Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Best Books I Read in 2014? Here Are They!

This year, as I do every year, I read some books. I also kept a list of what those books were called so that, as January 1 drew near, I could, as I am now doing even as I write this, compile into list form those books I thought were really just A-1 tops in my opinion. Most such lists tend to focus on the best books that actually came out in 2014, but as always I generally don't read enough new books in a given year to do that, so my lists is made up of the best books I read, whatever their year of publication. However, this time my list includes two novels from 2014. Unprecedented!

Another thing is that this year's list is pretty long. I never limit myself to ten choices, but I generally top out at about fifteen or so. For whatever reason, maybe because I read more books this year than I normally do, I had a hard time paring it down. I decided to just go with it. That being said, I did leave out one or two books that I liked about as well as one or two I did include, partly to keep things manageable, and partly because while I genuinely enjoyed the hell out of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, for example, I think you all have probably already heard about that one by now.

One more thing before we begin...well, two more things. The first thing is that this year, two non-fiction titles made my list, which I don't believe has happened before. Make of that what you will. The other thing is that, as always most of this list isn't really ranked until you get to the top two or three, at which point you might notice that my very favorite books of the year all share a specific theme, or subject. Of that you are also invited to make what you will.

And so!

Seven Footprints to Satan by A. Merritt - Probably best known for Creep, Shadow!, his final novel from 1934, this novel, Merritt's fourth from 1927, is remembered more for the 1929 film adaptation directed by Benjamin Christensen, who also made Haxan ("best known" and "remembered" being relative terms here, unfortunately). Anyway, the novel is, as they say, a hoot: a towering, ominous, hedonistic figure claiming to be Satan forces the men and women he kidnaps to play a game of chance that will win them immortality and endless pleasure, or doom them to death and/or horrific torture. One man and one woman decide to fight back. Seven Footprints to Satan is absurd in exactly the right way, which is to say that it's absurd but I found it impossible to laugh at it. I was too gripped by suspense, and by the wish that all classic pulp fiction was this propulsive. And it earns bonus points, of a sort, by being only occasionally racist...

Harriet Said... by Beryl Bainbridge - When I do these lists, I like to find especially good or interesting or strange cover images for the books in question, and I would mark the above pictured cover for Beryl Bainbridge's first (or is it third? This is a somewhat confusing question) novel as "strange." Also "misleading," implying as it does that this novel has sleazily hitched itself to a sleazy misunderstanding of Nabokov's Lolita. Harriet Said... is not that, however. It's based on the same true crime story that inspired Peter Jackson's film Heavenly Creatures, though Bainbridge's inspiration was of a much more general sort. In her novel, two adolescent girls on vacation attract a fair amount of male attention, and they find themselves drawn to one particular man. Their intentions towards this man are appalling, but what Bainbridge, who tells the story from the point of view of the girls, never states but which we understand anyway, is that the man's intentions towards the girls aren't any better. The fact that everyone's intentions are thwarted for something even worse is to be expected, and Bainbridge lays the path towards that end with events that are deceptively matter-of-fact and written with a casual precision that lends to the story the air of the everyday that must always precede such terrible crimes in real life.

North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud - I first heard about Ballingrud when I came across his short story "The Monsters of Heaven" in editor Ellen Datlow's horror anthology Inferno. I read that story, and loved it (and wrote about it here), but I didn't get around to reading Ballingrud's story collection that contains it until, oh, about a week ago. Over about the past year or so, I've gathered that North American Lake Monsters is something of a favorite among serious contemporary genre writers -- I keep seeing it praised by the respectable likes of Jeff VanDermeer and Laird Barron and so forth -- and it's not hard to see why. If I had to compare what Ballingrud is doing here to anything, I'd have to say his fiction is akin to to work of Larry Brown or Daniel Woodrell, but with monsters. See "The Monsters of Heaven," for instance, or more directly the title story, or best of all his werewolf tale "Wild Acre," which uses genuine werewolf horror as the backbone for a story about a man on the cusp of economic ruin, and does all this while still treating the werewolf element seriously. I admit that I don't love every story here -- I didn't love the non-genre "S.S." or "The Way Station," his curious take on the ghost story -- but pretty much everything else is a success, including "Sunbleached," a pretty terrific, even somewhat traditional, vampire story, and "The Good Husband," the last story, and the one that arguably packs the collection's strongest emotional kick in the teeth.

