[23 January 2011]
Once again the death of the book, and of reading, has been wildly exaggerated. It’s as though authors of the world, particularly those tilling the nonfiction side of the field, didn’t get the memo that they were supposed to ramp up their tweeting and stop wasting time researching and writing well-reasoned, deeply-constructed, and thoroughly nuanced studies of just about every possible subject out there. Maybe their email wasn’t working that day.
While nonfiction can sometimes be categorized as fiction’s dowdier, sterner sibling – its writers the library nerds of the book world, compared to the novelists’ popular crowd (no Oprah Book Club or fetes at the KGB Bar for historical biographers or chroniclers of the financial system) – the breadth and depth of what they cover can make novels seem almost limited by comparison. In 2010, some of the books that we loved looked at everything from punks and capitalism and the blurred morality of mid-century medical research to Italian schlock horror cinema and journalism’s blurred line between fact and fiction.
Cultural matters weighed heavily in our book coverage this year, of course, with an emphasis on great bands of yore. One of our writers lavished praise on Glenn Povey’s big, splashy Pink Floyd extravaganza Echoes (“A mountain of research fired by love for the band”) and was similarly taken by Sean Wilentz’s “extraordinary study” Bob Dylan in America. For more up-to-date musical considerations, there was Zack Carlson and Bryan Connolly’s rampantly demented Destroy All Movies!!!, a painstakingly compiled chronology of just about every flickering appearance of punks in film (a task that, given the proclivities of exploitation cinema, necessitated trolling through some particularly dusty and glorious hideous stacks of VHS trash). There was also punk poetess Patti Smith’s lovingly crafted and widely acclaimed National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids, one of the few books that our writers (a margin-friendly, iconoclastic bunch, for the most part) raved about with as much enthusiasm as the wider critical community.
Some of the more fringe titles that we pulled out of the great flow of new releases included everything from Iain Gilchrist’s perception-studying The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (which our writer called “mind-bending”) and Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds, a re-release of Maitland McDonagh’s in-depth celebration of Italian horror-film maestro Dario Argento. While books on politics and current affairs were for the most part absent from what we thought to be the year’s best (the latest slew of pro- and con-President Obama titles, like Rodger D. Hodge’s excorating The Mendacity of Hope, or either just feeding the 24-hour news-cycle gossip churn or preaching to their respective choirs), our writers cast their nets far beyond the world of culture-production. Rebecca Skloot’s devastating The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was likened by our reviewer to “a slap in the face, like seeing the televised shots from the Ninth Ward post-Hurricane Katrina” while Brian Cumings’ The Korean War was called “an insurrectionary work of history that leaves few preconceptions intact.”
In short, if somebody said that they couldn’t find something interesting to read in 2010, it just meant that they likely weren’t looking very hard. The good work of many fine authors awaits you.
We all play folk music. This central idea drives this book’s compelling narrative. In Wilentz’s view, Dylan became a sacred intersection for the varying paths of populist Americana, a hierophant of the folk spirit that has included everything and everyone from Walt Whitman’s liturgy of American democracy to Jack Kerouac’s “sounds of matching boxcars” to Aaron Copland’s hymns in praise of the common man and the democratic landscape. Dylan found the real America, before that term had been abused by right-wing ideologues seeking to become puppet-masters to angry mobs. Bob Dylan in America collages all of these elements, tracing Dylan’s career by tracing his influences. Throughout the work, Wilentz shows an unfailing ability to synthesize his discussion of Dylan’s music with the best history lesson you are likely to ever get on left-wing populist art and thought. He surely and deftly examines the influence of figures as diverse as Copland to Blind Willie McTell on, not just Dylan’s music, but on the America he sought to evoke. W. Scott Poole
This book illuminates how artificial light and its twin invention, electricity, have in one way or another shaped everything that we have become. It follows the path of this catalyzing technology as it winds it way from the last Ice Age into present day. As Brox connects the dots from early humans using stone lamps for painting the walls at Lascaux, to the the whaling trade as it arose to supply the world with lamp oil, to Edison’s Menlo Park and the dawn of modernity, to the massive power grids of today, a story of evocation begins to emerge. Seeing the broad strokes of history laid out in front of you, it’s difficult not to see a form taking shape in the flickering candlelight. Brox shows that technology, as extensions of our own bodies and minds, are what shape humanity; not the messages contained in the technology, nor the petty power struggles of day to day politics and ideologies. We have made our tools, and in turn our tools have made us. George Russell
