The Top 10 Books of 2012

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 30 2012 11:27 PM

The Slate Book Review Top 10 of 2012

The 10 most crucial books we reviewed this year.

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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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New Yorker staff writer Boo “has many ways of illuminating the people she writes about,” Elaine Blair wrote in February. “The most important and obvious is that she listens closely and intelligently.” For this, her first book, which recently won the National Book Award, Boo spent over three years listening to the residents of a Mumbai slum.

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The young men of Bravo company visit Cowboys Stadium in this funny and wrenching novel, which is seeded “with finely honed insights that reflect the hypocrisy and jingoistic thinking that dominate discussions about the country's wars,” wrote Jacob Silverman in September. And Fountain’s writing is “head-shakingly good.”

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Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

The sequel to Wolf Hall (both books won the Booker Prize), this story of Thomas Cromwell, according to William Georgiades’ May review, chronicles “the careful, patient rage of the consummate professional in a world of highborn twits who never see him coming.” The worst you can say about Mantel, he adds, is that the book “makes you angry, because you want more.”

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New Yorker writer Max’s sympathetic biography of David Foster Wallace is “one of the saddest books I’ve ever read,” wrote Mark O’Connell in September. The book offers both illuminating discussions of Wallace’s editorial life and harrowing depictions of his depressive end. “I’m having trouble remembering when I was last so consumed by any piece of writing, fiction or non.”

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Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

This thriller about a marriage gone toxic was the book that everyone you know took to the beach this summer—and this best-seller lives up to the hype. “This is not the kind of book that sits on your bedside table unread,” said Emily Bazelon in the September Audio Book Club. Instead, it’s a book that readers refuse to put down—and that wraps them up in its seductively corrupt worldview.

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Journalism by Joe Sacco

This collection of comics journalism, which tells stories reported in Iraq, Chechnya, and other nasty places, makes a case that our best war correspondent might just be a cartoonist. “Sacco grants dignity to his subjects—the petty tyrant and the suffering victim alike—simply through the meticulousness with which he renders them,” Campbell Robertson wrote in July.

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The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal

In this “enraging, fascinating, singular book,” according to Dan Kois’ February review, a journalist and a fact-checker go to war about whether the falsehoods incorporated in a magazine story matter. The result is a Talmudic debate about storytelling, truth, and lies that spills off the page.

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NW by Zadie Smith

This novel, set in and around a council estate in northwest London, is remarkably perceptive about female friendship, race, and class. But it’s also “an argument,” Hanna Rosin noted in the December Audio Book Club, “between two different ideas of what a novel should be”—part lyrical-realistic storytelling, part modernist deconstruction of the very idea of story. As a whole, it’s a masterful, emotional portrait of a city as seen through four of its residents, striving and failing to move beyond the neighborhood where they were born.

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The Unreal and the Real by Ursula K. Le Guin

“There is no better spirit in all of American letters than that of Ursula Le Guin,” wrote Choire Sicha in November. This two-volume collection of her masterful short stories – one book of science fiction, the other of the mundane – “guns from the grim to the ecstatic, from the State to the Garden of Eden, with just one dragon between.”

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Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Strayed’s chronicle of her 1,100-mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail is “by turns both devastating and glorious,” wrote Melanie Rehak in March. The memoir’s value isn’t in oh-so-wisely answering questions – it’s in asking “many, many new questions far more valuable than any platitudes about self-discovery.”

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