My Top Books of 2012: Recommendations of a Book Store Clerk, Now In Five Genres!

For me, 2012 has definitely been The Year of the Book Worm. I should qualify this by saying that I have a difficult relationship with books. I definitely feel like I don’t read enough, and in many ways, I’m a textbook “desperate reader:”

First: the reader is an adolescent or an immature adult, insecure, all nerves. He’s the kind of fucking idiot (pardon my language) who committed suicide after reading Werther. Second: he can only read the literature of desperation, or books for the desperate, which amounts to the same thing, the kind of person or freak who’s unable to read all the way through In Search of Lost Time, for example, or The Magic Mountain (a paradigm of calm, serene, complete literature, in my humble opinion), or for that matter, Les Miserables or War and Peace.

Roberto Bolano, from The Savage Detectives (source)

This identity is agitated by the fact that I spent most of 2012 working full-time in a bookstore.  While I avoid some genres completely–young adult, self-help, romance, goddamn vampire novels–I find myself also neglecting more important and canonized work in favor of reading what most appeals to my current state of mind on any given day of the week. I accredit part of these eclectic reading habits to volunteering in a library when I was 11, and basically never leaving.

Books as an object have also become fascinating to me. I am continually drawn to books that truly seem to interact with me in a physical way. Many of the books I’ve read this year started when the cover image caught my eye as if already telling the story. Typically, by the time I managed to finish it–usually within days or sometimes hours–it had already firmly found its place in my over-zealous heart.

So, I’ve decided to compile a bucket list of this year’s best books, mostly because I’m curious to see what I’ve come up with. Despite a few honorable mentions, I’ve decided to pick just two per genre. I think if you’re challenging yourself to read more than just The Hunger Games or whatever literary fad is dominating bookshelves, giving some of these a try might lead you in the right direction.

5. GRAPHIC & VISUAL TEXTS

Big Questions

Anders Nilsen

My coworker was reading this at work one day, and I asked to look at it. What transpired was me totally blowing off all responsibility for the next hour and reading his book. Nilsen’s simple drawing style compliments his complex dialogue–most of which occurs between anthropomorphic birds.

The story starts when a bomb is dropped, along with a human counterpart. Some of the birds become obsessed with the object, thinking it’s an egg, and having nightmarish visions because of it. Set in a vast, nameless field seemingly as big as the universe, numerous story lines intertwine over visuals that both create and destroy a reality parallel to ours. Wrought with tragic irony, some have lauded “Big Questions” as Nilsen’s “magnum opus,” others as a philosophical accomplishment. The overall affect is stunning and surreal.

Nothing Personal

James Baldwin and Richard Avedon

“I know the myth tells us that heroes came, looking for freedom; just as the myth tells us that America is full of smiling people. Well, heroes are always, by definition, looking for freedom, and no doubt a few heroes got here, too—one wonders how they fared . . .”

-James Baldwin, from Nothing Personal

This work of photoessay and literary criticism is a collaboration between James Baldwin and photographer Richard Avedon. Published in 1964, each artist speaks to the desolate and evolving identity of the America of the 1960’s–a time of violent conflict and rampant commercialism.

Although seperately, Avedon and Baldwin are both artists I already admire, the book appealed to me as an aspiring collector first, and as a general nerd second. It’s a thin volume with stunning black-and-white portraits by Avedon, and Baldwin’s essay makes for an intellectually invigorating read. I was lucky enough to have an employee discount, but one lucky soul can buy a mint copy for $70.

4. DRAMA

Macbeth

Shakespeare

I am sure many of you are going to think I’m a totally illegitimate source for book reviews if I’m openly admitting to never having read “Macbeth” before this year. Reading drama is a new thing for me this year–Coincidentally, I had to read “Macbeth” for the first time while TAing a high school English class. I have several other well-loved Shakespeare plays on my roster of all-time favorite books, but I’m glad I finally got around to reading this classic.

Macbeth is a story of the corrupted ambition: the ambiguity of destiny and decision. At the story’s onset, Macbeth is a valiant war hero with much unexpected power. Shortly after his latest victory, three witches visit him and tell him a prophecy–that he will become king of Scotland. This prophecy comes true, but completely destroys Macbeth in the process, until he is a brutal, power-hungry shell of a man. This image of a politician corrupted by ego is ever-present in our fictions and realities, even today.

