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01 Jan 2013
The best books I read in 2012

This wasn’t such a great year in books for me (nothing compared to 2011, which was full of winners), but out of the 130 books I read in 2012, there were a few great ones, at least:

Fiction I loved reading in 2012:

  • The Tidewater Tales by John Barth - Long meandering story full of nested stories, about storytellers and sailing and Scheherezade (and a dash of the CIA, but that was my least favorite aspect). When I tried to make grilled chutney bananas as inspired by the characters’ favorite food they weren’t all that good, but the book is worth reading anyway.
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows - Startlingly good tale of a journalist/author who befriends a community of rural island folk by becoming their pen-pal shortly after World War II. The bits that truly caught me were the descriptions of how ordinary folks connect with books. This is a book that reminds us how to read.
  • The Mirage by Matt Ruff - The 9/11-inspired novel we’ve been waiting for.
  • Native Son by Richard Wright - Hard to read, in a brilliant way. “I’ll kill you and go to hell and pay for it.”
  • Embassytown by China Mieville - Like his The City and the City, the main value in this book lies in the fact that it has given us a metaphor for describing other things going forward. It’s on this list more for that usefulness than for its literary merit, which was good but not spectacular.
  • Some of the best from Tor.com: 2011 Edition edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden & Liz Gorinsky - Nearly every story in here was a hit. I am utterly impressed - my like percentages for anthologies are usually much lower.
  • Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving - All of his novels tend to be long and complex and full of intriguing characters and… contrived in a really wonderful way, though I can’t quite think of the word for that at the moment.
  • The Girl Who Couldn’t Come by Joey Comeau - Short stories by the brilliant author of A Softer World.
  • Kindred by Octavia Butler - Time-travel, American history, slavery, feminism, family.
  • An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears - I don’t typically like mystery novels, but this was excellent. Four unreliable narrators, gender and political issues, science and medicine and experimentation - lots of great stuff going on here.
  • The Persistence of Vision by John Varley - Excellent s/f short stories.

Fiction I loved re-reading in 2012:

  • Wild Seed by Octavia Butler - A fantasy novel of genetic engineering.
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes - Still breaks my heart.
  • The Best of Michael Swanwick by Michael Swanwick - Most of these stories were rereads for me, but there were a few I hadn’t seen before. The man is simply a fucking genius, is all.
  • A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge - The best thing about Vinge is the way he goes so deeply into the implications of every idea he has.

Books I loved reading in 2012 that related to decision-making and problem-solving and communication:

  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman - This was fucking brilliant and you should all read it right now. Cognitive errors that we all make, understood and named so we can try to be aware of and avoid them more easily, explained in a fun and readable voice! I’d read about a lot of the studies he cites here before, but it was still good to have them all nicely collected and described in a fun, readable voice in this volume.
  • Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande - How to go from good enough to better yet. Ask. Don’t complain. Count something. Write. Change. Not as good as his other book, Complications, but a close second.
  • The Most Human Human: What Artificial Intelligence Teaches Us About Being Alive by Brian Christian - The author set out to win the Most Human Human prize as a confederate in the annual Turing Test, and writes about his process in figuring out what human communication involves. Fun, but also helpful in terms of thinking about how to talk and connect with other people generally in life.

I loved a lot of the John McPhee essays I read in 2012:

  • Uncommon Carriers by John McPhee - The best of the lot, for the sake of its first two essays. He follows a truck driver with a thoughtful bent. He discusses how captains of gigantic tankers are trained on scaled down models where even the wind and tides are scaled down by careful choice of location. Fascinating stuff.
  • Pieces of the Frame by John McPhee - Jimmy Carter may be the governor of Georgia, but he’s not the governor of Sam’s canoe.
  • Silk Parachute by John McPhee - I remain astonished that I was bored by the McPhee book I was required to read as a teenager, but love his work so very much now as an adult.

Other non-fiction I loved reading in 2012:

  • Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy - After having read about how often primate mothers kill their babies, I’m now even more grateful for my mother not strangling me as a child.
  • Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life by Annette Lareau - Insightful, interesting, and emotionally difficult.
  • What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder, and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany: An Oral History by Eric A. Johnson & Karl-Heinz Reuband - That’s always been the question. Did they know? How much did they know, and when did they find out? How early on? Point being, of course, how culpable are they? This set of interviews attempts to explore that question. One of the best Holocaust books I’ve ever read, and as the granddaughter of survivors, I’ve read rather a lot of them.
  • The Emperor of Scent: A Story of Perfume, Obsession, and the Last Mystery of the Senses by Chandler Burr - Stupid title. This is actually a story about learning, discovery, and the dirty underbelly of scientific community politics. Also the science of scent.
  • Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software by Charles Petzold - The first 90ish pages got me through middle school Morse code basics &c and high school electronics, and then things started to get really interesting.
  • Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser by Clarisse Thorn - I feel dirty but fascinated!
  • The Best American Nonrequired Reading: 2011 edited by Dave Eggers - It was sometimes hard to tell which pieces were fiction and which were not, which was part of the fun.
  • Expressive Figure Drawing by Bill Buchman - Gorgeous prints of his sketches, along with useful exercises and advice.