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best-books-2020-non-fiction

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The Best Books of 2020: Non-Fiction

In the stormy year of 2020 PopMatters' staff have clung to anything seemingly solid with one hand while holding a good book in the other. Through it all, we are curious, engaged, and eager to share what we've read with you.

Anyone familiar with PopMatters knows that, but for our playful moments (well, even within our playful moments) we put great emphasis on the matters of Culture. The political and economic forces of our times have shaped PopMatters since we first took our place in Tim Berners-Lee’s idealized World Wide Web in October 1999. What changes we have experienced! Indeed, history’s winds, always shifting geological and demographic direction, stirred from someplace far older than our ancestors, blow strongly throughout the collective work that makes this magazine. And hasn’t 2020 been the culminating year of, to put it lightly, very strong winds?

Our staff have clung to anything seemingly solid with one hand while holding a good book in the other. Together, our list of the best books of non-fiction published in 2020 includes works about damaged democracy and its tenuous hold in a world of emboldened demagogues, the entrenched classism that is forever crushing human potential, the racist tribalism that we have yet, so exhaustingly stupidly, to move beyond, and of course, the Covid-19 pandemic — but one of the SARS viruses roaming freely throughout the world, impervious to our violently self-inflicted divisions and our precious personal boundaries.

But our list is not only about all self-isolated angst and unemployed, uninsured misery. Our list also includes books about resilience, activism, technology, singing lady hillbillies, bratty rock ‘n’ roll boys, plastic toys and other crap, and fashion(!). We explore art theory and Hollywood history and parts of the world through regions’ flavors. One of our books comes on a record and some are like comics. Some books look inward, others look forward.

Through it all, we are curious, engaged, and eager to share what we’ve learned with you. We have covered but a fraction of the books that somehow made it into the hands of our world-weary reviewers, as publishing, like (almost) every industry, has struggled during the pandemic shutdowns and layoffs. Yet still, we have riches to share with you.

The list below is in alphabetical order by title. Read, learn, enjoy — and pass it along with your one free hand while you hang on with the other. Because we’re all in this together, and we’re only going to get through it together. — Karen Zarker, Managing Editor

img-355Little Blue Robot by vinsky2002 (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

​American Rule: How a Nation Conquered the World but Failed Its People, by Jared Yates Sexton [Penguin Random House]

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America was conceived in a coup. That’s the argument that kicks off Jared Yates Sexton‘s American Rule: the Constitution’s framers, largely slave-owning elites, exceeded their constituents’ mandate and crafted a document designed to maintain their power. Sexton pulls no punches from there. In 300 whirlwind pages, he makes the case that America’s national myths of exceptionalism and progress—what he terms “The Cult of the Shining City”—have served primarily to launder citizens’ guilt and excuse oppression at home and abroad.

The project would be overwhelming if it weren’t held together by his lightning prose. Sexton, who began his career writing fiction, has an eye for the perfect historic moments on which to zoom. Take his recounting of the 1955 opening of Disneyland, featuring a former Nazi, a children’s show romanticizing Native American genocide, and Ronald Reagan. It would have absurdist horror novel’s invention if it weren’t true.

Sexton’s whirlwind takedowns—not even Lincoln is spared—remind us that the project of American imperialism and subjugation continues no matter who sits in the White House. Even as Trump leaves office, America’s national myth-making continues, and American Rule only becomes more timely and essential reading. — Billy Hallal

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Uncollected Essays 1956-1965, by Richard Hofstadter [Library of America]

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Anti-intellectualism in America is older than the nation itself, going back to the Puritans who traveled across the ocean from the Continent in order to escape from the strictures of organized religion and all of its trappings and inhabit what they took to be a ‘pristine’ wilderness where pure and direct faith could reign, in which they could be free to accept Jesus as their personal savior. According to historian Richard Hofstadter, it is to evangelism that we must look to discover the origins of American anti-intellectualism.

In the 50 years since his premature death, Hofstadter has come in for criticism from the right and the left. It can be argued that he was a liberal elitist with a rather reductive view of populism and reform, that his notions of the American body politic didn’t acknowledge what we now call ‘intersectionality’, that some of his interpretations of the facts don’t hold up to present-day scrutiny, not to mention that some of the facts themselves have been subsequently called into question. But in the main, Hofstadter’s contribution to our understanding of America’s past and its relevance to the present still command attention. The current volume from the Library of America is a testament. — Vince Carducci

Read Vince Carducci’s article about Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, by Sam Wasson [Flatiron / MacMillan]

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Did classic Hollywood die with the release of 1969’s Easy Rider? Did 1975’s Jaws chew off the last viable legs of the old system as it created the summer blockbuster? The time we spend isolating a benchmark or estimating an era through which old Hollywood passed and came out irreparably changed can be exhausting, but the decade of change is undeniable.

However we define its start, old Hollywood definitely expelled its last dying breaths in the ’70s. Social historian Sam Wasson‘s The Big Goodbye is a graceful and compelling elegy to both Roman Polanski’s landmark film, and the end times of old Hollywood. It also serves as a seriously engaging text for younger generations ready and willing to expand their minds and explore the past to better understand the present. It will be hard to find a better film book published this year. — Christopher John Stephens

Read Christopher John Stephen’s article about The Big Goodby.

