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The Best Books of 2014: Nonfiction

The truth may be stranger than fiction, but as the numerous nonfiction books of 2014 also attest, it's often the truest stories that are the most gripping.

Whoever feared that the internet (or was it television?) would destroy the public’s appetite for a good book was wrong. Reading is more popular than ever, and whether your preferred medium is a good old-fashioned paperback or comes in the key of ‘e-‘, 2014 witnessed an unprecedented explosion of smart, provocative, and insightful non-fiction literature across a wide range of topics and styles.

In its annual report, the International Publishers’ Association reports that book publishing remains the largest industry in the publishing and entertainment sectors, with a value estimated at $151 billion. And it’s a global phenomenon. Almost half a million new titles and re-issues were published in China alone last year; a growth of seven percent over the previous year. Indeed, the world is awash in books, and it’s an exciting time for the reading public, no matter what your medium, language, or taste in literature.

To help you filter through the literally millions of books published this past year, here’s the top PopMatters non-fiction picks for 2014, culled by our talented team of reviewers from around the world. This year’s top picks of the best of the world’s non-fiction offerings provide something for everyone: from atheists to football fans; from cookbooks to movie guides; from prehistoric Britain to ’40s-era Germany; from a graphic novel history of Showa-era Japan to a cubist history of Gottland. Are the Koreans on the verge of seizing world domination through K-Pop? Have we definitively solved the pro- vs – anti- taxes debate once and for all? From record industry tribulations to the politics of race to the memorialization of genocide to the origins of (and threats to) free speech, this list has it all. Pagans, poets, pranksters, and Pulitzer Prize winners.

Here, in alphabetical order by title, are the books we read and loved thus far that were published in 2014 (first editions, reprints and translations included). img-810 Hans Rollman

 

Book: Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto

Author: Steve Almond

Publisher: Melville House

Publication date: 2014-08

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Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto
Steve Almond

The year 2014 will mark the time that some part of America began to turn against football. Taking on everything from the concussion crisis to the game’s creepy militarization, Steve Almond’s slim but muscular broadside slams into the wall of sanctimonious hokum served up by the NCAA, NFL, and their sycophantic sportswriter enablers. Almond brings credibility to the project, as somebody who is not a sniffy academic (which most critiques of the game are usually labeled as) but as a long-suffering Raiders fan troubled by the monstrous corporate media behemoth he’s entrapped by. In this bluntly angry, funny, and perceptive screed, Almond looks long and hard at a hypocritical relationship between fan and athlete that ignores the damage being done to everything from players’ lifespans to the tax base of cities bankrupting themselves building stadiums for billionaires. Almond argues at the least for clarity: “You can run from your own subtext for only so long. Those spray-tanned lunatics we happily revile are merely turned-out versions of our private selves.” img-810 Chris Barsanti

 

Book: The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God

Author: Peter Watson

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication date: 2014-02

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The Age of Atheists
Peter Watson

If neither science nor religion suffices, how do we get past our present impasse? Do we lament our lack of progress, or welcome possibility? Peter Watson acknowledges the scientific mission to dissect and pin down all that we observe, yet he nods to the atavistic tendency embedded within many of us to yearn for transcendence. That impulse, his new book agrees, will not fade soon, but the 20th century charted here (although starting with Nietzsche towards the end of the 19th) celebrates the triumph of evolution, the breakthroughs in physics, the insights of psychology, and the wisdom of philosophy, art, literature, and communal engagement which enrich our current times and allow us so much liberty. img-810 John Murphy

 

Book: The Art of Empathy: Celebrating Literature in Translation

Author: Various

Publisher: National Endowment for the Arts

Publication date: 2014-08

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The Art of Empathy: Celebrating Literature in Translation
Various Authors

The NEA has been supporting the important art of translation since 1981. During that time, it has offered 412 fellowships for translating literature from 86 countries, spanning 66 different languages. This year, the NEA awards coincided with its publication of a delightful new book of essays devoted to celebrating the important role played by translated literature. The Art of Empathy brings together 19 translators and supporters of translation work, reflecting on the practice of translation: a higher calling to which they share a passionate devotion. Art of Empathy is a short read, but a powerful and inspiring one. It’s a worthy gesture for the NEA to complement the announcement of its awards with a delightfully beautiful read that reveals how truly invaluable the funding of literary translation is. It calls on us to reposition our orientation toward literature in translation, and to recognize the reading of translated works not as merely a quirky hobby, but as central to our development as literate, empathic citizens of the world, and to the dynamic vitality of our own literary cultures. img-810 Hans Rollman

 

Book: The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture

Author: Euny Hong

Publisher: Picador

Publication date: 2014-08

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The Birth of Korean Cool
Euny Hong

A bit more cerebral than snackyCHAN, The Birth of Korean Cool nevertheless provides a compelling and absorbing read that’ll leave the pop culture aficionado with a greater appreciation of the causes and potential consequences of the rapid rise of hallyu (Korean wave, or K-culture). It’s an analysis that’s fun, informative, and skillfully conveys the implications of Korea’s experience for other countries. It’s no random fluke that K-pop stars summon record-breaking crowds from Los Angeles to Paris: it’s the result of coherent, well-studied and systematic policies on the part of the Korean government to support the arts and to channel Korea’s corporate prowess in support of artistic innovation through a combination of incentive and coercion. This is a smart and entertaining read that’ll leave you with a new-found appreciation for our future Korean overlords. img-810 Hans Rollman

 

