New York Times Notable Books of 2012: Nonfiction

Notable nonfiction selected by the editors of The New York Times Book Review.

Notable nonfiction selected by the editors of The New York Times Book Review.

All We Know: Three Lives by Lisa Cohen
The vanished world of midcentury upper-class lesbians is portrayed as beguiling, its inhabitants members of a stylish club.

American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama by Rachel L. Swarns
A Times reporter’s deeply researched chronicle of several generations of Mrs. Obama’s family.

American Triumvirate: Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, and the Modern Age of Golf by James Dodson
The author evokes an era when the game was more vivid and less corporate than it seems now.

Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel
Bechdel’s engaging, original graphic memoir explores her troubled relationship with her distant mother.

Barack Obama: The Story by David Maraniss
This huge and absorbing new biography, full of previously unexplored detail, shows that Obama’s saga is more surprising and gripping than the version we’re familiar with.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo (audio download, eBook)
This extraordinary moral inquiry into life in an Indian slum shows the human costs exacted by a brutal social Darwinism.

Belzoni: The Giant Archaeologists Love to Hate by Ivor Noël Hume
The fascinating tale of the 19th-century Italian monk, a “notorious tomb robber,” who gathered archaeological treasures in Egypt while crunching bones underfoot.

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss (eBook)
The first Alexandre Dumas, a mixed-race general of the French Revolution, is the subject of this imaginative biography.

Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams
Williams’s environmental call to arms deplores chemicals in breast milk and the vogue for silicone implants.

Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray (audio download, eBook)
The author of “The Bell Curve” warns that the white working class has abandoned the “founding virtues.”

Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution by Rebecca Stott
Stott’s lively, original history of evolutionary ideas flows easily across continents and centuries.

A Disposition to Be Rich: How a Small-Town Preacher’s Son Ruined an American President, Brought on a Wall Street Crash, and Made Himself the Best-Hated Man in the United States by Geoffrey C. Ward
The author’s ancestor was the bane of Ulysses S. Grant.

Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon
This passionate and affecting work about what it means to be a parent is based on interviews with families of “exceptional” children.

Flagrant Conduct. The Story of Lawrence v. Texas: How a Bedroom Arrest Decriminalized Gay Americans by Dale Carpenter
Carpenter stirringly describes the 2003 Supreme Court decision that overturned the Texas sodomy law.

The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life by Robert Trivers
An intriguing argument that deceit is a beneficial evolutionary “deep feature” of life.

The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness by Kevin Young
A poet’s lively account of the central place of the trickster figure in black American culture could have been called “How Blacks Invented America.”

Haiti: The Aftershocks of History by Laurent Dubois
Foreign meddling, the lack of a democratic tradition, a humiliating American occupation and cold-war support of a brutal dictator all figure in a scholar’s well-written analysis.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough (audio download)
Noncognitive skills like persistence and self-control are more crucial to success than sheer brainpower, Tough maintains.

How Music Works by David Byrne
This guidebook also explores the eccentric rock star’s personal and professional experience.

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum
An overwhelming and convincing account of the Soviet push to colonize Eastern Europe after World War II.

Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats by Roger Rosenblatt
This thoughtful meditation on the evolution of grief over time asks the big questions.

Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History by John Fabian Witt
A tension between humanitarianism and righteousness has shaped America’s rules of warfare.

Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan by Rajiv Chandrasekaran
A beautifully written and deeply reported account of America’s troubled involvement in Afghanistan.

Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer by Susan Gubar
A feminist scholar recounts her experience and criticizes the medical treatment of a frightening disease in a voice that is straightforward and incredibly brave.

My Poets by Maureen N. McLane
Part memoir and part criticism, this friendly book includes essays on poets canonical and contemporary, as well as lineated poem-games.

The Obamas by Jodi Kantor
Michelle Obama sets the tone and tempo of the current White House, Kantor argues in this admiring account, full of colorful insider anecdotes.

Oddly Normal: One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms With His Sexuality by John Schwartz
A Times reporter’s deeply affecting account of his son’s coming out also reviews research on the experience of LGBT kids.

On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson by William Souder (audio download, eBook)
An absorbing biography of the pioneering environmental writer on the 50th anniversary of “Silent Spring.”

On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines — and Future by Karen Elliott House
A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist unveils this inscrutable country, comparing its calcified regime to the Soviet Union in its final days.

The One: The Life and Music of James Brown by RJ Smith
Smith argues that Brown was the most significant modern American musician in terms of style, messaging, rhythm and originality.

The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert A. Caro (eBook)
The fourth volume of Caro’s magisterial work spans the five years that end shortly after Kennedy’s assassination, as Johnson prepares to push for a civil rights act.

The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy by David Nasaw
This riveting history captures the sweep of Kennedy’s life — as Wall Street speculator, moviemaker, ambassador and dynastic founder.

People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished From the Streets of Tokyo — and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up by Richard Lloyd Parry
An evenhanded investigation of a murder.

Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival by Christopher Benfey
Mixing memoir, family saga, travelogue and cultural history.

Rule and Ruin. The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party: From Eisenhower to the Tea Party by Geoffrey Kabaservice
Pragmatic Republicanism was hardier than we remember, Kabaservice argues.

Saul Steinberg: A Biography by Deirdre Bair
A gripping and revelatory biography of the eminent cartoonist.

Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem, and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy by Paul Thomas Murphy
An uninhibited and learned account of the attempts on the life of Queen Victoria, which only increased her popularity.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan
A deft portrait of the man who made memorable photographs of American ­Indians.

The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson
The evolutionary biologist explores the strange kinship between humans and some insects.

Sometimes There Is a Void: Memoirs of an Outsider by Zakes Mda
The South African novelist and playwright absorbingly illuminates his wide, worldly life.

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen
Quammen’s meaty, sprawling book chronicles his globe-trotting scientific adventures and warns against animal microbes spilling over into people.

The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food by Lizzie Collingham
Collingham argues that food needs contributed to the war’s origins, strategy, outcome and aftermath.

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham
This readable and well-researched life celebrates Jefferson’s skills as a practical politician, unafraid to wield power even when it conflicted with his small-government views.

Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution by Linda Hirshman
Written with knowing finesse, this expansive history of gay rights from the early 20th century to the present draws on archives and interviews.

When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God by T. M. Luhrmann
Evangelicals believe that God speaks to them personally because they hone the skill of prayer, this insightful study argues.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
Winterson’s unconventional and winning memoir wrings humor from adversity as it describes her upbringing by a wildly deranged mother.

Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt
An elegant and witty writer converses with philosophers and cosmologists who ponder why there is something rather than nothing.