Thursday, December 26, 2013

Some good books I've read so far in 2013

The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil. No big deal that this book is on some crime fiction blog's top-books list; it's one of the great novels of the twentieth century. It's funny, it's acute in its analysis of social types, a kind of grimly prophetic social comedy. (Musil fled Austria with his Jewish wife and died in 1942 in Switzerland.)

Maifya, Charlie Stella.  A bit different from Stella's previous novels at first, with less humor and characters more savage and vicious. But the same multiple viewpoints he uses in the other books—Stella loves to show men and women at work, out, and at home, doing what they do in their daily lives—here make the vicious Russian gangsters even more chilling. The humor picks up  when Stella introduces a few Italian cops and agents, and Stella's sympathy for working men and women struck a chord with me even though my collar would be decidedly white if I didn't wear T-shirts or sweaters to work most days.

Graveland, Alan Glynn. Words are weapons, and Alan Glynn knows weapons can be evasive and defensive as well as offensive. Anyone who says "going forward" clearly would prefer that you not examine what he or she has left behind. Glynn's sensitivity to the evasions that lurk behind fashions in everyday speech are one reason his tales of corporate and government infiltration are so convincing.

A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962, Alistair Horne.  Here's an excerpt from one amateur review of Horne's history of the Franco-Algerian war: “Alistair Horne … is first and foremost hopelessly biased in favor of the Algerians.” Here’s a bit from another: “This epic work … remains a remarkably racist work loved by State Department officials and neocons alike … Alistair Horne describes in gory detail atrocities committed by the FLN, or Algerian nationalist rebels, while skimming over far worse atrocities committed by the nice white-guy French."  Horne must have done something right.

The Day of the Jackal, Frederick Forsyth. For all its thriller trappings, this story of a plot to assassinate Charles de Gaulle is really a police procedural—and a damned good one—that has marked affinities with hard-boiled P.I. stories as well. No wonder it won the best-novel Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1972.

Pop. 1280, Jim Thompson. Dark, hilarious, a stunning performance that sustains its mood in every word, far and away the best of Thompson's work that I've read.

Pike, Benjamin Whitmer. This 2010 novel is like Daniel Woodrell, but with a tougher edge, maybe with a shot of Jim Thompson mixed in.

Laidlaw, William McIlvanney. Start with compassion and humor. End with such telling detail that one feels one is reading novel observation rather that obligatory place-holders. Here's how the novel opens: "Running was a strange thing. The sound was your feet slapping the pavement. The lights of passing cars batted your eyeballs. ..." Find me a better description of alienation than that, of feeling inside one's body and removed from it at the same time. If you do, I bet it won't end on McIlvanney's humorous note:  "A voice with a cap on said. `Where's the fire, son?'"

Europe Between the Oceans and Britain BeginsBarry Cunliffe; Origins of the British: The New Prehistory of Britain, Stephen Oppenheimer.  Three stimulating books on the origins of Europe's populations that debunk old theories without drifting off into bloviating self-congratulation.

Gun Work, David J. Schow. A perfect "new" hard-boiled novel in significant ways. It captures the hard edge of post-war pulp without seeming campy or nostalgic on the one hand or veering into smirky self-consciousness or jokey, over-the-top violence on the other. (Events obliged Schow. Gun Work is set in Mexico, the country's explosion in kidnapping last decade permitting a plausible recycling of that old hard-boiled stand-by, the dangerous trip south of the border.)

Bluffing Mr. Churchill, John Lawton. Lawton's Troy novels are a delicious social comedy and social history of England in the mid-twentieth century: "Interned, released, enlisted, trained and promoted all in less than three months. The insignia of rank barely tacked onto his sleeve. If the next promotion were as swift as the first he’d be a Flight Lieutenant by the end of the month. This had baffled Rod. He had tried to explain it to his father some time ago. ‘I said the obvious thing. “Are you sure I’m ready for this?” Sort of expecting the genial “Of course, old chap” by way of answer – and they said “Ready? Of course you’re not ready. Ready’s got bugger all to do with it. You’re thirty-three, man, you’ve held a pilot’s licence for ten years. We need people who can fly, people who can command a bit of authority, people who might look as though they know what they’re doing even if they don’t. You couldn’t grow a moustache, could you?’”

Tapestry, J. Robert Janes. Tapestry's moral, ethical, and physical environments are the darkest I have read in crime fiction. Kohler and St. Cyr are called on to work in a city so darkened by blackouts that characters must feel their way through the streets at night. Plunder, greed, puritanism, lust, patriotism, violence, and luxury in the face of deprivation slip in and out of focus, the reader never sure if any one is staged to cover for another.

The Generals, Thomas E. Ricks; Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam, H.R. McMaster. Some of what these two books taught me: 1) High respect for the skill, tact, wisdom, foresight, and calculation of the good generals: George C. Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Matthew Ridgway. 2) Hatred of the sloppy invocation of military metaphors in areas of civilian life whose laughable triviality is matched only by the self-seriousness of the morons who invoke them. Every football coach who likens his game to war. Every corporate executive who issues a mission statement. Every middle manager who expects his or her underlings to take that crap seriously. Every business person who invokes The Art of War

The Hunter and Other Stories, Dashiell Hammett. Includes twenty stories uncollected or unpublished during Hammett's lifetime, plus a tantalizing fragment of an uncompleted Sam Spade story. E-book editions include three additional pieces of what Hammett hoped would turn into political novels, according to Julie M. Rivett, Hammett's granddaughter and a co-editor of the new volume. Rivett invokes The Maltese Falcon in discussing "The Secret Emperor," but I'm reminded of The Glass Key. Like that novel, which appeared in 1931, "The Secret Emperor" feels like it could have been written decades later, even today.