Dario Argento stands out among Giallo directors as one of the few to achieve limited success outside of Italy (Mario Bava would be another example). An auteur that specialized in blood and guts, Argento’s work fused the art film and exploitation cinema into a mix that McDonagh perfectly captures with the phrase “exuberant bad taste”. Maitland, who maintains an excellent website of film criticism at MissFlickChick.com, has written a learned yet accessible entrepôt to Argento’s baroque world, a guide to the brilliant director’s mind and his savage bedtime stories. This book, combined with other recent studies of Argento and the increasing availability of these once hard to find films, suggests that we are possibly in the midst of a minor, blood-spattered renaissance of “the Italian Hitchcock’s” oeuvre. W. Scott Poole
When she is not a political scientist, Schiff is a student and critic of past historians. Schiff points out that the life of Cleopatra was narrated mostly by victorious Romans after Cleopatra’s death; if Cleopatra’s first biographers had been sympathetic to her cause, we might have an entirely different image of this controversial queen. One of the most surprising pleasures of the book is Schiff’s tart humor. At one point, she notes, “Octavian was good at restoring traditions, including those that had never existed.” In another aside, Schiff describes a young man who had an unusually strong sense of filial devotion; given the frequency with which monarchs undermined their own parents in the ancient world, “in the normal course of events [this young man] would have been preparing to depose his mother about now.” When Cleopatra must tactfully advocate for her own survival, Schiff points out, “She always knew how to talk to a man.” Sharp aphorisms, well-chosen quotations, juicy and surprising language—storytelling rarely gets better than this. Schiff takes her understandably limited array of credible sources and creates a coherent, believable narrative. Dan Barrett
James Shapiro furthers the argument that the “secret” of Shakespeare’s achievement is no secret at all: it’s a matter of a brilliant mind working with and through the material and means made available by the culture in which it existed. Shapiro demonstrates how Shakespeare’s plays everywhere evidence their author’s close working relationship with Shakespeare’s theatrical company (first called the Chamberlain’s Men, then the King’s Men after the ascension of James I to the English throne): stage directions in early printed versions of the plays that substitute the name of the actor playing the part for the character’s name; allusions to the distinctive physical appearances of certain members of the company; the suitability of Shakespeare’s late plays to an indoor theater like the Blackfriars (where the King’s Men began performing around 1610) as opposed to the large, outdoor theaters for which many of Shakespeare’s earlier plays were written. Shapiro makes clear that more often than not a rejection of Shakespeare as the author of his plays opens onto complex belief systems and ways of viewing the world that have very little to do, directly at least, with Shakespeare or his plays. James Williams
In this bracing warning from Chris Hedges (War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning), the author describes how the American liberal intelligentsia—once a prominent pillar of society—has allowed itself in the past few decades to be relentlessly beaten and cowed into a pale reflection of its former self. While this might not be news for anybody who’s given up hoping for a true progressive voice to enter American politics, Hedges’ conclusion is what gives pause: without the liberal class of thinkers and reformers to provide hope that change is on the way, an important safety valve has been removed from our increasingly unequal society. “Liberals, by standing for nothing,” Hedges writes about Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and Tsarist Russia, “made possible the rise of inverted and perhaps soon classical totalitarianism.” Chris Barsanti
Were you curious about which non-porn feature films did the director of both Weird Al Yankovic’s “I Lost on Jeopardy” video and the “incredible surreal adult film” Nightdreams make? That was Francis Delia’s Freeway (1988), which Zack Carlson and Bryan Connolly’s insanely genius and improbably comprehensive guidebook notes includes a scene where “studded greasers bash against afrohawks as a disinterested pink-streaked punkette gets ogled by a no-neck with the greasiest devil lock on Earth.” Also included: every film even remotely punk ever produced. While authentically underground creations like Suburbia and the Social Distortion documentary Another State of Mind are given some pride of place (and luminaries like Ian Mackaye and Penelope Spheeris are interviewed), the authors have a special love for straight-to-VHS exploitation trash of yore, where mohawked gutterpunks (sometimes postapocalyptic) terrorized the citizenry. Class of 1984 (punks terrorize school), Friday the 13th Part VIII (punks die), Return of the Living Dead (more punks die), The New Barbarians (gay punks threaten humanity), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (punk threatens Kirk and Spock, gets Vulcan nerve pinch), The Road Warrior (“retrofitted trash and punk aesthetic abound”), and The Day My Kid Went Punk (self-explanatory 1987 Afterschool Special); they’re all here, along with hundreds of other grotty gems. Chris Barsanti
