Slate Staffers Pick the Best Books of 2012

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 27 2012 4:19 PM

2012 Books: Slate Staff Picks

Slate’s editors, designers, and columnists choose their favorite books of 2012.

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The Defining Decade, by Meg Jay
Recommended by Chris Kirk, interactives editor

In The Defining Decade, clinical psychologist Meg Jay explains how to optimize the crucial years of your 20s, citing stories from her practice. Any recent college grad mired in a quarter-life crisis or merely dazed by the freedom of post-collegiate existence should consider it required reading.

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The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, by Shani Boianjiu
Recommended by Miriam Krule, copy editor

Shani Boianjiu’s debut reads more like a collection of stories about what it’s like for a woman serving in the Israeli army than a cohesive novel, but that somehow makes it better. The fractured portraits of these three young women manage to be deeply depressing but also incredibly funny, leaving Boianjiu somewhere between Etgar Keret and Amos Oz, with some even tempted to dub her Israel’s Lena Dunham.

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The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters
Recommended by Rachael Larimore, managing editor
It’s by now cliché for a detective novel or movie to feature an earnest young cop and a grizzled old-timer living out the final days of a long career. But The Last Policeman, a debut novel by Ben H. Winters, turns that trope on its head. The eager up-and-coming detective is Hank Palace. The grizzled veteran? Earth itself. Scientists have determined that a humanity-ending asteroid will strike earth in six months, and most people are responding by quitting their jobs and “going Bucket List”—that’s how Hank got promoted to detective—or committing suicide. Palace is investigating a hanging death that doesn’t quite feel like a suicide to him, and along the way he must deal with the victim’s relatives, a romantic entanglement, and his crazy sister. So how does the Earth fare in the end? Spoiler alert: This is the first of a trilogy.

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Escape From Camp 14, by Blaine Harden
Recommended by Farhad Manjoo, technology columnist

In January 2005, a malnourished 23-year-old named Shin Dong-hyuk escaped from the North Korean prison camp where he'd been born. Escape From Camp 14 is his story—a parade of unimaginable cruelties that Shin and the hundreds of thousands of other prisoners held in North Korea's vast gulags face every day. The account, by the former Washington Post reporter Blaine Harden, is a brutal, terrifying read, with every page offering graphic details of monstrous physical, psychological and emotional torture. It's complicated by Shin's own apparent conflicts about his own behavior in camp. And it is also an unforgettable adventure story, a coming-of-age memoir of the worst childhood imaginable. Read it to feel better about any problem you've ever encountered.

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Alien vs. Predator, by Michael Robbins
Recommended by Troy Patterson, TV critic
In keeping with the title, Alien vs. Predator—built to savage with big-screen cuspids—Michael Robbins makes like a saucy omnivore in his first volume of poems. Turning and turning phrases, he pirouettes into nasty attitudes blazing aggression and opposition; the verses are very versus, as it were. The author, a post-apocalyptic collagist, mashes up Wordsworth and classic rock, bounces hip-hop off Roethke, and kicks out the enjambments, giving every impression of waging a one-man rap battle against the Western canon while banging at an electric clavier. This sounds masturbatory to you? Well, it does to Robbins, too, if I’m reading his self-skeptical phallocentrism properly. Here’s a quatrain from “My Old Job,” where Chuck Berry and Kurt Cobain meet mediated desire and mortal fear:

Maybe it’s Maybelline. Why can’t you be true?
You regifted the VD I wrapped up just for you.
My penis and my brain team up to penis-brain you.
It is now my duty to completely drain you.

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The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson
Recommended by David Plotz, editor
A Grand Guignol of a novel, The Orphan Master’s Son follows an orphaned boy who survives horror after horror after horror, at each stage rising toward the top of North Korea’s hellishly bizarre society. It exaggerates the grim reality of North Korea, but that country is so warped that the depravities Adam Johnson imagines actually seem possible. (Would North Korea’s leader try to recreate a Texas ranch, Potemkin style? He probably would!) Individual scenes—the underground prison mines, the psych-torture dungeons of Pyongyang—have the sickening power of Holocaust memoirs, but the book as a whole has a manic, comic buoyancy. I could have done with 20 percent less magical realism and 20 percent more real realism. Even so, The Orphan Master’s Son the most fun you’ll ever have reading about torture, totalitarianism, and death camps.

