The Best Non-Fiction of 2010

by PopMatters Staff

23 January 2011

 

Sweetness and Blood and more...


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Sweetness and Blood: How Surfing Spread from Hawaii and California to the Rest of the World, with Some Unexpected Results

Michael Scott Moore

(Rodale)

Sweetness and Blood: How Surfing Spread from Hawaii and California to the Rest of the World, with Some Unexpected Results
Michael Scott Moore


Michael Scott Moore’s vibrant, immersion journalism travelogue is more than merely “an entertaining look at how modern surfing became a major export like Hollywood” (so states the somewhat misleading jacket copy) but a sharp-eyed exploration of geo-politics, globalization, cross-cultural influences, and the common mythology of youth (and surfers) worldwide. A Southern California surf culture native, Moore explored eight surfing destinations—Israel and the Gaza Strip, West Africa, Great Britain, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Cuba, and Morocco—to find out who pioneered surfing in each region. Moore’s lively and entertaining study is ultimately an examination of the cosmopolitan culture of harbor towns worldwide, with incredible paradoxical images: surfing in the shadow of Gothic spires in Cornwall and the war-ravaged shores of Gaza. The author’s citation of a quote from Paul Bowles’ 1955 novel, The Spider’s House, serves as an adequate summation of much at the heart and soul of this splendid work: “People of the alien cultures are being ravaged not so much by the by-products of our civilization, as by the irrational longing on the part of members of their own educated minorities to cease being themselves and become Westerners.” Rodger Jacobs

 

 


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Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original

Robin D. G. Kelley

(Simon & Schuster)

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
Robin D. G. Kelley


Writing about black lives has always been a matter of listening to the silences. It’s confronting the “X” that represents lost African names during slavery, imagining the would-be-manuscripts of those forbidden to read and write, and reconstructing truths that would have been unspeakable under the threat of White terrorism. In his portrait of Thelonious Monk, Robin Kelley shows his genius in penetrating those silences. Beyond the 14 years of study, the new interviews, the access to unreleased tapes, and the blessing of the Monk family, it’s Kelley’s ability to listen to what’s not there that turns an otherwise intriguing piece of research into a masterpiece of musical biography. Jeffrey Pinzino

 

 


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The Ticking Is the Bomb: A Memoir

Nick Flynn

(W. W. Norton & Company)

The Ticking Is the Bomb: A Memoir
Nick Flynn


This is a darkly elegant, bizarre exploration of what it means to embrace life in a culture of death. Flynn’s a guy who’d rather know truths—all of them—than live with lies. He may remain too tortured by his own demons to live happily ever after, but he’s living and loving his own small angels, and after pumping the reader through his heart’s grimy ventricles, blood dark as ink, that may be about the best he—or any of us 00 can hope to do.
Tara Murtha

 

 


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The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

Isabel Wilkerson

(Random House)

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
Isabel Wilkerson


Surely this is one of the finest non-fiction books of 2010. Any depiction of the variety of experiences for the millions of African-American who undertook the “Great Migration” to the north and west in the early-20th century through the post-Civil Rights years is a gargantuan task. Wilkerson’s insightful portrait of three families’ reasons for leaving the South, as well as their diverse economic and individual circumstances, make this portrait as wrenchingly unforgettable as artist Jacob Lawrence’s famous Migration series. Wilkerson shapes her research and voluminous oral histories into compelling narrative. While most readers are familiar with James Baldwin or Muddy Waters, here we meet Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, and learn their stories. Indeed, The Warmth of Other Suns sheds light on the immigrant experience within one’s native country; a crucial aspect of an often forgotten aspect of American history. Jessica Handler

 

 


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The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean

Susan Casey

(Knopf Doubleday)

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean
Susan Casey


This is a weird and wonderful book. Casey visits eerie Lituya Bay, Alaska where the oral history of the local Tlingit Indians is a “quilt of stories about wave-induced fear and death.” In 1958 a monstrous 1,700-foot tsunami deforested the Lituya Bay area, and it’s still one of the most dangerous places in the world. Casey focuses on two groups: the oceanographers who study giant waves and the extreme surfers who dare to ride them. Insurance companies fund a lot of wave research due to the high cost of losing shipping vessels. In one memorable passage, the cruise liner Oceania is destroyed by a killer wave. The captain and crew abandon their sinking ship and their passengers. The cruise line’s entertainers (a musician,  a comedian and a magician) are left to organize a desperate rescue with the South African Navy. Casey follows surfing legends Laird Hamilton and Brad Gerlach across the globe in pursuit of giant waves. A former competitive swimmer, Casey immerses herself in surfer culture. From Tahiti to Alaska, The Wave is (in surfer parlance) a wild ride. John Grassi

 


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