Impressive research underlies a well-told story that’s simultaneously depressing (what a nasty species we are) and inspiring...

FREEDOM'S CAP

THE UNITED STATES CAPITOL AND THE COMING OF THE CIVIL WAR

Partisan bickering, back-stabbing rivalries, xenophobia, character assassination, political moves that would make Machiavelli blush—no, not Washington circa 2011, but the Washington Capitol in the 1850s.

Former Washington Post congressional correspondent Gugliotta (co-author: Kings of Cocaine, 1989) returns with a prodigiously researched, generously illustrated account of the transformation of the U. S. Capitol from a cramped, cold, noisy, inadequate and ugly structure into today’s massive marble symbol of democracy. For those knowing little about the building, there are surprises on virtually every page. As the nation careened toward the Civil War, it was Jefferson Davis who championed the Capitol’s cause, fighting for the funds that the enormous project required. The author begins in the mid-1850s with the issue of Thomas Crawford’s statue, Freedom, now perched atop the Capitol dome. The original design featured a figure wearing a freedom cap, symbol of a liberated slave. Davis had a problem with that (the cap doesn’t appear on the final figure), but the great contest that Gugliotta outlines was between Army engineer Montgomery C. Meigs and architect Thomas Ustick Walter, both of whom would, at times, have control of the project. Both had ferocious work ethics, as well as enormous egos; their struggle raged for years as they contended for credit for the work. Gugliotta pauses occasionally to provide necessary historical and architectural context—including stories about marble quarries and ironworks; John Brown (whom he labels a terrorist); Presidents Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan and Lincoln; and the many artisans and artists, principally Constantino Brumidi, whose massive work still astonishes visitors who look upward in the rotunda.

Impressive research underlies a well-told story that’s simultaneously depressing (what a nasty species we are) and inspiring (what a wonderful species we are).

Pub Date: March 6, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-8090-4681-2

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2011

The author’s compelling argument for Laguna Honda’s philosophy of “slow medicine” will make readers contemplate if perhaps...

GOD'S HOTEL

A DOCTOR, A HOSPITAL, AND A PILGRIMAGE TO THE HEART OF MEDICINE

A doctor’s experiences in a unique corner of the medical world.

At Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco, the doctors and nurses provide long-term care for the sick poor; the working and living environments are unlike that of any other hospital in the country. Physician Sweet accepted a job at Laguna Honda since they were willing to offer her a part-time position (extremely rare at the time), and she was interested in continuing to practice medicine while simultaneously pursuing a doctorate in the history of medicine. The author had come to realize that modern medicine did not mesh with her idea of being a physician, and she sought answers in the teachings of Hildegard of Bingen, a German nun who practiced medicine in the Middle Ages and who, miraculously, penned a medical textbook. Laguna Honda turned out to be the perfect place to put many of Hildegard’s ancient theories into practice. What was originally supposed to be a monthslong stopover turned into a career spanning more than 20 years and countless life-altering realizations about the nature of medicine. Sweet writes of Laguna Honda with unguarded affection, but she doesn’t gloss over the negative phases. She is remarkably honest about the darker side of her experiences at the hospital: the patients who couldn’t be saved, patients whose bad behavior was openly tolerated (smoking, drinking, gambling, etc.), the political infighting among the staff and bad managerial decisions. In the dozen or so patient success stories, Sweet’s warm, anecdotal style shines brightest.

The author’s compelling argument for Laguna Honda’s philosophy of “slow medicine” will make readers contemplate if perhaps the body should be viewed more as a garden to be tended rather than a machine to be fixed.

Pub Date: April 26, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-59448-843-6

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Oct. 18, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2011

Gritty, gripping and often heartbreaking—an impressive piece of narrative nonfiction.

BEAUTIFUL THING

INSIDE THE SECRET WORLD OF BOMBAY'S DANCE BARS

A harsh, cinematic look at the international sex trade.

In 2005, Vogue contributing editor Faleiro (The Girl, 2008) met the beautiful, charismatic Leela, "the highest-paid bar dancer” in her Bombay suburb. Leela brought Faleiro into her world, an environment filled with sleazy johns, frightening pimps and, of course, other exploited young women who were trapped in a life of stripping and/or prostitution. When Bombay's strip-club scene crashed and almost burned, Faleiro followed Leela's quest to rebuild her life. Leela was happy to let the author report on her adventures, and the result is a glimpse into a frightening subculture unlike anything that a typical American has ever experienced. Originally published in India in 2010, the book has become an international sensation; after only a few pages, it's easy to understand why. With crackling prose, Faleiro provides an intense, disconcertingly entertaining glimpse into the shadowy corners of a foreign culture; the fast-paced narrative, while undeniably journalistic, reads like a thriller. But what ultimately gives the book its resonance is Faleiro's empathy and love for her fully developed subjects. In lesser hands, these young people could have come off as clichés, but the author makes sure we care for them and root for them to survive a life that most will never understand.

Gritty, gripping and often heartbreaking—an impressive piece of narrative nonfiction.

Pub Date: March 6, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-8021-7092-7

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Black Cat/Grove

Review Posted Online: Jan. 24, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2012

The best book yet written on India in the throes of a brutal transition.

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BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS

LIFE, DEATH, AND HOPE IN A MUMBAI UNDERCITY

In her debut, Pulitzer Prize–winning New Yorker staff writer Boo creates an intimate, unforgettable portrait of India’s urban poor.

Mumbai’s sparkling new airport and surrounding luxury hotels welcome visitors to the globalized, privatized, competitive India. Across the highway, on top of tons of garbage and next to a vast pool of sewage, lies the slum of Annawadi, one of many such places that house the millions of poor of Mumbai. For more than three years, Boo lived among and learned from the residents, observing their struggles and quarrels, listening to their dreams and despair, recording it all. She came away with a detailed portrait of individuals daring to aspire but too often denied a chance—their lives viewed as an embarrassment to the modernized wealthy. The author poignantly details these many lives: Abdul, a quiet buyer of recyclable trash who wished for nothing more than what he had; Zehrunisa, Abdul’s mother, a Muslim matriarch among hostile Hindu neighbors; Asha, the ambitious slum leader who used her connections and body in a vain attempt to escape from Annawadi; Manju, her beautiful, intelligent daughter whose hopes lay in the new India of opportunity; Sunil, the master scavenger, a little boy who would not grow; Meena, who drank rat poison rather than become a teenage bride in a remote village; Kalu, the charming garbage thief who was murdered and left by the side of the road. Boo brilliantly brings to life the residents of Annawadi, allowing the reader to know them and admire the fierce intelligence that allows them to survive in a world not made for them.

The best book yet written on India in the throes of a brutal transition.

Pub Date: Feb. 7, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6755-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Nov. 21, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2011

A profound demonstration of what needs to be recognized, reconciled and forgiven if current crises are to be overcome.

HAITI

THE AFTERSHOCKS OF HISTORY

A vigorous retelling of Haiti's history intended to revive the promise of the world's first black-led republic.

This is not a story of the decline of a small nation, but an inspiring account of the struggle against adversity for freedom and independence. Dubois (History and French Studies/Duke Univ.; Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France, 2010, etc.) narrates the story of Toussaint Louverture’s leadership of the slave population of France's most profitable colony to independence in 1791, emancipation in 1793 and recognition by the government in 1794. The author also examines how Napoleon reversed independence and sent an army that was crushed in 1804 by Louverture and his collaborators and successors; how the Congress of Vienna secretly gave France the right to invade the country; and how Haiti was excluded from the Monroe Doctrine. Haiti was free, but a free country established by former black slaves—they had transgressed an order based not only on plantation slavery, but also racism. Invasion, blockade and isolation were used to deny Haitians their place among the free nations of the world; the United States did not recognize the country until Abraham Lincoln became president in 1860. Haiti endured until the U.S. Marines were sent to steal the country's gold and occupy the island in 1915. Franklin Roosevelt took credit for rewriting the constitution, and corporate-owned plantation-based production was reintroduced to replace the family-based system of land tenure. As Dubois writes, “the occupation propelled Haiti's political system backward by a century,” and the country has not been permitted to recover to the present.

A profound demonstration of what needs to be recognized, reconciled and forgiven if current crises are to be overcome.

Pub Date: Jan. 3, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-8050-9335-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: Oct. 18, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2011

Exceptional observations of the biological world worthy of any naturalist’s library.

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THE FOREST UNSEEN

A YEAR'S WATCH IN NATURE

An extraordinary, intimate view of life in an old-growth forest.

“Can the whole forest be seen through a small contemplative window of leaves, rocks, and water?” This is the question Haskell (Biology/Univ. of the South) set out to answer by examining one square meter of old-growth Tennessee woods. Highly informative and entertaining, these short essays are dense with sensory details and deserve to be read slowly and carefully. The sights, smells and sounds of the forest permeate the pages, bringing readers face to face with a panoply of simple natural wonders: leaves, wildflowers, mosses, ferns, snails, salamanders, deer and more. Throughout an entire calendar year, Haskell scrutinizes this “mandala” of space, connecting the microcosm of birds, plants and animals in this patch of woods to the macrocosm of the outer world. This in-depth look into the natural biosphere emphasizes the idea that nothing—not even the small microbes that exist in the leaf litter—lives unrelated or unconnected to any other thing. What happens in this old forest is affected by and will in turn affect other parts of the planet. Even as Haskell discovered an "ecological and evolutionary kinship with the forest," he also realized "an equally powerful sense of otherness...a realization of the enormity of [his] ignorance…[where] simple enumeration and naming of the mandala’s inhabitants lie far beyond [his] reach." Equally as informative as and far more enjoyable than any biology textbook, the book provides valuable insight and perspective on a world that is often missed in the bustle of modern society.

Exceptional observations of the biological world worthy of any naturalist’s library.

Pub Date: March 19, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-670-02337-0

Page Count: 260

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Dec. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2012

A transformative work that joins the hands of Art and Science and makes them acknowledge their close kinship.

THE AGE OF INSIGHT

THE QUEST TO UNDERSTAND THE UNCONSCIOUS IN ART, MIND, AND BRAIN, FROM VIENNA 1900 TO THE PRESENT

In a polymathic performance, a Nobel laureate weaves together the theories and practices of neuroscience, art and psychology to show how our creative brains perceive and engage art—and are consequently moved by it.

Kandel (Biochemistry and Biophysics/Columbia Univ. College of Physicians; In Search of Memory, 2006, etc.) is uniquely equipped for this vast task. Born in Vienna, a collector of Klimt and Kokoschka, a scientist of the first rank, the author possesses in abundance the myriad requirements for such an integrative enterprise. Moving seamlessly and effortlessly between the worlds of art and science, Kandel begins with a look at the art world of Vienna, 1900. Then it’s off to Freud, whose theories and discoveries the author treats with great respect, awarding credit where it’s due, noting but not condemning errors. Kandel also glances at innovations in literature, especially the technique of interior monologue pioneered by Arthur Schnitzler in his Lieutenant Gustl (1900). Some sexy chapters ensue as Kandel discusses sexuality in art, and sex remains a leitmotif. He looks at how painters reveal the interior states of their subjects, and he examines the theories and discoveries of neuroscientists—though he continually returns to the art world for illustration, elaboration and example. Kandel reminds us that the brain creates the world for us: Our poor eyes bring in only a fraction of what’s there; the brain assembles and interprets, using memory as a principal guide. Readers will also learn how artists can make a subject’s eyes seem to follow the viewer, how scientists have used animals and imaging to explore the brain, and how artists employ models’ faces, hands and attitude to affect us, to prompt our empathy. In addition, Kandel investigates the nature of creativity.

A transformative work that joins the hands of Art and Science and makes them acknowledge their close kinship.

Pub Date: March 27, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6871-5

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Dec. 18, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2012

As exciting, sprawling and multifarious as a shining city on a hill.

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CITY

A USER'S GUIDE TO THE PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE OF URBAN LIFE

Smith (Doomsday Men: The Real Dr. Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon, 2007, etc.) composes a polyphonic paean to our urban past, present and future.

More than once in this ambitious text, the author declares that “cities are our greatest creation”—here he emerges as urbanology’s head cheerleader. Each section focuses on a specific aspect of urban life (hotels, skyscrapers, entertainment, etc.) and offers both a brisk history and a current assessment. Throughout this literary and culturally hip book, Smith distributes numerous sidebars, from the history of the parking meter (born in Oklahoma City) to red-light districts. He alludes to Melville (the first to use in print the word “down-town”), Dickens, Poe, Henry James (who didn’t like skyscrapers); he mentions films like Metropolis, Blade Runner and Dirty Harry. The long section about the possible effects of global warming on city life, especially in coastal areas, will probably not sit well with warming’s deniers—oh well. Although Smith often waxes lyrical about city life (he’s a lover in complete thrall), especially about such features as public parks, libraries, museums and street food, he does not neglect the dark side. One disgusting detail: the sewer lines clogged with fat that lie beneath areas featuring lots of fast-food restaurants. The author provides statistics when he needs them—about half of the world’s population now lives in cities (by 2050, he thinks it will be 75 percent)—and a section, both gloomy and upbeat, about urban ruins (e.g., Pompeii and Detroit). Smith writes sensitively about the best of places (Masdar City in Abu Dhabi—a planned community) and the worst (the Dharavi slum in Mumbai) and only neglects bridges and tunnels—a city book minus London and Brooklyn bridges!

As exciting, sprawling and multifarious as a shining city on a hill.

Pub Date: June 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-60819-676-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: March 5, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2012

Subtitled “A Comic Drama,” the narrative provides even fewer laughs than its predecessor but deeper introspection.

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ARE YOU MY MOTHER?

A COMIC DRAMA

A psychologically complex, ambitious, illuminating successor to the author’s graphic-memoir masterpiece.

Though Bechdel had previously enjoyed a cult following with her long-standing comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, she raised the bar for graphic narrative with her book debut, Fun Home (2006). That memoir detailed her childhood in the family’s funeral home, her closeted and emotionally distant father’s bisexuality, his questionable death (an accident that was most likely a suicide) and the author’s own coming to terms with her sexuality. On the surface, this is the “mom book” following the previous “dad book.” Yet it goes more deeply into the author’s own psychology (her therapy, dreams, relationships) and faces a fresh set of challenges. For one thing, the author’s mother is not only still alive, but also had very mixed feelings about how much Bechdel had revealed about the family in the first volume. For another, the author’s relationship with her mother—who withheld verbal expressions of love and told her daughter she was too old to be tucked in and kissed goodnight when she turned 7—is every bit as complicated as the one she detailed with her father. Thus, Bechdel not only searches for keys to their relationship, but perhaps even for surrogate mothers, through therapy, girlfriends and the writings of Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich, Alice Miller and others. Yet the primary inspiration in this literary memoir is psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, whose life and work Bechdel explores along with her own. Incidentally, the narrative also encompasses the writing of and response to Fun Home, a work that changed the author’s life and elevated her career to a whole new level.  She writes that she agonized over the creation of this follow-up for four years. It is a book she had to write, though she struggled mightily to figure out how to write it.