Burn It Down!: Feminist Manifestos for the Revolution, ed. Breanne Fahs [Verso]

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Any Gender Studies professor who isn’t teaching Burn It Down! is missing something important in their curriculum. This anthology has everything. It includes a few of the usual suspects—Sojourner Truth, Andrea Dworkin, Simone De Beauvoir, and so on—but the bulk of the material in here is much more current and edgy. For those of us that tend to keep to the edgy, we have already gelled some of those into a canon of sorts, and so there are also heavy hitters from the margins—ACT UP, Black Lives Matter, Donna Haraway, Jenny Holzer, and of course Solanas, for starters.

But the deepest delights come from the obscurest corners of the revolution, and no matter how long you’ve been knee-deep in Gender Studies, I promise there are at least a dozen manifestos in here that you have never seen or heard of before: Laboria Cuboniks on alienation, The Bloodsisters Project on tampons, Claude Steiner on psychiatry, Peter Grey on witches, just to name a few. Plus, musicians! Classics from Ani DiFranco and Bikini Kill, and one from the now-defunct cult hero band of Bitch and Animal. — Megan Volpert

Read Megan Volpert’s article about Burn It Down!

Calling Memory into Place, by Dora Apel [Rutgers University Press]

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In Calling Memory into Place, art historian and cultural critic Dora Apel explores the relationship between collective and personal memory and place in a series of reflective essays that are by turns erudite and personal. With characteristic incisiveness, Apel brings questions to bear on a broad range of cases, including makeshift memorials and other gestures from the Movement for Black Lives, monuments to the Confederacy and those against America’s legacy of racism, Holocaust memorials, and the work of individual artists and other cultural producers who command our attention. She also directs that same unflinching gaze to her own experience of trauma.

What Apel is unable to discern firsthand, she reconstructs with research. Even in these sections, she brings personal reflections to bear, more so than might have been gleaned from much of her previous writing. — Vince Carducci

Read Vince Carducci’s article about Calling Memory into Place.

Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, by Anne Helen Petersen [Houghton Mifflin Harcourt]

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In America, the Boomers were shaped by economic, historic, and cultural forces largely beyond their control, and now, those same forces are wearing down their millennial offspring. In Can’t Even, former Buzzfeed staff writer Anne Helen Petersen examines our particularly exhausting moment in work and so-called leisure, where the cult of grind culture makes even time off feel like work.

Drawing on field interviews, case studies, and her own experience, Peterson documents the devastating effects on our mental and physical health that gig economy instability and the hollow promises of the do what you love grift have wrought. If you’ve spent even a moment in the past year wondering why you’re tired all the time, or why you feel emotionally numb, or why no amount of success makes you feel happy for more than a few hours, take some time off—if you’re lucky enough to afford it—and read this book. — Billy Hallal

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson [Random House]

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Despite years of research showing the slowdown of social mobility and the siphoning of wealth from the middle to the upper-middle classes—not to mention the evidence in front of people’s eyes—there persists a great forgetting that American is not immune to class distinctions. Hopefully, Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson‘s bracing and thoughtful new book Caste will help the country see itself not as a projection of wish fulfillment but closer to its true form.

A free-flowing and impassioned work of living history, Caste is not particularly academic or a chronological study of how racism supports class structures. Much like her landmark 2010 study of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, Caste is a more personal, pointillist look at how this history is lived by those who experience it. Time will tell whether enough people are willing to pick it up and accept Wilkerson’s challenge to see clearly at least some version of what the social hierarchy truly is. — Chris Barsanti

Read Chris Barsanti’s article about Caste.

Closet Cases: Queers on What We Wear, ed. Megan Volpert [Et Alia]

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Fashion is a verb for the LGBTQ+ community, and Closet Cases shows how people use style and artifacts to build a self-image that is both a statement and a truth. The identities we project and the identities we aspire to are communicated to others through our choices in self-presentation. Each of the 75 people featured in Closet Cases conscientiously decides what to wear because their clothes, jewelry, scarves, and shoes — oh, especially shoes — make a statement.

With its perfect 8.5″ x 8.5″ square design and dynamic, art quality photographs, it would be easy to consider Closet Cases as a coffee table book. But coffee table books are delightful to thumb through solely for their visual appeal, and typically don’t include engaging personal essays like those that complement each photograph in Closet Cases. — Linda Levitt

Read Linda Levitt’s article about Closet Cases.

Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America, by Wendy A. Woloson [University of Chicago Press]

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In Crap, Wendy A. Woloson expertly combines her interest in popular Americana with her expertise in American economic history to create an interpretation of consumption in America that is as compulsive and propulsive as our consumption habits themselves. This straight-shooting history book will enliven classrooms in many disciplines but is also well-suited for basically anyone—because literally, no one living in America today can escape the blast radius of its questions.

Crap begs the fundamental question: if Americans are what we purchase, are we…crap? If historical knowledge of our own commercial habits can become a power to shift these habits toward a more sustainable future, Woloson’s Crap is a must-read to move us in the right direction. — Megan Volpert

Read Megan Volpert’s article about

Crap.

Dancing After TEN, by Vivian Chong and Georgia Webber [Fantagraphics]

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Art dances with loss in the moving double-memoir by comics artists Vivian Chong and Georgia Webber, Dancing After TEN. Chong, who is now blind, briefly regained a portion of her vision and immediately began drawing a memoir of how she lost her sight to a rare syndrome (toxic epidermal necrolysis, the “TEN” of the title). Her regained sight only lasted a few weeks before the syndrome left her permanently blind, but she sketched dozens of images first, all in a frenetic sometimes scribbled style as her vision worsened and she leaned her face closer and closer to the paper.

Webber once suffered a severe vocal injury, and Fantagraphics published her memoir, Dumb: Living Without a Voice, in 2018. She and Chong worked together, arranging and filling-in and further widening Chong’s initial artwork. The result is one of the most fascinating collaborations in the comics form I’ve seen. — Chris Gavaler

Read Chris Gavaler‘s article about Dancing After TEN.

