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« 2015: TV, Movies, Books & Digital - My year-end reviews all in one place | Main | 2015: A Year for Fine Cinema »
Sunday
Jan032016

2015: Great books that touched me

Reading, especially fiction, is a core part of my identity, going beyond the cliché we have all learned – that reading gives lonely kids a host of imaginary friends, gives us wings to fly away to worlds beyond a present that seems lame by comparison – though certainly that was true in my earlier life. Reading provides the most intimate form of connection to story that we have: we get to enter the interior life of characters, and often the author's as well, experiencing a near-magical transmutation of words into feelings, ideas, and the distillation of everything that it means to be human.

I have had a book near my pillow since I learned to read at age five. Now I have an eBook or an audio book in my pocket whenever I might want to dive back into the magical realm of a great story. Digital books have encouraged me to read more, not less – for instance, the new Kindle/Audible hybrid app that allows one to toggle back and forth from audio to text in the same app without losing one's place.

As a result, this year I have consumed more than 60 books in all forms – print, eBook, and audio. My reading life is eclectic – I follow new work by favorite authors, check out award-winners (especially the Booker), and take recommendations from friends, reviewers, and contacts I’ve on Goodreads.com, where I review every book. Note: I've included the year of publication, since my favorites scan the decades). Here are the books to which I gave four or fives stars. My full 2015 list can be found here. Follow me here for a regular update on my reading life.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (2015)

One review used the term 'fever dream' to describe A LITTLE LIFE. That approached the experience I have had this week as I stayed up way too late, unable to tear myself away from the story of Jude St. Francis and his circle of New York friends as they make their way through the decades.

Dream-like indeed, because Yanagihara's focus is the emotional life of the characters, especially Jude, who is one of the most complex and tragic protagonists in the history of literature. He was horribly abused in multiple ways as a child, leaving him with persistent and worsening physical ailments, but worse than that, a profoundly deep and singular well of shame that he labors prodigiously to hide, even as it defines virtually every waking moment of his life and his interactions with those he meets, loves and is loved by.

Fever, because the unfolding of the true story of what happened to him, doled out along with the forward thrust of the narrative is critical to understand and extremely difficult to experience in the present moment, which the author delivers with harrowing and unflinching honesty. Perhaps even more difficult is the real-time experience of the consequences, which is extreme self-hate and mutilation, which I've never ever experienced with any degree of understanding before. The logic of shame is on full display, made even more disturbing in contrast to the exterior validation that Jude receives in his core relationships -- a circle of adoring friends, new adoptive parents, a profoundly committed doctor, and a man who loves him beyond words -- and the larger world of commerce and an almost operatic inhabitation of upper-middle-class privilege that arrives for the group of men who each earns extraordinary success.

Without question, the invented lives of these men map to a recognizable New York and global world of money, glamour, art, media, objects, and events, even as Yanagihara manufactures a kind of parallel universe of names, places, titles, and moments in time that never existed, a kind of fable of New York without 9/11, AIDS, or recognizable historical figures, like alternative speculative fiction -- here's a world that feels like our world, but is really all mine. I could go on and on, but finally, ultimately, as I think back upon the reading experience, I will remember, night after night, putting down my Kindle with a gasp, breathing deeply as if I had just woken from a particularly vivid and disturbing dream, struggling to release and have a dream of my own, grateful that mine are not so fevered.

The Whites: A Novel by Richard Price, writing as Harry Brandt (2015)

Price is a master builder, creating vivid and detailed worlds populated by cops and criminals whose lives and values slosh back and forth like dirty water, everyone covered in slime. The distinguishing characteristic of the good guys, which the cops in this novel sort of try to be, is loyalty, expressed in ways that, from the outside, would hardly be considered "good.' This is quite literally, a story of revenge. The central metaphor is "The Whites," e.g., the white whales that got away -- perps who walked away from an investigation that the core group of detectives in a Bronx squad really, really wanted to get, but didn't.

While there may be many criminals who got away, each of these vividly depicted detectives had one that stood out, typically a horrid vicious type whose crimes were outrageous and whose freedom burned at the soul. We have here a sprawling multi-layered and complex psychological unfolding of how the unforgiven come forward into the lives of Sgt. Billy Graves and his five colleagues, as well as various family members -- and how Billy and the others respond. The dialog is breathtaking, as always with Price, so real, so juicy, so perfect, you come to expect that. What you get in addition is a remarkable combination of narrative action and soul fodder that sticks with you long after the book is done.

