We’ve never liked lists. They favor trends and items that are heavily marketed as opposed to art that withstands the test of time. But we found a way around that. Since 2008 (before we even launched) we’ve asked a handful of Rumpus contributors for the best book they read that was not published that year. Tell us about the best book you read this year, in the comments.
A Transatlantic Love Affair: Letters to Nelson Algren by Simone de Beauvoir
I’d always meant to read this–it came out in something like 1999–but only got to it this year. The Sartre-de Beauvoir-Algren love triangle has a certain mythology to it that these letters strip bare in both humanizing, endearing, and at times disappointing ways. The de Beauvoir of her love letters is much funnier than we see evidenced in either her fiction or philosophical work, and how madly in love she is with Algren is palpable on the page. It’s also fascinating to watch her English improve over the course of the years of their correspondence, and her initial struggles to communicate the intensity of her feelings and the complexity of her ideas in a second language, leading to a kind of adorable stiltedness at times. The letters are sexy and soulful and peppered with fascinating appearances by the great intellectuals of the era, who passed in and out of de Beauvoir and Sartre’s Paris. In the end, however, perhaps the most compelling part of this long correspondence is de Beauvoir’s flawed humanity. Already mid-life when her affair with Algren began, by the time the letters conclude, she is still a vibrant woman in possession of one of the greatest minds of her age, and yet she repeatedly dismisses her own sexuality as done-with, grandmotherly and passé. Her insecurities about her womanhood play a far greater role than one having heard only the hype of this libertine trio might expect in limiting her future with Algren. I also hadn’t known, prior to this, that her sexual relationship with Sartre ended so early in their nearly lifelong partnership, and that her “choosing Sartre” over Algren seemed more based on the larger culture of which she and Sartre were the center than on an actual romantic relationship with Sartre…in de Beauvoir’s own words, he appears more as a brother figure than the way he is usually portrayed in writings about the couple. In this day and age where letter-writing has become a lost art and lovers tend to text each other in shorthand, there is a beautiful, longing nostalgia to the way de Beauvoir waits on letters from her beloved, and painstakingly chronicles her far-away life for him. Just an intoxicating read, on cultural, literary, historical and romantic levels. – Gina Frangello, author of Slut Lullabies.
Twisted Sisters 2: Drawing the Line
Edited by Diane Noomin, Kitchen Sink Press, 1995
In the mid-nineties, a new lover lent me an all-women comics anthology called Twisted Sisters: A Collection of Bad Girl Art (Penguin Books, 1991). I had only recently found out about alternative comics, that there was more to sequential art than Superman and manga, and this book served as a crash course on the most prominent alt ladies in comics at that time. The book was extremely influential in my decision to try my hand and comics myself. In fact, Mary Fleener’s excellent story, “Jelly,” was the last nail in the coffin. I thought, “Hey, I’ve got some good stories too, and I can kind of draw,” and I got to it.
I’ve pored over that book so many times over the years, I have no idea if it’s even good or not. I’m like that with songs I get obsessed with, and my best friends and family. After a while, I can’t be objective about them at all. I only know that they’re beautiful and infuriating and addictive to me, and I can’t imagine existing as the person I am right now without their influence. Well, that’s what this first book was like, so you can imagine my excitement and trepidation when I found out, so much later, that there had been a sequel to this life-changing anthology.
And you can imagine my relief when I finally got my hands on it, and it was ridiculously good. All the stories (by contributors Debbie Dreschler, Krystine Kryttre, Carol Lay, Carol Tyler, Fiona Smyth, Dame Darcy, Penny Moran Van Horn, Caryn Leschen, M.K. Brown, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Carel Moiseiwitsch, Mary Fleener, Phoebe Gloeckner, Leslie Sternbergh, Carol Swain and Diane Noomin) were so honest and gorgeous and hilarious and jarring. They made me re-evaluate the comics I’ve loved (and made) in the last decade, and hold them up to higher standards.
So yeah, it was a pretty good book. — MariNaomi, author and illustrator of the graphic memoir Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume, Ages 0 to 22.
Women Without Men by Shahrnush Parsipur
I first read this 20th century classic perhaps three years ago, when it was reissued owing to a film adaptation by Shirin Neshat. I’ve read and taught it every year since, and will do so again this spring, still trying to plumb its strange magic. An Iranian friend of mine calls Shahrnush Parsipur “our contemporary Sheherezade.” There is substantial truth in that–both concoct tales of transformation and travel, cowardice and bravado, although Sheherezade was saved by her outrageous stories, while Parsipur was jailed repeatedly for her fictions and now lives in exile in California. WOMEN WITHOUT MEN interleaves the stories of half a dozen women at the time of Mossadegh’s overthrow, telling a critical moment in Iran’s late history by means of indirection and piercing, lyrical insights. I can’t recommend it highly enough. — Padma Viswanathan, author of The Toss Of A Lemon.
Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph by Edgar Johnson
I’ve been on a Dickens kick, eating up Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, etc., but the book that’s really staying with me right now is actually a biography of Dickens. Don’t yawn! Edgar Johnson’s “Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph” is a big, fat, deep, beautifully written portrait of a brilliant, troubled genius. Dickens was always running from the shame of his impecunious father, especially the year Dickens spent as a child laborer in a blacking warehouse, an event he explored in fiction but kept secret in his life. He trained himself to be England’s greatest shorthand expert, was a fantastic actor, passable artist, and unbelievable workaholic. While writing novels he also edited two magazines and constantly put on benefit plays for broke writers–many of them annoyed at the attention he brought to their dire straits. Johnson, a novelist himself, captures the grand sweep of Dickens’s life. His terrible marriage, their ten (!) kids, his constant search of money and more money to keep it all together, and the sad, tragic descent at the end of his life, when he literally worked himself into an early grave. I read the last chapters with tears in my eyes. Gripping. This book is gripping. — Scott Hutchins, author of A Working Theory Of Love.
Team Of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Run River by Joan Didion
This year, I read Team of Rivals, which came out in 2006, and it was the first serious historical biography I’ve read in a long time (maybe ever?). At least half of the text consists of excerpts from the 1860s, so the language is particularly unusual, vivid and captivating: “as silent as an oyster,” you two “don’t exactly jee,” and “that everlasting occupation of wiping his spectacles.” One description of the Republican radicals made me laugh out loud: “all the elements of the Republican party–including the impracticables, the Pharisees, the better-than-thou declaimers, the long-haired men and the short-haired women.” It was a stirring story. I am a closet patriot and Kearns-Goodwin made me really proud.
Another notable non-2012 title: I also read Joan Didion’s novel Run River which is an odd calculating book about the Sacramento Valley and wealthy planter families. It just made me sad. — M. Rebekah Otto, Rumpus Books Editor
Conventional wisdom tells authors to write the books they want to read. And I agree with that sentiment, but I think as artists we can push it a step further: write the book that only you can write. If our greatest asset as a writer is our imagination, then we should turn that crazy beast loose to do its worst on the page.
For my money, no novel best indicates this axiom than EL Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel. I first read that book about ten years ago, and I return to it every year around the holidays. I’m not sure why I read it in December. Nothing about that narrative screams “I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus!”
I saw mommy in the electric chair is more apt.
Anyway, I read it annually because it challenges me. It challenges me to not only investigate the personal in my novels, but also the social, the political. It reminds me that books should certainly look inward, but they should also be artifacts, documenting the zeitgeist.
As an insecure novelist, I need these reminders. Books should be subversive, transgressive. They should never follow any grid or template, not that any exist. Structurally, “The Book of Daniel” breaks just about every rule and it defies you to not be utterly moved emotionally along the journey.
Maybe in the end, that’s the greatest thing we can accomplish as artists: our art has the potential to impact another human being emotionally. We can make them feel something from pathos to ebullience to whatever. We can share a brief moment together and in that flash, we’re both wonderfully alive. — Joshua Mohr, author of Damascus
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis
I read Madame Bovary in every French class I took in high school and college, but all of it, really, flew over my head. So over the summer I read the Lydia Davis version.
Also because Flannery O’Connor talks about Flaubert as the ultimate in sensory detail, and that was really helpful to read closely– how he puts a fire in a hearth in a room, how he talks about her at a dance, and (spoiler alert) amazingly, beautifully, shockingly, how she dies. Those pages at the end are incredible. I thought Davis did a stellar job, but I found myself slightly distanced from the book while reading it– talking to myself about 19th century novels and how I feel about them and why is it that I can’t quite fall into the world fully? It only staked its claim clearly over the next months, as I’ve thought of it a lot. Clear as a bell in my head. Sadder over time. Really sad. And beautiful.
Mr. Johnson, my high school French teacher, a marvel of a teacher, used to exaggerate French so we would imitate him and end up with better accents (something I did not realize at the time). “Emma,” he would say mournfully and all we would do was laugh at him. “We are all Emma,” he would say. — Aimee Bender, author of The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
It wasn’t the best book I read in 2012—hard to compete with Lolita, even on the fifth read, or Great Expectations on the first—but The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt, was certainly the funniest, most entertaining contemporary novel I read this year. Set in the Gold Rush era, it’s the violent and hilarious story of Eli and Charlie Sisters, two hired guns sent to murder a prospector who turns out to be a mad genius of sorts. It mines some of the same humor as The Sopranos, perhaps —psychopaths are people, too: they even go on diets!—but becomes in the end something strange and original and moving, as poignant a critique of the American dream as I’ve read in a while. It’s part Blood Meridian, part Waiting for Godot, part The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. — Eric Puchner, author of Model Home
Crash by JG Ballard
The best novel I read in 2012 was JG Ballard’s Crash. Stylish and insanely creepy, Crash tells the story of a monstrous sex-obsessed scientist who wishes to perish in a high-speed car collision with the actress Elizabeth Taylor; for much of the novel, he hurls his car against other vehicles and London’s infrastructure as practice. Now, a novel with such a premise is obviously irresistible, but I have to admit that nothing had quite prepared me for the the modish lyricism of Ballard’s prose, the way it squeezes sensuality from human organs, auto parts, and infrastructure: Ballard writes about car crashes the way an Aztec God may write about sacrifices. He’s also a master of the cityscape, presenting 1960s London as a sort of extended airport complex, where the most fun you can have is picking up a prostitute at the main terminal. All these qualities aside, what made Crash my favorite novel of 2012 was just how unapologetic it was. No political correctness; no larger social canvas; no declarations about the 1960s; just men, women, and their beautifully banged-up cars. — Karan Mahajan, author of Family Planning