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The Notorious Reno Gang: The Wild Story of the West’s First Brotherhood of Thieves, Assassins, and Train Robbers

Rachel Dickinson. Lyons, $22.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-4930-2639-5

Evocative prose and rich historical context add depth and broad appeal to this captivating account of the men behind the first-ever robbery of a moving train, their wave of crimes in the 1860s, and their deaths at the hands of vigilantes. Many readers will be unfamiliar with the Reno brothers, but the mark they made on the small community of Seymour, Ind., is significant, Dickinson writes: “Like a boa constrictor, in the mid-19th century the Reno Gang encircled the town and squeezed tighter and tighter for several years until the gang’s activities seemed to threaten the very future of the community.” Dickinson (Falconer on the Edge) opens the story ominously, with a flash-forward as a gang of vigilantes breaks into the jail in a neighboring town in search of the Renos. She then recreates the lives of the Reno brothers, whose criminal careers were shaped by the traumas of the Civil War, which transformed them from “annoying petty thieves” into “the spiders at the center of a five-hundred-mile web of crime.” She thickens the stories with historical context about the changes that railroads brought to the country and the state of American currency at the time. (May)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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My Soul Looks Back: A Memoir

Jessica B. Harris. Scribner, $25 (272p) ISBN 978-1-5011-2590-4

Author and educator Harris begins her memoir with her young adult life in New York during the early 1970s and the remarkable individuals who surrounded her, including notable black writers such as James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison. Harris is an accomplished woman as well, an award-winning culinary writer who has been inducted into the James Beard Who’s Who in Food and Beverage in America and recently helped the National Museum of African American History and Culture to conceptualize its cafeteria. Though Harris’s narrative begins in Manhattan, the boundaries of the story expand to include the south of France, Paris, California wine country, and Haiti. One point of focus is the author’s romantic relationship with Sam Floyd, an older fellow professor at Queens College, who first introduced her to the various artists he fraternized with. Harris has thoughtfully sprinkled in a few of her favorite recipes as well as a playlist: “from the dancing tunes of our raucous parties to the wailing notes of my grief, there was always music.” This is a lively, entertaining, and informative recounting of a time and place that shaped and greatly enriched American culture. (May)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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MacArthur’s Spies: The Soldier, the Singer, and the Spymaster Who Defied the Japanese in World War II

Peter Eisner. Viking, $28 (368p) ISBN 978-0-525-42965-4

Veteran foreign correspondent Eisner (The Pope’s Last Crusade) describes how an American woman, Claire Phillips, supported U.S. prisoners of war and anti-Japanese guerrillas during the WWII occupation of the Philippines. In spite of its subtitle, this fast-moving history of the Manila resistance to the Japanese focuses on the role played by Phillips, a failed entertainer who was trapped in the occupied city for the duration of the war while her Filipino husband was in the U.S. Eisner highlights the very real contributions Phillips made to the resistance to Japanese occupation while revealing the numerous flaws in Phillips’s character (she romanced and married an American soldier in the Philippines without divorcing her husband). Phillips worked against the Japanese occupation in several different ways, including funneling money, medicine, and supplies to American prisoners of the Japanese and to American and Philippine guerrillas as she ran a high-end nightclub, the Tsubaki Club, for the Japanese elite. She used the club to make money for the guerrillas and to glean military information from inebriated Japanese officers. The guerrilla network then passed the information to Gen. MacArthur’s headquarters. Eisner’s history is a well-researched, entertaining, and informative look at the resistance to the Japanese occupation. (May)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Love and Trouble: A Mid-Life Reckoning

Claire Dederer. Knopf, $25.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-101-94650-3

