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Ceramics: Contemporary Artists Working in Clay

Kate Singleton. Chronicle, $27.50 (176p) ISBN 978-1-45214-809-0

Singleton, founder of the online gallery Buy Some Damn Art, turns her curatorial eye to contemporary ceramics in this fresh and vibrant showcase of 45 artists actively working in clay today. The foreword, written by artist and art blogger Danielle Krysa, provides a primer on the world of ceramics, touching upon the art-versus-craft debate and explaining why artists who began in other modes are now also working in clay. The short introduction that follows provides a narrow and somewhat colorless overview of the history of the clay medium. The artists included vary in age and nationality, and each showcase of selected work is accompanied by a short biography, contact information, and artist statement. Singleton groups the artists by theme. The narrative pieces include colorful bowls with comics-like illustrations and depictions of ordinary life. The graphic pieces are geometric and concerned with the lovely forms of vases and plates. The “Curious” chapter captures magic, play, and humor with fun sculptural pieces such as a pincushion dog. Last but not least, the “Organic” chapter shares ceramics with rougher finishes or imperfections that remind readers of clay’s earthly nature. Singleton has curated a stunning look at the whimsical and eclectic world of present-day ceramic art. Color photos. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Why Write? A Master Class on the Art of Writing and Why It Matters

Mark Edmundson. Bloomsbury, $25 (288p) ISBN 978-1-63286-305-8

In a book that reads like lectures notes for a meandering college course, Edmundson (Why Teach?), a professor at the University of Virginia, attempts to answer the question of why, in an era of diminishing readership and an increasing number of entertainment options, one might choose to become a writer. Organized around different answers such as “to get even” and “to grow,” the book is filled with anecdotes about canonical writers, along with personal stories from the author’s writing and teaching career. Edmundson is adept at finding quotes and telling tales from the English romantic poets, Greek philosophers, and American transcendentalists, but his examples rarely stray outside Europe and North America. The book has a penchant for broad pronouncements about the literary canon—“Is it possible to be a writer in America and not have dropped all the way into Melville or Dickinson, the prophet Whitman or Emerson”—and the habits of “real writers” and who they may be. Though the prose is easy to read, chatty, and sometimes amusing, the book’s unexamined Western-centric perspective may leave some readers feeling that Edmundson’s message doesn’t apply to them. Agent: Sam Stoloff, Goldin Literary Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Shakespeare in Swahililand: In Search of a Global Poet

Edward Wilson-Lee. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (304p) ISBN 978-0-374-26207-5

Wilson-Lee, a fellow in English at Cambridge University, spent his childhood in Kenya, and he intersperses his scholarly, rather esoteric study of Shakespeare in colonial East Africa with his own recollections and impressions in this complex, challenging work. As Wilson-Lee admits, his book is as much personal memoir and travelogue as inquiry into Shakespeare’s appeal across continents. He begins with explorers Richard Burton and Henry Morton Stanley, who brought Shakespeare to the region he calls Swahililand—today’s Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda—and fetishized Shakespeare as an antidote to “going native.” He then describes how, in 1867, the missionary Edward Steere translated storybook versions of Shakespeare’s plays into Swahili. Wilson-Lee draws a rich portrait of a region of Africa in which Shakespeare was familiar, adored, and widely performed with numerous local embellishments. Acrobatic in style and impressive in scholarship, his account arrives 400 years after Shakespeare’s death with a cross-cultural bang. It is not an easy book to digest. Wilson-Lee’s florid language, off-topic ramblings, travel adventures, and speculative flights widen his report but come at the cost of coherence and clarity. Agent: Isobel Dixon, Blake Friedman Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

Ruth Franklin. Norton/Liveright, $35 (624p) ISBN 978-0-87140-313-1

Literary critic Franklin (A Thousand Darknesses) renders a gripping and graceful portrait of the mind, life, and work of groundbreaking American author Shirley Jackson (1916–1965). Though Jackson is today largely known for the chilling novel The Haunting of Hill House and the supremely upsetting short parable “The Lottery,” Franklin brings forth her full oeuvre for careful study, including a prodigious number of short stories, books for young adults and children, and—perhaps improbably for a horror writer—two bestselling memoirs about life with her four children, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. Franklin’s adept readings of Jackson’s influences, formative relationships, and major works interweave the obsessions, fears, and life experiences that charge her writing with such wicked intensity. Treating her subject with a generous eye and gorgeous prose, Franklin describes one of Jackson’s chief themes, a “preoccupation with the roles that women play at home and the forces that conspire to keep them there,” as a product of her cultural moment, identifying Jackson’s “insistence on telling unpleasant truths” about women’s experience and her ability “to draw back the curtain on the darkness within the human psyche” as the elements that make Jackson a writer of lasting relevance who can still give today’s readers an impressive shiver. 60 illus. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction

Mark Lilla. New York Review Books, $15 (128p) ISBN 978-1-59017-902-4

Lilla’s fascinating exploration of political conservatism shows how various so-called reactionaries have helped shape history. Adapted from Lilla’s essays in the New York Review of Books and the New Republic, this book profiles several prominent religious and political thinkers such as theologian Franz Rosenzweig, philosopher Eric Voegelin, and Leo Strauss, a favorite of the American right. Rosenzweig presents a particularly interesting case, partly because, as Lilla observes, his mystical magnum opus, The Star of Redemption, is little understood or examined today. Lilla also examines the intellectual history and evolution of Catholic philosophy, the way Saint Paul has been co-opted by critical theory scholars on the left, and how the Paris attacks of January 2015 affected the reception of popular novels by Michel Houellebecq and Eric Zemmour. Lilla frequently returns to the epoch-defining philosophy of Hegel and Heidegger as lodestars that define the terms of the debate. In revealing the mechanics of political reaction, Lilla approaches the subject through a unique religious lens. He is a fantastically gifted essayist, and this short volume collects the best of his recent work—not simply on political reaction or revolution, but on subjects including Judaism, Gnosticism, Islam, and Don Quixote. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Gatekeeper: Missy LeHand, FDR, and the Untold Story of the Partnership That Defined a Presidency

Kathryn Smith. Touchstone, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-1-5011-1496-0

Journalist Smith (A Necessary War) grants readers an unusual insider’s view of F.D.R.’s political career by profiling his longtime private secretary. Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, a young woman with a modest background, an agile intellect, a pleasant personality, and remarkable stenographer’s skills, began working for F.D.R. in 1920, when he ran for vice president. Smith writes particularly well about F.D.R.’s struggle to bounce back from being struck with polio in 1921, explaining the disease and the origins of the Warm Springs, Ga., health spa that he frequented. LeHand was F.D.R.’s most constant companion during the 1920s, sparking rumors—convincingly dismissed by Smith—that they were lovers. The real core of the story is the White House years from 1933 until 1942, when LeHand helped create the vast New Deal bureaucracy. She decided who would see the president and when; today her title would be chief of staff. LeHand worked long hours but took time to enjoy the perks of the job, including a barrage of social invitations and fawning press coverage. Though Smith overstates her claim about LeHand’s importance to F.D.R. and his work as president, she delivers a fascinating account of one woman’s involvement in an important administration. Illus. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting

Anne Trubek. Bloomsbury, $26 (192p) ISBN 978-1-62040-215-3

What does the future hold for the oldest analog communication technology: writing by hand? Do we really need it? Trubek, publisher of Belt Magazine, explores these questions in a thoroughly enjoyable slim volume that begins with scratches on clay tablets and ends with National Handwriting Day, which is celebrated every January 23, the birthday of John Hancock, the man who signed his name so dramatically on the Declaration of Independence. Ancient Sumerian writing was limited to records and ceremony. Literacy became essential to a cultured person in ancient Greece with the invention of the modern alphabet, but not everyone welcomed it. Socrates believed that writing made men stupid by eliminating memory: “If you ask a piece of writing a question, it remains silent.” Trubek emphasizes that every revolution in written communication produces similar complaints: printed books were seen as fit only for the less educated, and now some believe that typing and email rob us of the individuality and intimacy of handwritten letters. Additionally she also explores the various ways handwriting has been linked to personal character. Trubek ends her delightful history with the conclusion that handwriting will not vanish but perhaps, like letterpress printing, become a fine art. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Human Evolution: Our Brains and Behavior

