My Year In Fiction

From delightful discoveries to over-hyped disappointments, counting down a year’s fiction reading from best to worst:

Milkman by Anna Burns: what goes through a young girl’s mind when male sexual privilege inexorably encroaches, endless partisan violence cautions against caring, and virulent rumor ruthlessly inflates the innocent into the unforgiveable? Milkman is a word-loving but miraculously never word-drunk narrative, and while everything’s a little too conveniently resolved, this stream-of-consciousness barrage from an exaggerated rather than unimaginable everywhere is outrageously relevant yet deeply involving.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer: in which an author sets off on a road trip comedy of errors, all to avoid the painful wedding of his ex-boyfriend. I started out kind of poo-pooing this extended pun and then I just plain fell in love with it.

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami: exquisite, memorable, a puzzle and therefore much more than the sum of its parts. (The answer is right on the tip of my soul.)

When We Were Orphans and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro: the first an unanswered question, a numbingly brutal immersion into war in Japan; the second an unrelenting yet placid nightmare, a hellish, accurate analogy of the human condition. Read them both.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan: Like Dickens for grownups, this grudgingly adventurous bildungsroman takes a young slave from Barbados by balloon, to Nova Scotia by ship, then on to the Arctic and America and England. Science, art, and romance are on board, while a nicely reasoned maturity awaits on shore. It’s all fairly preposterous but wildly imaginative, insightful, and sane.

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano: a bit of a letdown in that I could see where it was going, and far from Bolano’s best, but nevertheless a superb trip through the conscience of a country.

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent: this one has best depiction of malignant narcissism I’ve ever encountered, plus a compelling young heroine and tense, edge-of-your-seat action.

Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeliene Thein: a child’s experience of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge explored by virtue of a memory journey of both miles and years, a cyclic reaching out for recovery.

Crazy Rich Asians trilogy by Kevin Kwan: the very best snarky escapism, and thank you for the footnotes, Mr. Kwan, they were lovely.

Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo: Bejing, youth and eagerness, movie making, struggles – it’s slight but nothing can squash the delicate joy infusing this novel.

Alias Grace by Margret Atwood: NO, NO, NO! What a cheap, cowardly solution, and that matters. Show her as she is, what she was forced to become, because there’s the true tragedy. The factual history of Grace Marks, the 19th century maid convicted for her part in a murder, carries this book despite a nonsensical, mitigating out.

The Leavers by Lisa Ko: an oddly moving book on Chinese immigrants and a boy deserted by his mother, having to adjust to adoptive parents, to become another person with different tastes and perhaps expunged memories. I remember this one clearly despite myself, despite not even liking the characters that much. They keep hanging around like unwanted friends.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson: here’s a writer just having some fun, so I did too. As with The Diamond Age it starts with an absolutely genius concept but kind of runs down. He does this, and it makes me furious. 

The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn: a suspenseful novel featuring some nicely timed surprises, one of which works quite well. I guessed the villain of the piece immediately, but still pretty neat little thriller.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje: an atmospheric WWII tale with a mild shock to catch you up with this business of war, adolescence, and the unseen consequences that filter down to disregarded lives.

Nobody’s Son by Mark Slouka: this one was odd, but interesting. It’s the usual look back at troubled parents and a traumatic childhood, but it carefully constructs its narrative in order to abruptly refute it – the end.
But I still wonder about it.

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer: contemporary feminism in the style of Little Women. See my Literary Rant here. There’s a stark difference between an idea that grows organically and one brashly stolen from the headlines.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple: fun enough, I guess, but the satiric and the serious seemed out of step, and neither idea quite got where it needed to get. All in all an interesting trip to a decent if not really valid resolution, so fine.

White Tears by Hari Kunzru: cultural appropriation, time, and race music on a literal and very dark ride into the Deep South.

What Remains of Me by Alison Gaylin: a just okay Hollywood mystery in hindsight.

Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta: this story of two female filmmakers didn’t move me; an earnest examination of two basically uninteresting people.

The Girls by Emma Cline: a major disappointment, a pale effort that plays around the edges and never delivers new ideas or real insight.

A Separation by Katie Kitamura: a husband loses himself in Greece, the wife follows, and nothing much else happens, certainly nothing unexpected.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry: damply disappointing, just no fun.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Suskind: I hated this book.

Bonus: new in some of my favorite mystery series:

The Knowledge: A Richard Jury Mystery by Martha Grimes: it’s exactly what you’d expect, with a black cab ride to a secret pub, and Melrose Plant with a clever little girl on safari in Africa. So basically all’s right in that particular world, thank you very much.

