Everything I Read in 2020

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

A Short Note on William T. Vollmann


In my head I keep an ideal reading schedule, a schemata that runs to the end of the year and that, if followed exactly, will somehow allow me to cram in and finish every single book that is currently on orbit in my skull, drawing my interest and thoughts.

Books enter and fall out of these orbits all the time, so the schedule always changes; thus it doesn’t behoove me to articulate it here necessarily, but the next two months look like:

Late August-September

Read The Green Pearl and Madouc, thus completing Lyonesse.

All of October

Will be dedicated to reading Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons. Normally come October I like to widely roam the horror fiction landscape, dipping behind little autumnal hillocks, letting a haunted woods or two fold itself around me, take a shaky skiff across a dark lake’s grim mirror. But Carrion Comfort has been a perennial white whale, one of those novels I’ve started before and always intended to finish, and I’ve been good, generally, about completing this invisible, longstanding obligations in recent years, so I want to try and get it done in October.

So you can see that even to get through Halloween as envisioned will require a pretty studious devotion with not a ton of wiggle room. And yet, and yet, the book that has been eating up most of my reading time lately is William T. Vollmann’s massive, idiosyncratic, one-of-a-kind Imperial.

If you don’t know, Imperial is a gigantic omnivorous 1300 page document about Imperial County, California, and the part of Mexico against which it abuts, bleeds into, is bled into from; evidently the region became a locus of obsession for Vollmann and lead to the creation of this book over the course of ten years.

I’ve known about Vollmann for years, of course; we all have, and we all know the standard line: massively prolific, incredibly ambitious, rarely read. I want to emphasize briefly that last point, because event though pretty much all ‘difficult’ writers are underread, Vollmann seems in particular to suffer from a circumscribed readership.

This hastily-typed post is not meant to analyze that neglect in any particular way; merely to point out that it took me 29 years to finally get around to reading Vollmann, and it has been an electrifying experience so far (about 130 pages into Imperial). Imperial is capacious and beautifully idiosyncratic in the way that all handmade things are; it reminds me a lot of Bishop Castle, or the House on the Rock, or any other truly great roadside attraction: a creation of patience, obsession, focus, and a profound commitment, on the creator’s part, to realizing his particular – so particular – vision in every detail, even at the risk of alienating the world’s every other human heart in that realization.

That statement risks being interpreted as condescending, and I don’t mean it to be. Vollmann’s book is definitely weird, but it’s not just weird. It’s funny, informative, sometimes beautiful, never less than engrossing so far. I would quote from it but my copy is lying across the room and I don’t feel like going to get it. But you would probably like it, actually.

My enthusiasm for Imperial, both as object and as reading experience, has lead me to the cusp of a possible Extended Vollmann Vacation. I secured a copy of Fathers and Crows, which looks to be just as singular and weird and fun as Imperial. I want to start the Seven Dreams cycle, and don’t mind jumping in at volume 2, but if I can find a copy of The Ice-Shirt soon I might try and squeeze it in somewhere soon, and read Fathers and Crows around Thanksgiving.

Or, it may all come to nothing, another vaporous readerly intention dismantled by time’s incessant breeze. But I don’t think Vollmann is going anywhere now, as a presence in my head.

Image Credit: Self Portrait by William T. Vollmann

Notes on Lonesome Dove


I finished Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry this week. I started it as I was pushing through the last quarter or so of J R – after meeting my quota of pages in that book, I would decompress my brain a bit with Lonesome Dove. Its clear, orderly, perfectly uncluttered prose, slick, competent, and unadventurous, took the edge off of the headfires that the complicated architecture of Gaddis’s second novel occasionally induced as I raced to finish it.

None of this is original, but: one readerly phenomena I’ve been particularly attuned to lately is how books age in our minds after the reading’s done. No piece of art is static; the best books get bigger in the mind, exhibiting new doors, unfamiliar staircases, a window overlooking a hidden garden when we return to them, like houses we visit in a dream. Others age badly, deteriorating across the arc of a short half life. A rare few appear to be shrinking, but somehow, at some point in accordance with the changing attunement of our own brain, start to grow big again, achieving if not their original or greater dimensions, then at least something more dignified than the heap it looked like they were becoming.

