January 7, 2013

The Year in Books 2012: Best of the Best

The Year in Books 2012

(For all the lists in the 2012 "Year in Books" series, please click here.)

Of the 150 books CCLaP reviewed in 2012, exactly eleven of them received a score of 9.3 or above; while these are not necessarily the absolutely best books of the year, depending on what your particular tastes are, they are the ones that come most recommended to a general audience.

The Gods of Gotham, by Lyndsay Faye

The Gods of Gotham, by Lyndsay Faye. A couple of years ago, Lyndsay Faye's clever "Sherlock Holmes Versus Jack The Ripper" novel Dust and Shadow was the recipient of a CCLaP Guilty Pleasure Award, and only missed the legitimate best-of list because of it only appealing to a niche audience; but that's certainly not the case with her explosive follow-up, a steampunk-like proto-detective tale that has pushed her into national prominence for the first time in her career. Essentially the exact same premise as the popular TV show Copper, only better written (and incidentally published an entire year before the television show made its debut, hmmmm), it's basically Faye's take on a modern crime thriller franchise, only with our main character being the first detective in the entire history of New York, back in the mid-1800s when the very idea of "police departments" were first being invented. As such, then, although grounded in reality, Faye really delves into steampunk territory in this engaging, wildly inventive book; and that's basically what gave it its crossover appeal, a hit this year not only among the usual Scott Turow crowd but also science-fiction fans and of course Victoriana buffs. The first of what will hopefully be a long series (and please, Lyndsay, don't let these slip off the cliff of diminishing returns like so many crime thriller franchises do), this might possibly be the most enjoyable genre piece you will read this year.

India Calling, by Anand Giridharadas

India Calling, by Anand Giridharadas. Like many Americans, I've been purposely trying to learn more and more in recent years about Mesopotamia, Persia and Arabia (i.e. what we call the "Middle East"), the Indian subcontinent and more; but as I've mentioned before, many of the books I've been checking out are just not what I'm looking for, either too academic in nature or too fluffy, or sometimes concentrating on the past too much and sometime concentrating too much on the future. So it's a delight to come across a book like India Calling, which gets the balance so right; an American-born Indian journalist who got the New York Times to pay for him to move there for the first time, his reports are both hip and intelligent, concentrating on unique and creative subjects, taking both the traditions of that culture in mind and the yearnings of its youngest artists and entrepreneurs. If you're going to read only one book about what average life in 21st-century India is probably like these days, you could do a lot worse than to pick this one.

Leaving Mundania, by Lizzie Stark

Leaving Mundania, by Lizzie Stark. And speaking of creative and delightful journalism, this was another highlight of the year -- a George-Plimpton-style guide to Live Action Role Playing (LARP) games, which the author wrote by actually joining a campaign and playing it for an entire year. As such, then, this is personal journalism at its best, a style I know some purists detest but that I like quite a lot when done right; scholarly in its research, yet engaging as we see the sociological ways this "Dungeons & Dragons come to life" weekend hobby affects Stark's life and personality, with a lot of keen insights into why this particular activity is so good at providing socialization skills to those who otherwise find it hard or even impossible to socialize. A great guide to both a specific subculture and culture in general.

The Nervous System, by Nathan Larson

The Nervous System, by Nathan Larson. A sequel to The Dewey Decimal System that I read at the same time, these sci-fi noirs from indie-rocker Larson (and put out by our pals at Akashic Books) posit a wonderful "soft apocalypse" premise at their core; namely, after an unending string of natural disasters and terrorist attacks, 90 percent of the former population of Manhattan has voluntarily left that city, turning the island into a semi-anarchic DMZ watched over by the military but mostly ruled by a series of ethnic gangs. Like Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, then, Larson uses straightforward crime stories in both novels as a way to explore all the dark little corners of this speculative milieu, centered around a former soldier with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and a huge black hole in his memory, who is attempting to re-order all the books in the New York Public Library if just all these warring factions would leave him the hell alone. Both smart and exciting, these continue Akashic's impressive tradition of publishing well-done noirs set in unusual situations.

Office Girl, by Joe Meno

Office Girl, by Joe Meno. Is there a more interesting writer currently working in Chicago than Joe Meno? Oh, wait, I know the answer to that -- NO, NO THERE ISN'T. But instead of expanding the scope of his vision with his newest novel, Meno surprisingly went smaller and more inwards, turning in a story about an intense but fleeting two-week romance between a couple of art-school dropouts during the infamous Chicago Blizzard of 1999. And it was very smart for Meno to do this, too; for as one of a growing amount of contemporary writers known for their grandiose weirdness, this is a nice reminder of how good he is with simple character development as well. A lot of critics lambasted the book precisely for this, but I found it an intimate, quiet treat, and am convinced that you will too if you go into it with the right attitude.

The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco

The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco. Hooray for Umberto Eco! The rare author who can thrill even the fussiest, most academic heavy reader, he also takes on some mighty strange subjects for his fastidiously researched historical novels; this latest, for example, is supposedly a history of the infamous anti-Semitic tract "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," but in fact is actually a delightfully dark romp through nearly the entire history of mid-19th-century Europe. As such, then, you can think of this as an intellectual nerd's Forrest Gump, with Eco taking our fictional main character and placing him on the edges of a whole series of real events, from the Italian independence movement to France's Dreyfus Affair and more; and in the meanwhile, he also takes a sophisticated and nuanced look at all the conspiracies that are associated with these times, both real and imagined, and shows how widespread hatred of Jews came about mostly because it was simply the one group of people that all Europeans could agree to despise, when they weren't busy despising each other. A dense read but a rewarding one, this comes especially recommended to those who find all the other books on this list too simplistic.

