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The Timbuktu School for Nomads: Across the Sahara in the Shadow of Jihad

Nicholas Jubber. Nicholas Brealey, $25.95 (228p) ISBN 978-1-85788-654-2

Jubber (Drinking Arak off an Ayatollah’s Beard) journeys through Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, and Mali in this insightful, warm, and humorous account of his travels with and among North African nomads. Underscoring “how complicated life can be when the margins of survival are so tight,” Jubber enlists locals from a variety of nomadic communities to teach him basic skills, including goat-milking, navigating dunes by starlight, preparing tea, and saddling a camel. Even in the most isolated villages, he finds environmental pressures and climate change threatening the inhabitants’ way of life, and Saudi-trained clerics importing interpretations of Islam that conflict with ancient indigenous traditions. Jubber’s travels to Timbuktu bookend the militant Islamist faction Ansar Dine’s violent occupation of the region, and his guides are on edge and divided among themselves. But Timbuktu is no stranger to turmoil; in the 19th century it “earned the nickname ‘White Man’s Grave.’ ” The contrast and subtle interplay between the region’s earthy ethos and its distinguished intellectual history offer an unexpected takeaway. The desert outpost of Chinguetti is home to a handful of libraries, whose extant volumes are now moth-eaten and yellowed, that for centuries surpassed anything found in Europe. Jubber’s serious engagement with nomadic cultures is a welcome addition to an underwhelming body of literature on North Africa. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Drone Memos: Targeted Killing, Secrecy, and the Law

Edited by Jameel Jaffer. New Press, $27.95 (224p) ISBN 978-1-62097-259-5

Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, examines numerous primary source documents that offer legal and ethical rationales for targeted killings by the U.S., including of American citizens on foreign soil. The Obama administration’s continued use of drones as primary weapons in the “War on Terror” has been a major disappointment to supporters of the president. Jaffer, who oversaw many of the ACLU’s cases challenging expanded government powers post-9/11, exposes the rationales by which Obama and his advisers justify their drone policy. These include public explanations, such as Obama’s 2013 remarks at the National Defense University, and classified ones, such as the 2010 Justice Department legal memo analyzing the legality of a lethal operation against Sheikh Anwar Awlaki, an American who had been dubbed the “bin Laden of the Internet.” As Jaffer notes, these justifications reflect “a deep transformation in American attitudes and society” and measure “the extent to which the perceived demands of counterterrorism have erased rule-of-law strictures that were taken for granted only a generation ago.” The documents, many of which are heavily redacted, are replete with legalese that may sound Kafkaesque to lay readers, but Jaffer more than compensates for that with a trenchant summation of the issues at hand. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Thibodaux Massacre: Racial Violence and the 1887 Sugar Cane Labor Strike

John DeSantis. History, $21.99 (144p) ISBN 978-1-4671-3689-1

In this concise and vivid study, journalist DeSantis uncovers the long-hidden history of an 1887 bloodbath in which men from some of Louisiana’s most esteemed white families murdered between 30 and 60 African-American men in the small town of Thibodaux. As DeSantis emphasizes, in the region south and east of New Orleans “black slaves boiled and spun sugar into gold for white planters,” producing though their forced labor the wealth that built the magnificent plantation houses that now function as tourist attractions. After the Civil War, ex-slaves, some of whom had served in the Union Army, came into conflict with their former owners, who numbered among the South’s most “unreconstructed rebels.” Tensions increased as many black sugar workers joined the Knights of Labor and organized walkouts from the cane fields in an attempt to negotiate higher wages. Fearing a loss of the sugar workforce in a crucial year following a bad harvest, planters convinced Gov. McEnery to dispatch the state militia to Thibodaux. They stormed the town’s black neighborhood and committed a massacre of which news was immediately suppressed. DeSantis’s work recounts this horrific tale in gripping detail, restoring to public memory an important moment in the entwined histories of race and labor in America. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Cinema Alchemist: Designing ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Alien’

