2012: My So-So Year in Books

As a book-reading year goes, 2012 was a sub-par book reading year for me. In all, I read a grand total of 21 books, well below the usual 40-50 books I tend to average per year. I chalk my lack of reading to one little fact: I was doing a lot more writing this past year. A LOT more writing.

Still, it wasn’t a bad year. Below are the 21 books I’ve read this past year. A few have stuck out, which you’ll see for yourselves. For the featured books, I’ve included my original reviews posted on Goodreads. Hopefully you’ll find a few more here to add to your growing list of books to read, maybe in 2013.

THE LIST

Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, by Matthew B. Crawford

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever, by Will Hermes.

New York City, mid-1970’s. The whole place is falling apart. Crime is rampant, the city teeters on complete financial bankruptcy. Things just aren’t looking good for the Big Apple. Yet from the state of emergency comes a phenomenally vibrant and highly influential wave of music whose influence still resonates today. The punk scene that emerged from CBGB’s; the explosion of Latin music as performed by the Fania All-Stars; experimental forays into jazz and classical music; the emergence of disco from the underground clubs to the mainstream; the birth of hip-hop from the slums of the South Bronx. You name it, it happened here.

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire (the title cribbed from a Talking Heads song, is a loving, exhaustively researched chronicle of a five-year period of the New York music culture, a time frame from which some of the most enduring, shocking, controversial, and astonishing music ever came. Will Hermes, who himself hails from Queens (School of Hard Knocks!), offers his own oral history on how the music influenced him and his future as a music journalist; one can clearly see how the variety of music heard on every street corner during that time deeply seared into his very soul, and that’s no exaggeration.

The portrait of NYC in the 1970’s does seem like it’s passing by so fast, and with good reason: the entire scene simply exploded, hurtling itself into both the mainstream and the underground at the speed of light. There’s no time to breath while reading Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, because everything happens so fast, you’re forced to catch up. No matter, though, because it’s all exhilarating nonetheless.

The cast of characters in Love Goes to Buildings on Fire reads like a musical Who’s-Who: the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon, Celia Cruz, Blondie, Lou Reed, Philip Glass, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Talking Heads, Television, Laurie Anderson, Eddie Palmieri, Anthony Braxton, and so many more. Their stories are told with great detail, their influence easy to define.

A highly recommended read for music historians, and anyone who has a jones for what may be the greatest music scene ever.

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone: The Essential Hunter S. Thompson, by Hunter S. Thompson

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman (re-read)

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed.

A confession: it was a feature article on Poets & Writers on Cheryl Strayed that led me to Wild. Her back story (more on that later) and her recount of her emotional hike through the Pacific Crest Trail caught my attention. And my admiration.

Unlike so many memoirs of “finding oneself,” (I’m looking at you, Eat, Pray, Love)Wild is the story of a woman who made a sudden decision – actually, it wasn’t that sudden; Strayed reveals a lot of the preparation she undertook to make sure her journey through the PCT wasn’t going to end up all Into the Wild and stuff – to hike 1100 miles in the hopes of losing herself. And she did. ALONE. In a stark, honest, and assured voice, Cheryl documents the events that led her to embark on her journey. The death of her mother, at such a young age, left Cheryl devastated and anchor-less. Without her mother’s support, she found herself drifting from her siblings and their stepfather. It wasn’t long before Cheryl began to slowly self-destruct; her marriage was now falling apart, thanks to several affairs she’d engaged in, and though she and her ex-husband Paul attempted a reconciliation, the marriage was soon often. Worse yet, a dangerous dalliance with heroin.

(One particular passage regarding her divorce hit me like a sucker punch to the solar plexus: “I didn’t exactly want to get divorced. I didn’t exactly not want to. I believed in almost equal measure that both divorcing Paul was the right thing to do and that by doing so I was destroying the best thing I ever had.”)

From nothingness, her journey on the PCT became a lesson on letting go. Letting go of the grief from her mother dying. Letting go of the guilt over the end of her marriage. Letting go of the doubt that nagged her. Just letting go. Not so much losing herself, but losing the baggage that she’d been dragging along. The baggage itself is played up in a wonderful and ironic manner, via the ginormous yellow hiker’s backpack that accompanies her throughout her hike, one that she christens “Monster.” With each day on her hike, “Monster” grows lighter and lighter – of course, that’s because of the supplies she’d had to use and/or discard – but it’s not hard to see the subtext of such a metaphor. The backpack as a metaphor. Hell of a metaphor there, if you ask me.