Lethal White: A Cormoran Strike Novel by Robert Galbraith: what a relief to see these characters getting their silly lives back on track. Also there’s a mystery at Parliament and some upper and lower class characters and so on.

Y is for Yesterday by Sue Grafton: her excellent last letter.

The Inspector Gamache series (all 14 books) by Louise Perry: because I needed a rehabilitative stretch this summer so took a virtual vacation in Quebec, then suffered some months waiting for the final Gamache adventure, a satisfactory farewell. If you’re not familiar, there’s a perfect hero, a quaint, near-magical village, mysteries of the usual type, political machinations, intelligence, and a rather wicked wit.

(PLEASE NOTE: The Kindle version of Worthy of This Great City is on special, priced as low as it’s going to go. (I was planning on a holiday sale, but I was busy and forgot.) Before buying the book please read the Reader Alert on the Home Page, then the full Prologue on the Excerpts page. Or else don’t blame me.)

Photo credits: Dorine Ruter, Book (CC BY 2.0) / aehdeschaine, Books about books (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Screen and Stream 2018

What a marvelous movie year! Any film mentioned on this page is far superior to all last year’s awards winners. Below are some very brief comments to add to the general discussion, since even those movies I didn’t personally enjoy are admittedly excellent and well worth watching and talking about. My top eleven and a half (I couldn’t trim it to ten) follow.

The Favorite made me squirm. I greatly admired so much about it: its intelligent pathos, its contrasting of harsh poverty and preposterous extravagance, its sharp but offhand humor. But in the end I was instinctively outraged at yet another deliberate depiction of women set against each other by the exploitative machinations of men. I concede the specific and cultural bona fides, however they don’t excuse either the choice of material or the naïve expectation that I delight in this display of cruelty.

Green Book likewise beautifully presented a questionable tale, one perhaps not quite true but apparently well meant. But it was a master class on how to make a hokey, un-woke white-savior buddy film, and I enjoyed it even while knowing better. That’s on me.

I didn’t particularly enjoy The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coen Brothers clever compendium of Western-themed essays on death. The story with the chicken literally left me traumatized.

And I was fortunate enough to catch a theatrical showing of Tarkovsky’s Stalker not that long ago, so Annihilation had a high hurdle to leap, and to my surprise it did a pretty decent job of it. Not enough to clear the top, certainly, but the concepts and sensory effects were excellently creepy and disturbing. The confused science and silly ending could have used a little work.

BlacKkKlansman I thought terrifying for the sheer ineptitude and ignorance of its pathetic but dedicated villains, but this movie’s heroes ran a bit bland. I appreciated the spot-on period look and feel, and that finger pointing straight at today. (This movie requires the viewer to block out any natural outrage regarding what’s now known about government infiltration of black organizations.)

I’ve loved Joaquin Phoenix since The Immigrant and I wanted to love You Were Never Really Here but I didn’t see the brilliance, only the blood. I understand about the purity, the character’s own confusion, the depth of pain exploding into violent reality. It’s a small poem, if you like, but not one that speaks to me. In similar fashion, the equally sparse, indeed almost clinical Leave No Trace left me cold, but here I had additional concerns regarding its essential veracity, in so far as that criteria applies to fiction. (See my review here.)

I initially figured The Rider a shoe-in for my year’s best list, but while I still love this movie I’m not sure it isn’t more of a documentary, or anyway something else entirely. It’s an amazing movie, though: a bleak but loving testament to the modern West and rodeo culture.

I consider Eighth Grade this year’s Lady Bird. As with that film, I just don’t get the raves. Imagine it with a twenty-something traditional beauty playing the lead and tell me that doesn’t diminish its power.

Happy as Lazzaro was a delight, with a driving sense of impending tragedy that matched its barren, beautiful setting. I’m not sure yet regarding the introduction of magical realism: it’s a perfect solution but I think it loses its way, or anyway it felt to me as if the present didn’t adequately reflect the past. I was loving the sharp wit of Sorry to Bother You until the horse thing came in and it got too silly. Searching proved an engrossing if unremarkable detective story, with its investigation of the Internet world that’s increasingly our world, but I was a tiny bit disappointed because a final realization from real life.

Black Panther was just outright fun, with a nice moral dilemma to boot. Wakanda Forever! And Crazy Rich Asians was almost as enjoyable as the book(s) – perfectly cast, costumed, and played.

