The best books I read in 2012

Posted on December 30, 2012

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I’m always careful to call this post “The best books I read” as opposed to simply “the best books of the year” for two reasons. First: as in any year, I didn’t read every major, buzzed-about title that came out. I can’t say that the few books on my list are the very best that came out this year since there are so many that I didn’t read. And in fact many of those that I skipped were the most hyped, award-winning, ballyhooed books that came out. At this point in my life as a reader I know what interests me and what doesn’t, and frankly, there are some novels that, no matter how much wild praise they garner, turn me off as soon as I hear the plot synopsis. For example, The Round House or Yellow Birds, both of which were National Book Award finalists this year, but don’t interest me. Second: these were my favorite books I read in 2012, but not all of them were new in 2012. I would bet that compared to most people (apart from full-time book critics) I probably read a very high proportion of new fiction—in fact, most of what I read each year is new fiction—but I also get around to books from the previous year I’ve had stacked up and waiting, and I slip in a few older novels that have always been on my to-read list.

Most of my pleasure reading happens on the subway, and this was a great year of subway rides. I moved to Brooklyn in August, which has made my trip to work go from eight minutes (no exaggeration; that’s all it was for two years) to about 45. I use the extra time to whip through novels; I think I read about 100 pages per weekday (I don’t intentionally “speed read” but I’m very fast when engaged), which means I tend to get through about one novel a week. Story collections, for whatever reason, I approach differently: if I’m reading a book of stories, I typically have a novel going at the same time, and I take breaks between stories to read the novel.

In no order (apart from saving my favorite for last), here are the very best books I read this year. After that, I’m including, briefly, some books I really liked, but which had some slight problem or disappointment that keeps them from my main list.

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WINNERS

The Great Night, Chris Adrian

In last year’s post, I raved about The Children’s Hospital.  That remains perhaps one of the best novels I’ve read, period, or at least one of the most surprising. I had the pleasure of seeing Chris Adrian talk this year at the New Yorker Festival, in a panel on faith with Nathan Englander and Marilynne Robinson, and his brilliant wit on the page is as apparent in person. Adrian has been a writer, a doctor, and soon a pastor, and his writing shows all of this. The Great Night is far more than a modern version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—it is about loss, as all of Adrian’s work is (his younger brother drowned as a child), and about sex and food and bodies and fear. It charts three different relationships that collapsed. It is dark, and scary, and a lot of fun. Here is Adrian’s version of Puck, who in Shakespeare was merely a mischievous sprite, but here is basically the Devil: “People and faeries, animals and spirits—any observing entity—each saw Puck a little differently. What you saw depended on how you were feeling: he was often the image of one’s worst fear or most troubling anxiety. To some of the faeries he looked like a naked boy with a luxurious Afro… But some saw him as a sliver of flame, or a blackness heavier and darker than the black air, or a fluttering pair of dark wings.” You don’t need to have read the Shakespeare play to enjoy this novel, though it certainly makes his genius more obvious. Adrian knows about love, and beautifully charts, in all of his writing, the way it begins and the ways it can wither: “A person could seem magical and intriguing, like the answers to your prayers and your problems, and then later, twenty minutes or two weeks or three months or a year, have become, while you looked away for a moment, something or someone else entirely.”

The Pregnant Widow, Martin Amis

I read this in the summer, which was the perfect time to enjoy a novel that is so purely Amis doing Amis: young aspiring writer spends a summer in a castle in Italy, living with two girls, one of whom he’s dating, the other one he lusts after. It’s balls-out fun. But it’s also beautifully written. I had been turned off by the last Amis novel I read, Dead Babies, which was basically disgusting and pointless and upsetting. But The Pregnant Widow perfectly captures the feeling of being an ambitious, impatient, horny, intellectual boy in your twenties. He seems to remember it all like it was yesterday. The novel has its down moments—I didn’t much care for interjections into Keith’s life as a twice-divorced adult, nor for frequent snippets from the Echo and Narcissus myth—but for the most part the scenes between Keith and the women he desires are pitch-perfect. When Keith, who has been waiting and planning for the entire book to somehow hook up with tall, leggy beauty Scheherezade, ends up surprising us and himself by instead hooking up with the much ridiculed visitor Gloria Beautyman, the way it happens, especially the dialogue, is so well paced and fun it’s like a dessert. He walks in on her in the bathroom, praying, naked, when she’s supposed to be home sick from a day trip. “I always pray naked,” she says, and then: “Do you have any objection?” A voice in Keith’s head tells him, “There’s no need to hurry. Everything is as it should be… Never worry. Proceed. It has all been decided.” He takes it slowly, lets her lead him into it. His towel falls, they stand in front of the mirror together, and she coos, “Oh, I love me. I love me so.” She touches herself as he watches, dizzy, and she says things like, “Look what happens when I use two fingers.” It’s paced just right, and it’s sexy and feels real. I don’t want to suggest, by the way, that the novel is merely a fun romp about a summer in Italy. In a larger sense, it’s about the sexual revolution, and about gender identity. Gloria, in fact, wonderfully represents female empowerment (Keith tells her, “You are a cock,” and she responds, “How on earth did you know? I am a cock. And we’re very rare—girls who are cocks.”) If you’ve never read Amis, this would be as good a place to start as any. Then read Money.

