NYT’s best books of the year

I’m a sucker for “best-book lists, as they can provide leads on some great books. Last week the New York Times put up its list of the “Ten best books of 2012“: five fiction and five nonfiction. I’ll list only the nonfiction below. They include one science book (Why Does the World Exist?), but it sounds a bit wonky and dog’s-breakfasty, like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

I’m also appending Michiko Kakutani’s list of her ten best books of the year, which appeared the other day. Of these, six are nonfiction and among those, two—Hallucinations and The Idea Factory—are about science or technology.

If anyone’s read some of these, weigh in below. I’ve started Caro’s book on Johnson (which is magnificent, as are all his books), but haven’t read any of the others.

So many books; so little time.


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.

Kakutani’s list (descriptions truncated).

THE PASSAGE OF POWER: THE YEARS OF LYNDON JOHNSON by Robert A. Caro (Alfred A. Knopf). In the latest installment of his magisterial, multivolume biography, Mr. Caro uses his wondrous narrative gifts to tell the dramatic story of how Johnson was catapulted to the White House in the wake of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and how he used his potent political skills to push his predecessor’s civil rights legislation through Congress and lay the groundwork for his own revolutionary war on poverty.

A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING by Dave Eggers (McSweeney’s Books). Using a new, pared down voice in this sad-funny-moving novel, Mr. Eggers recounts the tale of a penny-ante Job named Alan Clay, who’s betting everything on a quixotic scheme to sell the king of Saudi Arabia a lucrative new technology contract.

THE YELLOW BIRDS by Kevin Powers (Little, Brown & Company). The author of this beautifully observed first novel joined the Army when he was 17 and served as a machine-gunner in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. In chronicling the friendship of two young soldiers struggling to stay alive on the battlefield there he has written a deeply affecting book that conveys the horrors of combat with harrowing poetry.

TELEGRAPH AVENUE by Michael Chabon (Harper). Taking its title from the famous thoroughfare that bridges Berkeley and Oakland, Calif., this fresh, tactile novel introduces us to Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, the proprietors of a struggling vinyl-record store that’s threatened by the prospect of a new megastore opening down the street.

THE IDEA FACTORY: BELL LABS AND THE GREAT AGE OF AMERICAN INNOVATION by Jon Gertner (Penguin Press). From the 1920s through the ’80s Bell Labs — the research and development wing of AT&T — was the most innovative scientific organization in the world, pioneering the development of the transistor, the laser and digital communications.

THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE by Ayana Mathis (Alfred A. Knopf). Thisextraordinarily powerful debut novel chronicles the many sorrows visited upon one Hattie Shepherd, a woman who left the Jim Crow South in the 1920s to start a new life in Philadelphia, and who at 16 lost her twin babies to pneumonia.

THE REVOLUTION WAS TELEVISED: THE COPS, CROOKS, SLINGERS AND SLAYERS WHO CHANGED TV DRAMA FOREVER by Alan Sepinwall. In this engaging new book the television critic for hitfix.com provides a smart, observant look at 12 “great millennial dramas” — including “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “24,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” — that transformed the TV landscape and moved the small screen out from under the shadow of the movies.

EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY: A LIFE OF DAVID FOSTER WALLACE by D. T. Max (Viking). This revealing biography of Wallace — who committed suicide in 2008 at 46 — traces the connections between his life and art, mapping the sources of his philosophical vision, while chronicling the heartbreaking struggle he waged throughout his adult life with severe depression.

HELLO GOODBYE HELLO: A CIRCLE OF 101 REMARKABLE MEETINGS by Craig Brown (Simon & Schuster). In this captivating volume a longtime columnist for the satirical British magazine Private Eye weaves together dozens of real-life encounters into a glittering daisy chain that reads like an entertaining illustration of the theory of Six Degrees of Separation.

HALLUCINATIONS by Oliver Sacks (Alfred A. Knopf). This physician’s latest book is a fascinating natural history of hallucinations.


  1. mattpenfold
    Posted December 23, 2012 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    I have not read “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”, but I did listen when it was serialised as The Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4.

    On that basis I can highly recommend it.

