Maisy's Best Books of 2012
Our contributors on their favourite reads of the year.
As we did in 2009, 2010 and 2011, Maisonneuve asked anyone who wrote for us in 2012 to send us a few words on the best books they read this year. Most were published in 2012; a few weren't. The result is a highly incomplete portrait of a year of reading.
Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures by Mary Ruefle
Wave Books, 2012
"I do not think I really have anything to say about poetry," Mary Ruefle admits in the introduction to her collection of lectures on poetry, Madness, Rack, and Honey, "other than remarking that it is a wandering little drift of unidentified sound." This is a pretty astonishing thesis, a definition that resists the urge to define, a way of talking about poetry that's actually a form of listening. The author ofover ten books of poetry, Ruefle approaches lecturing reluctantly—she was expected to speak to graduate students as part of her teaching job at Vermont College. Sometimes playfully and sometimes with ambivalence, Ruefle pushes against the form, trying to maintain her first allegiance to art, to privilege mystery over knowledge. This is not your typical Poetics course. Ruefle's lectures are often more memoir than scholarly argument, her relationship to poetry inextricably personal. In "I Remember, I Remember," Ruefle catalogues her artistic development, flitting from singular, defining moments (reciting Keats to cows in a Swiss pasture, and weeping) to slippery self-analysis ("I remember I never did like to save things. I remember saving everything").
For Ruefle, discussing poetry isn't just a matter of counting metre and unpacking similes; it's as much an exercise in looking inward, in following the little drifts of sound that make up our lives. Ruefle writes, "I did not always know authors were ordinary people living ordinary lives, and that an ordinary life was an obscure life ... Obscure: not readily noticed, easily understood, or clearly expressed. Which is a pretty good definition of life." It's a pretty good definition of poetry, too, and Ruefle's strongest defense for why it matters.
Reviewed by Claire Caldwell. Read her poems "Four Short Poems About God" and "Last Semester in Cairo" in Issue 44.
Through the Window: Seventeen Essays and a Short Story by Julian Barnes
Vintage Canada, 2012
Seven hours with strangers in a small car went by in a flash. I was so into a library book that I all but avoided any awkward small talk with my rideshare companions on a summer trip from Montreal to New York. The book I'd checked out was Sense of an Ending. I read it cover to cover. It was the first book I'd read by veteran English author Julian Barnes. So when I got back to Montreal, I checked out his Flaubert's Parrot, and I recently tore through his latest book, Through the Window: Seventeen Essays and a Short Story, a collection of previously published texts about writers. They make a loose, often uneven group. Barnes is unrelentingly opinionated and partial; he swings between unjustified jabs and fanboy craziness. But it's always fun to read someone so fetishistically in love with books and authors. And Barnes writes about writers very well.
Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Simaite by Julija Šukys
University of Nebraska Press, 2012
It was a pleasure to discover that this apparent biography about a Lithuanian librarian who smuggled items in and out of the Vilna Ghetto (including people) was not a predictable Holocaust narrative. Now based in Montreal, Julija Šukys travelled the world to trace Simaite's life through the documents she wrote and received. The book eventually evolves into a meditation on those at the margins of society (women, Jews, gentiles in Holocaust literature, Lithuanians, the mentally ill), and the power and place of archives and texts. What does it mean to be a woman who writes? By embedding herself into her book, Šukys managed to write a book that's equal parts biography, personal travel memoir, and anthology of wartime correspondence, but that also transcends these genres. Most of all, this is a book-length essay in the tradition of Virgina Woolf.
Reviewed by Crystal Chan. Read her articles "Death in a French Class" and "John Cage's Canada" in Issues 44 and 45, respectively.
