Thursday, January 5, 2012

2011: A Few Favorite Things

 Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point, Christmas Eve: The best damn thing I saw all year . . . even better than Breaking Bad

In my fifty-seven years, I’ve never known one without turbulence. There have always been wars and suffering, great and small; revolutions and reactions; famines and plagues; violence and assorted crimes. Every year has been—in the idealistic sense—bad, though some stand out historically: 1963, 1968, 1980, 2001. “History is just one damn thing after another,” Henry Ford is supposed to have said. You can take that in one of three ways: as an expression of dismissal, frustration, or resignation.

(Already, 2012 has shown a cruel face. Many of My Great Plans have gone awry, as I tripped over a cunning nasty flu that wrapped me up like a damp, moldy wool sweater as I leapt from the gate; hence the late date for this. Perhaps John Cusack and the Mayans [that new hip-hop group I’ve heard about, on Wikipedia I guess] are right! The World will end in 2012!)

Still every year has its virtues, pleasures and joys, and 2011 was no exception, as I’ll try to demonstrate.


Once again, as an unpaid book critic, I liked most of what I read in 2012, and what I didn’t like was put quietly aside.

My favorite book of last year, hands down, was Vladimir Nabokov’s The Gift (read my review here). I also encountered great joy in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay by Michael Chabon,  a passionate tribute to the epic energy and imagination of genre fiction (or, in this case, classic comics).

As time goes by, I find myself turning away from horror and mystery fiction to wander the foggy alleys of espionage. It was a very good year for this dense, challenging, and slippery genre. I got a tremendous charge out of Alan Furst’s Red Gold (someday, I’ll catch up with the rest, don’t worry). My annual visit to the oeuvre of Eric Ambler also led me down the atmospheric Balkan byways of Judgment on Deltchev. My year in spy novels was topped by John le Carr√©’s The Honorable Schoolboy, the second in his Karla trilogy.

Further down the list, but still worthwhile, were Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers and Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog, two of the more ambitious genre novels of the year. I also laughed heartily at Matt Stewart’s engaging only-in-San-Francisco-farce, The French Revolution.

I read many short stories this year in breaks between novels. The best were from Peter Straub’s ambitious two volume collection American Fantastic Tales where I re-visited such classics as “The God of Dark Laughter” by Michael Chabon; “The Events at Poroth Farm” by T.E.D. Klein; “Smoke Ghost” by Fritz Leiber; and Mr. Straub’s own “A Short Guide to the City,” a novella I never tire of. The best new discovery in this collection was “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio,” by Tennessee Williams, a writer who, I gather, went on to greater things after this story appeared in Weird Tales.

Unfortunately, as an actual book-writer, I cannot read everything that tempts my inner eye. Most of my reading is taken up with research for my work-in-progress, Butchertown; therefore, my shelf is narrow and sometimes dry, based on pragmatic considerations of research, rather than the pursuit of adventure. Still, two books I found worth reading were Last Call by Daniel Okrent (a major source for the PBS series Prohibition) and California: A State of Change a beautiful coffee table volume by Laura Cunningham, a book I hated to set aside . . . but just wait until you start writing your own books and you’ll get what I mean, bub.

Southern Colorado . . . Makes the set for Star Wars look like a ten-cent Republic Serial


Maybe the most compelling work of narrative visual art—better than most movies—I experienced last year was AMC’s stunning, mind-swallowing, and terrifying mini-series Breaking Bad.

For those who stand wisely outside the echo chamber, BreakingBad is the blackest of black comedies. It tells the story of Walter White, a middle-class high-school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico whose world is crumbling beneath him: choking on debt, with a new baby on the way, Walter also discovers he hosts a virulent lung cancer and will die soon.

What’s a desperate member of the sinking American middle class to do to protect his beloved family, to provide for their uncertain future? Why, turn to meth dealing, of course! Breaking Mad manages to convince us that a man—or at least this one—might try anything, if desperate enough. Especially in these times.

Ever since The Sopranos, the cable mini-series has grown to become our dominant narrative art form, achieving heights of artistry that movies find harder to achieve nowadays.

Breaking Bad may be the mini-series’ apotheosis. Like the best of them, the show combines the capacious room, rich detail, and moral intricacy of the novel with the bracing thoughtful visuals of great movies. Watching this show—a classic tale of good intentions gone ghastly—is an exhilarating and terrifying ride full of jarring and hilarious plots twists, pungent, rich characterizations, great performances, and abundant moral sense. (A word of advice: watch it—and other mini-series—on DVD. The absence of commercials intensifies the experience.)

We’ve also enjoyed catching up on AMC’s Mad Men, an elegantly visual drama about the lives and fortunes of Madison Avenue ad executives in 1960s New York. I started out in the same neighborhood and the same economic class, so I appreciate its careful attention to detail (though practically all of it is filmed in L.A.).

Mad Men hearkens back to serious 1960s black-and-white TV dramas such as Naked City, East Side West Side andThe Defenders. Its proud literacy is to its credit. It’s also an often lacerating domestic drama, a genre I admit often makes me squirm for an episode of The Untouchables.

Also many of its characterizations seem static—how many episodes do we need to learn that Pete Campbell is a brown-nosing asshole? Whatever happened to Roger Sterling’s heart problems anyway? In the first season, he had two heart attacks. Three seasons later, he’s still smoking like a boiler, drinking like a shark and skipping around like Stephen Colbert. The guy who plays him (John Slattery) is excellent, but I swear, any second now, he's gonna fall like a tree.

Finally, Betty Draper (now Betty Francis), once she’s out from under her husband’s shadow, becomes the willowy cipher I expected her of being: not half as interesting a character as either Peggy Olson or Joan Harris. January Jones as Betty may be a good actress, so blame the writers for that one.

Speaking of Mrs. Draper’s husband, though, what really keeps us captivated is Jon Hamm as Don Draper. Hamm, the handsomest male star since Cary Grant and Sean Connery, is also a terrific performer here. He makes Draper into a basically good, artistic man who’s selling his soul and living a great lie and grappling with the consequences of the lie and the actual truth behind the it and the often terrible choices it leads—womanizing is just the start—to live in a privileged style he’s become much too accustomed to, one that is truly not his.

Even when the plotting goes off the rails, Hamm delivers a great performance. It’s a pleasure to watch the waves of torment and confusion rise, fall and roll through that handsome face. I keep watching to answer one question: “What’s this man going to with his life?”

That may be reason enough.

Now, though my chest still feels wrapped in tarnished copper, it's time to charge on into 2012.  Let’s see . . .  anybody know where can I download music videos of John Cusack and the Mayans? I’ll check Wikipedia. They’re always right.

(Edited 1/13/12)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.


Anonymous said...

Lovely retrospective of the books you read....

Thomas Burchfield said...

Thank you!