Can you handle one more “best of” list this holiday season? We think you can!
The Eleventh Stack tally of favorites differs from other “best” lists in that we don’t limit ourselves to books published in 2012. “New to us” books are welcome on our list because an excellent book doesn’t stop being excellent just because it’s no longer in the public eye (after a certain amount of time has passed, we call those books “classics”). We also don’t limit our format choices, either; while many of us chose to write about books, you will also find movies and music on this list. We can tell from our stats dashboard that you enjoy our music and film reviews as much as you do our literary explorations, so consider their inclusion here a holiday bonus.
Here’s what your favorite lit-savvy pop culture Pittsburgh library mavens appreciated most in 2012:
In my music world, the Kills have my body, Wild Flag has my spirit, and Kathleen Edwards has my soul. Kathleen is the only one who put out an album this year (the Kills’ newest, Blood Pressures, came out in 2011; so did Wild Flag’s eponymous album. They were both excellent and I highly recommend them.) Kathleen’s music is in that hard-to-define alt-country-pop-rock world and while Voyageur, her 2012 release, is less alt-country and more pop, but you won’t mistake it for a Katy Perry or Pink album. Even though it’s musically a bit of a departure from her previous albums (Failer, Back to Me, and Asking for Flowers), lyrically, it’s the same Kathleen. She is not one for dancing around an emotion. She writes songs that make you want to jump and yell and curl up on the couch and cry. She divorced in 2011 and many of the songs on Voyageur deal with that in a very honest way that can leave you heartbroken, but also hopeful. She’ll be playing here in February and she’s worth seeing live. I saw her earlier this year (that’s me and her in the photo) and it was one of the best nights of my life.
Picking my favorite book of the year was a tough thing to do because I read a lot of excellent ones. It came down to the graphic novel, Building Stories by Chris Ware and Trail of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz. In the end, I went with Lisa Lutz (though, please read Building Stories. It made me worry about a bee; that’s how good it is.) Trail of the Spellmans is the fifth in Lutz’s Spellman books so you should read the first four (The Spellman Files, Curse of the Spellmans, Revenge of the Spellmans, The Spellmans Strike Again) before you read this one. The series is about a family of private investigators who sometimes use their investigative skills against each other. What I adore about this series is that while it’s funny, it also has heart. Lutz has created a family who clearly loves each other, but doesn’t always show it in appropriate ways.
The movies Netflix usually recommends for me fall into categories like “Critically-acclaimed Quirky Independent Movies” or “Visually-striking Emotional French-Language Movies” or “Understated Comedies” so it might be surprising to them (it?) that my favorite movie of 2012 was Warrior. This came out in 2011, but I saw it this year and cried; for some reason, sports movies reduce me to a sobbing mess. Rudy, Rocky IV, Redbelt, Whip It, and now Warrior. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about two estranged brothers, one a former Marine, the other a schoolteacher, who for differing reasons, take part in a mixed-martial arts tournament and end up battling each other for the top prize. It stars Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, and Nick Nolte and is worth your time and Kleenex.
Kristen Iversen’s memoir, Full Body Burden: Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats (also available as a book on CD), is really two stories in one. On a personal level, it’s the tale of a crazy dysfunctional family headed by an alcoholic father that goes through an awful lot of pets (and cars – drunk father even causes an accident that breaks young Kristen’s neck, something she doesn’t learn about until years later). On the nuclear side of things, there’s the history of Rocky Flats, a plant that used to manufacture plutonium triggers for atomic bombs (they somehow managed to lose a few TONS of plutonium in the air ducts and survive a few fires that should have destroyed large portions of Colorado). So yeah, disturbing and illuminating. (If you want to learn more about Rocky Flats, check out the documentary Dark Circle.)
