The Slate Book Review runs but 15 pieces a month. Hundreds upon hundreds of books fall through the cracks! We asked SBR writers what 2012 titles they felt were criminally underappreciated. Check out the buried treasures they unearthed.
Noah Berlatsky recommends Prison Pit, Volume 4 by Johnny Ryan
If you've read earlier volumes of cartoonist Johnny Ryan's Prison Pit, you know what to expect from Volume 4. If not—well, one of the first sequences here involves the disgusting slug that serves as our hero's prosthetic limb detaching itself, swallowing his head, and shitting out a glob of excrement that fertilizes said hero's severed arm and grows into a giant cancerous monster mass that keeps repeating the sole word "fugg" over and over. For those who find filthy, blotchy tactile ink clots, überviolence, or body horror even remotely appealing, you need to buy this and its predecessors immediately.
Gaby Dunn recommends Girl Walks Into a Bar by Rachel Dratch
Saturday Night Live alumna Dratch's memoir was overshadowed by those of her fellow comediennes Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling. It's a truth that sadly mirrors Dratch’s undervalued career post-SNL. In her self-deprecating and brutally honest book, Dratch details how she unexpectedly found love and a baby after her career went south. As hilarious as Dratch herself, Girl Walks Into a Bar is the delightful, unpretentious comedienne memoir you should have read this year.
Jonathan Farmer recommends Bewilderment by David Ferry
Is it possible for a National Book Award winner to be overlooked? In poetry, yes. I didn't see a single review of David Ferry's Bewilderment, and I managed to overlook it myself, too. The first time I tried to read the book, I lost interest after a few poems. It wasn't until Alan Shapiro (a fellow National Book Award finalist) told me to take another look that I spent enough time to attune myself. But it's astonishing—a haunted book where ghosts prove that the haunted are still alive and allow for the continuing company of literature. Ferry interleaves translations, an excerpt from a 30-year-old poem of his own, and poems written by a dead friend, each one paired with Ferry’s response, to compose a book that reminds how real the past was, including its poems, and how urgent (and, yes, bewildering) it remains if remembered well.
William Georgiades recommends The Wisdom of Psychopaths by Kevin Dutton
In this terrifically entertaining and chilling book, Oxford research psychologist Dutton posits how traits of psychopathy can win friends, influence people, and send you down the path of success.* He identifies “seven deadly wins” of psychopathy (charm, focus, action, etc.), all of which are attributes of the successful, from CEOs to politicians and priests. After all, he writes, “deep within the corridors of the brain, psychopathy and sainthood share secret neutral office space.”
David Haglund recommends What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha
Comparisons are odious, I know, but about halfway through Beha’s book, it occurred to me that this debut novel had so much of what I found lacking in a more lavishly publicized book from the previous year, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. Both books focus on lives at college and the few years after and center on a doomed and very bookish romance that is complicated by a third player. In both books, one of the protagonists becomes religious and, motivated by faith, ministers to a man who is rather gruesomely near death. When I pointed out these similarities to a friend, he reminded me that Beha had written one of the more insightful reviews of Eugenides’ novel for the London Review of Books. The three central characters in The Marriage Plot, Beha wrote, “work well enough as characters when they are being Wallace and Franzen and Eugenides, but they are unconvincing when they are just three confused college kids.” And therein lies much of the difference between the two books: Beha’s characters are convincing and moving, and I won’t forget them soon.
Benjamin Hedin recommends Inland by Gerald Murnane
Though he is often called Australia’s greatest living novelist, a writer whose achievement matches that of Sebald or Bolaño, Murnane is almost entirely unknown in the United States. Inland provides an excellent introduction to his work and its inventive, elegiac qualities. The book is set in the shifting planes of memory, where incidents real and imagined commingle. The stories span continents and decades but share the same essential details, the text a monument to the lesson glimpsed by the novel’s narrator as a boy, how “every thing would always contain another thing, which would contain still another thing or which would seem, absurdly at first sight, to contain the thing that had seemed to contain it.”
