by the Germans. Kramer embarks on a haphazard mission of sabotage across the island, but that's just part of the story. A good chunk of the book is given over to the lives of those who have lived their whole lives on the island, and who have existed under Nazi occupation for several years. Robinson casts his typically jaundiced eye on, among many other things, Kramer's sabotage, and while he never sneers at Kramer, and he seems to even like him, the true hero of the book is Daniel de Wilde, the man who has the responsibility of maintaining order and lawfulness in Jersey without ever selling his soul to the Germans. Kramer makes it quite clear how impossible de Wilde's job is, and he's in full, or nearly full, support of the desire for one's resistance in this situation to be much more aggressive. And as is typical of Robinson, being the hero doesn't do anybody a damn bit of good. If good comes in and sweeps away the bad, it will probably sweep away some of the good with it.
The Small Back Room by Nigel Balchin - Boy I read a lot of books by British people this year! Good God! So this is another one of those, best known now as the source for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1949 film starring David Farrar. That's a fine film, but there are a couple of crucial differences: this is a novel about a civil service/research and development official in England, whose specialty, with his team, is inventing and testing various explosive devices (it's a good deal more complicated than that, but moving on), and it's quite witheringly cynical, but Balchin's cynicism poured itself into a novel published in 1943 -- in other words, right in the middle of the shit. More to the point, the Powell and Pressburger movie significantly alters the ending, draining it of all despair. Balchin was very inventive when it came to unhappy endings, and the ending of The Small Back Room is unhappy in such an unexpected way that the gut punch it delivered really kind of doubled me over, metaphorically speaking. A hint of what I'm talking about is in that front cover shown above. Also, Nigel Balchin was a key figure in the invention of the Kit Kat bar.
A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In by Magnus Mills - David Foster Wallace once wrote that people often misunderstood how funny Franz Kafka was, and that the fact that Kafka rarely generated any laughs from his readers didn't disprove this thesis. I'm able to take his point (obviously, Wallace elucidates further) while still finding the actual laughter actually generated by the Kafkaesque fiction of Magnus Mills to be entirely welcome. Another British novelist, Mills's career kicked off with a wonderfully black working-class novel about accidental death called The Restraint of Beasts. This was nominated for a Booker Prize, and was talked up, from the other side of a door, by Thomas Pynchon. The result was that for the span of his first five novels, Mills was an "international writer." For one reason or another, this has since ended, and Mills no longer has an American publisher. Part of it might have to do with the sense, voiced by some, that Mills was hammering on the blue-collar-job milieu a bit too relentlessly, but it unquestionably has more to do with the fact that Mills's novels are very strange and nobody buys them. Besides, the aforementioned sense ignores the strain of non-fantastical fantasy that regularly appears and even takes over whole novels, from Three to See the King, his third, and Explorers of the New Century, his fifth, a novel that very nearly isn't ambivalent about its fantasy elements, but finally is. I'm describing this badly. Anyhow, his most recent novel, A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In might well be his masterpiece. And, to add some clarity to all this, Mills's version of fantasy here is to create a kingdom called Greater Fallowfields, where the rulers are politically useless, but, in their station as cultural and scientific guardians, totally ignorant, so that when, near the beginning of the novel, all the political positions of our main characters -- Postmaster, Comptroller of the Admiralty, Principal Composer of the Imperial Court, and so on -- are reshuffled, the first task of the newly appointed Astronomer is to figure out how the big telescope works. Further, Greater Fallowfields is a kingdom where political and cultural stature brings you not one ounce of privilege, so that the money that is paid only to these cabinet members -- not that no one else in the kingdom is paid, just that only these cabinet members get paid in this particular coin -- can't purchase a goddamn thing. It's like trying to spend Disney Dollars outside of Disneyworld, except you are in Disneyworld. Except it's not any fun to be there. There's more going on, and there's some of that political allegory going on here, but it's the kind of allegory where the real world thing that is being allegorized is a grown man throwing up his hands and saying "Fuck it."
The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley - Once again, I wrote a little bit about this novel here, where I said: "[The Go-Between is] one of the finest novels of any kind I've read this year. It's about a twelve-year-old boy, whose middle-aged self is narrating the events, and the summer he spent at the impressive country home among the family of one of his school friends, falls in love with his friend's older sister, who, along with her lover, use the boy as a pawn/messenger to facilitate their affair. This is ultimately disastrous, and while the sister (who is engaged to a viscount) and her lover (a farmer who lives nearby) do have a great deal of affection for the boy, but they're also selfish and a bit stupid. As is the boy, seeing as he's twelve. Anyway, it's a wonderful, suspenseful, funny, devastating novel, superbly controlled and about as sharp about childhood emotions, and childhood in general, as anything I've read outside of Dickens." I do not hesitate to stand by that. It's one of those novels you sometimes read that makes you want to do nothing more with your life than read, one book after another, until it's lights out. Not a bad way to go.


Amir said...

I'm so glad to see The Blind Owl here, mainly because I've never read any of Hedayat's work translated and it makes me excited to know it transfers well in translations.

I think the Iranian society at the time didn't know how to handle him because 1) he was too smart for the room and 2) he was too depressive and outre. The Iranian society now is not allowed to handle him because he committed suicide, the ultimate sin in Islam, and so his works are banned. (Not to mention his criticisms of Islam in his work, which are, believe it or not, STILL considered radical so many years later.) But he's truly the master of Persian prose. His knowledge of slang, regional dialects and idioms was incomparably vast.

If you can ever find the translated version of a short collection called Three Drops of Blood, don't pass up. It captures the psyche of the bottom rungs of the Iranian society like no other, but it is actually more universal than that. It's essentially about any people plagued by centuries of superstition, dogma and religion.

Anyway, long ramble, but he's my favourite author of all time so I had to.

bill r. said...

Thanks for the background, Amir. I looked into Hedayat a little bit after reading BLIND OWL, but got distracted away by something else, probably something that had sparkles on it. I even meant to order THREE DROPS OF BLOOD, but it's set to be reprinted next month, so I'll just wait until then.

Amir said...

Wow, amazing. I had no idea. I think I'll get a copy myself. Really curious to see how the "pedestrian" language transfers to English.

K. A. Cozy said...

So happy to see The Brave on this list. I wrote about it on my own blog where it made my list of the most depressing books I've ever read - but it's so good I wish it were better known.

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