The Best Non-Fiction of 2012

“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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Arguably
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

 

Book: The Encyclopedia of Country Music: Second Edition

Author: The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Publication date: 2012-02

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The Encyclopedia of Country Music: Second Edition
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

This second edition comes 14 years after its predecessor, enough of a gap to demonstrate how country music and the climate surrounding country music has changed and, indeed, how the record industry has evolved as well. In the post-iTunes, Napster, and Dot Com boom and bust world, attitudes, tastes, styles, and reflections have all changed and those revolutions are represented in the pages of this exhaustive and authoritative volume. This volume is great fun as it leaves virtually no stone unturned in the terrain it explores. Sidemen such as David Briggs, who has worked with Neil Young, B.B. King, Dolly Parton, Ernest Tubb, Alabama, and James Burton are present as one might expect, given their ubiquity on sessions and the influence they have continued to hold over future generations of country musicians. But lesser known figures, such as Dr. John Brinkley, also emerge. A fiction writer could not have created someone as colorful and controversial as Brinkley, and it’s difficult to call to mind a character equally eccentric in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll. As a tool for scholars, researchers, and obsessives this volume will be hard to improve upon; it’s authoritative, easy to access, easy to read, and captivating. I read a few of the sections in strict alphabetical order — moving from the A section all the way through C before switching, at random, to the Rs, then the Hs, then back to the Ds, with little sense of fatigue in any of those endeavors. Jedd Beaudoin

See also: The Best Music Books of 2012

 

Book: The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America

Author: James T. Patterson

Publisher: Basic

Publication date: 2012-11

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The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America
James T. Patterson

It’s all too easy to pick a year in any country’s history and declare via a half-dozen news items or cultural moments that that was the time when “everything changed”. However, James T. Patterson’s book on 1965 makes a clinching argument for how that 12-month period was a fulcrum for 20th century America, the likes of which we haven’t seen since. In measured but sometimes breathless prose, Patterson lays out the march of epochal events that came one on top of each other like so many detonations in a chain reaction. When the year began, President Lyndon Johnson was at the peak of his powers and the country seemingly united in its confidence for a better future. Medicare, immigration reform, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts were all signed into law. By the end of the year, Watts had burned, the Vietnam War was chewing up soldiers’ lives by the hundreds, college protests were smoldering, and a sickening miasma of distrust was in the air. Patterson is more reporter than social portraitist, but his swift and detailed approach works in his favor; it’s a book written at the breathless pace of history burning up the past. Chris Barsanti

 

Book: The Favored Daughter: One Woman’s Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future

Author: Fawzia Koofi

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

Publication date: 2012-01

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The Favored Daughter: One Woman’s Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future
Fawzia Koofi

The first day of Fawzia Koofi’s life was perhaps prophetic. Koofi’s mother was disappointed she had not given birth to a boy, dismayed over her husband’s latest/seventh wife, and exhausted after 30 hours of childbirth. Just born, Koofi was “wrapped in cloth and placed outside in the baking sun”. No one expected her to survive. But there, she screamed for a day and then her mother’s maternal instincts kicked in. Most likely no one expected Koofi to become a Member of Parliament (MP), to become Afghanistan’s first female Speaker of Parliament, or to be a candidate in the 2014 presidential election, either. And Koofi’s life doesn’t appear to be any safer now than it was on the day she was born. Koofi isn’t certain why she is still alive, stating “I don’t know why God spared me that day…Or why he has spared me on the several occasions since then, when I could have died, but he did… I know he has a purpose for me.” It’s hard to disagree: Koofi’s life is amazingly and wonderfully purposeful. Catherine Ramsdell

 

Book: Fear of Music

Author: Jonathan Lethem

Publisher: Continuum

Publication date: 2012-04

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Fear of Music
Jonathan Lethem

