The Best Non-Fiction Books of 2005

[3 January 2006]

By PopMatters Staff

A Man Without a Country
by Kurt Vonnegut

>(Seven Stories Press)


“To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it.” This sentiment of Kurt Vonnegut’s is one of a number of missives he assails the political and cultural landscape with in A Man Without Country, and one he has never failed to live up to. Book after book, Vonnegut’s soul has grown, and now in his eighth decade of life is as feisty as ever, taking on homeland security alerts, Bush and his cronies, and just about anything else flying in the face of his common sense. A Man Without a Country is a pithy volume of whimsical attitude, a testament of waning years, and incisive cuts that are smaller, but still sting.
Shandy Casteel Amazon

The Year of Magical Thinking
by Joan Didion

>(Knopf)


Almost 40 years after her breakthrough book of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion once again proves she’s an unsurpassed prose stylist. This penetrating meditation on grief, loss, and her life with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, who died suddenly while their daughter Quintana Roo battled a life-threatening illness in a hospital ICU, is a harrowing portrait of grief executed with surgical precision. It’s difficult to imagine a love as intense as Didion and Dunne’s, a couple who rarely spent a night apart, and it’s even more devastating to read as Didion travels back through her memories of their life together and faces the finality of their separation. Didion has long-earned her position as a leading lady of American letters, but in this latest book, her writing is as sharp and insightful as ever.
Anne Yoder Amazon

Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation
by Jeff Chang

>(St. Martin’s Press)


More a social history of hip-hop and its legacy than a musical one, Jeff Chang’s lengthy Can’t Stop Won’t Stop nonetheless offers perhaps the most vivid portrait of the birth of hip-hop yet. The book’s early chapters unfold this story in a dramatic way, with the weight of a novel yet at the same time factually on the mark. As the book gets to the years when hip-hop blows up, Chang chooses to rein in his tale and focus on specific moments when hip-hop intersected with, and affected, the larger public dialogue. In doing so he chooses his tale and tells it well, filling each chapter with not just recollections but ideas and insights, while opening the door for others to tell their side of the story.
Dave Heaton Amazon

Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times
by Kevin Smokler (editor)

>(Basic Books)


Bookmark Now is far from a sky-is-falling treatise, but there is a seismic shift occurring as Kevin Smokler points out in the introduction, “The world of books will be totally different tomorrow than it is today, and it will happen much sooner than we think.” For his part, Smokler rounded up a group of new and established young writers to talk shop, and the resulting essays are amusing, stirring, and most of all, readable. The pieces tackle everything from the writing life to what the future holds for both author and reader. Standouts like Paul Collins’ “121 Years of Solitude” and Meghan Daum’s “If I Had a Stammer” are wonderful. Bookmark Now gives us several dozen looks at experienced literature and the individualized shared reading of writers who are trying and making their marks right now.
Shandy Casteel PopMatters review Amazon

The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat
by Bob Woodward

>(Simon & Schuster)


Woodward’s Secret Man is fascinating — not just for its revelations about super-source Mark Felt, known as Deep Throat, but for it’s multitude of detail on exactly how Felt’s messages were delivered and received. Mind-bending secret trails and pot plants shifting in windows were images of the sort only fantasists could have imagined and, yet, that’s the way it happened. As Woodward explains, it’s the only way it could have happened. Woodward’s is a story of right place, right time. It’s also about an enduring, though strained, friendship between men with decent goals. Woodward’s book is sensitive, loyal, and above all, thoroughly riveting.
Nikki Tranter Amazon

Wrecking Crew: The Really Bad News Griffith Park Pirates
by John Albert

>(Scribner)


John Albert brings the detritus of Hollywood’s dark side into fine focus with his light-handed, but resonating memoir of a baseball team comprised of punk-rock addicts, struggling actors, and a closeted cross-dresser. In a book that could be nothing more than a “rejects make good” cliché, Albert explores the issues of community and the younger generations’ addiction to ironic attachment. Yes, Albert’s baseball team wins the championship, and yes, the sordid players do all learn a valuable lesson, but there is so much more about the players’ lives to unravel and Albert does it with grace.
Jodie Janella Horn PopMatters review Amazon

Epileptic
by David B.

