2015 Year in Review — The Books I Read
The hard, and satisfying, part about writing on books is the standard you’re held to in order to avoid hypocrisy. If I critique the style of a novel and my own prose is weak, I’m gonna look like an asshole. But good prose takes hard work — it’s time consuming — and I’ve still got two or three more entries for this year in review. So here I present, in the best prose I could manage in three passes, my year end book report.
26. The Wake by Scott Snyder — This graphic novel feels arbitrary in a lot of ways. No more so than the twist of the story essentially being explained rather than shown to us. For a medium that relies so heavily on visual storytelling, The Wake leans hard on captioned dialogue stemming from the main character remembering a conversation that’s really just an explanation for why the story happened. That’s awfully boring.
25. Locke and Key Book 4 by Joe Hill — I don’t get why Joe Hill is so popular. He’s got the writing style of high schooler, his references are frying-pans over the head (the town in Locke and Key is called Lovecraft), and his themes are shallow and pedantic (two characters turn themselves black and take a trip to a mental asylum. They observe that people treat them differently! Whoa!).
24. Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer — Novels that rely heavily on description present problems for me. When the author is describing some kind of huge tower or, even more elusive, an intricate ‘snail trail,’ it’s difficult to fall into the world of the prose. Vandermeer is not always successful in his description but he manages to keep the sentences moving at a quick enough pace that I felt alright just continuing on when I couldn’t get a picture in my head. The book isn’t remarkably written. It’s occassionally exciting but mostly lacks tension and an ability to instill hunger in the reader to move forward and find out what’s going to happen next. This is partly due to the hollow and unclear description I mentioned above; lines like, “As I descended, it (a strange door made of light) became larger with a reluctance I can only call hesitation.” Like, what does that even mean?
22. & 23. Batman & Son and Batman RIP by Grant Morrison — This is a good comic book with lots of set ups towards a longer arc. It can be a little difficult to follow the visual storytelling but, hey, it’s not nearly as bad as The Wake. Batman RIP doesn’t live up to the promise of Batman & Son. NONSPOILER ALERT cause it’s so cliche: think his girlfriend might be a secret villain? Duh.
21. Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem — A decent book with a very likeable protagonist — a fledgling detective suffering from tourettes — leans too hard on style and not enough on content. Aside from a budding romance that springs up 3/4s of the way through, it’s hard to care for any of the characters and the reading itself — filled with necessary stuttering and non sequiturs — can be a chore. The romance is done well, a great balance of awkward and steamy with a genuine twist.
20. Blankets by Craig Thompson — Sometimes a little too cutesy for me, sooner or later it gets around to building real relationships and a beautiful coming of age story results. The characters understand their circumstances a little too well and have an unnatural ability to articulate them, but one of the best notions in the book comes when Craig (it’s an autobiography) and his brother are walking through the woods as twenty-somethings reflecting on an old cave they found when they were young. The first day they found it, it was deep, the second day shallow, the third day just a divit in the ground, and the fourth, not there at all. Craig remarks (in an example of hyper-articulation) “I’ve long since catalogued it as a creation of my subconscious,” his brother replies, “No. It actually existed. I was there.” And the author puts a button on the whole sentiment of the novel with the final thought, “And that’s my comfort — that someone else was there and experienced the same thing.”
19. Citrus County by John Brandon — There are a few really enticing, suspenseful moments but the book lags in the middle with its principle characters developing too swiftly and unbelievably. But the main thrust is fresh and intriguing; a poor boy in a shitty existence decides he’s evil and must undertake a truly evil act in order to make a mark on the world. His action is unexpected and he follows it through without cliche. A decent book worth reading despite a large percentage of wheel-spinning.
18. Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke — An epic book told in few pages. I had a hard time picking this book up, probably because every chapter or so you begin again with new characters or characters you knew before in a much later time period. Clarke spins a fascinating and compelling fable about how the world passes on.
