2012 was the year that I embraced the miracle of e-books. When the technology first reached the mainstream, I swore to the mighty gods of codex that I would never abandon paper and ink. Oh, the silly things we say in ignorance.
Actually, I downloaded my first e-book late in the Fall semester of 2011. I’d failed to purchase a book for one of my classes, didn’t have time to run to the store before the response paper was due, but located what I needed (along with a handy little app that allowed me to read on my PC) on Kindle. At the time, I rationalized this treason through necessity. Then, a few weeks later, I found myself housebound with no job, no school, a badly sprained ankle, and a couple of cracked ribs. I was bored. Kindle (and later Nook) offered instant gratification. I could read an interesting review and have access to the text in a heartbeat. Better still, the ability to enlarge the font to enormous sizes gave me a way to read without straining my failing vision. I could read into the night again! After that, there was no going back.
Consequently, in the last year I read a good deal more–especially for pleasure–than I have in ages. Here, then, is my own recommended books list from 2012, in no particular order.
*Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (as well as Sharp Objects and Dark Places).
Gone Girl gives us the ultimate unreliable narrator and more plot than one single novel has the right to claim. Ms. Flynn also writes gorgeous, quotable prose. It is a crime that, as a “genre writer,” Flynn has thus far been ignored by the snobs who hand out literary award nominations. As soon as I finished Gone Girl, I downloaded Flynn’s other two publications.
*We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver.
This is a 2003 release that I read in 2012, in anticipation of the film. I read the book in March, but the story and characters continue to haunt me. Written in an epistolary style by the mother of a school-shooter, it especially timely now.
*The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson.
Like Forest Gump, the protagonist of this novel is everywhere (but in North Korea) when something historically important is going on. Sure, the conceit stretches believability, but Johnson pulls it off with so much insight and humor that human-condition-realism becomes more important than the laws of plausibility.
*HhHH by Laurent Binet.
HhHH could have been a smug, post-modern gimmick–think House of Leaves–but this novel that is at once a thriller about the assassination of Reinhart Heydrich and a writer grappling with the ethics of historiography transcends his own heavily mined territory. Never has an author been so much in the way of his own subject matter, and in the age of truthiness, never have we needed his obnoxious presence more.
*In the Garden of Beasts:Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Eric
Larsen may well be the best true-crime writer alive.In this book, he takes us into the
tricky social universe of the American Ambassador’s family in newly Nazified Germany.
At the center of the action is the Ambassador’s daughter, a young, flirtatious,
ideologically shallow woman, who is initially quite dazzled by Hitler’s stage set and
*11/22/63 by Stephen King
I avoided this novel for months because I really wasn’t interested in yet another Baby
Boomer spin on the Kennedy assassination. In fact, I only decided to check it out
because I was facing a long weekend with no plans. I needed a lot of pages. The book
was a wonderful surprise. Not only does Stephen King show off his gift for literary
prose, he also–for once–gives the story a satisfying ending.
*The Evolution of Bruno Livermore
This was a 2011 release that I picked up in 2012 because it made so many
“best-of” lists. A witty tragedy told in the first person by chimp who acquires
language–rending himself neither fully human nor fully beast– the novel is best read
as an inspired adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
*A Wilderness of Error by Errol Morris
Writing is clearly not Morris’ primary vocation, but his exploration of the Jeffrey
MacDonald murder case has the same inquisitive bite as his documentaries. I didn’t come
away 100% convinced of MacDonald’s innocence, but Morris makes a great case for giving
the guy another trial. Regardless of what MacDonald did or did not do, Morris’ book is
cautionary tale of the injustices that become possible when prosecution and press are
able to sell the public on a juicy narrative.
*Your House is On Fire Your Children Are Gone by Stefan Kiesbye
Written in evocative and deeply unwholesome prose, this is perhaps the kind of story
that the Grimm Brothers would write if they lived in the 21st century. The novel is set
in a German village not terribly long after the Second World War; the story unfolds
through four narrative voices. In texture, it is much like Michael Haneke’s film, The
White Ribbon and, like that movie, this novel both bewitched me and made me want to
take a long shower afterward.
*Orderly and Humane: The Expulsions of the Germans after the Second World War by RM
This book got me into a bit of a squabble with friends shortly after I read it. Like
most people, given the magnitude of the Holocaust, I neither knew nor cared about what
happened to Germans after the war. No, it was not a mechanized genocide, but there was
an atrocious ethnic cleansing that resulted in the deaths of some 2 million German
Nationals. In no way a Holocaust apology or denial, the book should be read by anyone
who believes in the myth of American Exceptionalism. As I read, I could not help but
reflect on our own global behavior: would the world weep for the US if our system were
to crumble? Somehow I doubt it.
*Breed by Chase Novak
In the spirit of full disclosure, I still have about 30 pages to go with this one, but
unless the ending is spectacularly wrong, it belongs on the list. A very well-off
couple in Manhattan have everything but a baby of their own and become willing to do
anything to get one. The result is grotesque, monstrous, funny and heartbreaking. If
I were teaching a seminar on Literature and the Grotesque, I would pair it with Doris
Lessings’ The Fifth Child.
*The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson
Neurotic-in-his-own-right author, Ronson, becomes curious about the Western world’s
eagerness to attach a diagnosis (and prescribe a course of treatment–i.e. medication)
to just about any out of the ordinary behavior. Among other things, he outs the DSM as
the great book of quackery that it probably is.
*The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus/The Fault in Our Stars by John Green/The Leftovers by
Apocalypse and dystopia were particularly popular in 2012. Each of these novels offers
a different possibility for the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it, none are thoroughly
satisfying, but they’re all interesting, quick reads.
*Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the
West by Blaine Harden
In North Korea’s gulag system, Camp 14 is such a terminal destination that the
officials don’t even bother with propaganda. Shin Dong-Hyuk was born in this no-place
and is the only person to ever successfully escape. (He does not run toward freedom,
of which he has no concept, but because of irresistible rumors of plentiful food.) This
young man’s story is almost too horrific to digest, which accounts for its low-ish
place on my list.
In answer to the probable question, “Rebecca, do you ever read anything happy?”, the answer is no. Not often anyway. “Feel-good” books usually bore me. That said, there is surprising and unexpected humor in most of these books. Each one enriched me in some way.
So, happy reading in 2013, folks. Judging from a few advance reviews, we’re looking at another great literary year.