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88 Days to Kandahar: A CIA Diary

Robert L. Grenier. Simon & Schuster, $28 (288p) ISBN 978-1-4767-1207-9

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Grenier, former director of CIA’s counterterrorism center and station chief in Islamabad, offers unparalleled insight into the American campaign in Afghanistan with a frank, even-handed assessment of the initial military effort to topple the Taliban. Casting himself as an intrepid defender of his agents, he expounds at length on the strategic concerns, bureaucratic squabbles, and conditions on the ground that shaped the conflict. Pakistan in particular comes out looking better than it does in most accounts. Grenier contends that Pakistani intelligence services were fully and capably committed to the fight against al-Qaeda, and that the rise of extremism in Pakistan since 9/11 has more to do with shortsighted American policy and Indian meddling than with official Pakistani complicity with terrorists. One question never addressed is how bin Laden could have survived for so long within a mile from the Pakistani Military Academy in Abbottabad: Grenier merely says, “Once safely in Pakistan, given even a modicum of support, he could have gone virtually anywhere undetected.” Grenier does refer to himself in the third person, but by and large his tone is affable, and his conclusions—many of which run counter to conventional wisdom—are logical and amply demonstrated. Agent: David McCormick, McCormick & Williams. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game

Mary Pilon. Bloomsbury, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-1-60819-963-1

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With more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie mystery, reporter Pilon reveals the tumultuous history of Monopoly, the iconic board game first created by Elizabeth Magie to draw attention to the economic theories of Henry George (a 19th-century politician and economist who advocated that land was not meant to be seized and couldn’t be owned). Pilon chronicles the game’s evolution through pop culture, including its crucial adoption by Quakers in Atlantic City, and the fervent players who modified the game to include local landmarks such as Ventnor Avenue and Boardwalk. The product then fell into the hands of an unemployed Charles Darrow, who patented it; Parker Brothers propagated his rags-to-riches story as though he were the originator of the game. To add to the drama, Pilon also relates the story of Ralph Anspach’s Anti-Monopoly, a game designed to present a different point of view, which Parker Brothers went out of its way to squash (including a very public burial of 40,000 copies of Anspach’s version). Dry concepts such as brand identity and copyright are deftly woven to create a compelling and seamless story that many readers will find more entertaining than the game itself. Agent: Deborah Schneider, The Gelfman Schneider Literary Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power

Paul Fischer. Flatiron, $27.99 (368p) ISBN 978-1-250-05426-5

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North Korea is a nightmarish movie theater without an exit in this gripping true-life thriller. Fischer, a documentary filmmaker, recounts the 1977–78 abductions of South Korea’s leading director, Shin Sang-Ok, and his ex-wife, the movie star Choi Eun-Hee. The two were abducted on the orders of North Korea’s movie-obsessed crown prince Kim Jong-Il, who wanted them to upgrade the government’s wooden propaganda films with pizzazz and higher production values. The story combines harrowing hardships—Choi endured house arrest and constant Kafkaesque “reeducation” exercises; Shin was starved and tortured in prison after escape attempts—with dizzying reversals of fortune as the couple are rehabilitated to make hit films under Kim’s sponsorship and later plot a nerve-racking flight to the West. In Fischer’s vivid close-up, Kim emerges as “the archetypal film producer” writ monstrous: charming and lordly, basking in parties with Joy Brigade starlets and groveling underlings, full of tasteless visions, and ruthless when crossed. (He ordered a mistress who two-timed him to be shot in front of thousands of spectators, including her husband.) Fischer’s entertaining narrative paints an arresting portrait of a North Korean “theater state,” forced to enact the demented script of a sociopathic tyrant. Photos. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives

Gretchen Rubin. Crown, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-0-385-34861-4

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Bestseller Rubin (The Happiness Project) returns with this fun and informative self-help tome on the ways we unthinkingly shape our lives with habits. As she shows, habits affect our lives in both positive and negative ways. By acquiring positive habits and eliminating negative ones, we can increase our overall happiness. “How we schedule our days is how we spend our lives,” Rubin asserts. The subtitle calls to mind Julia Child’s cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking, suggesting a goal similar to Child’s: to collect all the available information on the subject and break it down into components for readers to apply to their own lives. Writing that “we can build our habits only on the foundation of our own nature,” Rubin goes on to identify four tendencies, or personality types, in relation to habit-formation: upholder, questioner, obliger, and rebel. Her style is clear, and her voice is accessible yet mildly egg-headed. Using quotations from William James and Samuel Johnson, citations of current research, and personal anecdotes, Rubin comes across as a quirky, know-it-all friend who really, really wants to help you improve your life. Agent: Christy Fletcher, Fletcher and Co. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country

