Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Books o' the Year

This was not the most satisfying year of reading I've ever had. I didn't read too many novels that struck me dumb with envy and satisfaction due to what the author had pulled off, and the ease and mastery with which he or she did it. So, since a list of my favorite reads of the years is probably going to be a thing I do here, I was wondering if I'd be able to come up with a group I was really pleased with. And then, when I was going through my list, my hacking and slashing of titles suddenly stopped, and I was left with thirteen that I couldn't find it within myself to whittle down any further. Which I guess says something, but I don't know what.

So here's the list, some of which I've actually written about in the last year (links provided, of course) with brief commentary. I hate writing these goddamn introductions anyway, so let's do this this thing.

Oh, one more thing -- well, two. First, though I say these are my books of the year, that doesn't mean a single one of these was actually published in 2009. I don't read enough new books in a given year to support such a list, so these are just the best books I read this year, period, regardless of publication date (and frankly, in some cases, regardless of availability). Also, like last year, the only thing about the order that I feel confident about is the ranking of the top two. After that, you could shuffle the order any-which-way.

13. The Mourner by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) - The fourth book in Stark/Westlake's utterly satisfying series of Parker novels, The Mourner borrows its structure from The Man with the Getaway Face, a book that came just two books earlier. That structure, roughly, sees Parker stuck in a particularly bad spot, brought about by something no one expected. After that, Westlake backtracks to show you how we got there, and what follows. I think that The Mourner is a bit more successful than its precursor, if only because the catalyst, a slimy little bastard named Menlo, is more hateful than Parker precisely because he thinks he's smarter than Parker. And he almost is, but what's interesting is that Westlake can make two awful people appear unequally awful, only because one of them is such a cool professional. At least Parker cares enough to work at it.

12. Tower of Glass by Robert Silverberg - Before reading this, quite a few months ago, it had been ages since I'd ready any kind of serious science fiction, and even longer since I'd read, specifically, anything by Silverberg, one of the most important writers to me in my early explorations of that genre. And very quickly, while turning the beginning pages of Tower of Glass, I found myself wondering what in the hell had I been thinking? All those years wasted! Because this novel, about an insanely rich and driven man who works to build a tower tall enough that he'll be able to communicate with other lifeforms (it's much more complicated than that, but I'm trying to be brief) while oblivious to the growing disturbance in the AI community he has created to do his work for him, is the real stuff: a briefly sketched, yet vivid cast of characters, an eye-opening, however dated, look into certain fields of science, social commentary, and great suspense, with a morally uncertain ending, all at something like 170 pages. High-end craftsmanship rarely comes as smart as this.

11. The Pat Hobby Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald - I will admit that this cycle of bitterly funny Hollywood stories -- which chronicles the misadventures of a hack screenwriter working under the 1940s studio system, and which Fitzgerald dashed off for quick cash at the end of his life -- loses its edge in the last few stories. But before then, it contains some of his absolute best writing, in stories that are absurd, nasty, mean, and sad. This is Fitzgerald's cult book.

10. Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess - My write-up to this book (clink that link!) shows me more baffled than anything else by Burgess's truly bizarre take on zombies (the virus is spread through language, don't you know), but in the time since reading it, my admiration for this one-of-a-kind horror novel has really grown, not least because I'm grateful simply because the damn thing exists. If Burgess hadn't written this, no one else would have ever considered it, and I think that's quite something to say about any novel, let alone a horror novel. And the film version, called simply Pontypool, which Burgess wrote, and which bears almost no resemblance to the novel, ain't too shabby either.

9. Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño - My post on this novel was, like the one about Pontypool Changes Everything, not quite a review, and even today I'm not entirely sure how much I really enjoyed Bolaño's fictional encyclopedia of fascist South and North American writers. A better grasp than I have on South American literary, social and political history would not go unused while reading this, for instance. Still, the sheer inventiveness, and bone-dry humor that Bolaño brings to the table, as casually as you might bring a deck of cards, sure is impressive, and goes a very long way. For me, anyway.

8. The Hustler by Walter Tevis - What can I say about this one? The post linked to is pretty thorough, if I may say so, but I will add that one thing that should no go unnoticed about Tevis's novel is the complete absence of any pose. Tevis was serious about pool, or played that part to the hilt, at least. Books like this, no matter how dark, tend to have a sheen of manufactured coolness about them, of phony manliness. In Tevis's novel, pool was too serious for that, and Eddie and Fats were too complete as people (even if Fats is more legend than man). Anyway, this novel, and the subsequent film, inspired a whole generation of posers and fakers. If you want the real thing, you go to the source.

7. Zeroville by Steve Erickson - I was clued into this novel by Glenn Kenny, who, at various times, marveled at the pure cinephiliac swoon of this dark story about a young man, known as Vikar, who appears in Hollywood in the wake of the Manson killings, with an image from A Place in the Sun tattooed on his bald head. Obsessed with Montgomery Clift, and, as it turns out, a naturally if idiosyncratically gifted film editor, Vikar falls into the world of Hollywood's second Golden Age, meeting all the big names of the time, like Brian De Palma and Margot Kidder and Francis Ford Coppola, and finding a mentor in, of all people, John Milius. The number of film references here is overwhelming, but the dark and sad story is the genuine draw, and is what truly lingers afterwards.

