The Best of Books 2009: Non-Fiction

Note: These books are listed in alphabetical order by title. This is not an order of preference. They may be the paperback version or a reprint: if they were published in 2009, and we read them and loved them, they’re here.

Introduction by Chris Barsanti

It’s a fool’s errand, this sort of task, summing up a year’s worth of creative output, but nevertheless, we try. In a time when we’re being told that the printed book could well enter the dumpster of obsolescence – right between a stack of vinyl LPs and a few reams of carbon paper – it seemed that bookstores in 2009 were as full of fat new titles as they have ever been. Certainly there were differences, what with the armies of zombie and vampire cross-genre teen-friendly mashups now crowding the front-store table displays, but in some ways it was same as it ever was, particularly in non-fiction.

One had the usual suspects dropping in their two cents, like Malcolm Gladwell with Outliers. There was evidence that the Hollywood principle of never make a movie that doesn’t deserve a sequel also applies to pop-economics texts, as in the case of October’s Superfreakanomics. There were more self-help books than you could shake a stick at, such as Steve Harvey’s Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, as well as another raft of books on American politicians, both titanic (the Ted Kennedy bio True Compass) and not (Sarah Palin’s memoir Going Rogue). No real game-changers here, however, nothing to get the heart or mind racing like some of the year’s great fiction breakouts.

We had no Bob Woodward exposé for the Sunday morning pundits to glean tasty scandalous tidbits from, though rumors from March have it that he is already quietly working on a tome about the Obama White House. There were certainly a good number of titles about how the human race is dooming itself through a multiplicity of bad behavioral traits, but few of them managed to gain much traction.

What did seem to have traction when it came to non-fiction publishing in the year of our Lord 2009 is the ever-increasing volatility and volume of angry political screeds. For much of the year, the bestseller lists were packed cheek-to-jowl with the yammering likes of the alliterative Michele Malkin (Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies), Glenn Beck (Arguing with Idiots: How to Stop Small Minds and Big Government), and Mark Levin (Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto). There were a few similar screeds from those on the left, but with Al Franken dutifully beavering away in the Senate, and Rachel Madow apparently no closer to publishing that long-rumored book than she’s ever been, the superstar pickings were slim.

When one looks at the books that excited us here at PopMatters, however, the titles rarely pulled from any of the categories discussed above. This was not, of course, due to any attempt to purposefully avoid the more popular books out there, but instead just the natural result of grazing widely across the deep flood of new hardcover titles that come over the transom every year (and no, digital media doesn’t seem to be reducing that anytime soon) and pulling out what was most thought-provoking to us.

What got our writers excited tended to have little to do with angry political speechifying and more to do with hard-bitten reportage, in the case of Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson’s account of last year’s election,Battle for America 2008, or Leonard Zeskind’s history of domestic white-supremacist groups, Blood and Politics. The historical texts that engaged us were more likely to deal with events long past, such as Robert B. Strassler’s excellent reimagining of The Histories in his Landmark Herodotus, David Grann’s thrilling Lost City of Z, and Grigoris Balakian’s recounting of the Armenian Genocide, Armenian Golgotha.

Given our focus on how our society produces and engages with pop culture in the here and now, our favorite texts on such matters had a more up-to-the-minute feel, as with Paul Wasik’s And Then There’s This, about flash mobs and the ever-increasing power of viral culture, and Clay Haynes’ gorgeous Gig Posters: Rock Show Art of the 20th Century. There were exceptions to this rule, naturally, such as the case of Sam Stephenson’s lavish, must-read excavation of a photographic, musical treasure trove in The Jazz Loft Project.

That is likely more a statement about the power of good writing and editing than anything else. We like the books we like, until something different comes along that knocks us sideways. That might not have happened quite as much as we would have preferred in 2009, but as you can see in the selections we present here, there were more than enough great books by great writers in the past year to more than make up for all the other shouters and malingerers.

 

Book: Alistair Cooke at the Movies

Author: Alistair Cooke

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Alistair Cooke at the Movies
Alistair Cooke

Alistair Cooke’s was a unique voice: partly that of America and partly that of Britain, it represented each nation to the other with amiability and erudition unknown in any other broadcaster on either side of the Atlantic. But before he began delivering his Letters from America, Cooke was a film critic. This book collects over 120 articles he wrote from 1928 (when he penned stupendously pompous film reviews for the student publication at Cambridge University) to 2003 (when he marked the passing of centenarian MGM editor Margaret Booth with the intelligence and elegance he retained until his death). In the years between, Cooke became, as a critic, a runner whom the race outran. He was seized by a conservative sensibility that left him, as the introduction notes, ‘unable to smile upon The Godfather or Taxi Driver’ — but this only increases our interest in a book that evolves into a collection of stylish and opinionated period pieces to rival any diary. At The Movies isn’t only for Cooke completists, anymore than it is only for those who frequently consume volumes of film criticism. As with all of Cooke’s work, if you are interested in anything, you’ll be interested in this. Scott Jordan Harris

