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Behind the Smile: A Story of Carol Moseley Braun’s Historic Senate Campaign

Jeannie Morris. Agate/Midway, $27 (384p) ISBN 978-1-57284-176-5

Braun, who became the first female African-American U.S. senator in 1992 (and the only female African-American U.S. senator to date), allowed Chicago-area sports journalist Morris (Brian Piccolo: A Short Season) close access to her campaign that year. This sympathetic but critical book recalls the inspiring effect of Braun’s story. When she started her run for the Senate, she was an obscure Illinois county clerk, but she became a star at the Democratic National Convention. Morris pays equal attention, however, to the scandals that marred Braun’s political career. Her 30-point lead fell precipitously in the campaign’s last few months after she was accused of Medicaid fraud for “laundering” money her mother earned while in a nursing home. Just two weeks before the election, female staffers accused Braun’s campaign manager—with whom she was romantically involved—of sexual harassment, but the story did not go public until after the election, which Braun won by 10 points. Her reputation was further tarnished by charges that her campaign had misplaced campaign funds. Morris briefly covers Braun’s subsequent political career: she lost a 1998 re-election bid to a no-name Republican, ran briefly in the 2004 Democratic presidential primary, and then ran for mayor of Chicago in 2011. This is a gripping, fast-paced story, but since it comes more than 20 years after the events it describes, it will primarily be of interest to political junkies. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Constitutional Personae: Heroes, Soldiers, Minimalists, and Mutes

Cass R. Sunstein. Oxford Univ., $24.95 (192p) ISBN 978-0-190222-67-3

Sunstein (Nudge), a law professor and former head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration, has crafted a valuable study of the different approaches that Supreme Court justices take in deciding cases. As the title indicates, he believes there are four such categories: heroes, who use their decisions to effect major changes; soldiers, who follow precedent and historical practice; minimalists, who make incremental changes; and mutes, who avoid addressing major issues. The categories are not rigid; some justices will be minimalists on some cases and soldiers on others, for example. But beyond this useful taxonomy—which is independent of political slant, so the justices responsible for the majority decisions in Bush v. Gore and Brown v. Board of Education are both filed as heroic—Sunstein makes a compelling case as to which persona is most apt for the immense power the Supreme Court wields, namely minimalism, which is informed by the belief that “human beings, and judges in particular have a limited stock of reason,” dictating a sense of humility. Given the significance of recent Supreme Court decisions on such issues as campaign finance, health care coverage, and marriage equality, Sunstein has performed a public service by enabling a better comprehension of how these judgments are reached. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Good Thinking: What You Need to Know to be Smarter, Safer, Wealthier, and Wiser

Guy P. Harrison. Prometheus Books, $17 trade paper (290p) ISBN SBN 978-1-63388-064-1

Journalist Harrison (Think) instructs readers that honing critical thinking skills and embracing healthy skepticism will help them avoid the many pitfalls of ignorance in contemporary life. His targets include the bustling $34 billion–per-year alternative medicine business, “new age gurus” and their self-help books, and lying politicians. He outlines “the Dirty Dozen,” 12 common mistakes in reasoning, including straw-person arguments, wishful thinking, and ad hominem attacks. In a lesson on neuroscience, Harrison explains what’s currently known about the brain’s evolutionary journey and its anatomy, from the vitals-regulating brain stem to the fight-or-flight impulses of the amygdala. He follows this section with advice for brain maintenance, such as a balanced diet, exercise, and adequate rest. A number of experts are also quoted, including medical professionals, anthropologists, paranormal investigators, and astronomers, to help dispel conspiracy theories, explain the brain’s capacities and limitations, and argue in favor of “good thinking.” Harrison proves himself an excellent guide to reasonable thought in the “swirling, festering ball of lies and madness” that is the modern world. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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When the Sick Rule the World

