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Sunday
Dec302012

2012 Lists: What (and How) I "Read" 

 I consumed more than 50 books in 2012. Only about half were read on paper – those things we used to call books. The remainder was split between audio books (mostly in the car) and e-books (the Kindle or iBook apps on my iPad and my iPhone). I’m in the habit of reviewing them all, at least briefly, on Goodreads, which triggers posts on Facebook and Twitter.

And so, somewhat surprisingly, I’ve learned that some folks are more interested in what I read than what I do. They come up to me at conferences to discuss books, thank me for my reviews, my passions, my discoveries. 

I don’t know why I should be surprised: the point of social media is to share in the passions of our friends... and our “friends,” a phenom called “ambient intimacy.”

The point of sharing such intimacies is to convey pleasure, and so, herein, I summarize a few of the pleasures I have derived this year from book-length stories. Please share yours in comments below.

The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock. From the author of the terrifying and profoundly sad short story collection KNOCKEMSTIFF comes a tapestry of murder, alcohol and religion straight outa South Ohio. This is not for the weak-knee'd, filled as it is with vivid accounts of monstrous behavior among the poor and fucked-up. At least in this one, the protagonist seems to have a chance to escape (spoiler), which is the driver for the story as we encounter, one after another, a rogue's gallery of really terrible people who do things to each other that defy the limits of human relations. Pollock is an amazing writer, able to quickly draw you into the lives and scenes of characters with a few deft paragraphs, painting image after indelible image that I will not soon forget.

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman. Post-modern in its presentational form, superb in the emotional depth department, this lyrical first-person story of a teen-aged girl struggling to escape a cycle of abuse, poverty and self-hate is a killer first novel. Through dozens of short blasts of story, presented in many different forms included redacted government documents, social worker reports, faux test questions and surrealistic retelling of terribly painful episodes, GIRLCHILD is unique. The milieu depicted reminds me of an equally raw fictional debut, Knockemstiff, set in rural SE Ohio, with roots dating back to Faulkner and Caldwell. Girlchild has a unique voice of the narrator whose self-awareness, gained through some transmutational distance, places the dilemma in the context of the American class, judicial and bureaucratic system of tyranny. Don't miss this one.

The Leopard by Jo Nesbo. It's official. Jo Nesbo is my new Henning Mankell. (as if I'm the only one who seems to have noticed.) This is my fourth Nesbo police procedural starting downtrodden detective Harry Hole (presumably this has no connotations in the native Norwegian :) Hole's intelligence, stubbornness and sheer orneriness make him the perfect tracker of serial killers, which he discovered in the "Snowman" case. Defeated from that ordeal, which threatened his life and those of ones he loved, he's doing heroin and betting with the wrong people in Hong Kong, where the Norwegian crime squad finds him and brings him back to help with a particularly grisly and inscrutable series of murders. What follows is a complexly plotted journey through many layers of Norwegian society, political and national security bureaucracies, the rugged majesty of Norway's countryside, and especially the tortured psyche and heart of Hole himself, who is struggling with booze, love, death and identity. It really doesn't get any better than this, folks. I picked the audio version, but because I haven't been driving much lately, I took to pumping the sound throughout the house from my stereo system. This is a strange way to inhabit a 17-hour narrative. Try it some time.

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, by James Gleick. My usual automotive listening centers around heavily plot-driven mysteries, but with this one, I let my mind open, and then open again repeatedly with Gleick's superb historical survey of information theory. Only it's more than just a history, as the subtitle proclaims: it's a manifesto of the existence of consciousness, matter, time and space, in short, everything. Everything is information, binary, ones and zeros. I quite enjoyed Gleick’s storytelling, generally focusing around key historical visionaries and the context within which they unleashed their discoveries. I learned a lot about familiar figures, and even more about those of whom I had never heard, especially Claude Shannon, whose work is in many ways the fulcrum around which the theoretical part of this book is written. I'll admit to some spacing-out during the (presumably accurate) articulation of mathematics, physics, and especially quantum theory. But I've been lost there before :) What makes a huge book like this less daunting is Gleick's skill as a historian (the telling detail, the remarkable connections) and storyteller (you are there, really). These skills stand out even as we fast-forward into the recent past through which we have all likely lived, the unfolding of the consumer revolution in digital devices and processes. We learn about the origin and theory of memes, the quirky history of Wikipedia, the psychology of information overload, the history of naming protocols, and much, much more. I loved this book.

