I loved The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller’s brisk, graceful reimagining of the Iliad. The narrator is Achilles's companion Patroclus, a minor character in Homer’s original who makes for a surprisingly appealing protagonist. Miller’s book is a feat of storytelling: her take on the love affair between Achilles and Patroclus gives the epic tale of the Trojan War new emotional specificity. For a book that deals with a very old story, this was one of the most inventive debut novels I read this year.
– Laura Bennett, Staff Writer
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
I love memoirs, but reading them often feels like a guilty pleasure—a retreat from the world into the micro-landscape of the self. Cheryl Strayed is a beautifully interior writer, but her newest book, Wild—about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail several years after her mother’s death—faces doggedly outwards. She combines an intense personal crisis with a narrative about rapidly expanding horizons, and writes vividly not just about herself, but about joining the ranks of trail-walkers seeking something bigger than themselves. Strayed’s description of her lost mother’s love for her also sums up this book: “full-throated and all-encompassing and unadorned.”
– Nora Caplan-Bricker, Editorial Assistant
The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira by César Aira, translated by Katherine Silver
Arguably next in line for the position of “Only Latin American Author U.S. Publishers Find Interesting” (Bolaño still holds that title, for the moment), Aira has published more than 80 works in Spanish. The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira is the seventh to be translated into English, and in just 80 pages presents a sweeping meditation on doubt and fiction, while simultaneously telling the story of a doctor with supernatural talents. A comparison to Borges, a fellow Argentine, is tempting but fails to adequately capture the talents of Aira, who is far more dynamic.
– Sam Carter, Literary Intern
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo
India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India by Akash Kapur
Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India by Ananya Vajpeyi
Mr. Churchill's Profession: The Statesman as Author and the Book That Defined the "Special Relationship" by Peter Clarke
Ghosts of Empire: Britain's Legacies in the Modern World by Kwasi Karteng
P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters by P.G. Wodehouse
I didn't read enough books that were published this year, but the ones I did read were terrific. The best was certainly Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, but Akash Kapur’s India Becoming and Aman Sethi's A Free Man were two other excellent works about India. Ananya Vajpeyi's Righteous Republic was also particularly good.
Peter Clarke's Mr. Churchill's Profession is a wonderful little history of Churchill-as-writer. On a related subject, Kwasi Karteng's Ghosts of Empire was an impressive analysis of six former British colonies.
P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters is probably only worth reading if you are an obsessive Wodehouse fan, but much of his correspondence is both amusing and surprisingly interesting.
At Last, the final book of Edward St. Aubyn's series about the aristocratic and troubled Patrick Melrose, is only worth reading if you have read the rest of the series, which is well worth doing (all five books are very short). St. Aubyn is a superb prose stylist and his narrative decisions are frequently risky and almost always rewarding.
– Isaac Chotiner, Senior Editor
For fifty years, Louise Glück has been making something durable from language. She is not a poet drawn to prettiness or melodic fluency. Instead, she is attracted to a kind of fatal truthfulness. And the distilled speech of her poems—like a conch shell pressed against an ear—seems to demand only one listener.
The originality of Place cannot be overstated, nor its emotion. Like Gerard Manley Hopkins, Graham devises a focus for self and soul in the “inscapes” of the world, perceived with such magnified excitement that perception itself becomes an object of scrutiny.
Jack Gilbert is a poet famous for living in exile—or outside the Academy—while writing poems with a blunt, restless beauty. His death in November leaves this earthy, pleasurable, stubbornly silent 400-page volume.
– Henri Cole, Poetry Editor
NW: A Novel by Zadie Smith
I really loved NW even though many panned it. I think there is a current of young people who felt a much deeper attachment to it than those of an older generation.
– Chris Hughes, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief
Canada by Richard Ford
The first lines of Richard Ford's masterful new novel (“First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.”) are so powerful, they’ll pull you right in. Amazingly, every sentence that follows is as carefully composed and earnestly rendered. Both a gripping narrative (the tale of teeange Dell Parsons, who is sent to live with a stranger in Canada after said robbery and murders) and a truly beautiful prose style make Canada the only novel I read this year—or in the past few years—that I'd shelve among the classics.
