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Wattana: An Orangutan in Paris

Chris Herzfeld, trans. from the French by Oliver Martin and Robert D. Martin. Univ. of Chicago, $26 (192p) ISBN 978-0-226-16859-3

Herzfeld, founder of the Great Apes Enrichment Project, follows the life of an orangutan named Wattana who is housed at the Jardin de Plantes Zoo in Paris. Wattana exhibits a strong interest in human pastimes, thanks in large part to her upbringing among human caretakers after being rejected by her mother. Herzfeld describes how Wattana became a talented and avid knot maker: weaving a variety of materials in and out of her cage bars like a giant macramé project, tying knots in careful sequences, and improvising items when no conventional materials could be found. Wattana appears to derive much pleasure from her creative knot work, just one of several highly human behaviors she exhibits. Herzfeld documents her observations of Wattana while offering historical and scientific information about the great apes, both in the wild and in captivity. Scientists, zookeepers, animal behaviorists, and those with similar credentials will find Herzfeld’s book both fascinating and educational; lay readers may become bogged down by the scientific content. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Sex in the Museum: My Unlikely Career at New York’s Most Provocative Museum

Sarah Forbes. St. Martin’s, $24.99 (224p) ISBN 978-1-250-04167-8

Forbes, curator of New York City’s Museum of Sex, reflects on her career in this fun and thought-provoking memoir. Fresh-faced and ready to dive into her graduate studies in anthropology at the New School for Social Research, Forbes happened to find an apartment not far from the museum. Her interest in a particular exhibit drew her in, and when her then-boyfriend joked she should apply for a job, Forbes submitted her resume. To her surprise, she quickly fell in love with museum work and studying sex academically. In 2006, Forbes became the museum’s curator, putting together informative and startling exhibits that include sex in film, animal sex, and historical brothel guides. As her career blossomed, so did the prestige of the museum. Along the way, Forbes struggled with the way her job affected her personal life, especially her romantic life and search for a committed relationship. Like the museum itself, this memoir simultaneously shocks, informs, and challenges myths about sex. Though the sections on Forbes’s work are more intriguing than those on her personal life, her approach enables these ideas to transcend the academic world. Agent: Adam Chromy, Movable Type Media. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Packed for the Wrong Trip: A New Look Inside Abu Ghraib and the Citizen-Soldiers Who Redeemed America’s Honor

W. Zach Griffith. Arcade, $24.99 (240p) ISBN 978-1-62872-645-9

Using one of the darkest incidents in recent American military history, Griffith, a former U.S. Marine combat correspondent, recasts the atrocity of torture and torment at Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib as a moment of redemption. In February of 2004, a ragtag unit of the Maine National Guard’s 152nd Field Artillery Battalion was deployed to the detention facility as a replacement for the disgraced soldiers whose photos of the cruelty they inflicted upon Iraqi prisoners shocked the world and served as a recruitment tool for insurgents. The prison, filled to capacity with “die-hard Saddam loyalists, native religious fanatics, or specimens of the Syrian, Yemeni, or Saudi Jihadists who had come over the unsecured borders,” was guarded by the 152nd’s “ill-trained, poorly equipped” citizen soldiers under harsh conditions that featured car bombs, snipers, and constant rocket and mortar fire. To quell the ongoing insurgency, military commanders changed tactics, granting hearings to detainees as well as providing better food, education, and counseling by moderate imams. The facility is now shuttered. Griffith’s account of these compassionate Mainers offers a new perspective on what happened at Abu Ghraib in the wake of the torture scandal. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Getting to Green: Saving Nature; A Bipartisan Solution

Frederic C. Rich. Norton, $26.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-393-29247-3

