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Modernity Britain: 1957–1962

David Kynaston. Bloomsbury, $52 (912p) ISBN 978-1-62040-809-4

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Kynaston continues his history of postwar Britain (after Austerity Britain: 1945–1951 and Family Britain: 1951–1957) in this rich tapestry of political, socioeconomic, and cultural developments. He profiles a Tory-ruled, post-Suez, largely postcolonial U.K. that was still a highly stratified society, but was attempting to become less so, partly through attempts at educational reforms that would allow more middle- and lower-class children access to better secondary schools. Kynaston shows that while Britain lagged behind the U.S. in purchasing “consumer durables,” it was beginning to catch up. He is particularly interested in urban development, and illustrates major efforts at slum clearance in the industrial cities. Occasionally, Kynaston presents a confusing tableau of unrelated events, such as a housewife’s washing routine, the popularity of a TV show called The Archers, and the debate over where Prince Charles should go to boarding school. He sometimes offers too much detail, as in quoting several reviews of a relatively minor Arnold Wesker play, and many of his Britishisms—“Teddy boys,” an “HMSO,” a “PPB,” and “Podsnappian”—will be lost on American readers. Still, Kynaston has a knack for narrative pacing and manages to hold the reader’s attention in this comprehensive, multifaceted look at a changing period. B&w photo inserts. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones

Thomas Asbridge. Ecco, $27.99 (432p) ISBN 978-0-06-226205-9

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Respected medievalist Asbridge (The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land) investigates the life of William Marshal (1147–1219), thought by many to have been the model for the perfect chivalrous knight. Most of William’s life comes from a highly colored biography commissioned by his family shortly after his death; Asbridge uses contemporary sources to flesh out the story and correct the panegyric. The strength of this work is the depiction of the early formation of the concept of knighthood and the unromantic life of a professional warrior. Asbridge also explains the political context of the time in a clear narrative. William, the younger son of a minor lord, grew wealthy and powerful through his military skill, but even more through his loyalty to the members of the family of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine—a rare feat, considering the Plantagenets’ internecine battles. The story of William’s maturation from a freelance fighter to a statesman who managed his property and became the guardian for the young Henry III includes daily life, as well as politics. It is not always clear, however, which anecdotes are drawn from the biography and which are better substantiated; the maddening absence of footnotes spoils an otherwise excellent book. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Italian Americans: A History

Maria Laurino. Norton, $35 (320p) ISBN 978-0-393-24129-7

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Published as a companion to the PBS TV series of the same name, this work tracks the history of Italian-Americans, from the mid-19th century to the present day. While there is some general history in the book focusing on topics like immigration, assimilation, infamy, stardom, stereotypes, and naturalization, Laurino (Were You Always Italian?) uses in-depth research to focus on individual stories to tell the Italian-American story. Some spotlighted stories are well known, like those about anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and Frank Sinatra. But the more obscure tales have more impact, like those about Angela Bambace, one of the first union leaders, and A.P. Giannini, a banker who tried to help improve the lives of immigrants. Laurino wonderfully captures the history of Italians in America. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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David Lynch: The Unified Field

Robert Cozzolino. Univ. of California, $39.95 (160p) ISBN 978-0-52028-396-1

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Acclaimed director David Lynch began his artistic career not in film or television but as a student of painting and drawing at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. This lavish volume collects the brilliant, and in many cases bizarre, paintings and drawings that Lynch has created over the past 45 years. Featuring 116 plates and an extensive contextualizing essay by Cozzolino, the curator of modern art at PAFA, this handsome book brings Lynch’s fine art work into new focus. Many of the paintings offer visual clues to Lynch’s film projects and others represent dark corners of Lynch’s brain. Cozzolino draws many of the connections between Lynch’s work and life, including the impact of Lynch’s longstanding practice of meditation and the influence of Philadelphia on Lynch’s work. What’s most provocative about Lynch, in both his films and his paintings, is his ability to hint at reality’s underlying contradictions and complexity. He works primarily in black, or black-on-black, and often seems more attuned to body parts than people. Many of Lynch’s paintings can initially be viscerally disturbing or confusing, but with Lynch, there is always the promise of a deeper meaning beyond the surface. This impeccable collection of art confirms Lynch’s position as a gifted polymath—and one of the country’s most important artists working today. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Create Your Perfect Future: Heal Your Past to Create the Life of Your Dreams

