Countdown to the Books of 2012 with Rob Arnold

Today’s list anticipating the books of 2012 comes from contributing editor Rob Arnold, who is one of our founding editors, and who is now the managing editor of Fence.

I feel remiss as a poet. What does it mean that the books I’m most drawn to in the coming year are by novelists by and large? Poetic failing, perhaps. But I prefer to think the writers here transcend genre, or approach their prose with a poet’s sense. An ear, as they say. An eye, a voice. What I want from a book is not dissimilar to what one hopes for the new year. Something about the thrill of what’s possible. These are books that won’t disappoint.

Jonathan Franzen, Farther Away: Essays:  Yeah yeah yeah, call him what you will but Franzen shines in the short form, as anybody who’s read How to Be Alone, or his recent work in the New Yorker, can attest. Farther Away collects these pieces with assorted speeches and other short essays. Read it for his heartbreaking, now famous, meditation on David Foster Wallace, his great friend and rival. Or read it for his take on birding in China, which is about so much more than just birding in China. Read it because you want to be taken someplace entirely different from where you intended to go.

Margot Livesey, The Flight of Gemma Hardy: Though probably best known for her 2001 novel Eva Moves the Furniture, about a girl guided by two spirits whose intents are unclear, Margot Livesey writes compassionately of the deep mysteries of life without losing touch with simple, often painful reality. In her seventh novel, an orphaned young Icelander finds herself adrift in a world of secrets and startling revelation as she seeks her place in love and family.

Denis Johnson, Soul of a Whore and Purvis: Two Plays: Here is a man who can do everything. Now, on the heels of his taut novella Train Dreams, comes this little duplex of plays. I’m always a little wary of reading what feels like the scaffolding for another art. But anybody who’s read “Steady Hands at Seattle General” knows how Johnson can crack whole worlds open with a pair of human voices. This is a must read.

Don Lee, The Collective: It makes a certain sense that Lee, the longtime former editor of Ploughshares, would find himself drawn to the maelstrom of fascination, envy, and self-destruction that sometimes imperils artists and the communities built around them. Lee’s books are filled with scenes of imploded ambition, misplaced desires, and occasional artistic self-immolation. The Collective follows the lives of a painter and two aspiring writers from their first meeting in college through fame and scandal, suicide and the volatile reverberations that follow.

Ron Rash, The Cove: I came to Ron Rash’s work late, having only read a couple poems he published a few years back. And I’m sad to say I never read Serena, his lauded fourth novel about a 1920s Carolina timber magnate and his cruelly ambitious (and eponymous) wife. But I was able to read an advance copy of his forthcoming novel The Cove, which has all the elements that made Serena catch fire: the moody, almost mystical Appalachian landscape; the delicate interplay between endurance and human frailty; and a dogmatic ambition that threatens to unravel it all. And all throughout, the pulsing of Rash’s lush prose, which reads as though someone unspooled a single poem over several hundred pages.

Michael Lowenthal, The Paternity Test: The details are still being inked about the actual release date of Lowenthal’s fourth novel, so its inclusion here might seem a bit hasty. But fans of his, whether they came to his work early or were drawn by his breakout third novel Charity Girl, are hoping sooner than later. The Paternity Test is a searingly honest portrait of a gay couple on the brink of fatherhood. It promises to be moving, insightful, and utterly essential.

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