I read one-hundred and thirty-eight books in 2019. Is that a lot?
Regardless, I have gone through the list, sifted through the best, and winnowed it down so that I may present the ten best books I read in 2019. From the outset I should say that I am an autodidactic weirdo with a pretty wide ken. I will read anything from a 1993 Honda Civic owner’s manual to a letter from an anonymous blackmailer informing me that, if I do not transfer ten-thousand dollars to their account by morning, they will tell the world about my leather diaper fetish. Whether I am ever lucky enough to own a 1993 Honda Civic or am willing to pay the blackmailer is another story. But reading is its own reward, even if it’s of no practical use.
And now, without further Apu (H/T Moe Sizlack):
10. Faces from the Front: Harold Gillies, the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup and the Origins of Modern Plastic Surgery by Andrew Bamji
Back when I was in the Army I was at Fort Benning for a time and I remember coming out of a PX shoppette where a man who’d had his face pretty much blown off crossed my path. I was shocked and fascinated, but I suppressed both emotions because it’s just not polite to show them. I remember seeing this guy interact with the clerk, an older black woman who called him “baby” and just bantered with him, without betraying an iota of the discomfort I could barely hide. I knew that woman was stronger than me, and that I was a coward.
Anyway, this book brought all those feelings back to the surface, with its glossy black and white photos of faces destroyed in strange and novel ways by modern instruments of terror. It’s not all dour or terrifying, though, as the resolve, bravery, and ingenuity of the doctors involved (and the subjects enduring the trauma) show themselves to be made of strong stuff. We all sort of consciously chide the child who turns to his mother on the bus, tugs the cloth of her shirt, and demands (a little too loudly) “Mommy, what’s wrong with that man’s face?” but there’s that part of us, half-curious, half-mortified, that still exists despite society’s admonitions (first delivered by our mother on that bus). This book is an outlet for such complicated feelings that injuries arouse in us.
9. Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner-City Funeral Home by Sheri Booker
I always try to read more about subjects where my knowledge is lacking. I don’t know much about women, and I don’t know much about funeral homes, so a book about a woman who works in a funeral home is a no-brainer. Ms. Booker observes a kind of game in the way her book’s chapters unfold, a dance between her and death in which she very reticently approaches the unknown lying beneath the oaken hood of that casket. But she does lift the hood, and having finally seen the dead and touched them, fear gives way to fascination. The book skillfully balances the memoirist’s development as a woman navigating personal trials against her honing of her skills in the ecosystem of an inner-city funeral home. The book is breezy on the one hand, and yet has an elegiac, sort of monastic tone, as the multi-generational saga of the parlour takes place just a stone’s throw from the most violent ghetto in America. It was fascinating beginning to end.
8. Where Nightmares Come From: The Art of the Short Story by Multiple Authors.
I really don’t trust “How-To” books that traffic in absolutes. The best books on the craft of writing, I’ve found, are more in the vein of Here’s what worked for me, or Here is what, after much struggle, I’ve discovered. “Where Nightmares come from” is much more in this spirit, a wide-ranging and open-minded forum where various horror writers share their methods and habits as authors along with their philosophies of life. The biographical details and practical advice are integrated seamlessly, in such a way that the details of the lives of the writers (and filmmakers) and their approaches to the craft sort of meld into each other. The book provides plenty of utility, but it’s more about the food for thought, and is ultimately a wellspring of inspiration.
7. The Road to Los Angeles by John Fante
People who love Fante generally hate this book. The bursting-with-life Italian-American Mencken-approved man of letters who inspired Bukowski is at his embryonic stage in “Road,” showing himself mostly as an insecure dilettante who distracts himself from his shortcomings by slipping into a delusional world of fantasy, whose blood-and-semen-soaked interiority makes Yukio Mishima seem healthy. It’s ugly stuff, and, as someone else said, has “first novel” written all over it. And yet, it’s this sort of unflinching manner, especially how merciless Fante is with himself, that made this one so memorable the first time I read it, and which made it worth a reread. I may have to read it again at some point.
6. Black on White: Black Writers on what it means to be White by Multiple Authors.
Did you ever walk into a room and accidentally hear someone talking about you, then step back slightly, hoping you were unobserved? Maybe you stood there with bated breath, heart pounding, wanting to eavesdrop but knowing it was wrong. You knew also perhaps that maybe you didn’t want to hear what this person was going to say about you but still couldn’t quite pull yourself away from the door’s jamb.
Brace for the worst because that’s “Black on White,” basically. Nothing but black writers over the course of a couple hundred years talking about the weird and wooly ways of white folks, those genetic recessive, pale-skinned, stringy haired devils. There are some beautiful essays in here, as well as more prosaic but still vital observations, i.e. on Madonna, like this chestnut: “The bitch can’t sing.”
