Best Books of 2012: As chosen by Wheeler Centre staff
My top 13 are:
Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
Behind the Beautiful Forevers – Katherine Boo
The Australian Moment – George Megalogenis
May we be Forgiven – A.M. Homes
This is How You Lose Her – Junot Diaz
HHhH – Laurent Binet
Pulphead – John Jeremiah Sullivan
The Casual Vacancy – J.K. Rowling
Meanjin / Overland / Griffith Review / the Monthly / Kill Your Darlings
Telegraph Avenue – Michael Chabon
Tarcutta Wake – Josephine Rowe
The Watchtower – Elizabeth Harrower
Good Night Sleep Tight – Mem Fox and Judy Horacek.
Perhaps because it’s the end of a long year of programming (curating, grouping, sorting, looking for connections and similarities), and perhaps because I got married this year, my favourite books of 2012 have fallen into neat little pairs:
Two brilliant China books came out in English this year, Yan Lianke’s Lenin’s Kisses, and Yu Hua’s China in Ten Words.
Two novels exploring wartime Germany (although one by a Frenchman and about as different from each other in tone as you can imagine) transported me, Laurent Binet’s breathless HhHH and Jenny Erpenbeck’s beautiful Visitation.
Two brilliant non-fiction collections put the lights back on in my brain: John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead and Siri Hustvedt’s Living, Thinking, Looking.
Two Aussie short story collections - Jennifer Mills’ The Rest is Weight and Ryan O’Neill’s The Weight of a Human Heart reminded me that well-crafted beautiful things are sometimes more powerful for being miniature.
Writing about the past – Hilary Mantel’s Bringing up the Bodies was the most vivid novel I’ve read since … well, Wolf Hall, and nothing else really came close for me (so I’m counting that as a pair).
And finally two for the future – Lauren Groff’s commune dystopia Arcadia made me start to prepare for the apocalypse and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One made me stop because resistance (to the zombies) will most likely be futile. Happy Christmas!
At the beginning of 2012 I picked up Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus and my, how could I have waited so long to read it? Hazzard is an exquisite writer and this story of two orphaned Australian sisters creating lives for themselves, on their own terms, in London and beyond is intricate and affecting. It also features one of the most wonderfully awful characters I’ve read in ages, the women’s half-sister Dora. A classic.
I couldn’t help but have The Transit of Venus in mind as I read Michelle de Kretser’s latest, Questions of Travel, an absorbing and hugely satisfying novel. The twin storylines of Laura, an Australian of independent means and temperament, and Sri Lankan Ravi, forced to remake his life as an asylum seeker in contemporary Sydney, are interwoven with care and craft. Ranging across continents and spanning several decades, I loved this book for its complexity, intelligence and deep compassion.
Can I squeeze in a couple more? Briefly: This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz for stop-you-in-your-tracks sentences; and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green for making me cry in completely inappropriate places.
Lucy De Kretser
Gillian Mears' Foal’s Bread is an ode to a world that Mears loves and knows intimately, a tribute to the old souls of the horse high-jumping circuit, country fairs, gingernut biscuits. This is a tale of family, shared language, horses, vulnerability and regional Australia, which though very beautiful, is never sentimental. Mears' eye, lyricism, and turn of phrase, not only make her unique, but draws her reader into this world so that you find yourself laughing and crying with and for these ever stoic characters.
I was both astonished and excited to discover that Past the Shallows was Favel Parrett’s first novel, and can’t wait to devour her next book. I loved this book primarily because of the relationship portrayed between two young brothers. Parrett’s description of Tasmania rang grittily true, whilst also capturing my imagination, but the love, care, tenderness, caution and selflessness inherent in the relationship between the siblings is what I found so special about this book.
I just finished Michelle De Kretser’s Questions of Travel and can’t stop thinking about it. If a day went by when I couldn’t delve into its pages, it was a bad day, as far as I was concerned! There were many moments after reading a single line that I had to close the book in order to savour or think or cry. It is a leisurely read, and yet difficult and horrifying at times. Full of poetry and symbolism, as well as fascinating, complete, and well-drawn characters. The plot takes you around the world and back and turns travel on its head.
Favel Parrett’s Past the Shallows is an exquisite little gem of a novel. As beautiful as it is heartbreaking, its undertow of menace constantly threatens to drag you under. A reviewer recommended some months ago: ‘If you read only one book this year, make sure it’s this one!’. Although my reading habits of late haven’t been quite that dismal, Past the Shallows has sustained me in a relatively slight year.
