Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Only Thing New Under the Sun Are the Old Books People Haven't Read. (2016 review, part 3)

Looking back at what I read in 2016, I found only one title which was actually published that year: Frank Coniff's 25 Mystery Science Theater 3000 Episodes That Changed My Life in No Way Whatsoever, an amusing series of essays where Frank recalled his time with MST3K. Other recent publications I read were The Sinister Shadow by Kenneth Robeson, a fantastic Doc Savage novel featuring the Shadow which worked better than the similar efforts I had seen comics attempt. I also read Klang! by Christopher Priest in which he delved into the making of his recent comic Q2: The Return of Quantum & Woody and why it wasn't as fulfilling an experience as he'd hoped; I've long appreciated Priest's willingness to pull back the curtain and describe the inner workings of his career.

I particularly like reading short stories and so deliberately went after a few authors' collections. I read quite a bit of Richard Matheson last year, not only his novel I Am Legend but his anthologies Duel and Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. Likewise, I read the compilation of work by his protegee Charles Beaumont, The Howling Man. Having recently read some Shirley Jackson, I also tried her anthology Just an Ordinary Day and found she wrote a number of very good and gently warm tales. An online recommendation led me to Nights of the Round Table by Margery Lawrence, which proved to be a great selection of little-known ghost stories linked together in that grand old "men at a club swapping stories" format.

As a Ray Bradbury fan I delved into quite a few collections of his which I hadn't read before: I Sing the Body Electric!, Quicker Than the Eye and Long After Midnight, plus his tale about the magical history of Halloween The Halloween Tree and his first two detective mystery novels, Death Is a Lonely Business and A Graveyard for Lunatics.

As an old-time radio fan, there are many authors whose work I was first exposed to on the radio and last year I made an effort to try out the original versions for many of those works. Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household was an excellent novel about a hunter who stalks Hitler (though I still prefer Fritz Lang's film version, Man Hunt). Donovan's Brain by Curt Siodmak was told as a great Suspense story with Orson Welles; I found the original tale not quite as compelling as the radio version gave the lead character a son to great dramatic effect. I haven't often found Joseph Conrad easy to get into, but the original text of Typhoon proved almost exactly like the Escape radio version I had enjoyed so the experience was great. I read Gouverneur Morris' The Footprint and Other Stories primarily for that lead story, but he turned out to be a neat little author who reminded me of W.W. Jacobs' work and I thoroughly enjoyed the collection. Marie Belloc Lowndes' The Story of Ivy was a great crime novel with convincing characters.

Some films I had enjoyed and sought out in book version were Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana (which was almost exactly like the fine film version); Invasion of the Body Snatcheres by Jack Finney (a lot more downbeat than the film!); Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train (much more messed up than Hitchcock's film with developments which would clearly have not worked in a 1950s film); Dorothy B. Hughes' In a Lonely Place was so different from the film version they were practically different stories, yet still worked; by contrast, B. Traven's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre turned out to be almost exactly like the film; I enjoyed Laura by Vera Caspary, a good mystery story which I thinked worked better in film; John D. MacDonald's Cape Fear was similar, a good novel but not a gripping thriller in the way the film was; I also read a lot of Cornell Woolrich's books after having seen them adapted in many places, including The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, The Black Curtain, The Black Angel and Phantom Lady, each one convincing me to keep going further and I certainly hope to read even more Woolrich in 2017.

I got through a few more novels by Erich Maria Remarque, the best being A Time to Love and a Time to Die, The Night in Lisbon and Flotsam; at this point, I've probably read all of Remarque's best work. I finally read Jack London's White Fang and The Call of the Wild which I somehow avoided in my teen years for no good reason. I attempted to read E.T.A. Hoffmann's The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr having enjoyed Hoffmann's other tales but Tomcat Murr is only barely comprehensible as a story to me. I read the only major Vernor Vinge novel I hadn't covered before, Marooned in Realtime and read another great spy book by Eric Ambler, Epitaph for a Spy. The most pleasant discovery I had was the Star Trek novel A Stitch in Time by Andrew Robinson which told the life story of the Deep Space Nine character Garak yet managed to work despite the allure of mystery being part of the character's appeal.

In non-fiction I delved into a number of Christian books such as the biographies Wars Are Never Enough about an Angolan missionary, Joao Mawawana and God's Smuggler about the Bible smuggler Brother Andrew. I also read the last major C.S. Lewis book I hadn't previously covered, Of Other Worlds. I read Errol Morris' A Wilderness of Error about the case of Jeffrey MacDonald, an Army officer convincted of killing his wife, but in a case with a lot of unusual baggage; the topic certainly plays into Morris' hobby horse, the exploration of how memory and history are subjective. I also visited Tim Butcher's great book The Trigger, wherein he retraced the movements of Gavrilo Princip in the same manner as his other historical travel books. I learned of With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge via Ken Burns' documentary The War and was instantly captivated by the frankness Sledge leant in discussing combat and atrocities. By comparison, Ernie Pyle's Here Is Your War may have been fairly truthful for its time, but reads as propaganda by comparison.

Adam Hochschild's works have each been enthralling to me, bringing to life historical humanitarian concerns and his World War I book To End All Wars did the same to that conflict, looking at the impact the war had on various social concerns of the day. My interest in Africa led me to A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne, a very thorough look at the Algerian War. I also read a pair of similarly-focused slave narratives, the well-known 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup and The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, a work I learned of through Adam Hochschild's Bury the Chains. In film, I read two great books about the silent era: The Speed of Sound by Scott Eyman about the impact talking pictures had on all aspects of movies; and King Vidor's the Crowd: The Making of a Silent Classic by Jordan Young, which looked at the details behind one of my favourite silent movies.

Finally, for fun, I read some more of Robert Benchley: My Ten Years in a Qundry and How They Grew and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or, David Copperfield being my two favourites. Shall we close with a quotation from Benchley? Yes, we shall: "There is a great satisfaction to us clumsy humans when we see an animal that is supposed to surpass us in skill making a monkey of itself. I am still gloating over a blackbird that I saw, with my own eyes, in as disgraceful a bit of flying as any novice ever put on."

How was your 2016?

No comments: