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The best nonfiction of 2012

The EW staff picks their favorite nonfiction books of the year

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1 Behind the Beautiful Forevers
by Katherine Boo
When we reviewed this book, we promised you it would be an award winner. As it happens, Behind the Beautiful Forevers won the National Book Award, and we bet it’ll take home the Pulitzer, too. We’re not here to brag about our predictive powers but to sing the praises of Boo’s extraordinary feat of reporting and compassion. Beautiful Forevers is the story of an Indian slum that plays out like a Dickens novel. Is it painful to read? Sure. A lot of unforgettable things are. —Jeff Giles

2. Wild
by Cheryl Strayed
If you hate nature, don’t worry: This isn’t just a memoir about one woman’s solo hike across 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s also about survival. And whether that means finding the strength to get through a divorce, a mother’s death, and a struggle with heroin (as Strayed did), or facing extreme dehydration, rattlesnakes, and bears, Wild offers the best life lesson of all: Whenever you think you can’t go on, all you have to do is keep walking. —Melissa Maerz

3. House of Stone
by Anthony Shadid
My mentor and former editor Anthony Shadid dedicated his life to covering conflict in the Middle East. When he died last February — at age 43 while covering the uprising in Syria — his heartfelt memoir about restoring his great-grandfather’s abandoned home was just weeks away from publication. It’s fitting that his final work was about building after he spent so many years witnessing destruction. —Anthony Breznican

4. People Who Eat Darkness
by Richard Lloyd Parry
This deeply reported look at the disappearance of a young British woman living in Japan in 2000 is a first-rate don’t-talk-to-strangers creepfest, featuring the sort of blank-faced villain around which horror-movie franchises are built. It’s also a fascinating exploration of Tokyo’s weird “hostessing” subculture, the quirky Japanese criminal-justice system, and the woman’s unexpectedly complicated father. —Rob Brunner

5. The Passage of Power
by Robert A. Caro
Call it The Agony and the Ecstasy of Lyndon Johnson. In the fourth volume of his epic LBJ biography, Caro tracks his subject from his lowest moments — as an impotent veep who was scorned by the Kennedys — to the days after the assassination, when the new president used all his political genius to push through civil rights legislation that restructured the nation. Rendered with Caro’s trademark hyperdetailed prose, Passage is an addictive depiction of a complex, occasionally monstrous person performing the great work of his life. —Darren Franich

6. The Mansion of Happiness
by Jill Lepore The subtitle is “A History of Life and Death,” which suggests that this book is just about as light and fizzy as the Old Testament. But when New Yorker scribe Lepore analyzes our ideas about birth, childhood, adulthood, and old age, connecting them to changes in science, technology, and industry, she’s surprisingly fun to read. Check out her chapter about breast milk and democracy, and you’ll never look at breast pumps the same way again. —Melissa Maerz

7. The End of Your Life Book Club
by Will Schwalbe A mother diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer and her son — a longtime publishing executive — grapple with saying goodbye through their shared love of books. “Reading isn’t the opposite of doing, it’s the opposite of dying,” Schwalbe writes. So the pair while away long hours in doctors’ waiting rooms and chemotherapy suites by paging avidly through everything from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. As her death looms, they dissect, argue, and opine, and somehow everything that needs to be said gets said. —Tina Jordan

8. Marbles
by Ellen Forney The fact that Forney named this Marbles (as in, I Lost My…) reveals a lot about the very funny, self-deprecating cartoonist and her deeply moving graphic memoir, which explores her battle with bipolar disorder. As she studies the links between creativity and mental illness, her manic drawings perfectly illustrate how she’s feeling. But even when she’s worrying about the difference between “crazy-brilliant” and “crazy-crazy” artists, it’s clear which team she belongs on. —Melissa Maerz

9. No Easy Day
by Mark Owen with Kevin Maurer What was it like to be part of the historic 2011 mission to kill Osama bin Laden? This harrowing, minute-by-minute account by one of the highly trained members of Navy SEAL Team Six is narrative nonfiction at its most gripping, taking the reader through the mountains of Afghanistan and inside the slightly dilapidated-looking family compound in Pakistan. —Tina Jordan

10. The Violinist’s Thumb
by Sam Kean
After tackling chemistry’s ultimate cheat sheet — the periodic table — in The Disappearing Spoon, Kean turns his attention to our biological blueprints. It may not break any new ground for those who are actually in the field, but Kean’s accessible genetic overview, written for the layman, is often as simple and elegant as a double helix. —Keith Staskiewicz

READERS’ PICKS
1 Gone Girl Gillian Flynn
2 The Fault in Our Stars John Green
3 Beautiful Ruins Jess Walter
4 The Casual Vacancy J.K. Rowling
5 Behind the Beautiful Forevers Katherine Boo
6 This Is How You Lose Her Junot Díaz
7 Bring Up the Bodies Hilary Mantel
8 Wild Cheryl Strayed
9 Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk Ben Fountain
10 Are You My Mother? Alison Bechdel
FICTION
11 Dare Me Megan Abbott 12 My Struggle: Book One Karl Ove Knausgaard 13 The Round House Louise Erdrich 14 Broken Harbor Tana French
15 The Yellow Birds Kevin Powers
NONFICTION
11 Are You My Mother? Alison Bechdel
12 Double Cross Ben Macintyre
13 The Signal and the Noise Nate Silver
14 Thomas Jefferson Jon Meacham
15 Oddly Normal John Schwartz

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