Saturday, January 05, 2013

Best Books of 2012: Non-Fiction

This is the Best Non-Fiction segment of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2012 feature. Also available are our picks for best SF/F, best books for children and young adults best crime, mystery and thriller fiction of 2012, in two parts: one and two. As well, here are the best cookbooks of 2012. Still to come: our contributors’ selections of the Best Fiction of 2012. 

Both Flesh and Not: Essays by David Foster Wallace (Little, Brown)
With the verve and bite of 2007’s seminal Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace’s Both Flesh and Not brings together 15 of the author’s finest essays, never before published in book form. For me this collection was bittersweet. This is, after all, the voice of the man A.O. Scott called the “best mind of his generation.” His writing was always sharp and his curiosity seemingly endless. Seemingly because, of course, it was not: Foster Wallace died by his own hand in 2008. And therein lies what, for me, can’t help but be bittersweet: pure brilliance damped by the knowledge that the star has dimmed. It should be noted that, since Both Flesh and Not collects essays from throughout Foster Wallace’s writing life, the book will most likely appeal to readers of a certain age. Here the author comments on the best book of 1994, the best film of 1990 and tennis matches that are mostly not recalled at all. He writes about the conspicuously young crop of writers of 1987 (of which he would have been one) and the sexual armageddon unleashed by heterosexual AIDs. Though the topics will have limited appeal after so much time has passed, the author’s insights and gorgeous prose will not. Also included is a selection from Wallace’s personal vocabulary list. An assemblage of unusual words by a man who loved them. Swanskin, tarn, swage, purlieus, rachis. All of them interesting. All of them reminders of why we miss him so much. -- Linda L. Richards

Darwin’s Devices by John Long (Basic Books)
Robotics viewed through a biologist’s lens, that’s a bit of what Darwin’s Devices: What Evolving Robots Can Tell Us About the History of Life and the Future of Technology boils down to. But with scientific precision from a professor/author with a poet’s soul. It’s all intensely exciting. When you surf along with the author’s engaged and engaging voice, it becomes very obvious that his topic is not rocket science. That is, it’s a new and evolving field, one that he’s championing and one that has been powerful in his own work. What Long does is create an environment where his models and robots can evolve. Not nearly as odd as it sounds. The robots compete against each other for food and other basic survival needs and their responses provide important clues to the evolution of extinct species. Long shares his disappointments as well as his triumphs and he does so in a lucid and sometimes even humorous way. We come away from Darwin’s Devices with the idea that, whatever work Long is doing here, it’s deeply interesting and even important. I suspect that this will not be the final work on this topic, but Long lays the groundwork for a future filled with discovery and adventure. -- Jones Atwater

Falling for Eli by Nancy Shulins (Da Capo Lifelong)
Nancy Shulins’ fantastic personal journey is made all the more powerful by her fierce talent. The twice Pulitzer Prize-contending journalist knows how to tell a story; knows how to bring us along. “Letting go of a dream is a process,” she tells us early in Falling for Eli , “a series of openings and closings of the hand, as you watch the magic dust you’ve been cradling so carefully trickle away in thin streams.” The word “cradle” in this context is, no doubt, a conscious one. In Falling for Eli, we watch Shulins come to terms with the fact that she’ll never have the baby she always longed for. What surprises her, as well as all of those around her, is when the heartbreak she feels at the loss of something she never even had is eased from an unexpected place: when she decides to fulfill a life-long dream by learning to ride a horse. The riding leads her to her own horse, a chestnut gelding named Eli, and we participate in the complex relationship that builds between the two. Like the very best memoirs, Falling for Eli is a wonderful story, but it is also so much more. We are made, in a way, to think about motherhood and how the definitions around it have changed and continue to change. In other ways, it is a story of redemption and even triumph of spirit, as Shulins moves from depression at the realization that she will never give birth to a child, through her transformation as she works through a difficult period of relationship building with her new horse, to triumph as she enjoys a satisfying -- if complicated -- relationship with her 1200 pound “baby.” -- India Wilson

