Tuesday, December 31, 2019
With my new full time job I was not able to read as much as I wanted, but still got in 50 books. And with a new decade coming up, I think it is time to make some personal changes. I'm thinking of suspending my reviews for the foreseeable future to focus on some more personal endeavors, things I've wanted to pursue in the past but for whatever reason, I could not put all my focus on. So this might be my last list, at least for now. I've divided it up by 5, half old books released pre-2019 and books released this year.
5. The Third Hotel by Laura Van Den Berg: Berg did not impress me with her short story collection The Isle of Youth, but she sure did with this creepy, cinema-infused look at loneliness, paranoia and walking ghosts. She keeps it vague throughout, open to whatever interpretation you want and it is the better for it.
4. Found Audio by NJ Campbell: House of Leaves produced a lot of imitators, but this is one of the best. Short but with a dark heart as vast as books three or four times its size, it creates a lingering sense of dread, underscored by a sense of wonder about the world around us.
3. The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter by Kia Corthron: From something short to massive at nearly 800 pages. This big-hearted yet intimate look at the cross section of two sets of brothers across mid century American feels fully formed and necessary, its length giving time to craft four distinct wounded individuals, prisoners of time and victims of circumstances and unraveling the complexity of urgent issues.
2. The Known World by Edward P. Jones: I've been wanting to read this for a long time, and I finally realize why this book is considered one of the best of this young century. Starting with a startling (but historically accurate) premise and going back and forth in time, sometimes at the same time, this book earns its high prize and feels important and relevant nearly two decades after it was published.
1. Night Hawks by Charles Johnson: Along with Voodoo Heart and 20th Century Ghosts, this is my favorite short story collection. It is a perfect example of what I look for in the art form, from the O. Henry inspired "Occupying Arthur Whitfield" the Harlan Ellison-esque "4189" to its surprising title story, its running theme seems to be a respect for the short story and really, really great writing.
5. Big Bang by David Bowman: While not an original idea, Bowman's posthumous novel of mid 20th century madness is among the best of its kind simply for what it does not do. In refusing to let famous historical figures be symbolic in nature or snarling villains and instead let them be human, he creates a historical novel that feels like an emotional gut punch.
4. The Border by Don Winslow: The final book in the Art Keller trilogy ends the story in thrilling and gruesome fashion, proving Keller's fears right that the monster does not die when you cut its head off, but there is still a since of finality here, and the proceedings are imbued with a hope for the future missing in the other two.
3. You Know You Want This by Kristin Roupenian: The best short story collection of 2019 is also the creepiest book I read this year as well. With stories like "Sardines", "Biter" and the infamous "Cat Person" forcing me to look at the horrors that swirl underneath even the most innocuous of human interaction.
2. Goulash by Brian Kimberling: What Kimberling did for bird watching in Snapper he does for the Czech Republic in his second novel. Barely 200 pages long, it turns the everyday world into a place full of history and possibility, even it that possibility is short lived, evidenced by the book's pitch perfect ending.
1. Hold Fast Your Crown by Yannick Haenel: The most unique and best book to come out in 2019. It's fervent narrative structure, it joyous obsession with cinema, alcohol and Michael Cimino make this a one of kind joy that lies somewhere in between Michel Houellbecq and Herman Koch. 2020 might be the year I focus more on fiction translations, and if they are as good as this, I'm making the right decision.
This was an excellent year for movies and out of the fifty I saw this year, here are my top ten, starting with a few honorable mentions:
*Relaxer, dir. Joel Potrykus: This year I tried to see more movies on VOD, and I’m glad I did because it was unlikely that this weird, gross out end of the world black comedy would be playing at the local theater where I live. It takes a ridiculous premise, injects it with pathos and sticks the landing in a brilliant way. It has to be seen to be believed
*Knives Out, dir. Rian Johnson: One of the year’s most purely entertaining films, Johnson eschews any recognizable franchise after directing The Last Jedi to do something original and no less fun, giving us a timely story of twists, turns, scumbags and heroes and one of the best times at the movies in 2019.
*An Elephant Sitting Still, dir Hu Bo: A somber, meditative swan song about live in modern China, Bo first and sadly only film, at four hours, feels like a summation, a cry for help and a kind of suicide note all in one. It also might be one of the defining movies of the decade. Only time will tell.
