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The Year in Reading: Best Literature in 2012


The Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor Tobar
Easily the top read of the year, this is a truly American novel. It is so powerful in scope and audacious in revealing the truth about social and racial divide. That someone like Maureen, well-educated and articulate, automatically tilts the scale of believability in favor of her because she is the responsible mother who has been violated. The novel renounces how we as a country are so disgustingly obsessed with jumping into the first opportunity at politicizing racial issues and justifying our distorted view that people who are not like us lack basic human morality and intelligence.

Stoner by John Williams
This is the classic novel about one man’s thrive in silence, in dignity, and in solemnity. Though sold out on his passion for literature and teaching, Stoner never rises above the rank of assistant professor. Few students remember him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. His marriage turns out to be a failure just after honeymoon. His wife shuts him off emotionally and physically, leaving him the only option to maintain an unobtrusive and delicate regard for the world in which Edith had begun to live. As his wife manipulatively turns his daughter away from him, he takes on extra workload with an intensity and ferocity that awes his colleagues. But his career is stymied as his mentor Archer Sloane, is replaced by one Hollis Lomax, who becomes Stoner’s implacable enemy. Why isn’t this book adopted into a film?

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
In this debut novel, Stedman creates strong argument on both sides, delving into the blurring of lines between right and wrong. The book takes its predictable course toward a neutral compromise where justice for one is another’s tragic loss. Moving but also contrived at times, the novel explores the snarl of human emotion, and how far-gone even the best of intentions can go awry. This story about a good man who cannot keep a secret and who sacrifices himself for his wife’s choices will leave you emotionally invested.

The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings
A close look at how a man copes with life as his wife is about to be cut off life support. But there’s more to be known about her. King’s narrative voice is plausible and persuasive, in his pared-down lyricism as much as his comic bemusement, which derives from his desperate attempts to rein in his daughters and their disdainful responses to his careful ministrations. The Descendants is a beautifully written book about love and healing, about a middle-aged man, a father’s awakening to responsibility and to love, because, as he ruefully notes, he is not comfortable to showing affection.

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (Note: Last name Eng)
Probably the most complicated in terms of time and narrative layers. Set during the Japanese occupation, The Garden of Evening Mists follows young law graduate, Yun Ling Teoh, as she seeks solace among the plantations of the Cameron Highlands. Here she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the secretive Aritomo. Aritomo agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice “until the monsoon” so that she can design a garden in memorial to her sister.

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
This is a very engrossing read with sustaining revelations about a heroine—the chaperone—who discovers herself as she ages. The book gets better as Cora grows some backbone, talks straight, and truly seeks what she desires. As the novel returns to Wichita after a summer in New York City, where Cora reemerges with a potentially shocking (socially unforgiving) living arrangement that is way ahead of its time. This book is filled with insight about what constitutes family and rooted very firmly in love. Cora’s story obviously outshines that of Louse, whose Hollywood career flames out quickly and spirals into alcoholism and eventually poverty.

The House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni
The characters in this book are all gritty and crisp, so emotionally realized as they walk right out of the pages. Sebastian is naive but not stupid, with a working vocabulary of a well-educated adult; Jared is sarcastic but aware of his lack of gratitude for a second chance in life. Nana and Janice both want to protect the boys from hurtful memories that they fear will impede their growth. Their flaws actually render them vulnerable but beautiful. The story is well-written, filled with flawless dialogue. Whether they’re realizing outrageous goals or just surviving another day, the book is a celebration of hope and the importance of love and family.

Wish You Were Here by Stewart O’Nan
This book follows the Maxwell family’s week-long summer vacation around Fourth of July. The summer has also marked a year since the death of Emily’s husband, Henry. She gathers her family by Lake Chautauqua in western New York for what will be their last vacation at the the summer cottage, which Emily plans to sell because she can no longer take it of it by herself. She also harbors a plan to help out her grownup children, who seem to be worse than she has suspected, with the money from the sale. In this beautiful novel O’Nan doesn’t devise much of a plot but he has painted a very vivid tableau of daily life. As he draws us into the tangle of jealousies, pent-up emotions, deep wounds and hurt feelings of the family, we read on less to find out what happens to the Maxwells than to become acquainted with the characters, whose life we can resonate with.

