Women We Read This Year: Best of 2012

The month of December had barely begun when the Best Of lists began to pop up in my Twitter feed. Best Albums, Best Films, Best Longform, Best Shortform, Best Takedown of an Old, Established Writer by a Young, Hungry Writer in an Awkward Press Junket Setting (yeah).

When I brought up doing our own Best Of to the other writers at Vela, questions arose: were we talking best online pieces or print books? Best published-in-2012 or best what-we-read-in-2012? Then there was the somewhat problematic nature of the Best Of lists themselves, the valuation. What exactly does “best” even mean?

In the end we decided to go with Best Of Anything Written By Women That We Read In 2012. Which is a mouthful, but really just represents a chance for us to give a shout out to the written work of women that inspired us in 2012.

Four Corners, Kira Salak

One of the most memorable books I read this year was Kira Salak’s “Four Corners.” I read most of it by headlamp in a tiny public use cabin near the Yukon-Alaska border – my first solo overnight in the backcountry – and I couldn’t put it down. In the book, Salak looks back on her solo travels as a young woman. Each trip was more risky and daring than the last, culminating in her circumnavigation of Papua New Guinea – a mad, harrowing journey that pushed Salak to her absolute limits – and beyond working her way through the narrative, she also reflects thoughtfully on her motivations for flinging herself into unsafe situations over and over again.

Years ago, when I was taking my first tentative steps into travel writing, I interviewed Tom Bissell about the genre’s domination by men. He mentioned Kira Salak as an example of a woman who was excelling in a typically male arena – not just travel writing but hardcore outdoor adventure writing – and of course he was right. But one of the things that I loved about “Four Corners” was Salak’s clear-eyed awareness of her gender and its impact (on her and others) throughout the book. She may have been traveling (and writing) in a predominantly male world, but she was never truly “one of the boys,” and her grappling with that fact made for reading just as gripping as her adventures themselves. — Eva

Wild, Cheryl Strayed

Because I won’t have Vela making the same mistake that the NY Times did with their 10 Best Books of 2012, I have to go with Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. One literary agent I chatted with recently described Wild as “a perfect memoir,” and I agree. Wild has a powerful, blazingly honest narrative persona and deep introspection paired with a compelling storyline, and Wild is connection-seeking: Strayed’s big, messy grief is our grief. But all of this has been said before, here and here on Vela, and, well, everywhere else. Everywhere except the NY Times 10 Best Books of 2012. — Molly

The Work of Mavis Gallant

I don’t do well with favorites or best-of lists. This isn’t intentional, or some sort of stubborn refusal, but more out of absent-mindedness, perhaps the result of a short term memory or the fact that what I read often seems so random that I couldn’t possibly compare one book or article with the next. When prompted to choose a “best of 2012” reading, I froze, suddenly forgetting everything I had read this year. Truth is, I didn’t read very many books that were released in 2012, and those I did I have already written about for this blog or for book reviews. Most of what I read was scattered bits: from material I had to read (such as early 20th century German philosophy) to scholarly articles that were part of independent research I was doing. I read articles about fabricated folk heroes, and books about Incan sacrifice. I compiled old favorites—Gretel Ehrlich, John Edgar Wideman, Eula Biss—for the class I was teaching, and happened upon several multi-media pieces that got me thinking about new ways to share a narrative—but none seemed monumental in any fresh sort of way for me. I toured through the contents of this year’s New Yorkers, disturbed by how few articles by women there were. In Vela’s effort to showcase women writers, I had to turn down writing about Raffi Khatchadourian’s “Tranfiguration” from the February issue—probably one of the most remarkable pieces of reporting and captivating stories I’ve read this year.