The “33 ⅓” series is inherently sporadic. Their short books about albums are always well-intentioned, but there’s a 50/50 chance that the one you’ll pick up will be self-serving and full of glaring omissions as it will genuinely convey how a specific album came to exist and why it needs to be heard. Lethem’s take on Fear of Music, Talking Heads’ third album, is undoubtedly the crown jewel of the 33⅓ collection, a work of zen meditation discussing every aspect of the album, from the vinyl sleeve to the personal memories to the bass lines on “I Zimbra” and the “fucking disaster area” that is “Memories Can’t Wait”. Lethem delves into, but doesn’t dwell on, 1979: he pulls from a spectrum as wide as David Bryne’s (from Cary Grant to Saul Steinberg!). The only time it frustrates is when you don’t have Fear of Music, the album, readily at hand, you can only go so many pages without craving a fix of some good ol’ fashioned art-punk. This is music writing as great as Lethem’s best novels, the rest of us are just lucky he doesn’t have a Tumblr. David Grossman

See also: The Best Music Books of 2012

 

Book: The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays

Author: James Wood

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Publication date: 2012-10

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The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays
James Wood

Few critics piss off readers with the consistency of James Wood. He is at once a consort to and unabashedly critical of Harold Bloom’s theories of interpretation, aesthetics, and influence. He embraces contrast and contradiction and digs deep into the schism of cultural pathos. He brings the heat like few other literary critics, but with subtlety and grace; his is a slow, corrosive criticism— lucid but not blunt, predatory but not vile; a serpentine wordsmith, nimble with passive antagonism. He sometimes feels like the personification of Chinese water torture. Wood, like so many of his like-minded peers, is a descendant of contrarian par excellence Pauline Kael: he writes with fervid, candid authority and often takes unpredictable routes with his clean prose. He doesn’t pull punches—his blows bruise. His brand of contrarianism isn’t slack or indulgent, though. He backs up his criticisms, like an onslaught of so many word-warriors from his unfettered mind, with numerous quotes and passages and excerpts. Wood is the sharpest literary critic currently penning poison: he doesn’t stream a constant deluge of malice, but rather gets the novel’s best aspects right out in the open. Greg Cwik

 

House of Stone

Author: Anthony Shadid

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication date: 2012-04

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House of Stone
Anthony Shadid

Is it possible to reconstruct a sense of home and to resurrect that which slowly dies? This question lingers throughout the narrative of the late Anthony Shadid’s House of Stone, as he chronicles the return to his ancestral home in Marjayoun, Lebanon in order to restore it from its derelict state to its former glory. Interwoven throughout his seemingly Sisyphean ambition is the account of his family’s struggles and flight from the war-torn Marjayoun after the great fall of the Ottoman Empire to Oklahoma City, the birthplace of Shadid. Though the main focus rests on his quest, Shadid deftly notes the psychological impact that decades of war has on a community, whether it be through individual neuroses or posters of adolescent martyrs. Tragically, what adds another haunting layer to the narrative is that as Shadid laments the slow death of his Marjayoun, its traditions, and its weathered residents of an era long past, there is the inescapable omen, unbeknownst to Shadid, that he is slowly dying as well. With each cigarette that he struggles to resist, one can see each step that he takes towards his premature death in Syria in February 2012, which robbed the world of not only one of the finest Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, but a voice to Levantine shadows of lost Middle East. Michael Grassi

 

Book: How Music Works

Author: David Byrne

Publisher: McSweeney’s

Publication date: 2012-09

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How Music Works
David Byrne

In the preface of his breathtakingly expansive new book How Music Works, former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne mentions that the chapters are not chronological and therefore can be read in any order. However you opt to experience this strange and wonderful tome (and it is an experience), you will inevitably find yourself thinking about music in ways you hadn’t thought of before. Part autobiography, part textbook, How Music Works covers a wealth of material in just 332 pages. Byrne, a well-researched and welcoming host, takes us on a journey from creation to the present day, from the stage of CBGB’s to the favela’s of Rio, from Leadbelly to Sufjan Stevens, all in attempt to explain the complicated systems through which we receive musical information. Byrne’s career, from his days as a busker through his most recent collaboration with Brian Eno, is covered in detail yet equal space is given to technology and the music business, past and present. Aspiring musicians: it would behoove you to read the chapter on business and finance (appropriately titled “Business and Finance”). In fact, if you’ve ever spent time playing, listening to, or thinking about music, this book should be required reading. Daniel Tebo

