A Literary Year in Review, 2012 Edition
Well, the Mayans were indeed wrong, and it’s hard to believe it’s once again time to compile my annual literary review. Following my solo list from 2010 and then the first actual round-up in 2011, I once again cajoled and pleaded with my friends and family to send me the best books they read last year. As usual, they did not disappoint. This year’s selections span from the turn of the 20th century through 2012, and are so wonderfully reflective of the respective contributors’ lives over the last twelve months. I hope you are as inspired by these lists as I am to pick up a newly-discovered book in 2013!
Victoria sent me her list of three books, while apologizing for not having five. However, if I had an ever-growing law practice, an active three-year-old, and a brand new baby to attend to like she does, I doubt I’d even have one book on my list!
Blue Asylum, by Kathy Hepinstall: I don’t usually “do” Civil War fiction, so when this came up on the book club list, I was nonplussed. But the characters and themes of this book transcend the temporal setting – a wife committed to the asylum for disobeying her husband, a soldier suffering from PTSD, a young boy looking for love and affection anywhere he can get it – and drew me in.
The September Society, by Charles Finch: The second book in the Charles Lenox series (which I discovered while vacationing last year), in which one finds the Victorian Era amateur sleuth trolling the streets of Oxford in search of the truth behind a student’s death. Really, I’ve loved the whole series so far (the first is A Beautiful Blue Death; the third is The Fleet Street Murders, which particularly kept me on the edge of my seat!).
The Little Princesses, by Marion Crawford: This book, written by Queen Elizabeth II’s childhood nanny is a near and dear favorite of mine. I re-read it in honor of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, and the glimpses into HM’s upbringing (at the same time revealing and respectful) never fail to endear me to her further. Sadly, the author was ostracized from the Royal Family for what was seen as a violation of their trust and invasion of their privacy. I would venture to guess that HM views its publication much more kindly in light of all the intrusions into the family during her reign. Also sadly, the book is out of print, but you can find some serialized snippets courtesy of the Daily Mail:
- The day the Queen threw a tantrum and tipped a pot of ink over her own head
- Playing in the castle dungeons as the Nazi bombs fell, Elizabeth the panto princess
- How the Queen lost her heart slow dancing to a show tune from Oklahoma!
When Beth sent me her list, she said, “Can’t believe that an entire year has passed since we had this conversation the last time! WHEW!” What she left out is that 2012 saw her become a published author herself, with her first novel, The Lightbearers: Awake, debuting this past June!
Wild, by Cheryl Strayed: it’s a memoir by a woman who lost her mother, her family and her identity, and who found herself again through the personal challenge of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail – alone. The woman’s resilience and strength is amazing, and I connected with the book because each of us has to find our true self through our own set of challenges. I was also struck by her expectations before she set out on the trail, and how her actual experience surprised her.
The Untethered Soul, by Michael Singer: was recommended through the Soul Sisters Book Club, and is a guide book of sorts to getting in touch with one’s self through their thoughts, feelings, actions, and interactions with others. I appreciated that the author recognizes that his readers are striving for enlightenment, not perfection.
A New Earth, by Eckhart Tolle: it’s been around a long while, but its lessons provide an opportunity to live with less stress and more appreciation for what I have in my life (people, talents, not things). Taking a moment to appreciate the landscape, or to inhale deeply, are the things we miss when we live life in the fast lane, trying to live up to everyone else’s expectations. Tolle’s lessons are so simply and eloquently stated, but I savored this book.
The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho: another “oldie-but-goodie,” this was recommended by a friend who had just gone through a major life change. It’s a tiny book – I read it in a single afternoon, and it can be read on several levels: the first is simply the story of a young man’s travels; the second is a metaphor for life. Fabulous book which I will likely read again in 2013 because it seasons my palate for other reading.
Sea Change, by Karen White: Karen is a local author who writes women’s fiction with a bit of mystical intrigue, and this book is no exception. It is the story of two women in different times in history, but who share the same profession in the Savannah area. Beautiful read – and wonderful mystery!
