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Our Last Season: A Writer, a Fan, a Friendship

Harvey Araton. Penguin Press, $28 (256p) ISBN 978-1-984877-98-7

New York Times sportswriter Araton (Driving Mr. Yogi) delivers a fascinating memoir of his many years covering the New York Knicks and his longtime friendship with one of the team’s “most devoted fans,” Michelle Musler. The daughter of a Jewish steamfitter and an Irish immigrant mother from working-class Hartford, Conn., Musler attended college, raised five children, became a Xerox executive, and eventually developed a career “managing and coaching corporate executives.” Early on she began following the Knicks, and with the help of friends with season tickets, became a courtside fixture—known to players and coaches alike as “the woman behind the Knicks bench... as big a staple at the Garden as Spike Lee.” Araton recounts his early development as a sportswriter and meeting Musler, who became “a friend to keep me grounded” and “a well-placed source to help keep me enlightened.” She shared impressions she had from what she had seen behind the bench, such as recognizing that the troubled career of Patrick Ewing, for example, was really “a reflection of the team’s notoriously capricious ownership.” Musler’s “instincts and insights and tough but dedicated love had guided me through so many professional and personal storms,” Araton writes. This heartwarming look at the life of a friend and die-hard sports fan is effortlessly charming. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Limelight: Rush in the ’80s

Martin Popoff. ECW, $34.95 (376p) ISBN 978-1-77041-536-2

Music critic Popoff delivers an excellent follow-up to his recent Anthem: Rush in the ’70s, the first volume in a three-part history of the progressive rock band Rush. Popoff extensively analyzes the LPs made from 1980’s Permanent Waves through 1989’s Presto, when Rush “took to messing about with all the decade had to offer, enthusiastically so,” including an increased use of synthesizers and keyboards. Popoff expertly details the ways Rush expanded its sound, including the use of reggae and electronic music in Permanent Waves, as well as a focus on shorter, tighter compositions on the band’s hugely popular Moving Pictures, and the decade-closing pair Power Windows and Hold Your Fire, which showcased “an astringent, high-strung pop band, trendy keys and synths in excess.” Throughout, Popoff extracts insightful quotes from band members, such as the late Neil Peart’s explaining that he was “a huge fan when I first started to hear Talking Heads, and when I first started to hear the Police and Ultravox and all these new English bands,” and doesn’t shy from being critical of the band (“Pretty objectively, Power Windows and Hold Your Fire sound extremely dated, wholly of the ’80s, where Rush’s ’70s material has become unassailably hip”). Die-hard Rush fans will devour this fascinating deep-dive into the band’s musically controversial decade. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Dolls! Dolls! Dolls!: Deep Inside Valley of the Dolls, the Most Beloved Bad Book and Movie of All Time

Stephen Rebello. Penguin, $17 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-14-313350-6

Screenwriter Rebello (Bad Movies We Love) plunges into all aspects of a famously guilty pleasure in this exuberant examination of Jacqueline Susann’s racy tale of sex, drugs, and Hollywood. Rebello recounts Susann’s early experiences as an actress and playwright, and numerous affairs with stars, including Ethel Merman and Eddie Cantor, and the scorn she drew from literary heavyweights, including Truman Capote and Gore Vidal, when Valley of the Dolls, marketed as a scandalous roman à clef of her showbiz career, hit 1966 bestseller charts. Rivaling the book’s salacious plot, the making of the 1967 film version was fraught with drama. Patty Duke, a Hollywood veteran, resented being given second billing to newcomer Barbara Parkins—who, for her part, had pursued Duke’s role, as a Judy Garland–inspired singer. Garland herself was cast as an older performer (in turn inspired by Merman), but the troubled actress was soon replaced by fellow star Susan Hayward. When the much anticipated movie premiered, a combination of projection snafus and the actual film’s “rancid dialogue and over-the-top performances” drew ridicule—yet over time, the film attained cult status in its own right. Anyone seeking nonfiction escapism will be well served by Rebello’s loving dissection of a camp classic’s print and screen incarnations. Agent: Mary Evans, Mary Evans Inc. (June)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science

Seb Falk. Norton, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-1-324-00293-2

