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Water Tossing Boulders: How a Family of Chinese Immigrants Led the First Fight to Desegregate Schools in the Jim Crow South

Adrienne Berard. Beacon, $26.95 (244p) ISBN 978-0-8070-3353-1

Berard (Love and War) tells the story of the Lum family, a Chinese American family living in the Jim Crow–era South, from the father’s perilous arrival to the United States in the winter of 1904 during a time of anti-immigration sentiment to the 1927 lawsuit Gong Lum v. Rice, the first Supreme Court decision against school segregation. Berard conveys why Jeu Gong Lum wanted better lives—and better schools—for his two daughters, particularly Martha, who was a straight-A student, during a time when segregated black schools often had inadequate facilities. But the book does not go into detail about the poor conditions of black public schools, so when Katherine Lum says, “I don’t want my children to attend ‘colored’ schools” and one of their lawyers argues that “the Mongolian is on the hither side... between the Caucasian and African” as the premise of the case, a current of antiblack sentiment overwhelms a story of an immigrant family simply wanting the best for their children. As a result, this divisive narrative that focuses less on the importance of obtaining freedom and a better education for all U.S. citizens than on how one family fought to secure privilege for their children. Agent: Anna Ghosh, Ghosh Literary. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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In Julia’s Kitchen: Practical and Convivial Kitchen Design Inspired by Julia Child

Pamela Heyne and Jim Scherer. ForeEdge (UPNE, dist.), $24.95 (176p) ISBN 978-1-61168-913-6

Architect Heyne (Mirror by Design) revisits the time she interviewed Julia Child about the design of her kitchen for Washingtonian magazine, and expands on Child’s insight into kitchen design. The strongest segment of the book recounts the 1989 meeting in words and photos. Child welcomed Heyne and photographer Scherer (who worked with Child on a cookbook) into her Cambridge, Mass., home, and gave them a personal tour of her kitchen. After that, Heyne includes a hodgepodge of interviews with friends and acquaintances of the TV chef, digressions on Child’s other kitchens (public and private), and photos from various dinner parties. The book completely goes off the rails as Heyne assesses the French approach to food through the lens of a family friend and offers asides on various kitchen designs she has completed, in addition to a digression on Frank Lloyd Wright and Fallingwater; none of these subjects is covered in depth or tied to Child all that well, and as a result they seem out of place. This meandering book quickly falls out of the scope of its original subject. Photos. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, an Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight

Julian Guthrie. Penguin Press, $28 (400p) ISBN 978-1-59420-672-6

In this sympathetic retelling of the establishment of the Ansari X Prize, for the first launch of a private reusable manned spacecraft twice within two weeks, and the race to win it, journalist and author Guthrie (The Billionaire and the Mechanic) chronicles the struggles, triumphs, and everything it took to kick-start private spaceflight. She starts with the explosives-filled childhood of entrepreneur Peter Diamandis and works in the backgrounds of several other major players, including designer and entrepreneur Burt Rutan and aviator Erik Lindbergh (grandson of Charles), illustrating how they developed the skills, connections, and passion needed to pull everything off. As she follows them and teams from different countries through triumphs, setbacks, joys, and tragedy, the stakes become very real and even financial struggles feel suspenseful and compelling. Rutan’s SpaceShipOne becomes the actual star of the relatable and easy reading narrative, and the flights are written to make readers feel like they’re experiencing them in real time, nerves and all. Unfortunately, as Guthrie details this technological achievement, she fails to address very real criticisms of privatized spaceflight (commercialization and access, privatization of military contracts, lack of transparency, etc.). Her willingness to gloss over the Randian ideology of some figures may also raise red flags for some readers. But if readers are looking for scientific discussions, humorous anecdotes, and intense action, Guthrie covers those bases. Agent: Joseph Veltre, Gersh Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Why Make Eagles Swim? Embracing Natural Strengths in Leadership and Life

Bill Munn, with Libby Cortez. Greenleaf Book Group, $22.95 (216p) ISBN 978-1-62634-8

