Drivel, dreck, and what the heck. That kind of sums up many books that were released in 2012. There were some good things, some downright awful things, and some things that, well, they weren’t bad but they weren’t the best books you’ve ever read, either.
And then there were the gems.
I read more than 270 books this year, and (fortunate me!) it was hard to decide on just a handful that represented the best — but I did it. Here, in no certain order, is my personal best of 2012 in reading.
For me, the world totally ceased to exist while I was reading The Absolutist by John Boyne. Set in the years after World War I, it’s the story of a former soldier who decides to return some letters to the sister of the friend who wrote them. Years ago, he knew the woman’s brother — had a crush on him, in fact — but the man is now dead, and when the sister asks what happened, the narrator tells her. What happened left me absolutely breathless.
I have to admit: I’m not a major Eric Jerome Dickey reader — his books can leave me cold. But An Accidental Affair chilled me with the action and double-crossing that happens to the books’ narrator, who catches his beloved wife sleeping with another man. What he has to do to get her out of trouble will make you turn the pages so fast, you’ll practically rip them.
Here’s another end-of-the-war novel I loved: Freeman by Leonard Pitts, Jr. It’s the story of a former slave who decides to find his wife at the end of the Civil War. He was free in Philadelphia, she was enslaved in Mississippi and there’s also a parallel story that moves theirs along. The three tales together make this a novel that’ll keep you in your chair for a good long time.
The Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harman tells the story of a woman who becomes a midwife in the years before the Great Depression. In order to escape her past, she moves to the foot of the Appalachian Mountains to work, but her ways are not like the old ways. This book sings with beauty, love and appreciation for life and for women. You know you’ve got a good book when you forget that it’s fiction, which pretty much sums up this novel.
No, I wasn’t only hooked on historical novels this year; The Trial of Fallen Angels by James Kimmel, Jr. is my last pick in this category because it’s one of those novels that asks you to suspend what you don’t know because, well, you really don’t know it. It’s the story of a woman who wakes up in a train station, dead. She was a lawyer in life, and she’ll be a lawyer in death, but the court system in this Purgatory isn’t what she’s used to at all. This is a novel of six-degrees-of-separation and of forgiveness, and that’s why it’s one of the best of 2012.
Honorable mention: The Dog Who Danced by Susan Wilson.
Concussions and Our Kids by Robert Cantu, M.D. and Mark Hyman might seem like an odd pick for a best-of list, but here it is. What Cantu has to say is chilling, horrifying and cautionary. If you’re a parent, an athlete or a sports fan, this may be mandatory reading for this coming year.
The sad fact is that God’s Hotel by Victoria Sweet won’t be on any bestseller’s lists. Too bad, because it’s a Zen-like memoir of the author’s years spent as a doctor in a California almshouse. As she was working, she began to study the works of a Medieval nun who was also a healer, and that — Medieval times coupled with stories of modern medicine — make this a wonderful, strangely calming book.
Like just about everybody in the country, I had my fill of politics, which is why I was surprised to love Indomitable Will: LBJ and the Presidency by Mark K. Updegrove so much. Consisting of snippets of interviews of those who worked with, lived with and knew Lyndon Baines Johnson, it is a quick but very fascinating look at a (perhaps unfairly) maligned man in office. It taught me a lot, and it sets a lot of records straight. This is a nice antidote to politics-as-usual, which is why it’s on this list.
The Undead by Dick Teresi absolutely scared the daylights out of me! This is a book that explores death; specifically, when it occurs which, as it turns out, we don’t fully know. Teresi then turns his attention to the issue of organ donation and … oh, my, if I tell you anything more, I won’t sleep tonight. Just go read the book.
Finally we reach Wait: The Art and Science of Delay by Frank Partnoy, a scientific book about procrastination and why it’s good for business, health and sports. Partnoy also explains why you should teach your kids to delay gratification, why snap decisions are often wrong and why employers should embrace slower workers.
Honorable mentions: Sweet Hell on Fire by Sara Lunsford and Gypsy Boy by Mikey Walsh.
— Terri Schlichenmeyer
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 4, 2013.