Written to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the strip, Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau takes us through the history of Doonesbury and, using both text and images, illustrates what made Doonesbury groundbreaking and what makes it iconic. Walker does an excellent job of blending Trudeau’s professional and personal lives. Walker is a masterful storyteller; don’t skip the text. Don’t give in to the temptation to just look at the images. It will be a strong temptation, however. Flipping through the pages is the literary equivalent of walking through a museum. It’s a beautifully designed book, from the layout to the font to the images. Catherine Ramsdell
In an oversized edition, lavishly illustrated, this is a book that will put Floyd fanatics over the dark side of the moon. Rock writer Glenn Povey builds here on his previous work Pink Floyd: In the Flesh in Echoes. While his first book dealt primarily with the band’s concertography, this new work includes all of that information while giving fans an almost bewildering array of goodies. Rare (and some well-known) photographs of band performances meet you on every page. Images of concert posters and band merchandise provide marginalia for thumbnail descriptions of literally every live and taped performance in the band’s history. So detailed are these descriptions that, for example, if you want to know why Pink Floyd cancelled several shows in the Netherlands in mid-May of 1969, and the exact venues where they cancelled them, this book will tell you (it was because of work permit issues). Some might see this sort of archival minutiae as only useful for the most fanatical of fans. This, of course, is a book for devotees. But a band like Pink Floyd, whose reputation and creative power depended so much on their live performances, deserves this kind of attention. Given the massive amount of touring various incarnations of the band have done, you could almost say it’s owed to them. W. Scott Poole
In 1507, Martin Waldseemuller and his partner Matthias Ringmann produced one of history’s most consequential maps, a map that would marry the traditional perspective of the old world with a radical new depiction of the growing new world, and forever change how humanity perceived its surroundings. It also gave the new world a proper name for the very first time, after the daring explorer whom Waldseemuller and Ringmann believed was responsible for its discovery. They called it America. It’s this strange new land of America that’s referred to by the title of Toby Lester’s excellent book, The Fourth Part of the World, and this wondrous map serves as its provocative centerpiece. This is an epic story of humanity coming to grips with the globe, pushing the boundaries of knowledge and traversing vast distances in the hopes of better understanding the world in which they lived. Lester’s invaluable history proves that the adventurers and artists who gave shape to globe also gave shape to the course of human progress and that the story is as easy to follow as the lines rendered on a map. Michael Patrick Brady
Freedom Summer focuses on the summer of 1964 when hundreds of volunteers, most of them college students, traveled to Mississippi to help African Americans get the right to vote. One of Bruce Watson’s greatest strengths is his ability to dramatize the events. Beginning with the murder of Herbert Lee in 1961, one of the countless murders of African Americans in Mississippi prior to Freedom Summer, Watson weaves a story that yearns to be fiction, but sadly is not. He introduces his readers to a cast of memorable characters like Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses, nicknamed the “Jesus” of the movement. Armed with idealism and courage, the volunteers essentially reversed the path of the Underground Railroad, traveling from a training ground in Ohio to the heart of segregated Mississippi. Watson presents a harrowing image of bullying, illegal intimidation, and murder, all of which were designed to keep African Americans from voting and to keep anyone else from doing anything about it. Greg Carpenter