But in my quest I came across a piece I had forgotten about. In the Life and Letters section of the July 6 & 19 issue is Mavis Gallant’s “The Hunger Diaries.” Starting in the 50’s, Gallant, a Canadian writer, started publishing fiction regularly in the New Yorker and did so up through the 90’s. In this issue were several excerpts from her 1952 diary. In 1950 Gallant left work as a journalist to move to Paris to try her hand at being a full-time fiction writer. She struggled and went hungry in the most romantic starving artist-in-Paris kind of way, and through these various excerpts we watch her pawn off first her grandmother’s ring, her clock, a trench coat in order to buy food. Her personal musings are laced with objectifications of people she comes across, but considering their (original) venue, her thoughts seem not so voyeuristic but more the inner voice of a person in a foreign country allowing herself the freedom of frank observation at the end of the day, writing down what she can’t in letters: “It is a big city, and dirty and gloomy [of Barcelona];” “And then there is the strange dark woman who shouts, and a very little, dark old creature with a senile face who creeps up to me and murmurs in the passage;” “In the corner, a poor madman who never stops moving or chattering through his broken teeth…I am made ill. When I pick up my wine I feel a madman has touched it. His is the insanity of devils.”

Perhaps it is the voyeur in me that loves this glimpse into a writer’s diary. Gallant doesn’t skimp on the gloom and inner conflicts that define a writer—“Looking through the tangle of unfinished stories I carry with me everywhere, I find only three worth going on with, and am suddenly overcome by such a load of depression that I put the lot away. So much to finish and so much to keep me from it, like a wall of glass between myself and the page.” And: “I have no right to call this [work in progress] a ‘novel’ when it is so abstract. It is an abstract idea I have held, or been held by, rather, ever since Austria—six months. Two notebooks stuffed with it—stuffed with an idea. I must be mad.” I love her insecurity, her sweeps into isolation and immersion in her novel, yet her brazen conviction that, “Evidently this is the way it has to be. I am committed. It is a question of writing or not writing. There is no other way. If there is, I missed it.”

These candid and somberly eloquent diary entries prompted me to read several of her stories (unfortunately the stories—there are about 145 of them in the New Yorker archives—are available to subscribers only), and her characters seem to share her artistic turmoil—the struggle to “make it” as an artist, to choose a particular life. She also focuses on the autonomy played out by partners in a relationship, and the theme of the expatriate is more than just a subject for her stories—her characters willfully isolating themselves seems to serve as a larger metaphor for the way of life as an artist. Revisiting Gallant’s work at the darkest days of the year, during a time when I myself seem to be on the cusp in terms of how I define myself as a writer (perhaps it’s that I, too, am choosing to finally call myself such with a certain level of conviction), I found solace with this unusual glimpse inside her private mind. So it’s hard to say if this stands out as a “best,” but it certainly resonates, an important series of excerpts that seem to touch so many facets of my own identity.

Her diaries will be published by Knopf in 2013 or 2014, and you can read about it in this exchange between New Yorker’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman and one of Gallant’s editors, Steven Barclay. — Amanda

The Source of All Things (book version), Tracy Ross

Eva mentioned Tracy Ross in an email conversation several months back, and something she said about her made me go hunting for her work. I didn’t have to go far—I immediately stumbled on her essay, “The Source of All Things,” which won the National Magazine Award in 2007. I thought I’d just glance at a few pages to get a sense of her voice, but from the first sentence, I was hooked, drawn into a story that is so readable yet so dark, so honest, so unflinchingly brutal. When I began the book-length version of her story, I wasn’t sure that I could make it through an entire book about the sexual abuse she’d suffered growing up. But this is no ordinary abuse  memoir — it is as much about her adventures in the Alaskan wilderness as it is about those confusing, messed up years she lived beneath her stepfather’s roof. The wilderness is a strong presence throughout the book, and, in ways, it seems she owes her life to it. In the essay, a short backpacking trip she takes with her stepfather as an adult through Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains is the locomotive behind the narrative, the momentum that keeps us reading. And in her book, it is that trip and many others — rescue missions in the New Mexico mountains, long treks through the glaciers of Alaska — that provide the beauty which gets us through the ugliness, that allow us to hold our gaze on a human being, stripped down, naked and bare. It is a beautiful, brave piece of writing. — Simone

