Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
Nearly every time my phone bleeps or I read some inane Web acronym I don't understand (pwow) or I see a Victoria's Secret ad or watch a Judd Apatow movie, some small part of my brain flashes back to Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story. The book has stuck with me much longer than I expected it would (I just had to beg my copy back from the person I lent it to)—and it took me a long time to realize why. Beneath the book's slightly absurd vision of a futuristic, tech-obsessed, police state America, and an even more absurd love pairing (sad sack Russian émigré Lenny Abramov and Korean hottie Eunice Park), there lie some very deep, recognizable, and true emotions: nostalgia for old New York, the pain of immigrant isolation, a love for musty old books and old-fashioned romance. In short, 1984 with a heart.— Hanna Rosin, founding editor of Double X
The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris
I had barely finished being aggrieved by the smug showiness of Joshua Ferris' first novel, Then We Came to the End, when my mother handed me a copy of his second novel, The Unnamed, and urged me to read it. The Unnamed tells the story of a successful lawyer seized by a compulsion to walk, walk, walk until he collapses. This compulsion—undiagnosable, unstoppable—disrupts and then massacres his life. The Unnamed shook me like nothing I've read since The Road, and in fact the novels are oddly similar. Both gruelingly dissect a human relationship (in each case a relationship central to my own life). I rarely remember my dreams, but The Road gave me nightmares about my two sons for weeks. The Unnamed does for marriage what The Road did for fatherhood. Its depiction of a happy marriage being shattered is almost unbearable. I read The Unnamed at bedtime, and each night when I closed the book, I would look at my dear wife empillowed next to me and think: Tomorrow, I am definitely not going for a walk.— David Plotz, editor
A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Like her 2007 novel, The Keep, Jennifer Egan's A Visit From The Goon Squad is intricately crafted, wildly imaginative, and written with verve and grace. Egan's subject here is time, specifically its baffling intrusion on the punk-rock youth culture of the 1970s, which Egan evokes with deft precision through a series of interlocking narratives that jump forward and back in chronology. Her characters accept (indeed, celebrate) suffering and death, but growing old isn't on the playlist. The paradox of becoming middle aged in a culture defined by adolescent rebellion is a theme that also runs through Jonathan Franzen's much-celebrated Freedom, but Egan explores its nuances more successfully, and while I liked Freedom a lot I judge Goon Squad the better book. Give it to the superannuated goth in your life.— Timothy Noah, senior writer
The Backlash by Will Bunch
First, a disclosure: I'm in this book. In February 2010, Bunch and I shared the cost of a hotel room to cover the National Tea Party Convention; he split his time between gathering string for his book and reporting a story for his paper, the Philadelphia Daily News. I bring all of this up to say that The Backlash is not another book about conservatives that psychoanalyzes and dismisses them, or looks for political leaders and grants them soft coverage in the name of access. Bunch hustles, puts himself where the stories are, and lets people talk. He does not mock Tea Party activists. He argues with them, respectfully, and puts the results in his book. He does not treat that Nashville convention like a historical hinge point. He exposes what now seems obvious, that it marked the first surge of profit-seekers into the nascent grass-roots movement. This is the only book, so far, that coherently explains who led the counterrevolution to hope and change, why they did it, and why it worked. And it is the furthest thing from a political science slog.— Dave Weigel, political reporter
The Big Short by Michael Lewis
Early in 2008, a college friend who was then a new analyst in Citibank's mortgage department picked me up from work in a company-expensed taxi, toting loads of company-expensed Thai takeout for us to share. She explained her job, which involved bundling auto loans, and it was the first time I'd heard someone use the phrase "repackaging shit."
Over the next couple of years, both before and after the fall of Lehman, I listened to lots of college friends explain where precisely they worked on the shit-repacking assembly line. I thought I had a pretty good picture of how it all worked. But it wasn't until I read Michael Lewis' The Big Short that I understood with clarity just how costly my free Citibank takeout really was. Lewis spins a thrillingly good, novelistic yarn around a handful of interlinked characters who reaped massive profits by betting against the subprime market (hedge-funder Steve Eisman, lone-wolf Michael Burry, and Greg Lipmann, among others), plus explains some of the most complicated financial maneuvering there's ever been. The Big Short wasn't just the book I devoured quickest this year—it was also by far the most important.
—Noreen Malone, contributor
The Conservative Assault on the Constitution by Erwin Chemerinsky
This was a banner year for legal nonfiction and picking just one favorite hurts my head. But I'm going with Erwin Chemerinsky's The Conservative Assault on the Constitution. It's a powerful, readable account of the ways in which recent changes at the Supreme Court have quietly impacted constitutional law in areas ranging from presidential power, civil liberties, church-state separation, and access to courts. Chemerinsky can explain even the most complex constitutional ideas in clear, urgent terms, and his firsthand accounts of participating in high-profile cases provides great background. As public interest in the meaning of the Constitution, the intent of the Framers, the nature of judicial "activism," and the role of judges continues to rise, this book is a crucial response to the question of what the Constitution was intended to preserve and why, as well as a call to action about the need to fight for it.— Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a detective story about a poor black woman and her magical cells. Born on a Southern tobacco farm, Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 after being treated for cancer at Johns Hopkins. Without her knowledge or consent, scientists cut cells from her cervix and cultured them. In the lab, they grew into a cell line, called HeLa, that proved more robust than any before it. Lacks' cells were the ingredients for research into everything from the polio vaccine to chemotherapy and gene mapping. Skloot follows the cells on their scientific journey, using them to teach us about major medical advances. Even better, she takes us deep into the Lacks family, which learns about HeLa almost by accident and then grapples with feeling excluded from its powers. "Them doctors say her cells is so important and did all this and that to help people," Lacks' daughter tells Skloot. "But it didn't do no good for her, and it don't do no good for us." This is a voice not often heard in discussions of science. Skloot gets credit for bringing it to the fore and carefully thinking through the hard questions surrounding informed consent. Best of all, her book sings. She spent 10 years reporting and writing, and the effort pays off—she has turned unlikely material into a pleasure read.— Emily Bazelon, senior editor