Joe by Larry Brown - Speaking of Larry Brown, the release of David Gordon Green's film version of Brown's 1991 novel Joe spurred me to finally pick that book up, as preparation, I told myself, for Green's movie, admiring that filmmaker as I do. Well, Green's adaptation suffered for my decision, as hoping for anybody's film to match up to Brown's extraordinary novel is hoping for too much.  The story, about a violent, drunken, but fundamentally decent man named Joe taking into his protection a teenage boy whose poverty-stricken family is headed by a patriarch of endless vileness, is the kind of thing that people sometimes call mythic, which I think in this context means that it is, in the hands of a writer as stunningly gifted as Larry Brown, deeply satisfying. Brown's prose is gorgeous in the way that makes me demand to know how language so apparently simple can be put together so that what is being depicted and thereby communicated reaches down to your bones. What I'm trying to tell you is that this a good book and you should read it.

The Land Breakers by John Ehle - Reviewed here.

King of the Hill by A. E. Hotchner - I talk a little bit about Hotchner and his memoir of his childhood spent with a younger brother, loving mother, and shady, infuriating father during the Great Depression in this post, which is mostly about Steven Soderbergh and his film adaptation. You can get the gist from that, but to repeat one point I make there, what makes Hotchner's King of the Hill so terrific is that it's not written as though by a grown man looking back, but rather as a young boy living it as it happens. It's very difficult when putting these lists together to go back and find suitable passages from these books, some of which I read almost a year ago, to quote, but here's one I easily found from King of the Hill; easily, because it's one of my favorites:

...[N]ine times out of ten [my mother] asked me if I had to put that dirty thing on my head. That dirty thing happened to be the best old Feltie in the neighborhood. My father called it a skullcap. I found this really great fedora in the trash can in the park, and cut out the crown and cut designs in it, and I had some really nifty buttons stuck all over it, especially this one of Mr. Herbert Hoover smiling, which, believe me, was some rare button.

People Live Still in Cashtown Corners by Tony Burgess - Canadian author Tony Burgess is kind of a horror writer, though he might not be considered one because he's pretty clearly not beholden to the restrictions of formula that too many writers, and readers, consider the genre's defining characteristics. His best-known book would have to be 1998's Pontypool Changes Everything, his insane, undefinable sort-of-episodic novel about a sort-of zombie virus that spreads through language. That book (which made my 2009 list) was successfully turned into a film, if you can imagine such a thing, called simply Pontypool, by Burgess and director Bruce McDonald -- they succeeded, I believe, by being extremely free with the adaptation. Supposedly the two are re-teaming to adapt People Live Still in Cashtown Cornershis 2010 novel about a mass murderer named Bob Clark, who kills as a means of understanding. To try and summarize the book's perverse psychology would be too difficult, but perhaps this passage, following the first murder, will give you some sense of it:

We enter into battles without understanding the terms of our survival and when we do survive, when we do what is necessary, when we pull up strong, then all the rest, this cost, this remainder of my life, is only lessened because we did so much more than all the others. We stood while God hammered the sky and we never stopped walking while chainsaws milked our legs and we did something very wrong and awful, but at least it cleared the air. It lifts those that come after. It was us we offered up and no one will ever know this but us.

Or perhaps this:

My mind isn't snapped or anything. I'm not particularly afraid of what I've done even though I do know that now, whatever happens, at some point down the road I'm going to have to listen to someone tell me what I've done.

And if you think Burgess is (figuratively) sacrificing innocent lives so that he can more easily sympathize with their killer, you're mistaken.