>(Pantheon)


French cartoonist David B. is like Art Spiegelman on steroids. Like Spiegelman, he relays intensely personal experiences, draws with excruciating detail and is obsessed with history’s effects on the present. But David B.‘s debut graphic novel, Epileptic, is huge, sprawling, and messy, while Spiegelman’s work (even if similarly chaotic) is much leaner and focused. Epileptic chronicles the writer’s childhood and young adulthood growing up with an older epileptic brother, and the struggles his brother brought to his family. David B. paints an extraordinarily complex relationship between the two brothers, one fraught with guilt, anger, hurt and confusion. With the Algerian War as a backdrop to the drama, as well as the histories of both his family and his nation, David B.‘s adolescence is a particularly painful one, but one filled with moments of poignancy and beauty. It’s an exhaustive, disturbing, and eloquent portrayal of a family in a time of crisis.
Raquel Laneri Amazon

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
by Malcolm Gladwell

>(Little, Brown)


Certainly neuroscientists and psychologists must resent Malcolm Gladwell’s work for the breezy tone and inter-disciplinary methodology with which it explores complex scientific concepts like rapid cognition. But for the general reader, Gladwell’s ability to bring together interesting tidbits from all fields, from marriage to art authenticity to race and gender bias, in order to study the decision making processes in which each of us are engaged, is a delight. Written in the same casual, thought-provoking manner as The Tipping Point, his previous book, Blink asks questions about the roles spontaneity and intuition play in decision-making. Using examples from a broad range of disciplines, Gladwell explains how the unconscious can be a powerful, but also fallible, force.
Megan Milks Amazon

Lolly Scramble
by Tony Martin

>(Pan Macmillan Australia)


Everyone who reads it agrees — it should never have ended. Tony Martin’s book is brilliant and funny. I can’t get enough of it. So much so that it’s taken up residence on my special shelf next to Woody Allen’s Without Feathers, another therapeutic piece of writing able to lift spirits with a single paragraph. Martin, like Allen, is a master of language. He manages to be funny without being funny, and is heartbreakingly affecting when he is being funny. Even though he’s never actually being funny. It’ll make sense when you read it. So, if you only spend a fortune tracking down one obscure Aussie title this year, make it Lolly Scramble. It’s delicious.
Nikki Tranter PopMatters review

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel
by Jane Smiley

>(Knopf)


A hulking look into the functional form of literature, Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel can be picked through like a holiday candy sampler, which makes it all the more enticing. Built upon the foundations of being a writer and a reader, Smiley unlocks her scholarly closets to both personalities, first giving us a well-dressed conversation of partial memoir, writing advice, and literary theory, then in the second half, study of 100 novels ranging from Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of the Genji to Ian McEwan’s Atonement. The latter portion of the book will thrill bookworms who are spellbound by a sharp writer’s thoughts on other authors and their work. Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel is the kind of book to go to bed with.
Shandy Casteel Amazon

Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood
by Koren Zailckas

>(Viking)


In a world of absolutes, Koren Zailckas reminds us that there is a grey area around addiction. Not an alcoholic, but far from a teetotaler, her destructive relationship with alcohol — from furtive teen romps, to sloppy collegiate benders, and ending with despondent after-work binges — drove her to write Smashed. She records her travails with booze from an emotional distance that belies the gravity of her message: alcohol can trap us into a permanent childhood by allowing us an out to every emotional tough spot, and you don’t have to be a 6am bar rat to suffer the effects.
Jodie Janella Horn Amazon

Don’t Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, The Torments of Low Thread Count, The Never-ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems
by David Rakoff

>(Doubleday)


Don’t Get to Comfortable explores the many luxuries afforded to the urbanite of means through a collection of barbed essays. The absurdities of “pampering” are explored in his polar experiences serving as a pool “ambassador” at an upscale Miami Beach hotel and his repulsion at being served while observing a Playboy video shoot at a Belize resort. At no point during the essay collection is Rakoff not coyly detached and lamentably hilarious as he waxes sardonic on the foibles of wealth.
Jodie Janella Horn PopMatters review Amazon

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
by Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner

>(William Morrow)


How ironic is it that a man who strips everything of its context, essentially reducing our textured world to raw data, can reveal more than yards of op-ed columns with the broad stroke of an economist’s brush? Steven D. Levitt, by treating human issues as ones and zeros, reveals a probable link between legalized abortion and crime, outs cheating teachers for the test-botchers they are, and debunks a few ideas about child-rearing. It’s his distance that allows him to tackle prickly matters like African-American baby names, and it’s his refrain of “let’s look at the numbers” that lends the book its crisp take on the intricacies of modern life.
Jodie Janella Horn Amazon

Goldie: A Lotus Grows in the Mud
by Goldie Hawn

>(Putnam)


Goldie’s memoir is a fun read; deeply spiritual, and filled with so much shiny-happy love that it, as the saying goes, drips from the pages. It’s hard not to want what she’s got — self-esteem, humor, and some of the sweetest real-world perceptions based on her successes as an actress, a charity worker, and a woman. Goldie writes candidly about parenthood and marriage, her family, her road to fame, and some of her biggest career blunders. Smart and funny, she does this as though conversing with friends around an incense flame. She’s theatrical in her writing, but she’s also acutely aware of her place in the world, real and make-believe. This is one that’ll leave you smiling.
Nikki Tranter Amazon

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

>(Riverhead)


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

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/nonfiction1/