Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Top 5 Discoveries of 2012: Books

This is the third official list in my “Top 5 Discoveries of 2012” series. To see my music list, click here. To see my television list, click here. To better appreciate my approach to making these lists, please read the brief introduction to this series (posted here).

A wise woman once said, “Buying a book is buying a promise that you will find all the answers you’re looking for within its covers.” That woman is my mother. I grew up in a family that appreciated books. My dad had a large library of books, and family outings often consisted of trips to Barnes & Noble, where my father would allow each of us to choose a book to take home. My penchant for purchasing books stemmed into adulthood. When I still lived at home but had a job—and therefore had ample disposable income—I splurged on purchasing whatever books caught my attention. In a twist on my mother’s quotation, I felt that buying a book was a promise to become the kind of person who reads that type of book. Regrettably, I read surprisingly few of the books I purchased.  Even so, I find that books have retained their air of sophistication in my eyes, especially now that I’m an academic. I regard my personal library as a status symbol, as a kind of abstract self-portrait. Looking at the tomes that line my bookshelf, I proudly think, “That’s who I am.”

I read—or, more accurately, finished reading—only 16 books in 2012. That sounds like a ridiculously low number, probably because within the same year I added ten times that many books to my insurmountable “to-read” list. With several mediocre titles among my 2012 readings, it wasn’t hard to pick out the top third. Still, I’m hopeful that next year’s selections will be even more exciting to me than this year’s. That being said, here are my top five—from not-as-best to absolute bestest—books that I discovered in 2012:

5. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

If The Sisters Brothers were a movie, it would fall somewhere between True Grit, No Country for Old Men, and Pulp Fiction. I greatly enjoyed this prosaic western, which tells the story of contract killers Eli and Charlie Sisters as they attempt to track down accused thief Hermann Kermit Warm. Eli Sisters serves as the narrator of the book, a large and largely indifferent fellow who fulfills his job with all the enthusiasm of an unquestioning data entry clerk. It’s his job, not his passion. Bored, reflective, and alternately sympathetic and psychotic, Eli has always been a loyal partner to his cocksure brother. But, as time passes, Eli’s self-reflection slowly drives a wedge between Eli’s and Charlie’s professional ambitions.

4. God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked by Darrell Hammond
I wrote a review of this book and posted it here. It sums up my thoughts.

3. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard L. Bushman
Mormons are divided on how they receive Richard Bushman’s authoritative biography of the 19th-century founder of the religious movement now known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I personally found the book extremely interesting, insightful, and balanced. Bushman doesn’t shy away from Smith’s frailties. While many faithful members of the LDS Church might be disturbed to learn of Smith’s all-too-human nature, I am of the opinion that embracing these imperfections in someone regarded as a prophet allows the believer to be more patient with and forgiving of himself. But the merits of Rough Stone Rolling are not limited to those of a particular religious ilk. The biography is masterfully researched and written, informatively dense and yet highly approachable. For those who wish to continue the research on their own, the footnotes and bibliographical information provided in Rough Stone Rolling are their own treasure.

2. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind
I wrote a review for this must-read 1985 novel here. Definitely among the best works of fiction I’ve read, its inclusion on this list serves a dual purpose. Not only is the book phenomenal, but I anticipate looking into more of Süskind’s work in the future. Count this one as a double discovery.

1. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Written in 1962, I had not heard of We Have Always Lived in the Castle until shortly before I read it. I now consider it one of my favorite books of all time. The castle in question is the Blackwood family home, wherein narrator Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood, her older sister Constance, and their wheelchair-bound uncle Julian now reside. Merricat’s parents and younger brother, along with Julian’s wife, have all perished—poisoned with arsenic. Constance, the primary suspect in the relatives’ deaths, was acquitted of murder, but the townsfolk don’t buy her innocence. The entire extant Blackwood family is now reviled and taunted by the surrounding community, which explains why they rarely venture into public.

A central plot point involves the appearance of Charles, an estranged cousin who may or may not be seeking to cash in on Constance and Merricat’s material inheritance. Forget that, though. So much of Shirley Jackson’s book is rooted in the psychology of the Blackwood family (especially Merricat) that going into further plot details is almost meaningless. This book is all about character, and Merricat provides plenty of it. If you’ve ever wondered what subtext is, here’s your answer. The novel is ridiculously good, and I wish I could force everyone I know to read it. Is that enough praise?


  1. Hi there, the January edition of Books You Loved is open for entries. Here is the link Books You Loved January Edition Please do pop by and link in a post about a book/s you loved. Maybe this post? Cheers and Happy New Year!

  2. I am so excited to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle!!