Roger Christian. Titan, $24.95 (240p) ISBN 978-1-78329-900-3

Christian, a film director (The Sender) and Oscar-winning set decorator, describes working on classic films such as Star Wars and Alien in this meticulous memoir. He begins with the less well-remembered 1975 Lucky Lady, where he first worked with junk and scrap to dress a set, and also met designer John Barry. Through Barry, he met George Lucas, who hired him for Star Wars. Christian chronicles key moments from his time on that epochal film, from reading its closely guarded script to unconventionally set-dressing the film with old materials, such as airplane scrap used in the Millennium Falcon’s interiors. Included in this section are gorgeous full-color photographs of early mock-ups for props and artwork. Afterwards, Christian prepared work for Monty Python’s Life of Brian before signing on with Ridley Scott to work on Alien. On that project, he describes creating the look of the main spaceship, and the triumph of winning an Oscar. In the book’s conclusion, Christian discusses deciding to make his own films, beginning with the fantasy short Black Angel. In a ruthless creative industry, Christian has held onto his resilience and patience, which enabled him to do innovative and influential work. His story will appeal to all fans of these films. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Words on the Move: Why English Won’t—and Can’t—Sit Still (Like, Literally)

John McWhorter. Holt, $28 (272p) ISBN 978-1-62779-471-8

McWhorter (The Language Hoax) will make word snobs clutch their pearls and gasp in dismay as he convincingly argues that they should “shed the contempt: the acrid disgust so many people seem to harbor for people who use the forms [of language] we have been taught are ‘bad.’ ” McWhorter shows the mutability that lies at the core of all language, exploring words that transition from semantic to pragmatic use, the evolution of word meanings, words that become grammar, changes in pronunciation over time, and the ways words combine to form new words. Along the way he specifically addresses infamous irritants such as using “literally” figuratively, uptalk, and speech peppered with “like.” Contextualizing them in lexical history, McWhorter shows how they are similar to other changes we now take for granted (such as the evolution of the suffix -like into the common adverbial ending -ly). McWhorter employs a jocular style that makes for smooth reading, without sacrificing the complexity of the subject. Sometimes the humor is a bit stretched, but the overall effect is an unintimidating welcome to readers new to the subject that pleasantly relaxes the discourse of grammar propriety. Agent: Katinka Matson, Brockman. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Vanity Fair’s Writers on Writers

Edited by Graydon Carter. Penguin, $20 trade paper (424p) ISBN 978-0-14-311176-4

Rich and delicious, this collection features 41 entertaining and informative pieces originally published in Vanity Fair by famous writers, including Elizabeth Bishop, Christopher Hitchens, and Jacqueline Woodson, analyzing other celebrated authors. Details of the subjects’ craft—schedules and routines—are discussed, along with insights into their art, and how the ups and downs of their lives influenced what they wrote. Each article starts with a career highlight, a big success, or a controversy. Next is a brief biography, often followed by some personal reminiscence. Readers learn of the authors’ families and early lives; what they overcame to achieve initial success; how they were critically received and how they influenced other writers; and, for many, the eventual decline of their skills and reputation. The selection of subjects is diverse, including W.H. Auden and Jacqueline Susann. Likewise, the analysis of the work ranges from formal literary criticism to appreciations of works initially dismissed as trash. The magazine’s writers are witty and insightful. James Wolcott on Jack Kerouac: He “committed suicide on the installment plan.” Michael Lewis on Tom Wolfe: “He moves back and forth like a bridge player, ruffing the city and the country against each other.” Each essay is reason enough to read (or reread) the subject’s work. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in the Trash

Alexander Masters. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (272p) ISBN 978-0-374-17818-5

With surprise, humor, and quiet insights that never seem glib, biographer Masters (Stuart: A Life Backwards) pursues an extraordinary question: what is the value of an ordinary life? With wonderful excerpts, original handwriting, photographs, sketches, and extravagant speculation, Masters brings to vivid life the 148 anonymous diaries that come into his possession, and constructs a richly compelling narrative around his experience of discovering their owner. The narrative of the diary author’s obsessions, ambitions, great loves, and disappointments is scaffolded with mysteries and discoveries that keep Masters revising his initial assumptions. He employs graphologists, private detectives, concert pianists, and judicious trespassing to understand his subject, but enjoys the anonymity, “sense of quiet universality,” and truth captured in this scrupulously documented existence. Despite some shortcomings, Masters’s subject has produced something impressive and unprecedented: “a forty-million-word description of being alive.” As much a guided tour of Masters’s own mind as that of his subject, this book is funny, original, astonishing, and poignant in its revelations that, in biography as in life, there are no tidy answers—but there is an incredible value in the ordinary, in “the resonance of tiny things” and “triumphs of a scribbled-down life.” Agent: Peter Straus, Rogers, Coleridge, and White (U.K.) (Oct.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Radicalized: New Jihadists and the Threat to the West

