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Inside Tracks: Robyn Davidson's Solo Journey Across the Outback

Rick Smolen. Sterling, $45 (224p) ISBN 978-1-4549-1294-1

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In 1977 Robyn Davidson set off to cross the desolate 1,700 miles of the Australian outback accompanied by only four camels and her dog Diggity. Photographer Smolen (A Day in the Life of America) joined Davidson all various points of her journey to document the excursion. Nearly three decades later, the story of this trip is now premise of a major motion picture. Here, Smolen's photographs are merged with Davidson's commentary as well as storyboards from the film to tell two stories: what really happened and how it translates to the big screen. It's a remarkable approach to an incredible story, and Smolen does a terrific job of storytelling with a minimum amount of text. Readers first meet Davidson in Alice Springs, where she began her journey, and accompany her throughout. Smolen's magnificent images range from aerial shots of Davidson and her camels dwarfed by the world's oldest rock that dates back millions of years, to photojournalistic day-to-day activities such as interacting with the camels and an intimate shot of a grief-stricken Davidson contemplating the accidental poisoning of Diggety, her beloved companion. The storyboarded section of the book rounds out Davidson's journey and gives readers insight into the Hollywood version as well as a deeper appreciation for Smolen and Davidson's efforts. Truly a remarkable story fit for a coffee table. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Forgotten Sisterhood: Pioneering Black Women Educators in the Jim Crow South

Audrey Thomas McCluskey. Rowman & Littlefield, $40 (200p) ISBN 978-1-4422-1138-4

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In this chronicle of a "sisterhood of purposeful women," McCluskey, a professor at Indiana University, examines the lives of a four African American activist women who gained notoriety for their dedication to educating African American youth and their mission to sustain schools among the harsh conditions of the Jim Crow era. Confronted with issues of class, race, and gender "in an era of harsh racial repression, as well as a social order that constricted and confined women," Lucy Craft Laney, Mary McLeod Bethune, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, and Nannie Helen Burroughs all succeeded in educating black girls and boys, young women and men, as well as establishing Institutions, three of which survive today. McCluskey explores their supportive, although occasionally competitive relations with one another, their links to the networks of black women's clubs, and white philanthropists who supported their efforts, their writing, and their emergent feminist and political activism as well. Of special interest are the interviews with several surviving graduates of Palmer Memorial Institute, which was founded by Charlotte Hawkins Brown in 1902 and closed in 1971. The graduates detail their experiences—how they came to study there, how the school commemorated Brown, and what the daily regimen was like. McCluskey's well-researched account articulates the importance of this particular movement in education, appropriately and skillfully, to memorialize the four pioneering women at the forefront. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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How to Write about Contemporary Art

Gilda Williams. Thames & Hudson, $24.95 (264) ISBN 978-0-500-29157-3

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Artforum correspondent Williams (The Gothic) applies lessons in graceful prose to the field of art writing. Contemporary art prose regularly tends toward dense, labyrinthine text that does little to illuminate the work, impenetrable to those who don't know the jargon and tedious to those who do. As Williams shows, the anecdote is less about secret, insider knowledge and more about the basics of clean prose. The guide's brief chapters cover topics such as "How to Substantiate Your Ideas," "How to Write a Press Release," and "Explaining vs. Evaluating." Readers with basic writing competency will have to wade through a good portion of obvious advice, like cautioning to avoid adverbs and encouraging multiple revisions. Williams excels, however, when looking at excerpts from accomplished critics, including Rosalind Krauss and Walter Benjamin, and when giving nuts-and-bolts advice for crafting specific genres of art-world documents (catalogue essays, short news articles, academic essays, and the like). At conclusion, a smart list for beginning a contemporary art library provides a useful point for novices looking to move forward. While a good deal of the basic prose advice is well-covered by any number of grammar and style guides, Williams's how-to provides enough art-specific insights to cut through the garble so common in the field. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production

Nicolette Hahn Niman. Chelsea Green, $19.95 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-60358-536-1