Dodie Bellamy. Semiotext(e), $17.95 trade paper (248p) ISBN 978-1-58435-168-9

Experimental writer Bellamy (The TV Sutras) blends confessional essay, short story, and memoir in this so-so collection. The stories and essays, set mostly in San Francisco, variously track Bellamy’s life as a creative writing professor, involvement with writing groups (“The Feminist Writers’ Guild”), struggles with chronic pain (“When the Sick Rule the World”), the lingering death of Bellamy’s mother (“Phone Home”), and interactions with and influence by experimental feminist writers such as Eileen Miles and Kathy Acker (as explored, respectively, in “Barf Manifesto” and “Digging Through Kathy Acker’s Stuff”). Some of the more memoiristic essays shine, including “Whistle While You Dixie,” “Phone Home,” and “In the Shadows of Twitter Towers,” but other pieces fall somewhat flat, subsiding into undistinguished prose (“It’s like I’ve had a vision, and I see clearly: all art is political”) or rambling on unnecessarily, as in the overextended “The Beating of Our Hearts.” This collection is an interesting experiment in hybrid prose that doesn’t quite add up to something greater than its individual parts. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War

Eric Bennett. Univ. of Iowa, $22.50 ISBN 978-1-60938-371-8

Novelist Bennett (A Big Enough Lie) takes a look at American creative writing programs that avoids the tired “New York or MFA?” question. Instead, he considers how M.F.A. writing programs first emerged in the U.S., and how creative writing gained recognition as an academic discipline. Specifically, he examines two groundbreaking figures—poet, critic, and editor Paul Engle, founder of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and novelist and historian Wallace Stegner, founder of Stanford’s M.F.A. program—who were influenced in equal measure by personal visions for American literature and by the larger forces of Cold War politics. Along the way, Bennett probes various contributing factors, including the rise of the New Humanism, fear of totalitarianism, academic ambivalence toward popular culture and advertising, and the merging of corporate and government interests in combating communism. The territory and the prose may prove a tad dry for casual readers, but for students of American history and literature, or academics interested in the history of creative writing, this text provides fertile ground for discussion and thought. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building

David J. Peterson. Penguin, $17 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-0-14-312646-1

Peterson, the creator of the Dothraki language for HBO’s Game of Thrones and Irathient and Castithan for Syfy’s Defiance, reveals the steps he takes to invent new languages in this detailed guide. Equal parts fascinating, challenging, and geeky, the book focuses on four key elements every “conlanger”—someone who creates “constructed language”—must consider: sounds, words, language evolution, and written language. Popular phrases from a variety of constructed languages are included, as is a helpful glossary. Peterson (Living Language Dothraki) writes with witty flair, and in a lengthy introduction explains the rapid rise of the conlang phenomenon over the last few decades, with references to Princess Leia, J.R.R. Tolkien, William Shatner, and pig Latin. A shorter postscript explores conlanging’s future. Readers with only a casual interest in Peterson’s unique specialty can satisfy their curiosity just with these two sections. Others who stick with him throughout the entire book will finish it either highly motivated to try conlanging themselves or completely turned off by the idea. Either way, they’ll learn more about linguistics than they ever learned in school. Agent: Joanna Volpe, New Leaf Literary. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World

David Jaher. Crown, $28 (448p) ISBN 978-0-307-45106-4

Jaher brings Harry Houdini’s crusade against spiritualism back into popular knowledge in his gripping first book. At one point, Houdini thought his legacy would be that crusade, not his death-defying magic tricks. Spiritualism, a 19th-century religious movement predicated on belief in communication with spirits, experienced a resurgence after WWI. Houdini had posed as a medium early in his career and knew all the tricks of fake mediums, so when Scientific American held a controversial contest awarding a cash prize to any medium who passed their scientific tests, Houdini sat on the five-person jury. Through that contest he met Mina “Margery” Crandon, one of the most famous and convincing mediums in the country. Despite the conviction of his fellow judges, Houdini declared Crandon a fake and reproduced—to much public consternation—the feats that brought her notoriety. Jaher paints a fascinating portrait of spiritualism in at this time (Arthur Conan Doyle, a huge proponent, makes many appearances) and notes the anti-Semitism and sexism directed at Houdini and Crandon, respectively. Jaher meanders before reaching his main focus, but it’s a small price for such a fascinating look at the Spiritualist movement in 1920s America. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Nixon Tapes: 1973

