Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Best Books I Read in 2016

Sorry about the absence of anything like a "blog post" lately. But things have been, you know, whatever. Anyhow, I'm back with this, my annual list of The Best Books I Read This Year. As always, these books more likely than not were originally published in years other than 2016 (although there are three 2016 books this time around, which may be some kind of record). Of all the books I read this year, of whatever type and of whatever vintage, these are my favorites. No particular order, except for the last two, which are my two favorites of the year.

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley - This thriller was something of a sensation in the UK, but somewhat less so here. Who can say why, though its fairly reserved pace might have something to do with it. Hurley's story is about a church's annual trip to a gray and windswept UK island nicknamed the Loney. The previous year, something happened on that trip which haunted the then parish priest until his death. The new priest, rather less strict and more easy-going than his late predecessor, wants this year's trip to be somewhere more light-hearted, but he bows to pressure, and off to the Loney they go. While there, the mystery of the island is solved, in a manner of speaking, and the truth is genuinely disturbing.

For some reason, I was resistant to The Loney at first, but it wasn't long before Hurley's simmering, moody novel got hold of me. Previously, he'd published two collections of short fiction, which I'll be looking into soon.

Herovit's World by Barry N. Malzberg - One of at least two novels by deeply respected yet nevertheless cult science fiction writer Malzberg in which his subject, or target, is science fiction itself (for the record, the other one is Galaxies).  Published in 1973, when SF was still in the throes of its New Wave boom, Malzberg's short novel is about Herovit, an SF writer whose heyday was several years earlier, and who now barely survives regurgitating what he and other Golden Age writers had already hammered to death before the 60s had even begun. As his marriage fails, and a smugly comfortable sell-out compatriot insists that Herovit is incapable of more than what he's doing now, Herovit begins to break down. Not so much a science fiction novel as a feverish psychodrama, Herovit's World is one of the most damning genre examinations ever written.

Silence by Shusaku Endo - A novel of such intense moral and spiritual complexity that I hardly know what to say about it in this space, Endo's 17th Century-set classic is about two Portuguese Catholic missionaries who travel undercover to Japan to give comfort to persecuted Japanese Catholics, and to find Father Ferreira, another missionary who, it's been said, denounced his faith under torture by the Japanese authorities. Silence is a novel of great brutality, the suffering of the innocent is relentless. How is it possible to hold onto one's faith when your cries of mercy are met with silence? This, of course, is the central question, not just of the novel but of religious faith, and Endo -- himself a Catholic -- attacks it with a clarity, and a determination to not fall for a simplified version of either the question or the answer, that is pretty much unheard of now.

Mr. Fox by Barbara Comyns - For what I'm pretty sure is the fourth year in a row, Comyns has made this list (a status much desired by deceased British writers all over). Comyns's fiction is occasionally bizarre (see The Vet's Daughter for example), but other times, as in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and Mr. Fox, it depicts the simple complexities faced by characters who are struggling through the days, weeks, months, and years of their lives. Here, Caroline Seymour, a young single mother (her husband decided one day to leave) meets and sort of befriends a shady businessman named Mr. Fox. They soon decide, for the sake of financial expediency, to live together (platonically), and for several years their lives intertwine and separate: Mr. Fox goes back to London while Caroline takes a demeaning job as a live-in housekeeper for a rude, demanding woman and her brat of a daughter; Caroline moves back in with Mr. Fox when he buys a building and becomes a landlord (though much of the actual work is done by Caroline). Mr. Fox devises a scheme to buy used pianos and sell them for a profit. Much of this goes on during World War II, so in the midst of this they have to worry about German bombing raids.

Mr. Fox was Comyns's penultimate novel, but I could detect no slip in her talents. If anything, while I don't consider this her best, necessarily, her skills here are as fine-tuned as they ever were. The humor and the tragedy are delivered in the same tone, and this story about domestic tension and the dramas of employment, somehow moves at a headlong pace. And regarding that domestic tension, most of that comes from how Caroline views Mr. Fox, how the reader views him, how the reader is meant to view him, and how we take it all by the end. It's handled exquisitely, because the reader never sees it being handled.

