Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Best Books I Read in 2015

Please excuse my recent lag in posting. Maybe I've just been gearing up for this goddamn marathon of a thing that always drains all of my strength and will and happiness! But I'm determined to see this through. I've already uploaded all the pictures.

For those of you who don't know, this is my Best Books of the Year post, and the way I do it is, I don't focus on new books. I don't read enough new books in a year to make up a list (though a couple that I did read can be found below) so I just choose the best and/or most interesting books of whatever sort, or written in whatever year, that I read in the last twelve months. Some of these I've written about on the blog, most I haven't. Also, there are far more than ten, so it's not a top ten list, and for the most part these aren't ranked, until you get to the last four, which I feel safe in saying were the four best books I read in 2015. Okay, here we go. Enjoy it, you bunch of assholes!

The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis - It's fitting that Tevis is best known as the author of the novels The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth, because his six novels are split evenly between three works of science fiction (the other two being Mockingbird and The Steps of the Sun) and three more-or-less realist novels that revolve around the world of obsessive, destructive professional sports, or games. Pool in The Hustler and The Color of Money, and in The Queen's Gambit, chess. The story follows chess prodigy Beth Harmon from the age of eight to eighteen. She learns chess from the janitor of the orphanage where she lives until early adolescence, by which point she's already developed a taste for opiates. But she's an ingenious chess player, and at times disturbingly mature as she herself gets her professional chess career rolling, and learns, or tries, to control her addictions.

Less a plotted novel than an unsentimentally precise chronicle of ten years in the life of Beth Harmon, spanning from Kentucky to Mexico to New York to Russia, the crux of the character, and of the novel, comes about a third of the way in, as Beth, at thirteen, is blasting her way through her first professional tournament:

An hour later she drew Goldmann and Board Three. She walked into the tournament room at exactly eleven, and the people standing stopped talking when she came in. Everyone looked at her. She heard someone whisper, "Thirteen fucking years old," and immediately the thought came into her mind, along with the exultant feeling the whispered voice had given her: I could have done this at eight.

The Barracks Thief by Tobias Wolff - Wolff is one of the great living American writers. He's known mainly for his short fiction, at which he excels beyond any contemporaneous writer I can think of, and his memoirs, which in full disclosure I have not yet read. But there's one great novella that has sort of fallen through the cracks, this one, The Barracks Thief, from 1984, that people should seek out. In about 90 pages, Wolff takes three paratroopers from a stupidly brave moment of bonding to a time when one of them reveals his weakness and sadness and illness and potential for violence, and portrays it all like, from the point of view of an outsider, as just something that happened. That's what Wolff can do -- he can write about devastating things as though they're just something that happened, and make them no less awful for that.

Night and the City by Gerald Kersh - Discussed here.

The Queen of the Night by Marc Behm - One of seven novels written by Behm, The Queen of the Night isn't exactly what you might expect from a guy who boasts writing credits on both Help! and Charade. This novel would, perhaps, make more sense coming from Christopher Isherwood, if Isherwood had been a lesbian writing pulp fiction in the 1970s. And maybe not even then. At any rate, what this thing is, is a novel that takes its lead character, a beautiful German woman who early in her life begins promiscuously engaging in lesbian sex while also reluctantly hitching her star, for pragmatic reasons, to the rising Nazi party, from Weimar Berlin to the end of it all. She claims reluctance anyway, but she's not at all a wonderful person; here and there she commits terrible crimes that she justifies to herself. She hates the Nazis and she's not anti-Semitic, so she's in the clear.

The novel is full of sex, and the violence reaches a level of brutality that reminded me a little bit of Kosinski's The Painted Bird. Not to compare the two, because let's not go nuts, but The Queen of the Night is both extreme pulp exploitation, and a rather serious and well-written moral novel. It's also crazier than a shithouse rat.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson - This story of two sisters, Lucille and the narrator, Ruthie, who are raised first by their grandmother and then, finally, by their deeply eccentric aunt, after their mother drops them off and intentionally drives her car off a bridge, is the premiere masterpiece by Robinson, who has had a Malick-like approach to writing fiction. Housekeeping was published in 1980, and she didn't publish another novel until Gilead in 2004 (she did write and publish non-fiction in the interim, and like Malick her production has picked up a bit lately). It was her first, and she was 37 when she wrote it, which isn't the same thing as writing a book this exquisite when you're 21. But what can match having written a novel this exquisite at 37? Or any age? Ironically, words almost can't do it justice. Everything you've heard about it is true.

The Viceroy of Ouidah by Bruce Chatwin - This is the first book I read in 2015. The novel, which Werner Herzog loosely adapted into his film Cobra Verde, struck me as so masterful almost a year ago that I wondered if any novel I would read over the next twelve months could possibly match it. Obviously some have, but this is writing of such simple beauty and violence that I can recall the impact it had on me one year ago and some sixty books later. If you aspire to write prose, what Chatwin was able to accomplish with so few words isn't just humbling -- it's humiliating.

