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Cast Away: True Stories of Survival from Europe’s Refugee Crisis

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson. New Press, $25.95 (352p) ISBN 978-1-62097-263-2

In her first book, McDonald-Gibson, a journalist experienced in covering the European Union, examines the last five years of the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. Her account is told, in large part, through the voices of refugees such as Majid, a young Nigerian forced to flee two different homes, and Sina, an Eritrean woman who, with her husband, did not think of leaving her home until staying became impossible. The author’s note at the end of the book clarifies some of her choices—including the use of pseudonyms when requested—but might have been better placed at the beginning. McDonald-Gibson is shrewd in her presentation of the EU’s failures, though she’s often less pointed when discussing northern European countries. The book shines as a portrait of the hopes and frustrations of the families and individuals who risk so much for safer lives and the generosities and cruelties, both passive and active, that they encounter in their travels. This book will be illuminating for every reader who wants to better understand the human side of a complex, wrenching issue. Agent: Charlie Viney, Viney Agency (U.K.). (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Makers of Jewish Modernity: Thinkers, Artists, Leaders, and The World They Made

Edited by Jacques Picard, Jacques Revel, Michael P. Steinberg, and Idith Zertal. Princeton Univ., $39.50 (680p) ISBN 978-0-691-16423-6

The editors of this essay collection exceed their stated goal of showing how various Jewish public figures “transformed the 20th century,” through 43 profiles of subjects both expected (Freud, Einstein, Kafka, Ben-Gurion) and surprising (novelist Clarice Lispector, poet Dahlia Ravikovitch, filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen). The target audience is more academic than lay, as section headings such as “Pragmatism and Boasian Anthropology” suggest. However, those nonacademics willing to struggle through sometimes dense prose (“The codes of any transformation can generally be read in shifting episteme (or epistemes)”) will find thought-provoking explorations of the varying ways Jewish identity has influenced, and been influenced by, changes in every imaginable field, including science, art, and politics. The mix of subjects is truly diverse, embracing Jews who were deeply religious (such as Rabbi Avraham Kook) and those who were fiercely secular (such as Rosa Luxembourg), and the diversity extends to geography as well. The entries, which assume no prior knowledge, convey a great deal of information and cogent analysis in a short space. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Letters of Robert Frost, Vol. 2: 1920–1928

Edited by Donald Sheehy, Mark Richardson, Robert Bernard Hass, and Henry Atmore. Harvard Univ., $39.95 (790p) ISBN 978-0-674-72664-2

For all its bulk, comprehensiveness, and thorough scholarly apparatus, this collection of letters, second in a five-volume series, yields relatively slender insight into the technique behind Frost’s enduringly beloved poems. Equally sparse on engagement with current events, the letters instead brim with Frost’s affections for and rivalries with the literary lions of his day, a deep ambivalence toward the colleges where he earned most of his income, and an ongoing interest in poetry as an ideal and a practice. The bulk of the subject matter is mundane: polite responses to fan mail, much haggling over living situations and fees for speaking engagements, encouragement of protégés, and negotiations with his publishers, all delivered in an accomplished, subtle prose style thick with allusion, intelligence, and humor. With his closest friends, Frost is most revealing: philosophical, broad-minded, and wry, self-deprecating and ambitious, anxious about his family, and longing to withdraw from his exhausting public life to be a simple poet-farmer. A temperamental streak beneath the cultivated persona of the humble, mild-mannered raconteur keeps things lively for the reader. This second installment in an impressive project tracks the transformation of the hardworking craftsman into a monument of American letters. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Fun and Games: My 40 Years Writing Sports

Dave Perkins. ECW (Perseus/Legato, U.S. dist.; Jaguar Book Group, Canadian dist.), $19.95 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-77041-312-2