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. Johnson is a poet of grit, an archeologist of the soul, a mapmaker of emotional terrain, and a literary shape-shifter, all of which he proved to me in TREE OF SMOKE and JESUS' SON, two of my all time favorite reading experiences. TRAIN DREAMS is a novella set during the opening of the inland northwest--Idaho and Eastern Washington State and centered on the hardscrabble life of a roustabout and recluse Robert Grainier as he makes his way through the years into the 20th Century. The setting is beautiful, but not so beautiful as Johnson's sentences, especially read by the incomparable audio artist Will Patton, whose work I've long admired as the reader of the James Lee Burke’s southern gothic mysteries. TRAIN DREAMS is told through a series of linked set-piece stories that recalls the interlocking stories of JESUS' SON, but a more mature Johnson manages to deliver a fuller realization of the life of this loner, a man whose consciousness is a stand-in for a lost way of life, a depiction of the west that transcends the mythological to become meaningful in understanding our country's character, much as Johnson tried to do for the Vietnam Era with TREE OF SMOKE. I'd follow Denis Johnson anywhere at this point.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston. It takes time and no small amount of concentration for the confusion with this brilliant classic's language to dissipate, but the depth it achieves would be impossible without the uncompromising POV we get from authentic language as we experience the lives of these poor rural black folks in the 30s. There is undoubtedly an anthropological, even voyeuristic appeal for the reader, but that of course is not why the novel is so essential. Like all narrative art, it is the transcendence from the particular to the universal, magically achieved, that pulls us into Janie's world of work, love, lust, heartbreak and triumph. The backstory of the book, and of Hurston herself, is almost as compelling, but that would hardly matter if the book were second rate. It is not. There is not a scintilla of self-pity in the portrayal of the thrice-married Janie, nor much blame of white supremacy, which is nevertheless ever-present and clearly the cause of many of the woes of her people. Janie walks with the force of love, a miracle in itself. How did it happen? How did she resolve to walk with such grace and dignity, in the face of the expectations for women in this oppressed culture? How did she grab for the ring repeatedly, and manage to catch it? This is the central driver of the story, the ability of a character who has none of the trappings of literary figures we're used to loving, who nevertheless triumphs in a totally authentic and never maudlin series of events. The audiobook, which I listened to a bit, will help with the language issue.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. Eugenides takes us on another archeological dig into the layers of the human psyche, this time via an oddball love triangle among overly bright college grads back in the 80's. I loved the way the narrative voices told and retold the same events from the three characters' POVs -- not wildly post-modern, but more engaging than the linear convention of the British "marriage" novels as we occupy the mind of the female protagonist and provide a lovely contrapuntal thematic texture that scratches against this intensely modern story. Yes, there is marriage involved in this plot, but the juice comes not only from the romance and sex but layers of the interests of the main characters, which include spirituality and science and deconstructivism and class and lots more. This guy knows how to build scenes of enormous resonance, power and impact. Over and over.

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollingshurst. Despite his resistance to being classified as a gay novelist, this peerless English prose stylist has taken a classic literary form and infused it with explicit gay consciousness as he dips into class and family in 20th Century ruling-class Britain, and by doing so, takes his place among the great class satirists and chroniclers like Evelyn Waugh, Ian McEwen,  Julian Barnes (not to mention film's Julian Fellowes, and Merchant-Ivory) -- essentially, the progeny of Henry James. Can't you just see Hollinghurst's lovingly created scenes in this sprawling saga as the gay DOWNTON ABBEY? As with McEwen's ATONEMENT, this story begins with a secret from the lives of two families of different classes before the epochal rendering of WWI, and then follows the memory trails it spawns over subsequent decades. By midstream, basically the 60s, we get the idea -- the unreliability of memory and the fascination with the past. Notwithstanding an annoying structure that totters and then ultimately falls as Hollinghurst reboots the story with the passage of time, THE STRANGER'S CHILD is a banquet of scene, character and language that is guaranteed to satisfy any anglophile's hunger.

Swamplandia! By Karen Russell. A rollicking tour de force of a debut novel, as advertised. While trawling, literally, the same watery Florida terrain as Carl Hiaasen, Russell's tongue is nowhere as often in her cheek. She takes her family of misfit alligator wrestlers cum hucksters dead seriously, and so do we, since this is, ultimately, a journey of loss and redemption following the death of the much-beloved mother Hilola, the iconic Seth-wrangler and matriarch. It was easy to fall in love with young teen narrator Ava Bigtree, and for me, even more so for her awkward older brother Kiwi.  The tone of this book somehow reminded me of John Kennedy O'Toole's one-of-a-kind Confederacy of Dunces, though the settings were totally different. Somewhere in the middle of the lush story and the preposterous spiritualism, up popped a very suspenseful and stone-cold scary real-life thriller. Somehow, it all worked, alligators and theme parks and Birdmen and everything. A vibrant, beautifully written joy ride of a book.

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart. Shteyngart writes like a madman with a dictionary and Catch-22 shoved up his ass, spewing out more beautifully wacky sentences and spot-on contemporary ideas per minute than anyone has a right to do, especially somebody with all those books up his rear end :) Really, there is no way to describe the propulsively hilarious and outrageously thought-provoking cultural mashup this guy delivers. Just read a bit of it if you doubt me. Start with the terribly unattractive protagonist: a 300+ pound, spoiled, Russian hiphop-obsessed spawn of a former Jewish refusnik-turned-oligarch, one Misha Vainbort. This is a man with unquenchable appetites, especially Atavan, food and sex. With a brand new degree in Multicultural Studies from Accidental College, somewhere in the great US midwest, he stumbles into New York, gets trapped in St. Petersburg, and tries to escape by getting a Belgian passport in the mythical ex-Soviet puppet state that gives the novel its name. This thing satires everyone, but especially contemporary pop culture, post-Soviet Russia, American foreign policy, globalization, commercialism, and food in a thrill ride that, until about the last 50 pages, kept me laughing and thinking. Misha could have escaped a bit sooner than he did, and let me do the same.

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend by Susan Orlean. It's a terrific read, truly an odd and totally American story, despite Rin Tin Tin's origins in WWI France. Orlean is a great reporter with a large heart. Unfortunately, towards the end she strained to make a lot more of the story, epic nearly, than it really deserves IMHO.

Arthur & George by Julian Barnes. Having LOVED Barnes' "Sense of an Ending" I ordered the ebook collection of his three Booker-nominated novels, and dove into "Arthur and George," a period recreation of a real case at the turn of the century involving weird animal mutilations, an East Indian family, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Barnes pulls the reader into a complete world, psychologically, politically, and emotionally, with a strong story engine that made it hard to stop reading. The Doyle stuff was fascinating, but the real treat was the mystery at the heart of the case, with poor George railroaded into taking the fall for a corrupt local constabulatory. This is a wonderful read. (BTW, I do not recommend trying to navigate a multi-book anthology on the Kindle platform).

The Round House by Louise Erdrich. This excellent novel is the first Erdrich I've consumed, enjoyable to the max. Initially I thought I'd come across a well-written whodunit set on an Indian reservation in the Dakotas, but somewhere in midstream the "who" takes a backseat to the "why" and then, deeper, the particulars of our characters' motivations as governed by the peculiarities of tribal law in the white man's country. The action is observed from the perspective of a teenaged boy, son to a tribal judge and an administrator who know much more about the who than the reader learns until much later. Powered by the headstrong curiosity and passion for justice of the boy and his friends, the climax is quite powerful.

