Mark Hollis: A Perfect Silence
By Ben Wardle
Former Talk Talk member Mark Hollis was ruthlessly honest in his pursuit of a musical vision. This biography attests to the gifts and costs of his artistic pursuit. Mark Hollis: A Perfect Silence by A&R manager Ben Wardle is the first finished biography about Hollis. Other prolific writers tried, but the silence of its main protagonist and those closest to him made it a futile effort.
Wardle focuses on how Hollis changed the world around him. In his ruthlessly honest pursuit of a musical vision that held no compromise, this biography is a testament to the gifts and costs of this artistic pursuit. Silence was always the end journey for Mark Hollis and Talk Talk: silence was the final step on their evolutionary ladder. Getting to that place changed everything – the peace found in silence.
Read Jesper Nøddeskov’s review here.
By Jordan Castro
Jordan Castro’s debut The Novelist is a relatable and humorous study of the economy of plotting, ironic description, and the addictive nature of the self. What makes The Novelist such a good book about addiction is the combination of self-conscious exploration, of always-already mediated subjectivity, with the ironic juxtaposition of the narrator’s “current” and “former” addictions. In The Novelist, it is the use of social media and caffeine that are subjected to the minute, detailed scrutiny usually reserved for the administration of “drugs of choice” in addiction narratives, while the novelist’s previous use of benzodiazepines, heroin, alcohol, and tobacco figure much less prominently.
The universality of addiction shines through in The Novelist, in which self-aware irony balances with an earnest consideration of suffering and the search for a meaningful transcendence of it.
Read Brandon P. Bisby’s review here.
On the Inconvenience of Other People
By Lauren Berlant
(Duke University Press)
On the Inconvenience of Other People is a fine starting place for those who have never heard of perhaps the most important literary scholar of the 21st century. Lauren Berlant’s work circulates widely among academics in the Humanities, but especially within English Studies. Each of their books tends to offer a wondrously clear and deeply detailed close reading of several different pieces of media, most often books and films.
Here as with other works, Berlant’s oeuvre provokes ambivalence. On the one hand, it offers moments of stunning clarity with the kinds of pithy declarative revelations that can easily spiral a reader toward an entirely new outlook on life. Their writing is a paragon of world-breaking and world-making insight.
Read Megan Volpert’s feature article.
Our Wives Under the Sea
By Julia Armfield
Julia Armfield’s debut novel, Our Wives Under the Sea, a brilliantly subversive tale, seamlessly blends mystery, gothic horror, dual narratives, looping time, and multiple genres into an enchanting whole. It’s an incisive exploration of human relationships and loss, as a narrative both funny and darkly claustrophobic, as a truncated same-sex romance, an engaging mystery, and a startling exercise in gothic horror. Overarching these genres is an articulation of the concept of sinking, both in the sea and in life. Our Wives Under the Sea is both an expertly crafted work of fiction and a transformation fable, a modernist one without a moral.
Read R.P. Finch’s review here.
The Rabbit Hutch
By Tess Gunty
Tess Gunty’s vibrant, esoteric debut novel, The Rabbit Hutch, is a devastating story about searching for life and meaning in a dying Midwestern city. Gunty intimately understands that settings can be characters in and of themselves, and in this, the novel excels.
The Rabbit Hutch is underpinned by themes of devotion, obsession, vulnerability, pain, longing, and most of all, loneliness. At its core, this is a story about outcasts. Every character is damaged somehow (aren’t we all?), and isolation abounds. Despite this, Gunty manages not to let the story slip too far into melancholy. The Rabbit Hutch should be bleak, considering this subject matter, but the story is buoyed by the messiness and complexity of the human experience in all its absurdity.
Read Eleni Vlahiotis’ review here.
Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington
By James Kirchick
James Kirchick’s riveting history of gay life in Washington, DC is a Cold War epic of hypocrisy, surveillance, and survival. For most of its history, Washington, DC was a miserable place to be gay. The difference between America’s capital and its other cities, according to James Kirchick’s densely detailed, panoramic, and eye-opening new history Secret City, was that life in the federal seat of power during the Cold War came with an extra layer of paranoia. That fear manifested as extreme state-sponsored homophobia. Everywhere else in America, gayness was perceived as a threat to various orders (familial, religious) that lived primarily in people’s minds. But in Washington, being gay—or, more crucially, being discovered as gay—was seen as a threat to the very security of the nation.
Read Chris Barsanti’s feature here.
Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop
By Danyel Smith
(Rock Lit 101)
Smith’s Shine Bright is more autobiographical and less scholarly than, for example, such excellent books as Maureen Mahon’s 2020 survey, Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll, or Daphne A. Brooks’ 2021 book on archives of Black female creativity, Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound. However, Shine Bright is more important because it examines a wider range of music artists – from opera giant Leontyne Price to Mariah Carey and less recognized artists like Marilyn McCoo and Jody Watley. Shine Bright is a larger investigation into how Black women in pop music, broadly defined, are often underappreciated and exploited, with their disproportionate contributions to the world’s culture overlooked. – Josh Friedberg
A Song for Everyone: The Story of Creedence Clearwater Revival
By John Lingan
John Lingan’s expansive view of Creedence Clearwater Revival, A Song for Everyone, puts the band in the eye of the hurricane amid the era’s stormy American culture. As a chronicler of events, Lingan rescues his work from being a mere retread through the lively fluidity of his prose. Though he caps A Song For Everyone with a meticulous set of endnotes to corroborate every statement, for most of the text he opts for a straight narration without citations. Freed from the formatting restrictions that see a biographer’s words acting as mere connecting tissue between long quoted passages, Lingan displays his flair for storytelling unencumbered. This stylistic choice adds an almost novelistic flavor to A Song For Everyone, as Lingan’s imagination enters the minds of his subjects, becoming less a biographer than an omniscient narrator.
There have been other biographies, but no one before Lingan has so effectively driven home the magnitude of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s achievement: crafting a plethora of songs that spoke to their era while standing apart from it so that their songs retain their urgency and relevance to this day.
Read Brett Marie’s feature here.
States of Liberation
By Samuel Clowes Huneke
(University of Toronto Press)
Samuel Clowes-Huneke’s decades-spanning, groundbreaking history of gay liberation in East Germany and West Germany, States of Liberation, challenges conventional assumptions about dictatorships and democracies. In his account, gay liberation proceeded further and deeper in authoritarian, communist East Germany than in the liberal, capitalist Federal Republic of Germany (FDR). Whereas the imperial and Weimar eras “were periods of experimentation, tolerance, and exuberance”, they also saw anti-gay animus becoming entrenched among conservatives and “more than a few progressives.”
Whether liberation movements can challenge authoritarian states depends on how authoritarian those governments are and how much repression they are willing to marshal against social movements. In various nations— Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Uganda, Russia, Hungary, and China, to name just a few—harsh repression has crushed activist movements or prevented them from emerging. Although the United States hasn’t descended—yet—into full-blown authoritarianism, the anti-gay and anti-trans backlash is strong and intensifying in state legislatures, courts, local governments, school boards, and Congress.
Read George de Stefano’s feature here.
Status and Culture
By W. David Marx
From the meaning of the Beatles’ moptops to GQ‘s Glenn O’Brien’s excavations of cultural cool, filmmaker John Waters’ parsing the difference between bad trash and good trash, and the weird success of Magnolia Bakery, W. David Marx’s Status and Culture is an erudite and whizbang dash through decades of Western cultural obsessions and the meaning behind them. Most crucially, he delves deeply into our constant (even if unacknowledged) competition for place in society: “We should therefore abandon the fantasy of pursuing identities that transcend status. Even those who drop out of society to pursue an ascetic, solitary life end up with a status. – Chris Barsanti
The Storm Is Here: An American Crucible
By Luke Mogelson
The last year or so has seen a number of urgent think-pieces and a few books about the crisis of democracy that America is facing, with concerns ranging from election shenanigans to civil war. Crucial as those investigations are, Luke Mogelson’s vivid panorama of a nation coming apart at the seams, The Storm Is Here, is even more urgent as he writes about the crises happening at this moment rather than in the future.
A veteran war correspondent, Mogelson returned to America to see what was happening on the home front. His brightly detailed and darkly shadowed dispatches (some of which appeared in the New Yorker) from various domestic battlefields—the COVID conspiracy fever swamps of Michigan to the tear-gassed streets of Minneapolis and Portland—show the nation careening from one largely self-inflicted crisis to another. Everything builds to the noose-carrying MAGA horde descending on the capitol on January 6, 2021. Unlike some accounts of the insurrection, though, Mogelson spends enough time with the forces arraying beforehand that the assault feels less shocking than inevitable. – Chris Barsanti
The Tompo of the Ringing
By Tracy Santa
The Tompo of the Ringing is a charmingly disarming everyman’s memoir of a rock ‘n’ roll life spent on the fringes of the record machine. Santa’s dropped-needle-on-vinyl-LP retelling of his rock ‘n’ roll years carries his reader through an optimistically infused string of bands, gigs, and venues—from New York’s Bethlehem of punk, CBGB, to San Francisco’s legendary Mabuhay Gardens—and quirky, well-reviewed, obscure record label recordings.
