This year I had more time to read than usual and so I have a lot to say. Again, I’m listing the books that popped for me of those I read in 2012; they may or may not have been published in the last year. Also, as usual, I probably forgot to OneNote several striking books as the year unfolded; on the other hand, this post can’t go on forever.
Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell. The movie mapped pretty closely to the book, but this is well worth reading for details and a kind of inner beauty no movie could capture. My sister, who has trouble believing in fiction, posted a request on Facebook for a list of books that were realistic. This book is full of characters we grew up with in New Hampshire, even if it’s set in the Ozarks. And I see them in meth-land a little west of me in Colorado, too. The main character Woodrell chooses to follow is the older sister in a family torn by drugs and mental illness. She’s the one, appearing in so many dysfunctional families, who holds it together. How she does so is poignantly drawn.
The Lazarus Project, Aleksandar Hemon. I’ve yet to find a piece of Hemon’s, short or long, fiction or non-, that I haven’t loved. This novel takes us back to a time when the only desired immigrants in America were northern European ones, ideally speaking English, though German and Scandinavian Protestants were tolerated. Jews and those of Eastern European and Mediterranean descent were viewed as are many view Latino and Middle Eastern immigrants today. Good citizens were terrified of anarchists, and political cartoons often caricatured bearded men with bombs. Sound familiar? This wasn’t so long ago, round about 1900, 1910.
A Friend of the Family, Lauren Grodstein. Just a good, hypnotic read. Extremely well plotted, crafted, with a lot to think about in terms of motivation and psychology. Moves fast—an escape read with a literary level of characterization and writing.
The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, Alina Bronsky. Another fast-mover, psychologically taunting and haunting. Psychopathic narrator you can’t look away from, one of the worst mothers and grandmothers you’ve ever met. Also hilarious.
Little Children, Tom Perrotta. For some reason, this is the first Perrotta novel I’ve ever read, and I plan to read a lot more. I don’t typically like novels about suburbia, but this manages to dig so deeply into male/female roles and expectations in our society right now—his sense of how women view men, their disappointments and desires is so dead on. And his explication of the confusion some men feel about the redefinition of their roles his interesting too.
The Engineer of Human Souls, Josef Skvorecky. Stalin gave himself this title, and Skvorecky, an exiled Czech writer, appropriated it for his grimly humorous novel. One takeaway: rednecks are everywhere, and Hitler and Stalin took advantage of the ignorance of the peasantry. It wouldn’t take much in our country, either.
The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides. Nothing original in recommending this one. I’m not sure why, of the three smart kids at Brown who make up the main characters, it’s the girl who is the lesser light and the boys who are the geniuses, but let’s let that slide. I also would have liked more discussion of the marriage plot itself—i.e., what Madeleine was actually arguing in her paper. It seems odd to me that this wasn’t directly discussed. However, the insight into Leonard’s bipolar disease is exquisite, and not adequately credited, IMO, among reviewers. I found the book engrossing overall and stayed up late reading it.
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell. Again, a first for me from an accomplished author. Mitchell’s books are said to be so diverse I wasn’t sure where to start, but with the movie coming out I decided to read this one. I thought the book was strong for the first third or so, but I wasn’t sure why he was considered to be SO great. Until about halfway through the book. Then I realized I was in the hands of a genius. So hang in there; it’s well worth it. There’s a pivot point after which you are not coming back.
The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers. Yes, there were places where I thought he should have let a metaphor stand and not explained it. It’s still a powerful book. I hope there are more to come, both from this author and from other writers with something to say about Iraq and Afghanistan.
Canada, Richard Ford. Another strong book by one of my favorite writers. Reviewer Ron Charles said he thought this one should have won either the NBA or the Pulitzer, I forget which, and I agree, whichever it was. A few annoying quirks, but overall an engrossing book.
The Post-Birthday World, Lionel Shriver. I’d been putting this off for years because I didn’t think it could measure up to We Need to Talk About Kevin. It probably doesn’t, but it’s still a complex, fascinating book. What Shriver does well is put you inside the heads of women you don’t really like being inside the heads of, and yet they are very interesting heads to be in.
