Two months into 2019, yeah yeah. I have a late pass. This isn’t everything, btw. I’ve omitted a few unbearably bad (one of them anti-Semitic) books I had to read for a gig economy job.
Numbers two and three in Cusk’s earned take on WG Sebald’s innerspace fiction. Or, if that sentence doesn’t light up your lit receptors: divorced, middle aged Brit writer deep-thoughts through chance stories tapped from those around her like a living library. Cusk’s sharp writing more than rescues her novels from their lack of outer plot – that’s the point, really. While reading, I remembered how, when I read all of Sebald, the Barton Fink line “I’ll show you the life of the mind” would cycle through my head.
While the genre of Washington Black isn’t groundbreaking- the 19th century historical picaresque – the execution is thrilling, and the stakes higher than most, with racism/slavery’s mangling of a life as much the driving theme as key characters’ destinies. Edguyan isn’t even at the top of her game yet. Her Half-Blood Blues I found more unique, and by far among the best fictions about jazz- but not as fully realized as this.
Long-listed for the National Book Award, but should’ve been closer than that. A novel with the pharmaceutical (OK opioid, but c’mon) crisis at its core isn’t rare, but one this well-done, is — one of those subtle, hidden-scaffolding narratives that really shouldn’t work and seems to appear in midair to follow the flow of life. In this day rank with MFA hijinks and memoir solipsism, Gumbiner’s restraint is easier written about than written. How subtle? Great title as metaphor for trace-less artifice in function.
A Long Way from Home
I prefer his Australian-set work, like this, with the exception of Parrot & Olivier. He’s been political, too, in recent work (Amnesia) but I don’t think he’s ever plumbed Australia’s deep and distressing history of racial violence, which isn’t so ancient. A Long Way from Home has all of his best skills on display, like well-drawn, indelible and self-abnegating characters, wild relationships, small-time crook-ery, prose like a new version of English, and spooky outback passages. And also like his best novels, the Australian landscape is a key, oppositional character all its own.
In Korea, a woman renounces meat, and her world disintegrates. The English translation of this novella wins the Man Booker in 2016, and while the win could be debated, the Vegetarian’s three-part narrative, like an illustrated triptych, turns a Kafka-esque concept into an unpredictable and magnetic rumination on gender, art, and culinary culture.
In Love With These Times: My Life With Flying Nun Records
For an uber-fan of New Zealand 80s era rock music, this was a joy (and also painful – so many records I don’t have) and well done as far as what it was like to build a record label in the pre-internet era. Shepherd does what all smart label builders do in the memoirs: details the rise and struggle, and leaves the comeback or coda for a short few passages at the end. There’s also a great story about the Fall, for whom Flying Nun released their Hex Induction-era live record Fall in a Hole.
(Half-assed disclosure: I briefly worked for their publisher.)
These books and authors got the short end of the marketing stick. The former was purposely ignored, marketing-wise, to the point where I was told to forget about it before it was even released: “it’s a ‘woman’s book’ ” was the explanation. So what? Or, if I humor that gender-limited vision: wrong? Despite the translated title needing a change (Kent Haruf, anyone?), Eventide is a sharp, lasting, and unapologetic chapter in the life of a middle-aged, Swedish art academic caught between her own research on turn-of the 20th Century European hyperrealists and symbolists (alone worth a page that marketing needed to turn) — and a tryst with a young student who might be fabricating his research. I loved it. So did most reviewers. Meanwhile, the nonfiction Berlin 1936 curated a fantastic, 360 degree capture of an Olympics that truly changed history – and yet was positioned too conservatively (“not a sports book” I was told, which only betrayed an ignorance of sports fans’ literacy / literate readers’ interest in sports) and so unsurprisingly suffered for its strict (if not wrong) positioning as a gay interest work. It was nonetheless timed for the 2018 winter Olympics – which were then notable for athletes being out and proud. Both of these books made prominent critical year-end lists, despite being considered backlist-y. Imagine if they’d been pushed properly, or in the case of Eventide, at all.
Among the Living
Another I read for the above gig. Was pained about what to do with this one, well written but a bit slight – almost as if the author had abandoned it, or didn’t fight some too-extensive editing and was simply glad to sell it. And yet, among American novels, it’s somewhat unique for setting and era: 1947, as Holocaust survivors adjusting – or not – as immigrants in the already generations-deep Jewish community of Savannah, Georgia. The frictions are rife and interesting, as American hosts may or may not want to hear about Theresienstadt from the refugees they harbor. And how those refugees may – and many not want to – reunite by chance. Nonetheless, positioned as milquetoast faux-literary romance, because slight.
