Sunday, December 30, 2012
Best of 2012 - Books
Yesterday, I mentioned that I thought this year was a strong cultural year... except for books. Normally, it's stressful for me to narrow down to 10 the best books of a given year. Especially when I have to include non-fiction!
This year, I was happy to have some good non-fiction to round out this list. Nevertheless, the end of the year brought a few goodies.
Honorable Mention: NW - Zadie Smith
Perhaps it was when I chose to read this. Having just moved out of North London myself in as close to defeat as I've ever admitted, reading about it and the various dynamics of that vibrant part of the city felt a little too raw. And maybe I'm just no longer enamored with Zadie Smith. But this book got a lot of attention, and it was easy to get lost in, though a little tender for me.
Honorable Mention: Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? - Jeanette Winterson
Gotta have a memoir on here. I was initially drawn to the book because of its awesome title. And it's an apt title for a wonderful memoir about the life long pursuit of happiness from an adopted, oddball girl in a Pentecostal house in Northern England in the 60s. Jeanette has her own peccadilloes, but anyone who's ever felt weird or alien will find something in this one.
10. How Music Works - David Byrne
I bought this book for Steven as a gift to say thank you for letting me live in his house for a month in NYC when I first moved back to the US and ended up reading the book myself. First of all, David Byrne is such a cool-ass mofo. He knows, just, everything. And explains the music industry and how music is shaped by time and place. "Acting as historian and anthropologist, raconteur and social scientist, he searches for patterns—and shows how those patterns have affected his own work over the years with Talking Heads and his many collaborators, from Brian Eno to Caetano Veloso. Byrne sees music as part of a larger, almost Darwinian pattern of adaptations and responses to its cultural and physical context. His range is panoptic, taking us from Wagnerian opera houses to African villages, from his earliest high school reel-to-reel recordings to his latest work in a home music studio (and all the big studios in between)." The books has been so popular, it's often out of stock, but, listen, do what you gotta do to get your hands on a copy!
9. This is How You Lose Her - Junot Diaz
Huzzah for Junot Diaz being back. And even bigger huzzah for golden boy Diaz throwing some of his afterglow on the under-appreciated art form that is the short story! This book really got in there with me as I was (and still am) working on more polished edits and looking at the overall picture for my own book of short stories, with one central character at the heart of all of them. There are some similar themes as well. But I love this line from one review: "They remind us that passion always triumphs over experience, and that “the half-life of love is forever.”
8. Telegraph Avenue - Michael Chabon
It appears that this was the year for the return of many of my favorites. And Chabon is one of the best examples of my favorites. Every time I even think of Wonder Boys, my heart is filled with a rolling wave of warm joy. Whenever I'm sad, I read some or watch some of the movie. After that, there was the mega-triumph of Cavallier and Klay and the so-so Yiddish Policeman's Union. You know what I loved about Telegraph Avenue? It felt a bit like a cross between High Fidelity and You've Got Mail. It's more complicated than that, of course. But I was like, oh, You've Got Mail with middle aged men and record stores. Bring it. My favorite quote was from Jennifer Egan, who, as per usual is right effing on the money: “Chabon has made a career of routing big, ambitious projects through popular genres, with superlative results….The scale of Telegraph Avenue is no less ambitious….Much of the wit...inheres in Chabon’s astonishing prose. I don’t just mean the showy bits…I mean the offhand brilliance that happens everywhere.”
7. Dear Life - Alice Munro
Speaking of short stories and returns, I was so happy to welcome a new collection from most probably the world's greatest living short story writer. I'm actually not even done with the book (it was my Christmas present to myself from Dena's thoughtful gift card-- thanks!), but in a way, I don't need to be to know already that it belongs on this list. Here's my favorite review of Dear Life, from Alexandra Foster, which tells you what I mean: You half expect a new collection of stories by the beloved Alice Munro to arrive already devoured: pages dog-eared (“I feel exactly the same way! How did she know?”), spine cracked, cover bent from the dozens of times each story deserves to be read.
