Year’s End 2012

book stackLike Teresa, I enjoy doing a little musing at the end of the year about the books that have made the biggest impression on me. I don’t use any kind of tagging system, so I don’t have her statistics to offer you (nor a pretty map!) but I do have a few thoughts about my reading year of 2012.

This year was the first year I tried to do some minor planning ahead with my reading, rather than taking it completely at whim. I took it three months at a time, giving myself about seven or eight books to read each month and including at least one nonfiction book and at least one book by a person of color each month. That left plenty of room for serendipity and for books I simply felt like reading, or for “book club” reads with Teresa, or whatever it happened to be that month. It worked very well up until the end of the year, when I got so busy at school that I couldn’t stay on any kind of reading or blogging schedule. But the purpose of planning was not to be my own disciplinarian or to meet a goal, it was to help myself include books I’d been longing to read — so I come to the end of the year guilt-free and extremely happy with what I’ve read. Like Teresa, my only regrets are about the books I haven’t gotten to yet!

Looking over my list of Books Read, I had a truly exceptional reading year. I’d be lucky to read all these books in a lifetime, let alone in 2012. But here are a few of the most astonishing highlights, the ones that I’m still thinking about, the ones that have the most tenacious hold on my mind and heart:

Golden Stumbling Block Award (given for most difficult read that proved worth while in the end): The Tale of Genji. This 1200-page medieval Japanese novel almost did me in, but I persevered, and found myself looking through a window at something ineffably, exquisitely beautiful.

Most Heartbreakingly, Apocalyptically Comic (and vice versa): A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Other Stories. Flannery O’Connor has the human condition under a microscope. Every wonderful story wrings blood and tears, and also (sometimes unwilling) laughter.

Best Book to Take With You on a Trip: A Time of Gifts. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s tale of his own journey through eastern Europe is so full of joy, gratitude, and detail that it could only enhance your travels, wherever they take you.

Most Appealing Book About the Stone Cold End of the World: Ragnarok. I’ve always loved Norse mythology, far more than Greek or Roman, and this retelling of it by A.S. Byatt was beautifully done.

Best Book about a Really Truly No-Kidding Awful Set of People: The Man Who Loved Children. This book by Christina Stead was sometimes difficult to read because the writing was so powerful and the characters so real. I don’t ask my books to be easy, I ask them to be good. This book was good.

Best Classic: Don Quixote. Hands down. This is usually the hardest category for me, and I certainly read a lot of classics this year, and I loved them all, but if you really want to get me talking about the reversal of the carnivalesque or the moral imperative of the insane or the way it bites its own tail or how modern it feels or the texts within the texts — ask me about Don Quixote. I only wish I could have read it in Spanish. I can’t wait to read it again.

Best Bad Guy: Jake Marlowe, from The Last Werewolf. All right, he’d crunch me up in two bites, but at least he’d crack literate-wise while he was doing it. I found this novel total, unexpected, sexy fun to read, and yes, the sequel’s on my list.

Best Children’s Fiction Featuring Existentialist/Absurdist Elements (But Also Hope): The Mouse and His Child. I don’t remember how I ran across this fable about family by Russell Hoban, but can no longer imagine myself without it. It is odd and dark, but also tender and beautiful, with an inner light of its own.

Most Dizzying Prose: By rights, this ought to be a tie. Jose Luis Borges’s Collected Fictions, Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, and Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees all deserve an honorable mention. But the novel (or rather, novels) that really swept me off my feet, both stylistically and structurally, and left me completely spoiled for anything else for weeks, were the four that made up Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End. Even now, nearly a year later, I can remember turns of phrase and whole chunks of text that are lit up as if by afternoon light; and this is not even to mention the taut structure of the books, that shows the deeper meaning through scene and movement. So masterly, and so beautiful.

Doing this has reminded me how lucky I was this year! I had hardly any books I kicked out of bed, and so many that I loved. I can’t wait for the new year and more, more, more of the same — and I hope to do better blogging about it all.

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29 Responses to Year’s End 2012

  1. vanbraman says:

    Thanks for all the reviews this week. I have added several of them to my to read list, and have enjoyed the ones I have read so far.

  2. Donna says:

    Double YES to everything you said about Don Quixote. I read it this year too and can’t stop talking about it.

    • Jenny says:

      I remember you were reading this about the same time I was. I am still blown away by it, and am fortunate to be in a place where lots of people have read it and can talk to me about it!

  3. zoekatarina says:

    I rarely (never?) comment on your blog Jenny but I want you to know I read every post you make, because I know that regardless of whether I’ve heard of the particular book or even author you’re discussing, your comments are real, deep and fascinating. Please do keep it up in the new year! Awesome stuff. Z x

  4. What a great list! I love Don Q and The Mouse and his Child and am tempted to rush out and buy The Tale of Genji. But the hundreds of books I already own but haven’t read should at least be chipped away at first, I guess.
    It’s also been a long time since I read Ford Madox Ford and I do remember his structural control, in particular, being brilliant.

    • Jenny says:

      I think that structure was maybe more than anything else what impressed me about Parade’s End. It makes most modern books look like they’re just slapped down on paper, no matter how beautifully they’re written.
      And if you’ve got hundreds of books waiting to be read, surely adding Genji couldn’t really hurt!

