The Best Non-Fiction of 2011

Crenellated Sandcastles of Irrationality: The True World At Your Fingertips

It’s been said that there are no boring books, only boring readers. While that aphorism was probably invented by a disgruntled author (“No, the book just won’t work without that 50-page blank-verse digression on the gold standard”), it is true more often than not, particularly when one is talking about nonfiction. A novel can be deadly if it’s poorly written, no matter how engaging the story. If the characters talk in cartoon-worthy word balloons, the book is going to be a waste of time. Nonfiction is more forgiving, in that subject matter can triumph over authorial artistry (or total lack thereof), nine times out of ten.

Case in point: nobody would accuse journalist Andrew Feinstein of being a shock-and-awe writer. But while his book The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade (which came out in November from Farrar, Straus and Giroux) might have a leaden, Sunday feature prose style that would lead readers to think of the words “brick” and “solid”, it is nevertheless a thrilling read. Feinstein is one of those bloodhound investigators who sifts the paper record for bits of gold with the patience of a Talmudic scholar. His and our reward is a harrowing narrative of villainy where arms dealers, organized terrorist networks, corporate dons, and government officials collude in a kind of sordid club that ensures no dictator or warlord goes without the tools needed to stack bodies to the sky. It’s by no means an easy read, but darkly illuminating all the same. (Robert Fisk’s The Age of the Warrior, with its stories of a fractious Middle East ever spiraling out of control, is rewarding in a similar vein of discovering This Is How the World Keeps Ending; though Fisk is every bit the cock-eyed and world-weary stylist that Feinstein is not.)

This sense of discovery and of learning is the reward of nonfiction, and it is what kept bringing us back in 2011 to books that had nothing whatsoever to do with quirky detectives or lovelorn vampires.

We read a lot about music, of course, because it provides a never-ending well from which to draw different interpretations and meanings. David Yaffe’s Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown, with its sprawling and anti-conclusive style, was determined to be “fun, funny, learned as hell as well as plain smart, and subjective in the best possible sense.” Dylan showed up again in the new revised edition of Greil Marcus’s The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. One of the foundation blocks of a cultural studies understanding of our universe (much like Marcus’s Lipstick Traces), Marcus’s classic is taken to be “an exploration of the B-side of the bootlegged version of American history that maybe tells the real story that never made it into the textbooks.”

Less important and very unlikely to appear on a liberal arts college syllabus, but likely a good deal more fun, was longtime Spin scribbler Chuck Eddy’s magnificently titled collection Rock and Roll Always Forgets. Our writer was sometimes enraptured and occasionally enraged by Eddy’s 360-degree opinion-slinging. He first notes that “while [Eddy’s] talking, he’s as convincing as any schizophrenic who’s constructed his own private, illusory kingdom with its own laws and possibilities, all of which make sense on their own terms,” before determining that the book is like “crenellated sandcastles of irrationality” (which, come to think of it, would have been a better name for the book). Similarly grab-bag in style was the belles-lettres from Jonathan Lethem, The Ecstasy of Influence, which covers everything from his many years working in used-book stores (a treat for those in the know) to his investigation of why, exactly, he felt obliged to see Star Wars in the theater 21 times.

One subject that didn’t get as much play in 2011, at least from our reviewers, was the field of autobiography. At one time you couldn’t glance at a bookstore display without seeing a half-dozen addiction memoirs. But like all publishing trends, that one seems to have passed, even if a couple years too late. A different kind of addiction (one towards disaffection and violence) is chronicled in Andre Dubus III’s gripping Townie, in which the House of Sand and Fog novelist writes of his hard-knock childhood and difficult dance toward adulthood. It was praised for its “explanation of how to emerge, if not unscathed, then intact, from a childhood filled with flying fists and screaming rage.”

Other true stories of viciousness and disillusionment were to be found in Matterhorn novelist and Vietnam vet Karl Marlantes’ lacerating examination What It Is Like to Go to War and the late Manning Marable’s towering and (controversially for some) honest biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, which our reviewer wrote “challenges the readers’ willingness to look at the complexities of a legend that started off as a man.” Robert K. Massie’s Catherine the Great: Portrait of the Woman was glowingly and succinctly described as “magic”.

Politics were again in mostly short supply this year, excepting those that treated it in a historical fashion, like Malcolm X or Robin Blackburn’s An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln (which our reviewer called “taut, intelligent, and compelling”). But, then, one can’t have everything.

Of all the books we read in 2011 — but a fraction of the publishing world’s offering — these are what we felt were the most loved. There no boring books, here.

Chris Barsanti

 

Book: The Age of the Warrior: Selected Essays

Author: Robert Fisk

Publisher: Nation

Publication Date: 2011-03

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The Age of the Warrior: Selected Essays
Robert Fisk

There’s seemingly no end of people eager to pontificate on what’s wrong in the Middle East. This overabundance of opinion is particularly acute in the European media. Unlike so many of the continent’s Middle East commentariat, though, Robert Fisk actually lives there. From his perch in Beirut, the scandalously truthful and acidly funny Independent columnist holds forth on the apparently endless roundelay of massacres, corruption, coups, and invasions that have characterized the region. In this surprisingly sparkling collection of his columns (finally available in paperback), Fisk provides a potent perspective on everything from the Iraq to the Israeli invasions of Lebanon and the long, foolhardly tradition of Western military adventures. Although a sharp-eyed foreign-affairs correspondent able to file a vivid and humane dispatch from beleaguered corners of the world, Fisk also has an eye for the telling and unexpected detail. Watching the 2005 Ridley Scott film, Kingdom of Heaven, Fisk recalls how a largely Muslim audience in a Beirut cinema leapt to their feet cheering, not when Saladin defeated the Crusaders, but afterward, in a scene where he respectfully sets a crucifix back on the table it had been knocked off of: “They wanted Islam to be merciful as well as strong. Chris Barsanti

 

Book: All Labor Has Dignity

Author: Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Michael K. Honey

Publisher: Beacon

Publication Date: 2011-01

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All Labor Has Dignity
Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Michael K. Honey

This collection of the civil rights leader’s speeches to union audiences makes clear Dr. King’s long fellowship with the labor movement, and his thinking on the connections between labor, race and class. Of course, King has always been best known, and most studied, for his activism on racial matters, from the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott through the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Past those triumphs, he turned his attention to poverty as the central issue defining equality (or the lack thereof) in America. In 1967, he added his voice to the chorus speaking out against the Vietnam War. But throughout his public life, King was in kinship with organized labor’s progressive and multicultural forces. Such unions provided the Civil Rights Movement with money and shock troops, and King spoke often at union gatherings to support their battles. This is an illuminating argument that King was concerned with much, much more than just the plight of black people. His public career may have started in that arena, but it ended with him as a champion for progressives around the globe. Mark Reynolds

 

Book: An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln

Author: Robin Blackburn

Publisher: Verso

Publication date: 2011-05

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An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln
Robin Blackburn

Blackburn examines the influence that pre-war European radicalism had on the Union cause, the fascinating similarities and important contrasts in Lincoln and Marx’s political philosophies, and how labor activists carried the torch of emancipation into the post-war years. It’s a deeply researched, highly readable, thought-provoking book, though Blackburn’s insightful analysis comprises only the first hundred pages of the volume. The rest is made up of primary sources, meant to aid in the understanding of Lincoln, Marx, and other important voices of the time. Blackburn’s writing is taut, intelligent, and compelling. He packs an astonishing amount of information into a scant hundred pages, providing a fresh and powerful look at Civil War politics and social issues. Michael Patrick Brady

