What I Read, 2012 + A Top 11 + A Frustration

Sometimes, I’m conflicted. I do not want to be overly prescriptive. I don’t want to traffic in censure. We read what we read. We love what we love. At the end of each year, though, I am forced to consider the state of literary culture. These end of the year lists are very, very telling. I am watching them, quietly. I’m always interested in what other people are reading so I can expand my own reading horizons and find unexpected literary treasures. I use the word treasure without irony. 

In list after list, though, I see much of the same thing—white writers, often white men dominate. They dominate these lists because they dominate publishing, because they are the majority. I understand the world we live in. Blah blah blah. I’m bored with talking about this. You’re bored listening to talk about this. I do not necessarily exclude myself from narrow reading. I’ve read 136 or so books so far in 2012. There are plenty more I started but couldn’t finish. I’m currently reading six books or so.  I don’t know that my reading list is diverse enough. I do know I’m trying. Each year, I do a little better. 

To be clear, I am not talking about myself or having a woe is me moment. I’m fine. I have three book projects I believe in fiercely. I have an agent who believes in them fiercely. I am confident they are going to end up where they belong. I don’t want to be an exception to the rule, though. I want lots of writers of color to be able to say they shattered the glass ceiling hanging above us all. 

I hate that whenever I talk about the lack of diversity in literary culture, I feel this uncomfortable compulsion to explain, “I know I’m doing relatively well,” as if a modicum of success precludes me from saying this culture could do better, as if I don’t want to be perceived as a whiner. I want this to be something we no longer need to discuss. 

I don’t even know, anymore, if talking about these issues does anything. This doesn’t mean I’m going to stop thinking and writing about literary culture. I’m just saying it feels futile. We read what we read and maybe nothing is going to change that.

Regardless, I had a great reading year, the best I can recall. I learned so much about writing and what we can do with both fiction and nonfiction. I truly felt like I grew as both a reader and writer, from the books I read in 2012. 

I do have a Top 10, which is arbitrary. I read a lot of wonderful books this year. It’s actually a Top 11 because it was just too difficult to pick 10. Even picking 11 was an ordeal. I am a libertine in my reading. I love a lot. I am very comfortable with this.

Best 11 books of 2012:

How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayanna Mathis
Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
I Am a Magical Teenage Princess by Luke Geddes
NW by Zadie Smith
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung
How to Get Into the Twin Palms by Karolina Waclawiak
Dare Me by Meagan Abbott

Represent, ladies. Yes, my list is dominated by women. I don’t care. I loved these books. These are the books I’ve read more than once save for The Round House which I just read. These are the books I cannot stop thinking about. These are the books I cannot stop talking about, that should be required reading.  I loved them, without reservation. I vouch for all of these. TREAT YO’ SELF by getting these books. 

The most underappreciated books of 2012:

The Sovereignties of Invention by Matthew Battles 
The Necessity of Certain Behaviors by Shannon Cain
Hold Til It Hurts by T. Geronimo Johnson
Let Me Clear My Throat by Elena Passarello
The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianju
Thunderbird by Dorothea Lasky
Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman
Kind One by Laird Hunt
Pure by Julianna Baggott
Fast Machine by Elizabeth Ellen

There were lots of other great books I read (some were books I’ve read before and wanted to revisit, some were not released in 2012). You can ask me about them and I will talk your ear off. 

Fobbit by David Abrams (hilarious, timely)
Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine (intelligent, funny, strange, compelling)
From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant by Alex Gilvarry (interesting commentary on the state of civil liberties in this country)
Last Seen by Jacqueline Jones LaMon (smart poetry)
Wild by Cheryl Strayed (moving, honest)
Stiltsville by Susanna Daniels (perfect evocation of place, long portrait of a marriage)
Pretty Tilt by Carrie Murphy (poetry about girlhood that so accurately captures a moment in a woman’s life)
The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg (moving, warm, honest)
Baby Geisha by Trinie Dalton (strange, nice use of language)
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (great sense of people and place)
Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub (brings Old Hollywood out in lovely ways)
The World Without You by Joshua Henkin (lots of staying power, sprawling, true)
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (gritty, engaging)
The Last Repatriate by Matthew Salesses (really interesting novella)

Thursday by Chad Redden (poetry chapbook with an overall theme and energy I liked)
Last Night by James Salter (Salter, okay?)
Wake Up, We’re Here by Dallas Hudgens (gritty, strong authorial voice)
Night Swim by Jessica Keener (at first I was ambivalent but it’s grown on me)
Don’t Trade the Baby for a Horse: And Other Ways to Make Your Life a Little More Laura Ingalls Wilder by Wendy McClure (LIW4LYF)
We Only Know So Much by Elizabeth Crane (portrait of a quirky family, pleasant read)

Observatory Mansions by Edward Carey (so strange, the gloves! lots to admire)
Mind Blowing Sex by Diana Cage (obvi)
Mother/Daughter Sex Advice by Susie Bright and Aretha Bright (charming)
Bay of Foxes by Sheila Kohler (great echo of Talented Mr. Ripley)
Dora by Lidia Yuknavitch  (this book will cut you)

