NBAW, number 40: 2015’s non-winner, A Little Life.

9 Feb

1.

In 2015, Hanya Yanigara did not win the National Book Award for her astonishing novel of childhood trauma, A Little Life. And although it doesn’t exactly fit with this series to focus on the non-winners, but I’ve been so enraptured and consumed by this horrifying novel that I can’t stop thinking about it.

Two weeks ago, my wife read A Little Life. She cried, gasped and even sobbed while she read it in a mad spree of near-constant reading. I picked it up the day she left off. And I feel headlong into the same compulsive experience.

A quick synopsis:

There are four college roommates—Jude, Malcolm, Willem and JB—who all go on to immense success in a variety of fields. But as the year’s pass, Jude’s childhood traumas, and his inability to talk about them or deal with them in any meaningful way, continue to bubble up to the surface. The friendships are handled with delicacy and care, and the various characters, except perhaps Malcolm, are finely drawn. The novel follows them for close to 50 years of their lives.

Time passes, everyone is rich and successful, New York is amazing, and the actual struggles most people have—the stuff of real life, no matter how big or little—are mostly elided. But it doesn’t matter, and might even be part of what Yanigara is up to, as Jude’s self-loathing and self-disgust are the twin engines of much of the novel. The novel is about Jude’s suffering, and how his traumas impact the decent and caring people around him.

Yanigara’s latched on to something profound. Maybe. The story is propulsive, but in a tormented and disgusting parade of suffering, pain, suffering, pain, self-loathing, disgust, suffering, pain, all punctuated by moments of human warmth and decency. She writes in the Stephen King style, fun to read and sliding back and forth through time, when convenient for the author. This isn’t a criticism, but rather something interesting in a novel so ballyhooed. (She was, after all, short-listed for both the Man-Booker and a finalist for the National Book Award.)

She writes well. She’s a natural storyteller, creating strong scenes. And if she lacks the zip and pow of the fiction I enjoy reading, the dissonant dialogue, or the jangly electric shock of a character’s sudden shift in attitude or behavior (I just finished Joy Williams’s Breaking and Entering, which is all of these things and more), she’s still a very fine writer. A sense of inevitable doom hangs over everything, and she does little to cut against it. There is little humor, and some of the subplots go nowhere.

So, I continued to read it out of a disturbing desire to see what fucked up thing the author was going to subject Jude to next. Base prurience. And this would be brilliant, if she were forcing me to interrogate this desire to see a fictional character suffer. (Go see Funny Games, if you want to know what I mean.) But there is no meta-fictional satire or challenge to the reader. It’s basic presentation, layered onto social situations where Jude, as an adult, is reliving over and over the traumas of his childhood. It works, only there’s so much dread and suffering, it begins to lose its power. By the time she cuts loose with her inner DeSade, ecstatically delineating the rape and mutilation of Jude as a child, it feels obscene. And not in a good way. Great art is as much about what isn’t on the page, and here, by her uncompromising and unflinching encyclopedic exploration of Jude’s various disasters, it loses its power and its shock. It’s almost funny—if you see excess on the page as a kind of over-the-top carny show, especially when gussied up with literary window dressing—how much horror she heaps on her main character. The near-relentless degradation of Jude reads like parts of Oldboy, or some sado-masochistic paperback pulp novel from the 1950s.

Unforgettable and haunting.

Unforgettable and haunting.

But she writes the scenes of abuse with such precision, it’s difficult to dismiss. Here he’s discovered by a character who narrates a few sections in the first person:

“He turned toward me then, and his face was an animal skinned and turned inside out and left in the heat, its organs melting together in a puddle of flesh: all I could see of his eyes were their long line of lashes, a smudge of black against his cheeks, which were a horrible blue, the blue of decay, of mold.”

Or here, later:

“At lunchtime he changes the bandage he had applied the night before, and as he eases it off, his skin tears as well, and he stuffs his pocket square into his mouth so he won’t scream out loud. But things are falling out of his arm, clots with the consistency of blood but the color of coal, and he sits on the floor of his bathroom, rocking himself back and forth, his stomach heaving forth old foods and acids, his arm heaving forth its own disease, its own excretia.”

There’s always more, more, more. More suffering. More degradation. More damage. All rendered in a direct, descriptive and compelling style.

 

2.

And she pulls it off, up to a point. In fact, up to a point, A Little Life is one of the better novels I’ve read in a long time. But Yanagihara lost me with this sentence, right here: “At the home, they knew what he was, they knew what he had done, they knew he was ruined already, and so he wasn’t surprised when some of the counselors began doing to him what people had been doing to him for years.”

Let me unpack it for you: Jude has been beaten, raped, assaulted, debased, degraded his entire life. And then, after he’s been saved from a pimp, the counselors and therapists who are assigned to help him, they decide, oh, well, let’s just rape him some more. It isn’t just highly implausible—that this particular boy has the worst luck in the history of the world—it becomes nigh impossible, the endless succession of sexual predators who work in the field of childcare and mental health. And without plausibility, a novel about the effects of trauma falls apart.

This passage cut into the verisimilitude of Yanagihara’s novel, and turns any metaphor into mush. It isn’t enough for Jude to be betrayed, beaten, savaged and raped; he has to be subjected to these things by everyone. That isn’t the way the world works, and it isn’t the way her novel works, either; she’s breaking the very rules she’s created in the first 400+ pages. Two, and this is a stranger critique, I don’t think a writer should pummel his/her characters with endless horror for no particular reason. There is still some type of moral structure, I believe, in fictional worlds. Most writers, when pressed, agree on this. Roberto Bolaño, for example, had this great realization that he would never kill another child in a story or novel again, not after having his own children. He found the idea indecent. And Bolaño was, anyone can attest, not a prude.

Then there’s the sexuality. The horror of it. Yanagihara captures Jude’s disgust, with himself and with all sexual acts, well. But she seems unsure of her own writing prowess, returning to it over and over. As if to re-iterate and reinforce the psychological bedrock of her novel. It grows tedious. And inelegant. And long.

Here’s a line that threw me, too: “. . . he’d had sex with men before, everyone he knew had.” Um, what? Is there some immense colony of bi-sexual men hiding in plain sight? Yanagihara has already established the sexuality of her characters. Five hundred pages in, all of a sudden? It isn’t just a strange writing choice; it harms the novel’s central relationship. This surfeit of shifting bi-sexuality distracts from the love and affection many of the characters share with each other. As if Yanigahara lives in a world where sexual preferences are obsolete and a thing of the past. A place where people can just jump into bed with lifelong friends.

It’s excess of a different type. And excess in fiction is its own worst enemy. Any act becomes tedious when repeated, ad nauseum, in print. Restraint is needed.

Every novel over 300 pages has problems of one kind or another; it’s inherent in the epic form. Yanagihara hints at an answer of her over-the-top trauma, pointing to Jude’s damaged psyche—so hollowed out and ruined—that the narrative itself has taken on skewered and nightmarish dimensions. (But, honestly, I’m being generous.)

 

3.

And just as I was ready to toss the book aside, with only 75 pages to go, she reigns it back in, switching the tone to somber meditation, ruminating on the feeling of loss and the passing of life. The epic sweep of the book is re-installed; the other characters offer glimpses of their own trials and tribulations. The horror of the flashbacks solidifies. The demons in Jude’s life don’t diminish, but gain power with time. She pulls it all back together, reigns in the squalor, and

The book is moving, heart-rending, one of the saddest literary journeys I’ve been on. The writing is strong—it’s hard to write about it without misrepresenting either its power or how much you care about the characters, and even my criticisms above seem bitchy when thinking about the novel as a whole—but I kept feeling like I was being punished for caring about the characters. Which is a very strange feeling indeed. The ultimate theme of the book seems to be, you can’t escape your past; life is (mostly) suffering. But this feels like a copout, and too philosophically tidy, when extended over 750 pages. Everyone who reads the book says the same thing: it’s punishing, powerful, I wish I hadn’t read it. The last 60 pages, in particular, captures the feelings of loss and melancholy as well as any novel I’ve read. It’s a shattering. The closest thing I can think of is Michel Houellbecq’s The Elementary Particles, or Richard Flanagan’s The Long Road To the Narrow North, or perhaps Bela Tarr’s film, The Turin Horse. But Houellbecq’s novel is short (if not probably grimmer and harder to get through), and Flanagan’s novel has dozens of characters and shifting points of view.

