The Best Non-Fiction Books of 2005

by PopMatters Staff

3 January 2006


Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture
by Ariel Levy

>(Free Press)

I’ve learned from my freshman comp students that a “s’more” is not just a tasty campfire treat, but also a girl who dresses like a slut and acts like a whore, and that this sort of blatant sexism is totally de rigeur for teenage girls these days. In her first book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, journalist Ariel Levy investigates girl-on-girl objectification, a trend largely brought on by young women and teens themselves, who are taking pages from a pop-culture post-feminism which lauds a perverted notion of female empowerment. Levy explains how the roots of second-wave feminism’s sexual revolution unwittingly made possible the “raunch culture” of today. Levy’s “raunch culture” umbrellas the popularity of Sex and the City‘s “have sex like a man” breed of thought, the proliferation of teen girls’ performing sexual acts to gain social status, the rejection of “girliness” by 20-something women who prefer to be seen as “one of the guys”, and the trumpeting of a “bros before hos” aesthetic by male-identified lesbians who have taken on the “boi” label. All of these trends come together in a new label: Female Chauvinist Pigs, or “women who make sex objects of other women and of ourselves.” Why, Levy asks, are women buying into such knowingly misogynic behavior in order to gain a sense of sexual freedom and liberation? More important, why has sexual power become the only accessible source of power for women? Levy’s book is a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary gender roles and the future of feminist thought.
Megan Milks Amazon

February House: The Story of WH Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof In Wartime America
by Sherill Tippins

>(Houghton Mifflin)

How a Brooklyn Heights dwelling became a center of artistic fervor is at the heart of Sherill Tippins’ gratifying February House. Drawing on innumerable sources, Tippins recreates the lives of a group of artists and performers living together at 7 Middagh Street just before the United States entered the Second World War. Christened “February House” by Anais Nin because so many of the residents had birthdays within the month, Tippins’ exposes the “romantic bohemian chaos” of a group inclined to tolerate almost any proclivities. Even while marking the wonder of the group, each character’s portrayal stands out, showcasing Tippins’ mastery of the moments that lead to the usual ego dissentions, but also a great deal of artistic output. It’s a gripping read, especially if you are keen on imaging what a reality show with the cast would look like.
Shandy Casteel Amazon

The Elements of Style: Illustrated
by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White; illustrated by Maira Kalman

>(The Penguin Press)

J-School students have long held the Elements of Style as the bible of good writing, and now the little book has suddenly received the illuminated manuscript treatment. But it’s not just budding journalists who should take Strunk and White’s advice to heart, it’s any CEO dictating a memo, any blogger typing a post, any politician composing a statement, any teenager forging a doctor’s note. Strunk and White envision a writing utopia, and Maira Kalman’s paintings match the liveliness that makes their advice feel more like a pep talk than a lecture. “Be obscure clearly!” “Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!” “Write in a way that comes naturally.” “Make every word tell.” What writer can resist such exhortations?
Peter Joseph Amazon

Assassination Vacation
by Sarah Vowell

>(Simon & Schuster)

Only frequent This American Life contributor Sarah Vowell could write a bright book on the history of American presidential assassinations. Her sunny deadpan unfolds the stories behind the ends of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley in a fashion that every boring history professor and true-crime television show aspires to. The drama of the events and fetishization of historical monuments get equal play in Vowell’s morbid trek through our nation’s most sordid scenes. Best are the trips in which Vowell is accompanied by her twin sister and her nephew, Owen. Kids say the darndest things, and who would have guessed that Vowell’s perfect sidekick would be an oddly witty toddler?
Jodie Janella Horn Amazon

Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co.
by Jeremy Mercer

>(St. Martin’s Press)

Fleeing a mob threat resulting from his crime reporting in Ottawa, Canada, Jeremy Mercer finds himself penniless and hungry in Paris, and hoping to escape from the rain, finds shelter in the legendary Left Bank bookshop, Shakespeare & Company, where, as owner George Whitman puts it, “I run a socialist utopia that masquerades as a bookstore.” This Bohemian fable recounts Mercer’s four-month stay at the store running errands, selling books, making friends, and learning that sometimes life needs more than a place to sleep. Mercer’s humor and details are abounding portraits of imperfect but passionate characters, and will leave the reader longing for their own soft time.
Shandy Casteel Amazon

Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine
by Harold Bloom


Harold Bloom is a perennial whipping boy for cultural studies champions who would have us believe that an author’s make-up is as important as their craftsmanship. Bloom’s steadfast defense of the Canon is often hungrily pigeonholed as an extreme form of conservatism. It’s a debate sure to go on long after he’s not around to make his point, but for now, Bloom still proffers his almost mystical musings on literature and religion in his latest book Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine. Bloom is most fascinated by the demarcations of three figures: Yahweh from the Old Testament, Yeshua of Nazareth, and Jesus Christ, the last being a wholly theological construct. With Bloom navigating, the pious is the literary, and any reader who marvels at small books with big ideas, will find Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine a heavenly digest.
Shandy Casteel Amazon

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife
by Mary Roach

>(WW Norton)

Perhaps it’s easier for the religious, but death has always been the atheist’s Waterloo, the deathbed conversion the last act of the cowardly faithless. But while the fearful may still turn to the Good Book, the brave should look to Spook for consolation. In her last book, Stiff, Roach demystified one of the most uncomfortable topics — the fate of our physical bodies after death — and found comfort in the hard (and icky) facts rather than the usual platitudes that surround human death. In Spook she aims slightly higher than six feet under: now that we know what happens to the physical self, what about our souls? Roach has both bad and good news for us. The bad news: there’s no scientific evidence to support the existence of a soul. The good news: the science has been so bad that the case is far from closed. The lengths to which humans have gone to prove the existence of an afterlife are equally hilarious and pathetic. If one thing is clear from Spook, it’s that we’re all looking for some kind of solace so that when death finally visits us the priest hasn’t just left.
Peter Joseph Amazon

Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran
by Azadeh Moaveni

>(Public Affairs)

With all the troubles in Iran, why would anyone want to go back? But that is exactly what Azadeh Moaveni does and she documents her tale in Lipstick Jihad. As a young, girl, Moaevni never feels quite at home growing up Persian and Muslim in the materialistic, me-first world that is American culture. So, as an adult, she takes a job as a correspondent with Time magazine and returns to Tehran. But, the real Iran and the one of her imagination are worlds apart. When she arrives, she finds that she isn’t considered truly Iranian because her family fled after the Revolution and it doesn’t help that her Farsi is far from perfect. Most importantly, the ability to navigate the repressive regime, innate in native Iranians, never comes naturally to her. Not quite American and yet not Iranian either, in Lipstick Jihad, Moaveni is uniquely placed to provide a glimpse behind the veil into the heart of Iran, a country that, with the election of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to its presidency, seems destined to remain in the headlines for a long, long time.
Ben Levisohn Amazon

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