Posted by: Matt Compton | December 4, 2012

My favorite books of 2012


There’s a little less than a month left in 2012, and I’ve already knocked out 78 books. If I can somehow make it to 86, it will be the most productive year of reading in my life. More likely, I’ll finish around 82.

Occasionally, when I sit down to write this list, finding 10 titles can be a bit of work. Not in 2012. It’s been a remarkable year for books — particularly fiction. This year, the difficulty was all about narrowing things down, and in 2012, these are my favorites.

To write BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS, Katherine Boo spent more than three years (from November 2007 to March 2011), inside Annawadi, a Mumbai slum, watching and interviewing the people who lived there. She gave some of the residents Flip video cameras so that they could record their own observations. She dug through thousands of records. And then she sat down and wrote something that is transcendent. What this book allows us to do as readers is come closer to inhabiting the place than perhaps we have any right.

BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK by Ben Fountain takes place during the course of one football game — the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day, 2004. It follows a group of soldiers — Bravo Squad — who are getting honored at halftime for their heroics during a firefight in Iraq. It’s about privilege and war and family and sex — and everything else about which America obsesses. It’s satire, but nothing about it feels false. The world that Bravo Squad inhabits is instantly recognizable, and as smart as this books is, the way it hits you is visceral. Also, Ben Fountain is a Tar Heel.

BRING UP THE BODIES by Hilary Mantel shouldn’t be a thrill to read. Back in school, all of us were asked to learn something about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. And yet Mantel doesn’t just give the story new life — she manages to make it both taut and suspenseful. Her Thomas Cromwell is like few other characters in historical fiction — more than just smart and ambitious, he sees truths about his world in a way that’s strikingly modern.

In THE DOG STARS by Peter Heller, the world comes to an end, and the killer is a global pandemic — a flu that wipes out most of the human population. Hig — a small craft pilot — is one of the survivors, scratching out an existence at a backwoods airport in rural Colorado with a dog named Jasper and a prickly neighbor named Bangley. The setup might sound boilerplate, but the end result is something deeper. Even if Hig has to contend with marauders and the fallout from societal collapse, it’s the memories of the life he’s left behind that truly haunt him. And this novel is beautifully written — lyrical, haunting, and unforgettable.

GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn is a dark thriller as smart as it is hard to put down. A woman named Amy disappears on the anniversary of her wedding. Her husband, Nick, is immediately suspected. Hearing that, you might think you know how this plot is going to unfold, but you’re almost certainly going to be wrong. I can’t tell you the last time something I read gave me nightmares. This did.

BEAUTIFUL RUINS by Jess Walter is a very different type of book. It’s a combination of love story, satire, and clever modern piece of fiction. It jumps around in time and place — from an isolated Italian fishing village in the 1960s to Los Angeles of the present to Idaho in the 1980s. You cross paths with Richard Burton and Liz Taylor. You read some chapters as excerpts from a screen play, and others as bits of an autobiography. The whole damn mix is hilarious and wonderful.

WHERE’D YOU GO BERNADETTE by Maria Semple is undeniably clever and occasionally sublime. But above all else, it is hilarious. And you might expect that when you hear that Semple has written for Saturday Night Live and Arrested Development. But it’s hard to be prepared this epistolary novel that pieces together court documents and FBI files, high school report cards and fundraising letters — as well as more traditional correspondence from a range of characters who inhabit the tech-chic neighborhoods of Seattle. Semple sets out to skewer these people but does so with such a light touch that this book is never anything less than heartfelt.

Alan Clay was successful once, and on its surface, A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING by Dave Eggers is the story his attempt to redeem himself, or at least cobble together an identity in the absence of professional accomplishment. When the novel begins, Alan is part of a team dispatched to Saudi Arabia to pitch IT solutions for the King Abdullah Economic City — including a teleconferencing system featuring holograms of the participants. But anxious as Alan and company are to make their presentation, they’re again and again asked to wait. That in turn leaves Alan with plenty of time to ponder his life, examine his relationships with his daughter, wife, and father, and worry if the cyst in his back is cancerous. You can read this novel as a personal story of self-discovery or a broader parable of America’s place in the world, but either way, you should read it.

THE ROUND HOUSE by Louis Erdrich won this year’s National Book Award against competition so steep that the prize actually meant something. When Geraldine Coutts is raped, the tribal judge — who is also her husband — is left with more questions than answers. It matters whether or not the assault occurred on tribal land. It matters whether or not her rapist was white or Indian. And sensing that justice is slipping away, the couple’s 13 year old son — who narrates the book — decides to take the investigation into his own hands. As a coming of age story, it immediately invites comparisons to TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and in that vein, it’s perhaps Erdrich’s most accessible book. It’s also possibly her best.

THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER is a collection of nine new stories from Junot Diaz. Most of them feature Yunior — who has been a voice in each book Diaz has published. And with that, you know what to expect: a multilingual combination of impossibly cool geekery and charming bits of heartbreak, stories of immigrants coming of age and falling in and out of love. And given the title, and what we know of Yunior, you can imagine the central theme: the damage, collateral and otherwise, that comes of cheating and womanizing. This book doesn’t have the ambitions of THE BRIEF, WONDROUS LIFE OF LIFE OF OSCAR WAO (one of the best novels written in our lifetimes), but that doesn’t mean it’s anything less than devastating.


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