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Capital Offenses: The Artwork of Stephen Barnwell

Stephen Barnwell. Antarctica Arts, $75 (140p) ISBN 978-0-9913216-0-5

Through a series of reimagined banknotes, coupons, and stamps, Barnwell, in the manner of much activist art, appropriates the aesthetic of the establishment in order to comment on and critique it. His is an art of juxtapositions and provocation: "Indebted States of America," reads a $1 trillion "Oriental Reserve Note" bearing the signature of erstwhile U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and featuring a presidential portrait of "Chairman Dow"—who looks very much like Mao Zedong. More controversial perhaps is the "United States of Islam" series: U.S. currency depicting scenes of historical Islamic military victories, such as the fall of Jerusalem in 638 C.E. But Barnwell's criticism is not limited to foreign policy and finance. With "American Excess," a coupon similar to an antiquated bearer bond that depicts Uncle Sam tied to an oil rig, he ably criticizes the extent to which energy and other corporate interests influence American government and imperil the nation's future. Barnwell's work exposes the contradictions and hypocrisy of various power structures and even underscores the intricate elegance of currency as an aesthetic experience.

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit

Alison Hawthorne Deming. Milkweed (PGW, dist.), $18 trade paper (234p) ISBN 978-1-57131-348-5

Deming’s poetry background is evident in this book of beautifully written essays on animal and human behavior and biology. She discusses the real and mythological, the ordinary and the exotic, the wild and the domesticated, and their interactions with humans. Deming reveals amazing facts about our companions on Earth, from storks that carry their aged parents to the genetic bottleneck of cheetahs that threatens their extinction. Sharing anecdotes from near and far, she weaves in stories of her travel experiences in Tanzania and Punta Chueca, Mexico, as well as animals she’s observed from coast to desert. Deming’s writing is both precise and intricate, allowing her to gracefully transition from natural history to memoir. She describes anthills as “little chemistry kits” and the work of “untrained artists.” She reflects on her role as a poet who works in science, ruminating on language and the complexities of the natural world. Deming closes by considering our role in the environment, hoping that our “pathological culture” will change to greater awareness and, many years hence, a beautiful legacy. This articulate compilation is highly recommended for lovers of words and nature. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Coming Ashore: A Memoir

Catherine Gildiner. ECW Press (Legato Publishers Group, U.S. dist.; Jaguar Book Group, Canadian dist.), $24.95 (396p) ISBN 978-1-77041-225-5

Readers who met Cathy McClure Gildiner in her memoirs Too Close to the Falls and After the Falls will be thrilled to have another opportunity to follow her life in the third and final installment. She’s a gifted writer with a stunning memory for detail. Here, Gildiner describes her experiences in the late 1960s and early ’70s, a time when she studied at Oxford University, taught high school in Cleveland, and relocated to Canada to study literature at the University of Toronto. Tenacious, outspoken, and intelligent, Gildiner was a magnet for adventure. While in the U.K., she hiked down Welsh mountains in the darkness and dined among the country’s wealthiest. As a teacher in Cleveland, she worked to inspire a love of poetry in kids whom the rest of society appeared to have given up on. In Canada, she inadvertently found herself sharing living quarters first with Quebec separatists and later with one of the country’s biggest drug dealers. Gildiner depicts herself as a hard-headed, risk-taking young woman who spoke her mind and fully embraced life. For readers, following that life is an irresistible roller-coaster ride full of humor, wise insights, and poignant reflections. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the ‘Princess Bride’

Cary Elwes, with Joe Layden. Touchstone, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4767-6402-3

The movie The Princess Bride achieved a certain cinematic magic, which Elwes (Westley) captures in his warm and revealing behind-the-scenes account. At 23, he was one of the youngest actors in the movie and was largely unknown. He proved himself early on during filming when he suggested to director Rob Reiner that instead of going in feet first to rescue Buttercup in the Fire Swamp quicksand scene, as written by William Goldman, it would be more heroic to dive in headfirst. The stunt hadn’t been designed for that move and Elwes could have been seriously injured, but his idea winds up in the film. Elwes also describes breaking his toe while riding costar André the Giant’s ATV, and relates other juicy anecdotes. The author was in virtually every scene of the film, including the sword-fighting sequence, which required intensive training. The book also includes reminiscences about the production from Reiner, Goldman, and other members of the cast. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Elsa Schiaparelli: A Biography

Meryle Secrest. Knopf, $35 (400p) ISBN 978-0-307-70159-6

“This book had its start when I began to wonder why nobody dressed up any more, even for evenings out,” writes Secrest. Although she never answers her question, this consummate biographer (Leonard Bernstein: A Life) does take readers on a breathless, madcap ride across the early 20th century. The book follows Schiaparelli from her meteoric rise to couture queen of 1930s Paris to her fizzling postwar descent into bankruptcy. It begins with the image of the child Schiaparelli running through the Italian palazzo where she grew up, and ends, no less evocatively, by musing on what passed through the designer’s mind as she sat on the terrace of her Tunisian getaway in her later years. In between, Secrest draws on the interviews and writings of Schiaparelli’s friends, family, and colleagues; biographers and historians of the period; public records from ship manifests and visas to FBI documents; Schiaparelli’s 1954 memoir, Shocking Life; and Secrest’s own speculative imagination. The result paints an alternately exhilarating, sympathetic, slyly humorous, and poignant portrait, not only of the surrealism-influenced, innovative fashion designer who invented wraparound dresses, built-in bras, falsies, and shocking pink, but also of the creative cauldron of Paris in its golden age between the two world wars. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, Janklow & Nesbit. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World