 

Book: Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918

Author: Grigoris Balakian

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Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918
Grigoris Balakian

Grigoris Balakian was an Armenian priest and intellectual, living in Constantinople in 1915. On 24 April, he and 250 other Armenians were arrested and exiled, unaware that this was just the first stage of an ordeal that would result in the slaughter of the majority of their numbers. They were transported further and further east, sometimes in trains or carriages, but more often made to cover vast distances on foot. Frequent stops are made at towns along the route; sometimes more Armenian deportees are added to their numbers, in many cases the settlements have already been cleared of Armenian residents. It transpires that their ultimate destination is Der Zor, a site in present day Syria where as many as 400,000 Armenians were massacred. Many more did not make it that far; either killed en route, or succumbing to disease, starvation or sheer exhaustion. Balakian, due to a combination of factors outlined here, survived. In Armenian Golgotha Balakian has left behind a hugely important document in the country’s history. Although he was deeply affected by the suffering he saw and endured, he succeeded in producing an account that provides us with a great and valuable insight into what is regarded as the precedent for modern genocide. Alan Ashton-Smith

 

Book: Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure

Author: David Freeland

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Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure
David Freeland

It’s easy to tell the difference between a book that is written with genuine passion, and one that’s written to fulfill a contract, or build a curriculum vitae, or fatten a wallet. Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville fits firmly into the former category, as is apparent from its very first pages when the author, David Freeland, recounts a recurring dream: “Although some details change, the basic situation is the same: I am walking in an American city sometime during the middle of the 20th century. I keep searching for a neighborhood that I know, from my previous visits, contains a large number of old theaters. By the time I figure out where the neighborhood is I am forced to remember that many of the theaters have been torn down… but always I am able to find one or two that are still there — and feel tremendous relief when I go inside and head to a seat, usually in the balcony where I can get a nice view of the whole building. But always something is different about the interior: either it has been stripped of all architectural detail, just a blank shell, or else the stage seems so far away that I can barely see it. It’s as if I’m watching it from the opposite end of a telescope. Everything appears to be growing smaller, shrinking in front of me to a pin-sized speck before evaporating completely.” The emotions that motivate a recurring dream like this are a combination of nostalgia for a past that never was, and yearning, mixed with a bitter regret, for a present that can never be again. Freeland, a writer who has the courage of his dreams, is not afraid to remind us of what we have wiped out, and in our stumbling, childlike sleepwalk through time, continue to destroy. Michael Antman

 

The Battle for America 2008 and more…

Book: The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election

Author: Dan Balz, Haynes Johnson

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The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election
Dan Balz, Haynes Johnson

The best thing about Balz and Johnson’s campaign history, The Battle for America 2008 is how they get past the public personas and provide a true glimpse of the candidates: Barack Obama, modest and self-deprecating on the campaign trail, is supremely confident, even cocky; Hillary Clinton is packaged as a tough American version of Margaret Thatcher, yet she’s emotionally vulnerable; and John McCain, the maverick fighter pilot, is uncertain and erratic. The campaign resembles an epic Wagnerian opera: the bitter primary duel between Obama and Clinton in the spring of 2008 is fought across a bleak political landscape of an America in decline. The fall campaign between Obama and McCain turns ugly. McCain’s running mate, the born-again beauty queen Sarah Palin, turns into a dangerous demagogue who questions Obama’s patriotism. In a Twilight of the Gods finalé, America suffers a financial crash six weeks before the election. McCain the war hero panics and

‘suspends his campaign. Obama, cool and measured in the midst of crisis, calms a worried nation and wins the presidency. The curtain falls. John Grassi

 

Book: Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream

Author: Leonard Zeskind

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Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream
Leonard Zeskind

By the end of Leonard Zeskind’s monumental history of the American white supremacist movement (reportedly 15 years in the writing), one conclusion is hard to avoid: if these people had half a brain, we as a nation would be in serious trouble. Although his style can be tendentious — the dust of the research library’s stacks layers his prose — the weight of his scholarship, stretching from the ’50s to today, is undeniably impressive. Much of the book tracks the monomania, in-fighting, juvenile pseudo-scholarship, opportunistic hate-mongering, and confused identity politics that highlights the movement and its leaders (particularly rivals like Willis Carto’s “Liberty Lobby” and Turner Diaries author William Pierce) who again, would be dangerous had they two neurons to rub together. But the book is most interesting when Zeskind delves into the thesis of his subtitle, “The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream”. He convincingly argues that the supremacist movement has recently lost momentum not because of a greater anti-racist consensus, but because its ideas and followers shifted quite comfortably (via the likes of Pat Buchanan) from the extremist margins to mainstream conservatism, a development as sobering as it is underreported. Chris Barsanti