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After learning from her rancher husband the benefits of raising and eating beef, Niman (Righteous Porkchop) delivers a head-on attack against everything negative that has been said about the cattle industry. An environmental lawyer and vegetarian, Niman is a force of nature when it comes to debunking the untruths about how raising beef effects global warming, the connection between eating beef and heart disease, and that eating beef is the reason Americans are fatter than ever. Reading Niman's pointed and convincing prose, like when she states: "compared with other ways of producing food, the keeping of grazing livestock, when done appropriately, is the most environmentally benign," one can only imagine challenging her combination of intelligence, passion, and thoroughness. Despite the title, Niman isn't always on the defensive. In fact, she continually proposes ideas how to make meat production better by promoting the land- and animal-friendly practices of free-range, grass-fed ranching as a safer, more ecological, and healthier alternative to BigAg and industrial meat farming. Niman saves some of her most convincing and damning criticisms for her own vegetarianism as she demonstrates how raising livestock is not only a better option for the world's hungry masses, but also a better option for the planet's health. It sounds hard to believe, but Niman is almost impossible to disagree with. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life and Cars

Neil Young. Blue Rider, $32 (384p) ISBN 978-0-399-17208-3

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In this flat-as-pavement second installment of his memoirs—following on last year's best-selling Waging Heavy Peace—Young invites us to ride along in the many cars he's owned over the past fifty years, telling us how those cars drove him through various phases of his musical life and his relationships with family and friends. "I have collected many cars and have had lots of experiences with every one of them…I just loved the way they looked and got a lot of joy from just observing them from every angle…they talked to me. And I talked to them." Young recalls the 1985 Ford Econoline van that provided enough space for his son, Ben, to look out the window as the Youngs traveled, but it also brings back the memories of his good friend Larry Johnson's death. Young now owns a number of cars in various states of repair: "The unfinished cars mean something. They represent broken dreams, lost loves, and abandoned ideas. This is the sad part." Looking back, though, Young regrets the heavy carbon footprint his cars have made; in 1976, he drives his 1975 Dodge Power Wagon about 380 miles and deposits about "411 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere." Young devotes the final chapter of this uneven memoir to a long discussion of the value of biofuels and his attempts to turn a classic car into an environmentally friendly one. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Will Not Attend: Lively Stories of Detachment and Isolation

Adam Resnick. Blue Rider, $25.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-399-16038-7

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Following in the recent movement led by David Sedaris and others of putting one's neuroses down on paper for the amusement of others, Resnick's first book celebrates a lifetime of social awkwardness, misanthropy, disinterest, and violating the unspoken rules of a normal culture. This sort of dark, uncomfortable comedy, similar to the TV shows (Get a Life, The Larry Sanders Show) and movies (Death to Smoochy, Cabin Boy) that Resnick has helped create and written for, is not for everyone. But his ability to give a cinematic feel to the most inappropriate moments, like the fact that his father sired six boys ("His magnificent balls had been set on this plant to produce males. It was as if nature itself, in all its ferocity, had chiseled two more glorious chunks from a monolithic rock"), is undeniable and often pretty darn funny. Though the stories track Resnick from childhood through adolescence to adulthood, not much personal growth is shown. That stasis is mined for laughs but can also make the stories bleed into one another. Thankfully, just as he portrays himself as cold, Resnick has a talent for bringing other characters – especially his crotchety but passionate dad – to life as comic and spirited foils for himself thereby keeping his stories more comedic than conceited. Agent: Erin Malone, William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, LLC (May)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Yankee Way: Playing, Coaching, and My Life in Baseball

Willie Randolph. Morrow/It, $26.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-06-145077-8

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Randolph played Major League Baseball for six teams, but here the former second baseman choses to focus on his time spent with the New York Yankees. Raised in New York City and a member of the Yankees' so-called "Bronx Zoo" teams in the late Seventies (winning two World Series), Randolph went on to coach third base for the Yankees (collecting four more rings) before eventually becoming the first African-American manager of the Mets. A likable guy who doesn't dish dirt, even when recounting his experiences with self-centered slugger Reggie Jackson and mean-spirited pitcher Roger Clemens, Randolph takes a semi-chronological approach. The book is crammed with fond memories of Thurman Munson, Goose Gossage, and even Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner. Randolph glosses over his time spent on other teams, rails against steroid abuse, and spends the final third of the book discussing his "All-Willie Team" — chosen from Yankees who played from 1976-88 and 1994-2004. He also devotes entire chapters to recently retired shortstop Derek Jeter and pitcher Mariano Rivera. While these excursions entertain, readers are left wondering whether Randolph — who's always led a quiet off-field life — ran out of story to tell. (May)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Twee: The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion, and Film

