Thursday, January 6, 2011

Best Books of 2010 (According to Me)

In the long calendar of my life, 2010 will probably be known as The Year of the eBook.  Midway through the year, my reading habits hiccuped and burped when I bought my first Kindle and, on the drive back to Butte from Kalispell, I downloaded and started reading my first book, The Passage.  Quite independent of my feelings for this new method of reading, Justin Cronin's novel easily made it to my year-end roundup of best books, as did the second book I read on my Kindle: Jonathan Franzen's Freedom.  More on them in just a minute.

This year also saw me grabbing bigger handfuls of contemporary novels and short story collections and dipping less into the classics (Lolita still awaits--maybe 2011 will be her year?).  This is mainly due to the fact that well over one-third of the books I read this year were review assignments (or related books by that same author) for The Barnes and Noble Review, New West, and The Los Angeles Review of Books (which hasn't officially launched yet, but will soon, I'm told).  Some of those assigned books made it to my list, but others, to be quite frank, fell off to the side, huffing and puffing, several laps from the finish line.  I got to the last page, but it was a completely forgettable experience.  They weren't bad books by any means, but they weren't ones which burn bright in my memory five, nine, or eleven months after I re-shelved them.  I'm hoping the books of 2011 rise above the blandness and make me agonize over compiling next year's best-books list.

This year's list was pretty easy (though, before you say anything, I can already see it tilts too heavily toward WAMAs, White American Male Authors; I don't pick books by race or gender--never have, never will--and I'm not about to start reading in terms of politically-correct diversity~~end of prickly rant).  In looking back over my book log, I had no trouble picking out the true winners.  They were the brightest, cleverest, sexiest members of the Class of 2010.  So here they are, in no particular order.

by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Yes, it's easy to get all backlash-y and say you hate this book.  Maybe it's Oprah, maybe it's Franzen's perceived arrogance, maybe it's the way you just want to punch those glasses off his face.  Whatever the reason, J-Franz can't sneeze in public these days without someone critically deconstructing the velocity of the droplets.  It's a shame that so many people are unable to hate the author but love the book.  Personally, I don't feel one way or t'other about  Franzen the Man.  But I do know I loved this book.  Or, at least, most of it.  The pace sagged in the bird-sanctuary sections belonging to Walter, but everything else?  Pop pop POP!  As he did so remarkably in The Corrections, Frazen puts his thumb on America's wrist and gets an accurate pulse of our feverish anxiety.  Walter and Patty Berglund and their offspring are easily-recognizable members of our white upper-middle-class suburbs.  They're the ones running around from obligation to obligation, too busy to live, too busy to stop and wonder just what the fuck happened to the dreams of their youth.
       There’s a hazardous sadness to the first sounds of someone else’s work in the morning; it’s as if stillness experiences pain in being broken.  The first minute of the workday reminds you of all the other minutes that a day consists of, and it’s never a good thing to think of minutes as individuals.  Only after other minutes have joined the naked, lonely first minute does the day become more safely integrated in its dayness.

The Passage
by Justin Cronin
Ballantine Books

Vampires.  A government conspiracy.  A viral outbreak.  The Apocalypse.  Survival of the fittest.  A little girl who's the only hope for a dying world.  Sounds like the voice-over for a coming attraction at the multiplex, right?  It's true that Cronin's big novel has its share of mass-market cinematic moments, but there is some fine writing going on at the sentence level, too.  Not that commercial bestsellerdom and beautiful prose are mutually exclusive--hey, I love Stephen King for the joy of his sentences as much as I do the splatter of his gore--but it's rare that language, imagery, character, and action are so wonderfully combined as they are in The Passage.  These days, Apocalyptic Fiction (in books, movies, and TV shows) is starting to become as common as those Giant-Insects-Spawn-By-Atom-Bomb movies of the 1950s.  The Walking Dead, The Road, and The Book of Eli are all fine in and of themselves, but Cronin's imagined future was as plausible as a newspaper headline.  He created a world and readers eagerly populated it with their belief.  If nothing else, Cronin helped me get over my typical allergic reaction to books with "#1 Bestseller" on their covers.  In fact, don't tell the others on this list, but The Passage might just be my favorite book of the year.  It's certainly the one that gripped me the hardest.
       The room was dark but hid nothing from his eyes, because the darkness was part of him now.  And inside him, far down, a great, devouring hunger uncoiled itself.  To eat the very world.  To take it all inside him and be filled by it, made whole.  To make the world eternal, as he was.
       A man was running for the door.
       Anthony fell on him swiftly, from above.  A scream and then the man was silent in wet pieces on the floor.  The beautiful warmth of blood!   He drank and drank.

