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Essays After Eighty

Donald Hall. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $22 (144p) ISBN 978-0-544-28704-4

Near the start of this rich essay collection, former U.S. poet laureate Hall—also a biographer, children’s book writer, and literary critic—writes that “poetry abandoned” him after he turned 85, but his prose writing endures and sustains him. And as this book shows, Hall—who sometimes puts his essays through more than 80 drafts—has not lost his touch. Laconic, witty, and lyrical, Hall is a master stylist, yet he remains refreshingly humble and matter-of-fact about fame (his and others): “Everyone knows medals are made of rubber.” Hall’s topics are often autobiographical: the death of his wife, poet Jane Kenyon; his passion for garlic; a car trip through post-WWII Yugoslavia on impassable roads; the limitations of advanced age (“old age is a ceremony of losses”); poetry’s rise in popularity; how “devastated” he felt after being appointed poet laureate; and always, his attachment to his ancestral home in New Hampshire, Eagle Pond Farm, and the ever-changing landscape around it. Using these subjects as a springboard to contemplate loss, recovery, work, discovery, and death, among other themes, he observes that “contradiction is the cellular structure of life,” without which no essay, poem or story can succeed. By exploring the joys and vicissitudes of a long life, this work offers revealing insights into the human condition—and the grit and openness it requires. Agent: Wendy Strothman, Strothman Agency. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Ardor

Roberto Calasso, trans. from the Italian by Richard Dixon. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30 (432p) ISBN 978-0-374-18231-1

Calasso follows 2012’s La folie Baudelaire with the seventh installment of an ongoing work, continuing in some measure the investigations of his marvelous Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India (1998). Calasso takes the reader on a tour through the Vedic literature of India, especially the Satapatha Brahmana, an 8th century B.C.E. commentary on the Vedic rites. The desire for the self (atman) to become one with the divine (brahman) is, he points out in this careful, thoughtful, and detailed exploration, at the center of Vedic life. In the Vedas, sacrifice and the rituals that accompany it are the avenue which one travels to become divine: “The sacrifice is a journey—linked to a destruction. A journey from a visible place to an invisible place, and back.” Soma, the intoxicating drink at the center of these rituals, enhances individuals’ ability to achieve immortality and communicate with the gods; it enhances their ardor: “If soma is desired just as much by gods as by men, it will also become their factor in common. Only in rapture can gods and men communicate.” Richard Dixon’s supple and elegant translation brings Calasso’s poetic meditations to life. Readers will return again and again for wisdom and insight. Illus. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Misdiagnosed: The Search for Dr. House

Nika C. Beamon. CreateSpace, $15.99 trade paper (246p) ISBN 978-1-5004-3667-4

In this hope-filled memoir, a woman rises above the challenges of navigating the modern American medical system. Beamon, a TV journalist, lays herself bare as she frankly discusses her journey through years of suffering as she searches for a diagnosis for her illness. For those with unusual conditions, the road to diagnosis can be filled with disbelieving doctors, seemingly unrelated symptoms, and increasing desperation as the sick person struggles to understand why the body is failing. The author bravely relates all of these things, presenting her growth through long-term pain, her life with chronic illness, and her journey to becoming her own medical advocate in touching and sometimes agonizing detail. Although some of the details—both medical and personal—can get graphic, this medical memoir is a worthwhile read for those suffering from or interested in chronic conditions and the often long road to diagnosis. Agent: Chelcee Johns, Serendipity Literary. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Final Year

Tavis Smiley with David Ritz . Little, Brown, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-0-316-33276-7

"In his last year, what kind of man had Martin Luther King, Jr. become?" is the question Smiley (What I Know for Sure) raises, asserting that he has "come to firmly believe that, in a critical way, [King] is misunderstood." The book focuses for the most part on the year between King's April 4, 1967 anti-war speech in New York and his April 4, 1968 assassination in Memphis, but also passes through such earlier landmarks as the Montgomery bus boycott and the March on Washington. Snippets from King's sermons, speeches, and press conferences abound, along with tidbits from the media coverage of the time. Smiley also covers King's marital problems, depression, smoking and drinking habits, musical tastes, and even his (hypothetical) internal thoughts. Smiley's referring to his subject throughout as "Doc," which was King's nickname among his "most trusted colleagues," here comes across as distracting. It is, however, typical of the book's chatty prose, which stumbles when attempting weighty references ("Like Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane") or lyricism ("The sea sparkles with moonlight.") The answer to Smiley's opening question appears to be that King became deeply concerned with peace and poverty, no great revelation for anyone even passingly familiar with the history of those years. But Smiley's efforts to show the man who was his hero since he was a young boy adds a dimension to the reams of writing about Dr. King. Agent: David Vigliano and Thomas Flannery Jr., Vigliano Associates (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Happiness: Ten Years of n+1

Selected by the Editors of n+1 . FSG/Faber & Faber, $16 (384p) ISBN 978-0-865-47822-0

In just ten years, the Brooklyn magazine n+1 has seen its founders and contributors break into the mainstream of American literature and publishing. This collection of work features at least one essay from each of the founding editors, stories and essays from several of the magazine's most prominent stars, and four unsigned editorials that attempt to capture the zeitgeist of the times. However, the quality of the contributions varies wildly. Some of the essays, like Mark Greif's proposal for the redistribution of wealth, read as amateurish and overly earnest. Other pieces, like the short story "Fish Rot" by Rebecca Curtis, are so far off the beaten path they seem lost. Elif Batuman's wonderful essay on Isaac Babel (which also appears in her acclaimed 2010 collection, The Possessed), however, stands out as a highlight. Batuman masterfully weaves together literary history and personal experience, to entrancing effect. Emily Witt's daring essay on sexuality reports directly from the set of a public dominatrix video shoot and raises several provocative questions, starting with the title: "What Do You Desire?" Ultimately, the collection's unevenness is illustrative of an ambitious but young magazine's growing pains. There's hope that its next ten years will produce even more consistently substantive and enduring writing. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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How Google Works

Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg . Grand Central, $30 (286p) ISBN 978-1-4555-8234-1

Turn off your phone, lock the door, and settle down for an entertaining and educational book about Google, the company everyone wonders about, written by insiders Schmidt, Google executive chairman; and Rosenberg, former Google employee and now consultant to co-founder Larry Page. From page one, the stories, whether about the early days at Google or the company's unusual, occasionally outrageous, but brilliant business practices, are irresistible. Readers will learn how to manage "smart creatives," develop a "culture of Yes," and craft a meaningful mission statement. This enthusiastic manifesto encourages readers – and leaders - to "habitually overcommunicate" and "set (almost) unattainable goals." Still, it might be interesting to learn how the rest of the company feels about the "20 percent time" program for individual projects that applies to engineers but apparently not to anyone else. There might be more underneath the rock than we're allowed to see. The inevitable comparison to Apple leaves Google positioned–of course–as taking the high road. The book's clearly propaganda, but that can be easily forgiven in the course of such an energized and exciting primer on creating a company and workforce prepared to meet an "inspiring" future. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Up in Here: Jailing Kids on Chicago's Other Side

Mark Dostert. Univ. of Iowa, $19 trade paper (252 p) ISBN 978-1-60938-270-4

In a bracing debut memoir, essayist Dostert chronicles his time working as a guard at the Audy Home, a detention center in Cook County, Ill., which houses teenagers waiting to be tried for crimes like murder and rape. We learn about the center's racial dynamics (one kid lectures Dostert on the obligations that accrue to white Dostert because of the history of slavery), how to identify symptoms of suicidality, and the proper procedure for strip searches. The stories Dostert tells speak for themselves; the book is blessedly free of moralizing. When Dostert does want to deliver shocking facts about the juvenile criminal justice system, he works them into narrative – on the commuter train, he muses that he is probably the only commuter who knows that half of the kids at Audy Home were born to teen moms. Unfortunately, Dostert says little about his life outside of work. Since he does tell us he first visited the Audy Home as a Christian college student volunteering to lead Bible study, more information about his religious life, in particular, would have added depth and nuance to his account. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Shifts and the Shocks: What We've Learned%E2%80%94and Have Still to Learn%E2%80%94from the Financial Crisis

Martin Wolf. Penguin Press, $35 (464p) ISBN 978-1-59420-544-6

Tectonic changes in the global economy yielded collapse and an ill-judged fiscal austerity, according to this far-reaching study of the Great Recession. Financial Times editor Wolf (Fixing Global Finance) recaps the ongoing slump from the panic of 2008 and the frantic efforts of central banks to shore up the financial system, to the turn towards tight fiscal and monetary policies in the West in 2010, which he blames for the sluggish recovery and the subsequent Eurozone debt crisis. He ties these recent "shocks" to decades-long sea changes in the world economy: globalization and intensified competition; a "savings-glut" with few profitable outlets for investment; economic inequality that shrinks wages and demand. Wolf's provocative indictment of economic orthodoxy suggests that more government debt and fiscal stimulus are needed, and that responsible creditors like Germany are as culpable as bankrupt countries like Greece. He floats a number of radical reform proposals, including measures that would essentially abolish the private banking system. Although readers with some understanding of macroeconomics will profit the most, Wolf's discussions of the complex dynamics of investment, banking, trade and monetary policy are lucid, and his incisive analysis makes a compelling case for bold, activist economic policy. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Bowie: The Biography

Wendy Leigh . Gallery, $28 (320p) ISBN 978-1-4767-6707-9

This surprisingly brief biography charts the life and times of the glam rock, theatrical, and sexual icon David Bowie. Readers follow the prolific artist from humble beginnings in England through his rise to fame, fall into drug addiction, and later recovery. Leigh (Prince Charming) has made a career of exploring the sex lives of the rich and famous, and shares Bowie's litany of sexual exploits, some based in fact and others in rumor and innuendo. There's certainly enough material to appeal to the voyeur in anyone, but Leigh is so determined to chronicle Bowie's every dalliance that she loses sight of almost everything else. Constant jumps in time confuse the casual fan and no time is spent on the actual development of Bowie's classic records, keeping Leigh's book brief but insubstantial. The result is a life told through the lens of a gossip magazine, with plenty of insight into Bowie's relationships but not enough into his artistry. Leigh's aim to write "the biography" falls dismally short of the mark. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Spurrier: How the Ball Coach Taught the South to Play Football

Ran Henry. . Globe Pequot/Lyons, $25.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-7627-9184-2

With a national football championship, seven SEC titles, and nine Coach of the Year awards under his belt, Steve Spurrier is given the star treatment in a chatty, informative portrait. Henry, a writing professor and a Ralph McGill Scholar at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, chronicles the preacher's boy from Tennessee hill country who broke all passing records as a two-time All-American quarterback at the University of Florida, earning a Heisman Trophy in 1966. Spurrier, supremely confident in his skills and leadership, is depicted in colorful, glowing snapshots, occasionally with clever asides worthy of some ESPN commentators. His professional football career with the San Francisco 49ers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers is dealt economically, setting it in a future tense, but the bulk of the narrative holds true to Spurrier's college reign as the coach of the University of South Carolina where his celebrated "Fun ‘N' Gun" offense has dominated the Southeastern Conference. Committed to piercing the media-hyped myth of Spurrier, Henry has written a wise and honest biography of a man who has revamped the strategy of college football, making it more exciting for players and fans alike. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/29/2014 | Details & Permalink

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