It’s that time again – or maybe even a little past time – to offer my list of the best fiction of 2012. I’m sure I’ve missed some great ones but these are the novels I read, enjoyed, and can strongly recommend. (In alphabetical order by author.) Looking forward to a great reading year in 2013!
Carry the One by Carol Anshaw
I’m not sure how I could have missed this author before. Carol Anshaw achieves a perfect narrative rhythm, magnetic images and characters so raw and vulnerable that I can almost feel the wounds on my own skin. While the premise of this book (a car accident that kills a little girl) doesn’t seem especially mind-blowing, the literary results are. Excellent.
Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron
Chosen for Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize (for socially relevant fiction,) Naomi Benaron’s Running the Rift makes the political personal as the best of well-written fiction can do. The story is told from the perspective of Rwandan teenager jean Patrick, a young man who wants nothing more than to represent his country as a runner in the Olympics. But what country? Jean Patrick is Tutsi and that ethnic label not only makes his dream particularly difficult to achieve but actually puts his life in danger. Even with losses too great to imagine, Jean Patrick never loses his determination to live, to love, and to capture some hope for the future – for his beautiful broken country and for himself.
The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau
The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau just won’t go away. This is one of those books in which story and prose combine in such subtle and profound ways that it’s almost as if the characters have become a part of the reader’s bloodstream. Jonas is unforgettable – a victim of war who represents nothing other than the intensity of human vulnerability – as are all the good people around Jonas who try but will never understand the ways his experiences have shaped him or be able to help him decide what he has to do about it. Jonas is someone we need to pay attention to if we are ever going to gain a true sense of the unbearable and unacceptable costs of war.
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
It feels almost arrogant to attempt a ‘review’ of Junot Diaz’s new collection of short stories This Is How You Lose Her. Diaz writes from a place few of us even know exists within ourselves, manages to deftly capture culture with story while exposing something deeply personal. It is almost as if each shifting account of Yunior and his relationships with family and women is a separate strand of DNA holding essential information that, when put together, forms the most amazing yet intangibly familiar complexity. Yunior’s relationship with identity informs the largest questions of humanity through a focus on those minute strands of cellular being. Yes, this is, at it’s most basic, the simple story of how a boy becomes a man but, by setting this process in the context of a man’s relationship to women, Diaz has succeeding in revealing the giant footprints of social history.
When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man by Nick Dybek
A boy and the sea. A moral dilemma involving fathers and sons. A fishing town in economic peril. If you believe that everything that can be written about these topics has already assumed a place in literature, you haven’t read Nick Dybek’s When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man.
With 14-yr.-old Cal as the pivot point in a swirling tale of both personal and mythic tention, Dybek plunges the reader into the depths for which only a tiny town set on a peninsula jutting into the Pacific Ocean could possibly provide the literal and metaphorical setting. Writing with Hemingway-like precision, clarity, and beauty, Dybek grabs us by the heart with both character and plot and simply never lets go. Definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year.
The Round House by Louis Erdrich
With a wonderful thirteen-year-old narrator and the compelling spiritual elements she is so known for, Louise Erdrich fulfills all the expectations of her former books with the newest, The Round House. It is often said that an author must, in some ways, fall in love with her own character(s). Erdrich loves not only the characters she creates – and so do we – but also their history, their environment, the entire world from which they spring. While imparting the social and historical realities of the Native American experience, especially the broken shards of bigoted laws that prevent access to personal and tribal sovereignty, Erdrich also manages to tell a riveting tale of crime, revenge and redemption that resonates across all cultures.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is an absolute standout in the YA heap if for no other reason than its head-on treatment of mortality and heroism from a real-lit perspective. With engaging characters, a riveting story, and subtle-yet-compelling wisdom, Green manages to pull the reader into his world – no matter how tragic and heart-wrenching – and make us want to stay there.
The Red House by Mark Haddon
The Red House by Mark Haddon is a most unusual and compelling book. While I’m tempted to describe the quickly alternating scenes as ‘snapshots,’ that seems wholly inadequate to the depth and vibrancy he is able to achieve in the fewest number of sentences. These people – a family? a collection of individuals, a metaphor for generational breakdown? – are so vivid, so raw, so unique and yet so real as to be nearly painful. It’s the kind of pain you hope for every time you open a book and Haddon has delivered it beautifully.
In One Person by John Irving
Billy Dean/Abbott – or ‘William’ as he is known by his beloved Miss Frost – joins the distinguished cast of not only John Irving’s most memorable characters but of literature as a whole. If you are the slightest bit uncomfortable with blasting away at assumed boundaries of sexual and gender orientation and practices, then this book is absolutely not for you. Or, maybe it’s exactly the book for you. And if Billy is one for the classics, so is Irving’s Vermont town, Billy’s family, his friends, his lovers and the secrets they all carry in hopes of keeping their lives under control while the world as they know it crashes down around them.
Epic in scope, In One Person follows Billy from his both charmed and confusing adolescence in the 1950s through his adulthood in the present, covering the Vietnam era, the AIDS epidemic, right up to the appearance of actual LGBT support groups on high school and college campuses! You won’t want to miss a minute.
A fantastic read.
(Okay, sorry. I’ve got to include this. If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to give it a try. I find the young adult landscape a bit barren at times for contemporary literature and I know there are lots of readers out there who might not stumble upon this book without a little boost of encouragement. Forgive me for the shameless self-promotion.)
Getting Somewhere by Beth Neff (publisher’s description)
Sarah, Jenna, Lauren, and Cassie may look like ordinary girls, but they’re not. They’re delinquents whose lives collide when they’re sent to an experimental juvenile detention program on a farm in the middle of nowhere. As the girls face up to the crimes they committed, three of them will heal the wounds of their pasts and discover strengths they never dreamed they had. And one, driven by a deep secret of her own, will seek to destroy everything they’ve all worked so hard for.
Mudwoman by Joyce Carol Oates
There is almost nothing more exciting than finding a new Joyce Carol Oates book on the library shelves. Her newest, Mudwoman, shines with her usual brilliance on every page, captures a kind of personal and social essence that is rarely achieved in literature. I know the word ‘visceral’ is so overused but the actual sensation of reading this book can be described no other way. Mudgirl, Mudwoman, M.R. – an abandoned child, an adopted teenager, president of an elite university. Within her, we see the history of a woman, certainly, but we also see the history of women, the experience of being a woman so vividly on the page that, even if we are a woman, we feel as though we haven’t quite captured our own essence until Oates reveals it for us. Other reviewers have referred to this novel as a ‘ghost story.’ I find that almost insulting and certainly far from the point. Or, on second thought, such misunderstanding makes Oates’ point exactly. Who of us – women – are not ghosts of ourselves, our dreams and behaviors and experiences shadows of who others want and expect us to be? I may say this once or twice a year: this book is a masterpiece.
The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman
Elliot Perlman succeeds in creating a highly contemporary and moving story while capturing some of the intense flavor of the recently passed (and still ever-present) Civil Rights era. The characters are real, complex and magnetic. It’s a rare feat to write a novel with multiple perspectives and make each one equally compelling and interesting. Perlman’s book does that while also building beautiful and satisfying connections between them. A really great book.