Adepero Oduye and Sahra Mellesse in writer/director Dee Rees' "Pariah" (2011).

It's hard to portray adolescence in film without nostalgia or fantasy. Adults would rather remember their teenage years as better than they were, and teenagers are always trying to escape their own suffering. Dee Rees' Pariah, a kind of emotional autobiography of a young Brooklyn teenager named Alike (Adepero Oduye) who is navigating her coming-out process, captures adolescence in all its awkwardness and tragedy like few films in recent memory.

Oduye is a master of conveying startling sincerity without earnestness, and her portrayal of Alike demonstrates how the utterly specific can be entirely universal. That's essential, because Pariah is almost as much a film about growing up as it is about growing up as a lesbian in Brooklyn. Alike is almost as much of a pariah at home hiding her sexuality from her parents as she is at the strip club, surrounded by women in Starter jackets tossing crumpled bills at bare flesh. Early on, we watch Alike literally put her closet back on as she rides the bus home from the club, slipping off her jersey to reveal the pink shirt with the sparkly writing underneath. Alike is stuck being neither what other people want her to be nor who she wishes she was—which, in a broad sense, is exactly what adolescence is.

Last week we gave you our favorite books of 2011. This list of reader recommendations from Facebook (If you don't already follow us on FB, sign up here.) doesn't come with a medal, prize or award, just a promise that during the past year our readers found these books worth curling up with. It's a fine example of their quality taste and judgment. Still, we know there were many more great reads in 2011. By all means, weigh in with your favorite book of the year and don't miss our readers' list of the best albums of 2011.

The Dovekeepers, Alice Hoffman (Scribner)

Her writing is exquisite, and this novel is a deep, fulfilling read told in an enchanting way. It really stays with you.

—Robin Raven 

Moonwalking With Einstein, Joshua Foer (The Penguin Press, HC)




















Excellent stories about the Memory Championships and how the human memory works.

—David Wessman


1Q84, Haruki Murakami (Harvill & Secker)




















One of the most fascinating explorations life and reality in novel form I've ever read. Murakami has really outdone himself with this one.

—Christopher Earle


The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the Twenty-First Century, Alex Prud'Homme (Scribner)

Because the entire planet needs to understand the fate of our water.

—Elizabeth Runnels Ondyak


Here Comes Trouble: Stories From My Life, Michael Moore (Grand Central Publishing)

Reading about Michael's life experiences could turn even the most hardcore teabagger into a tree-hugging progressive! OK, maybe not, but they're all very moving.

—Christopher Howard


Ready Player One, Ernest Cline (Crown Publishers, New York)

A young adult coming of age, hero-wins-all, and sweet love story folded into 1980's-era nostalgia (in its most idealized form) plot set in futuristic game/life-ing; in which most events and interactions occur in a cyberspace "game" that has become a substitution for reality.
—Bat Country


Swamplandia!, Karen Russell (Knopf)




















With a host of bizarre ingredients (a family alligator show, a young girl with a ghost boyfriend, a crazy Florida theme park), Russell cooks up one of the best and most touching coming-of-age stories I've read.

—Susan Mumpower-Spriggs


Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Manning Marable




















This seminal work analyzes the man in the context of his community and his family. Brilliant truth-telling.

—Susan Mumpower-Spriggs


The Art of Fielding, A Novel, Chad Harbach (Little, Brown and Company)

Makes me feel like books are still a thing.

—Brooke Shelby Biggs


How to Be A Woman, Caitlin Moran (Ebury Press) [Out in US in 2012]

Making women all over the UK laugh out loud in public.

—Constance Fleuriot


What It Is Like to Go to War, Karl Marlantes (Grove Press)

Something everyone who has been fortunate to avoid war should read. Karl served in the horror of Vietnam as a Marine Captain in the jungle. A must for all Americans!

—Jim Word

El Sicario, Room 164


80 minutes

In a motel room in or around Ciudad Juárez, a man in a black veil sits down to spill his guts. This sparse, haunting film, coproduced by Mother Jones contributor Charles Bowden, centers on a monologue delivered by a former sicario, a hit man for a Mexican drug cartel. In businesslike tones, he details his bloody career, from his recruitment as a teenager to his years of service to el patrón. He demonstrates how he nearly drowned one of his "patients" in the bathtub of this very room. But his calm wavers as he explains how he escaped the cartel, at least for now. "There are no borders for the narcotraffickers," he says. "Whenever they want to do something, they have the money to get it done by anybody, anywhere."

