Our Favorite Books of the Year

On dog cloning, cocaine smuggling, brain surgery, green technology, healthy farming, and much more. Read on!

Fri Dec. 23, 2011 4:00 AM PST

Don't miss our year-end lists of the best music and documentary film to come out in 2011. They all make great gifts, as does a MoJo gift subscription, by the way.

Keep the Change: A Clueless Tipper's Quest to Become the Guru of the Gratuity

By Steve Dublanica

ECCO

In 2004, Steve Dublanica started Waiter Rant, an anonymous blog that charted his vexations waiting tables at an upscale bistro in the New York City 'burbs. Four years later, Dublanica emerged from the blogosphere with a bestselling memoir of clueless patrons and coke-snorting kitchen staff. One of the hardest parts of being a waiter, he told Oprah, was attempting to master the calculus of good and bad tipping.

In Keep the Change, Dublanica sets forth on a dizzying quest to understand the mental math and morality of gratuities. Half travelogue, half manifesto, the book recounts his misadventures in tipping as he travels across America talking with a cross-section of the 3 percent of the workforce that relies on tips. He shadows doormen and parking valets, tries to make tip-jar-worthy espresso with Portland baristas, and interviews Vegas strippers between lap dances—all to "figure out how to tip with a clear and informed conscience."

Dublanica's advice: When in doubt, tip and tip well. Give baristas more than your change; 50 cents is "amazing," says a manager at Starbucks (which forbids employees from labeling their tip jars as such). Give your dog groomer 20 percent. Give altar boys at your wedding 10 to 15 bucks each. Give car-wash attendants three to five dollars directly, since supervisors sometimes steal their tips. One comes away from Keep the Change with a sheepish sense of having unknowingly stiffed many whose survival depends upon the kindness of customers.Zoë Slutzky

 

Desert Duty: On the Line with the US Border Patrol

By Bill Broyles and Mark Haynes

UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS PRESS

This Studs Terkel-style oral history sets out to rebrand the US Border Patrol as more than just a political prop for the anti-immigration crowd. Through interviews with active and retired agents at a post in Arizona's scorching Sonoran Desert, the authors (one a former agent) cast the force not just as enforcers but humanitarians. One retired officer recalls holding impromptu funerals in the desert for migrants who didn't make it. The men in green, as the authors put it, "are the people you'd pray were on your trail and on their way." In spite of its one-sided view, Desert Duty brings to life a perspective on the border debate you rarely hear about.Tim Murphy

 

Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War

By Deb Olin Unferth

HENRY HOLT

In 1987, when Deb Olin Unferth was 18, she followed her charismatic boyfriend George to Nicaragua to "foment the revolution." This proved more difficult than they'd anticipated: The couple spent less time overthrowing an oppressive regime than fighting with each other, trudging through squalid streets, and getting robbed. This clearheaded and funny memoir captures the grit and chaos of a tumultuous moment in Central American history, but it's really a coming-of-age story. "It was the first time I dried clothes on a line, interviewed a politician, the first time I searched for food, the right road, the right bus," writes Unferth, who's now a novelist. She didn't become a revolutionary, but she did become a grown-up.Kiera Butler

 

Dog, Inc.: The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man's Best Friend

By John Woestendiek

AVERY PRESS

Dog, Inc. explores the curious history of pet cloning, from its roots in a 1928 experiment in which a German biologist replicated a salamander, to the present, when scientists are only too willing to help doting dog-owners reanimate their canine companions. After describing a range of pet-related experiments, from Snuppy the cloned puppy to fluorescent beagles and freeze-dried cats, Woestendiek wonders: Should we do something just because it's possible? At the heart of his narrative are the pet owners who refuse to accept that the clones bounding into their arms are only physical replicas of their departed mutts. As one remarks, "I can't wait until Booger 2 is born. I'm having to sell my home to pay for it, but that's OK, because I'll have my friend back."Maddie Oatman

 

