Survivors of traumatic events often do not recover without help from others, and Gonzales’ excellent book is an education...

SURVIVING SURVIVAL

THE ART AND SCIENCE OF RESILIENCE

How can the world smite thee? Let us count the ways...

Having limned the odds and wherefores of surviving various challenges in Deep Survival (2003) and Everyday Survival (2008), Gonzales (Lucy, 2010, etc.) looks deeply into the mental processes that enable us to cope with the trauma that often sets in during and after a challenge to our survival. Take, for instance, the prospect of falling overboard and floating in the deep ocean for five days before rescue, as happened to one woman Gonzales profiled in the first book. Though she was rescued, that was not the end of the story in real life; instead, for years, she has had to relive “the pain of thirst, the terror, the physical brutality of the sea,” while her brain has followed its well-known assumption that what happened in the past will happen in the future, no matter how rare the chances of being shipwrecked. Here Gonzales narrates plenty of grim and gruesome tales, not all of them elective; his survivors are those who have suffered war and terrorism as well as falls off mountains and into choppy surf. The best parts are not those harrowing stories, though, but instead the author’s contemplative explanations of the science behind, for instance, how the amygdala works, a blend of inheritance and hard-won education. Pity us poor primates and our amygdalae, for, as he writes, “[w]hen bad things happen, this system can be the source of much sorrow.” One manifestation is the “rage circuit,” which so often afflicts soldiers returning from combat. Those who adapt well to the post-traumatic stress share points in common. One characteristic of success, writes Gonzales, is the ability to step outside oneself to help others, which is “one of the most therapeutic steps you can take.”

Survivors of traumatic events often do not recover without help from others, and Gonzales’ excellent book is an education for those wishing to be of use in a stressful, often frightening world.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-393-08318-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: April 8, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2012

Well-written and bursting with ideas, this will be essential reading for anyone who cares about childhood in America.

HOW CHILDREN SUCCEED

RETHINKING CHARACTER AND INTELLIGENCE

Turning the conventional wisdom about child development on its head, New York Times Magazine editor Tough (Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, 2008) argues that non-cognitive skills (persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence) are the most critical to success in school and life.

Building on reporting for his magazine, the author interviewed economists, psychologists and neuroscientists, examined their recent research, and talked to students, teachers and principals to produce this fascinating overview of a new approach with “the potential to change how we raise our children, how we run our schools, and how we construct our social safety net.” At a time when policymakers favor the belief that disadvantaged kids have insufficient cognitive training, Tough finds that a new generation of researchers are questioning the cognitive hypothesis. Foremost among them is Nobel laureate and University of Chicago economist James Heckman, who since 2008 has been convening economists and psychologists to discuss significant questions: Which skills and traits lead to success? How do they develop in childhood? What interventions might help children do better? Tough summarizes key research, such as the Adverse Childhood Experience Study, a project of the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente, which revealed a stunning correlation between traumatic childhood events and negative adult outcomes. Others have shown that the effects of childhood stress can be buffered by close, nurturing relationships. Assessing such evidence, Heckman says policymakers intent on closing the achievement gap between affluent and poor children must go beyond classroom interventions and supplement the parenting resources of disadvantaged Americans. Families, he says, “are the main drivers of children’s success in school.” Heckman’s thinking informs the book, which includes many examples of failing disadvantaged students who turned things around by acquiring character skills that substituted for the social safety net enjoyed by affluent students.

Well-written and bursting with ideas, this will be essential reading for anyone who cares about childhood in America.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-547-56465-4

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: April 10, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2012

A copiously examined life rendered with humor and heart.

THE DANGEROUS ANIMALS CLUB

Veteran character actor Tobolowsky, perhaps best known for his role in Groundhog Day, offers a beguiling collection of autobiographical essays detailing his experiences in and out of show business.