This year, my most challenging read by a mile has been …. 4.5/5 of the Edward St Aubyn Patrick Melrose series (I say 4.5/5 because last night I feel asleep with the light on, again, and woke up at 2.15am face-planted in the final book in the series.)
The collective whole of the five novels is, thus far, excoriating and witty, in equal measure, there’s quite a deal of ouch and oooh did they really say that?. There have been times when I’ve had to skim over small sections because we’re getting into the way-too-much-information territory.
The characters are, on the whole, wholly unlikeable, but the writing is rich in observational detail and has at times wonderful insight into the human condition. The premise of each book is centred on a pivotal event or time in Patrick Melrose’s life, which allows characters to reappear throughout.
Having read through 4.5 books, I am very much looking forward to the remaining .5 – and also, to finishing reading about this dysfunctional bunch and moving on to a less awkward holiday novel.
Whilst reflecting on this year’s reading, I came to the realisation that my reading in 2012 seemed to have a particular YA flavour to it. I fell head first for the Patrick Ness series, Chaos Walking (I realise they’re not actually 2012 books, but they’re the books I loved in 2012, if that counts?). Picture me on an exotic holiday in Langkawi, so absorbed in the first book of the series that I was sitting on a ferry, completely oblivious to the fact that I was surrounded by fellow tourists, with tears streaming down my face! This was followed by a feeling akin to panic and an urgency to get back to the mainland so I could buy book two in the series!
I love a big AMERICAN NOVEL, and Chad Harbach’s Art of Fielding fit that brief this year. I identified with every one of his characters and made a stuttering fool of myself trying to explain this to the author when we hosted him as part of our Big 10 series.
To cap off my YA year, I just finished John Green’s The Fault in our Stars … what a devastatingly beautiful read. It’s been a while since a book has touched me so much that I have found myself messaging its sentences to the person who loaned me the book! Maybe I just love books that cry, but this one saw me sobbing on the bus to work, and days later, I am still thinking of its characters and wishing different endings for them.
Some of 2012 found me buried in reference books for practical inspiration (Sound Reporting: The NPR Guide to Audio Journalism and Production, edited by Jonathan Kern, the favourite). Reading for pleasure, though, I like to rely on a pot pourri of old, new and not-quite-new writing to keep my eyeballs out of trouble. I revisited Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, let Romy Ash’s excellent first novel Floundering drag me in by the collar, and thumbed through Bad Idea: The Anthology, a brilliant collation of some of that magazine’s finest creative non-fiction – published in 2008, roughly around the time that wonderful periodical began to disappear. I recommend all of those titles, and especially Fahrenheit if you live for suspenseful ellipses …
(You don’t. Nobody does.)
I didn’t think I’d fully take to the motor-mouthed depresso-futurism of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story (despite the hilarious book trailer that you’ve probably seen), but ultimately I found it a deeply tender, affecting and funny novel - not shy of the big questions, nor of serving them wry answers. And, in the course of a whole book, it succeeded where Jennifer Egan’s otherwise incredible A Visit from the Goon Squad stumbled awkwardly in its future-gazing final chapter (what a shame). I read Egan’s 2001 book Look at Me early this year, and it was so disappointing that I had to re-read parts of Goon Squad. (Yes, you picked it – that dizzyingly poignant chapter. If you hated it, we’re not friends.)
I might also recommend Reinventing Your Life by Young, Klosko and Beck (not the Scientologist, obviously). Make sure you get Plume’s 1994 edition; the cover design is inspiring.
My very favourite book I read this year was a trilogy (cheating, I know) of memoirs by Mary Karr: The Liar’s Club, about her crazy childhood with her alcoholic parents, including a (six times married) mother who once stood over her with a kitchen knife; Cherry, a dreamy memoir of an adolescence of not-quite-fitting-in; and the astonishing Lit, about her years as a literature professor and alcoholic (friends include Tobias Woolff and flames include an arsehole-ish David Foster Wallace) - ending with her writing her first memoir. This is how good writing is done.