I fell particularly hard for Macbeth’s famous Act 5 soliloquy; upon hearing of Lady Macbeth’s suicide, as well as the approach of the English troops around his castle, the disillusioned tyrant that Macbeth has become contemplates his apathy toward life:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

I don’t know if it’s weird to include a book from 400 years ago on a list of Top Books from the Past Year, but I do think Shakespeare is a pillar of Western literature, and it’s a goal of mine to be acquainted with his work as well as possible. Shakespeare’s works have both perpetuated and completely defined stories that have been told for as a long as human history, into today.

The other thing about Shakespeare is that he’s totally not as intimidating when you’re not trying to cram for a written exam. These plays are meant to be performed in about an hour or two, and take only a little bit longer to read in depth. It’s pretty damn difficult to find any editions of Shakespeare’s plays that aren’t footnoted and annotated, so that makes it all the more easy to approach. I’ve read a couple of other plays of his recently, and my goal is continue that trend into 2013.

The Pillowman

Martin McDonagh

“The Pillowman” starts off reminiscent of Kafka and Dostoevsky, with a writer being arrested for a crime he is unaware of committing.  Taking place in an unnamed totalitarian country, fiction writer Katurian Katurian writes short stories in secret. One day, he’s arrested and interrogated over the content of his stories, each of which seems to include the death of an innocent child. While Katurian is interrogated, his chilling stories–and his traumatic past–come to light for the first time, sealing his fate. This tragicomedy (or “dramaedy,” if that’s your thing) ultimately reminds us of the ways beauty and love manifests itself in even the darkest and most oppressive situations.

This play has one of the most interesting narrative structures out of any other book I’ve read this year. The story unfolds all within an interrogation room and a jail cell, while the chilling stories-within-the-story come to life on stage. As a piece of literature, the stage direction is relatively sparse, and Katurian’s stories actually function as pieces of fiction. This allows for a lot of interesting adaptations (and I’m really anxious for someone to get the right idea about doing a production of this in Chicago).

I read “The Pillowman” in one afternoon, and revisited it for days.

3. FICTION

Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close

Jonathan Safran-Foer

So it turns out a lot of people think Jonathan Safran-Foer is shit, especially when compared to his wife, Nicole Krauss (who is definitely on my list to read for 2013). I also wavered between choosing this book and “Everything Is Illuminated,” which I also read this year (and acquired a sweet limited-edition Harper Perennial Mass Market copy in the process), due to their similar story lines involving themes of family tragedy. But even in light of certain criticisms, I have to include this book, because it’s the ONLY book that moved me to tears this year (and we’ll say I’m not really an easy cryer).

“Extremely Loud” also has certain strengths that I appreciated more, from a writer’s stand-point.

The most stunning aspect of this novel is its use of visual storytelling, or basically certain images or presentations of text. I feel it’s truly rare to find writing that accomplishes telling stories in such an ethereal sense, and Safran-Foer’s use of it in “Extremely Loud” makes it well worth reading (and not watching the movie, from what I hear).

Seraph On The Suwanee

Zora Neale Hurston

I had a hard time deciding between this and “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” which I read first. However, I’m going to go with “Seraph On The Suwanee” since it’s the lesser-known title, the reason being that I read them in succession, and if “Their Eyes” was one of your favorites, this one will probably be one too.

Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist, and, by today’s political compass, a libertarian. While “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is a sort of literary study on poor blacks in Florida, “Seraph On The Swanee” is her study of poor whites in Florida. The story lines twin each other in many ways–both focus on a strong female character, both overcome adversity thrust upon them by men in their lives (often times ones they love, or whom love them), and both stories speak to the irony of burden that comes with accumulating wealth. However, “Seraph” and “Their Eyes” depart in ways that are equally heart wrenching, and create a sort of mythology of the female hero within Hurston’s work.

While “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is the more empowering book, “Seraph on the Suwanee” is more similar to “The Taming of the Shrew”–a reflection of her complex political views toward the end of the her career. As her last published book, the happy–but disturbing–story is one that has resonated with me throughout the year.

2. CREATIVE NON-FICTION

A Room Of One’s Own

Virginia Woolf

This lengthy essay is also one of her most accessible–delivered as lectures, “A Room Of One’s Own” is anecdotal and scholarly, and Woolf’s voice is most acute in its execution. Both literary criticism and personal essay, Woolf’s “A Room Of One’s Own” is lauded as a cornerstones of 20th century feminism and literature.

Woolf’s essay explores the relationship between the different manifestations of female oppression, as well as unjust male privilege in telling women’s stories. She conceives the idea that, in order for genius to flourish, one needs to be free from financial pressures and social restrictions–a room of one’s own, something women have been deprived of throughout history.

A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.

I found great solace in Woolf’s essay, and it reinvigorated me on a personal level. I believe many of her points are still true today, for impoverished male and female writers alike.

