15 best books of 2012 – nonfiction

From a study of 19th-century photographer Edward Curtis to an examination of life in a present-day Mumbai slum, the nonfiction titles of 2012 opened doors to stories we'd never imagined. Here are the Monitor's picks for the 15 best nonfiction books of the year.

1.'The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,' by Anne-Marie O’Connor

Family strife, Europe in convulsion, the art business, and what might have been an affair between a painter and his model are among the crosscurrents of Anne-Marie O’Connor’s probe of Gustav Klimt’s painting of a Viennese socialite in the early 20th century. (Check out our review here.)

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

Monitor reviewer Terry Hong calls this National Book Award winner by New York Times correspondent Katherine Boo a work of “pure, astonishing reportage” depicting makeshift life in an Indian slum. (Check out our review here.)

'Eisenhower in War and Peace,' by Jean Edward Smith

Biographer Jean Edward Smith sifts through mountains of earlier appraisals, anecdotes, and historical documents and synthesizes the information into a crisply written, meticulous analysis of Eisenhower, which shows his presidency to have been far more transformative than was once acknowledged. (Check out our review here.)

'Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America,' by Gilbert King

Author, journalist, and photographer Gilbert King’s new book takes a compelling look at the case that forged Thurgood Marshall’s perception of himself as a crusader for civil rights. (Check out our review here.)

'Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West,' by Blaine Harden

This true story of life in a North Korean prison camp may be one of the most disturbing and eye-opening books that you will ever read. (Check out our review here.)

'Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,' by Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed walked 1,100 miles by herself in the California and Oregon wilderness. Her memoir tells the story of her crazy, reckless, fantastic journey. (Check out our interview with Strayed here.)

'Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,' by Susan Cain

In an increasingly talkative world, are the softer voices among us being undervalued? (Check out our review here.)

'The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. 4,' by Robert A. Caro

In Volume 4 of “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” biographer Robert A. Caro concentrates on the succession of political triumphs and defeats that accompanied LBJ to the Oval Office. (Check out our review here.)

'Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship,' by Richard Aldous

This wonderful new history by Bard College professor Richard Aldous makes clear that the relationship between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher was far more challenging and complex than is widely recognized. (Check out our review here.)

'Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power,' by Seth Rosenfeld

Former investigative reporter Seth Rosenfeld takes a deep and troubling look at Ronald Reagan’s handling of the civil unrest in Berkeley in the 1960s. (Check out our review here.)

'Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty,' by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson

Scholars Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson offer a bracing, insightful examination of the root causes of the success and/or failure of the world’s civilizations. (Check out our interview with Acemoglu here.)

'The Distance Between Us: A Memoir,' by Reyna Grande

Reyna Grande’s achingly sad story of her family’s illegal immigration to the United States puts a human face on a political issue. (Check out our review here.)

'Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam,' by Fredrik Logevall

Fredrik Logevall, a historian at Cornell University, has produced an essential read on the tragedy of the Vietnam War. (Check out our review here.)

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

Timothy Egan’s biography offers a stunning portrait of Edward Curtis, the photographer who made it his mission to photograph native Americans. (Check out our review here.)

'Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956,' by Anne Applebaum

Anne Applebaum’s deeply researched and exciting study of the beginnings of the cold war is the best book available on its subject. (Check out our review here.)