For much of his career at the Toronto Star, Perkins was a columnist, aiming to write the stories behind and beyond the game scores. He saw a lot in his 40 years with “the best job in town,” and in this memoir he takes readers behind the scenes of sports writing, both in the newsroom and in the pressrooms at every event from the Grey Cup to the Olympics. While jumping from sport to sport—Perkins especially loved to cover golf, horse racing, and baseball—he reminds readers of ways that the times have changed. Athletes, once fairly accessible, began hiding behind public relations staff. Performance-enhancing drugs entered the scene. His best rants are on how the Internet and social media changed the news business: “Now, every single word that is published is fair game for comment or challenge, and two truisms seem to be firmly in place: when you are right, no one ever remembers and when you are wrong, no one ever forgets.” Perkins is able to laugh at his own mistakes—including many yarns of side bets made to keep life interesting at games—and readers can bet on being well entertained too. Agent: Brian J. Wood. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate

Peter Wohlleben, trans. from the German by Jane Billinghurst. Greystone (PGW, U.S. dist.; UTP, Canadian dist.), (288p) $24.95 ISBN 978-1-77164-248-4

This fascinating book will intrigue readers who love a walk through the woods. Wohlleben, who worked for the German forestry commission for 20 years and now manages a beech forest in Germany, has gathered research from scientists around the world examining how trees communicate and interact with one another. They do so using a variety of methods, including the secretion of scents and sound vibrations to warn neighboring plants of potential attacks by insects and hungry herbivores, drought, and other dangers. The book includes a note from forest scientist Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia, whose studies showed that entire forests can be connected by “using chemical signals sent through the fungal networks around their root tips” and led to the term “the wood-wide web.” Wohlleben anthropomorphizes his subject, using such terms as friendship and parenting, which serves to make the technical information relatable, and he backs up his ideas with information from scientists. He even tackles the question of whether trees are intelligent. He hopes the day will come “when the language of trees will eventually be deciphered.” Until then, Wohllenben’s book offers readers a vivid glimpse into their secret world. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters

Laura Thompson. St. Martin’s, $29.99 (480p) ISBN 978-1-250-09953-2

English writer Thompson (A Different Class of Murder) reveals how the six “posh-feral” Mitford sisters (the oldest of whom was born in 1904) became British cultural touchstones through their unabashed devotion to their respective causes—including fascism, Communism, and Elvis Presley—allowing them to embody the breadth of 20th-century conflicts within one remarkable aristocratic family. Thompson astutely compares wry contemporary assessments and countless often-brutal newspaper articles on the Mitford daughters to self-sufficient Nancy’s more benign fictional version and expat Jessica’s heavily embellished tell-all. With a reliance on sometimes-intrusive amateur psychology and an initially scattered chronology, this book reads more like an examination of personalities and sibling interplay than a traditional narrative; Pam’s penchant for the rural life means that she barely registers, but the obsessive Unity and heedless Diana leap off the page. Deborah, the most conventional, remained firmly of the upper class, becoming the Duchess of Devonshire. Thompson proves her case that the fearless siblings helped shape one another, sometimes through encouragement, but also through sharp barbs and betrayal, leading to extremism in an already highly politicized era. Non-British readers may take longer to understand the sisters’ lasting appeal, but Thompson successfully shows how this group of six captured the zeitgeist by being utterly committed and completely “shame-free.” B&w photos. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures

Eric R. Kandel. Columbia Univ., $29.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-231-17962-1

In this fascinating survey of mind science and modern art, Nobel laureate Kandel (The Age of Insight) focuses on reductionism as the principle guiding ongoing dialogue between the worlds of science and art. Whereas scientific reductionism “seeks to explain a complex phenomenon by examining one of its components on a more elementary, mechanistic level,” artists employ reductionism to enable viewers “to perceive an essential component of a work in isolation, be it form, line, color, or light.” According to Kandel, narrowing the focus of brain research to the components of learning and memory helps open up the ways that humans perceive art as well as the ways that humans evolve culturally to acquire insights into the nature of the world. Willem de Kooning (1904–1997), for example, reduced figuration because it enabled him to place emotional components into his paintings, and the absence of a figure helps viewers to perceive these emotions. Kandel concludes that abstract art allows people to experience it without reference to external knowledge, enabling viewers to participate in art by projecting their own impressions, feelings, and memories on the work. Kandel presents concepts to ponder that may open new avenues of art making and neuroscientific endeavor. Agency: Wylie Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy

Matthew Karp. Harvard Univ., $29.95 (360p) ISBN 978-0-674-73725-9

In this adept and detailed scholarly work, Karp, assistant professor of history at Princeton, examines the international politics of slavery in the antebellum era alongside the outlook and influence of proslavery Southern statesmen. Karp reveals how, in the decades leading up to the Civil War, Southern slaveholders disproportionately controlled the levers of federal power, particularly in the realm of foreign affairs. They closely followed the international balance between slavery and freedom with “feverish attention” and “ideological confidence and worldly sophistication,” rather than isolated, reactionary defensiveness. Faced with a rising domestic movement against slavery and what was deemed Britain’s “imperial abolitionism,” these proslavery statesmen largely abandoned traditional conservative qualms against federal power, using their influence to forge the American state into “the chief hemispheric champion of slavery” while defending and preserving black servitude domestically and in such diverse places as Brazil, Cuba, and Texas. Karp further argues that this aggressive approach was a major factor in the Mexican-American War, the secession of the South, and the Civil War, as these leading policy makers were unwilling to relinquish their chance at constructing “the global order they envisioned—based on racial hierarchy, coerced labor, and aggressive state power.” Karp’s thorough and polished study will be eagerly welcomed by scholars, if not a wider public. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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1956: The World in Revolt

Simon Hall. Pegasus, $29.95 (528p) ISBN 978-1-68177-205-9

Hall (Rethinking the American Anti-war Movement), professor of American history at the University of Leeds, U.K., captures the collective drama of the year 1956, which saw massive expressions of popular discontent worldwide and demonstrated the stubbornness and violent proclivities of the “guardians of the ‘old order.’” The year was a major turning point in “the global struggle against white supremacy” in the U.S. and South Africa, despite stiff hostility and reactionary terror. Postwar anticolonial nationalism lingered in much of North Africa, fueling decolonization movements and further eroding the old European empires, though not without bloodshed; the Suez crisis exemplified the declining power of the European imperial powers. In the U.S.S.R., Khrushchev’s repudiation of Stalin and moves toward liberalization elicited surprise and uncertainty, and “fueled a series of rebellions across the ‘people’s democracies’ of Eastern Europe,” most visibly in Poland and Hungary, where Soviets countered the spread of “revolutionary fervor” with a brutal crackdown. Hall also covers the Castro brothers’ failed initial operation to overthrow the Batista dictatorship in Cuba, and American cultural and generational rebellion in the form of rock ’n’ roll, dancing, and poetry. Switching between these multiple developments, Hall provides a dramatic and immersive narrative of a tumultuous year of oppression, revolt, and reaction in a decade often considered bland and docile. Agent: George Lucas, InkWell Management. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Exile on Front Street: My Life as a Hell’s Angel, and Beyond

George Christie. St. Martin’s/Dunne, $26.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-250-09568-8

Christie, a onetime member of the Hells Angels, points out in this lucid member that the greatest threat to an outlaw isn’t cops—it’s his outlaw brothers. Raised in a close-knit Greek-American family in Ventura, Calif., Christie encountered a denim-clad, long-haired biker in 1955 and saw his future. After a stint in the Marines and an unfortunate marriage, Christie started riding with the Angels while raising a family and working for the Department of Defense. Troubled by the club feuds and senseless killings, Christie tried to mediate the strife and rose to the presidency of the Ventura chapter, cementing his role of peacemaker by running with the torch at the 1984 Olympics. Yet no amount of PR could overcome the sectarian squabbling and endless police harassment. Christie is a convincing narrator, though it’s impossible to believe that he’s the Boy Scout he makes himself out to be. Legal concerns may explain his circumspection, and his numerous enemies certainly have a very different take on their disagreements. Sonny Barger, the legendary president of the Oakland Angels, features as a Machiavellian villain, intent on destroying anyone who threatens his place in the spotlight. That said, Christie articulately defends his outlaw code, which he adhered to at great personal cost. Although he resigned from the Angels in 2010, his past, as he engagingly writes, continues to haunt him. As Christie wryly observes, “You don’t just stop being an outlaw.” (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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