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Moral Agents: Eight 20th-Century American Writers

Edward Mendelson. New York Review Books, $21.95 (224p) ISBN 978-1-59017-776-1

Mendelson takes a fascinating look at the public personas and private selves of eight well-known male writers in 20th-century America, profiling them in relation to literature and the larger culture. The book begins with cultural critic Lionel Trilling, a "quietly dominating figure," and his belief that he had failed to be his true self in his writings and public life. Mendelson goes on to discuss the ways that Trilling's work was affected by his troubled marriage to Diana Trilling. The other profiles feature critics Dwight Macdonald and Alfred Kazin; authors Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, and William Maxwell; and poets W.H. Auden and Frank O'Hara. Each profile comes with a heading—"Sage" for Trilling, "Mythmaker" for Mailer, "Outsider" for Kazin—that describes in some way the writer's public image, though Mendelson often suggests that a one-word label can't provide the whole picture. He draws on letters, essays, short stories, passages from novels, and poems to explore his subjects' personal beliefs, such as how Auden related his Christian faith to his homosexuality. The essays on Maxwell, Trilling, and Auden are more engaging than the others, but all offer welcome insight into the lives and impact of the authors. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Bob's Red Mill Everyday Gluten-Free Cookbook

Camilla V. Saulsbury. Robert Rose (Firefly Books, North American dist.), $24.95 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-0-7788-0500-7

Saulsbury, author of more than a dozen cookbooks and creator of the cooking blog powerhungry.com, uses gluten-free grains and other natural ingredients in 281 recipes for a wide range of entrées, side dishes and desserts. The ancient grains used in the book are described extensively, and cooking methods are fully explained. Many recipes require pre-cooking the grains prior to incorporating them in the recipes, which does increase preparation time. Precise measuring is important for these recipes, including following the different methods Saulsbury prescribes to measure dry, moist, and liquid ingredients. Ingredient substitutions are not recommended—substituting one flour or grain for another will lead to unwanted results. However, when Saulsbury's instructions are followed to the letter, the results are generally delicious. Whole grains seem particularly well suited to baking. The multigrain blueberry muffins and date squares are very good and will be enjoyed even by people not required to follow a gluten-free diet. Stews fare less well; even spruced up with avocado, mango, cilantro, lime, and spices, some are a little bland. Photos. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America's Colony

Nelson A. Denis. Perseus/Nation, $28.99 (400p) ISBN 978-1-56858-501-7

Denis, former editorial director of Spanish-language daily newspaper El Diario, reveals the true face of American imperialism in its own backyard through the history of military occupation, economic exploitation, and weak leadership that led to the October 1950 armed revolt in the Puerto Rican towns of Jayuya and Utuado. He shares the stories of young revolutionaries, federal agents, corrupt governors, and Pedro Albizu Campos, a man born into the lowest social tier who would become the president of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico. Characters such as Waller Booth, an undercover agent for the OSS (the precursor to the CIA) known by locals only as the proprietor of a nameless nightclub, take on weight through Denis's firm grip on narrative and attention to detail. Structurally, however, the book is weakly organized into three parts: Facts, People and Places. Forgoing a straight chronology, the anecdotes of minor and major players are often padded with points that are repeatedly explained. Nonetheless, Denis's meticulous research reveals an often overlooked element of American history and provides context to the current status of Puerto Rico as a U.S. territory. Photos. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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A Narco History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the "Mexican Drug War"

Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace. OR Books, $17 trade paper (250p) ISBN 978-1-939293-79-4

Mexican novelist Boullosa and Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Wallace analyze Mexico's unending and increasingly violent conflicts over the production, transport, and sale of illegal drugs. They begin in September 2014 with the wrenching tale of 43 students from a rural teacher-training college. After the students crossed local authorities who were intimately connected to major drug cartels, they were abducted and murdered. The authors emphasize the importance of the U.S. in these conflicts, and their goal is to help American readers understand the century-long history of which the murder of the students was the "sanguinary dénouement." While the writing is unpolished, Boullosa and Wallace make a convincing case that the roots of the current crisis stretch back to the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, and that Americans' seemingly infinite appetite for narcotics, particularly cocaine, allowed south-of-the-border cartels to gain immense wealth and power even as the U.S. declared a "war on drugs" under Ronald Reagan. With plodding prose and a flood of factual detail, the book is neither easy nor particularly enjoyable to read, but it offers a meticulously researched and lucidly organized overview of a topic that is of great significance in contemporary debates in American foreign policy and law enforcement. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About Them

Joseph Stiglitz. Norton, $27.95 (384p) ISBN 978-0-393-24857-9

Nobel Prize–winning economist Stiglitz's collection of recent essays is a fine, if at times repetitive, look at the steady increase in income inequality throughout the world over the past several years. Stiglitz (The Price of Inequality) contends that a number of U.S. policies created in the last 30 years have contributed both to this phenomenon and to the Great Recession. He also argues that trickle-down economics and the "too big to fail" arguments of the financial industry have led the U.S. down a dangerous path that disrupts innovation, lowers life expectancy, and will cripple the country economically for the next few decades. He proposes any number of solutions that would reduce income inequality and the power of the wealthiest 1% but also seriously increase the scope of government. The essays are grouped thematically into different sections with titles like "Dimensions of Inequality" and "Policy." While many would work perfectly well as standalones, when grouped together they risk boring the reader with redundant background information. That said, with this book Stiglitz has succeeded in breaking down complex economic concepts into language that educated laypeople can understand, and readers will be fascinated by his ideas. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Elvis Is King: Costello's My Aim Is True