Anyway, here, near the end, are two passages that broke me up:

“His life is a series of dreary patterns.” (Does it matter which character she’s describing?)

And,  “ . . . it feels as if his heart is made of something oozing and cold, like ground meat, and it is being squeezed inside a fist so that chunks of it are falling, plopping to the ground near his feet.” Who hasn’t felt this way? I can’t remember the last novel I read that exactly evoked the precise mood I had experienced. (But here’s a weird one, Philip K. Dick’s The Divine Invasion, where a character feels he is about to be captured and killed, and turns to the character next to him and says, “Tell me the most beautiful thing you know about God.”)

So many novels feels closer to gnomic puzzles, or ironic experiments in narcissism, or cutesy semantic labyrinths. The trend in serious novels is to cut against the novel’s themes through a variety of signposts of authorial inaccuracy or narrative deconstruction. A little voice saying, “You’re reading a novel, you know.”

Yanagihara rejects this trend, staking the entire apparatus of her novel on the emotional resonances of the characters. It’s a risky move, and mostly pays off.

But my recommendation comes with a warning, straight from my wife, who got me to read it in the first place: “I can’t really recommend it to anyone. Not in good conscience.”

 

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Eugene O’Neill, in 41 points.

28 Jan

(Reading and writing and reading and writing and not doing enough for the blog. But I’m pushing ahead on other things and I’m submitting as much as possible. Here’s a quickie on Eugene O’Neill. Why not? He’s only been dead for 60 plus years. You can always rely on me to be timely.)

 

  1. Eugene O’Neill. One of my heroes.
  2. Hero isn’t the right word here. One of my favorite writers?
  3. That isn’t quite right, either. Somewhere between hero and writer. Anyway.
  4. His life, Jesus.
  5. Born in a hotel. Alcoholic father. Alcoholic brother. Drug-addicted mother.
  6. His father was a struggling actor who died from intestinal cancer in 1920. His father’s last words: “Life is . . . rotten.”
  7. His mother died less than two years later from a stroke, and his brother, Jamie, had to travel with the body, on a train, across the U.S. Jamie drank and drank during the five-day journey, and he was eventually robbed by a prostitute.
  8. (O’Neill wrote a play about this, his last:A Moon for the Misbegotten.)
  9. Jamie didn’t last much longer. In 1923, after a life of whoring and boozing, the life of a vagabond and rake, Jamie drank himself to death.
  10. His entire family eradicated. In just three years.
  11. Think on that, when you’re having a rough week.
  12. The grim parade isn’t over. His oldest son, Eugene, 27 years later, drank a bottle of whiskey, sliced open his veins in a drunken stupor and then wandered around the house, bleeding to death. His suicide note: “Never let it be said of O’Neill that he failed to empty a bottle.”
  13. His younger son, Shane, after 58 years of abject failure, jumped out of a window.
  14. And his daughter, Oona, married Charles Chaplin when she was just eighteen (he was 54), and O’Neill disowned her. They didn’t speak again.
  15. (So, not one of my heroes then.)
  16. O’Neill spent just a few weeks each writing his early plays, includingThe Hairy Apeand The Great God Brown.
  17. His early work: American settings, Greek themes. Infanticide, patricide, matricide, murder, revenge, fate, suffering.
  18. His early work: patches of brilliance with moments of leaden dialogue.
  19. His early work: rich, complex roles for black actors! O’Neill helped start the career of Paul Robeson.
  20. O’Neill loved drinking, and knocked around the bowery and basement bars of the lower east side. He cavorted with hustlers, card sharks, drunks, hoboes, shitbirds and losers. Even after he had children, he would disappear on benders for weeks at a time.
  21. When he drank, he raged, punching out his wives and smashing furniture, threatening his friends and shrieking at the moon.
  22. He suffered from an undiagnosed degenerative condition that caused his hands to shake. He thought it was DTs, and combated the shakes with more drink. His first drink in the morning required a couple of towels to keep him from spilling whiskey all over his shirt. He went through this routine every morning. Imagine.
  23. He and his brother, Jamie—before he died—would embark on epic drinking bouts, one time spendingone entire weekin a hotel room, guzzling liquors, arguing, talking about when they were going to leave. There’s a play in there, somewhere.
  24. He was friends with Hart Crane, another boozer extraordinaire. Imagine their nights out together. (Malcolm Cowley often accompanied them.) There’s a great play in there, somewhere, too.
  25. Those early plays. Many of them aren’t produced anymore. Many of them are forgotten. Who performs “Marco Millions” anymore? Who remembers “The Dreamy Kid”?
  26. After a horrifying bender in Singapore, where he almost lost his fiancé, O’Neill got on the wagon and stopped drinking. He stayed sober.
  27. Sobriety suited him. It is his late work, undertaken after close to 20 years of non-drinking, that regale. He spent years on a cycle of plays on a fictional family. Near the end, he destroyed almost all of them.
  28. Now that’s gangster. Or insane. Or something.
  29. He wrote “The Iceman Cometh” and “Long Day’s Journey into Night”at the same time. Two of the greatest plays ever written.
  30. “Iceman” follows a group of bottomed out rummies in a dive bar, the kind of characters he caroused with in his youth: losers, hustlers, gamblers, addicts. The play begins with drunks scattered about a bar, slowly regaining consciousness and beginning the hard drinking once again. They’re waiting for their friend and life of the party, Hickey. The language is ribald, furious, poetic, self-lacerating, repetitive, and explosive, mimicking the cadences of the down and out drunk. The characters are self-loathing, self-sabotaging hypocrites, each hauling around—and finding meaning in—delusions and excuses. Their delusions are what keep them going.
  31. There’s nothing like it. It’s a goddamn four-hour miracle.
  32. Hickey appears and begins puncturing the delusions, berating and destroying his former friends. Why he does this is part of the play’s magic. But the last third is a punishing odyssey, a series of bleak epiphanies, grimness and the void. It remains one of the most powerful plays I’ve ever seen. (Full disclosure: I’ve only seen movie versions.)
  33. “Long Day’s Journey into Night” is the better play, O’Neill’s autobiography. The dad is a retired actor and boozer; the brother is a weak-willed rummy (named Jamie) with terminal tuberculosis; the other brother, Edmund, is a booze-addled rake; and the mother, Mary, is a drug fiend, sneaking off throughout the play for her fix. The play is set in a single day, where the family’s ghosts, demons, failures, recriminations and regrets douse each character in a torrential flood. As the day turns to night, the outbursts grow more and more violent, and the tension increases.
  34. It’s an astonishing work, personal, mythic, poetic, dirty, timeless and heart-breaking. O’Neill didn’t want it published or performed until25 years!after his death, and made accommodations to that effect. (His wife interceded.)
  35. About the wife, Carlotta, the same fiancé he almost lost in Singapore. She saved O’Neill from his drinking, that’s indisputable. But they both eventually became addicted to sleeping pills and painkillers, and their relationship suffered, turned vicious and sour. One time he fell outside in the snow, breaking his leg. She mocked him from the front door and left him there to die. (He was saved by a random passerby.)
  36. Of course, during the boozy years, he slapped her at least once in front of a large party of people, and punched her at another. There’s that hero thing again.
  37. Here’s O’Neill on the characters in “Long Day’s Journey”: “At the final curtain, there they still are, trapped within each other by the past, each guilty and at the same time innocent, scorning, loving, pitying each other, understanding and yet not understanding at all, forgiving but still doomed never to be able to forget.”
  38. Doomed never to be able to forget. The perfect mantra for the doomed man.
  39. O’Neill’s life the stuff of enormous tragedy: spiraling addictions, abuse, suicide, disease and death. And a discernible pattern, a kind of dramatist’s flair for plot, irony and just desserts.
  40. His final days were spent in a hotel room. He knew he was dying. His last words: “I knew it! I knew it! Born in a goddamn hotel and dying in a hotel room!”
  41. A dramatist ’til the end.

