Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Read In 2012

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish. Each week, the site posts a new Top Ten list topic that everyone is welcome to answer.

QuietThe Handmaid's TaleOld SchoolPlease Ignore Vera DietzThe Hunger Games

1. Quiet—Susan Cain

For me, Quiet was a revelation; for others, it is the start of a revolution. The success of this book is heartening, because it proves that there are a lot of people besides me who are interested in what it means to be an introvert in today’s world. One of Quiet‘s virtues is that it reaffirms the value of the introvert in a time when it is almost inexcusable not to constantly manifest extrovert behavior. What’s more, it shows that some of these prized extrovert qualities are actually the cause of some of our current economic and societal problems. It doesn’t knock extroverts (well, only off a pedestal), but it makes a great argument about the need for balance. It’s a great read for introverts and extroverts alike, but it’s especially helpful in teaching introverts to accept, and even prize, the qualities that they may have been criticized for in the past.

2. The Handmaid’s Tale—Margaret Atwood

The story of Offred, a woman who, even in name, is defined by men in her restrictive society, is harrowing and horrifying. It is bleak, it is infuriating, and, worst of all, it doesn’t feel that far out of the realm of possibility. I loved this book not because it was an easy read, but because it was an important one. Particularly in this past year, when woman’s bodies and rights were constantly a source of debate and government regulation, I found its message to be a powerful wakeup call.

3. Old School—Tobias Wolff

No student of literature should pass up the opportunity to read this clever, often hilarious, and very insightful coming-of-age story about one boy’s experience in a writing-obsessed prep school. From its spot-on, uproarious portrayals of famous writers like Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway, to its nuanced understanding of everyday prep school life, this book is both fun and incredibly smart.

4. Please Ignore Vera Dietz—A.S. King

As much as I enjoy YA books, I’ll admit that it’s sometimes difficult to find a character who feels 100% real to me. (Of course, the same can also be said for books written for adults.) What most impressed me about this novel, aside from its sheer uniqueness, was how believable Vera Dietz is as a character. She is complex and conflicted, yet, in a genre currently over-saturated with dystopian fantasies, refreshingly ordinary. She is the kind of girl I would like to be friends with: though she is no damsel, she also is not fighting against the whole world. Hers is a quieter courage, but one that is immensely important. The title of this book is ironic, for we should all be paying attention to her.

5. The Hunger Games Trilogy—Suzanne Collins

When a series is hyped as much as this one, it can be difficult to judge it solely on its own merits. In fact, these are the types of books I often avoid, or at least put off reading, because it is almost impossible for me to determine how I actually feel about them. I read the first book of this trilogy accidentally; at least, I didn’t set out to read it, and I only started perusing it because my friend had a copy on her Kindle, which I was borrowing. But from the first few chapters I was hooked. A day or so later, I was looking for someone who could lend me the latter two books. And then I devoured those. What I liked about The Hunger Games isn’t easy for me to articulate because I have been bombarded with other people’s opinions as well: it’s sometimes difficult to separate out their feelings from my own. I found the story incredibly interesting, of course, and I loved Katniss both when she was strong and when she was in a weaker, but still totally believable, state. Perhaps what also appealed to me, though, was the fact that these books are so universally beloved, and thus something I can discuss with a wide variety of people. I think the greatest thing about the series is that it really is as good as everyone says it is.

When You Reach MeBetween Shades of GrayPassingState of WonderThe Complete Maus

6. When You Reach Me—Rebecca Stead

Have you ever read a book that made you nostalgic for a place you’ve never known? If so, then you have some idea of the effect When You Reach Me had on me. It is a book that is in some ways deeply nostalgic—for childhood, for innocence, and for a different New York City—but which is also quite timeless. It works beautifully just on this level, but it has the added bonus of being an intricately-plotted time travel story. From beginning to end it is flawless, wonderfully rendered for both children and adults.

7. Between Shades of Gray—Ruta Sepetys

It can be hard to pick up a book knowing it will make you sad. No matter the accolades that have been heaped upon it, this type of book often requires a certain mindset. Between Shades of Gray is obviously no beach read, but it is exquisitely written, at once beautiful, heartrending and, most importantly, truthful. It tells a story that has too often been left out of history, of Lithuanian families forced by the Soviets to relocate to the treacherous conditions of Siberia. Despite the almost insurmountable odds, these people maintained their humanity and helped each other to survive. I was tremendously moved by this story, and glad that the experiences of these people are no longer shrouded in silence.

8. Passing—Nella Larsen

Passing is weird and wonderful and not at all what I expected. On the surface, it is a story about race, particularly as it applies to three black women who are light-skinnned enough to “pass” for white. Yet, it is so much more complex and convoluted than that, at times feeling like a taut thriller that plays with readers’ expectations. The ending is shocking, and seemingly comes out of nowhere. Still, it is perfectly fitting for this bizarre tale of secrets, doppelgangers, and race betrayal. I was consistently challenged and impressed by this one.

9. State of Wonder—Ann Patchett

This book has it all: a remote village in the Amazon rainforest, hallucinogenic malaria pills, magic tree bark, a pregnant septuagenarian…. How could anyone resist? Better yet, it is brilliantly written and, despite its absurd premise, completely believable. It’s rare to find a book that is this much fun while still maintaining some semblance of “serious” writing. I look forward to reading more from Ann Patchett.

10. The Complete Maus—Art Spiegelman

One of the biggest debates regarding Holocaust literature is how to present the material, and whether such stories can be told at all. Maus is one of the most inventive takes on this that I have seen: it is a comic book, with cartoon mice and metafiction tendencies. As such, it may not solve any of these quandaries, but it does try to find a new way to present the story of a Holocaust survivor. What I liked about Maus was that it recognizes that not everything can be told in words, and that any version of a story will fall short of the real thing. It calls out its shortcomings, but still manages to be emotionally honest and thus effectively devastating.

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