The Best Books We Read In 2012
I asked a bunch of writerly people what book they loved the most this year — no matter when it was published. A great list for anyone who likes to read.
Katie Notopoulos, senior editor, BuzzFeed: My favorite book was It's So Easy, by Duff McKagan. My favorite guilty-pleasure genre is '80s hair-metal band autobiographies, and thankfully there are a LOT of them. Duff McKagan is the third member of Guns 'N Roses to write one, so at this point it's like Rashomon, where you can hear the same story of the band imploding from different angles. If Axl ever writes his own book, I will camp out overnight in front of the Amazon warehouse.
Katie Heaney, contributing editor, BuzzFeed FWD: Big Machine, by Victor LaValle. Books I read in 2012 were mostly underwhelming! Big Machine was the first in a long time that was so good, I felt the need to hug it to my face afterward. I think it had everything I want: darkness but not desolation, humor, mystery, the supernatural. And a very sweet love.
Sadie Stein, deputy editor, The Paris Review: My boss introduced me to Renata Adler's Speedboat this summer, and it was love at first page. This is one of those cases that calls for the kind of "review-speak" I normally mock, because it really is unflinching! And vivid, and bitingly funny. (Luckily, not remotely "elegiac.") It's being re-released, so I hope everyone will get a chance to see for themselves.
Jenna Wortham, technology reporter, The New York Times: My pick is The Buddhist, by Dodie Bellamy. It's not the story itself — the agonizing wake of a breakup — that's so compelling. It's the way Dodie turns the body of the story, the process of untangling emotional trauma and trying to understand how we relate to each other and ourselves, into a process itself. She breaks down any sort of traditional narrative structures to weave bits of writings, real-time accounts of her days, excerpts from her blog and selfies, splaying out her thoughts, obsessions, musings. And in doing this, she invites you to pick through the aftermath in step alongside her, in the same way you might during a long, boozy brunch with your best friend.
Caterina Fake, founder, Findery.com: I finally, finally, finally read In Search of Lost Time, by Proust. That is, the first two books of the latest translation by Lydia Davis et al. I know that having read two books out of a series of five does not necessarily qualify for “having read” the book, but if reading over 700 pages doesn't qualify for something, something is wrong. It was as marvelous as it has been trumped up to be! Everything said about it is true — it's rich, sad, transporting, mysterious, and life-giving.
Natasha Vargas-Cooper, writer: I finally read Money, by Martin Amis. It was so excellent. It's so virile, grotesque, and blisteringly smart. It's great satire without being self-enamored or bogged down by cleverness. It's intelligent, not clever. It's very 20th-century stuff here all, the porno and addiction. Amis really knows how to wriggle into that sweet spot where money and humiliation meet.
Hillary Frey, editor-in-chief, Yahoo News: Mister Dog, by Margaret Wise Brown. Someone always gives you Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon when you have a kid (even Pete Campbell read it to his child on Mad Men). But her book Mister Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself is the superior weird read: a dog who “belong[s] to himself” who befriends a boy “who belong[s] to himself,” leading to an adventure involving a trip to the butcher shop and a home-cooked meal of bone soup. There's a message about being independent in there, but it's the total strangeness that makes it good and different.
Emily Gould, writer and co-proprietor of Emily Books: Ugh, this is SO HARD. But I think I will always remember this year as the year I discovered Barbara Browning and I'm Trying to Reach You. Her books aren't even just books, they're multimedia art projects — after finishing ITTRY, you can't help but fall down the rabbit hole of her YouTube dance videos and SoundCloud ukelele covers. I think I love this book so much because it contains intimations of the potential of what books can be in the future, and also because it's hilarious.
Willa Paskin, TV critic, Salon: Marjorie Morningstar, by Herman Wouk: A sort of shlocky 1950s best seller about a Jewish chick who really wants to be different but ends up turning into her mother was a devourable reminder that so many of the lady issues we think of as of the moment — having or not having it all, wacked-out male-female power dynamics, unlikable heroines, mansplaining, crap emails from dudes, ambition, sex, settling, and on and on — have been relevant for decades and decades, and the most modern thing about them is just that now we talk about them on the Internet.
