My year, this year, was very full of books. Between our temporary move back to New York City for The Skeleton Twins, and my cookbook tour—which took me through Atlanta, San Francisco, Napa, Seattle, L.A., Austin, Richmond and D.C.—there was lots of opportunity for reading. Looking at the list of the books that I read in 2012, it’s like looking at a list of friends that kept me company through so much journeying. It’s hard to pick favorites, but I’ll put asterisks next to the ones I most heartily recommend. And so, without further ado, the books that I read in 2012.
Role Models by John Waters. After attempting to read Gogol’s short story collection, and only really reading The Nose (which I enjoyed and related to because sometimes I think my shnozz is going to crawl off my face and start a life of its own), and after trying to read Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March only to give up after 100 pages, I turned to an essay collection by John Waters. This choice came with its own set of complications; Craig had read the collection in 2011 and last Christmas, he gifted me with John Waters’ five favorite books from an essay in the book. Those books (The Man Who Loved Children, We Need To Talk About Kevin, My Sister’s Hand in Mine, In Youth is Pleasure and one more) were all sitting there on my nightstand and instead of reading one of them, books that Craig spent time hunting down, I glibly read Gogol, Bellow and then the Waters book itself instead of the book collection it inspired. Get over it, Craig. The Waters book is hilarious and surprisingly moving. The most memorable essay is about Waters’ friendship with Manson killer Leslie Van Houten who, as of the book’s printing, was still incarcerated despite a compelling claim that she’s been rehabilitated. Waters’ essay on the subject is really complex; he doesn’t let her off the hook for her grisly crimes, but at the same time, he questions a justice system that continues to punish someone who’s clearly suffered and atoned for their sins.
* The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. I had no interest in seeing the Cloud Atlas movie because I loved the book so much (see here); and with so many people reading Cloud Atlas this year because of the movie, I hope those who enjoy it will check out his more recent book: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet which is much more straight-forward but no less impressive a literary feat. In fact, a high-concept book like Cloud Atlas is probably easier to write than a story like De Zoet which doesn’t use fancy tricks or gimmicks to grab the reader’s attention, but instead relies on good old-fashioned storytelling. And Mitchell spins quite a yarn here; there’s a bumbling hero, a mysterious heroine and a truly evil villain. What makes it so rich an experience is the level of detail Mitchell achieves; you’d think he’d spent time in 18th century Japan as the country began opening its ports. The way he weaves together history, politics, language, character, story, and feeling is nothing short of masterful. Highly recommended.
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower. This collection of short stories is dark, twisted, and fairly memorable. I say “fairly” memorable because I’m on an airplane writing this and I’m trying to remember some stories from this book. The first story is great—there’s a depressed guy with an aquarium who puts mucky sea life in it that he catches himself on the beach. The final story, which gives the book its title, is a modern take on Vikings. Like, real Vikings who rape and pillage but their language is modern instead of old-fashioned. That story alone is worth the price of admission. Read it standing up in a book store and if you like it, buy the book to read the rest.
* Fun Home and Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel. This year was my year of Alison Bechdel. I resisted graphic novels for a while and then picked up Craig’s copy of Fun Home one day and couldn’t put it down. There’s an idea that pictures in a book somehow cheapen the experience; the opposite is true here. In fact, the images in Bechdel’s books only enrich the emotional experience of reading them. Fun Home tells the emotionally devastating story of Bechdel’s coming out as a lesbian, her father’s subsequent suicide, the possibility that he was gay too and how the family copes with that. Her follow-up book, Are You My Mother? isn’t as neatly structured or, for that matter, easy to summarize as Fun Home is—and by all accounts Fun Home is a better book—but I liked it just as much. It’s a deeper exploration, sometimes pretentious (quoting high-falutin books and authors) but it really proves the adage that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Bechdel’s life is so well-examined it’s almost like she’s living more than the rest of us. Which is precisely why these books are so inspired and inspiring: I can’t recommend them enough.
* 1984 by George Orwell. When I finished reading 1984, I had nightmares so intense Craig found me the next morning curled up on the couch, somehow traumatized by what I’d read. I know kids read this book in school, and I somehow missed that, and I’m glad that I was old enough to feel this book on a visceral level and not a “I’ve gotta read this for school” level. It’s a gut punch of a book, a really prophetic account of a society ruled by sinister forces appearing on screens. Right now, on this plane, there are screens everywhere: TV screens, my computer screen, the screens of the phones all around me. When you think about the messages we get from these screens, the unconscious ways we’re kept in check, it’s easy to start questioning everything. But this book is darker than that. The really ugly truth at the book’s center is that we’re all corruptible, that even our most noble ideals are meaningless when put to the test. And the test that Winston faces at the end of the book, in Room 101, is the most horrible, disturbing moment in literature I’ve yet encountered. Who knew a book written so long ago could rattle me this much? Good job, Orwell.
Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper by Fuschia Dunlop. I was charmed by this account of British food writer Fuschia Dunlop’s travels through China. For starters, her name is Fuschia Dunlop. Who wouldn’t love that? What makes this book so great is that it’s so personal: it’s not a journalistic account about eating your way through China, it’s one woman’s story of falling in love with a country through its food. And the things that she eats—some of it delicious (in particular, spicy Sichuan food), some of it terrifying (wait until you get to the scene where a restaurant proprietor slices open a live snake, squeezing green gall bladder juice into one shot glass of vodka, pouring warm blood into another glass of vodka and having her drink the two in a row)—made me excited to explore Chinese food more thoroughly both when I return to L.A. and hopefully, one day, when I make it to the far east. I’ll certainly have Dunlop’s book in hand when I go.
