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Best (and worst) books of 2012

Our favorite titles this year boasted big ideas, lingered on lonely lives and presented authors' creative visions of history.

Matthew Love, Books editor
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins) Both author and reader know that this ambitious story of an Oakland record store’s encroaching obsolescence is shooting for Great American Novel status. Regardless, no other book had as many big ideas playfully engaged, as many colorful characters, as much dazzling prose, or was as fun to read.

RECOMMENDED: Best of the year 2012

Building Stories by Chris Ware
(Pantheon) Though the short stories in this collection come in all shapes and sizes, collectively, Ware’s masterful project balances thoughtful storytelling, aesthetic beauty, scrupulous detail, and fancies both lofty and earthbound. The insular but lush world of lonely people (and hapless bees) that emerges is one of the year’s most affecting.

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max (Viking) The tragic end of David Foster Wallace’s life was wrenching and bewildering, so even though Max’s conscientious biography is sad, it’s something of a relief to understand bits of Wallace’s life, his struggles and what led to his suicide. We consumed no book as quickly this year.

Zona by Geoff Dyer (Pantheon) The multifarious writer’s scene-by-scene dissection of cinematic meditation Stalker evolves (rather than devolves) into a series of colorful digressions about the nature of time, youth, infatuation with great art, threesomes and one irreplaceable Freitag bag. Remarkably, this lucid trip is effective whether or not you’ve seen Tarkovsky.

Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins (Riverhead) This vibrant and assured debut collection of stories watched desperate people move across Nevada’s desert landscapes, and give up everything they had in order to feel less alone. The settings of Watkins’s home state—evoked with craft that echoes Cormac McCarthy or Richard Ford—were the perfect settings for heartbreak.

The next five

The Grey Album by Kevin Young (Graywolf Press); Suddenly, a Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret (FSG); Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (Random House); Dear Life by Alice Munro (Knopf); Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Picador)

Worst connotation of the phrase happy ending
Though she says it will someday return in another form, Amanda Stern ended her Happy Ending Reading Series this fall. When we think about authors doing Bollywood dance numbers, smoking joints and speed-dating members of the audience—all of which happened during its run—we miss it already.

Best reminder of the postal service’s existence

The Rumpus’s Letter in the Mail service, which sends subscribers a weekly letter from a well-known author (e.g., Rick Moody, Aimee Bender or Rumpus editor-in-chief Stephen Elliott), gave us a reason to go to the mailbox, touch paper and remember how special it is to receive a piece of handwritten mail.

Best new summertime happening
The new Books Beneath the Bridge series proved the perfect accompaniment to lazy evenings on the lawn at the new Brooklyn Bridge Park. As borough indie shops programmed their favorite authors, fans got words, water and an epic view, while the sun set behind downtown Manhattan.

Titles we’re looking forward to in 2013 The Fun Parts by Sam Lipsyte; Tenth of December by George Saunders; Percival Everett by Virgil Russell by Percival Everett

Drew Toal, contributor

In the Shadow of the Banyan Tree by Vaddey Ratner (Simon & Schuster) Although fictionalized, the events from this book’s events, about a young woman caught in the maelstrom of the Khmer Rouge maelstrom in late-’70s Cambodia, are drawn heavily from the author’s own hellish experiences as a young girl. It’s a deeply sad and beautifully rendered memorial to the lost, with an authenticity that comes through only in the most personal of narratives.

HHhH by Laurent Binet
(FSG) Binet’s historical novel takes its plot from the life and timely death of Reinhard Heydrich, and the pair of Czech and Slovak heroes sent from England to take down the man who was known as “Himmler’s brain,” among other things. Binet plays with metafictional gimmicks, but allows the dramatic story—which needs minimal embellishment—to play out on the page.  

Kind One by Laird Hunt (Coffee House Press) In antebellum Kentucky, an abused woman is utterly alone until she befriends two young slave girls—but she looks the other way as her husband’s lustful attentions turn to them. From there, that’s when things go from dark to pitch black. Laird Hunt is one of the more criminally overlooked novelists writing today, and this is probably the most accessible and completely realized of his books.  

Iron Curtain
by Anne Applebaum
(Doubleday) This Pulitzer-winning historian returned to the post-WWII Soviet Union for a fresh look at the domination of its Eastern European vassal states. We nonhistorians tend to think of the “Soviet Bloc” as just that, but using recently uncovered documentation, Applebaum reveals the deliberate, government-driven subversion of sovereign peoples for whom communism was unnatural and often anathema.

The Way the World Works
by Nicholson Baker
(Simon & Schuster) The polymath historian, novelist and Wikipedia editor also pens the occasional essay, the best of which are collected here. Whether he’s writing about those things, or—as in The Way the World Works—the Kindle 2, the dwarves of Middle Earth or the state of The New York Times in 1951, Baker’s brand of erudite oddness is uniformly captivating.

The next five

The Dead Do Not Improve by Jay Caspian Kang (Hogarth); Kurt Vonnegut: Letters edited by Dan Wakefield (Hogarth Press); Windeye by Brian Evenson (Coffee House Press); The Black Count by Tom Reiss (Crown); A Sense of Direction by Gideon Lewis-Kraus (Riverhead)

Best adaptation

The video game version of The Walking Dead (Telltale Games)

Worst translation from online to print
Nate Silver, writer behind The New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog and The Signal and the Noise

Best use of taxidermy in fiction
Magnificence by Lydia Millet

Best/scariest portrayal of the mental-health industry
The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle

Titles we’re looking forward to in 2013
Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles by Ron Currie Jr.; Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel; Percival Everett by Virgil Russell by Percival Everett; Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre; The Skin by Curzio Malaparte
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