Need a last-minute gift? Or sitting on a gift card and need a great book to read over the holiday break?
You could check out our What To Read Awards for the top-10 books by our Laura Miller as well as our favorite critics. Or, you could get some recommendations straight from the authors of some of our best books of 2012.
As part of a long-standing Salon tradition, we asked the authors of the books that we loved most this year to tell us about a 2012 book they read and loved. Junot Diaz, Gillian Flynn, Lauren Groff, Andrew Solomon, Tana French, Victor LaValle, Jess Walter, Maggie Shipstead and more contribute their picks below. Take the whole story shopping.
I can’t remember the last time I gripped a book this hard, squeezing the pages until the beds of my fingernails turned white. “Breed” by Chase Novak (a pseudonym for Scott “Endless Love” Spencer) flips the "Rosemary’s Baby" formula and makes the parents the monsters in this novel about young twins running for their lives through the streets of Manhattan. Our first clue that Mommy and Daddy aren’t all right? When mild-mannered father-to-be Alex pops a plump hamster into his mouth and swallows it in four quick bites. It gets even freakier after that. For all its Gothic horror pedigree, “Breed” is ultimately a smart commentary on modern parenting.
The systematic parallels of protagonist Bit's aging and the undoing of the community's ideals broke and mended my heart more times than I care to count. Groff’s prose pushes outward, then reels in, with flawless sensibility; she’s one of the best writers working today, by my count.
Kurt Andersen, author of “True Believers” (Random House)
“Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity,” by Katherine Boo (Random House)
A Pulitzer Prize and then a MacArthur Fellowship for her journalism about the poor and luckless and wretched, now the National Book Award for her first book, yeah yeah yeah: I began reading “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” slightly hoping to be disappointed, to discover that Katherine Boo has been overpraised. But no: It's an impeccable, riveting, illuminating, moving and altogether beautiful book that made me care about and (maybe) understand people living in a Mumbai slum. The hype is not hype. This is great work.
The book that has given me the greatest pleasure this year is Alice Munro's collection, “Dear Life.” These aren't the multilayered stories of her yore, but rather deft sleights of hand, played with diversionary narrative tactics. They also make plain Munro's close literary relation to Flannery O'Connor (the two were born only a few years apart) in seeking out the shadowy places in small town life, and in the human character. The last pages are four slips of memoir, allowing us glimpses of Munro as a girl, forming herself against the life that was expected of her.
Lauren Groff's “Arcadia” is a truly literary book, a gem, original and rich and vibrant. It is the ambitious tale of Bit Stone, the child of two commune founders in Western New York. Arcadia follows Bit, a bright, compassionate but wounded man, through the 1970s, the aughts, and the near-ish future. The writing is impeccable. The soul of it is pure. I could not put it down. "Arcadia" is an American story, and I loved it.
I found “HHhH,” by Laurent Binet, riveting, peculiar and shrewd. It is completely and not quite a novel — at the same time a history, a historical novel and a diary about the act of writing a novel that becomes something rather more personal than historical record. And it's also a ripper: Two men parachute into Czechoslovakia during WWII to kill Reinhard Heydrich, and this is their story, even when the author can't seem to get out of the way. But I didn't care. Truth belongs to fiction; this is the novel to prove it.
The best book I read in 2012 was Edward St. Aubyn’s “At Last,” the final novel featuring St. Aubyn’s alter ego Patrick Melrose. It was followed closely by the previous four Melrose novels, which have been appearing in Britain since the early '90s but arrived here all at once this year. In some ways it’s a boon for U.S. readers to have been denied the wicked pleasure of these books until now, since the entire Melrose sequence can be read through as one long roman fleuve, inviting comparisons to St. Aubyn’s countryman Anthony Powell and, yes, to Marcel Proust.
In the first sentence of “The Flame Alphabet,” the narrator and his wife abandon their daughter because her speech has become toxic, her every word sapping their strength, killing them slowly. But the act is not without its complicated kindnesses: "We left on a school day," our narrator tells us, "so Esther wouldn't see us." As Marcus expands this premise, it becomes clear that this is a dystopian future with a contemporary heart: Here is the American family, made newly visible by the strange freshness of Marcus' depiction, with all its unavoidable miscommunications, its hurts and disappointments that too often land along the trajectories of our best intentions.
