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On the Clock: The Story of the NFL Draft

Barry Wilner and Ken Rappoport. Taylor Trade, $17.95 trade paper (232p) ISBN 978-1-6307-6101-1

Sportswriters Wilner and Rappoport chronicle the fascinating history of the National Football League (NFL) draft day, created in 1936 to allow all NFL teams an equal chance to pick the country’s top college players, and which by 2014 has become “more popular than many other sporting events,” including the playoff games of the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League. Although the authors give an excellent account of how the draft works through an in-depth look at the 2014 draft, they never lose sight of the players and professionals who have given the draft its drama over the years. Jay Berwanger, the first Heisman Trophy winner and the #1 overall pick of the initial 1936 NFL draft, turned down playing with the Chicago Bears because “they weren’t paying any money, something like $100 a game.” Bo Jackson, another Heisman Trophy winner, in 1986 turned down a “reported five-year deal of $7.6 million” with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to instead play professional baseball with the Kansas City Royals. But football fans will be most delighted by the heart of the book, lists of “the bold and beautiful, the fantastics and the flops, in NFL draft history,” including a look at the best and worst picks of each franchise, and separate best and worst lists for quarterbacks, running backs, linebackers, and safeties. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/21/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Light of the World: A Memoir

Elizabeth Alexander. Grand Central, $26 (200p) ISBN 978-1-4555-9987-5

Poet and Yale African Studies professor Alexander (The Black Interior; Power and Possibility) was devastated by the death of her artist husband, who died of cardiac arrest at age 50 while exercising in the basement of their home. This memoir is an elegiac narrative of the man she loved. Artist and chef Ficre Ghebreyesus’s death was as inexplicable as the spark of love between him and Alexander after they met at a New Haven café in 1996. Ghebreyesus was a thin, fit person who nonetheless smoked; and he was not without his mysteries. For example, in the days before his death, he was obsessed with buying lottery tickets. Ghebreyesus was a gentle, peace-loving East African who had come through the Eritrean-Ethiopian civil war and was a refugee in America; he became a fashionable painter and an inventive chef at Caffe Adulis, which he ran in New Haven with his brothers. Alexander, who grew up in Washington, D.C., describes her husband’s endearing traits such as sleep-talking or singing in his native Tigrinya, and the special rituals he made when their sons reached age 13. Fashioning her mellifluous narrative around the beauty she found in Ghebreyesus, Alexander is grateful, patient, and willing to pursue a fit of magical thinking that he might just return. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/21/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty

Charles Leerhsen. Simon & Schuster, $27.50 (464p) ISBN 978-1-4516-4576-7

The legendary Tigers outfielder of the early 20th century, who may have been the greatest hitter in baseball history and is often depicted as a violent racist, comes across as less odious and more interesting than his sinister reputation in this energetic biography. Former Sports Illustrated editor Leerhsen (Crazy Good) depicts the Georgia Peach as a two-fisted man of seething ambition, prickly hauteur, and hair-trigger temper who fought just about anyone: opponents, teammates, a disabled heckler in the stand, an elevator boy, and a waitress. Leerhsen cogently argues that stories of his attacks on African-Americans are greatly exaggerated while his occasional statements of racially progressive views are ignored. Leerhsen also dismisses allegations that Cobb gratuitously spiked basemen. This Cobb is no thug but a reflective, well-read baseball intellectual who combined athleticism and strategic cunning into remarkable on-field dynamism, blending superb batting, hell-for-leather base-running—he once stole second, third, and home on three consecutive pitches—and subtle psych-outs that gave opposing teams nervous breakdowns. Leerhsen wraps his penetrating profile of Cobb in gripping play-by-play rundowns and a colorful portrait of the anarchic “dead-ball” era, when players played drunk and fans chased offending umpires from the field. This is a stimulating evocation of baseball’s rambunctious youth and the man who epitomized it. Photos. (May 12)

Reviewed on 03/21/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Warlords, Inc.: Black Markets, Broken States, and the Rise of the Warlord Entrepreneur