Christopher Hitchens and more…

Book: Arguably

Author: Christopher Hitchens

Publisher: Twelve

Publication date: 2011-09

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Display Width: 200Arguably
Christopher Hitchens

Love him or hate him (and to know his work typically meant doing both), Christopher Hitchens was among the last of a dying breed: the educated generalist. Fiercely intelligent, he had a driving interest in literary criticism but never succumbed to the faddish temptation to couch his reading in quasi-scientific jargon. Well read, he never felt the postmodern injunction to explode the traditional canon or claim any specialized area of expertise. Hitchens provided commentary in the old school, driven by the authority of his own learned voice and his unwillingness to compromise when he felt, on any given subject, that the rest of us had gotten it all wrong. Hitchens captivated the right and disaffected the left by supporting the 2003 Iraq War, while doing the exact opposite with his dogged embrace of atheism and hostility toward the Judeo-Christian tradition. Though his endorsement of the Iraq invasion rankled me, he never exploited the fear of the ignorant or questioned the patriotism of the skeptical to justify it. If Hitch didn’t trouble much with civility, his commitment to sincerity, his own as well as others, was unerring. This is why Arguably, his final collection of essays, is so invaluable. It may be quite a while before we witness his like again. Michael Ward

 

Book: Babysitter: An American History

Author: Miriam Forman-Brunell

Publisher: New York University Press

Publication date: 2011-12

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Babysitter: An American History
Miriam Forman-Brunell

Forman-Brunell explores the economic and demographic realities of babysitting… and how the image of the babysitter became a source or fear and fantasy in middle class life. She finds that “child tending” had its beginnings in the ’20s, triggered in part by the increased American emphasis on leisure time and the need for married couples to have a night on the town, unencumbered by the kids. The author argues that this trend coincided with the emergence of the “teenage girl” as a definable demographic. Adolescent girls soon became the focus of all manner of angst about the changing nature of family, sexuality and the household. Along these lines, sh unearths one of the more bizarre moral panics in American history. During the Second World War many middle class moralists claimed that teenage girls had become “patriotutes”, hanging around military bases with their newly acquired make-up and “sassy” attitudes in hopes of snaring a serviceman. In general, the author is at her best showing how anxiety about young women’s growing autonomy became conflated with worries about the intrusive and possibly dangerous young adolescent watching the children. By the ’60s, urban legends of babysitters in danger offered ways for a nervous society to attempt to exhort “good behavior” out of the increasingly independent teenage girl. W. Scott Poole

 

Book: The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait

Author: Daniel Mark Epstein

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication date: 2011-05

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The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait
Daniel Mark Epstein

This paints an impressionistic biography of Dylan that draws its inspiration from the numerous other impressionistic images of Dylan in American popular culture. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back plays a significant role here, as does Dylan’s own Chronicles. Epstein does something a bit different than most, combining the creation of a solid biographical exploration of the human being bundled up with the cultural myth. His previous work as a historian of figures as diverse as Nat King Cole and Abraham Lincoln serves him well.This book is in every way aptly titled, as it often works as a meta-narrative about Dylan, truly a ballad of Bob Dylan but also a ballad about the many ballads composed about him before. In this biography, Dylan gets the poet he deserves. W. Scott Poole

 

Book: Blue Nights

Author: Joan Didion

Publisher: Knopf

Publication date: 2011-11

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Blue Nights
Joan Didion

On 26 August 2005, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, daughter of writers Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, died at age 39. Her father had died less than two years earlier, on 30 December 2003.Blue Nights is Didion’s attempt to grasp the enormity of her loss. In The Year of Magical Thinking, she refers to her writing’s “increasingly impenetrable polish”. That polish is stripped now. So is any pretense of hope. Didion is flatly despairing, fearful, blunt about her own aging and health problems, which have left her frail. Recent photographs depict the familiar thinness, now reduced to translucency. Didion worries she was an insufficient parent, one who said shush I’m working too often. She writes of Quintana’s fragile mental health, medications and too much drinking. She admits her failure to recognize Quintana’s anxiety over abandonment, no matter how much her adoptive parents loved her. Didion is now 77. Her New York apartment is stuffed with lifetimes of mementoes she no longer needs. She repeatedly mentions “inadequately appreciating the moment”. As if doing so would have changed the outcome. Diane Leach

 

Book: Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown

Author: David Yaffe

Publisher: Yale University Press

Publication Date: 2011-05

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Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown
David Yaffe

This is my kind of Dylan book: fun, funny, learned as hell as well as plain smart, and subjective in the best possible sense. Yaffe clearly takes his Dylans to heart, and I say his Dylans because there’s more than one and everyone has their own. Dylan Studies is a Never Ending Tour, to be cute about it, the critical gift that keeps on giving. Yaffe mentions the “hunger there [is] from the genre of writing Dylan arguably inspired as much as anyone — even the Beatles”, and the most recent Dylan releases alone attest to that hunger. They could fill a few shelves, or gigs or whatever, so I won’t list them here, but this genre includes and/or combines new- or old-fangled biography, lit. crit. academicism, cultural and philosophical discourse, and stylish critical prose. “This book is for people who want to revisit Dylan’s past in the present tense, for mongrel dogs who teach, writers and critics who prophesize with their pen, mothers and fathers throughout the land, and everyone who cares or is just curious.” I’m in there, somewhere. For his part, Yaffe sees Dylan as “a text, yet he is still a moving target…”, and Bob Dylan: Like A Complete Unknown follows suit. This is Dylan as shifting text, not just layered like pages, back or front, or over-laid like a palimpsest, but cross-wise, and motile as a termite. Guy Crucianelli

 

Book: Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

Author: Robert K. Massie

Publisher: Random House

Publication date: 2011-11

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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
Robert K. Massie

The last lines of Massie’s book refer to the life of Catherine the Great, but these lines could just as easily apply to the biography itself. Massie ends the approximately 570-page story by stating: “It was a long and remarkable journey that no one, not even she, could have imagined when, at fourteen, she set off for Russia across the snow.” That’s part of the magic of this biography. Most readers probably know that Sophia Augusta Fredericka of Anhalt-Zerbst is going to become Catherine the Great or, as Massie notes, her preferred title: Catherine the second. Readers recognize that the child they meet in the opening section of the book is going to, at some point in time, rule Russia, become a major patron of the arts, correspond with Voltaire, Frederick the Great, Marie Antoinette and John Paul Jones, and just generally become one of the most powerful women in the world. The magic also comes from Massie’s ability to transport his audience to another time and place. His description of Catherine having a tooth pulled was enough to make me set down the book and wish the image away. Massie’s description of a winter scene will most likely stay with readers for another (more pleasant) reason… but you’ll have to read it, to find out. Catherine Ramsdell

 

Book: Charles Dickens: A Life

Author: Jane Smiley

Publisher: Penguin Group

Publication Date: 2011-11

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Charles Dickens: A Life
Jane Smiley

Smiley, whose book A Thousand Acres won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992, puts her own spin on Charles Dickens’s life. Analyzing his world and works perhaps only as a fellow author could, Smiley blends literary criticism with biographical information. Her aim: “to evoke Dickens as he might have seemed to his contemporary audience, to friends and relatives, to intimate acquaintances, to himself, filling in the background only as he became willing to address it in his work”. And Smiley does it all in beautiful prose. Taking the untraditional route of not recording Dickens’s life in chronological order, Smiley relates “No author’s life is a strand of pearls, with books or plays or poems strung in a neat sequence upon a smooth string of personal events, but Dickens’s life is even less sequential than most”.This is a beautifully written, wonderfully surprising look at the thoroughly modern Charles Dickens. Catherine Ramsdell

