FSG’s Favorite Books of 2012

by Sarah Scire

Picking favorites is almost always tricky business. For the staff of FSG, crowning just a few of the many books they read “the best of 2012” seemed close to impossible.

There were last-minute additions, half-hearted apologies for self-interested choices, lengthy disclaimers about how all of the books they’d worked on were their favorites, and multi-part questions about eligibility (“This book was written almost two decades ago but first translated in 2012—with the exception of an excerpt two years ago. Does it count?”).

Restricting everyone’s favorites to books published in 2012 seemed unfair (and likely to start an uproar) so we chose to ask three questions we hoped would shed light on the staff’s diverse reading habits:

What were your three favorite books published in 2012?

What were your three favorite books you read (or reread) this year?

Are you looking forward to gifting a particular book this year (to a family member, friend, coworker or otherwise)?

I wasn’t expecting a clear consensus but the breadth of choices was startlingly impressive; out of more than 300 books selected for one or more of the three questions, only a handful of titles garnered three or more votes. Books that haven’t been published yet were excluded (the art department’s Adly Elewa was eager to recommend Man Alive! by Mary Zuravleff and our digital marketing manager Nick Courage tried to cast a vote for Sam Lipsyte’s The Fun Parts a couple of months too early). Here are some of the staff’s responses.

In the best books published in 2012 category:

Edward St. Aubyn (for At Last and The Patrick Melrose Novels) with six votes, including nods from president and publisher Jonathan Galassi, senior editor Alex Star, and assistant director of publicity Kathy Daneman. As editorial assistant Chris Richards wrote, “The cycle is painfully brilliant—like watching a master surgeon operate on himself without the benefits of anesthesia.”

The Man Booker prize-winning Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, with four votes.

Why Does the World Exist?, “an existential detective story” by Jim Holt, with votes from three editors: Eric Chinski, Alex Star and Jesse Coleman.

All We Know by Lisa Cohen, with three votes, including this endorsement from design manager Jonathan Lippincott: “Three remarkable women, and an interesting exploration of the idea and execution of biography.”

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, with three votes.

Other books recommended more than once: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, Poems 1962-2012 by Louise Glück (“Massive, and gorgeous, and filled with chillingly good poetry,” wrote editorial assistant Miranda Popkey), This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz, Threats by Amelia Gray (“Duh,” as assistant editor Emily Bell wrote), Traveler of the Century by Andrés Neuman (senior publicist Steve Weil called the book “completely engrossing” and noted it was the “perfect book to read during the holidays, if you’re looking for something long and transporting”), The Scientists by Marco Roth, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, My Heart Is an Idiot by Davy Rothbart, The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry (“I gave this book away twice before I finished it,” digital marketing manager Nick Courage wrote. “Friends pick it up, get a few pages in, and ask if they can keep it.”)

There were many more titles recommended by our editors, publicists, designers, and other staffers. Two illustrative examples: claiming “it’s a Jersey thing,” subsidiary rights director Devon Mazzone chose Tough Sh*t by Kevin Smith. Reprints and office services manager Ursula Shand recommended from the romance aisle with How to Drive a Dragon Crazy by G.A. Aiken.

For favorite books read in 2012
(which could include rereads and books not published in 2012):

Editor-in-chief Eric Chinski, Faber & Faber Inc. publisher Mitzi Angel and subsidiary rights associate Hanna Oswald all chose Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station.

Three among us read (and loved) My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Editorial assistant Chris Richards wrote “It’s hard to say anything about this book that hasn’t already been said. I’d only add: Believe the hype!”

Two staffers said they read Brazilian author Clarice Lispector in anticipation of new translations, including editorial assistant Gabriella Doob who noted the story collection Family Ties remains a favorite after several rereads.

Joan Didion, a perennial backlist favorite, popped up several times with staffers (spanning four departments) reporting they’d loved reading or rereading classics like Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album and Blue Nights.

Associate director of publicity Lottchen Shivers and editorial assistant Miranda Popkey both picked up Edith Wharton this year. Miranda, who read House of Mirth, wrote “A book about a girl with money troubles who can’t help herself romantically? It’s perfect for a single, impoverished editorial assistant (read: me).”

Kathy Daneman, the brains behind FSG’s Bookkeeping, wrote that she loved rediscovering a childhood favorite: “I was stuck on the tarmac at Dulles when I discovered that all of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books were in the public domain. I downloaded them all and loved them just as much as I did twenty-five years ago.”

