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Unbuttoned: A History of Mackenzie King’s Secret Life

Christopher Dummit. McGill-Queen’s Univ. (CDC, U.S. dist.; GTW, Canadian dist.), $34.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-7735-4876-3

More than a revealing portrait of Canada’s longest-serving prime minister, Dummit’s (The Manly Modern) cultural critique insightfully examines the way changing perceptions of William Lyon Mackenzie King reflect broad changes in North American culture. When King died in 1950, few Canadians knew of his colorful private life. Modern Canadians are likely to be quite aware of the King’s interest in the occult and his other, more lurid, hobbies. The text reveals how King’s executors’ collective decision not to destroy King’s diaries as he had requested left a treasure trove of research material that would delight historians and titillate the general public. But the other half of the story is how Canada became a nation whose citizens lost their sense of deference for those in positions of power. Documents alone are not history, and narrative requires human input, Dummit writes; the picture Canadians have of King today was shaped by those who were entrusted with King’s diaries and the gradually liberalizing environment in which they worked. Dummit provides an interesting, if sometimes disapproving, glimpse of the human processes involved in creating history. (May)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair

Sarah Schulman. Arsenal Pulp (Consortium, U.S. dist.; UTP, Canadian dist.), $19.95 trade paper (300p) ISBN 978-1-55152-643-0

In this incisive, refreshing work, Schulman (The Gentrification of the Mind), a novelist, documentarian, and social critic, documents how those with power and privilege increasingly tend to conflate any challenge to their authority or ways of thinking with being attacked. Exploring the overlap between the political and personal, Schulman poses thoughtful examples of how conflict and disagreement—especially when marginalized voices try to enter the commons—are met with false accusations of abuse and claims of victimization by those who may feel offended but are not harmed. Unafraid to tackle challenging subjects such as trigger warnings and safe spaces, Schulman also ruminates on what she sees as society’s collective failure to prioritize the teaching of basic problem-solving and relationship skills, resulting in a culture of knee-jerk escalation that, when expressed through physical or emotional force (as in interpersonal abuse and military conflicts) obscures the structural roots of interpersonal and societal breakdown. Like classic works of the early women’s and gay liberation movements, this thought-provoking title expertly analyzes power dynamics inherent to interactions as small-scale as spousal violence and as large-scale as the increasing criminalization of HIV-positive Canadians and the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza. A concluding call to address personal and social conflicts without state intervention via police and courts caps off a work that’s likely to inspire much discussion. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Fate of the West: The Battle to Save the World’s Most Successful Political Idea

Bill Emmott. Economist, $28 (256p) ISBN 978-1-61039-780-3

Former Economist magazine editor-in-chief Emmott surveys rising feelings of decline and resurgent nationalism in the West. This informed, eloquent, but superficial overview of recent global affairs maintains the West is being challenged from within for good reason, having failed to deliver fairness, prosperity, and security to all citizens. Emmott makes the future of equality a central subject, calling it the West’s most successful political idea, but his musings on the subject are windy and nebulous. Openness, including open borders, is a second theme. For Emmott, Brexit feels inconceivable, and Trump’s presidential victory reflects deep social pessimism and self-destructiveness. In Emmott’s view, migrants offer a welcome, necessary injection of youth and fresh ideas to closed, often fearful societies with an aging citizenry. With professed optimism, he offers antidotes for the West’s angst and self-interest. But from recognizing human capital’s importance in the digital age to using education as the best means of achieving equality, many of his conclusions seem like old hat. Emmott leaves out the West’s divisive “culture wars” altogether, flattening his inquiry. Adhering strictly to globalization shibboleths, Emmott reminds readers of the vast shared benefits in free-trade agreements and international collaboration that have assisted world order and wealth since WWII. (May)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don’t Find) Work Today

