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You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain

Phoebe Robinson. Plume, $16 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-0-14-312920-2

Robinson, a stand-up comedian and host of the WNYC podcast 2 Dope Queens, brings a funny and original voice to her debut book of essays, combining personal experience with social commentary on race, gender, and pop culture. Moving, poignant, witty, and funny, Robinson takes on America’s “tumultuous” relationship with African-American hair, providing a history of black hair on the stage and screen as well as her own relationship with her hair (she didn’t go natural until after she finished high school). In other essays, she rants about the way the NFL treats women, discusses the demands she’d make on the first female U.S. president, and explains how to avoid being the token black friend. Robinson reveals how she uses her humor to survive the indignities that go along with being black in America, such as being followed around while shopping in stores or being called “uppity” for expressing her wishes to a white director. This is a promising debut by a talented, genuinely funny writer. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World

Abigail Tucker. Simon & Schuster, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4767-3823-9

Debut author Tucker, a writer for Smithsonian and a cat lover, avoids cute cat tales while using the science and history of Felis catus to explore cats’ relationship to people. Beginning with a visit to the La Brea Tar Pits, Tucker gives a clear and comprehensible tour of the evolution of the cat. The earliest tamed cats, less domestic recruits than opportunistic invaders, may have just been the boldest of their breed, taking advantage of the food around human encampments. They were not friendly as much as fearless in approaching humans, a trait passed down to their descendants. Tucker neatly moves to the next question: Why did people keep cats around? Environmentally, cats are a disaster. A multitude of places around the world struggle with the chaos cats have caused by overbreeding and killing native creatures. Yet cats remain beloved, possibly because of how much they resemble human young—“fictive kin” in the terms of evolutionary psychologists. How do people react to their fictive kin? Tucker’s informative interviews with werewolf cat breeders, cat lobbyists, and Internet star Little Bub’s owner round out a thoughtful look at the illogical human love of felines. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Knives & Ink: Chefs and the Stories Behind Their Tattoos (with Recipes)

Isaac Fitzgerald and Wendy MacNaughton. Bloomsbury, $24 (208p) ISBN 978-1-63286-121-4

Following in the footsteps of 2014’s Pen & Ink, a book based on the simple premise of asking people about the meaning and significance of their tattoos, Fitzgerald and MacNaughton focus on one of the most visibly tattooed professions, interviewing 65 people in the food and hospitality industry. The authors continue their winning approach, with MacNaughton’s illustrations of the tattoo in question accompanying Fitzgerald’s profile of the subject. The best entries in this collection are about tattoos that show the passion and dedication each person brings to their craft in the kitchen. Kate Romane, owner and chef at E2 Restaurant in Pittsburgh, has a tattoo of the Library of Congress call number for The Joy of Cooking. Joe Palma, who runs an open kitchen at a restaurant in Queens, N.Y., has a tattoo of crossed knives on his hand, used to showcase his pride and commitment to his work and as a kind of hello to customers watching him cook. The book also features recipes supplied by a handful of chefs, ranging from the very simple (such as a basic seasoning rub) to dishes best left in the hands of the pros (such as pork head rillette and an elaborate tater tot casserole). Readers are sure to devour this in a single sitting. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Absolutely on Music: Conversations

Haruki Murakami, with Seiji Ozawa, trans. from the Japanese by Jay Rubin. Knopf, $26.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-385-35434-9

These chats between novelist Murakami and Ozawa, former conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, contain intriguing insights about the nature of music. Over a two-year period (2010–2011), Murakami and Ozawa sat down to listen to and reflect upon matters as diverse as various recordings of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, Brahms’s First Symphony, the music of Gustav Mahler, and the joys of conducting with Leonard Bernstein, whom Ozawa worked under in the 1960s. Ozawa reflects on the role of the conductor: “One of the distinguishing features of the conductor’s profession: the work itself changes you; the one thing a conductor has to do is to get sounds out of the orchestra; I read the score and create a piece of music in my mind, after which I work with the orchestra members to turn that into actual sounds, and that process gives rise to all kinds of things.” In response to Murakami’s question about the emotions a Japanese conductor feels when conducting the music of Gustav Mahler, an Austrian Jew, Ozawa reflects that when an Easterner performs music written by a Westerner, it can have its own special meaning. Ozawa admits that he doesn’t approach conducting with preconceived ideas about how a score should sound or be played: “I don’t have anything to say until I’ve got a musician right in front of me.” The tone of the book is deliberate and contemplative. In some ways, these conversations are High Fidelity for classical music fans. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Let Me Out: Unlock Your Creative Mind and Bring Your Ideas to Life

Peter Himmelman. TarcherPerigee, $23 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-0-14-311095-8

In this inspiring debut, songwriter Himmelman, founder of the training company Big Muse, shares his story of how he was forced to recreate and rebrand himself when online piracy made it impossible for him to earn money from his music. In a highly conversational style, Himmelman strives to help readers pluck their dreams from their heads and make them a reality with a three-point strategy: break down your plan for realizing your ambitions into small, feasible sections; act on your plan immediately; and decide whether your goal is something you really want for yourself, not just for others. Showcasing his own creativity, the author has concocted a host of terms, such as “Milky Way moment” and “brain bottle opener,” to make his points. At times, the book reads like a memoir, as Himmelman shares numerous stories about his life and career, emphasizing the events that taught him to think differently. Any book aiming to spark imagination can be judged by its suggested mental exercises, and this book is chock-full of these, though they are only modestly interesting. However, for those seeking inventive ways to awaken their own sleeping muses, this book delivers as promised. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited

Philip Eade. Holt, $32 (432p) ISBN 978-0-8050-9760-3

Noted British biographer Eade (Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters) draws a well-crafted, slightly frothy portrait of the complex, difficult literary icon Evelyn Waugh (1903–1966). Undeterred by several previous accounts, Eade focuses on Waugh’s colorful personal life and exploits with the “smart set” of his time. The cameo appearance of dozens of glamorous figures throughout the book approaches literary name-dropping. Eade includes Harold Acton, Rebecca West, and many other English characters who range from the louche to the distinguished and are sometimes both at once. Enthusiastic tales of house parties and high-end adventures crowd out Waugh’s prolific work, some of which goes almost unmentioned. However, Eade does show how Waugh’s Oxford years inspired his most highly regarded novel, Brideshead Revisited, and how his trip to 1940s Hollywood led to his acid satire The Loved One. Despite the book’s crowded canvas, its narrative trajectory is straightforward. A bad first marriage preceded a long second union with seven children, fame, physical decline, and early death at 62. Waugh’s cruel streak, evident all his life, made him many enemies. With appreciation and empathy, Eade also points out Waugh’s many kindnesses, and his intense loyalty to the Catholic Church after converting. Eade’s treatment reveals a man of astonishing awareness of his gifts and failings, great sincerity, and wit. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Ghosts of Birds: Essays

Eliot Weinberger. New Directions, $16.95 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2618-9

This slim volume from Weinberger (The Walls, the City, and the World), a prodigious translator, editor, and author, provides abundant rewards for readers in essays that are short, dense, and rich with meanings and ideas. The selections display an aesthetic of distilled prose and a fascination with poking at the seams between reportage, fiction, and poetry. The book is separated into halves, the first of which is a sort of addendum to Weinberger’s haunting, meditative 2007 An Elemental Thing. In these new pieces, Weinberger discusses history, nature, and mythology—among other things—and interrogates the traditional form and function of the essay. He opens with a chapter dissecting the story of Adam and Eve, and from there casts a wide net over topics including dreams, American mythologies, and a cultural taxonomy of stones. The second section of the book contains more traditional essays, some looking at particular works, and several in the more experimental vein of the first half. Of particular note are his essay on indigenous Mexican poetry and his notorious 2010 review of George W. Bush’s memoir Decision Points, entitled “Bush the Postmodernist.” The latter is a withering piece of prose that manages to be simultaneously hilarious and horrifying, as acute a look at the 21st-century American condition as any produced to date. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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American Philosophy: A Love Story

John Kaag. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (272p) ISBN 978-0-374-15448-6

Kaag (Thinking Through the Imagination), a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, embarks on a deeply personal search for the answer to the William James–inspired question, “Is life worth living?” Stocking a Subaru with a “case of mediocre pinot noir,” Kaag leaves a stale marriage and drives to the New Hampshire estate of a deceased scholar whose personal library is the equivalent of a philosopher’s candy store. Many of the books are first editions and their margins contain an entire subplot of America’s intellectual history. Kaag bonds deeply with the priceless books while battling his own angst, termites, rodents, and New England weather. Deciding to catalogue the most valuable volumes and place them in temporary storage, he summons help from a colleague. While they pour over Kant and Hegel, romance blooms. Kaag is a scholar at heart and a pack rat for intellectual trivia. Because of this, he risks leaving the reader both emotionally shortchanged and overeducated. There are wondrously frank moments in his narrative, as when he struggles to change a tire and, later, attempts to mow the estate field with a scythe. If only Kaag had sweated more and abstracted less, this would be a perfect book. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Year of the Sword: The Assyrian Christian Genocide, a History

Joseph Yacoub, trans. from the French by James Ferguson. Oxford Univ., $34.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-19-063346-2

The 1915 genocide of the Assyrians has often been overshadowed by that of the Armenians, but Yacoub, an emeritus professor of political science at Catholic University of Lyon, France, brings it back into the light and exposes Turkey’s multipronged effort to erase millennia of Christian history from its territory. Yacoub, whose ancestors faced death and banishment at the hands of the Turks, connects the genocide with the 21st-century horror of ISIS and a period of renewed uncertainty and danger for Christians across the Middle East. In a scholarly, erudite work that draws liberally from primary sources in a plethora of languages, Yacoub demonstrates that “sufficient evidence has been presented to conclude that the events of 1915 constitute a genocide.” His argument is correct, though it is not the facts that are in dispute so much as a public apathy that has allowed the Assyrians to slip into the mist of history. Of the current moment, Yacoub notes “that a people as suffering and oppressed as the Assyrians should be fully integrated into the conscience of humanity and justice finally handed to them.” Yacoub succinctly and irrefutably makes his case, but the success of his mission is far from assured. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War

Ben Macintyre. Crown, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-1-101-90416-9

Macintyre (A Spy Among Friends), who specializes in writing about espionage and clandestine operations, describes the founding and operations of the British Army’s elite Special Air Service (SAS) regiment during WWII, in this well-written and comprehensive history. The SAS was born not from the staff work of military professionals but from the imagination of a very junior officer who was convalescing in a hospital. Macintyre uses unprecedented access to the SAS official records, along with memoirs, diaries, and interviews with the few surviving veterans, to chronicle the major operations, key personalities, successes, and failures of the regiment in WWII. He vividly captures the bravery and the sheer audaciousness of the SAS troopers and their leadership operating hundreds of miles behind enemy lines. Macintyre also illuminates their faults, including failed operations, lack of discipline, and drunkenness. He demonstrates that even in a global war, a few uniquely talented, imaginative, and bold individuals of relatively junior rank can have a major impact. Macintyre delivers a solid history and an enjoyable read that will appeal to those interested in military history as well as readers who enjoy real-life tales of adventure. Agent: Ed Victor, Ed Victor Ltd. (U.K.). (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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