No presidential administration has signed a major environmental bill since the Clean Air Act of 1990, says Rich (Christian Nation), a novelist, environmental activist, and former corporate lawyer, as he seeks the reasons behind such a failure in this straightforward volume. The historic bill, considered “a triumphant success for the Green movement,” also marked a “legislative dead end.” Rich cites a gulf between conservatives, who are “deeply suspicious” of and hostile toward environmentalist goals, and a Green movement often equally “hostile to business and economic growth.” To bridge the gap, he argues that each side must work toward a “Center Green,” focusing “on that space where the values of right and left overlap.” Only then can they escape “hyperpartisan paralysis.” Reminding readers of the significant role conservatives have played in American environmentalism, Rich makes his case for forging beneficial partnerships between the two sides. Conservatives need to understand that climate change is real, he says, and they need to realize environmentalists are not elitists “whose goals come at the cost of jobs and economic growth.” Meanwhile, those in the Green movement must rein in skepticism “that any good can come from a for-profit corporation.” Rich makes some good points and maintains his optimism, but it’s difficult to see how groups so fundamentally at odds will find common ground. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Eyeing the Red Storm: Eisenhower and the First Attempt to Build a Spy Satellite

Robert M. Dienesch. Univ. of Nebraska, $34.95 (328p) ISBN 978-0-8032-5572-2

During the Cold War, many American leaders believed that the U.S.S.R. wanted to conquer the world, writes Dienesch, an adjunct assistant professor of history at the University of Windsor, Ontario, in this scholarly investigation of American spy-satellite development. According to military leaders, national security required a vast expansion of the military. When President Eisenhower took office in 1953, he was determined to defend the U.S. without bankrupting it or converting it into a garrison state. His major barrier was ignorance of the U.S.S.R.’s military capabilities. Satellites solved the problem in the 1960s, but Dienesch concentrates on their origins, emphasizing a nearly forgotten program to build the first, named WS-117L and approved in 1953. As a pioneering piece of technology it was clunky; its power needs required a heavy nuclear reactor, its camera resolution was no better than that of television, and its reel-to-reel tapes were difficult to control remotely. Canceled in 1959, the WS-117L never flew, but several of its systems were used in later satellites. Though this is an academic study replete with coverage of committee meetings, panels of experts, and official reports, it thankfully lacks turgid prose. Readers searching for a detailed analysis of early spy satellite development will approve of Dienesch’s accessible work. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Delta Lady: A Memoir

Rita Coolidge, with Michael Walker. Harper, $25 (240p) ISBN 978-0-06-237204-8

In the golden years of pop-rock music of the 1960s and ’70s, there were very few singers like the Grammy-winning Coolidge, whose memoir reads like a polite, lyrical confessional. She exhibits a deep understanding of human nature as she writes candidly of her loving family, especially her older singing sister, Priscilla, in the Jim Crow state of Tennessee. Upon graduating from Florida State in 1967, she moved to Memphis with Priscilla, who was starting her singing career in a racially mixed music scene with “a more driving Southern feel tinged with jazz and traditional R&B.” The Klan burned a cross on their lawn following Priscilla’s interracial marriage, and the 1968 killing of Martin Luther King Jr. shattered the Memphis scene; Coolidge fled to California. Once in L.A., she plunged into the music business, singing backup for Leon Russell, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, and Stephen Stills and striking gold with such hits as “We’re All Alone” and “Higher and Higher.” Coolidge’s backstage stories of her sessions with Clapton and Cocker, the drug-fueled orgies of the infamous Mad Dog and Englishmen tour, and her romances with Graham Nash and Kris Kristofferson are authentic and intimate. Agent: Daniel Greenberg, Levine Greenberg Literary. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Kill ’Em and Leave: Searching for the Real James Brown

James McBride. Spiegel & Grau, $28 (256p) ISBN 978-0-8129-9350-9

McBride, mainly known for his bestselling 1995 memoir, The Color of Water, returns to nonfiction with an investigation into the life, times, and death of James Brown, the “hardest-working man in show business.” Though the soul singer’s musical legacy is ingrained in the collective American unconscious, many details about Brown’s personal life and the lives he touched along the way remain obscure. McBride reveals them while seeking to correct misconceptions perpetuated by the recent film Get On Up. Most notable among McBride’s tales are those involving Al Sharpton, whom Brown unofficially adopted; the relationship shines a light on both men’s lives that is often overlooked. Chasing down Brown’s life story all over the South, McBride enters some shady situations and stumbles on a story even larger than the Godfather of Soul himself: the fate of Brown’s estate, which has been so preyed upon by various lawyers that the poverty-stricken children for which it was meant haven’t seen a dime. McBride’s storytelling is heavily impeded by clichés and trite metaphors, but the power of his subject matter nevertheless shines through in this solid work of journalism. Agent: Flip Brophy, Sterling Lord. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Approval Junkie: Adventures in Caring Too Much