Frank Ocean is an R&B/Soul genius, who came from seemingly out of nowhere and blew my mind in 2012 with Channel Orange. His huge, weird, gorgeous, Wizard-of-Oz-referencing single, “Thinkin Bout You” shows vocal range, song-writing talent and the rare ability to bring a tear to Beyonce’s eye. I think I listened to this song 100 times in a row. Channel Orange contains many songs worth more than one spin. “Pink Matter” and “Bad Religion” are also must listens. And to be fair, Frank Ocean didn’t really come from out of nowhere, he came from New Orleans by way of Odd Future. He’s nominated for 6 grammys, so get a hold of the CD now, before he wins them all and the holds list goes through the roof.
I love fairy tales: not the happily ever after, princesses being saved by princes type, but the darker stories that the Grimm brothers immortalized. Graham Joyce’s novel Some Kind of Fairy Tale is about a woman who appears on her family’s doorstep twenty years after her mysterious disappearance and appears not to have aged at all in the interim. Her perplexing explanation– that she was spirited away to fairy land– would seem delusional, but as the story unfolds details emerge that make it hard for even her fiercest critics to continue doubting her. The story itself is dark and intriguing, and the writing is wonderfully done.
Another book in a similar vein is almost too obvious to mention, but I will anyway because I loved this one too: Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version. I love Pullman, I love the Brothers Grimm, and this book is a great marriage of both. The simple retellings are gruesome enough to win the Grimm brothers’ approval, and the notes at the end of each tale about its origins are a great addition for those of us who like that kind of thing.
Grave Mercy may best be explained as “Alias set in the Middle Ages…” But instead of the great Sidney Bristow, we have Ismae, an assassin trained at the convent (yes, convent) of Saint Mortain – otherwise known as the god of death. Set in the French duchy of Brittany, Ismae escapes her awful father and even worse arranged marriage after her husband-to-be discovers the red scar across her back, a sign that she had been sired by Saint Mortain himself. She soon finds herself settling in with the sisters of the convent, learning to kill those who have been marked for death by her patron saint. A few training montages and a successful field test later, Ismae is assigned to help the very handsome and very mysterious Gavriel Duval protect his half-sister, the duchess. There’s lots of court intrigue, questions about Ismae’s own beliefs, and ultimately, the future of a kingdom hangs in the balance.
This is a young adult novel that manages to successfully flirt with the notion of being an adult book, especially in how author Robin LaFevers handles the historical aspects. The convent of Saint Mortain was likely based – at least the location – on the Abbaye Blanche, in Mortain, France. She incorporates a number of real people, such as Anne of Brittany and her court, while balancing the myths and legends of these “daughters of Death.” The second book in this series is out in the spring and I can’t wait.
I have a teensy–and by “teensy” I mean “massive”–authorcrush on Cheryl Strayed, and I am not ashamed.
It started with Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, which I picked up solely because Oprah chose it for her book club, only to be blown away by talent and surprise. Wild is a sucker-punch to the soul by way of the gut, a wrenching memoir about the excruciating grief of losing a parent, and the hard-fought recovery from that grief, by way of an extremely long walk. Vision quests and pilgrimages have been rites of passage for many cultures for ages, and Strayed shows you how that theme is still relevant to the 21st-century heroine’s journey. Enthusiastically recommended for anyone coping with great loss, or who has survived it (and really, that’s everybody, no?).
Wild certainly could have stood alone as my favorite book of the year, but then I found out that Strayed is also the genius behind Dear Sugar, the internet advice column that reads like Dan Savage and Anne Lamott’s literary love child. Tiny Beautiful Things, a selective collection of various Dear Sugar columns, is an instruction manual on how to be a fearless, compassionate bad-ass, and is guaranteed to knock you on your behind, then extend a loving hand to pick you back up again. No topic is taboo in Sugar’s world, and her willingness to share her own mistakes and character flaws gives her advice heft and weight: you know you should do what Strayed tells you to do, because she’s not just preaching it–she’s lived it. And yet, her advice is always delivered in such a way that you believe she has your best interests at heart, and really cares about whether or not you succeed. That’s no mean feat; you can’t fake that. After you read the library copy, buy this book. In fact, buy two: one for yourself, and one for somebody you love enough to give the gift of radical honesty.
