Anyone who claims to know what the best books of 2012 are is a liar. More than ever, the literary world is one of superabundance, which means that any given person’s reading year is defined more by what they don’t read than what they do. There’s way too much out there, and more coming all the time. In other words, “best” is meaningless, and I would be highly skeptical of anyone who tells you different.
Personally, I read more books over the past 12 months than I have in any other year. I actually cracked triple digits for the first time—so why do I feel more behind than ever? And of the 53 new (or newly translated) titles I read this year, I had a harder time than ever whittling it down to my absolute favourites.
And “favourite” is indeed the operative word here. These aren’t necessarily the titles that should be etched in stone and handed down to future generations—they’re the books that resonated with me here and now, the ones that made me stay up way too late, and the ones I couldn’t stop talking and thinking about. They are, in short, the books that I loved the most. With any luck, you’ll find something new to love here, too.
(5) César Aira, Varamo / The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira (New Directions)
I suppose this is cheating, but since the hyper-prolific Argentine had two of his 70+ novels translated into English this year—and especially since Aira’s fiction is an ongoing, off-the-cuff record of his magpie imagination—I think we can count them as a package deal. Plus, they’re two of Aira’s strongest books yet translated: Varamo follows a bureaucrat-turned-poet panicking about being paid in counterfeit bills, while Miracle Cures is about a doctor who’s reluctant (with good reason, it turns out) to reveal his medical superpowers. Read Aira in the morning and you won’t need coffee.
(4) Marcello Di Cintio, Walls (Goose Lane)
As Robert Frost’s front-porch adage has it, “Good fences make good neighbours.” Well, not only would Calgary’s Di Cintio disagree, but he also has an honest, compassionate, and expertly written 300-page counterargument. Walls is the kind of non-fiction you might call eye-opening, since it features Di Cintio travelling to all kinds of barricades around the world and interviewing the disparate people who live in their shadows. But he actually engages many more parts of the body than that—the brain and the heart both come to mind.
(3) Leanne Shapton, Swimming Studies (Blue Rider Press)
Midway through this gorgeous, buoyant hybrid of a memoir, Shapton inserts a 26-part photo series documenting, with captions, every swimsuit she owns. It’s a testament to the Ontario-born author’s powers of persuasion that this feels like the most natural move in the world. Swimming Studies looks back at the years Shapton spent chasing a spot on the Canadian Olympic team, but it’s also a bewitching tribute to the smaller details that piled up along the way: stopwatch beeps, hotel dinners, and the muscle memory formed by countless laps in a chilled, pre-dawn pool.
(2) Anakana Schofield, Malarky (Biblioasis)
Great fiction takes risks. That’s why descriptions of a classic and an utter fiasco can sound so similar. And yes, in theory, the debut novel by Vancouver’s Anakana Schofield is far from a sure thing: it’s an obsessive, voice-driven novel about a grieving Irish housewife that runs along irregular timelines and lingers at unusual places. It also never, ever apologizes for itself. More importantly, it all works. Joe Biden may have done more to re-popularize the word “malarky” this year, but Schofield’s electrifying novel will leave a much longer impression.
(1) John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, The Lifespan of a Fact (W.W. Norton)
A genre-defying magazine journalist writes an essay about suicide in Las Vegas. His fact-checker, diligent to a fault, comes across literally hundreds of irregularities. So begins the year’s most surprising and provocative book, a literary dust up between polar opposites that’s playful, invigorating, and alive on every page. (Beautifully designed, too.) You may start off confident in your beliefs about truth and art, but prepare to be shaken. No other book raised so many big questions this year, so well.
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The Next Five: Maria Semple, Where’d You Go, Bernadette; Jason Lee Norman, Americas; Cordelia Strube, Milosz; David Foster Wallace, Both Flesh and Not; Etgar Keret, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door