My Face for the World to See by Alfred Hayes - At the beginning of this novel, our unnamed narrator, a screenwriter, is at a party he's not enjoying, so he goes outside and sees a beautiful young woman walk into the ocean. He saves her, and becomes linked to the pitiful and predictable end of her Hollywood fantasy. She lives in a nothing apartment, she drinks way too much, she tried to kill herself. To the uninitiated, this sounds, I'd wager, pretty run-of-the-mill. Except that Hayes, himself a screenwriter (and check out these credits: Paisan, Clash By Night, The Left Hand of God) was, and pardon me for doubling up on the word "writer" in this sentence, I can find no way around it, a goddamn writer. I just opened up My Face for the World to See, and this is literally what I found:

Failure was always present; it changed its aspect, it acquired new forms. Did one ever go from success to success? But one went, simultaneously, from failure to failure. What was it that I'd once thought intolerable? In a few years, it had become tolerable. The reasons for living changed. At the end, the great pang would be that death deprived one of the very, very simplest things: the simpleness of sight, the mechanical marvel of breathing. Ah, she mustn't feel the way she did. Nothing catastrophic had really happened. What one was good at didn't always and continually give one pleasure. Appetites died; ambitions expired; desire put on a different skin. She'd see, if she'd only give it time.

Sweetheart, Sweetheart by Bernard Taylor - The horror boom of the 1970s and 80s allowed a lot of unforgivable shit to get published, because then, as now, horror sold, no matter how awful it was. But it let in a lot of great fiction too (would T.E.D. Klein have ever enjoyed mass publication without it?), and one of the writers whose cult reputation following that boom has most intrigued me is Bernard Taylor. This is his signature novel, and it couldn't be more classical in structure or concept: as the book opens, David Warwick, and Englishman living in the US, has recently learned of the death of his brother. This happened very soon after the brother got married to the mysterious Helen, who herself has just died. So David travels to rural England to deal with the estate, his estranged father, and the mysteries surrounding the deaths of Helen and his brother.

Sounds good and all, but what distinguishes Sweetheart, Sweetheart from the mass of forgotten mass market paperbacks with skulls and shit on the cover is a genuine talent for writing prose, just for starters, and an absolute control of his story so that the casual pacing eventually reveals itself to be not so much languid as a depiction of a slow descent into Hell.

Albert Angelo by B. S. Johnson - At this point, B. S. Johnson must be best known as the subject of Jonathan Coe's biography Like a Fiery Elephant. That book won awards and such, and is considered a masterpiece of its genre, but Johnson's own writing is essentially unknown. He wrote seven novels, few of which are still in print, and used copies of his first and last are going for exorbitant amounts of money. You can find this one, though, his second, written when he was 31 (Johnson was dead by 40) about an aspiring architect and, in the meantime, substitute teacher, much of this novel dealing with the horrors and dissatisfactions of teaching children. Johnson was, I guess I'd have to say, "post-modern," though this implies that Johnson was thinking along those lines. Maybe he was -- there's one bit where there's holes in the pages, so you see through to a passage later on -- but I doubt it was so conscious. The phrase "like a fiery elephant" actually comes from this novel, and it's pulled from a long section of, essentially, teacher evaluations the protagonist has allowed his impossibly difficult students to write up, without fear of punishment. And you wonder if he's the problem. You also wonder, or I did, by the end, what's really been going on here, and I do wonder if David Foster Wallace ever read B. S. Johnson. He must have. I don't know of any other writer who could, like DFW could, say to the reader "We both know what's going on here" without finally undercutting the emotion at all.

The Edge of Running Water by William Sloane - Discussed, along with Sloane's To Walk the Night, here.

The Whites by Richard Price - I fear that the strangeness of this being a full-on Richard Price novel that has somehow been credited to "Harry Brandt" (here's the story) might have distracted some from the fact that this is, quite simply, a terrific Richard Price novel. Price has been writing crime fiction since his 1992 masterpiece Clockers, and The Whites shouldn't be approached as a departure. The story about a group of cops who each has a criminal in their past they couldn't put behind bars, and who each harbors a desire for some kind of social revenge, a balance of justice, sounds potentially like pulp -- and it is, but can't it be more? Price shows that it can be (there are a lot of ways The Whites is more complex than I've described), and that while being more than pulp, it can still be pulp. One of the best pure reads, as well as one of the best novels, of the year.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns - I believe this is the third time Barbara Comyns has made one of these year-end lists. There's a reason for that. This one was discussed here.

