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Muddy Jungle Rivers: A River Assault Boat Cox’n’s Memory Journey of His War in Vietnam and Return Home

Wendell Affield. Hawthorn Petal, $19.95 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-9847023-0-5

Affield offers a creative account of his tour of duty during the Vietnam War as a 20-year-old crewman on a Navy river assault boat. He tells his story chronologically with an excess of reconstructed dialogue and vivid descriptions of the extremely dangerous South Vietnamese rivers. Affield’s crew was patrolling at the war’s height in 1968, and his remembrances of the day-to-day events in the war zone evoke the unique and hazardous role played by the men of the brown-water Navy (the colloquial term for riverine units). Said men included Buddha, the gung-ho, commie-hating captain; Stonewall, the black Southern cannon gunner who became radicalized after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.; Snipe, the “docile” engineman; Crow, a racist and cowardly southerner; and Professor, a know-it-all college grad. The author was severely wounded during a deadly ambush in the Mekong Delta, and he deals briefly with his post-war life, including his survivor’s guilt. It’s “guilt that I’m alive,” Affield writes, and “have lived a full life when so many others didn’t have a chance.” Affield lends valuable perspective on riverine warfare and it’s a worthy volume for Vietnam aficionados. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-to-Be-Forgotten 1963–64 Season

Peter Filichia. St. Martin’s, $32.50 (304p) ISBN 978-1-250-05135-6

A glance at the dramas, musicals, and comedies performed during Broadway’s 1963–64 season tells a great story, but theater critic Filichia’s choppy recounting gives the reader little sense of the context or importance of this remarkable concentration of theatrical talent. Barbara Streisand wowed crowds in Funny Girl, Robert Redford captivated audiences in Barefoot In the Park, and major stars and complete unknowns trod the boards in hits and flops, but the descriptions of the 68 productions staged in this time frame read like rewritten vintage reviews. Some of the pieces are quite fine, like the one about the surprise hit Any Wednesday starring Sandy Dennis and then relative unknown Gene Hackman, and Filichia does offer a wonderful summary of the lineup of musicals. In isolation, there are plenty of good short set pieces, such as the marvelously snarky takedown of The Passion of Josef D., Paddy Chayefsky’s final Broadway play. Filichia’s summary of how Chayefsky’s grinding, real-time account of Stalin’s rise to power in the late stages of the Russian revolution leaves few questions about why it was not a runaway success. While Filichia includes some fine observations throughout (such as the flop drama “But For Whom Charlie” “wasn’t as bad as the title”), they aren’t enough to sustain the narrative. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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See for Yourself: A Visual Guide to Beauty

Rob Forbes. Chronicle, $24.95 (176p) ISBN 978-1-4521-1714-0

Designer Forbes, founder of the retail chain Design Within Reach, presents a guide to recognizing and appreciating beauty in all its everyday forms. He opens with photographs of seafood scraps in Panama and a bin full of nail polish in Seoul. “By paying closer attention to the man-made world, we become more insightful and more engaged, and we have a little more fun,” he says. Forbes helps readers appreciate his perspective, offering a series of brief essays paired with photographs on applying concepts like form, contrast, and light and shadow to common settings and objects. The strength and character of angles are explored using photos of a door hinge and a slice of pizza. An array of house numbers in Charleston, S.C., and doorbells in Venice, Italy, illustrate the diversity of everyday objects. A collection of pocket watches appears next to groupings of keys and scissors, illuminating complexity of composition. The essays accompanying this cultivated kaleidoscope are equally impressive, as Forbes muses on cultural quirks (“red is a controlled substance in Brazil”), favorite places for finding inspiration (walkable cities and farmers’ markets), and cultivating an eye for simplicity and unintended design, all of which help readers to see rather than look. This is an uplifting and engaging manifesto for mindfulness. (May)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past

Jennifer Teege and Nikola Sellmair, trans. from the German by Carolin Sommer. The Experiment, $24.95 (240p) ISBN 978-1-6151-9253-3