The Savage City: Race, Murder, and a Generation on the Edge

By T.J. English

MORROW

Imagine a city where detectives "solve" murders by pressuring innocent people to confess, where bribing the police is a standard business expense, and where tensions run so high that cops on patrol must dodge flaming trash cans. This isn't The Wire—it's New York City in the late 1960s. The Savage City examines the social and racial turmoil of the period through the stories of three men: George Whitmore Jr., a partially blind black teenager whose casual conversation with a cop lands him in jail for three grisly murders he didn't commit; Bill Phillips, a white police officer who makes enough money shaking down the people on his beat to buy his own airplane; and Dhoruba bin Wahad, a street kid turned Black Panther. Though their paths never cross, each story affects the others: Phillips is the poster child for the corrupt police force that exploits Whitmore's naiveté; bin Wahad is radicalized in part by following Whitmore's story. T.J. English is a crime writer (Havana Nocturne), and much of the book reads like a thriller. But thanks to interviews with many of its characters, it's dripping with the kind of detail that's too good to make up. Casey Miner

 

I Am the Market: How to Smuggle Cocaine by the Ton, in Five Easy Lessons

By Luca Rastello

FARRAR, STRAUSS & GIROUX

In this as-told-to tale, Italian journalist Luca Rastello crafts the memories of an imprisoned drug smuggler into a picaresque complete with colorful criminals ("squat as a wine flask, hewn out of a single block, two gorilla-like arms that reached down to his knees") and jaw-dropping profits ("But you've brought in 1,200 kilos of cocaine!...That comes to 25 million dollars!"). It's loosely divided into two parts: The first teaches you (yes, it's written in the second person) how to transport a couple of kilos hidden up your ass, woven into your dreadlocks, or molded into shirt buttons. The second details how to secrete tons of white powder inside shipments of marble, granite, and copper cables so the corporations transporting it don't realize it. There isn't a moral here, just an astonishing inside look at a business like any other: "What is a drug smuggler, technically speaking? A service provider. Nothing else." —Richard Horan

 

Shadows Bright as Glass: The Remarkable Story of One Man's Journey From Brain Trauma to Artistic Triumph

By Amy Ellis Nutt

FREE PRESS

In 1989, Jon Sarkin, a 35-year-old chiropractor, underwent last-ditch brain surgery for nerve damage and awoke as a wildly creative man with a frantic need to draw and paint. Amy Ellis Nutt spent more than five years chronicling his transformation into an eccentric but successful artist—who became fixated on things like recycling and stocking up on soup—as well as his wife's and young children's struggle to accept the new him. The result is a lyrical piece of science journalism and an intimate family portrait. Shadows Bright as Glass takes on the relationship between physiology and the human spirit, and the question of what really makes us who we are. Emma Silvers

 

How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III

By Ron Rosenbaum

SIMON & SCHUSTER

In 1978, Ron Rosenbaum wrote an article that helped inspire perhaps the most popular depiction of a brush with nuclear doomsday, the 1983 movie WarGames. In How the End Begins, he revisits the topic, reaching gloomy conclusions—even for a self-described pessimist. Besides being worried about itchy trigger fingers in Israel, Iran, China, and North Korea, he also exposes shocking security lapses in aging American and Russian nuclear-launch systems. An ex-military source suggests that "a single canny [American] missileer could, for whatever reason, launch fifty missiles on his own." As always, Rosenbaum writes colorfully about his unnerving research, which includes a visit to the "Strangelovian Old Curiosity Shop" that is the National Security Archives and meeting a black-humored Russian bomb designer. "I think only luck has saved us," he writes, "and our luck is bound to run out before we find a way to eliminate nukes." Kevin Canfield

 

Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age

By Susan Jacoby

RANDOM HOUSE

In this eloquent meditation on the pitfalls of "the new old age," Susan Jacoby sets out to deflate our obsession with longevity, from its first stirrings in the Boomer generation's belief in self-reinvention to the claim, advanced by Big Pharma and websites like livingto100.com, that 90 will soon become the new 50. Improbable expectations of old age abound, from the pervasive images of slim, healthy-looking oldsters climbing mountains to drug ads promising endless erections. This, writes Jacoby, "is not old age but a concept of aging that ends where the more disabling, restrictive stage of old age begins." The result of such wishful thinking is a rapidly growing population of elders that is chronically underserved (especially the 25 percent who live below the poverty line). We ignore them at our own peril.Zoë Slutzky

 

Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology

By Alexis Madrigal

DA CAPO

If you think green energy is a 21st century breakthrough, think again: In 1900, roughly one-third of automobiles were electric; the first megawatt wind turbine was built in 1941; and today's wave-power startups can trace their roots to the Wave-Power Air-Compressing Company, which claimed "one of the greatest inventions of the age"—in 1895 (PDF). In Powering the Dream, Madrigal, The Atlantic's tech editor, delves into alternative energy's past to glean its future. A master at autopsies of promising yet deceased technologies, he argues that some of them flopped due to lack of funding, while others, like the early '40s wind turbine, were too far ahead of their time (another turbine of its size wouldn't be built for 40 years). As Madrigal smartly shows, tackling the climate crisis takes more than inventing the next killer app: You also have to convince people to use it. Josh Harkinson

 

To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918

By Adam Hochschild

HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT

In a dramatic narrative that reads like historical fiction, Mother Jones cofounder Hochschild connects Britain's unraveling during World War I to its divisive struggles over imperialism and women's suffrage. His scenes and characters—labor activists, feminists, writers, even a lion tamer—are mesmerizing, and his depiction of a Western superpower shattered by an ill-conceived overseas war has special resonance. Hochschild sees the conflict's often-forgotten critics as vanguards of the modern antiwar movement, dreamers loyal to a new notion of citizenship. The war resisters' battle "could not be won in 1914-1918," he writes, "but it remained, and still remains, to be fought again—and again." Adam Weinstein

 

Johnny Appleseed: The Man, the Myth, the American Story

By Howard Means

SIMON & SCHUSTER

Everything you thought you knew about Johnny Appleseed is a lie. As this biography tells it, the real Appleseed, née John Chapman, was a land speculator, evangelist, and drifter. He might not have worn a tin pail for a hat, and he probably never planted anything worth eating—although whether that's because he was busy planting apples for hard cider (as Michael Pollan has argued), or just a little careless in his seed-sowing, goes unresolved. Appleseed's vague life story is what makes him so intriguing to everyone from Pollan to the tea partiers, who launched Project Appleseed to teach "heritage and history"—and marksmanship. With such a dearth of hard facts, almost everything about the man is up for interpretation; Appleseed, concludes Means, is "where we go to rediscover American innocence." Tim Murphy

 

The Beekeeper's Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America

By Hannah Nordhaus

HARPERCOLLINS

John Miller is one of the few beekeepers who still makes a living trucking millions of bees back and forth across the country to pollinate fruit trees. Pesticides, parasites, and Colony Collapse Disorder threaten his hives; low honey prices and bee theft mean that he sometimes barely scrapes by. The Beekeeper's Lament examines the wonders of the apian world that keep Miller (a stubborn romantic who douses his food with honey) tied to his trade, from hives' social hierarchies to the alchemy that turns noxious weeds into sought-after honey varietals. Yet by disrupting bees' natural lifecycles, the large-scale fruit farming that sustains modern beekeeping may become its downfall. Nordhaus shows that much more than the sweet stuff is at stake—your almonds and summer fruit depend on these tiny migrant workers. Maddie Oatman

 

The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers

By Scott Carney

WILLIAM MORROW

Tragedy struck one evening in 2006, when an American girl, part of a student group the author was mentoring on a trip to India, fell from a rooftop and died. As Carney negotiated with police and insurance companies to get her body home, it struck him that "every corpse has a stakeholder." In his subsequent multi-year investigation of the international trade in blood and body parts, he talked to an Indian bone trafficker banished from his village for robbing graves, followed the trail of a kidnapping-adoption ring from Chennai to a quaint Midwestern town (a story first published in these pages), and exposed brokers who bought kidneys from desperate refugees in Indonesia. A fascinating read, The Red Market sheds needed light on what Carney calls "the darkest corners of our economic world." Joe Kloc

 

In Defense of Flogging

By Peter Moskos

BASIC BOOKS

Though its title suggests a Swiftian satire, this book by criminal justice professor Peter Moskos is a genuine call to reinstate flogging as a voluntary alternative to incarceration. The author, a former Baltimore police officer, opens with a simple query: "Which would you choose?" For those who consider flogging barbaric, he cites prison overcrowding, mental-health neglect, gang rape, and post-incarceration homelessness. Warehousing criminals is far crueler, Moskos insists. Why not lock up the most-hardened cases and let the rest tend to their damaged hinds and get on with their lives? If our penal system remains "an expensive and immoral failure," he writes, "then bring on the lash." Emily Loftis

 