5. The Stickup Kids: Race, Drugs, Violence, and the American Dream by Randol Contreras
Too much of the film, literature and music about the drug trade (especially the films and the music) portray only the ultra-macho, sort of inner-city version of a Nietzschean superman who doesn’t bow to white America’s laws or recognize anything worth emulating in bourgeois black mores. In this empty pop culture deluge you forget how powerless the average drug dealer is, how most criminals (excepting the born sadists and sociopaths) are sad people whose dreams died a long time ago. Unlike the suburban white kids (and West European white kids) who’ve created a sort of fetish of the ‘hood, the people actually suffering there would give almost anything to be free of it all.
This is a tragic, beautiful book written by a guy who lived it firsthand. He got away to college, bettered himself, and then returned to his old stomping grounds where he used the skills and knowledge he acquired in school to examine the world he came from through a different lens. That he is older and wiser, alas, doesn’t mean he’s not helpless to save any of his friends. This one got to me.
4. The Listener by Robert McCammon
“The Listener” came to me as a recommendation from a friend of mine, a fellow-writer who claimed this was sort of like what Stephen King would write if he had the gift of economy (though I should add I have nothing against longwindedness(sic)). “The Listener” is a pitch-perfect period tale about flimflam men and psychics and double-crossing dames that’s so accurate and lived-in I felt like I’d time-travelled (we’re talking Jack Finney levels of detail, or Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America). It isn’t so much a period piece about a decade as it is a pinpoint-precise picture of a single year in the past.
3. Black Wings has my Angel by Chaze Elliot
This is the most foreboding, haunting noir book I’ve read since William Lindsay Gresham’s “Nightmare Alley.” It’s a book that in essence says, “Life is without hope and you are doomed,” and yet manages to create an undercurrent of sensuousness and lust as an aftereffect, leaving a taste in the mouth like Baudelaire’s poetry. It’s an evil, beautiful thing. Also, it’s perfectly crafted and incredibly well-written, which means that it elicits a kind of giddy joy in the reader notwithstanding the unrelenting darkness of its characters and shadowy themes. For me it’s neck and neck with Howard Browne’s “The Taste of Ashes,” and Charles Willeford’s “The Burnt Orange Heresy” for best offering in the genre ever.
2. The North Water by Ian McGuire
This book came recommended to me by the same guy who pulled my coat about “The Listener.” And, like with “The Listener,” my friend did not steer me wrong. This one deals with a tramp whaling vessel commanded by a shady captain who, along with his crew, is viewed from the perspective of a wastrel doctor who has an opium problem and a headful of bad memories from a previous war. Contra “The Listener,” this one doesn’t feel like time-traveling so much as something created in the here and now by a great writer from a previous era who somehow walks among us in the 21st century and is oblivious to the dictates and (low) expectations of the current age. It is, to paraphrase an astute critic on “The Assassination of Jesse James,” a portrait of our world glimpsed in a distant mirror. You read of these savage men and their doings on these remote ice floes and you feel as if it is both ancient history and somehow as immediate and urgent as the squawk from a police dispatch radio reporting a crime happening only a few houses down. I found myself shaking my head as I read this thing, muttering, “Holy shit, this guy’s as good as Jack London or Stephen Crane.” Seriously, this is a spellbinding wonder of a book. And I have no yen for the sea or most of the tales that take place on the open waters.
1.The Art of the Short Story 1st Edition by Dana Gioia and R. S. Gwynn
The short story has never been my métier. I’ve read them, sure, and written them, but I’ve always bridled at what I thought of as the constraints of the form, like a dog baying at the end of his leash. Great short story writers know that there are no constraints, or make you forget about the difference in focus and depth between a short story and, say, a novel. This book is a reminder of what the short story can do, how it equals and in many ways bests the novel (as per Borges).
I didn’t like all of the stories in here, but the people who put this thing together really took their time and did it right, and provided a strong enough mix of the modern, the postmodern, and the best offerings of the naturalistic and 19th century titans to really create the kind of book that demands a place in every collection. The mini-biographies of the writers, the essays by the authors commenting on their own work…this thing is not so much encyclopedic as biblical in its depth. Get it in the hands of smart young kids and it will ensure they understand the importance of reading, writing, education, literature, and what humanity is capable of when it works to its fullest potential and tries its damndest to create something lasting in an impermanent world. I opened this book with a reluctant sigh, as if in anticipation of taking medicine. I closed it with a feeling of supreme pleasure. I hope Nikolai Gogol and Tolstoy are with their Christ and I hope Alice Walker is pissing off someone on twitter right now.
Okay, that’s ten. Goodnight.