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10 Books To Help You Recover From A Tense 2012

2012 has been a very jittery year — what with the presidential election, extreme weather events and the looming "fiscal cliff." In response to these tense times, some readers seek out escape; others look to literature that directly confronts the atmospheric uncertainty of the age. I guess I'm in the latter camp, because many of my favorite books this year told stories, imagined and real, about ordinary people who felt like they didn't have a clue what hit 'em.

The dazed-and-confused trend in fiction started off back in January, with a slim novella about economic despair and the whims of Fate ...

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The Odds

Stewart O'Nan's novella The Odds focuses on an unemployed couple who are just about out of options. Marion and Art Fowler are set to divorce on the eve of their 30th wedding anniversary, in order to protect what little assets they have left. First, though, they've booked a deluxe suite at one of the honeymoon hotels in Niagara Falls and are preparing to gamble their remaining cash at the hotel casino in a last-ditch effort to turn things around. If that scheme sounds loony, it's nowhere near as bizarre as the quick demise of Art's 20-year career as an insurance agent. Here's how O'Nan describes that firing:

"[Art] relied on his seniority to protect him. It seemed to through the early round of cuts. The new head of Human Resources ... had come for friends on both sides of his office, a brawny security guard trailing behind like a bouncer ...

[Art] made it to July ...

They came for him in the morning before coffee break."

Sounds like a scene out of Edgar Allan Poe, doesn't it? And that's O'Nan's brilliance in this novella, revealing the unemployment story to be the tale of everyday terror that it is.

Canada

Money woes and magical thinking are the dominant notes in Canada, a dazzling epic of family dissolution by Richard Ford. Set in 1960 in Montana and Saskatchewan, the story is narrated by 15-year-old Dell Parsons, whose parents hatch the bright idea of robbing a bank to pay the bills. Of course, they're quickly arrested and imprisoned, leaving Dell and his twin sister to fend for themselves. Dell finds work as a handyman at a tumbledown hotel in a remote Canadian prairie town. Here's one of his many commentaries on his sudden descent into isolation:

"Loneliness, I've read, is like being in a long line, waiting to reach the front where it's promised something good will happen. Only the line never moves, and other people are always coming in ahead of you, and the front, the place where you want to be, is always farther and farther away until you no longer believe it has anything to offer you."

Like Ford's great Frank Bascombe trilogy, Canada is graced by the guiding presence of a battered narrator on whom nothing is lost.

Girlchild

The ragged but resilient young narrator of Girlchild, a striking debut novel by Tupelo Hassman, can tell readers a thing or two about what it's like to grow up without safety nets. Rory Dawn Hendrix lives in a Reno trailer park where you'd have a better chance of sighting a UFO than a helicopter parent. Like many a wise child before her, Rory finds consolation in books: Her bible of choice is a tattered old copy of The Girl Scout Handbook. The trailer park doesn't have a troop, but Rory constitutes a fearsome pack of one; she even awards herself her own homemade badges, such as the "proficiency badge in puberty." It's Rory's dry humor as well as the offbeat ways in which she presents her coming-of-age story (for example, social worker case notes and anthropological asides on the trailer park community) that make us readers hunker down with her for the long, dry season of her youth.

This Is How You Lose Her

Nobody does scrappy, sassy, twice-the-speed-of-sound dialogue better than Junot Diaz. His exuberant short-story collection This Is How You Lose Her charts the lives of Dominican immigrants for whom the promise of America comes down to a minimum-wage paycheck, an occasional walk to a movie in a mall, and the momentary escape of a grappling in bed. The nine stories in this collection focus almost exclusively on Yunior, Oscar Wao's wired friend who narrated the eponymous The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Yunior confesses his staggeringly scummy treatment of his girlfriends — his "hood hotties" — but other stories riff on other kinds of love: maternal and brotherly; the yearning immigrants feel for their home country; the distinct emotional purgatories of the cheater and the cheated upon. "Otravida, Otravez," is told from the perspective of a Dominican woman named Yasmin who runs a hospital laundry:

"I sort through piles of sheets with gloved hands ... I never see the sick; they visit me through the stains and marks they leave on the sheets, the alphabet of the sick and dying."

Yunior, our Dominican Don Juan, loses plenty of women in these stories, but Yasmin is one woman Diaz, as a writer, shouldn't let go.

Beautiful Ruins

My pick for best novel of 2012 is something of a dark horse and a departure from the downtrodden environs of the novels I've just described. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter is a stunner of a tale that roams from Italy in the early 1960s to Hollywood and the present-day American heartland. The novel assembles a kaleidoscopic collection of "beautiful ruins," both human and architectural, including discarded starlets, humble hotel workers and, most spectacularly, the self-destructive actor, Richard Burton.

