Writing this from my standing desk, and to all my desk-bound friends out there, if you can switch to one, do. I’m a happier, more refreshed person at the end of the day, and I attribute it to this change. Meanwhile, I’ll be appearing at the following universities over the next calendar month:
February 20, University of Western Kentucky at Bowling Green, 7 p.m.
After completing Part One of my second novel, I put on the brakes to do some research. That doesn’t leave me much time for reading outside my job, though I’m halfway through Richard Ford’s Canada, and Part One, I’m happy to report, was incredible.
But a recap: In terms of sheer numbers, 2012 was not a great reading year, though in order, I read the following:
1. Signs and Wonders by Alex Ohlin
A story collection I blurbed and I only blurb a book that grabs me. Like many readers, I was stunned by William Giraldi’s NYTBR takedown of it—not my reading experience at all. Ohlin plots her stories beautifully. Shit happens—a lost art in literary fiction. I found myself tugged along by her narratives, waiting to see how things resolved. Take my word for it.
2–4. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Drown, and This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
My year of Diaz. Drown is a remarkable debut and I’m especially awed by the final story, “Negocios,” wherein Diaz retells his father’s coming-to-America story, appropriating this ambivalent narrative without exorcising his own demons of assimilation. Oscar Wao has numerous stretches that bring the news, as William Gaddis used to implore. Three stories in Lose Her—“Otravida, Otravez,” “The Pura Principle,” and “Invierno”—are perfect.
5. A Gesture Life by Change-rae Lee
The section about the war is extraordinary and the novel is a study in emotional restraint and dramatic irony.
6. Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
7. The Typist by Michael Knight
It isn’t easy to write something as spare and moving as Knight’s tale of a typist negotiating post-war Tokyo.
7–8. Burning the Days and All That Is by James Salter
I’ve never been shy about my admiration for Salter, whose new novel is due out this April, a sweeping tale about a New York editor during publishing’s heyday. Still, if you’re new to Salter’s work, I’d recommend his “recollection,” Burning the Days, worth the jacket price alone for the descriptions of his Korean fighter-pilot years and his harrowing dogfights with Russian MIGs: “Behind us they had the scent of the kill, they could see the strikes; nothing would dislodge them. I was in panic. We were turning as hard as we could and they were turning with us. The altimeter was unwinding. Straining to look back, I could see them, steady and unmoving, like the pods behind you on an amusement park ride that rise when you rise and go down when you go down, mechanical and effortless.” I dare you not to get hooked.
9. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
For many readers and writers, Fountain’s National Book Award finalist, Flaherty-Dunnan first-novel-award-winner, and NBCC award finalist is the book of the year, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it make the Pulitzer short list, if not win it. It’s tale of Bravo squad’s miserable and ecstatic Thanksgiving Day at a Dallas Cowboy’s game that’s also send-off of the Iraq War’s contradictions and our soul-killing excesses: American maximalism and its discontents. Its language soars.
10. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
If you haven’t yet read it, it’s as great as you’ve heard.
11. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Yes, the novel is occasionally uneven, but only occasionally. The book’s completely original and its bildungsroman within the novel, The Dredger’s Tale, is astonishing. I’ve read the first two stories from Vampires in the Lemon Grove, her upcoming story collection, and I’d bet any amount of money she’ll come to be considered one of the country’s most inventive, inimitable writers. She’s the closest writer we have to Calvino.
12–13. The Interloper and Panorama City by Antoine Wilson
14. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
If you haven’t read it, to quote my editor, Gary Fisketjon, get a life.
15. Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins
Another huge talent, and a collection equal in originality to Diaz’s Drown. Also a recently announced NBCC finalist. Here’s my mini-review and Q & A with her from Chapter 16.
16. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
I had the pleasure of appearing with Ms. Egan at The Festival America. GS is great. You start it thinking it can’t work, but it does, wonderfully, and its trick is to make you feel time’s passage. Going in I was dubious about the power point chapter and it turned out to be one of my favorite sections. A must read.
17. The Big Miss by Hank Haney
True, one feels a little slimy reading this. Not only does Haney cash in on his several years coaching Tiger but he’s also cloyingly earnest while selling him out—not a winning combination. Still, it’s fascinating, and I came away from it humbled by the sacrifices required to be as dominant as Tiger once was and, if there’s karma, may well be again.
18–21. Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk by Edward St. Aubyn
American fiction writers I know are passing this Brit’s novels around like some non-lethal form of crack cocaine, and we here across the pond are spoiled reading this quintet in sequence, released as a quartet by Picador to coincide with the publication of the concluding novel, At Last, because we didn’t have to wait out the cycle. Consequently the books feel like one magnificent, epic novel, a towering achievement about our struggles to come to some free relationship with our past and enjoy something like atonement and progress. On a technical note, Aubyn also ends his novels more gracefully then nearly anyone I’ve ever read, except perhaps Salter.