The best books we read in 2012
Every year, The A.V. Club embarks upon elaborate voting rituals to determine the sorta-consensus best films, albums, and television of the year. But finding the best books of the year is a different experience. Since we cultivate the most eclectic selection of tastes we can for the book-review section in order to cover the widest range of work we can, there’s rarely a lot of crossover in what we read. And no one reviewer can even come close to reading all the notable books of the year. So every year, we go simple, asking participants to describe the best releases they personally read this year, barring overlap between writers. Here are our recommendations for the works that most stood out for us in 2012.
Who Could That Be At This Hour?, Lemony Snicket
Daniel Handler (Snicket’s alter ego) doesn’t rest on his laurels with his latest book. It takes place in the same world as his bestselling Series Of Unfortunate Events novels, and features many of the same characters, but that’s about it. While the original series was a macabre set of books that resembled penny-dreadfuls, this is hard-boiled detective fiction for young adults. This time, Snicket is the protagonist; he’s a smart-aleck with a penchant for talking back and getting involved with the wrong dames. All the best parts of Handler’s previous work remains here, and all the purposeful obfuscations that brought the earlier books down are gone. Who Could That Be? is witty, but not pedantic. It’s fast-paced, but doesn’t shy away from real pathos. It’s a book for young readers, but it has plenty of in-jokes only adults will get. And it only takes a few hours to read, but it has more compressed in its tiny frame than most other books from 2012.
Runner-up: Home, Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison can pack a wallop in a few pages, and this novella doles out a number of gut-wrenching moments. Her work often wallows in degradation (see The Bluest Eye), but here, she balances the horrifying aspects of African-American life in the 20th century with the characters’ subtle dignity and love for one another. It’s a light book, but not one to be taken lightly, full of the careful prose and hypnotic scenes that won her the Nobel 20 years ago. Two decades on, she hasn’t lost her touch.
By Blood, Ellen Ullman
Ullman made a splash in 1997 with her first book, Close To The Machine: Technophilia And Its Discontents, a memoir of her time as a computer programmer in the pre-Internet years, when that was an exotic profession. Her second novel—the first was 2003’s The Bug—is set in the mid-’70s, and part of its strange power comes from the way it taps into our awareness of how, since then, technology has changed to make the simplest form of pre-Google snooping seem mysterious and epic. The narrator is a professor who, hiding out in an office after the collapse of his career, takes to listening in on the psychiatric patient next door as she talks about her decision to find her birth mother, a quest the professor takes up himself. The trail leads back to the orphaned Jewish survivors of World War II, a time as distant, yet as recent, to the narrator as Ullman’s San Francisco, with its news bulletins about Patty Hearst and the Zodiac killer, are to contemporary readers. Ullman’s attachment to the past is a theme running through all her work, and she gets readers to share it. She’s vividly aware of the changes that can make the distant past seem like life on another planet, but on another level, as Faulkner said, the past is never dead; it isn’t even past.
Runner-up: Swimming Studies, Leanne Shapton
Shapton is a terrific illustrator and graphic designer, which more people now know thanks to her surprising, brilliant memoir about her swimming career in the late ’80s and early ’90s, which took her to the Canadian Olympic trials. Shapton beautifully describes the experience of swimming, as well as the mixture of excitement, frustration, and self-consciousness that comes from doing anything competitive in the public eye, and her impressionistic descriptions of sights and sensations remembered have the same compact lyricism as her drawings. Her racing days past her, she writes that when she swims for recreation now, “I step into the water as though absent-mindedly touching a scar. My recreational laps are phantoms of my competitive races.”
The Wind Through The Keyhole, Stephen King
Stephen King’s Dark Tower series lost its way somewhere around the middle. The story of Roland of Gilead’s journey to save the universe, and the companions he met along the way, had all manner of ups and downs, but by the end, King’s exhaustion was palpable; the final volume, The Dark Tower, is epic yet abrupt, full of the power of conclusion, but marred by the impossibility of satisfying several decades’ worth of ambition. The Wind Through The Keyhole, a short, relatively self-contained novel set just before The Wolves Of The Calla, is simpler and far more satisfying, both by comparison and in its own right. As Roland and his companions settle in during a supernaturally destructive storm, Roland tells the story of his first mission, which in turn becomes a story a much younger Roland told a boy to comfort him during another great storm. The tale-within-a-tale-within-a-tale structure is a bit lopsided, and the book takes some time to get warmed up, but once it does, it’s a richly rewarding fable about love, loss, and family. Stripping Roland’s world down to its fairy-tale roots reconnects the series to its iconic power, and even with the nesting-doll narrative, the story’s directness makes it all the more affecting.