Duchamp Is My Lawyer: The Polemics, Pragmatics, and Poetics of UbuWeb, by Kenneth Goldsmith [Columbia University Press]

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Kenneth Goldsmith‘s Duchamp Is My Lawyer combines an extensive overview of avant-garde art in numerous media with what could have been a pooterish dissertation on setting up, running, and maintaining one of the world’s most extensive online archives. Instead, Goldsmith’s skill as a writer makes his book a remarkably fluid and engaging read.

His tale of the creation and upkeep of the anti-internet internet, UbuWeb, is highly engaging and avoids the risk of ploughing down theoretical wormholes of limited interest. It also means Goldsmith’s passion is never dimmed. You can always sense that there’s a battle being fought over who owns culture and whether the gates are closed or open. — Nick Soulsby

Read Nick Soulsby’s article about Duchamp Is My Lawyer.

Editing Humanity: The CRISPR Revolution and the New Era of Genome Editing, by Kevin Davies [Pegasus]

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Imagine a world without diseases such as sickle cell anemia, malaria, or HIV/AIDS, a world without food shortages due to engineered crops, a world where the aging process has been decelerated… What was once only possible in the realm of science fiction is now becoming a reality with the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology.

In his well-researched Editing Humanity, renowned science journalist, Kevin Davies, provides a comprehensive story of the CRISPR revolution. This timely book was published just one day before Dr. Jennifer Doudna (University of California, Berkeley) and Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier (Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens, Berlin, Germany) won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020 for their CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology (“clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”). As the technology is fast becoming part of popular discourses beyond the concept of “designer babies”, Davies not only highlights its possibilities but also engages some of the ethical issues that this discovery entails.

In rich detail about the historical background and personal stories, Editing Humanity offers science for laypeople that is easily accessible. Davies tells a fascinating story of a technology that has the potential to rewrite the code of life. – Jana Fedtke

Every Day We Get More Illegal, by Juan Felipe Herrera [City Lights]

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Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera‘s Every Day We Get More Illegal, seems to foretell a diatribe vibe, but threaded throughout his verse is the musicality–the calming, invigorating melodies that remind us, ever so sweetly, if insistently: Latino lives are beloved. Of course, versified tirades would be understandable and even welcome in such a collection–after all, Latinos are invaluable members of US society who number 60 million in population, yet are ever-demonized politically, with a huge underclass that is often overlooked in the American economy, and vulnerable to abuse.

But the fact that Herrera steers clear of outright anger in his verse is an inspiring testament to the indomitable spirit of many Latinos. It also reflects the poet’s inimitable ability to transmute personal outrage into rousing literary songs. — Alison Ross.

Read Alison Ross’ article about Every Day We Get More Illegal.

Fandom as Methodology: A Sourcebook for Artists and Writers, eds. Catherine Grant and Kate Random Love [Goldsmiths / MIT Press]

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Over and over again in the anthology Fandom as Methodology, the collapse of the distinction between a fan and an academic proves queer (as in gay, certainly, but also as in strange). The dozen features in the 32-page section of “Artist Pages” are beautifully strange, depending on how much the reader might know about the source material.

I most enjoyed the sections on the band Depeche Mode, the actress Gloria Grahame, the actor Donald Sutherland, and the poet Hannah Weiner. Some of these love objects are ones I also love, while others are merely crossing orbits of other people or ideas I have loved, and still others simply convey so thoroughly the intensity with which they have become expert in the kinds of useless knowledge that aggregate into a fannish nature that I couldn’t resist them.

It would be a snap to design a super engaging graduate-level course in a variety of Humanities disciplines around Fandom as Methodology. — Megan Volpert

Read Megan Volpert’s article about Fandom as Methodology.

Figure It Out, by Wayne Koestenbaum [Soft Skull Press]

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To know autofiction writer Wayne Koestenbaum is to love him—for the intensity of his studies, the nuance of his self-reflections, the exactitude of his articulations. This avant-garde hero also paints and plays the piano. His latest work, Figure It Out, is a collection of 26 meditations on many of his lifelong interests like punctuation, porn, dreams, and celebrity. Perhaps most interesting is the way it braids together some considerations common across his many genres, mediums, and subjects.

There are also a good many “assignments” in it or specific instructions for approaching life more playfully and attentively. Koestenbaum is a relentless interrogator of culture and many things he wrote two or three decades ago still offer fresh astute points. Figure It Out stands among his best works because of its unflinching commitment to looking back on how all his various projects boil down to a couple of lifelong obsessions. — Megan Volpert

Read Megan Volpert’s article about Figure It Out.

Her Stories: Daytime Soap Opera and US Television History, by Elana Levine [Duke University Press]

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Bringing together her expertise in media studies with her experience as a fan of soap operas, media critic Elana Levine has crafted a comprehensive history that is about so much more than daytime dramas. In Levine’s research, soap operas are also about cultural impacts, articulations of gender, and the production of media texts as both economic and cultural objects.

That Her Stories carries the subtitle Daytime Soap Opera and US Television History is noteworthy. Levine recounts the history of television through the lens of the soap opera, offering stories of progress and transformation in both the industry and the larger culture. As soap operas become relics of television past, Her Stories becomes a valuable account of media history. — Linda Levitt

Read Linda Levitt’s article about Her Stories.