*The Head Hunter, dir. Jordan Downey: Admittedly a movie I praise more for how it got made, looking like a million bucks when its budget was measly $30,000, this is still one of the best horror films of the year, taking a simple premise and creating something ethereal and engaging in the process
10. Waves, dir. Troy Edward Shults: With three films, Shults' has established himself as one of the preeminent chroniclers of the family breakdown, taking cues from the greats like Polanski and Cassavetes to present very real dysfunction through the lens of a paranoid horror film, and this one, using interesting, destabilizing camera movements and frenetic editing to bring the audience to the depths of despair and finally to something resembling hope. I cannot wait to see what he does next.
9. Uncut Gems, dir. The Safdie Brothers: Following their breakout hit Good Time, this is another tightly wound race against the clock thriller, immersing us in a story that frays our nerves and tests our patience with a morally questionable character who we hope finds a way out. It is helped by Adam Sandler, who gives a career best performance as the eccentric jeweler who teeters on the edge of success and ruin.
8. Avengers: Endgame, dir. The Russo Brother: A beautiful capstone to a decade plus story a lot of people grew up with. It is so good that it is really hard to see what else the superhero genre can do (more on that farther down) and where they can go from now. Viewing this as the actual “end” made the whole experience sublime.
7. Diane, dir. Kent Jones: You’d think film critics would not make good filmmakers, but Kent Jones proved me wrong with this somber tale of an ageing woman and the dwindling social resources in her life. At different points during this 90 minute movie I was reminded of the books of Richard Russo and Bergman at his most bleak, especially that ending. And Mary Kay Place gives the best female performance of the year as the weary title character.
6. The Nightingale, dir. Jennifer Kent: The best horror film of the year, and not surprisingly the hardest to watch, with multiple graphic scenes of sexual assault and appalling violence and one of the most despicable movie characters in a couple of years, but at the heart of it is the relationship between two crushed spirits and their search for kindness in a world in short supply of it.
5. John Wick 3-Parabellum, dir. Chad Stahelski: Who would have thought, five years ago that John Wick would spawn what is possibly the best action movie series of all time and in turn rekindle the career of Keanu Reeves, making him one of the biggest stars in the world, but there is something about these movies that keep getting better, building on an interesting universe and delving deeper into what could easily be a one-note character, making us feel his plight even as we cheer on action set piece after brilliant action set piece.
4. The Last Black Man in San Francisco, dir. Joe Talbot: I guarantee you did not see another film this year like this one. It’s a weirdly wonderful story of friendship, a celebration of a city and an elegy for a collective past that is no longer there. When I was not awe-struck by the directions this movie took, I was moved by the friendship at its center that felt truly authentic despite whatever otherworldly events take place.
3. Joker, dir. Todd Phillips: It is appropriate that this and Endgame came out in the same year, because I feel this is the direction comic book movies should take, discarding crossovers and telling singular, contained stories that stand on their own. This is a truly caustic film, downbeat, violent but mesmerizing as well, distilling our politically fraught landscape into the sad life of a man who can’t stop laughing at it. It’s tough to watch but that does not take away from its greatness.
2. Parasite, dir. Bong Joon-ho: It took almost 16 year, but the Korean boom we witnessed after 2003’s Oldboy is finally gaining mainstream success in 2019, and it is all directed at a movie that truly deserves it. Using the subject of class division to tell a story of deception and quietly building resentment, Ho’s film, bolstered by the best script of the year, subverts every expectation while still remaining in the realm of plausibility and gives us a poignant story that brings into questions some of our most deeply held values. This film felt like the biggest event of 2019, and it delivered everything it promised.
1. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, dir. Henry Dunham: I said earlier I tried to watch more VOD releases this year, and this is part of the reason why, because even though I saw this all the way back in January, I still can’t stop thinking about it. With a simple premise, a fantastic script and stirring performances from a handful of character actors we all recognize, Dunham crafted the most compelling film of the year. Evoking such influences as David Mamet plays and John Carpenter’s The Thing while still feeling relevant in its plot and quietly revolutionary in the way it presents its situation and characters, this film, from its tense interrogation scenes to its poetically devastating ending, felt like the best this year had to offer.