 

Book: Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart

Author: Tim Butcher

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Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart
Tim Butcher

As the Daily Telegraph’s man on the ground in such hot spots as Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Algeria, Sierra Leone, and Lebanon, Butcher is a man on intimate terms with dangerous terrain; his exploits closely mirror those of explorer and British correspondent Sir Henry Stanley, the first known white man to form an expedition to explore the Congo in 1871. Butcher, serving a four-year tour, learns that Stanley’s legendary journey was financed by the very same newspaper that he writes for and becomes obsessed with the notion of recreating Stanley’s original expedition… except Butcher intends to go it alone, traveling hundreds of kilometers on a motorbike after three years of careful planning with nothing but a rucksack and a few thousand dollars stashed in a boot, coping with punctured tires, dehydration, treacherous roads, and rebel gunmen, not to mention the harsh, raw land itself. Part travelogue and part political-science study (Stanley’s journey started the colonial land grab for the Congo’s hinterland which Conrad explored in Heart of Darkness and The Congo Diary and Butcher explores the early history deftly) Blood River is a thrilling mix of adventure, history, and literature. But the true heroes of the tale are the many Congolese who offer the modern-day explorer food, shelter, guidance, and security despite their own physical and economic suffering, much of it instigated by Stanley’s exploration almost 140 years prior. Rodger Jacobs

 

Book: Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

Author: Christopher McDougall

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Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen
Christopher McDougall

Implausibly difficult marathons, hundreds of miles long, and the ultra-elite competitive runners who tackle them for fun. A hidden, almost mythical, tribe in Mexico untouched by modern disease. Shoe manufacturers driven by corporate greed to sustain an industry that has created modern running injuries. An anthropological study of homo sapiens physiology and the course we took to survive while Neanderthals died out. It may seem farfetched, but Born to Run entwines all those strands and even pop-culture references into an engaging and inspirational read. Journalist Christopher McDougall’s book starts out in Mexico where by happenstance he stumbles upon a photo of a runner in thin sandals. His purpose shifts, as he dives deep into the dangerous Copper Canyons in order to contact the Tarahumara tribe and understand their fabled running prowess. Adding to the improbability, he can only reach them through the assistance of a outlandish nomad, Caballo Blanco. To say that long distance, possibly barefoot, running is well within human capacity would not spoil the end. But I won’t reveal McDougall’s trials involved in the gripping story that culminate with an epic desert race. Sachyn Mital

 

Book: Che’s Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image

Author: Michael Casey

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Che’s Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image
Michael Casey

Even though the life of Ernesto Guevara came to an end in October of 1967, the icon ‘El Che’ lives on through an increasingly bizarre series of sightings and appropriations. Little familiarity with Guevara’s biography is necessary to play this post-modern game, a mash-up of Where’s Waldo and Stephen Colbert’s Who’s Honoring Me Now? Apart from the four-hour, two part epic bio-pic by Steven Soderbergh, Che has made appearances in a Japanese film about a deadly jellyfish (Bright Future), a political advert for PETA, a carton of Australian-made ice-cream (‘Cherry Guevara’) and shows up on T-Shirts, coffee mugs, posters and condoms. Following the lengthy backstory of the original photo (Casey devotes as much of his text to Korda’s biography than he does Guevara’s), Che’s Afterlife explores various incarnations of Che’s representation across the globe. Casey, a business reporter, is at his best analyzing branding trends and the way in which Che has been appropriated by political and commercial causes. In the end, Casey suggests that adopting Che, like any other brand, is “a very personal act”. With a tone that appears half awestruck and half skeptical, Casey can’t help but be inspired by devotion to all notions of Che’s legacy. This personal attachment, more than the political result it effects, is of primary significance to the author. Selecting Che, according to Casey “offers a taste of immortality”. Luke Fenchel

 

Book: The Death of Conservatism

Author: Sam Tanenhaus

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The Death of Conservatism
Sam Tanenhaus

The boldly declarative title of Sam Tanenhaus’ book doesn’t do justice to the nuanced argument contained within. Tanenhaus doesn’t describe the end of an ideology so much as explains the ideology’s current state of tail-eating suicide as a low point in a long historical trajectory of ups and downs. As the editor for the New York Times Book Review, you would expect Tanenhaus to be a more vitriolic critic, standing there with knife and fork at the ready to carve into the fat, wounded carcass of modern conservatism. But there’s a careful elegance to his writing and thinking in this slim, gracefully argued book that harkens to a time when the back-and-forth of political discourse consisted of more than the thumbing of noses and calling of names. The tone of The Death of Conservatism is not so much harping and victorious as it is concerned, and more than a little disturbed. What Tanenhaus has authoritatively done is show that, yes, the tides of American conservatism are at low ebb, but that this state of affairs should not be expected to last. “There remains in our politics a place for an authentic conservatism,” Tanenhaus writes. “A conservatism that seeks not to destroy but to conserve.” Chris Barsanti

 

Book: Gig Posters: Rock Show Art of the 21st Century, Vol. 1

Author: Clay Hayes

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Gig Posters: Rock Show Art of the 21st Century, Vol. 1
Clay Hayes

Clay Hayes’ book is a collection of some of the finest posters from his website, Gigposters.com, an online community of designers and fans showcasing the incredible poster work being done around the world. Letterpress, screen printing, digital, and mash-ups of all forms do more than just advertise, they become art. The whole point is to grab someone’s attention. That’s truly the wonder of this book. No matter how many times one opens it, there is always something new to see, a shape or line that stands out. The posters seem to change with your mood, or the weather, the images evoking different spirits, stories, ideas. The best ones have nothing apparently in common with their subjects. Texas artist Dirk Fowler’s design for a 2006 Ramblin’ Jack Elliot show, for example, features a cowboy riding a whale, an unlikely pairing that somehow still works. Finding a connection is as much a tool of the artist as is paper and ink, even if the connection is only in the artist’s brain. Hayes’ book collects these images and shows the proper reverence and respect for an art form that is experiencing its golden age. More than anything else, though, this book rocks. Jeremy Estes

 

The Good Soldiers and more…

Book: The Good Soldiers

Author: David Finkel

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The Good Soldiers
David Finkel

The idea of a journalist embedding himself within an American unit in Iraq to write a longform piece about them is far from original. But nevertheless, Pulitzer Prize-winner Washington Post editor David Finkel’s record of Battalion 2-16’s 15-month engagement in a miserable section of Baghdad’s Sadr City slum is an epic accomplishment. Starting in April 2007, the 2-16 moved into Sadr City as part of the surge that was attempted to win back parts of Iraq that had previously been ceded to insurgents. The fighting that followed in the sewage-choked alleys was unpredictable and punishing — and Finkel does his level best to deliver to the reader the choking, grinding, hopeless horror of it all. When the battalion’s first soldier is killed, it’s jarring and saddening. When the second one dies, it’s worse. They all get worse after that. By the time Finkel leaves the 2-16, the emotional weight of what these men have had to overcome is nearly impossible to bear, particularly when set against the murky sense that their sacrifices may well have been for naught. Perhaps the best book yet written about the Iraq War, and one of the greatest, most shattering books about war, period. Chris Barsanti

 

Book: The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965

Author: Sam Stephenson, W. Eugene Smith

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The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith from 821 Sixth Avenue, 1957-1965
Sam Stephenson, W. Eugene Smith

Sam Stephenson’s exhaustive, exhilarating volume is neither photography album nor jazz book, but some beautiful hybrid. In 1957, photographer W. Eugene Smith dumped his well-paying Life gig, left a family in the ‘burbs, and moved into a vermin-infested multi-floor loft in Manhattan’s Flower District, where the likes of Thelonious Monk jammed late nights amidst the druggies — and Smith recorded it all until 1965. He miked the multi-floor loft for sound and obsessively photographed everything happening inside and even out the window. The black-and-white photos range from gorgeously etched, deep-shadowed portraits of musicians in mid-swing to on-the-fly street life shots that echo the best of city portraitists like Brassai and Atget. The brief sections of the tapes transcribed here reveal a mix of the dramatic and mundane, since Smith seemingly never turned the tape recorders off. Stephenson’s book just scratches the surface of Smith’s archive (some of the music can be heard at the Jazz Loft Project website), but still creates an immersive portrait of mid-century Manhattan cultural life at a time when high was meeting low and getting on quite well. Chris Barsanti

 

Book: The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories

Author: Robert B. Strassler

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The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories
Robert B. Strassler