The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes. I didn’t find this book as confusing as many people seemed to. Like The Marriage Plot, it’s a reexamination of a collegiate triangle that included at least one unbalanced person. The narrator isn’t reliable, but he’s aware of this fact and trying to face up to it. I hardly think it’s worth mentioning that a narrator is unreliable anyway. Isn’t that something postmodernism established? Isn’t that irrefutable? I don’t think we can ever return to the concept of a reliable storyteller. Anyone who thinks they know the whole story is either deluded or lying. Anyone who believes them is either naïve or an idiot. That goes for movies and news stories and presidential speeches and everything.
Lifespan of a Fact, John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. This speaks to what I just said about the Barnes book. An essay by D’Agata, which appeared in McSweeney’s (I think, or else The Believer), surrounded by arguments between the author and his fact-checker. Since the essay is a work of creative non-fiction, sometimes you agree with the author that the fact-checker is being a bit ridiculous about every little thing. On the other hand, is it really a matter of the rhythm of the sentence whether a town has twenty or twenty-one bars? (I don’t remember if this was an exact item of dispute, but it was something like this.) It seems to me that creative non-fiction shouldn’t stretch matters of actual fact, or should stop and discuss it, reflexively, when it does. Or, as in gonzo journalism, it should just be clear from the nature of the piece that it’s totally out of bounds from the start. The point is not that you tell the truth or don’t, or that there is no truth (I actually think there is, but that it’s hard to know all of it), but that you discuss what you do and do not know. And THEN—it turns out that Fingal and D’Agata ramped up their original argument, or so I read somewhere, in order to make this book more “interesting.” So it too is a bunch of bullshit. If you’re interested in matters of this sort, this book is worth reading on a number of levels, and with lots of salt. I’ve got Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point on my shelf, as it seems to be a similar exploration, only a lot more personal and more honest. But I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t recommend it.
Legacy of Conquest, Patricia Nelson Limerick. I’m way late to the party with this one. Limerick got a MacArthur award partly on the strength of this work. A revisionist look at the history of the American West that’s now foundational. And anything but reductionist. In a different way, it’s also a meditation on truth and how we access it.
The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon. Who wouldn’t kill for this title? If I recall correctly (read this early in the year) it comes from one of the Desert Fathers, trying to manage despair while meditating in the wilderness in the early days of Christianity. About as comprehensive, compassionate, and personal a look at depression as you can hope to find.
Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, DT Max. Another unbeatable title—came from the subject’s, David Foster Wallace’s work. I’m sure this is the first of many biographies of Wallace, but it’s a hell of a start.
Line Break: Poetry as Social Practice, James Scully. Maybe if you grow up with a poet in your family you don’t get around to reading enough of his work. For some reason I just read this book this year and found it riveting. Also helpful, especially the title essay, which is about shaking up poetry in form as well as function. Like Adrienne Rich and others, Scully argues that poetry ought to be a form of activism. His life and writing have often mirrored that belief.
Into the Whirlwind, Eugenia Ginsberg. One of the finer accounts of life in the maelstrom of the Stalin purges. Ended in a weird place. I just learned there’s a sequel, which I intend to read soon. I’m dark that way.
A God in the House, Poets Talk About Faith, Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler. I wound up giving this book as a gift quite frequently in the past year. Kaminsky and Towler interviewed a diverse group of renowned poets. Not all of them specifically believe in God or in a monotheistic God/Western God. Each segment ends with a poem on the subject of faith or the search for faith. It’s a powerful book; not predictable or schmaltzy.
Every Riven Thing, Christian Wiman. There are some pieces in this book that make you think, okay, this guy (the editor of Poetry magazine) doesn’t need to write another thing if he doesn’t want to.
Nightworks, Marvin Bell. This was a re-read. But it’s amazing to look through a collection that spans a lot of an author’s career and think, wow. What strength, going all the way back to the beginning.
Angel in Flames, James Scully. What I just said, though not a re-read—this collection representing a lifetime of work and translation came out recently. As a young poet, Scully won the Lamont Award. He taught at the University of Connecticut. He was invited to come to Chile by President Allende. When Allende was deposed in a coup, Scully and his young family went anyway, working to assist guerillas who opposed the brutal (and US-supported) dictator Pinochet. There’s an underground worldliness to Scully’s work that a lot of US poetry just doesn’t have.
Plume, Kathleen Flenniken. This book is thematically integrated based on the author’s experience growing up in a community where everyone worked at a nuclear plant and then becoming a scientist working at the Hanford nuclear plant herself.