THE TOP ELEVEN AND A HALF

11. Madeline’s Madeline: I started out a little hesitant, stuck with it, and wow! What a kick-ass little film! This little improvisational experiment about a girl involved with an improvisational theater group is not heading in any direction you can rationally foresee, but just trust it and it’ll do right by you.

10. Support The Girls: All about one truly horrible day at a Hooters-type restaurant, this movie is so heartfelt and so real, and so much the welcome antithesis of The Favourite, with a wonderful performance from Regina Hall.

9. Isle of Dogs: The absolute nature of canine devotion versus municipal corruption, with science and junior journalism to the rescue – what more could you ask? I fell hard for Wes Anderson’s stalwart mutts. (No, I’m ignoring all the cultural appropriation stuff. Have you seen those adorable dogs?)

8. If Beale Street Could Talk: Based on the 1974 novel by James Baldwin, this movie shares both the eroding terror of racism and the insistence of steadfast love, with nothing either trite or overblown about it. One part of my mind was thinking: “At least he wasn’t shot outright; what a relief.” In that respect it felt almost quaint.

7. Angels Wear White: The stark tale of two molested schoolgirls and the teenaged motel worker inadvertently caught up in the crime, this movie compels through its virtually unemotional depiction of children calmly going about the business of resolving the horrendous problems adults have landed on them, as if that were the expected and ordinary thing to do. Never mind that Marilyn Monroe statue on the beach, skirt flying up, as usual carrying more than her share of weighty symbolism.

6. The Death of Stalin: Political satire done right, and what a lovely line it walks between insanity and history – or does that line even exist?

5. First Reformed: I did have some issues here. The sparse settings were sometimes the emphasis they meant to be, but at others I found myself thinking: no wonder that man killed himself. Take those plain stoneware mugs: if that woman had brought out brightly colored mugs with funny sayings it would have been more human and more genuinely tragic. And I had reservations regarding the floating spiritual connection as shown, but I’m not sure how else it could have been done. The point is, we must cling to each other in order to cling to life. The point is, that accommodating difference between real and acceptable Christianity.

4. Zama: A tale of an abandoned lesser dignitary on some desolate South American shore. I slogged through it, sweated through its humid, dense, unmoving environment, getting nowhere but taking forever to do it. Now remembering it makes me smile; in fact I feel kindly towards its pathetic, lazily immoral protagonist, and I love the way the movie reminds me of that precious human ability to remain alive.

3.5 I haven’t included documentaries here, but special honorable mention to Shirkers, so special on so many levels. Ultimately this story is about the creative process itself – about the necessarily collaborative nature of making movies, and who gets to control all that inventive power. What could be more important?

3. Shoplifters: How do you make a film about extreme poverty and borderline immorality in a marginalized population, end by cruelly undermining already fragile lives and endangering a tiny child, and somehow end up with a joyful narrative about the triumph of light and love? This movie is an absolute miracle.

2. Roma: Ah, how achingly, outrageously excellent, every frame telling its own complete story, the whole incredible to view. Not that it’s faultless; indeed I have several issues with this film, chiefly its dependence on coincidence and the convenient event, but then perfection is always boring. This love letter to a family maid in 1970s Mexico City is occasionally about a servant, but it’s really any young woman’s story, and it unfairly benefits through choosing the universal over the particular. I was not so much emotionally moved by this film as utterly overwhelmed.

1. The Other Side of the Wind: The late Orson Welles’ story of an aged, legendary director returned to Hollywood to make his comeback film, lovingly assembled according to Welles’ own notes and the forty minutes of film he managed to edit before his death, and with a new score by Michel Legrand, this movie is the ultimate thesis on the exhausting nature of creative genius. (Read my full comments here.) A traditional tragedy still far ahead of its time and thus far from being fully appreciated – I would have worried were it better received than it was – Wind is acerbic, unflinching, unrestrained, and dazzling.

[Please note that I haven’t seen a number of films that might otherwise be part of this discussion, including Burning, The Sisters Brothers, The Tale, First Man, Lean on Pete, Cold War, or Vox Lux. And I deliberately avoided A Star is Born because I’ve had enough of that one. I think there are some deep, important feminist reasons behind that one, but this isn’t the place to unearth them.]

Next post: 2018 in novels.

(ALSO PLEASE NOTE: The Kindle version of Worthy of This Great City is on special sale this January, about as low as it goes without being free. (It was going to be a holiday sale, but I was busy and forgot.) Before buying the book please read the Reader Alert on the Home Page, then the full Prologue on the Excerpts page. Or else don’t blame me.)

