I'm too lazy to try to put together a coherent "best books of 2012" list on Literary Kicks, though I'm happy to point you to some other good lists. "A Year in Reading" at the Millions overflows with contributions from smart folks like Kate Zambreno, Scott Esposito, Alexander Chee and Ellen Ullman. Elsewhere, Michele Filgate gathers literary reveries over at the Salon What To Read Awards, and here are Ed Champion's faves and Largehearted Boy's monumental list of lists. Finally, plodding earnestly along behind its paywall, here's the New York Times Book Review's Ten Best Books of 2012, which includes 5 novels and 5 works of non-fiction.
Me, I read more non-fiction -- philosophy, history, politics -- than fiction this year, and I can only think of a few novels that impressed me in 2012. Kino by Jurgen Fauth was a refreshing, tantalizing comedy about art cinema obsessions. The World Without You by Joshua Henkin brought a real family to life. Laurent Binet's HHhH seemed to be an acrobatic work of self-exploratory fiction about World War II, wrapped like a KFC Double Down inside another acrobatic work of self-exploratory fiction about itself. (I'm not sure if I just made that sound good, but I really liked the book).
A tweet from @sarahw alerted me to the news that The Other, Thomas Tyron's fetching 1971 thriller about a good twin named Niles and a bad twin named Holland has been rediscovered and republished by the New York Review of Books with a new introduction by Dan Chaon.
Tyron's book is a rewarding read ... but I couldn't help noticing the marked difference in book cover styles represented by the original paperback cover that I remember so well and the new NYRB version. Strangely, even though I see that the new cover (above, right) attempts to be more artful and evocative than the old (above, left), it actually feels less effective and more conventional. Or are my fond memories of an old favorite book clouding my mind? Have book cover designs gotten better or worse since the 1970s? Good twin, bad twin, good cover, bad cover ...
I don't know much about the noir genre, but I checked out a new graphic novel called Dark Heat by Barry Graham and Vince Larue because I like Vince's beat-inspired writing and artwork, which often emphasizes themes from Michael McClure and Gary Snyder. Vince Larue also drew a very cool cover for my 2011 Kindle book about poker, The Cards I'm Playing: Poker and Postmodern Literature.
It's a strange leap that Larue makes from Snyder-inspired Zen Buddhism to macabre mystery comix, but Dark Heat shows many familiar influences, and also touches upon psychological and spiritual themes that remind me of The Sopranos, Psycho, Paul Auster, The Watchmen, Fletch, Taoism and a whole lot of good movies that have Steve Buscemi and/or Viggo Mortensen in them. This story begins in gritty realism, and ends with a postmodern exploration into what's real and what's not. For your noir pleasure: Dark Heat by Barry Graham and Vince Larue.
James Joyce's experimental masterwork Finnegans Wake gets a visual treatment by Jason Novak in the Paris Review. Novak wastes little time pondering the novel's meaning or plotline, noting that it "begins halfway through its final sentence" (indeed, it does).
Myself, I've never been able to actually finish reading Joyce's grand gesture to introspective modernism ... but Jason Novak's 7-panel cartoon, which deftly illustrates a symbolic anecdote from the book, will help me fake it at parties.
How can I possibly capture the wealth of goodness inside two thick new volumes of classic lit comix, The Graphic Canon, Vol. 1: From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons and The Graphic Canon, Vol. 2: From "Kubla Khan" to the Bronte Sisters to The Picture of Dorian Gray? There is a lot of depth here. These collections must be seen.
The three-volume anthology is the work of Russ Kick, one of the editors of the alternative-minded Disinformation website, and Kick's curious sensibility leads to a blissfully broad vision of multicultural literary classicism, from Coyote and the Pebbles: A Native American Folktale by Dayton Edmonds and Micah Farritor to the Mahabharata illustrated by Matt Wiegle to the Arabian Nights, adapted by Andrice Arp to Hagoromo: A Japanese Noh play, adapted by Isabel Greenberg. (And those selections are all from the first volume; I've barely begun to enjoy the second, and a final third is heading our way.)
The great works of western literature are here too, of course: The Odyssey by way of Gareth Hinds, a transgressive Hansel and Gretel by S. Clay Wilson, George Eliot's Middlemarch via Megan Kelso. I can't possibly write about all the pieces that deserve attention in one blog post, but I would like to show a few panels.
From the Talking Covers blog, here's a memorial tribute to the trend-setting Vintage Contemporaries line of original paperback books that led the publishing pack in visual freshness during the 1980s. Jay McInerney, Mona Simpson and Raymond Carver all looked great in these uniform cover designs, which vaguely referenced Roy Lichtenstein and emphasized splashy colors and art deco fonts.