6. Farther Away - Jonathan Franzen
Honestly, it's a toss up for me as to whether I prefer Franzen's fiction or his essays. Luckily, I don't have to choose because he's as prolific in one as he is the other. This collection has a lot of my favorite recent pieces from Franzy, including his own Kenyon College commencement address, "Pain Won't Kill You," and "Authentic But Horrible" but to be honest, all you need to know for certain is that it contains the amazing mega essay from The New Yorker, "Father Away," about solitude, and bird watching and David Foster Wallace. It was one of the best essays I've ever read. Please do yourself a favor and read it too.
5. Both Flesh & Not - David Foster Wallace
Only natural that DFW's book of essays-- and, I think we can finally say it-- the last book we're ever likely to get of his work-- gets put next to his pal Franzy's. I thought we'd had our last tastes with the massive, unfinished tome, The Pale King, last year. But no! More! First, we got a pretty comprehensive bio from D.T. Max, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, which I also recommend, and wrestled with adding to the list, but eventually decided to go with the man himself. Most of these have been published elsewhere-- like his sort of famous essay on Federer-- and many are sort of snippets, but nevertheless, it's nice to have them, to be amongst the man's shorter, more digestible thoughts. He talks about Borges and the prose poem and under-appreciated novels since the 1960's (more of a list, really). But if you only have 5 minutes, just read "Just Asking" about the world in light of post-9/11 ideas and whether or not some things are worth dying for.
From Book Forum: Both Flesh and Not is David Foster Wallace at his best and his worst, but the thing about Wallace’s best was that it usually contained his worst... If he’s not going to court the reader, he’s going to hold him in contempt. And you’re going to listen to him because his is the most colossal intelligence in the room. —Gideon Lewis-Kraus
4. Bring Up the Bodies - Hilary Mantel
The great Hilary returns in the sequel to her amazing to Wolf Hall. I've heard so many interviews with Hilary and basically just think she's the shit. The tales of the Tudors have been told every way from Sunday, but she manages to make it all new again, compelling again, and rich rich rich. Thomas Cromwell is still riding the tide of his day to be the hero of the story, but in a much more condensed time span of only nine turbulent months. Hilary says you can read it without reading Wolf Hall first, but do yourself a favor and don't. Next up, we'll have the conclusion of the trilogy The Mirror & The Light. I can't wait!
3. Beautiful Ruins - Jess Walter
Look, there was basically no way I was not going to love this book. A dying Hollywood starlet, Rome, Cannes, Richard BURTON!, the set of Cleopatra and Edinburgh. It's like Jess Walter extracted my mind. This book is delicious, so just stop reading about it and start reading it. Just thinking about it, I think I want to read it again. Right now.
2. The Twelve - Justin Cronin
2012 brought another second installment in big time trilogies. This one from my friend/mentor/former professor, Justin Cronin. And I was happy to see him, hear him read, have him sign this newest chapter of he and his daughter's master plan to tell the story of the girl who saves the world. It's fast moving-- one you'll tear through-- and builds more layers on top of The Passage without losing anything from the first book you'd want to hold onto. Curl up in your bed on a cold day with this one and wait for warmer weather. As long as it takes.
1. Sweet Tooth - Ian McEwan
While it's got some Atonement-esque metafictional tricks up its sleeve, Sweet Tooth is a lighter read-- despite its illusion of espionage in Cold War London and MI-5 setting. Talking about timing, I read this book recently and my heart had been given a bit more time to heal from London. The London of the 70s made me a bit drunkenly nostalgic, but I enjoyed the feeling. I even blogged more about it here. I read a lot of reviews of this book and end of the day, I agree with this one from the New York Times. It hasn't been long since I finished it, but man, I miss it.
1. Battleborn - Claire Vaye Watkins (A tie!!)
What an amazing year for short stories! I experienced such envy over this collection of short stories from fellow Nevada writer Claire Vaye Watkins that I took a whole day to reassess my life and my work. Easily one of the high points of this year was our twitter conversation earlier this fall. If you only read one book on this list, please read Claire's beautiful, haunting set of tales about drifters, loners, and desert people. It's melancholy and cruel and everything a short story collection should be. For more check out my earlier entry here.