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Desiderata: Our Favorite Titles of 2012
Nanci McCloskey (Director of Publicity): I have to be honest, I’m a junkie for literary biographies. I love learning about writers’ upbringing, their idiosyncrasies, their sexual escapades. The dirtier the gossip, the better. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max did not disappoint. For better or for worse, I feel like I know David Foster Wallace now.
Meg Storey (Editor, Tin House Books): Second Person Singular, by Sayed Kashua. Stay with me here; this is going to get a little complicated: A successful Arab Israeli lawyer who lives and works in Jerusalem and who considers himself somewhat of an intellectual buys a used copy of Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata, out of which falls a love note in his wife’s handwriting that is not for him. An Arab Israeli social worker becomes the caretaker for a paralyzed Jewish man who had been a photography student and the caretaker slowly assumes this man’s identity. Kashua draws out these plotlines in an agonizing way that has the reader madly trying to figure out their connection and resisting the urge to flip ahead but that is ultimately satisfying. Kashua’s complicated third novel continues his exploration of the complicated place of the Israeli Arab, his chances at success, and what that success might cost him.
Rob Spillman (Editor of Tin House): Later Poems Selected and New: 1971-2012 by Adrienne Rich. From Diving Into the Wreck to her very last poems, written when she was eighty-two, Rich’s poems burn with precision and passion.
Tony Perez (Editor, Tin House Books): When I was just a wee boy, whenever anyone asked me my favorite movie, or book, or flavor of ice cream, I’d respond with the movie, or book, or ice cream flavor I’d last watched/read/spilled all over my shirt. Short memory, I guess. I’d like to think that I’ve developed somewhat since then, cognitively speaking, but, quite honestly, my favorite novel of 2012 is the one I wrote about last week on this very same blog: Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory. Houellebecq’s that rare novelist that can produce a “novel of ideas” without sacrificing things like character and plot, because his ideas—on art, and work, and sex, and commerce—truly inhabit his characters and their trajectories (I suppose that’s easier when cast yourself as a character). No book in recent memory (which, based on the above confession, may not be saying much), has kept me so rapt while reading and led me down such a rabbit-hole of inquiry when I was not.
Diane Chonette (Art Director, Tin House Books): This year my debut reading was limited those we produced here at Tin House. Luckily, they were fantastic. I think my favorite book for 2012 would have to be Glaciers by Alexis Smith. The bittersweet short novel ebbs and flows through the course of one day in the life of the main character, Isabel. It’s a poetic love letter and brought Portland even closer to my heart. The best part of this book for me, however, was being responsible for its package. Creating the collage dress for the cover was one of the most intimate projects I’ve done for Tin House.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Editorial Assistant, Tin House Magazine): Three titles I suspect would top my 2012 picks—Lauren Groff’s Arcadia, A.M. Home’s May We Be Forgiven, and Luis Jaramillo’s The Doctor’s Wife—are all books I’ve only just begun and so can’t fairly list here. But the book I’ve looked for excuses to talk about all year is Draw it With Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment edited by Dwight Garner. The book compiles personal accounts of memorable art school tasks, particularly stories of battle raged with intrinsically impossible assignments and the attendant humiliation/pain/suffering/revelation they caused. (My favorite features performance art with a grilled cheese sandwich and an adult squeezed into a kid-sized Spiderman suit.) The stories hit home if you’ve ever slept on a studio floor rolled up in your own canvas while trying to figure out what it would mean to make an objective painting. Even if you haven’t, it’s a delight to think about how to outwit or outlast the prompts’ absurdities and hear tell from the brave souls who did just that.
Matthew Dickman (Poetry Editor): Thunderbird by Dorthea Lasky. After reading this book I felt I understood something about my own inner-life. That something important in the world was made clearer. So I read it again and again. It’s a wonderful book of poems that should be read by anyone who loves poetry as well as anyone who has never picked up a book of poems in their life.
Elissa Schappell (Editor at Large): A True History of the Captivation, Transport to Strange Lands, & Deliverance of Hannah Guttentag by Josh Russell. The sassy heroine’s story—part Puritan-era narrative, part brutally funny smackdown of academia, part portrait of a woman who wants to have it all—spoke to me. A wonderfully clever novel.
I also loved Heroines, the memoir by novelist, polemicist, and ass-kicking feminist, Kate Zambreno. On her blog Frances Farmer is My Sister, Zambreno champions the “wives and mistresses” of modernism. Female writers and artists such as Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys and Zelda Fitzgerald who played muse to great men at the expense of their own work and lives. Zambreno continues the conversation in Heroines creating a new canon—a fuck-you to the Great American White Male Way—inspires, and gives agency to all the women who want to make art.
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): The fourteen books, newspapers, and foldouts that make up Chris Ware’s Building Stories can be read in any order, allowing the already anachronistic characters to slip in and out of the present and either stumble into the future or flounder in days gone by. Through this packaging and Ware’s attention to craft, the work is as much an ode to printed matter as it is a masterpiece of the comic form. With his regimented panels and gorgeous lettering, Ware returns, here, to his usual themes of loss, memory, and isolation. But he also delights in the absurd, as in the case of his anthropomorphized bee, Branford, who obsessively fantasizes about the hive queen while struggling to provide for his family. In Building Stories, Ware has constructed a complex and moving world that both depresses and delights.
Masie Cochran (Associate Editor, Tin House Books): It’s not very exciting or inventive to pick a National Book Award winner, but Louise Erdrich’s The Round House was, hands down, my favorite novel of 2012. I’ve loved Erdrich for a long time, with Love Medicine and The Plague of Doves at the top of the list until now. The Round House has my vote as Erdrich’s best book yet.
Lance Cleland (Editorial Assistant, Tin House Magazine): Collected Poems by Jack Gilbert. With his recent passing, I suppose Jack Gilbert’s collected work might seem like a sentimental pick. I’m alright with that. As a poet, Gilbert was never afraid to get sentimental. He knew melancholy could find you in the cereal aisle and rather than trying to turn that into something ironic (something many of his contemporaries do at an alarming rate), he embraced the ways emotion run our lives. I find this to be both brave and comforting. There is a direct nature to almost every line he writes, which forces you to react immediately to the work. His heart is skidding and so your heart is skidding. There is little unwrapping to be done here. Which is not to say that Gilbert’s work does not stay with you, that you will not linger over his poems from morning coffee to your nightcap. It just that his words burrow quickly. Collectively, they narrate a life lived and one that is just beginning.