Rachel Sanders, associate editor, BuzzFeed Food: I've spent most of my life to date feeling an acute sense of failure for not having read Moby Dick (my English-professor dad had a "Call Me Ishmael" bumper sticker on the back of his truck, whatever), so when I finally impulse-purchased this cute paperback edition this year, it was kind of a big deal. About four months later, I actually read it, and it was awesome. Melville's writing is WEIRD in this brilliant, almost shockingly modern way, and really funny. He also devotes a gratifying amount of time to discussing different types of chowder. If you think you don't like books about whales, you just need to read this one.
Heather Havrilesky, columnist for The Awl and author of Disaster Preparedness: Half Empty, by David Rakoff. A great essay, like a fine Italian sub, presents a symphony of textures and flavors (or anecdotes and cultural tidbits and big ideas) that leaves you saying, “Hot damn, that's tasty stuff!” David Rakoff was one of our most masterful essayists — so smart, so dark, and so unexpectedly funny. His essay on the petulant, unproductive “artists” of Rent should be stapled to every leisurely hipster wannabe's forehead from now until the end of time.
Rachel Fershleiser, director of literary outreach at Tumblr: I don't really want to get into “best,” but the book I was most evangelical about this year was Girls in White Dresses, by Jennifer Close. It's about bridesmaid dresses and bad dates, but also about how the years from 22 to 32 can be surprisingly difficult and painful, and most of your friends will make life choices you wouldn't have made and you will probably lose them. Merry Christmas!
Macy Halford, writer: I loved Colm Tóibín's new novella, The Testament of Mary, which imagines how Jesus' mother might have viewed her child and his death if the whole Immaculate Conception/son of God thing weren't actually true. The premise makes the book sound almost like atheist kitsch, but Tóibín suffuses the story with a sense of mystery and makes the reader feel (perhaps as never before) the tragedy of the crucifixion. Questions of religion become largely irrelevant as a mother's suffering over the loss of her child takes center stage.
Lauren Bans, editor, GQ: The best book I read this year was The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen, which is slightly embarrassing to admit. I'd put it off for years, because 8 billion people had warned me “it is DEPRESSING,” and I guess I was waiting to fall into the ideal mental state to take on that kind of gloom. The writing and the characters are glorious, but the atmosphere of the book is just so, so '90s — particularly Chip's hilarious postmodern musings on advertising and his dot-com entrepreneurialism. It was pretty depressing, but in the same way recently finding out the guitarist from the Gin Blossoms committed suicide is depressing. I think reading it so late spared me a weekend of lying in the dark, journaling, and listening to Jeff Buckley albums (which is definitely what I would have done after finishing it in 2001).
Rachel Kramer Bussel, erotica writer and editor: The memoir I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag, by Jennifer Gilbert. I was charmed by the title and thought it would be about event planning and Gilbert's business, Save the Date, which seemed interesting; and to some degree, it was. But far more it's about this horrific attack Gilbert suffered when a man followed her into her friend's apartment and tried to stab her to death. As a fellow New Yorker, I found that scene horrifying (short version: the friend opened the door but then closed it), and it made me rethink my attitude toward safety. Gilbert is never maudlin, and it's clear that bringing other people joy in planning parties stems from her surviving this brutal crime (also, there's a very heartwarming love story here, but again, nothing sappy about it). Runner-up: an excellent novel about hoarding, aging, family, and art, Objects of My Affection, by Jill Smolinski, about a woman who's hired to clean out the home of a renowned but reclusive older female painter that, as a hoarder, I greatly appreciated.
Noreen Malone, writer, The New Republic: The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy. This genius comic novel following the misadventures of a young American woman in Paris is screwball, travelogue, and coming-of-age rolled into one. And though it's set in the supposedly staid '50s, it's anything but; the heroine, Sally Jay Gorce, will feel awfully familiar to anyone who's lately been or known a post-collegiate girl going through her try-everything phase.
Liana Maeby, writer: I read A Visit from the Goon Squad two years later than everyone else, because it was vintage that way. I loved it so much that I read The Keep immediately after and am currently in the middle of Look at Me. I want to be best buddies with Jennifer Egan, but I would totally never be able to have conversations with her because she's so damn smart and also has intimidating bone structure.
