Top 5 Books of 2012 | Pete Timmermann

best2012 sqI never seem to read enough of the current calendar year’s releases to warrant either a full top 10 list at the end of the year, or to justify splitting my list into the perhaps more logical Best Fiction and Best Nonfiction categories.

 

2012 echols

So, as usual, this is a hodgepodge: two memoirs, one more straightforward nonfiction book, one graphic novel, and one collection of short stories. No novels this year made the list.

That said, I did come closer this year to writing a full list of 10 than I have in years prior. I’ve read 17 official 2012 releases at the time of this writing, and I’d say maybe nine of those were very good. The closest any novel came to making the list would have been either J.K. Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy or Joseph Schuster’s The Might Have Been, but above those would have been more nonfiction. It’s no surprise that I enjoyed the presumably final collection of David Foster Wallace’s essays, Both Flesh and Not, but mostly it just feels like filler—while all excellent, only the first and last essay in the book are up to his usual (extremely high) par. I also quite enjoyed Mick LaSalle’s The Beauty of the Real: What Hollywood Can Learn From Contemporary French Actresses and the book-length Will Oldham interview Will Oldham on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, but those two books seem too specialized for my particular interests to be able to easily allow themselves to be recommended to non-me people.

  1. Errol Morris | A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald (Penguin Press)

The general consensus about Wilderness of Error is that it’s like an Errol Morris documentary in book form; this is both very high praise and entirely accurate. If you’re not familiar with Morris’ oeuvre, though, consider it a more theory-based Helter Skelter, except that unlike Charles Manson in that book, it seems like Jeffrey MacDonald wasn’t actually guilty.

  1. Richard Seaver | The Tender Hour of Twilight: Paris in the ’50s, New York in the ’60s: A Memoir of Publishing’s Golden Age (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux)

Dick Seaver lived the life that many of us fantasize about living. He was in Paris when the existentials were rising in the literary world, he was an early champion of Samuel Beckett; and when he came to America, he became Barney Rosset’s right-hand man at Grove Press during their glory days, when they were publishing stuff like Naked Lunch, Last Exit to Brooklyn, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Tropic of Cancer. Meanwhile, it’s a beautifully written book; even when Seaver isn’t talking about the great things he did in the publishing world, The Tender Hour of Twilight is always a pleasure to read.

  1. Damien Echols | Life After Death (Blue Rider Press)

Life After Death is primarily made up of Echols’ writings done during the 18 years he was imprisoned for murders he didn’t commit, as recognized by the astoundingly good Paradise Lost documentaries and the current, less-good documentary West of Memphis. Damien’s a natural writer and his descriptions of what life in prison are like add to and make richer the prison narrative that we’re constantly getting from other sources. Also, I had the good fortune to read this immediately after finishing A Wilderness of Error; both are on the theme of unjust imprisonment, and both are excellent books, so they make great companion pieces to one another.

  1. Chris Ware | Building Stories (Pantheon)

Much has been made of how Chris Ware’s new graphic novel, Building Stories, is being sold: when you buy it it’s a giant box containing 14 different “easily misplaced elements,” from a newspaper to a thing that looks like a Little Golden Book to a pamphlet. What’s seeming to get lost in everyone’s fawning over the structure is just how damned good the content is. Ware is one of the real modern masters of his medium, and Building Stories is not only genius-level in terms of its graphic design, but also in its writing. I didn’t read a more emotionally affecting book this year.

  1. Adam Levin | Hot Pink (McSweeney’s)

McSweeney’s seems to have rushed the collection of Adam Levin’s stories Hot Pink out in the wake of his novel The Instructions’ success; Pink feels slight (it clocks in at barely over 200 pages, compared to The Instructions’ 1,000-plus) and maybe could have used a later release in favor of more stories. All the same, the stories here are as good as The Instructions would lead you to believe they would be. “Jane Tell,” in particular, is the best work of short fiction I read all year.

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