Ilana Gershon. Univ. of Chicago, $25 (304p) ISBN 9780226452142

Gershon (The Breakup 2.0), an associate anthropology professor at Indiana University, wants to help readers “see more clearly the challenges of job searching and... make more thoughtful employment decisions,” but readers expecting useful advice on landing that next new job should look elsewhere. This is fundamentally a book that observes—at a distance—how “everything about job searching has changed.” That change is the book’s foundation, as it focuses on how people have shifted from offering skills to the job marketplace to offering themselves as a “business of one.” Gershon did plenty of homework (conducting 165 interviews and attending 54 related workshops), more than enough to explain the concept of personal branding, being “unique in the right way,” and successfully communicating those qualities via various online outlets. As the author discusses some concepts—informational interviewing, for example—her points become a little muddy. After a discussion of LinkedIn, for instance, it’s anyone’s guess whether Gershon thinks it’s a good resource or not. Still, she introduces concepts that, while perhaps not directly helpful, may still assist readers in thinking differently about jobs and what they mean for one’s future rather than just the present. (May)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do About It

Richard Florida. Basic, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-0-465-07974-2

Urban studies expert Florida (The Great Reset), who first gained acclaim studying the ascendancy of the “creative class,” now explores the broader effects of its rise in this timely, data-rich, and accessible work. Florida notes that while people fare better economically in large, dense cities, those cities are also experiencing rising inequality, housing costs, and economic and racial segregation. Moreover, these problems are spreading to the suburbs, the onetime model for improved living standards. These divisions are particularly strong in “superstar cities” such as New York, San Francisco, and London, where concentrated wealth makes the urban core inaccessible to all but the most privileged people. A series of maps show how service workers’ neighborhoods have been steadily pushed to the periphery. This worrisome dynamic isn’t confined to North America and Western Europe, as Florida’s research shows. He recommends changing tax schemes to reflect the value of urban land, rather than the property developed on top of it; intensifying support for mass transit; increasing affordable rental housing in urban core areas; and focusing on schools and better wage conditions in the poorest neighborhoods. These prescriptions are all sound but—in the current political climate—particularly difficult to achieve. Agent: Jim Levine, Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Life with Forty Dogs: Misadventures with Runts, Rejects, Retirees, and Rescues

Joseph Robertia. Alaska Northwest, $16.99 trade paper (230p) ISBN 978-1-943328-91-8

When he’s not writing for the Alaska Dispatch News, Robertia can often be found with and his wife, Cole, and their mushing dogs, training for or participating in Alaska’s many competitions, which often cover hundreds of miles in temperatures below -40°F. Here, he shares his experience in integrating, training, and living with so many high-energy canines in this delightful ode to mushing and all it entails. Alongside profiles of his dogs (such as Tatika, a German shepherd who once ate an entire Thanksgiving turkey), Robertia recounts tales of rescuing horse carcasses for feed, getting lost in subzero temperatures in the Alaska wilderness, and encountering less-than-reputable breeders and mushers. Tales of nursing sick or injured rescues back to health, integrating them into the pack, and enduring the emotionally painful death of one of his dogs are sure to resonate with dog-lovers, as is Robertia’s wry, occasionally caustic wit. This is more than just another valentine to canines: it’s an insightful and occasionally heartrending account of life with a team of working dogs. It’s sure to resonate with Alaskans as well as those in the lower 48. B&w photos. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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A Speck in the Sea: A Story of Survival and Rescue

John Aldridge and Anthony Sosinski. Weinstein, $27 (280p) ISBN 978-1-60286-328-6

A Long Island fisherman spends 12 hours bobbing like a buoy in the Atlantic Ocean in this hair-raising true story. Childhood friends Aldridge and Sosinski, who co-own the lobster boat Anna Mary, detail their incredible story, which took place 40 miles off the coast of Montauk in the summer of 2013. The trip began just like any other, with the authors, along with third crew member Mike Migliaccio, setting out their traps aboard the 44-foot commercial fishing boat Anna Mary the evening of July 22, 2013. In the early hours of July 23, as Sosinski and Migliaccio slept, Aldridge fell overboard while recalibrating the boat’s new refrigeration system. Told from multiple viewpoints, the book takes readers into the water with Aldridge as he shares first-person accounts of shark encounters and the mind games he played while clinging to his rubber boots to stay afloat. Sections written in the third person recount the immense battle the U.S. Coast Guard, search-and-rescue aircraft, and a slew of volunteers (including singer Jimmy Buffet) waged against time to find Aldridge before the ocean claimed him. A rich backstory—including complicated personal lives and deep family histories—adds depth to this page turner. (May)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Too Much and Not the Mood: Essays