The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson (2014)

Johnson did it for Vietnam a bit better in 'Tree of Smoke', but when you're as good a writer as he is, this is quibbling. Nair is an American-Danish NATO operative returning to Africa to check on one-time 'colleague' Michael Adriko, a hulking Ugandan of uncertain qualities, and his fiancée Davidia, a celestial American woman who seems blissfully surprised to find herself in a nest of spies. This is a buddy story, with the two guys bouncing their way across the belt of Africa from Sierra Leone to Uganda and back again, as they encounter spies, thieves, drunks, missionaries, liars, cheats, double-agents, self-anointed goddesses, and a whole lot of miserable chaos. There is a bit of scamming involving nuclear products and safe house disclosures to drive the plot, but like Graham Greene's colonial dives and LeCarre's tales of quotidian Cold War double dealing, the pleasure comes from watching how people react under various unimaginable pressures. As to why these guys persist in this heart of darkness, well, it's a guy thing, mostly.

Three novels by Jess Walter: Citizen Vince (2005), Beautiful Ruins (2012), and The Financial Lives of the Poets (2009).

I've only just stumbled across this wow of a writer, Jess Walter, whose Citizen Vince was a knockout. Beautiful Ruins is another: an improbable series of romances rooted in the dramatic events that took place back in 1962 during the filming of Cleopatra in Rome, and elsewhere in Italy, and its consequences nearly 50 years later for the characters who inhabit very different worlds in Hollywood and the Pacific Northwest (Walter's stomping ground). I myself once had a dream-like vacation in the Cinque Terra, the hillside necklace of hill towns south of Genoa on the Ligurian Sea, so the initial setting -- a mythical sixth and decidedly less appealing town, immediately grabbed me. But a personal connection is unnecessary in this spectacularly entertaining tale of love gained, lost, and gained again involving Liz Taylor, Richard Burton, an ingénue actress, a handsome but naive hill town native and his family, an alcoholic American would-be novelist and WWII vet, a trashy studio publicist, a delusional screenwriter, a D-girl with dreams, and a full complement of nutty walk-ons that enliven the proceedings.

Walter masterfully weaves the driving narrative of the present with the emerging story from the past, not as "flashbacks" but as alternating and equally suspenseful components of reaching the end. My only reservation is the ending, which looks just a little too much like the end of a film in which a complicated "true story" with many characters can only be resolved by stringing together snack-scenes. (BTW, I also strongly recommend the audio version, since language plays a key role in the stories.

Citizen Vince is perfectly delivered crime novel with a series of interlocking premises that create a moral center, plus: a fascinating protagonist and a taut plot. Nearly perfect! Can't believe it sat on my shelf for so long. Our hero Vince Camden, a low-level scam artist, is living in witness protection in Spokane Washington, having ratted out a made guy in Queens. The appearance of another guy from "the world" sets into motion a delicious string of events, all in the context of the 1980 Reagan-Carter election. Voting is an important theme here, a serious cause for many very amusing scenes amongst the mokes and mugs. There is a lot of running, a lot of pursuit, a lot of badly executed evasion, and a lot of donuts. Ya gotta read this one. 

The Financial Lives of the Poets: Matt Prior is days away from disaster -- financial, marital, psychological -- all thanks to some poor choices and the 2008 financial crash. On a milk run to the Seven Eleven he stumbles, literally, into a scheme that seems too good to be true. Naturally, it is. Salvation will come, Matt believes, in a new form of entrepreneurship presented by a couple of slackers he runs into at the 7-11, e.g., selling high-grade pot. Matt hasn't gotten high since college, but hell, what's one more bad decision? And he's off and running, and so are we as we ride the antic comic roller-coaster of a story, all the while never missing the penetrating analysis Walter applies to so many aspects of contemporary life. Everybody's agenda is slightly askew, whether it's the industrial pot growers, stoner Millennials, eBay addicted housewives, a homily-spouting businessman, a good cop/bad copy set of narcs, and a panoply of former colleagues and evil overlords at the newspaper where he used to work before the recession and the Internet decimated his life. This is a keeper of a novel.

In One Person by John Irving (2012)

If it becomes a movie, the title might perhaps change to the recurrent line and underlying theme:  “Don’t make me a category before you get to know me.” Irving returns here to many of the themes of his ground-breaking "Garp" world (small town academia, cross-dressing, sexual fluidity, family drama) in the form of a memory/memoir by a bisexual novelist (Irving? probably not, or so say the blogs). Imbued with his trademark humor and humanist insight, this is a contemporary epic with an embracing definition of family.