 

Book: Civilization: The West and the Rest

Author: Niall Ferguson

Publisher: Penguin

Publication Date: 2011-11

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Civilization: The West and the Rest
Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson gets a lot of flack, some of it actually deserved. His combination tome-TV documentaries like The Ascent of Money and War of the World are generally well received but his pugnacious nature, quickly forgotten neo-con enthusiasms, and generally pro-Western cheerleading have earned him brickbats aplenty from established intellectuals. They will probably find plenty to despise in this quick spin through the reasons why Western civilization triumphed over the rest of the world for so many centuries. He boils it down to six points: competition, science, the rule of law (property rights), consumerism, modern medicine, and the work ethic. Ferguson is certainly given to TV-friendly glibness (calling these six traits the “killer apps” of Western civilization is unfortunate), but the insights here are genuine, and hardly triumphalist. Eschewing the chest-thumping of ethnocentric neo-Spengler types like Pat Buchanan — who argue for the primacy of not “The West” as Ferguson would define it, but a narrow view of white Christian supremacy — Civilization is closer in spirit to Jared Diamond’s gloomier Collapse. The West might have been on top for centuries, but Ferguson argues that period is coming to a close, and it’s time to prepare for what’s coming next. In a time when nobody seems interested in writing clear, witty, wide-ranging, thoughtful middlebrow history, Ferguson is a rarely acknowledged treasure. Chris Barsanti

 

Book: The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc.

Author: Jonathan Lethem

Publisher: Doubleday

Publication Date: 2011-11

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The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc.
Jonathan Lethem

Lethem invites us to the ecstasy of intertextuality, to the intertwining of thousands of words with our selves.While he avoids moralism, some readers will be surprised to learn he is a serious moralist and writes seriously about race, economic equality and the “War on Terror”. He would hate the phrase “serious moralist” and respond to being denominated as such with a fairly complex joke at my expense. This does nothing to quench the fire that comes out of his essay on Norman Mailer and why American culture decided to turn him into a joke and stop listening. Or how his discussion of subway graffiti gives voice both to marginalized art and to marginalized people. Or how his writings in the very immediate aftermath of 9/11 manage to demand that, as we crawled into our fetal balls of terror or up onto our soapbox of equal terror, we find some way, for God’s sake, to be human and to think. There is much to love here and very little to disparage. There are times when the author drags us a bit far down into his own rabbit holes, both of language and of his own thought experiments. I say stay with him and you will find a new world opened up for you.This guy is a great writer — and a great reader. W. Scott Poole

Hunter S. Thompson and more…

Book: Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone: The Essential Writing of Hunter S. Thompson

Author: Hunter S. Thompson

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication date: 2011-10

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Display Width: 200Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone: The Essential Writing of Hunter S. Thompson
Hunter S. Thompson

When Hunter S. Thompson began writing for Rolling Stone magazine, he had already developed his distinct voice and highly recognizable style, but at Rolling Stone, he perfected it. Editors Jann Wenner and Paul Scanlon have collected and compiled Thompson’s articles for Rolling Stone, beginning with stories covering Thompson’s own run for the office of sheriff of Aspen, Colorado in 1970, and continuing right up through his final piece on the George W. Bush and John Kerry presidential campaigns in 2004. Wenner, who was not only Thompson’s editor for more than three decades, but his friend, also includes personal letters the two exchanged, as well as notes and inter-office memos from Thompson (or his alter-ego at the Sports Desk, Raoul Duke) to other writers and staff at Rolling Stone. While those letters and memos provide bits of biographical insight and additional examples of Thompson’s brilliant ability to communicate concisely, never wasting a word, it’s the articles that truly amaze. It’s top-notch journalism, of course, but beyond that there is a depth, a truth, that runs through Thompson’s writing. It’s as if his investigative instincts apply not just to the story, but to his telling of it. Thompson didn’t stop just because he had the basic facts, he kept exploring, turning the facts—and more than a few fictions—over in his mind, uncovering hidden facets and exposing every angle so that the readers could see the story at its very core. Christel Loar

 

Book: Fever: Little Willie John’s Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul: The Authorized Biography

Author: Susan Whitall

Publisher: Titan

Publication date: 2011-06

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Fever: Little Willie John’s Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul: The Authorized Biography
Susan Whitall

In the days before rock ‘n’ roll (as Van the Man puts it), Little Willie John was a music sensation. Hailing from Detroit’s Cardboard Valley (so named for its flimsy housing stock), Little Willie cut his first sides in 1953 at 16, and by 18 had three Billboard-charted singles, including the classic ‘Fever’ (later covered by Peggy Lee). He influenced a generation of what would later be known as ‘Soul’ singers, including the stars of Motown and the Stax/Volt revue. By the time he was 30, he was gone and for the longest time forgotten. A 1995 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the 2008 release of legendary final recording sessions kept in the can for over four decades, helped spur the singer’s revival, capped now with this official biography by veteran music journalist Susan Whitall. Besides shedding light on one of popular music’s most neglected seminal figures, the book contains fascinating detail on American rhythm and blues before it went mainstream in the ’60s. A co-conspirator of Lester Bangs at Creem in the ’70s, Whitall turns many a good phrase in this important piece of pop culture history. Note to Hollywood: This is one helluva of biopic waiting to happen. Vince Carducci

 

Book: Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970

Author: David Browne

Publisher: Da Capo

Publication date: 2011-05

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Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970
David Browne

David Browne vividly recreates a time when popular music, as a communally shared pastime, really mattered. By looking at the events surrounding the release of four key albums, Let it Be, Bridge Over Troubled Water, Sweet Baby James, and Déjà vu, Browne attempts to tell the story of 1970, one of the most catastrophic years in rock history. Whenever cultural historians write about the ‘60s, they often focus on 1968. With the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the Tet Offensive, the Chicago riots at the Democratic Convention, international student protests, and the upheaval at the Cannes Film Festival, 1968 was clearly the decade’s climax. However, Browne believes denouements are important too, reminding us that even though the ’60s didn’t end with a bang, there was certainly a great deal of whimpering, especially among heartbroken music fans. Greg Carpenter

 

Book: Future Media

Editor: Rick Wilber

Publisher: Tachyon

Publication Date: 2011-07

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Future Media
Rick Wilber

“” Future Media Rick Wilber, ed. Tachyon 2011-07 Catherine Ramsdell Future Media makes connections—connections between past and present, fiction and nonfiction, what is real and what is not (or at least, not yet). It’s about predictions—those that have come to pass and those that still might. And as the nonfiction makes clear, much classic science fiction isn’t as far from reality as we might like it to be. Ultimately, this book links the past and present and perhaps gives us some hints to the future—that is if current writings about mass media are going to be as eerily accurate as some their classic counterparts. All are terrific stories and essays, and all contribute to the success of the book. Wilber cites several goals for this text; one is to entertain. And it certainly does this. But in his introduction, words and terms like “profound”, “inventive social commentary”, “perceptive questions”, and “deep conjecture” keep popping up. The book lives up to these ideas, as well. Wilber recommends his book particularly for undergraduates interested in media studies. I recommend it for anyone who has a smartphone, watches television, or uses the Internet. WRITER

 

Book: In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination

Author: Margaret Atwood

Publisher: Virago (UK), Random House (USA)

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In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination
Margaret Atwood

