Saturday, January 12, 2013

Favorite Books Read in 2012: Noir Dance Contests, Killer Hands, Lovable Doofuses

Because I tend to read older books, it’s a cause for celebration that among the books I completed in 2012 is a book actually published in 2012. The oldest book on this list is from 1881, so that means my average year of publication for my favorites is 1936. A good year: Aldous Huxley and Sinclair Lewis were on the bestseller list, Thin Man and Charlie Chan movies were on the screen, and Amelia Earhart was in the air.

Here, then, are the books I most enjoyed reading in this century, though most were written in the previous one -- or the one before that.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They by Horace McCoy (1935)

Hard-boiled writer Horace McCoy’s best-known novel takes place in the world of marathon dance contests. If that sounds like an odd milieu for noir fiction, then you’ve bought into the Time/Life book version of dance marathons. The real marathons were grim affairs, exploiting young and homeless men and women who shuffled from contest to contest for the free food and shelter. The audience, in the midst of the Depression themselves, came to gawk at the poor saps to feel better about their own pitiful lives. 

McCoy knew the seamier side of these contests, having worked as a bouncer at dance marathons, and he turns what’s already a pretty bleak scenario into a compelling whydunnit. The protagonist confesses to killing his dance partner on page one. The rest of the book describes the sequence of events that led him to tell the judge at the novel’s start that by shooting her, he was doing her a favor. If that’s not noir, I don’t know what is.

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart (1949)

Pre-dating the proliferation of Cold War fear-inspired nuclear fallout novels of the 1950s (See Alas, Babylon and On the Beach), Earth Abides is the first of the great modern post-apocalyptic novels. And it’s unequivocally the best. It starts quickly with a devastating virus, then deftly and simply manages to be one of the most profound books of its genre, dealing with changes from the smallest to the most sweeping. It sounds hyperbolic, I know, but Earth Abides somehow affected me in a way that even managed to disturb my sleep, as I stayed awake at night thinking about the questions Stewart raises. He doesn’t answer them all. They can’t be answered.

Almost any good post-apocalyptic novel owes a debt to this one. You can especially see its influence on the earliest (and best) parts of The Stand, and Stephen King has always cited it as the inspiration. (There are also echoes of it in I Am Legend.) The idea of lastness may be as old as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, but as far as I’m concerned, the genre really started here. I don’t think it’s ever been bested. Read it and tell me I’m wrong.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, 2012

The plenty-hyped thriller was the most-reviewed book of the year, according to Goodreads, with 22,383 ratings. That’s usually enough to put me off, but as I’m fond of pointing out, sometimes books reach the bestseller list, not because they’re so bland as to have mass appeal, not because Oprah told everyone to read it, and not because people just want to see what the hoo-hah is all about (*cough* 50 Shades of Grey) -- but because they’re good.

With so many reviews out there, many thousands of which compare it to a roller coaster,  you probably already know plenty about it. (Quick synopsis: Wife is missing. Is husband responsible?) The cool thing about Gone Girl is that it doesn’t just twist, though, it keeps twisting. If it is a roller coaster, it’s a roller coaster that not only goes wildly up and down, but throws you completely out of the car, then when you get back in, it’s not a roller coaster at all, but a ferris wheel, which ultimately lurches to an unsatisfying thud of a stop. (Yes, I’m criticizing the ending.)

Bouvard and Pecuchet by Gustave Flaubert (1881)

Reading Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot convinced me that I should read some of the works it mentioned that I was less familiar with. The novel made the title characters of Bouvard and Pecuchet sound like some pretty entertaining dunderheads, and the two definitely delivered on the dunderhead front. In a quest for intellectual enlightenment, the pair putz their way through just about every field of human knowledge, usually deciding the field itself is flawed before choosing another area ripe for some bumbling around.

Part way through the novel, I realized that the pair reminded me of another goofy-but-endearing pair of intellectual gentlemen: Frog and Toad. Go ahead, try reading Bouvard and Pecuchet without picturing them, now that I’ve mentioned it.

For your amusement, Frog and Toad, with captions by Gustave Flaubert:

“Hey! Progress! What humbug!” He added: “And politics, a nice heap of dirt!”
“It is not a science,” returned Pecuchet.

“Suppose we write the life of the Duke of Angouleme?”
“But he was an idiot!”

Sometimes they felt a shivering sensation, and, as it were, the passing breath of an idea, but at the very moment when they were seizing it, it had vanished.