Subtitled “A Comic Drama,” the narrative provides even fewer laughs than its predecessor but deeper introspection.

Pub Date: May 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-618-98250-9

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2012

With humor and verve, Maddow lays a solid basis for that hoped-for interview with Cheney (fingers crossed).

DRIFT

THE UNMOORING OF AMERICAN MILITARY POWER

In her hard-hitting debut, popular MSNBC host Maddow examines how the country has lost control of its national-security policy.

The author holds Dick Cheney, to whom the book is dedicated (“Oh please let me interview you”), responsible for much that has gone wrong, associating the former vice president with the presidential prerogative of war-making powers. Cheney, writes Maddow, had been nursing these ideas since his days as chief of staff to President Gerald Ford, and he elaborated on them in his minority report on congressional investigation into the Iran-Contra affair. American forces are now accompanied by an equal or greater number of private contractors who perform functions that used to be reserved to the military, without either accountability or military control. The author shows how Bill Clinton used contractors extensively in Bosnia to avoid political fallout. These contractors, writes Maddow, typify the way in which the bonds that used to unite the military to the rest of society have been systematically severed, weakening political discussion and control. During the Vietnam War, Gen. Creighton Abrams and others reformed the structure of the military to make going to war without calling up the reserves and the National Guard—thereby guaranteeing national debate—very difficult, but these checks and balances have broken down. Maddow documents how the budgetary element has also gone out of control and raises important questions about the safety of the nuclear arsenal. She grounds her argument in the Founding Fathers’ debates about going to war and how difficult they intended to make the process—a state of affairs that is opposite to what is represented now.

With humor and verve, Maddow lays a solid basis for that hoped-for interview with Cheney (fingers crossed).

Pub Date: April 3, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-307-46098-1

Page Count: 280

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 20, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2012

DARWIN'S GHOSTS

THE SECRET HISTORY OF EVOLUTION

Stott (English Literature and Creative Writing/Univ. of East Anglia; The Coral Thief, 2009, etc.) conjures up the spirits of Darwin's scientific predecessors in this excellent follow-up to Darwin and the Barnacle (2003).

When Darwin finally published On the Origins of Species in 1859, he knew he would become the center of passionate debate and possibly even prosecution. However, he did not expect to be charged with “failing to acknowledge his predecessors”—a quotation from a letter sent to him by an Oxford geometry professor, Rev. Baden Powell, who himself faced the possibility of prosecution for heresy. In the first authorized American edition of his iconic work, Darwin attempted to rectify the situation by including a list of his predecessors. Stott amplifies Darwin's list and provides a lively account of the “pathfinders, iconoclasts, and innovators” who were Darwin's spiritual kin over the preceding 2,000 years. She chronicles their lives as they struggled to understand the relationship between extinct and existing species, including humans; she also examines the political and religious persecution they faced from their opponents. Stott begins with Aristotle, who was forced into exile on the island of Lesbos, where he stayed for four years. He dissected birds and fish and puzzled over sponges, which had characteristics of both animals and vegetables. Another of Darwin’s kindred spirits was Benoit de Maillet, who by the mid-18th century had assembled geological and fossil findings to substantiate his claim that the earth was billions of years old and that land species had evolved from sea creatures. Unfortunately, as Darwin learned after including Maillet on the list, Maillet also reported sightings of mermen. The author also includes discussions of, among others, Leonardo da Vinci, Swiss naturalist Abraham Trembley and the ninth-century Islamic philologist and lexicographer known as al-Jahiz. Stott masterfully shows how Darwin, by discovering the mechanism of natural selection, made a unique contribution, but he did not stand alone—nor did he claim to.

 

Pub Date: June 12, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6937-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: March 5, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2012

Bold, gripping, original and occasionally darkly funny.

AFTERMATH

ON MARRIAGE AND SEPARATION

A novelist's unflinching analysis of her failed marriage.

Cusk (The Bradshaw Variations, 2010, etc.) fixes an unnervingly steady gaze on the breakdown of her domestic life. “There was nothing left to dismantle,” she writes, “except the children, and that would require the intervention of science.” In her third memoir, the author brings together elements of a well-constructed novel—it’s compelling and even thrilling, despite the fact that the story is unsurprising and banal (man meets woman, and they create a family; family falls apart; man, woman and children grieve)—and its novelistic feel is a credit to Cusk's literary risk-taking. She doesn't tell her tale straight; instead, she weaves in figures from ancient Greek drama (Oedipus, Antigone, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra) and thickens the bare-bones plot with striking, elaborate turns of phrase and powerful images. The last and most unorthodox chapter is told, by Cusk, from the perspective of her au pair Sonia, a scared, scarred girl whom the author abruptly fired when her husband left (though she did provide her with another job). What is most startling about the Sonia chapter is not that the self-sufficient, Oxford-educated Cusk so convincingly inhabits the mind of an unskilled, young foreigner, but that she is willing to expose herself at her worst: cold, harsh, pitiless and even cruel to a woman far more vulnerable than she.

Bold, gripping, original and occasionally darkly funny.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-374-10213-5

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 21, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2012

Superbly crafted tale of Cold War America’s dark underside.

FULL BODY BURDEN

GROWING UP IN THE NUCLEAR SHADOW OF ROCKY FLATS

A harrowing account of Colorado’s Rocky Flats plutonium plant by a woman who grew up nearby.

In 1951, in a cow pasture outside Denver, the U.S. government broke ground for a secret Cold War nuclear weapons facility that would manufacture plutonium triggers for atomic bombs. Owned by the Atomic Energy Commission, the plant produced more than 70,000 fissionable triggers and considerable radioactive and toxic waste. Iversen (Creative Writing/Univ. of Memphis; Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth, 1999) grew up in a new suburban development three miles from the plant, totally unaware—like her family’s neighbors—of what went on there. In a gripping narrative that intersperses stories of the Rocky Flats plant and her family life, the author describes how an astonishing habit of silence flourished in the community, which would not permit suspicions about the cluster of gray concrete buildings to shatter its idyllic 1950s suburban innocence. The same silence reigned at home, where Iversen and her siblings were expected to overlook their father’s alcoholism and their mother’s pill popping. In 1969, after a second plutonium fire, the AEC admitted that Rocky Flats worked with plutonium but claimed this posed no threat to the public, a position the government maintained for years. This exquisitely researched book details official efforts to hide the plant’s toxic dangers; health researchers’ efforts to expose a rising incidence of cancer deaths; massive protests involving Daniel Ellsberg and others aimed at closing the plant; the 1989 joint FBI-EPA investigation of environmental crimes at Rocky Flats; and local residents’ later tumultuous class-action court battle. In 1990, Iversen took a secretarial job at the plant and began gathering information for this extraordinary book. “Nearly every family we grew up with has been affected by cancer in some way,” she writes. In 2007, after a cleanup, most of Rocky Flats was set aside for use as a wildlife refuge.

Superbly crafted tale of Cold War America’s dark underside.

Pub Date: June 5, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-307-95563-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: May 2, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2012

A vital, essential addition to the shelf of great books about New Orleans.

ERNIE K-DOE

THE R&B EMPEROR OF NEW ORLEANS

A vital, loving chronicle of the colorful life and frequently hard times of the New Orleans R&B singer and self-styled “Emperor of the Universe.”

To many, Ernie K-Doe (1936–2001) is a one-hit wonder: His evergreen oldie “Mother-in-Law” topped the pop and R&B charts in 1961. But to New Orleans journalist Sandmel (Zydeco!, 1999), the vocalist was much more, and this smart, funny and richly designed and illustrated book makes a rousing case for the musician as a quintessential Crescent City figure. Born Ernest Kador Jr. in the city’s Charity Hospital, K-Doe authored his hit single and other lively R&B tracks for local Minit Records, but a follow-up smash proved elusive. While he maintained a hometown profile as a hardworking performer in the James Brown/Joe Tex mold, K-Doe was best known for years as a DJ on New Orleans’ WWOZ. There, his lunatic manner, unique lexicon and stream-of-consciousness raps cemented his status as a NoLa institution. Megalomania, alcoholism and a propensity for professional bridge-burning left him virtually homeless by the late ’80s. However, he enjoyed a second act in the ’90s after he opened his famed Mother-in-Law Lounge with wife Antoinette, who restored him personally and professionally. The club, which often doubled as the K-Does’ living room, attracted a crowd of tourists, oddball locals, young musicians and journalists (including the New York Times’ Neil Strauss, who had a notorious set-to with the eccentric proprietors while on assignment in 2000). K-Doe’s saga didn’t end with his death: He maintained a bizarre afterlife at the Mother-in-Law and around town in the form of a life-sized sculpture created by local artist Jason Poirier. Though severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina, the lounge was restored and run by Antoinette until her death in 2009. Despite a multitude of personal faults, K-Doe emerges here as hilarious, complex and indomitable—a larger-than-life character altogether worthy of inclusion in the pantheon of his city’s oversized musical titans.

A vital, essential addition to the shelf of great books about New Orleans.

Pub Date: April 11, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-917860-60-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: The Historic New Orleans Collection

Review Posted Online: April 1, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2012

An innovative, marvelous book about comedy, stereotypes and the struggle to steer through the sometimes-fierce internal...

DARKEST AMERICA

BLACK MINSTRELSY FROM SLAVERY TO HIP-HOP

A provocative, compelling exploration of one of the most controversial elements of the black entertainment world.

Chicago Review Press senior editor Taylor and Roctober magazine editor Austen explore the long history not only of African-American involvement in minstrel performances, but also of black-derived comedy that utilizes elements from the minstrel act—exaggerated stereotypes of the black experience that hearken back to the minstrel shows of the 19th century. More precisely, the authors examine the debates over these myriad forms of entertainment and the accusations of minstrelsy that have often embroiled black entertainers and intellectuals in fevered debates over the nature and depiction of the black experience. Taylor and Austen deftly argue that African-Americans have taken on perceived minstrelsy in one of three ways. The first has been simply to embrace such forms of entertainment and comedy. The second has been to signify on them—i.e., to engage in self-aware parody and wry utilization of elements of minstrelsy to make a larger point. The third approach involves waging war on such stereotypes, which often leads to heated accusations and counterattacks. The authors take a kaleidoscopic look at their topic, emphasizing a diverse range of individuals and works, including blackface entertainer Bert Williams, writers Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, Stanley Crouch’s attacks on Tupac Shakur as a “thug minstrel,” Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled and comedian Dave Chappelle’s self-exile when he reached the conclusion that his own work had moved uncomfortably from comedy about stereotyping to enabling the very stereotypes he was combating.

An innovative, marvelous book about comedy, stereotypes and the struggle to steer through the sometimes-fierce internal debates over African-American identity in a society still struggling with its racial past.

Pub Date: Aug. 27, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-393-07098-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: June 17, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2012

AS TEXAS GOES...

HOW THE LONE STAR STATE HIJACKED THE AMERICAN AGENDA

New York Times political columnist Collins (When Everything ChangedThe Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, 2009, etc.) zeroes in on what makes Texas so important and why the rest of the country needs to know and care about what’s happening there.

Texans, writes the author, think they live in a wide-open empty space where carrying a concealed weapon is acceptable because people have to take care of themselves and the government has no business telling them what to do. In her inimitable style, the unabashed liberal examines the shenanigans of Texans from four angles: first, a hilarious look at some of Texas’ past heroes and present politicos and at how the empty-space ethos has shaped the state’s policies; second, a close-up examination of several areas where she says the state has gone wildly, sadly wrong (its deregulation of financial markets, attempts at reforming schools and funding, or defunding, education, and major missteps on sex education, energy, the environment, pollution and global climate change); third, a scathing report on the two-tiered, low-tax, low-service economy of the state; and finally, Collins’ take on where Texas, soon to be a Hispanic-majority state, is heading. The author loads her report with funny but dismaying anecdotes and dozens of revealing interviews. She does not neglect the hard facts. An appendix includes “Texas on the Brink,” a report compiled by the Legislative Study Group of the Texas House of Representatives. It gives an especially grim picture of the failings of our second-largest state. Among the states, it is first in executions and in the amount of carbon dioxide emissions but 45th in SAT scores and 49th in the percentage of low-income people covered by Medicaid. In Collins' view, the rest of us feel the influence of Texas in our lives every day, and “if Texas goes south, it’s taking us along.” A timely portrait of Texas delivered with Collins’ unique brand of insightful humor.

 

Pub Date: June 4, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-87140-407-7

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: April 30, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2012

Less self-absorbed than Luis Alberto Urrea, less cynical than Charles Bowden, less otherly obsessed than William...

DESERT AMERICA

BOOM AND BUST IN THE NEW "NEW WEST"

A savage journey into terror, cacti, drugs, desperation and all-around anomie in the superheated atmosphere of the desert Southwest.

Go east of Los Angeles 100 miles and you’re in downtown Tweakerville, an area full of meth labs, bad vibes and bad attitudes. The desert runs all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, and Martínez (Literature and Writing/Loyola Marymount Univ.; Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail, 2001, etc.) makes it his beat. The narrative begins in Albuquerque, a city that “cannot imagine itself a city because to do so would negate its reason for being.” It moves, subtly and without much fanfare, from the Southwest of the boom years, when the population of the region grew by 25 percent in just a decade, to the Southwest of today, a place of abandoned suburbs and forgotten hopes. Some of the ports of call are familiar—Joshua Tree, El Paso—and others not, but what sets Martínez’s journey apart is its philosophical underpinnings, the governing question being, “Who belongs here and who doesn’t?” By that reckoning, the adobe shacks, tattered palm trees and sun-bitten desert flats are all perfectly at home, whereas such things as the Santa Fe Opera, and most of Phoenix, and walls and fences that run parallel to the international line…well, not so much. As for the people, Martínez finds room for the likes of Mary Austin and Charles Lummis alongside the Native Americans and Latinos who have made the desert home for centuries. It is the latter people who are forgotten; toward the end of the book, for instance, the author quietly contrasts the well-heeled confines of Marfa, Texas, with the rest of Presidio County, half of whose people live in poverty.

Less self-absorbed than Luis Alberto Urrea, less cynical than Charles Bowden, less otherly obsessed than William Vollmann—and right in the pocket, a necessary chronicle of a weird corner of America.

Pub Date: Aug. 7, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-8050-7977-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: July 7, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2012

A call for a new American revolution, passionately proclaimed.

DAYS OF DESTRUCTION, DAYS OF REVOLT

An unabashedly polemic, angry manifesto that is certain to open eyes, intensify outrage and incite argument about corporate greed.

