One of my highlights of December for the past several years is the A YEAR IN READING series on The Millions. Despite the fact that I feel seriously out of my league in many posts, I always enjoy seeing what other people read and I always come out of the month with a couple books that I can add to my to-read list. (This year I was talked into Arcadia by Lauren Groff and some books by Edward St. Aubyn, who I’d somehow totally missed up until now.)
If I were to write an “A Year in Reading” post I’m not at all sure how I would narrow down my picks. Especially because I am now not just a reader but a reviewer and a curator. Those two jobs mean I start way more books than I finish. I have limited time and there are so many books out there that I have to save my effort for those books that are going to wow me.
I also don’t end up reading as many of the “big books” of the year. Publishers can be stingy with the review requests when the book is by Zadie Smith or Junot Diaz. (Also missed Ian McEwan, Louise Erdrich, Dave Eggers. Bailed on Michael Chabon.) And I read virtually no nonfiction or memoir this year, though what I did read is on my list.
Usually I make a Top 10 list, which inevitably includes books published before this year. But so much of what I’ve read has been for NEXT YEAR, so it does put me in a bit of a quandary.
This year I read only 53 books. SHAMEFUL. But looking at my year as a whole, I feel pretty good about it. Yes, numbers were down. But quality was up. I expect my reading in 2013 to be similar and I hope it’s just as fantastic as this year has been.
So here are my favorites, divided into Past, Present and Future a la Jacob Marley.
Attention must be paid to my two book club books that, as always, were highlights. I’ve had a copy of Great Expectations sitting around since I was in school. I know because I bought it at the university bookstore and it still probably has the yellow “USED” sticker on it. I finally read it for book club and I enjoyed it far more than I expected to, given my love-hate relationship with Dickens. This is firmly in the love category.
We also read Chronicle in Stone by Ismail Kadare, whom I’d never heard of and probably never would have heard of except for the Albanian member of our group who assigned this book. If you’re looking for a good WWII book to assign for teenagers to read, I can’t think of a better one than this. It should really be a part of the WWII canon, strange to have so many of these in my reading lately. (Like Suite Francaise by Nemirovsky, for example.) And like Suite Francaise, I felt like I got a story here that I hadn’t heard before: following an Albanian city that passes from the Italians to the Greeks back and forth like a ping pong ball.
Most of my other pre-2012 books were leftovers from 2011 that I didn’t get around to until this year thanks to some excellent buzz. The highlights in that category were easily A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty by Joshilyn Jackson, Rules of Civility by Amor Towles and State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, which I’ve already written about here.
Perhaps my one favorite that was neither an old classic nor a just-released 2012 book was 2009 nonfiction Columbine by Dave Cullen, which is just as good as everyone says it is. Really good nonfiction can take something you thought you knew and open it up to make you see it in a whole new way. Time has done a lot to set this tragedy in a better perspective and to straighten out a lot of misinformation that’s still hanging around. If you’re a true crime reader, this should be at the top of your list.
There’s the obvious choices, the ones that deserve all the praise they’ve already received: Gone Girl and Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.
There are the well-received books you’ve probably heard about that deserve to be well-received: Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead, The Ex-Pats by Chris Pavone, The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian, Broken Harbor by Tana French and Elsewhere by Richard Russo. I love the variety of this list. Family drama, spy suspense, historical romance, procedural crime, personal memoir.
And then there are the ones you may not have heard about if you didn’t pay attention, including what I’m crowning as my favorite book of the year: Dare Me by Megan Abbott. I am seriously crazy about this book. It deserves to be super popular and is certainly readable enough. My Twitter review of it said it was like a firecracker: sparkly, mesmerizing, and surprisingly dangerous. I know that cheerleaders may not be the kind of thing that gets you going. But trust me, this book will grab you within the first chapter with its snap-crackle-pop prose.
Coming in 2013…
I have read so many fantastic ARCs that I am bouncing with anticipation for them to show up.
Like The Dinner by Herman Koch, an international sensation that will soon be on our shores. What starts as a simple dinner between two men you don’t know turns into so much more. Koch’s slow reveal is worth studying, masterful.
Like The Missing File by D. A. Mishani, the first Israeli crime novel I’ve ever read, and apparently there aren’t many of them. International crime is a great genre and this is a worthy addition.
Like Elders by Ryan McIlvain, a book about Mormon missionaries that is a superbly honest look at the hearts, minds and souls of two very different young men as they try to figure out themselves, wrestle with their sins and define their relationship with God.
Like The Engagement by Chloe Hooper, another slow-reveal sizzler about a woman who is paid by a man she barely knows to spend the weekend together in his country estate.
Like The Burn Palace by Stephen Dobyns, my most recent stellar read that managed to firmly entrench me in a small Rhode Island town troubled by what seems to be some kind of supernatural evil.
They will be here soon. I will review them here. You should get excited now.
None of them were officially in the running for my “Best Book of 2012.” Which is probably a good thing because I have no idea how I’d choose. They were all so. damn. good.
What about you? How does your Year in Reading rate?