Tuesday, January 01, 2013

2012 in Reading

I was worried that this year I wouldn't make my typical 100 books a year. (Why was I reading so little? I'm not really sure, but finishing two quilts and still reading every article in every issue of The New Yorker might have something to do with it.) However, when I counted just now the number was 103, so I guess all those long backpacking trips this summer, with nothing to do in the evenings but read, paid off. That's a relief.

In any case, I know I haven't posted here in forever (um, hi! I still exist!) but I love combing through each year's book list and feeling nostalgic over the really good ones, so ta-da! You get a list.

Top 10 Fiction (in no particular order, I promise)
Game of Thrones: I'm going to count the first book here as a stand-in for the entire series, which I read on buses in Ethiopia and could not put down. I'm not generally a sci-fi/fantasy gal, and nor am I a rape/violence gal, but this was just really, really compelling. It also made me understand that New Yorker article from a while back about fans being angry at George R.R. Martin for taking so long to finish; I'd be pissed, too, if I had been left to wait for so many years after the fourth book. (After the third, maybe, but the fourth? Mutiny.)
Swamplandia!: A book about a family running a failing alligator theme park in Louisiana just seems too precious for words, but I promise you it's much, much better than that sounds.
We Need to Talk About Kevin: If you've read this, we need to talk about it. I was hooked.
The Cat’s Table: I generally find Michael Ondaatje's books about as impenetrable as his last name (look me in the eye and tell me you understood the plot of The English Patient, I dare you), but I really liked this one, a relatively straightforward memoir about a young boy's ocean voyage from Sri Lanka to London.
Zone One: it's ostensibly about zombies but really about cities. And it's worth it.
The Stranger’s Child: I'm surprised by this one's presence on the list, given how much I disliked The Line of Beauty. It was good, though.
Sweet Tooth: I'm not at all surprised that this one is on my list. Ian McEwan does it again.

However, if you know my reading tastes, this is surprising: three (!) books of short stories on my best-of list. Has the internet just killed my attention span or something?
This is How You Lose Her: I recognize that some of what Junot Diaz is doing is cheap, or at the very least repetitive, but I can't help it.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: This one makes the list solely for the title story, which was published in The New Yorker and which I read in church, leading to some awkward moments when I gasped aloud in sheer surprise and delight.
You Know When the Men Are Gone: I listed to several books on tape this year, finding it a pleasant way to entertain myself while tidying the apartment, driving to work, doing the dishes, etc. The only downside is that books on tape are so much slower than actual reading; since I spend more time with them, I'm far more critical of books I listen to. You Know When the Men are Gone is one of the few books on tape that stood up to my harsh feelings. Plus, it's got a great title.

Honorable mentions:
Alif the Unseen: computer hackers + 1001 nights; thoroughly, thoroughly entertaining.
The Marriage Plot: I liked this even more than Middlesex, but it hasn't stuck with me in the months since I read it.
The Satanic Verses: It's embarrassing that this 20th century classic is only an honorable mention, especially given how much I loved Midnight's Children, but I think maybe I'm just over Salman Rushdie's one plot.

Top 10 non-fiction (also in no particular order)
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Non-fiction reporting that reads like a novel.
Team of Rivals:
I knew how it ended and I still cried.
Operation Mincemeat
: Is this real life?!?
Holy Ghost Girl: Honestly, this might have been the best of the year, and certainly the most unexpected. I listened to this one on tape, and, honest to goodness, I rewound several times just to bask in the prose again. (Note: that's an analog metaphor for a digital action. Of course I was listening to an mp3 on my iPod and I just skipped back in the track.)
Unbroken: I kept turning the pages of this one expecting the protagonist to die any page now; this was a literally unbelievable story.
The 10th Parallel: I'm a sucker for books about contemporary Islam, and I loved the international compare-and-contract deal here.
The Possessed:
I'm also a sucker for anyone who writes for The New Yorker. (See how many times I've mentioned it so far in this post?) I was pleasantly surprised at how this book turned from deep ponderings on Russian novels to a chatty, lightly funny yet profound memoir.
Born Round:
Food memoirs are practically their own genre now, and this should be the prototype.
My Life in France: I could finally see why everyone loved Julia Child so much--her personality came through in the writing, and how could you help but love her?
Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010: I didn't agree with everything, but if the point was to make me think, well, it succeeded.

Top 5 most irritating
The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: I felt insulted, not necessarily by the book's child-rearing philosophies (I don't have a dog in that fight yet), but by the fact that the supposedly ambitious, hard-driving, high-standards-of-perfection author thought I would accept this self-centered, stream-of-consciousness first draft as good enough. The arrogance! If I were her mother I would make her go back and rewrite it until she can do it right.
Farm City: Look, I'm as into the idea of urban farming as any other late-20s Bay Area resident, but can we please not be so obnoxiously superior about it? Your Oakland backyard chickens are producing delicious eggs, not saving the world. The Thoreau-worship in the introduction should have been enough of a warning to me to avoid this one.
The Finkler Question: Has there ever been a Booker Prize book I've actually liked? Answer: yes, but rarely. This was incredibly overhyped (see: Booker Prize) but just seemed to me to be Philip Roth with more British people and less masturbation. It's not like I love Philip Roth, or masturbation scenes, but wow, this one was boring to me.
Three Cups of Tea: I can't decide if it was a mistake to read Jon Krakauer's Three Cups of Deceit at the same time as listening to this, but it certainly, er, added some layers to the experience. I'm not sure I'll want to look in a mirror after saying this, but think I actually enjoyed the book more when I could chuckle cynically at Mortensen's supposed heroic do-goodery.
The End of Men: Don't.even.get.me.started. Without veering too far into feminist Hulk territory--because I really am open to the idea that certain aspects of our modern mores have been bad for men, and I was intrigued by her hypothesis that women are more flexible, while the rigidity of performed masculinity leaves men unable to adapt to societal changes--the "end of men"? Really? Based on, what, an overly narrow slice of entirely misleading wage data? Men are ending and women are taking over, see, because childless women in their 20s in urban areas out-earn childless men in their 20s in urban areas...nevermind that urban areas are heavy on white college-educated women and Latino men, and if you actually sort the data by education level and race men outearn women in every category. (Oops. I think I just got me started.)  If all it takes these days to write a bestseller is some snazzy prose, a doomsday headline, and some misleading, misinterpreted, or made-up statistics, I should go ahead and quit my job now to start working on that book I've been planning, We Are All Doomed. (Page 1: 100% of us will die someday!)