Tuesday, January 29, 2013

My 25 Favorite Reads of 2012

(This is a long overdue post, but maybe people are looking for some new titles to help them with any reading challenges they may have signed on to do in 2013 -- people still do that, right? -- and will discover some here.) I keep detailed statistics of the books I read every year, because I’m geeky like that. For several years, I wrote blog posts that noted how many books I’d read total and then broke them up into categories like “books by male authors” or “books by American authors” or “books written in the 19th century”. I’ve found that it’s gotten a bit depressing to do that, though, because every year I begin with all these grand plans to, say, read very few books from the 21st century, since I’m so disappointed by so many of them, and then I wind up reading 63 books written in the 21st century. Or I decide I’m going to read more short story collections, and I read none. Or I’m going to read more books translated into English from other languages this year, and then I read 6 (and do two Stieg Larssons really count?).

Rather than looking too closely at all the numbers and reminding myself that, basically, I’m still just a book slut who should stop pretending that meaningful relationships are all she wants, I’m going to do something different this go-round. I’m going to boast that I finished reading 95 books in 2012, decided not to finish 4, and was nearly through 2 others when 2013 arrived on the scene. This means I read a whopping 49,500+ pages. Wow! That sounds pretty impressive.

These are the 25 that I thought were the best (arranged alphabetically by title). This doesn’t mean they were necessarily the sorts of books that wind up on “greatest books” lists, but they are the ones that resonated with me, that made me laugh or cry or think, or that made me abandon almost everything else in life until I’d gotten through them. I’d love to know what others thought of any of the books on this list, so please feel free to share your opinions.

1. 1984 by George Orwell
I expected to drag myself through a ho-hum classic. Instead, I was riveted and terrified and talked about it ad nauseam to anyone who would listen. If anyone isn't tired of listening, I wrote about it on my library blog here.

2. 11/22/63 by Stephen King
The Stephen King book for people who don’t think they like Stephen King. But I already like Stephen King, and this one tackled one of my favorite subjects – time travel – with such an interesting premise, one that was quite believable despite being quite absurd. Oh, and we had a little (doomed) romance, too. I loved it.

3. About Time by Simona Sparaco
“Wow!” That’s the one-word review I wanted to write about this book when I wrote this instead.

4. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
I absolutely, truly did not want to read this one for my book-and-a-movie discussion group. I was absolutely; truly wrong not to think I was going to love this funny and sad little book about surviving and how we choose different identities in order to do so. (We followed it up with Smoke Signals, a movie I saw when it came out, but which was even better than I remember after having read this book.)

5. Broken Harbor by Tana French
Okay, so when is the next Tana French book due to be published? As far as I’m concerned, she can do no wrong.

6. Burn, Witch, Burn! by A. Merritt
This book had every horror ingredient to make Emily happy: questions of science versus black magic; creepy dolls; a heavy reliance on ancient myth and folklore; the role of psychology in fear; and plenty of ambivalence about what was really happening. Set it in New York City, and really, what could be better? (NOTE: at 2:30 a.m. – I’m sure those of you familiar with the hour can attest to this – acrobatic dolls wielding tiny weapons seem perfectly plausible).

7. Diary of  Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield
You could call Delafield’s unnamed wife the original Bridget Jones, but you’d be doing her a disservice. She’s deeper than Bridget and has much more to tell you about the society in which she lives. Even though you’re laughing out loud on the outside, on the inside you’re realizing how horribly oppressive it all is.

8. The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
Pure poetry to help soothe absolute horror. A perfect book to remind me what an incredibly spoiled and easy life I've lived thus far.

9. Dragonwyck by Anya Seton
Sigh! Barring, you know, things like The Castle of Otranto and Jane Eyre can there be such a thing as the perfect Gothic romance? If so, this is it, all the more amazing because it doesn't take place in some remote European castle or manor, but rather in an Upstate New York I never even knew existed, historically, until I read this book.

10. The Domestic Life of the Americans by Fanny Trollope (or “Mrs. Trollope”, as my copy says)
A fun, funny, and enlightening look at early 19th-century America as seen through the eyes of an English lady. I enjoyed her perspective, the historical detail, and verification that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

11. The Eyes of the Overworld by Jack Vance
All three of the Dying Earth books by Vance are good, but this one (the 2nd) was my favorite. The last time I ran across a character in fantasy who delighted me as much as Vance’s Cugal does was the last time I encountered the Phoenix in E. Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet. Vance created a wonderful, dreamlike state (seriously. I had some awesome dreams when I was reading this book) in which to appreciate this character who is clever, funny, wise, and just oh-so-full-of-himself enough that those other three traits aren't always enough to keep him out of trouble.

12. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
I had no idea. Really. I just had no idea that people still led such lives in New York City. I thought this was going to be a book about sweatshops and tenement housing circa 1907. And, no, I didn’t find the ending the least bit unbelievable.

13. Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer
If you’d told me last year at this time, “Emily, this year you’re going to read this book by Jeffrey Archer, and you’re not going to be able to put it down,” I probably would have looked at you as if you were nuts. But then, because I’m me, I would’ve gone in search of this tale about two corporate enemies and probably would’ve read it long before it was chosen for our library book discussion group, discovering that you’d been absolutely right: I was unable to put it down. Well, stranger things have happened, I suppose.

14. Little Scarlet by Walter Mosley
A fascinating and riveting book that opened my eyes in ways they’ve never been opened when it comes to the plight of blacks living in America. Easy Rawlins, as I described him here, is a righteous marshmallow whom it’s hard not to love.

15. Model Home by Eric Puchner
There’s a Jonathan Franzen-ish feel about this book, but I liked it much better than The Corrections. Maybe it’s because Puchner’s a master of characterization. Each one of his believable and empathetic characters is a train wreck waiting to happen. I don’t tend to think of myself as the rubber-necking type, but there I was, front and center at the track, unable to move until I’d witnessed all the accidents.

16. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
A highly, highly addictive drug. So much so that I’m being very careful before I pick up the second book, which I received for Christmas, featuring my friend Kvothe.

17. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
You’ll know all you need to know when I tell you that this is the only book I read as a child that I’ve since read 3 times as an adult. Well, except Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster, which would also have made this list if I hadn’t read so many other good books this year.

18. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
If you haven’t read it already, what are you waiting for? It certainly deserves the comparisons to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edith Wharon that it’s received. An added bonus: the author sent me a lovely email after I wrote this.

19. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Need I even give any sort of explanation as to why this one makes the list?

20. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday
I said it before, and I’ll say it again: finding good, 21st-century farce isn’t easy. If you’re going to find it, it’s best to turn to a British writer, even better just to go right to this brilliant little book by Torday. Nobody escapes his wry observations, which makes for many, many chuckles, and even a few laugh-out-loud moments.

21. A Son of the Circus by John Irving
It had been years since I’d read any John Irving, which is funny, because I always think of him as one of my favorite authors. I wasn’t quite sure how he, Mr. New England, was going to pull off a book set in India. Well, he’s John Irving. He pulled it off with aplomb, and as always, I began missing the company of his beautifully well-drawn characters the minute I got to the last page.

22. Strangers at the Feast by Jennifer Vanderbes
Another one to compare to Jonathan Franzen, I read an online review that described this one as “The Corrections lite”. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. It’s “The Corrections tight”. Vanderbes has an incredible knack for giving snippets of information about her fully-realized characters without getting into unnecessary detail, snippets that work miracles when it comes to understanding them. All the while, she tells a compelling story that raises all kinds of interesting questions.

23. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale
A fascinating story that made me think so much about family relations/dynamics and the problem of isolation in those Victorian English country houses.

24. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Shattering! It was exhausting to read (or rather, to listen to, because that’s what I did) but impossible to stop until I got to the bitter end. It brought to life the horrors of World War II’s Pacific theater in ways I never could have imagined. Nonetheless, Hillendbrand managed to end it with hope.

25. Wild by Cheryl Strayed
I still can’t believe I suffered, along with memoirist Strayed, through unbearable heat, frigid cold, a monstrously heavy backpack, dehydration, moments of loneliness and despair, lost toenails – not to mention a hiking boot that went sailing off a cliff -- and came away from it thinking, “I’d like to hike some of the Pacific Crest Trail.”


Anonymous said...

Agree with you on Tana French - she is a great crime writer and very inspiring for this budding one.

Stefanie said...

Some good stuff on that list! Question regarding Burn Witch Burn, for a horror wimp, is it keep me up with nightmares or is it pleasant shivers along my spine?

Emily Barton said...

Charlotte, I would think that French would be truly inspiring for a budding crime writer -- also a bit intimidating. But I know you're every bit as good a writer as she is, so she can't intimidate you.

Stef, I'd say horror wimps probably ought to stay away from it. It taps into so many primal fears that nightmares are highly likely. But, then again, horror is such a funny thing. Stuff that scares me to death doesn't bother others (e.g. Blair Witch), and stuff that I didn't find scary at all, others tell me scared THEM to death (e.g. Rosemary's Baby).