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye - This slim volume of linked short stories is Kiesbye's second book, after his novella Next Door Lived a Girl, which I haven't read but which I'm damn well going to now. Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone is set in Germany, at a time that is mostly undefined, though by the end the reader has an idea. The characters are all children, and almost every story ends with, or at some point involves, something appalling being done by one or more of them. Is it all just slaughter, the senseless cruelty of children? In a way, which sort of explains what's happening. I've seen many descriptions of this book that compare it to various other things, with varying degrees of accuracy and absurdity, but the comparison I've seen that gives the best idea of what you'll be dealing with if you pick up Kiesbye's eerie novel is the one that calls it a cross between the Brothers Grimm and Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon. As a metaphor for what I'll bet you've guessed it's a metaphor for, Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone is fascinating.

The Year of the Angry Rabbit by Russell Braddon - In 1972, Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun, DeForest Kelley and others appeared in a film called Night of the Lepus which, as I remember it, is about giant mutant rabbits who kill people. THE END. That film was based on a 1964 novel by an Australian writer named Russell Braddon, who by that time had made a name for himself by writing a memoir about his four years as a POW in Singapore during World War II, two other books of non-fiction chronicling the heroism of British spy Nancy Wake, and a few other novels. Nowadays, The Year of the Angry Rabbit is his most famous work of fiction, and it's struggling to be remembered as a thing separate from the ridiculous movie, which took the killer rabbit idea and that's all. Braddon's novel skates by what is inherently laughable about the idea by, in fact, being a satire in the mold of, and I'm not kidding, Dr. Strangelove. I'm not going to claim The Year of the Angry Rabbit is as great as Kubrick's film, but it's a fascinatingly strange story about the power to dominate all other nations suddenly falling into the lap of Australia's Prime Minister, who seeks world peace via threats of total destruction. It's a singular, and singularly weird book that is now hard to find, and it deserves a better legacy than Night of the Lepus.

There is a Happy Land by Keith Waterhouse - Waterhouse is one of those writers who will always be defined by one book. In this case, that book is Billy Liar, which -- and don't think I haven't noticed that this is sort of a theme in this post -- became a famous film in 1963, directed by John Schlesinger. But Waterhouse wrote a bunch of novels, and this one, his first, is well worth tracking down (as it's been reprinted by Valancourt Books, that should be easy enough to do). There is a Happy Land is one of those realist one-thing-after-another novels about childhood that British writers of a certain era wrote with such apparent ease and skill. About a young boy who lives in a public housing estate, and the end of his closest friendship, as well as what's going on with the strange, obviously crazy -- obvious to the adult reader anyway -- bike-riding adult who seems most comfortable around children, There is a Happy Land is both funny in its close observations of childhood, and the odd logic of children's minds, and eventually tragic and sad for those very same reasons. It's really wonderful, and it's one of those books that comes together to the fullness of its power in its final pages.

Angels by Denis Johnson - I read, I think, seven novels by Denis Johnson this year. I loved most of them, and choosing one among the best of those -- Train Dreams, Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, Nobody Move, Angels -- was a difficult prospect that I chose to simplify by choosing the one I read most recently. This is nevertheless not an arbitrary choice. Angels was published in 1983 and is Johnson's first novel. It is infuriating that a first novel can be this good. It's a novel that I shouldn't summarize, beyond saying that it's about a woman named Jamie who takes her two young daughters and leaves her husband, and who, on the bus to Hershey, PA meets an ex-sailor and current drunk and petty criminal named Bill Houston who Jamie is lost enough to find romantic. You know this won't turn out great, but where it goes is impossible, I think, to guess. In fact, it does recall certain films, though if I named them I might as well tell you how it ends. But while that journey is partly what reading this novel is all about, there's obviously much more to it. The thing about Angels is that late in the novel, Johnson describes something that he could not have possibly experienced, and that I could not have possibly experienced, but which Johnson's prose illuminates and imagines in a way that is gorgeously terrifying, and feels impossibly, exactly right. It's the kind of writing that humbles you.