  5. Joanne says:

    I’m going to take a leaf out of your book and try to be more organised with my reading. I didn’t complete a number of challenges this year because I didn’t plan well enough.
    I loved The Last Werewolf too, and have Talullah Rising on loan from the library.

    • Jenny says:

      Some people enjoy planning, and it makes other people feel oppressed. I am apparently in the former camp. It gave me a lot of pleasure this year to carve out my reading plans without any sense of pressure. Good luck with your reading this year, Joanne!

  6. These are my best part of the year, regarding reading. I enjoy reading people’s favourite and more.

  7. Lisa says:

    These are great categorgies, and I am a little in awe of your list. Don Quixote is definitely on my “Someday” list now, though I haven’t gone looking for a copy yet (I’ll be coming back to your posts when I do). Did you see any of the recent adaptation of Parade’s End? I’m wondering if it will draw people to the books (I think I’ve seen a tie-in edition). My attempts at a reading plan fizzled quickly, and I failed to meet my one real goal, of reading everything I bought this year within the year – but I’m hoping the TBR dare will get me back on track a bit. Best wishes for a happy new year – filled with good books!

    • Jenny says:

      I didn’t see the adaptation — not because I didn’t want to, but because I see almost no TV — but I will probably get to it. It looked pretty good. I don’t have a large TBR shelf — usually not over 20 books in my house at any one time — but I’m probably maxed out right now, so it’s time for me to chip away at my stack, too! Happy New Year, Lisa.

  8. I love your categories and I love seeing what books you picked, since I haven’t read most of them. Congratulations on a great year of reading and may 2013 be just as satisfying!

  9. Elizabeth says:

    What a wonderful list! I love what you said about The Tale of Genji — that’s exactly how I felt about it.

    • Jenny says:

      It was a real challenge for me, but I’m very glad I made it through. Sometimes reading is about learning as much as it is about pleasure.

  10. Wow Jenny, that really was an amazing reading year! I love it when I read a post that changes my mind about a book that hasn’t appealed to me before. In this case you’ve made me want to read two: the tale of Genji and Parade’s End.

    Did you see the TV adaptation? I didn’t get on with it, probably because modernism doesn’t translate well on film. Can you read the four books all as one or is that too huge an endeavour? I’m rubbish at reading series in a timely way and this seems like the kind of book where you have to.

    • Jenny says:

      You know, I was surprised, looking over my list for 2012, how many really amazing books I read this year. I didn’t even include them all on my end-of-year list!
      I read the four Parade’s End novels over the course of about six weeks, more or less as one book but with one or two other books interspersed between. They are not long books, so it didn’t feel as heavy as it might have if they were, say, eight-hundred-page monstrosities. Still, I did need concentration, and I was glad I read all of them together, because they were so tightly interwoven. I really hope you love them. I think they’re genius.

  11. Grad says:

    So interested to see Flannery O’Connor on your list. I live in Savannah, GA and she’s something of a goddess here. I’ve been re-reading my way through The Complete Stores this year. A Good Man Is Hard To Find was magnificent and awful and is something that just simply stays with one. I find it easier to read her in summer, on the patio, on a sunny, gentle day. Too depressing to read her on a cold winter night.

    • Jenny says:

      Honestly, I’m not sure what kind of weather would alleviate the blow of some of those stories. I like reading certain kinds of novels in certain kinds of weather (Dickens in winter, for instance), but maybe O’Connor you’ve just got to grit your teeth and take? I loved them, though.

  12. Simon T says:

    I’ve heard nobody else give praise to Parade’s End, so I am intrigued by your verdict – but the way you expressed your love of it definitely makes it sound very much up my street. Intriguing indeed…

    • Jenny says:

      Simon, these aren’t charming or domestic novels, but they express a profound understanding of what is compassionate and humane in the face of the Great War. They are so perfectly written and balanced that it was difficult for me to “go back” to other books afterward. I can’t recommend them highly enough!

  13. Gavin says:

    Great list, Jenny. I have The Tale of Genji on my TBR list but have been intimidated by the length. You give me hope that I can actually get through it!

    • Jenny says:

      I am normally not at all intimidated by long books, but this had other factors that made it hard for me. I would recommend reading up on it a little before you begin. But it was worth while reading it! So beautiful and fascinating.

  14. Hey, I don’t think my books were this good this year. What am I doing wrong? No Don Quixote, I guess, the inclusion of which is almost cheating. It sets the bar pretty high.

    You might have heard about the Hoban from me. Also, maybe not.

    Simon, what crowd are you hanging out in? No praise for Parade’s End! A couple of years ago, bibliographing wrote up a celebration of the novels. Some parts of them are hard to believe. I fear the BBC version would be all too believable, although Stoppard makes it worth a look.

    • Jenny says:

      Any year that doesn’t include DQ is a year wasted. Right?

      Looking back at your archives, I think I must have heard about the Hoban from you, then run across it at my local library without remembering anything except that the title was recommended. I am so grateful. My children will be hearing it soon.

  15. Jenny says:

    >>>I’ve always loved Norse mythology, far more than Greek or Roman.

    Seriously, Proper Jenny. This is not the first time you’ve made note of this preference, but it still seems just as insane as the first time I ever saw you say so. Insane. Seriously. What about Daphne and Apollo? What about Orpheus and Eurydice? And all the things! And Athena coming out of Zeus’s head, and all the stories about Hermes!

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