Canada by Richard Ford
When a great American author writes a novel called Canada, I'm going to read it. Never mind that Richard Ford's new book isn't really about Canada. Never mind that Dell Parsons, the narrator, doesn't even leave Montana for Saskatchewan until halfway through. Never mind that, while I'm a big fan of Ford's celebrated Frank Bascombe Trilogy (The Sportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land), I believe his short stories and novellas are even better than his novels. I'm still going to read it. And I'm glad I did, because Canada reminded me more of his short fiction than his big books. I suppose that's a weird thing to say about a 150,000-word story, but Ford's prose here is spare and precise and compelling because it always seems to suggest more than it says.
Reviewed by Tim Falconer. Read his article "Face the Music" in Issue 43.
Maidenhead by Tamara Faith Berger
Coach House Books, 2012
Maidenhead is a unique female coming-of-age novel from an author known for her unsurpassed skill in creating intelligent smut. Focused on the burgeoning yearnings and sexual exploration of Myra, its teenage-girl protagonist, the novel deftly explores privilege, morality, dominance and submission, in a way that is both thoughtful and arousing. Despite the fact that Myra is seduced by an older man and manipulated by his female partner, she is not cast as a pawnish victim of aggressive desire. Her wants, her needs and her voice are central to the narrative, and a singular picture of teenage lust emerges that is both difficult to look at and away from. The novel is boundary-pushing in the best ways—its ideas are complex, always thought-provoking and profoundly innovative.
It's refreshing to encounter something so unselfconscious and so ripe with new ideas. Berger is a master of finding and refining that rare space where the literary meets the pornographic, leaving the reader alone to answer difficult questions about her own morality. Sometimes books pull the rug out from beneath your belief systems, and Maidenhead is certainly one of them.
Reviewed by Stacey May Fowles. Read her article "Abundant Grief" in Issue 44.
How Should a Person Be? By Sheila Heti
House of Anansi Press, 2010
So this is a controversial book, as far as fiction goes. I have had, since reading it in one hungry sitting this past summer, to defend it to many intelligent, skeptical fellow readers and writers. I have usually wound up cowering in a corner, whispering to myself, defeated: I like it. I just do. The difficulty I have in representing my love of this book is probably linked to the fact that I also agree with all the criticism leveled against it. At its worst, the book is mercilessly self-involved, written in sometimes-lax prose, often gratingly aware of its own artifice.
But I couldn't stop reading it, not the first time, nor the second time, nor all the subsequent times I have returned to it, to look at it up close and figure out what makes it so delightfully unputdownable. Here are some of the things I've come up with: there is the candid depiction of female friendship and sexuality. There is Heti's phenomenal narrative intelligence, which works magically well to make all of the above-mentioned criticisms disappear into the project of the book itself. There is the irreverent mode Heti uses to present the intricacies of selfhood and intimacy without ever succumbing to the fear of creating something too ugly or too boring or too real. Finally, and maybe most importantly, How Should a Person Be? does what so many contemporary fiction writers struggle to do artfully, which is to find a form that doesn't peg reality down, but instead gives it a new home in the novel, where it can be as slippery and loose as it wants to be.
Reviewed by Sara Freeman. Read her short story "Husband" in Issue 45.
Jack Holmes & His Friend by Edmund White
Gay writers all owe a debt to the confessional sprees that our foredaddies visited upon mid-century America. And I'm still grateful when pioneer Edmund White issues a new novel. His latest book takes us deeper into a secret past, examining the queer undertow of 1950s New York. The explicitness of White's writing is its secret and its power; in his hands, erotic experiences are both heartbreaking and banal. The title's Jack is in love with his best friend, Will, and the men negotiate that predicament (over the course of decades of friendship) with none of the clichés we've come to expect. Instead, we get a deeply, wonderfully amoral (yet smartly mannered) appraisal of a tortured relationship, whirling in an unfeeling metropolis that feeds its inhabitants sex and cigarettes but never solace.
Reviewed by Michael Harris. Read his articles "Clearing House" and "Opposites Attract" in Issues 44 and 46, respectively.
