Top Ten Tuesday – My “Favorite” Reads of 2012

Top ten books I read in 2012:

Top Ten Tuesday is an entertaining weekly meme hosted by the imaginative folks over at The Broke and The Bookish. It’s almost impossible to not want to compare one’s own list to others and seeing how many we have in common and/or realizing “I can’t believe I forgot to include X,” etc. It’s also a great way to discover new book blogs and learn about books that weren’t otherwise on one’s radar. Since there are now literally hundreds of participants, I usually pick a digit from zero to nine and try to visit at least the entries that end in that number, e.g. 3, 13, 23…

This week’s topic is “Top Ten Books I Read This Year.” It’s been a great reading year for me, and I’ve certainly read more than ten books that I enjoyed very much. So these are ten of those memorable books, counted down with #1 being my favorite.

10. Earth Abides by George Stewart

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I only learned of this 1949 sci-fi classic this year, but am glad I did. Though parts of it feel a little naive today, what with the explosion of post-apocalyptic literature, this book was a refreshing read and a trailblazing effort of that genre. I liked how in the post-apocalyptic world of this book, the survivors decide to start their new year on the winter solstice (hey, that’s coming up fast!) instead of the arbitrary January first. And how they “named” their years. E.g., “The Year the Dog Died” (sorry, the dog’s name escapes me as I’m typing this). Update: it’s Princess. “The Year Princess Died.”

9. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

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I never blogged about this book, but it was an interesting review of introverts and their place in the current world. Somewhat of an introvert myself, a lot of it rang true with me. Amusing also was the section discussing how many companies are moving toward the (more extrovert-friendly) “open office” concept, eschewing or limiting the number of traditional offices in favor of a cube-farmy feel. I lost my office to this whim last year. “It’ll foster team building and mentoring,” they said. It fosters me buying better headphones… 🙂 I was also reminded of a friend’s telling me of a definition of introvert/extrovert that I’ve always liked: “An extrovert gains energy through interacting with others, while in introvert loses energy.” I’ll second that.

8. Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

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I just wrote about this one. (scroll down 🙂 ) I only discovered Murakami last year, but will likely devour his entire oeuvre before too long. I really enjoy his odd, supernatural-tinged writing.

7. Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd

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My 2012 “Author Biography” reading project never really took hold, although I did read a few, and this was my favorite of them. I blogged about this book earlier. Poe’s story is a tragic one…

6. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

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I had heard of this book “for ages” and finally got around to reading it this year. Some of the best writing I encountered, even if the subject matter wasn’t something I’d normally choose.

5. The Class of 1846: From West Point to Appomattox by John Waugh

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A really great history of West Point’s 1846 graduates, many of whom were key players in the U.S. Civil War, including Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and George McClellan. I still hope to write a blog post about this one someday. I felt like I knew many of these people by the end of the book, and it was difficult to read about some of their deaths, Jackson’s in particular. I am rarely moved to the degree I was in reading it.

4. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

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Never blogged about this depressing book either, but it was such a great commentary on what our lives have become in “Corporate America” and “Suburbia” it’s hard to believe it was written in … 1962! This one hit home with me.

3. I Am No One You Know (short stories) by Joyce Carol Oates

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Some have argued that Joyce Carol Oates is an “acquired taste” and, if that’s true, I admit to having fully acquired it now. This book is a collection of short stories, many of which are quite powerful and all of which are extremely well-written. My favorite story might’ve been “The Instructor.” You should check out this collection.

2. The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

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Subtitled “and other tales of madness, love, and the history of the world from the periodic table of the elements,” this book was the most fun I’ve had reading non-fiction in quite some time. The title gets its name from an old chemistry lab trick – a spoon fashioned from the metal Gallium would look like an ordinary spoon, but since gallium has a very low melting point, if it were to be used to, say, stir one’s coffee, the spoon would disappear. (They should use this gag on an episode of Big Bang Theory)

1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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Atwood also wrote one of my favorite short stories of the year (“Significant Moments in the Life of my Mother”) and is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. This book is a dystopian masterpiece. I’ve started and stopped a post on it several times but seem unable to do it justice. I’ll keep trying. “Nolite te bastardes carborundurum!” 🙂

Well, those are ten of my favorites. I can’t wait to see what others have chosen as their favorites. Do we share any? Do you have recommendations for other books I might like based on these favorites? I’m all ears. 🙂

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“The Mutants” by Joyce Carol Oates

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Still catching up on my short story reading project, I drew then ten of hearts today and was led to the Joyce Carol Oates story, The Mutants. I acquired this story when I bought her collection “I Am No One You Know” and other Stories. A couple years back, for one of my old book club’s annual “short story months,” someone had initially picked the disturbing Oates story, “The Girl with the Blackened Eye” but later changed her mind. After I had already bought the book. 🙂 No matter. I was simply left with another batch of short stories to explore, and I’ve read maybe half of them now. I have scheduled myself to finish this collection in 2012 though, so I guess I’d better get cracking on the remaining ones too.