Shannon is another friend who welcomed a new baby this year, and she said of her list, “As far as books go, you’ll see that I haven’t had the time or the mental energy to read anything that would qualify as a significant work of literature. If I couldn’t read it on my iPad, in the dark, between the hours of 1:00 and 5:00 AM in between Dillon’s waking up on and off at night, it didn’t get read.” Nonetheless, her list is, as always, eclectic, interesting, and inspiring.
5. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan: Imaginative, quirky mystery in which a search for immortality causes high technology to intersect with the love of books in all their dusty, unwieldy, hardbound glory. After reading this book, if I could do things all over again, I’d skip law school and try to get a job at Google. Really.
4. The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley: A bland description doesn’t really do this book justice- an amnesiac with a dangerous psychic ability (of which she can’t recall the particulars) must bluff her way through her day job (which she has no idea how to perform) as a high-ranking officer of an inter-continental covert organization charged with containing evil and/or out-of-control individuals with destructive supernatural abilities, while trying to thwart attempts on her life. While the plot as described may seem trite, the execution is anything but– the story is riveting, the characters are fascinating, the narration and dialogue are intelligent and sharply witty, and if the author doesn’t write a sequel or companion to this first effort, I will be very sorely disappointed.
3. Drop Dead Healthy, by A.J. Jacobs: I’m an A.J. Jacobs fan, and I think that this is his best book yet. Jacobs documents an almost two-year quest to become as healthy as possible, exploring proven, new, fringe, and just plain weird health trends and fads in the process. If nothing else, it changed the way I brush my teeth.
2. 14, by Peter Clines: Fun! Fun! Fun! I sat stock still, barely breathing, for 2 hours while my 2-month-old son slept on my shoulder because I just HAD to find out what happened next (…and next… and next…) and didn’t want to risk putting my ipad down to try to put him in his crib. A struggling office office worker moves into a very strange apartment in a very strange building with, you guessed it, neighbors who aren’t quite what they seem. Fun! Fun! Fun!
1. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell: Holy crow. Every so often you read a book that causes you to just… marvel… and wonder what kind of individual could conceive of a story like this and then write it in such a compelling, beautiful way. I haven’t seen the movie, but I don’t think that it could possibly come close to the absolute pleasure of reading the words on the page, trying to connect the dots of the story in my mind, wondering how it will all come together, and then seeing it happen so wonderfully. By far the best book that I read in 2012.
I always love Charlsie‘s selections, and find myself going back to her lists time and again when I’m at a loss for what to read mid-year. Like me, she had a hard time picking just five books, and so she post-scripted her list with the following: “As a bonus, I’m going to add that I also read The Silver Linings Playbook and The Night Circus - but most people are going to watch The Silver Lining Playbook as a movie, and The Night Circus was a recommendation from last year’s literary year review – so it seemed redundant. But they were two of my favorites.”
The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht: This was the first book of the 2012 Huffington Post bookclub. I loved it. The narrator is an intelligent but vaguely lackadaisical young woman who grew up in the Balkans in the 1990′s. I found it extremely informative, because she is obviously around my age, and I remember when the Balkans were the source of much turmoil. Sarajevo was the tragedy of my middle school and early high school years. But I never considered what the conflict looked like from the inside. We’ve been inundated with stories of the German girl and the Jewish girl being torn apart in Paris or Vienna during WWII.
The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley: As an avid reader of the hairpin, and a devoted acolyte of Nicole Cliff, this book was necessary. Additional knowledge of the Arthurian canon can’t hurt anyone.
The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling: this is J.K. Rowling’s first adult novel. It was a good book, but as obvious as this might sound – the magic wasn’t there. Certain points seemed forced for the sake of establishing this as adult book. The story was intriguing, the characters were well thought out. But I can’t say I really connected with any of them. If you are looking for a good airplane novel, this is great.
Wicked, by Gregory Maguire: I feel sure I should have read this years and years ago, which I wish I had, so I could have read it over and over again. It is something everyone should read.
