Sunday, December 16, 2012

Top Five of 2012

In addition to the round-up of book reviews I wrote during 2012, I thought I'd devote a post to my top five books of the year. I didn't write formal reviews of everything I read this year, so this might shine some light on some previously unmentioned books. Once again, I followed the Booker Prize in the UK but tried to keep my distance as a collector. I'm very happy I dipped into the shortlist this year, despite my hesitations to do so--if I sat this year out, I wouldn't have discovered Deborah Levy's outstanding Swimming Home or the wonderful press that put that book out: And Other Stories. They might be my favorite find of the year; I'm currently reading their sixth book, The Islands, and absolutely adore it.

On to the Top Five, in no particular order.

1. Edward St. Aubyn, At Last
(Sure, this may have come out in the UK in 2011 but was published here in the US in 2012.)

With At Last, Edward St. Aubyn concludes a five-part series of exceptional novels about the life of Patrick Melrose, an ex-junkie and survivor of a childhood of sexual abuse. The Patrick Melrose novels are almost familiar, feeling at times like the usual upper-class British society novel, but St. Aubyn writes with such an aggressive upheaval of those standards that he consistently wows his readers with bitter, violent truth. At Last is set during the funeral of Melrose's mother, and with a conflicted heart I began to understand the overwhelming relief Patrick must feel to be finally rid of both his parents.

With the publication of At Last, Picador in the UK re-released the first four Melrose novels (Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother's Milk) in handsome little paperbacks. Opting against the Melrose omnibus that is stateside, I picked up the first three novels online (I have a hardcover of Mother's Milk somewhere...).

2. Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Satantango

I featured Satantango and Animalinside in a previous post, so I'll leave the synopsis there. Instead, a tangential aside: recently I went to see Zadie Smith and Chris Ware in conversation and Smith said something about how important it is for readers to seek out challenging novels and not simply the ones that can be consumed quickly and easily. She says she grew up a freakishly good reader (reminding me of Serena Frome in Ian McEwan's new novel), one that could scan an entire page and not have to deal with each specific word in a sentence. She thought this was a good thing, but as an older reader she realized it wasn't: readers should find the books that make them re-negotiate how to read, hone their skills and not just do what comes easiest. Satantango is the best example of this concept I can come up with: it's an astonishing book, full of serpentine sentences, chain after chain of clauses and ideas. And, underneath that unorthodox structure, there's a fantastic, snarling tale of a small town believing in a fate that's not meant to be.

3. Chris Ware, Building Stories

Speaking of Chris Ware, you absolutely must read his comic Building Stories. Inside this giant cardboard box, there's a collection of independently bound books and pamphlets that each provide a glimpse into the life story of a nameless, one-legged narrator. Zadie Smith was actually talking about Building Stories in that tangent I mentioned above: Ware is a master at creating new pathways for his readers to work through his frames. Comics inherently have a frame-by-frame quality to them, but Ware completely transcends that restraint and creates these staggeringly gorgeous, full-page spreads that meander down the page, focusing in on minutae, all while capturing the most complicated of human emotions.

4. Colm Toibin, New Ways To Kill Your Mother

Colm Toibin's collection of essays on writers and their families single-handedly opened up the world of literary criticism to me this year. New Ways To Kill Your Mother does require a substantial amount of literary knowledge, but Toibin exposes in his subjects a wildly relatable amount of family angst, awkwardness and competition. You don't need to be a Yeats scholar to be enthralled by his tense relationship with his father, or know anything about Thomas Mann, Tennessee Williams, or John Cheever to fall deep into these essays. Toibin's amount of knowledge and research is nothing short of inspiring; I wish there were more books out there like this.

I was lucky enough to meet Toibin during his tour for The Testament of Mary and got my copy of New Ways To Kill Your Mother signed:


5. Deborah Levy, Swimming Home

Lastly is Deborah Levy's outstanding novel Swimming Home. A short, taut work about a writer and his family on holiday, Swimming Home derails with calculated finesse in just over 150 pages. Levy develops a difficult family in a remarkably short amount of time, and captures many scenes of emotional complexity in simple, unassuming passages. The story of a family unraveling on vacation is certainly not a new one, but it's rarely done with such grace.

An added bonus of Swimming Home is discovering its publisher And Other Stories. They're only a few years old and have a subscription service: by signing up for the next few novels, you can get numbered first editions and your name printed in the back of each book. I'm currently reading my second book from And Other Stories called The Islands by Carlos Gamerro and it's shockingly good--an amalgamation of so many authors I love. I see traces of Bolano, Pynchon, and Richard Powers buried inside a weird story about a hacker hired to solve a murder. And Other Stories is two-for-two as far as I can tell, and they'll certainly be getting more of my attention (and hopefully yours).

Honorable mentions:
Sergio De La Pava, A Naked Singularity
Hilary Mantel, Bring Up The Bodies

These two didn't quite make my Top 5 but are still some exceptionally good novels (and curiously, polar opposites of each other). 2012 Booker Prize-winning Bring Up The Bodies is an amazing historical read, set soon after Henry VIII's historic annulment. A Naked Singularity is a sprawling post-modern novel about a Brooklyn attorney, somewhere between a legal thriller, American social history, and theoretical philosophy. Both are absolutely worth picking up.

It's been a great year in books! As always, thanks for reading. I wish you all happy holidays and I will see you next in 2013.

Currently reading:
The Islands by Carlos Gamerro

Currently listening to:
Mark Kozelek, White Christmas Live

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