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2012 Year End Book List
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Novels, Stories and Poetry
What, You've Read All of Those?
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Novels, Stories and Poetry

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  HUNGER GAMES TRILOGY, by Suzanne Collins
Yes, indeed, I read these three “young adult” novels in one fell swoop, and I did feel just like a 13 year-old, staying up until 3 a.m. reading about Katniss because, gosh, I couldn’t just leave her there! Actually if I’d read this when I was 13 I’d probably have had tracker-jacker nightmares for months. Obviously the story is compelling, and it also raises bigger themes like trust, government, trust in government, and so forth. Soon to be a movie, possibly a big fat annoying one, so you might as well read the books first.
     
  THE PRINCIPLES OF UNCERTAINTY, by Maira Kalman
Honeybee readers will already know that I am a big Kalman fan: recently I returned to this volume that was published a few years back. Kalman manages to wade right into the melancholy of life, not skirting the heartbreaking parts, and yet within that same heartbreak she illuminates hope.
“Let us float into the future. I am right behind you.”
     
  ROBOPOCALYPSE, by Daniel Wilson
Robo-Redux! After our robot issue several readers expressed dismay that this book was not mentioned… and after reading it straight through with barely a pause, I’m here to say I LOVED this book!  It is an apocalyptic novel, a genre which usually holds little appeal to me, but the coolest, creepiest part is that the details Wilson sketches out are completely believable, extensions of trends and technologies that already exist. This story also highlights the compelling issue we discussed last time:  is there an advantage to being human? What can’t machines do, even really really smart ones? This question of competitive advantage is one that has relevance far beyond robots.
     
  THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
I doubt that there are many readers who are enthusiastic about both this novel and Robopocalypse, but Honeybee is happily so. This novel takes a tough story with a tough main character and helps the reader to empathize through, yes, the language of flowers. A little sappy in parts, but hey, what flower isn’t?
     
  THE LEFTOVERS, Tom Perrotta
Judging from all the buzz this past month, this is the “it” novel of the fall.  Though the timing of its release (so close to the 10th anniversary of 9/11) seems a little manipulative, this is a book that zips right along, its intersecting stories exploring the long ripple effects of trauma.  Perrotta’s writing is Chinese takeout to me – totally enjoyable, and easy to fly through, yet I am not always satisfied at the end.  Most thought-provoking to me in this story is the concept that the “leftovers” (people remaining on earth after millions mysteriously disappear) feel left out, punished – not at all like they are the lucky ones.
     
  THE IRON GIANT (both movie and book):
Continuing with our robot/human theme… if you liked E.T., you will LOVE the Iron Giant! This story shows the triumph of personal connection over machinery (both the metal kind and the structural kind), and illustrates the shortcomings of rules and bureaucracies when faced with new and different circumstances. The film is so effective that it may or may not have made my super-tough brother cry – don’t bother asking him about it, he will crush you like a bug. Curiously, the movie is gentler and less heavy-handed than the book (whereas usually it seems movie versions are more clunky) – this is likely just due to context, since the book (by poet Ted Hughes) was written in 1968, when the anti-war movement and other social critique was more heightened (or perhaps differently focused) than today. The animated movie was released in 1999, so is widely available for streaming, rental, purchase, you name it. There is a newly illustrated version of the book coming out in September, and several older editions are also available from various venues. Fun for the whole family!  Seriously.
     
  FREEDOM, by Jonathan Franzen
Okay, I waited and waited to write about this book, the “it” novel of summer 2010. Now that those who were determined to assess the hype for themselves have had the chance to do so, I’m weighing in to say: I did not like this book. So there. It is bleak, dreary, and not even very interesting. I am all for highlighting our lives of quiet desperation if there is some sparkle of insight, some glint of wisdom, some glimmer of illumination that comes from it, but here I see no sparkle, no glint, no glimmer. Just gray. I do not insist on happy novels, but if an author dares to dwell in the cold drizzly parts of life like this, I do insist on moving, interesting writing, stories that instruct or inspire rather than preach and exhaust. There are a thousand other books I would recommend before this one. 
     
  >THE NICK ADAMS STORIES, by Ernest Hemmingway
It is not fair to put Hemmingway right next to Franzen, I admit it – but, here we have bleak done right! These stories have energy and movement and life in them, even at their darkest moments. I’d never read them all collected together before, and it is really fun to follow Nick through these stories, which were written over a very extended period of time. Best read beside a roaring fire as a blizzard rages outside, or on a cushion of pine needles in the middle of the woods.
     
  LEAVES OF GRASS, by Walt Whitman
Oh oh oh, Walt Whitman! As loyal readers will know, I have been slowly re-working my way back through the stuff they make you read in high school, which is infinitely better if you wait a decade or two and re-read it. Leaves of Grass has always had a soft spot in my heart because our high school English teacher cautioned us NOT to read certain verses, no matter what – thus treating us like near-adults for the first time in our lives, and ensuring that we all read the best, and most full-of-life, bits. “I am large, I contain multitudes… All truths wait in all things…  I tramp a perpetual journey” --– what a delight to encounter lines like this in context, instead of plucked out to stand lonely on a page! (though they function just fine on their own too). Just read it - preferably an old paperback copy, curled in a sunny window - you will feel all springy and new and full of vim.
     