Reading “Arcadia,” you immediately sense an enormous investment in not just the novel’s words, but its ideas. And yet the seams of those ideas never show, or wind their way into a shrill agenda. It’s a hell of an achievement to write a novel that vibrates with social awareness but is never a slave to it. “Arcadia” is as character-driven as it is smart, and that’s part of its greatness — you care about Bit, the protagonist, from his first prenatal memory, the women in the river singing. It would be easy and expected to show us characters who wanted perfection and found failure; Groff shows us men and women who grasped a little of both, and that’s what’s gutting — watching something so hard won crumble. The stakes here, both philosophical and personal, are high.
Also — Lauren Groff is incapable of writing a bad sentence.
I’m not sure I believe in the idea of a Best Book of a Year, but among those I read in 2012 that came out in 2012, one of the ones I’ll remember most is “With the Animals” by Noëlle Revaz (from Dalkey Archive). I think it was first published in French in 2002 but this English is incredible in how it shifts the bizarre French-redneck dialect into something brain-damaged and paranoiac. I found myself reading certain sentences and paragraphs several times just to hear how they did what they did again. I wish more books worked this hard to invent a unique tone about them.
Oh, how I loved “The Song of Achilles,” by Madeline Miller. It’s a gorgeously written page-turner set in the Trojan War -- but it’s also a meditation on the nature of heroism. In this quietly bold first novel, Miller dares to tell her own version of the love story between Achilles and Patroclus. Along the way she asks a question even more audacious: Must heroes be strong, beautiful and brave, like Achilles? Or can they also be awkward and fearful, like Patroclus? Miller’s answer makes for an absorbing read.
New Directions has been bringing us César Aira in English since “An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter” in 2006. “The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira,” about a practitioner of “paranormal medicine,” is another little bomb of narrative concision and complexity — akin to and full of the “invisible, intangible explosions, which enveloped” Dr. Aira “like air.” Strange and unassuming, violent and mild — in other words, a novella — this latest dose of Aira also revels in the disruptions of the unexpected and the distortions of realism, as it tests “the precise boundary between what was and was not a miracle.”
One of the best things a fiction writer can do is read poetry. My favorite book of 2012 is Natalie Diaz’s debut collection of poems, “When My Brother Was an Aztec.” Diaz’s poems are charged with the high stakes of America’s finest misadventures: sex, drugs and genocide. Among Diaz’s many gifts — she is also a former professional basketball player and is currently on a mission to preserve the Mojave language — is her dexterous use of mythology to explore the arresting truths of a family and nation in crisis. A brother strung out on methamphetamine is Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war and human sacrifice then Merlin mixing his magic meth potions and finally, the Minotaur, lost in the labyrinth of his own addiction. With appearances by Antigone, Lorca, Jimi Hendrix, Geronimo and Lionel Richie, “When My Brother Was an Aztec,” is sexy, wise, surprisingly comic and beautifully imagined. A perfect balance of the sacred and profane, the tragic and triumphant, the surreal and the super real. This deeply moving collection of poems will teach you everything you still need to learn about love and forgiveness.
Best book of the year is without question Eduardo C. Corral's Yale Younger Prize winning collection “Slow Lightning.” I carried this book with me across the country and back and it's here with me in this high cold place I've found myself. The border, the agonies of the migrant, how love vanishes before it can even begin its extraordinary life, the New America that is unfolding at the edges of our cities, a young man's awakening dreams -- they're all here, cast in magnificent subtleties. The collection's title is both understatement and a promise -- Corral's genius moves through like a force that is part wave, part current. Irresistible.
While traveling earlier in the year I read Robert Macfarlane's first two books in connection with my own next book, unaware that “The Old Ways” was forthcoming -- completing "a loose trilogy about landscape and the human heart." A few years back William Dalrymple in the Observer fretted about the state of travel writing in a globalized age and tracked its diminishment since the days of Bruce Chatwin's “In Patagonia” and the strong early works of Paul Theroux. Well, Macfarlane has found a way forward: He tells stories of grandly conceived personal journeys without irony or apology, venturing out into places written about by others but with a fresh sense of them as territory rare and prized. “Mountains of the Mind” is about mountains, “The Wild Places” about the wild, and “The Old Ways” about “ways” or paths where people walk for some higher purpose. Macfarlane frankly seeks what the great travelers have always sought: adventure, the long view, a sense of the earth in its own right, and the constant apprehension of what it is and means to be fully alive.
A lovely, frightening, clever, present novel. A feat of both imagination and intellect. I’m fascinated by the Tudor era, especially the brilliant, mad reign of Henry VIII; I know all the big details and most of the little ones. Mantel’s genius is that she made me think otherwise. I read, rapt, this tale of the ferocious power battle between Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell, and I truly believed it might not end with Anne’s head on the block.
Like everyone else, I love Gillian Flynn's “Gone Girl.” On Nick and Amy’s wedding anniversary, Amy disappears, leaving behind blood, traces of a struggle, and a diary – but can any of those be trusted? Psychological mysteries are about the points within people's minds where the borderline between good and evil becomes blurred and complex, and “Gone Girl” comes at that theme in a way I've never seen before. It's about the minds and the relationships where good and evil become irrevocably intertwined: neither can exist without the other, so the furious battle between the two can never end. It's mercilessly smart, blackly witty and very frightening.
Scott McClanahan's prose is set deep in West Virginia and features an easy simplicity, the genuine article, the kind of writing what comes off as folksy-cute when attempted by lesser artists. In one story, a man drags a deer into an icy gulch and brains it with a thermos. In another, a boy kills a baby bird while making the literary equivalent of extended eye contact with the reader. These are the engaging, addictive kind of stories you can read in one sitting, waiting for your car to get pulled out of the lake. But do read them again later, slower, because they're worth it.
The year that one of my books comes out is always brittle, full of sleeplessness and fever dreams. Though I read a dozen beautiful books from 2012 (including Jami Attenberg’s “The Middlesteins” and Chris Ware’s “Building Stories” and the whole of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, including this year’s “At Last”), the one that dovetailed best with my own weird state was Zadie Smith’s “NW,”which is infuriating, hilarious, thoughtful, playful, angry and bloody beautiful. If the novel has flaws, the flaws are the point of the project, I believe. It’s shockingly risky. Zadie Smith is a goddamned tower of fire.
"The bride did not wear white. But the terrorist did." Thus begins Lisa Zeidner's "Love Bomb," an aggressively funny, dynamic novel that somehow throws together dozens of familiar tropes and characters – a politically correct wedding, an idealistic bride, a self-involved actress, a vengeful renegade – without feeling the least bit unoriginal. Zeidner's skilled prose, her knack for storytelling, her way with heartbreaking details, transform this domestic suburban romp into a moving, insightful work about the joys and perils of marriage from a witty, distinctly feminist perspective. Somehow Zeidner's characters are both hilarious and alarmingly real – a rare combination for such a gorgeously written work of fiction. But best of all, Zeidner places her heroine, the razor-sharp but reserved mother of the bride, among a sea of loud, arrogant man-children, and then – slowly, satisfyingly -- demonstrates the quiet grace and patience that comes from true maturity.
Natasha Trethewey’s “Thrall” shocked me. Forget that she’s the Poet Laureate of the United States. Forget that I’m a sucker for any book that begins with a poem about a young daughter fly fishing with her father. And an admission, I can tell you now/that I tried to take it all in, record it/for an elegy I’d write—one day--/when the time came. Your daughter,/I was that ruthless. The highest compliment from another writer is the Church Murmur: How the hell did she do that? The new poems do so many things at once and with such tactful, understated, surging beauty: meditations on race, on colonizing the blood, on the searing search for knowledge, which is so often so different than the search for truth. On family and how we love and forgive and remember. Damn. I just knelt down, said thank you.
Anyone who thinks structure can’t be beautiful hasn’t read Alice Munro. Just take a look at her early story “Miles City, Montana,” where a single sentence of flash-forward in the middle of the story changes how the reader understands everything. Munro’s stories are never what they first seem to be. Reading one is like peeling back the layers of an onion to find something new underneath. There’s a reason Cynthia Ozick called her “our Chekhov.” No one excavates the inner lives of their characters the way she does. Her new collection marks a further deepening of her work. An entire novel is contained in each of these stories.
David Graeber is an anthropologist and one of the Occupy movement’s greatest thinkers. “For a very long time,” he writes, “the intellectual consensus has been that we can no longer ask Great Questions. Increasingly, it’s looking like we have no other choice.” In this paradigm-shifting book, he asks (and answers) Great Questions about the morality of the creditor-debtor relationship, and shows how debt has been a powerful economic, political and social tool throughout human history. The book is entertaining, erudite and astounding. I can’t think of anyone who shouldn’t read it. But it’s particularly relevant for those among the great mass of people frustrated that a conversation about money, justice and the financial institutions, in the years following “a financial crisis that almost brought the entire world economy to a screeching halt,” somehow “never ended up taking place.” (Thanks to Margaux Williamson for the recommend.)
I felt like I was hiking up the side of a mountain while reading “Battleborn,” seduced by its moment-by-moment gifts and vistas such that the breath-shortening effects of altitude stole up on me. Her sentences can be mesmerizing in the way of mineral patterns, but in her characters the lava is very much alive, palpable in their longings for companionship, self-understanding, dignity. And just when we've acclimated ourselves to her craggy contemporary West, she gives us the novella "The Diggings," akin to Denis Johnson's "Train Dreams" in the ease and visionary verve with which it transports us utterly to another era.
For sheer narrative derring-do, “The Orphan Master's Son” is the most dazzling book I read in 2012. Johnson takes us into the heart of a country where there is only one protagonist, illuminating the lives of the various secondary Joes who suffer the horrifying farce of North Korea. Every exciting caper -- from gulag escapes, to impersonated generals, to the kidnappings of opera singers -- reminds us of the dark central undertow. I place this book right next the García Márquez's “Autumn of the Patriarch” as one of the essential fictional looks into contemporary totalitarianism.
The novel that really wowed me this year was Scott Hutchins' debut "A Working Theory of Love." What could have been a dizzying romp through Silicon Valley, with a few tragicomic portraits, a talking computer and a visit to a sex cult, turned out to be poignant meditation on loss, rekindled connections and the elusive nature of love. Fiction in the right hands really does have the power to transform, to resurrect and to replenish, and "A Working Theory of Love" left me thrumming with theses energies.
Rian Malan is a white South African journalist who writes like the lovechild of Norman Mailer and Dorothy Parker. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is his collection of long-form journalism written over the last two decades. The man is utterly fearless in the subjects he tackles and his prose is as good as any writer alive today. Seriously. Read the first piece in this brilliant collection, "The Last Afrikaner," about an old Boer woman doing a sort of Robinson Crusoe in Tanzania. You’ll flip out. One of the finest reads of 2012.
Domingo Martinez, author of “The Boy Kings of Texas” (Lyons Press)
“Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity,” by Katherine Boo (Random House)
I was woefully unprepared when I received the nomination for the National Book Award this past November: except for Robert Caro, I had no idea who my fellow nominees were. The award for nonfiction went to Katherine Boo for her book, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers," a story about a particular slum in Mumbai, and the book is magical, entirely deserving of the award. Her language is gorgeous, and her capacity to describe the most nuanced of behavior is masterful. I’m halfway through it, and it leapt to the top of my recommendations. It's an astounding text: beautifully written, researched in detail, and remarkably well-told.
Eliza Factor’s debut novel, “The Mercury Fountain,” is a powerful read. Set in the desert near the border of west Texas and Mexico at the turn of the 20th century, the story follows the quest of Owen Scraperton as he struggles to establish Pristina, a utopian community based on mercury mining. The story itself is sweeping and the characters are profound. Factor effortlessly weaves a fascinating narrative that kept me intrigued. I eagerly look forward to her next book.
Hilary Mantel's "Bring Up the Bodies," the sequel to her amazing novel "Wolf Hall," does something that most historical fiction doesn't: rings totally true. With understated prose, Mantel plunges us into Tudor England and the life -- both interior and exterior -- of Thomas Cromwell. It's an astute novel of politics as politics is always played: as a series of skirmishes and shifting alliances, with the art of compromise forever in the forefront. "A term in Parliament is an exercise in frustration, it is a lesson in patience: whichever way you like to look at it," muses Mantel's Cromwell. "They commune of war, peace, strife, contention, debate, murmur, grudges, riches, poverty, truth, falsehood, justice, equity, oppression, treason, murder and the edification and continuance of the commonwealth; then do as their predecessors have done -- that is, as well as they might -- and leave off where they began."