Alan Lomax, circa 1942.

In an age where Justin Bieber can skyrocket to the highest heights of pop consciousness thanks to a couple well-placed YouTube videos, we've forgotten how hard it once was to spread popular music to the populace it described. In the 1930's and '40's, while Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and others were crafting the folk songs that laid the foundation for uniquely American styles like rock and roll and the blues, they mostly sang in obscurity to local audiences in the country quarters where they lived. Recording equipment was bulky, fragile, and expensive, and those who could afford access to recorded music were listening mostly to European imports and early jazz. Thus, the music that best captured the lives of workaday Americans could only be heard by lucky locals in small-town dance halls and living rooms.  

Enter Alan Lomax, an upstart folklorist who in his early teens began to accompany his father John on expeditions across the country, recording the songs of poor farmers, prisoners, bar musicians, and others whose music would otherwise have faded like a melody in the wind. Lomax's road stories are captured in a book by Columbia University musicologist John Szwed's Alan Lomax, to be released in paperback tomorrow. 

Courtesy PenguinCourtesy Penguin

Lomax was born on the outskirts of Austin in 1915, into a family that worked on the fringes of Unversity of Texas academia; his father made his career collecting the songs of Texas cowboys. Until his death in 2002 at the age of 87, Alan Lomax produced thousands of field recordings, many specifically destined for the Library of Congress, and was the first to "discover" Guthrie, Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, Jelly Roll Morton, and Son House, among other folk musicians revered today. They were progenitors of the singer-songwriter type we know so well today, leaving an incalcuable impact on everyone from Bob Dylan to Kurt Cobain to Jack White

But the real import of Lomax's work goes beyond bringing backwoods folk singers into the limelight. At the heart of his mission was a fervent belief in the democratizing effect of folk music. The real point of lugging recording equipment over praries, swamps, and mountains was to capture the voices of "miners, lumbermen, sailors, soldiers, railroad men, blacks, and the down-and-outs, the hobos, convicts, bad girls, and dope fiends," and bring their stories, wrapped in song, to the ears of middle- and upper-class whites. America "was hungry for a vision of itself in song," Szwed writes, and Lomax was determined to feed it.

Mike D, Adrock, MCA of the Beastie Boys in Barcelona 2007

Reader's choice lists are so often middling disappointments, full of safe popular music that we've been tired of since July. But not this one. The diverse and thoughtful Facebook recommendations from Mother Jones readers have already provided hours of procrastination—ahem, research—on YouTube.  (If you don't already follow us on FB, sign up here.) No Gaga, Kanye, or Beyoncé—not that we don't love Beyoncé. So without further ado, here are your top albums picks for 2011. (And check out our top albums of 2011.)

Conventional wisdom is that people don't read long magazine stories online, but Mother Jones readers regularly prove otherwise. Every time we run a compelling, multipage article on our website, we find that many of you read all the way to the end…and comment, tweet, Facebook, and Tumble enthusiastically about details deep into the story. And what better time to curl up with a great read than over the holidays (including you lucky ones with new iPad 2s)? Below, a selection of our (and our readers') best-loved MoJo longreads from 2011. (Click here to see last year's list)

The Spam Factory's Dirty Secret
First, Hormel gutted the union. Then it sped up the line. And when the pig-brain machine made workers sick, they got canned.
By Ted Genoways

Why Screwing Unions Screws the Entire Middle Class
Plus: How much income have you given up for the top 1 percent?
By Kevin Drum

Aftershocks: Welcome to Haiti's Reconstruction Hell
Dispatches from the tent cities, where rape gangs and disaster profiteers roam.
By Mac McClelland

The Informants
The FBI has built a massive network of spies to prevent another domestic attack. But are they busting terrorist plots—or leading them?
By Trevor Aaronson

The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science
How our brains fool us on climate, creationism, and the vaccine-autism link.
By Chris Mooney

The Cruelest Show on Earth
Bullhooks. Whippings. Electric shocks. Three-day train rides without breaks. Our yearlong investigation rips the big top off how Ringling Bros. treats its elephants.
By Deborah Nelson

Climategate: What Really Happened?
How climate science became the target of "the best-funded, best-organized smear campaign by the wealthiest industry that the Earth has ever known."
By Kate Sheppard

