A Year of Favorites: Jen Vafidis’s Favorite New Books of 2012

Whenever I come up with these lists of my obsessions, I feel so uninspired. The way I got from point A to point B seems so dull in retrospect: I picked up Steve Erickson because I was going to Los Angeles for a trip; I got to Anthony Madrid through his friend Michael Robbins; looking back on my trips through Seidel and St. Aubyn it’s obvious I have a curious fascination with sadists and ornery jerks who qualify for AARP membership. I curse myself for not reading Louise Erdrich, even when I swore I would, or any Bernhard, or Dispatches, or goddamn Middlemarch, which glares at me whenever I move. But somewhere in all that self-loathing, I read some books, so here we go.

Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel
I have a morbid curiosity for Alison Bechdel’s psychodrama. Even when she goes over the top, her brain vomiting literature, psychology, and the mundane, I eat it up. Are You My Mother is an intensely paranoid memoir, as far as paranoid memoirs go. I wouldn’t read it on an airplane. You’d start to doubt too much and lose your sense of gravity.

These Dreams of You by Steve Erickson
I read Steve Erickson on a plane though, and he was perfect for it; I forgot I was in the air. You pick up what Erickson is throwing down really easily in These Dreams of You. You get deep into this book, and you don’t get out. The prose is like quicksand, and he pulls enough crazy tricks on your empathy that you can’t escape when the book goes crazy, which is soon enough. Not that you’d want to, really.

THREATS by Amelia Gray
I already gushed about THREATS over at The Rumpus, and I interviewed Amelia here, so I’m not sure I can surprise anyone with new elaborations on my appreciation. I liked this book. Obviously.

I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say by Anthony Madrid
I like stories, I like characters, but I am a sucker for a good line. Anthony Madrid is full of them. For instance: “Ah, those bloodthirsty Mexican legends, wherein no one gets any advice!” Or: “How is it these privileged mean girls always have such expressive faces?” His lines stick in my head to the point where I’m saying to someone who will have no idea, “Why is the world so sexy?” They think I’m quoting Prince, or someone like that, but I’m really quoting Madrid.

Alien vs. Predator by Michael Robbins
Pound says to go in fear of abstractions, and Michael Robbins runs for cover, calling out Best Buys instead of morning dew as he hides in a shelter. Some critics wave at the book’s dick jokes and its nods to Slash, but they don’t understand. Robbins is drunk off words, he’s mad with power; you can’t fire him, he quits! His poems are about fallibility and reluctance, dreams and misdirected emotion, and they’re (yes) warm in a way I haven’t found in other poems or stories. “What is it then between / our buttons?” he half-quotes to a woman he wants to blame for the world, and it’s surprisingly, stunningly tender. He’s got a bad desire, and he’s not afraid to use it. And he happens to have some jokes about his dick that you will love, I promise.

When I Was a Child, I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson
I’m a Marilynne Robinson fangirl, if such a thing exists. There are different joys in her non-fiction, but they are not lesser ones. When I Was a Child, I Read Books rewards rereading; I’m sitting here with my copy and losing track of time. Among her carefully woven arguments about religion and human nature, she has some zingers that sneak up on you. “In my Bible, Jesus does not say, ‘I was hungry and you fed me, though not in such a way as to interfere with free-market principles.’” Hell yes.

Nice Weather by Frederick Seidel
Rosy-fingered dawn for Seidel is a prostitute named Dawn. He rhymes tits and bits. He opens a poem titled “The Terrible Earthquake in Haiti” with “I think the truth is I have to go to the dentist.” In his words, it’s either age or it’s his medications; he’s an armored charmer. There’s weariness, bad taste, and tempered romance here I can get behind. “I get up from my bed, woozily embalmed, and it’s / Another gorgeous New York day to try to live.” This guy makes me laugh, and he does it on purpose.

The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn
If Edward St. Aubyn has a fault, it’s excess. “In his blue dressing gown, and already wearing dark glasses although it was too early for the September sun to have risen about the limestone mountain, he directed a heavy stream of water from the hose he held in his left hand onto the column of ants moving busily through the gravel at his feet.” For every good touch (heavy stream, column of ants), there are a few bad ones. Why must I know that the hose is in his left hand? Or that the gravel is at his feet? But excess is fitting: St. Aubyn’s novels satisfy my desire to spy on the rich, pick out the clothes I want to wear, and indulge in the classiest kind of sadism around.

Books that would have shown up on this list if I had gotten to them in time: Building Stories by Chris Ware, Antigonick by Anne Carson, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black by Patricia Lockwood, Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Non-2012 books that made me cry: The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.

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