PopMatters Best of Books 2008: Non-Fiction

Introduction by Rodger Jacobs

The function of non-fiction is to analyze the formulas of the world we live in. If modern civilization were looked upon as a banquet table, the guests of honor seated at the head of the table, according to this accounting by our reviewers of the best non-fiction books of 2008, would be war, ethnic cleansing, globalization, and AIDS.

One of the most compelling aspects of this list is the titles that are glaringly absent. Bob Woodward’s shoulda-been-bestseller The War Within: A Secret White House History just didn’t make the cut and the same can be said for What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception by former George W. Bush administration insider Scott McClellan. The latest collection of essays from preeminent humorist David Sedaris, When You Are Engulfed in Flames , is nowhere to be found on this list either, sneaking out the back door with Thurston Clarke’s The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America.

There was a glut of non-fiction titles released on an unsuspecting public in 2008, a veritable cottage industry in Barack Obama dissections and deconstructions alone, not to mention a handful of hosannas to John McCain and post-mortem examinations of the Bush legacy. The problem is that a great many of the new releases focused almost exclusively on US domestic politics, and if the global repercussions of the American economic meltdown have proven anything, it is that we can no longer seal ourselves off into enclaves. While we continue to retain our individual native and indigenous cultures, nationalistic as well as regional, we have become one big world hardwired to one another, literally and figuratively, by vast changes in technology and shared social, economic, and political concerns. What emerges from this list, then, are two interlocked themes: Enormous Change and Everlasting Conflict.

The examination of Enormous Change is represented by no less than six titles on this list, beginning with Ruth Belville: The Greenwich Time Lady, a densely packed history of timekeeping, moving on to a provocative study of Chinese art (while we were sleeping the Chinese have emerged as major players on all aspects of the world stage), Fareed Zakaria’s compelling layout of the shifting of the power balance in world politics in the critically acclaimed The Post-American World (note earlier reference to Communist China). The way the human relationship to sound and music is being changed by the digital revolution is put to the test in Sound Unbound, and the fundamentalism at the root of American politics is shoved under the microscope in a new title by Jeff Sharlet. Finally, Nicholas Carr’s The Big Switch theorizes that access to online data is a cultural and scientific revolution as profound as the invention of the light bulb, and Grammar Girl presents a grammarian exercise delightfully adapted for 21st Century-speak (Did you know “Borg” is a singular collective noun?)

But with enormous change there is still Everlasting Conflict to contend with: inner-city social disintegration, struggles for human rights and the basic dignity that should be afforded to all people, the tragedies and disproportionate indignities of the AIDS crisis, substance abuse and recovery, the momentous loss of losing a child, and war in all its ugly imaginings, including a flawed but remarkable posthumous collection from Kurt Vonnegut and The Forever War, a chilling and blunt account of events in Iraq and Afghanistan from one of the finest contemporary war correspondents, Dexter Filkins. Lastly in this category is Patrick Ecclesine’s stunning documentary photography essay, Faces of Sunset Boulevard, that could easily serve as a political manifesto in words and full-color imagery for the kind of social and economic disparities that have plagued us in the 20th Century and must end in our new culture.

Not all of the titles here are weighty contemplations or grim documentary photography essays. A bit of whimsy and pop culture ephemera is on display: a breezy book-length essay on Spain’s culinary swine delights, two titles devoted to the charms of the English language, a comic and existential world race undertaken by two American sitcom writers (The Ridiculous Race), and a couple of decidedly offbeat pop rock examinations.

There is a definite corollary between our 2008 Best of Fiction list, with its emphasis on anxiety and how to avoid it through the psychoanalytic theory of reaction formation, and the underscoring here of deep change in the moral, cultural, and social fabric while horrifying nightmares continue unabated across the globe. Maybe it’s not all so Warren Harding after all.

On to the best non-fiction of 2008…

See also PopMatters Best of Fiction 2008

Note: Some titles included may have been originally published before 2008. They make this year’s Best Of list as a new paperback version or a reprint published in 2008.

