In 2012, I resolved for some reason to limit my reading solely to books published during the year.
I also resolved to be a vegetarian.
As it happens, aside from a preposterously expensive meal in London in September, I pretty much stuck with the vegetarian resolution. As for the books, well, I pretty much stuck with that too.
I read all or part of 67 books this year. (But who’s counting? It’s not like it’s a competition, right?)
Virtually everything I read during the year was either published in 2012 or was relevant in some way to a book published in 2012 that I read. (For instance, earlier books by the same author, or topically related.)
Back in January, I was rather hopeful that at the end of the year, when the various newspapers and journals posted their “best of” lists, I would have the satisfaction of nodding sagely to myself and saying, “Yep, read it, yep, read it, yep read it, yep, read it…”
It didn’t turn out that way, though. It turned out that a lot of the recommended books were ones that I had bypassed purposely, for instance:
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon. While I am a huge fan of his sentences, I’ve never thought he had much in the way of narrative chops. I haven’t finished any of his novels, with the possible exception of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. I love his short stories but I just don’t have the patience for his longer works. So I gave it a miss.
NW by Zadie Smith: I had read “White Teeth.” That felt like more than enough Zadie Smith for a lifetime.
Building Stories by Chris Ware: I was put off by the price tag and the idea that there was no real narrative there — just a kind of graphic labyrinth to explore. I’d like to take a look but I’d appreciate a $10 taste test.
Every Story Is a Ghost Story: I’m not much of a biography reader in the first place, and DFW’s sad, shortened life didn’t seem like it offered enough to fill 368 pages, however much I liked some of his writing.
Also, I didn’t read Robert Caro’s 10 bazillionth words about Lyndon Johnson, or ”Gone Girl,” just because I didn’t feel like it, or ”Wild,” mainly because of the author’s incredibly annoying pen-name, “Cheryl Strayed.” I mean, really.
The one book I felt I should have read, and yet never got to, was Katharine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.” I resisted for some reason. I suppose it seemed so grim, a doorstop volume about the resilient residents of a garbage dump. Besides, I had read “Maximum City” just the year before. Anyway, no Boo for me this year.
So those are some highlights of books I didn’t read during the year. Below are the ones I actually did read, or at least read a part of, ordered from favorite to i-hate-you-i-hate-you-i-hate-you. The list omits books written by friends. The top ten get hot links for easy Amazon purchasing.
As usual, I am struck by how hard it is to find a good book to read, especially novels, which is mainly what I read when my time is my own. As in previous years, I disliked lots more than I liked.
- The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson1
- Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Thompson
- Alien vs. Predator by Michael Robbins
- The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg2
- This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
- Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick3
- Arcadia by Lauren Groff
- How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti
- One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper4
- Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce
- The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison5
- The Fault in Our Stars by John Green6
- The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach7
- Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner8
- Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn9
- China in Ten Words by Yu Hua
- The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq
- The Thief by Fuminori Nakamora
- Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn9
- Bonsai by Alehandro Zambra
- Flatscreen by Adam Wilson
- American Dervish, by Ayad Akhtar
- The Fun Stuff by James Woods
- Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd
- Tasteful Nudes by Dave Hill
- Don’t Ever Get Old by Daniel Friedman
- The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks
- Empire State by Jason Shiga
- Traveler of the Century by Andres Neuman
- You & Me by Padgett Powell
- Varamo by Cesar Aira
- Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
- Delicacy by David Foenkinos
- Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander
- The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
- Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
- Seven Years by Peter Stamm
- Better Off Without ‘Em by Chuck Thompson10
- Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel11
- Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell12
- Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru12
- A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers13
- The Round House by Louise Erdrich
- In One Person by John Irving
- The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus
- Abbott Awaits by Chris Bachelder
- Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden14
- Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
- A Free Man by Aman Sethi
- Some Hope by Edward St. Aubyn
- Mother’s Milk by Edward St. Aubyn
- Savage Continent by Keith Lowe
- Satantango by Laszlo Khrasznahorkai
- Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Heid Evans
- Istanbul Passage by Joseph Kanon
- Every Day by David Levithan
- Hot Pink by Adam Levin
- To Live by Yu Hua
- Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Thompson
- Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff
- Inside by Alex Ohlin
- Wolf Story by William Mcleery
- Life Among Giants by Bill Roorbach
- All About Lulu by Michael Robbins
- The Book of Joe by Jonathan Tropper
- The Angry Buddhist by Seth Greenland
- May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes15
1. This was the best book I read this year, by a country mile. Not only that, this is the first book in a long, long time that I felt I could recommend to anyone. So often the books I like best are just not that interesting to other people (what’s wrong with them???) But Johnson’s book is just a rip-roaring tale of adventure, suffering, and revenge, set in an imagined North Korea that seems both horrifyingly accurate and preposterously made up, all at once. So anytime anyone asked for a recommendation this year, I said, “Read this.” Full disclosure: To my knowledge, not one of them ever got back to me and said, “Wow, that was wonderful! Thank you so much for your wonderful recommendation!”