Dispatches by Michael Herr - Herr's book, one of the seminal pieces of 20th Century war journalism, has sort of had everything said about it that could possibly be said at this point. All I can tell you is that I've never felt the ungodly stress and fear of the Vietnam War, to the extent that only reading about it can make me feel anything of the sort, as I felt within the first ten pages of Dispatches. It's like you're breathing it in, while wondering how any of the men you're reading about, journalists as well as soldiers, could have ever survived twenty minutes, let alone months and years. This book has an incredible, undeniable texture to it. Even if it was just spoken words, I'd still feel like I could hold it in my hands.

Cigarettes by Harry Mathews - Considered by more than a few people to be Harry Mathews's masterpiece, my expectation was that Cigarettes would be a stylistically dense piece that, however rewarding, I would have to pull myself through. And indeed it is dense, but not in terms of language, which is quite straightforward. Where Cigarettes is dense, and maybe the word here is rich, is in its incidents and characters, the former of which span decades (and slip in and out of the worlds of finance, horse ownership, and art, with sex being the main thread connecting them all) as do some of the latter, who cross paths with each other, or are related to each other, or sleep with or betray or steal from each other. Though it could be described as a class satire, which I suppose it can't not be on some level, the novel is just too unusual to be merely that. The story itself is rambunctious, but somehow in the telling of it, Mathews himself refuses to be, which lends to the novel an air of biography. Which is perhaps the key to the satire.

The Lake of Darkness by Ruth Rendell - This is how Ruth Rendell begins this, one of her typically skin-crawling novel about a psychopath who mixes his life with those of naive, unsuspecting, every-day nitwits:

Scorpio is metaphysics, putrefaction and death, regeneration, passion, lust and violence, insight and profundity; inheritance, loss, occultism, astrology, borrowing and lending, others' possessions. Scorpians are magicians, astrologers, alchemists, surgeons, bondsmen, and undertakers. The gem for Scorpio is the snakestone, the plant the cactus; eagles and wolves and scorpions are its creatures, its body part is the genitals, its weapon the Obligatory Pain, and its card in the Tarot is Death.

Finn shared his birthday, November 16, with the Emperor Tiberius. He had been told by a soothsayer, who was a friend of his mother's whom she had met in the mental hospital, that he would live to a great age and die by violence.

If that's not the kind of writing you're looking for, then buzz off, friend! Like Barbara Comyns, Ruth Rendell's talent is one that is so expected that it tends to be taken for granted. In truth, we didn't know how good we had it.

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze - My experience with crime fiction this year has mostly been one of reading very bad books by good writers. It's been disheartening, but there have been a few exceptions, the most striking of which is this one. I wrote about it here.

I Am Jonathan Scrivener by Claude Houghton - In this novel, originally published in 1930, a young man with no prospects named James Wrexham answers an ad in the paper looking for someone to catalogue the library of one Jonathan Scrivener, while Scrivener is out of the country. Wrexham gets the job for reasons he can't quite figure out and discovers that Scrivener has already left the country so the two can't meet before Wrexham begins work. Furthermore, he will be living in Scrivener's opulent apartment, and his pay will be extremely generous. Over the course of the next few months, Wrexham will meet several of Scrivener's friends, none of whom knew Scrivener was leaving the country, and none of whom have known the strange man very long. Wrexham is hoping they can tell him something about Scrivener, and Scrivener's friends are hoping Wrexham can do the same.

A fascinating mystery in which much of the evidence gathered is done so through conversation or by making assumptions that may or may not turn out to be true, I Am Jonathan Scrivener is a singular book, a sort of metaphysical suspense novel about the way people choose to live, and whether or not that was ever really a choice.

Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - For a long time, I counted this as the Philip Roth Novel I Wanted To Read The Most, and so I did. As you may know, this one's fairly notorious, even infamous, for its graphic and depraved (I feel pretty confident this is the right word for some of the stuff that goes on here) sexual content. Mentioned less often is the emotional wallop that stuff carries when read in context. The novel's about an aging puppeteer named Mickey Sabbath who has betrayed every woman he's ever been with, ever married, and as the novel opens he's become sexually obsessed with his latest mistress, also married, and who dies of cancer. This sends Mickey on an aimless, amoral, rather disgusting journey that left me pitying and hating him in...well, I won't say "in equal measure" because that would be a lie. Anyway, the last line of the novel says everything, and there's a sequence about halfway through where the reader is made to jump back and forth between a footnoted phone sex conversation between Sabbath and his mistress, and, on the top half of the page, a long passage about Sabbath's wife, and the life he's left her to live. Sort of takes the heat out of the phone sex, I'll tell you that.

