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The Best Books We Read in 2012

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I read something in Esquire the other day that caught me off-guard. It was about how, despite the near-constant bemoaning of our culture's waning attention span and the media industry's cratering business model, we're actually in a Golden Age for writers. The article, by Stephen Marche, makes a pretty good case:

... [T]he world of writing has escaped this mess. Writers are prospering as never before, on all levels. At the very pinnacle, J.K. Rowling is a billionaire. ...

It's not just the novel, either. The essay -- long or short, literary or plain -- has never been stronger. Practically every week, some truly fantastic piece of long-form nonfiction appears. This is not the normal state of affairs, no matter what nostalgics pretend. It's easy to imagine that in the past every New Yorker had Hannah Arendt on the banality of evil or every Esquire had Nora Ephron on small breasts. Go back and look at those old magazines and you will discover something shocking: They're mostly boring; they're also often just plain sloppy. With a few notable exceptions, almost every magazine in the world is in its best shape ever, right now. ... Try going to Longform.org or Byliner and not losing yourself in their labyrinths of entirely free, entirely superb stories. Read the blogs of Foreign Policy or the Pulitzer Center, which offer fantastic reporting from all over the world.

If it's a Golden Age for writers, that means it's a Golden Age for readers, too, who are awash as never before in an infinite supply of prettily assembled words to arrange on the shelves of our brains. Here at the Observer, when we're not chiseling listicles, we do our share of pretty-word-consuming. So here are some of the books that moved us in 2012, old and new.

If you've got one that moved you, please-please-please share it in the comments. We say that a lot, I know, but this time we mean it. We're always looking for more brainshelf material. -- Joe Tone, editor


Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon Nothing is original. Go ahead and steal. Artists do it all the time, see a great idea and tuck it away in their mental idea file or save it on Pinterest or add it to the Post-Its fringing the edge of the inspiration board. Then one day they steal some little something from that stolen idea and tweak it to make it their own. This is how art happens.

Author and artist Austin Kleon cribbed motivational blurbs he liked, made up some new ones and scribbled them in a notebook alongside cartoons he drew as he rode the bus to and from his day job in Austin, Texas. His collection became a digital scrapbook on Tumblr, which became a speech with slides, which turned into this little book published in 2012. It became a New York Times bestseller, doing so well, Kleon was able to quit his job and work full-time as a writer, artist and public speaker (he delivered a dandy talk at the Dallas Museum of Art last year).

I recommend the in-your-hand copy of the book instead of the eBook version. It's small and easy to tuck into a bag or pocket, to be pulled out when you're waiting in line somewhere or need a boost of creative vibration to help get through the day. It also has a list on the back of 10 ways to unlock your creativity. Examples: "Do good work and share it with people"; and "Be nice. (The world is a small town.)"

Maybe not profound, but well worth remembering. -- Elaine Liner, theater critic


Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, by Steve Coll Are you at all curious about the multinational oil giant in our backyard, whose headquarters in Irving are known as the "Death Star?" You really, really should be. Steve Coll's tome may not always make your hair stand on end, but this slow-burning examination of how ExxonMobil wields international power should be required reading. His research takes us through the murders of Indonesian villagers in the company's name; its funding of climate-change denial and its eventual evolution on the subject; the vast sums of money it made in poor nations like Chad, who were the worse for it. He guides us through its almost militaristic, rule-crazy corporate culture. With dexterity, he describes how an American company became a citizen of the world, whose interests have not always meshed with the United States', even though it didn't hesitate to place a direct call to Dick Cheney when in need. This is the story of how ExxonMobil's energy policy has, in effect, become America's energy policy -- which is to say, let the free market reign. -- Brantley Hargrove, staff writer


Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson I received Isaacson's biography of Jobs last Christmas, less than three months after his death from pancreatic cancer. He always had a reputation for being kind of a dick, and Isaacson does not refute that; hell, Jobs didn't even refute it, and gave Isaacson full access to his life and his past.

It's a massive book and had some redundancies, butit delves into the fascinating, evolving intersection of humanities and technology using Jobs as our guide, a bratty, brash, and brilliant stand-in for Virgil in the Inferno. For the hyper-geeky among us (especially we products of UTD's Arts and Technology program), this is the new Bible, and his impact on the music and advertising industries cannot be understated. The book jacket looks just like my iPhone, and the never-aired Jobs-narrated "Here's to the Crazy Ones" Apple commercial never fails to make me cry (the aired version used a Richard Dreyfuss voiceover). -- Betsy Lewis, contributing writer


Sin In the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle For America's Soul, by Karen Abbott This is from 2007, but it's easily the best book I belatedly discovered this year. It tells the story of the Everleigh Club in Chicago, a high-end brothel run by two enterprising sisters from Omaha, Minna and Ada. The Everleighs were obsessed with making prostitution a respectable business (and a luxurious one -- the sisters were famous for their gold piano and their fondness for giant jewelry). They ruled the Levee, Chicago's red-light district at the time, but spent much of their career paying off the cops and battling with both other madams and the "reformers," well-intentioned society ladies, evangelists and ministers who were convinced that brothels were all hotbeds of "white slavery."