See also: The Best Music Books of 2012

 

Book: How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants

Author: David Rees

Publisher: Melville House

Publication date: 2012-04

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How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants
David Rees

David Rees used to just be famous for creating Get Your War On, the landmark webcomic that used fantastically-foulmouthed clip art characters to perfectly capture the emotional rollercoaster of Bush’s War On Terror. But now he’s famous for something else: his career as the world’s first and foremost artisanal pencil sharpener, which culminated in the release of his deeply funny tongue-in-cheek reference book How to Sharpen Pencils. To wonder whether he’s being genuine or doing a Kaufmanesque send-up is missing the point — he’s doing both. Rees is very funny, but make no mistake: he’s also deadly serious about sharpening pencils. In 18 absurdly thorough chapters covering everything from “Warm-Up Exercises” to “Celebrity Impression Pencil Sharpening”, Rees creates comedy simply by being utterly exhaustive about something utterly banal. But his passion and sincerity, however, are impossible to fake, and amazingly, he’s oddly poignant on the subject, quoting Elinor Wylie and going off on purple-prosed flights of fancy about pencil shavings. It’s hilarious, but it’s also a surprisingly touching reminder about finding the courage to apply oneself fully to even the unsexiest of life’s tasks. Pat Kewley

 

Book: I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy

Author: Lori Andrews

Publisher: Free Press

Publication date: 2012-01

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I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy
Lori Andrews

In our perpetually connected digital age, privacy might seem like an antiquated notion. But in her book I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did, legal scholar Lori Andrews argues that the right to privacy is fundamental within a Constitutional democracy, and that the kinds of privacy violations that have become commonplace in the online sphere represent an unprecedented infringement of civil liberties within the legal history of the United States. Moreover, by allowing private companies unfettered access to our personal online information, we open up the possibility for even greater abuses. One such example is the practice of weblining, through which personal online information is collected and distributed by data aggregators and behavioral marketing departments in often invasive and discriminatory ways. These companies make enormous profits by creating and selling digital profiles of individuals that increasingly exert a powerful influence over real life opportunities, such as employment, housing, insurance and lending. In order to protect ourselves from further violations of our right to privacy, Andrews advocates for the adoption of a “Social Network Constitution” that would prevent these private companies from placing their own profits over our constitutionally protected liberties. Robert Alford

 

Book: Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (3rd Ed.)

Author: John D’Emilio, Estelle B. Freedman, eds.

Publisher: University of Chicago Press;

Publication date: 2012-12

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Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (3rd Ed.)
John D’Emilio, Estelle B. Freedman, eds.

Early on, the authors separate the Puritan ideologue of American sexuality from what actually happened, pulling quotes from newspapers, court documents, and numerous personal journals from regular citizens throughout the ages. Topic by topic, we begin to see how sexuality has transpired from America’s founding to today. While a book this well-researched would be something to behold, the discourse inside—thoughtful, well-paced, simple to understand even when grappling with larger, more difficult cultural issues—is what makes it truly essential. Sexuality in America is a very large topic, but no matter what facet you’re curious about, this should be most readers’ default reference point, as D’Emilio & Freedman have set the bar for quality writing and research on the subject so high that it’s hard to envision anything else topping it—save the Fourth Edition, of course. Evan Sawdey

 