Thomas Ligotti, Grimscribe, and Songs.

15 Jan

Yep, Ligotti got me.

  1. Thomas Liggoti, ye gods.
  2. After True Detective, I reviewed/interacted with his Conspiracy against the Human Race a few years ago. Despite my rejection of its philosophy, it stuck with me. It isn’t a book you can easily forget.
  3. Short summary: human consciousness is an evolutionary mistake, responsible for all our suffering. Humans should, as a species, stop procreating and die out. This will end our turmoil.
  4. I totally reject this notion. (And I’m not making this up.)
  5. I finally read his first two story collections, Grimscribe and Songs of a Dead Dreamer.
  6. Ligotti, take a bow.
  7. His stories are deeply, jarringly unsettled. Burrowing maggoty narratives that rattle your dreams.
  8. Ligotti is, like Lovecraft, using the parameters and tropes of horror fiction to convey his profound pessimism about the human condition. He believes in nothing, Lebowski, only he really means it.
  9. See Conspiracy.
  10. He’s a better writer than Lovecraft, who often slides into a florid clutching style. Lovecraft was writing in the burgeoning pulp tradition, so his stories often are, well, good as stories. Put another way, Lovecraft, as often as not, keeps his audience in mind.
  11. Ligotti does not.
  12. Ligotti’s talents are in service to a vast negation, which adds to the disturbing feelings.
  13. Put another way: reading Ligotti hurts.
  14. My favorite stories were “The Frolic,” “The Last Feast of the Harlequin,” and “Nethescurial.”
  15. “The Frolic” is a conversation between a jaded psychologist and his wife. The psychologist decides to share the kind of day he’s been having. Their daughter is asleep upstairs. The wife is getting nervous. The husband is getting drunk. It’s terrifying.
  16. “The Last Feast of the Harlequin” follows an academic studying clowns. He discovers a peculiar festival in some bumpkin town and decides to investigate. It’s . . . intense.
  17. “Nethescurial” is the memoir of a man who has gone insane, and why. He’s succumbed to madness due to a tale of a land called Nethescurial, a manuscript he’s stumbled upon; by story’s end he’s not insane at all, everyone else is.
  18. Ligotti utilizes the trappings of horror—shadowy estates, zombies, the unnameable, even vampires—but in his hands they feel fresh, somehow.
  19. He has a fondness for arcane words: lucubration, carnifex, habiliments, tatterdemalion.
  20. Like Nick Cave. (And if you haven’t read And the Ass Saw the Angel, get thee to a bookstore.)
  21. Or William Faulkner.
  22. Reading Ligotti’s early work is fascinating, as he begins directly in Lovecraft’s shadow, clearly imitating him, and then surpasses him in the cosmic reach of his terror. He improves, drastically, in his horror thinking.
  23. Here’s an example. One of the stories involves a narrator discovering that the world and everything in it—objects and all living things—is actually made of a single, black slime. It is the collective delusions of humanity that keep the semblance of order, the demarcations. But every once in a while, our delusions crack, and everything begins to melt. We forget these periods as they are too horrible to remember, and thus the cycle repeats itself.
  24. Pretty bleak stuff. Everything always melting. The only thing in existence a black ooze.
  25. Re-occurring images: puppets, faceless people, dwarves, alienating landscapes, sickly green illumination.
  26. And always, always, always, the spiral of sinister alien stars.
  27. Ligotti moves from fear to disgust, from disgust into existential terror. It’s quite a trick. His characters don’t drink, smoke, eat, copulate. He has a clear disregard to physical pleasures.
  28. Like Jonathan Swift.
  29. His characters also have little to distinguish them. They don’t draw the horror on themselves through chutzpah or ambition; they instead trip over the true terror of the world.
  30. Ligotti is a bit funnier than I expected, but the jokes are few and far between. Just saying.
  31. I happened to read Richard Bausch’s Spirits at the same time. Bausch is a very fine writer, with the fine-tuned feel of a workshop behind him. But he’s writing horror, too; “Police Dreams” and “All the Way to Flagstaff” are both ghost stories, of how rage and terror are passed down from the parents to the children through misunderstanding and fear. Absolutely terrifying.
  32. Ligotti and Bausch, who knew?
  33. Grimscribe is Poe + Lovecraft + Borges. It’s more sophisticated, more intellectual and less fun.
  34. Poe’s bleak assessment of human nature; Lovecraft’s belief in human insignificance; Borges’s notion of stories and texts as self-replicating traps.
  35. Ligotti evokes Borges especially in the later stories. Books are passageways. There are labyrinths, authors collapsing into their fictions. But Borges has a strong sense of intellectual play, even joy. Ligotti proffers only blackness and abnegation.
  36. Ligotti pays homage to Borges in strange ways. There’s little plot or action. But rather dark epiphanies usually stumbled upon. Then, intimation and grim absolutes.
  37. Borges is quite the horrorist himself, although his scares are intellectual. People are always saying how funny he is. Go back and read Tlon. It’s about the destruction of the real world through the invention of a fake one.
  38. Meanwhile, Ligotti negates. Utterly.
  39. I need to be clear about this, as Ligotti has made it clear in the few interviews he’s given. He wants you to be wrecked and wretched after reading his stuff.
  40. Wrecked. And wretched.
  41. He (mostly) succeeds.
  42. I enjoyed his more straight-forward horror. I merely admired the blank rigor of his Borgesian fictions.
  43. I kept thinking, here’s this singular intelligence, driven to write these obscene stories. Why?
  44. Ideas have power. Ligotti seems to have read Schopenhauer and Cioran—he claims to be a disciple of sorts—at the wrong time. If he had stumbled onto Spinoza instead? Or Kierkegaard?

My reading year, 2015.

1 Jan

(I had another good reading year, but don’t be overwhelmed by this list. There’s a lot of graphic novels. I was drawn to literary biographies this year, and read a number of books for research purposes. The best books of the year, for me, were probably The Orphanmaster’s Son, My Brilliant Friend, My Friend Dahmer and Station Eleven. This is almost a complete record of my reading year; I also read a handful of monthly comics; movie reviews and the book sections in The New Yorker and the New York Times; The Chicago Reader every week; and an ever-dwindling set of blogs and websites. Of all of these, the best thing I read this year was Jill Lepore’s epilogue to Joe Gould’s Secret, where she attempts to track down the oral history of Joe Gould—the great Joseph Mitchell’s last biographical subject—and instead falls into a series of interlocking, and sinister, mysteries, missteps, and mis-directions. Astonishing.)

 

Fante—Dan Fante’s memoir of his father, the great writer (whose self-loathing failure is essential to his novels) John Fante, is really a memoir about Dan’s alcoholism, recklessness and years of hard living. A good book, but offers way too little about the elder Fante.

The United States of Paranoia—Jesse Walter’s overview of American paranoiac conspiracies attempts to classify and categorize the major strands of conspiratorial belief. He makes his arguments well; when you finish, you’ll believe that the notion of conspiracies is not unique to the lunatic fringe, but rather marbled into the very center of our body politic. Lots of good anecdotes, too.

The Good Soldiers—David Finkel’s story of the Surge—of the soldiers deployed in Iraq, who fought, killed, and died for a war that none of them really understood (who does?)—is an astonishing feat of reporting, writing and empathy. Heart-breaking, thrilling, harrowing.

Beware of Pity—Stefan Zweig’s only novel, a psychological study of moral weakness and how it is pity, the attempt at decency, at generosity, at charity, that causes much of the pain and hardship in human lives.