The actor has plenty of rich material to mine—he has been held hostage at gunpoint by a lunatic, suffered an apocalyptic infestation of fleas, barely eluded a goring by a bull, and auditioned with a broken neck—but the delight of the book is the author’s voice: wry, discursive and full of generous spirit and curiosity. Tobolowsky recounts his various heartbreaks, struggles as a young artist and status as a bemused member of the human race with unfailing wit and gratitude for the richness and strangeness of life, marveling at the small miracles and surprising reversals that inform relationships and careers. Occasionally the author’s observations skirt along the fringe of New Age platitudes, but a leavening lack of pretention prevents the spiritual content from curdling, and there is always another jaw-dropping anecdote around the corner to carry the proceedings. Tobolowsky contributes intriguing insights into the absurdities of TV and film production (his description of acting against a green screen is particularly amusing), the politics of graduate school life and the perils of pet ownership, endowing both the most mundane and rarified endeavors with equally close attention and appreciation. His reminiscences of the early days of the AIDS crisis and the decline and death of his mother provide the collection with profound emotional ballast, but even in the heavier sections Tobolowsky’s light touch and effortless empathy delight and sustain readers’ engagement.

A copiously examined life rendered with humor and heart.

Pub Date: Sept. 25, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4516-3315-3

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 31, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2012

A gripping celebration of physical and mental endurance.

WALKING THE AMAZON

860 DAYS. ONE STEP AT A TIME.

A memoir of an astonishing trip walking “nine million-odd steps" for more than two years along the Amazon River’s course from Peruvian headwaters to Brazilian mouth.

In this book about becoming the first person to perambulate the Amazon’s entire length, Stafford chronicles the countless obstacles he faced, including canoes of armed indigenous peoples, dehydration, sickness, lack of sleep (his insomnia caused “the hopeless despair of seeing the sun rise when I had still not managed to stop my brain racing”) and overwhelming swarms of insects. In addition to the stories of his impressive adventures, the author explores his friendship with the longest lasting of his many walking companions, Gadiel “Cho” Sanchez Rivera. Along the way, Stafford wonders if trying to break a record is "selfish,” and he acknowledges that those with lofty goals occasionally occupy an “insular bubble of blinkered determination.” Not this author, however; faraway events and nightly reading impacted him as much as immediate concerns of hunger. Stafford’s writing is lyrical and mostly engaging, and he offers numerous anecdotes about how to survive in the wild. On the verge of starvation, he and Cho found a tortoise, and the author’s recounting of its preparation is as engrossing as the meat was nourishing. Though boredom threatened Stafford’s appreciation of the unfamiliar, he was always able to recapture the joy of discovery. For him, “everything is relative and, when you’ve been walking for 639 days, a ten-day leg through unknown jungle that no one in the village could remember being walked in living history seemed nothing.”

A gripping celebration of physical and mental endurance.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-452-29826-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Plume

Review Posted Online: June 11, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 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

A rich, highly readable examination of the seeds of poppies, trade, greed, grandeur and an international partnership that...

WHEN AMERICA FIRST MET CHINA

AN EXOTIC HISTORY OF TEA, DRUGS, AND MONEY IN THE AGE OF SAIL

The author of Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America (2010) returns with the story of America’s first voyages to the Middle Kingdom, where Americans and Chinese looked at each other with wonder, alarm and calculation.

Dolin begins at the end of the American Revolution. With America’s relationship with England in ruins, the country looked to the Far East. On July 22, 1784, the Empress of China sailed into the Pearl River in China. The author, whose grasp of the intricacies of international trade is firm, proceeds confidently and skillfully through a complex narrative. He describes the beginnings of trade with China, examines the mystery of silkworms and shows how China established Canton as the center for their trade with the West, whose residents craved silk but also tea (and serving sets). Soon, thousands of vessels—British and American—were sailing on the Pearl, and the most profitable commodity swiftly became opium. Everyone loved it, especially the English and the Chinese, and Americans profited handsomely from the trade. Dolin introduces us to some important American names—including Robert Morris, John Ledyard, John Jacob Astor, Robert Forbes, Harriet Low—and he relates the adventures of the first Chinese to come to America, who became sort of carnival attractions. The author also describes the perils of the voyage, the designs of the ships (and the rise and fall of the clipper ship) and the American involvement in the Opium War.

A rich, highly readable examination of the seeds of poppies, trade, greed, grandeur and an international partnership that remains uneasy and perilous.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-87140-433-6

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: May 31, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2012

A brilliant exposition of the possibility of science and religion, each in its own way, contributing to a better world.

THE GREAT PARTNERSHIP

SCIENCE, RELIGION, AND THE SEARCH FOR MEANING

A leading Jewish theologian argues that both religious fundamentalists and neo-Darwinian atheists such as Richard Dawkins have it wrong when they contend that science and religious faith are incompatible.

Instead, Sacks (Covenant & Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible Exodus, 2010, etc.), chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, believes that both are necessary, complementary ways of looking at the world. “Science takes things apart to see how they work,” he writes. “Religion puts things together to see what they mean…neither is dispensable.” As a metaphor for this duality, the author uses the distinction between right-brain intuitive processing and left-brain analytic functioning. Religious faith is interpretative (“the search for meaning constitutes our humanity”), while scientific knowledge increases our well-being. Sacks dismisses rage-filled, self-righteous biblical fundamentalism but also deplores the equally intolerant stance of scientists like Dawkins, who has compared religious belief to a virus. Sacks refers to traditional Jewish interpretations of the Bible to explain his own search for God in the bonds of family, the small compassionate acts of people toward strangers and the necessity of challenging injustice. He views the Creation as a work in progress begun billions of years ago by a God who “delights in diversity,” and he interprets Darwin's “wondrous discovery” as showing that “the Creator made creation creative.” The author compares his own Jewish view of God—consistent with the notion of emergence and evolution—to a literal interpretation of Genesis and suggests that God has called upon us “to become his partners in the work of redemption.” To accomplish this, he writes, we require “people capable of understanding cognitive pluralism."

A brilliant exposition of the possibility of science and religion, each in its own way, contributing to a better world.

Pub Date: Sept. 11, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-8052-4301-7

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Schocken

Review Posted Online: June 22, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 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

A contemplative, profoundly moving meditation on life, love and death.

A REAL EMOTIONAL GIRL

A MEMOIR ABOUT CANCER, DEATH, GRIEF, AND MOVING FORWARD

In her debut, Los Angeles Review poetry and translations editor Chernov probes her grief over losing a much-loved father and the inability of contemporary society to accept profound emotion.

Returning to college after her father’s death, the difficulty the author discovered navigating college life was magnified by the response of those around her. Once a sought-after, popular girl, Chernov’s friends dropped away. She describes how this rejection deepened her sense of isolation from the college community. “My emotional baggage and I were not welcome in the college environment,” she writes, “but what I feared, and would soon learn, was that in our culture, emotional baggage of any kind threatens to slow us down to the point of being left behind.” The author’s family's life centered around a summer camp for girls in Wisconsin, which they owned and operated, created by her father's vision of a place where people could feel “loved and safe and free.” Growing up in this environment, Chernov felt cherished even though she was resentful of the campers who shared her family's life each summer. When her father was first diagnosed with cancer, the family was optimistic about a cure, but even as his health deteriorated, his love and determination to enjoy life to the end strengthened them. Chernov writes of her own painful coming-of-age, made more difficult by the stress of anticipating her father's death as his health declined, and how ultimately, she was able to embrace her father's decision not to waste the time he had left.

A contemplative, profoundly moving meditation on life, love and death.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-61608-869-9

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing

Review Posted Online: June 21, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 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

The author’s passion, thorough research and imaginative heart produce one revelation after another.

