Top ten books of 2012

While 2012 didn’t, perhaps, produce a lot of truly great books by new writers, last year saw many established authors taking their writing in new and exciting directions. Here are some books by writers new and old that stood out above the rest.

1. “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green

This novel just might be Green’s masterpiece and a future classic of young adult literature. Augustus and Hazel are two irreverent and vibrant teenagers in love who just happen to have cancer. This is not a sentimental book about the poor, young cancer patient who keeps smiling and persevering until the very end, but the story of two human beings grappling with some of life’s most urgent existential questions. Why love if all things end in death? How do you continue living with a lucid awareness of mortality? This funny, beautiful and poignant read will surely be remembered for a long time to come.

2. “This is How You Lose Her” by Junot Díaz

While I’m not sure anything could ever truly compare with Diaz’s spectacular novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” one of my all-time favorite books, this book of short stories is electrified by the same glib but vulnerable wit, a high-wire act in prose composed of slang, poetry, Spanglish and allusion. The result is a delightful and moving series of stories about the infinite power and variations of love and heartbreak.

3.”Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity” by Katherine Boo

By now, most of us in the West think we have a pretty good grasp of what poverty is like in India: crowded, dirty shantytowns filled with the downtrodden poor. Although these images have some base in reality, the truth of poverty is much more complex. Boo neither demonizes nor idealizes the inhabitants of the Mumbai slum where she lived for a time; they are living, striving, imperfect human beings like any others. She combines a tenacious journalistic integrity with compelling writing to reveal the macrocosm of global poverty through the microcosm of the slum, demonstrating how actions in other countries can shake the foundations of a community half a world away.

4. “How to Be a Woman” by Caitlin Moran

This is feminism with a sense of humor, and Moran is both an insightful, committed feminist and a superb comedian. Through hilarious anecdotes from her life and snarky, intelligent commentary on assumptions and expectations surrounding women, she simultaneously makes her readers laugh at the absurdity and critically examine the state of women in modern society.

5. “Home” by Toni Morrison

Frank returns from fighting in the Korean War and must rescue his abandoned, damaged sister Cee. He brings her to their hometown where he works to reconcile with his past and the women in the town work to save Cee. In her tenth novel, Morrison writes about racial and economic injustice with the same incisive power and fearlessness that have defined all her works, but she also writes about manhood, community and the ability of human beings to endure and heal. Morrison is an undisputedly gifted writer whose ability has only grown greater.

6.”Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo” by Tom Reiss

Reiss combines exhaustive research with engaging prose to tell the riveting story of Alexandre Dumas Sr., the son of a black slave who was sold into bondage as a child, purchased back, became a prestigious general in the French army, and was nearly erased from history by Napoleon. It’s a fascinating depiction of 18th Century France, early multi-racial society and love between a father and a son that reads more like an adventure novel than a work of nonfiction.

7. “Bring Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel

In this sequel to her excellent novel “Wolf Hall,” Mantel further explores the psyche of Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII of England. Although he fought for the right to marry Anne Boleyn, now Henry wants to get rid of her because she’s failed to provide him an heir and she alienates him from his allies. Ever loyal, Cromwell now sets all his considerable intelligence and power to bringing down Anne through a trial for adultery and treason. Mantel brings Tudor England and the royal court vividly to life in this thoroughly engaging novel.

8. “Varamo” by César Aira

Varamo is a Panamanian bureaucrat who, after being paid by the government in counterfeit money, writes a masterpiece of Central American poetry when a burst of genius strikes him. Aira writes with a clever, witty metafictional awareness influenced by the likes of Borges and Cortázar. In this novel, he at once explores the depths of one ordinary man’s life and larger questions about the nature of writing. “Varamo” is an expertly written, entertaining book that makes readers laugh and think at the same time.

9.      “The Casual Vacancy” by J.K. Rowling

This is not Harry Potter, but it’s definitely not a poorly written book, either. While not everyone will enjoy Rowling’s first novel for adults, the writing is the work of a master. She has an inimitable flair for writing detailed and deep characters that feel like people you would fully expect to encounter in the real world. They’re far from perfect, but they’re still relatable and sympathetic; she understands both the goodness and evil that reside in every soul. While this book can sometimes be a slow and dark read, it’s one of the most psychologically authentic renderings of the struggles in ordinary life that I’ve read.

10.    “A Thousand Mornings” by Mary Oliver

Perhaps some will see Oliver as old news by now, but she still ranks among some of the best modern American poets. Her transcendent meditations upon nature and spirituality have a timeless quality that never becomes stale. Oliver’s poetry is stillness in a noisy world and a light in darkness. Her wisdom and craft only seem to deepen with age.