Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Trying to Win the Race Against the Goats: The Books of 2019

Well here we go again, fellows! I'm going to do my best to dispense with the preliminaries, not least because I feel like the last couple of years I've allowed a certain defensiveness to creep in to this part of my annual "Best Books Which I, Bill Ryan, Read in [GIVEN YEAR]." So what made the list made the list, and what didn't, didn't. The full tally of what I read in 2019 comes at the end. Far fewer books this year than in the previous two. I hope to get back on track in 2020.

As usual, these are unranked, until you get to the last three, which I'm confident are the three best novels I read in 2019.

Image result for kinder than solitude by yiyun li

Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li - When I finished reading this novel, about a group of friends in China and the mystery surrounding the poisoning of one them, I considered it a disappointment. There is an oppressive distance to the prose -- no one ever eats anything specific, just food, or listens to a named song, just music -- that I struggled with (in a way, I might as well admit, I don't with the cinematic equivalent), and found unabsorbing. But eventually, I realized the prose so exactly mirrored the psyche of the character who the whole novel revolves around that I had to concede Li's bone-chilling brilliance. And I read this pretty early in the year, yet I remember it more clearly than others I read later, and which I, ostensibly, like more.

Anno Dracula by Kim Newman - Exactly the novel I hoped it would be: a Victorian horror/adventure/mystery awash in an encyclopedic knowledge of the various genres Newman is playing with, without ever letting his references become the point. Add to this the fact that Newman is a gifted writer of prose -- such a rare thing in genre these days -- and I'm not sure what kept me from this for so long. The first chapter, which climaxes with the reveal that Dracula's Dr. Seward is in fact Jack the Ripper, is a small masterpiece.

The Dressmaker by Beryl Bainbridge - Bainbridge, one of my perennial favorites. This one could be seen by some readers as "typical" of her, but when you're as good as Bainbridge was this doesn't diminish her power. A discomfiting story about a couple of aunts and their niece.

Walking Bones by Charlotte Carter - The only stand-alone novel by Carter, who is better known as the author of the series of detective novels about jazz saxophonist Nanette Hayes. Of the three Carter novels I've read, this one's the best -- a weird, erotic psychodrama about a black woman and a rich white man which is all about abuse, guilt, shame, race, and our individual helplessness in the face of things we don't want to want. Something like that, anyhow.

Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell by Nathan Ballingrud - My one regret about this book, Ballingrud's long-awaited follow up to his previous horror collection North American Lake Monsters, is that, for good and understandable reasons, he had to jettison his original title, The Atlas of Hell. In addition to being a better and more striking title, it also helps the reader understand that the stories in this one have a thematic, and pulp, link. That atlas comes up more than once, is what I'm getting at.

There are six stories here, all terrific, and when I think about pointing out my absolute favorites I discover that I'm about to name four of them. But "The Atlas of Hell," "Skullpocket" (which I wrote about here), "The Visible Filth" (adapted into a very good film called, and here's the explanation, Wounds), and the extraordinary "The Butcher's Table," a period-set, grotesque, fantastical pirate/Satanic cult extravaganza, which includes the most stunning angel imagery I can remember encountering, as well as the most bracing and disturbing use of the phrase "Hail Satan" I can think of, deserve to be singled out. "The Diabolist" and "The Maw" are merely excellent, I'm afraid.

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan - In many respects, McEwan had a bad year. At this point, it looks as though people, when thinking about McEwan in 2019, they'll remember his tiresome, unfunny political satire The Cockroach (one of many such books from the last couple of years) which has come in for quite a bit of bad-natured, but deserved, ribbing; and possibly also the completely ignorant and denigrating comments he made about science fiction while doing the promotional rounds for this one, which is a science fiction novel. This is too bad because I think Machines Like Me is excellent, a genuine science fiction story, told with invigorating precision, about social and scientific ideas that are on the minds of pretty much everyone these days. The protagonist, not a rich man, saves up to buy a robot, does so, and then McEwan sees where that goes. The masterstroke is to set the novel in an alternate universe in which Alan Turing is still alive, a choice which provides Machines Like Me its brilliant ethical reversal.

Pretty bad cover, though.

