2012 in Books

“We need to make books cool again. If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.” – John Waters

A few days ago, my dear friend Roxanne posted her favorite books of 2012 on Stories of Conflict and Love.  Admittedly, Roxanne reads better books than I do, but I bake more cookies than she does, so I think we come out even.  I loved her idea of wrapping up the year by revisiting the words and ideas I consumed in trains, planes, and hostels around the world in 2012.  So here is my response to Roxanne’s question, which books have stayed with you?

Location Specific

I spent about six months of this past year in Colombia, and did quite a bit of reading before and during my stay to better understand my new home.  The most striking piece of non-fiction I read during this time was Silvana Paternostro’s The Land of Man and God: A Latin Woman’s Journey, which brought me a few baby-steps closer to understanding the complex world of Colombian sexuality and gender roles.  This was a place where, on an average Saturday night, I saw a man selling hideous wall tapestries at a local salsa bar called Donde Fidel.  On one arm, his inventory glorified a somber Virgin Mary; on the other, voluptuous naked women fit for a Daddy Yankee video.  I turned to my Cartagenera companion and asked, exasperated, “Do you not see any contradiction here??”  She shrugged and replied, “Not really… He’s got something for everybody.”

My other Colombian reads included A Gringa in Bogota: Living Colombia’s Invisible War, More Terrible than Death: Drugs, Violence, and America’s War in Colombia, and two masterpieces by Gabriel García Márquez:  Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude.  I tried to re-read Love (my favorite of the two) again in recent months to alleviate my Colombia withdrawal, but the book is so intimately tied to my memories of Cartagena and the man I loved there that I couldn’t get through more than a few pages without blubbering.  It has henceforth been buried in my closet under some old Halloween costumes.

While in Russia, I was mesmerized and frightened by The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, by Masha Gessen.  I read it just as Putin was reelected for a controversial increased six-year term, after already having reigned over the country for 12 years.  It inspired me to start a number of uncomfortable conversations with older Russians about their support for him, which always ended with, “Well, he’s better than the other options.”

Psychology/Philosophy/Self-Improvement

I tend to re-read obsessively when I really like a book (or when it’s the only printed word in my carry-on luggage).  My count for Jane Eyre is about eight; The Unbearable Lightness of Being is at four or five.  This year, I read the light-weight The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown three times, almost exclusively in airports and airplanes.  It’s an insightful read for perfectionists everywhere, written by a “shame researcher” with a sense of humor and a warm heart.

Brown’s book sparked a positive psychology kick that followed with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s classic Flow.  Another useful, if slightly redundant, self-helper is Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide,which provides a lot of practical ideas on how to set major life goals and follow through on them.

To help me achieve both “flow” and my newly delineated goals, I devoured John Brockman’s This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking in hopes of reversing too many hazy nights of aguardiente and Ron Medellín.  As he has done every year for the past decade, Brockman posed a question to some of the most brilliant scientists, authors, and thinkers of our time.  This year, it was “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

One of my favorite responses (“Structured Serendipity”) comes from Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Zweig, who suggests that “creativity can be enhanced deliberately through environmental variation.”  He continues:

“Two techniques seem to be promising: varying what you learn and varying where you learn it.  I try each week to read a scientific paper in a field new to me– and to read it in a different place.  New associations often leap out of the air at me this way.  More intriguing, others seem to form covertly and lie in wait for the opportune moment when they can click into place.  I do not try to force these associations out into the open; they are like the shrinking mimosa plants that crumple if you touch them but bloom if you leave them alone.”

Cheryl Strayed

Yes, she gets her own category, because 2012 was totally her year.  After coming out as the formerly anonymous Sugar of Dear Sugar, Strayed published two of my favorite reads of the year (both of which will be re-read):  Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail and Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar.  I fell in sycophantic love with Strayed through her column on The Rumpus, and this love was only compounded as I journeyed along on her heart-breaking and inspiring memoir.  This woman brought Oprah out of retirement, for god’s sake.  Read her.

Travel Related

The following books provided encouragement and insight throughout my travels this past year.  Theroux and de Botton provoke a lot of self-reflection related to the philosophy of travel, which is at times less than comfortable, but always worthwhile.

Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel by Rolf Potts

The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World by Chris Guillebeau

The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road by Paul Theroux

The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

Barrels of Laughs

If you need a literary laugh, try newcomer Sara Barron’s pee-your-pants-funny People Are Unappealing: Even Me.  Barron holds nothing back in this self-deprecating (maybe everything-deprecating) collection of stories from her childhood onward.  I was so thrilled to learn that I was not the only eleven-year-old to have written erotic fiction in a spiral-bound notebook.  Barron has me beat with her prose, though, with lines like “he humped me wildly with his weiner.”

Runner-up to Barron’s cheeky memoir is Sloane Crosley’s How Did You Get This Number, another hilarious, though more reserved, set of personal essays.  Both authors tell harrowing tales of young hipster life in New York City, but Crosley never goes quite so far as admitting to peeing on a drunk guy in a bathtub.  So Barron wins in my book.

Other Notables

And here are some of my other favorites from 2012, in no particular order or organization.  Read them and be happy.