He Died with His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond. Reviewers compare Derek Raymond to Chandler, and there are reasons: the principled white knight seeking truth in the modern urban world of sleaze and corruption. But I kept thinking of Jim Thompson, the grim reaper of noir to my mind, and a writer with much raw affection for the bottom feeders of society, the alcoholics, the criminally insane, the venal and self-obsessed, while Chandler targeted the ruling class and the institutional toadies who serve them.

The nameless London police Sergeant who is the 1980's protagonist of this first of five novels about "The Factory" (e.g., the less-glamorous Metropolitan Police Department unit that is NOT Scotland Yard), well, he's just as troubled as his predecessors in noir history, and the characters he's dealing with are, for the most part, scumbags: low-level criminals, grifters, full-time whores, part-time whores, con men, junkies, dealers. They live in dreary rooms and pay by the week, or they just squat -- this is Thatcher's England, after all. The trope the author uses here is a well-played variant of the epistemological novel: he discovers a cache of recorded audiocassettes in the rooms of the vic whose murder he is investigating which reveal, in addition to a few key clues, the lyrical and educated voice of a depressed and borderline crazy drifter who can handle money even less well than women. Evidently, this character is based on the author's own life, which was checkered. I quite enjoyed the book, and will read on with the series. Evidently this book was made into a 1985 French language film "On ne meurt que 2 fois" with one of my favorite actresses Charlotte Rampling -- available only in Region 2 version. IMDB reports that the Factory Series is currently "In Development."

Thomas Perry and John Burdett. I discovered these two superb mystery/suspense writers this year and, ever the enthusiast, promptly consumed as many of their books as I could lay my hands on. Here are the reviews of those I managed:

The Godfather of Kathmandu. I have loved reading crime novels set in foreign lands ever almost from the beginning of my obsession with the genre in the 70's, moving my way through Amsterdam, Sweden, Italy, Germany, Japan, and other lands. Rarely have I fallen so head over heels in love with a character and setting as I have with Burdett's Bangkok protagonist, Sonchai Jitpleecheep -- precisely because the tale exemplifies the pleasures one takes these international policiers, namely the culture as character. Of course I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the detail, produced as it was by a Westerner, but on its face, the hairball of official Thai corruption, the drug trade, the flesh trade, the tolerance for sexual diversity, and, above all, the tangibility of Buddhism in daily life made this whole caper an utter delight, enabled by Burdett's charm, humor, and sheer narrative skill. The characters are unforgettable, even when a touch over-showy, and the stream of consciousness by Sonchai's narration rally works, because (as in Buddhism), his consciousness is part of the mystery. I could have done with a bit less self-consciousness of the "dear-reader" type -- are we really supposed to think of this as a 300-page epistle? Now I'm going to go back to the beginning of the series, you can bet your life on it.

Bangkok 8. Having stumbled on this series in my local library with Book 4 (The Godfather of Kathmandu), I became addicted. I put a request into the library for the remaining 4, and voila, they called. Now I'm racing thru them all, which is not hard. Burdett is a natural with the most fundamental tools of the genre storyteller: plot, atmosphere, character. We love these crazy Thai cops, whores, corrupt officials, and take pleasure in the dissing of their enemies, most of whom are from the United States or China, the twin villain cultures of acquisitiveness and spiritual bankruptcy, as seen thru the eyes of a serious Buddhist practitioner (a character who is, nonetheless, created by a Westerner). Reading the later book first, as it happens, also shows how carefully Burdett has planted elements of the story arc that takes longer than just the individual book, the hallmark of a series that will inevitably made into a limited series by the BBC (please, please, please). This one has to do with gender identity, jade, snakes, drugs, lust, and nirvana. You know, the basic food groups.

