The Books We Loved in 2012

Adult fiction and nonfiction were pretty phenomenal this year. Here, we celebrate 34 of our favorite reads from the last 12 months — with superlatives!

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As with this year's Y.A. offerings, adult fiction and nonfiction were pretty phenomenal in 2012. We've again enlisted the help of some of our favorite writers and book lovers to help recognize those works for the latest in The Atlantic Wire's Year in Review, this time for the "grown-up reads." Most of these are books published this year, though we've occasionally paid homage to works from previous years that we rediscovered or read for the first time in 2012. In any case, these are all books that moved us greatly in some way or another in the last 12 months.

Of course, no best book list can truly be complete, and there are some fantastic, thought-provoking works we have not included below, like Cheryl Strayed's Wild, Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be?, Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, to name a few. Rest assured they have not been forgotten — in fact, they appear on many a best-of list, including another one around these parts.

Read on for 34 of our favorite books of the year, in no particular order, and why we loved them — with superlatives!

Best Revisitation of a Cultural Icon: The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker, by Janet Groth (Workman/Algonquin, 2012). If you are a fan of The New Yorker and New York City history, you'll adore this fascinating book about Groth's experience at the magazine, where she started at the age of 19 in 1957 and remained until 1978. A lot can happen in 20 years, in life, in society, and in publishing.

Most Captivating Debut: HHhH, by Laurent Binet (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux). Those initials stand for Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich, or Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich. This was a favorite of Ivyland author Miles Klee, who had his own stunning debut this year with that book. Klee calls Binet's debut "at once nonfiction and a novel, hyperrealist and unfathomable. And you couldn't read it fast enough. That it's his debut makes me weak."

The Most Conversation-Generating Book About How We Live Now: Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, by Eric Klinenberg (Penguin Press). This non-fiction book has led to coverage and related stories in just about every major media publication, from the New York Times to the The New Yorker to The Guardian to here on The Atlantic Wire. Kudos to Klinenberg, an NYU sociology professor, for providing this well-researched and compelling exploration into the utterly contemporary topic of living alone, and opening up so many discussions of what it all means about us as individuals and as a society.

Most Laugh-Out-Loud Book About Feminism: How to Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran (Harper Perennial). Moran's best-selling feminist memoir, published in the U.K. in 2011, was released in the U.S. in 2012 to much fanfare and lady-blogger excitement. She wrote her "funny, but polemic, book about feminism" in just five months, which was "absolutely shaggy macaroons," she says, but her enthusiasm and energy for her topic shows. It's a funny, fun read.

Best Book About a Forgotten Iconoclast: A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change, by John Glassie (Penguin/Riverhead). You will come away from Glassie's book about "Renaissance polymath," scholar-priest, and mad professor Athanasius Kircher feeling inspired by the incredible inventive spirit of the man behind such creations as the "cat piano" and "the speaking trumpet" — and at the same time a bit sad that such characters as Kircher have been left mostly forgotten in the winds of time. You'll feel more knowledgable about everything because of this book. Glassie told me, "It was a daunting project, but it felt like something that needed to be done. He's just one of the most colorful guys I've ever heard of. The cat piano [Ed note: a piano set up to play cats' tails and make them howl, essentially] is not something your average joe comes up with."

The One We Loved to Snark About: Fine, fine, Fifty Shades of Grey, the trilogy which hit peak hype this year, wasn't "good" (at least, not in my opinion). But it was also an amusing counter to discussions of fine prose and nuanced sentiments and intellectual stimulation, sometimes. It gave us unending silly trend stories to comment and riff upon (stores selling out of rope! All the sexy covers getting sexier!). It got people reading who otherwise might not have. And, hey, you can't entirely hate on a book that ends up landing hard-working publishing types $5,000 Christmas bonuses, no matter what you say about the content of the book itself.

Sexiest Book About Banking/Funniest Book About Banking (A Tie): Ride a Cockhorse, by Raymond Kennedy (New York Review of Books Classics). Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, tells us, "This hilarious novel was reissued this spring by the fine folks at the New York Review of Books Classics. The story goes something like this: a low-level bank employee has an affair with a high school drum major and is infused with such confidence that she takes over the entire bank. No one is safe—not the hairdresser she drafts as her consigliare, not her bosses, not her son-in-law. It's a wild, wild ride, the sort of book that leaves you gasping with surprise on the subway."

