Our favorite books of 2012
Every year the Chronicle asks its most bookish editors and contributors to riff on their favorite reading of the past 365 days, with no consideration of Top 10 ranking and no pressure to be definitive or comprehensive. Consider these our perfectly idiosyncratic impressions of the year in letters. Consider them, also, recommendations from one book-loving friend to another: Try these. We liked them. We think you will, too.
Dead Dads and Mother Earth's Long Death Rattle
My favorite books this year were all first novels, and, weirdly, three out of the four feature dead fathers as major plot motivators. In Jennifer duBois' exquisite A Partial History of Lost Causes (The Dial Press), a seriously ill woman tracks down the Russian chess master to whom her father, who died from the same degenerative disease, once sent a letter. Weaving between two timelines and two continents, duBois explores the fraught backstories of both the woman and the chess master until they meet and gnarl in the middle. Francesca Segal's The Innocents (Voice) cleverly transposes Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence to an upper middle class Jewish enclave in northwest London, with Segal's Newland Archer stand-in, a fatherless attorney named Adam Newman, torn between the comforts of his community and the excitements of his fiancée's racy American cousin. And in Scott Hutchins' A Working Theory of Love (Penguin Press), science's gallop toward sentient artificial intelligence takes on a special poignance for a San Francisco man whose dead father's diaries are being used as the building blocks for a computer program poised to beat the Turing test, a kind of human/robot shell game. The final debut that did a number on me doesn't traffic in dead dads – only a dying planet. Karen Thompson Walker's The Age of Miracles (Random House) charts the ruinous slowing of Earth's rotation alongside the coming-of-age of a 12-year-old girl. Hollywood disaster movies could learn a thing or two from Walker's unshowy, emotional savaging – her whisper is more lethal than all the summer movie screams put together. – Kimberley Jones
What They Call 'Graphic Novels'
Here's to a year happily suffused with the visually evoked narrative gambits – comics, right? – of Chris Ware's cohesive and omnidirectional Building Stories (Pantheon), breaking our hearts with careful verisimilitude across more than a dozen different formats; of Derf Backderf's My Friend Dahmer (Abrams), using memory's best keys to unlock the homely horrors of high school and the early days of a notorious serial killer; of Ron Regé Jr.'s The Cartoon Utopia (Fantagraphics), a magnum opus that ushers in a new world of enlightenment for all via pages glorious with coruscating linework; of Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot's Dotter of Her Father's Eyes (Dark Horse), a deftly mirrored biography of James Joyce's daughter Lucia and Talbot herself, both history and herstory, perfectly limned; of Magda Boreysza's Toasty Cats No. 6, wherein we witness the eerie transmogrification of various Critters in precise and stunning inks and wonder again when this author will be signed to one of the majors. And, speaking of majors, this year also brought us monthly delights for the year to come, with Kate Beaton's two hilarious Hark! A Vagrant calendars from Drawn & Quarterly. – Wayne Alan Brenner
I can think of no better way to thank writers than by giving them back a little bit of what they've given me – words.
– Monica Riese
Dear S.E. Smith,
Times have changed. Neither of us lives in a hut anymore, nor do we proof together in the tiny, cramped Estroplex at the Chronicle. The sun will start rising in the west any day now. But I can count on your lovely collection of poetry, I Live in a Hut (Cleveland State University Poetry Center), to make me laugh and give me a new perspective on bears. Hope you're killing it at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.
Expecting big things, M
Dear Jonathan Evison,
I missed you at the Texas Book Festival this year, but I sincerely wanted to thank you for taking me on such a journey of life and loss and – God help us – family in The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (Algonquin Books). You've reminded me why I read fiction.
Gratefully yours, M
Dear Deb Perelman,
Congratulations, I'm officially a fangirl. Maybe I crossed into that territory when I wrote you the note comparing my baking through your blog to Julie & Julia, but I'd say the official point was when I'd drooled on every last page of The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook (Knopf). From food to fonts, it's beautiful.
Need a sous? M
Oh, the Places We Went
Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue (Harper) is ostensibly about two friends – one black, one white – whose venerable vinyl record store on the Oakland/Berkeley border is being threatened by gentrification. But this ambitious literary feast encompasses so much more: race, family relationships, urban renewal, and blaxploitation films, to name but a few.
Junot Diaz's This Is How You Lose Her (Riverhead) is a collection of related short stories that grabs you from the get-go with its compelling use of language and its empathetic insights into the immigrant experience.
J.G. Ballard's last novel – and a fitting farewell, indeed – is Kingdom Come (W.W. Norton), a typically dystopian tale of modern consumerism transformed into fascism in the London suburbs.
Presence of place is a major attribute of Kim Barnes' In the Kingdom of Men (Knopf), which tells of the self-actualization of an American woman who joins her husband in an oppressive oil company compound in Cold War Saudi Arabia and must grapple with sexism, classism, racial oppression, and corrupt oil company politics.
Honorable mentions go to Karen Thompson Walker's impressive debut, The Age of Miracles (Random House); Jami Attenberg's funny and empathetic family drama, The Middlesteins (Grand Central Publishing); musician Gil Scott-Heron's posthumous memoir, The Last Holiday (Grove Press); and Austinite Dave Oliphant's rhyming poetic bio of Texas trumpeter Kenny Dorham, KD: A Jazz Biography (Wings Press). – Jay Trachtenberg
No Growing Pains Here
Dave Eggers' A Hologram for the King (McSweeney's) topped my list this year. I've been a fan of his work since I was a teenager, and what his latest novel made clear to me is that as I've grown up, so has his work – the self-conscious asides that made me love A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius when I was younger would drive me crazy today, but they're not present in A Hologram for the King. Instead, what you've got is a succinct, thoughtful, and sad look at the diminishing American influence through the sort of restrained character that Eggers' early critics complained that he couldn't write. There are longing passages lamenting the decline of American manufacturing, vivid stretches through the Saudi Arabian desert, and an absurdity to the premise – a team of Americans must wait for King Abdullah so they can make a bid to provide tech services to a new housing development – that are both captivating and subtle. It's a rare novelist whom you don't find yourself outgrowing during the change-ridden years from your late teens to early thirties, and I was delighted to read A Hologram for the King and find that Eggers was that sort of author. – Dan Solomon