Though written in the fifth century BCE, The Histories is a powerful and vivid narrative even today, buoyed by Herodotus’ strong voice and the tenacity with which he dissects and evaluates each bit of information he encounters. The primary topic of The Histories concerns the emergence of the Persian Empire under the kings Cyrus and Darius and their influence and impact on the Hellenic world. Herodotus is not a single-minded writer, however, and displays a wide-ranging interest in the entirety of the known world. His epic digressions include lengthy ethnographies, geographical studies, relations of local color and legends, and political analysis. The Histories is a brilliant tour of the ancient world, impressive in its scope, surprising in its deftness, and captivating in its emotional power. All these strengths are present in the original text; what The Landmark Herodotus achieves is an amplification of the power of the original work, through the painstaking collection and reader-friendly deployment of supporting materials and contemporary views that put Herodotus’ efforts in their proper context. Michael Patrick Brady

 

Book: Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents

Author: Minal Hajratwala

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Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents
Minal Hajratwala

It’s hard enough tracing your family’s lineage over several generations without it becoming even more confusing by geographical dispersion, as well. If you add an attempt at writing your own story and ruminations on cultural and sexual identity, then you have a smorgasbord of ideas. Or you have Minal Hajratwala’s debut, Leaving India. From one lens, this is a thoroughly well-researched biography of a family from the Western Indian state of Gujarat, who sought economic prosperity by venturing abroad — to South Africa, Fiji, New Zealand and afar. But, what makes Hajratwala’s book so extraordinary is how she seamlessly weaves her own narrative in as well, but not in a way that distracts the reader. Rather, Leaving India provokes relentless introspection about individual identity, as a simple point along the spectrum that is representative of our families’ histories. The book forces you to reconsider your own problems or adjustments in light of your parents’ stories and those of the greater family. As Hajratwala writes, “Each time we move, we must leave something of ourselves behind; perhaps then the map of a Diaspora consists, like a constellation, mainly of gaps.” Shyam Sriram

 

Book: The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

Author: David Grann

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The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon
David Grann

Percy Fawcett, an intrepid British explorer and member of the Royal Geographical Society, adventured, researched and mapped the depths of the Brazilian Amazon early in the 1900s. Fortunately blessed with a rather strong constitution, Fawcett survived tropical diseases, wily predators, and even hostile tribes that weaker men frequently succumbed to. Yet on one particularly secretive journey in 1925, Fawcett, along with his son and his son’s best friend, did not return. Bearing similarity to Krakauer’s book Into the Wild, David Grann’s The Lost City of Z combines Fawcett’s obsessive quest for the fabled El Dorado with Grann’s own hesitant preparation and quest into the jungle to gain more insight into Fawcett’s disappearance. Countless explorers had failed at finding Fawcett before, but Grann’s research and journey provides new insights not just about Fawcett, but about the possible past existence of a magnificent civilization in the wilds of the Amazon. Sachyn Mital

 

Book: Lit

Author: Mary Karr

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Lit
Mary Karr

Memoir is for voyeurs. We read other people’s life stories with a mind much like the long, drawn-out version of rubbernecking at a car wreck. These tales wouldn’t get published unless something terrible happened, right? Well, lots of terrible things have happened to Mary Karr. The first two installments of her autobiography, 1995’s The Liar’s Club and 2001’s Cherry, recount a childhood and adolescence for which the word “hardscrabble” might have been coined. But inevitably, we reach the age where things stop happening to us and we start bringing things upon ourselves, and this is Karr’s journey in Lit. A clever title for a young wanna-be writer who also happens to be an alcoholic, Karr’s tale of her failed marriage and birth of her son, her descent into daily drinking, and her path to sobriety and spirituality, is just as fascinating and unsentimental as her first two books. This is not to say that it won’t make you cry. Lit is a clear-eyed account of how a logic-loving intellectual comes to faith, and how a perpetual victim comes to forgiveness and acceptance. You don’t have to be any of these things to enjoy the ride, but if you are, then there are words in these pages that might stay with you for the rest of your life. Jennifer Cooke

 

Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town and more…

Book: Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town

Author: Nick Reding

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Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town
Nick Reding

“It’s one thing for a drug to be associated with sloth, like heroin,” Nick Reding observes in his harrowing journey across the ragged edges of dysfunctional American society at the turn of the 21st century, “but it’s wholly another when a formerly legal and accepted narcotic exists in a one-to-one ratio with the defining ideal of American culture.” The defining ideal that Reding writes of is the trite adage that hard work offers its own rewards and the narcotic that he finds destroying the fabric of Oelwein, Iowa (Pop. 6,000) in this breathless offering of immersion journalism is methamphetamine or “crank”. Reding spent four years in the agricultural and railroad town of Oelwein and four intersecting stories emerge: the deregulation of agribusiness and its impact in lost jobs and lower wages in an economically challenged corner of the nation, the enticement of undocumented workers across the US borders, the war between lawmakers and pharmaceutical manufacturers to control the legal sale of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, and the monster-in-the-box: meth, “once heralded as the drug that would end the need for all others”. Reding’s tale of economic despair and drug abuse in America’s heartland is violent, sobering, explosive (literally and figuratively), as unstoppable as a meth-induced seizure, and not for the faint of heart. Rodger Jacobs