Amazing feat of Bell’s that it took me 60 pages to realize I wasn’t reading a post-apocalyptic dystopia but a novel set in the abandoned sections of modern day Detroit. Dark stuff in here, and I liked this, but limped to the finish; maybe length.
Hold the Dark
I read this literary thriller in 2017, but the film version that dropped this past fall, on Netflix, ranks as one of the better film adaptations of a novel in recent memory.
Clifford D. Simak
Please tell me there’s a word for under-descriptive fiction that nonetheless hits such perfect archetypes that it notches as indelibly as the most prolix fiction. Also the way I like my science fiction: old, and all the more strange for it. Perfect night reading, too: set in 1960, in a remote, Midwest backwoods, a seemingly immortal Civil War veteran protects a 150-year old house hiding a train station of sorts for extraterrestrials teleporting their souls from one end of the universe to the other.
The Courage Consort
Three novellas by Faber, who I can’t currently get enough of, but has retired. The title novella reigns; a word-drunk, character-deep, knives-out story about a classical a cappella group’s holing up in a haunted house to rehearse a notably impossible composition.
I keep waiting for something here to knock my socks off – and much of it is nice — but instead I’m wearied by the perfect execution of overused tropes. The woman who turns into an aquatic animal; the hedonistic vampires beneath our noses.
Hard-boiled in the hood and as promising a crime series as any launched recent memory, Ide gets California right, gets hip hop right, gets suspense right, and isn’t a little funny, either.
Always wanted to dip into Winton. While this didn’t wow, it’s enough to make me consider more. Western Australia; teenager escapes domestic horror by setting out into the wilderness.
In the Distance
Expertly achieved entry in the American West Re-imagined as a Really Weird Place genre. (“Sisters Brothers,” “Dead Man” etc). What’s next, Mr. D?
Garden State Gangland
Scott M. Deitche
Not the compendium desired, but that’s my own bullshit. Read some names I recognized. I grew up in one of those NJ towns where you kept your mouth shut or someone* duct-taped it shut for you, with a roll of quarters inside, add then punched you until your teeth turned to dust. *teamsters
No doubt many reviews will say out of tune. But yeah: this one’s suspiciously off for Crace. Neither poorly executed nor poorly written – the opposite of the latter, in truth – The Melody struggle for interesting stakes (Btw this is Arcadia or Continent country, a European town not quite England with strange possibilities in its forest and human underworld, although neither comes fully into play). My guess? The characters. Crace’s central, elderly singer & widower suffering a terrible day-in-the-end-of-life doesn’t leave a mark. His losses are in the past. He’s set for life. His nephew wants to build an apt complex on the site of his longtime home. *shrug*
YA execution isn’t so bad if you’re expecting it. Especially with a riveting and delicious high concept: girls, worldwide, turning 16, experience the resurrection of an atavistic organ near the collarbone that provides the ability to deliver electrical shocks, and not just small ones. The global gender power structure changes overnight, to the point of resulting sexual violence and regime change. Along the way, hints of the organ’s long, historic suppression, in a touch of alt history, provide a nice subplot.
The Diamond Setter
Decent multi-family saga set mostly in Tel Aviv with an 80-year old, secret relationship that spurs border-crossing movements into modern day.
The Red Clocks
All dystopias is local. But with the SCOTUS sullied by Kavanaugh after Anthony Kennedy’s deal to retire and thus probably protect his Donald Chump-laundered-money-loaning Deutsche Bank son (look it up), this novel looks increasingly less like speculative fiction, which should scare us. Via a pregnant teen, a secluded midwfe of dubious sanity, and a middle aged woman trying to conceive on her own, Zumas solidly depicts a complex polygon of lives affected by an America where abortion is outlawed.
Never Anyone But You
Arguments aside, against the legitimacy of a [straight I assume] man fictionalizing the love story of two women, this is a deliciously written, equally inspiring and heartbreaking portrait of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, early 20th Century Paris art scene power couple, later to famously inspire David Bowie with their photographic gender-magic. The novel’s most delicious course follows their suspenseful, homemade resistance against occupying Nazis on the island of Jersey during WWII. If this isn’t already optioned, why are movies even made?
San Francisco neuropsychiatrist is drawn into an intrigue web of seductive multiple personality disordered sex, violence domestic and otherwise, and police corruption; cartoon overtakes character at times, but that may be Nunn’s point – it’s all a bit outrageous.