Mary H.K. Choi, columnist, Wired; contributor, MTV Style: A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins was brilliant. It's one of those super-sincere titles that could be about ANYTHING, and to be honest, I would've been all, Ugh, blorg, no about it if i'd come across it on my own. Anyway, it's about — no spoilers — this divorced guy in San Francisco whose deal you get but who you would also think was a dick if you met him. His job is to IM with a supercomputer that's programmed to be like his dad. And my bestie, who reads 50–60 books a year and haaaaaates AI, read it twice and insisted that I'd love it. It's weird and broken and smarter than you and beautifully written and unwieldy to discuss (obvs, from above), so you can read it and sort of never have to talk about it in detail with anyone else. You don't overhear boring people recounting bits on shitty dates or on mass transit, so you never resent how it's a thing that exists. That's a good book.
Ana Marie Cox, senior political columnist, The Guardian: Finally got around to Franzen's Freedom! I actually cracked it open without even consciously remembering that it is set in St. Paul and Washington — my newly adopted hometown and my ex-hometown [respectively]. It gets both places exactly right, and his knack for capturing the crippling (yet incomplete) self-awareness of the exact kind of people that read his books continues to astound and vaguely infuriate me. Yet he is utterly compassionate for his characters — more compassionate than I am for myself most of the time.
Allison Winn Scotch, author of The Song Remains the Same: The best book I read in 2012 was The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. I don't normally gravitate toward YA, but the buzz on this book was too great to ignore. And it didn't disappoint: Within the first five pages, I knew I was in for something genius. The subject matter (cancer) isn't easy, and I think I started crying at about the halfway point and proceeded to ugly cry until the end, but it was worth it. Now, even months later, I think of the characters and the story, and I'm grateful I had the chance to take a journey into their world.
Thessaly La Force, writer; editor of My Ideal Bookshelf: I loved Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station. It fits into the category I like to call “the perfect little novel” (e.g., William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow and Roberto Bolano's By Night in Chile). It's the kind of novel you read in one or two sittings. And it's a novel that you can keep in your head easily. I dunno. I know everyone's been talking about this book. But I don't care because it's so good, and I envy it and love it simultaneously. I like it so much, I wish it were mine; I wish it were something I had written.
Anna Holmes, writer and editor: I'd have to go with Sheila Heti's How Should A Person Be? It's not the best-written book I've read all year, but it was certainly one of the most ambitious. Heti's examination of youthful self-involvement, artistic arrogance, and the complexity of female friendship was strange, riveting, and often exhausting. Which is really all that I could ask for.
Anya Yurchyshyn, writer: Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel. I never read graphic novels because I wrongly assume there won't be enough description to keep my attention, and I was totally blown away by how much insight and emotion Bechdel was able to pack into what's really a small amount of words. Yes, the story is compelling on its own, but she makes it infinitely more so and gives it so much depth, with the sly ways that she reveals big information and the ways she includes outside text. As someone who is writing about her own not-perfect family, I was deeply impressed by her honesty and her compassion — those are things I'm not always able to muster myself.
Sloane Crosley, author of How Did You Get This Number: A Hologram for The King. Like Kafka's The Castle as told by Dave Eggers and set in the desert. I don't know if it's the official “best” book I read in 2012, but it's certainly the one I couldn't wait to return to each night. So “best” is probably a good word.
Julieanne Smolinski, writer: The Collected Stories of Richard Yates. They're not ALL depressing, but every single one just wrecks you completely for a full 24 hours. Nonfiction-wise, I loved Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman. I always think it sounds so dweeby when people laugh aloud at books, because who does that? But I did with this one. This year was a roller coaster, I guess.
Amanda Petrusich, music critic and author of It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music: Particularly stiff competition from Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen and Moby Dick, but I was spiritually dismantled by Machado de Assis' Dom Casmurro, which neatly betrays all the grand and unavoidable tragedies of being human. I kicked it across the room when I finished.
Jessica Coen, editor-in-chief, Jezebel: How to Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran. Given that I spend my days knee-deep in lady business, you'd think the last thing I'd want to do during my offline, nonworking hours is read about even more lady business. And normally that's the case, but How to Be a Woman was so unapologetically mouthy, straight-up funny that I couldn't put it down. IRL LOLZ FTW.
