Thursday, January 10, 2013

Books of 2012

Flavorwire posted  "The Books That Made the Most 'Best of 2012' Book Lists" (the lists consulted are linked at the end of the article).  Here are my favorite books published in 2012 that I've read so far.  Feel free to comment with yours.

The Middlesteins, by Jami Attenberg

Multiple generations of the Middlestein family populate Attenberg's novel. Matriarch Edie's overeating threatens her life and creates a rift between her and the rest of the family--particularly her husband of thirty years, Richard, who has given up on her and moved out. Their daughter Robin grapples with her feelings of resentment for her father and how to help save her mother from eating herself to death. Robin's laid-back brother Benny is married to high-strung, health-conscious Rachelle, who is planning their twin children's extravagant b'nai mitzvah party while also worrying about Edie.

This is a realistic portrait of a family with all its complex personalities and problems. The author saves the book from being a downer with her compassionate handling of the characters and her infusions of humor.

The Elementals, by Francesca Lia Block

This is a new adult fiction book from a favorite author of mine who writes primarily young adult novels (I discovered her when I was a teenager).  Most of her writing can be considered magical realism.  She deftly incorporates mythological and mysterious elements into her stories.  She also excels at sensory description.

Ariel Silverman heads off to college amidst two tumultuous events:  her mother's diagnosis of breast cancer and the disappearance of her best friend, Jeni, who vanished on a school trip to Berkeley.  Ariel wants to get to the bottom of Jeni's disappearance.  In an old house in the Berkeley hills Ariel meets three mysterious and seductive strangers who envelop her in their world.  But there is a lot that she doesn't know about them.

Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain

I've read several books on introversion, and this is the best yet, fascinating and useful.  In a society that idealizes and pushes extroversion ("the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight"), at least a third of the population are introverts.  Cain lauds their hidden strengths.  "Our reverence for alpha status blinds us to things that are good and smart and wise," she says.

Cain recounts the rise of the cultural ideal of extroversion and the emphasis of groupthink in the workplace.  She explains how "collaboration kills creativity" for introverts, who are more productive at brainstorming alone.  The leadership potential of introverts is often overlooked yet they can make effective leaders.  Cain sheds light on how introverts can understand their own contradictions, like the ability to act like extroverts in certain situations.  She also looks at how introverts and extroverts can best negotiate relationships together.  Cain includes plenty of examples from research as well as real-life stories of individuals.

Marbles:  Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me:  A Graphic Memoir, by Ellen Forney

Ellen Forney is a talented graphic memoirist (graphic memoirs being an intriguing genre that I dip into occasionally).  This book is about Forney's experience with bipolar disorder.  She chronicles what it is like for her to be manic and to be depressed, her diagnosis shortly before she turned thirty, the setbacks she faces, and tinkering with different medications.

At the crux of the book is her eagerness to determine the relationship between mental illness and creativity and whether medications inhibit creativity.  "Sometimes it seems like 'pain' is too obvious a place to turn for inspiration," she muses.  "Pain isn't always deep, anyway.  Sometimes it's awful and that's it.  Or boring."  The book reads as an honest, courageous, often humorous account with bold artwork to match.

Flatscreen, by Adam Wilson

In this darkly comic debut novel that I read with the howling wind of Hurricane Sandy outside my window, Eli Schwartz is basically a deadbeat, a couple of years removed from high school, jobless, pudgy, often stoned and clad in a bathrobe.  "People told me I was funny in high school," he says.  "It was good for awhile, the attention, until I understood what it meant.  It meant I wasn't other things:  sexy, interesting, smart, ambitious.  It meant I was going to have trouble getting laid.  It might have even meant I was fat." 

He takes on a rocky friendship with a troubled, larger-than-life, wheelchair-bound former actor.  Eli also heads in the direction of having a functional romantic relationship with an odd woman who also hasn't left town after high school.  "The most unlikely soul could find a counterpart.  Who was mine?" he wonders, and says, "everyone just needs someone to make them feel like death isn't a better option."  Despite his puttering existence, Eli searches for meaning.  This novel isn't for everyone--there are drugs, sex, snark, sentence fragments, and alternative endings--but besides the fact that it's funny, it has heart.

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