The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton: Edith Wharton writes more beautifully than possibly any writer in human history. Don’t expect a happy ending, but do expect amazing insights into life, love, money, family, and society.
In stark contrast to 2011, I had such a hard time narrowing my list to just five books this year… so much that I just couldn’t. I wasn’t a noticeably more prolific reader in 2012, but I think that I was certainly more selective about the books I picked up – thanks in large part to having such wonderful lists to mine from last year. Some of the books on my list below appeared in my savvier friends’ lists in prior years, and I am lucky to be able to surround myself with so many smart and interesting people who – like I do – savor a good book (and a fine glass of wine, too).
Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristof and Cheryl WuDunn: This book is first and foremost shocking with its descriptions of the abject poverty, mistreatment and discrimination suffered by women in developing countries. It’s also almost just as shocking to learn about some of the common-sense and easily attainable solutions to these problems that have yet to be implemented. Finally, it concludes with a call to action and simple but meaningful ways you can help. It’s not an easy read, but certainly should be a required one for all citizens of this planet.
Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, by Deborah Feldman: A brave memoir from a young woman who was raised in the Satmar Hasidic community and had the courage to follow her convictions and leave, even though it meant being disowned by her family and suffering death threats from her former community. It’s a fascinating look into the extremely insular Satmar culture and a broader exploration of the ways in which religion and tradition are used to manipulate people (especially women) into submission.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot: The HeLa line of human cells was the first to be successfully cultured for any period of time (and is in fact still used), and has enabled scientists to achieve breakthroughs that have changed the course of medicine. The cells were harvested from an aggressive cancer tumor that eventually killed Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman from Baltimore, and they were taken without her knowledge or consent. The author plays quite a bit (sometimes a bit too much, without giving due credit to the audience’s intelligence) on the irony of the fact that the HeLa cells have generated billions of dollars for scientific innovators, yet Mrs. Lacks’ descendants still live in poverty and can’t afford to take advantage of the advances that their mother’s cells facilitated. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating read that examines the intersection of race, class, bioethics, and the law.
The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern: This book has been on a couple of people’s lists over the past two years, and certainly lives up to the hype. It’s almost a Gothic novel, and the circus itself (and the beautiful and fantastical exhibitions within it) plays as much of a role as the human characters do. The book is full of magic and fantasy, but simultaneously seems believable, and the author strikes a balance between creating beautiful, evocative imagery and advancing an engaging, suspenseful plot.
The Round House, by Louise Erdrich: This is the first book I’d ever read by Louise Erdrich, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The protagonist, Joe, is a tribal judge in present day looking back on a summer during the late 1980′s when he was 13 and his mother was viciously attacked. The crime is a turning point for Joe as he enlists his friends to help him find out exactly what happened and who the perpetrator was. In addition to bringing to light the challenges of prosecuting crimes on reservations, and the troubling injustices that often result, the book is also an introspective, often comic coming-of-age story that provides an insight into modern reservation life.
And because I couldn’t bear to strike them from my list entirely, Honorable Mentions go to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (mentioned by Shannon above), which was a fun, fast, and satisfying read that caters to book lovers, and The Devil in the White City, which deftly juxtaposes the magnificence of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago with the horrors of America’s first known serial killer, who was operating in the same city at the same time.
What’s on Your Nightstand for 2013?
As always, many thanks go to the above contributors: Without you, this list wouldn’t be the wonderful, diverse compilation that is. Waiting on the e-mails to come in each January is a little bit like a second Christmas to me. As you can see, so many books from years past make an appearance on my own annual list of favorites. I look forward to many more literary discussions in 2013 – in person and through the Interweb tubes, over cups of coffee and glasses of wine. And, of course, I’ll be back again in a year to gather yet another top five list. In the meantime, I wish you all a safe, prosperous, and joyous New Year full of great books and even better friends!
P.S. As always, it’s not too late to submit your own list if you haven’t already: Just respond in the comments or drop me an e-mail, and I’ll add you!