In this friendly, upbeat call to focus on one’s existing strengths rather than struggling to salvage one’s weaknesses, 45-year management coach Munn exhorts readers to stop wasting time, both in the corporate world and in their personal lives. Munn helps businesspeople find their own “attribute profile[s],” those “natural, inborn strengths” that are second nature; he also speaks to coaching teams and helps coworkers find their own strengths. As presented in this book, attributes aren’t skills or knowledge; they’re natural gifts and inherent traits. These attributes fall into a number of categories, including conceptual, decisive, orderly, persuasive, and responsible. Munn’s at his strongest when arguing against the “myth of well-roundedness.” According to him, it’s just as important to understand others’ gifts as one’s own, and the book delves deeply into working with others. Although the tone can be self-congratulatory, this is a well-thought-out and helpful call for readers to focus their attention on what they’ve already got going for them. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves

Charles Fernyhough. Basic, $27.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-465-09680-0

Academic psychologist Fernyhough (Pieces of Light), whose previous fiction and nonfiction works have explored ideas of memory and consciousness, here dives deeply into “what it is like to inhabit our own minds.” Fernyhough proposes the theory of “dialogic thinking,” explaining that “focusing on the voices in our heads as internal dialogues” can help us understand our inner lives in new ways. Citing published experiments, his own anecdotal experiences, and religious and literary texts, he makes a thought-provoking case not only for his theory, but also for the idea that although “inner speech” requires language, it functions outside of linguistics—it unifies the brain in “a way not specific to any sensory channel.” Though the book is not about creativity per se, one of its highlights is its fascinating insight into the process of artistic creation, particularly writing. In another high point, the narrative gently prods readers into a wider and more empathetic view of pathologies such as aural hallucinations. Fernyhough’s book is a valuable addition to the literature surrounding the unending human quest to understand the location—and the creation—of the self. Agent: George Lucas, Inkwell Management. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives

Gary Younge. Nation, $25.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-56858-975-6

Guardian journalist Younge (The Speech) chronicles the shooting deaths of 10 children and teens on a random Saturday in 2013 to illustrate the capriciousness of gun violence in America. The circumstances vary: one child is a victim of a domestic dispute; two were shot by friends playing with firearms; one was a known gang leader. While one shooting “tore at the very fabric of [a] tight-knit community,” another elicited only an 81-word mention in the newspaper. Younge explores each incident in terms of its location, from the San Jose, Calif., enclave of the Nuestra Familia gang to rural Marlette, Mich., where hunting is popular. He discusses the flawed gun control narratives that require the “elevation and canonization of ‘the worthy victim’ ” to engage the public’s sympathy, and critiques the NRA’s lobbying practices as corrupt. He further castigates the entrenched racism and poverty that keep young African-Americans mired in a cycle of violence. Drawing from insights from community organizers and scholarship on violence, economics, and psychology, Younge provides nuance and context to a polarizing issue. The personal touches, however, are most affecting, as Younge pieces together each story from news reports and interviews with friends and family, weaving a tragic narrative of wasted potential. Agent: Jonny Geller, Curtis Brown Ltd. (U.K.). (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Upstream: Selected Essays

Mary Oliver. Penguin Press, $26 (192p) ISBN 978-1-59420-670-2

Distinguished, honored, prolific, popular, bestselling—adjectives that don’t always hang out together—describe Oliver’s body of work, nearly three dozen volumes of poetry and collections of prose. This group (19 essays, 16 from previous collections) is a distillation of sorts. Born of two “blessings—the natural world, and the world of writing: literature,” it partakes of the spirits of a journal, a commonplace book, and a meditation. The natural world pictured here is richly various, though Oliver seems most drawn to waterways. All manner of aquatic life—shark and mackerel, duck and egret—accompany her days, along with spiders, foxes, even a bear. Her keen observations come as narrative (following a fox) or as manual (building a house) or as poems masquerading as description (“I have seen bluefish arc and sled across the water, an acre of them, leaping and sliding back under the water, then leaping again, toothy, terrible, lashed by hunger”). When the world of writing enters, currently unfashionable 19th-century writers emerge—Percy Shelley, William Wordsworth, William James—in readings that evade academic textual analyses and share the look-at-what-I-saw tone animating Oliver’s observations of the natural world. The message of her book for its readers is a simple and profound one: open your eyes. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Dragons in Diamond Village: Tales of Resistance from Urbanizing China

