The Best Non-Fiction of 2011

by PopMatters Staff

23 February 2012

 

Judith Halberstam and more...


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The Queer Art of Failure

Judith Halberstam

(Duke University Press)
US: Dec 2011

The Queer Art of Failure
Judith Halberstam


Halberstam argues that the entire field of culture—from the “silly archive” of Pixar to the most radical works of queer artists—provides the materials for imagining alternative worlds: “Academics, activists, artists, and cartoon characters have long been on a quest to articulate an alternative vision of life, love, and labor and to put such a vision into practice.” Rather than dismissing the popular as something irrelevant, or simply too silly or corrupt to offer more than distraction, for Halberstam pop does indeed matter. To read and realize the alternatives culture offers, we need modes of interpretation that take advantage of academic insights but also move beyond its ideas of rigor, seriousness, and institutional constraint. She argues that failure might be called a “queer art” because it avoids the trap of what might be called straight failure—the mere envy of the “successful” when one finds such “success” unobtainable. Rather then envy or resentment, queer failure invents new forms of life unavailable and unimaginable to the so-called successful. Rather than searching for ways around death and disappointment, the queer art of failure involves the acceptance of the finite, the embrace of the absurd, the silly, and the hopelessly goofy. Halberstam’s engagement with the popular, her willingness to think through the popular, is exhilarating, and will spur readers on to rethink their everyday encounters with the contemporary spectacle and all conceptualizations of success. David Banash

 

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Rock and Roll Always Forgets: A Quarter Century of Music Criticism

Chuck Eddy

(Duke University Press)
US: Oct 2011

Rock and Roll Always Forgets: A Quarter Century of Music Criticism
Chuck Eddy


Is there anyone who has written about music over the last few decades who manages to be so brilliantly contrary? To write with such cauterizing, strident and beautiful prose? To be so unrepentedly full of bullshit? Rock and Roll Always Forgets will convince you that the answer is no. This collection pulls together around 100 essays, reviews and occasional pieces by this mad genius and former Village Voice music editor known for his early, incisive writing on new wave, his rants against “indie” music and his unlikely appreciation of pop country constructs like Toby Keith and Montgomery Gentry. Eddy is convincing as any schizophrenic who’s constructed his own private, illusory kingdom with its own laws and possibilities, all of which make sense on their own terms. Crenellated sandcastles of irrationality. You’ll find some of the most insightful and revealing rock-crit you’ve ever read, here. Buy this book. But try to get it in a soft cover edition. You’ll be throwing it against a wall. A lot. W. Scott Poole

 

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See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody

Bob Mould

(Little, Brown & Company)
US: Jun 2011

See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody
Bob Mould


The long-awaited autobiography from punk rock icon Bob Mould doesn’t disappoint. We follow Mould from his abusive home in a remote upstate New York town to the sweaty punk clubs of California to wild sex parties outside New York City. Told with unflinching honesty, Mould discusses both the private and public reactions to his sexuality, including his famous “outing” by Spin circa 1994, as well as his bouts with alcoholism and his frequently troubled love life. Naturally, there’s plenty about music, from Hüsker Dü’s early days in Minneapolis and Saint Paul to triumphant solo performances at major festivals. Mould isn’t always a sympathetic character—his ability to turn a cold shoulder on his former bandmates and ex-lovers is understandable but occasionally reads as unduly harsh. His transformation, nearly his middle years, from a man deeply in the closet to a man who lives life with a rare and enviable vigor, is remarkable. Jedd Beaudoin

 

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Shatner Rules: Your Key to Understanding the Shatnerverse and the World at Large

William Shatner

(Penguin)
US: Oct 2011

Shatner Rules: Your Key to Understanding the Shatnerverse and the World at Large
William Shatner


It’s a pretty good bet that Shatner Rules won’t make many “Best Of” lists, and that’s a shame. Buried beneath cartoon illustrations, breezy prose, and a glib attitude is one of the most inspiring books you will read all year. In a series of short essays, each centered around one of his rules for living, the 80-year-old Shatner rejects the social inhibitions that come with age and deconstructs the emptiness of contemporary celebrity. The book explores the significance of many of his life choices, while simultaneously illustrating what has become increasingly clear: he has learned how to transform his own life into the ultimate Postmodern text. With the same combination of sophistication and superficiality that has typified the resurgent Shatner’s career, the book reinforces the notion that for the past two decades, Shatner has been exploring, publicly, the absurdity of celebrity in the postmodern world, like an Andy Warhol soup can come to life. Playful, frivolous, inspiring and irreverent, Shatner Rules is definitely worth a look. Greg Carpenter