Edited and annotated by Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35 (880p) ISBN 978-0-544-61053-8

In this conclusion to their two volume transcription of President Richard Nixon’s secret White House recordings, following 2014’s The Nixon Tapes: 1971–1972, historians Brinkley and Nichter skillfully abridge and comment on over 3,000 hours of conversation: a priceless, if largely unreadable, historical document. The book opens with Nixon still glowing from his 1972 re-election yet irritated by fallout from the Watergate burglary six months earlier. Nixon had no direct role in the break-in, but he worried that an investigation might uncover his pervasive program of domestic intelligence and harassment of political enemies. The transcriptions make dismally clear that his clumsy, cynical, and often illegal efforts to keep the burglars quiet led to his downfall. Though Watergate dominates the proceedings, many sections recount Nixon’s achievements: opening relations with China, easing tensions with the U.S.S.R., and creating the modern financial system. Unlike Hollywood-style representations of crystal-clear secret recordings, these real-life conversations are rambling, turgid, choppy, garbled, and often incomprehensible. Jewels turn up, but searching for them is a job only scholars could love. Readers will enjoy the editors’ insightful introductions to each section, but may want to skim the actual transcript. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Germany: Memories of a Nation

Neil MacGregor. Knopf, $40 (656p) ISBN 978-1-101-87566-7

As with A History of the World in 100 Objects, MacGregor, director of the British Museum, here constructs a materialist history, spinning a collection of historical vignettes from objects both ordinary and extraordinary. MacGregor’s survey of German history moves erratically in its journey from the German victory over the Romans in 9 C.E. to the 21st century, but he maintains a theme in the innate fragmentation of German identity—a fragmentation based as much on ideology as geography. Through artifacts as varied as a sausage, Gutenberg Bibles, and a porcelain rhinoceros, MacGregor illustrates how a composite German identity was forged and the country came to be. He argues that Germany alone among European countries is as obsessed with its future as with its past, repeatedly returning to the pull of memory and ambition among the German people; he notes the humiliations of Napoleon’s conquest that once unified Germany, as well as the Nazi atrocities that haunted the divided nation generations later. MacGregor addresses the great paradox of Germany’s rich humanist tradition and its fall into fascism and authoritarianism, which historians can gesture at but never resolve. His concise lessons in German history form a cogent and fluent account that gets as close to the core of German identity as any book by a non-German could. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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A Field Philosopher’s Guide to Fracking: How One Texas Town Stood Up to Big Oil and Gas

Adam Briggle. Norton/Liveright, $26.95 (352p) ISBN 978-1-63149-007-1

Briggle, a philosophy professor at the University of North Texas, had never heard of fracking until he moved to Denton, Tex., in 2009. But he soon learned that there are 250 gas wells in Denton alone, “that fracking had sparked a global energy revolution,” and that it had become a “contentious political issue.” In this blunt yet hopeful chronology, Briggle confers with scientists, engineers, policy makers, and fellow citizens to gain a broad overview of fracking. Known technically as hydraulic fracturing, the process involves blasting rock formations with sand, water, and chemicals in order to extract oil and gas. Briggle details its negative effects on the environment and the health risks it poses to surrounding communities. He works on a grassroots level as well to ban fracking in Denton itself, helping to establish the Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group, whose campaign efforts and accomplishments form a chunk of the narrative. And because positions on fracking don’t neatly map onto traditional American political notions of left and right, Briggle delineates the competing worldviews of those he dubs “precautionaries” and “proactionaries.” Briggle’s philosophical framing of the conversation sets his work apart and helps provide further insight on this divisive topic. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/31/2015 | Details & Permalink

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