High Cotton, by Kristie Robin Johnson [Raised Voice Press]

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Kristie Robin Johnson‘s High Cotton is an affirming and moving memoir delivering her experiences as an African-American woman in the deep South. Johnson organizes the narrative into essays, each examining her standpoint as part of a larger intersectional conversation. High Cotton undertakes a myriad of topics including addiction, sexual violence, cultural expectations, and the political and economic conditions reaffirming oppression. Johnson’s consideration of the criminalization of black men, especially those with disabilities, is impactful. With writing that is at times tender and introspective, other times politicized and fortified, she stealthily taps into the contemporary consciousness.

As a writer, Johnson does not fall for society’s penchant for harmful depictions of African-Americans. Instead, she uses her writing to uplift Black culture. Her call for an increased positive representation and visibility of African-Americans is necessary, as is her celebration of her matriarchal lineage. As Johnson’s voice shifts between vulnerability and conviction, her prose is culturally astute and progressive. High Cotton demonstrates the power of the individual’s role in propelling social progress while providing a glimpse of her lived experience. — Elisabeth Woronzoff

Read Elisabeth Woronzoff’s article about High Cotton.

Hillbilly Maidens, Okies, and Cowgirls: Women’s Country Music, 1930-1960, by Stephanie Vander Wel [University of Illinois Press]

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Non-fiction writing on women in country music has experienced a wealth of riches in the last decade with strong additions in terms of cultural studies, journalism, and historical writing. Stephanie Vander Wel‘s recent contribution, Hillbilly Maidens, Okies, and Cowgirls, however, offers an exciting glimpse into how the field has matured well beyond its early focus on lyrical analysis and biographical portraits of important or forgotten figures. Vander Wel argues for the centrality of vocal performance in understanding the impact of women such as singing cowgirl Patsy Montana, early rockabilly queen Rose Maddox and honky-tonker Kitty Wells. These and other women sometimes bucked trends and sometimes acquiesced to the gender and power structures of their times.

Perhaps it seems self-evident that the voice would be important in a genre where telling stories is so important, but Vander Wel’s ability to pinpoint that fact yields tremendous results including succinct, and sometimes anatomically-detailed, descriptions of how these women smartly shifted from various forms of chest-singing to head-singing to create illusions of both rusticity and urban sophistication. Vander Wel also tells compelling stories and, yes, even rescues a few performers for posterity such as the fascinating B-western movie queen and yodeler Carolina Cotton. — Peter LaChapelle

Intimations, by Zadie Smith [Penguin]

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Zadie Smith‘s Intimations is an essay collection of gleaming, wry, and crisp prose that wears its erudition lightly but takes flight on both everyday and lofty matters. Smith has never been one for brow-beating or knee-jerk disembowelling. She eschews fervent and splenetic argument, the default online chatter mode. She writes as if she’s probing her internal monologue responses and flexing her muscles before setting out on her modest epiphanies. Smith revels in the beckoning of uncertainty and the weighing up of possibilities before banishing unbidden intrusions of baggy conjecture to the back door.

Intimations reads less like an audit of Lock Down living than a dissection of absence and uncertainty. Her supple, gallant, and pensive writing explores the attachments that enrich and define us and suggests that these are the things that can sustain us as human beings, beyond our present predicament. An act of empathy and civility nudges the reader toward the light, to consider the case for optimism and grace amidst webs of dislocation and darkness. — Michael Sumsion

Read Michael Sumsion’s article about Intimations.

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, by Derf Backderf [Abrams]

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Turning somewhat away from his personal work like My Friend Dahmer while maintaining his keen sense of empathy, Derf Backderf‘s latest graphic novel, Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio uses a brief memory of seeing Ohio National Guard trucks as a ten-year-old in May 1970 as a springboard to illustrating what happened at the soldiers’ destination. Heavily based on interviews with witnesses and survivors of the massacre at Kent State University, Backderf builds his story from a kaleidoscope of angles. From the anti-war protestors whose rioting brought out the Guard to one of many undercover officers there to monitor and disrupt leftist groups, to more apolitical students who happen to be present when the shooting started, to the exhausted, paranoid, and panicky weekend warriors themselves, the characters create a collage of a fractured America fighting for reasons that seem less political than splenetic.

While removed from the events by a half-century, by the time the memoir spirals into the final spasm of chaos, the tragedy these boldly drawn panels feel fresh as if from yesterday’s news. — Chris Barsanti

The Kinks: Songs of the Semi-Detached, by Mark Doyle [Reaktion]

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Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses. Doyle’s “exercise in historically informed rock criticism” measures “the odd angle from which [Ray] Davies viewed his world.” Doyle uses the record—factual, visual, cultural, audio, and political—to aid “musical appreciation” of post-war, working-class North London. He interprets the rise of the Kinks within not only the expected framework of British pop but also with the framing works of William Hogarth, Edmund Burke, John Clare, Charles Dickens, George Orwell, and John Betjeman to situate Kinks songs within English art and thought, so as “to bring their originality into sharper relief.”

As a scholar of the British Empire, Doyle is well qualified for this. — John L. Murphy

Read John L. Murphy’s article about The Kinks.

The LEGO Movie, by Dana Polan [University of Texas Press]

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Dana Polan is a master-builder of film criticism. Here, in the debut publication of a new series, 21stCentury Film Essentials at University of Texas Press, he riffs on Christopher Miller and Phil Lord’s 2014 The LEGO Movie with the speed, wit, dexterity, and precision of Wyldstyle, building new arguments by dissembling and reassembling one part of the film after another. It’s a dazzling performance, as fast-paced and all-over-the-place as his subject—zigging-zagging this way and that—and comes together in one analytical set-piece after another.

