PW Staff: Our Favorite Books We Read in 2012

PWStaff -- December 20th, 2012

PW has already named its Best Books of 2012, but since readers rarely get to see the faces behind the scenes, we thought we’d let our staff share the best book they read in 2012, because deep down, we’re all just book nerds. Here are our staff picks. Let us know your favorite book you read this year in the comments!

Peter Cannon, senior reviews editor:

When I was a college senior, I gave Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972, as a house present to a friend’s mother. At the time, I had no interest whatsoever in reading a long, serious contemporary novel, focused as I was on studying classic American literature at the same university where Stegner was in charge of the creative writing program. Forty years later, having broadened my literary range, I finally read Stegner’s masterpiece. I’m glad I waited.  At my current mature age, I can better appreciate the struggles of a mismatched couple in the post-Civil War American west, framed by the narrative of the couple’s cranky, crippled 58-year-old grandson, a retired history professor who tries to make sense of their story as he pieces it together. His fulminations against the hippie counterculture of his own day add to the fun. A brutally honest, unsentimental book.

Jessamine Chan, reviews editor:

I still have 400 pages to go, but at the halfway mark, Anna Karenina (the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) is definitely my favorite this year. Every hour that I can devote to it has been immensely rewarding. I’m not a big fan of the disaffected, post-post-emotion trend in contemporary fiction, so I love that these characters just feel so many feelings. Levin seems always on the verge of a meltdown, and the women sigh and weep for pages and pages. That is my kind of book. Last week, I missed my subway stop because of one of Vronsky’s big scenes. I wish all books could command my attention and inspire my devotion the way this one does.

Michael Coffey, co-editorial director:

One topic, jazz, served marvelously by two books this year: Ted Gioia’s The Jazz Standards (Oxford University Press), and Marc Myers’s Why Jazz Happened (Univ. of California Press). When read together, Myers’s book offers an explanation (as much as there can be one) of how the culture produced the 250 standards of the jazz repertoire that Gioia lovingly details. While Gioia makes a fascinating connection between how Broadway show tunes and the popularity of strong singers like Frank Sinatra and Billie Holliday fed and fed off the development (and commercial success for a time) of the jazz form, Myers, who covers music for the Wall Street Journal and writes the popular blog, JazzWax, explores how migration, the depression, the advent of radio, the evolution of recording technology (including the concomitant rise of juke boxes), and the battle between musicians’ unions and record companies directly influenced the direction of American jazz. Both books make for lively accompaniments to listening.

Louisa Ermelino, reviews director:

Moth Smoke by Moshin Hamid. Sometimes I’m slow to catch up. Hamid made his splash with The Reluctant Fundamentalist (could you get a better title?) but this first novel, that Pakastani youth, I’ve heard, carry around and revere with the devotion our youth give to Catcher in the Rye is too good to talk about. I can tell you it’s about friends, a love triangle, murder, criminal justice, hopelessness, humidity. It’s set in Lahore, there’s a beautiful woman. Her name is Mumtez and she smokes pot and cigarettes and drinks straight Scotch. Read this book. Fall in love.

Rose Fox, sci-fi/fantasy/horror/romance reviews editor:

The best book I read in 2012 is actually a 2013 book: Peter F. Hamilton’s Great North Road, a near-future police procedural coming out in January. The PW reviewer said that Hamilton had managed to sustain the tension of a murder mystery for 900 pages, even though much of the book is narrated by someone who might or might not be the killer. I admit I was pretty skeptical, since that’s an extremely difficult feat to pull off, but he really does it! I was absolutely gripped, and every time I put it down I couldn’t wait to pick it back up again. It’s one of those brilliant cross-genre books that hits every note for each of its genres; fans of English police procedurals will love the chatty banter among the cops as they dig for clues, engage in mind-numbing data-mining interspersed with sudden sharp dizzying moments of intense action, and wade through bureaucratic and political nonsense, while fans of hard SF will love the truly alien aliens, serious consideration of the ethical issues when humans colonize inhabited planets, thoughtful worldbuilding, and nifty technology. I’m very glad I had an e-galley and could read it on my phone, because 900 pages is a lot to lug on the subway, but it’s worth the time and effort.

Gabe Habash, news and Tip Sheet editor:

Two books stood out to me this year, and since I’ve already written about Tim Kreider’s We Learn Nothing, let’s talk about A Happy Man by Hansjörg Schertenleib, a tiny delight from Melville House that asks the question: is it possible to write compellingly about a happy person? Schertenleib’s novella has no conflict, and that means you’re reading entirely for the gentle and beautiful prose, not to find out what’s going to happen. It’s an analgesic without any side effects, it’s restful sleep, it’s all Good and no Bad. There’s a scene in which Schertenleib’s Happy Man watches as one, and then five, and then whole bushels of grape leaves fall and land softly on the ground, until they have covered a courtyard with a red carpet. That’s all that happens. It’s just that simple, and it was one of the most moving passages I’ve read in years.

David Foster Wallace said that good fiction makes us feel less alone because we identify with a character’s pain. But Schertenlieb’s novella and Kreider’s essays prove that we can feel less alone through writing by identifying with a character’s happiness, as well. Read both and you will feel lucky to be a human being. Promise.

Mike Harvkey, deputy reviews editor:

The best book I read this year, for me, was published in 1993. Reading Donald Antrim’s novel, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, for the first time in 2012, was like finding the lost piece of a puzzle you’ve been working on for years. I remember talking to a friend once about jazz. I didn’t know much about it, and she did, and I asked her how she got that way. She said she started with Hip Hop and worked backwards. Reading this novel after devouring the work of George Saunders was like that for me: working backwards through the last twenty years of satire until I found one of the first guys who looked at the American suburban experience as if through X-Ray specs stolen out of John Cheever’s liquor cabinet the morning after a party that ended in fistfights and regret.