Other staff favorites submitted were classics (editorial assistant Taylor Sperry revisited Philip Roth, senior editor Amanda Moon read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and assistant editor Dan Piepenbring finally finished Middlemarch). Others were related to work (design manager Jonathan Lippincott chose the publishing-centric The Grand Surprise while digital marketing manager Nick Courage named Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang a favorite after he blogged about Abbey for The Picador Book Room). Some titles were read for a book group (editorial assistant Gabriella Doob chose Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner as a favorite) and other reads were prompted by appearances on the silver screen (senior vice president of marketing and publicity Jeff Seroy loved David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and assistant director of publicity Kathy Daneman finished We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver). Still others were chosen as welcome breaks by manuscript-weary editors, including essay collections like Object Lessons and the “utterly engrossing” Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin (managing editor Debra Helfand said her favorite of the five-book series is the third, A Storm of Swords).

The books FSG staffers are planning to give during the holidays:

While some staffers are staying away from the delicate art of book-giving (“Somehow it wouldn’t seem right to give my mom Far From the Tree,” quipped senior editor Alex Star), others wrote they were looking forward to gifting particular books this holiday season.

The most popular choice was Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, with seven staffers writing to say they were giving copies out this year. Operations manager Barbara McNichol wrote she was giving the best-selling book to pretty much everyone on her list, from her daughter to her seventy-two-year-old father. “We’re a very bookish family and it has something for everyone, including my four year old (it glows in the dark!)”

Four people wrote they were gifting Paul Elie’s Reinventing Bach, including associate production editor Lenni Wolff (who also wondered out loud whether giving her father Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me by Harvey Pekar was “asking for trouble.”)

Big, beautiful books of poetry like Louise Gluck’s Poems 1962-2012 and Philip Larkin’s The Complete Poems will be given by publicity assistant Andrew Saviano and editorial assistants Taylor Sperry and Miranda Popkey. Big, important books of compelling nonfiction are also being handed out with president and publisher Jonathan Galassi gifting Doug Smith’s Former People and Faber & Faber Inc. publisher Mitzi Angel wrapping up Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo.

Contracts associate Nnenna Odeluga is giving a friend Deb Perelman’s The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook because “the photography is beautiful and she loves to try new recipes” and senior publicist Brian Gittis is looking forward to giving his “favorite nerdy book gift,” The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate by Ruth Fredman Cernea.

Art director Charlotte Strick is giving copies of Jess: O! Tricky Cad and Other Jessoterica, which she called “a beautifully produced book about the undersung San Francisco collagist, Jess. It’s a really gorgeous oversized paperback filled with works that include his word poems and manipulated comic book strips, many that have never been reproduced before.”

Associate editor Jesse Coleman is sticking to tradition. “I give out copies of Norman Rush’s Mating to friends each year,” Jesse wrote. “This year, I will be giving nice hardcover editions that I found at the Strand to my authors Andrés Neuman and Alejandro Zambra as well as to Frederike Doppenberg, a brilliant young editor at Athenaeum in Amsterdam.”

Associate director of publicity Lottchen Shivers said she was looking forward to giving her father Christopher Tilghman’s newest, The Right-Hand Shore. “Our family has roots on the Eastern Shore of Maryland,” Lottchen wrote. “We love this writer.”

Anyone swapping gifts with assistant editor Emily Bell should expect Patrick Somerville’s new novel. “I’m going to give This Bright River to everyone I know because it’s one of the best novels I’ve read in a really long time and one of the most overlooked books of the year,” Emily wrote. “Someone described it as ‘Freedom, but darker.’ Somerville is such a talented writer and it’s just a matter of time before he’s given the attention he deserves.”

Digital marketing manager Nick Courage has been gifting copies of Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World by Donald Antrim and Endgame, Vol. 1: The Problem of Civilization by Derrick Jensen for the past few months, and plans to continue through the holidays. (His friend Amy is gifting Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote.)

Managing editor Debra Helfand is giving a rare edition of The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf, that she found in the children’s bookstore Books of Wonder. “The paper is rich and the pictures look beautiful,” Debra wrote. “He likes rare books, and he likes old children’s books, especially ones like this one about beauty and peacefulness and being yourself.”

The Helfand family can also look forward to a self-published debut. “My eight-year-old drew a nine page comic book about the kittens we got this year,” Debra wrote. “I’m making copies and giving it to relatives. Does that count?”

Sarah Scire works at FSG. You can find her online @skeery.

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