The Great American Novel, Philip Roth

Having read almost all of Roth’s novels and yet somehow never even heard of this one until this year, it intrigued me: a baseball book by the great Philip Roth, chronicler, typically, of everything but sports. The voice is recognizably his, but the subject couldn’t be lighter: it’s a total farce, sheer fun, the long story of the Ruppert Mundys, a hapless pro baseball team.  This isn’t the book I’d recommend to someone looking for their first introduction to Roth, but for those who already like his stuff it’s a harmless treat. Characters have names like Gil Gamesh and Word Smith. Yes, it’s ridiculous. Here’s Ernest Hemingway jealously mocking Melvilleto a young Vassar girl on his boat: “Vassar, Moby Dick is a book about blubber, with a madman thrown in for excitement. Five hundred pages if blubber, one hundred pages of madman, and about twenty pages on how good niggers are with the harpoon.” Yowch.

You Are Not a Stranger Here, Adam Haslett

Last year Haslett made my list with Union Atlantic. That was a smart, daring novel about a finance guy in a land battle with a retired female history teacher. His short stories feel different, but no less smart. Each is deeply sad, and most end without clear resolution. The premises are neatly contained and realistic, Haslett’s strength being interpersonal relationships. In “Notes to my Biographer,” a mentally ill father goes to visit his son, who has had enough with him. He is obsessed with starting businesses, but we understand that it won’t happen. “By the shoulders I grab him, my greatest invention,” he says at one point about his son, a nice turn of phrase indeed. In “The Good Doctor,” a doctor goes to visit a woman who does not want to be helped. “The Beginnings of Grief” centers on a young boy who enjoys being physically abused by a confused, damaged, bigger boy: “I could squash you like a bug,” the bully tells him. Our narrator explains: “He wasn’t the most articulate boy I ever met. Only the one whose pain seemed to me most beautiful.” In “Devotion,” a brother and sister eagerly await the visit of a man they’re both in love with, who is set to stop by for dinner. He cancels. in “War’s End,” a history teacher all set to kill himself bumps into an old mother who convinces him to come to her house and tell stories to her bedridden son. Haslett’s stories are crushing, but worth it.

Battleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins

Another story collection that blew me away. Watkins’s short stories are muscular and unflinching. They almost all take place in Nevada, and the language is fittingly unsentimental, and dusty, and hot, if that makes sense. Of course the most notable story in the collection is the first, “Ghosts, Cowboys,” which flirts with the real-life fact that Watkins’s father was an associate of Charles Manson. But the story is more than that, and guides us nicely into the rest of the book, setting the tone, alerting us that these stories will be, if not necessarily sad, certainly raw and matter-of-fact and often upsetting. In “Rondine Al Nido” two high school girls head to Las Vegas and pick up two older guys, go back to a hotel room with them, and have sex. The more aggressive of the two girls, the leader, does it all as a sort of self-inflicted punishment for God knows what; the other isn’t happy, but is trapped by the situation. We learn that later, “By September, she and Lena will not even nod in the halls. When the announcement comes over the intercom first period, our girl will try to make herself feel the things she is supposed to feel: grief for dead people in buildings she did not know existed.” The outer framework is that the surviving girl is now telling this story to her current boyfriend, who is disturbed but attentive. “The Past Perfect, the Past Continuous, the Simple Past” is about a foreign tourist who loses his friend in the mountains while hiking, and spends the next few days, as the police search in vain, at a brothel farm. In “Wish You Were Here,” a group of childhood friends, now in their thirties or so, reunites and goes camping. This bit of dialogue absolutely floored me, when the female protagonist, married and pregnant, hits on one of the friends (“hooks her fingers in the waist of his shorts”) after everyone else has gone to bed: “He steps back, allowing her hands to fall from his waistband, shaking his head… My God, he says, kindly. What a nightmare you must be.” I can’t recommend these stories enough and I’m sure Watkins will continue to impress.

