Best of 2012: 50 notable works of nonfiction

November 16, 2012
500 DAYS: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars

By Kurt Eichenwald (Touchstone)

An anecdote-rich, page-turning account of President George W. Bush’s war on terrorism, with almost all of his actions traced back to decisions made during the first 500 days after Sept. 11, 2001. — Dina Temple-Raston

ALL THE MISSING SOULS: A Personal History of the War Crimes Tribunals

By David Scheffer (Princeton)

Written by the Clinton administration’s point man on international justice, the book describes the U.S. role in trying to make accountability for mass atrocities a central principle in international affairs. — Anthony Dworkin

AMERICA’S GREAT DEBATE: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union

By Fergus M. Bordewich (Simon & Schuster)


"The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court" by Jeffrey Toobin was one of this year’s best nonfiction offerings. (Doubleday)

This stylish history recounts the Compromise of 1850, which managed to hold the expanding nation together. Bordewich breathes new life into figures who were giants in their day. — Donald E. Graham

AMERICA’S UNWRITTEN CONSTITUTION: The Precedents and Principles We Live By

By Akhil Reed Amar (Basic)

This is a masterful, readable book that constitutes one of the best, most creative treatments of the U.S. Constitution in decades. — Ken Gormley

AUTUMN IN THE HEAVENLY KINGDOM: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War

By Stephen R. Platt (Knopf)

Platt’s fresh and important argument refutes the traditional idea that China was unchangeable and not a significant factor in the world’s history in the 19th century. — John Pomfret

THE BOY KINGS OF TEXAS: A Memoir

By Domingo Martinez (Lyons)

Recounting the author’s tough upbringing in Brownsville, Tex., this finalist for the National Book Award joins a rich body of Mexican American coming-of-age narratives. — Valerie Sayers

THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF JOE BRAINARD

Edited by Ron Padgett (Library of America)

A superbly engaging bedside book in whichnearly every page is mysterious, inconsequential and fun. — Michael Dirda

CONFRONT AND CONCEAL: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power

By David E. Sanger (Crown)

Sanger’s immensely readable work shows that President Obama has been surprisingly aggressive on national security, mostly behind closed doors. — D.T-R.

CRONKITE

By Douglas Brinkley (Harper)

Brinkley reveals the legendary newscaster as an Odysseus-like figure — a man physically and morally courageous, but full of fears; ambitious for fame, fiercely jealous of rivals — who created around himself an aura of public trust. — Robert MacNeil

DEARIE: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child

By Bob Spitz (Knopf)

A tasty retelling of Child’s privileged (but bland) childhood, her awakening to fine food and her delight in sharing it. — Becky Krystal

DOUBLE CROSS: The True Story of the D-Day Spies

By Ben Macintyre (Crown)

The idiosyncratic British spymasters of World War II were almost Monty Python characters, yet they helped secure the Allied victory. — David Ignatius

DRIFT: The Unmooring of American Military Power

By Rachel Maddow (Crown)

The author urges Congress and voters to become full partners in decisions to go to war and not leave them to their president. — Gordon M. Goldstein

ELSEWHERE: A Memoir

By Richard Russo (Knopf)

Novelist Russo writes candidly of his mother, who inspired and sustained his literary career but also was demanding and manipulative.— Marie Arana

EMBERS OF WAR: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam

By Fredrik Logevall (Random House)

Logevall demonstrates that historical outcomes are driven not only by global political and strategic forces but also by the passion, frailty and determination of individual leaders. — G.M.G.

THE END OF MEN: And the Rise of Women

By Hanna Rosin (Riverhead)

The author paints a picture of how fluid gender roles and expectations have become. — Jennifer Howard

ENEMIES: A History of the FBI

By Tim Weiner (Random House)

Weiner’s thesis: Today’s counterterrorism campaigns echo the FBI’s earlier efforts to collar saboteurs, spies and terrorists. And the bureau’s overreaching then is mirrored by its occasional overreaching now. — D.T-R.

FREEDOM AND THE ARTS: Essays on Music and Literature

By Charles Rosen (Harvard)

One finishes any book by Rosen intellectually re­energized, eager to become a deeper reader, a more attentive museumgoer, a better listener. — M.D.