Consumed by David Cronenberg - Reviewed here, though I'd like to add that my sense is that not enough people are reading this, and of those who are reading it, not enough are liking it. This is a terrific book. Being a fan of Cronenberg's films may be a necessary first step, but with that accomplished the rest should be clear sailing. Get on this one, you pricks!

The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm - My appreciation for Janet Malcolm's extremely controversial examination of journalism and what she believes is inherently unethical about it, has little to do with the potential guilt or innocence of Jeffrey MacDonald, the doctor and Green Beret convicted of murdering his wife and children in 1979. I don't know if he did it or not, and solving that mystery (if that's even what it is) isn't what interests Malcolm either. She examines journalistic ethics through the lens of Fatal Vision, writer Joe McGinniss's true crime bestseller about the case published in 1983. In The Journalist and the Murderer, McGinniss comes off as hideously mercenary in how he dealt with his subjects, but if Malcolm were only interested in writing a hit piece I doubt it would be on this list (although who am I kidding, it might be anyway). Malcolm isn't even interested in taking down journalism. What interested her, and for her troubles she became something of a pariah among her colleagues, was questioning not just the occupation itself, but the received wisdom that a journalist is virtuous by dint of being a journalist. And Malcolm, a journalist, doesn't spare herself. She is ruthless in a way that few people are willing to be about who they are and what they do.

Red Shift by Alan Garner - A science fiction novel unlike any other I've ever read, Alan Garner's 1973 masterpiece tells three stories from three different centuries: one about deserters from an ancient Roman army; one about a man desperately trying to defend his village and those he loves during the English Civil War; and another, set in 1973, about a teenage couple in love, and how the boy is potentially going to fall apart when the girl leaves for London. Geographically, the stories take place on top of each other, and so, in a way, in Garner's way, are happening simultaneously. This reminds me of many things, including the ancient Roman source of Arthur Machen's nevertheless very British horror story "The White People."  Red Shift isn't horror, but it is brutal -- the violence of centuries past is depicted by Garner is something that was as natural as one animal killing another for food -- and though a science fiction tone is achieved through a kind of psychological time travel, it's the spirits of the dead that live on in the rocks and soil that form the guts of this highly unusual novel.

In Hazard by Richard Hughes - Hughes wrote one of my all-time favorite novels, A High Wind in Jamaica from 1929. I read that book several years ago, and it took me quite a while to read anything else by Hughes, and I'm not really sure why. But now that I have I can say that In Hazard, Hughes's second novel, from 1938, utterly failed to disappoint. The novel, about a cargo steamer caught in an ungodly hurricane, is written with the same sardonic eye for human frailty, heroism, cowardice, and tragedy that you'd expect from him. In this brief novel, Hughes sketches a large handful of characters with a deftness you simply don't see now, and tosses them into a seemingly unwinnable situation. Then he stands back like God and watches to see how they make out. That in doing so Hughes somehow finds room  -- this book is only about 120 pages long -- to appear to be racist before revealing itself to be exactly not that, while also telling the story of the making of a Chinese Communist, while also...well, that's enough out of me. Hughes wrote very few books, he was notoriously slow, but the two I've read so far are unlike anything else I can think of.

Nosferatu by Jim Shepard - Reviewed (eventually) here.

Loving by Henry Green - This novel from 1945 is set on a country estate in Ireland during World War II.  When the elderly head butler dies, a servant named Raunce, who seemingly looks out primarily for himself, is promoted. Over the course of Henry Green's masterpiece, an item will be stolen, the servants will be left alone on the estate for a time, two of them will fall in love. Meals will be prepared and served, drinks will be drunk. Servants will leave. People will speculate about what this war will mean for Ireland. What a lifetime of reading fiction has conditioned you to expect from such a novel will not be fulfilled. Loving is a gentle novel while being anything but soft -- it's about as clear-eyed about life as it's lived, at least by these people in this house, as any writer has managed before or since. In his interview with The Paris Review, Henry Green famously described the conception of Loving this way: 

I got the idea of Loving from a manservant in the Fire Service during the war. He was serving with me in the ranks, and he told me he had once asked the elderly butler who was over him what the old boy most liked in the world. The reply was: "Lying in bed on a summer morning, with the window open, listening to the church bells, eating buttered toast with cunty fingers." I saw the book in a flash.