There are lots of reasons why this collection of essays and non-fiction writings by Atwood should be a favourite of 2011; not least amongst them is the fact that it lays to rest completely any notion that Atwood is disparaging of science fiction or fantasy literature. Perhaps, there is an element of ‘the lady doth protest too much’ about this volume. But that is no bad thing coming from her; when passionately and vociferously making her voice heard Atwood is untouchable. It is also reassuring, simply because I admire them both so much, that now Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin have seemingly made amends after Atwood’s misunderstood comments. Something was disturbed in the equilibrium of the literary doyennes’ universe if those two were at odds. So, it’s comforting to know that all is well in the pantheon of my best-loved novelists. As Atwood shows, the shaping of her tone and imagination happened in the earliest days of plundering books both permitted and forbidden from her parents’ shelves, including comic books and fairy tales, Victorian classics and the early sci-fi of Wells and Verne. Likewise, my earliest and most embedded recollections of literature happen also to comprise Verne and Wells, Orwell and graphic fantasy/adventure tales, including Le Guin’s Earthsea novels and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. As literary criticism this collection works extremely well and as a form of apologia fantasia scientifica it is both charming and self-effacing. Gabrielle Malcom

 

Book: It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past

Author: David Satter

Publisher: Yale University Press

Publication Date: 2011-12

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It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past
David Satter

David Satter writes of Russia’s brutal past and its inability to acknowledge past and present human atrocities with an authoritative voice that captures the chilling and tragic actions and fate of the Russian people. What is perhaps most remarkable is how Satter stirs powerful emotions in the reader when discussing events of the distant past and massive stretches of geography. This has a power akin to the great Russian novelists and short story writers, as we feel the hopelessness and resignation of a great people who teeter on the edge of living a prolonged tragedy. This is an especially important book to emerge at a time when the fate of nations across the globe is changing and our futures and sense of the future — individual and shared — drifts toward uncertainty with alarming rapidity. Rarely has history been written with such beauty, clarity, and frightening lucidity. Jedd Beaudoin

 

Book: Jagger: Rebel, Rock Star, Rambler, Rogue

Author: Marc Spitz

Publisher: Penguin / Gotham

Publication date: 2011-09

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Jagger: Rebel, Rock Star, Rambler, Rogue
Marc Spitz

Mick Jagger is the devil; the avatar for the swaggering, fatally self-assured hedonist who will piss anywhere with a cocky smirk written all over his face that only confirms there is nothing you can do to stop him. Spitz begins his insightful, important, and newly released book by asking, “Can we continue to worship and desire a man whom we don’t really like anymore?” From that point on, Spitz skillfully leads readers through a tour of Mick Jagger’s carnival life fronting the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world, acting in several films, and breaking many more hearts. He convincingly argues that the force of Jagger’s creativity and cool is of equal importance to the brilliance, success, and longevity of The Rolling Stones as that belonging to the poetic pirate Keith Richards. Jagger is not merely a sexually suggestive song-and-dance man, but also a charismatic entertainer, a deeply versatile singer, and a highly inventive songwriter. Psychologist Carl Jung said that all people live in shadows and light. The ultimate danger facing us is if we deny the shadows, because then we will lose our ability to distinguish between shadow and light, eventually losing all light while deceiving ourselves into believing that we covered in it. This book introduces us to a wild, dancing, seductive shadow. David Masciotra

 

Book: Jerusalem: The Biography

Author: Simon Sebag Montefiore

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

Publication date: 2011-10

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Jerusalem: The Biography
Simon Sebag Montefiore

Like any credible historian Montefiore abides by the Gospel of John’s dictum that the truth will set you free, or at least clear up dangerous misunderstandings. But Jerusalem is not merely a call for peace and harmony. It makes a case for history as a celebration of diversity — a teeming, unruly cacophony — and he employs archeological science, ancient texts, biographical sketches, and descriptions of events that revel in the gritty details as much as their overarching importance. The writing can be entertaining without pandering as a simplified and/or dubious history aimed at the mass market. In urging the reader to appreciate the point of views of all actors on Jerusalem’s stage, he seems to relish the eras when the coexistence of different tribes was at its most peaceful, when religious righteousness took a backseat to the everyday pleasures of community. He describes the traditions and daily routines that have survived for centuries: the annual picnic at Simon the Just’s tomb, the kitsch of the Holy Fire ceremony at the Holy Sepulchre, and the Qazaz family delivering the call to prayer at al-Aqsa mosque for the past 500 years. Though tension and conflict are always present, Montefiore quietly and persistently reveals the humanitarian impulses that leaven the strife and often reveal a touching source of the city’s beauty. Michael Buening

 

Book: The Legends of Hip-Hop

Author: Justin Bua

Publisher: Harper Design

Publication Date: 2011-11

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The Legends of Hip-Hop
Justin Bua

What better way to pay tribute to your inspirations than to channel your admiration into your art? Artist Justin Bua (professionally and artistically known as “BUA”) has done just that with this book. In it, BUA, famous for his best-selling limited edition print The DJ, extends lavish praise upon his personal list of pioneers and architects of hip-hop culture. It features original works of art rendered in a variety of media including graphite and acrylic. Each one is intended as an intimate portrait of a particular hip-hop artist or group, and is accompanied by BUA’s personal statement as to why the specific person was chosen for inclusion. After all, once we’ve perused the artwork, we’re left with a Who’s Who of hip-hop, and while any reader — whether hip-hop aficionado or not — would realize that no such list can be definitive, the idea of the “definitive list” is difficult to escape. The Legends of Hip Hop chronicles 50 deserving pioneers of the culture, and ultimately transforms and humanizes them. Quentin B. Huff

 

Book: Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II

Author: Mitchell Zuckoff

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication Date: 2011-04

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Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II
Mitchell Zuckoff

In the waning days of the Second World War, an American military sight-seeing plane crash lands in the wilds of Dutch New Guinea. Twenty-one servicemen and women are killed, and the remaining three survivors have to make their way through treacherous jungle only to encounter a tribe of spear-wielding warriors, rumoured to be cannibals. Sounds like something from a Hollywood movie, right? Well, Lost in Shangri-La is actually a true story, and the events surrounding the improbable rescue of these two men and lone woman in uniform are fast-paced and absorbing. Part adventure story, part anthropological study and part military potboiler, this is a richly detailed, compellingly-woven tale that reads more like fiction that the recounting of actual, obscure events. No stone is left unturned in Zuckoff’s narrative, yet it reads seamlessly in linear form without any sense of stuffiness or self-importance on the part of the writer. Zuckoff just naturally lets the story unfold, even though the survival of its main characters is never much left in doubt. In the end, this is a fascinating examination of what happens when the Western world runs into a primitive society that has rarely seen any contact with outsiders. It becomes a finely-rendered story of gradual, tentative friendship and understanding, and a tireless effort to simply weather both the elements and strange customs. How does the trio manage to escape relatively unscathed? Well, you’ll have to read the book to find out. Zachary Houle

Will Hermes and more…

Book: Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever

Author: Will Hermes

Publisher: Faber and Faber

Publication date: 2011-11

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Display Width: 200Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever
Will Hermes

Will Hermes captures the peak years of New York music in this imaginative, poetic, and frequently humorous volume. The chronology is there but Hermes’ understanding of events and time is as fluid as the best jazz solos and, indeed, rock ‘n’ roll morality. Following the early years of NYC punk, Latin music, and even hip-hop, he demonstrates the lasting impact the Big Apple had on popular music throughout the rest of the ‘70s and indeed up until today. Elements of history and autobiography abound and Hermes balances both in such a way that the reader never feels that either are mutually exclusive concerns. As important a volume for music lovers as Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life. Hermes sets the bar high for future writers and has given readers a thoroughly remarkable gift. Jedd Beaudoin