THE GENERALS: American Military Command From World War II to Today

By Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin Press)

The Army of today, Ricks argues, is an entrenched bureaucracy funded and protected by friends in Congress. Accountability of senior officers is what’s needed, and what’s missing. — Neil Sheehan

THE GREAT AMERICAN RAILROAD WAR: How Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris Took on the Central Pacific Railroad

By Dennis Drabelle (St. Martin’s)

This well-written book details how two very different American writers launched attacks on the corporate graft and corruption of the Transcontinental Railroad. — James L. Haley

THE HUNT FOR KSM; Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed

By Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer (Little, Brown)

This well-reported book focuses on the three investigators who believed Sheik Mohammed was a more of a threat than Osama bin Laden — long before the Sept. 11 attacks. — D.T-R.

IMMORTAL BIRD: A Family Memoir

By Doron Weber (Simon & Schuster)

This memoir of a child’s grave illness is surprisingly joyful at times as the portrait of an extraordinary young boy emerges.— Reeve Lindbergh

INTERVENTIONS: A Life in War and Peace

By Kofi Annan with Nader Mousavizadeh (Penguin Press)

The world’s top diplomat recounts his years heading United Nations efforts to tend to the world’s ills.— Colum Lynch

IT’S EVEN WORSE THAN IT LOOKS: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism

By Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein (Basic)

This blunt book will invigorate some readers and infuriate others. Today’s Republican Party, it argues, has little in common with earlier versions of the GOP, which believed in government. Instead, it is holding government for ransom for political advantage. — Robert G. Kaiser

KILL OR CAPTURE: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency

By Daniel Klaidman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Focusing on President Obama’s counterterrorism policy, the author makes clear his view that the hunt for Anwar al-Awlaki became a minor obsession and that the cleric’s American citizenship was deemed irrelevant when he was targeted for assassination. — D.T-R.

THE LAST PRE-RAPHAELITE: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination

By Fiona MacCarthy (Harvard)

Burne-Jones’s perceptions and the lively art scene he inhabited allow a reader to happily live in this new biography for a week. — M.D.

LITTLE AMERICA: The War Within the War for Afghanistan

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran (Knopf)

Chandrasekaran shows that the war in Afghanistan was waged with no central guidance from the top, with the Army fighting one war, the Marines another, and the British a small and ineffective third. — N.S.

THE LITTLE RED GUARD: A Family Memoir

By Wenguang Huang (Riverhead)

The cultural landscape of Mao’s China in the 1970s is the backdrop to this tale of a family trying to honor its matriarch’s demands for a traditional but illegal burial. — Sarah Halzack

THE MAN WHO CHANGED THE WAY WE EAT: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance

By Thomas McNamee (Free Press)

Craig Claiborne, the New York Times food editor for some 25 years, introduced Americans to foreign ingredients, and to Julia Child and New Orleans’s Paul Prudhomme. And all the while, he was turning restaurant criticism into a real profession. — Phyllis Richman

MANHUNT: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden From 9/11 to Abbottabad

By Peter L. Bergen (Crown)

Even with all the media saturation, Bergen manages to make the story of bin Laden’s end sound new. — D.T-R.

MIDNIGHT IN PEKING: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China

By Paul French (Penguin)

This period tale is a good murder story, told with flair, that takes readers back to old China. — Joseph Kanon

THE OATH: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court

By Jeffrey Toobin (Doubleday)

This page-turner chronicles the human details about the court justices and their interaction with the Obama administration. — Jeffrey Rosen

ON SAUDI ARABIA: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines — and Future

By Karen Elliott House (Knopf)

House offers insights into the oil-rich kingdom’s fault lines — its one-note economy, its complex tribal and religious leadership, the squandering of most of its human capital. One can’t know if and when the powder keg will blow, but readers of this important book will know why. — Rachel Newcomb

ON THE EVE: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War

By Bernard Wasserstein (Simon & Schuster)

This complex book argues that Jewish culture in Europe was doomed even before the Holocaust because of Jews’ self-hatred and desire for assimilation. One disturbing notion: that a unified Jewish culture was rejuvenated by the attempt to wipe it out. — Gerard DeGroot

PAKISTAN ON THE BRINK: The Future of America, Pakistan and Afghanistan

By Ahmed Rashid (Viking)

Pakistanis see the United States as an arrogant superpower that views their country as a killing field. Americans see Pakistan as duplicitous and dangerous. Both are right, says Rashid, a preeminent Pakistani journalist. — Bruce Riedel

THE PASSAGE OF POWER: The Years of Lyndon Johnson

By Robert A. Caro (Knopf)

Caro’s fourth volume on Johnson barely gets to his presidential years and paints the senator, then vice president, as by turn heroic and venal. — David Greenberg

PATRIOT OF PERSIA: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup

By Christopher de Bellaigue (Harper)

