The Best Books Read in 2012

Submitted just as the window of year-end reminiscences is closing, this post is my chance to look back at the dozen books that stood out most for me in 2012. I hit some kind of reading slump toward the end of the year, my pace of matching 2011’s total of 60-plus books, well in reach around summertime, taking a hit late to settle for 53 books. Better luck in 2013, I guess. Coming up with this list wasn’t too difficult, nor was selecting one of the 12 as my favorite of the year. It was a book I read early in the year, and nothing I read in the remaining months came (anywhere) close to matching it for ambition, scope, and resonance.

Drum roll, please…


Shortly after Steve Erickson’s These Dreams of You was published at the end of January, I traveled to Brooklyn to hear the author speak at a wonderful bookstore called BookCourt. During the discussion, Erickson suggested that this novel, his ninth, might be his last, having run out of things to say and the wherewithal to say them. And though I’d only read one other Erickson novel (Zeroville), I told him after during the book signing that I understood what he meant: These Dreams of You feels summational; it feels like everything is in it. What else is there to add?

I have rarely read a novel that is so fervently rooted in the present day and didn’t inherently marginalize itself. How many books have we all read where characters muse about some piece of technology or lament what they see on the news and it all feels instantly dated? D.O.A.? “Those kids with their Tweeter and their blogging!”

These Dreams of You couldn’t be more contemporary, more tied to our current age, and it couldn’t feel any more urgent. It’s a book I really needed to read this year, so much so that it often felt like Zan Nordhoc’s inner ramblings were connected somehow to my own. I suspect a lot of people will feel that way (perhaps more if you voted for Obama, but will the Nordhocs’ anxieties about foreclosure and our country’s direction resonate any less with a hardcore red-stater?).

Besides, this book isn’t about Barack Obama or his policies. That would be too easy. It’s about what he represented at that precise moment in November 2008, thousands of strangers in giddy, teary disbelief in a Chicago park where 40 years before there was rioting. “It’s a country that does things in lurches,” Erickson writes. “Born in radicalism and then reluctant for years, decades, the better part of centuries, to do anything crazy, until it does the craziest thing of all. But it’s also a country – inherent in its genes — capable of imagining what cannot be imagined and then, once it’s imagined, doing it.”

It’s about what seemed possible before the less inspiring reality of incremental progress, the slow burn of governance, settled in. Already Obama’s election night has become mythologized, paved over, rendered a piece of idealistic claptrap in a world where we have young men shooting up movie theaters and elementary schools. But it happened. And it matters that it happened. Are we worthy of the moment? And if the president fails to live up to the magnitude of the moment, is it entirely his fault?  How culpable will we be?

Even that feels like a gross cheapening of the novel, though. It’s not really about politicians and whatever ideals we place in them. It’s much simpler than that. More than any other book I’ve read recently, These Dreams of You taps into base-level anxieties of identity and uncertainty that seem to be part and parcel of living in 21st-century America. Over the course of 300 pages, Erickson will systematically strip away everything that matters to Zan Nordhoc — his job, his house, his country, and one by one, his family — until he sobs, lying bloodied on a foreign street, “I know I did something wrong, but I don’t know what.” Is there a sentiment more relevant to our times than that?

Word on the street is that this is Erickson’s most accessible novel (always a dirty word), that his early works indulged in buckets of Pynchonian surreality and metafictional wordplay and that These Dreams of You is Erickson diluted, Erickson for beginners. Maybe that’s true. But any book that features Robert Kennedy, David Bowie, and an adopted Ethiopian girl who can transmit radio waves from her head as important characters cannot be said to be fixed in reality. It is a book told in short, fragmented sections that wind around and offer ideas at a torrential pace; readers will likely finish the book feeling like they emerged from some kind of fever dream.

What else can I say? I care very much about the fate of this country and These Dreams of You helped contextualize it for me. I have read the final page of this book at least a half-dozen times since last January. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Are you sold yet?


And here are the other 11 books that stand as the best I read in 2012 (in alphabetical order by author):

TheMiddlesteinsHCcoverThe Middlesteins (2012), by Jami Attenberg

One of the rare books I think would have benefited from greater length, The Middlesteins is a story about a family whose matriarch, Edie Middlestein, has given up any semblance of weight control. Attenberg smartly structures her novel as a collection of short pieces so that we can see how Edie’s reckless obesity affects every member of her family, from her husband, who gives up watching his wife eat herself to death and leaves her, to her daughter-in-law, so terrified of Edie’s weight that she feeds her kids nothing but vegetables, to her daughter Robin, whose stint as a fat girl has left her as an adult with a towering fury at the world. The portraits are so finely sketched I felt (and wished) Attenberg could have plumbed some more.

mrsbridgelgMrs. Bridge (1959), by Evan S. Connell

Best known for its distinctive stylistic approach of small 1-3 page thumbnail sketches, this quiet novel is a great example of how storytelling can be about the smallest things and still contain multitudes. Connell doesn’t describe India Bridge so much as paint all around her, trusting the reader to tease out the full portrait. And for fans of Revolutionary Road and Mad Men, this novel may feel like buried treasure. I look forward to reading its companion volume, Mr. Bridge, later this year.

Lifespan-Of-A-Fact-CoverThe Lifespan of a Fact (2012), by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal

Other than being an ingeniously-designed book that is proof positive that e-readers aren’t always the best method of delivery, The Lifespan of a Fact made me think long and hard about how I approach what I read. The backstory: D’Agata was commissioned to write an essay on the suicide of a teenager in Las Vegas; Fingal was asked to copy-edit it. It was a contentious process that took years to finish, the established, genre-bending author pushing back on the fact-checker’s more rigid ideas of Fact and Truth (in one case, D’Agata fudges the certified time it took the boy to fall from the building, because his number sounds better for literary reasons).  D’Agata stakes out a territory somewhere between fiction and nonfiction and argues that the essay form almost requires the manipulation of facts in order to make the author’s vision appear true. And by the end, he’s become awfully persuasive.