17. 33 1/3 — Black Sabbath — Master of Reality by John Darnielle — Definitely a great way to get into an album I’d never really listened to, each book in the 33 1/3 series devotes itself to a record and an author who found that record seminal. Darnielle gets creative and weaves a story about a troubled young man who spends his life moving through psychiatric wards rather than speaking outright about Ozzy and his gang. He manages to capture the essence of what it is to have an album mean the world to you.
16. Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter — A pure exploration of a down-and-out character searching to fill the longing hole in his heart. A psychological exploration of what it means to be poor and desperate in a world that crushes the little man. Despite the protagonist being unlikeable, Carpenter finds a way to make us cheer for him. By the end of the book, it’s harder to stay engaged and interested, you know where his life is going and it’s difficult to pick up the book and let him get there.
15. Ghost Story by Peter Straub — This whole book is worth reading for one section in the middle, a reminiscence by our protagonist about his time spent in California as a university professor, he meets a woman after a lecture and the two start a relationship. But she’s not who he thinks she is and his life is never the same after being pulled into her mysterious world. One night he wakes up to find her sitting naked on the bed and what results is one of the scariest things I’ve read (incidentally, the scariest thing I’ve read is a section from Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine wherein a woman is walking home alone on an evening when the police are searching for a madman and her imagination runs away with itself… or does it?) Ghost Story has a funny style, following new characters frequently, so that even halfway through the book, you feel as though the novel is only just getting started. As the book approaches its climax, it descends out of the world of horror and into the genre of adventure. So many scary stories do this, particularly ones told in the vein of Stephen King. King’s advice ‘on writing’ is to let the characters you’ve created dictate the path. He claims that it leads the story to surprise but, in my experience, it more often just leads to culminating action. Obviously this is important if you want your story to go somewhere — to resolve — but my taste, more and more, is that horror as a genre shouldn’t try to leave the reader feeling resolved so much as haunted. The aforementioned section does this brilliantly but the rest of the book fails to live up to the promise.
14. Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes — Broken Monsters starts with a bang but dips into lazy, cutesy pop culture dialogue too often, it might as well have a parent calling their child ‘kiddo’ to tell of the familial affection. It all leads to a very satisfying couple of climactic scenes: a meeting between our main character (a single mother) and the wealthy parents accusing her daughter of a crime against their piece-of-shit son; and a final confrontation in a warehouse. Beukes climax is long and really good but still tips the story away from its horror genre label and closer to a thrilling action movie. It seems to me that one of the hardest things in the world of writing is keeping your horror tale scary beyond the rising action. Almost every modern example I can think of loses all its creepiness and becomes a moral battle of good vs evil (emphasis on battle). Short stories seem to be better at chilling the reader by retaining their mystery. Beukes’ novel is good but certainly inconsistent.
13. Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone — Dog Soldiers starts off in Vietnam and follows a journalist smuggling heroin, via a hardened naval vet, to his naive wife back in America. Everything goes wrong and the vet and the wife take off trying to sell the heroin. It’s a sort of drug-thriller metaphor for the guerrilla tactics of the war, Dog Soldiers is at its most interesting when it portrays heroin and its usage without cloudy moral judgements. A good story that has lost some of its bite over the years.
12. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway — A strong, enjoyable read that loses its focus after the first third and meanders through Hemingway’s time as a poor writer in Paris.
11. Station Eleven by Emily St Jean Mandel — Emily St Jean Mandel has a knack for pointing out the every day miracles of technologies we take for granted, like refrigerators, wonderful boxes of light that can almost permanently sustain cold temperatures. Station Eleven mixes these mundanities in with a world wide crisis and the book starts very strong. By the end though, we’re left with more to be desired. It feels like it’s just getting into the climax when you turn the last page. The author has little interest in set pieces and opts instead for sweeping — and successful — character development. Ultimately, it’s a book about the span of time between the end of civilization and the start of the reboot that sets us back on the cycle again. A definite up and coming author to keep your eye on.
