My Literary Year In Review, 2012

jonathan-franzen-freedom This is the fourth year I've tracked my reading habits. I read all or part of 30 books this year. I'm OK with that, though I'd like to dig a little deeper in 2013. There were a few others titles I picked at that I didn't feel warranted inclusion, like Ryan Gilbey's It Don't Worry Me, an essay collection about 1970s cinema that's meant to be read in stops and starts, and Jeff Weingrad and Doug Hill's Saturday Night, which covers first five years of "SNL" and is a title I only ever revisit when I'm using the Kindle and need to kill time. The rest of the list is pretty straightforward in terms of what I read. If I put a book down with intent to return later, I labeled it "unfinished," but if I gave up for good, I labeled it "quit." All others I finished.

It's clear that most of my reading was made up of books from the past few years. I only had a few 2012 titles on the list, and I had a similarly small number of titles from before 2000. I'm pretty happy with the spread, though.

The final count:

11/22/63, Stephen King (2011) It's not news that Stephen King's much better at plotting suspense than he is at writing believable characters or giving them something real to say, but 11/22/63 frustrated me in new ways. It's because I'm at the approximate age of the story's narrator, who is in his mid-30s when the novel begins, which means that, geographical differences aside, I should be able to relate pretty well to his worldview and style. He's a young guy in 2011. He should feel real to me; he should feel like me, like my friends. Yet he's just a thin stand-in for King, and he's written like a 65-year-old. His references are dated, his cultural knowledge is astoundingly light, and he uses the same Kingian slang the author's characters always do. He speaks in a weird argot of outmoded slang, and while such a device might have been used to good effect — for instance, if the narrator had used more 1950s slang and fewer 2000s references the longer he was in the past, as a symbol of his growing attachment to the period — it just felt like King writing a make-believe version of himself. And it's things like that that kept ripping me out of the book. I had to keep reminding myself, "This is supposed to be a guy about my age. This is supposed to be a man I understand." Yet it wasn't. The novel had some great ideas and wonderfully plotted scenes — the run-up to the JFK assassination is breathless — but it crumbles under the weight of King's inability to do anything other than project himself onto the page.

The Instructions, Adam Levin (2011) (unfinished) I liked this quite a bit, but I found myself losing focus during the more aimless flashback sequences. It's really hard to be David Foster Wallace. I'd like to get back into this one, though.

Tales From Development Hell (New Updated Edition): The Greatest Movies Never Made?, David Hughes (2012) Lightweight but interesting, especially if you're curious (as I often am) about alternate histories, failed projects, rejected castings, and so on.

Bossypants, Tina Fey (2011) Really funny, and wonderfully honest. So many comedians write terrible books because they just churn out transcripts of stand-up material. Fey's book is the real deal.

Ready Player One, Ernest Cline (2011) I tore through this one, and I liked the premise a good deal (futuristic world united through online video game and hunt for power), but some (all?) of the relationship stuff felt like Cline didn't quite have the tools necessary to write honestly about awkward young love.

Pulphead: Essays, John Jeremiah Sullivan (2011) Sullivan is a fantastic essayist — his piece on Disney is one of the best pieces of longform journalism I've read in a while — and this collection doesn't disappoint.

The Rook, Daniel O'Malley (2012) Breezy, fun, and a good supernatural story. Surprisingly emotional, too.

Before I Go to Sleep, S.J. Watson (2011) This is a quick but gripping read. (I know that sounds like blurb copy, but it's true.) Watson's novel has overtones of Memento, dealing with a woman who loses her memories every time she goes to sleep, but she does great things with the narrative. The final section is amazingly suspenseful.

The Forever War, Joe Haldeman (1974) Haldeman's novel is the best kind of science fiction because it deals with real people and real emotions while informing the narrative with relatable twists tied to the genre. The hook here is that faster-than-light travel makes interstellar war last for centuries, with the young men and women who signed up to fight living far beyond the lifespans of their families back home. Good story.

The Rocketeer: The Complete Deluxe Edition, Dave Stevens (2009) I've had a soft spot for the Rocketeer since the 1991 Disney movie, and I'd always wanted to read Dave Stevens' original stories. I was happy to pick this up and spend some more time with the character. I find myself drawn to the story because there's something classic and unironic about him.

Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best... and Learn from the Worst, Robert I. Sutton (2010) I am apparently the kind of person who buys business books now, or at least gives them consideration. I wanted to learn more about guiding people in addition to working with them, and I liked Sutton's plain take on things. He also wrote The No Asshole Rule, about how the biggest threat to efficiency and happiness in the office is the asshole who won't let you get anything done.

When the Nines Roll Over, David Benioff (2005) (unfinished) I loved Benioff's City of Thieves, and there were some good stories in here, but I eventually put it down. Just one of those that drifted off.

The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel, Stephen King (2012) I picked this up out of a combination of will, curiosity, and boredom (I was traveling for work and staring down the barrel of a long flight home). It has some nice moments, and the boy in me had fun going back to King's gunslinger world, but the end result would've worked better as a short story or novella. Just not enough here.

