Thursday, January 3, 2013

Stephanie's Top 10 of 2012

"One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that's a chair, that's a table, and yet at the same time, It's a miracle, it's an ecstasy."
-To the Lighthouse
Virginia Woolf

For the past three Januaries, I have sat down, taken a deep breath, and allowed myself to re-visit every lovely word I've read throughout the year prior. I love this, and I actually think that it's a really great exercise for a number of reasons--I get to remember books that might have been shoved into the back of my brain because of something as silly as the passage of time, I often can vividly remember what I was doing while reading a certain book (for instance, I bought The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown at Kramerbooks because I was waiting for Traber to get home from a trip he had just taken and I had started reading it at his apartment before I fell asleep because it had gotten late, or I remember reading Arcadia by Lauren Groff while flying to Indianapolis to see a friend get married and I don't even remember the plane taking off because I was so engrossed in the book) so in that way, it allows me another way to look back at the year and everything I've done. It also is cool to look at the patterns and personal trends I went through during the year--there was a short "post-semi-apocalyptic" phase, and of course, a Nora Ephron phase, and a "short and sweet" phase. Regardless, it's always fun for me to reminisce about my reading life and to also look ahead to all the fun things to come!

I have been keeping these yearly lists since I was 14 years old. Actually, all of my lists are on the same type of paper (which I'm running out of.. and I really don't know what to do about it. I may have to go on a paper hunt soon. I'm distressed.) and they all fit very nicely folded in an old, loose rubberband and sit in an old wooden cigar box throughout the year. I consult them pretty often--when I make lists for people, I usually take the last five years out and browse through to see if anything sparks a recommendation for that person. My first few years of lists are funny to pull out--I used to love gel pens (couldn't get enough of them.. you know what I'm talking about) so often the lists are written in different colors and in rather large print. Now, I only use black pen (I was told by my fourth grade teacher that blue pens look unprofessional and I've abhorred using them ever since), my handwriting is (to the dismay of those I write to, I'm sure) very small and loopy. And on the even more plus side, I've now got this blog to help me remember exactly what stood out to me about each book I read this year. I've tried to keep a reading journal before and it's never worked--but sharing it has given me motivation!

I know that I've already talked about my 25th year to the extreme, so I won't philosophize about 2012 too much except to say this: there are some amazing books out there and the fact that I come to that realization each year not only gives me hope but keeps me going.

In 2012, I read 52 books (two less than last year). Let me, as usual, give my caveats about my Top 10 lists: these are books that I have read and completed between January 1, 2012 and December 31, 2012. These books were not necessarily published in 2012 (though most of them were published within the last three years) and anything that I have reread this year is not eligible for the Top 10. At the end of the top list, you'll find the list of all the books I have read this year. Also, for the Top 10 books, I've linked to my original post about the book and listed the year it was published.

Without further ado:

Stephanie's Top 10 Books of 2012
10) Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer (2012): As I'm looking back at my list from this year, I'm realizing how few non-fiction books I've read, and it makes me sad. But I am very glad that I got to this one! Foer dives into the world of memory competitions--while writing about the competitions, he decides to enter himself and is mentored by a band of interesting characters who teach him the tricks of memorizing cards, names, numbers, and other things. Foer talks in depth about the idea of a Memory Palace (which actually keeps popping up in my daily life) and about how humans are really losing their ability to remember due to an overabundance of technology and tools to act as our memories for us. It's a really fascinating read and though the topic may sound dull, Foer is a wonderful writer and really pulls you in.
9) The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (2012): This was a book that I pretty much picked up because I liked the cover (yes, my mother taught me well.. thanks, mom!) and I was really drawn into it and it kind of freaked me out. The story follows a girl who is living in America when the Earth is randomly knocked a bit off its axis, making the days no longer 24 hours where there is a definite time for sunrise and sunset. Though this seems mild when you just passingly think about it, Walker delves deeply into all the things that would change not only on a global level, but also for a teenage girl who has her own problems. I really thought that Walker did a great job of also of showing the true nature behind the creation of a common enemy in the face of fear (in this case, the enemy is the people who want to continue to live their lives on "clock time" rather than on the time the earth rotates). Well written and extremely thought-provoking.
8) The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson (2011): I like a good, quirky, dark book and this one fits the bill. The story follows the Fang family--the parents are performance artists who use their life and their family, which includes Annie and Buster, or Child A and Child B to create art. The great thing about this book is that it combines two major themes: What is Art? and the idea that no matter what your parents do to you, there is this unexplanable pull that we have to them, good or bad. It's a really interesting story that, while darkly told, made me laugh out loud.
7) An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer (2012): (I can't link to an old post for this book since I just read it and don't have a past post, so I'm linking you to the Amazon page for it.)  This was my last book of the year, and I adored it. It's actually one that HarperCollins sent me and I read it over Christmas. I had a stressful time getting out of DC for the holidays, and because of the fat that I was engrossed in this book, I didn't throw up on the plane on the way back! The story is about Naomi who grows up in the Boston area with a clinically depressed mother and a father who loves her and had a heart attack in front of her while touring Rose Kennedy's home. As she grows up, she is determined to become a doctor and puts all of her effort into it. Naomi's only childhood friend is Teddy whose family is devoutly Jewish and who disapproves of Naomi, but the two are in love--a kind of kid-love that most of us are familiar with, but also something deeper that stays with them even after Teddy moves away and eventually stops communicating with Naomi. As the years pass, Naomi throws herself more into school and tennis and she goes to Wellesley where events occur that lead her to the Shakespeare Society and to performing plays with the group. She makes good friends and stops focusing on school as much, and when her mother becomes ill, her life is completely changed. The major plot point is when Naomi's best friend is accused of cheating and her time at Wellesley goes a bit sour. I don't want to give anything away except to say that this book was the perfect book for me--it's about thinking you know who you are and who you're supposed to be and then taking the time to figure out that it's not that way at all. The story is not only about Naomi's time at school but also in understanding her troubled mother, the nature of friendship, and what is truly important. Naomi comes across as real person, not just a character, and I was sad to finish the book.
6) The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein (2009): If you read my post about this book, you know that I was hesitant to read this for two reasons: 1) it's about a dog and 2) it was an audiobook. Traber and I listened to The Art of Racing in the Rain over the course of several road trips in June and July. Honestly, we didn't even finish it together--I hacked his audible account so I could listen to the end because it was killing me. I had to finish it. I loved it. And I kind of want to read it in paper rather than listening to it just to see if it brings out the same emotions (like... I almost had to stop driving the car because my eyes were so full of tears) as it does when listening to it. The story isn't really about a dog--it's about the dog's owner who gets him when he's a puppy and then eventually gets married and has a daughter. The simplistic yet lovely view of the dog's own world captures the love, happiness, and tragedy of the family as they grow. The dog, while philosophical at times, is a dog and Stein does a great job of verbalizing his world. Please read it.
5) The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (2011): This is a book that's about baseball but not about baseball at all and I loved it. I zoomed through it so fast that I almost wanted to go back and re-read it. The story surrounds several people involved in some way with the baseball program at the fictitious Westish College: three baseball players, the president of the college, and his daughter are the main players, but others pepper the pages. It's hard to explain the plot of the book without giving anything valuable away, but it is beautifully written with an engaging plot and is about so much more than you initially think. My biggest takeaway can be summed up in my initial post: "It's about religion and dedication but not necessarily to a god or supernatural being, but rather about the religion we create for ourselves around an aspect of our lives and what happens when it's taken away from us. It's a novel about finding oneself in the midst of becoming something different than you expected."
4) The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (2012): Words can't quite express my love of this book. The plot seems like it would be sappy and too preachy almost (it's about two kids with terminal illnesses who meet in a support group and fall in love), it's not. Green does an amazing job of capturing the ideas and emotions of teenagers while also laying them over with the slight sheen of adulthood which they've earned through their illnesses and making them very real people who are easy to connect with. Yes, it's young adult, and yes, I cried when I read it, but don't you need a little bit of that every once in a while? It's been on almost ever "Best of 2012" list around, so I think I'm right in saying that you should try it too.
3) Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (2011): I just realized that I never posted about this book and I'm kicking myself!! This book won the National Book Award in 2011 and rightly so. I was captured from the first page by the beautiful, accessible prose and the story of Esch who is a impoverished pregnant teenager in Mississippi during a massive hurricane. The story only takes place over the course of about two weeks, where Esch and her brothers and father are trying to stock up for the storm, but Ward is able to tell the life story of Esch and the loss of her mother, everything that led up to her pregnancy, and how the family tries to survive through the impossible. Though Esch is the main protagonist, the character development of her brothers and their friends, especially her brother Skeetah who has an affinity for pit bulls and loving them. Although the life that Esch leads is far removed from most of our lives, Ward opens it up for us to see in all its terror, small beauties, and hardships. It's a beautiful book and probably the one I have recommended most this year.
2) Arcadia by Lauren Groff (2012): If you've looked at any book blogs this year "best of" lists, you recognize this title. Everyone was talking about it and it's not hard to see why. The story is about Bit who was born and grew up on a commune. The novel is narrated by Bit and is broken into three sections: Bit as a young boy when life at the commune was wonderful, Bit as a teenager as the commune broke apart, and Bit as an adult who has to live in a world that has only recently become a bit familiar. It's brilliantly told and about so much more than life in and after a commune. Slightly reminiscent of Emma Donoghue's Room, this is one that you have to read.
And my number 1 shouldn't surprise any of you...
1) The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011): I loved this book. I want to marry this book. I want to read it again and I want it to never end. In case you haven't asked me for a personal book recommendation from me this year (I recommended it to everyone. Seriously.), the story surrounds a circus that only appears at night almost out of thin air. The circus is fueled and maintained by a competition between two older men--they want to see whose protege is the best, basically. I almost don't want to tell you any plot because it's so good that it's best that you don't know anything going in. But if books that are a little fantasy-y aren't your thing (mine either), don't let that turn you away--it's about so much more than that, and the magic is just the icing on the cake. What I love about this book (and I said it in my original post), is that in the end, it's not about what you thought it was about, and I mean that in the best way possible. So good. Please read it.
And that's it, folks. My top 10 picks from the books I read in 2012. Below is the list of the other books that I read in 2012. This was a really hard list to pick only 10 from, so anything with an asterisk is an honorable mention and shouldn't be passed up. (The double asterisk indicates that it was a top 10 book)
  • **The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  • *Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan
  • **The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
  • *The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
  • **The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
  • Rin Tin Tin by Susan Orlean
  • *Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan
  • Then Again by Diane Keaton
  • The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznik
  • *Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • *The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
  • Blue Nights by Joan Didion
  • *Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling
  • I Celebrate Myself by Bill Morgan
  • The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • **Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
  • **Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck
  • The Cottage at Glass Beach by Heather Doran Barbieri
  • The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
  • *The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown
  • **The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
  • *Home by Toni Morrison
  • *The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon
  • *The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  • *How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent by Julia Alvarez
  • *I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron
  • Crazy Salad by Nora Ephron
  • In One Person by John Irving
  • **Arcadia by Lauren Groff
  • **The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
  • **Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
  • Mudwoman by Joyce Carol Oates
  • Paris, My Sweet by Amy Thomas
  • **The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  • *The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
  • Judging a Book by its Lover by Lauren Leto
  • Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout
  • *The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  • *NW by Zadie Smith
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  • With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge
  • Elegy for Eddie by Jacqueline Winspear
  • *The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann
  • To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
  • *Astray by Emma Donoghue
  • The Elephant Keepers' Children by Peter Hoeg
  • *Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
  • *The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell (look for a review of this next week hopefully!)
  • **An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer
And now it's time to look forward to 2013 and the stack of books next to my bed which includes This is How you Lose Her by Junot Diaz, The Life of Pi by Yann Mantel, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon, and Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver--so many to choose from! Stay tuned to the blog as I hope to continue updating it monthly if not more frequently.
A final word to say thank you to all of you who read, comment, and generally encourage this blog. Not only have you helped encourage the blog, but you all encouraged my 25th year goals and really made 2012 an amazing year for me.
Happy 2013 and keep reading!
For past "Stephanie's Top 10" lists, click these links for 2009, 2010, and 2011!

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