Thursday, December 19, 2019
In a past interview with Mitchell S. Jackson in which he talks about his debut novel The Residue Years, he talks about how most of his fiction is autobiographical due to his lack of imagination (paraphrasing, of course), but thankfully, he has led an interesting life and that made that novel feel authentic without sacrificing its narrative drive, a quality his new book, the quasi-memoir Survival Math does not. While genuine half of the time (and very much not the other half) this excoriation of self handily misses the mark multiple times, feeling less like the confessional I think Jackson intended it to be and feels more like page after page of humble bragging, reveling in his various misdeeds while simultaneously condemning them from some unearned moral high ground. Like the other nonfiction book, I read this year, Bunk, it is impossible to talk about it separate from its obvious political bent. The book catalogues Jackson’s life, from his relationship to the various men in his life, from his hustling uncle to his mother’s long term boyfriend, whose compassion for Jackson hides a deep rooted tendency to subjugate the women in his life, laid out in the chapter “The Pose”, where Jackson lists his own sexual misdeeds in a way that makes us want to admire him, shame him, or pat on the back for how far he has come. It comes off as rather patronizing. The best chapter is the one on his mother, a crack addict whom Jackson views through lenses of pity, awe and deep love, but the chapter also highlights another problem, which is Jackson’s tendency to extend metaphors to comical lengths. He walks the tightrope flawlessly, but the utility of the act is questionable. Sprinkled throughout are “survivor files” second person accounts of people Jackson interviewed whose pictures make up the book’s cover. Even the worst of these have a haunting quality and brings a much needed humble face to what sometimes comes off as a rather disingenuous book.
Friday, December 13, 2019
Nothing about David Bowman’s posthumous novel Big Bang feels new or original. It follows a very well-worn path by writers who were more famous than he was in his lifetime, creating cult like followings through their eloquent vivisections of 20th century history. But of all the books that this large 592-page novel will be compared to (not helped by some of the cast of fictionalized versions of real people Bowman sprinkles through the book) I do not think that they are as good as the final book Bowman wrote before his untimely death in 2012. It cribs from authors as varied as DeLillo and Coover (its structure is nearly identical to Underworld and it shares tonal DNA with The Public Burning) and even James Ellroy and his Underworld USA trilogy, but this novel, as long as those others I mentioned, eclipses them in wonderous and imaginative ways, some of which I can put my finger on and some of which I don’t think me or anybody else will be able too. The plot, if you can call it that, concerns the time period of 1950 and 1963 and culminates in the assassination of John F. Kennedy (trust me, that is not a spoiler) and is made up of real people and possibly real history, if you can trust Bowman to tell the truth (you’d be smart if you keep things such as the truth at arm’s length while you read this book). It has no central characters, but it does have a few people who frequently and a few that could be considered the heart of the book. One in particular is Howard Hunt, CIA spy, novelist and one of the people responsible for the Watergate break-in. He is an elusive figure, caught up in strange times and stranger histories that are much bigger than he is, but he plays a role in a lot of the major happenings of the time period the book covers. The heart of the book is easily Jackie Kennedy, whose dreams and desires are dashed in much the same way her husband was so swiftly gunned down in Dealey Plaza (this is not a book obsessed with conspiracies, something else that sets it apart from others like it). While not a tragic figure, she, much like Hunt, must contend with her small place in the world at large despite her celebrity. As I mentioned, what makes this book better than the giants before it is not what it does so much as what it leaves out. It is not concerned with history as a great agent of change as DeLillo sees it, a farce as Coover sees it or a lies told by the real villains as Ellroy sees it, but much like the title of the book, Bowman sees it as pure chaos and any meaning that might be found in it, like connecting Kennedy’s murder with that of Burroughs killing his wife, Mailer stabbing his or Hemingway killing himself, is purely incidental and we are helpless against it, at the mercy something absurd and total. I have not begun to scratch the surface of this brilliant book, and it IS a tragedy that Bowman is not around to offer a follow up.
Sunday, December 1, 2019
While a lot of the stories in Benjamin Percy’s new story collection Suicide Woods present themselves structurally as horror stories, their makeup is something else entirely and that is not always a good thing, While his advice is invaluable (Thrill Me is an excellent writing tutorial) and he is able to craft scenes of intense and unnerving horror, too much of the time they feel overwritten, maybe the product of adhering too religiously to techniques learned in MFA programs. It makes for a rather beautiful arrangement even as blood flows and body parts start to fly, but I sensed a lot of the time in these and the majority of Percy’s other writing I hid the fact that the stories, in their essence were not very original. They were good, sure, but I have seen them executed better in stories by other writers and with a lot more originality too. This is not a bad collection by the way, some of the stories are better than others and I do not think of any of them as stinkers. The opening story, “The Cold Boy” where an uncle saves his nephew from drowning in a frozen on only for the boy to come back as something not of this world is a highlight. Percy is an expert at rich descriptions whether that is the human like gash on the wrestling mannequin in the strange “The Dummy” or the way glass sticks out of a man’s belly in the novella “The Uncharted”. But just like in his collection Refresh, Refresh, the title story is the book’s best offering, a story of a group of severely depressed people finding solace in the odd therapeutic practice of their doctor, who likes to take them out to the woods and confront their trauma head on. It’s not only the best story in this book, but among the best pieces Percy has given us.
