My Favorite Reads of 2012

The following eleven books are the best I read in 2012. Once again, the selection is overrun by books published by NYRB Classics; they published five of the books below. When I went through my reading year to make this list, I certainly didn’t favor any particular publisher over another; they really do suit my tastes, which have continued to veer towards modernism and literature in translation, places where I think the authors still allow doubt and the complexity of thought to show up in their complex sentences.

Here they are in the order in which I reviewed them:

Milton Rokeach: The Three Christs of Ypsilanti (original review January 25, 2012) – My brother and I dug into this book together, each interested in the topic: Milton Rokeach, a doctor at Ypsilanti State Hospital, put together three men who each claimed to be Jesus Christ, hoping he could study the effects of this conflict on their identities. Over the course of two years, these men met each day, developing strangely touching relationships. It all becomes even darker when Rokeach begins experimenting with them individually, subjecting their beliefs to a volley of attacks. It’s a psychological case study, but it reads with the richness of a novel, digging into the dark recesses of this existence and what we do to get along in it.

Jean Strouse: Alice James: A Biography (original review February 24, 2012) – This biography of Alice James, ill-fated and sickly sister of Henry and William, surprised me with its insightful exploration of a brilliant woman held back by her family and times. I knew next to nothing about her, despite all of the intrigue I’ve felt toward her famous brothers. What I found was a woman who was probably their equal, if only she weren’t held back by her times and by her sickness. Or was her sickness her strongest response to the times? Strouse’s account may be the best biography I’ve ever read, having as it does a very Jamesian feel.

Nescio: Amsterdam Stories (original review March 23, 2012) – This is one of the greatest publications of the year, for my money. Nescio is a legendary Dutch master whose work had not been available in English before. Which is astonishing, really, because all of his work fits in this slender volume of just over 150 pages. In this short space, Nescio puts up a valiant fight against the passage of time, which there’s too little of to begin with. He focuses on that strange, brief period of transition to adulthood, when one has vague dreams for the future and a sudden realization that it will all end soon. Responsibilities, work and family, will make the time pass that much quicker. This is fascinating when looked at in connection with Nescio’s own life as a man who wanted to write but had a large family and a demanding job.

Eric Chevillard: Demolishing Nisard (original review April 13, 2012) – I think this is the funniest book on this list, though by the title and the cover you’d be forgiven for thinking it was some lofty post-modern bit of theory. Okay, and by the subject too: Nisard is a real French literary critic who lived in the 19th century. According to this sarcastic narrator who has allowed himself to become infuriated and obsessed with this nearly forgotten (and best-forgotten) bore, Nisard is basically responsible for every little pain in the neck: “In a Tuesday, August 3 interview on RTL Radio, Désiré Nisard reaffirmed his position that France’s minimum wage is overly generous.” Nisard is the disenchnater, but this book is the opposite.

Victor Serge: Memoirs of a Revolutionary (original review May 3, 2012) — When I received this book in the mail I didn’t even know if I’d be able to finish it, let alone like it. It’s fairly large and came at a time when I was extra busy at work. I decided to give it a shot, though, one night before I went to sleep. I was completely pulled in by the prose, the narrative, and the attempt to come to grips with an ugly time in our world’s history, and suddenly I found the time to read it all. It’s a fascinating political memoir that takes into account one’s changing (or, at least, complicating) perspectives over decades of loss. There are multiple struggles here, not the least of which are the struggle to change society and the struggle to comprehend the ugliness even our most noble thoughts can conjure.

ConfusionStefan Zweig: Confusion (original review May 24, 2012) — It was wonderful to return to Stefan Zweig, whom I hadn’t read since I began this blog in 2008. This novella showcases his reflective yet frenetic style as it tells the story of a young man, almost lost to schooling, who becomes enchanted by literature when he hears a lecture from an elderly professor. His passion for learning becomes insatiable as he neglects the physical for the life of the mind. But one cannot neglect the physical forever, and the subject of Confusion is as much about physical passion as it is about intellectual passion. To be honest, it’s not the best book on this list, but I can’t help but look back on it with fondness and recommend picking up anything you find by Zweig.

Robert Walser: The Walk (orginal review June 10, 2012) – I read two books by Walser this year, and each deserve to be on this list. However, I opted to focus on The Walk rather than Berlin Stories, mostly because The Walk perfectly shows Walser’s “exuberance as performance” (tip o’ the hat to Pykk), a performance meant to cover up something darker. The narrator is a writer who agonizes over his work through the night hours, finally fleeing for his walk when morning breaks. He manages to evade (at least, on the outside) his sadness for pages and pages of comic encounters, but shadows begin to fall over the land.

Richard Beard: Lazarus Is Dead (original review October 3, 2012) — Another surprising book, Lazarus Is Dead is an unclassifiable work on the life, death, and second life of Lazarus of Nazareth (as he’s presented to us here). Once Jesus’ best friend, Lazarus has parted ways and is comfortably living close to Jerusalem. To his dismay, his old friend begins performing miracles and with each one Lazarus’ health declines noticeably. He realizes, angry, that he has a role to play in Jesus’ ministry. But what? And, more importantly, why? Part biography, part scriptural analysis, funny and serious, this novel questions authority in all of its forms.