Standing by the boat one night I watched the lake go
absolutely flat. Smaller than raindrops, and only
Here and there, the feeding rings of fish were visible a hundred
yards away -- and the Blue Gill caught that afternoon
Lifted from its northern lake like a tropical! Jewel at its ear
Belly gold so bright you'd swear he had a
Light in there. His color faded with his life. A small
green fish ...
Lew Welch was one of the very best Beat Generation poets, though he never quite got famous for it. He caught the tail end of the Beat movement, reaching his creative peak in the 1960s along with Michael McClure, Diane Di Prima and Lenore Kandel. Lew Welch worked as an ad man in Chicago before leaving the commercial world to become a full-time poet/dharma bum, and in this capacity he was part of the creative team that came up with the slogan "Raid Kills Bugs Dead". Welch was highly regarded by other Beat poets, but despite his savvy in the advertising business he never found a secure foothold in the fast-changing 1960s hipster/poetry scene, and seems to have considered himself a lost cause. Welch killed himself in 1971.
A new collection of Lew Welch's poetry has just been published by City Lights. Ring of Bone: Collected Poems covers his entire career, from his early attempts to write jazz poetry inspired by William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein to his increasingly self-directed, sardonic later verses, which encircle his creative frustration. Some titles: "Sausalito Trash Prayer", "Song of the Turkey Buzzard", "A Round of English", "Not Yet 40 But My Beard is Already White". This book now stands as the authoritative edition of Lew Welch's work, and includes a foreword by his close friend Gary Snyder.
Two interesting facts about poet Lew Welch: first, his stepson was the San Francisco 1980's blues-pop singer Huey Lewis (who must have taken the last name "Lewis" in tribute to his stepfather, even though in the 1980s it was hip to be square).
1. The classic science-fiction author Ray Bradbury has died. I never really kept up with his work, but when I was a kid I thought Illustrated Man had the coolest book cover in the universe. "The Veldt" was my favorite story from that collection. Here's more on Ray from Boing Boing, io9, Neil Gaiman and Ed Champion.
And while I've gotcha here:
2. Beautiful visualizations can occur when great authors pick up the brush.
It seems everything we know about the 1960s is wrong. Facts about the both celebrated and maligned decade are one thing—hey, we’re up to our paisley headbands in the facts!—but the truth is far more elusive. Michel Choquette, a former contributor to the National Lampoon and longtime Montreal-based writer, has waited more than 40 years to lay some truth on us about the 1960s, via a massive, exhaustive and utterly idiosyncratic project called The Someday Funnies. Choquette began this project—an attempt to re-create the look, feel and truthiness of the 1960s through the talents of hundreds of the world’s hippest cartoonists, seers and writers—in 1971.
Originally the impulsive idea of Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, who wanted to run some strips assembled by Choquette as a special supplement to his magazine, it grew into book length. And had Choquette’s prodigious energy not eventually petered out, it probably would have grown to encyclopedic length. Ultimately, Wenner backed out of both the supplement and the book, a pattern that was to repeat itself over the next decade which saw Choquette thwarted by false promises of publishers, artists who never delivered work, investors who backed out, and the sheer expense of publishing large format color illustrations. For some reason, Choquette hung on to the pipedream and even continued to solicit work far and wide, and The Someday Funnies entered into that mythical realm of things that could-have-been.
Indeed, as Jeet Heer notes in the introduction to the recently (and finally!) published edition of The Someday Funnies, the project was “more rumor than reality—an urban legend of sorts,” like a volume in the imaginary library conjured by Borges. It had always sounded, as Heer put it, “like something out of a fairy tale”, something too good to be true: a tabloid-sized collection of comics from all over the world, the sort of thing about which comic fan-boys and fan-girls would just shrug and say, “I’ll believe it when I hold a copy in my hands.”
The film version of Jack Kerouac's On The Road has dropped! I never thought it would happen.
The movie is not yet in general release, but it has premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and reactions to the long-awaited literary adaptation are starting to pour in. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times praises the movie's integrity and seriousness, but describes the cinematic experience as "respectable, muted". Reviewers from the Guardian and Film School Rejects also describe an honorable attempt to capture the scope of Kerouac's novel that doesn't quite come together on screen. The biggest rave so far is from Jerry Cimino of San Francisco's Beat Museum, who says that "purists will be elated". (Jerry was a consultant to the filmmakers, which may have colored his very positive reaction -- however, he knows his Kerouac, and the fact that he loves the film wholeheartedly means a lot.)
2. On to other things! Like, for instance, sonnets. Every once in a while, some ambitious writer decides to create an entire book in sonnet form. Chad Parmenter's iambic novel is called Bat and Man: A Sonnet Comic Book, and here are a few sample verses.
4. John Updike's boyhood home in Shillington, Pennsylvania will become a John Updike Museum. Couples get in free.