By: Harvey Freedenberg
My Favorite Books of 2012
If we’ve connected on Twitter or Facebook, you know this column isn’t the only place I’m reviewing books. Annually, one of those other publications asks me to compile a list of my 10 favorites of the year. For the first time, I’m sharing that list (five titles each of fiction and nonfiction) with Harrisburg Magazine’s readers.
1. Richard Ford, Canada (Ecco) Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Ford’s Canada is a ruminative novel that tells the story of a young man’s abrupt initiation into the mysteries of adult life. When 15-year-old Dell Parson’s parents are imprisoned after a bungled bank robbery, he flees across the border into Saskatchewan, into an even darker world. Dell’s compelling narrative voice gives this bleak, but strangely beautiful, novel real power.
2. Nathan Englander, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (Alfred A. Knopf) Nathan Englander’s first short story collection offered unorthodox glimpses into the world of Orthodox Judaism. He’s chosen to stay close to his roots here, and his diverse stories echo the art of Jewish short fiction masters, from Isaac Bashevis Singer to Philip Roth, in tales that are both contemporary and timeless.
3. Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco) This sly, raucous, occasionally bawdy first novel is one of a group of strong Iraq War novels that appeared in 2012. It’s the story of a squad of brave soldiers who become instant celebrities and end up as awkward guests of the Dallas Cowboys at their Thanksgiving Day game. Ben Fountain employs his ample satiric gifts to depict how flag-waving patriotism merges with our worship of professional football in a single manic day.
4. A.M. Homes, May We Be Forgiven (Viking) In previous novels, A.M. Homes hasn’t shied away from tackling grim subjects like pedophilia and school gun violence. Her latest social satire returns to the American suburbs to tell a story of one man’s despair and redemption, all the while probing what she’s consistently sought to expose as the real heart of darkness at the core of suburban life.
5. James Meek, The Heart Broke In (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) James Meek’s smart and generous look at contemporary morality is the kind of novel to press into the hands of someone who asks, “Why read fiction?” Set mainly in Britain, it offers an attractive cast of characters for whom the big questions – mortality, integrity, forgiveness and sexual fidelity – haven’t disappeared, even if the source of ready answers has.
1. Roger Rosenblatt, Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats (Ecco) Kayak Morning is a sequel to Rosenblatt’s 2010 memoir, Making Toast, which told the story of his family’s response to the sudden death of his 38-year-old daughter from a rare cardiac anomaly. In this new memoir, Rosenblatt turns inward, extending and deepening the story of his struggle to come to terms with his profound loss.
2. John Leonard, Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008 (Viking) This exhilarating selection of 50 of the late John Leonard’s reviews and essays (culled from the five million words the former New York Times Book Review editor and CBS Sunday Morning guest critic estimated he’d written in the course of his long career), is fueled by an infectious enthusiasm, as Leonard invites us to join him on a roller-coaster ride in the amusement park of contemporary culture.
3. Joe Queenan, One for the Books (Viking) As anyone familiar with the work of Joe Queenan would expect, One for the Books might just be one of the most sarcastic books about books ever written. The truth is that the habitually acerbic cultural critic has a huge soft spot for books, one he displays in this memoir of his passionate reading life that’s seen him consume between 6,000 and 7,000 books.
4. Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) Whenever I despair about the quality of our public discourse, I remind myself ours remains a society inhabited by people like Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist (Gilead, Home) and essayist Marilynne Robinson. Generous, humane, occasionally witty, her reflections on religion, culture, literature and politics are an antidote to the shouting matches that often pass for intellectual argument today. This essay collection is a bracing display of her sharp mind and elegant prose.
5. Richard Russo, Elsewhere: A Memoir (Knopf) In novels like his Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls, Richard Russo has mined a rich lode of stories based on his childhood in upstate New York’s Gloversville. In this moving memoir, he offers some glimpses of his hometown, but he’s more interested in telling the complicated story of his loving but often fractious relationship with his mother, Jean.