Book: Bitter: Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes

Author: Jennifer McLagan

Publisher: Ten Speed

Publication date: 2014-09

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Bitter
Jennifer McLagan

Bitter, Jennifer McLagan’s fourth cookbook, combines scholarly inquiry with tempting recipes, easing the way into a taste many find challenging. With her characteristic humor, McLagan probes the line between taste and flavor, advocates cooking with healthy fats, and tries to love rutabaga. Tamer offerings include pastas utilizing bitter greens, arugula pizza, and brussels sprouts softened with chestnuts and bacon. More daring types might attempt Turnip Ice Cream, Beer Jelly, or infuse tobacco in heavy cream for a very adult truffle. Aya Brackett’s ravishing photographs turn Bitter into an artwork. img-810 Diane Leach

 

Book: Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Author: Thomas Pikkety

Publisher: Harvard University Press

Publication date: 2014-04

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Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Thomas Pikkety

No matter how much Chicago School economists would foam at the mouth to hear it, for societies to achieve a hint of social equality, at some point the wealthier will need to pay out more to the state than the poor. An unlikely bestseller, French economist Thomas Pikkety’s canny volume is not easy-going for the casual reader. His love for deep data analysis knows few bounds, irregardless of his occasional attempts at lighter discussion (using Austen and Balzac to show the decline of money as a factor in literature). Nevertheless, Pikkety’s arguments about the dangerously accelerating accumulation of capital by the upper classes, particularly the last few decades, are as crucial as it gets, no matter how wonky the text. The study of finance, taxation rates, capital accumulation, and social inequality are shown here as central to understanding the modern human condition. “Refusing to deal with numbers,” Pikkety writes. “Rarely serves the interests of the least well-off.” img-810 Chris Barsanti

 

Book: Comradely Greetings: The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj

Author: Nadezhda Tolokonnikovam, Slavoj Zizek

Publisher: Verso

Publication date: 2014-09

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Comradely Greetings: The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj
Nadezhda Tolokonnikovam and Slavoj Zizek

The correspondence of Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova and Slavoj Zizek might not change the world, but it ought to be required reading for anyone with aspirations to do so. Zizek is, of course, the Slovenian philosopher famously described by the Chronicle of Higher Education as ‘the Elvis of cultural theory’. Caricatured by others as a ‘celebrity philosopher’, he’s the Slovenian Marxist philosopher whose appearances sell out packed arenas in mere minutes. Tolokonnikova is perhaps best known to western readers as part of the ground-breaking Russian punk-performance outfit, Pussy Riot. Pussy Riot has, however, revealed itself as much more than simply a punk band. While punk performance art was a defining characteristic of early Pussy Riot performances, the repressive and violent response of the Russian regime has turned this amorphous grouping of artists, musicians, performers and thinkers into an irrepressible force at the heart of the struggle for freedom, liberty and human rights in a country that has spiraled into overt and repressive dictatorship. Our protagonists do not, of course, reach any conclusions. If anything, the truest benefit of such an exchange is to provoke within us the flowering of new thoughts and ideas that allow the reader, in their own way, to become a part of it. img-810 Hans Rollman

Cowboys, Copyrights, and Czechoslovakia

 

Book: The Copyright Wars: Three Centuries of Trans-Atlantic Battle

Author: Peter Baldwin

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Publication date: 2014-10

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The Copyright Wars: Three Centuries of Trans-Atlantic Battle
Peter Baldwin

To those who think that the “copyright wars” are a product of the modern era — of Hollywood and Google and digital downloading — Peter Baldwin’s exhaustive new study may come as a surprise. The Copyright Wars charts what is not a recent phenomenon at all, but a centuries-old struggle between fundamental principles. Baldwin’s detailed scholarship is second to none, and he offers a meticulously researched summary and synthesis of the topic’s major debates that manages to make sense out of three centuries of legal and political struggle. The work manages to make this struggle accessible and comprehensible to a broad audience, without sacrificing any of the important nuance and context that an understanding of the issues requires. img-811 Hans Rollman

 

Book: Countercultures and Popular Music

Author: Jedediah Sklower and Sheila Whiteley (editors)

Publisher: Ashgate

Publication date: 2014-06

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Countercultures and Popular Music
Jedediah Sklower and Sheila Whiteley (editors)

Many texts have been written about how the music of the ’60s affected the world around it, but few, if any, do it as sophisticatedly, diversely, and captivatingly as Countercultures and Popular Music, an expansive, varied, and complex new scholarly investigation into one of the most colorful and impactful cultural movements of the 20th century. Utilizing the fascinating insights of several authoritative music aficionados, each of whom contributes a fascinating and focused essay on his or her finite topic, editors Jedediah Sklower and Sheila Whiteley compile a collection of informative reflections and analyses that every fan of music and/or modern anthropology should find incredibly immersive and enlightening. img-811 Jordan Blum

 

Book: Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry

Author: Gareth Murphy

Publisher: Thomas Dunne

Publication date: 2014-06

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Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry
Gareth Murphy

To be brutally honest, Cowboys and Indies is a pretty hackneyed title, especially for a book dealing with notable record-men from throughout the history of recorded music. Yet what is contained within Gareth Murphy’s extensive and compelling tome is the kind of stuff that music nerd’s dreams are made of. This is a compelling, ever-fascinating journey through the history of the music industry, touching on its significant achievements, its major players, and too many juicy behind-the-scenes stories to count. Indeed, Cowboys and Indies is an absolute must-have for any self-professed music historian, and a delightful treat for just about anyone else. img-811 Evan Sawdey

 

Book: Culture Worrier: Reflections on Race, Politics and Social Change: Selected Columns 1984-2014

Author: Clarence Page

Publisher: Agate

Publication date: 2014-09

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Culture Worrier: Reflections on Race, Politics and Social Change: Selected Columns 1984-2014
Clarence Page