The New Valley
by Josh Weil
Grove Press

I should have mentioned that not every book on this list was published in 2010; rather, these are the books I read in the course of the past 12 months.  Weil's collection of three novellas, published in 2009, is a perfect example of a book I'd longed to read ever since it first hit the bookstores, but other obligations, along with my legendary slow reading pace, kept me from getting around to The New Valley until late June.  It's another forehead-smacking case of "what took me so long?"  As I already mentioned elsewhere on this blog, Weil has a sublime talent for getting so deep inside his characters that everything else falls away.  The New Valley is populated with unforgettable characters from what the jacket copy calls "the hardscrabble hill country between West Virginia and Virginia."  The novellas are filtered to us through three lonely men who live on the outskirts of the fringe of society: a middle-aged farmer who has just lost his father and must pick up the pieces of his life and the family business; a health-nut who desperately wants to save (and control) the life of his obese daughter; and a mildly-retarded man (he refers to himself as "diminished") who gets involved with an unhappy wife, a decision that sets the narrator, the woman, and the woman's husband on a collision course toward violence.  On nearly every page, the writing is tight, complex and wholly original.  Symbolism marries Syntax and they have beautiful children.
       That night there was a new moon, and outside the world was unnaturally black.  Osby sat on the couch, eyes closed, jeans rolled to his knees, his fat calves blue-skinned in the light from the TV.  He'd filled a big pot with hot water and carried it, sloshing, to the living room.  Now, feeling his toes wrinkle, he smiled.  When he was a small boy, his mother used to sit like that, soaking her feet like that.  On the TV, a woman won $250,000 and was going to risk it to try for half a million.  He got up and walked to the bathroom, the warmth draining out of his feet in wet, dark stains on the cold floor.  In the kitchen, the woodstove had gone out.

by Ron Rash

Serena (published in 2008) was another book that, like the pretty cheerleader in high school, I'd had my lustful eye on for a long time.  I never dated that cheerleader, but I did slip my hand between the covers of Serena.  If there's a word that's the sexual equivalent of reading, I don't know what it is.  One thing's for sure, however: like the best of physical orgasms, Serena was so good my eyes popped halfway out of their sockets.  For a plot summary, I can't really top the one that's on the jacket flap:  "The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton travel from Boston to the North Carolina mountains where they plan to create a timber empire.  Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena is new to the mountains--but she soon shows herself to be the equal of any man, overseeing crews, hunting rattlesnakes, even saving her husband's life in the wilderness.  Together this lord and lady of the woodlands ruthlessly kill or vanquish all who fall out of favor.  Yet when Serena learns that she will never bear a child, she sets out to murder the son George fathered without her.  Mother and child begin a struggle for their lives, and when Serena suspects George is protecting his illegitimate family, the Pembertons' intense, passionate marriage starts to unravel as the story moves toward its shocking reckoning."  Rash's novel reminded me, in a good way, of Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses and Tim Gautreaux's The Clearing.  I don't throw the word "masterpiece" around lightly, but when I toss it at Serena, it sticks.
       When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father's estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton's child.  She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton's heart.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
by Tom Franklin
William Morrow

