Year-end best-of book lists can be tough. After all, if you’re anything like us, you’re still catching up on the best books of 2010 — or 1910 — and only sneaking a few brand new hardcovers into the mix. So when sitting down to contemplate our collective year in reading, we decided to include everything, not just the new stuff. After the jump, your humble literary editor and a few other Flavorpill staffers expound on the best books we read this year — whether they be books that came out this year, or just the ones we finally (finally!) got around to reading. And inquiring minds want to know, dear readers, what was the best book you read this year? Let us know in the comments.
Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin – Geoff Mak, Sales Designer
I read the first clause of this book “I stand at the window of this great house,” and I wanted it tattooed on my arm. This is one of the earliest gay American novels before the gay genre really became a thing, and it’s not even set in America. Giovanni’s Room is probably the most anomalous of Baldwin’s novels, as it centers on a tragic affair between two bisexual men: a blonde American and an Italian bartender named Giovanni. Both live in in the seedy, nocturnal Paris of the 1950s, full of drag queens and sugar daddies of money new and old. In the same way that Baldwin manages to paint the African American experience as one of all of humanity, he universalizes the gay experience with empathetic acuity, and a fast-paced plot of merely 200 pages. I read this in two days. And then I read it again.
Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, Iain Sinclair – Oliver Spall, Social Media Manager, Flavorpill London
You can count Iain Sinclair’s Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire as the best book this year. I’ve been meaning to read it for a while and it is something brilliantly nostalgic, pointedly critical and dryly funny throughout. I’d suggest you read it!
Black Swan Green, David Mitchell – Shana Nys Dambrot, Flavorpill LA Contributor
“Don’t even have to think it over. David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green is not only the best book I read this year, it’s one of the best novels I’ve read in my life. I found it on my shelf during all the hype about the release of the movie Cloud Atlas which he wrote several years later. And while I’ve not read that nor seen the movie, I can say that BSG is a very different kind of book, sort of an anti-epic — a coming-of-age novel about a boy in western England during the most eventful year of his young life. It is a quiet, brilliant, hilarious, emotional triumph of the genre.”
The Group, Mary McCarthy – Jason Diamond, Deputy Editor, Flavorpill Brooklyn
I had never read Mary McCarthy until this year. My mom made me watch the film for The Group when I was younger, and it left a bad impression on me that wasn’t reversed until I read Maud Newton’s piece in the summer issue of Bookforum. Now I’m an absolute McCarthy devotee, and I’ve been trying to read as much of her stuff as possible. The Group didn’t come out this year, but very few books I read in 2012 made me as happy.
Threats, Amelia Gray – Russ Marshalek, Social Media Director
I can’t begin to distinguish where the world ends and this book begins. It scared the shit out of me, deeply, and made me question the verifiability of my own memories, and not in some stupid Kerouacian “your past is what you decide it is” way, but rather in a truly intense, “it is possible none of this is what I am thinking it is” kind of way. It’s eaten me from the inside and out with its little, titular threats, deposited throughout the book’s landscape, and for that I love it. I can’t recommend it to everyone, though, because not everyone wants their throat slit.
How Should a Person Be?, Sheila Heti – Judy Berman, Managing Editor, Flavorwire
Forget the Girls comparisons. With its audacious honesty, vividly contemporary style, deep understanding of intellectual ambition, and thrilling unfairness to the opposite sex, reading How Should a Person Be? as a young, heterosexual, Jewish woman in 2012 felt much the way I imagine reading Philip Roth felt to young, heterosexual, Jewish men in the 1970s. But I’d like to think that, as with Roth, you don’t have to fit into any of those categories to appreciate it.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Jan Potocki -Alison Nastasi, Night Editor, Flavorwire
I’m working on a new stop-motion short that has shades of Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, so I wanted to give it a re-read. It’s a labyrinthine saga that reveals a twisted travelogue of arcane adventures. It features a who’s who of gothic horror and esoteric figures: gypsies, hermits, madmen, demons, secret societies, ghosts, and other weirdness. Frame all that in a romantic, erotic, and historical context, and you have Potocki’s heady epic.
Thanks to the overflowing Kindle archive that I share with my Mom, there were a lot of things that I read and really loved this year, but two of them really stick out: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is one of those books that you read, and then spend the next few months enthusiastically recommending to everyone you know. It’s so much more than a fascinating memoir about a young woman’s experience hiking the Pacific Coast Trail, it’s like a survival guide for life. (Stop rolling your eyes and read it!) In a similar way, Chad Harbach’s debut novel The Art of Fielding isn’t just a book about baseball or college or college baseball for that matter — it’s a sweeping examination of the human condition, our doomed quest for perfection. Both books will make you weep uncontrollably, and perhaps more importantly, continue to occupy a place in your thoughts long after you’ve put them down.
Wild, Cheryl Strayed – Jill Knight, Accountant
My favorite this year was Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. I devoured this very honest memoir of a 22 year old lady who after her mom dies and her marriage dissolves finds herself a bit lost. This book follows her through her adventures on the Pacific Crest Trail as she gets herself back on her feet. An exciting, thrilling, inspiring read. I’m thinking for myself, Pacific Crest Trial in 2014.
The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach – Patrick Letterii, Venue Partner Manager
The Art of Fielding. It might be because I’m a big fan of baseball (to the chagrin of most of my friends), but this book took over my life for a weekend.
This is pretty hard, because I had a great year of reading, both with new books and with old. But this was the year I read both Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler and Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior — the former a deliciously deceptive series of false starts that somehow congeals into a bittersweet ode to literature at large, the latter blistering and beautiful, full of tiny, exquisite, terrifying moments of life and sex and despair — and I have the feeling none of my years to follow will be the same.