In Praise of Messy Lives: Essays by Katie Roiphe

The Moon is Always Female: Poems by Marge Piercy

Dream Work by Mary Oliver

Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton

Currently Piled On My Bed With Dog-Eared Pages

These are the books I plan to conquer in the next month or so.  Extrapolate what you will about my psychological state and plans for my future.  My lips are still sealed.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely

Due Diligence: An Impertinent Inquiry into Microfinance by David Roodman

Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day by Collins, Morduch, Rutherford, Ruthven

A Little War that Shook the World: Georgia, Russia, and the Future of the West by Ronald Asmus

Black Sea by Neal Ascherson

How to Think More About Sex by Alain de Botton

***

That wraps up the highlights of my literary life in 2012 and the start of 2013.  I will now pass the baton along to you, dear readers.  What were your favorite reads of the past year?  What will you carry with you into 2013?

25 comments

  1. This is such a fabulous post. It’s one of my goals to do a post like this at the beginning of next year. My reading in 2012 was seriously appalling – I’m a bookworm who used to read at least 50 books a year but in 2012 I can count on ONE hand the amount of books I read. One of my goals this year is to change that, get off the internet and start reading more!

  2. One of my resolutions is to read more books this year so this list is quite timely, cheers for putting it together! As for 2012, I finally read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and also really enjoyed the Thursday Next novels — highly recommend the latter!

  3. What a great resource your book list is! I got so side-tracked clicking on your links, I”ve opened up half a dozen screens, put a couple of columns from The Rumpus into my favorites folders, and added several books to my wish-list on Amazon. Thanks for such an enriching blog-site! Keep traveling – or at least writing about it!

  4. Wow you’ve rea a lot of books this year! I just read a wonderful book set in Vietnam called Catfish and Mandala. Love it! Now I’m reading one set in the Mumbai Slums which is heavy. Happy New Year Meghan and all the best in 2013!!!! 🙂

    • I think I know which book on Mumbai you’re talking about, it’s on my 2013 reading list!

      Happy New Year to you too, Nicole. I am so glad we’ve gotten to know each other better this year. Cheers to even better things in 2013!! 🙂

      • Thanks Meghan! It is called Behind the Beautiful or something like that. It is unbelievable! Best wishes for 2013 and yes, it has been a pleasure getting to know you too! I can hardly wait till you leave for Georgia and I get to read and learn all about it there! 🙂

  5. All I’ve heard about in the last few months is about Cheryl Strayed and her memoirs! Your post finally convinced it to add to my (lengthy) reading list. It will be awhile before I get to it. I just recently started watching the tv show Game of Thrones and I made myself read the first two books in the series (which the first two seasons are based on) before I watched the show. The third season is starting soon and I need to start reading the third book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George RR Martin. The first two books each took me a few weeks to get through so I imagine the third one will be similar!

    • She is really wonderful, Amelie. I would recommend starting with her Dear Sugar columns in Tiny Beautiful Things, and then reading her personal memoir afterwards.

      I really need to get my fiction game back on track! Maybe Game of Thrones will be a good start. 🙂

      Happy New Year’s Eve to you, fellow reader!

      • I would certainly recommend Game of Thrones! I just ordered Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. I loved Wild and was glad to see she had another book. Thanks for the recommendation. I think it’s good timing for me.

        • Game of Thrones will be tackled this year, for sure! And I’m so happy to hear you’re a Strayed fan as well. I enjoyed Tiny Beautiful Things even more than Wild, though the two are so different, it’s hard to compare them. And yes, I think it is good timing… that book helped relieve me of a lot of anxiety/nightmares during a rough time earlier this year, for whatever reason.

  6. I have a feeling that you’re coming back to Russia soon, or maybe visiting Georgia and Armenia along the way. 🙂 Anyway, this post reminds me of how little I read in 2012. I did read a few books, but haven’t finished any of them.

  7. Meghan.

    Thank you so much for sharing your favorite reads. There are several on your list I will be adding to our shelves at The Book Garden, an independent shop we bought in 2012. Of course, as a bookstore owner people always ask what my favorite reads are and this year I haven’t read much of anything but business-related books! Not a bad thing, but I have such a long list of novels and other titles I want to read.

    I also published my first novel this year, Some Girls, which I am thrilled about. My resolution for 2013 is to make sure I make the time to read for pleasure and then to write some more. That is, when I’m not recommending your favorites to others at our little shop. If your travels ever take you to our little corner of New Jersey, come visit!

    • Caroline, thank you so much for stopping by! I am always more than happy to give and take book recommendations (the piles are growing in my bedroom).

      Actually, I am from New Jersey and I’m here at home for the holidays. Where is your book shop? I’d love to stop by some time!

  8. I love the quote– definitely going to set that as a rule!

    When I get back from travels, or even at the airport, I fully intend to buy some of these books and read them!

    Happy New Year 🙂 hope it’s wonderful. I’ve loved following your blog over the last year.

    • Isn’t it a great one, Jill? Slightly more risque than my normal blogging vocabulary, but I couldn’t resist. If you can only pick one, go with something by Cheryl Strayed! Yes, I’m obsessed.

      Happy New Year to you too, darling! Are you still in London to celebrate? I can’t wait to see pictures!

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