In the proud populist tradition of Howard Zinn (whose A People’s History of the United States provides a foundation for this book), a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and a renowned cartoonist combine their talents for an illumination of the American underbelly, as the exploitation of a perpetual (and growing) underclass makes the “sacrifice zones” of global capitalism seem like Dante’s circles of hell. Truthdig columnist Hedges (Death of the Liberal Class, 2010) was a foreign correspondent for the New York Times and other newspapers, though he plainly feels that advocacy can come closer to the truth than what passes for journalistic objectivity. Sacco (Journalism, 2012, etc.) shared the American Book Award for Palestine (2002) and has subsequently earned considerable acclaim for his graphic narratives of war zones. Though the team has plenty of experience with international warfare, the war they document here is in America, where “[c]orporate capitalism will, quite literally, kill us, as it has killed Native Americans, African Americans trapped in our internal colonies in the inner cities, those left behind in the devastated coalfields, and those who live as serfs in our nation’s produce fields.” Through immersion reportage and graphic narrative, the duo illuminate the human and environmental devastation in those communities, with the warning that no one is immune. “The ruthless hunt for profit creates a world where everything and everyone is expendable…it has enriched a tiny global elite that has no loyalty to the nation-state,” writes Hedges. “These corporations, if we use the language of patriotism, are traitors.” While finding some surprising pockets of hope within communities that are otherwise steeped in despair, the pair reserve their concluding glimmer of optimism for the Occupy movement. Otherwise, they find no hope in politics as usual, depicting Democrats and Republicans as equally complicit in policies that benefit the few at the expense of the many.

A call for a new American revolution, passionately proclaimed.

Pub Date: June 18, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-56858-643-4

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Nation Books

Review Posted Online: April 30, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2012

Brown is as smart as he is puckish, and there are plenty of laughs on this terrific trip through modern fame.

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HELLO GOODBYE HELLO

A CIRCLE OF 101 REMARKABLE MEETINGS

A hilarious collection of strange-but-true tales of encounters between the rich and famous.

BBC Radio Host, Daily Mail columnist and all-around English wit Brown (The Lost Diaries, 2010, etc.) delivers a fine and funny assortment of oddball celebrity meetings and matchups. Some are well-known, such as when a drug-addled Elvis Presley met Richard Nixon, or Marilyn Monroe snuggled up to visiting Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. At least one is historically important: when Prince Felix Youssoupoff lured Grigori Rasputin to his death. Most, however, are delightfully inconsequential, whether it’s Harpo Marx driving Sergei Rachmaninoff bonkers with his harp playing, Sarah Miles sharing tea with a thigh-squeezing nonagenarian named Bertrand Russell, or Leonard Cohen having a quickie with Janis Joplin (and getting a song out of it). Some encounters go off without a hitch, such as between mutual admirers Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain. Others slightly misfire; Groucho Marx tries to impress dinner companion T.S. Eliot by quoting The Waste Land, only to find the poet “was thoroughly familiar with his poems and didn’t need me to recite them.” At least they talked, which is barely more than can be said for James Joyce and Marcel Proust. There are also plenty of bad dates, whether it’s Madonna snatching off Michael Jackson’s glasses and sailing them across the room, Isadora Duncan tempting Auguste Rodin with her perfect young body, or Allen Ginsberg making an awkward pass at Francis Bacon.

Brown is as smart as he is puckish, and there are plenty of laughs on this terrific trip through modern fame.

Pub Date: Aug. 7, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4516-8360-8

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 13, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2012

Cleareyed, compassionate and hopeful.

FIRE IN THE ASHES

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AMONG THE POOREST CHILDREN IN AMERICA

The award-winning author of Death at an Early Age (1967) tells the stories of the later lives of poor children who grew up in the Bronx.

Kozol (Letters to a Young Teacher, 2007, etc.) has worked with children in inner-city schools for 50 years. In this engaging, illuminating, often moving book, he recounts the lives of poor black and Latino children—many now close friends—who once lived in Manhattan’s Martinique Hotel and were relocated in the late 1980s, upon the closing of that crowded and filthy shelter, to Mott Haven, a poor Bronx neighborhood. As the children grew into young adulthood, Kozol kept in touch with them and their families through visits, emails and phone calls. In a series of intimate portraits, he describes the astonishing odds the children faced and how many managed, with the critical help of mentors and caring others, to achieve successful lives, both in the conventional sense of graduating from college, but above all, by becoming kind and loving human beings. There is Leonardo, recruited by a New England boarding school, where he emerged as a leader; the introspective Jeremy, who befriended a Puerto Rican poet, got through college and took a job at a Mott Haven church that is central to the lives of many; and the buoyant, winning Pineapple, whose Guatemalan parents provide the emotional security of a warm home. “I’m going to give a good life to my children,” says Lisette, 24, after her troubled brother’s suicide. “I have to do it.  I’m the one who made it through.” Some children are still struggling to find their way, writes the author, but they do so with “the earnestness and elemental kindness” that he first saw in them years ago.

Cleareyed, compassionate and hopeful.

Pub Date: Aug. 28, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4000-5246-2

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: July 7, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2012

An engrossing biography of a woman worthy of iconic status.

DEARIE

THE REMARKABLE LIFE OF JULIA CHILD

Published to coincide with what would have been her 100th birthday, this biography of the iconic Julia Child (1912–2004) does full justice to its complex subject.

Spitz (The Saucier's Apprentice: One Long Strange Trip through the Great Cooking Schools of Europe, 2008, etc.) describes the “irrepressible reality” of Child, who became a TV superstar, effectively launching “public television into the spotlight, big-time.” In his view, the 1961 publication of her book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, came at just the right time. Americans were tired of the preceding “era of dreary button-down conformity,” and they were ready for a gastronomic revolution. Frustrated housewives reading Betty Friedan's groundbreaking The Feminine Mystique welcomed the larger-than-life personality and showmanship of this tall, outspoken woman as she demonstrated the intricacies of French recipes with what appeared to be blithe disregard when things went wrong. Child reveled in her celebrity status, but this was only one aspect of her complex personality. Like most women of her generation born in traditional upper-middle-class homes, she was not expected to have an independent career. A wartime stint in the OSS was liberating. Not only did she hold a highly responsible job, but she met and married career diplomat Paul Child, moving with him to France. Popular accounts of her life, including the book and film Julie and Julia, describe her enchantment with French haute cuisine and her determination to master the skills of a top chef. Spitz captures another side of her complex personality: her fierce diligence in mastering the science as well as the art of cooking through detailed experimentation and her concern to translate the preparation of complex French recipes for readers in America—an attention to detail that carried over to her TV programs.

An engrossing biography of a woman worthy of iconic status.

Pub Date: Aug. 15, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-307-27222-5

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: June 17, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2012

Such a large historical project could have easily descended into tedious and dry academia, but instead, all three volumes...

CITY OF PROMISES

A HISTORY OF THE JEWS IN NEW YORK

This ambitious three-volume history, overseen by Moore (Judaic Studies and History/Univ. of Michigan; American Jewish Identity Politics, 2008, etc.), provides a lively, much-needed overview of the role that Jews have played in the history and success of the Big Apple, helping to transform it into “a city of promises, some fulfilled, some pending, some beckoning new generations.”

The first volume, Haven of Liberty: New York Jews in the New World, 1654-1865, by Rock (History/Florida International Univ.; Cityscapes, 2001, etc.), traces the history of New York Jews back to the first Dutch Jews who settled in the New Amsterdam colony in the mid-17th century, where they fought for the rights to own real estate and run businesses. As the years went by, Jewish-owned businesses prospered despite widespread anti-Semitism, as the city as a whole grew into an economic powerhouse. The volume also covers the rise of Reform Judaism and, later, disputes within the community regarding slavery. In Emerging Metropolis, New York Jews in the Age of Immigration, 1840-1920, Polland, the vice president of education for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (Landmark of the Spirit: The Eldridge Street Synagogue, 2008), and Soyer (History/Fordham Univ.) show how the influx of immigrant Jews from Europe changed the city, as Jewish organizations proliferated and the community began to make itself felt in city politics, journalism and the arts. In the third volume, Jews in Gotham: New York Jews in a Changing City, 1920-2010, Gurock (Jewish History/Yeshiva Univ.; Orthodox Jews in America, 2009, etc.) examines a range of engaging issues, including the community’s growth in Queens and suburbia, crises such as the 1991 Crown Heights riot, and Jewish feminism. Each volume also includes a vibrant photo- and illustration-packed “visual essay” by art historian Linden, which ably supplements and enriches the text. 

Such a large historical project could have easily descended into tedious and dry academia, but instead, all three volumes are briskly paced, well-researched and insightful. Aficionados of urban histories, in particular, will find much to enjoy.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-8147-1731-8

Page Count: 1050

Publisher: New York Univ.

Review Posted Online: July 7, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2012

Alternately sad, defiant, carefree and understated, this journey into a world hidden in plain sight is well worth taking.

A FREE MAN

A TRUE STORY OF LIFE AND DEATH IN DELHI

A journalist ingratiates himself with a band of day laborers on the mean streets of Delhi, India.

In 2005, Sethi, a young reporter eager to undertake an investigative study of Delhi’s working poor, befriended vagabond Mohammed Ashraf and his crew. Six years later, he found himself still involved in Ashraf’s life, providing him with both emotional and financial support. Although Sethi initially expressed frustration with Ashraf’s reluctance to provide a linear timeline of his life story, he soon fell under the spell cast by this streetwise raconteur. Like many others in his circle, Ashraf had run away to Delhi to escape a tempestuous home life. During times when he could find work, he painted houses and did other manual odd jobs; during times when there was either no work to be had or no work that he wanted, he drank heavily, spun tall tales and fantasized about opening his own business. Sethi excels at empathetically depicting what could come across as a miserable existence: he allows Ashraf and the other mazdoors (laborers) to share their stories without either judging them or pretending to be one of them. For all the injustices that these men face every day, the book offers ample humor. In the most poignant chapters, Sethi accompanies Ashraf’s friend to a tuberculosis hospital. The bureaucracy and despair of such an institution becomes painfully clear when Sethi portrays the panel of admitting doctors, all wearing masks and looking away from their patients.

Alternately sad, defiant, carefree and understated, this journey into a world hidden in plain sight is well worth taking.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-393-08890-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: July 7, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2012

Still, the best portrait of Cronkite—that legendary journalist, certainly worthy of a big biography—that we have.

CRONKITE

Oversized biography of the larger-than-life newscaster, still a byword for a TV anchor, at least among viewers of a certain age.

As Vanity Fair contributor Brinkley (History/Rice Univ.; The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, 2009, etc.) writes, Walter Cronkite (1916–2009) was an indifferent student but a constant reader, attuned in childhood to what we would call the news, if at a different pace and intensity. It wasn’t an easy childhood: Cronkite’s father was an alcoholic, his parents divorced when he was young, and he grew up in the alien confines of coastal Texas, far from his prized Missouri. Nonetheless, he more than rose to the occasion, learning how to speak in a “radio voice” while still a teenager: “In true Lowell Thomas fashion, he interviewed anyone who would stand still and speak into whatever faux microphone prop he held.” He also apprenticed at the Houston Post, learning how to write a lean news story, and he had a forward-looking habit, sensing that wire stories were going to be replaced by man-on-the-ground coverage and that television, when it arrived, would surpass radio and other media. Brinkley is very good on Cronkite’s early distinction as a war correspondent in World War II under the influence of Edward R. Murrow. The author also gives Cronkite credit for being out ahead on certain stories, such as gay rights, the collapse of the Vietnam War and Watergate. He hints that Cronkite could be a touch prickly and sensitive—for one thing, about his lack of a college degree—but the author doesn’t press that far enough; one wants to know more about the enmity between Cronkite and Dan Rather, for example. For all the book’s weight, Brinkley, a dutiful and plodding writer, skimps here and there where he should not. The great correspondent and Cronkite-colleague Richard Threlkeld, for instance, gets but a single passing mention.

Still, the best portrait of Cronkite—that legendary journalist, certainly worthy of a big biography—that we have.

Pub Date: May 29, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-06-137426-5

Page Count: 832

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: June 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2012

Rarely has a book with so much information been such an entertaining read.

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CONSIDER THE FORK

A HISTORY OF HOW WE COOK AND EAT

From British food writer Wilson (Sandwich: A Global History, 2010, etc.), a savory survey of kitchen implements and their impact.

We normally apply the word “technology” to military and industrial equipment, writes the author, but in fact, developments in those fields often carry over to the kitchen. The inventor of stainless steel was trying to improve gun barrels, and the creator of the microwave oven was working on naval radar systems. In addition, innovations in cookware can have enormous social impact: Before food was cooked in a pot, people who lost their teeth and couldn’t chew literally starved to death. In the lively prose of a seasoned journalist, Wilson blends personal reminiscences with well-researched history to illustrate how the changing nature of our equipment affects what we eat and how we cook. “Knife” explores the difference between Western eaters, who cut big pieces of cooked food at the table, and the Chinese wielders of a tou, who chop up food into equal-sized pieces to be quickly cooked, saving energy in a country with limited fuel. “Fire” traces the evolution from open hearths to enclosed stoves, which brought women into the professional kitchen after centuries when their billowing skirts posed too much of a fire hazard for them to serve as cooks. In “Grind,” Wilson notes that the endless labor involved in producing smooth, highly refined food wasn’t an issue in a world where middle-class and wealthy Europeans had lots of servants; Wilson praises the Cuisinart as a revolutionary device “for the transformation of cooking from pain to pleasure.” Although she enjoys and vividly describes time-honored, painstaking methods of cooking, she also appreciates modern conveniences. Eating utensils, refrigeration and measurement (with a bemused look at Americans’ affection for measuring by volume as opposed to the much more accurate method of weighing) are among the other topics Wilson addresses in a narrative whose light tone enlivens formidable scholarship.

Rarely has a book with so much information been such an entertaining read.

Pub Date: Oct. 9, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-465-02176-5

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: July 29, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2012

A courageous, insightful book that offers no cause for optimism.

BAILOUT

AN INSIDE ACCOUNT OF HOW WASHINGTON ABANDONED MAIN STREET WHILE RESCUING WALL STREET

A former watchdog in the federal government attacks the officials who perpetuated the financial meltdown by kowtowing to behemoth banks and Wall Street firms while abandoning the public interest.

Barofsky was a federal prosecutor in New York in 2008 when his boss encouraged him to apply for a newly created position in Washington, D.C., as inspector general overseeing the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Created during the waning months of the Bush administration and inherited by President Barack Obama, TARP allocated hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money to allegedly stabilize too-big-to-fail banks, strengthen investment firms and rescue homeowners from foreclosure. Ignorant of cutthroat Washington politics, Barofsky, a Democrat, won confirmation by the U.S. Senate despite Republican Party dominance and set out to account for the TARP spending in a transparent, nonpartisan manner. However, as he demonstrates in his energetically written first-person account, he and his staff met resistance every time they tried to share the truth with Congress, the White House and the American public. The villains are numerous, with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner at the top of the list. Of course, it’s possible that some of the negative characterizations shared by Barofsky involve score-settling or well-intentioned differences. That seems unlikely, however, since the author provides copious evidence of the petty attacks on his office by Geithner, other Treasury Department officials, White House staff members, senators and representatives, coddled journalists and ill-informed bloggers. Barofsky's account contains enough self-deprecation that he does not come off as a holier-than-thou hero.

A courageous, insightful book that offers no cause for optimism.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4516-8493-3

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Free Press

Review Posted Online: July 7, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2012

A stellar biography of a complicated subject: Max's portrait skillfully unites Wallace’s external and internal lives.

EVERY LOVE STORY IS A GHOST STORY

A LIFE OF DAVID FOSTER WALLACE

A thorough, understated account of the life of the pioneering author and how his addictions and fiction intersected.

Before his suicide, David Foster Wallace (1962–2008) pursued a host of paths as a writer. He was a showy ironist who drafted his Pynchon-esque debut novel, The Broom of the System (1987), while an undergraduate student at Amherst. He was a bright philosopher who wrote at length on Wittgenstein and infinity. He was a skilled (if not always factually rigorous) reporter who covered state fairs, politics and tennis with intelligence and style. But the biggest inspiration for his admirers was the compassion, wit and understanding of our media-soaked age that emerged in later novels like Infinite Jest (1996) and the posthumous The Pale King (2011). In this appropriately contemplative biography, New Yorker staff writer Max (The Family that Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery, 2006) avoids overdramatizing climactic events in Wallace’s life, though it had plenty of emotional turmoil. Wallace was hospitalized for addiction and depression multiple times, and even at his steadiest he could collapse into rages. (Max chronicles in detail Wallace’s disastrous relationship with memoirist Mary Karr.) Max emphasizes the psychological tug of war within Wallace, who struggled to reconcile his suspicion of mass media with a habitual gulping down of hours of it; his high-minded pursuit of art with a need for emotional and sexual attention; and his resolve to blend entertaining fiction and dense philosophy. Max draws upon the rich trove of Wallace’s papers (he was an inveterate letter writer) and dozens of interviews, from Alcoholics Anonymous sponsors to literary contemporaries like Jonathan Franzen. Wallace’s family relationships get relatively short shrift, but it’s clear that under the veneer of a successful, brainy novelist was an eager-to-please native Midwesterner.

A stellar biography of a complicated subject: Max's portrait skillfully unites Wallace’s external and internal lives.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-670-02592-3

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 29, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2012

An informative and moving book that raises profound issues regarding the nature of love, the value of human life and the...

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FAR FROM THE TREE

PARENTS, CHILDREN AND THE SEARCH FOR IDENTITY

National Book Award–winning journalist Solomon (The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, 2001, etc.) uses issues raised by disability to examine the nature of parenthood, the definition of disability and the ability to control reproduction to create designer children.

More than a decade ago, when he was assigned to cover a student protest at the Lexington Center for the Deaf in Queens, N.Y., over the hiring of a CEO with normal hearing, the author began to look at medical and cultural issues raised by disability. The protesters demanded that deafness not be considered a disability, but rather a neuro-diversity on par with ethnic diversity. Some members of the deaf community even considered cochlear implants in young children as “a genocidal attack on a vibrant community” because of the linguistic richness of sign language. Solomon also wrote a piece on child prodigies based on an interview with the Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin, and he followed with a story about the lives of dwarfs based on the experience of a friend who sought role models for her daughter. Gradually, Far from the Tree began to take shape as the author explored more deeply the question of disability. Additional chapters cover Down syndrome (a genetic disorder), autism (of unknown origin), transgenderism and more. Solomon writes about the transformative, “terrifying joy of unbearable responsibility” faced by parents who cherish severely disabled children, and he takes an in-depth look at the struggles of parents of autistic children who behave destructively. He also explores the fascinating mental lives of independently functioning autistic individuals and speculates on the possibility that geniuses such as Mozart and Einstein were at the far end of the spectrum. Throughout, Solomon reflects on his own history as a gay man who has been bullied when he didn't conform to society's image of masculinity.

An informative and moving book that raises profound issues regarding the nature of love, the value of human life and the future of humanity.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-7432-3671-3

Page Count: 906

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: July 29, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2012

A profound and richly satisfying reckoning with the movies and what they mean.

THE BIG SCREEN

THE STORY OF THE MOVIES

Thomson (The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, 2009, etc.) brings his encyclopedic knowledge of film and idiosyncratic, allusive style to bear on this ambitious consideration of the history of motion pictures and their effect on the audience.

The author goes beyond mere survey and analysis to question what movies mean to us and how they have shaped our perceptions and beliefs. Thomson chronicles the development of movies from Eadweard Muybridge’s 19th-century photographic experiments to the phenomenon of Internet pornography. Along the way, he explicates the excitement and politically fraught evolution of Soviet cinema, the provocations of the European New Wave, the allure of film noir and the world-shaking product of Hollywood, but the author makes no attempt to give a comprehensive or strictly linear history of the medium. Thomson is more interested in making striking connections, looking deeply at particular films, such as Brief Encounter (a surprising subject for such intense scrutiny and indicative of Thomson’s iconoclastic bent) or the TV landmark I Love Lucy, to pursue the central question of his history: What does life in front of screens do to us? Thomson’s approach is lyrical and questing rather than academic; the book is accessible to anyone with more than a passing interest in the subject, written in a distinctive voice, learned and authoritative without pedantic dryness and touched with wonder and trepidation at the primal power of the image. Readers familiar with the author’s Biographical Dictionary of Film will be happy to note that Thomson’s beguiling knack for capturing the essences of our movie icons in poetic or provocative asides has not diminished, and the scholarship on display is first-rate. However, the heart of this unique overview is the author’s ambivalence about the power we grant those shadows on the wall.

A profound and richly satisfying reckoning with the movies and what they mean.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-374-19189-4

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 4, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2012

A captivating tale of an oft-overlooked, morally ambiguous moment in American history.

38 NOOSES

LINCOLN, LITTLE CROW, AND THE BEGINNING OF THE FRONTIER'S END

An exploration of the violent downfall of Little Crow’s Dakota nation at the hands of American soldiers.

Washington Post contributor Berg (Writing and Literature/George Mason Univ.; Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C., 2007) focuses on the rising escalation between the Dakota people and white settlers, a conflict that came to a head in the summer of 1862, when four inebriated Native Americans carelessly murdered a few white settlers. While Dakota chief Little Crow did not condone the reckless behavior, he recognized that “the day of reckoning was bound to arrive no matter how accommodating and pliable he might be.” As expected, U.S. soldiers soon retaliated, though the battle had long been brewing, especially for the Dakotas, who were frustrated by the federal government’s continued failures to make good on its promised annuities to the Natives. With their credit lines running thin, the Dakota people fought for their survival, though insult was added to their injurious defeat when a military trial sentenced 300 Dakota warriors to death for their role in the battle. While President Lincoln intervened to lessen the number to 38, the mass hanging still earned the dubious honor of becoming the largest public execution in American history. Throughout the sweeping narrative, Berg skillfully weaves in various perspectives, including that of Sarah Wakefield, a woman held captive by the Dakotas, and Bishop Henry Whipple, a paternalistic advocate for the Native people. Yet Berg’s greater accomplishment is his ability to overlap the little-known Dakota War with its far better known counterpart, the American Civil War. The author’s juxtaposition offers readers a contextual framework that provides unique insight into the era. For instance, just days after the mass execution, Lincoln issued the text for the Emancipation Proclamation, prompting curious readers to wonder: How does a country see fit to condemn one group of people to death and then, less than a week later, set another group free?

A captivating tale of an oft-overlooked, morally ambiguous moment in American history.

Pub Date: Dec. 4, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-307-37724-1

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Sept. 2, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2012

Keeping a critical eye on the evidence and a skeptical one on theories, Tattersall confirms his status among world...

MASTERS OF THE PLANET

THE SEARCH FOR OUR HUMAN ORIGINS

A veteran anthropologist writes a superb overview of how our species developed (a long process) and how we grew smart enough to dominate the planet (a short process in which evolution played little part).

Tattersall (Paleontology: A Brief History of Life, 2010, etc.), curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History, begins with early hominids, who took the first step away from apedom about 5 million years ago by rising to walk on two legs. In absorbing detail, he describes two centuries of often-grueling field research that turned up more species that learned to make tools and whose brains slowly grew. For 3 million years, our small-brained ancestors, the Australopithecus genus, spread throughout Africa before leaving the scene. From about 2 million years ago, bigger-brained members of genus Homo ranged across Eurasia without making a great impression. Homo sapiens, remarkably young at 200,000 years, did not seem a great improvement until about 60,000 years ago, when their brains began processing information symbolically, leading to language, art, technology and sophisticated social organization, all of which accompanied our species across the world, wiping out competing hominids. While researchers argue over why this happened, Tattersall emphasizes that evolutionary milestones, even dramatic ones like flying, do not happen when new features appear but take advantage of those already present. Feathers existed long before birds flew, and Homo sapiens’ brains were always capable of great things.

Keeping a critical eye on the evidence and a skeptical one on theories, Tattersall confirms his status among world anthropologists by delivering a superior popular explanation of human origins.

Pub Date: March 27, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-230-10875-2

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

Review Posted Online: Nov. 21, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2011

A complicated, elegiac, beautiful attempt to reconcile the physical bayt (home) and the spiritual.

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HOUSE OF STONE

A MEMOIR OF HOME, FAMILY, AND A LOST MIDDLE EAST

A nostalgic, bittersweet journey back to the Lebanese homestead.

As a war correspondent for the Washington Post covering the Israeli attack in Lebanon in 2006, Pulitzer winner Shadid (Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War, 2005, etc.), the child of Lebanese Americans who grew up in America, painfully encountered the home of his Lebanese ancestors in the town of Marjayoun. It was a once-fine house that had been long abandoned and was hit by an Israeli rocket. The author then resolved to take a furlough from his newspaper and reconstruct the house, which had belonged to his great-grandfather and was where his grandmother had spent her first 12 years before the family migrated to America. Shadid traces the two sides of his family that converged at the end of the 19th century in Marjayoun, the Samaras and the Shadids, whose subsequent migrations reflect the strife among the Syrian Lebanese Shiite community with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Suffering from his own divorce and separation from his small daughter, Shadid was often overcome by the “history of departures” witnessed by the house, the ruptures caused by loss and discord among the community of Christians, Muslims and Jews, and the tightly knit customs and rituals that kept things running. Shadid’s year became occupied with finding permission to build, securing willing contractors and artisans, and befriending sympathetic characters among the often hostile, suspicious townspeople. Much of the narrative is a gentle unfolding of observation and insight, as the author reacquaints himself with the Arabic rhythms, “absorbing beauties, and documenting what was no more.”

A complicated, elegiac, beautiful attempt to reconcile the physical bayt (home) and the spiritual.

Pub Date: Feb. 28, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-547-13466-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Jan. 9, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2012

THE NEW HATE

A HISTORY OF FEAR AND LOATHING ON THE POPULIST RIGHT

A well-reported study of disaffected groups who hate other groups whose members look or think differently than the haters.

In his latest book about ideologies, freelance writer and editor Goldwag (Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies, 2009, etc.) transcends numerous other books warning about the dangers of political conservatives who have assumed influence during the administrations of Reagan and the two Bushes. These haters—given voice by such high-profile individuals as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Michael Savage and Michelle Malkin—worry about far more than who controls American politics. They worry about the atmosphere of family life, classrooms, corporate workplaces, public parks and just about every other venue where values antithetical to their own might seep into impressionable minds. Goldwag terms the phenomenon "the paranoid style of hatred" and shows how that style has been linked to conspiracy theories for hundreds of years. The author examines with special depth hatreds against Jews, Catholics, Freemasons, African-Americans and the extremely wealthy. With the election of President Barack Obama, the haters coalesced against what they saw as an obvious enemy. Goldwag is able to effectively use the hatred toward Obama to illustrate the irrationality of the haters. Given that many, perhaps most, paranoids exhibit some form of brain dysfunction and that undocumented conspiracy theories in general are linked to instability, Goldwag could have written off the haters as mentally ill. Instead, he treats their hatreds as something to be seriously researched because of their undue influence on the tenor of electoral politics, as well as almost every other aspect of daily life in America. A provocative, intellectually rigorous book written clearly and with an admirable lack of hatred. 

 

Pub Date: Feb. 7, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-307-37969-6

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Nov. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2011

Stellar cultural writing—Bissell has the knowledge and wit to earn his provocations.

MAGIC HOURS

ESSAYS ON CREATORS AND CREATION

A whip-smart, occasionally pugnacious collection of essays on culture from a wide-ranging critic.

In recent years, Bissell (Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, 2010, etc.) has built a reputation as an expert on video games, culminating with the scattershot Extra Lives. Here, he covers a wider swath but provides more coherence, in part because a more consistent theme emerges: the necessity of calling shenanigans on the artificiality of much of mass culture and the difficult search for glimmers of integrity. In “Escanaba’s Magic Hour,” Bissell follows the filming of an indie movie in his hardscrabble Upper Peninsula hometown and cannily reveals subtle parrying between the townsfolk and the visiting filmmakers. In “Writing about Writing about Writing,” he demolishes the rhetoric of how-to writing guides, slapping the genre for its disingenuously upbeat declarations. In “Cinema Crudité,” he investigates the anti-genius of Tommy Wiseau, director of the contemporary camp classic, The Room. Bissell can tear into his subjects with a ferocity and brutal wit that recalls Dwight Macdonald, as when he writes about the would-be literary provocateurs of the Underground Literary Alliance or celebrated historian Robert Kaplan, whom he damns as an “incompetent thinker and a miserable writer.” Bissell’s more common tone, though, is that of the exasperated critic weary of conventional thinking, and he bookends the collection with pieces that drive that point home: “Unflowered Aloes” debunks the idea that literary greatness will always be discovered, and the closing interview with Jim Harrison is a lament for a dying working-class literary culture. Even the book’s weak spots are strong: A pair of New Yorker profiles on TV and video game professionals feel relatively voiceless—a problem with the magazine’s house style that, ironically enough, Bissell calls out in an earlier essay.

Stellar cultural writing—Bissell has the knowledge and wit to earn his provocations.

Pub Date: April 10, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-936365-76-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Believer Books/McSweeney's

Review Posted Online: Jan. 9, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2012

Thoughtful, heartfelt and frequently moving, like the best music.

ON CELESTIAL MUSIC

AND OTHER ADVENTURES IN LISTENING

The acclaimed novelist shows off his considerable gifts for parsing music.

Moody (The Four Fingers of Death, 2010, etc.) is also a musician of semipro status, with a couple of albums by his group, the Wingdale Community Singers, and a solo set under his belt. This collection of his writing about music for various journals is characterized by passion, inspired insight and a generous sampling of warm humor. The essays cover an astonishing amount of genre ground. Moody’s catholic tastes run the gamut from rock to left-field experimental sounds, and he’s a sensitive listener who almost always connects with the heart of the matter. He tackles the challenges of writing about the most fundamental of human emotions as he carves a playlist out of the Magnetic Fields’ "69 Love Songs"; explores the expression of spirituality in the work of the evangelistic rock group the Danielson Famile; ponders what music in heaven might sound like in the title story, which springs off a live recording by Otis Redding; muses on the affect of the Pogues’ music, viewed through the prism of lead singer Shane McGowan’s alcoholism; and excoriates the soullessness of modern European pop in a tart and frequently hilarious jeremiad about the drum machine. Some chapters are less satisfying: Moody’s account of two weeks at a New York music camp is essentially a journal entry, while a survey of the fin de siècle New York underground reads like exactly what it is: a chapter from an as-yet-unpublished textbook. But most of the writing is acute and intensely wrought. It’s often highly personal stuff—Moody weaves his parents’ divorce, his struggles with alcohol and his performance experiences into the mix—but it never succumbs to the solipsism so prevalent in much latter-day rock criticism. For Moody, music is most of all about rapture, and he communicates his feelings with an ardor and intelligence all too rare in these waning days of music criticism.

Thoughtful, heartfelt and frequently moving, like the best music.

Pub Date: March 21, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-316-10521-7

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Back Bay/Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 24, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2012

A surprising, sobering look at one of the deadliest terror networks in history and the American spy agencies charged with...

THE HUNT FOR KSM

INSIDE THE PURSUIT AND TAKEDOWN OF THE REAL 9/11 MASTERMIND, KHALID SHEIKH MOHAMMED

Superlative storytelling and crackling reportage define a pulse-pounding narrative tracing the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

To this day, the bleary-eyed visage of the 9/11 mastermind being hauled off by authorities after a successful raid on his hideout in 2003 remains the most recognizable image of the hated international terrorist. McDermott (101 Theory Drive: A Neuroscientist's Quest for Memory, 2010, etc.) and Los Angeles Times chief terrorism reporter Meyer explode that superficial frame with a taut, espionage-thriller–like narrative. The authors render characters on both sides of the law—the hunters and the hunted alike—in rich detail, ably evoking their clear motives and desires. While Osama bin Laden became the main symbol of America’s war on terror, it was actually KSM who tirelessly traveled the globe recruiting young Muslim men for his ongoing war on the West, directing their actions, outfitting their operations and setting them loose upon an unsuspecting populace. FBI Special Agent Frank Pellegrino was on his heels from the very beginning, when, in 1993, KSM tried to destroy the World Trade Center with a truck bomb left in a tower garage. During that time, write the authors, none of Pellegrino’s superiors seemed interested in his investigations, but ultimately, a decadelong game of cat-and-mouse ensued, marked largely by frustration, futility and missed opportunities.

A surprising, sobering look at one of the deadliest terror networks in history and the American spy agencies charged with bringing it down.

Pub Date: March 26, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-316-18659-9

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 24, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2012

A bracing cooperative effort taking readers as close to war as humanly possible.

NIGHTCAP AT DAWN

AMERICAN SOLDIERS' COUNTERINSURGENCY IN IRAQ

Iraq war experiences from those who were there.

“Sgt. J.B. Walker,” the “author” of this absorbing, dramatically vivid chronicle, is a pen-named collective effort by American soldiers fighting in Iraq. Originally self-published, the narrative is comprised of candid emails assembled once the group returned to American soil and encompasses much more than its original intent to detail “the simple charms of soldiering.” With exacting scrutiny, many of the unnamed authors share the stark realities and myriad complications of counterinsurgency efforts. Each of the five sections delves deeply into the multilayered aspects of military duty: the culture shock from intercepting violence, soldiering with a concussion, profiling jihadist militants, the inexplicability of suicide bombing and the silent suffering of innocent Iraqi women and children. Most affective are the personal accounts, ranging from the poignant to the humorous. Individual narration of violent conflicts and meticulously rendered scenes of armed tactical maneuvering are tempered by the soldiers’ first-person depiction of fearless Iraqi civilians demonstrating resistance to cutthroat guerrilla movements. Expertly archived and originally written for military audiences, this confluence of warfare experiences is sure to garner widespread attention, with the publishing proceeds directed to charities serving military families, “the unacknowledged soldiers of any war.”

A bracing cooperative effort taking readers as close to war as humanly possible.

Pub Date: April 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-61608-617-6

Page Count: 568

Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing

Review Posted Online: Feb. 29, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2012

At once stimulating and warmhearted, with sentences of drop-dead beauty and acuity on nearly every page.

LIVING, THINKING, LOOKING

ESSAYS

Another superb essay collection from novelist Hustvedt (The Summer without Men, 2011, etc.).

As in her previous collections, Yonder (1998) and A Plea for Eros (2006), the author trains a formidable intellect on difficult subjects (the structure of the brain, the nature of perception) with an engaging personal touch that invites a general readership. In “Excursions to the Islands of the Happy Few,” though she acknowledges the need for specialized vocabulary and research, she regrets the “culture of hyperfocus and expertise” in which “people inhabit disciplinary islands of the like-educated and the like-minded.” Hustvedt, by contrast, has a doctorate in English literature, has written extensively about art and has lectured at neuroscience conferences and at the Sigmund Freud Foundation. The categories invoked in her title—personal essays (Living), intellectual puzzles (Thinking), investigations of art (Looking)—indicate her broad scope; their underlying unity rests on Hustvedt’s consuming interest in connections: between emotion and intellect, memory and imagination, mother and child, artist and audience. Embodied, employed both as a verb and adjective, is a favored word, and it’s no accident that she mentions several times a 1996 neuroscience paper that identified certain “mirror neurons” that fire in the cerebral cortex of macaque monkeys performing a specific physical action and that also fire in monkeys observing the action. She is fascinated by the link between what we do and what we see and by the noncorporeal but nonimaginary spaces where human beings interact emotionally and intellectually. Frequent anecdotes about her extended family and her childhood illustrate her points and lower the intimidation factor; Hustvedt addresses a broad public without dumbing down her material. There are no weak essays here, but some of the best concern art, particularly those on Goya and Louise Bourgeois, whose work provides particularly fertile soil for Hustvedt’s exploration of the “electrical connection [that] takes place between the viewer and the image seen.”

At once stimulating and warmhearted, with sentences of drop-dead beauty and acuity on nearly every page.

Pub Date: June 5, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-250-00952-4

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Picador

Review Posted Online: Feb. 29, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2012

Rapturously irreverent, this book should kick-start plenty of useful discussions.

HOW TO BE A WOMAN

A spirited memoir/manifesto that dares readers to “stand on a chair and shout ‘I AM A FEMINIST.’ ”

With equal amounts snarky brio and righteous anger, Moran brings the discussion of contemporary women’s rights down from the ivory tower and into the mainstream. Although women have come a long way from the battles fought by the early suffragettes and the first-wave feminists of the 1960s and ’70s, they have also lost ground in some disturbing ways. Society still scrutinizes female sexual behavior for incipient signs of “sluttiness”; girls still grow up dreaming of becoming brides and wives (aka princesses), and pornography and strip clubs still objectify women. Moreover, celebrity culture puts women under a magnifying glass, dismissing their talents in favor of crowing over their physical flaws, their marital status and whether or not they have children. Into this sorry mess strides Moran, a self-deprecating, no-nonsense guide to womanhood. She frames her debate via a series of chapters detailing her own journey toward becoming not only a woman, but also a good person—polite, kind, funny and fundamentally decent. After all, feminism, she argues, is not a form of man hating; it is a celebration of women’s potential to effect change and an affirmation of their equality with men. That such an important topic is couched in ribald humor makes reading about Moran’s journey hilarious as well as provocative. With nary a hint of embarrassment, she reveals personal anecdotes about her miserable early adolescence as an overweight girl and her evolution into a music journalist who took London by storm on a quest to fall in love—or at least to kiss a lot of boys. She proves equally forthright in her views on abortion, childbearing and high heels. While some American readers may struggle with the British references and slang, they will find their efforts rewarded.

Rapturously irreverent, this book should kick-start plenty of useful discussions.

Pub Date: July 17, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-06-212429-6

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Perennial/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 31, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2012

A superb examination of the never-ending effort to enhance life, as well as the commensurate refusal to ever let it go.

THE MANSION OF HAPPINESS

A HISTORY OF LIFE AND DEATH

A sharp, illuminating history of ideas showing how America has wrestled with birth, childhood, work, marriage, old age and death.

Brilliantly written and engaging throughout, the latest from New Yorker staff writer Lepore (American History/Harvard Univ.; The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History, 2011, etc.) is about how American society reacts to change. The author starts with the perfect metaphor: In 1860, a young entrepreneur named Milton Bradley created a popular board game called Life. The game had long existed in earlier versions, but Bradley gave it a capitalist spin, changing it from a game of good versus evil to one that “rewards only those virtues that lead to Wealth and Success, like Industry and Perseverance.” From there, Lepore tackles conception and how the famous pictures of a fetus in Life in the mid ’60s fostered the relatively modern idea of “being unborn as a stage of human life, a stage that was never on any board game.” The author shows how E.B. White’s surprisingly controversial novel Stuart Little created a small revolution in a country that has always worshipped childhood; she sees it as “an indictment of both the childishness of children’s literature and the juvenilization of American culture.” Lepore's topics are broad, and they lead her into many interesting byways—e.g., how eugenics was once considered a perfectly progressive idea and how contraception once seemed to threaten society in ways even Rick Santorum has not imagined. She also considers the legacy of Karen Ann Quinlan, the brain-dead young woman whose case helped foment arguments for both the right to die and the right to life, and discusses her visit to the creepy laboratory of cryogenics founder Robert C.W. Ettinger.

A superb examination of the never-ending effort to enhance life, as well as the commensurate refusal to ever let it go.

Pub Date: June 7, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-307-59299-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: April 21, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2012

Provocative, illuminating and entertaining—an exemplary work of philosophy and history whose author's deep learning is...

ON POLITICS

A HISTORY OF POLITICAL THOUGHT: FROM HERODOTUS TO THE PRESENT

An ambitious survey not of politics itself, but of the way Westerners have thought about politics for 2,500 years.

Ryan (Politics/Princeton Univ.; John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism, 1997, etc.) has written a massive book, one “a long time in the making.” That’s understandable, for he has a tremendous amount of ground to cover. He does so with the admirable breadth of Will and Ariel Durant or Frederick Copleston but with much greater powers of concision and a gift for finding essences without resorting to essentialism. Thus, he writes, one critical difference between Athenian and Roman conceptions of freedom is that the former “practiced a form of unfiltered direct democracy that the Romans thought a recipe for chaos; the Romans gave ordinary free and male persons a role in politics, but a carefully structured and controlled one.” That distinction comes into play more than 900 pages later, when Ryan wrestles with what kind of a system most Western countries, and preeminently the United States, have today. “Liberal democracies,” he writes, are really “nontyrannical and liberal popular mixed republics,” though, as he cautions, “nobody is going to call them this.” In between, Ryan visits thinkers from Socrates and Plato to Aristotle, excusing Plato from charges of protofascism and marveling at Aquinas’ powers of distinction in determining whether it is fitting for a bishop to go to war. If all Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato, then Ryan’s text is a delightful assemblage of enlightening subnotes: Who among us remembers that Machiavelli’s The Prince was on the Catholic Church’s forbidden index until just recently and “that anyone wishing to read it for the purposes of refutation had to ask permission of the pope”? That Edmund Burke was a boring public speaker, but “(mostly) wrote like an angel”? Or that Karl Marx’s notion of class struggle remains an elusive work in progress?

Provocative, illuminating and entertaining—an exemplary work of philosophy and history whose author's deep learning is lightly worn.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-87140-465-7

Page Count: 1120

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: Aug. 9, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2012

Thankfully, King’s book is an impressive work of restoration—the author helps readers see this painting for the first time.

LEONARDO AND THE LAST SUPPER

An absorbing study of a disappearing masterpiece.

King (Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven, 2010, etc.) tells the story of the most famous painting no one has really seen, at least since the 16th century: The Last Supper, the masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci that began deteriorating almost as soon as the paint dried. King places the painting in its political, social and artistic context, describing both the meaning of da Vinci’s work and the violent 15th-century Italian world that spawned it. Proof that art, like life, sometimes happens when you’re making other plans, da Vinci’s greatest painting came about because his dream project—an enormous horse-and-rider sculpture honoring the father of his patron, Lodovico Sforza—was scuttled when Italy needed the bronze for war. For the next two years, da Vinci painted the scene of Jesus and his disciples on the wall of a monastery. In its masterful use of perspective, complementary color and achievement of lifelike detail, it marked a turning point for Western art. King plumbs the painting’s religious, secular, psychological and political meanings, registered in the facial expressions and hand positions, the significance of the food on the table and, most fascinatingly, the salt spilled by the betraying Judas. (And no, Dan Brown, Mary Magdalene is not in it.) Alas, da Vinci’s ignorance of the fresco technique meant the pigments did not bond to the plaster, and the paint would begin flaking within years. As early as 1582, it was described as being “in a state of total ruin.”

Thankfully, King’s book is an impressive work of restoration—the author helps readers see this painting for the first time.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-8027-1705-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Walker

Review Posted Online: July 12, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2012

Truly remarkable, composed with all the precision and insight you expect from a law professor, marked by all the elegance...

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LINCOLN'S CODE

THE LAWS OF WAR IN AMERICAN HISTORY

Artfully mixing law, history and sharp analysis, a Yale law professor examines the persistent struggle to reconcile justice and humanitarianism in America’s conduct of war.

Issued to the Union Army in 1863, Lincoln’s codes of war went out under the president’s name, but the 157 articles were drafted principally by Francis Lieber, a Columbia College political scientist and historian. Lieber’s codification of the laws and usages of war formally enshrined a number of humanitarian limits to war’s barbarity. However, by authorizing various uses of force “indispensable for securing the ends of war,” the rules unleashed a new ferocity, replacing Enlightenment-style, “gentlemanly” armed conflict with new imperatives that recognized the legitimacy of the war’s aims. Witt (Patriots and Cosmopolitans: Hidden Histories of American Law, 2007, etc.) attributes this new, “tough humanitarianism” to Lincoln’s determination to abandon the “rose-water tactics” of the early war in favor of new measures that would vindicate the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation. Though he focuses primarily on the Civil War and its aftermath, Witt provides a rich historical context, judiciously selecting diplomatic and wartime episodes, from the French and Indian War to the Philippine Insurrection, to explain this lasting transformation of the old rules into something military historians now recognize as the “American way of war.” Topics range from the concept of neutrality to the oftentimes difficult distinctions between soldiers and civilians, to the indiscriminate use of military commissions, all resonant with today’s headlines. The author vivifies commentary from philosophers and jurists, decisions from judges and maneuvering by statesmen with sharp vignettes of battlefield commanders, who were obliged to grapple with the constraints law imposes on war.

Truly remarkable, composed with all the precision and insight you expect from a law professor, marked by all the elegance and sparkling readability you don’t.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4165-6983-1

Page Count: 528

Publisher: Free Press

Review Posted Online: June 17, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2012

The Great Helmsman fully fleshed, still complicated and ever provocative.

MAO

THE REAL STORY

A comprehensive, authoritative new study that challenges the received wisdom regarding Mao’s relationship with Stalin and the Soviet Union.