Book: John Chamberlain: New Sculpture

Author: Thomas Crow

Publisher: Rizzoli

Publication date: 2012-02

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John Chamberlain: New Sculpture
Thomas Crow

This is a comprehensive, engaging look at one of the most influential and memorable American sculptors to have come out of the postwar era. When John Chamberlain passed away in December 2011 at the age of 84, we lost a great innovator—though he was rather cavalier and gruff about it all in the first place. Chamberlain’s sculptures, made from recycled materials, scrap metal and the detritus of smashed up cars painted and glossed in vivid colors to create a glittering rainbow out of congealed chrome, is the sculptural bridge between the exuberance and emotion of Abstract Expressionism and the cool irony of Pop Art. Thomas Crow, a revisionist art historian who teaches at New York University, succeeds in going beyond the confines of the mere artist’s monograph. He locates Chamberlain within his milieu as an artist working in the wake of postwar prosperity, who is at once skeptical and amused by how the country envisions itself, and he also sets Chamberlain apart as a singularly original force in American art, a spiritual and aesthetic partner to Roy Lichtenstein and Richard Serra. Farisa Khalid

 

Book: Killing the Messenger: A Story of Radical Faith, Racism’s Backlash, and The Assassination of a Journalist

Author: Thomas Peele

Publisher: Crown

Publication date: 2012-02

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Killing the Messenger: A Story of Radical Faith, Racism’s Backlash, and The Assassination of a Journalist
Thomas Peele

Crime, corruption, journalism, race and politics come careening together. And you thought The Wire was fiction. Of course it was, even though it was fueled by co-creators Ed Burns and David Simon’s parallel experiences on the Baltimore, Maryland crime beat. Even though it has come to represent the state of modern, besieged urban America. Where else would one find so many vivid storylines intersecting race, crime, politics and journalism? Try Oakland, California. Thomas Peele and the rest of The Chauncey Bailey Project did outstanding work in researching and reporting the murder of reporter Chauncey Bailey, a down-on-his-heels print junkie looking for a scoop to save his career. Peele’s writing is as brisk and propulsive as the best crime fiction. But Peele’s telling begins much earlier – to the genesis of the Nation of Islam in the ‘20s and ‘30s as less a religion than a fable foisted upon impoverished black people looking for hope. Building on previous research into the Nation of Islam’s origins and newly available FBI files, Peele reveals new truths about its creation myth. You won’t be able to put this book down, except for those passages that might be a little too gruesome to bear. Mark Reynolds

 

Book: The Language Wars: A History of Proper English

Author: Henry Hitchings

Publisher: Picador

Publication date: 2012-10

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The Language Wars: A History of Proper English
Henry Hitchings

Henry Hitchings two-part thesis on this vast and complex subject is simple: English, like virtually all languages, has developed in organic fashion. It had its source in other languages, has grown, mutated, absorbed and discarded countless words, migrated across small and large geographic spaces and vast expanses of time. Against the inherent instability of the language, as well its tendency toward transformation and the proliferation of dialects and idiomatic expressions, there stands a sturdy phalanx of ‘prescriptivists’. Its soldiers are the scholars, grammarians, educators, teachers, lexicographers, and others who have sought to impose order and rules on the unruly mass of English, to make it conform to protocols of (according to them at least) aesthetic beauty or mathematical rationality or refined sentiment. What are the reasons for this endeavor? And, just as importantly, what are the consequences? These are the questions that Hitchings seeks to answer over the course of 300 and more pages. Language is battlefield and, like it or not, we’re all soldiers. James Williams

 

Book: The Long Road to Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution

Author: Richard Slotkin

Publisher: Liveright

Publication date: 2012-07

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The Long Road to Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution
Richard Slotkin

Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s epic Lincoln, with an equally epic Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role, may have garnered all the headlines in the media, lately, but historian Richard Slotkin’s account of the decisive remaining three years of The Civil War is a book that has a rousing power and vitality of its own. Slotkin, a professor emeritus at Wesleyan College, is a celebrity darling of American Studies, and with good reason. His examinations on history and folklore of the frontier and the Hollywood Western, Gunfighter Nation, The Fatal Environment, and Regeneration Through Violence, has expanded our understanding of tumultuous moments in American history during the nineteenth-century as well as our approach to Westerns and War Movies. With his latest book, Slotkin delves into the messy, riveting politics behind the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment and the charismatic and complicated personality of George McClellan, the Union General who spoke out against Lincoln and ran against him in the 1864 election. Along with Doris Kearns Godwin’s Team of Rivals, the source material for Spielberg and Kushner’s film, Slotkin’s book does wonders to illuminate our understanding of this period. Farisa Khalid

 

Book: The Man Within My Head

Author: Pico Iyer

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday

Publication date: 2012-01

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The Man Within My Head
Pico Iyer

More than a memoir, this is a testament, an engagement and a gift, really, to Iyer’s two “fathers”, one biological, the other “adopted”: the writer’s own philosopher/lecturer father Raghavan Iyer and the English novelist Graham Greene (the title is a clever extension of Greene’s title The Man Within). Iyer has remarkable descriptive powers, capturing photographic flashes of stillness amidst swirls of human chaos, plainly but magically. The artist-poet Jean Cocteau set out once to paint a picture of a flower. Out came a self-portrait. In The Man Within My Head, Iyer encounters something similarly unintentional: “Like Greene… I’d never had much time for memoir; it was too easy to make yourself the center–even the hero–of your story […] But…in every book, there is another text, written in invisible ink between the lines, that may be telling the real story, of what the words evade.” Guy Crucianelli

 

Book: Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China

Author: Paul French

Publisher: Penguin

Publication date: 2012-04

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Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China
Paul French

History keeps her secrets locked away where only the most dedicated searchers can uncover them. Paul French is one such searcher and Midnight In Peking is his crowning discovery. History and crime are familiar bed partners, but often one tends to overpower the other and the narratives can tip to the sensational or the professorial. French avoids this trap expertly, creating a compelling, intense, well-researched book that takes the smallest of events and unwinds them outward into a spider’s web of context. Pamela Werner, a young British school girl, is found horrifically murdered, her body thrown at the base of the Fox Tower in Peking. Peking is fraught with tension, on the cusp of World War II, and now the city has exploded in superstition, journalists, international pressure, and a collision of old Peking ways vs new Peking. French leaves no stone unturned, no dark corner unexplored. What he finds is more unexpected than we could have anticipated. Scott Elingburg

 

Book: Mortality

Author: Christopher Hitchens

Publisher: Twelve

Publication date: 2012-09

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Mortality
Christopher Hitchens

As one might expect, Christopher Hitchens’ Mortality pulls no punches; one is immediately taken to the scene, and the renowned writer details his horror upon awakening in a New York hotel: “The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement. I could faintly hear myself breathe but could not manage to inflate my lungs. My heart was beating either much too much or much too little.” This sounds like something out of Edgar Allan Poe. It’s shocking and hideous. Understandably, brevity befits Hitchens. He is initially shaken, but he has no apologies and no regrets. This is a brave and bold meditation on living, with adversity, in the face of certain death on one hand. On the other hand, and more importantly, this study is about a man who refused to abandon his lifelong principles at a vulnerable time when he very easily could have. William Carl Ferleman

 

Book: My Friend Dahmer

Author: Derf Backderf

Publisher: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Publication date: 2012-03

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My Friend Dahmer
Derf Backderf