Jeff Madrick. Knopf, $26.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-307-96118-1

Madrick (Age of Greed) takes aim, in dense but readable prose, at mainstream economic thinking: the ideas that are so commonly accepted that they’re now taken as gospel. Focusing on the 2008 recession, he presents a thorough exegesis of this accepted wisdom and its effect on the economy, starting with Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” theory, which describes how buyers and sellers decide a good or service’s ideal price. Madrick goes on to examine Say’s Law and austerity economics, John Maynard Keynes’s theories on interest rates, and Milton Friedman’s theories of free markets. He also addresses the question: where did we go awry? Mainly, he says, when we started treating economics as a perfect science, thereby giving “economic ideas more credibility than they often deserve.” Moreover, modern thought has led us to believe that the government is almost always bad and the markets almost always good. Those bankers and economists who failed to avert the crisis aren’t evil, according to Madrick, just misguided, particularly in oversimplifying major economic shifts. This book is an attempt to inject the complexity back in. As a result, it’s a tough read for the nonacademic reader, but one well worth the effort. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Immortal Evening

Stanley Plumly. Norton, $26.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-393-08099-5

Written with great eloquence and insight, this meticulously detailed historical recreation from Plumly (Immortal Yeats) breathes life into a pivotal moment in the British Romantic era. On December 28, 1817, Benjamin Haydon, a painter of historical canvases, hosted a small dinner for his friends William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Charles Lamb, all on the cusp of literary immortality. The purpose of the “immortal dinner,” as Haydon later referred to it, was to show off his three years of progress on Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, a massive painting into which he had incorporated the faces of all three friends. By 1820, when the canvas was finally finished, Wordsworth was recognized as England’s greatest living poet, Keats had written his most memorable verse, Lamb was a renowned essayist, and Haydon was himself enjoying a brief spurt of the fame that eluded him most of his career. Although Plumly devotes little more than a chapter to the raucous, lively dinner itself, it allows him to delve into events leading up to it and resulting from it, and to offer astute assessments of the principals’ worldviews and aesthetics. The colorful portrait he paints is that of a select artistic fraternity, frequently contrary in their opinions and attitudes, who nevertheless knew that they were making a significant impact on the spirit of their age. Agent: Rob McQuilken, Massie, McQuilken. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea

Robert Wald Sussman. Harvard, $35 (384p) ISBN 978-0-674-41731-1

Sussman, an anthropology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, explores and explodes the concept of race. He contends that, in the face of a longstanding scientific consensus that race possesses no biological basis, many people still mistakenly believe that traits like aggression, intelligence, and generosity can be traced to it. Noting that racial distinctions between humans have no biological basis is not new, Sussman makes his contribution by exposing the ways that academic “science” is invoked to authorize an outmoded concept. He traces the history of ideas about race, moving briskly from the Spanish Inquisition to Linnaeus and Kant, and offering a detailed discussion of eugenics. Lest readers imagine this is all in the distant past, Sussman devotes his last three chapters to the funding mechanisms that keep racist research alive today. He shows that “science” has been used in efforts to overturn civil rights legislation, and he examines the ways racist discourse has become intertwined with immigration policy. This book, which is both provocative and commonsensical, will be useful to scholars, but may also spark a broader conversation. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel, and Buy

Joel Beckerman, with Tyler Gray. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27 (208p) ISBN 978-0-544-19174-7

In this informative book, sonic branding strategist Beckerman with Gray explore how businesses can use “the power of sound” to shape customers’ moods and judgments. The book’s strength lies in the specificity of its examples: the restaurant chain Chili’s triggered Americans’ hunger by amping up the sizzle of fajitas; Disney creates “fake quiet”—a soundscape of birds and forest sounds—to help people feel they are somewhere magical. Because sounds drive emotions, Beckerman encourages readers to be intentional (and, of course, using the buzz word of the day, “strategic”) about their “sonic branding.” Even small companies can make low-cost sonic decisions, like being thoughtful about what overhead music they play and considering the noise their shop’s front door makes, that will potentially improve their bottom line. This book is directly aimed at corporations, fund-raisers, and party planners, but shoppers, donors, and partygoers should also read it to learn about how their decisions are being affected by the soundscapes in which they are immersed. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Uncontainable: How Passion, Commitment, and Conscious Capitalism Built a Business Where Everyone Thrives

Kip Tindell. Hachette/Business Plus, $28 (288p) ISBN 978-1-4555-2685-7

In this mash-up of memoir and business how-to, Container Store CEO Tindell tells the story of his company since its launch 30 years ago, presenting it as the kind of company customers love—and employees love just as much. (The turnover rate is extremely low, and only 3% of applicants are hired.) While the company faced the same difficulties as every business after the 2008 financial meltdown, Tindell was determined, he says, not to lay off people—and using his mantra of “Conscious Capitalism” (“not making profit your number one priority actually makes you a lot more profitable”), he met this goal. Tindell briefly covers his personal story: “a real Leave it to Beaver childhood”; his first job at a local Sherwin-Williams paint store; and founding the business and eventually achieving great success and growth. The meat of the book explores Tindell’s seven “Foundation Principles,” which prove to be widely applicable to most businesses (they include “hire the best”; “maintain great vendor relationships”; “perpetuate an air of excitement”). The book stands out in its infectious good cheer; the ideas are genre standards, but Tindell’s unflaggingly enthusiastic tone could sell even Ebenezer Scrooge on an “air of excitement” as a foundation business principle. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/22/2014 | Details & Permalink

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