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Damn good reads: Our critics pick their faves from 2012


After the death of his father, Oppen Porter is forced out of the pastoral hometown where everyone knows him and the air smells of roasting almonds and fermenting grapes, and into the care of his aunt down in the sprawl of the San Fernando Valley. She gets him a job at a fast food joint and makes him see a lousy therapist. It’s a grim transition. Yet early on I started waiting until bedtime to pick up this luminous book, because listening to Oppen — who calls himself a “slow absorber” — is the most restorative reading I’ve done in ages. Oppen narrates into a cassette recorder from what he believes is his deathbed, speaking to the unborn son he thinks he’ll never meet. He ought to feel cheated and angry; he doesn’t, maybe because cognitive deficits and overtrustfulness protect him from the disappointments of adult life. But: Oppen is nobody’s fool. It’s impossible to feel sorry for him — his story is too wise, too lovely and too funny for that (there’s a memorable french fry scene that keeps flickering into my head). Wilson writes beautifully here, confidently telling the story without gloom or angst, without any looming sense of impending negativity — what a gift, and what a relief for the reader, to be assured that deeply felt literary fiction doesn’t require those things. MAILE CHAPMAN

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pages


The best book I read this year? Had to be Michael Chabon’s novel Telegraph Avenue, a generous offering of Chabon’s pyrotechnic prose riffing gorgeously and comically on big American problems like race, corporate capitalism and the loss of your local vinyl record store. … No, it was Dave Eggers’ novel A Hologram for the King, his latest big-souled effort, set in Saudi Arabia, to dramatize the effects of globalism on an American businessman lost in middle aged despair. … No, it was the Pete Townsend autobiography, Who I Am, which rivals Keith Richards’ recent memoir for intelligence, candor and hotel-wrecking. … No, it was the new Thomas Jefferson biography, The Art of Power, which breathes new life into our most confounding founding father. … No, it was … it was … stop! Best Book of the Year? A category to make the head spin. But the book that stuck with me the most? D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, a careful but large-spirited biography of the most haunting and haunted American writer of the millennial period. Along with Wallace’s posthumous collection of nonfiction, Both Flesh and Not, it reiterates the plangency and vitality of DFW’s fictional project — to write about “what it means to be a fucking human being” in these perilous days. CORNEL BONCA

Viking, 368 pages


Selecting the best of anything is difficult, which is why everything in this life would be made easier if there was a Super Bowl of All Things at the conclusion of each year. The best cheeses would face off … the best detergents … the best films … the best bug sprays … the best dogs … the best clearly insane former candidates for the Republican nomination for president … and then, once and for all, we’d have our Best of the Year tallied, along with a little Hunger Games-style televised glee for our collective enjoyment. Since this does not yet exist, I played out the games in my head and pitted my favorite books of the year against each other to find my pick of the best. There was Richard Ford’s epic Canada, a return to a more introspective Dirty Realism-inspired voice that reminded this reader of his early work; Sara Levine’s comic masterpiece Treasure Island!!! (which actually came out in the last weeks of 2011); Jess Walter’s eclectic yarn of old Hollywood and romantic longing, Beautiful Ruins; Megan Mayhew Bergman’s and Claire Vaye Watkins’ strange and assured debut collections of short stories, Birds of a Lesser Paradise and Battleborn, respectively, which provided a look into what the next 20 years of literary fiction will hold; and, finally, there was Ben H. Winters’ genre-bending doomsday crime novel, The Last Policeman, which focused on the one man still solving murders as an asteroid hurtles toward Earth. All were worthy contenders for the best of the year, but it was The Last Policeman that I kept telling people to read, not because it was the finest work of literature ever produced, but because it was simply the best damn time I had reading a book all year, the book that kept me off-balance and questioning my own life, all while hungrily flipping pages to get to the bottom of a compelling mystery. The best genre fiction holds a mirror up to society while also providing edge-of-the-seat excitement, and The Last Policeman did that and more. TOD GOLDBERG

Quirk Books, 288 pages


It was a great year for essayists. That may sound odd. After all, hasn’t the essay been a dead artform for a while now? Well, in fact, no. Essays are still going strong, and it seems like all the top nonfiction writers issued a collection in 2012, including Tom Bissell, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Nicholson Baker, Daniel Mendelsohn, Jon Ronson and, posthumously, David Foster Wallace and Christopher Hitchens. I picked up most of them and liked most of them. But if I had to select one that stood apart and left a lasting impression, it would be Mark Dery’s latest compilation. Dery does not gently ponder the complexities of life while strolling through the garden. He explores what he calls American Gothic — the weirdest stuff humans are into. Toe fetishes. Neo-fascism. HAL’s sexuality. Severed heads. At times, Dery takes these subcultural obsessions a little too seriously, trying to layer academic legitimacy on mindless perversities and Internet-fueled fads. But this is a minor quibble. And while weirdness is Dery’s calling card, the collection’s best pieces are those that tackle more conventional topics: gun culture, homophobia, animal behavior, the commercialization of the Holocaust. Dery’s collection is uneven, as most essay collections are, but it’s wonderfully written and never boring. GEOFF SCHUMACHER

University of Minnesota Press, 317 pages