Pulitzer Prize winner Clarence Page is a clear-eyed optimist. His columns for the Chicago Tribune, collected here in a new magnificent collection, are rational, funny, and, perhaps best of all, a genuine pleasure to read. As cable and online news becomes increasing driven by shock headlines and uninformed talking heads, Page has the audacity to suggest a more sensible approach to the myriad problems that plague our society. An ardent and vocal supporter of increasing the cultural dialogue, Page won’t shy away from topics because of their lack of political correctness. In fact, he suggests that, only by confronting these issues head-on, can we hope to alter the same outcomes we keep repeating. I want to believe in Page’s approach, but the polarization of our politics and, by extent, our nation, makes it difficult to reconcile our middle ground. Still, with voices like Page offering sound, smart advice, there’s hope for us all yet. img-811 Scott Elingburg

 

Book: Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography

Author: Meryle Secrest

Publisher: Knopf

Publication date: 2014-10

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Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography
Meryle Secrest

In her majestic biography Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography, Secrest effortlessly explains what made Schiaparelli’s fashion work so groundbreaking and unique, by pointing out that due to the socio economic restrictions of the early ’30s, Schiaparelli, like every other female designer, was making clothes for herself. These clothes would highlight her best assets and hide those she favored the least, to the point where “she was flattering the average female figure as well as her own.” The very essence of the book is to make us understand that the facts about her life weren’t as important as how she chose to live them. Accompanied by color photographs of many of the designs, Secrest’s book pays homage to Schiaparelli’s unique oeuvre by highlighting their efficiency of form and style in her designs, while framing them as miracles in their own right. Her designs were magical, and they should undoubtedly convince even the biggest skeptic that fashion, when it comes to Schiaparelli, was never anything if not an expression of the sublime. img-811 Jose Solis

 

Book: Essays After Eighty

Author: Donald Hall

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication date: 2014-12

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Essays After Eighty
Donald Hall

Donald Hall is 86 years old. Poems no longer come to him, but essays still do, here collected in Essays After Eighty, an unsparing look at extreme old age. This stage of life, Hall writes, is a place permanently other, its inhabitants “extraterrestrial”. Hall is unable to cook for himself, drive, or climb the stairs to sleep in the bedroom he once shared with poet Jane Kenyon. Yet every morning he settles in his chair, looks out the window, and writes. At 144 pages, Essays After Eighty isn’t lengthy, yet gathers a lifetime between its pages, a world I fear is being lost. That world is dedicated to reading and writing, to solitude and the cultivation of a rich inner life. To presume to review works of this level is farcical; we can only be overjoyed by their continued existence. And, of course, to read them. img-811 Diane Leach

 

Book: Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia

Author: Mariusz Szczygiel

Publisher: Melville House

Publication date: 2014-05

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Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia
Mariusz Szczygiel

Hailed as the first “cubistic” history of anywhere, this award-winning Polish compendium presents Mariusz Szczygiel’s 2006 attempt to make sense of his nation’s neighbor, the Czech lands that comprised, for most of the last century, half of Czechoslovakia. Cubist, for it refuses one perspective, or one steady perch from where to depict the angles of a land under pressure. Translated into ten languages, here is its English debut through Antonia Lloyd-Jones’ lively rendering. Snappy, moving, inquisitive, and ethical, this examination of how the Czech lands coped under fascism and especially communism, and capitalism before and after those totalitarian regimes, confronts Czech complicity. img-811 John Murphy

 

Book: The Great Dissent: How Oliver Wendell Holmes Changed His Mind and Changed the History of Free Speech in America

Author: Thomas Healy

Publisher: Picador

Publication date: 2014-09

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The Great Dissent: How Oliver Wendell Holmes Changed His Mind and Changed the History of Free Speech in America
Thomas Healy

“Clear and present danger”. “Free trade in the marketplace of ideas”. “Free speech”. We’ve all heard these phrases, but what do they mean? Thomas Healy has penned an award-winning, delightfully entertaining, and remarkably educational book about the man who shaped these phrases into the form we know them today: Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. When he opposed the conviction of a group of Russian anarchists for urging American workers to rise up and lay down their tools in support of their Bolshevik revolutionary comrades, Holmes’ eloquent and stirring opposition sent shockwaves through the American political and legal establishment. Most importantly, he laid the groundwork for the expansive liberal free speech we hold dear today. Healy’s book brings the man and his era to life, along with a rare excitement in law’s potential to empower civil and democratic freedoms. A must for history buffs and anyone who cares about their democracy. img-811 Hans Rollman

Reagan and Rock ‘n’ Roll

 

Book: Heavy Metal Movies: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos & Cult Zombies Amok in the 666 Most Ear- and Eye-Ripping Big-Scream Films Ever!

Author: Mike “McBeardo” McPadden

Publisher: Bazillion Points

Publication date: 2014-06

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Heavy Metal Movies: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos & Cult Zombies Amok in the 666 Most Ear- and Eye-Ripping Big-Scream Films Ever!
Mike “McBeardo” McPadden

What defines a heavy metal movie is an elusive thing, but one need not be familiar with the music to enjoy Heavy Metal Movies. Author Mike “McBeardo” McPadden’s approach to his subject is based more on attitude than on some hard and fast definition. Heavy Metal Parking Lot (1986), for example, is indisputably a metal film because its subjects are actual metal heads and metal bands. Star Wars (1988), on the other hand, is a beyond-popular sci-fi blockbuster with robots, aliens, and a killer space station, but it only takes McPadden a few short sentences to connect this sci-fi favorite to heavy metal. His analysis, which ultimately boils down to, “It’s Star Wars”, assigns a different subgenre of metal to the major characters of the film, creating a handy guide for the novice who’s more familiar with the Force than Funerus. There’s a hunger in McPadden’s writing, and reading each entry is like following a trail of breadcrumbs, all of it leading toward something weirder, wilder, and more fun than what came before. If metal is music’s loudest voice against oppression, then surely McPadden is the loudest for obsession. img-812 Jeremy Estes

