Category: Reading

Will’s Christmas Buying Guide 2016: A Late Entry in Books!

Burnt Offerings, by Robert Marasco

About an hour after writing yesterday’s post about the best books I’ve read this year, I finished Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings via Audible in the car. It was an excellent book, well worth your time if you enjoy the slow simmer of human weakness in a crucible of supernatural threat.

This great cover is from the recent Valancourt re-released.

This great cover is from the recent Valancourt re-released.

A family in the 1970s (the glorious 1970s!) agrees to take care of a vast beautiful house in the country on Long Island (one of the ways you know it’s the 70s), and there’s a small catch: they have to take care of a reclusive elderly woman who never emerges from her bedroom. Of course, there are Reasons and of course there are Mysteries and in the end, the book doesn’t shrink from the consequences.

[The 70s are perfect for horror. I know because I was there: cynicism, mistrust, a sense of decay, graffiti on the subways and scowling people at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Everybody seemed to be asking, “Is God dead or did He just leave us for another woman?”]

Will’s Christmas Buying Guide 2016: Books!

Each year, I do a little retrospective of what I’ve enjoyed that year (even if it was produced earlier), and this year I’m doing it a little early in case you want to buy gifts for that special person in your life who is exactly like me.

Let’s start with the books!

The Dark Tower series, by Stephen King

gsThis year, I listened to the entire Dark Tower series on Audible and it was wonderfully strange and moving — a beautiful combination of medieval, post-apocalyptic, and Western sensibility with complex heroism and difficult consequences. I loved it as a story of a man learning how to reconcile his life’s obsession with the safety of the people with him on the journey — which, of course I did, given my personal history.

All seven books are odd and I’ll admit some parts are better than others. I especially enjoyed Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla, but there are beautiful moments spread through every one.

As a writer, I’m fascinated by the obviously intuitive nature of these stories: it’s hard to believe King planned them very deeply, and they seem to be the result of him listening more than writing. That means that certain things get more attention than they should and others get less, and sometimes the endings seem a little ill-fitting. It doesn’t really bother me, though; it’s a roughly-hewn story like a canoe you’d chop with a hatchet from a fallen tree — somehow richly connected to reality. 

Various titles, by John D. MacDonald

I promise I’m not obsessed by Stephen King, BUT ol’ SK has mentioned more than once how much he admires John D. MacDonald’s work. If you wonder where King learned his trick of capturing the delicious gossipy detail that makes his characters seem real, it’s all in MacDonald’s stories.bc

My favorite so far is Murder in the Wind about people with deadly secrets who hole up in an abandoned house as a hurricane passes over. I also like the Travis McGee novels about the beach bum private fixer who does weird investigatory favors for people from time to time, but fair warning: they’ve got a mid-century sensibility.

I Am Providence, by Nick Mamatas

pYou know that old quotation “If you can’t say something good about someone, come sit right here by me?” This book is like sitting at the far corner of a Lovecraftian convention ballroom with someone who has the same entirely appropriate affection/disdain for it that you do. Yes, it’s a murder mystery that takes place at such a convention, but it’s also a purified sample of everything good (10%) and awful (90%) about the “community.”

It’s like Catch-22 but for Lovecraft fandom instead of the Army.

The Fisherman, by John Langanf

One of the things I found disappointing about Boy Scouts was that I never got a cool sublime experience of awe and horror in the woods. John takes care of that here with a man who goes into the wild for answers he doesn’t expect. It’s a beautifully lyrical book and it will make you wonder if you’re missing something by not going fishing. Then you’ll come back to your senses.

The Glittering World, by Robert Levy

gwThis book is a lot like Robert himself: cool, sophisticated, perceptive, funny, and just credulous enough to see the fey lurking on the edge of your summer retreat. I love the slow creeping intrusion of the strange here, and Robert never forgets how people are still people (troubled, petty, jealous, feebly and selfishly heroic) even in the presence of the wondrous.

My Top Three Books of 2015

With four whole days until Christmas, let me tell you the good books I read this year that you SHOULD have bought for yourself or others.

(As always, my recommended books of the year are the ones I read in that year, not the ones published in that time. I read books to get AWAY from the cultural zeitgeist, not to fall into it!)

There are in no particular order, except perhaps subconsciously.

A Head Full of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay

head_ghosts_cover

I have mostly a handshake-and-Facebook acquaintance with Paul, which is too bad because I suspect we probably get the same kinds of complaints about our work from a certain subset of cretinous readers: that it doesn’t go “far enough.”

I used to wish that there was a better word than “horror” for stories like ours (and Laird Barron’s and John Langan’s and Livia Llewellyn’s etc.) because it comes with a lot of clumsy expectations. Now, I just hope more books like A Head Full of Ghosts keep stretching that frontier into more subtle psychological territory.

It goes plenty “far enough.”

The blithe description of the book is that it is about a teenaged girl whose apparent demonic possession becomes the subject of a documentary TV show, but like the show itself, that’s a gross misunderstanding of what’s really happening to Marjorie Barrett and her family. This is a book as much about the stories we tell ourselves about our own fears as about the fears themselves, and every character is wrong about the possession in ways that are far more scary than a demon.  

Tremblay does an amazing job with the tiny accumulating details of real fear, and the effect reminds of me all the best parts of Steven Spielberg’s (nominally Tobe Hooper’s) Poltergeist: the horrors come knocking on our middle class doors, chased away by the worse things already within.

The Martian, by Andy Weir

martian_cover

If there was room between all the shit about Jesus in the Inspiration section of the bookstore, I’d shelve The Martian there.

Why? Because no matter how bad your life is, no matter who has dumped you or betrayed you or fired you or cut off your leg or called you a failure or denied you a small business loan, it will never be as bad as being marooned on Mars.

And no matter what you think can fix your life — self-help books, prayer, AA meetings, cults, shooting up a movie theater, traveling to Bali, coloring in books with markers — nothing will work quite as well as screaming briefly and then solving the current goddamn problem right in front of you before going on to the next.

Mark Watney starts this book well and surely fucked as many of us have been. We usually have water and oxygen when we’re fucked, but hey, bad is bad. Watching Watney rationally (and with humor) face his problems one by one with every resource he has (brain included) could certainly be a lesson to almost everyone trying to fix the world from debate stages and Facebook.

You look at what’s actually in front of you — not what you want to be in front of you, not what you hope to be in front of you — and you use 100% of it to make the next ten seconds 1% better than the last ten seconds.

Sometimes all you can do is survive to solve the next problem, but somehow, that’s always enough.

Working Days, by John Steinbeck

working_days_cover

When John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, he wrote a journal at the same time, a place where he could grumble about what he was working on that day and what was coming next, and the result — Working Days — is one of the most useful books you will ever read about writing.

Why? Because it tells you that doubt and chaos and distraction is normal. And that it’s possible to work through them.

Now that I’m thinking about it, Working Days is The Martian but for writing a book. Steinbeck is stranded on Planet Joad and he has to make the best decisions each day to survive to make more tomorrow.

And the result — SPOILER ALERT — is The Grapes of Fucking Wrath.

One word and one sentence and one chapter at a time, folks.

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