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LIST: Best 12 Books I Read in 2009

March 8, 2010

I’ve been trying to organize some of us Justseed-ers to start posting top ten lists of various things, I’ve always thought they were fun to both write and read. To kick it off, here’s my list of the best 12 books I read in 2009 (in alphabetical order by author):
1. A Woman of the Iron People by Eleanor Arnason
2. Penguin by Design by Phil Baines
3. On the Wall by Janet Braun-Reinitz & Jane Weissman
4. Red Star Over Russia by David King
5. Bakunin by Mark Leier
6. Wobblies & Zapatistas by Staughton Lynd & Andrej Grubacic
7. Live Working of Die Fighting by Paul Mason
8. How to Make Trouble and Influence People by Iain McIntyre
9. Manituana by Wu Ming
10. The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson
11. You Don’t Have to Fuck People Over to Survive by Seth Tobocman
12. Incognegro by Frank B. Wilderson, III

Eleanor Arnason, A Woman of the Iron People (William Morrow & Co, 1991).
It had been a couple years at least since I had read much science fiction before this past year, but my interest was re-sparked when I was invited to the Think Galactic political sci-fi convention this past summer in Chicago. I had never heard of Arnason, but she was one of the invited guests, so I went to the library and picked up A Woman of the Iron People, one of her most popular novels. Wow, what a great book! Like the best Le Guin, Arnason builds a new and interesting world, and instead of wasting it with one-dimensional relationships and dramatic battles, she uses it to explore the implications of very different political, economic, and scientific realities on the fabric of individual relationships and larger social relations. Don’t let the terrible cover scare you (Arnason has great stories about the terrible covers her books have been saddled with!), pick this up and give it a read.

Phil Baines, Penguin by Design: A Cover Story 1935-2005 (London: Penguin, 2006).
Since falling in love with books as a child, I’ve always been fascinated by the pocket paperback, which I originally thought was the creation of the 1960s and 70s. Late in high school I loved trolling used bookshops in Boston for copies of old Black Power paperbacks by George Jackson and Frantz Fanon that fit snuggly in my pockets, with strikingly simple text based covers, or close ups of handcuffs, arms with rifles, or angry faces overlayed with bold and basic sans serif type. Phil Baines’ collection yanks me back to those days, and my love of paperbacks as utilitarian yet highly crafted physical objects.
This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time. I may be tainted by my current fascination with book design, but this is a great story of the evolution of the paperback book and its cover. Baines not only pulls together a fascinating collection of Penguin covers, but has dug through the archives and tells the story of their development through a series of grids, font choices, the ability to print photographs, and the need to compete with an increasing number of other titles and publishers. In many ways this is incredibly nerdy stuff, but Baines keeps it zipping along, and the great grids of graphic covers carry the eyes from page to page if the narrative ever lags. I could have used even more historical detail and cover images, I was so disappointed to have made it to the end. I wish their were additional books of this quality for the US equivalents—the great “Black Cat” paperbacks of the 60s, and the less designed by still sometimes stunning Bantams, Beacons, and others.

Janet Braun-Reinitz and Jane Weissman, On the Wall: Four Decades of Community Murals in New York City (University Press of Mississippi, 2009)
I have to admit, murals are one of the public/protest art forms I’m must ambivalent about. Like puppets, they can click perfectly, or go very, very, very wrong. Braun-Reinitz and Weissman do a lot to stave off my fears with this collection of the last 50 years of murals in New York City. Not only is this a great picture book, with hundreds of full color images of murals from across the city (in fact, and quite surprisingly, the only comprehensive collection that exists), it also is deeply grounded in the social conditions that birthed the mural movement, and continue to drive artists to try to express their views writ large in public. On the Wall recognizes that painting images 20ft high on buildings is not a neutral act, it happens in specific neighborhoods and in specific time periods, and is a deeply political act. They do a great job exploring the motivations and histories of the artists, the responses and involvement of various aspects of the communities they paint in, and the larger social forces both the artists and communities have to negotiate.

David King, Red Star Over Russia: A Visual History of the Soviet Union from the Revolution to the Death of Stalin (New York: Abrams, 2009)
If there is one book I read in 2009 that I wish I had made, this is most definitely it. David King takes us through the wild, dangerous, utopian, and ultimately fatal ride that was the Russian Revolution. But unlike anyone before him, he does it almost entirely through images, through the material culture of the USSR. King’s short but hearty introductory text is filled with anecdotes of a life dedicated to collecting and preserving the visual history of the largest scale revolutionary project in modern history. The rest of the book is this visual history, documenting the amazing cultural creations of artists scrambling to create a new world for themselves as well as the darkest periods of Stalinist show trials and terror. The tension between utopia and barbarism rendered in photographs, posters, commercial design, book covers, newspapers, theater documentation, and more. For me this book is the new standard for asking questions of and attempting to understand history through images.