The Little Friend, Donna Tartt

Ever since reading and adoring The Secret History (one of the very few books I have read a second time, and also read it a third and fourth time; might I direct you here), I have wondered about Tartt’s second novel, itself now pretty old (she really takes her time), and have heard that it’s just not as good. I didn’t want to tarnish my love for The Secret History by reading The Little Friend if it was going to disappoint. All I knew about it was the plot: a little Southern girl investigates the grisly murder of her older brother, a still-unsolved event that took place when she was just a baby. It sounds grim and upsetting, but I finally picked it up and was blown away. It’s not better than The Secret History, but it is different, and fabulous in its way. The bulk of the novel really isn’t about the murder—they get that over with in the first 20 pages—but follows Harriet Dufresnes as she develops into an independent young adult. The book is long, perhaps longer than it needed to be, but rewards you over time with rich interactions between its likable characters. I loved Harriet’s three great aunts and her grandmother, and her connection with them, as well as the charming friendship between Harriet and little Hely Hull, who adores her. I didn’t find myself underlining half as many passages as I did when I first read The Secret History, but the plot chugs along and you end up surprised by which characters become the most important. Harriet’s adventure, at times extremely dark, stays with you, and the title reference itself, not revealed until the end, is also a lovely shock. I can imagine that the main complaint people might have with The Little Friend is that, unexpectedly, a second family, the Ratliffs, become an equal focus of the book, but I enjoyed this turn and appreciated Tartt’s attempt to take a group of repellant criminal drug-addicts and make us sympathetic to them. In the case of one Ratliff, that works.

The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach (second read)

