When LJ’s book review editors gathered to choose best books recently, a controversy emerged. Some of us were stumping for titles—Eloisa James’s Paris in Love, Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, and Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things—that were, at least in part, previously published on the web. But should they qualify for our august listing? Was rehashed material good enough? Did Facebook postings count as previously published? Were they even books?
As you can see from our lists—these ten bests and 16 other great reads that struck us as noteworthy in 2012—we decided that there’s no shame in a lowly birth.
Your patrons will be the beneficiaries: the advice in Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, to pick the blog-turned-book that made our top ten, is so far from Ann Landers as to almost be a different genre, one that we at LJ now call “makes you cry on the subway.”
Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, one of our “More of the Best,” is the one that gave me pause. Its style reminds me of a cross between David Foster Wallace’s work (think lots of footnotes) and my childhood favorite, Bunty magazine, in which parenthetical asides made clear that the author’s deadly wit was being held in check by a boring editor. But Lawson’s is a different bird altogether. Tales of her childhood surrounded by (and sometimes inside) the weird products of her father’s taxidermy career will have you crying alright but with laughter.
The other “Internet book,” James’s Paris in Love, is the Facebook title, and it’s perfect escapism, describing the author’s sabbatical year in the city with her family. (Readers who’ve complained in the past that nobody reads our best books: here you go.)
We’re breaking other new ground, too, with two “best” write-ups for the same title. It’s Suzanne Joinson’s romantically titled A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar. This book has been on my towering side-of-the-bed pile for a while, and it’s clearly time I got to it as it gets an in-house nod from the editor of our Prepub Alert column, Barbara Hoffert, and one from Jane Henrickson Baird of Anchorage PL, AK, an LJ reviewer of historical fiction.
As usual, we find ourselves bursting with more recommendations than our pages can accommodate. For more bests, including how-to titles; other LJ staffers’ picks; and the top audio and video offerings of the year, see all of our Best of… posts.—Henrietta Thornton-Verma
Blair, Joe. By the Iowa Sea: A Memoir of Disaster
and Love. Scribner. ISBN 9781451636055. $24;
ebk. ISBN 9781451636079. MEMOIR
A startling, bleak, and thoroughly honest memoir from husband and father Blair, it documents a flood, a marriage in danger, a family in flux, and an inscrutable but mesmerizing boy whose developmental disabilities make his parents’ life a kind of hell but whose lovely, undulating patterns, which he traces in the dirt of their backyard, will stay with readers long after they finish the book. While the midlife-crisis memoir might seem typical, this one isn’t. (LJ12/11)—Molly McArdle
Boo, Katherine. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. Random. ISBN 9781400067558. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780679643951. SOC SCI
India may have a thriving economy and expansive future, but Boo shows us the lives excluded from those attainments as she follows members of a ragged Mumbai slum improvised on the edge of the city’s 21st-century expansion. With character studies so eloquent that readers may forget these are realities, Boo charts how Abdul, Fatima, Kalu, and others assert power and hope in the midst of their calamitous existence. (LJ 2/15/12)—Margaret Heilbrun
Cash, Wiley. A Land More Kind Than Home. Morrow.
ISBN 9780062088147. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062088246. F
Snake-handling preachers and bizarre, dysfunctional families are clichés of Southern fiction, but they can still make a great story. Cash’s debut novel centers on Jess, a boy who keeps his counsel when his mother’s church attempts to cure his disabled brother, unleashing a torrent of sadness and misadventure. The real hero, though, is Adelaide, a quiet activist who is one of the novel’s multiple alternating narrators. (LJ 3/1/12)—Henrietta Thornton-Verma
Fountain, Ben. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Ecco: HarperCollins. ISBN 9780060885595. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062096821. F
A member of Bravo Squad, whose fiercely fought battle in Iraq was caught on tape by an embedded Fox News crew, Billy Lynn is on a victory tour of sorts with the survivors. In a compacted but unrushed time frame, Fountain effectively captures both the transformative experiences of one young man and the horrific impact of war. As he ponders life choices, Billy makes a surprising decision, bringing to a conclusion a perfect read. (LJ 5/15/12)—Barbara Hoffert
Frank, Katherine. Crusoe: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox, and the Creation of a Myth. Pegasus. ISBN 9781605983349. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9781453249178. LIT
A man approaching age 60, an indefatigable writer of essays and polemics, tries his hand at fiction. He is Daniel Defoe in 1719. The book: Robinson Crusoe. Frank alternately explores Defoe’s life of astonishing intellectual activity and that of East India Company sea captain Robert Knox, who, decades before Defoe’s novel, was taken prisoner on the island of Ceylon where he remained for over 20 years before escaping and writing of it. These two men’s journeys will capture you. (LJ 2/15/12)—Margaret Heilbrun
Joyce, Graham. Some Kind of Fairy Tale. Doubleday. ISBN 9780385535786. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385535847. FANTASY
When Tara Martin shows up at her parents’ home on Christmas Day 20 years after she had disappeared, a bit bedraggled but not looking much older, her bewildered family struggle to make sense of her story. Was Tara really kidnapped by fairies, or is she lying or insane? A haunting blend of fantasy and reality by a modern master of fantasy. (LJ 6/1/12)—Wilda Williams
Miller, Madeline. The Song of Achilles. Ecco: HarperCollins. ISBN 9780062060617. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062060631. F
Patroclus is an awkward, exiled young prince; golden Achilles is the much-admired son of a sea goddess. In telling the story of their intense friendship and love, debut novelist Miller brings Homer’s ancient Greece to glorious life and offers a “masterly vision of the valor, drama, and tragedy of the Trojan War.” Her reinterpretation of The Iliad deservedly won the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction. (LJ 11/15/11)—Wilda Williams
O’Connor, Anne-Marie. The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele
Bloch-Bauer. Knopf. ISBN 9780307265647. $32.50;
ebk. ISBN 9780307957566. FINE ARTS
This epic story of a painting begins in the late 19th century, as Gustav Klimt becomes the premier painter of the Vienna Secession and Adele Bloch-Bauer, a renowned salon hostess and patron of the arts, and ends at the beginning of the 21st century, as his portrait of her is auctioned for a record-breaking $135 million. In between, the painting is seized by Nazis, renamed to hide its Jewish subject, held by Austria for decades, and finally won back by Bloch-Bauer’s heirs in an agonizing legal battle. (LJ 3/1/12)—Molly McArdle
Smith, Zadie. NW. Penguin Pr: Penguin Group (USA).
ISBN 9781594203978. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101595923. F
Relating the story of four people in North West London, Smith articulates important issues of race and class, but what matters most is her distinctive narrative voice. In numbered, run-on chapters that occasionally turn to aphorism, memo, and even poetry, Smith shows us how to write for the 21st century, when the online environment has changed our way of thinking, that makes other books sound ordinary. An aesthetic and emotional knockout. (LJ 9/15/12)—Barbara Hoffert
Strayed, Cheryl. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from “Dear Sugar.” Vintage: Random. ISBN 9780307949332. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9780307949325. SELF-HELP
Strayed has made a career out of touching her readers’ lives with stories of her own. This collection of her “Dear Sugar” columns, which originally appeared on The Rumpus (therumpus.net), may at first glance look like a nontraditional Best Book pick. Instead, Strayed’s columns transcend the genre that made Ann Landers famous. This is a book for readers who want to cry their eyes out but emerge feeling, somehow, stronger. (LJ 5/15/12)—Molly McArdle