I kept asking friends of mine to read this so we could talk about it. It follows Heti, or a version of her, as she tries to write, doesn’t write, contemplates the making of bad art, loves her friend, fights with her friend, lives. It’s about reality and ugliness and sex and ambition, and it got inside my head and lingered there — sometimes uncomfortably, and I mean that in a good way. If I had to present some future society with a document to explain what life was like in 2012, this is the one I’d pick.
It’s especially nice when your favorite book of the year happens to be written by someone you know, as was the case for me this year. Amber Dermont’s “The Starboard Sea” is a stunning novel — a gorgeously written and psychologically complex account of one boy’s search for meaning during his final year of high school. Set in the decadent world of an East Coast prep school in the late 1980s, Dermont explores issues of class, race and sexual identity with astonishing grace, sensitivity and perceptiveness. I’ve rarely been so moved or so impressed by an author’s first book.
David Quammen, author of “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic” (W.W. Norton)
“The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,” by Stephen Greenblatt (W.W. Norton)
Stephen Greenblatt is a smart, vivid writer who wears his scholarly erudition lightly. In “The Swerve,” a book of literary detective work about literary detective work, he tells the obscure, fascinating story of how a foundational masterpiece of Western modernity — “De rerum natura” (“On the Nature of Things”), by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius — was lost to the world for 15 centuries and then rediscovered in a German monastery by an Italian book-hunter named Poggio Bracciolini. Here’s my testimonial: Greenblatt’s book is so lively and consequential and persuasive, it set me to reading Lucretius himself.
Over the year I have rapturously praised Jami Attenberg’s "The Middlesteins," a beautifully written and passionate love story of a family whose matriarch is slowly eating herself to death. I also admired Lauren Groff’s "Arcadia" and her chimerical account of a utopian dream disintegrating and what the fallout does to the survivors. But sometimes it’s the novelty of the new that can thrill. My husband surprised me with an early Christmas present of Chris Ware’s new book, "Building Stories," knowing just how disturbed I was by Ware’s "Jimmy Corrigan." The book itself is a thing to behold — a boxed, beautifully designed 14-piece graphic novel that tells the story of the people who inhabit a Chicago apartment house, expertly conveying their hopes and dreams as well as their fear, loss and regret. His unconventional and non-linear story telling make the book remarkable.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the novella of a writer whose work I have admired for well over a decade. Panio Gianopoulos’ "A Familiar Beast" is an elegantly written story of a man’s search for redemption as he attempts to reconnect with an old friend after a messy divorce. I would be recommending it even it if wasn’t dedicated to me — which it is.
I read a number of truly wonderful books this year, but the one that I’m going to tell you about is Susanna Moore’s “The Life of Objects,” because I think it should have received much more attention than it did. It’s an exquisite novel about a young Irish girl’s experiences in Germany during the Second World War. The novel chronicles a slow slide out of normal life into deprivation and surrealism as the war grinds onward, written in a style so clear and unadorned that it feels like reading a memoir.
This is my favorite book of the year by a writer whose work I hadn't previously read. Set in Vietnam mostly in the 1960s, it's the kind of classic, suspenseful, beautifully structured novel that first made me fall in love with reading. Vincent Lam tells the riveting story of a very flawed man, the Chinese headmaster of an English school in Saigon, and of the desperate bets he places, which have the power to destroy or save his family. Lam is a master of quiet, elegant prose that packs a mighty punch. In the character of the headmaster he has created a true man of our times -- a fundamentally decent person who, frequently driven by greed and lust and arrogance, fails to comprehend the world around him. This is an unforgettable novel that I've recommended to reader after reader with huge success.