The Pine Tar Game
A baseball fan’s dream of a book, this charts two decades of baseball business that worked toward that one explosive moment
that provided one of professional sports’ immortal bits of video: an unhinged George Brett, arguably the game’s best hitter at that time, springing from a dugout to justifiably kill Yankees manager Billy Martin, who was already doing fine at doing that himself.
Ably diverting Pacific Northwest detective procedural with suitably fucked up protagonist drawn into motorcycle gang oddness. See: Feral Detective.
The Man with The Getaway Face
Richard Stark (Donald Westlake)
Back to the start of things. If you enjoy literary fiction and consider yourself someone who doesn’t slum into crime or pulp, ignoring Westlake’s Stark novels means you’ll miss one of the craziest novelistic stunts out there: plot driven by nothing more than the utilitarian decisions of Parker, a sociopathic thief. Those tragic flaws where the anti-hero shows mercy, or takes revenge, complicating his getaway as you know doing so, will? Not here. Amazingly, a sympathetic character still emerges, tragic for being uncompromising, caught in those dreams you’ve had where you try to escape a place or situation where nothing goes right.
All Those Moments
Pick your Hollywood memoirs well. Hauer’s one of the Nice Guys. Trust me.
A Little Life
As with Catton’s Luminaries, I couldn’t dispel the feeling that I was reading a novel written by AI, about Sims. As Lou Reed supposedly (probably) said about Eddie Van Halen: “he’s good, but I can hear him practicing.”
A lesser effort, I think. The one indelible supporting character – one of those rapscallion, goodhearted thieves no one does better than Ondaatje — isn’t the focus, and those that center the novel are distracting-ly unmemorable.
For vinyl collectors, a wormhole within a wormhole of a novel. Also evokes the ‘oughts NYC music scene with correct pitch and tone. The going gets weird in all the right ways.
A road-tripping census taker is accompanied by his adult son, who is developmentally disabled; trip as trip into other, deeper stuff. I go up and down with Ball. This might be my favorite since Samedi the Deafness. Whether the memoir aspect is fiction or not — do not trust him, not even the photos included – does not matter.
When We Were Orphans
Haven’t read anything yet that tells me he doesn’t deserve that Nobel.
Don’t let the dog of a film version of his excellent Submergence put you off. *This* Ledgard novel is the film Wenders should have made, a Soviet era Czechoslovakian zoo massacre of imported giraffes as told by the keeper who shepherds them by boat down the Danube and through the iron curtain.
The Cabin at the End of the World
Effectively nightmarish premise and execution – end-of-world cultists besiege a vacationing family — up to the end, which disappointed.
The Feral Detective
Writing from a woman’s viewpoint, maybe a first for him, Lethem probably does a decent job of gender-ventriloquism as far as my mind can tell, but will leave formal word on that to those who can really assess. FWIW — she’s interesting to follow; she sounds human; she speaks through Lethem’s dense, descriptive prose to relate a murderous adventure among off-the-grid California desert weirdos sprung from the rotting dreams of late 60s communes. Is she a cartoonish NYC literary type? Somewhat. But it fits, this being Lethem’s semi-successful attempt at President Chump-era existential pain given real context. There’s a nice 2016 election allegory done as a Terrordome-type desert fight.
Reservoir 13 & The Reservoir Tapes
I wanted to like these way, way more than I did. In the former, a British countryside town collectively narrates the disappearance of a teenage girl. In the latter, interview transcripts shed light on the former. Much as I liked the narrative device deployed for the first, hard to say why I was left meh without huge spoilers.
James A. McLaughlin
Solid entry in the Backwoods Thriller genre, this one covering the backwoods of the Mexican border and the backwoods of Virginia. Some nice literary description of the Virginia terrain. And then cartel assassins, knowledge of firearms, bad ‘ol boys on four wheelers, dogs, bears, temporary mental illness, revenge, corruption, twisty plot.
All Gates Open: The Story of Can
Rob Young and Irmin Schmidt
So official as to be unassailable. Young deserves more recognition as one of the top rock writers alive – unlike some, I’m never pissed off to see his name. The contributions of member Schmidt, the only real witness left to the whole story, with Liebezeit, Czukay, and Karoli all deceased, makes this essential, although other members also chime in, notably Malcolm Mooney, whose insights truly evoke the period around their first album. I read this in e-book form, but will still buy it for the visuals and sheer intentional art of the physical copy – something that publishers could take note of, should they want to know how to still sell tangible books.