[As each year comes to a close, we ask our contributors to give us their favorite books from the past 12 months---and we let a few older ones slip in, too. You can follow the entries through the rest of the year here, and check out the picks from 2009, 2010, and 2011 while you're at it.]
I spent most of 2012 wishing I could put down my current disappointing book in favor of the next disappointing book. Many novels I read this year were just plain bad (and not even worth mention), while others were overhyped and overlauded to the point of absurdity. (See the corrective C4 review of The Yellow Birds, and my own.)
Only two 2012 novels really surprised me: partly because they were so much better than I expected, and partly because they both come from Texas.
One of them I read for review, and then immediately reread off the clock just because I couldn’t help myself. That was Stephen Graham Jones’ Growing Up Dead in Texas. Jones has had some success as a genre writer, but here he steps into literary … well, literary everything. The plot concerns a (fictional) 1985 cotton fire that devastated a small West Texas cotton town. Stephen Graham Jones, the semi-fictionalized writer, returns to present-day Greenwood, his childhood home, to write the story of the fire and subsequent events (a fatal car wreck, a school bus shooting). He reconnects with and interviews the major players, and also fills the reader in, bit by bit, on his own past. But is the writer who he really says he is?
This book is literary fiction, memoir, true crime and good old fashioned whodunit in one package. Highly recommended, and the best book I read this year.
The other Texas book that hit home for me was Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the strongest (so far) novel to come out of the Iraq War. What’s more impressive about that is that the book is set almost entirely at Texas Stadium during a Thanksgiving Day Cowboys game, where Billy Lynn and the rest of his unit are being honored for heroism displayed during an intense firefight. Billy, already physically and emotionally exhausted from battle, is subjected to various meet-and-greets with George W. Bush-like Texas conservative hawks, and during walks around the stadium he soaks up American culture with fresh eyes and comes to wonder if it’s worth fighting for. (Hint: It’s not.)
This one is a rich satire, laugh out loud funny (for real), but also at times devastating. Very much unlike The Yellow Birds, it deserved its spot on the NBA finalist list.
At times in Crossbones, a very solid (non-Texas) novel, it’s painfully clear that English is not Nuruddin Farah’s native language. At other times you’ll marvel at how someone can write so beautifully in what is actually his fifth language. Crossbones is the third novel in a trilogy, but you need not have read the first two. It concerns a missing Somali-American boy who disappears from Minneapolis (a Somali stronghold), ostensibly to become a jihadi, and is followed to the Horn of Africa by various relatives—including a journalist hoping to get a good story from his ancestral, war-riven nation. Death, danger, political upheaval; this one has it all. It was published (almost off the radar) in hardcover in 2011, but Penguin is making a huge media push for it in paperback, which is the only reason it came into my hands. It’s worth a read, and as such will be duly ignored by Americans.
Love Slave by Jennifer Spiegel rounds out my list. (C4 review) Spiegel is a friendly acquaintance, so I was predisposed to enjoy it for what I assumed it would be—a chick-littish narrative that I would forget as soon as I put it down. Instead of that, Love Slave turns out to be an engaging look at 90s-era Manhattan from an advice columnist yearning for more out of life (steady career, maybe grad school), but who is afraid of leaving the Village (which she considers the center of American, maybe global, culture).
Reviewers have likened it to Sex and the City, but Spiegel digs much deeper, and the results are much more amusing and affecting.
Sadly, that’s about it for 2012. I could go on and on about why x book was disappointing and y book sucked and z book was absurdly and inexplicably overhyped, but we’ve all got better uses for our time.
Before closing I’d like to tip my hat to a 2010 book that I finally got around to this year, and which really had some balls—Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne. Donate some time to it in 2013. And if you like it, note that Wayne has a new one coming out in February. I’ve read the first couple of chapters—so far it’s a bit of a mess, but here’s to hoping it’ll make this space next year.