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Looking for Miss America: Dreamers, Dissidents, Flappers, and Feminists—A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood

Margot Mifflin. Counterpoint, $28 (320p) ISBN 978-1-64009-223-5

Mifflin (Bodies of Subversion), an English professor at Lehman College, intertwines the histories of the Miss America pageant and American feminism in this vigorously researched and wryly humorous account. Over the past century, Mifflin contends, the pageant—which began in Atlantic City in 1921—has exemplified social tensions over gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity. She notes that one early contestant was arrested on the beach for wearing the same “sea togs” she’d worn on stage the day before; that African-American women were officially excluded from the competition until the 1950s; and that only one Jewish woman has ever won. As the contest evolved from crowning “the girl next door” to anointing the “biggest glampots,” Mifflin writes, the addition of a scholarship program tried to “cover the skin show with the fig leaf of a diploma.” Mifflin profiles famous contestants (Bess Myerson, Gretchen Carlson, and Vanessa Williams) in depth, but also allows less-familiar names, including Yolande Betbeze, whose refusal to participate in the swimsuit portion of the contest led to the creation of the rival Miss USA pageant, to take center stage. This incisive and entertaining history deserves the spotlight. Agent: Linda Chester, the Linda Chester Literary Agency, (Aug.)

Reviewed on 04/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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A More Perfect Reunion: Race, Integration, and the Future of America

Calvin Baker. Bold Type, $28 (288p) ISBN 978-1-56858-923-7

In this rich, meditative account, novelist Baker (Grace) identifies the current “backlash of white bigotry” following the election of the first African-American president as a moment of national reckoning akin to the Continental Congress, the Civil War, and the civil rights movement. In the process of examining why and how those earlier opportunities to “escape from the original sin and eternal problem of race” by fully integrating blacks and other minority groups into American society fell short, Baker offers a wide-ranging and erudite analysis of U.S. history, politics, and culture—from the arrival of the first slave ship at Port Comfort, Va., in 1619 to discriminatory policies built into FDR’s New Deal and an interracial adoption story line on the TV show This Is Us. He critiques identity politics (“my grievance versus your grievance”) on both the right and the left, and accuses liberals of preserving racist power structures by reaching compromises with white supremacists in order to advance piecemeal progressive reforms. Though Baker doesn’t make the mechanisms for “extend[ing] the full social contract” to African-Americans clear, he paints an incisive picture of the gaps—in wages, education, life expectancy, and criminal justice—that he says need to be closed in order for the promise of democracy to be fulfilled. This powerful call to action resonates. (June)

Reviewed on 04/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Storyville! An Illustrated Guide to Writing Fiction

John Dufresne. Norton, $21.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-393-60840-3

Novelist Dufresne (I Don’t Like Where This Is Going) dispenses advice on writing fiction with assurance and humor in this entertaining and informative manual. He suggests readers should not to write fiction “if you don’t know the basics of grammar and usage,” “if you haven’t read a novel in the last month,” or “if you think ideas are more important than people.” Having winnowed the field, he offers his 10 commandments of writing fiction, which include “sit your ass in the chair,” “thou shalt show and not tell,” and “thou shalt not bore the reader.” Dufresne launches into the finer details, from how to begin—in his mind, the whole story should be implicit in a good first line—to choosing the right point of view and various ways to construct a plot. Dufresne peppers his own instructions with quotations from other authors, such as John Fowles: “follow the accident, fear the fixed plan.” He also includes writing prompts at the end of each section, with space provided for responding on the page. Dufresne’s close attention to myriad details of fiction writing makes this a strong choice for anyone who thinks they have a novel or short stories in them, but don’t know how to begin. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Hemingway in Comics

Robert K. Elder, with Sharon Hamilton, Jace Gatzemeyer, and Sean C. Hadley. Kent State Univ., $29.95 (280p) ISBN 978-1-60635-400-1