10. Galveston by Nick Pizzolato — It seems like a lot of contemporary noir is highlighted by the characters being a little too wise to the fact that they’re in a noir novel. The authors fiddle with the conventions in a way that make light of the style, de-emphasizing noir’s necessity to live hard in a real world. Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn is a perfect example of this. The characters seem to engage actively and knowingly in the tropes for the fun of the reader. That’s a beat way to write a crime book. Galveston is awesome because it’s economical. The sentences aren’t there to have fun, they’re there to do work. It just happens that the main character is an enforcer for a crime boss and it just happens that he finds himself in way over his head. It happens that the character has a style and grit that fits into the world of noir. He’s not unaware of his charms but he’s also not a cartoon parody of the peccadillos that make the genre’s best characters tick. A character can’t be an alcoholic just because they’re in a crime novel; it’s gotta be on account of their shitty life. Pizzolato gets this. He got it in True Detective Season One (not so much in Season Two although I blame the director — the same guy who directed all seven Fast and the Furious movies) as well. True Detective is more Southern Gothic than Noir, but Pizzolato never lets the genre hold him. He writes about authentic characters and relationships — boy does he write relationships — first and foremost and lets the tropes enter when they insist, never just for the sake of gimmick, framing, or marketing.
9. At the Mountains of Madness by HP Lovecraft — Wonderful prose that is carefully written in a very believable scientific voice — that of a geologist. Lovecraft delivers deliberate pacing that maximizes the story’s conceit of being a letter of warning from a scientist to the next exploration team, wherein he finally reveals the truth of terrible things he discovered in the Antarctic. The atmosphere is dense and real. The creatures (now cosmic horror cliches that I’ve often regarded as silly) are real and foreboding, deep mysteries instead of fantastic flights of imagination. It should almost be read in one single sitting as the prose is so dense that it takes a while to fall into the world, but once you do, it’s very rewarding. Frequently, the description gets a bit too tangley to maintain the picture fully in your head. The main problem, and possible purpose, of the thick verbosity of prose is that the reader can never get truly flitting-along the story. You can never really gain momentum enough for the story to unfold like real-life before you. This does lend to the dragging chase that concludes At the Mountains of Madness, but at what cost? At its best, it tumbles forth with inevitable poetry and genius foreshadowing within a miasma of scientific observational storytelling finally coming to light in clear and baroquely decorated blocks of words and punctuation.
8. Dark Sacrament by David Kiely and Christina Mckenna — After finishing Ghost Story, I realized that the book didn’t scare me as much as I wanted it to. I knew it was all made up in Straub’s imagination. I wanted to read something that would really chill me. So I began to look into nonfiction accounts of exorcism. And, man, that got my blood pumping. The drawback is that the stories all start to sound the same, following the same basic through-line that possession often does; similar occurrences guiding each account. The authors do a good job seeking stylistic variations to keep the book interesting though and the real pay off comes not when reading but when walking alone down a dark empty street after midnight. What’s that up in the window? You’ll never know.
7. Ablutions by Patrick DeWitt — I didn’t like it at first, I thought it was too clever for its own good with its second person narrations (You walk in the room, you do this, etc) but upon seeing an old copy of it where it was touted as ‘notes on a novel’ (whereas mine says specifically, Ablutions, A Novel), it made a lot more sense. Despite its conceit, the book feels dark and true. It’s ugly but super compelling and filled with moments of recognition in a salty unrecognizable world. I couldn’t put it down even though I really wanted to put it down. Luckily, it’s a mercifully short read.
6. The Hawkline Monster by Richard Brautigan — This is the third novel I’ve read by Brautigan. He has the strangest style. His storytelling often strikes me as someone who knows how to write, writing as though he has no idea how to write. I think I like this. The Hawkline Monster has a jumpy, juvenile narrative, veering in directions no one could possibly expect. The novel starts off gothic, a scary story, but the monster itself ends up incidental rather than ominous. There are some damn great lines, Brautigan matter-of-fact crafting his heroes to be likeable as Hell. The Hawkline Monster is definitely never boring and often feels more like a drug trip, both for the characters and the reader, than a book. Can you get higher praise than that?