REINVENTING BACH

The author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own (2003) returns with a tour de force about Johann Sebastian Bach and a description and assessment of the recordings that have made his work an essential part of our culture.

Elie, a former senior editor with FSG and now a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, tells a polyphonic tale, weaving throughout his narrative a history of the recording industry and brisk biographies of Bach and the 20th-century performers who first recorded his work for mass audiences, including Albert Schweitzer, Leopold Stokowski, Pablo Casals and Glenn Gould. The author begins with a snapshot of Bach’s pervasive presence today, then takes us back to 1935 and Schweitzer’s recordings of Bach’s organ works on wax cylinders. Throughout the text, Elie moves us forward in the history of technology—from 78s to LPs to tapes to CDs to MP3s, showing how Bach managed to remain relevant. We also follow the careers of his principals; Elie’s treatment of the talented and troubled Gould is especially sensitive and enlightening. Occasionally, the author enters the narrative for a personal connection, perhaps nowhere more affectingly than in his account of the time he danced in the rain on the Tanglewood grass while Yo-Yo Ma played a Bach cello suite. Elie also tells us how other cultural figures have employed the music and the man—e.g., Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach, the 1968 album Switched-On Bach and the use of Bach in films and on TV.

The author’s passion, thorough research and imaginative heart produce one revelation after another.

Pub Date: Sept. 18, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-374-28107-6

Page Count: 496

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: July 16, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 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

A triumph of scholarship.

THE VOICE IS ALL

THE LONELY VICTORY OF JACK KEROUAC

An exemplary biography of the Beat icon and his development as a writer.

With unprecedented access to the New York Public Library’s extensive Berg Collection of Kerouac artifacts, Johnson (Missing Men, 2005, etc.) tells the familiar story of the rise of the reluctant “king of the Beats” through the unfamiliar lens of his notebooks, manuscripts and correspondence with family, friends, lovers, editors and writers. The collection was unavailable to scholars for three decades, and access to it is still tightly controlled by the Kerouac estate. Johnson uses her opportunity as a pioneer in this new era of Kerouac scholarship to turn a laser-sharp focus on Kerouac’s evolving ideas about language, fiction vs. truth and the role of the writer in his time. She ends her chronology in late 1951, as Kerouac found the voice and method he’d employ for the rest of his brief career while seeking a publisher for On the Road and working on the novel he considered his masterpiece, Visions of Cody. While still detailing the chaotic and occasionally tragic events of the writer’s life—from mill-town football hero to multiply divorced dipsomaniac mama’s boy/cult idol—Johnson’s focus allows her to trace a trajectory of success rather than follow his painfully familiar decline into alcoholism and premature death. “[T]o me,” she writes, “what is important is Jack’s triumph in arriving at the voice that matched his vision.” Of perhaps most interest was her discovery of just how important his French-Canadian heritage was to Kerouac’s sense of identity. He considered its earthy patois his native language and seems to have translated his thoughts from it into the muscular English with which he’s associated. There’s plenty of life in these pages to fascinate casual readers, and Johnson is a sensitive but admirably objective biographer.

A triumph of scholarship.

Pub Date: Sept. 18, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-670-02510-7

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Aug. 1, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2012

This diligently researched and masterfully written exposition will appeal to Anglophiles and fans of literary biography.

NOW ALL ROADS LEAD TO FRANCE

A LIFE OF EDWARD THOMAS

A perceptive biography that traces an author’s trajectory from disillusioned prose scribe to acclaimed poet.

