Saturday, December 22, 2012

Best Books I Read in 2012

“And this one has entirely ruined her disposition with books.”
Aunt March referring to Jo in Little Women (the 1994 film version).

Suck it, Tolstoy
At the beginning of the year, I began a classics reading challenge. I started in January with Anna Karenina. What a mistake. Anna Karenina was the book I enjoyed the very least of all the books I read this year lifetime. I blame it for my failure to complete my own reading challenge. I made it month by month through August. I enjoyed some books more than others. (A Room With a View was good, as was The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath).

But sometime in September I gave up. I was tired of feeling like I had homework to complete. I also was afraid that each month's classic would be as boring as Anna Karenina so I would procrastinate on picking up that month's selection. (I just realized that I gave up some other things in September, too. I stopped working out. I stopped feeling hopeful about certain things. I stopped drying my hair on a regular basis.)

The truth is that whatever I'm in the mood for at that moment, that's what I want to be reading. I don't want to feel required to sit down and slog my way through another damn Tolstoy.

These are the best books I read in 2012:

1. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
Since the moment I finished this novel, I have been telling other people to read it. I wrote about it here. and this is what I said: Around page 37, I got the feeling I was going to love this book. By page 41, I knew it. I could tell this was going to be my kind of book and my eyes teared up a little. When it comes to books, I am my most sensitive self. I can't help it. I get overly excited about the ones I love and overly moved by the idea of writing a story that makes someone feel something. I love the books that remind me why I want to write.

Beautiful Ruins begins in 1962 on the coast of Italy as Pasquale, a young Italian man with blue eyes, watches a beautiful American actress arrive at his small, isolated hotel. Then it picks up today on the back lot of a movie studio. The book goes back and forth between the events of then and now. There are numerous characters and they are all "beautiful ruins," flawed and hopeful and hopeless. Richard Burton, the actor and sometimes-husband of Elizabeth Taylor, even makes an appearance.

Immediately after I finished, I picked up another book by Jess Walter.

2. The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter

This story follows the downfall of a man laid off from a newspaper. His house is on the brink of foreclosure, his wife is flirting with her high school boyfriend on Facebook, and he's taken up with a bunch of drug dealers. It's a great read. I could relate to this man whose industry is disappearing, whose options seem limited, and whose life is unraveling.

3. Broken Harbor by Tana French
If you haven't read any of Tana French's novels, you're missing out. She has an incredible talent for mixing mystery and character studies. Broken Harbor is a murder mystery, but it's also the devastating tale of what happens when too many things go wrong, how a country's struggling economy and real estate bust can destroy its citizens, how a normal family can spiral into madness.

4. Little Bee by Chris Cleave
I had no idea what Little Bee was about when I picked it up. The back contains a vague description about two women, a fateful day, and what happens when they meet again two years later. I don't know that all the secrecy is necessary, but I'll go along. I'll just tell you it's a wonderful read. It held numerous moments that hit home with me. Among them is this brief excerpt from the first chapter:

"I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived." 

5. Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Wild is a memoir about a writer's solo trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. Her journey is prompted by the death of her mother, her divorce, and her increasing use of heroin. The journey is difficult, to say the least. In many ways, Strayed's literal trek makes an excellent metaphor for the journey many of us must make through the hardest times of our lives. It's not a perfect book (it sometimes smacks of the self-absorption that plagued Eat Pray Love), but maybe it's only that Strayed isn't a perfect person. There is inspiration to be found in the journeys of those who have made poor choices but, with the weight of the world (or an overstuffed backpack) on their back, still find a way to keep moving forward.

6. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
This YA novel is about a 16-year-old girl with terminal cancer. She falls in love with a boy who also has cancer. Sound like the setup for misery? Yes, it's sad, but it's also funny and intelligent and truly wonderful.

7. The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
A mysterious event occurs in which random people disappear from the planet. Is it the rapture? Tom Perrotta's novel focuses on the residents of one small town to give us this brilliant look at how the world might react.

8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
I still haven't seen the movie, but I borrowed this slender little book from BFF Tina. It's written as a series of letters from Charlie, an introverted teenage boy, to a recipient who is never revealed to us. It's a wise, sweet, funny, and sad book. By the end, you will love Charlie and you will hope that life brings him all the happiness he deserves.

9. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

10. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

11. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

I put these three together because that's how I read Gillian Flynn's novels, all in one big gulp. She's that good. I hope she's hard at work on her fourth novel, because I'm impatient to see what she does next.
If you do read her three novels one after the other, plan to read something lovely and life-affirming afterward.  Flynn's novels are dark and twisted. You're going to need something light and refreshing to cleanse your palate. Perhaps, you should plan to read the next book on this list:

12. Bossypants by Tina Fey
My spirit animal is laugh-out-loud funny. She also is incredibly wise and full of good advice.
“If you retain nothing else, always remember the most important rule of beauty, which is: who cares?”

13. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
My friend Lane sent this to me earlier this week. (I love getting books in the mail.) It's a slender novel that has a lot to say about aging and about how we remember our past.

“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.” 

14. God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens
Whatever your beliefs, believe this: Christopher Hitchens was an excellent writer. He also was an outspoken atheist always ready to debate believers. In this book, he explores religion and its impact on the world. Hitch presents facts calmly, but his writing also contains an edge of angry defiance. It's a fascinating read.

“I leave it to the faithful to burn each other's churches and mosques and synagogues, which they can be always relied upon to do.”

15. A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
Four people intent on suicide meet at the top of a building on New Year's Eve. They quarrel. They judge each other's reasons for ending it all. But they form a sort of support group and find a way to go back downstairs and continue living. The book is funny and sad and avoids easy answers or simple happily-ever-afters.

16. The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
Will Schwalbe and his mother Mary Anne always discussed books, but it is not until she is diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer that they form a club of sorts. In this memoir, Schwalbe shares the books they read and the conversations they had. Anyone who loves reading and discussing books will relate to the discussions of Will and Mary Anne as she nears the end of her life.

17Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson
A woman goes to bed each night and by morning she has forgotten everything about her adult life. How does a woman with no memory of her past solve the mystery of her present? This book grabs you and doesn't let go.

18. Zone One by Colson Whitehead
A zombie novel of the literary kind, Zone One follows "Mark Spitz" as he helps kill "skels" and clean up bodies in the aftermath of "Last Night," the night when infection spread across the globe. Everyone has a story about "Last Night." Those who have survived are diagnosed with  P.A.S.D. (sounds like past), "post-apocalyptic stress disorder." Zombie apocalypse or not, who among us isn't haunted by our own "pasd."

19. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
This charming novel creates a world all its own, full of magic and romance. By the end, I wanted to join a magical circus that appears out of nowhere, with black and white tents and a magical clock and an act featuring kittens. 

20. Animal Farm by George Orwell

Part of my classics reading challenge, Animal Farm was probably my favorite of the seven classics I read. Although, I must say, I find it extremely depressing that, as a society, we really are dumb animals so apt to forget the writing on the wall.

Books I Finally Read and Found Completely Overrated

Books I Did Not Read Because I Have Standards

Web Site I Read That Hilariously Made Fun of Books I Did Not Read
50 Shades of Suck


  1. I absolutely love all of the books on your list that I've already read, which I think means I need to read the rest of your list ASAP. (Also, I really enjoyed the movie of Wallflower. I saw it a couple months after reading the book, which may be the perfect way to do it, as it allowed me to love both without comparing them.)

    1. I'm looking forward to seeing the movie. It's at the dollar movie theater. I might have to take a break from wrapping presents today.

  2. I still support the idea of the Banned Books challenge for 2013.,

    I, too, will be forever scarred by Anna Karenina. I am thinking of reading it to the twins to help them sleep at night.

    1. That's a brilliant idea, but I would hate for you to punish yourself by reading that again. So you might need to get the audio version for them.

      The Banned Books challenge could be fun! I'm going to find some lists. We just have to make sure none of the books were banned because they're all about Russian farming theory. zzzzzzz

  3. I think I need to treat myself to some of those on your list, if you haven't given them to me to read already. Of course you know I loved the GF tri-fold.

  4. Bossypants was the only audiobook I've ever listened to. Try not laughing to this on the morning commuter train.

    1. Even though I've read the book, I feel like I'd enjoy hearing the audio version.

  5. Thanks for sharing the list. I don't think I'd have ever made it through AK without the beat-the-clock mentality, so thank you for that. I still do love Stiva, but good God the movie was awful, so I did manage to bookend my year with Tolstoy.

    1. Yes, if I hadn't had a deadline I never would have finished AK!

  6. Enjoyed your list and will have to put a few of these on the 2013 reading list. I finally got my yearly book review up on my site. Warning you now, I don't have your high standards : )


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