A best-books-of-the-year list is inevitably more subjective than a similar list of movies, or even music, because so, so many more books are released in a year. Even if you read all the time, you still end up with a stack of books on your bedside table that you just haven’t gotten to. Yet. Then there are the books you started and put down and haven’t picked back up again. Yet. Then there’s simply the problem of trying to remember everything you actually did read. And then there’s the internal debate: Should I only list the serious books? Does something have to be weighty to be one of the best books of the year?
Thus, below, I have simply selected my favorite memorable reads of the year (and one book to skip). Buy them, get them from the library, hate them, just read them. And don’t assume that the omission of other critically acclaimed works is anything but my own failing to get to them.
Best “Serious” (Said in a Dour and Weighty Voice) Novel:
Freedom (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Jonathan Franzen
Yes, it’s overhyped, and yes, you want to punch most of the characters in the face, and yes, there are some laughably written sex scenes. But the novel is a must-read, a tour de force about middle-class family life in contemporary America—at least, a certain type of family. Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me’s Peter Sagal recently quipped on Twitter, “Freedom is the best conceivable novel ever about the kind of people who read novels like Freedom.” While I do fall solidly in that category, the main reason I loved this book was Franzen’s use of language. There were so many passages where I found myself saying, “Oh my god! This is what good writing should be!” That never happens.
Best Comedy of Manners:
The Three Weissmans of Westport (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Cathleen Schine
I will never understand how Schine, with all her novels’ humor and heart, was once married to David Denby, whose criticism has neither. Her latest novel follows a template similar to many of her others: a contemporary reworking of a classic (in this case Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility). An elderly man decides to leave his wife; she retreats to a cottage on Long Island Sound with her two middle-aged daughters; they’re each trying to rebuild their own lives. It sounds like the plot of a Jane Green novel, I know. Trust me, it’s not. The Three Weissmans is a charming and urbane escapade. Parts of the book are laugh-out-loud funny, and it will likely also make you cry. For weeks after I read it, I went around telling all my friends that they had to read this book. That never happens either.
Best Book You Should Actually Pay Money for and Add to Your Permanent Library:
Long, Last, Happy: New and Collected Stories (Grove Press) by Barry Hannah
When I moved to Oxford, Miss., two years ago, I was surprised to find the town’s literary types cared much more about Barry Hannah than William Faulkner. I was too embarrassed to admit I didn’t really know who they were talking about, so I checked Hannah’s 1978 collection, Airships, out of the library. It’s not the type of book you forget easily—it’s visceral and disturbing and, god! That voice! The characters seemed so alive! Lines like, “I wished I was Jesus. Somebody who never drank or wanted nooky. Or knew Jane.”
Most of Airships is reprinted in Long, Last, Happy, along with many of Hannah’s other stories across the span of his career, and a few previously unpublished works. The collection, as good as it is, remains bittersweet: Hannah died in March. I feel lucky I was in Oxford while he was still alive, not because I briefly met him in passing, but because otherwise I never would have discovered that voice. Hannah was known as a writer’s writer for most of his career. He deserves a wider audience, and I hope this collection finds him one.
Most Overrated Book:
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Knopf) by Stieg Larsson
Like most critics, I frequently read things solely because everyone is talking about them. Unlike most critics, I hated this book (and its two predecessors). I read all of it. I wanted to know what happened. But I hated myself for it. And it wasn’t just the overwhelming, if disguised, misogyny that got to me—it was the terrible writing. Why so many critics have bought into the marketing of Larsson as an author of “literary” thrillers, I will never understand. He’s no more literary than James Patterson, and at least Patterson pays his co-authors.
Faithful Place (Viking) by Tana French
French’s third book is everything a foreign literary thriller should be. The book is the haunting tale of a Dublin cop who returns to his childhood home in order to find out what really happened to his high-school sweetheart; she disappeared long ago. French breathes new life into what would otherwise be a cliched character, that of the policeman haunted by personal demons—his family. Gripping and well-written, it’s a perfect read for long winter nights ahead.