 

Book: The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs

Author: Greil Marcus

Publisher: Yale University Press

Publication date: 2014-09

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The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs
Greil Marcus

There are music critics who would take the name of a book like this seriously — but not Greil Marcus. He takes that title and uses it as little more than a springboard to talk about what he really wants to talk about. Which happens to be the white-hot nexus of joy and fury and agony that is American rock ‘n’ roll and what it meant to the people who made it and the people who listened to it; or at least what it meant to Marcus, which should be good enough for the rest of us. Sometimes it just comes down to his being a perspicacious appreciator. There are few written tributes to Joy Division that better capture that band’s chilling terror than Marcus’s chapter on “Transmission.” His both elegiac and anti-romantic imaginings of what would have happened if Buddy Holly or Robert Johnson had lived to ripe old ages are pure gold. Purists will take issue with lines like “In early 2013, Beyonce bestrode America like a colossus.” But Marcus is just looking for a way in, an entrypoint to the howling heart of American music, that joy and awe and release we all look for. And more than once he makes you think: Christ yes, he’s found it. img-812 Chris Barsanti

 

Book: Human Rights and the Uses of History

Author: Samuel Moyn

Publisher: Verso

Publication date: 2014-06

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Human Rights and the Uses of History
Samuel Moyn

Samuel Moyn, like a growing number of scholars and activists, isn’t afraid to challenge conventional thinking about what is or is not utopian, and what is or is not possible. In Human Rights and the Uses of History, he provides a critical alternative perspective to the major viewpoints on human rights. He argues that human rights are not some primeval force that was always destined to emerge; not some natural product of cultural evolution. Nor are they necessarily the idealistic goal that progressive thinkers and revolutionaries have been fighting for during the past 500 years. In fact, he says, “human rights” as we understand the phrase today, emerged only quite recently: “born yesterday”, in terms of our cultural memory. The human rights movement has inspired many important initiatives. But it could be that we are capable of much, much more. Human Rights and the Uses of History challenges us to rethink our past, in order to reconceptualize the project of building our collective future. img-812 Hans Rollman

 

Book: The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan

Author: Rick Perlstein

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication date: 2014-08

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The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan
Rick Perlstein

The latest of Rick Perlstein’s epic, brawling histories tracks an especially fraught period in America’s postwar transformation from a brave immigrant country seeking greater equality to a frightened one that equated those advances with creeping multicultural chaos. Perlstein starts with Nixon’s self-immolation in Watergate and the disgraced president’s attempt to wrap himself in the flag by honoring returned POWs. From that ugly two-step, Perlstein paints a portrait of the coming conservative savoir: a faux-naïve Hollywood huckster and occasional hate-monger who repackaged himself as the square-jawed Midwestern truthteller and Commie fighter Ronald Reagan. Along the way, Perlstein uses his signature detail-jammed approach to craft a portrait that can seem random (there are times when it feels akin to skimming years’ worth of newspapers’ front pages in microfiche) but builds to an vivid crescendo. This angry, hefty book might end in Reagan’s 1976 convention defeat at the hands of the comparatively milquetoast Gerald Ford, but it sets the stage brilliantly for the baffling Potemkin village decade to come. img-812 Chris Barsanti

 

Book: Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film

Author: Robert Sitton

Publisher: Columbia University Press

Publication date: 2014-04

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Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film
Robert Sitton

For years, the name Iris Barry has been known solely to cinema studies scholars who credit Barry with founding the film department at the Museum of Modern Art. Haidee Wasson, Peter Decherney, and others have argued Barry’s significance within the context of film history, but never before has a historian provided an in-depth exploration of Barry’s life. Robert Sitton’s exceptional biography Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film changes all of that. This is a meticulously researched, lovingly written book that confirms Barry’s importance as one of the first cultural enthusiasts to treat film as an art form. Moreover, the book suggests that Barry’s passions and accomplishments are far-reaching and extend beyond the realm of cinema, thereby painting a fuller portrait of Barry than previous historians have attempted. This is a must-read biography for film scholars, as well as any curious individuals who want to learn about an elusive, complicated individual who gave so much to the world despite receiving very little in return. img-812 Jon Lisi

 

Book: The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume I, 1886 -1920

Editors: Donald Sheehy, Mark Richardson, Robert Faggen

Publisher: Harvard University Press

Publication date: 2014-02

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The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume I, 1886 -1920
Donald Sheehy, Mark Richardson, Robert Faggen (editors)

The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume I, 1886 – 1920 is a staggering effort by the three editors – Donald Sheehy, Mark Richardson and Robert Faggen – and Harvard University Press to present, for the first time, the entire collection of all of Frost’s preserved correspondence. What’s unique about this effort is that there’s no discernible bias made by the editors; instead, their expectation, as suggested in the preface, is that unlike prior biographies and incomplete collections of correspondence, “the availability of the correspondence in its entirety will present both an occasion and a means to come to know Robert Frost anew.” At 848 pages, The Letters of Robert Frost appears to be a bibliophile’s wet dream; a collection so massive that casual readers may look at its fatty binding and flee in terror with memories of being forced to read Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Joyce’s Ulysses or Wallace’s Infinite Jest. But those people would be mistaken; while visibly daunting, The Letters of Robert Frost, should be read by everyone. img-812 Shyam K. Sriram

 

Book: Literary Miniatures

Author: Florence Noiville

Publisher: Seagull

Publication date: 2013-07

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Literary Miniatures
Florence Noiville

Florence Noiville’s route to writing was as fantastic as the stories she pens. A financial analyst by training, she quickly tired of that field, and knocked on the doors of French newspaper Le Monde. They set her to work interviewing authors. It was here that she developed the remarkable method described by the title of her recent collection: Literary Miniatures. It was the product partly of insecurity, partly of accident.