This book comes very close to being a faithful mirror of the endlessly fascinating Harry Smith and, like its subject, will provoke, educate, and entertain in equal measure. This collection, the result of two symposia held on Harry Smith in 2001 and 2002, is an attempt to reflect the wide scope of Smith’s interests by bringing together scholars from a range of disciplines. The volume is edited by Andrew Perchuk, deputy director of the Getty Research Institute and former curator at New York’s Alternative Museum, and Rani Singh, a researcher at the Getty Institute, who was Harry Smith’s assistant in the years leading up to his death and is now the director of the Harry Smith Archives. This is an excellent, thought-provoking book, one that should appeal to anyone with an interest in the role of the vernacular in the contemporary arts. It is beautifully produced and contains numerous well-reproduced plates featuring Smith’s artwork. The labor of love that has gone into the look of the book is also evident in the rigorous editing of the essays. It seems as though, following her own observation about the elusiveness of the volume’s subject, Singh has sought to pin down the factual and verifiable within even the most anecdotal or speculative contributions. The text is generously studded with footnotes that are enlightening and reassuring rather than obtrusive. Richard Elliott
Racism and science collide in this devastating true story of a young woman, the tissue sample from her body that spawned a million-dollar industry, and the impact on her family. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is far more than a scientific history of a prolific cell line. It’s a story about the countless ways humans treat one another abominably, in this case, with blatant, nauseating racism. Reading it felt like a slap in the face, like seeing the televised shots from the Ninth Ward post-Hurricane Katrina. It made me want to call the Lacks family and apologize. By all means, read this book—not only to educate yourself about the ways science is moving faster than ethics, but to give Henrietta Lacks and her family the recognition and thanks they so richly deserve. Diane Leach
Throughout Just Kids, Patti Smith’s riveting, moving memoir, the author recounts bumping into Salvador Dali, hearing a few encouraging words by Jimi Hendrix, and seeing Bob Dylan in the audience for one of her performances. Under the hands of a weaker author, Just Kids would have been an indulgent, self-obsessed bit of New York-themed gossip about growing up in ‘60s and ‘70s, but Smith wisely paints all these improbable scenes as a mere backdrop for a universal story of deep friendship between two restless souls. In the early ‘70s, before Patti Smith ignited the CBGB and Robert Mapplethorpe became a celebrated photographer, the two endured years of off-and-on employment and bare-knuckled poverty, but Smith’s uncluttered prose makes even an instance of lice infestation and the occasional bout of starvation seem somehow appealing. Just Kids is many things: a love letter to a bygone era of New York City, an inspirational example of following your dreams until the end, but above all, it’s an intimate look at a relationship that transcended sexuality. Like a great album, the first thing you want to do when Just Kids ends is go back to the beginning and let it play again. Sean McCarthy
“I am writing as an ugly one for the ugly ones,” begins Virginie Despentes in her provocative and brainy polemic, King Kong Theory, and those of us waiting for a wave of fresh air to blow into the stale halls of feminism finally found it coming from the pages of this book. In a bold and courageous attempt to shatter the myths of womanhood in Western societies, Despentes forces you to confront rape, prostitution, and pornography through the perspective of an angry, sexually-confident woman who knows her place in the world and is not about to relinquish it as she mistakenly had in the past. Despentes writes poetically and with stunning clarity, and is intelligent enough to know she does not speak for all women in all societies, yet perceptive enough to recognise that a virulent strain of neoliberal, neoimperial, consumer feminism has seeped into societies in developing and “third world” countries, as well. (Save the brown women! Give them the freedom to allow themselves to be exploited!) Despentes interrogates the collusion of capitalism and patriarchy and details its effects on the “outcasts” of both sexes. The ugly, the sensitive, the loud, the shy, the awkward, the ones who can’t seem to obediently fall into line with the demands that fulfill the myth of the Ideal Woman—Despentes writes for you. Subashini Navaratnam
Bruce Cumings’ short, whip-fast history of this bloodily unresolved war isn’t just revisionist, it’s insurrectionary. With a directness that’s disarming for the field—which is riddled with writers who approach their subjects in slow and circling accretion of detail—Cumings wastes no time limning many long-ignored facts and striking down sheaves of clichés and shibboleths of received learning about this “forgotten” war. It’s an insurrectionary work of history that leaves few preconceptions intact. Cumings begins with a tellingly acerbic note, referencing the “lessons” that Robert McNamara, architect of much of the Vietnam War (and the carpet bombing campaign of Japan during World War II) claimed to have learned afterwards, concluding that “we were blind prisoners of our own assumptions.” Cumings adds, “in Korea we still are.“Not only was this one of the century’s most devastating wars (up to four million Korean dead), but one of the most unheralded and least-understood. Cumings has done great service to changing the latter.