In her words, Cheryl’s motivation for hiking the PCT is quite clear: “Each day I felt as if I were looking up from the bottom of a deep well. But from that well, I set about becoming a solo wilderness trekker. And why not? I’d been so many things already. A loving wife and an adulteress. A beloved daughter who now spent holidays alone. An ambitious overachiever and aspiring writer who hopped from one meaningless job to the next while dabbling dangerously with drugs and sleeping with too many men…but a woman who walks alone in the wilderness for eleven hundred miles? I’d never been anything like that before. I had nothing to lose by giving it a whirl.”

This isn’t a travelogue, although Strayed’s writing regarding the natural scenery found on the PCT is reminiscent of Bruce Chatwin’s travelogues. This isn’t a book about hiking. It’s a memoir, and it’s one of the most engaging memoirs you’ll likely read in a while, thankfully devoid of cliches, false sympathy, and woe-is-me melodrama. Well, sometimes…Cheryl Strayed’s memoir oftentimes, like the unpredictable and winding trail she braved, funny and heartbreaking at once.

Theories of International Politics and Zombies, by Daniel W. Drezner

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami

Pulphead, by John Jeremiah Sullivan

Superman: The High-Flying History of the Man of Steel, by Larry Tye

Warm Bodies, by Isaac Marion

I swear, right now, the words escape me, the words I wish I could say that would reveal just how brilliant and lovely this novel is. Damn it, man, this book had no business being so damned good, so alive.

Okay, I found the words. Hit it.

The zombie canon gets hit with a much-needed curveball across the chin, courtesy of first-time novelist Isaac Marion: what if zombies actually had feelings, feelings of ambivalence and longing inside, while dead on the outside? Warm Bodies tackles that head on, with stunning results. We learn to love R., our zombie hero, with his fondness for Sinatra and his desire for some kind of emotional connection that he, at first, seems incapable of, but then learns otherwise. But R. is a zombie, after all, and a zombie must feed in order to sustain.

When R. and his zombie co-horts attack a group of the living, R. takes a bite out of a young man’s brain…and suddenly the young man’s memories become his. From the memories of Perry Kelvin, R. makes a stunning choice that runs contrary to his zombie instincts: he begins a tense and awkward relationship with Perry’s girlfriend, Julie. And so begins a bizarre love story, tentative at first, then fully accepting, as both R. and Julie learn that their own survival, and the survival of what’s left of the human race, is dependent upon each other’s trust and understanding.

Marion’s a skilled story teller, with a powerful narrative voice. Through R., Marion’s use of first-person narrative places us inside R.’s mind; he’s a zombie, but a monster deserving of our sympathy. The strength of this novel lies in Marion’s ability to make a seemingly one-dimensional character come alive.

Fuck me, this is a beautiful novel. Sweet and sentimental, funny and tender, and harrowing and pretty damned scary at times. It’s a novel that unashamedly wears its heart on its sleeve, and, cynics be damned, it reminds us that love does conquer all, even if it’s love between the living and the undead.

Read this one, even if you don’t care for the zombie canon. You won’t be disappointed. If you are, well, then, fuck you. Go read some high-brow shit, you elitist literary snob, you.

Isaac Marion…well done for your first novel. You bastard.

Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity, by Ray Bradbury

Letters, by Kurt Vonnegut

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King (re-read)

Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, by K.M. Weiland

Who I Am, by Pete Townshend

Pete Townshend has led a seemingly contradictory life. Eloquent and empathetic one moment, crass and insensitive the next. A spiritual soul that nearly succumbed to the pleasures of the flesh. A doting family man whose extramarital affairs inevitably destroyed his marriage.

A brilliant guitar. A gifted songwriter. A lousy bandmate. A pretentious asshole. All of the above.

I wondered for a while what it would take for Pete to finally publish his memoirs. As rock stars go, Pete Townshend has staked his claim as the thinking man’s rock star, and rock’s thinking man, a deeply sensitive, highly creative soul who’s never been shy to bear his self and his soul to his public. Who I Am is exactly what one would expect, and expect nothing less from Townshend: a warts-and-all autobiography, a mix of maudlin and praise. Modest? Hardly. Brutally honest? Very much so.