Alan Sepinwall, author of “The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever” (What’s Alan Watching)
“Gone Girl,” by Gillian Flynn (Crown)
I could say Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” was my favorite read of 2012 because it was satisfying to see a former TV critic doing so well in another field of writing. But that was just a small part of the pleasure I got from a book with a distinctive voice — three, actually — a relentless sense of doom, and the rare big plot twist that enhanced the narrative, rather than feeling gimmicky. I felt like I needed to shower when the book was done, but that just speaks to how Flynn wrapped me up in the lurid dysfunction of this world.
Jennifer duBois’s first novel is a meticulously constructed tale of intertwining destinies. Irina, a young American facing an unbearable diagnosis, and Aleksandr, a former Soviet chess champion turned dissident politician, are brought together by a long-forgotten letter that asks how to carry on with a lost cause. Ranging from Massachusetts to Moscow and covering several decades, "A Partial History of Lost Causes" abounds and fascinates with dark wit and poignant insight, chess and politics, frozen rivers and neon nightclubs.
I’m an earnest believer in book kismet. Occasionally, a reader and a book are destined to meet right at that moment when the reader most needs the book, when the book speaks directly to the reader’s ineffable thoughts and desires, and the reader forms an attachment that will last a lifetime. Heidi Julavits’ “The Vanishers” was that book for me this year. What spoke to me about a young woman recovering from a grotesque psychic attack by her mentor, an underground organization devoted to disappearance, the cultish followers of an avant garde French filmmaker, and a thoroughly menacing Barcelona chair? I can’t say exactly (that’s the ineffable), but Julavits’ wild imagination and facility with a Mobius strip of plot riveted me. I read late into the night and picked up the book again while the kettle boiled in the morning. Afterward, I read that Julavits wanted to re-create the ravenousness for the story that she felt reading books as a child. She totally succeeded.
Andrew Solomon, author of “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity” (Scribner)
“Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy,” by Douglas Smith (FSG)
Douglas Smith’s “Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy” follows the fates of two family dynasties across a 30-year period, from palaces and vast estates to squalid apartments and Siberian labor camps. Many aristocrats supported the communist revolution, but all were targeted as enemies of the people, as were their starving descendants decades later. Smith’s portrait of family dynamics against careening social dynamics makes for suspenseful reading. It shows history at its most epic and its most achingly personal.
The books I like most leave me panting for breath, either because I’m laughing so much or trying not to sob in public. Lauren Groff’s “Arcadia,” a novel about a boy growing up in a Utopian community, forced me to keep tissues handy. Who knew that hippies could do that? Luckily I had Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” to lift my spirits for the rest of the year. It’s the first epistolary novel I’ve ever loved, and sharp as hell. Both books surprised me over and over again, winning my eternal devotion.
"I fell in love with Pam Houston’s writing more than twenty years ago, when I first read her short story “How To Talk to a Hunter.” She only gets better with time. Her latest book, Contents May Have Shifted is both illuminating and impossible to put down and it’s my favorite book published in 2012. In 144 chapters that take readers around the world, Houston tells the story of one adventurous woman's romances and friendships, sorrows and joys, with an intelligence and perception that destroyed, astonished and inspired me."
Robert Sullivan, author of “My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78” (FSG)
“The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot,” by Robert Macfarlane (Viking Adult)
Delete your apps and forget your bookmark for Google earth, time can be experienced by foot. The meaning of the landscape — landscape not as scenic beauty but as layers of cultural artifacts, paths taken over and over by humans — is laid out before you if you head out into it, and this is the point made so beautifully in Robert Macfarlane’s “The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot.”
Jeet Thayil, author of “Narcopolis” (Penguin)
“Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity,” by Katherine Boo (Random House)
Boo examined more than 3,000 official documents by petitioning the Indian government under a new Right to Information Act. At least one Indian journalist, overcome with rage and envy that an American had written what will surely become a definitive work of nonfiction about Bombay’s underclass, denounced the book for the usual reasons. But Boo’s discoveries unfold in a language that fits the subject: urgent, lyrical, seemingly unadorned. Her characters are flawed humans, rather than saintly figures. And there is inadvertent, if not Shakespearean wordplay. “Pray that she lives,” someone says about a woman who has set herself on fire, “else we will be in a grave situation.”
