I have been unforgivably negligent in maintaining my nearly-a-traditional mid-year and end-of-year “best of” book surveys but I am atoning with the following:
Overall, my impression is that 2012 was a relatively disappointing year in books for me. I didn’t find as many new and/or interesting works and authors as in the past. Part of that, is that 2012 was a year of rereading. I found myself harking back to a lot of authors who I hadn’t read in years.
But here’s my list of the books and/or authors who really made an impression on me (in the order read):
Religion in Human Evolution by Robert Bellah: This is a fascinating look at religion as it relates to human biological and cultural evolution. Bellah dismisses the idea that there is a “religion” gene or congeries of genes but he does postulate that there are biologically based behaviors that express themselves in the cultural meme of “religion.” I should have written a review for my GoodReads account but I had notes for nearly every page (of an 800+ page book) and the task was too daunting. This was, however, most assuredly a four-stars-out-of-five book and strongly recommended.
Erasure and Assumption by Percival Everett. Here is my opening from the GoodRead’s review: “If Erasure is about anything, it’s about identity. Ones we invent for ourselves, ones we invent for others, ones that are forced on us, and ones that we lose.”
Assumption is a very different novel in style, voice and ostensible subject than Erasure. But it is at least as good, if not better, in my opinion. It's made up of three novella-length stories tied together by the character of Ogden Walker, a deputy sheriff in a rural New Mexico county, and the problem of finding out who we are.
Everett is a welcome new find this year.
Ragnarök by A.S. Byatt. I thoroughly enjoyed this retelling of the Norse apocalypse, not least because she stripped it of its Christian accretions.
The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake. I finally got around to reading this SF classic and was well rewarded. The final book, Titus Alone, wasn’t as good as the first two but overall the trilogy deserves its reputation.
Medea and Cassandra by Christa Wolf. These were a couple of the rereads I mentioned above but it had been nearly 20 years since I had originally read them so it was as if I were discovering Wolf for the first time. Again from my GoodReads review of the first book: “It’s a critique of modern, capitalist (and, yes, male-dominated) culture, and – on a personal and the more important level – it’s an argument for the importance of retaining one’s integrity as a person in the face of enormous pressure to conform and submit. And that’s why I’ve revised my rating to four stars – it spoke to me more powerfully now than it did 15 years ago when I was – unfortunately – a less discerning reader.”
Red Emma Speaks, ed. by Alix Kates Shulman. This is a collection of some of Emma Goldman’s more famous writings. It too is a reread and it further solidified my admiration for this woman and her philosophy.
Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. This is a post-apocalyptic novel that deals with themes raised by authors like Walter Miller in A Canticle for Leibowitz or Edgar Pangborn in Davy and Still I Persist in Wondering – Is there an essential core of goodness in humanity? Are we condemned to repeat our follies? The struggle to remain an individual against the pressures to conform and obey.
Waiting for the Barbarians by Daniel Mendelsohn. This is the second collection of his reviews I’ve read (the first was How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken) and it is just as good as that first one. He covers low- and high-brow culture in its many forms and does it with an extraordinary insight that consistently amazes me.
And that’s about it for 2012, though I will make four honorable mentions:
Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha series – God’s War, Infidel, Rapture. (Technically, I haven’t read Rapture yet but I include it in anticipation.) Hurley is a new voice in the SF field and I am looking forward to reading more of her stuff.
Lindsey Davis’ Falco series. This is a mystery series set in Vespasian’s Rome. I’m enjoying it because Vespasian is one of my favorite Roman emperors; the series has a Rockford Files vibe, one of my favorite TV shows; and Davis writes well.
Iain Bank’s Hydrogen Sonata. This is the latest Culture novel and it’s the best one he’s written in years though it still can’t compare to the first three – Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons and Player of Games.
Based on an essay in the Mendelsohn book mentioned above, I picked up a copy of Stephen Mitchell’s new translation of the Iliad. I had hoped to finish it before the New Year but have only made it to Book 19 (as of the 31st). It is everything Mendelsohn promised and I would recommend it both to people who have read other translations and as a good place to start if you would like to read it but have been agonizing over whose version to attempt (assuming you weren’t going to go with the original Homeric Greek).
Happy reading in 2013!