2012 Best: Amanda Craig, NPR's "Backseat" Reads, Pop-Ups, Etc.
Bill Traylor & the Third Graders

Norman's Best Books of 2012

Note from Susan: For the fourth year in a row, my husband, Norman, has written about his favorite books of the year. He's the reading-est guy I know, so seeing him hard at work on his list always makes me happy, knowing that I'm about to read—and sharesome great recommendations. Hit it, Norm.

As the year 2012 comes to a close, I am happy to share with Susan’s readers my list of the best books that I’ve read over the last 12 months. The three most powerful were The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo, and Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman. These books were so well-written and engrossing that they were hard to put down and stayed with me long after I finished them, despite the difficult topics (the effects of war in The Yellow Birds; the devastating poverty of people living in an Indian slum in Behind the Beautiful Forevers; and the hard life of a young girl growing up in a trailer park outside of Reno, Nevada, in Girlchild). The Yellow Birds and Behind the Beautiful Forevers received the wide critical acclaim and recognition they deserved; one was a finalist for this year’s National Book Award in fiction and the other was the nonfiction winner. I hope that over time more people will read and appreciate the excellent writing and unique storytelling in Ms. Hassman’s book.

Adding two more to come up with my top 5 reads of the year is easy: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz and The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín. Díaz’s collection of stories about love and family is at times moving and at times laugh-out-loud funny, but always smart and entertaining. And Colm Tóibín is just a beautiful storyteller, and this novella about Jesus’ mother is both courageous and thought-provoking.

With the exception of Girchild, I’d expect that most people who like to read will have heard of the above books. So, now I’ll turn to some very good, solid books that were not as widely discussed and publicized. On the top of my “next of the best” list is A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer DuBois. This fascinating book, with a great title, moves between time and place as it tells the story of a young woman in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who, like her father, has Huntington’s disease, and a young Russian chess champion looking to unseat Vladimir Putin. Taking place over a non-linear span of 30 years and two continents, this story is a must read.  Other good novels that took me to less familiar places are Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron (set in Rwanda), The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (set in North Korea), All That I Am by Anna Funder (set in Germany and London, largely in the 1930s), and The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger (partially set in Bangladesh).

Three excellent books with young protagonists are Me and You written by Niccolò Ammaniti and translated by Kylee Doust, The Fault In Our Stars by John Green, and The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau. The first was a best-seller in Italy, and with good reason; the second, which came to me via a recommendation from a children’s librarian at the Westport Public Library, is a young adult novel that could be read by anyoneor I should say should be read by everyoneover 15 years old; and the third is a hard-to-read yet hard-to-put-down story of a teenager whose family is killed in an unnamed Muslim country and a mother in the United States who wants to find out about the death of her soldier son. Though not quite as memorable as those three, I would also recommend The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont, which is a suspenseful coming-of-age story set in a boarding school. On the other end of the age spectrum, I enjoyed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, which tells the story of a retired man who walks across England to visit a terminally ill old friend and co-worker, and How It All Began by Penelope Lively, a well-crafted work centered on a woman in her 70’s.

And what would a year be without a few good family sagas and dramas? My top choices are The O’Briens by Peter Behrens, I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits, Those We Love Most by Lee Woodruff, The World Without You by Joshua Henkin, The Round House by Louise Erdrich, Heft by Liz Moore, Alys, Always by Harriet Lane, The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty, and The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg.

Finally, I’ll pass along some other titles well worth the read:

  • Defending Jacob by William Landay (best crime drama I read all year);
  • What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander (I found the short stories of Englander and Díaz to be far more satisfying that Alice Munro’s stories in Dear Life);
  • Watergate by Thomas Mallon (best historical fiction);
  • Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie and To the Mountaintop: My Journey Through The Civil Rights Movement by Charlayne Hunter-Gault (both excellent non-fiction books);
  • The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead (a romance and a war story not to be missed); and
  • Gathering of Waters by Bernice L. McFadden (most imaginative book I read in 2012).

As always, I’d like to thank Martha, Maggie, and David, who make up our little book group of four and are three of the most well-read and intelligent people I know; my friends and fellow riders in the Tuesday morning Spinning class at the Wilton Y who arrive before our 6 a.m. class and sometimes stay after class ends so that we can discuss life and books (if only we didn’t have to cycle like fiends for an hour!); and my wife, Susan, and our son, a.k.a. Junior, both of whom share my love for reading and make me realize that life is way more interesting beyond the pages.

 Happy reading to all in 2013!


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Not only was this an interesting read, I am completely put to shame by the number and quality of books read (and shared) by Norman. I now have my New Year 's resolution!

Keep reading, keep sharing , keep loving!

Xo Hedi

Hedi, I am inspired, too! Norman has read so many great books, and I love it that he shares his recs for the best.

Norman this is an amazing list- and I am going to get started right now! Thanks.

Great recommendations, especially for the family sagas/dramas. Also want to read many of the others you mention. I have The Middlesteins from the library but haven't started it yet and own a copy of How It All Began but haven't gotten to it yet. Agree that This Is How You Lose Her and The Starboard Sea were excellent!

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