I’m a little alarmed that I’ve signed up for at least three different “Best of” Lists for various places that pay me. They’ll be fun to compile but I admit this list, of books I adored that were published in years past (recent or not-so-recent) will be my sentimental favorite of the bunch.
- The entire backlist of Dorothy B. Hughes, but in particular, THE EXPENDABLE MAN (1963), reissued by NYRB Classics this summer; RIDE THE PINK HORSE (1946); and DREAD JOURNEY (1945), ostensibly about a cross-country train trip where someone will die before the last stop but really a lacerating examination of Hollywood mores of the time. Way more on Hughes in the essay I wrote for the LA Review of Books in August.
- Thomas Tryon, THE OTHER (1970). Before he turned to novels, Tryon was a promising actor whose career was essentially derailed by noted asshole Otto Preminger’s relentless abuse on set. Tryon quit Hollywood and found his real voice with this, his first novel, about 13-year-old twin boys who are polar opposites: Niles the eager-to-please one, Holland the simmering, surly one. The great thing about THE OTHER is that you’re free to interpret events any way you like, and it’s totally okay. Tryon leaves things that open.
- It worked out that I only read two of 2011’s big award winners — SALVAGE THE BONES by Jesmyn Ward and HALF-BLOOD BLUES by Esi Edugyan — in early 2012. Both exceeded the hype.
— The Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn — or at least, the first four packaged in that awesome all-in-one volume Picador released. Do you want to know why everyone who’s a serious reader is raving about these books? Well, packaging and presentation, but largely because they take every chance and then zoom past whatever boundary you thought might be left. (Patrick’s father, after a horrible, pivotal scene involving his five-year-old son in NEVER MIND, being ever so nonchalant; the extended drug binge played out like a written Requiem in BAD NEWS; the disintegrating marriage in MOTHER’S MILK; and so on) Am saving AT LAST because, well, that’s it for Patrick Melrose.
— Margaret Millar, THE FIEND (1964) — one of the best from one of the greatest suspense purveyors. A book in which a convicted pedophile is the most sympathetic character in the book — and that includes the children. An impossible task? Not in Millar’s hands. STRANGER IN MY GRAVE (1960) is also quite good, though not up there with THE FIEND or BEAST IN VIEW (1955).
— A whole lot of novels by Charlotte Armstrong, but in particular: THE GIFT SHOP (1967), LEMON IN THE BASKET (1968), MISCHIEF (1951), THE CHOCOLATE COBWEB (1948), and THE TURRET ROOM (1965). That I could binge-read her books in similar fashion to Dorothy B. Hughes says how much I hold Armstrong in high esteem. Her books tweak convention just from a simple turn of phrase or the way in which she describes her female characters’ pluck (if they narrate) or their monstrous habits (if there’s good reason.)
— Raymond Kennedy, RIDE A COCKHORSE (1991) — Another NYRB Classics reissue. My god, what a monster Frankie is! Her transformation sudden, unexplained, but then she takes what she wants (like the high school bandmember in the opening chapter, then leadership of the bank where before she was a mere mousy teller) and it seems great until it isn’t. But what a ride. Shocked glee is the best way to describe reading this book.
— Nora Ephron, CRAZY SALAD (1975) and SCRIBBLE, SCRIBBLE (1978) - - She died too young, but if there is one acceptable by-product, it’s that people are turning to her prose and discovering the magic within. I know because I’m one of those people. Her opinions on feminism and the media-industrial complex are still relevant now. Maybe more so.
— Elizabeth Taylor, ANGEL and A GAME OF HIDE AND SEEK — based on these two books, the first about a young woman determined to be a successful writer (and though she achieves this, it’s also her undoing), the other about the way a brief, aborted love affair hangs over lives for decades afterwards, I clearly need to read more of her books.
— “Elizabeth McNeill”, NINE AND A HALF WEEKS (1978) and Ingeborg Day, GHOST WALTZ (1980) — They are, of course, one and the same. Much more in my piece for the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog.