Monday, December 24, 2012

Annual Favorite Books

Top Ten Reads of 2012

“It’s not the word made flesh we want in writing, in poetry and fiction, but the flesh made word”  ― William H. Gass

My list of favorite books read in 2012 includes many more than these books. But I thought I would try to limit the list to the top twelve (I could not stop at ten)  that I read last year. So here they are in no particular order:

1. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
I saved this novel for the last big read of the year and I was impressed from the start.  It embodies the idea, espoused by Samuel R. Delany, that good fiction should marry style and content.  Never was that truer than in this amazing book whose title refers to the metaphor that is the secret to the structure of the book.

2. Hunter: a Thriller by Robert Bidinotto
This is the first novel by this author, but its confident and clear style delivers a suspenseful narrative of a revenge thriller.  It is a great addition to a genre that seldom sees such literary elegance.

3. Walden and the Journals of Henry David Thoreau
This is two books that both thrilled me with their beauty and the insights of the author.  A true individualist, Thoreau's thoughts and observations are worthy of all readers' meditation.

4. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Oryx and Crake is at once an unforgettable love story and a compelling vision of the future..

5. The Eclogues by Virgil
The Eclogues of Virgil gave definitive form to the pastoral mode, and these magically beautiful poems, which were influential in so much subsequent literature, perhaps best exemplify what pastoral can do.  I also read and enjoyed his bucolic Georgics.

6. Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell
Walter Bridge's conservatism is not his primary defining characteristic. In a certain sense he appears to be a stoic. But he is neither a seriously thoughtful nor a happy stoic in the mold of men like Marcus Aurelius and Henry David Thoreau. They exemplify the thoughtful and contemplative life of the stoic who accepts this world but yearns to understand it. Sadly, Walter Bridge's thoughtfulness falls short of understanding just as he falls short of any true sort of stoicism. His true character, rather, can be defined in two words: He is a "consummate Puritan". (p 249) That outlook determines Walter's world both for better and for worse. 

7. The Tree of Man by Patrick White
A poetic tribute to man and nature. The Tree of Man succeeds in capturing the opening of the frontier in Australia. It is reminiscent of O. E. Rolvaag or Conrad Richter who did the same for the American frontier. The story is a universal one.

8. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson
The Benjamin Franklin described in Walter Isaacson's magisterial survey of his life was truly an American philosphe and a friend of liberty. The image of Franklin that I took away from this biography was all of that, but even more one of a practical man whose never-ending search for knowledge and wisdom was always used to further the ends of practical applications both in his own life and for his country. 

9. A Guide of the Perplexed, Vols. 1 & 2 by Moses Maimonides
This monument of rabbinical exegesis written at the end of the twelfth century has exerted an immense and continuing influence upon Jewish thought.  It is a serious work of philosophy that inter alia attempts to reconcile the old testament prophets with ancient Greek philosophy.

10. The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor
This is a book of stories within stories. The title character, Lucy Gault, is at the center of these stories, but the genesis of the novel goes back in history for centuries. It is that long that the Gault family has been in Ireland, yet their British origins haunt them

11. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
This is a novel of contrasts: contrasting characters and contrasting stories. But the stories are linked thematically and by the character of Olive Kitteridge.

12. Paris Was Yesterday, 1925-1939 by Janet Flanner
Reading Janet Flanner's unique journal is addictive. The material in Paris Was Yesterday includes selections from Janet Flanner's fortnightly "Letter from Paris" in The New Yorker, which she started transmitting in 1925, signed . . . with her nom de correspondance, Genet. This is a book you must read if you have any interest in art, literature, music, French culture, European history of the late nineteen-twenties and thirties.

I am reluctant to stop at twelve books since I enjoyed many other books during the year, including some great Science Fiction (Ringworld, The Stars My Destination, et. al.) and others including classics and mysteries.  But this is enough of a retrospective for one cold December day. After some wassail and caroling let's all move on to the great reads of the new year!


Wendy Whidden said...

I was pleased to see Patrick White's Tree of Man among your top ten. I have named Tree of Man as my number one book of 2012. Birds Without Wings by Louie de Bernies is my 2nd favorite. Some of my other favorites were 2 by W Faulkner-As I Lay Dying and Light in August, 2 re-reads-All the Names by Saramago and Midnight's Children, also Out Stealing Horses by P Petterson, A History of Love by N Krauss (I loved the character Leo Gursky), a fun light-hearted mystery was Shadow of the Wind by C R Zafon, In Cold Blood by T Capote was a compelling story. Like most reader's I have too many to list here. Happy Holiday!

James said...

Thanks for sharing your favorite reads this year. While I did not list my favorites in any particular order, but the top one would have to be Cloud Atlas (review forthcoming). Also thanks for recommending The Tree of Man as it made the list.

Wendy Whidden said...

I plan on re-reading Cloud Atlas this year. I know I rushed through it and missed a lot. I have to thank David from for bringing Patrick White to my attention. In fact I forgot to list White's A Fringe of Leaves as a 2012 favorite.

Amy said...

Lots of greats here. I'm interested in reading your review of Cloud Atlas, as I've recently read another book by the same author and was very impressed by it. And I remember your review of the Eclogues, which inspired me to start reading classical poetry (I've only so far read drama and epics from that period).

James said...

Amy, Thanks for your comment. If you are considering classical poetry you might want to try Lucretius' On the Nature of Things. And if you are ready for more consider a book on my to-read list, The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt.