*Our best books list includes books debuting in both hardcover and softcover in 2011*
In Griftopia, Matt Taibbi does a superb job of explaining the roots, causes and results of the financial crises that have led us to the shit that we’re in now. From the late ’90s tech bubble to the housing bubble to the ongoing oil bubble, Taibbi breaks down everything that happened in layman’s terms. Even I, notoriously bad at understanding economics and money, was able to decipher just what the hell these assholes did to our country and economy.
Taibbi proves that these people are just heartless, as they routinely gambled with no safety nets and no moral compass. There are many villains, but Goldman Sachs comes across as especially horrible – pushing for repayment of debts that could destroy the world economy for no reason other than greed. Taibbi also shrugs off the Democrat label, taking equal opportunity to blast every president since Reagan, placing as much blame on Obama and Clinton as he does on Reagan and the Bushes.
What normally turns me off from Taibbi is his excessive personal attacks and name-calling. He greatly scales it back in Griftopia, concentrating on getting the facts and the story across. If any of you are still confused as to why there are hundreds upon hundreds of Occupy movements; if any of you don’t know the difference between the 1% and the 99%; if any of you just want to learn as much as you can about how we’ve been fucked nine ways til Sunday, read this book.- Tris Miller
To put it simply, David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King is dense, emotional, rich and rewarding. As with his opus Infinite Jest, it’s a novel that largely sidesteps narrative conventions and a typical arc. Sure, there are characters such as Claude Sylvanshine, David Cusk, and even David Wallace (not that David Wallace, but yeah, kind of that David Wallace), but the connective tissues of detailed back-stories aren’t necessarily there in their full forms. Instead, this is a novel about beginnings, about introductions to new spaces, new relationships and the confusion, pain and joy that comes with such an experience. And make no mistake, The Pale King is an experience. Though Wallace’s writing is as dense and complex as ever, with his typical page-long sentences and lengthy footnotes, there’s brevity to the story he weaves. Though the chapters on tax codes and subsequent arguments about the increasing mechanization of the IRS’s processing system can seem tedious, they are executed with a thorough knowledge and passion that brings life to the intended boredom.
It’s that passion and vigor of Wallace’s prose that makes The Pale King so rewarding and such a unique piece of fiction, even when considered as an imperfect manuscript. There’s an endearing humanity throughout; anyone who’s choked back tears during Don Gately’s battle with hospitalization and morphine in Infinite Jest knows that Wallace has a keen sense for portraying pain and personal anguish. For me, no book was as ambitious, intelligent and wholly engrossing as this wonderful, incomplete novel from one of the finest authors of our generation. – Kyle Fowle
He still clings to that Year Zero punk nonsense and sometimes comes across like a crotchety old man who idealized select pieces of the past, but with Retromania Simon Reynolds nevertheless creates an incisive and thoughtful book about pop culture, and especially how we remember, repackage, relive and sometimes just plain repeat it. Starting with the premise that today’s Western culture – primarily that of Britain and the United States – is obsessed with the “cultural artifacts of its own immediate past” to an extent never before seen in other cultures, Reynolds builds his case like an expert attorney, piling up evidence that, however uncomfortable it might make the reader, is impossible to dispute.
Most compelling is how Reynolds details the ways in which the past has remained a very influential component of our present, amounting to a cultural overload in which the past intrudes upon the present and causes artistic expression to stagnate. The examples the author cites are well chosen: reunion tours of beloved 1980s and 1990s indie bands; entire classic albums performed in concert; this country’s ongoing fixation with an invented, idealized 1950s; the little pods of collectors specializing in every imaginable nook and cranny of musical genre.