Plagued by lack of confidence, one day she came up against one of journalism’s greatest nightmares: returning home from an interview, she discovered she’d lost all her notes. In a panic, she rapidly put down to paper those impressions she could remember from the interview. She realized she had no choice but to “…write my interview from memory, to reconstruct the meaning of the dialogue, to accept that I would be more than ever, taking the risk of projecting my subjective reaction onto it”.

She nevertheless submitted the highly stylized result. Her editor ran it, and shortly thereafter she received a note from the subject of the interview, saying it was the best piece on him that he’d read. This unique style – born of an authenticity sired in desperation and integrity – was a success, and it became her trademark. Literary Miniatures is a collection of these literary impressions, previously published in the pages of Le Monde. It’s a remarkable piece of writing: a work that establishes its own literary style at the same time it probes and studies the styles of others. It’s a collection that will inspire readers to both seek out authors they discover here for the first time, as well as re-read old authors with a new sense of familiarity. img-812 Hans Rollman

From Orson Welles to Wonder Woman

 

Book: My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles

Author: Peter Biskind

Publisher: Picador

Publication date: 2014-06

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My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles
Peter Biskind

Even in his later years, with his career and health in freefall, Orson Welles never stopped doing what he did best: talking. Anyone in need of convincing can now refer to the compulsively readable My Lunches with Orson, a collection of transcripts of conversations between Welles and his friend, director Henry Jaglom. The conversations are all taken from an archive of tapes made by Jaglom (with Welles’ permission) made during their regular lunches in the early ‘80s at Hollywood restaurant Ma Maison, Welles’ hangout and de facto office. Edited by film historian Peter Biskind (Easy Rider, Raging Bull), it wonderfully captures Welles’ grandiose gift for talk and makes a compelling case for him as perhaps one of the great lunch companions of all time. Breezy and fun (it’s easily devourable in one or two sittings), it offers a compelling look at a too-little-examined period of Welles’ life, a period of frustration and false starts, but also of surprising vitality and creativity. My Lunches with Orson is a portrait of a man who, even right up to the end, was trying desperately to find a way, any way, to do what he knew he was put on Earth to do: make films. Whether he was struggling with the Hollywood system, his own demons, or both, he still went down swinging. img-813 Pat Kewley

 

Book: My Paris Kitchen

Author: David Lebovitz

Publisher: Ten Speed

Publication date: 2014-04

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My Paris Kitchen
David Lebovitz

Chez Panisse pastry chef David Lebovitz was middle-aged when he packed up and moved to Paris. There he learned French, began a hugely popular blog, and wrote six bestselling cookbooks. His seventh, My Paris Kitchen, brims with classics like Cassoulet, French Onion Soup, and Chocolate Mousse with Salted Caramel Sauce. Setting this cookbook apart are Lebovitz’s sharply observed, often hilarious essays about Parisian life, mastering French, cultural miscues, and the horrors of Parisian supermarket checkout lines. Quick to skewer fantasies about life in the world¹s most beautiful city, Lebovitz is also one of its most ardent citizens. Weep with envy, then console yourself by making Duck Terrine with figs. img-813 Diane Leach

 

Book: Pagan Britain

Author: Ronald Hutton

Publisher: Yale University Press

Publication date: 2014-05

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Pagan Britain
Ronald Hutton

An expert on past and present paganism, Ronald Hutton revises his 1991 survey of practices in the ancient British Isles to narrow it to Great Britain. He peers back thousands of years at rituals, monuments, and remains to surmise how people sought to connect with the sacred and the natural. Those two force-fields mingled in intricate ways, many of which may elude their stony, bony, material traces. A Professor of History at Bristol University, Hutton conveys an immense amount of scholarship in a cautious but lively manner. As with his previous books, he combines graceful prose with an awareness of the dangers of reducing this perplexing topic to romantic, lurid, or airy phrases. img-813 John Murphy

 

Book: People of the Twenty-First Century

Author: Hans Eijkelboom, David Carrier

Publisher: Phaidon

Publication Date: 2014-10

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People of the Twenty-First Century
Hans Eijkelboom, David Carrier

In Dutch photographer and conceptual artist Hans Eijkelboom’s long-standing “Photo Notes” project, he stationed himself near shopping centres, museums, or busy city intersections and looked for a clothing trend or sometimes common behaviour. After noticing trends, such as women wearing striped tank tops or shirtless men on rollerblades, Eijkelboom would photograph these passersby. The results of the project are presented in People of the Twenty-First Century, signaling Eijkelboom as an early photographer of street style. Eijkelboom’s approach to street style photography is effective because it parodies the unique-individual-who-stands-out-in-a-crowd trope. The photos isolate the individual in a crowd only to show that they are not distinct from those in the crowd from which they came. In this way, People of the Twenty-First Century shows us the absurdity of the concept of unique style but also helps us understand how people make their own looks out of repetitive cycles of the same things. img-813 Sara Rodrigues

 

Book: Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World

Author: Kembrew McLeod

Publisher: NYU Press

Publication date: 2014-04

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Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World
Kembrew McLeod

You’d be forgiven if after finishing Kembrew McLeod’s rip-roaring survey of all things con, bamboozle, and flim-flam you think to yourself, “Did I just read a thriller novel and not an academic text?” Pranksters: Making Mischief in the Modern World is a delightfully disorienting survey of the multifacted world of pranks, a world of which McLeod himself is an active member. (He goes by “RoboProfessor” on occasion.) Yet while there are many laugh-out-loud and eyebrow-raising hoodwinks throughout this book, McLeod doesn’t focus solely on the fun and games of it all. Instead, he hones in on the ways pranks heighten social discourse, and in many ways offer their own critiques of the broken systems in which they operate. From the Rosicrucian Brotherhood to the Church of Satan, Pranksters tells a multitude of tales that will not only keep you on the edge of your seat, but also make you aware of just how many historical happenings have begun with a prank. If nothing else, this book has a host of talking points for any of your friends that think the Illuminati is real. In McLeod’s telling of the Illuminati story, one gets the sense that some “founding member” of that elusive society is rolling over in his grave from laughter. img-813 Brice Ezell

 

Book: Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools

Author: Diane Ravitch

Publisher: Knopf

Publication date: 2013-09

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Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools
Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch answers four questions with Reign of Error: (1) is education in the United States is in crisis? (2) Is is declining and failing? (3) What serves as evidence for reforms adopted by and promoted from the federal government? (4) What is being done to improve schools and the lives of children?