The Old Man and the Swamp: A True Story About My Weird Dad, a Bunch of Snakes, and One Ridiculous Road Trip

By John Sellers

SIMON & SCHUSTER

When music journalist John Sellers was a kid, his dad quit his job as a pastor to scour the wilds of Michigan for snakes. Sellers, a self-proclaimed "furniture potato," never quite understood the appeal; his father would disappear for weeks on end "and return home looking and smelling like the love child of the Swamp Thing and Ted Kaczynski." But when he hit his thirties, Sellers grew curious about his old man's obsession and decided to accompany him on a trip to the swamps in pursuit of the elusive copperbelly. The result is a funny and winning story that is less about snakes than a guy who just wants to understand his singularly eccentric dad. Kiera Butler

 

The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting

By Rachel Shteir

PENGUIN PRESS

For as long as shopping has existed, so too has shoplifting, from early incarnations in 17th- and 18th-century England (where cutpurses akin to the fictional Moll Flanders filched brocaded silk from London storefronts) to its modern manifestation as a disease (kleptomania), anti-establishment protest (the 1971 cult manual Steal This Book), and vice of the blasé celebrity (Winona Ryder, Lindsay Lohan). Yet through it all, no one has come up with a cure—retail's "silent epidemic" still costs consumers a small fortune in price increases. In this fascinating and sweeping history, Shteir, a cultural critic, shows how the crime's persistence reveals "important truths about our markets, our courtrooms, and our identities." Zoë Slutzky

 

Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius

By Sylvia Nasar

SIMON & SCHUSTER

In the 18th century, the storied British conservative Edmund Burke observed that "nine parts in ten of the whole race of mankind drudge through life." Nasar, an economist herself, profiles a long list of notables—from novelist Charles Dickens to Nobelist Amartya Sen—who have applied their prodigious intellectual talents to improving the lot of that lower 90 percent. The result is less a cohesive history than an amusing pastiche of her characters' insecurities and caprices, like Karl Marx's bastard child and Friedrich Hayek's lifelong crush on a cousin. Ultimately, she savages socialism and celebrates capitalism. Yet, like A Beautiful Mind, her best-selling bio of schizophrenic mathematician John Nash, this is a lively, instructive tome. "Before 1870 economics was mostly about what you couldn't do," Nasar writes. "After 1870, it was mostly about what you could." Adam Weinstein

 

Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar

Edited by Matt McAllester

UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS

If breaking bread is key to our humanity, it is doubly so in a conflict zone. In this riveting collection, correspondents share war stories through the lens of food and drink. The fare ranges from pagan sheep sacrifice in war-torn Ossetia (the ear tastes "burned, hairy, cartilaginous") to the overindulgences of North Korea's Kim Jong-Il ($120-a-bite rice cakes). Under fire in Afghanistan, US soldiers fetishize MREs, while, amid Rwanda's horrors, the tea tastes like death due to corpses clogging the waterways. One author trains to withstand excessive drinking, a prerequisite for broaching the Irish Republican Army's inner circle. Another one concludes his profile of Benazir Bhutto with a recipe for burfi, a sugary sweet that Pakistan's former leader gobbles compulsively during their visit—only days before her assassination. In the end, the food rituals become a vehicle for tales of greed and pettiness, but also friendship and human dignity. Michael Mechanic

 

Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography

By Errol Morris

THE PENGUIN PRESS

We expect photography to reflect reality, to encapsulate undeniable facts. In this book, filmmaker Errol Morris dismantles that notion, showing that even the least ambiguous photos present a cropped version of truth. He interrogates famous images from the Civil War, the Depression, and Iraq with characteristic curiosity. Trying to deconstruct the notorious photo of an Abu Ghraib guard grinning over a corpse (an image also featured in his film, Standard Operating Procedure), Morris gets a crash course from an authority on facial expressions. While obsessing over a 150-year-old Crimean War photo that may have been staged, he consults shadow experts and forensic imagery specialists and even sets out to find the exact spot where it was taken. "Photographs reveal and they conceal," Morris writes. In short, those proverbial 1,000 words may require a bit of fact-checking. Dave Gilson

 

Folks, This Ain't Normal: A Farmer's Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World

