Greetings, literarians. Time to tally our favorite titles consumed in the blur of 2012. As with last year’s list, these aren’t necessarily our opinion on the best books published in 2012; rather, this is a list of the books I enjoyed reading most in 2012 (published from any year, any century, in any form or shape.) I’ve excluded re-reads from the top ten list, so the only books that made the cut were original reads. Georges Perec is the only author who’s graced the top ten list two years in a row. And that is because he’s so bad ass.
TOP TEN BOOKS READ IN 2012
10. The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits
What if you could just disappear? Not exactly fake your own death, although that could be part of it. More: pick up, vanish, start a new life somewhere else. The word razor comes to mind when thinking of this book. Funny, dark, voice-driven narrative about a young woman with an unusual degree of extra-sensory abilities, talents, if you will. Also about digging into one’s emotional / family history. The book follows the progression of an archetypal kunstlerroman, in which an artist realizes their potential, power, talent. Only book published in 2012 that cracked this list. Check it out. Allow the weirdness to take control.
9. Twilight by William Gay
William Gay passed away this year. His publisher, Macadam Cage, also went out of his business. Both were great losses to the world republic of letters. It’s time we started celebrating this master of the Southern Gothic tale. Twilight takes place in not-so-long-ago rural Tennessee. Deals with themes of violence, alcoholism, incest, necrophilia, and nature vs evils of civilization, written in pure narrative poetry. Recommended for fans of Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy.
8. Blow-Up and Other Stories by Julio Cortazar
Short story collection by one of my all-time favorite writers. The title story, “Blow Up”, was the basis of Antonioni’s film of the same name. What happens when a photographer takes a pleasurable stroll through Paris, camera in hand? He sees, at first a harmless scene, in which a forty-year old-woman grabs the arm of a sixteen year old boy and asks him something. What is their relation? Why does she grimace when the narrator snaps his picture? What’s really going on here? Excellent even in translation.
7. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
You’ve all heard of it, so I won’t recap much of it, but this was a great book. Really came to life for me in the last hundred pages, just went to the next level. A much quicker, easier read than I expected, while tackling some complex, thorny issues with universal appeal (identity, race, gender, and the big one: America). Recommended for fans of fiction about family, immigration, Steinbeck, hermaphroditism.
6. Three Trapped Tigers by G. Cabrera Infante
People call this book the “Latin American Ulysses,” and I had the unusual experience of reading Three Trapped Tigers at the same time as Ulysses, over the period of several months. This novel is a mindblowing, infuriating masterpiece full of sex, drunkenness, poetry, violence, and twisted comedy set in mid-20th Century Havana Cuba. There’s no plot. There’s no progressive story per se, but, like jazz or other fluid forms, the novel does evoke. Fans of Borges will enjoy this linguistic monsterpiece.
5. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Ah, youthful love! Its pangs never leave us. This is less a novel about love as it is nostalgia and the pain of growing old. On a technical level, I want to say that this is an excellent exercise in how to write exposition. GGM manages to weave entire decades into a few concise sentences, but never in a way that seems rushed or cheap, and without sacrificing the importance of the intervening moments in one’s life that DO seem to pass so quickly. Not as good as SOLITUDE, but, come on, what is?
4. Ulysses by James Joyce
Now liberated from its American copyright, you can read Joyce’s magnum opus for free via Project Gutenberg by clicking the above link. Not much new to say about Ulysses, although I felt it could have been greatly condensed (just read The Waste Land as an example / argument in defense of compression). All of Stephen’s thoughts about Shakespeare really brought this to life for me. The Lestrygonians was probably my fave chapter. Good stuff in here, but definitely difficult. I found The Bloomsday Guide by Harry Blamires immensely helpful in fully evaluating the text.
3. The White Hotel by D.M Thomas
Pretty awesome Goodreads quote about The White Hotel: “It is a dream of electrifying eroticism and inexplicable violence, recounted by a young woman to her analyst, Sigmund Freud. It is a horrifying yet restrained narrative of the Holocaust. It is a searing vision of the wounds of our century, and an attempt to heal them. Interweaving poetry and case history, fantasy and historical truth-telling, The White Hotel is a modern classic of enduring emotional power that attempts nothing less than to reconcile the notion of individual destiny with that of historical fate.” A pervy masterpiece, full of really intense sexuality, while never veering into creepy porno territory, and always justifying itself in the beauty of the writing. And yes, better than Ulysses, if only for its exhaustion of psychoanalysis and psychiatry and all the innerworkings of the mind that Joyce only began to explore, but with D.M. Thomas obliterates.
2. Life: A User’s Manual by George Perec
This book flat-out blew me away. It had one of those holy shit endings. Life: A User’s Manual is essentially the story of all the inhabitants of an apartment building in Paris, tracing back the sordid stories and affairs of everyone who’s ever lived in the building, but that’s not really what it’s about. I don’t know. It’s hard to do this book justice with just a few small words written between my lunch break and the start of the afternoon’s office drudgery. It’s about life. There are a few characters you latch onto, younger women with mysterious pasts, decadently wealthy old men with perverse obessions for puzzles, painters, conservative old Parisian families. Family histories and secrets. This is a book for anyone who’s ever lived in an apartment building and really wondered what went on behind all those closed doors. What happens in a person’s life? What sort of highs and lows do they experience? Why do people act the way they do? What is unrequited love? Why do we murder out of revenge, knowing it will ruin our lives? It’s a big, difficult book, unquestionably a masterpiece, at times slow reading, other times as quick as a thriller, all in all, one of those tomes that you long ponder after finishing. William Gaddis’ The Recognitions comes to mind as an analog. So, also, does Moby-Dick. Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo or Hugo’s Les Miserables would be the closest things in French to this book, that I can think of, although I haven’t yet read Proust. I don’t know. This one really hurt me in that way that only book can hurt you. I loved it. Here’s the link again. Buy it. Struggle with it. Love it.
1. A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Ah, poetry. Yes to moonmad swans and ecstatic ganders! Yes to the Lost Angeles of Heaven. Yes to all that is Lawrence Ferlinghetti, esteemed beat poet and founder of the legendary City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. I had never read Ferlinghetti before wandering into 192 Books earlier this year and, on a whim, checking the poetry section to see what they had in store. Turns out New Directions has released Ferlinghetti’s masterpiece with a CD featuring Ferlinghetti reading some of his own poetry aloud. Great instruction for all fiction writers, these poems feature the most lovely language I’ve read in recent years, while still capturing little narrative vignettes, little mini-stories about lost lovers, San Francisco, New York, and, yes, Coney Island. It’s a little sliver of Americana, one part sex, one part humor, one part love, and equal parts purity. It’s just so damn good. I read one poem a day, while sitting on the A train platform, before switching to fiction. Just one poem a day. Savor it. Read it again. Then move onto his sequel: A Far Rockaway of the Heart.
Can’t wait to see what 2013 has in store.