Here's how this works: as in years past, the Notable List will unfold in riveting fashion over the course of the next 10 days in a countdown of sorts, culminating in the earth-shattering reveal of The Best Book I Read in 2012. OMG. Today's post will feature the "also-rans" - a handful of titles I read this year that just missed making the cut, but deserve mention.
There are not a lot of rules for the formation of this list - really the only binding agreement is that a book needs to have been published in the same calendar year as the list in order to be included. And that it was one of the ten best books I read, of course. Often this leaves quality books out of contention, simply because I was late in getting around to reading them. (I'll make note of any of those below.) As of this writing, I have read all or parts of somewhere in the neighborhood of 57 books in 2012, give or take a few short stories, some essays, a handful of poems, the back of several cereal boxes. Some things that this entirely subjective Notable list will not reflect:
- the 314 pages of Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue I read. Just never could get into the flow there, much to my dismay. I remain a devoted fan. (Chabon is a former Notable: see the old-school 2007 list.)
- the little bit of Lawrence "The Pope's Rhinoceros" Norfolk's John Saturnall's Feast that I managed to read. We don't need to revisit the rhinoceros, do we?
- the entire David Mitchell canon, read consecutively in the month of May. I think we all know what the top five books on the list would be if I counted those.
- the 154 pages of Moby Dick I managed - I mean, c'mon, that's a life-long pursuit anyway.
- Daniel Wilson's flaccid Robopocalypse followup, Amped. I said flaccid.
- the over-hyped Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore.
- National Book Award winner The Round House (currently reading), Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk, Booker winner Bring Up the Bodies, NW, A Hologram For the King, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, or The Fault in Our Stars. I didn't read any of those.
Here are the Notable Notables for 2012 - other quality books I read that didn't quite make the Top Ten. In no particular order:
A Million Heavens by John Brandon
If anything, the fact that this book didn't make the cut should be a testament to the books that did. (It's also a perfect book package from McSweeney's - art printed right on the cover, no pesky dust jacket. Books as art objects, y'all.) Told from the alternating perspectives of a variety of narrators in the fading desert town of Lofte, New Mexico - a town slowly being absorbed by the encroaching desert sands - this is a rather lazily flowing chronicle of the lives of several people. Within its pages, you can almost feel the crispness of the desert night air, smell the sand and rock, see the infinite stars overhead. Maybe it's that slowness of pacing that allows you to take the time to admire your surroundings - but I felt that Brandon managed to perfectly capture that desert-awareness. None of the narrators are in a hurry, no one has an agenda that needs a quickened pace. The story revolves around a dead songwriter and a kid in a coma - central figures that have no actual, physical voice, which allows others to fill in the gaps of narration. Filled with both bits of magical realism and the stark reality of modern American life, the character eventually becomes the town itself, being gradually swallowed up by the encroaching desert sands.
City of Bohane by Kevin Barry
If you took Gangs of New York, dropped it in an Ireland 40 years in the future, tossed in some Mad Max, Philip K. Dick, Trainspotting, A Clockwork Orange, maybe a little James Kelman gutter-English or David Mitchell future-pidgin, you might have City of Bohane. Barry just throws you into this future world without reference & leaves you to fend for yourself – which is a great thing. There’s no hand holding here, whether on the language, the culture, the gangs, or how things got to this warped landscape in the first place. AND he pulls it all together, makes a great story, & leaves his characters & their world firmly implanted in your head for the long haul.
Lonesome Animals by Bruce Holbert
The full Catapult review. One of the shadiest protagonists out there, Sheriff Russell Strawl kills with abandon in his relentless search for an even more evil presence stalking the people of his backwoods Washington county. He's so bad that everyone he meets just assumes he's the actual killer. Writing and atmosphere right in there with much of Cormac McCarthy and Robert Olmstead's stuff.
Swell by Corwin Ericson
The only reason - and I mean, only - that Swell did not make the Top Ten was because it was published in the Fall of 2011 and I read it in the first days of 2012. I hate that I'm effectively punishing Corwin Ericson for that, but rules is rules. Orange Whippey (best name ever?) is a degenerate loser from the tiny island of Bismuth in the North Atlantic who somehow, despite his best intentions of remaining a loser, inexplicably winds up heading a plot involving whale herders, Korean drug smugglers, an aquatic cell phone network, Norse mythology, and the subtle intricacies of Jaws, the novel. Hilarious and weird, yet bizarrely heartwarming & filled with unforgettable characters.
Panorama City by Antoine Wilson
One of the more compelling, endearing narrators you'll find, Oppen Porter seems to be a simple-minded idiot to most of the people he meets, but his is more of a slow-paced innocence, rather than stupidity. (Even though he admits he's a "slow absorber.") When his father dies suddenly, the 28-year-old Oppen is thrust into the world at large for the first time (Panorama City, CA to be exact), but his naiveté actually broadens the minds of everyone he meets, rather than the other way around. "In my ideal world everyone knows everyone else, bicycles and binoculars get the respect they deserve, there is no such thing as money, thinkers have time to think, everyone is as lucky as I am, and people are buried where they want." Some times the village idiot turns out to be the village genius. We could all learn a lot from the likes of Oppen.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
I've been a big fan of Jess Walter since his breakout dark & gritty Citizen Vince (2005) arrived & won the 2006 Edgar. The Zero was a Catapult Notable in '06 and The Financial Lives of the Poets was #5 on the 2009 list, so we've established a little bit of history here. Beautiful Ruins wasn't my favorite of Walter's, but still quite a solid number. Actually, he continues to stun me in his versatility - Vince was a gritty crime novel, Zero was a 9/11 story about memory loss, Poets was about a hilarious, moving mid-life crisis, and Ruins is sort of a star-crossed lovers deal. Spanning 50 years, several continents & cultures, and dozens of characters, Ruins shows that while fate can bring people into and out of each others lives, for a variety of reasons (sometimes it's because Richard Burton has an unquenchable sexual appetite) but every now and then we have the power to determine whether those routes cross again. A novel about how lives intersect, but also about seizing your own life and making it your own.
The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
The full Catapult review. This one just barely missed the cut - perhaps a victim of being read just after Thanksgiving 2011. Johnson started out writing this project as a humorous story about North Korea, poking fun at Kim Jong Il, but it gradually morphed and evolved as his research into the dark peninsula of Korea deepened. Told with just enough humor to take the edge off – or so you think, at least until you’re knee-deep in conspiracies, lies, and the despairing fear that goes with living in Kim’s DPRK. Johnson tells his tale from alternating perspectives throughout – that of the daily State radio broadcasts & of his clever, celebrity-impersonating narrator – turning this into a brilliantly crafted, moving tale of love, fear, hope, and ultimately, survival.
The Mirage by Matt Ruff
The full Catapult review. Another one that I think missed making the list because I read it last year. Don't get me wrong, this isn't some sort of automatic, secret disqualifier - if it left sufficient enough of an impression on me, it would've made the cut. I love the premise to this - an alternative, parallel universe where the Middle East has developed as the predominant, global culture and the United States is a wasteland of warring tribes. On November 9, 2001, two airplanes hijacked by Christian fundamentalists from America crashed into the Tigris and Euphrates World Trade Towers in downtown Baghdad, killing thousands of people, sparking a global War on Terror. Sound familiar?
Okay, tomorrow brings #10 on the 2012 Catapult Notable list - see you then.