Mark Leier, Bakunin: A Biography (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006).
A humorous, entertaining, and educational account of one of the grandfathers of anarchism, Michael Bakunin. Leier breathes new life into this old anarchist, making his interesting and relevant to today, while painting a vivid portrait of the social conditions that Bakunin was both shaped by and spent his life trying to shape. A zippy read for both the committed anarchist and the interested newcomer, this is by far the best and most enjoyable tale of classical anarchism I’ve read in a long time, and certainly much more exciting than struggling through the relatively dry translations of Bakunin’s own work that are currently available.

Staughton Lynd & Andrej Grubacic, Wobblies & Zapatistas: Conversatins on Anarchism, Marxism, and Radical History (Oakland: PM Press, 2008).
I read this cover to cover on the airplane back to NYC from the Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair last year. It was fastest 6 hour flight I’ve ever taken. Not so much a true conversation between Grubacic and Lynd, as Lynd long form, almost essay-like answers to a set of prompts.
This has its pro’s and con’s, but mostly pro’s. Lynd is an amazing story teller, and while answering the questions he also pieces together his personal journey from historian and academic to professor at Spelman College to organizing with SNCC and SDS to lawyer to worker and prisoner advocate. This is also a trip through his intellectual interests, including the books title subject, the EZLN and the IWW, as well as Liberation Theology, the American Revolution, and 150 years of self-organized worker resistance. His ideas and life pop off the page with both wit and humble self awareness of his role in the world. Almost all of his insights, and there are many, come from his lived experience, which he generously shares and explains clearly and directly. His tolerance for abstract and dense theory is low, yet he is never anti-intellectual. This is quite refreshing since I often feel like contemporary radical thought is caged by neanderthal refusal of engaged criticism on one side, and obscurant and unintelligible theory-speak on the other. It’s also quite refreshing to see an attempt at synthesizing the best of anarchism and Marxism in practical terms, not simply spun out grad school philosophizing…
On the flipside, the lack of Grubacic’s voice is in some ways a disappointment. It would have been nice to have a stronger presence from the ideas developed out of the counter-globalization movement and more direct active embedding in the anti-capitalist upheavels of the past decade. What Grubacic does offer is often filled with abstract and under-articulated ideas which stand in stark contrast to Lynd’s grounded insights. That said, I still believe that this book should be read by anyone in the US committed to learning from the past and working with a broad section of society to build a better future.

Paul Mason, Live Working of Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global (London: Vintage, 2008).
Mason takes us on a journey through the labor movements of the past in order to understand and ask the right questions of the potential labor movements of the present and future. He paints a convincing picture of the 1990s-present not being the first time the world has seen a global working class, and that we ignore the lessons of the previous global struggles of 100 years ago at our own risk. Great chapters on the Paris Commune, the Knights of Labour, the IWW, the Chinese communists, the Jewish Bund in Poland, and especially the German communist movement between WWI and WWII, give a great foundation for understanding the role the working class has played in building the world be live in, and how much we are potentially perched on a new moment in which international workers can drastically change the conditions of life, work, and distribution of wealth.

Iain McIntyre, How to Make Trouble and Influence People: Pranks, Hoaxes, Graffiti & Political Mischief Making from Across Australia (Melbourne: Breakdown Press, 2009).
Wow, what a great book! A thrilling joyride through the entire history of cultural activism and creative direct action in Australia. Iain McIntyre leaves no stone unturned in his archiving of media stunts, road blockades, billboard alterations, graffiti actions, and land occupations. Although I’m not a huge fan of many of groups and actions he chronicles, this book acts as a great tool for looking at the entire toolbox of tactics and strategies of creative resistance in one place, and lets us compare, contrast, and investigate in a deeper way the always tricky relationship between the qualitative aspects of art and the quantitative elements of organizing and activism. I can’t say enough good things about this book, other than I wish a N. American version existed.