American readers may be forgiven for not knowing the work of Edward Thomas (1878–1917). While lauded as one of England’s best 20th-century poets, his work has been overshadowed in the United States by that of his fellow World War I–era bards Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Yet Thomas’s life was just as dramatic and his poetry equally haunting, especially considering that he only began composing poems in the last three years of his life. A man tormented by depression, ill-suited to his marriage, aloof toward his children, and disgusted by the hack work that he had to churn out in order to earn a living, Thomas underwent a radical transformation when he met Robert Frost in 1913. Frost had moved to England in hopes of finding the success that was still eluding him back home, and he quickly fell in with Thomas’ literary circle. The two men immediately hit it off, sharing a keen understanding of the importance of cadence and rhythm to creating the mood of a poem. With Frost’s encouragement, Thomas began drafting poems that reflected his keen appreciation of nature as well as his thoughts on romantic love, rural landscapes and, increasingly, the war. By the time of his death, he had left behind a significant oeuvre, but the only poems published in his lifetime were written under a pseudonym. Poet Hollis (Ground Water, 2004), who edited a volume of Thomas’ selected poetry, expertly recreates the upheaval of English society as it made the transition from genteel post-Victorianism to brash modernism. Thomas stood poised on the dividing line between W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot and justly remains a towering figure in English poetry.

This diligently researched and masterfully written exposition will appeal to Anglophiles and fans of literary biography.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-393-08907-3

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 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

In that sense—and given the talk of “real” American-ness that persists today—Mattson’s excellent book is a timely companion...

JUST PLAIN DICK

RICHARD NIXON'S CHECKERS SPEECH AND THE "ROCKING, SOCKING" ELECTION OF 1952

A cocker spaniel and a plain cloth coat become emblems of the paranoid-style right-wing politics of the 1950s, courtesy of one Richard Milhous Nixon.

The time is 1952. As Mattson (History/Ohio Univ.; "What the Heck Are You Up to, Mr. President?": Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech that Should Have Changed the Country, 2009, etc.) opens his narrative, Nixon is pitching a fit: “Goddamn bastards want me out. They want to sack my political career. They don’t have much on me, but they’ll use what they have. That’s how they play, those sluggers and smear boys in the liberal press.” What they had was slender evidence that Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate, had been handed some thousands of dollars to help his cause. Nixon’s defense was the famous “Checkers speech,” which forms the centerpiece of Mattson’s account. But rather than take Nixon’s strained words about his frugality and Pat’s wifely virtues at face value, Mattson neatly deconstructs the speech, which “started off a bit rough” but developed into a work of “political genius,” showing how Nixon used it to set the notion of himself as a plain man in a land of plain men in a time when claims of heroism were all around—thus distinguishing himself not just from opponent Adlai Stevenson, that famed egghead, but also from Eisenhower himself, chief general during a war in which Nixon was middle management in the Pacific. “The speech,” writes Mattson, “saved Nixon’s career by making him into a man of the people, a ‘real’ American—a term that rang throughout the letters and telegrams that poured in for him.” By implication, Stevenson and even Eisenhower weren’t real Americans, thus helping establish the kind of lowest-common-denominator politics that has held sway ever since.

In that sense—and given the talk of “real” American-ness that persists today—Mattson’s excellent book is a timely companion to the current election season. The question is: Who’s playing Nixon?

Pub Date: Sept. 18, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-60819-812-2

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: July 30, 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 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

Insightful and convivial account of a bright, bountiful life dedicated to words, information and wonder.

DEADLINES AND DISRUPTION

MY TURBULENT PATH FROM PRINT TO DIGITAL

The digital media revolution powers a lifelong journalist’s sharp, business-minded autobiography.

