What’s all this bullshit with early end of the year lists? I got ten books to read (and one to finish writing) before the 31st. Eggnog ain’t no excuse for slacking off, son, and you got miles to go before you sleep. Miles and Miles!
Autobiography of an Unknown Indian by Nirad C. Chaudhuri – Four hundred pages of Proustian recollections of the childhood and adolescence of an upper class intellectual from rural Bengal, and a hundred and fifty outlining a vigorous and wide-ranging critique of Indian culture. For so substantial a work, it feels somehow unfinished. The author’s recollections stop just as he enters adulthood and a role in the Indian independence movement which, if minor, seems like it would have been fascinating. His final thesis, while a brilliant trolling of the pretensions of his class, is so negative that it feels a little difficult to take seriously. Still, it is a extraordinary work, a depiction of an unfamiliar existence by a genius whose comprehensive familiarity with the intellectual history of Western civilization allows for fascinating comparative insight.
Last Days by Brian Evenson – A private eye investigates a cult of deliberate dismemberees (I get to portmanteau words, I’m a published author). The first half is icky but funny and scary. The second half is a lot of slapdash shooting. It reads like a first novel by a talented writer, and even though I didn’t really like it I’d look for something else by Evenson.
The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton – Bickering in an English boarding house during WWII. Competent and unobjectionable, but I’ve read an awful lot of novels about small-souled Englishfolk dealing with early middle age and having arguments over tea and this one didn’t really break out of the pack for me.
The North Water by Ian McGuire – A morally suspect surgeon, recovering from a role in the Sepoy Rebellion, joins an ill-fated whaling expedition. It’s a totally enjoyable historical thriller, if ostentatiously nihilistic. It’s really peculiar how the critical establishment will accept a genre novel as high literature if it offers some smack of queasy sadism, as if in penance. Cormac McCarthy I’m looking at you.
Madame de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford – I didn’t actually remember who Madame de Pompadour was before I got this from the library. She was Louis XV’s long mistress. Louis XV is the Louis no one really cares about. Nancy Mitford is a fabulously readable historian and it’s not her fault I had no interest in her subject matter. That’s my fault. That’s on me. I’ll own that.
An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro – A fascist artist comes to grips with his past in post-war Japan, in what reads an awful lot like a dry run for Remains of the Day. Ishiguro is, and there’s no other way to put this, real middle-brow, simplifying the mechanisms of the modern novel in a skillful but shallow way. His protagonist is the most reliably unreliable narrator I can remember reading, with every failure and secret clearly signaled, as if demonstrating the concept to a high school English class. It’s very pleasant, and totally readable, but that’s as much as you could say for it.
The Zebra Colored Hearse by Ross MacDonald – Ross MacDonald > you.
Hello America by J.G. Ballard – A crew of European explorers trek across a post-climate catastrophe (not the real one, a different one) America, only to face an apocalyptic despot in a hollowed out Las Vegas. A second-rate effort by a first-rate novelist, probably only worth looking at if you’ve already read a Drowned World and the other one, where the world isn’t drowned its dried up.
The Final Solution by Michael Chabon – A very old Sherlock Holmes investigates his last mystery, involving a parrot and a German war refugee. Chabon is a skillful stylist, and I generally enjoy all of his weird forays into genre fiction. Not quite Gentleman of the Road (a secret favorite) or Yiddish Policeman’s Union (a minor masterpiece) but fun nonetheless.
The Quest for Corvo by by A.J.A. Symons – The author’s attempts to track down the eponymous Corvo, a cantankerous, self-destructive, minimally successful writer of debatable genius. I never read the book which sets Symons off on his mad obsession (if by mad obsession you mean, traveling around England and asking for people to show you old letters), so probably some of this was lost on me. All the same I can’t say I found Corvo’s story particularly fascinating in and of itself; he was a bitter man with a probable personality disorder, and they’re dime a dozen. Peculiar that the lunacy of brilliant men tends to resemble the lunacy of everyone else; one thinks of Bobby Fisher’s banal Anti-semitic ramblings, or Ezra Pound’s banal anti-Semitic ramblings. That’s a hard sub-genre when it comes to originality.
Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler – In a pre-war resort town, a stateless Hungarian is forced into service by French secret intelligence. Me and everyone else agree that Ambler is the best spy novelist who ever wrote spy novels; he makes John LeCarre look like Tom Clancy. Not only are the actual mechanics of the plot sharp and believable, but they are framed by a genuine understanding of injustice, both the Machiavellian cruelties of great states and our own internal prejudice.
Spunk! Selected Short Stories of Zora Neal Hurston by Zora Neal Hurston -- I was assigned Zora Neal Hurston at some point in high school, but I didn’t read her, because I didn’t do anything anyone told me to do when I was in high school, because I was (?) an asshole. In any event—this was lots of fun. Hurston has a gift for the vernacular (I loved her Harlem Bible), an idiosyncratic viewpoint, and a knowledge of an overlooked (at the time) aspect of Americana. Sorry, Ms. Cox, you were right all along.
Moderan by David R. Bunch – A kaleidoscopic chronicle of a post-human future, in which robot warlords fight endlessly over a plastic landscape. This is more Brave New World than Heinlein, short stories largely free of an overarching narrative, ferocious satire of capitalism, imperialism, etc. It’s held together with this really buoyant, peculiar style of prose, with our robot-warlord antihero speaking in this clipped, imbecilic vernacular. It probably would stand stronger at about 200 pages instead of 350, but it’s still unique and weird and worth your time.
Heat by William Goldman – The greatest killer in the world at under 20 feet tries to survive his 5000th day in the hellish wasteland that is Las Vegas. One of Goldman’s less remembered novels, although a personal favorite of mine. There’s a shit-ton wrong with this book; the plot is a pointless mish mash, characters are introduced and disappear without rhyme or reason. But it’s just so much goddamned fun. An epic action scene midway through the book, the nested revelation of the hero’s madness, the sheer brio and verve Goldman gets out of the concept. It frankly should have gone through a few more drafts, but it holds a spot in my heart all the same.
The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan – After the death of their parents, four children curdle with madness alone in their house. McEwan has real talent, managing to create a deep sense of discomfort and unease without resorting to much explicit awfulness. That said, one is sort of left wondering at the point of all this artistry. It’s too unpleasant to qualify as good genre fiction, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a point behind all the nastiness. I appreciated the skill involved, and it was short enough that I didn’t mind forcing myself through the discomfort of reading it, but I’m not really sure to whom I could recommend the book. Readers interested in body-horror and incest? Is that a large demographic?