From Negar Akhavi to John Barlow

Author: Negar Akhavi
Book: AIDS Sutra
Subtitle: Untold Stories from India
US publication date: 2008-10
Publisher: Knopf
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 9780307454720
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/a/aidssutra.jpg
Length: 352
Price: $13.95

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This disturbing and brilliant collection of prose takes everything you thought you knew about India, grinds it all up into a bitter masala, adds it to water and makes you gag while drinking it all down. A production of Avahan, the India AIDS initiative of the Gates Foundation, it presents the real India to us—the subcontinental juggernaut of over a billion people and numerous languages, dialects, ethnicities, sexualities, and religions. But, it’s also one of the sites of the highest HIV infection rates in the world—approximately 2.5 million people infected with the virus that causes the disease and an untold number with actual, full-blown AIDS. The deepest and darkest secrets in India are those that even people who have lived there don’t talk about because to do so would admit that something was very, very wrong. What makes this enthralling collection so readable is the way it has been structured—an anthology on AIDS in India in the form of essays, memoirs, investigations, and poetry written by journalists and authors of fiction and non-fiction. Despite all these tales, there is hope—in the form of iconoclasts leading their communities towards “the truth” (whatever it is) across India. This book represents as clear a clarion call that has ever been issued on the subject of AIDS — it’s a must-ready for anyone who has an interest in preserving humanity, inside and outside India. Shyam SriramNegar Akhavi: AIDS Sutra

Author: Elizabeth McCracken
Book: An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination
Subtitle: A Memoir
US publication date: 2008-09
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780316027670
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/m/mccracken-exactreplica.jpg
Length: 184
Price: $19.99

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The trademark dry wit that made The Giant’s House so enjoyable is much in evidence here, even as McCracken unfolds one of life’s worst possible events. McCracken’s amazing memoir manages to convey the loss of a child in utero without much of the sturm und drangone would expect from such a tale. Much of what McCracken says echoes Ann Hood’s Comfort, another momentous book about losing a child: the particularity of losing a specific child, the feeling, forever after, of being a mother who tallies up more children than the world gives her credit for, the unwitting stupidity of the well-meaning. There is the formerly good friend who, after a three month silence, writes saying she didn’t know what to say. McCracken mentions the many people who saw her and behaved as if nothing had happened. The late, great Carol Shields wrote that happiness is a pane of glass you don’t know you’re looking through until it breaks. Sometimes, there is no picking up the pieces, there is only moving forward with books like McCracken’s in hand to help light your way. Diane LeachElizabeth McCracken: An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Book: Armageddon in Retrospect:
Subtitle: And Other New and Unpublished Writings on War and Peace
US publication date: 2008-04
Publisher: Penguin
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780399155086
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/v/vonnegut-armageddon.jpg
Length: 240
Price: $24.95

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I’m usually wary of posthumous collections, especially those that consist of previously-unpublished pieces. Most writers are perfectionists, and if they had left behind material they chose not to publish, they probably had reasons for doing so. And in some ways, Armageddon in Retrospect supports my skepticism: to anyone familiar with Vonnegut’s body of work, many of these stories are obviously (and heartrendingly) unpolished. But the strengths of the collection cover for the individual weaknesses: several of the stories here are on par with Vonnegut’s best work, and they are a welcome balm for those of us who felt his passing keenly. The themes are familiar — Vonnegut was obsessed with war in general and Dresden in particular, and both make numerous appearances. While I recognize that the title story and “Guns Before Butter” are the most accomplished pieces here, I keep coming back to “Happy Birthday, 1951”, the story about an old man trying (and failing) to keep his adopted son from assimilating the violence he sees around him. Also welcome are the handwritten notes, which range from the slightly quirky (“There should have been a secretary of the future”) to the downright grim (“Darwin gave the cachet of science to war and genocide”). The two non-fiction pieces are worth the price of the book. Vonnegut’s speech at an Indianapolis University is, as the man himself was, crass, cantankerous, and funny. And his first letter home after being a prisoner of war — reprinted here, typos and all — is heartbreaking, and clearly shows why the war would haunt Vonnegut and his writing for the rest of his life. Kyle DeasKurt Vonnegut: Armageddon in Retrospect:

Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Book: The Beautiful Struggle
Subtitle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood
US publication date: 2008-05
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 9780385520362
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/c/coates-beautifulstruggle.jpg
Length: 256
Price: $22.95