 

Book: News, Nudity & Nonsense: Irresponsible Writing for Awkward Youth: The Best of Vice Magazine Volume Two, 2003-2008

Author: Vice Magazine

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News, Nudity & Nonsense
Vice Magazine

I was never a big fan of Vice magazine. In fact, in my mind as a lifelong New Yorker, nothing epitomized the whole snide transplant hipster vibe that invaded Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan for the lion’s share of the ’00s than this lewd, crude Canadian pop culture rag which canceled out its occasional dashes of good taste in music (a belated thanks for turning me onto Growing) with irritating pieces on chicks who wear stuffed animal backpacks, glory holes, disturbing photo essays featuring dead cats and passed out immigrants. I wrote Vice off in 2004, utterly repulsed but grateful their back copies were going for big bucks on eBay. Which is why it came as quite a shock when I picked up the second volume of the publication’s anthology of News, Nudity and Nonsense after a good five years of not reading Vice to discover the editors seem to have been bitten by the William Murrow bug. Sure, the layout is a blatant rip off of The Believer, and there is still plenty of no-brow, quasi-intellectual juvenilia to remind you with whom you are contending. However, it is rather excellently balanced with some amazing, insightful pieces of literary journalism, including interviews with such a wide swath of subjects from autistic animal scientist and HBO docudrama muse Temple Grandin to legendary Life Magazine photojournalist Harry Benson to Ghostface Killah. There are also profiles on Bangkok street gangs, North Korean refugees, survivors of bear maulings, a reporter who was embedded with the IRA, and even a guy who served as the body double for Uday Hussein. They even have a story about Sammy Davis, Jr. and his alleged ties to the Church of Satan in the early ’70s. While many Vice loyalists certainly would much rather read yet another parade of Do’s and Don’ts than an interview with American novelist Harry Crews, it’s certainly good to see these guys transcend their own immaturity and utilize their overblown cultural sway to educate their readers rather than bludgeon them with shock and awe. And hey, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have Sasha Grey on your cover, either. Ronald Hart

 

Book: Portable Grindhouse: The Lost Art of the VHS Box, Vol. 1

Author: Jacques Boyreau

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Portable Grindhouse: The Lost Art of the VHS Box, Vol. 1
Jacques Boyreau

Do you remember the first time you ever went to a video store? I’m not talking about Blockbuster, either. I mean those little mom-and-pop joints that sat right beside the laundromat and the Chinese restaurant at your local strip mall, where you would spend a good hour browsing the aisles and studying the interesting, unorthodox artistry that graced the covers of those old VHS boxes. This awesome picture book brought to us by the comic strip scholars at Fantagraphics celebrates that microcosm of our youth with this 200 page book filled with a delightfully odd array of vintage video covers ranging from the well-known (The Terminator, Robocop 2, Death Wish) to the mega-obscure (Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, Naked Prey, The Blood Spattered Bride). VHS cassettes may be treated like toxic waste in the age of the Blu-ray, but Portable Grindhouse offers that micro minority who still remain faithful to their trusty VCR a long overdue reprieve. Ronald Hart

 

Book: Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang

Author: Zhao Ziyang

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Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang
Zhao Ziyang

The year 2009 marked the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and Zhao Ziyang’s Prisoner of the State was published just one month in advance of the date it happened. Ziyang’s posthumous memoir is his attempt to break the official silence and offer us a fascinating insider’s look at the confusion, bitter debates, and infighting about how the government should have responded to the student demonstrations. Premier Zhao Ziyang was the man who brought liberal change to that nation and who, at the height of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, tried to stop the massacre — for this he was removed from office. Zhao was placed under house arrest shortly after the shootings on Tiananmen Square and remained so until his death in 2005. At some point in 2000, he began to dictate his memoirs. Prisoner of the State provides an excellent history lesson that should be impressed upon one’s mind, much like the famous image of a solitary man standing in front of a line of tanks at Tieneman Square. The courage of that unknown man, of all the demonstrators, should always be remembered. Carmelo Militano

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Book: Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life

Author: Carol Sklenicka

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Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life
Carol Sklenicka