With rare access to the newly consolidated Russian State Archive of Social and Political History, Pantsov (History/Capital Univ.; The Bolsheviks and the Chinese Revolution, 1919-1927, 2000) and Levine construct an “up-to-date” take on the Chinese Communist Party and Mao’s rise in it as being essentially dictated by Stalin and financially supported by the Soviet Union through the 1950s. Stalin manipulated Mao to his own ends; only after Stalin’s death and Mao’s increasingly antagonistic relationship with Khrushchev did the Chinese pull away from the Soviet Union as part of an “emancipation of consciousness.” The authors’ detail is minute and the characters proliferate mind-bendingly, especially in the careful reconstruction of Mao’s rise from rube and community organizer to national leader. Pantsov and Levine depict Mao with all his conflicting facets, from the early bookworm and idealist who initially scorned the “stupidity” of the masses, to becoming the party’s self-made prophet on the agrarian question, espousing the proletarian confiscation of land from the landlords. He was a man of enormous energy and capacity for love who was nonetheless hardened by the intraparty struggle against Chiang Kai-shek; he was also a utopian socialist who embarked on the modernization scheme of the Great Leap Forward in 1957 after a stimulating trip to Moscow. The great famine that ensued did not dampen Mao’s enthusiasm for revolutionary incentives, as played out tragically in the Red Guards’ devastation, and his “irrepressible lust for violence” has been largely forgiven by history because he consolidated China’s “national liberation.”

The Great Helmsman fully fleshed, still complicated and ever provocative.

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4516-5447-9

Page Count: 736

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: June 12, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2012

A poignant, galvanizing, meaningful tribute.

ON A FARTHER SHORE

THE LIFE AND LEGACY OF RACHEL CARSON

Fifty years after the publication of Rachel Carson's seminal Silent Spring, Pulitzer Prize nominee Souder (Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of The Birds of America, 2004, etc.) examines the legacy and lasting impact of Carson's passionate environmental work.

“By 1959, some eighty million pounds of DDT were being used annually in the United States,” writes the author. Already a vocal conservationist, Carson had long suspected that pesticide use was accumulatively detrimental to animals and humans. This holistic view of the living world was startling and prescient, and it struck a chord with an American public that was already spooked by the similar dangers of fallout from nuclear testing. Carson grappled with the literary celebrity that accompanied Silent Spring, yearning to maintain a quiet, private life yet forced to answer the powerful opposition she faced from the chemical industry. Souder writes beautifully about this dichotomy, revealing intimate details about the writing process and her relationships with editors, fans, family and her beloved companion Dorothy Freeman, with whom she spent some of her happiest moments while on the Maine coastline. The author also conducted ample contextual research, providing readers with a clear sense of the political, economic and social ramifications of DDT use and the threat of atomic warfare and how Carson's writing played a vital role in progressive public policy for decades after her death. One wonders how the past 50 years might have been different were Carson alive to write about global warming, fossil fuels, the erosion of coral reefs and other similar matters. That her views on DDT were eventually proven correct is just a small part of her legacy as an environmental pioneer but also a defining instance of citizen activism.

A poignant, galvanizing, meaningful tribute.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-307-46220-6

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: June 12, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2012

Forney’s story should resonate with those grappling with similar issues, while her artistry should appeal to a wide...

MARBLES

MANIA, DEPRESSION, MICHELANGELO, AND ME: A GRAPHIC MEMOIR

For anyone who loves graphic memoir or has concerns about bipolar swings, creativity and medication, this narrative will prove as engaging and informative as it is inspirational.

Since the connection between artistry and mental instability has been well-documented, plenty of those diagnosed with bipolar disorder share the fears articulated in this unflinchingly honest memoir by Forney (I Love Led Zeppelin, 2006, etc.). “I don’t want balance, I want brilliance!” she exclaims during one of her manic phases. “Meds would bring me down!” Taking pride in her membership in “Club van Gogh (The true artist is a crazy artist),” she subsequently suffered from periods of depression that brought her down far lower than medication even could. “During a manic episode, depression seems entirely impossible,” she writes, but depression often made it impossible for her to imagine feeling so good or feeling much of anything beyond a benumbed dread. Forney chronicles her years of therapy, her research into the literature of depression and her trial-and-error experiences with medication—and cocktails of medication—searching for the combination where the benefits outweighed the side effects. She directly confronts the challenge facing anyone trying to monitor and assess her own mental state: “How could I keep track of my mind, with my own mind?” Not only does her conversational intimacy draw readers in, but her drawings perfectly capture the exhilarating frenzy of mania and the dark void of depression. “It was a relief to discover that aiming for a balanced life doesn’t mean succumbing to a boring one,” she writes with conviction.

Forney’s story should resonate with those grappling with similar issues, while her artistry should appeal to a wide readership.

Pub Date: Nov. 6, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-59240-732-3

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Gotham Books

Review Posted Online: July 12, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2012

Vonnegut’s most human of hearts beats on every page.

KURT VONNEGUT

LETTERS

Selected and edited letters by the author of Cat’s CradleSlaughterhouse-Five and other enduringly popular novels, letters that reveal Vonnegut’s passions, annoyances, loves, losses, mind and heart.

Edited and annotated by his friend and fellow Hoosier novelist Wakefield (The Hijacking of Jesus: How the Religious Right Distorts Christianity and Promotes Prejudice and Hate, 2006, etc.), Vonnegut’s letters, arranged by decade, reveal his wit and literary style, as well as his demons. Wakefield annotates lightly and introduces each decade with a swift biography and commentary. Mostly, however, the letters stand alone—and stand tall, indeed. A letter from 1945 tells his worried parents about his experiences as a POW in Dresden during the firebombing; the final letter declines an invitation to appear at Cornell. “At 84,” wrote Vonnegut, who died in 2007, “I resemble nothing so much as an iguana, hate travel, and have nothing to say. I might as well send a spent Roman candle in my stead.” Vonnegut remained close to his many relatives, and readers can chart his personal life here—his first marriage (ended in divorce), his relationships with his children (some were adopted), his second marriage (to photographer Jill Krementz). That marriage was often difficult, and he writes bitterly about finding evidence of her infidelity. His professional growth chart is here, too—his early struggle, his time teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, his rising celebrity and fame, and his struggles to write later in his life. The political Vonnegut is much in evidence, as well. There are fiery letters about censorship and book burning and some anti-conservative rhetoric. Wakefield also includes Vonnegut’s touching letters to encourage other writers and to deal with an angry daughter.

Vonnegut’s most human of hearts beats on every page.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34375-6

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: July 29, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2012

Essential reading for anyone interested in justice or memoir.

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LIFE AFTER DEATH

Exceptional memoir by the most famous of the West Memphis Three.

In 1993, Echols (Almost Home, 2005) was convicted, along with Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., in the case of the sadistic sex murders and mutilations of three young boys in the woods around their hometown of West Memphis, Ark. The state’s case was based almost entirely on the confession wrung out of Misskelley, who, writes the author, had the “intellect of a child” and who recanted soon afterward. Witnesses’ testimonies to Echols' “demonic” character sealed the defendants’ fates. Baldwin and Misskelley each received life sentences; Echols, perceived to be the ringleader of an alleged “satanic cult,” was sentenced to death. Over the next decade, an HBO trilogy of documentaries on the case, collectively titled Paradise Lost, helped spark an international campaign to free the West Memphis Three. Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins and Peter Jackson were among the celebrities who became personally involved in the case; thanks to their efforts, and especially those of Echols’ wife, Lorri, whom he met during his prison term, the three were released in August 2011. Those bare facts alone would make for an interesting story. However, Echols is at heart a poet and mystic, and he has written not just a quickie one-off book to capitalize on a lurid news story, but rather a work of art that occasionally bears a resemblance to the work of Jean Genet. A voracious reader all his life, Echols vividly tells his story, from his impoverished childhood in a series of shacks and mobile homes to his emergence after half a lifetime behind bars as a psychically scarred man rediscovering freedom in New York City. The author also effectively displays his intelligence and sensitivity, qualities the Arkansas criminal justice system had no interest in recognizing during Echols’ ordeal.

Essential reading for anyone interested in justice or memoir.

Pub Date: Sept. 18, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-399-16020-2

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Blue Rider Press

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2012

Even though we know the answers to most of the questions—Will our heroine win the coveted role of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl?...

HELLO, GORGEOUS

BECOMING BARBRA STREISAND

Hollywood chronicler Mann (How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood, 2010, etc.) divulges the blood, sweat and tears that propelled a diva’s rise to stardom.

Barbra Streisand is such a cultural institution that it sometimes seems as if she sprang fully grown from the head of the entertainment industry. Not so, argues the author in this surprisingly suspenseful and masterfully paced biography. Covering the fundamental years from 1960 to 1964, he shines the spotlight on an awkward yet ambitious teenage girl who aspired to play grand theatrical roles. To Streisand, singing came so easily that she didn’t regard it as work, and she practically had to be pushed into appearing at Greenwich Village nightclubs. When a friend suggested that she approach singing a song as if acting a part in a play, however, she made a creative breakthrough that led to appearances on TV talk shows, a Broadway role in I Can Get It for You Wholesale and a recording contract at Columbia Records. Streisand didn’t accomplish this alone, and Mann appropriately gives credit to the agents, accompanists, directors and mentors who brought her idiosyncratic style to a generation hungry for new idols. He also delves into her paradoxical mixture of self-confidence and -doubt, disclosing that she privately felt insecure about her looks despite publicly flaunting an outlandish flair for fashion and a loopy sense of humor. Mann structures the book by seasons, further dividing these into a series of vignettes that read like scenes from a novel peopled with extraordinary characters.

Even though we know the answers to most of the questions—Will our heroine win the coveted role of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl? Will she live happily ever after with her Prince Charming, Elliott Gould?—this book makes getting to them a treat.

Pub Date: Oct. 9, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-547-36892-4

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Sept. 13, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2012

A superb biography of a fiercely driven explorer who traveled across the last inaccessible areas on earth before technical...

THE LAST VIKING

THE LIFE OF ROALD AMUNDSEN

Bown (1494: How a Family Feud in Medieval Spain Divided the World in Half, 2012, etc.) delivers an intensely researched, thoroughly enjoyable life of one of history’s best explorers.

As the author demonstrates, Roald Amundsen (1872–1928) was certainly the most skilled polar explorer. Obsessed with adventure from boyhood, the teenage Amundsen led companions on exhausting attempts to cross the mountains of his native Norway during winter. He joined the 1897 Belgian Antarctic expedition, receiving a painful education on the consequences of poor planning. In 1903, he outfitted a fishing boat with a crew of six and crossed the Northwest Passage from Greenland to Alaska. Moored for two years in the Arctic, he eagerly learned from the local Inuit. The lessons he learned—ignorance of which killed many polar explorers—included: Animal-skin clothes trump wool, and transportation requires dogs and skis. The crossing gave Amundsen international celebrity, making it easier to finance an expedition to the North Pole. When both Robert Peary and Frederick Cook claimed to have reached it (a controversy that persists), Amundsen aimed for the South Pole, announcing the decision before Robert Falcon Scott announced his expedition. Superbly organized and supplied, Amundsen’s expert skiers and dog handlers won the race in 1911 and survived, while Scott’s less efficient team died. After World War I, Amundsen failed to reach the North Pole by plane but succeeded by dirigible, finally disappearing in 1928 while flying to rescue another expedition.

A superb biography of a fiercely driven explorer who traveled across the last inaccessible areas on earth before technical advances made the journey much easier.

Pub Date: Sept. 25, 2012

ISBN: 978-0306820670

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Merloyd Lawrence/Da Capo

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2012

Certainly, Hitchens died too soon. May this moving little visit to his hospital room not be the last word from him.

MORTALITY

A jovially combative riposte to anyone who thought that death would silence master controversialist Hitchens (Hitch-22, 2010, etc.).

Even as he lay—or sat or paced—dying in the unfamiliar confines of a hospital last year, the author had plenty to say about matters of life and death. Here, in pieces published in Vanity Fair to which are added rough notes and apothegms left behind in manuscript, Hitchens gives the strongest possible sense of his exhausting battle against the aggressive cancer spreading through his body. He waged that battle with customary sardonic good humor, calling the medical-industrial world into which he had been thrust “Tumortown.” More arrestingly, Hitchens conceived of the move from life to death as a sudden relocation, even a deportation, into another land: “The country has a language of its own—a lingua franca that manages to be both dull and difficult and that contains names like ondansetron, for anti-nausea medication—as well as some unsettling gestures that require a bit of getting used to.” One such gesture was the physician’s plunging of fingers into the neck to gauge whether a cancer had spread into the lymph nodes, but others were more subtle, including the hushed tones and reverences that came with the business. Hitchens, famously an atheist, visited the question of whether he should take Pascal’s wager and bet on God, concluding in the negative even as good God-fearing citizens filled his inbox with assurances that God was punishing him for his blasphemies with throat cancer. A reasonable thought, Hitchens concludes, though since he’s a writer, wouldn’t such a God have afflicted his hands first?

Certainly, Hitchens died too soon. May this moving little visit to his hospital room not be the last word from him.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4555-0275-2

Page Count: 128

Publisher: Twelve

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2012

Highly recommended—anyone at all interested in music will learn a lot from this book.

HOW MUSIC WORKS

From the former Talking Heads frontman, a supremely intelligent, superbly written dissection of music as an art form and way of life.

Drawing on a lifetime of music-making as an amateur, professional, performer, producer, band member and solo artist, Byrne (Bicycle Diaries, 2009) tackles the question implicit in his title from multiple angles: How does music work on the ear, brain and body? How do words relate to music in a song? How does live performance relate to recorded performance? What effect has technology had on music, and music on technology? Fans of the Talking Heads should find plenty to love about this book. Steering clear of the conflicts leading to the band’s breakup, Byrne walks through the history, album by album, to illustrate how his views about performance and recording changed with the onset of fame and (small) fortune. He devotes a chapter to the circumstances that made the gritty CBGB nightclub an ideal scene for adventurous artists like Patti Smith, the Ramones, Blondie and Tom Verlaine and Television. Always an intensely thoughtful experimenter, here he lets us in on the thinking behind the experiments. But this book is not just, or even primarily, a rock memoir. It’s also an exploration of the radical transformation—or surprising durability—of music from the beginning of the age of mechanical reproduction through the era of iTunes and MP3s. Byrne touches on all kinds of music from all ages and every part of the world.

Highly recommended—anyone at all interested in music will learn a lot from this book.

Pub Date: Sept. 12, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-936365-53-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: McSweeney’s

Review Posted Online: Aug. 1, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2012

A breathtaking study of “walking as enabling sight and thought rather than encouraging retreat and escape.”

THE OLD WAYS

A JOURNEY ON FOOT

Macfarlane (English/Cambridge Univ.; The Wild Places, 2008, etc.) returns with another masterful, poetic travel narrative.