Criminal EnterpriseOwen Laukkanen. Laukkanen's second novel does some familiar crime-fiction tricks well, and it rings refreshing changes on others. It manages the considerable feat of keeping all its subplots interesting, and its twists are surprising but plausible.

Interface, Joe Gores. If you like Dashiell Hammett and Donald Westlake, you'll like Interface. If don't like Hammett and Westlake, as Thomas Jefferson said, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just."

HHhH, Laurent Binet. Binet's 2010 novel is a thriller; a history lesson; a lesson on the importance of history (which is not the same thing); and a meditation on how we read, write, and experience fiction and history; and it has, as almost any serious book will, good jokes.

California, Kevin Starr. Starr is a passionate, engaging writer and a great lover of California, which he served as state librarian. Yet he is fair-minded in dealing with the violence that has attended the on-going birth of this strange piece of the planet. He is the sort who can give history a good name. He's also savvy enough to tie the state's raucous, dream-filled history to the crime writing that arose there.

Blood's A Rover, James Ellroy.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

14 Comments:

Blogger R.T. said...

My goodness. That is quite a list, especially in light of the fact that I have read none of them. I had better get a move on.

So, tell me. If I were to read only one of your fiction titles, which should it be?

December 26, 2013  
Blogger Michael Carlson said...

Nice list--glad you thought enough of Interface to put in on. I keep meaning to read the Horne book, and Musil's is indeed a classic. Laidlaw is about due for a revival, I think. I look for a couple of those crime novels I hadnt heard of over here too...thanks

December 26, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Probably Laidlaw, because it works so well regardless of whether one approaches it expected a crime novel or a "literary" novel.

December 26, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael, thanks. The Laidlaw revival has begun already. Canongate reissued all three novels this year, which was the occasion of my rereading them. I presume the reissues are also the reason McIlvanney has begun attending crime fiction festivals the past two years. This afforded one attendee at Bristol's Crimefest the opportunity to snap this candid photo of McIlvanney and me.

Interface is great fun even if one figures out the hook in advance. (I did not.) And don't worry if you don't finish reading The Man WIthout Qualities; Musil never finished writing it.

December 26, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

P.S. Montreal is also my home town.

December 26, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Ah, I wish it were available in Kindle. I will seek out a print copy. Tks

December 26, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., it appears that some of McIlvanney's non-Laidlaw novels are available for the Kindle. I liked the three Laidlaw novels so much that I may take a flyer on one of the nons.

If you simply must read something from the DBB list, I know that some of the books are available in electronic versions.

December 26, 2013  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

I'm so glad you read Janes this year. There are a few names I recognize from my bookalanche, so I'll have to move them to the near-future stack if you liked them so much.

December 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Anne Zouroudi was my most pleasant surprise one year, maybe 2011. Janes may take the honor this year. I'd known about his work for years, but I was leery of it. But I'm a fan now. I had no idea how good the guy was.

December 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm on a James Ellroy jones because of my trip to L.A. I flipped through some of his early work before my trip, and I'm reading Blood's a Rover now. It's a terrific book, and I now have the added advantage of recognizing many of the locations. Have you read much of his work?

December 28, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

RT

I've read 6 of them and 2 of them I recommended to Peter so I'm quite pleased.

Peter

Nice to see McIlvanney up there. I've been a big fan of his for years and his brother the multiple award winning football writer and his son the excellent crime writer and Professor of Scottish Studies at Otago University in NZ. Quite the family that, eh?

December 28, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're probably directly indirectly responsible for five on the list: Ricks, McMaster, Oppenheimer, and the two Cunliffe's. I read The Generals after reading about it at your place. And I think I read the European population books based one of your discussion, though I had read Cunliffe before.

I knew McIlvanney's son was an author, but I learned only recently that the brother was a football writer. William McIlvanney's novels make me want to look for his brother's soccer writing.

December 28, 2013  
Anonymous Stan Ulrich said...

A quick correction, Peter. It is Forsyth (no "e") on the Day of the Jackal. And I thank you for reminding me that I was going to put that on my pile to read. It has been there before, but then seems to shuffle off somewhere ... it is around here somewhere. I'm also working through Ellroy, finding it necessary to take a break between volumes of the LA Quartet. Brilliant though.

December 29, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Stan: If I were limber enough to do so, I'd kick myself for that error. Thanks for the correction; I must have been thinking of Adrian McKinty's Michael Forsythe novels.

I refuse to believe that you have not read Day of the Jackal, though. I have an abiding belief that you have read everything.

I can well understand the need to decompress between Ellroy novels. might need a break between Blood's A Rover and American Tabloid.

December 29, 2013  

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