Peter R. Neumann, trans. from the German by Alexander Staritt. I.B. Tauris, $17.95 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-78453-673-2

This useful analysis of global terrorism warns that jihadist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq are incubating a generation of trained terrorists from Western countries whose survivors will return to Europe, sowing the seeds of “the beginning of a new wave of terrorism that will occupy us for a generation.” It’s a dire forecast. In his account of the “fifth wave” of jihad-inspired terrorism, Neumann, a German journalist turned academic, estimates that as many as 4,120 European citizens have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, many for ISIS. While there is no simple, quick solution to the rise of the Islamic State, and “certainly no purely military one,” Neumann, basing his work on research by his International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College, London, suggests that under “aggressive containment,” ISIS will collapse under its own contradictions. He traces the group’s rise in a concise, informative summary, and looks at both overall ideology and the personal narratives of individual fighters. Striking a readable balance between academic prose and anecdotal journalism, this book provides a start in “realistically evaluating a phenomenon that will define the new wave of terrorism.” (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Let’s Rock!: How 1950s America Created Elvis and the Rock & Roll Craze

Richard Aquila. Rowman & Littlefield, $40 (340p) ISBN 978-1-4422-6936-1

Historian Aquila treads already well-covered ground in this often repetitious, sometimes enlightening, but mostly colorless version of the rise of rock and roll in America in the 1950s. Delving deeply into archives, he sketches the familiar story that rock arose as a hybrid of rhythm and blues, country, and pop. Bill Haley and the Comets might have launched the phenomenon of white artists recording black R&B hits, but Elvis’s version of “Good Rockin’ Tonight” propelled white rock and roll into the stratosphere, moving R&B to a new level. Aquila deftly illustrates the ways that radio deejays such as Dick Biondi, television shows, and movies promoted rock stars, providing wider cultural coverage for this new music. Aquila cannily emphasizes that rock and roll reflected rather than challenged the cultural values of Cold War America: capitalism was inherent in marketing a new product to an audience willing to buy records, and the music unquestioningly incorporated gender and sexual stereotypes of the time. Aquila echoes the oft-repeated assertion that rock and roll fostered racial integration long before the civil rights movement, failing to mention that audiences at concerts in the 1950s were still segregated and that black performers still faced enormous prejudice on the road. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Hank: The Short Life and Long Country Road of Hank Williams

Mark Ribowsky. Norton/Liveright, $29.95 (496p) ISBN 978-1-63149-157-3

Country singer Hank Williams’s story is already so well known that Ribowsky’s (Dreams to Remember) entertaining, critical biography reveals no newly uncovered information about him. Nevertheless, Ribowsky is an engaging storyteller, and he tells Williams’ story with such verve and humor—albeit with some over-the-top phrasing (“he was a dysfunction junction”; “Hank seemed like an afterthought lying carefree in a casket”)—that Williams and his music come alive. He chronicles Williams’s childhood in Alabama; his marriage to Audrey Mae Sheppard Guy, and their miserable but symbiotic relationship; his slow but sure rise to country music stardom on the Grand Ole Opry and WSM radio; his marriage to Billie Jean Eshliman; and his death in the back of his Cadillac on January 1, 1953, at the age of 29. Ribowsky offers cunning readings of Williams’s songs: “Mansion on the Hill,” he says, reflects a familiar Williams template that is “part croon, part hoedown, and a metaphoric lament of loneliness and the promise of a reward too far.” Williams emerges from Ribowsky’s powerful biography not only as the author of many familiar country and pop favorites, such as “Hey, Good Lookin’ ” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” but also as a man whose back pain drove him to drink and pills and whose soul was filled more often with gloom than with light. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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