Is the year really over? Has the wealth of riches that has been the literary scene in 2012 really come to a close? I mean, the year had its down points—can we please stop talking about 50 Shades of Grey already?—but good god, if this wasn’t one of the best years for books in recent memory, then I don’t know what is.
As usual, there are stacks of books I haven’t gotten around to yet, like Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Alice Munro’s Dear Life, and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk (all of which I hope to read over the holidays). And there are stacks of books I read that I wish I hadn’t, most notably Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. But with so much bounty this year, I really can’t complain. Of course, neither can I fit it all on one page. So take this list as merely the crème de la crème of this year’s offerings. Let’s hope 2013 is equally good.
Book of the Year
Chris Ware/Building Stories (Pantheon)
Building Stories is a graphic novel, a reinvention of the comic, a postmodern deconstruction of both the narrative and the physical book. It’s also by far the best thing I read—or should I say experienced—this year. The massive box of 14 different interrelated graphic texts can be read in any order, making the stories of the tenants of a Chicago brownstone (including the building itself and a neighboring bee) a different experience for each reader. In my review, I wrote, “Building Stories is one of the most compelling and emotionally resonant works I have read in years. ... Nothing much happens and everything happens—never before, perhaps, has the mundanity of daily life been given such weight and such beauty.” If you only buy one book this year, it should be this one.
Memoir of the Year
Sarah Manguso/The Guardians: An Elegy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Sarah Manguso’s svelte tribute to her friend Harris, who committed suicide, is one of the most affecting books I read this year. When I reviewed it, I wrote, “Manguso met her friend Harris at college while at Harvard. ... They were just friends, although in Manguso’s recounting you get the feeling that Harris wanted more. ‘He liked whitefish. He liked drinking Manhattans. He timed his jump in front of the train, and that’s the story,’ she writes. But the story, a hypnotic prose poem of a memoir, is really how Manguso processes her grief, which is what makes the book such a compelling read. It is an elegy to a lost friend but also to a lost youth, a lost innocence, a lost city.” A mediation on friendship, grief, and living, Manguso has written a rare gem of a book that won’t let you go.
Funniest Book of the Year
Rosecrans Baldwin/Paris, I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Runner-up: Inman Majors/Love's Winning Plays (Norton)
Maybe it was because I actually went to France this year, but I couldn’t stop laughing while reading Rosecrans Baldwin’s witty account of his move to Paris to work for a French advertising agency, despite barely speaking the language. The memoir is a farcical look at the differences between French and American culture, especially the business culture, in which sexuality is omnipresent and McDonald’s is a four-course lunch. A hilarious yet bittersweet love letter to one of the greatest cities in the world, I couldn’t put it down. But if you’re looking for a laugh without leaving the region, pick up Love’s Winning Plays (Norton), Knoxville native Inman Majors’ send-up of SEC football—it might be the only thing to bring a smile to Vols fans this year.
Adam Johnson/The Orphan Master’s Son (Random House)
Sebastian Faulks/A Possible Life (Henry Holt)
Hilary Mantel/Bring Up the Bodies (Henry Holt)
Tupelo Hassman/girlchild (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Whether or not you’re intrigued by North Korea, Adam Johnson’s novel is one of the most entertaining and thought-provoking reads of the year, a fantastical look inside a closed-off world. Faulks’ latest is a symphonic examination on the nature of self and existence. The five linked stories are thematically not unlike Cloud Atlas, but the prose is even more mesmerizing and the set-up less gimmicky—I really loved this book. It’s no surprise Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning sequel to Wolf Hall was one of the best reads of the year; reviewer Abigail Greenbaum wrote, “Mantel brilliantly mixes political terror with the more private, but also terrifying, conspiracies of the heart.” And Hassman’s promising debut is one of the best first novels I read in 2012. The harrowing tale of a precocious would-be Girl Scout growing up in a trailer park in Reno, Nev., girlchild shatters clichés while utilizing a creative structure to breathe fresh life into the coming-of-age genre.
Local Books of Note
Christopher Hebert/The Boiling Season (Harper)
Adam Prince/The Beautiful Wishes of Ugly Men (Black Lawrence Press)
Charlotte Pence/The Branches, the Axe, the Missing (Black Lawrence Press)
It was a good year for the University of Tennessee’s English Department. Writer-in-residence Chris Hebert’s first novel, a sprawling post-colonial epic set on a fictional Caribbean island, came out in March. Then recent graduates (and husband and wife) Adam Prince and Charlotte Pence had their first collections—of short stories and poetry, respectively—published this summer. All three works are striking, each in its own way, and further boost our fair city’s literary reputation, even if Prince and Pence sadly left us this fall for Baltimore.