Shelby Steele. Basic, $25.99 (192p) ISBN 978-0-465-06697-1

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Steele (White Guilt), a leading intellectual and senior scholar at the Hoover Institution, inquires into white guilt and liberal dogma, challenging ideas that he finds pervasive on the left. A fixation on the “struggle for white redemption,” Steele argues, warps clear thinking. Moreover, he finds that too many white liberals perceive deferential shame as the antidote to historical evils, as though shame is morally necessary to absolve the nation’s racial sins. Dissociating the nation from its history has thus become a preeminent institutional mission—a mistaken one, in Steele’s opinion. He vividly recounts his encounter with an unyielding white “commitment to black victimization” while participating in a panel discussion at the Aspen Institute. He also remembers the surprise he felt as a young African-American man, watching William F. Buckley debate James Baldwin on Firing Line, to discover he agreed more with Buckley than Baldwin. Yet Steele also finds that many white people fail to appreciate the effect of four centuries of oppression on African-Americans. Steele concludes that economic success for African-Americans must be rooted in self-help and freedom from self-pity, though he unfortunately minimizes the continued economic inequalities standing in the way. Nonetheless, this timely critique warrants attention from anyone troubled by the persistence of racial discord in American life, from Selma to Ferguson. Agent: Carol Mann, Carol Mann Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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A Force for Good: How Enlightened Finance Can Restore Faith in Capitalism

Edited by John G. Taft. Palgrave Macmillan, $27 (320) ISBN 978-1-137-27972-9

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This thoughtful, albeit challenging, exploration of the hard road back to credibility for the financial industry, edited by Taft, CEO of RBC Wealth Management, attempts to show how the transparency and trust lost in the 2008 financial crisis can be restored. He rounds up a number of thinkers—authors, economists, academics, and politicians, among others—to consider how such a goal could be accomplished. Contributors include author Stephen B. Young, who suggests a social contract for financial intermediaries; former FDIC chair Sheila C. Blair, who discusses reforming mortgage securitization; and BlackRock vice chairman Barbara Novick, who writes about the needs of retirees. Other topics addressed here are bringing a focus on clients back to the financial system, restoring confidence in equity markets, achieving fiscal- and monetary-policy equilibrium, resolving debt, and so on. Collectively, contributors propose how the credibility of the financial industry can be restored, primarily through reform, restructuring, and a renewed focus on providing value to individuals. The tone is generally positive, and readers are likely to come away with renewed hope in our financial system’s future, but it’s hard to imagine a significant audience outside academia for these dense, specialized pieces. Agent: Leah Spiro, Riverside Creative Management. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Another Little Piece of My Heart: My Life of Rock and Revolution in the ’60s

Richard Goldstein. Bloomsbury, $27 (240p) ISBN 978-1-62040-887-2

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As a writer for the Village Voice who covered music and culture in the 1960s, author Goldstein (The Poetry of Rock, Reporting the Counterculture, and Homocons) was in the right place at the right time, as he explains in this entertaining music memoir. A shy, fat kid from the Bronx suddenly found himself hanging out with Andy Warhol and John Lennon, crashing at the Grateful Dead house in San Francisco, and spending time Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin when they were still young and naive. While anecdotes such as these are more than enough to fill a book, Goldstein uses them as set pieces to chart his rocky road to his own sense of self. Artfully integrating a number of story lines—his murky grasp on his own sexuality, the vapidity of the peace movement, and the death of rock as a revolutionary force (he points a finger straight at “MacArthur Park”)—Goldstein takes a fluid approach that may irritate those expecting a linear tale. However, Goldstein’s confessional tone gives significant warmth to the book, encouraging the reader to settle in as Goldstein recalls a tumultuous culture with humility and a healthy perspective. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

Mary Norris. Norton, $24.95 (240p) ISBN 978-0-39324018-4

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Norris has spent more than 35 years in the New Yorker’s legendary copy department, earning the nickname Comma Queen along the way. So it makes sense that her first book is a delightful discourse on the most common grammar, punctuation, and usage challenges faced by writers of all stripes. Not surprisingly, Norris writes well—with wit, sass, and smarts—and the book is part memoir, part manual. She recounts the history of Webster’s Dictionary; explains when to use who vs. whom and that vs. which; distinguishes between the dash, colon, and the semicolon; delves into the comma and the hyphen; and weighs in on the use of profanity in writing. Norris also finds ways to reference the Lord’s Prayer, the Simpsons, Moby-Dick, and, in a touching anecdote, her own sister. The New Yorker has an unconventional house style—for instance, the magazine uses diaeresis marks in words like coöperate, where the prefix (co-) ends in the same vowel used at the beginning of the stem (operate), to indicate that the vowels are pronounced differently—and, though Norris doesn’t always agree with its strict style rules, readers may not agree with her ideas on language. But it’s a sure bet that after reading this book, they’ll think more about how and what they write. Agent: David Kuhn, Kuhn Projects. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son

Kent Russell. Knopf, $24.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-385-35230-7

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Russell, who has written for the New Republic, n+1, and other outlets, provides an intriguing but uneven collection of previously published essays. At their most provocative, the pieces examine the pleasure and excitement that violence can stir in people. Russell devotes an essay to a childhood friend, Ryan, who joins the army seeking the adrenaline rush of gunplay. A profile of a hockey player explains how, after being caught up in fighting during games unwillingly, he found himself in the new position of hockey goon, and thereby a key team member. These selections and others, including one about a man who self-immunizes by getting bitten by venomous snakes and an account of a gathering of "juggalos" (fans of the hip-hop duo Insane Clown Posse), showcase Russell's clean, clear style. He shrewdly shifts gears for two final, less dark selections about Amish baseball and a man who moves to an island off northeastern Australia, to "take [himself] out of the world." Russell is less compelling in the sections about his own life, such as when he justifies his interest in getting a lesson from horror-makeup guru Tom Savini. His justification is unnecessary; getting to know these fascinating people on the page is reward enough. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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