 

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Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression

Dale Maharidge

(University of California Press)
US: Jun 2011

Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression
Dale Maharidge


This isn’t always an easy book to read. After all, in 2011, no American wants to think about people in the United States living in tent cities or that the way “Latinos are being treated in Arizona echoes the situation of Jews in prewar Europe”. So I can’t say that I loved reading it—but I can say I’m glad I did. Divided into six parts, the book begins in the ‘80s and moves forward to the present. In between, Maharidge discusses hobos, tent cities, Hurricane Katrina, NAFTA, Bruce Springsteen, immigration, and mill closings. He also opens parts one through four with several sets of interesting statistics, including: number of people (in the US) employed by Wal-Mart, number of people employed by General Motors, and the salaries of average CEOs and average workers. A common thread in most of the success stories Maharidge relates is that the families are committed to living within their means. If that means growing their own food, they do. If it means not buying new clothes, they don’t. Reading Dale Maharidge’s words and looking at Michael S. Williamson’s photographs will pierce your heart—and head. This book will move and change you. Catherine Ramsdell

 

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Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo

Nicholas de Monchaux

(MIT Press)
US: Mar 2011

Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo
Nicholas de Monchaux


The spacesuit has come to symbolize both human progress and the terrors associated with it. On the one hand, it literally embodies the boundless possibility of technological achievement. On the other, it’s a reminder of the fragile human endeavor in the face of the void. If your last experience of science fiction involved space suits, it probably also involved an oxygen leak, space madness, or someone floating away into the infinite black. de Monchaux has put together a definitive study of the spacesuit in this beautifully designed volume. He’s managed to link the spacesuit to a complex variety of cultural ideas and moments. He’s really telling a larger story here, the phenomenon of government, business and mass culture coming together to create larger systems of value and exchange, all bureaucratically interlinked and interacting with the public through various media outlets. In fact, one of the pleasures of this book includes how de Monchaux reveals the space suit as part of a series of new kinds of cultural and bureaucratic intersections, the kind of intersections that remade advertising, government and public policy in the late 20th century.The spacesuit was much more than a machine to help humans breathe and work in zero gravity/zero oxygen/killer cold. This study reveals the spacesuit to be at the intersection of fashion, politics, assumptions about gender and concepts of the human self. W. Scott Poole

 

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The Steampunk Bible

Jeff VanderMeer, S.J. Chambers

(Abrams Image)
US: May 2011

The Steampunk Bible
Jeff VanderMeer, S.J. Chambers


Adjust your goggles and hitch your corset tight. Jeff VanderMeer and S.J Chambers are offering an airship ride into the world of Steampunk. The book’s grandiose title is much deserved, as the authors and their collaborators have gathered a substantial guide to the world of retro-futurist fantasy. The text is bulging with historical allusion, provides fascinating connections, and gives a full definition of how the movement has expressed itself in fiction, film, comics, fashion, craft and ideology. So many different kinds of materials are included here that it has the feel of a multimedia presentation. Photographs of Steampunk cosplayers share the page with diagrams of fantastical Victorian machines. The book gives us images of the Steampunk treehouse at Burning Man and a mixed media Steampunk gas mask. There’s even a step-by-step pictorial guide that explains how to create Victorian-era etchings. Sumptuously illustrated throughout, it well captures the aesthetics of the movement. Its too early to predict the course of this aesthetic and literary movement, but this book is a major milestone in Steampunk’s self-awareness. W. Scott Poole

 

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Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human

Grant Morrison

(Spiegel & Grau)
US: Jul 2011

Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human
Grant Morrison


One of the most unusual and multi-faceted books of the year, Supergods seems deceptively simple at first, providing a relatively thorough history of superheroes in popular culture. Peer a little deeper, however, and you will find much more—a personal memoir, a demonstration of superhero tropes in the real world, and an essay on the meaning of life and the inner workings of the universe. Morrison takes the sometimes simple, four-color adventure stories and finds in them an underappreciated template for understanding the changing world around us. As our society continues to evolve, Morrison sees our reality becoming increasingly like the reality of comic book superheroes. He looks at everything from tattoos to the transgender community, from personal branding in social media to genetic experiments, and he concludes that at some point in the future, we will all be the equivalent of superheroes. That’s certainly what it feels like to read this book. Morrison’s ability to make connections between seemingly humdrum material and grandiose ideas becomes infectious. Reading Supergods and immersing in Morrison’s ideas gives us all as much extra kick as a short-term radioactive spider bite, so that, as David Bowie might put it, “We can be heroes, just for one day”. Greg Carpenter


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