Argo Bookshop’s Best Books of 2012 – Part 3

Well, here ’tis,  the last installment of Argo’s Best Books of 2012. Not to say that we’ve necessarily saved the best for last, but here’s JP’s Best Books of 2012. Many thanks to all of you who have read our past posts about our best books. Now to prepare for a whole new year! Start cracking those spines!

 

JP’s 9 and a 1/2 Best Books of 2012 (give or take a month, in no particular order)

…To be honest, my tenth book on this list continuously veered from one book of poems to the next, so I decided to list the ones I was torn over. They are as follows, my “1/2” book:

…on to the list!

OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism edited by Eugene Ostashevsky (Northwestern University Press, 2006): Perhaps it’s cheating to place a re-read in this list, but I consider this text to be a rediscovery for 2012. I had poked around the text since listening to its editor, Eugene Ostashevsky, but sat down for a front-to-back read during the year.

The absurdist movement OBERIU was producing and performing at a time when daily life was not far removed from complete absurdity. Under a Stalinist regime, citizens were either witness to or personally subjected to the exiling, murder and calamitous treatment of citizenry. Given this context, one can conclude why OBERIU aimed to reveal illogical foundations of our presumably logical world. However, this directive is more than a historical curiosity, and can be found in their art as much as their history. Language, particularly the logic and expectations we subject it to, are systems often subverted by this group to make way for new art, or what they deemed to be ‘true’ or ‘real’ art. OBERIU’s texts position the normal as the absurd by treating recognizable language in an absurd way, and even if the ‘true’ meaning of the texts is beyond me (I don’t speak a lick of Russian), this book’s translations are bona fide illuminations of great writers like Alexander Vvedensky, Daniil Kharms and Yakov Druskin, to name a few. 

 

The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake (Back Bay Books, 2002): I have two Hemingway-philes for friends. Frustrated, I asked them one night that if Hemingway had never existed, who would they turn to then? They sent me to Breece D’J Pancake. I found his body of work, collected posthumously since his suicide at the age of 26, to reveal a youthful yet rough ‘n’ tumble register with amazing emotional depth. Pancake’s writing may not be as much on the minimalist side as Hemingway’s is, but it satisfied so much, with his dialectical Virginian twang and the grim realism of blue-collar ferry-drivers, boxers, cock-fighters, farmers and coalminers.

Additionally, the collection contains a foreword and afterword from a friend of Pancake’s, a professor from Virginia State, whose writings allow for a biographical reading of Pancake’s work with the added intimacy and mystery surrounding the author’s life and death.


Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo (Citadel, 2007): From the outset, I was immediately drawn into this straightforward story about a young soldier who survives an artillery strike at the cost of his own identity. Left blind, deaf, dumb and faceless, the novel traces the journey of Johnny’s mind atop a hospital bed for years, diving into memories of his hometown, family, aspiring wanderlust and small town sweethearts. Following his attempts to communicate with the outside world and to discern the passage of time is gripping enough. Surprisingly, you won’t find Johnny’s thoughts delving into his experiences in the war as much as his own intimate memories, save for one devastating moment in the trenches (unrelated to his accident), but his physical and psychological suffering bring out excellent meditations.

This book has been known to fall in and out, in and out of print during past wartimes, and for good reason; Johnny’s suffering amounts to broad, sweeping resolve on the function of war, command and freedom.

 

Mongrel by Marko Sijan (Mansfield Press, 2011):I’ve written about Mongrel in the past for the Argo’s first Featured Reading. While I hadn’t exactly read this novel during the year of 2012, it stuck with me throughout the year.

I initially took it as a realist rebuttal to Francesca Lia Block-style depictions of teenagehood. In comparison, Sijan’s novel provides a much-needed darker side of teenage life, an edgy and nigh-sensationalist series of stories that reveals urban youth in their violently emotional element. Situated in Windsor, a city defined by being ‘on the brink’ both temperamentally and geographically, and at a time when most of the novel’s characters are about to leave high school for the great Unknown that is the Real World, tensions run high for the book’s 5 characters and one can’t help but feel it. Each voice has flesh to it, as crazy as they can be, ranging from the über-aggressive macho jock to the raver-turned-self-proclaimed psychedelic mystic. My only assurance to prospective readers is that this book, above all, is wonderfully bald-faced.