The author’s latest, focusing broadly on the concept of walking, forms what he calls “a loose trilogy,” with his two earlier books, Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places, “about landscape and the human heart.” As in his previous books, it seems nearly impossible that a writer could combine so many disparate elements into one sensible narrative. It’s ostensibly a first-person travelogue (of England, Spain, Palestine, Tibet and other locales), combined with biographical sketches (such as that of poet Edward Thomas, who died on a battlefield in France in 1917) and historical anecdotes about a wide variety of subjects (e.g., a set of 5,000-year-old footprints made by a family along the coastline just north of Liverpool). In the hands of a lesser writer, these divergent ideas would almost certainly result in unreadable chaos, but Macfarlane effortlessly weaves them together under the overarching theme of “walking as a reconnoitre inwards, and the subtle ways in which we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move.” While this notion may seem abstract, the author’s resonant prose brings it to life—whether he is writing about the mountains of Tibet, where a half-frozen stream is “halted mid-leap in elaborate forms of yearning,” or the mountains of Scotland to which he returned for his grandfather’s funeral, where he found “moonlight shimmering off the pine needles and pooling in the tears of resin wept by the pines.”

A breathtaking study of “walking as enabling sight and thought rather than encouraging retreat and escape.”

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-670-02511-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Aug. 5, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2012

Brilliantly juxtaposes Marvel with its best characters: flawed and imperfect, but capable of achieving miraculous feats.

MARVEL COMICS

THE UNTOLD STORY

An impeccably researched, authoritative history of Marvel Comics.

Former Entertainment Weekly editor Howe (editor: Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers!: Writers on Comics, 2004) interviewed more than 150 former Marvel employees, freelancers and family members to weave together a tapestry of creative genius, bad business decisions and petty back-stabbing. Progenitors of Spider-Man, the Avengers and the X-Men, Marvel’s rocky road to merchandising success is as epic as any of the company’s four-color adventures. Howe pulls no punches as he details the fledgling enterprise’s slow rise from Timely Publications in 1939 to its official emergence as Marvel Comics in 1961, when the groundbreaking brilliance of writer Stan Lee and artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko led to the creation of the company’s most iconic characters. In an era before movie-making technology facilitated lucrative cross-merchandising, however, Marvel struggled financially while its editors massaged the bruised egos of freelancers who poured their lifeblood into creations in which they didn’t retain an ownership stake. Kirby, bitter over what he perceived as Lee’s efforts to take undue credit for his stories, ultimately left, becoming a rallying point in the struggle for the rights and compensation of writers and artists. Lee relocated to Hollywood in an effort to bring Marvel’s characters to the big screen, a frustrating endeavor that would take decades and a procession of other individuals to come to fruition. Compared to the thorough account of Marvel’s formative years, Howe gives relatively short shrift to recent corporate machinations—including only a brief mention of Disney’s $4 billion purchase of Marvel in 2009—and the work of current superstars, but that’s a minor quibble in what is otherwise a nuanced and engrossing narrative of a company whose story deserves its own blockbuster film.

Brilliantly juxtaposes Marvel with its best characters: flawed and imperfect, but capable of achieving miraculous feats.

Pub Date: Oct. 9, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-06-199210-0

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2012

An eye-opening take on how romantic sentimentalism about nature can have destructive consequences.

NATURE WARS

THE INCREDIBLE STORY OF HOW WILDLIFE COMEBACKS TURNED BACKYARDS INTO BATTLEGROUNDS

Journalist Sterba (Frankie's Place: A Love Story, 2003, etc.) employs humor and an eye for the absurd to document the sometimes bizarre conflicts that arise as a consequence of America's transformed relationship with nature.

As forest cover has grown back to more than two-thirds of its pre-colonial extent, wildlife recovery from the “so-called era of extermination in the last half of the nineteenth century” has accelerated. People who grew up with teddy bears and Disney's Bambi have different attitudes to furry, cuddly creatures than their grandparents did. Nowadays, someone can get death threats while trying to protect communities from resurgent populations of dangerous wild creatures like coyotes and bears, or even from the activities of feral cats. Sterba provides a summary history of the wilderness colonists found, the replacement of the great Eastern forest with farmland and the market-driven extermination of wildlife through commercial hunting and trapping. He continues with cases studies of beaver, deer, bear and geese to show how, as land has reverted to forest, human communities have been polarized by the development of “problems” with each of these species and others. The author presents a repeating pattern: At first, returners are welcomed and encouraged with food, only to be rejected as the dangerous downside begins to emerge. Detailed accounts of efforts to outline solutions, and also of such often-overlooked consequences of this pattern as roadkill, supplement this deeply conflicted overall picture.

An eye-opening take on how romantic sentimentalism about nature can have destructive consequences.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-307-34196-9

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Sept. 6, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2012

Essential for Manchester collectors, WWII buffs and Churchill completists.

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THE LAST LION

WINSTON SPENCER CHURCHILL: DEFENDER OF THE REALM, 1940-1965

A (very) posthumous study of the late, great British leader by the late, great popular historian, aided by journalist Reid.

Just before Manchester (A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance—Portrait of an Age, 1992, etc.) died in 2004, he handed over the task of finishing his Churchill biography to Reid, who retains Manchester’s habit of writing at extreme length, and it’s clear where Manchester left off in his own primary research: Though the book spans the years 1940 to Churchill’s death in 1965, roughly only one-tenth of it covers the “lion’s” last 20 years, while the vast bulk is given over—fittingly enough—to Churchill’s leadership as British prime minister during World War II. The documentation would not pass a professional historian’s muster, but Manchester never wrote for historians, and general readers, as always, will be taken by his boundless abilities as a storyteller. Manchester also saw patterns that may not have been apparent to most other writers. Whereas Hitler was famously known as an artist manqué, Churchill “came at every issue with a painter’s eye,” whether developing a battle plan for the invasion of Italy or “parsing geopolitical matters such as continental hegemony.” The great-man theory of history, too, may be passé in academia, but Manchester/Reid gladly subscribe to it, with an account of the friendship of Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt (and rivalry with Josef Stalin) that is both searching and unsentimental. The authors clearly admire Churchill, for reasons that they make evident throughout, but there is little in the way of hero worship. Indeed, their critical account of Operation Torch—which Dwight Eisenhower exaggeratedly called “the blackest day in history”—is thorough and convincing, and it does not reflect well on the cigar-chomping PM. The manuscript is replete with Manchester’s journalistic flourishes, some of which cross into cliché, and it’s as much a monument to the author as to its subject.

Essential for Manchester collectors, WWII buffs and Churchill completists.

Pub Date: Nov. 6, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-316-54770-3

Page Count: 1232

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Sept. 2, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2012

Taking on a looming subject with intelligence and wit, Simmons manages to take the full measure of her man.

I'M YOUR MAN

THE LIFE OF LEONARD COHEN

An elegant, deeply researched life of the Canadian musician, poet and novelist.

With the resurgence of his career in the last decade, Cohen has been the subject of several new books, but it’s hard to imagine a better one than that of veteran music journalist Simmons (Neil Young: Reflections in Broken Glass, 2001, etc.). Born into a wealthy family of Jewish clothiers in Montreal, Cohen became one of Canada’s leading young literary lights with his early volumes of poetry and two well-received novels. He was already in his early 30s when he became a professional musician, after folk singer Judy Collins brought his songs to the world’s attention with her cover of “Suzanne.” Beginning in 1968, the globe-trotting, seemingly driven Cohen recorded a series of wise, dark albums that made him a star in Europe and brought him a far smaller but devoted following in the United States. He was enjoying renewed commercial and critical success in the mid-’90s when he withdrew into a Zen Buddhist monastery for more than five years. Upon his return to the world, he discovered that his longtime manager had embezzled millions; his unexpected penury prompted a wildly received 2008-2009 world tour that grossed $50 million and finally lifted him, as a septuagenarian, into the top echelon of international stars. Simmons follows every step of Cohen’s peripatetic artistic journey with acuity and no small measure of poetic observation. Drawing on interviews with Cohen and most of his important collaborators and paramours, she paints a deep portrait of a man seemingly torn between the spiritual and the worldly, deeply gifted but plagued by abiding depression and frequent self-doubt. Simmons offers an abundance of revealing stories about Cohen’s ardent womanizing, restless pursuit of enlightenment through sex, drugs, alcohol and spirituality, and sometimes excruciating artistic perfectionism. He emerges in his full complexity, brimming with both seemingly boundless brilliance and abundant human imperfection.

Taking on a looming subject with intelligence and wit, Simmons manages to take the full measure of her man.

Pub Date: Sept. 11, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-06-199498-2

Page Count: 576

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 28, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2012

A dark but hopeful chronicle that shows how even humanity’s worst can fracture and fall.

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IRON CURTAIN

THE CRUSHING OF EASTERN EUROPE, 1945-1956

A Pulitzer Prize–winning author returns with the story of those dark decades in Eastern Europe when the Soviet Union slammed the prison doors on people, cultures and countries.

Realizing she could not tell the whole story in one volume, Washington Post and Slate columnist Applebaum (Gulag: A History, 2003, etc.) focuses on Poland, East Germany and Hungary and shows how their stories were representative. She begins as World War II was ending. The Russians were plowing through Eastern Europe on their way to Berlin. While many of the Allies were thinking of home, the Soviets had grander and grimmer ideas. Applebaum shows how the communists gained political control of individual countries (they were sometimes surprised in “elections” how unpopular they were), then charts how—in the service of their iron ideology—they systematically destroyed economies, organizations, the arts, education, the press, the judiciary, the church, the entertainment industries and every other social institution. Internment camps and prisons became the true growth industries. Applebaum also explores the tactics employed to keep people in line: fear and intimidation, of course, but also a massive propaganda industry that sought to convince everyone that things were better than they were, but not nearly as good as they would be in five years or so. They invested much hope in education, believing they could indoctrinate an entire generation. It didn’t work. Periodically, the author chronicles what was happening in the West (the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift). Beginning with the death of Stalin, Applebaum shows how and why things slowly began to change. The emerging youth culture, the resurgence of religious belief, the rise of a new generation of writers and artists—these were among the factors that energized the 1956 uprisings, which, of course, the Soviets temporarily crushed.

A dark but hopeful chronicle that shows how even humanity’s worst can fracture and fall.

Pub Date: Nov. 27, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-51569-6

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Sept. 10, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2012

Aspects of a spy novel, a writer’s autobiography and a victim’s affidavit pulsing with resentment and fear combine to reveal...

JOSEPH ANTON

A MEMOIR

The frightening, illuminating and disturbing memoir by the author of The Satanic Verses, the book that provoked a death sentence from the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989.

Rushdie (Luka and the Fire of Life, 2008, etc.) chose for his cover name (and for the title) the first names of Conrad and Chekhov—appropriate, for the author seems caught in a tangled novel filled with ominous (and some cowardly) characters driven by an inscrutable fate toward a probable sanguinary climax. The author uses third person throughout, a decision that allows him a novelist’s distance but denies some of the intimacy of the first person. Perhaps he viewed himself during those 13 years (the duration of his protection by British security forces) more as a character than a free agent. He returns continually to an image from Hitchcock’s The Birds: the black birds gradually filling up a jungle gym on a school playground (these represent the threats to personal freedom presented by fundamentalists). Rushdie also includes unmailed letters to actual people (Tony Blair) and to ideas (the millennium). The organization is unremarkable: The author begins with his learning of the fatwa, retreats to tell about his life before 1989, then marches steadily toward the present with only a few returns (a section about his mother’s love life). Bluntly, he tells about his wives, divorces, affairs, successes and failures of pen and heart and character; his various security guards; and, very affectingly, about his two sons. He tells about his travels, many awards and celebrity friends. Emerging as heroic is the United States, where Rushdie realized he could live more freely than anywhere else.

Aspects of a spy novel, a writer’s autobiography and a victim’s affidavit pulsing with resentment and fear combine to reveal a man’s dawning awareness of the primacy of freedom.

Pub Date: Sept. 18, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9278-6

Page Count: 656

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2012

A masterful work of critical journalism.

THE HOLY OR THE BROKEN

LEONARD COHEN, JEFF BUCKLEY, AND THE UNLIKELY ASCENT OF "HALLELUJAH"

Charting the remarkable journey of a modern musical classic, from obscurity to ubiquity.

Former Vibe and Spin editor Light’s (The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys, 2006) brisk, engrossing study of “Hallelujah” comes on the heels of Sylvie Simmons’ definitive Cohen biography, but this book is brilliantly revelatory on its own. The song, a beguiling, mysterious mix of the spiritual and the erotic with an incantatory chorus, originally appeared on the Canadian singer-songwriter’s 1984 album "Various Positions." Cohen’s label, Columbia, refused to issue the album, and it appeared on an independent label; it failed to sell. But the song was kept alive by John Cale’s 1991 cover, augmented by new verses supplied by its author, and Jeff Buckley’s heavenly rendering of Cale’s text on his 1994 debut album “Grace.” That album also flopped commercially, but “Hallelujah” became the touchstone of Buckley’s posthumous reputation after his death. Light skillfully delineates the song’s genesis as a contemporary standard, through its emotionally potent use in a famous VH1 montage after 9/11, feature films like Shrek, a host of TV shows and televised sing-offs like American Idol. Though Cohen declined to be interviewed for the book, Light spoke with several of his key collaborators plus many of its interpreters, including k.d. lang, Rufus Wainwright, Bono and Jon Bon Jovi. He recounts how the tardy success of Cohen’s unheralded composition led to his latter-day critical and commercial renaissance: After his manager embezzled nearly $10 million from his accounts, Cohen returned to performing on the back of “Hallelujah” and reinstated himself with a rapturously received 2008-2010 world tour. In the meantime, the song had become a fixture of religious ceremonies, bar mitzvahs, weddings and memorial services. Light’s main point is that the song’s stirring melody, malleability and lyrical ambiguity made it a natural candidate for wide-scale popular adoration.

A masterful work of critical journalism.

Pub Date: Dec. 4, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4516-5784-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Oct. 8, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2012

A rich record of the vicissitudes of publishing during an inimitable time and place.

THE TENDER HOUR OF TWILIGHT

PARIS IN THE '50S, NEW YORK IN THE '60S: A MEMOIR OF PUBLISHING'S GOLDEN AGE

A dense, detailed, priceless eyewitness account of the making of a literary generation between Paris and New York.

A native of Pennsylvania, a Navy man, erstwhile teacher and AFS fellow living in Paris in the early 1950s on a shoestring, Seaver fell in with a group of expat writers and intellectuals turning out the English-language literary magazine Merlin, published by Alex Trocchi and Patrick Bowles. Seaver, who spoke French fluently and was in the process of completing graduate studies on James Joyce, had become acquainted with the writing of Samuel Beckett, also living in Paris but then fairly unknown although he had been publishing since the late ’20s. Seaver’s essay about Beckett and subsequent translations of his short work in the magazine helped spread the word about the brilliant but reclusive bilingual author, whom Seaver finally befriended and depicts here in wonderfully explicit passages. Other legendary figures Seaver encountered included the towering Jean-Paul Sartre, who graciously offered pieces from his own Les Temps modernes and urged him to publish Jean Genet. Gradually the magazine ventured into publishing books, inviting Olympia Press publisher Maurice Girodias to act as manager debuting with Beckett’s Watt. Marriage to young French violinist Jeanette—later his co-editor at Arcade Publishing and the editor of this posthumously published work—and two subsequent years in the Navy Reserves prompted Seaver to relocate to New York, where he segued naturally into the managing editor role at Grove Press, run by Barney Rosset, the English publisher of Beckett and many of the same incendiary authors Seaver had championed in France. Indeed, the press would make its name fighting pornography charges in the ’60s against D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (and Capricorn) and William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and valiantly standing by Last Exit to Brooklyn and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, among many others.