Polan’s endnotes alone are better than The Lego Movie 2. – Tom Kemper

London, Reign Over Me: How England’s Capital Built Classic Rock, by Stephen Tow [Rowman & Littlefield]

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In his latest work, London, Reign Over Me, historian Stephen Tow takes readers on a fascinating, astute, and welcoming tour through the birth of the several genre offshoots—such as progressive rock and folk—to explore the remarkable circumstances that made London and its surroundings such a fertile and significant creative space. Through both first-hand interviews and vintage excerpts from publications like Melody Maker, Record Mirror, and New Musical Express, Tow embraces the feedback Dave Davies (The Kinks), Judy Dyble (Fairport Convention), Peter Frampton (Humble Pie, solo), Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones), Manfred Mann, and Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull), and dozens of other music notables.

Doing so gives priceless authenticity, humility, and weight to Tow’s already valuable assessments and explanations, so it really feels like you’re being taken along for the ride with the star players, reviewers, and behind-the-scenes craftsman who steered the ships and turned the tides. — Jordan Blum

Read Jordan Blum’s article about London, Reign Over Me.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist, by Adrian Tomine [Drawn and Quarterly]

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Adrian Tomine‘s autobiographical The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist is self-aware, funny, and ultimately poignant account of the realities of Tomine’s chosen profession. The fact that being a cartoonist is all that Tomine ever wanted is part of what makes the many embarrassments he encounters throughout his career both more difficult and darkly comic, a recurring theme.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist is one of Tomine’s best works, and that’s saying something. His foray into the autobiographical isn’t new, but he’d moved away from that in his last release, the excellent Killing and Dying and in earlier stories, such as those featured in Shortcomings. Meanwhile, he’s also managed to contribute a substantial collection of New Yorker covers to his resume. This book highlights that his early success with personal comics was for good reason. Tomine’s talent in communicating the intimate, minute details of his life only serves to make them universal. Even more so in 2020.

Read J.M. Suarez’s article about The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist.

Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music Writing, by Peter Guralnick [Little, Brown and Company]

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Peter Guralnick‘s homage to writing about music, Looking to Get Lost, shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers’ heads. I imagine the spirits of Willie Dixon, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and others all around Guralnick, seeking what the author feels is the “one common denominator for all great music, […] its capacity to bring a smile to your lips.”

Quoting producer Sam Phillips, Guralnick refers to “throwing yourself into the music with ABANDON.” He goes on, “It’s the one quality that unites Thelonious Monk and Jerry Lee Lewis, the Master Musicians of Joujouka and Howlin’ Wolf. The sheer delight that they take in making music. The gratification that they suggest awaits us all, if we will only give ourselves over to what is going on around us, right now.”

If this is what it means to get lost, it’s a wonder anyone would ever care to be found. – Brett Mari

Read Brett Mari’s article about Looking to Get Lost, which includes an interview with Guralnick.

The Monster Enters: COVID-19, Avian Flu and the Plagues of Capitalism, by Mike Davis [Or Books (revised)]

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When Mike Davis published the first version of The Monster Enters 15 years ago, the titular “monster” was influenza, particularly the avian flus emerging in Asia and the Middle East. In the updated version published this year, Davis turns his attention to a new and even more fearsome monster, COVID-19. COVID-19 is but one Indication of the return of the pandemic monster. A commonality among the coronaviruses — SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which emerged in China in 2002, and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012 — is that they all are, as the book’s subtitle declares, “plagues of capitalism”.

Davis ends with the monster metaphor that gives his book its title, invoking the “1950s sci-fi thrillers of my childhood” in which scientists sound an alarm about an alien threat, politicians ignore it, but ultimately “the world wakes up to the peril and unites to defeat the invader.” He wonders whether we — with a “real monster at our door” — will wake up in time. — George de Stefano

Read George de Stefano’s article about The Monster Enters.

No Modernism Without Lesbians, by Diana Souhami [Head of Zeus]

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Diana Souhami has covered lesbian lives before, and with prodigious energy. Her biographies of artistic and literary lesbians comprise a magnificent, important archive of queer history: the painter Gluck; Edith Cavell; Violet Trefusis; Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas; Greta Garbo; Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, and more. With No Modernism Without Lesbians she stops dancing around the point – the point being the importance of lesbian creative contributions to modern culture – and goes straight for the jugular. Forget Hemingway, Joyce, Pound, and all those other misogynistic male egos. Without lesbians, there would be no modernism. The women featured here were not the only ones responsible for supporting and facilitating the modernist movement, but they each played a hugely integral role.

With its accessible, sprightly and engaging prose, this is a delight and a must-read. With impeccable scholarship and a vibrant narrative, Souhami explores the lives not just of Bryher, Natalie Barney, Sylvia Beach and Gertrude Stein, but of the dozens of other lesbians whose stories are part of their stories. Souhami writes with love for her subjects, which is contagious and brings them vibrantly to life, and makes No Modernism Without Lesbians an important and inspiring contribution to modernist and lesbian culture in its own right. — Rhea Rollmann

Read Rhea Rollmann’s article about No Modernism Without Lesbians.

Occupation Journal, by Jean Giono [Archipelago]

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How does a staunch pacifist respond when war breaks out and their country is invaded by Nazis? For French author Jean Giono, the response was to grit his teeth, curse both sides, and try to get on with his writing as best he could. As his newly translated Occupation Journal reveals, this was sometimes easier said than done.