From the Forest: A Search for the Hidden Roots in Our Fairytales by Sara Maitland (Counterpoint)
Published in the UK by Granta as Gossip from the Forest, Sara Maitland’s book is a charming and thought-provoking look at the history and development of our folk stories. Each chapter looks at a different story and how the forest it sprung from shaped the tale we know. This is lyrical, fanciful stuff. As Maitland tells us, “forests are places where a person can get lost and hide -- losing and hiding, of things and people, are central to European fairy stories in ways that are not true of similar stories in different georgraphies.” Regardless of whether you buy what Maitland is positing here, her foray straight to the heart of some of the stories we love best is unforgettable. -- Monica Stark

Gifts of the Crow by John Marzluff and Tony Angell (FreePress)
Few creatures are as misunderstood as the crow. Their black plumage and watchful demeanor can evoke fear and even shadows of future evil. But in reality, contend authors John Marzluff and Tony Angell, in many ways crows are much more like us than most people would care to admit. “The gifts of the crow are physical, metaphorical, and far-reaching,” they write in Gifts of the Crow, setting us up for a journey of stories that demonstrate the almost magical intellect of the crow. This isn’t this authorial duo’s first visit in the corvid world. In the Company of Crows and Ravens (2007) gives a first intimate look at the birds. Gifts of the Crow extends the lessons shared in that work but does not depend on readers having read the first one. Gifts of the Crow is a deeply astonishing book. At the same time, it is also oddly satisfying. Somehow seeing the similarities between humans and crows makes us feel less alone. -- Jones Atwater

Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic’s First-Class Passengers and Their World by Hugh Brewster (Crown)
As the title of this book suggests, the focus here is on those fortunate folk able to book the most luxurious accommodations on the Titanic’s ill-fated, April 1912 maiden crossing from Southampton, England, to New York City. Lily May Futrelle, the wife of American mystery writer Jacques Futrelle (who perished in the sinking), described her first-class shipmates as “a rare gathering of beautiful women and splendid men.” Included in their number were real-estate magnate John Jacob Astor IV and his pregnant 18-year-old wife; tennis player and future Olympic gold medalist R. Norris Williams; Denver socialite and women’s rights champion Margaret Brown; Major Archibald Butt, the military aide to U.S. President William Howard Taft; and silent-film actress Dorothy Gibson. (Financier J.P. Morgan had planned to sail on the Titanic as well, but instead stayed behind with his mistress in France.) Although Gilded Lives relies often on speculation about the shipboard activities of the Edwardian celebrities lost in that maritime calamity, Brewster balances that with his splendid use of first-hand accounts from the survivors -- a much greater percentage of whom were cabin-class passengers than poorer, steerage travelers. Although Walter Lord’s 1955 book, A Night to Remember, remains the standard for Titanic histories, Brewster’s Gilded Lives contributes greatly to our understanding of that tragedy’s human dimension. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Hello Goodbye Hello by Craig Brown (Simon & Schuster)
Of course you know about six degrees of separation. Not the amazing John Guare play of that name, but the idea of it, that we’re separated from everyone on the planet by only six people. One line in the play mentions how wonderful that is, yet also how maddening -- since the trick is knowing which six people. Hello Goodbye Hello takes this idea into an unexpected but fun area: meetings. Craig Brown’s book chronicles 101 meetings between celebrities. He sets the scenes, draws the personalities and shares what the two said to each other. Best of all, each conversation really happened -- and each one is linked to the next (though not always chronologically). This is one string of meetings: Helen Keller and Martha Graham, Graham and Madonna, Madonna and Michael Jackson, Jackson and Nancy Reagan, Reagan and Andy Warhol, and so on. The book begins and ends with meetings involving Hitler, opening with a meeting with John Scott-Ellis and ending with a meeting with the Duchess of Windsor. This amazing book will turn you into the proverbial fly on the wall -- and leave you wanting more, more, more. -- Tony Buchsbaum