Durga Chew-Bose. FSG Original, $15 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-0-374-53595-7

Twists in language and heady cultural references elevate Chew-Bose’s debut above the recent crop of personal essay collections by young writers. Focusing on the complications of growing up and establishing oneself, the essays explore what it means to be a brown girl in a white world and “the beautiful dilemma of being first-generation” Canadian. The collection reads like a writer’s notebook, mixing the intimacy of a personal journal with formal experiments. Random memories—a dead squirrel in the yard of her childhood home, a past conversation with a friend—lead way to grander topics, such as marriage, death, or “the dicey irreparableness of being.” Chew-Bose maintains an ambitious and inventive style, employing long lists of sensations to describe feelings and using parentheticals to address the reader directly. She is also a veritable dictionary of contemporary culture. Short ruminations on a painting by Swedish painter Karin Mamma Andersson, singer Nina Simone’s “Ain’t Got No,” or journalist John Gregory Dunne’s memoir Monster pop up in the author’s streams of consciousness. Evocative phrases and bold metaphors such as “memory blistering,” “scrapped corner of our imaginations,” and “writing is a closed pistachio shell” color this take on the modern experience. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Scienceblind: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong

Andrew Shtulman. Basic, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-0-465-05394-0

This timely, important, and well-crafted book by Shtulman, a professor of cognitive science at Occidental College, voices a convincing and unsettling argument about the persistence of science denial that has even broader implications for the state of public discourse. After noting that science denial is not a new phenomenon, Shtulman identifies a reason for its persistence that readers may not have suspected: intuitive theories, “our untutored explanations for how the world works.” These best guesses are often wrong, but they give people a reassuring sense that they understand more than they actually do. Several examples, such as the belief that heat is a thing that is transferred between objects rather than a process, provide ample support for his thesis. He observes that the danger posed by intuitive theories is compounded by the difficulty of moving beyond them when presented with contradictory evidence. Restructuring views is difficult, but not impossible, Shtulman maintains, if we “get our hands dirty in the details of the knowledge itself: the concepts that need to be differentiated, collapsed, reanalyzed, or discarded.” This thoughtful analysis merits a wider audience than it is likely to receive, but perhaps its lessons will reach educators and leaders who are in a position to spread them. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama

David J. Garrow. Morrow, $45 (1,472p) ISBN 978-0-06-264183-0

In this epic-length biography, Garrow (Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference) recounts Barack Obama’s intensely political life story up to his 2008 election to the presidency, and does so without apparent political bias. Every fact, however small, is documented in the footnotes, which run to hundreds of pages. The result is a convincing and exceptionally detailed portrait of one man’s self-invention. Garrow opens with a powerfully affecting episode: the March 1980 closure of a Wisconsin Steel plant on Chicago’s South Side, where Obama later spent formative years as a community organizer. Going back to his story’s beginnings, Garrow reports extensively about Obama’s father, a Kenyan-born Harvard graduate student who’s described as brilliant but also alcoholic and abusive toward women, and Obama’s childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia. The book then explores Obama’s early romantic attachments, marriage to Michelle Robinson, involvement in polarizing and personally relevant issues of race, and political career, from state senator in Illinois to U.S. senator in Washington, where he’s immediately identified as a likely Presidential candidate. Garrow also takes care to clarify instances when Obama’s personal recollections or published memoirs differed from historical records or his associates’ memories. Casual readers may well find the level of detail here overpowering, but political history buffs will be fascinated. (May)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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