1861: The Civil War Awakening, by Adam Goodheart
The most brilliant passage I read this year was about beards. Specifically, about the beards that American men wore before the Civil War—John Brown beards, Old Testament beards, perhaps the greatest flourishing of facial hair in world history. In 1861: The Civil War Awakening, Adam Goodheart explains how these beards embodied—embarbered?—the political divisions that would ignite the Civil War, how in both South and North, facial hair signaled the ruthless nationalism and uncompromising idealism that led to war. 1861 is a perfect book of popular history: It sketches vivid characters and recounts astonishing adventures—you won’t believe the story of the Union general who accidentally ended slavery—and it flashes with unexpected and brilliant insights about everything from Abraham Lincoln to beards (to Abraham Lincoln’s beard).
—David Plotz, editor
Blood, Bones and Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton
In a world oversaturated with food memoirs, Gabrielle Hamilton transcends the genre’s clichés to build a compelling and vivid portrait of her life. From her close-knit family’s disintegration, to searching for her own edgy independence as a starving backpacker wandering Europe, to ultimately landing as a feted New York chef, food plays the role of an eloquent narrative device rather than the overhyped entrée. The writing is so beautiful you’ll want to stop to read it out loud, but Hamilton is so upfront about her passionate and sometimes unhinged behavior you won’t be able to stop reading.
—Katherine Goldstein, innovations editor
Blue Nights, by Joan Didion
Joan Didion has made a career of offering readers quiet surprises: the cultural skepticism of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the self-exposure of The White Album, the ambitious analysis of After Henry and Political Fictions, and, this past decade, the literary grieving of The Year of Magical Thinking. In certain ways, though, her new book, Blue Nights, marks the most unexpected turn so far. Using grief over her daughter’s death as point of entry to her anxieties late in life, Didion confronts not just her own frailty but (as I wrote elsewhere) the long and swerving arc of her creative career. The results are haunting. Blue Nights let us see something that readers aren’t often allowed to see: a writer calling her own choices into question, a relentless cultural critic turning an unsqueamish eye on her own life. Didion seems to think she’s entering her final act, and if that’s true (or even if not), it is hard to imagine a better run to the finale.
—Nathan Heller, “Assessment” columnist
Bossypants, by Tina Fey
As a sarcastic, glasses-wearing twentysomething woman, I am, of course, a little in love with Tina Fey. Though the cynic in me can appreciate the criticisms of Fey (she is, of course, far too conventionally attractive for the unceasing “Liz Lemon is ugly” story lines in 30 Rock), I’ve not bothered trying to buck the convention. I want to be her when I grow up. Given that ambition, I was pleased when Bossypants turned out to be a self-help guide in disguise. In between anecdotes about Second City and landing 30 Rock, Fey delivers cheerful lectures about being an overeager and slightly awkward woman in the workplace, parenting, and weight loss/gain. “We should leave people alone about their weight,” she writes. “Being chubby for a while (provided you don’t give yourself diabetes) is a natural phase of life and nothing to be ashamed of. Like puberty or slowly turning into a Republican.” Such words of wisdom inspired me to pay the extra $1 to get Bossypants in hardcover form instead of digital.
—Torie Bosch, “Future Tense” editor
Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College, by Andrew Ferguson
Andrew Ferguson is one of the slyest, wisest, most hilarious commentators on the political and cultural scene. (See his devastating dissection of Washington ambition, or his analysis of Newt Gingrich’s dreadful oeuvre. ) I would read him on anything, but since I have a daughter in high school I was delighted when Ferguson turned his gimlet eye on the madness of college admissions in his book Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College. Ferguson uses his teenage son’s search for a thick envelope from a prestige school as the spine of his look at the college admissions industry—an industry of that is based on breakdown-inducing levels of status anxiety. There are many marvelous set pieces in the book, from the near insurrection of Asian parents demanding a Harvard admissions officer tell them how much of an advantage being a Harvard legacy confers (a whopping one), to Ferguson’s ego-crushing attempt to complete the math portion of the SAT as an act of solidarity with his son. Ferguson’s teenager ratchets up his father’s fretfulness when he does such things as read Mad magazine at a college fair or wear a UVA sweatshirt to an interview at Georgetown. Letting you know it all ends well will not ruin your pleasure in joining Ferguson on this journey.
—Emily Yoffe,” Dear Prudence” columnist
A Dance With Dragons, by George R.R. Martin
I read a lot of terrific books this year—gripping novels, comprehensive biographies, shattering memoirs, inventive comics. But if I’m going to be honest, the literary world that most consumed my time and imaginative energy in 2011 was Westeros, the land exhaustively chronicled by George R.R. Martin in his series of fantastically successful doorstops, “A Song of Ice and Fire.” I spent the summer marching slowly through the first four novels and cracked open the most recent tome in September. Preparing to read one of these books is like setting off for war; my mind and schedule must be as uncluttered as possible, my body fit enough to lug around a six-pound monster indefinitely. I find myself reading essentially in the dark. Who is this new character and why does she matter? Why are the Dornishmen important? Where are the Iron Islands? Which one is Skahaz mo Kandaq and which one is Reznak mo Reznak? It’s an extraordinarily dense reading experience, as challenging a narrative as I’ve ever immersed myself in—so pleasurable on a page-by-page basis, even if I will go 40 pages without knowing who exactly I’m reading about. I’m on page 658. I may never finish.