Robin Dunbar. Oxford Univ., $34.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-19-061678-6

Dunbar (How Many Friends Does One Person Need?), a professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford, ponders what it is “to be human (as opposed to being an ape)” and asks, “How did we come to be that way?” He suggests the answer began with a cooling climate 1.8 million to 2.5 million years ago, which led to fewer lush forests and more harsh grasslands. Because human ancestors were bipedal, they left trees for dangerous open spaces more easily than other primates. This left them vulnerable to predators, so social bonding became crucial for mutual protection. But as groups grew in size to improve safety, bonding became more complex and difficult to sustain. To adapt, did hominids begin evolving to replace grooming—most primates’ time-consuming bonding mechanism—with laughter, singing, and speech, simply because such bonding methods took less time? Did such increasingly sophisticated communication methods lead to bigger brains, spawning more sophisticated technology (cooking and hunting tools) and thus even more sophisticated communication methods (culture and religion), and in turn even larger brains? In light of such questions, Dunbar devised mathematical “time-budget” models to support his “social brain hypothesis.” Dunbar’s idea has gained in popularity among scholars, and his narrative is so mesmerizing it may attract many general readers, too. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland

Miriam Horn. Norton, $27.95 (384p) ISBN 978-0-393-24734-3

Horn (Earth: The Sequel, cowritten with Fred Krupp), a former journalist now at the Environmental Defense Fund, shines a light on “conservation heroes” who are leading ambitious environmental initiatives in their communities and beyond. Human activities, such as the overharvesting of fish and the overtilling of fertile soil, continue to compromise the biodiversity of landscapes around the world; to balance the scales, Horn offers redemptive portraits of five stewards of the American heartland whose daily work “has itself become the path to restoration.” Unlike the policy makers who remain distant from the practical effects of their policies, these five—a Montana rancher, a Kansas farmer, a Mississippi riverman, a Louisiana shrimper, and a Gulf of Mexico fisherman—are “real Americans” whose “livelihoods and communities will live or die with these ecosystems.” Motivated by deep allegiances to the places they live, as well as an understanding of the “irreducible interdependency” between humans and nature, these individuals are taking radical steps toward sustainability: one restores depleted soils through industrial-scale farming methods, and another advocates for fishing regulations that will support the long-term regrowth of threatened red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico. Horn’s intimate profiles reveal undervalued environmental change makers while countering popular notions of what it means to be a conservationist. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Legend of Zippy Chippy: Life Lessons from Horse Racing's Most Lovable Loser

William Thomas. McClelland & Stewart (Penguin Random House, dist.), $30 (304p) ISBN 978-0-7710-8159-0

It takes a special kind of horse to deserve a biography, and Zippy Chippy, horse racing's most famous loser—0 for 100—is that horse. Humor columnist and author Thomas (The Dog Rules—Damn Near Everything!) has chosen a subject rich in everything but wins. Following the horse's story from upbringing to retirement, readers are in for an enjoyable ride on a wonderful character. Zippy's aversion to winning is only part of the humorously told story. Since the subject, a "world-class scamp" with a sweet tooth, can't speak for himself, his various owners, trainers, jockeys, and stable hands help tell his story, which made headlines in the 1990s. Thomas's descriptions of the horse bring the book to life: "Typical Zippy Chippy—whenever trouble was not following him around, he'd go looking for it." The book does share one of Zippy's problematic traits and runs out of steam in the backstretch. Loss heaps upon loss and becomes repetitive. The asides, occupying their own chapters, have topics ranging from relevant (a similar multi-time loser horse in Japan, a profile of one of Zippy's trainers) to puzzling (the city of Buffalo, the author's nephew, a history of taunting in sports) and serve mostly as filler. Nevertheless, the story is good fun even for readers who are not horse racing fans. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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