The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, by Barbara Strauch

The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, by Barbara Strauch. Granted, my score here partly reflects my personal interest on the subject; but this look at all the latest medical developments regarding what we know about the brains of middle-agers is one of the best "NPR-worthy" nonfiction titles I read in 2012, impeccably researched yet populist in its writing style. And it's full of surprises, too, which is the main reason to read it, packed with new scientific understandings in just the last few years that haven't yet filtered down to the textbook level; for example, that our bodies actually do create new brain cells all the way until we die, that we can literally train our synapses to connect in certain ways like we physically train our muscles (and that such "exercise" might actually help stave off Alzheimer's), that there are literal new parts of our brain that turn on around the age of forty that make us naturally calmer and wiser about the world, and all kinds of other fascinating insights. A great read for all my fellow middle-agers who are wondering why they seem to perceive the world anymore in such a different way than even ten or twenty years ago.

The Snow Whale, by John Minichillo

The Snow Whale, by John Minichillo. Unfortunately, a lot of the "indie hipster lit" I read in 2012 turned out to be only subpar, which is why so little of it made these end-of-year lists; but this was easily one of the best of them all, which saves itself by being so smart, funny and inventive. The story of a milquetoast suburban white guy, who takes one of those home DNA tests one day and realizes he's one-third Inuit, then learns that he's allowed by law to participate in a literal canoe-and-spear whale hunt with the tribe once a year, like TC Boyle this novel gets a lot of its pleasure by taking simultaneous close looks at two very different environments that are slowly coming crashing together; not just our clueless narrator's struggles to be taken seriously in his middle-class hometown, but also a look at the small, poor Alaskan village where the modern Inuits live, and the various ways that the villagers react to this man's ludicrous and most likely suicidal request to come up and join them on that year's hunt. If you're a fan of McSweeney's, you'll love this bitter little charmer as well, and especially with the surprising and rewarding ending that is difficult to guess beforehand.

This Bright River, by Patrick Somerville

This Bright River, by Patrick Somerville. This latest by the popular local author just squeaked in under the deadline last year; and I'm glad it did, because this is Somerville firing on all cylinders for the first time in his career, and the results are often stunning. The story starts in comfortable Franzen territory -- grown slacker son of a dysfunctional family is asked to travel to the rural Wisconsin town where he grew up, in order to clean up a deceased uncle's house and get it ready for sale -- and indeed, the entire first two-thirds of this quickly-paced novel is a fine example of typical American indie lit. But it's in the surprise-filled last third where things really start picking up, turning quickly into a legitimate genre thriller and also a meditation on Evil With A Capital E and what causes it; and that takes what otherwise would've been a well-done but unremarkable Gen-X story and makes it a rarer and much more moving experience. There's a whole stable of amazing Chicago writers right now (but see Thursday's list for more on this); and this book vaults Somerville up near the top of that list, a breakthrough national bestseller (aided profoundly by an infamously botched review in the New York Times) that is well worth your time.

Thomas Hart Benton: A Life, by Justin Wolff

Thomas Hart Benton: A Life, by Justin Wolff. Nothing exactly groundbreaking, this is instead just an extremely well-done new biography of a figure who needed such a new biography, a man both falsely trumpeted and falsely maligned based on the whims of any particular age but whose real life contained a complex series of highs and lows. And that's what makes this book so interesting, is that it's not just a bio of Benton himself but a look at the entire war in the early 20th century over what the "national flavor" of the American arts was to be -- either the shiny sharp conceptual parlor games of "Modernism" or the stylized representational work and celebration of rural craft known as "Regionalism," two schools of thought that were directly at odds with each other. Benton was one of the foremost artists of the latter school, which in the Social Realist, Great Depression 1930s quickly made him the most famous artist in the United States, and the often envied commission recipient of many high-profile public mural projects; but after World War Two when Modernism permanently came into prominence, artists like Benton were largely shrugged off as passe pre-war dinosaurs with nothing interesting left to say, exacerbated in Benton's case by his argumentative nature, his habit of biting the hands that fed him, and an ugly streak of racism and homophobia picked up late in life. A once towering figure in the global arts who became nearly forgotten even while still alive, his story is also the story of the entire 20th century, and this no-holds-barred 21st-century bio brings the kind of complicated look to his life that this complicated man deserves.

Zone One, by Colson Whitehead

Zone One, by Colson Whitehead. This is the single only book I gave a perfect 10 to last year; and that's because it really is perfect for what the author was trying to achieve, a genre tale from a celebrated academe that works equally well as an American-Downfall metaphor and as a straightahead zombie thriller. Set not during the typical zombie apocalypse itself but rather ten years later, when clean-up from the disaster is finally hitting high gear, Whitehead clearly means for this to be a take on the Obamian-Age clean-up of the Bush atrocities of the early 2000s; and as such, he has a plethora of smart observations to make, on topics as varied as race, domestic punishment, and how much we now take the corporatization of everyday life for granted anymore. But it's in the exciting third act of this novel, when things all start going wrong again, that this story turns from great to phenomenal; for as the devastation ramps up despite everyone's best plans, Whitehead's real message seems to be that no amount of fist bumps and "Yes We Can" bumper stickers can change the fact that WE ARE ALL F-CKED, and that we have no one but ourselves to blame for it. A devastating indictment of the naivety of liberal optimism, all the more powerful for being written by a liberal optimist, this sneakily political tale is sure to keep giving you deep chills long after you're done reading it.

And that it's for today; but make sure to stop by again tomorrow, when we'll be looking at nine books not necessarily ranked the highest of the year, but certainly well worth your time.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:48 AM, January 7, 2013. Filed under: CCLaP news | Literature | Profiles | Reviews |