Disclaimer: 2012 was a year in which I read very little fiction. It was the year I read fitfully in 20-minute increments, on the subway, in the middle of the night, at the coffee place I like. It was the year I got a Kindle. It was the year I read memoirs, poetry, a few short stories and lots and lots of essays. I’m sure I missed some great novels this year, but these are the books that meant something to me, and I hope maybe they may mean something to you too.
1) Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain by Lucia Perillo
What was sadness, after all, but the fibrous stuff out of which a life was woven? And what was happiness but a chemical in the brain?”
This is the short story debut from established poet Lucia Perillo. Every word in this collection seems deliberately chosen by a poet’s ear. Perillo writes prose with such fluidity and grace yet is able to ground her stories with humor and honesty. The first, middle, and final stories ( “Bad Boy Number Seventeen,” “Late in the Realm," and “Saint Jude in Persia”) are about the same first person protagonist, Louisa, who is dealing with a sister with down syndrome, a bitter mother, an absent father, and life’s limitless possibilities. These 14 stories all take place in the same Pacific North West coastal town and are deeply grounded in the natural world. Read the stories in any order, read a few of them, read the book cover to cover. I left one story unread so I’d have something to come to later on.
2) The Open Door: 100 poems, 100 years of Poetry Magazine compiled by Don Share and Christian Wiman
Commemorating the centennial of Poetry Magazine, this anthology created by the current editors of Poetry Magazine, Don Share and Christian Wiman, celebrates a century of poems that are, above all, timeless and relevant. The title borrows from the words of Poetry Magazine’s founder Harriet Monroe who said, “May the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half-shut, against his ample genius!” The anthology includes the work of some of the magazine’s first honored poets (Wallace Stevens and Williams Carlos Williams) as well as those who came even before the magazine (Yeats, T.S. Eliot) to the contemporary (Kay Ryan, Mary Karr, Laura Kasischke) and of course, those who have been so integral in between (Ezra Pound, Langston Hughes, Robert Creely, Margaret Atwood). This book provides a broad and extensive defenition of what poetry has been for the last 100 years.
3) Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone by Eric Klinenberg
It is amazing how effective Klinberg (married with two children) is at explaining the social factors that have led to 31 million people (one in seven adults) living alone in the United States. By conducting around 300 interviews with Americans who are living solo, Klinenberg provides an interesting musing on the changing emphasis Americans put on autonomy, self-reliance and independence. He touches on the often taboo subject that parenting is an incredible sacrifice more and more successful people are choosing not to make. In addition to providing the merits of living alone, Klinenberg touches on the increasing number of people who may be out of touch or socially starved as a result of “going solo”.
4) Wild: From Lost to Found of the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
In this honest, amusing, and heartbreaking memoir, Strayed sets out on an eleven hundred mile hike alone to grapple, at age 22, with the death of her mother and the crumbling of her marriage. Although Strayed’s lack of preparedness can be infuriating to a reader (she had never having hiked before her first day on the trail, she wore duct taped sandals as hiking shoes for awhile), this memoir offers not only an uplifting account of Strayed’s immense transformation as a person, but also little glimpses into the wonderfully odd characters she meets along the way. If you’re not ready to commit to these 315 pages off the bat, Strayed’s beautiful essay “The Love of My Life” is a good jumping off point.
5) Some Assembly Required, by Anne Lamott
After reading “Bird by Bird,” Anne Lamott’s instructions on "writing and life," I knew I was a Lamott fan for life. Some Assembly Required is the follow up to her 1993 book Operating Instructions which chronicles her first year as (single) parent to her son Sam. This sequel offered 21 years later is just as delightful, open and hilarious as the first. This book is written in tandem with Sam as he becomes a parent for the first time, making Lamott a first time grandparent. Self-deprecating, lyrical and forever funny Lamott (and seemingly Sam) have a gift of one liners and page turning honesty. This is a meditation on what it is to love and what it is to let go.
6) The Way the World Works, by Nicholson Baker
This book of essays is a perfect balance between the distinctly personal experience and the absurdities of the world we all know so well (Wikipedia, video games, airplane wings). Baker is clearly a detail-oriented, curious man and these essays, collected from the past 15 years, beam with personality and knowledge while offering an insight into what it was like to be alive from 1997-2012.
7) Farther Away, by Jonathan Franzen
"When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them. And who knows what might happen to you then?”
Jonathan Franzen is best known for his fiction “The Corrections” and “Freedom,” but I have always gravitated more toward his essays. My admiration of his essays began with Caught, first appearing in the New Yorker in 2003 and has continued with “How to be Alone,” and now “Farther Away.” This collection includes the commencement address, “Pain Won’t Kill You” which he gave to the Kenyon College class of 2011. It also includes thoughts on bird poaching, the rise of technology and it’s effect on society, along with a heavy dose of reflection on the suicide of his close friend and literary rival, David Foster Wallace. The passage that sold me on this collection was from his title essay (about Wallace) “in the summer before he died, sitting with him on his patio while he smoked cigarettes, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the hummingbirds around his house and was saddened that he could, and while he was taking his heavily medicated afternoon naps I was learning the birds of Ecuador for an upcoming trip, and I understood the difference between his unmanageable misery and my manageable discontents to be that I could escape myself in the joy of birds and he could not.” Franzen’s collection is funny, cerebral and continuously moving.
8) Later Poems: Selected and New: 1971-2012 by Adrienne Rich
The thing I came for://the wreck and not the story of the wreck// the thing itself and not the myth.
I had to give a shout out to my girl Adrienne Rich who died March 27, 2012.
Rich has been celebrated as a ground breaking feminist and essayist, but I have always felt that her poems (especially her later ones) are where a reader gets a sense of the breadth and hope of Rich’s struggles. The table of contents is broken into roughly four-year segments and includes most of her poems from 1971-2012, of time giving. This set up gives an arch to the growth and experience Rich underwent as a writer and a person in the last 41 years and offers a sense of what was meaningful to Rich (being unconfined, trusting in the world, breaking free). Rich seems to have come to closure with herself by the end of the book (and her life) offering the parting words, “the signature to a life requires//the search for a method//rejection of posturing//trust in the witnesses//a vial of invisible ink//a sheet of paper held steady//after the end-stroke//above a deciphering flame.”
9) Wonder by RJ Palacio
This moving young adult book tells the story of a 10-year old boy August Pullman (Auggie) growing up in a happy, normal family on “the hippie-stroller capital of upper Upper Manhattan,” except he’s been born with a genetic abnormality and is severely deformed. He longs to be “ordinary.” Palacio switches, by chapter, between the voice of Auggie, his friends, and this older sister. Palacio manages the difficult task of writing succinct, moving prose while sounding like a believable ten-year-old. This is a story about change, about what it means to be different. This is a story that tackles the familiar yet heart-breaking topic of youth, infuses it with humor and a lovable cast of characters to form an original book loved by all generations.