My top 6 reads of 2012

I recently discovered the website Goodreads, and I recommend it for anyone who is wanting to do more reading. It’s helped me by keeping track of the books I’ve read so that I can prioritize what to work on next. Looking over the fifteen books I’ve finished since last January, I wanted to pick out my favorites for you.

You’ll notice the list of honorable mentions at the bottom. Some probably deserve to be up in the big kid list, (namely Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) but for one reason or another they didn’t stick with me the way these others did. And so, here you have it: my top 6 books of 2012.

6. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

I’ll be honest: I probably would have appreciated this book more if I spoke Spanish. But despite the language barrier for readers like myself, Junot Diaz is an excellent storyteller and finds fascinating ways to incorporate elements of fantasy and history into his fiction. He has a wonderful sense of humor, too. On that note, here are his thoughts on the readers who complain about the Spanish:

Motherfuckers will read a book that’s 1/3 elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and white people think we’re taking over.

In other words, quit complaining about the parts you don’t understand and read the book.

5. Angela’s Ashes

I just finished this memoir a few days ago and am still thinking about it, but my initial reaction is that the book is as great as it is heavy. At least McCourt is upfront about the nature of the story from page 1:

It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

Thankfully for the reader, McCourt is hilarious, and the way he tells the story from a child’s perspective makes it all the more tragicomic. He also has some sobering and fascinating observations about the Church, but without spoiling the ending, I will say there is some redemption on that front. Definitely worth a read if you’re up for a difficult story.

4. Little Bee by Chris Cleave

I feel a little guilty about making this only number 4 on the list, because I absolutely loved it. I read it at the very beginning of the year (Thanks for the great gift, Emily!). The narration alternates between the voices of a successful, female British magazine editor and a young Nigerian girl whose lives are thrown together unexpectedly. I don’t want to spoil it, but it is beautiful and tearful and will make your world stop for a moment.

3. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

This was my first exposure to Franzen, and I was giddy after I read it. Reading his books has made me realize how much I love what I call family epics — long, Dickensian novels like East of Eden and A Prayer for Owen Meany that focus on characters and their family histories. I’ll speak more about Franzen when I get to Freedom, but I love what he does with this story.

2. The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy

Oh my God. If you pick up this book you will not stop reading, so DO NOT READ if you have things you need to get done. Another family epic — this time in South Carolina. Let me just give you a few key words and maybe you’ll be interested. Poetry, depression, tigers, Vietnam, shrimp fishing, and football. Want to know how they could all go together? Read the damn book.

1. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

And we’ve reached number one.

This book, I think more than anything else, is about compassion. It’s about looking at a person’s past to understand his/her actions and mistakes now. It’s about coming to terms with pain other people inflict on you, as well as coming clean about the pain you’ve inflicted on others. Despite the cynicism and brutal honesty of the book, I think ultimately Franzen has faith in people — that relationships, after abuse and betrayal, can be mended.

That being said, his writing isn’t perfect. And you could say Franzen is limited in what he’s comfortable writing about, since his bestsellers are both about white, middle-class, midwestern families. But I really, really liked it, and perhaps you will, too.

Honorable Mentions:

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

This book was quite weird, even though I liked it while I read it. But there are a whole lot of awkward phrases, and I don’t think it’s just the translation. I also feel like there are too many random things that happen in the plot that have no correlation to anything else in the story. Maybe I just didn’t “get” it. I’m happy to consider that Murakami is the genius everyone says he is.

The Year of Magical Thinking

I like Joan Didion, and I like what she does with creative nonfiction. It feels cruel to find fault with a woman’s writing as she’s grieving about the death of her husband. Nevertheless, it’s a little dry at times, and so while I personally was enriched by reading it, I’m not going to shout from the rooftops that everyone else must.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Awesome book, no question. For some reason I put it down for a few months after reading the first half, and thus it threw off my groove. I think the nontraditional mode of storytelling made me lose focus after a while. I recommend reading it all at once, and the powerful albeit sad story will give you “heavy boots” while at the same time lift you up out of them.

I hope you had as fulfilling a year of reading as I did! I’d love to hear your thoughts on these books if you’ve read them, and any books you have read recently that you would recommend.

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One thought on “My top 6 reads of 2012

  1. Great List! Now that you’ve read Prince of Tides, you should pick up Beach Music, also by Conroy. It is amazing. His most recent book is South of Broad, which I am ashamed to say I never finished because I didn’t have the time, but I really liked as much of it as I read. You’re welcome to borrow it if you want.

    McCourt wrote a sequel to Angela’s Ashes, called ‘Tis, about his career as a teacher in NYC. It’s not as great as Angela’s Ashes, but it is a good book and has some of the same humor. Or if you like the Ireland setting, another book you must read is called Skippy Dies. It’s about a bunch of kids at an all-boys prep school in Ireland and it is SO FREAKING GOOD.

    I haven’t read Kafka on the Shore, although I’ve heard good things about it. Same guy wrote a book called Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which I did read and liked a lot. It’s fairly short too, might be worth checking out if you’re on the fence about Murakami.

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