Richard Crouse. ECW Press (Legato, U.S. dist.; Jaguar Book Group, Canadian dist.), $12.95 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-77041-188-3

Pop culture writer and critic Crouse takes a fresh look at Elvis Costello's 1977 debut, My Aim Is True. He delves into the songs, but more interesting are his forays into everything that contributed to the album's success. 1970s English culture and the ways that the punk music movement was changing the industry are as important as Stiff Records and producer Nick Lowe, who took a chance on an unknown pub-rocker. Costello's name change from Declan MacManus and his image makeover were key factors, along with his prickly personality on stage and in interviews. Readers learn about backup bands, promotion, and media reaction, all contributing to a deeper understanding of the LP's influence. Crouse includes new and archival interviews, but alas, there's nothing original from Costello himself. The author keeps his adoration for the album—"Elvis's raw energy and anger... spoke to me in a way nothing had before"—confined to the introduction, though there is little doubt the entire project is a labor of love that many readers will find contagious as listen to My Aim Is True again or for the first time. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Digestive Health Solution: Your Personalized Five-Step Plan for Inside-Out Digestive Wellness

Benjamin I. Brown. Exisle Publishing (Quarto, dist.), $24.95 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-921966-68-2

First-time author and naturopath Brown takes an intensely focused look at the causes, effects, and treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in this in-depth primer on a disease that has become a global epidemic. Kicking off with a straightforward dissection of the many medical myths surrounding IBS, including the dismissive idea that it exists largely in the minds of sufferers, Brown then offers tips on diagnosing IBS, identifying its symptoms and what can cause them—stress, sleep deprivation, food intolerances, past acute gastrointestinal infections—before discussing ways in which one can combat symptoms. A neatly laid-out five-week plan provides a comprehensive pick-and-choose arsenal of tools to control IBS, such as supplements, pre- and probiotics, diet, and stress management techniques. The book is exhaustive and at times slightly repetitious, but Brown's knowledge of IBS is undeniably vast and his statements are backed by well-documented research. Those who suffer from IBS will appreciate and benefit from his guidance. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis

Edited by Keith Gessen and Stephen Squibb.. Faber and Faber/n+1, $17 trade paper (496p) ISBN 978-0-86547-831-2

The spirited, eye-opening examinations of various American cities in this intelligent collection of essays, many republished from n+1 magazine, tell a common story of economic vibrancy and ambitious vision followed by "postindustrial malaise," economic depression, ecological devastation, and rising crime. Some chapters peer revealingly into small pockets of a business or a lifestyle; others analyze structures such as highways, skyscrapers, and schools. The most thoughtful and thought-provoking provide personalized histories of various cities' struggles, illuminating their current economics (a study of denim production in Greensboro, N.C.; another of a brothel in Washington, D.C.), colorful pasts, and attempts at renewal: fracking in Williston, N.D., volunteerism in New Orleans, the DestiNY U.S.A. mall in Syracuse, N.Y., and reality TV in Whittier, Alaska. While the collection paints a depressing picture of the modern American city as home to strangling politics, entrenched racism, and desperate poverty, and subject to ongoing gentrification and exploitation by the very wealthy, several essays sow seeds of hope for a more promising future: one of environmental renewal and new civic institutions that can renegotiate livable, thriving communities out of a present crisis and a blighted past. (May)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town

Jon Krakauer. Doubleday, $28.95 (384p) ISBN 978-0-385-53873-2

Sexual-assault victims are routinely met with indifference and incomprehension, according to this impassioned study of campus rape. Journalist Krakauer (Into Thin Air) follows a rash of rapes at the University of Montana in Missoula from 2010 to 2012, events that sparked a furor and a Justice Department investigation; Krakauer sticks with two cases in particular through agonizing courtroom dramas, spotlighting the two obstacles to justice. The first is haphazard investigation, made worse by the callousness and suspicion about the motives of women making rape allegations on the part of the university administration, the Missoula Police, and the county attorney's office. (The county's chief sexual-assault attorney quit and joined the defense in a high-profile rape case against the University's star quarterback.) The second is the counterintuitive behavior of traumatized victims, which often undermines their claims. (The quarterback's accuser failed to call for help from her nearby roommate, then sent an innocuous text message with a smiley icon and drove her alleged assailant home after the attack.) Krakauer's evocative reporting, honed to a fine edge of anger, vividly conveys the ordeal of victims and their ongoing psychological dislocations. The result is a hard-hitting true-crime exposé that looks underneath the he-said-she-said to get at the sexist assumptions that help cover up and enable these crimes. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/24/2015 | Details & Permalink

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