Our protagonist Billy Dean is raised in small-town Vermont by a divorced mom with a large family, many of whom, like many neighbors, are intertwined with the fates of the two largest employers-- a boys' prep school and a sawmill. Billy pines to know more about his mysterious father, and yearns to learn about literature and sex, both of which are introduced to him by the spiritual center of the tale, the town librarian, Miss Frost, who turns out to have been Al Frost when he attended the boy's school and excelled as a wrestler and occasional actor in the drama club. Wrestling, plays, literature and sex form the leitmotifs of many  episodes, which Irving fits together like puzzle pieces, not pearls all in a row.

We find out, for example, about his post-collegiate trip to Europe and various affairs with men, women and transsexuals long before Billy has even graduated from high school. We careen back and forth with tidbits inspired by moments of the heart and inspirations of the mind, even as we move inexorably through Billy's adult life, his emergence as a writer and self-satisfied bisexual, the status he goes to great pains to explain as a kind of erotic bardo, trusted by neither men nor women. But that's what he likes, and he doesn't much care. Through a fluke, he is an early condom user, as well as the sexual top, and so he dodges the nightmare of the AIDS crisis, though it fells many of the key characters along the way.

Eventually, Billy returns to Vermont and the school, where he winds up teaching and directing Shakespeare and mentoring the young LGBTQ students with grace. Irving writes fiercely emotional truth and fearlessness. It's been a long time since I've been so moved.

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose (2014)

This sweeping epic of 20's and 30's Paris centers on a kinky club frequented by cross dressers and their demi-monde admirers. A cluster of characters emerge from this club that form the structure of an intentionally fractured narrative. The center of the action is Lou Villars, a lesbian performer and race car driver who traverses the decades in deepening resentment over her mistreatment as a child, discrimination as a woman and a lesbian, and a general feeling of not belonging, rooted in class. Resentment brings her closer and closer to the gathering storm of the Nazi regime, getting seduced and recruited to spy for the Germans and then to torture partisans in the resistance. She be BAD.

Radiating out from Lou are a variety of Parisian types, all a tiny bit stereotyped, based loosely on true historical characters, as is Lou Villars. We have a Henry Miller type American womanizer and expat writer, a Brassai clone of a photographer, an heiress with a gay husband who owns a high-end car company, a clever and beautiful school teacher, and a host of lesser figures. The unfurling of Lou's story comes by means of various epistemological documents penned by this cast of misfits, a contrivance that some reviewers seem to think is clever, but I found implausible and irritating after a while. This is not experimental fiction so much as a narrative procrustean bed. Notwithstanding this drawback, the story itself offers a unique take on the well-trod pre-War period in Paris, as well as a beautifully crafted meditation on the psychology of evil.  

The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle (2015)

Boyle has wormed his way into my heart with books that mostly, though not always manage to force me to think about Big Ideas while enjoying a rippin' good yarn. And this here, his 15th novel, is one of those exceptionally well-delivered packages of story, character and theme that make for a very satisfying read, on par with his really sublime Tortilla Curtain and the very, very good Drop City and Riven Rock, among others. 

The three main characters are retired Mendocino County high school principal named Sten, his mentally ill survivalist son Adam, and Adam’s older paramour Sara, whose obsession with anti-government conspiracies makes her seem, at times, almost, but not quite as crazy as Adam. The fourth character is the land -- coastal Northern California redwood country populated by quaint little towns whose ecological consciousness comes from its dependence on tourists who flock to see what has been left after the forest extraction industries pulled up stakes. The forest is a stand-in for our culture's hubristic manifest destiny ideology that sees natives and governments alike as 'hostiles' opposed to 'freedom' -- basically the right of white people to do whatever they fucking want, the world be damned.

This definition of freedom, a motivating factor in our politics from America's earliest days until today, is not only self-centered and racist, but internally inconsistent. Hence, its practitioners rely upon violence, specifically gun violence, to 'emphasize' their point of view, with persistent tragedy its result. This is the undertone of the story, but don't for a minute think that Boyle's characters are much given to long speechifying, except maybe Sara from time to time. No, these damaged people take actions that drive the story because of what they believe: a perfect definition of the philosophical novel, but here, in the most traditionally naturalistic novel form. Hooray for fiction.

