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Altered States: Buddhism and Psychedelic Spirituality in America

Douglas Osto. Columbia Univ., $35 (352p) ISBN 978-0-231-17730-6

Osto (Power, Wealth, and Wisdom in Indian Mahayana Buddhism) mixes statistics and surveys, historical overview, personal experience, and ethnographic texture to uncover the intertwining history of two fast-growing movements in American spirituality: Buddhism in the U.S. and the use of psychedelics to provoke spiritual encounters. Deftly examining a range of differing perspectives among American Buddhists concerning the use of psychedelics, Osto digs into the debates and issues surrounding mysticism and mind-altering meditation influenced by entheogens, which he calls “the god within.” Pointing the reader toward the social and cultural import of “psychedelic Buddhism,” Osto aims for his academic work to be popularly accessible. Though the book is at times rigid and formulaic in its retelling of personal narratives, readers will still benefit from its approachable language and well-structured accounts. Part of a wider resurgence in interest concerning psychedelic spirituality, this overview will appeal to anyone interested in Buddhism, psychedelic possibilities, and understanding how both are forging a controversial new American religious experience. (May)

Reviewed on 02/05/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity

Elizabeth Edman. Beacon, $25.95 (216p) ISBN 978-0-8070-6134-3

Edman, an Episcopal priest, draws on her personal and spiritual experiences as a lesbian to reshape debates around Christianity and sexuality. By drawing on the queer tactic of rejecting binaries, Edman argues that Christianity is inherently queer and radical. Focusing on significant motifs that Christianity and queerness share (such as identity, touch, scandal, and adoption), she skillfully shows how queer lives reflect back onto religion to recover the surprise of the Christian message. Particularly persuasive are her chapters on reclaiming pride as a communal virtue rather than a private sin and her use of coming-out structures to urge progressive Christians to boldly and verbally reclaim the Christian tradition. At points, it is unclear whether the book is primarily aimed at queer believers, straight progressive Christians, or nonbelievers. This lack of clarity only slightly detracts from the impact of Edman’s insights, however, and her tone and personal examples are compelling. By turning the conversation around to show what queerness can tell readers about Christianity, this work provides a striking road map for larger, more productive conversations and community building. (May)

Reviewed on 02/05/2016 | Details & Permalink

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More Collected Couteau: Essays and Interviews

Rob Couteau. Dominantstar, $24.95 ISBN 978-0-9966888-1-9

Couteau’s second collection, after Collected Couteau, includes essays on topics such as Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and the work of Hubert Selby Jr., as well as conversations with various figures, many of them literary biographers. Couteau’s essays are informal, fervent, and well-versed examinations of the work or author at hand. At their best, they include fascinating insights into the significance of a writer like Selby. In Couteau’s essay on Tropic of Cancer, however, his thoughtful examination of Henry Miller as a man and writer is overshadowed by a weak defense of the book against charges of misogyny. The interviews are uniformly strong and include conversations with Michael Korda on T.E. Lawrence, Justin Kaplan on Walt Whitman, and Robert Roper on Vladimir Nabokov. Not all of them focus on literature: author Jeffrey Jackson covers the 1910 flood of Paris and why it’s relatively forgotten, and Robert De Sena, in one of the best interviews, discusses his life as a gang member turned community activist. Couteau’s passion and wealth of knowledge are obvious throughout the book, if sometimes to the point of overindulgence, and should appeal to many readers. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 02/05/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Barbie: The Icon

Massimiliano Capella. Glitterati, $65 (208p) ISBN 978-1-943876-11-2

This brightly colored, fully illustrated book by fashion historian Capella celebrates the Barbie doll as a legendary fashionista and inspiration for girls. The doll has been meticulously redefined to stay relevant since its debut in 1959. Color photographs illustrate Barbie’s evolution decade by decade through her clothing and career choices, as well as the more technical changes to her posture, facial expression, body proportion, makeup, and hairstyle. Elite fashion designers have inspired Barbie’s look over the years: pillbox hats, the little black dress, bell bottoms, jeans, padded shoulders, leggings, and the urban style of the new millennium. Whether astronaut, architect, flight attendant, or vet, Barbie is portrayed as a contemporary career woman with a love of fashion. A section on the “dolls of the world” solidifies Barbie’s global reach by showcasing the ways the doll’s clothing adapts to meet the customs of 50 nationalities. The format of photographs, captions, and history-rich sidebars is pleasing, although information gets repeated. This is a charming book for all ages, and older readers will especially enjoy revisiting their childhoods. Color illus. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Alligator Candy: A Memoir

David Kushner. Simon & Schuster, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4516-8253-3

In this solemn memoir, journalist Kushner returns to the horrifying murder of his brother in Tampa in 1973. Kushner, only four years old at the time, begged 11-year-old Jonathan to get him candy at the local 7-Eleven and then watched him cycle away into the woods. Jonathan never returned, and his disappearance led to an extraordinary search that apprehended the murderers, two psychopaths who had been stalking children in the area. One of the killers was executed; when the second became eligible for parole, Kushner felt compelled to research and confront the tragedy that he had avoided for so long. The strength of Kushner’s narrative lies in his exploration of how trauma distorts and reshapes even the strongest families. In the wake of Jonathan’s murder, Kushner’s father, a progressive anthropology professor, shifted his research to focus on grief and loss, while his mother helped pioneer hospice care. Yet the family members rarely shared their feelings, and Kushner couldn’t bring himself to write about the murder until after his father’s death. Kushner’s effort to grapple with his loss takes far more space than the actual investigation, and at times, the narrative is unfocused and confusing. Nevertheless, his vivid evocation of his brother, his family, and their Jewish, academic, Southern milieu is a moving tribute. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Legends Club: Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano, and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry

John Feinstein. Doubleday, $27.95 (416p) ISBN 978-0-385-53941-8

Renowned sportswriter Feinstein has produced an engaging, mostly chronological history of three college basketball coaching icons and rivals, all from Atlantic Coast Conference universities within a mere 25 miles of one another. In 1980, new North Carolina State University basketball coach Jim Valvano shared his strategy for competing against Dean Smith, already a legend in the making as coach of the University of North Carolina: “I’ll never outcoach Dean Smith, but maybe I can outlive him.” Thirteen years later, Valvano was dead from bone cancer; he became even more famous posthumously. Smith coached until 1997, developing advanced dementia in retirement and dying in early 2015. That makes longtime Duke University coach Mike “Coach K” Krzyzewski the only surviving member of the triumvirate. Feinstein, who has covered college hoops most famously in 1986’s A Season on the Brink, relies on years of unprecedented personal access, input from the widows of Valvano and Smith, former colleagues, and—most heavily—Coach K himself to tell this story with dignity and respect. Feinstein’s long history with these coaches gives him intimate knowledge of his subjects, allowing him to provide an insider’s perspective that likely will be new even to ACC aficionados. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Landscapes of Communism: A History Through Buildings

Owen Hatherley. New Press, $35 (624p) ISBN 978-1-62097-188-8

Hatherley (Militant Modernism), an erudite writer, offers a staggeringly detailed look at the buildings and urban designs of the Soviet Union, its eastern European client states, and, as a bit of an afterthought, China—“the only explorable legacy” of a political system that’s been largely gone for more than 25 years. This hefty, densely researched volume is not for beginners. Hatherley acknowledges up front the inextricable ties of buildings and the economic system under which they are created, and he vows an honest examination of the buildings that remain after the regimes that constructed them have crumbled. The pages are laced with architectural descriptions and the names of architects long consigned to the scrap heap of history. Some of this is fascinating (particularly a chapter devoted to the Moscow metro and a few other East Bloc underground rail systems, highlighting the art, design, and political theory of a Communist society), but the exhaustive examinations of buildings include very little of the human dimension of the society that brought them into being. The chapter on Communist-era memorials and monuments is instructive and interesting, but in taking on these public commemorations in mainly architectural terms, he fails to incorporate newer societies that would help explore the meaning behind them, and the failure of those societies to care for the people who lived in the buildings they built. B&w photos. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Everydata: The Misinformation Hidden in the Little Data You Consume Every Day

John H. Johnson and Mike Gluck. Bibliomotion (Perseus, dist.), $27.95 (224p) ISBN 978-1-62956-101-1

Though much has been written about the ways in which companies collect and use personal data, the topic of how average citizens use and process data on a daily basis is less widely understood. Statistician Johnson and writer Gluck address and begin to remedy this discrepancy with their overview of how information is rendered and represented, and how it should be interpreted. The authors cover many basic statistical concepts as they explain how easily data is manipulated and misinterpreted. Studies, for example, can suffer from methodological failures such as improper sampling, and information can be misleading when it is cherry-picked. This book points out these pitfalls and educates readers on how to navigate the increasingly dense information environment. The authors hit key points on the importance of information literacy today, but even as an overview, it jumps from topic to topic a little too quickly. Agent: Tris Coburn, Tristram C. Coburn Literary Management. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Bloodsport: When Ruthless Dealmakers, Shrewd Ideologues, and Brawling Lawyers Toppled the Corporate Establishment

Robert Teitelman. PublicAffairs, $28.99 (432p) ISBN 978-1-61039-413-0

Warren Zevon’s call to “send lawyers, guns, and money” could be Teitelman’s anthem for the mergers and acquisitions heyday of the mid-1970s and ’80s. Corporate raiders, armed with junk bonds, attorneys, and sheer brio, targeted corporate giants and felled them. It’s a great story, with profound implications for the way America views and regulates corporations. Teitelman shows that corporations were not always regarded as the sole property of shareholders. As recently as the 1960s, courts (and the overall culture) regarded corporations as having multiple stakeholders: management, employees, suppliers, and customers. This view was steadily eroded during takeover battles, as maximizing shareholder value became management’s principal responsibility. Teitelman chronicles this history exhaustively, showing how contemporary social issues, such as the disparity in pay between CEOs and workers and Wall Street’s responsibilities to Main Street, hearken back to this era. Teitelman has a masterly command of his subject, yet he sometimes sacrifices clarity in favor of a jocular, hyperbolic writing style more akin to Rolling Stone than the New Yorker. But this is a minor flaw in this comprehensive look at corporate takeovers. Agent: Carol Franco, Kneerim, Williams, and Bloom. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America

Tamara Draut. Doubleday, $26.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-385-53977-7

Joining the election-year onslaught of political publishing, Draut (Strapped) taps the working class as 2016’s biggest potential transformers. Draut’s definition of the working class is useful—“individuals in the labor force who do not have bachelor’s degrees”—and she uses two other variables, occupation and income, to paint a dire portrait of decline. Today, members of the working class are most likely to work as “retail salespeople, cashiers, food service and prep workers, and janitors,” earning the hourly wage that goes along with such positions. A growing number of working-class people care for the very young and very old, important work often left unprotected by labor laws. Members of the new working class are less likely than in past decades to work in manufacturing—where the work was physically challenging but generally well compensated—and also much less likely to be white and male. Diversity both complicates political organizing and opens a door of opportunity for successful union solidarity and consciousness-raising. The book is unabashedly progressive, growing increasingly political, accusatory, and angry in its later chapters, where it lays claim to the “left flank of the Democratic Party” with a goal of moving “the center of the party back to being the champions of the working class.” Agent: Andrew Stuart, Stuart Agency. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2016 | Details & Permalink

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