Behind The Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo

Katherine Boo is my current writer icon. I spent the first eight months of this year working on an immersion reporting project, and was shocked at how hard it was, how exhausting and relentless and demanding. And this was in a place I love, a beautiful and in many ways functional place. Katherine Boo spent years in a slum in Mumbai, doing meticulous, unblinking, assiduous reporting about the lives of the people living there and the horrors and small hopes that characterize their struggles to get ahead within relentless global capitalism. The complication and difficulty of the reporting involved makes my head throb and also leaves me very humble about whatever skills I might have. But there are plenty of books that illustrate tremendous reporting skill that haven’t moved me nearly as much as hers. Behind the Beautiful Forevers reads like a novel, the story seamless as a continuous dream (or perhaps, nightmare) seemingly without a single of the interventions we come to expect from writers in nonfiction. I would have to do a close skim of the book again, but I’m fairly sure it includes not one “I.” There is plenty of context and exposition woven into the story, but it is done so elegantly and naturally that the reader rarely realizes she is being taught; that an outsider, a Western woman, is stepping in now to give necessary background. There is no sentimentalizing; there are no obvious writerly brushstrokes. And yet the writing is gorgeous. It never distracts; it never aestheticizes the often horrifying realities of this place. And still it’s beautiful: not just functional, like so much nonfiction writing, but elegant and masterful.

This is an uncomfortable book to read. It is unflinching and complex and agonizing. Boo has over a decade of experience reporting on poverty and her unwavering purpose is to stay faithful to its complications, to refuse the familiar poverty narratives. In this interview with Guernica she says, “Our understanding of poverty and how people escape from poverty, in any country, is quite distorted.” This is not a story of redemption and glory. It is a story of nitty-gritty everyday struggles and existential terrors most Americans could never imagine, and also of the manueverings and dreams that people living in one of the world’s worst places rely on to try and find a home for themselves in an increasingly ruthless international economy. — Sarah

“How To Tell A True Story”, “What Can’t Be Published” and Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

Since the most awesome piece I read online all year seems to have been swallowed into the internet ether (memoir piece about a girl who stole food at summer camp–PLEASE tell me if anyone finds the link), I’ll go with most-personally-resonant: Caedra Scott-Flaherty’s “How To Tell A True Story” and Stacey May Fowles’ “What Can’t Be Published.” Both pieces explore the difficulties of non-fiction writing about personal trauma. They both struck a particular chord with me, as I spent a large part of 2012 watching an investigative project that had sent me across the globe blow up in my face. In the wake of that, I particularly appreciated the bravery and honesty of the pieces, the way they explored the kind of cognitive disconnect that can occur when we’re funneling our most traumatic experiences into crafted narrative.

When it comes to books, the best thing I read all year was Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. I hadn’t read the book since high school and, in the wake of “Why Women Can’t Have It All,” I found myself craving a text that gave voice to a different type of female experience. As a teenager, I didn’t have as much of a context in which to place Hurston’s voice or the character Janie; I just relished in the language and the story. As an adult, I was able to better appreciate Hurston’s masterful use of dialect and her narrative structuring. But beyond even that, the strength of her voice and the enduring relevance of the feminism themes kind of blew me away. It’s pretty astounding how much Janie still stands out as a complex, conflicted feminist character. — Lauren


1 Comment

  • Chris says:

    I read three (that came out this year anyway) books by women that I particularly enjoyed. Call of the Mild by Lily Raff McCaulou was everything to me that Wild wasn’t (I really didn’t like Wild at all). Geography of Blood by Candace Savage was excellent. My favorite, though, is Paddling North by Audrey Sutherland. Kind of a weird book, in some ways, but inspiring and awesome.

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