Jenny Hendrix recommends The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane
Though subtitled A Journey on Foot, MacFarlane's The Old Ways is actually an account of several intersecting journeys, beginning along British drovers’ roads, holloways, and sea paths and ranging as far as Palestine and the Himalayas, as well as—perhaps most crucially—into a far-flung landscape of art, literature, and the sacred. (A sprawling "Acknowledgements" section mentions everyone from a Hebridean sailor to Werner Herzog and the Pixies.) It's a quiet, serious book, purposeful and carefully made, and, as always with MacFarlane, written in a prose at once so thick and rich you want to sink into it bodily and so fresh it threatens to bear you aloft. Far from just a travel book, The Old Ways is powerfully literary, evoking Sebald in its furrowed structure and calling forth the "unbidden adhesions of memory that can bind one place to another" with stories "told not in print but in footprint."
James Hughes recommends Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana—Medical, Recreational, and Scientific by Martin A. Lee
In light of the recent ballot initiatives in Colorado and Washington, it’s perhaps time for a fresh look at this summertime release, a clearheaded survey that stretches from 2700 B.C. to the Obama administration. Of particular note are the passages on criminalization, forged back in the days when heroin and hypodermic kits were still available through Sears. We learn that the first person penalized under the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was an unemployed Colorado farmhand (he’d have plenty of career opportunities now) and that Mexicans, who first filtered pot across the border in the early 20th century, were the original group to be demonized (as lazy, of all things) and marginalized by anti-drug crusading politicians—another red herring defanged by the startling demographic shifts of 2012.
Maria Konnikova recommends The Master’s Muse by Varley O'Connor
Tanaquil LeClercq was the only one of George Balanchine's four wives—five, if you count his common-law marriage—who never wrote a memoir. O'Connor evocatively imagines LeClercq's life in her fourth novel, The Master’s Muse. O'Connor creates an intimate, if often disturbing, portrait of the man many consider the greatest choreographer of the 20th century and the woman who was his longest-lasting—and final—wife. From LeClercq's beginnings with Balanchine’s company to her astronomic rise and subsequent paralysis (LeClercq was infected with polio during a 1956 European tour), O'Connor crafts a masterful portrait of the woman who served as muse not only to Balanchine but to some of the pivotal personalities in the development of modern art: Jerome Robbins, Irving Penn, Merce Cunningham, Frederick Ashton. The Master's Muse reads like a troubled love letter to art, dance, and creation—and the complexity and betrayal of a life spent in their service.
John Lingan recommends Londoners by Craig Taylor
For obvious reasons, Londoners was much more of an event when it was published in the United Kingdom in 2011, though you need not be interested in the English capital to appreciate Craig Taylor's journalistic achievement. Collecting dozens of first-person testimonies, from a fruit vendor to financiers to city officials to frustrated former residents who left for the country, Taylor paints a vast portrait of London that doubles as record of modern Western life itself. It made me wish a similar book existed for every city or town on Earth, though Taylor's curiosity and eye for diverse characters would be hard to replicate.
J. Bryan Lowder recommends Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music by Alvin Lucier
Gleaned from Lucier’s long-taught contemporary music course (No. 109) at Wesleyan, Music 109 is, indeed, Lucier’s notes, clippings from a lifetime spent making, performing, and, most importantly, listening to the “classical” music of our era. For John Cage and other post-WWII composers, what was in question was the arresting, awe-inspiring possibilities of sound itself. Why bother with full-blown symphonies when just as much beauty may reside in more intimate forms—amplified brain waves, for instance, or a darkened room filled with bat-like sonar clicks. Even four minutes and 33 seconds of so-called silence can have its own kind of harmony. Music like this rewards a childlike spirit of curiosity, an appreciation of nuance, and an openness to surprise; it is often deceptively simple, and unfortunately, as Lucier writes, “simple things often get misunderstood.” For those with the ears to hear, however, Lucier’s warm prose will sound a few notes of welcome clarity.
Claire Lundberg recommends City of Women by David Gillham
Do we really need another World War II novel? This jaded reader sure did, because David Gillham’s City of Women is great. Set in Berlin in 1943, it’s about Sigrid, a bored German housewife who starts an affair with a Jewish man she meets in a movie theater, then quickly finds herself helping her lover smuggle his wife and children out of the country. The writing is a great mix of the literary and commercial, page-turning and suspenseful, with a morally complex, intelligent heroine at its center. If you’re a fan of well-written historical novels in the vein of Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, this one is for you.
