Thursday, December 27, 2012

2012: My Reading Year in Review

Long-time readers of this series will probably notice a change to my full reading list for the year below: I've started to include issues of the various literary journals I subscribe to. I've always read lots of journals over the years but have done so in a very spotty, piecemeal sort of way. This year I made the decision to take a more focused approach to these journals, to keep them in the sacrosanct queue atop my nightstand and to read them cover to cover as I would any book. Seems fair, considering how much effort goes in to producing them.

As usual, I tried to be as diverse and eclectic in both my top 10 and my top 5 disappointment lists as I could be. Two of the best books I read this year were not reviewed here on the blog but rather in Quill and Quire, a magazine I’ve been freelancing for more and more it seems. I usually include a caveat with the second list about how they’re not necessarily bad books, but just books I had high expectations for. I feel that, with the exception of Wolf Hall, no such qualification is needed this year.

So without further ado, here’s this year’s list. Feel free to drop a comment below and share your thoughts.

My top 10 books this year

  • A Book of Great Worth, by Dave Margoshes. From my Quill and Quire review: “What’s remarkable about A Book of Great Worth is the way Margoshes is able to leave his own first-person narration in the background and keep the focus on Morgenstern, even while referring to him almost exclusively as “my father” …The result is a remarkable braiding of literal and literary truth, a Jewish family’s history elevated to the level of lore, and a delightfully envisioned portrait of specific times and places. Full review
  • Dancing, with Mirrors, by George Amabile.Dancing, with Mirrors, through the courage of its metaphors and the trust it places in distilled experience, is a book willing to share its quiet wisdom with us. The message could be quaint in lesser hands but here it is siren call to how life itself might be lived: “Love is a mirror/ in which we learn to dance.” Full review
  • Whirl Away, by Russell Wangersky. “Any critic who posits that Canadian writers don’t focus on the working lives of their characters really needs to read Russell Wangersky’s Whirl Away. With skillful and eerie verisimilitude, Wangersky places most of the protagonists in this new collection of short stories squarely inside the dark hearts of their respective occupations. The breadth of Wangersky’s knowledge of and research into different jobs is truly astounding and worth the price of the book alone.” Full review
  • Middlesex, by Jeffery Eugenides. “The many complex threads of Middlesex come together in the end to make a deeply satisfying whole. Eugenides has crafted an exquisitely complex novel that serious readers will love losing themselves in. A massive achievement in 21st century American literature.” Full review
  • Catalysts – Confrontations with the Muse, by Catherine Owen. “[O]ne is left with the sense that Owen is a writer who feels deeply, questions everything, and channels her emotions and experience through a rigorous poetic aesthetic. Catalysts is a testament to a life immersed in poetic forms, a searching for truth through the prismatic (and often cruel) facets of circumstance and self.” Full review
  • Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson. Oranges is a powerful and touching portrait of love, family and religious extremity in rural England …This novel impresses on a number of fronts. I love the fact that the title—at first blush a cheeky reference to homosexuality—is not overplayed in the text itself. Indeed, oranges become a central trope throughout the book; but with a skill that belies her age at the time of writing, Winterson is able to work it in subtly, leaving enough gaps around the trope for us as readers to fill them in.” Full review.
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. “Egan’s incredible feat of temporal game-playing really puts to shame any other interconnected short story collection I’ve read … [I]n laying down the lives of these characters, Egan shows an incomprehensible amount of versatility in her writing. She can do young and old; she can do male and female voices; she can do first-, second- and third-person narration to great effect … Indeed, finishing the last page of Goon Squad, you’re left with the impression that this book must have been written by not one writer, but seven or eight writers—all incredibly talented.” Full review
