My motto is: so many books, so little desire to rank them. But in keeping with last year’s tradition, I present a list of my favorite books that happened to come out over the last 365 days. My issue with writing a list like this is that–more even more so than years past—I have several books written by friends of mine to choose from. While I realize that makes me fairly biased, I actually see it as a blessing that I know so many talented people, but I figured in the name of disclosure, I had to confess that a few of the people on my list attended my wedding, and one of them even said the blessing over the challah. I promise it didn’t make me like their books more than others.
So in the spirit of books, friends, and a year of reading, here are my favorite books of 2012:
The Patrick Melrose Novels (Picador) by Edward St. Aubyn
Absolutely my favorite book of the year, which technically is comprised of four novels that came out at various points but were united for the final book, “The Patrick Melrose Novels,” At Last (which I still haven’t read). I had a lot of strange ideas as to what was in store as the collection was suggested to me by one person who said, “You love Edith Wharton, you’ll love this book,” and then another who mentioned that it was like “Less Than Zero if Martin Amis had written it” (plus Sam Lipsyte and Alan Hollinghurst both liked it. I found that interesting). My curiosity was peaked (and I was also a little freaked out by the strange stew of comparisons), and I thought that I was prepared for whatever, but what I got was some of the most extraordinary work I’ve read in some time.
How Should a Person Be? (Henry Holt and Co.) By Sheila Heti
I read more than one comparison between Heti’s book and Lena Dunham’s Girls, and I guess I can understand it, but I still find it to be a lazy connection. There was a reason this book was so talked about, and it’s because Heti has tapped into something great.
My Only Wife (Dzanc) by Jac Jemc
Stunning work by Jemc. Her story about a man ruminating over his wife that left him was sparse and haunting. One of the two great books I read put out by Dzanc this year (the other was Matt Dojny’s The Festival of Earthly Delights).
Flatscreen (Harper Perennial) by Adam Wilson
There was some talk a few years back when Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask came out about the return of the “comic novel.” Lipsyte was lumped in with the likes of Barry Hannah, Joseph Heller, and, of course, Philip Roth. Wilson’s debut no doubt belongs in that category. Flatscreen had me cracking up, but also gave me hope that people can still actually write good slacker coming of age novels.
Battleborn (Riverhead) by Claire Vaye Watkins
Last year I asked if Scott McClanahan could be one of the great Southern storytellers of our time. This time around I’ll pose this somewhat similar question: Is Claire Vaye Watkins the next great writer of the American west? Battleborn floored me and had me thinking about some weird cross between Denis Johnson and Joan Didion.
The Angry Buddhist (Europa Editions) by Seth Greenland
A blurb on a book cover shouldn’t really lure you in, but in the case of Seth Greenland’s novel, the Larry David quote had me. The book was a perfect lead in to election season.
Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub
Along with the book being set during the Golden Age of Hollywood, Straub’s debut novel made me think of the time when the idea of the American Dream was a very real thing. Beautifully imagined, and beautifully executed. Also an interesting shift from her collection of stories.
Traveler of the Century (F.S.G.) by Andres Neuman
I keep a log of all the books I read for some weird, neurotic reason. I was disappointed to find how thin the list of newly translated works was this year. Neuman’s Bolano-backed novel kept making me think I was reading the work of the novel-writing Argentinean son of Tom Waits. Weird characters, strange setting, and beautifully translated.
The Middlesteins (Grand Central) by Jami Attenberg
When Attenberg told me the premise for her latest novel, I knew right away I’d love it. After I read it, however, I was sure I had read a book that deserved to be counted among the great American Jewish novels. I’m also doubly biased since the book takes place in/around where I grew up, but I’m trying to look past that.
The Scientists (F.S.G.) by Marco Roth
I still can’t stop thinking about Roth’s memoir long after I finished reading it. Read my review of the book here.
Four New Messages (Graywolf) by Joshua Cohen
I don’t know if Joshua Cohen will ever write something I don’t like, but the transition from Witz to the stories in this collection took me by surprise and had to be read a second time.
How to get into the Twin Palms (Two Dollar Radio) by Karolina Waclawiak
I read this and realized that this could very well be the best work of Polish-American fiction I’ve read. Also maybe the only piece of Polish-American fiction, but who really cares?
Alien vs. Predator (Penguin) by Michael Robbins
I think about a dozen other outlets picked this as their favorite book of poetry for very good reason: Robbins has tapped into something that has excited even people who don’t normally like poetry. Read Jen’s interview with him, then go buy the book.
Legs Get Led Astray (Future Tense) by Chloe Caldwell
I’d been a fan of Caldwell’s essays in the past, but reading her collection left me thinking, “This is somebody from my place and time.” One of the finest personal essayists around.
All We Know: Three Lives (F.S.G.) by Lisa Cohen
Lisa Cohen’s look at the lives of Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland took me by surprise. I really had no idea how Cohen would go about making a triple biography work, but she pulled it off masterfully.