A reading recap (2021)

This year, I had intended to write reviews of everything I read.

Obviously, with this year being this year I haven’t been able to do that for a lot of the books I ploughed through. I really wanted to record some thoughts on them, because it’s an important part of the reading process, for me: it helps bed down each book in my mind, so that I’m not taken by surprise halfway through an unintended reread by a plot development that suddenly reminds me that oh yeah, I’ve read this before.

Part of my process this year has involved the taking of notes to serve as a sort of memory aid for my reading. Generally, they require a Rosetta Stone to be sifted through, even by me, so they’re not particularly enlightening on their own, but they do allow me to crack out a couple of brief thoughts about what I’ve read this year.

Yes, there is a certain type of pen I like to use while writing these. No, they’re probably not very profound. But hey, there’s two notebooks full of them this year, so I guess that’s meaningful.

So that’s what I’m doing here.

Here’s a list of the books I’ve read this calendar year. Where I’ve written a review, the review is linked. Where I haven’t, there’ll be something written. I can’t guarantee any of this will be particularly profound, but you may discover something in there which piques your interest – and that is about the best I can hope for for these thumbnail sketches.

  1. Night and the City by Gerald Kersh. ☆☆☆☆☆
    Black market skulduggery. Wonderful. (Review here.)
  2. Down the Hume by Peter Polites. ☆☆☆☆☆
    This is decidedly Not Fun, but is also essential. (Review here.)
  3. I am God by Giacomo Sartori. ☆☆☆☆
    Who says the alpha and omega doesn’t get the horn sometimes? (Review here.)
  4. Imperium by Christian Kracht. ☆☆☆☆
    In which a German nudist with a yen for coconuts goes full Fitzcarraldo. (Review here.)
  5. Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom by Nik Cohn. ☆☆☆☆
    Bowie read it, so I had to. Fuck Bill Haley! (Review here.)
  6. The Wanderer by Timothy Jarvis. ☆☆☆☆
    This is some major-league strangeness, wrapped in apocalypse and Punch & Judy. (Review here.)
  7. Masks by Fumiko Enchi. ☆☆☆☆☆
    Something malignant lurks at the heart of this finely constructed tale. (Review here.)
  8. Kraftwerk: I was a Robot by Wolfgang Flür. ☆☆☆
    Wouldn’t have expected someone in as futuristic a band to be as much of a hippie as Flür. Seems to spend a lot of time big-noting himself, so a good book if you’re into Teutonic tales about how good the ex-Robot is at banging people?