Walter is a marvelous writer who hasn't yet received high literary acclaim probably because his reach extends into other genres: Citizen Vince was a screwball crime noir about chasing down the right to vote, while The Financial Lives of the Poets was a rueful domestic drama about casualties of our current recession. This novel, his most inventive to date, opens on the scene of young Pasquale Tursi, fruitlessly pouring sand over the rocky shore in front of his family's little hotel in Porto Vergogna — "Port of Shame" — so called, because it was once a place where sailors and sardine fishermen could find women of "a certain moral and commercial flexibility." By the time this fundamentally comic novel ends, Pasquale will be an old man traveling to Hollywood in search of missing links to connect his jagged memories into a rich narrative of self-delusion and half-reached dreams.

The Brontes

It's not often I call footnotes "thrilling" — especially 136 pages of them — but Juliet Barker's revised and updated edition of her landmark 1994 biography called, simply, The Brontes, prompted that effusion from me earlier this year. Barker here continues her elegant scholarly work of rooting out the tall tales that have obscured a more clear-eyed view of this brilliant literary and artistic clan. She also uncovers new material, such as a charming 1854 letter of Charlotte's in which she confesses her embarrassment at being talked into a white wedding dress, modest though it was. "If I must make a fool of myself [the 38-year-old bride-to-be wrote], it shall be on an economical plan." Rather than stock characters out of Gothic melodrama, the Bronte children and their father, Patrick, surface as messy human beings, touched with genius, certainly, as well as mental illness, crippling shyness and, given the children's early deaths, very bad luck.

Marmee & Louisa

A lot of scholarly attention has been devoted to the influence of Louisa May Alcott's feckless philosopher father, Bronson, on her work. The eye-opener, however, of Eve LaPlante's superb new dual biography, Marmee & Louisa , is that her hardworking mother, Abigail, was every inch the social philosopher that Bronson was when it came to issues of abolition and women's rights. As Abigail dreamed her dreams of social reform, though, she was also supporting the family through jobs as a social worker and sanitarium matron, in addition to the daily domestic grind of caring for her own children, mending clothes and cooking up her vegan husband's daily porridge.

Abigail was an acute observer, especially when it came to gender inequalities. Writing of a visit to a nearby Shaker community, she tartly noted that the Shaker men have "a fat, sleek, comfortable look ..." Abigail gave Louisa the practical and symbolic gift of a fountain pen for her 14th birthday; when Louisa began to write Little Women in 1865, she drew material from her mother's approximately 20 volumes of diaries. The powerful bond between this mother-daughter duo of progressive thinkers/scribbling women makes for compelling reading.

Elsewhere

Richard Russo is the Bruce Springsteen of writers whose home subject is the white working class: In fact, Springsteen's latest proletarian pride anthem, "We Take Care of Our Own," kept playing in my head as I read Russo's latest book. Russo knows what it means to take care of your own. In his memoir, Elsewhere, he writes with his distinctive intelligence and humor about his childhood and his still-conflicted class emigration from blue-collar kid to college professor and writer. Most of all, though, Elsewhere is a gorgeously nuanced memoir about his mother and Russo's own lifelong tour of duty spent — lovingly and exhaustedly — looking out for her.

In an unforgettable moment in Elsewhere, Russo gives readers a sense of his mother's emotional dependency when he recalls grabbing a lifeline — in the form of an acceptance letter to the University of Arizona — out of his dying upstate New York hometown of Gloversville. Russo tells us that he didn't exit Gloversville alone. Sitting beside him in the passenger seat of his wheezing Ford Galaxy, all throughout the cross-country drive, was his mother. Another son, understandably, would have pressed the eject button, but Russo seems to have had reserves of compassion for his anxious mother — more compassion, in fact, than he shows for himself in this penetrating memoir.

My Husband And My Wives

Well, that title certainly grabs your attention! My Husband and My Wives, however, has much more going for it as a memoir than mere novelty. Charles Rowan Beye's charming raconteur's voice and his refusal to bend anecdotes into the expected "lessons" really make his account of coming out, his career as a classics professor and his three aforementioned marriages a genuine knockout.

Beye is now over 80, and, looking back over his long life, he admits that the question he often asks himself is, "What was that all about?" Who among us hasn't wondered the same? Beye's saga begins in Iowa in 1930. He grew up in a WASP household where he and his five siblings were schooled in the upper-class art of making conversation — or, as he deems it, "hid[ing] behind brilliance." When Beye's mother could no longer politely ignore his budding homosexuality, she dispatched him to a psychiatrist who, counter to almost every other psychiatrist in every work of gay literature ever written, turned out to be an enlightened mentor. Beye's by turns saucy and poignant story is an important addition to the canon of memoirs about the mystery of human sexuality.

Behind The Beautiful Forevers

Sometimes the conventional wisdom is truly wise. Katherine Boo's much-lauded book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, crowns my "best of the year" list in nonfiction. Based on three years of "embedded reporting" in the slum settlement of Annawadi adjacent to the Mumbai airport and its nearby luxury hotels, Boo's book takes readers deep into the subsistence-level lives of residents like teenager Abdul, a peddler of recycled plastic; and Manju, a dreamy young woman bent on becoming the settlement's first college graduate.