Warlock by Oakley Hall (NYRB Classics, 2005): Pynchon was apt to deem the Wild West of the 1800s to be America’s Camelot. Told in part by the sideline journal entries of one John Henry Goodpasture, Warlock starts with the hiring of a fabled gunslinger to protect an independent town from an unruly gang, but quickly evolves into a narrative rich in conflicts between philosophies of law, myth and love. Posited at the end of the Wild West, one is able to observe the universe of spaghetti westerns in decline, and the dying era’s psychological razing of its inhabitants. With a plot full of constant, unexpected twists among thoroughly realized characters, I found myself juggling different moral compasses simultaneously. Based off of the classic OK Corral shootout, Oakley Hall has written a masterpiece of the cowboy genre, a Sergio Leone film that was never made. I dare you to read it.

 

Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms edited by Matvei Yankelevich (Overlook Duckworth, 2009): Among all the members of OBERIU, Daniil Kharms is one of my favourites. While the OBERIU anthology provides a superb smorgasbord of the movement’s different members, this collection contains excellent translations culled from across the board of Kharms’ published work, from the book’s central editor Matvei Yankelevich to the aforementioned OBERIU anthology’s editor Eugene Ostashevsky.

Kharms is one of those writers whose pertinence increases as the years go by. That is, as the world becomes an increasingly complex and science-centric place, Kharms’ work offers an absurd mirroring that points out the fallacies of our own presumably logical world. What is ‘normal’ or ‘logical’ is becomes contorted, violent or perverse, and it conversely can offer us a better reflection of ourselves than what can be found in most writers grounded in strict realism. All the more strange is that Kharms was no mad fool; for lack of a better idiom, there was method to his madness involving strict logic and a fascination with mathematics and philosophy, among other disciplines. This author was most certainly the most fascinating discovery of 2012 for me.


City of Bohane by Kevin Barry (Vintage Books, 2012): This book is notable for satiating my annual craving for fast-paced intrigue and action in a light book. A story of gang warfare in a steam-punk/western/film noir Irish city, set in a grim and polluted post-apocalyptic future, City of Bohane was too interesting to simply stack on the ol’ To-Read pile.

You may be apprehensive toward authors’ first novels, but rest assured, Kevin Barry has proven ability and style since his first book, the short story collection There are Little Kingdoms (Stinging Fly Press, 2007). City of Bonhane displays incredibly strong character, and sustains itself as both an exciting and fun read. It has an inventive context, climatic plot, cinematic coordination… Heck, even its unnamed nail-gargling narrator was a pleasure to read in the book’s consistent futuristic Irish slang.

A little bird mentioned to me in the summer of 2012 that there have been talks of turning this gem into a film. No surprise there, but there’s most certainly cause to find out why. Give it a shot.

 

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (Vintage, 1991):I suppose it’s a bit unfair to place a classic among my top picks for the year, but this is one that slipped through my fingers for years. It’s a bit silly, as I’ve read The Wild Palms and even his juvenilia before this one. Regardless, now that I’ve taken the time to read it,I love Faulkner’s work all the more. The streams of consciousness, the decline of old Southern propriety and the resulting stress it has on its last bastion family… The Sound and the Fury is by no means a simple text (as he never used Hemingway’s comparably ‘short’ words), but it demonstrates Faulkner’s enigmatic style at its best. It seems pointless even now to argue the merits of a book that embodies the term ‘classic’ for literature, and its heart-wrenching contents unfairly make this a shoe-in for 2012, but it’s a favourite all the same.

 

Rebel Bookseller by Andrew Laties (Seven Stories Press, 2011): I admit, I began to read this book out of a sense of obligation once I started to run the Argo Bookshop with Jesse and Meg. Over the first 20 pages, however, I was drawn into its story of two young, idealistic booksellers-to-be and their entrance into the business just on the brink of the Big-Box and online bookseller movements, forced to adopt new strategies for the independent side of the business. There’s also technical aspect to Laties’ writings some may find dry or tedious, but he’s an endearing storyteller who is capable of considerable social insight among the calculated facts. For example, if you’ve ever wondered why books cost as much as they do, there is in fact a story behind it. The book is admittedly American-centric, but the essence of the book trade’s consumption shift is a must-read in the rapidly turbulent world of books today.

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