Gonçalo M. Tavares: The Neighborhood (original review November 8, 2012) – This book is a compilation of Tavares’ ongoing “Mister” series (though there will be Miss). A fictional neighborhood counts among its residents some men who bear a striking resemblance to our perceptions, made by the life they lead or the lives they created, of some famous writers: Paul Valéry, Italo Calvino, Robert Juarroz, Henri Michaux, Karl Krauss, and Robert Walser. Delightful and, if you look, dark, these pieces introduced me to Tavares, and I’m hopeful more of his books will be on this list next year. Incidentally, if you read nothing else in this book, read “Mister Walser.”

Alice Munro: Dear Life (original review November 13, 2012) — I actually haven’t finished reviewing this short story collection yet (I’m doing it story by story and have four more to go), but I knew before it was published that it would be on this list. These stories have been dripping out over the past few years, and this collection brings them together as a striking finale — at least, that’s what she calls the last four, more-or-less autobiographical pieces here. I hope she’s still writing, but if Dear Life is the last collection we get from her, she goes out on a high note. Might I particularly recommend “Amundsen,” “Gravel,” and “Corrie”?

Stone-Upon-StoneWieslaw Mysliwski: Stone Upon Stone (original review December 14, 2012) – As I said in my review, I read this book much earlier in the year and just couldn’t post this list without reviewing it and including it. So I revisited Stone Upon Stone, a long book that actually moves very fast, found it as wondrous as I did back in March, and proclaimed it my favorite book of the year. It’s a magnificent, intimate look at a Polish farmer’s life from the 1920s to the 1960s. I love all of the books on this list, but if you’re looking for just one, here it is.

22 thoughts on “My Favorite Reads of 2012”

  1. Cbjames says:

    At this point, I just buy all of the NYRB and Europa Editions I can find in my second hand bookstores. I even buy new ones on a regular basis.

  2. Betsy says:

    Trevor, I also loved the Alice James biography by Jean Strouse. It is a necessary companion to his novels and gives the reader an even deeper access to his psychology. Thanks for the other 10 suggestions!

  3. Trevor says:

    Cbjames, I know just what you mean. I have come to realize I could live my life happily with just a couple of publishers.

    Betsy, I agree that just as James’ books echo in the biography, the biography illuminates those books. I hope if you pick up one of the others, you’ll let me know how you feel. I know you’ve read at least a few from Munro’s new collection already.

  4. jb says:

    Thanks for this list – a few more ideas of things to spend some money on! I’ve already read a couple, but you’ve managed to sell me on the rest of them…

  5. leroyhunter says:

    Agree with you about Lazarus, Trevor – very nicely done. I have Nescio on the shelf and am searching for Chevillard.

    The NYRB catalogue for next year has already caught my eye: Freidrich Reck, William McPherson, Curzio Malaparte etc.

  6. Lee Monks says:

    Supern list, Trevor: and the Chevillard is one of the funniest books I’ve read, if not the funniest.

  7. Lee Monks says:

    Not only ‘Supern’ but also ‘Superb’….

  8. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. And Lee, thanks for the heavenly praises :) .

  9. Lee Monks says:

    By the way, leroyhunter, if you can’t find a Chevillard I’ll send you mine…

  10. Shelley says:

    That James family just never fails to fascinate.

    With apologies to the Bradys: what a bunch!

  11. Kat says:

    Thank you for this atypical “Best of list.” But I’m pretty SURE you’re not allowed to have a list without Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue at the top.:)

    Kidding. Chabon’s is my favorite.

    I love Stephan Zweig, and will certainly look for these other NYBR books.

  12. Trevor says:

    Kat, it’s not on this list in part because I haven’t read it :) .

    I do have a copy, so I’ll have to fix that.

  13. lascosas says:

    Here is my list of best fiction & nonfiction read this year, plus a select group of the most overrated fiction I read this year…

    fiction
    Enrique Vila-Matas – Dublinesque
    Jonas Hassen Khemiri – Montecore
    L.J. Davis – A Meaningful Life
    Etgar Keret – Suddenly, a Knock on the Door
    László Krasznahorkai – Satantango
    Michel Houellebecq – The Map and the Territory
    Oksana Zabuzhko – Museum of Abandoned Secrets
    Uday Prakash – The Walls of Delhi
    Theordore Sturgeon – all thirteen volumes of his Short Stories. [I've been darting into each of these all year long and haven't found a dud in the bunch.]
    Deborah Levy – Swimming Home
    Padgett Powell – You & Me
    Karl Knausgaard – A Time for Everything [with My Struggle a close runner-up]
    Gerald Murnane – Barley Patch
    Bruce Duffy – The World as I Found it
    Rubem Fonseca – The Taker and Other Stories
    Jan Kjærstad – Discover
    Juan José Saer – The Sixty-Five Years of Washington
    Mathias Enard – Zone