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Are You My Mother?, by Alison Bechdel
Recommended by Katie Roiphe, columnist
A transcendently great graphic memoir, veers elegantly from D.W. Winnicott to Virginia Woolf to Dr. Seuss, while at the same time capturing with astonishing precision the author's own relation to her mother, the difficulties about writing about one's own life, and the vicissitudes of romantic attachment, all with an astonishing lightness of touch. In its original energy, its resourcefulness of observation, it makes you see things differently, which is very rare. After I read it I walked around for days seeing my life as a series of Alison Bechdel drawings.

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The Entertainer, by Margaret Talbot
Recommended by Hanna Rosin, DoubleX editor

The sweetest thing about The Entertainer, my friend Margaret Talbot’s warm, funny, and rigorous history of her father Lyle Talbot’s acting career, is its constant sense of surprise. You are rolling along the vaudeville era and suddenly you find yourself on stage with a hypnotist painting a mustache on a young maiden. You pass the era of the talkies and into a fistfight with Clark Gable. Sometime later, Ed Wood appears at the Talbot family breakfast table in a negligee. Along the way, you have absorbed the history of the founding of Hollywood and what it means for the American identity.

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Why Does the World Exist, by Jim Holt
Recommended by Ron Rosenbaum, columnist
In his beautifully written "existential detective story" Why Does the World Exist, an intellectual thriller, Jim Holt's great contribution (as I pointed out earlier this year) is to pull the rug out from under the obfuscation and philosophical illiteracy of those PR hungry pop cosmologists who claim they've proven how the universe "was created from nothing." By redefining "nothing" to mean "well, actually something," they're engaging in shameless sophistry—you could call it "creationism"—that Holt has the physics and the philosophy—and the courage—to expose. Nothing matters!

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Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson
Recommended by Alyssa Rosenberg, XX Factor blogger

Hackers, the Middle East, and magical creatures are all familiar pop culture staples. It's the particular alchemy G. Willow Wilson brings to them in Alif the Unseen, an amazing novel about a young hacker in an unnamed Emirate who runs afoul of state security services that matters. Wilson makes connections between the Arabic of the Koran and the integrity of code, conjures up the most memorable djinns in memory, and creates a powerfully humane and subversive counter to the image of Muslims that dominate so much of popular culture. Have I mentioned it's a compulsively readable and mature love story, too?

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The Oath, by Jeffrey Toobin
Recommended by Mark Stern, intern

The Oath is a ridiculous book: wildly exaggerated, seemingly biased, occasionally inaccurate. It is also one of the most thrilling, juicy, addictive books I’ve ever read. Toobin writes about the (very) recent history of the Supreme Court in the style of a James Patterson ghostwriter, crafting a nonfiction legal thriller out of shocking plot twists and scintillating majority opinions. His thesis—that the Roberts court is engaged in an active clash of principles with the Obama administration—was basically wrecked by the Obamacare decision, but Toobin salvages his tell-all with zippy prose and delicious gossip. (He interviewed many justices anonymously, although considering his premise, it’s not hard to guess which ones.) For thoughtful legal analysis, look elsewhere, but if you’re obsessively fixated on the drama behind Scalia’s and Stevens’ footnote sniping, The Oath is a criminally guilty pleasure.

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The Monsters’ Monster, by Patrick McDonnell
Recommended by Dana Stevens, movie critic
If only there were more new children’s picture books as good as The Monsters’ Monster, written and illustrated by Patrick McDonnell, best known as the creator of the syndicated comic strip Mutts. This story of three would-be terrifying monsters who collaborate to create a supermonster takes a charming twist midway through when their Frankenstein-like creation turns out to be a sweet, gentle soul who can’t stop exuberantly thanking his creators for the gift of life and buying them fresh jelly donuts. This goofy kid-pleaser also a works as a thoughtful little allegory about friendship, kindness and gratitude, and it’s a pleasure both to look at and to read aloud.

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