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I have learned in my previous reading of Joyce Carol Oates that she pulls no punches and can write about anything, even something horrible, in a frank and matter of fact manner. This story was no exception. Based upon the title alone I had no idea what to expect from her with a story named, “The Mutants.” In fact, you probably could’ve given me a hundred guesses and I still wouldn’t have come up with “something related to 9/11″…

The protagonist of the story is a “dreamy, beautiful young woman of that genre, American Midwestern Blond, which indicates not so much a physical as a spiritual type.” Sounds like someone I’d like to know, but we don’t even learn her name in the pages that follow. Her name is not important to the impact of the story, which is one of those that have that great quality of indefinite-ness which allows a motivated reader to perhaps add some of the finishing touches himself.

The young woman is returning to her high-rise apartment in lower Manhattan one morning when she is shocked to see from the corner of her eye the startling image of a low-flying commercial jet – a prelude to the next instant when she is knocked to her knees from the power of the nearby impact. The rest of this very short story deals with her immediate reactions to the disaster. Readers are not told, directly, if she survives the coming hours or not (it seems there is damage to her building as well,) but we do learn how the story got its name:

“She was hollow-eyed and gaunt yet wakeful, no longer the dreamy-eyed blond. A mutant being, primed to survive. Were there not undersea creatures that acquired an extra set of gills, eyes on stalks of either side of their blade-thin heads, cunning in the desperation of survival…”

I presume Oates is saying that, in a way, the 9/11 attacks made mutants of us all (mutants in the simple, pure, non “sci-fi” meaning of something changed). This was a powerful story packed into just eight pages.

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“In Hiding” – a short story by Joyce Carol Oates

Yes, I have become addicted to reading a short story in the morning as part of my routine. Now that my “required reading” of short stories for my two book clubs (both meeting today!) has been exhausted, I am turning to a couple other collections I have loaded and ready on my Nook reader.

The first is Joyce Carol Oates’ collection, “I Am No One You Know,” which I purchased because I thought one of the stories was going to be part of my book club’s short story month in July. However, the member who had originally picked a story from that collection (the disturbing “The Girl With the Blackened Eye”) retracted it and picked something else. Too late for me, as I had read it anyway, but now I am left with a whole book of Stories to nibble on in the mornings.  Below: Joyce Carol Oates

The second is William Trevor’s collection, “After Rain,” which was brought to my attention by one of my favorite bloggers, Ana, over at Ana the Imp (a link to her awesome blog is on my blogroll “to the left”) Her blog is often about history and politics, but I have also found her insight on books helpful, and she has yet to steer me wrong. I’ve only read the first story in this collection, but I’m sure I’ll be posting on some of them as time goes by. Below: William Trevor

Back to today’s story. ****SPOILER ALERT!**** “In Hiding” is about a “single mom” poet/writer who finds herself beginning a correspondence with an inmate serving a life sentence (he claims to be innocent, naturally) who has poetic ambitions of his own. Though hesitant, she allows the correspondent relationship to slowly grow, and he sends her more and more poetry and excerpts from his diary. She is painted earlier in the tale as a typical low self-esteemed person; her husband – who she was surprised would ever like her in the first place – left her and she is now living (hiding?) in a small town in New York. I guess this is why she willingly engages in this correspondence.

She sends the inmate some paperback books and other collections of poetry, and even inquires with various publishers about the possibility of publishing some of his poetry, but without success. Eventually, their correspondence lessens to a trickle and then stops. She speculates that perhaps he has found another correspondent and is actually relieved. Some time later, she receives a form letter from an “Innocents Defense Fund” – or something of the like – requesting financial assistance in the inmate’s interest. She sends $500, receiving another form letter that thanks her. She begins to feel that her contribution was too small and sends another $1,500. Another thank you – another form letter – follows.

Nothing happens until one day, looking out the front window of her house, she sees a strange car with out of state license plates in her neighborhood. Something tells her “it’s him” as it creeps past her house and turns right further down the block. It returns shortly after and slows to a stop in front of her house. A man gets out, looking very much like the photos that the inmate had sent her. She retreats to an inner room of the house in fear, and there is a knock on the door. She waits, but then in horror hears her son answer the door (she has forgotten that it’s Saturday, and he is home). He seeks her out In her “office” where she has slid into a closet-like alcove, and the story ends with his inquiry, “Why are you hiding, Mom?”

Short and sweet. I like that how the story ends – or at least what happens next – is left to the reader.

Have you read any Joyce Carol Oates? What do you think of her as a writer?