2012 in books — Favorites

If you’re like me you’ve had your fill of year-end “best of” lists — yet you still click on those links. So, here’s the first of two posts looking back at 2012 in reading and books.

Favorite Fiction

I read a number of excellent fictional works this year, enough that I can’t say any particular one was “the best.” While a cop-out of sorts, here’s the leading candidates in alphabetical order:

Red Plenty, Francis Spufford — As I said in my review, this was a fascinating work that uses the novel as a means to tell the history of central planning in the Soviet Union’s economy in the 1960s.

We Sinners, Hanna Pylväinen — Using the unique premise of Laestadianism, a Lutheran sect, this book explores how members of a family deal with and adjust to (or not) the strict dictates of their religion. If you’re wondering what Laestadianism is, here’s Pylväinen’s explanation: “It’s a kind of Lutheranism where everyone is much more hung up on being Lutheran than all the other normal Lutherans.”

The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers — Rightfully on a number of this year’s “best of” lists, this is my Iraq war novel of the year, which says a lot considering Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Explaining why I preferred one over the other is like trying to explain why someone prefers Coke over Pepsi.

Honorable Mention: The Evening Hour by Carter Sickels; A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers; The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

Favorite Nonfiction

About half the books I read this year were nonfiction. This year I’ll join in with a number of others, including the National Book Award judges, and pick Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. Told in large part through the teen-aged Abdul, Boo’s look inside the Annawadi slum is an excellent piece of reportage.

Best Translated Work

This year marked the U.S. release of a second collection of short stories by German lawyer Ferdinand von Schirach. Once again, he gives us tales that go beyond the surface and look to the person and and often the purpose of law. Guilt: Stories is a worthwhile read for anyone, not just those interested in translated works, short stories or the law.

Honorable Mention: The Dinner, Herman Koch; The Investigation, Phillipe Claudel

Highly Praised Books That Didn’t Cut It With Me

Once again the illiterati in me was struck by the amount of praise given books I found average at best. This year’s list: Lauren Groff’s Arcadia, Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men and Laurent Binet’s HHhH.

Books Too Long for Their Own Good

Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton: A Memoir is the runaway winner — by at least 100 pages.

Books I Wish I’d Read Earlier

Normally this category is called “Books I Wish I’d Read The Year They Were Published” but given that this year’s winner is The Great Gatsby, I would have needed to have been born a couple decades before I was. I know, I know. I waited far too long.

Books remind us, again and again, that we are not alone in the world.

Nina Sankovitch

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