The five best books I read in 2012

My reading has been all over the map this year, from gossipy cooking memoirs to hefty literary novels to travel writing and to, well, fluffy, escapist beach reads. But looking back over the 50 or so books I finished, five stand out. Four of them are novels. Two are written by women. Two are slim and novella-esque. Four are recent releases, with 2011-2012 pub dates, but one is 40 years old. After writing up these reviews I realized 4 of the 5 feature the Western U.S. I’ve been drawn to books about the West since realizing my stay in California was more permanent than temporary – I suppose it’s my way of trying to understand what remains, still, a foreign place. Anyway, here they are:

bernadette  1. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? A witty novel by TV script writer Maria Semple (Arrested Development, Mad About You, SNL, etc.) that combines emails, psychiatric documents, police reports and letters. I enjoyed the playful knocks against Seattle and its “Subaru parents.” It’s original, funny and refreshingly different.  Looking forward to seeing more from this writer.

2. The Sense of an Ending My bookclub chose this 2011 Booker Prize barneswinner back in the spring and I admit I was reluctant and expecting stuffiness and/or tedium from British author Julian Barnes. Well. I read this slim novel in one sitting and was blown away. It’s masterful. The writing, the storytelling, the subtle plot twists … it’s so carefully woven, you’ll want to read it more than once to absorb it all of its intricacies.

3. Wild: From Lost to Found on the wildPacific Crest Trail  This one is on everyone’s end-of-year ‘best of’ lists, and with good reason. Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of hiking solo on the Pacific Crest Trail while reeling from grief and life missteps manages to be readable, honest and a well-balanced emotional ride. The intimate voice made me feel I’d been told a long, riveting story by a close friend and after I finished I kept retelling bits of the book to everyone I knew. Like all of Strayed’s writing, it sticks with you.

traindreams4. Train Dreams Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke author Denis Johnson has written a lovely meditation on the nature of the West and its development. Johnson’s beautiful writing is crafted with a subtle hand. Train Dreams was nominated for the Pulitzer in 2012.

stegner5. Angle of Repose “It should not be denied… that being footloose has always exhilarated us. It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led West.” Wallace Stegner’s masterful novel of the American West is not new (it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972) but for some reason, despite numerous recommendations from friends and family, I kept putting off reading it. What a mistake! I now count it among my favorite novels and hope to read it again this year. It’s cinematic and evocative, written as a story within a story. When I read this I was reminded how modern lit has changed and changed our reading habits – there’s no sell-it-quick first chapter to reel you in. Stegner starts slow and expects the reader to follow. But writing like this deserves the slow build and careful pacing it’s given.

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lit classes for the people

I was browsing iTunes the other night and noticed that they are now offering “iTunes U” — podcasts of lectures, events, speeches and so on. You can “take” literature courses at various schools, and there are some universities that have recorded author readings. You can listen to a course on the nature of creativity at MIT, for example, or on “the literature of crisis” at Stanford. Stanford actually has a bunch of tracks on literature, including discussions of various authors and books, like ZZ Packer and Wallace Stegner. Neat.