Books

The Best Non-Fiction of 2010

PopMatters' writers (a margin-friendly, iconoclastic bunch, for the most part) cast their nets far beyond the world of culture-production to capture some of the best non-fiction books published in 2010.

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.

Chris Barsanti

 

Book: Bob Dylan in America

Author: Sean Wilentz

Publisher: Random House

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/d/dylanamerica-cvr.jpg

Display as: List

Display Width: 200Bob Dylan in America
Sean Wilentz

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

 

Book: Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light

Author: Jane Brox

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/b/brilliant-cvr.jpg

Display as: List

Display Width: 200Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light
Jane Brox

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

 

Book: Broken Mirrors / Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento (Expanded Edition)

Author: Maitland McDonagh

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/b/brokenmirros-cvr.jpg

Display as: List

Display Width: 200Broken Mirrors / Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento (Expanded Edition)
Maitland McDonagh

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

 

Book: Cleopatra

Author: Stacy Schiff

Publisher: Little, Brown

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/c/cleopatra-cvr.jpg

Display as: List

Display Width: 200Cleopatra
Stacy Schiff

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

 

Book: Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

Author: James Shapiro

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/blog_art/w/will.jpg

Display as: List

Display Width: 200Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?
James Shapiro

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

 

Next Page

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image