“Courageous” is not an adjective often applied to biographers, but Carol Sklenicka has earned it. In writing the biography of one of America’s most influential writers, Sklenicka has taken great risks; both in choosing such a beloved subject and in her willingness to delve deeply into his complex, sometimes cruel character, which impacted many people still alive to read her words. The book is not only unflinching, but meticulously researched and compulsively readable. Ultimately, it’s impossible not to judge the behaviors of others. In this case, we learn that a writer who was a primary influence for many of us was in fact often a thoughtless, selfish man. But we also learn of his kindness to young writers. What emerges in this biography is a surprising portrait of one our greatest writing talents. Diane Leach

 

Book: Red Star Over Russia: A Visual History of the Soviet Union from the Revolution to the Death of Stalin

Author: David King

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Red Star Over Russia:A Visual History of the Soviet Union from the Revolution to the Death of Stalin
David King

At first glance, one could easily dismiss David King’s Red Star Over Russia: A Visual History of the Soviet Union from the Revolution to the Death of Stalin as a work of commie propaganda porn, a celebration and sensualization of images that were created specifically to mask the repression of a failing ideology. Yet even with its artsy, fetishistic trappings, Red Star constantly reminds its readers to see the posters as propaganda as well as art, so that the longview comes into focus. After poring over Red Star Over Russia, it’s hard to deny the power of the poster. What is also hard to deny is the fact that, if there are any true Communists left, they won’t be rushing out of their hovels to stand in line for King’s book. If you can afford this hardcover, you probably aren’t a real fellow traveler. But for $50, you can proudly display this book on your coffee table and create your own workers’ paradise — without the blood, without the snow, and without fear of offending the ‘Cheka’ (secret police). Josh Indar

 

The Siege and more…

Book: The Siege

Author: Ismail Kadare

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The Siege
Ismail Kadare

Written in 1970, The Siege is a parable of Balkan nationalism, an elegant metaphor for Albanian Dictator Enver Hoxha’s Cold War showdown with the Soviet Union. It also serves as a stark reminder of the power of resistance in the face of a foreign enemy. By rights, Kadare’s beleaguered Albanian garrison ought to have surrendered as soon as the Sultan’s emissaries offered terms. Not only were they outnumbered and outmatched by the Balkan superpower, most Albanians would have probably been better off under the Ottomans’ suzerainty. Albania’s material culture was far-outstripped by the Ottomans’; the Sultan’s army and civil service offered any loyal subject ample opportunity for advancement and personal enrichment, and voluntarily joining the preeminent power in the Near East would have been much easier than fighting a losing war amid the crags and valleys of High Albania. Even the defenders’ Christian faith wasn’t much of an obstacle to peaceful assimilation — the Ottoman Sultans were famed for their religious toleration. So why fight? Kadare doesn’t offer any definitive answers, though his harrowing account of the siege suggests a few possible reasons for the Albanians’ obstinacy. But if you don’t have the patience for his characters’ meandering digressions into the nature of patriotism and national identity, Kadare’s account of the campaign is a satisfying piece of storytelling in its own right. Will Collins

 

Book: And Then There’s This by Bill Wasik

Author: Bill Wasik

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And Then There’s This by Bill Wasik
Bill Wasik

And Then There’s This examines nanostories and how they are spread through the viral culture of the Internet. Nanostories are anecdotes that, though relatively meaningless on their own, are spread widely through the Internet. More generally, the book looks at how the Internet has changed cultural trends. According to Wasik, the Internet doesn’t change culture as much as it accelerates it. It also creates subcultures that, due to Internet communities catering to niche interests, are made up of members who no longer feel like members of subcultures. The reader is left to decide whether or not such trends are positive for society or not –the implication is that they are probably not, but Wasik’s ultimate goal is to understand such trends rather than evaluate them. The book is impeccably organized, full of sharp analysis, witty, and thoroughly entertaining. It’s everything a cultural study ought to be. Given the quality of the writing, And Then There’s This is easily one of the best books of the year. Given the relevance of its subject matter and the lack of much in-depth, critical writing on the Internet’s effect on culture, it may be one of the most important works of non-fiction on the digital age. Jason Buel

 

Book: Ultimate Hendrix: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Live Concerts and Sessions

Author: John McDermott

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Ultimate Hendrix: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Live Concerts and Sessions
John McDermott