When he was in high school in Ohio during the ’70s, Derf Backderf was friends with the teenaged Jeffrey Dahmer. They hung out long enough to have shared jokes that would later prove to be haunting indicators of a dark future Backderf later became the underground comic artist known just as “Derf” (responsible for that indie weekly stalwart strip “The City”). His astonishing graphic memoir does what New York Times writer David Carr did with his Night of the Gun: diving into his own past like a reporter would, instead of just trusting his own memory of how he befriended one of America’s most notorious serial killers. The result is an astute piece of highly personal journalism whose sheer modesty (Backderf never pretends to know more than he does, or to have had any foresight about Dahmer’s future) and refusal to assign any justification for his friend’s later horrors accounts for much of this book’s jagged potency. Chris Barsanti

 

Book: No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden

Author: Mark Owen

Publisher: Penguin

Publication date: 2012-09

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No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden
Mark Owen

There’s no dearth of projects about the death of Osama Bin Laden debuting in the year 2012, but only one is a first-hand, boots-on-the-ground account of the raid on the terrorist mastermind’s compound and his subsequent assassination. Former Navy Seal Matt Bissonnette (writing under the pseudonym “Mark Owen”) and co-author Kevin Maurer craft a well-rounded memoir of Bissonnette’s military career, focusing on his time as a Navy SEAL with DEVGRU (United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group). No Easy Day is an exciting read, focusing not just on its stated thesis but other high profile missions Bissonnette was involved in (such as the Maersk Alabama hijacking), while still showing the author and his fellow SEALs as real human beings with families and senses of humor. On the other hand, this excitement is calculated, using cinematic cliffhangers and fragmented storytelling to keep the story the title promises extending to a full book length. The controversy and verifiable elements prove the book’s content is real, but for better or for worse there are times that No Easy Day reads like a novel. Those looking for an action-packed and factual read should look no further. Those seeking a literal account of the mission that killed Bin Laden will find a lot more than just this specialized story. J.C. Macek III

 

Book: The Occupy Handbook

Author: Janet Byrne, ed.

Publisher: Little, Brown & Company

Publication date: 2012-04

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The Occupy Handbook
Janet Byrne, ed.

Now that the permanent occupations have ended, the question for many within the movement and for their supporters across the planet is: where do we go from here? The articles and essays in The Occupy Handbook address this question by situating the movement within a historical context of progressive dissent and direct action, and by offering many potential strategies for transforming the protestors’ anger into viable political outcomes. Written by a selection of prominent journalists, academics and economists, The Occupy Handbook presents a range of ideological perspectives and prescriptive actions from the revolutionary anarchism of anthropologist and activist David Graeber to the progressive tax policy solutions of economists Peter Diamond and Emmanuel Saez. Taken as a whole, the book provides a powerful testament to what the Occupy movement has already accomplished simply by inspiring these types of discussions to occur. We live in a globalized world, and any viable form of resistance to the inequities that we face will need to be international in scope. It’s time to realize that the demand for a more free and equal society is within our reach, if only we can act together. Robert Alford

 

Book: Queer and Pleasant Danger: The true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today

Author: Kate Bornstein

Publisher: Beacon

Publication date: 2012-04

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Queer and Pleasant Danger: The true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today
Kate Bornstein

Using humor, honesty, and wit, Kate Bornstein leads readers through life changing events such as the decade she spent as a contributing member to the church of Scientology, the path leading to gender reassignment surgery, exploits in the lesbian BDSM scene, life as a performance artist, through the years struggling with suicide and eating disorders – just to name a few. However, Bornstein uses these episodes to frame the understanding and development of her identity as rooted in the emotional ruptures and sutures with families, friends, lovers, and of course with herself. Her mission for this memoir, “I must not tell lies” (7) not only develops her art of storytelling but also Bornstein’s own understanding of self-identity. Bornstein reminds readers that by constantly revisiting the stories we tell ourselves, we change and modify them. Thus akin to our memories, we also must change and rebuild, we must be self-reflective, and we must not lie to ourselves. And much as identity can change, Bornstein demonstrates that a life’s history is fluid and mercurial. Elisabeth Woronzoff

 

