Micah Zenko, NatSec columnist
Global Burden of Armed Violence 2011, by the Geneva Declaration
My favorite book published last year was actually a report, the Geneva Declaration's Global Burden of Armed Violence. The updated 2011 version provides a comprehensive, data-based assessment of the wide variability of armed violence around the world, and challenges many widely held analytical assumptions and policy responses regarding the purposeful use of violence against others. For example, of the 526,000 people killed by lethal violence, only 10 percent died from armed conflicts, either through civil or inter-state wars. Read the report as a pairing with the best movie I saw in 2012, The Interrupters, a haunting documentary about the efforts of Project Ceasefire, a grass-roots organization dedicated to preventing the spread of an idea in inner-city Chicago: that it is acceptable to resolve grievances through gun violence.
Christian Caryl, Democracy Lab editor
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956, by Anne Applebaum (2012)
Anne Applebaum (an FP contributor) explores a crucial moment in recent European history that has never been explored with the depth and discernment that it deserved. This book fills the gap.
Joshua E. Keating, associate editor
Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations, by Norman Davies (2012)
In Vanished Kingdoms, eminent English historian Davies explores the history of the European countries that never made it. From Alt Clut to Burgundy to Erturia, these kingdoms were once as established as the states we know today and in some cases lasted for centuries. Davies makes the case that despite what modern nationalists might believe about the ancient heritage and naturalness of their nations, it's largely due to flukes of history that today's list of countries features France, Germany, and Ukraine, but not Aragon, Prussia, or Galicia.
Preeti Aroon, copy chief
The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker (2011)
We humans are living in the safest, least violent, most humane time ever, and Steven Pinker's exhaustive 832-page book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, leaves no stone unturned in proving it. The Harvard University social scientist addresses multiple forms of violence -- war, homicide, torture, domestic violence, child abuse, animal cruelty -- and shows definitively how humankind has developed institutions, norms, and values that have led to a kinder, gentler, less violent world. He skewers every possible objection you could throw at him (sorry, John Arquilla), and the book leaves you feeling so thankful you're living in the 21st century A.D. -- and not the 21st century B.C. Especially fascinating are Pinker's discussions of how first-person literature fostered empathy for other peoples and how we've reduced violence simply by decriminalizing victimless behaviors (blasphemy, witchcraft, homosexuality).
Margy Slattery, assistant managing editor
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo (2012)
It hardly feels original to heap praise on Behind the Beautiful Forevers, this year's National Book Award winner for nonfiction. But there's a reason Katherine Boo's cheering squad has grown so big. For one thing, the book, a portrait of Mumbai's gritty Annawadi slum and several of its residents, models superb long-form storytelling: Boo has spun three-and-a-half years of meticulous reporting into a narrative with rich characters and dramatic moments large and small. More than that, I found Behind the Beautiful Forevers an empathetic, though not preachy, account of how poverty saturates the lives it afflicts -- a reality made all the more stark with India's economic rise as a backdrop.
Ty McCormick, assistant editor
The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America's war in Arabia, by Gregory D. Johnsen (2012)
Written with the rare combination of scholarly depth and journalistic flair, The Last Refuge opens a critical window into one of the most important but least covered fronts in the war on terror. Beginning in the early 1990s, when a wave of Arab fighters flooded into Yemen from Afghanistan and fought what they saw as a second jihad against the country's southern socialists, Johnsen's book chronicles the spectacular rise of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) -- the group responsible for the failed bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 in 2009 as well as numerous other attempts to strike inside the United States. At the heart of this drama is the tortured relationship between the Yemeni government -- the sometimes-friend and sometimes-foe of al Qaeda -- and Washington, which predictably loses interest in Yemen every time the terrorist threat appears to wane. Today, AQAP is stronger than it's ever been, despite ramped-up drone strikes and a record aid package to the fragile government in Sanaa. To understand how we got to this point, Johnsen's book is essential reading.
Elias Groll, editorial assistant
The Tin Drum, by Gunter Grass (1959)
For many years, Gunter Grass was known as Germany's conscience. A writer whose work has heavily criticized the German people's complicity in the Holocaust, Grass presented himself as an uncompromised voice whose ethical commitments grappled head-on with his country's troubled, bloody history. For attempting to confront and describe a past that seemingly defies description, Grass earned the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999. In its prize citation, the Swedish Academy praised Grass as a writer "whose frolicsome black fables portray the forgotten face of history" and said his 1959 novel, The Tin Drum, "comes to grips with the enormous task of reviewing contemporary history by recalling the disavowed and the forgotten: the victims, losers and lies that people wanted to forget because they had once believed in them." So it is perhaps not surprising that the literary establishment exploded in anger when Grass in 2006 revealed the full extent of his involvement in the Nazi regime. Until then, Grass had only admitted to serving as a helper in a Luftwaffe anti-aircraft battery, but in his 2006 autobiography, Peeling the Onion, he revealed that he had in fact been a member of the Waffen SS, one of the most brutal units in the Nazi army. Although Grass himself had not participated in any of the numerous war crimes carried out by the unit, the disclosure seemed to fly in the face of the public persona of moral accountability that Grass had constructed for himself. A headline in the Economist summed up the prevailing sentiment: "Another hero lost." But if anything, the revelation of Grass's Nazi past makes his landmark work, The Tin Drum -- an at times hilarious, at times heartbreaking coming-of-age story of a dwarf with quasi-magical powers during World War II -- a fascinating historical document from a writer who is perhaps trying to have it both ways: to impugn German collaboration while at the same time obfuscating his own guilt.