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The Carry Home: Lessons from the American Wilderness

Gary Ferguson. Counterpoint (PGW, dist.), $25 (272p) ISBN 978-1-61902-448-9

Ever-evocative nature writer Ferguson (Shouting at the Sky) pens a memoir that doubles as an intensely personal, sweet, and melancholy love song to his lost beloved and to the wild places of America. Though there is grief in this remarkable tribute, the net effect is more joy than sadness. Ferguson shares the story of his journey to five locations where his wife, Jane, a park ranger and wilderness guide, wanted her ashes spread after her death in a river canoeing accident. He intersperses this narrative with stories from their 25 years of a “life brilliantly off-balance” together, culling from both of their travel journals and offering the anecdotes long-term couples share over dinner with new friends. In the background, observations of both the timelessness of nature and of the moods of a whole generation of itinerant nature lovers—in this case frustrated by the politics of wolf management and logging concerns—give a quiet universality to Ferguson’s private thoughts. As in the best nature writing, the human experience becomes infinitesimally small and yet paramount, the “mythical shining through the mundane.” Ferguson has lovingly invested Jane’s memory with “unspeakable tenderness,” both the aspects of a goddess and of a leaf fallen gently to the ground. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Blowing the Roof Off the Twenty-First Century: Media, Politics, and the Struggle for Post-Capitalist Democracy

Robert McChesney. Monthly Review, $28 (272p) ISBN 978-1-58367-478-9

“When organized wealth wants one thing and the mass of the people want another, money wins—always,” McChesney (Dollarocracy: How the Money and the Media Election Complex Is Destroying America) writes in this scathing and unflinching look at American culture, media, and politics. Stating that the tag “conservative” doesn’t mean what it used to, McChesney details how the political right has expertly promoted an “environment conducive to the adaptation of ferociously anti-labor, pro-business neoliberal policies” that benefit only a small portion of society, with the media playing along. He acknowledges the difficulty of untying the Gordian knot he depicts, characterized by a pessimistic voter base, a seemingly indifferent government, disparate income distribution, and skyrocketing incarceration rates (in a society that denies felons the right to vote). Despite this bleak picture, McChesney remains optimistic that America can reverse its decline, offering a number of suggestions for achieving the more egalitarian society he terms a “post-capitalist democracy.” Whether this ideal is truly attainable is up to the reader. Regardless of their voting history and political views, anyone who gives McChesney’s lucid, accessible State of the Nation his or her time will find it worthy of thought and discussion. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In: Lessons from an Extraordinary Life

Louis Zamperini and David Rensin. Morrow/Dey St., $22.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-06-236833-1

Though the life of 1936 Olympic athlete and WWII POW Zamperini was indeed extraordinary, the “life lessons” collected in this posthumously published work (Zamperini died in 2014) prove disappointingly commonplace. The insights he shared with coauthor Rensin tend toward the broadly general, such as, at the start of a chapter on survival, “Life on earth is dangerous: you should be prepared for anything.” A section entitled “Anyone Can Turn Their Life Around,” meanwhile, strikes a surprisingly Pollyannaish note. Zamperini, with his extensive experience of peril, shares his counsel for dealing with dangerous situations, such as the eccentric earthquake-readiness tip to always keep a hard hat and pair of heavy shoes by one’s bedside. He seems less charming than reckless when he cheerfully describes playing “pranks,” including one that could have led to a fatal air accident. Zamperini’s willingness to forgive the sadistic Japanese officer who tormented him in captivity is moving, but his statement that “true forgiveness goes hand in hand with no longer condemning” may strike readers as an overly lenient attitude toward evil. Admirers of this extraordinary hero may prefer to stick with Laura Hillenbrand’s biography, Unbroken, and Zamperini’s own autobiography, Devil at My Heels. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague, Civil War “Belle of the North” and Gilded Age Woman of Scandal

John Oller. Da Capo, $25.99 (416p) ISBN 978-0-306-82280-3

“Behind every great man, there’s a great woman,” goes the saying, and Kate Chase Sprague, the “American Queen” of the Gilded Age, was just such a woman. Daughter of Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury, Sprague was a politically savvy and fiercely ambitious woman at a time women were expected to remain in the background. Despite never actually being first lady, Sprague was almost a de facto one: she was host of some of the best parties and salons in D.C., a frequent subject of the news, and was at the edge of most of the scandals of the time (she was suspected of having an affair with Sen. Roscoe Conkling). After her marriage to textile tycoon and politician William Sprague collapsed, she went bankrupt, ending her life peddling eggs and milk. Oller (Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew) details Sprague’s fascinating life, introducing readers to an inspiring woman in spite of her faults: haughtiness; personal, rather than ideological, politics; financial profligacy. The book’s analysis may not be well enough grounded in fact, verging on the speculative at times, but otherwise, Oller offers an accessible, attention-grabbing work. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Wisdom of the Beguines: The Forgotten Story of a Medieval Women’s Movement

Laura Swan. BlueBridge (IPG, dist.), $16.95 (224p) ISBN 978-1-933346-97-7

The lay religious movement known as the Beguines had largely been forgotten until the late 20th century, when feminist scholars rediscovered their lives. Swan (Sacred Rhythms) brings their lives and writings to the general reader with a clear, admiring narrative. The movement began in the Low Countries during the late 12th century, when some lay women began to live together and earn their own living, while devoting themselves to preaching and caring for the poor. Adhering to an individual concept of apostolic Christianity, they were viewed with suspicion because of their independence from the rule of any religious order. Swan intersperses her story of the Beguines with short biographies of several of the women who wrote or dictated their mystical experiences. Strong supporters of the growing desire for “deeply personal experiences of God,” they tried to share the suffering of Jesus. This could take the form of visions, stigmata, and even levitation, as in the case of Christina the Astonishing. Despite criticism, they had powerful clerical and secular supporters and managed to survive through plagues, revolutions, and even the Protestant Reformation. Swan doesn’t go into historical or theological depth, but her book is a sympathetic look at the Beguines that will intrigue anyone interested in women’s spirituality. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Winning the Long Game: How Strategic Leaders Shape the Future

Steven Krupp and Paul J.H. Schoemaker. PublicAffairs, $27.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-61039-447-5

Krupp and Schoemaker, CEO and founder of the consulting firm Decision Strategies International, respectively, have assembled a cogent, inspiring guide to what constitutes a strategic leader—and how readers can be strategic in their own lives. The narrative centers on a hypothetical employee, Jane, who suffers through an all-too-familiar performance review, as she is encouraged to “be more strategic” with no guidance as to what that means or how she should accomplish it. Having established the problem of vague, ambiguous guidance, the authors come to the rescue with a clear, executable breakdown of the disciplines of leadership. These include anticipating change through understanding your market, challenging assumptions, interpreting data, making tough decisions, aligning the interests and incentives of stakeholders, and learning from both success and failure. Krupp and Schoemaker provide plenty of case studies, from Elon Musk to Pope Francis. Most valuably, this highly readable book focuses on the nuts and bolts of each discipline, guiding readers on how to import the lessons learned into their own lives. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Philosophy Bites Again

David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton. Oxford Univ, $16.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-19-870269-6

This third collection of conversations from Edmonds and Warburton’s popular “Philosophy Bites” podcast is a testament to the vivacity and draw of contemporary philosophy. The book is composed of 27 lively, thematic interviews with contemporary scholars from around the globe, providing an entry point for those interested in the philosophical implications of such eclectic issues as pain, free will, punishment, and a meaningful life. Each brief conversation pithily summarizes its respective thinkers’ positions, relieving readers of the onerous and daunting task of reading titanic and abstruse tomes. Yet this virtue comes with an implicit drawback. We get the rough synopsis of 500 pages of thought rendering philosophy accessible, entertaining, and easily ingested, but perhaps something essential is lost by avoiding the more unwieldy intricacies of an extensive argument. Still, this book provides the insight and the terms used by today’s living philosophers to treat issues that are pertinent to every individual, including such questions as “How do we determine who qualifies as a human being?” or “Is torture ever just?” Through deep exploration of these issues, philosophy becomes less esoteric and more closely tied to analyzing the unexamined premises that imbue our everyday life, ideas, and decisions with meaning. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Our Daily Poison: From Pesticides to Packaging, How Chemicals Have Contaminated the Food Chain and Are Making Us Sick

Marie-Monique Robin, trans. from the French by Allison Schein and Lara Vergnaud. New Press (Perseus, dist.), $28.95 (480p) ISBN 978-1-59558-909-5

French journalist and documentary filmmaker Robin (The World According to Monsanto) delivers another fiercely activist account of how chemicals that are supposed to improve our lives are making us sick—and how the regulation process “protects producers much more than it does consumers and citizens.” Her unrelenting search for the truth behind the poisons in our foods takes her across the U.S. and Europe to talk with researchers examining the links between chemicals and disease, and those who are hiding those links. For example, she blasts the skewed 1981 study of cancer causes that puts individuals’ behaviors at the top of the list, and hails the director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer who asserts it’s estimated that “80 to 90 percent of cancer is linked to the environment and lifestyle.” But Robin takes particular aim at how chemicals in our food and packaging are regulated, with one OSHA official telling her there’s too much conflict of interest among scientists and corporations. What Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking Silent Spring did for the environmental movement, Robin is doing for awareness of toxins in the food chain. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Finish Big: How Great Entrepreneurs Exit Their Companies on Top

Bo Burlingham. Portfolio/Penguin, $27.95 (284p) ISBN 978-1-59184-497-6

Journalist Burlingham (Small Giants) is back with a helpful guide to the toughest part of building a great company: leaving it. As he points out, we tend to focus on the whiz-bang beginnings of a company’s history, with far less emphasis on if and how the founder will eventually move on. Structured as a narrative describing the experiences of various entrepreneurs interviewed for the book, this is a smooth, fascinating read. Burlingham’s primary question in interviews is, what distinguished positive experiences from negative ones? He found that entrepreneurs who left their positions with a sense of accomplishment, feeling well compensated and secure in the belief that their employees would be treated well by their successors, felt better about the move. In addition, those who were happy about leaving their companies also generally had new projects planned from which to derive a sense of purpose. Burlingham goes on to address the elements of a successful exit, which he breaks down into four stages: exploration, strategy, execution, and transition—all potentially tricky. Detailed and well laid out, with advice that’s easy to understand and incorporate into your own business, this is an essential guide for any leader looking to turn over the reins. Agent: Jill Kneerim, Kneerim, Williams, and Bloom. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Fallen Leaves: Last Words on Life, Love, War and God

Will Durant. Simon & Schuster, $25 (208p) ISBN 978-1-4767-8705-3

Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Durant, who died in 1981, had long hinted that he was writing a summation of his thoughts on... well, just about everything. This long-awaited release is a collection of essays on religion, race, politics, art, and science, providing a slim but apt companion piece to The Story of Civilization, the acclaimed 11-volume series Durant coauthored with his wife, Ariel. Some passages, such as his observations on youth and middle age, are personal and specific, while others, such as his ruminations on the existence of God, border on philosophy. Some of Durant’s views are impossibly antiquated today—particularly his observation that women are “seldom capable of lasting friendships” and should receive instruction in the domestic arts, as “good pies do more for monogamy than all the languages.” Others, though, still carry a beneficial sting, such as his thoughts on war and nationalism and his plea for racial harmony (Durant’s civil rights advocacy dated back to 1914). If readers can forgive his more dated beliefs, they’ll find a thought-provoking array of opinions. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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