Stones for Ibarra—Harriet Doer’s first novel, published when she was in her seventies, about two Americans attempting to run a mine in Mexico. Elegant and subtle, well-crafted.

Dreams from R’Lyeh—Lin Carter’s cycle of sonnets, based on a character in the Lovecraftian mythos. Slight and short, but a bit better than it sounds. Fun? Yes, fun.

Westerns—Richard Dankleff’s collection of poems all fit in the theme of revisionist westerns. I thought his was going to be great, but it wasn’t. And it began my shift away from browsing the poetry section of the library.

The Grand Design—John Dos Passos’s third Washington novel, and perhaps the one that gets him most in trouble. He has dozens of characters in the backdrop of the waning New Deal and the beginning of militarization before the U.S. entry into World War II, and his handling of leftists is troubling. Still, there are some dynamite scenes.

The Republic of the Imagination—A personal history of Nafisi, a very fine reader, and her journey to America. She reads America through three books, Babbitt, Huckleberry Finn, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, with Go Tell It On the Mountain as an epigraph. Elegant and excellent, literary criticism as memoir as cultural critique.

Plainsong—Morris Wright’s lyrical study of Nebraska farm women and the hard lives they lead. A very fine novel, if a bit undramatic, considering the subject matter. And what are feel-good stories for? The effects don’t last. The euphoria is false. Only drudgery remains. Hard-bitten stories give us reasons to value our own, often shitty, lives.

Mad as Hell—My second Paddy Chayevsky biography in two years, and a very fine piece of inside the media reportage. Chayevsky was such a powerful, talented, self-sabotaging writer, it’s a blast to read about him.

The True History of the End of the World—Short essays about different belief systems and their view of the apocalypse. Diverting but only just.

Hellblazer—Garth Ennis’s run on the quintessential British comic was excellent, focusing on his shiftless drinking and haunted enduring, despite a myriad of magical foes after him.

Invisibles, vols. 1 and 2—Best comic book series of the 90s. I try to re-read it every few years. It holds up.

The Alienist—Nope, couldn’t do it. I made it about forty pages into this well-reviewed historical thriller, but it left me cold.

Armageddon in Retrospect—A collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s shorter pieces, as well as a speech, a letter, all revolving around his anti-war beliefs, and the experiences that shaped them. Dynamite.

Songs of Unreason—Jim Harrison’s astonishing book of poetry, detailing in ravishing language the same obsessions that drive his fiction: sex, booze, good food, horses, rivers, aging.

The Whites—Richard Price delivers a crime novel stripped of the larger social and cultural malaise that characterizes so much of Lush Life and Samaritan, instead giving us a straight-up piece of all-pistons genre writing. He’s better than this, but it’s still riveting stuff, following a group of cops, each of whom has a “white,” a murderer that got away, and an unseen presence that seems to be stalking them.

Where the Dead Voices Gather—Nick Tosches pursues a minstrel singer born in 1873, ruminating in his inimitable style on race, music, culture, sex, and, well, black-face minstrelsy. I liked it but didn’t love it. The Tosches’ train passed me by.

Cast a Cold Eye—Mary McCarthy’s urbane stories of men and women and the spaces in-between. She’s a fine writer.

Thousands of Broadways—Robert Pinsky’s poetic rumination on small towns across various media, and a seriously undercooked piece of writing in book-length form.

White Girls—Hilton Als’s critique of tortured souls vacillating on the razor’s edge of American culture—Richard Pryor, Eminem, Michael Jackson, Flannery O’Connor—is a very fine piece of writing and criticism, if a bit messy near the end. Got a ton of press, this book.

The Hannah Arendt Reader—Research, but a very fine book. Her Eichmann in Jerusalem remains an astonishing and powerful (and acerbic, good God) piece of writing.

I, Noah—Aronofksy’s screenplay turned into a comic and the artwork is beautiful. The story sounds cheesy, but somehow works, re-casting Noah as an oddball mage in a world gone mad. And there’s three-armed giants.

Marx—Corinne Maier’s witty biography of Marx filters through superb line dawings from Anne Simone; I loved this book.

The Gnostics—A work of scholarship that turns weird and prosletyzing, but it has some very fine middle sections about the early Christian church and the heretical strands of Gnostic thought.

The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology—Joseph Campbell’s idiosyncratic tour of various primitive mythological isomorphs, written in his intriguing style.

A Short History of Myth—A must-read, Karen Armstrong’s overview of the first belief systems. Wonderful reading.

World’s Fair—E.L. Doctorow’s coming of age novel is professional, well written, but a bit safe.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces—The book that made Joseph Campbell, and a great primer in the hidden architecture of stories. Campbell is an idiosyncratic writer, bouncing from one culture to another.

The River Swimmer—Two novellas from Jim Harrison, a middle-aged artist returns to Michigan to watch his ailing mother, and a teenager addicted to swimming in rivers finds water babies. Not Harrison’s best, but still rich, lush, funny, insightful.

The Golden Ass—Apuleius was an ancient Roman writer and this book, a kind of proto-novel, is the only book to survive in its entirety. Funny and a bit strange, with diffident pacing.

Sugar Skulls—The final installment to Charles Burns’s superb, and supremely creepy, story of a fucked up loser wandering in a nightmarish dreamscape of blood and other human effluvia. Ties up loose ends and will blister your eyeballs. Unexpectedly, it’s also a touching story.

Brother Lono—The creative team behind the overrated 100 Bullets returns to tell the story of the single Minuteman who escapes. And it is ghastly indeed. Feuding Mexican overlords, Catholicism, extreme violence. Azarello and Risso are not great writers or storytellers, but with their heads in the gutter they know how to keep the reader’s attention.

Victory over Japan—Ellen Gilchrist’s short stories, and they are absolute dynamite. Her characters feel both lived in and real, as well as wild and absurd. Her storytelling abilities are immense.

Counter-narratives—John Keen’s short stories come wrapped in blurbs galore, but they left me flat. They felt calculated, almost cutesy with their conceits. And

Invisibles, vol. 3—The end of the Invisibles, the wildest and most moving of the series.

A Fan’s Notes—Exley’s smashing autobiographical novel about a hard-drinking loser obsessed with football. One of the best of its kind.

The Timeless Myths—Not a book at all, but more a series of clever, well-written essays, mostly on artists and how they relate to the mythosphere.

Myths To Live By—Joseph Campbell’s lectures, wise, knowing, intriguing, and perhaps the best place to enter the eccentric world of Campbell’s comparative religion.

Great Book of Horrible Things—A very fine overview of historical atrocities by a statistician.

Coronado—Short stories from crime writer Dennis Lehane. They’re fine, but they two-act play at the end of the book is terrific. (I picked this up after watching The Drop, a very fine crime film he scripted.)

A Fire in the Mind: The Life of Joseph Campbell—An epic, detailed biography of Joseph Campbell, well-researched but even-handed and a bit worshipful.

Soil—Killer southern novel a la William Gay, about a cracked up farmer attempting to turn a discovered dead body into soil. Why would he do this? Go and read it.

Signs Preceding the End of the World—Yuri Herrera, called Mexico’s greatest young novelist, writes a lean, idiosyncratic border crossing novel. Good but not great.

My Friend, Dahmer—A marvelous, unnerving gem of a comic, equal parts sad and chilling, of a man remembering his odd friendship with a bizarre loner at his school. One of my favorite books I read this year.

Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities—John Ellis provides a sharp, incisive critique of the New Criticism, while embracing the grand tradition of Renaissance secular humanism. Hard-nosed criticism.

Hip Hop Family Tree, vol. 2—Ed Piskor continues his comic book history of early hip hop, and it is a wild ride. His thesis is simple: hip hop started in the Bronx, loosely affiliated with street gangs, and then grew out of these initial relationships in an observable manner. Great fun, with great art.

The Ivory Grin—Ross McDonald, baby. Solid, witty, fast and lean, another Lew Archer mystery with murder and molls.