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This is an elliptically beautiful memoir by Coates, who grew up in a crack-ravaged Baltimore neighborhood during the 1980s watching all the dreams of his father — a stridently positive self-publisher of positive African-American tracts — slowly drain away. He’s a bookish kid who seems to have been torn between admiration for his father’s self-made image as an upstanding member of the community, and his desire to be like his brother, who became swiftly adroit in the ways of the street. There is a sense here, rarely captured, of the creeping dislocation that comes as one watches a community literally dissolve away like so much sand under the lapping waves of the decades’ violent crack wars. Coates’ elegant manner of circling around his subject can be distancing at times, but it allows him a sense of gravitas that is too rarely present in stories of the American city. A strange and wonderful thing, this is a book that captures the tragedy of societal disintegration like few others have. Chris BarsantiTa-Nehisi Coates: The Beautiful Struggle

Author: Gabriele Basilico
Book: Beirut 1991
US publication date: 2008-10
Publisher: IPG
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-886073429
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/b/basilico-beirut1991.jpg
Length: 172
Price: $65.00

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Trained as an architect before winning acclaim as a photographer, Gabriele Basilico brings less a pictorial eye to his subjects (cities and landscapes) than a curious detachment and eager interest in recording how buildings interact with each other and with the surrounding city or landscape. In other words, he is not drawn to the pretty or the elegiac element inherit in photographing a changing urban landscape, but rather wishes to record as well as to be a witness. Basilico’s photos are like those of a neutral police photographer at a crime scene; they show us what remains after that most cruel of wars, an urban civil war. It is a Dantesque vision of hell after the fire has finally gone out. The charred and bullet scarred remains of the buildings in the center of the city stand empty and almost indifferent, it seems, to the damage they have endured; the streets have been neatly swept of rubble. Human figures seldom appear except in a blur at the edges of half-destroyeds building. Photo after photo shows us the reckless and appalling ruthlessness and destruction wrought by the civil war. Each photograph is an individual tile that is part of a mosaic of ruin. Basilico’s photographs do not seek to praise the mutilated city or to wax elegiac, but rather seek to express a consciousness, in a direct and non-confrontational way, of the collective agony of self-destruction. Carmelo MilitanoGabriele Basilico: Beirut 1991

Author: Nicholas Carr
Book: The Big Switch
Subtitle: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google
US publication date: 2008-01
Publisher: W. W. Norton
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780393062281
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/c/carr-bigswitch.jpg
Length: 224
Price: $24.95

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This book begins with a history of the serendipitous forces that came together to make electricity the dominant power source in modern life and therefore changing our lives in so many ways. It then postulates that access to online data is the next life-changing shift. Before long, our computers will have no hard drives at all, and be little more than access points to the cloud of data stored off-site (and who knows where). All of our private photographs, music and files will be stored at data centers run by huge companies like Amazon because that will be cheaper, on both a personal and corporate level, than maintaining the hardware. This book is accessible and thought-provoking, a necessary reading for anyone who cares about where our data is going to be stored and how it will be accessed, now that so many of us are addicted to that very access. Lara KillianNicholas Carr: The Big Switch

Author: Andrew Holleran
Book: Chronicle of a Plague, Revisited
Subtitle: AIDS and Its Aftermath
US publication date: 2008-05
Publisher: Da Capo
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 0786720395
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/h/holleran-chroniclesplague.jpg
Length: 304

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It is no longer possible, nor has it been for some time, to neatly classify AIDS as a ‘gay disease’, although many in their ignorance still do, but it is a disease with a specifically gay cultural history. As Holleran points out, through AIDS “…we have lost a whole generation of gay men, who might otherwise have been valuable mentors to their successors.” AIDS meant the gay community had to grow up fast. It was a young scene, comprised of young people, and as such the psychological tools to make sense of AIDS’ devastation were scarce. And so for a while, the small talk continued. A published writer of fiction, Holleran was, at the time, a columnist for Christopher Street, a gay magazine based in New York. His subject was lifestyle and, for fear of alienating his readership, he sidelined discussion of AIDS in favour of more upbeat topics. As time passed, however, the need for commentary or interpretation on the unfolding events became more pressing than the evasion of the taboo topic. To the tiny degree possible from a literary work, this wonderful text acts as a plug in that gap. As such, this is essential reading. With heartfelt honesty and in beautifully executed prose, each piece considers a theme or experience linked to the early period of the AIDS crisis. Olly ZanettiAndrew Holleran: Chronicle of a Plague, Revisited

