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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No Easy Day, by Mark Owen
Recommended by Seth Stevenson, contributor

The 2012 book I couldn't put down was No Easy Day—a Navy Seal's first-person account of the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. Pseudonymous author Mark Owen isn't much for introspection, philosophizing, or transcendent prose. But it offers tactical X's and O's (detailing the assault plan), gear porn (cataloging the use of breaching charges and four-tube night vision goggles), the demystification of the special ops lifestyle (there's a lot of sleeping on floors of cargo planes), and, in the end, a reminder that the outcome of a global-historical moment can hinge on, say, the angle at which a helicopter crashes in a courtyard.

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Cascade, by Maryanne O’Hara
Recommended by Ellen Tarlin, copy chief

Being an artist is hard. Being a woman artist is even harder. So just imagine the difficulty of being a woman artist in the 1930s. Thanks to Maryanne O’Hara and her first novel, Cascade, you don’t have to. The protagonist is Desdemona Hart, a woman drowning in the choices she’s been forced to make: a marriage of necessity to save her father’s legacy and put a roof over his head as he dies. Now that he’s gone, she’s left with her passionless husband in the fictional small Massachusetts town of Cascade, which the state water board is looking to turn into a reservoir, submerging and destroying all that has been there. When she falls in love with another man, an outsider and a Jew, and then a dead body turns up, the trouble escalates, and so will the rate at which you turn the pages. Cascade is perfect for sitting by the fire on a chilly day contemplating the immutability of things.

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The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson
Recommended by June Thomas, culture critic

Jun Do, the hero of Adam Johnson’s novel, lives a half-dozen lives in the course of the novel’s 450 pages. Shape-shifting is a condition of survival in North Korea, so the story of a man whose identities include kidnapper, spy, soldier, diplomat, tortured prisoner, and national hero feels completely credible and convincing. Contrast that with Back to Blood, Tom Wolfe’s portrait of Miami, which I hate-read with a mixture of glee and boiling rage, and which contains a sprawling cast of characters—not a single one of whom seems remotely human.

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The People Who Eat Darkness, by Richard Lloyd Parry
Recommended by Tom Vanderbilt, columnist
From the obliquity of its very title, The People Who Eat Darkness, Richard Lloyd Parry’s “true crime” (for lack of a surer identifier) account of the murder of Lucie Blackman, a British expat working in Tokyo,  dwells in the shadows of shadows:  The personal lives and occupational theater of Roppongi hostesses, the surprising ineptitude and bureaucratic recalcitrance of the Tokyo police force, the émigré Korean experience in Japan, to name a few; and, and most notably, a suspect who himself seems to recede further into darkness the closer he is brought to justice.  Inevitable comparisons were made to In Cold Blood, but to my mind the feeling—overarching, if never quite locatable, dread and a gauzy scrim of “foreigness” — more closely evoked Patricia Highsmith.

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Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, by Will Hermes
Recommended by Chris Wade, SlateV producer

Hermes weaves a propulsive, panoramic view of New York’s music scene from New Year’s Day 1973 to New Year’s Eve 1977, five years that changed music forever.  From punk rock, disco, and salsa to the avant-garde minimalism and jazz scenes to the birth of hip-hop in the South Bronx, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire is a kinetic look at how the era’s music scenes percolated and intersected throughout a collapsing, depressed, dangerous but thrilling city.  Hermes captures it all with eye-widening passion and thoughtful analysis in one of the most exciting, inspiring music books I’ve read in years.

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Poems: 1962-2012, by Louise Gluck
Recommended by Katy Waldman, assistant editor

This collection arrived in November, as the election adrenaline rush subsided and outside the fall air got colder and clearer. The anthology, which draws on 12 books of poetry, discovers what has stayed the same over a career defined by reinvention: a careful, lucid taking stock of both the physical world and the emotional one, a few charged nouns, a suddenly impatient gesture. It’s not the most lighthearted holiday reading, but Gluck’s restless verse is strangely affirming.

Do Not Ask What Good We Do book.


Do Not Ask What Good We Do, by Robert Draper
Recommended by David Weigel, political reporter

Do Not Ask What Good We Do dropped during the middle of a presidential campaign, a few days before Robert Caro’s fourth LBJ bio. The timing allowed this book, a history of John Boehner’s House of Representatives, to miss the buzz machine. That’s too bad—it’s a good history of the institution and a stellar biography of the people who make up the current, much-hated Lower House. Draper gets to know some back-bench Republican conservatives as they fumble through the crises of 2011—the spending cuts, the pointless debt-limit deal, the Anthony Weiner scandal. He escapes with a depressing, funny story, which gets even sadder when you realize that these people will rule until 2021 at least. Thanks a lot, gerrymandering!

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This Is How You Lose Her, by Junot Díaz
Recommended by Forrest Wickman, staff writer

This might secretly be Junot Díaz’s best novel. Secretly because the book was billed as a collection of short stories, and his best because Díaz has never been so assured in his style and mature in his outlook. While This Is How You Lose Her presents itself as a series of vignettes, together they add up to a telling of the still-coming-of-age story of the lovesick womanizer Yunior—also of the collection Drown and Díaz’s only official novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—as he goes through a series of breakups mostly prompted by his own infidelity. Díaz casts aside the geeky esoterica grew a bit tiresome in Wao and instead focuses from a variety of angles on Yunior’s struggle to take responsibility for himself. (He also focuses in on another equally timeless subject: The beauty of hot chicas.) Taken as a whole, the heartbreaking, funny stories aren’t as much about how hard it is to lose somebody as about how hard it is to change so that you won’t do it again.

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Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo
Recommended by Matt Yglesias, Moneybox columnist

It seems dumb to recommend a National Book Award winner, but if there was a better book in 2012 than Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity I missed it. It's the story of a Mumbai slum community and its residents' struggle for survival and even prosperity, and in its way there's no more important question in the world today than the central question of the book: Can Indian democracy deliver rising living standards for the broad mass of its people? But it's a narrative rather than an analytical work, written in out-of-this-world novelistic prose.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo
Recommended by Emily Yoffe, contributor

Katherine Boo is an indomitable reporter who writes like an angel. In Behind the Beautiful Forevers she tells the story of Indian slum dwellers who live in the shadow of Mumbai’s gleaming international airport, and who fashion an economy off the debris generated by the patrons of India’s boom. Boo won a well-deserved National Book Award for this gripping, important book.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo
Recommended by Dan Kois, Slate Book Review editor

The best book of the year was Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, obviously.

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