Friday, February 4, 2011

Late Arrivals: The Books of 2010

 Inspiration Waiting for Sunset in its Banker's Box Coffin

Sure, it’s late for reviewing the books that blazed or drifted under my eyes in 2010 (the Precambrian Era in Internet time), especially now that everyone else is handicapping the best of
2011, but I’m not to blame (though I won’t say that, because that would be whining). 

Besides, no one stands apart like the guy late to the party . . . especially when the host staggers out of bed at 11:00 am to find his tardy guest declaiming to an empty living room.

Poised on the blue peak was my Annual Classic from The Canon, The Complete Fictions by Jose Luis Borges, dazzling shards of world-making by an author I’ve heard of all my reading life, but never got around to until last year. Borges packs so much color, invention and joy into such wondrously small literary cloakrooms, I’m now mortified to take even a whole sentences to say what I can in half.

Also near the snowy summit was David Corbett’s bracing, complex pungent thriller Do They See Me Running? part gripping suspenser in the Greene/Ambler/LeCarré tradition, part caustic look at the politics poisoning the immigration debate, expressed with vivid poetry, evoking stinging sweat and crushing anxiety. I felt the mud slip under my feet, the grit crunch in my teeth, and the pangs of sorrow and fear of desperate people compelled to take a grim journey. A fine work throughout.

Easily my favorite nonfiction was Operation Mincemeat by Ben MacIntyre, the truly true thriller of one of the most successful espionage operations of World War II—how a team of British intelligence agents (vividly drawn by MacIntyre down to a dead man) snookered the Nazi empire about their real invasion plans by floating a corpse packed with false invasion plans off the Spanish coast. Never has the fight against evil seemed so inspiring.

Another nonfiction pleasure was The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale, the story behind one of the first homicides to face investigation under the magnifying glass of modern police techniques—the horrid 1860 murder of a child, committed in the Elysian English countryside. Told
like the best detective novel, it’s a great true story and a fascinating tour behind the grubby curtains and secret mahogany interiors of Victorian middle-class life. It also shows how the case dovetailed with the rise of crime and detective fiction. The murder remained unsolved for sixty years and even then, another century passed until this marvelous book came long to reveal a fascinating, troubling dénouement.

Back to fictional mysteries: I loved A Private View (from 1951; also known as One Man Show) by Michael Innes, an erudite writer of elegance and wit from England’s Golden Age of Mystery. This sly, funny novel about the alleged theft of a van Meer painting right from under the high-tipping noses of art gallery patrons in 1930s England is worth the time of both art and mystery lovers.

Speaking of erudition, my ongoing, mostly self-guided, exploration of the magic ink-trail left by Vladimir Nabokov continued with second readings of his first novel Mary and the first novel of what is called the “Disaster Trilogy,” King Queen Knave. Mary is a slim sweet slipper of a first novel about a young Russian émigré’s stay at Heartbreak Hotel, while KQK remains a dazzling comic-tragic “gay brute” farce about a naive blunderer’s affair with his wealthy uncle’s wife. I normally leave novels about adultery snug in their dust-coated jackets, but Nabokov’s skill at conjuring enchantment out the grayest material hardly ever fails.

First readings of Nabokov’s Despair and Invitation to a Beheading were, admittedly, somewhat less rewarding. Despair is the third in the “Disaster” trilogy. (Number two is the sublime Laughter in the Dark.) This particular edition was retranslated by Nabokov in 1965. Here, Hermann Karlovich, Russian émigré and pompous twit (and ancestor to Lolita’s villainous paramour, Humbert Humbert) stumbles upon his
supposed exact double, a homeless man, then plots to murder him and switch places with the corpse so he can collect on his own life insurance.

Nabokov also makes this scoundrel a bad writer—a Jack Benny of letters, if you will. My research informs me that Nabokov intended this as an unaffectionate parody of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, but your untutored reviewer found himself thinking of James M. Cain (who likely read “Dusty,” as Nabokov calls him). This very dark comedy about a man whose mind is a false mirror is funny for awhile as fatuous Hermann prattles on about his illusory brilliance—like the murderer in Crime and Punishment--but the narrative flattens at the end.

I found Invitation to a Beheading so baffling at first, I started over after a hundred pages. I didn’t mind, though, as Nabokov’s glittering and dreamlike puzzle pieces dropped into their distinctive pattern the second time through. This is a surreal and convoluted trip into the soul of a lonely man awaiting execution for the crime of “gnostical turpitude.” (Translation: being eccentric.) This novel is often compared to Kafka’s The Trial, but Nabokov claimed he didn’t read Kafka until years after he completed this book. Despite the beauty of its writing and Nabokov’s imaginative touches, I found it to be overall as cramped as its setting, and unmoving. As Professor
Nabokov might put it, my spine shivered only a little.

Speaking of exiles, 2010 was the year of the independent author-publisher and the first of these books I’ve liked so far is Farrago: More Stories by Bay Area writer Lucille Bellucci. This is a pleasing collection of stories and feullitons. Ms. Bellucci is a truly multicultural person—born in Shanghai to an Italian-Dutch-Indonesian father and a Chinese mother, she and her family fled from Shanghai to Italy after World War II—from hot pan of revolutionary China to the dismal coal of postwar Italy. To say that puts her apart from much of the rest of us is understatement. Her stories—some of them sketches actually--vary in interest, but the best ones deal with her experiences as a young woman in Italy. Definitely worth a go.

Another small press publication worth your attention is The Space Between, five striking stories by noted by noted bridge rambler John Law. Bring your Dramamine and don’t look down.

The best horror novel I read all year was Ramsey Campbell’s twisting staircase of terror Thieving Fear. While I didn’t see Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter as ranking among my favorites, I adored the volume 1 of his two-volume American Fantastic Tales anthology, a treasure box of gems, some of them unknown to me, including Robert W. Chambers' marvelous The King in Yellow.

Next up: my favorite novels of 1999.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

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Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published this Spring by Ambler House Publishing. Other essays and postings can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

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