Author: John Barlow
Book: Everything but the Squeal
Subtitle: Eating the Whole Hog in Northern Spain
US publication date: 2008-10
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780374150105
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/b/barlow-everythingsqueal.jpg
Length: 320
Price: $25.00

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There have been a glut of foodie stories in the last few years that have tried to extol the virtues of a particular region or cuisine. Normally such things are consigned to the Sunday magazine section of the daily paper, but occasionally they make it to book form. In this case: John Barlow’s rapturous paean to the pig dishes of northern Spain. A British writer not so long ago relocated to the Iberian peninsula, Barlow has not just a healthy appetite, but a desire to travel throughout his pork-obsessed new home and eat — meal by meal — every single part of the pig. It’s a seemingly simple enough premise, but one that Barlow is able to turn into a witty and learned appreciation of the unique culture of Galicia, the rainy and wind-swept northwest corner of the country where the weather seems as oppressive as the cassoulets are massive and filling, and the people are so pessimistic and ruminative they seem almost friendly” “A straightforward ‘yes’ is just too curt, too bland,” he writes, “A negation, on the other hand, is an invitation to explore the topic further, to muse, to ponder, to seek a solution, or to bemoan the lack of one.” Each experience of the pig conveyed, piece by piece, makes for a delicious and informative morsel. Chris BarsantiJohn Barlow: Everything but the Squeal

From Patrick Ecclesine to Ken Garner

Author: Patrick Ecclesine
Book: Faces of Sunset Boulevard
Subtitle: A Portrait of Los Angeles
US publication date: 2008-12
Publisher: Santa Monica Press
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9781595800404
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/f/facesofsunsetblvd.jpg
Length: 208
Price: $39.95

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A journey through Los Angeles in all its guises, states of mind, and urban terrains, a narrative in words and documentary photography format by commercial photographer Patrick Ecclesine that is every bit as engaging as any novel, an east-to-west journey that begins in downtown L.A. with its mix of street grime and corporate wealth and ends up at the beachhead echelons of Pacific Palisades. Faces of Sunset Boulevard is nothing less than a series of sobering snapshots of a western socio-economic system on the verge of collapse, a startling photo essay (with contextual comments from the photographer’s subjects) that sharply underscores the vast gulf between the haves and the have-nots in the United States, wisely using the dichotomous and often hostile terrain of Los Angeles as a stand-in for the rest of the nation. The rich, the famous, the common and the uncommon, the dreamers and the dreams destroyed. This is what Nathanael West would have created if he had been handed a camera instead of a typewriter. Rodger JacobsPatrick Ecclesine: Faces of Sunset Boulevard

Author: Jeff Sharlet
Book: The Family
Subtitle: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power
US publication date: 2008-05
Publisher: Harper
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 0060559799
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/s/sharlet-family.jpg
Length: 464
Price: $25.95

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What if the American fundamentalists’ power and influence became such that they helped destabilize the New Deal, played key roles in anti-Communist foreign policy during the Cold War, and supported numerous bloodthirsty dictators? This is Jeff Sharlet’s stunning claim in The Family, one of the most important books on American religion and politics to appear this year. Sharlet is a talented religion journalist, and he capably synthesizes much of his reporting from the last several years. Relying on a keen sense of history and literature, he also provides a cogent meditation on democracy, power, and myths of American nationalism. The Family is a challenge to liberals as much as conservatives, and nonbelievers as much as the faithful. Nowhere is this more evident than the concluding paragraph, where Sharlet calls for “not simply a different answer, secular myths opposed to fundamentalism’s, but a question.” This call to let go of easy assumptions, to be willing to fight for an open democracy and fair religious practices, is a fitting ending to a book that is simply outstanding in its research, narrative, and conclusions. Christopher MartinJeff Sharlet: The Family

Author: Dexter Filkins
Book: The Forever War
US publication date: 2008-09
Publisher: : Knopf
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780307266392
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/filkins-foreverwar.jpg
Length: 284
Price: $25.00

