Standout Reads 2012

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.

 

Fiction

winter's boneWinter’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, shortlazarus 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.

friend familyhottest dishesA 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.

engineerThe 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 yearspost birthday 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.

 

Non-Fiction

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.

legacyLegacy 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 love storyfrom 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 breakLine 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.

Poetry

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.

Riven      Angel in Flames Selected Poems & Translations 1967-2011     Plume

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Standout Reads of 2011

Once again these are the books that stood out for me among those I read this past year. They were not necessarily published in 2011; many of them appeared decades ago, in fact.

 

Fiction

  • Native, by William Haywood Henderson. Henderson’s gorgeous, delicate, but also ripping first novel explores some themes similar to those in “Brokeback Mountain.” This novel came out several years earlier. And it’s better, IMO. Not that there isn’t room for lots of this kind of thing in a big state like Wyoming. 
  • The Sojourn, by Andrew Krivak. So many American novels are about personal anomie, with characters suffering from what the DSM-III used to call schizoid personality disorder. I’m left wondering, why should I care about characters who don’t care? This main character has every reason to be in this situation. He’s an immigrant three times over, having come to America, returned to Austria, and ultimately coming back to America. That is to say, he has no home. Yet, he fights for the Habsburgs in WWI, among so many tribal groups it’s hard to say why they’re fighting. It’s a time in history when close personal bonds are not always present. However, there is no narrative distance in this story. Great trick, Krivak.
  • City of Light, by Lauren Belfer. A little soapboxy, or a lot, at times, but so interesting in terms of the industrialization of electricity and the social movements it either spawned or was coincident with. Take a trip to Buffalo, which once, like Pittsburgh, had a shot at being one of the centers of wannabe old-money American society (ie, robber barons aping blue-bloods…the ridiculousness goes on and on, but it’s worth reading about). What keeps this book out of mere book club classification is Belfer’s refusal to give her heroine a neat ending. She doesn’t wind up unhappy, exactly, but it’s a tough time in history to be a woman and there’s no real way out of that.
  • Collected Stories of Frank O’Connor. Yeah, should have read these a long time ago. Thanks to author Thomas Powers for pointing this out after I mentioned a book of his in my blog last year.
  • Collected Stories of Wallace Stegner. I’ve read lots of Stegner’s longer works, but am only now working through the stories.
  • The Ice Trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin. Actually I’m not sure I liked this one, but I recommend it so someone else will have suffered.
  • The Good Son, by Michael Gruber. I recommend anything by Gruber, no matter what’s wrong with it. His books are so interesting and engrossing that you come away satisfied even if the plot made no sense or the characters were slightly impossible. They’re supposed to be thrillers, but he takes his time building place and character, and it’s always worth it. His writing is pretty high-quality. Every once in a while, it’s as if he says to himself, oh, crap, I’m supposed to be writing a thriller, better stick in a sex scene on a kitchen counter. And so you have this awkward sex scene on a kitchen counter (nothing against kitchen sex, just awkward kitchen sex). In the end, though, you learn so much about whatever it is he’s writing about, plus the setting, that you don’t care. Okay, I don’t. The Good Son is about Afghanistan.
  • Sworn Before Cranes, by Merrill Gilfillan. I went back to this book after reading Great Plains (see below), to see if I liked it as much as I remembered. I had initially reviewed it for the Boulder Daily Camera backimage in the 90s. Yeah, baby, it’s still beautiful. This may be one of the most under-noted and –appreciated story collections of the last century. Maybe that’s because they’re almost more like long prose poems than stories. Today, this form would be welcomed, perhaps even elevated over a conventional story. But then it was fairly radical to call this a short story. James Galvin’s novel-or-whatever-it-was, The Meadow, was out, and people were excited, but they weren’t sure what to do. What I like about Sworn before Cranes is the way he’s unafraid to delight in what he sees down in the pockets and folds in the plains. He’s a magic man. Where Frazier is at pains to show the braided glory and seaminess surrounding Native Americans since the Conquest, Gilfillan as a poet and naturalists has interests in sound and imagery. It’s good to read them both in the same year.

