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Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary: She Led by Transgression

Margaret Randall. Duke Univ, $23.95 (248p) ISBN 978-0-8223-5962-3

Randall (Che on My Mind) revisits the life and accomplishments of her close friend Haydée Santamaría, viewing her as a symbol of both the achievements and the limitations of Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution. Santamaría, one of just two women who participated in the rebels’ 1953 attack on the Moncada army barracks, was in Randall’s view the epitome of the “spirit of politics as a set of human relationships” that characterized the early years of the Cuban revolution. She fought against gender and racial discrimination, aiming to carry revolutionary ideology into all aspects of Cuban life at a time when many of her fellow Communists “considered feminism a dirty word.” Her greatest accomplishment was the founding and stewardship of Havana’s Casa de las Américas, an institution that promotes Cuban art and artists. But despite Santamaría’s achievements at the Casa and her prestige as a participant in every phase of the revolution, her suicide in 1980 diminished her reputation within Cuba, as it was considered a self-centered and counterrevolutionary act. Randall is clear that this book is an “impressionist portrait,” not a biography, and readers unsympathetic to the Castro regime may see Randall as insufficiently critical of its authoritarianism, but Santamaría’s story is one which should be told, and Randall does so vividly and insightfully. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Green Giants: How Smart Companies Turn Sustainability into Billion-Dollar Businesses

E. Freya Williams. Amacom, $27.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-8144-3613-4

In this well-documented but repetitive book, Williams identifies and analyzes nine different companies, all worth at least $1 billion, that prioritize sustainability and social responsibility. Arguing against economist Milton Friedman, Williams asserts that altruism and profit are not mutually exclusive; rather, companies such as Ikea, Natura, Tesla, and Unilever can and often do outperform solely profit-oriented competitors while being motivated by idealistic goals. But developing and running such a business is not as simple as PR-driven “greenwashing.” It requires counterintuitive product development with end results so preferable to competitors that the innovation does indeed—to use a common buzzword—disrupt an entire industry. Williams offers several examples of this disruption: Chipotle committed to ingredients that cost more but are also tastier and healthier, GE became an advocate for clean energy in an industry built on fossil fuels, and Tesla designed its corporate strategy around building a car that ran on zero emission electrical power. Yet in order to appeal to the mainstream, these “green giants” lose or de-emphasize the eco-labels. This book does point toward one new direction businesses can take to survive and prosper in the 21st century, but its overwritten style is likely to deter most aspiring “green giants” in its audience. Agent: Cynthia Zigmund, Second City Publishing Services. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Great Divide

Stephen Grace, photos by Jim Havey. Globe Pequot/TwoDot, $35 (240p) ISBN 978-1-4422-4725-3

In this companion book to the documentary film The Great Divide, Grace (Dam Nation), a Boulder resident, investigates the precarious state of water in Colorado—who owns it and who is entitled to it—and the battles waged over its control. The “most coveted” water in the U.S. flows from the Centennial State to 18 other states and Mexico: “Tens of millions of people, billions of dollars of agricultural production, and trillions of dollars of economic activity all depend on rivers born in Colorado’s mountains.” The Continental Divide splits the state into unequal halves; “80 percent of the state’s water originates on the West Slope, but more than 80 percent of Colorado’s population resides on the East Slope.” Grace charts the substantial history of Coloradan water management, discussing pre-Columbian Ancestral Puebloans, gold miners who poured in after 1858, and post–Homestead Act (1862) pioneers who “found Colorado blessed with fertile soil and abundant sunshine but cursed with dryness.” He also details the construction of several dams in the West. Grace possesses deep insight and a strong sense of place; this presentation, coupled with Havey’s remarkable photos and occasional archival images, is exceptional. Color photos. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The End of Tsarist Russia: WWI and the Road to Revolution

