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The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family

Roger Cohen. Knopf, $27.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-307-59466-2

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In a lyrical, digressive tracking of mental illness in his far-flung family, New York Times columnist Cohen (Soldiers and Slaves: American POWs Trapped by the Nazis Final Gamble) explores the tentacles of repressed memory in Jewish identity. Cohen’s grandparents on both sides came from Lithuanian shtetls and migrated at the end of the 19th century to South Africa. From modest beginnings as grocers and roving peddlers, they gradually prospered as business leaders and professionals in Johannesburg, far from the calamity of Nazi Germany. Cohen’s father, a doctor in Krugersdorp, settled in London after WWII, bringing his South African wife, June, née Adler; assimilation was the rule of the day, and the horrors of Auschwitz were not discussed. “Better to look forward, work hard, say little,” Cohen, born in the mid-1950s, writes. Paralyzing depression dogged his mother, requiring hospitalization and electroconvulsive therapy, and she made several suicide attempts over the years. Her manic depression was shared by other members of the family, which Cohen traces to being “tied to... a Jewish odyssey of the 20th century, and the tremendous pressure of wandering, adapting, pretending, silencing, and forgetting.” Cohen writes eloquently of the great looming irony of apartheid for the once similarly persecuted, now privileged Jews of South African, as well as the divisive oppression in Israel. Thoughtful, wide-ranging, he muses on his own migrations spurred by “buried truths.” (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Why Not Say What Happened: A Sentimental Education

Morris Dickstein. Norton/Liveright, $27.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-87140-431-2

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A young man navigates the tensions between his Orthodox Jewish background and his calling as a literary intellectual in this rich coming-of-age memoir. Dickstein (Dancing in the Dark), an English professor and cultural historian, wanders episodically from his boyhood as a yeshiva student in New York in the 1950s, surrounded by a close-knit, eternally kvetching immigrant family, through adolescence, when his religious strictures were gradually displaced by books and a usually unrequited interest in girls, to his budding academic career at Columbia and Yale. It’s a mainly quiet and interior narrative of observation and reflection on ordinary life; Dickstein’s maturation is propelled by summer jobs, trips abroad, persistent conflicts between kosher living and the allure of secular lifestyles, strong friendships, and a deeply felt, luminously described romance with his future wife. Scholarship emerges as an engrossing, even adventurous activity in his vivid descriptions of often brilliant—though sometimes lousy—classroom lectures and seminars; his evocative portraits of such writers and critics as Lionel Trilling, Susan Sontag, and Harold Bloom; and his probing appreciations of novelists and poets (an extended exegesis of Keats is a tour de force). Dickstein’s rapt, unabashed delight in literature and his willingness to let it inform his own experience make for an indelible account of the life of the mind. Photos. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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He Wanted the Moon: The Madness and Medical Genius of Dr. Perry Baird and His Daughter’s Quest to Know Him

Mimi Baird, with Eve Claxton. Crown, $25 (272p) ISBN 978-0-8041-3747-8

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Thanks to a chance meeting 20 years ago with one of her father’s former colleagues, Baird, daughter of Perry Baird—a Harvard-educated mid-20th-century physician of some renown who was locked away and never spoken of as he succumbed to the ravages of mental illness—gets the keys to unlocking the mystery of what happened to her father. Perry Baird was diagnosed with manic depression in the 1930s at a time when doctors had little comprehension of the disease and employed shockingly barbaric and useless “cures” such as straitjackets, isolation, and lobotomies on institutionalized patients. Perry Baird was a pioneer in attempting to understand the workings of manic depression, conducting lab experiments to find the biochemical cause as the illness steadily took hold of him. His daughter, who saw him only once after he’d been sent to a mental hospital when she was still a young child—aided by the unearthed manuscript her father had written while committed that she pieces together and includes—seeks to unravel the heartbreaking circumstances of what befell her father for all those decades when her family refused to talk about him. She is the one who rediscovers her father’s experiments and gets him the long overdue credit from the scientific community he deserved. In bringing her father’s harrowing, tragic, and moving story to life, Mimi Baird celebrates him and gives voice to the terrible suffering the mentally ill once endured, and still do today, and challenges the prejudices and misperceptions the public continues to have about the disease. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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George W. Bush