A rich record of the vicissitudes of publishing during an inimitable time and place.

Pub Date: Jan. 10, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-374-27378-1

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Sept. 21, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2011

A highly creative, illuminating, genre-resisting history.

RED PLENTY

The strange, sad, hilarious story of the Soviet Union’s blind pursuit of a Communist paradise, told through a mix of history and fiction, using both to get to the truth.

Spufford (I May Be Some Time, 2003, etc.) traces the latter half of the history of the Soviet Union, starting in the late 1950s, when the Soviets were seeing an imaginary light over the horizon. After 40 years that included struggle, war, starvation and Stalin, the Marxist dream looked as if it might be taking off under Nikita Khrushchev. The Soviet Union’s economic growth more than doubled that of the United States, and if it kept going at the same rate, the “planned economy” would “overtake and surpass” capitalist America. Cars, food and houses would be better, and there would be more money and leisure all around, thanks to a top-down, start-to-finish management that “could be directed, as capitalism could not, to the fastest, most lavish fulfillment of human needs.” Through a series of episodes involving economists, scientists, computer programmers, industrialists, artists and politicians—some real, some imagined, some drawn together from composites—Spufford tells the story of the life and death of a national illusion, as Utopian dreams moldered into grim dystopian realities. The planned economy was a worker’s nightmare, where production targets increased even as equipment became more and more outdated, and unforeseen, unplanned events—like the sudden loss of a spinning machine at a textile factory—set off a ripple effect of unproductiveness. Pay cuts and scarce commodities led to riots, such as one in Novocherkassk, where the dead bodies were hauled out and the bloody streets were repaved overnight. In his often-whimsical, somewhat Nabokov-ian notes, Spufford freely points out his own inventions, approximations and hedged bets on what might have happened.

A highly creative, illuminating, genre-resisting history.

Pub Date: Feb. 14, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-55597-604-0

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Graywolf

Review Posted Online: Oct. 26, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2011

Will the partnership prevail? Stay tuned, but hope for the best—for, they warn, “[i]f urgent steps are not taken to rein in...

THE PARTNERSHIP

FIVE COLD WARRIORS AND THEIR QUEST TO BAN THE BOMB

Timely portrait of an alliance, seemingly unlikely, of former Cold War mavens now committed to nuclear disarmament.

Only last month did the news come that China’s nuclear arsenal is likely much more extensive than anyone had guessed. Russia is a constant worry, not least because its conventional forces are so reduced that the temptation is ever greater to rely on nuclear solutions in the event of an attack, real or perceived. But the heroes of former New York Times reporter and editor Taubman’s (Secret Empire: Eisenhower, the CIA, and the Hidden Story of America's Space Espionage, 2003, etc.) tale are less worried about these major players on the world stage than about the disaffected, shadowy figures from the margins—al-Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps even the narcotraficantes. At the center of the group is nuclear strategist Sidney Drell; around him are Sam Nunn, at one time “the Senate’s leading authority on Cold War military matters”; George Shultz and William Perry. Closing up the five—and this may give Christopher Hitchens fits—is Henry Kissinger, that dark master of realpolitik, who more than any of the other figures maneuvered and positioned himself for best advantage when, early in 2011, the quintet signed off on a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece calling for the effective abolition of nuclear arms. Kissinger’s position, it seems, is still nuanced—read: subject to revocation—but the mere fact that these five quite different players, whose names show up in the indexes of every history of the Cold War, came together on the point was significant enough. However, as Taubman continues, there’s more to the story. The great value of his book is twofold. First, the author gives a lucid summary of the long, shifting struggle between East and West and the contributions each of the five made to it, for better or worse. (See Robert De Niro’s film The Good Shepherd for worse.) Second, Taubman shows how influential these old Cold Warriors have been in shaping the policy of the present administration and its “ambitious nuclear agenda,” providing a useful look at the way in which such decisions are made and shaped.

Will the partnership prevail? Stay tuned, but hope for the best—for, they warn, “[i]f urgent steps are not taken to rein in nuclear weapons...a catastrophic attack is virtually inevitable.”

Pub Date: Jan. 3, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-06-174400-6

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Dec. 13, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2012

An intriguing and potentially life-altering examination of the human psyche that is sure to benefit both introverts and...

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QUIET

THE POWER OF INTROVERTS IN A WORLD THAT CAN'T STOP TALKING

An enlightened Wall Street survivor exhorts wallflowers everywhere to embrace their solitude-seeking souls and fully appreciate the power of the lone wolf.

Could up to one-half of a nation obsessed with Jersey Shore narcissism and American Idol fame really be inhabited by reserved, sensitive types? According to Cain, yes—and we better start valuing their insight. Extroverts have their place, but things can quickly go haywire when we start confusing assertiveness with competence—the economic meltdown on Wall Street was the most stunning recent example. Had there been a few more conscientious, contemplative introverts in the boardroom (and had they made themselves heard), Cain writes, the country’s fortunes would now be decidedly different. But today’s prevailing susceptibility to “reward sensitivity,” as embodied by alpha-dog Wall Street types, wasn’t always the norm. Cain provides fascinating insight into how the United States shifted from an introvert-leaning “cult of character” to an extrovert-leaning “cult of personality” ruled by the larger-than-life Tony Robbinses of the world. Readers will learn that the tendency for some to be reserved is actually hard-wired, and as every evolutionary biologist will tell you, innate characteristics are there for a reason—to help humans survive and thrive. The author also boldly tackles introverts themselves, as well as the ambivalence many often feel about being relegated to the corner. “Stick to your guns,” writes fellow introvert Cain. The author’s insights are so rich that she could pen two separate books: one about parenting an introverted child and another about how to make an introvert/extrovert relationship work.

An intriguing and potentially life-altering examination of the human psyche that is sure to benefit both introverts and extroverts alike.

Pub Date: Jan. 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-307-35214-9

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Oct. 26, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2011

Rothkopf delivers a lively, accessible treatment of a multifaceted, complex subject.

POWER, INC.

THE EPIC RIVALRY BETWEEN BIG BUSINESS AND GOVERNMENT--AND THE RECKONING THAT LIES AHEAD

Rothkopf (Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They are Making, 2009, etc.) uses a wide-angle lens to examine the relation between public and private power.

The author compares various models of capitalist functioning for insight into their relative rates of success—the U.S. “government-lite” opposition to big government; China's top-down state control; the more democratic “statist” version offered by India and Brazil; a European model, derived primarily from Sweden and Germany; and one based on such commercially successful small states as Israel, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. Comparing models, the author separates successful economies from the near successful, the failing and the failed, and he compares countries and public institutions to the private sector—Wal-Mart, Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell and dozens of others. Rothkopf adds historical context with his account of one of the oldest companies in the world, Sweden's Stora, which began as a mining venture in the 1200s and has endured under different names for centuries. Sweden and Stora's mines were vital to the outcome of both the Protestant Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War, the concluding settlement of which signaled the victory of the nation-state. In Rothkopf's view, the world has shifted from a “battle between capitalism and Communism to something even more complex: a battle between differing forms of capitalism in which the distinction between each is in the relative role and responsibilities of public and private sectors.” The extremes of both Soviet communism and free-market financial “overreach” have been discredited. American capitalism initially triumphed but has receded, and competition between different capitalisms will continue.

Rothkopf delivers a lively, accessible treatment of a multifaceted, complex subject.

Pub Date: March 6, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-374-15128-7

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Dec. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2012

Meticulously researched and packed with not just technological details, but sociopolitical and cultural details as well—the...

TURING'S CATHEDRAL

THE ORIGINS OF THE DIGITAL UNIVERSE

That we live in a digital universe is indisputable; how we got there is a mesmerizing tale brilliantly told by science historian Dyson (Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957–1965, 2002, etc.).

The author establishes late 1945 as the birth date of the first stored-program machine, built at the Institute for Advanced Study, established in Princeton in 1932 as a haven for theoreticians. It happened under the watch of the brilliant mathematician John von Neumann, fresh from commutes to Los Alamos where the atom bomb had been built and the hydrogen bomb was only a gleam in Edward Teller’s eye. Dyson makes clear that the motivation for some of the world’s greatest technological advances has always been to perfect instruments of war. Indeed, von Neumann’s colleagues included some who had been at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where a dedicated-purpose computer, ENIAC, had been built to calculate firing tables for anti-aircraft artillery. The IAS computer, MANIAC, was used to determine the parameters governing the fission of an atom device inside an H-bomb that would then ignite the fusion reaction. But for von Neumann and others, the MANIAC was also the embodiment of Alan Turing’s universal machine, an abstract invention in the ’30s by the mathematician who would go on to crack the Nazi’s infamous Enigma code in World War II. In addition to these stories, Dyson discusses climate and genetic-modeling projects programmed on the MANIAC. The use of wonderful quotes and pithy sketches of the brilliant cast of characters further enriches the text. Who knew that eccentric mathematician/logician Kurt Gödel had married a Viennese cabaret dancer?

Meticulously researched and packed with not just technological details, but sociopolitical and cultural details as well—the definitive history of the computer.

Pub Date: March 6, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-375-42277-5

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Jan. 24, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2012

A frank, exhaustive, marvelously readable study.

SWORD OF THE SPIRIT, SHIELD OF FAITH

RELIGION IN AMERICAN WAR AND DIPLOMACY

A sharp, clear, deeply researched examination of the consistent application of the founding religious principles to American foreign policy, from the colonists’ sense of a Protestant exceptionalism to President Barack Obama’s “Good Niebuhr Policy.”

The invocation of God and religion to sanctify foreign-policy decisions is not a new or surprising idea, as Preston (American and International History/Cambridge Univ.) learned especially when he was researching his work on McGeorge Bundy and the Vietnam War (The War Council, 2006). However, the extent to which religion has been used consistently to shape U.S. diplomatic history proved “an odd and unsettling discovery.” Here the author thoroughly documents that discovery, from the self-righteous Puritans’ establishing their “City upon a Hill” to the modern-day presidents acting as self-appointed popes. Preston explores this fascinating paradox of a nation founded on freedom of religion yet exhibiting, in its relations with the wider world, a profound belief in a Judeo-Christian sense of “exceptional virtue.” America’s unique geographical position in the world allowed it “free security” to engender idealistic choices and values, reflected in its moralistic foreign policy. Its founding Reformation Protestant society eventually developed tenets of pluralism, libertarianism, a deep suspicion of despotism and hostility to arbitrary power, a faith-based progressivism, nationalism and even isolationism, all of which Preston explores systematically. America’s reaction to what it perceived as corrupt and tyrannical foreign influences thus allowed the republic to model itself as virtuous and in the right, spreading “God’s own cause” in subsequent dealings with the Indians, Canadians, Mexicans, Cubans and Filipinos, largely for worse. Preston sifts carefully through the “religious biographies” of certain key policymakers, including John Quincy Adams, William McKinley, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John Foster Dulles and others.

A frank, exhaustive, marvelously readable study.

Pub Date: Feb. 28, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4000-4323-1

Page Count: 832

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Dec. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2012

Though he’s a little too enamored with “angel-headed hipsters” and “fairy dust,” Talbot takes the reader much deeper than...

SEASON OF THE WITCH

ENCHANTMENT, TERROR AND DELIVERANCE IN THE CITY OF LOVE

An ambitious, labor-of-love illumination of a city’s soul, celebrating the uniqueness of San Francisco without minimizing the price paid for the city’s free-spiritedness.

“This is my love letter to San Francisco,” writes Salon founder and CEO Talbot (Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, 2007). “But if it’s a valentine, it’s a bloody valentine, filled with the raw truth as well as the glory about the city that has been my home for more than three decades now.” More than a retread of beatnik and hippie years or a series of chapters on colorful characters (has any city boasted more than San Francisco?), the author encompasses the city’s essence. He seeks to make sense of how San Francisco became a magnet for those who felt they didn’t fit elsewhere, how it sparked the “Summer of Love,” a race war, the murders of its mayor and his charismatic ally (in which the author finds the police department “deeply implicated”), radical bombings, a high-profile kidnapping and the most notorious mass suicide in human history (Jonestown, in exile from San Francisco, which the author says should more appropriately be considered a “slaughter”).  Talbot loves his city deeply and knows it well, making the pieces of the puzzle fit together, letting the reader understand how a charismatic religious crackpot such as Jim Jones could wield such powerful political influence, how the Super Bowl victory of the San Francisco 49ers helped the city heal, how the conservative Italian Catholics who had long lived there wrestled with exotic newcomers for the soul of the city. “Cities, like people, have souls,” he writes. “And they can be broken by terrible events, but they can also be healed.”

Though he’s a little too enamored with “angel-headed hipsters” and “fairy dust,” Talbot takes the reader much deeper than cliché, exploring a San Francisco that tourists never discover.

Pub Date: May 8, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4391-0821-5

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Free Press

Review Posted Online: Jan. 24, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2012

In an impressive narrative, the author renders esoteric DNA concepts accessible to lay readers.

THE VIOLINIST'S THUMB

AND OTHER LOST TALES OF LOVE, WAR, AND GENIUS, AS WRITTEN BY OUR GENETIC CODE

Science writer Kean (The Disappearing Spoon: and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, 2010) returns with another wide-ranging, entertaining look at science history, this time focusing on the many mysteries of DNA.

The author examines numerous discoveries in more than a century of DNA and genetics research, including such familiar touchstones as Gregor Mendel’s pea-plant experiments and the double-helix model of Watson and Crick. Kean also explores less-well-known territory, deftly using his stories as jumping-off points to unpack specific scientific concepts. He discusses how DNA discoveries led not only to medical breakthroughs, but also to new ways of looking at the past; they “remade the very study of human beings.” Kean delves into theories regarding possible genetic diseases of Charles Darwin, French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and ancient Egyptian king Tut, among others, and how their ailments may have subtly affected developments in scientific, artistic and even royal history. Some stories edge into more bizarre areas, such as one Soviet scientist’s dream to create a human-chimpanzee hybrid, but Kean also tells the moving story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, “perhaps the most unlucky man of the twentieth century,” who was near both Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 when the nuclear bombs were dropped—and who, despite almost certainly suffering DNA damage from radiation, lived into his 90s. At his best, Kean brings relatively obscure historical figures to life—particularly Niccolò Paganini, the titular violinist who wowed early-19th-century audiences with his virtuosity, aided by finger flexibility that may have been due to the genetic disease Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Kean’s talent also shines in the sections on scientific rivalries, such as that between biologist Craig Venter’s private company Celera and the government-funded Human Genome Project, both of which are racing to sequence all human DNA.

In an impressive narrative, the author renders esoteric DNA concepts accessible to lay readers.