The Big List! Late as usual! Here is last year. And once again, I failed to hit 50 books. Perhaps 2013 will be better, given that I won’t be in school for most of it. Once again, I want to promise myself that I’ll keep notes while I’m reading, so I don’t have to recall it at the end of the year. But we ALL know how likely that is.
Asterisk means a re-read.
2012 BY THE NUMBERS
New Reads: 45
Read on Paper: 41
This is the business, right here:
1 Nothing: A Very Short Introduction; Frank Close. Later in 2012, I tried to tackle DFW’s book on infinity and utterly failed. Perhaps I should have made an attempt after being primed somewhat by this readable little book about emptiness?
2 The Last Dinosaur Book; WJT Mitchell. I know Mitchell from his academic books on visual culture and image, read during my undergrad. So I was surprised to find that he’d written on… dinosaurs? The idea that’s stuck with me the most from the book is dinos as modern totem animals, symbols of deep time made approachable. Some of his comparisons seem spurious, but it was nonetheless an interesting perspective.
3 Better Living Through Plastic Explosives; Zsuzsi Gartner. A short story collection by a west-coast writer I’ve been reading for a decade or so, by now. Her stuff can be moderately strident, but the first two stories in this collection blew me away.
4 Tender is the Night; F Scott Fitzgerald. The French resort towns in this book gave me a Patricia Highsmith feeling, so consequently, I kept waiting for someone (maybe several someones?) to get murdered. Probably would have been less desolate, in the end?
5 When French Women Cook; Madeline Kamman. I was looking for more “memoir with recipes” sort of work when I came across this book. There’s only so much MFK Fisher to go around! Kamman’s writing doesn’t compare to Fisher’s, and her experiences are less broad. But I came out of this wanting to make basically everything into a gratin.
6 * My Man Jeeves; PG Wodehouse. There’s an unusual amount of comfort reading on my list for 2012, especially where classics I read on my phone for free (mostly late at night, while trying to get to sleep) are concerned. This is a short story collection. I’d be tempted to get a good audiobook version of Wodehouse sometime, as much of the pleasure of his writing is in the play of words, especially in descriptive sections.
7 1493: Uncovering the World Columbus Created; Charles C. Mann. For some reason I was hearing lots about the columbian exchange early in 2012, so I got my hands on this book to see what it was all about. I was particularly excited to find out about the spread of various agricultural crops and earthworms (apparently they were wiped out in Canada in the last ice age, and weren’t brought back until trade started with the old world).
8 The Postman Always Rings Twice; James M Cain. I’m not especially inclined towards crime fiction, but every once in a while I give it a shot. Perhaps it’s when I want to read something somehow filmic? This certainly fit the bill, but it also didn’t cause me to read any more Cain.
9 The Custom of the Country; Edith Wharton. Let’s get serious here: Undine Spragg, the best name for the worst fictional character, right? And oh, she’s the also worst person, and will remind you of the worst parts of yourself (should your worst parts happen to include any desire to climb socially, or get yourself “in” with a group).
10 Jill The Reckless; PG Wodehouse. basically every woman in the 1920s Wodehouse books is a chorus girl, or wants to be one, or used to be one. Once you’ve taken this message on board, and manage to keep the cast sorted out, this story trucks along enjoyably, though it doesn’t match his better books.
11 Cities and the Creative Class; Richard Florida. This is intended to be a “prequel” to Florida’s earlier books about the ‘creative class’ (essentially yuppies?). It’s a particularly maddening read, as his introduction not only waxes rhapsodic about his own idyllic childhood, but also ineffectually takes aim at his critics. It would seem harmless enough, except this guy’s ideas are being taken as gospel by any number of cities, who want to attract wealthy ‘creatives’ (so delightfully oxymoronic!).
12 Bartleby the Scrivener; Herman Melville. If you’re not inclined to read long passages on cetology, this might be a good place to start your Melville reading. It’s a slight novella about a clerk who lays down his tools and declares he’d “prefer not to” work. Leave a copy strewn on your work desk and see if your boss gets the joke…
13 At-Swim-Two-Birds; Flann O’Brien. My, what an odd book! I think I would have appreciated its mix of gritty 20th C Dublin and mythology more if I’d been A) younger at first read and B) more familiar with Joyce. If you are one or both of those things, then by all means go for it.
14 * Puck of Pook’s Hill; Rudyard Kipling. I read this several times as a child, but hadn’t picked it up again in years. Appropriate that it follows the above, as this also mixes modern (though of an older era than O’Brien’s protagonist) and mythic, though this time it’s fairies and Normans and Saxons.
