Hey everybody, it's that time of year again, when I pick the best books I've read over the previous twelve months. I don't remember what I've called this feature in the past, but I've probably had a different name each time, due to my failing memory. Titles like "Favorite Books of 2009" or "What Are the Best Books I Read in 2008? THESE ONES ARE!", probably. It doesn't matter. The only salient facts about these lists are that I don't limit myself to ten, and I don't limit myself to books published that year. This last one is fortunate as I read very little new fiction in a given year, although this time around two whole books published in 2010 make the list, which for me must be some kind of record. The only other thing I want to mention, as I always do, is that this list is, for the most part, in no particular order, until you get to the top four or so. Even among those it's kind of interchangeable, but I think the number one book on this list is, in fact, my number one book of the year. So now to the list.
13. Tales of the Callamo Mountains by Larry Blamire - Quite possibly the most purely entertaining book I read in 2010, Blamire's debut collection of fiction -- all the stories are of the Western/horror hybrid variety -- was also part of my The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! series this year. I went ahead and finished it up in November, and the damn thing stayed real good until the end. There is, in fact, not one bad story in the lot, which is a rare feat. Beginning with the funny, but soon very creepy, "The Line Shack" and moving through Twilight Zone-ish stories like "Winchester Repeater", into the exquisite surrealism of "On Tuesday I'll Be in China" and "Old Rhiney's Tale", on to the unexpectedly moving "The Bunk at the End" and finishing with a weird corker like "The Last Thing One Sees in the Woods", Tales of the Callamo Mountains is something of a triumphant throwback. The "throwback" part probably accounts for the fact that Blamire's book was self-published. This pisses me off a little, but at the same time I have it on good authority that Blamire is writing a follow up. Good for me! . 12. The Wavering Knife by Brian Evenson - I also raved about this collection during The Kind of Face You SLASH!!!, and also went on to finish it in the weeks that followed. In that post, I focused on a pair of brilliant stories, one called "The Wavering Knife", the other called "The Intricacies of Post-Shooting Etiquette". Having finished the book, those still stand out as highlights, and it would be wrong to say that I didn't find any weak links in the rest of the book. These tended to be the really short stories, the ones between 2 and 5 pages, of which there are several. It would also be wrong to say that those were bad, exactly, but rather, for my money, a bit too cold and impenetrable for me to find much of a way in. There are also repetitions of type, as you'll find if you go from a very good story like "Promisekeepers" and then jump to "The Prophet" or "Barcode Jesus", which are also good, but in pretty much exactly the same way as "Promisekeepers". Even so, any collection that includes a story as bizarrely ingenious as "Moran's Mexico", or as utterly bone-chilling as "The Installation", or as grippingly Orwellian or Kafkaesque or whatever it is as "House Rules", is plenty okay by me. Let's be conservative and say only half this book is a masterpiece. .
11. Nemesis by Philip Roth - I read something like ten Philip Roth novels last year. This year I read only one, his newest, and the last of the so called "Nemeses" series of short novels, which also include Everyman, Indignation and the very underrated The Humbling (so what if that last one sounds like a cheap knock-off of The Shining from the 1980s, with a dancing skeleton and a single drop of blood and/or a broken doll on the cover -- it's a damn good book). Nemesis is the story of Bucky Cantor, a very fit young man who is nevertheless consigned as 4F, and therefore unfit for military service during World War II, when the novel takes place. He fills his time during the summer as a playground director in Newark. Soon, there is a polio outbreak, and the children under his care begin to fall victim. Bucky is a supremely likable man -- a rarity in Roth's fiction -- whose sense of any purpose or good in the world is smashed to pieces over and over in Roth's unforgiving novel. It's about cosmic rage in much the same way as Moby-Dick, though Roth's language is streamlined to the point that style is mostly obliterated. If anyone thumbs their nose at the tired old "show, don't tell" rule and comes out ahead, it's Roth..
10. It Happened in Boston? by Russell H. Greenan - Possibly the most curious and most original book I read this year was this wonderfully written piece of dark whimsy about a man who makes the switch from kind-hearted eccentric to reluctant, but willing, murderer rather smoothly. There also may or may not be time travel in there. Also God. The book is no goofball, affected lark, and yet that cover is not inaccurate. It's really something, this one, gripping and funny and sad and appalling (in a good way). It left me a bit flummoxed at the time I read it, and leaves me a bit flummoxed now, as well. But if you read it, I feel confident you will at no point regret it. Good, weird stuff..
9. Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton - This is the most recent book I finished, and also, I now realize, the second of four books on this list that deal in some way with World War II. As with Nemesis, the war is something of a looming figure in Hangover Square. Published in 1941 but set initially in 1938, and ending in 1939 when the war began, Patrick Hamilton's best known novel (due to the 1945 film version, directed by John Brahm and starring Laird Cregar in his final film, which more or less completely disregards Hamilton's book) is about George Harvey Bone, an unemployed drunk coming to the end of his inheritance and aware that something in his life must change. Mostly friendless, Bone does hang around with a small group of fellow drunks, much less likable then he, who are led by Netta Longdon, a failed and flailing actress who is unspeakably cruel to Bone. Nevertheless he loves her, or at least he loves her when he's not suffering one of his amnesiac "dead moods" -- during those times, he plans her murder. Much more than just a simple murder story, Hangover Square is the story of a sad man in crisis, whose own fate seems temporally linked with the coming war. The ending of Hangover Square is inevitable but no less devastating for that. When I'd finished the book I had to tell my wife about it, just to get it off my chest..
8. New Grub Street by George Gissing - You wanna talk depressing! I first heard of George Gissing through his appearance as a character in Peter Ackroyd's novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. It was some time before I found my way to reading his most famous novel New Grub Street, and only then because it was chosen, somewhat curiously, by K. W. Jeter for the essay collection Horror: Another 100 Best Books. This is a bit of a cheeky selection, as Gissing -- whose life, but not career, overlapped a bit with Charles Dickens, which is hard to not think about when reading New Grub Street -- did not write a horror novel here, just a supremely bleak one. What the novel is is a fascinating examination of the various corners of Victorian literary life, and the unhappy realities you'll find there. The main characters are the fiercely proud and doomed Edward Reardon, writer of high-minded yet unpopular novels (what little I know of Gissing suggests that he may have viewed Reardon as a kindred spirit) and Jasper Milvain, a cynical producer of the precise opposite sort of fiction -- deliberately commercial, approached by Milvain as a formula that merely needs to be written out. The two men are friends, and the rise of one is neatly paralleled with the fall of the other, but it's the details of the 19th century literary life, and the vast array of side characters, that make New Grub Street really sing. For my part, Harold Biffen will live longest. An even more extreme version of Reardon himself, Biffen represents the pure artist, creating only for himself, partly because no one else in the world would give a nickel for what he writes..
7. Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada - In some ways the most extraordinary book I read in 2010, Fallada's last novel was written in 1947 but not published in English until 2009. It's loosely based on the true story of Otto and Elise Hempel, a middle-aged German couple who resisted the Nazis by writing anti-Nazi propaganda on index cards and dropping them all over Berlin. Wickedly suspenseful, and expansive enough to include almost the full life stories of Gestapo members, con men, and Germans who just hope to get along, Every man Dies Alone feels perfectly complete -- Fallada leaves no facet of his story unexamined, or dramatized. Not short at something like 600 pages, it nevertheless feels like three or four novels' worth of story and ideas have been smoothly fitted in. Though Fallada wrote Every Man Dies Alone in a heated and absurd twenty-four days, the book only rarely suffers from what might be a respectful lack of editing, and is, in the end, emotionally overwhelming. By the time you close the book, you've heard it all..
6. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin - This is Franklin's third novel (he also wrote a story collection called Poachers), and I've read all three. I'm not sure this has happened to me before, that an author writes a first novel I really like -- Franklin's Hell at the Breach in this case -- then follows it up with a sophomore effort, Smonk, that I more or less despised. And then came roaring back with one of the finest, most elegant and well-observed, not to mention beautifully heard, novels about the South that I've ever come across. To describe the basic plot of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter will make it sound hopelessly rote -- two teenage boys, one white, one black, become friends but part ways due to the white boy's apparent involvement with the disappearance of a girl from their high school. Then the two grow up and meet again, and so on. But whatever you might envision from that summary will give you no idea of the heartbreak at the core of Larry Ott, the white boy, or the complicated conscience of Silas Jones, the black boy. All Larry ever wanted, as he prays nightly, was a friend, and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is the story of what came about because he found two. Gorgeous, suspenseful, vastly entertaining, brief (worth mentioning, I think), and with an ending that is completely and wonderfully earned. I loved this one, and I don't see how anybody could find it in themselves to disagree..
