Book recommendations from what I read in 2012
Overall, I was kinda underwhelmed by the 52 books I read this year. There were a handful of significant standouts (seen below) but also some real duds and slogs and unenjoyable messes. Seems every other book I read this past year was disappointing…so here’s hoping for a brighter literary 2013. Still, there were some amazing stars, too. Here’s my list of a dozen or so.
“The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green
Time Magazine named it the best book of the year. This is a perfect book. It’s not a cancer book, because (as the lead points out) “cancer books suck.” Some of its teenage characters do have cancer. But this book isn’t about that, or not just about that. It’s about life and love and novels and relationships and travel and family and video games and high school and finding who you are and everything. It’s lovely and funny and a very fast read, and yes, there will be tears (don’t make the mistake my pal Joseph did, and read the second half on the subway). EVERYONE should read it. Everyone.
“Lord of Light” by Roger Zelazny
Neil Gaiman has often recommended this novel, and I can totally see why. It’s amazingly brilliant (and definitely a huge influence on Gaiman’s style and writing sensibilities). It’s smart, it’s got great wordplay, it’s complex in plot and scope, it’s funny. One of my absolute favorites of the year. Anyone who enjoys fantasy, and/or smart writing with fun wordplay and/or Neil Gaiman will definitely love this novel.
“Big Dead Place” by Nicholas Johnson
Fascinating and engaging account of the support staff who live and work in Antarctica. Nicholas started as a dishwasher and moved to sanitation, in one of the world’s harshest environments. But it turns out to be the institutions and bureaucracy that prove the hardest to deal with. Alternately funny and frustrating situations as everyone is just trying to stay safe and sane. Not a typical “Travel Memoir,” but really great reading.
“As God Commands” by Niccolo Ammaniti
Hoo boy, this novel is INTENSE! At the halfway mark, I felt that we were speeding over a cliff at 100mph and there was still HALF OF THE NOVEL to go. Hold on tight, because this ride is getting OUT OF CONTROL!! Translated from the Italian, this novel is really really great. Gritty and real, following a variety of characters in a small italian town. Most of the folks are down on their luck and don’t do very likeable things. And yet I still found myself engaged and even rooting for many of them. I LOVE IT when folks create characters with true shades of grey. If you like “The Wire,” this is definitely for you. Even if you didn’t, I’d recommend this for sure. I think everyone who read it for bookclub ended up liking it.
“Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell
I’m conflicted about recommending this. It deservedly made many many “best” lists. It’s a gorgeous first novel, full of vibrant descriptions and really unique settings (the juxtaposition of a dying themepark and a modern waterpark and the quirky characters who work at each). It’s been almost a year and these places and characters (honestly, the settings ARE characters, as well) are still rolling around in my brain. It’s definitely “literary fiction.” Doesn’t mean it’s hard to read, but it does mean that it’s true, crafted writing. So, why am I conflicted about recommending it? Because there’s a loss-of-innocence towards the end that broke my heart/soul a bit. (I didn’t have this problem with Donahughe’s “Room,” but know some people who did). And so. It’s gorgeous and has made an indelible impression on me…but a part of it hurt my heart. Consider yourself forewarned.
“The Dwarf” by Pär Lagerkvist
I was initially hesitant to read this 1944 novel about a medieval court’s dwarf, because I expected some old-timey hatefulness towards little people. But that wasn’t really an issue. This is a dark, twisted tale seen through the eyes of the a very memorable misanthropic court dwarf. Great stuff. Loaded with philosophical questions, the dwarf’s twisted morality makes for a fascinating filter as the Renaissance is happening around him. Really enjoyed this.
“Redshirts” by Jonathan Scalzi
Perfect summer reading. Entertaining concept, well told, with some surprising plot turns. Young ensigns (wearing redshirts) start their exciting voyage across the galaxies in a Star Trek-like world. The group soon learns that working “away missions” is a dangerous proposition. Very funny. And Star Trek (and its tropes) permeate our society, so even fellow-non-trekkies should find this quite entertaining, as it takes the genre to task for all its flaws.
“Three Bags Full” by Leonie Swann
Fun take on a mystery novel, as it’s the story of a flock of sheep trying to solve their shepherd’s murder. The author obviously knows sheep well (not the brightest of creatures) and it’s entertaining to watch the flock try to reason through their world to find clues. Very decent sheep-world-view. Plus, there’s a tiny drawing of a sheep jumping over fences in the bottom corner, so the book can be a giant flipbook, too.