So there you go.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns - A novel about a plague of violent madness long before writers thought they were being original by spinning off that concept from the zombie subgenre (oh how weary I become), Barbara Comyns' bizarre, funny, and unnerving 1955 novel about how one family fails (I'm simplifying) to bravely face the devastation of their village is about as damning a look at humanity in crisis as I've ever read. Not that it's ostentatiously "about" that -- let's just say that Comyns, who, what with this and The Vet's Daughter, which I read a couple of years ago, I'm beginning to think was a genius, is dubious about a few things. Can you imagine such a novel being written now in which the primary parental figure within the story's central family is not only not heroic, but a heroic character isn't introduced to take their place? In addition to that, if you want to pin down Who Was Changed and Who was Deadit's a novel about death in which daily death is sort of gotten used to:

During the afternoon Ives went to Grandmother Willoweed, who was sunning herself in a basket chair on the top path.

"Baker's dead, ma'm," he shouted down her trumpet, "and Mrs. Fig's got the madness or else it's the D.T.'s, and the little old peacock's dead too; we haven't got one now. But my ducks is alright," and he turned away towards the river to make sure this was still so.

The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson - Jackson will be remembered only for this novel. Even those who seek to not let us forget that this was a novel, and not just an Oscar-winning film from Billy Wilder, seem content to let this and a handful of short stories stand for Jackson's life and career, and let the other novels and stories disappear. My plan is to read all of Jackson's fiction -- there's not a ton of it, just two story collections and four novels -- and in addition to The Lost Weekend I've also read his second novel, The Fall of Valor, which I liked. But fair's fair: it's not The Lost Weekend, which is simply the greatest novel about alcoholism I've ever read. It's not just that -- I feel like it's the best novel about alcoholism that it's possible to write.  As Don Birman promises sobriety to himself and others time and again, only to collapse into a river of booze each time, it's possible for the reader to find himself alternately hoping that Birman either be refused that next drink, or to be offered all the booze he desires. No writer has ever made the horror experienced by a drunk both when he gets his drink and the horror experienced when he can't as palpable, immediate, and terrifying as Jackson does. It's a merciless and deeply frightening novel.

The Tunnel by William H. Gass - Well, what can anyone say about this? Though Gass has written significant books following its publication in 1995, The Tunnel is genuinely, literally, the life's work of one man. Several decades in the writing, The Tunnel is possibly the most difficult novel I've ever read, and for a while it felt like reading it was going to be my own life's work. The idea behind this novel is that it is, all 600-some pages of it, ostensibly the introduction to the narrator's massive scholarly work Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany. That narrator, the author, is William Frederick Kohler, and in trying to introduce this major book, he ends up telling, in a manner of speaking, his life story, a story that includes his decision to dig a tunnel in the basement of his home, a project he has taken up at the same time as the writing of this "introduction." Which is a mad, sometimes gorgeous, sometimes utterly opaque, swirl of Midwest childhood lived in the early part of the 20th century with a mean father and a drunk, depressed mother, who dies from a hemorrhage in her throat, her blood draining back into her body "like a sink." Strange sexual encounters mix with Kohler's insistence (though he's not proud of it) that he took part in Kristallnacht...but would he have been old enough? And these then mix with an examination of the other professors in the history department where Kohler is tenured, his hatred of them, his envy of them, mixed again with memories of eating ice cream and car accidents he witnessed as a child, mixed again with a consideration of the assassination in 1938 of Nazi Ernst vom Rath by Polish refugee and Jew Herschel Grynszpan, leading finally to a final fifty pages that are among the saddest and most beautiful I have ever read. In its own way, The Tunnel contains the whole of the 20th Century.

