Tag: Best Books of 2012

My Favorite Books of 2012 — Five to One

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?

Ham on Rye

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.

Stolen Air

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.

Thrilling Tales

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… 

My Favorite Books of 2012 — Ten to Six

I saw that a bunch of my favorite critics were writing a list of the best books of 2012.  David Ulin has a great one. You can read it here at the LA Times: Best of 2012. So I started to think about making a similar list.  But what’s different about my list is that I still read a lot of classics. Whereas a lot of critics need to be up to date on the newest and hippest books, I have never felt the need to be on top of what is hot.  I remember reading a quote, I think by Kafka, that said never read a book that isn’t at least six months old.

Now, I don’t think that’s true, necessarily, but in a lot of ways I still feel somewhat behind the eight ball in terms of the scope of literature.  So I’m catching up.  I mean, stop for a second and think about how many books there are in the world.  How in the world can anyone ever come close to reading all of them — or even yet, reading all the truly great books?  It’s staggering to think about the task.  I’m only on this Earth for a small amount of time, and I really hope I can find a way to expose myself to the best.  So, here are ten books that I read this year that I loved.  I’m starting with the first five.


10. A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

The first book on my list  is the last book I finished.  I love Philip K. Dick’s writing, but the way I knew Dick’s work was through his short stories.  I actually had never read one of his novels until now.  And I love the stories, but A Scanner Darkly, which is set in a kind of L.A./Orange County hybrid, presented a futuristic and paranoid view of the city where I currently live that just blew me away.  What I truly admire about the book is the effect it has on the reader.  I kept reading on, fully aware that the sense of paranoia was deepening and the character was unreliable, but Dick had such a control over the story.  I trusted him and followed him into his drug infested world.  It reminded me of great L.A. Noir novels or even Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.  Or even a great Victorian book like H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man or Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  After reading this book, I plan on reading the rest of Dick’s novels.


9. Concussions and Our Kids by Dr. Robert Cantu and Mark Hyman 

Sometimes, a great book has an impact so wide that it just becomes digested, almost unknowingly, into the cultural lexicon of a generation.  Dr. Cantu’s book, Concussions and Our Kids, is having a similar effect.  One day, I think Cantu’s book will be required reading in school — too much dismay from the students — similar in scope to A Silent Spring, because it sheds light on the concussion epidemic and serious problem in our community.  Cantu’s studies and his writing will change the way we play sports and think about our brains.  His research into CTE — the degenerative brain disease — has done so much to teach us about our minds.  It’s a fascinating read, and you’ll learn a ton about the current concussion dialogue.  For example, did you know that after football, women’s soccer is the next leading cause of concussions in youth sports?


8. Hey Fudge by Travis Millard 

Hey Fudge is a book of illustrations/comics put out by a great L.A. press, Narrow Books.  I talked to the art designer of this book, and he wanted someone to flip through every page, because there is a story that unfolds, a narrative.  Millard’s work is hilarious, but also vibrant and alive.  Sometimes, whenever I need to clear my head from whatever analytical bullshit that is waging war on my mood, I open up Millard’s book and just kind of flip through.  The beginning of the book features a series of clips imagining that Michael Jackson was lost at sea.  The humor is definitely there — so is the craft.

EPSON scanner image

7. Empty the Sun by Joseph Mattson

Maybe this list is heavily influence by my current location — L.A. County — but I can’t help but devour L.A. writing.  And one of those great L.A. novels is Joseph Mattson’s Empty the Sun.  I wrote a piece about the book earlier this year at the LA Weekly, and it just seems to sum up a lot of the experience in the city — the fall out of the California Dream. That everywhere around the city, people come here and they become something, well, grimy, hardboiled, lost.  In a lot of ways, it seems right in that same vein as a lot of my other favorite class L.A. novels — Post Office and Ask the Dust.  Plus, this book even comes with a soundtrack.

true confessions

6. True Confessions by John Gregory Dunne 

Well, here’s another L.A. Noir.  I’m loving anything set in L.A.  There is just something almost paranoid, hallucinatory, distorted about these novels set in L.A.; something that’s just slightly off kilter.  In True Confessions, it might be the murder and the way the community responds.  A murder, in this world, is a headline, something to help the readers of the tragedy, the snooping citizens to forget about their meaningless lives.  The strange thing about reading True Confessions was that, sometimes, instead of feeling like I was in L.A., all the Catholic politics and the Irish descendants made me feel like I was back in Massachusetts or reading a book by Dennis Lehane.  I kind of liked that about this book.  It’s a classic.

Okay, tune in tomorrow for the next 5.  Saved my best for last.