Had it a narrower arc and more lurid cast, author and musician Tracy Santa’s chronicle might have been titled Confessions of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Townie, calling to mind worlds portrayed in rockabilly-drenched teen film epics like Robert Rodriguez’s 1994 Road Racers and the 1958 low-budget classic and Jeff Beck inspiration, Hot Rod Gang (Lew Landers, 1958). Instead, this amiable gambol conveys with affection a wryly self-deprecating collection of inductions into the mysteries of rock ‘n’ roll, each leaving you, like a stoner with a bag of Doritos, hungering for the next.
Read Marc Zegans’ feature here.
The Twilight World
By Werner Herzog
The story has been retold so many times that it is less history now than well-worn lore: Rather than surrender to Americans at the end of World War II, Japanese soldier Hiroo Onoda carried on defending an insignificant Philippine island for nearly three more decades. In the hands of filmmaker and grizzled raconteur Werner Herzog (Aguirre, the Wrath of God), the tale of Onoda, usually told as some allegory for blind faith and obsession, is rendered into something more curious. Ostensibly writing a novel, Herzog (clearly the unnamed narrator) instead renders the odyssey of Onoda and his dwindling band of comrades in a part-reportorial fashion that will be familiar to fans of his unromantic documentaries and part deadpan amazement at the cruel, torrid majesty of the jungle they hide in.
Onoda’s refusal to believe the war is over—he is told the warplanes and ships he sees passing by are on their way to different wars in Korea and Vietnam—renders here less madness and more simple, clear-eyed devotion. Though respectful, Herzog does not buy into the myth of Onoda as many Japanese did, saving his awe for the sweaty, rotting, fecund nature that came closer to ending Onoda than any enemy soldier. – Chris Barsanti
The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll When Inequality and Disease Collide
By Steven W. Thrasher
Just as marginalized people are made vulnerable to viruses, viruses are used to justify the marginalization of people who have contracted or transmitted them. Thrasher is a journalist turned academic, and The Viral Underclass combines in-depth reporting, social theory, and personal reflection. He writes in an engaging, accessible style, and his voice is thoughtful, indignant, and passionate. As a gay Black man who has faced personal and professional challenges, he hasn’t produced a distanced, “objective” account. The issues explored in The Viral Underclass are structural, embedded in government, institutions, and organizations, but for Thrasher, also deeply personal.
Read George De Stefano’s feature here.
A Visible Man
By Edward Enninful
British Vogue editor Edward Enninful tells the story of his career swerves as straightforwardly as possible in his absorbing memoir, A Visible Man. This memoir lays bare the profit and loss sheet of Enninful’s workaholism and the decision calculus of his values in a way that will surely be of interest to any stylist, designer, or artist hoping to achieve something iconic and impactful in their chosen creative field.
He is often willing to laugh at himself or his circumstances, mashing up gay campiness to cope with immigrant fish-out-of-water feelings, as when explaining how jarring it was to finally set foot in the London of his dreams as a young man. He’s a professional innovator who is at once authentic and futurist. His career includes many well-earned rewards for a person whose intersectional and international perspective as a Black gay immigrant has always given him the momentum to zig where others might zag.
Read Megan Volpert’s feature here.
We Don’t Know Ourselves
By Fintan O’Toole
Reading Fintan O’Toole’s transporting We Don’t Know Ourselves is an experience close to hunger; even at 600-plus pages, there is so much richness here you want to gulp it right down. It’s a lucid history of Ireland, a vivid telling of how his country’s culture of silence and repression was broken open. Following World War II, the rest of Western Europe and America leaped eagerly into the future. But Ireland remained a closed-off rural society mired in the past.Ireland’s stagnation produced despair, waves of emigration that threatened to empty the island completely, and one very good joke that made the rounds: “The wolf was at the door, howling to get out.”
We Don’t Know Ourselves lucidly illustrates the Ireland that was and the “blank and bleak” future its people thought was ahead of them. Despite all the doors that were thrown open by the collapse of Church power, O’Toole does not try to define where or what Ireland is right now.
Read Chris Barsanti’s feature article.
Wicked Game: The True Story of Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey
By Michael Goldberg
In this heart-shaped, elegiac book of disappearances, Michael Goldberg, a music journalist and photographer, and formerly a senior writer at Rolling Stone magazine, traces with affecting compassion the hinkypunk life of guitarist Jimmy Wilsey. Goldberg’s meticulously researched biography delivers a deep-hearted and poignant account of the rare and extraordinary creative talent who—following his legendary entry into the music scene as bass player for San Francisco’s primeval punk band, the Avengers—crafted the incomparable yearning two-note opening to Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”. Goldberg captures the Avengers’ Wilsey and his downward trajectory with spare, slow, searching lines much like the guitarist summoned from his instrument.
Read Mark Zegans’ review here.