It's that time again, when I run down the books that I read throughout the year. Much to my chagrin, I did not hit my usual goal of 52, which I entirely blame on having a baby. Babies have a way of stealing time, and apparently, of letting you read books that are completely not worth whatever free minutes you have. You'll see what I mean below.
Last year, after my list was published on The Huffington Post (a.k.a. my employer), there were plenty of people who left comments to the effect of "reading isn't about quantity, it's about quality," going on to say that if I worried less about numbers, I'd read less crap.
And it's not that I disagree with these people, but I still like the idea of giving myself a goal for the year, even if I didn't quite reach it in 2013. And as for the crap? Well, I still hold to the "life is too short for bad books" philosophy -- which is why I put down a few books this year that just didn't keep me interested, like Dissident Gardens (sorry, Jonathan Lethem, I really tried).
I've asterisked the ones I really enjoyed. I'd love to hear your opinions on anything I read -- agreeing, disagreeing, approving, disapproving. And of course, suggestions for next great books to read. Bring 'em on!
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*Let's Pretend This Never Happened - Jenny Lawson
This memoir by blogger Jenny Lawson is completely, unexpectedly hilarious. Her blog, The Bloggess, is widely read, so many people will probably already be familiar with the unique way she manages to find funniness in the most ordinary of life events, or her unapologetically crass mouth, but I wasn't and was more than happy to discover her this way.
Girls In White Dresses - Jennifer Close
This was some surprisingly good chick lit, following three women in their 20s in New York through first jobs, homes and marriages. There's nothing groundbreaking in this book, but there are poignant moments of recognition for anyone who's attended a multitude of events for other people's weddings or maneuvered through many wrong dates.
Telegraph Avenue - Michael Chabon
There's something about the way Michael Chabon writes a story that makes it impossible for me not to like it, even if it is, as Telegraph Avenue was, a bit all over the place. At its heart it's about music loving record-store owners who can't give up on a dream (it will call to mind a Californian Empire Records for readers of a certain age), and is one of the first books I can think of with a "real life" cameo from a future president.
*Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk - Ben Fountain
If you think you don't like books about war, but still want to read about Iraq, this is the book for you. A tale of a returning troop of soldiers at a championship football game becomes a brilliant metaphor for the stark class and societal differences veterans experience when coming home. Giving a very human side to those who fight, the metaphors of this book aren't hard to discern, but ones you can return to again and again.
The Newlyweds - Nell Freudenberger
A thoroughly modern book about what can actually happen when a man meets a woman from Bangladesh online and brings her to America to marry her. This book was really interesting, but felt a bit like two books in one as it showed life through the eyes of each side of the relationship.
*Where'd You Go, Bernadette? - Maria Semple
This immensely readable book is perfect for a vacation or a weekend read alike. Told partially through emails (which are far more entertaining than the missives piling up in your inbox) and mostly through satire, this story tells of a family in Seattle. The various challenges the kid/wife/husband go through in order to get by in daily life (while coming to terms with speckled pasts) are a joy to behold, thanks to the clever writing and fun -- because why can't books be fun? -- plot.
Behind The Beautiful Forevers - Katherine Boo
An original account of Mumbai slums, portrayed as a story, I know this book came under some criticism because of the way the author fashioned reality into fiction, but from a reader's perspective, it worked beautifully. Boo managed to tell the stories those World Vision ads try to, without coming across as gunning for sympathy -- just people trying to live within difficult circumstances
Beautiful Ruins - Jess Walters
Taking place between Scotland, Italy and Hollywood and twisting through various decades, this was one of a couple of books I read this year that seemed to be heading right to the screenplay room. Not that that's a bad thing -- the well-sketched characters, the descriptions of the gorgeous settings and the keep-bringing-me-back-for-more plot make for a quick, fun (with a hint of solemnity) read.
Inside - Alix Ohlin
Starting with an attempted suicide and following three main, loosely tied together storylines that involve helping others, this book was surprisingly enthralling in its simplicity. That is, its supposed simplicity, as Ohlin manages to develop layers for her characters that are, at times, heartbreaking, witty and almost too relatable. Don't read it for the plot, but for the qualities you'll recognize instead.
The World Without You - Joshua Henkin
To like this book, you have to be interested in the characters, which I have to admit, I really wasn't. It focuses on a family who is gathered for the memorial of their brother who was killed in Iraq, and complicated by everything from the parents announcing a separation to the widow who's trying to move on with her life. It's an intriguing premise, but I found the people so unlikeable that I didn't care much how it all turned out.
True Believers - Kurt Andersen
I wanted to love this book about a successful, wise woman revealing the details of her 1960s activism and why it would possibly lead her to giving up a Supreme Court nomination, and at times, I really did. But the way the narrative was structured -- a look back at life, a coming-to-terms with past transgressions -- made it feel like there were two very distinct characters, one the narrator in her youth, and the other the narrator in her old age. I couldn't quite get past that differentiation.
*Everybody Has Everything - Katrina Onstad
At a time when mothers are describing the miracle of their infants' potty training on Facebook, this book about a couple brought into parenthood under heartbreaking circumstances shows the very real conflicts that arise in adults when kids come into the picture. The writing is gorgeous, and Onstad manages to perfectly describe emotional states many authors would have difficulty nailing down.
