You can’t claim to be a legitimate writer about bookish things these days if you can’t come up with a list of the year’s best books. Of course, compiling such a list is clearly meant to reflect the fact that the compiler is not merely a discerning reader but also has a vast amount of time to peruse thousands of books during the year. Frankly, that describes almost no one in our culture these days, which is perhaps why a lot of committees do the selecting (think Pulitzers, National Book Awards, New York Times editors, etc.).
Alas, I am not a committee. And so my somewhat enfeebled but nonetheless noble list you are about to encounter can’t even get to 10 books. And it features only those books I read during the year and which were published during the year, meaning a entire universe of wonderful titles slipped by my busy fingers (not to mention why my list resembles no one else’s, certainly not The New York Times).
So without further offense, here are my choices for 2012, listed in the most random fashion imaginable just because that’s how I put them together.
1. Ron Rash, “The Cove” (novel): Rash began his writing life as a short story writer and poet, and he has grown into a novelist of the first rank. “The Cove,” set in World War I Appalachia, is a lyric yet dramatic narrative about a doomed love affair that finds richly drawn characters embroiled in a storyteller’s art.
2. Charles Seabrook, “The World of the Salt Marsh” (nonfiction): Atlanta newspaper columnist Seabrook writes with deep concern and lively ecological affection for the saltwater marshes of the Southeast coast and their continuing impact on our shared culture and history.
3. Ian McEwan, “Sweet Tooth” (novel): English prize-winner McEwan writes with deductive, inventive prose about a Cold War-era romance that is part espionage thriller, part love story, and all great writing.
4. H.W. Brands, “The Man Who Saved the Union” (nonfiction): Historian Brands gives us a new, revealing look at Ulysses Grant, expertly putting the case that Grant was not only a distinguished war leader but no less a sagacious President more deserving of good memory.
5. Jonathan Odell, “The Healing” (novel): Odell gives unique voice to strong women in his plantation Mississippi story, a compelling, profoundly drawn tale of the terrible costs of slavery and the remarkable triumph of healing body, spirit and soul.
6. Bernard Bailyn, “The Barbarous Years” (nonfiction): The noted historian offers an extraordinary account of the arrival of the English to these shores in the 17th century, the mixed blessings they brought to people more civilized than we have thought. Their collision was costly and forever changed the mores of our nation-to-be.
7. Hilary Mantel, “Bring Up the Bodies” (novel): A dazzling sequel to her equally distinguished “Wolf Hall,” this novel takes up the fate of Anne Boleyn as it examines with literary grace, power and passion the complex, absorbing world of Tudor England.
8. Robert M. Craig, “The Architecture of Francis Palmer Smith, Atlanta’s Scholar-Architect” (nonfiction): Georgia Tech professor Craig delivers a comprehensive and fascinating life of Smith, who designed major buildings all over the South in the first half of the 20th century, most notably in Atlanta, including his masterwork, the Cathedral of St. Philip.
There. That’s only eight, so feel free to plunge right in and add your anything else you wish. Or better yet, put together YOUR own list. And remember: no one can say you’re wrong. After all, it’s your list.
Cheers, and good reading to you!