A Year in Reading: Janet Potter

December 9, 2012 | 1 book mentioned 9 4 min read

Some people say there are too many literary awards. I say there are not enough.

The 2012 Janet Potter Awards for Literary Achievement

coverBest Re-read
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Since 2005, I’ve been telling people that Cloud Atlas is my favorite novel, even as a detailed memory of the book faded. A high-stakes re-read in October determined whether I can continue to make that claim. I can.

Best Departure from Form
Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Rowling’s novel about small town politics, unhappy families, and class warfare is a melancholy affair, although the towns and streets still have adorable names and the villains are still buffoons. Having proven that she has an edgy side, I hope she’ll let the pendulum stop somewhere between fantasy and tragedy for the next one.

Lost at Sea by Jon Ronson

(While recreating one of James Bond’s journeys, Ronson stalls a borrowed Aston Martin in the middle of an intersection.)

Passersby shake their heads witheringly at me. I think they’re mistaking my ineptitude for arrogance. Were I in my customary crappy car, they’d understand my stalling for what it is. Instead, they’re seeing a fabulously sleek Aston Martin braking abruptly, then revving like a lunatic. They probably think it’s my sick, slightly odd way of conveying superiority over them.

I reach the ferry. I wind down the window. ‘It’s not my car!’ I shout gaily at the immigration officer.

Most Descriptions of Characters’ Butts
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon.

By a mile.

Best Use of Emails as Character Development
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

This motif usually grates on me, but Semple’s fictional emails are superb parody and woven in nicely. I wish she’d email me.

coverMost Dissonant Reading Experience
Listening to the audiobook of Julia Child’s My Life in France in the car while eating drive-thru McDonald’s.

Best Comedy of Manners
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. We had all had our supper, or were supposed to have had it, and were met together to discuss the arrangements for the Christmas bazaar. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, “Do we need tea?” she echoed. “But Miss Lathbury…” She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realize that my questions had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind.

I mumbled something about making a joke and that of course one needed tea always, at every hour of the day or night.

Most Belated Reading Experience
The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

The first time I ever intentionally didn’t finish an assignment was when my fourth grade class read The Hobbit. I found it so mind-numbingly boring that I stopped reading it, probably in favor of something in the Black Stallion series, but then had to sit through class discussions of the book in a cold sweat of fear and guilt. On January 5, 2012, I finished The Hobbit.

coverStrongest Confirmation of Public Opinion
Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Everyone is right. This book is great.

Strongest Refutation of Public Opinion
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Everyone is wrong. This book is not great.

Best Description of the Afterlife
Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier

Occasionally one of the dead, someone who had just completed the crossing, would mistake the city for heaven. It was a misunderstanding that never persisted for long. What kind of heaven had the blasting sound of garbage trucks in the morning, and chewing gum on the pavement, and the smell of fish rotting by the river? What kind of hell, for that matter, had bakeries and dogwood trees and perfect blue days that made the hairs on the back of your neck rise on end? No, the city was not heaven, and it was not hell, and it certainly was not the world. It stood to reason, then, that it had to be something else. More and more people came to adopt the theory that it was an extension of life itself—a sort of outer room—and that they would remain there only so long as they endured in living memory.

Most Nightmare-Inducing
Stay Awake by Dan Chaon

He’s so good. For weeks after reading this book I was spooked of kids, pets, trees, phones, human interaction.

coverBiggest Crush on a Historical Figure
Grant by Jean Edward Smith

This year Ulysses S. Grant joined John Quincy Adams in the pantheon of my most-loved presidents. (Don’t ask me to choose!) I’d put my muddy boots up on a porch rail with him any day.

Hardest Book to Write About
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

It’s hard to love a book and not be able to talk about it, but the moments of genius in Flynn’s book are the twists and revelations. The upside of this is that having read Gone Girl is like being in a club. Every time I find out someone else has read it, our eyes get big and we grab each other’s shoulders and start whisper-screaming.

coverBest Read of the Year
Arcadia by Lauren Groff

I gushed about this book in April. Eight months later I maintain everything I said, and can now say it was my favorite book of the year. If I only came across a book like that once a year, it would still be worth reading the other fifty to find that one.

More from A Year in Reading 2012

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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is a staff writer for The Millions. Janet is a freelance writer and semi-professional baker living in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in The Awl, The AV Club, the Chicago Reader, and Chicago Magazine. She is the co-host of YouTube's The Book Report and blogs about presidential biographies at At Times Dull. Follow her @sojanetpotter.


  1. A lovely list! But if you think Michael Chabon takes the ass-fixation prize, you’re not reading enough Junot Diaz.

  2. I have recently read Diaz, and right you are. Chabon’s butt descriptions stood out to me because they seemed elective. Diaz always described butts in the context of sex appeal, Chabon would throw in a description of a character’s butt just because they were getting a box out of their car.

  3. I’m all for butt descriptions in literature, but I have to admit that Robert Caro’s fixation on President Johnson’s butt took me right out of “The Passage of Power.” I mean, one page, five pages, ten pages, fine. But a whole 349-page chapter on it? It’s like, Bob, dude, this is why you lost to Katherine Boo, you know?

  4. Totally agree on Swamplandia! And spot-on description of the Gone Girl experience. This astuteness convinces me to read Arcadia and Cloud Atlas. Thanks!

  5. Speaking of Diaz, he and Ronson are two of the best authors to read their own work off their top of my head. Ronson 100 per cent makes his writing funnier when he reads it.

  6. I love the way this list is set up! However, I include both Arcadia AND Swamplandia in my list of ‘Books I LOVED, just not the endings’. Swamplandia’s ending was ridiculous, but to a certain extent (maybe just not as much) so was Arcadia’s. I actually thought both books were very similar, so it’s funny that people like one and not the other!!

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