James Mann. Holt/Times Books, $25 (208p) ISBN 978-0-8050-9397-1

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The latest volume in the American Presidents series meets its goal of providing a concise yet thorough biography of the 43rd president. Mann’s claim that Bush’s tenure “was, by any standard, one of the most consequential presidencies in American history” is made from a balanced assessment of the facts. Mann (Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet) begins by tracing Bush’s transformation from easygoing frat boy into a skilled politician. The bulk of the book, naturally, deals with his eight years in office, a period focused on the “war on terror.” Mann notes that historians in 50 years might view the conflicts as necessary to protect the homeland, or see Bush’s response as the “starting point in the establishment of a surveillance state in which American rights to privacy were irretrievably damaged.” Nonpartisan readers will find little to take issue with in Mann’s bottom-line judgment that the now deeply unpopular chief executive was “not responsible for all of America’s difficulties,” but undeniably did, through his ambitious but careless initiatives, exacerbate the nation’s problems. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America

Ai-Jen Poo, with Ariane Conrad. New Press (Perseus, dist.), $25.95 (240p) ISBN 978-1-62097-038-6

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Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and recent winner of a MacArthur Fellowship, offers a critical examination of the current and near-future situation of the elderly and home care workers in the U.S., along with hopeful suggestions for improvement. In the first portion of this work, Poo combines statistics with the stories of individuals to give a multifaceted picture of the difficulties facing older Americans, their families, and their caregivers. With the population of Americans over the age of 85 now representing the country’s most rapidly growing demographic, she predicts that the demand for care workers and the challenges to our current “care labyrinth” will only increase. The book goes on to indict the U.S. medical system and government assistance programs for emphasizing the “delay of death, rather than the quality of life.” Meanwhile, elders’ family members, generally too busy to provide adequate care themselves, relegate the task to in-home care workers, many of them undocumented immigrants, who receive poor wages and virtually no benefits. For possible solutions, Poo looks abroad to programs like the “time dollar” currency credit of Japan, as well as to domestic programs like Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities. Overall, she makes a strong argument for a cultural and governmental shift toward valuing older citizens and providing them with opportunities for rich, full lives. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing

Edited by Jesse Hagopian. Haymarket (Consortium, dist.), $16 trade paper (302p) ISBN 978-1-60846-392-3

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The eagerly engaged voices assembled here present an action plan to combat the increase in high-stakes standardized testing currently plaguing K–12 education. Editor and Seattle teacher Hagopian, whose boycott of testing at Garfield High joined a wave of opt-out movements across the country, creates space for the voices of teachers, parents, and students in the ongoing debate about education reform and testing. Readily highlighting the drive to turn public education over to private companies, Hagopian and crew scathingly indict test preparation giant Pearson, the Chicago Public School System, the arrogance of the Texas State Legislature, and programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top; Education Secretary Arne Duncan also comes under fire for his support of repetitive standardized testing over more free-form education. But the focus is on doing rather than shouting, and each essay in this anthology is a blueprint for civic action. Cauldierre McKay, Aaron Regunberg, and Tim Shea offer a lively account of the audacious, well-orchestrated protest at the entrance of the Rhode Island Department of Education in Providence, where students put on zombie makeup and ultimately convinced the state to issue a three-year moratorium on standardized testing. Tension builds in parent Kristin Roberts’s chronicle of the creative “play-in” protests in Chicago that helped end testing for kindergartners, and teacher Sarah Chambers’s hard-hitting piece exposes the bullying tactics of the Chicago Public School System under Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The contributors build on Hagopian’s optimism for the blooming of an “educational spring” and make this book exceptional. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing—But You Don’t Have to Be

Anya Kamenetz. PublicAffairs, $24.99 (272p) ISBN 978-1-61039-441-3

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The buzzwords and counterarguments of the nationwide testing debate are enough to make any parent’s head spin, and Kamenetz’s book adds to the confusing array as much as it clarifies it. NPR blogger and mother Kamenetz seeks to understand the counterintuitive world of standardized testing, hoping to “resolve a personal dilemma about how to educate [her] child.” She wants her daughter to succeed in school and on tests, but doesn’t want the girl’s creativity and individuality snuffed out by the high-stakes environment. Kamenetz runs readers through a battery of familiar arguments against testing: the tests waste time and money, they make teachers hate teaching, they require teaching to cater to the test, they penalize diversity, and they test the wrong things. She then summarizes the history of testing in the U.S. from 1795 to the present day and digs deep into the business practices that govern current testing systems and policy. As Kamenetz acknowledges, important tests and teacher accountability are not going away, so she offers several strategies to keep students balanced and calm while preparing for such exams, but her suggestions for students and parents, ranging from meditating to opting out, are not always practical. She also devotes considerable discussion to the appealing idea of “game-based” assessments as the future of standardized testing, while admitting that the effectiveness of the approach is still largely unproven. Agent: Jim Levine, Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Brave Girls: Raising Young Women with Passion and Purpose to Become Powerful Leaders