The Late Breakfasters by Robert Aickman - "Griselda de Reptonville did not know what love was until she joined one of Mrs Hatch's famous house parties at Beams, and there met Leander." So begins the great Robert Aickman's only full length novel (he also wrote a novella called The Model). As far as I'm concerned, Aickman is the greatest horror writer the 20th Century-plus ever produced, so it's somewhat curious, and therefore interesting, that his longest piece of fiction isn't horror at all. Of course, by "at all" I mean "mostly not"-- still, though, there's a ghost, and sinister goings-on in cemeteries. Otherwise, though, The Late Breakfasters is a wonderful, if sometimes deeply off-kilter, English Country Estate novel, full of the kind of sly humor and devastating characterizations you'd expect from the best of that form. Until, you know, the action leaves the country estate, and more than half of the damn thing becomes a different kind of society novel. With further strangeness to come.

"Those, if any, who wish to know more about me should plunge beneath the frivolous surface of The Late Breakfasters." I found nothing frivolous about The Late Breakfasters myself, but I did find that the mystery of Robert Aickman, for me, had deepened.

My Father, the Pornographer by Chris Offutt - Offutt's 2016 memoir has at its deeply fascinating center Andrew J. Offutt, Chris's father and one-time mainstream science fiction writer, turned, after a while, full-time pornographer. What's incredible are the details: that his father wrote his pornographic novels openly, regardless of his many pseudonyms, that his wife typed all his many hundreds of manuscripts, that he talked openly around the house about his work in porn, that he was at the same time a serious writer, or anyway considered himself to be (he had a short story published in Harlan Ellison's famous anthology Again, Dangerous Visions), that he gave up a lucrative, if hated, career in insurance in order to write pornography full-time, and that he wrote it all from a house in Appalachian hills of Kentucky. Clearly not a good man in the, er, traditional sense, Andrew J. Offutt (who died in 2013) had an enormous impact on his family, not least on Chris, his writer son, whose task upon his father's death, was to dig through and catalogue the thousands upon thousands of pages his dad had produced over the decades. In doing so, he forges a new relationship with his dad as a fellow writer, something that never happened while he was alive. Chris Offutt becomes Andrew Offutt's most insightful, and possibly most generous, critic, while relating stories of family and childhood that are sometimes funny, but generally awful, humiliating, terrifying. My Father, the Pornographer ends with a revelation that I regarded with horror, but which Chris tries to make the best of. It leaves Andrew Offutt as a figure I'm glad I never met, but also as a man I can't help but pity.

The Difference by Charles Willeford - The best way to describe this, crime writer Willeford's lone Western, is that it is exactly the kind of Western you'd expect Willeford to write. This is a compliment. Telling the story of Johnny Shaw, a young man determined to exact revenge on a rich land baron and his sons (and who, when we meet him, has already killed one of them and is on the run) for taking the land Shaw thought was his. Initially portrayed a sympathetic kid with good reason to be outraged, eventually, in classic Willeford style, Shaw is proved to be a pure sociopath. If the men he's feuding with are also villainous, they perhaps at least have human blood in their veins. Shaw doesn't. He doesn't even rise to the level of snake.

