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Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy

Melvin Konner. Norton, $26.95 (400p) ISBN 978-0-393-23996-6

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Professor of anthropology Konner’s bold and new book (following The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind) claims that “gender identity is at its core something biological,” and that there are psychological and behavioral differences between men and women that aren’t culturally constructed. Moreover, Konner writes that the world will be a better place when women are finally leading it. Specifically, women exhibit superiority in terms of efficiency, cooperation, reliability, and lower levels of violence. Konner begins by examining the varieties of gender in animal species, including black widow spiders, elephant seals, and baboons. Compiling findings from numerous studies, he uncovers fascinating patterns in the genders. He reviews human history from its beginnings and focuses on two traits associated with men—violence and sexuality—drawing out the interplay between biology and socialization. This leads to a disturbing section on slave labor and sexual violence against women, abruptly followed by a discussion of the role of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields. Konner’s treatise is carefully referenced and clearly written throughout, but it’s the intricately constructed argument that gender identities are rooted in biology that treads new ground. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life

Eric Greitens. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-0-544-32398-8

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Former Navy SEAL Greitens (The Warrior’s Heart) builds on letters he wrote to a struggling comrade in this no-nonsense self-help book filled with lessons that can apply to anyone’s life. After Greitens’s friend Zach Walker returned from Afghanistan, he battled a lack of direction, PTSD, and alcoholism. The two reconnected and began writing and speaking often, after being out of touch for years. In a series of 23 letters, Greitens imparts his own hard-won wisdom. “If we limit our understanding of resilience to this idea of bouncing back, we miss much of what hardship, pain, and suffering offer us,” he writes. He also addresses topics like happiness, leadership, identity, responsibility, mastering pain, developing vocations, allowing yourself to relax, and even how to prepare for death. Using anecdotes from his own life, the two men’s shared military training, and ancient philosophers and warriors such as Epictetus, Philoctetes, and Seneca, Greitens sets out a series of practical lessons designed to move his friend—and readers—past difficulties. Greitens doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulties involved in following his advice, but he convincingly argues that those who accept it are on the road to a brighter future. This book is a gift not only to Greitens’s comrades-in-arms, but to readers everywhere. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Just Kids from the Bronx: Telling It the Way It Was, An Oral History

Arlene Alda. Holt, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-1-62779-095-6

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Alda has compiled a fabulous collection of 65 brief oral histories from a wide range of people who began their lives in the Bronx. The assortment of childhood memories begin as far back as the 1920s, move through the 1940s and 1950s, and end with those born in the late 1980s. Contributors include Carl Reiner, Colin Powell, and—among younger names—dancer Amar Ramasar and Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr. While the borough’s underdog status is acknowledged (Odgen Nash’s “The Bronx? No Thonx?” gets quoted), the general tenor is fond and wistful. Mary Higgins Clark sets the tone by dubbing the area one of “only three places in the world that have a the in front of their names: the Vatican, The Hague, and the Bronx.” Stories often recall the mundane: stickball in the streets, trying to get “home before dark,” the unforgettable smell of bakeries and delis. Al Pacino recalls teachers who changed his life, and an urban planner remembers his mother drilling him on the subway system before sending him off alone at age 9. There are few readers who won’t be touched by this affectionate look backward, which is as much about the universal state of childhood as the specific borough of the Bronx. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog

James Grissom. Knopf, $30 (416p) ISBN 978-0-307-26569-2

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“Be my witness.” This was Tennessee Williams’s unexpected response to Grissom, who had written to the playwright looking for advice as a college-aged aspiring writer from Baton Rouge in 1982. As recorded in this uniquely personal blend of road trip and literary history, Grissom proceeded to spend several days in New Orleans with the great writer, recording the older man’s reminiscences in notebooks. Desperate to know that he still mattered, Williams made Grissom swear to seek out and talk to the women who had most shaped his work and life. In 1988, years after Williams’s death, Grissom began to seek out these names and make good on his promise. The cast is a memorable one: earthy Maureen Stapleton; delicate but determined Jessica Tandy; the two Kims, Hunter and Stanley; and even the inimitable Katherine Hepburn. In a series of conversations by turns philosophical, pragmatic, funny, and devastating, all discuss their lives, craft, and the art of surviving. The narrative can be meandering, and the language gauzy (perhaps not surprisingly, considering its subject), but Grissom has succeeded in creating a kaleidoscopic meditation on the people that entered Williams’s imagination—“the fog”—to become his signature characters. 48 color photos. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Selected Letters of Norman Mailer

Edited by J. Michael Lennon. Random, $40 (896p) ISBN 978-1-4000-6623-0

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Mailer’s ambition to be the greatest writer of his generation is made clear in his stylish, sophisticated letters. The novelist wrote at least 45,000 over the course of his long life, and this fascinating and lively volume reprints many hundreds (716, to be precise). The book begins in 1940, when Mailer was a Harvard undergraduate, and ends with just weeks before his death in 2007; his letters span from the atom bomb to the Huffington Post, in other words. A list of Mailer’s correspondents reads like a guide to 20th-century history and literature: Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Fidel Castro, Hunter S. Thompson, Graham Greene, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, and dozens of others. Mailer’s extensive correspondence with Jack Abbott reveals that Mailer remained friendly with him, even years after Abbott returned to prison for manslaughter. Mailer’s legendary combative side is also on display, as when he tells Gordon Lish, “what your work catches is everything I detest about modern life.” Lennon proves an ideal guide, expertly assembling a tidal wave of letters into a tidy, chronological selection. In the end, Mailer’s letters stand as the best autobiography available for such a complicated and extraordinary life. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Selected Letters of Langston Hughes

Edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel, with Christa Fratantoro. Knopf, $35 (480p) ISBN 978-0-375-41379-7

