Best Books of 2012

It’s that time of year, when book people look back over the year’s offerings and select their “top books of the year” lists.  Here are some of our favorite lists and some links to others…enjoy!

The 10 Best Books of 2012

Selected by the editors of The New York Times Book Review.

Photograph by Kristina DiMatteo and Rex Bonomelli


By Hilary Mantel.
A John Macrae Book/ Henry Holt & Company, $28.

Taking up where her previous novel, “Wolf Hall,” left off, Mantel makes the seemingly worn-out story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn newly fascinating and suspenseful. Seen from the perspective of Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, the ruthless maneuverings of the court move swiftly to the inevitable executions. Both this novel and its predecessor were awarded the Man Booker Prize. Might the trilogy’s forthcoming conclusion, in which Cromwell will meet his demise, score Mantel a hat trick?

By Chris Ware.
Pantheon Books, $50.

Ware’s innovative graphic novel deepens and enriches the form by breaking it apart. Packaged in a large box like a board game, the project contains 14 “easily misplaced elements” — pamphlets, books, foldout pages — that together follow the residents of a Chicago triplex (and one anthropomorphized bee) through their ordinary lives. In doing so, it tackles universal themes including art, sex, family and existential loneliness in a way that’s simultaneously playful and profound.

By Dave Eggers.
McSweeney’s Books, $25.

In an empty city in Saudi Arabia, a ­middle-aged American businessman waits day after day to close the deal he hopes will redeem his forlorn life. Eggers, continuing the worldly outlook that informed his recent books “Zeitoun” and “What Is the What,” spins this spare story — a globalized “Death of a Salesman” — into a tightly controlled parable of America’s international standing and a riff on middle-class decline that approaches Beckett in its absurdist despair.

By Zadie Smith.
The Penguin Press, $26.95.

Smith’s piercing new novel, her first in seven years, traces the friendship of two women who grew up in a housing project in northwest London, their lives disrupted by fateful choices and the brutal efficiency of chance. The narrative edges forward in fragments, uncovering truths about identity and money and sex with incandescent language that, for all of its formal experimentation, is intimate and searingly direct.

By Kevin Powers.
Little, Brown & Company, $24.99.

A veteran of the Iraq war, Powers places that conflict at the center of his impressionistic first novel, about the connected but diverging fates of two young soldiers and the trouble one of them has readjusting to life at home. Reflecting the chaos of war, the fractured narrative jumps around in time and location, but Powers anchors it with crystalline prose and a driving mystery: How did the narrator’s friend die?


Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.
By Katherine Boo.
Random House, $27.

This National Book Award-winning study of life in Annawadi, a Mumbai slum, is marked by reporting so rigorous it recalls the muckrakers, and characters so rich they evoke Dickens. The slum dwellers have a skillful and empathetic chronicler in Boo, who depicts them in all their humanity and ruthless, resourceful glory.

Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.
By Andrew Solomon.
Scribner, $37.50.

For more than a decade, Solomon studied the challenges, risks and rewards of raising children with “horizontal identities,” traits that they don’t share with their parents. As he investigates how families have grown stronger or fallen apart while raising prodigies, dwarfs, schizophrenics, transgendered children or those conceived in rape, he complicates everything we thought we knew about love, sacrifice and success.

The Years of Lyndon Johnson.
By Robert A. Caro.
Alfred A. Knopf, $35.

The fourth volume of Caro’s prodigious masterwork, which now exceeds 3,000 pages, explores, with the author’s signature combination of sweeping drama, psychological insight and painstaking research, Johnson’s humiliating years as vice president, when he was excluded from the inner circle of the Kennedy White House and stripped of power. We know what Johnson does not, that this purgatory is prelude to the event of a single horrific day, when an assassin’s bullet placed Johnson, and the nation he now had to lead, on a new course.

The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy.
By David Nasaw.
The Penguin Press, $40.

Nasaw took six years to complete this sprawling, arresting account of a banker-cum-speculator-cum-moviemaker-cum-ambassador-cum-dynastic founder. Joe Kennedy was involved in virtually all the history of his time, and his biographer persuasively makes the case that he was the most fascinating member of his large, famous and very formidable family.

An Existential Detective Story.
By Jim Holt.
Liveright Publishing/W. W. Norton & Company, $27.95.