– Hillary Kelly, Managing Editor/The Book
The Scientists by Marco Roth
A book that has stayed with me this year is Marco Roth's quiet, reflective, and deeply candid memoir The Scientists: A Family Romance. It is the story of a childhood spent keeping a terrible secret—the fact that Roth's father, a scientist, was dying of AIDS—and the ways that secret shaped Roth's passage into adulthood. Roth also has valuable things to say about what draws people to literature and literary theory, and how the attempt to understand life through books can both enlighten and mislead.
– Adam Kirsch, Senior Editor
Barack Obama: The Story by David Maraniss
We may feel we know all we need to about our community-organizing, left-hand-shooting president, but Maraniss’s exhaustive account of Obama’s family background and early life reminds us how much in fact was still elusive—thanks partly to Obama's selective telling in Dreams from My Father. Most crucially, Maraniss fills in the pivotal stretch Obama skipped, the late teens and early twenties, during which the pot-smoking, basketball-dreaming teenager became a serious-to-a-fault man on the move. Especially revelatory is the trove of material from two serious ex-girlfriends. From an Obama love letter at age 22: “Caught without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me, in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me. … The only way to assuage my feelings of isolation are to absorb all the traditions [and all the classes]; make them mine, me theirs.” Still confounded by the persistence of Obama’s conciliatory tack in his first-term? Lines like that give some insight.
– Alec MacGillis, Senior Editor
How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
I began How to Be a Woman out of a sense of begrudging professional obligation: I like my evening reading to be an escape from the Internet, and this sounded an awful lot like, say, Jezebel: The Book. And besides, I've rarely found supposedly hilarious memoirs about modern womanhood as funny as everyone else does. (Sorry, Bossypants. Sorry, feminists.) But I was delighted to discover that Caitlin Moran has a cracklingly funny voice, a gift for the essay, a keen sense of the ridiculous, and an enviable wisdom about how to be a person, regardless of gender.
– Noreen Malone, Staff Writer
It’s rare to see artists with Hass’s range of gifts—creative genius and a first-rate critical intelligence. Both are on display in What Light Can Do, his third book of prose, whether he discusses violence in the twentieth century or Chekhov’s early career as a writer of commercial comic pulp. Hass is known mostly as a poet, but with prose this erudite, precise, and humane he should be known as an essayist in his own right.
– Adam Plunkett, Assistant Literary Editor
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
Mocking fleece-clad Pacific Northwesterners, excessively polite Canadians, neurotic liberal parents, and Microsoft corporate hierarchies was never so much fun. But the magic of Maria Semple’s tale of a genius architect turned frustrated Seattle mom lies in its surprisingly empathetic conclusion.
– Michael Schaffer, Editorial Director
Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe by Charlotte Gill
The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making by David Esterly
Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story by Daphne Sheldrick
Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton
Four books about various deep-seated dedications greatly affected me in 2012. (Call it the year of reading obsessively.) Eating Dirt by Charlotte Gill was perhaps the most surprising: a book about planting trees is, contrary to what you might suppose, a thrill. This memoir about the physical, emotional, cultural, and ecological tolls of tree harvesting and planting is spare, elegant, and moving. David Esterly’s The Lost Carving similarly took me by surprise. (Wood carving—fascinating!) After a fire destroyed much of Hampton Court’s famous carvings, Esterly was brought in to try to recreate the lost masterpieces. His book is an account of a year-long séance with his artistic predecessors, but it also a beautifully written account of craft and inspiration. Daphne Sheldrick is my latest hero: an octogenarian who almost single-handedly upended attitudes toward the African elephant and charmingly chronicles her ongoing crusade in Love, Life, and Elephants. While there are plenty of baby elephant stories to break your heart, it remains an unsentimental, powerful read. Finally, I loved Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Stories. Our reviewer said it best: “It is a memoir about disconnection—how our passions can break us apart from the habits and emotions of daily life—and about reunion: how they can also sustain us, create continuity, provide a home.” (And do yourself a favor and read Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements—an utterly delightful debut.)
– Chloe Schama, Executive Editor/The Book
Gone Girl: A Novel by Gillian Flynn
Have you ever wanted to really fuck with somebody who did you wrong—but were perhaps limited by impatience, imagination, time, and, ultimately, the requisite guile or overdeveloped sense of justice? Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl gave 2012 readers the answer: a gifted, hip, self-aware psychopath who slides in and out of personalities like Russian nesting dolls and has infinite time and energy for scheming. Flynn’s character’s shape-shifting is bested only by Flynn herself, who writes this page-turning thriller in the distinct voices of three wonderfully discrete personalities. Two are the dead-real Gen-Xers next door. One is the chimera—and she’s gone, baby, gone.
