I read a lot. I read for my job, I read to my kids, I read at the gym, before bed, and sometimes (if the book is really good) I read while I’m cooking: stir the pot, read a page; add the spices, read a page. This habit may be while things often get served “cajun style” but hey. A story about the earth slowing in its rotation is vastly more interesting than making chicken tacos for dinner.
Karen Walker’s The Age of Miracles is the book that made me burn dinner. It didn’t make a lot of “year’s best” lists that I saw, but it’s a wonderful book that combines an adolescent coming-of-age story, the flavor of a California suburb, and an incredible it-could-almost-be-true tale of apocalypse: the earth begins to slow in its orbit and no one knows why, or what the consequences will be. Julia is eleven when “the slowing” begins and most of the novel’s story takes place during the first summer; she narrates the chilling final chapter when she is twenty-three. This book will make you burn your tacos, too.
If you missed Ashley Norton’s The Chocolate Money when it came out last spring, give yourself a lift during the bleak February months and pick up a copy. She mixes some conventional elements–bitchy mother, cynical, sharp-tongued daughter, boarding school, huge family fortunes–into a very unconventional story. It’s a funny, smart debut novel; I’m hoping we don’t have to wait too long for her second book. (Read my full review here.)
I read some fantastic memoirs this year, two of which are road trips, of a sort. One is Father’s Day, Buzz Bissinger’s moving and frequently profound story of driving cross-country with his son Zach, a 24 year old who suffered brain damage at birth and who functions at about the level of a 9 year old. Bissinger talks unsparingly about being the father of a special needs son; Zach doesn’t change much during their journey but Bissinger finishes the trip a changed man.
Cheryl Strayed’s journey is a bit more unconventional: to cure her bad break-up, drug addiction, and sense of general malaise, she decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from beginning to end–about eleven hundred miles. She has no hiking experience and no companion on her trip; it’s a solo flight and the results are by turns funny, moving, and hair-raising. After reading about her exploits in Wild, my own whining about bad drivers in Abu Dhabi seemed utterly, completely lame.
Continuing in the “your life really doesn’t suck by comparison” theme is The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, which I read in one sitting. Granted, I had jet lag, so my inner clock thought it was still early evening even though it was well past midnight, but it’s really that good. Unbelievable, harrowing, astonishing, brutal, compassionate–all those things, frequently in the span of a paragraph. Jeannette and her two, then three siblings, live with their parents in trailers, the backs of cars, decrepit adobe houses, termite-ridden shacks in Appalachia; there is rarely enough food, lots of drinking, some theft, a soupcon of gambling, and narrow escapes from social services and the law.
I don’t know about you, but the last few novels by Louise Erdrich have been sort of…noble failures. I read them out of a sense of duty because she is an Important Woman Writer, but nothing has come close to the brilliance and pleasure of Love Medicine, Tracks, The Beet Queen. Then this year, she publishes The Round House and bam! she knocks it out of the park. Not only does she perfectly channel the voice of a teen-age boy, she gives us one of the best portraits of a marriage I’ve seen and an unflinching look at contemporary life “on the rez.” Starting with a brutal crime and ending with an affirmation of unshakeable family affection, it’s all that a novel should be: it’s Important, true, but it wears its importance lightly. You are instead swept along on story and only later do you realize that the novel’s ideas have been on your mind for days.
Here’s a readerly failure: I wanted to read Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo’s account of lives in a Mumbai slum but I couldn’t do it. I tried, and I admired her prose, and her ability to capture the personalities of the people she encountered, but ultimately it was too painful, too brutal–and the state of life for these people seemed too permanent. I stopped when a woman deliberately set herself on fire to get her neighbors in trouble. I’d like for someone else to read it and tell me that somehow there’s a happy ending…
And now my big finale: a book I actually read just the other day, but it was published in 2012, so I’m including it here; Alif the Unseen, by Willow Wilson. Sean, over at Big Poppa Eats, passed this book along to me and it blew me away. (Sean’s blog reflects that he also has great taste in New York food, as well as books) Alif is an Arab-Indian hacker who lives at home until a program he write attracts the attention of the government. Then Alif, his next-door neighbor Dina, and a djinn named Vikram the Vampire find themselves on the run. Their journey wends through several unnamed Middle Easter cities, into the desert of the Empty Quarter, and into various magical cities populated by all manner of otherworldly characters. When Alif asks the djinn why they live in the Empty Quarter, the djinn tells him that djinn like abandoned places, with few humans around. “Detroit is very popular,” he says. The book talks about Islam, about writing code, about freedom and belief, about 1001 Nights, about love and language; and it ends with something that looks a lot like Arab Spring. I loved it and then I gave it to Liam, who was fascinated by the idea of hackers–and deeply disappointed to realize that hacking was mostly illegal.
And you? what did you read in 2012? What are you looking forward to in 2013? What did your kids read? (And did you know that you click on the titles in this post to go right to Amazon? Or if you’re lucky enough to live in a place with a library, get busy with your reserve list…!)