Check your head: This insightful, erudite and thought-provoking examination of the brain’s hemispheres can change how you see (or think you see) the world. Like the brain, this book is divided into two parts. The first explores the medical evidence for how each hemisphere seems to “see” the world. Reminiscent of books by Oliver Sacks and V.S. Ramachandran, this section is based on clinical research and studies, including detailed examinations of subjects who experienced injuries to a particular hemisphere, thereby isolating the other half and revealing to researchers that hemisphere’s particular modus operandi. The book’s second half is nothing less than a history of western civilization in the context of the left vs. right brain ways of being. It’s ambitious, philosophical and ultimately convincing, if at times intimidating in the breadth of its topics and conclusions. Oliver Ho
“No Mexican reporter has ever been given political asylum,” Charles Bowden writes in his furious indictment of the bloody morality-free zone that modern-day Ciudad Juarez has become, “because if the U.S. government honestly faced facts, it would have to admit that Mexico is not a society that respects human rights.” Bowden’s book shows what an understatement that is, in its impressionistic chronicling of the steady drumbeat of limitless, seemingly purposeless violence that has swamped civil society in northern Mexico. With his lie detector on full, Bowden goes behind the curtain to write with scorching, Hunter S. Thompson-like rage about the real story of Mexico, not the one that tends to be reported on a war between the federal government and drug cartels, a conflict that Washington pours billions of dollars into assisting. In a land where the police are routinely kidnapped and butchered by the army, everybody with a gun and a badge battles for their piece of the drug trade, and nobody, nobody is ever convicted for murder, humanity and any semblance of a clearly delineated conflict seems far away. Chris Barsanti
Fans of World War Z, Zombieland and The Walking Dead need to know their history. Joe Kane has written the definitive guide to the Night of the Living Dead, a must read for dead-heads everywhere. In a world of zombie books), Kane is really the perfect author for a critical tribute such as this one. Although the author certainly explores every dark nook and cranny of the zombiemeister’s masterpiece, this book is very good general guide to all things Romero. Early chapters on casting and filming the horror classic are followed by a full discussion of the film’s reception and its larger meaning in American culture.If you are a George Romero fan, you’ll keep this book by your bed. If you are a zombie lover who doesn’t know their history, read this before you head out to your next zombie prom or pub crawl. W. Scott Poole
Most books about writing fail miserably because nobody wants to hear about how tortured a novelist or screenwriter’s life is. A journalist’s attempts to write, though, are something different—because they deal with life and not the imagination, a failure to be a journalist is almost a failure at life. Texas Monthly editor Jake Silverstein’s sun-baked account of five years spent trekking around northern Mexico and the American Southwest on “lonesome highways and wide quiet main streets and bone-white caliche roads, seeking to gain a livelihood” are fascinating for their slacker sadness and hard-won wisdom. Silverstein divides the book into “fact” and “fiction” pieces, which eventually blur into the other with their matching tone of low-key magic-realism, whether he’s hanging around and watching a Mexican town’s first McDonalds being built or searching for Ambrose Bierce’s grave. Just as truth and fantasy melt into a sharply rendered whole, so too does the division between writing and life; watching the two become one is a singular joy of this exceptional work. Chris Barsanti
Ammon Shea, author of the popular, Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,739 Pages. is a rarity: a true bibliophile, a “collector of words” (his description), a lover of dictionaries. If you were to read the phone books of your childhood, he says in The Phone Book, you’d no doubt feel a Proustian rush of memories. Reading the current phone book will not be as moving, for the thing is crammed with advertisements for doctors, lawyers (who were banned from advertising in the phone book until 1977), and carpet cleaners. Consider, too, Shea’s observations about phone numbers: some carry great cache, such as the New York City area code 212, or, where I live, 510 (there is even slang for this: “I live in the 510.”). He describes the stunningly complex San Francisco Chinatown phone book, for years meticulously handwritten in Chinese characters, which Chinese operates then memorized. Finally, for all of us who hate cell phones, there is the wondrous Finnish Cell Phone Throwing event, a yearly gathering anyone may participate in. The phone book, and by extension (no pun intended) the telephone, are artifacts of American history, and may be read that way. Without writers like Shea, we would continue to take the phone book for granted, a flimsy, ultimately disposable collection of pages—a greatly overlooked cultural artifact—that merits a closer look. After reading Shea’s entertaining take on the book that no one reads, you’ll never overlook another phone book, again. Diane Leach