I gave The Art of Fielding another read after I lent it to my dad, who never reads fiction, and watched him enjoying it, devouring it. I couldn’t resist. When I reviewed this book a year ago for The Rumpus, I pointed out that what was billed as a baseball novel is really a college novel about life on campus. That’s true, but on my second read I picked up on a sub-theme to which Harbach turns time and time again, an important one that fascinated me and that I missed the first time: the idea of routine, of falling into a strict schedule, and the appeal (for Henry Skrimshander and Guert Affenlight) and fear (for Pella Affenlight and Mike Schwartz, I’d argue) of that cyclical lifestyle. Early on, when he’s training with Schwartz, we see Henry, the rising star shortstop, discovering routine and relishing it: “Every day that summer had the same framework, the alarm at the same time, meals and workouts and shifts and SuperBoost at the same times, over and over, and it was that sameness, that repetition, that gave life meaning. He savored the tiny variations, the incremental improvements—tuna fish on his salad instead of turkey; two extra reps on the bench press.” Much later on, when Henry’s on-field performance has collapsed and he’s quit the team and spends each day lying around in Pella’s apartment, peeing into Gatorade bottles like Howard Hughes, he wallows in self-pity and longs for that routine: “All he’d ever wanted was for nothing to ever change. Or for things to change only in the right ways, improving little by little, day by day, forever. It sounded crazy when you said it like that, but that was what baseball had promised him, what Westish College had promised him, what Schwartzy had promised him. The dream of every day the same. Every day was like the day before but a little better. You ran the stadium a little faster. You bench-pressed a little more. You hit the ball a little harder in the cage; you watched the tape with Schwartzy afterward and gained a little insight into your swing. Your swing grew a little simpler. Everything grew simpler, little by little… You improved little by little till the day it all became perfect and stayed that way, forever.” Harbach is cribbing a little bit from the earlier section, which sure sounds similar, and he’s also riffing on the end of Gatsby (“tomorrow tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…” you half expect Henry to wish that “one fine morning” he can “beat on, boats against the current…”) But the point is well taken: it’s a pipe dream, a fantasy. Henry justifies the entire thing as “all he wanted,” as though it isn’t so much to ask, but it is. And he sounds like a brat. And yet what a perfect, moving, obvious theme for a book about college, that paradise where you enjoy the luxury of a routine that couldn’t be less like the one you’ll adjust to in the real world. You go to classes, study, write a bit, eat meals in the dining hall with your friends, go out on the weekend and drink and get laid. Then the next week you do it all over again. You get fooled into thinking it’s the norm, but it won’t last longer than college, which goes real fast, and then you adjust to a new routine, and you learn to understand that the lifestyle you enjoyed as a young person can’t stay around forever, nor can the people: some will lose touch with you, move on, some will even die. Guert Affenlight, too, when his illicit sexual relationship with male student Owen hits its stride, makes the same delighted discovery as Henry did from his workouts: “The routine became entrenched: After they did whatever they did that day, Owen would go out into the hallway and return eight minutes later, always bearing the same two steaming mugs… They sipped their coffee and smoked a cigarette, chatted, read Chekhov together… Such consistency suggested, or seemed to suggest,that Owen found their afternoons worth repeating, even down to the smallest detail. this was the dreamy, paradisiacal side of domestic ritual: when all the days were possessed of the same minutiae precisely because you wanted them to be.” Pella, Affenlight’s plucky daughter, isn’t so sure that rigid conformity to a routine is a good thing. Pondering the way that everyone on campus has been freaking out over Henry’s failure on the baseball field, she reflects, “It was amazing the way people hemmed each other in, forced each other to act in such narrowly determined ways, as if the world would end if Henry didn’t straighten himself out right now, as if a little struggle with self-doubt might not make him a better person in the long run, as if there were any reason why he shouldn’t take a break from baseball… but no, God no, he had to work hard and stay focused and grind it out and keep his chin up and relax and think positive and keep plugging away.” Pella herself has already had her “little struggle with self-doubt” from being in an ill-advised marriage, and she got out, fled to Westish College and now seems all the better for it. Schwartz seems to feel the same claustrophobia at the prospect of doing the same thing for years to come. When Duane Jenkins, the athletic director, offers him a gig that we would expect to be Schwartz’s dream job, he says no at first, because he “didn’t want to wake up in twenty years and see behind him a string of lives he’d changed, stretching out endlessly, rah rah go team, while he himself stayed exactly the same. Stagnant. Ungreat. Still wearing sweatpants to work.” The Art of Fielding probably has a number of other cherished tropes that I’ve still missed, but this one seems both obvious and insightful, a notion that follows us throughout college but which we don’t like to think about. Harbach’s novel, clearly, deserves revisiting.

Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil

I picked this one up knowing nothing other than that it was about India, and I love books about India. But this one is dirtier, grittier than any I’ve read: it focuses on Bombay’s opium underworld, and it does so with surreal, trippy prose. From the very beginning of its prologue, the novel pulls you in: “Since I’m the one who’s telling it and you don’t know who I am, let me say that we’ll get to the who of it but not right now, because now there’s time enough not to hurry, to light the lamp and open the window to the moon and take a moment to dream of a great and broken city…” Thayil, in his descriptions of the khana (opium den) nails the feeling of a room full of people that are high: “The room made people talk in whispers, as if they were in a place of worship, which, the way he saw it, they were… He could feel it slipping away, a way of life vanishing as he watched, the pipes, the oil lamps layered with years of black residue, the conversations that a man would begin and lose all interest in, all the rituals that he revered and obeyed, all of it disappearing.” Whatever thin strand of an overall plot there is, it is carried along by vivid characters like Dimple, formerly a man and now a female eunuch prostitute, and Mr. Lee, the wise Chinese immigrant who guides her. In the end, Thayil manages to give us a novel about drug use that is unglamorous and unflinching (think of Hubert Selby Jr., sure, think of Bret Easton Ellis) but also, magically, makes us feel somehow nostalgic, leaves you longing to go back to the scenes in the drug den for more pain and self-destruction.

