I adore end-of-year lists. I get so antsy every December waiting for this one to come out. The best books, the best movies, the best shows…I love stumbling upon things I wouldn’t have found otherwise (so please feel free to leave your favorites in the comments!). And since I’ve been keeping up with my reading, I thought I’d dedicate a little post to the best books I read in 2012. I narrowed them down from 46, so you know they’re gems. It surprises me in a way that I don’t talk more about reading here, given that I’m pretty much always reading, but maybe an academic lifetime of literary scholarship has left me wanting to just read, enjoy, and be silent for a little while. In any case, these books are too good not to share. They weren’t all published in 2012, but they represent the cream of the crop of my 2012 reading. So, in no particular order, here goes!
I loved Middlesex, so I was really excited when Jeffrey Eugenides published a new novel. The Marriage Plot, if such is possible, moved me even more. The story is woven so artfully, from a number of different points of view, and with great compassion and a slight but bracing distance from the characters. This novel is, in a word, wrenching, and it stayed with me for days after I finished it. Eugenides takes his readers deep into worlds they could never have inhabited without his careful guiding, and it’s a pleasure to get lost in them. Eric and I both read this book, and then we spent days discussing it. It’s a good one.
My BFF recommended Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle to me years ago, and I finally got around to reading it. It’s as much an exploration of the act of writing as it is a family chronicle and a Bildungsroman, and I loved every page. The precocious narrator draws readers right in, and suddenly they are living in the ruins of a castle, on the verge of destitute, and seeing it all through the eyes of a child. The adventures are many, the heartaches are searing, but the laughter is what prevails. Ot at least it did for me.
Ian Frazier writes, rather hilariously, for The New Yorker, and several summers ago he published a series of articles on his travels through Siberia. Given that Russia is close to my heart and the area of my PhD, I was riveted. I haven’t been to the Far East at all, but I almost feel as though I have been since reading Travels in Siberia. Frazier exhibits that inexplicable love of Russia that took over me like a fever in my high school years and hasn’t let up yet. The book is written with great humor and curiosity and is not lacking in the foibles and adventures that will meet any person who decides to see all of Siberia. I read this book over the summer while we were on the farm, and I could. not. put it down. If you have an interest in travel or in Russia, this warm and tragicomic book is a must. And it’s nice and big, like Siberia, so it should keep you occupied for at least a week or so.
One of the greatest discoveries of this year was WhatShouldIReadNext.com. It’s exactly what it sounds like. It has led me to some great books, and The Privileges is one of them. I’m not even done with it yet, and it definitely already has its place here. The prose absolutely sings on every page. I got up three times while reading the first chapter to tell Eric how good it was. What is so ensnaring about it, I think, is the narrator’s deep knowledge and understanding of his characters, while he maintains an alluring distance from them. Mystery and explication, hand in hand. I will be bummed when I finish this one. And then I will immediately read everything else Jonathan Dee has written.
A Man of Parts was definitely one of the most interesting books I read this year. David Lodge is one of my favorite writers, and I adore his academic satires. So I was leery at first of following him into literary-historical-fiction territory. But this novel about H.G. Wells is so completely fascinating. The ups and downs and twists and turns of Wells’ philosophy are just as intriguing as his ever-dramatic love affairs and his always prickly friendship with Henry James. I did not know much about him at all before I read this book, but now I would love to know more, and that’s always the sign of a good read.
No book list would be complete without Murakami’s new novel, 1Q84. I downloaded it to my Kindle before we went to Istanbul, and I have been slowly devouring it ever since. I know that the reviews were mixed on this one, but sometimes I think critics just feel the need to be contrary. And I can’t take very seriously complaints about prose and style when a work is being read in translation (grrrr, the literary scholar emerges!). It was just the slightest bit slow in the beginning, but it very quickly sucked me in. It’s mysterious and otherworldly, like Murakami usually is, and his characters demand interest and sympathy. I can’t wait to see what happens.
Eric recommended to me Austin Kleon’s luminous book on creativity: Steal Like an Artist. It’s pithy enough that you can read it in one sitting, but the wisdom there is just immense. I have a lot of respect for Kleon and the work he does, and I’m glad he published this little gem of a book. Also, his sketches are awesome. Totally inspiring, no matter what your creative pursuits may be.
My BFF gave me Luisa Weiss’ beautiful memoir/cookbook My Berlin Kitchen for my birthday, and I read it in one weekend. It’s not often that you come across such deep honesty in a writer, and I always appreciate that. It’s a love story too, with the happiest of endings, and there’s no better combination than love and good food.
Eric read this book before I did, and I listened to him laugh uproariously for days before I could get my hands on it. How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming was written by the Caltech professor who…killed Pluto. It’s a wonderful read–hilarious, informative, and touching all at once–and not a bit dry. It was especially fun for me to read, since Caltech and its many telescopes are our home too. This book is completely delightful. I hope Mike Brown writes more. You know, if he has any spare time while looking for new planets.
The Sense of an Ending , in addition to being a magnificent study of the function of memory and narrative, is a true page-turner. Eric discovered it first, and then he wanted me to read it so we could discuss it. It’s a beautiful portrait of childhood and adolescence, and the unexpected mysteries and terrors of adulthood. The answer to the riddle at the center of this novella is one I never saw coming, and it took Eric and I a whole weekend to tease it out. The prose is lovely, the characters are all too real, and the questions it leaves you with are haunting.