In 2012 my reading took me into the lives of Japanese-American women during WWII; introduced me to a fascinating family on the edge of an Indian Reservation in North Dakota; chilled me with the harsh Minnesota winter of a nineteenth century logging town; opened my eyes to the horror of labor service camps in Hungary, civil war in Sierra Leone, and genocide in Rwanda; and enthralled me with trips to Spain, the English countryside and a small town in Norway. I was introduced to memorable characters such as Jean Patrick, Kenzie, Odd Eide, Tristan Sadler, and Evelina Harp. I was haunted by thrilling literary-suspense; examined my feelings about religion, politics and racism; was enchanted by ancient ghosts at an archeological site in New Mexico; and reminded of the humor, the menace, the poignancy, and the love which draw people to animals. I laughed. I cried. I was transported by beautiful prose, and moved by profound observations. I feel really lucky that I had so many of these kinds of books in my reading stacks this year.
Because of the volume of wonderful books I read in 2012, I decided to do what I did in 2011 and create a long list, a short list and a winner for the best books I read this year.
Here are the books that touched me the most in 2012. Short and long listed books are in no particular order.
Long List – 2012
The Absolutist by John Boyne (Other Press – July 2012) – Bound to be a classic someday, Boyne’s novel has fascinating characters, a finely drawn plot, relevant themes and gorgeous writing. A powerful and poignant read for our time. Read my review.
The Submission by Amy Waldman (Picador, March 2012) – Compelling fiction which challenges readers, especially Americans, to look deep within themselves about essential questions related to religion, politics and fear. Read my review.
The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel (Unbridled Books, May 2012) – A terrific novel which I would classify as a literary suspense-thriller. Written with Mandel’s signature style, filled with complex characters, and revolving around the simple, yet compelling, concept that one decision can have lasting echoes far into the future. Read my review.
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (Anchor, March 2012) – A novella which grows more powerful after the final page has been turned. I have found myself thinking of these women, their stories, their community, their ultimate fate…and their voices echo in my head. It is hard to turn away from them. Read my review.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Random House, July 2012) – A deeply moving novel of loss, regret and ultimately forgiveness and redemption.The narrative moves between Harold and Maureen and gradually begins to connect the dots in the lives of these ordinary yet extraordinary people. This is not a fast-paced plot, but it is compelling drama which propels the reader through its pages to an emotional conclusion. Read my review.
The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg (Peirene Press, February 2012) – A multi-layered and rich piece of literature where pieces of the characters lives come together like an intricate puzzle. Many historical novels need hundreds of pages to do what Sahlberg does in a novella with just over one hundred pages. With writing which is tight, taut, and artfully drawn, Sahlberg reels the reader into a family drama set against the backdrop of post-war Finland in the dead of winter. Read my review.
Short List 2012
Come in and Cover Me by Gin Phillips (Riverhead Books, January 2012) Hardcover; Contemporary Fiction
Gin Phillips is a very talented writer. Her prose is radiant. I found myself sinking into this dream-like and beautifully crafted novel. Phillips draws the reader into a world of mystery and imagination as she brings to life the prehistoric characters whose skeletons now lie beneath the dirt of New Mexico. At once achingly sad and joyously hopeful, Come In and Cover Me is a haunting and poignant journey into the heart of a sensitive and enigmatic woman who discovers that it is never too late to heal one’s heart.
Birds of a Lesser Paradise: Stories by Megan Mayhew Bergman (Scribner, November 2012) Hardcover; Collection of Short Fiction
Taken as a whole, Bergman’s collection of stories is a stunning and beautifully wrought meditation on how our lives are connected to each other and to the world around us. Bergman writes with a finely honed knowledge of the animal world, and includes the humor, the menace, the poignancy, and the love which draw people to animals. She reminds us of how we cannot detach ourselves from our biology or from the world in which we live.
This is an exquisite collection from a fresh, new voice in fiction.
