Inspired by Nina Badzin, I’m sharing the books I most enjoyed in 2012.
- Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick. Demick tells the story of 6 North Korean refugees who escaped to South Korea. One woman, a doctor who completely accepted the government’s propaganda, changed her mind when she first made the illegal crossing to China. Entering a private yard, she was perplexed by a bowl of meat and rice on the ground. After a moment a dog came to claim the food, and the woman realized that the dogs in China eat better than the richest people in North Korea. This book will depress you, it will horrify you, and you will never forget it.
- Alone in Berlin, by Hans Fallada. A book about “ordinary Germans” during World War II, written by a German in 1950. The author is bitter about the Nazi regime but manages to make the topic humorous and inspiring. The couple in the story decide to resist the Nazis in a small way, until they are finally caught. We learn what happens to the Jews in the couple’s building, but the Holocaust plays only a small part in the book.
- The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel, by David Mitchell. I almost gave up on “Thousand Autumns” after the first couple of chapters, because of the unfamiliar language and vocabulary, but I urge you not to do the same. Thousand Autumns has a fast-moving and surprising plot, unusual and well-developed characters, an exotic historical setting, and a love story. You’ll learn about Dutch trade , Japan, medicine, the role of women, and much more about the 18th century. When I finished I began it again to appreciate the first 100 pages.
- November of the Soul: The Enigma of Suicide, by George Howe Colt. What can I tell you, the woman who orders books for our book club swap likes depressing topics. I kept wanting to put down this very long book, because how much can you say about suicide? But Colt managed to keep my interest with personal stories and speculation about who commits suicide and why, attempted suicide, prevention,and suicide “survivors.”
- The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Mukherjee also writes at length on an unpleasant topic, but left me wanting more. Mukherjee uses the story of his patient, a young woman with leukemia, as a jumping-off-point for a discussion of the history of cancer research and treatments. You’ll finally understand how genes cancer and why mammograms may not prevent it.
- Empire Falls, by Richard Russo. While I didn’t quite get the ending, the plot and insightful characters still make it a great novel.
- The Island Within., by Ludwig Lewisohn. A multi-generational novel about Jews and Jewish identity, written in 1928. Conflicts addressed by Lewisohn are still with us today, like how much of Jewish practice consists of customs and not Jewish law. But the discussion on anti-Semitism seems dated. He traces a Jewish family from Eastern Europe, to Germany, to the United States with the relevant impact of assimilation and Jewish identity. Read only if these topics interest you, because the plot will not hold you.
- Take a Chance on Me, by Jill. Mansell. I don’t only read depressing non-fiction and literary novel. I also like quality chick-lit, if you believe such a thing exists. Chick-lit romance features humorous, female, modern-day heroines. Bridget Jones’s Diary was the first (but not the best). Mansell’s is fun.
- Crossing to Safety (Modern Library Classics), by Wallace Stegner. I mentioned this book when I wrote about my interview with “polio mom” Dena Gordon. Safety’s well-expressed themes include friendship, illness, marriage, and academic life.
- A Man of Parts, by David Lodge. A biographical novel about the novelist H. G. Wells. Wells worked to promote socialism in Britain, and came under fire for his unconventional views on marriage. One friend said that it took her two months to get through this book, and had no idea Wells was “such a dirty old man.” In my opinion Lodge does an excellent job of portraying Wells with the right touch of sympathy.
What were your favorites in 2012?
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