The Circle by Dave Eggers (2013) 

Eggers is working in the William Gibson zone here, a near-future in which technology trends that are worrisome today, get stretched to their terrifying extreme tomorrow -- in this case, the rise of social media, persistent video surveillance, and the loss of privacy. The twist is that the perpetrator of these 1984-like control measures is a benevolent corporation with pro-social and frequently liberal reasons for their advocacy of what become mandatory participation in intrusive, tech-enabled engagement, and all managed by friendly and kind idealists.

The depiction of the company, called the Circle, cribs elements of Zuckerberg's Facebook,  Brin/Page's Google, and Apple, which is, after all, building a new campus in the shape of a giant circle. It's easy to pick apart one plot point after another preposterous plot point in this fable-like jeremiad against the age of social media -- for there are many, many, many. Easier still to dismiss the critique Eggers presents as lightweight, missing the real villains in our age of surveillance. But I'll leave that to others, because, I confess, I fell victim to the sheer storytelling skill with which Eggers presents his case, as seen through the journey of a kind of reverse Don Quixote, the Panglossian figure of Mae Holland, who joins the staff of this company thru the machinations of a former college roommate who has made it big, only to eclipse her friend's power and influence, largely because she not only drinks the cool-aid, but learns how to dispense it expertly to the rest of the world.

She is not a fully realized person at some points, but rather a stand-in for a lot of Eggers’ ideas. The author has a bone to pick, and he picks at it a whole lot. Despite it all, I was breathlessly turning the pages like crazy, and hating myself a little as I did it. Kind of like reading Dan Brown.

Havana Red (Mario Conde #3) by Leonardo Padura (2005)

The third novel in this Havana quartet, this is the first that really blew my mind, probably because the central crime and many of the characters were part of Havana's much-suppressed gay community. Mario Conde, known as the Count, a laconic and alcoholic Havana detective with thwarted literary aspirations and a romantic heart, has been assigned to solve the case of the son of a party leader who has been found brutally murdered, dressed in a vivid red dress and found in a seaside park known for male cruising.

Typically macho and squeamish about the gay aspect, the Count turns a corner, in part because of the whiff of corruption in high places -- the uber-theme of this remarkable series, which I find quite amazing -- and the engaging personality of a famous literary figure whose reaction to repression was to withdraw entirely into the private realm. The Count becomes friendly, which leads to a social dimension that he (and we, the readers) weren't expecting. All along the way, the series-long background story continues to build -- corruption flows freely right into the police department, and The Count is unsure whom to trust.

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell (2001)

Just look at the list of tags I selected for this, David Mitchell's first novel, and you'll see how impossible it is to really categorize. Like many of his subsequent works, especially Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten offers its narrative in slices. Each of the nine linked stories is built around the dilemma of a character rooted in places that span the globe. By the end, we understand that even the tiniest detail of a story in, say, India or Mongolia or Petersburg or Tokyo, is part of a cosmology, somewhat mysterious but all conspiring to ask the question, 'what is real?' or more deeply, 'how do we know what we see is real.'

Mitchell is obsessed by the invisible science that underlies the sweep of time and memory, but without the self-conscious trappings or contrivances of more familiar genres like sci-fi, a second-cousin to his methodology. Mainly because the characters are so brilliantly drawn, each trapped in a very specific crisis, propulsive stories that act more like little mysteries than any other storyform. I loved the art-heist double cross tale in Petersberg and the late-night radio host in New York, but then all of them had their charms. And of course, characters in the author’s very first novel take center stage in the later Mitchell oeuvre, which is like a Nautilus shell swirling every outward to consume histories, past, present, real and unseen.

The Gallery by John Horne Burns (1947/2004)

This literary oddity from the post-WWII era paints the raw and shabby story of the allied occupation of Naples in 1994, after the Italians surrendered but before the end of the war. Naples was a shambles, having been bombed by both the Germans and the Allied forces, and its people were hungry and scared. The Gallery itself is an indoor atrium at the center of the city, now filled with restaurants and bars that attract off-duty soldiers and the locals who are willing to do most anything to get food or money.

The book is a series of linked stories and profiles of specific individuals, including a GI forced to enter a syphilis hospital, a self-righteous intelligence officer in charge of vetting all Allied mail, a delusional American nurse who "caters" only to officers, several Italian families, and an upper class Italian woman who runs a bar in the Gallery that is, for all intents and purposes, a gay hangout for locals and the military. These portraits alternate with "Promenades," even more like tone-poems, and many set in the adjacent Northern African theatre.