By Blood, Ellen Ullman

I was always an e-reader hater but this year I finally tried reading novels on my iPad, just occasionally, and I found it to be perfectly adequate, apart from the inability to display it on your shelves after you finish (minor problem) and the inability to scribble notes in the margins (major). This was one of the first books I read on the iPad and I began by downloading the free sample, which hooked me. The premise itself is remarkably clever: a professor, in disgrace and on forced leave from his college for some unspecified sexual offense, rents office space in downtown San Francisco and quickly discovers he can hear every word of the sessions next door between a female psychiatrist and her female patient, who was adopted and now, in adulthood, wonders about her biological parents. Again, that setup is pretty enticing on its own, but the execution is equally brilliant: the professor, who narrates our story in first-person, is completely unreliable, crazed, neurotic. It makes for a manic, thrilling read. For example, just when you’re thinking that all the action of this book will be secondhand, told by the patient with our guy merely listening in, immobile and passive, instead he surprises us by walking into what turns out to be a lesbian bar. He marvels at the women and makes a number of disturbing, darkly funny observations until one of them nearly attacks him.

During the lesbian bar scene, I thought of this Homer Simpson moment:

 

The fact that both doctor and patient are women (and one of them is gay), whereas he is a shady, lascivious man, also parallels well and adds drama. Limited only to what he can hear through the door, our (anti) hero’s detailed descriptions are something to behold: “I knew at once, with utter certainty, that Dr. Dora Schussler was smoking not a Kent, nor a Marlboro, nor a simpering Kool or Newport, but that she inhaled none other than a Pall Mall or a Viceroy—Viceroy, I decided—so tuned was I still to the tender shadings of my former addiction. I could all but see the pack, the gold medallion pendant from a V-shaped pin. And along with this sudden visualization of her cigarettes, I could picture the doctor herself: leaning back in her chair, lifting her head, exhaling, tipping the ash into the ashtray, crossing and recrossing her legs. Of course. That was the slip-sound I had been hearing: the slide of nylon upon nylon.” Through the hero’s anonymous meddling, the patient learns she was born during the Holocaust, to an imprisoned Jew, and it messes with her.

Ullman pulls no punches in her presentation of the patient’s dismay and fear: “I don’t want to be a fucking Jew,” she tells Dr. Schussler, who herself is the descendant of Nazis, which makes everything even more fraught. The good doctor corrects her, feebly: “Jewish. Somehow it is better to call someone Jewish than a Jew.By Blood will hook you, shock you, and then leave you thinking about the issues it has raised.

Homer & Langley, E.L. Doctorow

I had somehow never read Doctorow before this year, and I chose to start with Homer & Langley because I knew it was ripped from the headlines, so to speak: it’s a fictionalized account of the lives of Homer and Langley Collyer, two brothers that lived in the early 1900s and were eventually found dead in their Harlem brownstone apartment, surrounded by heaps of old stuff: newspaper stacks, typewriters, furniture, junk upon junk upon junk. Supposedly it is their saga that inspire the TV show Hoarders.” Doctorow handles what could easily be a maudlin plot with grace, using Homer, the blind brother, as his narrator. The book is far more than simply a sad tale: it’s a view into the city and what it was like at that time (New York is his favorite city to write about, as I would learn from the two other books I read by him this year) and the character development is wonderful, suggesting for us just how it could have happened that these two men, so devoted to one another, ended up having no relationships with anyone else.

The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein

Tease if you want. I’m aware this book falls into the sort of self-helpy, smarmy, sappy stuff that sits on the Barnes & Noble recommended table for years, but boy is it moving. Stein’s novel, about a struggling racecar driver and his cancer-ridden young wife, will simply ruin you, and the choice of dog as narrator—specifically an aging, ready-to-die dog—was a smart move and worked far better than other animal narrators I’ve seen. (Ahem, Paul Auster’s Timbuktu, I’m looking your way). Give this book a chance, but prepare to tear up. Repeatedly. Like, at the end of every chapter.

The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro

My mom has been teaching this classic novel for years to her AP English students, and I finally got around to reading it this year. I had already, years ago, read Never Let Me Go (before they made it into a movie, which, surprisingly, they did not botch too poorly) and loved it, but this one, about an English butler taking a vacation to the countryside, never appealed to me. Or so I thought. I shouldn’t have underestimated Ishiguro, and if you’ve never read this book, you must, and right away: the narrator, Stevens, has had the customs and mores of being a butler so ingrained in him that, as he reflects on his time at Darlington Hall, we realize he was completely oblivious to a number of important milestones, and he also missed out on love. He has lived his life as a machine, and now he can do nothing about it. But the book is not just a sad tale about a lonely butler who blew his chances at life beyond his career, it’s also a sort of political statement about servitude (in this way, a bit like The White Tigerthough far subtler and more artful). When Stevens’s father is on his death bed upstairs and a colleague comes to tell him, and Stevens will not even go upstairs to see him for fear of shirking his butler duties, your heart breaks.