Book: Reinventing Bach

Author: Paul Elie

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Publication date: 2012-09

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Reinventing Bach
Paul Elie

With Bach’s music in his pocket (presumably on an iPod), Paul Elie went straight from the train station in Berlin to a musical instruments museum that featured a Bach harpsichord. As a Bach lover, he was intrigued until he realized that while others admiring Pink Floyd’s synthesizer had really heard music on that instrument, no one knows what Bach’s playing actually sounded like. Thus begins a most unconventional Bach biography, interspersed with tales about a cadre of great performers, principally Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Leopold Stokowski and Glenn Gould, who reintroduced Bach’s work in the 20th century, from the start of the age of recording right up to the present. Elie’s performance is a tour de force, an elegantly written book of theme and variations carried out to the nth degree. For even for the casual classical music listener, Reinventing Bach is a dazzling read. Grace Lichtenstein

See also: The Best Music Books of 2012

 

Book: Robert Bresson (Revised)

Author: James Quandt

Publisher: Indiana University Press

Publication date: 2012-03

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Robert Bresson (Revised)
James Quandt

Often called “the filmmaker’s filmmaker”, Robert Bresson is that rare bird, an artist whose work in his chosen medium bears almost no trace of influence from others in that same medium. It’s usually more fruitful to relate Bresson’s films to other arts than cinema, such as painting (Bresson began as a “Cezanneian” painter) or music, mediums that have more historically attended to form, the most important factor in Bresson’s aesthetic: “Form is everything,” he told an interviewer.This book is an updated edition of an already hugely impressive volume of essays, interviews and appreciations by some of cinema’s finest scholars and critics. Just a shortlist: Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, P. Adams Sitney, Raymond Durgnat, Jonathan Rosenbaum, David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson and Kent Jones. Yes, that’s a short list. There are also interviews with Bresson by Paul Schrader and Jean-Luc Godard, poems by Robert Creeley and Patti Smith, and testimonials of indebtedness by filmmakers like Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne and Michael Haneke This, then, really is inarguably the critical study of Robert Bresson. Guy Crucianelli

 

Book: Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman – from World War to Cold War

Author: Michael Dobbs

Publisher: Knopf

Publication date: 2012-10

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Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman – from World War to Cold War
Michael Dobbs

If there was any doubt that all politics is theater, Michael Dobbs’ historical recreation of the Yalta Conference will put that notion to rest. As Six Months in 1945 opens, the Big Three—Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill—are en route to Yalta. And what could have drifted into mundane details of Russian roads and the Crimean countryside becomes a living, oppressive landscape in the hands of Dobbs. Then, as the Big Three gather, each one eyeing the others with their own agenda, the performance begins. Dobbs, a journalist and historian with a long list of accomplishments to his name, is the only writer who could have simultaneously provided the narrative drive and the historical accuracy to such a monumental era in world history. Where most historical accounts can drown the vibrancy of events in muted language and factual accuracies, Dobbs ensures that the pace of Six Months remains kinetic. Simple conversations that would sink in lesser hands are shot through with immediacy and candor, and a full sense of the gravity that these men and women faced are included with every passing chapter. Dobbs has written much more than an intensely researched, riveting account of six crucial months in history; he’s brought our world closer by examining the remote details of our past. Scott Elingburg

 

Book: The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code

Author: Sam Kean

Publisher: Little, Brown & Company

Publication date: 2012-07

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The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code
Sam Kean

Sam Kean tackles the big questions, such as “How Do Living Things Pass Down Traits to Their Children. It explores the big not-so-basic questions, like “How Deep in Our DNA is Artistic Genius?” And it covers the small details; e.g., as little as one ounce of polar bear liver can be fatal to humans. In short, Kean tackles all things genetic, from the length of a single gene of DNA to cloning. But the most memorable story is about Kean himself. He relates that he recently underwent genetic testing and seems particularly concerned that Parkinson’s might be “lurking” in his genes. After all, isn’t this what most of us want to know—what’s hiding in our DNA? Information about King Tut or Abraham Lincoln is interesting. Debating the wisdom of cloning is interesting. In this book, even fruit flies are interesting. But when it’s our DNA… well that’s a different story, and perhaps that’s why Kean’s story might be the most inspirational of the lot. Catherine Ramsdell