Giono’s literary career took off between the two world wars. A bank clerk who was conscripted into the First World War, the horrors he witnessed made him an avowed pacifist for life. Shortly after that war he published his first novel. What ensued was a flurry of publications and prizes, enabling him to relocate to his beloved rural French countryside and turn to writing full time. As the Second World War loomed, Giono became a literary sensation, a bestselling author of both fiction and nonfiction, whose work was eagerly sought for both stage and big-screen adaptations.

Giono was fortunate to survive the war he so hated. He went on to resume an illustrious literary career and died in 1970, having authored more than three dozen novels in addition to numerous articles, poems, plays, and other creative output. Occupation Journal is a fascinating book. It juxtaposes the intense moral and ethical dramas of a world at war, replete with violence and surrounded by danger, with the inanity of every day. — Rhea Rollmann

Read Rhea Rollmann’s article about Occupation Journal.

Our Time Is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America, by Stacey Abrams [Henry Holt and Co.]

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Seemingly every country on planet Earth is in a state of upheaval and everyone is chewing on a lot of food for thought. Racism and viral pandemics are not new, but at this moment, we are once against being asked to rise to their complex and universal challenge. The world is watching America closely, waiting to see if our democratic experiment can still thrive or if it will succumb to populist authoritarianism like so many republics that came before. These bedrock concerns about identity politics, public health, and government systems are deeply intertwined and cannot be solved overnight.

The Georgia Senate race became a lightning rod for national conversations about the security of American democracy and as a result, Stacey Abrams became the ultimate symbolic watchdog against the many-headed hydra of voter suppression. Her campaign was praised for being forward-looking in its effort to ensure a free and fair election, and equally notorious for its ongoing aggressive lawsuits to remedy ballot-related injustices. Abrams founded Fair Fight, which conducts massive voter education campaigns and pushes for substantive election reforms at both the national level and targeted against the worst offenders among states and municipalities.

We are looking for the next best version of America; with Our Times Is Now, Abrams wrote the book on how to achieve it. — Megan Volpert

Read Megan Volpert’s article about Our Time Is Now.

Paying the Land, by Joe Sacco [Metropolitan]

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If anyone doubts the urgency of the subject matter in Joe Sacco‘s latest work, his career trajectory ought to underscore its importance. It’s common for reporters covering struggles in colonized spaces – from the Middle East to North America – to retrench colonial perspectives and attitudes in their work. Sacco offers a superb model of how journalism ought to be done in the modern era.

In his latest work, he turns his gaze to struggles around culture and resource extraction in Canada’s Indigenous North. Paying the Land is the result of several years’ worth of research and visits to Indigenous Dene communities in Canada’s Northwest Territories. It explores both the region’s history and the fraught social and political relationships of the present.

Sacco takes the step which many mainstream journalists do not, which is to draw a connection between the difficult choices of the present and the near genocide which Indigenous communities faced from white settlers in the still recent past. If it were not for the residential school system, the deceptive actions of government agents in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, and other culpabilities of white settlers, the choices faced by Indigenous communities in the present would not be nearly as tense, divisive, or loaded. — Rhea Rollmann

Read Rhea Rollmann’s article about Paying the Land.

A Peculiar Indifference: The Neglected Toll of Violence on Black America, by Elliot Currie [Metropolitan Books / Henry Holt and Co.]

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Sometimes the books delivering the most chilling message can be the most hopeful. These are the authors who are clear-eyed about the problem they are addressing while also refusing to throw their hands up in despair. They want to both level with the reader and provide real-world answers. It’s a difficult balancing act, but one that authors like Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie pull off.

The bulk of Currie’s work takes the form of deep dives into the disproportionate ways Black communities suffer from violence. He writes about how the constant exposure to endemic violence causes not only day-to-day psychological strain (one researcher he quotes points out how “cognitively and emotionally exhausted” friends and relatives of the victims become) but also a long-term loss of faith in any future. Living in chronically violent conditions creates tsunamis of trauma that wash over communities, leaving abuse, addiction, and more violence in its wake. His solution may not be easy, but it is achievable. Currie’s A Peculiar Indifference is an infuriatingly necessary read. — Chris Barsanti

Read Chris Barsanti’s article about A Peculiar Indifference.

Poor Queer Studies: Confronting Elitism in the University, by Matt Brim [Duke University Press]

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Ostensibly a book about the discipline of queer studies, Matt Brim‘s Poor Queer Studies actually provides a searing, astute indictment of what’s wrong with the academy writ large. It’s a case study for what’s wrong with the academy. Discerning something more than classism at the root of inequality in academia, Brim takes aim at a broader system of conformism intent on disguising the inequities and elitism of the modern university. The university, he observes, encodes power and privilege in its very bones while pretending to deconstruct and challenge social injustice. Even supposedly radical and emancipatory disciplines like queer studies have professionalized into spaces where “elitist powers recode power and privilege as meritocracy – and thus beyond the purview of class analysis,” Brim warns.

Directed largely toward other academics and written at an advanced intellectual level, Poor Queer Studies nevertheless retains an intimacy and confessional honesty that makes it well worth the effort to work through. Brim’s powerful and excoriating critique of Queer Studies reveals, paradoxically, just how vital and essential the discipline truly is. — Rhea Rollmann

Read Rhea Rollmann’s article about Poor Queer Studies.