Former Newsweek senior editor and BusinessWeek editor-in-chief Shepard, now in his 70s, acknowledges the inevitable replacement of traditional media with digital, portable formats. He writes that he foresaw the progression but never imagined its enormity. These musings fittingly accentuate his memoir, a chronicle that recalls a 50-year history as a distinguished journalist, beginning in the Bronx as a Jewish child born to a depressive mother and a hardworking father. A pretty grade school penmanship teacher helped foster an early love of writing, though Shepard misguidedly majored in engineering in college. In 1966, he became a 26-year-old rookie at BusinessWeek, married the first in a line of fellow journalists and penned stories as a foreign economic correspondent. Throughout a breezy wealth of anecdotes, truisms and historical asides, Shepard writes of spending a defining five years at Newsweek, a stint at the doomed Saturday Review, overseeing seminal investigative pieces and advocating an online version at BusinessWeek. While he firmly considers the Internet a destructive “Category Five storm for journalism,” Shepard concedes he’s come full circle in the understanding and even the advocacy of the great migration to digital formats. The author reports rather than complains or bemoans this media acculturation and feels the industry would be best suited by “a convergence of traditional and revolutionary.” Celebrating a two-decade tenure at BusinessWeek and a founding deanship at CUNY’s top-tier graduate journalism program, Shepard’s authoritative and cautionary blessing on the journalism world is both fitting and resolute.

Insightful and convivial account of a bright, bountiful life dedicated to words, information and wonder.

Pub Date: Sept. 14, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-07-180264-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: McGraw-Hill

Review Posted Online: July 30, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2012

Investigative journalism at its best, as Johnston seeks to comfort the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable.

THE FINE PRINT

HOW BIG COMPANIES USE "PLAIN ENGLISH" TO ROB YOU BLIND

Veteran investigative reporter Johnston reveals how businesses, with the consent of government agencies, rip off consumers in plain sight.

This book completes a kind of trilogy, after 2003’s Perfectly Legal (about tax scams) and 2007’s Free Lunch (about government subsidies). The "fine print" refers to a variety of bills—telephone, electric, water, insurance, credit card, hospital—and other documents that technically disclose costs to the bill payers but are intended to obscure as many hidden costs as possible. Although Johnston's research is meant to shame the powerful for accumulating eye-popping wealth by exploiting the less fortunate, the book also serves to empower recipients of the bills so they can demand repayment and maybe even systemic reform. In a closing chapter, Johnston recommends self-education by consumers, and he provides a start by delineating, for example, how to analyze a utility bill in order to fully understand the many clever surcharges and fees. The author hopes to encourage organized campaigns aimed at all levels and branches of government. The influence of the ballot box can speak truth to power, Johnston believes—perhaps naively but with heartwarming passion. Minimum-wage laws once seemed hopeless to achieve, he writes, yet they are now prevalent because consumers banded together effectively.

Investigative journalism at its best, as Johnston seeks to comfort the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable.

Pub Date: Sept. 18, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-59184-358-0

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Portfolio

Review Posted Online: July 30, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2012

Not flawless, but one of the best recent analyses of the contemporary woes of American economics and politics.

WHO STOLE THE AMERICAN DREAM?

Remarkably comprehensive and coherent analysis of and prescriptions for America’s contemporary economic malaise by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Smith (Rethinking America, 1995, etc.).

“Over the past three decades,” writes the author, “we have become Two Americas.” We have arrived at a new Gilded Age, where “gross inequality of income and wealth” have become endemic. Such inequality is not simply the result of “impersonal and irresistible market forces,” but of quite deliberate corporate strategies and the public policies that enabled them. Smith sets out on a mission to trace the history of these strategies and policies, which transformed America from a roughly fair society to its current status as a plutocracy. He leaves few stones unturned. CEO culture has moved since the 1970s from a concern for the general well-being of society, including employees, to the single-minded pursuit of personal enrichment and short-term increases in stock prices. During much of the ’70s, CEO pay was roughly 40 times a worker’s pay; today that number is 367. Whether it be through outsourcing and factory closings, corporate reneging on once-promised contributions to employee health and retirement funds, the deregulation of Wall Street and the financial markets, a tax code which favors overwhelmingly the interests of corporate heads and the superrich—all of which Smith examines in fascinating detail—the American middle class has been left floundering. For its part, government has simply become an enabler and partner of the rich, as the rich have turned wealth into political influence and rigid conservative opposition has created the politics of gridlock. What, then, is to be done? Here, Smith’s brilliant analyses turn tepid, as he advocates for “a peaceful political revolution at the grassroots” to realign the priorities of government and the economy but offers only the vaguest of clues as to how this might occur.