The Psychopath Test

Jon Ronson

In case you’ve been wondering since the beginning of this entry, Jon Ronson’s “The Psychopath Test” wins hands-down for  my favorite book cover of 2012. Beyond that, this is definitely the most random book on the list so far, for good reason; I stumbled across this toward the end of my shift one day. I couldn’t immediately identify where the book should be shelved, so I started reading the first page, to see if it was more psychology or journalism. The funny thing is that I actually never even revisited that question until writing it out just now, because I bought the book that afternoon and read it all in one sitting as soon as I got home.

This first-person account comes from a tradition of gonzo journalism that first questions society, and secondly investigates human nature.  Ronson’s book begins with the discovery of another book–a mysterious text made up of seemingly codified symbols and references that’s been sent to a group of neuroscientists.  The question of the book leads Ronson through an array of examples of some of society’s most colorful and most feared members: psychopaths.

After poetry, non-fiction is the genre I’m most well read within, so here’s a few honorable mentions:

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Philosophical Investigations by Wittgenstein

1. POETRY

Selected Unpublished Blog Posts Of A Mexican Panda Express Employee

Megan Boyle

So, one time I brought Megan Boyle’s poem, “My Family On Most Thanksgivings And Holidays,” as a reading discussion poem to a workshop I was facilitating, and everyone unanimously hated it. Well, I’m going to say fuck the haters, because this was one of my favorite books this year.

In late 2011, I wrote a review of Boyle’s ex-husbands book, “Richard Yates,” that was not entirely favorable. I feel like there is a lot of misogyny that is pervasive in the alt lit aesthetic that ultimately turns me off from every single one of its male writers I’ve encountered. However, while “Selected Unpublished Blog Posts” isn’t necessarily giving Virginia Woolf a run for her money in terms of poignance and biting social criticism, I do find these poems to be incredibly honest, and relatable, as someone who compulsively recorded her life in an online journal during some of the most awkward years of her life.

I’m also a sucker for good concept poetry books. As the title would suggest, the poems are laid out in a dated order–many of them left untitled–much like a personal blog. I found it compelling because of the questions it begged in terms of what is or isn’t poetry, and I feel that Boyle’s style in this book is definitely busting down some boundaries in a way that speaks beyond personism.

Boyle’s protagonist is unapologetic about most things–her sex life, her shortcomings at school and work, her often compulsive boredom. But don’t mistake this book for sheer narrative, memoir, or confession. I found “Selected Unpublished Blog Posts” to be a fresh voice taking a huge amount of risk–with enough payoff to compensate–from start to finish.

Bluets

Maggie Nelson

If you asked me to pick a single favorite book for this year, it would hands-down be “Bluets” by Maggie Nelson. I think I recommended this book to anyone who would listen to me talk about it.

A book-length poem consisting of numbered sections of prose paragraphs, the aptly titled “Bluets” is about the color blue, or, perhaps more accurately, the meaning of the color blue. Nelson examines blue in art, science, nature, philosophy, religion, and love. A reoccurring lover reminds her of the color blue, at certain points becoming both a talisman and messenger of blue.

Joan Mitchell, “Les Bluets,” 1973

Many of these texts were ones I revisited, but “Bluets” is the only one I reread, cover to cover, multiple times this year. I read extensive articles on the book, trying to figure it out. I even contemplated bringing in an excerpt for my high school students (until I realized that it was difficult to go several sections without a super steamy sexual detail). Nelson apparently worked on the book for years; some of the different sections appeared as actual poems in different magazines before the book’s release. Supposedly she used notecards to tack information about the color blue on her wall, with notes on Wittgenstein’s sentence structure within his “Blue Book” underneath. Like the great philosopher, Nelson is ultimately attempting to accomplish what so many great thinkers have attempted before her: an explanation of the human condition.

“The eye is simply a recorder, with or without our will. Perhaps the same could be said of the heart.”

Maggie Nelson, Bluet #111

I hate to be reduced to phrases such as “the human condition,” but really, what Nelson is speaking to here is humanism. She equakes blue to an indiscernible ache, what’s left after a memory fades, whatever it is that seems to make up perception.

In my opinion, 50 Shades of Grey can go fuck itself–I’m going to get my literary rocks off with Maggie Nelson’s one book of blue.

As you can imagine, picking my Top Two poetry books was the most difficult. For the verse appreciators out there, here are some honorable mentions to read this year:

Awe by Dorothea Lasky

Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson

Kingdom Animalia by Aracelis Girmay

Palinodes by Lisa Robertson

A Season In Hell by Rimbaud

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