In 2012, I began writing book reviews for Bookreporter.com. What made the privilege of being able to write for a wider audience even greater were the discussions, most of them online, that I enjoyed with equally passionate readers. Reading is at once the most solitary and most communal of experiences. You read on your own, but you know as you’re doing it that millions of others are reading as well, many of them perhaps reading the same book you’re enjoying. To talk with people about books is one of the great joys of my life. I’ve been honored to share the experience this year with so many others.
I have six books to single out in this post. I reviewed only one of them for Bookreporter. The others are books I read for fun but that I thought were extraordinary. Two of the books are a few years old, but I read them in 2012 and thought they were so good that they warranted mention here.
The only author from last year’s list to appear in my 2012 roundup is Julian Barnes. His novella The Sense of an Ending was my favorite book released in 2011. This year, he published Through the Window, a collection of seventeen works of literary criticism, plus an ingenious short story, “Homage to Hemingway,” which charts the experiences of a literature professor in three different cities with three different groups of students and is a work of criticism as much as an engaging narrative. I wrote about this collection in a previous blog post and on Bookreporter. Each essay reveals information that most readers may not have known. A lot of us knew, for example, that Prosper Mérimée wrote the novella that was the basis for Bizet’s Carmen. But how many of us knew (I didn’t) that, from 1834 to 1860, Mérimée was France’s Inspector General of Historic Monuments? In this role, he identified historic buildings that were in disrepair or had been vandalized or badly restored and brought them under state control. The book is full of nuggets of trivia and erudition, all told with Barnes’s typically dry wit and rigorous prose. It’s a marvelous book.
In a December 13 piece in The Millions, Meg Wolitzer said that “[t]elling someone how much you loved Edward St. Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels has become something of a cliché.” That’s probably true, but, like most clichés, this one is borne from truth. The four novels in this collection, like John Updike’s four Rabbit novels, chronicle their protagonist’s life at critical stages of development. In the first, Never Mind, five-year-old Patrick, a child of financial privilege, suffers physical and emotional abuse from his domineering pedophile father. In the second, Bad News, Patrick, twenty-two and a junkie, travels to New York from his native England to collect his father’s ashes and score as many drugs as possible. Some Hope shows the mostly-sober Patrick trying to get his life in order and preparing to attend a dinner for Princess Margaret. And in Mother’s Milk, the best of the quartet, Patrick is forty, the father of two young boys, and worried that his lingering feelings toward his father affect his relations with his sons. The books are sad and thrilling, a chilling family portrait rendered with elegant precision. The fifth novel in the series, At Last, comes out in paperback on December 24.
My favorite story collection released in 2012 was This Is How You Lose Her, by Junot Díaz. The nine tales in this collection continue the saga of Yunior, the young Dominican living in New York, first introduced in Drown, Díaz’s debut work, and who also appears in the novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. In the new book, Yunior cheats on girlfriends; copes with the illness of his older brother, Rafa; grapples with his relationship to his factory-worker Papi; and, later, adjusts to life as a professor of literature in the greater Boston area (Díaz teaches at MIT, in Cambridge), where locals taunt him because of his dark skin and funny accent. Díaz tells these stories in his now-familiar supersonic prose style, with its rapid-fire patter and creative vulgarity. One of the many intelligent touches in Díaz’s writing is that he rarely explains the Spanish slang he stuffs into his stories. He trusts us to figure out the terms from the context. It is a tribute to his skills as a writer that we can do so easily. The stories gathered here are thrillingly alive with street smarts and storytelling energy.
The hippie culture has become such a common fixture in films and novels that one would think every possible story that could be set in a commune has already been told. But Lauren Groff found a new one, and Arcadia, her second novel, is the result. This poetic novel is the most beautiful piece of writing I read this year. Like the Patrick Melrose and Updike novels, Arcadia takes us through decades of one character’s fascinating life. Five-year-old Bit, born in 1960, grows up on a commune, where he is cared for and loved not just by his parents, Hannah and Abe, but by the commune’s many Hens, or pregnant women. Surrounded by free love and sexual experimentation, Bit will one day fall in love with the daughter of the collective’s leader and then, later, fall out of love with the commune. The book ends in 2018, an inspired move that, in a lesser writer’s hands, could have come off as a gimmick but here provides poignant commentary on all that has preceded it.
Two books released within the past ten years are among my 2012 favorites. Postwar is the late NYU professor Tony Judt’s masterful chronicle of the history of Europe since the end of World War Two. This massive work (more than 900 pages) is left-leaning in its politics—Judt was an eloquent champion, in this and other writings, of social democracy—but acknowledges the good and bad in all ideologies that shaped world history from 1945 to the book’s publication in 2005; he even found nice things to say about Margaret Thatcher. And Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri’s story collection from 2008, deserves far more attention than the two or three sentences I am giving it here. (You can see my earlier blog post for more.) Its range may be limited—almost every story is about a Caucasian man or woman falling in love, or trying to, with an Indian-American—but Lahiri explores so many facets of these relationships that each story feels unique from the others. And the title story has one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking endings I have ever read. Unaccustomed Earth is old-fashioned storytelling at its finest.
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