  • Libra, by Don DeLillo. “DeLillo has written a fierce and highly engaging page turner that is also one of the best structured works of literary fiction I’ve ever read. It was an absolute joy living in this novel’s world and immersing myself in its thoroughly designed characters. Libra is, in the end, a work of fiction, but its effects on the reader are very real.” Full review
  • Imperfections, by Bradley Somer. From my forthcoming review in Quill and Quire: “As they say in the fashion world, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. Bradley Somer, in this sharp, funny, ribald and surprisingly moving debut novel, has it and definitely flaunts it. Imperfections is a wild send-up of the modeling industry and our obsession with the culture of beauty. With equal parts absurdism and societal critique, this book is a comic romp on par with Mordecai Richler’s Cocksure.”
  • The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín. “In this work of fiction, Tóibín is not simply adding a new twist to an age-old bible story. Instead, he is looking to completely rewire one of Christianity’s central figures, making Mary into someone who never believed in her son’s divinity and who is now overcome with rage as others attempt to turn him into an icon for the world … The Testament of Mary is a well-crafted and disturbing addition to [Tóibín’s] growing oeuvre.” Full review
Top five disappointments this year
  • Opium Dreams, by Margaret Gibson. [This novel] is undone by its obsession with high-minded and overly literary fragmentation, not to mention a protagonist strangling on a brand of solipsism that seems unique to the Baby Boomer generation. (No one else has experienced a dying parent like I have experienced it. No one else has endured sexual abuse like I have endured it.) Is it possible to feel as though a novel is too autobiographical without actually knowing very much about the writer’s life? That’s the sense I got from Gibson, that she was working out a lot of issues in her personal life with this book and often lost control of that gushing hose of sentimentality…” Full review
  • World Enough, by Lesley Choyce. I have no review of this book to link to because it was so bad I couldn’t even finish it. Choyce is a prolific Atlantic Canadian author whose relentless regional boosterism gets real boring, real fast. As for this “novel”, there isn’t a single living sentence in any of what I managed to finish, not one paragraph with a whiff of authenticity. Thin characters, a paint-by-colours concept, and lots of rah-rah fetishizing of life in the Maritimes were enough to make me quit after about 60 pages.
  • The Rise and Fall of Communism, by Archie Brown. “While Brown’s examination of the history of international communism has its obvious model—William Shirer’s far superior The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich—it possesses none of the narrative drive and small details that make the geopolitics in that previous tome come to life. Instead of sharing what the real impacts of communism were (and still are) on real people, Brown mires us in page after page of pointless backroom dealings and back-stabbings that defined various communist regimes. He relies too heavily on the long lens, the bird’s-eye view of history, rather than the nitty gritty.” Full review
  • More in Anger, by J. Jill Robinson. “In the end, More in Anger makes for a dull and uninspired read. Its trajectory holds no mystery, is never in doubt; its themes are decided for us; its “point” is hermetically sealed and does not allow readers to bring anything of their own to it. It’s almost like we don’t even need to be there. It’s almost like the jacket flap does all our work for us.” Full review
  • Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. “To my eye, Wolf Hall possesses the bloated heft of a dramatic exposition rather than the sinewy nimbleness of a novel alive to its time and place. Too often, this book gets overrun by talking heads devoid of a physical environment and used exclusively for the dissemination of historical data … I wanted Wolf Hall to grip me with the implicit significance of its characters and plot. Instead, I found myself at a lost to understand what makes this novel a novel.” Full review
This year’s full reading list:

