The State of the Art: Books 2012

It's fairly easy to see movies in the same year they're released. It's more difficult (but still feasible) to keep up with a mass of television shows in the same year they're released. But when your main source of reading material is the public library, and you must take your place in a long line before you can get your hands on a popular title, it can be downright impossible to read a lot of books in the same year they're released.

Over the course of this past year, I've read 24 books (not including re-reads of favorites that I return to again and again). A two-a-month average isn't bad for a busy fellow such as myself, but only 6 of these books were published in 2012. So it makes no sense to take my top five from solely 2012 titles, because everything except one would make the list, no matter how good or bad they were. I guess I'll just have to pick my top five from everything I read this year. Let's hit it!

#1: Battle Royale - Koushun Takami

What I Said: I was a little dismayed when I picked Battle Royale up from the library, because it's thick, and with a hectic schedule, I worried that I wouldn't be able to get through it in my allotted two weeks. I tore through it in a day and a half. It's a riveting, exciting, saddening story.

#2: The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern

What I Said: Normally, I'd find a book that back-benches its plot in service of atmospheric descriptions maddening. But in this book, delving into the enigma of the circus and its denizens is hypnotic. Like a fairground itself, you'll find yourself happy to wander off in an unexpected direction to see what mysteries you'll discover.

#3: Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn

What I Said: This story could have easily spun into contrived melodrama, but Flynn's meticulous writing makes scenes that would usually come off as ludicrous seem completely feasible. Every time we think we know which way the story is heading, it veers off into another direction.

#4: Why We Broke Up - Daniel Handler

What I Said: I generally love Daniel Handler books. Though not my favorite of his, this one is certainly in the top three. It's a series of notes from a teenage girl to her ex-boyfriend, ruminating over the dissolution of their relationship as she returns all the items that remind her of them as a couple. Each item is also given an illustration, and the total package really encapsulates the diary-like remembrances of an adolescent protagonist.

#5: Taft 2012 - Jason Heller

What I Said: Ridiculously biased cable news commentary and vicious internet sniping are ripe for satire, of course, but Heller can do that in his sleep. What's truly remarkable is that Taft 2012 achieves more than just poking fun at our often absurd media and political system. It gives us an elbow to the ribs as a reminder of what democracy is actually supposed to be about, and paints Taft as a historical figure worth learning about, rather than just writing him off as that fat, milquetoast one with the giant bathtub.

All five are highly recommended. That said, it wasn't a stellar year. Here's the full list of books I read in order of rank, with the ones published in 2012 underlined:

Battle Royale - Koushun Takami (A)
The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern (A)
Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn (A-)
Why We Broke Up - Daniel Handler (B+)
Taft 2012 - Jason Heller (B+)

The Gates - John Connelly (B+)
One Last Thing Before I Go - Jonathan Tropper (B)
Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte (B)
Marcelo in the Real World - Francisco X. Stork (B)
Look At Me - Jennifer Egan (B)
The Illustrated Man - Ray Bradbury (B)
A Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin (B)

Machine Man - Max Barry (B-)
The Infernals - John Connelly (B-)
Drift: The Unmooring of America's Military Power - Rachel Maddow (B-)
The Magician King - Lev Grossman (B-)

The Leftovers - Tom Perotta (C+)
A Wrinkle in Time - Madeleine L'Engle (C+)

The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King - Rich Cohen (C)
Big Babies - Sherwood Kiraly (C)
Girl Walks into a Bar: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters, and a Midlife Miracle - Rachel Dratch (C)
Freedom - Jonathan Franzen (C-)
A Clash of Kings - George R.R. Martin (C-)

Batter Off Dead - Tamar Myers (F)

Two final notes:

Firstly, these retrospective lists involve a lot of looking back on things that I graded months ago, and I'm genuinely surprised that so far, I agree with my past self, and would give the same grade today that I gave then. Today is the first time I found my feelings have significantly changed over time. So because I gave A Game of Thrones a B at the time, that's how it appears in this list. It got a B because I thought that while it was extremely bloated, with too much exposition and too many characters, it could be somewhat excused on the grounds that it was laying groundwork for future novels. Now I know that the bloat is just a characteristic of those books, so its true grade should really be a C, if not a C-.

And finally, the list above comprises the books I read from start to finish. There are always a few that don't make the cut. This ignoble list contains books that were so terrible I couldn't finish them, books that were so boring I couldn't keep up any interest, or perfectly adequate books that were either not my style or I just wasn't in the mood for. This year's toss-asides were:

Snow White and the Seven Samurai - Tom Holt: Not awful, but the whole updated-twist-on-fairy-tales trope has been done a lot lately, and this is not among the better attempts at it.

The Dispossessed - Ursula Le Guin: The AV Club recommended that if you haven't read any Le Guin, you should start with this one. So I did, and quickly realized that I am just not the target audience for her stories.

Passing It On: Folklore of St. Louis (2nd ed., revised and updated) - John L. Oldani: I picked this up because I love little quirks about my hometown. I wanted to get more in depth as to the origins of why we ask each other about what high school we attended, or how the practice of requiring a joke on Halloween got started. Instead, it was a dry recitation of stories and sayings that were either too dull for inclusion or not specific enough to the region. It bored me silly, and I wasn't about to extend the pain by finishing it.

I picked up two fresh books today that will kick off the 2013 list, so get thee to a library! I need some good recommendations for the coming year.


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