The Wrong Case by James Crumley - As shambling, digressive, and alcohol-soaked as Crumley's previous (and more famous) The Last Good Kiss, one of those fascinatingly relaxing-yet-cynical, morally bracing "hang-out" crime novels from the 60s and 70s that pulled from Chandler but didn't attempt to simply plant the 1940s Marlowe into the current time. Rather, Crumley imagines people who grew up reading Chandler, felt inspired, and then failed, with little spots of tainted moral victory along the way.

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin - Baldwin's fourth book, and second novel, about David, a gay man in France, his romance with a woman, his romance with a man, Giovanni, a man who faces execution as the novel opens, and David's attempts to distance himself from the tragic climax of the latter situation. It's a novel as much about guilt as it is anything else, and the cultural environments that can force people to choose guilt in order to survive.

The Twenty Days of Turin by Giorgio De Maria - A strange political horror novel about a fantastical library and murderous, gigantic monsters. The climatic imagery is grotesque and haunting, and will be with me forever.

Concrete by Thomas Bernhard - Rudolf is unable to write even the introduction to his study of Mendelssohn, but he is able to write this, a 160-page series of complaints that inadvertently reveal him to be a miserable, pompous hermit. Good stuff.

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald - Winner of the 1979 Booker Prize, about a community of people -- including families -- who live in houseboats anchored at Battersea Reach, on the Thames. Fitzgerald gets a lot of mileage out of this unique setting, and out of imagining the minds of the sort of people who would choose to live like this. The novel is both nonjudgmental and extremely dubious, as well as funny and empathetic. One of four books by Fitzgerald I read in 2019, and the best.

Little Girl Lost and Songs of Innocence by Richard Aleas - Written by Hard Case Crime founder Charles Ardai under an alias (ahem), these two novels about private detective John Blake must be read, if not back-to-back, then at least without too much time in between. Taken together, I've never read anything quite like them in the private eye genre.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters - An absolutely marvelous ghost story, quite traditional in a lot of ways, but not less compelling for that -- indeed, part of what makes it so engaging might be Waters's understanding of where it sits in the tradition. But really, really beautifully realized, with a narrator you come to understand you'd probably be better off staying away from, should you ever meet him, because, well, anyway. The last line kills.

The White Book by Han Kang - So sad that at one point I actually gasped.

A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison - See my entry for Crumley's The Wrong Case, but this is not a detective story. Instead, this novel is about a trio of drug-addled idealists who believe (quite wrongly) that a dam is going to be built in the Grand Canyon, and set out from Florida on a road trip to stop it. A crime novel, but only sort of. Completely doomed. My first Harrison, but not my last.

The Night Swimmers by Peter Rock - A sort of autobiographical novel about a not-really romance he had with an older woman, a widow, when staying with his parents at their lake house, when he was in his 20s, and one particularly disturbing night. It's impossible to know what Rock really experienced (a local artist is brought up time and again, who research revealed to me is a fictional version of a real sculptor), but it sure doesn't matter. Wonderfully discursive, jumping from the main story to Rock's (or anyway his narrator's) thoughts on art, painting, his children, an ex-girlfriend, stories, and so on. Completely absorbing, and beautiful.

Savage Night by Jim Thompson - Absolutely extraordinary, a crime novel masquerading as a horror novel. A twisted novel about a hitman, our narrator, whose job in a small town becomes a reminder to the narrator of all that he can never have, and the novel, therefore, is occasionally kind of sweet (!), until that which is sweet becomes unutterably perverse and terrifying. The last few pages are breathtaking. The last line is unforgettable. Its closest ally in Thompson's oeuvre that I know of is A Hell of a Woman, so if you know that book but not this one, then you know you'd better prepare yourself.

Any Old Iron by Anthony Burgess - I used to read Burgess a lot when I was younger -- too young, one could argue. This novel, about a Welsh family that is joined by marriage to a Jewish family prior to World War II, is the first I've read since reaching what I would consider adulthood, or anyway my version of it. Typical of Burgess, it seems to contain the whole world, and all of history, within a rambunctious, funny, bawdy, adventuresome novel, that is on a fundamental level about King Arthur, and metal. As I say, typical of Burgess.

