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Joe, the Slave Who Became an Alamo Legend

Ron J. Jackson Jr. and Lee Spencer White. Univ. of Oklahoma, $29.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-8061-4703-1

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Journalist Jackson (Alamo Legacy) and preservationist White deliver a cradle-to-grave biography that transcends its connection to the Alamo, though that connection may be the main reason most readers will reach for this book. The authors are experts on the March 1836 attack by the Mexican army on the Texan outpost, and the second half of their book is gripping and action packed. The siege at the Alamo has reached almost mythical proportions in its many retellings, but Jackson and White hew closely to documented facts. However, that the lone male survivor of the assault was a slave called Joe, owned by the Alamo’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel William Travis, reveals this book’s importance and the story’s central irony. Joe fought at his master’s side, but victory didn’t go to the white men of the Alamo. Jackson and White have rescued Joe from being regarded solely as a curious footnote to this event, and his life as a slave is the real story here: born in Kentucky in 1815, taken to a fledgling plantation in Missouri, and then on to Texas, none of it by choice. The authors make the most of limited evidence, presenting a vivid picture of the impact slavery had on one man’s life. Illus. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Irish Brotherhood: John F. Kennedy, His Inner Circle, and the Improbable Rise to the Presidency

Helen O’Donnell, with Kenneth O’Donnell Sr. Counterpoint (PGW, dist.), $26 (480p) ISBN 978-1-61902-462-5

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Working from extensive recordings left by her father, former political aide Kenneth “Kenny” O’Donnell Sr., Helen O’Donnell (A Common Good) produces an intimate, complex look at the years leading up to J.F.K.’s presidency, a span covering 1946–1961. Drawing from these personal recollections, she reconstructs pivotal scenes, setbacks, and challenges as Kennedy ascended the political ranks. However, this is more than a book about Kennedy; it focuses on the so-called Irish Brotherhood: his closest friends and advisors, “the group of men who gathered around John Kennedy as he made his dramatic rise.” As she notes, “this book is my father’s story of his Jack and Bobby Kennedy”—a story her father always wanted to tell but never did. Certain themes, of course, crop up with regularity: politics, religion, and the tight-knit bond of Irish-Americans that helped hold this circle together over the years. Though mainly channeling her father’s experiences, O’Donnell presents them in an accessible, engaging manner; the figures portrayed are full-fledged characters, and the story unfolds like a political drama. Nevertheless, it remains a narrow slice of the Kennedy legend, focused solely on his political career, ending as he enters the White House and treating him as a larger-than-life icon. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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I’m Very into You: Correspondence 1995–1996

Kathy Acker and Mackenzie Wark, edited by Matias Viegener. Semiotext(e) (MIT, dist.), $13.95 (152p) ISBN 978-1-58435-164-1

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An email exchange that Acker (who died in 1997) and Wark (Virtual Geography) kept up for four months following a brief fling in 1995 serves as the foundation for what John Kinsella, in his afterword to this slim volume, refers to as “almost-love letters of cultural slippage and affirmation.” As the pair, attempting to become more intimately acquainted, trade insights on culture, politics, and sexuality, two distinct personalities emerge: Wark, the scholar of media theory, is the more organized and measured; Acker (Blood and Guts in High School), the post-punk novelist and essayist, is a whirlwind of emotions. Writing often in stream-of-consciousness mode, Acker comes across as bluntly honest about herself and her place in the world. Reflecting on the mistreatment she endured for years from a snooty intellectual friend, and the shame she feels for allowing it to happen, she writes, “I want a past I can acknowledge.” And she is painfully sensitive about her status as an outsider artist, writing, “I’m this: part of a culture that doesn’t want me.” In his introduction, editor Viegener puts the pair’s communications in the context of their literary work, but without annotations or endnotes, many of the references and names dropped will remain a mystery to newcomers. Regardless, this collected correspondence offers a fascinating glimpse of two artists at a time when they were as passionate about each another as their work. B&w illus. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage[em] [/em]

Barney Frank. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (400p) ISBN 978-0-374280-30-7

