Two thousand and twelve wasn’t a particularly good year for the literary novel, and I’m not sure what it says that so much of this year’s good reading centered on crime fiction. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that right now the crime genre is fiction’s most exciting and has, in many ways, replaced the social novel for telling us who we are. This 10-best list reflects that shift.
Still, there are plenty of other goodies here that should satisfy almost any palate, from a Hollywood satire to a rock memoir, and even a book of photographs — a genre that this list has ignored for too long.
As ever, my hope is that you will find a title or two here that you hadn’t heard of before and, taking a chance, delve into a book that otherwise you might not have come across. And maybe even be moved.
Hollywood’s foremost satirist takes on the TMZ generation. Nearly the same length as Tom Wolfe’s satiric door-stopper “Back to Blood,” Bruce Wagner’s book is meaner, funnier, and more urgent. The risk of this kind of satire, of course, is that you can end up deadening the reader, and admittedly after 656 pages you may be left wondering who is the abuser, and who is the abused. But the message is an important one: What happens to a generation obsessed with bullshit?
“Rod: The Autobiography”
A candid, self-deprecating, and occasionally hilarious memoir by a rocker who saw and did it all. Rod Stewart’s story is more fun than Pete Townsend’s ponderous recent memoir, and more self-aware than Keith Richards’s “Life.” While Keith’s book seemed to have a no-apologies rule (even for turning his preteen son into his caretaker during the heroin years), it’s refreshing to see Rod take himself to task for three divorces and various parental lapses. But of course “Rod” is mostly about fun: the limos, the girls, the substances, the parties, the endless laughs. Yes, you’ve heard it all before, but like the man, it never seems to grow old.
“Five Noir Novels of the
1940s & ’50s”
For those who thought the 1950s were all white picket fences. . . . David Goodis’s novels are populated with loners and frustrated artists who become embroiled in the pestilence of a nasty postwar hangover. There’s more alcohol than guns in these novels, but the violence — when it does appear — carries an emotional wallop. Goodis’s writing leans on a strong psychological component of torment and despair, so it’s best taken with a belt from that Scotch Santa put in your stocking.
Though a book about the Supreme Court may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, Jeffrey Toobin comes close to making it so. The book chronicles the politicization of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts, beginning with his botched swearing-in of President Obama in 2008. That this partisan court is a microcosm of our polarized political landscape is probably not news, but Mr. Toobin’s portrait of its members can be revelatory (his reporting on Clarence Thomas, for example, is nothing short of scathing). Also surprising is how much the story of Mr. Roberts’s surprise vote on “Obamacare” reads like a thriller.
“Banksy: You Are an Acceptable Level of Threat”
Who is Banksy? In this definitive collection of his work, he is described as “an anonymous street artist from Bristol who rose to fame in the late 1990s and the present day chiefly by illegally spray-painting stencil designs across the major cities of the U.K. and North America.” Banksy is a kind of art world Thomas Pynchon (there may be more than one Banksy) whose work has a heavy political element and who was a secret hero of the Occupy Movement.
Banksy, however, is never ideological, and at his best his images make us ask tough questions about the militarization of Western nations and the building up of police states in the name of “security.”
A wife disappears on the day of her fifth wedding anniversary: Is she truly missing or has she just had enough? This is the conceit of Gillian Flynn’s new thriller, which is as much a meditation on marriage as it is a mystery. The author stretches her talent here by telling the story in a variety of different voices, and mostly pulls it off. “Hitchcockian” in the best sense, it also sports a jaw-dropping ending. It’s just too bad Sir Alfred isn’t around to film it.
“The Signal and the Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail but
When, in leading up the 2012 presidential election, Nate Silver said that Barack Obama would win handily, he was excoriated by the far right for dispensing liberal “disinformation.” Then it turned out he predicted 50 out of 50 states correctly; in 2008 he got 49 of out 50 right. Maybe it’s time to start listening.
In “The Signal and the Noise,” he tells us how to sift through the information glut to get to the true data, and as a result has come up with something close to what one might call a “predictive science.” It’s not a book simply for strategic ways to win the lottery — although there’s that too — but also about basic logic, decision-making, and future planning.
“The Black Box”
When you do roughly a novel a year for 20 years, it’s nearly impossible to hit the bull’s-eye every time, and indeed Michael Connelly’s last few novels have been uneven. But culminating with his 20-year anniversary, Mr. Connelly has put together a humdinger.
Detective Harry Bosch tries to unravel a cold case from 1992 about the murder of a Danish journalist during the L.A. riots. Harry meets the usual political impediments from the L.A.P.D. (should a white cop solve the murder of a white woman during the riots?), and though his lonely, ex-alcoholic cop is a cliché, Mr. Connelly somehow, even after 20 years, manages to make it all feel fresh.
Benjamin Black is the pen name for the Man Booker Prize-winning Irish novelist John Banville, who writes these “Dubliners”-meets-Raymond Chandler mysteries as a “hobby.” Lucky for us he doesn’t like to fish. His hero is Quirke, a pathologist who sometimes spends more time in the pub than near the operating table, and finds himself embroiled in various whodunits in 1950s Dublin.
“Vengeance” concerns a possible suicide on a sailboat — or was it murder? Action fans be warned: There is always more atmosphere than violence in these novels. And though the plots of the Black books usually lead to the same place — the nefarious underbelly of Dublin’s “elite” families — line by line there are no better-written mysteries published today.
“Bring Up the Bodies”
The second book in Hilary Mantel’s planned trilogy on the ruthlessness of Tudor England under Henry the VIII won the U.K.’s Man Booker Prize for fiction, as did the first volume in the series (titled “Wolf Hall”). No mean feat!
“Bring Up the Bodies” focuses on Thomas Cromwell and the downfall of Anne Boleyn, so you may already know how this ends. But while the story is both fast-moving and cinematically told, fans of the television series “The Tudors” may be disappointed: The soft-porn element is replaced here by historical fact, political machinations, and a superlative prose style that makes history read like fiction.
Kurt Wenzel is the author of the novels “Lit Life,” “Gotham Tragic,” and “Exposure.” He lives in Springs.