Photo credits: Nick Ansell, York Theatre Royal refurbishment – 9 (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Personal Creations Movie review card (CC BY 2.0)

A Literary Rant

Here goes, then.

Genre fiction is just lesser literary fiction, okay? There are numerous pretentious opinions out there on what these terms mean and how they differ and which is better if either. The two dominant theories are: ‘literature is whatever doesn’t fit into a genre’, and ‘genre is escapism, while literature examines reality.’

I take a different approach: there’s genre fiction, and then there’s really good genre fiction which is literary fiction. (And also there’s ‘whatever doesn’t fit into a genre’ which can be good or bad literary fiction, depending on whether it’s good or bad.) My point is, if you think the publishing gods discount your books because they’re genre, you’re probably wrong. The problem isn’t the misogyny or ethnic bias or elitism or greed rampant in the industry, although misogyny and ethnic bias and elitism and greed are rampant in the industry.

The problem is you need to write better.

Or not exactly, since pulp magazines can and often do feature highly skilled writers. Technique – ability – is one thing, but talent is another. What we’re really talking about here is degree of talent.

Also, books with great ideas can be written by pretty miserable wordsmiths, but those aren’t often published so you rarely encounter them, which now I think about it is kind of a shame and maybe now there’s self-publishing this particular faction will come into its own. But I digress.

Back to genre: take, for example, the Western. Much of it is respectable in a Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour kind of way. And then there’s Larry McMurtry. There’s Charles Portis. Okay? Do you want to talk mystery novel? Can you really not tell the difference between the recent two zillion variations on Murder in a Cozy Village and anything whatsoever by Agatha Christie? Or science fiction? That one’s almost too easy, given Jules Verne. Given H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, Robert H. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, never mind Kurt Vonnegut, and Mary Shelley, and William Gibson, and Isaac Asimov. Romance: Harlequin or Jane Austen? Women’s issues? Well-written, opportunistic soap opera presuming to be pertinent or, oh, I don’t know: Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary? 

Here’s my definition: literature makes the specific universal.

And while I’m more or less on the subject, we need to stop assuming every tedious tome detailing the meaningless existence of entitled bicoastals is necessarily literature, because it isn’t and it’s boring. Also every merely adequate volume about the immigrant or trans experience or any other trending and genuinely worthy topic is not de facto brilliant, although it might well be. If you can’t differentiate between an average book on an “important” topic and an excellent book that’s not, please find a new career. Fiction curated by perceived social relevance claims the high moral ground while shamelessly pandering to the market, meanwhile insuring a closed value system with no tolerance for anything better, strange, controversial, or contradictory – you know – art. Beauty is immoral and purposive, and you need to get out of its way.

Anyway, like I said, simple. There’s some person’s story, and there’s everyone’s story: every cowboy’s, every woman’s. Yours, not just theirs.

We all got that? It’s the holidays. Go buy someone a good book. I’ll be taking next week off, then posting wrap-ups of my year’s movies and novels. Boy, I can’t wait.

(NOTE regarding Worthy of This Great City: before buying the book please read the Reader Alert on the Home Page, then the full Prologue on the Excerpts page. Or else don’t blame me.)

Photo credits: Eric Golub, Anna Karenina (CC BY 2.0) / Ellen Forsyth, Fiction, genre sign Burton Barr Central Library, Phoenix Public Library (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Brief Word Charity Challenge – no money required

Come Christmastime, I love to donate to charities. I love to buy Toys for Tots.  

Note the prominent ‘I love.’ This sort of generosity, if that’s the correct word, is something I find almost too pleasurable. There are complicated reasons why I place so much of my value in supporting and pleasing others, and why I experience an addictive surge of satisfaction in response. It’s a damaging trait, so this Christmas, once again surrounded by too many opportunities for compulsive benevolence, I want to slow down a little and think about whom all this charity stuff is really for.

When I was eight or nine I was sent off to a charity Christmas party. I suppose I went by bus although I don’t remember the trip at all; maybe a neighbor drove me. I do recall a huge room, something like a school auditorium, and I vaguely recall the requisite Santa. I suppose people shuttled me around that big dim experience; everything was organized and impersonal. I do know there were racks of winter coats, and I came away with a bright red wool coat I actually liked and wore constantly.

But I did understand that it was charity, and red coat notwithstanding I wish it had never happened. It was demoralizing, frightening, and humiliating. Now here I am, already planning the details of my traditional holiday giving because it’s what I want to do.