Bangkok Tattoo. In the universe of exotically sited policiers, Burdett's Thai series stands very high, but nobody's perfect. I found the flashback middle of this book way too long and uncharacteristically boring -- a retelling by the narrator, our intrepid Bangkok detective, of the diary of super-whore Chanya and her love affair with the corpse, a buffed-up, fucked-up CIA agent. What I did like were the layers-of-the-onion plot, in which the veils of deception are lifted, and then lifted again, and finally lifted to tell the truth, which is a pretty neat trick, and very consistent with the cultural milieu of Thai life and spiritual journeys. It's good, and essential in the broad arc of the characters' lives. Just didn't ring my temple bells this time.

Bangkok Haunts. Each of the books in the series features a crime (and characters) that illustrate a core concept of Buddhism and the cultural constellation of Thailand and nearby countries (and its relationship to the West). This one involves the Khmer Rouge, elephants, and a Thai mental construct that requires everyone to "repay" the karmic debt created at birth, usually to the mother. These are very sophisticated mystery novels. Indeed, the crime often hovers just offstage as the rest of the terrain is explored and exploded.

Sleeping Dogs. Sometimes bad luck and good luck are so closely intertwined, that it's hard to know which is which. I picked up this audiobook at a used bookstore in Oakland for my drive down the state, and from its first chapter I was hooked. Number Two in a series about a contract killer with many names, known to his enemies in the Mafia and the Justice Department alike as "The Butcher's Boy," this is taut, meticulous, authentic storytelling with breathtaking action and an amazing point of view. We learn to admire and identify with the killer, even though we know he is a bad, bad man. The story spans many locations and situations in the UK and across the US as our anti-hero, who had successfully avoided Mafia revenge for ten years, is suddenly spotted and must kill his pursuers (a lot of them), if he has a hope of getting away. Stir into the mix a bright female Justice attorney who had pursued him ten years before and has a thing for the mob, and we have a wonderful series. I'm going to consume them all. Oh, the bad luck? I got a ticket on my car after only 15 minutes in the bookstore. So whatever I saved buying this used was trumped by my involuntary donation to the City of Oakland. Sigh.

The Informant. The last in Perry's 'Butcher Boy' series and the second I've heard on audiobook, THE INFORMANT is, if anything, even better than its predecessor. We are in a post-modern GODFATHER chess game of fading Mafia dons struggling to regain former glory, inept and venal political appointees in the Justice Department, and collateral damage far and wide, as our contract-killer anti-hero, the aforementioned Butcher's Boy (the man with many names, and a face nobody notices until they see it and can't forget it) conducts an elaborate, skillful and murderous dance, and drags smarty-gal Fed Elizabeth Waring along for the ride. And what a ride, one crest of suspense after another, with telling details and fascinating moral dilemmas. All aided by superior narration on this series by Michael Kramer (no, not that one). This guy's voice is flat, incisive, and devoid of sentimentality as he recounts some fairly hair-raising shit. I must consume the remaining novels in the series and track down more Thomas Perry.

Nightlife. Perry loves playing cat-and-mouse with his characters. When I first discovered him earlier this year, it was the hired killer and the Justice Department Mafia investigator that chased each other. In Nightlife, we have a psychotic female killer and her nemesis, a Portland detective. Perry uses the form as a fugue of character, personality, relentless plotting and tense action scenes that present violence as almost a daily occurrence. Perry especially works on audio in the car, except you can miss your freeway exit when the tension rises!

Other books I enjoyed reading (or rereading) this year include:

  • The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neil Stephenson.
  • The Drop and The Black Box, by Michael Connelly.
  • Harbor Nocturne, by Joseph Wambaugh.
  • A Drop of the Hard Stuff, by Lawrence Block.
  • The Cut, by George Pelecanos
  • The New York Trilogy, by Paul Auster.
  • Prague Fatale, by Phillip Kerr.
  • The Angry Buddhist by Seth Greenland.

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