Funniest Book About Real-Life Female Friendship: Friendkeeping: A Field Guide to the People You Love, Hate, and Can't Live Without, by Julie Klam (Penguin/Riverhead). Sometimes in the quest for romantic love and successful careers we forget about the people who matter most — our friends. That truth, and Klam's humor and frankness as she reminds us to value these people we need, was why I loved this book so much.

The Books by Authors We Remembered: The Nora Ephron canon (Heartburn, especially) and Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl were two. And we must include Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (yes, it's children's, but we're making the exception), Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and the works of David Rakoff, Maeve Binchy, Gore Vidal, and Doris Betts. We lost many wonderful writers this year, but we'll always have the books they left us.

Most Notable Crossovers: Red Rain by R.L. Stine (Simon & Schuster/Touchstone) and The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (Little, Brown and Company). eloved scarer of children Stine switched gears this year by writing an adult horror novel, Red Rain, along with continuing installations in his 20-year-old Goosebumps series for kids. As he told me this summer, "Writing scary stuff for kids is totally the opposite of writing horror for adults. I have to be very careful that kids know it's not real, that it's a fantasy and can't happen ... but when you write horror for adults they're not going to buy the story at all unless every detail is real. It all has to be believable or it's ludicrous. So for the first time in my life I had to do research! To me it's a very different process."

While we're talking crossovers, or Y.A. authors writing for adults, we can't forget about one of the most talked-about books of the year, J.K. Rowling's A Casual Vacancy. Sex, drugs, swearing, and political satire? It appears we're not at Hogwarts anymore.

Best Book About the Iraq War: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain (Ecco/Harper Collins). WORD Brooklyn's Jenn Northington told me, "Several books about the Iraq War came out this year, but this one was my favorite. And while I usually avoid the phrase 'great American novel,' I believe it qualifies. Fountain absolutely nails our ambivalence about the war and the politics surrounding, as well as the complications for soldiers caught in the cultural crossfire, and manages to be warm and funny as well as incisive."

Coolest Cover with the Contents to Match: Where'd You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple (Little, Brown and Company). In appearance, this may be the perfect beach read to go with your retro bikini. Inside the cover, Semple's novel is funny, suspenseful, multi-faceted, multi-media, and sad, too — spot-on social commentary from a woman who also wrote for Arrested Development. As Jessica Grose, author of Sad Desk Salad explained, "It's the best modern Bobo (David Brooks definition) satire ever written." Back to the cover for a moment, though. As posted on, Semple wrote of the cover design by Keith Hayes: "Now, when I think of Where’d You Go, Bernadette, I can barely access the years of doubt and frustration it took to write it. I only think about Keith Hayes’ terrific cover. And I can’t help but smile." Hayes explained, "I wanted it to be obvious to the reader that this is a satirical novel. Funny and accessible, but also smart and literary."

Best Steampunk Suspense: Angelmaker, by Nick Harkaway (Vintage/Random House). R.L. Stine calls it "a strange combination of fantasy and sci-fi and Victorian London and steampunk and violence and suspense." And, the best of accolades: "It kept me from my work — I had to keep reading."

Most Entertaining Novel About Life in the Blogosphere: Sad Desk Salad, by Jessica Grose (William Morrow/Harper Collins). It's hard (for me, at least) to resist a novel about blogging, particularly one referred to by the author as "The Devil Wears Sweatpants."

The One We Still Can't Get Out of Our Heads: Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson (Macmillan). Johnson's novella was up for the fiction Pulitzer to be awarded this year, and though that award was rather mysteriously never given, the work has remained with us and simmered. As John Glassie puts it, calling this one of his favorites of the year, "I was a little late to it, but it doesn’t really matter because it has basically just stayed with me. Although the story is fiction it's really a work of history — about someone making it through a world on the edge of a new era. Johnson takes a time and place that is familiar on the surface, the pre-industrial American West, and somehow makes it strange, in a really beautiful way."

Most Musically Moving: The Listeners, by Leni Zumas (Tin House Books). Though it was "an especially strong year for books," says Tobias Carroll, managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn, "I'm going to go with Leni Zumas's The Listeners, which follows a damaged onetime musician haunted by the jarringly violent incidents that have punctuated her life. Whether Zumas is writing about the rise and fall of a popular post-punk group or describing the borderline-Gothic images that haunt her protagonist, her prose is precise and her voice thoroughly controlled. Sometimes dreamlike and sometimes quotidian, this novel has remained inside my head, reinventing itself again and again over the course of the year."