A Million Heavens, John Brandon

John Brandon doesn’t get enough recognition. Maybe that comes from being a McSweeney’s author or from the slight, perhaps unexciting (at first glance) subject matters of his novels. But he’s quietly talented. Citrus County, about a boy in Florida who kidnaps the kid sister of a girl he likes and hides her in the woods, got a lot of buzz. But his newest is even better. The disparate characters (which include a wolf!) get distinct voices and motivations, and they don’t all necessarily come together in the obvious, trite way you’d expect from novels that have multiple perspectives. If you can get down with the flighty premise—that a boy in the hospital, around whom the entire town is rallying and sitting vigil, fell into the coma from having played a certain few notes on the piano—then the rest of the book is like magic.

The Collective, Don Lee

Though he’s written other novels, many of them well reviewed, I had never heard of Don Lee until the cover of this book, which came out in July, caught my eye in the store. The New York Times didn’t even review it. The many end-of-the-year “best” lists almost all ignored it. They all missed out (the Times, especially, should be embarrassed), because The Collective was the very best book I read in 2012. At least it got an ample review in the Globe (which makes sense because Lee is a Boston native) by John Freeman, the Granta editor. Ostensibly The Collective is about three friends, all Asian-American creative types, who meet at Macalester College in Minnesota and become pals. But it ends up being about the politics of race and art, and it deals with these questions soulfully. The novel hooked me from the very first paragraph, in which, with no fanfare or build-up, Eric, the narrator, tells the story of how Joshua, his best friend, killed himself. Or at least, may have killed himself. He had been planning to kill himself already, but then, when out running in Sudbury, he ran in front of a car—it’s unclear whether on purpose—and died that way, taking a father and young girl with him: “He was running on a stretch of Waterborne where drivers are slingshot out of a curve and accelerate. He heard a car coming, and, rather than keeping to the edge of the road, he drifted a few feet onto it. Did he really mean to do it, to be hit and killed? Could he have been so callous, willing to burden an anonymous driver, through no fault of his own, with a lifetime of trauma? To this day, I am not sure. I go over and over it, and still I don’t know.” Yes, this is upsetting stuff, but the clinical, removed way Eric tells us the anecdote is somehow enthralling. Then we go back in time: the opening half of the book chronicles the friendship of Eric, Josh, and Jessica in college and their various emotional highs and lows (an apparent hate crime scribbled on one of their dry-erase boards; Eric’s blissful relationship with a white girlfriend, and then the inevitable angry breakup), and this section is sheer fun. When Joshua first appears he is offensive, funny, dashing. It’s clear he’s the Gatsby to Eric’s Nick Carraway. That first appearance happens in a seminar to which Joshua shows up late, then reads Eric’s nametag (Eric Cho) aloud, and announces “What do you know, another Korean.” He loudly begins to share with Joshua lewd sexual observations. When everyone turns to stare, Joshua declares, “I’m sorry… Not that I have anything against white girls, understand. After all, as Kierkegaard once said, pussy is pussy.” Jessica, also in the seminar, and Eric both raise their hands wanting to transfer out of the class; and yet soon enough they’re a trio. Joshua calls his new friend a “Twinkie” for reading Updike and Fitzgerald, and then shames him for being a virgin (though Eric ends up losing his to a real, live classmate, Joshua hires a hooker so as to beat him). After graduation, they all move to Boston and suffer various struggles with their art. Joshua finds success as a novelist, though nothing huge, while Eric plugs along as an assistant editor at a small litmag. (The title, meanwhile, refers to the club they later form in Boston, the 3AC, for Asian-American Artists Collective.) In an inspired twist, Jessica, a sculptor and painter, creates an art installation for which she takes clay molds of Eric’s and Joshua’s penises; a city employee launches a crusade against her art for its indecency, and even breaks the penises off by force, ruining her work. Everything goes down hill fast as the other members of the 3AC refuse to stand by the trio as they take on the city. They don’t want to cause trouble, and the racial tension is palpable and weighty. But the book’s joy isn’t in its message or themes, it’s in the writing: Lee has a lovely, crisp, unpretentious style and relates shocking sudden events as well as he does gradual processes. At Macalester, when Eric finally gets a girlfriend, he’s in heaven, and the account of their romantic routine is fantastic, at first gorgeous and then gross and funny: “Didi and I were constrained only by my tiny bed… Not that we slept that much, although Didi did everything possibly to make the bunk bed comfortable. She replaced my bedding with hers—four-hundred-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, feather-down pillows and a mattress pad, a comforter and a duvet… Nonetheless, Didi and I did not take advantage of the luxurious linen, at least for slumber. We were constantly mucking it up, fucking. If we weren’t in the midst of carnality, we were in the faux-tristesse of post-carnality, moonily staring at each other, limbs and fingers entwined… We spent more hours naked than clothed. When we were forced to get out of bed and stand, we’d nearly keel, verticality having become so unfamiliar to us. We lost weight, unable to make it to the dining hall for meals, and we were forever woozy from hunger and dehydration… Her poor lovely sheets. We ruined them. We slept on the wet spots, because the bed was too small not to. We couldn’t wash the sheets and duvet often enough, and they were indelibly stained with crusty yellow patches. I would use a towel to wipe the semen off myself, off Didi’s stomach and breasts and back and face, and each day the towels would become stiffer—scruffed and mangy. After a while, I didn’t bother trying to wash them anymore. I threw them away and asked my mother to mail me another set. ‘Why do you need so many towels?’ she asked on the phone. ‘Is someone stealing them from the bathroom?'” With so much bad sex writing in novels today, this is very, very good sex writing. The entire novel is this good, and it ought to have received more attention in the high-minded places.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Lightning Rods, Helen DeWitt