In this edgy, frank, and at times outright hilarious tale of lost youth and midlife angst, Dederer (Poser), a wife and mother of two who lives on an idyllic island a ferry ride away from Seattle, describes finding herself in a funk at age 44 in 2011. Dederer is “inexplicably sad” (as are many of her middle-aged friends); the high point of her day is nibbling pomegranates (while cloaked in a stained gray hoodie) and drinking bourbon. She wonders what happened to the feisty, adventuresome, and sexually promiscuous young woman she once was. Inspired, in part, by an unexpected kiss from an older writer, Dederer journeys into her past, lining up 20 diaries ranging from age eight (a 1975 Peanuts diary) to the night before her wedding. Though she deems her diaries “a pageant of stupidity” and her former self a “clueless bitch,” she longs for the heightened sense of time, place, and sexual excitement she finds in their pages. The memoir takes readers through Dederer’s childhood in suburban Laurelhurst (her mother and father divorced when she was five and her mom took up with a younger hippie), her teen obsession with boys, and her days at Oberlin College, where she felt “trapped and anxious.” The author briefly lived in Australia before returning to Seattle and eventually choosing a life of “constraint.” This candid memoir will resonate with women (and quite possibly men) of all ages, but particularly those in midlife. Dederer brings a startling intimacy and immediacy to her version of growing up female in America. (May)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Legendary Sports Writers of the Golden Age: Grantland Rice, Red Smith, Shirley Povich, and W.C. Heinz

Lee Congdon. Rowman & Littlefield, $36 (160p) ISBN 978-1-4422-7751-9

Congdon, professor emeritus of history at James Madison University and author of Baseball and Memory, pays tribute to the mythic influence of four sports scribes, Grantland Rice, Red Smith, Shirley Povich, and W.C. Heinz, whose readers followed their colorful commentary from the roaring twenties to the space age. Rice, a Tennessee native whose literate columns appeared in more than 80 U.S. newspapers, became the most famous and highest-paid of all sports writers at the time. The lofty Rice standard shaped the precision of Smith, the sensitivity of Povich, and the imagination of Heinz. Highlights include Smith’s coverage of the savage series of Tony Zale–Rocky Graziano fights, Povich’s depiction of the 1958 NFL Championship game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants as “an art form,” and Heinz’s novel The Surgeon, which inspired the 1970 Robert Altman film, MASH. Congdon’s slender but informative homage to this quartet of newspaper legends gives readers a sense of a print world where words really mattered. (May)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Fictitious Capital: How Finance Is Appropriating Our Future

Cédric Durand, trans. from the French by David Broder. Verso, $22.95 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-1-78478-719-6

Radical scholar Durand’s first book investigates the terrifying, amoral nature of finance and its untenable role in contemporary neoliberal society. His primary argument involves a critique of “fictitious capital.” He defines this as “claims over wealth that is yet to be produced... a growing pre-emption of future production.” Fictitious capital emerges, at least in the current economic context, out of a long process of financialization, the “reorientation of capital accumulation away from productive and commercial activities toward ones concerning finance.” No longer is the economy based around labor or manufacturing products, he writes, but rather “debts, shares, and a diverse array of financial products.” Durand decries how government intervention allows fictitious capital to “assume proportions incompatible with the real production potential of economies,” which “will inexorably lead to crisis.” This is all to say that the state allows for this system’s cyclical failures, shielding financial service providers while harming everyone else. Durand’s analysis is heady, requiring frequent digressions to explain his terms, but this is to be expected. Durand is a scholar through and through; where one might expect polemic, there is instead cogent analysis. This even-handedness, far from reassuring, makes his argument all the more powerful and his diagnosis all the more dire. (May)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Driving Miss Norma: One Family’s Journey Saying “Yes” to Living

Tim Bauerschmidt and Ramie Liddle. HarperOne, $26.99 (256p) ISBN 978-0-06-266432-7