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This year’s best recounting of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq comes from the hand of Dexter Filkins, one of those veteran foreign correspondents who you would consider yourself lucky to end up sitting next to at a bar. The stories he could tell. Filkins’ disconnected narrative — which dangles like a chain of beads strung together with wearied outrage — starts in the fury and clamor of a Fallujah firefight and rarely lets up. Hopscotching from Fallujah to Afghanistan and Ground Zero and back to Baghdad, Filkins presents a particularly searing vision of the seemingly endless wars that the public has by and large decided to turn away from. Few writers from these conflicts have managed to convey the tiring brutality of these grubby battles or the knee-shaking terror of combat where “the boundary between life and death shrank so much that it was little more than a membrane, thin and clear.” Many have (rightly) compared Filkins’ book to Michael Herr’s Vietnam War classic Dispatches, but in truth it’s The Forever War that future war dispatches should be compared to. Chris BarsantiDexter Filkins: The Forever War

Author: Simon Armitage
Book: Gig
Subtitle: The Life and Times of a Rock-star Fantasist
US publication date: 2008-04
Publisher: Viking
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 0670915807
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/a/armitage-gig.jpg
Length: 320

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Simon Armitage’s poetry is filled with dark humour and wry Yorkshire cynicism. He also has a gift for wringing near-endless meaning out of each well-chosen word. It should be no surprise that his new memoir Gig is made of similar material, but it’s remarkable that he manages to maintain the same richness of detail for a full 300 pages. Gig is the story of Armitage’s never-realised dream of becoming a rock god. He takes us on a journey from his early career in junior school concerts (playing the triangle) right through to his mid-life-crisis experiment in a band (The Scaremongers) with an old friend. It’s a hilarious look at failed dreams and dreams come true. In his discursive, chatty style, Armitage rambles all over the place — reliving great (and not so great) rock gigs he has witnessed, talking about TV shows he has worked on, and giving us insights into his eccentric family. It’s all held together by Armitage’s tremendous gift for language and his boundless enthusiasm for music and literature. He is an unashamed fan, writing for the pleasure of other fans, and it’s a joy to experience. David PullarSimon Armitage: Gig

Author: Mignon Fogarty
Book: Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing
US publication date: 2008-07
Publisher: Henry Holt & Company
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 9780805088311
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/g/grammargirl.jpg
Length: 240
Price: $14.00

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This is not merely a reference book for writers. Most of the information applies equally to our daily conversation, concisely clarifying routine language-related issues and tackling those little bits of linguistic friction that rub us the wrong way, or perhaps should rub us the wrong way. Fogarty’s writing style seems to be influenced by the podcast format: Because many of her topics come from letters from listeners, her responses are always focused on a real and active audience. There isn’t any sense that she is simply explaining the rules; she seems to genuinely want her audience to learn. This is not your father’s grammar book: Fogarty speaks to a 21st century audience, her short pieces steeped with modern pop culture references and a bit of retro fun: She uses Star Trek’s “Borg” as an example of a singular collective noun (the Borg, she explains, are a sect with no sense of individuality, acting always as a collective); she calls out lessons from seminal language resource Schoolhouse Rocks (an underappreciated educational influence from a generation ago), and name drops Coldplay and the Black Eyed Peas when discussing whether band names are singular or plural. Mignon Fogarty, a.k.a. Grammar Girl, is my favorite evidence of the welcome resurgence in syntactical attentiveness. Bill ReaganMignon Fogarty: Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

Display Artist: Mia Kirshner, J. B. MacKinnon, Paul Shoebridges
Author: Mia Kirshner
Author: J. B. MacKinnon
Author: Paul Shoebridges
Book: I Live Here
US publication date: 2008-10
Publisher: Knopf
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780375424786
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/k/kirshner-ilivehere.jpg
Length: 320
Price: $29.95

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In this innovative and unusually affecting “paper documentary”, actress Mia Kirshner (who works frequently with Amnesty International) enlisted a number of graphic artists to illustrate a quartet of stories about people stuck in spectacularly damaged parts of the world, from Malawi to Chechnya to Ciudad Juárez to Ingushetia, Chechnya. It’s an ambitious and uniquely collaborative way to work, with Kirshner mixing together her on-the-ground tales (sometimes told in the voices of those she speaks with) inside a vivid mélange of photos and graphic renderings. In the hands of others, this could have turned into a self-indulgent mess, but the raw power of the stories Kirshner tells, the tales of devastating oppression and neglect, simply blasts through any such concerns. This is a huge achievement and one of those few instances in which art can truly serve the cause of human rights. Chris BarsantiMia Kirshner, J. B. MacKinnon, Paul Shoebridges: I Live Here

Author: David Carr
Book: The Night of the Gun
Subtitle: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life. His Own.
US publication date: 2008-08
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9781416541523
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/c/carr-nightofgun.jpg
Length: 400
Price: $26.00