In his introduction, author John McDermott writes how he had the “extreme good fortune to be asked by Al Hendrix [Jimi’s father] and his daughter, Janie, to join his newly formed company, Experience Hendrix LLC, and manage the Jimi Hendrix catalog”. Modeled on Mark Lewisohn’s seminal 1988 The Beatles Recording Sessions, Ultimate Hendrix shows just how busy Hendrix was, with a performing/recording schedule that would have killed the Beatles if they’d been one guy instead of four. The book’s day-to-day entries oscillate between high productivity and very low frustration, with peaks and valleys dictated by Hendrix’s fortunes and later his moods. Undoubtedly, 1966-67 was a peak moment. Both Chandler and Hendrix knew early on what they wanted, and through a symbiotic relationship that was as pragmatic as it was alchemical, they managed to create some truly great music in a very short time. Hendrix arrived in the UK in September 1966, his first single (“Hey Joe/Stone Free”) was released in December, and his debut album Are You Experienced a mere five months after that — no time for Chinese Democracy here. Ultimate Hendrix describes songs being built from the bottom up, listing the many takes and practical procedures behind some of the most familiar, impractical sounds. On 20 February 1967, for the track “I Don’t Live Today”, Hendrix “skillfully manipulated a hand wah-wah unit [which] foot-controlled models soon replaced”. A hand wah-wah? Another favorite Hendrix trick was to create “various spaceship sounds… by moving his headphones into and away from his vocal microphone”. From such mundane things is magic born. McDermott, with Eddie Kramer and Billy Cox, Hendrix’s engineer and long-time friend and sometime bassist respectively, fill the dates with detailed entries that track the guitarist’s career from struggling sideman to rock superstar to super-exhausted and struggling rock superstar. Guy Crucianelli

 

Book: Wicked Plants: A Book of Botanical Atrocities

Author: Amy Stewart

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Wicked Plants: A Book of Botanical Atrocities
Amy Stewart

Wicked Plants should be recommended reading for anyone who has even an infinitesimal interest in the outdoors. If, as the author states, “3,900 people are injured annually by electrical outlets while 68,847 are poisoned by plants”, then why do we still have this hubris about being smarter than flora and fauna? Perhaps because most people are not fully aware of how frightful plants can be. “Wicked” is truly an appropriate adjective for this book, as I was appalled by the fury of plants. There is, for example, the mundane corn, which does not slip off the tongue as a dangerous plant. And yet, the Native Americans knew that corn had to be treated with some sort of lime; otherwise, the body would not be able to store niacin, leading to disease and death. Then there is the terrifying Cogon Grass, where “the edge of each blade is embedded with tiny silica crystals as sharp and serrated as the teeth of a saw”. This book was incredibly enjoyable and did prompt me to do some soul-searching. Perhaps what readers most garner from Wicket Plants is the knowledge that they must live their lives in a respectful, at times even cautious manner with plants, and not expect plants to take much interest in their society, in turn. Shyam Sriram

 

Book: Writing in the Dark: Essays on Literature and Politics

Author: David Grossman

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Writing in the Dark: Essays on Literature and Politics
David Grossman

Pronouncing a book ‘important’ elicits both joy and sobriety — joy that an author has so vividly and wisely addressed vital issues of the day, and sobriety that the issue, the conflict, the threat, and the human costs are so real and urgent that we are in dire need of a voice to address them. David Grossman’s collection of essays, Writing in the Dark, is important. Grossman has become known as a political activist and a voice of reason and reconciliation in Israel. His fiction is not bound by the rigors of political haranguing, and neither is his non-fiction reduced to abstraction and polemics. In clear prose translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen, the first three essays here discuss the sources, methodologies, and uses of literature in a world disinterested in its own suffering, while the last three essays, all speeches, are more explicitly sociopolitical. Such a basic description does an injustice to Grossman’s weaving of the personal and the political, the private and the public, into a vision that is both pragmatic and thoughtful — ingredients crucial to any lasting peace. This collection is an argument against the status quo, whether it be our daily ignorance and distance from the Other, or the passive, defeatist stasis in Israeli politics. Grossman’s clarity and humanity set these essays apart from other polemics, making Writing in the Dark a wise and rare book. Robert Loss

 

Book: You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe

Author: Christopher Potter

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You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe
Christopher Potter

You Are Here unfolds along several dimensions, describing the sizes and scale of the universe to its horizon, the increasing smallness of its essential particles, and its birth and expansion over time. The book is not merely concerned with the big, galactic picture, however. Potter spends a lot of time exploring the progression of science, from its genesis in ancient philosophy to today’s scientific methods. In a virtuosic chapter, he neatly explains the history of scientific thought from its earliest thinkers like Plato and Aristotle to contemporaries Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene, with brief yet revealing synopses detailing their contributions to our understanding of the universe. Potter shows how each new theory built on previous ones, and how our present knowledge of our world is the result of constant proposition, experimentation, and reevaluation. He also charts the evolution of life on Earth, and follows humankind from its earliest known origins as it crisscrosses the globe and solidifies its dominion over it. You Are Here is a triumph of popular science that clearly and succinctly elucidates the significance of the subject at hand. Michael Patrick Brady

 
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