Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Best of 2012: Day 2


I am going to reach all the way back to the beginning of 2012 for today’s top 10 selections.

Stay Awake by Dan Chaon
Get this book for anyone who has read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Get this book for anyone who has read Justin Cronin’s The Passage or The Twelve. Get this book for anyone for anyone who loves Flannery O’Connor, Amy Hempel, Karen Russell, Stewart O’Nan, or Daniel Woodrell. Get this book for yourself.  

Our pal Dan Chaon
My two favorite selections from Stay Awake:

"Bees," in which a father’s life begins to spiral out of control with the onset of his child’s night terrors, and now his own inability to continue to repress the memories of his secret first wife and child that he abandoned so long ago. This story is riveting.

My favorite selection is the title story, "Stay Awake." A young couple gives birth to a baby who has a parasitic twin.  I have long been fascinated by this incredibly rare medical condition (I believe there have been less than a dozen cases) and I have not been able to get the images of this story out of my head. At once heartbreaking and creepy, you won’t be able to shake this story for days.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Introvert champion
Susan Cain
 I refer to this book as a classic although it’s not quite a year old. It's groundbreaking, it's smart, and there really is nothing else out there like this. Cain argues that we are undervaluing introverts, and often try to change introvert behavior, as it's seen as a negative. This book is filled with inspiring stories of introverts, examples of major contributions to society by introverts, and probably my favorite part of the book, advice on parenting and empowering an introverted child.

Quiet is a great gift for readers of Oliver Sacks, Nate Silver, Eric Weiner (Geography of Bliss), and Malcolm Gladwell. 

Lizzy Poo:

The News from Spain by Joan Wickersham
How do I describe this book?  I like reading short stories, but I often find myself grappling with ways to present collections.  I think it's the same reason that short story collections typically don't sell as well as novels; how do you relate seven separate narratives on a staff selection card or a 30 second spiel in a presentation?  How do you say "These stories struck a chord, all of them," but then struggle to pinpoint exactly why?  

Let me start with the back story.  I have a rep pal who's great about sharing his reads, and he latched onto The News from Spain early.  I read it, I agreed that it's a marvel, and we talked about it.  And then throughout the year we've continued to mention it.  Isn't that the sign of a great book--one that stays in your head for the right reasons?  I feel connected to these stories, and protective of them.  If you hated this book, I would be hurt (but you won't hate it).

Joan Wickersham
The News from Spain is a collection of seven stories, all dealing with a theme of love.  They are also all titled "The News from Spain," binding them together further (though they aren't set in Spain...but it could be that the character's lover received news from Spain, etc).  These are stories that make you think about the nature of love, and how flawed and utterly human an emotion that is.  

My favorite story in the collection (it's called "The News from Spain," so that doesn't really help) comes in the middle of the collection and involves a gay dancer who works as a caregiver for woman who no longer has the use of legs.  Her husband is a serial cheater, and to cope with her heartache, she and her caregiver imagine the autobiography her cat would write.  Here is love betrayed and a different sort of love binding two people together. 

Booksellers love this book too, and it may be the best kept book secret of the year.  I highly recommend visiting the Boswell Book Company blog, where owner Daniel Goldin wrote this great, obsessive piece and also snagged a terrific interview with the author.  How The News from Spain isn't on every best of the year list is a huge mystery to me.

The Long Walk by Brian Castner
I'm tempted to state that the market for Iraq/Afghanistan War books is saturated--they are EVERYWHERE--but then I read one like The Long Walk and know that there's always space for a great book, regardless of the topic.  Kevin Powers's first novel The Yellow Birds received lots of attention this year, but it fell short of the hype for me, in part, I think, because I had already read The Long Walk.  

Brian Castner was the guy who volunteered to walk up to the explosive devices.  If you saw The Hurt Locker, that was Castner's job.  He dismantled bombs, and he knew what it was to face his own mortality every day even as he thrived on the adrenaline rushes.  And then he came home.  This is the memoir of a man who knew danger first hand, but only felt imperiled after his return and the Crazy that lived in his head.  Alternating chapters describe Castner's war experiences and the post-war attempts to rejoin civilian society, where a trip to take his kid to school could result in a crippling panic attack.

I think what truly distinguishes The Long Walk, though, is the quality of the writing.  Castner writes a memoir reminiscent of The Liar's Club or This Boy's Life, with echoes of Michael Herr's war classic Dispatches.  

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