Wednesday, November 27, 2019
It’s been a little while since I have read a book as immersive as Karl Marlantes’ Deep River and at 716 pages, it better be. Thankfully, there is enough in this book to keep even the most disengaged reader busy and entertained, offering a story of late 19th/early 20th century Finnish immigrants who carve out their piece of the American Dream that has the epic feel of something akin to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Although its core message is not nearly as left wing as that book’s (a little more on that later). Marlantes has put a lot into this book, having researched his own history as well as that of the region and it really shows. There is nothing about this book that does not feel inauthentic, from the culture and customs of the Koski’s homeland in Finland, to the tools used for logging and even the feelings of unrest as the world around three siblings changes dramatically, leaving some familiar faces behind. The book begins at the tail end of the 19thcentury and finds the Koski family in the throes of grief as they watch helplessly as three of the six children die from cholera. It is this event that casts a long shadow over this close-knit family, as it takes something this terrible to set the three remaining children on a path to America, more specifically the Pacific Northwest, barely explored and totally untamed in that time period. The oldest, Ilmari, at the dawn of the 20th century leaves home and travels to America to work as a logger. The two others, Aino, arguably the center of the book and Matti, her younger brother get caught up in the dangerous political climate in their home country. It is Aino, who is most active, becoming obsessed with the idea of a socialist revolution after a local teacher staying at their house gives her a copy of The Communist Manifesto. Matti, on the other hand, is passionate in other ways, quick to romance and even quicker to violence, evidenced by when he pulls a knife on a Russian officer who brutally kicks the family dog to death. A series of events take place, highlighted by a betrayal whose ramifications and poignancy echo rather deep into the book, that lead Aino and Matti to America, Aino bringing her left-wing ideas to obviously unwelcoming logging companies and Matti his desire to make something of himself. The Koski family can’t help getting caught up in the shifting waves of history, such as Aino’s relationship with socialist martyr Joe Hill and Matti’s involvement with bootlegging during prohibition, but the greatest influence over their lives is the personal realm, the quiet moments at home, the not so quiet moments at dancehalls and bars, the loss of life and the creation of it. It would sound corny in any other book, but here, it is totally earned. Another part of the book I found interesting and refreshing was its treatment of Aino’s revolutionary attitude. In any other book, especially now, she’d be regarded as a hero, but here, it begs the question as to whether or not her actions are noble and necessary or selfish and short-sighted. It’s just one of the many qualities that makes this book special
Wednesday, November 13, 2019
The one thought I could not escape while reading Kevin Wilson’s third novel Nothing to See Here was that of his recent short story collection Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine and the short story within titled “Wildfire Johnny”. It is the best thing Wilson has written and it is just as high concept as this story of flaming children, but it is so, so much better. There is rarely a paragraph in these 254 pages that does not feel derivative or a turn of phrase I have not seen done better somewhere else. Besides the relationship between the two central women in the book, every character feels thinly drawn plot devices and in one case a single dimensional villain, so when it tries for an emotional payoff. It totally does not earn it. I do not think if this were a short story rather than a full-length novel it would change anything, but it would be a start. Taking place in the mid-90s (seems like a pattern in 2019 book) it opens with Lillian receiving a letter from her former friend Madison. Lillian is a woman on the verge of her 30’s who has been beset by a series of external miscalculations stemming from when Madison, a daughter of a wealthy family. Had her take the fall for a stash of drugs while they attended boarding school. Now, Madison, now married to Jasper Roberts, a presidential hopeful, asks for her help in babysitting Jasper’s kids from a previous marriage who just so happen to burst into flames when they have a tantrum. It is never explained, and in a good story it would not have to be so here it feels shoehorned in and takes time away from Lillian and Madison’s story and how much (or little) their relationship has changed. And the eventual actions of Jasper seem predictable and kind of lazy, making for a swift novel that still, somehow, overstays its welcome.