– Sacha Z. Scoblic, Contributing Editor
Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain undoes a blind spot in our understanding of history (or in mine, anyway) by showing that Communist-occupied Eastern Europe had the life choked out of it not by an insidious application of soft power but by means of extraordinary brutality. She digs up astounding stories: how, even before the end of World War II, Stalin and Beria had future collaborators trained in secret schools in Moscow, then, after the war, had them whisk away Eastern Europe’s heroic leaders to gulags or swifter deaths; how apparatchiks used terror to turn volunteer and social groups into regimented Communist Party organizations; how idealistic urban planners designed Communist utopias while refusing to see how the cities they actually built debased those forced to live in them. With its step-by-step analysis of the evisceration of the civil societies of three nations (Poland, Hungary, and East Germany), this book could almost be read as a manual for tyranny, except that it’s written so beautifully, and with so much anger and heart.
The father of the novelist Alexandre Dumas had a story that rivaled, if not surpassed, any his son could invent, and Reiss wallows happily in its ironies. Alex Dumas was the son of a black slave woman and a French nobleman on the lam in Haiti. He spent his adolescence as an aristocrat-in-training in Paris, maneuvered his way through the French Revolution and The Terror, became one of the most brilliant and admired generals in Napoleon’s army, joined the emperor’s disastrous expedition to Egypt, was shipwrecked off the coast of Italy, and wound up a prisoner of the strange, fascistic Kingdom of Naples—the model for his son’s wrongfully imprisoned hero of The Count of Monte Cristo. Reiss embeds this almost unimaginable life deep in its disparate contexts: the slave economy of Haiti, the radical racial politics of the revolutionary era, the meritocratic opportunities offered by the Napoleonic wars, the return of racism later in Napoleon's reign. I read this book in a single, helpless gulp this summer, and haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
– Judith Shulevitz, Science Editor
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti
Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be? is certainly one of the more original books I've read, though not in the way I at first expected. It is cast as a nonfiction novel: it is narrated by a writer named Sheila, and it's about her friends, who all have the same names as several real-life friends of hers. It is, in her words, a "novel from life." But it turns out that there are pretty obvious artistic licenses taken—for example, a rough, brooding sex partner is named "Israel," which gives rise to some too-good-to-be true scenarios and sentences, suggesting at least some degree of fabrication. But Heti’s novel instructs its readers to assume documentary truth. The result of this fact-fiction tension was that How Should a Person Be?—which would more accurately have been titled How Should an Artist Be?—made me think about the sacrifices that go into making art.
– Marc Tracy, Staff Writer
Yes, there were better books this year—books (like Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her) that breathed new life into ancient truths. But I had more fun reading this biography of Ben Bradlee than anything else. The Woodward and Deep Throat stuff got all the attention, but where Himmelman really brought it was in his depiction of Bradlee, seemingly the most winning sociopath alive. “You ought to have impact, goddammit, instead of this namby-pamby stuff,” is how a former Post reporter described Bradlee's ethos, and this book’s got impact to spare, goddammit.
– Greg Veis, Executive Editor
BONUS! The 2001 Book that We Should Have Been Talking about in 2012
Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment by Michael Vorenberg
The very compelling Steven Spielberg-Tony Kushner film Lincoln sent me to its ostensible principal source, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, which for years had sat unread on my bookshelf. The film is full of intricate, fascinating detail about how the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, cleared the House of Representatives in 1865, and I was hungry to learn what SpielKush left out and how much of what they left in was true. What I quickly realized is that almost none of their dramatization actually derives from Goodwin’s book, to which (I’ve since learned) Spielberg acquired the rights before it was even written.
A much likelier, though unacknowledged (and probably uncompensated) principal source was Michael Vorenberg’s excellent 2001 book, Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment (Cambridge University Press). Priced for the academic market, Vorenberg’s lively and authoritative account is ill-positioned for a movie tie-in, but you can buy a Kindle edition for about $14 or rent one (as I did) for about $8. That’s less than what I spent on my movie ticket (and has the added advantage of coming without John Williams’s irritating faux-Aaron-Copland score). Spoiler alert: Most of the best bits in the movie really happened.
Correction: This item originally misspelled Aaron Copland's name.
– Timothy Noah, Senior Editor