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.
As is traditional around these parts I like to end the year with a list of my favorite reads. Overall it’s been a great year for reading even if I’ve had to bite my tongue and not complain overly much about books that have disappointed me. Why dwell on the negative when there are so many other books out there to enjoy? So here, in order from most old to most recent, are my favorite reads from 2015.
1. The Monk by Matthew Lewis (1796): What a book! What a gory, extravagant, delightful mess of a book! Yes, I spent a good long time writing about this book this year, but wow, what a book! I lost count of the times it made me stop reading and go, “Wait! What the hell just happened!?!” Ghosts, demons, and dirty/sexy Roman Catholicism – this book has it all.
2. The Virgin of the Seven Daggers: Excursions Into Fantasy by Vernon Lee (1913): Probably the book I talked the most about this year as it was the one that surprised me the most since I’d never heard of Lee before I started reading this. From the first story in the collection I was hooked and felt the need to proclaim Vernon Lee as one of the great overlooked fantasy writers of the early 20th century.
3. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (1927): Cather manages to write an epic novel in less than 300 pages as she relates the story of a pair of priests sent to the recently acquired New Mexico territories with the task of rehabilitating the church out there. As always Cather manages to convey both character and landscape with beautiful language. Yes, there’s no real plot and a lot of things happen “off stage”, but those aren’t real complaints. They’re gripes from people too hooked on TV Tropes.
4. Games People Play by Eric Berne (1967): Weird little pop psychology book about transactional analysis. It’s worth a read as it’ll make you look at the way people (yourself included) behave in social situations. You read it saying things to yourself like, “Oh, yeah, I know a person totally like that.”
5. Katie by Michael McDowell (1982): Violent, crazy good fun. McDowell writes the American penny dreadful you never knew you wanted to read. Download a copy today!
6. Stories of Eva Luna by Isabel Allende (2001): A story collection set in the same milieu as Allende’s novel Eva Luna. Allende’s rich prose and use of recursive narrative structure knocked my socks off.
7. Goose of Hermogenes by Ithell Colquhoun (2003): One of the weirdest books I read this year with a plot more informed by medieval alchemical texts than logical cause and effect. If you like your books ripe with weird imagery this one’s worth tracking down.
8. Bury Me Deep by Megan Abbott (2009): The book that introduced me to Megan Abbott’s work. It’s a sad up-ending of noir tropes to tell the story of a friendship between three desperate but ultimately very different women.
9. Open City by Teju Cole (2011): Possibly the book I’ve thought the most about since finishing it. Cole pulls off a nice twist here as three-quarters of the way through the narrator learns a crushing truth about himself that calls into question his role not so much as a narrator, but as a sympathetic character.
10. American Monster by J.S. Breukelaar (2014): Once upon a time science fiction books were raunchy, messy, and lacking in predictable marketability. American Monster sits well in that tradition as an alien super woman prowls the scummy streets of a post-apocalyptic California in search of the man “with the perfect horn”.
11. Vermilion by Molly Tanzer (2015): Ghost-hunting gunslinger travels an alternate American west in the hopes of discovering who it is killing members of her community. If you like steampunk weird westerns and stories of monster hunters here’s your book.
12. Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand (2015): Hand writes the story of a psychedelic folk band that never existed, but you wished did, as they get caught in the kind of story that would make Arthur Machen proud – and she does it all in the form of a VH-1 “Behind the Music” style special.
13. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (2015): Low-rent space opera about the crew of a star ship that goes around the galaxy building worm holes. Very episodic, but a lot of fun as we live with the crew of the Wayfarer.
A bit all over the place, and I like it so.
A reminder, this is all stuff read this past year – not published.
1. Beasts by Joyce Carol Oates: A psychological thriller that’s Dead Poet’s Society at an all-women’s school circa 1975, except Charles Manson and Squeaky Fromm fill in the Robin Williams role. An ugly book, but a great read.
2. The Long Winded Lady by Maeve Brennan: A collection of Brennan’s New Yorker pieces spanning four decades that shows Brennan’s eye for detail and perceptive wit while creating a portrait of a long vanished city.