It will come as little surprise to readers that there is an education crisis; there is surprise, however, in the reasons for that crisis. Ravitch argues — and quite effectively — that the greatest threat to education in this country is the community of reformers who claim that they can “save” education by creating a more competitive climate in classrooms across the country. Equally frightening is the faith invested in test scores and the faith invested in teaching our children so that they become better at taking standardized tests but, ultimately, not necessarily making them better thinkers or even better students. She argues these points in language that is precise, lucid, and supported with data that is both compelling and frightening. Moreover, she has given us a volume that should be read by parents, administrators, and teachers as well as the reformers who believe that America’s education system has moved into irreparable terrain. img-813 Jedd Beaudoin

 

Book: Rumours of Glory: A Memoir

Author: Bruce Cockburn

Publisher: HarperOne

Publication date: 2014-11

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Rumours of Glory: A Memoir
Bruce Cockburn

Singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn’s memoir, Rumours of Glory, is a fascinating and candid account of a lifetime’s journey. This is a journey of growth from an insular and detached personality to one connected to the world both politically, altruistically, spiritually, and in personal relationships. Along the way, we get insights into many of Cockburn’s more popular albums and songs (“If I Had a Rocket Launcher”, “Wondering Where the Lions Are”), as well as many of his lesser known. Apart from an account of a life-changing affair with a mysterious “Madame X” in the early ’90s, the book is largely devoid of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll gossip. When those kinds of tomes are a dime-a-dozen these days, it’s refreshing to read a music biography that aims for a little more depth. The fact that it succeeds is a testament to the unique life Cockburn has had, as well as the quality of the writing and his reporter’s eye for the colors and details of a story. img-813 Rob Caldwell

 

Book: The Secret History of Wonder Woman

Author: Jill Lepore

Publisher: Knopf

Publication date: 2014-10

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The Secret History of Wonder Woman
Jill Lepore

Whether your interest lies in superhero origins, 20th century American history, or even the history of sexuality, Lepore’s latest tome will, quite frankly, blow your mind. The prolific historian and writer for The New Yorker provides a meticulously researched and engaging story about the unlikely combination of politics and circumstance that led to the creation of Wonder Woman. The story’s got a bit of everything: Freudian psychology, bondage and polyamory, Greek mythology, women’s suffrage. Lepore’s narrative skill lies in her ability to weave together the seemingly unrelated series of historical threads which culminated in the creation of the most popular female superhero in American history. From birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger to J. Edgar Hoover, the range of historical figures who left their mark on Wonder Woman’s history is truly incredible. A remarkable, absorbing read which is as much a gendered, social history of the United States in the early-to-mid 20th century as it is a story of the origins of that magical golden lasso. img-813 Hans Rollman

A Killer Group of Graphic Novels

 

Book: Showa: A History of Japan 1939-1944

Author: Shigeru Mizuki

Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly

Publication date: 2014-06

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Showa: A History of Japan 1939-1944
Shigeru Mizuki

The second volume of Showa continues Mizuki’s quasi-autobiographical history of Japan’s Showa era, with this graphic novel release focusing on the period 1939-1944. The most furious period of Japan’s military conflict in Asia and on the Pacific is chronicled in poignant and horrific detail. With this gorgeously drawn and brilliantly conceived work, Mizuki, one of Japan’s most famous artists and author of the GeGeGe no Kitaro series, does an incredible job of untangling a complex, messy and bloody war. From his depiction of savage naval and jungle warfare to his analysis placing events in broader geopolitical and historical context, Mizuki’s Showa series is a masterpiece. This is no glamorous adventure; Mizuki, who served himself and lost an arm to American bombs, is a staunch pacifist, and the book conveys a clear “never again” message in graphic detail. An educational and absorbing read, this graphic novel has long been considered a seminal classic in Japan, and it is now finally available in English. img-814 Hans Rollman

 

Book: A Taste for Intrigue: The Multiple Lives of François Mitterrand

Author: Philip Short

Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.

Publication date: 2014-04

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A Taste for Intrigue: The Multiple Lives of François Mitterrand
Philip Short

Philip Short, a former BBC Paris correspondent and a respected investigative journalist who has written books on Mao Zedong and Pol Pot, knows a thing or two about the complex psychology of powerful dictators. The François French president FrancMitterrand was indeed a dictator of sorts. He was President of France for 14 years, from 1981 to 1995, longer than any other head of state in the five Republics since the Revolution of 1789 (though the Emperor Napoleon III ruled for 18 years). How he managed to hold the reigns of power for so long is still astonishing, but it clearly has something to do with his rare talents as a political survivor and his suavely ruthless and debonair personality. His doctor once called him a strange mixture of “Machiavelli, Don Corleone, Casanova, and The Little Prince”. It’s been nearly ten years since the last book on Mitterrand, Ronald Tiersky’s rather straightforwardly titled, François Mitterrand: A Very French President. Short’s book is a masterfully written, sweeping narrative of Mitterrand’s life with decisive, revealing anecdotes and a meticulous chronicling of fact that is remarkable enough to be fiction. It’s a must-read for any Francophile and enthusiast of 20th century political history. Mitterrand is in some ways a riddle wrapped in a mystery shrouded in an enigma. Short’s brilliant book helps us see rare glimpses of the man within the shroud. img-814 Farisa Khalid

