So you're telling me we've been doing this for six years? That, my friend, is madness. In those six years I've read 313 books, which is probably five or six times the number of books I'd read in my life up to that point. At the end of the year, it's nice to look back and recognize at least one unqualified success, I think.
Here are the ten best books I read in 2012. I still have some left to review, like Middlemarch, but I'll get around to it. I'm not including books I re-read, or any of the Shakespeare plays because, well, that's just not very interesting. He's been on enough lists.
10.) Baudolino by Umberto Eco - Brent commented on my review of Baudolino by saying, "So this is basically Life of Pi." He was being snarky, but there's a lot of truth to that. Both Baudolino and Life of Pi are about finding value in religion and myth while divesting them of the necessity to be exact truth, but while Life of Pi does it with a dishonest bit of sleight-of-hand, Baudolino puts the games it plays with truth front and center. Baudolino, a courtier of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, creates elaborate lies about the mythical Eastern king Prester John as a way of legitimizing Barbarossa's power. Then, preposterously, he sets out on a journey to find the king he's invented. A lesser author would have Baudolino discover that the people and places he's imagined have come to life, but Eco provides stranger, more ambiguous discoveries.
9.) The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon - What I liked best about The Crying of Lot 49 is that it was fun. Though it shares the postmodern anxiety about the gulf between language and what it represents, it is neither bewildering nor unpleasant because it recognizes that that gulf opens language up to play. The sheer ridiculousness of the novel's central conspiracy--that there exists a massive, ancient, and secret rebel postal service--suggests that if we really can't make sense of the world, we may as well have a laugh at its expense.
8.) Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - I think that Roth, too, is having a lot of fun in the sublimely filthy Sabbath's Theater, though it's a fun that is punctured by the demands of grief and the promise of death. It is a novel about the limits of fun, about what the joys of sexual hedonism can and cannot do. The aging pervert and puppeteer Mickey Sabbath finds himself unable to deal with the death of his longtime lover, which forces him to reflect on the life he's lived. Honestly, that description sounds boring as hell, but Sabbath's Theater succeeds because it tempers its poignancy with sexual farce, like a novel-length expansion of that time Rabbit Angstrom asked some woman to pee on him. More importantly, it deftly navigates sexual morality, neither forgiving Sabbath for the cruelty his libido sometimes produces nor slipping into prudishness.
7.) VALIS by Philip K. Dick - I was originally going to have Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on this list, but I think it got just barely shoved off by VALIS, my final book of 2012. It may be a record of Dick's growing mental instability, but it is honest about that instability, and I'm not sure I've ever read a book as forthcoming or as raw.
6.) The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark - I think that The Mandelbaum Gate is Spark working intentionally outside of her comfort range: the pace is slower, the characters more sympathetic, the violence toned down. In my review I suggested that one reason for that might be that Spark viewed the book as being semi-autobiographical, in so far as it is about a Catholic convert with Jewish ancestry. But even if that's not the case, it's a remarkably powerful book, fashioning the image of a divided city into a metaphor for divided histories and divided selves. Throw in a light-hearted spy caper, and it might be the best Graham Greene book Greene never wrote.
5.) The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers - Writers who are really sensitive to the nature of human existence have an ear for the way people talk past each other, too wrapped up in their own plans and needs to recognize the plans and needs of others. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is one of the greatest novels I have ever read in that regard. It is the story of a handful of small town Southerners who strike up a friendship with a deaf-mute, each seeing in his inability to respond an imaginary sympathy to their own worries. No book I've ever read captures just how it is that a world that is so full of people can be so damned lonely.
3.) (tie) Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy - I wanted to read Anna Karenina in anticipation of the Joe Wright film that was recently released. And while that film (which I enjoyed) is so needless of its source material I might not have bothered, I'm glad I did, because it was really great to be immersed in Anna Karenina. The story of Anna and her doomed love affair with Count Vronsky is an elegant tragedy, but there is something cold and insular about it that does not permit the reader to share in it. It might have been a very off-putting book if not for the B-plot of the landowner Levin and his beloved Kitty, whose romance is something like the negative image of Anna's, and for the collection of vivid, fascinating characters that collect at the edges: Anna's stoic, suffering husband Karenin; the lecherous, sanguine Stepan Oblonsky; etc.
3.) (tie) Middlemarch by George Eliot - Something about placing these two novels in a tie just seemed right. Tolstoy reportedly had an admiration for Eliot, and it's easy to see why: Middlemarch is a big brick of a book about an entire community of provincial Britishers, held up by two columnar romance narratives. Give everyone Russian names and it might as well be Anna Karenina. Or, rather, if you made a Venn diagram of Tolstoy and Jane Austen Middlemarch would be the vesica piscis in the middle. When I can, I'm going to give it a proper review, but I want to do it justice.
2.) Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson - Housekeeping is, along with The Blue Flower, one of the two books I've read this year I would call revelatory; that is, they exceeded my expectations and showed me something I hadn't seen before. In Housekeeping, it is the ornate but immaculate prose, which gives voice to sentiments I've often had but had not had the words to describe. It is the story of a young girl being cared for by her aunt in the Western town of Fingerbone, but more than that it is about the inherent sadness in the separation of things. I find myself returning to one line of Robinson's again and again: "What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?" I don't know what that might look like, the knitting up of the fragments of the world, but I know that it is something I have yearned for without knowing that I yearned for it.
1.) The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald - I don't know what to say about this novel. I think it may be perfect. Its conciseness, its humor, its baffling lightness--it captivated me in a way no other novel has this year. It is the story of the German poet Novalis, who fell in love with a not very pretty and not very smart girl but loved her with immense passion and sensitivity. Each moment, each character, is so carefully and distinctly wrought with only a handful of words.
For lack of anything else constructive to say about it, I'll note this: One of the trends of 2012 for me was an amplified interest in female writers: McCullers, Eliot, Robinson, Fitzgerald, and of course Spark, whom I've always loved. I read a recent interview with V. S. Naipaul in which he said he's never read a female author who he thought was as good as he is. Mr. Naipaul, if you're reading this, I'd like to say: 1.) You're kind of a crusty old misogynist fart, and 2.) You clearly haven't read this book, and you should. (I also read Fitzgerald's Offshore, which might have made it on this list if there weren't a self-imposed one author rule.)
So there you have it--another year in the books. If you read this blog and have enjoyed it, thanks. If you want to join us in 2013--and we'd love for you to join us--send me an e-mail at misterchilton-at-gmail.com. I'd like to welcome back Randy, who's rejoining us after a year's hiatus and assures me that he is going to review only books about Satan worship. See you next year, folks!