The Vermont Plays by Annie Baker
Theatre Communications Group, 2012
Because 2012 was the kind of year in which I read Capital and Debt with exigence, I've been reading more utilitarianly, for drills instead of pleasure. Paragraphs into sentences into morphemes have been breaking into weak atoms of metaphor and construction and caprice. I read a lot of plays because that felt right for dialogue draftsmanship, for technical theft and profit. But a lot of plays—the realist, the well-made—even if minted in '92, seem frozen in a pre-war Ibsen-in-translation that I'm not sure was ever resonant. A theatre person corrected me with Annie Baker's Vermont Plays, a quartet: "The Aliens," "Nocturama," "Body Awareness" and "Circle Mirror Transformation," the last which I didn't read because "it's insidery, for drama kids." But I'm writing now converted to the others, three late-aughts recordings indispensable for fiction/non-fiction people if you're about sonic piety in the Dostoevsky-Joyce-Gaddis grain. The headliner play "The Aliens" involves two nascently middle-aged Vermont townies in those earthtone yarn hoodies chilling illicitly on the back patio of a café, where they posture into a friendship with a young busboy, virginal and "in a perpetual state of humiliation." In a two-hour play of which a third is properly silence, we're given the microscopy of our operative geist: awkwardness.
JASPER: So it's actually kind of a relief. It feels like a relief.
JASPER: And ah...I don't know. She played games, you know? She was into that shit. She was into Power. And like ... part of me found it attractive but it was also really / uh—
KJ: That's not good, man.
JASPER: And uh ... you know, her thing was like ... that she didn't have a personality anymore? That she'd like "lost her personality." In the shadow of my ... But the hilarious thing is that she was the one who like fucking glued herself to my hip. I didn't need that, man. Necessarily.
What's so great about this play, representative of the rest, is how Baker forces stunted internet people into fleshly small talk and mortality, such that when one of the townies dies between acts, it's without fanfare or comprehension, exeunt like a Facebook profile hibernating.
Reviewed by Ryan Healey. Read his article "The War on Strippers" in Issue 46.
Wendy by Walter Scott
Trendy Wendy by Walter Scott
This year, I discovered the Wendy comics by Montreal artist Walter Scott. The original Wendy and this year's sequel, Trendy Wendy, portray a confused girl living in a St. Henri squat who is ostensibly trying to make art but, instead, is completely consumed by loft parties, drugs and less-than-adequate sexual encounters. I have never related to a fictional character more in my life. Rendered in Scott's beautiful black-and-white illustrations, the characters speak in internet LOL-isms to mask their feelings. The hedonistic core of Wendy is an outrageous slyph named Screamo, a gay scenester wearing Edvard Munsch's The Scream as a face. As Wendy gets burned by her friends and fights over horrible musctachioed paramours, her painful coming-of-age never results in actual self-knowledge. Scott knows that the Montreal art scene is a farce, but behind his satire is a comic acutely aware of just how tender growing pains can be.
Reviewed by Chandler Levack, Maisonneuve's Music Room columnist. Read her article "Visions of the Future" in Issue 44.
Maidenhead by Tamara Faith Berger
Coach House Books, 2012
The word "ambitious" gets thrown around a little carelessly in conversations about books, but few novels in 2012 felt as ambitious, or as necessary, as Maidenhead. In under two hundred pages, Tamara Faith Berger guts and reinvents literary erotica, provocatively tackles themes of race, class and pornography, and offers philosophical insights rare in contemporary fiction—all tucked inside a sensitive, artful and disturbing parody of the "coming-of-age story." But Maidenhead also—somehow—spirals outward, into an intensive investigation of how sexual power pervades all our interactions and relationships, be they between a young girl and an older guy she meets at the beach, or betweem the privileged classes of the metropolitan West and the supposed silent subaltern. A truly remarkable, haunting, important book.
Reviewed by Pasha Malla. Read his article "Foul Mouth" in Issue 44.
Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013
I think Alejandro Zambra is one of our most exciting living writers. This book is complex, and I don't want to spoil any surprises, but it is about a child living through the Pinochet years, and an adult reflecting back on those years as he tries to deal with their legacy. Zambra has a way of dealing with moral atrocity that is more authentic than any other writer I have read. Walter Benjamin would have loved this book. Go buy it and read it as soon as you can. It also has two wonderful unconsummated love stories. The best book of the year, in my opinion.
NW by Zadie Smith
Smith's latest novel, about the difficulties of working life in northwest London, is her finest yet—a small masterpiece. The prose is brilliant, vicious, beautiful; the characters, especially Natalie, Leah and Michel, are real people; I couldn't stop reading the novel once I picked it up. Zadie Smith is the most honest writer working today. She is unafraid of any aspect of human psychology. She also takes great risks, and pushes literary forms to their limits. Her acute critical intelligence shines on every page. People who love literature simply must read this book—and if you haven't read Smith before, it is in fact the ideal place to start.
Too Good to Be True by Benjamin Anastas
New Harvest, 2012
A very sad, very lonely memoir about how a writer's career and life are destroyed by vanity and love. The prose is clean and quick, with a narrative arc that, as in Zadie Smith's NW, makes the book very hard to stop reading. Anastas is a bit too tough on himself, but in this he is also brutally honest (we are all our own worst enemy, our toughest critic). The book ends with a lovely, chapter-long song of gratitude to his son, who makes him believe that life is worth living—and even worth writing about.
Reviewed by Clancy Martin. Read his article "Gays for God" in Issue 45.
The Lease by Mathew Henderson
Coach House Books, 2012
I felt guilty making dog-ears all throughout the thing, but I couldn't help myself. Henderson twists his hands into our collars and yanks us readers—willing or not—straight into the prairie oilfields, into a world of eerie work hours, hard-ons, shots of alcohol taken from between women's legs in loud bars. This is not easy poetry. It disturbs and distresses, made me—especially as a female reader—almost queasy. We're given casual glimpses into easy violence, duck-hunting, women-hunting. But at the same time, Henderson shows us moments of beauty in unexpected places—a dying salamander plucked from the guts of a freshly-filleted fish, a moment of laying rig pipe compared to the "muscle lust" of unthinking sex. When I finished The Lease, I didn't feel good or comfortable—and I wasn't meant to. I think that's what a book is supposed to do.
Reviewed by Anna Maxymiw. Read her article "The Boat Pull" in Issue 44.
Nilling by Lisa Robertson
I've come across several striking works published in this last year. A quick list would include: Josef Kaplan's Democracy is not for the People; Kate Zambreno's Heroines; Christof Migone's Sonic Somatic: Performances for the Unsound Body; Chris Kraus' Summer of Hate; Jasper Bernes' We Are Nothing And So Can You; Erín Moure's The Unmemntioable; Steve Zultanski's Agony; and Steve Giasson's epic poem 11. Amidst these outstanding works, there's been one book I keep returning to with great pleasure: Lisa Robertson's Nilling: Prose Essays on Noise, Pornography, The Codex, Melancholy, Lucretius, Folds, Cities and Related Aporias.
"Mostly I seek the promiscuous feeling of being alive," Robertson writes in the first of the book's six essays. As the subtitle implies, Nilling hovers across a vast range of subjects. Yet there are pursuits that thread these essays together: What is the experience of reading? How does it extend from and beyond the book? How are writer and reader brought together in an erotics of exchange? What new relationships might this openess to the other, to being othered, forge within a citizenry? Exploring always the soft architecture of thinking and memory, of bodies and their various fabrics, of language in movement from surface to surface, mouth to mouth, Robertson's writing is at once intimate, sensuous, and boisterously social. I have read no other writer who can think within language like her. This book, I promise, will intrigue, challenge and enchant.
Reviewed by Michael Nardone. Read his article "The Striking Life" in Issue 45.