Anne Jirsch, with Anthea Courtenay. Piatkus (IPG, dist.), $19.95 trade paper (254p) ISBN 978-0-7499-5965-4

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Psychic Jirsch will divide the believers from the doubters with this self-help guide that promises to heal wounds inflicted in childhood or inherited from ancestors or past lives. Jirsch claims we are tethered to our problems through “etheric cords” that “keep you tied to a pattern lifetime after lifetime.” An exercise called “the Three Passageways” aims to isolate the location of your particular obstacle in time so that these cords can be severed. Jirsch applies the concept to various aspects of life, including health, love, employment, and wealth. More grounded exercises involve guided visualizations for resolving past mistakes, creating a happy outcome to current conflicts, and imagining your life’s purpose. Regardless of how readers feel about Jirsch’s mystical worldview, they should find that Jirsch’s clients have compelling stories to share: a bulimia sufferer carrying guilt from his 17th-century ancestors’ crime; a painfully shy man grappling with a facial deformity from a former life; and—less fantastically—a woman overcoming debilitating attitudes she absorbed from her mother in childhood. Jirsch also has some useful advice about moving on from past traumas, but if you are skeptical of things like psychic predictions of 9/11 or visitations from “future selves,” best seek counsel elsewhere. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Chasing Gold: The Incredible Story of How the Nazis Stole Europe’s Bullion

George M. Taber. Pegasus, $29.95 (528p) ISBN 978-1-60598-655-5

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Former Time magazine staffer Taber (Judgment of Paris) reveals one of WWII’s darkest secrets in this compulsively readable, real-life thriller of how the Nazis funded their war machine. Taber’s meticulous research dates back to a 1966 Time assignment to locate where Belgium’s $204.9 million worth of bank gold ended up during WWII. After opening with a listing of key international players, Taber recounts the surprising 1945 discovery by General Patton’s men of “Room #8,” an underground vault in central Germany crammed with about $9 billion in looted gold and artwork. To achieve self-sufficiency—autarkie—and accomplish Hitler’s objectives of domination required more financing than the Reichsbank could bankroll: after seizing $136 million in bullion from Austria and Czechoslovakia, the Germans had the funds to invade Poland and beyond. Each chapter focuses on a different European country; what emerges is how supposedly “neutral” parties such as Switzerland and Sweden laundered stolen gold. Taber tracks down the pilfered Belgian bullion that originally piqued his interest, yet the trail eventually grows cold, and he acknowledges that some gold remains missing. Those with an interest in war crimes will relish Taber’s masterful reportage and the unearthing of these wartime treasures. Maps and photos. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace

Ron Friedman. Perigee, $25 (352p) ISBN 978-0-399-16559-7

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World-class cafeterias, on-campus dry-cleaning, and on-site massages—these are some of the ways that companies like Google and Facebook attract and retain employees. But do office perks really make for an improved workplace, and is improving a workplace the best way to create an exceptional company? Psychologist Friedman explores this question in his useful guide. He says he became fascinated with the issue of office culture after leaving academe to work as a pollster in the corporate world. Office design, telecommuting, the importance of exercise, making friends with co-workers, resolving tense moments, and hiring and training the right people are among the range of subjects Friedman examines. His takeaways include “psychological needs are at the heart of employee engagement” and “integrating work and family life improves the quality of both.” Stocked with action items for managers and plenty of case studies, this is an energetic, conversational look at what really makes an office environment tick. As for those on-site massages; it turns out that recognition is the most effective perk of all. Agent: Giles Anderson, Anderson Literary. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Van Gogh: A Power Seething