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (Knopf, May 2010) Hardcover; Historical Fiction
2010 NYT Most Notable Book, 2011 Orange Prize Long List, 2010 Christian Science Monitor Best Book, 2010 James Tait Black Memorial Prize shortlist, 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature Finalist, 2010 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize Shortlist, 2010 Edward Lewis Wallant Award
It is no surprise that I loved this novel. I loved its scope, its humanity, and its honesty. I loved Orringer’s prose, and her ability to resurrect the feel of a generation marching towards war. I loved the characters – Andras with his generous heart, Tibor with his sensitivity and Matyas with his free spirit. I loved that Orringer did not abandon me in darkness, but lifted me into the light. This is a book that adds to our understanding of history and provides insight into the human side of war. It is remarkable. And you should read it.
The Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye (Unbridled Books, October 2012) Hardcover; Historical & Literary Fiction
The Lighthouse Road is a novel about family and the complicated journey through love. It explores that ethereal bond between child and parent, the unexplainable desire to know where we come from and where we are going. Ultimately it is about finding home, not just in place but in the people with whom we share our lives.
Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron (Algonquin Books, January 2012) Hardcover; Historical & Literary Fiction
Winner 2010 Bellwether Prize for Fiction
I remember when the Rwandan Genocide happened. I was living in California and I remember the news footage of people laying slaughtered in the streets. I remember asking myself how this could happen and why no one stopped it. What Benaron’s novel does so exquisitely is to get beneath the headlines and examine the daily lives of the people living in Rwanda in the years leading up to the tragedy. She uncovers the tensions and the complexities of a country in flux and how misunderstandings between ethnic groups can grow into something so hate-filled that neighbors and friends can turn on each other.
The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (Atlantic Monthly Press, January 2011) Hardcover; Historical & Literary Fiction
2011 Overall Best Book for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, 2011 Orange Prize Shortlist. 2011 Warwick Prize for Writing shortlist
The Memory of Love is a quiet novel which reveals the people of post-war Sierra Leone: a boy whose father was murdered, a man rebuilding his body and dreaming of marriage, a woman ready to reclaim her son born of a rape, a community strengthened by its collective memories and cultural ties. Forna’s writing is graceful, introspective, and beautifully rendered.
The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich (Harper, April 2008) Hardcover; Literary Fiction
2009 Pulitzer Prize finalist (Fiction), 2010International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award Longlist, 2009 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award , 2008 Christian Science Monitor Best Book (Fiction), 2009 Dayton Literary Peace Prize Short List
Erdrich’s writing is lyrical and evokes vibrant imagery. She is a patient writer, one who carefully lays out the story and builds her characters. Spending time in her novels is like taking a journey to another place and time. I have mentioned in other reviews of Erdrich’s work that she is the consummate storyteller – and in The Plague of Doves this is once again apparent. Erdrich’s Pulitzer-nominated novel opens with the murder, then branches off into what at first seems like disparate stories…character studies, if you will. Eventually, Erdrich connects all these threads and returns to the question of who committed the murder of a family all those years before. It is a thrilling, “aha” moment in the novel.
Small Damages by Beth Kephart
Philomel (July 19, 2012)
I first discovered the writing of Beth Kephart when I read an advance readers edition of her novel Dangerous Neighbors in September of 2010 (read my review). Her poetic and finely wrought prose captured me – here was a writer who wrote from the heart. Since then, I’ve been slowly working my way through Kephart’s amazing body of work. Her latest novel – Small Damages – explores the themes of loss, the connection between parent and child, and the process of healing our hearts. Once again, Kephart brings to life her characters and makes us care deeply about them. Her word choices are carefully crafted (she will tell you this herself), and yet the writing feels effortless. I read a wonderful array of books in 2012, but it was easy for me to pick my favorite. I am looking forward to reading more wonderful novels from this most talented of authors.
I loved this novel and its appealing young protagonist. I loved the journey, and the discovery, the hope and the sadness, the path toward healing after trauma, the knowledge that we are never really alone, and that home is not a place on a map but the people who love you. Beth Kephart is an artist with words and Small Damages is another astonishing literary success.
Did any of these amazing books make YOUR best books of 2012?