As Boo says in her author's note, the slum dwellers she came to know are "neither mythic nor pathetic," but rather distinguished by their ability to improvise. Her own reportage here is surely an example of improvising narrative form to best convey a story. The residents of Annawadi speak about their own situations through dialogue, but Boo also adroitly steps in to supply background context. Describing a scene of flaring tempers at a temple where residents are impatiently waiting for a local politician to arrive, Boo explains:

"Time was precious to Annawadians ... They had work at dawn, homes to clean, children to bathe, and above all water to get from the slum's trickle-taps before they went dry, which involved standing in line for hours. The municipality sent water through six Annawadi faucets for ninety minutes in the morning and ninety minutes at night."

A world away, perhaps, to Western readers, but Boo reminds us that in many of our American cities, the luxury dwellings of the wealthy are close enough to cast shadows on the tenements of the poor.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

If you're looking for books to give as gifts, or just some great books to read yourself, here's our book critic Maureen Corrigan with her picks for the best books of the year.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: 2012 has been a jittery year, what with the presidential election, extreme weather events and, now, the looming fiscal cliff. Not surprisingly, many of my favorite books told stories, imagined and real, about people who felt like they didn't have a clue what hit them.

That dazed-and-confused trend kicked off in January with Stewart O'Nan's novella called "The Odds" about a middle-aged, unemployed couple about to divorce in order to protect what little assets they have left. First, though, Marion and Art Fowler book a deluxe suite at one of the honeymoon hotels in Niagara Falls and get ready to gamble their remaining cash at the hotel casino. O'Nan's go-for-broke literary style, by turns elegant and ruefully funny, rivets readers to the fateful spin of that roulette wheel.

Magical thinking also plays a crucial role in "Canada," a dazzling epic of family dissolution by Richard Ford. Set in 1960 in Montana and Saskatchewan, the story is narrated by 15-year-old Dell Parsons whose parents hatch the bright idea of robbing a bank to solve their money problems.

The ragged but resilient young narrator of "Girlchild," a striking debut novel by Tupelo Hassman, also tells readers a thing or two about what it's like to grow up without safety nets. Rory Dawn Hendrix lives in a Reno trailer park where you'd have a better chance of sighting a UFO than a helicopter parent.

Nobody does scrappy, sassy, twice the speed of sound dialogue better than Junot Diaz. His exuberant short story collection, called "This Is How You Lose Her," charts the lives of Dominican immigrants for whom the promise of America comes down to a minimum-wage paycheck, an occasional walk to a movie in a mall and the momentary escape of a grappling in bed.

My pick for best novel of 2012 is something of a dark horse. "Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter veers up, up and away from the downtrodden environs of the novels I've just described. It's a sweeping stunner of a tale that roams from Italy in the early 1960s to Hollywood and the present-day American heartland. The novel assembles a kaleidoscopic collection of beautiful ruins, both human and architectural, including discarded starlets, humble hotel workers and, most spectacularly, the self-destructive actor Richard Burton.

For the year's best in nonfiction, let's start by hopping from the Italian coast to the English moors. Juliet Barker's revised and updated edition of her landmark 1994 biography called, simply, "The Brontes," upends the tall tales that have obscured a clear view of this brilliant clan.

Barker also uncovers new material, such as a charming 1854 letter of Charlotte's in which she confesses to being talked into a white wedding dress, modest though it was. If I must make a fool of myself the 38-year-old bride-to-be wrote, it shall be on an economical plan.

Louisa May Alcott's siblings didn't share her literary gifts, but her supportive mother, Abigail, was an evocative writer, as well as a campaigner for abolition and women's rights. "Marmee and Louisa" is the title of Eve LaPlante's marvelous new dual biography of the hard-working mother-daughter pair.

A charged relationship between mother and child also constitutes the subject of "Elsewhere," Richard Russo's nuanced memoir about his life-long relationship with his emotionally dependent mother. Russo writes about his own class emigration from blue-collar kid to college professor and successful writer.

But what he also chronicles in "Elsewhere" is how his difficult mother came along for the ride figuratively and literally, since she climbed into Russo's rusty Ford Galaxy on his cross-country drive to college. I also loved retired classics professor Charles Rowan Beye's saucy and poignant memoir "My Husband and My Wives." Beye looks back on his long life, including his sequential marriages to two women and now a man, and contemplates the cosmic question: What was that all about?

Sometimes the conventional wisdom is truly wise. Katherine Boo's much lauded work of narrative nonfiction, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers," crowns my best-of-the-year list. Based on three years of embedded reporting, Boo's account takes readers deep into the richly varied world of a few of the thousands of slum dwellers who live in the shadows of the Mumbai airport and its surrounding luxury hotels.

As Boo says in her author's note at the end of the book, the slum dwellers she came to know are neither mythic nor pathetic, but rather distinguished by their ability to improvise. Given the space limitations of lists, many critics, myself included, dislike putting these best-of-the-year pieces together; but if this rattling run-through attracts more readers to these extraordinary books, I will close out 2012 contented.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. You can find her best-of-the-year list on our website freshair.npr.org where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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