Admission - Jean Hanff Korelitz
I picked up this book because someone on my GoodReads feed was reading it, and Paul Rudd and Tina Fey were starring in the movie, and I like them. So let me save you the time -- don't read it. It's genuinely awful.
Dear Life - Alice Munro
This is probably not what I'm supposed to say in a year when Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but while some of the tales in these short stories (particularly those she calls "not quite stories") are engaging, and all are well-written, I wasn't blown away by this collection, and often found myself feeling like I'd missed the point entirely.
Divisadero - Michael Ondaatje
The key to this book is in the title, taking it literally as "divided." It starts as one story of a man, his two daughters and a ranchhand in the California countrywide, then breaks solidly into others, whisking the reader along the paths of characters who aren't necessarily people you'd want in your life, but are certainly interesting enough to learn about. The real gem here is, as always, Ondaatje's mastery of language, pulling phrases from seemingly nowhere to evoke a world that's otherwise hard to pin down.
A Thousand Pardons - Jonathan Dee
I was prepared to go along for the ride of this book, about a 40-something mother who's forced to dive into the working world of PR as her marriage falls apart, but it never quite delivered the "oomph" I was looking for. I loved The Privileges, Dee's last book, but could see similar weaknesses here, like leaps of plausibility and a surprisingly simple approach to what should have been a more nuanced plot.
The Middlesteins - Jami Attenberg
A story about a family who comes together (and also gets torn apart) by the overweight matriarch, this book had the potential to talk about the sensitive and very current topics of both obesity and caring for an aging parents within the confines of living your own life. Unfortunately, the characters came across as mere sketches without many redeeming qualities at all, leaving the reader clamouring to grab on to something they cared about, and ultimately failing.
*The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards - Kristopher Jansma
I'll say it right off the bat -- if you don't like books that are a bit weird, don't try this one out. But if you, like me, adore a bit of a twisted narrative, Jansma's book is a fantastic read that takes the truth for three characters and "slants" it, with the end result working equally well as one mixed up story or three individual tales.
The Mothers - Jennifer Gilmore
Obviously, my feelings about this book, about a woman's quest to become a mother through adoption, were coloured by my own recent experience of becoming a mom. And that's probably why I felt frustrated with what I felt was a lack of explanation as to where the main character she was coming from in this need -- because that's how it's definitely portrayed -- for a child. I found the descriptions of the adoption process very interesting, but that was obviously not the point of the book.
*The Orphan Master's Son - Adam Johnson
This story ostensibly about North Korea manages to be universal while staying within the confines of a very interesting/scary country. It plays with the truth for readers in the same way one might imagine a dictatorship doing with its citizens, and rewards them with a truly epic tale about one man and how he can rise (or fall) with the slightest twist of fate.
*The Dinner - Herman Koch
How do you feel about books that trick you, sucking you in with the initial set-up and then turning it around entirely? The Dinner is probably the best of its kind, with stark writing, sharp wit and seriously dark turns that are a perfect fit for readers who enjoy plots being revealed slowly and shockingly.
*The Interestings - Meg Wolitzer
I feel like this book could use a disclaimer: "If you didn't go to camp, you might not enjoy this that much." But that could be because I did go to camp, and really loved recognizing the bonds that arise from that childhood experience as they grow into adulthood. It isn't a perfect book by any means -- some important parts were rushed or not fully explained -- but as far as tales of longtime friendships go, this is as solid as any book I've read.
*Lean In - Sheryl Sandberg
You probably think you've heard all you want to hear about the COO of Facebook's women-powered business book, but have you read it yet? If not, think about delving into its chapter. Admittedly, it's not for everyone, but especially if you're a woman interested in a career-based job, Sandberg has practical, knowledgeable and yes, down-to-earth things to say that could help you. But if you want to cheat, just watch her TED talk.
Sisterland - Curtis Sittenfeld
I've been a big fan of Sittenfeld's other books, so had high hopes for Sisterland, which it almost, almost lived up to. I enjoyed the general story, of twin sisters with certain "powers" who each chose their own path -- one living a more alternative life, and the other a suburban housewife. Sittenfeld's entirely accurate description of the mundanity of mothering an infant hit home for me, but ultimately, I found the (suburban) narrator somewhat unlikeable and found myself wishing for more from the other twin.
The First Rule Of Swimming - Courtney Angela Brkic
A story about generations of a Croatian family that, although not massively mysterious, very prettily written and gently compelling, sketching out the characters in a way that makes you want to meet them. A lovely little read.
*Life After Life - Kate Atkinson
A great, slightly gimmicky book that recalls Butterfly Effect, Groundhog Day and Sliding Doors, without quite being any of them. Beautiful writing, thought-provoking twists, and a good look at how one decision or twist of fate can change not only circumstances, but whole personalities and histories. I found the ending slightly rushed after all the buildup and not as satisfying as I'd hoped, but the overall book makes up for that.
