Moonwise by Greer Ilene Gilman
I first found out about Moonwise through John Crowley years ago, and a minor fascination with it has been enshrined in a remote corner of my mind ever since. Finally I read it this year, and found it easy to admire, but difficult to like, enjoy, even look forward to reading. After nearly a year of cogitating on it, I do think it’s a great book in its particular, very narrow, canted, poetic way; like Finnegans Wake it is operating under an aesthetic mandate so anchorous and heavy that it crushes out all the other necessary novel-stuff like plot and characters and a certain internal reason.
Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
Snow Counry: stranger, more deeply dreamlike than much of the more obviously surreal stuff I read this (or any) year…it makes very raw, very common human matters like love and lies feel pale & alien & breathtakingly strange. It is so, so subtle, so seemingly simple; it’ll move through your mind’s fingers like air if you let it; Kawabata manages to bring his story to the utmost level of spareness and not a step further, so that you can hear oceanic emotions and despairs roaring underneath its porcelain exteriors.
The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner
This one hardly feels like a novel – it hardly feels like anything other than what it is – and what it is, is such a rich, stately, strange, lambent book, probably a great book. Given that I read through the onset of the pandemic and was, mentally, ripped raw, I didn’t appreciate the light-giving craft on display here; Warner, in Corner, is an Illuminator, looking down into a world of her creation and showing us with aching clarity the people (not characters) living, loving, despairing, and dying in it.
The Once and Future King by T.H. White
Cantankerous, boyish, full of bookdust and quaint lore. Even if I didn’t know what little I know about White’s life, this book exudes all the qualities of something written by a kind of crank, a loner, one of those people who seem fated to an eccentric aloneness with their prickly personality. It’s also an honest love story of not-inconsiderable strength. I didn’t adore it overall in the way I adored specific parts of it, but it’s still very good.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
It is exactly as great as you’re lead to believe. I loved every page of this novel, and read it quickly, in big selfish stints of reading – it really is dramatic and compelling, even as it’s capital I Important. I don’t have a single thing else to say about this book, other than that, yeah, you should read it.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
A long-overdue reread, and gloriously confirmed as my favorite book. Like Anna Karenina, most of what you can say about Moby-Dick are the things that have been said about it for years, by people who’ve read it, and by people who haven’t; we’re all right about this book. To be truly great means to be truly, inescapably Weird. This book is weird as fuck and more beautiful than the ocean.
The Man Without Talent by Yoshiharu Tsuge
The only graphic novel I read this year. I still have trouble with the format, which seems inherently less…good…than the novel form. Aesthetic hierarchies aside, I enjoyed this quite a bit: it’s a patient, angry study of smallness, of small desires and small emotions – the stuff that eventually accretes into what we call our lives.
The Lost Scrapbook by Evan Dara
The Lost Scrapbook is a partly-successful, boundary-pushing, experimental novel. Very uneven but occasionally excellent, it made me so excited to read Dara’s other work. And I’d still like to write a longer piece on it sometime, and maybe I will, even if I’ve forgotten most of the particulars of its plot.
Marketa Lazarová by Vladislav Vančura
A violently smart evocation of a very specific time and place – so finely-etched as to recast that time’s particular darkness into something bright and universal. Its exploration of lust, both for life and for flesh, is pretty unforgettable. The fact that it’s seemingly casually narrated from the “present” gives the whole thing a leering, piratical quality that makes the inherent vitality of its violent characters even more pungent and pressing.
Kai Lung Unrolls His Mat by Ernest Bramah
Bramah is such a specific taste, I can hardly believe the Kai Lung books exist, let alone conceive of a single meaningful thing to say about them. I loved this book, probably because over time, reading certain things and developing certain aesthetic predilections, there was a little Bramah-shaped notch formed in me before I encountered Kai Lung; maybe you’re similarly marked?
Motorman by David Ohle
Tied with Past Master for best dystopian novel I read this year. And in Motorman it’s an abject dystopia, a ramshackle garbage-world of artifice and grunge, utterly pathetic, queasy, and funny. I would buy any other Ohle novel based solely on the strength of Motorman, which I read in a single day and you can too.
Past Master by R.A. Lafferty
A rip-roaring surprise. I mean, I knew Lafferty was good before now, but this messy, weird, hyperpassionate novel just kicks all sorts of ass. One of the true, oldest, and most powerful things about speculative fiction is that authors can do and show us literally anything; and not many authors take as much advantage of that fact as Lafferty.
On the Yard by Malcolm Braly
Possibly the strongest “straight novel” I read this year: no tricks, no gimmicks or anything. No strange juttings-out or caveats or unusual capaciousnesses: just a clear and compelling picture of human beings in the compact, microcosmic hell of a penitentiary.
Antkind by Charlie Kaufman
This one suuuucked. It started off so promising, but went nowhere so, so quickly. Ultimately it reads like a 700 page compendium of jokes, and that would be tiresome even if the jokes were consistently funny, which they aren’t. The sections that involve Trump are just painful and facile. Maybe it would’ve worked with lots and lots excised, at like 300 pages? I don’t know. I don’t care. A disappointment.
You Can’t Win by Jack Black
More fascinating than good, You Can’t Win showed me a side of the late 19th/early 20th century I didn’t know existed, and for that I found it extremely worthwhile. But it is kind of boring, somehow, despite its outlandish subject matter.
Ride a Cockhorse by Raymond Kennedy
Fucking brill. This novel is so, so good – it’s kind of A Confederacy of Dunces‘s evil sister. It starts funny, becomes malicious, and ends on a winsome note you didn’t think it deserved, but it does. It’s so sad that this novel is so neglected.
Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter
Very good, but not great. I don’t know, I think I came into it with an incorrect idea of what it actually was, and that (unfairly) impacted my impressions of it. It is not, actually, a prison novel at all, or even a crime novel. It’s straightforwardly, almost ploddingly philosophical, interested in earnestly chronicling its main character’s spiritual development. All good things, and all very well done – but just not what I was expecting, what I selfishly wanted.
Augustus by John Williams
It’s been a while since I read Stoner, but it is entirely possible Augustus is even better than that extremely good book. It’s measured, serene, autumnal; beautifully written, beautifully assembled; with strong characters that shrug off so much of the artificiality even very memorable characters often have. Just rich and masterful, I’ll be thinking about it for a long, long time.
Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham
Wrapped up this nasty little bastard just under the wire. It shambles in, drenched in bad vibes, pockets overflowing with cheap tricks and occult paraphernalia, solely interested in the darkness and bad endings; and it gets there in an unforgettable way.
I didn’t read a lot of short stories this year. I started Nine Hundred Grandmothers by Lafferty, and everything has been excellent so far, although I suspect I’ll be in the (possible) minority that prefers his novels? Also, at the very beginning of the year I read some of The Complete Gary Lutz, which deserves more than this footnote that I’m giving it. The first handful of stories absolutely leveled me with that shock that only comes every once and while, where you discover somebody doing something needful and singular, in a singular and beautiful way. Lutz is fucking great and I can’t wait to read more of his stuff this year.
IMAGE: from Eschatus: Future Prophecies from Nostradamus’ Ancient Writings, by Bruce Pennington