Saturday, January 5, 2013

Resolution Fail


One of the resolutions I made at the end of 2011 was to read and review more contemporary novels. It wasn’t so much a matter of shunning the old and the great: I was facing the fact that, as my audience has grown (by over 100%; my page views totaled more than 55,000 in 2012), and as I write new books, I should turn more of my attention to contemporary fiction.

I don’t want to be known as Mr. Reactionary Old Fart. (“Nope, they don’t write ‘em like Lovecraft used ta, by gum!” I crab, waving my cane, my dentures clacking.) That animal is as invasive common as the Touchy Fan Boy (Batmanus fanaticus) in the jungle bitscape known as the Internet, that seething pit of the world’s petty angers.

But since I unabashedly sneer at and scorn young readers and moviegoers who won’t read or watch anything made before 1978, it’s only fair that I make some effort to keep up, right?

Thanks to illness and financial problems, though, I found the resolution nearly impossible to keep. I only read two contemporary novels. The Expat by Chris Pavone started out excellently but went flat at the end. Floating Staircase by Ronald Malfi, which beat out Dragon’s Ark for first prize in the 2012 IPPY award in horror fiction, was refreshingly low-key and atmospheric, though its ending left something to be desired. (It also suffered from a few of the technical glitches found in indie fiction, including my own).

In the end, I was forced to turn back to dusty tomes purchased long ago that lay a-dozing upon my bookshelf, their spines gleaming like gold as I limped by.

High among the best novels I read in 2012 was Smiley’s People by John le Carré, published in 1982, but as fresh as ever. Le Carré opens a unique window into the shadowy, fascinating realm of the world’s second oldest profession—espionage. Like the best genre novels, it creates a world that may not be like our everyday lives, but somehow reflects it all the same, with great and compelling style.

Another favorite read was Eric Ambler’s 1953 novel The Schirmer Inheritance, another observant, finely written, and steely-eyed adventure of an innocent abroad; this time a young, glib American lawyer gets perilously lost in post-World War II northern Greece and tangles with a motley populace of ex-partisans, Communists, and Nazis. There’s not an accomplished, literate suspense writer around or hasn’t learned a thing or two from Ambler. We all owe him a lot.

Another favorite novel was a little more recent: Eddie Muller’s The Distance, from 2002, a genuinely offbeat and vivid noir mystery set in the bruising world of the 1940s boxing in fog-shrouded San Francisco. I especially enjoyed how Muller eschews muscle-bound, high-IQ supermen for a scarred, but otherwise very ordinary hero. Its portrait of mid-20th Century San Francisco is as glittering, sad, and gaudy as you could hope for.

For truly deep, old-fashioned pleasure—especially when I was at my sickest—I couldn’t have done better than Maigret and the Spinster  by Georges Simenon (1942). Simenon is thought by many to be the greatest, most literate, mystery writer of the last century, if not for all time. The first Simenon novel I read, Maigret and the Yellow Dog, left me shrugging, but this one—about the despair and anger that engulf Inspector Maigret after he ignores a call for help—is moving, exciting, filled with vivid characters. One of the Bay Area local public TV stations has stopped carrying MHZ’s International Mystery, which broadcasts the most recent of the numerous Maigret film adaptations (starring Bruno Cremer). For those who are as miffed by this lapse as I am, there is a lot of Simenon to read to make up for it.

I was also happy to read one more from Donald Westlake novel, The Comedy Is Finished. Other worthwhile pleasures came from David Corbett’s collection Killing Yourself to Survive, and two by F. Scott Fitzgerald: This Side of Paradise and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Other Jazz Age Stories. The year closed well with Frank Norris’s McTeague.

The only short story anthology I completed in 2012 was The Book of Terror, a fusion of two 1990s anthologies edited by Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell. As often happens in these collections, there are hits, misses, and in-betweeners. The hits are plenty though and include the novellas “The Ghost Village” by Peter Straub, “The Medusa” by Thomas Ligotti and “Snodgrass” by Ian R. McLeod, which pungently speculates on John Lennon’s life if he had quit the Beatles before their rocket ride to fame. It was also a treat to be reintroduced to the work of Steve Rasnic Tem with his reflective story “Mirror Man”


 “That trashy genre fiction will eat your brain and turn you into a hack!” they used to yell. Nowadays, it’s, “That highbrow literary stuff will destroy your writing career and trick you into writing boring, unreadable books!”

To both sides, I chortle “Screw you both! I’ll read what I fuck-ing well please!” with two Vladimir Nabokov novels. One was his scary, funny and moving response to Orwell’s1984, Bend Sinister. The novel spins a grim and cruel satire of communist society and the lonely scholar-dissident and loving father who falls afoul of it and faces the consequences of his rebellion. I still think 1984 is the better book, but this one is also worth your time: It made me laugh as it broke my heart.

An even better Nabokov creation was Pnin, the short, funny, and poignant story of a Russian émigré professor’s lonely struggle to put his feet down in the very strange country known as America, only to find the ground constantly running out from under him. Again, I was captivated by Nabokov’s eerie ability to describe the world through so many different prisms, a talent so unlike anyone else. There are no goblins, demons, or fairies in his work, but nobody, not even Tolkien, writes with such strange and fabulous magic.

You want trippy? You get it from Vladimir Nabokov.

Many of my favorite books from 2012 were nonfiction. At the top is You Can’t Win by Jack Black, a criminal’s memoir that, whether all-true or not, can’t be beat for hair-raising entertainment and granular insight into just how professional criminals manage to make a living.

Another great look at life among the forgotten was Invisible Romans by Robert Knapp, his compassionate study of the faceless millions who are only a shadow in the official histories of the Roman Empire.

Another worthwhile read about people you won’t hear about in history class was The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War by David Laskin, an amazing book about the European immigrants to the United States who found themselves shipped back home to fight in World War I.

Also on my nonfiction list is Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin, Berkeley professor Gray Brechin’s angry history that uses the rise of San Francisco to illustrate how the rise of civilization’s mighty cities has led to environmental disaster for us all.

And finally, for those who come by for insights into the trials and travails of an independent publisher, allow me to point you to A Self-Publisher’s Companion by my guru (and Dragon’s Ark interior designer) Joel Friedlander. Joel is a pioneer in this field, and as I tell of my trail and trials in bring my next novel, Butchertown, to press, I’ll be talking about Joel’s book again in the future.


Now, as for my 2013 resolution to read more contemporary novels, no, it is not going well.

A few weeks ago, I downloaded Justin Cronin’s vampires-conquer-the-world epic The Passage to see if the hub-bub was worth my time. The other night, as doubt assailed me about going any further into its slow, dusty-dull landscape, my Kobo app froze up and The Passage disappeared into the arms of Buddha.

It only took a while for me to turn to my paperback copy of The Inferno of Dante, translated Robert Pinsky, just purchased at a real bookstore . . . .

I’m only in the introduction and, oh yes, there really is a God after all and He works in very odd and mysterious ways.

(re-edited 1/9/12)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
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.

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