Journalist Elder (Mixtape of My Life) delivers an exhaustive study of comics in which Ernest Hemingway is referenced or appears as a character, presenting generous extracts of illustrations, along with interviews with comics writers and artists about their relationship with Hemingway. Some of the comics riff on familiar aspects of the—already somewhat cartoonish—Hemingway persona (such as a Doonesbury strip that references his testy relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald), while some are simply bizarre. For instance, a Disney-published Italian comic, Per chi suona il campanello (For Whom the Doorbell Rings), has Hemingway visiting Topolino, the Italian Mickey Mouse, to give him life advice. Eric Peterson, in his comic Jesus Christ: In the Name of the Son, imagines Hemingway as a hard-drinking, time-traveling robot. Other examples given by Elder, however, strike still unfamiliar but less discordant notes, including a reverential manga adaptation of The Old Man and the Sea. Perhaps most affecting is Norwegian artist Jason’s comic The Left Bank Gang, based on A Moveable Feast, in which Hemingway, drawn as an anthropomorphic dog, wanders Paris and interacts with canine versions of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. While Hemingway fans may find the discussion of Papa’s works relatively superficial, comics fans will find much to savor. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 04/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Future Earth: A Radical Vision for What’s Possible in the Age of Warming

Eric Holthaus. HarperOne, $22.99 (256p) ISBN 978-0-06-288316-2

Climate journalist Holthaus imagines a different world in his cautionary but guardedly optimistic debut about how humanity might meet the climate change challenge. As a worst-case scenario, Holthaus cites the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017, “the worst humanitarian crisis in modern American history.” He does not mince words, describing how the storm caused countless deaths, a monthslong power outage, and “damaged or destroyed about 30 million trees, inflicting profound and unprecedented changes on the landscape.” It exacted an extraordinary mental toll as well, Holthaus observes. Having himself gone into therapy in 2017 for climate-related anxiety, he discusses the threat posed by feelings of existential despair while going through the “living emergency” of global climate change, a situation in which a state of crisis is normalized. In the book’s second half, he balances the doom-and-gloom by envisioning how, in the coming decades, humanity might remake food systems to be locally controlled, phase out fossil fuel use in transportation, and reform democracies to be more responsive to voters. These are not impossibilities, he suggests, if the world acts now. He wraps up with suggestions for coping mechanisms and exercises on handling grief and stress. Serious and substantial, this will give readers plenty to consider. (July)

Reviewed on 04/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Honey and Venom: Confessions of an Urban Beekeeper

Andrew Coté. Ballantine, $27 (295p) ISBN 978-1-5247-9904-5

In this delightful debut, New York City beekeeper Coté recounts a year of raising bees and the big adventures these tiny insects have brought to his life. In his 20s with a cushy professorship, Coté chucked it all to turn his honey-making hobby into his career. Following in the footsteps of his Quebecois father, a firefighter turned professional beekeeper, Coté becomes an expert apiarist in the Big Apple, placing and tending to bees all over the five boroughs and helping to get beekeeping legalized in New York City. Along the way, he starts Bees Without Borders, a nonprofit that promotes beekeeping in third world countries; helps create a bee sculpture for MoMA; works with the NYPD to capture swarms of bees; and travels to Iraq where he talks with religious Iraqi residents who take exception to the fact that a queen bee “copulates with many drones.” Throughout, he writes sweetly about the life cycle of the honey bee and praises his father, who “holds more information about bees in one hair of his white moustache than I will ever know.” Honey farmers and urban naturalists will be buzzing about this one. (June)

Reviewed on 04/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World

Barry Gewen. Norton, $30 (480p) ISBN 978-1-324-00405-9

America’s most celebrated and vilified diplomat was a philosopher-statesman shadowed by his experience as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, according to this trenchant debut. New York Times Book Review editor Gewen assesses Kissinger, national security adviser and secretary of state to Presidents Nixon and Ford, as an intellectual whose foreign-policy “Realism” cold-bloodedly pursued national interests and an international balance of power while eschewing “idealistic” goals of anti-communist crusading, promoting human rights, or spreading democracy abroad. Gewen first offers a fascinating interpretation of Hitler as a popular democratic politician, then delves into the ideas of philosophers Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt and “Realist” political scientist (and Kissinger friend) Hans Morgenthau, all of them German-Jewish refugees fearful, like Kissinger, that democratic idealism can lose to totalitarianism. Gewen also explores Kissinger’s opposition to Chile’s socialist president Salvador Allende (in an eye-opening chapter, Gewen paints Allende as a potential dictator and mostly absolves Kissinger and the U.S. of blame for orchestrating the coup that overthrew him) and his détente with Russia and China. Gewen’s defense of some of Kissinger’s policies, however, including prolonging the Vietnam War for the sake of American “credibility” and “prestige,” isn’t always convincing. Still, this is a rich, nuanced, thought-provoking reconsideration of Kissinger’s worldview and its impact on history. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Demagogue’s Playbook: The Battle for American Democracy from the Founders to Trump

