The Best Non-Fiction of 2012

Memoirs in graphic novel form blur the line that snakes between non-fiction and fiction; humorists and pulitzer prize winners delight, inform and terrify us; the real world, artfully penned, opens itself into a book, vulnerable, yet daring us to look. Here is the best of what we saw.

“The Universe is vast and we are so small. There is really only one thing we can ever truly control… whether we are good or evil”

– Oma Desala Stargate 1, “Meridian”.

Books are listed in alphabetical order.

Book: The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table

Author: Tracie McMillan

Publisher: Scribner

Publication date: 2012-02


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The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table
Tracie McMillan

We live at a time when food insecurity affects one in seven American households, meaning they lack the resources to provide enough food for themselves and their families. And yet, we continue to treat food as a consumer good, subject to market forces, rather than a public good like electricity or water, made available to everyone. In order to understand why, in a country with such vast resources, so many Americans struggle to eat well, journalist Tracy McMillan went undercover to investigate the American food system. She spent a year working entry-level, minimum-wage (or less) jobs in the farm fields of California, the produce section of a Detroit area Walmart, and the kitchen of a New York City Applebee’s in order to understand how food travels from farm to plate and to try to answer the question of what it would take for all Americans to have access to good, healthy food. The American Way of Eating documents her experience and advocates for a new food movement that works for all Americans, rather than just the most fortunate. Robert Alford

Book: Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama

Author: Alison Bechdel

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication date: 2012-05


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Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama
Alison Bechdel

Are You My Mother? captivates due to its almost childlike stare at the places most of us turn away from once we grow up: the strange and embarrassing parts of childhood. Alison Bechdel writes with the brave candor of a child, one who is shrewd and gifted. Her latest graphic memoir examines her baffling mother. It’s a second foray into childhood territory after 2007’s Fun Home, a graphic memoir about her father. Bechdel weaves in accounts of her reading and research as an adult. As her mother puts it, Bechdel has composed a coherent “metabook” with “clear themes”. She manages to do justice to the difficulties in her mom’s life (her marriage to a closeted gay man while pursuing creative interests as a working mom of three), finally seeing her mom’s seeming detachment as a kind of beautiful and accommodating nonchalance. Her mom has always had creative interests beyond her daughter, Alison. As Bechdel finally sees, her mother has passed down both this creative impulse and its necessary, accompanying freedom. Bechdel's memoir is a dazzling page-turner on the mystery of mothers. Molly Brown

Book: Arguably

Author: Christopher Hitchens

Publisher: Grand Central

Publication date: 2012-09


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Christopher Hitchens

This collection of essays by the iconoclastic Hitchens showcases his restless brilliance. Instead of just writing about North Korea, Hitchens visits Pyongyang and reports on a frightening country whose citizens "are brainwashed into a hatred of others... regimented, coerced and inculcated with a death cult." A fearless writer, Hitchens submits to waterboarding by American Special Forces to research an article on torture for Vanity Fair. "I don't want to tell you how little time I lasted... I'm still ashamed about it. If waterboarding isn't torture, then there's no such thing as torture. And once you have posed the notorious ticking bomb question, what will you not do? Bring on the thumbscrews, pincers, electrodes and the rack". Arguably also includes Hitchens’ literary criticism ranging from Orwell to Nabokov to Rowling. It’s a superb collection by one of the greatest essayists of our time. John Grassi

Book: Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock-and-Roll

Author: Ellen Willis

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press

Publication date: 2012-07


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Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock-and-Roll - and - No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays
Ellen Willis

Ellen Willis believes that social change happens but the need to reevaluate the fight remains. She was a gate-opener who projected the voices that promoted social and political progress. As a journalist, feminist, rock critic and radical, she used her articles for the Villiage Voice, Rolling Stone and The Nation as catalysts for inspiring political, social, and cultural change. Willis’ original journalistic work in addition to the re-release of her essays in the form of these books suggests that we must consider dissident voices and audible critiques as a viable form of knowledge. In the nature of her feminism and political positions, she retakes control of the systems of oppression. Her texts are important, her insight and critiques ring of an equal balance of prophecy and lucidity while constantly inspiring and enraging. Willis inspires her readers to want to be more than Facebook activists or believers in the female-body-will-naturally-shutdown-after-rape myth. And it's for this reason that her work must be read. Elisabeth Woronzoff

Book: Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock

Author: Jesse Jarnow

Publisher: Gotham / Penguin

Publication date: 2012-06


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Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock
Jesse Jarnow

Big Day Coming is a fact-laden treasure trove that takes place in a magical world where music is as essential as breathing -- that is to say, Hoboken, New Jersey. Jarnow gets every detail a fan of Yo La Tengo could want: Ira and Georgia’s first time meeting (at a Feelies show, natch), their first poster, where they played their weekly softball games. Even more important is what Jarnow's band-friendly biography does with these particulars, culled from old Melody Makers and original interviews: makes the case for Yo La Tengo being the one steadying force in the decades of indie rock glory and bullshit, equally ready to blow minds in the age of zines and MP3s. Even if you can’t tell your Hubley from your Kaplan, big day coming shows how far an unending love of music and a nice attitude can get you. David Grossman

Book: Burma: Rivers of Flavor

Author: Naomi Duguid

Publisher: Artisan

Publication date: 2012-09


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Burma: Rivers of Flavor
Naomi Duguid

Cookbook writer, world traveler, photographer and Southeast Asian food expert Naomi Duguid’s latest book, Burma: Rivers of Flavor, will first engross you with its exquisite photography and evocative writing, then send you into the kitchen to prepare dishes like chickpea soup with lemongrass and ginger, lima beans with galangal, and standout tomato chutney. Far more than just a cookbook, Burma: Rivers of Flavor, immerses the reader in the country’s cultures and peoples, using narrative, history, photography, and divine recipes. As the Burmese people struggle toward democracy, this beautiful, comprehensively researched book could not be more timely. Diane Leach

Book: Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever

Author: Jack McCallum

Publisher: Ballantine

Publication date: 2012-07


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Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever
Jack McCallum

Dream Team begins in the ‘80s, when the first germinations of using pros in the Olympics began. The building blocks to a great project or enterprise rarely make for interesting reading, hence the notion that while sausage is wonderful, you don’t want to see it made. But because of the personalities involved and the global stage upon which they stood, Dream Team’s best passages often deal with to whom invitations were granted and, more salaciously, to whom they were not. And thankfully, McCallum doesn’t skimp on this subject, which comprised what was, by far, the biggest controversy of the Dream Team. The least interesting part of the 1992 Olympics Dream Team was the games. Here, each colorful player gets several chapters devoted to his backstory, and Jack McCallum doesn’t shy away from portraying the good and the bad. J McCallum has provided sports fans with a wonderful and addictive account of athletes that we thought we already knew everything about. And even if you think you do, reliving it in McCallum’s savvy journalistic voice will provide immense pleasure. Erich Shea

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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