If The Passage gripped me with its chemical cocktail of plot and lyricism, then Tom Franklin's novel had me spellbound with an indelible pair of character portraits.  Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter plumbs the depths of human remorse, forgiveness, and retribution.  But it’s also a crime thriller that, like the novels of Dennis Lehane, depends on emotional fireworks as much as it does firearms to keep the pages turning.  Its profoundly moving story revolves around race relations, childhood memories, and missing persons.  At the center of the book are Larry Otto, a recluse and outcast of a small Mississippi town, and Silas Jones, the town constable who drives a thirty-year-old Jeep with a clip-on light and worries as much about being a high-profile black man in the rural South town as he does about the town’s budget which is so meager Silas must stand in the middle of the street every day and direct traffic during the mill's shift change.  If Silas has ambitions to become "a black Buford Pusser," then Larry is the Boo Radley for a new age of literature.  In the course of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, Silas is forced to sort out his feelings about Larry—a boyhood acquaintance with whom he was always on the most uneasiest of terms, and whose family is inextricably linked to his.  The mysteries of the past and answers for the future are slowly unpeeled as the novel goes along and culminates in a denouement that is heavy on the soap opera, but never in danger of getting too soggy or sappy.  As he proved in his previous novels and his excellent short story collection, Poachers, Franklin bottles the very essence of Southern life in his details, characterizations, and dialect (he has listened close enough to know there shouldn’t be an apostrophe in “yall”).  Stay still too long with this novel and soon you’ll be covered in kudzu.
       Silas passed the Wal-Mart and then the arrowed sign to Fulsom’s business district.  Soon the road bottlenecked down to a two-lane and the businesses became sparse, the sidewalks cracked, sprouting weeds, buildings posted, windows and doors boarded.  He passed what used to be a post office.  He passed a clothing store that had gone so long without customers it’d briefly become a vintage clothing store without changing stock.  Building on his right was an ex-Radio Shack, windows busted or shot out and the roof fallen in so thoroughly the floor was shingled, the walls beginning to sag and buckle.

Master of Disguises
by Charles Simic
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The first of two poetry books on this list, Simic's twentieth collection is one of the finest of his long career as a master tunesmith of words.  In Master of Disguises, he mines memory to come up with dozens of gems from his childhood in what now seem like idyllic years of the mid-twentieth century.  The poet was born in Belgrade in 1938 and immigrated to the United States in 1954.  In an interview with The Cortland Review, he's quoted as saying,"Being one of the millions of displaced persons made an impression on me. In addition to my own little story of bad luck, I heard plenty of others.  I'm still amazed by all the vileness and stupidity I witnessed in my life."  There is a subtly seething tone of that bitterness underneath some of the poems in Master of Disguises, but it's often hard to see past the fundamentally joyful way in which Simic plays with language.  Like the best of poets, Simic watches and listens, and then records with pen on paper.  You can easily imagine him in the background of this poem, sitting in the dark, holding very still as he cocks an ear to the midnight noise in the street below:
Scribbled in the Dark
A shout in the street.
Someone locking horns with his demon.
Then, calm returning.
The wind tousling the leaves.
The birds in their nests
Pleased to be rocked back to sleep.
Night turning cool.
Streams of blood in the gutter
Waiting for sunrise.

Gallatin Canyon
by Thomas McGuane
Alfred A. Knopf
I read several books by McGuane this year--including his latest, Driving on the Rim, and his early National Book Award nominee, Ninety-Two in the Shade--but the stories of Gallatin Canyon struck me as some of his best writing.  McGuane is best known for the raunchy, irreverent way he portrays the modern West: cowboys having sex in hot tubs and cattle addicted to cocaine, that sort of thing.  But Gallatin Canyon strikes a deeper, more tender cord with characters who are scrambling to find a better life for themselves (which might or might not happen once they actually find themselves).  Losers, loners, drifters, drinkers--it's a typical McGuane cast, but I found the laughs dwindling and the empthay rising as I read the stories in this collection.  The imagery is all very fine, too.  This, for example, is from "Ice," in which a young boy from Michigan, troubled by a suspected affair between his school's drum major and history teacher Mrs. Andrews, sets off in the dark, hoping to skate all the way to Canada:   
       In January, I skated out onto Lake Erie, which that year was frozen nearly to Canada.  I stared at its ominous expanse.  I left the shore one evening on my hockey skates, a wool cap pulled over my ears and a long scarf wound around my neck and crisscrossed over my chest beneath my blue navy-surplus pea jacket.  I meant to learn courage out on the ice, to avoid the specter of cowardice by skating all the way either to Canada or, if the icebreaker had been through, to the Livingstone ship channel.  I struggled over the corrugations of the near-shore ice, then ventured onto glassier black ice that rewarded me with long glides between strokes of my hollow-ground blades.  Bubbles could be seen and, occasionally, upended white bellies of perch and rock bass, as the sheen of glare ice, wide as my limited horizon, spread east toward Ontario; I dreamed of landing on this foreign shore, from whence the redcoats once launched sorties against our colonial heroes.  I would tell Mrs. Andrews what I had done.  Reading schoolbooks had embittered me against the British and the American South, while my uncles handled the job for Germany and Japan.  I meant to visit the old British fort at Amherstburg and skate home with tales of imperial ghosts and whatever other secret existences I might discover in places where no human is expected.
       Such dreams in the gathering darkness enlivened my skating, and I raced on, stroke after stroke, toward the hiding place of those who once sought to crush our revolution.  I would one day see this as the template for many disasters I had much later created for myself, but at the time, risking my life on the same days I worried about paper cuts or infected pimples produced no sense of contradiction.  I felt only the allure of the hard, black, and perfect cold-snap ice unblemished by wind during its formation.

