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American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity

Marco Rubio. Sentinel, $27.95 (240p) ISBN 978-1-59523-113-0

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Rubio is a photogenic 43-year-old Cuban-American senator from Florida whose popularity has waned after surging among GOP loyalists in the 2012 election. His presidential ambitions remain, however, with one result being this brand-building campaign manifesto. True to the genre, Rubio sticks to well-worn themes unlikely to be controversial, such as tax reform. His plan for economic restoration starts with a disciplined work ethic. He highlights the importance of fiscal soundness, free enterprise, solid families, and demanding schools. He worries about teenage sex and young people who lack strong family guidance. For his many constructive ideas, Rubio deserves attention and even praise. One notable omission, though, is a clear position on immigration policy. His blue-sky promises of universal economic opportunity pale in the light of the winner-and-loser facts of the global economy, and his use of first-name-only stories involving prototypical Americans like “Joyce” and “Brad” is a contrived attempt to humanize the book’s issues. American Dreams offers little that will be new to anyone familiar with the literature produced by modern American politicians, and it’s unlikely to burnish Rubio’s reputation as a statesman. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Age of Consequences: A Chronicle of Concern & Hope

Courtney White. Counterpoint (PGW, dist.), $26 (297p) ISBN 978-1-61902-454-0

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Echoing the official United Nations report on global climate change released in March 2014, White, an environmental activist and cofounder of the nonprofit Quivira Coalition, warns that the planet faces a severe environmental crisis. He argues, using alarming research, that corporate greed has depleted the Earth’s once-abundant resources “at an unsustainable rate,” noting that half the planet’s oil has been burned in less than a century. White laments that American presidents have said all the right things but done nothing, despite UN reports confirming that climate change is largely man-made and that increased greenhouse gas emissions can undermine civilization itself. His sincere, and often humorous, narrative spans America and Europe, covering the recent Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico and the threat posed to Venice by rising sea levels. White’s considerable insight emphasizes the need to save “a diminished world” before the point of no return. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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I Left It on the Mountain: A Memoir

Kevin Sessums. St. Martin’s, $25.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-31259-838-9

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In the absorbing follow-up to his bestselling memoir Mississippi Sissy, Sessums brings his fascinating voice to this story of ambition, addiction, and recovery. Sessums chronicles his career as a prominent celebrity writer for Vanity Fair, Interview, and Parade, rubbing elbows with Andy Warhol and interviewing Madonna and Courtney Love before falling into methamphetamine addiction. Interludes throughout the primary narrative detail Sessums’s love of extreme travel: he’s climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and walked the famed El Camino Santiago across Spain. However, his love of other extremes—in sex and drugs—seeps into his sparkling career. After a night of bingeing on meth with a prostitute, he shows up to interview Daniel Radcliffe and asks, “Do you use Keats’s theory of negative capability in your approach to acting, in your approach to life?” Radcliffe answers, “Absolutely! You’ve found me out!” As the cycle of drugs followed by successful interviews continues, it becomes clear that Sessums is treading in dangerous water: the more he is able to function despite his addiction, the worse it becomes. The persistent subtext is that his talent for cover-ups only delays the inevitable rock bottom. And it comes: Sessums, left penniless and hallucinating, gives up his beloved dogs to try getting sober in Provincetown, Mass. Sessums’s beautiful writing carries readers through an extraordinary journey of destitution, hope, and forgiveness, from a childhood in rural Mississippi to New York City and beyond. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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All the Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found

Philip Connors. Norton, $25.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-393-08876-2

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Family trauma sends a young man drifting through many incongruous settings in this affecting but sometimes aimless memoir. Connors, who recalled his stints as a fire lookout in Fire Season, here revisits the period before he entered the wilderness—a time of searching (mostly in vain) for answers to the riddle of his brother’s suicide at the age of 22. His path takes him to New York, where he is a fish out of water, working at the Wall Street Journal despite his socialist leanings and living in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, where his white skin makes him an object of baffled wonder in an all-black neighborhood. Emotional connections with other people are fitful: one serious love affair fizzles when his girlfriend suffers a psychotic break and proclaims herself “the female Jesus,” and an amateur phone-sex line provides one-night-stands whose tenderness is overshadowed by her broodings about death. Connors’s narrative, like his state of mind at the time, feels pulled in many directions: he gives sharply funny observations of the culture at WSJ, soap-boxes against its right-wing editorial line and the Iraq War, and ruminates on yuppie bachelorhood in the big city. Through it all his subtle, evocative prose and depth of feeling carry readers through the eddies of his story. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Politics of Deception: J.F.K.’s Secret Decisions on Vietnam, Civil Rights, and Cuba

Patrick J. Sloyan. St. Martin’s/Dunne, $26.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-250-03059-7

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President Kennedy regularly misled the American public, writes veteran journalist Sloyan in this collection of painful, well-documented, and no longer controversial incidents from his last year in office. Dissatisfied with the heavy-handed leadership of South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem, J.F.K secretly approved the 1963 coup, and Sloyan agrees with most observers that “Kennedy’s order to get rid of Diem was the real beginning of the American war in Vietnam.” His hostility to the civil rights movement included smearing Martin Luther King Jr. by circulating FBI wiretaps of his sexual encounters. By comparison, his ongoing efforts to murder Fidel Castro may seem silly—but only because they failed. Nevertheless, Sloyan points out that J.F.K.’s deception may have saved the world in 1962. Infuriated at American missiles in Turkey, Soviet Premier Krushchev installed his own in Cuba and then offered to withdraw them if Kennedy did the same. Since many Americans would have preferred war to “capitulating” to Communism, they were fed the story of a courageous J.F.K. going “eyeball to eyeball” with Krushchev. Dogged by crises, Kennedy often took advantage of a traditional but disreputable presidential tactic, and Sloyan delivers an engrossing, squirm-inducing account. Agent: Ronald Goldfarb, Goldfarb & Assoc. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Murder at Camp Delta: A Staff Sergeant’s Pursuit of the Truth About Guantanamo