—Dan Kois, senior editor
Helvetica and the New York City Subway System, by Paul Shaw
This beautiful book tells the story of the signs that line New York’s subway stations. In the early years, a clamor of wild mosaics directed passengers to 28th Street or South Ferry while porcelain enamel plaques warned people not to “meddle” with the escalators. Some signs used typefaces with serifs. Others went for a bold, blocky look. There were so many signs, of so many types, that stations became confusing to navigate, and by the 1950s citizens were submitting unsolicited plans to the city in an effort to clean up the visual mess. Eventually, the MTA rolled out the clean design used today, a uniform sign system that features the typeface Helvetica. (You may remember it had a cameo in Gary Hustwit’s popular documentary about the font.) But making that change was anything but easy.
In a masterful piece of reporting—one that reveals as much about the perils and pleasures of urban bureaucracy as that favorite fiction of Slate readers, the television series The Wire—Paul Shaw traces the evolution of New York’s subway signs, swatting away myths (it’s not true, for example, that New York’s signs have white type on a dark ground in an effort to thwart graffiti) and pointing to the true causes of transformation (which often had less to do with international design theory than with the type technology available to the MTA sign shop in the 1980s). The book is a must read for sign nuts, design nuts, transit nuts, and all true lovers of New York.
—Julia Turner, deputy editor
The History of History, by Ida Hattemer-Higgins
The History of History isn't the best new book I read this year—that distinction belongs to an actual work of history, Daniel Sharfstein's The Invisible Line—but Ida Hattemer-Higgins' debut novel was the hardest to put down. The narrative begins in Sept. 2002, when a young American ex-pat named Margaret awakes in a wood outside Berlin, her hands muddied and the last few months missing from her memory. Unable or unwilling to locate the source of her amnesia, Margaret instead becomes obsessed with the history of her adopted country—specifically with the lives of Magda Goebbels, wife of Joseph, and of Regina Straus, a Jewish house frau. Both women took the lives of their children, lest they fall into enemy hands. Margaret communes with their ghosts, desperate to learn whether these acts of murder were a mother’s ultimate sacrifice, or her ultimate sin. The reader guesses the trauma that led to Margaret’s memory loss well before she does, but it doesn’t make the unraveling of her story any less gripping: The portrait of madness is wildly inventive, and often just plain wild. (Have I mentioned Margaret’s blind, knife-throwing gynecologist?) I can’t wait to see what Hattemer-Higgins does next.
—John Swansburg, culture editor
Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York, by James Wolcott
The subject matter was enough to suck me into these pages: The Village Voice in the 1970s, Patti Smith and the punk scene, porno theaters in Times Square, Pauline Kael and her acolytes—New York City journalism at its gossipy best. But Wolcott’s sometimes almost crazy style is what kept me reading: the “rootin’ tootin’ double-shootin’ Pauline, alternating from cig to sip in a torrential outpour of words, was not the Pauline alighting at the Alonquin,” he writes, describing one encounter with the famous film critic (and paying tribute, perhaps, to her own prose style). Of Patti Smith he says, “Even when chewing gum, she seemed to be chewing it for the ages.” At times the metaphors jostle overmuch, but they don’t usually feel superfluous: Wolcott wants to convey the energy of his first heady experiences in New York, and mostly succeeds—in the process crafting a narrative ars poetica for cultural criticism: “when something hits you high and hard, you have to be able to travel wherever the point of impact takes you and be willing to go to the wall with your enthusiasm and over it if need be, even if you look foolish or ‘carried away,’ because your first shot at writing about it may be the only chance to make people care.”
—David Haglund, “Brow Beat” editor
Open City, by Teju Cole
I couldn't stop reading Teju Cole's debut novel and was blown away by his ability to capture the human psyche with such beautiful yet subtle prose. Open City follows Julius, the half-Nigerian, half-German narrator, as he wanders restlessly through New York (and briefly, Belgium). There is no one event that pulls the story together, rather we follow Julius on his walks and in his thoughts. Critics have drawn comparisons to everyone from Joseph O'Neill and Zadie Smith, but I see him more in the spirit of Ernest Hemingway or George Orwell, who took similar treks through cities and chronicled their interactions and the knowledge they amassed in the process. The descriptions of these relationships and reflections are so compelling and true to life that I often felt like he was describing walks that I've taken and the thoughts I've had. As with Hemingway or Orwell, this desire to stay with the narrator, to hear what he thinks to see what he sees, is what will keep you reading.
—Miriam Krule, copy editor