In terms of books, it was a very good year. I read more contemporary books than ever, many of them prize-winners or books I really loved. While I reached my Goodreads goal of 60+ total books, once again the book salon warred with the book challenge and the salon won: I failed abysmally at my self-imposed readers’ choice challenge, reading only six of the twelve books I set myself and failing at my second attempt at War and Peace. On the bright side, I did read the top vote-getter, A Prayer for Owen Meany, as well as the runner-up, Lolita. I thank you, my readers, for picking them both.
Top Ten of 2012
Gillespie and I (Jane Harris)
Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)
The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)
Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)
McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (Frank Norris)
The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)
Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood)
A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving)
The Snow Child (Eowyn Ivey)
The Song of Achilles (Madeline Miller)
I wrote about many of these in “The (Half) Year in Books” so the list below will focus mostly on my reading since July.
And now the awards!
Most Recurring Theme: Unreliable narrators. In some form, unreliable narrators seemed to be everywhere including in Gillespie and I by Jane Harris, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan, Now You See Me by S. J. Bolton, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. Unreliable narrators can be tricky because it’s a fine line between clever twist and reader manipulation—most of these books pulled it off.
The Book I Can’t Stop Recommending: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. I have books I consider favorites and then books I recommend. In fact, there are only three books on both my “Top Ten to Recommend” list and my Favorites shelf at Goodreads. This is one of them. I’m stingy with five stars, but, as time went on, I decided to bump this one up from four. For the record, my current “Top Ten to Recommend” are The Alienist, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, The Eight, The Hundred Secret Senses, The Hunger Games, Rebecca, The Snow Child, 13 Reasons Why, Unbroken, Welcome to Temptation. I’ll let you guess which other two are on my Favorites shelf.
Best Ending: McTeague: A Story of San Francisco by Frank Norris. Endings are often my biggest problem with novels, even good ones. But the ending of McTeague made me literally throw the book down and say “Damn! That is a f*cking awesome ending!” And then I immediately began to wonder why this had not yet been made into a movie. Of course, it has, Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, but that was in 1924. I want to see someone like Scorsese (for the depiction of nineteenth-century San Francisco) or the Cohn Brothers (for the very Western finale) take this on. This book was everything I wanted The Sisters Brothers to be but wasn’t. Thank you to John Marcher for recommending this multiple times, even when it seemed I wasn’t listening.
Best Discovery: Nancy Mitford (1904-1973). Like last year’s pick, Josephine Tey, Nancy Mitford is one of those 1930–1940s British writers who is not much read or discussed in the United States but seem to have a bit of an underground following when you start looking into them. Her novels didn’t blow me away, but they are great comfort reads if you like snarky books about life among the upper classes in the English countryside. Start with her first two classics on the Radlett family: The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate.
Biggest Surprise: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. I wasn’t particularly intrigued by this title, and I loathe the idea of fan fiction in any form; however, I kept hearing about it, so when The Readers picked it as the first selection for their podcast book club, I knew I had to finally succumb. I was glad I did, as it was everything I had hoped The Penelopiad would be and more. The story of Achilles and the Trojan War told from the point of view of Patroclus, boyhood friend and one true love, this is an incredibly moving tale that made me want to run out and immediately reread The Iliad. Even knowing the story and how it ends, this book had me crying as I witnessed the inevitable unfold. The Orange Prize was certainly well deserved.
Biggest Surprise (runner-up): House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III. I received this from a co-worker who couldn’t get into it, proclaiming it slow and boring. I vaguely remembered the movie and was worried I might agree. But instead of being the lit fic I was dreading, it was actually a fairly compelling literary thriller. It is also a great example of a story narrated from multiple viewpoints where both are presented in a sympathetic way.
Biggest Accomplishment: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. This should surprise no one since I claimed back in June that this book “sucked away much of January and just a little bit of my soul.” The fact that I made it through to the end, to the lighthouse as it were, despite really wanting to throw in the beach towel, was truly an accomplishment.
Longest: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving (615 pages). I wish I could have said this was War and Peace, but no. Still, this was the top vote-getter in my readers’ choice poll last December, so I’m glad I got through it. It took me awhile to get into the story, both because of its non-linear narrative and the use of ALL CAPS for Owen’s voice, which drove me crazy. However, unlike so many other books, it actually comes together at the end, rather than falling apart. I totally understand why it is a favorite for so many people and I ended up buying a permanent copy (along with two other Irving favorites) for my bookshelves.
Funniest: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson. I lost track of how many times I laughed out loud while reading this book. If you don’t recognize the name of Jenny Lawson, you might know her better as The Bloggess, or simply the author of the story about Beyoncé the metal chicken that floated around social media awhile back. You’ll find that story here as well as many more about her crazy upbringing and life in Texas, including how she met her long-suffering husband Victor. I have no idea how much of this memoir is true, but it is truly a funny read.
Most Useful: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. The title of this book is deceiving: While focused on introversion, Quiet is actually about the rise of the cult of personality in the US and the dangers of the resulting extrovert ideal. It relies on a variety of studies about leadership effectiveness, problem solving, etc. to show that the imbalance in extrovert/introvert spaces is counter-productive, particularly in the corporate world, but also how this imbalance has filtered down into education. Unlike many self-improvement books I have read lately, it both examines the problem and offers solutions, offering tips and strategies for the workplace, classroom, and even parenting.