Joyce Appleby chronicles the development of capitalism (something she sees as far from inevitable) while acknowledging both its lamentable vices and undeniable virtues. Indeed, this is the history ofcCapitalism without an axe to grind. One of the great virtues of Appleby’s book is that it shows how intimately economic issues have been at the center of almost all of the key political and cultural issues of the past 250 years. The book almost doubles as a history of the modern world, touching upon the most important political and cultural developments of each century; indeed, economic issues often drive the political and cultural events. Thus, the book is an important key to understanding both the world that we live in as well as a helpful corrective to those who want to mystify capitalism and make it more than what it is: a historically contingent, often effective, and frustratingly fallible way of organizing our economic life. Robert Moore
It was perhaps inevitable that Marcus Gray’s book about London Calling would turn out to be as much about London itself as about the Clash’s most lauded album. The Transport for London roundel on the front cover is a clue: the ‘19’ in the title refers not only to the number of tracks on the record, but also to the Route 19 bus, which links Finsbury Park, in north London, and Battersea, in the south-west, and which Gray presents as the backbone of London Calling’s geographical reference points. This is an extraordinarily thorough account of the context and production of London Calling. The fact that Gray dedicates 200 pages to close readings of the album’s songs is testament to the detail that is involved. While the songs are impressively documented and the characters involved brilliantly realised, it is the attention to place that makes Route 19 Revisited stand out. Few other books about music provide a narrative cartography that you can use to trace the geographic influences of a band and their work. Alan Ashton-Smith
Shirin Neshat is an Iranian-born photographer and filmmaker who moved to the US as an art student in the ‘70s. She takes as the subject of her work the country she emigrated from, to which she did not return until 1993. Her photographs, videos and films comment indirectly but powerfully on a society profoundly changed by its 1979 revolution. This handsome volume, weighing over four pounds and printed on thick, heavy paper, provides an important retrospective of her work and a window into both an artist and a culture. If it’s difficult to separate the artist from the image, then it’s doubly difficult to separate the emigrant artist from the images of society under scrutiny. It’s legitimate to question the motivation of someone commenting on a culture when the artist has lived apart from that culture for decades. Happily, Neshat is neither an apologist for the Revolution who glosses over its missteps, nor a panderer to the West, out to make a name for herself by selling cheap and easily consumable images of feminine oppression and Iranophobia. She is an artist, which means that her vision is legitimately earned and uniquely expressed, even if her concerns are shared with many others throughout the world. David Maine
This thing is a monster: 11” x 10” and packed with photos, mostly color but some archival black-and-whites too. You need the full size (and weight) to feel the impact of all this stuff: guitar masters from the ‘30s to the present, both famous (Clapton, Jerry Garcia, Buddy Guy, BB King) and less so (Lonnie Mack, T-Bone Walker, Roy Buchanan, Steve Cropper). Each musician gets a minimum two-page spread, and many get more. The guitars are pictured, of course, along with an array of memorabilia: concert pictures, posters, record covers, even guitar picks and ticket stubs. The beauty of this book is that it appeals to both the impulse to gawk at the cool rawk stars and to understand the mechanics that went into their sound. Or if you will, it appeals to both sides of the brain. This is a big, fat, beautiful book full of big, fat, beautiful guitars, as well as enough trivia and gossip to satisfy any rocker. David Maine
This is an illustrated memoir of incredible power. Stitches (I mean here the physical sutures themselves, not the book) are a prelude to healing. They are also a prelude to scarring. To have stitches is not to undo hurt, but to build upon and past it, to incorporate it into you in a way that cannot be removed. The injury is hidden, perhaps, but not undone. The ending of Small’s beautifully illustrated memoir, while magnificent, does not vanquish the pain of what came before any more than reading it vanquishes the uneasy connection we make to the extreme suffering he endured. The connection we make to him, the place we find for ourselves on the scale of suffering, captivates us in our reading. Sean Ferrell
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
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
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.
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
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