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The Encyclopedia of Country Music: Second Edition

The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

(Oxford University Press; US: Feb 2012)

The Encyclopedia of Country Music: Second Edition
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

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This second edition comes 14 years after its predecessor, enough of a gap to demonstrate how country music and the climate surrounding country music has changed and, indeed, how the record industry has evolved as well. In the post-iTunes, Napster, and Dot Com boom and bust world, attitudes, tastes, styles, and reflections have all changed and those revolutions are represented in the pages of this exhaustive and authoritative volume. This volume is great fun as it leaves virtually no stone unturned in the terrain it explores. Sidemen such as David Briggs, who has worked with Neil Young, B.B. King, Dolly Parton, Ernest Tubb, Alabama, and James Burton are present as one might expect, given their ubiquity on sessions and the influence they have continued to hold over future generations of country musicians. But lesser known figures, such as Dr. John Brinkley, also emerge. A fiction writer could not have created someone as colorful and controversial as Brinkley, and it’s difficult to call to mind a character equally eccentric in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll. As a tool for scholars, researchers, and obsessives this volume will be hard to improve upon; it’s authoritative, easy to access, easy to read, and captivating. I read a few of the sections in strict alphabetical order—moving from the A section all the way through C before switching, at random, to the Rs, then the Hs, then back to the Ds, with little sense of fatigue in any of those endeavors. Jedd Beaudoin


See also: The Best Music Books of 2012


 

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The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America

James T. Patterson

(Basic; US: Nov 2012)

The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America
James T. Patterson


It’s all too easy to pick a year in any country’s history and declare via a half-dozen news items or cultural moments that that was the time when “everything changed”. However, James T. Patterson’s book on 1965 makes a clinching argument for how that 12-month period was a fulcrum for 20th century America, the likes of which we haven’t seen since. In measured but sometimes breathless prose, Patterson lays out the march of epochal events that came one on top of each other like so many detonations in a chain reaction. When the year began, President Lyndon Johnson was at the peak of his powers and the country seemingly united in its confidence for a better future. Medicare, immigration reform, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts were all signed into law. By the end of the year, Watts had burned, the Vietnam War was chewing up soldiers’ lives by the hundreds, college protests were smoldering, and a sickening miasma of distrust was in the air. Patterson is more reporter than social portraitist, but his swift and detailed approach works in his favor; it’s a book written at the breathless pace of history burning up the past.  Chris Barsanti


 

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The Favored Daughter: One Woman’s Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future

Fawzia Koofi

(Palgrave Macmillan; US: Jan 2012)

The Favored Daughter: One Woman’s Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future
Fawzia Koofi


The first day of Fawzia Koofi’s life was perhaps prophetic. Koofi’s mother was disappointed she had not given birth to a boy, dismayed over her husband’s latest/seventh wife, and exhausted after 30 hours of childbirth. Just born, Koofi was “wrapped in cloth and placed outside in the baking sun”. No one expected her to survive. But there, she screamed for a day and then her mother’s maternal instincts kicked in. Most likely no one expected Koofi to become a Member of Parliament (MP), to become Afghanistan’s first female Speaker of Parliament, or to be a candidate in the 2014 presidential election, either. And Koofi’s life doesn’t appear to be any safer now than it was on the day she was born. Koofi isn’t certain why she is still alive, stating “I don’t know why God spared me that day…Or why he has spared me on the several occasions since then, when I could have died, but he did… I know he has a purpose for me.” It’s hard to disagree: Koofi’s life is amazingly and wonderfully purposeful. Catherine Ramsdell


 

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Fear of Music

Jonathan Lethem

(Continuum; US: Apr 2012)

