Again, interrupting my regularly scheduled here's-a-picture blog posting to bring you my year-end wrap-ups. If you're the reading type and looking for a book, here's a list of all the books I read in 2012. Kate Boo's "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" is the best book I've read in half-a-decade. I can't wait to read it five more times.
1. Brian Selznik - Wonderstruck
Like Huge Cabret, this is engaging both visually and narratively. Easy to read, and super fun.
2. Jeffrey Eugenides - Middlesex
I still liked it, though not as much as I did when I read it 10 years ago. I've become more sensitive in the last decade, both to questions of who can tell whose stories and also to gender issues. Still, it's a great story with great language.
3. Daniel Handler - Why We Broke Up
I hated the language but loved the pictures. Maira Kalman is one of my heroes.
4. Craig Thompson - Habibi
This is a total mess. It lacked focus and felt over-full with history and religion and parables. I could have moved past that -- the beautiful drawings are a nice anchor -- but the hyper-sexed nature of the book made the novel unbearable. There's a glut of naked women pictures -- including an exacting, eroticized and lengthy rape scene -- but not one picture of a naked man. Disgusting. I hated it.
5. Chad Harbach - The Art of Fielding
I wanted to skip work to stay home and read this book. I resisted it for a while, thinking a book about baseball sounded totally boring. Boy, was I wrong. The end felt a little too rushed and tidy for me, but at that point, I had already pledged allegiance to its characters, its story. Amazing work.
6. John D'Agata and Jim Fingal - The Lifespan of a Fact
This was super entertaining and super infuriating. Both authors look bad for most of the book -- D'Agata like a jerk, Fingal like an uptight dork. I went into the book feeling wholly loyal to Final, to truth in facts. I felt slightly more warm to D'Agata's argument (especially because he is vaguely open in the essay about learning later that some of his facts were wrong) by the end of the book, but ultimately I think a lot of what he wanted to change was really unnecessary. The essay that the book is built around wasn't that compelling for me, and seeing its facts debunked one by one made it only less so.
7. Katherine Boo - Behind the Beautiful Forevers
I waited four years for this book, so by the time I actually held it in my hands, I worried I'd be disappointed. But I wasn't -- not once. Katherine Boo writes better than anyone I can think of. To illustrate that, here are some of my favorite lines from the book: "built like a blade of grass," "He didn't like the moon, though: full and stupid bright," "mule-brained with panic," "One distinction of his father was that his hair looked good even when his head was in a ditch," "It was the walk of a boy on his way to school, taking his time, eating air." It's a pretty amazing feat, too, to write a book with so many characters -- all of whom are foreign for American readers, with Indian names -- and make them memorable, relatable, alive. The best book I read this year.
8. Teju Cole - Open City
This is a lovely, meditative book. I never wanted to rush home and read it the way I did with Art of Fielding or Beautiful Forevers, but I liked the ritual of reading a few chapters before bed. It's insightful and worldly, full of great moments and introspections.
9. Lauren Groff - The Monsters of Templeton
It was too crowded with subplots and voices for me to ever find a grasping point. There was something naive and inexperienced about it that I can't quite quantify. But it did have some experimental elements, which I admire. Apparently so does Lorrie Moore. Thus sayeth the book jacket. But I wouldn't recommend it.
10. Langston Hughes - The Ways of White Folks
These short stories are so readable and -- even 80 years after the collection was first published -- incendiary and important. I read the first 70 pages in one sitting, eventually begging myself to go to bed. I picked the book right back up as soon as I woke up. It should be required reading for high schoolers.
11. Johan Harstad - Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to you in all the Confusion
I really loved the first half. I like the whole book, but it did start to drag after 300 pages. The language is so lovely, though, and I found lines to keep all the way through. It's very vivid and Romantic and lonely and hopeful (in places). I could probably read it again in a few years.
12. Jeanette Winterson - Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
I don't really like her writing voice -- its a little too cheesy woozy in parts, too fragmented in many places and also too braggy throughout -- but there is a lot of meaningful meditation in here, and I found some pieces to be quite helpful. Ultimately, I was glad to be done with it, even though it was super short. She just really annoys me as a narrator. She stopped the story quite often to talk about literature, which seems like something I'd like, but it just kept taking me out of her actual life. I know her story is one of books, but I felt like those interstices kept me at a distance from ever really knowing her. The memoir felt like it was written for her and not a reader.
13. Alison Bechdel - Are You My Mother?
After Winterson, I was loathe to begin another lesbian-bad-mother memoir, but my hold was up at the library, so I had no choice. I decided just to read a page to see what it was like. Then I read an extra 25 before bed. Really fun and smart.
14. Nell Freudenberger - Lucky Girls
I really liked reading this. I don't think I'll remember details sharply with time, but I always felt in the mood to read it. It is not the most remarkable literature feat I've ever read, but I certainly think Freudenberger writes well beyond her years. Each story was entertaining and vivid and singular and fresh.
