The five best books I read in 2012

My reading has been all over the map this year, from gossipy cooking memoirs to hefty literary novels to travel writing and to, well, fluffy, escapist beach reads. But looking back over the 50 or so books I finished, five stand out. Four of them are novels. Two are written by women. Two are slim and novella-esque. Four are recent releases, with 2011-2012 pub dates, but one is 40 years old. After writing up these reviews I realized 4 of the 5 feature the Western U.S. I’ve been drawn to books about the West since realizing my stay in California was more permanent than temporary – I suppose it’s my way of trying to understand what remains, still, a foreign place. Anyway, here they are:

bernadette  1. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? A witty novel by TV script writer Maria Semple (Arrested Development, Mad About You, SNL, etc.) that combines emails, psychiatric documents, police reports and letters. I enjoyed the playful knocks against Seattle and its “Subaru parents.” It’s original, funny and refreshingly different.  Looking forward to seeing more from this writer.

2. The Sense of an Ending My bookclub chose this 2011 Booker Prize barneswinner back in the spring and I admit I was reluctant and expecting stuffiness and/or tedium from British author Julian Barnes. Well. I read this slim novel in one sitting and was blown away. It’s masterful. The writing, the storytelling, the subtle plot twists … it’s so carefully woven, you’ll want to read it more than once to absorb it all of its intricacies.

3. Wild: From Lost to Found on the wildPacific Crest Trail  This one is on everyone’s end-of-year ‘best of’ lists, and with good reason. Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of hiking solo on the Pacific Crest Trail while reeling from grief and life missteps manages to be readable, honest and a well-balanced emotional ride. The intimate voice made me feel I’d been told a long, riveting story by a close friend and after I finished I kept retelling bits of the book to everyone I knew. Like all of Strayed’s writing, it sticks with you.

traindreams4. Train Dreams Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke author Denis Johnson has written a lovely meditation on the nature of the West and its development. Johnson’s beautiful writing is crafted with a subtle hand. Train Dreams was nominated for the Pulitzer in 2012.

stegner5. Angle of Repose “It should not be denied… that being footloose has always exhilarated us. It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led West.” Wallace Stegner’s masterful novel of the American West is not new (it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972) but for some reason, despite numerous recommendations from friends and family, I kept putting off reading it. What a mistake! I now count it among my favorite novels and hope to read it again this year. It’s cinematic and evocative, written as a story within a story. When I read this I was reminded how modern lit has changed and changed our reading habits – there’s no sell-it-quick first chapter to reel you in. Stegner starts slow and expects the reader to follow. But writing like this deserves the slow build and careful pacing it’s given.

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Linktastic Tuesday: writing advice, ms length, and books for the beach

I wrote this post this morning … and then WordPress ate it. I responded by eating 2 pieces of cake slathered in rich chocolate frosting. Take that, lost hour of my life! Not so lost anymore! Ahem. Anyway, the cake was delicious and made me feel better. I did want to share a few links on this lovely, pollen-coated Tuesday*, so now, here they are, version two:

1.
Richard Gilbert has a great review/interview post with author Althea Black on his blog, Narrative. Black is the author of the short story collection I Knew You’d Be Lovely, and her advice on the writing process was frank and to-the-point, which is the kind of writing advice I most love to hear. Black describes how she put herself through a DIY MFA, reading and learning from writing books, and working hard at what she does (writing I Knew You’d Be Lovely was a 15-year process!) My favorite advice (because it’s true, and because it’s the hardest to do):

Through many hours of revising, I learned that if there’s a section of your story that depresses you to look at, you should cut it. If there’s a word that feels fancy or a character’s action that feels forced, cut. If there’s a paragraph where you can feel how hard you’re trying, cut. Cut anything that feels writerly or show-offy or self-conscious. Cut anything that doesn’t keep the ball moving. That really great metaphor that does nothing to advance your story? Cut.

I love Black’s focus on economy of language — “never say with twenty words what you can say with two.” I will admit I was not familiar with Black or her stories but I am now going to rush out and find a copy of this collection.

2.
Did you know The Great Gatsby is a novella? Me neither. It comes in just short of 50,000 words, which is the possibly arbitrary (and definitely debatable) number separating novel from novella.** Did you know you can find out the word counts of your favorite books on Amazon? Me neither. (Here’s how. You can only do it on “search inside this book” titles.)

I learned all this in “The Secret Lives of Novellas,” a short essay by Daniel Torday on the Glimmer Train site. Torday discusses his earlier obsession with word counts and what they represent, and how he realized that his WIP was long enough when it felt right to him, not because of a number. The WIP was published this spring, as a novella.

3.
Looking for something to read on your summer vacation? Or, like me, just always looking for something to read? Two good lists of new titles for summer:
-Flavorwire: 10 New Must-reads for May
-Bookpage: 20 summer standouts

*I’m having a hell of an allergy attack today and am a sniveling, sneezing mess. Seriously, driving is not a safe activity for me. Too much sneezing.
** In his essay, Torday mentions that E.M. Forster defined the novel as “any fictitious prose work over 50,000 words.” In my MFA program, I was taught that the publishing industry considers 75,000 words a novel, though clearly that’s just a guideline. Nathan Bransford suggests 70,000-80,000 for a debut novel, and no more than 150,000. So, novellas: 35K-70K?