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This detailed and accessible memoir certainly lives up to its title, as former Massachusetts Congressman Frank offers a warts-and-all portrait of his life in public service. His achievements in a wide range of areas, from financial reform to fighting discrimination against gays and lesbians, validate his belief that “pragmatism in the pursuit of my ideals was morally compelled.” Frank’s own struggles with revealing his homosexuality are interwoven with his time attempting to make the government work better, and he freely admits mistakes he made both in his private and public life. Frank effectively separates himself from well-intentioned liberals who—in his opinion—are sometimes not in touch with the real world, such as those in the 1960s who criticized the architectural design of low-income housing. He is unsparing, however, in his critique of Republicans, describing George W. Bush’s war in Iraq as “the worst single policy decision any U.S. President has ever made.” His experiences in Congress illustrate his approach to making progress: never letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Agent: Eric Lupfer, WME. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Fortunes of Francis Barber: The True Story of the Jamaican Slave Who Became Samuel Johnson’s Heir

Michael Bundock. Yale Univ., $35 (288p) ISBN 978-0-300-20710-1

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Bundock, a director of Dr. Johnson’s House Trust, reveals the life of Francis Barber, whose dual roles as domestic servant to and devoted friend of Dr. Samuel Johnson highlight the challenges and opportunities available to people of color in Georgian England. Born a slave on a Jamaican plantation, Barber came to England as a child in 1750 with his owner, whose son was a friend of Johnson’s. Two years later, the newly widowed Johnson engaged the adolescent Barber as his servant; Burdock suggests that Johnson may have been “stirred from his depression by the company of a young boy in his cheerless household.” Johnson’s investment in Barber transcended the usual master-servant relationship: he paid for Barber’s education, used his influence to win Barber’s discharge from the Royal Navy, and, as his health failed, came to rely on Barber and Barber’s white wife for household management and companionship. Johnson even bequeathed most of his money and property to Barber in his will, to the outrage of many of Johnson’s friends. Bundock’s lively biography offers a fresh perspective on Johnson and locates Barber both in Johnson’s household and in the context of an empire beginning to debate the political and moral legitimacy of slavery. Illus. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Fire and Ice: Soot, Solidarity, and Survival on the Roof of the World

Jonathan Mingle. St. Martin’s, $28.99 (464p) ISBN 978-1-250-02950-8

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Though soot may seem to be “relatively harmless, a minor irritant, a small price to pay for the fire’s warmth and light,” environment writer Mingle shows us otherwise in this fascinating work. He details the detrimental effects of black carbon on health and the environment and its contributions to climate change, focusing in particular on Kumik, a village “in the sparsely populated, arid mountain reaches of northwest India.” Villagers there light wood or dung fires to cook with and to heat their homes, doing so out of necessity in the absence of gas or electricity. Their stoves are a significant air pollutant and respiratory hazard. Snowfall in Kumik has also declined in recent decades, and locals “often [run] out of water by mid-August, sometimes sooner, in the critical weeks before the harvest.” Pollution, global warming, and water shortages are not unrelated. All this matters, Mingle contends, because something similar has been happening in places such as California’s Central Valley, a major agricultural region whose water happens to be among the most highly polluted in the U.S. The parallels are remarkable, and readers who might not have given much thought about a remote Indian village will understand its contemporary relevance. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Entrepreneurship for the Rest of Us: How to Create Innovation and Opportunity Everywhere

Paul B. Brown. Bibliomotion, $26.95 (176p) ISBN 978-1-62956-055-7

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New York Times columnist Brown (Creating a Winner) examines what makes entrepreneurs successful in this excellent business guide aimed at helping readers improve their own companies. A 30-year student of entrepreneurship, he distills the knowledge he has amassed into a series of lessons for employees and management at any company, with a particular focus on larger organizations. Instead of emphasizing what entrepreneurs do, Brown studies how they think and the similarities in how they go about creating their companies. He reduces their actions into a simple formula—“Act, Learn, Build, and Repeat”—deliberately omitting a planning stage. Instead, he states, businesspeople should start with a small step and see how the world reacts. This allows them to get started quickly with a minimal amount of resources and to respond quickly to market needs. Aiming to debunk common myths, Brown explores typical questions entrepreneurs ask themselves. He also stresses the importance of beginning from a market need instead of a great idea, staying ahead of the competition, creating lifelong customers, and building a team. Brown’s writing style is focused and succinct, much like the process he describes, and his advice is truly insightful. Anyone looking to start a business or expand a current one should take a page from this outstanding book. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Deep Violence: Military Violence, War Play, and the Social Life of Weapons