Edited by Noah Raford and Andrew Trabulsi. North Atlantic, $14.95 trade paper (180p) ISBN 978-1-58394-901-6

This densely academic set of essays about drug cartels and violent insurgencies will be absolutely gripping for the right audience. The focus is on the importance of non-state actors—whether they are hackers, Wall Street corporations, Afghan tribal leaders, or Indian left-wing insurgents—in the modern geopolitical landscape. The authors look at how these actors disrupt the modern economy, provide pseudo-governmental services, and figure into both contemporary globalization and possible future changes brought about by climate change and regional instabilities. This is not a light read, but anyone with sufficient prior background in political science and theory should be fascinated by the breadth of topics covered. The non-state actors surveyed are loosely organized into the definitively destructive (Mexican drug cartels), the ambiguous (India’s Maoist Naxalite guerillas), and the positive (George Soros). While such a wide-ranging collection can provide only the beginning of insight into these complex topics, it will ably serve to whet the intellectual appetites of its readers. (May)

Reviewed on 03/21/2015 | Details & Permalink

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A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars

Andrew Hartman. Univ. of Chicago, $30 (384p) ISBN 978-0-226-25450-0

Hartman (Education and the Cold War) does a good job of surveying the cultural issues that split the U.S. in the late 20th century, even if not all readers will agree with his conclusion that the culture wars “are history.” Hartman begins by locating the origins of the culture wars in the 1960s, before focusing on the 1980s and 1990s, which saw debates over reproductive rights, homosexuality, race, religion, and education. Those who lived through those decades won’t find anything particularly novel in his analysis, but millennials will find this useful background for understanding today’s clashes between the right and the left. Hartman does lapse into academese on occasion (“When we think about the neoconservative persuasion as the flip side of the New Left, it should be historically situated relative to what Corey Robin labels ‘the reactionary mind’ ”) and he underestimates the continuing strength of the blue state–red state divide in American life, as seen recently in debates over such issues as same-sex marriage and Obamacare. In general, this is an accessible summary of the recent history of several contentious issues. (May)

Reviewed on 03/21/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Wages of Rebellion

Chris Hedges. Nation, $26.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-56858-966-4

It’s time to eradicate “the pestilence of corporate totalitarianism,” according to this lurid anticapitalist manifesto. Likening global capitalism to the Beast of the book of Revelation, Pulitzer Prize–winning ex-New York Times correspondent Hedges (War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning) anticipates a nigh-apocalyptic future of deepening poverty and exploitation, ecological destruction, omnipresent surveillance, “looting, pillaging, and killing,” and perhaps even a reprise of the Black Death. Our only hope, he maintains, is to revive a revolutionary tradition that he omnidirectionally yokes to such diverse figures as Thomas Paine, Karl Marx, and Julian Assange. The latter-day rebels that he profiles are a tamer collection of Occupiers and hacktivists who mainly espouse Hedges’ own preference for non-violence. Hedges’s usual acute (if one-sided) reportage is on display—lengthy sections on unfairly prosecuted activists and the harshness of America’s penal system hit hard—but is ill-served by his lack of perspective and exaggeration of every injustice into unreformable tyranny. He suggests no substantive alternative beyond an undefined “socialism,” nor any coherent politics besides a “sublime madness” of imaginative zealotry. Hedges’s jeremiad will please left-wing romantics, but other readers may find it less inspiring. Agent: Lisa Bankoff, ICM Partners. (May)

Reviewed on 03/21/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World

Stanley McChrystal, with Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell. Penguin/Portfolio, $29.95 (240p) ISBN 978-1-59184-748-9

Retired U.S. general McChrystal (My Share of the Task) and his coauthors draw on their respective military and management experience to construct this well-written business book about “what’s different in today’s world and what we must do about it.” There’s some heady stuff in here, including precise descriptions of military procedure, and detailed explorations of the valuable lessons the military has learned recently about collaboration. As McChrystal notes, that change hasn’t been easy for an organization that long prided itself on a strict “command-and-control” flow of power and “need to know” philosophy. The resulting book is a collection of innovations that the modern U.S. Army has embraced—and that most corporations can too. In the new paradigm proposed here, the focus is on “adaptability” instead of “efficiency,” promoting “generalized awareness,” and empowerment. The authors’ abundance of material is made manageable by good organization and some surprisingly strong writing. There are only a few non-military examples (such as GM and Ford’s contrasting organizational approaches), so readers not interested in military strategy may leave this book unfinished; for any other businesspeople, it will get a definite thumbs-up. Agent: Robert Barnett, Williams & Connolly. (May)