At 90, Bauerschmidt, newly widowed, was diagnosed with uterine cancer. Instead of having surgery and enduring months of recovery, she opted to join her retired son, Tim, and daughter-in-law, Ramie, on a grand adventure as they cruise the U.S. in their “mobile assisted living home.” For the first time, as Bauerschmidt writes in this endearing memoir, they got to know one another as adults, and their trip transformed into a warm, thoughtful, and meaningful conversation on family, aging, caretaking, and what happens when you look to other ways to heal besides Western medicine. Along the way, they encountered tremendous interest and kindness from strangers who learned about Norma through Facebook updates and a CBS segment. The trio were feted at parades and treated to home-cooked meals, and they celebrated Norma’s birthday with courtside seats at an NBA game. The months on the road were nourishing for Norma, who saw some of her symptoms disappear, and also very therapeutic for Tim and Ramie, who had led itinerant lives free of obligations for years. Tim, Ramie, and Norma’s travels are joyful and moving; it’s no surprise that their story that has gotten international coverage and touched more than a half million fans. Norma’s willingness to be fearless and open to whatever comes her way, even trying cannabis cream, offers profound insights into how we choose to live. (May)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom

Condoleezza Rice. Twelve, $35 (496p) ISBN 978-1-4555-4018-1

Between her academic background in political science and her experience as national security advisor and secretary of state for George W. Bush, Rice could be expected to provide unique insights into the challenges currently facing democracy worldwide. Instead, she blandly avers that “the overall trajectory is worth celebrating,” despite her own description of Russia as a “failed democratic experiment.” Rice also opines that “dashed expectations that democracy’s march would be linear” account, at least in part, for fears that democratic governments are actively on the decline. Beyond such unilluminating statements, Rice traces the history of democracy across the modern world, relating familiar facts about the U.S., Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. She also cannot resist blaming the Obama administration for depriving Iraq of a better future by deciding to pull American troops out of Iraq by the end of 2011, pursuant to an agreement with the Iraqi government that she had been party to. Rice’s post-Trump election epilogue is equally unsatisfying—she states that it is “stunning” that mature democracies like the U.S. have been affected by the global rise in populism, nativism, and isolationism, but concludes that it is too early to know whether the international order in place since the end of WWII will survive. (May)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship on and off the Court

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Grand Central, $29 (288p) ISBN 978-1-4555-4227-7

Anyone inclined to dismiss John Wooden and Abdul-Jabbar’s relationship as merely coach and player— Abdul-Jabbar led Wooden’s basketball teams at UCLA to three NCAA titles in the late 1960s—will rethink that miscalculation after reading this compact, engaging memoir. The two men remained close until Wooden’s death at age 99 in 2010, Abdul-Jabbar writes: “Our friendship grew over shared values, over complicated loves and devastating losses, over a never truly satisfied search for understanding of this world and our place in it.” Abdul-Jabbar discusses his own intellectual and spiritual growth, interweaving the lessons Wooden conveyed to him over the years. He shrewdly removes any mysticism from the famous friendship, showing Wooden as more than a “Pyramid of Success” figurehead. At Wooden’s memorial service, Abdul-Jabbar recalls, “we all spoke about the lessons we learned from him rather than the games we had won.” (May)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Battles for Freedom: The Use and Abuse of American History

Eric Foner. I.B. Tauris, $12.99 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-78453-769-2

In this collection of essays published in the Nation, Foner, professor of history at Columbia University and Pulitzer Prize winner for The Fiery Trial, combines a deep and nuanced understanding of history with equally acute knowledge of politics to illuminate the abiding issues of the late 20th and early 21st centuries: immigration, civil rights, economics, and nationalism. Foner’s clear thinking and sound writing are evident throughout. Highlights include essays on Lincoln’s legacy and a series of exceptional works on inequality and the problems of race in America. He discusses how the many Southern state monuments to Confederate icons distort history and criticizes continued public use of the Confederate flag, bolstering his arguments with explanations of their tarnished historical origins. Foner’s work has particular resonance when he writes about the effect of the 9/11 attacks, warning that there are dangers to civil liberties when those who criticize the government are branded aliens and traitors. Foner’s orientation is liberal, but he doesn’t hesitate to criticize President Obama, who he feels embraced outdated economic policies and resisted “genuine change,” or to offer suggestions to Bernie Sanders on how to best present his message. These essays span 40 years of American history, but all are timely and wise. (May)

Reviewed on 03/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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