Silver Screen Fiend—Patton Oswalt’s very fine, and inspiring, memoir of a brief period in his life when he was addicted to movies. I wish he had given more of his insights into the movies themselves; he’s a witty and refined critic.

Heidegger’s Children—Research, but a pretty intriguing exploration of the ideas of Hannah Arendt, Hans Jonas, Karl Lowith, and Herbert Marcuse.

Invisible Man—I’ve been trying, and failing, to read Ralph Ellison’s epic novel for twenty years. Finally made it. Excellent and prescient.

On the Craft of Poetry—An elegant distillation of so many of Borges’s major themes, this lecture in print form is marvelous. It’s a very fine primer for Borges’s stories.

“The Open Boat”—Stephen Crane’s bleak short story about shipwreck survivors facing indifferent nature and the limitations of their own survival machinery.

Wittgenstein’s Nephew—Thomas Bernhard’s slim, half-memoir novel is intriguing, if a minor effort. Two men in a hospital renew their friendship, but the form of the novel is a wide-ranging riff on Wittgenstein’s family.

Roth Unbound—Claudia Pierpont gives Roth’s biography with a focus on his novels as a way of reading his life. An intriguing book, if a bit laudatory.

The Landbreakers—John Ehle’s re-discovered novel of the frontier is a beautiful piece of writing, following three families in a valley right at the beginning of the United States.

The Big Seven—Jim Harrison’s sequel to The Great Leader has his retired detective run afoul a nasty family of rifle-toting neighbors. Plus lots of sex and fishing and butt reverie.

In Search of Small Gods—Harrison’s astonishing poetry, revolving around fishing, totems, dogs, sex, drinking and false memories is a wonderful book for non-poetry fans. For fans of poetry, it’s an even richer feast. He does it all.

Raymond Chandler: A Biography—A very fine piece of biographical writing, which manages to capture Chandler’s essence while also dealing with the many virtues, and faults, of his Marlowe detective novels.

A Game of Swallows—A graphic novel similar in tone and look to Persepolis. Pretty good.

Avengers: Infinite Avengers—Intriguing time travel take on the Avengers, with Captain America and the infinity gems, all of it better written—Hickman and Remender are good writers—than expected, but also convoluted.

Avengers Academy: Permanent Record—Better than average teenage superheroes in the marvel universe. Not sure why I read this.

Iron Man: Stark Wars—A nostalgic journey for me, following late 80s/early 90s Tony Stark and his vengeance against the supervillains who stole his technology.

Hawkeye: L.A. Woman—The comic shifts to Hawkeye’s nearly hopeless female protégé as she navigates hoodlums and crime syndicates in Los Angeles. Pretty damn good.

Light Years—James Salter’s elegiac, haunting and very beautiful novel about a marriage, crumbling, re-constituting, and its ups and downs is a very fine, if ultimately bleak and grim.

Live by Night—Denis Lehane’s epic crime novel follows an Irish hoodlum, the son of a police commissioner, as he moves his way up a criminal empire in Tampa during the 1920s. Very good stuff. (I later read the other two books in this trilogy.)

Chester Himes: A Life—Himes’s life is the stuff of great literature; he was a thief, carjacker and convicted felon who wrote literary stories from jail. Once out, he turned towards crime novels. James Sallis, himself a pretty nifty crime writer, tells the tale. Oddly, the book is just okay.

Borges: A Life—Borges is one of the most important writers of the 20th century, yet he was a shy, withdrawn, mercurial man. (These descriptors apply to his fiction, too.) Author Woodall attempts an old-school biography with Borges, and it mostly works. Yet I kept hoping he would critically discuss Borges’s tales.

You Remind Me of Me—Dan Chaon—both a fabulous writer and storyteller, which is rare—writes of ghostly characters on the margins of society, attempting to start over through radical re-invention. A haunting, very fine novel.

Thanos Imperative—Wow, Marvel has lost control of itself here. Convoluted, poorly conceived, accidentally parodic, derivative, and ultimately pointless, this is precisely the kind of storytelling that forced me into non-superhero comics as a teenager. (Luckily I have Daredevil to balance things out.) [I later read the Hickman run on Avengers and the lead up to Secret Wars and was blown away.]

The Warren Commission Report: A graphic Investigation—A comic version of the events leading up to JFK’s assassination, and the resulting investigation, and a pretty good book. Che was better (really excellent).

Kill Everything That Moves—An excellent, if heart-breaking, book of reportage on American military policy during the war in Vietnam. One that will blister your eyeballs. Should be mandatory reading.

The Razor’s Edge—Maugham’s Moveable Feast, less artful than Of Human Bondage, but still intriguing character study of American and British expatriates. Good, but perhaps not as good as its reputation. Maugham does Fitzgerald, only not as interesting as that sounds.

One More River To Cross: The Collected Works of John Beecher—Protest poet, and descendant of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher, John Beecher’s poems hit at the core of the very issues of racism and poverty we’re dealing with today. Plus, he’s funny. Great.

Euphoria—Lily King’s spare, sharp novel of Margaret Mead and two rival lovers living among tribal peoples in New Guinea is sexy, lush and ultimately heart-breaking. A very fine novel.

Danse Macabre—Stephen King’s meditation on horror and why it works is a very fine—and weirdly important—book that came out some thirty years ago. I revisit it from time to time. King is a very cagey and careful reader/consumer, and he has exquisite theories as to why some stories succeed, while others fail. Also, he’s funny.

The Round House—Louise Erdrich’s masterful novel sits at the intersection of a thriller, a coming of age story, and a moving (and terrifying) deconstruction of a family. An American Indian woman is raped on a reservation, and her teenage son tries to solve the crime.

Colder—Oddly unsatisfying horror comic about a nightmare world where the insane go when they are having episodes, and a evil dandy who eats the sick.

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves—Karen Russell’s story collection is lush, well-written fiction, lacking in the storytelling department.

The Bottom of the Harbor—When in doubt, go with Joseph Mitchell. A collection of his pieces concerning the harbors and wharfs around the Hudson. “Up in the old hotel” remains one of his finest pieces of writing.

Criminal: The Sinners—Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips best entry in their Boston Criminal series.

The Hair of Harold Roux—After a weak start, a fabulous novel—and recently re-discovered—of a selfish novelist coming to terms with his own misanthropy in an in-progress novel based on the writer’s school days.

Night of the Ripper—Robert Bloch’s take on Jack the Ripper. I wanted to read some semi-literate horror novels and started with this one. It’s fine; Bloch is a professional genre writer, and there’s little fat a more than a few intriguing scenes.

The Black Beetle—Francisco Francavilla, one of the premiere comic book artists, tries his hand at writing too with this homage to 1930s pulp radio heroes. It’s a mixed bag, fun to look at but in need of some writing work. (Lobster Johnson, a similar hero over in the Mignola universe, is much better.)

Fatima: The Blood Spinners—Comic legend Gilbert Hernandez returns to ghastly science fiction in his peculiar take on the zombie apocalypse. A drug is turning people into zombies. A cure has been found, but the self-appointed police out to eradicate the drug keep killing people close to a cure. A minor work, but kind of fun in a kooky way.

The Infinite Horizon—A stunning retelling of The Odyssey—perhaps the best adaptation I’ve come across—in comic book form, following a black ops soldier in Afghanistan making his way back to upstate New York. Excellent.

“The Goldbug”—Edgar Allen Poe’s bizarre little short story about buried treasure in post-colonial Virginia. Not very good.

“The Fall of the House of Usher”—I don’t know, I always return to it, and it always leaves me cold and a bit irritated. Not great, either.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (audio)—Stevenson’s seminal tale of a man and his dark side. Riveting, if familiar stuff.

The Consolations of Philosophy—De Botton’s wonderful introduction to six philosophers, and how their lives and works can help us through hard times. Excellent and elegant.

Nightfall—When in doubt, David Goodis. A man is wrongfully accused of murdering a bankrobber and stealing the loot. Only, he’s guilty of the crime. Sort of. A near-perfect crime novel without an inch of fat.

