Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Our Top 10 Picks From All Publishers

We knew you wouldn't be able to really feel like it was a new year until you had our complete top 10 lists. We've given you our top reads from Random House and University of Texas Press (the suckers that employ us) but we now offer our favorites from our competitors.

Gianna's List:

1. Why Be Happy When You can Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson 

I bought this the day it was released, went home, blew off work for the rest of the day and read this in one sitting. It is, by a wide margin, my favorite book of the year, and my favorite book by Winterson. If you knew how much I loved Art Objects, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and especially Written on the Body, the fact that this book now goes to the top of my Winterson list, well it’s a big deal. In short, this is a memoir about how books can save you.

From Why Be Happy When You can Be Normal:

“Books, for me, are a home. Books don’t make a home – they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space.”

“That is what literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn't a hiding place. It is a finding place.”

“A tough life needs a tough language—and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is.”

There are probably, no there are definitely, too many memoirs out there. Too many "my childhood was terrible, my mother was crazy, my father was an alcoholic, and I fell in love with my dog" memoirs out there. [...or cat.] What they miss most of the time is introspection, brutal honestly, and breathtaking prose. What Mary Karr, Rick Bragg, Joan Didion, William Styron, Gail Caldwell, Tobias Wolff, and very few others can do is put together a sentence that haunts you and begs to be savored.

2. This is How you Lose Her by Junot Diaz

This was the book I was most excited to read in 2012, and it did not disappoint. You know how people are absolutely nuts about Michael Chabon or Jonathan Franzen? That’s how I feel about Junot Diaz. If you like Jhumpa Lahiri, Jennifer Egan, David Mitchell, Karen Russell or Colum McCann, give Junot Diaz a try.

3. How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti
I would hold off and buy this in paperback because you are going to want to underline a bunch of stuff. It’s a smart smart smart book and I really hope it makes some year end lists. If you’re a woman under thirty, it’s a must by the way.

4. Canada by Richard Ford

Canada is as good as The Sportswriter and Independence Day. It is, in my opinion his best novel in years (probably since Independence Day). You can read any Richard Ford book and know that you’ve read on of the best novels that you will read that year, but with Canada he is, as the literary snobs say, ‘writing at the height of his powers.’

5. Are You My Mother by Alison Bechdel

Oh, how I resisted Alison Bechdel. It took five years of people annoying me about Fun Home before I read it. Lesson learned, and I read Are You My Mother immediately. While Fun Home dealt with Bechdel’s father, this tackles her just as complicated relationship with her mother.  While I wish Mother wasn’t so psychoanalysis heavy (got to be a bit much for me), it still makes my year-end list because it’s so smart and original.

6. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

I picked this book up at the Texas Book Festival not really knowing too much about it. My intention was to find a lighthearted book to tear through while between more serious reads. Turns out while Fountain’s book is humorous, it’s also pretty heartbreaking. I can’t think of anything better than when a book completely surprises you.

7. Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

I don’t know if this book was over-hyped or not. Probably. For me though, I felt this was an extraordinary first novel, actually it was a really great novel, first novel or not. I think when a book gets so much praise, there is bound to be backlash and that’s too bad. I have absolutely no qualms placing this book on the list with Richard Ford, John Irving, and Junot Diaz. Forget the haters!

8. In One Person by John Irving

I am a little in love with John Irving. I have read seven of his books, (probably the most books by a single author that I have read outside of Joyce Carol Oates), and I have to tell you, this is his best book since Widow for One Year and it holds up to his best work.

9. People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry

I think this is the only true crime book I read this year, and that may be because of how utterly depressing this book is. This is the story of a Japanese serial murderer who got away with killing women for three decades. The incompetence of the Japanese police is dumbfounding (or maybe they just didn’t give a damn). This book makes my list because the writing is really fantastic, the topic is mesmerizing, and Parry has managed to give voice to these women while Japanese police ignored them.

10. My Extraordinary Ordinary Life by Sissy Spacek

Spoiler alert: I love Sissy Spacek. If she had revealed in this memoir that she had been killing and burying defenseless squirrels in her basement, it would still make my list. Also, squirrels aren’t exactly defenseless; they can be quite vicious. This review has gotten off to a very rocky start. Let me start over.  
Spacek’s memoir makes my list because while it contains zero Hollywood gossip, you’re knee deep in really great film stories (from Terrence Malick to Loretta Lynn). Oh, wait…she does talk about how Bill Paxton killed her bird, so there is a bit of gossip for ya. 

