The year of our Lord, 2015, seemed an especially rough year for our species and our home, Planet Earth. It was a struggle here at the tiny Burchfield Estate, as well: Ship masts peering over the horizon only to sink away beneath the rim, as I watched from the windswept dock, hands stuffed in my empty pockets, frustration gnawing like a starving dog.
In anticipation of the publication of my latest novel Butchertown, I returned to blogging in 2015 after a year’s abeyance. The book has not passed through the publishing birth canal yet. But the likelihood that it will happen now grows sharply—there is a ship coming in. So I pray and keep pushing.
During 2015, I posted mostly book reviews here, mostly fiction. They’re faster, easier to write. Especially when you’re writing for free, a practice I recommend to no one.
I attended only a few theatrical films. Cable series are rather difficult to cover, though, nowadays, they’re my favorite narrative medium. They cover such a vast, convoluted skein of time, they’re a little hard to discuss with anyone who’s not already hip to their novelistic groove. And I’m not one of those everyday binge watchers, a hollowed-eyed fan zombie: “In this neato fantastic episode of The Pompous Dead, Earl devours Betty’s head, then makes her ears into watch fobs. This symbolizes the second term tyranny of THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION!”
Nevertheless, I’ll say without equivocation that in terms of sheer quality, artistry and interest, television has surpassed traditional movies. The little black box in the living room is no longer scorned as the scrawny little brother sleeping under the stairwell.
No, movies are not dead as an art form, but barring any massive shifts and fractures in the economics and technology of media, feature films are no longer as central in our culture as they once were. The old borders have faded. It’s all filmmaking, all cinema, now.
My 2015 resolution was to read and review new fiction, a resolution that, with chins up, I declare kept.
However, keeping this resolution alerted me to how much of an outlier I am among the Internet’s readers and reviewers when Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, the biggest fiction hit of 2015, failed to bring me to a standing ovation. True, it may because I’m a “Guy” and “don’t get it because you’re a Man and we all know what They are.” But then again, there was the odd choice on the author’s part to present four distinctive POV characters singing in the same narrative voice, flattening and confusing the narrative.
Then again, maybe some Great Deep Avant-garde point was being made that I failed to grasp, thanks to my crude male brain. I’m not much for writing negative reviews. (Not because I’m a nice guy, but because I’m not being paid. If I’m going to spend twelve hours of my life in order to go all Anthony Lane on a bad book, I need to be paid.) But Girl on the Train, while not terrible, grew pretty stale by the end.
Mostly positive reviews: the price you pay for free writing.
My favorite new novel of the year was World Gone By, by Dennis Lehane. This was the conclusion of a three-part epic detailing the rise and lonely violent fall of a Boston Irish gangster in the early 20th Century, when such men were, sometimes understandably, embraced by the public imagination. I’d not read the earlier books, but that seemed to make no difference to me. It was an excellent novel, a wonderful read.
Also pleasing was David Corbett’s Mercy of the Night a sad and penetrating suspenser set in Northern California detailing the efforts of a troubled ex-lawyer to intervene in the crisis of a young teenage addict and lowlife, as they both struggle to escape their respective shadows.
Most everyone wanted to greet Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman with flowers and fireworks—it opens as a beautiful portrait of rural life in the American South in the 1950s and 1960s, full of right details, funny and tender. But once the narrative clumsily tears the mask off Atticus Finch to reveal the racist underneath, it starts to read like an author’s--very urgent and deeply sincere—first novel, clumsy with anger and urgency to say “something important.” Much heat, but very little light. The kind of book we all wrote in our twenties. At least I did….
I also enjoyed Dry Bones, the latest Longmire modern Western yarn by Wyoming’s Craig Johnson; and Peter Straub’s Perdido, a dense enigmatic novella about a young man whose parents return home from vacation much changed, a tale woven with serpentine poetry.
More positive thoughts go for The Whites by Richard Price, and The Martini Shot a collection of short stories and novellas by George Pelecanos.
In non-fiction, I liked Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Mystery, a colorful, entertaining survey of the mostly British authors who laid much of the groundwork for crime fiction as we know it now. It was the only new nonfiction I read all year. I resolve for 2016 is to fix that.
OUT OF THE PAST
Meanwhile, I found, as always, much to like in old books. (Is this some sort of nostalgia bias? Am I merely an Old Fart blind to the zeitgeist, despite my hip n’ trim goatee? O Twenty-first Century Man, you worry so! After millennia of fearing about the World to Come, you fret over the storms of cyberspace, rather than the real storms, purple on the real horizon!)
Though we starve from famine
And burn with hate
I guess we’ll be havin’
To argue The Hateful 8!
It’s hard to choose among the best of the old, but my re-reading of Ted Lewis’s Get Carter provided plenty of two-fisted pleasure on its hard-boiled journey over the rusty plains of 1960s Northern England. My first ride with Jack London’s The Sea Wolf—also my canon classic of the year--also took me a gritty, mostly fabulous journey through the Pacific seas of the 1890s.