Marc Spitz. HarperCollins/!t, $16.99 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-06-221304-4

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With his characteristic ingenuity, razor-sharp cultural insights, and cunning humor, Spitz (Poseur) chronicles the history of the ever-growing aesthetic called Twee. Spitz's utterly engaging history from the 1950s to the present finds Twee alive and well not only in literary figures like J.D. Salinger, but also Judy Blume, Sylvia Plath, and Dave Eggers; musicians such as The Buzzcocks, Morrissey, and Belle and Sebastian; movie directors including Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, and Walt Disney; and television shows such as Gilmore Girls and Girls. Members of the Twee tribe embrace an approach to life that includes a focus on "beauty over ugliness," "a tether to childhood and its attendant innocence and lack of greed," and a lust for knowledge. Thus, for example, Salinger becomes "the greatest and most beloved Twee Tribe godfather of them all" because Salinger creates characters in both Holden Caulfield and Seymour Glass in whom we can see our "ideal selves as physically attractive and troubled…pop-savvy, all versed in magazines, jazz, and movies even as they remain haunted." In an appendix, Spitz includes lists of music, books, and movies and television shows that can help answer the question, ‘Am I Twee?' (June)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Thomas Piketty, trans. from the French by Arthur Goldhammer. Harvard Univ./Belknap, $39.95 (696p) ISBN 978-0-674-43000-6

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The rich get richer, through no fault—or virtue—of their own, according to this sweeping study of wealth in the modern world. Economist Piketty's formula "r > g" expresses the simple but profound insight that because the returns on capital—interest on savings, stock dividends and appreciation, rent from a farm or apartment building—usually exceed the economy's growth rate, wealth (especially inherited wealth) tends to grow faster than wages and become more concentrated at the top of the income scale, and the economy increasingly caters to rich elites instead of ordinary workers. (The best antidote to this inexorable tendency, he argues, is a direct progressive tax on wealth.) Piketty makes his case with three centuries' worth of economic data from around the world organized in a trove of detailed but lucid tables and graphs. This is a serious, meaty economic treatise, but Piketty's prose (in Goldhammer's deft translation) is wonderfully readable and engaging, and illuminates the human reality behind the econometric stats—especially in his explorations of the role of capital in the novels of Jane Austen and Balzac. Full of insights but free of dogma, this is a seminal examination of how entrenched wealth and intractable inequality continue to shape the economy. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Best Amercan Nonrequired Reading 2014

Edited by Daniel Handler, Managing Editor Daniel Gumbiner. Mariner, $14.95 (416p) ISBN 9780544129665

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Anthologies can be a mixed bag, particularly when editors try to include something for everyone. But this latest annual collection of "journalism, fiction, poetry, comics, stage plays, interviews and podcast transcripts" is consistently impressive, with nary a dud in the 32 previously published selections. Some of the contributors—Amos Oz and Zadie Smith among them—are well known. Others, like newcomers Cole Becher and Rebecca Rukeyser, get an excellent showcase, these two for their vivid, visceral stories. Becher's haunting "Charybdis" has Iraq War vets adjusting to life (or not) back home, while Rukeyser's "The Chinese Barracks" chronicles a woman working in a cannery. The nonfiction entries are equally strong, numbering among them Nathaniel Rich's "The Man Who Saves You from Yourself," about a private investigator specializing in cults, and Luke Mogelson's "The Dream Boat," an account of Iraqis making a perilous journey from Indonesia to Australia. Other entries not to be missed include an amusing excerpt from Anders Nilsen's graphic novel, Rage of Poseidon, and Yasmine El Rashidi's interview with Egyptian activist Mona Eltahawy. This book provides a fantastic compendium of "In Case You Missed It." (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Details & Permalink

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