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Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted

Edited by Laura Caldwell and Leslie S. Klinger. Liveright, $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-63149-088-0

Caldwell and Klinger collect 15 “Kafkaesque” stories from exonerated convicts, as told to popular writers of mystery and crime fiction. Sara Paretsky narrates the chilling ordeal of a man threatened and tortured by Chicago PD into a false confession and incarcerated for 11 years. Laurie R. King provides the account of an Army veteran who was convicted of raping a child after being misidentified by witnesses and police operating under the influence of racial bias. In a previously unpublished essay, Arthur Miller argues against capital punishment, using the example of a teenager wrongfully convicted of murdering his mother. The exonerees report PTSD, humiliation, suicidal ideation, and “soul-crushing monotony” while in prison. For one individual who served 25 years, it didn’t end there, as he was forced to register as a sex offender, wear an ankle monitor, and avoid children before his exoneration. Each chapter is introduced with a brief synopsis of what went wrong and ends with an editors’ note containing facts and figures related to issues like prison overcrowding, DNA testing, the evolution of forensic science, and the scourge of inadequate legal counsel. With these stories, the authors and editors provide a list of symptoms for an illness that is plaguing the justice system, bringing desperately needed awareness to the issues involved in wrongful convictions. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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American Originality: Essays on Poetry

Louise Glück. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25 (208p) ISBN 978-0-374-71675-2

In Glück’s second book of essays (after Proofs and Theories), she carefully considers the makeup of the American aesthetic as a doctor would diagnose a patient. She begins with pragmatism, noting that an alternative interpretation of “self-made” is to make oneself up; in other words, create a self that is a lie. In discussing contemporary poetic narcissism’s historical roots, Glück denounces weak imitations of Dickinson and Rilke. She explores uses of non sequitur, both effective, such as by Frank O’Hara, and ineffective, as vehicles for “intellectual fraud.” Glück’s characteristic wit and incisiveness are ever present. In highlighting C.K. Williams’s ability to contain multiple universes of alternate scenarios, she declares these poems to “have more other hands than a Hindu god.” In “Fear of Happiness,” Glück explores the artistic fixation on suffering, arguing that the artist who insists on pain as a prerequisite to creation is locked in a cycle of dependency and—even worse—banality. The middle section contains introductory essays culled from a decade of judging first-book poetry prizes, including illuminating analysis of Dana Levin, Richard Siken, and Jessica Fisher, among others. This is advanced literary theory, requiring careful reading and a fair amount of background knowledge of contemporary poetry, but Glück’s tone is conversational and accessible, and her opinions are invaluable. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled From India to Europe for Love

Per J. Andersson, trans. from the Swedish by Anna Holmwood. Oneworld (PGW, dist.), $19.99 trade paper (276p) ISBN 978-1-78607-033-3

Andersson, a cofounder of the Swedish travel magazine Vagabond, chronicles the life of an Indian man known as PK, an “untouchable” whose ambitions and accomplishments soar far beyond the confines set by the strict caste system into which he is born. At PK’s birth, a village astrologer predicts that he “will marry a girl from far, far away.” Andersson paints an intimate, authoritative picture of PK’s quest to fulfill this prophecy, often filled with sumptuous prose: on a hot day in New Delhi, “the asphalt” is “English toffee” under “lead-colored clouds.” When PK does encounter Lotta, who has left her native Sweden to travel the world, readers immediately recognize the woman from the prophecy. This is not a work of suspense, though PK’s poverty, occasional homelessness, and suicide attempts provide moments of tension; rather, it is a romance, a travelogue, and a cultural critique. PK’s determination fuels the tale: he leaves his boyhood in the jungle to become a “famous painter” who undertakes a bicycle trip to Sweden after he meets Lotta. As Andersson writes, PK begins his journey “on two wheels, powered by grit, tenacity, and... love.” This determination is more than enough to keep readers enthralled. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Alpine Apprentice: A Memoir

Sarah Gorham. Univ. of Georgia, $24.95 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-0-8203-5072-1