The Book of Job by Jonathan Tropper
The Book of Joe, beneath its burst of humor and sharp one-liners, carries an emotional heft. The return home presents Joe a second chance to grow up—to grow out of his immaturity, to cope with the hurt feelings, and to take responsibility for the people he left behind. Tropper does a beautiful job interweaving all the issues revolving around family, relationships, friendship and missed opportunity into a book that flows seamlessly.

A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark
In A Far Cry from Kensington, Muriel Spark, with glows of lyricism, delivers a narrative that focuses on the book publishing industry in post-war England and Mars. Hawkins’ career as an editor. Balancing her profession is her investigation on the perpetrator who contrives to force out a tenant in her rooming house. Not only does Spark’s writing hums with creations, she also brings alive the life of London and its skein of diverse residents. Nancy Hawkins will be memorable for her integrity (and her maxim “No life can be carried on unless people are honest.”) and, no offense, her fatness, which she anatomizes convincingly, with a tingle of self-depracating humor. It’s her physical attribute that breaks ice and invites confidence. In a way, her fatness camouflages her spikiness.

The Red Chamber by Pauline Chen
A takeoff from the 400-year-old classics by Cao Xueqin, Chen’s perspective really boils down into a picture of women’s constricted lives and how they are deprived of any choices in life—not even on when they will marry. Marriage is taken into consideration on how it will further a family’s wealth and prestige. From mistress of the house to the lowliest servant, each woman holds a place in the hierarchy, and with that comes rigid expectations and inescapable duties. This book is not a re-telling of the classic, but it would be a suitable introduction of the original text. The Red Chamber has a more feminist poise, delving into the tough decisions that confront the women in a time when to choose love is to risk stability in life.

Gold Chris Cleave
Unlike his previous novels, Incendiary and Little Bee (which I enjoyed profusely), Gold does not have any political components, but it does not lack in human dynamics. As much as these women are thriving for gold and getting caught up in their dream, each has more than a medal to lose. Each has to overcome more than the demand of physical capacity—their own ghosts. Gold is a morality tale that examines the values that lie at the heart of our most intimate relationships. In a time where obsession with winning takes precedence over ethics, Gold is an antithema that cajoles us back to the reality of our heart.

Time Was Soft There: A Memoir. A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. by Jeremy Mercer. Mercer’s stay at the bookstore epitomizes the bohemian lifestyle—roaming Paris, bumming food, writing and reading. On top of the strange but warm camaraderie with the other residents, Mercer describes his developing relationship with owner George Whitman in details. As much as I live vicariously through Mercer’s adventure, I come to learn about George Whitman and his amazing life devoted to books. Time Was Soft There evokes that lost generation of writers and artists that find haven in Paris. Reading the book offers a glimpse of the magic this literary establishment has brought to those who have been part of it.

Postscript. Three of my most anticipated reads for the year didn’t live up to my expectations: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst, and Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks. All three are revered authors whom I highly regard. Regrettably, none of their books is memorial and mindful of ther usual literary merit.

10 Responses

  1. I’ll keep these books in mind for 2013.

  2. I’ve been waiting for your list, Matt. I loved both The Chaperone and Wish You Were Here, and purchased Stoner after reading your review. Most of the others will be added to my wish list. Happy New Year!

  3. Looks like a great reading year. I really must get around to reading Stoner, too. And I really enjoyed The Chaperone as well–I hope she writes more books! Traveling to San Francisco and meeting up was one of this year’s highlights for me. Hope all is well. Best wishes in 2013 and Happy New Year!

  4. Everyone seems to love The Light Between Oceans…. I think I’m going to have to give it a go next year.

  5. That’s the third recommendation I’ve seen for The Light Between Oceans – which makes me cross that I gave away my copy! And A Far Cry From Kensington is the Spark I was keenest to read after Muriel Spark Reading Week, after so many people seemed to love it.

  6. I like “The Garden of Evening Mists” very much too and I included it in my best read post of this year. Did you mean last name “Tan” (instead of Eng)?

  7. I haven’t read any of your top books this year, but several are in my TBR collection waiting to be read. I hope to get to The Light Between Oceans and The Chaperone this next year for sure.

    I hope you have a great New Year.

  8. I read Stoner after I read your review, I loved it, thank you. I also liked Time Was Soft There when I read it, I’ve never been to Paris or Shakespeare and Company but, thanks to Mercer’s book I felt as if somehow, I had, a little. Happy New Year, admire your blog and reviews.

  9. Fantastic list!

  10. neat titles, I need to read the one on Shakespeare & Co.
    you will find my list in this post:

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