Runner-up: Back Story, David Mitchell
At 38, comic actor and panel-show enthusiast David Mitchell (who is not the novelist David Mitchell) is probably too young to write a memoir. But what Back Story lacks in dramatic incident, it makes up in the author’s wit and candidness. Mitchell chronicles his life from early childhood, to his time at Cambridge, to meeting his heterosexual life mate Robert Webb, and dealing with their (eventual) success. It’s a long monologue, self-effacing, at times hilariously over-thought, yet still disarmingly heartfelt. For fans of Mitchell & Webb, Peep Show, or excellent writing, it’s a delight.
Lost Everything, Brian Francis Slattery
Brian Francis Slattery’s previous two novels, Spaceman Blues and Liberation, dealt with various levels of collapse or apocalypse in deft yet dizzying ways. But in Lost Everything, he lets his Armageddon simmer. In the unmarked grave of America sometime in the future, civilization limps along at a vaguely 19th-century level of scavenged technology and moral retrograde. But Lost Everything isn’t about the world at large. Although glimpses of America as we know it—echoes of blues, a sinister trip up the Susquehanna, and weed-swallowed Three Mile Island—skim across the surface of the narrative, it’s centered on a man named Sunny Jim, his traveling companion Reverend Bauxite, and Jim’s journey in search of his young son. Along the way, they fight for survival against an ocean-sized storm that sweeps the continent, and a ravaged land. And where Slattery’s prior books swim in textured prose, he reins in his language in Lost Everything, meting out skeletal sentences with a ghostly, gracious tenderness. While many post-collapse novels of recent years, good or otherwise, have tried to serve as cautionary tales, Slattery embeds his clear views on issues like climate change and ecology in a stirring allegory that’s as lyrical and elemental as a folk song. Rarely is a tableau so desolate suffused with this much teeming, magical humanity.
Runner-up: Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Sean Howe
Many people have told the history of Marvel Comics, many times. But the company’s decade-long rise into a movie powerhouse and pop-cultural dominator cried for an updated, exhaustive revisiting of the company’s epic ups and downs. Sean Howe provides that, and then some, with Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. Tracing the publisher’s underdog triumph throughout the ’60s—a heroic origin tale to rival those of Marvel’s breakout characters, like Spider-Man and The Avengers—as well as its decay and regeneration from the ’70s until now, the book combines immaculate reporting with lush yet penetrating comics criticism. But it’s the central struggle at Marvel’s core that makes The Untold Story sing. The fight for creators’ rights is played out in the earth-shaking conflict between legends and former collaborators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, a struggle that’s piercingly poignant and culturally important.
We Are Anonymous, Parmy Olson
The story of how the Anonymous collective of Internet activists exploded into public consciousness would be compelling enough on its own. In We Are Anonymous, journalist Parmy Olson tells that story, primarily through the people who founded the Anonymous splinter group LulzSec. But what makes We Are Anonymous so powerful is the universality of its story. It's about creating organization where none existed, about hierarchical organizations being unable to respond to chaotic groups, about chaotic groups being unable to avoid turning hierarchical, and about how rapid success cannot be maintained. Even beyond that, Olson succeeds with We Are Anonymous as a character study. The people comprising LulzSec—particularly their creative spokesperson “Topiary” and “Kayla,” a talented hacker playing at being a giggly teenaged girl—make sure the book stays compelling as a story beyond its analysis of power structures. It's also well-organized: Olson's decision to bounce around in chronology makes a potentially overcomplicated story easy to grasp. It's a superb demonstration of current-event writing.
The Age Of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker
The Age Of Miracles is a feel-bad novel in exactly the right way. As its main character, Julia, tries to navigate her early teen years, the world stops spinning, making days longer and longer. Animals and plants die off, society divides in response to the slow apocalypse, people become sick, and the sun itself becomes dangerous. For adolescents growing up, any setback can be the end of the world, but through Julia's eyes, the actual end of the world is enough. Her growth is charming, even as its background is horrifying. The Age Of Miracles gains extra power as an extended climate-change metaphor, but it's hauntingly elegiac on its own.
This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Díaz
It’s clear now that Junot Díaz will never shake the voice of Yunior de Las Casas, the ever-present, semi-autobiographical narrator of Díaz’s previous books, and once again in his second story collection, This Is How You Lose Her. Yunior is as integral to Díaz as Antoine Doinel to François Truffaut. The fiction community debates the classification of short-story collections versus a “novel in stories,” but Díaz’s work transcends those distinctions: He’s used the same protagonist or narrator in every single published story, an interconnected fictional patchwork that dates back almost two decades. This Is How You Lose Her is the story of how Yunior de Las Casas grows up by lying, cheating, grieving, and writing—and the metafictional question of whether Díaz or Yunior authored a story only makes the dense canon more intriguing.
Runner-up: When Captain Flint Was Still A Good Man, Nick Dybek
Though the title of Nick Dybek’s debut novel references Treasure Island, it follows a different tradition, that of isolated, small-town, blue-collar working communities. Like Herman Melville with his industrial seafaring tales and John Steinbeck with the coastal-town portraits Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, Dybek creates a bleak, bleary setting in a secluded Washington community dependent on the survival of commercial fishing, and a young protagonist hardened by that crucible environment. Its hypnosis isn’t slow or trancelike; it’s unrelenting and punishing, methodically parsing out the secret necessary evils of trying to keep a sinking ship afloat.