Falk, historian at Cambridge University, makes an auspicious if occasionally hard-going debut with this look at the “scientific life of an unknown monk” in 14th-century England. The cleric, John Westwyk, is known only through a handful of obscure manuscripts dealing with the creation of astronomical tables and instruments. Nonetheless, Falk skillfully uses Westwyk as a vehicle to explore the nature of medieval science, arriving at a number of somewhat surprising conclusions. He argues that medieval Christianity, rather than blocking intellectual progress, “took support from science–and, in turn, spurred its progress”; that the denizens of English monasteries, far from being isolated, were “profoundly influenced” by an “international scientific fraternity of Jews and Muslims, Italians and Germans”; and that the period’s healthy scientific debates contradict the “stereotype of the Middle Ages as an era of scholastic conformity.” He also explains that the “study of the natural world was a fundamental part of medieval life,” and that despite settling on many incorrect answers, medieval scholars made significant advances. Falk spends a great deal of time demonstrating the complex mathematics used to understand astronomical patterns and may lose some of his audience in the process. Nonetheless, his enthusiastically delivered study will entrance those fascinated by the history of science or the Middle Ages. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Memoirs of a Kamikaze: A World War II Pilot’s Inspiring Story of Survival, Honor, and Reconciliation

Kazuo Odachi, with Shigeru Ohta and Hiroyoshi Nishijima, trans. from the Japanese by Alexander Bennett and Shigeru Ohta. Tuttle, $16.99 (224p) ISBN 978-4-8053-1575-0

WWII kamikaze pilot Odachi relates his experiences as a survivor of multiple suicide missions in this eye-opening and informative account. Recruited as a fighter pilot in 1944, Odachi flew combat missions against American aircraft in the Philippines before being “invited to volunteer” for kamikaze attacks when he was just 17 years old. (“We were essentially cajoled into committing suicide,” he writes.) He wasn’t selected for a suicide mission until after he and the other Japanese pilots at Clark Field in Manila were evacuated to Taiwan in January 1945. On his first suicide sortie, Odachi couldn’t find a suitable target and returned to base after ditching his 1,000–pound bomb, a pattern he repeated several times over the next few months. (He describes the failed missions as “nauseating” for him and the other kamikaze pilots: “We had already psyched ourselves into a death frenzy.”) Odachi’s eighth mission was scratched in August when news arrived that Japan had surrendered, and he went on to a long career in the Tokyo police department. Enhanced with helpful historical sidebars and footnotes, Odachi’s memoir humanizes a much-mythologized aspect of the war in the Pacific. WWII history buffs and Japanophiles will savor the many insights. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Monopolized: Life in the Age of Corporate Power

David Dayen. New Press, $27.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-62097-541-1

American Prospect editor Dayen (Chain of Title) delivers a sweeping, deeply researched assessment of the adverse consequences of monopolies on American life. A chapter on the agricultural industry explains how the “concentrated animal feeding operations” of corporate hog farms put smaller competitors out of business, damage the environment, and endanger public health. Dayen also details how tech behemoths such as Google and Facebook degrade online journalism; how pharmaceutical companies prevent people from buying insulin and other essential medications at an affordable price; and how Amazon exploits contract delivery drivers and third-party sellers. Tracing the steady decline of antitrust enforcement across the past few decades, Dayen notes, for instance, that 51 airlines merged between 1979 and 1988, and that four major carriers now control more than 80% of U.S. routes. In the book’s final chapter, he calls for the reinterpretation of existing antitrust laws “to cover the full spectrum of harms, beyond just consumer welfare,” and describes the emergence of antimonopoly movements in the U.S. and abroad. Balancing copious data with profiles of workers and business owners, and writing in clear, accessible language, Dayen makes a persuasive argument that reining in big business should be a priority for American voters and policy makers. This is an incisive, irrefutable call to action. (July)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Tell ‘em About it!

