Monthly Archives: December 2012

The best books of 2012

I only read 26 books this year. That means I’m a little off my game; some years I read 35, or 40 … and I’m sure there are readers out there who consume one or two books a week. In my defense, it was a year of upheaval. My mother died in March, I stepped down as editor of the Independent in June, and then in August I left the paper altogether to pursue a college teaching career.
But I found time to write down the books as I finished them, so here’s a look at some of the books I enjoyed in 2012 – maybe you’ll want to try some of them in the new year.
First, the Classics. Each year I try to read some books I missed along the way. The most ambitious I took on was Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, which, despite the intricate descriptions of whaling, I found to have all the qualities I love in big novels: a sweeping, absorbing story, tragedy, biblical imagery, and a riveting narrative voice in Ishmael.
I also found time for Hard Times by Dickens.
New books. Books that came out in 2012 that found their way onto my reading list included Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which is making its way onto a lot of best-of lists in newspapers and magazines, and deservedly so. Strayed employs one of the best narrative hooks I’ve ever seen when, on the first page, she loses her hiking boot halfway through a torturous journey along the Pacific Crest Trail. How can you not read on after that? I also thought Joyce Carol Oates’s Mudwoman was one of her most disturbing novels ever, and that’s saying something from the queen of the creepy. (On the other extreme, I also read one of her minor novels, Solstice, which I think has to be her worst.) I also enjoyed The Great Northern Express by Howard Frank Mosher, the Vermont writer who was the subject of my master’s thesis. I was thrilled to get his autograph at the Brattleboro Literary Festival in October. Mosher’s latest book is a memoir wrapped around the national book tour he undertook in an aging Chevrolet Celebrity. Patrick Madden’s Quotidian, a collection of essays about matters as diverse as the music of Rush and his days living in South America, was interesting in terms of technique. But one of my favorite books of 2012 was a Christmas gift: Richard Russo’s memoir, Elsewhere, about his gradual realization that his mother wasn’t just odd, she was probably mentally ill. Russo has a superior sense of narrative that makes this book almost impossible to put down. I read it in one day.
Memoirs. Since I’m supposedly writing one, I read quite a few memoirs this year. Among the best in a strong field were Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle (2005); her fidelity to point of view makes the book both heartbreaking and technicolor-vivid. I also finally read Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt (1996), which also has a masterful child’s voice, and Patti Smith’s Just Kids (2010), about her relationship with tragic artist Robert Mapplethorpe, which I think deserved the National Book Award, despite some people’s carping to the contrary.
The Obsession. OK, every year I spend a lot of time on one author, and this year it was Gail Godwin. I’d already read three of her novels and two volumes of her journals in 2011. (I also sent her an obsequious email this year in an attempt to woo her to Author’s Circle at the Courthouse, hoping the fact that we’ve hosted her friend, John Casey, twice would do the trick. Alas, no reply.) This year I read The Good Husband, which I noted was “her most fully realized novel” when I finished it in April, “characters rounder, multiple POV works well,” in addition to the meditative nonfiction book Heart and the novel Unfinished Desires, about a school for girls in the South.
Biography & the like. John Steinbeck’s The Story of a Novel (the journal he kept while writing East of Eden) and The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 2, fed my hunger for answers to that eternal question: How do writers write? I also enjoyed Susan Cheever’s American Bloomsbury, about those crazy denizens of 19th-century Concord, Mass., and Winifred Gerin’s tome, Charlotte Bronte: The Evolution of Genius. Actually, that last book and Moby-Dick cut down considerably on my book count this year – they each took about a month to finish.
As usual, I have a long, long list of books I want to get to next year. I’d like to sink my teeth into the Russians (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky), read some more Dickens, maybe even re-read Jane Eyre for the third or fourth time. There’s a Richard Russo paperback in my bookcase, and a Virginia Woolf biography I took out of the library that weighs in at 892 pages.
What’s on your reading list for 2013?

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