This nuanced portrait of an enigmatic man provides context for the dismal state of U.S.-Iran relations today. — Tara Bahrampour

THE PLAYGROUND

By Terrence M. McCoy (Kindle Single)

In this brief e-book, McCoy delivers a gripping account of Chinese corporate rapacity in Cambodia. A tale of the dark side of globalization. — Steven Levingston

PRAIRIE FEVER: British Aristocrats in the American West 1830-1890

By Peter Pagnamenta (Norton)

Blame it on James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales: By the mid-1800s, Britain’s then-1 percent were happy to send their 20-something sons to tour the Great Plains for sport and adventure, complete, as this deeply researched book tells us, with valets to dress them for the day. — Scott Martelle

THE PRESIDENTS CLUB: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity

By Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy (Simon & Schuster)

This lively history of the personal relationships among America’s post-World War II presidents suggests that former chief executives have often put aside partisan concerns to help achieve larger national goals — though there have been plenty of times when the “formers” have gone rogue. — D.G.

THE PRICE OF INEQUALITY: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future

By Joseph E. Stiglitz (Norton)

Instead of arguing “unfairness,” this Nobel-winning economist points out the consequences of allowing the nation’s wealth gap to grow, stating in effect that current business and government policies are not in the country’s best interest. — Dante Chinni

THE PRICE OF POLITICS

By Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster)

Woodward’s latest book is a highly detailed dissection of the nation’s debt-limit negotiations and how the hope of a “grand bargain” to reform the tax code and reduce runaway entitlement spending ended in recriminations and retrenchment. — Jeff Shesol

REPRESENTING THE RACE: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer

By Kenneth W. Mack (Harvard)

This tough-minded book goes beyond heralding the triumphs of early civil rights lawyers and argues that they succeeded by being as “white” as possible, forming a kind of fraternity of men whose “professional norms” allowed them passage across the color line. — David J. Garrow

THE RICHER SEX: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family

By Liza Mundy (Simon & Schuster)

Soon, says the author, women will be the top earners in households, causing “the Big Flip” in gender roles, to the benefit of all. But sometimes Mundy’s optimism exceeds the evidence. — Stephanie Coontz

RUNNING FOR MY LIFE: One Lost Boy’s Journey From the Killing Fields of Sudan to the Olympic Games

By Lopez Lomong with Mark Tabb (Thomas Nelson)

A moving, well-told tale by one of Sudan’s “lost boys,” who turned his daily run in a Kenyan refugee camp into a sport that took him to high school and college in the United States and put him on the U.S. team in two Olympic Games. — Steven V. Roberts

THE SOCIAL CONQUEST OF EARTH

By Edward O. Wilson (Liveright)

This renowned scientist unflinchingly defines the human condition as largely a product of the tension between the impulse to selfishness and to altruism, individual selection vs. group dynamic. — Colin Woodard

SWIM: Why We Love the Water

By Lynn Sherr (PublicAffairs)

This appealing book explores all aspects of swimming, one of our oldest pastimes, one of our most crucial life skills. — Nicola Joyce

THE TENDER HOUR OF TWILIGHT: Paris in the ’50s, New York in the ’60s A Memoir of Publishing’s Golden Age

By Richard Seaver (Farrar Straus Giroux)

The legendary book editor looks back on his literary life in Paris, where he championed Samuel Beckett and others, and then in New York, where he helped to establish the controversial Grove Press.
— M.D.

THOMAS JEFFERSON: The Art of Power

By Jon Meacham (Random House)

Despite the book’s subtitle, Meacham accomplishes something more impressive than dissecting Jefferson’s political skills — he explains the founding father’s greatness in this comprehensive narrative of his life. — Joyce Appleby

WAR ON THE WATERS: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865

By James M. McPherson (U. of North Carolina)

The aim of this compact book is to prove to modern students of the Civil War that naval superiority throughout the conflict — on the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico and the Southern river systems — was an indispensable ingredient of Union military victory. — Howell Raines

WINTER JOURNAL

By Paul Auster (Henry Holt)

A raw, deceptively simple memoir of aging — of life’s physical injuries, of sexual encounters — told by a storyteller to “you.” Chaotic at the outset, profoundly beautiful by the end. — Marie Arana

READ MORE:

PHOTOS | Best books of 2012

Top fiction, nonfiction of 2012

50 notable works of fiction

Best graphic novels of 2012

The year in literary news

Best audiobooks of 2012

SECTION: {section=entertainment, subsection=books}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=entertainment, subsection=books}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=3, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments
Most Read Entertainment