Reviewed on 03/21/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley

Charlotte Gordon. Random, $30 (672p) ISBN 9781-4000-6842-5

The relationship between Mary Shelley (1797-1851) and the mother she never knew—Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), author of the incendiary tract A Vindication of the Rights of Women, who died 10 days after her daughter’s birth—is explored with remarkable insight and perspicacity in this exhilarating dual biography from Gordon (Mistress Bradstreet). The book illustrates the similarities between mother and daughter by devoting alternating chapters to their lives. Both were raised in emotionally turbulent households (although Shelley’s offered more intellectual stimulation); both had to leave home to find their identities as writers; and both lived as adults under the shadow of scandal—Wollstonecraft for her outspoken feminism and marriage to liberal political philosopher William Godwin, a critic of matrimony, and Shelley for her role in the notorious Byron-Shelley literary circle. Gordon’s perceptive reading of both women’s published works illuminates their core ideas, including complementary critiques of patriarchy, and identifies the emotional fault lines caused by the drama in their lives. Her lucid prose and multifaceted appraisal of Wollstonecraft, Shelley, and their times make warm-blooded and fully fleshed-out people of writers who exist for readers today only as the literary works they left behind. Agent: Brettine Bloom, Kneerim, Williams, & Bloom.

Reviewed on 03/21/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar: Essays on Poets and Poetry

Helen Vendler. Harvard Univ., $35 (440p) ISBN 978-0-674-73656-6

In this triumphant collection, Vendler (Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries) reminds us why she is one of the most important living scholars of poetry. Although her renowned work has included several studies of Yeats and painstaking close readings of Shakespeare’s sonnets, most of the 27 essays showcased in this book are rooted in American soil. But the geographically grounded collection is anything but constricted: its essays, in their varied approaches, open up America’s haunting, startlingly alive poetic landscape. The first entry analyzes the Wallace Stevens poem “Somnabulisma,” the imagery of which inspired this book’s title, while later essays illuminate key poets like John Ashbery, Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop, and Seamus Heaney. The most rewarding selection, however, may be the introduction, in which Vendler turns to her own history and experience as a scholar. Here her writing evinces the same sensitivity and sustained poetic focus that is, as the close readings in her essays show, so critical to her criticism. This book, with its oceans of depth, reminds us why we need poetry—as well as teachers like Vendler to bring it to transformative life. (May)

Reviewed on 03/21/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio

Andrea E. Mays. Simon & Schuster, $27 (336p) ISBN 978-1-4391-1823-8

Economist Mays’s debut is effortless in its unadorned storytelling and exacting in its research, recounting the lives of William Shakespeare and his most devoted collector, Henry Clay Folger (1857–1930). Shakespeare’s First Folio, “the book of man on earth,” is the most expensive book in the world, and for Folger, president and later chairman of Standard Oil of New York, the source of an obsession that extended beyond his life—the Folger Shakespeare Library opened two years after his death. Folger’s untiring intellectual pursuit speaks to both the resounding importance of Shakespeare’s work and the mores of Folger’s Gilded Age era, which prized the ambition that led Americans to become self-made millionaires. The book is evocative in its characterizations of both the deified bard and dedicated bibliophile, finding its structure in the parallels between these two ambitious yet mysterious men. While the details of Folger’s travails to find the First Folio can sometimes weigh heavily on the long narrative, the page-turning detective story—winding through dusty library shelves and behind the closed doors of antiquarian trading—speaks to anyone with a love of literary history. Richard Abate, 3 Arts Entertainment. (May)

Reviewed on 03/21/2015 | Details & Permalink

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