by Jesse Lee Kercheval
Cleveland State University Poetry Center
Despite the name of its publisher, this is not a book of poetry, but a marvelous novella that flew so low under the radar that it was practically underground.  The winner of the Ruthanne Wiley Memorial Novella Contest, Kercheval's slim, sharp book accomplishes in 126 pages what other books take three times longer to say or do.  It's a coming-of-age novel, an odd-couple-road-trip story, and a tale singed with just a little noir around the edges.  As Brazil opens, Paulo, a bellboy in a rundown Miami hotel, is celebrating his nineteenth birthday.  It's 1988 and the hotel is frequently used to film episodes of Miami Vice ("although they were careful to take tight shots of the pink front and not show the bums and junkies down the street, not until later in the episode, so it seemed like they were miles away, in another Miami").  He meets an alluring older woman at the bar, a Hungarian refugee named Claudia, and before you can say "Pass me a cigarette and light me on fire," the two of them are flirting in the bar mirror.  Paulo impetuously agrees to drive Claudia north in search of her daughter, a girl who may or may not exist.  The two leave the bar, climb into Claudia's BMW, do a line of coke from out of the glove box, then head out of Miami.  All this before page 10.  Brazil is easily one of the best treasures I unearthed in 2010.  It can be read in a day, but it will take you longer than a year to forget the heartbreaking trip these characters take into the spiritual core of America.
       She sat next to me.  In the mirror, she looked thin and rich, a woman with dark hair and eyes as brown as mine, although hers were raccooned with mascara.  She was wearing a black dress so simple it had to be expensive and silver earrings like needles.  Pretty good, but pretty old, in her forties somewhere.  Almost as old as my mother.  She looked me over in the mirror too, steadily, as if the mirror was where I really was.

Phantom Noise
by Brian Turner
Alice James Books
Of all the writers detailing the experience of what it's like to be simultaneous freeing a nation and killing its people, I have found no one better than poet Brian Turner.  A former infantry officer who was deployed to Iraq, Turner has transformed his combat duty in accessible verse which will cut straight to the heart of readers, whether they've ever had to tote a rifle to war or not.  In the tradition of great war poets like Walt Whitman and Wilfred Owen, Turner has descended into the horrors of combat like a deep-sea diver.  When he resurfaced, he learned how to distill that experience into the purest of language.  I loved his first collection, Here, Bullet, and my nerves were just as shattered by this year's Phantom Noise.  The soldiers in Turner's verse are wracked with guilt, and the regret of battlefield indecision.  They are haunted by memories of Iraqi prisoners "shivering in the piss-cold dark," of soldiers burning alive, of shrapnel "traveling at the speed of sound" and opening up a soldier "in blood and shock."  Long after they've returned stateside, their heads echo the chop-chop-chop of helicopters that "come in low over the date palms," and the "howl wind" of the mortar round that "accelerates to the apogee of its flight."  Turner's poems catch like bones in your throat--you can neither swallow war nor spit it out.  His bitterness becomes our bitterness, his anguish threads its way into our hearts.  In the most devastating poem of Phantom Noise, the incindiary "Insignia," Turner reminds us that the enemy does not always come clothed in a dishdasha or a vest wired to explode; sometimes the enemy lurks within our own ranks.
                 One in three female solders will experience
                 sexual assault while serving in the military.
She hides under a deuce n’ half this time—sleeping
on a roll of foam, draped in mosquito netting. Sandflies
hover throughout the night. She sleeps under vehicle exhaust
and heat, dreaming of mortars buried beside her, three stripes
painted on each cold tube, a rocker of yellow hung below.
It’s you she’s dreaming of, Sergeant—she’ll dream of you
for years to come. If she makes it out of this country alive,
which she probably will. You will be the fire and the hovering
breath. Not the sniper. Not the bomber in the streets. You.
So I’m here to ask this one night’s reprieve.
Let her sleep tonight. Let her sleep. Pause a moment
under the gibbous moon. Smoke. The gin your wife sent
from New Jersey, colored mint green with food dye
disguised in a bottle of mouthwash: take a long swig of it.
Take the edge out of your knuckles. Let it blur your vision
into a tremor of lights. The explosions in the distance
are not your own. In these long hours before dawn,
on the banks of the Tigris river, let her sleep.
In her dream, your eyes are pools of rifle oil.
You unsheathe the bayonet from its scabbard
while she waits. On a mattress of sand and foam, there
in the motor pool, she waits to kiss bullets into your mouth.

