“this is about my own someday daughter, when you approach me…. ‘mom will I be pretty?’ I will wipe that question from your mouth like cheap lipstick and answer ‘no, the word pretty is unworthy of everything you will be.’”
BOOKS I LOVED IN 2012
I hate ranking the things I love. So this year, I decided to go high school yearbook-style and give all of my 2012 book crushes some fancy superlatives. All have provided great source material, and all are highly recommended.
BEST BOOK TO TALK ABOUT IN THERAPY: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg
Jami made me feel so many feeeeeeeeeeeelings about food and family and self-destruction and bar mitzvahs. Her masterful novel about the various members of the titular flawed family is mid-sized in length, epic in scope. Catharsis guaranteed.
BEST STORY COLLECTION: Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman
We are all savage animals. All of us. Megan’s stories celebrate wildlife even as they capture the moments in human nature when biology takes over, when instinct and emotion trump rationality or common sense.
I also loved: Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins
BEST COMING OF AGE: Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
Shut up. That totally wasn’t me crying on the subway while reading Tell the Wolves I’m Home. I wasn’t brought to tears by the achingly vivid portrayal of adolescent suburban anguish in the 1980s, as the American AIDS crisis stoked paranoia and intolerance throughout the nation. It wasn’t me! Side note: my favorite Goodreads review of this novel consists solely of the lyrics to the angry countdown part of the Violent Femmes’ “Kiss Off”—if that’s not teen angst, what is?
I also loved: The Round House by Louise Erdrich
BEST BREAKUP MIXTAPE: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz
At this point you already know if you like Junot Díaz’s writing style. You don’t need me to tell you about it. You love it, right? It makes you wish you’d paid more attention in Spanish class, right? This collection slayed me because it circles around the lead up to and fall out from a monumental breakup, even though it’s about 8 zillion other things as well—disease, death, obsession, the immigrant experience, hyper-masculinity, New Jersey. You know, all the major topics.
BEST TAKEDOWN OF THE AMERICAN DREAM: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
A pop culture-heavy novel about the disillusionment of an Iraq War vet set during a Dallas Cowboys game. Somehow it manages to be deadly serious even as it’s bitingly funny. If the politics are a little heavy-handed at times, at least the author is preaching to a Destiny’s Child-loving choir (yes, Beyonce does make a halftime appearance).
I also loved: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
BEST VINTAGE READ THAT STILL FEELS VITAL: The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes
Originally published in 1963, with a sparkly new edition released in 2012, Hughes’s crime fiction masterpiece screwed with all of my preconceptions of what noir could be. Even as The Expendable Man details the plight of a protagonist with spectacularly bad wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time luck, it manipulates our expectations and reveals our prejudices. Knife-cuttable tension abounds.
MOST WELL-ROUNDED: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
If your most lasting impressions of North Korean culture came from 30 Rock or Team America, it’s probably time to read this novel. Yes, it’s a work of fiction, but the author’s research is evident on every nightmarish, devastating, surreally funny page. In telling the life story of a North Korean Everyman (his name is Jun Do AKA John Doe), Johnson creates a full multi-genre experience—part thriller, part romance, part farce, part serious exploration of life under a dictatorship. Basically, it’s like 1984, but with more karaoke.
SEXIEST: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
I’ve always found Greek mythology kinda boring, so many thanks to Madeline Miller for making me care. Her novel portrays Achilles as a charming yet fallible Greek god who is made vulnerable not by his famous heels, but by his pride and petulance and his wild love for his “companion” AKA soul mate, Patroclus. The book contains many hot sex scenes (you don’t stand a chance, E.L. James) and many tender moments even in the heat of war. It’s as much a love story as it is a tale of the battlefield (clearly the two are related, Pat Benatar-style).
BEST PERSONALITY: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
You know when you just want to read a book that’s breezy and fun, but also really clever and sharp? Here you go. Dysfunctional family mania at its finest.
BEST READ FOR LITERARY TECHIES: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Finally, there’s a mystery for those of us who live and breathe the Bookternet. For all of us nerds who love the smell and feel of a musty old book just as much as we love our shiny new technology. The push and pull of new vs. old creates much of the drama here, bringing us from a fascinating old bookshop to the sprawling campus of Google to the headquarters of an age-old secret society.