 

Book: Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

Author: Manning Marable

Publisher: Viking

Publication Date: 2011-04

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Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
Manning Marable

Released a week after Marable’s untimely death, Malcolm X analyzes not only the historical (in)accuracies surrounding Malcolm X’s life and death, but the actual creation and sustenance of his memory and legacy. Marable weaves an engrossing historicized account of what he posits is the various performances of Malcolm X’s identity. From the nonchalance of a young Malcolm Little to the hustling spirit of Malcolm’s urban ego “Detroit Red”, to the broken and imprisoned angry black man “Satan” and finally the shining prince of the Nation of Islam El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Malcolm X painstakingly recounts and builds upon Malcolm’s complex changes. Each chapter walks the reader through a milestone in his life. The daunting challenge of “academizing” Malcolm while situating him into (counter)public popular discourse is met with a meticulous balance of academic and narrative prose, much of which is taken from interviews with Malcolm himself. This is an excellent testament to Manning’s historical prowess, and attempts to shed light on one of America’s most transfixing leaders. It challenges the readers’ willingness to look at the complexities of a legend that started off as a man. A nearly two and a half decade research process,Malcolm X is Marable’s magnum opus. R. N. Bradley

 

Book: Metalion: The Slayer Mag Diaries

Author: Jon Kristiansen

Publisher: Bazillion Points

Publication Date: 2011-07

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Metalion: The Slayer Mag Diaries
Jon Kristiansen

Metalion is the best book about heavy metal ever released. A stunningly comprehensive historical and cultural record, Metalion is an anthology of issues 1 to XX of Slayer Mag–a self-produced zine started by Jon Kristiansen in Norway, in 1985. At over 700 pages in length, and documenting 25 years of chaos and controversy from within the extreme metal realm, the book presents an exhaustive array of interviews, reviews and commentary from key personalities and bands. With a mix of brutal honesty, and often-trenchant humor, Kristiansen chronicles the evolution (and devolution) of metal’s various sub-genres whilst recounting his own personal journey, from awed fan to trusted insider and beyond. Beautifully presented by publisher Bazillion Points, the book is crammed with evocative photography and illustrations from a quarter century of underground metal–and due credit must be given to editor Tara G. Warrior for bringing it all together. Metalion is a captivating and vital account of a genre of music so often woefully misrepresented, and its coverage of so many underground legends makes it not only essential reading for metal fans, but for anyone who’s ever been curious about the rationale behind all that glorious noise. Craig Hayes

 

Book: Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice

Author: Tad Hershorn

Publisher: University of California Press

Publication date: 2011-10

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Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice
Tad Hershorn

To write an almost flawless and objective biography of a man who changed the world of music, industry practices, and racial conditions in the US seems insurmountable. Hershorn writes with passion and an eye for reconstructing history with rich descriptions, narration, and humor. He imbues his writing with equal parts admiration and critical analysis. Specifically, Hershorn demonstrates a special talent for vividly building social spaces and the atmosphere of performances, thereby immersing the reader through the hair-raising but melodic musical world of the mid-20th century. Hershorn, an archivist, makes use of countless records, linear notes, press releases, newspaper clippings, and interviews to reconstruct and animate Granz’s life. Arguably, one of the best biographies of the year, Hershorn approaches his subject with a critical eye, allowing readers to delve deeper into the early jazz industry and fully live the challenges and successes of the Granz empire. Hershorn’s Norman Granz delivers an engaging and multisided retrospective on the culture altering jazz impresario. Elizabeth Woronzoff

 

Book: The Official Catalog of the Library of Potential Literature

Author: Ben Segal, Erinrose Mager (Editors)

Publisher: Cow Heavy

Publication date: 2011-03

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The Official Catalog of the Library of Potential Literature
Ben Segal, Erinrose Mager (Editors)

Stephen King once quoted an unnamed “fairly cynical writer acquaintance” who had a strict rule when it came to writing blurbs: “Never blurb a book you’ve read and never read a book you’ve blurbed.” Cynicism aside, this notion highlights the interchangeable aspect of most book blurbs. There are the clichés (“unputdownable”) but it’s more fun to look for over-the-top praise and imagine the blurber never read the book in question. This book offers a selection of blurbs for books that could line a shelf or two in Lucien’s or Borges’s libraries. It’s publisher specializes in “limited-edition, perfect-bound minibooks” with limited print runs, and they describe this wonderful collection as “a catalog of textual desire, of wished-for and ideal books as described by a diverse collection of writers, critics, and text-makers. The maligned blurb form herein becomes, time and again, the entryway into unreadable books and the anticipation that comes before opening them.” Over 60 writers contribute blurbs, and the collection begins immediately, without an introduction or table of contents. The first entry, “All these violent children”, by J.A. Tyler could also apply to the entire The Official Catalog: “The way this book manipulates the world, tears it up into tiny pieces and then re-structures it, recreates it, makes of it a new state of being, this is something to behold.” Oliver Ho

 

Book: The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes

Author: Greil Marcus

Publisher: Picador

Publication date: 2011-04

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The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes
Greil Marcus

In 1967, America seemed done, finished. The assassination of a young president in 1963 had closed the New Frontier and unleashed ill-spirits into the land. In 1968, Senator Kennedy would die in a kitchen, haunted by his brother’s restless young ghost. Dr. Martin Luther King died in Memphis, the city of mystery trains and records that shone like the Sun. The city at the tip of the Delta where so much of America had been born over the last few decades suddenly became a city of the dead, a place where someone shot a king just to watch him die. Cities would burn. College campus would explode. America’s unsteady leaders would expand the war in the Southeast Asia. Then lie about it and suppress civil liberties to hide the lies. Bob Dylan had warned that a hard rain was a-gonna fall and nobody listened, even the folkies and the lefties who thought they had been the first to listen and the only ones to understand. Yet Dylan and his compatriots found the hidden republic, the place where playing a blues, a railroad song and murder ballads provides access to the old, weird America. Readers will find this to be among Marcus’s more accessible works; it’s an egaging exploration of the B-side of the bootlegged version of American history that maybe tells the real story that never made it into the textbooks. W. Scott Poole

 

Book: The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution

Author: Francis Fukayama

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Publication date: 2011-04

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The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution
Francis Fukayama

Francis Fukayama has long been pegged, somewhat unfairly, as a darling of the right wing. The political scientist is most famous for his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, which argued that liberal democracy was the natural endpoint to political history. In the post-Cold War era, the argument was quickly picked up by neoconservatives eager to spread democracy across the globe, whether the globe was ready for it or not. But Fukayama’s beliefs have always been more nuanced than an easy “liberal” or “conservative” summary. Since The End of History, he has had a falling out with neoconservatives over their handling of the Iraq War, to the point that he endorsed Obama in the 2008 election. And his new book, The Origins of Political Order, is delightfully bipartisan, in that there are plenty of arguments sure to irritate people on both sides of the political aisle. It aims to analyze the development of human governance from our hunter-gatherer days up until the end of the French Revolution. Such a long-term view inevitably means that the book is not as detailed as some specialists might like, but Fukayama does an excellent job making sharp, succinct arguments for each period in political history while still keeping the pace of the text relatively brisk. It’s a thought-provoking look at the political history of past civilizations, and it’s sure to offer plenty of fodder for conversations about the present. Christopher Holden

 

Book: The President Is a Sick Man: Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Vilifies the Courageous Newspaperman Who Dared Expose the Truth