The book I loved most this year was “We Sinners” by Hanna Pylvainen, a short debut novel of surprising scope about a large family and their unusually conservative form of Lutheranism. One by one, Pylväinen charts the overlapping lives of the various members of the family, always with great empathy and with exquisitely precise language, so that the small details of each life — the illicit purchase of a television, a family case of the chicken pox, a forbidden teenage kiss — hum with emotion and meaning. I found this book so absorbing that it was hard not to swallow it in a single sitting.
Karolina Waclawiak, author of “How to Get Into the Twin Palms” (Two Dollar Radio)
“Violence,” by Vanessa Veselka and Lidia Yuknavitch (Guillotine)
“The Vanishers,” by Heidi Julavits (Doubleday)
“Dare Me,” by Megan Abbott (Reagan Arthur Books)
“Maidenhead,” by Tamara Faith Berger (Coach House Books)
“Heroines,” by Kate Zambreno (Semiotext(e))
Recently in the wonderful chapbook "Violence" (Guillotine), Vanessa Veselka and Lidia Yuknavitch raised their frustration about how the female experience was restricted in art, particularly in fiction. Women aren't allowed to behave in a destructive way unless they plan on redeeming themselves by the last page. It's worth mentioning because my favorite books this year pushed the boundaries of the acceptable female narrative. Heidi Julavits's "The Vanishers," Megan Abbott's "Dare Me," Tamara Faith Berger's "Maidenhead" and Kate Zambreno's "Heroines" were searching, beautiful and vicious. I can feel a sea change happening and I'm excited to see who explodes the tired tropes of the female experience next.
Jess Walter, author of "Beautiful Ruins"
“Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity,” by Katherine Boo (Random House)
I read so many great novels in 2012 that I don’t think I could choose just one; thankfully, the book I find myself thinking about most often is nonfiction, Katherine Boo’s "Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity." An incredible blend of immersive reporting and powerful writing, it is a touching, harrowing portrait of Annawadi, a “sumpy plug of slum” in the shadow of the Mumbai airport. Wrenching and inspiring, the lines are as sharp and devastating -- “The sickliest daughter had drowned in a bucket, at home” -- as anything I've read in a long time.
“Prosperous Friends” makes the love triangle passé geometry. Instead, Schutt arranges her characters in a hexagon of erotic codependency and longing: handsome Ned, a struggling fiction writer shoved toward memoir; his pretty wife, Isabel, capable only of caring for strays; Clive, the distinguished Maine painter Isabel sits for, who renders her into a canapé while his own wife looks on; Clive’s ill and inconvenient adult daughter. This book will unravel all you’ve stitched together about how to tell a story. It will rip down the middle the tidy seam where we fasten doing well to doing good.
As a mother of young children, I found “Far From the Tree” incredibly compelling. The tenacity of parents caring for disabled children -- the way their very identities are altered by the struggle to better the lives of their sons and daughters -- is humbling. “Far From the Tree” is full of compassionate, frank insight into the range of human difference. At a time when we are able to screen for an increasing number of congenital diseases and disorders, this book poses a fascinating question: We know what we stand to gain by eliminating undesirable traits, but do we realize what we stand to lose?
Good things come in fours: The Final Four, The Fantastic Four, The Four Questions. Joshua Cohen’s “Four New Messages” lives up to its titular promise. The four novellas included are certainly new — I’ve never read anything remotely like them — and they’re certainly messages, urgent ones addressed to the porn-numb but as yet un-lobotomized members of the iGeneration. Cohen calls out in pimped-out prose that shimmies like a lowride Cutlass. I would advise you all to listen.
“May We Be Forgiven” is a violent story about sex and loss, politics and personal history. Two hostile brothers, marital infidelity, a career wife, kids that signal warning and as well as hope. Psychotic paranoid America. Glorious can-do Americia, part eagle, part raptor. The Nixon years and the bungled present. The boys keep hoping they have written it, but this is the great American novel.
2012 has featured a wonderful resurgence of radical novels of the female first-person, my favorite being Tamara Faith Berger’s “Maidenhead,” published by Canada’s Coach House Books. “Maidenhead” is both a gritty, erotic novel of a teenage girl's coming of age set in a Key West tourist trap and in Toronto, as well as an urgent, unruly philosophical meditation on desire and power, in dialogue with uncomfortable ideas about sex, race and class. Just read it.