Jerry Gold. Jerry Gold, $6.99 trade paper (130p) ISBN 978-1-67734-342-3

Gold, the longtime emcee of Broward Country (Fla.) reading festivals, offers tips on public speaking in his instructive debut. He shares a harrowing story of stage fright while speaking in front of his high school peers as motivation for learning the basics of preparing a speech, creating a structure, and showing emotion to one’s audience. For the simplest speeches, Gold suggests an “English composition” paper structure—an opening statement, three examples to support one’s claim, and a conclusion. He recommends using humor, facts and figures, and varying one’s pitch and tempo to keep audiences engaged, and shares many anecdotes about his work as a speaker for parents associations within the Philadelphia school system and speaking experiences at a Dale Carnegie self-improvement course. While he offers much encouragement, many of Gold’s suggestions (“speak to them clearly and effectively and tell them what they want to hear... that’s all there is to it”) are frustratingly basic. Though the writing advice is a disappointment, readers concerned with building the confidence needed to address groups will gain insight from Gold’s public speaking successes and failures. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Dancing With the Octopus

Debora Harding. Bloomsbury, $27 (384p) ISBN 978-1-63557-612-2

In this intense debut memoir, Harding writes of the aftermath of a traumatic experience as a teenager. In 1978, at age 14, she was abducted from a church across the street from her Omaha school by a ski-masked stranger, 17-year-old Charles Goodwin. He rapes her and demands ransom from her parents before tying her up and leaving her near a set of train tracks. Goodwin, who had a criminal record and served in juvenile detention, was far from Harding’s only source of trauma, though. Harding recounts heartbreaking tales of her abusive, mentally ill mother, who locked her and her sisters in an unheated garage during the winter as punishment for minor offenses. “They say with severe crimes there’s no avoiding the aftermath,” Harding writes. “What they don’t say is how post-traumatic stress can become a disorder because of your childhood family, the one you’re trying to survive.” Even as she fears for her own mental state, struggles with PTSD, and loses her father to suicide, Harding breaks the cycle of abuse taught to her by her dysfunctional family, and she is now happily in a healthy relationship. This moving story of grit and resilience will resonate with readers long after the final page is turned. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Sign Here If You Exist and Other Essays

Jill Sisson Quinn. Mad Creek, $19.95 trade paper (184p) ISBN 978-0-8142-5592-6

Quinn’s uneven second essay collection (after Deranged: Finding a Sense in the Landscape and in the Lifespan) uses forays into the environment of the Great Lakes to illuminate and ground larger questions, such as the existence of an afterlife or the nature of motherhood. Throughout the book’s nine selections, Quinn has a propensity for making connections between personal and scientific topics. Sometimes this technique is effective, as when she describes the complex life cycle of a single insect species, the ichneumon wasp, to address the theory of evolution, and its ramifications for the Christianity of her upbringing. It’s more intriguing still when she reflects on the protracted process she and her husband went through to adopt a child in terms of the question of whether all humans have an innate urge to have children (she opines that the truly “innate biological drive is the creating, not the offspring. It’s sex we want, not children.”) Other linkages feel contrived, such as when she compares rigid geological categories to how platonic same-sex relationships have been categorized, and often miscategorized as sexual, by various people over time, or connects feelings of homesickness to a theorized human yearning for the savanna landscapes of the earliest humans. Fans of Annie Dillard will appreciate some of the insights found here, but there are enough flaws to prevent Quinn’s intermittently intriguing offering from standing out in its genre. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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What Do Animals Think and Feel?: An Investigation into Emotional Behavior

Karsten Brensing. Pegasus, $27.95 (384p) ISBN 978-1-64313-554-0

Biologist and behavioral scientist Brensing examines in this dense but rewarding study the “incredible social lives” animals have among themselves, filled “with colleagues, friends, relatives, enemies and strategically planned territorial wars.” Early chapters examine mating rituals and sex, in sometimes graphic detail. Brensing covers masturbation, “widespread in the animal kingdom,” both for recreation and, for animals that only mate at certain times of the year, to ensure “a constant supply of young, fresh semen.” He also talks bluntly about rape, among animals as different as the hyena and the red-sided garter snake—both of whose females have evolved protective “chastity belts.” Later sections examine learning, some “genetically preprogrammed,” as when, in one generation after another, young birds learn from their parents how to fly. Other cases represent original learning taking place: after one orca in a marine park discovered how to use bait to catch seagulls, the others quickly learned how to do the same. Thoughtful and comprehensive, Brensing’s survey will leave readers well-informed about animal thought and behavior. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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