Most Engrossing Tale of Love Gone Awry: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn (Crown/Random House). It's a cliché to say, but you cannot put this one down; you really can't — and yet, this masterful book is far more than simply a story of suspense.

Best Graphic Memoir: The Voyeurs, by Gabrielle Bell (Uncivilized Books). Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins, explains, "As a baseline, [Bell's] work is always graceful and funny, while still extremely intense and thoughtful. There's just no one out there with a voice quite like hers. But then on top of that, this book is just plain juicy, as it documents parts of her relationship with filmmaker Michel Gondry. So if you're into poking your nose into that sort of thing, this book has an extra thrill to it. Also it is gorgeous and will look lovely on your bookshelf. If you're into that sort of thing, too."

Most "Ugly-Cry" Inducing: Tell the Wolves I'm Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt (Dial/Random House). "Never has a book made me ugly cry so hard before. Like Claire Danes ugly cry," says Margot Wood, The Real Fauxtographer blogger. "But in all seriousness, this book is beautifully written with such a touching story about growing up, what it means to love and learning to accept things that you may not be used to. This book left me absolutely speechless, and it stayed in my brain long after I finished it."

Best Small-Press Debut: May We Shed These Human Bodies, by Amber Sparks (Curbside Splendor). Harper Perennial's Cal Morgan shared this pick, saying, "I haven't gotten more pure pleasure out of pleasure reading this year than I have from this collection. 'It is easy to make new people, but difficult to grow them,' she says in the title story; anyone got a sharper summa of the human dilemma?"

Most Devastating Medical Memoir: Brain On Fire, by Susannah Cahalan (Free Press). Cahalan's retelling of her battle with an autoimmune disease that struck her at the age of 24 is, as Julie Klam says, "a totally engrossing, harrowing, incredible memoir about this brilliant woman's struggle with a rare, awful disease. And it is just absolutely perfectly told. She's a wonderful writer."

Best Book About Family Dysfunction: The Middlesteins, by Jami Attenberg (Grand Central). A tragicomedy about food, love, and food as love/love in a time of food-obsession that, in the deft hands of Attenberg, manages to be poignant, heart-wrenching, beautifully wrought, painful, and funny all at the same time.

Most Gorgeous Old-Hollywood Exploration: Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, by Emma Straub (Penguin/Riverhead). Straub's first novel, the tale of Elsa Emerson, a Wisconsin teen who heads West to find fame and fortune during the golden age of Hollywood (becoming "Laura Lamont"), was initially inspired by Straub's reading of the New York Times obituary of Jennifer Jones in 2009. Lovers of Turner Classic Movies (like me) will embrace it readily as a matter of course, but there's more there, too: It's not just about old Hollywood but also about the American dream and our individual quests for fame as well as feminism, sexism, self-actualization, glamour, power, and relationships.

The Book Critic's Favorite: From NPR's Maureen Corrigan, this award goes to Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter (Harper). "It mostly takes place in an Italian coastal village in the Fellini-esque early 1960s and it features an entirely convincing walk-on by one of the chief 'beautiful ruins' in story: the spectacularly self-destructive actor, Richard Burton," she explains, adding, "Walter is a marvelous writer who hasn't yet achieved high literary acclaim probably because his reach extends into other genres: for instance, Citizen Vince was a screwball crime noir and The Financial Lives of the Poets was a domestic drama about the fall-out from our current recession. Beautiful Ruins is Walter's most inventive novel to date, with an elaborated braided storyline and an essentially comic vision of life." Corrigan gives bonus points for its cover, too: "Plus, one last totally shallow reason for loving it:  it has the most gorgeous book jacket art of any novel I read this year." (Jacket design by Jarrod Taylor, jacket photo © Blonde Marson/Alamy)

Best Book On the Subject of Weddings: Seating Arrangements, by Maggie Shipstead (Knopf). Funny, real, satirical, wise, and true, this is the story of a group of people acting, engaging, disengaging, and reacting during one of those most vaunted — and fraught — events of our time: the summer wedding.

And finally,

The Book Most Mentioned by This Writer: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith (Harper Perennial Modern Classics). I must end with a shout-out to one of my favorite books not just this year but every year, my all-time favorite re-readable. Take a moment to read it, if you haven't! I'll try to stop talking about it so much in 2013. Maybe.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.