The Twelve, Justin Cronin (2012) I loved The Passage, and The Twelve was every inch the sequel I'd hoped it would be: scary, funny, romantic, sad, gripping, smart, moving. Cronin's got a lock on how to write literate horror and adventure, and I'm so glad to have found him. I got a review copy of this book from a bookseller friend before release, but I bought my own later on and had Cronin sign it when I saw him do a reading at a local bookstore.

The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach (2011) It's hard to do a fresh novel about college kids, but Harbach does a good job here. He's got a good feel for the characters and a good sense of humor, though the narrative tends to sputter a bit toward the end. Worth a read, though.

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, Neil Gaiman (2009) Batman: Ego and Other Tails, Darwyn Cooke (2000) Batman: False Faces, Brian K. Vaughan (2008) Batman: Hush, Jeph Loeb (2003) (quit) I checked out a stack of graphic novels from the local library. Every few months I remember how amazing libraries are — they let you take books home for free — and I used the latest trip to catch up on some comic titles. Gaiman's book is a wonderful story about death and resurrection as told through Batman characters, while Cooke's is a solid caper starring Catwoman. (Cooke's throwback art is wonderful, too.) The Vaughan book was OK, though I found myself skimming because I don't know a lot about most mainstream comic characters' backstory, and if anything relies too heavily on deep canon, I tend to glaze over. Loeb's Hush, though, was the worst of the bunch. It was clumsily written and stuffed with hilariously horny images courtesy of Jim Lee. The women were always bent over or spread-eagled, and after a while I just felt embarrassed to be reading it.

1Q84, Haruki Murakami (2011) (unfinished) A coworker loaned me this, and while I was taken with the story's ideas, the pacing lost me after a hundred pages or so. Definitely need to give it another go.

The Gates, John Connolly (2009) A fun YA book about the apocalypse. Funny and fast.

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, Reif Larsen (2010) The first three-fourths had me riveted: I loved Larsen's little world and his brave T.S., a lonely boy trying to figure out how to grow up. But the final section rushes the conclusion and feels tacked-on, or rather, cut down from something far longer and more rewarding.

Freedom, Jonathan Franzen (2010) Stunning. Easily one of the best novels I've ever read. Franzen's observations, insight, and nuance are phenomenal, and I found myself longing to return to the book when I wasn't reading it. What's amazing is how Franzen gets so much out of what's essentially one of the oldest stories you can tell: a love triangle. It's an amazing novel, and one that's stayed with me in the months since I finished.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996) (reread) I didn't complete my reread of Infinite Jest, though I'm not sure I worried about doing so, either. I read the book for the first time in the summer of 2004, right after I graduated college, and I've been replaying scenes from it in my head ever since. I wanted to revisit it, though, in the wake of The Pale King and D.T. Max's somewhat slight biography of Wallace. Freed from the tension of wondering what would happen and how the book's world was structured, I was able to calmly dip in and out of its waters, often reading a few pages while having another book going on the side. Reading it was comforting, a way to go back and spend time with an older part of myself and see the book through older eyes. I'll likely keep reading it in bursts over the coming year.

How Fiction Works, James Wood (2008) Wonderfully structured, smartly argued literary criticism that communicates its author's passion for the form. Wood's observations and advice are great, too.

Notes From Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky (Pevear and Volokhonsky, translators) (1864, 1994) I read my share of poorly translated Russian lit in high school and college, but I wanted to give one of the masters another go without having to feel the pressure of a looming exam. I put out a call on Facebook for translations, and several friends pointed me toward Pevear and Volokhonsky. I'm so glad they did. Notes From Underground was profoundly moving and insightful, a sad and angry story about a man ground into immobility by his neuroses. I know for a fact that I got more out of it at 30 than I ever could have at 20. There's no substitute for life when it comes to getting a little perspective.

The History of Love, Nicole Krauss (2005) I really enjoyed this one. Krauss does a nice job shifting between different tones as she cycles through narrators, and I was hooked on the combination of love story and literary mystery.

Ellington Boulevard, Adam Langer (2008) (quit) I quit about 30-40 pages in. I liked Langer's "Crossing California" well enough (sections, anyway), but I just couldn't get into this one. Part of my disinterest can be chalked up to Langer's habit of describing what people are saying instead of using dialogue and action; many sections feel like summaries for a book Langer will eventually write. Anyway, what with life being precious and fleeting, I didn't want to spend more of it with this novel.

Room, Emma Donoghue (2010) Donoghue takes a horrifying premise — a young woman is abducted and kept as a sexual prisoner by an older man — and makes it both more revolting and more tolerable by filtering the narrative through the perspective of the woman's five-year-old son, who's never known a world outside the small room where he and his mother are kept. It's suspenseful and mournful in equal parts, and the use of the child narrator lets Donoghue obliquely introduce certain horrors without dwelling on them overlong or slowing the narrative. It's a strong novel.

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (1990) A hilarious and surprisingly warm satire of fate, the apocalypse, and eschatological dogma. It's got a great tone that perfectly channels that flip, dry vibe that British humorists can apparently do in their sleep. Great read.

By the numbers: Total books read: 30 Nonfiction: 5 Graphic novels: 5 Books released in 2012: 4 Books released before 2012: 26 Books released before 2000: 4 Favorites: Freedom, Notes From Underground, How Fiction Works