The Orphanmaster’s Son—So good I never wanted it to end. A North Korean soldier goes from kidnapper to something else in this epic novel of maintaining individuality in the face of oppression.

The Cuckoo’s Calling (audio)—J.K. Rowling’s detective procedural follows a war veteran and his new temp working to solve the apparent suicide of a young pop star. Very fine, if a bit schematic.

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty—Understated, patient, humane but also well written stories about southerners of every stripe.

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang—Pauline Kael’s best book, and for me one of the seminal works about movies. Funny, scathing, profound.

The Gospel Singer—Harry fucking Crews! A famous gospel singer returns to his hometown. One of his steady girls (a wretched sex addict) has been murdered, his family (disturbed farmers) want him to stay in town and a traveling troupe of circus freaks continue to haunt all of his revival appearances. Doomy, funny, and fucked up—Harry Crews’s first novel, and it’s a doozy.

On the Other Side of the Wind: The Making of Orson Welles’s Last Movie—A very strong introduction to Orson Welles and his methods, his legend, his self-propagating mystique, alongside his shortcomings and his bad luck.

The Third Policeman—Flann O’Brien’s short, strange, surreal little novel about a murderer who sees his victim a few months later, followed by all manner of cosmic hijinks. A word to the warning: Do not read any introduction or background material if you plan to read this; the spoilers in this case really do ruin a good book. (It happened to me.)

The Book of the Dun-cow—for the National Book Award winners series, and basically a children’s book with talking animals and that fable-magic feel. Not for me, but not terrible. (But it is a terrible title.)

Vermillion—The fabulous science fiction comic, written by intriguing author Lucius Shepard, that should have been a cult hit and run for years but only made it twelve issues. The entire universe has been changed into a single, endless city. One man remembers how things used to be, and the creatures responsible for it.

The Emperor—Kapuscinski’s oral history of the decline and fall of Haile Sellassie is more for people who already know the story of the Ethopian Emperor. I didn’t know the story, and felt a bit lost. Still love Kapuscinski though.

Nosferatu—Short story author Jim Shepard’s take on Murnau, and it seemed perfect for me, and I didn’t enjoy it, not at all.

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.—A story we’ve seen so many times before, a self-centered writer in New York, a son of (some) privilege, grappling with relationships. Weirdly compelling, if also a bit dreary and predictable.

Life During Wartime—Lucius Shepard—author of comic series Vermillion—writes a science fiction novel of psychics traveling through huge swaths of central America, attempting to survive a forever war that no one seems to understand. Shepard is an astonishingly gifted writer when describing shanty towns, makeshift bridges, squalor as well as beauty. His storytelling powers are here still a bit shaky.

So Long, and See You Tomorrow—Laconic novel of memory and loss and heartbreak and betrayal. William Maxwell recreates a crime from his childhood, where infidelity between two married farmers leads to murder. An elegant paean to a lost time, that Maxwell artfully (and sneakily) implies might have never existed in the first place.

Voss—Australian novelist Patrick White tells a riveting story of a German explorer wandering through the newly discovered outback. Half Victorian-era comedy of manners, half Heart of Darkness adventure tale, White balances the chamber rooms and tea parties of high society with the jaw-dropping violence of the desert. An absolute stunner.

Deadly Class—Teenage assassins run amok in this new comic series by hit or miss Rick Remender. He hits it out of the park here.

Uri—Some 1970s biography of a man with supposedly psychic powers. Not sure how this got into my queue, I tried it and didn’t finish it. Nope. There’s a reason some books are forgotten.

Sinister Forces: The Nine—A terrible cover, but an intriguing—and probably dangerous—book. Levenda is a very fine writer, a very fine journalist, and a very disturbed human being. His premise is that European pagan culture is interwoven with early American societies, and that religious belief has shaped, altered, and at times dismembered American politics. The book is dangerous because Levenda’s agenda, similar to other conspiracy theorists, rests on a lot of conjecture that most writers can’t pull off. Levenda has plenty of skill and verve to spare, and thus makes his arguments alluring, to alluring.

Infinity—Jonathan Hickman’s epic, epoch-defining, cosmic re-arranging of the Marvel Universe has an ageless group of builders, who guide the evolution of life in the universe, attempting to destroy the earth. The Avengers, along with all the space races, band together to fight them. Meanwhile, Black Panther and Prince Namor are waging a war against each other and Thanos is invading earth while the Avengers are away. Complex, convoluted, yes, but also unforgettable. At least to nerds like me.

Old Filth—Jane Gardam, having an immense rediscovery in her dotage, wrote this novel of an aged barrister in England, flashing back and forth to times in his life. Truly superior stuff, thrilling, weirdly sinister, woven with immense skill. (I kept thinking, am I the only person on earth reading Infinity and Old Filth at the same time?)

The Hollow Land—Following up on Old Filth. A collection of stories about two boys from different backgrounds spending summers together in the country. Weirdly compelling.

The Age of Selfishness—Graphic novel following Ayn Rand’s life and thinking and then detailing how her ideas, through Greenspan, played a major role in the subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent economic meltdown. Excellent.

The Wars—Timothy Findley’s novel of the first World War, and it is brief, concise, horrifying, poetic and excellent. A Canadian officer ships off to the western front, where he finds a pointless existence of random violence to people and animals.

After Claude—Iris Owens very funny, raunchy little New York novel about a self-involved woman who is dumped by her French boyfriend, only she refuses to leave his apartment. At one point, it was banned.

Ghost Story—Ramsey Campbell, you’ve failed me again. A great set up: a shock jock radio host and a rising psychic star run afoul of each other. They have a past, and are interfering with each other’s present.

Fordlandia—Henry Ford attempted to build a utopian mixture of farming and industry in the middle of the Amazon. He failed. Part of Heart of Darkness, part history of industry, this intriguing book is very well written.

Soldiers of Salamis—I read this because Roberto Bolaño, one of my favorite authors, is one of the main characters. Kavier Cercas sets out to write a true novel, in the fashion of Capote and Mailer, and mostly succeeds. For Bolaño fans, it’s a major treat.

Any Given Day—Dennis Lehane returns to South Boston—as incubator of crime, cruelty, and sometimes redemption—only in the past, in the 1920s. He evokes the civil unrest and the nascent movement for workers to unionize in this very fine historical novel, only written in his signature lean style. Very fine, if a bit lengthy.

Year of Fear—Non-fiction about 1933, where gangsters and bank robbers began kidnapping wealthy scions, and J. Edgar Hoover used this crisis to beef up the F.B.I. I love this stuff, and this is a very fine introduction to the interlocking problems—the Depression, the Dust Bowl, the murder rate (close to a hundred thousand unsolved murders in 15 years!), bank robbers, organized crime, and widespread civil unrest—that beset the U.S.

Do What Thou Wilt: A life of Aleister Crowley—Lawrence Sutin’s biography of Philip K. Dick is one of the great biographies. Here he turns his immense skill and attentions to the Great Beast, the poet, occultist, novelist, mountaineer and mage. Crowley’s life is too full of events and high weirdness to believe, but Sutin delivers another very fine and entertaining biography. (The introduction, covering the alchemical tradition in Europe, is excellent.) Still, I couldn’t read it straight through. Had to break it into smaller doses.

Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir—Joyce Johnson’s stunning memoir of her life with the other Beat writers is an evocative, spare and beautiful piece of writing. Johnson situates herself, and other females, inside the aesthetic movement. Why did I never read this before?

.red doc—Anne Carson’s sequel to The Autobiography of Red—my favorite book from last year, a novel in verse—picks up with Hercules and Geryon and some of the others, now in different incarnations. It’s stirring writing, just wonderful and weird, but it’s not as good as Red. Of course, few books are.

Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong—An intriguing bit of detective criticism, where the reader attempts to uncover the truth in a novel, by looking at the credibility of the other characters. Here the author “proves” that Holmes gets it wrong in The Hound of the Baskervilles; the real murderer goes free.

Lightning Rods—Helen DeWitt’s funny, satirical, pornographic novel of business is a very fine piece of writing, even if it peters out a bit near the end. Reminiscent of Charles Portis, in places, which is very high praise.

Regeneration—Pat Barker’s first World War I novel follows Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owens and Robert Burns as they recuperate from wounds, both physical and psychic, while the war continues to turn men into meat into mud. A very fine and serious novel.

The Eye in the Door—Barker’s second novel is a major departure, and a much weaker novel, from the first. Here she follows some of the characters from the first novel, as they engage in subterfuge, surveillance and oppression over the issue of homosexuality and the pacifist movement. There’s something missing here, and I’m not sure what. Didn’t finish.

She-hulk: Law and Disorder—Beautiful art from Javier Pulido drives this funky, multicultural take on the cousin of Bruce Banner. Similar to Mark Waid’s Daredevil, this clever relaunch is excellent, until the artist changes.

Notable American Women—After being floored by Ben Marcus’s “Cold Little Birds,” I picked up this early novel. It’s . . . hard to describe, and a bit full of itself. Didn’t like it, didn’t finish it. Will try him again with The Flame Alphabet.

A Lesson Before Dying—Ernest Gaines’s very fine novel follows an African American teacher who has been guilt-tripped into tutoring a death row inmate, who is also a former pupil. Subtle and Superb.

Joyland—Stephen King’s coming of age novel is a very fine piece of fiction, if read the right way. (The ghost and the crime are the least important aspects of this novel.) A young man gets his heart broken and takes refuge in a summer job at a low-grade amusement park. The park is haunted.

My Brilliant Friend—Elena Ferrante’s magnificent novel of two friends coming of age in Naples struck me as gothic and even cosmic horror with a light smattering of social commentary. I loved it.

Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Case Closed—Patricia Cornwell excavates the medical and police files around the White Chapel murders and solves, or so she claims, one of the mysteries of history. A good book, but I couldn’t stick with it.

The Rim of Morning—Two novels, actually, re-released by NRYB. Subtle, extremely disorienting horror from William Sloane, who wrote these two and then stopped writing. The first follows two men as they attempt to piece together why a third committed suicide. They bump against a menagerie of terrifying, cosmic implications.

Trumbo—A fantastic biography of Dalton Trumbo, an intriguing, funny, and acerbic man.

Station Eleven—Hot book of last year, and a very fine novel. A plague has eradicated most of mankind, and a traveling group of actors and musicians eke out a living in a traveling caravan. The flashbacks connect the characters from before the plague, in an intriguing, often exhilarating plots.

The Year of Reading Dangerously—A bullshit artist forgets the joy, pain, love and fear of reading great literature, so he sets out to read 50 great books for a year. Funny and wise and very, very good; author Andy Miller is a very fine companion.

Lookout, Cartridge—Eccentric novelist Joseph McElroy’s crime novel of Vietnam, at least that’s how the jacket copy situates it. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, as the narrator is reliving various strands of memories that are happening simultaneously in his mind and on the page. I quit at the third chapter.

We Need To Talk About Kevin—Made it one-third of the way through, but will probably finish it. A mother writes her ex-husband letters about their psychopathic (and homicidal) son. Chilly, pitiless and very difficult to put down. (And, weirdly, very unsettling to read.)

Wolf in White Van—John Darnielle, lyricist extraordinaire of The Mountain Goats, writes his first novel, and it’s pretty fucking good. A disfigured young man makes a living with a mail-in Dungeons and Dragons type game. He narrates the ins and outs of his life through simple, direct and heartbreaking prose. Marked by a complete lack of irony.

Pale Fire—Nabokov’s opaque novel is beguiling, bewitching and difficult to describe. An academic has delivered an annotated version of his dead neighbor’s lengthy poem. Or has he? The novel requires concentration, but offers plenty in return. I loved it, but like many readers, was confounded by it.

Black Sun—Novelist of solitary men in nature extraordinaire, Edward Abbey, here with his first novel (yet published in the middle of his career), and it’s a doozie. A man tasked with watching fires in an immense forest has a brief love affair with a young woman. Simple, but profound, with gorgeous writing and superior dialogue.

Henry Miller by Brassai—A personal account of Henry Miller’s Paris years, by the famous photographer. Miller becomes more intriguing to me as I get older, and here he emerges as kinder, yet wilder. A good book for fans.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning—Most likely the last book I’ll read in 2015. And it’s a good one. The author revisits 1977 in New York, with the Yankees struggling, the Son of Sam murders in full swing, terrifying gangs running amok, and all of it leading up to the blackout and crime spree.

Spirits—Bought this for a quarter. Richard Bausch’s short stories are haunting and masterful. Great stuff, if a strange and downer ending to my reading year.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe—Thomas Ligotti, yowzers, is he bleak. Combining Lovecraft and Poe and Borges, Ligotti writes short horror that is astonishing when it works, and simply alienating and unsettling when it doesn’t. Unforgettable in its way.

Mystery Train—Greil Marcus, a fabulous critic, uses a number of artists (Sly Stone, Elvis Presley, Randy Newman, The Band, Robert Johnson) to express his belief that American art must grapple with the terror of America’s failures and the promise of America’s virtues at the same time. A great book. I was reading it on New Year’s Eve.

 

 

 

An open letter to Secretary Clinton. (Please don’t support Rahm Emanuel.)

10 Dec

Dear Secretary Clinton,

I am a public school librarian in Chicago and a former libertarian—raised into it—who ten years ago saw the light and realized that everything I believed was either wrong, misguided or predicated on outright lies.

I think you need to have a similar epiphany on the mayor of my adopted city, Rahm Emanuel. And I’m going to try and make you see the light.

He is a snake. A wolf. A carnivore. And he has, in his tenure in office, allied himself with the moneyed, the influential, the privatizing and the despicable, all at the expense of working Chicago people. Need proof? Look no further than the closure of 50 public schools in a single stroke of the pen—that’s 50 public schools in poor or struggling neighborhoods, all populated by people of color—and the subsequent firing of some 2000 teachers, aides, clerks and ancillary staff.

Fifty. Public. Schools. Gone in a flash.

The shootings of (often young) black males by the police in Chicago is nothing new. Neither is torture, graft, corruption, intimidation and blackmail. But a clear link between the malfeasance of our law enforcement higher-ups and the mayor himself? This is new. I won’t go into the evidence here—you just have to follow the known sequence of events to see that Rahm suppressed evidence so he could get re-elected—and I know the old canard that Chicago politics are always corrupt. But to support a mayor who has proven to be opposed to public sector unions, public education and also mangling an already damaged economy?

I don’t see it.

I know running for national political office is a byzantine and complicated game. I know there are compromises, backroom deals and (often) amoral metrics run against poll numbers. But Rahm Emanuel is bad for our city. He’s bad for the Democrat’s brand, and he’s just plain bad, period. He’s lowered our city’s credit rating. He’s outsourced public land to private companies to no material benefit to the taxpayer’s of Chicago. (Don’t believe me? Take a gander.) It’s a statistical fact that (okay, in almost every instance) privatizing costs taxpayers more. Yet Rahm keeps pushing it. Forget what Chicago might look like in 20 or even ten years; he wants his money now, goddammit.

Money over the future?

Back to the murders. The homicide rate has increased, partially—at least this is how it was reported to me—due to moving police units away from high-crime areas to focus on the shopping districts downtown.  This was, so it seems, a calculated decision.

Money over people?

His handpicked team of educational experts are now almost all working at other jobs, disgraced nationally, or on the way to prison. The latest misstep by his hand-picked squad was Ms. Byrd-Bennett, herself at the center of an ethics probe to the tune of 20 million dollars diverted out of the public school system into a company where she used to work. No-bid, no oversight, just filthy lucre changing hands.

Money over children?

