BOOKS I LOVED IN 2012
I hate ranking the things I love. So this year, I decided to go high school yearbook-style and give all of my 2012 book crushes some fancy superlatives. All have provided great source material, and all are highly recommended.
BEST BOOK TO TALK ABOUT IN THERAPY: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg
Jami made me feel so many feeeeeeeeeeeelings about food and family and self-destruction and bar mitzvahs. Her masterful novel about the various members of the titular flawed family is mid-sized in length, epic in scope. Catharsis guaranteed.
BEST STORY COLLECTION: Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman
We are all savage animals. All of us. Megan’s stories celebrate wildlife even as they capture the moments in human nature when biology takes over, when instinct and emotion trump rationality or common sense.
I also loved: Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins
BEST COMING OF AGE: Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
Shut up. That totally wasn’t me crying on the subway while reading Tell the Wolves I’m Home. I wasn’t brought to tears by the achingly vivid portrayal of adolescent suburban anguish in the 1980s, as the American AIDS crisis stoked paranoia and intolerance throughout the nation. It wasn’t me! Side note: my favorite Goodreads review of this novel consists solely of the lyrics to the angry countdown part of the Violent Femmes’ “Kiss Off”—if that’s not teen angst, what is?
I also loved: The Round House by Louise Erdrich
BEST BREAKUP MIXTAPE: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz
At this point you already know if you like Junot Díaz’s writing style. You don’t need me to tell you about it. You love it, right? It makes you wish you’d paid more attention in Spanish class, right? This collection slayed me because it circles around the lead up to and fall out from a monumental breakup, even though it’s about 8 zillion other things as well—disease, death, obsession, the immigrant experience, hyper-masculinity, New Jersey. You know, all the major topics.
BEST TAKEDOWN OF THE AMERICAN DREAM: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
A pop culture-heavy novel about the disillusionment of an Iraq War vet set during a Dallas Cowboys game. Somehow it manages to be deadly serious even as it’s bitingly funny. If the politics are a little heavy-handed at times, at least the author is preaching to a Destiny’s Child-loving choir (yes, Beyonce does make a halftime appearance).
I also loved: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
BEST VINTAGE READ THAT STILL FEELS VITAL: The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes
Originally published in 1963, with a sparkly new edition released in 2012, Hughes’s crime fiction masterpiece screwed with all of my preconceptions of what noir could be. Even as The Expendable Man details the plight of a protagonist with spectacularly bad wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time luck, it manipulates our expectations and reveals our prejudices. Knife-cuttable tension abounds.
MOST WELL-ROUNDED: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
If your most lasting impressions of North Korean culture came from 30 Rock or Team America, it’s probably time to read this novel. Yes, it’s a work of fiction, but the author’s research is evident on every nightmarish, devastating, surreally funny page. In telling the life story of a North Korean Everyman (his name is Jun Do AKA John Doe), Johnson creates a full multi-genre experience—part thriller, part romance, part farce, part serious exploration of life under a dictatorship. Basically, it’s like 1984, but with more karaoke.
I’ve always found Greek mythology kinda boring, so many thanks to Madeline Miller for making me care. Her novel portrays Achilles as a charming yet fallible Greek god who is made vulnerable not by his famous heels, but by his pride and petulance and his wild love for his “companion” AKA soul mate, Patroclus. The book contains many hot sex scenes (you don’t stand a chance, E.L. James) and many tender moments even in the heat of war. It’s as much a love story as it is a tale of the battlefield (clearly the two are related, Pat Benatar-style).
BEST PERSONALITY: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
You know when you just want to read a book that’s breezy and fun, but also really clever and sharp? Here you go. Dysfunctional family mania at its finest.
BEST READ FOR LITERARY TECHIES: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Finally, there’s a mystery for those of us who live and breathe the Bookternet. For all of us nerds who love the smell and feel of a musty old book just as much as we love our shiny new technology. The push and pull of new vs. old creates much of the drama here, bringing us from a fascinating old bookshop to the sprawling campus of Google to the headquarters of an age-old secret society.
BEST BAD GUYS: The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn
Three previously published novellas were repackaged this year into this exquisite volume, featuring characters so privileged, so terrible, so evil, they make Bret Easton Ellis’s characters look like little bitches. It’s divine, then, that in the depiction of so much ugliness, every single sentence is gorgeous. Every single last one.
BEST ACTRESS IN A DRAMA: Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub
We’ve all seen films about the ingenue who becomes a nightmare diva, the Behind the Music episodes of rock stars getting big and then imploding. Emma’s debut novel is a standout because she takes the familiar story of a small-town girl making good in Hollywood and makes it feel intimate, nuanced. Here’s a cinematic story that’s devoid of melodrama—it’s Laura’s humanity that ultimately makes her unforgettable.
MOST EMPOWERING: Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
Wild was incredible. Oprah and your mom and I agree. But put down the hiking boots and delve into Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar advice column, which specializes in the most beautiful-sounding real-talk I’ve ever heard. Most self-help makes my skin crawl, so what a revelation to find practical nonfiction that inspires and never cloys.
MOST CINEMATIC: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
At the risk of sounding like SNL’s Stefon, I’ve gotta say this novel has it all: dramatic scenescapes, tales of desire and loss and poverty and moral ambiguity, sharp parody of modern day Hollywood, and fantastic cameos from everyone’s favorite Lifetime movie subjects—Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. I wanted to crawl inside this book and live there.
BEST NOT-SO-GUILTY PLEASURE BECAUSE I OWN THIS $HIT: My Crazy Beautiful Life by Ke$ha
She’s a genius. Not sorry.
From To Train up a Child: “Reinforce the undesirability of crying or fussy behavior by having a stranger pretend to be the White Demon Of Death.”
“Giving anyone anything takes courage, since so many presents backfire. A gift conspicuously at odds with your tastes serves only to betray that the benefactor has no earthly clue who you are.”
― Lionel Shriver, The Post-Birthday World