I’ve been into listmaking since I was a wee tyke, and well into adulthood I have been an often embarrassing chronicler and tabulator of favorite films and albums, ladies kissed, top 50 athlete mustaches, and all-time finest sandwiches (“purchased” and “self-made” their own separate Excel tabs).
2012 ended up being dizzying, strange, invigorating and beautiful, and a breaking point at which my reading habits changed considerably. It became more about the act and less about compulsive accumulation and intricate shelving. Thanks mainly to this salty battleship of a website, I got some fantastic recommendations throughout the year, and actually finished enough of them to not feel like a total louse. Here now: ten fictions that shook me up and boogied me down, with an attempt to remember something about where and when I ingested each.
Sky Saw by Blake Butler (Tyrant)
The newest book to this list (having been released just days ago), and one that seems to be in a constant state of birth and afterbirth, as if you played the starchild sequences from 2001 over one of Cronenberg’s scenes of something penetrating or escaping your stomach. Pitch black in its views of humanity and the cosmos alike, but the incredible rhythm of the prose is the literary-sensory deprivation chamber of the year. Read during harsh rains while fighting a toothache.
Legs Led Get Astray by Chloe Caldwell (Future Tense)
As someone who spent months on this site reviewing the first season of Girls, let me tell you: this is where the real comedic lady-angst is at. Like a new In the Red or Drag City record that gets incredibly old rock and roll concepts exactly right, Caldwell refracts common themes of sex and drugs in Brooklyn and makes them into something so lusciously told that they feel like tender mercy, so blunt as to be bold, and so authentic that you could have lived them last weekend. Purchased at Book Thug Nation, and consumed at the outset of short-shorts season.
Four New Messages by Joshua Cohen (Graywolf)
Hey, old lit world nostalgists: look! The best book critic in America is also one of its best writers of fiction. Brick thick, vitamin-rich language in a slim volume: brain food that manages to be rich and savory. The final story “Sent” is as breathtaking a vantage point of e-living as has yet been produced by anyone. Read on Wall Street lunch breaks, on a park bench beside chowing odoriferous accountants.
These Dreams of You by Steve Erickson (Europa)
Nate Silver gave us the sorely-needed raw data feed of Obama’s re-election. Erickson gave us the fable. As deftly observant of human eccentricities as the author’s glorious masterpiece Zeroville, and as touching in its capture of the urge to feel accepted. Procured at the Brooklyn Book Festival on my twenty-eighth birthday.
The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits (Doubleday)
First dose of this one came when the author eviscerated the Franklin Park reading series several months back. As someone begrudgingly being dragged into the fantasy genre, Julavits is a worthy ally, defying the old tropes in favor of something genuinely weird: sentiment spliced into a sharp gauntlet of rivalries among smart women. Read on the beach, slightly slimy off a coat or two of SPF 30.
The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka (Graywolf)
A pungent and hilarious detective story that will make all of us dense and fecund Americans fall in love with majestic cricket, and its tavern-shackled fanatics. Poignant in its juxtapositions of sport-stats OCD and attempts to be heroic toward our own families. A stiff cocktail blend of Naipaul, latter-day Pynchon, and David Roth’s columns at The Classical. Read in one sitting in the wee small hours immediately following game one of the NBA Finals.
The Collected Works, Vol. 1 by Scott McClanahan (Lazy Fascist)
Read midday while underemployed, drinking scotch on a day far too hot to be drinking scotch. The joyous postulates of a gentlemanly southern professor who may also have his infant child’s vomit freshly drying on his shirt. A volatile visitor’s map that sprints ahead past McClanahan’s more nihilistic peers.
Fine Fine Music by Cassie J. Sneider (Bunk Bed)
Kristen Schaal fronting Archers of Loaf. Or an alternatively tacky analogy of your choosing. Unbridled enthusiasm and genuine wonder at the gaudy divinity of road tripping through the new weird America. It takes laugh out loud wit to make pop culture references fun again, and Sneider is the next great comedian to Saigon chopper her way out of Long Island. Devoured in bed while listening to power-pop on Spotify.
By Blood by Ellen Ullman (Picador)
Ullman nails the clinical voice of her narrator, a reptilian professor who reads like Humbert Humbert without a proper hobby. The depictions of ’70s San Francisco only make the stylistic parallels to Fincher’s Zodiac more ominous. Ideal for a vacation with someone whom you plan to either marry or destroy. Read in MoMA’s courtyard cafe, and roughly a thousand different subway rides.
Flatscreen by Adam Wilson (Harper Perennial)
Full disclosure: Wilson and I attended high school together, though it was not until getting to Brooklyn that I first heard passages read aloud of what would become his hilariously debauched debut. And so the iris of my lens on Flatscreen goes directly for the ennui and sporadic euphoria of the Massachusetts suburbs in which this Lebowski-tinted yarn is set. Read on a to-and-from voyage on a Fung Wah Bus, careening from New York’s Chinatown up to Boston, en route to a childhood friend’s wedding.
Pre-2012 scorchers read this year: Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, Blue Nights by Joan Didion, His Last Bow by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, Christopher Hitchens’ Arguably and Hitch-22, William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato, and Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story.
Where You Been, Girl? [Reissue(s) of the Year]: New Directions usurps the title of “Criterion-for-Books” from other worthy contenders with their game changing presentation of six small symphonies from Portuguese woman-of-war Clarice Lispector.
Thankless dweeb task that made me wish I’d spent the money on another custom-made suit: Slowly working through ninety-five bootleg DVDs purchased in China last year.
Annual unity shared with countless other book critics, including our own Jen Vafidis: Another fucking year of not getting around to Middlemarch whatsoever.
Podcast as stimulating and fulfilling as any book I’ve read this year: You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes. In a year when some of the medium’s old favorites seemed to wane a bit, Pete Holmes slapped the form in its belly and roared. He is a Gargantua figure: tall and broad, flummoxed yet witty, an avid drinker, and a simultaneous believer in every possible concept of God or lack thereof. Yet his wild swings only enhance his inquisitive mind: one so eager to please and be delighted, and thus so alike in dignity to ours. Often squeamish (as when Holmes broke apart with former close friend Thomas Middleditch about the reasons they don’t hang out anymore), but more often cathartic, ambitious, and howlingly profound (as in high-water mark episodes with Dov Davidoff and Anthony Jeselnik, though a dozen others could be listed here).
Surest Sign of the Forthcoming Mayan Apocalypse: Bushwick gets two great bookstores (Human Relations and Molasses) within the span of a couple weeks.