In this unforgettable memoir, Teege, writing with journalist Sellmair, discovers secrets about her family during WWII. Teege, a part-Nigerian German working in the advertising industry, shakes up her quiet married life after discovering a book, Matthias Kessler’s I Have to Love My Father, that inspires her to unravel her convoluted family history. She’s horrified to learn that her biological mother’s father was infamous SS leader Amon Goeth. As depicted in Schindler’s List, Goeth liquidated the Krakow ghetto in Poland, ran the Plaszow death camp, and was captured by Americans and hanged in 1946. Teege’s travels in Poland, Germany, and the Middle East further expose her family’s troubled legacy. Her biological mother, Monika, became pregnant with Teege after an affair with a Nigerian student, and placed the baby for adoption; Monika’s unapologetic mother, Ruth, makes excuses for Goeth, who was her lover. Teege’s quest to discover her personal history is empowering. (May)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey

Reid Mitenbuler. Viking, $27.95 (318p) ISBN 978-0-670-01683-9

In this savory history of bourbon whiskey, journalist Mitenbuler recounts the journey of this archetypal American libation: distilled from a mix of half corn and half rye, wheat, or other grain, and aged in charred-oak barrels. The narrative follows from bourbon’s backwoods origins, through its patriotic ascension in the late 18th century over British-associated rum, to its modern maturity (after a flirtation with gangsterism during Prohibition) as the creature of multinational corporations. Mitenbuler engagingly explores the science and lore of whiskey-making and the resulting subtleties of taste, both lampooning the new wine-style whiskey connoisseurship and wallowing in it (let the “concentrated bursts of honey, spice and vanilla flavors unwind on your tongue,” he murmurs). But bourbon’s convoluted cultural associations fascinate him just as much: its protean links to cowboys, blue-collar joes, and Wall Street bankers, and the fake advertising backstories about rugged individualist founders sprouted from Kentucky hollers. Mitenbuler’s prose is relaxed and mellow with a shot of wry; his entertaining, loose-limbed narrative revels in the colorful characters and droll hypocrisies of capitalism at its booziest. (May 12)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

Ashlee Vance. Ecco, $28.99 (416p) ISBN 978-0-06-230123-9

Vance (Geek Silicon Valley) paints a complicated picture of a complicated man in this biography of Silicon Valley tycoon Elon Musk. Vance follows Musk from a difficult childhood in South Africa to his education at Queen’s University in Ontario and later at the University of Pennsylvania. Musk’s early successes with Internet start-ups were only the beginning. He became the prime mover behind SpaceX, “the only private company to dock with the ISS”; Tesla, maker of the Model S electric car; and SolarCity, a solar power company with a unique business model. Throughout, Vance elucidates Musk’s unusual combination of vision, determination, intelligence, whimsy, and ruthlessness that enabled these successes. He describes Musk not as someone “chasing momentary opportunities in the business world” but as someone “trying to solve problems that have been consuming him for decades.” Vance ably conveys the reality of this man who is both a dreamer and a doer. Agent: David Patterson, Foundry Literary + Media. (May)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The World Is on Fire: Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of the Apocalypse

Joni Tevis. Milkweed (PGW, dist.), $16 (256p) ISBN 978-1-57131-347-8

The author of The Wet Collection returns with a second collection of essays, this time with an apocalyptic bent. The book’s 21 selections—an odd commingling of dark tourism travelogues, voyeuristic impulses, and elegaic musings on the past, present, and future—take Tevis’s readers on a visceral journey from decaying railroad towns in North Dakota, where “the line between living and ghost wasn’t always obvious,” to the “Doom Town” at the Nevada atomic test site, a row of houses inhabited by mannequins “with eyes like apple seeds.” Tevis’s writing is utterly beautiful and authentically her own, driven by a deep-seated need to share the images that haunt her. Individual essays feel like the literary equivalent of long exhalations after holding one’s breath, a passionate outpouring of description and revelation (“This is no ordinary sea, no ordinary sunset, and despite its calm surface, the water reminds me somehow of solvent... This is water with an opinion”). Tevis does not provide the literary equivalent of any “duck and cover” directives for readers—her prose demands we must meet her in her burning world—but once we get there, the rewards are rich. (May)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Virginia Woolf: A Portrait

