Laura Miller's best books of 2012

Tomorrow, we'll roll out our first What To Read Awards critics poll. As a sneak peek, here's our critic's list

Published December 22, 2012 9:00PM (EST)

1. "Far From the Tree" by Andrew Solomon

This hefty book is organized around a seemingly simple, stark question: How do parents and children form relationships when profound differences divide them? The answer contains a universe of emotions and ideas -- be prepared to have your fundamental notions of self, family and society turned inside out and upside down. Solomon ("The Noonday Demon"), a gay man, was clearly drawn to the mystery of filial love by his own painful childhood experience, but he ran wide with the idea. He has recorded the parents of deaf, autistic, mentally disabled, dwarfed, schizophrenic and transgender children describing their lives and histories, as well as the parents of children conceived by rape or who have committed serious crimes. What he learns, however, applies to everyone, and Solomon's approach -- patient, careful, evenhanded but not detached, as well as infinitely compassionate and understanding -- is a revelation. This is that very rare book that offers equal parts intellectual challenge and emotional catharsis, and without a doubt it has the power to change the way you view the world.

2. "Bring Up the Bodies" by Hillary Mantel

Even more accomplished than the preceding novel in this sequence, "Wolf Hall," Mantel's new installment in the fictionalized life of Thomas Cromwell -- master secretary and chief fixer to Henry VIII -- is a high-wire act, a feat of novelistic derring-do. She has seduced us with Cromwell's salt-of-the-earth pragmatism and bulldog competency, transforming a figure traditionally seen as sinister into the avatar of the coming Enlightenment meritocracy. Once we are properly attached to her hero, she drags us into his most questionable exercise of ingenuity and power, the removal of Anne Boleyn and her partisans from power (and, in some cases, from this mortal coil). "He needs guilty men,” Cromwell tells himself. “So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.” It's an extraordinary twist, investing the reader in a scenario of political horror on the side of the perp, and one more sign that Mantel, like Cromwell, can do anything she sets her mind to.

3. "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" by Katherine Boo

Boo, a journalist legendary for her commitment to total immersion in her subjects' worlds, spent four years in a Mumbai shantytown called Annawadi, following the lives of a handful of families. What may sound like an exercise in first-world self-reproach is in actuality a humming, epic saga of strivers and idlers, dreams and vendettas, intrigue and tragedy. From the head-down entrepreneur, Abdul, slowly building an empire from scavenged trash, to the conniving Asha, the corrupt, local political boss aiming to parlay her beautiful daughter in an advantageous family connection, people who are typically portrayed as objects of pity and charity leap off the page as vividly as the characters of Dickens and Hugo.

4. "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" by Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn, a virginal 19-year-old Texan, is a genuine hero of the Iraq War, part of the so-called Bravo Company, a group of soldiers who acquitted themselves magnificently in a firefight at the dog end of that highly dubious enterprise. Fountain's novel takes place during a Thanksgiving victory lap back in the states, as the Bravos are feted by a sublimely repellent billionaire during a Dallas Cowboys football game before being shipped back "into the shit." It's debatable, though, where the largest quantities of that nasty substance can be found. Some aspects of war -- camaraderie, courage, horror, grief -- are profound and eternal, but each war also comes wrapped in its own distinct rationale, and in Dallas, Billy wrestles with his dawning understanding of the multiple layers of bullshit surrounding his war. Fountain, whose prose glitters with invention without hijacking the story, is particularly merciless in his skewering of red-blooded, know-nothing, gimcrack patriotism and the casual, shameless exploitation of the rich who spout it. This is the definitive Iraq War novel.

5. "Wilderness of Error" by Errol Morris

Morris -- whether he's working in documentary film, in journalism or (more recently) as an author -- is interested in how societies and individuals determine the truth, particularly in situations where incontrovertible evidence is lacking. Above all, Morris aims to reconstruct the way seductive narratives assume the role of truth, sometimes triumphing in the public mind despite ample reasons to distrust them. Few contemporary outrages are more storied than the 1970 murders of Colette MacDonald and her two little daughters in Fort Bragg, N.C. Her husband, Jeffrey MacDonald, was convicted of the crime, although he has always maintained that it was committed by intruders. Joe McGinniss wrote a bestselling book, "Fatal Vision," condemning MacDonald in 1983, and Janet Malcolm wrote a celebrated book about how McGinniss tricked MacDonald into cooperating with him, "The Journalist and the Murderer," in 1990. Mistrustful of all these compelling story lines, Morris returns to the evidence, some of it concealed by the prosecution at the time of MacDonald's trial, in an obsessively in-depth reconstruction that raises serious doubts about MacDonald's trial and -- even more important -- humanity's all-too-ready willingness to fall for a fetching yarn.

6. "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn

In truth, this title is pretty much tied with "Broken Harbor" by Tana French, an author whose every previous novel has commanded a spot on Salon's top-10 list. French and Flynn -- along with Kate Atkinson, Sarah Gran and Laura Lippman -- are part of a new generation of crime writers whose work rivals literary fiction in style, complexity of character and willingness to transgress genre conventions. "Gone Girl" is an exemplar of the breed, both an ingenious whodunit and a wickedly sharp-edged portrait of a marriage corroded by the collapse of the American economy in the late 2000s. Nick and Amy, once hip magazine journalists in Manhattan, have landed in small-town Missouri and are on the verge of splitting. Then one day, Nick comes home from work to find the house tossed and his wife missing. A media circus ensues, and Nick manages it so poorly that the public becomes convinced he's a murderer. A duet of unreliable narrators, "Gone Girl" has two mysteries: What happened to Amy, and what happened to Nick-and-Amy? Why does this marriage, or any marriage, fall apart? The answers are not as easy to come by as you might think.

