THE NYT's 10 Best Books of 2012 takes readers on a journey spanning Tudor intrigue, an Iraq War mystery and life in Mumbai slums.
1. Bring Up the Bodies
By Hilary Mantel
A John Macrae Book/Henry Holt & Company, US$28
Taking up where her previous novel, "Wolf Hall," left off, Mantel makes the seemingly worn-out story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn newly fascinating and suspenseful. Seen from the perspective of Henry's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, the ruthless maneuverings of the court move swiftly to the inevitable executions. Both this novel and its predecessor were awarded the Man Booker Prize. Might the trilogy's forthcoming conclusion, in which Cromwell will meet his demise, score Mantel a hat trick?
2. Building Stories
By Chris Ware
Pantheon Books, US$50
Ware's innovative graphic novel deepens and enriches the form by breaking it apart. Packaged in a large box like a board game, the project contains 14 "easily misplaced elements" - pamphlets, books, foldout pages - that together follow the residents of a Chicago triplex (and one anthropomorphized bee). In doing so, it tackles universal themes including art, sex, family and existential loneliness in a way that's playful and profound.
3. A Hologram for the King
By Dave Eggers
McSweeney's Books, US$25
In an empty city in Saudi Arabia, a middle-aged American businessman waits day after day to close the deal he hopes will redeem his forlorn life. Eggers spins this spare story - a globalized "Death of a Salesman" - into a parable of America's international standing and a riff on middle-class decline that approaches Beckett in its absurdist despair.
By Zadie Smith
The Penguin Press, US$27
Smith's piercing new novel, her first in seven years, traces the friendship of two women who grew up in a housing project in northwest London, their lives disrupted by fateful choices and chance. For all of its formal experimentation, the narrative is intimate and searingly direct.
5. The Yellow Birds
By Kevin Powers
Little, Brown & Company, US$25
A veteran of the Iraq war, Powers places that conflict at the center of his impressionistic first novel, about the connected but diverging fates of two young soldiers and the trouble one of them has readjusting to life at home. Reflecting the chaos of war, the fractured narrative jumps around, but Powers anchors it with crystalline prose and a driving mystery: How did the narrator's friend die?
6. Behind The Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
By Katherine Boo
Random House, US$27
This National Book Award-winning study of life in Annawadi, a Mumbai slum, is marked by reporting so rigorous it recalls characters so rich they evoke Dickens' work. The slum dwellers have a skillful and empathetic chronicler in Boo, who depicts them in all their humanity and ruthless, resourceful glory.
7. Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity
By Andrew Solomon
Solomon has studied the challenges, risks and rewards of raising children with "horizontal identities," traits they don't share with their parents. As he investigates how families have grown stronger or fallen apart while raising prodigies, dwarfs, schizophrenics, transgendered children or those conceived in rape, he complicates everything we thought we knew about love, sacrifice and success.
8. The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson
By Robert A Caro
Alfred A. Knopf, US$35
The fourth volume of Caro's prodigious masterwork, which now exceeds 3,000 pages, explores, with the author's signature combination of sweeping drama, psychological insight and painstaking research, Johnson's humiliating years as vice president, when he was excluded from the inner circle of the Kennedy White House and stripped of power.
9. The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy
By David Nasaw
The Penguin Press, US$40
Nasaw took six years to complete this sprawling, arresting account of a banker-cum-speculator-cum-moviemaker-cum-ambassador-cum-dynastic founder. Joe Kennedy was involved in virtually all the history of his time, and his biographer makes the case that he was the most fascinating member of his large, famous and formidable family.
10. Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story
By Jim Holt
Liveright Publishing/WW Norton & Company, US$28
For centuries, thinkers have wondered, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" In search of an answer, Holt takes the reader on a witty and erudite journey, as hears philosophers, scientists and novelists offer thought-provoking solutions.