Mortmain by Arthur Cheney Train (1907)

Mortmain appeared in the Sat. Evening Post
Arthur Train is largely forgotten now. The lawyer-turned-writer is only slightly better known for his Ephraim Tutt mystery stories. He may well have inspired a horror trope that persists to this day, though: the killer hand with a mind of its own. Train’s Mortmain (actually a short piece) predates both the film The Hands of Orlac (1924) and the French story that inspired it (1920). Train’s weird tale bests some of its imitators, and has even more of a creep factor thanks to the fact that the re-attached hand in question is taken from a living man rather than a dead one.

The surgeon who performs the bizarre surgery (with predictably awful consequences) is the unintentional star of the tale, and his weird experiments almost have a steampunk vibe to them. Early in Mortmain, the doctor is said to have taken in a starving hobo, installed a plate glass window in his stomach, then fed the man in order to watch his digestive processes. The ending to the story is a groaner, but getting there is sheer joy.

Download Mortmain free for your Kindle

This year was heavy on early post-apocalyptic fiction. I also read and liked Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912), and Richard Jefferies After London (1885). I spent far too much time on some books I loathed, and a few that were only worthwhile in the fact of their being howlingly bad. For 2013, I plan to enjoy a lot more crime fiction, fewer not-ready-for-legit-publication monstrosities, and a healthy chunk of Booker Prize winners (which I plan to read all of before I hit 50).

Keep reading, and I’ll tell you more. Better yet, subscribe.

What did you read/like/hate this year? Did you read mostly current books, or was your reading list as dusty as mine?


  1. I've recommended Earth Abides to a good many people, and they've all loved it. Could be time for me to read it again.

  2. Ditto on Earth Abides. Read it a few years back and loved it.

    1. I've never encountered anyone who read it and didn't love it. Even though a lot of books have tried to imitate it, there's really nothing quite like it.

  3. Funny pics of B&P (F&T). Glad you found my post.

    I saw They Shoot Horses when I was a kid, and I hardly understood what it was about. Time for a rerun, and maybe the book too.


    1. It was neat to stumble onto a reference to myself. I've subscribed to your blog now.

      There's a paperback version of They Shoot Horses, Don't They which includes both the original novel and the screenplay, which is what I read. Both were compelling.

  4. FYI...

    My blurb on The Last Man, a theme of which I am fond:

  5. I read "They Short Horses, Don't they" during a period when I was on a kick to read the crime novels of the 1930s and 1940s. I liked it and the other novels in Library of America edition.

    When I recently read a so-so review of "Gone Girl" I wondered if I should read the novel. Based on your review, I've decided to read it.

    During 11 months of the year, I read crime novels by or about African Americans. In December of each year, venture outside of my comfort space and read literary novels. This past December I read "Tumbling" and "Never Let Me Go," both of which I enjoyed but they aren't "can't put this book down" novels.

    1. If nothing else, Gone Girl is really well-plotted with several surprises. I'm not a fan of the conclusion, but enjoyed getting there enough to let it slide a little.

  6. Thought Gone Girl was very good.

    I enjoyed but did not love Earth Abides. It is actually proceeded by a number of plague apocalypse novels, and I would in no way say that it is the forerunner to the latter last man on earth stories. It may be one of the better written last man on earth stories, but that is a very different matter. And of course when I say "last man on earth", they always wind up finding someone else.

    1. Hi Russell. Yes, Earth Abides is preceded by scads of other plague apocalypse novels. I mention at least two here (Shelley's and London's -- I've forgotten the catalyst in Jefferies' book, as it takes place so far after).

      It's not in any way the first, but I do think it's the first great modern one, as I wrote, with the words "great" and "modern" being pretty important.

      I would have to argue with you about it not being a forerunner to latter stories, as so many writers have cited it as a direct influence (including King, who in turn influenced others).

      I don't think I've seen any other post-apoc novel praised as highly by critics for its quality, which is not to say that the works before it aren't *important.*

  7. Consider "By the Waters of Babylon" by Benet, as part of the tradition that the Stewart contributed to. I like the Flaubertian Frog and Toad.

    1. Definitely! I love the Benet story (from 1937, for anybody keeping track of the chronology).

  8. Regarding comparisons between Gone Girl and roller-coasters--rides on all roller-coasters, of course, come to an abrupt ending, leaving the riders exhilarated and wanting more, especially if the ride has been fun. Damn, that reads rather differently than I had intended! I certainly did not intend a double-meaning. Nah!

    1. I thought the ending to Gone Girl was unsatisfying, but I don't think it was in a 'wanting more' way so much as an 'I can't believe you let that happen' way.