Monday, December 27, 2010

Four Epiphanies

Instead of listing my favorite books of 2010, I've decided to summarize a few of the ideas that emerged from my reading & listening this year and, the titles that informed them:

Aggregating Grief

Grief is a very special kind of pain in that it is often born of love and has the power to break you or transform you. Note that I did not say that it can "make you or break you" because 1) I eschew cliches and 2) it's not true. There is no doubt that grief can break you; but I balk at the idea that "what you survive makes you stronger." Tragedy may reveal a hitherto undiscovered strength; but with equal dexterity it can prey upon weakness as well. Grief will extort all of one's resources of character to survive and it's never pretty. It's tragic. Earlier this year, I reviewed Atiq Rahimi's Earth to Ashes and The Patience Stone both of which illustrated this very powerful concept. Looking back, I can also see how the theme was masterfully executed in Thomas Trofimuk's Waiting for Columbus.

Sensible vs Sensual Reading

In a guest post and giveaway on Jenn's Bookshelf, C.J. Lyons, author of the Angels of Mercy series, wrote about Sensing vs Intuitive Types. In responding in the comments, I made a similar distinction with my own reading: that I am a "primarily a "sensible" reader, able to discern patterns and structures within a book ergo issues w/construction of the story. Every once in while though, a story will be so powerful I feel like I’m experiencing the story rather than reading it. I guess that for those books (very rare for me) I become a “sensual” reader!" The book that did it for me this year was Matterhorn (by Karl Marlantes; narrated by Bronson Pinchot.)

The Space Between the Lights

In reading and reviewing Scott Phillips' The Ice Harvest (narrated by Grover Gardner) I came to understand true noir vs gritty realism. Gritty realism is what you find in Richard Price's Lush Life, a police procedural about the shooting death of a bartender. The narrator, Bobby Canavale, has an ear for the cadence and vocabulary and the you can see the story play out in your mind's eye, much like a season of The Wired :-/ However profane the situations are though, the characters are imbued with just enough pathos to render them recognizable or sympathetic to the readers. With noir, however, characters are often severely damaged, the tone is unrelentingly harsh and the sordidness can be grueling. The Ice Harvest actually has some comic moments to relieve the tension in that Scott Phillips does not shy away from the absurd; but if you really want some hardcore noir, I don't know if you can beat James Ellroy's The Black Dahlia. Narrated by Stephen Hoye, The Black Dahlia pulls the listener into the gutter and it's almost easy to lose sight of the fact that the story is very well crafted.

The True Horror

In a genre-busting move, this year I started reading a little horror. It didn’t start out that way. It actually all began with the beautifully written novel, The Angels are the Reapers (by Alden Bell; narrated by Tai Sammons) which led to I am Legend (by Richard Matheson; narrated by Robertson Dean) which has now led to me listening to Hell House (by Richard Matheson; narrated by Ray Porter.) And I discovered, it’s not about the monsters, it’s about the humans and, the true horror is not in the ghoulishness of the zombie/vampire/mutants/monsters; but in what we as humans have allowed or will allow ourselves to become. There will be more on this later as I think about stuff like civilization, music, mirrors, evolutions and circles...

Actually, there will be more on each of these themes in 2011. Atiq Rahimi's third novel, A Thousand Rooms of Dreams and Fear comes out on January 11 and I'm eager to see if it is yet another exposition on the idea of "Aggregating Grief." In terms of looking for another book that will blow me away the same way that Matterhorn did, well, I don't actually go looking for it. Only twelve titles in fifteen years have made my personal Audiobook Pantheon of All-Time Greats and, each time it was a complete surprise to me. I never know what chemistry of words and narrator will affect me! As for the noir genre, you'll probably start seeing words like "existentialism" and "nihilism" thrown in for good measure in future noir novel reviews. I'm thinking about hitting up the Parker series (by Richard Stark a.k.a Donald Westlake; narrated by Michael Kramer) or possibly more James Ellroy, though that's tougher to find in unabridged audio CDs or in digital dnload. I'm also hoping to return to the horror genre's prototypes, Dracula (by Bram Stoker) and Frankenstein (by Mary Shelley; narrated by Simon Vance.) I did read the latter in print earlier this year, but I think another read with a different mindset might be in order.


  1. You've put forth some really wonderful and extraordinary ideas in this post, DEC. It made for some thought-provoking reading. Bravo. And because of your recommendation, I've finally acquired Matterhorn and it will be in my ears (and head) in early 2011. Many thanks.

  2. This is a great wrap-up concept. Love it!

  3. Since you were talking about internal horrors versus external, have you ever read "The Haunting of Hill House?" In that one, you can never really be sure if it is the house that's haunted, or the main characters mind. This was a good post DEC, very thought-provoking.

  4. Oh I *love* how you've organized your favorites...what a wonderful way to conceptualize.'ve given me food for though here, especially on the sensible vs. sensual reader concept. Thanks so much!

  5. Tanya, I love this post. I am definitely a more "sensual" reader .. thanks for giving me the term.

    Your definition of "noir" is right on, I think. Take a look at Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock. Incredibly powerful, profane and shocking, but oh, so good.

    Happy New Year!

  6. I'm not sure how many books you read for the challenge, but there are 3 giveaways up for participants of the Vietnam War Reading Challenge. I hope you'll enter and spread the word.