Books this detailed and thoroughly researched usually come out of a university setting; written in a lively and wholly approachable manner with a massive scope that never feels overwhelming, few other books have managed to examine our fixation with our own past – and its consequences – as well as Retromania. – Eric Dennis
Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids is aptly named. There’s a spirit of child-like play evident throughout the book as Smith describes her early bohemian days in New York City and her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. We read about her encounters with Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and celebrity visual artists at the Chelsea Hotel. Smith expresses her admiration for the likes of Bob Dylan, Arthur Rimbaud and Frank Sinatra. Just Kids is more than a portrait of an artist as a young woman, though. It’s also the tale of two young lovers/friends, “just kids” as the title puts it, who persevere despite great odds. We follow Smith and Mapplethorpe through any number of physical and emotional bumps in the road, including poverty (the two are at one point so poor that they can only share one hot dog between them), Smith’s unexpected pregnancy, various health problems and the rocky trajectory of their complex relationship. In a year where several meaningful memoirs have been released in both paperback and hardcover editions, Just Kids has the distinction of being amongst the most nakedly hardboiled, yet undeniably sweet accounts of two fascinating people who had an unbelievable, yet somehow familiar, life together. – Jacob Adams
Throw a proverbial dart at any of the chapters contained in this joint memoir of CIA lifers Robert and Dayna Baer and you’re likely to find at least one anecdote or another that strains believability. You have to constantly remind yourself that this is nonfiction; such is the nature of their tales of spying for the Uncle Sam in far-flung areas across the globe. Alternating between the narratives of Mr. and Mrs. Baer, their paths gradually intertwine to comprise a tale of spycraft, clandestine courtship, and well-earned paranoia, all while opening a window into the machinations that comprise the underbelly of international politics. The pace is relentless, one vignette after another of “this only happens in the movies”-type tales from start till finish. This is not spying in the James Bond sense, mind you. The reality of being a career spy is going to a bombed out office in far flung Tajikistan every day, one that happens to be shared with the KGB (this is less incongruous than you might think), as Mr. Baer did in the early nineties. It also means knowing your future wife only as “Riley,” her given alias when they met in Bosnia, which Mr. Baer only discovered months later when they met again by chance. Examples abound to disprove the cliché of the spy as a tuxedo-clad lady killer who occasionally has to dodge lasers. By the end of the Baers’ tale, you understand that spying is a gritty, lonely, exotic occupation that is dangerous and banal in equal measures. The one cliché the Baer’s are able to prove accurate is that the truth is stranger than fiction, and that is what made The Company We Keep take a hold of me the way it did. – Tom Volk
Spoiler alert. The completed manuscript of Suicide made its way into the hands of publishers just days before author Edouard Levé hung himself in his apartment in Paris. Suicide is an exhaustive exploration of all the conscious aspects of suicide that reads both personally and objectively. For instance, the narrative that shifts between what is rhetorical and what is personal considers whether or not the person who finds the suicide is doubly in pain for finding the body first and from automatically becoming suspect to a crime by officials. The first 40 pages of the book read as though Levé is commentating on a friend’s suicide but suspicion will not be still until it is realized that Levé’s use of “you” is directed at himself and anyone else who has completed suicide. Suicide comes after his brilliant Autoportrait from 2005, which is noted for taking on the form of literary cubism because of its situated 1,500 non-sequiturs. Suicide is quite plainly about just that, but it is also about delicate obsession, acute fetishization and absurdist curiosity. Much of the book’s strength draws from its potential to create circles within circles of realization – the act of reading the book all the way through, itself a self-reflexive opportunity to realizing morbid curiosity about the controversial claim that self-death is natural.
One of the most fascinating things about Suicide is the first edition English translation designed by London/Champaign’s Dalkey publishing house that chose Levé’s own self portrait for the cover. The eerie illustration made up of single black smudged dots represents paradoxically a hollow face full of thought, pregnant with fatal curiosity. Levé will be known as a literary experimentalist and Suicide his greatest experiment, his public suicide note to himself and to the world. – Sky Madden
Stacey: Someday we’ll be 45 and writing about indie rock. David: Sooner than later. Stacey: Yeah, spooks me too. This happened on chat yesterday between me and editor-in-chief/friend-since-high-school David Harris. It’s an unnerving preoccupation: how do you know when you are (too) old? At what point does being yourself come off like trying too hard? Is fucking up honestly a part of life or is it sometimes really just your fault? These are some of the modern complaints brought to bear in Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad.
The experience of reading the novel is like playing a game of narrative pick up sticks; it’s a haphazard pile and yet everything touches. Each chapter is a self-contained short story with characters overlapping, intersecting and glancing off each other at varying access points. Ex-punk/label exec Bennie Salazar, his kleptomaniac assistant Sasha, aging and ailing rock legend Bosco (who floats the idea of a Suicide Tour), PR magnate La Doll – these are the people who, cognizant of it or not, frustrate and embellish each other’s fates. With one chapter laid out in a tell-all magazine article format that confesses much more about the interviewer than the subject, and another narrated entirely through a reproduction of a 12-year-old’s PowerPoint presentation, Egan ingeniously shifts both the storyteller’s and reader’s perspective as she churns through all of these subtle histories. Goon Squad is not only a brilliant illustration of what it means to bump up against the upper limit of youth culture, it’s also a work that is nothing short of fiction-forward. – Stacey Pavlick
Christopher Hitchens has offended me, vexed me, even infuriated me, but he has never bored me. He loves a good argument, and even this memoir throws some punches. As much a collection of focused essays as a chronological tour through the author’s life, Hitch-22 offers an overview of the best of Hitch, from moving accounts of friends and family to piss-and-vinegar rants to his abiding love for language and the beauty we too often suppress in it. Throughout, he juggles the lingering attachment to many of his youthful views with his current outlook, unafraid to embrace both even when they contradict. Those who still see Hitchens’ stance for the War in Iraq as a post-9/11 neoconservative conversion will find here an impressively mounted argument for the consistency of his position on the war with his radical leftism.
Even when he’s justifying his controversial stance on Iraq, Hitchens mixes in rich personal anecdotes and research, suggesting that he does not separate his personal life from his professional one. One gets a clearer appreciation for the way each of his passions combines with the others, and how that mixture shapes his views. Contentious as ever, Hitchens makes his memoir a self-righteous apologia as much as a biography, but damned if it isn’t as captivating as everything else he writes. Just be sure to have a dictionary handy. - Jake Cole