Stacey Radin, with Leslie Goldman. Atria, $25 (288p) ISBN 978-1-4516-9930-2

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Psychologist Radin's vision for equipping young women with leadership skills amounts to an extended promotional brochure for Unleashed, her 12-week after-school program that teaches middle school girls "social justice via animal rights." Building on the central insight that cultivating bravery in preadolescents means teaching them to identify and voice their own values, opinions, and personal strengths, the book aims to alleviate the "psychological distress" accompanying a time of rapid emotional and physical maturation. Throughout the book, Radin provides short testimonials from former Unleashed members testifying to the program's success in "tapping into girls' passion at a formative age [to] profoundly shape their experiences of power and leadership." The articulation of precisely how to achieve Radin's worthy goals, however, is diffused by broad generalizations about "gender norms and stereotypes" and language imbued with the cheerfully ambitious yet vague tone of the life coach and leadership consultant. Meanwhile, transferable advice for parents, teachers, and coaches appears only in the small "power boosts" concluding each chapter. Readers may be inspired by Radin's desire to aid women in "reshaping their world into one that is just, humane, and mindful," even if the suggestions she offers add up to only a partial solution. Agent: Laura Nolan, Paradigm Agency. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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H Is for Hawk

Helen Macdonald. Grove, $25 (320p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2341-1

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In this elegant synthesis of memoir and literary sleuthing, an English academic finds that training a young goshawk helps her through her grief over the death of her father. With her three-year fellowship at the University of Cambridge nearly over, Macdonald, a trained falconer, rediscovers a favorite book of her childhood, T.H. White's The Goshawk (1951), in which White, author of The Once and Future King, recounts his mostly failed but illuminating attempts at training a goshawk, one of the most magnificent and deadly raptors. Macdonald secures her own goshawk, which she names Mabel, and the fierce wildness of the young bird soothes her sense of being broken by her father's untimely death. The book moves from White's frustration at training his bird to Macdonald's sure, deliberate efforts to get Mabel to fly to her. She identifies so strongly with her goshawk that she feels at one with the creature. Macdonald writes, "I shared, too, [White's] desire to escape to the wild, a desire that can rip away all human softness and leave you stranded in a world of savage, courteous despair." The author plunges into the archaic terminology of falconry and examines its alleged gendered biases; she finds comfort in the "invisibility" of being the trainer, a role she undertook as a child obsessed with watching birds and animals in nature. Macdonald describes in beautiful, thoughtful prose how she comes to terms with death in new and startling ways as a result of her experiences with the goshawk. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Of All the Gin Joints: Stumbling Through Hollywood History

Mark Bailey. Algonquin, $21.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-56512-593-3

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Unique cocktail recipes (orange wine, anyone?) accompany this collection of amusing Hollywood anecdotes about celebrities, from the days of William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald to Elizabeth Taylor and Natalie Wood. Emmy-nominated screenwriter Bailey distills and arranges these literary snapshots and entertaining stories and trivia by historical period, focusing on a wide range of actors, writers, producers, personalities, and places. The stories center on drunken exploits and each celebrity is peppered with funny quotes: "I often sit back and think, I wish I'd done that, and then find out later that I already have," says actor Richard Harris, while Robert Mitchum claims "The only way to get rid of people is to out-drink them." Among the most absorbing are Preston Sturges' tradition of applejack-spiked afternoon tea, John Ford's tummy troubles due to his favorite "torpedo juice"—grain alcohol and pineapple juice mixed in a bathtub, and Elizabeth Taylor downing bottles of champagne for breakfast. Whether the Bourbon Old-Fashioned from The Players Club or the famed Trader Vic's Mai Tai, cocktail aficionados will find something to add to their mixology repertoire in this booze-fueled romp through the lives and domains of the rich and famous. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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