*Our best books list includes any book we read in 2012, regardless of release date*

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Vintage International/2011)

Memory is a tricky thing and in The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes’ slender, yet profound 14th novel, an unreliable narrator shows just how slippery remembrance can be. I’ve always wondered why people shy away from the unreliable narrator, choosing instead to believe a tale wholesale, allowing themselves to be blindly carried through a book without ever questioning that seemingly omnipotent voice’s motivations. Barnes’ latest is a subtle mystery, one that mostly takes place within the mind of its narrator. It can be a difficult thing to be shackled so closely to someone, but by its ending, The Sense of an Ending is impossible to walk away unshaken as we watch a lifetime tied up with certainty implode as new layers of truth reveal that memory and fact don’t always correlate.

We all have had those missed romances of our youth, the one who got away that still niggles at the mind decades later. How far has our own recollection distorted and changed what actually happened? The fog of time and arrested perception create a mythology that hangs over your life. It’s not only romantic. We outgrow friends, leaving the conflict and the pain behind on the dusty back roads of our lives, only to be swallowed up and chewed out by new experience and the lack of closure. It is amazing that Barnes could pack a lifetime of introspection into a volume so slim you will likely want to read it all in one sitting. – David Harris

HHhH by Laurent Binet (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/2012)

The proposition of a postmodern account of the horrors of World War II is an uneasy one. The clever reflexivity and self-referential air of such a project could rob the event of the severity it deserves, and indeed it can be jarring to read Binet’s scattershot mentions of his relationship suffering as he obsessively researches the stunning story he relates in these pages. Yet Binet’s unorthodox approach revitalizes not only the well-trod WWII subject but the increasingly stale and lazy structures of the prose style. Binet’s digressions and light, self-involved humor do not stand in opposition to the reverence he displays for the topic of a bold assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the architect of the Holocaust and arguably the most dangerous man in Hitler’s upper echelon. Rather, the conflicting moods express the humanity that goes into writing the usual, stuffy accounts of great moments. Most historians probably feel as Binet does toward their topics, overwhelmed with enthusiasm and biased admiration or scorn, but so few translate it to their writing. You might almost call HHhH cinematic, but that is not quite right. It is instead filled with the unending shock of how the schemes and random occurrences of life can, in ways inspiring and horrific, exceed the wildest imaginations and the best writing. – Jake Cole

Sylvia by Leonard Michaels (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux Paperbacks/1992)

In The Nation, author and critic Philip Lopate once noted that Leonard Michaels, a criminally under-recognized Jewish (mainly) short story writer from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, known for his cool emotional brutality, was frequently obsessed with the line between fiction and non-fiction. Nine years after Michaels’s death, Sylvia, his half-diary, half-memoir account of the entirety of the crazed, youthful relationship he had with his first wife, seems like an ideal entrance point to his work. It’s a short book, ostensibly a novel, that reads like the extremely cogent scribblings of a good novelist unable to find his next subject; giving up (or in), the novelist turns to his old diary entries, and the idea for a “fictional memoir” clicks.

Sylvia is told from the point-of-view of the writer aged 30 years, give or take. It placidly, often wryly, paints the tumultuous picture of his life with Sylvia Bloch, the brilliant, vain, and volatile Asian-American beauty he fell for in the early ‘60s, when he was an aimless post-collegiate mess. Sylvia pulls the author somewhat out of his funk – the young man telling the story, “Leonard Michaels,” has vague ambitions to be a real writer, and over the course of the relationship takes stutter-steps toward realizing them – but forces him just as often to confront the immature and inchoate artist he remains. The result is vivid, pure early-‘60s (it often reads like a hip time capsule of drugs and jazz) and viscerally honest; the couple move inexorably from fucking to fighting and back again for years, with not one bad thought between them left unsaid. The immutability of the folly of two people trying to coexist probably wasn’t Michaels’ conscious goal, but he hit on it nonetheless; this is the rawest of relationship stories, as emotionally relevant in 2012 as it must have felt to New Yorkers 40 years ago. – Alex Peterson

The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker (Grove/1986)

As an anxiety-ridden neurotic with pronounced OCD tendencies, I cling dearly to a few comforting auteur role models (Albert Brooks, Larry David, Woody Allen), who I look to both for relatable humor and confirmation that my jittery, detail-oriented lifestyle isn’t completely untenable. It took me until 2012 to find an author with the same zealous concerns, when I discovered the first novel by Nicholson Baker, a writer with such a minutiae-obsessed mindset that he devotes large chunks of a slim work to the vagaries of plastic soda cup lids, exhaustively documenting all the ambiguities, quirks and annoyances contained therein. Cataloguing the swirling thought process of a young office drone on a post-lunch-break trip up the escalator, The Mezzanine is built around a series of spot-on digressions, filled out via expansive footnotes, which slowly combine to form one of the most perfect novels about nothing, giving miscellany and cultural detritus the same treatment Proust gave to his past. Expounding endlessly on the miniature mysteries of life (the reasons why one shoelace always wears out before the other, what causes plastic straws to float, the societal shift from glass to plastic milk bottles) Baker embraces everyday questions as grandly dramatic subject matter. – Jesse Cataldo

Love Goes to Buildings On Fire by Will Hermes (Faber & Faber/2012)

It’s the diary of a true musical omnivore. In Love Goes to Buildings On Fire, Rolling Stone writer Will Hermes weaves together the beginnings of disco, hip-hop, punk and new wave, all set against the manic cauldron that was New York City in the mid to late ’70s. Hermes, a Queens native, moves seamlessly between scenes of Bronx teenagers getting down to turntable pioneers like Kool Herc to unknowns Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen making their first inroads into the downtown Manhattan scene. In doing so in such a deft manner, he is able to bring to light an incredibly fertile period in New York culture during a time that most New Yorkers have tried to erase from memory. While the city teetered on the edge, financially ruined and crime ridden, musical revolutions were springing forth from every downtrodden corner.

Taken on its own, Love Goes to Buildings On Fire is an engrossing read. But it’s possible to immerse oneself even further into the period by following along on reader-curated Spotify playlists and by going back through Hermes tweets (@williamhermes) at the time of the book’s release. It’s one thing to read about the Fania All-Stars headlining Yankee Stadium, it’s another thing entirely though to actually listen to it while you’re reading about them for the first time. Intrepid readers can follow along from chapter to chapter with little effort thanks to the unfathomable depth that music sharing services have now (Hermes even went so far as to thank staff at Spotify for access to the service before it was rolled out stateside because it was so invaluable to his research). Between Hermes’ vibrant depiction of that forgotten ear and the added layer of interaction made possible by social media, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire was my favorite read of 2012. – Tom Volk

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