Claire Kirch, Midwest correspondent:

It’s difficult for me to pick out one book from the scores of books I read each year and unequivocally declare, “this is my favorite read.” I always end up having to decide between two or three favorites that especially resonate with me long after I’ve turned the last page. This year was no different. It struck me, though, as I weighed the merits of two very different novels – one set in the wilds of northern Minnesota in the ‘20s, the other in modern-day Florida’s sprawl– that they have something in common: The Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye and The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel were both published by a small press, Unbridled Books. That being said, my vote goes to The Lola Quartet, which can only be described as a brilliant example of “literary noir.” I loved the overlapping story lines following a group of high school friends whose dreams of fame and fortune collide with the harsh realities of the adult world. But what really struck me about The Lola Quartet (besides the beautiful writing and sophisticated plot) was how St. John Mandel developed the theme of how one impulsive act, performed without a second thought, radiates outward and affects so many lives. The Lola Quartet is one of those novels that made me want to read every book the author has ever written.

Marcia Z. Nelson, associate religion editor:

I wouldn’t say Help Thanks Wow by Anne Lamott taught me how to pray. It did remind me that religion is best approached with humility and humor. Please.

Jonathan Segura, senior editor, digital media:

A teenager who has sex with his grandma, a porno-loving thug who feeds his pitbulls tabasco and malt liquor — what’s not to love? Nothing. Which is why Martin Amis’s Lionel Asbo was my favorite book of 2012. It drips Amis: every sentence is a provocation.

Samuel R. Slaton, reviews editor:

I first encountered the writing of Louis Menand in a short New Yorker piece about a cell phone ring tone that can’t be heard by old folks (in this case, teachers), but is brain-bustingly sharp to the ears of young people. Menand described the technology as “an ingenious guerilla tactic in youth’s eternal war against adult authority,” and used it like a magic trick to segue into a subtle meditation on how sense organs and sensibilities change as we mature, whether we like it or not, and how that affects what we know and what we can know. Shortly thereafter, I went out and bought the first book of his I could find at the Community Bookstore: 2001’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Metaphysical Club.

Subtitled “A Story of Ideas in America,” at the surface it’s just about as far removed from the New Yorker piece as Menand could get. But further down, his concerns are the same—only broader, grander, more… meta: What can we know? What do we know? And: How does what we think we know explain America as a cultural and intellectual thing? Sounds like heady stuff, but Menand’s approach to the metaphysics of 19th- and 20th-century America is breathtakingly lucid and decidedly physical—by tracing the careers, friendships, rivalries, and writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Charles Sander Pierce, and John Dewey, Menand maps out the movements, moments, and ideas that have defined America’s intellectual narrative: abolition, the Civil War, Transcendentalism, Darwinism, Pragmatism, and so on. Everything I loved about that brief bit of cultural criticism in The New Yorker—the great sentences, the insights, the clarity of thought from one moment to the next—it’s all here, and it’s inspiring and illuminating. I’m starting a Metaphysical Club Club if anyone’s interested.

Craig Teicher, director of digital/poetry editor:

Mendelsohn is the critic whose work I most enjoy reading. In his collection of essays, Waiting for the Barbarians, he uses his background in the Greek and Roman classics to point out how the oldest stories are the backdrop for some of the newest. You’re not going to find smarter or more compelling takes on the movie Avatar, or on Mad Men, than the ones in this book.

Wendy Werris, West Coast correspondent:

My favorite book this year is Schroder: A Novel, by Amity Gaige (Twelve, Feb. 2013), which I read in galley form. The story, about a mentally unhinged man who lives life as an imposter and kidnaps his daughter when his past is finally revealed, is compelling and unique. Gaige’s writing speaks to the complexity of human nature in an elegant, truthful way.

3 thoughts on “PW Staff: Our Favorite Books We Read in 2012

  1. Chris Roberts

    “Lionel Asbo: State of England”

    Those in the East End were born in filth and muck and you can see the stains of this in their faces. They are forever of the mud pits. This is my statement and that is the motif Martin Amis wants the reader to buy into.

    There is no doubt that Amis took his inspiration for Lionel Asbo from one or both of the Kray twins, notorious gangsters from London, circa 1960s. He fails in this regard because Asbo could never be twisted enough to fill or lick their shoes.

    The Cockney accent. Asbo. I think a surfer from Malibu could come up with a more convincing bit of colloquial word play. Me? I’m going to roll a baccy and have a butchers at another work.

    Chris Roberts

  2. Linda White

    I have to partly agree with Claire Kirch, above – maybe it’s because we are both Minnesotans? But I don’t think so; Claire and I have lots more than that in common. Still, my top pick was The Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye. With the ambitious perspective of two main characters, one male and one female, 20 years apart, Peter has succeeded in writing a beautiful story of love, belonging, place and hope. The details are extraordinary and the writing is heavenly. Peter succeeds in bringing to life in turn an 1890s logging camp and frontier town and 1920s Duluth, writing with amazing clarity of shipbuilding, logging, cooking, medicine, and all the details of daily life. He takes his readers inside the head of an immigrant who speaks no English and a son who struggles to create a family when he has none. I have been a fan of Peter since Safe from the Sea, and will continue to eagerly await each new syllable he writes.
    And Samuel, I can see now how very disciplined you must be in your five sentence emails! Sounds like a great book!

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