For the first time in my life I kept a list of every book I completed this year. I’m not sure why I did it. I was finishing grad school. I probably wanted something to show for it. And, sure, I had phantom visions of putting together a list such as the one that follows.
These are the books I completed. I’ve left off all the false starts and abandonments and in-progresses. Some of these books deserve more than a few sentences, and while I’ve written about a few of them elsewhere, I’ll leave the true criticism to more focused attempts. This is an overview, written with the hopes of sharing my year in reading, and of sharing a few names, and of sharing some thoughts on a few names that require no sharing.
1) Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal
Musicians tend to recommend this book. It’s a book people who use typewriters love. It’s a book people with tattoos love. It’s a book people who light candles and talk about drinking love. I remember that beneath his clothing, the narrator is covered in rats, and that he crushes books for a living. This book fetishizes books in a genuine and major way. I didn’t love this book, or maybe I didn’t love the people who recommended it. Actually, I think I did love one of them. But she does have a tattoo of a typewriter.
2. Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
I grew up on this book, and I have always loved it. In January, I read the copy my parents bought me when I graduated from middle school. I had completely forgotten, or maybe had never noticed, that this book is about race. I remembered there was racism in it. I remember that the book’s world was divided. How could I have loved a book so much as a kid and yet completely missed its overall project? I don’t know. It’s a deeply moving book. It is one of those books that provoke deep feeling. To my kid self, its project was abstract. To my adult self, it’s very clear and well defined. It still makes me feel a similar way about people.
3. Apathy and Paying Rent by Zach Vandezande
My friend Zach wrote this book and I should have read it earlier than 2012 but I didn’t. Anyway, I finally read it. It is a road trip book, as in it is about a road trip. It is in your face about how it’s a book and Zach is writing it and he’s conflicted about it but still has to do it. The idea is familiar by now, but still the book is moving and incredibly articulate. It’s charming in a way that my clammy cynicism can’t touch.
4. Distant Star by Roberto Bolaño
A maybe serial killer writes poems in the sky with a crop duster. That’s the thing that makes this book Distant Star and not any of Bolaño’s other books. I love this guy, but the books do start to blur. They’re supposed to, I think. Read them all and let them blur. 2666 is a fourteen-volume work.
5. A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
A family of children takes up with pirates. I’m pretty sure one of the young girls is raped by some of the pirates at some point, but they don’t go into that. She’s made an adult on that boat, that much is clear. This book made me want to write a book and I wrote about half of it and then stopped. I can’t be Richard Hughes. Even he seems to struggle with it.
6. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by some Irish clown
You’ll notice eventually that I was in a class about children in literature. So we had to read this book. I read this book, again, in public. I don’t know why it made me feel embarrassed. It’s a great book, mostly. The sermon is tedious. Isn’t it? Tell me why it isn’t. Send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org, and tell me why it’s great and not tedious. I fucking love James Joyce, but sometimes I can’t defend it. There are other things to love in this book. It is very strange and surprising and moving and, duh, smart. Jesse Ball thinks the ending is a cop-out.
7. The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus
I read this book on my iPhone. Stop. I now own it. The cover design is great. But I was so excited to read it that I bought the GoogleBook. I was in Denton, TX and no stores will ever carry this book in Denton, TX, except maybe the used store (which is not a condemnation, it’s a very hip place), and they weren’t going to get it in time. Ben Marcus was coming to SAIC, where I was in school, and I wanted so badly to read this book and talk to him about it. So I bought the ebook and read it on my phone and that changed my whole opinion about e-readers. I think they’re great, or good enough, or fine, at least. This book, though. It pains me to say it—Ben Marcus is a hero of mine and you can bury me with Notable American Women and The Age of Wire String—but I was a little disappointed. It felt inconsistent, and a little lost at times. It’s hard not to disappoint when you’re put in an impossible position. Marcus was kind of a messianic figure for me. Remember the letter that closes Notable American Women? I had never before felt the way it made me feel. Afterward, I walked around in a stupor. I’m not exaggerating. The Flame Alphabet offered something that sort of sounded like Ben Marcus—his tense and often grotesque sentences, how violent and uncomfortable he can make a sentence feel—along with a story about a suffering family that was fairly clear and straightforward and also pretty horrible. Ben Marcus is brilliant, and terrifically kind. I owe him my entire writing career, by which I mean I would not be writing today if it weren’t for him. So I hope my feelings about The Flame Alphabet don’t deter you, everyone would benefit from reading Ben Marcus. We all have something to learn. He was trying something new, something risky, and that’s incredibly admirable.
8. The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz
I don’t remember a lot about this book. For me, it was sort of a non-event. It’s another one of those books that has a whole tribe of admirers. There is a scene with someone on a super tall ladder, I think. I don’t remember any of it well enough. Cobblestones, certainly. Someone else will tell you about how good it is. A bookstore employee or someone in a literature class of yours. They’re probably right. There’s probably a lot worth admiring here.
9. Threats by Amelia Gray
Maybe I’m wrong, but this seems to be an example of a great book getting the kind of attention it deserves. I loved this book, and I’ve never heard anyone say a negative thing about it. It sells well where I work. When I talk to people about it, all kinds of people, they seem excited. I’m happy someone is out there making this kind of work and getting recognized for it. It is a weird and unpleasant book at times, and people love it. I don’t know how she pulls it off. Maybe it’s that the book creates this perfect feeling in the reader where you’re compelled, excited to know more about what will happen, what happens next, and yet you know all along that what you find out isn’t going to resolve anything. We come to value the state of not knowing, without ever diminishing our desire to know more.
10. Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty by Diane Williams
A perfect human distillation. It contains everything you could ever want from a book.