Tonally, this book is revelatory, as the author is outraged at the venality and sheer hatefulness of the Americans, who should have been much different in their victory. There is a sense of moral outrage, directed not at the Italians who may have had flexible sexual boundaries in their quest for survival, but towards the Yanks who were corrupt, often criminal, and typically hateful, and at the very least disillusioned. This is the book to set along side the propaganda about "the greatest generation."

Alan Turing: The Enigma, by Andrew Hodges (2000)

An easy-to-read book about one of the heroes of technology, not just for his role in decoding the Nazi Enigma system and helping to hasten the end of WWII -- a major achievement by itself -- but perhaps even more fundamentally his envisioning of at least four major aspects of computer science. First, he envisioned the design of a programmable computer, the plans for which form the core design for every computer since his brilliant paper in the 30's. Then the war and his contribution to cryptology. Then his ground-breaking work on artificial intelligence. And finally, his work on neural networks and the cyberbiological revolution. 

This book is cited as source for the popular film biography of Turing, you know the one which grossly simplified the Enigma story, inflated Turing's short relationship with a woman (played by Keira Knightly), made his homosexuality kind of forlorn and pathetic (despite the fact that he seemed completely at ease with his choices, up until he was betrayed by a rent boy), and then finally, perpetuated what is documented here as the unsubstantiated assertion that Turing killed himself, no doubt because he was gay or persecuted or both.

Turing may have been an annoying personality (and what genius, pray tell, isn't?), and he may have been gay, and he may have been persecuted, but he wasn't forlorn and we have no proof that he was either depressed or suicidal, and quite a lot of evidence to the contrary. That the police didn't bother to document the death properly doesn't help. Anyway, Hodges book is a great read, and a better source for Turing info than that self-congratulatory Masterpiece Theatre style film.

The Ministry of Special Cases, by Nathan Englander (2005)

This beautifully written and deeply humanist tale focuses upon a Jewish family in Argentina whose son is one of the estimated 30,000 citizens who are "disappeared" -- snatched and killed by the junta government in what is now known as "The Dirty War." But in a sense, that modern political spasm is simply a backdrop for the real purpose of the book, a fabulist's exploration of family, love, memory, and faith among a very specialized set of outcast Jews.

Kaddish Posnan (yes, that's his name, just like the Ginsberg poem) is the son of an immigrant whore. His income is provided by other, similarly tainted Jews who need somebody to obliterate their ancestor's name on the gravestone of a segregated cemetery -- they hire an outcast to help cement their own respectability. His wife Lillian is a good soul who works at an insurance company, and who is perpetually disappointed with Kaddish and with life. Her only joy is her son Pato, a bumptious pot smoking and mildly rebellious college student who, of course, is among the disappeared.

Once we have the setup, most of the novel is consumed by the Kafkaesque tale of their encounters with the bureaucracy and the junta and others who help keep Lillian's hopes up that Pato is not dead. Kaddish finds out otherwise, and they fight. By far the most entertaining diversion is the subplot about their nose jobs, provided by one of Kaddish's clients who refuses to pay up for services rendered. I'm fairly certain that Englander's elegant formulation of the junta's operations is invented as a way to reveal the character of his protagonists. We are living in a Chagall painting of a story here, removed from the true terror and grubby banality of the actual Argentine dictatorship and the cowardice of the populace. That said, it's still enchanting in a kind of elegiac and melancholy way, like when Woody Allen gets serious.

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon (2013)

He's the teller of the stories that should have been -- riffs on impressions of realities that unfurl as if they had happened, but probably didn’t. Like near-future science fiction, only near-past social fiction, with the same what-if quality. 

The story dives into New York's Silicon Alley tech scene before, during, and after its crash and then on to 9/11. Propelling the story, as with most of Pynchon's work, is the belief that there is no such thing as paranoia in a society whose rich and powerful have removed all sense of boundaries and individual liberties. The FBI, CIA, various Russians, venture capitalists, startup entrepreneurs and our protagonist, a forensic accountant, get tumble-dried in a hot mess of a tale that never fails to entertain, even though keeping everyone and their relationships straight is harder than with Tolstoy.

Ubik by Philip K. Dick (1969)

His language and dialog are crisp and the scenes move along with the touch of the master. As to the story itself, well, you are entering a future where lives can be prolonged in a kind of permanent purgatory, and there's a power struggle between soul snatchers detectors. Oh, yes, and we've colonized the moon by the 90’s. The cosmology is preposterous but consistent, all unfurling in a lovely whodunit container. A classic. I plan to read something by PKD every year until I run out.

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