Most Disappointing (tie): The Dud Avocado by Elaine Brody and Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick. I looked forward to reading both of these for my “Paris” book salon, but neither lived up to its promise nor took full advantage of the amazing setting (1950s Paris). And I couldn’t sympathize with either main character. I wouldn’t recommend either of these to anyone without a particular interest in books set in the City of Light. The Paris interlude in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love was much more satisfying.
Most Heartbreaking: Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters by Joan Ryan. Heartbreaking both for the story it tells and the fact that it has forever altered how I view these two sports, which have traditionally been among my favorites in the Olympic Games. Of course, I suspected much of it, but to be confronted with the details and extent of what goes into making champions was appalling and sobering. I wish I could be assured that things have changed since this study was written in the early 1990s, but I suspect not a lot has.
Favorite Series: The Patrik Hedström/Erika Falck series by Camilla Läckberg. Läckberg slipped a little with The Preacher (#2) but redeemed herself with The Stonecutter (#3). Of course, it would be hard to match the thrill of discovering The Ice Princess (#1), but I look forward to continuing the adventures of Patrik and Erica as the remaining five books are made available in the US. It makes me very sad that the UK has six of these volumes available and we only have the first three, especially since The Stonecutter ended on a cliffhanger.
Best in Crime: Now You See Me (Lacey Flint #1) by S. J. Bolton. What attracted me to this story was the Jack the Ripper element, which I felt really elevated this from the standard crime novel. However, that also meant a few scenes were more gruesome than I’d like. But it was definitely a page turner. Dead Scared (Lacey Flint #2) was less gruesome, but even more creepy; however, I was a bit disappointed about the lack of reference to the action in the first book, and it was frustrating to see no real progression in the relationship between Joesbury and Flint, which is ultimately why I couldn’t select this as my favorite series. Still, I’m eager to see if there will be a third book and where these characters might end up.
Best in Creepy: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I wouldn’t want to spoil this for anyone so let me just say it kept me up half the night. The dueling narratives worked well and made for fascinating reading. Just when I thought I knew where it was going, I did not. It’s a well-written thriller full of clever ideas and creepy as all hell without being gruesome.
Best in Apocalypse: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. The Twelve by Justin Cronin was winning this hands down until I closed out the year with Atwood. There are actually many similarities between the two: genetic experiments gone wrong, abandoned buildings and scavenging for food, dangerous beasts, etc. However, Atwood would win this by virtue of reasonable length alone, not to mention her wonderful prose.
Best in Agatha Christie Rip-Offs Homages: Ten by Gretchen McNeil. One might think that since And Then There Were None is my favorite Agatha Christie I might not like this modern retelling, but I very much enjoyed it. Set in Seattle, it adds the additional YA layer of a teenager surviving high school cliques, all while cleverly skewering horror movie clichés. Sure, Christie and 13 Reasons Why did it better, but this was a fun read.
Best in Making Me Want to Do Something Crazy, Like Hike the PCT: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. This book was initially difficult for me to read due to the fact that the author’s loss of her mother in her early 20s (which prompted the trek) hit a little too close to home. Thankfully, in my case, heroin was not involved. I like to think that even back then I would never have attempted to hike alone, but the lesson here is never underestimate where grief will take you. Strayed was woefully unprepared for the task ahead, and at times I wanted to throttle her for her foolishness, but ultimately I sympathized with her. The story is well told and extremely compelling; it had me alternating between really wanting to hike the PCT and never wanting to hike the PCT.
Best in Making Me Happy I Didn’t Live in San Francisco during the 70s: Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love by David Talbot. This book taught me a lot about my adopted hometown, from the Summer of Love to the AIDS epidemic, and the political, social, and cultural leaders who shaped these decades. This included a number of stories I saw unfold growing up (Patty Hearst, Jim Jones) without even realizing how they were connected to the city, as well as those I had never even heard of (the frightening “Zebra” murders). Talbot provides an easy-to-read context for key events and players in the city’s development and I recommend this for anyone interested in California history or progressive politics.
Hardest to Finish: Middlemarch by George Eliot. You might think this would be War and Peace, but, while I actually liked what I read in War and Peace, Middlemarch just didn’t grab me at all. Despite that, I’m contemplating trying again in March for Classically Challenged.
Total books read: 62
Books borrowed from the library: 53 (86%)
Books on my shelves as of January 1, 2012: 5 (8%)
Books acquired from friends: 2 (3%)
Audiobooks: 5 (8%)
Classics (Prior to 1945): 10 (16%)
Recent Books (2010-2012): 31 (50%)
Fiction vs. Nonfiction: 49 (79%) vs. 13 (21%)
Female authors vs. Male authors: 35 (56%) vs. 27 (44%)
New World (Americas) vs. Old World (Europe): 36 (58%) vs. 26 (42%)
Books in translation: 6 (10%)
Did you meet the reading goals you set for this year? What was your favorite book of the year?