Author: Matthew Algeo

Publisher: Chicago Review Press

Publication Date: 2011-05

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The President Is a Sick Man
Matthew Algeo

In this day and age, where politicians are expected to have a presence on YouTube and Twitter as well as Capitol Hill, we’ve become accustomed to being over-saturated with meaningless news about our leaders. Nothing is forgotten in the digital age, and so we have grainy videos and out-of-context statements from decades prior being used during campaigns as ammunition against the other side. It’s enough to make previous eras, eras when the public didn’t know every last detail about their leaders, somewhat quaint. Algeo writes with light-hearted, engaging prose, and The President is a Sick Man reads more like an unlikely heist novel than a dry presidential history. The characters are all firmly sketched out, and Algeo provides a brief but effective view of Grover Cleveland himself — the hard-partying New York politician who became an unlikely president twice in two non-consecutive terms. Algeo doesn’t shy away from some of Cleveland’s less flattering moments, but also does a good job addressing such scandals like his out-of-wedlock daughter and his bride, who was half his age. While he leaves more detailed character analyses to other historians, the material Algeo uses here is more than enough to set the stage for the main event. The description of the secret surgery is filled with all sorts of incredible details that are so unlikely that they just have to be true. Algeo paints the denizens of the era as both sweetly quaint and hopelessly naive; it was a time, after all, when journalists mostly believed whatever story the president told them. Christopher Holden

 

Book: Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life

Author: Kenneth Gross

Publisher: The University of Chicago Press

Publication date: 2011-10

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Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life
Kenneth Gross

This unusual little book explores the idea of puppetry, beginning with a visit to a master puppet maker in a small studio in Rome, and ranging far and wide to include Balinese shadow puppets, Punch and Judy shows, literary puppets in the works of writers like Kafka, Dickens, Rilke and Philip Roth, and puppets as works of art in themselves, exemplified in classic pieces from Paul Klee and Joseph Cornell. Over 11 short chapters, less than 200 pages, author Kenneth Gross uses these various approaches to the idea of puppetry to conduct a series of poetic meditations on “the closest thing we have in the ordinary human world to the transmigration of the soul from one body to another, or from one creature to another.” Gross seems to summarize all the notions and uses of puppetry that he has shown us and, like a puppeteer, grant them a strange form of life that is weirdly connected to ours: “To find this life in objects returns us to life, to the experience of life arriving from inside us and outside us, in all of its surprises, its energy of conflict.” This is the sort of book you can return to and find inspiration and food for thought, as well as information about an uncanny subject. Oliver Ho

Judith Halberstam and more…

Book: The Queer Art of Failure

Author: Judith Halberstam

Publisher: Duke University Press

Publication date: 2011-12

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Display Width: 200The Queer Art of Failure
Judith Halberstam

Halberstam argues that the entire field of culture—from the “silly archive” of Pixar to the most radical works of queer artists—provides the materials for imagining alternative worlds: “Academics, activists, artists, and cartoon characters have long been on a quest to articulate an alternative vision of life, love, and labor and to put such a vision into practice.” Rather than dismissing the popular as something irrelevant, or simply too silly or corrupt to offer more than distraction, for Halberstam pop does indeed matter. To read and realize the alternatives culture offers, we need modes of interpretation that take advantage of academic insights but also move beyond its ideas of rigor, seriousness, and institutional constraint. She argues that failure might be called a “queer art” because it avoids the trap of what might be called straight failure—the mere envy of the “successful” when one finds such “success” unobtainable. Rather then envy or resentment, queer failure invents new forms of life unavailable and unimaginable to the so-called successful. Rather than searching for ways around death and disappointment, the queer art of failure involves the acceptance of the finite, the embrace of the absurd, the silly, and the hopelessly goofy. Halberstam’s engagement with the popular, her willingness to think through the popular, is exhilarating, and will spur readers on to rethink their everyday encounters with the contemporary spectacle and all conceptualizations of success. David Banash

 

Book: Rock and Roll Always Forgets: A Quarter Century of Music Criticism

Author: Chuck Eddy

Publisher: Duke University Press

Publication Date: 2011-10

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Rock and Roll Always Forgets: A Quarter Century of Music Criticism
Chuck Eddy

Is there anyone who has written about music over the last few decades who manages to be so brilliantly contrary? To write with such cauterizing, strident and beautiful prose? To be so unrepentedly full of bullshit? Rock and Roll Always Forgets will convince you that the answer is no. This collection pulls together around 100 essays, reviews and occasional pieces by this mad genius and former Village Voice music editor known for his early, incisive writing on new wave, his rants against “indie” music and his unlikely appreciation of pop country constructs like Toby Keith and Montgomery Gentry. Eddy is convincing as any schizophrenic who’s constructed his own private, illusory kingdom with its own laws and possibilities, all of which make sense on their own terms. Crenellated sandcastles of irrationality. You’ll find some of the most insightful and revealing rock-crit you’ve ever read, here. Buy this book. But try to get it in a soft cover edition. You’ll be throwing it against a wall. A lot. W. Scott Poole

 

Book: See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody

Author: Bob Mould

Publisher: Little, Brown & Company

Publication Date: 2011-06

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See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody
Bob Mould

The long-awaited autobiography from punk rock icon Bob Mould doesn’t disappoint. We follow Mould from his abusive home in a remote upstate New York town to the sweaty punk clubs of California to wild sex parties outside New York City. Told with unflinching honesty, Mould discusses both the private and public reactions to his sexuality, including his famous “outing” by Spin circa 1994, as well as his bouts with alcoholism and his frequently troubled love life. Naturally, there’s plenty about music, from Hüsker Dü’s early days in Minneapolis and Saint Paul to triumphant solo performances at major festivals. Mould isn’t always a sympathetic character — his ability to turn a cold shoulder on his former bandmates and ex-lovers is understandable but occasionally reads as unduly harsh. His transformation, nearly his middle years, from a man deeply in the closet to a man who lives life with a rare and enviable vigor, is remarkable. Jedd Beaudoin

 

Book: Shatner Rules: Your Key to Understanding the Shatnerverse and the World at Large

Author: William Shatner

Publisher: Penguin

Publication date: 2011-10

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Shatner Rules: Your Key to Understanding the Shatnerverse and the World at Large
William Shatner

It’s a pretty good bet that Shatner Rules won’t make many “Best Of” lists, and that’s a shame. Buried beneath cartoon illustrations, breezy prose, and a glib attitude is one of the most inspiring books you will read all year. In a series of short essays, each centered around one of his rules for living, the 80-year-old Shatner rejects the social inhibitions that come with age and deconstructs the emptiness of contemporary celebrity. The book explores the significance of many of his life choices, while simultaneously illustrating what has become increasingly clear: he has learned how to transform his own life into the ultimate Postmodern text. With the same combination of sophistication and superficiality that has typified the resurgent Shatner’s career, the book reinforces the notion that for the past two decades, Shatner has been exploring, publicly, the absurdity of celebrity in the postmodern world, like an Andy Warhol soup can come to life. Playful, frivolous, inspiring and irreverent, Shatner Rules is definitely worth a look. Greg Carpenter

 

Book: Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression

Author: Dale Maharidge

Publisher: University of California Press

Publication date: 2011-06

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Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression
Dale Maharidge