3. The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss: Quakers in SPAAACE!!! The crew of a generation ship faces conflict and peril as they seek a new home. Gloss is a fascinating writer that’s able to craft stories around domestic events and interactions within a landscape, even if that landscape is an artificial world.
4. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer: The first book in The Southern Reach trilogy and my favorite. On the surface it’s a simple enough horror novel, a research team in a strange place is slowly destroyed by forces they don’t understand, but there’s something else going on, something that touches more on the emotion of awe than horror.
5. The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason: A fascinating collection of stories that take Odysseus and recasts him in an assortment of stories, some straightforward, some post-modern, all interesting.
6. Last Evenings on Earth by Roberto Bolano: This collection is the first Bolano I’ve read, and it knocked my socks off. Cynical, playful, fascinating, and cruel, this is the book I’ve been foisting on to people, saying, “You have to read this!” Probably has my current favorite short story in it, “Henry Simon LePrinc”.
7. Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick: A government agent is sent to a world on the brink of a recurring natural disaster (in this case massive flooding), his mission: bring a fugitive “wizard” to justice. Short and straight forward science fiction in a weird world.
8. Create Dangerously by Edwidge Danticat: Part memoir, part essay collection, Danticat writes about her experiences as an immigrant living in the USA and walking the borderlands between her ancestral country, Haiti, and her current home.
9. Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo by Miyuki Miyabe: What it says on the cover: ghost stories set in Old Edo, but what makes Miyabe’s stories work is how they occur amid elaborate social connections and responsibilities, and not just tell some spooky story.
10. Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack: A portrait of a futuristic New York City that’s now in our past, yet still recognizable any time you watch a news report. A tough read, but a rewarding one.
11. The End of Everything by Megan Abbott: It’s the summer before high school begins and Lizzie and Evie are inseparable. Until the day Evie is kidnapped, and Lizzie finds her world torn apart. This is a great book: a coming of age story, a deconstruction of the detective novel, and a thriller. Well worth tracking down.
12. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler: Is this science fiction? Is it not science fiction? I come down on the Yes-it-is side. A young woman, floundering about in college, recounts the strange events of her childhood that have left her with two siblings that have disappeared. I won’t say much more than that.
Lists from past years:
Stuff read this year, not including single short stories or stuff read for grad school. I do feel like I’m not reading widely enough, which I know is probably an insane conclusion, but yeah.
In other news Pohang got some light snow. This meant, since it’s somewhat southish, the city was in panic mode because they don’t have sand trucks or plows or anything to deal with half an inch of snow apparently.
Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness – Edward Abbey
Elisha Barber – E. C. Ambrose
War Fever – J.G. Ballard
The Face in the Frost – John Bellairs
The Queen, The Cambion, and Seven Other – Richard Bowes
Mindplayers – Pat Cadigan
My Antonia – Willa Cather
Dagon – Fred Chappell
Engine Summer – John Crowley
Scattered Among Strange Worlds – Aliette De Bodard
Status Anxiety – Alain De Botton
Babel-17/Empire Star – Samuel R. Delany
The Enemy Within: A Short History of Witch-hunting – John Demos
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz
The Mapmaker’s War – Ronlyn Domingue
The Voyage of the Short Serpent – Bernard du Boucheron
The Werewolf of Paris – Guy Endore
American Gods – Neil Gaiman
The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman
Lois the Witch and Other Stories – Elizabeth Gaskell
Red Shift – Alan Garner
Thursbitch – Alan Garner
