It’s the end of the year and everyone is posting their best-of-the-year list and I thought I would do mine a little bit different. These aren’t so much my favorite reads but books that for one reason or another have stuck with me and I’m still thinking about days/weeks/months after I read them. And as always these aren’t books published this year, but read this year.
The Blackbirder by Dorothy B. Hughes: A pulp novel written in the early 1940s about a European refugee on the run in wartime USA. Julie Guilles the daughter of American expatriates in France flees to the USA where she’s not a legal citizen and hopes to keep a low profile fearing both the FBI and the Gestapo. Things don’t go as planned and when a former associate gets murdered on her door step, Julie takes off across country because she can’t trust anyone and has learned of the existence of a human trafficker in New Mexico that may know the whereabouts of her cousin. It’s pretty simple hard-boiled stuff, but it’s the wartime details that stuck with me because they were fresh and a bit startling. Like right now when we talk about WW2 it’s over and done, it can be reduced to a narrative, and it’s talked about in certain ways. This book was written while the end was yet to be determined, and Julie’s as afraid of ending up in a US concentration camp as a German one. There’s likely an education to be had in reading hard-boiled pulp written during and set in WW2.
Bleak Warrior by Alistair Rennie: Hey did you know I like to write fiction and sometimes it even gets published? Did you also know that Bleak Warrior has a guy in it with a dick-shaped club who ejaculates semen cold enough to kill the people he rapes by frostbite and another guy that eats pickled intestines like they’re spaghetti? What do these things have to do with each other? Well, let’s just say that sometimes when I’m working on a thing and tying myself up in knots to make it all make sense knowing there’s a book like Bleak Warrior out there fills me with hope, kind of the same way reading The Blackbirder gets me over the hump when it comes to thinking about “plot”. Both books are pulpy and trashy, but smart about it, and what they riff on is other prose not just some TV show, which is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Rennie’s internalized Michael Moorcock here, twisted all the dials to 11, and then smashed the control board just to see what would happen. Bleak Warrior’s a weird awful book, and while that doesn’t mean more ice-dick, it’s liberating in its embrace of all that it is.
City of Bohane by Kevin Barry: I described this to friends as a post-apocalyptic version of The Wire. Set sometime in the latter half of the 21st century after various calamities have brought much of the world to its knees and thrown technology back nearly two centuries, City of Bohane deals with the gang war between factions attempting to control the titular Irish city. It’s a jargon-rich slangy violent book (which is why it’s on this list) that took a while for me to get into but when I did I found myself caught up in all the squalid dealing, back-stabbing, and betrayals set amid the occasional weirdness and flourishes. And all at half the length of a Song of Fire & Ice novel...
Definitely not for everyone, maybe even less so than Bleak Warrior, but if you think it might be up your alley, hell friend, you’re already doomed.
The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter: I hold with the notion that society is a sea of often unexamined ideas and we’re all swimming in it largely unaware of the historical context of a lot of the mental landscape around us. Painter picks apart more than a few of those ideas in this book. Whether it’s addressing the institution of white slavery and the abuses rendered upon the Irish, or the weird fascination much of Europe had with Nordic purity and skull shape, or the way German nationalism is based on a chapter from Tacitus’s Histories, or really dozens of other things, Painter dives right in and writes about them all in an engaging and accessible style. This is a history of ideas and concepts that are largely accepted without question, and by shining a light on them and showing their seams and connections shows how much they’re a creation and not some universal truth.
The Quiet Woman by Christopher Priest: This book is a mess, but a fascinating mess. Imagine a mash-up between JG Ballard, Phillip K Dick, and Patricia Highsmith and you might get an idea of the mood of this book. Alice Stockton is a recently divorced writer who’s moved to the south of England to start her life over, only to have a nuclear reactor in France meltdown and start dropping radioactive fall out all over her region. While officials say everything is fine, Alice’s latest manuscript has been confiscated by the government and her one friend in town has been murdered by persons unknown. As she adjusts to her friend’s death, the woman’s son appears and starts taking an interest in Alice’s life.
The overall mood of this book is paranoid and sitting right on the edge of something awful, that ends up being not quite the apocalypse you thought you’d get. Yet… yet… even if it doesn’t all fit together and make sense, there’s a lot of bits of this that get under your skin, or at least my skin, as it’s a snapshot of the emergent surveillance state and maybe a commentary on 80s excess.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang: I’ve only read one other contemporary Korean novel, Kim Young-Ha’s I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, and based on that book and this one I’m starting to suspect Milan Kundera was something of a huge deal in contemporary Korean Lit. HUGE. With Han Kang’s The Vegetarian I didn’t much like it on initial read, especially the early two-thirds of the book as I could only feel contempt for all the characters, but the last third remedied that and now after a few months I’m thinking back on the earlier two-thirds and seeing them in possibly a better light. The plot of The Vegetarian is a young Korean woman decides to become a vegetarian and by doing so she throws her whole world into turmoil. The first two-thirds of the book are narrated largely from the POV of her husband and brother-in-law, and they’re both awful people, but awful in different ways (that I’ll call Right Wing/Left Wing South Korean male styles). The last third is narrated from the woman’s sister, and that’s where the heart of the book was for me and its most damning elements. Ultimately at the end the moral is South Korean culture, especially for women, is so awful that the living envy the dead and the sane envy the insane.
But, the more fascinating thing was how I heard this book talked about, because no one in Korea talked about the message of the book or what it might be saying. All the commentary was on how beautiful the writing was. It was one of the weirdest silencing techniques I’d ever witnessed, like praising a N.K. Jemisin novel for the quality of its prose while centering all discussion on “prose quality” and adamantly ignoring any discussion of race suggested by her books. And this wasn’t simply that I couldn’t follow discussions on this book. My wife said the same: all public commentary on the book praised the quality of the writing and ignored anything it might have been saying. Weird.
And there you go.