  2. Matthew Cobb
    Posted December 23, 2012 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    I read Yellow Birds (the only book on the list I have heard off, apart from Caro/Johnson, which says something about transatlantic publishing. Anyway, the Powers is amazing. Very poetic, but very powerful.

  3. Rob
    Posted December 23, 2012 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    I really enjoyed‘Why Does the World Exist?’ by Jim Holt. Many great interviews. Perfect for the non-philosopher interested in philosophical questions. (Of course the question is not answered. Philosophy does not have the tools to answer questions reliably.)

  4. Howie Neufeld
    Posted December 23, 2012 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    I have read Why Does the World Exist by Jim Holt. Rather than “wonky”, it is a mix of history (note the subtitle, An Existential Detective Story) and science and philosophy. Holt investigates a profound question “Why is there something when there could be nothing” which was going to be the title, but it was already taken, as he notes. Each chapter investigates the concept of what it means to exist (both physically and philosophically( and what we mean by nothing (can you even visualize nothing?), from various perspectives, including cosmology, astrophysics, philosophy, history, math, and so on. He also interviews scientists and philosophers on the subject, luckily falling mostly on the side of science in his conclusions.

    I found it so intriguing, especially the heartfelt section at the end when Holt discussed the passing of his mother, that I proposed him as a speaker at our university, and as a result, he will be coming to speak in February to Boone, NC.

    There is a reason it was selected by the NY Times, and I highly recommend it to everyone.

    We (those of us on the external speaker’s committee at Appalachian State University) are also intrigued by another author on the list, Andrew Solomon, whose book Far From the Tree, was also a NY Times Top 10 book this year. I’ve only gotten through the first two chapters, but if they are any indication, this is a monumental work, filled with emotion, intellect, and stimulating ideas about what it means to be “normal”. It truly makes you think. He will be a speaker at our university next academic year.

    Hope these “mini-reviews” are helpful.

  5. Chuck
    Posted December 23, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    I agree with Kakutani on the DT Max. It illustrates Foster-Wallace’s pain in a novel way. I have been a fan of DFW and there were things I didn’t know.

    I have a strong disagreement with her on the Chabon. Self-conscious rendering of his characters leaves him without a central conflict and therefore no story to amplify a theme. His narrative structure needs work. There are some great sentences and interesting characters but I was left empty. There is no there there.

  6. beyondbelief007
    Posted December 23, 2012 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    I’m shocked at your calling “Zen and the Art…” “Dog’s breakfasty.” Care to comment more? It’s one of many books that helped me to think critically, and I agree with the millions of others out there who keep it perennially on the bookshelves of every book store I visit: it’s an astounding classic.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted December 23, 2012 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      I was only 16
      I didn’t see much ZEN in ZOMM
      But I’m glad I read it

      I can’t check this at the moment, but I do believe that Richard Dawkins uses a ZOMM quote early in his masterpiece The God Delusion:-

      “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion” Pirsig

      I preferred The Dice Man by Cockcroft over ZOMM though ~ far more laughs 🙂

    • bueller007
      Posted December 23, 2012 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      It is easily one of the worst books I have ever read. Self-aggrandizing rubbish.

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted December 23, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

        I made the mistake of reading a later work by the same author, Lila…. Quite repulsive. Consequently haven’t been able to re-read Zen in the last 20 years, though (in dim retrospect) it was an OK novel as well as entry-level philosophy text.

  7. Gordon Hill
    Posted December 23, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    Wasn’t sure where to post this, but the National Geographic Top Ten Weirdest Stories of 2012 can be found here

    Some have been covered before. Interesting collection.

  8. Jiten
    Posted December 23, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read only one book in these lists: Behind the Beautiful Forevers. I thought it was a great book. The lives of the slum dwellers are described in unsentimental, unflinching detail. Books like The City of Joy have helped foster the popular myth that even thought these people are poor they are happy, and happier than many in the privileged West. Well that is all bunk, unsurprisingly. You can be happy with a rat gnawing on your two-year-old’s face during the night?

  9. Posted December 28, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Sarvodaya and commented:
    Be sure to check these out!

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