The Top Non-Fiction Books of 2012

Not my list but that of Publishers Weekly. Some interesting stuff made the cut. I picked up a few for stocking stuffers.

My Cross to Bear — Gregg Allman, with Alan Light

Like an old bluesman riffing through a tale of love, loss, and redemption, Allman in this fiercely honest memoir, sings the sto-ry of the band’s early days, its glory times playing the Fillmore East, and the struggles to pull the band back together after Duane’s and Berry’s deaths.

Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature — Daniel Levin Becker

Composed in playfully erudite prose—exactly what you’d expect from an Oulipian—this intellectually stimulating journey into the infamous and provocative OuLiPo (the French acronym stands for “workshop for potential literature”) is suffused with the tale of Levin Becker’s artistic coming-of-age amid the ghosts of Perec, Duchamp, and Calvino.

The Second World War — Antony Beevor

Beevor offers a kaleidoscopic view of WWII, which, he says, was an amalgamation of many wars that he depicts both in closeup views of individual combatants and wide-angle views of battles around the world.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity — Katherine Boo

Boo’s compassionate, beautifully written, and carefully researched first book takes readers to the Mumbai slum of Annawadi, where her memorable cast, far removed from India’s economic miracle, struggles with socioeconomic and political realities, and the injustices of daily life.

On Extinction: How We Became Estranged from Nature — Melanie Challenger

Analyzing our “estrangement from nature” in the 20th century, Challenger’s moving and lyrical first nonfiction book medi-tates on big picture questions as she travels from a writer’s solitary cabin on England’s Ding Dong Moor to Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey, back to the North Yorkshire town of Whitby and on to the tundra of the Arctic.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis — Timothy Egan

Egan develops the story of Edward Curtis in a fashion befitting the pre-eminent photographer of Native Americans at the turn of the 20th century—just as Curtis’s masterful portraits increasingly evinced depth and character as he came to know his sub-jects, so too does each page of this stunning biography pulse with timeless vitality.

Reinventing Bach — Paul Elie

Reading Elie’s stately and gorgeous prose is much like losing yourself in Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, for his dazzling study convincingly demonstrates that the music of Bach is the most persuasive rendering of transcendence there is.

Titian: His Life — Sheila Hale

For this epic biography, Hale successfully uses Titian’s career as a touchstone for events that carried Venice away from the Middle Ages and into the early modern period.

Mortality — Christopher Hitchens

In his typically unflinching and bold manner, the late Hitchens candidly shares his thoughts about his suffering, the etiquette of illness and wellness, and religion in this stark and powerful memoir.

The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times — Arlie Russell Hochschild

Hochschild’s provocative and entertaining study analyzes troubling developments in the global marketplace, where it’s possi-ble to outsource burials at sea or potty-training a child to a growing community of “experts.”

The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac — Joyce Johnson

Johnson offers a vivid and intimate biography of the artist as a young man, up through the genesis of On the Road: struggling with family tragedy and his French-Canadian identity, and determined to find his literary voice.

Louise: Amended — Louise Krug

Fresh out of college, 22-year-old Krug moves to California with her French boyfriend, ready to begin their gilded lives. But just a few weeks after they arrive, Louise suffers a massive cavernous angioma, and the best laid plans, etc. In elegantly spare prose, Krug details the tragedy that prompted her to relinquish a dream in order to live her life.

The Patagonian Hare — Claude Lanzmann, trans. by Frank Wynne

Best-known for his 9.5-hour Holocaust documentary, Shoah, Lanzmann’s first book—dictated at the age of 84—is an impas-sioned and stirring memoir, wherein the acclaimed director ruminates personally and historically on some of the 20th century’s most important events and figures.

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies — Ben Macintyre

The enthralling account of a young Spaniard who became England’s most improbable double agent and helped the Allies win WWII.

A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald — Errol Morris

The compelling newest from Academy Award–winning documentary director Morris is the product of more than two decades of research into the case of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, convicted in 1979 of the 1970 murders of his pregnant wife and two daugh-ters. Though MacDonald remains behind bars, Morris’s exhaustive investigation leaves little room to doubt his innocence.

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic — David Quammen

Quammen journeys around the world in an alarming and hortatory exploration of the past and possible future of deadly dis-eases that jump from animals to humans, such as AIDS, SARS, and Ebola.

Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters — Joseph Roth, trans. by Michael Hofmann

In letters from 1911 to 1939, the great Austrian-Jewish journalist and novelist reveals his troubled interior world and his prescience about the even more troubled exterior world of post-WWI Germany.

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity — Andrew Solomon

Solomon’s own trials of feeling marginalized as gay, dyslexic, and depressive, while still yearning to be a father, frame these af-fecting real tales about bravely facing the cards one’s dealt with.

Wild — Cheryl Strayed

In this detailed, in-the-moment re-enactment, Strayed delineates the travails and triumphs of three grueling months as she hiked solo the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,663-mile wilderness route stretching from the Mexican to the Canadian borders, inter-twined with a raw examination of emotional devastation brought on by the death of the author’s mother.

My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78 — Robert Sullivan

Sullivan (Rats; The Meadowlands) makes a nostalgic, witty, and always informative topographic retrospective of the sites perti-nent to the American Revolution throughout the Middle Colonies, especially New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights — Marina Warner

An elegant study of The Arabian Nights and the far-reaching influence of Scheherazade’s endlessly unfolding takes on Western culture and on our visions of enchantment and fantasy.

The Ice Balloon: S.A. Andrée and the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration — Alec Wilkinson

Spurred by an eerie photo of an enormous balloon downed in a wilderness of white, flanked by two marooned figures, Wil-kinson, a longtime contributor to the New Yorker, details S.A. Andrée’s doomed 1897 bid for the North Pole via hydrogen balloon.

How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance — Marilyn Yalom

Yalom’s witty and enchanting tour of French literature—from Abélard and Héloïse in the 12th century to Marguerite Duras in the 20th and Philippe Sollers in the 21st—asks how the French manage their romances, marriages, affairs, and obsession with love and sex, and will send readers in search of these classic texts.

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