    Nein.
  9. The Death of Francis Bacon by Max Porter. ☆☆☆☆
    A suitably horrific meditation on the death of Old Cunty. (Review here.)
  10. Fragments of Horror by Junji Ito. ☆☆☆
    J-horror that didn’t quite hit as hard as other volumes, despite a fair amount of body horror. (Review here.)
  11. Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh. ☆☆☆☆
    A solid work which is really a meditation about ageing, clothed in a mystery. There’s a death, according to a note found in the woods… but is there a body? An intriguing examination of the tales we tell ourselves to make sense of our worlds. My first Moshfegh, though probably not my last.
  12. The Recognitions by William Gaddis. ☆☆☆☆
    This year’s Worthy Tome, I guess. (Review here.)
  13. Printer’s Devil Court by Susan Hill. ☆☆☆☆☆
    Mysterious chronologies and a doctor who can’t leave things the fuck alone. (Review here.)
  14. Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg. ☆☆☆☆☆
    An old favourite. I really should get around to reading the (apparently awful) sequel. (Review here.)
  15. The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura. ☆☆☆☆☆
    Exquisite portrait of a pickpocket whose former associates eventually catch up with him. Part existential drama, part heist thriller, this reads as compulsively as the best crime lit but feels a cut above: there’s something else at work underneath the half-inching and henchmen. Is escape an option?
  16. Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld by David E. Kaplan and Alec Dubro. ☆☆☆☆
    A fairly academic treatment of the yakuza, Japan’s criminal gangs. This, the 2012 edition, updated the 1986 original with a wealth of new detail. It’s dry and detailed, though the carefully related history is occasionally livened with moments such as a porn-star’s attempt to kamikaze-ram a gang boss’s house. (He missed, but what a fucking story!). An updated version would be pretty interesting, as I’d like to know if the organisation addresses contained within are still accurate.
  17. A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel by Tom Phillips. ☆☆☆☆☆
    Your art project was never as good as this, no matter who you are. (Review here.)
  18. This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin. ☆☆☆
    I expected more from this. The author, a Stanford and Berklee graduate who also has experience as a producer, attempts to use science to deepen the understanding of art. I should’ve read it when I first received it as a gift, because it suffers from leaning so heavily on references to Mariah Carey and the Eagles.
  19. Drink, Smoke, Pass Out by Judith Lucy. ☆☆☆☆
    The second in Judith Lucy’s series of autobiographical works. I had really enjoyed The Lucy Family Alphabet and this is more of the same, really. Covering the part of Lucy’s life where she filmed Judith Lucy’s Spiritual Journey, it engages with how the author engages with a number of big topics in her life: boys, booze, death and so on. A more mature work than the first, it’s still pretty self-eviscerating and acerbic. I can see why people unfamiliar with Judith wouldn’t like this, but I don’t get why they’d be reading it in the first place.
  20. In the Land of Men by Adrienne Miller. ☆☆☆☆
    In which an incredible career (you try becoming the first woman literary editor of Esquire in your mid-20s) collides with the most frat-lit bro of frat-lit bros: David Foster Wallace. Yes, he of the tennis and bandana and too-worshipful dude followers. Naturally, he’s an arsehole who is at once convinced of his greatness and at the same time desperate for affirmation of it. Sadly, he still gets a pass from its author: genius trumps fuckwittery, it seems.
  21. War is a Racket by Smedley D. Butler. ☆☆☆☆
    Read how military action receives an arse kicking from the guy usually charged with handing ’em out to supposedly lesser nations. (Review here.)
  22. Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons by John Carter. ☆☆☆
    God, I wanted this to be so much greater than it was. In theory, this has it all – Aleister Crowley; the nascent science of rocketry; L. Ron Hubbard in a pre-cult, girlfriend-stealing role; an attempt to create an otherworldly being; and, finally, death through a careless explosion! – but something seemed to be missing. The prose trips over itself, and tends to both over- and under-rate its subject in the magick and physics departments. There’s got to be a better biography of Parsons somewhere out there – he’s fascinating. (This reminds me, I really must read that Marjorie Cameron biography.)
  23. Dune by Frank Herbert. ☆☆☆☆☆
    Encyclopaedic world building supports a tale about Space Jesus. (Review here.)
  24. Novel with Cocaine by M. Ageyev. ☆☆☆☆
    The creation of an apparently nobody, powered by nose beers. (Review here.)
  25. Capitalist Realism: Is there No Alternative? by Mark Fisher. ☆☆☆☆
    The alternative is to not read this book and therefore not be bummed the fuck out. (Review here.)
  26. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. ☆☆☆☆☆
    A portrait of a woman who takes a job at a convenience store during university… and stays there. Now, I love Japanese convenience stores – as does pretty much anyone who has visited the country, it seems – and there’s so much minutiae that the store becomes its own character. An examination of what it means to do your own thing can cost in Japanese culture, it’s hard to not say this is “quirky” but it’s told with more compassion than that word would suggest.
  27. Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Dread of Death by Irvin D. Yalom. ☆☆☆☆☆
    Read at the suggestion of my psych, this book is great. I’ve had some brushes with mortality – more theoretical than literal at this point, thankfully – and I’ve been thinking a bit about death. Yalom uses anonymised stories from his patient records to suggest different ways of considering the end of life. It’s not as much of a bummer as I had expected, and provides a good way of approaching the thing while bearing in mind how our influence can ripple outwards from us, even after death. In a nutshell, it’s OK to be anxious about death as everybody is, and anxiety is something we generally can ameliorate. Dreading it? Being afraid? Those make sense, sure, but they give it a sort of unimpeachable power, which is much more difficult to work around. TLDR? It’s a worry, yeah, but you can work with that worry – or at least become aware of what that worrying can be taking from your life now.