I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons (Ecco)
There were so many singer-songwriters breaking on the scene of the 1960s and ’70s, we took them all for granted -- every Tim, Richie and Harry -- for as long as we wished. Leonard Cohen proved to be a keeper: a Canadian poet and novelist who sang in a somber, spellbinding near-monotone (was this the voice of the common Garden-of-Eden snake?). Cohen is singing still, half a century later; and his 2012 CD, Old Ideas, is (for some of us) the record of the year. Veteran author Sylvie Simmons tells the beguiling saga of L. Cohen at suitable length and with admirable style in I’m Your Man, which follows her poetic pilgrim’s progress from before his 1934 birth and privileged Montreal upbringing up to the present. Versifier, novelist, recording artist, city dweller, island exile, world traveler, ladies’ man, husband, father, monk -- Cohen has played many roles. One virtue of this grand biography is how it finds unifying elements among such a diverse life’s seeming disarray. “Did he tell you about the writing on the wall?” Cohen’s ex-flame Marianne (“So Long, Marianne”) asked his biographer of one of LC’s LSD visions: “It was in gold paint and it said, ‘I change, I am the same, I change, I am the same ...’ I think it was beautiful.” Also fine to behold is the way in which I’m Your Man’s writer arranges the parts of her scrupulously gathered material in a mosaic at once pleasing and recognizable, yet still appropriately ambiguous. Sylvie Simmons proves to be something of a poet herself. -- Tom Nolan

John Quincy Adams by Harlow Giles Unger (daCapo)
No one writes biography quite like Harlow Giles Unger. His last half dozen or so books have brought as many long dead presidents back to something like literary life. I loved 2010’s Lion of Liberty, an action-packed portrait of Patrick “liberty or death” Henry. James Monroe, Lafayette, Noah Webster, John Hancock, George Washington and others all have been breathed to life for us with skill and vigor and Harlow Giles Unger’s well seasoned pen. The first few words of John Quincy Adams illustrate Unger’s skill: in a very few words he tells us everything we really need to know about his subject, introduces the idea of why we should care and teases us to go on. It’s a great ride. -- Aaron Blanton

The Life of Super-Earths by Dimitar Saddelov (Basic Books)
It doesn’t take long for Harvard professor of astronomy Dimitar Saddelov to get down to business in The Life of Super-Earths. The second line in the book: “What is life and how did it come to be?" In a conversational tone, Saddelov sets out to answer that, as well as anyone can. As he points out, “The actual origin of Earth remains as elusive as ever and may well stay that way. After all, it is a historical question that requires knowing environments that are not preserved in the Earth’s geological record.” Even so, Saddelov points out, there are things we can look at -- and other branches of knowledge and science -- that can perhaps bring us closer to understanding. From life here on Earth, it’s a short journey to looking for life in other places. As an astronomer, this isn’t a new thought for Saddelov and, as he points out, “it seems likely that on some of these Earth-like planets, we will find signs of life.” Beyond anything, it seems to me that The Life of Super-Earths is an exploration, both of discoveries and possibilities. As the the sub-title promises: “How the hunt for Alien Worlds and Artificial Cells Will Revolutionize Life on Our Planet.” Considering the nature of the beast -- Saddelov is a scientist, after all -- this subtitle might be a bit of oversell. He is here exploring what is real and what may well be real, after all. Still, this is exciting, thought-provoking stuff. These are the latest and most cutting edge thoughts on that age old question: are we alone in the universe? And perhaps a new wrinkle: If we are alone, will it be for very long? -- Aaron Blanton

Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of L.A.’s Notorious Mobster by Tere Tereba (ECW Press)
Hollywood, from the roaring 1920s to the current day, has always loved making gangster movies. And in the 1940s and ’50s, it had its own real-life hoodlum to scrutinize and lionize: Mickey Cohen, “the King of the Sunset Strip,” a dapper, diminutive mobster who could have been played on the screen by Edward G. Robinson or John Garfield. The newsboy-turned-boxer-turned-crook oversaw criminal activities from his base in an unincorporated stretch of Los Angeles following the 1947 assassination of his former mentor, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. Cohen -- who also owned such legitimate businesses as an ice-cream parlor and a haberdashery -- cut a wide swath through L.A.; and the publicity he received from appearances with such diverse types as Billy Graham and Mike Wallace helped make him a national figure. It was Cohen’s associate Johnny Stompanato who was stabbed to death at Lana Turner’s Beverly Hills home in 1958. When Russia’s Nikita Khrushchev visited Hollywood in 1959 and twitted L.A. police chief William Parker about its “gangster” problem, he was referring to Parker’s nemesis, Cohen. Crime-fiction writers from Ross Macdonald to James Ellroy (who, as a youngster, met this mobster) found inspiration for stories in Mickey Cohen. Singer-songwriter Warren Zevon’s gambler father, “Stumpy” Zevon, once worked for Mickey. First-time author Tere Tereba does a notable job telling Cohen’s story -- warts, wounds, sleaze and all. Her well-researched chronicle should put to rest forever the notion that organized crime is somehow glamorous, while allowing readers (to quote another Sunset Strip figure, Jim Morrison) one last “wallow in the mire.” -- Tom Nolan