Additional fun was found following the winding prose of Ramsey Campbell’s The Long Lost about an act of Good Samaritanship gone eerily wrong and Michael Innes’ consistently amusing Appleby’s Answer. I’ll also enjoyed my second reading of Eric Ambler’s The Light of Day, a book so well-regarded during its time that it both won an Edgar Award and was further enhanced by its film adaptation, Topkapi.
In nonfiction, Looking for a Ship, John McPhee’s chronical of the changing world of cargo freighters and their crews, written in the 1990s, was a favorite. Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed got my respect by virtue of sheer energy and color, and also the sense of an ideologue’s dream world starting to crack in the face of murderous reality.
Finally, Curiosity of the Year goes to Aldous Huxley’s Jesting Pilate, a 1920s travel book that was more than just a nearly blind, 1920s English tourist dissing the Taj Mahal. It was also a neat picture of a certain mind in its time and place.
AT THE BIJOU AND ON THE COUCH
I did make it to a couple movies this year, though I wrote very little about them. The best discovery I made, was the Australian horror tale The Babadook and its star Essie Davis in a shattering performance at brilliant odds with her turn as Phryne Fisher on PBS.
I also found Bridge of Spies one the most engrossing and entertaining of the films I saw, thanks more to the acting of Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance as the Good American and Dedicated Communist Spy respectively who find themselves on the same side of things. It’s not Steven Spielberg’s best, but still better than most.
And speaking of Mr. Rylance, another happy discovery, I also loved his performance in the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I’d not read the book--most unfortunately--and found the filmed drama kind of flat, but Rylance is such a still presence. He’s one of those actors who hint at great depths without even a shiver in his eyes.
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was goofy James Bondian fun (even with Tom Cruise, who never clicks as an action hero with me, I don’t give a damn what box office receipts say). The original James Bond was on hand for Spectre, seemingly the last, if not the best, of the Daniel Craig era (I’ll have more to say when it emerges in video.)
Holmesians starving for more Sherlock Holmes after the BBC Sherlock! concluded another grandly entertaining series, at least had Mr. Holmes, starring Ian McKellan as the great detective in his dotage from where his genius still glimmers (though I wondered why it wasn’t simply broadcast as a PBS Masterpiece Mystery).
While Mad Max: Thunder Road swam in praise, I was put off by its clattering 21st-Century franticism. It seemed to claw at the heels of the teenage audience to keep it from walking out, while leaving the rest of us, some old fans of The Road Warrior, muddled and numb. “Excellent politics!” one wonder-struck critic cried. “So fucking what?” I grumbled, as I kicked the back of the seats on my way out, like an old man booting children off his lawn. “In my day, sonny, we watched action movies where we knew what was going on!”
Again, I found much more excitement and pleasure on that small screen in my living room. I can’t heap enough praise on FX’s The Americans, a knife edge thriller about Soviet sleeper agents struggling with increasing desperation to keep their radical souls pure while living the high-life in 1980s America. Great filmmaking, great performances from all around. I look forward to its return—and likely conclusion—this spring.
That show may well have inspired a companion series of sorts to Deutschland 83, a German produced series show on the Sundance Channel, about another Soviet spy, an East German sent to penetrate the Allied High Command in West Germany early in the Reagan years. That too provided plenty of suspense and tension, conveyed with great skill and intelligence.
The second season of the French-produced ghost series The Returned (about the dead trying to adjust to life among the living) provided more eerie intrigue, though its plot threads grew knotted and shaggy. I like how it conveys the uncanny over the merely shocking, but can’t escape the nagging feeling that it’s played all its cards. Even so, it’s coming back for a third season.
More successful to me was the Breaking Bad spinoff, Better Call Saul. I was initially skeptical that much could be made of what amounted to supporting comic relief in Breaking Bad, and the series does seem to take its sweet time. But, in great part due to Bob Odenkirk as Saul and the wily Vince Gilligan, series creator, we’re looking forward to season two.
I also liked season two of Fargo a better than season one, probably because of the introduction of more action-thriller elements (meaning some great shoot-outs). But also because of its eerie compositions of the Midwestern landscape and the performances of Patrick Wilson, Kristin Dunst and Jeremy Plemons, the latter two perfect advertising for the old adage, “Crime Does Not Pay.”
Finally, there were good-byes. The FX series Justified did not end as I predicted here, with Raylan paying a price for his insouciant gunplay and one other major character biting the dust. We liked it anyway.
And we said a half-good-bye to longtime San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll. Half good-bye, because he is still very much among us. Do pay his site a visit. And tell him Burchfield sent you!
Time to get on with 2016. Peace and Joy to you all. Can’t make it perfect. But we’ll try to make it better.
Copyright 2016 by Thomas Burchfield
Photo by authorThomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.