Trafalgar – Angelica Gorodischer
Ammonite – Nicola Griffith
Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth – Xiaolu Guo
Available Dark – Elizabeth Hand
Empty Space: A Haunting – M. John Harrison
Cogan’s Trade – George V. Higgins
The Digger’s Game – George V. Higgins
Poets in a Landscape – Gilbert Highet
Fremder – Russell Hoban
Linger Awhile – Russell Hoban
Turtle Diary – Russell Hoban
Sword of Fire and Sea (Chaos Knight Book #1) – Erin Hoffman
The Discovery of Witches – Matthew Hopkins
In A Lonely Place – Dorothy B. Hughes
Rapture (The Bel Dame Apocrypha #3) – Kameron Hurley
Infidel (The Bel Dame Apocrypha #2) – Kameron Hurley
An Artist of the Floating World – Kazou Ishiguro
Fair Play – Tove Jansson
Nobody Move – Denis Johnson
The Desert of Souls – Howard Andrew Jones
How To Make Friends With Demons – Graham Joyce
Storm of Steel – Ernst Junger
At Amberleaf Fair – Phyllis Ann Karr
Nightshade and Damnations – Gerard Kersh
The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies – Robert Kirk
Fury – Henry Kuttner
The Spy Who Came In From the Cold – John Le Carre
The Best of All Possible Worlds – Karen Lord
In The Enclosure – Barry N. Malzberg
Bullettime – Nick Mamatas
Love is the Law – Nick Mamatas
Last Dragon – J.M. McDermott
Hong Kong – Jan Morris
Memory – Linda Nagata
Snitch World – Jim Nisbet
Who Fears Death – Nnedi Okorafor
The Company – K.J. Parker
Temporary Agency – Rachel Pollack
The Dog of the South – Charles Portis
The Glorious Ones – Francine Prose
Indoctrinaire – Christopher Priest
The Record of a Quaker Conscience – Cyrus Pringle
A House in Naples – Peter Rabe
Yellow Black Radio Broke-Down – Ishmael Reed
The Black Count – Tom Reiss
Your Brain At Work – David Rock
A Stranger in Olondria – Sofia Samatar
The Trouble with Testosterone and other essays on the biology of the Human Predicament – Robert Sapolsky
The Witches of Karres – James H. Schmitz
The Status Civilization – Robert Sheckley
The Slave – Isaac Bashevis Singer
A Pretty Mouth – Molly Tanzer
Alchemy and Alchemists – C.J.S. Thompson
Finch – Jeff VanderMeer
Meet Me in the Moon Room – Ray Vukcevich
God Save the Mark – Donald E. Westlake
The Passion – Jeanette Winterson
The Fifth Head of Cerberus – Gene Wolfe
Nightside the Long Sun – Gene Wolfe
Orlando – Virginia Woolf
Dirty Weekend – Helen Zahavi
I’ve read a few of these End of the Year posts now and they’re all starting to resemble: “I had a great year, three dozen stories published, my collection came out and got translated into 800 languages, and two agents fought a duel over which of them got to accept me as a client…”
Mine resembles: “I wrote a lot but only finished five stories, got nearly three dozen rejection letters, and failed to write a new novel.”
And when I say resemble, I mean that’s it. That’s my end of the year update.
Five stories written. Three dozen rejection letters. An unfinished novel.
But you have to take the bad with the good. You can’t hide under a rock simply because you’ve had a shit year. I could pull my output apart some. Two of the stories are what I’m calling “promising failures”, pointing me towards better stories. Not better drafts of these same stories, but better new stories.
I had one story published, Last Rites For A Vagabond. I like that story quite a bit and am pleased with it in so much as one can be pleased with these things. It’s bitter-sweet, discordant, and has a nice random sketches feel to it. If you listen closely you can hear it expiring quietly from neglect. But so it goes. Some folks might wish they had even my level of success. Shit, complete strangers left comments on the story and appeared to like it, so no complaints.
The novel on the other hand…
I am finding novel writing to be like this Bill Nye clip describing how scientists plan on determining the nature of Jupiter’s core. Of course, I’ve launched myself into this story somewhat blindly, and as I write I find I keep “wobbling” each time I encounter pockets of dark matter AKA plot holes. This is probably because I’m making my life difficult by trying to write a secondary world fantasy that doesn’t involve too many “the rogues crept from shadow to shadow” type sentences. So that’s where the writing goes and will continue to go for the near future.