Nonfiction

  • The Tiger, by John Vaillant. About a tiger who began stalking and killing some of the particular poachers who had wounded it. About Siberian Tigers in general. About Siberia. About the history of human-tiger interactions. About why poachers poach. About the few people in Russia who are trying to protect the environment and why. And about how not just dead tigers but also the whole Siberian ecosystem is getting smuggled to China and made into stuff we’re buying in Home Depot. With the personality and menace of This Particular Tiger on every page.
  • Great Plains, by Ian Frazier. I hadn’t got around to this for some reason. I remember Frazier sitting in the Boulder Book Store back when it was a one-storey, one-slot place. He wasn’t giving a reading, just sitting behind a table with his ponytail, waiting for people to ask him questions and ask him to sign his book. I didn’t know who he was, but I like guys with ponytails. I kind of felt sorry for him. I thought, Oh another guy who drove across the country and wrote a book about it. It’s a great book.
  • On the Rez, by Ian Frazier. Not sure who else could pull this off. At first you’re not sure who this book is about. Indians? Frazier? Frazier’s kids? The contents of his household? But Frazier is a good, entertaining writer and it’s no skin off your nose to keep reading, so do it. In the end it comes together with a big, WHOA, holy shit that was intense. Nose skinned.
  • The 4% Universe, by Richard Panek. It’s not even wrong, according to some reviews I read by math and physics majors! A user-friendly way to find out a little about dark matter by getting the dirt on how the scientists fought each other to discover it. I particularly liked learning about Vera Rubin, who did some of the important early calculations and pursued her Ph.D. (but not at Princeton, her first choice, because women were not admitted to the graduate school then) despite nursing four children. At one point concessions had to be made in a key telescope regarding the only bathroom…. For pete’s sake, as if we don’t all pee in one place inside our homes.
  • Murder in the High Himalaya, by Jonathan Green. Not the greatest writing but a gripping story. Tibet is the weirdest place to read about because you might as well be in the middle of the Lord of the Rings, the references are so medieval and mystical. At the heart of the book is a moral dilemma that should not have been one—a community of climbers witnessed Chinese border guards shoot unarmed refugees—mostly women and children. A 17-year-girl was killed. The event was filmed. The people who filmed it knew what to do—release it to the press. But most of the climbing community wanted to keep it under wraps so that they could stay on China’s good side and keep climbing in the area. The book digs into the story of the refugees, gives the official Chinese version, and explores the different climbers’ opinions. But overall you wind up thinking a lot about relative versus absolute morality. This isn’t even the Holocaust, where you might have to choose between your life and someone else’s, or between your child’s life and someone else’s. This is about whether you get a sponsorship for a being a jock.
  • Leaping Poetry, by Robert Bly. I saw this referenced in an interview with Bly in American Poetry Review and asked the library here at Phillips Exeter to get it. Bly argues, here and elsewhere, that American poetry has moved too far away from the great associative leaps that characterized romantic poetry as well as the work of many of the Spanish and South American poets, such as Lorca and Neruda. We’re too much stuck in our heads. He’s not arguing for the stream-of-consciousness stuff that we’re starting to see all over the place in MFA poetry now. Bigger leaps, more stream-of-SUB-consciousness stuff that requires a broader base of reading and experience.
  • The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, by Alexandra Fuller. Drawn to the beauty of Western Wyoming, Fuller moved to the area near Pinedale and found herself caught up in the conflict associated with the industrialization of that landscape for gas and oil development. In the life story of a young cowboy and roughneck, she epitomizes this tension. It’s not unlike The Tiger (above) in some respects. Fuller’s controlled but essentially gonzo journalistic style makes these characters sympathetic and gives the lie to narratives offered up by writers like Annie Proulx, which make the same landscapes look ugly and the same people bestial. One question is what are we going to do about the fact that we are turning our last wildernesses into grids full of drilling rigs, powerlines, switching stations, dusty dirt roads, and tanker trucks going up and down all day long? With little concern for worker safety as we go…
  • No Life for a Lady, by Agnes Morley Cleaveland. Memoir of ranching in New Mexico in the late 1800s. Interesting to compare her life with the one depicted in City of Light, above. Cleaveland went East for her schooling and it must have been a shock to deal with the routines and proprieties people in the East were bothering with. Something I’d never heard before: there was a messianic figure who came to Denver, walking out of the Mohave desert. Francis Schlatter was so charismatic that special trains were sent to Denver full of people who wanted to see him and be healed by him. He disappeared, only to show up on the Morley ranch in New Mexico, where he dictated his life story to Agnes’s mother. The title he chose is wonderful: The Life of the Harp in the Hand of the Harper. However, although she recounts this tale about Schlatter, I’m struck by how little personal reflection on God comes through in these memoirs I’m reading about life in the American West around this time.
  • The Victorians, by Thomas J Schlereth. Actually reads pretty well. Packed with interesting facts and figures about this transformative time in our culture. Good stationary bike or elliptical reading.