Modern Furniture: 150 Years of Design edited by Fremdkoerper (H.F. Ullmann)
In 2012 more than any other year it was easy for me to select the book that had the most impact on me and that I could not do without in my collection.  Even though Modern Furniture: 150 Years of Design is an update of a well known (in design circles) classic, to me it remains one of the most important design books every time it is reissued. And for good reason. In essays and photos it looks back over the 150 years of the modern design era. The essays are far-reaching and published in French, German and English (not as confusing as it sounds!) and cover every aspect of modern furniture design. But what makes this an impossibly great resource are the photos. They are chairs, almost one per design year, beginning with  the 1867 Demonstration Chair probably designed by August Thonet. What will most startle those unfamiliar with Modern furniture is how contemporary the real classics still appear. If you’ve never seen Josef Hoffman’s Kubus from 1910, for example, nothing will prepare you for what will likely strike you as classic 1970s lines. And everyone is familiar with Ludwig Mies van deer Rohe’s Barcelona Armchair -- by sight if not by name. However many people are startled when they realize it was designed for exhibition in the German Pavilion at the 1929 World’s Fair, held in Barcelona. It’s also interesting to page through the really terrific and well-documented photos and observe which designers and firms have had the most influence over the years. Again: Modern Furniture: 150 Years of Design is an important and well-excuted book. My bookshelf will never be without it. -- David Middleton

Reinventing Bach by Paul Elie (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Paul Elie’s memorable first book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (2003), was a group-portrait of four people linked by a common creed (Catholicism). In a way, the author follows that same pattern in Reinventing Bach, a hefty, ever-readable study of how a musical oeuvre composed nearly 300 years ago survived into the present, shaping and being shaped by genius interpreters. The organist-humanist Albert Schweitzer, cellist Pablo Casals, conductor Leopold Stokowski, pianist Glenn Gould, cellist Yo-Yo Mama: all receive pocket-biographies chronicling their personal and professional devotion to Johann Sebastian Bach. Arching over all is the figure of the composer himself, whose story is parceled out according to this book’s structural needs. But many other performing artists, writers, commentators, producers, technicians, theorists -- the author, too -- appear on the pages of this engrossing study, which shows Bach’s seemingly eternal power to inspire, instruct, console. Like one of Bach’s own works, Elie’s text unfurls, repeats, works variations and returns to the root -- all in sentences often as graceful as his main subject’s musical lines. “Certainly, Bach envisioned that his music would be made by musicians other than [those of his own time],” Elie writes near the end of this work. “Surely he envisioned that his music would be taken up for other instruments, some known to him and others freshly invented ... But did he envision that his music, in time, would be ‘played’ by people who could not sing or play a musical instrument, would be ripped and remixed and mashed up, and would withstand the process, even thrive through it? Could he have envisioned the digital present? He could, and he did.” -- Tom Nolan