By Joel Salatin

CENTER STREET

A Virginia farmer and devout Christian whose innovative livestock operation was featured in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, Joel Salatin has been reaping a literary cash crop: books of homespun food wisdom. His latest combines Wendell Berryesque agrarian ecology with barnyard preaching and cornpone comedy to accomplish what literary theorists call "queering"—highlighting just how strange our "normal" worldview has become. While his chatty informality gives the book a padded feel, even alt-foodies should be able to appreciate his lucid treatment of topics like bovine ecology. But the ideal audience is your Big Gulp-quaffing conservative cousin. This book has enormous potential to broaden the movement's appeal. Tom Philpott

 

El Narco

By Ioan Grillo

BLOOMSBURY PRESS

In 2004, as Mexico's drug violence took a particularly bloody turn, Ioan Grillo was writing for the Houston Chronicle. His editor had one request: "Cover it like a war!" This graphic and fast-paced history covers south-of-the-border trafficking from '60s-era shipments of Acapulco Gold to the decapitation-filled headlines wrought by the likes of kingpin (and alleged billionaire) Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán and his rivals, the Zetas—special ops soldiers turned criminals. As Grillo tells it, the cartels' fratricide has barely dented an industry that nets an estimated $30 billion per year: "In the drug business, it seems, a war economy functions perfectly well." Ian Gordon

 

420 Characters

By Lou Beach

HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT

"It says 'shit,'" observes my six-year-old, spotting Jonathan Lethem's cover blurb: "Holy sh*t! These are great!" And they are. Rendered as Facebook updates in 420 characters or less, these thought-provoking vignettes from illustrator Lou Beach are funny, poetic, touching, sexy, twisted—scene-and-character sketches replete with bumpkins, criminals, angry teens, truckers, boozers, bimbos, animals, and sentient objects. Best savored one or two a day, like a New Yorker cartoon calendar. Michael Mechanic

 

Ten Letters

By Eli Saslow

DOUBLEDAY

To keep a finger on the pulse of everyday America, President Obama reads 10 letters from the public each day. Some begin "Dear Jackass" or "Dear Moron." Others are written with style and sensitivity. Eli Saslow, a reporter for the Washington Post, tracks down and profiles 10 letter-writers from all over the map—a military officer serving in Afghanistan, a cash-strapped college freshman, a leukemia patient—whose missives affected the president and even influenced his decisions. "I will tell you," Saslow writes, quoting Obama, "my staff is very evenhanded, because about half of these letters call me an idiot." Rebecca Huval

 

I'm With the Bears: Short Stories From a Damaged Planet

Edited by Mark Martin

VERSO

In this imaginative collection, celebrated storytellers riff on climate change. Our grim future is one theme: Margaret Atwood's prose poem envisions a "dry lakeshore," while Paolo Bacigalupi describes a "Big Daddy Drought." It's not all dystopian. T.C. Boyle writes about a family's botched environmental protest, and up-and-comer Nathaniel Rich evokes a biologist's conversation with an ailing hermit crab. Each story packs an emotional punch that staid reports of melting ice caps can't rival. "Science can only take us so far," notes Bill McKibben in the introduction; it's the artist's job "to help us understand what things feel like." Kiera Butler

 

Blue Nights

By Joan Didion

ALFRED A. KNOPF

In 2005, Joan Didion won a National Book Award for The Year of Magical Thinking, an account of her husband's sudden death while Quintana, their only child, languished in hospitals, stricken with a bevy of life-threatening diseases. (She died before the book was released.) Blue Nights is also about Quintana, but it isn't nostalgic. Didion interrogates herself ruthlessly about her own mortality and maternal abilities. What materializes is a heartbreaking portrait of the family's implosion. Of the church wall where her husband's ashes were interred, Didion writes: "There had been two spaces remaining, the names not yet engraved. Now there was one." Tim McDonnell

 

Thinking, Fast and Slow

By Daniel Kahneman

FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX

Our brains have two systems for decision making: One is fast and automatic, driven by emotion; the other is a slow and deliberate, if sometimes impractical, check on the first. This engaging book, a culmination of years of work in behavioral psychology that earned Daniel Kahneman the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in economics, examines the interplay between these systems to explain why, for instance, we vote for attractive politicians and tend to be overconfident in our ability to predict the stock market. "The issue of which of the two selves matters more is not a question only for philosophers," Kahneman writes. It has real-life implications for politics and public policy. Gavin Aronsen

Front page image: Tischenko Irina/Shutterstock

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.