Townshend doesn’t lavish much type on the Who as a band; there are countless tomes on the ‘Orrible ‘Oo, the best of which are Dave Marsh’s Before I Get Old: The Story of the Who, and Richard Barnes’ illustrated/oral history of the band, Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere. Those expecting more salacious stories and triumphant tales are advised to read elsewhere. Instead, and wisely so, Townshend gives up many a glimpse into his thinking, his emotions, his reactions to life inside the Who and as a solo artist, all the while chasing the personal demons that have haunted him throughout his adult life. He doesn’t shy away from the sexual and emotional abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of his deranged grandmother and “father figures” that did not have Pete’s interests at heart. One listen to Tommy, and it’s clear the two Townshends are evident: the brash, articulate, spirituality-seeking man, and the frightened, anxious boy. Who I Am is the story of the two Pete Townshends, at time hilarious, other times cringe-inducing. But this is Pete Townshend we’re talking here. The man’s never been known for his filter, and that’s what we love about him. Even at his most arrogant, or his most vulnerable, Pete Townshend has never been anything more than honest, even if it means being brutally so.

One word of warning: Who I Am is at times uncomfortably graphic, and he spares no detail in his harrowing story regarding his arrest, and acquittal, over child pornography charges. Even though Townshend was exonerated, he demonstrated great intent in exposing credit card companies too eager to approve charges made by pedophiles viewing child porn online, he also demonstrated shocking naivety in thinking he was simply doing the right thing. A massive misunderstanding – Scotland Yard was immediately convinced, upon his arrest, that Townshend was guilty of absolutely nothing – which led to his very public crucifixion. Townshend is still haunted by the incident, but his resolve is still absolute.

It’s taken Pete a long time to write this memoir – something he once claimed he’d write in his early 20’s – but the wait’s been worth it. As eloquent and heartfelt as he’s been lyrically and on stage, Who I Am is equally as eloquent, as to be expected from rock’ Man of Letters.

Upon final read of Pete Townshend’s well-stated memoir, you get the feeling that what Pete Townshend really needs is a hug.

Come here, you big silly.

Darth Vader and Son, by Jeffrey Brown

No Plot, No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days, by Chris Baty

One Last Thing Before I Go, by Jonathan Tropper

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker

This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz

Dear Junot Diaz,

Okay, you can stop now. Seriously. Just stop it, already. Stop being such a fucking great writer, so great that desperate wannabes like me read your work, have poured over every word, and think, “There’s no way we can top The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” but, no: not only do you top it, you throw one serious shit-hammer of a curveball, thereby rendering me as both a reader and a writer completely helpless. How am I supposed to react to this? How am I supposed to live in a world where not only do you write exactly what I hope for in a writer, you’re writing exactly what I’m thinking.

I mean, where you reading my mind when you wrote The Cheater’s Guide to Love?Who’s your source? Confess, puto.

Alright, I’ll stop. I can’t give This is How You Lose Her the justice and highest of praise it deserves. All I will say is that you’ll be hard pressed to read a gut-wrenching, brutally honest, painfully confessional, and outright hilarious short story such as the one you’ll read called The Cheater’s Guide to Love. Not joking here.

Let’s state the obvious: Junot Diaz is a fucking rock star. And I’ll follow his ass to Valhalla. And let me also state something else that’s obvious: This is How You Lose Her is the best work I’ve read in 2012.

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12 thoughts on “2012: My So-So Year in Books

  1. By gum, Gus, you have some way with words yourself! You have me ready to go read that zombie novel, and I am definitely one of those who never goes near that kind of thing. Not so much because I’m a literary snob (I will happily read all sorts of crap if it makes me happy for the duration–I don’t watch TV so have to let my brain go slack somehow). No, I don’t read horror-type stuff because I have a history of having, well, nightmares after reading or seeing that kind of thing. I have been chased all night by zombies.

    Please don’t tempt me to inflict more of that on myself!

  2. Gus,

    Great books, great reviews. You’ve really got me teased about Warm Bodies. Sounds excellent, not your usual Zombie fare.

    You’ve done a great deal of (great) writing. Sometimes the reading has to take a back seat. Still an admirable load of books. I’m looking ahead at a lot of craft books at the beginning of the year. I’ll HAVE to throw some good fiction in the mix.

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