Based on a True Story by Norm Macdonald - Labeled a memoir but in fact a novel, Norm Macdonald's Based on a True Story may be the best book ever written by a stand-up comic. Loosely structured around Macdonald's (the character) iffy plan to gamble and win big in Vegas and taking the form of a road novel, Macdonald (the writer and comedian) has used the basic facts of his life to build a hilarious, dead-pan alternate universe in which, for example, yes, he was a cast member on Saturday Night Live, but he achieved this primarily by taking advantage of Lorne Michaels's morphine addiction. But this is not at all a linear tale, and Macdonald digresses constantly, talking about his friends in show business (he is sincere and heartfelt when talking about Chris Farley), and dropping the occasional bombshell. For instance, it turns out that, though he was a successful comedian, Rodney Dangerfield was plagued his whole life by the fact that no one ever gave him any respect. Macdonald writes about being told once by Dangerfield that a hooker once said to him "Not tonight, I have a headache." Then Macdonald asks "Can you imagine hearing something like that from a prostitute?"

Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! by Kenzaburo Oe - Perhaps the most intellectually stimulating book I read in 2016 is this one, my first by Nobel laureate Oe. About a writer with an autistic son, much like Oe, whose ambition is to write a book of guidance and definitions for autistic children. Weaved into this is the writer's, and one presumes Oe's, relationship with the poetry of William Blake, whose enormously complicated philosophy, language, and spirituality inspire the writer, and will possibly guide him through his difficult task. Present also is the writer's memories of another writer he once knew, referred to only as M in this book but who is clearly meant to be Yukio Mishima (whom Oe himself knew, and whom Oe had many issues with). And so on. It's both easy and more than likely a mistake to regard Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! as a piece of fictionalized autobiography, but even if it is exactly that, it's no less rich for the fact. I read this back in February, and it still pops into my head from time to time.

Voice of the Fire by Alan Moore - Beginning with a fifty-page story of deceit and murder among what I guess you'd have to call cavemen, written in a syntactically fractured language that, well, takes some getting used to, this book, comic book writer Moore's first novel (his second, the 1,300 page Jerusalem, came out this year. I'll get to it) is a series of short stories that are connected by theme and imagery, and occasional references to what we've seen before, but more than any of those they're connected by geography. Spanning thousands of years (the last story takes place in 1996, the year the novel was published), the whole novel takes place in the stretch of land that would become, and now is, Northampton, where Moore has lived his entire life (and where Jerusalem is also set, by the way). As the title suggests, Voice of the Fire is infernal and apocalyptic, and the imagery is at times terrifying. Individual chapters could be lifted out and work as historical horror stories. It's quite an unnerving piece of work.

The Sundial by Shirley Jackson - As it happens, earlier today I watched, for the first time, Andrei Tarkovsky's film The Sacrifice, which, in simplified terms, is about a group of people living, or visiting, a Swedish country house when the news breaks that a nuclear war is about to begin. Transplant that basic idea (also remove the nuclear weapons and make the danger something closer to the Apocalypse) to a village in the United States and you have The Sundial, Shirley Jackson's fourth novel, from 1958. Another major difference (there are quite a few others, of course) is that of tone: while The Sacrifice is somber (if also occasionally absurdist and fantastical), The Sundial is actually closer to The Late Breakfasters -- sardonic, cutting, funny. If anything, Jackson is more acidic in portraying her characters than Aickman, but then again, Jackson's characters are, by and large, more awful. In essence, The Sundial is about a bunch of passive-aggressive shits waiting for the world to end, an event they're sure they're going to survive. If that doesn't sound like a good book, I don't know what does.

The Luck of Ginger Coffey by Brian Moore - It seems like every year, I read at least one novel about a down-on-his-luck family man trying to find a job so he can support his family, but constantly getting in his own way. Obviously some of these are better than others. The Luck of Ginger Coffey is possibly the best one I've ever read, and maybe the best one it is possible to write. About an Irishman, Ginger Coffey, who moves with his wife and young daughter to Canada, only to find the job prospects that led him there collapsing almost instantly. When I learned early on that the money he'd set aside for the trip back home to Ireland, should Canada not work out, and which Ginger's wife Veronica believed was never in danger, had been almost completely spent, and Ginger still jobless, I think I caught my breath. Ginger has some small victories here and there, and he's not without ambition (he wants to become a reporter), but whatever ground he gains he quickly loses, or gives away, and soon enough he's drinking way too much, there's no ounce of happiness at home, and your heart just breaks. In the early stages of the novel, Ginger believes, perhaps even correctly, that his one friend in the world is a young boy who lives upstairs, who likes to play games with Ginger. How that relationship ends just about destroyed me. And then the ending of this novel actually made my eyes well up. Books never make me cry. Except this one.