15. Nell Freudenberger - The Newlyweds
I really liked reading this, too. Freudenberger tells a good story. Near the end, it started to crawl a little (and I had hoped for a different ending altogether), but I would recommend it.
16. Richard Ford - Canada
I love the first sentence: "First, I will tell but the robbery our parents committed, then about the murders which happened later." From there through the rest of the first half, I was hooked. I couldn't wait to go home and read. I love the way Ford, in all his books, makes big statements about the world through one person's own feelings. In this book, he spends a lot of time talking about who we are and who we become -- is that fated or altered? If you rob a bank, have you always been a bank robber, your true self just waiting for the right reveal? I really loved it, but the second half was too slow and dark. I wish the first half had been one book, not just a set-up for a lesser half.
17. Gary Shteyngart - Super Sad True Love Story
I read an excerpt of this in the New Yorker and didn't like it. Then I heard Shteyngart read the same excerpt on Fresh Air and really liked it. Finally, I bought the book on a whim and read the first 70 pages in one sitting. It's so fun and clever and yet also a serious indictment.
18. Michael Ondatajee - Cat's Table
Really lovely and subtle story, filled with great sentences and great feelings. He made a lot of plot out of very little.
19. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc - Random Family
I read this a few years ago, after it first came out, and wanted to read it again as inspiration for some work I want to do with my own journalism. The first part (the first 140 pages) are really hard to slog through. It feels like paraphrasing. Giant moments are given the same length and power as meaningless one. When one main character accidentally kills his best friend, it takes all of a paragraph. There's no arc. Throughout part I, I kept thinking, well maybe that is intentional. Poverty is exhaustive and cyclical and the writing does echo that. But as a reader, it just doesn't work for me. I wanted her to let scenes hang longer. It always felt like a round-up of things that had happened, without ever just letting me live in them. The second part is much better. Whole scenes play out with better detail, dialogue, thoughts. I think these are the parts LeBlanc was actually there for. She worked on it for 10 years, so I imagine she got better as she went along. Anyway, once I got to the second part, I wanted to read it more often. It is an admirable feat of reporting, and it did take readers to a place they would never go on their own. And I like that there are no false happy endings.
20. Junot Diaz - Drown
He writes like no one else. Though I really liked his novel The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I think Diaz is best at the short story. Each piece is marked by great one-liners, such as "Nothing moved fast, even the daylight was slow to fade."
21. Donald Ray Pollock - Knockemstiff
Another book with a great first paragraph: "My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old. It was the only thing he was ever any good at. This was years ago, back when the outdoor movie experience was still a big deal in southern Ohio. Godzilla was playing, along with some sorry-ass flying saucer movie that showed how pie pans could take over the world." It's very dark but original and in the kind of voice I'd want to write a book in. I wanted to always be reading it.
22. Lee Maynard - Crum
This book was a lot like Knockemstiff -- It's the story of an Appalachian town with a cast of colorful, dirt-poor characters. Crum isn't even a shade as good as Knockemstiff, though. The writing just isn't as sharp or pretty. It's repetitive and self-indulgent and nearly forgettable. It wasn't terrible. It just wasn't good the way Knockemstiff is. However, it, too, has a killer first paragraph:
23. Michael Chabon - Telegraph Avenue
I love the themes and conceit of this book -- the story of a street on the last ledge before gentrification, the story of families, of Blaxploitation films, of a teenager in love. But I did not love reading it. Mostly, this book felt overwritten to me, dense to the point of being unreadable. The long paragraphs (one sentence is 12 pages long) didn't hook me in; they had me reaching for my iPhone to distractedly play Bejeweled. Still, it's well researched, and the plot is a great one. But I wish an editor had axed about 100 pages of descriptions ( or 90 percent of the similes) out of it.
24. Zadie Smith - NW
This is one of the most inventive books I've ever read. It's real work to read, and I could do with a few more readings before I totally understand even the chronology, but it's a rewarding book. It's a book of ideas, a book of now. Essentially, Smith looks at four characters who grew up on the same block and traces them to where they are now. But jumps in time challenge the reader. The shifts create irony, create new ways of seeing each character. The first 108 pages took me almost two weeks to read. They're rough to work out, woozy and all over the place. The second section is straight-forward, so readable and likable. The next is again post modern, but still very likeable. It charges ahead in 185 short clips. I've read Smith's novels "White Teeth" and "On Beauty" each twice, and I imagine I'll take a few more rounds with this one, too.
25. Junot Diaz - This Is How You Lose Her
When I'm in the middle of a Diaz book, all I want to do is be reading Junot Diaz. It messes up my journalism because I want to write all wacky, too, but I can't pull it off the way he does. Like "Drown" before it, this collection is addictive and exciting.
26. Diana Fredrics - DIANA
Apparently this is the first lesbian autobiography. My landlord gave me a copy, and I found it actually crazy interesting. Much of the action takes place in the 1920s, and it is remarkably similar to lesbian life now. The realizations, the unravelings, the coming-to-terms all resonated. Pretty well written, too.