12 best books of 2012


Newsday's reviewers select the 12 best books of 2012.

1. WILD: From Lost to Found on the
(Credit: Newsday/Rebecca Cooney)

1. WILD: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed (Alfred A. Knopf)

There are dumber things you could do, I guess. When Cheryl Strayed was 26, and her life was spinning out of control, she set out to hike 1,100 miles of the rugged Pacific Crest Trail, from California through Oregon to Washington -- an attractive young woman in the wilderness, alone. With a preposterously overloaded backpack. And hiking boots a size too small. The story of Strayed's journey, and the events that brought her to it (her mother's death from cancer, a divorce, drug use) are recalled in this extraordinary memoir, fairly bursting with joy, loss, lust, hardship and hard-earned wisdom. -- TOM BEER

2. BEAUTIFUL RUINS, by Jess Walter (Harper) This
(Credit: Newsday/Rebecca Cooney)

2. BEAUTIFUL RUINS, by Jess Walter (Harper)

This gorgeous, juicy novel moves from 1962 to the present, from a tiny Italian coastal town to the Hollywood back lot, narrating a love story, meditating on fate, and entertaining readers with a groaning board of fiction's pleasures. Among the ensemble cast of sweethearts and rogues is a spot-on version of dipsomaniac lover boy Richard Burton, here given a secret love child and dialogue so hilarious it might have come from an "SNL" skit. Throughout, Walter's sentences are wonderful, and his bravura ending ties up every thread in a bittersweet bow. -- MARION WINIK

(Credit: Newsday/Rebecca Cooney)

3. THE YEARS OF LYNDON JOHNSON: The Passage of Power, by Robert A. Caro (Alfred A. Knopf)

Volume 4 of Caro's Texas-size saga of Lyndon Johnson is brilliant biography, gripping history, searing political drama and an incomparable study of power. It's also a great read. "The Passage of Power," covering 1958-1964, takes in Johnson's failed campaign for the presidency, the close election, Kennedy's administration, the assassination, the transition and Johnson's early White House tenure. Despite the length, Caro leaves you wanting more. -- PETER M. GIANOTTI


4. GONE GIRL, by Gillian Flynn (Crown) As
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4. GONE GIRL, by Gillian Flynn (Crown)

As close as you can get to a perfect thriller, "Gone Girl" recounts the courtship and marriage of golden couple Nick and Amy Dunne -- as well as the former's possible murder of the latter, and the latter's possible framing of the former. Talk about unreliable narrators! Nick and Amy are masterfully drawn, as are the most tertiary of Flynn's characters. Her intricate plot, which never crosses the line from inevitable to contrived, builds to one of the all-time great endings. -- ERICA MARCUS

5. FIRE IN THE BELLY: The Life and
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5. FIRE IN THE BELLY: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz, by Cynthia Carr (Bloomsbury)

David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS 20 years ago, at age 37, is not a household name today. But biographer Cynthia Carr, who wrote about art for the Village Voice, has created a vivid portrait of the artist as a young man, set in a gritty, derelict New York peopled by wildly creative characters pushing artistic boundaries. No surprise, Carr writes perceptively about her subject's work and the era's "culture wars." But she is also exceptionally good at fleshing out Wojnarowicz as a character -- at once vulnerable and prickly -- and her pages on his illness and death are simply heartbreaking. -- TOM BEER

6. MONKEY MIND: A Memoir of Anxiety, by
(Credit: Newsday/Rebecca Cooney)

6. MONKEY MIND: A Memoir of Anxiety, by Daniel Smith (Simon & Schuster)

As much a coming-of-age story as an illness memoir, "Monkey Mind" may be the funniest book published this year. From Smith's bizarre sexual initiation on the way to a Phish concert to his matriculation at the "Jewish Mardi Gras" campus of a liberal arts college, the author's descriptions of his nausea, vomiting, sweating and mental anguish are enjoyable beyond reason. His discovery of the work of Philip Roth was a major turning point, allowing him to see his condition not as humiliating handicap but as an ethnic birthright and literary franchise. -- MARION WINIK