15 Revolutionary Road; Richard Yates. Some books run together in my mind, particularly if I’ve imagined their settings similarly. Although further scrutiny surely proves me wrong, Shirley Jackson’s Among the Savages seems to take place in the same sub-suburban American nowhere as this. The feeling that stuck with me most? Making a plan to get out of your current life and knowing there’s no way it will succeed.
16 The New York Trilogy; Paul Auster. This book and the few that follow were part of my post-school-year binge of fiction. While this contained some lit tendencies that I usual despise (disguised autobiography, writers writing about writing) the stories were compelling enough to get me through, and they came together in an appealing way (reminds me of The Metropolis Case, read a while back).
17 The Meaning of Night; Michael Cox. If ‘regular’ crime novels are usually not my thing, then vast sprawling historical crime novels certainly aren’t. But I saw this recommended…somewhere? and picked it up. It’s an elaborate revenge story, pitting a scholar against a con man, fictitiously “edited” after the fact. It’s pretty meticulously done, and will appeal to footnote fetishists.
18 Eleven Kinds of Loneliness; Richard Yates. Eleven lonely protagonists in eleven stories. Midcentury melancholia, let’s aaaaaaall feel it.
19 A Visit from the Goon Squad; Jennifer Egan. This novel sprawls all over the place, with each chapter told from the perspective of a different (and often seemingly unimportant) character from the last chapter. People you imagine will return never do, and those who do are not the ones you expect. I do feel faintly embarrassed for anyone who describes the near future, so the final sections were a tough read.
20 The Glass of Time; Michael Cox. This is a sequel to the above Cox book, and follows a related character 20 years later. I found it less compelling than the first, but after 1300 combined pages of this guy’s writing, maybe that was bound to happen.
21 The Easter Parade; Richard Yates. More midcentury fiction, and centred on one of my favourite themes: women making choices! To live in certain ways! And comparing those choices to the choices of their peers! And being judged for them!
22 The Best of Everything; Rona Jaffe. I read this based on a list Lena Dunham wrote re: her influences in creating Girls, and helpfully it fits right in with the midcentury American theme of a lot of my reading in the first half of 2012. This one has a coming-of-age flavour that is certainly reminiscent of the show, even in a very different time. YMMV depending on how much young-woman-coming-into-her-own that you can handle.
23 The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto; Bernard Devoto. I do like a cocktail book, almost as much as I like a cocktail. It was written in 1948, and the author shares lots of the curmudgeonly tendencies of Kingsley Amis (much earlier, of course) but he isn’t as great a writer.
24 * Fun Home; Alison Bechdel. I reread this book about once a year, and haven’t stopped loving it yet. This time, of course, it was in anticipation of her new memoir, below…
25 Are You My Mother?; Alison Bechdel. Fun Home is primarily Bechdel’s story of her relationship to her father, told through the literature and philosophy they shared. This time she speaks of her mother, and the fulcrum is psychoanalysis. I certainly found it less compelling than the earlier book, and I’m inclined to blame my tendency to look askance at psychological explanations for human complexity.
26 Lucky; Gabrielle Bell. For some reason, most of the comics I read in 2012 were memoirs or diarycomics of one kind or another. This one is from 2006, and takes us through what must now be seen as the typical array of random jobs one who wishes to support themselves on their art must take to live in New York.
27 Between Meals; AJ Liebling. More food and less memoir, please! I had high hopes for this book, and they were not really met. There was a name-droppiness about this that I found really unappealing.
28 Canterbury Tales; Chaucer/Seymour Chwast. Certainly a comic book, certainly not a memoir! Apparently Cwast has also illustrated the Divine Comedy, which I’d like to find sometime, as this adaptation was pretty fun.
29 Swamplandia!; Karen Russel. Everglades alligator-wrestling adolescent story with more than a tinge of the supernatural, sprinkled with some seriously harrowing travel to a possible-underworld.
30 How to Become A Scandal; Laura Kipnis. Easily my least-favourite Kipnis. I’ve found her other books pretty inspiring in terms of coming at feminism(s) from a new direction. But this one fell flat, and felt self-serving.
31 Tales of the Jazz Age; F Scott Fitzgerald. More short stories to read in the night, more midcentury Americans.
32 Habibi; Craig Thompson. I found this book both extremely compelling (I definitely stayed up later than I ought to have, while reading it) and problematic (is this just classic Orientalism? mysterious middle east as told by former fundamentalist christian boy from the rural USA?)