 

Poetry

  • Way More West, by Ed Dorn. I wanted to reread Gunslinger, but this was what was on my shelf here in my Exeter apartment, and it’s got parts. Never gets old.
  • Morning Poems, by Robert Bly. Okay, I’m on a Bly kick. The stuff that’s coming out right now from him just rocks. So I looked on my shelf and found this, which I hadn’t got around to reading for some reason. Lots of strong pieces here. My only real objection, and it’s a big one, to Bly is that although he means to honor the feminine it’s always as he defines it, and his definition is always in terms of the male. Boring. But almost any poem that stays clear of that stuff, I love.
  • From the Box Marked Some Are Missing, by Charles W. Pratt. Each quiet piece will make you think. Pratt’s had some airtime in 2011 courtesy of Garrison Keillor. Here’s a sample from my blog earlier in the yeimagear.
  • Three Russian Women Poets: Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetayeva, Bella Akhmadulina, by Mary Maddock. I was feeling so unsatisfied with certain Akhmatova translations by Kunitz and Kenyon that I thought I might have to try my own hand at them. Luckily, I went looking for other versions, and after reading what was in this book, I decided I could sleep. I also discovered Akhmadulina, who is possibly a better poet (gasp). While I was at it, I read Feinstein’s biography of Akhmatova. Sometimes it’s better not to know.
  • Perennial Fall, by Maggie Dietz. Just read it. If you find anything in there you don’t like, let’s discuss.
  • When I received my fellowship, the identities of the fellowship committee members were revealed, I found out about their significant publication credits and awards. So I went out and bought their books. What an enriching and humbling experience to read them:
    • Evidence of the Journey, by Ralph Sneeden
    • Cameo Diner, by Matt Miller
    • Strange Land, by Todd Hearon

    cameo 

Standout Reads of 2010

Not necessarily written this year, just the ones that popped for me of those I read.

Fiction:

  • Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada (a German couple find a way to resist the Nazis) 
  • The Informers, by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (the legacy of Nazi Germany tears apart a modern-day Bogota family)     
  • Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman (I blogged about this earlier)
  • The Children’s Book, by A.S. Byatt (not summed up well in the jacket copy; it’s about the role of fantasy in the Victorian/Edwardian era)
  • The Outlander, by Gil Adamson (a woman flees across the frontier…it could have been better, but it was startling and beautifully written)
  • Lightning, by Fred Stenson (another gorgeous, literary western with plenty of action)
  • The White Mary, by Kira Salak (Heart of Darkness in Papua New Guinea, only without the racism, with a female protagonist)
  • The Fall of a Sparrow, by Robert Hellenga (beautiful, philosophical novel, the kind we used to read in high school and didn’t think was being written anymore, only without the ponderous style)
  • Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout (gripping, moving portrait of a singular woman, drawn via linked short stories)
  • The Stone Gods, by Jeannette Winterson (as it has been, so it will be…talk about the wheel of fate…thought-provoking and darkly amusing)
  • Castings Trilogy, by Pamela Freeman (not your run-of-the mill fantasy series…explores the question of how an indigenous population, much abused, might rise up and reclaim its continent after having been conquered, um, about 500 years ago)
  • The Steel Remains, by Richard K. Morgan (another in-your-face fantasy novel—totally macho Aragorn-like character who is flamingly gay… terrific pathos) 
  • Parable of the Sower, and Parable of the Talents, by Octavia Butler (re-read… visionary novels about climate change/economic collapse and what it might take to guide people to adapt; you can’t go wrong with Butler)

 

9781935554042  9781553655374  9780345493040  9780061491344

 

Nonfiction:

  • The Black Hole War, My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the Universe Safe for Quantum Mechanics, by Leonard Susskind
  • War, by Sebastian Junger
  • Acedia & Me, A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life, by Kathleen Norris
  • The Killing of Crazy Horse, by Thomas Powers
  • The Bipolar Child, by Demitri Papolos M.D. and Janice Papolos
  • I’m Looking Through You, Growing Up Haunted, by Jennifer Finney Boylan
  • Trotsky, by Robert Service (sure puts the lie to Barbara Kingsolver’s simplistic and trite treatment in Lacuna)
  • The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter 
  • The Unthinkable, Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—And Why, by Amanda Ripley
  • Journal of a Solitude, by May Sarton (re-visited after about 15 years…funny that 15 years ago I wouldn’t have hesitated to try to get a personal essay published reflecting on this work. Now, in the age of the Internet, I’d be worried about how speaking so honestly might affect my professional relationships and even some of my friendships. It’s kind of weird. Maybe it’s because back then I was more financially secure as an at-home mom and a writer, whereas now I need my day job. Perhaps in another five years I won’t care again. Let’s hope.) 

 

9780393309287  9780393049343  9780674036154

 

Poetry

  • New Collected Poems, by Eavan Boland
  • Birth is Farewell, by Dilys Bennett Laing (I admit I’d never heard of her, though she was extremely well published in her day…found this in a used bookstore in Olympia. I’m guessing Plath was trying, not too successfully, to be Laing, early-on.)
  • The Wind Blows Through the Doors of My Heart, by Deborah Digges (though I read it years ago, I also recommend Digges’s memoir about raising a challenging son as a single mom, The Stardust Lounge)
  • “Bad Mood on Earth Day” (chapbook available from Imaginary Friend Press) by Harriet O. Leach

 

I’m probably missing a couple of great reads because I’ve loaned them out or I got them from the library, so they aren’t on my shelves, triggering my memory. Sorry about that.