2012 at 1pm Posted by Rebecca Joines Schinsky
Y’all, I have written and re-written and re-re-written this list a dozen times, and I only managed to arrive at a Top Ten when my Bookrageous cohosts Josh and Jenn basically forced me to for our 2012 Favorites show. I went in with a list of 17 contenders–this was a damn fine year in reading–and didn’t know exactly which 10 I was going to pick until it was over. Here (in alphabetical order because they’re all too awesome to rank) are my 10 favorite books of 2012.
Arcadia by Lauren Groff: The story of a boy, Bit, who comes of age on a commune during its dying days, this novel could easily have been bitter, or a bummer, or a rant about how fraught the search for utopia can be. But in Groff’s capable hands, it’s a beautifully rendered examination of family, what the heart wants, and where our future could be taking us.
Ask the Passengers by A.S. King: This is the only YA book I read this year, and I’d feel bad about only reading one YA book in a year if it weren’t so freaking awesome. I sort of feel like if I only read one YA book a year for the rest of my life, it’s cool as long as it’s by A.S. King. This, her latest, is about a teenage girl making sense of her family’s dysfunctions and her own sexual identity, and she’s doing it with the help of Socrates as her imaginary friend. King trusts her readers to understand complex issues and pick up erudite references–this novel is packed with philosophy–and her signature use of the surreal is in full effect.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain: It’s no easy feat to be funny about war, or to be critical and satirical and angry without becoming preachy and pedantic. Ben Fountain manages all of that here, delivering the first great novel of the Iraq War and holding up a mirror that forces Americans to examine how we watch, consume, and engage with war. Biting social criticism with a side of Beyonce, Billy Lynn is well-balanced and not to be missed.
Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman: The best short story collection of the year (yes, better than that one by Junot Diaz) comes from a debut writer who nails our relationships with animals and the environment and what those relationships reveal about our humanity. Bergman’s stories are connected by theme, incisive observation, and great sympathy for her characters, flawed though they are. This book is a gem, and a great gift to readers.
Breasts by Florence Williams: You knew everything came down to boobs, didn’t you? Florence Williams presents a heavily researched and immensely fun-to-read look at the social and scientific history of breasts. There’s breast implants and breast cancer, family stories and futuristic technology, humor and heartbreak. And there’s a whole lot of awesome. This is hands down my favorite single-subject narrative nonfiction of the year.
Contents May Have Shifted by Pam Houston: From my rave on Book Riot: I read a lot of great fiction this year, and a lot of whoa-how-did-she-pull-that-off fiction. I read some fiction that held up a mirror to my life and asked me to look at myself in a new way, and some fiction that took my breath away with its heart and emotional nakedness. I even read some really fun fiction. But I only read one work of fiction that was all those things, and it was Pam Houston’s globetrotting novel-slash-memoir-slash-sorta-kinda-connected-short-storiesContents May Have Shifted. It was one of my first reads of 2012, and it’s the only one I’ve gone back to over and over. It’s about love and friendship (Houston nails the magic of friendship between women like no one else) and travel, and how sometimes we leave home looking for things we already have. And it’s the closest thing to perfect I’ve read in a really long time.
Diving Belles by Lucy Wood: Another kick-ass debut collection of short stories, this one’s filled with atmosphere and magic and sorta-creepy-but-in-a-delicious-way unexplained phenomena. Men are kidnapped by mermaids, women turn to stone, houses fill with flora, and Wood never tells us exactly why or how. The dark but playful stories and mind-blowing sentences between these pages beg to be savored
Home by Toni Morrison: Morrison’s tenth novel may not be her best, but it is still incredible. (Anything Morrison is better than almost anything not-Morrison, after all.) A tiny, powerful volume–interesting how her novels have contracted in length after the big stories of Beloved and Paradise–Home gave me impetus to re-read all 9 of ToMo’s previous novels, and so was a defining experience of my reading year. If you’ve never read Morrison, this wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
Quiet by Susan Cain: American culture is obsessed with extroversion, with being outgoing and friendly and using social confidence to imply intelligence and skill. This is never more evident than in our schools and business places, and it is often to the detriment of not only the introverts who make up one-third to one-half of the population, but to us all. Some people need quiet and alone-time to thrive and do their best work, and when we acknowledge this and re-shape our classrooms and offices to reflect it, we all benefit. Susan Cain lays out the science and sociology of introversion and highlights significant contributions introverts have made to society to present the case for understanding introversion and making the places we spend our lives happier and more productive. This book reshaped how I think about my personality and the way I work, and I can’t say enough good things about it.
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers: Tight, taught, and profoundly affecting, Powers’ debut novel about the Iraq War is narrated by a young man who watched his best buddy die just eight months into their tour. Private Bartle was somehow involved in his friend Murphy’s death, and he reveals exactly what happened in chapters that shift from his time on the ground to his present-day several years after the war. At 240 pages, this exploration of war–what it does to soldiers, to the families they leave behind, and to humanity–packs a massive punch. Powers doesn’t waste a single word.
With love and shout-outs to Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway and The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka, two of the most fun and unexpected reading experiences of my year–I’d have picked them if Jenn hadn’t gotten to them first!
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