Reading is a major part of my life, both for work and for pleasure. I read constantly; while walking down a crowded sidewalk in Brooklyn, while squished against the door on a packed F train, while walking from the subway to Community Bookstore, and yes, even while crossing the street. You know you’re finally a New Yorker when you try to maximize your reading time, reading every available moment that isn’t spent working or socializing or writing or, you know, sleeping. I read a lot of good books this year—by friends and by strangers. It’s hard to narrow down my favorites to such a short list, but here it is:
Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith (Tin House)
So apparently I have a thing for books with one word titles. (My favorite contemporary novel is Tinkers by Paul Harding.) I’m a sucker for novels that are a hybrid of poetry and prose, and that’s exactly what this book is. What’s not to love about a day in the life of a lovesick librarian who repairs damaged books and is obsessed with ephemera?
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (Random House)
Yes, it won the National Book Award. I was trying to go for less obvious choices for this particular list, but goddamn it, this is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read. It’s no surprise, really. Katherine Boo has long been a favorite journalist of mine. As an undergraduate journalism student, I used to read her Washington Post articles. I always found her incredibly inspiring. Boo’s first book takes a necessary look at life in a Mumbai slum, and opens in a particularly grizzly way, as a woman immolates herself and blames her neighbors.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (Harper)
Plenty of customers have come into the bookstore I work at (Community Bookstore in Brooklyn) and asked for a genuinely good read. This is one of my favorite handsells of the year; mostly because it’s a book that can appeal to different types of readers. There’s unrequited love, a glimpse of old Hollywood…and the best part? Richard Burton is a character in the book.
Heroines by Kate Zambreno (Semiotext(e))
If you’re someone who cares about art and cares about feminism and cares about what it means to be a female artist (and particularly a female writer), then you need to read this book. I’m pretty sure that this book gets the award for most underlined quotes of the year. It’s a passionate and raw blend of memoir and literary criticism. I feel like Zambreno pulled sentences out of my own head. It’s rare to read a book where the author mirrors some of your own thoughts.
All We Know by Lisa Cohen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
This is the first year I’ve really given biographies a try, and now I want to read more of them! I particularly liked how Cohen chose three unusual subjects to write about; three women who were an important part of the cultural scene during the times they lived in. Cohen addresses achievement and failure and sexuality. I want to read this book again just so I can spend more time around Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta and Madge Garland.
The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg (Grand Central Publishing)
What’s not to love about Jami Attenberg’s latest novel, a book set around the matriarch of a family who can’t and won’t stop eating? There’s a lot of humor here, sure, but it’s also an astute and all-encompassing story that gets at the heart of contemporary life.
May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes (Viking)
Another dysfunctional family novel, although this one is even darker. I keep telling everyone that it’s the best dark humor book I’ve read since Skippy Dies. Homes was super ambitious with this book, and her ambition pays off. I loved reading about the relationship between two brothers, one who is unstable and one who is thrust into caring for his brother’s children.
Understories by Tim Horvath (Bellevue Literary Press)
Tim Horvath is a wonderful writer. There’s a musicality to his prose. It’s evident that he enjoys the way words can sound on the page. His debut short story collection from Bellevue Literary Press reminds me a bit of Kevin Brockmeier, in the sense that both writers combines wordplay with speculative fiction.
How To Get Into The Twin Palms by Karolina Waclawiak (Two Dollar Radio)
A young Polish woman wants nothing more than to fit in in her predominantly Russian neighborhood in Los Angeles. There’s one place in particular she wants to get into: a Russian nightclub. Waclawiak grapples with immigration and identity in this smart debut novel.
My Only Wife by Jac Jemc (Dzanc)
A husband dwells on memories of his wife, and it isn’t clear whether she left him or something much worse has happened. Jemc is a poet disguised as a novelist, because really, on a sentence by sentence level, this book is magnificent.
Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures by Mary Ruefle (Wave Books)
This might almost tie with Heroines in terms of most underlined sentences. Her lectures slice into the mind of a writer with a surgeon’s scalpel. Ruefle draws from her years of experience as a poet. It’s easily one of the most overlooked books of the year.
Other Books I’d Like to Mention:
- The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel (I read an early manuscript in 2011, so I can’t count it as a best book read in 2012.)
- Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins
- The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
- How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti
- Magnificence by Lydia Millet
- Capital by John Lanchester
- NW by Zadie Smith
- Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
- Cataclysm Baby by Matt Bell
- Promising Young Women by Suzanne Scanlon