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In a literary market flooded with addiction memoirs, New York Times reporter David Carr offers something new: a reported account of his years as a crack addict that serves as a searing cautionary tale, a harrowing chronicle of redemption, and a welcome corrective to the James Freys of the world. Supplementing his own flawed recollections with police reports, medical records, and the memories of as many past associates as he could find, Carr takes his readers on a breakneck tour of the addict’s life. Throughout, he displays such unflinching honesty and depths of thoughtfulness that it can be hard to believe this is the same man who stole from friends, assaulted lovers, and created hell on earth for all those unlucky enough to care about him. Such contradictions are at the heart of The Night of the Gun, a fact Carr doesn’t shy away from. “If I said I was a fat thug who beat up women and sold bad coke, would you like my story?” he asks, early on. “What if instead I wrote I was a recovered addict who obtained custody of my twin girls, got us off welfare, and raised them by myself, even though I had a little touch of cancer? Now we’re talking.” Of course, both stories are true. Carr’s greatest achievement is mapping the diverging paths of objective truth and the fictions we tell ourselves to make the present tolerable. Nav PurewalDavid Carr: The Night of the Gun

Author: Ken Garner
Book: The Peel Sessions
Subtitle: A Story of Teenage Dreams and One Man’s Love of New Music
US publication date: 2008-05
Publisher: BBC Books
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 1846072824
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/g/garner-peelsessions.jpg
UK publication date: 2007-10
Length: 352

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Ken Garner’s Peel Sessions manages to please two types of geeks at once: those who pore over back issues of the Journal of Radio History, and those who habitually thumb through rock lists and record guides. Be forewarned that the subtitle — A Story of Teenage Dreams and One Man’s Love of New Music — is misleading in that the book is not so much about UK radio icon John Peel the Man as it is about John Peel the Legacy. All of the boardroom negotiations are here, but so are details about the storied “Peel Sessions”, the rush-rush studio dates that captured thousands of artists in young-and-hungry mode from the late ’60s to 2004, the year Peel passed away (Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” were both first broadcast as Peel sessions). And if those sessionographies aren’t enough for the serious and casual reader alike, the appendices should really seal the deal, including as they do all of the “Festive Fifties”, Peel’s year-end tallies of tracks most popular with listeners, and the “Peelenium”, a feature in which Peel the hopeless pop music obsessive compiled his favorite songs of every year spanning the entire 20th century. Kim SimpsonKen Garner: The Peel Sessions

From Fareed Zakaria to Paul D. Miller

Author: Fareed Zakaria
Book: The Post-American World
US publication date: 2008-05
Publisher: W. W. Norton
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 039306235X
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/z/zakaria-postamerican.jpg
Length: 288
Price: $25.95

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If the 1900s was the American century, what do the coming years have in store? In his follow up to 2003’s The Future of Freedom, Fareed Zakaria examines America’s shifting role in an increasingly multi-polar world. Zakaria’s engrossing case studies of India and China deftly illustrate the strengths of emerging powers, while his diagnoses of and prescriptions for American conduct are uniformly perceptive, fair-minded and wise. The future Zakaria imagines is not necessarily bleak. Economic development benefits everyone, and even the zero sum game of political power offers the US the Bismarckian role of honest broker. But that’s only if it takes it. Having been finished and released against the backdrop of 2008’s presidential election campaign, The Post-American World makes it painfully clear how desperately the country needs bold leadership that will help restore American legitimacy abroad. Be thankful, then, that the President-elect has already read this fascinating book. Nav PurewalFareed Zakaria: The Post-American World

Display Artist: Nathan Nedorostek, Anthony Pappalardo
Author: Nathan Nedorostek
Author: Anthony Pappalardo
Book: Radio Silence
Subtitle: A Selected Visual History of American Hardcore Music
US publication date: 2008-10
Publisher: powerHouse
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 9781576874721
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/r/radiosilence.jpg
Length: 224
Price: $29.95