by Sebastian Junger
My reading list is dominated by fiction, so for me to pick up a book of non-fiction, it has to offer the same verve and intensity I get from novels and short stories.  Junger's War more than fits the bill.  In fact, there are times when it out-fictions fiction.  The book follows a unit of soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade through a hard-fought year of war in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley.  Junger himself is there alongside them for most of that time, so he knows exactly how the sound of a bullet can be transcribed ("the terrible snap and buzz") and what it's like to treat a wounded soldier who's bleeding out ("when he cuts the sleeve off Vandenberge's uniform another two or three cups of blood spill out").  In the early pages of War, Junger clinically details the chances of dodging a bullet during a firefight. As he did in The Perfect Storm when describing what it's like to drown (The heart labors under critically low levels of oxygen and starts to beat erratically--"like a bag full of worms," as one doctor says), Junger dissects the vital organs of combat, lacing combat boots on the reader for a visceral you-are-there reading experience.  This is immersion journalism in its finest hour.
       The enemy fighters were three or four hundred yards away, and the bullets they were shooting covered that distance in about half a second--roughly two thousand miles an hour.  Sound doesn't travel nearly that fast, though, so the gunshots themselves arrived a full second after they were fired.  Because light is virtually instantaneous, illuminated rounds--tracers--can be easily perceived as they drill toward you across the valley.  A 240 gunner named Underwood told me that during the ambush he saw tracers coming at him from Hill 1705 but they were moving too fast to dodge.  By the time he was setting his body into motion they were hitting the cedar log he was hiding behind.  The brain requires around two-tenths of a second just to understand simple visual stimuli, and another two-tenths of a second to command muscles to react.  That's almost exactly the amount of time it takes a high-velocity round to go from 1705 to Aliabad.
       Reaction times have been studied extensively in controlled settings and have shown that men have faster reaction times than women and athletes have faster reaction times than nonathletes.  Tests with soccer players have shown that the "point of no return" for a penalty kick--when the kicker can no longer change his mind about where to send the ball--is around a quarter of a second.  In other words, if the goalkeeper waits until the kicker's foot is less than a quarter second from the ball and then dives in one direction, the kicker doesn't have enough time to adjust his kick.  Given that quarter-second cutoff, the distance at which you might literally be able to "dodge a bullet" is around 800 yards.  You'd need a quarter second to register the tracer coming toward you--at this point the bullet has traveled 200 yards--a quarter second to instruct your muscles to react--the bullet has now traveled 400 yards--and half a second to actually move out of the way.  The bullet you dodge will pass you with a distinctive snap.  That's the sound of a small object breaking the sound barrier inches from your head.

