I’ve kept a running list all year--so the books listed appear here in the order in which I read them, starting in January of 2012.
1. The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing & Life – by Ann Patchett I’ve read everything Ann Patchett’s ever written—fiction and non—and while I bow down to her in both arenas, I will put down whatever I’m reading to read her non-fiction the minute it’s published. She has a bookstore in Nashville now, and a blog (joy!) so there’s even more of Ann for me to love. The Getaway Car was a quickie—a long essay, more than a memoir—but a wonderful way for writers or readers to get the new year started right. (And I just noticed it's available on Kindle right now for $2.51)
2. Half a Life – by Darin Strauss
If you’ve ever listened to the radio program This American Life, you’re familiar with the honest, unsentimental voicing of personal narrative that is its signature. Parts of this memoir (I learned after reading it) were originally broadcast on This American Life, and that makes perfect sense to me. In it, Strauss pieces back together the emotional fallout from one tragic event that happened in the final months of his senior year of high school, when he accidentally struck and killed a classmate who veered in front of his vehicle on her bike. If you’re the type of person who reads memoirs and gets annoyed at the author because surely you would never have reacted like that—you might want to skip this one. If you can accept grief and guilt and the many, often unpoetic, ways it manifests—this is a unique and compelling read.
3. Left Neglected – by Lisa Genova
I stayed up late into the night finishing this novel about a high-powered, type-A working mom who is forced to reevaluate her life when a car accident leaves her severely brain damaged, suffering from a rare neurological condition called Left Neglect. The novel doesn’t go deep, however. While the writing was tight and the story well paced, the end result was more Lifetime movie than serious literature. Still—there’s nothing wrong with a little Lifetime movie every now and then.
4. The Book Thief – by Markus Zusak
If you haven’t read this, you must. It’s wonderful. This review of it by Janet Maslin made me irate, wherein she totally missed the beauty and magic of this gorgeous, gorgeous novel. I’ve read a fair amount of young adult fiction, and in almost every instance I’ve found it impossible to shake the feeling that this is a book for teenagers. Not so with The Book Thief. It’s just a great story, beautifully told. Destined to become a classic.
5. A Visit from the Goon Squad – by Jennifer Egan
I loved this book while I was reading it, and I thought about it for weeks afterward, because the form was so different from any novel I’ve ever read. The book’s description on Amazon didn’t appeal to me at all, and I typically shy away from novels that have the critics peeing all over themselves with delight, but when I find a lone copy of a new bestseller at McKay, I can’t help myself. It’s like winning a lottery I never entered. So I read it. And what Jennifer Egan did here—with time and intersecting narratives—is an amazing feat.
6. How to Write an Inspired Creative Brief - by Howard Ibach
I read it for work. It was recommended to us by one of our art directors in Memphis, and while parts of it were kind of, sort of helpful (kind of, sort of), it fell short in the way that most business advice books do: telling me how to think and behave in a perfect way … under near perfect conditions, with a brazen disregard for the fact that 99.9 percent of the time, THAT AIN’T HOW SHIT ROLLS.
7. Always We Begin Again – by John McQuiston II
This one’s a bit of a gem. My mother in law introduced me to it—she keeps hers by her bedside and takes it with her while she travels. McQuiston was a busy attorney who wanted to uncover the secret to living a truly balanced life. What resonated with him was the rule of St. Benedict—which he's interpreted and restated here for a modern readership. A keeper.
8. Girl Walks Into a Bar – by Rachel Dratch
I read this on a business trip to Chicago—and I laughed out loud on an elliptical machine in the tiny hotel gym at six in the morning. Dratch’s humor is the humble kind—self-deprecating, but not self-loathing. She’s the kind of person I’d love to meet at a cocktail party where I didn’t know a soul.
9. Holy Hunger – by Margaret Bullitt-Jonas
Oh, you know, just your run-of-the-mill memoir about the daughter of raging alcoholics who becomes an Episcopal priest and practitioner of 12-step spirituality to overcome years of debilitating food addiction. If that’s your cup of tea (and whose cup of tea isn't it, really?), this is worth the read.
10. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – by Stieg Larsson
I liked it. I heard a few other people did too. My friend Betsy was turned off by the ending—and all the sandwiches. I agree, the characters in this book eat a lot of sandwiches. And the first 50 pages were a bit of a slog, but after that it settled into a fast-paced movie-scape, which I probably don’t need to tell you, because I was the last person in America to finally read it.
11. The Gift of Fear - by Gavin de Becker
My friend Amy recommended this to me one day, and I finished it that night. De Becker is an expert in how to predict violent behavior. He’s worked for government officials, celebrities, police departments, and battered women’s shelters—and he says that our intuition or “gut instinct” is not just an emotional response , but a logical, unconscious reading of cues and patterns that are harbingers of danger. Trusting your gut, he says, can save your life. And he gives many real world examples of how.
12. The Beginner’s Goodbye – by Anne Tyler
The main character in this book reminded me a lot of Macon Leary from The Accidental Tourist—and the two novels have a lot of thematic parallels. If you liked one, you’ll like the other—though this was the softer and quieter of the two.
13. Look At Me – by Jennifer Egan
With a Visit from the Goon Squad still fresh in my mind, I was craving some more brain bending genius from Jennifer Egan. In Look at Me, a fashion model (Charlotte Swenson) is horribly disfigured in a car accident, and once her face is reconstructed, she returns to her Manhattan life still (inexplicably) beautiful but completely unrecognizable. It was an interesting book, and like Goon Squad, uniquely constructed, but the characters seemed soulless to me. By the end, I wanted to shake Charlotte and scream, “It’s LOVE, you moron. LOVE IS THE MEANING OF LIFE. I THOUGHT WE’VE BEEN OVER THIS.” The novel got around to making that point eventually, but not before I came to detest everyone in it.
14. The Marriage Plot – by Jeffrey Eugenides
I loved this book, but I can see how someone might not. While the story is ultimately about love, and idealism, and the pursuit of ideas, the humor is very specific to liberal arts academia—and I’d be curious to hear from anyone who’s not coming from that kind of education whether this book resonated with them.
15. Cutting for Stone – by Abraham Verghese
Another one that’s destined to be a classic. Straight-up awesome storytelling, beautifully written.
16. Born Standing Up – by Steve Martin
I typed a note to myself when I finished this back in June. “Martin is so quiet and reserved on the page. I kept wondering why I was enjoying this, when there was no dramatic tension to speak of, except for the strained relationship between him and his father. It held me lightly, but in the end—a great payoff.” So. There’s a payoff at the end of this quiet, reserved book. And I can’t for the life of me remember what it was.
17. I’m Dancing As Fast I Can – by Barbara Gordon
Hoo boy. This one. I really hate to be critical of books, especially memoirs, but I have to call shenanigans here. This book has been translated into many languages (and made into a feature film), so clearly its Emmy award winning author is doing just fine without my blessing. But for me what promised to be a fascinating story of anxiety, addiction and redemption devolved into a mental health emergency caper run amok. I can actually envision the whole thing starring Miss Piggy. Absent was the deep reflection and introspection that make for great memoirs, and the writing was so overwrought in places that I actually laughed out loud, though I'm certain it was not intended to be funny.
18. Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violet Faith – by Jon Krakauer
I read this just before our summer trip to Utah, and it was fascinating, if a bit heavy on historical detail (places, shmaces TELL ME MORE ABOUT THE CRAZIES, Jonny!).
19. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar – by Cheryl Strayed
I’d heard of—but never read—Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed’s advice column at therumpus.net. I stumbled on this collection of her columns at this awesome little book store in Park City, Utah, and I didn’t put it down until I finished it at home in Nashville later that night. This book is what happens when you toss Dear Abby into the deep end. It was all I could do not to eat the pages.
20. Torch – by Cheryl Strayed
Torch is Strayed’s autobiographical novel, about a mother of two teenage children who is diagnosed with end-stage terminal cancer. Torch was written before Strayed’s memoir Wild became an Oprah selection and runaway hit—and they cover some of the same ground—though the novel centers entirely on the mother’s death and immediate aftermath. Torch is heartbreaking, and so well written. My mother gave it to me right after Patrick was born, and I put it down because I couldn’t read it without crying. After reading Dear Sugar, I decided to pick it up again, and I’m glad I did. Wild is next on my list.