David Bandurski. Melville House, $27.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-61219-571-1

Hong Kong–based journalist Bandurski explores corruption in Chinese society through a very specific lens: the phenomenon of once-rural villages being overtaken by rapidly expanding cities. The main narrative involves Xian Village, which was absorbed by Guangzhou, China’s third largest city. Set mainly between 2009 and 2014, this story involves village residents who refuse to sign demolition agreements to tear down their centuries-old homes, pitting them against the wishes of powerful locals. Bandurski weaves in other strands of resistance: a small businesswoman who finds herself entangled in an unsanctioned shopping center development and a rural villager who responds to losing his property rights in another village with protest. Bandurski also provides an impressive investigation into the convoluted trail of corruption at the heart of Xian Village’s troubles. The organizational principle undergirding the narrative’s interlocking pieces does not make itself readily apparent, and the jumps from scandal to scandal are discombobulating. Bandurski employs an engaging and clear voice that mixes the styles of reportage and memoir. At times, though, the writing includes too much reportorial detail when the reader hungers for deeper characterizations or more cultural context. The protagonists all read as noble ciphers standing up to indistinctly corrupt power. Nonetheless, the book provides an important and unique spotlight on the lives of those being run over roughshod by China’s development. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Urban Forests: A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Cityscape

Jill Jonnes. Viking, $30 (416p) ISBN 978-0-670-01566-5

Environmental scholar Jonnes (Eiffel’s Tower) adopts a chronological and wide-reaching approach in explaining the logistical and political work done in the 19th and 20th centuries to establish, expand, understand, and celebrate the value and importance of the urban forests of America. Often taken for granted as a public resource, the “millions of trees found in any city’s streets, parks, cemeteries, campuses, yards, industrial areas, and vacant lots” have required great efforts to maintain them against the ravages of age, disease, and development. Jonnes often focuses on notable human individuals—popularizers of imported species, brilliant and battling researchers, explorers, politicians, and grassroots activists. But in the story of the relationships among trees, the mental and physical health of city dwellers, and the infrastructure of cities themselves, she also makes room for individual arboreal entities such as the Wethersfield elm and the 9/11 Survivor Tree; anchor species, including the chestnut and the American elm; and dramatic villains such as Dutch elm disease and the Asian long-horned beetle. Despite the book’s lack of explicit activism, readers will find that Jonnes’s appreciative attention to detail organically nurtures a newfound appreciation for our living arboreal neighbors and for the concerted determination it has taken to protect them. Agent: Eric Simonoff, WME. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Vanishing Streets: Journeys in London

J.M. Tyree. Stanford Univ., $25 trade paper (152p) ISBN 978-1-5036-0003-4

Writer and film critic Tyree (coauthor of Our Secret Life in the Movies), who was born and raised in the U.S. and studied at Cambridge in the 1990s, guides readers through his favorite spots in London and his enamoured understanding of the city’s nuances (filmic, sociopolitical, documentarian, and romantic). The book is divided into four sections, each composed of a variety of a variety of forms—essays, a suggested tour itinerary, a review of a 1929 book—to provide vivid scenes of suburbs, poetic reflections on historical ruins, and a rather detailed sketch of 21st-century London from an informed American’s position. Tyree demonstrates that when individuals seek out the unfamiliar, follow curiosity, or place themselves in foreign contexts, they create perspectives that can transform the world and their own worldviews. Tyree’s personal and filmic experiences of London have shaped his intimate impression of the city into a complex adoration. Anglophile readers or those holding some familiarity with this world hub may find much to cherish, but some readers will struggle to follow Tyree’s very specific references to neighborhoods and landmarks that are well beyond the typical tourist’s experience of London. Tyree’s lyrical prose is distinctly cinematic, describing sweeping landscapes interspersed with tight shots, close-ups, and all the drama and symbolism of character quests with director’s commentary, resulting a fresh portrait of London and an intriguing travelogue. 30 halftones. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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