BEST BAD GUYS: The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn
Three previously published novellas were repackaged this year into this exquisite volume, featuring characters so privileged, so terrible, so evil, they make Bret Easton Ellis’s characters look like little bitches. It’s divine, then, that in the depiction of so much ugliness, every single sentence is gorgeous. Every single last one.
BEST ACTRESS IN A DRAMA: Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub
We’ve all seen films about the ingenue who becomes a nightmare diva, the Behind the Music episodes of rock stars getting big and then imploding. Emma’s debut novel is a standout because she takes the familiar story of a small-town girl making good in Hollywood and makes it feel intimate, nuanced. Here’s a cinematic story that’s devoid of melodrama—it’s Laura’s humanity that ultimately makes her unforgettable.
MOST EMPOWERING: Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
Wild was incredible. Oprah and your mom and I agree. But put down the hiking boots and delve into Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar advice column, which specializes in the most beautiful-sounding real-talk I’ve ever heard. Most self-help makes my skin crawl, so what a revelation to find practical nonfiction that inspires and never cloys.
MOST CINEMATIC: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
At the risk of sounding like SNL’s Stefon, I’ve gotta say this novel has it all: dramatic scenescapes, tales of desire and loss and poverty and moral ambiguity, sharp parody of modern day Hollywood, and fantastic cameos from everyone’s favorite Lifetime movie subjects—Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. I wanted to crawl inside this book and live there.
BEST NOT-SO-GUILTY PLEASURE BECAUSE I OWN THIS $HIT: My Crazy Beautiful Life by Ke$ha
She’s a genius. Not sorry.
Self Absorption at Discount Prices.: givemeajobplease: I went on a date last night and then you texted and... -
I went on a date last night and then you texted and asked, again, whether I would come there. Start our days with coffee, end with you making dinner. Forever. I feel myself tug towards yes and then I remember why it will always be no with you and I.
There are people in your life who are going to love you for all of the wrong reasons. They will love you for the best part of your face, the best part of you naked, the best mood on your best day, the best story you ever wrote, the best outfit you ever wore.
They are going to miss the scar on the underside of your nose from the time your older brothers dared you to run across a pile of logs. They won’t know that you fell on a hidden nail just as you completed the challenge. They’ll miss the scar on your finger, too from the time you were seven and closed a swiss army knife on it. They won’t understand that these are two of only a handful of things you can remember about your childhood. They’ll notice that you have great tits, but they’ll miss that your thumb tucks into their palm when you’re walking together and that your eyes have darker circles when a migraine is coming. They won’t know you get migraines. They won’t ask where the story you wrote came from, so they’ll never know that it was true. They’ll love it because it feels real to them. They’ll miss knowing the sweatshirt full of holes that they criticized you for wearing was your dads. You might tell them some of these things along the way, but they will remember the best things instead.
They will love your good moods, your energy, your sense of humor, but miss that you never turn to them, but rather to a shower or a pillow or the back of your throat to shed tears. They won’t ever consider you strong.
When the parts that aren’t your best come out, some people will shield their eyes as if you have just forced them to look directly into the sun for hours until their irises burn. They’ll silently make you promise to never show them that again. Those things are not to be shown. Be at your best so I can love you. I would love you more if only you never show me those things.
And you do not marry those people. You do not sit and sleepily drink coffee with those people. You leave those people and you remind yourself that they missed the better parts of you.
“I can never think of you as a friend. You can do without a friend.”
― Graham Greene, The End of the Affair
Typewriter Series #195 by Tyler Knott Gregson
the time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. eat.
you will love again the stranger who was your self.
give wine. give bread. give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another; who knows you by heart.
take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
sit. feast on your life.
derek wolcott: love after love.
When I imagine my wedding, it doesn’t seem right for you to be there as just a guest. You’ve been such a big part in shaping who I am, that it’s even harder to imagine you not being there. So I guess we’re gonna have to get married.
You no longer deserve the words I want to say to you, so I’ll send them on here instead.
What I really wanted to tell you, what you don’t care to hear, is that you were the only light I saw for 5 years, and now the whole world seems dark.
“She knew there were only small joys in life—the big ones were too complicated to be joys when you got all through—and once you realized that, it took a lot of the pressure off. You could put the pressure aside, like a child’s game, its box ripped to flaps at its corners.”
–Lorrie Moore, Like Life
“To ensure that the self doesn’t shrink, to see that it holds on to its volume, memories have to be watered like potted flowers, and the watering calls for regular contact with the witnesses of the past, that is to say, with friends.”
— Milan Kundera, Identity