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.
*Read about books 31 through 40 here.
41. Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron by Daniel Clowes
He did this book long before Death Ray and it’s about as different as you can get. This is the number one on the list of Clowes I read this year. It’s excellent. It is an incredibly unpredictable book, weird and strange and unsettling. It’s moving too, even sweet at times. The drawings are great too. Dark and dirty. There is a kind of Crying of Lot 49 meets Blue Velvet thing going on. We’re pursuing something and it leads us deeper and darker than we could have imagined. The ending is brutal and funny and excellent. That’s two excellents.
42. Ice Haven by Daniel Clowes
Read this book in Brooklyn while staying at a friend’s house. I like being a house-guest, but I’m not a great one. I’m a little messy, and I don’t always pick up on the subtle daily goings-about of my hosts’ lifestyles. So I use the wrong towels for the wrong things, put avocado pits in the recycling, that kind of thing. Tolerable but complaint-inducing. Anyway, I read this book on a futon in Brooklyn because one of my hosts loved it and gave it to me to read. And that’s the part of staying with other people that I love, reading their books—especially the ones they’re excited about—and then you have a person right there to talk about the book with. You can drink their beers or the beers you’ve brought over as a gift for their kindnesses and talk about the book that your host loved and felt you should read. And you can argue, if you know them well enough or not well enough, or you can see your friend’s face light up over a book you’re just coming to love but they’ve been loving for months, years, decades. I remember my friend’s mostly, and the part he told me he particularly loved. It involves a sad caveman.
43. My Happy Life by Lydia Millet
My favorite of the Millet I read this year. A woman is imprisoned, writing her life story on the walls of a seemingly abandoned institution. This book was Aimee Bender’s recommendation, and we talked about it in an interview that will be up at the Lit Pub in 2013. This book is unlike Millet’s other books in a major way. It’s less funny. Or it’s darkly funny, rather. It’s a crushing book. The narrator delivers her suffering, the abuse and misery she’s endured, with this kind of wide-eyed admiration for the world and it is both genuinely moving and deeply upsetting. It’s such a delicate line Millet’s walking, but she pulls it off. The book acts as a kind of counterpoint to inspirational memoirs. This disconnect Millet manages between what the narrator is saying, how the narrator feels/felt about her situation, and how the reader feels, is compelling. This isn’t an unreliable narrator, really. You get the sense that she’s telling you all she knows and all she knows about how she felt about it. We are put in a situation where we feel differently about it, while also feeling the tragedy and the strange joy of the narrator’s perspective. This kind of empathetic negative capacity is the stuff of the most impacting satire.
44. The Hive by Charles Burns
The follow-up to X’ed Out. We learn more about what’s happened to the narrator/protagonist, but we’re also spiraling out farther, inhabiting the surreal reaches of X’ed Out in a way that normalizes them and turns them into jumping-off points for new kinds of weirdness. I’m always amazed when an author can maintain the simultaneous sensations of getting closer to something and getting farther away from it. Bolaño does this. David Lynch too. They understand narrative well enough to know that the rewards of plot can be extracted from an A,B,C unfolding of events and injected elsewhere.
45. The Book of Frank by CA Conrad
CA Conrad is one of those kindred spirits you meet later in life and think, damn, I’ve been influenced by this person for years without ever having read them. The Book of Frank is funny and weird and moving, familiar and strange, exciting and free in so many ways. It’s the kind of book I’ve always wanted to write, I just didn’t know Conrad had already written it. I love the look of Wave Books. The shared aesthetic of the design, how pared down and unassuming it is. The books are unalike, good in their own ways. But they look real good on a shelf together.
46. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Okay, so I cheated with this book. I listened to it, rather than reading it. I really have to admit that I was invested in it. I thought I wouldn’t be, or that I would be on an entertainment level. But, the reality is, for a little while there, I was drawn in and reacting physically to some of the more uncomfortable things in the book. That said, it falls apart completely in the second half. Others feel differently. People love this book. I don’t want to ruin anything, because watching the events unfold is really the joy of this book, but at the halfway mark Flynn takes a turn that undoes the whole book for me. It was disappointing, but also a great relief to be freed from its clutches.
47. David Boring by Daniel Clowes
Something I love about a graphic novel, or Clowes’ work in particular, is that there is a freewheeling spirit to it, almost like he’s throwing things out just as they pop into his head. But that’s obviously not the case, these books took some serious time to put together. He had to go over them, again and again. He had to wed text to image, stare at the image and consider its composition before moving forward. The art isn’t slapdash, but the narratives are wild and unpredictable and dreamlike and bizarre and things get dropped or rushed past and nothing will stay still. It’s a really impressive skill, to transfer that feeling into such a heavily composed work.
48. The Fun Parts by Sam Lipsyte
Sam Lipsyte’s new book! It won’t be out until March 2013, but I got a galley from work. Might be one of my favorite books of his. There’s some Harold Brodkey here, I think. Some of the stories drop the standard Lipsyte pyrotechnics or sad-sack-does-awful-things and he tells a heartfelt and painful story, pretty directly. I like Lipsyte, and the stuff that’s recognizably Lipsyte-esque, but when he strays, it’s actually kind of amazing.
49. P’s 3 Women by Paulo Emilio Gomes
One of a few Dalkey books I’m reading for review right now. The book is structured as three long shorts or short novellas, each of which detail a relationship our narrator (who goes by P because he cannot stand the sound of his own name) has with a different woman.
50. Cataclysm Baby by Matt Bell
I loved some of these little horror stories so much. I thought occasionally of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. It’s been a while since I read those books but, from what I can remember, the truly impacting stories were those that tie into some element of the family gone awry. Or someone missing something, some kind of personal trauma that is being acted on. Some of these read like ideas for short stories, which is often the most compelling aspect of a story, the idea at its heart, or the feelings that idea draws out in you. These stories are like glancing into the window of an apartment building and seeing something you wish you could have gone your whole life without seeing. The world opens up, becomes a little darker, a little larger, a little stranger, scarier. I guess that’s what I liked most about it, my experience of reading the book felt familiar, the sadness/horror/joy at reading the things Bell had to offer felt true and right and like it was coming from the far reaches of my own emotional capacity, and yet nothing in the stories themselves was particularly familiar. This might be a fundamental difference between realism and experimental fiction: realism wants you to feel like you can relate to the situation being described, you know it, you may even have lived it, but it clogs up the works with the constant attempt to remind you of yourself, or of the world around. Experimental fiction is, often, less representational. Or representational with a different ultimate aim. These stories don’t remind me of anything in my own life, but they feel like they’re a part of it anyway.