21. The Four Agreements – by Don Miguel Ruiz
I'm way late to the party as usual. I feel like kind of a doofus whenever I talk about popular self-help books like this, but the four agreements are good messages that bear repeating. Be impeccable with your word. Don’t take anything personally. Don’t make assumptions. And always do your best. Tough to argue with.
22. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk - by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
Ha ha ha ... oh me. I just—yeah. My new year’s resolution is to not read any more parenting books, and possibly to write my own parenting book entitled "Every Strategy Works For a Little While, But Then It All Falls to Shit So Why Bother?"
23. Arcadia - by Lauren Groff
Hippy commune goes to hell in a stunning and cinematic handbasket. This is another one I read over the course of one weekend. Lauren Groff is a virtuoso.
24. Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake – by Anna Quindlen
Anna Quindlen is one of my heroes, and her most recent collection of essays did not disappoint. I had the pleasure of reading the whole thing in one glorious sitting, thanks to our neighbors Kortney and Dave taking the kids for an entire afternoon-long adventure. I advise you to be a cliché. Grab that cup of tea and a blanket, and enjoy the hell out of this book.
25. A Widow’s Story – by Joyce Carol Oates
I don’t know what it is with me and the grief memoirs. Maybe it’s the equivalent of me throwing open the closet door instead of cowering in bed just wondering if there’s a boogeyman. I’ve never been able to read Joyce Carol Oates’s fiction, sensing this sort of cool remove she has from her always dark subject matter. But this memoir, about the death of her husband, partner, and best friend—might have changed that. There was so much truth and humanity and vulnerability here, the fact that one critic (surprise, surprise, it's Janet Maslin again) dismissed the whole book out of hand because Oates remarried within a year is maddening and absurd.
26. The Handmaid’s Tale – by Margaret Atwood
I don’t think dystopian fiction is my bag. While the premise of this classic novel was compelling (and somewhat frightening as my reading coincided with the firestorm of right-wing rhetoric from team Romney) I really need to root for my main character. This one felt like a vague sketch of a person (and maybe that was the point), but the whole time I was reading I desperately wanted her to show signs of, I don't know, having a soul. Or at least a personality.
27. Help Thanks Wow – by Anne Lamott
Here we have awesome Anne Lamott doing her thing once again, and doing it well. If you’ve never read her essays, you should. If you’ve read and loved all of her essays, this delivers more of the same good stuff--this time turning our attention to prayer (particularly the three essential prayers the book is named for).
28. The Leftovers – by Tom Perrotta
Tom Perrotta is an interesting author. He takes high concept storylines and packages them as literary fiction. In this case, a community is devastated when many of its residents vanish in an inexplicable “Rapture-like event”. Characters struggle with how to pick up the pieces—when there are no pieces to pick up. While the characters in The Leftovers are fairly sympathetic, they’re not easy to get close to. This is why I struggled with loving the book, though I still thought it was a worthwhile read.
29. The Night Circus - by Erin Morganstern
I hate the circus. I loved this book. It’s a beautiful, magical, grown up fairy tale with depth and heart and huge, huge, imagination. The imagery alone would have been enough to make this one of my top picks for 2012, but Morganstern does one better, delivering a thoughtful story of love and sacrifice and the illusion of a world being black and white.
30. Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University – Edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
The title is a mouthful. The book is a brain-full. GOD how I loved this collection of essays—every one shedding light on some aspect of nonfiction storytelling I’d forever wondered about. And not just the high-level philosophical stuff—but the nitty gritty, this-is-how-it’s-done stuff. Nora Ephron, Macolm Gladwell, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and dozens more Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists from the best of the best newspapers and magazines, serve up the inside scoop. I was in heaven. A great way to finish off the year.
If you’ve come this far, I hope you’ll leave your favorite reads of 2012 in the comments or share your thoughts on any of the books above. I wish each of you a wonderful new year—and happy reading in 2013.