The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski - I realize that there is some controversy surrounding Kosinski and The Painted Bird, having to do with accusations of plagiarism. At one time I knew a bit more about the specifics, but I've forgotten all of it now. The controversy is not something I now dismiss, if the accusations are fair, but I'll re-investigate all that at another time. For now, I can only consider the novel, published in 1965, about a young boy, possibly Jewish, possibly a Gypsy, sent away by his parents because they believed he would have a better chance of surviving the holocaust sweeping over the country on his own than with them. And so off he goes, suffering or witnessing one atrocity after another, as the novel becomes a living, breathing, walking, seeing Hieronymus Bosch painting, even though it remains words on a page. It's literary minimalism put to the use of the grotesque and horrible, which is never-ending, or seems as if it will be. But this novel is about a real horror that we know did end, and even here, even in this most terrible novel, there is before the horror, just a little, and there is the horror, and there is after the horror. Just a little, but it's there, on the other side.

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis - While thinking about these last three novels in this best-of list, of which Gass's The Tunnel was the first and now The Zone of Interest, Martin Amis's 2014 declaration that the literary world dismisses him at their own peril, is the last, I do have to ask myself which of them I truly think is the "best." Such a stupid question is answered reasonably with "It doesn't matter." If The Tunnel is the most unapproachably (in a sense) impressive, and The Painted Bird is the most awe-inspiringly painful, Amis's novel is the most entertaining while being simultaneously the one novel I read this year that most regularly took my breath away: I've heard The Zone of Interest described as "an office comedy about Auschwitz." Which it sort of is, I guess, at least for a while. The novel tells the story of life in Auschwitz from the point of view of a, let's say, skeptical Nazi named Golo Thomsen (he's Bormann's nephew!); a true believer Nazi commandant named Paul Doll, who is married to Hannah Doll, who hates her husband and whom Thomsen loves; and Szmul, the Jewish Sonderkommando, who worked with the Nazis in the camps and as a result enjoyed certain benefits; those Jews who occupied Primo Levi's "grey zone." But oh no, a love triangle? Is Amis trivializing the Holocaust? No, because the idea behind The Zone of Interest is to show what such things looked like against this backdrop. It's similar to Cabaret in this sense. And yes, it's funny, though over the years Martin Amis's idea of a comic novel differs from pretty much everyone else's: he's funny because he can't not be, because humor is his mode, his style. And it's not a matter of "laughing so that you don't scream" -- it's not that simple. You laugh while you scream. But it's also not that simple. Here's how Amis writes now -- here's what's funny to him now...or here's what's "funny" to him now -- this, from Szmul, reflecting on the life of the Sonderkommando:

It would infinitesimally console me, I think, if I could persuade myself that there is companionship -- that there is human communion, or at least respectful fellow-feeling, in the bunkroom above the disused crematory.

A very great many words are spoken, certainly, and our exchanges are always earnest, articulate, and moral.

'Either you go mad in the first ten minutes,' it is often said, 'or you get used to it.' You could argue that those who get used to it do in fact go mad. And there is another possible outcome: you don't go mad and you don't get used to it.


Will Errickson said...

I have a copy of HARRIET SAID... on my shelf! And I recall JOE being talked about a lot, and Brown's books in general, when I worked at a popular independent bookstore in Raleigh in the mid '90s. But even then I think JOE and DIRTY WORK were already out of print.

bill r. said...

Well, JOE should be back in print because of the film. Not DIRTY WORK, though...

John said...

I picked up a copy of Johnson's Already Dead a while back, but have yet to read anything by him. Know that one?

The Painted Bird is a tremendous horror story, literally and otherwise. I don't know that horrors of that magnitude ever really end, at the very least, it seems to say, there'll always be unpredictable aftershocks to deal with.

bill r. said...

I know *of* ALREADY DEAD, and I own a copy, but I haven't read it yet. When I went on a Denis Johnson tear earlier this year, I stuck to his short to very short novels (of which there are several), so I still have his long books -- that one and TREE OF SMOKE -- pending. But boy ALREADY DEAD sounds terrific.