So last year, toward the end of December, we discussed the possibility of writing a BEST BOOKS OF 2011 list. But we didn’t come on the scene or whatever until late August, so we clearly couldn’t write with any authority about the best releases January through July. And even from August on, we didn’t review a ton of books, as we were trying to get our footing/figure out what the heck we were doing/write quality reviews.
But we’ve planned out 2012 pretty well, focusing on reviewing the most prominent/important releases. We’ve missed a few we wish we could have reviewed—books by Adam Wilson, John Green, Sheila Heti, etc.—but there’s only so much time, and so many of us.
Still, we’re pretty happy about what we’ve reviewed, about 2012 as a year in literature. So through today, a little more than halfway through this calendar year, here’s our top five—in no order, because because.
Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men
It’s difficult to think of a novel in recent years more ambitious than Kunzru’s American desert opus. Set at various points between 1775 and 2009—but always in the desert—Gods Without Men covers just about everything: this country’s diversity, its wars abroad, its issues with meth, its treatment of its indigenous peoples, its sensationalist media, etc. Yet despite the broad coverage, Kunzru’s characters don’t feel far away. Jaz and Lisa Matharu are at the center of all, losing their autistic son in the desert in 2009, and their struggle—both to find their son and maintain their marriage—is intimate and heartbreaking.
Katherine Stewart’s The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children
Stewart’s thoroughly alarming depiction of American children being force-fed religious ideology has the essential asset of memorable non-fiction: its quality is inseparable from its importance. Written with the urgency of a parent with her own children to protect, but from a journalist’s research-backed perspective, The Good News Club is alarming, but hardly alarmist: it didn’t smack of the slants or prejudices other exposes have against the material before it gets written. Instead, it really does read as though Stewart’s just trying to figure it all out. This January release may have gotten lost amid the other whirlwind political issues that opened up the year (and which are only getting predictably louder as the year progresses), but it is a book that we would recommend to just about anyone—parent, student, teacher, citizen.
Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Fountain’s debut novel’s only weakness might be the central emotion it triggers in the reader: uneasiness. This day-in-the-life of the Bravo squad, American heroes for a firefight caught on camera in Iraq, is a catalog of mistreatment for soldiers at home. Though the men are heroes, they are only really treated well when expedient. Once that’s over with, they’re basically aliens. Though some of its character-sketching was a little broad—the pseudonymed but clearly him Jerry Jones left something to be desired—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk sated a desire I didn’t even knew I had: a definitive war novel for the aughts.
Ramona Ausubel’s No One is Here Except All of Us
A good book will leave you with chills at the end, but this gives you chills by about page sixteen. Ausubel’s stunning novel about a Jewish village isolating itself and effectively “imagining away” WWII is almost inexplicably clean, new, and arresting. If a good story keeps you guessing, then the lives of these villagers (named as a parable would name them; the jeweler, the banker’s wife, etc.) are each their own discrete and unpredictable story, weaving around each other to become an entire world, a universe running parallel to the global warfare that, if acknowledged, will destroy them. I hesitate to call this book a “testament to the power of human imagination,” as the blurbs do, but it’s obviously no less than a testament to Ausubel’s own. Once finished, No One is Here Except All of Us feels more like a story you have lived than one you have read, and with that comes tangible exhaustion, grief, and newfound understanding. Don’t let this one slip by.
Richard Ford’s Canada
2012 has been a particularly good year for debuts. But there’s nothing like an old craftsman at work. And Richard Ford’s seventh novel, Canada, is masterful. Though it deals with bank robbery and murder, Canada isn’t a page-turner in the traditional sense. Ford moves along at his own pace, gingerly waving readers along without really embracing them, letting the crimes stand as events along the way for the charming narrator Dell Parsons rather than narrative destinations. If Canada is any indication, it seems that life after Frank Bascombe—who may come back, Ford assured a questioner at a reading earlier this year—might not be so bad.