Once upon a time, in a life before grad school, I blogged about my book reading on a regular basis. Then I went to grad school and only had time for books that only other grad students would find interesting, so I stopped that. When I started my job a year and a half ago, I picked up on the reading-for-fun scheme again. I’m always at home in a library, bookstore, or with a book in my hand (hard copy or ebook).
This year’s been a lovely year for reading. I devoured nearly 200 books this year – not a record for me, but a really good number given that I took six years “off” from fun reading (for the most part; trust me, I made exceptions!). 2012 became the year that I spent my summer finally getting through a pile of unread books from my personal library, the year that I began a habit of grabbing whatever book in the school library happened to catch my fancy (or was recommended to me). 2012 was also my first year as a member of Powell’s Indiespensable book club, which I’ve loved entirely (even if my last 2 installments are still unread at the moment…).
But for now, in recognition of the year that goes out tonight, I offer five top recommendations from my 2012 reading list, and a few highlights of other tomes I spent time with this year.
The Top 5 (In no particular order)
The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern). I adored this book. Of course, when I think of night time and circus-like happenings, I get flashbacks to Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes - which is NOT, of course, about a circus, but about a carnival. Morgenstern’s got some of Bradbury’s lyricism in her, but this book is magic all its own. All I can really say is that it’s about a circus that comes at night and has some mystical properties. Add a sense of late nineteenth century Victorian mystery, a little fog, and some things that you never can quite explain, and it’s really just beautiful from start to finish.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barbery). I knew of this book for years and finally checked it out last winter to see what to make of it. I was partially inspired by the film adaptation (which I haven’t yet seen). Parts of it are quite philosophical, but all of it is quite lovely. I was unsure about the storyline – a young girl who plans to commit suicide and then becomes friends with the manager of the apartment building – but it’s so much more than that. I loved this book for its intricate combination of thoughtful simplicity and complexity.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot). You’ve probably seen this in bookstores and on shelves, but if you haven’t read it, you’re missing out. I’d never really read any nonfiction science before this, but Skloot’s masterful – so accessible, easy to read, and so informative. I really couldn’t put this down, as I found myself interested in the various threads of the story. This is about the origin of HeLa cells, the first self-replicating (if i’m getting the term right) cells, which have been used to develop so many cures and medical advancements in the last half century. But although you might have read about HeLa cells in science class somewhere, what you probably didn’t know was that HeLa – Henrietta Lacks – was a poor African American woman whose cells were taken from her (without permission) in the 50s when she was undergoing treatment for cervical cancer. As a historian, I was really interested in the personal aspects of this story and the oral history – the efforts to track down who this woman was, the ethical issues surrounding taking someone’s cells without permission, etc.
Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn). I almost didn’t put this on the list, but kinda had to. In so many ways, this is the best mystery I’ve read in a long time. It’s got a great hook: a young married woman has gone missing (in Missouri, no less), and her husband is the prime suspect. We get alternating chapters from his perspective (beginning when she goes missing) – and the missing wife’s perspective, through a diary she wrote over the last seven years. As you read, you learn that nothing is quite what it seems. The ending, btw, has generated a lot of discussion, but I have to say I liked something the author wrote recently about why it ended the way it did. And that’s all I’ll say. (Of course, for more hard-core, you could also just read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which was also one of my 2012 reads – excellent, until I got to the description of the murders, and then I was just creeped out for days. It probably didn’t help that I went online looking for more info about THAT case)
The Autobiography of Henry VIII, with notes by his fool, Will Somers (Margaret George). I confess: in some ways, this is a stand-in, a representative of all the great Tudor (and Plantagenet) history I read this year. But first, this novel in particular: it’s not at all new, and it is quite large, but very, very worth it. If you like Tudor history, this novel is a fantastic look into the inner mind of Henry VIII. Excellent history.
Other highlights from my 2012 reading:
A few standouts of my reading accomplishments this year are also in order, right? Hey look, if YOU had read Ulysses this year, you might feel the same way, so without further ado, here are a few other peeks into my 2012 reading:
1. Got caught up on all of Rick Riordan’s books, including the Egyptian mythology trilogy and the Last of the Olympians series. Yes, they’re for young teens, but they definitely help me keep track of my mythology.
2. I continued with Ken Follett’s latest trilogy on the 20th century. I’ll be honest: the second book (Winter of the World) tried to put too much factual history into the mouths of the characters, but it was still a fun ride.
3. I know, I already said that I read Ulysses. I’ll say it again. And yes, I’m very proud of that (not that I understood half of it, but that’s another story).
4. Yes, I read the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Mostly, I was curious about the hype, and I was on vacation and figured I deserved some throwaway trash novels. Yes, I kept reading after the first one. No, they’re not that great, but I personally find it fun to scandalize people in airports by reading controversial books.
5. My Doctor Who obsession may be nearly legendary, but I also read some of the Doctor Who comics this year. I need to stay away from the comic book store, people.
6. And finally, I read all of Jane Austen last summer. Which would sound more impressive if she’d written more than, say, half a dozen books, but I still don’t knock it.
Good-bye, 2012: it was a great read.