Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Best fiction of 2012

Amazon has released its choices for best books of the year (h/t: Jenny Che at Page Views). Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, which I reviewed lukewarmly for Commentary in October, grabbed the top spot. Kevin Powers’s Iraq war novel The Yellow Birds, quoted here to verify its god-awfulness, was second.

The conspicuous conclusion is that literary pretension is regularly confused with literary merit, especially among those for whom “literary fiction” is a status symbol. For my money, indisputably the best English-language novel of the year, nominated for not a single literary prize so far, is Christopher R. Beha’s unforgettable What Happened to Sophie Wilder (Tin House). I don’t know anyone who has read Beha’s novel and has not wanted to talk about it immediately.

After a slow start, 2012 turned out to be a rather good year for fiction. Here is my list of the year’s best (in alphabetical order by author, since a ranking of books is almost as pointless as a ranking of college football teams):

• Christopher Buckley, They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? (Twelve). A hilarious political satire about America’s anxious relationship with China.

• Michael Chabon, Telegraph Avenue (Harper). A “used vinyl” store in Oakland, straddling “the ragged fault where the urban plates of Berkeley and Oakland subducted,” is about to go under, and the question is whether it will take its two owners with it. This is the Chabon—not the Chabon of the splashier and shallower Jewish fiction—the Chabon who is fulfilling his early promise.

• Junot Díaz, This Is How You Lose Her (Riverhead). The favorite for the National Book Award. A collection of nine stories.

• Hillel Halkin, Melisande! What Are Dreams? (Granta). A unique and moving study of marriage, a love letter to conjugal love, by a writer who, writing his first novel at 72, has discovered the secret to great fiction—the creation of characters who are so interesting and complex, so full of life, they do not remain subservient to the plot

• Joshua Henkin, The World Without You (Pantheon). Winner of the Edward Lewis Wallant Award. A family divided between left-wing politics and Orthodox Judaism gathers to memoralize a son killed in Iraq. No one now writing is better than Henkin at drawing character.

• Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies (Henry Holt). Booker Prize-winning historical novel which (in Mantel’s words) “mak[es] the reader a proposal, an offer,” about Anne Boleyn. The second of her absorbing novels about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister.

• Alice Munro, Dear Life (Knopf). The fifteenth book of fiction by the Canadian who is perhaps the greatest story writer now at work. Ten stories, including two that are as good as anything she has ever written, and four autobiographical narratives she calls a “finale.”

• Francesca Segal, The Innocents (Hyperion Voice). Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is transplanted to North West London, where the New York rich become British Jews. If you know Wharton’s novel, Sigal’s rewriting will delight you—her use of the source to illuminate the lives of secularized 21st-century Jews is pitch perfect. If you don’t know Wharton’s novel—as my wife didn’t when she read Sigal’s novel—you’ll still love this story of divided and honorable love.

• Pauls Toutonghi, Evel Knievel Days (Crown). A half-Egyptian obsessive compulsive travels to Cairo to find his father; adventures ensue.

• Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins (Harper). Hollywood descends upon a desolate Italian port town in 1962. I haven’t read it yet, but I trust Mark Athitakis, who praises “the comedy in the marrow of its sentences.”

• Tom Wolfe, Back to Blood (Little, Brown). A guided tour of the ethnic rivalries in Miami. Wolfe’s best novel yet.

• Hilma Wolitzer, An Available Man (Ballantine). In Commentary I described it as a “refreshing comedy of regeneration after grief.” A widower tries to reenter the dating scene. You’ll never guess whom he ends up with.

• Marly Youmans, A Death at the White Camellia Orphange (Mercer University Press). In the middle of the Depression, an eleven-year-old orphan—Pip Tattnal, who seems to be mildly autistic—hops a freight train after his brother is murdered. A Southern picaresque in the garden of good and evil.


Richard LeComte said...

Thank you for this list. Many of the titles are new to me, which always is a help. Beautiful Ruins is an extremely enjoyable book, particularly the part with Richard Burton.

D. G. Myers said...


That’s two votes from two critics I trust for Beautiful Ruins. Please have a look at Chris Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder, and tell me what you think.

Dan M. said...

I've been saving What Happened to Sophie Wilder for the end of the semester, when I'll have time to read it, since your review. I'm looking forward to it.

Anonymous said...

I am cautiously looking forward to Mantel's latest book; the caution is based on my reluctance to get very enthused about her earlier book, _Wolf Hall_, which I am attempting again after having set it aside earlier because I could not quite buy in to the narrative style (i.e., present tense, and unfixed POV).

Do you find it at all surprising that the Booker went again to Mantel so soon after her earlier win?

That question suggests something else: when will you write something about the whole notion of literary prizes (i.e., the good, bad, and ugly selections and selection processes)?

Mamie said...

I've posted my top ten here. I look forward to reading those on yours.