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What Nedorostek and fellow compiler Anthony Pappalardo have effectively done here is taken the living, breathing culture of hardcore and channeled it all into this “catalogue of hardcore”. This is the hardcore equivalent of George Marshall’s The Spirit of ’69: The Skinhead Bible. This is more than a book – it’s a collection of photos, flyers, jackets, patches, personal letters and a library of essential 7”s and t-shirts. This is the story of American hardcore — heard and seen through the artists, fans and photographers who captured it all. Radio Silence is hardcore’s legacy. Want to start a band? Read this book. Buy these records off of Ebay and Craigslist. Avoid the mall and hit up your local store for t-shirts and markers. Play the music the way you want it to sound and be 100 percent loyal to your friends, fans and other bands. That is the spirit of hardcore. Shyam K. SriramNathan Nedorostek, Anthony Pappalardo: Radio Silence

Author: Ammon Shea
Book: Reading the OED
Subtitle: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages
US publication date: 2008-08
Publisher: Perigee
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780399533983
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/s/shea-readingoed.jpg
Length: 240
Price: $21.95

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This self-confessed “lover of words” undertook the ridiculous task of reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in a year and has emerged with a Pyrrhic victory. Though he may not admit it, Shea must possess some variation of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), for it quickly becomes apparent that no one but Shea could have read the entire OED because no one else could have done the book so much justice. This book is also an ode to dictionaries and the art of dictionary writing. Part literary criticism, part memoir and part adventure, this book should appeal to everyone who has even a basic interest in words.There’s no question that Shea loves the OED and his love is contagious because his simple, yet cogent writing style has produced one of the finest non-fiction books of the year. Shyam K. SriramAmmon Shea: Reading the OED

Author: The Saatchi Gallery
Book: The Revolution Continues
US publication date: 2008-07
Publisher: Rizzoli
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 0847832066
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/r/revolution-newartchina.jpg
Length: 272
Price: $60.00

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The Revolution Continues is not only a fantastically attractive and rich volume, but it also provides a beautiful and subtle post-structuralist guide to reading art without ever once explicitly dipping into historical or aesthetic theory. It never intends, or rather, does not seem to ever intend, the philosophical mantle which I laud upon its fair shoulders. It merely goes on its merry way in quiet profundity, displaying prints and photos of modern Chinese art. The subjects range from traditional canvas media to interactive installations of life-like silica sculptures in remote-controlled wheel chairs. There are several fragments of text interspersed through the displays in the first half of the book which provide historical context for the pieces and explain prominent imagery in the cultural consciousness of the society in which they were made and for whom they are largely intended. There are no references to theory whatsoever, though, and therefore the text reads more like a suggestion than any sort of dogma. This is the glorious trick of the book: getting readers to watch meaning generate and evolve all between one cover and the next. Not a word of philosophy is uttered and, perhaps not even intended. Nevertheless, philosophy pours out of this book from every resplendent page. Erik HintonThe Saatchi Gallery: The Revolution Continues

Display Artist: Steve Hely, Vali Chandrasekaran
Author: Steve Hely
Author: Vali Chandrasekaran
Book: The Ridiculous Race
Subtitle: 26,000 Miles. 2 Guys. 1 Globe. No Airplanes
US publication date: 2008-07
Publisher: Henry Holt & Company
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 9780805087406
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/ridiculousrace.jpg
Length: 315
Price: $15.00

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I will say, in the interest of full-disclosure, that I am an avid bathroom reader. (But come on, who isn’t?) I have a particular rubric by which bathroom books are measured: they should be amusing; not overly dense; and (perhaps most importantly) have frequent stopping points. By this measure, The Ridiculous Race is perhaps the best bathroom book ever written. The premise: in 2007, two TV writers (American Dad’s Steve Hely and My Name Is Earl’s Vali Chandresekaran) decided to race around the world, in opposite directions, without using airplanes. (Their reasons for doing this are unclear, but scotch seems to have been involved.) Somehow, they got a publisher to fund the trip, and this book is the result. What makes The Ridiculous Race so enjoyable is not only that the two men are funny, but also that they’re such distinct characters. Vali cheats almost immediately and spends most of his part of the book jetting from place to place trying, as he says, to win the “awesomeness contest”. Steve, on the other hand, is much more invested in the honor of the race — he goes to great lengths not to cheat (he crosses both oceans by cargo boat) and worries constantly about what he will tell his grandchildren about the trip. Surprisingly, both writers seem to mature over the course of the trip but, assuredly, the serious moments are short lived. Not bad for two sitcom writers. Kyle DeasSteve Hely, Vali Chandrasekaran: The Ridiculous Race

