Yesterday I posted my favorite books of 2012 — ten to five. It wasn’t a list that attempted to define the best books of 2012 or the hippest or the best buys. It was basically a list of my favorite books. So to recap: 10. A Scanner Darkly 9. Concussion and Our Kids 8. Hey Fudge 7. Empty the Sun. 6. True Confessions. It’s interesting to look back on the books I’ve read, because sometimes after I finish a book, I seem move on without taking the time to reflect on what I learned or what I enjoyed. So it’s nice to look back.
And what I have noticed is that the books say a lot about where I am at in my life, personally, and as a writer. For example, many of the books on my list are L.A. books. Well, I live in L.A. County — soon to be moving — and a lot of them are noir mixed in with a book from my home state, Massachusetts. Also, I have some science fiction novels on the list. It’s funny, almost three years ago, I would never have even talked about science fiction — chalking it up to nerd fiction. But I can’t get enough of it now. Next book I’m going to read, after I finish a Daniel Smith book and Kohler’s Gestalt Psychology, is Ender Games. So now, enough preamble, finally, my top five favorite books of 2012.
5. Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
It’s pretty shameful that I hadn’t read Burroughs’ classic memoir before this year, but I’m glad that I finally came to the book. I believe that books come to us or appeal to us at certain times in our life for certain reasons. Maybe I’m talking about fate. Maybe I’m talking about coincidence. Why not both? But this year, as I began to revise my book, reading Burroughs has proved to be of tremendous importance. It’s about a young kid struggling with a mentally ill mother in Massachusetts. And seeing how a writer handled this narrative, the characters, even the setting, proved to be extremely important.
The line between normal and crazy seemed impossibly thin. A person would have to be an expert tightrope walker in order not to fall.
I understand that above line very well. What I loved most about this book is the way Burroughs handles structure. Of course, it’s in chronological order, but there is something about the way it holds together that I’m still trying to figure out. How the hell does this book come together and still provide a satisfying ending?
4. Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski
So far, Ham on Rye isn’t my favorite piece of writing by Charles Bukowski. I love Post Office, Hot Water Music, and Love is a Dog From Hell (Ecco selected poems), but Ham on Rye is a good book. I think of it more as a memoir, now, than I do as a novel. That’s what it basically is, and I think maybe the book would have been more respected as a memoir, because it’s basically a chronological structure with very little plot. Memoirs can get away with loose structure and plot — in my humble opinion — because the emphasis is more on the writer and the character. I love Ham on Rye, because of the origin story of the great Henry Chinaski, but also because I get to see a pre WWII L.A. There is one scene where Bukowski — I’m sorry Chinaski — is riding his bike to the beach that is unforgettable.
I could see the road ahead of me. I was poor and I was going to stay poor. But I particularly didn’t want money. I didn’t know what I wanted. Yes, I did. I wanted someplace to hide out, someplace where one didn’t have to do anything.
3. Stolen Air by Osip Mandelstam translated by Christian Wiman
Stolen Air is by far my favorite poetry book of 2012. Not just because it’s published by Ecco Press and has an incredible introduction by Ilya Kaminsky, but because it’s stunningly beautiful and so far different from the poetry I usually read. Most of my favorite poetry is narrative — Philip Levine, Denis Johnson, Frank O’Hara — and I often find lyrical poetry esoteric and purposefully pretentious. There is just something about Mandelstam — the persecution in Russia, the passion for freedom, the incredibly tight images — that just blew me away. Take a poem like Godnausea, which was written on April 4, 1931:
By torchlight bewildered with purpose/ Into the cellar of the six-toed untruth:/ Well, my pretty, she says,/ Lifting the hairy turnip of her head:/ Are you hungry, or are you dead?
There is something hardboiled, rugged, grungy about Mandelstam that I love. And the collection that spans Mandelstam’s poetry comes together in stunning harmony.
2. McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales Edited by Michael Chabon
For my money, there is no better collection of stories that blends a literary bent with thrilling and amazing adventures that this one. And that’s what I love about reading books in the first place — adventure. I love the feeling I get when I read Twain, Hemingway, London — as if the whole world was able to be discovered and conquered. And each one of these stories has that certain feel — even though a lot of it ends bad. The book features Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, Aimee Bender, and Jim Shepard. But the list is endless of how many great writers are included in the anthology. But my favorite, the absolute most thrilling story in the collection, is The Albertine Notes by Rick Moody. Honestly, this novella-length story is by far the best story I have read in years. It blew me away in terms of the way he manipulated time and how it linked into the overall premise of the story: the main character was investigating a new drug that injected pleasant memories to the user who lived in a present-day dystopia. The writing was just incredible, and it’s a book I suggest you go out and buy — right now! After reading this story, Rick Moody became one of my favorite writers.
1. L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy
This year, it’s hard to find a novel that captured me as much as L.A. Confidential. I have learned so much from reading this book — about my city, about writing, about plot and timing — that I’m almost tempted to recommend this book just on what you will practically take away as a reader and writer. Well, I don’t think I need to recommend this book, actually, because it’s a classic. And it’s worth that label. It’s a dramatic triumph that builds to Oedipus like proportions. I’ve already written a lot about this book in the last couple weeks. But let me leave you with one of the last lines from the book (Sort of a spoiler alert):
Some mean get the world, some men get ex-hookers and a trip to Arizona. You’re in the former, but my God I don’t envy you the blood on your conscience.
Until next year…