Friday, December 30, 2011

Best Books of 2011, Which Were Read By Me

Oh, hello. I haven't been around much lately, and for that I apologize. It is my hope -- though I will stop short of calling it a resolution -- that next year will find me in higher spirits and in the throes of a mighty creativity, which will exalt this blog into the cosmos, in the sense that I will write more and hopefully some of it will be pretty good. Right now, though, that's all beside the point. The one post that has pulled me away from my slouching inactivity is my annual list of the best books that I read in 2011. Please note the distinction: these are not necessarily the best books published in 2011, but rather the best books that I read. I don't read much new fiction in a given year, because I mean Ready Player One?? Like I don't get enough '80s nostalgia dogshit on a daily basis that now I have to go read a whole book about it? Also, to the best of my knowledge, Ready Player One is the only book to come out this year, so I was sort of handcuffed.

But, as the saying goes, anyway. Enough of that. On to the list! Which, once again, is in no particular order until you get maybe into the top three or so. Everything prior to that is viewed by me on a more or less equal plane of quality. Roughly. Mainly, I don't want to do the work of ranking too much of this, because I think that's boring, to do, if not to read. But I'd rather not be bored than be bored, so there it is. Regardless, you can safely regard the book in my #1 spot as my favorite book of the year.

The Sour Lemon Score by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) - It was between this and The Black Ice Score, a slightly curious entry into Westlake's (writing as Stark) series of Parker novels. Black Ice has one of the iciest bits of violence Westlake ever wrote, and the time spent on it, and what it reveals about those who perpetrate the violence, is somehow all the more effective as Parker is nowhere to be seen at the time, and the killers are one-offs, present in that book, and that book only. But The Sour Lemon Score almost has that tone throughout. Sour Lemon is almost absurdist, as it finds Parker driving up and down the Eastern seaboard again and again, tracking one-time accomplice, turned violent betrayer, George Uhl, as well as the money Uhl stole from Parker (who stole it himself, of course, but whatever). Parker has been nastier in other novels, and there are mildly worrying signs of a softening to the character (I'm told the next four books in the series, starting with Deadly Edge, return to some awfully dark territory), but The Sour Lemon Score remains entirely satisfying, with some beautiful sketchwork of the secondary characters, not just Uhl -- who's an awful, awful man -- but Matt Rosenstein, who, at least as far as I've read, must be the most evil man in the series. The chapter devoted to him and his psychology is a masterpiece, and the novel ends with a great stinger of a last line.

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells - – I wrote about this book in October for my “The Kind of Face You Slash” series, and I think I’ll let that stand as is. But I have to admit, and with some amount of chagrin, how surprised I was by the richness of this slender little novel. What I wanted was animal men wrecking shit, and I got that, but I was concerned about Wells’s tendency towards loony-bird social philosophy. That’s there, too, except not so loony-bird. The whole thing is pretty brilliant.

Gilligan's Wake by Tom Carson - This is a book you have to read to understand. This probably goes without saying, because so is Hop on Pop, but to describe Gilligan's Wake in flat terms is to do it an injustice. The idea is, basically, the history of the second half of the 20th century, starting at about World War II, as told through the eyes of characters from Gilligan's Island. I know, but wait. The amazing thing about the book is that Carson can place the Skipper, John F. Kennedy, and McHale from McHale's Navy in the same scene -- all of them being PT boat captains during the war -- and make you say "Sure, why not?" This integration of the historical and the very lowest of our modern culture is done with very few winks. It's a very funny book (and occasionally very disturbing: the chapter about the Professor is a grotesque, pansexual -- which doesn't even cover it -- paranoid nightmare), but it's not mocking. Or maybe it's more accurate to say there's no snark. Carson can throw in anything, from Sinatra to Bettie Page to Roy Cohn to Daisy Buchanan to Un Chien Andalou to pornography to Mary-Ann having an affair with Jean-Luc Godard, and somehow make it all play. This is the sort of novel that gets called "rollicking," and for good reason, but the tenderness is almost alarming. Your heart goes out to Lovie. How is that even possible? Ask Tom Carson, because I don't know.

Now's where I have to offer up the whole "in the interest of full disclosure" deal. I know, and am friends with, Tom Carson. I did consider leaving Gilligan's Wake off this list because of that. But I'm not getting paid for this, and so I believe that all I'm required to do in cases like this is acknowledge the fact. Otherwise, I can praise whatever I want to praise, as long as I do so sincerely. I am being very sincere.

The Cook by Harry Kressing - This is another one I wrote about this past October, and I think there's very little I can add to that. Suffice it to say, The Cook, possibly the only novel ever written by "Harry Kressing", depending on who that name is a pseudonym for, was the great find of this year's "The Kind of Face You Slash" posts. Weird, precise, disturbing, funny, and totally original, it's a novel you have to hunt for, as prices for used copies can run pretty steep. Some publisher who specializes in these kinds of forgotten classics, like Europa or NYRB, should jump all over this. It's a great book.