Of course the whole charity game is crooked; everyone admits that much. A banquet beats working in a soup kitchen; a fashionable ball is more fun than a home visit, and writing a check is infinitely preferable to doing anything consistently through the year. That’s simply purchasing a chance to show off or assuage guilt. But it’s for a good cause, and it raises money that wouldn’t be forthcoming otherwise, right? After all, I really want that Toys for Tots kid to get a present.

Except genuine charity involves sharing not only disposable funds but time and passion and knowledge and status and opportunity. Charity is never casual; that dollar in the kettle is something else entirely. Painless holiday giving makes me think of self-help television where wise inspirational speakers tell us how to make it all better. They may be right, but we’ll never find out, because watching these shows is what we do instead of following their advice, a palliative to dull our anxiety and prevent us from doing anything authentic.

A conventional donation now and then is fine, but if that’s all you give you’re cheating everyone, including yourself. In these darkest days of this very dark year we need to reach out and help hold each other up, or at least offer a brief word of kindly recognition at the office or convenience store or train station, a “Good to see you!” Because despite the gloom we can still see each other if we try, and everyone needs to be seen. I’m sure you can manage that. I think I’ll actually try this year, myself. And I wonder if anyone will reach out to me.

NOTE regarding Worthy of This Great City: before buying the book please read the Reader Alert on the Home Page, then the full Prologue on the Excerpts page. Or else don’t blame me.)

Photo credits: Neromar, Light up a candle, it’s Christmas time! / Presidio of Monterey, Marines deliver Toys for Tots

Tracing

I recently streamed Leave No Trace, a film most people love or at least admire: it’s at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. I thought it was okay, but I wasn’t blown away.

And I had issues.

Granted, it’s a beautiful movie, wonderfully acted and filmed in exacting, breathtaking detail. It opens on a lush forest setting, actually a public park outside Portland, Oregon. an apparent wilderness that provides a hard-won Utopia for an alienated vet and his 13-year-old daughter. The two rarely venture into civilization save for occasional forays into town where Dad picks up the pain meds he later sells at an encampment of like-minded souls. Father and daughter are devoted to each other but suspicious of outsiders – with good reason, it turns out, because once spotted the pair are handed over to the well-meaning powers that be (who incidentally treat them with a gentle humanity I’ve never experienced from social services, and I’ve experienced social services). No matter: he can’t adjust. He hides the television in a closet, refuses to consider cell phones, and panics at a logger’s helicopter. When his daughter inevitably assimilates, Dad vanishes back into the forest.

It’s an unflinching look at the tragedy of the damaged and discarded.

Except it isn’t. 

Now, I don’t know anything about how this script was put together, or too much about how the book it’s based on was researched, but I do have a few facts.

In the source novel, My Abandonment by Peter Rock, Dad’s behavior is not so much symptomatic of PTSD as it’s caused by his having kidnapped this girl from her front yard. Of course he tends to avoid helicopters and law enforcement; of course he doesn’t want her watching television or surfing on a smart phone. Whether or not he’s her father is open to interpretation: fathers kidnap their own children all the time. While much in the novel is ambiguous and arguably fantasy, it was reportedly inspired by the situation of an actual father and daughter who’ve since vanished, and the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart.

And there are real differences in the way the story plays out. In the book, the girl is left on her own, locates her family, but returns to her wandering life. That is the tragedy presented; that’s what the story’s about.

So you see the level of sheer invention here. This movie is about a presumed authentic type that’s based on a very different character in a book who is himself based on a combination of influences rather than any true depiction of a homeless veteran.

He’s an original, a Frankenstein or a Harry Potter. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that: fiction is supposed to be at least a little original. But in Leave No Trace no one does magic or has a bolt in their neck; everything is presented and lauded as authentic. And maybe it is; maybe the film does accurately portray the essential nature of reality for the troubled and homeless – I really don’t know. It might.

Should we just make people up this way and pretend they’re real? Are we being played? There’s something genuinely exciting about creating a whole new human type, but does that creation add fresh insight to any larger discussion? Can it even be unwittingly mimicked or otherwise influence reality?

There’s something deceptive about this quietly superb little movie, and I think it’s important to note that.

(NOTE regarding Worthy of This Great City: before buying the book please read the Reader Alert on the Home Page, then the full Prologue on the Excerpts page. Or else don’t blame me.)

Photo credit: Becca, leave no trace (CC BY-ND 2.0)