5. Darkness Falls from the Air by Nigel Balchin - The fourth of the four WWII novels on this list, I first heard about Nigel Balchin's 1942 novel about a war-time civil servant who divides his time between battling incompetence and passive bureaucracy at work, and maintaining a passionate but difficult affair with a married woman, through an interview with Patrick McGrath (damn it, I meant to read Port Mungo this year!) over at Asylum, John Self's blog. In that interview, John asked McGrath what one book he would recommend to anyone reading the interview, and McGrath picked Darkness Falls from the Air, claiming that it had
a perfect ending. Bold words, and I'll leave that up to you to decide, but the book does pack a great wallop, reading to me like a less ponderous Graham Greene. And, though the novel can hardly be called a comedy, a funnier Graham Greene, too:
Baxter always acted and talked as though he thought somebody was taking notes for his biography and might want to put this bit in.
I mean, come on. .4. Despair by Vladimir Nabokov - The greatest writer in the history of everything, Vladimir Nabokov could do, or seemed to be able to do, whatever he wanted to do with his fiction at all times, and in Despair he decided to give me a present, some forty-one years prior to my birth, by writing a chilling little murder story about Hermann, a man who believes he has found in Felix his exact double. Hermann is the kind of narrator -- deluded, absurd, funny, frightening -- that Nabokov seemed able to create at will, without ever repeating himself, though when you can write prose like Vladimir Nabokov you probably don't waste a lot of time worrying about how your plots come across. But Despair's plot is nevertheless beautifully handled, culminating in a wintry confrontation in a forest that Nabokov himself called "good fun", but which struck me as fairly worthy of the novel's title. Despair is Nabokov working in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe, but in the end creating something entirely his own. Magnificent.
3. The Jugger by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) - The sixth of Donald E. Westlake's Parker novels (which were written as, and almost always attributed to, Richard Stark), The Jugger didn't merely prove to me that these books were excellent -- I'd figured that out by reading the previous five. What The Jugger confirmed for me was that all the legends I'd heard about this series, from the days when they languished out of print, used copies fetching very steep prices and therefore out of my reach, were entirely true. This is one of the top two or three crime novels I've ever read, and is special among the Parker novels I've read by breaking from the established heist-based formula and putting the cold-hearted Parker in an absurd situation that has nothing to do with him, and from which he must extract himself to protect his way of life, and by extension his actual, literal life. The Jugger presents Parker at his most cold-blooded, and Westlake/Stark at his most cynical and streamlined. It begins: "When the knock came at the door, Parker was just turning to the obituary page." Well, yes. .
2. True Grit by Charles Portis - I'm not sure I can say anything more about this book that I didn't say in one way or another in my recent review of the new Coen brothers adaptation. All I feel like adding right now is that, for a cult author, Portis has enjoyed a very healthy history of reprints, and at least a few of his five novels, if not all of them, are readily available right now. True Grit is the least eccentric of those books (and the least funny, but it's still really funny), and in some ways is the purist story he's ever told. I hesitate to say it's his best -- Masters of Atlantis, to name but one, is just too wild -- but it's so accomplished as a story that to me it's achieved a near mythic quality. Endlessly rereadable and endlessly quotable, I don't imagine True Grit will ever be very far from me..
1. City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer - And so we reach the end. Back in January, I wrote a short, self-pitying post about how I couldn't think of ideas anymore, and the blame for that should fall on Jeff VanderMeer. Something like that, I don't know -- it's an odd post, and I don't recommend it to anyone. But as I wrote that post, I was preparing to read VanderMeer's massive novel/collection of stories and novellas and ephemera City of Saints and Madmen, which collects all of his shorter pieces centered around his fantasy city of Ambergris, home of fungus and water and cults and violence and horror and magic and I don't know what-all. There are even hints that our world is but the delusion of one of Ambergris' mental patients. Inspired in part by the work of writers like Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges, VanderMeer's book is quite unlike anything else I know, made up of shorter pieces ranging from a few pages to several dozen, but ordered in a way that makes the final 700-plus page volume seem like a single, flowing reference book, one that reads like the best fiction. City of Saints and Madmen is, as you may have gathered, a difficult book to describe, but I loved every goddamn page of it, and in some ways felt like I'd been searching for this book my whole life. This is me recommending it to you.