Dominic Lieven. Viking, $35 (448p) ISBN 978-0-670-02558-9

Using Russian and Soviet archives only recently opened to Western historians, Lieven (Russia Against Napoleon) constructs a Russian history of the years leading up to WWI and the Russian Revolution, arguing that, contrary to Western European sensibilities, WWI was primarily a conflict between two looming Eastern hegemons: Russia and Germany. Moving from broader geopolitical analysis and historical trends all the way down to a “worm’s-eye view” of history that focuses on the actions of a small cadre of influential decision makers in July and August 1914, Lieven charts Russia’s burgeoning “Second World” imperialism—a rise inevitably complicated by modernity and mass politics. Already humiliated by losing the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) and weakened by the 1905 revolution, Russia was ill-prepared for the demands of the 20th century. Lieven has a gift for illuminating the intricacies and complexities of tsarist Russia, but in doing so, he assumes a familiarity with Russian history likely beyond the casual reader, and his dry prose does little to support or engage novices. Nonetheless, Lieven’s uniquely Russian take on these decisive years stands as a significant work of scholarship. Maps & illus. Agent: Natasha Fairweather, United Agents (U.K.). (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today

Bryan Doerries. Knopf, $26.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-307-95945-4

In this moving and personal volume, Doerries shows how performances of Sophocles and Aeschylus can salve the mental wounds of soldiers with PTSD, as well as prison inmates and guards, terminally ill patients, and hospice workers. Doerries’s Theater of War project, which stages professional performances of classical tragedy for both active-service and returning soldiers, is his personal crusade to help others and revive the classics. It is the suffering of Ajax, who slaughters a field of animals in blind rage, that resonates most with the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom share the character’s sense of having been betrayed by his superiors. Doerries also uses the tale of Prometheus to represent themes of excessive incarceration and martyrdom for prisoners in solitary confinement and guards at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp. Families and physicians facing end-of-life decisions, meanwhile, see a mirror to their experiences in Heracles’s anguish and death in Sophocles’s Women of Trachis. Doerries’s potent memoir reveals that the enduring power of Greek dramas lies in their ability to help us understand the present. Agent: Zoe Pagnamenta, Zoe Pagnamenta Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Genoa, ‘La Superba’: The Rise and Fall of a Merchant Pirate Superpower

Nicholas Walton. Oxford Univ, $19.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-84904-512-4

English journalist Walton presents a passionate, idiosyncratic history of the Genoan city-state, glorying in the medieval piratical enterprise that brought it both fame and notoriety. Walton intersperses historical meanderings with personal experiences—devoting an entire chapter, for example, to the origins of pesto—and relates Genoa’s rise and eventual decline as a seafaring power through anecdotal (and not always accurate) tales. Many stories are gleaned from local traditions and charming interviews. For Walton, Napoleon is less interesting than local heroes, such as Adm. Andrea Doria, the 16th-century namesake of the 20th-century ocean liner, and Giuseppe Mazzini, a leader of the 19th-century Italian unification movement. Walton narrates the finale of centuries of Genoan ship-building via accounts of the 1956 sinking of the Andrea Doria and delivers the story of the Risorgimento in his recounting of Mazzini’s funeral. One of Walton’s strengths is his depiction of the city itself, with its narrow alleyways and jumbled mixture of centuries of building, and like the local architecture, he slides easily from past to present and back again. This book is an unashamed celebration of Genoa, warts and all, a city that “does not get the credit its extraordinary history deserves.” (Sept.)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget

Sarah Hepola. Grand Central, $26 (239p) $26 ISBN 978-1-4555-5459-1

Using as touchstone the astonishing self-revelatory memoir Drinking: A Love Story, by Caroline Knapp, Salon editor and Dallas journalist Hepola delves into her own lush life as the merry lit gal about town with unique intensity. Growing up in Dallas in the late 1970s and '80s, Hepola was an early convert to the sensation of intoxication that alcohol induced: she snuck sips of beer from her mother's open cans left in the refrigerator, and later found drinking an effective way out of adolescent self-consciousness. By college in Austin, she had embraced the drinking culture with gusto, though she did recognize by age 20 that she had a drinking problem; her nights out were often accompanied by blackouts, after which she relied on friends to fill in the messy details. Working as a journalist at the Austin Chronicle and the Dallas Observer before moving to New York City to freelance at age 31, Hepola naturally equated writing with drinking, because "wine turned down the volume on [her] own self-doubt." But the blackouts began to take their toll, and waking up in strangers' beds with no memory of how she got there felt terrifying. In this valiant, gracious work of powerful honesty, Hepola confronts head-on the minefield of self-sabotage that binge drinking caused in her work, relationships, and health before she eventually turned her life around. (June)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Man Who Wasn't There: Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self

Anil Ananthaswamy. Dutton, $26.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-525-95419-4

Science journalist Ananthaswamy (The Edge of Physics) skillfully inspects the bewildering connections among brain, body, mind, self, and society. To get into the details, he profiles sufferers of a range of neurological ailments, including Allen, whose Alzheimer disease has "scrambled his narrative," and the pseudonymous David, who has body integrity identity disorder and believes that he must have his leg amputated. Laurie, a schizophrenic, struggles with inner voices that taunt her and lead her to attempt suicide; she begs doctors to recognize the "unwanted new reality" that schizophrenia creates for people. Readers also meet James, who, because of his Asperger's syndrome, can't accommodate "people's notions of how he should live his life," and Graham, a Cotard's syndrome sufferer whose delusion convinced him that he was brain dead. These patients' stories help shed light on "some sliver of the self, one that has been disturbed by the disorder," and complicate current notions of what the self really is. Readers will be fascinated by Ananthaswamy's chronicles as he explores, with kindness and keen intelligence, the uncomfortable aberrations that reveal what it is to be human. Agent: Peter Tallack, the Science Factory. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Life, Love, and a Hijacking: My Pan Am Memoir

Wendy Sue Knecht. CreateSpace, $10.79 (208p) ISBN 978-1-5025-2349-5

Knecht's delightful memoir introduces readers to the exciting world of air travel. She spent decades as a flight attendant for Pan Am Airlines, getting to experience the glamour of world travel and an older, more luxurious way of getting places (before budget airlines ascended and Pan Am went bankrupt). Her years of travel took her all over the world, led her to meet many amazing people, and helped her maintain close ties with family, friends, and lovers, especially with her family's liberal use of her travel benefits. She exposes this world to readers in delightful anecdotes—some funny, some heartbreaking—and on every page displays an infectious lust for travel and adventure. Knecht draws readers in with charm and makes them feel a part of the Pan Am experience. Given the present-day experience of flying coach-class, even readers too young to have flown on Pan Am will feel nostalgic. She also provides valuable advice on packing, eating, and generally being a smart traveler, as well as some recipes for some of Pan Am's most popular in-flight meals. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Story: A Reporter's Journey

Judith Miller. Simon and Schuster, $27 (396p) ISBN 978-1-4767-1601-5

Miller, a former New York Times reporter whose pre-war articles on Iraqi WMDs generated fierce controversy, ponders what she did—and, mostly, didn't—get wrong in this contentious memoir. Miller defends news articles she wrote in 2002–3 that suggested that Saddam Hussein's Iraq might have had active nuclear and biological weapons programs (it didn't), arguing that her stories were well-researched and sourced, hedged with caveats, reflective of a genuine (though mistaken) consensus of intelligence experts, and balanced by more skeptical pieces. She also gives an engrossing run-down of the 2005 "Plame-gate" scandal, when she was jailed for refusing to testify about confidential Bush Administration source Scooter Libby (she finally did so after getting his consent).Miller makes a cogent case that she was unfairly scapegoated as a warmonger and White House dupe, setting that argument in a lively, sharp-elbowed narrative of hair-raising adventures as a Middle East correspondent and in the snake-pit of NYT office politics. Still, when she describes her beat as "what the Bush Administration knew, or thought it knew, about Iraqi WMD," she inadvertently reveals a too-narrow perspective common to many journalists then. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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