Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Stef's Favorite Books of 2012

Of course, I am only human (also I watch a lot of TV and have a job and stuff), so many, many awesome books went unread this year-- including but not limited to the following: Dear Life by Alice Munro, Arcadia by Lauren Groff (I'm reading it now and it is amazing), Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures by Emma Straub, The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, plus all those wonderful lesser-known books that must be discovered but which I did not happen to discover this year. Regardless, here are my favorites:

Big wonderful novels:

Shine, Shine, Shine by Lydia Netzer

Netzer's writing is so fresh it just snaps; it’s funny, poignant, and just unusual and lovely: pondering and pushing in a style like Annie Dillard’s. But the most impressive part is the way the story is unfolded; it grows to an emotional pitch that’s profound and clear, with nothing spilled before its perfect moment. She's a writer to watch.

Where'd You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple

I loooooove this book. It is wonderful and hilarious. Do not put it down, I repeat: do not put it down. What if you lose it? What if someone steals it? What if it spontaneously combusts? Trust me, you will be devastated. Keep it close.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis 

Mathis has a fantastic voice--reminiscent at times of Toni Morrison, at times Marilynne Robinson--both quiet & nuanced and fiercely powerful at the same time. Each chapter tells the story of one of Hattie's children, each affected by their family’s participation in the Great Migration and all shaped, for good or bad, by their mother's mistakes and her deep, tough love. The first chapter is one of the most powerful, unforgettable pieces of writing I've ever read. The whole thing is just remarkable.

Under the radar books totally worth the read:

We Sinners by Hanna Pylvainen

This is the story of Warren & Pirjo Rovaniemi and their 9 children, a family of Finnish fundamental Christians living in the Midwest. They don’t watch TV, go to movies, drink, or dance. They spend time together and go to church. This is their whole world. Each chapter is told from a different family member’s point of view, giving you a clear portrait of this family as they grow up and grow apart. I happen to have a particular interest in stories about fundamental Christians; but even if you don’t, this book is so well written, you’ll find yourself falling in love with the characters, and possibly, the author too. 

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

This is a very special book, starting with the cover (which is why I bought the book in the first place-- I can't stress enough that good design matters!). R.D. Hendrix is a young girl growing up in a trailer park in Reno. She checks out the Girl Scout Handbook out of the library, and though she doesn't have a troop, she uses the Handbook to guide her. She's like a sweet little flower growing out of a garbage heap-- a bit stunted, with not very good odds, and startling in her beauty and bravery. Hassman's writing is electric. The way Rory's mother's doomed back story is threaded in, hints dropped like a bread crumb trail, actually reminded me of Faulkner-- that weight of secrets and baggage, how it always noses its way to the surface. Sad but triumphant.

Heft by Liz Moore (now out in paperback)

This is a wonderful novel about two people who could not be any more different: a high school boy named Kel, a killer baseball player with a hopeless, falling-apart mother, and Arthur Opp, a man who once befriended Kel’s mother and who now weighs 550 pounds and never leaves his home. As both of their lives change dramatically, their stories slowly begin to spin towards each other, until they touch. This is a lovely story from a gifted writer. Perfectly appropriate for an older teen too, this novel fascinated me from beginning to end and really stayed with me. 

Insanely good short story collections:

The News From Spain by Joan Wickersham

Each of these stories of love gone wrong or just gone is simply exquisite. The stories progress in intensity and complexity until the last one, which is so intense that the narrator, speaking of her stale marriage and improbable infidelity, has to drop out of her story and tell another love story, just to make it through.

Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman

This is a beautiful collection of stories by a talented new writer. Her writing is crisp and indelible, like Laurie Moore's: "My heart was subterraneous, a root crop, damp, hiding from the sun in shame."

Awesome novels with crossover YA appeal:

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
Such a fantastic coming of age story about Julia, a girl growing up in a world where each day on earth is a few minutes longer than the day before. The concept is interesting enough, but Walker's writing is just inspired, the story handled with such a light touch. I loved Julia. I wanted to protect her, save her. 