Friday, December 9, 2016

You Just Kinda Wasted My Precious Time

Don't Think Twice (d. Mike Birbiglia) - Back in 2012, when writer-director-comedian Mike Birbiglia released his first film, Sleepwalk With Me, which was I think the fourteenth iteration of his collection of stories about how he is a sleepwalker and is a comedian and cheated on his girlfriend, I was not unwilling to give him the benefit of the doubt. I'd enjoyed what I'd heard of his one-man-show version of the piece, and while the existence of the film did make me wonder just how dead one horse could possibly be, I wasn't actively offended. Then again, that film did do the job of blotting out Birbiglia's name from my wife's memory, theretofore a burgeoning fan, and it did make me question whether or not, as the "film" "played out" before me, I had actually been witness to anything at all. Was I dreaming? Was I, in fact, the real somnambulist?

In subsequent years, Birbiglia's cult/arthouse star has risen, due to his touring, and hitching that star to fucking Ira Glass of all people, such that his new film as the writer, director, and co-star, Don't Think Twice, arrived as kind of an event, I guess. Or it seemed that way because a lot of people liked it. And even though, as Don't Think Twice collected one hosanna after another, Birbiglia decided to present himself on social media as a latter-day John Cassavetes, savior of independent cinema -- a disingenuous bit of play-acting that is utterly noxious in its Swanbergian aspect -- I was, once again, willing to see what was what. The premise certainly intrigued: there's this improv troupe called The Commune, working out of New York City. The struggling six members -- Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Tami Sagher, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci, and Birbiglia -- spend all their time together, work demoralizing day jobs (though Sagher's family is rich), and wait for another chance at a big break. Which comes along in the form of being looked at by scouts from Weekend Live, that famous sketch show. Two of them actually get auditions, and one of them, Key's Jack Mercer, lands the gig. Meanwhile, the troupe's theater space is shuttering, and what will become of them?

Well, who gives a fuck? The first problem with Don't Think Twice is that it is never funny. It is never funny. Even if Birbiglia's goal is find the pain in comedy, he wants the audience to embrace the comedy of, I don't know, pain? as well. Yet The Commune is murderously unfunny, not only on-stage but off. The film is never more painful than when Birbiglia is trying to depict how a bunch of comedian friends interact with each other, how they're always joking and laughing, life is the ultimate improv really, etc. What this consists of, for example, is one of the troupe, Gethard, showing up to their apartment having missed that night's show. He says "I'm sorry" and the other five start teasing him. What form does this comedic teasing take? All of them say "I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" and make clownishly sad faces. In fact, a lot of the troupe's inside jokes consist of gibberish, or repeated words and mugging faces. I'm actually forced to wonder if Birbiglia has any friends. I guess he probably does, but if he doesn't, I get it.

And it's not like he saves the day with his filmmaking. As a piece of direction, Don't Think Twice might be a step up from Sleepwalk With Me, but only because Birbiglia the actor often cedes the floor to better actors than he (though check him out at the end in a scene where he's supposed to be furiously aggressive -- you'll not be reminded of Michael Shannon, let's say, or of anger, the emotion) and because technically I suppose he, Birbiglia, the director, is trying something. The problem is that all he's trying to do, outside of some weird close-ups (check out the scene between Gethard and his character's father outside a club) that achieve an effect that I do not believe was desired (that effect, incidentally, is one that suggests that all Birbiglia could think at the time was that sometimes close-ups are used in movies) is be and look and feel like every other "poignant" indie hand-held-camera DVD-sinkhole-bound sleepy blink of a goddamn movie of which we get upwards of fifty-some titles a year.

I mean, it's not like Birbiglia cares. If you don't believe me, watch the movie, and look for a scene late in the proceedings, featuring Micucci, Sagher, and Gethard. They're backstage (talking about the importance of improv comedy, in case you were wondering), and Sagher hands Gethard a framed picture. When the camera cuts to Gethard holding the picture, talking about what it makes him think about and feel and so on, the back of the frame is facing the camera. He's holding the picture upside down.