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
Coffee House Press, 2011
Leaving the Atocha Station is the sort of book that you describe, when recommending it to friends, as "more than the sum of its parts." A novel about an American man in Europe, struggling to create meaningful art and sleep with women and overcome his anxieties and understand the culture around him—does the world really need another one of those? The answer is yes. Lerner's background as a poet means that every line in Leaving the Atocha Station seems to have been birthed fully formed on the page; his self-medicating, self-hating protagonist is loathsome in the way that only an instantly, impossibly relatable character can be. You will read yourself into Adam Gordon, and you will despise yourself for it, but in so doing you will feel less alone.
Reviewed by Drew Nelles, Maisonneuve's editor-in-chief. Read his article "Wild Justice" in Issue 44.
Talking Heads' Fear of Music by Jonathan Lethem
There are ways in which Jonathan Lethem is my favourite writer. I don't think he's necessarily the best writer. And I find some of what he does—the indulgent asides, the look-at-my-impeccable-taste namedropping, the borderline-soppy sentiment for the pre-cool days of his native Brooklyn—pretty irritating. Thing is, this pestering quality ends up inversely endearing. I like that Lethem seems half-ashamed when he jimmies in a bit of pseudo-academese he Googled (in his monograph on the film They Live, he defers to Wikipedia for a definition of "diegetic") into a piece of non-fiction. I like that he can't help himself. And I like that's he's a name-brand-enough writer to get away with not having to.
So I really liked Lethem's recent 33 1/3 entry on Talking Heads' Fear Of Music, even though it's guilty of all these things. For one, Lethem makes a point of talking about the music, without merely deferring to his warm-fuzzy relationship with the record as a kid growing up in Brooklyn (though there's plenty of that, too). His dissection of Heads frontman David Byrne—and of the tension between Byrnean anxiety and sonic release, which is what makes the Talking Heads maybe the most interesting band to think about, ever—is also spot-on. As in his They Live book (which is even better), Lethem knows that fandom doesn't obliterate critical distance. If anything, the validity of his perspective on the material is certified by his ability to correctly call out faults with the record, the band and Byrne himself. Warts and all, Fear Of Music may not be the best Jonathan Lethem book or anything. But it's maybe the most Jonathan Lethem-y.
Reviewed by John Semley. Read his articles "The Heavy Revolution" and "Against Tumblr" in Issues 43 and 46, respectively.
Discours sur l'état actuel des moeurs des Italiens by Giacomo Leopardi
Éditions Alia, 2012
I tend to forget books the minute I finish reading them, but not this startling little volume, which has nothing to do with the current predicaments of Italy but deals instead with the ideas of Giacomo Leopardi, a poet, philosopher and recluse atheist who lived from 1798 to 1837. The book—all 109 pages of it, including a useful introduction—has haunted me all year, to the point where I did not want to let go of the words. I even kept some photocopied passages with me wherever I went, something that seems embarrassingly juvenile when I think of it.
Leopardi spent his short, dark life struggling with a simple yet profound paradox. The inevitable outcome of the quest for knowledge is to not only to define reality but to confine it: as progress opens our eyes, it strangles the imagination and the dreams that are the very source of human happiness. Christopher Colombus may have added to the geographical understanding of the world we live in, but he cut short the reach of our imagination. Humanity was better off when the mind could wander freely in an unmapped fantasy world inhabited by sea monsters and dragons.
As Leopardi saw it, reason and civilization conspire to kill the core illusions (justice, good over evil, love, compassion, etc.) that everyone needs to grow, in order to act and simply exist. Each step toward knowledge is a step towards meaninglessness and paralysis as the discovery of reality leads us nowhere except the existential void. If progress is indeed irreconcilable with human nature, then Giacomo Leopardi foreshadows the ultimate fate of our species, unable to survive the collapse of our dreams under the weight of the knowledge we so eagerly accumulate.
Reviewed by Derek Vertongen. Read his article "Castles in Spain" in Issue 44.