33 Bottomless Belly Button; Dash Shaw. Nicely laid-out thick graphic novel about the Loony (yes.) family and their various travails. Did not leave much of an impression?
34 The Spoon River Anthology; Edgar Lee Masters. Two poetry books this year! A 100% improvement over 2011, let’s all be very impressed. This is a collection of epitaphs of the inhabitants of a town, often connecting and referring to the others. Apparently based on real people?
35 Geographies of a Lover; Sarah de Leeuw. A poetic account of a long-distance relationship, complete with latitudes and longitudes. I found it urgent and sad, and certainly not the sort of thing you want to be reading on the subway, if you’re the blushing type.
36 Oblivion; David Foster Wallace. I’m not a massive fan of DFW’s short fiction, but this book includes the completely brutal and somehow very un-DFW-like Incarnations of Burned Children, which might be worth the price of admission itself.
37 * The Golden Road; LM Montgomery. More comfort-reading, the kind of book I read a million times as a child, and reading it now takes me directly back to how I felt about it then (not to mention, of course, that it’s set where I’m from, and is this doubly nostalgic)
38 Art and the Power of Placement; Victoria Newhouse. This was a book read for school, albeit somewhat indirectly. It shows how the same collection can be displayed in vastly different ways with vastly differing results. Context is (almost) everything!
39 The Infinite Wait; Julia Wertz. This is Julia Wertz’s newest, and part of my list of autobio comics read in 2012. I’ve read her old Fart Party books, but missed Drinking At the Movies. This one mostly predates her other books, giving them context and filling in some holes. Visually, I could look at her streetscapes aaaaall day long.
40 The Chairs are Where the People Go; Mischa Glouberman. This book is an odd little series of conversations between Glouberman and Sheila Heti. It comes across as a bit of a self-help or how-to book for folks who’d like to consider themselves creative urbanites. By turns twee and/or irritating and surprisingly profound.
41 The English Patient; Michael Ondaatje. I read this over a long time, and was very taken by the language at first. I’m not sure if it was the prolonged timeline that did it, or if it would have worn on me the same way if I’d ploughed through the thing in a week. But wear on me, it did!
42 Maphead; Ken Jennings. This is a book about maps by a Jeopardy champion, and includes more groan-inducing dad jokes than one book could ever need. But, entertaining! Informative, in a trivia sort of way.
43 An Ideal Husband; Oscar Wilde. Imagine a Wilde play? Yep, you’ve got it. Class tensions and clever quips and moral ambiguities. I did find the finale somewhat…unsatisfying, in a similar way to the final Holmes story from the book below. No 19th C spoilers from me!
44 You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed up with Gastroculture; Steven Poole. This was my first e-book borrowed from the library! I don’t have an ereader though, so I read it on my computer (luckily it is reasonably short). It’s mostly the curmudgeonly look at the deification of celebrity chefs and food writers. Lots of this is stuff I can be agreeably disdainful about, but I also perversely enjoy having my own sacred cows slaughtered, for special occasions.
45 Building Stories; Chris Ware. A sprawling book centred on one building in Chicago and its various residents. Not everyone who passes through the house necessarily stagnates there, which means that the desperation angle isn’t as strongly stated as it is in Ware’s other books. It’s a bit of a relief, honestly. But only a bit…
46 Sommeil du monstre/32 décembre; Enki Bilal. I’ve included these two comics together as they are connected stories. The bloody and sort of Ralph Steadman-ish visual style of the first put me off slightly from its Blade Runner-style dystopic story. I found the slightly softened look of the second more appealing given the often-harsh subject matter.
47 Traffic: Why we Drive the way we do (and what it says about us); Tom Vanderbilt . I heard about this book on this podcast and sought it out immediately. I’m not frequently a driver, but I’m so interested in the ways in which drivers act and why they might do so, especially if our actions tend to be self-defeating. Lots of fascinating international examples of how traffic is controlled (or allowed to control itself) in other countries.
48 The Return of Sherlock Holmes; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I read the first half of the Holmes stories some years back, and finally got around to finishing them! I do feel like he loses a bit of steam on occasion, and I found the final story in particular to be unsatisfying.
49 The Way We Eat; Peter Singer. This book was mentioned in Poole’s book above as an excellent examination of the ethics of eating animals, as well as other food choices. I feel like Singer gives vegetarians a bit of a pass (surely there are better and worse ways of consuming vegetable proteins) but this was a good overview for me after a couple of years of ignoring food ethics.