“The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake” by Aimee Bender
I LOVE Aimee Bender so so much. Her stories are delightfully strange, yet very real and powerful. This wasn’t my favorite of her works, but that’s only because I loved “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt” and “An Invisible Sign of My Own” SO SO MUCH. Still, it’s a uniquely strange and slightly floaty novel, with real, complex, fascinating people.
“Bonk” by Mary Roach
Roach’s narrative voice is engaging, fun, and informative. This history of scientific sex studies is great. I had it with me on our trip to Alaska, and had to keep reading small factoids aloud to my sister (the chapter on inseminating pigs is particularly hilarious). Great stuff.
“Sharpe’s Tiger” by Bernard Cornwell (all of the Sharpe novels)
Okay, the actor Sean Bean is dreamy…especially 15 years ago. So I’ve watched all of the BBC films where he stars as Richard Sharpe, a British soldier fighting in the Napoleonic wars. But I just had no interest in reading these books. Finally was convinced to do so by my siblings. And I was blown away by how much I enjoyed them. I mean, I think there are 30 friggin books at this point. I just read 3 or 4 this year. But they’re engaging and fast paced, with some historical notes for those who care. I’ve never been a big fan of “war books,” but these have great pacing and I was fully invested. Fun fun.
“Rampant” by Diana Peterfreund
Silly, fast, and entertaining young adult novel. Modern day times. A young woman discovers her mother’s crazy stories are true: unicorns exist, and they are venomous killing machines. As a descendant of Alexander the Great (just go with it), she’s got special skills to be a unicorn hunter, and so gets shipped off to a training school in Italy. So yeah. If you’re looking for a fast escapist read, this one was fun. Not great, but fun.
“Layer Cake” by JJ Conolly
Loved the film, and who doesn’t want to spend a few days reading about British gangsters and drug dealers? This was quite good, lots of twists and turns. It is chock full of dialect and slang and many many terms I didn’t know. But mostly you can follow along through context, yes?
“A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole
Loved it. Wasn’t sure I would, but LOVED IT! And it’s crazy funny, too. Comedy of the absurd, as things just keep getting out of hand. Toole’s love for the characters of New Orleans is apparent. As with most of the Pulitzer Prize winners, there are sentences to get lost in and roll around with the great words. Memorable characters. Just..it’s madness, but of a brilliant kind.
“The Well and the Mine” by Gin Phillips
I was resistant to reading this, even though it was recommended by several people whose taste I trust. I just didn’t think I wanted to read another story about growing up in a poor southern family. But I am SO GLAD I did. This was truly one of the best of the year. It’s writing is gorgeous. It’s narrator is delightful. It’s just a lovely lovely novel. I was hooked within the first few pages because Phillips’ skill is very apparent.
“Super Sad True Love Story” by Gary Shteyngart
Smart story set in a VERY possible near-future. Honestly, I was just so blown away by how possible/real it all felt. Shteyngart has earned all of his accolades. I enjoy epistolery novels, but this format works particularly well here. The different styles of traditional journal entries, social media blogging, chatting/texting, etc: all are powerfully utilized. Just…woah. The author has our society clearly pegged, and these characters and events are so so real. I mean, hopefully things won’t come to pass as they’re portrayed, but it sure felt like I was reading truth. Yikes. (note from Jan 2021. Just double-yikes on how many predictions Shteyngart got correct, and here’s hoping we as a society can make changes to avoid further predictions)
“Mink River” by Brian Doyle
Delightful. Great use of images and language. The combination of Native American and Irish folklore in this small coastal town in Oregon…it works surprisingly well. Lovely lyrical writing. Philosophy, allegory, metaphor, day-to-day triumphs and losses. It’s just lovely. The type of book where you want to underline great phrases, and will quickly find you’ve underlined the whole novel.
“Last Night at the Lobster” by Stewart O’Nan & “Dear American Airlines” by Jonathan Miles
Both of these are short, really interesting glimpses into modern life. The first follows the last night of business for a particular Red Lobster restaurant. The second follows a man stuck at the airport because American Airlines canceled his flight. Great everyday characters and non-traditional novella settings. Not exactly plot driven…just a peek into their lives. Definitely only 1 or 2 days worth of reading (I mentioned they’re short), but both stuck around, percolating in my brain.