A super-clever idea (a man comes up with a business pitch to have offices offer hookers to their top-performing employees), and of course extremely funny in theory, but in execution less like a novel and more like an analytical paper or factual news report. I get that this is sort of the point, that the narrative voice is one of ‘let me explain to you in an extremely straightforward, almost journalistic manner, this funny series of events that I initiated,’ but that doesn’t make it any more enjoyable as a reading experience. In fact in many ways it’s more like Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” than what we think of today as a novel.

The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje

A pleasant, breezy, vivid read, as all of Ondaatje’s books are, but maybe a bit too light, in the end, and hard to compare favorably to something like, say, Divisadero, which really had a lasting impression on me.

Mr. g, Alan Lightman

I enjoyed this little treatise, which playfully imagines God creating the universe, for the first twenty pages. Then it became far too math-and-sciency to be entertaining as fiction. Smart, fun idea, but maybe not the most fun read by the end of it.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain

Like everyone else, I couldn’t put this book down—and a novel that mingles war with football sounds, on paper, like my wet dream—but by the end I was feeling frustrated (sort of like, ‘set off the bomb already!’ waiting for whatever disaster we knew was coming, and instead it just sort of fizzled), and the last-minute parking lot fight where the roadies attack the soldiers for seemingly no reason felt bizarre and desperate.

The Gospel of Anarchy, Justin Taylor

I haven’t read Taylor’s story collection Everything here is the best thing ever, which is the one that made his name and earned great buzz, but instead I went for this first, and was really enjoying it (Dan Kois gave it what I think was a very unfair review in the Times) up until the characters write their own bible and Taylor feels the need to include all of it: seventeen pages’ worth of half-assed (but that’s the point, of course) faux scripture that we, the readers, really could have done without. Apart from this, the novel is smart and vivid, but it could have been seventeen pages shorter. Allow us to imagine the bible they write; no need to force it on us.

REVIEWS

For whatever it’s worth, here’s the handful of reviews I wrote professionally this year (i.e. for real publication, not this blog). I enjoyed contributing regularly to our Weekly Read book review series at Fortune, which launched in 2011, and I also did some freelance review work elsewhere.

Fortune: Fraternity, Diane Brady; Who Cares Wins, David Jones; The Lifespan of a Fact, John D’Agata; Magic Hours, Tom Bissell; A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers; A Wilderness of Error, Errol Morris; Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan

The Daily Beast: Hot Pink, Adam Levin; Office Girl, Joe Meno

The Classical: The Big Miss: My Years Coaching Tiger Woods, Hank Haney

Posted in: DBR Blog