Detroit: A Biography, Scott Martelle. As a Motown girl born and bred, I snatched this one right up. I knew it wasn’t going to be pretty, but it was entertaining and enlightening (and still managed to make me feel homesick). From the history of the Motor City as a French trading post to Indian warfare and through the explosive growth of the auto industry to its nasty and tragic race history, this book is the story of a city’s failures, hopes, and dreams, and of the resilient spirit of its people. Of local interest: the last chapter (“Pittsburgh: A Different Case”) is all about Pittsburgh’s resurgence after its decline, and the lessons learned that Detroit can hopefully implement.
My hands-down favorite book I read this year was Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles. You know how every year you read one book that you recommend to everyone you see? This is mine. If I haven’t told you about this wonderful piece of fiction yet, it’s because you haven’t seen me or my staff picks. So I’m sorry to be redundant, but I still think about this book almost daily. The prose was vivid. The dialog, witty and sharp. I found myself picturing the whole novel in my head as I was reading it. It was like my own personal moving picture. Rules of Civility was everything I want a book to be.
Little Star, John Ajvide Lindqvist. There is something alarming going on in Sweden. Lack of sunlight, possibly? Too much salted herring? Frostbite? Whatever is going on, every single book I’ve read from the Land of the Midnight Sun has been unbelievably dark and twisted. And awesome. In fact, my favorite book in 2012 is from heir apparent to Stephen King, John Ajvide Lindqvist. Lindqvist , best known as the author of Let the Right One In (Swedish movie and U.S. movie,) is redefining the horror genre. Yet the book I love best is his first “non-supernatural” novel. Little Star, released in English in October, definitely has elements of the supernatural, but ultimately it’s about alienation, bullying, fame and teenage angst. Because nothing says Happy Holidays like a gang of murderous teen girls.
Left for dead in the woods, Theres is rescued (if you can call it that) by D-List musician and wife beater Lennart Cederström. Upon discovering her perfect pitch, Cederström makes the (odd) decision to hide her in his basement and raise a perfect singing machine. By the time Theres is a teenager, she is eerily beautiful with a spooky stare, and clearly has no concept of right or wrong. When events takes a gruesome turn (with a drill) she ends up in Stockholm with her “brother” Jerry, one of the many adults in her life who treat her like a commodity. After appearing on the Swedish American Idol, Theres hooks up with the overweight, bullied Theresa and together they make a chilling duo. They create a gang of alienated, disenfranchised teenage girls who are fiercely devoted only to one another, to the point of torture and murder. Twisted and grisly, Little Star is a compelling and horrifying tale of the suffering of modern living with an equally compelling and horrifying cast of characters.
Oh, and you’ll never listen to ABBA the same again.
My Heart is an Idiot by Davy Rothbart
This was one of the most enjoyable essay collections I’ve read in a while. Mr. Rothbart is something of a good-hearted raconteur, willing to try anything at least once for the sake of a good story. I dare you to read the second essay in this collection, entitled “Human Snowball,” and not walk away grinning from ear-to-ear—which is quite an accomplishment when you consider that it’s a story about riding around wintery Buffalo, NY in a stolen van.
The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters
This is something of a genre mash-up. At its heart it’s a mystery novel, shaded with classic noir hues, but there’s an intriguing twist–the world is about to end in approximately six months. With an asteroid plummeting towards earth’s surface, Detective Hank Palace has to wrestle with the ultimate existential dilemma: what’s the point in solving a murder if everyone is going to end up dead anyways? This is a quick, fun read (and hopefully the first in a trilogy), with many uncanny speculations about what a pre-apocalyptic USA might look like.
Have you tried any of these? Have favorites of your own? Get the conversational ball rolling in the comments below.
The Eleventh Stack bloggers wish you a holiday season filled with harmony, good food, and safe travel conditions. After a short posting break, we will resume our regular publishing schedule on December 26th.