6. The Grifters by Jim Thompson - This is Thompson at his best. He could really be hit and miss, could Thompson, but when he really had a story by the neck, he could sink his readers into the heart of crime fiction like a knife. Because of Stephen Frears's film version (written by Donald E. Westlake), you all probably know the story by now anyway. So now read the book.

5. The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr. - Do you want to know why I love this book? Okay. Wangerin's cult classic Christian parable, about a rooster and his farm kingdom facing a most hideous evil, does not whitewash or ignore the deep difficulty of life, or the unspeakable tragedy, and it doesn't tell you everything will be okay. And in the form of Wyrm, Wangerin's Satan, and his minion, the dreaded creature known as Cockatrice, Wangerin knows and can speak the language of true earthly and cosmic evil like, quite possibly, no other writer I've encountered:

No longer was Cockatrice's gaze faraway. This, now, was his business. From the top of the Terebinth Oak he watched the slaughter with attention and with cheer. "Children," he breathed over and over to himself. "Ah, my children."

And from below the ground, from within the prison of the earth, there spoke another, greater voice: "Circumpsice, Domine," Wyrm rumbled powerfully, almost peacefully. "Videat Deus caedem meum."

"Let God in his heaven witness all my murder," spoken in the language of the powers.

Passages like that are why I love this book.

4. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene - Speaking of Christian unhappiness, Greene's classic is about the grimmest account of a man finding his faith as you can possibly imagine. His protagonist does find faith at the end, but feels as though he's been defeated as a result. Though it's even more complex than that, as anyone who's read it knows, and I was rather surprised at the limbs Greene climbs out on as the story reaches its climax. It takes guts to lay not just yourself, but your actual narrative, out as unapologetically as Greene does here. Fiercely smart and wrenching.

3. The Burnt Orange Heresy by Charles Willeford - Charles Willeford is his own thing. I think every genre has a small number of writers working within it who are so unusual, so impossible to predict or imitate, that they are forever relegated to cult status. Horror has its Robert Aickman and Thomas Ligotti, and the crime genre has (among others) Charles Willeford. Read his Hoke Mosely novels to see how he treated the idea of the series detective, but read his stand alone books, like The Burnt Orange Heresy, to find the fire of true originality burning quietly in a genre whose practitioners too often coast on their influences. A story about art, lost genius, desperation, and, almost incidentally, yet inevitably, murder, this novel also has the virtue of placing you right in the middle of swampy Florida as only he could conjure it.

2. The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore - I read this one more recently than anything else on this list, and it was the topic of my final The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! series. A strange and rich blend of satire, history, and horror, Endore's novel is not like any other horror novel you've read -- I say this with great confidence. Click the link in the title for a fuller discussion, or just read the book for yourself. The latter option is preferable.

1. The Professor of Desire by Philip Roth - I went on a bit of a Roth tear this year, reading something like ten of his novels all told. Many, if not most (if not all) I liked very much, but The Professor of Desire, for me, stands alone. Roth's prose, which is so smoothly readable while containing some rather distressing depths, is at its most confident in this, the second of his weirdly disconnected Kepesh novels (in the first Kepesh novel, The Breast, Kepesh transforms into a giant female breast, and that's the last time in the trilogy you're going to hear about it). Here, Roth exposes Kepesh at his most shameful and weak -- this is the most uncomfortable Roth novel I've read, and that is a pretty tight race, let me tell you -- and also at his most warm-hearted. The blackest of psychological depths, as experienced by all of us, is leavened not only with Roth's humor, which is almost always acidic and not terribly ameliorating, but also with a genuine sense of caring and empathy. The final section, involving a visit between Kepesh and his aging father, is as beautiful and moving a piece of writing as Roth has yet turned in.


That's it, folks! I'm done for tonight, and you all got some reading to do, so go on! Git!


Will Errickson said...

I've only read Willeford's Hoke novels but sounds like I need a copy of Burnt Orange Heresy immediately. The Grifters indeed was my favorite of the handful of Thompson novels I read some years back. Zeroville and the Pat Hobby Stories sound great; I don't think I was familiar with those titles by those guys. Speaking of novels about movies, do you know The Late Great Creature by Brock Brower? I haven't read it, but I bought it recently after learning it's about a fictional actor à la Lugosi/Chaney/Lorre. Out of print, but available used from Amazon.

bill r. said...

Will, I, in fact, do know THE LATE GREAT CREATURE by Brower. I read it about five years ago. It's...okay. As I remember it, it was more than a little strained in its counter-culture take on classic Hollywood horror. Brower wanted to give Kaloff a starring role in an early Philip Roth novel, basically, and, for me at least, it didn't take.

Thomas Pluck said...

Love Stark and Thompson, and some of the others like Willeford I'll definitely pick up. I prefer Pop.1280 to The Grifters, but The Mourner is one of the best early Parker novels.

bill r. said...