Wu Ming, Manituana (London: Verso, 2009).
I had been hearing about Wu Ming for years, a collective of Italian authors that wrote collectively under a psuedonym, originally Luther Blisset (under which they wrote their first major novel, Q), and now Wu Ming. This is the first of their books I’ve had a chance to read, and it definitely makes me want to find the time to read the rest. Like a blending of fiction and Zinn-esque “history from below,” Manituana tells the story of the American Revolution from the perspective of the Mohawk Nation, in particular Joseph Brant, a war chief who fought on the British side of the struggle. Wu Ming rescues an obscure historical figure in American Revolutionary history, largely remembered of as a mass murderer in the US version of history, and turns him into an extremely complex and nuanced character living and fighting at the crossroads of major social transformations and upheavals. Supposedly this is the first of 3 books they intend to write about the revolutionary Atlantic at the end of the eighteenth century, I can’t wait for the rest.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Mars Trilogy (multiple publishers, 1993-1997)
For years people had been telling me to read the Mars Trilogy, but I never got to it when I was in my sci-fi reading phase. Getting turned back on to SF this year, I’m really glad that I finally went back and read these classics of anarchist speculative fiction. In short, these books tell the story of the founding of a new society on Mars, and the competing social, political, environmental, and economic forces that different factions face as they each attempt to fashion Mars into their vision of utopia. In some distant ways reminiscent of Le Guin’s Dispossessed, but much more focused on the minute details of each of the above elements (social, political, etc.), the Mars books are likely the most comprehensive attempt to envision the building of an anarchist society in fiction.
Everyone seems to say that they loved Red Mars, and the books went downhill from there. I loved Red Mars, but quite enjoyed the other two as well, especially the middle section of Green Mars where Robinson describes in vivid detail, in over 100 pages, the preparation for and enacting of an all-planet assembly at which thousands of people hash out the structure for the new society they hope to build. Although the action-packed “revolution” parts of the book are great, this careful and nuanced study of the less than glamorous aspects of maintaining and creating social infrastructure is such a rarity that I found it stunning, exciting at every turn of the page. It is also true that Robinson dedicates as much detail to almost EVERY aspect of Mars, and I would have been happy with a hundred less pages of intricate details of the rock formations, but these parts are easy to skim for the less geologically minded.

Seth Tobocman, You Don’t Have to Fuck People Over to Survive (Oakland: AK Press, 2009).
Now in its 3rd distinct printing, and celebrating its 20th year anniversary, AK Press has given us back one of the classics of political comics, You Don’t Have to Fuck People Over to Survive. I remember being in high school and digging through the Blacklist mailorder catalog, and coming across the title, and hell, what 17-year-old can resist a such a provocative title, especially one with the word “fuck” in it? I immediately ordered it, and probably read it cover to cover a dozen times that year. Seth’s stark black and white comics and stencils narrate and educate about the collapse of the welfare state in the US in the 70s and 80s, and the commiserate rise of punk and anarchist subcultures, as well as continued resistance by workers, women, and black and brown people across the country. All these years and it still holds up.

Frank B. Wilderson, III, Incognegro (South End Press, 2008)
This was an unexpected gem, I knew nothing about it before the cover called out to me at Bluestockings Books and the back cover blurb promised insight into the nadir of Apartheid in South Africa. Basically a memoir, in Incognegro Wilderson tells his life story through three transformative periods of his life; his childhood growing up in Minneapolis, his years living in self-imposed exile in South Africa, and his most recent time as a college professor in California. Each period is interesting in it’s own way, and Wilderson deftly weaves the stories together into a convincing and challenging whole. His childhood narrative is memorable for his nuanced unpacking of the relationship between race and class as his middle-class family moves into a wealthy white suburb. The majority of last third of the book is constructed with his retelling of the racism he has experienced within the academy, and his complex relationships with both black and white co-workers. This felt like the weakest part of the book to me, but that might be because it is also the freshest, and Wilderson seems decidely less sure of his footing here. But the real tour de force here is his writing on his time spent in South Africa at the end of the 1980s until the elections in 1994 that ended Apartheid and brought Mandela to power.
Wilderson refreshingly slashes through the myth of a triumphant coming to power of the African National Congress, raises serious challenges to the dominant and blindly heroic image of Nelson Mandela, and shares a portrait of the inner workings of the grassroots of the Anti-Apartheid struggle, the world beneath the Western-friendly smile of Mandela and London School of Economics educated Oliver Tambo. Wilderson’s South Africa is the South Africa of township bbqs, guerrilla action, and the people’s leaders, Winnie Mandela and Chris Hani, head of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC. His story of the struggles on college campuses to “depower” the university and the larger society are breathtaking, giving us a glimpse into a serious attempt to take power out of the hands of politicians and bureaucrats at all levels, and put it back into the hands of the people.

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