    Of course, I couldn’t get that fucking U2 song out of my head for the duration. Thanks, Bono.
  28. Liv by Roger Pulvers. ☆☆☆☆
    Author and filmmaker Pulvers has been connected with Japanese culture for decades, though the bulk of Liv’s action takes place on the leafy North Shore of Sydney, Australia. This compact novel examines personal culpability in the shadow of generation-defining horrors, and asks whether one can forgive, or whether aggressors can change their ways. Brilliant rumination of the punishments life can bring, regardless.
  29. Hollywood Animal by Joe Eszterhas. ☆☆☆☆
    You know this guy. He’s an incredibly cocky arsehat, but he did write the screenplays for Flashdance and Basic Instinct. This autobiography drops so many names it rattles like a jalopy, but goddamn him it’s so moreish you can’t help but keep reading. It’s undeniable that Eszterhas lived the American Dream: a migrant kid who moved to Cleveland, only to become a history-making screenwriter who happened to work at Rolling Stone at the same time Hunter S. Thompson was writing the Gonzo playbook. He made a fuck-tonne of money, banged celebrities, drank and drugged enough to kill a mere mortal and still kept going. Though his brashness is a little undercut by his latter turn-on for faith, I found that despite his unlikeable qualities, the motherfucker can tell a story. And his is certainly better than Showgirls, as he would likely admit.
  30. Smashed by Junji Ito. ☆☆☆☆
    Another collection of Ito’s horror stories, this selection was a bit more appealing than Fragments of Horror, read earlier in the year. There’s ghost-assisted comedians, a Butoh-influenced meditation on guilt, and a distinctly fucked-up haunted house, amongst others. The titular story is delightfully gross, though there’s some stand-outs which make much of their ordinariness.

    “It me!” as I believe the youngsters might say.
  31. You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames. ☆☆☆☆☆
    When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. (Review here.)
  32. Prosper’s Demon by K.J. Parker. ☆☆☆☆☆
    You’ve gotta love a short work that opens with a W.S. Gilbert quote and then takes the viewpoint of an unnamed and unscrupulous exorcist who approaches his job like a gung-ho plumber. This thing discusses what happens when the person attempting to raise a child to be a philosopher king suffers from the unfortunate problem of possession. A fair amount of hey-nonny-nos alongside my tee-hees, this was an exceptional afternoon-killer.
  33. Inside Man by K.J. Parker. ☆☆☆☆
    More of the previous, only this time coming from the other team. If you’ve ever wondered what happens when a demon has a chance to do something other than distract monks from their liturgical ministrations, this is for you.
  34. Elizabeth by Ken Greenhall. ☆☆☆☆☆
    Greenhall, writing at the time of publication as Jessica Hamilton, created a creepy-kid story nonpareil. The oddness of mirrors, the Gormenghast-style existence woven around the too-wise 14-year-old of the title is at once intriguing and fucking creepy. There’s some implication of underaged fucking of the sort that 1970s publishers seemed to be gaga about, but the perversity of the tale is worth staying hooked for, especially if the idea of the strength of familial habits is your jam.
  35. Kowabana: ‘True’ Japanese Scary Stories from Around the Internet by Tara A. Devlin. ☆☆☆☆
    The first volume of an increasing series, this collection of spooky stories was culled from assorted sites across the Japanese internet by Devlin, who also translated them. Effectiveness of spine-chilling varies – the gamut runs from lame to pretty spooky – and it’s sometimes easy to pick which tales were the product of a childish imagination. This is a function of the source, though: sometimes the internet renders gold unto its readers, and sometimes it provides underbaked shit. Still, there’s enough creepiness to ensure I’ll read the other volumes of the series sometime.
  36. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. ☆☆☆☆☆
    I am fairly ignorant when it comes to history. I know vague outlines, but I am very aware that my knowledge is patchy, and requires some rectification. What I know of US history has basically been gleaned by osmosis from the nation’s position as the primary cultural powerhouse for the past few decades. This book is akin to The Fatal Shore in that it questions – and how! – the prevailing gee-it’s-all-great view of a nation’s construction. (You know, the view which doesn’t question colonialism and imperialism. The one people want to enshrine in law, say.) Zinn’s book reiterated a lot of stuff I was surprised to note that I did know, but it also shocked with knowledge I felt embarrassed that I didn’t. The upshot is that things being fucked means the system is working as it’s always worked, and while this is a basically depressing state of affairs, it’s pointed towards elements I need to investigate further. Hackneyed to say that this is essential reading if you’re interested in the United States, but it is.
  37. Judderman by D.A. Northwood. ☆☆☆☆
    This one pairs nicely with Timothy Jarvis’s The Wanderer. It has the same sort of playfulness with authorship, and is presented as a selection of texts pertaining to an apparently vanished writer. There’s the idea of a city beneath the one that currently exists, and the story becomes a tale of searching – for a person, for a location, for one’s self. There’s disappearing children and a myth that seems more mobile, more malleable than most. A short stinger.
  38. Nina Simone’s Gum by Warren Ellis. ☆☆☆☆☆
    An absolute delight. Enthusiasm, obsession and veneration combine to provide a warmly human picture of both the object of worship and the author himself. (Review here.)
  39. Choke Gasp! The Best of 75 Years of EC Comics edited by Harvey Kurtzman. ☆☆☆☆
    This was an excellently silly collection of dozens of stories culled from lurid 1950s comic books. Featuring death, grotesqueries and, uh, patriotic war stories, they provided a great time capsule. Subtlety was never an option.