Gorham revisits her rebellious teen years in a remote Swiss boarding school with a deft authorial hand, blending the internal reflections of a bildungsroman novelist, the technical writing of a mountain geologist, and the outsider observations of a travelogue writer. She traffics in well-worn psychological terrain: dreams, her quest for a suitable mother figure, and most prominently, the elusive longing, or Sehnsucht, that permeates the whole book. But her experience is as fresh as new snow in Switzerland, especially if one didn’t come of age there. Photos, drawings, and letters from her school days combine with innovative food-centered musings to create a multimedia touch. Half a century removed from her experiences at school, she is as unflinching with herself and those who helped shape her as she is in describing the foreboding, brutal beauty of the Alps. Even as she wrestles with ambivalence for a place that sends mixed messages about community and control, her affection for the nation and school that were her temporary home is obvious. Gorham takes great care not to rush her story, foreshadowing a transformative accident at the school with subtlety and persistence while going on repeated Wanderungen. Photos & diagrams. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Aging Gracefully: Portraits of People Over 100

Karsten Thormaehlen. Chronicle, $29.95 (120p) ISBN 978-1-4521-4533-4

Thormaehlen, a German photographer, follows 2011’s Happy at Hundred with the latest output of his decades-long interest in photographing elderly people around the world. This collection features 52 simple naturalistic, color headshots of joyful, wrinkled centagenarians from all over the world, including Iceland, Japan, Peru, and the United States. Each portrait is presented side by side with a short, stylized biography drawn from conversations between Thormaehlen and his subjects during photographing sessions. Some of these mini biographies summarize notable life events in a few sentences (Olivia Hooker, an American, notes a scarring encounter with the KKK during the 1921 race riot in Tulsa, Okla.), and serve as miniature chronicles of social development over the 20th century. Others focus on the subject’s daily life, with tales of hobbies and visits from grandchildren. Life advice seeps into the paragraph on Johanna Spiekermann, whose husband died when she was 24, as she explains that her recipe for a long life is “a certain defiance” of tragedy. With sharp focus and studio lighting, the photos of these often smiling seniors depict appreciation of life through mischievous eyes and laugh lines, age spots and soft smiles, fragile skin and thoughtful looks. This is a gentle and uplifting celebration of the tail end of human experience. Color photos. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Tincture of Time: A Memoir of (Medical) Uncertainty

Elizabeth L. Silver. Penguin Press, $27 (256p) ISBN 978-1-101-98144-3

Silver’s (The Execution of Noa P. Singleton) memoir of her newborn daughter’s medical trauma is smartly conceived and well written. Medical is a parenthetical for a reason: “Our story is nothing. A two week NICU stay with no surgery thus far. A fever.” But it doesn’t feel like nothing to Silver and her husband, the parents of a six-week-old with seizures caused by a potentially tragic grade IV bleed in her brain. For two weeks, there is nothing to do but bide time while tiny Abby is prodded and poked. They wait for a diagnosis, for a certainty that will not come. Several social workers question them closely, looking for signs of abuse, an added stress that only stops when a scan turns up no signs of trauma. At her daughter’s lowest point, Silver’s sister-in-law arranges for 40 women to bake challah while saying prayers for Abby’s recovery. Silver watches via Skype, her thoughts wandering to Les Miserables and Amadeus and the power of music, distracting the reader from what the more poignant power of dozens of strangers united in one hope. It is this reliance on tropes like Google searches and dictionary definitions that sometimes dulls the emotional heart of her otherwise excellent book. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Schmuck in My Office: How to Deal Effectively with Difficult People at Work

Jody J. Foster and Michele Joy. St. Martin’s, $25.99 (336p) ISBN SBN 978-1-250-07567-3

