Building Stories, by Chris Ware (Pantheon, $40)
Inspired in part by Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise, this graphic novel thinks outside the box by existing inside a box. A series of 14 printed works—broadsheets, booklets and more—it contains all the finely tuned Waresian elements: vibrant panels, intricate storytelling and existential malaise. Still poring over this one.
Heroines, by Kate Zambreno (Semiotext(e), $17.95)
“They have been with me for as long as I have tried to write—like ghostly tutors,” says Zambreno of the modernist “wives and mistresses” who haunt each page of her inventive critical memoir. Braiding together scenes from her own marriage and polemical rants and poetic ramblings on the lives and legacies of women such as Zelda Fitzgerald, Jean Rhys and “Simone de B,” she fashions a highly personal scholarly work (or is it a highly scholarly personal work?) unlike anything I’ve read before.
The Lifespan of a Fact, by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal (W.W. Norton & Company, $17.95)
Possibly the most patience-testing read of 2012, The Lifespan of a Fact follows a heated argument between D’Agata, champion of the lyric essay, and former fact-checker Fingal over the many inaccuracies in D’Agata’s essay on a teen suicide in Vegas. There’s a heavy-handed “trick”: Their correspondence has been re-created from memory and embellished. And another: The reader has to dig up this detail. Fact is, this infuriating book sparked plenty of debate. Along with Mike Daisey and Jonah Lehrer, it accounted for 76.9 percent of the literary conversation this year. (Not precisely. I just made up a number.)
The Map of the System of Human Knowledge, by James Tadd Adcox (Tiny Hardcore Press, $12)
This petite book is organized like an encyclopedia with dryly titled entries concealing small surprises. A short story filed under “History/Natural/Uses of Nature/Arts, Crafts, Manufactures” describes a woman who gives birth to furniture. In another “Manufactures” entry, appliances feel sympathy (a toaster “weeping over the death of a neighbor”). If magical realism isn’t your thing, fear not: There’s enough variation in tone and subject to hold readers’ interest.
The Passion According to G.H., by Clarice Lispector (New Directions, $15.95)
This philosophical Brazilian novel was originally published in 1964 but reprinted in a new translation this year. The plot, whatever plot there is, is this: A wealthy woman crushes a cockroach, prompting a mystic crisis. But what leaves the biggest impression (besides the ending) is the music of Lispector’s writing—what her translator refers to as “fugue-like repetitions of words.” These repetitions can be tedious, but when your ear adjusts to the offbeat rhythms, her prose mesmerizes.
Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy, edited by Alan Licht (W.W. Norton & Company, $16.95)
Singer-songwriter Oldham isn’t fond of interviews (“It’s usually people asking a bunch of weird questions like, ‘Why are the songs so slow?’ ”), but he is a fan of doing the unexpected. So his decision to do to an in-depth, book-length interview is both surprising and not. Grounded in music and film discussion and sprinkled with enjoyable facts (he once mailed a cow skull to Glenn Danzig; he declined a callback for Doogie Howser, M.D.), it’s a fascinating glimpse behind the curtain.
End-of-year recaps tend toward predictability, but for me, some of the most memorable books of 2012 strayed from expectation. These boundary-pushing works by fabulists and folk singers and fiction writers (etc.) alternately entertained, frustrated and challenged me.