Author: David Rooney
Book: Ruth Belville
Subtitle: The Greenwich Time Lady
US publication date: 2008-10
Publisher: National Maritime Museum
Publisher: IPG
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780948065972
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/r/rooney-rbelville.jpg
Length: 192
Price: $25.00

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Ruth Belville plunges the reader headlong into a densely packed gem of a history—one that author David Rooney, curator of timekeeping at the British Royal Observatory, is uniquely qualified to tell. Rooney reminds us that “New technology doesn’t just sweep aside old systems.They co-exist for far longer than one might expect.” Throughout this brief but intriguing tale, Rooney emphasizes again and again the complex relationships between old and new, between man and machine, reminding the reader that such cultural interstices neither happen in a predictable fashion, nor do they follow linear paths. As Rooney puts it, “Stuff endures”, especially when there’s sufficient demand for it. The “stuff” of The Greenwich Time Lady will no doubt endure in its own right as a charming and thoughtful history of a subject that fascinates eternally: time. Emily F. PopekDavid Rooney: Ruth Belville

Author: Lewis M. Gediman
Book: Semantricks
Subtitle: A Dictionary of Words You Thought You Knew
US publication date: 2008-06
Publisher: St. Martin’s
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 9780312377823
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/book_cover_art/g/gediman-semantricks.jpg
Length: 144
Price: $12.95

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Semantricks is like wasabi: It’s not for everyone, but by limiting the size of the serving, it can be enjoyed with improbable frequency. The line between the groan-worthy puns and the more sophisticated play-on-words may be indistinguishable for some—certain people would no doubt dismiss reading this book as a waste of time bested only by the writing of the book—but for those of us who enjoy stretching the language so that it might contain our imagined concepts, this book is a labor of love. It’s a twisted and peculiar affection, true, but love is defined by those within the throes of it. I was smitten from the start, romanced by the tongue-in-cheek charm of words like: Instigate: Ready-made fence entrance; Scurry: Fast-food favorite in India and; Flagrant: Outrageously aromatic. The re-definitions certainly do indulge in puns (e.g,. Abundance: A rhythmic wriggling of the buttocks to music), but the authors frequently transcend the pun by creating intricate and delightful new meanings for old words that retain, as they state, “at least a tangential reference to the meaning of the original word”. For instance: Custody: Responsibility for egg pudding; Hello: Opposite of Halo; Ineffable: Determinedly chaste; Logorrhea: Excessive timber harvesting and; Possum: Risk-averse member of posse. Bill ReaganLewis M. Gediman: Semantricks

Display Artist: Paul D. Miller (editor), Steve Reich (Introduction)
Author: Paul D. Miller
Author: Steve Reich (Introduction)
Book: Sound Unbound
Subtitle: Sampling Digital Music and Culture
US publication date: 2008-05
Publisher: MIT Press
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 0262633639
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/s/soundunbound.jpg
Length: 362
Price: $29.95

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Miller’s book calls the distinctions between sound and music, and sound and noise, into question. Like his previous volume, Rhythm Science, this book offers a snapshot (to use a horribly analogue-culture metaphor) of the ways in which the human relationship to sound has traditionally been constructed and the ways in which, under the influence of what Miller calls “digital culture”, that relationship is changing. The book essentially contains three types of contributions. One axis of the collection deals with the relationship between cultural production, typically conceived of as the work of an individual, original creator, and sampling. Another addresses sampling not as cultural practice, but as metaphor—for the operation of the World Wide Web, for the workings of memory, even for race relations. And the third axis addresses not just sampling, but the ways in which we define—and, in so doing, limit—sound itself. Miller’s biggest claim in favor of the ideas he espouses can be found on the CD that accompanies the book, which features remixes of material taken from artists as diverse as James Joyce and Sonic Youth. Most of the material on the CD comes from the archives of Sub Rosa, a small record label specializing in archival sounds. Miller has a particular gift for unexpected couplings: Bill Laswell ends up combined with Magritte, for example. When he isn’t splicing together unlikely bedfellows, Miller practices the art of juxtaposition, setting tracks from Sun Ra, John Cage, and Morton Subotnick against recordings of Kurt Schwitters and Artaud (among many others). The overall effect is occasionally grating, but generally exhilarating. Erika NanesPaul D. Miller (editor), Steve Reich (Introduction): Sound Unbound

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