All the action and dialogue in the book is re-created from diaries, newspaper accounts, sermons, old photos, City Hall proclamations and the like. It's exhaustive and painstaking and incredibly fun to read. Bonus fact: one of the competing madams, a lady named Vic Shaw, was eventually convicted on a drug charge and sent to federal prison. She served her time in Dallas. -- Anna Merlan, staff writer


The English Major, by Jim Harrison Life is cyclical, and when one cycle approaches the 360th degree, another will bullheadedly begin whether we want it to or not. This is the truth that I uncovered in Harrison's The English Major. It's the story of a young senior citizen named Cliff divorcing his adulterous wife of 38 years, selling the family farm, and hitting the road with a puzzle map of the United States in hopes of throwing the pieces in their respective states. On the road, Cliff engages in a yo-yo like affair with one of his former students, Marybelle, re-connects with a snake wrangling friend, and rebuilds his relationship with his estranged son. It is in this novel that he proves life continues on despite age, and that the number of rings in our cross section is no excuse to dismiss adventure or enlightenment.

The audience is exposed to beautiful introspection, slowly rolling expanses of prose, and Harrison's signature form of explicitly honest humor. It's his honesty that keeps me coming back to Harrison for his stories and his poetry; he has a way of speaking to the reader as if saying "this thought of mine may not be a beautiful one, but it is true, and in its truth, it is powerful."

If you are looking for an author that has his magnifying glass set distinctly on the little things that bind and separate us, read The English Major. Harrison's accuracy on human interaction is indefinably enjoyable. -- Matthew Lawson, contributing writer


The Playground, by Ray Bradbury Following Ray Bradbury's death in June, and after reading Nick Rallo's thoughtful tribute, I was inspired to dig around for some of the sci-fi master's works -- some good creep to stick to my ribs. I knew I could always reread All Summer In A Day (if you've not read, or seen, that bit of motivating sadness, my word, go now and do it. Do. It.) or The Illustrated Man, but I wanted some Bradbury I'd never read, so limiting my search to Kindle selections, I randomly chose The Playground (it can also be found in certain hardcover editions of Fahrenheit 451). I finished the short story in less time than it took me to download it (possibly an exaggeration, but Ray wouldn't mind).

It made me uncomfortable. It creeped me out. It made me feel I was being watched. It made me pretty confident in my decision to not have children because I'm selfish enough I don't know that it would ever occur to me to sacrifice ... Well, I don't want to ruin it for anyone who hasn't read it.

Now, I've read several books this year for book clubs and for pleasure, but none of them made me enjoy feeling paranoid. None of the others made me want to go buy actual hardback copies of works I'd already read by that author, just to recapture the feeling of the first time I'd read them. On that note, perhaps it's more appropriate to choose Bradbury's catalog as my favorite read of the year. I don't know. I do know, though, that I hope someone made a "certain sacrifice" so there's a spry, young writer out there with as much talent as Ray Bradbury. -- Merritt Martin, contributing writer


What Katie Ate: Recipes and Other Bits and Pieces, by Katie Quinn Davies Katie Quinn Davies is a photographer, food stylist and blogger out of Sydney, Australia whose popular blog What Katie Ate has some of the most seriously incredible food photography in ... ever.

But don't take my word for it. Saveur has awarded her awards like "Best Single Food Photo" and "Best Food Photography," and GOOP named her one of the best food blogs in the world. Visit her site and just try to disagree. It's like she marries food with cinematography in a way that is at once dramatic and mouthwatering. "Food porn" is far too cheap a term for what she does. That's why her much anticipated first cookbook, What Katie Ate: Recipes and Other Bits and Pieces (or "Bits and Bobs" in the UK), feels like owning a work of art in photography, styling and typography. Even if I never make one single thing inside, I feel more awesome just by owning it, displaying it, and flipping through its luminous pages. -- Rachel Edenson Pinn, contributing writer

Next up: More fiction, a kid's book, and the book that got to Jim Schutze in 2012.


Fountain of Age: Stories, by Nancy Kress This collection of nine short stories and novellas feature not ray gun-wielding space rangers but business men, Jewish grandfathers and aging professors afflicted with future shock in a rapidly changing world. Kress' characters are realistic, and not just because a geriatric being uncomfortable with technology is a believable trope.