The God of Nightmares by Paula Fox - You might, after reading this one, consider the title somewhat aggressive, given its narrative about a young girl fleeing (in a sense) from New York to New Orleans, in the 1940s, where she encounters all sort of decadence among the artistic class. But the title fits, ultimately, as the novel takes in all manner of everyday human suffering -- addiction, illness, death, failed relationships, betrayal, failure (and anyway, you'll see that the title wasn't pulled out of a hat).

And deeply engaging, written with clear-eyed poetry. A coming-of-age story, and isn't that just too bad.

Peace by Gene Wolfe - A novel about Alden Weer, an old man living in the Midwest, who goes to the doctor, and meets people, and has lots of memories, some of them sad, or confusing. A curious title for a novel often described as a horror story, and reading it you might question that genre designation. Maybe it isn't. I think it might be.

The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns - Like Beryl Bainbridge, another of my perennial favorite, and this time writing at the height of her powers. About a young girl sent to live with her, quite frankly, awful aunt due to her parents's financial difficulties, The Skin Chairs expands subtly into a story about death and money and, somehow, the macabre -- that title is literal, everybody. In the town where the bulk of the novel is set lives a retired general who has in his home six chairs, brought home from the Boer War, that are upholstered in human skin. This is dealt with matter-of-factly, as objects of dark, childish interest by our heroine, and turns up now and again, to somehow both ground the novel in the awful truth of things, and send it spinning into metaphor and imagination. The ending is so perfect that I don't understand how Comyns did it.

They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell - "For it was Elizabeth who had determined the shape his life would take, from the very first moment he saw her."

About the Morison family, a Midwestern family, as told by first Bunny, the youngest son, who believes his older brother hates him; then Robert, that older brother, who does not in fact hate Bunny, and finally James, the father, and what all of them think of, and owe to, Elizabeth, the mother and wife, during a catastrophic flu epidemic. One of the most emotionally overwhelming novels I've ever read, and the best thing I read all year.

Soho Sins by Richard Vine
Little Girl Lost by Richard Aleas
Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
My Abandonment by Peter Rock
The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem
Needle in a Timestack by Robert Silverberg
Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams
Molloy by Samuel Beckett
The Female Man by Joanna Russ
Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li
Heyday by W.M. Spackman
The Testament of Caspar Schultz by Jack Higgins
The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar
The Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spire
The Wrong Case by James Crumley
Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
Songs of Innocence by Richard Aleas
The Golden Child by Penelope Fitzgerald
The Means of Escape by Penelope Fitzgerald
Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
The Bird's Nest by Shirley Jackson
The White Book by Han Kang
Wounds by Nathan Ballingrud
Peace by Gene Wolfe
The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth by Roger Zelazny
Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan
The Thirty-First of June by J.B. Priestley
Star by Yukio Mishima
The Curfew by Jesse Ball
Pasmore by David Storey
A Good Day To Die by Jim Harrison
Cari Mora by Thomas Harris
Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis
The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Peter Handke
Any Old Iron by Anthony Burgess
The Dressmaker by Beryl Bainbridge
Firebreak by Donald E. Westlake
Here Comes a Candle by Frederic Brown
Walking Bones by Charlotte Carter
The Dark Country by Dennis Etchison
Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro
They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell
Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You by Scotto Moore
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
The Twenty Days of Turin by Giorgio De Maria
The Watcher by Charles Maclean
Elbow Room by James Alan Mcpherson
The Day the Leader Was Killed by Naguib Mahfouz
Charlotte by David Foenkinos
Cat Chaser by Elmore Leonard
The God of Nightmares by Paula Fox
The End of Everything by Megan Abbott
Chatterton by Peter Ackroyd
The Servant by Robin Maugham
The Anarchist by David Mamet
Invisible by Paul Auster
Voyage of the Dark by Jean Rhys
Concrete by Thomas Bernhard
Quiet Days of Clichy by Henry Miller
The Line That Held Us by David Joy
The Cockroach by Ian Mcewan
Anno Dracula by Kim Newman
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns
Red Doc> by Anne Carson
A Disorder Peculiar to the Country by Ken Kalfus
The Shores of Space by Richard Matheson
All Shot Up by Chester Himes
The Devil's Mambo by Jerry A. Rodriguez
The Night Swimmers by Peter Rock
Coq au Vin by Charlotte Carter
Savage Night by Jim Thompson