Neighbors by Thomas Berger - The primary travesty of John G. Avildsen's atrocious 1981 adaptation of Berger's novel -- about two sets of neighbors, one normal, I guess you'd say, and one abnormal, I guess you'd say, who spiral into a Kafkaesque nightmare comedy -- is the way it turns chicken when it comes to the ending. I'm not going to ruin it here, but the book, which is a relentlessly paced comedy of utter absurdity, frustration, hypocrisy, and lunacy, is a book that once or twice tested my patience for absurdity, frustration, hypocrisy, and lunacy. When I realized that the story took place over the course of about 24 hours, I did honestly question Berger's ability to sustain it. But of course Berger knew better than me, and Neighbors is quite propulsive. It's that ending, though...that's the horror, and the mystery. That's what makes it really linger.

Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard - If you're a fan of the horror writer Thomas Ligotti, you may know that he considers Thomas Bernhard one of his great literary influences. Woodcutters is not a horror novel, but in its eerily mad depiction of a dinner party that recalls both Beckett and Bunuel, a certain disturbance is achieved. There's no violence, but there is a lot of contempt, as well as general disgust. But should the reader side with the narrator or against him? The disgust pours from him, but what is he? "What" as opposed to "who." He just thinks, sitting in the wing chair.

Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter - I'm pretty sure I bought this novel almost entirely because it was a reprint by NYRB Classics that sounded like something I'd like. Subsequently finding it mentioned in Read 'Em and Weep, Barry Gifford's collection of short essays about his favorite novels, and being urged to read it by my friend Glenn Kenny, convinced me, like a year or two later, to finally check it out. And brother, I wanna tell you. It's similar to Tevis's The Queen's Gambit in that it doesn't feel plotted, as such (although I'm sure it was), but instead follows the lives of a few characters to some logical point -- death, or otherwise. In this case, it's primarily two men, Jack Levitt, a white man, and Billy Lancing, a light-skinned black man, who meet as irresponsible, stupid children (another connection to Tevis is they meet at a pool hall, and Lancing is a great pool player) whose dumb behavior, spurred by desperation and dissatisfaction and fear, eventually land them in prison. But the two lives meet and split apart and meet again -- that Jack and Billy aren't chained together the whole novel is part of the power of Hard Rain Falling, and part of its brutal reality, as is the love they find together in prison, and the strange aftermath of it all. It's a novel that is, as they used to say, rich in incident.

Watership Down by Richard Adams - Can you believe it took me this long? Discussed, briefly, here. But really, it knocked me out.

Dark Reflections by Samuel R. Delany - One of the few truly unique writers in America today is Samuel R. Delany. I don't really have anywhere close to the space necessary to go into why that is, but if you don't know, he's moved from one of the most preternaturally gifted science fiction writers of the New Wave era, and has become since then one of the truly curious and original social and critical figures in American literature, writing whole books analyzing one Thomas M. Disch short story, for one example, and writing horrifying pornographic nightmares (or dreams, let's leave that to him) for another. This novel, from 2007, is probably about as mainstream as Delany gets these days. It's the story of a poet, Arnold Hawley -- black, and gay, though so shy and worried about sex as to be almost asexual -- who when we meet him has won an award. He's also a professor, but his income is so slight that the monetary side of the poetry award makes enough of a difference that he can, for a time, decide to see a movie without worrying about the cost. At another time, he sees one of his poetry books in a used bookstore and thinks that someone "could live without it."

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge - This one's a bit hard to talk about. It sort of needs to just be read. All I'll say is that it's a withering, even frightening black comedy about two women who live together, and who both work at a bottle factory, the employees and managers of which plan an outing. From there, you're on your own. It's now considered one of the great British novels of the 20th Century, and it lost the 1974 Booker Prize, which is bullshit.

Fat City by Leonard Gardner - Incredible stuff. Discussed here.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro - This new novel by the author of The Remains of the Day was one of the most anticipated books of 2015 and was met mostly with shrugs and dismissal. As I recall, Joyce Carol Oates, Fine Purveyor of Fucked Up Opinions, used her review in the New York Review of Books to employ the word "awkward" as often as she could without ever explaining what she meant by that. My own guess is, nobody who was eager for a new novel by Ishiguro was expecting a barely-post-Arthurian fantasy about, not the horrors of war, but the sadness of war, as well as the sadness of old age. I bow to no one in my love of The Remains of the Day, and I've read all but two of Ishiguro's other books, so I consider it significant, at least as far as my own relation to the thing goes, when I say that The Buried Giant is a beautiful novel, every bit the equal of his early masterpiece.

Take a Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis - I love Kingsley Amis so much I named a cat after him, and this might just be his masterpiece. Discussed here, along with Amis's also outstanding novella Ending Up.

1 comment:

Will Errickson said...

HOUSEKEEPING and FAT CITY are the reason I look for vintage paperbacks outside of the horror section. Good to know they're great reads too.