Foster, chair of the psychiatry department at Pennsylvania Hospital, and Joy, a psychiatry resident at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, explore a topic just about everyone in the workplace can relate to: dealing with colleagues whose habits disrupt workflow and cause a variety of problems. The good news is that these types of behaviors, including bullying, micromanaging, and acting entitled, can all be addressed and corrected. The authors show how to identify disruptions, discuss the personality traits responsible, and share effective responses. They list disruptive personality types, including “drama kings and queens,” ”bean counter” types who bottleneck progress, and oddballs who just don’t fit in. They also invite readers to ponder whether they themselves are the “office schmucks.” Along the way, they share cringeworthy stories of difficult behavior and successful turnarounds that inspire. This is a timely must-read for managers and anyone who has ever had to deal with a difficult coworker; it addresses a ubiquitous problem in a proactive, positive manner that should get the desired results. Agent: Eric Lupfer, William Morris Endeavor. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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‘Over the Hills and Far Away’: The Life of Beatrix Potter

Matthew Dennison. Pegasus, $27.95 (272p) ISBN 978-1-78497-563-0

In his modest retelling of the life of famed children’s book author Beatrix Potter, Dennison (Behind the Mask) begins with her friendless childhood, in which her menagerie of pets became her companions (and in some cases, the basis for her characters); her fraught relationship with her parents; and her talent for drawing and keen interest in flora and fauna of all sorts. Dennison continues on with the famous letter that first told of the naughty bunny caught in Mr. McGregor’s garden; Potter’s bid for independence from her parents as she became a noted author, including a tragic courtship with her publisher, Norman Warne, who died before they could be married; and her turn to farming in her later years. Dennison makes strong connections between Potter’s life and themes in classic titles such as The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse, and The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies. (For example: parents are not of the highest caliber in her tales.) As an introduction to the life of Beatrix Potter, Dennison’s telling is more than adequate, but fans familiar with this territory may wish to seek out a more in-depth study. 20 color and b&w illus. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray

Rosalind Rosenberg. Oxford Univ., $29.95 (512p) ISBN 978-01-9065-645-4

Historian Rosenberg (Divided Lives) thoughtfully crafts this deeply researched biographical study of civil rights activist Pauli Murray (1910–1985), whose life and work crossed multiple categories of 20th-century identity and politics. Born into a mixed-race, socially aspirational family in the Jim Crow South, Murray was orphaned young and raised within her extended family. During her adult life, Murray worked variously as a labor organizer, unpaid activist, and journalist for the black press. She went on to become a lawyer, teach in Ghana, earn a J.S.D. from Yale, win tenure at Brandeis, and eventually leave professorship to become an Episcopal priest. Rosenberg shows how Murray pursued an intersectional activism, repeatedly identifying the ways in which race, class, and gender worked together to constrain opportunity. The biography also deftly explores Murray’s relationships and private struggles with identity. From childhood, Murray understood herself to be male, repeatedly seeking (unsuccessfully) medical treatment for gender dysphoria; she was also attracted to, and formed lasting relationships with, women during an era when both same-sex attraction and transgender identity were suspect categories. Placing Murray in historical context with practiced ease, Rosenberg weaves these many threads together into an authoritative narrative that will introduce Murray to many future generations. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage

Dani Shapiro. Knopf, $22.95 (160p) ISBN 978-0-451-49448-1

In this touching and intimate memoir, Shapiro (Slow Motion, Devotion) admits that she has lost interest in telling stories. Instead she focuses on what is underneath: “the soft, pulsing thing that is true.” Over the years, the truth has become less hard-edged, more nuanced, than when she was young and had “all the self-knowledge of a Labrador retriever.” She does revisit earlier themes—her father’s death, her son’s devastating illness—but really this is about her 18-year marriage to “M.” There are many ups and plenty of downs, too. M had traded his career as a successful war correspondent for one as a struggling screenwriter, so that she wouldn’t have to worry about him being on the battlefield. But she does worry about him, fretting that one more disappointment will lead to hopelessness and he will follow his mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s. Shapiro beautifully weaves together her own moving language and a commonplace book’s worth of perfect quotes from others. Journals from her honeymoon—the last she kept—are often lists of things and places that in their very meaninglessness make an effective counterpoint, emphasizing what she has learned since the days of that beginning. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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