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
Flynn’s debut, Sharp Objects, was beautifully written, but so lurid that it undermined its own mystery, via characters who were too insane to seem mysterious at all. She gets the balance perfect in her third novel, though: Gone Girl is again about a mystery set among some extremely hateful people, but Flynn details their inner lives at a level of detail designed to pull readers in and sway their sympathies, then push them away again, over and over. There’s an inherent tension to the basic plot, as a woman disappears and her cold, dismissive, phenomenally selfish husband tries to find out what happened to her, while increasingly realizing he’s the prime suspect in her possible murder. But Flynn keeps adding new layers that perpetually change the shape of the story, and her approach ratchets that tension up much further. And yet Gone Girl is lyrically written fiction rather than a charge-ahead pulp novel. Conceptually, it’s an ingeniously crafted puzzlebox, right up to the surprising but completely apropos end. But the execution is what brings it across: the soulful characterization and sharp observation.
Runner-up: The Twelve, Justin Cronin
The follow-up to Cronin’s bestseller The Passage takes some time to cohere, because there are so many characters operating in so many different timelines and plot threads, some of them picked up from the previous book without fanfare. Its time-jumps can be awkward, and there’s so much going on that entire novels could fit in the cracks between one of the subplots beginning and the latter-day version of that same subplot, revisited a century later. But Cronin’s writing and characterization remain compelling throughout, and the book picks up considerably once it finds a rhythm. Cronin has created two major timelines for this series—one, a modern-day thriller where vampire-like humanoid biological weapons escape, reproduce, and start taking over the world; the other, a far-future post-apocalypse stories set in the wreckage a century later—and both are infinitely rich in potential, which he explores with great affection, attention, and talent.
The Fault In Our Stars, John Green
The Fault In Our Stars should be so, so awful. Instead, it’s so, so good. It’s a book about teenagers with cancer that somehow manages to be sentimental and sweet without seeming to be either one. In its narrator, Hazel, Green found a smart way out of the corner he increasingly wrote himself into with prior books. By gender-flipping his usual quirky, lovelorn protagonist, then not giving her long to live, Green discovered new soul and pathos, and through Hazel’s voice, he found a vital, believable tunnel into a genre that most people have written off as the realm of failed Oscar-bait and Lifetime movies. Even beyond Hazel, though, the book is filled with vivid characters and sharply observed moments. Hazel’s trip to Amsterdam with her new boyfriend, Augustus, in search of the reclusive author of a book she loves is fantastic. So is the way Green brought all his characters’ arcs to graceful conclusions in a final third that’s completely predictable, yet emotionally unexpected—all without pushing too hard.
Runner-up: Dear Life, Alice Munro
Alice Munro may be our greatest living author, and if this is her final short-story collection—and there are indications it could be—then she’ll have brought her career to a close perfectly. Her stories hang on the precipice of great revelation, with characters who abruptly realize just what they’ve been running from. It’s an internal, closely observed style, but for those who can get on Munro’s wavelength, it holds untold riches. Dear Life features one of her most staggering twists, as well as several pieces that are autobiographical, yet would be indistinguishable from her short stories if not for the explanatory notes.
May We Be Forgiven, A.M. Homes
A.M. Homes quietly chronicled the emotional rot at the core of the happy suburban dream across her nine novels, but her 10th offers a core of hope after its chosen household descends to the basement. May We Be Forgiven’s Harry Silver is a 21st-century Job-like figure who winds up raising his brother’s kids after a family Thanksgiving dinner devolves into violence. He’s ill-equipped for the task, and his efforts to maintain stability for the children and patch himself up from his own divorce are halting and unsure. But his greatest resistance comes from those who think his task is pointless. Homes reaches deep below the venality of the Silvers, even Harry (who, with his infidelity and indifference to his work, isn’t blameless himself) to find the absurd humor of his existence and outline what motivates him to keep trying. Whenever the novel is declared dead, just like Harry Silver’s family, it reforms again around the same principles for which it was originally celebrated—intimacy, empathy, and the ability to reflect universal experience through the prism of one person. Homes’ equal measures of savagery and tenderness toward Harry leave him with the possibility of redemption amid the mess.
Runner-up: Behind The Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, And Hope In A Mumbai Undercity, Katherine Boo
A sociological investigation, intense family drama, and murder mystery in one, the first book from New Yorker writer Katherine Boo explodes the accepted picture of Third World poverty while preserving the dignity of the neighbors and relatives captured by it. Reported over the three years Boo spent in the garbage-collecting slum of Annawadi, blocked from arriving tourists by a row of shining billboards, Behind The Beautiful Forevers uncannily captures the inner lives of its inhabitants as they struggle to improve their living conditions, saving its harshest evaluations for the corrupt government and inefficient aid system that hold them in place.