The Fault in Our Stars (2012), by John Green

I’d call this the best young adult novel I read all year, but then again I only read 2 or 3. But I think it’s fair to say that even if I’d read dozens more, The Fault in Our Stars would still have topped it. This is John Green’s best novel to date, a real step forward after a trio of opening novels that seemed like variations on each other, and it’s already achieved canonical status among book professionals. Given its mawkish premise, it’s a story that could have gone off the rails to Saccahrine-ville any number of times, but Green keeps the whole thing on track. There is also a sex scene in here that is so good, it must be some kind of breakthrough for teen fiction (adult fiction, too, for that matter). I reviewed this book here.

Catch-22Catch-22 (1960), by Joseph Heller

It took a couple false starts, but once I got settled into Joseph Heller’s classic satire of war and bureaucracy, I found it as darkly humorous and brilliantly assembled as its reputation. When Heller was told later in life that he hadn’t written anything as good as Catch-22, he responded by saying that nobody else had, either. The novel appeared sui generis, and 50-plus years on, it still feels unique. I read this for the Time Magazine project; my thoughts can be found here.

the-executioners-songThe Executioner’s Song (1979), by Norman Mailer

Gary Gilmore was an undistinguished murderer the state of Utah killed off more than 30 years ago, notable only for being the first person put to death after the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in the mid-70s. Most people my age have probably never heard of him. But in Norman Mailer’s definitive, groundbreaking account of Gilmore’s killing spree, his decision not to appeal his sentence, and the three-ring media circus leading up to his death, Gilmore is given a sympathetic, scarily comprehensive treatment he couldn’t have imagined. Mailer and researcher/producer Lawrence Schiller turn over every rock, talk to seemingly every figure in Gilmore’s orbit (including the media and law enforcement), and after adding some poetic touches that would land this book in the fiction section of most libraries, deliver a mammoth portrait of America circa 1979 that is hard to shake off.  In his preface for a newly-released edition, Dave Eggers calls this “the fastest 1,000 pages you will ever know.” He’s not far off: Mailer writes in staccato bursts that prove addictive. It’s unlike anything he ever wrote, and it’s as chilling and revealing a book as you will ever read.

The AssistantThe Assistant (1958), by Bernard Malamud

Bernard Malamud may be America’s most unfairly neglected literary author (on a shortlist, anyway) and I suspect it’s because his stern morality plays and cast of sad-sack immigrant characters feel out of step with the times. Too bad. I was greatly impressed with The Assistant, as I was with his acclaimed short story collection The Magic Barrel a couple years ago. Malamud’s stories are exercises in restraint and in craft. I found myself invested in the sad, almost biblical tale of the Bobers, and I think the primary reason was because of how unadorned and sturdy Malamud’s prose is.  This was read as part of the Time Magazine project; my write-up can be found here.

where-d-you-goWhere’d You Go, Bernadette? (2012), by Maria Semple

Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette was a breath of fresh air published late in summer, a fiendishly clever, light-hearted romp through tech-haven Seattle that I couldn’t resist. Semple, a former writer for Arrested Development, brings the same level of heart and zaniness fans of that show are accustomed to.  I even offered up some blurbs for Little, Brown to use for the paperback edition; alas, I have not heard from them.

White TeethWhite Teeth (2000), by Zadie Smith

Read as part of the Time Magazine project, Zadie Smith’s debut novel is one I was glad to finally move into the Completed column after a long gestation period on my shelf. Greeted with nearly unsustainable hype upon its release, White Teeth manages to live up to it anyway. Published when Smith was just 24, she has since begun to streamline her work more and more (her new novel, NW, is said to be a conscious departure from White Teeth’s expansiveness), but WT moves with scary confidence and is told in a whip-smart voice that feels fresh 12 years on. My write-up for this novel is here.

9780316129312This Bright River (2012), by Patrick Somerville

A true shaggy dog story, Somerville’s novel is filled with stories and characters who love to tell stories, a surely intentional switch-up from the fable-like compactness of his debut novel, The CradleThis Bright River indulges in narrative dead-ends and sideplots, until you realize how structured Somerville’s novel truly is, and that the disparate strands really are leading up to a grand denouement. And while the climax is suitably memorable, I found myself most impressed with the book’s luxurious pace and good humor. To borrow a stock critic phrase from Amazon customer reviews, I just enjoyed hanging out with these characters. My full review for this book can be found here.

13144793Dirt (2012), by David Vann

Here’s the creepiest story I read all year, narrowly edging out Adam Rapp’s supposed YA novel The Children and the Wolves (which involves three teenagers keeping a 4-year-old hostage in a basement). I don’t even know what I want to say about it; it was just an experience. Galen, the protagonist, is such a little shit with his faux-mysticism and his never-ending reservoir of New Age goop, it’s a wonder I didn’t throw this book across the room. But Vann’s novel moves with such careful momentum, a creeping and irresistible dread, that I couldn’t stop reading. If you have any interest in “liking” or “identifying with” or “relating to” characters in a novel, you can safely skip this one. One is always reluctant to connect an author’s personal biography with his work, but Vann has made no secrets about his traumatic upbringing; I think anyone who could conjure up this familial nightmare has some demons to work out.

My past selections for Best Reads of the Year:

2005: The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss
2006: The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier
2007: American Pastoral, by Philip Roth
2008: The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien
2009: Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner
2010: Remainder, by Tom McCarthy
2011: Libra, by Don DeLillo

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