The Southern Journey of Alan Lomax: Words, Photographs and Music by Tom Piazza (Norton)
The year 1959 was a sort of annus mirabilis in American music. Advances in recording technology helped produce an abundance of noteworthy jazz LPs (from Dave Brubeck’s Time Out to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue). German jazz-scholar Joachim Berendt and Los Angeles photographer William Claxton made a historic road-trip throughout America, documenting jazz music at its sources. And the legendary folklorist Alan Lomax, fresh from a multi-year European sojourn, returned for two months to the American South, photographing and recording white and black rural musicians with new, high-quality stereophonic equipment. Lomax had been a groundbreaking cultural historian for decades, first with his father, John, and then on his own. Together or separately, the Lomaxes advanced the reputations of such seminal figures as Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Jelly Roll Morton and Muddy Waters. Alan Lomax’s importance to the course of American and world vernacular music can hardly be overestimated. Songs he gathered in the 1930s fueled an American folk-music movement -- as well as showing up in such concert-music as Aaron Copland’s Rodeo. Programs he produced for the BBC launched the 1950s skiffle craze in England, out of which grew the British rock scene of the 1960s. His recordings of Spanish music more than influenced Gil Evans’ and Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain LP. And his New York City apartment in the early ’60s was an open-house graduate-seminar for such budding artists as Bob Dylan. Lomax’s 1959 Southern hegira was perhaps his last great adventure. Tom Piazza (and, in an introduction, William Ferris) provides the text and context for Lomax’s simple, powerful photographs; a 12-track CD gives highlights from the trip’s 80 hours of field recordings. “Most civilizations have to wait to be buried before being dug up,” Piazza writes. “Lomax did the spade work in real time ... looking for music that hadn’t been commodified ... [H]e had good luck and great instincts, and he was able ... to record some of the last of a breed ...” -- Tom Nolan

Steven Spielberg: A Retrospective by Richard Schickel (Sterling)
This was bound to happen sooner or later, and I’m just happy it’s happened now. Someone has seen fit to write an in-depth look at the films of Steven Spielberg. Richard Schickel, onetime film critic at TIME magazine, has taken an exhaustive look at the director’s career, from his childhood and the little 8mm films he made, all the way through last year’s War Horse and a peek at this year’s Lincoln. I said exhaustive -- not exhausting. Spielberg: A Retrospective is a magnificent volume, stuffed with photos and insightful essays about the films and how they were made. Included, of course, is a great wealth of interview material, all of it original with the author, much of it created for this book (the rest of based on past conversations between the two). I found myself lost in these pages for a good while, and that was, I know, just the beginning. As I find with the man’s films every time I see one (and then see it again), I know I’ll find much more to discover every time I open this wonderful look at one of the best filmmakers Hollywood has produced. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Working the Dead Beat by Sandra Martin (Anansi)
Award-winning journalist Sandra Martin has been working the dead beat at the Globe and Mail for many years. It’s a beat Martin has loved, despite less than enthusiastic reactions from those she encounters. As she writes in the very moving Working the Dead Beat, “I’ve grown accustomed to the arched brow, the flash of revulsion, the involuntary step backwards, and the exclamation, ‘But that’s so morbid’ when I tell people what I do for a living.” In her book, Martin shares the obituaries of 50 prominent Canadians who died between 2000 and 2010. In her introduction, Martin remarks that obituary writing has been transformed in the period covered in the book. “Once the preserve of the rich, the noble, and the worthy, obituaries now encompass scoundrels as well as saints, eccentrics as well as celebrities.” As well, Martin writes, “There is a new frankness, an unwillingness to camouflage warts under layers of unctuous hyperbole.” Martin has written hundreds of obituaries for the Globe. More. So choosing 50 for inclusion in the book was a challenge. She writes that she “tried to cover a range of occupations, achievements, locations, and aspirations. Most of all, I wanted to write about individuals whose stories moved me and whose lives said something larger about the country and our collective history.” Included are Martin’s portraits of Pierre Trudeau, Jane Jacobs, Pierre Berton, Maurice “the Rocket” Richard, Oscar Peterson, Jane Rule and Mordecai Richler. For a book that at first seems entirely focused on death, Martin gifts her subjects with a real and lasting life. Working the Dead Beat is a beautiful book. -- Linda L. Richards

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Blogger Rickey said...

The retrospective is the same story which showing in movie? If so then I must go for the same. you can also consider one more book named "All quiet on the western front" and I must say that the story will touch your heart. I first read this book online from a website named but dont know whethere the book is still available on their or not

Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at 3:11:00 AM PST  

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