Joanna Bourke. Counterpoint (PGW, dist.), $28 (356p) ISBN 978-1-61902-463-2

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War and violence are deeply ingrained in the cultural and linguistic context of modern American and English culture, argues Bourke (The Story of Pain), a British academic who has written prolifically on war and its effects on society. In her opinion, popular culture’s enthusiasm for weaponry, specifically weaponry that uses the language of sport to couch the raw and harrowing reality of killing other people, and the essentially empty gestures of international bans on various weapons of war merely obscure social complicity in mass violence. “We are all responsible for war,” Bourke notes, but the relentless cultural imperatives she critiques make an alternative seem daunting and difficult to achieve. From bluff, hearty diaries and memoirs from WWI soldiers, which describe combat as a “sport with no holds barred,” to the enduring popularity of war-related play, movies, and other forms of “militainment,” the details offered are telling and disturbing. The use of graphically violent first-person shooter video games as military recruitment and training tools particularly troubles Bourke, who quotes combat veterans using games and movies as analogies to actions that are all too real. While her dissection of war and weaponry in culture is astute, a closing chapter on resistance and rejection of these norms is thin on examples of how to transform our culture and leaves the reader less than hopeful. Agent: Andrew Wylie, Wylie Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Boswell’s Enlightenment

Robert Zaretsky. Harvard Univ, $26.95 (282p) ISBN 978-0-674-36823-1

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This sparkling work is a partial biography of one of the 18th century’s most arresting figures—someone often taken to be emblematic of that intellectually critical era. Zaretsky (A Life Worth Living), professor of French history at the University of Houston, sees James Boswell—known for “his oddness, his youth, and his melancholy”—as embodying the Enlightenment’s many conflicting currents and torn by them all. Seeking to escape from conflicts between the flesh and Protestant religiosity, and between the ancient and modern, the young Scot sought and gained the acquaintance and counsel, much of it unsettling to him, of some of the age’s great figures—Samuel Johnson, Voltaire, Rousseau, David Hume, John Wilkes, and Pascal Paoli—in a famous two-year tour of the Continent. Boswell’s earnest search for answers to life’s bewildering puzzles continues to fascinate. Zaretsky brilliantly, sometimes movingly, adds to that fascination. It’s frustrating, however, that he leaves his protagonist in mid-life, before Boswell takes up his classic Life of Samuel Johnson. Also, though Zaretsky opens the book with a short, lively critique of Enlightenment scholarship, he doesn’t indicate how, if at all, his portrait of Boswell alters our present knowledge of the era. So convincing are Zaretsky’s observations, so sure his touch, that one wishes for more—a longer, fuller study of his subject. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China[em] [/em]

Chen Guangcheng. Holt, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-0-8050-9805-1

..
As this riveting memoir recounts, Chen grew up poor and blind in rural China, with few realistic expectations for his future. As he grew older, however, his family was able to secure him an education, which included—pivotally—auditing legal courses. In this way, Chen became more aware of his country’s rampant corruption. Readers will be horrified to learn of the official response that greeted Chen’s attempts, via protests, to guarantee enforcement of legal protections for the disabled on the books in China: beatings, torture, a multiyear prison stint, and finally, house arrest. He then describes how, defying the odds, he escaped to the American embassy, where he petitioned online communities to support his case and demand his release. At last he broke free and moved, with his family, to the U.S. The picture of the Chinese government that emerges from this story is one of blatant corruption and blind rule-following, brutally punishing prisoners for even minor infractions or requests. Chen has an excellent sense of pace and attention to detail, and he knows how to fill in cultural gaps for those less familiar with China. The result is an eminently readable, albeit chilling memoir that will grip the attention of readers everywhere. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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