As someone who reads a lot of books, thanks to a lengthy commute, it was mildly disconcerting to look over the 2011 New York Times list of the 100 most notable books of the year and realize I hadn’t read a single one.
But when the 2012 list came out and I found myself perusing a list of books I had hardly even heard of -- once again -- I realized that I’m just looking at the wrong list.
So, like last year, I put out the call to friends and asked for their recommendations of the best books they actually took the time to read in the past year, and enjoyed. Here are the results: a handful of reads, including a few young adult novels that grownups might like, too, that crazy busy people found worth their time. And guess what? A few of them are actually on that other list.
• Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I couldn’t put down this thriller about a seemingly perfect marriage gone wrong. Even though I found the main characters to be less likable as I got deeper into the story, and I wasn’t too sure about the ending, I thoroughly enjoyed the book as a whole. This book stayed with me and I kept thinking about it long after I finished it.
• Bring Up the Bodies by Hillary Mantel. I absolutely loved Wolf Hall for its sardonic wit. This is the next act on that well-known stage. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell arranged for Henry to marry Anne Boleyn. In Mantel's second novel in the series, Cromwell is pulling the strings that will enable Henry to rid himself of Boleyn and marry his new love interest. Once again, Mantel has created a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a brilliant spider.
• Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks. A historical novel that tells of life in an English settlement on Martha’s Vineyard through the eyes of Bethia Mayfield, the brilliant daughter of the local minister. She writes of her daily life, the struggle she faces living in a world with a narrow view of women’s capabilities, and of her friendship with Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, the son of the local Indian chief who was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. It’s a beautifully written book of two people struggling to find their place in the world.
• Arcadia by Lauren Groff. An editor friend of ours calls this novel “gorgeous and literary, but relatively fast-paced.” Arcadia tells the story of an upstate New York commune -- and the story of human striving for perfection, and of the ultimate disappointment that entails -- through the eyes of Bit, the first child born there.
• Heft by Liz Moore. This tells the friendship of two unlikely people, Arthur Opp, a college professor who weighs 550 pounds and has become a recluse in his rundown Brooklyn house, and Kel Keller, the 17-year-old son of one of Opp’s former students. You don’t get a happy ending here, but you get a real story about characters who care about. That’s worth something.
• True Grit by Charles Portis. Yes, there have been movies (one with John Wayne, one with Jeff Bridges in 2010) about 14-year-old Mattie Ross and her quest for revenge against the man who killed her father. But this story, about how she hires Marshal Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn, a “one-eyed fat man,” is worth a read. It’s been called one of the great American novels, but all I know is that Mattie makes a compelling narrator. “People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.”
• The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection by Alexander McCall Smith. This is the 13th book in the series about Mma Precious Ramotswe and her No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency in Botswana. An entertaining read about the righting of injustices, big and small.
• The Big Short by Michael Lewis. If you know pretty much everything about the financial crisis of 2008, this is the book that will make it relevant, exciting, and infuriating all over again. On the other hand, if you’ve never really had a handle on what happened to the financial markets more than four years ago, this is the book that will keep you up way too late reading about the machinations of Wall Street. Before I read The Big Short, I think I had forgotten how good Michael Lewis is. Now I want to go back and read every single thing he’s ever written.
• Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak. A history not only of Nancy Drew herself, but of the two writers who brought her to life. Mildred Wirt Benson wrote most of the early Nancy Drew books, giving the character her early spunk and optimism (and once quitting the gig when her pay was cut). When the publisher of the series passed away, his daughter Harriet Stratemeyer Adams turned to a string of other ghostwriters. Over time, she gradually began writing the books herself, making Nancy more reflective of Adams’ own upbringing.
• Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeannette Winterson. This is a wonderful memoir, magically written. It’s the story of Winterson’s honest search for happiness after a very hard upbringing with her adoptive parents in working class England. You laugh, you cry. If you had more time, yes, you’d probably read it again and again.
• Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow. A well-argued and frightening analysis of the corporatization of the U.S. military and its impact on policy.
• Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Stephen Spielberg’s movie Lincoln was inspired by Goodwin’s well-written history. She focuses on Lincoln’s choice to select three men for his cabinet, each of whom were his rivals for the Republican nomination in 1860 and were upset to lose to an unknown lawyer from the backwoods of Illinois. Goodwin tells how Lincoln not only got them to join his cabinet, but how they came to respect and admire him as the worked toward the greater good. A really amazing read.
• The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. This is probably the most thought provoking book I read all year and in a long while about politics and human nature. Haidt, a psychologist, asks the questions that are top of mind for many people today: Why can’t our political leaders work together to solve problems and why do people so readily assume the worst about the motives of others?
Teen fiction adults will enjoy:
• The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. This is the story of Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16-year-old with cancer, who meets Augustus ‘Gus’ Waters, a former basketball player who has also battled cancer, at a support group. The two set off on a journey to meet Hazel’s favorite writer in Amsterdam and find out why he ended his book, about a girl with cancer, in mid-sentence. Funny, sweet, sad, and memorable.
• The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. After this series made our list last year, several One Thing New readers decided to read it and now heartily recommend it. This science fiction adventure tells the story of a young girl living in the post-apocalytpic nation of Panem in North America, where the concept of reality TV is taken to its most violent, extreme.
• The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Set in Nazi Germany, Zusak’s novel features Death as the narrator of this story about a young girl’s life in a small town as the Jews, including some of her friends, are being rounded and sent to concentration camps. She finds comfort in books, some she’s been given, some she’s had to steal. She ends up writing a diary about her experiences and her friends that is so moving that even Death finds it haunting.
• The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chobsky. This coming-of-age story of a shy, introspective, smart yet socially awkward high school boy has already been turned into a movie. But that shouldn’t stop you from reading the book, which is funny, moving, painful and honest in its portrayal of one teenager’s journey -- described in the letters he’s written to someone unknown -- through the horrible high school years.
Do you have some recommendations? Send them our way and we’ll add them to the list. -- Connie Guglielmo
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Good Reads For Busy Women
Smart Reads for Busy Women: Indie Edition
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