Our Favorite Books of 2012


If the book is in crisis, we didn’t notice on our end. 2012 saw a ton of new offerings. Our scribes select a batch of the ones they liked best.

1948, by Yoram Kaniuk (New York Review Books, 190 pp., e-book, $9.99)

Renowned for his autobiographical novels, 82-year-old Kaniuk offers a dreamlike account of the months he spent as a teenage soldier in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Fragmented memories—rendered in spare, tumbling prose—depict a tender boy rushing into gritty battles, yet struggling to reconcile bloodshed and cruelty with the Jewish cause. At one point, he tragically fails to prevent a comrade’s shocking act of vengeance, and later watches in horror when survivors of Nazi camps purge Arabs from their homes. Smoothly translated from Hebrew, the story leaves you aching. Robert Shuster

Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama, by Alison Bechdel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pp., $22)

The brilliant follow-up to her 2006 bestselling graphic memoir, Fun Home, which centered on her closeted gay dad, Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? investigates her mom’s depression and emotional absence. With wit, sensitivity, and courage, she mines her childhood diaries, her parents’ letters, and her own therapy sessions to better understand how her mom shaped her into the talented but highly anxious artist that she is. Pulling you in with her lovely drawings, she layers her story with insights on the fraught mother-daughter dynamic from writers such as Sigmund Freud, Virginia Woolf, and the child psychiatrist Donald Winnicott, wisdom that just might resolve some of your own nagging family questions. Angela Ashman

Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel (Henry Holt, 432 pp., $28)

Mantel won the Man Booker Prize for Wolf Hall in 2009, and she claimed it again this year for that novel’s sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. Damn deserving, too, since it’s an ever better book. The first’s main plots were the rise of Thomas Cromwell—aide to Henry VIII—and the effort to rid Henry of first wife Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. In Bring Up the Bodies, that new marriage has gone south too—now Henry has his eyes on Jane Seymour. Historical fiction can get a bad rap, but Mantel’s novel is a literary page-turner, fueled by her wonderous and pleasingly sardonic language. Plus, Thomas Cromwell—sly, wry, a master manipulator—is one of the most genius characters you’ll ever meet. Brian Parks

Eat the City, by Robin Shulman (Crown, 352 pp., $26)

This brilliant essay collection was one of the most fascinating food books published this year, and it didn’t receive nearly enough attention. Author Robin Shulman is a skilled reporter, and here she takes a very close look at New York’s culinary geography—from bee-keeping in Brooklyn to clamming on Staten Island and growing sugar-cane in the Bronx—showing us how food production in NYC has survived over the centuries in the unlikeliest of places. But the elegant book is also a pleasure to read, rich with portraits of the most eccentric and exciting characters in our food industry. Tejal Rao

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, by D.T. Max (Viking 368 pp., $27.95.)

In this biography of David Foster Wallace, D.T. Max—a New Yorker staff writer—paints the most complete portrait of the author we’ve yet seen. Max conducted countless interviews and uncovered over 700 of Wallace’s letters to family and friends. With this research, he channels a voice that reads almost like it’s DFW himself telling the story—and that story is quite strange. We learn Wallace’s upbringing, his college life, his addictions, his depression, his lovers, his obsessiveness, his compulsions. Considering how layered and complicated Wallace’s life was, Max’s account is quite streamlined, offering a sober perspective on one of the most influential writers of the past few decades. Was the suicide of David Foster Wallace inevitable? Max won’t give a firm yes or no, but that might be the answer we need. Eric Sundermann

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn (Crown, 432 pp., $25)

Flynn’s whip-smart psychological thriller is a tale that’s enticingly untrustworthy. Here’s what happens (or, maybe?): On the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick’s wife Amy disappears, and he’s immediately the prime subject. As the case evolves, it seems Nick hasn’t been too honest with the police about his marriage’s history. The tale bounces back and forth from Amy’s diary to Nick’s perspective from chapter to chapter, but there’s no certainty about whom you can really trust. It all may sound like a somewhat clichéd suspense novel, but Flynn’s writing uses the characters, not the plot, to tell the story. Imagine a fascinating personality that only gets weirder and weirder (in the best way) each time you hang out. Eric Sundermann

MP3: The Meaning of a Format, by Jonathan Sterne (Duke University Press, 341 pp., $24.95)

As it turned out, the most rewarding music book of 2012 wasn’t about an artist, a genre, or (thank the lord) the glory days of punk. Instead, it told the story of MP3, the digital audio standard that author and communications professor Jonathan Sterne traces from early-20th-century telephone research up through contemporary debates over piracy and file-sharing. Along the way, we’re taken on fascinating detours through the invention of perceptual coding, the construction (and critique) of the ideal hearing subject, international corporate debates, and an extended discussion over whether or not music should be considered a “thing.” All file formats should be so lucky. Nick Murray

My Heart Is an Idiot, by Davy Rothbart (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 307 pp., $25)

“I read it…amazed that I could author something so bizarre and creepy that was at the same time so hopeful and honest.” Rothbart writes this about an impromptu love letter he once gave to a Subway employee, inadvertently describing his entire book—a collection of road trip stories fueled by heartbreak. In the genre of alcohol-induced personal essays about relationships, it’s easy to appear disingenuous/smashed-out-of-your-mind. But each time Rothbart seems about to veer off into the booze-soaked trenches of Tucker Max territory, he manages to avoid the pitfall with genuine good intentions. At its best, My Heart Is an Idiot makes those messy, really hideous moments of romantic humiliation seem not only endearingly human, but noble, heroic in a way. Getting your ass kicked by love rarely feels this gratifying. Heather Baysa

Uncle Scrooge: Only a Poor Old Man, by Carl Barks (Fantagraphics, 240 pp., $28.99)

How rich is Uncle Scrooge? In one of the plutocrat-versus-the-world picaresques collected here, nephew Donald offers a figure: a five followed by 77 zeroes plus 16 cents. In writer-artist Carl Barks’s exuberant Scrooge stories, reprinted from ’50s comic books, the spats-wearing kabillionaire duck is forever learning that hording all that dough is more trouble than it’s worth. But horde he does, while still undertaking globe-trotting, penny-pinching adventures with broke-ass Donald and the hive-minded Huey, Dewey, and Louie—who not only save the day, but also exemplify for him what richer lives look like. Sprightly, inventive, wise, and more exciting than 60-year-old-duck tales should be, Barks’s work already stands at the top of any list of history’s greatest comics. It should also rank high among stories, period. Alan Scherstuhl

Weiwei-isms, by Ai Weiwei (Princeton University, 152 pp., $12.95)

Although this book, a collection of quotes from Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, is only four by five inches in dimension, it contains powerful and dangerous ideas. Powerful for general readers: “Creativity is part of human nature. It can only be untaught.” And dangerous to China’s leaders: “The people who control culture in China have no culture.” Chinese authorities have beaten and jailed Ai, destroyed his studio, and threatened his loved ones because he won’t stop denouncing government oppression. Buy this book to keep his brave words alive, since, as he points out, “The government computer has one button: delete.” R.C. Baker

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, by Jeanette Winterson (Grove, 224 pp., $25)

“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t setting my story against hers. It was my survival from the very beginning.” Winterson’s battle of wills and fictions with her adoptive mother went into her 1985 first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit: angry young woman discovers she loves girls and never looks back. But after Winterson suffered an emotional crisis, she did go back, writing past the original ending and into middle age in this insightful and moving memoir. With sympathy and wisdom, she contemplates the “dark gift”—her identity as a writer—that she received from the abusive Mrs. Winterson. Julie Phillips