Mark O’Connell recommends I Am Sitting in a Room by Brian Dillon
I’d like to call attention to a very short, very cool book called I Am Sitting in a Room, by Brian Dillon, who's an editor at Cabinet magazine. It's sort of a high-concept deal: Basically, he wrote it in 24 hours while sitting in a room in the magazine's office, without any prepared notes or text. It's full of ad hoc meditations about writing spaces and the fetishization of the writing process. Though pretty clearly influenced by Georges Perec and Roland Barthes, it's really its own thing—very funny and sort of incidentally profound.
Chelsey Philpot recommends Dying to Know You by Aidan Chambers
With unadorned prose that’s all the more affecting for its beautiful simplicity, this quiet and contemplative young adult novel tells the story of a friendship between a damaged 18-year-old plumber and a grieving elderly writer who helps the dyslexic teen compose letters to his girlfriend. Together the pair contemplates depression, writing, love, art, and loss––teaching each other that “You mustn’t allow even death to destroy you. And it can’t if you live what you make.”
David Plotz recommends Draw It With Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment
Funny title, bizarre premise. The editors of Paper Monument asked scores of artists to write about a memorable art assignment they had given or received. The responses range from incomprehensible academic jargon to hand-scrawled lists, and most of them, truthfully, are boring. But the interesting entries made me think more than anything else I read in 2012: “Using a napkin, string, cardboard square, and crackers, design a structure to protect an egg. “Buy a piano, smash it to bits, and spend the semester rebuilding it.” “Make a tool to work on a problem that is currently unknown.” And so on. I’m tempted to test them on my kids.
Melanie Rehak recommends Petrochemical America by Richard Misrach and Kate Orff
Petrochemical America is ostensibly about one ruined section of America—the stretch of Louisiana that runs along the banks of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, home to the highest concentration of petrochemical plants in the country and their many pollutants and known by locals as Cancer Alley. But really the book, which is as beautiful as it is informative thanks to photographer Richard Misrach’s intense, haunting images of swampland, pipelines, and the remains of communities destroyed by the petrochemical industry, is about our disastrous, addictive relationship with petrochemicals as a whole. What Kate Orff, a landscape architect, and Misrach found on their journey along the river serves as a microcosm of our thoughtless abuse of America’s natural resources, human and environmental.
Doree Shafrir recommends Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead
On the Nantucket-like island of Waskeke, the Van Meter family—upstanding banker father Winn, his wife, Biddy, and their two daughters—is preparing, at their summer home, for eldest daughter Daphne's wedding. But beneath the surface of this WASPy idyll is a wickedly clever tragicomedy of manners that unfolds with the plotting of a juicy mystery and the sharp eye of someone only too aware the subtle, seemingly pointless class distinctions within the 1 percent. Maggie Shipstead's novel was my literary beach read of the summer, but it seems wholly appropriate to tote around in any season, and perhaps now that the Gone Girl hype has died down (that ending! Seriously?), Seating Arrangements will get the attention it deserves.
Jacob Silverman recommends I Am an Executioner by Rajesh Parameswaran
Who knows what strange alchemy makes a star of, say, Wells Towers' short-story collection and passes over this one, likely its equal? Although subtitled "Love Stories," Parameswaran's debut book is a medley of fictional archetypes, all cleverly twisted—there's a Borgesian spy story, a tale of insectoid aliens struggling to deal with human colonists, a couple of tragic immigrant narratives, and a Pale Fire-inspired saga of a circus elephant and his human admirer. Postmodern and soulful, antic and grim, Parameswaran's stories deal in emotional dissonance; rarely does calamity come packaged with such a sense of play.
June Thomas recommends The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination by Sarah Schulman
This book by my friend Sarah Schulman addresses a criminally underexamined question: What were the concrete consequences of the AIDS epidemic? As an ACT UP activist, artist, and lifelong resident of the East Village, Schulman is driven to point out that the deaths of tens of thousands of gay men coincided with and greatly facilitated the gentrification of urban neighborhoods, especially in New York City and San Francisco. A heartbreaking memoir and a get-off-your-ass polemic in one very slim volume.
Katy Waldman recommends Monstress by Lysley Tenorio
I’ll reiterate my praise for Monstress, which came out in January of this year. It’s a jittery, caffeinated, dazzling collection with a poignant center. The characters, straddling Filipino and American traditions, will charm you with their wit and devastate you with their loneliness. And in addition to being quirky and moving, the eight stories unfold beautifully in language that evokes minor-key Junot Diaz.
Correction, Nov. 30, 2012: This article originally used the term psychosis when referring to psychopathy. (Return to the corrected sentence.)