The best books I read in 2012

Nonfiction

  • Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick. An amazing piece of journalism and a window into real life in the world’s most isolated country. Essential reading for humans.
  • The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, by David Halberstam. Having never been taught proper American history in school, I never really knew anything about the Korean War other than what I saw on M*A*S*H*, so this really filled in a huge gap in my knowledge. Split equally between close, first-person accounts of key battles and the political maneuvering back in the US.
  • 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles Mann. Not a new book and I don’t have much to say that hasn’t been said by many other reviewers. Awesome, fascinating on almost every page.
  • Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific 1941-1942, by Ian Toll. A terrific piece of narrative history, from which I learned a lot about those pivotal historical moments you hear about in school but never really really understand. It is lifted out of the ordinary by a sweeping account of the role of the Navy in US history, and an extraordinary account of the attack on Pearl Harbor that weaves together tons of first-person accounts of how it was actually experienced.

Fiction 

  • Jamrach’s Menagerie, by Carol Birch. A wonderfully written story of a boy and a tiger at sea in the 19th century. Nothing whatsoever to do with Life of Pi.
  • Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon. The latest by Chabon is self-recommending – the language is wonderful, the story is moving and often hilarious.
  • Open City, by Teju Cole. Very reminiscent of the discursive yet compelling reveries of W.G. Sebald, of which I am also a big fan.
  • A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers. Guy goes to Saudi Arabia to give a Powerpoint presentation. Sits in hotel a lot, misses various appointments. And yet the story manages to be very compelling – and written in a spare style completely unlike the over-the-top confessional voice he used for his memoir.
  • The Dragon Waiting, by John M. Ford. A classic of alternate history, retelling the story of Richard III in a Europe where Christianity never spread. Dense, complex and challenging.
  • Capital, by John Lanchester. On balance probably the best novel I read in 2012. Funny, a great read, and very relevant.
  • Bring Up The Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. The sequel to Wolf Hall. Won the Booker. Totally engrossing and awesome in very way, basically.
  • True Grit and Norwood, by Charles Portis. Apparently Portis’ books used to be taught in schools but these days is mostly forgotten. I read True Grit on a whim after seeing the most recent movie adaptation, and it is surprisingly wonderful, mostly because of the very distinctive voice in which it is told. The same is true for Norwood, a short comic novel, except here the voice is of a Southern redneck rather than a frontier widow. The virtuosity of Portis as a writer becomes especially clear when these two books are read together, since they bear absolutely no relation to one another.
  • The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, by Michael Swanwick. A sadly out-of-print classic by one of the most creative SF authors around. Upends almost every fantasy cliche about fairies and dragons with gleeful abandon  in a narrative that compels you by its sheer strangeness and dreamlike logic.
  • Among Others, by Jo Walton. This new book has swept the sci-fi industry awards, winning both the Hugo and Nebula, and it’s not hard to see why – it’s a sci-fi novel about an isolated teenager who reads sci-fi. The premise sounds precious but is not, actually, and the book is wonderfully written in a unique and very genuine voice.

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