5. Glimpses of the Devil by M. Scott Peck — Glimpses of the Devil is much less scary and far more reasonable than the other non-fiction exorcism book I read this year, Dark Sacrament. It’s written by an established and respected psychiatrist who seeks to prove that the devil is a fiction. What he finds is quit the opposite. The book is fascinating in the way that it avoids suspense and atmosphere in favour of scientific method. Peck gives his two personal case studies of exorcism as a foundation for further exploration into possession and concludes that none of the established symptoms of psychiatric illness apply. There are many bizarre episodes of banality and joviality throughout the exorcisms; frequent breaks, cocktails, and jokes. This is all a part of Peck’s belief in community and its power. Throughout his exorcisms, he relies on the team’s love and balance to be more inviting to the subject than the devil’s lies. Fascinating.
4. The Lucifer Society by Various— The cover of this anthology leads the reader to expect titillating horror stories written by twentieth-century hacks but instead the table of contents is littered with heavyweights like Steinbeck, Galsworthy, GK Chesteron, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and even Winston Churchill. The book features these authors’ sometimes miscast forays into macabre short fiction. Some are more successful than others but, on the whole, it’s an engaging, entertaining, and illuminating look at ‘trashy’ exercise writing by some of the most sophisticated authors in the canon. It’s broken down into two sections, English and American, with the British being more consistent but the Americans ending up with more absolute winners. The best stories are the weirdest, the creepiest, and the most off-putting, in particular Lawrence Durrell’s The Cherries, Exterminator by William S. Burroughs (renewing my interest in reading more of his work, after being totally put off by Naked Lunch) and During the Jurassic by John Updike. The latter is about a sophisticated Bourgeios Diplodacus throwing a cocktail party and attempting to seduce the object of his affection, a gentile brontosaurus. How could this not be great?
3. Artifices by Jorge Luis Borges — Borges is one of the most inventive writers who ever lived. He is the master conceptual storyteller. He comes up with an out of this world idea andß expands and expounds upon it. Most of his stories are very short, little explosions of ideas set to burst your brain for a few minutes and leave you thinking for a few days. I can’t wait to read more.
2. The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott — Personal and chilling, The Adderall Diaries tracks the memories of Stephen Elliott’s life under the guise of a true crime account. He delves into the nature of memory as he and his father both remember his childhood in very different ways. He admits that he doesn’t know which one of them is right. Meanwhile, Elliott attempts to tell the story of Sean Sturgeon, person of interest in the murder of a woman named Nina who is presumed to have been murdered by her ex-husband and software inventor Hans Reiser. Sturgeon admits to the murder of 8.5 people but not Nina. Elliott is acquainted with Sturgeon through the world of sadomasochism and has several run-ins as he attempts to obtain consent and tell Sturgeon’s story. A novel wrapped in questions about abuse, controlled and uncontrolled violence and what it is to try and get better, to move on. Moving and engaging all the way through.
1. Reality Hunger by David Shields — As soon as I finished I wanted to start reading again. I don’t really know how to describe it. The author himself subtitles it, ‘A Manifesto,’ but that’s a little too pretentious. Essentially, it’s a meditation on art, particularly literature but using examples from all mediums, and the direction art is going. Shield’s artistic instincts hue closely to my own; he posits that audiences and artists seek a believable representation of reality and that each artistic movement starts with an individual declaring of the last movement, “That’s not real! That’s not how people act, that’s not how the world operates, I don’t believe you and therefore your ability to affect me, to move me, is weakened.” The book is written in epigrams, some taken from sources (they’re footnoted at the back of the book but Shields instructs the reader to rip these perforated pages away) and others original, as a literary pastiche. Shields treats his book the same way early hip hop pioneers treated their music: as a medium so rich in tradition that there is no necessity to invent anything new; instead taking the various threads that already exist and creating something unrecognizable from the original. Instead of writing fictions made up from the imagination, one can use the building blocks of creativity that are already in place, to create a familiar and context-rich creation that is an original piece of art itself. There wasn’t a page in the book that I didn’t mark up with my highlighter and I can’t recommend it any higher.