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Best known for poems such as “Montage of a Dream Deferred” and fiction such as the wry Semple stories, Hughes was also a prolific letter writer. When his friend Carl Van Vechten started a collection of African-American-related materials at Yale in 1941, Hughes immediately pledged all his papers. The sheer quantity of Hughes’s correspondence could easily fill many volumes, and this first-ever collection was judiciously assembled by Hughes’s biographer Rampersad, Roessel, who co-edited The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes with Rampersad, and Fratantoro. Arranged chronologically, the letters show the ups and downs of Hughes’s life, his financial and creative insecurities, and his support of younger writers. Literary stars such as Blanche Knopf, Countee Cullen, Ezra Pound, and Zora Neale Hurston, among many others, parade through the pages. Some of the most revealing selections include Hughes’s 1921 letters to his father about his desire to leave Columbia University, his loving and desperately self-effacing letters to his patron Charlotte Osgood Mason, and various letters detailing his discovery of a young Alice Walker. The book also reveals Hughes’s occasional ambivalence toward fellow African-American authors, as in his observation that James Baldwin “over-writes and over-poeticizes in images way over the heads of the folks supposedly thinking them.” The cumulative effect of the letters is to provide a fitting companion to Rampersad’s two-volume biography of Hughes. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia

Michael Booth. Picador USA , $26 (400p) ISBN 978-1-250-06196-6

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In his latest cultural exploration, British journalist and travel writer Booth (Eat Pray Eat) covers the countries that invariably dominate the top ten lists of best/healthiest/most egalitarian places to live: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. Beginning with his adopted home of Denmark, Booth sets out to address whether the quality of life in Nordic countries is really so high, and if so, why. He describes the Danes’ relaxed attitude toward work and their almost aggressive egalitarianism. The latter is a trait shared by many of their Nordic neighbors and epitomized by the Jante Law (a Danish ten commandments of sorts), which states that one shouldn’t think he’s better than anyone else and that no one should be made fun of. That’s tough for Booth, whose dry wit permeates the book, but he skillfully avoids mockery (he treats Icelanders’ persistent belief in elves with restraint). Norway’s “decentralized population of small, isolated communities speaking hundreds of regional dialects, coupled with a heightened respect for their natural surroundings, are two of the keys to understanding the Norwegians,” Booth writes. But he also discovers some chinks in the utopian armor: isolationism, persistent racism, a distrust of foreigners, and growing fissures in a classless society (as more and more Danish parents steer their children toward private schools, for example). Booth has written an immersive, insightful, and often humorous examination of a most curious culture. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos

Bobby Derie. Hippocampus (www.hippocampuspress.com), $20 (314p) ISBN 978-1-61498-088-9

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Gahan Wilson's cover illustration of a Cthulhuoid flasher possibly says it all, but Derie boldly probes every wrinkle of his subject, from such classic H.P. Lovecraft tales as "The Call of Cthulhu" to their interface with Japanese tentacle porn, and onward even into the trivia of fan fiction. A slow start on HPL's own sex life—he didn't really have one of interest, even to himself—gets hotter when psychosexual aspects surface in the fiction. Influenced by the great Arthur Machen, Lovecraft and fellow scribes such as Robert E. Howard and August Derleth—Derleth, now he had a sex life—created the Mythos. This book is at its best covering those works, or such obvious Derie favorites as Brian McNaughton. Too bad some later figures, like the often brilliant gay Mythos writer Stanley C. Sargent, receive scant mention. Putting the topic to bed, Derie—perhaps seeking a veneer of objectivity—concludes that, sometimes, a tentacle is just a tentacle. Really? After 300 pages citing endless Cthulhu erotica? (Sept.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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There Was and There Was Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia, and Beyond

Meline Toumani. Metropolitan, $28 (304p) ISBN 978-0-8050-9762-7

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Born in Iran and raised in the United States, Toumani always knew that she was first, an Armenian. Her childhood was punctuated by commemorations of the 1915 killing of Armenians by the Turkish government and resentment at Turkey's refusal to admit that this was an act of genocide. As Toumani enters adulthood, she begins to wonder if "there was a way to honor history without being suffocated by it." This leads to a two-year odyssey across Turkey in search of, not truth, but explanations. She learns that rather than acknowledging slaughter, Turkish history classes brand Armenians as traitors who had fought against Turkey in WWI and had been deported as a result. She makes Turkish friends who are eager to help her search but when she tells her aunt how kind they are to her, the woman is horrified. In the end, Toumani concludes that, if hate is all that holds a group together, there is no reason for it to exist. This book doesn't take sides but it does show what these old grudges do to people living. This is a powerful memoir with a message for all who were raised to see only one side of a story. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Knit It! Learn the Basics and Knit 22 Beautiful Projects

Melissa Leapman. Chronicle, $22.95 paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-4521-2451-3

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Unlike many newbie knitting guides, Leapman's teaches and inspires in equal measure. No more suffering through dull projects until reaching the good stuff—this is the good stuff! The introductory material in "The Basics" section contains clear illustrations of each stitch and elementary stitch combinations, along with easy to follow directions on shaping garments; casting on and binding off; using double-pointed or circular needles; fixing mistakes; and blocking finished projects. Color photographs by Alexandra Grablewski of swatch samples further inspire beginners to pick up their needles and continue right on to the second half, which includes covetable projects from the drapey "Let it Flow" jacket knit in stockinette stitch from side to side, to the quick, striped tie "Tie One On" done entirely in garter stitch. Nothing is dumbed down, not "Color Me Mine," a baby blanket knit on the diagonal, nor the simple and adorable decorative stuffed hearts of "Home is Where the Heart Is." Luckily, the more involved projects aren't too difficult to tackle using just the author's clear instructions and her helpful advice. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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