Liz's picks

Unlike Gianna, I found The Yellow Birds cringe-worthy. In general, though, our book tastes overlap a bit.  And while 2012 wasn't the year of the big, big novel like some years, I think it's been a great year for emerging writers and great writers around for awhile receiving well-deserved recognition. Take a look at the National Book Award finalists.  There aren't any dogs on that list....except for Yellow Birds, which isn't bad, just grossly overrated.  In the interest of fairness, I'm not naming ten books here because there are many books--The Middlesteins, HHhH, Arcadia, Where'd You Go Bernadette, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, to name a few--that I haven't yet read.  I do much of my non-Random House reading the year after the book is published, so this year I was catching up on The Art of Fielding and The Marriage Plot, for example.  So here are some of my favorite books that did release in 2012, but by no means would I claim this as a definitive best of list.
Are You My Mother?

1. Are You My Mother by Alison Bechdel

Let 2012 be the year that I read two graphic novels! Yeah, that never happens, but what other year have we had both a Chris Ware and an Alison Bechdel?  I loved this graphic memoir of Bechdel's troubled relationship with her mother.  I heard some mixed opinions about the amount of psychoanalytic theory included in this book; I thought it added to the story.  This book is smart without being annoying, and I do love some navel-gazing, even in graphic form.

2. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Dude.  I loved this book.  I was reminded of the tour that the five marines who raised the flag at Iwo Jima took around the country to bolster morale.  In Fountain's book, a group of soldiers--kids, really--are touring the country to boost war support in 2004.  The book takes place over the course of a Thanksgiving Dallas Cowboys football game where the soldiers are to participate in a halftime show.  It's comically awful--Texas socialites with photo ops and George W. Bush cheerleading, frigid temperatures, a terrible football game, a waning movie producer hoping to exploit the soldiers, and the demons each of the soldiers carry with them from the battle that won them attention.  In the midst is Billy, a likeable guy just trying to please people, and whose family is a (quite believable) trainwreck.  What I particularly loved about this book were the interactions among the soldiers.  The constant ribbing, banter, and need to impress one another keeps Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk from being just another war book.

Dear Mr. Diaz,
Liz is single. Feel free to call.
Love, Liz
3. This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

I'm with Gianna.  I love Junot Diaz.  I love his use of language and the vernacular his characters speak.  These interconnected short stories follow Junior, one of the characters from Diaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  The machismo of the Dominican man who is equal parts romantic, intellectual, and cheating bastard make Junior a character worth following.

4. Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

I'll admit it.  I don't read funny books.  Usually I like my books just short of permanently traumatizing.  Jenny Lawson, though, has found a way to take the horrific and traumatizing and make it, well, hilarious.  Known as "The Bloggess" and famous for her crazy blog, Lawson takes her generalized anxiety and lack of social tact and makes the best of it.  Yes, she uses the word "vagina" more than any other author I've encountered (and that includes Gianna's text messages), but it works for her.  She's outrageous, and her family is that certain breed of loving but damaged Texas crazy.  Her dad's a taxidermist with a flock of attack turkeys that followed Jenny to school everyday.  Jenny had the quintessential Texas ag class insemination story.  And she's free enough from society's judgments that she'll buy a four foot tall metal rooster, name it Beyonce, and then use the chicken to prank her friends.  I think that Jenny Lawson and I could be bffs.

5. The Absolutist by John Boyne

From the author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Absolutist is the book I talked about the most with my book pals this year.  Two soldiers become friends at bootcamp before shipping to the trenches in World War I.  One soldier lives, one does not.  The story follows Tristan as he travels to deliver letters to his dead friend Will's sister.  Over the course of the weekend he spends in Will's home town, Tristan and Will's war story unravels--one of friendship, love, and resistance.  Need a book group pick?  This is the one.

6. The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich finally won a National Book Award with this novel, her fourteenth.  Maybe people like Gianna will begin reading her books now.  Joe is thirteen and lives with his judge father and tribe administrator mother on a reservation in North Dakota.  On a Sunday, his mother comes home from a work errand and she has been brutally assaulted and lucky to be alive.  The attack sets Joe into action trying to track down his mother's attacker and find justice for his family.  Erdrich has managed to write a mystery that is also a literary coming of age novel and exploration of Native American history and law in contemporary society.  It's a smart book that is compulsively readable.


  1. Love Junot! And that a groovy graphic novel made the list. :P

  2. "The Absolutist" is my next read. Thanks for the list and happy and healthy wishes for the new year.