Joseph Hickman. Simon & Schuster, $28 (240p) ISBN 978-1-4516-5079-2

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Hickman raises more questions than answers in this disturbing eyewitness account of the mysterious deaths of three Arab prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in 2006. A proud soldier who re-enlisted with the Maryland National Guard after 9/11, Hickman was on duty the night two Saudis and a Yemeni committed suicide in their cells, according to the official story told by the U.S. military and reported by the international press. But Hickman alleges that the suicides were a cover-up by the U.S. government, and he suspects the men were killed by experimental torture methods being deployed at the site. After his Gitmo tour of duty ended in late 2008, the author took his story to Mark Denbeaux, a professor of law and director of Seton Hall University Law School’s Center for Policy and Research, which had published a detailed profile of Guantanamo detainees in early 2006. With the aid of Denbeaux’s students and Hickman’s own lawyer son, Josh, Hickman dissected thousands of documents to prove his theories, which major media outlets and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service mostly ignored. In response, he wrote this book, in which he makes his case with compelling clarity and strength of character. Unnervingly, we may never know if he’s right. Agent: Stuart Miller, Stuart M. Miller Co. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool

Jennifer Jacquet. Pantheon, $22.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-307-90757-8

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This debut from NYU Environmental Studies assistant professor Jacquet puts forward the thesis that shame can be harnessed as an unlikely weapon for justice in the social-media age. She begins by showing that many of today’s ethical movements have fizzled because consumers are satisfied by alleviating their own consciences, rather than effecting widespread change. Jacquet then offers a clear and helpful distinction between guilt, defined as holding someone accountable to his or her own standards, and shame, meant to hold an individual accountable to group standards or norms. Comparing the two human instincts of avoiding shame and acquiring honor, she argues that the former is more deeply-rooted, and the latter is regarded as essentially optional. After describing useful techniques for applying shame, the book turns to the specific areas where it could be put to good use. Jacquet takes too much for granted in some of her underlying points, such as that individual achievement is antithetical to humans’ social nature. A more philosophical examination of the subject is warranted, but the book serves as an astute how-to and defense of shame. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself

John Marsh. Monthly Review Press, $25 (258p) ISBN 978-1-58367-475-8

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Marsh (Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys), an associate English professor at Pennsylvania State, proposes that Walt Whitman and his poetry can save America, just as he says Whitman saved his life. But this highly personal work of literary criticism fails to cohere. Marsh explains that his own period of depression and personal crisis led him to visit places he found significant to “the American bard.” These include Whitman’s home in Camden, a strip club (“Where better to gaze at and celebrate healthy bodies, which Whitman does so often?”), and Whitman’s grave. While Marsh’s discomfort at the strip club makes for some laughs, the most effective passage is his description of taking the Brooklyn-to-Manhattan ferry, which fosters a genuine connection with Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” despite how much has changed since the poem was written. Other Whitman scholars and admirers may be surprised when Marsh dismisses the importance of the poet’s sexuality in his life and work. Still, anyone who hasn’t cracked open Leaves of Grass since a high school English class should be impressed, if not altogether enlightened, by Marsh’s close reading of this American original’s poems and letters. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Long Hitch Home

Jamie Maslin. Skyhorse, $24.95 (384p) ISBN 978-1-62087-831-6

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Travel writer Maslin (Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn) delivers a unique but uneven account of hitchhiking from Australia to London, relying on free rides and meals from people whose customs and languages are unknown to him. Throughout, Maslin waxes philosophical about the wonders of hitchhiking. The locations he visits range from depressing to breathtaking, and he provides just enough historical context to capture each place. However, his disdain for other tourists seems to clash with some of his own antics: antagonizing a driver after assuming the guy was planning to rip him off, attempting to bribe officials, and ignoring a ban on traveling near an active volcano. His afterthought acknowledgement of the privilege of coming from a wealthy country seems insufficient. He also emphasizes the earlier parts of his trip, skipping nearly all of Europe. Nevertheless, this harrowing and brutally honest chronicle of Maslin’s journey is gripping from start to finish. Agent: Lucas Hunt, Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency.(Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London

Mohsin Hamid. Riverhead, $27.95 (240p) ISBN 978-1-59463-365-2

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This collection of 36 essays will be of most interest to dedicated fans of Pakistani novelist Hamid (How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia). Others, however, may be disappointed to find that the pieces, most of which were previously published, tend to be topical and of limited scope. Hamid, who has also lived in New York City and London, provides a voice of reasoned tolerance on the issues dividing the Middle East and the West,, but he might have been better served by writing a memoir. Instead, he offers thoughts on a wide variety of topics, some more rewarding than others: e-books, whether TV dramas are the new good novels, the home-cooked dinner he almost made for Toni Morrison, etc. An essay on President Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo seems out of date; the piece would have benefited from an afterword giving Hamid’s view of the speech’s lasting significance. The lighthearted essays dilute the impact of the more substantive sections—especially those delving into the so-called clash of civilizations, such as the title essay, in which he writes: “The idea that we fall into civilizations, plural, is merely a politically convenient myth.” (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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