 

Book: Wartime Kiss: Visions of the Moment in the 1940s

Author: Alexander Nemerov

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Publication date: 2012-11

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Wartime Kiss: Visions of the Moment in the 1940s
Alexander Nemerov

This is among the most haunting and meditative examinations of American visual culture during World War II. The art historian, Alexander Nemerov, who teaches at Stanford, has written a book that delves into a series of historical accounts of key photographs and film stills of the ’40s. Wartime Kiss begins with the iconic image of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s 1945 photograph, V-J Day in Times Square, of the sailor kissing the young nurse. But it’s more than merely a clear-cut image of joy, Nemerov argues. It’s one of immense violence and tension. It expresses everything ambivalent about that transitional period of the late 20th-century. Through other images, such as a photograph of Jimmy Stewart and Olivia de Havilland lying on the grass in Santa Barbara, a kind of ’40s arcadian déjeuner sur l’herbe, to a photograph of Margaret Bourke-White scaling the precipice of a steel gargoyle on top of The Chrysler Building, Nemerov sets out to show us a side of America during the ’40s that we may have overlooked. “I have chosen these images because they feel to me like a disturbance on the surface of things,” Nemerov explains. “Akin to what Roland Barthes describes as the punctum of a photograph—a piercing, wounding sensation without explanation.” Farisa Khalid

 

Book: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Author: Jeanette Winterson

Publisher: Grove

Publication date: 2012-03

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Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
Jeanette Winterson

I love Jeanette Winterson’s humour, I like her views on dealing with dysfunction and confusion via sarcasm and bluntness. Her descriptions of her interactions with her Evangelical Christian mother, ‘Mrs. W’, are always witty, sometimes infuriating, shocking, and hilarious. Winterson admits there was no way she could have been allowed to be ‘Happy’ or ‘Normal’ – whatever that is – raised in her home. From the outset her adoptive mother, Mrs. W, told her that they had gone to the ‘Wrong Crib’ when they selected her, and she should have been a boy named Paul, instead. So rejection and disappointment were simply a fact of life for her from the start. There are glimmers of happiness amidst the gloom, and her life, like her surroundings in the countryside of Lancashire, had a certain beauty – but it was a ‘difficult beauty’. Read this as an investigation into the creation of an author – a 20th century Lancashire David Copperfield. Read it because it’s a memoir of striking honesty, realism and wit. Read it because it is also the Romance of a life in pursuit of love. Gabrielle Malcolm

 

Book: With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful

Author: Glenn Greenwald

Publisher: Picador

Publication date: 2012-07

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With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful
Glenn Greenwald

See this book? Then grab it. Read it. Shove it into everyone’s face. Because this is the kind of text supporters of progress and justice urgently need. We need its honesty and clarity; its focus on what matters; and its expertise—the author, Glenn Greenwald, is a former constitutional law and civil rights attorney. We also need its courage, for it tells us what many suspect, but few dare to shout out. That the laws and policies of America—a nation that prides itself on respect for due process, democracy, and opportunity for all—are stacked, deliberately, in favor of the elite. It isn’t just that said elite can wield vast resources to bend the rules in its favor—by, for example, spending millions on lawyers, lobbyists, and campaign contributions. It’s worse than that. As Greenwald demonstrates, the highest ranks of American society are now openly declaring themselves to be above the law whenever it fracking suits them. Every administration since Nixon, Democratic as well as Republican, has turned a blind eye to the crimes of its predecessors; while simultaneously ramping up law-and-order rhetoric and incarcerating a growing number of the poor. Paula Cerni

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