At the end of 2011, I started keeping track of every book I read, jotting them down in a little notebook. I used to do this in high school and enjoyed looking back over it now and again, and I’ve found that’s still true. Now, with a full year complete, I thought I’d look back at what I read, what I liked best, and what I didn’t, during 2012. I re-read several books during the year, and I’ll note that when it’s the case.
I know some folks refuse to re-read books, for various reasons. I enjoy it, though. You’re a different person every time you pick up a book. I like seeing how my reactions and perceptions shift through the years. And with certain books — Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! comes to mind — I get more out of it with each and every re-reading. Plus, it’s like visiting old friends for me, and it can feel like coming home.
So, here’s the list — here’s what I read in 2012:
1. To Kill a Mockingbird — Harper Lee (re-read)
2. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter — Carson McCullers (re-read)
3. The Best American Travel Writing 2011
4. All the King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren
5. Poser – Claire Dederer
6. We The Animals – Justin Torres
7. Salvage the Bones – Jesmyn Ward
8. Gilead – Marilynne Robison
9. The Dirty Life – Kristin Kimball
10. We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver
11. The Marriage Plot – Jeffrey Eugenides
12. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – Steig Larsson
13. The Girl Who Played With Fire – Steig Larsson
14. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – Steig Larsson
15. Fire Season – Philip Connors
16. Geek Love – Katherine Dunn (re-read)
17. Le Divorce – Diane Johnson
18. Paris Was Ours – Penelope Rowlands
19. A Visit From the Good Squad – Jennifer Egan
20. Tinkers — Paul Harding (re-read)
21. Swamplandia! — Karen Russell
22. Train Dreams – Denis Johnson
23. Tiny Beautiful Things – Cheryl Strayed
24. The War of Art – Steven Pressfield
25. Night — Elie Wiesel
26. In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction – Lee Gutkind
27. Just Kids – Patti Smith (re-read)
28. The Sense of an Ending — Julian Barnes
29. Me Talk Pretty Some Day – David Sedaris
30. Is Everybody Hanging Out Without Me? – Mindy Kaling
31. Still Alice — Lisa Genova
32. When You Are Engulfed in Flames – David Sedaris
33. Barrel Fever – David Sedaris
34. Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer’s Reflections on Dealing With the Death Penalty – Scott Turow (re-read)
35. Suite Francaise – Irene Nemirovsky
36. The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012
37. The Best American Travel Writing 2012
38. In Praise of Messy Lives – Katie Roiphe
Looking over this list, I love remembering where I was when I was reading each of these, and why. For some, granted, I just picked them up and read them at home, but with others there was a real purpose or intent behind the selection and timing of the reading. For instance, I read Le Divorce and Paris Was Ours just before a return trip to Paris this past summer. I’d been to Paris once before, but just for a 24-hour layover, and this time, I was going for more than a week. Excited would be an understatement. (And naturally, Paris blew away my every expectation.)
I read those David Sedaris books in preparation for seeing him speak/read at Tulane in the fall. I’d owned Me Talk Pretty Some Day (and also Naked, which I still have yet to read) for over a decade, moving them from place to place, city to city. My boyfriend loves David Sedaris, and this fact combined with a feeling that I needed to know his writing before seeing him led me to read those three. And then it led me to wish I hadn’t waited so long. I stumbled across the Mindy Kaling book in a bookstore around the same time, and decided to see what her brand of humorous writing was like. She didn’t disappoint. I thought her book was very funny and heart-felt.
Right after the “Paris” books, I got into a little Pulitzer Prize phase, inspired I guess by the fact that no one won for fiction last year. For some reason, I’d been putting off reading A Visit from the Goon Squad. I don’t know, the description of the book didn’t do it for me. But once I started it, I couldn’t put it down. I thought it was incredibly modern and timeless at the same time. Regret, aging, desire… all that human mess. Just a fantastic book. One I’m looking forward to re-reading.
Then I re-read Tinkers, which won the Pulitzer earlier. What an exquisite little book. Spare, beautiful writing. Not a wasted word anywhere. Following that with both Swamplandia! and Train Dreams, I wanted to see if I could figure out what was missing for the Pulitzer committee. I expected to love Swamplandia!, and was surprised when I didn’t. I liked Train Dreams much more. It reminded me, in a way, of Tinkers. The spareness of the story. Communicating a lot without using a lot of words.
I also started, but did not finish, the final Pulitzer nominee from last year, the posthumously published The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace. Since I haven’t finished it, I didn’t list it here. I’m close, just 100 pages to go, but I’m not sure I’ll make it happen. It wasn’t so much that I hated the book, or his typical digressions/footnotes, or even the topic (it’s about the IRS and more than that, the banality of most people’s everyday work lives). I just wasn’t captured by the characters. I didn’t care what happened to them. And you’ve got to care, at a certain point, to keep going. To bother to finish. I just couldn’t be bothered. Maybe I’ll try again another day. It was the first thing I’ve ever read by him. I’ve since read some of his essays and enjoyed them, but I know from reading interviews with him, he never considered his essays to be his “real” calling, his most serious work. That, for him, was his fiction.
Of the books I read that weren’t re-reads, I liked All the King’s Men and Gilead a whole, whole lot. I didn’t know what to expect with All the King’s Men, but it was surprisingly funny, with a dry wit I loved, and it felt so modern. It could be written today, about today’s political landscape. Not that much has changed since the days of Huey Long/Willie Stark. Gilead is another one of those spare, beautifully written books. I’ll be re-reading it, I’m certain.
I expected to love, but didn’t, Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones. She’s from my home state of Mississippi, and the book’s about a family on the Gulf Coast dealing with Katrina bearing down on them. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it was with this book, but it just wasn’t for me. It was dark and rough and tormented, a picture of poverty, but it wasn’t that. I like dark. It just… I don’t know. Maybe some of it hit too close to home.
Of the books I re-read, of course To Kill a Mockingbird is a standout. How could it not be? I’d read the book just once, in high school. I was curious to see how it held up and seemed to the adult me. I think it was even more powerful now, with a bit more perspective. We’re all just looking for our own Atticus Finch, aren’t we? Geek Love, a twisted book I also had just read once, in high school, was another that I loved as if reading it for the first time. The story of a carnival family, where the mother intentionally takes pesticides and poisons to produce freakish brood for their show, it’s beyond weird. And yet, not. The truths about family in this book ring true, even for those of us with moms who didn’t pray we’d come out with a marketable deformity. I’d count this as one of my all-time favorite books. Original, fun to read, compelling writing. I envy it.
I also re-read Just Kids, which won Patti Smith a National Book Award. I’d read it in 2011, but picked it up one afternoon this past year and got caught up all over again. I love everything about this book, the romanticism of living in New York when she did, hanging out with artists and musicians, the searching tale of her figuring out who she was and what she wanted, and then, yes, of course, the enduring love and friendship she found with Robert Mapplethorpe. What a gift this book is. It’s time travel that each one of us can take.
So, 38 down for 2012. I’ve started my first book of 2013, The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers. I was hooked by it right away. More to come!