Friday, January 04, 2013

2012 Year in Review (Books)

2012 Year in Review (Books)

Each year I set a goal of reading at least 52 books and at least 12,000 pages.  In 2012 I reached both these goals.

Notable Fiction and Short Fiction Read in 2012

The two best novels I read this past year were Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for the King and Karen Russell’s imaginative debut novel Swamplandia!, a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer.  The Eggers novel, a New York Times notable book, tells the story of an American businessman on a quixotic journey to Saudi Arabia.  He is determined to strike one last business deal to save his failing career but discovers that he is the victim of a globalized economy he helped create but that has rendered him obsolete.  Swamplandia! is a very different novel, but somewhat similar at the same time.  It tells the story of three siblings, the heirs to an alligator theme park where the business has dried up, who struggle to come of age and find meaning in the midst of a world that is changing.  Swamplandia!’s magical realism, Russell’s wonderful South Florida Gothic styling, makes her novel mesmerizing.  Other novels of note I read this past year include John Brandon’s A Million Heavens, a good read but nowhere nearly as good as his previous novel, Ann Patchett’s Amazon novel State of Wonder, and Kevin Brockmeier’s provocative and underwhelming novel The Illumination which deals with a sudden unexplained phenomena in which all human beings emit bright white light from the places where they experience physical pain.

I am a lover of the short story format and the book I most enjoyed reading this past year was Karen Russell’s amazing collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.  Her second collection of short stories is due to be published in early 2013 and I am eagerly awaiting reading it.  Adam Levin’s short story collection Hot Pink was also spectacular.  I also completed my goal of reading every issue of McSweeney’s Literary quarterly by reading two new issues and eight old ones.  (I am now working on reading every book published by McSweeney’s Press and have read almost two thirds of the 180 books they’ve published.)

Notable Non-Fiction Read in 2012

In early 2012 I read three books by anti-racist educator Tim Wise (I’ve now read all six titles he’s published)  including his new short polemic essay Dear White America, an earlier book of his entitled Colorblind, and a collection of his essays entitled Speaking Treason Fluently.  Staying on the theme of anti-racism, I also read Michelle Alexander’s powerful The New Jim Crow, which was selected as the UUA’s Common Read book for this church year and which I preached on last spring.  Rounding out my anti-racist reading, I also read Patriotic Acts published by the Voices of Witness project.  This book was a collection of oral histories dealing with civil rights abuses of Muslims and others in post-9/11 America.

The single best book I read in 2012 may have been the newest essay collection by Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books.  No contemporary author writes a better paragraph than Robinson and her essays deal with the place of humanistic Christian thought in American history and the role the humanities and theology can play in speaking to the human condition today.

However, the most powerful book I read this past year may have been Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco.  No writer is writing more powerfully and urgently about corporatism and American empire than Chris Hedges.  A more hopeful tone may be found in John Horgan’s hopeful The End of War.

On the lighter side, I found Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s new book How Music Works, a fascinating exploration of the creative process, collaboration, performance, the economics of recorded music, and the role recording technology has shaped the music we hear.  The first chapter reprises Byrne’s magnificent TED talk and is a fitting beginning to a book that is excellent from beginning to end.

However, the award for the weirdest book I read this past year goes to the remarkable Rector and Rogue by W.A. Swanberg.  This book is part of the Paul Collins series of bizarre books of yesteryear that deserve to be returned to print.  Swanberg, writing in the twentieth century, tells the story of an enormously complex and mysterious prank played on New York City’s most austere Episcopalian rector nearly a century earlier, a prank that might still echo today.

Notable Poetry Read in 2012

I did not read very much poetry in 2012, but a couple of works stand out.  Jane Hirshfield’s newest collection Come, Thief is extremely good.  However, no poetry collection was better than Rebecca Lindenberg’s heart-breaking Love, an Index, a poetic encapsulation of the grief of her experience of losing her love who died at a tragically young age, and of the memories of him that will endure.

Here is a list of books published in 2012 that I read in 2012:
Vicky Swanky is a Beauty by Dianne Williams (short fiction)
Dear White America by Tim Wise (short polemic essay on anti-racism)
Hot Pink by Adam Levin (short fiction)
When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson (essays)
Love, an Index by Rebecca Lindenberg (poetry)
McSweeney’s 40 (short fiction and non-fiction)
McSweeney’s 41 (short fiction and non-fiction)
In My Home There Is No More Sorrow by Rick Bass (non-fiction)
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (fiction)
The End of War by John Horgan (non-fiction)
Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel (memoir)
A Million Heavens by John Brandon (fiction)
Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality by Hanne Blank (non-fiction)
Between Heaven and Here by Susan Straight (fiction)
Christianity After Religion by Diana Butler Bass (non-fiction)
How Music Works by David Byrne (non-fiction)
Emmaus by Alessandro Barrico (fiction)
Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges (non-fiction)

Here is a list of some of the other books I read in 2012:
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (fiction)
St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell (short fiction)
Speaking Treason Fluently by Tim Wise (non-fiction)
Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful by Alice Walker
It Chooses You by Miranda July (non-fiction)
McSweeney’s Volumes 5-12 (short fiction)
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (non-fiction)
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (fiction)
The Rector and the Rogue by W. A. Swanberg (non-fiction)
Come, Thief by Jane Hirshfield (poetry)
No Silent Witness by Cynthia Grant Tucker (non-fiction)
Patriot Acts edited by Alia Malek (non-fiction)
Local Wonders by Ted Kooser (memoir)
The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier (fiction)