Monday, December 21, 2009

The Generic Year-End Book Review And A Christmas Note

Because everyone else does this and I’m as much a conformist as anyone—put a single malt in my hand, point me to the nearest cliff and I’ll run faster than any lemming in town—I’ll share my literary cultural highlights of this typically distressing year in this fantastically weird decade where "I Like IKE” somehow passed for useful wisdom.

As I reached the end of 2009, my judgment that Shoot the Piano Player, David Goodis’s emotional and bleak tale of a hard-luck piano player, finely and sincerely told, was the best book I’d read all year.

But wouldn’t you know it? The great Russian magician himself Vladimir Nabokov (Na-BOE-kof) slipped a last card into the TBR deck at the last moment with his great and magical tragicomedy Laughter in the Dark.

Told like a classic fairytale in a deceptively light-footed cadences, this stunning light-footed 1939 novel (Nabokov translated himself) relates the downward spiral of a stuffy bourgeois art critic whose obsession with a lovely (but untalented, callow and cruel) nineteen-year-old actress unravels his tidy consciousness and dull, but happy life. Nabokov would revisit this plot again in Lolita, but readers who may find that novel too dense an experience (not me) will find a fast moving, ecstatically written and suspenseful tale where never a word is put wrong (and wait ‘til you meet arch-villain Rex). I find the idea of novels centered around matrimonial cheating to be dull, but this is one novel I want to throw into everybody’s lap. Take my word: you will be entertained.

Another book that made me smile during the year was another early Nabokov work, his novella The Eye which first appeared in English in Playboy magazine in 1966. This wry spin of gamesmanship featuring another of Nabokov’s toxified romantics who thinks he’s committed suicide and become a ghost (Nothing to say on The Invention of Laura, which quietly awaits my eyes, but I sense it’s of more value to Nabokov scholars and bibliophiles than general readers).

Moving on: Peter Straub and Borderlands Press dished up a disturbing appetizer to Straub’s upcoming novel A Dark Matter in the form of the novella A Special Place: The Heart of a Dark Matter. As with many books I read, this is one of these things not for the sensitive among you,. Straub has taken a more stringent, spare approach to his prose in his recent novels and its works extremely well. The spareness makes this tale of young serial killer’s tutelage by a peripatetic uncle all the more upsetting and appalling, as it should be.

In a more historic-realist vein, Alan Furst’s The Polish Officer thrillingly dispensed with the notion that the Polish people failed to put up much of a resistance to the Nazi invasion of their country. It also made me wish I’d been hip to Furst’s work when it started appearing the late 1980s.

Loren D. Estleman pleased me for the fourth time in a row with another of his western tales The Wolfer. Published in 1978, it tells the story of a professional wolf hunter set against one of the great environmental disasters of the wild west—the near extinction of the timber wolf. With the passing in 2008 of Donald Westlake and the emptying out of the mid-list writers market (leaving nothing but God damned fucking juvenile YA zombie-vampire mashups--[Hey! Save it for the Ramsay Campbell discussion board!—Ed.]), Estleman seems to be one of the last practitioners of serious, finely-honed genre writing, a population I fear is fast-dwindling. I hope I'm wrong.

My favorite “new” writer of 2009 was David Corbett. The former private investigator published his first novel The Devil’s Redhead in 2002 and, I’m embarrassed to say, I only read it a few months ago. I promise to try to be timely when his Do They Know I’m Running? Comes out next year.

Another new old writer discovery was British author Nicolas Freeling whose entertaining, observant and nicely-titled 1966 mystery Because of the Cats this ailurophile came across in an obscure Berkeley used bookstore. Set in 1960s Amsterdam, it features a wry and world-weary Dutch detective and a nasty twist on Oliver Twist.

The Unique Novel of the Year award must go, however, to Motels of Burning Madness by a stage hypnotist named John-Ivan Palmer, who, if jacket copy veracity is to be trusted, personally researched this raunchy, wacky tale of a hapless, bone-headed, professional male stripper and his cross-country, cross-dressing journey through the grimy fringes of American show-biz society (I’ll undress—address--this entertaining, raunchy but good-hearted work at greater length in an upcoming piece.)


I like Christmas. Like Faith and Unbelief in their purest, most demanding forms, there’s no defense for this position in either science or law.

The reasons why I love Christmas I won’t discuss now, but I’ll note that for most Americans the holiday has devolved far away from the original intent of both church and Charles Dickens into the deepest gutter of human greed to become a spectacle of sterile glitter, every moment flavored with anxiety, desperation, despair and debt. No wonder so many hate it. So, what’s the use of a hated holiday?

But recently, the stone cockles of my icy heart were warmed to read in a Slate magazine article (elaborated on in Time magazine) that a new War on Christmas has begun--a war waged by . . .

. . . Christians . . . .

Apparently, a large segment of Christians everywhere has had it up to their mistletoe with Christmas as defined by WalMart, Glenn O’Breilly, James Donahue, et al. (Something about Jesus driving the moneylenders out of the temple, instead of giving them the run of the joint while piteously demanding that they greet customer with “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” . . . sheesh!)

Calling themselves the Advent Conspiracy, this Plot Against WalMart-mas was hatched by an Oregon pastor named Rick McKinley, who, while sitting around with some of his colleagues four years ago, suddenly realized they were all dreading the upcoming holiday. “None of us,” he admitted, “like Christmas.” (“A Time to Worry,” as wise Mr. Boffo might say).

And so the conspiracy was hatched: to take Christmas back from the Capitalists and their scolding Satanic reactionary collaborators to its Gospel roots of love, charity, patience, forbearance, hope . . . all the values that you just know Bill O’Reilly hates.

The Advent Conspiracy's concepts are these: Worship fully, spend less, give more, love all. Which leads me to ask a question for all of you: of all those concepts, which one would you find the most challenging to live by?

I'll answer first: number four.

And so, a True Merry Christmas to you Christians who happen to be surfing by and to the rest, Happy Holidays!

There'll be no going to Hell for that.

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