The Life of Objects by Susanna Moore
I picked up The Life of Objects on tour earlier in the year, when a bookseller (Hans Weyandt at Micawber’s in St. Paul) gave me a galley and said he thought I might like it. He was right. Moore’s novel is the exquisitely written story of a young Irish lacemaker’s experiences in Germany over the course of WWII, and I was struck by the clarity and beauty of the writing.
Arcadia by Lauren Groff
Arcadia is the story of a boy growing up in a commune in upstate New York, but it’s also the story of the commune itself, from its earliest beginnings through its inevitable downfall. Groff is a supremely talented writer, and Arcadia is just really a very, very good book.
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
In Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil traces the intertwined lives of the workers and patrons of a Bombay opium den over several decades, and in doing so paints a violently beautiful portrait of the city. The book has a strange fever-dream quality about it that haunts me months after I read it.
You & Me by Padgett Powell
Here is a short novel that makes your lips contort and quiver as you read it because you’re on the subway and it’s crowded and you don’t want to just giggle and snicker and laugh out loud like a crazy person. But with your lips contorting and quivering like this, you look like you will cry. The person beside you asks if you’re okay, if what you’re reading is sad. You start to answer no, but then you think about it and you find yourself saying, “Yeah, actually. Kinda.” Also, it has lots of good one-liners to put on T-shirts or to quote at random, without context, to confound your enemies. For example: “Be neat, be brave, be Buster-Brown bustamente.” It is a novel that could only exist as a novel.
Dead Stars by Bruce Wagner
Uncle Bruce! For over 20 years, Uncle Bruce has been writing sprawling, hilarious, tragic, dark-dark-dark novels about desperate people in Hollywood. Dead Stars is his biggest (650 pages), his baddest (a character rhapsodizes for 10 pages about tween star crotch shots), but also his most tender. Uncle Bruce wrote it upon release from the hospital for addiction to opiates and narcotics. Dead Stars is like having your eyeballs up against one of those giant flashing LCD screens in Times Square while gorging on Olive Garden and Red Bull, masturbating to TMZ.com (a recommended experience).
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
The best Iraq War novel there probably ever will be doesn’t even take place in Iraq but at a Dallas Cowboys game. It’s about a company of young Marines who are flown home from the war for a few days to be trotted out and marched around before a national audience as props in Beyonce’s halftime performance to make everyone feel good about themselves. It’s hilarious and effortlessly captures not only what it must be like to come back from Over There but also pretty much everything grotesque about America in the 21st century. It was nominated for the National Book Award and should have won.
Children in Reindeer Woods by Kristin Omarsdottir
This novel by an Icelandic poet is perversely violent yet laugh-out-loud funny. I can't say what exactly it's an allegory of, yet I feel I understand.
Too Good to Be True by Benjamin Anastas
I'd expect a memoir about divorce and debt to be painful and raw, and it was. But I wasn't expecting it to be so beautifully written and skillfully crafted, almost stealthily so, so you follow along without knowing where you are being led—then are devastated when you arrive.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
I always feel guilty about including books that are on every best-of list, but it would be dishonest not to include this one: in reporting, writing and narrative power not just the best of this year but of many, many years.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
A good—no, great—old-fashioned novel with a modern sensibility. Italy and Richard Burton share star-billing in a story dissecting the lives they fracture. Walter's elliptical prose is as polished as the plot.
The Forgiven by Lawrence Osborne
A fitting heir to The Sheltering Sky. Osborne applies a detached clinical gaze to the debauched party crowd and the end of a stale marriage. The creeping fatalism wafts through Morocco like a flash sandstorm.
The Passage of Power by Robert Caro
No one writes biographies better than Robert Caro; he's the gold standard. This fourth installment of his Lyndon Johnson saga is a nail-biter, even though we know the outcome from page one. November 22, 1963, is shockingly new and horrifying for all its pointellistic detail.
Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel
This graphic memoir is a particularly intense read if you happen to be a mother (I read it while nursing my newborn) or a daughter, or if you’ve ever had to navigate the space between your parents’ dreams and your own.
Safe as Houses by Marie-Helene Bertino
It’s impossible not to love this charming/profound collection of short stories. Bertino’s narrators include a girl who brings Bob Dylan home for Thanksgiving, a young woman who attempts to recover from a breakup by moving in with a bunch of nuns, and a college student whose friends possess superpowers. In Bertino’s world, the mundane and the magical are one.
Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman
Another great nursing read. The scathing evocation of a Park Slope playground will amuse (and resonate with) locals. This book helps answer the age-old question "Why are those European kids not acting like brats?" My husband and I will do our best to promote self-reliance, patience, and a broad palate... but, unlike some French parents Druckerman describes, we probably won’t send our daughter to sleepaway camp at age four.
This was a weird year. I stopped being social and sort of turned in, spending most of 2012 with my head tucked down, writing, teaching, or hiding from the world. I was also reading books—but most of them, I have realized, were not published in the last year (which is no surprise to me because I am at least a year behind—developmentally and otherwise). Somehow, though, despite all of my attempts at being a writer-funk, recluse, when I look back on the year I also realize I managed to cross paths with, befriend, and read some pretty awesome Brooklyn writers. Drum roll please:
Walk Back From Monkey School, Kate Hill Cantrill
Ladies, especially writer/artist ladies (and gentlemen, too): you know how when you are doing something naughty, how while you are in the act of doing it there is also another girl, a narrator, sort of describing the moment to you in your head? That narrator girl is Kate Hill Cantrill, and she is singing our lives to us beautifully.
The Narrows by m. craig
Ok, this one technically came out in 2011, but I met m. craig and got her book this past year, and it is a steampunk voyage into a magic Bushwick, and there is lesbian romance in it, and crazy old dudes who like to fix things, and drugs and alcohol go by different more intoxicating names like "pixie pollen." Also, Papercut Press rules! Look for edgy stuff from them in the future.
the small plot beside the ventriloquist's grave: poems by Terence Degnan
These words are unpretentious and straight from the heart. If you're lucky you'll see them delivered at some point or another, perhaps at a Rabbit Tales Salon. "In utopia," one of Degnan's poems says, "we are drinking/Shaefer from a can/your heart is good/the waitress is in love/no need for refills"—'nuff said.
Dear Life by Alice Munro
There’s a reason Cynthia Ozick called her “our Chekhov.” No one excavates the inner lives of their characters the way she does. An entire novel is contained in each of these stories.
The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn
In case Flannery O’Connor and Martin Amis haven’t convinced you that first-rate fiction doesn’t require likable characters, read Edward St. Aubyn, whose Patrick Melrose Novels—the first four collected in a single volume, to accompany the publishing of the fifth, At Last—feature not a likable character in the bunch. The books are brilliant.