Best books I read in 2012

I tried (and failed) to limit my list to ten. Click on the link to go to the full blog post.

1. Absalom, Absalom, by William Faulkner

This astounding novel is the story of Thomas Sutpen, a man who came out of the West Virginia mountains with nothing to his name, arriving in Yoknapatawpha County in 1833 to build a fortune and carve out a plantation, expecting to found a dynasty. We learn about him indirectly, through the stories that are told to young Quentin Compson. Re-reading it now I admired the structure of the book.

2. Memory's Wake, by Derek Owens

In this extraordinary memoir, Owens delves into his mother's past, into the childhood memories that suddenly began to surface when his mother is in her fifties. While properly skeptical and examining the controversy around recovered memories, Owens comes to believe in the terrible abuse his mother, Judy, suffered at the hands of her mother. This woman, deserted by her husband and left with a detested five-year-old, takes out her frustrations on the child. Confronted later by Owens's father, she does not deny any of it. This powerful book deserves a wide audience. It is one I will never forget.

3. The Winner Names the Age: A Collection of Writings by Lillian Smith, Edited by Michelle Cliff

Lillian Smith (1897-1966) was a writer of extraordinary power and an activist who refused the roles pushed on women of her time. This collection of magazine articles, speeches, and letters from 1942 to her death speak directly to today. I have rarely read a more cogent diagnosis of where we have gone astray here in the U.S.

4. The Narrow Road to the Interior, by Kimiko Hahn

I read this deeply moving book three times and interpreted much of it differently each time. Hahn uses two Japanese forms for the poems in this book: tanka and zuihitsu. Most poets are familiar with tanka, though here Hahn presents them as a single line. Zuihitsu has no Western equivalent. It has been translated as &#8#8220;following the brush” or “stray notes expressing random thoughts”. Here the fragmentary nature and the energy of the work provide a particularly rich experience.

5. The Tale of Murasaki, by Liza Dalby

Very little is known about Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of Genji. Genji, completed probably in 1021, is often considered to be the first novel. This fictionalized biography is almost a case study in how to write historical fiction. With this book I truly felt as though I was entering a different world every time I picked it up. Dalby has provided an exquisitely detailed view of life in the early 11th century.

6. Eventide, by Kent Haruf

The book starts slowly, gently. The aging McPheron brothers, Harold and Raymond, come up from the horse barn and wipe their feet before going in for a breakfast prepared by Victoria, a nineteen-year-old single mom they'd taken in a few years earlier. I treasured each chapter, each page. I was touched, recognising again the generosity most people demonstrate toward those around them, how gentle they can be with each other. This is a story about how we connect with each other and how painful it is when those connections are severed.

7. New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families, by Colm Tóibín

When the title of this book was mentioned last week, the audience laughed uneasily, and Tóibín drily agreed that it was not the best marketing ploy. I, however, thinking immediately of Adrienne Rich's motherless children and my own struggles to wrench free of controlling parents, wanted to purchase it on the basis of the title alone. Luckily I enjoyed the entire book. For me, these essays accomplished the highest purposes of such writing: they made me want to reread authors whose work I know well; they pushed me to explore the work of authors new to me; and they gave me insights that I can use in my own work.

8. The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

I read this book twice, the first time for my book club. Tony Webster, retired, divorced, content with his unremarkable life, thinks back over his personal history, recounting episodes as he has always understood them. Then, the re-emergence of two friends from his past throws his understanding of those episodes into question. I actually enjoyed my second reading even more, going more slowly, seeing how each detail fit neatly into the whole. What a gem of a book!

9. Nothing to Be Frightened Of, by Julian Barnes

It's not a promising premise for a book: one man's fear of death. Yet Barnes' wit and learning kept me turning pages, nodding and chuckling.

10. Divisidero, by Michael Ondaatje

In this story of two sisters, Anna and Claire, what I find myself returning to again and again is Anna's quixotic effort to capture and preserve the past of a nearly-forgotten poet, Lucien Segura. A single life is short and buried in the flood of all the lives that come after and around it. You devote your life to accruing knowledge and experience. You expend considerable effort in shaping it into a coherent whole, and then you die and all of that is gone and no one really knows what it was like to be you.

11. Purity of Blood, by Arturo Pérez- Reverte

The Captain Alatriste series at first seemed to me a departure from Pérez- Reverte's other novels. These swashbuckling adventures about a hard-bitten swordsman during the Thirty Years War in the 17th century are narrated by í├▒igo Balboa—only thirteen in this story—who has been plucked from the streets of Madrid by Alatriste. The Captain may not say very much, but when danger looms, he is quick to pull his dagger and wrap his cloak around his arm. Although accustomed to killing, Alatriste has his own code. He is another Shane, a Jack Reacher, though perhaps with a harder heart.

12. The Cazalet Chronicle, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

These four books follow the members of a large family and their servants in and around the Home Place where William and Kitty collect their grown sons and their families during the summer holidays. This is not a costume drama but a psychological one. So completely is each person realised that I found myself absorbed by even the most commonplace worries. A delightful read.

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