Refresh, Refresh
by Benjamin Percy
Graywolf Press
In addition to this being my Year of the eBook, 2010 could also be called My Year of Percy.  I've talked about him so much, my internet voice is getting hoarse.  You should just go ahead and do what I did, buy all three of his books (four, if you count the graphic novel version of Refresh, Refresh), then spend a week or two immersing yourself in the gnarly thrills of B. Percy's writing.  You won't regret it.  In fact, you might even send me a Hallmark card thanking me for rescuing you from the blandiosity of contemporary fiction (maybe you'll even slip a check inside the card as fiscal proof of your appreciation, though it's certainly not expected).  While it's true I enjoyed Percy's debut novel, The Wilding, and his first book of short stories, The Language of Elk, I think I loved Refresh, Refresh the best.  There is a confidence and intensity at work on these pages, the likes of which I haven't seen since the heyday of the modern short story when Richard Ford and Raymond Carver were the reigning kings.  The stories in Refresh, Refresh mostly center around boys making the rough transition to manhood, married couples trying to stitch themselves back together after a tragedy, and a father looking to set his daughter’s life on the right track (even if it means killing her abusive boyfriend).  Percy’s characters—mostly all blue-collar workers—lead rough lives dotted with disappointment.  They’re primarily seeking redemption, or forgiveness, or even just resolution, good or bad.  All of this is wrapped inside prose that is crystalline in imagery and often very, very funny.  To spend time with Benjamin Percy is to fall in love with language all over again.
       Nothing had happened in a long time.  Every now and then someone wrecked a truck or got divorced or shot a six-point elk or dropped out of college or shipped off for Iraq or bought a thousand-dollar Lotto scratch ticket at the gas station—and you know how those kinds of things get around in a small town like Tumalo—but otherwise, the sand kept blowing, the bulls kept lowing, and the air kept on smelling like it always smelled, like juniper and sage.  Irrigation pipes got moved around.  Barbed-wire fences got mended.  The occasional thunderstorm boiled over the Cascade Mountains and lit a barn on fire and flattened the alfalfa crop and eventually rattled apart into a collection of black clouds that made the sky look full of bears drinking from a big blue bowl.  That’s about it.
       Really, nothing had happened around here since the train came off the tracks and five of its cattle-cars rolled through the mini-mart, leaving behind a twisted snarl of lumber and metal from which bubbled soda pop and blood.  That was five years ago.  The only other thing I can think of is Josh Henderson, who they found at the dump, dead and apparently dragged behind a car—back and forth along a strip of county two-lane—his skin unpeeling against the asphalt in a long red trail that drew crows and magpies from all over the county.  And that happened eons ago, before I can hardly remember.
       There’s the train—there’s Josh Henderson—there’s the Deschutes County Fair and of course the weekend stock-car races and the fat-bellied trout that drift along the shadowy banks of the Metolious River and dozens more diversions, all tiny and meant to distract me from the big spell of nothing that had settled over Tumalo.  So when the bear attacks began, things changed and that was just what I needed.

by James Dickey
Houghton Mifflin
Benjamin Percy took me by the hand and led me to Deliverance.  And I'll never be the same again.  In fact, I should be the one sending him a Hallmark card with an appreciative, generous-summed check inside.*  Percy's novel The Wilding is, to a degree, a reincarnation of Deliverance (in spirit, though not necessarily in plot).  And so, in preparing to review The Wilding, I felt I needed to take Dickey's 1970 novel down from the shelf, blow off the dust, and see for myself just what all the fuss was about.  Holy Mother of Banjos, this shit was like undistilled white lightning!  Again, this was another instance of me going around smacking my head and asking, "What the hell took me so long to get around to this book?"  If, like me, you've seen the movie but not read the novel, then you know the story of Deliverance: four men take an ill-fated canoe trip down a Georgia river and get an education in hunting with arrows, hanging from cliffs by white knuckles, and learning what it means to mind your own business and leave the locals alone in the rural South.  I was braced for heavy doses of hairy-chested male bonding; what I didn't expect was the magnitude of poetry in every sentence of Dickey's novel.  Sure, he was the eighteenth U.S. Poet Laureate and he published more books of verse than he did prose, but the sheer majesty of words at play on these pages was a complete surprise to someone whose clearest vision of Deliverance was the image of Ned Beatty with his pants around his ankles, impolitely being asked to "squeal like a pig."  There is much more to Deliverance than backwoods sodomy.  Much, much more.  Narrated by Ed Gentry, an ad man from Atlanta, Deliverance runs along from first page to last in what feels like an unbroken confessional babble, words spilling one after the other in a stream of never-ending imagery and meditation on the human condition.  There is no stopping once you set foot inside.  I can't praise this novel highly enough.  It is gothic, it is meditative, it is horrifying, it is pristine.  It is profane, it is sacred.  And it is never, ever dull.
       I could hear the river running at my feet, and behind my head the woods were unimaginably dense and dark; there was nothing in them that knew me.  There were creatures with one forepaw lifted, not wanting yet to put the other down on a dry leaf, for fear of the sound.  There were the eyes made for seeing in this blackness; I opened my eyes and saw the dark in all its original color.