(Credit: Newsday/Rebecca Cooney)

7. THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER, by Junot Díaz (Riverhead)

What is so sexy about this story collection is not the sex, which is often messed up, but the language. The writing has so much energy that even the saddest stories of the stupidest mistakes somehow make you glad to be alive, just so you can watch the fireworks. Díaz's third book is also the third to feature his alter ego, Yunior, who came of age in "Drown" and developed his bad womanizing ways in "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." Those continue here, woven through with the story of his older brother, Rafa, who womanizes, too -- as far into cancer as he can. New Jersey has had its share of poets, and Díaz is proving to be as great as any of them. -- MARION WINIK

8. BUILDING STORIES, by Chris Ware (Pantheon) It's
(Credit: Newsday/Rebecca Cooney)

8. BUILDING STORIES, by Chris Ware (Pantheon)

It's a surprise to discover that obsessively detailed cartoonist Chris Ware's new graphic novel can be described as a "box of stuff." Ware seems like a guy who alphabetizes his socks, but, as with so many great artists, he's at his best when he tries something new. "Building Stories" is Ware's new thing -- a beautiful collection of cartoons about a woman living in a little ramshackle building who has a huge, multifaceted, emotionally rich life. The story is told through various formats, including two newspapers of different trim sizes, a stunning portfolio and a simple strip of paper that unfolds and unfolds. "Building Stories" begs not merely to be displayed but to redecorate your house. -- SAM THIELMAN


(Credit: Newsday/Rebecca Cooney)

9. BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo (Random House)

For three years, Boo followed the lives of men, women and children in Annawadi, a desperately poor, makeshift slum in the shadow of India's Mumbai airport. In "Behind the Beautiful Forevers," she locates the vital human drama amid the squalor, and her diverse characters hook you -- especially teen entrepreneur Abdul Husain, and Fatima, his resentful, one-legged neighbor, who strikes out at Abdul's family in spectacularly self-destructive fashion. In life, it's too easy to look away from such grinding poverty. Boo's book compels our attention, and rewards it. -- TOM BEER

10. MAY WE BE FORGIVEN, by A.M. Homes
(Credit: Newsday/Rebecca Cooney)

10. MAY WE BE FORGIVEN, by A.M. Homes (Viking)

This engrossing novel starts with a biblical set of brothers, George and Harold Silver, one a murderer, the other an adulterer -- nice Jewish boys from the New York suburbs. When George goes to prison, Harold is left to take over his house and his children. But the shocking part is how endearing Harold is, and how warmly the author depicts his 21st century Pilgrim's Progress, from dating on the Internet to hiring a bar mitzvah planner. Homes' sharp eye provides a relentless social satire, while her big heart understands how screwed-up people can actually change for the better. -- MARION WINIK

11. THE PATRIARCH: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent
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11. THE PATRIARCH: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, by David Nasaw (Penguin Press)

Historian and biographer David Nasaw had unlimited access to the papers of Joseph P. Kennedy, and he delivers a full portrait. "The Patriarch" is a vivid, provocative, informed work, unveiling the father of a president and two senators, the ambassador, the politician and the force who drove one of the nation's grand and tragic families. Nasaw, whose books have included excellent lives of William Randolph Hearst and Andrew Carnegie, here gives what to date is the definitive study, rich and riveting. -- PETER M. GIANOTTI

12. CARRY THE ONE, by Carol Anshaw (Simon
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12. CARRY THE ONE, by Carol Anshaw (Simon & Schuster)

Here's the real story on shades of gray: Carol Anshaw's acute exploration of our moral responsibility for all the things that go wrong in our lives, a novel-in-stories whose serious intent is brightened by the author's trademark humor and insight. The novel begins with a 1980s wedding bacchanal followed by a fatal car accident, then traces the lives of the three siblings involved over two decades. Learning to live with every variety of sadness and happiness and mundanity is the central challenge of spending many years on earth. What a great thing to write about, and what a fine job Anshaw has done. -- MARION WINIK

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