For several centuries now, thinkers have wondered, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” In search of an answer, Holt takes the reader on a witty and erudite journey from London to Paris to Austin, Tex., as he listens to a varied cast of philosophers, scientists and even novelists offer solutions that are sometimes closely reasoned, sometimes almost mystical, often very strange, always entertaining and thought-provoking.

A version of this article appeared in print on December 9, 2012, on page BR11 of the Sunday Book Review


Best Books 2012Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2012 are:

Building Stories
Chris Ware (Pantheon)
Unabashedly rooted in the pre-digital age, Ware’s new work is really 14 individually bound books, ranging from gorgeous hardbacks to thin pamphlets, housed in an oversized box. Read in any order, all the tales within follow the tenants of the same apartment building, including an elderly landlady, a spiteful married couple, and a lonely female amputee. With his trademark obsessive precision, Ware presents the grind and folly of everyday life in the most exhilarating fashion.

PW review

Bring Up the Bodies
Hilary Mantel (Holt)
Though the novel that recently won Mantel her second Man Booker prize is a sequel to the novel that won Mantel her first Man Booker prize, it’s a startlingly different book. Where Wolf Hall was lush and expansive, this is focused and verbose, with Mantel eschewing descriptive prose for dialogue. Thomas Cromwell is older now, with more titles and power, but he nonetheless finds himself again having to wrestle the king out of another heirless marriage, this time to Anne Boleyn.

PW review

The Round House
Louise Erdrich (Harper)
This dark and entertaining National Book Award nominee sets a Native American boy’s coming of age against the brutal backdrop of racism and violence in North Dakota. When 13-year-old Joe becomes frustrated with the investigation into the attack that left his mother too traumatized to speak, he looks into the crime himself.

PW review

Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain
Lucia Perillo (Norton)
The 14 stories of this Pulitzer Prize in poetry finalist’s (for Inseminating the Elephant) debut collection, set in the Pacific Northwest, display the poet’s emotional economy alongside raw honesty, haunting understatement, and a sharp wit. Women, damaged and vulnerable, make bad choices again and again, pursue fruitless obsessions, and somehow often come out on top.

PW review

The Devil in Silver
Victor LaValle (Spiegel & Grau)
LaValle’s third novel is poised on the intersection of psychological suspense and supernatural horror, leavened with dashes of wry humor. A menacing figure stalks the airless halls of a psychiatric ward; corrupt cops, bored staff, and drugged and deranged patients all think they know what’s going on, but no one truly has a handle on reality. LaValle (whose Big Machine was a PW Best Books pick in 2009) balances the tension with moving and surprisingly intimate portraits of people caught in the gears of a malfunctioning mental health system.

PW review
An NBA Fiction Judge Responds to Laura Miller

Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis
Mark Binelli (Metropolitan)
Rolling Stone reporter and native son Binelli’s nonfiction debut vividly captures Detroit’s dramatic reversals of fortune. With empathy for his subjects, endless curiosity about his hometown, and a rare sense of humor, Binelli effectively punctures myths about this supposed urban wasteland and grapples with the city’s ever-present socioeconomic and racial struggles.

PW review
The Top 10 Cities in Literature

All We Know: Three Lives
Lisa Cohen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Erudite and exquisitely written, Wesleyan professor Cohen’s first book, a triptych biography of three early-20th-century women—Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland—successfully renders both these memorable and surprising personalities and the era in which they struggled with questions and expectations regarding career, marriage, and sexuality. Suitably dishy and remarkably humane, the book leaves readers wondering who these women would have become in a more progressive society.

PW review

People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo
Richard Lloyd Parry (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
This chilling and multilayered account of the murder of Lucie Blackman in Tokyo sheds light on the tragedy of a family, a sexual predator, and Japanese society.

PW review
Darkness in the Land of the Rising Sun: PW Talks with Richard Lloyd Parry

The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600–1675
Bernard Bailyn (Knopf)
The culmination of a distinguished career, this is an original study of America’s colonial era and the link between the universal need for stability and the resulting violence that ravaged both settlers and natives.

PW review

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945–1956
Anne Applebaum (Doubleday)
A searing narrative and analysis of a historical watershed—the USSR’s brutal takeover of Eastern Europe during and after WWII.