State of Wonder by Anne Patchett (this book is so gorgeous, just stunning)
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (dark, depressing, so of course I was into it)
Dispatch From the Future by Leigh Stein (smart poetry, smart uses of pop culture and language)
Evel Knievel Days by Pauls Toutonghi (the search for home and one’s place in it, very well done)
Maidenhead by Tamara Faith Bergen (this book will cut you too)
Heroines by Kate Zambreno (a compelling call to action)
Privacy by Garet Keizer (thoughtful meditations on privacy in the modern age)
Promising Young Women by Suzanne Scanlon (short novel about women and mental illness that reads like prose poetry, very well done)
Love, In Theory by EJ Levy (like the titles, the stories in this collection take up love, in theory)
Shampoo Horns by Aaron Teel (wonderful chapbook about boyhood in a Texas trailer park)
A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins (layered novel about a divorced man reconnecting with people and himself)
Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith (fierce poetry, smart poetry, loved this)
This is What They Say by M. Bartley Seigel (prose poems about a time and place we don’t see enough of)
My Heart is an Idiot by Davy Rothbart (these essays are as charming as they are offputting)
Every Story is a Ghost Story by DT Max (well considered recounting of Foster’s life. true care was taken in this project)
There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights by Laura van den Berg (it’s Laura van den Berg; of course it’s great.)
Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (my review will be in the NYTBR this Sunday)
The End of Men by Hanna Rosin (thought provoking, for sure, but narrow in proving the overall premise)
May We Be Forgiven AM Homes (ambitious, wholly engaging)
Three Cubic Feet by Lania Knight (interesting look at a young man grappling with his sexuality and how he fits in with his family)
Safe as Houses Marie-Helen Bertino (precise, intimate stories)
Magnificence by Lydia Millet (stunning, just stunning. kind of obsessed)
Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar (slow to start but a really fantastic look at race and class in SoCal)
The Lover by Marguerite Duras (Duras. deal with it)
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (slow journalism, moving, complicated)
The Glimmering Room by Cynthia Cruz (this book will cut you)
The Ideal Bookshelf by Jane Mount (art) and Thessaly La Force (ed) (mostly, you get to see what others are reading and that’s cool)

Book I wanted to hate but couldn’t because game recognize game:

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

Brilliant books that haunted me with their stark portrayals and language and painful beauty:

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi
Jesus’s Son by Denis Johnson 
Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker
With the Animals by Noelle Revaz
Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes

Book I felt in my soul in ways you wouldn’t necessarily understand:

The Story of O by Pauline Reage

Books not normally in my wheelhouse that I still appreciated: 

One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper (heartwarming)
Motherland by Amy Sohn (kind of infuriating but I’ve thought about it time and again)
You Take it From Here by Pamela Ribon (a lot to like but one of the main characters just baffled me to no end. I’m still mad at her even though she is not alive.) 

Book I was moderately ashamed of reading:

The Sweet Life Episodes 1-6 by Francine Pascal. I read these books, was thrilled by their terribleness, and talked about them more than is reasonable. I can own it.

Most unexpectedly delightful book I read this year:

On the Island by Tracy Garvis Graves. There’s nothing redeeming about this book. It’s a romance novel, full of absurd wish fulfillment but credit where credit is due. I’ve read this book more than once. It is competently written. The plot is SO bananas that I just surrendered to it. A lady in her thirties! Is stranded on a deserted island with a 17 year old! And they fall in love! Of course they do. The runner up in this category would be Redshirts by John Scalzi. I choose to ignore the extra codas at the end because they made me mad but this book was so witty, so much fun, and it truly understands it’s overall project. I highly recommend it.

Essay collection I aspire to writing, only using my own voice and style:

Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan 

Books I wish I had read much sooner because they were outstanding:

The Wife by Meg Wolitzer
I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron
Heartburn by Nora Ephron 
Edinburgh by Alexander Chee 
Savages by Don Winslow
Disquiet by Julia Leigh
Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt
Marry or Burn by Valerie Trueblood
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
On Being Blue by William Gass
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe

Books I was ambivalent, torn, or slightly hostile about:

Bunheads by Sophie Flack
Some Assembly Required by Anne Lammott with Sam Lammott
Suri’s Burn Book by Allie Hagan
You Are Free by Danzy Senna
All Woman and Springtime by Brandon W. Jones
Fuckscapes by Sean Kilpatrick
The Next Best Thing by Jennifer Weiner
Black Cool edited by Rebecca Walker
The Darlings by Cristina Alger
When It Happens to You by Molly Ringwald
Big Ray by Michael Kimball
How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
My Mother Was an Upright Piano by Tania Hershman
I Knew You’d Be Lovely by Alethea Black
Prosperous Friends by Christine Schutt
We Sinners by Hanna Pylväinen
Walking With the Comrades by Arundhati Roy

Book I grudgingly admit was a good, albeit infuriating read:

In Praise of Messy Lives by Katie Roiphe

Books I threw across the room and had vocal, furious conversations with: 

Vagina by Naomi Wolf 
The Morning After by Katie Roiphe (SERIOUSLY???)

Books I would burn but that I also read more than once and wrote about a lot and FINE there were a couple sexy moments:

50 Shades of Grey E.L. James
50 Shades Darker by E.L. James
50 Shades Freed by E.L. James

Books I taught in my novel writing class and graduate workshop:

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Room by Emma Donoghue
Normal People Don’t Live Like This by Dylan Landis
Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction by Catherine Brady 
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith 

Books coming out next year:

Louisiana Maps: A Diagram of the Territory of New Orleans by Delaney Nolan
The Dragon Lies Down by Alicia Erian
My Foreign Cities by Elizabeth Scarboro
Love is Power or Something Like That by A Igoni Barrett
Middle Men by Jim Gavin
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp
Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt
Willingly Would I Burn by Laura LeHew
Spectacle by Susan Steinberg