Big Brother - Lionel Shriver
This book about helping a sibling through obesity deals with an interesting, uncomfortable topic written about uncomfortably (the way only Shiver can), but lacked the kind of sharp perspective on current events I love from her. The book was based in part on the death of her brother in 2009 from obesity-related issues, so it's perfectly understandable the personal element could have made it difficult for her to be quite as journalistic as usual.
The Wonder Bread Summer - Jessica Anya Blau
This isn't a book, it's a screenplay, and a super fun one at that. So light and fluffy, this would make for a delicious, ridiculous beach read, or just a piece of sun-bleached escapist writing in the midst of winter.
The Rest of Us - Jessica Lott
Imagine reading the obituary of your long-lost (and much older) lover, only to discover him shopping a few weeks later, sparking a renewed relationship. That's the start of this sweetly sad love story that deals in the safety of inertia and the pain of longing for family. I was surprised to find myself crying at the end.
The Last Policeman - Ben Winters
Even though I'm not particularly inclined toward science fiction, I'm a sucker for apocalyptic books, and this one (the first in what will be a trilogy) delivered from both a great read and an "imagine that" perspective. The narrator is a policeman attempting to solve murders when there are thousands committing suicide in anticipation of a comet definitively approaching Earth, and follows his attempts to make sense of anything in the midst of this chaos. Really unique.
*How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia - Mohsin Hamid
Don't get this one confused with the wildly popular Rich Crazy Asians from this year -- Hamid's incredibly original storytelling abilities are worthy of their own hype. Structured as a self-help book that is anything but, this novel helps Westerners feel like they have the slightest grasp on how things work in Asia, but reveals that you can't ever really know unless you live it.
Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way To Monogamy - Ophira Eisenberg
Even though it concludes (it's right there in the title, so no spoilers) like a romantic comedy, I really liked the premise of this book when I heard about it: comedian's memoir about unapologetically sleeping around and the various trials and tribulations that ensue. And while it delivered a few hilarious tales, I found Eisenberg's anecdotes a bit too geared toward the punchline, instead of a more interesting, nuanced story, which I guess is what you get with a comedian.
The Unknowns - Gabriel Roth
Just when you think you know how this story is going to go (high school supernerd becomes Silicon Valley multimillionaire, keeps seeking girl of his dreams), it takes a complete (and not entirely welcome) twist that nonetheless keeps you reading on for more. It's an unexpectedly charming book, and particularly interesting in how it turns the nerd archetype on its head.
*Maddadam - Margaret Atwood
Despite not having read either of the previous books in this trilogy, I absolutely adored Atwood's tale of a post-apocalyptic world. Given its subject matter, the book was surprisingly accessible and amazingly (and terrifyingly) creative, along the lines of Neal Stephenson's best works. Ominously (and true to her reputation as a science fiction lover), Atwood notes everything described in the novel either already exists, or is in the process of being created somewhere.
*The Woman Upstairs - Claire Messud
One way I like to tell whether or not a book was worth my time is how long it stays with me, and The Woman Upstairs was in my thoughts for at least a week after I finished it. A rather specific take on what a woman's life can become when she's unmarried and open to experiences -- not to mention how various narratives can be interpreted differently by each of their players -- the book leaves you with a certain sense of dissatisfaction, and the desire to discuss it with anyone else who's read it.
*Night Film - Marisha Peshl
This is a mystery that keeps on giving, even as you get annoyed with it (and you will). Centred around the suicide (or murder?) of a reclusive film director's daughter, the book brings together three unlikely characters to investigate it, working through everything from her genius to her father's creepiness to get at the truth. It really felt like no book I'd read before, not least because of the clever use of web pages and other props scattered throughout the pages. A truly original story.
Tenth of December - George Saunders
This book made me feel like I'd been wasting my time reading any other short story collection that came before. Saunders truly manages to tell a lifetime in eight pages, over and over again in this deservedly hailed book. At equal points funny, horrifying and breathtaking (in the literal sense), you'll finish it in a flash and want to come back to it again and again.
The Shining Girls - Lauren Beukes
Are you able to resist a book whose main character can be described as "a time-travelling serial killer"? Because I certainly can't. It wasn't one of my favourite books of the year, perhaps because it was more gruesome than I expected and had some character elements that rang false, but as a thriller, it was addictively readable and worthwhile.
*Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish - David Rakoff
If you, like me, studied English in university, you'll remember those epic poems (I'm looking at you, Homer) that were, let's say, a challenge to read. I'd like to propose that for modern literature courses, professors take a look at Rakoff's last novel, written in verse, and spanning a century of lives in an astonishly intricate way. Somehow, the rhymes never feel forced, and you forget about them quickly, instead racing through these funny, beautiful, tragic and sweet tales of everyday people.
*Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters and The Making Of A New American Food Culture - Dana Goodyear
Food books were definitely lacking my list this year, so I managed to squeeze one in right at the end, and I'm glad I did. Goodyear's book about food at the fringes -- eating insects, cooking with pot, insisting on unpasteurized milk and eggs -- does a good job exploring these potentially up-and-coming trends in a way that will make readers feel both informed and like they should possibly seek out something new to put on their plates.
Check out the 52 books I read in 2012