64. December 26. The Miracles of Ordinary Men, by Amanda Leduc. 319 pps. (For review in Quill and Quire.)
63. December 13. The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin. 104 pps.
62. December 11. The Malahat Review, Autumn 2012. 158 pps.
61. December 6. Open Heart Runner, by Gregory Marchand. 199 pps.
60. December 2. The Puritan Compendium I. 160 pps.
59. November 27. The Street of Crocodiles, by Bruno Schultz. 160 pps.
58. November 21. Under the Net, by Iris Murdoch. 253 pps.
57. November 13. Imperfections, by Bradley Somer. 256 pps. (For review in Quill and Quire.)
56. November 9. The Fiddlehead, Summer 2012. 182 pps.
55. November 4. Prism International, Summer 2012. 72 pps.
54. October 31. Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. 651 pps.
53. October 16. CNQ 85. Fall 2012. 96 pps.
52. October 11. The Lava in My Bones, by Barry Webster. 377 pps. (For review in Quill and Quire.)
51. October 2. In This Thin Rain, by Nelson Ball. 77 pps.
50. October 1. Dear Life, by Alice Munro. 319 pps. (For review in Canadian Notes & Queries.)
49. September 17. Floating Life, by Moez Surani. 96 pps.
48. September 15. The Malahat Review, Summer 2012. 110 pps.
47. September 10. The Beggar's Garden, by Michael Christie. 261 pps.
46. September 4. Braco, by Lesleyanne Ryan. 459 pps. (For review in Quill and Quire.)
45. August 25. A Dark Boat, by Patrick Friesen. 119 pps.
44. August 23. Libra, by Don DeLillo. 463 pps.
43. August 14. Prism International, Spring 2012. 85 pps.
42. August 6. Arc 68. Summer 2012. 137 pps.
41. August 3. A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. 340 pps.
40. July 29. The Fiddlehead. Spring 2012. 118 pps.
39. July 26. The Malahat Review, Spring 2012. 110 pps.
38. July 24. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson. 224 pps.
37. July 19. Cocaine Nights, by J.G. Ballard. 329 pps.
36. July 12. Prism International, Winter 2012. 73 pps.
35. July 9. Catalysts: Confrontations with the Muse, by Catherine Owen. 143 pps.
34. July 5. Spoiled Rotten, by Mary Jackman. 229 pps.
33. June 27. Conversations with Anthony Burgess, edited by Earl G. Ingersoll and Mary C. Ingersoll. 190 pps.
32. June 21. More in Anger, by J. Jill Robinson. 237 pps.
31. June 14. The Rise and Fall of Communism, by Archie Brown (unfinished). 274 pps.
30. June 8. Worm: The First Digital World War, by Mark Bowden. (audio book).
29. May 31. DarkMarket: CyberThieves, CyberCops and You, by Misha Glenny. 296 pps.
28. May 26. PRISM International, Fall 2011. 77 pps.
27.May 23. Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets, edited by Zachariah Wells. 158 pps.
26. May 20. The Tower of Babble: Sins, Secrets and Successes inside the CBC, by Richard Stursberg. 341 pps. For review in CNQ.
25. May 10. You Exist. Details Follow, by Stuart Ross. 116 pps.
24. May 7. Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing, by Douglas Glover. 212 pps.
23. May 2. No End in Strangeness: New and Selected Poems, by Bruce Taylor. 119 pps.
22. April 29. Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. 529 pps.
21. April 16. CNQ 84, Spring 2012. 96 pps.
20. April 11. Whirl Away, by Russell Wangersky. 207 pps.
19. April 3. What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander. 207 pps.
18. April 2. Arc 67 (Winter 2012). 133 pps.
17. March 26. Drifting House, by Krys Lee. 210 pps.
16. March 22. Stasiland, by Anna Funder. 288 pps.
15. March 15. The Master, by Colm Toibin.338 pps.
14. March 6. The Stand-In, by David Helwig. 90 pps.
13. March 4. The Fiddlehead No. 250, Winter 2012. 118 pps.
12. February 28. The Warhol Gang, by Peter Darbyshire. 309 pps.
11. February 24. The Malahat Review. No. 177, Winter 2011. 110 pps.
10. February 21. Dancing, with Mirrors, by George Amabile. 185 pps.
9. February 19. Hannus, by Rachel Lebowitz. 170 pps.
8. February 17.Anna Karenin, by Leo Tolstoy. 853 pps.
7. January 24. CNQ - Canadian Notes & Queries No. 83, Summer/Fall 2011. 96 pps.
6. January 21. (unfinished) World Enough, by Lesley Choyce. About 60 pages. Ugh.
5. January 18. Opium Dreams, by Margaret Gibson. 237 pps.
4. January 14. The Fiddlehead No. 249, Autumn 2011. 119 pps.
3. January 10. The Truth About Marie, by Jean-Philippe Toussaint.160 pps.
2.January 6. The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2011, edited by Priscila Uppal. 131 pps.
1. January 3. A Book of Great Worth, by Dave Margoshes. 252 pps. (For review in Quill & Quire.)

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