Tommy, I read POP 1280 so long ago, and remember so little about it, that I may as well have never read it at all. It's weird how completely I've forgotten it. I know it's considered one of his best, so I'll definitely go back to it some day soon.

Everybody should read Willeford.

Marilyn said...

Hey, where is The Blue Magus, Book 1?

bill r. said...

Now Marilyn, that is simply unfair. I have enough on-line feuds going already.

Marilyn said...

Now I see why, Bill! :-)

bill r. said...

Fine. I'm quitting the internet. happy now!?

Anonymous said...

Hey, I followed you home from Glenn's place. Glad to see someone else enjoyed Zeroville. I'd read a few of Erickson's novels before this one. He always seemed like the kind of writer I ought to like but never quite did. It finally meshed for me with this one and I'd like to think it was something more than just enjoying the references.

I'm ready to assume from the breadth of your reading that you've already read Flicker. But if you haven't then... um... you oughta read Flicker.

bill r. said...

Hey, otherbill! ZEROVILLE made me very curious to read more Erickson, though I haven't done so yet, so I'm a bit bummed to hear that this was the only one to click with you. What else have you read?

And oh yes indeed, I have read FLICKER. I keep trying to find out if Glenn has read it, but he never answers me. The point being that I push FLICKER on most people, and in the small genre of dark and disturbing novels about film history, Roszak's novel towers over everything else by quite a few miles.

Brian Doan said...

Man, THE PAT HOBBY STORIES is such a good collection. I've often wanted to work the Orson Welles story into a film class-- so bleakly, hilariously funny--but I've never found the room. I've been wanting to re-read THE GREAT GATSBY lately, too.

bill r. said...

Brian - I can't remember off-hand how many Pat Hobby stories there are, but I would say that the first ten or so are all pretty great. I think the stories at the end get a bit self-conscious, but before then they're all very quick, funny, and cutting.

David N said...

Great list, Bill. I loved Zeroville and I've read the Greene, Fitzgerald, Thompson, Bolano, Burgess and Tevis books, which are all great. Pontypool is out of print and was outrageously expensive the last time I looked for it online (obviously due to movie-related interest), but everything else I will investigate.

Have you read any other Tevis? Each of his books is excellent, but Mockingbird, his most outright sci-fi novel (in that its set in a future dystopia) is incredible and one of my favourite books.

And since Willeford is a topic here, I have to mention Pick-Up (which I have in a compendium including The Burnt Orange Heresy and Cockfighter), which has possibly the greatest last line in history.

bill r. said...

David - PONTYPOOL CHANGES EVERYTHING was reprinted to coincide with the film, and is once again available. Probably won't last, you who haven't read it, so if you're interested, now might be the time, because David's right: prior to this reprinting, used copies were ridiculously expensive.

I haven't read any other Tevis novels, but yours in nowhere near the first rave of MOCKINGBIRD I've come across. That hast to be an early 2010 read for me, I think.

I liked PICK UP a little bit less than you did, but it is a very good novel, and that last line is quite the eye-opener.

Patricia Perry said...

Ah, books! I remember those. I even remember, dimly, what it was like to snuggle into a chair with a really good book and just get lost in it.

I only had one eperience like that in 2009, during a rare week off work in the summer. Susan Jane Gilman's travel memoir "Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven" was my only great read this year. In 2010 I'll be resolving to read more.

Many of the titles here have picqed my interest. I've never read any of Jim Thompson, but would like to read "The Grifters," if only to know how well the film adaptation measures up. Graham Greene is someone I'm interested in reading,too - saw the adaptation of his "Travels with my Aunt" on TCM on the other night. It wasn't very good, but it made me curious to what the novel might be like.

As for Phillip Roth, I had not read anything of his in years, but read "The Humbling" on Thanksgiving, literally in a couple of hours. I did not much care for it.

bill r. said...

I read THE HUMBLING this year, too (due to an oversight on the part of my local B&N, I got it about three weeks before it was supposed to hit the shelves), and read it the same day (or the next day). I actually liked it quite a bit, and find the super-negative reviews I've come across to be slightly baffling. Do you normally like Roth, Pat? If so, what did you dislike about THE HUMBLING?

Rick Olson said...

I take it Tony Burgess is not Anthony Burgess, author of "Little Big Man" and "A Clockwork Orange."

I didn't think so.

And when is "Barry Lyndon" going to get a re-master? I want to see it on Blu-ray.

Anonymous said...

I've read Erickson's TOURS OF THE BLACK CLOCK and RUBICON BEACH. That's a couple rather than a few- thought I'd read more. I also own but have not read his first novel, DAYS BETWEEN STATIONS. I read like I'm getting paid by the word and I read these some years ago now, so an in-depth critique is beyond me. I mainly remember that they seemed... unfocused. But I think I will give Erickson another try in the wake of ZEROVILLE. I find I'm a different reader every few years. I've spent that last few weeks discovering a love for Donald Barthelme. Ten years ago I thought I merely respected him.

Always great to encounter another FLICKER fan. It really is just that damn good.