The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch. I did something kind of silly before going to the San Juan Islands this summer. I bought a book that I knew nothing about from the used bookstore on my street in L.A. Actually, that wasn’t so silly, it was kind of fun. The book that I bought, The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch appealed to me because the cover was old, slightly worn, and offered no illustrations or plot summary. It was just a solid block of material with a book inside of it. And so I started reading the book and was immediately taken with the story of a woman who’s called to be a tutor in some obscure part of England, with big rocky cliffs and dark black waters. When she finds out that she’s not meant to tutor children but, instead, the lady of the house, the story turns mysterious. But, by the end, I found it all to be rather over-the-top and not that convincing or compelling. Also, a bit too self-consciously intellectual for the story it’s trying to tell. Still, Murdoch creates a potent, vivid scenario here in this book and it’ll exist somewhere forever in my imagination.
* Wendy and the Lost Boys by Julie Salamon. I tore into this biography of playwright Wendy Wasserstein and positively devoured it. For personal reasons—because she was Jewish, because she was a playwright, because she loved food and gay men and musicals and New York City—I loved this book more than I can really express in one paragraph. The story of Wendy’s life is both an inspiration and a cautionary tale, the story of one woman’s keen ambition, her ability to overcome obstacles in order to achieve extraordinary success (she won the Pulitzer Prize for her play “The Heidi Chronicles”) only to find that her career ambition stood in the way of her more modest goal: to be a mother. The sacrifice that she ultimately makes to carry out that final wish brings about her demise in a way that’s so shocking and saddening you almost can’t read this book without a box of tissues. But even though the story of her life ends tragically, what a life it was! The people that she knew, the places that she went, the things that she achieved… This is one book I may very well read again. It’s my favorite book that I read this year.
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon. Oh Michael Chabon, why are you so talented? I mean, really. This is a book about Jewish people in Alaska, moved there when, in this twist on history, Israel falls apart in the 1950s. If that sounds heavy, this book is the opposite: it’s a detective story, written like Dashiell Hammett if Dashiell spent time in a Hebrew school in Alaska. Did I love it? Not really, but I was filled with admiration for it. Chabon could write about anything and I’d be entertained. This book is very entertaining and has some really surprising, moving moments, but compared to the book that made me love Chabon in the first place—The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay—this book doesn’t hold a candle. Still, a fun read.
Gone Girl by Gilian Flynn. If The Yiddish Policeman’s Union was thin gruel, this book is almost pure water with a speck of gruel in it. At first, I was totally taken with this story of a missing wife and the husband that may or may not have killed her. The device by which it’s told is rather ingenious: it goes back and forth from the husband’s account in the present moment, to the wife’s journal working from the day she met him to the day she went missing. And the first half of the book has real insights, real perspective about what it means to be in a marriage, the ups, the downs and the things that we do to destroy each other. But the second half of the book is so ridiculous, so strategically designed—the whole book is like a machine built to achieve a specific effect at a very specific moment halfway through—it left me feeling dirty and cheap. Instead of a thoughtful novel, I was reading airport pulp and when I was done I wanted to read something enriching, something that would fill me up in a way that this book made me feel empty. Which is why I chose…
* Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann. Everything that “Gone Girl” is not, this book is. It’s a soaring meditation on New York City and all of the lives that are contained herein, using the famous tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers as a framing device. All of the stories are connected in a way that’s totally surprising and deeply, deeply moving. In fact, the story of Corrigan–which you might argue is the story at the center of this book—really touched me in a way that made me question the way that I live my life (selfishly instead of selflessly). The scope of this book is breathtaking and when you’re done with it, you’ll feel changed for the better. And isn’t that why we read books in the first place, even the hard ones (like 1984)?
* In Youth Is Pleasure by Denton Welch. Rather poetically, I ended the year by reading one of those books Craig griped about my not reading when he bought them for me last year (see the John Waters entry). And, honestly, I owed him an apology because this book—one of John Waters’ favorites—is a total delight, a sort of queer Catcher in the Rye, with a British accent. It’s about a 15 year old boy named Orville Pym who’s on holiday with his dad and brothers. Nothing explicitly gay happens over the course of this book, but Orville is definitely moving in that direction when he wears women’s lipstick or engages in what amounts to S&M with a scout leader who ties him up and then lets Orville tie him up in his tent. What makes this book so strange and stirring is the way that Orville’s innocence mashes up against his darker instincts, like a scene where he makes disturbing faces at a baby, causing the baby to howl in anguish. That moment, one that I could really relate to (don’t we all do strange, inexplicably cruel things when we’re younger?) encapsulates everything that this book attempts to capture; and Welch captures all of it brilliantly.
More Amateur Gourmet:
Favorite Food Sites:
- 101 Cookbooks
- Chez Pim
- Chocolate and Zucchini
- David Lebovitz
- Serious Eats
- Simply Recipes
- Slice NY
- The Food Section