    Most overrated fiction read this year…
    Daniel Sada – Almost Never
    David Foster Wallace – Infinite Jest
    Mikhail Shishkin – Maidenhair

    Nonfiction
    Alexandra Schwartz – Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles
    Tim Parks – A Season with Verona
    Paul Preston – Spanish Holocaust
    Ivan Vladislavic – Portrait with Keys
    Robert A. Caro – Passage of Power
    Tim Jeal – Explorers of the Nile
    Patricia Meyer Spacks – On Rereading
    Marilynne Robinson – When I Was A Child I Read Books
    Jason Manolopoulos – Greece’s Odious Debt
    Fernand Braudel – Civilization & Capitalism 15th-18th Century-Volume I, the Structures of Everyday Life
    Lynn H. Nicholas – The Rape of Europa

  14. leroyhunter says:

    Hi Lee, thanks for the kind offer – have tracked it down but much appreciated in any case.

  15. Lee Monks says:

    lascosas: great list. I second your recommendation of a lot of those books (glad someone else has mentioned Houellebecq and Enard) and thank you for those yet encountered. A shame you didn’t like the Foster Wallace…and I was looking at Maidenhair so your naysay is a timely apprehender of enthusiasm.

    leroyhunter: no probs: sure you’ll love it!

  16. lascosas says:

    On Infinite Jest. As Dave Eggers said in his bizarre intro to the reissued edition, this is a book designed for men in their 20s. As a dyke in her 60s, I certainly felt that the author was 100% clueless about women. Weirdly, creepily clueless.

    And with Maidenhair, I really want someone else to ‘get’ what I didn’t. This is a story with various voices. One is a completely lovesick adolescent. Her ‘voice’ simply grates. But there are long passages of poetic language stringing together mythical figures. Tristan & Isolde, Daphnis & Chloe, Cyrus in battle. The language used in these sections I simply found unintelligible. Strings of words untethered to the rest of the book, or to anything else that I could figure out. I know those sections are supposed to be the center of the book. But because I couldn’t make much sense of them, the book seriously failed to cohere for me.

  17. Trevor says:

    I like your list a lot, too, lascosas. I haven’t dug into Maidenhair yet, and I wonder if it will be on the BTBA list. I plan on reading it, but now I can do so with lighter expectations. I also have the Daniel Sada on hand and have only heard good things (until now), so again I thank you for lightening those expectations :) . I have never read or attempted to read Infinite Jest, and I don’t know if I’ll ever take the plunge.

  18. Lee Monks says:

    I’d have to agree that Infinite Jest’s female characters are largely there as points from which the male protagonists pivot. Joelle Van Dyne and Avril Incandenza seem to be lampooned comic conflations of an author’s contextual intent maybe: and he’s very beholden to a Pynchonian sense of metaphoric comedy. Plus he’s just not very good on women. I love IJ but there are stretches in there that are pretty tiresomely exposition-that’s-meta-higly-aware-of-it’s-functionality kind of thing. These are offset, for me, by vast tranches of incredibly evocative, powerful language. But I do see where you’re coming from.

    I will try Maidenhair in due course with your thoughts in mind.

  19. lascosas says:

    Trevor-
    I also was very much looking forward to reading the Daniel Sada. He is an interesting Mexican writer. I’ve read a couple other of his things in Spanish, but couldn’t locate this one in Spanish, so with some guilt read it is English.

    He uses an unusual voice, a narrator who intrudes, jokes and pokes from a very close distance. We see the main character very, very intimately. But it is unchanging this voice, and the plot is very thin. So it for me was an interesting narrative voice that didn’t evolve adequately as the book progresses. What I did enjoy was the richly evocative description of life in rural Mexico in the late 1940s.

    Back on Maidenhair my problem with the book is that I didn’t ‘get’ the poetic sections. Others speak of these as the strong point of the book. So does the emperor have no clothes, or is lascosas merely clueless?

  20. Scott W. says:

    What I love about these lists (including lascosas’ great list in the comments) is gleaning suggestions for what I should read next. I only overlapped with one of your selections this year, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, which I’d also put up among my top selections (though I’d started it prior to your review, I have to say, with some gratitude, that I was spurred on by a negative comment left by one of your readers). Despite at least a murder per page, it’s such a vast and unusually detailed panorama of the years between the first & second World Wars, and a stunning depiction of betrayal of great ideals. I’m not a historian, but it seems an utterly indispensable document for deepening one’s understanding of Europe’s 20th century revolutions, with unforgettable portraits of a great number of political and literary figures.

  21. Trevor says:

    Ha! Yes, I remember that comment, Scott. Seemed to me to miss the point a bit, but then again I read the book to learn about a certain perspective and not to check its dogma.

  22. Marie Belcredi says:

    Thank you for telling me about Stone upon Stone. I just finished it and loved it. Funny, sad, philosophical, rambling. Many passages were gems that I read over and pondered.
    Here in Australia we get in a rut just reading English/American literature. I will be checking your pages for more inspiration on what to read next.

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