Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The best books I read this year

Jury's still out on whether this is the most wonderful time of the year (maybe it is; I just learned that, contrary to popular belief, suicide rates peak in spring and summer, not during the winter holidays). But it's certainly the listiest time of the year. Over at Open Letters, all the editors are planning to write about the best thing they read this year. I'm usually stymied by questions like this because I have trouble even remembering what I've read. Then I realized that the list of the best books I read in 2012 is almost identical to the list of the books that I finished in 2012. In other words, I rarely finish books that I don't really like. Further, if I'm excited about a book, I usually write about it, here or elsewhere. So I was able to scan my blog and figure out a list of the five best books that I read this year. And here they are, in the order that I read them:


1. The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers. I wrote about this for OLM's Summer Reading feature (for which I chose the theme "youth and malice"). I don't love Frankie quite as much as I love Mick, a similar character in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, but TMOTW has the benefit of being all about Frankie, whereas Mick has to share space with a lot of other main characters. Here's what I wrote about it in July:
This short novel is a fascinating portrait of an independent young mind trapped in the wrong town at the wrong time. Upon seeing her brother and his fiancée together – “the two prettiest people I ever saw” – and learning they plan to live in another town, 12-year-old tomboy Frankie is forced into a sudden realization of her self and its circumstances, similar to Emily [from A High Wind in Jamaica]. But for Frankie, this awakening is acutely painful, because she just as quickly realizes that her own lot is both undesirable and inescapable. Like that, her world changes, but she cannot change the world, because she is still just a girl.
2. Desperate Characters by Paula Fox. A funny novel about a middle-class couple living in Brooklyn in the late '60s. Very much of its time (dated, I guess you could say?) but very worthwhile nonetheless. I typed up an excerpt from it here.

3. Open City by Teju Cole, who(m), by the way, I had the pleasure of meeting the last time I visited New York. ***SPOILER ALERT*** This is a book about culpability – at least, that's what I decided after reading it, but it's too complex to reduce to a single abstract noun. What makes it great, I think, is that you get seduced into thinking it's just a picaresque(-esque) novel about a good man, a doctor and flâneur, who happens to meet a lot of interesting people. It seems anecdote-driven. But (guess what!) he's an unreliable narrator. A very well made book that is not overly tidy. (Excerpt here.)


4. The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford. I bought this in Boulder one afternoon (or, more accurately, bade John to buy it for me) because I'm always a sucker for the aforementioned youth and malice angle, and it takes place in Colorado (my new home state!), and we collect those pretty NYRB volumes. I'm also very interested in brother-sister relationships. It's elegant, dry, beautifully observed, and quite gutting towards the end.

5. Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner. I just wrote a relatively lengthy post about this one, so I'll direct you there rather than repeating it all here. I'll just add: Ben Lerner is the same age as me and vastly more successful, but I'm not jealous at all because I truly believe he is successful for the right reasons: His writing is ambitious but not humorless, complex but not labored. He's found ways to write about big ideas without being a pretentious dick about it. (I mean, purely on the basis of his books; I don't know him personally.) I'm glad he's being published and read.

You'll notice these are all short to medium-sized novels. Well, I guess that's my favorite kind of book to read. There may have been others, but I can only think of one other book that I read cover to cover and did not put on this list: Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which I liked (a lot in parts), but a) found uneven and b) if you're the kind of person who would like that book, you probably either already read it or you plan to. I'm not usually that kind of person (a reader of memoir or "true life adventure"), but for some reason I found her story compelling. I especially liked the part where they had to shoot the horse.

So yeah, not counting poetry (which I read in short bursts, often most of a book in a single sitting, or just one poem several times in a row, or not at all) and countless articles both online and off-, my total number of books read isn't high. You could say that I read slowly, but I think it's more that I read selectively (pickily, if you prefer). If I pick up a book and it's not exactly what I feel like reading at that moment, it tends to languish on the end table for days or weeks at a time, while I do other things (like tweet and read "Martha's Month").

As for what poetry I liked most this year, I have to say I'm really having trouble remembering what all I read before autumn hit, but in the last few months I have especially loved Madame X by Darcie Dennigan and Nervous Device by Catherine Wagner (expect more on the latter in an upcoming issue of Lemon Hound).

What about y'all?

13 comments:

  1. Speaking of NYRB and brothers and sisters in peril, have you read Walkabout by James Vance Marshall? The kids are the sole survivors of a plane crash in the Outback. (I just started it.)

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    1. Oooh, that sounds right up my alley! And the site describes it as "a deep yet disturbing story in the spirit of Adalbert Stifter’s Rock Crystal and Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica" -- Rock Crystal was John's favorite book that he read this year, and A High Wind in Jamaica was one of my favorites in 2010.

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  2. Very nice one, That is the reason I like to read books online, because there are lots of varieties and options for an E-book reader.

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  3. I also like short novels. If it's under 250, I feel like it's accomplishable and isn't trying to be a burden. Sometimes I feel like novels are intentionally and unnecessarily long.

    I think you have time to read Train Dreams before the end of the year (and probably the end of the week). It's very short and really good.

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    1. I think "the market" likes long novels right now. It's a signal of ambition/"scope."

      Thanks for the rec. I just started Rock Crystal, which is only like 75 pages, so it could happen!

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  4. I loved Darcie's collection as well as Kathleen Rooney's Robinson Alone. Other presses: Love, An Index by Lindenberg is spectacular.

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    1. I am waiting for my copy of Robinson, Alone to arrive! (I did read it in earlier draft form, in earlier years.)

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    2. Kathleen is mailing a copy? Cool, yes, I saw your name in the acknowledgments section.

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    3. Yes, I believe it's on its way as we speak.

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    4. So glad it got to you this time around.

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  5. Too bad all I know about Jean Stafford is that Robert Lowell messed up her face.
    I've never heard a book described as "gutting." It left you feeling eviscerated?
    You might like Les Enfants Terribles.
    I was fascinated by the brother-sister relationships in a book about the Bronte family. I think I've come to prefer biographies to novels.

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  6. Always a sucker for Carson McCullers. I'm looking forward to the biopic they're filming about her with Jena Malone starring. It could one of two ways but I'm holding out.

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    1. I had never read her until a couple of years ago. Next on my getting-around-to-a-classic list is Willa Cather.

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