PW review


Finally, Library Journal has added there list, and has broken the list  down into categories!
Best Books 2012: Biography and History
Margaret Heilbrun Reid, Jan. Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards. Univ. of Texas. Oct. 2012. 460p. photogs. index. ISBN 9780292719644. $27. BIOG
Reid presents a colorful, warts-and-all portrayal of this unique, one-term progressive Texas governor and feminist who served as a role model for Hillary Clinton. The author’s friendship with Richards adds a warm personal dimension to the story of this governor who included in large numbers women, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and gays in her administration and who also overcame her own personal demons of addictions to prescription drugs and alcohol. (LJ 8/15/12)Read More›››

Best Books 2012: Business
Elizabeth Nelson Grind, Kirsten. The Lost Bank: The Story of Washington Mutual: The Biggest Bank Failure in American History. S. & S. ISBN 9781451617924. $27; eISBN 9781451617948.
With the U.S. economy still struggling from the Great Recession, this story of the history, players, and failure of Washington Mutual is well timed and smartly told by one of the journalists who followed the bank’s story through its fall and fire sale. (LJ 5/15/12)Read More›››

Best Books 2012: Consumer Health
Barbara Bibel Broad, William J. (text) & Bobby Clennell (illus.). The Science of Yoga: The Myths and the Rewards. S. & S. ISBN 9781451641424. $26; eISBN 9781451641448.
Science writer and yoga practitioner Broad looks at the evidence surrounding the practice and explains what’s good, what’s false, and what can be dangerous about yoga. (LJ 1/12)Read More›››

Best Books 2012: Memoir
Therese Purcell Nielsen Busch, Benjamin. Dust to Dust. Ecco: HarperCollins. ISBN 9780062014849. $25.95; eISBN  9780062096784.
Busch addresses the sustaining value of art in the face of life and death from the perspective of one who has been to war. (LJ 3/1/12)Read More›››
Best Books 2012: Poetry
Barbara HoffertGreenbaum, Jessica. The Two Yvonnes. Princeton Univ. (Series of Contemporary Poets). ISBN 9780691156620. $29.95; pap. ISBN 9780691156637. $12.95.
While Greenbaum finds it “odd that just one key/ let me in my front door/ and into my life every day,” her fluidly, even propulsively written second collection is itself a splendid key to everyday experience. (LJ 10/1/12)


Best Books 2012: Science and Technology
Margaret DominyBejan, Adrian & J. Peder Zane. Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization. Doubleday. ISBN 9780385534611. $27.95; eISBN 9780385534628.
Learn, with the help of mechanical engineer Bejan and journalist Zane, how the mapping of repetitive models in nature—river basins, cardiovascular systems, and bolts of lightning—develops into a principle of physics. (LJ 2/15/12)


Best Books 2012: Spiritual Living
Graham ChristianAbdul, Rauf F. Moving the Mountain: Beyond Ground Zero to a New Vision of Islam in America. Free Pr: S. & S. ISBN 9781451656008. $24; eISBN 9781451656022.
Moving the Mountain belongs to the class of spirituality titles that are not only growthful for the individual soul but a necessity for the body politic. Abdul, named one of Time magazine’s “100 most influential people” last year, shows how Islam, rightly applied, can support the rights of women, as well as a full life in contemporary America. (LJ 5/1/12)


Best Books 2012: DIY
LJ Reviews Plowman, Randal. The Collage Workbook: How to Get Started and Stay Inspired. Lark Crafts: Lark Books. 2012. c.132p. illus. index. ISBN 9781454701996. pap. $17.95.
Chock full of vibrant examples of collage work, this book encourages readers to experiment, explore, and establish a daily creative practice using found materials. This book can inspire readers to see possibilities in mundane and unusual places.


Best Books 2012: Cookbooks
Lisa Campbell101 Cookbooks: 501 Classic Recipes. Rizzoli. Oct. 2012. 688p. ed. by Marvin J. Taylor & Clark Wolf. photogs. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780847837939. $40.
Essential for cookbook lovers and food historians, this curated collection offers signature recipes from 20th-century classics, from Fannie Farmer’s The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, to James Beard’s American Cookery, to Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. (LJ 01/15/13)



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