 

Book: The Temptation of Despair: Tales of the 1940s

Author: Werner Sollors

Publisher: Harvard UP

Publication date: 2014-04

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The Temptation of Despair: Tales of the 1940s
Werner Sollors

Werner Sollors’ marvelous work on World War II-era Germany is focused on dispelling a myth, one that continues to exist: that of postwar German success. While Germany did overcome many challenges and establish many political and economic achievements after the end of hostilities in 1945, Sollors’ own research and uncovering of period sources suggests “a much murkier world, more given to looking backward than to envisioning a long-range future, let alone the hopeful mapping out of such a future.” What makes this book such a valuable contribution to media studies, as well as the humanities, is that despite the third-person and scholarly approach, it’s so intimate and personal. While reading the afterword and last chapter, titled “Coda”, the reader can see just how much the experience of writing The Temptation of Despair was a personal voyage for Sollors, as well as a form of catharsis. His memories formed the initial basis for the book, but his research caused him to re-evaluate and re-imagine what he thought he knew about the time and the era. img-814 Shyam K. Sriram

 

Book: There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll

Author: Lisa Robinson

Publisher: Riverhead

Publication date: 2014-04

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There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll
Lisa Robinson

As one of the most revered, successful, and practiced commentators in the industry, Lisa Robinson has seen both the frailty and ferocity of many iconic performers, and she reflects on these moments with tasteful wit and fearless honesty. There Goes Gravity offers a luminous and compelling assortment of rock star encounters, as well as opulent and unassuming peek into the life of a writer who has to catalog and control a bevy of surreal outbursts and sacred secrets from her subjects. It’s packed with outrageous behavior, touching insights, and precious commentary about the world of music, fame, and journalism. Readers feel like they’re beside Robinson as she recalls each incident without sparing a detail. She creates vibrant portrayals of characteristics, interactions, reactions, settings, and sounds with her informal yet expertly arranged prose. Best of all, she offers an invaluable glimpse into the lives of our most adored musicians, and she does it better than anyone else I’ve ever read. img-814 Jordan Blum

 

Book: There Was and There Was Not

Author: Meline Toumani

Publisher: Metropolitan

Publication date: 2014-11

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There Was and There Was Not
Meline Toumani

The meaning and power of memory, and the truths and doubts which drive it, are at the heart of Meline Toumani’s There Was and There Was Not. Comprised of equal parts reportage, memoir, travelogue and history, it achieves a perfect balance of these elements, and offers a moving and powerful exploration of the fraught and tragic history of the Armenian genocide, and the struggles and conflict its memory stokes today. Toumani’s book offers a thorough consideration of the complicated motivations, attitudes and realities surrounding “recognition politics”, the efforts by Armenian groups to gain official recognition of the genocide by as many governments and other official bodies as possible. But it also offers a useful and insightful introduction for those who are unfamiliar with the subject, and uncertain where to start in their efforts to learn more. It’s a beautiful and important read not just for Armenians and Turks on the 100th anniversary of the tragic genocide, but also for all of humankind in an era when we face difficult decisions on how to move forward toward a collective future. img-814 Hans Rollman

 

Book: Things I’ve Learned from Dying: A Book About Life

Author: David R. Dow

Publisher: Twelve

Publication date: 2014-01

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Things I’ve Learned from Dying: A Book About Life
David R. Dow

Why must life end and why is its termination out of our control? David R. Dow grapples with this timeless question in Things I’ve Learned from Dying. A professor of law at the University of Houston Law Center, Dow brings his unique perspective as a defense attorney for death row inmates to the issue. Like his critically acclaimed memoir The Autobiography of an Execution, this book skillfully weaves the personal with the political. In the book, Dow tells three true stories of death. The first focuses on his father-in-law Peter’s battle with illness, the second centers on the slow decay of Winona, the family dog, and the third recreates the last days of Waterman, one of Dow’s death row clients. Dow wisely doesn’t spell it out, but it soon becomes clear that each story forces Dow and other individuals to come to terms with life’s unpredictability. Dow’s prose is accessible enough to appeal to a diverse readership and poetic enough to restore your faith in the delicate beauty of words. There are a plethora of memoirs and true crime stories to read, but few of them are as eloquent and passionate as this one. In 50 years or so when the literary canon is once again revised, Things I’ve Learned from Dying will have rightfully earned its place in the pantheon of 21st century American literature. img-814 Jon Lisi

 

Book: To End All Wars: The Graphic Anthology of the Great War

Editors: Jonathan Clode and John Stuart Clark

Publisher: Soaring Penguin

Publication date: 2014-09

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To End All Wars: The Graphic Anthology of the Great War
Jonathan Clode and John Stuart Clark

Spanning 26 contributions by 53 artists and writers from 13 nations, To End All Wars represents the global impact of WWI. Depicted over four continents are the four theaters of war: land, sea, air, and the home front. A century later, few graphic novels have depicted these early horrors (and heroics, deluded, desperate, or gallant as they may be judged in sober retrospect), compared with the media attention devoted to its successor, WWII. This stark, chiaroscuro, thick compilation begins to redress this deficit. It promotes a humanitarian view of the worldwide conflict as witnessed by not only famous and everyday men and women, but also by a diligent elephant, hounds, purported angels, and an Alpine cat. Notably, a share of US and British profits go to Médecins Sans Frontières/ Doctors Without Borders. img-814 John Murphy

The Beauties of Booze and Books

 