Horror Stories From Tough-Love Teen Homes
Girls locked up inside fundamentalist religious compounds. Kandahar? No, Missouri.
By Kathryn Joyce

My Summer at an Indian Call Center
Lessons learned: Americans are hotheads, Australians are drunks—and never say where you're calling from.
By Andrew Marantz

Ohio's War on the Middle Class
Wherein I go home, watch public servants get axed, visit the warehouse of unbearable sorrow, hang with jobless thirtysomethings living in abandoned homes, and consider whether my generation is screwed.
By Mac McClelland

Bonus longread from the archive:

Newt Gingrich: Shining Knight of the Post-Reagan Right
A must read for 2011: Mother Jones' epic 1984 profile of Newt Gingrich.
By David Osborne


It's been a frustrating, gruelingly partisan, and very weird year in America. Pizza slinger extraordinaire Herman Cain actually rose to the top of the 2012 Republican presidential crop. The Obama administration felt compelled to assure us that war with alien life forms is not imminent. People freaked out over bestiality in the military. And let's not forget that Rocky is now being turned into a damn musical.

Surely, this holiday season is set to offer some semblance of calm and harmony, right? A few moments free from the year's deluge of political cheap shots and cultural mayhem?

Not on your life.

Here's a round-up of the 2011 Christmas season's strangest (and most painfully delightful) news stories, including the Michigan-Wisconsin mitten war and Santa Claus' machine-gun-fest for kids.

1. Conservatives Wage War on Obama's War on Christmas Trees

The narrative went something like this: Economic times are tough. Americans deserve a break during the holidays. Americans also deserve affordable prices on their Christmas trees. But the Obama administration is trying to slap on a new tax—on Christmas trees! Huh. Obama must really hate Christians, then. And Jesus. And America, too. Typical Kenyan Muslim. Aghghghahagh!!!

Cue Heritage Foundation blogger—and former legal counsel to Dick Cheney—David Addington, who posted in early November:

Just because the Obama Administration has the legal power to impose its Christmas Tree Tax doesn't mean it should do so.

The economy is barely growing and nine percent of the American people have no jobs. Is a new tax on Christmas trees the best President Obama can do?"

Scenes of a Crime


86 minutes

When Adrian Thomas slams that binder to the floor, we know he's toast. We've just seen excerpts from a 10-hour police interrogation where he not only confesses to killing his infant son but actually reenacts the crime. But wait: Could he have simply been acting out what the detectives said he'd done? Scenes of a Crime is a gripping study of how one homicide suspect is cajoled, soothed, threatened, and lied to in pursuit of a prosecutorial money shot. Once an exhausted and emotionally broken Thomas provides it, it's clear that all the physical evidence in the world won't save him. "False confession is probably the second leading cause of miscarriages of justice," explains Richard Ofshe, an expert on false memory. "Juries don't understand why an innocent person would confess."

Okay, it's a little unceremonious. But at the news of Kim Jong Il's death, we couldn't resist going back into the archives to disgorge this gem from the May/June 2003 issue. Enjoy. And for more KJI weirdness, go here.

Mr. Claus was not about to peaceably accept the onslaught of terrible seasonal pop songs played in his honor. The cops drew the line at public urination, though.

By now, it's almost impossible to remember a time when local radio stations weren't blasting Christmas/winter/secular-Santa music 24/7. You've probably heard the holiday stylings of Mariah Carey, Wham!, Miley Cyrus, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Gene Autry enough times in the past few weeks to recall the lyrics as well as you would your mother's maiden name.

And to get you through the remainder of the holiday blitz, here are seven Christmas songs that don't in fact suck. We've got Ike & Tina Turner, John Lennon, and oddball community college students from that NBC sitcom nobody watches. In the event that you are seeking more diversity in terms of musical epochs, many apologies in advance for most of these songs being of a "classic" variety. (Kings of Leon probably could've come up with a pretty sweet contemporary Xmas jingle, but it just so happens that they find the holiday hugely "depressing.")

1. James Brown, "Please Come Home for Christmas": This 1960 blues song by Charles Brown has been covered to death: Aaron Neville, Willie Nelson, Bon Jovi, the Eagles. But the Hardest Working Man in Show Business recorded the most tastefully ragged version. (As his final act of impeccable style, the Godfather of Soul died on Christmas Day 2006.)