Meredith Blake, entertainment writer, Los Angeles Times: I always get caught up in the Summer Olympics, and like most people who only care about sports for two weeks every four years, I am an especially big fan of women's gymnastics.Hungry for more after the London games were over, I spent a few days in a Google deep dive that ended with me ordering a used copy of Joan Ryan's 1995 book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters. It is a fascinating and frequently heartbreaking look at the toll that these popular sports take on young women. It's also a sharp critique of the destructive and contradictory expectations put on female athletes, who are supposed to be powerful yet nonthreatening, muscular but never bulky, pretty but never sexy. Thankfully, things have changed somewhat since Little Girls in Pretty Boxes was published, but probably not enough.
Kate Aurthur, chief Los Angeles correspondent, BuzzFeed: Since I seem to read (and listen to) only big-franchise series books, event books (such as Gone Girl), and, uh, Agatha Christie, my 2012 books list is not exciting. But within that first category, I loved both Divergent and its sequel, Insurgent, by Veronica Roth. They're exciting YA genre fiction, and Tris Prior is a girl other girls can look up to — not always the case in this YA world.
Shani Hilton, morning editor, NBC Washington: Octavia Butler's Kindred. The black narrator's existence relies solely on her ability to keep a white slave-owning ancestor alive whenever he calls her back through time — but that's just a device to get you to Butler's unsentimental look at slavery and how it whittles down your soul; everyone is disingenuous in the novel, everyone is self-serving, and even if you make it out alive, there is no salvation.
Amy Rose Spiegel, writer, Rookie magazine: This past July, I wolfed Donna Tartt's The Secret History while sitting in the East Village doorway of a part-time job. It made me wish that instead of working city retail, I were swishing around a competitive Classics program in a complicated scarf, like one of its characters. Also, the novel is driven by murder and literal bacchanalia, which is as bracing and great as it sounds.
Lizzie Widdicombe, editor, The New Yorker: Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers. The first nonfiction book I've ever read that truly reads like a novel. Depicts the lives of its main characters in all their complexity and shows how they're affected by world events. I feel like I actually got to know and love (in some cases) the residents of a Mumbai slum.
Elizabeth Spiers, journalist: I just finished Andrew Solomon's Far from the Tree, which chronicles the challenges and rewards for parents raising children with what Solomon calls different “horizontal identities.” It's an amazing work of journalism and deeply moving (I can't remember the last time I teared up reading a nonfiction book) and should be required reading for anyone who's a parent or thinking about becoming one.
Caitlin Roper, editor, Wired: The Devil's Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America's Great White Sharks, by Susan Casey. An enthralling account of the freaky Farallon Islands west of the San Francisco Bay and the massive Great White sharks that gorge on seals there. A page-turner that filled my dreams with bloody water and 18-foot sharks for weeks after I read the last page.
Piper Weiss, senior features editor, Yahoo! Shine: Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector, by Mick Brown. This was one of those “aha” books that explains everything. A few of the things I understand now: Phil Spector's passion for wigs (he was an early balder), the origin of popular doo-wop Christmas songs (record producer narcissism), things that make people crazy (an overbearing mom, asthma at an early age, parents who are first cousins), the reason the beginning of Adventures in Babysitting is so good (The Crystal's “And Then He Kissed Me”), the general idea behind the “Wall of Sound” (I think I get it now, but don't ask me to explain it).
Julia Turner, deputy editor, Slate: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. It is still possible to buy a copy that doesn't have Halle Berry's face on the cover. And it is the most gripping and verbally entrancing thing I've read in years. The way Mitchell invents future versions of English — and plays with past ones — is mesmerizing.
Emily Fleischaker, editor, BuzzFeed Food: The best book I read all year was a cookbook — Sam Sifton's Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well. So maybe it's a little niche, but it stands out because Thanksgiving is this national moment for food and an enormous undertaking for even an experienced cook. Sifton's guide is short but comprehensive, authoritative without being pretentious, and best of all, it's funny. I will keep it forever.
Doree Shafrir, executive editor, BuzzFeed: This year I finally read Mark Bowden's Killing Pablo, the story of the hunt for and execution of notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Bowden is a master storyteller: In a book of nonfiction, when you know what happens (spoiler: Pablo dies), the challenge is in making the tale of how it was done exciting, compelling, and surprising. Bowden does all three, while also painting a tragic portrait of 1980s Colombia, when it seemed as though the country was heading towards certain doom, and complicating our image of Escobar, a family man whose ruthlessness and greed was astounding and yet pursued in an almost banal way.