I’m not sure how Lonesome Dove will age yet. I did enjoy reading it. Here is a first round of notes on the book.

The book is famous, but the miniseries that it spawned is arguably even more famous. I haven’t seen it.

The core of the Lonesome Dove plot is a cattle drive undertaken by the Hat Creek Cattle Company, from Lonesome Dove, Texas all the way up to Montana. The drive is lead by two aging ex-Texas Rangers, Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae. In the first 250ish pages they bicker, slack off, drink, break horses, and then finally recruit a crew, steal thousands of cattle from Mexico, and head north. The drive is long, arduous, full of dangers big and small, obvious and subtle, overtly antagonistic and natural. McMurtry hangs several subplots onto the framework of this cattle drive, each moving toward resolution at their own particular momentum; some come and go quickly, others run parallel to the main plot for the duration of the novel – which, by the way, is about 950 pages long.

Yes, it’s a big book, but reads extremely fast. Not because the story is exciting (although it often is), but because the prose is so light – undense, almost transparent, nearly weightless. Coming to Lonesome Dove after reading two other, for me foundational Westerns, Warlock and Blood Meridian, I was surprised at the nearly ephemeral quality of the prose and aesthetic here. Calling it flavorless does the book a great disservice, but there is no rigorous aesthetic imperative informing Lonesome Dove. The prose is laconic, matter of fact, just ever-so-slightly canted with the lightest of antiquated diction.

Which is weird, this sparseness, because – incorrectly or not – I’ve been trained to expect lavish descriptions of the frontier from my Western novels. And I particularly expected it from a book that sees the “Greatest Western” sobriquet often laid at its feet. This description of Montana is about as baroque as Lonesome Dove ever gets, and it rarely even goes this far:

The cowboys had lived for months under the great bowl of the sky, and yet the Montana skies seemed deeper than the skies of Texas or Nebraska. Their depth and blueness robbed even the sun of its harsh force – it seemed smaller, in the vastness, and the whole sky no longer turned white at noon as it had in the lower plains. Always, somewhere to the north, there was a swath of blueness, with white clouds floating in it like petals on a pond. (pages 829 – 830)

Pretty, but still veering towards functionality over flourish.

So what did McMurtry fill this 950-page novel with, if not lyrical passages delineating the cruel beauty of the West?

Two things: Incident and Dialogue.


Many things happen in Lonesome Dove. Almost uniformly, they’re described with the terse efficiency of a computerized cashier telling you that your card has been declined. Even the action scenes aren’t expansive. They usually resolve in a page or two, max.

This actually works for me. Things happen very fast: bullets or arrows fly, animals attack, people are killed, horses die, and it’s over. One undeniably fact of the West is the frighteningly thin line between life and death. This can take the form of the usual cowboy bullshit: bumping into the wrong feller on the way out of the saloon and shooting him down, etc. But it also encompasses accidents, snakebites, the terrifying onset of incurable illnesses. Cowboys can be trampled to death, impaled by an angry bull, mauled by a bear, bitten by a snake, they can die from exhaustion if they get lost without a horse. These things, and the threat of these things, Lonesome Dove portrays tersely, vividly.

Conversely, the descriptions of nature are underwhelming. There’s a big difference between telling a reader a terrible sandstorm happened, and making them feel it right in their fucking brain-nerve. The casual, nearly-bland prose serves the violence well, but doesn’t deliver the scenes of natural devastation to the heart in the same way.

Everything that happens in Lonesome Doves happens fast. I mean that on a structural level. The longest chapters can be breezed through in 20 minutes, maybe 30. On that structural level, the only thing McMurtry lingers on are all the various subplots. He’s happy to take a break from the drive to introduce new characters and new struggles, and to return to these later. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing.