Faith Salie. Crown Archetype, $27 (272p) ISBN 978-0-553-41993-1

This beach-read of a memoir by comedian and culture commentator Salie is a series of essays, or more accurately, stand-up routines put to the page. The point of most of them is to win the reader’s approval by convincing us that Salie is beautiful, successful, smart, and thin, a message she smooths over by couching it in self-deprecation. She is clever enough (a Rhodes scholar, in fact) to disarm her readers with witty neologisms—her “wasband” for her ex-husband, her “noga pants,” for yoga pants in which she does no yoga—and to almost convince readers that she believes that her life, where she won a high school beauty pageant and made out with a boyfriend near Eliot House at Harvard while listening to Madame Butterfly, is just par for the course. There are some great moments in here: Salie takes responsibility for failure when she bombs an appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s show, and she is poignant and loving in describing the bond that breast-feeding created between her and her baby. When Salie is not trying to win the reader’s approval and writes from the heart, the memoir is as pleasing as they come. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/05/2016 | Details & Permalink

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I Want My Epidural Back: Adventures in Mediocre Parenting

Karen Alpert. Morrow, $19.99 (327p) ISBN 978-0-06-242708-3

New York Times–bestselling author Alpert (I Love My Little A-holes; the Baby Sideburns parenting blog) continues her comic routine on the indignities of motherhood with this witty collection of anecdotes and reflections on parenting. This hilarious memoir of “mediocre” parenting in the 21st century covers everything from bribing kids with screen time to attempting crafts seen on Pinterest. Alpert affectionately refers to her two children, Zoey and Holden, as “douchenuggets.” She upends helicopter parenting in favor of a more realistic “half-assed” multitasking. Acknowledging the less glamorous side of parenting, she comically writes about the trials of potty training and planning birthday parties for six-year-olds at a “bounce house.” With titles like “And for Dinner I Gave My Kids an Eating Disorder,” and “Bedtime Is for Succcckers” she delightfully chronicles life as a “kickass mediocre parent.” She also composes lists on such topics as “Shit I do that I know I shouldn’t do,” such as letting the TV babysit, and “10 things I’m gonna say from now on when someone tries to tell me how to parent MY child.” Alpert is honest, humbling, and crass in this irreverent account on parenting. She doesn’t miss a beat, and mothers will find this playful book reassuring and endlessly funny, knowing they’re not the only ones who struggle to get their kids to wipe after going to the bathroom. (May)

Reviewed on 02/05/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal About the Meaning of Life

Steven Hyden. Back Bay, $16.99 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-0-316-25915-6

Freelance pop-culture writer Hyden puts his knowledge of pop music and pop culture on full display in his first book. Though the premise of debating the merits of one band or artist over another may seem a bit contrived, Hyden notes in the preface that he is “not interested in settling these arguments,” which allows him to take his deliberations in fun and original directions. For instance, investigating his own dislike of Blur and his love of Oasis leads Hyden to quote early 20th-century sociologist Charles Cooley, so that he can talk about “how a person’s indemnity is shaped by... the ways in which that individual thinks he or she is perceived by others.” In another example, Pearl Jam versus Nirvana evolves into an exploration of what’s more important: sacrifice or survival. If Nick Hornby’s writing had a love child with Chuck Klosterman’s, the result would be Hyden’s clever prose, as evidenced by his funny-because-it’s-true line about Eric Clapton: “He’s the Vince Carter of guitar legends.” By combining music journalism and pop psychology with some of his own life lessons, Hyden has created a literary mix tape that will be music to pop-culture junkies and the music-obsessed. Agent: Anthony Mattero, Foundry Literary. (May)

Reviewed on 02/05/2016 | Details & Permalink

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