Not flawless, but one of the best recent analyses of the contemporary woes of American economics and politics.

Pub Date: Sept. 11, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6966-8

Page Count: 576

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2012

Playfully drawn and provocatively written, the memoir reinforces Bell's standing among the first rank of the genre’s artists.

THE VOYEURS

“Graphic memoir” only hints at the artistry of a complex, literary-minded author who resists the bare-all confessionalism so common to the genre and blurs the distinction between fiction and factual introspection.

Who are “The Voyeurs?” In the short, opening title piece, they are a mixed-gender group standing on an urban rooftop, watching a couple have sex through a window in a nearby building. They tend to find the experience “uncomfortable,” even “creepy,” though those who remain raptly silent may well be more interested, even titillated. Bell (Lucky, 2006, etc.) is also a voyeur of sorts, chronicling the lives of others in significant detail while contemplating her own. As she admits before addressing an arts class in frigid Minneapolis, where she knows the major interest will be on how she has been able to turn her comics into a career, “I feel I need to disclaim this ‘story.’ I set myself the task of reporting my trip, though there’s not much to it, and I can’t back out now. It’s my compulsion to do this, it’s my way, I suppose, of fighting against the meaninglessness constantly crowding in.” The memoir encompasses travels that take her from Brooklyn to Los Angeles and from Japan to France, while addressing the challenges of long-distance relationships, panic attacks, contemporary feminism, Internet obsessiveness, the temptation to manipulate life to provide material for her work, and the ultimate realization, in the concluding “How I Make My Comics,” of her creative process: “Then I want to blame everyone I’ve known ever for all the failures and frustrations of my life, and I want to call someone up and beg them to please help me out of this misery somehow, and when I realize how futile both these things are I feel the cold, sharp sting of the reality that I’m totally and utterly alone in the world. Then I slap on a punchline and bam, I’m done.”

Playfully drawn and provocatively written, the memoir reinforces Bell's standing among the first rank of the genre’s artists.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-9846814-0-2

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Uncivilized Books

Review Posted Online: Nov. 5, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2012

A moving story of an American musical original.

CYNDI LAUPER

A MEMOIR

With the assistance of Dunn (Why Is My Mother Getting a Tattoo?: And Other Questions I Wish I Never Had to Ask, 2009, etc.), Lauper tells her alternately harrowing, hopeful and hilarious life story.

The author left her home in Ozone Park, Queens, at age 17 to escape a sexually abusive stepfather and the limitations on life—especially for women—imposed by a hardscrabble working-class neighborhood and male-dominated family culture. “As a kid,” she writes, “I heard a lot of sad stories about women.” What followed was years of marginal existence, odd jobs (including a stint as a topless dancer) and very little money. Her life change in 1983, however, with the release of She’s So Unusual, which garnered four top-five hits and made Lauper an instant star. Other hits followed, including the anthemic True Colors (1986). Inevitably, her superstar aura faded, but her eclectic musical output did not. Throughout, she struggled to remain true to her artistic values. In the music industry, she was “surrounded by men,” most of whom were “trying to remake me…and I didn’t want to be remade.” Regardless, Lauper continued to release significant albums, ranging from pop to club music to standards to blues, all of it infused with her own musical vision and a penchant both for remembering the flawed beauty of Ozone Park (“I always felt I could find Shakespeare right in my neighborhood”) and a determined identification with outsiders—especially women and members of the GLBT community. This identification turned into activism as her True Colors Foundation has worked to help and protect GLBT youth and promote tolerance. Though not as literary, Lauper’s story echoes the hopes of a struggling artist portrayed in Patti Smith’s Just Kids.

A moving story of an American musical original.

Pub Date: Sept. 18, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4391-4785-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Aug. 13, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 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

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