Kind of odd, isn’t it, that rich talk is such an integral part of the Western genre? I’d imagine most cowboys were fairly taciturn. There’s a strange but funny scene at the very end of Lonesome Dove. Call is returning south from Montana to bury Gus. Somewhere on the endless plains he encounters Charles Goodnight, a real historical figure, evidently a well-known person in rancher mythology. He was one of the inspirations for the character of Woodrow Call, so this scene of the two men meeting is a random jag of metafictionality in the midst of a very traditional novel.

Anyway, the real cowboy and the fictional one talk briefly, and at the end of it when Call asks if Goodnight is going into town to see the execution of a famous criminal, Goodnight says:

“No, Goodnight said. “I don’t attend hangings, although I’ve presided over some, of the homegrown sort. This is the longest conversation I’ve had in ten years. Goodbye.” (page 935)

I find this howlingly funny. This is probably too pat of a read on it, but I wonder if this scene is some kind of commentary on the gap between cowboys in reality, and cowboys in fiction? Call is mostly taciturn himself, but even he has a delightfully pungent way of speaking, and probably talked a sight more than real cattlemen like Goodnight. Volume of talk aside, he was almost assuredly more eloquent.

Lonesome Dove has an unproduced screenplay as its distant predecessor, and McMurtry has been tied up in Hollywood for many years, so it’s no surprise that the dialog in Lonesome Dove is plentiful and excellent, and behind one other element (which it is intimately linked to) is the presiding thing that lingers in my mind. Here’s a representative example taken, in the tradition pioneered by the inimitable GreatSFandF.com, more or less at random:

“I couldn’t hear Jehovah’s trumpet from no five miles off,” Augustus said. “Anyway, we ain’t the only thing in this country that can spook cattle. A lobo wolf can spook them, or a lion.”

“I didn’t ask for a speech,” Call said. “It’s foolish to take chances.”

“Some might think it foolish to try and steal horses from the best-armed ranch in Northern Mexico,” Augustus said. “Pedro must work about a hundred vaqueros.”

“Yes, but they’re spread around, and most of them can’t shoot,” Call said.

“Most of us can’t either,” Augustus said. “Dish and Newt ain’t never spilt blood, and one of ‘em’s drunk anyway.”

“Gus, you’d talk to a possum,” Jake said.

“I wisht we had one along,” Augustus said. “I’ve seen possums that could outthink this crowd.” (page 115)

So, Augustus McCrae. On at least one level the entire book is about Gus. I didn’t know this before researching the book but Gus has strode right into the same romantic, mythic empyrean where Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, and other well-loved murderers go to be immortal.

Calling Gus a murderer does him some degree of disservice, I guess. But he does kill the most people throughout the book.

Anyway, an excellent article by John Spong at Texas Monthly compiles memories from many different people involved in the Lonesome Dove universe. One memory from Steven Davis, assistant curator at Texas State’s Southwestern Writer’s Collection, describes some folks’ reaction to the prop of Gus’s dead body from the miniseries:

The exhibit draws people from all over the world, and when they see the prop of Gus’s dead body, it makes some of them weep all over again. I’ve seen people drop to their knees and pray.”

Friends, that is fuckin’ nuts. But the image of people weeping over this dead Gus prop in a museum of sorts dedicated to Lonesome Dove speaks to the contradiction at its heart. Despite its purported revisionist aims, Lonesome Dove still romanticizes the West.

I think a lot of the romance comes from Gus. Semi-educated, intelligent, sensitive, witty, talkative, romantic, with an appetite for life and everything in it, an espouser of homey-sounding apothegms about seizing the day etc., a profoundly talented fighter with incredible eyesight, Gus is, simply, larger than life. People like him may have existed, but I’ve never met any, and I doubt any of them were cowboys.

A note: one weird trait that Gus shares with Judge Holden from Blood Meridian: he enjoys being naked and is comfortable being naked around the cowboys.

Undoubtedly, Gus is a great character, an absolute delight. But he’s also an improbable one, and I think to a degree he sabotages the intent of the book. If you want to deflate the cowboy mythos, why make the central character one of the most improbably charming and cool cowboys that ever existed?


Image Credit: The Sid Richardson Museum Blog. Cover art by Shannon Stirnweis.