In Kentucky, we have a white Christmas this morning. It is warm enough for kids to play in the snow, but not so warm as to melt it away. Christmas is for gratitude, and I’m grateful for the day.
I’m grateful for the love of my family and friends, for world enough and time. And among the books I’m grateful to have read this year are:
Clancy Martin's How to Sell: A Novel. A crime novel, a coming-of-age novel, an indictment of capitalism, a darkly humorous literary take on American materialism. Modern American noir.
Robert Flynn's Echoes of Glory. This year's Spur Award winner has yet to catch on and doesn't seem to appear on any other best list. A shame, that--it is an excellent novel on all levels, brilliant as a parable, as a satire, as a novel of flesh and blood. Witty and insightful and literary.
Austin Wright's Tony and Susan. This is a literary novel in the form of a genre novel, a novel within a novel. Not originally published this year, but about to be reissued in hardcover. I've reread it now and I see even more in it--much, much more. Its literary kin includes both Joseph Conrad’s VICTORY and Cormac McCarthy’s OUTER DARK. A little-known gem that sent me in search of Wright's other obscure works.
Peter Temple’s Truth: A Novel, a splendid follow-up to his earlier novel, THE BROKEN SHORE. This author understands the evils of bureaucracy and he tells a story you can believe in. Temple has garnered several awards now, and more will follow.
Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule, the longshot winner of the National Book Award. A literary novel set on the backstretch of a minor thoroughbred racetrack with engaging characters and a flair for pathos and dark humor. I reviewed it at Amazon.
The most life-changing books I read this year, the ones which most affected my world-view, were Margaret Atwood's Payback, DEBT AND THE SHADOW SIDE OF WEALTH, David Loy's The World Is Made of Stories, and Ernest Becker's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Denial of Death (which I encountered earlier in David Loy's eye-opening Lack and Transcendence: The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism). And my reading of Austin Wright's RECALCITRANCE: WILLIAM FAULKNER AND THE PROFESSORS changed forever the way I evaluate literary novels.
I've read several books on consciousness this year, the best of them being Iain McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. I also enjoyed Robert Lanza's Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe, and Antonio Damasio's Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain . Damasio's earlier books are also fine and he is a frequent guest on Charlie Rose's series on brain science.
The best poetry I read this year was in The Etiquette of Freedom: Gary Snyder, Jim Harrison, and The Practice of the Wild. The text is a transcript of the CD which comes with the book. Gary Snyder and Jim Harrison candidly discuss their secular-buddhist philosophy of life and read from their works. I also enjoyed Jane Hirshfield's essays on poetry in Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry.
The best baseball book I read this year was John Wilker's Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards. Part history, part coming-of-age story, warmly humorous. A gem. I also discovered Ron Faust's fine mystery, Fugitive Moon, published back in 1995, about a high-strung baseball pitcher who becomes a fugitive after killings occur in whatever town he happens to be pitching in.
The best war novel I read this year was published back in 2005, Bright Starry Banner: a novel of the Civil War by Alden R. Carter. It follows the history of the Battle of Stones River very closely, mixing in some fictional Cormac McCarthy-like descriptions of historical events. I've read nothing else quite like it.
Early in the year, I read David Eagleman's delightful Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, with different humorous takes on the cosmology of the universe and mankind's place in it. It was published in 2009, and I was led to it by last year's best lists found at the LARGEHEARTED BOY BLOG.
I've read several excellent biographies this year including Frank McLynn's Marcus Aurelius: A Life, James E. Person's Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind, and Frederick Robert Karl's Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives- A Biography. I also enjoyed Eric Williamson's autobiographical left-wing memoir Oakland, Jack London, and Me, Leslie Marmon Silko's work of personal heritage, THE TURQUOISE LEDGE, and Antonia Fraser's Must You Go?: My Life with Harold Pinter.
There were many holocaust-related novels published this year, and I read a very good one: Yann Martel's Beatrice and Virgil: A Novel. That it doesn't appear on many best lists is something I fail to understand in this, the year of Franzen's FREEDOM and Larsson's THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. I read those too, good ones but greatly overplayed in comparison.
I was touted onto Paul Harding's small gem, TINKERS, and to James Hynes' NEXT, which I read in an ARC thanks to Amazon's Vine Program. Hynes writes an outstanding novel every time, but like Daniel Woodrell, he seems to be little read outside of a small cult of loyal fans. Count me as one of them. Michael Crummy's DAMAGES belongs on this list, as well as Joseph Boyden's brilliant THREE DAY ROAD, published back in 2005.
This was the year I studied Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island after reading Robert A. Prather's The Strange Case of Jonathan Swift and the Real Long John Silver. I don't buy the DiVinci Code theories, but the history itself is awe-inspiring and well worth reading.
Early in the year, I read some fine westerns, most of them Spur Award winners including Thomas Cobb's superb SHAVETAIL, Johnny Boggs's HARD WINTER and KILLSTRAIGHT. Then I started reading Craig Johnson's splendid series starting with THE COLD DISH. I have several of them to go before I catch up to this year's Walt Longmire novel. His characters make good company.
This was also the year I discovered Emerald Noir, Ken Bruen's THE GUARDS, John Connolly's EVERY DEAD THING, Adrian McKinty's DEAD I WELL MAY BE, Declan Burke's THE BIG O, and Eoin McManee's THE RESURRECTION MAN. I have many more in their backlists to read, and Ken Bruen's well-read protagonist led me to some other interesting books. What a treat!
In October, I read several Halloween-related books including Deborah Blum's Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, then Peter Ackroyd's A History of Ghosts: The True Story of Seances, Mediums, Ghosts, and Ghostbusters, then Norman Partridge's Johnny Halloween: Tales of the Dark Season and Dark Harvest. I also read Mike Ashley's excellent Starlight Man: The Extraordinary Life of Algernon Blackwood which goes into the spiritualism of the fantasy/occult novelist.
In November, I went on a reading excursion into books that used the cat as a symbol for naturalism--books akin to such as Walter Van Tilburg Clark's The Track Of The Cat (Western Literature Series) and Peter Matthiessen's THE SNOW LEOPARD:
Caught in Fading Light: Mountain Lions, Zen Masters, and Wild Nature by Gary Thorp. The author goes on a quest to see a cougar in the wild. He seems to be more of a formal Buddhist than either Jim Harrison or Gary Snyder. A smaller book and a lighter read than the others here.
The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild by Craig Childs. The strikingly beautiful picture of a cougar in the snow graces the dustjacket. Childs is a great story-teller.
The Beast in the Garden: The True Story of a Predator's Deadly Return to Suburban America David Baron. This book is not new, but I'm glad to have finally read it. On the first edition, it carries the same dustjacket picture as THE ANIMAL DIALOGUES but stylized and darker.
Shadow Cat: Encountering the American Mountain Lion, edited by Susan Ewing and Elizabeth Grossman. A treasure-chest of essays on the elusive lion/panther/puma quest, including Pam Houston's "Looking For Abbey's Lion."
Water Witches by Chris Bohjalian. A fine ghostly catamount quest novel (among other things) that I first read back when it first came out in 1995. The epigraph is from Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." About the frozen leopard found high in the mythical house of God. "No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude."