In certain years, I find that I have a clear-cut favorite book (or album, or film) for that particular year. Last year, for instance, I could point to Vanessa Veselka’s Zazen — fantastically written, thematically interesting, and with more than a little punk rock in its DNA. 2012 has been a different kind of year for me, in terms of reading: I didn’t have a clear favorite book, but that wasn’t due to any lack of quality in the books that I did read. Almost any of the books listed below could serve to top the list. And as the recommendations that follow might indicate, the ten books pictured above only scratch the surface of what was, for me, a fantastic literary year.
The Listeners by Leni Zumas (Tin House)
The Listeners is a lot of things: the story of a onetime musician still reeling from a childhood tragedy and the horrific way in which her band came to an end; a vessel for hallucinatory prose that borders on the Gothic; an intimate look at the quiet moments of a moderately successful band; the history of an unnamed Northeastern city. Zumas reveals information — the nature of certain events; the names of certain characters — with impressive precision, and the end result is stunning.
The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg (Grand Central Publishing)
I’ve heaped praise on the fiction of Jami Attenberg before — her earlier The Melting Season was both a smart comic novel and a wise portrayal of economic anxiety. The Middlesteins nimbly covers decades in the lives of its characters and puts them through hell while keeping all parties, to one extent or another, sympathetic. It’s impressively structured, compassionate, wise, and haunting.
Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith (Tin House)
Alexis M. Smith’s story follows a young woman around Portland as she goes to her job, haltingly flirts with a co-worker, and muses on vintage objects and her own family history. It’s dense with images, intimate in its scope, and beautifully paced.
Four New Messages by Joshua Cohen (Graywolf)
This collection of four novellas from Joshua Cohen features some of the most daring prose I encountered all year. Does it always work? No — but some of the joy of reading this book comes from seeing where Cohen is taking his fiction. And when his structural innovations pay off — stories within stories, meditations within meditations — the end result is exhilarating.
My Only Wife by Jac Jemc (Dzanc)
Jac Jemc’s haunting novel traces the life and dissipation of a marriage. The tone borders on the heartbreaking, then becomes something much more unsettling. It’s the sort of novel that succeeds or fails based on the precision of its writing; here, that writing remains perfectly balanced throughout.
All We Know by Lisa Cohen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Lisa Cohen’s history of three figures on the outskirts of 20th Century art and literature made for incredibly compelling reading. Whether you’re looking for smart observations on gender and sexuality or would simply enjoy evocative looks at specific artistic scenes (or, perhaps, both?), you’ll likely find that Cohen’s book has plenty to offer.
My Struggle, Book One by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Archipelago)
This ended up being the year in which I read both Knausgaard’s novel A Time For Everything and the first volume of his memoir. There’s a perfectly pitched melancholy that runs throughout this book, and I don’t think I’m crazy to appeal to fellow fans of the film Reprise in singing its praises. But for all of the intimacy of this volume, it leaves a central mystery hanging: how did the humanistic figure that is Knausgaard’s father in the first half become the estranged man who drinks himself to death in the second? I have no idea if Knausgaard plans to address this in future volumes or simply let the discontinuity stand; either way, I’m eager to read book two next year.
Heroines by Kate Zambreno (Semiotext(e))
In Heroines, Kate Zambreno breaks down the treatment of female writers, examines her own place in the literary world, and schools you in dozens of strands of cultural history. It’s punk as fuck, basically.
Flatscreen by Adam Wilson (Harper Perennial)
Adam Wilson’s first is a damn good comic novel and a sharp commentary on the way in which media saturation can muck about with our own internal narratives. Brutally funny at times, and flat-out brutal at others.
Mayakovsky’s Revolver by Matthew Dickman (W.W. Norton)
This collection of poems from Matthew Dickman abounds with yearning, trauma, geography, and much more. (If you’ve ever visited Portland, Oregon, the experience of reading this may make you crave a return visit.) And there’s a sense of melancholy that reminds me of (oddly enough) Bryan O’Malley’s terrific graphic novel Lost at Sea. It’s one of the most moving works I’ve read this year; also, one of the best.
Also highly recommended:
- Kind One by Laird Hunt (Coffee House)
- Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (Bloomsbury)
- Syzygy, Beauty: An Essay by T. Fleischmann (Sarabande)
- How to Get Into the Twin Palms by Karolina Waclawiak (Two Dollar Radio)
- Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub (Riverhead)
- Promising Young Women by Suzanne Scanlon (The Dorothy Project)
- The Man Without a Face by Masha Gessen (Riverhead)
- Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru (Random House)
- Let Me Clear My Throat by Elena Passarello (Sarabande)
- Oblivion by Hector Abad (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
- The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater (Scholastic)
- Threats by Amelia Gray (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux)
- Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux)
- How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti (Faber & Faber)
- The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle (Spiegel & Grau)
- Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway (Random House)
- Action, Figure by Frank Hinton (Tiny Hardcore)
- This Bright River by Patrick Somerville (Reagan Arthur Books)
- NW by Zadie Smith (The Penguin Press)
- That’s Not a Feeling by Dan Josefson (Soho Press)