Book: The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking

Author: Olivia Laing

Publisher: Picador

Publication date: 2014-10

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The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking
Olivia Laing

“I usually write at night,” William Faulkner said. “I always keep my whiskey within reach.” The great Southern raconteur is just one of the boozed-up writers Olivia Laing looks at in her thoughtful, intimate exploration of the intersection between drink, depression, and creativity. While Laing travels to the masters’ haunts in search of ghosts, she digs into everything from Hemingway’s posturing and Tennessee Williams’s desperate loneliness to the violent isolation of John Berryman and Raymond Carver’s white-knuckling stubbornness. An astute, sharp-eyed literary appraiser, Laing also churns her own personal demons and predilections into the mix without letting them dominate the narrative. In the end, The Trip to Echo Spring pivots on an unexpectedly humane touch, Laing’s belief that all this personal devastation is little more than a repetition of old sins: “At some point, you have to set down the past,” she writes. “At some point, you have to gather yourself up, and go onward into your life. img-815 Chris Barsanti

 

Book: Twenty Poems That Could Save America and Other Essays

Author: Tony Hoagland

Publisher: Graywolf

Publication date: 2014-11

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Twenty Poems That Could Save America and Other Essays
Tony Hoagland

One could hardly be blamed for assuming that the title essay of Tony Hoagland’s collection Twenty Poems That Could Save America and Other Essays is meant as cheeky provocation rather than literal prescription. Poetry, after all, is an obscure art, no less so in contemporary America. The very notion that it could be so relevant as to “save” an entire nation stretches credulity. Surely this is meant in jest.

The better part of Twenty Poems That Could Save America is given to poetry criticism. Here it bears noting that if poetry is obscure these days, criticism of it is even more so, its most visible province in the larger culture of literature being on the jackets of volumes of poetry in the form of endorsements, usually given by other poets. After reading that, who says poetry criticism and controversy can’t be entertaining? Hoagland is a fine judge of poetry and writes about it with impressive knowledge, wit, and verve—even when the poetry at hand hardly seems to merit such attention. Some moments are even raucously funny enough to knock the dust off of a thousand academic journals. img-815 James Williams

 

Book: The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan

Author: Jenny Nordberg

Publisher: Crown

Publication date: 2014-09

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The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan
Jenny Nordberg

Jenny Nordberg’s The Underground Girls of Kabul is the first in-depth examination of bacha posh, the phenomenon prevalent in Afghanistan wherein girls raised as boys until they reach the age of marriage. This study offers a fascinating exploration of a social phenomenon that is widely practiced and yet not documented in official narratives of the country’s history and culture. When Nordberg, a Swedish journalist based in New York, questioned the many “gender experts” from the foreign aid community who converged on Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban about bacha posh, she was met with disbelief and dismissal and told that surely if such a phenomenon existed, the scientific and policy community would already know about it. Fortunately, Nordberg didn’t accept the “wisdom” offered by the experts, but relied instead on her own observation, which told her that girls raised as boys not only existed, but were not particularly uncommon. The Underground Girls of Kabul is an outstanding work of journalism that uncovers new information about an important subject. It’s also an extraordinarily well-written book, full of riveting stories about the real lives of girls and women in Afghanistan today. img-815 Sarah Boslaugh

 

Book: The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London

Author: Judith Flanders

Publisher: St. Martin’s

Publication date: 2014-07

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The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London
Judith Flanders

Gleaning the most informative or entertaining evidence from the author’s many books, Judith Flanders combines Dickens’ life and works with archives as a “perfect optic through which to see the city’s transformation” during the reign of Queen Victoria and Dickens’ life span. She opens each chapter with a dramatic vignette from an elaborate hoax, a fire on the Thames, a skating disaster at Regent’s Park, and the funeral of the Duke of Wellington to conjure a fitting mood. Well illustrated with period lithographs and engravings, prefaced by helpful maps reminding us how much that capital does and does not match the layout of the ever-congested megapolis today, this narrative keeps to the streets, with cacophonous sounds and dire smells, rather than the interiors and domestic duties. img-815 John Murphy

 

Book: The Who FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About Fifty Years of Maximum R&B

Author: Mike Segretto

Publisher: Hal Leonard

Publication date: 2014-05

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The Who FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About Fifty Years of Maximum R&B
Mike Segretto

In The Who FAQ, Mike Segretto discusses The Who’s recordings, the claims of the band, the facts calculated, and the rumors circulated about them. He analyzes the data, he has listened to every cover version and seen every snip of extant footage, and he reports on every imaginable aspect of the Who in an educational and entertaining manner. The book’s 35 topical chapters, many originating on his Psychobabble website, feature not only his own quarter-century of research, but input from fans who participated in online polls to vote on the band’s most overlooked ‘60s and ‘70s tracks, or the best of the Who members’ more uneven solo albums. There’s no fanatical gush here; his book remains steady, thoughtful, yet fun. img-815 John Murphy

 

Book: Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books

Author: Wendy Lesser

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Publication date: 2014-01

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Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books
Wendy Lesser

Being a reader—that is, a reader of actual books—increasingly feels like a marginal, slightly suspect habit. Even though so many wonderful books continue to be published each year, the popular media might have one thinking that one might as well collect marmoset figurines or hoard princess telephones, as to ensconce oneself in books. Our purportedly dwindling lot may take succor in Wendy Lesser’s Why I Read, an engrossing examination of the printed pleasures still to be found between two covers. To be a serious reader in modern society is to be, by and large, lonely. This means when authors like Lesser whisper in your ear, speaking of the joys of the book, they are the dealers, holding your choice intoxicant. I assume I am speaking for more than myself. I can’t be the only person clutching Why I Read on the train to work as if I were palming Valium. There’s a whole world of us out there, readers of all those wonderful writers. img-815 Diane Leach

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