And now this, the shooting and repression of not one, but as I understand it, two videos of unarmed black males. By the police. And a third video of a mentally ill black man being tased and dragged through the corridors of a Chicago jail; he died later that night. Rahm’s response was vague language over reform, and the firing of his hand-picked top cop. Let me say that again: his response was to fire the man he hired in the first place.

Loyalty (or something else) over the lives of black people?

He’s facing a second teachers’ strike—when before him we hadn’t had a strike here in decades—and his blasé, uncaring (and to me, cruel) attitude towards the working teachers and paraprofessionals is abhorrent.

I have three questions that need answering.

How? Why? What? How can you still believe in him? Why would you still believe in him? What are you doing, in a national presidential election, affirming this man during your campaign?

A higher murder rate. A history of autocratic (and this is a generous description) behavior as mayor. The closure of 50 public schools. A downgraded bond rating. A pattern of privatizing public operations. Failed or failing policies. A dwindling inner circle of the vain and the arrogant and the power-hungry, all sliding into the dustbin of early retirement or the jaws of the justice department. Probes. Questions. Intimations.

You. Backed. This. Man?

Secretary Clinton, our mayor sees poverty, blight, violence, inequality as abstracted numbers on a page. Pieces of a political game called power. He sees the interlocking concerns of running a city—public transportation, utilities, employment, parks, public education and so on—as tradable commodities.

Or put another way: Rahm’s policies hurt people. A lot of people. Working families. Struggling families. Middle class families. Little children. Being harmed by our mayor.

Secretary Clinton, your political chops are not in question. You are, in the realm of politics, bona fide. But your moral and ethical barometers? They are, and have been, in the limelight. And placing support in Rahm isn’t any kind of way to reclaim some of the (previously lost) moral ground.

Please retract your support from our mayor.

Signed,

A voter.

Two new poems from Simone. And a fragment.

23 Nov

(Simone continues to spontaneously create poems. Her features turn a bit strange when she’s doing it, as if she’s channeling the words. A new Yeats? We only have a fragment of the third, as she said this while riding on the bike with Beth. The first isn’t much to speak of, but the second? She’s on to something. Here and here are her earlier poems. One more thing: except for a few cartoons, she hasn’t seen any vampires, yet she seems oddly obsessed with them.)

1.

Vampires and ghosts were all over the world.

Nobody has seen them at all.

I have seen more people than vampires or ghosts.

But nobody has seen vampires and ghosts at all.

I think people would be frightened to see vampires.

2.

Kaboom.

Lightning and thunder came long, long ago.

Snakes came slithering.

It’s the king snake of the king.

tiny, tiny, tiny.

ting, ting, ting.

Bells are ringing in the church.

Sing, sing, sing of dead people coming out of the ground.

3.

Diamonds flickering

from the end of a cave

locked with silver and gold.

wild beasts . . .

Nobody has seen

that you are just made of dirt.

Interlude 4: Three movies, two nights.

20 Nov

(And why the hell not?)

The Guest

Brisk, tight, suburban—this horror-thriller hybrid feels like half a dozen other films, but manages to end up with an identity all its own. Daniel Collins is an American veteran returned home from the wars. He appears on the doorstep of the Peterson family, who have lost their son in Afghanistan. Collins brings a message from their departed, as he was present at the final moments. He’s invited to stay with them, for a while, unsettling 20-year-old Anna and 15-year-old Luke. Dan Stevens—well known as the lumpy Crowley in Downton Abbey—conveys a range of sinister emotions with odd fish eyes and a thousand yard stare. His face turns stony at odd moments, and his performance, the kind that always goes unnoticed—an intriguing turn in a b-movie—is a marvel. Collins begins reshaping the lives of his adopted family, only in the most macabre way possible, through murder and deceit and incarceration. (For the first forty minutes, the movie is a very close analogue to the French film, A Friend Like Harry.)

But Anna’s suspicions lead her to make a single phone call, which alerts a shadowy, private military organization into action. Led by Lance Reddick, a team of shooters converges on the small southern town, and all pandemonium breaks loose. The movie is an astonishing visual spectacle, conveying almost all of its drama and most of its information through images. And excellent synth music.

It has the flow and feel of Halloween—in fact, I kept thinking, this is the movie John Carpenter should have made after They Live!—as well as other movies, like Universal Soldier, The TerminatorDrive. Imagine short stories conceived by Ray Bradbury but rewritten by Denis Johnson, and then adapted to screen by Wes Craven, before being filmed by Nicholas Refn. It’s a glorious, ridiculous pastiche. And when the climax takes place in a high school gymnasium repurposed for a Halloween dance—with a makeshift labyrinth, driving synth-pop score, and intentionally cheesy scares, reminiscent of The Shining and Halloween II—you know you’ve seen something. But. The movie has a political subtext too. The sillier elements underscore the movie’s political point of view, conveying the reality of U.S. military atrocities, intrigue, and outright lies.

A wild blast of neo-eighties action horror. With great music.

A wild blast of neo-eighties action horror. With great music.

The Faults

Three of the actors from The Guest star in The Faults, and there are only five characters. There are other similarities, especially in the excellent visual scheme. Leland Orser, a very fine b-movie actor whose heyday was the cheap scuzzy crime movies of the 1990s, absolutely kills as the lead, a disturbed cult de-programmer and former celebrity named Ansel. He ekes out a living giving small-town speaking engagements while fending off his former manager, who is extorting money from him. The manager’s weapon of choice is Lance Reddick, who has one of the great lines of recent b-movie history: “See, I don’t have a gun? It’s because I don’t need one.” Ansel is hired to deprogram a lost 28-year-old woman by her creepy parents.

The bulk of the film occurs in adjoining hotel rooms, a physical and metaphorical space that turns fuzzy and ontological as the talk sessions reveal psycho-sexual fissures in Ansel’s brain.

We’re in that crepuscular dreamspace where the American drive for success and meaning turns into a nightmare. The parents grow stranger and stranger as the movie progresses, staring off into space or exploding in anger. The victim regresses into a childlike state and then back. Locked doors open. Impossible imaged flicker across the television screen. And it all feels like the unraveling of Ansel’s mind, but it might actually be happening. One of the strongest indie/small movies I’ve seen in some time.

The Faults is ultimately about power, who has it, how to use and how to abuse it. Power isn’t about appearances, or isn’t just about appearances; power is about superior understanding and insight. Weakness is ultimately in the mind. The Guest traffics in similar ideas. Collins is immensely powerful in the physical world, but trapped in an internal sequence that forces him to do things he doesn’t want to do. In the movie it’s a clear metaphor for military training, but just as easily stands in for any ideology. (Hail Stefan Zizek, eh?)

So ideology is easily hidden, but not easily escaped. I love when movies with nothing in common traverse similar internal ground.

FAULTS

You can’t deprogram loneliness or depravity. 

Copland

And why not? It’s written and directed by James Mangold, the skilled, if just a touch square, filmmaker who made the very fine The Immigrant two years ago. The movie follows a large group of characters in a tiny town outside New York City, where the bulk of the residents are city cops. The city is run by a high-ranking police, played by Harvey Keitel, who runs some type of criminal enterprise while wearing a badge. The sheriff is a half-deaf, seemingly simple Sylvester Stallone, who gives a pretty good performance. There’s a crime, a cover-up, and Internal Affairs begins to investigate. It’s a solid crime drama, terse, fun to watch, with some intriguing performances. Ray Liotta is pretty damn good in it, and it’s one of the last movies where Robert De Niro really cuts loose. (He has this great scene where he’s chewing out Stallone in-between taking bites of a sandwich he’s not enjoying; it’s wonderful.) The movie doesn’t turn away from the urban tensions of race/crime/police/money, and there’s plenty of subtext in the casting. Flawed, yes, a bit hokey in the last five minutes, sure, but better than you remember.

The inevitable shootout, but an intriguing movie nonetheless.

The inevitable shootout, but an intriguing movie nonetheless.