This isn’t always an easy book to read. After all, in 2011, no American wants to think about people in the United States living in tent cities or that the way “Latinos are being treated in Arizona echoes the situation of Jews in prewar Europe”. So I can’t say that I loved reading it—but I can say I’m glad I did. Divided into six parts, the book begins in the ’80s and moves forward to the present. In between, Maharidge discusses hobos, tent cities, Hurricane Katrina, NAFTA, Bruce Springsteen, immigration, and mill closings. He also opens parts one through four with several sets of interesting statistics, including: number of people (in the US) employed by Wal-Mart, number of people employed by General Motors, and the salaries of average CEOs and average workers. A common thread in most of the success stories Maharidge relates is that the families are committed to living within their means. If that means growing their own food, they do. If it means not buying new clothes, they don’t. Reading Dale Maharidge’s words and looking at Michael S. Williamson’s photographs will pierce your heart — and head. This book will move and change you. Catherine Ramsdell

 

Book: Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo

Author: Nicholas de Monchaux

Publisher: MIT Press

Publication Date: 2011-03

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Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo
Nicholas de Monchaux

The spacesuit has come to symbolize both human progress and the terrors associated with it. On the one hand, it literally embodies the boundless possibility of technological achievement. On the other, it’s a reminder of the fragile human endeavor in the face of the void. If your last experience of science fiction involved space suits, it probably also involved an oxygen leak, space madness, or someone floating away into the infinite black. de Monchaux has put together a definitive study of the spacesuit in this beautifully designed volume. He’s managed to link the spacesuit to a complex variety of cultural ideas and moments. He’s really telling a larger story here, the phenomenon of government, business and mass culture coming together to create larger systems of value and exchange, all bureaucratically interlinked and interacting with the public through various media outlets. In fact, one of the pleasures of this book includes how de Monchaux reveals the space suit as part of a series of new kinds of cultural and bureaucratic intersections, the kind of intersections that remade advertising, government and public policy in the late 20th century.The spacesuit was much more than a machine to help humans breathe and work in zero gravity/zero oxygen/killer cold. This study reveals the spacesuit to be at the intersection of fashion, politics, assumptions about gender and concepts of the human self. W. Scott Poole

 

Book: The Steampunk Bible

Author: Jeff VanderMeer, S.J. Chambers

Publisher: Abrams Image

Publication Date: 2011-05

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The Steampunk Bible
Jeff VanderMeer, S.J. Chambers

Adjust your goggles and hitch your corset tight. Jeff VanderMeer and S.J Chambers are offering an airship ride into the world of Steampunk. The book’s grandiose title is much deserved, as the authors and their collaborators have gathered a substantial guide to the world of retro-futurist fantasy. The text is bulging with historical allusion, provides fascinating connections, and gives a full definition of how the movement has expressed itself in fiction, film, comics, fashion, craft and ideology. So many different kinds of materials are included here that it has the feel of a multimedia presentation. Photographs of Steampunk cosplayers share the page with diagrams of fantastical Victorian machines. The book gives us images of the Steampunk treehouse at Burning Man and a mixed media Steampunk gas mask. There’s even a step-by-step pictorial guide that explains how to create Victorian-era etchings. Sumptuously illustrated throughout, it well captures the aesthetics of the movement. Its too early to predict the course of this aesthetic and literary movement, but this book is a major milestone in Steampunk’s self-awareness. W. Scott Poole

 

Book: Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human

Author: Grant Morrison

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Publication Date: 2011-07

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Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human
Grant Morrison

One of the most unusual and multi-faceted books of the year, Supergods seems deceptively simple at first, providing a relatively thorough history of superheroes in popular culture. Peer a little deeper, however, and you will find much more—a personal memoir, a demonstration of superhero tropes in the real world, and an essay on the meaning of life and the inner workings of the universe. Morrison takes the sometimes simple, four-color adventure stories and finds in them an underappreciated template for understanding the changing world around us. As our society continues to evolve, Morrison sees our reality becoming increasingly like the reality of comic book superheroes. He looks at everything from tattoos to the transgender community, from personal branding in social media to genetic experiments, and he concludes that at some point in the future, we will all be the equivalent of superheroes. That’s certainly what it feels like to read this book. Morrison’s ability to make connections between seemingly humdrum material and grandiose ideas becomes infectious. Reading Supergods and immersing in Morrison’s ideas gives us all as much extra kick as a short-term radioactive spider bite, so that, as David Bowie might put it, “We can be heroes, just for one day”. Greg Carpenter

Ian Morris and more…

Book: Tangled Webs How False Statements are Undermining America: From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff

Author: James B. Stewart

Publisher: Penguin

Publication date: 2011-04

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Display Width: 200Tangled Webs How False Statements are Undermining America: From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff
James B. Stewart

How did we get from a society that drove nails through people’s ears for lying in court to a society that seems to condone lying? It’s a tough question, but Stewart’s Tangled Webs has some answers. Even though the penalties for perjury today are clearly not as severe (or brutal) as those in 16th century England, why do people risk it? This question is, according to Stewart, more easily answered: people commit “crimes of perjury” because they think they can get away with it. And so, Stewart details, with great thought and care, several of the most notable (but sadly enough certainly not the only) perjury cases of the 21st century: Martha Stewart, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Barry Lamar Bonds, and Bernard Madoff. Another important question: What happens if the epidemic of perjury continues? The short answer: Nothing good. Stewart’s slightly longer answer: “Lying under oath that goes unproven and unpunished breeds a cynicism that undermines the foundations of any society that aspires to fair play and the rule of law. It undermines civilization itself.” Catherine Ramsdell

 

Book: Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN

Author: James Andrew Miller, Tom Shales

Publisher: Little, Brown & Company

Publication date: 2011-12

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Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN
James Andrew Miller, Tom Shales

There’s no business like show business, but in the ’10s, there’s no booming business quite like the sports media business. In the past five years, the internet has given rise to the spot-on, day-to-day, meticulous criticism of the various networks that air and cover our favorite athletic competitions, and no channel across the dial is as alternately revered, loathed, and fascinated as ESPN. Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller — who’s prior collaboration elicited the equally fun and dishy Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live — weave together stories both long and short, with access to almost everyone who ever graced Bristol, Connecticut’s hallowed halls. There’s no Eddie Murphy’s declining to participate, and everyone’s got an agenda and a story to tell. Delving into stories like the improbably founding and success of the network, Keith Olbermann’s tenuous tenure, and the rise of aforementioned modern critics of ESPN, There were few things as entertaining and devour-able than Those Guys Have All the Fun in 2011. Steve Lepore

 

Book: To a Mountain in Tibet

Author: Colin Thubron

Publisher: HarperCollins

Release Date: 2011-03

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To a Mountain in Tibet
Colin Thubron

Thubron is touted as a master of the travel genre, and understandably so. This tale immediately plunges you into the climb into the Himalayas, towards the Nepalese remoteness of Humla, on his way to the sacred “spindle” of Hindus and Buddhists as the world’s axis, the Kailas peak over the Tibetan border. Thubron describes the scenes clearly, without sentiment, but with compassion as well as objectivity. The estrangement he feels, as a British hiker able to enter the realm where Tibetan exiles cannot in search of this pilgrimage site, deepens the resonance of his story. His combination of reserve and admission admires as much as it decries in this haunted, barren, vivid wilderness where rivers are littered by Chinese beer bottles and filled with the soil of construction projects by the regime. He knows its beauties offer little sustenance for its impoverished inhabitants, but he shares this dreamlike scenery that stuns jaded tourists. “But now, underfoot, spreads a glaze of delicate flowers I do not know, and the ground-hugging shrubs are starred with lemony blossoms.” He does not romanticize but he scrutinizes, and allows us to see what he does, recorded meticulously but conveyed freshly in vigorous prose. John L. Muprhy

 

Book: Tom Waits on Tom Waits: Interviews and Encounters

Author: Paul Maher Jr. (editor)