This year’s new releases I loved included another brilliant (genre-bending) memoir - [sic] by New York composer turned cancer patient Joshua Cody, whose writing resembles music in its patterns and poetry. I love creative non-fiction, especially good reportage, and was thrilled to discover the journalism of the compassionate master stylist Katherine Boo through her first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, the compelling story of Annawadi, a slum in India, and its inhabitants. And like everyone else, I was hooked by Gillian Flynn’s suspense-packed, twist-a-minute Gone Girl.
I’m currently reading Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon, a truly amazing labour of love. Over seven years, Solomon has interviewed many families where parents have children vastly different from themselves and explored how they came to love and accept children who were not what they expected. The result is split into ten chapters by category, including deaf, dwarves, autistic and criminal children. (Released Feb 2013 in Australia, but I got an imported copy from Readings.) Hugely resonant in the context of the weekend’s events.
Australian books I loved in 2012 included Paddy O'Reilly’s warm, funny and beautifully written (and characterised) novel The Fine Colour of Rust, set in a dying country town and featuring a feisty, flawed and loveable single mum with a sharp tongue and bone-dry wit. And I was utterly won over by Deborah Robertson’s beautiful second novel, Sweet Old World, about a man who longs for fatherhood and love, and comes achingly close to getting what he’s always wanted, in an unexpected way. The characters and relationships in this book are so beautifully drawn and nuanced - they feel very real. And I was hugely impressed by Amy Espeseth’s haunting, immaculately crafted Sufficient Grace.
And one last quick mention - I finally read Maggie Mackellar’s memoir When it Rains (2011), about grief and recovery, and was so moved and affected that I thought about it for days afterward.
Mortality - Christopher Hitchens
The Dinner - Herman Koch
Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn
All That I Am - Anna Funder
Behind the Beautiful Forevers - Katherine Boo
Why Be Happy When You Can be Normal? - Jeanette Winterson
In a year that started out with the best reading intentions I found myself falling short of my planned ‘at least one book a month’ goal. I’m notorious for not finishing books for no particular reason, and as 2012 was the Dickens Bicentenary, I began tackling Dombey and Son with gusto … only 658 more pages to go.
A regular reader of The Rumpus’s Dear Sugar advice column I was both surprised and intrigued when they announced they’d reveal the identity of the anonymous writer behind it. Back in February this year Cheryl Strayed was outed and conveniently it coincided with the publication of her new memoir Wild. I rushed to Amazon.com to purchase it straight away. Her advice column was full of intimate and personal advice delivered to you in a no-B.S. way, like a slap in the face by your straight-talking friend. ‘Write like a Motherfucker’ is just one of her now-famous lines. I was looking forward to getting to know more about her.
The book came in the mail a few weeks later. In one sentence, the plot involves Cheryl’s attempt to make sense of her life after her mother’s death by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from the Mojave Desert to Washington State. But that sentence doesn’t even begin to capture what this book is about. Cheryl had no hiking experience at all. Experienced hikers die on the PCT and at several points in the story you think she will, too.
Parts of the story were too sad for me to read; I actually had to stop and pick it up again a few months later. There’s no cornball journey of self-discovery here – it’s raw, heart-wrenching and the ultimate exposure of just how far you can fall, yet still find something from within to drive you to keep going.
Cheryl is able to articulate in words how much it hurts to lose someone you love. How angry, sad, confused and lost in sorrow you can get – and what it means to confront that, so you can begin again.
I’m completely positive I’m not doing it any justice. Just read it before the movie comes out.
Throughout 2012, I’ve read about fifteen and a half books (in two languages).
All of the books were great - not a million words would suffice to describe the many voyages my mind took this year. I hereby highlight my favorite four books and a quote from each of them.These books helped me discover how much more there is that I have not the faintest idea about.
The Drunkard’s Walk, How Randomness Rules Our Lives - Leonard Mlodinow
‘If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.’
(Quoting IBM pioneer Thomas Watson)
Candide – Voltaire
‘ It’s a sort of noise, that whiles away the odd half hour, but if played for any longer bores everyone though no one dares to say so. Music nowadays is merely the art of executing what is difficult to play and in the long run what is merely difficult ceases to amuse.’
The Demon Haunted World - Carl Sagan
‘It is not the function of our government to prevent its citizens from falling into error, it is the function othe citizen to prevent the government from falling into error.’ (Sagan quotes US supreme court justice Robert H. Jackson, 1950)
Leviathan - Thomas Hobbs
‘Love and desire are the same thing, except that by desire we always signify the absence of an object and by love, we most commonly signify the presence of an object.’