The Books I Loved in 2012–Fiction

It’s always a good feeling to look back over the books I’ve read or listened to and see how varied they were. I also often remember the season when I read a book–whether it was hot or cold and if I read a book on vacation, it often recalls the place. I used to listen to Terri Gross on NPR every afternoon when I was commuting a long distance in the late 1990s. There are still places on the Garden State Parkway where I can recall the details of an interview, hear Terri’s voice and the voice of her interviewee. Funny how the mind makes those connections permanent.

So here goes my list from 2012–fiction first, nonfiction in the next post. I read a mix of new books, so not everything is from 2012. They’re not arranged in any order. I read more fiction than nonfiction this year; I’m hoping to change that in 2013. You can see all the books I read this year on Goodreads. (link)  Comments always welcome!

Some day I’ll do the other list we all have–what I wanted to read but didn’t get to.

Fiction: 
Toby’s Room by Pat Barker. 2012. Barker’s a great writer and this is one of her best. It follows the same cast of characters as her previous novel, Life Class, and coves some of the same time period; we learn more about the characters and subjects that were only touched upon are expanded. No one writes about World War I the way Barker does–the anguish of the soldiers, the trauma that follows them home, the anger, and the pointlessness of it all. Most of the characters are the artists we met in Life Class, and Barker combines art and war in the most startling and dramatic ways. There are some very powerful scenes in the novel–they’re almost painted on the page in some of the most vivid prose I’ve encountered. If you’ve read her Regeneration trilogy, you’ll know what I mean. Some of the characters and scenes from those books still haunt me.

The Risk Pool by Richard Russo. 1988. At a talk I gave a few years ago, a guy in the audience raved on and on about this book and since I’ve enjoyed Russo before, I picked up a copy. It’s wonderful, so sorry it took me so long to get to it. It’s filled with terrific one-liners that ring so true you wonder why you didn’t think them up yourself. Well, there’s a reason. It’s a coming of age story with no plot, but who needs a plot with characters like these? There’s more about the novel in this post.

Fobbit by David Abrams. 2012. Reviewers were calling this a Catch-22 for the Iraq War; it’s in that vein, but on a smaller canvas. Very good. Publishers always like to provide a “hook” for readers, a readalike, particularly to a well-known author or book. That’s  what the marketing folks love to do, but this book stands on its own very nicely. I’m sure that this novel, and the one below, will be among the iconic books about the Iraq War.

Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. 2012. This is the other kind of war novel– also about the Iraq War–the kind that’s painful but necessary. Beautifully written, not a word out of place; haunting. Two young soldiers, the older one promises to protect the younger. You know you’re in the presence of a remarkable writer from the opening, much quoted sentence: “The war tried to kill us in the spring.”

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. 2012. There’s been a vogue lately for setting novels in several time periods and places, then tying it all up. For me, it doesn’t often work. It works here! In the hands of a lesser author, this story would be a frilly thing, hardly worth bothering about: starlets and superstars, romantic Italians, Hollywood sleaze–what, I’m reading this? It works and works wonderfully because Walter creates real people who have desires, suffer, remember, and love intensely. I want to read it again for the first time.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. 2009. I’ve had a signed copy of this on my nightstand since it was published and despite my love of Verghese’s memoirs, I didn’t get around to reading it until this year, well, actually I listened to it. I guess I was afraid it couldn’t match My Own Country. It is wonderful; Verghese creates fabulous characters that will break your heart and an expansive, almost mythical story to match. It’s set in Ethiopia and New York. Some people I spoke to about the book felt that it lost steam in the NY portions–not so! I loved it from first page to last.  The audio version was marvelous; the reader created separate voices and personalities for each character. A treat.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. 2012. If I tell you what this is about, you won’t read it, so just read it. It’s the book you need to read to make you a better person. I’ve been lending my copy to anyone who’s breathing.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. 2012. For a classics junkie like me, reading this book was like eating candy.  Miller retells the story of the Iliad from the point of view of Patroclus. There’s more about it here in my earlier post.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. 2011. So much better than Beasts of the Southern Wild. Sorry to all you fans, but I found the movie horrifying–for me it was an hour and a half about child abuse. I couldn’t see beyond that. Salvage the Bones is also about trauma, but so beautifully written, a powerful story with a brilliantly-written character at its center. National Book Award Winner, 2011.

A Land More Kind than Home by Wiley Cash. 2012. Southern gothic at its best, about a snake-handling preacher and the family he ruins. Structurally, almost a perfect novel, it’s told in several voices, each one necessary and distinct.

How it All Began by Penelope Lively. 2012. I’m a big fan of Lively’s novels and have read most of them. I love the way she takes an event and shows how the results form a widening pool of consequences, based on her characters’ personalities and proclivities. In fact, one of her novels is titled Consquences–a favorite of mine. This one follows the consequences of a mugging and how it affects the victim, her family, and the people she knows. Lively is a master at creating compelling, empathetic, unusual characters and setting them loose on the page. Here’s a link to my post on the book

A Different Sky by Meira Chand. 2011. A great, sweeping historical novel about Singapore in the twentieth century. I love historical novels where you learn history effortlessly, caught up in how the characters are tossed about by impersonal historical, political, and social forces. I’m surprised that this novel didn’t get more attention; Chand provides all of that and more. I visited Singapore and now when I think back to that visit, I see a slightly different city because of this novel. Here’s a link to my post on the novel.

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje. 2011. An unusual, haunting coming of age novel that must be close to memoir, it’s so vivid. I wrote more about it in this post.

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