Julian Bell. Amazon/New Harvest, $20 (176p) ISBN 978-0-544-34373-3

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In the sixth installment of New Harvest’s Icons series, painter and author Bell (Mirror of the World) brings his insight as a fellow artist to the life and work of Vincent van Gogh in a condensed, accessible primer on the renowned artist. Bell traces Van Gogh’s shiftless youth from apprenticeship at his uncle’s art emporium, a failed attempt at priesthood, and his move to Paris and discovery of pointillism, to his subsequent mental breakdown, the severing of his ear, the creation of The Starry Night while institutionalized, and his suicide. Providing astute commentary on Van Gogh’s work, Bell declares the early Miners in the Snow “earnestly ambitious,” and the more accomplished painting Quinces, Lemons, Pears and Grapes a “single resounding chord of yellow played out on various vegetal instruments.” He also illuminates the artist’s famously prickly personality, the grumbling and begging of money from his long-suffering brother Theo, as well as excerpts from letters exhibiting a deep and poetic sensibility. For a more exhaustive account, as the author notes, there are plenty of sources. This quick but thorough read provides a fulfilling overview of the artist. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Rare: The High-Stakes Race to Satisfy Our Need for the Scarcest Metals on Earth

Keith Veronese. Prometheus Books, $25 (280p) ISBN 978-1-61614-972-7

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In this work of popular science, journalist Veronese (Plugged In: Comic Book Professionals Working in the Video Game Industry) delivers a scattershot account of the discovery and chemistry of metals, addressing their critical roles in technology and the cutthroat struggles over extraction, trade, and recycling. Despite the absence of an overarching theme, readers won’t be bored. Veronese focuses to some degree on the political and environmental challenges related to meeting global demand for the “rare earths”—17 metals with odd names (yttrium, terbium, dysprosium) essential for the production of high-tech electronics—repeatedly returning to this subject before wandering off on tangents. Topics of interest include thorium, which turns up as a clean source of nuclear power, and polonium, a poison used in political assassinations. A chapter discusses daredevil American hobbyists who extract precious metals from discarded electronics and addresses the massive Third World dumps where thousands make a miserable living doing the same. Veronese also discusses Afghanistan, whose vast untapped mineral resources hold the potential to ease its political problems. Though most of his subject minerals are obscure and relatively unknown even to educated readers, Veronese presents an informative and entertaining, if disorganized, overview of the metallurgy and politics of rare metals. Photo insert. Agent: Laura Wood, FinePoint Literary Management. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink

Pamela Katz. Doubleday/Talese, $30 (480p) ISBN 978-0-385-53491-8

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The culture of Weimar Germany is at its most provocative and profound in this scintillating portrait of its leading theatrical luminaries. Novelist and film maker Katz explores the partnership, starting in 1927, of Marxist playwright and enfant terrible Bertholt Brecht and German-Jewish composer Kurt Weill; their 1928 musical The Threepenny Opera, with its well-known song “Mack the Knife,” gained fame for its tuneful satire of the sharklike soullessness of bourgeois society. She adds vibrant sketches of their female supporting cast: the singer Lotte Lenya, Weill’s perennially unfaithful wife and muse; Brecht’s wife Helene Weigel, an accomplished actress who managed Brecht’s life and tolerated his mistresses; and Brecht’s collaborator Elisabeth Hauptmann, who wrote a good chunk of his oeuvre, mostly without credit or pay, and also shared his bed. Katz gives an uproarious view of the ferment of interwar Berlin’s theatrical avant-garde, with Brecht’s tantrums, power plays, preening demands, and ideological conceits. But she also takes seriously the artistic and political ideas that drove Brecht and Weill to their innovations (and eventually estranged them). The result is a thoughtful, entertaining recreation of a watershed moment in 20th-century theater. Photos. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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