  HUMAN CHAIN, Seamus Heaney

From the title poem:
That quick unburdening, backbreak’s truest payback,
A letting go which will not come again.
Or it will, once. And for all.
 
I cannot give you any more compelling reason to read this book!
     
  MIGRATION: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS, by W.S. Merwin
How can you not be intrigued by a poet who is famous for a work called The Lice? Merwin is our new Poet Laureate – this, plus the unending praise of a classmate of mine, have pushed me to become familiar with his work, and this volume (a National Book Award winner) is a good combination of, as it says, new and selected poems. With lines like “My friends without shields walk on the target” and “I remember the rain with its bundle of roads”, I am inclined to read on and on.
     
  THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE, by Aimee Bender
This wins my award for quirky novel of 2010. If you count Like Water for Chocolate amongst your all-time favorites, you will love this book, whose main character is able to taste the emotions of the cooks who prepared her food. In fact, the whole family is like a bizzaro version of The Incredibles – so if you were troubled by the incomplete explanation for Kryptonite’s powers, or thought the house landing in Munchkinland was just a silly premise, please avoid this book.
     
  EAST OF EDEN, by John Steinbeck
Steinbeck considered this his best work, which is reason enough to read it – but if you’ve seen the movie and think you know the story, READ THE BOOK. I am as big a James Dean fan as anyone and the movie is great, but the book is SO MUCH MORE. It contains the whole world in one volume – lengthy, but as page-turning as any cheesy beach read, and it will stay with you far longer. “Timshel!”  is the key to everything.  Everything.
     
 
  ANIMAL VEGETABLE MIRACLE: A YEAR OF FOOD LIFE, by Barbara Kingsolver Kingsolver
THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, by Barbara Kingsolver
This trio of books by Barbara Kingsolver includes new and old, fiction and nonfiction, all worth reading. Animal Vegetable Mineral details her family’s adventure in local eating over the course of a full year – which doesn’t seem like long until you consider the length of winters in New England.  It is more entertaining and better-written than many books of this sort, which can veer to the “well-intentioned but way too preachy” category pretty quickly.  The Lacuna is her newest novel – I am only partway through it, but it is starting to paint a captivating and sweeping tale, which causes her earlier work, The Poisonwood Bible, one of the greatest novels ever, to hover in the back of my mind as I read.
     
  ANTHILL, by E.O. Wilson
Just to prove that he really means it about hopping over traditional boundaries, Wilson has just published his first novel!  I have only read the excerpt in the New Yorker so far, but the very idea of such a well-regarded scientist writing a novel – about ants, no less, fills me with delight. Click here to read more.
     
  GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN, James Baldwin 
Oh my!  This is not a happy-go-lucky book. But it IS a passion-filled account of one man’s experience with faith -- and without it.  The role that faith serves for each of the characters is a fascinating stew of need and want, of weakness and strength, of loss and (maybe) salvation. Even better when read in conjunction with Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. And while you’re at it, take another look at Richard Wright’s Native Son too.
     
  THE SELECTED WORKS OF T.S. SPIVET, BY REIF LARSEN
This is one of my favorite books of the year, a novel featuring a young boy who maps everything, from facial expressions to physical terrain to details of plants and animals. The layout of the book is mesmerizing, with T.S.’s maps and notes illuminating the margins and providing a sort of inner story to accompany the main text. And, Spivet’s maps mirror the wisdom of Edward Tufte almost exactly!
     
EVIDENCE, Mary Oliver
What, you don’t know the poet Mary Oliver? Run, don’t walk, to look up one of her poems – almost any one. Find a hammock, read a poem, close your eyes. Open them, read it again. Repeat.
     
  BROOKLYN, Colm Toibin
This novel tells the story of a young woman who travels from Ireland to America around the turn of the century to find work – in other words, she could have been any one of dozens of my own relatives. Setting aside this personal interest of mine, the story is a wonderful snapshot of many immigrant experiences – torn between the old and new, both in a tangible personal way and in a more complex social way.
     
  LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, Colum McCann
This novel recently won the National Book Award, deservedly so!  It is set in NY, set around the time that the man walked between the Towers on a tightrope – its storylines draw you in and intersect in unexpected ways, sort of like Raymond Carver short stories. If you read this, I also recommend watching ‘Man on Wire’, the film about the tightrope feat - so daring and yet, in retrospect, so innocent.
     
  REASONS FOR AND ADVANTAGES OF BREATHING, Lydia Peelle
These stories are beautiful and heartbreaking, yet somehow hopeful. You will rush through them in an effort to get to the next beautiful phrase, like a literary bag of chips – but unlike the chips, when you finish, you will want to start all over again.
     


 
  THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG, Muriel Barbery
OLIVE KITTERIDGE, Elizabeth Strout

I put these two together because they both feature ladies of a certain age who appear crusty and unfriendly and detached from the world, but who have a much more interesting story beneath that first layer, and their relations in and to the world are more interesting still. Though I found the writing and story in Hedgehog more impactful (it is the best novel I’ve read all year), both tales are a good reminder that while “every person is fighting her own battle”, every person also carries her own kindness and joys.
     
  PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith
Okay, I was completely skeptical about this one, but if you are the kind of person who has spent way too much time with Jane Austen novels and BBC productions, you will be laughing out loud while you read this book. What is the only thing that could make the Bennet sisters more intriguing? How ‘bout if they were trained zombie warriors?

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