Fear of Music
Jonathan Lethem


The “33 ⅓” series is inherently sporadic. Their short books about albums are always well-intentioned, but there’s a 50/50 chance that the one you’ll pick up will be self-serving and full of glaring omissions as it will genuinely convey how a specific album came to exist and why it needs to be heard. Lethem’s take on Fear of Music, Talking Heads’ third album, is undoubtedly the crown jewel of the 33⅓ collection, a work of zen meditation discussing every aspect of the album, from the vinyl sleeve to the personal memories to the bass lines on “I Zimbra” and the “fucking disaster area” that is “Memories Can’t Wait”. Lethem delves into, but doesn’t dwell on, 1979: he pulls from a spectrum as wide as David Bryne’s (from Cary Grant to Saul Steinberg!). The only time it frustrates is when you don’t have Fear of Music, the album, readily at hand, you can only go so many pages without craving a fix of some good ol’ fashioned art-punk. This is music writing as great as Lethem’s best novels, the rest of us are just lucky he doesn’t have a Tumblr. David Grossman


See also: The Best Music Books of 2012


 

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The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays

James Wood

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux; US: Oct 2012)

The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays
James Wood


Few critics piss off readers with the consistency of James Wood. He is at once a consort to and unabashedly critical of Harold Bloom’s theories of interpretation, aesthetics, and influence. He embraces contrast and contradiction and digs deep into the schism of cultural pathos. He brings the heat like few other literary critics, but with subtlety and grace; his is a slow, corrosive criticism— lucid but not blunt, predatory but not vile; a serpentine wordsmith, nimble with passive antagonism. He sometimes feels like the personification of Chinese water torture. Wood, like so many of his like-minded peers, is a descendant of contrarian par excellence Pauline Kael: he writes with fervid, candid authority and often takes unpredictable routes with his clean prose. He doesn’t pull punches—his blows bruise. His brand of contrarianism isn’t slack or indulgent, though. He backs up his criticisms, like an onslaught of so many word-warriors from his unfettered mind, with numerous quotes and passages and excerpts. Wood is the sharpest literary critic currently penning poison: he doesn’t stream a constant deluge of malice, but rather gets the novel’s best aspects right out in the open. Greg Cwik


 

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Anthony Shadid

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; US: Apr 2012)

House of Stone
Anthony Shadid


Is it possible to reconstruct a sense of home and to resurrect that which slowly dies? This question lingers throughout the narrative of the late Anthony Shadid’s House of Stone, as he chronicles the return to his ancestral home in Marjayoun, Lebanon in order to restore it from its derelict state to its former glory. Interwoven throughout his seemingly Sisyphean ambition is the account of his family’s struggles and flight from the war-torn Marjayoun after the great fall of the Ottoman Empire to Oklahoma City, the birthplace of Shadid. Though the main focus rests on his quest, Shadid deftly notes the psychological impact that decades of war has on a community, whether it be through individual neuroses or posters of adolescent martyrs. Tragically, what adds another haunting layer to the narrative is that as Shadid laments the slow death of his Marjayoun, its traditions, and its weathered residents of an era long past, there is the inescapable omen, unbeknownst to Shadid, that he is slowly dying as well. With each cigarette that he struggles to resist, one can see each step that he takes towards his premature death in Syria in February 2012, which robbed the world of not only one of the finest Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, but a voice to Levantine shadows of lost Middle East. Michael Grassi


 

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How Music Works

David Byrne

(McSweeney’s; US: Sep 2012)

How Music Works
David Byrne


In the preface of his breathtakingly expansive new book How Music Works, former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne mentions that the chapters are not chronological and therefore can be read in any order. However you opt to experience this strange and wonderful tome (and it is an experience), you will inevitably find yourself thinking about music in ways you hadn’t thought of before. Part autobiography, part textbook, How Music Works covers a wealth of material in just 332 pages. Byrne, a well-researched and welcoming host, takes us on a journey from creation to the present day, from the stage of CBGB’s to the favela’s of Rio, from Leadbelly to Sufjan Stevens, all in attempt to explain the complicated systems through which we receive musical information. Byrne’s career, from his days as a busker through his most recent collaboration with Brian Eno, is covered in detail yet equal space is given to technology and the music business, past and present. Aspiring musicians: it would behoove you to read the chapter on business and finance (appropriately titled “Business and Finance”). In fact, if you’ve ever spent time playing, listening to, or thinking about music, this book should be required reading. Daniel Tebo


See also: The Best Music Books of 2012

PopMatters Picks: The Best Books of 2012
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