Eric A. Posner. All Points, $28.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-250-30303-5

University of Chicago Law School professor Posner (coauthor, Radical Markets) identifies precedents for Donald Trump’s rise to power in this skillful survey of American political history. Defining a demagogue as “a charismatic leader who would gain and hold on to power by manipulating the public rather than by advancing the public good,” Posner explains how the Founding Fathers envisioned and sought to protect the U.S. from such a threat, then labels Andrew Jackson the “First Demagogue”—a so-called “man of the people” who exploited the public’s fear and distrust of Native Americans and immigrants, and ran a notoriously corrupt administration. Posner also examines populist uprisings, including the 19th-century Grange movement of distressed farmers, and notes that Louisiana’s populist governor and senator Huey Long pushed FDR for more radical reforms in the New Deal. Declaring Trump the “Second Demagogue,” Posner analyzes the social, economic, and cultural forces behind his election, and calls on voters to remember Trump “not merely as a poor choice for the presidency. [but] as a political monstrosity who should be repudiated by the body politic.” Though Posner’s prose tends to be more dry and technical than vivid, he delivers a powerful argument for the need to restore constitutional safeguards against demagoguery. Trump naysayers will be enlightened. (June)

Reviewed on 04/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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She Proclaims: Our Declaration of Independence from a Man’s World

Jennifer Palmieri. Grand Central, $26 (208p) ISBN 978-1-5387-5065-0

Palmieri (Dear Madam President), communications director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, offers a spirited and accessible manifesto for women seeking to combat the patriarchy through both personal and collective action. Inspired by the Declaration of Sentiments drafted by organizers of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, Palmieri rallies feminists with slogans for advancing the women’s movement (“We proclaim that we value women of all ages”), and urges women to “refuse to allow scare tactics to control or silence us.” She encourages women to educate themselves on historical examples of female empowerment, and to demand that large corporations do more to close the wage gap than the token gesture of promoting just one or two women to positions of leadership. In the book’s strongest sections, she condemns America’s culture of patriarchy with anecdotes from her career, including being called to testify in the special counsel investigation into Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, and witnessing Donald Trump appear to “stalk” Hillary Clinton around a 2016 debate stage. Prioritizing optimism and support over anger and frustration, Palmieri reaches out to women of diverse backgrounds, though she occasionally descends into platitudes. Feminists will be heartened by this inspirational guide to fighting for gender equality. Agent: Matt Latimer, Javelin. (June)

Reviewed on 04/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Startup Myths and Models: What You Won’t Learn in Business School

Rizwan Virk. Columbia Business School, $27.95 (280p) ISBN 978-0-231-19452-5

Entrepreneur and venture capitalist Virk (The Simulation Hypothesis) thorougly debunks my-way-or-the-highway thinking about start-ups in this strong offering aimed at MBAs. Arguing that business schools are better at preparing students to work for established companies than to start their own, he presents his advice in the spirit of an alternative business school curriculum. MBAs often flounder, Virk argues, when they need to understand start-up market life cycles or know how to approach strategic decisions, and are left relying on the outdated clichés they learned in school. He destroys myths about being first to market, raising money only from certain recognized venture capitalists, hiring big names, and allocating time to investors. Instead, he points out that the VC field is no longer small and insular, that it’s better to hire people attuned to the specific culture of the start-up, and plenty of time should be spent on working on the pitch. Moreover, he advises, business school grads have to understand that there are no shortcuts to success. This cogent, far-thinking explanation of how start-ups work will be invaluable for any aspiring founders stymied by traditional business wisdom. (June)

Reviewed on 04/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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