    University life hasn’t changed much, though.
  40. Night of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones. ☆☆☆
    Suburban horror with a strong opening. A teen death count increases, but who – or what – is responsible. There was no way this could live up to the title, but Jones gives it a pretty good stab. It’s the first of his I’ve read, and I suspect I’ll explore some more of his schlock at a later date.
  41. Action Park: Fast Times, Wild Rides and the Untold Story of America’s Most Dangerous Amusement Park by Andy Mulvihill. ☆☆☆☆
    Ah, local amusement parks. Never having Disneybucks, they’re generally run by underskilled teens on the smell of an oily rag at the behest of businessmen with a less-than-ethical approach to staying in the red. Action Park, a thing of New Jersey legend, was made in this mould, only it was run by a guy who thought nothing of sketching plans for potentially catastrophic rides on cocktail napkins and then hiring some random bloke to create them. Hence, the Cannonball Loop.

    There’s teeth in them thar curves!
    Anyway, this book tells the story of this place with humour, which is pretty useful given that a straightfaced recitation of the history of the joint would probably give you a coronary. It’s stupidly good fun. My hint? Pair this with a viewing of Class Action Park.
  42. Dear Professor: A Chronicle of Absences by Filip Noterdaeme. ☆☆☆
    Like it says on the tin, this is a collection of excuse-bearing emails from Noterdaeme’s inbox over a period of years. From the prosaic to the wildly inventive, it doesn’t speak well about the students, especially that one who went into too much detail about their pink-eye. (You can read this book here.)
  43. Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell by Nathan Ballingrud. ☆☆☆☆☆
    Unlike very many other people, I quite enjoyed Wounds, a Netflix film about hellish communiques that prefigure some fairly fucked-up shit. It starred the questionably-discussed Armie Hammer, and I wanted to check out the source material, as I figured it would be a bit more freaky than the film, and hoo boy was I right. The book contains the story from which the film takes inspiration, but also a number of others, each of which dance around the edges of Hell itself. Spooky without being stupid, Ballingrud’s writing sometimes reminded me of Tim Powers or Carl Hiaasen. The stuff is freaky but isn’t hung up on its own eldritch nature. Rather, a world is constructed and that is how it is: the ordinariness with which some characters approach the maw of damnation is where the disquiet comes from, not the disgust the lies within.
  44. Fata Morgana by William Kotzwinkle. ☆☆☆☆☆
    What a treat this novel was. I haven’t read anything else by Kotzwinkle – apart from his novelisation of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, years ago – but if anything else he’s done is like this, then I’m fucking hooked. It’s a tarot-themed chase around nineteenth-century Paris that’s so archly perfect that I’m amazed Guy Ritchie hasn’t tried to make it into a film yet. Inspector Picard chases a foe – when his appetites will allow him – and investigates potential shysters, while moving between the worlds of high and low Parisian society. It’s an investigative drama, a meditation on how getting old sucks, and a vaguely shaggy-dog story, but it just works. I wish I could read it again without knowing what was going to happen. It’s that good.
  45. Nothing but Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw. ☆☆☆☆
    In which some jerks celebrate a marriage at a haunted castle in Japan. Are yokai fucking with them, or is it someone a bit more close to home? While I loved the setting, and found Khaw’s writing to be pretty snappy, the problem was that by the end of it, I wasn’t particularly invested in whether any of those motherfuckers survived. Still, good imagery.
  46. The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham. ☆☆☆☆☆
    Pretty sure this was a roadside bookshelf find. I’d heard of the film of the same name, but had avoided learning anything more about it. Based on this afternoon’s read, I’m going to have to seek it out because this book is fucking great. It’s a joy of haute couture, small-town parochialism and what happens when you shit all over someone for far too long. It’s a love story, and a particularly dark revenge tale, and honestly I’d shelve it next to Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, because if they’re not about the same goddamn place, then they’re separated by mere miles. So good.

So that’s where I’m up to. It’s now Thursday, December 30. I’m not sure if I’ll fit another book in before the end of the year – tomorrow is a Day of Mowing because fuck me, there’s Triffids in the front lawn – but we’ll see. I was surprised how many great books I managed to read this year, and though I’m still a bit bummed that I didn’t read as many as I would have liked – I did overplan things, somewhat – I’m pretty happy with what I’ve consumed, word-wise.

Now to plan next year.

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