Monday, December 10, 2012

Top 10 Books of 2012: An Eclectic List

At this time of year, there's only one thing more inevitable than the Mayan Apocalypse: Top 10 lists of books.  Best Books of the YearBest young adult fictionBest children's books. Or (a personal favorite) the 10 Most Frequently Banned books of 2012. But somehow, most of these lists all seem drearily similar; their purpose is usually not to attract interest in the extraordinary, but to anoint the significant, and as a result most of them are filled with the usual suspects.

I'll confess here and now that I don't read a great number of new books in any year. As a professor of English, my annual reading contains much more of the familiar -- the books I'm teaching, often for the fifth, or tenth, or twentieth time. I'm not interested in following (or breaking with) literary canons as such; what I require are durable books, books that can take constant repeating and still disclose unexpected treats: Hamlet, Our Mutual Friend, Robinson Crusoe, Jane Eyre, The Haunting of Hill House, Selected Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. But of course I have every opportunity to talk about these, and to a  (relatively) captive audience.  In between teaching and grading papers and my own writing, there's only a narrow space for the new, and I tend to be picky -- I hate disappointment, and don't want to spend any more time than I must with mixed bags and mediocrities.  Why, I often wonder, would someone write at all, if not to finely hone every sentence, and tell a tale whose urgency is equal to the art?

So my list of favorites from 2012 is a rather odd one -- new editions of the classics amplified by the editor's and printer's craft, unexpected posthumous memoirs, and nonfiction which illuminates something little-known or unjustly forgotten.  That's about it in a nutshell.

And so, in no particular order (I hate ranking things as though a book's good qualities could be gauged along the lines of a "Nutrition Facts" sticker -- they can't) here are my top ten. I'll put them in pairs, because quite often it's how books speak to each other that's most vital to their virtues.

My Friend Dahmer and Harvey Pekar's Cleveland. Yes, I'm from Cleveland -- and therefore I am entitled to love it and grouse about it at the same time. And, I like to point out, it's the home of two darkly brilliant figures: Pekar and Derf. Pekar's posthumous production, brilliantly brought to life by Joseph Remnant, aims to do for Cleveland what Joyce did for Dublin. Of course, being Pekar, he never quite gets there, and you realize somewhere along the way that one story will just always lead to another, blotting out the larger picture like a blizzard's worth of 'lake effect' snow. And that's, so very -- well, so very Cleveland. Derf, always a personal favorite, first told the tale of his high-school acquaintance with Dahmer n a 20-page B&W comic format book in 2002; I still love that version, though it's wonderfully extended and complicated by this new, far more substantial meditation on the origins of Dahmer's madness, and the mad mix of naiveté, angst, and long-haired buzzards that was the 1970's in northeast Ohio.

Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure and The Annotated Frankenstein That Arthur Conan Doyle's first experience abroad was as a ship's surgeon on an Arctic whaling voyage would seem at first to be as fantastical as one of his wilder tales, but here we have the facts in the case: a beautifully produced facsimile of the diary he wrote and illustrated on the voyage (I've reviewed this book more fully in The Arctic Book Review). And, remarkably, this diary, which opens with drafts of letters home, is particularly reminiscent of that of the fictional Captain Walton of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, now made available in a gorgeous new annotated edition from Harvard University Press. Remarkably reasonable in price ($29.95, but around $20 at many online sites), this handsome volume puts Frankenstein back in the rich historical contexts of its origins, from Arctic sea-voyages to half-abandoned Swiss chateaux, to the intense and fiery relationship between Mary and Percy, and includes numerous fine-reproduced full-color illustrations.

Col. William N. Selig, The Man Who Invented Hollywood and John Walker's Passage These two books stand at opposite ends of film history, but are complementary nevertheless. Erish's study of Selig is, in my view, the most significant and exciting new book on early US film history in many years. Selig was the first to move his studios to Hollywood, the first to create his own stable of animals for use in films, the producer of the first multi-reel blockbuster (The Spoilers), and the man who managed to convince the Pope himself to lift the church's ban on movies. He also shot the first all-Inuit-cast, Inuit-written film ever made, 1910's "The Way of the Eskimo."  Ninety-eight years later, Canadian filmmaker John Walker travelled to the Arctic to shoot his fascinating part-documentary, part-dramatic film Passage, highlighting the efforts of Dr. John Rae in bringing the difficult Inuit testimony of cannibalism among the last survivors of Sir John Franklin's doomed 1845 expedition to England; Varga's study gives an succinct account of Walker's career, as well as illuminating the details of the production and reception of his film.

Cairns: Messengers in Stone and In Search of the South Pole David Williams's remarkable little book, which I've reviewed in full here, was the best surprise of the year for me: a book about little piles of stones that managed at once to be philosophically engaging and historically detailed, quite literally reading in those stones histories untold anywhere else. And, in a season of books about Amundsen and Scott, there was no better and more visually engaging treatment than Lewis-Jones and Herbert's sturdy volume, which combines beautifully-reproduced photographs of the expeditions and their gear (as well as illustrated ephemera from the era) with  compelling blend or original testimony and engaging historical commentary.

The Last Holiday and Waging Heavy Peace I've been a fan of Mr. Gil Scott-Heron since I saw him perform "Johannesberg"on Saturday Night Live in 1975. His strident but always elegant political messages and personal tales were muted in the 1990's and early 2000's due to personal problems of many kinds, but when he surfaced, as in 1994's Spirits and 2010's I'm New Here, he still had all the verve and sharpness of old.  Both these qualities are richly displayed in his posthumous memoir, The Last Holiday, most of which details a national tour he was on with Stevie Wonder, with tantalizing snippets of what came before and after.  It's a shame he didn't live to complete a fuller and more continuous story, but I'm grateful for what he managed and only wish there were more. And then, from another eclectic soul, we have Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace -- Young, of course, was around to look over the final version of this volume, though you might not know it -- it's a rambling, scrambling, twisting, turning series of hideaways in which the author always seems to have moved on before you get there -- but immensely entertaining and fun along the way.

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