The Black Mass of Brother Springer by Charles Willeford - This early Willeford novel is, like so many of his books, not a crime novel, until it is. Sam Springer is, when we meet him, a writer, a published novelist, who fails to capitalize on that minor success. Since writing, in and of itself, means nothing to him, he takes whatever money-making scheme sounds good to him, such as that of a preacher of a black Southern church. And then things sort of spiral out of control, because when it comes to morality, Springer just doesn't seem to get it. The novel could be considered comic in a general sense, but you get to a point where Springer's disinterest in the wellfare of others becomes horrifying. The fact that the full consequences of some of his actions are never known cements the feeling that you are completely in Springer's head.

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki - Yet a third novel that I did, in fact, write about earlier in the year, in this case in conjunction with the Criterion DVD release of Kon Ichikawa's film adaptation. A quietly devastating portrait of a family being dragged slowly away from their roots in Japanese tradition.

Sam the Cat and Other Stories by Matthew Klam - Klam's collection of short fiction made a bit of a splash back in 2000; curiously, and unfortunately, he's published no books since. A short story here and there, but no collections, and this is a real shame. Sam the Cat is everything that contemporary American fiction is often claimed to be, but rarely is, which is funny, honest, painful, and, within the realm of actual, day-to-day life, imaginative. The title story is a hilarious first-person account of a guy who is stopped dead by the fact that he mistakes an effeminate man for an attractive woman. His fumbling, bizarre attempts to make contact with this man are so awkward that you sort of curl up into yourself -- the suspense of the impending humor is an interesting effect, I think, and hard to pull off on the page, but Klam does it over and over.

Port Mungo by Patrick McGrath - Looked at broadly, Patrick McGrath's novels could be seen as a bit repetitive -- they pretty much all focus on a man or woman, a first person narrator, who tells a story about other people, family or friends or associates, often soaked in some sort of Gothic, but somehow still reined in, sleaze. Sex, murder, and the like. And the narrator, you come to learn, is not to be trusted. But McGrath does this so well so often that to complain about this will only get you a hearty "Oh why don't you just shut up" from yours truly. I haven't read Martha Peake, generally considered his weakest novel, and for my money Trauma, his most recent effort, is his one major stumble. But at his best, Asylum, Dr. Haggard's Disease, Spider and Port Mungo are all brilliant and chilling. Port Mungo takes place, in part, in a sweaty, swampy Central American port village, a change-up from McGrath's favored towering New York City and green English countrysides, but the reader, the appalled observer, still bears witness to the horror selfishness can inflict. Here, incest, booze, and criminal neglect reduces a putatively fine artist to something less than a bug, one under glass as befits McGrath's clinical, even Cronenbergian (those two were, and are, a good match) style.

Swag by Elmore Leonard - Looking back on my past “Books of the Year” posts, a practice meant to remind myself what I’m supposed to do, I noticed that Elmore Leonard has yet to make any of my lists. This despite the fact that I consider myself a fan, and I read at least a couple of his books every year. Well, bad Elmore Leonard books exist (Touch and Maximum Bob) and there’s a whole lot that’s middlin’. Now is probably not the time to break down Leonard’s strengths and weaknesses, so I’ll let it stand that I think he’s a very fine writer who nevertheless frustrates me with some regularity. Even so, every fifth book or so that I read tends to strike me as some kind of masterpiece, and this year Swag knocked me out. Most Leonard novels are relatively simple in their core idea – in this case, the story focuses on two no-goodniks who find, within each other, the inspiration to commit various robberies. One of the men turns out to be a bit reckless, while the other, Stick, sort of just wants enough money to take it easy. He’s like a laid-back, non-violent, humane Parker, in fact. But violence arrives whether he likes it or not, and the tension of Swag comes from watching Stick, the smart one, try and remove himself from this horrid tangle of deadly stupidity he’s gotten himself into. It’s a great story, filled with choice writing and Leonard’s wonderful dialogue. It’s also interesting, and hugely refreshing, in the way it upends the standard cops and robbers narrative. Since Stick’s a good guy, basically, it should follow that the cop hunting him should be a prick (this is the case only in stories where the criminal is the focus, and a nice person). That’s how these things are done! Not so here, where the cop is simply a good cop with a job to do, one that we, as the law-abiding public would wish him to do regardless of how likable Stick is. All of which leads up to probably the best ending of Leonard’s long career.

A Meaningful Life by L. J. Davis- It just occurred to me that L. J. Davis's A Meaningful Life bears some similarity to the novels of Charles Willeford, in that it's a very funny novel, of a fairly despairing sort, until the point where it isn't anymore. Well, depending who you ask. There's a certain point late in the novel where the laughter catches pretty securely in one's throat, although I'm aware of one or two people who managed to force it out anyway. Regardless, this story of a man, no prize himself, caught in a hopeless marriage and stuck in a hopeless job, seeks salvation through the purchase and renovation of a Brooklyn brownstone. The place is a money pit, though, and shit hits the fan with some force. Then the fan explodes, and the blades go whizzing towards you. Brilliant, and brilliantly dark. Davis passed away earlier this year, with very little in the way of respectful notification the author of a book this good deserves.

Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov - This early Nabokov novel is the first book I read in 2011. It was a good start. Nabokov's writing is beyond reproach -- he is, as far as I can tell, the greatest writer of prose in the 20th Century. In English, I mean, even though it was his second language, and he translated, or co-translated, all of his early Russian-language works, of which this is one. So I kind of think, fuck that guy. Reading Nabokov can frustrate me to the point of hopelessness, but he's too magnificent to stay angry at for long. Laughter in the Dark finds Nabokov in his gleefully black, almost genre-tinted mode. It begins:

Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; he was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.

A fair summation. Nabokov's writing is such that even a novel so packed with disaster can be read joyously.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace - I read fewer books in 2011 than any year in recent memory. David Foster Wallace's massive, rat-crusher of a novel is the reason why. I read it for a long time, and struggled more than once with its amazingly dense digressions on science, pharmacology, tennis, Quebec, assassins, death, mental illness, and pleasure at any cost. But Wallace's fierce intelligence, wicked humor, and intense, all-encompassing humanity (considered phony by some bullshit idiot losers) make Infinite Jest a reading experience like no other. It's a testament to something-or-other, or an indicator of same, that the moment where Infinite Jest lifted up to the level of genius was the ending. The peculiar focus, by which I mean the, for lack of another word, anecdote Wallace chose to close this 1,100 page behemoth, is so bizarre and grotesque and obliquely enlightening, that I was just floored. Among many other things, ending this book this way took enormous guts and self-confidence. Plus, early on, there's this:

My silent response to the expectant silence begins to affect the air of the room, the bits of dust and sportcoat-lint stirred around by the AC's vents dancing jaggedly in the slanted plane of windowlight, the air over the table like the sparkling space just above a fresh-poured seltzer.

I live for that kind of writing.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell - This, my favorite novel of the year, comes from an unexpected source. A couple of years ago, I read Mitchell's novel Ghostwritten, and I sort of kind of hated it. It struck me as the work of a smug, self-satisfied kid, the kind who would think that simply telling many stories in one novel, alternating characters and globe-trotting with the settings and whatnot, is in and of itself a pretty big deal, never mind the contents of those stories, or the actual writing. I was about set to turn my back on David Mitchell, but rave reviews and curiosity led me to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and it's a goddamn barn-burner. What I love about it, or the first thing I love about it, is that it's a good old-fashioned novel, in the classical sense (well, modern classical sense). It's a historical novel that explores the weird, even counter-intuitive, relationship, mainly through trade, between Denmark and Japan in the late 18th century. Jacob de Zoet is the reader's surrogate for this almost surreal clash, and Mitchell fills him out, as well as the various other Danish and, especially, Japanese characters with such fluidity that it's quite easy to love the heroes, and absolutely fucking despise the villains. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a grand old story, one that gripped me early -- it's exciting, funny, moving, disturbing, sweet, sad, and everything else you could want. Mitchell's greatest achievement here is how his plot goes bonkers so quietly -- it reaches levels of almost pulp, even grindhouse, hysteria, without ever being hysterical. It's monumental and wonderful and everyone should read it.

Anyway, happy New Year, all you sons'a bitches!


Patricia Perry said...

Bill -
Some pretty interesting stuff, here. I am always interested to hear what other people read and always way behind on the list of books I want to get to. I got the DVD of THE MAKIOKA SISTERS at one of the B&N Criterion sales this year, but have yet to watch it, so God knows when I'd get to the book.

Hope you have a very happy New Year!

bill r. said...

Pat, I read THE MAKIOKA SISTERS so that I would have some base to write about the film, which was completely unknown to me, as was, broadly, Kon Ichikawa (I saw FIRES ON THE PLAIN years and years ago, but that's it). If not for that excuse, I don't know when I'd have gotten around to it myself. But I'm glad I did.

Will Errickson said...

Finally got around to reading a Stark/Parker this year, THE OUTFIT, and was pretty happy with it, fulfilling my expectations and then some.

nd said...

OK I'll bite--half dozen of Elmore Leonard's best books? I ask because I was trying to sell my girlfriend on him (I wouldn't have thought he was a hard sell but you don't know her :) ....)

bill r. said...

Will - You ain't seen nothin' yet.

ND - Hm. Well, SWAG, UNKNOWN MAN #89, KILLSHOT, CITY PRIMEVAL, maybe GLITZ and maybe FREAKY DEAKY. That last one is pretty interesting, actually, so go ahead and toss it in. For some reason, I don't remember CITY PRIMEVAL that well, beyond the fact that I liked it. MR. MAJESTYK, too.

bill r. said...

And HOMBRE, though in that case I do prefer the movie.

nd said...

Thanks--oddly enough, I've read NONE of those though I've read about 6-8 of Leonard's books. (I've grabbed the easily available ones like Get Shorty, Maximum Bob, Rum Punch, Cuba Libre, etc.) Will have to take a look....

Roderick Heath said...

And so yes, I've read one of these, but that is The Island of Dr Moreau, which likewise surprised and riveted me with its infernal intensity and its fascinating prefigurations of aspects of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. It stands as a testimony to what a good writer Wells really was.

bill r. said...

Indeed. Prior to this, I'd only read THE TIME MACHINE, and that was many years ago. I can't wait to check out THE INVISIBLE MAN.