Before I get into Book Challenge 2012, I wanted to mention a few interesting books I read last year. This list is far from complete, and it excludes books already reviewed in the aborted Book Challenge 2011, but it's something. In no particular order...
The Evolution of God by Robert Wright - This book details how the concept of God, specifically the "Abrahamic God" of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, has changed over the years, often for socio-political pragmatism. It's a long book and not always easy to read (though generally Wright is an engaging author), but it's well worth the investment. I got a lot of insights from it, and a more dedicated blogger would have wrung half a dozen posts out of it (I intended to, but let's face it, the more time passes, the less likely that is to happen).
Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life by Steve Almond - I've read several of Almond's books and enjoyed them all. This book is about being a "drooling fanatic" of rock and roll. One useful assertion: every straight guy is allowed to have one man-crush on a musician. Almond scored big points with me when he mentioned Chuck Prophet several times, especially when he put the Let Freedom Ring album on his desert island playlist, because Prophet is my current musical man-crush.
The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman - This isn't Jeane Dixon or Nostradamus stuff -- Friedman is the founder of STRATFOR, a private intelligence firm. Most of the book is about geopolitics and how power is expected to shift among nations. Friedman describes how U.S. history thus far has run in 50-year cycles, an insight that was new to me.
The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man by David W. Maurer - Not to be confused with The Big Con by Jonathan Chait. This book from 1940 tells about the elaborate schemes used by con men to fleece their marks in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The stories are fascinating, and the language is rich and colorful. The old truism "You can't con an honest man" is explained here: in a con game, the con man is offering to let the mark in on a deal that is illegal to begin with, so the mark has to be willing to cheat to make money in order to be cheated out of his own money (this aspect also works to discourage the mark from reporting the crime, similar to "But officer, he stole my drugs!"). I felt like I entered a new world while I was reading this book. I recently picked up a memoir from "The Yellow Kid", one of the con men named in The Big Con.
Everything is Wrong with Me: A Memoir of an American Childhood Gone, Well, Wrong by Jason Mulgrew - These entertaining tales of juvenile delinquency reminded me of Joe Peacock's Mentally Incontinent. I read a lot of memoirs in 2011 and bought even more since they were among the deepest discounted categories during the Borders bankruptcy.
But Enough About Me: How a Small-Town Girl Went from Shag Carpet to the Red Carpet by Jancee Dunn - Dunn writes about her career with Rolling Stone and MTV2, interspersing her own memoir with advice and tales about interviewing celebrities. I read and enjoyed her Why Is My Mother Getting a Tattoo? first, but I liked But Enough About Me more.
Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut by Mike Mullane - The Apollo program gets much more attention, but the space shuttle was my generation's version of space travel. I liked most of this book, and Mullane's poetic description of looking out the shuttle's windows on his last flight while everyone else was asleep was awesome. In a review, I might ding him a star for the awful, softcore porn-ish tale of the time he almost nailed a fellow (female) astronaut. That part was unnecessary and frankly made me uncomfortable and embarrassed for him (I'm no prude -- the writing was just that bad).