Wednesday, January 2, 2013

2012 in Review

I read 136 books in 2012. Not many of them, I must admit, were new releases. Those that were, I discuss in my part of this Strange Horizons yearly sum up article. Not so surprisingly for readers of this blog, my picks of the year (or at least of the limited slice of it I've so far gotten to) are: Caitlin R. Kiernan's The Drowning Girl: A Memoir, K.J. Parker's Sharps, and Felix J. Palma's The Map of the Sky.

As for the books I read in 2012 that were either a handful of years or more than a few centuries older, twelve in particular seemed worthy of note...

Beginning this list with a sixteenth century epic poem was not something I expected to be doing. Ariosto, however, writes with such sheer style that the poem’s age becomes irrelevant, that its gargantuan length becomes a blessing that simply promises more lines to love. The knights that we meet here are larger than life. They battle heroically, engage in fantastic (in every sense of the word) quests, and dish out truly stunning amounts of sass. (Many of these strengths are wonderfully brought out by David R. Slavitt’s translation… which also wanders away with barely a nod to the poem’s second half. Goal for the new year: figure out how it ends!)

The Company Man is a novel about lost causes. It has a noir hero navigating a steampunk world that is gradually subsumed by the cosmic. Its gaze is unflinching and far-reaching. And its marvels are manifold. I talk more about Bennett’s powerful novel here.

Like Lovecraft, Blackwood was a writer of Weird tales from the early part of the twentieth century that has now, decades later, received the hallowed status of a classic in the genre, even if he has never received Lovecraft’s wider acclaim. To view Blackwood as simply a contemporary of Lovecraft, however, is to do a great disservice to this venerable practitioner of the cosmic. Blackwood writes with insight and great skill of the shallowness of our world and perceptions, and, amidst his frequently naturalistic settings, he uses a mixture of the subtlest signs and the most powerful and building climaxes to ram home the majesty of what is beyond. I wrote about this particular collection of his at great length here.

Drawing Blood is the story of Zach and Trevor, and those two young men are some of the strongest and most alive characters I’ve ever encountered. Brite binds their every feeling inextricably with the readers', dragging us along as they live their bizarre lives. And, when they hurt, we feel every bit of their pain. I reviewed the novel here.

There has never been an evocation of shame like this. Nor has spite ever come forth like this from the written word. The Underground Man is a genius, and he is a hateful and loathsome beast, and his every utterance stabs deep. He begins: I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man (p.1). When reviewers and writers and instructors yammer on about having a voice, it is this that they are wishing for.

Goodis writes noir of the most downbeat, hard-hitting variety, and The Burglar shows him at its best. The novel has a gripping plot packed with turns, characters struggling with their all, and the world poised to take them down regardless. I talk about the novel, and others, at greater length in my review of the Goodis collection Five Noir Novels of the 1940sand 50s.

In her second Mathew Swift novel, Kate Griffin takes everything that worked about A Madness of Angels and improves it. This is a wildly creative book stuffed with gripping pyrotechnics, writing that forces you to see, and an apocalyptic villain that few can match. I reviewed it here.

Dune vividly demonstrates the heights that Science Fiction can reach. It has a truly epic plot, a world that is both consistent and wondrous, and interacts with the most profound philosophical ideas. The rise of Paul Atreides works on every level, an arc that is half messianic and half simply badass.

This may be one of Haruki Murakami’s early novels, but it is the one of his that has most stuck with me. Here, Murakami is wry, surreal, imaginative, and more than a little brilliant. I reviewed the novel at some length when I reread it at the beginning of this year, to which I will just add that, as it nears its climax, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World also boasts the best evocation of melancholy I’ve ever seen in fiction. Pressed to name a favorite novel, I would quite possibly go with this one.

More than a few moments in Lolita had me holding the book as far away from myself as I could as if trying to avoid contact with some hideous contagion or foul mess. This is a sickening read. It grabs you and shoves you up against the darkest corners of our collective morality. There is no way to not confront its issues when reading it. And there is the little fact that Nabokov’s prose is simply peerless:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta (p. 1).

To call Nabokov’s prose beauty amidst filth is to sell it horribly short. Alas, we would probably need Nabokov’s own skills to devise a suiting panegyric for it, so we shall have to be content with that.

The inclusion of The Lord of the Rings on a list like this probably isn’t so surprising, but I must admit that I actually was rather surprised when I reread the trilogy this year for the first time since my childhood. Tolkien’s work may have been picked at by generations of scavengers by this point, but it still possesses a strength that almost none of them have been able to match.

Each of the three stories in Wrong Things is packed with heart and, as the characters might have it, weird shit (p. 98). Despite the high standards of all, Kiernan’s “Onion” is still the clear winner. It’s the aftermath of a Weird Tale, a painful look at the human suffering left in the wake of the cosmic. I discuss it and the others at more length in my review.


The above, though, doesn’t say much about my reading for the year as a whole, being the cherry picked highlights of it. As for the rest, well, I’ve kept lists of all books read for a few years now, but this is the first time I’ve sorted them into (childishly simple) piles. The results rather amused me, and I figured they might amuse some longtime readers as well. Needless to say, books can be in more than one category, some were not in any category, and the whole tallying is a tad inexact:

Fantasy: 15 books read
Science Fiction: 27 books read
Horror: 19 books read
Crime: 7 books read
Literature: 31 books read
Nonfiction: 26 books read
History: 16 books read
Not (originally) in English: 27 books read
For class: 45 books read
By female authors: 24 books read

The spread of genres did not wholly surprise me. Ordinarily, I certainly don’t read primarily Science Fiction, but the Warhammer binge over the summer (thirteen books total, read almost straight) pushed it over the edge. Literature’s winning overall was not unexpected, as it not only had the greatest number of reads from classes but also got to suck in many of the non-genre reads that I had no idea what to do with, such as the aforementioned Orlando Furioso.

The other significant figure up there is the last number, that of books by female authors. Twenty-four out of one hundred and thirty-sex is not very impressive there. Actually calculating out the numbers rammed home how unbalanced my reading is, and I would like to swing the total back the other way a bit next year.

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