The Road
by Cormac McCarthy
Alfred A. Knopf
Another book to whose party I arrived late.  I knew there was a good chance I'd see the movie version of The Road before the year was out**, so I wanted to read McCarthy's 2006 novel before the big screen "spoiled" it.  McCarthy is one of those authors whose books I always think I've read but haven't.  In looking over my library, I see that prior to The Road, the only thing of his I'd read was All the Pretty Horses; and that was about ten years ago.  In the intervening years, I've had more than a few friends annoy urge me to read Child of God and Suttree.  Someday, folks, someday.  Until then, the excellence of The Road will burn bright (or, as per the tone of the novel, dark).  This is another short, unforgettable work of fiction.  Greater critics than I have already waxed eloquent about this tale of a father and his son walking across an apocalyptic America in the not-too-distant future, so I'll just leave it at this: if you'rd in the mood for some heavy reading in a light package, then open The Road.  When you're finished, you'll look at America (and your sons/daughters) in a whole new way.
       With the first gray light he rose and left the boy sleeping and walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south.  Barren, silent, godless.  He thought the month was October but he wasnt sure.  He hadnt kept a calendar for years.  They were moving south.  There'd be no surviving another winter here.

The Wake of Forgiveness
by Bruce Machart
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
On the surface, Machart's debut novel seems to wear the McCarthy mantle around its shoulders.  But read closer and you'll find less bitterness and more sustained optimism on these pages.  True to its title, The Wake of Forgiveness concerns itself with the process of healing--a life-long process for most of the characters--and moving on from past griefs.  Though Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner nip at his heels, Machart outruns them and stakes his own territory in this engrossing novel which spans nearly thirty years in the troubled life of one south Texas family in the early 1900s.  After his mother dies giving birth to him, Karel Skala is raised among men "for whom pain was weathered in silence and pleasure announced in exaggerated groans of relief."  Karel has as many parental issues as Oedipus and it takes the entire length of the novel for him to work them out, starting with the troubled relationship with his father, an embittered man who loves his horses more than his sons and hitches the latter to the plow to work the fields while the former remain stabled.  In my review for The Barnes and Noble Review, I wrote:  "Forgiveness and mercy are in short supply, but are desperately needed in this landscape which is parched for human kindness.  It's neither easy to forgive nor to forget, Machart implies."  Certainly, it's hard to forget the hard beauty of Machart's first novel.  Expect many great things to come from this author.      
       When the baby arrived, their fourth boy, blood slicked and clot flecked, he appeared to have been as much ripped from flesh as born of it.  Klara was lost, and Edna tended to what had been saved, pinching the little thing's toe to get the breathing started, cleaning him with a rag dipped in warm milk and water, wrapping him in a blanket.
       Vaclav Skala stood at the foot of the bed, grinding his back teeth slowly against a stringy mash of tobacco he'd chewed flavorless half an hour before.  He watched Edna, a slight young woman with narrow hips and long hair as black as her eyes.  She bunched pillows beneath the dead woman's shoulder blades and behind her head before resting the baby on his mother's stomach.  Taking one of Klara's breasts between her thumb and finger, she puckered the nipple so the baby could get hold of it.  The little thing threw his hands up about his face and worked his legs beneath the blanket, and Edna held him unremittingly to the breast until he hollowed his cheeks and found it with his mouth.  "It's no hind milk in her yet," she said, "but he might get some of the yellow mother's milk.  We'll be needing a wet nurse.  It's several up county who might do it."
       Vaclav stepped back into the doorway and looked down the dark hallway toward the room where his other three boys were sleeping.  "We'll be needing a hell of a lot more than that," he said.  "Let him get what's left of her if he can.  He's done taken the rest."

*Note to Mr. Percy:  Don't hold your breath, buddy.
**I did--just last week, in fact--and loved every minute of it.  At least, as much as anyone could love a movie about nuclear winter, rotting teeth, cannibalism, and acid rain.


  1. I LOVE McCarthy's "The Road." It was haunting and comforting at the same time. I love McCarthy's ability to subtly challenge traditional gender roles with the idea that not only mothers are the nurturing, protective parent. And I thought the movie was well done, too.

  2. Wow! Great post! I printed this list out so I can make sure to read all of them as well. Thanks for sharing with us!

  3. Notice how active McGuane is compared to the passive Cronin. This is the difference between literature and pap.