Viviane Forrester, trans. from the French by Jody Gladding. Columbia Univ., $35 (226p) ISBN 978-0-231-15356-0

Meandering through this stream-of-consciousness, highly imagistic portrayal of Virginia Woolf by late French literary critic Forrester (The Economic Horror) is like wandering lost through Woolf’s own labyrinthine writings. In prose by turns arresting (”and the miracle of [a writer’s work’s] creation often derives from its link with the general turmoil”) and pedantic (”maimed children faced with the passionate instincts of a personally and physiologically frustrated man”), Forrester captures the “moments of being” that animated Woolf’s life, from her childhood to her last days. Forrester ranges over Woolf’s painful and tormented marriage to Leonard Woolf, her deep anguish over her mother’s death, and her relationship with Vita Sackville-West, as well as how she wove the events of her life into her novels. Nimbly moving from one fragmentary impression to another, Forrester challenges the idea (proposed by Woolf’s nephew, Quentin Bell, in his biography of her) that Woolf was afflicted with mental illness and suicidal impulses when she was a teenager. Instead, Forrester offers the portrait of a woman who strove to strip away any illusions and capture the rhythms of reality in her writings. (May)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You and How to Get Good at It

Kelly McGonigal. Avery, $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-58333-561-1

Most people experience stress, and many, if not most, regard it as a destructive, unhealthy force. Yet McGonigal (The Willpower Instinct) believes that this belief actually does more harm than good. In her thought-provoking and thoroughly researched self-help book, she proposes that thinking about stress positively has the potential to extend life and make it more enjoyable. She suggests that our approach to stress affects our actions, and that a healthy mindset, where one accepts stress and uses it to do better, makes for healthy behavior. The stress response triggers hormones that can help people to do better—to function at peak performance, spark social interactions, and learn effectively in new situations. Stress might actually be viewed as necessary for creating a meaningful life. The plainspoken, sensible McGonigal addresses herself to skeptical readers, admitting freely that she was unconvinced when first presented with this view. By citing numerous scientific studies and offering plenty of thought-changing exercises, McGonigal persuasively demonstrates why people should start thinking differently about their stress. Agent: Ted Weinstein, Ted Weinstein Literary Management. (May)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Revolt at Taos: The New Mexican and Indian Insurrection of 1847

James A. Crutchfield. Westholme, $28 (248p) ISBN 978-1-59416-223-7

Historian Crutchfield (The Way West) relates how Spanish-descended New Mexicans and their Taos Indian allies in the former Mexican Republic, reeling from an abrupt takeover by the United States, took their fury out on the territorial governor, Charles Bent, killing him and five others. Over the next several weeks, dozens of American civilians, soldiers, New Mexicans, and Indians died in this pivotal—though little-known—uprising during the Mexican American War. To Anglo-American minds, seizing the northern reaches of the Mexican Republic was the next logical step of manifest destiny, the controversial doctrine that undergirded the U.S. push westward toward the Pacific Ocean. White American homesteaders and soldiers ran roughshod over Indians and New Mexicans alike. In Crutchfield’s view, they suffered decimation akin to the infamous Trail of Tears, the brutal removal of native peoples from the Eastern states. The Taos revolt inflamed the interactions between the invaders and the local people, producing tensions that simmered well into statehood. Crutchfield’s judiciously told and masterfully researched history reveals the rough conditions endured by the soldiers and settlers en route to the Southwest, as well as the growing dismay of the local peoples who finally erupted under continuing threats to their ancestral lands and way of life. (May)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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