The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller
If you read the jacket copy, you might think this sounds crazy. And it is, a little bit, but the truth is that it all works. Miller juggles it all like a circus performer— you can’t stop watching, and you have no idea how she does it. Here’s one thing that is crazy: Miller’s writing. It’s crazy good. I just love main character Iris. Her dogged pursuit of the truth is the only thing that's keeping her hanging on as loneliness and confusion swirl around her. That pursuit is something in Iris that I really latched on to (and is something that I think a lot of young or not-so-young-anymore girls would, too). At times, Iris is floundering, treading water, just trying to keep her head above the waves. That she solves the mysteries of Mariana Academy in the end is almost beside the point; as a former young girl myself, I understand the chief importance of solving your own mysteries, and Iris does too by the end of this lovely debut novel.

Deservedly hyped:

The Round House by Louise Erdrich
This book is fantastic. I love all of Erdrich's books, but for the first time I felt a layer of suspense in the story that I hadn't in any of her other books. It's so cool to me that an amazing, accomplished writer like Louise Erdrich is still growing and evolving her writing style. While I turned the pages quickly to find out what would happen, I still found myself re-reading sentences and whole paragraphs, the way you do with a truly talented writer. 

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (now out in paperback)
In his Iraq War novel (among several this year), Fountain poignantly shows the way the American public alternately glorifies and ignores the military, to its detriment. He has created such vivid characters, managing to create a group of men that are emblematic without being cliché. You will love Billy. He is a sweetheart and a philosopher, sometimes a naïve 19 year old, sometimes a battle-weary cynic. This is a truly impressive novel, and important.


The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields, and the Dinner Table  by Tracie McMillan
If you are a fan of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, and you care about where the food on your plate comes from and the fact that not everyone in this country is able to buy healthy food, then this book is for you. McMillan, a journalist covering issues of poverty in NYC, became inspired after writing about a cooking class for the underprivileged. She went  undercover, as a farm worker in CA, in the produce section of a Walmart in MI, and in the kitchen of an NYC Applebees. Her discoveries, about the conditions of farm workers and Walmart employees and issues surrounding food pricing, safety, and accessibility were simply fascinating. An important, well-written book.
Tiny Beautiful Things/Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Most people know how amazing Wild is, but if you haven't picked up TBT you're missing out. This is an amazing collection of advice columns from a website called The Rumpus. They were originally anonymously written by someone who called herself Sugar—Sugar ended up being Cheryl Strayed. Which is just awesome, because if you read Wild and want more, here is more. If you haven’t read Wild, and just want to be dazzled by the most wonderful, practical, compassionate, lovely advice columns (which are, honestly, just these fabulous love letters to humanity—the good, the bad, and the ugly), then this is your book. It’s the perfect     pick-me-up kind of book—you pick it up, read a few pages (or seriously even a few lines), and it’ll pick you up and bring you to a better, happier, more fair and loving world. Sugar is the best.

When Women Were Birds: 54 Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams
The cover image to the right absolutely does not do this book justice. It's gorgeous. The endpapers are stunning, too. If you buy books as objects, like I do, you'll appreciate the care taken with this one. On top of that, the book is wonderful of course. In many ways this reminded me of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking--she's working through her mother's journals left to her after her death, journals that Williams found to be blank. It's meditative and profound.

Older stuff:

Use Me: Stories by Elissa Schappell
This is an astonishing collection of linked stories about two women, Evelyn and Mary Beth (but mostly Evelyn, who feels to me like she's Schappell's favorite character, just like Evelyn is her father's favorite daughter). I can't imagine Schappell writing these stories without having just lost her own father-- they're too raw and fresh and messy-- in a way that just has to be based on life. She writes about love, sex, desire, and regret, and the way life just seems to circle around those things when you're a young woman.
This Dark World (new title Higher Ground) by Carolyn Briggs
The movie Higher Ground is based on this memoir-- both the book and film totally knocked my socks off-- so powerful. Briggs' discoveries and the journey she took to becoming herself are told so well, pulled out of her little by little until she discovers that she is a completely different person from the one she was told to be. 
The Words of Every Song by Liz Moore
If you liked the connected story quality of A Visit From the Goon Squad, try this. I got totally sucked into each chapter's new characters, and when the chapter ended, I was always psyched to see where Moore would take the story next. So well done.

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