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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Illustration by Lilli Carré.

Tuesday: Slate staffers pick their favorite books of 2012.
Wednesday: The overlooked books of 2012.
Thursday: Dan Kois’ 15 favorite books.
Friday: The Slate Book Review Top 10.

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Young House Love: 243 Ways to Paint, Craft, Update & Show Your Home Some Love, by John and Sherry Petersik
Recommended by Holly Allen, designer

I have trotted off to bed every night for the past two weeks with Young House Love: 243 Ways to Paint, Craft, Update & Show Your Home Some Love under my arm. It is so much more than just a pretty do-it-yourself resource book. It’s filled with charming personal narrative (I feel like I know John and Sherry Petersik—hooray for new fun friends!), easy-to-understand instructions for every level of project, and clever ways to improve your home and your life. In this age of tightened belt straps where it’s not always possible to buy new, John and Sherry make you feel good about using what you’ve got in a way you never knew you could.

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How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough
Recommended by Emily Bazelon, senior editor
As an education writer, Paul Tough goes deeper than anyone I know. Some of the ideas he has brought to light—that preschool is a great government investment given the payoff later in life, that building character matters as much for success as academics—are so deeply ingrained in my own thinking that it’s hard to remember I had to learn them somewhere. Reading Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed, reminded me just why he’s so good. The book is a synthesis of all the latest research on learning, told in well-packaged chapters like “How to Think” and “How to Fail (and How Not To).” I learned so much reading this book and I came away full of hope about how we can make life better for all kinds of kids.

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The Man Without a Face, by Masha Gessen
Recommended by Andy Bowers, executive producer Slate podcasts
This portrait of the inscrutable Vladimir Putin, is fascinating, illuminating, and above all brave—as you read about the price countless Russians have paid for crossing Putin, you can’t help but marvel at the courage it takes to tell his story so critically. Gessen (an occasional Slate contributor) chronicles Putin’s journey from KGB agent to St. Petersburg political operative to Boris Yeltsin’s surprise choice as acting president, and on to 13 years (and counting) as Russia’s undisputed top dog, regardless of the title he holds at any given moment. What emerges is a man whose greatest political strength is his willingness to be seen primarily not as a statesman, but as a world class thug.

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The Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan
Recommended by Tracey Coronado, director of human resources

A different vantage point of Nazi Europe in the 1940s—seen through the eyes of a group of African-American jazz musicians who find their rhythm just as the world is trying to snuff out their musical genius. Not only did the narrator, Sid, capture me with his internal struggles and unique voice, but it made me think about how the war impacted music and all races in ways that I don't always associate with the Third Reich. I felt pulled into the story by their passion for music despite the threats they faced daily. But what ultimately makes this story so memorable is Sid dealing with his demons long after his musical heyday has passed.

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Lionel Asbo: State of England, by Martin Amis
Recommended by Simon Doonan, column
ist
Martin Amis' latest chuckle-fest Lionel Asbo: State of England is a fabulous and much-needed antidote to the twee Downton Abbey view of England. Here is the unvarnished truth about us Brits: We are lower and trashier than any Kardashian or Jersey Shore habitué.

Zona, by Geoff Dyer
Recommended by Daniel Engber, columnist
I'll endorse Geoff Dyer’s rambling, peculiar memoir of watching the 1979 Soviet art film Stalker, and then rewatching it again and again. The memoir’s subtitle is “A book about a film about a journey to a room,” but it might have been “A boring book about a dreary film about a seemingly-endless journey to a nondescript room.” I say that in praise: Both book and film scale the heights of monotony at a thrilling, breakneck pace, and once they’ve reached the summit wallow in a weirdly gripping self-indulgence. What makes these feats of tedium so fabulous? Dyer tries to figure it out.

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The Way the World Works, by Nicholson Baker
Recommended by David Haglund, Brow Beat editor

Nicholson Baker writing on Wikipedia is like John Updike on Ted Williams or James Baldwin on going to church in Harlem: such a perfect match of writer and subject, mind and matter, that the no-doubt hard-won wonderfulness of the resulting essay seems predestined, inevitable. “The Pop-Tarts page is often aflutter,” Baker writes, about the Wikipedia page for Pop-Tarts. “Once last fall the whole page was replaced with ‘NIPPLES AND BROCCOLI!!!!!!” The Way the World Works, the somewhat grandly titled essay collection in which “The Charms of Wikipedia” appears, is itself aflutter with sentences as good and better than that one, a large number of them about life’s little details. The book makes you think that perhaps attending to little things, and writing fine, fun sentences about those little things, might help one think about the big things, and how they have been broken.

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On a Farther Shore, by William Souder
Recommended by Laura Helmuth, science and health editor

You may think you really ought to know more about the origins of the environmental movement and the life of its patron saint. Sure, of course you ought to. You like clean air and water and birds, right? But On a Farther Shore, William Souder’s biography of Rachel Carson, is not a chore or a lesson. It’s a delightful, fascinating, engrossing read about some of the most important insights of modern science. You’ll find yourself thinking about Carson whenever you take a walk in the woods or get trapped in an argument about how environmentalists are killing kids in Africa.

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Enemies: A History of the FBI, by Tim Weiner
Recommended by Fred Kaplan, “War Stories” columnist

This is an astonishing book, jammed with revelations (at least one per page), gleaned from tens of thousands of pages of newly declassified files. The focus is on the FBI as a secret foreign-intelligence service (which apparently it was designed to be from the outset) and J. Edgar Hoover as an “American Machiavelli.” Weiner tells the epic tale with captivating elegance. It’s even better, I think, than Legacy of Ashes, his previous, award-winning book about the CIA.

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