Themes of aging, genetic technology and a dash of surreal otherworldliness are a common thread through this collection of stories, all backed by a world and people that are familiar, but fundamentally changed by near-future science.

Ultimately each story makes for a satisfying read, altogether different from the epic sci-fi trilogies that tend to dominate the market. -- Alex Copeland, contributing writer


Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn A wife, Amy, disappears on the day of her five-year anniversary, leaving her seemingly uncaring husband, Nick, as the leading suspect. It's difficult to not associate him with Drew Peterson and other husbands-as-villains in the Nancy Grace spotlight, so it feels natural to assume his guilt. The chapters are split between the current story of Nick's investigation and the diary of Amy, chronicling her life from the moment she met Nick.

The first-person storytelling lets you see things from only the main characters' perspectives, which adds to the suspense and also makes the character seem very real and complicated. There are plenty of secrets revealed in the first half to keep you constantly surprised. But in the second half, the truth -- and real plot-changing twist -- will make you want to read it to the end immediately. And you might as well do it now, because there's already a movie in the works with Reese Witherspoon as the lead. -- Tracie Louck, art director


The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson The Warmth of Other Suns brings the story of America's great migration to light through a graceful combination of narrative storytelling and historical context. Told through the stories of three main characters -- Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster -- the story of some six million African-Americans' great migration north, from World War I through the 1970s, is told with startling intimacy.

Escaping the Jim Crow South for the possibility of something better -- true freedom and a chance at the American dream -- African-Americans from all walks of life risked everything, embarking on dangerous trips north, often leaving everyone and everything they knew behind. -- Jane LeBlanc, contributing writer


I Love You Through and Through, by Bernadette Rossetti-Shustak (words) and Caroline Jayne Church (illustrations) I read a lot of books in 2012. A ton of them. The publishing houses send them to our offices, and I always intercept the mail on my way to the bathroom, and go ripping through the envelopes from Random House and Knopf, taking the good-looking ones and leaving the boring-looking ones in the mail bin, oftentimes without bothering to throw out the scraps of envelope I've created in the process.

So, yeah, I'm an asshole, and I read a lot of books. But here's the thing: I have a kid. A new kid. Ten months old. So when I say I read a lot of books, I mean that I read the beginning of a lot of books. Like, the first three pages. Then I fall into blissful, long-awaited asleep. And by the time I get a chance to read again, usually three or four days later, there's a new book lurking on my nightstand, tempting me to crack its spine. This is the one that will out-duel my sleepiness, I think, and four pages later I'm walking through my middle-school quad wondering where my pants are. I'm honestly not sure I finished a book in 2012, with one exception:

I Love You Through and Through. It's my kid's favorite book. It seems weird to think that he can distinguish between it and the dozens of others he has stacked on the big red shelves in his room. He speaks almost no English and doesn't yet know a truck from an eyeglasses case. (He thinks both belong in his mouth.) But he loves that damn book. His face lights up when he sees it, and he grunts like a bull about to impale a tiny Spaniard.

Most books he paws at and chews on and spikes into the floor all Rob Gronkowski-like. But for this one, he just watches and listens and loves. I love your top side, I tell him, and bop him lightly on his head. I love your bottom side. Your inside, your outside, running, walking, laughing, talking, etc. etc. etc. He hangs, and often drools, on every word.

I'd quote more accurately -- it's a beautifully simple little book -- but we're heading on vacation tonight. The book is already packed away, deep, deep in the suitcase, where it's safe. -- Tone

Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban The book that really stuck with me this year was Russell Hoban's dystopian novel, Riddly Walker, first published in 1980. The entire novel is written in a strangely unforgettable invented language. Here's a sample scene: Two thousand years after a nuclear holocaust, humans in what was once Kent, England, are using crude hoists made of wood and rope to salvage buried machinery which they will then pull apart and use in some kind of bleak Iron Age barter. The scene:

We took up the slack then Straiter Empy give the syn and Chalker Matchman the Widders Dump 1stman chanting us on:

Gone ter morrer here to day

Pick it up and walk a way

Dont you know greaf and woe

Pick it up its time to go

Greaf and woe don't you know

Pick it up its time to go

Roun we gone with the roap winching in and the A frame taking the strain. Straiter Empy and Skyway Moaters leavering the girt thing wylst we wincht and Dad and Leaster Digman working the sling unner.

Sly and profound, Riddley Walker sticks to a reader's soul like glue. The trick later is not to break into that song 'round the Yule log, although it might be interesting to see who else knows it. -- Jim Schutze, columnist

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