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.

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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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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