jeremy’s favorite books of 2012

I’m still in Australia for a few more days.  A six-word story summary of Brisbane for Americans: Midwestern culture, Miami climate, Alaska prices.

Wanted to check in with my usual annual account of the books I most enjoyed reading in the past year.  My recommendations are a little boring this year, because two of the three best books I read were also books that have won a bunch of awards.  All I can do here is vouch that, yes, they deserve their acclaim, so much so that despite my love of feeling heterodox I could not bear the dishonesty of not recognizing them as my personal favorites.

For non-fiction: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katharine Boo.  Vivid account of life in a slum of Mumbai.  For sociologists, it has the added bonus of maybe prompting some reflection about the relationship between journalism, nonfiction writing, and ethnography.  I mean, I would be really proud if Katharine Boo was a sociologist so we could lay claim to such a virtuoso work about the intersection of individual lives in poverty and a rapidly changing world.  And yet, if it had been released as an ethnography, I would probably spend a lot of time kvetching about how it’s hard to know precisely how much of it is strictly true.

For fiction:  Wolf Hall / Bringing Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel.  I resisted reading these books for awhile even though my beloved raved about them, because I thought historical fiction surrounding Henry VII was the kind of thing that other people swooned over but not me.  Especially because a lot of historical fiction focuses so much on conveying details of the time and then either has a lethargic plot or a plot that exports contemporary soap opera arcs onto history.  Both these books are intricately and masterfully plotted, and so incredibly satisfying as they come to the end you knew (or Wikipedia) reminded you was coming already.

For fiction, runner-up:  The book I read in the past year that hasn’t received the critical credit it deserves is Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple.  The novel intersperses the first-person account of a teenage girl with fragments from e-mails, letters, surreptitious recordings, and other mock sources to tell the story of a brilliant mother with thwarted artistic ambitions who has been mentally checked-out for a long time and then finally, well, disappears.

As always, your own recommendations welcome.   I’m always on the lookout for new books (although, like everyone else in the academia area code, I don’t get through as many as I would like).

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

7 thoughts on “jeremy’s favorite books of 2012”

  1. I really enjoyed Mantel’s novels as well. I think their appeal is that they don’t seem like Henry VII / Tudor dynasty books. They’re about political intrigue and coalition building and the nitty gritty of international relations.


  2. I’d like to add another category. Best longform journalism: “The Innocent Man” in Texas Monthly by Pamela Colloff. A meticulously researched and finely crafted piece of journalistic writing, the story looks at a 26 year-old homicide case, in which a husband comes home from work to find the body of his murdered wife in his bed and is later convicted of the crime. The crime itself will grab your attention but what really distinguishes this piece from others is Colloff’s detailed accounts of the behind-the-scenes corruption that led to the ultimate conviction. The family drama surrounding the case, which involves custody of their young son, and eventual social isolation of the convict is heartbreaking. It’s a long piece but well worth reading the whole thing (part 1 and part 2).


  3. I’m looking forward to checking this out. There needs to be more publishing of long-form journalism as low-price e-books. Anything that takes more than 15 minutes to read I would happily buy at a $2-3 price point.


    1. I use readability, a super useful website if you’re a Kindle or other ereader user, to convert the web pages to edocuments that I then send and read on my Kindle. I’ve found that I read a lot more longform journalism with this option.


  4. I’d like to add another category. Best new comic book: Hawkeye. Stories are crisply written, but mostly I read it for David Aja’s artwork. You don’t have to know anything about the Marvel Universe–it is the story of Clint Barton on his days off from being an Avenger–so it’s very accesible.


  5. It turns out that I didn’t read much 2012 non/fiction, and those I did read, I didn’t love. I couldn’t find a way to enjoy the first 70 pages of Wolf Hall, so I stopped (although it seems to be one of those books where cheerleaders encourage you to read past the bad/hard/slow start). People Who Eat Darkness came highly recommended–it’s a (presumably) non-fiction account of the murder of a British woman working in bars in Japan. While scripted as a detective story, the propulsive mechanism is to end chapters with questions (which is hamfisted, at best) and–without a spoiler–the “solution” to the crime sheds heat but no light. Finally, there was the much-anticipated David Foster Wallace bio, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, which I liked but didn’t love until the ending, which was a complete disappointment and tarnished what good I could have said of the rest of it.

    But I found refuge in pre-12 stuff: I discovered the detective fiction of Jo Nesbo and now I’m into my first (in the Milo Weaver series) of Olen Steinhauer. I re-read Delillo’s White Noise. If you’re in the mood for it, Italio Calvino’s short stories (especially “Difficult Loves”) are breathtakingly good. And I read a ton of terrific stuff in the New Yorker this year. I recently read the “Deadhead” essay which I’ll almost certainly teach this spring:


  6. Turns out my favorite books of this past year were Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal (from late 2011) and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (late 2011). Ok, also thoroughly enjoyed Lev Grossman’s The Magicians (from 2009).

    Like Jenn, I read lots but didn’t love too much of it. I really enjoyed Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin (from 2006), but I disliked the 3rd book of this trilogy so much that I didn’t make it through, and that made me like the 1st one a bit less…

    I wanted to like World War Z, but I oddly felt about that book the way I feel about reading grad students’ field notes: ok, yeah, great source material, now do the work of turning it into a narrative! Plus, it’s a little unfair insofar as it stacks up so poorly against Whitehead’s (much much more interesting) zombie book.


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