If I was the sort to make New Year’s resolutions, I would resolve to read more and write more in 2019. Last year, I read 18 books — far fewer than some other years, but significantly more than the 2 I finished in 2017. Normally, I write this post on New Year’s Day but I’m just now getting around to it. So, for better or worse, here’s what I read in 2018.
The first book I finished last year was Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand. I first came across Elizabeth Hand reading her Cass Neary novels. These stories are nothing like those novels but are intriguing and peculiar. When I announced on Facebook that I had finished this collection I noted that the sheer variety of voices in the stories is very impressive.
In 2017, having learned that Philip Pullman was writing a new trilogy related to his previous trilogy His Dark Materials, I reread The Golden Compass. My 2nd and 3rd books in 2018 were The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass (the other two books of the trilogy). These novels are ostensibly for young adult readers but I would recommend them to anyone. They’re a brilliantly executed trio of novels. The first book of Pullman’s new trilogy The Book of Dust has been published and is titled La Belle Sauvage. I plan to read it this year.
Because I’ve been having trouble maintaining my reading habit for the last several years, I’ve been doing a lot of rereads (I’m not sure that that is good strategy but it’s what I’ve been doing). I reread The Dark Door by Kate Wilhelm. It’s sort of a mash up of science fiction and mystery and, while not great, is an enjoyable read.
Next, I reread The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. I read this novel the first time when I was in college and loved it. Rereading it in middle age made its dark and depressing story more poignant and moving. I’ve read several other Walker Percy novels over the decades and he’s always worthwhile.
The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse is as silly as it sounds. On the other hand, Robert Rankin’s wordplay and plotting are delightful. It’s set in Toy City and most of the characters are toys of various sorts. As Rankin might write, it’s the sort of book that one would like if one likes that sort of thing.
Someone gave me a copy of Dark Light by Randy Wayne White. It’s a pretty good suspense/mystery novel with good characters and plotting. After a hurricane disturbs the Gulf of Mexico, a sunken boat is discovered. When the main character and his colleagues attempt a salvage operation, things get ugly and interesting. It’s quite a compelling story but, amazingly, there were a number of misspellings and grammatical errors (and not in dialogue!). Mr. White needs a better editor. I may look for his other novels because, as I noted, the story is compelling.
Donald Westlake is a master of the comic crime novel. I reread The Fugitive Pigeon and enjoyed it immensely. It’s about a loser who runs his uncle’s bar. The uncle is a mobster and Charlie Poole (the loser) understands that his main role at the bar is to occasionally receive a package and hold it until someone picks it up. One day, some hit men show up to dispatch Charlie. He manages to escape and the rest of the novel involves him trying to stay alive and learn why he is being targeted. It’s a lot of fun (as is any Westlake novel).
Next I read Deadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut. Remarkably, I had never read this Vonnegut novel before (I devoured them continually when I was younger). It’s the story of a boy who accidentally shoots and kills a woman when he recklessly discharges a rifle out his window. As with all Vonnegut novels, it’s funny and sad and deeply imaginative.
10:04 by Ben Lerner is a peculiar novel. The main character is an author who has just gotten a good publishing deal and, at the same time, learned that he has a medical condition that could cause him to die at any time. Meanwhile, his best friend has asked him to help her have a baby. It’s a very contemporary novel (set in current day New York with an awareness of climate change) and is very worthwhile. Lerner is a poet and, as you might expect, his prose is exquisite.
Another reread, Sweet, Sweet Poison is the 2nd novel by Kate Wilhelm I read this year (after The Dark Door). It’s a pretty good mystery in which Constance and Charlie (Wilhelm’s sleuth couple figured in several of her novels) are called to a small town to investigate the poisoning of a dog. Things rapidly get complicated.
Kathryn Kramer is a wonderful writer who is not as well known as she should be. I happened across her first novel — A Handbook for Visitors from Outer Space — years ago and loved it. I tried to find other novels by her but was stymied by the difficult fact that she shares a name with a prolific romance writer (this was before Google, etc.). I put out a query on the Usenet (do you remember Usenet?) group “alt.20thcentury.fiction” to see what I could learn. Thrillingly, the author Richard Powers answered me and told me that Kramer taught at Middlebury College and that her other two books were Rattlesnake Farming (which I loved) and Sweet Water (which I started but didn’t finish years ago). This year I finished Sweet Water and found it an excellent literary mystery and a solid story of the complications of married life.
Next I read Possessions by the psychoanalyst/philosopher/literary critic Julia Kristeva. It’s a surreal mystery about a woman in a mythical town who has been murdered and beheaded. It was a bit of a difficult book but the prose was lovely which really made me admire the translator. I understand that Possessions is a sequel. Perhaps I’ll read the first one this year.
On a roll reading public intellectuals, I next read The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag. It’s a “novel of ideas” but also a romance set in enlightenment Naples. It’s a very good novel (not really what I usually read) with lovely writing and flawed, almost unloveable characters.
Another reread, Icelander by Dustin Long is a baffling mystery of a novel. It’s difficult to summarize — but it’s a murder mystery that takes place in Iceland. It’s very strange but, nonetheless, very enjoyable.
The Toyminator is the sequel to The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse which I read earlier in the year. It’s silly and fun and Robert Rankin’s wordplay is entertaining.
Next, I reread The Tidewater Tales by John Barth. It’s a big, ambitious novel that, among other things, presumes to extend the stories of Scheherazade, Odysseus, and Don Quixote. It also extends, peripherally, the story of the main characters of Barth’s previous novel Sabbatical. I love John Barth and I love this book.
I read Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler years ago. In my memory, it was a heartwarming story of an odd family in which one of the sons opens a restaurant that tries to serve customers what they need rather than what they would order. When I reread it this year, I found it to be the tale of an entirely dysfunctional family and its themes are loneliness and despair (perhaps that middle age thing again). Still, Tyler is a master novelist and it is, in fact, very good.
Next, amid the carnival that put Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, I began to reread Generation of Swine by Hunter S. Thompson. It was the subtitle that caught my eye as I browsed my bookshelves while following the Kavanaugh hearings: “Tales of Shame and Degradation in the 80s”. I was enthralled for a while reading this collection of Thompson’s pieces from that decade and was amazed at how the writer’s warped style predicted the current state of our union. For some reason, I got bogged down and didn’t finish the book and, in fact, didn’t read a line for the rest of the year.
I did considerably better than the two books of 2017 but my hope is to do much better in 2019 than I did in 2018. Onward.