Publisher: Chicago Review Press

Publication Date: 2011-08

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Tom Waits on Tom Waits: Interviews and Encounters
Paul Maher Jr. (editor)

Much more than a poet of the streets, Tom Waits is the dharma bum who can transmute down at the heels grotesqueries into the lyrical and even the spiritually fecund. Dressed like the surly lounge piano player he once was, Waits’ career of nearly half a century has given such iconic albums as Raindogs, dark musicals like Franks’ Wild Years and numerous performances in film (my favorite being his turn as the Devil in Terry Gilliam’s Imaginarium). The man himself has largely remained in the shadows, using the iconography of seedy hotels and hobo love songs without making it clear what was personal anecdote and what was extended metaphor. Maher’s incredibly complete collection, Tom Waits on Tom Waits, doesn’t pull its subject out of the shadows so much as it follows him there. The book contains interviews, articles and critical commentary on Waits and his work dating back to 1973. Absolutely required for Waits fans old and new, this pile of interviews is a magic mountain of weird. A few will complain that there’s not more critical commentary on the music. But for many of us, the music is what we know, already. We’ve just wanted to meet the strange old wizard who conjured it all. Maher’s work has made that possible. W. Scott Poole

 

Book: Townie

Author: Andre Dubus III

Publisher: W. W. Norton

Publication date: 2011-02

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Townie
Andre Dubus III

Sometimes a book is so mindblowing you gotta walk around with it for a few days, digesting it, letting it wash over you. Sometimes a book is so mindblowing you aren’t sure what to say about it even after a few days. In Townie, Dubus III, author of The House of Sand and Fog, recounts his childhood and coming of age in the rough-edged, dying mill towns of Massachusetts. While ultimately redemptive, the book is a searing accounting of pain, poverty, violence. Reading it is often difficult — not because it’s poorly written, but because of the author’s careful recounting of what seems an endless nightmare. I began Townie expecting to be disappointed. Dubus, Sr. is one of my favorite writers. I was familiar with his single-minded devotion to his work, yet steeling myself for an unhappy awakening akin to Carol Sklenicka’s Raymond Carver biography. Here, Dubus, Jr. is honest about his father’s failings and his sincere, unfulfilled wish that they discuss their rocky family past. Yet he manages something many adult children never do: forgiveness. And in forgiving his parents, he is able to convey their intelligence, talents, and strengths so that the reader, instead of disliking them, finishes Townie filled with admiration for the entire Dubus family. Diane Leach

 

Book: A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France

Author: Caroline Moorehead

Publisher: Harper

Publication date: 2011-11

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A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France
Caroline Moorehead

In 2008 Moorehead set out to find any surviving members of a group known as Le Convoi des 31000, 230 women who had actively participated in the French Resistance during World War II, only to be caught and transported to Auschwitz. She learned seven were still alive. Some were too ill to meet with her, but the others were amazingly forthcoming. Le Convoi des 31000 was a unique transport in that it carried only women, primarily war resisters rather than Jews. The group itself was unusual in their intense bonding, which they recognized as crucial to their survival. Once caught, these women pooled their meager rations, actively protected the weaker members of the group and incredibly, continued to resist the Nazis from the streets of Paris to La Santé Prison to the camps, even as their living situations deteriorated into some of the most brutal ever known. Of the 230, only 49 survived. Naturally, Moorehead cannot describe all of these women, choosing instead to focus on some key figures, fleshing out their biographies. There is midwife Maï Politzer, dentist Danielle Casanova, schoolgirls Poupette and Marie Alizon, Betty Langlois, the teenaged Simone Sampaix, Madeleine Dissoubray, and several others. The women ranged from professionals to housewives to students, and though the Resistance began in Paris, it eventually encompassed the entire country. Women played a crucial role, writing, printing, and distributing clandestine newspapers, anti-German tracts, and expertly created false identification papers. They sheltered those fleeing the Germans, Jews and non-Jews alike; some acted as passeurs, ferrying people to safety. A Train In Winter, like Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost, leaves nothing to the imagination, a decision that makes reading it simultaneously engrossing and deeply disturbing. Diane Leach

 

Book: What It Is Like to Go to War

Author: Karl Marlantes

Publisher: Grove / Atlantic

Publication date: 2011-08

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What It Is Like to Go to War
Karl Marlantes

Marlantes’ sprawling 2010 novel of the Vietnam War, Matterhorn, was an epic achievement. Redolent of blood and slaughter and sadness and terror and waste, it instantly deserved inclusion with the great war novels of all time. Right on its heels, the former Marine returns with this thin meditation on both going off to war and the broader issue of what combat does to both men and society. He avoids the temptation of many the war-philosopher to reach for the classical bookshelf and lard his thoughts with impressive quotations. Though Marlantes is deeply schooled philosophy, literature, psychology, and religion, he keeps his language spare and sharp. In between his recollections of different episodes of combat in the swampy wilds of northern South Vietnam — each of them mini-epics — Marlantes makes an argument for a realistic and mindful approach to combat. He’s more honest than most about the burning, terrible exhilaration of fighting, but is just as insightful about the psychic and spiritual wounds that killing buries deep in soldiers like him, wounds harder to espy that more distanced the military becomes from the actual act: “The easier the path of destruction gets, the more likely we’ll be to take it.” Chris Barsanti

 

Book: Why Pamper Life’s Complexities?: Essays on the Smiths

Authors: Sean Campbell and Colin Coulter (editors)

Publisher: Manchester University Press

Publication date: 2011-02

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Why Pamper Life’s Complexities?: Essays on the Smiths
Sean Campbell and Colin Coulter (editors)

Written from a critical cultural and historical perspective, these scholarly essays are eminently readable. In fact, they represent some of the most incisive descriptions of the fey band from Manchester I have come across. They effectively show the reasons for the band’s massive appeal and explore their distinctive world, a world where rapid economic change and Thatcherism were remaking dear old Blighty into a twisted reflection of Reagan’s America. The collection benefits immeasurably from the authors’ ability to ground their study in The Smiths’ historical and sociological context. Brooker’s contribution on the band and Thatcherism is paradigmatic, weaving detailed information about the politics of ’80s Britain with a layered understanding of “oppositional youth culture”.Campbell and Coulter make clear that the volume is guided by Simon Frith’s Performing Rites, and the idea that scholars should move between critical evaluation and a very open acknowledgement of the personal value of a pop culture artifact. Fans of The Smiths, and anyone personally or professionally interested in British popular culture, must read this book. This collection is really the epitome of what pop culture criticism can and should be. W. Scott Poole

 

Book: Why the West Rules — for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future

Author: Ian Morris

Publisher: Picador

Publication date: 2011-11

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Why the West Rules — for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future
Ian Morris

This is a ground-breaking book that places modern Western dominance within the context of the entire scope of human history while giving a frightening view of the shape of things to come. Morris borrows from the great science fiction writer Robert Heinlein: “Change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable and safer ways to do things. And they rarely know what they are doing.” There was no grand urge to settle the world out of Africa; each generation just walked one more mile down the road. The invention of agriculture was just as gradual, almost imperceptibly from generation to generation. The most troubling aspect of Why the West Rules is not whether one side of the Eurasian continent will rule over the other in the future, but rather that societies world-wide seem to have hit a similar developmental ceiling. From the perspective of the last 200 years, it’s easy to be optimistic that humans will figure out something after the oil runs dry. But it’s less easy to do so from the perspective of the last 2,000 years, after Morris shows how numerous great societies have collapsed due to their inability to adapt to changing circumstances. Jonathan Tjarks

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