7. "The Black Count" by Tom Reiss

If you've ever read Alexandre Dumas' swashbuckling novels -- and if you haven't, what a sad, drab reading life you've led, my friend -- you probably thought that characters like D'Artagnan and Edmond Dantes were larger than life. Surely a figure so dashing, intrepid, graceful, handsome and gallant as these fictional creations has never actually walked the earth? Well, you'd be wrong about that, because Dumas' father was all of those things: a master swordsman, a patriot, a brilliant general, a hero of the French Revolution, a rival of Napoleon, renowned for his humaneness and protection of the weak, and popular with the ladies -- not to mention a devoted husband and father as well as the victim of unjust character assassination and imprisonment. Dumas was also black, the son of a French aristocrat and a Caribbean slave woman. Reiss' account of this extraordinary man's even more extraordinary life expertly draws on the history of the Revolution, its brief interlude of promise for people of color and the inexorable retraction of that promise. It's a story as enthrallingly told as anything the count's son ever wrote.

8. "Beautiful Ruins" by Jess Walter

An unusual -- and unusually successful -- blend of satire and romanticism, this novel begins with events at the periphery of the 1962 filming of "Cleopatra" in Rome, and the legendary affair between the movie's two leads, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. A beautiful, talented and terminally ill bit player in the production comes to stay in the only pensione in an obscure coastal Italian village. The young proprietor of the inn is smitten, and becomes entangled with a fabulously corrupt movie producer and the great Burton himself. The narrative then jumps to Hollywood, 50 years later, and the same producer's efforts to revive his career, as seen by his once-idealistic assistant. Then it moves once more to the present-day Midwest, where a decidedly non-glamorous American family muddles toward reconciliation. "Beautiful Ruins" pulls many characters into its charmed orbit without diffusing its power an iota. It’s a novel about the possibility of achieving art amid the commercialism of popular culture, and love in a world where people don’t hesitate to use each other mercilessly. "Beautiful Ruins" is affirming but not sentimental, which makes it all the more moving in the end. (We also recommend the audiobook; Edoardo Ballerini's narration is the finest one we listened to all year.)

9. "Wild" by Cheryl Strayed

At the age of 26, poleaxed by grief over the death of her mother and the seemingly inexplicable breakup of her marriage, Strayed decided that what she really needed to do was hike the California portion of the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs 2660 miles, from the Mexican to the Canadian border. She'd never backpacked before and barely knew what she was doing -- all this was before the era of cellphones and debit cards. It was an insane plan, and needless to say it didn't run smoothly, but the journey did give Strayed, a writer of uncommon poise and honesty, the solitude she so ardently craved. Segueing seamlessly between her troubled past and her daily, sometimes life-threatening adventures on the trail, "Wild" illustrates how Strayed learned to stitch herself back together while confronting bears, rattlesnakes, arid deserts, vast snow drifts and a too-small pair of boots, as well as ravishing vistas and kind strangers. Strayed doesn't overreach in search of contrived uplift and she's refreshingly frank about her freewheeling appetites for sex and the odd artificial stimulant, all of which makes "Wild" a welcome break from the tidiness of similar memoirs in this vein. Above all, it's her willingness to embrace the wounds and scars that can't be overcome that gives this book its funky, soulful and authentic charm.

10. "Alif the Unseen" by G. Willow Wilson

In the capital of a nameless Persian Gulf emirate — the characters refer to it only as “the City” -- a teenage geek supplies untraceable Web hosting to everyone from Islamists to communists to feminists, whoever wants to evade detection by the region’s despotic authorities. Dumped by the rich girl he thought loved him, Alif designs a piece of software that will make his name invisible to her online, and comes into possession of an ancient, weird-smelling book of stories that parallels the "Arabian Nights." Both events plunge him into the hidden realm of the jinn, a fantastical world of peril and freedom running right alongside his own. Pursued by the City's terrifying security chief, Alif is soon caught up as well in an Arab Spring-style uprising. Wilson, an American convert to Islam, weaves ancient magic, cutting-edge technology and political philosophy into a tale whose catharsis dances to the exhilarating thrum of genuine, real-world liberation.

1. Explain why your No. 1 book was your favorite title of the year. "Far From the Tree" by Andrew Solomon is to my mind a life-changing book, one that's capable of overturning long-standing ideas of identity, family and love.

2. What was the strongest debut book of 2012? "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" by Katherine Boo, a book so accomplished people keep forgetting it was her first.

3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention? So many! "Gods Without Men" by Hari Kunzru and "Arcadia" by Lauren Groff clamored for inclusion on my fiction list.

4. Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or nonfiction, that seems to best encapsulate America in 2012? Most of them reflect the America of a few years ago because that's when they were written, but beneath its deceptively commercial-seeming thriller surface, Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl" is a very shrewd observation of a certain kind of modern marriage.

5. What was the single most memorable character from a 2012 book? Thomas Cromwell from "Bring Up the Bodies" -- Is he a good guy or a bad guy? It's impossible to say and Mantel really messes with her readers' heads in making them see that.

6. What is the book from 2012, either from your list or not, fiction or nonfiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now? I think "Bring Up the Bodies" and the novel preceding it will impress readers as long as people are interested in the Tudors, and they have never shown any sign of losing that interest.

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By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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