A Promised Land: The Presidential Memoirs, Volume 1, by Barack Obama [Crown]

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“Yes, we can!” Yes, intellectuals who love books and popular culture can make a difference in the world of politics and even reach the highest office. That is one of the many motifs ringing through Barack Obama’s introspective and engaging personal history, A Promised Land. He touches on minor but pregnant moments of discovery in his encounter with popular culture: “Why were all the Black men in action movies switchblade-wielding lunatics…”

He candidly confesses that his love of books took a more strategic turn in college when he tackled Marx and Marcuse in pursuit of “the long-legged socialist who lived in my dorm”; Fanon and Gwendolyn Brooks for another woman; and “Foucault and Woolf for the ethereal bisexual who wore mostly black.” His descriptions make it hard to blame him. As Obama tells it, a love of books infused his years of development and he calls forth vivid descriptions of his first encounter with seminal volumes in his youth and beyond. – Tom Kemper

Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980, by Rick Perlstein [Simon & Schuster]

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The fourth entry in Rick Perlstein‘s mammoth series on the rise of American conservatism is an exhaustive trawl through the nit and grit of mid-to-late 1970s politics. Theoretically, the main theme in Reaganland is the culmination of Ronald Reagan’s long quest to fan the embers of the reactionary backlash already heated up by Barry Goldwater, Phyllis Schlafly, and other fervid pamphleteers. But the real story is the inability of Jimmy Carter (somewhat petty and self-impressed in this characterization) to capitalize on his surprise 1976 presidential victory with any kind of unifying big-picture thinking that could have left America less vulnerable to Reagan’s apple-pie fairytales.

As ever with Perlstein, the real treat here is not the usual Beltway dramas but the well-sourced and vividly granular texturing that shows how the back and forth of political gamesmanship played out at street level. — Chris Barsanti

The River Speaks of Thirst, by Jaki Shelton Green [Soul City Sounds]

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Released on Juneteenth, North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green‘s new album of poetry, The River Speaks of Thirst, features archetypal imagery and resonant elocutions, invoking the history of Black oppression as well as the US’s current societal and political climate calling for executive, legislative, and judicial reform. The River Speaks of Thirst is at once a political statement, cultural commentary, and an aesthetic milestone, a skillful commingling of galvanic activism and evocative poetry.

Released at a time during which the chronicity of Black oppression is being spotlighted, when millions of citizens across the US and throughout the world are protesting for change, and organizations such as Black Lives Matter, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, and Color of Change are gaining significant traction, the project is particularly timely. Through her poetry, Green documents the history of blackness, a segment of which is the history of the United States, if not the Americas at large – the atrocities, the triumphs, and the work still to be done. She laments the Black struggle for equality while celebrating Black resilience, wisdom, and creativity. — John Amen

Read John Amen’s article about The River Speaks of Thirst.

Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In, by Phuc Tran [Flatiron Books]

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Phuc Tran, Carlisle High School graduate of the Class of 1991, moved to Portland, Maine with his wife and two little girls to open Tsunami Tattoo in 2003. He left Saigon, one little baby shoe flung away and missing in the rush of it, when he was just a toddler. He grew up in a small Pennsylvania town in the Susquehanna Valley where inevitably the kids in school classified him as the one Asian kid, and he classified most of them as “poorly read. Very white. Collar blue.”

But Tran not only read Nietzsche; he read Dostoyevsky, Proust, Wilde, Kafka, Malcolm X, Homer, and many others. He doesn’t quote from any of these works in Sigh, Gone, but instead uses them to reflect the parts of himself that connected with those great books. “The most punk thing for me to do was to be who I was without pretension or preamble or grandiose posturing. I had read it in Nietzsche but didn’t know what it really meant: become who you are,” he writes.

Tran’s engaging memoir should be made into a film, and that film should be rated R so the messages of the book—as well as its copious, emotionally significant number of f-bombs to rival the likes of Holden Caulfield—don’t get diluted. This movie will have fist fights with possible Nazis, skateboard shenanigans, under-aged drinking, dope, and police. — Megan Volpert

Read Megan Volpert’s article about Sigh, Gone.

The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power, by Desmond Cole [Doubleday Canada]

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In The Skin We’re In, Canadian journalist Desmond Cole reveals the shocking scale of racism in a country that prefers to look the other way. Cole’s personal experience is revealing, but hardly the most horrific of the events recounted here. The book’s clever structure takes the experience of a single year – 2017 – and uses it as a point of entry to examine Canada’s enduring and ongoing legacy of anti-Black racism. Cole selects an episode that occurred in each month of that year and then explores it through a combination of historical analysis, investigatory research, and straightforward reportage. His selection of subject matter allows a vantage into the diverse range of anti-Black racism in Canada, from horrifying cases of police brutality to systemic policy discrimination against Black children, immigrants, and refugees to the country.

Cole, one of the most talented and insightful journalists working in Canada today, also hosts a radio news talk show in Toronto. If this work leaves white Canadians with a shaken sense of national pride, that can only be a good thing. — Rhea Rollmann

Read Rhea Rollmann’s article about The Skin We’re In.

Spirits of Latin America, by Ivy Mix [Ten Speed Press]

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A common thread unites Ivy Mix‘s engaging Spirits of Latin America; “the chaotic intermixture between indigenous and European traditions” is still an inextricable facet of life for everyone who inhabits the “New World”. Mix has spent years meticulously exploring and (quite literally) drinking in the landscapes and cultures of nearly every far-flung corner of Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. Those travels form the basis of Spirits of Latin America.