2. Wonderful book. It would have finished even higher if the author had not seemed to go a bit soft on her characters in the concluding sections of the book. No spoilers here but I found the last third to be soft-hearted – disappointing considering the cold, tough observation of the first chapters.
3. Not published in 2012. I read this wonderful portrait of everyday live in North Korea after finishing “The Orphan Master’s Son.”
4. I’m not sure what the equivalent of “chick lit” is for middle aged men. Bro-Novels? Whatever the term is, I read a handful this year. This was the best of them. As a general rule, a “Bro-Novel” features a divorced father as the narrator, generally someone Apatovianly stuck in an adolescent career (in this case, rock music), and at least one clear-thinking young(er) woman who, oddly enough, finds him attractive despite his lovingly described fallen arches, poochy gut, slackening muscles, etc. Like chick lit specials, death or the threat of it tends to be the deus ex machina of the Bro-Novel. In this case, the narrator has a heart condition.
6. A novel for young adults, or whatever they’re called these days. Pretty sensitive handling of a love story involving a cancer-ridden teenager. Sounds awful, I know.
7. Published in 2011. This was the first book I read in 2012.
8. This one should probably be higher on the list, just for the gumption of the narrative: A stoned, neurotic American poet in Barcelona wanders the city, smoking pot and not writing poems. If that sounds boring, it is. But also oddly mesmerizing. Unlike the author of “The Middlesteins,” the author of this book, Ben Lerner, has the guts to draw an unsympathetic portrait and stick with it – no going soft and sentimental as the pages go by. It must be said that this was published in 2011. I read a review of it somewhere, wanted to read it, and pretended it was a 2012 title.
9. Not published in 2012. I read this in anticipation of reading the final Patrick Melrose novel later in the year. In fact, I read the first four of the series (if that’s what this should be called, which it isn’t) and at that point felt well done with the books. But the first two volumes were powerful and fascinating.
10. Pretty obnoxious book but a lovely conceit: Wouldn’t we be better off, the author wonders, if we just told the southern states to go ahead and secede? It’s a viewpoint that resonates for me – I’m kind of sick of the red state thing. Hopefully none of my southern friends (most of them arch-conservatives of the sort that the author hates) will never read this footnote. We’ll see. [Update: At least one did!]
11. As with the St. Aubyn, I read “Wolf Hall” on the assumption that I would then read “Bring Up the Bodies” – a 2012 title. However, I never finished the first volume so there wasn’t much point in trying to plow through the second. The appeal of these books mystifies me.
12. When Hari Kunzru’s “Gods Without Men” appeared in 2012, its layered narrative structure was compared with “Cloud Atlas.” So after reading “Gods Without Men,” I re-opened “Cloud Atlas,” which I had opened and then set aside a few years back. I didn’t like either book. But the Kunzru novel did have an incredibly engaging introductory section – a pastiche of native American mythology and meth cooking. I won’t say that section was worth the price of the book but it was close. Nothing in “Cloud Atlas” came close in terms of creative chutzpah.
13. Why in the world was this considered one of the best books of the year?
14. A non-fiction account of a rare escapee from a hellish North Korean prison camp.
15. I hated this book.