The breadth and originality showcased in the recipes are masterful – and unsurprising, given Mix’s impressive pedigree as a James Beard Award nominee, a former Wine Enthusiast “Mixologist of the Year”, and a co-founder of Speed Rack, the popular bartending competition for women that raises money for breast cancer research and prevention. But perhaps the book’s greatest strength comes from the simple, bewitching passion that permeates every page, from the loving descriptions of tiny, unheralded Brazilian roadside bars, to the complex nature and history inherent in every wooden aging barrel. Mix keeps her readers engaged with an upbeat, often joyous writing style, one where her devotion to her subject is never less than palpable — Chris Vola

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The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, by Erik Larson [Crown]

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Spring of 2020 may not have seemed the right time for yet another book about Churchill, the Blitz, and doughty Londoners carrying on under the Luftwaffe’s nightly terror raids. But once again, Erik LarsonLarson (The Devil in the White City) shows why he is one of America’s foremost popular historians. In The Splendid and the Vile he tells a sweeping narrative about this hinge moment in history while threading it with the punchy, colorful details of life as it was actually lived then. Drawing heavily on personal accounts (diaries and such), he paints a familiar yet keenly robust picture of Churchill as the impetuous, boyishly enthusiastic leader who zoomed from one crisis to the next through 1940 and 1941 as France crumpled before the Wehrmacht and Britain stood alone.

Pivoting from Whitehall and 10 Downing Street to the champagne and jazz of London’s bomb-threatened nightlife and Churchill’s weekend retreat at Chequers (filled with family drama), Larson also briskly relates the larger strategic context (Hitler raging as Goring’s planes fail to crush the RAF and clear the way for an invasion that he wants to be completed before launching his surprise assault on the Soviet Union). The Splendid and the Vile is spectacular and thrilling on its own, with the added contemporary charge of showing what true crisis leadership looks like. — Chris Barsanti

Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars, by Francesca Wade [Tim Duggan]

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Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting tells the story of five important British women from the early 20th century, most of whom (with the exception of Virginia Woolf) are sadly neglected in this day and age. The book’s short, lively sketches of H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Dorothy L. Sayers, Jane Ellen Harrison, Eileen Power, and Virginia Woolf are a delight to read, but just as important is the hope that it’ll revive interest in their important creative and scholarly contributions.

Square Haunting offers a look at the author’s theme – the women’s struggle for independence, against misogynist partners and patriarchal colleagues – from the vantage of these women at different stages in their lives, from young (H.D. and Sayers) to middle-aged (Power and Woolf) to elderly (Harrison). In doing so, it provides a cleverly holistic look at women’s lives and the varied ways in which their struggles against patriarchy took form at different stages of their lives and careers. — Rhea Rollmann

Read Rhea Rollmann’s article about Square Haunting.

Step It Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music… by David Menconi  [University of North Carolina Press]

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North Carolina’s deep-rooted musical history has more to offer than James Taylor singing “Carolina in My Mind”. Like its geography, the Tar Heel state’s music comes from the backroads, the dirt paths, the main streets, the warehouses, street corners, and porches, from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks. Music journalist David Menconi, who spent 28 years as staff writer for Raleigh’s News and Observer, travels all the aforementioned byways for Step It Up and Go, talking with musicians, historians, fellow journalists, and fans. It’s a journey worthy of Peter Guralnick’s tireless work documenting the rich lives of blues, soul, and country artists.

Menconi may not be a native Tar Heel, but he’s lived here long enough that we’ve come to claim him, and his work in North Carolina music history was already well established but is further cemented with this work. It’s a story that’s long overdue. Maybe it was just waiting for the right person to tell it. — Michael Elliott

Read Michael Elliott’s article about Step It Up and Go.

Uncanny Valley: A Memoir, by Anna Wiener [MCD / Farrar, Straus and Giroux]

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Anna Wiener‘s Silicon Valley memoir, Uncanny Valley, reveals a piratical industry choking on its own hubris and blind to the cost of its destruction. It starts out as social reportage. Wiener writes with a slightly acerbic and cool detachment about the hazy California Dreaming that calls to mind early Joan Didion. But she threads that with her generation’s habitual self-doubt and second-guessing. Arriving in San Francisco to begin at her new job, she describes her younger self as thinking of herself as “intrepid and pioneering” but in truth “by many standards, late” to the party. She offers alternately baffled and fascinated descriptions of the insanely lavish perks and impossibly juvenile antics of the entitled boyish men who controlled every aspect of this industry dedicated to removing all “friction” from everyday life.

Wiener’s honest depiction of wanting to be carried along, goggle-eyed, by the torrent of money and ambition is understandable and relatable. — Chris Barsanti

Read Chris Barsanti’s article about Uncanny Valley.

What Comes After Farce?, by Hal Foster [Verso]

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In this age of fake news, alternative facts, and the shameless proliferation of what philosopher Harry Frankfurt terms outright ‘bullshit‘, noted art historian and critic Hal Foster asks what comes next when even farce has been rendered farcical when no attempt is made to cover up the lies, the self-dealing, and other nefarious deeds? What Comes After Farce? comprises 18 short texts, the initial iterations of many which first appeared in the London Review of Books, Artforum, and October, the influential journal of contemporary art, criticism, and theory Foster co-edits. Written over the last 15 years, the essays, which Foster terms ‘bulletins’, explore various issues of and responses to the political culture and cultural politics of the present.

Foster, reflecting on the etymology of the word farce, which originally signified the comic interlude of a religious play, describes it as a kind of in-between state, suggesting the possibility of another, perhaps more felicitous time to come. That Foster maintains this perspective in light of what he presents in the rest of What Comes After Farce? is indicative of the sensibility typically attributed to Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci, namely of a pessimism of the intellect but an optimism of the will. In these seemingly darkest of times, it just may be the best shot we’ve got. — Vince Carducci

Read Vince Carducci’s article about What Comes After Farce.

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